Mitch and Cleo have been travelling around Australia since before it was cool. After 4 years on the road they have van life down to a fine art. We recently checked in to see how they were rolling and what they’ve learned since we last interviewed them in 2016.
Henry: What do you wish you knew before setting off on your adventure?
Mitch: I wish I knew how long it was gonna take, I probably would’ve invested in a bigger van from the start, haha! But in all seriousness, if you think you are gonna be in it for the long haul, don’t go half arse on the van — it’s gonna be your home after all.
What realities do people ignore about van life?
Everyone seems to have this weird perception that van life is the greatest thing in the world and that it’s going to change their life. Reality is that it isn’t for everyone, it’s really just glorified homelessness and the lack of a steady environment can get to people. It’s become almost a cliché now to say that it isn’t like the pretty pictures on Instagram but that’s the truth — 95% of the time it’s bloody ugly.
Why did you decide to leave in the first place?
There are a few different factors as to why we left, I guess the obvious being that we were both so over the constant routine of school followed immediately by uni. We wanted to get out and explore, and looking back I think the passing of my Nan (who was Australia’s biggest fan) was actually a massive part of why we choose to stick to our own country.
At the time, everyone was heading off on their overseas adventures — saying things like, ‘I’ll do Australia when I’m old ‘n’ grey’. But I started thinking that maybe that won’t be possible in the future. Who knows, the way fuel prices are going, travelling by road will probably be reserved for the wealthy.
What’s been your rough route and how long has it taken for you to complete?
It’s impossible to see all of Australia without doing a least a little bit of backtracking at some point, so our route is a little bit messy. It’s pretty much a big anti-clockwise loop starting in Sydney, up to Cairns, across to Darwin, down to Adelaide, Melbourne, Tassie and then back up to Sydney.
After building our second van in Sydney, we headed to the other side of Australia and did a similar route following the coast from Esperance to Broome, and then back to Darwin through the Kimberley. It all sounds very confusing, so hopefully my little map will help.
How has the van scene changed in the few years you’ve been on the road?
Believe it or not, there’s been a pretty noticeable change over the last few years, one that you can literally notice within a couple of hours of driving. During our first trip almost 4 years ago, the number of other Aussie ‘vanlifers’ (that wasn’t a thing either, haha) was pretty low — we met one other couple in 4 months. During our latest trip, it seems every second person we meet on the road is a young Aussie couple in a self-converted van.
It’s so awesome to see more young Australians getting out and exploring their own country and the quality of the van conversions these days is incredible. People are moving away from the half-arsed backpacker vans and actually putting a bit of effort into their homes on wheels.
What have been the highlights from each of the states?
Each state is completely unique and even within each state there’s a massive variety of landscapes, so I think it’s pretty much impossible for us to pinpoint our favourite spot in each state.
As a whole though, Western Australia seems to pretty much have it all — pristine beaches with pumping surf and towering gorge systems with hardly anyone else around. If we had to pick a state to settle down in, the wild west would be right at the top of the list.
We don’t really stick to a daily budget. Instead we just make a conscious effort to reduce our spending every day. The biggest expense by far is fuel and this really can’t be helped (I do drive extremely slowly to squeeze a few more km out of each tank).
Next biggest expense is food and we’ve got pretty good at spending as little as possible. We realised early on that meat is just too expensive for us, and also takes up precious fridge space. El Cheapo Homebrand is a given and many of our dishes revolve around pasta, rice and whatever veggies are on special. Camping is free 90% of the time which is by far our biggest money-saver.
What’s your staple dish on the road?
Cleo: We’ve actually improved a lot with our cooking on the road (van recipe book to come), and have started to mix it up every other night to keep it interesting. Our ‘go-to meal’ would probably be a good risotto or a simple linguine with mushrooms, carrots and a red sauce. Both of these are super cheap as we chuck in whatever veggies are on special — and rice and pasta are as cheap as chips.
How many kilometres did you do altogether?
We’ve done a fair bit of backtracking over the years, which has resulted in the total kilometres being over 100,000. Considering our top speed is 90km/h and I do all the driving, I think that’s a pretty good effort!
To build or not to build? You clearly built yours to your own dreamy specs. Would you recommend this or just buying one that’s hot to trot?
A couple of years ago, I would’ve been all for the build – but with the amount of quality, self-converted vans floating around the market these days, you’d be stupid to rule this option out. If you’ve got the time, building out a van will teach a massive variety of skills and you’ll end up with something you can (hopefully) be proud of.
Before I started the first build, I honestly didn’t know how to use a drill and I’d only used a soldering iron to draw genitals in school. Developing useful life skills is one of the best parts of building out a van — so for that reason alone I’d say go for it!
How do you fund van life?
Before we started the big trip we both had reasonably shitty part-time jobs and worked our asses off to save as much as we could. Those savings ran out pretty rapidly which meant we had to stop and spend a few months replenishing our supplies.
Out of the blue one day I had a tourism company contact me wanting to purchase a couple of images, I was super stoked and since then we’ve managed to rely purely on tourism and photography work to fund our travels. Most of the cashola comes from the creation of content — videos/stills/blog posts — for clients in all sorts of areas. We don’t by any means make a killing, but enough to put fuel in the tank and food on the fold-out table.
