Our first year of Vanlife - the Highs and Lows!
Updated: Oct 15, 2020
We set off for France on June 17th 2019.
We have lived in our van full time since then, travelling as a family of 3 plus 4 pets, sometimes joined by our fourth person when he's not at college!
The first week was amazing. We tried out wild camping for the first time, each night being nervous that we would get a knock from the police or an angry local, and each morning realising that we were ok, that we could sleep in peace and not have any hassle at all!
Our first wild camp spot:
We bought fresh french bread and strawberries every day for breakfast and ate them as we drove. Phoenix and Rosie did art on a picnic table in a forest where we also saw wild boar with babies. The dogs paddled in rivers and on beaches, and the cats explored on their leashes too. We prepared dinner while sitting outside surrounded by vinyards as the sun set in glorious technicolour. We visited Dom's childhood home in Spain and paddled in the Spanish sea. We slept by an abandoned castle, a river, sand dunes, windmills and a waterfall.
The weather was fabulous - lots of sunshine and light breezes. I began a new routine of sitting outside with my morning coffee while Dom worked for a few hours and the kids slept in. That coffee outside is something I still do now, one of my favourite parts of the day.
We had a few mishaps - We got lost and drove around the same town six times because our trucker satnav was a bit useless. We had to reverse down a motorway sliproad because there was a height restriction bar on it! We got stuck in soft ground and were rescued by a tractor driver and an awful lot of Spanish people who came to watch the spectacle.
All that, in our first week! We reached Portugal on Day 8...
One of the absolute best things about the last year was making new friends at random parkups. We first met a wonderful couple, Stefan and Nina, when Nina wandered over to our van in a remote spot to offer us half a watermelon. We reciprocated with a tin of mistakenly bought anchovy olives, and then spent several lovely days chilling and chatting with them and cooking for each other. We've met up several times since, and look forward to seeing them again soon!
We enjoyed campfire chats with so many people, including Nick and Sarah (the exPAWers) and Oliver of Magic Bus Art in Quarteira; we shared a secret UK parkup with Symon (vikingvanlifer) for an evening; met up with Rainbows on the Road at their favourite spot when we were in the UK at the end of August; and were happily surprised to have an impromptu meetup with Indie Projects' Bee and Theo in the wilderness of Spain.
We also thoroughly enjoyed meeting Mandy and John Gadget, and Greg Virgoe and Lou in Tarifa in February. We ended up travelling in convoy with them for 3 weeks and had so much fun together!
With a bohemian atmosphere, hippy craft markets, a campsite for emergencies (showers and electricity), a pizza lady who handmade pizzas and bread and delivered right to the van, a beautiful parkup under a stand of eucalyptus trees, AND a lovely town full of fab shops and several vegan eateries, Orgiva is our favourite town in the whole of Spain! It's also very close to...
The Worldschooling Community in La Herradura. This is a wonderful place to meet other worldschoolers, and is very well organised. There are regular casual meetups as well as classes and workshops for all ages. Rosie went on a trampolining and ice skating trip with them, we all took a graffiti workshop, and Rosie took a few world cookery classes too. Plus she made several friends who she looks forward to meeting up with again.
Check out www.worldschoolhubandalucia.com if you're interested!
Rosie starting a business - Rosie has always loved crafting, and brought her hot glue gun along on the van. She started making little 'critters' using shells with other trinkets and flotsom plus nail polish and sharpie pens. When we stayed in Orgiva we were given a flyer advertising the Rastro - a craft market/carboot held just outside of town twice a month. Rosie asked us to stay so she could have a stall, and then she worked like crazy making a sign and creating lots of critters. On the day, she sat for 4 hours and sold lots of critters! She made 11 Euros and was thrilled :) Since then she has sold at 2 more Rastros, and progressed to making resin jewellery. As I write this she is adding the finishing touches to her new website and plans to launch very soon! Unschooling at it's best!
In the middle of the south coast of Portugal, in the Algarve, is a place called Quarteira. There are pine trees that you can park between on a low shelf of land above a beach . If you walk along the beach for 10 minutes or so, you reach the town with it's bars, shops and restaurants. One of the nearest restaurants, Raizes, is vegan and has the most wonderful food and juices! The water is lovely to swim in and the trees give shade if you want it - it's the most perfect parkup we've found to date!
It's also special to us because it was here that Rosie made some friends who she played with nonstop for 4 days. They played by torchlight when the sun set because they just weren't done!
Seeing cool wildlife. We've seen so many cool things, here is our top 20:
Alpine marmot, beaver, preying mantis, octopus, lots of fish, storks, fish eagle, lizards, dung beetle rolling dung, terrapin, bats, crayfish, flamingos, black redstarts, golden oriole, egrets, white herons, turtles, viper, glow worm.
Other highs: Swimming in the sea and in lakes; spending so much time outside; the many many sunsets and one sunrise that we've caught; all of the historical places that we've visited - castles, monasteries, troglodyte villages, caves with prehistoric paintings, battlefields; seeing the dogs and cats learn to love vanlife - the dogs love paddling and the cats love the new sniffs and wildlife watching!
