“The hardest part of doing nothing is knowing when you’ve finished doing it.” That’s the handwritten sign that greets visitors to Michael Vaughan’s campsite – wherever that may be.
Mick, as he prefers to be called, is in ‘the Territory’. It’s winter down south and the perfect temperature up north, so for five months each year you’ll find him either wandering the top of Australia or in residence at his favourite campground. He’s 70, divorced, has two adult sons, Liam and Joel, and has been on the road since he called time on a career in journalism when he was 65.
He has all his possessions in his camper trailer and truck. How does he do it? I had to find out.
So what are you up to, Mick?
I’m in my favourite place, a campground called Tumbling Waters run by Jenny and Darren Campbell. Great people. The campground is about 40 kilometres from Palmerston and 60-odd out ofDarwin. For me, it’s the best campground in the country. I’ve been here since the start of April. The gate was still locked when I arrived. I ran the bingo game yesterday. The language got a bit fruity but no one was offended.
I’m 70. I popped into the doc the other day. This was a doc I hadn’t seen before and he said, ‘You look about 55, tops.’ I’m in pretty good shape (for the shape I’m in). Good food, hard liquor (it’s sometimes beer o’clock as early as 9.30am), exercise and fresh air. And yeah, I smoke. The only thing I take is a blood pressure pill, courtesy of a million years of night shift, I’m guessing.
So you’re a person of ‘no-fixed abode’?
I’d been at The Age for about 20 years and I wanted a break. I thought, ‘Bugger it, I’ll go for a drive, so I bought a camper trailer and finally negotiated a year off. Two weeks before I was due to leave, they offered redundancies. I almost dislocated my shoulder putting my hand up. I got it (redundancy) and went for a drive for 12 months. Countless times on the way, I looked around and said, ‘I’ve got to come back.’ I actually got out of my car a couple of times and said out loud, ‘I want this.’
So was that it? The end of full-time work?
Nah. I went back to Melbourne and did a bit more work for a few years. Then – I guess it’s like being a footy player and retiring – I just knew it was time. My editor offered me a good 12-month contract, but in the end I said no. I was 65.
So you hit the road again?
Eventually. I had so much stuff in my life. I’d been a collector (of many and varied things), and I restored furniture in my spare time. My kids didn’t want any of it, so I sold (or gave away) virtually the lot. I’m certain there are still boxes of my stuff in a second-hand shop inSouth Melbourne. And I left a woman. I used to call her ‘The One’. That was a tough thing to do.
Having nothing other than what I needed was very cathartic. I had nothing to worry about.
At the time, I was living in a really nice Albert Park house, paying $750 a week rent, high on the hog if you like. Having nothing was just fantastic. It was just what I needed.
I packed everything into my camper trailer and truck, and hit the road.
Where do you spend your year?
I spend five months minimum in the Territory just because the weather is perfect up here. The location is perfect. The campground has almost everything – a restaurant and bar, croc feeding, an outdoor cinema, pool, live entertainment, a market and beautiful tropical surrounds. The people who run the place treat me like family. They’re my other family on the road. I like to help out in little ways, like being out at the bushfire front, doing a bit of watering, shopping, whatever.
I’ve been back to Victoria twice in the past two years to help out my brother, Phillip, who has a successful native plant nursery in the Grampians. It’s just too bloody cold. I don’t want to do that cold weather stuff, so I reckon I’ll live in the north of the country forever now.
And the rest of the year?
Just wherever. The only place I haven’t been in terms of going around Australia is between Broome and Perth, and that’s on the agenda at some stage. To be honest, I quite like the Stuart Highway – up the middle. I’ve done it a few times now. I did it with my son, Liam, for a few months. I encouraged him to read a biography of John McDouall Stuart, who opened up much of that country. We relived many of Stuart’s memories. For me, it’s a really special part of the country, as are the people I meet regularly along the way.
I have some really good memories from trips along the Stuart. As an example, my original camper trailer got written off on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The desert track quite literally destroyed it. I was travelling with Liam, who had his own truck. We camped out for a while and then headed back to the Stuart Highway to a place called Kulgera, which is just inside the Territory from the South Australian border. We got in late in the day, hit the bar and had a roast. We hadn’t had a big feed for a while. There was a bloke doing a golden oldies show, a travelling entertainer, and old muggins here couldn’t help himself and grabbed a microphone. I reckon I did about 10 songs. Got a huge round of applause. I even took my shirt off and threw it into the crowd. I went all right.
Do you get lonely on the road?
There’s a great sense of community on the road. For example, it’s an 80-kilometre round trip from here to the shops. On my first stay here, I’d always do the rounds before going shopping and ask the neighbours if they need anything. I initiated that. Now all the people here do the same thing. It forms a real sense of community.
