One of the most appealing aspects of the van life movement is in the dreaming. Not just the romanticized idea of the open road and perpetual travel. The magic is within the actual physical process of turning the intangible ideas and spectacularly rudimentary sketches that come to you in the middle of the night into a reality — the van buildout. That particular dream lies down the road for her and me; the nature of our Antipodean adventure did not truly allow for it. Our work-and-holiday visas expire within a year and a thoughtful buildout, even in a familiar place, could take that much time and more. So we, of let’s have a crazy rough skeleton-like plan for our Australian travels notoriety, decided to give ourselves one month (or so) in Melbourne and the surrounding areas to search for the ideal home on wheels.
In theory, this plan worked. During the months leading to our transpacific flight, we religiously checked Gumtree, an Aussie classifieds website, and found that a good deal of 4x4 and camper-van options were constantly being put up for sale. As expected, the great ones sold fast, others lasted a few weeks, and the options which, upon looking at the pictures, I classified under “I can smell that van from here” were stuck in second market limbo. We became well-versed in our eventual options and tried not to grow excited when a great van appeared while we were still months away. We had to believe that the cosmos would look upon us favorably, aligning the stars and planets in such a way as to provide us with a reliable home abroad. This was the biggest source of my anxiety as we traveled cross country towards LAX with Kathryn’s family.
As the days to our departure reached single digits, a dark cloud of doubt settled over my soul as daily online searches produced van options that, regrettably, fell under the photographic miasma category. There was a 4x4 that had been on sale for a few weeks without any offers, which filled me with equal parts worry and hope. Upon settling into our St. Kilda Airbnb, we made plans to look at the 4x4 Troopy Landcruiser. Immediately, we understood that this kind of vehicle, while great for outback adventures off the beaten path, was just too small for us. Aside from that, the 4x4 had a particular odor that was not immediately noticeable via the posted photographs but was indeed present upon entering it. The other available options during our first couple of days in Melbourne were legitimate backpacker vans — old work vans that had a mattress haphazardly installed in the hull and, usually, had several storage bins either under the mattress or precariously installed by the rear door. These are popular amongst backpackers; I imagined being able to live in it for a maximum of two or three months before losing my mind. We needed a camper-van with more storage and a more thoughtful layout, and preferably, a pop-top as to not develop an undesirable hunch while constantly bumping our heads on the restrictive ceiling.
Enter Thib’Oz. The listing, posted in the early morning hours of our third day abroad, described a 1992 Mazda E2000 with a pop-top roof, awning, air conditioning, with the ability to run on LPG and unleaded petrol, and a plethora of other appealing options. The pictures confirmed the claims and, while clearly edited to make the colors as saturated as possible, revealed Thib’Oz to be a tiffany blue beastie with silver and white accents. The posting stated that it would be available for purchase from mid-August in Melbourne or at the end of August / beginning of September in Sydney. We contacted the sellers, two French backpackers at the tail-end of their Australian adventures, and introduced ourselves and our interest in their home on wheels. They planned to be in Melbourne in two weeks, on or around August 15th, so we hoped for the best and continued our search.
As we have learned, delays occur for all sorts of reasons in the van life. Sometimes, they are mechanical in nature, other times, it depends on a personal choice to stay longer in a location you had only planned to drive through. The sellers found jobs 200 kilometers from Melbourne and let us know their initial plans had changed. They would be showing the vehicle to all interested parties on the 20th, about an hour away in Lilydale, but they gave priority to us and one other couple. This granted us the opportunity to buy it on the 18th or 19th in Mansfield. We did not have many options at this point, during the first two weeks of August, we had seen little that rivaled the options and assumed comfort of Thib’Oz.
Kathryn was immediately annoyed that the estimated date of the 15th had been surpassed by almost a week and the described scenario forced us to either purchase the vehicle on the spot on the 18th or risk getting into a bidding war on the 20th. I was trying to be optimistic, trying to account for the unaccountable aspects of a nomadic existence, but neither of us were happy with the situation, especially with the idea of having to travel to an unfamiliar place with a large sum of money (previous communication had revealed a preference for cash payment). After they assured us we’d be the first to see Thib’Oz, we made plans to drop off our bags in our new Airbnb rental on the 18th and jump on the bus that would have us in Mansfield, a fairly expensive ski-town, in about three and a half hours. If the van met our needs, we’d be driving it back to Melbourne that same day.
