Updated: Dec 12, 2022
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 picture books and plush toys to be accessible all over the country, we wanted the shops that carry our products to be run by like-minded people - those running great small, independent businesses that are connected to their communities.
The only way to find these businesses is to visit the towns, walk the streets, go into the stores, check out the vibe and talk to the owners. And that's what we did - a DIY book tour of as much of Australia as we could get to (noting that late last year the country was still navigating through lockdowns).
However, travel in Australia isn't exactly cheap ...
As a writer and an artist duo, bootstrapping a new business, in a very saturated, stagnant and low margin industry, in the middle of a 100 year pandemic and with a cost of living crisis, we could do with saving money on accommodation... Besides it would free us from the tyranny of pre-planning, booking and a fixed schedule.
A van was the only way to go; there was space enough to carry our cargo, cooking gear and supplies, and also comfortably sleep in.
Whilst we started off wanting to buy a fully converted camper with all the comforts and character it just wasn't meant to be. The market for campers was just too hot all through 2021 and we would have been paying through the nose for even a run down camper with 400,000kms on the dial!
We moderated our expectations and decided on an unconverted van that we'd slowly convert over time. If things got too rough, we figured that we could always upgrade to a 'real' accommodation. Besides we have friends and family in major cities who like us well enough to let us crash from time to time :)
Thus began the 'Unlikely Hero' Book Tour
Willow the Wonderer is an enchanting picture book about the search for happiness. It is the first book in what will be a series of picture books that plant seeds of wisdom and engage children in learning.
Our stories counter the many false grand narratives we grew up. It was only fitting that our protagonist also defy conventions. Willow, ladies an gentlemen, is a wise baby donkey (or little wise ass) in a '70s onesie!
We started off wanting to simply meet local and independent booksellers - to show our book, get their feedback and gauge their interest in stocking it. It was really about learning the realities of the book trade.
About half of all booksellers we met were very generous with their time; heard our story, told us a few war stories of their own and flicked through the book. 100% of these also took it on!
They also acquainted us with the reality of the book business - it's a tough gig in a very saturated market where even great books don't always sell.
Bookshops are also on the decline and many towns in Australia simply don't have one.
To have our picture books more widely available, we realised that we needed to employ the help of other local businesses. And it is only through travelling and being on the ground that we have been able to meet and handpick other amazing local businesses we can work with.
Yes, the 50+ book and gift stores on our 'Buy Local' pages have been personally curated by Darren and I during our travels.
Six legs and counting
Our Book Tour began in our home base of inner Sydney with a tour of all highly rated bookshops here. I call it 'Leg 0' because it was very much a trial run and since it's also home, we weren't exactly doing the van life.
It was a successful trial run though and gave us the courage to tackle Melbourne and Queensland in the Willow Van, mostly chasing the very narrow travel horizons that would open amidst all the COVID border closures...
Here are some highlights.
Leg 1: Sydney to Melbourne - via Princes Highway (coastal route) - December 2021
I've always loved the drive to Melbourne via Princess Highway and it was even more spectacular with the low COVID traffic. We stopped at Cronulla, Wollongong, Kiama, Huskisson, Moruya, Sales, Eden and the likes.
We (rather I) had also planned to post live updates of our book tour but as you can see by my/our first take, we still need to do some work before we can start posting video content ...
Besides, it's a lot of work to keep creating and posting content - and a bit of an ask whilst we are also working. So hats off to all those van life influencers out there!
This first leg also felt a little patchy; we were both rather nervy and irritable with each other as we adjusted to this new way of living/working. Neither of us can act so there was no question of putting on fake smiles for the camera...
Thankfully we had enough self awareness and commitment to our shared purpose of creating stories that plant seeds of wisdom to forgive and forget, and carry on.
Leg 2: Around Inner City Melbourne - December 2021
Our dear family (thanks sis!) and friends (thanks Elise and Simon!) hosted us in Melbourne so we got a break from the van when we got there. We simply had a great time exploring the fantastic indie bookshop scene that Melbourne has to offer - from the CBD to Prahan, Albert Park, Footscray, Kensington, Malvern, Toorak and Yarraville.
