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Van Life – living and travelling South Africa in a mo...

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Van Life – the beauty of living and travelling South Africa in a mobile home

Sonja and Reinholdt Van Niekerk and their children. Image: Louis Botha Photography

As ‘Van Life’ has become more popular around the world over the past few years, some South Africans have swapped living in their brick-and-mortar homes to live on the road.

‘Besides seeing new places that we’ve never been to, for me, the biggest revelation has been the people. I mean, you always know that South Africans are quite friendly, but the actual experience has blown me away. People invited us to stay over for free, somebody offered us fuel and we went and filled up by them; one lady kept bringing us biscuits,” says Sonja van Niekerk. “And it was like that all over, not just in one place. It’s amazing how kind people are,” her husband, Reinholdt van Niekerk, adds.

Come August 2022, the couple and their four children between the ages of eight and three will have been living and travelling in their double-decker bus for two years. Both former teachers, they’d always loved travelling, and in 2019, after the birth of their twins, the youngest of their four children, Sonja began to worry that they wouldn’t be able to travel like they used to. After watching a programme featuring people who had converted a bus into a mobile home and used it to live and travel in, “I said to Reinholdt, we should try this, and he jokingly said that if I can find a bus then we can do it”. It didn’t take long for Sonja to do just that.

The Van Niekerk family’s yellow bus. Image: Louis Botha Photography
Interior of the Van Niekerk’s family bus. Image: Louis Botha Photography

She searched online and found an old double-decker bus for sale, and over the next 13 months they got to work fixing it up with the help of a mechanic. By August 2020, as lockdown restrictions eased, they’d closed up the preschool she owned, put their house up for rent, and hit the road in their new home. 

“Our first plan was simply to get out of Gauteng because we were worried that we’d have another lockdown. So we just went to Ventersdorp and from there we were planning on heading towards the coast. But that plan also changed due to circumstances. We quickly learnt to not make plans, especially not too far ahead,” says Sonja. 

“Things came up and we couldn’t go this way or we couldn’t find a place to stay. So then we’d find other places in other areas; people would offer for us to go and park on their farms. So we went with the flow,” Reinholdt adds. 

The childrens' play area on the bus. Van life.
The Van Niekerk childrens’ play area on the bus. Image: Louis Botha Photography
The kitchen area on the Van Niekerk bus. Van life
The kitchen area on the Van Niekerk bus. Image: Louis Botha Photography

Usually the family spends one to three months in one place before moving on. Sonja continues to teach online, and they both spend time home-schooling their kids while showing them parts of the country they might not have seen had they stayed put in Gauteng. For the time being, they have no plans to stop travelling, although they are considering downsizing to a smaller more manageable vehicle, and parking the double-decker somewhere and renting it out as accommodation through Airbnb.

Michael Monk and Acacia Denison, a young couple from East London, have been on the road for six months, travelling and working around the country, and they too have no plans to stop anytime soon. “We will be continuing for several years to come,” says Monk. He studied cinematography and video editing; Denison studied photography, and the pair now work on film projects and create content for their YouTube channel while on the road in “Yeti the van”, their refurbished Fiat Ducato. In addition to the YouTube channel, they also document their travels on their yeti.the.van Instagram account.

Acacia Denison and Michael Monk’s ‘Yeti the Van’. Image: Instagra/@yeti.the.van

“We got the van as a completely empty shell and we spent one full month working on the interior every single day. From seven in the morning until five in the evening. We installed our windows and did all the woodwork. And we had no prior building experience,” says Denison. Over the second month, Monk got working on the engine. Bar the plumbing and electrical wiring, the couple says they did about 95% of the refurbishment themselves over about two months. 

In March 2022, they also hosted the inaugural Van Life Festival in Chintsa on the Eastern Cape’s Wild Coast. Realising that their chosen lifestyle could make socialising and forming new bonds a challenge, they created the festival as an opportunity to bring together other people on the road. “Our initial concept was to organise a way to meet like-minded people who are also travelling in a van. Then it kind of became a whole festival with music and entertainment. I’d say that’s how we met five to 10 of our closest friends right now,” says Monk.

Relatively long-term van life, as well as the work and time it takes to refurbish a vehicle’s interior, might not be the right fit for everyone hoping to see the country while living on the road. Over the past two years, Sarah and Marek have been travelling locally and abroad, and doing a lot of backpacking. Shortly after returning to South Africa in February 2022, they decided to try travelling by van. 

“Van life; you see it everywhere these days and it’s become more and more popular. We were always thinking to ourselves, ‘would we enjoy it?’, and we thought let’s give it a try and see,” says Sarah. They decided to hire a van that had already been refurbished and embarked on a 10-day trip around the country, which they documented on their YouTube channel.  

Money, internet, safety, limited space: the practical side of van life

The Van Niekerks bought their double-decker bus for R35,000 and spent about another R100,000 over the following year fixing it up before they could call it home. Monk and Denison, on the other hand, bought their Fiat Ducato for R150,000 and spent an additional R30,000 to get it ready for the road. Comparatively, Sarah and Marek’s hired van was a touch more expensive. At the time of booking, it was £108 (R1,846 at current exchange rates) per day. However, it was fully fitted, with a few extras thrown in. 

Sarah and Marek take in the view at a campsite next to their hired van. Image: Instagram/ @sarahandmarek

“When we rented the van, we brought all our own bedding and cutlery and all of that stuff. But then when we got there, we realised that the van came with all of that already; it had everything, even towels and pillows. Of course, you can bring your own stuff, but if you don’t want to, at least all of that is provided,” says Sarah. 

