Our Vanlife Saga: How We Got Here

If you’re following us on Instagram, you’d know what we’re currently in the process of renovating a vintage caravan. It’s a massive project, in fact we currently have a shell of a caravan in our back yard, completely gutted, with half the cladding and all of the windows missing.

We’re planning to take all of next year to travel around Australia in our new home on wheels. Chasing the sun and warm weather for a whole year, and exploring all the most beautiful destinations, amazing experiences and top highlights that our diverse country has to offer.

But if we’re being completely honest, this is not actually our first attempt at vanlife. This is actually our second attempt (well, maybe second attempt but plan number 9,431) at reaching our vanlife dreams. So before we launch head first into sharing everything about our plans and van renovation with you, we wanted to share our journey and how we got to the place we’re at right now.

Vanlife attempt #1: The backpackers van

Our first attempt at buying a campervan can only be described as a huge failure.

Or maybe a learning opportunity, if you want to put a more positive spin on it.

We had just returned from our honeymoon, spending 5 weeks in Central and North America, and we had caught the road trip bug harder than ever. We wanted to explore more of our own backyard, get out for long weekends, last minute nights away, and road trips with no destination in mind.

The house across the road from ours at home always has a tradie van out the front. Seeing it sitting there every morning, right out the front of our house just made us want to get one even more. We’d been back in our normal routine for less than a month after our honeymoon when we found our first van.

It was a Mitsubishi Express. Already owned by a backpacker and converted at the back, it needed work but was pretty clean and and we were keen on a renovation project anyway. It was located in Palmers Island in Queensland, but it was only $400 so we threw caution to the wind and thought why not.

So in April 2017 we took a flight to Ballina Airport, where we rented a car to drive to Palmers Island and pick up our new van from the sugar cane farm where the French backpacker that currently owned the van had been living and working.

Everything looked good when we got there. It was actually cleaner than we expected, and since the guy was leaving to head back to France in a couple of weeks he just handed it over with everything still in it. He said he had never had any issues with the van, and had still been using it daily while he had been working on the farm.

We were so excited. This was the first step in our dreams of freedom and more weekends spent exploring!

So we paid for our van, completed some transfer papers, returned the rental car, and hit the road for the long drive back to Melbourne. It was a warm weekend and we were stoked to find out that the air-conditioner was working and the seats were extra comfy. It felt so good to be driving back home, chatting about our plans for the van and everywhere we could go.

driving our first van home
sophie in the van

Left: This is the only photo we took in the van before it broke down, can you tell we were excited for a minute! Right: In between the seats was a perfect sized seat for Sophie!

We hadn’t got very far, maybe about 3 hours into our 16 hour drive home when things started to go wrong. When we stopped for fuel Thom noticed that there might be a bit of a leak coming from somewhere, and all of a sudden it started to sound like the engine was struggling.

And then about 20 minutes after filling up, our new campervan broke down.

On the side of the Pacific Highway.

In about 30 degree heat.

It was definitely not ideal.

What ensued after that was just a nightmare. We had to sign up for road side assistance and then organise to get a tow back to somewhere where we wouldn’t be so stranded. It had been about 3 hours by the time the tow truck got to us, we were trying to stay optimistic, but we were hot and tired and stranded in between two very small beach towns in Northern New South Wales.

For the level of road side assist cover we had purchased, we were just meant to be towed back to the closest service station or garage – which would have been a service stop on the highway, and then we probably would have had to figure out another tow in the morning.

Luckily we got a lovely driver, who towed us back to the NRMA service garage in Nambucca Heads, where our van would end up living for the next 2 months or so. Turns out the timing belt had snapped and we needed a new one. It’s not even something the guy who sold it to us would have known about, it was literally just the worst timing ever.

the big banana coffs harbour

We also managed to stop at the Big Banana in Coffs Harbour for a chocolate and hundreds and thousands covered banana, only about an hour before we broke down!

We checked ourselves into a motel in Nambucca Heads for the night and tried to figure out how we were going to get home from such a small town with no transport, without it costing us an arm and a leg. The next day was Sunday and apparently nothing operates in small towns on Sundays, including buses and taxis. I mean, what?! Everything was just getting so frustrating.

In the end the only solution we could find was to catch a train from Nambucca Heads to Sydney, which took 8 and a half hours. Then we caught a taxi from Kings Cross Station to Britz Campervan Hire in Banksmeadow, another half hour or so in the car. Finally, we were able to pick up a last minute campervan relocation from Sydney to Melbourne and then we drove the last 8 hours back home.

Relocate A Campervan: See Australia For Just $1 A Day

Due to the long weekend (from memory I think all this went down around ANZAC Day) flights home had either been completely booked out from Coffs Harbour – the closest airport we could have gotten to from Nambucca Heads, or triple the price from Sydney. In the end, a $1 campervan relocation seemed like the only way to go, since we had already had to shell out for so many other costs.

