Search #vanlife on Instagram and a gallery of wanderlust-triggering images presents itself: renovated vans parked against backdrops of beaches, mountains and forests. When photographed from the inside, these vehicles often feature fairy lights, wood panelling and gauzy scarves pinned to the ceiling.
Not just a means of transportation, they are homes to an increasing number of young people who are choosing travel over routine. Vanlife is not a moment, it’s a hippie-inspired movement (with the 21st century addition of social media).
“I think it’s always been an idea of mine since I was really young and in school,” Hazel says. “Just having the freedom to wake up somewhere new every day.”
But it wasn’t travel alone that encouraged Hazel to turn her dream into reality. Even working a full-time job, she found herself unable to afford rent, and the prospect of a mobile home that didn’t cost a fortune was “a massive motivator”.
She purchased her van – a 2006 Ford Transit previously used as an Australia Post vehicle – nearly three years ago, christened it “Wax the Wonderbus”, and set about making it habitable. This involved adding insulation, replacing panelling and building a bed base that incorporated storage space.
“I do markets when I’m travelling in the van, so I had to fit in all my tables, my marquee, all my jewellery equipment,” Hazel says. “Ultimately I had to sacrifice a lot of things I had wanted that looked pretty so that I could have a functional design.”
In April, The New Yorker reported on van lifers with a strong social media presence turning their lifestyle into a living, largely as a result of sponsorship. Having almost 50,000 followers on Instagram, Hazel found herself in a position to leverage her van travels.
“I collaborated with a couple of local brands and businesses, which really helped out,” she says. “I got my solar panels on a deal in return for a couple of Instagram posts, but I definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford them without that.
“The fact that we can get paid to travel and get given things that help us do that is pretty amazing.”
On and off, Hazel lived in Wax for almost all of 2016, travelling between the Sunshine Coast and Victoria. She cut way back on clothes and possessions, and lived minimally. When it was time to settle in for the night, she’d park in a public space with other people around. She made friends with other van lifers along the way, and woke to coastal vistas and sprawling deserts.
“Seeing the snow in Sydney was amazing,” Hazel says, of a particularly memorable stopover in the Blue Mountains last winter. “We got stuck there for a couple of days.”
Jade Higgins, 23, and her husband Michael, 25, were inspired to try vanlife after discovering the online community based around it. Keen travellers, it seemed like the ideal way to migrate from Melbourne to Byron Bay, providing both accommodation and transport.
The couple bought their van in October 2016, and, like Hazel, had to do a lot of work on it before moving in and heading north in March. It wasn’t always easy, particularly when torrential rain hit New South Wales and it was impossible to dry their clothes, but Higgins says the highlights “definitely shone through”.
“We saw some absolutely gorgeous places. One day we stumbled across Hat Head National Park and set up the van there for the day. We made beautiful burgers and sat on the edge of the hill just looking at the deserted beach.”
Now settled in Byron Bay, Higgins says she and Michael have completed their vanlife journey.
“It’s absolutely brilliant, don’t get me wrong – but I really enjoy having a bathroom and kitchen to use properly. Our goal is to own a tiny house, which isn’t too far off a van,” she says.
Like Higgins, Hazel is clear that vanlife isn’t without its downsides: vans can be expensive to maintain, and as a young woman travelling solo, she sometimes feared for her safety. On several occasions, men tried to break into her van at night while she was inside; thankfully they never succeeded.
But she thinks the pros outweigh the cons. Now based in Queensland’s Tamborine Mountain, Hazel plans to hit the road again soon, in a grander fashion.
“I’m hopefully going to sell the van and actually buy a bus to do it on a bit of a bigger scale,” she says. “I definitely feel like next on the list is Tasmania. I’d ultimately love to spend six months or more travelling there and seeing everything I can.”
Hazel credits social media as playing a role in 20-something Australians jumping on the van-wagon, seeing it as a tool that’s enabling them to find support and share experiences. However, she believes the real appeal of vanlife goes beyond pretty pictures, and is connected to dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“I don’t know if it’s just because we talk about it more and post about it more, but I definitely think there’s a huge movement of people wanting to change the way society is,” she says.
“We want to live in a different way that’s not the norm and not about sticking to routines.”
Higgins agrees, and believes property prices are a huge factor for young Australians who choose vanlife.
“It’s very, very difficult for people in their 20s and 30s to buy just because it is so expensive in Australia. Even renting is a nightmare,” she says.
“I think our generation is incredibly smart for opting for a different approach to living. Some may think it’s absurd to live in a car, but I believe that it’s really special to experience life in an abundance of different ways and to follow whatever makes you happy.”