As life gets more expensive in South Africa, people are looking at alternative ways of living; we meet a couple that is doing vanlife in South Africa, and sharing the lifestyle online.
South Africa (30 May 2023) – South Africans are joining the growing global trend of people packing up and selling their things, to convert vans into living spaces and living on the road, travelling as far and wide as possible. We got to speak to a South African couple that have been living the vanlife to learn more about it.
Michael and Acacia have been living on the road full-time for the past two years but that isn’t how their journey started. The couple first dipped their toes into the lifestyle by taking as many opportunities to camp as they could. While Michael was completing his Cinematography degree and Acacia her Higher Certificate in Photography, they saved what they could and bought a new piece of camping equipment whenever possible.
“We made sure we camped every weekend we got the chance, we started with a very basic setup and every trip we would purchase 1 more item. We had always seen dreamy retro vans on Instagram but not quite the realistic livable kinds.
During Covid-19 lockdown we started watching YouTubers living van life full time – we immediately started planning but realised our budget was a bit small at the time.”
The push they needed came in May 2021 when their landlord gave them notice and placed their flat up for sale. They packed what they could fit into their Suzuki Jimny and hit the road. The couple spent six months moving from camping spot to camping spot, soaking in all the fun and challenges along the way.
After enduring some tricky weather, including snow, they knew it was time for the significant upgrade that would allow them to travel freely and live comfortably. It was time for vanlife fully loaded!
“We realised if we wanted to continue traveling full time an upgrade was overdue. We finally purchased our van and spent 2 months self-converting it into our dream tiny home on wheels. We love spending time outdoors and this lifestyle has allowed us to have new backyards in so many breathtaking destinations that we didn’t even realise existed.”
What does it cost?
In terms of finances, they were able to purchase a van and convert it into the home they needed, for a total of R200,000.00. They have factored in their living expenses and while they are paying mostly the same as when they lived in their flat, they have the luxury of being able to move from place to place.
“This lifestyle is a lot more affordable than most people think! We purchased our van for R160 000 and spent R40 000 on the build, therefore the total is R200 000 for our car and home which is roughly the price of a middle class South Africans car alone! Our monthly costs are very similar to when we were living in the city at roughly R15 000 a month for the 2 of us. What we used to pay towards rent now goes towards fuel and campsites.”
Having lived like this for two full years now, Michael and Acacia are well-practised and have all the tricks of the trade.
Building the van.
Michael and Acacia bought a plain panel van that was just a shell and had no windows. They also didn’t have any building or woodwork experience so had to learn as they went along with the build. This lifestyle has challenged their skills and helped them learn things they never dreamed. They named her Yeti the Van.
“We purchased a completely empty panel van with no windows. With no prior building or woodworking experience we tackled everything on our own learning from YouTube and trial and error. For the month of February (2022) we spent every day working on the build.
Then at the beginning of March Michael injured himself with the belt sander causing the biggest roastie – this slowed down the build but we pushed through and finished just in time for Vanfest on the 17th of March.”
Acacia shared that the most intimidating part of the whole build was adding windows, a vent and an exterior electrical port to the van. These additions meant they would have to cut into the body of the van – scary indeed!
“The windows were a real arm workout! Another tricky aspect of the build was our floor to ceiling pantry, since there are no straight lines building in the van and it required lining up 4 draw slides. Then of course the last few stages of the build were tricky with Michaels injury. The van is a fully functional tiny home on wheels with running water, 2 gas stove burners, a full double bed and electricity with a loadshedding backup.”
We asked the couple what advice they would have for other South Africans who are curious about joining this growing movement/lifestyle.
“It is such a rewarding journey that we would definitely recommend. It may seem intimidating or expensive when you start looking into it but we think it is important to not compare yourself to what you see on social media.
Rather start thinking realistically about aspects in your life you can’t live without and figure out what you will need to incorporate in your build (For example we have a fixed bed to ensure lots of storage under the bed for our toys such as 2 surfboards, 2 bicycles, skateboards, 100L of water and more).
There are so many different variations to this lifestyle that at some point you need to figure out what will work for yourself personally.”
In terms of getting started, you could do so today. Michael and Acacia started small, selling what they no longer needed and slowly purchasing what they did.
“Start selling off items that are collecting dust around your house and start putting that towards your ideal outcome. Even if it isnt your intention to do vanlife long term we truly believe this is the ultimate comfortable way to travel. You will come across hidden gems you never could have expected.”
As for the positives, there are many. Acacia did share that one of the downsides is not having a physical address which is needed for typical life-admin in South Africa. It also makes things difficult when wanting to have something delivered. But according to the couple, the positives greatly outway the challenges.
“We feel that the positives definitely outway the challenges. Positives are having home wherever we are and being able to wake up with new beautiful views. The feeling of sleeping in our own bed every night no matter where we are or being able to cook a hearty meal in the van is priceless. It is a slow paced lifestyle that allows for a lot of fluidity. We have met so many incredible like minded travelers on all sorts of journeys. Some challenges include not having a physical address when it comes to boring admin or even getting deliveries on the road.”
Vanfest and the growing community.
The first time Michael and Acacia set out in their van, they made their way to Vanfest, which is now an annual celebration by the local vanlife community. It is hosted at the Buccaneers On The Beach Campsite, along the Wild Coast of South Africa. The couple along with family and close friends, established the festival as a way to showcase vanlife and build a community.
The community gathered for four days and Michael shared that it went really well this year. They came together and socialised, played beach games, hosted potjie competitions, had an open-air movie night and even live music from East London artists.
“The vanlife community is still small in South Africa but we look forward to seeing it grow year on year. Our second event was hosted in March 2023 and we had a few return guests as well as a handful of newcomers.”
Their hope is to grow the community and in turn, see the festival grow each year too as the community has a chance to come together and share in their travels and experiences.
“Buccaneers was the ideal destination for our first two events as there is a restaurant, bar, pool, volleyball court, 200 meter beach access, we also knew we could showcase local talent including Can of Worms, Heather Waters and Steven Daniel. This location is also fairly central as we had attendees traveling from Pretoria, Underberg, Cape Town and between.”
With rising costs in South Africa, Vanlife is looking rather appealing to many! If you are curious about what it looks like in the South African setting, you can follow Michael and Acacia’s adventures on their social media pages.