‘Social media has had a huge influence in sharing the best part of this lifestyle: the ability to take you home on the road and explore new places… waking up with nature surrounding you as much as possible!’ says co-founder Jonny Dustow. ‘Also, because you aren’t paying for rent or accommodation a lot of the road trip, you can travel and explore for longer!’ Photo – James Barkman , for Vanlife Diaries courtesy of Hardie Grant Books.
Life-long mates and enthusiastic vanlifers Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose launched Vanlife Dairies over a coffee one day in Collingwood. Both had been living on the road since 2012. Touring with music project Dusty Boots (Jonny), and taking extended roadtrips to explore Australia (Jared and his partner Ash), convinced the guys to shed their stifling mortgages and pursue a more nomadic path.
A way to share stories, van-conversion tips and travel advice, as well as simply help likeminded people connect in an authentic way, their digital community really took off.
Today, the popular virtual platform has expanded into meet-ups and campouts in support of aligned charities, with Colorado-based journalist/photographer Kathleen Morton jumping on board to take these Vanlife Gatherings global. Their inspiring new Vanlife Dairies book and an award-winning documentary are further testaments to a growing movement.
‘Humans are always evolving and needing to connect with themselves, each other, and their environment. Vanlife offers all three of those opportunities. While society remains fragmented, people will continue to keep looking outside of broken institutions for support, acceptance, and respect,’ tells Jared. ‘There is also a housing affordability crisis in Australia and unemployment issues, where people now look at the vanlife lifestyle and say, “Hey! Maybe I’ll downsize from my apartment to a home on wheels”.’
As a ‘bohemian social-media movement’, vanlife has spawned a new kind of celebrity, and been enthusiastically adopted by many (there are more than 5.2 million #vanlife posts on Instagram, from holiday snaps to marketing campaigns). Yet at its heart, this lifestyle taps into some incredibly timely trends, ‘a renewed interest in the road trip, a culture of hippie-inflected outdoorsiness, and a life free from the tyranny of a nine-to-five office job’ as The New Yorker puts it.
Whether you’re dreaming, pinning and planning like crazy, or find yourself in the need-my-comforts skeptic’s camp, these first-hand accounts from local vanlifers sure make life on the road seem very appealing (picture-perfect or otherwise!).
There are several Vanlife Gatherings planned for spring along Australia’s east coast. Find out more at Vanlife.com.au. Follow the movement on Instagram @vanlifediaries, watch ‘The Meaning of Vanlife’ documentary here, or pick up hardcover Vanlife Diaries by Kathleen Morton, Jonny Dustow and Jared Melrose, published by Hardie Grant Books AU$39.99 NZ$45.00, where all good books are sold.
Lauren Williams + Alex Knorr
The founders of Australian hat label Will & Bear had travelled in their van off-and-on many years, and were on the cusp of settling down in Byron Bay when they realised they wanted do things a little differently. Feeling their ‘most inspired and challenged when on the road’, Lauren and Alex decided to move into their van full-time. They’ve been running their business while travelling Australia ever since!
How did you come across your van, what did your renovation involve?
Marty is actually our second van. We had bought a 1982 VW T3 from a deceased estate for $2500. We got the bug and Alex got obsessed with the later 4WD drive models. Two years ago a 1989 VW T3 Syncro with a full camper conversion came up on Gumtree and we had to snap it up.
What was going to be a quick one-month interior reno soon turned into a full restoration which included stripping it down and spray-painting the inside and out, building all new cabinetry, reupholstering all the seats, setting up the second battery with solar, plumping in water and finally fixing our 1972 Yamaha to the back. In the end, ‘Marty’ took us five months working full-time and cost approx. $20,000 – not bad for our first home we thought!
What has been the highlight of vanlife for you?
The people we’ve met on the road… you soon realise there is a whole community of people doing similar things. People are always keen to have a chat with us when they see Marty and we always have offers to stay or drop in to homes …these offers (mostly from kind strangers) have turned into some amazing friendships!
