It was a great idea. It was a wild idea. It was the kind of idea burned out office workers dreamed about as they rubbed their bleary bloodshot eyes while staring at computer screens.
Wouldn’t that be fun?
They might say, while standing in line at the photocopier.
Driving all the way around Australia, really seeing the country, you know? The real country. The outback. Not just the cities and the tourist spots. And staying wherever you want each night. Just you, the van, and the road.
And then they would laugh, collect their copies, and shuffle back to their spreadsheets.
So, when Olivia told her boss, Alex, that she was resigning from her job as a laboratory assistant to circumnavigate a campervan around Australia with her husband, Alex had laughed.
“Oh shit,” Alex said, her smile dropping into shock, “oh, you’re serious?”
“Yeah,” Olivia nodded, “it’s just something we’ve always talked about doing.”
“Wow,” Alex said, “wow, that’s awesome. We’re going to miss you, but hey, that’s awesome.”
And it was awesome. At least, at first.
They started by getting rid of their possessions. Box loads of stuff made its way out of the house. How had they managed to accumulate so much? They sold everything they could – furniture, crockery, bedding. An envelope of cash in her bedside drawer grew fatter and fatter, while the house grew bare and empty. Everything they couldn’t sell was donated to the local op shop. It was liberating, seeing their space become sparse. They both felt the weight of the things they owned, like a grip around their ankles holding them in place, loosening with each sale.
Eventually, the envelope of cash was exchanged for keys to a campervan from a middle-aged man in Point Cook.
“Oh yeah,” he had said, “I always planned to drive her all the way around Australia, I just never got the chance.”
They named the vehicle Vincent Van Gogh and made it their own by giving it a good scrub, replacing the old lace curtains with plain white blinds, and having sex on the tiny double bed, feeling the gentle bounce in the tyres.
And so it was, on an early Tuesday morning in late February, Olivia and Ross loaded their worldly belongings into Vincent, turned on the ignition, and started the first kilometre of their long journey around the vast continent.
On that first afternoon they pulled the campervan into a campground in Rye. They plugged Vincent in for power and went searching for some lunch. At dusk they walked over the scraggy sand dunes to the back beach, slipped off their clothes and raced into the tumbling waves.
“You know,” Ross said, his chin rested on the surface as salt water spilled from his mouth, “we won’t really be able to do this once we go up North, they’ve got stingers, and crocs, and sharks up there you know.”
“We’ve got sharks and jellyfish down here, too,” Olivia said, poking her toes out of the water in front of her, “in fact we really shouldn’t be swimming at dusk like this, they say this is when the sharks come out.”
“Yeah, but they have deadly stingers, and they’ve got bull sharks and crocs, and you know, they’re going to take one look at your sexy butt, and the next thing you know,” he clamped his hands around her hips under the water and made a growling sound.
They laughed, wrapped their arms around each other, and shared a salty kiss.
After a week in Wilson’s Promontory and another week in the Gippsland Lakes, they drove Vincent over to Cape Conran, where they lit a campfire, drank beer and ate flat bread. With her third beer slipping down her throat (or was it her fourth?), she looked over at Ross. It was a warm evening. Summer was ending in Victoria, but they were chasing summery weather around the country. This was their great adventure, the honeymoon they never had. She saw his chest, lightly tanned and glistening from sweat and sunscreen in the crackling light of the fire. He looked back at her, and they smiled in silence, listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks.
Across the border of New South Wales they fell into a rhythm. Some campsites were nicer than others. They would stay at the larger campsites for several nights, where they could shower, fill up on water, do laundry, empty Vincent’s toilet, and buy groceries. Sometimes they would eat dinner with other travellers they met along the road. Often they saw those same people a few days or weeks later, further along the coast. Fellow nomads making the same counter-clockwise journey. A journey of seventeen-thousand-plus kilometres.
Each evening they would open their laptops: Olivia would edit their video footage of the day for their daily YouTube video log, and Ross would load photographs and write summaries for their travel blog, Great Southern Land.
Olivia started to feel a change while they were staying in the Royal National Park. They had walked along the coast track and along Burning Palms Beach to vivid round blue tidal pools. The flat rocks and pools were dotted with Sydneysiders visiting for the weekend: couples, families, groups of friends. She saw a young woman jumping over and over into a sparkling blue pool shaped like a figure eight or infinity symbol, smiling and throwing her hands into the air. After each jump she would climb out of the pool and check the photos her friend had taken of her. “No, I look weird there,” she would say, walking back to her jump-off point, “take it again.”
Olivia and Ross faced across the tidal pools towards the open ocean and sat down on the sharp rocks. The sounds of laughter and crashing waves blew around the cliffs. Olivia let out a deep sigh.
“Can you take some pictures of me in that pool?” she asked.
“Sure,” Ross said.
She pulled off her dress and fixed the straps of her red bikini. She lowered herself into the pool, propping herself up at the edge on her elbows, and gazed across her shoulder with her mouth slightly open.
“Just pull yourself up a bit more, if you can,” Ross directed.
“Like this?” she said.
“Yeah that’s better,” he said, “hold that.”
Her triceps began to shake as she held herself on the edge of the pool. Her big toe struggled to keep leverage against a tiny rocky ledge. She kicked her butt backwards slightly and elongated her neck. Every muscle in her body was engaged in the pursuit of appearing relaxed and effortless.
