Not everyone hauling a van or commanding a motorhome is a retired grey nomad couple or a young so-called 'nuclear family' with a gaggle of kids pumped up for their next adventure. A growing number of women are hitching up their campers and caravans, transforming light vehicles into campervans and getting behind the wheel of their motorhome to set off into the sunset.
Women travel solo for many reasons — they prefer the freedom of making decisions on their own, they are single and happy to simply do their own thing or may have lost a partner with whom they planned future trips and are continuing on with the dream by themselves.
So what’s it like cruising Australia’s highways and byways on your own? Here, three capable, adventurous Aussie women tell their stories.
SOUTH AUSTRALIAN VANNER
Sylvia Hamdorf, 52, is a self-confessed minimalist. She travels in a fuss-free manner largely within her home state of South Australia with her Toyota HiLux and Jayco Swift pop-top caravan.
“I’m not interested in all the big rigs — I don’t need a TV and all of that sort of stuff,” she says. “The Swift is really manageable for me and it has a fridge, stove, bed and table and couch, and I have a portaloo and an external shower.”
Hamdorf has been a lifelong camper with her husband and three kids, starting out with tents, then a mattress in the back of a regular trailer with a tarp over it before moving to a fold-out camper trailer.
They upgraded to the Swift when her husband was diagnosed with cancer so they would be able to travel more comfortably, and since he passed three years ago she has continued adventuring either solo or in convoy.
“It's pretty much been a lifestyle of camping with family, and now it's progressed into lovely, peaceful camping by myself or with me taking my rig and people doing tagalongs,” she says.
Towing and reversing a van are not always easy tasks and can be off-putting for those who are unused to driving even with a small trailer. But Hamdorf has had several years of practice and says she is now “pretty comfortable” with the Swift.
“My husband was a truck driver, so I had a fairly good knowledge of balance, weights, considerations of large vehicles on the road, that sort of thing,” she says. “The first few times I was pretty nervous, because compared to a camper trailer, your vision is not as good. But if you've got the right equipment, such as mirrors, and you take your time, it's fine.”
Hamdorf prefers to stay clear of the crowds and has so far travelled up to Dubbo in NSW, Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and to various SA destinations including the Yorke Peninsula, Meningie and Mundoo Island.
“It was absolutely my mission to get set up for, not just normal camping, but off-the-grid camping,” she says. “I've just put an inverter in so I can be totally self-sufficient going anywhere. I absolutely love the freedom of having it all set up and ready to go.”
Getting her setup right was one of the most challenging parts of transitioning from a touring couple to a solo traveller, establishing an organised storage system in both the van and her 2WD, and ensuring she didn’t overpack. But one of the things she is most proud of is that she has learned to be very hands-on with DIY jobs.
“I've had a few things go wrong in the trailer, which I've had to fix myself,” she says. “Everything you work out yourself, you’ve got to pat yourself on the back — no one else does.”
Safety is a consideration for women travelling alone, particularly if they are camping in remote locations, but Hamdorf says she has encountered only friendly and like-minded travellers.
“I've read up on some personal safety hints, and they all say, when you get to a site hold your head high and look around and look people in the eye and go and say hello,” she says. “I certainly suss them out a bit first. But most of the time, people are there for the same reasons and they are very welcoming. I haven't come across any creepy people yet.”
For those considering solo adventuring, Hamdorf suggests testing a variety of rigs by hiring them first to see what suits you.
“Like for me, starting out small and just doing it really basic, even if it's just a tent or something, and get a feel for it,” she says. “You don't need thousands and thousands of dollars to go out and buy yourself something fancy and then think, ‘Oh God, I hate this.’”
Hamdorf is also a member of several online groups which she says are full of supportive and encouraging women who are also travelling solo and love to share advice and support (see breakout p48).
Extreme sport event photographer and single mum of two Kasey Ludeman, 34, has well and truly caught the travel bug. Since tragically losing her partner, she and 16-year-old Xander and eight-year-old Dakota have stepped up their adventures over the past four years, and Ludeman says they are determined to live life to the fullest.
“He didn’t really go anywhere — he had a bucket list of things to do but we put it on the backburner and thought we would ‘do it one day’,” she says. “
After all that happened it kicked in for me that it was never going to happen unless you actually do it. Now we are making the most of visiting as many places as we can.”
At first, the Victorian-based family travelled in a seven-seat 1998 Nissan Patrol, sleeping either in the back with the seat down or outside in swags, and all their gear and food stored in cargo boxes on the rooftop.
Last year Ludeman made the decision to upgrade the family’s vehicle to a Ford Transit van which they are currently in the process of fitting out to be both a working van for Ludeman while on site at events and a vehicle for the family to tour in.
The layout will feature a semi-permanent bed in the rear which will fold into couches for day use, a bunk overhead and dining table that folds down to form a third bed as well as a slide-out kitchen with a breakfast bar on the passenger side. There’ll be a few creature comforts too, including air-conditioning, a coffee machine and an ice maker.
“It will be fantastic once it is finished,” she said. “There are a few things I miss being on the road and I sometimes work on days that are 41–42 degrees, so an ice maker that runs on a separate battery will be absolutely handy. It is a luxury, but we are allowed to have those in life!”
