It should have taken months to find the right vehicle. Instead, it took days. Less than two weeks after my partner Hayley and I decided to buy and convert a van, Ursula was sitting in our front yard. A green, empty shell. Three cubic meters of limitless potential.
This would not have been so unlikely had I not imposed some severe restrictions on our future home on wheels. My childhood in small-town Western Australia had taught me the joys of four-wheel-driving, of standing alone among miles of untouched wilderness. These early adventures had nurtured in me an urge to explore, to drive those roads not found on the map, many of which, I knew, would be impassable for low-slung, two-wheeling machines. If I was going to buy a van, it wasn’t going to be any van. It was going to be four-wheel-drive, and it was going to be diesel.
Still not so difficult, until we threw in a strict budget. Mercedes Sprinters, one of the more common four-wheelers on the market, regularly sell between twelve and twenty grand. Our disposable income was less than three. Four-wheel-drive vans were rare, as were diesels. Finding both within our budget, with enough room to comfortably convert to full-time living, seemed impossible.
Which was why I almost didn’t believe it when Ursula appeared just twenty minutes up the road, complete with four-wheel capability and a 2.7 litre diesel engine. Two test drives, some head-scratching and one family-meeting (thanks for the loan Dad) later, Hayley and I were rumbling down the highway in our Nissan Urvan E24, grinning and high-fiving, less than two weeks after we’d first murmured to one another ‘hey, we should actually buy a van.’
We had spent enough time Insta-binging to have a few ideas about what we wanted, but as soon as we began building we realised our future home was going to take some serious improvisation. A lack of straight edges and flat surfaces set off a chain reaction that saw us revising every plan we made from day one to completion. My dream of having four diesel-powered wheels had cost us another serious disadvantage; space. Ursula was small. Packing two lives into a suburban home was hard enough. Getting them into an E24 Urvan, for which such luxuries as canvas pop-tops seemed not to exist, was like playing Tetris at an Olympic level.
What started as slow-progress, however, quickly accelerated. We settled into a comfortable routine of planning, building, re-evaluating and re-building. Misfortune occurred as regularly as success; wrongly-measured framing, badly-timed mechanical failures, quickly re-shuffled designs as we realised our grand-plans were too grand or simply impossible. Piece by piece, over nearly a year, our mobile home came together, and in January of 2019 we drove away from the Sunshine Coast in the early afternoon, excited, radiant, on route to the beckoning south.
There were many things I thought I would learn on the road, and I was not disappointed. Lessons came swiftly and at all times of day. Cleanliness and tidiness were essential. Getting up too quickly ended with a bruised head. Many of the things we’d stuffed into cupboards and drawers suddenly seemed excessive, while others we desperately missed. Showers, though rare, should be taken at every opportunity. Dirt, sand and bugs became facts of life.
But for every expected lesson came another, unexpected revelation, often about things I had thought I understood.
Just days after setting off, I was surfing the beach-break at Brunswick Heads. I was accustomed to surfing with my watch on, to knowing before I paddled out when I needed to paddle in. Sitting alone beyond the swell, watching the sun rise like melted gold over the water, the little clouds drifting like flotsam in the oceanic sky, it occurred to me that this was the first occasion in as long as I could remember that I had no reason to get out. I could stay there all day if I wanted. For the first time in years, I had exactly that: time.
We kept moving south in no great hurry, and for each day, each new place, we gained time. Time to stop and watch the sunset, to wake up, stretch, meditate, drink coffee and talk about what we wanted to do that day, to do nothing if that’s what we felt like. Time to take the side road, the back road, the probably-going-nowhere road, to change our plans on a whim and drive the other direction. We learned to be still, even when the world seemed fast around us. To feel the energy of every new place. As the days became weeks, Ursula became more than a home. The road became more than an adventure. She, and it, became a lifestyle.
Then, Ursula gave us something else.
Vanlife, I had assumed, was a lonely life. Keeping friendships was hard-enough in adulthood without throwing a transient lifestyle into the mix. While I didn’t resent the solitude, I knew that for all it’s desirability, living on the road came with sacrifice.
Like all our plans, our attendance of a Vanlife gathering happened more or less because it was in the direction we were heading. What started as a spontaneous, ‘why not?’ quickly became an eye-opening and heart-warming experience. Often Hayley and I had wandered the realms of Instagram and Youtube, watching various van-dwellers congregate and cohabitate, but those people had seemed few and far away. Arriving at the gathering in New South Wales, we realised that we’d been wrong. There were lots of us, and we were everywhere.
Once, the people who live as I do were outcasts. Now, Vanlife has evolved into an international movement. Disenchanted with rising living costs and defunct political systems, people are packing their lives into a few cubic meters of living space and moving onto the road. These people are reaching out, forming an unprecedented global tribe, its members more connected to each other than they ever were in their traditional lives. What was once considered an unruly bunch of hippies and vagrants congregating in parking lots has become a modern, nomadic community of all ages, one that supports and welcomes members across the world. Among the digital nomads and traveling retirees long associated with transience have sprung artists, musicians and entrepreneurs, many with families and pets in tow. Together, this community is forging a new lifestyle, one that values quality over quantity, that seeks to give as much it takes.
I always knew Ursula was a gateway to the proverbial good-life. But I never expected she was the key to a community unlike any other. I expected that Vanlife would teach me to slow down, and it did. I expected to feel contentment, like I always have, in constant movement, and I do. Yet I never imagined these were things I would be able to share, that I would meet people who saw things as I did, who would welcome me with open arms.
The great irony is that for all my desire to escape, to be free, to be alone, I have never felt so at home.
The magic pill.
We should figure out how to bottle it. Make a killing 😉
Well written Mathew! Just one question, are you born in a place called Walpole?
No I wasn’t born in Walpole but did live there for quite a few years when I was young.
Do we know each other?
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Beautifully written. Good for you two, seems like you’re living and loving it up.
Thanks Libby. How are you? Where are you these days?