Health and Fitness

‘My van has completely changed my life’ – The Irish Times

There has always been a slight element of chaos built into holidaymaking, but never more than now. This summer, with queues and lost baggage at the airport, and extortionate hotel prices at home, half the country has Joe Duffy on speed dial.

But what if there’s another way?

During lockdown, when the future of flying was uncertain, many of us took more than a passing interest in the romantic idea of a campervan life. The number of motor caravans (including campervans) licensed in the first half of 2021 was 79 per cent higher than in the first half of 2019.

Never ones to miss out on a trend, my husband and I borrowed my cousin’s campervan to try out the experience ourselves. We rattled around the huge six-berth van, with its shower, cooker, the works. Not for this van the stealth camping of little slip roads down to quiet beaches – you’d never turn it around. We drove sadly past the car parks in scenic spots with height barriers. We were towed out of mud in a campsite in Waterford – twice.

But one night, we found a space near a fancy hotel on a beach in Cork. We fried up some lamb chops and with the door open and the sound of the sea and a quiet exhausted dog, it was just about perfect. We had got one over on the expensive way of things. We had just as much beach, just as much sunset, at none of the cost.

The family van

Ciarán Gahan and his wife Eva ordered their new Volkswagen California camper from their local VW dealer in October 2020. It was March 2021 before they got word that their van was arriving in Dublin.

The couple live in Marino in Dublin with their three children Clodagh (8), Oscar (7) and Ultan (3). Gahan remembers the excitement when the van was finally arriving. “My wife actually cycled down to Dublin Port to see if she could see it coming in,” he says. “We were that fascinated by it. It was hilarious.”

Going to the airport, even jumping into a taxi at the start, is a stress with three kids. You’re completely de-stressing being on a boat. It’s slow, you can’t rush around

—  Ciarán Gahan

The couple were no strangers to campervan life. Gahan had acquired one previously from a friend who wasn’t using his. The couple toured Ireland, and went to weddings in it, parking it up in the car park. But after a few years, his friend wanted it back. “I was livid,” Gahan laughs. “But I knew exactly what I wanted in a van.”

In the quiet of lockdown, Gahan started to do some research and found his dream van, one that he could use as a people carrier at weekends. The van was expensive second-hand; it made as much sense to buy it new.

He wasn’t sure, but talked to Eva, “and she was like, will we just get one? She wouldn’t be as big into the campervan as I was, but she knows that if we were doing something together, we’d have good craic.”

The couple opted for a van without a sink or cooker to leave more room for the kids. They bring an awning tent and put a camping kitchen in it. “People tend to think that they need loads of comforts. Like you need a caravan because you need to sit on the couch and watch TV in the lashing rain. You don’t need a whole lot of stuff.”

After a few small trips to the west last year, the family put Toffee to the test and set off for a three-week trip to the French Alps. “I really wanted to do a good proper long spin, because it’s built for that,” says Gahan.

The ferry was a revelation. “It was actually the easiest travel I’ve ever done. Even though we had a 20-hour journey on the boat and a 10-hour journey in the car over three days to get to the Alps, it was enjoyable.” They ate their sandwiches in the ferry queue and in no time, the kids were running around the boat. “Going to the airport, even jumping into a taxi at the start, is a stress with three kids. You’re completely de-stressing being on a boat. It’s slow, you can’t rush around.”

It’s a slower pace of life, but far more enjoyable. I’ve only got one life. I want to enjoy every single day of it

—  Ruth Medjber

Gahan had cycled around the Alps previously and knew that summer in the mountains would be cooler. The ski areas and lifts were open. “It’s easy, it’s quiet. Shops and restaurants are open but you haven’t got the volume of people.”

The trip lived up to every expectation. “We pulled over in little picnic spots, where lovely rivers are coming down the valleys, and the kids were just in the river. They don’t want a lot.” He remembers their second day in the Alps, when they put out the canopy and Eva made up baguettes, “and the two boys were in the river, building a dam. My daughter was down chasing butterflies. That was perfect.”

“It’s only going to get better,” says Gahan, listing all the places they’d like to go next. “Sometimes you buy things in your life because, feck it, you only live once. Maybe it’s a little bit of a midlife crisis thing, but it’s served its purpose.”

Flying solo

Ruth Medjber had always admired van life from afar, but as time went on, it began to look like a wise investment.

