A Glasgow couple who gave up their old lives to travel the world in a motorhome shared the ups and downs of life on the road.
Gary MacDonald and Rachel Digney have traveled across Australia, Southeast Asia, and Canada, juggling jobs and driving several hours a day while living on a shoestring to get the most out of their adventure of backpack.
Needless to say, it wasn’t all easy: They’ve already gone 20 days without a proper shower, got trapped in their van during covid, and nearly stranded in the scorching, uninhabited deserts of Australia.
The modern ‘van living’ movement has grown in popularity in recent years: people of all ages and from all walks of life around the world are choosing to move into their vans or motorhomes and adopt a style. minimalist life.
Unfortunately, many van dwellers say they have few alternatives, due to the rising cost of housing. Meanwhile, the growth of remote working during lockdown has made life on the road more appealing to aspiring nomads.
It’s also popular with backpackers as a way to travel on a budget – and Gary and Rachel say it’s made them happier than they’ve ever been.
“The highlight was having absolute freedom. We drive, go where we want, and save so much money on rent. But it’s definitely not for everyone, ”Gary said.
The 30-year-old from Pollok quit his job as a personal trainer to travel to Australia in October 2017. Rachel, 31, who he had been dating for just a few months, made the quick decision to join him for just five weeks. before leaving. Dated. Since then, the couple has barely left.
“We always wanted to travel, but we never got the chance – so we decided to do it,” Gary said. Three nights.”
While working on a potato farm in Mount Gambia, they started discussing their next move. After a friend’s advice, they bought the Holden Commodore station wagon for $ 2,000, stuck an inflatable mattress in the back, and set off to see more of the country.
They spent eight months living in the big car, taking turns driving for several hours a day. They fought off flies and mosquitoes by cooking simple inexpensive noodle and chicken meals on their portable camping stove. They avoided night outings, instead drinking five-liter cans of wine for $ 5 and saving all their money to hike in the mountains, skydive, scuba dive, and trek in the rainforests, spotting wild crocodiles and kangaroos.
Another obstacle was finding showers, toilets and places to fill their water. Along the way, they stopped at gas stations and recreation centers.
Rachel said: “We once went three weeks without a proper shower – we had to use water tanks that caught rainwater and a little bit of soap and baby wipes. It was difficult.”
With nights falling early in Australia, they would settle in around 5 p.m., inflate their inflatable mattresses, and look at a box on their laptops. They moved their mass of personal belongings to the front seat each evening and brought them back in the morning when it was time to drive.
Living in a car took some getting used to: the scorching heat and humidity, the constant fear of the car breaking down and sharing close quarters with your other half 24/7 can do havoc. And the couple are keen to share the realities of van life that you don’t see on Instagram.
“It’s tough sometimes – and there were tears,” Gary said.
“The lowest point was that a lot of things can go wrong when living in a car. You have to take care of it as you would your house. You have to get it seen and repaired as soon as possible.
“The stress of hearing a noise under the hood. You can cope with no shower, much easier as far as you would in the outback.
“We broke down, we punctured a few tires, got stuck in the outback a few times while we were driving.
“At one point we were driving eight hours and hadn’t seen anyone else. It’s just red sand on either side, in the middle of nowhere. We always had a spare tire, we were always well prepared for such situations. “
In 2018, they decided to sell their car and travel to Southeast Asia for a few months before returning home for a year to attend their friends’ weddings, but they were still thinking about their next adventure. They both worked nights at Sainsbury’s to save money for a two-year-of-a-lifetime trip to Canada.
Fifteen days after landing in Toronto in September 2019, they bought a used motorhome for $ 4,000. This time they researched solar energy and equipped the van with internet, a small kitchen, and decorated the walls.
“It’s so much better than living in the car, it’s like luxury for us. A real house! Rachel said.
Gary added: “I’ve never been a big handyman so it was like a success to install a complete electrical installation. You learn so much on the move in this way of life. And that’s what’s great about it. . “
Sadly, when covid hit, they had to put their travel plans on the back burner and faced an even more difficult time in their van in Vancouver during the lockdown.
