The Weekend Read: Ways of the Wicked

Backpackers’ cheap ticket to ride, or defaced deathtrap? We head to Byron to try the budget campervan experience

Wicked Campers

HEY, did you see the one about the dentist and the gynaecologist? And did you see the one about “Fast and furious: I was fast, she was furious”? And the one about the naked Queensland premier, or the one painted as a Random Breast Testing bus?

Actually, there aren’t too many others we can repeat here. Which is funny, because you can drive along any major highway or into any beach car park and see some of the 1000-vehicle encyclopaedia of Wicked Campers and their off-beat (or beat-off) brand of humour.

Backpackers love these cheeky, cheap-as-chips camper vans as much as politicians and parents hate them. For the latter, the spray-painted themes of boobs, bongs and bent cartoon characters are beyond the pale, adding insult when the vans camp illegally at beaches and public parks.

For adventure-bound backpackers, though, these graffitied beaters promise partying, good vibes and effectively free accommodation, courtesy of their basic interior conversions. Phone apps have now joined the jungle-drum network to inform travellers of parks and beaches with toilets and cooking facilities, and where the arch-enemy council rangers don’t roam.

Wicked was the first of a new generation of camper vehicle, an obvious product of the decade of Grunge. With outsides covered in graffiti and an invitation to do the same inside, Wicked made cheap and dirty a selling proposition. The music, pop culture and drug-taking themes offered a new slant on road-tripping.

From its beginnings in a Brisbane garage in 1998, Wicked is now all over Australia and New Zealand, and spreading in South Africa, South America and southern Europe. Sites are being leased in Los Angeles and France.

But Wicked no longer has the market to itself. Competitor campers, ranging from lightly stickered vans to better-appointed Japanese people-movers, have steered clear of controversy and are putting a big dent in Wicked’s popularity.

Meet Wicked’s mysterious owner and you’ll quickly see why this company is so different. That’s if you can find him. John Webb, 54, could be anywhere on Earth. He’s in the habit of taking off to Santiago or Jo’burg or Los Angeles on a couple of days’ notice, which he admits irks his wife somewhat. We wanted to meet the man – and then to meet the $59-a-day Wicked van, for a road trip to backpacker Mecca (backpecca?), Byron Bay.

Webb is a private figure, but he loves Wicked publicity, and he doesn’t care that it’s usually bad. Within minutes of meeting the mechanic-made-good, it’s clear he’s unconstrained by the usual rule books. His universe is a more naïve one than that of regulation, political correctness and consumer affairs.

If Webb thinks something would be fun, he just does it. Like giving renters a free extra day if they send a nude photo of themselves with their van. Or offering a discounted rate for pot smokers.

“I’m selling an experience,” he says. “You’ve got to have a good energy. People go where they feel good. They go on a holiday, they feel good in the van. So if I have people writing inside these vans, writing crap or philosophy or whatever else, they’re giving a good feeling to other people.

“Stories are everything. People are the greatest value in life, and the stories they tell bring that value.”

Webb’s own childhood was spent in a religious cult. He now follows personal development speakers like Canadian Robin Sharma and sales coach Rod Cartledge, formerly Webb’s Sunday school teacher in the now-defunct Church of God. His conversation often swerves into the spiritual and philosophical.

Webb had started renting cars from his mechanical workshop in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and soon noticed that travellers paid well for vans because they could sleep in them.

The graffiti idea was simply a money-saver. “Fixing dents is a pain in the arse. So instead of paying money to get the sides fixed, we’d just graffiti over it. And buying second-hand vans that had damage, they were cheaper.”

The first of Wicked’s infamous tailgate slogans came from an employee’s boyfriend. “He suggested: ‘I’m not a gynaecologist, but I’ll have a look’. He was a witty person. Lovely guy. Smokes loads of f––king weed.”

Thankfully, the Wicked fleet is getting tamer these days. To use Wicked imagery, the company copped a two-pronged pull-through in 2009 from A Current Affair and Queensland Transport, but the market inroads being made by more quality-focused rivals hasn’t escaped Webb’s attention.

Our 265,000km-old Mitsubishi Express is bedecked in AC/DC colours, with the tailgate slogan: “You shook me all night long.” I’m aware that the Express was Australia’s last remaining one-star safety vehicle when it was pulled from the market last May. For the ANCAP uninitiated, a one-star rating means you can potentially die of a paper cut just from looking at this vehicle’s brochure.

From marker-pen graffiti inside, we learn that the van was called Cindy, because – well, suffice to say that plenty of people had been through Cindy. Some had documented their journeys along most of Australia’s circumference and into the Red Centre.

Cindy’s engine is strong and willing, though its short gearing makes the cabin ridiculously noisy at 110km/h on the Pacific Highway out of Sydney. At Raymond Terrace, we pull into a pie place. The respectable motor homes and piggy-back campers identify it as a haunt of ‘grey nomads’.

I sense a schism in the brotherhood of travellers. A furrowed grey brow across a steak-and-kidney, a subtle shake of the head that doesn’t quite pass for Parkinson’s. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, but I feel that we are gypsies among gentlefolk.

We carry on towards Port Macquarie, filling up along the way. Our average, no doubt a casualty of aerodynamics, excessive revs and fully functioning air-con, is an unspectacular 11L/100km.

Port Macquarie is a modest 390-odd kilometres from Sydney, yet Wielecki and I are exhausted from the drive. My right foot is atrophied from being hinged above the throttle.

We head for Town Beach, where the public toilet block is left open and the rangers are off-duty from around 4pm to 8am. With rain earlier in the day, there are only a couple of vans in the car park, overseen by the waterfront high-rises. 