How did you keep your environmental footprint as small as possible?
That’s one thing we’re both super proud of! Pretty much every aspect of our everyday life has a massively reduced footprint to pre-vanlife. We rely purely on solar power — it charges everything from the cameras and drone to running the fridge and keeping the beers cool.
Then there’s water use. Having such a limited space means we generally carry a limited amount of water, which translates to washing up without soap and only a trickle of the ol’ H2O.
Flushing toilets are a rare luxury, with one flush using more water than our daily average – the classic Aussie drop toilet or the hole in the ground uses far less water. Showers are almost non-existent, and when we do decide to splash out and use some of our precious water for a shower, we rinse off, soap up and use as little waster as possible.
Plastic is another area we’ve worked really hard on as well. Our shopping goes straight from the trolley into the drawers in the van meaning no plastic bags are wasted.
Last but not least is our fuel use. Driving around Australia might seem to be a massive waste of fuel, but in reality we actually do a similar amount of kilometres to an average Aussie driving to and from work each day.
I stick to the whopping speed of 85km/h, and anyone who has driven with me can confirm my grandma-like driving technique, which is purely to lower our fuel use. All in all this lifestyle has dramatically reduced our carbon footprint, and it’s definitely one of the reasons why we continue to do what we do.
What was the worst place you went to, and why?
We’ve been to a couple of severely shitty places, but they always make for some of our favourite memories and the most classic campfire stories. If I had to pick though, free camping on the streets of Darwin — where the temperature didn’t drop below 35°c overnight, the air was thick with oversized mosquitos and the ocean off-limits thanks to the crocs — was a pretty unpleasant experience.
What did you take that you never ended up needing?
We’ve actually become surprisingly good at cutting down on anything that doesn’t get used over the years, and one of the first things that had to go was my fishing rod. I had this grand plan that I was going to make my way around Australia eating fresh fish and living off the land, but it turns out that I make a terrible fisherman and have absolutely zero patience — spearfishing is way more exciting.
What’s the one (or maybe top five) piece of equipment that every van should have whilst on the road?
There’s a few bits of gear that are crucial when travelling via road. First is a good set of tools (spanners, screwdriver, pliers and of course some duct tape). Even if you don’t know the first thing about mechanical repairs, there’s a good chance you’ll run into someone who does, and having your own tools will make you look like less of a tool.
Next is some recovery gear — namely some 4WD tracks, an air compressor and a snatch strap. At some point you WILL get stuck, no matter how good you think you are at driving, and having a decent set of recovery gear could literally save your life.
Last but certainly not least is a GPS locator beacon. We’ve travelled through extremely remote areas, where if the van failed us we would have no hope of contacting emergency services without a GPS beacon. Luckily this has never been used (touch wood) but its always better to be safe than sorry.
PS: Every single ‘vanlifer’ NEEDS to carry a shovel. If you aren’t up to digging a hole to bury human faeces, then don’t even consider living in a van. Too many beautiful spots around Australia are getting destroyed by inconsiderate travellers being too lazy to bury their shit, so please, make this one a priority!
How did you go about keeping clean (ie showering, laundry etc)?
Cleo: Keeping clean when living on the coast isn’t an issue — the ocean has always got your back and every single beach has an outdoor shower. It’s when you head inland that hygiene becomes a bit more of a mission. We’re both members of Anytime Fitness, and often hit them up for a hot shower and maybe even a cheeky workout. In remote areas, days between showers can seriously add up but we often use a bucket of creek water or a few baby wipes on the genitalia and face (hopefully not in that order.)
My long lost friend the washing machine — its been way too long. We try and clean smaller items of clothing as we use them on the road, and larger items/doona covers we save for the laundromat (we’ve only been once in the last 6 months but hey, we haven’t had any smell complaints from strangers yet!).
Most scenic bush poo?
I generally try to avoid scenic bush poos — simply because, you know, I don’t really like shitting all over pristine Australian wilderness. I guess I’d say that there was one particularly memorable experience somewhere along the endless cliffs of the Nullabor — let’s just say you wouldn’t wanna slip mid-poo.
How many days in a row in the same underwear?
You can’t get caught wearing dirty underwear if you aren’t wearing any right?! While on the coast, underwear is a luxury that I happily live without for weeks at a time, despite Cleo’s strong disagreement…
What next? #boatlife?
#boatlife was actually shaping up to be a pretty epic option, until a realised I had zero knowledge on the topic and several seasoned sailors recommended a minimum of 10 years behind the wheel before hitting the open ocean — to me that sounds like a massive commitment, haha! Instead I think we wanna eventually explore Asia and Europe via road. It’s just such a vast area and being able to hit up those areas off the tourist trail is one of the many reasons I love van life as a means of travel.
Any final piece of advice for would-be van lifers?
Van life isn’t some lame Instagram fad — my nan travelled Australia in a van 50 years ago and I’m pretty sure she didn’t worry about her Instagram analytics too much. If you want to get out there and experience this epic lifestyle, then just get out there and give it a go. Be original and follow your own path and if at the end of the day van life isn’t your thing, then at least you gave it a red-hot crack.