Six Months of European Van Life
Chao! Kia Ora! G'day!
We are Kelly and Daniel, lovers of a good adventure. Four months ago we sold up our lives, bought one-way tickets to Berlin and realised our dream of joining the Vanlife movement. On the cards for us- 6 months of cruising around Europe in our newly purchased 1991 VW T4 Westfalia camper, which we've affectionately named "Aramoana" (Te Reo for "pathway to the ocean"). Now here we are... halfway through and 8077 kilometres later, having blissed out for 3 months over the gorgeous European summer. Thus far we've crossed the borders of 13 countries, gone through 11 tanks of diesel, 12 litres of oil, 1 litre of Doctor Bronners all-in-one soap and visited mechanics 4 times for repairs. We've justified the expense of staying in an autocamp on only 3 occasions, helping stretch our budget so we can travel even longer. Plus, it's much more fun to be a parked up alone in the wilderness than next to a camper full of yappy dogs and a bunch of creepy soft toys. Our favourite wildcamping spots include parking in the alps, smack-bang in the centre of cities, beside the ocean and even in the carpark of a "Clog and Cheese factory". All this, without purchasing a SIM card or paying for internet. We've learnt to be tech savvy and utilise the wonderful world of offline maps, apps and of course free wifi. Along our journey we've connected with friends, family and the overwhelming generosity of strangers who've all contributed enormously to our experience. It's not without its challenges but if you're here weighing in on the decision to join the vanlife movement, just go for it. The possibilities are endless and the ride is so much fun.
But first, a little bit about ourselves. Hailing from Auckland and Bellingen respectively, we both grew up with a love for the outdoors and a deep respect of nature. A travel agent and audio engineer by trade, we met amongst the tepees and vines at a music festival in Gisborne (New Zealand) four years ago. Living in the hipstercentric Inner-West of Sydney, we've always said yes to every opportunity to travel. After years of following the vanlife movement online, the pull of the nomadic lifestyle became too much and we moved into our beloved camper in June 2016. Since then we've been exploring the roads of Europe with cameras in tow, documenting our adventures as we go.
So where did this epic roadie begin? Previous trips to Europe have always felt rushed. Work restrictions meant holidays were maxed out at the 6 week mark and I'd already dug myself well into the territory of negative leave. We started scheming while planning a short trip along the Turkish Coast with a bunch of friends. Why not simply stretch this into a 6 month journey? And why not head to Canada afterwards to work and play? The decision came so easily and so we found ourselves with just under a year to cull down our lives to a backpack each. After excitedly divulging our plans to everyone, we applied for Canadian visas and started to work on a feasible budget for Europe. Whilst the initial purchase of the van, visas, insurance and flights set us back a bit, we knew we could keep our ongoing costs to a minimum. With food prices comparatively low in Europe, we set a daily budget of AUD$60 and decided we'd travel for a minimum of 6 months before making our way to Canada. We are yet to unlock the key of digital nomads who earn income as they travel, so until then we'll be living off our savings.
But that's the boring part. The adventure really began when we picked up our keys in Utrecht (Netherlands), met Aramoana for the first time and took her out for a spin (to the gas station to fill up our first tank of diesel.) The culmination of months of planning and the reality of the journey we were about to undertake finally hit us when we moved into our new home and started plotting our route on a map. The truly wonderful thing about vanlife is the flexibility and freedom it affords you- our itinerary is forever changing as we make friends with the locals and ask for their insider recommendations. And so we have found ourselves spontaneously at an arts festival near Sarajevo and sharing a riverside campfire with a rowdy Croatian family in Osijek. Of course we agreed to give our new Bosnian friend a lift to the 4 day LakeFest in Montenegro. Sure it wasn't in the original plan but then we wouldn't have been told about Ada Bojana, a magical (and nudist friendly) peninsula paradise on the border of Albania. Or found a tranquil spot right on the water in the tiny coastal town of Ponte Veslo. Moments like these have been the true standouts for us, all the better because they occurred naturally and without any expectations.
It gets you outside your comfort zone.
The thing that has surprised me most on this trip is the kindness of strangers. As a Kiwi and an Australian, although a friendly bunch we are quite hesitant to go up and befriend strangers. I was always a bit weary to initiate first contact but vanlife has taught me to swallow my pride and simply ask for the things you need. Whether it be to ask to fill your water tank, use the bathroom or for suggestions of a place to park. It all starts when you strike up a conversation. If you don't speak the language, gestures and body language get you a long way. We've since been offered the use of someone's personal carpark in Zurich and the use of the gym showers in Ljubljana when we were desperate. At a car wash in Northern Italy we were given handfuls of free machine tokens, issued instructions all in Italian and then rewarded with free cans of lemon soda. All this while having no clue what was going on. Constantino, a lovely Italian man let us camp outside his pizzeria when we needed a place to stay and the roads were too misty to drive. In a tricky situation, a mechanic dropped everything to tighten our gear box and refused to take any money for it. We are too often taught that the world is a dangerous place but if you only believe in that then you miss out on all of the goodness it has to offer.
It's cheaper than you think.
We manage most days to stick to our daily budget of 20 euro each. While we do occasionally go over when we have mechanical expenses or decide to splurge on adventure sports, we are overall on track for spending. Avoiding autobahns and toll roads means that we can take in the most scenic drives, have regular breaks and stretch a tank of diesel to do 800kms or more. A tank of gas sets us back around 80 euro each time. Having an internal kitchen is a blessing as we can prepare own own meals. This gives us complete control over how much we spend, what goes in our food and of course my vegetarian diet. That's not to say that we don't still indulge in meals out but we do this only as a treat.
It's not without it's challenges.
As a woman, living in a van without bathroom facilities takes some time to get used to. Vanlife hygiene and cleanliness requires some adapting to and creativity. Swimming often doubles as showering and I am a fan of the daily sponge bath, albeit sans bath. I have recently acquired a "she-wee" but am yet to integrate this into my routine. Finding a park for the night also proves to be both a rewarding and challenging experience. With the aid of an offline "Parking" app we have found some real gems to stay in for free. Other times we've been parked in what we thought was a secluded spot only to be woken up in the middle of the night by a carpark rave party. You learn to take each experience as it comes and have a few tricks up your sleeve, like looking for a zoo or marina to park next to. Early on you will discover that cafes are your friend- they generally come equipped with cheap espresso, power plugs, bathrooms and more often than not free wifi. Be sure not to forget that your home is susceptible to mechanical problems. It helps to have some knowledge of your vehicle as well as basic tools at your disposal. As I finish writing this we are parked up on a curb while Dan attempts to fix a blown tire (it burst dramatically and loudly with a hiss). As luck has it today is Sunday so everything is closed and there is no assistance to be had to help loosen the extremely tight bolts. We may just have to camp out here until tomorrow. Vanlife, every day is an adventure!
The reward is worth it.
Our van really is our home on wheels. We've put a lot of love into it to it make it our own. It has taken us to some remarkable places, where we've experienced remarkable things with remarkable people. The best part is that we have so much further to go. As the days grow colder, the warmth of Southern Spain and Morocco are beckoning to us. I would not trade this experience in for anything.