By the time we got home we were completely deflated. So tired and over the whole journey, it felt like our dreams had been shattered before they had even taken off.

It took about 2 months, and a lot of additional money, to get our van fixed and back to us in Melbourne. We were too scarred from the first experience – even with the new timing belt and complete service, so we decided to get it shipped down on a truck to avoid another situation where we would be stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Once we got the van back it was around June or July, and all the dreams of fixing up and travelling in this van were dead. We just wanted to get rid of it. The number of issues it had had in the end was unbelievable. I was convinced that it was haunted by a ghost. For no other reason, that it felt like something just spontaneous broke whenever we looked at it.

So we sold our first campervan. Since we had addressed all it’s issues, given it a new timing belt, and fixed some other niggly things, we were able to sell it for a little bit more than we bought it for and re-coup some of our fixing costs.

welcome to alice springs sign

The second big idea

Even though our first attempt at vanlife had been a huge mess and a massive drama, there was something about it that was still calling to us. So we used the money that we sold the van with to book flights to the Red Centre and this time chose to rent a campervan to drive from Alice Springs to Uluru and explore the Aussie Outback.

I can’t tell you what it was, I’m still not even sure myself. But from the minute we arrived in Alice Springs, all our passion for vanlife came back stronger than ever. We were still longing to experience the freedom, to chase the sun all year long, and to explore as much of Australia as we possibly could.

Neither of us had been to Uluru or Alice Springs before, and experiencing it together for the first time was such a special experience. There really is just something so incredible and beautifully enticing about visiting Uluru, such a scared and unique place in Australia’s vast desert.

So for the second time, we started really planning our van life. This time we put a lot more effort into it, thinking about all the specifics that we would need to consider if we wanted to do this full time for a little bit, and everything we would need to make happen before we would be able to go.

For the 5 days that we were driving around the Red Centre we really nutted out our plan, and by the time we landed back in Melbourne we were 100% committed to a new van life adventure, and spending the whole of 2020 on the road, exploring Australia.

We decided that we would rent out our house and put all of the belongings we wanted to keep in storage for the year. And then we figured out our budget. We figured out how much we wanted to save, how much we would spend on the year off, how much extra money we would need for things like insurances, bills, unexpected emergencies and the extra mortgage repayments we would need to account for.

Visiting The Outback - Things To Do In Alice Springs

For the rest of 2017 and all of 2018 we saved.

And saved.

And saved.

We focused on our end goal and cut back on things like nights out, going to the movies, dinners at restaurants for no reason, online shopping and too many random weekends away. We still had a few trips planned for the year, that had been booked in before we started planning for 2020, so we made sure to work them into our budget as well, so we wouldn’t be too disappointed if we couldn’t save our full targets on weeks where we travelled.

As we planned and saved and looked at countless pages of vanlife inspo, we decided that instead of buying a brand new caravan, we wanted to buy a cute vintage caravan and give it a complete overhaul, to also be a tough off-roader. Despite our first failed attempt, we still loved the idea of renovating a vintage van and making it our own little beach home on wheels.

our new caravan

Vanlife attempt #2: The Vintage Viscount

So at the end of 2018 we started looking for caravans.

After a few months of looking we found one in Lara, only about 35 minutes from our home, which was being sold by a really lovely couple and it was just what we had imagined. A vintage Viscount Royal, dual axle as per Thom’s request, around 19 feet in length and the shape that I was looking for. It looked like our second home!

The inside was immaculate and had been kept so clean, we actually felt bad that we were planning to rip it out. But as we checked it out the first time we told the couple what we were planning and they were so excited and supportive of our idea that we couldn’t get the van off our minds. We bought it two days later.

After we bought our van we kept it in storage for a couple of months and started making plans – what we were going to do to it, how we were going to fit it out and what would be the best order for the renovations so that we could fit everything in that we needed to do. It would need to be sent away a few times for different things, so we had to factor all that into our planning too as best as we could.

caravan selfies

What to do when your chassis builder goes into receivership

The first thing we planned to do to our van was fit it out with a new chassis. We wanted to make our vintage van fully equipped for off-roading and the harsh conditions Australia might throw at it. When we tell people about this now they look at us with wide eyes and say “oh so you’re doing an extreme make-over”. It always makes us laugh. Yep, we sure are!

But if we thought we were going to have an easier time with this van after the disasters of our first, we were so wrong.

Our first major issue (well, it felt more like a full blown disaster at the time) came with our first attempt at giving our new home a new chassis.

We had been chatting to a company on Facebook called Roo Chassis who seemed very reputable at the time, with big caravan company clients and who seemed very excited by our vision for the van and what we were trying to create. Here’s a quick break down of what went down –

After originally agreeing that we would bring our van in to start work in the middle of January 2019, they requested we drop off the van mid-December so that they could finish the chassis and work by the end of Jan, as they would be busy with caravan shows in February. So we dropped off our van around the middle of December. On the 18th of December they requested a 50% deposit for the work so that they could buy a suspension kit and get started. Despite our hesitation, money was transferred to them on the 18th.

