I have been meeting some truly inspiring people in my travels through the South West. One such person is Sally. Sally is a young high school teacher who lives in her own caravan. Her caravan is currently parked on an organic farm, surrounded by forest, on the outskirts of Margaret River.
While Sally does not define herself as a minimalist, she lives a simple life with few possessions. She also pays close attention to reducing waste and living off the land as much as possible.
For these reasons, I realised that she would make an excellent subject for the Intentional Living series. I knew that you would love to hear from Sally about her life and home in the South West.
Sally generously agreed for me to interview her and photograph her home.
Explain a little about what you do in your daily life and who you are.
In my daily life I am a qualified English and Art teacher, but I majored in English. Five days a week I teach at the local high school. In my down time, I am gardening out in the bush, doing art, going to the beach. Minimal time is spent in the little home, but that was the whole point of it. I’m just trying to be outdoors as much as possible.
How did you come to develop the idea of living in a caravan?
Well I’ve been interested in tiny houses, as people have in the last few years, as the movement has really kicked off Australia and New Zealand. There is an amazing van life guy on YouTube. He does awesome videos that inspired me. It was in the last year of uni that I really started thinking about what I was going to be doing the next year. I didn’t want to do share housing any more. I couldn’t do a mortgage; all the classic issues of our generation. When I finished uni, I wanted to go WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) around WA; that’s how I travelled for a while through Tasmania, meeting amazing people, living sustainably. I came to this property and and fell in love with the place, the people and the community. The people at the property were super supportive of my ideas about tiny houses and alternative lifestyles. They prompted me to just start with a caravan. You’ve got a shell, it’s minimal work, and if it doesn’t work, you just sell it as a caravan, it’s not a big deal. If you try to take the plunge into a true tiny house it’s a much bigger deal. The rest is history. I worked on it in Esperance with my dad and now I’m living back on the same property in the caravan.
How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?
So you’ve experienced quite a lot at a young age! How long were you travelling around Tasmania for?
Just a couple of months. It was during a uni break and so I only went to three places. When you go WWOOFing you tend need to be in one place for longer than just a week. I spent a couple of weeks in each place.
WWOOFing is seasonal, isn’t it?
Very much so. I was there in summer. I wasn’t going to go there in winter time. WWOOFing has been the way that I like to travel. I’d like to do it more. I’ve never WWOOFed internationally, but there are amazing places. I find it’s a way I can build a network, because with the tiny house movement it’s all about who you know. Where are you going to park, where are you going to live? Through WWOOFing and meeting like-minded people, I have a network of two or three places for sure, that I know that if I was in a pickle, I could call and say, ‘hey, can I park the caravan for a few months?’ and they would probably say ‘sure’.
Can you explain a little bit about how you put your caravan together?
So am I very lucky to have a dad who is very handy. He was very supportive. Well they were both very supportive, but I think my mum was a little more doubtful of whether I could live small, just because I was notorious for being very messy as a kid. Thankfully I have my dad, and he was amazing. He pretty much had to re-weld the a-frame, because this is a 1971 Franklin model that had been sitting by the beach for years and years, so it had quite a bit of rust damage. The trailer needed a little reinforcement, but other than that it was in amazing condition. I wouldn’t have bothered to buy it if it was falling apart because it’s pointless. We went through the books and we got fully registered. The electrics and the plumbing were all safe. Then it was just a case of stripping out and starting again. I didn’t strip it out entirely, I’ve left some bits of the classic 70’s caravan structure, like the lighting and the cupboards that are along the walls as they make great storage. The kitchenette side was the same, but we ripped up unnecessary things like the L-shaped couch. It was amazing what just a bit of paint did. My ethos was that I wanted it to have as many reclaimed and sustainable materials as possible. It meant the build was slower than it could have been. You could do a caravan conversion in a week or two, because it’s not difficult to build a bench and things like that if you got someone who has the know-how with power tools. Because I wanted it all to be found materials, it took a little more time to source that recycled stuff and go to secondhand shops hunting. I was very fortunate that my dad is a timber floor layer, so pretty much all the wood was from his scrapyard. We just pulled it out, polished it up and put it together. That not only met my ethos on being recycled, but also kept the cost way down, which was another huge priority for the build.
So how long did it take approximately to put it all together?
I was working on it over weekends and after school over three terms while I worked relief and part time. In total it probably would have been maybe five weeks.
That’s pretty good. Are you comfortable telling us how much it cost you in total?
Absolutely. The caravan originally was $2000, but luckily my my dad out got it down to $1800. Getting it over the pits was the most painful process.
So what does that actually mean?
