The lot was full. Promising freedom. Adventure. The open road. And, as it turned out, eight days in a tin can adorned with the anti-slip stickers from grandma’s bathtub.
We’d booked a camper online for our one-week trip from Sydney to Melbourne and back. The budget option. They make the price worthwhile by ensuring everyone knows it’s a rental. Large purple flowers covered the exterior. At best, it had a Mystery Machine vibe. At worst, the spring decor line at Walmart.
Just hours after landing in Sydney, we were leaving it. Heading south. No hotel reservations. No commitments. The road would make the rules.
Flipping through my guidebook, I decided on a route. We’d start in Wollongong. It boasted the biggest Buddhist temple in the Southern Hemisphere – and there was a brewery nearby. We’d visit monks and then lift mugs.
Nan Tien is young. Like, really young. If it was a person, it would currently be eating avocado toast and complaining about the high cost of home ownership. The post-pagoda trip to Illawarra Brewery was better. An ocean view, complete with humpback wales. It would be dark soon, so we pushed on to Berry, the gateway to the south coast.
Heritage buildings and dairy farms dotted the landscape. It was quaint. We ate dinner in a cafe and then began the search for a place to camp for the night. The local equestrian park fit the bill. It was tucked off the main road and packed with people. But by the time we’d showered and brushed our teeth, they were gone. Inside their tents and RVs, they gathered around radios and TV screens. Rugby. It was the championship. Australia versus South Africa.
As I walked back between rows, I could hear the announcer’s voices. The Wallabies were down. I passed a van with an open doorway. Behind a printed curtain, I could see two pairs of feet. Beige socks, the left bunched around his ankle. Slippers for her. Fluffy and worn. They were sharing crackers, or cookies. I could hear the rustle of the packaging. I stood there, quietly.
It was a perfect frame. An ageing vehicle. Stickers on the window for fishing shops, amusement parks, small towns in the north. The yellow light from within, spilling across a threadbare area rug and out onto the grass below. I didn’t have my camera. I could have, should have gone to get it. But it felt too personal. Like walking into someone’s living room and taking a picture. I regret it now.
Australia’s animal population can be keenly observed from a car. The slow ones, anyway.
We’d travel hundreds of kilometres over the next few days. Through Milton, Tilba, Orbost and then Phillip Island, where we met cute koalas that we absolutely did not touch because most of them have syphilis. I’m not kidding. Every morning we’d slide the van door open, ready for the next adventure. In one spot, it was right there waiting for us. A family of kangaroos, blocking our path to the bathroom.
During the day, we’d drive. Between towns, the roads were remote. There were few cars. Often just us, and our stupid jokes. Australia’s animal population can be keenly observed from a car. The slow ones, anyway. Roadkill aren’t removed. Crews spray paint an X on them, presumably as evidence they’ve been counted, and leave them where they lie. It might sound cold, but a few dozen in, it became a game. We took turns guessing. Kangaroo, wallaby, wombat…other. It passed the time.
The road took us through Luna Park, past the street artists in Melbourne, to the waves of Bells Beach, and then north to wine country. We explored neighbourhoods and when the sun went down, we’d camp. We didn’t bother with cooking, restaurants and take out did the trick. Latte’s to start the day, bed beers to finish it. Easy. Except the night of the storm.
Light rain had dogged us all afternoon, but as we sat in the window of a restaurant, it turned. Think, end of days. We told our server we’d have more coffee. See if we could wait it out. When the restaurant closed, we ran back to our room on wheels and started the search for spot to sleep. But in the dark, bullied by wind, we gave up and parked on a residential street by the water.
Climbing into the back, we pulled the curtains and hoped no one would notice us. Fat chance. A few hours’ sleep and we’d be ready to roll. Provided we could sleep. The storm was raging. We could hear the ocean slamming on the shore just a few feet away. Would it come over the bank and wash us away? Trees. Power lines. We worried the howling wind would bring them down on us. With every gust, the van felt like it was going to roll over. We huddled in the back, laughing nervously. In the morning, we emerged as the locals walked their dogs down branch-littered sidewalks. We were post-apocalypse and ready for the final push.
The lot was just as we’d left it. A couple waited in plastic lounge chairs, eager to load their luggage and go. The look on their faces when we rolled in, our giant purple flowers bright in the afternoon sun…they’d booked budget too.
This trip, driving across the bottom corner of Australia, was just the start. We know we’ll be back. Three months, maybe six. Brisbane, Cairns, what’s left of the Great Barrier Reef. Uluru. We’ll drive. It might be the movement of moment, but VanLife has its perks. I was sceptical. I like heat. Showers. Bedrooms without a windshield. And yet, it was comfortable and after a few days, felt like home. Take it from me, the road…rules.