Lessons From Life On The Road: #Vanlife

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As anyone who follows me on Instagram will testify; I have positively loved living the past few weeks in and alongside ‘Vinny’ the van, as the two of us have toured up the East Coast of Australia.  I bought Vinny a few months back, from an English couple desperate to sell as their flight back to the UK loomed closer, and as a result got a sweet deal on the purchase price.  I’d been toying with the idea of doing some internal travel within Australia for a while, and with my contract at work coming to an end, I discovered I had little to almost no enthusiasm in my soul for starting another.  So I took the plunge and stumped up the dollars, Vinny was mine.  ‘Vinny’ is a 2008 model Mitsubishi Express, with a punchy 2.4 litre petrol engine, worrying amounts of rust, a fairly patchy service history, blacked out windows, and a plucky heart of gold.  He’s been converted to include a smallish double bed (yes my feet hang off the end), a limited, but sufficiently stocked kitchen, a second battery, and most importantly a small fridge/cooler that keeps my meat and butter chilled (because #carnivore).  When it comes to humans, I’m attracted to women, but this dude is just my type, and I’m happy to say we are great together.

We set off from Sydney three and a half weeks ago, speeding quickly up the East coast in a desperate attempt to reach warmer nights as quickly as possible.  This is the first thing I learned on my trip:

  1. Sleeping inside a metal tin box, with zero insulation and zero heating, in central New South Wales during the middle of winter is a testing affair.  As anyone who lives in, or has visited during this period will testify, it can get surprisingly cold.  Really fucking cold.  On my second or third night I slept in a farmer’s field about 10 miles or so west of the coastal fringe.   The day had been sunny and beautifully warm, and as the sun started to set I cooked up my dinner, by 6pm it was dark, noticeably cooler, and time for bed.  Yep I now go to bed at 6pm. No I don’t care, yes it’s great. So I changed into a T-shirt and shorts, snuggled into my blanket, fired up the laptop and settled in for some back-to-back episodes of Breaking Bad.  After two episodes (circa 8pm) I fell asleep warm and toasty, and positively loving #vanlife.  Around 1am I woke up and could not feel my face.  Not in the Robin Thicke way.  My face was stone cold, and my body was not doing much better.  I was instantly questioning my love for #vanlife as I groggily pulled two more blankets over me, one covering my entire head.  Eventually I warmed up just enough to fall asleep again.  For all of about 20 minutes.  Starved of oxygen, I must have thrown the blanket off my head in my sleep, and was rapidly losing heat again.   It was not a great night, and I spent the next day driving for 4 hours, determined to get a bit closer to the equator to avoid a repeat.  I also bought a hat.

When you’re living in a movable home though, this is the beauty of it; too cold, drive to somewhere warm, if you don’t like where you have pitched up, you just stick it in first gear and off you go.  Hunter gatherer tribes knew this, they were nomads for this very reason, we’d travel to where the food was and where we could get warm.  It’s in our DNA.  Packing up and moving on has seen me stay (albeit often illegally, ssshhhhh) in some incredible spots.  Without doubt one of the highlights was Broadwater National Park, a few hours south of the NSW-Queensland border. 

I parked up in a deserted carpark, cooked some kind of weird-but-not-bad-tasting curry thing, and then proceeded to eat the curry thing whilst being watched by two cautious wallabies, and four not so cautious roosters, who were probably more entertaining viewing than Walter White.  They bobbed their heads marching about, trying to stay close to the alpha male, having mini fall outs and pecking fights as they fell over each over in trying to do so.  Turns out that chickens are nasty little fuckers, I don’t feel so bad about eating them anymore. 