The other one is the freedom it allows and your ability to get to know different parts of Australia. For us it’s also the simplicity it brings – you can really take it your own pace. We used to live in Melbourne, where we found it easy to get swept up.
On the flip side, what’s the most challenging aspect? And how you manage to balance this lifestyle with sustaining your business?
Living in a confined space with your partner can be challenging. The design of the van was important to make it as seamless as possible. Not being around friends and family can also be hard, so we designed Marty to have a spare room (i.e. a good tent) and two back seats. Now our loved-ones can come and stay on the road with us!
Careerwise, last year we restructured our business so everyone works remotely. We have a great team of talented contractors who run different parts of our business from all over the world, while we work from the van.
What’s something you wish you knew when you started out?
Don’t sweat the breakdowns! Because they will happen. They are all part of the adventure, especially when you live in a vintage van. Vanlife comes with so many ups and downs you have to learn to go with the flow and enjoy the ride.
Treat everything as a learning experience. You seem to find yourself in some pretty challenging situations. The lessons we’ve learnt from these experiences have been invaluable and in hindsight some of the best.
Kallie, Dylan, Lincoln + Zephyr Bergamaschi
Kallie and Dylan‘s vanife adventure began on their honeymoon in late 2017. Roadtripping through the Canadian Rockies, they started to see that there was ‘more to life than what we get sold by the majority of the population’. The couple had spent their whole working lives saving for and renovating their home to support their new family. What turned into a van for weekend travelling, soon escalated into a more permanent lifestyle.
Kallie and Dylan are still relatively new to vanlife, though. With son Lincoln, they lived in their bus Nelly for the last four months of 2018 before returning to Adelaide to welcome their new baby Zephyr. After saving and soaking up newborn moments with family and friends, they will be back to continuing their travels around Australia and living in their bus full-time from late June.
How did you find your bus and how did you go about fitting it out for a family?
We looked at one other bus before we found our 1984 Nissan Civilian ‘Nelly’ on Gumtree just three weeks after our arrival home from our honeymoon. An ex-church bus from WA that had just been on a three-month road trip to Adelaide, she was very straight for her age and had very low kilometres. This filled us with confidence and we put down a deposit straight away. She had a basic fit-out when we got her, which we completely gutted and refitted ourselves. This process took us about five-months of weekends and cost roughly $10,000.
What has been the standout of life on the road for you?
It would probably be discovery, discovery of how beautiful our country is! We’ve seen things that we could have never imagined and connected with these in a way we never thought we would.
You’re not tied down to your nine-to-five, going to work in the dark and getting home in the dark, getting to do only what you want to two-out-of-seven days a week and spending the vast majority of the money you earn keeping a roof over your head and paying bills you need to pay just to live. With living in the bus, you have the freedom to go where you want when you want and make a home anywhere.
With this has come a change in the way we live our lives, we’re actively trying to reduce the footprint we leave on this beautiful Earth whilst also trying to maximise the amount of places we leave our footprints.
The best part of all this is the ability to do it as a family and watch your children discover, grow and explore things a vast majority of people will never see, and gain the same respect for it all as we have.
How do you all manage to make vanlife work?
Probably the most challenging aspect is the obvious one, supporting yourself financially.
So far whilst on the road we managed to live off of savings and holiday pay and we are currently back in our home-state saving up money to go on our next adventure but we do plan to stop for short periods of time while on the road to work and replenish funds.
Can you share some lessons you’ve learned along the way?
For renovating we would recommend doing a good amount of research before starting your build, and have a list of non-negotiables that are within reason, this will ensure that the outcome of your build is something that you’re going to be happy with and works for you.
While in the build process keep in mind why you’re building it. If you plan to travel in it you’re going to be visiting beautiful places and you’re going to want to take as much of that in as possible. An open-plan build or finding a way of incorporating part of your living outside is a great way to maximise your experience in these locations while having all the comforts of your home.
