Last year we were a pretty typical family living in the inner west in Sydney. Mum, Dad three kids - all with hectic and over scheduled lives, and (for mum and dad at least) stressful jobs and up to our eyeballs in mortgage. And then we decided to quit our jobs, sell our house and travel around Australia in a camper trailer. How has our life changed? You mean apart from going from having a house, being gainfully employed, and generally smelling quite delightful - to being homeless, unemployed, often unshowered transients? Our lives have transformed absolutely and completely. It would be easier to list what has stayed the same (Wine. Wine is a constant) but here are a few of the big differences. Differences that will hopefully carry over into our “real lives” when this adventure comes to an end.
Doing things rather than having things - ditching the stuff and keeping it simple
We have gone from a four bedroom house in Sydney to all five of us living in a space that is only a little bit bigger than our old king sized bed. The 3 kids (9,8 and 5) sleep on air mattresses on the hard floor/lid of the trailer, and we sleep a level above them. There is a drawer under our bed, about half the size of the mattress - where we keep all our clothes, for the five of us, for a year. There is a storage space in the body of the trailer that holds a fold up table and bench, our camp chairs, a small bag of toys, some sports and fishing gear - and a few other, small, essential odds and ends. Our kitchen and fridge pulls out of the side of trailer, and when we put out our awning with the enclosed annex, it turns our camper trailer into two “rooms” - the whole thing still far smaller than the master bedroom in our old house.
That’s it - that’s our home (on wheels) and that’s all the stuff we have these days. Looking back to our city life, I remember the pressure of working to buy the stuff, and paying the mortgage for the house to keep all the stuff in (or renovating to make the house bigger to fit in even more stuff). But all the clothes, and shoes, and toys, and gadgets..and stuff wasn’t making us happy, and working so hard to have more money to buy more stuff definitely wasn’t. And so we ditched, sold, and stored our stuff - and now we get by with whatever we can tow behind us. Our life on the road is about doing things - amazing things - rather than having things.
Our life is so much simpler these days. Not only in terms of less stuff but also fewer expenses and less stress. Life on the road is not cheap - diesel, campsites, caravan parks, car repairs, three kids' appetites, and two adults' wine habits - all add up. But it is a hell of lot less expensive than living in the city paying off a massive mortgage. And we can pretty much feed the whole family for a week on what we used to spend on flat whites and takeaway.
The things we enjoy the most - swimming, bushwalking, exploring, cooking (by which I mean eating), hanging out together, meeting travelling families, sitting around the campfire - don’t cost much at all (Wine costs a bit - bit we’ll cop that). And now we know that we can get by just fine with consuming less, and spending less - we figure we will probably be able to work less and have more time to enjoy doing things that are way more fun than work. I certainly hope this is a change that we will carry into our new lives when we finish our travels.
Escaping the city and experiencing the diversity of this amazing country
Sydney is a pretty special city - and quite easy on the eye. Within an hour (or three depending on glorious Sydney traffic), you can go to the beach, bush walk in the mountains, visit national parks, museums, art galleries. You can buy whatever you want, drink whatever you want, eat whatever you want, download and watch whatever you want - and generally spend as long in the shower as you want. You can do it all without getting too hot in summer or too cold in winter. Sydneysiders could be forgiven for rarely venturing out. But east coast city life - comfortable, picturesque and traffic jammed as it is - is only one aspect of this incredible country. In our time on the road we have seen the outback at its most harsh, seen the deserts and the wetlands, climbed mountains and hiked down canyons, been in rainforests, wild beaches, hot springs and waterfalls - red dirt, white sand, turquoise water. We have shivered in sub zero desert frosts, and sweltered in 45+ heat. We have been lucky enough to get a glimpse into cultures that go back tens of thousands of years, and sadly, seen first hand the impact and hardships that the imposition, for only 200 years or so, of a modern, western culture has had on this.
