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Belles on Location

My African Home on Wheels

Why would someone live in a house when they can live in a camper van?

Perhaps you’re experiencing the same reaction as I did two years ago, when I was posed this question on a beach in Mozambique.

The questioner was my future husband, and the camper van in question, my future home.

But two years ago, my eyebrows had peeked up in surprise and my shoulders had heaved in mocking laughter. Yet when I had opened my mouth to spew my retort, I’d found I had none.

It appeared Bruno had a point. His camper van was pretty cool.  It had every convenience a house provides – a bed, a kitchen, central power, an awning. Plus, it moved.

It was the fact that it moved that won me over in the end. Leaving my own stationary house behind, I tentatively began my life as a camper van denizen on a pan-African tour.

Bruno and I taking a break from the road.

Bruno and I taking a break from the road.

Those of you who prefer a sedentary life, complete with the security of routine and the sameness of the scenes projected day by day out your window, do not read on. A house is your ideal abode. 

Those of you who need space to stow the clutters of consumerism and the necessities of modern life, stop reading. Camper van life will not be for you. 

Those of you who prefer jet-setting and package vacations to rugged road trips and independent travel, cease examining this article. You will despise traveling in a camper van.

But for the rest of you, I ask, why live in a house when you can live in a camper van?

In a camper van, life and travel become united as one.  A visit to the grocery store becomes an anthropological study of a local market and its people. An evening stroll becomes an exploration of unchartered terrain. Neighbor’s become doorways into cross-cultural understanding. The road driven from one point to another becomes an expedition of discovery.

Stocking up on fresh fruit and veggies at a local market in Tanzania.

Stocking up on fresh fruit and veggies at a local market in Tanzania.

And yet, when the novelty and excitement become too much, you step inside your camper van, close the door behind you, and you are home.  Your bed, with your own familiar sheets and beloved pillow, is there. Your drawers, stuffed with your personal collection of clothes and books, are there.  Your fridge, overflowing with your comfort foods of choice, is there.  Inside your camper van, you find necessary rest and refuge.

Our home needs a bit of TLC from time to time.

Our home needs a bit of TLC from time to time.

And outside your camper van, under the shade of the awning, you stare, mesmerized, at the varied vistas in front of you.  One night, it might be a salt pan in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, and the next it could be a hippo-infested river where elephants come to drink. 

Sometimes, you will eat your breakfast peering out at the morning majesty of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and other mornings, you will drink your coffee to the lapping of the waves of the Indian Ocean.

Parked for the night with the pink flamingoes at the Sowa Pan, in Botswana.

Parked for the night with the pink flamingoes at the Sowa Pan, in Botswana.

Breakfast with the rising sun at the deserted Marafa Depression in Kenya.

Breakfast with the rising sun at the deserted Marafa Depression in Kenya.

True, your life will be simple.  You will not have a lavishly decorated home, with paintings on the wall and flower vases on the table. Your drawers will not carry the latest runway fashions. You will not have separate rooms for your office, library, guest room, and wine cellar. Nor will you have a laundry machine or dishwasher. Sometimes, you may not even have electricity.

But simple also means uncomplicated. Without the conveniences (read: trappings) of the modern world, you are free to slow down and savor life. 

To wake when the sun rises, rather than when your alarm goes off. To hit the open road, in whichever direction you want, unbound by timetables and public transportation routes. To sit in a hammock along the edge of the water and daydream, rather than worrying about deadlines and bosses and who’s posted what on Facebook. To gaze at the nighttime stars and to remember that we are mere moments in time, specks in the greater cosmos of existence.

Anyone for a relaxing read in the hammock, oceanside?

Anyone for a relaxing read in the hammock, oceanside?

On safari at Lumo Community Wildlife Reserve in Kenya.

On safari at Lumo Community Wildlife Reserve in Kenya.

And without those same [expensive] modern trappings, your dollar is freed up to be spent on [more?] memorable things – national park entries instead of satellite television, cultural village visits instead of bar tabs, and local handicrafts instead of Louis Vitton. Since campsites cost less than mortgages, food from local markets less than Whole Foods, and we all drive to work anyway, basic expenses are cut in half, making self-, part-time, and freelance employment achievable realities.

Most of these things Bruno didn’t tell me on that beach in Mozambique that fateful day. Instead, he ended his appeal simply: “The Touareg people have a term for a house – the tomb of the living.”

After living in a camper van for two years, I have to say I’m inclined to agree.

Riding into Zambia's South Luangwa National Park for a morning safari.

Riding into Zambia’cs South Luangwa National Park for a morning safari.

A sometimes expat, an oftentimes wanderer, and ever a documenter of experiences, I have been obsessively traveling the world almost non-stop for nearly a decade. Now two years into an around-the-world-trip in an old Toyota-cum-camper van with my husband, and we're STILL stuck in Africa! Read about our trip (and see our photos) at wanderingfootsteps.blogspot.com

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