Darren had lived in Melbourne for a very long time and although I had visited a few times before, it was great to explore the city anew with him and checkout some of the more artistic and 'gritty' end of town - places where the arts community converged and thrived pre the digital age...
Leg 3: Melbourne to ACT to Sydney - via Hume Highway (inland route) - December 2021
We stopped over at the Cannibal Creek winery in Tynong on our way back to Sydney. The owners, Pat and Kirsten, had commissioned Darren's artwork for their beautiful restaurant and hosted us for a lovely lunch.
Called the Elements series, Darren's paintings depicted the forces of nature - Fire, Wind & Water. The work started off as an original Picasso painting which he reconfigured digitally, sampling elements to create a new work. The works were a response to the notion that 'Picasso killed painting; there was nothing left to explore in painting as Picasso had done it all.'
Having seen the paintings take shape on the canvas, I was very much looking forward to see them hung - and they didn't disappoint. The paintings looked stunning and could not have found a more apt home than in a working vineyard, winery and locally sourced restaurant.
Hearing our book tour story, Kirsten also took on Willow the Wonderer for the winery store. They are probably the most unique place you can pickup our picture books!
We made our way up through the Gippsland/Claire Valley wine country through to Mansfield - it was my first taste of Victorian highlands and I loved it! After that it was back on the Hume and onto Wangaratta, Albury Wodonga, Yass and Canberra.
We were lucky to find the most amazing spots to camp along the way like this gem next to the mighty Murray in Albury Wodonga. The credit here goes to the local tourist information centre - I went in on a whim and the lady there found this beautiful spot just out of town. Not only was it free but also allowed campfires - nothing beats cooking on an open fire even if they are plant-based snags :) I even spotted a pair of platypus splashing around next morning - second time I've spotted them in the wild!
Leg 4: Mid-North Coast to Queensland (via the hinterland routes) - Christmas 21 & New Year 22
Darren and I like to get away for Christmas. There was a narrow opening to get into Queensland over Christmas last year and after a tentative wait at the border we crossed over ...
We drove through the Glasshouse mountains, went up past Woodford, Maleny, Montville, Gympie, Pomona and returned back down the Sunshine Coast - stopping and exploring the townships and book and gift stores along the way.
That trip became all about waterfalls and swimming holes. Apart from the fact that we love swimming in these - they also served as our bath! We camped overnight in quiet forested areas - plenty to be found in the region.
It was a very wet summer though and we had rain almost every day ... I've never been more thankful for packing a tarp.
The absolute highlight in that trip though was my first koala encounter in the wild - this after 20 years in Australia. The little fella just came down a tree and straight towards me too :)
Leg 5: Around Brisbane - Christmas 21 & New Year 22
This was very much a day trip for us, visiting the CBD, Stones Corner and New Farm before crashing with Darren's sister (thanks Sian!) in outer Brisbane. Whizzing around in those electric scooters to get everywhere is the most memorable part of this leg.
We did the Queensland trip during Christmas/New Year holiday season which is probably the worst time to visit - stores are either closed or very busy (another learning). We did manage to connect with a few great book stores but need to schedule a return trip soon...
Leg 6: Nambucca to Sydney (via Waterfall Way) - May 2022
This is the latest trip we've done. We took inland route to Sydney through iconic NSW regional towns of Armidale, Tamworth, Orange, Dubbo and Bathurst. The Waterfall Way road was a sight to see with all the rains we received over summer but the fields have never been greener.
The waterfalls along the way were full to the brim and the camping first night was just magnificent - Darren managed to light a campfire and I whipped up a tofu and mushroom biriyani! We also had some homemade apple and rhubarb tart with custard that Darren's aunt had packed for dessert. It was all rather magnificent.
Everything started drying out as we went inland and we were greeted with beautiful autumn colours as we made our way through Armidale, Tamworth, Orange, Dubbo and Bathurst. All these towns were wonderful to visit, with great local businesses, cafes and restaurants. We were never in want of a great coffee or decent vegan/vegetarian food.