Medjber is a professional photographer and works at more than 50 festivals a year. “I’m too old to camp, I’ve been camping since I was 14. And hotels are so expensive, especially the price gouging that goes around Electric Picnic and Other Voices.” Also, “as a single woman, everyone else is getting married, having kids, and they’re not around at the weekends.”

A van would give her flexibility and independence, but prices during lockdown put the dream out of reach. So she focused on saving for a new house. “Then in January this year, I had a near-fatal accident on my bike.” Had she not been wearing her helmet, she would have died on impact. “I really understood how short life is.”

Two months later, Medjber was out for a birthday lunch with friends when she opened up the Done Deal app on her phone, and saw the perfect campervan with a shower, solar panels and toilet. “I just pressed the big red ‘Call’ button. And you know what? It has completely changed my life.”

For her first trip, Medjber went to Féile Na Bealtaine in Dingle in May with some friends with vans. She was nervous going on her own but “I had the absolute time of my life parked up beside a load of other vans. We were playing music in the vans, having the sesh, waking up to Dingle pier and watching the sun come up while chatting to all these beautiful souls who were telling me about their adventures in their vans. I had a beautiful moment one morning at 7am when the sun was creeping up through the van, I was like, this is what life is about.”

We have a rough map of where we want to be for the next eight months, but even that has changed

—  Pádraig Geraghty

The flexibility of a camper suits Medjber’s life as a freelancer. “This is pure control and pure freedom.” And at festivals, she gets to be a hostess on wheels, serving up a boozy brunch. “After two years of not being able to see anyone, this is my way of getting back out there.”

The sense of community has been a revelation. Medjber shares a calendar with her van friends to keep up with each other’s plans. “I’ll be in my van for all of August. All my friends that have kids are like, God you’ve a great life. I’m like, I know.”

It has changed the way she travels.” I’ve got more ferries booked this year than I have flights. I don’t think I’ll ever travel again for one night to London or Edinburgh for a gig. I’m spending a week or two really seeing the place. It’s a slower pace of life, but far more enjoyable. I’ve only got one life. I want to enjoy every single day of it.”

The converter couple

Pádraig Geraghty (32) and Nicole Sheridan (28) had never lived together before they set off on an epic eight-month adventure touring Europe in a converted campervan. By the time I speak with them, they’re three weeks in. “It will either make us or break us,” Sheridan laughs. They’re in Belgium, having just been at a music festival.

They decided on this big adventure after they both contracted Covid early in 2020. “It was before vaccines and everyone was in lockdown,” Geraghty says. It hit them hard. “We were sick for about maybe six months afterwards. If we went to climb the stairs we’d be absolutely winded by the time we got to the top.”

Geraghty remembers calling Sheridan when they were sick, “I just said, once this is over, we’re going doing something.” It was then that he started looking at campervans but the prices were prohibitive during lockdown.

They bought a van online in January 2022. “We decided to just get it done as quickly as possible. So we put July in our heads and then it was hell for leather and a lot of work, long weekends and evenings and weeks off work. It’s great to live in it now,” says Sheridan.

Our favourite campsites are not near a town, or a bar, or a restaurant. We just like to get away

From a cost perspective, it made sense for them to do a conversion because they wanted a reliable new van for long-term travel. Newer campervans were far too expensive. They fitted it out with a shower unit, a toilet, solar panels and a lithium battery. They wanted to be able to wild camp for weeks at a time.

The conversion was a big undertaking. Geraghty was working full-time remotely, finishing at 5pm, having his dinner and heading straight out to work on the van until midnight. “It was a love/hate relationship for a while. I’ve grey hairs and everything.”

“Aw, there was grey hair beforehand,” says Sheridan.

The van was parked up in the sheep shed at Geraghty’s family farm while they worked on it. “The sheep were lambing in one part of the shed and they’d be looking in seeing what I’m at. I’m sure they were wondering what the hell is this eejit at at all.”

And what did his family think? “They thought I wouldn’t be able to do it. Where am I going to get the time to finish it off or the money to actually go? We got there in the end.” Geraghty’s father, a retired carpenter, helped them too. “After I come back, him and mam want to do the Ring of Kerry.”

Sheridan and Geraghty are enjoying the freedom the van is giving them. “We have a rough map of where we want to be for the next eight months, but even that has changed … We haven’t seen any Irish people for like two weeks,” says Geraghty. “What we’re doing is just completely off the beaten track.”