Living in a city, surrounded by every modern convenience, first world privileges, and abundant local produce - it is easy to forget (or not even know in the first place) that large parts of this very large country have no power, no internet, no water and consist of earth in which nothing can grow. Some outback “towns” get 150mm of rain a year if they’re lucky (Sydney got about a quarter of their annual rainfall in just one hour recently), have no medical services, other than the flying doctors, and have a 700km round trip to “run to the shops”. There is no such thing as instant gratification out here.
We have sold our house and quit our jobs in Sydney. We don’t have a “back home” to go back to. But - with the luxury of time to explore, and a whole country to get around, we do get to try on for size different places to live, and different ways of living. We lived, worked, and the kids went to school at Uluru for a few months, we had a cruisy month or so in Broome, and roughed it for a few weeks in the NSW/Victorian highlands. In between these stints we have experienced outback life (and outback pub life), beach life, mountain life, desert life, farm life (and winery life - that’s a type of farm right?) dry season life, wet-ish season life, south, north, east, west and central Australia life, life in smaller cities, small towns, rural towns, mining towns, coastal towns, remote outback towns, and have had glimpses into Aboriginal community life.
We are “only” eight months in to our life on the road and there is still a lot of this country yet to explore and try out. We haven’t decided where we will end up - but getting out of our city life comfort zone has opened up a lot of options. And we are having a lot of fun, and learning a lot (including not taking urban conveniences for granted), trying to figure out what comes next.
Real life education
While we are on the road, our kids are doing school by distance education. We couldn’t do home schooling because we don’t have a “home” to base ourselves in. Which has turned out to be very lucky, because the distance education school sends me all the material and I don’t have to come up with a program myself. Which is good because I am a terrible (and terribly impatient) teacher, and the kids very rarely respect my authori-tah. Anyway, we are ticking (with many heated moments along the way), the “formal” education box.
But the informal education the kids are getting, once I release them from the tortures of reading and maths, is far more important. The experiences from their life on the road are setting them up for the real world in a far more meaningful way than practising timetables or spelling ever will. These kids have seen how electricity is generated through the Snowy Hydro Electric Scheme. They have seen how iron ore is dug out of the Pilbara, put onto trains kilometres long, loaded onto ships in Port Hedland and shipped to China (where it will no doubt be mass produced into stuff that will then be imported back into Australia and sold in Port Hedland Kmart). They have sat down with artists in Arnhem Land and spoken about creation stories. They have walked through Kakadu with saltwater crocodiles circling in the waters below, and know how to look out for snakes - and what to do if they were bitten (thankfully that hasn’t happened). They (even the 5 year old) can race through class 5 (that means they’re hard), 10 km bush walks, while I huff and puff behind. They live their whole lives outdoors and so they are very conscious of their environment and can see the effect that pollution, littering and landfill has.
They are learning to fish, cook, do laundry, set up camp and make campfires. They know how much we have to spend each week, what we spend it on - and we talk about why we can or can’t afford something. They have far more responsibility and latitude to roam free, and we do far less helicopter parenting than they, and we did in the city. They make friends with anyone who walks past our camp, whether they are boys or girls, 3, 15 or 60. They have (by necessity - because: mean parents and limited internet) weaned themselves off their iPad addictions. The screen time withdrawals are almost gone, they have stopped whinging “I’m boooored” - they now invent games, make friends, use their imagination, explore a lot more on their own, and (I hate to jinx this by writing it down) - actually get along with each other (sometimes). Simple boredom, lots of space and fresh air seems to be a winning combo.
Don’t get me wrong - they fight, and shout, and get on our nerves all the time. They are kids after all. But life on the road has made them into pretty tough, tolerant, and open minded kids. They may or may not be the brightest kids in the classroom when we settle down (really though, things can only improve with me not being their teacher), but we figure with the social, practical, common sense, creative and general life skills they have picked up, that they’re going to do ok outside the classroom.
Jac Riley-Smith - www.hittheroadjac.com.au