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Meet the family who quit the 9-to-5 for a life on the road

By Kathryn Madden

We’ve all had the dream: quit your job, sell the house and hit the wide, open road. No plans, no deadlines and endless horizons to explore. 

But Amy Sayles, a photographer from Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, actually did it.

“We were burnt out and trying to keep up with a big mortgage,” she recalls. “My husband was working insane hours and I was essentially raising the kids on my own. Then I had a bit of a health scare. Life in general was just too much, too hectic and too fast-paced for us to feel connected.”

So on something of a whim, Sayles and her husband Steve sold their Balnarring home and all their belongings, and bought a Supreme Base Camp: a 25-foot caravan with double bunks, a queen bed and a separate teen retreat out the back.

Together with their three youngest children – daughter Obony, then 16, sons, Bodhi, seven and Kai, five (eldest son Jesse stayed home to work) – they whizzed up the east coast of Australia, taking in the beautiful untamed wilderness. Rainbow Beach, a sleepy but spectacular surf town next to Fraser Island, was a favourite stop. “We loved the secluded setting, the beautiful clear water and the great surfing and fishing,” says Sayles.

All photography by @_wild_tribe_

At Cape Tribulation towards the tip of Queensland, they turned around and headed back to Victoria for Christmas, before venturing to South Australia then Western Australia, through the dusty red Kimberley to Darwin, across outback Queensland and then back down the east coast of Australia.

Over 18 months on the road – and 1.5 loops around the country – Sayles felt a weight lift from her chest. This was the simple life, in every sense of the word. “You realise you don’t need all that stuff. As long as you’ve got one another, your health and your freedom – that’s what matters to us,” she says.

“Each morning, as soon as the kids opened their eyes they’d be eating breakfast on the run and then they’d be outside playing and swimming. The boys were outdoors 24/7, barefoot and topless. It’s good for the soul getting outdoors – it just cures everything, we found. And at the end of the day we were all ready for bed, it was so easy.”

While the kids were homeschooled, they found the greatest classroom in nature. “Most of [our schooling] was hands on and outside,” says Sayles. “It worked really well. Before we took off, one of our sons has extremely high anxiety levels and school was such a battle for us. But taking him away from that and letting him blossom in his own little way and at his own pace was really beneficial.”

Another highlight was meeting hundreds of like-minded families on the road and forging life-long friendships. In fact it’s difficult to find a snap of the family of five, because other children appear in the fringes of most photos, splashing in shallow creeks and smashing piñatas at camp-site birthday parties.

Despite Sayles’ career as a portrait photographer, her attention during the trip turned to landscapes and seascapes, as featured on her Instagram account @_wildtribe_. The account relays the family’s adventures, but it’s all pretty real and raw. There are candid shots of the two bare-footed, blonde-haired boys, but no matching linen outfits.

Today, a search for #vanlife returns 7.9 million results, all pastel-painted Kombis and girls in demin cut-offs posing by camp fires. In short, caravanning is no longer just a mode of a transport, but a lifestyle trend for millennials and young families disillusioned by the rat race. Especially if they can make a living from their picture-perfect content.

Sayles is open that she too has secured sponsorship deals along the way, but she’s not here to romanticise life on the road. “It isn’t all sparkles and rainbows,” she says. “Our motor blew up and we were stranded in Bowen, Queensland, for six weeks – not that it was a bad place to be. But it almost ended our trip.”

She admits she missed a flushing toilet and the flick of a switch to turn on a heater. “But the majority of time, you don’t really mind,” she says. “It’s pretty easy to get accustomed to living in a van.”

For her, the biggest surprise was the cost of the trip. “We didn’t budget and scrape too much, we really enjoyed ourselves while keeping it simple – but we spent a lot on fuel and food,” she says. “We did as much free-camping as we could; in a caravan pan you’ll pay $90-plus a night for a family of five, which really adds up.”

For now, due to COVID-19, the family is staying put in their new Tweed Heads home, but their next adventure is never far from mind. Post-pandemic, Sayles predicts a surge in van sales (the industry is already booming; according to the ABS Motor Vehicle Census, campervan sales rose 3.5 per cent in 2019). 

Her advice to wannabe vagabonds: “Go for it, you will not regret it. Time with your family [is precious] – you can make more money, you can’t make more time.”

Follow Wild Tribe’s adventures and get inspired by their stunning travel snaps at @_wild_tribe_.

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