Back at the campsite, Olivia posted the photo to Instagram. #vanlife #figure8pools #nomads #travellers #australia #australianvanlife #adventure #livingthedream #travelcouple #travel #explore #vanliving #sydney #nomadlife #lovinglife
She scrolled down through the previous photos on their feed, full of curated and filtered photos of them enjoying life in the campervan – a morning coffee resting on her tanned legs, his legs swinging out of the van strumming an acoustic guitar borrowed from a fellow camper. Once, they had parked the van and opened the back doors over a cliff and posed with a bowl of granola and a mug of tea while looking wistfully at the view. It wasn’t even a space place to park, let alone sleep for the night. And it was 3pm in the afternoon.
On the road near Byron Bay, they pulled over for a bathroom break. Olivia went into the back of the van to find hand sanitiser, when she saw a cockroach scuttle across the floor. She suddenly noticed that the van was filthy – there were dried muddy footprints on the floor, crumbs across the surfaces, and a small spiderweb caught the sunlight behind the sink. When was the last time they had washed the sheets?
“Hey, let’s clean the van when we get into Byron,” she said as she climbed back into the driver’s seat, “I just saw a cockroach back there.”
Ross gave no reply.
“Hey,” she said, “did you hear me? Will you help me?”
“Clean the van,” he said, his eyes not looking up from his phone, “nah I think it’s fine.”
“Well, it’s not fine, I saw a cockroach back there.”
“Oh,” he said, “gross.”
She started the ignition and they drove on in silence.
In Byron Bay she saw beautiful young couples sneaking kisses in the waves and rolling into knots over their sandy towels on the beach. Couples who had come for a week away from their busy city lives, and who were blissfully happy with their week of sunshine, beer, sex, and brownies made with weed-soaked butter from Nimbin. How long had it been since they had had sex?
Olivia was starting to feel trapped. They weren’t even one quarter of the way through their trip, but she already couldn’t wait to get home. Somehow, despite being out in the open road, she felt claustrophobic. Vincent had somehow shrunk in size, especially now that clutter seemed to manifest easily. It seemed Ross couldn’t be bothered putting things away in the cumbersome child-locked drawers and cupboards, which irked her. Not only that, but they already spent more money than they had planned, and now they needed to be more frugal with their funds. She felt trapped sitting in the van for so many hours each day. How would she be able to bear the long and empty road through the open plains of the Nullabor?
Ross was feeling exhausted, too. He was sick of showering in flip flops and didn’t much enjoy emptying Vincent’s toilet, which Olivia never seemed to do. He loved Olivia, but spending every waking moment with her was getting tiring, and he wasn’t sleeping well in the small, cramped bed. Also, despite being outdoors, the hours spent driving and lack of access to the gym had made him feel unfit and sluggish.
“Hey,” Ross said, turning down the music as they drove.
“Mmm?” Olivia responded.
“I was thinking,” he said, “maybe once we get to Cairns, I don’t know, maybe we could stay in a motel or a bed and breakfast or something.”
“Uh,” Olivia said, “can we afford that?”
“I mean, we can find somewhere cheap. It won’t be as cheap as the campsite, but I was thinking it might be good to have a bit of space, you know?”
“All right,” she said, “if you want to.”
A few minutes of silence followed. Ross wanted to say more, so he didn’t turn the music back up. He struggled to find the right words.
“And hey,” he said, “I was also thinking.”
“Well, I was thinking that maybe once we get there, we could get a twin room, rather than a double.”
“Oh,” she said.
“It’s not that, it’s just,” he said, “it’s just that it’d be good to get a really good night’s rest.”
“Yeah, sure, that’s fine, I get it,” she said.
A silence fell over them. Ross turned the music back up. She felt a deep heaviness sink into her chest. He could feel his palms getting sweaty on the steering wheel. What was happening to them?
They drove Vincent down to Russell River, where they walked with backpacks from the van down to the beach. That night they planned to sleep under the stars. They had planned it months ago. It would be their "starry night", an homage to Vincent Van Gogh. Olivia had imagined it being romantic, but once they arrived, she felt exhausted. They were both too tired to speak. They were exhausted from being on the road for weeks and upset about the growing silence and resentment between them.
Olivia went to the toilet block. She splashed some water on her face at the sink and looked at her reflection in the polished metal sheet they had employed as a mirror. Her face was distorted across the warped metal. She took a deep breath.
A notification popped up on her phone. A memory from 5 years ago – their wedding. They had completely forgotten that today was their wedding anniversary. She looked at the photos of them on that day, looking into each other’s eyes. She remembered the vows she had given that day to Ross, and the deep commitment she had made to love him no matter the circumstances. Her vows had not mentioned the difficulties of travelling around the country in a campervan specifically, but she was sure that these were the types of challenges that she had been talking about. She had given her word in front of all her loved ones to love this man no matter what, and she was not about to go back on her word. She gathered her toiletries and walked back to the beach.
As she walked down the path to the sand, she could see the illumination of Ross’s phone on his face. His cheeks looked damp from tears. He looked up at her and smiled.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she said, smiling.
“I was just watching some of the videos from our wedding,” he said, sniffling and wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
“Happy anniversary,” she said. Her hands moved to his cheeks, where she wiped away the tears.
“Happy anniversary, baby,” he said, giving her a soft kiss.