Getting the electrics rewired, getting the lights working again, getting the gas checked. To get it up to Western Australian standards you need to get the proper stamp of approval, which this one has now. We got a qualified electrician to do that by the books. When it comes down to it, that’s about the safety of the caravan. That was about $900. For the remainder of it I was pretty bad keeping track of costs, but it was definitely all under $3000, including the renovations. The most expensive part was the caravan and getting it over the pits. When it came to the build, the fact that my dad had the power tools and a lot of the materials made it pretty cheap. The vinyl flooring was an off-cut from an old job that I got cheap, and that was a great deal. I’m very pleased with the cost, and it’s paid itself off.
What do you see as the main benefits of living in the caravan?
I was approaching it from two angles at first; environmental impact, tiny houses are known to be kind on the earth, and the cost side of it. Being a poor uni student with a HECs debt, the money was a big part of it. I think the surprising thing that has come out of it has been freeing up my time. I never really thought about that until I was living in it, it’s surprising just how more free I am by having a small space. I have more time to do things I really love and genuinely care about, rather than being tied down by a huge house, cleaning, or worrying about bills. Being a teacher is all consuming, and then if I had a house on top of it, it would be just so overwhelming. So I think that it was important to have a proper balance of lifestyle.
What are some of the challenges you have faced living in a tiny home?
Now that we’re getting into the cooler months… The caravan isn’t insulated, because that was going to be a way bigger job than it was worth, for something that I’m realistically only going to live in for a couple of years. Surprisingly, it’s actually pretty warm. When I get cooking in here it warms up pretty quickly. I’d say keeping it warm, though again, I’ve got a hot water bottle, I have thermals, I’ve got Ugg boots, and a small heater warms up the space easily. I haven’t had a need for a lot of guests, because when guests come they come in summer, so we can swag it outside, but I suppose it would be good to have space for a guest in the caravan. When I was designing the caravan, I thought it would be great to have another space for someone, but I had really good advice from people saying just accommodate your needs first, because you’re the person living in this the majority of the time. That was really good advice; to worry primarily about myself. Other than that, nothing really worries me. I guess some people would be concerned the caravan doesn’t have a wet area. It was going to be too complex to put a bathroom in and too heavy as well. I use the outdoor shower here, and there is a compost toilet in the bush. Some people could be worried about that, but I’m not worried about it at all, I really like it.
You don’t have running water at all, do you? You have your water in a tank, an esky, so you have to fill that up yourself?
Yeah. I absolutely could have had running water, because the caravan is equipped with a sink, but it was about the practicality of putting in something bigger, because the caravan sink is piddly. It was weighing up whether it was going to be a bigger job that it’s really worth. So then I thought, I may as well cut out the middleman, I have this big enamel tub which I got from an op shop, which is my sink. I fill up the esky from a tap outside. I heat up my water in a kettle, then I can tip the water straight onto the garden. It’s super easy. I thought that would have been one thing that would have really annoyed me, but you just get used to it. I’ve always got a bottle sitting by the sink, and that’s my tap, so I can tip that onto my toothbrush, or fill a cup. It’s maybe two extra little steps, filling it up and then tipping it out, but it’s not a big deal.
You’ve brought the caravan from Esperance to Margaret River, which is basically where you have stayed the whole time. If you move, will you take the caravan with you? What do you think your future holds?
The funny thing is, the caravan is completely moveable, it tows beautifully, but it’s a case of deciding based on my situation. If I get more teaching work here, then I will stay on with the caravan. If I don’t get work next year I may go travelling in a van. It could stay here, or I sell it. No biggie, it was $3000 in the end. I might not even sell it, there are lots of really cool organisations that collect caravans for the homeless. I know someone down here who is looking to set up a little caravan park for the homeless, I’d really love to donate it to something like that because it wasn’t about the money, and it hasn’t been, because I have a healthy income as a teacher.
What are some practical first steps that you would recommend to someone who wants to begin a more nomadic life?
I listened to this fantastic podcast about a guy living on a permaculture farm in America. It’s an amazing story how he got this place, but basically his philosophy is if people want to make a change and they move into it too quickly, most of the time it fails, because people jump into it far too quickly. His advice was to write down a list of what you enjoy that you’re doing now, what you wish you were doing, what don’t you like that you’re doing. Look at your list, it doesn’t matter how long the list is, and choose one that you could realistically start on right away and dedicate yourself to doing that for forty days, because studies have found that it takes a person forty days to establish a habit. Stick to it, and if you can do it, try the next thing. That podcast was so inspiring, literally the next day I decided I wanted to ride my bike more. I’d put off buying a bike for ages, and after listening to that podcast I went and bought myself a mountain bike, and rode everyday to school and around Esperance. It’s a little bit harder to ride my bike now, but I still ride to school, it’s about forty minutes. I recommend that sort of advice. Whatever you’re trying to change, do it in one step, one small step. When I was thinking about getting a caravan, I was WWOOFing and staying in a caravan, so I was able to experience living in that space. I also lived out of a backpack, and that’s a really good way to figure out how much stuff you need for example. Just do it piece by piece, bit by bit.
A big thank you to Sally for taking her time to sit down with me.
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