On the 17th, Kathryn found a new listing for a pop-top caravan with a recently reconditioned engine, being sold by two Brits named Lee and Abi, that appealed to us. The asking price was way north of our budget, but Kathryn contacted them anyway and we soon found out the vehicle was also in Mansfield. That evening, we got the following message from the owners of Thib’Oz — “We are really sorry but we have an unexpected personal emergency. We would like to book a night in a hotel for you in Mansfield (and pay for it of course) and we will come with the van on the 19th…We are really sorry for the unexpected event. Tell us if you are ok with that and we can book a night for you. Thank for your patience. And sorry again.” Kathryn’s spidey senses had been activated the moment the date and location of the sale had changed; my fledgling optimism faded into pragmatic paranoia. Had we fallen victim to a scam or just unfortunate circumstance? Genuine fear raced in our individual minds, even now, I have to reign in my worst case scenario imagination. If we accepted their offer, were we headed towards a bathtub full of ice and coolers waiting to be filled with kidneys and other internal organs or was it a simple mugging in our future?
This is where the entire situation became questionable and led to us traveling to Mansfield via bus with concealed weapons. Aside from our lives, we carried nothing of value, except our mobile phones and the aforementioned blades. Initially, I wanted to leave Kathryn behind in Melbourne, if this turned out to be a scam, I’d prefer to be the only one in danger. But if you know Kathryn, you know that this was not an option. A few searches on social media produced profiles for the Thib’Oz sellers, they seemed to be two carefree women, who are indeed on an Australian adventure, but fake profiles are a reality, as is identity theft. We did some research on Mansfield and found several lodging options, so we replied to their message with thinly veiled skepticism to let them know we’d be booking our own room, looking at a different camper-van option on the 18th while we waited for them to be available on the 19th and that whichever vehicle we chose to purchase would be done so via bank check. The subtext of our communication was very clear, we are suspicious, we do not want any trouble, and, ultimately, it would not be worth bringing any trouble our way.
The lack of sleep the night before and on the bus ride into Mansfield only added to my paranoia. As we boarded the bus in Melbourne, I took the measure of our fellow passengers, then took my aisle seat, flipping my snapback to the proper position and lowering the brim over my closed eyes, preparing myself for what was to come. Kathryn later commented that she had never seen me in a state of such high alert and that a rather menacing animal focus had transformed my face into something fierce. As the bus approached the station, I made note of the faces around us and waited for them to reappear during our stay. If this was a scam, having not fallen into the hotel trap still left us open to some sort of sinister targeting.
We walked up and down the main street of Mansfield, spotted the police station right next to the post office, and decided upon the hotel across the street from both. After settling in, Lee and Abi let us know that they’d be ready to show us the van around 1 PM and that they were located behind the hardware store. I had already suspected this camper-van to also be a part of the potential Thib’Oz scam, I mean, how could it not be? These pop-top campers are few and far between and then they both happen to be getting serviced in Mansfield. Highly suspect. We messaged that we’d be on the way shortly, left our phones in the hotel room, and discussed strategy. Kathryn would keep an observatory distance upon approach and we planned to never turn both of our backs to Lee and Abi or whoever was waiting for us behind the hardware store. I tucked my 10 inch Base Camp X khukri into the interior pocket of my jean jacket and secured my bush knife to Kathryn’s hip. Do not fret, I had spent several hours practicing smoothly pulling the blade out of its sheath without fumbling the movement. Come what may, this crazy heavy chopping blade would not be late to the party.
