• Keeta Williams reflects on the unexpected benefits of living in a van. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
"There is an assumption that all people living in vehicles are homeless and detached from society."
Keeta Williams

28 Nov 2019 - 11:54 AM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2019 - 11:54 AM

I was daydreaming on the bus to work, gazing out the window and wishing there was a better way of living. Over the past two years, I had moved between four share houses and I was craving stability.

I had to leave one house because the owner's fiancee was moving in. Another housemate moved back in with his dad to save money and cancelled the lease. My current housemate was having major health problems and I wanted my own space, but renting or buying a studio apartment in Sydney wasn't an option.

The bus stopped. Outside the window was a caravan park surrounded by lush trees. I desperately wished I could live in its beautiful stillness. I dreamed a little longer until I realised it didn't have to be a dream. Maybe I didn't have to live in a building.

Within two weeks I had my own van. Not a traditional campervan, but an ex-commercial van with few windows. Google searches had led me to "stealth vanning". It's a thing. To detract attention from passers-by, stealth vans look like work vans. Mine could have belonged to a plumber, an electrician or a delivery man. People couldn't know if I was cooking dinner or sleeping inside. 

The back was an empty shell which I gradually did up myself into something that resembled a Japanese micro-apartment. A futon bed rolled away and I had a tiny kitchen and bathroom.

I used a compact, long-distance hiking stove. I had enough power to charge my mobile and laptop, and used an unpowered fridge which kept fruit and vegetables cool through evaporation. I had a kitchen bench, storage, a bathroom mirror, and a sink with running water.

As soon as I moved out of my share house and into my van, I met people who were amazingly positive and helpful.

As soon as I moved out of my share house and into my van, I met people who were amazingly positive and helpful. On my first night I met an older guy who lived permanently in an off-road bus. He made me a cup of tea, told me campfire stories, and used his power tools to help renovate my van.

Caravan park owners on the outskirts of Sydney were more than welcoming. They gave me discounted rates and let me come and go as I pleased. On weeknights I stayed close to the city and my work. On weekends I escaped to beaches or the countryside. Living on my own was incredible and I was paying half as much as I previously was for rent.

Living in a van motivated me to visit friends who lived long distances away – and yes, I did have friends. There is an assumption that all people living in vehicles are homeless and detached from society. One morning, a lady in my caravan park rushed over, offering me toast. She thought I was escaping a domestic violence situation. I politely declined and explained I was about to cook myself bacon and eggs.

Australians understand grey nomads, backpackers and families that "take a year off" to travel. But many people living in vehicles are not taking a break from anything. They hold regular jobs, participate in community groups and stay within a reasonably small area.

I was a member of a large fitness club (the hot showers and hair dryers were always appreciated) and one day I started talking to a personal trainer. We walked to the carpark together and realised we both had vans parked next to each other. He was living the same lifestyle as me. "I like being outdoors and visiting national parks," he said.

On the road, I met many similar people. Some were trying to save money, some wanted solitude and freedom. One lady had two jobs in far-apart towns, another man liked visiting his family. I also met people with no cars, just tents.

People asked me if I ever got scared, but I didn't.

People asked me if I ever got scared, but I didn't. Try moving into a stranger’s house and give them over a thousand dollars in bond - that's scary. If I ever felt uneasy in my van I climbed into the front and drove away.

I lived in my van for almost two years, until I no longer had commitments in Sydney. I now live in regional South Australia, in a very ordinary house that doesn't have wheels. In my town, you can rent a three-bedroom, beach-side property with a big backyard for half the price of a studio apartment in Sydney.

Sometimes I daydream about doing it again. I don't think I would though. My life is different now, but back then it was the perfect solution to a frustrating problem - I found my own space within a busy and expensive city.

Keeta Williams is a freelance journalist, writer and photographer with a background in early childhood education.

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