Gyms closed for several months, meaning they couldn’t use showers, and they had to stand in line for half an hour to use the restroom at the supermarket.
Due to the strict rules, they spent hours curled up in the van and unable to get out to stretch their legs: “It was tough, mentally and physically,” Rachel said. “There were times when we wanted to give up.”
Gary even contracted the covid himself, and authorities put them in a quarantine hotel for four weeks – though running water was a welcome change.
The couple explain that there has been growing stigma around travelers, especially during the pandemic – and they say there have been “horror stories”.
A friend of theirs, a native Canadian who chose to live in a van for financial reasons, recently had his windows smashed and graffiti painted on the doors.
“People may think of you as dirty or homeless, and they may look you a little through the nose. Sometimes they think because you are traveling that you are spreading the covid. But when you get to know us, we’re respectful, ”Gary said.
“We are actually clean and tidy as a community. You see other lifers going out and picking up trash in the parking lot. We are not homeless, we are just homeless! “
He added: “The people were mostly friendly and welcoming. We have an “adoptive mom” who watches over us and sometimes cooks us dinner. She’s lovely. “
Things started to improve when they landed a job at a ski resort during the winter season last year, although they chose to live in the van in freezing temperatures rather than living in the freezing temperatures. pay $ 750 for accommodation; a good deal when you are at minimum wage.
Even during the more stringent phases of confinement, thrill seekers have always enjoyed trail rides, forest hikes, and whitewater rafting.
“Vancouver is the only place in the spring where you can ski in the morning and hit the beach in the evening,” Gary said.
“As long as you wear a mask, stay away from others, and don’t hang out in groups, you can do a lot of things safely.”
They also made “lifelong friends” with fellow travelers working in the ski resort in Australia and Ireland and made connections with others in the van life community.
Rachel explained, “Our friends who used to travel know what it is and tell us that the door is always open in their apartment for showers or laundry. We feel bad about enjoying it too often – at the end of the day, we chose the lily. Nobody chose him for us.
With three months remaining on their visa, they are focused on obtaining permanent residency so that they can continue to live on the road and travel to see the beautiful landscapes of Canada’s east coast.
If their application is denied, they plan to convert a public transport van and travel across Scotland instead.
“We still love the transient lifestyle and we haven’t gotten rid of the travel bug yet,” Gary said. “We’ve been doing this for two years, so we know what to expect – and you’re saving so much money.
“In the worst case, we’ll have a vacation home on wheels if we decide to have a more sedentary life. “
Gary and Rachel say that swapping a roof for wheels was “the experience of a lifetime” and completely changed their mindsets. They insist on throwing everything to the wind, quitting their 9-5 and going into the great unknown is the best thing they’ve ever done.
Gary admits he was too busy impressing his friends and fitting into his old life in Glasgow.
“Before, I didn’t do what made me happy and I cared too much about what other people thought. My mind is clearer since I left all of my “stuff” behind. I’m more open-minded and realize I didn’t need it.
“These materialistic things don’t satisfy you. Even a toilet and a shower is a privilege in this world that you are starting to enjoy. It’s telling.”
He added with a laugh: “I miss my X-Box sometimes though!”
Rachel said: “We have everything we need here in the van. If you like to straighten your hair and wear makeup every day, this probably isn’t for you. But it keeps you young and there’s that constant sense of adventure. You can go wherever you want. “
If you’re in the mood to try out the van life after a long year of lockdown, brace yourself: it’s not the bohemian, glitzy lifestyle you might see glamorized on social media.
Gary said, “It comes with his problems. My advice is to go there with the expectation that everything will go wrong and you will never be disappointed. Like waking up without electricity or having exhaust fan leaks. Then when you have a good day, it’s fantastic! “
Rachel added, “It opened up so many opportunities to us. You are told to live a certain way, but you can take a step back from the usual ‘buy a house, get married, have children’ configuration – there is more to life than society does. said to do.
“We live smaller and are much happier for it.”