Sarah and Rob Stirling are living the dream, successfully living and working out of their newly converted Toyota Coaster Bus. Pull up a seat and settle in for an inspiring feature that’ll have you searching buses on Trademe as soon as you get to the end. This feature is LADEN with helpful links [in bold]. Sarah explains…
I guess the van life dream began with me, but it remained a dream for a long time! I spent a year backpacking around New Zealand in 2007, doing various outdoorsy jobs like guiding horse treks and being a ski chalet maid. During that year I flew to Australia for six weeks, met up with a friend who had bought a van and we surfed our way up the East Coast. It wasn’t a converted van, we just slept on top of seats folded flat, and there were no curtains. I thought I’d struggle to sleep like that but I loved going to bed and waking up with the sunrise colours for a surf. There was something very connected to the outdoors about the experience. I was totally inspired!
Back in the UK though, despite being a freelance adventure writer – a career that goes perfectly with van life – it was another ten years before I bought a van. To be honest I was nervous about driving a big vehicle! Then, in 2016, I went on a trip to the French Pyrenees, climbing and running with a friend who lived in a Volkswagen T4. I’d recently split up with my boyfriend (on a two-month bike-packing trip around New Zealand!) and was inspired to finally step up to the van life thing myself. My friend wrote a list of suggested pre-requisites – two-litre engine so it would get up the hills, tailgate as it’s useful for cooking under, etc – then we happened to drive past a van for sale that met the exact description, and was even one of my favourite colours, red! I bought it on the spot and drove it home to Chamonix in the French Alps, where I was living at the time.
I’m not sure you could say that I ‘converted’ this van. I took out all the seats, bought a red floral rug from a French market and cut it to fit as a carpet, put the top of a chaise long that I’d got for free across the rear wheel arch as a bed and sofa, stashed some rustic French suitcases under it as storage, and installed a camping table! A couple of months later I met Rob. As a product designer, he loves a good project and he brought some useful practical skills with electrics and woodwork. We went for a simple set up for this first build. It was insulated with wool, lined with ply and had LED lights inset into the showpiece: an arched, tongue-and-groove roof! We had a storage unit on one side and a bench that pulled out into a bed on the other. Through the conversion project I converted Rob to the van life idea and we went on some great adventures in it around the UK and France. Rob actually proposed on a van trip around the northwest of Scotland – and the van, decked out in bunting, was our wedding vehicle!
Covid really changed everything for us. We had talked about moving to Rob’s home country, New Zealand, at some point but I was keen to start a family in the UK, where my family and friends are. Rob had always wanted to start his own business, but likewise we’d discussed going down that route when the potential kids were a bit older. And we had a pipe dream to live in a housebus in New Zealand one day, but in my head that was going to be a retirement project! However, thanks to Covid, we ended up doing all those things at once…
When Covid hit, we were on a two-month van trip around New Zealand. We had a trusty L300 4WD van, nicknamed Bruno, which we stored at Rob’s dad’s on the Otago Peninsula for trips like this. When we were packing to go home to the UK after our trip, Covid was hitting the news. At that point Rob still had a job in the UK, so, although we were concerned about the pandemic, we felt we had to go home. As we flew through Hong Kong, though, Rob got an email from his boss: everyone was going to be working from home or on furlough for the considerable future, so did we want to stay in New Zealand a bit longer? The email came just a day too late!
Back in the UK, Covid was kicking off, but New Zealand seemed to be preparing a lot better. We were struggling to start a family, considering IVF and worried that non-essential medical care might be pulled off the table in the UK. Ten days later we realised it was now or never as the New Zealand borders were about to close. At 8am we booked flights, packed our Welsh cottage into the loft so we could rent it out, and flew back to New Zealand the same day. It was such a stressful day – and then – phew! – we were in self-isolation in a bach on Rob’s dad’s section on the Otago Peninsula. It was lovely, situated on four acres of north-facing native bush overlooking the harbour, with tuis and bellbirds singing in our garden, and we ended up renting it for the rest of the year.
However, we’ve both lived in the mountains for the past ten years. Me in Chamonix, Rob in Scotland, and latterly together in Snowdonia, Wales. I was struggling to settle in on the Otago Peninsula and hopes to start a family were still stalling. A first attempt at IVF didn’t work out. Wanaka seemed the obvious place for us to live, but it was impractical on the bank account! By then we had decided to stay in New Zealand longterm, so Rob had quit his job in the UK and was starting the business he’d always dreamed of. Then, on a week-long van trip to Wanaka that November, Rob suggested fast-tracking the pipe dream to live in a housebus. We did, after all, have some spare cash as we had sold our house in Wales, as well as our van, and had all our stuff shipped over. By mid December we had found the right bus. By mid February we had converted it and were living in it in Wanaka. And by mid March I was pregnant.