Mosquitos - we had a lot of trouble with mozzies in the warm months in Spain. They had a lot of rainfall during August so when we were travelling there in September, there was still a lot of standing water around. Perfect for mosquitos! We tried all sorts of things to deter them from biting us, but in the end we had to close up the van just before sunset and then spend an hour squashing as many as we could find that were hiding in the van. Leo helped out by catching and eating them too!
Extreme heat - We had some nights when the Maxxfan was on full and we were sleeping in our pants on top of the duvet and were still hot and sticky. We have since bought individual usb fans, and have fitted a skylight to let extra breeze in over the beds! We also had some days when it was pretty fierce out, but found it to be manageable by putting the window covers on, turning the fan up and opening windows a crack to let breeze in.
Travelling and wildcamping in the UK - We didn't have any trouble sleeping at wild parkups, but we did have a really hard time trying to find bins to dispose of our rubbish, places to park to visit attractions (we had to leave Whitby without visiting the Abbey due to height restrictions on the carparks, one example of many), finding a big enough parking spot at supermarkets, and getting a decent wifi signal to do work. Oh and it was rainy, cold and foggy for almost the entire month of August, which meant that we were confined to the van a lot.
Saying goodbye to Phoenix - Originally, Phoenix planed to travel with us for a year, taking a gap year between school and college. That was part of our reason for doing vanlife when we did, as we wouldn't have wanted to leave him behind and only see him every 8 weeks or so.
However, plans change and Phoenix decided to start college that autumn instead, so we had to say goodbye after travelling together for 6 weeks. We make it work, with video calls and extra time spent together during his holidays, and he's happy to have his weekends free to see his friends and girlfriend.
Hogie's incontinence - Hogie is an old dog, and has a dog version of dementia. He started to have a few accidents in the house while we were building out the van and then shortly after we set off the accidents (always at night) became more frequent. We were cleaning up big puddles of wee several times a week, started buying puppy pads that we had to tape to the floor every evening, and then clean up every morning... The van stunk, and it was a pretty awful way to have to spend the first moments of each day! We've solved the problem now though, we buy pullup nappies for teenagers that we tape around his groin with gaffa! He wears one in the day if he's inside, usually when we drive somewhere, and two at night which contains all his leaks! When we're parked up he sits outside and is nappy free.
Morph's dodgy tummy incident - We were driving from Orgiva to Granada, a journey of about an hour, so that Rosie and I could meet some new worldschooling friends at the science museum. Halfway into the trip, Morph started yowling. That's not unusual, particularly on mountainous roads, so we ignored him. Then he started to get really restless, which is unusual. He was pacing around on the front seat, and kept trying to jump on the cab floor, or into the back. We don't let the cats roam free when we drive, they have to stay seatbelted in the cab, so I kept pulling him back and making him sit down on his seat. He was yowling and howling, and panting too now although it wasn't particularly hot. I suggested to Dom that perhaps he needed the litter tray, so we should maybe pull over. Dom agreed, but we were on a motorway so it would have to wait until we found services... Morph was really desperate to get in the back now, clawing his way up the back of the seat, so I pull him onto my lap to try to calm him down - did I mention I'm wearing my best, almost brand new dress? A pretty little dress all soft and flowery that I save for going out to nice places... that's an important detail...
We don't see services and Morph decides he can wait no longer and he squirts out the most vile smelling diarrhoea all over the seat, all over my dress, all over my hand - and then we go over a bump and he falls over in it.
So he's covered in squits and I'm covered in squits, and the van STINKS to high heaven, and STILL there are no services - but luckily we spot an Aldi off the motorway, so we headed there to clean up with baby wipes. The final part of this story? We couldn't find anywhere in Granada to park the van, so Rosie and I didn't get to go to the museum. We just turned around and drove all the way back. And then had to give Morph a bath.
Breaking down - This happened as were leaving the UK. We had been parked for 2 weeks over Christmas at Dom's mum's house and had run our diesel heater almost all day every day to keep the cats warm. We left to take Phoenix home to Devon before continuing on to the Eurotunnel, and while we were on the motorway the van lost all power and we had to pull over on the hard shoulder. We called the RAC and had to be towed to a services, then collected by a second truck to be taken to a garage in Devon. The next day the van was tested for all sorts of potential problems until someone thought to try putting some diesel in. The van started up just fine, and we realised that by running the heater without ever driving, we had used all the diesel but the van's fuel gauge didn't know it!
Lockdown - We were very fortunate to be in the UK when lockdown began (having come back to visit and run our event). We were also fortunate to be able to stay on Dom's mum's driveway - we know a lot of vanlifers in the UK have had a lot of problems with hostile locals and uninformed police, and we were lucky to be able to avoid that. However, during the three months we spent locked down, we missed out on two months in Spain, two weeks of having Phoenix with us (he was due to fly out to meet us in Malaga), Camp Quirky, 4 weeks exploring Denmark, and a visit to my dad in Holland. We also spent a LOT of time inside a house and not enough time outdoors, and we all suffered in some way from this time. I know some people had it harder, and I know it was necessary to contain the spread of the virus, but I'm listing the lows, and this was definitely one of them!
To finish on a high, here are some of our favourite places so far (click to expand)
We're thrilled to be on the move again soon, borders are opening and we're heading to France and Spain to begin our second year of Vanlife!
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