After I ate, I strolled along an equally deserted beach and started singing ‘Against All Odds’ by Phil Collins, at full volume, because, well no one else was there to judge, and my heart felt alive.  It was an odd choice of song in retrospect.  I walked in one direction and sang Phil Collins for a solid twenty minutes, and then I turned around and walked back in the other direction singing Simply Red.  By the time I got back to the van it was dark, and for the first time I felt wary of being alone.  The roosters and wallabies had retreated into the bush to call it a night, and so I did the same, tucked myself into a sleeping bag, covered myself with three blankets (wasn’t making that mistake again), put on my newly purchased wool beanie, locked Vinny’s doors and settled in for a episode or two of BB.  This is the second thing I learned:

2. When travelling alone it becomes normal to talk to animals.  This is going to sound mental, or  maybe it won’t, after all I see people talking to dogs every damn day, but…. I’ve definitely grown an increased affinity for nature since starting the trip.  I’ve always been a fan of getting out and being amongst the natural world (or ‘in the elements’, as my mate Dan would say), but in the past three weeks I feel like I’ve developed something of a bond to it, or her, her being mother nature.  I have spent hours mesmerised by the waves, and watching the leaves of the tree flutter in the breeze. 

I have gone to bed and risen with the sun, saying goodnight and good morning to the fiery ball on most days.  However, most pronounced is all the inane chatting I’ve done with the birds, cows, horses, wallabies, kangaroos, possums, bugs, slugs and pretty much anything else that has a pulse and doesn’t immediately run or fly away.  A bit like my approach to dating some might say. 

If you had recorded some of the one-way conversations I have had with these creatures and played them to the authorities there’s a good chance my next adventure would be in a institution. BUT, it never felt crazy, it felt like the most normal and human thing to do.

2a) Also make sure you’ve got something to watch/read.  Breaking Bad (and Love Island #soznotsoz) has kept me sane.  My meditation practice is not sufficiently developed at this stage to keep my mind content.

However, animal interactions cannot replace human ones, especially not for a raging extrovert like myself, so here is lesson three:

3.  Once you get out of the cities, people are soooo freakin’ nice!  I’ve written (but not yet published) another one of my thought pieces looking at this topic in more detail, but let me say this; I have been astounded at just how friendly people have been.  Myself, personally, I’ve always been pretty comfortable talking to strangers, but invariably it’s me that has to go looking for, and instigate such interactions.  On this trip, however, I can’t get away from them.  Literally, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been able to a) cook, and b) eat breakfast without being interrupted by some grey-haired fellow who wants to have a chat.  It’s great, I’ve loved this element of the trip, but for balance, let me also say this; when I’ve got a perfectly cooked Sirloin steak with steaming caramelised onions and fried eggs (because #carnivore) sat in front of me, the last thing I want to do is discuss last night’s Brisbane Broncos game with Brett, aged 67, whose wife then comes over to ask if she can have some steak too.  Might as well, Sheila, it’s going cold here.

Bugger off, Bretty boy, this one is mine

Which leads me to #4

4.  I’m no longer worried about getting old, I know I’ll be in my element in retirement as a ‘grey nomad’.  What a way to do it.  Chasing the sun, cooking up steaks and chatting lazily with fellow travellers and anyone else who will tolerate your dull conversation. How truly wonderful!  Don’t get me wrong, I love England, it is truly home after all, but any prospect of retirement in the UK has become immensely less appealing since this trip.  35 and talking of retirement…worrying.

However that leads me to #5

5.  I am a realist, I know I can’t live life like this long term, especially not alone, my brain is far too active for that, and my soul needs more human connection (clearly displayed by the way I started to document #vanlife in my instagram stories, chatting away to the camera, with the sole aim of connecting with others).  However, #vanlife has shown me something that regular 9-5 life punctuated with sporadic holidays has not: life is full of opportunity, you can do what you want with it.  I have very much lived my life within the confines of the ordinary, of what was expected of me by peers and family.  It wasn’t working for me.  I’m not saying I want to chuck my old life in the bin and start afresh as a wayward, directionless hippy living in a van, but I do want to explore for myself what a better life may look like.  A life that isn’t defined by the amount of money I earn or the apartment I live in, but rather by freedom and my ability to flourish.  Just this morning I had a chat with a lovely couple who have lived together in their beaten up old van for several years, they will pick fruit or take cleaning or bar jobs for a while to inject some cash and then take off again for long stints of walking on beaches, fishing, cycling, reading books, surfing and playing their musical instruments – which really sounds like a holiday to the rest of us, but for them it is 80% of their life.  What was really obvious was just how much time they spend together and how much they loved living. I know plenty of rich people who would struggle to say the same. It’s a challenging question, but is it better to live and love your life, own very little in the way of physical possessions, or is it better to work away at a job, in order to build a life you cherish so much you have to escape it 4-6 weeks a year with holidays.  I’m not naive, it’s obviously not that simple, but for millions of years this kind of life WAS ENOUGH for our kind.  It does raise some questions about my life choices to date (as if I needed more of that…lol).  I think if you have found a job that you consider your ‘calling’ then maybe it’s different.  I hear that people with a calling feel the desire to take a holiday from it far less than the rest of us mere mortals.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have not found my ‘calling’, and as a result this low stress, outdoorsy way of living is, at least on the surface, mega-appealing.  If nothing else the experience has encouraged me to go out and explore more of what life may have to offer.  Maybe, a calling is what I may find.  Maybe I don’t need a calling, I just need a life of freedom and human connection.  Deep…

