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Life On The Road: @jennifervaniston


Ollie’s self-built ’85 Hiace campervan has taken him up and down the coast of Queensland and into New South Wales, Australia. Along the way, he discovered a love for surfing, random detours, and a calico cat named Marbles. Follow along on this geologist’s van journey @jennifervaniston and hear what he’s learned from his time on the road.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and where are you going? 

“I’m Ollie. I’m 32 years old, and am originally from New Zealand, but spent half of my life growing up in China! I try to keep the future pretty fluid, but for now I’m working on becoming a good geologist of all things.”

 

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What was your main desire for buying a campervan and hitting the road?

“My dad had a Kombi van back in the day which we used for multiple adventures. It was then replaced by an ’80s 4×4 Mitsubishi Delica van, so van’s have always been in my blood. One of my many jobs I worked back in the day was as a snowboard filmmaker in China. We basically created China’s first snowboard movies, and as we got a bit of sponsorship behind us, it allowed us to travel for filming. One of the best trips I went on was to New Zealand.” 

“We rented a campervan and just chased where the snow was going to be good. I was hooked on the freedom, having our bedroom on wheels, and meeting people doing the same along the way. Many years later, I found myself stuck in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere Australia, extremely bored, lonely, and with a 6-month work hiatus coming up. I wanted to travel, I didn’t want to have to plan ahead of time where to go, and I didn’t want to spend money on accommodations so I started building Jennifer Vaniston.”

 

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How long have you been on the go?

“Since I was about 7! My family moved to China in 1993, and since then I’ve visited 31 countries and lived in about 8 different cities. I’ve had the van for about 2 years now and traveled almost 50,000 kilometers. I haven’t been in it full-time lately. We’re now part-timers due to work commitments.” 

What kind of vehicle are you traveling in and why did you choose it?

“It’s a 1985 Toyota Hiace, originally converted by Suncamper. It’s a YH61 with a 3Y 2l petrol engine and automatic trans. I’m a big old-school Toyota nerd to be honest. In New Zealand we have access to Japan’s second-hand car market, and this would be my seventh mid-80s Toyota. So I knew I wanted an old Toyota van as the basis for my build. My other requirements were bench seats in the front, a pop-top, and for it to be crappy inside as I planned to rip it all out anyways.” 

How did you come up with her name? 

“I basically short-listed a bunch of fun names (including Jennifer Vaniston), checked Instagram to see if they were taken, and while I hadn’t made a decision myself at the time, someone from work started referring to her as Jennifer so it stuck! Also, Jennifer Aniston is beautiful as she matures, so I feel the likeness translates well.” 

 

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What kind of renovations have you made?  

“I ripped everything out from the inside and started from scratch. So new carpet, new bed, drawers, counter, curtains, power setup. etc. A few things weren’t by choice — I accidentally drove through a carport with the roof up midway through the build and had to replace the poppers and canvas, a very expensive and time consuming lesson learned.” 

“I’m by no means a carpenter, and it shows. To be honest, if you look too closely at some of the workmanship you’ll laugh that it hasn’t fallen apart. I trawled the local buy-swap-sell pages for materials. Most things were bought second hand or off eBay. She’s got a working sink, fridge, 220w of solar and 220aH of battery-life so I can play Playstation and watch Netflix at night.”

 

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“I’ve made a few cosmetic changes to the outside including painting the rims, bull-bar etc, and I’ve had to make a ton of mechanical repairs and upgrades over the years as she’s 30+ years old now. Despite the build quality (by me) in some areas, it’s definitely self-built, so I can feel proud of it still.”

What are your favorite off-the-beaten-path places you’ve discovered?

“When I’m driving somewhere, I love taking random detours if I see a sign for a waterfall, dam, national park, etc. — so a lot of my ‘discoveries’ actually end up being well-known places. A standout would be having wombats roaming around and rubbing up against the van in Bendeela camping ground and dolphin and whale spotting in Angourie.” 

How do you balance work as a geologist and traveling?

“Up until recently I worked an 8:6 roster, (8 days on, 6 days off) which was perfect for trips up and down the coast. Sometimes I’d leave my van somewhere and fly back to work and continue the trip after. I realize I’m very privileged to have had this balance, even more so as this year sees me rotate to an office-based position (temporarily) doing the Monday through Friday thing for a bit. Adventures will be a bit more limited for the next few months but I also make the most of my annual leave.”