On the 21st of December Roo Chassis went into receivership.

We didn’t know, how do you even find out about these things? We were travelling over New Years and the first few weeks of January, so when we got back to Melbourne we tried to get in contact to find out how things were going with the chassis build. We had agreed that we would be picking up the van before Australia Day.

No answer. For two weeks. 

Finally, they called us back on the 22nd of January. They told us that they were in receivership but that their company had been bought out by a bigger company that was one of their old clients and that they would be back at work next week. Our caravan was the first priority when they got back apparently and they would be starting work on it immediately.

I’m not going to lie, it was a bit of a dark day. As someone with anxiety it literally broke me. All I could think was that we had lost our money, and more importantly how on Earth were we going to get our van back? We already loved it so much, it was going to be our home! My body literally vibrated in anger for more than a week as we tried to navigate what was happening and get some answers.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about what happened over the next two months, because in all honesty it was incredibly stressful and miserable. Full of anxiety about whether we would even get our van back and lie after lie from the owners of the company. It was so difficult to know what to believe, with incredibly different stories coming from the owners of Roo Chassis and the Receiver that was looking after dissolving the business.

At the end of the day we felt that we had no other option but to wait and see what happened with them. We could have picked up our van and walked away from the whole mess, but we had already paid them five thousand dollars and there was no way we were getting a cent of that back. It was just going to kill our budget if we had to pay that out to a new company and start again.

new chassis for our caravan

A quick glimpse of our new chassis. Everything was reinforced and then a new chassis was built straight to the bottom of our van.

Roo Chassis was bought out by another company and eventually, after about 6 weeks of being told stories and lies by the old owners of the company, work re-started on our van. The old owners were now working for the new company, so we had to continue to deal with them throughout the project.

Despite being promised repeatedly that the work would only take 4-5 days, it was still another 6 weeks before we had our van back in our own backyard. Yep, from mid-December until the beginning of April, we were literally just hoping that everything would be okay, hoping that our van was still going to be there when we went back to get it.

It was really starting to feel like we just had the worst luck with vans.

Things finally started to improve a little bit when we started talking to the new owners of the company instead. They made things happen. They ensured that our van was done and that everything had been done correctly. And sometime around the start of April we were able to go and pick up our van and finally bring it home.

After all the stress and anxiety of the first quarter of the year, at least we got the work done that we had wanted. We are just so lucky that we didn’t lose any money or our van! We know there are a lot of other people who were completely burned by this business folding. We were reluctant to even share the name of the original company in this post, but after such an incredibly negative experience we just had to.

While we are happy with the work that was eventually done on our van we won’t be promoting the new company either. The owners of the old company are still the main contacts for customers getting work done through their business, and we wouldn’t want anyone to go through even half of the stress that we did.

At the end of the day these guys were con-artists. They got us caught up in something that we easily could have been left out of. The last thing we were waiting for them to send us finally arrived today (after weeks of asking and hassling), so we are so happy to finally put this mess behind us and focus on moving forward with our van build.

caravan renovation

So finally, after that whole long saga, our van is finally home in our yard. We promptly began our own renovations and our van is just a skeleton in the yard now! Check out that picture above, that was just last weekend.

And you can bet that we won’t be letting our van have work done anywhere but our yard these days. No way we’re leaving it with another company again if we don’t have to, we’ve learnt that lesson!

We’re working on it as much as we can, whenever we have a spare minute and it’s slowly getting there! We’ll be sharing all the progress on our van as we start to get into it too, there’s a huge vanlife community in Australia and we can’t wait to be more apart of it.

If you’re still reading, I’m super impressed and thank you! This might have been the longest story in the world, but looking back on it I can’t believe that we actually got here and we’re still going. There have been so many hurdles so far, we’re hoping that things will be a bit more smooth sailing as we get more into the reno.

To follow along with all the updates in real time make sure you’re following us on Instagram – we’re sharing as much of our van make-over as we can on our stories.

And if there’s anything at all you want to know about our renovations or plans to lap Australia leave us a comment or send us an email! We want to share as much as we can about this crazy experience.

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Emma is a travel writer, photographer and blogger, chasing the sun around Australia. Travelling in her recently renovated vintage Viscount caravan, along with her husband Thom and daughter Macey, she's sharing the very best experiences from around her beloved sunburnt country.

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  • Lauren January 3, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    Hi Guys,
    You’ve done an amazing job and I look forward to seeing your travels. Can I ask how much the new chassis was altogether? We are looking at adding one to our van. Thanks, Lauren

    • Emma Shaw January 4, 2020 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks so much Lauren! The new chassis cost us just over $11,000. But we’ve only been on the road for a week and we’ve already found it more than helpful in quite a few different spots 🙂

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