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How to Survive a Pandemic from a 30-Year-Old Van in the Australian Bush

Life lessons and gear advice from a long, strange trip Down Under.

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Charlotte Snowball

This adventure started out surfing with the setting sun before the ocean swallowed it, or me, each night. Camping along craggy cliffs, cooking up curries under star-swathed skies. Waking up to laughing kookaburras. Spending my barefoot and bikini-clad days plucking my ukulele on the banks of red tea tree lakes, roving through rainforests, stripping naked in waterfalls and journaling about my epic solo expedition across Australia in the converted beater I call home. It was a lifelong dream, until it devolved into the stuff of nightmares…

When I bought my 1991 Mazda E2000 van off a backpacker in Byron Bay — Australia’s hippie haven — I’d anticipated some hiccups. For one, burgeoning bushfires were wreaking havoc across the country, and most of the land I’d wanted to explore was, well, on freaking fire. Roads were closed, and much of the notoriously deadly wildlife that lures us vagabonds here was… dead. The country was in crisis.

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Background: The Sunshine Coast’s famed Snapper Rocks surf break. Foreground: the writer’s ukelele.

To add fuel to the fire — no pun intended — I’m a Jersey girl (i.e. I don’t pump my own gas.) turned New Yorker (i.e. I don’t drive.) with no business operating a rust bucket, let alone one with right-side steering and left-side road rules. So let’s just say that purchasing a monthly roadside assistance plan was a much wiser decision than actually purchasing this van. When I bought it, I knew less about “car stuff” than the headcase who recently broke in while I was peacefully sleeping knows about etiquette.

Living alone in a van on secluded Australian beaches seemed like the best possible way to self isolate. But it’s not that simple. Here’s how the bottom fell out, what I’ve learned and the critical equipment that can ease a fraught nomadic existence.

Coolant leak, go figure. Overheating engine, makes sense. Snapped AC belt in one thousand-degree temperatures, classic. Dead battery, ’twas only a matter of time. Flat tires, of course. Rain running through the rusted roof, sounds about right. Snake dangling a goddamn frog over my bed, only me. I even backed my van up into a drainage ditch and had to be towed out. It’s fine. I’m fine. Everything is so fine. I’m basically a better mechanic at this point than the stupidly sexy, greased-up halfwit who gave me the go-ahead to buy this beat-up thing in the first place. Turns out, all you have to do is sing her a song, spin her dream catcher three times, kiss the roof and jiggle the key in the ignition.

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Somehow, someway, she always pulls through for me. Yes, she’s a she; like me, Daisy gets grumpy if you objectify her. In fact, objectification was the last thing I needed when the one hiccup I didn’t anticipate was an apocalyptic global pandemic to really throw my #vanlife plans for a loop.

COVID-19. It sounds like the name of a spooky thriller. Perhaps one that follows the trouble-ridden voyage of a 20-something-year-old woman stranded alone as far from home as physically possible. A vicious virus sweeps across the planet, collapsing economies, claiming lives and paralyzing entire populations of people in panic. While the world locks down in quarantine, she’s forced to find shelter fast. But her biggest fears as a solo female traveler are realized when one seemingly sympathetic stranger offers her refuge in the bush.

How actual COVID-19 fully plays out remains to be seen, but spoiler alert: there’s a positive plot twist for me.

At first thought, living alone in a van on secluded beaches in one of the least-densely populated corners of the globe seemed like the best possible way to do the whole self-isolation thing. Nothing really needed to change for me, I’d shortsightedly assumed. While most people are stuck inside their homes, my home is at least on wheels. But it turns out, it’s not nearly that simple. So here’s how the bottom fell out, what I’ve learned and the critical equipment that can ease a fraught nomadic existence.

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Outside the ’91 Mazda E2000, prepping to cook on a propane stove.

The Lessons

1. Gear up like you expect the unexpected.

The government closed the gyms first, and I kissed hot showers goodbye. I knew I’d be just fine with access to the beach and park bathroom facilities, until many of those closed, too. And then the government closed cafes and libraries, and I was suddenly strapped for power without solar panels to continue my work as a digital nomad. But then I lost my job to coronavirus, anyway. And when the government ultimately closed all campgrounds, I unexpectedly became categorized as a displaced person with no income and nowhere to legally live in my ill-equipped home on wheels.

