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Stuck in Moree, but not complaining: Caravanners caught up in COVID-19 crisis

They were the forgotten victims of the coronavirus crisis - many of Australia's estimated 75,000 nomads found themselves stranded at the height of COVID-19 restrictions with nowhere to go as borders, caravan parks and camping grounds closed and once welcoming towns made it clear they were not open for visitors.

"The government told us to go home, but none of us have homes to go to," grey nomad Robert Peachey said.

"Wherever we stop is our home," fellow traveller Sharon Clements added.

Jan and Geoff Tetlow packed up their life in Geraldton, Western Australia in December, and have been travelling around the country in their RV ever since.

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During that time, they managed to get caught up in fires in South Australia, floods in Taree and windstorms in western NSW before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country.

The Tetlows were in Tamworth at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, as restrictions around the country began tightening and caravan parks and camping grounds were forced to close.

"We had nowhere to go," Jan said.

"All the campgrounds had shut. We were limited to coming in and out."

We had nowhere to go.

Jan Tetlow, Geraldton WA

Luckily, the Tetlows were able to get a permit to return to Moree Showground, having spent some time here before going to Tamworth for medical reasons.

"This was the only place we were able to get back in," Jan said.

The Tetlows arrived in Moree the day NSW went into lockdown, on March 31, and have been here ever since.

For the majority of the 13 weeks the Tetlows have been in Moree, they've had little to do besides "eat and drink" as many of Moree's main attractions have been closed.

"We've done a lot of walking; we're more proactive than we've ever been in our lives," Jan said.

The Tetlows also helped establish a veggie patch at the showground during lockdown - "it gave us something to do while we're here," Jan said.

Although they're now ready to move on, the Tetlows have had a wonderful time in Moree.

"It's been a lovely little town, it's been a lovely stay," Jan said.

"The weather's been absolutely beautiful," Geoff added.

The best part of their stay has been the lifelong friends they've now made, who they call their little "COVID family".

"We've made some very close and good friends. Lasting friendships," Jan said.

"Every day we'd meet around here for happy hour drinks and even though you didn't think you'd done much during the day, everyone had a different story to tell.

"We've all exchanged details and plan to stay in touch."

They've celebrated birthdays together and had a few big nights at Moree Services Club.

Anzac Day was also a highlight, with the dawn service broadcast from the showground.

"It was the best Anzac Day," Jan said.

"We had bacon and eggs and I made candles. Another couple wore the medals of her father who passed away last year, so it was very special for them."

After 13 weeks in Moree, the Tetlows are heading back to Tamworth on Monday for Geoff to have the surgery he was meant to undergo in WA in February.

They will spend at least three weeks in Tamworth while Geoff is recovering before they head north.

"There's so much to see; we haven't even touched the iceberg yet," Jan said.

"We thought we'd be in far north Queensland by now."

Waiting for the border to reopen

The Tetlows were one of eight vans stranded at Moree Showground in the middle of the pandemic.

Now there's about 20 vans filling the grounds, as travel restrictions ease and more and more people head north for the winter.

GREAT PLACE TO WAIT: Sharon and Derek Clements, from Nowra NSW, with their dog Archie, have been in Moree for a month, waiting for the Queensland border to reopen.

GREAT PLACE TO WAIT: Sharon and Derek Clements, from Nowra NSW, with their dog Archie, have been in Moree for a month, waiting for the Queensland border to reopen.

Sharon and Derek Clements, from Nowra, NSW, are two of the many visitors currently stuck in Moree waiting for the Queensland border to reopen so they can continue their journey north for the winter.

The first-time grey nomads started their adventure on the road on January 28 and found themselves just north of the border when restrictions began tightening.

"We didn't get far into Queensland when things started to go pearshaped," Sharon said.

"Showgrounds were shutting, free camping stopped and there was talk of the borders closing.

"We were in Goondiwindi at the time and decided to come back over the border through Lightning Ridge. Our families are on this side of the border, so we didn't want to be in a situation that if anything happened, we couldn't come back. We also didn't want to be in a situation where we might not be able to get food because we were visitors.

"We crossed the border at Texas and everyone was quite friendly, but we were careful we only bought what we need."

Sharon and Derek arrived in Lightning Ridge just before lockdown and were stuck there for 10 weeks.

"There was nothing opened," Derek said.

"Our big day was to drive around town the longest way possible and go back to the caravan," Sharon added.

On the day non-essential travel was given the green light, the couple drove to Walgett just to go to the butchers.

When intra-state travel restrictions lifted on June 1, Sharon and Derek came straight to Moree.

We drove like maniacs to Moree.

Derek Clements, Nowra NSW

"We drove like maniacs to Moree," Derek said.

"We couldn't wait to get out of Lightning Ridge."

The couple say they want to return to Lightning Ridge eventually to "experience it the way it should be", when everything is reopened.

They said they chose to come to Moree because it's a "nice town".

"If we go south it's cold and if we go to the coast it's wet," Derek said.

"So we're here waiting for the border to open. We could have stayed in other little towns closer to the border, but at least this has everything we need."

Sharon and Derek are just waiting on some mail to arrive and then they'll be ready to head north as soon as the Queensland border reopens on July 10.

'We'll be back': Moree a hidden treasure

WE'LL BE BACK: Wendy Mahar and Robert Peachey, with their dogs Petal and Puppy, have loved every minute of their three weeks in Moree and plan to make it a regular stop during their travels.

WE'LL BE BACK: Wendy Mahar and Robert Peachey, with their dogs Petal and Puppy, have loved every minute of their three weeks in Moree and plan to make it a regular stop during their travels.

Robert Peachey and his partner Wendy Mahar, from Heathcote, Victoria were also making their way north when the pandemic halted their travel plans.

The couple had rented their house out full-time and set off on the start of their adventure as grey nomads at the end of March, just when COVID-19 was heating up.

They were forced to spend six weeks in Portland, Victoria before they could continue north into NSW.

Robert and Wendy have now been in Moree for three weeks. Originally they were waiting to go over the Queensland border, but they have to be back in Victoria in September for a family event, so have now decided to stay in the north of NSW, with plans to head to Texas and Tenterfield before making their way back down south.

"We talked about stopping in Moree, but only for a couple of days," Robert said.

"But it's been really good. There's a lot of treasures here. The shopkeepers are lovely - our favourite clothes shop is now Assef's. The cafes are great and there's good coffee in Moree."

Robert and Wendy had been to Moree a few times before, but it was only ever a stopping point on the way north - "I've always gone further and further where it's warmer and warmer," Robert said.

We've all learnt a lesson to spend more time in places. Instead of hurrying, spend a few extra days and explore. This has been an education.

Robert Peachey, Heathcote VIC

But now, after spending more time here and getting to fully experience Moree, Robert and Wendy will be changing the way they travel in the future.

"It's been a wonderful time," Robert said.

"It's something we wouldn't have done.

"We've all learnt a lesson to spend more time in places. Instead of hurrying, spend a few extra days and explore. This has been an education.

"We've been pleasantly surprised. We'll come back and stay another week or so. This will be one of our stops from now on."

Visitors returning to Moree

Although a number of travellers are currently in Moree waiting for the Queensland border to reopen, Moree Showground caretaker John Girling said there's usually more at this time of year, with winter being Moree's peak tourist season.

"This time last year we had a lot more in," he said.

However, Mr Girling said it's good to see visitors returning as travel restrictions have eased.

He said more are expected in the coming week, with the border reopening on July 10.