Thirty years and counting

There have been a lot of new additions to the Irish campervan community since the pandemic, but Jack Feehan from Birr, Co Offaly, and his wife Emer were ahead of the game. He is currently on his third van, having bought his first one more than 30 years ago. “We love seeing new places and bringing our home with us,” he says.

Jack is retired seven years now, and their van was once packed with their two boys and two girls. Jack remembers his sons pretending to be fast asleep in the front berth, hopping down only when the breakfast was served up. Now, “it’s generally just myself and herself”.

Jack has a four-berth camper. “It’s quite a big vehicle. Some of the country roads are hairy enough in it.” They tend not to use it in the winter but as soon as the weather eases in March, they set off.

“We were in Spain for all of May and the beginning of June this year. We went away for six weeks touring the north coast of Spain and went down as far as Vigo. That was one of our shorter trips. I’ve taken it on one occasion down through France, through Spain and Portugal and back into Spain again and down to Cadiz in the southern tip of Spain where my daughter lived at the time. We’ve seen an awful lot of places that without the campervan.”

We have two wee boys, and for all the kids around our street, it became a party van for them when the playgrounds were closed. You’d drive past our house and there’d be eight kids bouncing around to Jennifer Lopez

—  Jonathan Emmans

There have been too many idyllic moments for him to mention. “The last trip there’s a campsite right on the coast in northern Spain looking out on to the Cantabrian Sea. It’s called La Paz. It’s layered and we were up at the very top layer. It was just magnificent. The sunsets were stunning. The campsite is stunning. The sea was gorgeous.” Closer to home, he loves camping at Battlebridge in Co Leitrim, and Fanore in Co Clare.

Feehan noticed a huge surge in the numbers of campervans on the roads during the pandemic. He’s not sure it will last. “People will get used to the idea of being able to fly again. They may not want to spend the time driving to places.” But for him, it’s those long slow drives that make it. “It gives you such freedom.”

There are no movie nights in Feehan’s van. “I haven’t owned a television for over 40 years,” he says. He does crosswords, Emer does Sudoku and sometimes she’ll knit while he’s driving. It sounds very peaceful. “It’s very peaceful all right, it stops us fighting,” Feehan laughs. “We’re easy enough going with each other.” For them, the setting is the most important thing. “Our favourite campsites are not near a town, or a bar, or a restaurant. We just like to get away.”

The party bus

Everyone knows a house that has an old campervan in the drive that never seems to go anywhere. Jonathan Emmans’ camper belongs to that family of vehicles – but it’s not without its own story.

Emmans is from Edinburgh and has recently moved to Donegal with his wife Margaruete and their two young boys. He is a care worker working with children with autism, and he worked in a children’s respite centre throughout lockdown.

Emmans’ parents are in their 80s and live in Edinburgh. At the beginning of Covid, he was sick with worry about them and other older relatives. He came up with a campervan plan. “I just thought, how can I safely [see them]? You know how with older people you had to sort of ring the bell and run and leave them tins of beans? I thought I could park outside my mum and dad’s house with the boys and stay there. Maybe see my sister in the north of Scotland, all safely.”

He decided to get a loan to buy a van, but his conscience niggled at him. He still owed some money to his old boss in Edinburgh. “So I phoned them to say, I know I owe you money, but I’m gonna get a loan to get a campervan, a cheap one. The next day, I had 10 grand in my bank account from him.

“My old boss is called Ian Rankin. He’s a writer. You couldn’t meet a nicer man than him – and [his wife] Miranda. I worked with them for 10 years. They are like my second family.”

Emmans bought a van online, but then the world began to open up and the people he loved stayed, thankfully, well. “So it was sitting in my driveway where we lived in Drogheda. We have two wee boys, and for all the kids around our street, it became a party van for them when the playgrounds were closed. You’d drive past our house and there’d be eight kids bouncing around to Jennifer Lopez.”

Emmans has passed the kindness on, lending the van to friends when their cars have broken down, and using it for school runs. “You’d get wee kids knocking on the door asking can they go in the campervan.”

The camper moved with the family to Donegal, and with new solar panels and an awning, it’s ready for less static adventures. “I bought it with that mission of just saying goodbye to anyone I knew over the age of 70, which is sort of a bleak approach to life,” he says now, with dark Scottish humour. “I got given it. It was a nice story at the time when everything was collapsing, and I was desperate to go home. That someone steps in and gives you 10 grand to come home, that was pretty emotional.”

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