Van Life with Casey Hawkins
By Alex Hallifax
I met Casey last summer whilst I was catching up with family in Noosa, Australia. At the time Casey was travelling around Australia in the amazing van that she designed and built herself. I was fascinated with the way she managed to do life, work, cook, keep clean and survive in such a small space, however, it was evident that Casey was in her element. One of my favourite concepts and something I like to remind myself often is that not everyone has to live the same way. Being young and ‘full of potential’ is often a very daunting concept. It’s hard to know what to do or where to go. Casey seems to be doing pretty darn well for herself in the ‘real world’ so, in this light I started communicating with her from New Zealand to find out more about the way she lives and to share it with others.
When you graduated high school in Melbourne, how were you feeling about entering the ‘real world’? Did you have any hopes, plans or dreams?
Throughout school I loved to create. In Year 11 I dropped all maths and science subjects to spend most of my time in the art studio. I couldn’t wait to graduate and surround myself with people doing different things so I didn’t go to university.
Doing some pretty crummy jobs motivated me to consider what industry would satisfy my needs long-term. I felt so alive creating art so I considered a career as a secondary school art teacher. I enrolled in a Bachelor of Visual Arts and Education which took four years to complete. During which, I developed a passion for primary education and spent all my free time volunteering in a Year 5/6 classroom.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d become a teacher considering I couldn’t wait to leave school. I remember my class mates being equally surprised when I told them at our school reunion 10 years on. I was viewed as a bit of a hell-raiser because I did things my own way. I think my creativity was often mistaken for stubbornness.
When and how did you begin to build a lifestyle away from the status quo?
I’ve never really fitted the status quo, nor wanted to; although it comes at a price some times. I regularly have to defend my choices and accept that not everyone will approve.
While most of my friends were applying for university, I was applying for pub jobs in Far North Queensland. I acknowledge some of my ideas and actions are odd. For example, I find myself stressing about having too much, rather than not enough. Over the years I’ve found life much easier and enjoyable when I have less “stuff”. I can move around freely and spend less time comparing myself to others and what they have.
Not long after finishing high school, Casey moved to the highly remote Groote Eylandt off the coast of Australia’s Northern Territory. Whilst there Casey worked as a teacher in a year 3 classroom. The school was predominately made up of children whose parents were working to assist the running of the mines. There was a mixture of Indigenous students, permanent Australian residents and Internationals. After living and teaching there for two years, Casey decided it was her time to move on.
I loved the picture book you made about curiosity for your students in Groote Eylandt when you were deciding to leave for your next big adventure in Japan. Why is following curiosities so important to you?
I despise the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”; I think it’s an excuse for people who’ve become too comfortable in their surroundings. I never want to stop learning or feeling challenged. Perhaps I move around so much because I fear becoming stuck in one place. I’ve met teachers who’ve been at the same school for over 20 years, recycling outdated lessons and refusing to adopt the latest technology. I never want to be that person, whether I’m in a classroom or not.
What do Australia’s Aboriginal people mean to you and what was your experience like working in the isolated Northern Territory?
I developed a greater appreciation for nature and Australia’s Indigenous people as a result of living on Groote Eylandt for two years. Many of the Anindilyakwan people who became my friends and students changed the way I viewed the land and life itself. From what I understand, they believe all living things come from the earth and leave the same way. Therefore, death takes on a different meaning, as well as grieving. My students had phenomenal senses. They could spot tiny black honey bees high up in a tree whilst sitting in a moving car. It was eerie how they seemed to know what was happening back in the community without leaving the classroom. I enjoyed how pure they were; in the sense that they hadn’t been moulded by mainstream society. They spoke and acted how they felt in the moment, which I found interesting and refreshing. Sometimes their quick responses would create conflict, which I think is something largely misunderstood by mainstream society. I will never be able to live in their shoes but I really enjoy the challenge of trying to understand their unique perspective on things. I think I’ll always be drawn back to live in Indigenous communities for that reason.
Do you have any life philosophies that get you from one day to the next?
I read somewhere that our thoughts are like background commentary, similar to an MC at a basketball game; meaning the result of our actions, whether good or bad, were done with the best of intentions. I have a tendency to be critical of myself, so by telling myself I did what I thought was right at the time can help me move past negative thoughts. That’s not to say I don’t reflect upon my actions, but I don’t focus on the “what ifs”.
I used to get so overwhelmed thinking about the world’s injustices and how powerless I felt as an individual. My ego had me thinking, “If only I could do this or that, things would be different…”. However, I’ve learned no one person can create significant change on their own; it would be conceited to think one could. I can do my small bit along with everyone else and that’s better than looking away or crying alone. While I still have wildly ambitious plans for the future, I have learned to manage my expectations and see how I fit within the bigger picture.
