After months of searching we finally took the leap last October and bought a van! The plan was to embark on a series of book tours around Australia to meet some hardy booksellers and learn the book trade, whilst promoting our new picture book series, Willow the Wonderer. The trip soon morphed into a fantastic lifestyle where we not only got to connect with great local businesses but also get a taste of a free bohemian lifestyle of yester years. We had not even converted our van into a camper either yet somehow got it functioning as our mini office, warehouse, bedroom and kitchen! It was our tentative first steps into van life, which has become all the rage these days. We share a brief history of van life and the adventures we've had on our book tour of Australia in this blog - and plenty of pics.
For the uninitiated, a brief overview of van life
Van-life is an oft romanticised as a lifestyle choice, where one lives simply and freely, carrying with them only the bare essentials of life and a spirit of adventure.
It is about the the freedom to travel, stop and stay where-ever the fancy takes you.
Mostly, it's about waking up to a truly spectacular view :)
It may be all the rage now, but van is life hardly a 'new thing'. It has been around for as long as vans I dare say, and certainly had it's moment during the last hippy revolution in the 60s/70s/80s.
Once the domain of hippies, surfers, climbers and other bohemians, there are a wider array of people now embracing van-life.
With generational and demographic shift, the lure of the freedom has persisted but vans have become markedly more fancy in their finish and trimmings, containing every comfort one can think of. Lets face it, we aren't exactly a generation that wants to compromise on comforts...
It's all about the comfort, darling
Better renewable energy and battery tech combined with more energy efficient appliances means that folks can have everything these days; from full sized fridges/freezers to high speed blenders for those who can't live without those smoothies, espresso machines for the coffee aficionados and even induction cooktops.
Clever, modular and space saving designs and pop-up roofs allows for dedicated living space, bedroom, bathroom and work area - all nicely laid out against wood paneled, tiled and vinyl ceilings, walls and floors.
With water tanks and a mobile hot water system, even hot showers on the road are within reach. Add in a compost or chemical toilet, you don't have to stress about finding a dunny whilst driving! Some vans even come with full sized wardrobes and wood fired heaters for cold weather.
Before buying our van, we hired and holidayed in a kitted-out van for two weeks. Even without all the frills of hot showers, a toilet and wood fire, it was a dream.
Just to be clear - I am not complaining about the comforts at all; rather, I marvel at the technology and nifty design ideas that everyone has come up with to fit so much in such a small space.
In a weirdly claustrophobic way, van life forces minimalism.
And before slagging the millennials for upscaling van life, spare a thought that many today aren't able to afford to buy a house. In fact, lack of affordable houses, COVID travel restrictions and ironically more liberal work practices due to COVID lockdowns, have been the catalyst for young folks and families in the mainstream to embrace the change.
One can also legitimately argue that it was the boomers and not the millennials that led the trend of taking every comfort with them when travelling.
RVs (recreational vehicles), motor homes and caravans were amongst the first to be kitted out with everything including the kitchen sink. These seven figure vehicles remains the vehicle of choice for many grey nomads who have taken it upon themselves to, as they say, spend the kids inheritance ... and good on them I say - If you are going to travel after a lifetime of toil, may as well do it in comfort.
Bohemian but not Bourgeois
It's not all 'hunky dory' though.
Over the years, many more rules and restrictions have been introduced to contain the impact 'van-lifers' can have on the surrounds. As anyone who has travelled and camped will know, there are just some people (in the minority) who don't clean up after themselves and end-up giving everyone a bad look...
With 'no camping' signs cropping up everywhere, it has become harder and harder to find those nice scenic places where you can just pull up and spend the night.
Van life forums are full of posts and questions around all the different rules that apply to sleeping in vehicles across the state, camping in 'no-camping' zones, avoiding rangers and fines, and the nightmarish scenario of getting 'tapped' and being told to move on in the early hours of the morning ...
There are plenty of helpful hints and suggestions for all the above, including the very pragmatic - camp in one of those privately-run camping grounds. These always seem to be full so no doubt there are folks who absolutely love camping here. For others, it defeats the point of van-life...
Admittedly, private campgrounds aren't my cuppa tea either; it feels too much like living in a large, noisy inner-city apartment block, next to a main road, full of noisy folks, having loud parties. These days, they aren't exactly cheap either.
Old timers will tell you that there are plenty of free camping spots to be found - they may be a little out of the way but are truly spectacular e.g. this gem we found near Mansfield in Victoria.
Health warning: These sort of places are best ventured to in daylight ... the road leading in and out are often challenging and as we have found out, even with broad daylight, it's easy to take a wrong turn and be lost in a forest track for quite some time.
Local towns and councils are nonetheless doing their best to make sure they don't become known as a destination for van lifers and suffer the fate of towns like Byron (although I think that they seem to have done alright from the injection of soul that van-lifers brought into town).
