Five years ago, Carl Rapson and Justine Forster were your typical frustrated nine-to-fivers, enduring long commutes to corporate jobs they felt were slowly grinding them down, and living for the few weeks a year they got to escape to the great outdoors.
Living in Orewa on Auckland’s Hibiscus Coast, Justine’s weekdays began with a marathon crawl to Ōtāhuhu on the other side of the Super City, where she worked as an occupational therapist.
“Although I found this to be a really rewarding job, it was also very stressful,” she says. “And, as you can imagine, working for any government organisation has its frustrations and challenges.”
Carl, meanwhile, was fed up with being “just another cog in the corporate wheel” of the inner-city telco he worked for as a project manager.
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“There were a round of redundancies and although I was fine, it made me realise these corporations don’t really care for the individuals, and that it was time for a change,” he says.
When a couple of close friends also in their early forties passed away, the old cliche “life is short” really hit home.
“We realised that if we carried on in our ‘normal’ jobs, we’d only be able to do the things we really enjoyed [walking, kayaking and spending time in nature generally] on weekends and the three or four weeks a year we got off work,” Carl says. “If we wanted to get the most out of life, we needed to come up with a better plan.”
Plan A saw them quit their jobs, sell their house, and buy a motel in Kerikeri in the Bay of Islands, although neither had any experience of working in, let alone running one.
“We still can’t remember quite why we chose to buy a motel, but it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Carl attempts to explain.
Prising themselves from their comfort zone proved to be “pretty easy really”, he says. Originally from the UK, both he and Justine lived and worked on multiple continents before arriving in New Zealand which, he says, had made them more comfortable with change. They had a gut feeling they could make it work and that self-belief proved well founded.
Within three months of them taking over Kauri Park Motel, it became Kerikeri’s number one motel listing on TripAdvisor, a position it held onto for their entire three years at the helm.
But as much as they relished being their own bosses, the business commandeered even more of their time than their old jobs had.
Working reception, cleaning the rooms, and managing the two acre grounds on their own, the couple worked 13-plus-hour days seven days a week. There was no one they trusted to take care of the motel in their absence so they had just four days off in three years.
Hence their desire to get onto Plan B ASAP. It had always been their ultimate goal to buy a motorhome and travel around New Zealand in it indefinitely, but they had thought they would need to run the motel for about eight years to pay off their debts.
“In the end, we were able to pay off [our bank loan] in three years as the business was doing so well. We sold the motel for a lot more than we paid for it due to the higher occupancy and profit that we had generated.”
Spending part of the proceeds on a near-new fully self-contained Carthago C Line motorhome, Carl says they were more excited than scared about chucking in their routine existences for good (or at least the foreseeable future).
“We never really doubted that we’d enjoy it or be able to make it work. I’d dreamed of living this lifestyle since I was 16.”
Two years on, they have zero regrets that they did.
Going “wherever the wind blows” or motel minding takes them, their once routine lives now consist of a constant stream of “awesome experiences”.
“If we like somewhere we stay and if we don’t, we just move on. Most of us who live a ‘normal’ existence never get to taste this level of freedom and it really is a magical thing.
“If we want, we can have different scenery every day, from gorgeous white sandy beaches to beautiful rainforests [and] snow-capped mountains – it just never gets old or boring, summer or winter.”
They find it hard to pick favourite places but, when pressed, Carl says being parked up on Mount Taranaki, no other living soul in sight, as the rising sun “bathed the mountain in hues of gold would have to be up there. Or watching the waves crashing over the natural sea wall at Castlepoint from inside our motorhome. Or kayaking to deserted beaches in Northland and snorkelling with stingrays and octopus, handing out with the fur seal at Cape Palliser… The list goes on”.
Their quality of life is so much better than it was as to be “almost incomparable”, he says.
“Whereas before, we were crawling along in Auckland traffic everyday, now we just need to navigate the sand dunes on our way to the beach.”
Their biggest challenge has been figuring out how to make enough money on the road to make ends meet, but it helps that their living costs are far lower than they used to be. Their lithium battery- and solar-powered motorhome, The Moog, enabled them to live almost entirely off grid and they stay at free campgrounds whenever they can. But they still need to eat.
Their initial solution was to sell Carl’s photos and items he makes from driftwood at markets, but they soon realised it would be a tough way to make a living.
“The lucrative markets were all in summer and you had to book months in advance to get into them, so we would be tied to a schedule at exactly the time of year we wanted the most freedom.”
While they still see photos on their website Whalesong.nz, they made most of their money during their first 18 months or so on the road from looking after motels while their owners are away.
“There’s a real shortage of good motel relief managers in New Zealand, as we had found when we owned our motel, so we contacted a few motels and started doing short-term motel management. We needed to work about a week per month to cover our costs, and then we could travel until the money ran out and we needed to work again.”
This ties them to certain locations though so, in another bid for true freedom, they bought a house in Taupō and put it on Airbnb. The house has been covering its own costs and theirs over summer, meaning they don’t have to work, but Carl thinks they may have to pick up the odd motel job in winter to supplement their income.
They have recently traded in The Moog for a cheaper – and arguably cooler – vintage bus, which has “drastically” reduced the mortgage on their Taupō property, however, “which frees us up to work less and travel more”.
“We don’t earn much money anymore, but we don’t want much either. Everything you buy, you have to trade a portion of your life for, and we’ve realised that most things just aren’t worth selling your freedom for.”
Finding free places to park up is another ongoing challenge.
“Freedom camping is becoming so popular now that the designated spots are overflowing in the summer months. Unfortunately, not everyone respects the rules, and freedom camping is becoming a dirty word for some [members] of the public. We worry that if this continues, we will lose some, if not all of these places to stay which would be a real shame, as we really appreciate the councils and locals who allow us to park up in their towns, and we are always respectful of any rules in place.”
Still, Carl says such issues pale in comparison to “the challenges faced when living a more conventional existence”.
“Someone tried to steal our surfboards when we were freedom camping in Rotorua once, and we got the motorhome stuck a couple of times and had to be towed out by the locals up north and out at Castlepoint, but that’s about it really. We get a feel for a place when we pull up, and if it doesn’t feel right for whatever reason we just move. And so far we’ve been lucky.”
They’re having such a good time on the road these days, exploring quiet corners of the country and making and catching up with friends, that they see themselves remaining nomads for good.
“We couldn’t imagine doing anything else now and couldn’t be happier. We lost another couple of friends last year, with another being diagnosed with a terminal disease, so this just re-enforces the fact that we are doing the right thing for us, and are able to live our life on our terms.”
Carl’s advice on quitting your job to travel:
1. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by planning. But don’t plan forever. Have a goal of when you want to hit the road and stick to it.
2. Come up with a budget of what you think you’ll need to live on, and see if you think you’ll be able to earn enough to cover your costs. You’re unlikely to become rich by living and working on the road, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s preferable to have around six months of your monthly budget as savings to tide you over until you get into the swing of things. But do it with less if you are confident you’ll pick up work early on.
3. If you’ve never owned a motorhome or caravan before, we would strongly recommend you rent or buy one to try it out first as this lifestyle is not for everyone. Routine goes out the window when you live on the road so it helps to be adaptable. You’ll come across some interesting characters, so being open-minded and non-judgemental is handy.
4. You’ll never know if it will work out or not unless you give it a go, so our best piece of advice is: If you think this is the life for you don’t wait. Sometimes, tomorrow never comes.
You can read more about Carl and Justine’s travels on their blog lifeontheroadnz.com.