How To: Live In A Van For 32 Days With 2 Strangers

I genuinely believe this – had I not agreed to a van trip along Australia’s East Coast with 2 guys I didn’t know, I’d still be living in Perth. My high school friend, Gary, sent me a message that went something like this – ‘my friend, Rob, is living in Melbourne, doing what you are doing. Not sure how far that is from you, but you guys would be boys.’ Melbourne to Perth is about the same as Philly to LA. I hadn’t any plans to travel over to the East Coast. It felt far and far felt expensive. Only out of curiosity, I sent Rob a message. I was interested to see how his experience in Melbourne was similar or different to mine in Perth. After some back and forth, Rob mentioned that he was planning a van trip with his friend, Joe, who quit his job at General Electric to fly over for the trip. They had been trying to find a third passenger to help divvy up the rental and other expenses along the way. It’s still hard for me to say what compelled me to pick up and leave my adored life in Perth, but I said sure, I’m in. I flew to Melbourne on October 22nd to meet Rob and Joe. We picked up the van on the 23rd. Gary was right – we quickly became boys. Good thing because ‘tight quarters’ would not justly describe our new home.

We had 32 days to get from Melbourne to Cairns, roughly 3000 miles. That was the only certainty. Everything in between was a possibility. Though crammed in a van, it was the ultimate freedom. We stopped at places that sounded cool, and we stayed until we were ready to go. We had a few ‘must see’ stops, but for everything else, we would find it or it would find us. We stumbled upon magic: beaches, lakes, caves, and waterfalls that wouldn’t come up in a “best places to see in Australia” Google search. If I have any advice for someone getting ready for a van trip, it’d be simple: don’t make an itinerary, just drive, bopp around, see what you see, but do consider the following:

Take in more strangers:

welcome anyoneIn Byron Bay, we became friends with Eli and Julia, who had been hitchhiking their way to Coolum, a town north of Brisbane. We were headed the same direction, so we offered them to join us in the van. We thought it was tight before, but this four-day stretch helped us appreciate how much space the 3 of us use to have. I wouldn’t change a thing – they were great companions. It just meant we were able to utilize the tents finally. As it turned out, Eli lived for a year in Coolum only a few years prior . He introduced us to his friends from that year. One of those friends was a local surf legend named Jay. Jay offered to let us crash at his house, sensing us eager to get out of the van for a night. Coolum’s a small, everyone-knows-everyone surf town. As such, it was one of the few times that we were the only van in a town of locals. Coolum would fall into that category of a place that wouldn’t come up in a “you gotta go there” search – a town we would have driven right past. We stayed in Coolum for four days.

Don’t take showers:wtrfllshwr

I can recall just three proper showers, and two of those were at Jay’s house. One of the first conversations I had with Rob and Joe was a debate on whether we should drive along the coast or go “up the middle.” The middle of Australia is where they shot the original Mad Max movies. It’s empty. Joe’s a huge Mad Max fan, but Rob and I pushed for the coast. The winning argument was the coasts’ many shower substitutes. When we slept in beach parking lots, we could wake up and rinse off the sleep stench in the ocean. Or when we drove inland for a hike, we could usually find a viable, high pressure shower replacement in the form of a waterfall (see Joe). I’d guess, over the 32 days, we were able to jump in some body of water 25 of those.

Arrive late, leave early:

dR=ARJSecond to gas, parking fees presented our largest expense. Whether it street parking, a beach parking lot, or a campground, finding free parking to fit the van was nearly impossible. Our tactic was to arrive at a sleeping spot as late as possible, then get up and leave as early as possible. Rob mastered the early morning slip out. I’m an easy sleeper, so I often woke up in a moving van, piloted by Rob. This gave us a better chance of dodging parking enforcement or park rangers, and therefore, a better chance of dodging fees. Shhhh…

