This episode contains video interviews from the gathering, scroll to the bottom!
I drove through Bellbrook, a sleepy town inland from the NSW coast and a marker for my first Vanlife gathering – a drawing of van folk for a weekend in nature. The gathering itself was another hour west following the Macleay River. I stuck to the windy cliff side road and drove ever onward in excitement, the imagination urging images of collective wheeled homes and their smiling occupants, while the bumpy drive shook loose cups and cutlery from their supposed secure compartments inside.
I was closing in to the map marker on my phone, a corner turned and a green expanse filled my front window, bright grassy flats bordered by ancient eucalypts and a shallow river glistening in the sun as it weaved through the green rocky mountains beyond.
The event said eleven am and I drove in the late afternoon, uncertainty hit as I turned down the furrowed yellow driveway onto the plateau – what I saw was one other man in one other van. Joshua seemed as confused as I am and this was definitely the spot on the map, we shrugged in unison and I positioned myself overlooking the river. Not long after did Michael arrive in his four wheel drive, he was one of the sponsors for the event so I felt more confident that this was the place, or at least I had company to share in the confusion. Michael explained that everyone was still in Bellbrook after the Thungutti Welcome to Country ceremony.
Soon after this explanation I heard a smooth roar of engines singing in symphony and gazed over to see a trundling convoy of white vans along the road – the passenger’s faces spread wide with grin as they lined up along the edge of the plateau one after the other. Introductions, I walked from home to home, meeting the residents and sharing in their setups, stories and passions. Some of us ventured into the woods to drag fallen logs back to a pre-shaped fire pit, fit perfect for an evening gathering.
Of the wheel’d procession was a green combi – The Grassy Bowl typed across its side. This particular van was customised into a kitchen and housed on tap homemade kombucha, toasted banana bread and delicious granola all lovingly prepared by Olivia and Hiromi. The roof, instead of a pop top flipped on one side to produce a blackboard menu and space for the chef to stand, the side window folded down into a wooden bar on which elbows were rested.
As the night fell and probiotics consumed the gathering gathered round yonder fire and revelled in music and speech, Aaron and Levi from VanderAa played sweet rhythms and some of the Vanlife focalisers gave welcomes and encouragements. I felt the group begin to synchronise and settle after the long day of movement, some from Sydney, some from Brisbane, Canberra and even as far as Melbourne flung the passionate campers.
A slight breeze touched my skin, which demonstrated its courage and became a strong wind, a murmur in the crowd as spots of moisture carried with. The wind now gale force and a down pour – side pour – hit the camp. The group dispersing in a star pattern as the van residents ran to their homes to protect whatever lay vulnerable to the earth bound torrents. I returned in time to catch my awning which was now comically flapping around like a flag on a motorcade, more comic were my attempts to hold the thing down. With one hand grasping the bucking frame while winding it in with the other – the wind strong enough to lift me off my feet – I eventually tamed the savage beast. That was my end, I tucked away for the night snug under blanket as the wind rocked the van and I to sleep.
It was good to have daylight to see the smiling faces all around, some made the long journey straight after work and arrived late at night. I walked from van to van, meeting new friends, the common theme – what’s your setup like? Each van was different, bed layout, kitchen space, some designed their home from scratch where once an empty shell now housed slide out sinks and fridges, one van boasted a gas heated hot water system for a shower, luxury.
A group of us went for a swim in the river, walking carefully barefoot over hard river rocks to a wide opening, a deep pool as advertised by one who had swum earlier, I stripped my top and waded in, my ankles numb before the water touched my knees. Before I could listen to the complaints of mind I dove under, many words came to me after I surfaced, refreshing was one of them – I saw others dive under with similar reactions and O shaped mouths. The sun came out and we basked on the rocks like lizards, easy conversation bought on by the good feeling after such an icy plunge.
As the sun began to lower and the rich evening colours came out the fire was kindled into life and became an attraction to the gatherers. Some yoga sessions were hosted, some music was shared and ideas were discussed. What I really love about gatherings like these – well any gathering of any folk really – is that we have the opportunity to realise that everybody is really good at something and to share with our brothers and sisters is so important. Personally I drink in the learnings with such gratitude for the one who has the passion inside them to learn and teach. Together we know everything and can do anything.
That night elders from the Thunghutti mob visited to share stories and talk about the land, the meeting facilitated by Warren who with his YARN initiative bridges the gap between indigenous and western folk. Aunty Esther and Aunty Gladys yarned with us, telling of the massacres that had happened here and stories behind the town, Aunty Esther’s great grandfather being the sole survivor of one such barbarity by so acclaimed civilised humans. Aunty Gladys made delicious damper and scones for the group and we shared jokes, questions and later music, a talent show of creative gifts to the fire and surrounds.
Toby from Desert Pea Media was set to show some films the night before but all was lost to the rain and wind. Tonight an announcement and a white van positioned near the fire, the backdrop for projected image. A fancy portable battery system designed by Goal Zero, charged by the sun, sat waiting while a laptop was set up and connected to projector.
Desert Pea go from community to community making and showing films to instil pride to young indigenous, to reverse the suppression and shame that has been so prevalent in their people. Among the hundreds he and his team have made we saw three such screenings all starred by locals giving their wisdom in song to fat beats. The next day Toby and crew would be enroute to Wilcannia for another shoot and show. The night then slowed down by the amber glow of the fire and I eventually slunk to bed.
Sunday morning, last day of the gathering, I drew back the curtains and slid the door open, smiling in front of me was Warren and Tim, they were both about to leave for Bellbrook to rouse Warren’s mob and prepare a farewell meal for the gathering in town, rumour had it that fish were caught in the river and would be the centre of the feast today. I got out and stretched, the air wafted with brewed coffee and fried eggs, enough to move the senses toward nourishment.
The morning was slow, folk took it easy, sharing words and hot drink, a film crew from USYD Update wandered from van to van taking photos and interviews – What is it like to live in a van? How long have you been doing it? What misconceptions do people have about van bound nomads? – That last question struck me as the most interesting, in the underlying currents of mind the idea that van folk take drugs, drink and are generally loud seems to have solidified in popular understanding. In my opinion the diversity of experience that occurs with constant movement and challenge negate the need for any substance based distractions, I am in awe of my surroundings naturally and always grateful of the people I come in contact with. This, I could see in others around the gathering, the happiness, the freedom, the absence of fear. More and more I see that the clinging of stature and possessions begets a wasteful life. The lesson here? Create with all your heart using that which you have, do not wait for better circumstances.
I packed up, my routine becoming so efficient I am able to go from fully set up to ready to drive in around ten minutes. I met Elle and Hayden, two strangers now travelling companions met among themselves to come to this gathering, they spoke of bingo fuel and a fear of being stranded. I would drive with them back to Bellbrook for fuel and a fish cook up.
We made it. Back at the town a few were gathered under a park shelter, flags from our two nations hung from one side and after a bit of a yarn the food was displayed on a long table, we ate and spoke of future travels – at the end a big thank you, a big photo and long farewell. In uncertainty of direction I spoke to a few and eventually decided on a swim in the ocean and a sleep at Crescent Head, I felt somewhat better with direction but that old feeling of leaving such a loving group once again sat with me as I got behind the wheel.
Here’s the video!