Retirement in van, not in vain.

Our campsite at Kilcunda.

Our stormy campsite at Kilcunda.

I sit on a camp stool clipping my toenails in windy sunlight, the sphinx shape of Phillip Island’s Cape Woolamai the furthest solid thing I can see. In between is some really wild water, steel blue broken up with cranky white froth. Behind me a yellow crescent moon of sand makes the local beach, with ant sized figures walking along its shore and limited opportunities for swimming, even on kindly days .

Our old dog Astro, the pretext for the situation I am about to describe, is wedged into a tiny space next to the bed inside the old caravan we have only a few weeks ago bought. Close by on the island side, sitting on folding chairs are two elderly but athletic women in baseball caps with an old jack russell, our only neighbours last night, the first of our caravan experiment. 

Neighbouring ladies and the view to Cape Woolamai.

Neighbouring ladies and the view to Cape Woolamai.

It is an experiment that at one wild windy stage during that night, I feared might see this ungainly alumninium box with two humans and one dog inside, turned over and tumbled down the cliff we are perched upon to rapidly sink in the uncompromising sea. Such was the ”dangerous” winds that the weather bureau was warning on its website could reach 95 kph, that the van was swaying on its elderly suspension.

This morning other campers are arriving. They chose a better day to do so than us. OK we are complete novices in the art of travelling with a small house attached to our car, a situation which all came about due to the confluence of two events.

Down to the water at Kilcunda beach

Down to the water at Kilcunda beach

Firstly after feeling glum about teaching all year Jill bailed out of her job after more than 35 years ramming the English language into adolescents: 20 of those years at the same Melbourne private school.

The second event was my suggestion we should buy a small caravan when she retired and journey up the east coast in the non-school holiday period, staying in dog friendly camping grounds. This is because Jill’s mum, who usually looks after the dog when we holiday, is now in her late 80s and Astro now 15 gets distressed when we leave him.

Jill was still working when we decided to look for a van, so most searching was up to me. One thing I soon discovered was that the comfortable spacious interiors I admired always meant big awkward bulky exteriors. Funny about that. I seemed to be looking for something like Dr Who’s Tardis. The ones I liked were always far too wide to get through our front gate and too heavy to be towed by my four cylinder Subaru which would probably also be labouring under two sea kayaks on its roof. 

Astro guards his new mobile home while parked in our front yard for repairs.

Astro guards his new mobile home while it was parked in our front yard for repairs.

We had virtually given up on the whole van idea when I thought we should have a look at one on our way up the country, too far away to normally consider. We liked it immediately, it was 30 years old, well maintained and at just 4.5 metres and 820 kg was light enough for our car and the interior was great with well defined sleeping, food preparing and sitting/eating areas. I wasn’t sure about the shantung and lace curtain décor. 

Jill and Astro enjoy the van's comfortable living area.

Jill and Astro enjoy the van’s comfortable living area.

When I got it home, my caravan backing skills were lacking and we needed eight friends to push it under our front yard tree. I spent a couple of weeks fixing things up for our first test run. The first night we slept in it was a wild thunderstorm which was too much for Astro, so while Jill and I slept in the van, the dog slept in the house. 

the old Kicunda railway bridge.

the old Kicunda railway bridge.

The test trip was to be to the camp ground at Kilcunda, a wild windswept beach, just past Phillip Island and just before the wind-farms and desalination plant at Wonthaggi, an area known as West Gippsland. My main image of it was the old wooden railway bridge right in front of the beach, left over from a long closed line which has now been made into a rail-trail path. But to get there I first had to back the van out our narrow front gates, which I measured a clearance on each side of less than 100mm.  

Wonthaggi wind farm.

Wonthaggi wind farm.


I was relieved when I got the thing out, Jill guiding me using our mobile phones as walkie-talkies. I was overjoyed until I heard a crunch and then found half of the van’s front jockey wheel had been ripped off in the dip between our driveway and the street.

First stop was Supercheap Auto to get a new wheel, second was about 40 minutes later when my navigation directed us into a stop-start traffic jam that caused the van’s electric brakes to overheat and fail. We pulled into a slip lane and I became a touch catatonic. Jill rang the RACV, but the van was not covered, I rang various local auto electricians who could not fit us in for between three and five days. After about half an hour of despair, one guy I spoke to said just tow the thing carefully and the car’s brakes should be enough. We were almost blown off the highway on the way by the storm cooking up and then we got lost.

Then brakes came back on when we reached our destination and I later found I had over adjusted the electronic brake control. 

Wild water on Kilcunda beach.

Surging waves on Kilcunda beach.

Jill’s early booking got the best site and the park manager assisted our set-up when Jill told him this was our first caravan trip. 

Waved breaks off Kilcunda beach.

Wave breaks off Kilcunda beach.

I used to scorn the idea of ever being one of those people dragging a caravan, but the idea was planted on our New South Wales south coast trip last July (see previous blog), when we wanted to spend more time kayaking some of those beautiful lakes and bays, but conventional accommodation was expensive. Still the idea of becoming grey or (in Jill’s case) henna nomads seemed unappealing and more in keeping with lovers of country and western than the operas of Richard Wagner.

I am normally an impatient traveller, though I don’t really like being crammed into an aircraft. Trains are my favourite way of getting about, but long distance train travel is crude and slow in Australia. Travelling on the earth’s surface, rather than jetting above it gives respect to distance and we have more than our share of that in this country.

There do seem to be points in life when you suddenly see the sense in doing something that seemed totally ridiculous when you were younger, such as becoming a responsible parent and reliable member of the workforce after being a ratbag adolescent. That’s a pretty common kind of transition.

Jill prepares to celebrate retirement (again).

Jill prepares to celebrate retirement (again).

It seems to me now that life’s defined stages are: birth, toddling, education, work, retirement, caravan, dementia, death. So now in what must be the intermezzo between wisdom and senility, I can sit here on this stool with my nail clippers enjoying the wind in my face and the salt spray from the slowly calming sea tingling my tongue. 

Beach on Phillip Island.

Beach on Phillip Island.

Postscript: we enjoyed six days at Kilcunda. I caught up with an old friend from my former newspaper, who has moved there, built a house and writes books. We made friends with a couple our age who had just bought their first tent and were camping next door. We even held a small dinner party in the van with them- the four empty wine bottles and the same number of sore heads the next morning testament you can entertain successfully even in a little van. Finally we found a great kayaking spot in Westernport Bay off nearby Phillip Island and paddled to a surprisingly beautiful pristine looking beach. 

To view gallery click on the first image.


  1. How wonderful! I cannot believe it: in a caravan and Jill retired! Enjoy your new life and I know you are going to make the most of it. Temperature down in Nantes to -5 this morning. First very cold day. Annick

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