The family are so impatient to keep travelling, they have used the stripped out van for a trip down to the Great Ocean Road, rigging up hammocks for the three to sleep in!
Ludeman also prefers to stay off-grid and free camp to enjoy the isolation and keep her costs down.
“I don’t have a big budget or a big wage, but we pretty much just spend it on fuel and we cook our own meals,” she says.
Ludeman says while she makes most of the decisions about their destinations, the kids pitch in and choose campsites on various camping apps. She’s also very comfortable with the safety aspect of being the only adult in the crew, and this has never been a concern.
“I can understand that people who have never done it before, they are not sure of how things will work out, but I love it — it is part of the adventure,” she says. “We haven’t had a problem yet. It has been pretty easy to find a spot or you just jump on the Facebook pages and get recommendations of nearby properties.”
“If you are really paranoid, let people know where you are going if you are travelling by yourself.”
According to Ludeman, travelling solo is something every Australian should consider doing, and not wait until retirement or when you find a partner to adventure with.
“A lot of people my age rely heavily on friends and social circles,” she says. “But when you travel alone and make your own decisions you find out who you are, what you like and what you’re into and I guess it builds confidence as well — driving into the unknown and just seeing the things you want to see.
“There is so much of Australia that people don’t see if they don’t leave their towns.”
For Queensland-based retiree Kay Bayly, the motorhome lifestyle is somewhat old hat.
More than 25 years ago, she and her husband took their two children out of school, packed up the house and travelled around in a converted coach for almost two years before resettling in Brisbane.
Their decision to live on the road was a combination of a shift in Australia’s motor vehicle industry (her husband was a lead mechanical engineer with Holden) and a desire for adventure. The pair had grand travel plans for retirement, but sadly he passed away two years ago. Bayly says she is determined to continue with their dream, but do it solo.
“When he died I made a decision that I wanted to live,” she says. “I didn't want to be one of those women who sat around with their clothes in the cupboard for the next 20 years and was sad.”
Her foray into solo travel began with a trip to England a few years ago to see friends. She impulsively booked a ticket aboard a guided bus tour — something she said she would never do — and was pleasantly surprised to find she enjoyed herself.
When COVID-19 stymied three international trips planned for 2020, a friend suggested she revive her love of motorhoming. Over a weekend in September last year she took a leap of faith and bought an ex-rental Euro Deluxe 7m (22ft, 11in) motorhome from Apollo.
“I went out and looked at it and said, ‘OK I’ll buy it!’,” she laughs. “Even I was shocked. I sat in the van wondering what I had done!
“But because I had travelled this way before I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted. I wanted my own shower and toilet, cooking facilities, and a full-time bed.”
Bayly and her family have also owned caravans and, while she is confident behind the wheel of a tow vehicle, for solo touring she wanted something a little lower maintenance.
“The motorhome was something I can do on my own — I don’t have to try and balance things, put beds out, back them in, or put the annexe out,” she says.
“I want something where I drive up, put my chair out and sit down.”
Since then she has joined the Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia’s Solos Network (see breakout box p48 for details) and joined a couple of tagalong trips within Queensland, as well as a 6000km journey from Brisbane to Alice Springs. She bought a townhouse off the plan which won’t be completed until March 2022, so Bayly is committed to living in her motorhome full time for 12 months.
Although she didn’t plan to be enjoying retirement on her own, Bayly admits there is a definite freedom to travelling solo.
“You know how when you go places with a partner, there's always this argument about something,” she says.
“But now there's no arguments. If I feel like stopping today or driving further then I will do that. There's a real freeing element to that.”
Bayly dismisses the idea that travelling alone can be an isolating experience.
“It's not as lonely as I would have thought it would be,” she says.
“I found being at home lonelier. When you're travelling in your motorhome, you're busy going to go see something.
“And people like to talk — in the caravan park, usually the person camping next to you is happy to talk.”
She also takes her dog, an adorable schnoodle called Vincent, on the road with her so she has some company.
“He's now a seasoned traveller,” she says. “When the van's going, he lies down and when it stops, he pokes his head up and goes, OK, are we getting out now?
“And most of the other women I'm meeting up with have got dogs, and so we'll find a dog park and play ball or frisbees or something. So it's again, another socialising opportunity.”
There are vast online communities of women travelling solo which offer support, guidance and camaraderie. All three women interviewed here recommend joining a Facebook group or a club with a solo traveller arm as a way to feel connected to other solo travellers, to share travel tips and practical advice, and many times to meet up for a tagalong trip or even just a coffee in a place where their paths may cross.
There are several Facebook groups celebrating the caravan and camping lifestyle in Australia, but our interviewees highly recommend Women Caravanning, Camping And Travelling Solo Australia, which has nearly 11,000 active and engaged members.
CMCA SOLO TRAVELLERS
The Campervan and Motorhome Club of Australia also has a dedicated club for single travellers called the CMCA Solos Network. It’s been around since 1997 and offers a supportive community. There’s a shared Facebook group, newsletter, and twice a year they hold week-long rallies (sometimes called musters) where people can connect and enjoy a bunch of activities as well as local sightseeing. More information: solosnetwork.org.au