As far as living goes, it’s really important to keep as minimal as possible, just take what you need. On our first trip we had so much extra stuff with us and it made the bus feel dirty at times purely because it was cluttered. It doesn’t take long to dirty a small space so the less stuff you have the less that can get dirty.
Our advice for people is always to take the leap, it’s not always easy giving up the 9-5 life as its comfortable and safe but our favourite saying is ‘less comfort, more life’. Sell your stuff, minimise, and figure out what you really want from life instead of what you’re told you need.
Rebecca Winther + Gary Swift
Self-confessed nomads Gary and Rebecca had always loved to travel and spent most of their free moments exploring different areas of their home state of Victoria. Living for those ‘snatches of time’, they found that their desk-job-and-rent-paying cycle was not sustainable.
Uninspired and unexcited about life, they decided that if they we were going to get out and experience the world, they wanted to do it while they were young. They’ve been full-time van dwellers since January 2018, and are currently in Lake Argyle, WA!
How did you come across your big red van, and then make it your own?
We spent roughly four months searching the internet looking at different makes and models of vans until we finally found one in a private sale that ticked all the boxes for us (mainly lots of space and room for us to stand upright in.) An empty ex-Australia Post van, it was a completely blank canvas, a very exciting prospect as it meant we could go to town and make it exactly as we wanted it to be!
Over around 12 months, in between working multiple jobs each, we dedicated every spare moment we had to fitting out the van. This meant maybe an hour or two in the evening and any days off we had (there weren’t many), come rain, hail or shine. It was exhausting and there was literally blood, sweat and tears at times, but we would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
The van itself cost us just under $20,000 and we spent roughly $6,500 AU on the build, which considering we are basically self-sufficient, is a pretty good price!
What do you love most about your vanlife?
… the freedom that comes with living wherever you desire. If we want to be by the beach, or on top of a mountain, or even in the city for a while, we can, without too much trouble.
We’ve also had the chance to meet folks who have been living a similar lifestyle to us for years, sometimes even decades. We might be different ages and have different backgrounds, but ultimately, we all have similar values on what’s important to us in life. There’s a real sense of community there.
What have you found to be the greatest challenge?
We won’t sugarcoat it, living on the road is stressful on a whole different level to what we’ve known before. Often the little things you take for granted in house living become the big things when living in a van: finding somewhere to camp each night, where your next shower will come from, even just finding a parking spot to fit our van so we can do grocery shopping can be a challenge.
The lack of a stable routine (whilst absolutely wonderful at times) has a flip side: it can lead you to feel a little adrift and directionless if you’re not careful.
Financially, we have tried working remotely online, but found it was really taking away from the travelling experience and causing us extra stress. So now we’ll travel until our funds start to get low, then we’ll pick up short-term work wherever we might be. It could be fruit picking, farm hand work, labouring, retail, or even working in a caravan park, we really aren’t too fussy. Then once the bank accounts are looking a bit better, we’ll head off again.
What’s something you wish you knew when you started out?
… how hot it would get inside the van, even with all the insulation we installed. If we could go back and change anything with the build, we’d add in an extra roof fan, one at the front of the living space and one at the back. Other than that, we’re pretty happy with the layout and features.
As for the lifestyle, maybe we were a bit naïve… the constant stress and uncertainty of living on the road can wear you down pretty quick, we weren’t expecting that. BUT, you learn to adapt pretty quickly and the trade-off is completely worth it. No regrets here.
Why do you think this lifestyle has become so appealing to people today?
It’s certainly been romanticized via social media, but we think for most people it’s the idea of freedom and the ability to be less financially dependent.
There’s also a change in what people are valuing in recent years: the last couple of generations have been raised to believe that material things (big house, fancy car) equal success in life, but it seems people are starting to realise that life can be about more than just what you own, that you don’t have to follow the path that everyone else takes.
For those wanting to give vanlife a go, we say do it. Saying “someday” will take your dreams to the grave with you. If your heart’s telling you to do something then take a deep breath and go for it. Better to try and fail, than always be left wondering what could have been.