- Jai Morton
On the road, off the grid
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
– with my brother Jaz, content creator and vanlifer
When I started the unfoldment, it was partly in response to my experience in the vanlife community. I was inspired by people living life differently, as I saw it. With alternative views on what ‘the good life’ meant and how to do it, and different priorities and expectations that aligned with nature and human connection.
This community reverberated ideas and thoughts I’d turned over in my own mind, and illustrated first hand how these ideas could come to life. I wanted to explore those lives more, the stories of people embracing something left of centre, and thought that if they sparked something in me, they might spark something in others too.
I went to my first vanlife gathering in 2016 with my brother Jaz. I’d just gone through a rough break up, and felt flat on all fronts – my job was uninspiring and I was growing tired of the same weekly routines. Something was missing. But I had a good feeling about this weekend gathering. And although I don’t own a van and can’t claim to be living the vanlife (right now), that weekend shifted something in me that was longing to be uprooted. I was flooded with good vibes, connecting with like-minded people, soaking in the sun and the sea. Here was a community that wasn’t doing the 9-5, that valued autonomy and the outdoors over high-flying jobs in the big city. I was craving all of it.
Jaz, at the time, had just bought his second van. He’d stripped it down inside out and was at the beginning of a serious full time vanlife journey. We talk about that journey here, from our recent, blurry facetime interview (with a cameo from his girlfriend Lori), about our common desire to keep exploring, and the weird blessings of 2020.
Jaz is my one and only sibling. A few years younger than me. We’re quite different. Jaz is measured and balanced emotionally, a deep thinker who can make sense of complex ideas with time and patience, I’m usually an explosion of emotions, very empathetic, and definitely “a lot” when I’m especially up or down about something. I’m an abstract thinker who tends to have trouble sticking to one of myriad ideas or tasks. Jaz has always been someone who focuses and excels when he puts his mind to something. Seemingly without fear of failure, or bother about what others might think.
I’m biased. But he’s a good one.
L: Catching up in sunny Queensland, October 2019. R: Long distance facetimes.
The urge to move
What got you interested in vanlife?
“I think my best mates Levi and Aaron had something to do with the initial interest. They’d lived in a van on and off for years already as musicians. And I was gaining inspiration and ideas online. I also had a huge urge to travel throughout Australia, and felt the best way to do that was on the road.”
And did you have a van then already?
“No I didn’t yet. I guess my travel obsession came first, which really started when you and I went to Vietnam in 2014. I really look back on that trip fondly.”
Oh yeah. So, hopping back a minute... I do actually really distinctly remember you saying something like, ‘I’ve caught the travel bug, I’ve found this new spark’, at the end of our trip. You hadn’t done much travel up until then and that trip gave you a taste for it.
“Yeah I did say that. So when I got back from that trip I couldn’t get it off my mind. I was working as a tradesman at the time and I was on ok terms with my workplace but I wasn’t feeling it. I did that for three more months and saved up, before moving to Bali for an indefinite amount of time”
“I lived and travelled in Indonesia for 10 months in the end. And then I came home, got a new job and worked there for two years. And I was saving again, because I had vanlife in mind.”
I remember being so impressed when my brother moved overseas. It seemed to come together so quickly once he put his mind to it. I was inspired, and so proud of the person I saw him becoming. No doubt travel opened his mind and presented so many opportunities for him, sparked so many ideas. I think it’s inevitable that you do some good quality growing any time you travel.
"So I was originally looking for a van around 10 thousand dollars, maybe 15. I wanted to get something cheap, a Toyota Hiace or similar. And for a while, I had dad’s old van, which was similar in size.
“But when I saw the Sprinter and I could stand up in it, I was like “I have to have it.”
“So it sort of snowballed, I kept upping my budget to buy Saidey, I think for 27,500 in the end.”
And was there also a drive for more freedom?
“Yeah definitely. The freedom of being on the road, being mobile. And living off grid. I had a growing urge for all of it."
Snaps from Jaz and Lori's latest van trip throughout Australia.
“‘Cos it’d be cheaper or free, for one. I could use solar panels for energy. We have to pay for petrol and all, but you know, we’re off grid from a lot of other bills.”
“So part of it was and is about autonomy. And also being able to travel anywhere in Australia or around the world, potentially. And still be in your own home.”
“Plus I’d had a little taste of the vanlife with dad’s old van. So with Saidey I knew I could create something more sustainable and long term.”
“Also, around the time I was researching and getting into all this, you’ll remember there was a part of me that was quite anti-system. I was exploring alternative ways of thinking and living, I got pretty deep into it. And what I found and learnt was a catalyst for the vanlife too.”
And how long did it take you to complete Saidey once you bought her?
“It took me ten months from starting the fit out to finishing. While working full time.”
And I know when you were in Indonesia, you started creating some online content. But was it during the van build that you started to gain a lot of social exposure?
“Yeah 100%. I was creating out of curiosity, and sometimes even boredom in Indo. It kicked off more when I started the van build series. That’s where I think about 95% of the exposure I gained was from. Across youtube and Instagram.”
Was that something you set out to do?
“Not really at first to be honest. I didn’t, and still don’t really see myself as an influencer or anything. But I thought that the topic of vanlife and specifically a van build was growing in interest, and that there’d probably be an audience out there.”
“And I decided to continue with it and create Travel with Jaz as well, as I saw my content reach growing.”
L and R: From Jaz's time in Indonesia. Middle: Lori and Jaz on their recent trip to Ayer's Rock, Australia.
You said before that you went through an anti-system phase. Has that changed now, and if so, how?