Van life became near impossible for those of us without self-contained units outfitted with the proper gear. I have no toilet. No shower. No power. No fridge to stock up on food for the long haul. And no place to sleep without a knock from the rangers threatening possible thousands in fines.

I wanted an adventure; it’s just that I wasn’t prepared for this kind of adventure. This experience has reminded me that life, especially on the road, can change as quickly as COVID-19 line graphs. Gearing up for all possible risks and unexpected turns of events would be wise. There’s so much equipment my van lacks that would have made my transition into self-isolation a far less daunting one.

2. You can only use what you have in your toolbox today.

If I’d anticipated a global pandemic, I probably wouldn’t be here. But the COVID-19 crisis is changing every day. All we can do is our best with what we have, where we are.

At this point, going home is neither that feasible nor super smart. Most international airlines have suspended operations to the United States. The few extortionate flights that still exist are increasingly challenging to reach with state border closures. After a few canceled flights of my own, I spent entire afternoons on hold with airlines and the embassy to no avail. And, even if I could successfully reach home now, it’d mean flying across the entire world in germ-infested airports, risking my health and the health of my loved ones upon arrival. Frankly, I don’t quite feel like traveling to the epicenter of coronavirus if I can safely survive this thing here.

Choosing to ride out a global crisis far away from family and friends, alone in a van without adequate amenities, was a difficult decision. Ultimately, however, I came to the conclusion to stay put, find shelter and figure life out… one step at a time. I’ve been traveling on my own for two-and-a-half years, after all; where there’s a will, I’ve always found a way. It’s just that, for the first time along my journey, I’m in control of next to nothing.

So I took control over what I knew I could — maintaining some sanity by teaming up with others. I started chatting up fellow van dwellers in parking lots and took to van-life groups on social media to connect with travelers in similar situations.

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3. Trust your gut.

An older man had responded to my inquiry on a camping Facebook group, opening his several-acre private property to travelers in need of a place to park up for weeks, maybe months. Traveling alone often means putting a lot of faith in strangers, so I’ve learned how to go with my gut — and, this time, I knew I’d really be putting my instincts to the test.

I know there’s safety in numbers, so I wrangled up an Aussie named Tim to drive five-ish hours north with me to this man’s property in what felt like the middle of nowhere. An English woman, Charlotte, had reached out upon reading my post; she recommended that I join her and her two friends, Melon and Tom, so I wasn’t alone. They, too, would be driving to this man’s home.

Had any of us suspected then that we’d spend the next two days being sexually harassed, we’d, of course, never have gone in the first place. I knew when he allowed the others to set up camp by the billabong out back but blocked my van in because he wanted me “close to the house” where he could keep an eye on me that this surf shack sanctuary was the exact opposite. But I had a bad gut feeling the second he petted my head upon arrival —t here was something about his “happy hippie” demeanor and liberated lifestyle that felt like a guise to perv on visitors.

The others, it turned out, had enough of his constant chauvinism and unsolicited sex stories, as well. And so the five of us banded together, devised an escape plan and left… except we didn’t know where we were going, and we’re unwanted here. This rural town doesn’t have any known cases of coronavirus yet, and travelers pose a risk. The government tells us to leave, but we’ve no way out.

4. Silver linings can emerge, if you’re open to them.

There’s something beautiful about five total strangers sticking together. Struggle brings people close quite quickly (as does defecating in the open bush). There’s something even more beautiful about someone welcoming five total strangers into her home with no expectations of anything in return. And that’s exactly what happened when we were lucky enough to meet Amber, wearer of many hats. Amber is the compassionate mother, the fearless snake wrangler and the permaculture pundit you’d want to lead your apocalypse team.

Amber met us in the park where we were pow-wowing about next moves, and she invited us to her five-acre property replete with two swimming dams, a veggie garden and so much room to roam in isolation. If I’m going to be stuck anywhere for the unforeseeable future, Amber’s sun-soaked land feels like a slice of heaven on earth.

She and her three champion children took us in, giving us access to their facilities and a relieving sense of security. She’s assured us that, as long as this pandemic persists, we’re safe with her. It’s been one week here now, and we’ve spent our days planting vegetables, building with bamboo, repairing surfboards, cooking family meals together and casually combatting pythons.

5. Most of what you thought you needed, you probably don’t.

Living in a van has already taught me a lot about minimalism. But living through a global pandemic in a van — trying to save money and squeeze the most out of the resources already at my disposal — I’m learning to live on a lot less.