Coming from the Mid North Coast we had not realised though that the weather had started cooling down. We had our first taste of winter in that trip as overnight temperatures fell to zero degrees! I realised the virtue of insulating one's van that night ...
As we wrapped up our trip and were heading back to Sydney, we also had an incident with the 'fuel' near Bathurst. If it had not been for the fantastic folks at NRMA Roadside Assistance and the amazing mechanic at Bathurst, we'd be in a pickle!
Not our brightest moment but NRMA and the mechanic assured us that it happens many times a week, every week so ...
At any rate, we now know that in spite of the different names, the fuel pump for diesel is always BLACK!
Supporting local businesses that support local creatives
Apart from having a great time doing the van life 'thing', through the book tours we were able to build a fantastic network of local book and gift stores that distribute Willow the Wonderer.
Although we have an online store and ship worldwide where possible, we'd love to see everyone buy local and support the communities they live in to thrive.
After all it's these local businesses and communities that add so much flavour to our lives and travels - and we can attest that the ones on our list go out of their way to support local creatives too.
Van life is not all fun and games
Living it up in the van has its moments but the reality of living in a van, let alone an unconverted one, is that it can get rather messy and uncomfortable - hence why the sensible folks take a lot of time to kit up before they hit the road!
Before we left home I had very systematically setup the van to function as our sleeping, warehouse and kitchen quarters. We haven't built any permanent cabinetry so I packed everything in designated containers or boxes, with their own place in the van. These all fitted properly and with a little bit of a shuffling we could set the space up as we needed to. I had seen others arrange their vans this way on some videos too so thought we'd give it a go.
But containers tend to move around and on one occasion came tumbling out when the back boot was opened, all but destroying the containers in which we carried food and cooking stuff...
It also did not help that Darren is the messy artist type. He is not even in the slightest bothered by his mess - in fact, finds it to be rather conducive to his creative process. Darren also does not like burning time and energy packing things away - randomly stuff things where ever they fit is more his style. So things got a little more messy each day.
It's a good thing he can draw ...
To be fair, he did try, but with all the boxes and limited space we were constantly having to organise and re-organise. It all got very taxing.
We also don't have power in the van yet so don't have a fridge. Eating well is very important to me and I can whip up great meal on the go with no issues - but not having a fridge still proved problematic.
We did buy a heavy duty esky but since we are not seasoned campers, we had no idea how to pack it properly. It felt like we spent a little fortune in our first outing on buying ice, only to see it melt and get into our food, which then spoilt and floated everywhere...
Thankfully there are some helpful instructional videos by happy campers on YouTube (watch this) which I followed for our most recent trip and managed to get our esky to stay cool for seven whole days without any ice top-up!
The highlights make up for it in droves
The positive aspects of van life make up for the 'first world' inconveniences in droves though:
The freedom to travel at our pace
Being able to stop over at beautiful scenic spots to cook, eat and wake up in
Bathing in the many natural waterholes, waterfalls, stony creeks, beaches and outdoor showers along the way
Saving from not having to pay for accommodation
Being able to cook and eat well whilst on the road
Getting inspirations for our future books from nature and our travels
The connections we are forging with local businesses everywhere
I could go on ...
The strongest litmus test for any experience is whether you'd do it again - would we do another van life book tour? Without hesitation, yes! Darren's hasn't been to Northern Territory, Western Australia or Tasmania yet - so there are many more epic book tours still to be had in the Willow Van.
Right now though, we are preparing for a different sort of book tour - one that will have us exploring some of the oldest bookshops, libraries and literary institutions our human culture has to offer - and attempting to spread our stories beyond our shores.
Stay tuned - we'll have more to share on that very soon...
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A note on the Environment
We are conscious of our individual and enterprise's impact on Mother Earth
& do our best to minimise and offset it.
All our books are printed on sustainably sourced FSC certified paper.
We are planting trees on the lands we live in to offset our emissions.
We adhere to an 80% plant-based diet - on the road and in life.