“The mangoes nearly killed us,” said Julie McKenzie with a smile and a celebratory sundowner drink in her hand, recalling the backbreaking 10-hour shifts harvesting tropical fruit in northern Australia.

For the past few weeks, the 60-year old grandmother has been working alongside her 64-year-old husband, Ian McKenzie, picking grapes in the heat of summer in the New South Wales Hunter Valley.

The couple from the port city of Newcastle, north of Sydney, are grey nomads, a growing cohort of older Australians who have swapped the comfort and familiarity of the suburbs for a life on the road following the fruit-picking trail.

The exact numbers of grey nomads crisscrossing Australia are unknown, but academics have estimated there are tens of thousands constantly on the move, and around a quarter of those have sold their homes. For some, trips away can last for a few months, while others travel indefinitely. Unlike itinerant snowbirds in North America, who travel south in recreational vehicles to escape the winter, Australia’s wandering retirees do it year-round.  

“It is quite a phenomenon,” said Tim Harcourt, an economist at the University of New South Wales Business School. “Retired people don’t want to stop working. They want to combine a bit of fruit picking, a bit of leisure and a bit of travelling in their retirement. There is actually a shortage of people needed for fruit picking, so having these experienced workers is a really good thing,” he said.

In other corners of the world, including Spain and Sweden, the fruit picking industry is beset by poor conditions and meagre wages, and often involves unskilled migrants or illegal immigrants. Australia, too, has its problems, especially with unscrupulous operators ripping off backpackers, but the nomads have an informal network that helps them weed out corrupt outfits.

A newfound freedom

Retirees join the fruit picking trail for different reasons. Some do it for a change of lifestyle; some do it to avert boredom. For the McKenzies, a health scare followed by brain surgery prompted 64-year-old Ian McKenzie to walk away from the pressures of his old life working in logistics in search of something more peaceful. “After about four months [on the road] all the stress seemed to drop away… and we realised that we were free and we could do what we wanted to,” he explained. “We’ll do anything and have done anything.”

The drudgery of a 9-to-5 workday grind prompted Brian King, 68, and his wife Denise King, 65, a former dental nurse, to strike out. They have spent about seven years on the road, including four stints harvesting at Tyrrell’s Wines.

“What would we do if we sat down now and stopped working? I mean, just sit there and vegetate,” Brian King said. “Boredom sets in and that is what happens to people, they sit round, nothing to do, bored to tears, get unhealthy, end of story.”

Earning their keep

To be sure, it isn’t a glorified holiday. Labour is intense and hours are long. The pickers’ day begins in the dark at 04:30, and they start their shift at 06:00. It is monotonous work, often in searing heat. Each picker pockets a well-earned 176 Australian dollars ($137.50) for an eight-hour shift harvesting grapes, and Ian and Dallas Waldrom from New Zealand aim to work for eight months of the year.

“It doesn’t cost us much to live, so we’re able to save quite a bit of money,” Dallas Waldrom said. The Kiwi couple made A$16,000 ($12,500) working 10-hour days over a six-and-a-half week period picking pistachios. Apart from the initial purchases of caravans or motorhomes, this group of wanderers is financially self-sufficient, partly because their living costs are low.

Jobs on the fruit trail go beyond just picking. Other opportunities include loading fruit into boxes in the relative comfort of the packing sheds, or working in administration. This work isn’t formally organised by any overarching organisation. Instead these nomads have an informal network, by which they share job leads by word of mouth or email. They can then phone ahead to arrange work directly with farmers.

The grey hair advantage

It’s 11:00 and the sun burns high in the sky over the rows of grapes near the town of Belford. In the distance, a coal train loaded to the brim with another lucrative Hunter Valley commodity rumbles past as a 70-strong legion of pickers heads towards lunchtime. Ankle-deep in mud, everyone is sweating. For this they earn A$22 ($17) an hour. Most are foreign backpackers, but it is the experienced and hardworking older workers who are the bedrock of the harvest.

Like a fine vintage wine, these aging nomads don’t go unnoticed.

“The core of them have been coming to us now for, oh, it must be 10, 11, 12 years,” said winemaker Bruce Tyrrell. “The experience works when you are picking like this where we have a bit of damaged fruit, knowing what to cut and what to get rid of. [They are] part of our team we don’t have to watch. We know they are going to do it properly, and that can be the difference between A$10 a bottle and A$50 a bottle.”

Simple luxuries

After a hard day’s work in the fields, the Waldroms retreat home to their A$80,000 ($62,500) custom-made caravan that has solar panels, two TVs and a library with more than 900 movies for those quiet nights in the Australian outback.

“This lifestyle is difficult to start off with,” said Ian Waldrom, a former machine operator from New Zealand. “It took me a whole year to adapt to it. The conditioning of 40 years working supporting a family and all of a sudden you are doing casual work and having days off during the week. It was very foreign. But once you get past that, how could you go back?” 

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