Finally…

6.  The sun.  Fucking hell! I love the sun.  Like, next level newfound respect for that orange ball in the sky.  When you spend five days a week inside, devoid of its pleasures, and then two days a week catching glimpses of it in between chores, social gatherings, looking after the kids, the gym and netflix binges – you kinda forget it’s there.  Living life predominantly outside, away from offices, apartments, and chores – the sun has become the be all and end all (albeit closely followed by meal times). 

Waking up every morning I have been giving thanks for it’s warming rays, and as it, and I go to bed, I give thanks again for all that it provided during the day.  On the one cloudy day I missed it immensely.  I have not once put on sunscreen on this trip (I don’t believe in that cancer-causing tripe any more), but I have laid out in the morning and late afternoon sun for hours on end, reading books, listening to podcasts, or simply doing nothing but enjoying the warm glow.  It is great, but worryingly, this is the aspect for me that will make going back to a corporate job really really bloody hard.  I’m no longer convinced that it’s a trade off I’m willing to make.  The way I feel right now, I want the sun in my life, way more than anything else.

I have ton of other lessons, but I don’t want to risk boring you so here’s a quick list to summarise #vanlife learnings:

  1.  Stay warm
  2. Connect with nature
  3. On the whole, people are lovely, if sometimes a bit dull.  Potential evidence suggests cities are alien habitats that may turn humans into aliens
  4. Grey nomads have it right
  5. Keeping up with the Joneses is a futile, pointless and empty way of approaching existence
  6. Soak up the sunshine.

Additional lessons:

7.  There are some REALLY overweight people in Australia.  I’d heard that Australia was one of the fattest nations on earth, but living in Bondi I never really believed it, until now.  Unbelievable XXXXXXXXXL scenes in regional towns outside of the metropolises.  I don’t know how someone creates a leg bigger than your average torso, but it can be done, I’ve seen it, and it’s almost impressive.

8.  I can survive on $20 a day living in a van, if I’m tight with the budget and park on the side of the road rather than in a campsite. I have no idea how the Africans survive on $2, I guess they’re not eating grassfed ribeye steaks.  What kind of life is that? I have real sympathy for the poor bastards.

9.  Lots of people covert #vanlife.  I’ve had at least three people approach me to tell me that I’m living their dream in the past week.  Which was fine, but they could have waited until I’d finished my convo with the nearby magpie.  Kinda rude.

10. Washing your hair is a thing of the past, until you’re presented with a warm shower and some shampoo.  No lie, I went seven days without washing my hair, and four without even using soap on my body parts.  I was, however, swimming in the ocean at least once a day and having a rinse in the cold public showers.  I was fine with this until I came across a warm shower, at which point I realised just how fucking dirty I was.  I kinda like being dirty. Ewww.

11.  Surprisingly, as time spent living #vanlife went on, my desire to drink or do anything else that altered my mental state, even drinking coffee, declined.  I was unconscious of this, until I became conscious of it.  Having read books on addiction, I reason that as I started to enjoy life more, I found less reasons to escape it through drink or drugs.  Interesting…

12. Finally, try to avoid driving into the ditches on the sides of motorways. It can incur expensive towing charges to get back out.

Another mammoth post, apologies, I just can’t help myself, congrats if you made it to the end.