Over the years, have you had any standout moments, where you had no choice but to be brave, that taught you something valuable about yourself?
Some of my biggest life decisions have been guided by “gut instinct.” When I moved to Groote Eylandt to teach, I hadn’t given my conscious brain much time to process what that really meant. My decision to move to Japan two years later was made in a similar fashion. I kept telling myself, “one day soon I’ll think about what I’m doing,” but six-months would go by and I’d still be saying “it just felt right.” Both of these moves were challenging on so many levels; I didn’t speak Japanese or the local Indigenous language; my safety was somewhat compromised; and I didn’t know a soul when I arrived.
I learned so many valuable lessons while moving around. Aside from meeting countless wonderful people and learning about different cultures, I learned a lot about myself. When I returned home to Australia after living and working in various parts of Japan, I wrote an article called 8 Things I learned living in Japan. In reflection I think the most valuable lesson came from throwing myself into things I wasn’t sure I could do. It proved I’m capable of adapting when I don’t have the choice not to. Everyone should try it!
When and why did you decide to build your own van and make it your permanent home?
The thing I enjoy most about travelling to new places is getting to know the locals and how they live. I spend most of my time in public spaces so I can people watch and strike up conversations. Local knowledge is invaluable; some of my fondest memories have been created in the secret spots and homes of friendly locals. The idea of travelling throughout Australia always appealed to me for that reason. However, it wasn’t until I returned from living in Japan that I felt brave enough to do it alone.
Additionally, I aspired to visit 60 schools throughout Australia to read my children’s book Noonie and the Missing Bone and implement creative writing workshops. It turned out 60 was way too ambitious, given I stayed in some towns for over two months; but the workshops I facilitated were definitely a highlight of my year.
12 months have passed since I bought “Vanny” and I have no plans to sell her even though I’ve based myself in Melbourne…for now. Last year I was fortunate to have the option of working wirelessly most of the time; whereas the next 6-months requires all hands on deck. Later this year I want to drive through the dusty centre, then south along the western coast. I want to visit Uluru more than anything.
How has your life changed since living in a van? Where do you shower, how do you get electricity, where do you store your food, how do you earn money?
I don’t think many people could or would want to live in a van if they knew the reality of #vanlife. Despite what Instagram may have you believe, there’s a huge amount of uncertainty, compromise and public exposure involved. For example, you can’t sleep overnight in public areas unless you’re a super sleuth. You have to get really good at “holding on” and suss out where public toilets are the night before. Passers-by will almost always ask what you’re cooking for dinner and whether they can have some. If you’re working full-time hours, it can become really tiresome.
Over the past year I rarely lived out of the van longer than a few weeks at a time. Mostly I’d park at friends’ places and use their bathroom, or I’d join Facebook community groups and explain my situation and offer some cash in exchange for yard space.
I was surprised by how generous and trusting some people were. For about a month I lived with a young family who insisted I join them for dinner each night and asked me to help decorate the Christmas tree. Those sorts of experiences helped me realise how much I value genuine human connections and how it impacted on my opinion of a place.
I have a flexi-solar panel which powers my 55L fridge and other electricals when the batteries are low. These are separate from my engine battery, but will recharge when the motor is running. After about three days of no driving the batteries will run flat and I’ll have to chuck the solar out in the sun for an hour or so. I have an extension cable attached to the panel so I can always find a sunny spot for it.
I’m pretty lucky to work for organisations with flexible work agreements. It means I can work anywhere as long as I can get internet access. Most mornings I start work in the van, then move outside as the day heats up. I prefer to work in quiet places like parks and coastal rest areas than cafes, especially when I’m writing.
When I began working as a teacher I never imagined myself far from the classroom, but for now my consultancy/content developer role is perfectly suited to my lifestyle. Van life definitely has an expiry date; I’m just not sure when it is.
How did you tell your parents, family and friends that you were going to move into a van fulltime and what did they think!
My parents are not surprised or too concerned by what I do anymore. When I was 20 I went backpacking around Europe solo without an itinerary. Not long after I graduated from university, I moved to a remote island in Arnhem Land to teach. No one had even heard of the place or knew how desolate it was. 10 weeks after travelling to Japan for a holiday I quit my job and moved to Tokyo without a job, a place to live, or a plan for that matter. When I announced I was moving back to Australia and buying a van my parents were supportive of the idea; I think they were just happy to hear I’d be travelling through places they’d heard of before.
If you want to read more about Casey’s amazing and adventurous life, you can check out her blog Nan’s Lucky Duck.
This interview has been edited and condensed.