How did your cat Marbles find her way into your life? What’s it like traveling with a cat?

“I adopted Marbles from an RSPCA Clear the Shelters special. I was working my way through a ‘2018 to-do list’ which involved donating to or volunteering at a local animal shelter, and ended up taking Marbles home instead. She couldn’t have adapted to van life better. She likes to just sit up front and nap next to me or lie on the bed and watch the world go by. She’s even learned to ‘nature poop’ in the morning to save me cleaning her litter-box!”

 

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“It does limit some of the places we go and things I can do. I’m lucky that I can have the top up, fans and windows all open and portable air-con running in the shade if I need to head out for a surf, and I have a temperature sensor to check on things too. I also don’t really travel with her over November through February as it’s just too hot. That being said, she’s a really chill and easy-going travel buddy, she doesn’t chase things, likes to have a little explore around wherever we’ve parked and then just nap and chill in the back.”

What’s your absolute favorite spot in Australia?

“I’ve only explored Queensland and some of NSW, so I’m a little biased, but Agnes Water / Town of 1770 is the best. I could stay there and never leave. Pristine, non-crowded surf beaches (including a few secret ones), a pet-friendly bush camp ground for $9.50/night, and really nice chill locals. Blackdown Tablelands National Park nearby also has amazing secret swimming holes which I didn’t discover until my third visit.”

 

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What does a typical day look like for you?

“There’s not much of a typical van-day, and no one wants to hear about my work-day. On an ‘ideal’ van day, I wake up before sunrise and head down to the waves for a surf just as the sun comes up, wave to some dolphins, head back up to the van and Wacaco myself a coffee with some avocado, eggs, tomato, onion, and haloumi on sourdough.”

“Generally, I kill some time while it’s hot during the day until the afternoon surf picks back up — often by streaming whatever NHL game is playing, doing a hike if it’s not too hot, getting some groceries, checking out the local markets, etc. Then an afternoon surf, a bonfire by the beach with beers over sunset, and early to bed to repeat tomorrow.” 

 

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What are your 5 must-have items for van life?

  1. A fridge. “I need cold dark chocolate and a cold beer after a surf in my life.”
  2. A really good speaker. “I have a Marshall Kilburn that looks like an old guitar amp and also absolutely cranks.”
  3. My Wacaco espresso maker. “A fellow camper introduced me to this amazing device a year ago in Agnes Water. It’s hands down the best coffee you’ll have camping, as the hand-pumped pressurized system gets you the crema on top! I’m not exaggerating when I say almost everyone I’ve made a Wacaco coffee for on the road has gone and bought one after.” 
  4. A good toolbox. “Corrugations and bumpy roads makes things break. I have a decent toolbox, an electric drill, and a bunch of cable ties, WD40 and duct tape that can fix most things.” 
  5. RACQ or RACV roadside assistance — one of the high-level packages! “These guys have saved my butt countless times, whether I’ve run out of fuel or if Jennifer refuses to start. It’s a small price to pay for these yellow-shirted heroes to show up when you’re on the brink of tears!”

 

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What’s surprised you the most about life on the road? What have you learned about yourself? 

“It can be stressful and relaxing all at once. It’s more expensive than you think. You will learn to shower anywhere, and your hygiene standards drop exponentially. It can be very lonely one week, and then you’ll meet lifelong friends the next. Cheap wine and beer taste great no matter what so long as it’s cold or you’ve had a long day! As for myself, it’s forced me to slow down, partly because Jennifer can’t go over 110km/h, but also in learning to relax at one spot for a while, clearing my mental ‘to-do’ lists, which used to be hard for me and something I’m getting better at.”

What advice would you give someone wanting to live in a van/RV?

“Pack the bare minimum to start with. If you find you’ve forgotten something, you can probably get it from Kmart for $4. But also don’t feel bad about splashing out on creature comforts to make your van feel like home, whether its an extra pillow or extra battery capacity to watch Netflix with — just #treatyourself. Search Instagram for locations, but also ask locals where to go. While Instagram can guide you in the right direction, locals are more often than not happy to tell you where their favorite spot is — and sometimes even take you there.”

 

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