So be prepared, especially if you have not planned ahead (and are a stickler for rules), to spend the night in a carpark or obscure dead-end street - anything but picturesque. For many van-lifers though, the freedom and incidental daily adventures that comes with this lifestyle makes up in droves for such minor inconveniences.
What about the money?
Unless you are a cashed up retiree who has worked, planned and saved for epic rod-trips, most of us have to figure out a way to earn on the go. So how do folks do it?
The conversation here of course needs to begin with the loudest and proudest group of van-lifers, those mythical creatures referred to as 'influencers', who are everywhere on social media.
These folks should probably be credited for popularising van life as they have been the ones creating and sharing uber edited content (photos, videos and blogs) that manages to depict van life as being utterly glamourous...
There are in fact many people creating and sharing van life content online (eg this blog...). For some it's a hobby/fun/creative thing to do and a great way to help and connect with like-minded folks. Others do it with an explicit goal to become an 'influencer' in the space (for clarity, not my goal!).
To become an influencer one not only needs to amass lots of followers, but also have very engaged followers who trust you and will willingly follow your lead/recommendation/advice. Once you can demonstrate this businesses will at best, pay you to endorse their products, or at least, give you gifts/free samples to show off.
'Influencer marketing' is a much touted way to advertise on social media and everyone from large global corporations to small businesses do it. It's good old fashioned celebrity product endorsement except the 'celebrity' is not some Hollywood star but a much liked content creator with an engaged following in your given market on social media.
It all sounds rather fantastic (being able to earn a living from a lifestyle) but I suspect very few manage to actually make a living this way.
Those that succeed are in the minority and have either been doing it for a long time (before acquiring organic reach on social media platforms become impossible), have particularly creative/unique/informative content that went viral and/or are liberally using the advertising playbook - if you run out of ideas throw in some kids, dogs or skin ...
For the majority, earning an income on the road comes down to finding a good old fashioned job.
There is no shortage of unskilled (and skilled) work in Australian at the moment - in fact demand for labour in regional and rural areas tends to be fairly constant. With backpackers missing from the scene, folks have been able to find casual gigs in bars, cafes, farms, stores, everywhere. Do some casual work for a few weeks and then live it up for another few, is the way some are going.
With COVID, the corporate types have also been able to do their day job in vans rather than being tied to their desk in the office. To pull this off though you do need to be in places with great internet connection and anyone who has driven even two hours out of Sydney will know, finding good mobile internet connection outside of big cities and towns can be challenging...
With lockdowns being all but a relic of the past now and employers increasingly demanding their employees show up to work in-person at least a couple of times a week, this is becoming a less viable option. Back to the office for these folks.
It's important to note though that not everyone does van-life full time.
You'll find plenty of folks on the road and online van-life forums with day jobs who simply love to travel/holiday this way. Some are also active in creating content but these folks tend to focus less on the glamour and more on the practicalities of converting vans, avoiding rangers and travelling comfortably on the road for considerable lengths of time.
Which brings us to the next point ...
Van-life is a DIY phenomena
If you had to build a house today, you'd need to get all sorts of planning permits, approvals and certifications, and hire many different trades and professionals.
With a van conversion, all you need is yourself, plenty of hours to learn from youtube's many DIY van conversion videos, your parents double-garage (if you don't have one yourself) and your dad's tools (if again you don't have this yourself). Help from the men's shed or the folks in the neighbourhood are always good options too.
In our case, Wazza from down the street will pitch in to help with the electricals. The local chippy can help out with the tricky bits of the build. And the two Leslies ( Big Les and Small Les), will sort us out with tools :)
Health warning: You do need to get works independently certified in some instances
There are also companies that do van conversions too but the price tag tends to start at $30k for a basic build and will realistically end up being ~$50k by the time you've added in your comforts and trimmings.
Unsurprisingly, most people are doing van conversions themselves to save on cash.
The positive is that they also develop some pretty useful building, electrical and plumbing skills and the whole thing can feel rather gratifying.
Even with the DIY route, it still costs a fair bit to kit out the van - especially the electricals and appliances. Vans aren't cheap either. But this in itself makes it a worthwhile project as not only does the van hold it's value better than a car, the value increases and holds even better after a conversion. It's hard to lose.
Which brings us to the Willow Van :)
Starting with the practicalities of why we bought a van.
My car had got written off (after a minor accident) and Darren's was at the end of it's life so at a practical level, we needed something for transportation.
We had also just started Wise As Stories, an indie publisher with the mission to create stories that plant seeds of wisdom and make smiling minds. These are stories that Darren and I wish we'd grown up with.
We were handling all the logistics ourselves and needed something to carry cargo.
And we needed to go on the road, learn the realities of the book trade, promote our new picture book series, Willow the Wonderer, and build a 'distribution network' - whilst being able to fulfil the orders that came through our online store.
As much as we wanted our books and toys to be accessible all over