I’ll be away for two weeks shortly; I’ve got a new grandchild in Vanuatu. A good mate Andrew will drive me to the airport, look after my truck and camp. No need to pack anything away. There’s great honour among people who camp. I can’t remember ever having anything stolen. My truck is never locked. I have a sound system and television sometimes left outside. It’s a nice feeling to know you can leave stuff, and that what little you do have is safe.
I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends since I’ve been travelling. Had a mate, Shane, who rang me last night. He lives at Bellingen, inland from Coff’s Harbour. He, his missus Lynda and their son Eli, camped near me years ago. I walked over – it was State of Origin night – and invited them over for a beer and to watch the game. We hit it off. I love the family dearly.
Saying hello is part of the deal with me. Any time someone comes into the vicinity, I walk over and say hello and welcome. Actually, my first line is, ‘If my music is too loud just tell me to turn it down.’ Invariably they say, ‘No, no, we love music.’
It’s even a social occasion going to the dunny. Where I’m camping it’s about 150 metres to the nearest toilet. Invariably, you meet someone along way and say g’day and chat for a bit. Sometimes I feel lonely, but very rarely. Mind you, I did make up a sign once that said: ‘I’ve been single for a while now. It seems to be working. I think I’m the one’. There are always new people.
So what are the challenges?
I don’t think I categorise anything in particular as a challenge. You just get on and do whatever you have to do on the day, whether it’s domestics, calling bingo, hosting a trivia night or just chilling. Every day you find something.
I suppose the wildlife might be considered a challenge. I was having drinks the other night with friends and a mate said, ‘You know there’s a snake under your table?’ I just picked up a stick and chased the snake away from my patch. And a couple of years ago one night, I had a four-and-a-half foot freshwater crocodile at my tent door. City life doesn’t teach you how to handle these situations.
I suppose my biggest challenge is to maintain a positive outlook. Walking along a track this morning, a bloke said, ‘It’s a beautiful morning’, and I said, ‘Every day’s a great day’.
I’ve got to maintain that, to be honest. I have three reminders – a Japanese tattoo on my left arm that translates to ‘the truth’ and a Chinese tattoo on my right arm that translates to ‘the present’. By that, I mean the past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist. All you’ve got is right here, right now. I also have a Sanskrit tattoo on my right forearm and it translates to ‘one life, one chance’. That’s how I try to get through every day, just by being really positive, really happy and shifting that on to other people as often as I can.
I have a piece of slate and inscribed on it is: “Happiness is not having what you want, happiness is wanting what you have”. That works on every level.
How do you finance your life?
I’ve got some dough in the bank and that’s supplemented by the Age Pension. I paid taxes for decades, so I don’t feel in any way guilty about it.
I never think about money. If I need something I go and get it. And that’s different to if I want something.
Do you miss anything?
Good wine. Up here, most places keep red wine in the fridge. That’s sad. Not wrong, just sad.
I cook well. I have dinner parties sometimes and eat really really well.
I take the time to cook. I enjoy the cooking. I had former colleagues visit from Melbourne last week. They said, ‘You’ve got a great kitchen. It’s better than the kitchen we’ve got at home.’
I’m sure I’m the only person in this campground – and maybe throughoutAustralia– who travels with a ceramic wasabi grater.
I grow herbs – basil, parsley, coriander, Vietnamese mint, chives, regular mint. Normally, I have pot plants. I’ll give them away at the end of my time here.
What’s your advice for anyone thinking about hitting the road?
Get your act together. It’s a bonus not to be working. I really don’t have to do anything. Maybe have a shower. What day is it?
I listen to my body these days. It’s interesting watching people travel. They can be quite regimented – breakfast at 8am, lunch at 12.30 and dinner at 5.30, usually preceded by some sort of happy hour. I eat when I’m hungry. I may have only one meal in a day. Don’t make your body do what it doesn’t want to do, what it doesn’t need to do.
And try to travel light. At the moment, I’m sorting through stuff and eliminating stuff. Went to the market stall last Sunday to sell a few bits and pieces. Probably be back there this weekend as well. Not sure I’m travelling light enough. One of the difficulties is that it’s everything I own. I had a set of golf clubs and hadn’t had a swing. They went. I had an extra swag. That’s gone. Just unloading what I can to keep the weight down. And that’s a priority, given the cost of diesel. I’ve seen it at $3 a litre. My LandCruiser tank holds just over 180 litres, so that’d be a $540 fill.
There it is. As the man says: “Get your act together”.
Have you travelled for months at a time? Did you learn a lot? Did you find out a bit about your own capabilities?