Vanlife is booming around Australia. Picture: Amy Sayle/Instagram @__wild_tribe__
Vanlife is booming around Australia. Picture: Amy Sayle/Instagram @__wild_tribe__

We quit everything to travel Australia

They're young, they're cool and their nomadic lives are anything but grey. Their vans are emblazoned with their social media handles, their kids are Instagram stars and their adventures are inspiring a boom in Aussie travel.

Caravanning's becoming a young person's game, with the average Australian owner of a caravan or motorhome now aged 33. The #vanlife hashtag has exploded, nearing 6 million Instagram posts. And latest Caravan Industry Association of Australia stats put families (30 per cent) hot on the heels of Grey Nomads (32 per cent) when it comes to nights spent caravanning and camping.

Mornington Peninsula mum Amy Sayle is living proof of the "Insta-van" effect. Amy, along with husband Steve and three kids (now 18, nine and six), sold their house, packed up their lives, and hit the road in May last year. Steve threw in his six-day-a-week job, Amy put her portrait photography business on hold, and the rest is history.

"I remember the exact moment it struck me, 'we could do this'," Amy says. "We were watching Sunrise and (travelling influencer family) The Blonde Nomads were on. I rang my husband … we're very spontaneous. We sold our house within a month and then we were off. We sold everything and just made up our minds."

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Since then the family, aka Wild Tribe, has explored both east and west coasts of Australia. Next, they think Central Australia.

"We didn't know how long we would be going for … we would just say 'we'll give it six months'. Our friends and family can't believe we're still travelling," Amy says. "It is just another world, once you decide you're travelling and get on social media, and travelling on the road and meeting people. We have been blown away by the amount of families travelling - like hundreds!"

 

 

Demographics are just one aspect of caravanning that's fast changing. Here are four more common misconceptions:

VANNING MEANS NO LUXURY

If you shudder at the idea of traipsing to shared toilet and shower blocks, there's good news - today's vans have moved far beyond the basic box on wheels. "Facilities and amenities that you are now provided within a caravan have evolved," says Mo Bhargava, BIG4 Holiday Parks sales and marketing general manager. "They've got ensuites, washing machines, dishwashers and very comfortable furnishings."

Amy Sayle says while they've owned other caravans in the past, their 2018 Supreme Basecamp takes it to the next level. "We'd never had a van with a toilet and shower before. This is our first van with those luxuries, and that's been a privilege," she says. "Also, our van has an oven, and that's amazing."

 

 

YOU'VE GOT TO BE CRAMMED INTO A CARAVAN PARK

Thanks largely to the growth of self-contained vans, free camping in national and state parks is booming, as are private land options. Apps like WikiCamps and Aircamp are guiding travellers to campsites beyond commercial caravan parks.

"Caravan parks can be very crowded, and have lots of amenities and facilities - and lots of walls," says James Woodford, co-founder of Youcamp, which connects campers and caravanners with landowners who welcome them. "We owned a lovely block of land on the NSW South Coast and used to have these great family holidays there … people would bring their dogs, and friends would turn up," James recalls of the genesis of Youcamp back in 2012. "It was such a great way to spend time with family and friends, and we noticed all around us was all this other private land, and we thought, 'wouldn't it be great if there was a way for campers to be able to go and stay on private land?'."

Fast forward to today, and Youcamp has 100,000-plus Facebook followers and "every weekend, we've got hundreds, if not thousands, of people going off camping on private land".

 

 

YOU'VE GOT TO BE CASHED UP TO AFFORD A VAN

Prices upwards of $100,000 are typical for a high-end van or motorhome, but if you'd rather test the water before making a commitment, Camplify is making the great Aussie road trip dream more accessible. Known as the Airbnb of caravans, Camplify launched in 2015 and has already expanded to the UK and New Zealand.

"From 2017 on, it's kind of exploded," says Camplify founder Justin Hales, who started the site after becoming frustrated trying to hire a van. "The (hire companies) were all based around international airports. But just driving around (in Newcastle, NSW), I realised … we probably passed 300-400 caravans just sitting on the side of the road. I thought 'wouldn't it be great if there was an Airbnb for caravans'."

While there's a broad demographic who hire vans, the majority are families - and many are repeat hirers. "We've had lots of customers who've come straight back from holidays and book again," Justin says.

The win-win is those who have invested in vans can now recoup much of the cost by hiring them out, earning up to $20,000 a year.

 

 

CARAVAN PARKS ARE HISTORY

BIG4's Mo Bhargava laughs when it's put to him that "free camping could spell the end of traditional caravan parks within a decade". That headline appeared on the ABC's website this year, but is far from reality, as Mo sees it.

Mind you, anyone who hasn't visited a holiday park in the past decade could struggle to reconcile what they see with "traditional" caravan parks they remember. Jumping cushions, water parks, rock-climbing walls, micro breweries, restaurants, barista coffee and pet facilities are among the amenities you'll find in BIG4 parks these days.

"Yes, we do still offer powered and unpowered sites … but we have cabins, villas, glamping, eco-retreats, beach houses, safari tents, bell tents, you name it," Mo says. "The parks are evolving, and the market is growing with it.

"A lot of our data actually shows there's a lot of crossover between freecampers and BIG4 customers … (often) they still come to the parks to use the amenities.

"There's more competition and disruption than ever before … but we are seeing new segments open up."

BIG4 is now the third largest hospitality brand in Australia after Accor and Hilton - and growing, says Mo. "Regional Australia and caravanning and camping are seen as an avenue for a digital detox, and reconnecting with your loved ones and getting back to nature."

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