I’ve never felt more foolish in my life — trying to inspect the camper-van while keeping the handle of my khukri casually concealed in the inner pocket of my jean jacket as I stiffly moved my upper body was not ideal. The instant we met this particular van life couple, our concern for our safety dissipated. That fear was replaced by the realization that this van, clearly loved by its soon to be former owners, belonged in a Wes Anderson film and would be eventually purchased by others with a more flexible (read: ample) budget. Lee and Abi had been on the road for about two years and we instantly connected with them. I am forever grateful that our paths crossed in Mansfield, and Kathryn and I both hope that this life of ours brings us back to them at some point. One instantly knows when they’ve found members of their tribe.
Abi, a musician with a background in musical instruction, was an absolute sweetheart and extremely patient during our test drive of their van. From our experience with her, I have no doubt she’s a phenomenal teacher. Oh, I haven’t mentioned that Kathryn rarely (read: never) drives stateside and between the two of us we had about an hour or two of attempting to drive stick shift? Well, now you know what Abi painfully found out. We then spent what felt like hours talking about their experiences with van life; they too were skeptical about the whole Thib’Oz scenario and warned us about other scams they had seen and, unfortunately, fallen victim to during their travels. After introducing us to WikiCamps Australia, (a backpacker / van lifer / grey nomad application that has become our road bible for finding anything from free camps, water tank refill spots, and beautiful lookouts) we walked back to the hotel and discussed financial options in an attempt to make an offer on their van.
When we got back to the hotel, we contacted the Thib’Oz sellers and inquired if there was some way that we could see the van the night of the 18th or early on the 19th since the time they had set for the 19th would have us missing the last bus back to Melbourne and we were not eager to spend another night as potential targets. After some back and forth, they tentatively agreed to possibly be in Mansfield around 10 or 10:30 PM. Having forgotten to pack our phone chargers, I turned off my phone in frustration. I had decided to quit on the whole Thib’Oz deal when Kathryn convinced me to turn my phone back on to see if they had texted. They indeed had and had been waiting by the post office for about half an hour by the time I got the message. We readied ourselves in the same manner as before, thankful that while the sun had set, we were meeting in an open space right next to the police station.
While we did not click with Cindy and Natasha in the same manner as Abi and Lee, Thib’Oz turned out to be the real deal and the girls had done their best to prepare him for the sale. It turns out that the weird vibe we were getting from them originated from their French sensibilities and an English as a second language issue. After the usual activities involved in shopping for a car were performed, we agreed to officially purchase the vehicle the following day.
Like most of our days in Victoria, August 19th began as overcast -- drizzling rain on us from the moment we woke up, during the several hours we waited for Cindy and Natasha to get off of work, and throughout the early evening hours that Kathryn and I spent driving up and down the streets of Manfield familiarizing ourselves with the mechanics of the van formerly known as Thib’Oz. Not entirely sure of our capabilities behind the wheel, we officially headed towards Melbourne as the sun set.
The usual two and a half hour drive from Mansfield to Melbourne turned into almost four. Remember we were dealing with severely limited experience driving a manual vehicle, plus the added challenge of driving on the left side of the road; additional challenges included the thick sole of my Danner boots that I wore to optimize my ass kicking potential and losing power every time I failed to downshift on inclines — what fun. By the time we pulled up to our Airbnb the nervous energy that had slowly built up inside of me throughout the drive needed to be vanquished.
I, regrettably, ignored my upbringing and instead of saying hello to our lovely host, John, and his house guests, I went directly into the shower where the scalding hot water washed away months of anxiety and I emerged relaxed and at ease. This only lasted a few hours as I was terrified to drive the vehicle in the city the next morning, so I didn't, or the day after that, or the one that followed either. I had expended all my bravery on the bravado of the potential Thib'Oz scam.
In retrospect, I have no idea what would have happened if we had been in a situation where pulling out our concealed weapons crystallized into a reality. Another day had come and gone in our travels in which I had not contributed to the long list of comically absurd Florida Man headlines — not today, “Florida Man Hacks French Backpackers to Death During a Lost in Translation Moment,” not today.
And so, we have thrown ourselves headfirst into the van life movement, each day is different but the reasons why we took to the road and the dream remain the same —