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Nigel & Sue’s Van Conversion: Exploring Australia

Like so many others, Nigel and Sue had travel plans for 2020 that were upended by lockdowns — and they shifted their focus to a van conversion! With no prior building experience, they learned how to do everything via YouTube and trial and error. But you’d really never know they were novices based on the final result!

We got to interview Sue about what made them go tiny, what they love about it, and what’s a struggle. Enjoy the tour of their DIY build and their story below. Then be sure to subscribe to their YouTube channel for updates on their awesome Australian tour.

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3.5 Years on the Road in Australia

From 2015, I had a 5 year plan which coincided with my youngest son finishing high school at the end of 2020. I was then going to take a year off and travel through South America (I hadn’t quite convinced Nigel, but I was working on it).

When the pandemic hit and we couldn’t travel overseas, we decided to invest the money we’d saved and bought a 4×4 Sprinter cargo van. We figured we could spend the lockdown converting it into a camper, enjoy year travelling Australia, then sell it (maybe at a profit??) and go overseas then. And here we are 3.5 years later, still in the same van, still in the same country.

The van we bought is a 2011 model, so it was 9 years old when we bought it. The back was decked out as a workshop for a company who were installing fibre-optic cable in the outback. It took us 5 days just to strip out all their fittings!

The build took us the best part of 6 months. Neither Nigel nor I had any van conversion experience, although Nigel has renovated a couple of houses, and is really handy when it comes to tools. I like to say I was the project manager and the apprentice builder!

We spent a lot of time researching, and learning from the University of YouTube. We learned a lot in the process, and we reckon we could do the same job in around half the time if we did it again.

I definitely think tiny living has changed our lives for the better. We’ve learned that we don’t need a lot of “things”. I mean, we kind of knew that all along, but it’s become so much clearer now. We focus a lot more on experiences, and just “being”, rather than accumulating more and more stuff.

As a couple, we’ve learned how important it is to communicate, and I definitely think living tiny has brought us closer together, and not just because we share such a small space.

As our tiny home has wheels, we’ve been able to see a lot more of our beautiful country. For us, it’s the places in-between, that most tourists don’t really get to see, as they travel from one highlight to the next. Having a tiny home on wheels means that if we find some hidden gem place that we like, we can stay longer. Or, if we’re not enjoying a place, we can simply move on (that rarely happens).

We are still working on making money on the road! We have a YouTube channel, but that doesn’t cover our expenses (YET) and a travel blog that we hope to monetise in the near future. We’ve worked with a few brands and tourism boards for our Instagram.

Nigel still works in his career, as he loves it, and also to pay off the mortgage on his regular house (it’s currently rented out). He works FIFO (fly in fly out) on a 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off roster. This means that when he is home we do a lot of travelling, and when he’s away working, I stay put and catch up on all our video editing, blog writing and other admin.

Probably the uncertainty. Finding places to sleep can be challenging. We have an app that we use (WikiCamps Australia) but sometimes it’s hard. We like to free camp or wild camp wherever possible, not only because it saves money, but when we stay in caravan parks, often we are so close to the neighbour we can hear them snoring at night.

The other thing we’ve found hard is finding water. We have a 110 litre water tank, which lasts us usually around 3-4 days, so we are always looking for somewhere to fill the water tank. A long hot shower is something that only happens if we stay in a caravan park or with friends.

Speaking of friends, the other thing that is hard is being away from our friends and family. I have two grown up sons, and I miss them like crazy (even though one now lives in London, so even if I was at home I’d be missing him!)

Obviously, travelling we get to see some really amazing places. However, for us, one of the most rewarding things is arriving at a destination (whether that’s a campsite or wild camp) and knowing we have our home with us.

Our set-up and pack up is minimal – we just pull on the hand-brake, swivel the passenger seat, and we are “home”. It’s very rewarding to sit there and think “we built this” and we are so grateful for our tiny home on wheels and our lifestyle.

I mentioned the places “in-between” and so often this means being out in nature. We feel that we have become really disconnected from city life (in fact, we find being in a city quite stressful). We love being able to stay in more remote places, whether it be a beach, forest, or even an outback desert, and just getting back to nature.

If you’re thinking of vanlife, just do it! Seriously, though, this lifestyle is not for everyone. If you can’t stand wearing the same 4 outfits for months, only washing your hair once a week, and having to find somewhere to empty your toilet every couple of days, this probably isn’t for you.

Social media has really romanticised the #vanlife movement, and we’ve seen quite a few people try this lifestyle and realise it’s not what they were expecting. We always recommend people try before they buy. Go rent a van for a week and see how you like it.

But if you hate housework and don’t need a lot of “things”, then maybe tiny living is worth a shot. It’s not coincidence that so many vanlifers “retire” from full-time travelling and go live in a small cabin in the woods. Once you step off the treadmill of our consumerist society I think it would be quite hard to go back.

VIDEO: Van Tour | Luxury Adventure

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Natalie C. McKee

Natalie C. McKee is a contributor for Tiny House Talk and the Tiny House Newsletter. She's a wife, and mama of three little kids. She and her family are homesteaders with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and quail on their happy little acre.

Latest posts by Natalie C. McKee (see all)

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Nancy M.
    November 28, 2023, 3:05 pm

    Many thoughtful ideas that have come to fruition in your van. Love it!

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