Embrace the filth, eat bagged chicken:

bagochickenWe had a sink, a mini fridge, and a stove top, but if you put three guys with all their belongings and confine them to the back of a van and then they cook – that’s a mess. The thing about the van is, no matter how hard we tried to keep it clean, it was always a mess. If you even just searched through your bag to find a t-shirt, the aftermath resembled what I imagine gale force winds through my local Old Navy might look like. In short, there’s no where to put anything! When there’s nowhere to put anything, you lose everything. Funny how that works. For the t-shirt thing, easy fix – I just wore the same t-shirt. But cleaning pots, pans, cutting boards, and dishes got old fast. So we mainly lived off bagged rotisserie chicken (pictured) and rice cakes with peanut butter. Protein, carbs, and fats, what more you do you need? Beaches did sometimes have grills and campgrounds barbecue pits, so when we craved a more sufficient feed, we sought out one of those.

Don’t Park In A Dirt Pit At The Cliff Of A Mountain: 

At the top of the Blue Mountains, we parked as close as we could get to the lookout point. We blumtndidn’t want the optimal view, we needed it! We set off on a hike, which down and up took about 4 hours. Aboard the van, we threw ‘er in reverse to head out. The dreadful sound of the engine revving but tires spinning in place silenced us. Greedy for optimal views, we parked in what I’ll call, quicksand. We dug, placing rocks, sticks, and the three wooden planks that formed our bed to try to create a firm surface to push the van out. It got dark and we got hungry, so we decided to make that tomorrow’s problem. We were starting a fire when a flashlight beamed on us. We thought it might be park rangers coming to collect. It was two German guys, Yannick and Luca, wondering if the area was a permitted camping spot. We hadn’t intended to stay, so we could only tell them that we hoped so. They parked their SUV and joined us around the fire. For hours, we talked and listened to music – they’d play a German artist and then we an American artist. We told them about our van troubles. They had rope and would pull us out in the morning. That was excellent news. In the morning, we tied the rope, ready to be freed, but with Yannick’s first step on the gas, the rope snapped. So, it was back to digging. The Germans helped. We were at it for hours with nothing to show for it. Then, a bus pulled up. We walked over to explain our problem and ask for help. It was a group of aboriginals, seemingly on a school trip. The driver shouted for the kids to follow him.  Clearly seasoned in moving large automobiles, the driver orchestrated the whole thing, telling kids where to go and when to push. They got us right out. We thanked them and our new German friends, and returned to the road.

Invest In Musical Entertainment:

get a guitarRob and Joe are both musicians. One of the first things we did when we took off was stop at a pawnshop to pick up a guitar. It was our main source of entertainment. They taught me three chords: E, A, and C. When I wasn’t strumming those, Joe was linking his repertoire of chords together. There were many nights that we sat around a fire or on a beach while Joe serenaded a crowd. My favorite memory, maybe ever, took place in Cairns. Home to The Great Barrier Reef and The Daintree Rainforest, Cairns is in the far north end of Queensland. The farther north you travel, the greater threat of crocodiles and sharks. So most cities up north have manmade swimming alternatives right in the heart of town. In Cairns, we parked and walked to find a spot to hang out in the Esplanade.  Joe carried the guitar, playing “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. Rob and I sang. We strolled around, belting “If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal…” Some chimed in and sung along, others clapped to the beat, signaling us to keep it going. We hit repeat three, maybe four times. It was pure ecstasy – the drug to replicate such a feeling has not yet been synthesized.

When we dropped off the van in Cairns, part of me still wanted to go back to Perth. I know I could have gone back and gotten into a really good groove there. I had my friends who I told I was coming back and my job at a cafe who I told I was coming back. During my five months in Perth, I constantly heard about the summers – hot beach days, weekend camping trips, boating and wakeboarding. That was all getting ready to start, and I could go back to it. And who knows when I’d be able to get back for an Australian summer. But when we dropped off the van, I felt a sense of fulfillment that I’d never before experienced. I was completely satisfied with all I had seen and experienced in Australia. I was ready to return home.