I sold my house to live in a van and I’ve never been happier

To escape stress and debt, freelance writer Jackie Norman (46) sold her house and embraced life on the road.
Jackie Norman lives in a van

“What I wanted from life was adventure and experiences, not things. I wanted to travel, wherever I wanted, for as long as I wanted.

I had seen English friends’ photos of caravan life and I envied their freedom. They’d seen more of New Zealand in two months than I’d seen in decades.

So in November 2016 I gave it all up for a life on the road in a tiny camper van with a large hairy Welshman and a not much smaller but equally hairy dog.

While many people would consider it an extreme move, I think I’d been subconsciously working towards my little pipe dream for a long time.

I was paying a mortgage as a single mum of two growing lads, and cleaning bathrooms to make ends meet. Things were quite dire and I was fading under the pressure. I didn’t want to rent; I wanted to do something better.

Jackie says ” there’s pretty much nothing you can’t accomplish while living in a van”

One day I went into the local Bunnings to buy parsley and I met Gareth, who worked there.

I left thinking, ‘Behave yourself, woman!’ But we clicked from the start over a shared love of travel and a year after we met, we hit the road. (I had found so many excuses to go back to Bunnings that by the time I sold my house in Whangamata, I had a huge vege garden.)

To begin with, it was really strange to have no routine. I felt a little bit lost in those first few days, but also surprised at how quickly the van became home.

I was such a rookie camper.

One day I took our dog Minnie for a walk along the beach and the heavens just opened. Everything got drenched.

When we got back to the van, there was nowhere to put a drenched dog or wet towels. So all the bedding got wet and I had to spend $18 at the laundromat washing and drying everything.

One of my biggest initial concerns was safety, but we’ve had no scary moments at all.

I expected that wherever we parked up, we’d be surrounded by weirdos. Instead, we’re mostly surrounded by lovely retirees in motorhomes saying: ‘Come in and have a wine.’

Some of our dearest friends now are in their seventies, with so many stories to share.

Many people who read about our lifestyle either dream of doing it themselves but are too scared to in case something goes wrong, or have this misconception that we live this way because we want to get out of things like paying bills, which really grates me. We still pay taxes and insurances.

Sure, we earn less in a month than most people do in a week, but our expenses are so much lower.

My mortgage was once $1500 a month; now we spend just $3000 a year on camping fees!

I spent an unforgettable day kayaking in Milford Sound for less than I used to spend on lunch.

Our clothes are a basic rotation of three outfits: one in the wash, one to wear and one in the drawer.

Jackie and Gareth live a life of freedom and adventure.

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the novelty of waking up in some of the most incredible places. It’s something money can’t buy, yet we get to sleep on the waterfront for free.

Gareth proposed to me at the top of the cliff at Tunnel Beach in Otago. He figured that since we hadn’t killed each other by then, after spending every day together in such a tiny space, we could go through anything.

I bought my wedding dress – a green and gold medieval-style gown – for $30 from a charity shop. If Gareth had been with me, he would probably have suggested we use it to make new curtains for the van.

Things haven’t been all smooth sailing.

A few months after we hit the road, I started getting terrible abdominal pains. The cramping was so bad I was bedridden in the van for about seven months.

I was diagnosed with severe adenomyosis (in which the uterus’s inner lining breaks through the muscle wall), and a hysterectomy followed. People asked me, ‘How can you recover from that in a tiny van?’ But it’s easier than being in a house.

If there’s anything I need, I just reach behind or in front of me!

Unfortunately, the chronic pain returned. Doctors found that it originated from damage of a main nerve in my pelvis.

If we had known at the start of our journey that this would happen, we’d have thought it impossible. But I’m so glad we didn’t know what challenges lay ahead. We wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

We might buy a patch of land one day, but I know now that there’s pretty much nothing you can’t accomplish while living in a van, even writing a book and recovering from major surgery.

We meet countless cancer or heart attack survivors and people who would otherwise be housebound, all out here living their dreams.

For most people, the only thing stopping life from being an adventure is themselves!”

Quick-fire questions:

Favourite campground?

The one at the Gore A&P Showgrounds. It costs $5 a night for an unpowered site and you’ve got showers, a laundry and acres to park up on. Southland is lovely and welcoming too.

Your top tip for life on the road?

Use the CamperMate app because it takes away a lot of those security fears and gives personal reviews of every spot.

One thing we’ve learned is…

To stop more often! We didn’t do enough of that on our way south. But now we take a bit of extra time to check out the little lesser-known places.

The only home comfort I miss is…

Not being able to have a bath!

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