girl standing in front of ford econovan in australia

Back in 2019 I interviewed three ladies whom I described as ‘modern nomads’ – women who live and travelled in a van. The freedom and simplicity afforded to them by their lifestyle choice had me gritting my teeth as I asked them questions through utter jealousy. I always dreamed of the day, like them, where I’d work on the road and explore the world slowly yet surely, in the most back-to-basic of ways.

As hard as the pandemic hit in many aspects of my life (just as it did for so many around the world), one thing it did do was present me with opportunities amongst the chaos.

Not only did I get a new job which was 100% remote so I could work from home, I stayed at home. And by staying at home for multiple lockdowns, I spent minimal money and managed to save. The stars were starting to align – perhaps my dream of van life could indeed become a reality?

In lockdown 2.0 in Melbourne with a strict 5km radius limitation, I somehow managed to find a small and hardly used van for sale on a Facebook group, a 2004 Ford Econovan. I bought it as soon as I viewed it – my lockdown project was sorted!

I later named her Maeve (standing for ‘Mini Adventure Econo Van’) and a nod to my inspiringly adventurous grandmother.

home converted van in australia

A New Years Eve sunset in South Australia

And so began the fun and copious amounts of sawdust, sweat, blood and frustration planning and fitting out a van into a camper with no experience (oh, and all in a vertical car parking space in the middle of a city).

 

From empty van to mini home…

Interior before..

First of all I think it is important to state I had help building her. I’m fortunate to have a partner who is not only great at DIY he gets totally obsessive with projects. So before I knew it, I was forced into deciding a layout, getting all the tools and purchasing 80% of the materials and resources basically within a week. After intense weekends and weekdays working on the van after work until it was dark, she was done in only 4 weeks, (the equivalent of 4-5 full days of work), ready to hit the road as soon as possible.

The layout changed multiple times (because what you see on Instagram can’t always convert to reality – who knew!). However what I did decide on was a rooftop tent for sleeping two, a sofa with storage (later adapted to convert into a day bed to sleep just me when I’m alone), a pull-out kitchen, sink and shelving units, and the full thing powered by solar. Because when the sun shines as much as it does here in Australia, it’s silly to not make the most of it and whack a giant solar panel on your roof.

She’s basic, there’s no doubt about that. The few wonky edges, stray drill holes and unpainted shelving unit, despite annoying me a little, just proves she was a labour of love, totally built from scratch with our bare hands.

interior of small campervan with day bed

Interior after…

 

An Aussie maiden voyage & future plans…

We’re fortunate enough to travel interstate now, so after a few trial runs taking Maeve away for the weekend locally near Melbourne, over Christmas we bonded over a proper 10 day road trip to South Australia. From the blustery and overcast Yorke Peninsula to the lush warm Clare Valley and dry heat of Burra, she tackled the bumpy roads and thousands of kilometres like a champ.

In the next month or so I plan to take some baby trips to test out what it is like to work all day from my laptop in such a small van. First I’ll need a good Wi-Fi modem and, all being well, we might go on a longer and slower trip around the south of Australia.

I have a small portable chemical toilet, a shower and a pop-up privacy tent, so basic living in it is possible. However I rent a flat, so unfortunately we won’t be going full time just yet…

white camper van travelling Australia

Maeve in South Australia

It’s kind of weird to think that if lockdown hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been in a position to even buy a van. So I guess blessings do come in the most unusual of disguises.

If you’ve also dreamed of van life or if converting a van into a camper yourself is on the cards, I thought it may be useful to give the lowdown on a few things I’ve learnt along the ride.

 

Things I’ve learnt since buying and fitting out a small van:

 

  • It costs way more than you think. Getting a van with low kilometres (an essential requirement when you want a reliable vehicle to travel long distances) cost me a little more than planned. Then the cost of the interior fit out just kept stacking up as ideas started blossoming and the project began to take shape.
  • It takes longer than you think. Despite the fact my van is probably no bigger than a king-sized mattress in total, small does not necessarily mean quick. Getting it done in 4 weeks (mind you, that’s not including the weeks spent ordering and planning with spreadsheets and masking tape plastered all over my dining room floor) was tough. To do things properly, with a working sink, custom units, flooring, insulation, walls, electricals and so on, it took way longer than I thought. The more you do, the more you make changes and improvements. Many parts of your van need to be multi-use and not compromise the space, so there’s way more time-consuming detail to focus on than you think. In fact, there’s still loads of things to do that I’ll probably just not get around to!
  • You need to have basic building skills, or at least be willing to hire professionals. I am a member of multiple ‘van life’ groups on Facebook. I always see people winging the electricals with no clue or installing gas cookers when they don’t know what they are doing. It only ends up in disaster. It either messes up and costs you more to fix, or it can kill. If you’re not a confident builder or don’t do enough research, make sure you ask for help or pay for a professional to help you. A safe van is the most important thing of all.
  • It changes your life. No, it really does! Every weekend has turned into an adventure with minimal effort. Whether it’s because I want a change of scenery to do some work, enjoy a long weekend camping in nature, or do a longer-term road trip for some sightseeing, I have the means. I have a bed, I have a shower, I have food and cooking instruments, I have power! There’s not much more I could possibly need. Once you get this kind of freedom, it’s hard to not get addicted to it.

Work in progress…

In my opinion, Australia is one of the best countries in the world for road trips. There are so many RV friendly towns, free camp sites and public amenities, it makes life on the road easy. Australia is all about the lifestyle, and absorbing it with slow travel in the great outdoors is a pure as it gets.

Maeve may well be my first ever van and camper conversion, but she certainly won’t be the last. Now that I’ve had a crash introduction into Australian van life, I’m simply never looking back.

I hope you’ll be following along with our future trips around Australia!