“Yeah it has. I’m not so hardcore on that anymore. I think over time I realised that unless you want to live in you know… a cave, you can’t be 100% off the grid? And the reality of coming up with 3, 4, 5 hundred thousand dollars in cash to buy a house would be pretty hard for anyone in that situation to do.”
“I think I just saw that I can ‘play the game’ but have an understanding of it. You know, don’t just take the steps without the awareness of what they mean, and what debt you’ll have, but be informed. Kind of control it a bit.”
Do you think exposure to the vanlife and others living on the road or off grid – but still with jobs or homes in one place, or with kids – showed you that there were more ways to live a life than fully ‘disconnected’ or fully ‘mainstream’?
“Yeah remember the vanlife gatherings? Going to those was great. I had Saidey then and going to these events you meet so many people doing the vanlife different ways. Full time. Part time. With a family, you know. There’s no one way to do it. And the community feels open and free.”
I look back on these gatherings extremely fondly. They were, truly, some of the best weekends I’ve had. I actually wrote about one of the gatherings Jaz and I went to together, along with some friends, in 2017.
“At the time I felt like I didn't want to stay still, I wanted to be on the road fully. And once the van was built, I got there in 2018. Lori and I were on the road full time.”
“And now we’re on our second big trip, which started in 2020 when we were both unable to work due to Covid.”
“And while we are loving it, I’m nearly 28 and I’ve felt for a little bit now that I’d love to have a house, a base. Which I will do, even if I do need to get a mortgage and play the mainstream game.”
L: Jaz and Lori with friends they met on the road. R: 2016 NSW vanlife gathering by @haydenseyes
Runs in the family
I think it’s so interesting that you and I seem to both have this streak of wanting to explore. We’ve taken different paths. Ever since I was in primary school I was obsessed with travelling to different places. When I finished school, I worked for a year, saved up and went to Europe for three months. I remember thinking that everyone had this burning desire, and was surprised to learn that’s not necessarily the case.
I had such a strong feeling – I still get it sometimes now – of not wanting to be ‘tied down’ to a place. I was thinking about getting a van myself back in 2017, and wanted to live and work in all the places I travelled to, always researching how I could do it.
And I moved overseas eventually and I’m so glad I did. But I’ve also been getting that feeling the last few years, the pull towards a base. I guess it comes with age a bit, and the priorities many of us take on.
“Yeah, we’re both kind of nomadic in mindset. And we’ve taken different paths to exploring that.”
“I think mum and dad had a big influence on that. They always encouraged us to be who we wanted to be. They didn't say you have to go to uni, or do this or do that to do life ‘right’ and be ‘successful’.”
“But I agree, priorities change. Maybe we’ll get some land, put the van on it and live there while we build. I want it to be sustainable, with solar panels and a big garden.”
What do you like about vanlife the most?
Lori: “It’s very go-with-the-flow.”
Jaz: “The people you meet too. I mean it’s like anything, you can go through periods where you don’t feel social but when you do and you get out and about, it’s always a good time. I think with vanlife ‘cos you're running at a slower pace, you're more inclined to run into people. That’s maybe just travel in general though.”
“We’ve met people on the road that are going to be friends for life. And it’s really fun to have a convoy, travelling together on the road. Every van you see you’re like, who are you, where are you going?”
Vanlife has given Jaz and Lori some amazing outdoor experiences.
I love that there’s a strong community around vanlife.
J: “Yeah there’s an unspoken understanding among the community.”
And what about traveling in a van as a couple. How does that go?
J: “This time around we have aced it.”
L: “In 2018, for our first trip, I think we had more struggles. It was early in our relationship. And sometimes it can be quite isolated too.”
J: “Yeah it was make or break the first time, we were sort of still getting to know each other and you’re in such a confined space. But we did meet another couple travelling with their two year old, and we had so much common ground. That changed things.”
“Sometimes in the van if you spend too much time together you start to get a bit agitated. You want more space.”
Yeah you do have a small amount of space. Obviously in 2020 and now at the beginning of 2021, so many people are still living and working together in more traditional homes too, because of Covid. I’ve heard a lot of ‘make or break’ stories.
That was my experience at times last year. Being on top of each other, not having time apart at work, seeing other people, it takes its toll. But I can imagine that travelling locally, keeping to yourselves in the van for the most part, kind of...suited the circumstances for you both in a way?
L: “I think 2020 was a blessing for us given the circumstances yeah. In the sense that we made the choice to stop renting and and get back on the road. It’s been more affordable and much more freeing while our jobs are on hold.”
J: “And just before the pandemic started, I was looking to sell the van, cos it can be a big liability you know. It’s expensive if something goes wrong. But it worked out well that I didn't sell it.”
That’s definitely a theme off the back of 2020 – that the pandemic was in some ways, a strange, unexpected blessing. It hasn’t been without uncertainty or pain, compromise or sacrifice, but I think the time it afforded many of us shone a light on ideas or moments that were otherwise gathering dust in the corner.
Maybe not opportunities in the forms we were hoping for, maybe completely unrelated, but many of us gained something in the last year. Rest, time, a shift in focus or mindset. And an appreciation for slower living and what lies right in front of us, instead of a plane journey away.
Jaz and Lori’s current trip has taken them from the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland, up north through the breathtaking Northern Territory landscape. Then south through the Fleurieu Peninsula, onto Sydney and parts of New South Wales. And now they’re in Tasmania, calling it their home base.
Follow their journey on Instagram – @travelwithjaz and @loriamurri
The trip so far, as documented on this map inside the van.