In terms of monthly expenditure while on the road, that too differs depending on the travellers’ needs and choices. “I would definitely say it’s cheaper, much cheaper,” says Sonja, comparing their monthly diesel and campsite costs with what they might spend on rent or a bond. On average, they spend about R2,000 per month on campsites, because they pay a reduced long-stay fee. They also have a gas-powered geyser as well as solar panels on the bus, so they typically don’t plug into the campsites’ electricity, which saves money. Fuel costs about R2,000 per month. “It’s roughly a total of R4,000 a month, whereas a house would easily cost more than double that.”  

For Monk and Denison, they’ve found their monthly spend to be comparable to the cost of living in one place. “I’d say it’s pretty similar, but it also depends on how you travel. For instance, last month we were hopping around campsites – we’d stay three or four nights and then move on to another campsite for two nights. That becomes a bit pricey. Now we’ve decided to take a month off and do a lot of editing, so we got a month’s pass for a campsite which worked out a lot cheaper, like a third of the price. It really does depend on how you travel. For us, we basically take our rent money and put that towards campsites,” explains Monk. 

Internet connection on the road, however, requires a bit more planning, especially for Monk and Denison, whose work requires the transfer of large media files. “There are definitely connection issues, especially the way we travel. We tend to look for the most remote and most beautiful campsites. I’d say around 60% of the time you get to a website and there isn’t much signal, or there isn’t any. But more and more campsites now realise that it [is necessary], so they’ll have Wi-Fi at reception or the whole campsite will have Wi-Fi. We also try to work around it. If we have a big job coming up we’ll go to a more city-type campsite where there’s better signal, or we’ll download everything before we go into the mountains,” he adds. 

The Van Niekerks keep a router with a Vodacom SIM card on their bus, which keeps them mostly connected, and that “works pretty well. But having said that, Reinholdt often walks with a stick and a Wi-Fi modem on the stick to try to find the strongest signal. It is a bit tricky. I know of someone who travels and they always look beforehand where the best spots are to go and camp with the right connection. But we don’t really have that luxury because the bus is so big; if someone says we can park at their place, we go there and then we make do with the internet connection,” explains Sonja. 

As far as crime and safety is concerned, it hasn’t been an issue for the family of six over the past two years, bar one time when their bikes were almost stolen. “We found our bicycles in the tree, so they weren’t even stolen. They wanted to steal them, but they got caught somehow. And that was the biggest thing that’s happened. Besides that, the bus broke down in a really poor community, and a little girl told me, ‘auntie, you better move that trailer because someone’s gonna steal your bicycles’. But even then, the people just kept coming to visit us and checking on us. There were people with so much less than us who kept bringing us things like cool drinks. There were really no problems,” she adds.

Monk and Denison have not had any incidents either in their six months of travel around the country. “Safety is a general concern around the whole world, so you’ve just got to be aware. If we don’t feel safe at a campsite, we’ll generally spend one night and leave the following day,” says Monk. “And most campsites have 24-hour security,” Denison adds. 

When it comes to making do with the limited space, Sonja emphasises the importance of being relatively organised: “I think it’s very important to be able to be flexible. But the one thing I think that you should know how to do pretty well is to pack your stuff, because a tiny space means you need better organisation.” On the other hand, Monk points that limited space means less cleaning up: “We’re not the most organised people ourselves. But there’s always a way to make it work. Everything has its place and if the van gets messy, it takes a few minutes to clean up and it’s all good again. That’s one of the perks, that there isn’t a whole house to clean up.” 

While longer-term van-lifers like the Van Niekerks, Monk and Denison have adopted a more flexible outlook when planning their routes and destinations, for those doing shorter trips Sarah and Marek recommend tight planning. Says Marek: “Plan where you’re going to be staying every night. Make sure that you have a camping spot, or you have somewhere that you can park, because that’ll take a lot of stress out of every day. Make sure that if you need to get to the shops that you get there on time. We’ve been to places where everything was closed by the time we got there, so we couldn’t get water and other essentials. So pre-planning is key to a good experience.” 

To van or not to van

“Before we embarked on this journey, we did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people about living in a van. And we had a lot of people saying to us that it’s not possible. We’ve found it to be 100% possible, and it should be on many people’s bucket lists. We also try to do it as cheaply as possible. I’ve had many comments on my social media saying it’s a rich person’s lifestyle, or that it’s too expensive to travel like this, or people saying that I’m living off my parents’ money and all that stuff. But that’s not the case, and I feel like it is very much possible to do this in a budget-friendly way,” says Monk.

Reinholdt agrees: “Just bite the bullet. Take small steps. You can even start with a small van and convert it. I’ve seen people with converted VW Kombis and they’re happy with them.” 

“I also think a lot of people look at videos from overseas and they think that their build has to be as fancy as that. It’s your home, what does it matter? So, as far as you’re going to keep the costs low, see what you can find on YouTube. We did a lot of the things ourselves, including our composting toilet, and it saved us a lot of money,” Sonja adds. DM/ML

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  • Wife and I are doing the same and will be three years on the road coming 2 September. We are young pensioners and enjoy van life to the fullest. We also meet more and more people joining this lifestyle. Wonderful friendships are made and bad neighbours are temporarily.

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