My daily budget turned into a weekly one, and my idea of a good meal just got a whole lot simpler. By chance, I’m quarantined with a bunch of pseudo-chefs who’ve been making tofu steak dinners and key lime pies out of the stockpile of canned foods we’ve pooled together from our vans. But I went from dining or ordering out almost daily to extracting milk from coconuts and saving vegetable scraps for replanting.

Of course, I’m not just talking about food we don’t need or unnecessary spending here. It’s in times of crisis that we really do — or should — appreciate what actually matters: our health and human connection. Without a lot of money but with a lot of time, we learn that touching base with loved ones and holding space for friends is what makes our now mundane day-to-day existence tolerable. As someone who thought I was prepared to go through isolation utterly alone, I’m especially grateful for finding a family of displaced ramblers with whom to share resources and support. It’s made all the difference on the other side of the world.

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The writer with two of her friends till the end, Charlotte (a.k.a. The Mindful Drifter, who snapped most of these photos) and Mary-Ellen (a.k.a. Melon).

The Gear

Sure, there are tons of products that make living in a van a more comfortable experience (i.e. camping chairs, a Scrubba wash bag, a USB fan and USB light strips, etc.). But here’s a bit of gear that’s come up big for me in the past few weeks — plus several items I sure wish I had right now.

12V Fridge

A fridge would be convenient in a global crisis when stocking up (not hoarding) is vital, and you need to keep food fresh for the long haul. A 12V refrigerator tends to be the go-to for most campervans because it’s the easiest to keep powered.

BUY NOW: $1,230

Water Tanks

A water tank to supply safe drinking water would be wise. And having water with which to wash dishes and, you know, bathe with now and again is nice, too. To build a DIY water system, you’ll need two water tanks (one fresh tank and one gray water tank) with a pump or gravity system.

BUY NOW: $140

Solar Shower Bag

A shower in the van would be a luxury. Unfortunately, it’s not so feasible for vans the size of mine. Solar shower bags, however, are easily portable, heat up with the sun and come with hooks and pressure heads for a hands-free outdoor shower experience.

BUY NOW: $14

Portable Travel Toilet

Likewise, a tricked-out toilet isn’t feasible in a van like mine. But there’s room for a portable travel toilet. A self-contained option with a cleansing flush and waste tank offers a simple solution when you’ve got nowhere to go while stealth camping in places like suburban streets. Going on people’s yards is generally frowned upon.

BUY NOW: $102

Solar Panel Kit

Solar panels give you power to charge up your devices — including that fridge and a hot water tank — so you don’t have to drain your van battery like I have done one too many times. If I’d had power all this time, I’d never have had to rely on going anywhere that’s now shut down anyway.

BUY NOW: $611

Propane Stove

I have a propane cooker in my van (and non-stick cookware!) so that I can cook up breakfast, lunches and dinners for myself. But it wouldn’t hurt to have two burners so my beans wouldn’t get cold while my rice softens up.

BUY NOW: $43

Satellite Navigation

When you’re out in the bush with no one around for miles, it’s important to have directions. Chances are that connection will come and go — and, in my case driving here, fail altogether — so having reliable navigation makes the journey a whole lot safer.

BUY NOW: $300

Portable Wi-Fi

Sure, Netflix is great during a quarantine. But that’s not why you need connectivity in a van. You will want Wi-Fi to keep abreast of what’s happening in the world while self-isolating in the middle of nowhere. You’ll also definitely want it to figure out where you’re going or to call for help if you need it (read: when your van overheats and breaks down in the middle of the highway).

BUY NOW: $180

First-Aid Kit

A first-aid kit, of course, is always smart to have handy. You never know when you might step on a venomous snake or come face-to-face with a funnel web spider. (Kidding, you’d end up in the hospital…) But, nevertheless, a first-aid kit is a must.

BUY NOW: $26

Tool Kit

Especially with old vans, bits and bolts break, parts come loose and sometimes the engine doesn’t feel like starting. A basic tool kit will be useful when you need to pinch the ignition condenser in your deteriorating engine, change a blown fuse when you try plugging a MacBook into your cigarette lighter or replace the rusted bolts in your broken backdoor. You’ll want to throw in other necessities like sealant for any leaks, coolant, oil and jumper cables, of course.

BUY NOW: $140

 

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