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Free camping and the vanlife movement are growing in popularity.

The Best Things in Life are (not) Free

Navigating the battle between residents and nomads.
Free camping and the vanlife movement are growing in popularity.

The Best Things in Life are (not) Free

Navigating the battle between residents and nomads.
Free camping and the vanlife movement are growing in popularity.

The Best Things in Life are (not) Free

Navigating the battle between residents and nomads.

As the sun sets behind Rainbow Bay, on the Queensland-New South Wales border, Snapper Rocks is slowly emptying of surfers. Up on the road, meanwhile, the carpark quietly fills with vans and modified buses, arriving from who knows where before they kill their lights. Despite the no camping signs it’s clear they are here for the night. This is one of the most popular spots on the Gold Coast, maybe any in the country, for illegal camping. Hot water, free barbecues, good toilet facilities and not to forget a world class wave when you wake up.

The campers, mostly young couples, mill about their vans with doors open to catch the late summer breeze. Amongst local families and a kid’s birthday party no one seems to be too concerned with their presence. This night there are plenty of available parking spots and tables for anyone that wants. Despite this there have been newspaper stories about locals demanding that council and police take greater enforcement action against the free campers.

The glamourisation of vanlife and the work-from-anywhere movement has pitted public officialdom and residents against the well-wheeled travellers. Illegal camping is no longer confined to spots like Byron and Rainbow Bay. Every half popular beach, park and layby now features a no camping sign. But from a council perspective it seems like a low-ranking issue when travellers are doing the right thing, albeit in an illegal way.

Speaking to the Gold Coast Bulletin, Councillor Gail O’Neil said she was aware of the issue but that illegal camping was difficult to prove. “I’m not sure it’s a huge problem in normal times, but certainly in holiday times we see a greater degree of illegal camping.”

There are anecdotal reports that the pandemic and flood related emergencies have pushed people into temporary living, be that car or carvan, but I’m not seeing that on any east coast beaches I’ve visited recently.

Nathan Smith is one of those here by choice, to a certain degree. Also speaking to the Bulletin, he said that the rental crises on the Gold Coast had made it impossible for him to secure affordable housing. He’s lived in his van for six months now, mostly parking around Burleigh Heads so that he can access his job in the disability sector.

“The million dollar views aren’t just for rich people,” he said. “I’ve had two warnings from both police and council, and they knocked on my window at 1:30am and 4am. I think it’s crazy they were here at that hour trying to boost revenue for the City.”

Once seen as the shoestring option of last resort, the vanlife movement has become a social media juggrenaut. The hashtag has north of 12 million posts on Instagram and if you were to believe the algorithm it’s nothing but pretty young things enjoying stunning views from their back windows. It’s rare to hear them talking about any negative realities of the free camping lifestyle.

Further south in Byron Bay, the city’s heavy-handed policing of the problem has only moved the issue from the main streets into the outer suburbs. Last summer the council issued about 2000 fines for illegal camping and for the former Byron Mayor, Simon Richardson, it’s hard to reconcile the town’s free-living mindset with hard enforcement. “People coming in and freeloading, to a certain extent, you know – there’s an uneasy tension over that.” Residents there complain that vanlifers rock up late and park in front of houses. Without the facilities of public areas – like bins and toilets – their issues are worse.