I remember something Webb had said: “Everyone damages the roofs, so I started painting pictures – Marge giving Homer a blowjob, big penises and vaginas. Think about people living in high-rises in a city, how boring life is. You see something like that, instantly it puts a smile on your face.”

Webb’s new big idea is to build ‘stages’ on the roofs of some of his vans. “You turn up at the beach, it’s a hot night, how lovely to sleep on the roof? That’s about everyone sitting up there, being connected. Enjoying moments together. They can fold the sides up and they can get pissed and not fall off.”

But some might fall off. “Well, I couldn’t do the roofs if I worried about litigation. And I’d think, how much fun couldn’t people have?”

At Flynn’s Beach, we find Port Macquarie Surf School instructor Wayne Hudson packing up his boards. He sees backpackers of all nationalities parking overnight, here and at Town Beach. Few ever seem to cop the $100 per person fine.

“They lock these toilets up here [at Flynn’s Beach], but at Town Beach, you’ll get 20, 30 vans in the summer,” Wayne says. “The only thing is, they just hop out during the night and urinate. I get there at 6am to drop the trailer off and the sun’s just hit it and it’s like, woooo! But if it rains in the arvo, it’s all good.”

At the caravan park, Ian Edwards tell us plenty of backpackers ask him if it’s illegal to park at the beaches. “I always say yeah, it’s illegal, and the fine’s gonna be a lot more than 28 bucks a night,” Ian laughs. For that, they can get an unpowered site with access to the toilets and camp kitchen.

Wielecki and I swing open the tailgate to inspect our accommodation, a simple pre-fab formula of joinery with false floor panels that form the bed base, and lift off to become table tops and to expose under-bed storage. Webb designed it so that up to eight people can sit inside, facing each other. “You’re having high-value moments in life just sitting, chilling with people, drinking, talking shit. It’s about connecting. Kids have gotta be close together and all enjoying the moment.”

Wielecki and I wordlessly agree that we need separate motel rooms to enjoy the moment.

Next morning, heading north, we see a sister Wicked camper, in Magical Mystery Tour graffiti. But we see several more of Wicked’s competitor campers: the green and purple Jucy, the stickered Hippie, the orange Spaceships, the restrained Travellers Autobarns.

In Coffs Harbour, the local <i>Coffs Coast Advocate</i> has been lit up lately with stories about campers that park illegally on the jetty foreshore. Seems there are two kinds of law-breaker: the kindly grey nomads who spend their superannuation in town and enjoy the sophistication of showers and Thetford cassette toilets in their RVs; and the backpackers who leave mounds of detritus behind.

We have torrential rain for the last hour into Byron Bay. I accelerate past a Hippie Camper, its dweeby-looking driver grimacing as we leave him in our spray. “Yeah, we’re Wicked dudes and we drive too fast, Poindexter!” I shout.

There’s no shortage of street knowledge about where to camp illegally in Byron Bay. The town’s rangers are wise to them all, and are firm but fair in enforcing the rules. A sought-after and legal spot is the car park of the Art Factory Backpackers Lodge where, for $30, van drivers have access to the great, rambling lodge for everything bar sleeping.

Jucy rentals and privately owned vans are predominant in the car park. We later learn that Jucy has set up discount deals with lodges around the country. Their customers can stay here for $8.50, instead of $30.

The dominant nationality among the travellers is German, as they’re the ones best able to afford our strong dollar. Anna, Freddie and Vincent are sharing a long-wheelbase HiAce pop-top. With five months to travel, they opted to buy this one for $5000 in Cairns.

I recall that their choice would have met with Webb’s approval. “When I bought all new vehicles in 2002, if I’d paid the extra for HiAces, they’d be still great vehicles now,” Webb had told me. “Timing chains, f--k-all maintenance. HiAces are that good.”

Our trio had been taking advantage of their Wikicamps app. “We found a place in the middle of Brisbane where we could sleep for a few days,” Anna says. “There are parks where there are toilets and drinking water. There were people who’ve been living there for a few months, in their cars.”

Legitimate caravan parks, we were later told, are an increasingly scarce commodity, as many are being redeveloped into over-50s retirement estates.

Dutch dudes Chris and Koen are renting a Travellers Autobarn van for three weeks, at $65 per day. The two friends were celebrating having finished their Masters in Entrepreneurship and New Business Venturing. But they hadn’t stopped learning.

“A guy told us, if you get caught sleeping in your van, just tell the police that you were partying and got too drunk to go to another place. ‘Wasn’t it better to sleep in the parking lot than to drive while I was drunk, officer?’”

Parked nearby, we meet Dom, Frederik and Pascal. Incredibly, they had been travelling together already for eight months, covering the west coast in a Pajero. They’re spending the next 12 months travelling in a Texta-decorated Ford Econovan named Bobby. “When you start it up, it smokes like Bob Marley,” Dom explains, helpfully.

They ride three-abreast in the front and sleep like sardines in the back. Usually, Dom says, they just pull up where they like and wait to get chased away. “They come in the night and bang on the side: ‘Go away! No camping!’ Then they come back in 15 minutes, so you just go to another beach.”

We, meanwhile, wimped it to another motel. Waking early, we drive Cindy to the Byron beachfront. A few clouds fleck the perfect blue sky; surfers ride the lazy waves beneath us. Byron soothes with a spiritual energy. Being here, it soon ceases to matter where you came from, how you got here, or what you’re sleeping in.


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Michael Stahl
Thomas Wielecki

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