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Our pre-pandemic globetrotting lives
Jurrien and I (Sara) have been together for almost ten years now. We met back when we were both studying in the Dutch city of Groningen. After graduating, I started working as a remote travel blogger, while Jurrien was in his final years of art academy and trying to decide whether to pursue design or photography. I got my big break in 2013, when I was hired as editor of a new travel bookazine in the Netherlands, Lonely Planet Traveller ‘Droomtrips’, which eventually evolved into the monthly Dutch edition of Lonely Planet magazine, of which I became editor-in-chief. As part of my job, I got to travel all over the world to create feature articles, with Jurrien starting to accompany me more and more to take photographs.
When we realized how much we loved travelling and creating content together, Jurrien’s choice between design or photography became a no-brainer. After graduating, he started his own company as a photographer and in the following years, we got to hop across the globe on press trips to pretty much every continent. We were travelling from the magical frozen landscapes of the Canadian Rockies to the sun-kissed Turquoise Coast of Turkey and from a spectacular safari in Malawi to the mesmerizing, desolate landscapes of Patagonia. It was an exhilarating life, but also quite hectic, never being able to stay in a destination for long because of my demanding job with a monthly magazine deadline back home.
When Covid changed everythingWhen the first wave of the pandemic hit the Netherlands in March of 2020, we went from travelling as much as we could to working from home, sheltering in place. By that time, we both had our own companies, after I had quit my job as editor-in-chief of Lonely Planet magazine to become a freelance travel writer to be able to travel for longer stretches. Very luckily, I had taken on a freelance editorial project at the Amsterdam-based travel app Polarsteps a few months before, so unlike so many in the travel industry, we didn’t have immediate financial worries. But the fast-paced life we’d been living suddenly came to a grinding halt. Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months, and without any trips to break the routine, we were forced to take a long and hard look at our lives. At that time, we were living in a comfortable apartment with a garden in the city of Groningen, with most of our friends and family close by. But as people around us started buying their own places and having kids, far from settling down ourselves, we wanted to get moving again.
Finding a more conscious way of travelling
Travelling as much as we did, we’d heard harrowing stories of climate change in almost every country we’d visited. From places experiencing extreme droughts for months on end to heavy rainfall in seasons that weren’t supposed to have any. While we were already trying to write about conscious travel, the contraposition of showing how to help conserve fragile ecosystems while regularly going on trips with a massive carbon footprint wasn’t lost to us.
We still believe that — to quote Lonely Planet — ‘Travel, when practiced responsibly, can be a force for good.’ Travel can be a significant income source for local communities and help with conservation of threatened ecosytems. It also broadens horizons and combats xenophobia (which is much needed, if you ask us, in these times of increasing division). But travel can also be damaging, through high carbon emissions and by making places dealing with overtourism uninhabitable for locals. We decided that when it would finally be possible to travel again, we wanted to do it differently: more conscious and with less of an impact on the environment.
Choosing vanlife as our new adventure
With the pandemic showing no signs of being over soon, we started homing in on Europe — our backyard — which was filled with tantalizing places we hadn’t yet seen, as well as compact, making it ideal to discover with alternative means of transport. We also knew we wanted to try a form of slow travel, taking more time to discover hidden gems and truly being able to connect with locals. With both of us being avid sailors on the lakes back home, we played around with the idea of buying a sailboat for a while, but eventually dismissed it because we felt it would limit us in the destinations we could visit in times of Covid too much. We talked about travelling by train, but a long trip by rails wasn’t very appealing for Jurrien, who would have to carry not just his luggage but also his heavy camera equipment. Finally, we started talking about buying a campervan and living in it fulltime.
Our first taste of vanlife was years ago, when we got to take a road trip in an old Volkswagen T3 for a feature in Lonely Planet magazine NL. Looking back, I think during that short trip we already felt the appeal, driving from one campground to the next, sleeping on top of the white cliffs in Folkestone with a sweeping view of the sea one day and in an ancient forest the next. Making campfires and meeting new people every day. All the while having our bed and our kitchen with us and being able to make English tea whenever we felt like it. I remember vividly how we drove past Stonehenge and saw the majestic structure for the first time, lit up in the afternoon sun, right from our seats in the front of the van.
Besides the perks of having our home with us and Jurrien not having to carry his camera equipment all the time, we realised that campervan travel had some ideal qualities in this pandemic. Driving meant that we would be flexible enough to change destinations and travel dates quickly if one of us would get sick, without having to rebook an airplane or train ticket. Having our own water supply, kitchen, and toilet also meant that we could travel regardless of whether campgrounds were open or not, since we would be self-sufficient. Social distancing would be easy, as we could seek out remote spots in nature and keep our distance from crowds. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that vanlife seemed to tick all our boxes. That is, except one: driving around in a diesel van was arguably not the most sustainable — or futureproof — way to explore Europe.
How we went electric
That’s when we figured: it’s 2020, Tesla’s are selling like hot buns and in Norway, more EV’s are being sold than cars with internal combustion engines. So should it not be possible to find an electric van, convert it to a campervan ourselves and choose electric vanlife? We dove into research mode, which took us from the pop-top Nissan e-NV200 to vintage vans outfitted with a new electric engine. But none of these options checked all our boxes: we wanted a sustainable, modern van that we could comfortably stand in, with enough room for a kitchen and a set bed, and most importantly: with a decent range.
Finally, we discovered the plans for a fully electric Fiat Ducato. The petrol-powered model is the most popular van for a camper conversion in Europe, and the electric E-Ducato promised a range of up to 370km (230 miles) on one charge! We were sold. The only problem was: it wasn’t on the market yet and Fiat had suffered severe delays because of the pandemic and the world-wide shortage of computer chips. You can read the full story of how we acquired our van here: The Ultimate EV for a Camper Conversion, but the short version is that we ended up putting a down payment on a Fiat E-Ducato without being able to even take one for a test drive, and having to wait for many months before we finally received our van in September 2021.
Our travel plans
It was an incredibly scary decision: spending almost all of our savings on a completely new van in the middle of a pandemic. But we knew we wanted to take a leap and create a home on wheels after staying in one place for so long. In the summer of 2021, we moved out of our apartment before we’d even received our van and when we finally did receive our van a month later, we got started on the van build right away, working from Jurrien’s parents’ driveway (and thankfully we could crash at their place as well). After some more dreadful delays, we’re nearing completion of our van build and in the summer of 2022, we plan to set out on our travels with no end-date in sight.
We’ll take our time moving from one country to the next, making the most of the van’s limited range. We’ll be travelling to European countries with a good network of fast chargers first, and hopefully as we get more confident with electric vanlife we’ll then branch out a bit. We’ll be writing stories about our life on the road here regularly and we’ll also be sharing our adventures on Instagram and TikTok. Our mission is to show what the future of sustainable travel in a campervan looks like, and by seeking out and sharing amazing eco-friendly destinations, stays and products across Europe, we also hope to inspire you with stories showing the positive impact of travel.