We’ve both lived and worked in the bus full-time since we moved into it in February. I work as a writer and editor specialising in the intersection between nature, adventure and living lightly on the planet. I write for magazines, websites and books, and, last year wrote my first book, Rewild Your Life. Rob runs a tech start-up called Scannable – a safety data platform supporting the work-at-height industry.
Finding The Bus
We went on a manic one-week mission to find our bus! Starting in Oamaru, we test-drove a stripped-out, half-converted Hino, which was going for a song. It was very highly geared though, and we realised we were looking for more of an open-road cruiser. So we carried onto Methven, where we looked at a classic old clanky 4WD Mitsubishi Rosa, rusting on a farm. We were told there was a special ‘technique’ to the clutch, and the domestic shower someone had thrown inside didn’t look like a promising start to our conversion! We also concluded a 4WD bus was overkill. While we loved our 4WD van, the bus was tall, imposing, complicated and ultimately seemed unnecessary. So, onto Christchurch, where a dour mechanic showed us a late 80s Coaster. His wife wanted it gone and he didn’t, so he was asking a bit much for it!
Then we had two days in Akaroa to chill out, and spent some time stalking bus dwellers on Instagram. We came across the Surf Bus Project, as well as Brisa the Bus , and decided a 7m ’93 Coaster would suit us perfectly. Then one came up in Queenstown and we hightailed it back across Canterbury to Queenstown. I made a heart decision on it straight away – that’s my style! – Rob being the more practical one decided we should take it for a spin up the steep gravel road to the Remarkables ski field. We hiked up for a dip in Lake Alta, christened the bus Remy la Montagne and called it done.
Matt and Renee’s Surf Bus was a big influence. We particularly loved the L-bench sofa. We actually bought Matt’s roof rack plans from their website, and a friend with a workshop generously took most of a week with Rob to make the rack, while we got the front passenger seat belt installed in Christchurch. It needed to be a three-point belt to get the conversion from bus to motorhome, or self-propelled caravan as it’s officially called!
However, there are plenty of differences between ours and the Surf Bus, too. Like, we wanted a shower in ours and we didn’t want a full height wall hard up against the bed. We also wanted to maximise space, so we went for a small and quite narrow kitchen unit with room for a log burner at the end, by the door. Rob CAD’d up the furniture, and got a a local joiner to cut it out of 12 and 18mm birch-faced ply by CNC machine. We also designed some DIY swivel-out tables using 30mm pipework, which have proven the most comfortable work desks we’ve ever had.
We needed to keep as much ceiling height as possible for Rob’s 187cms, so we counted every millimetre in the ceiling construction. We used wool insulation, coming down on the side of moisture will get everywhere, so use a natural product which doesn’t mind some moisture. Working on the bus through January and February in the direct sun gave us a taste of what a bus without insulation would feel like – very very hot! Once we got the 50mm +/- insulation and 10mm beech ceiling tongue and groove in place, it kept the bus temperature much more stable. We still work with the door open on hot summer days, and roll out of the bus into the Hawea river when we need to cool down! Having a SUP at the ready has been a real treat!
And, as for winter, we can’t imagine living in a bus without a fire for ambience, not to mention warmth in central Otago. Our Roaring Meg fire was made in Cromwell. We moved into the bus without it, and picked it up as winter drew closer. Thankfully we’d seen the lead times on John’s stoves, and booked it in time to pick it up before winter. Installing that in the Albert Town campground was a good challenge, but we’d brought almost all our non-power tools with us! It has been a mild winter – we woke up to minus temps in the bus just a handful of times – but light the fire and it’s soon cosy again in a small space. We also escaped the coldest weeks of winter by heading up to Golden Bay – benefits of living in a portable home!
We have two, 60-ish litre water tanks, one fresh, one grey, hung under the bus. Rob did all the plumbing. During the van build he started most days in front of Youtube until about lunch before picking up the tools. He got to know Jaz pretty well!
The bus runs on 24v and we have a 12v solar system. We don’t charge the house batteries from the alternator. We go months at a time not driving, so just rely on the solar. We do sometimes charge the bus battery from the house batteries if it drops below 12v.
We converted the bus quickly as we didn’t want to miss too much of summer sweating over power tools. However, of all the things we were learning on the job, solar seemed too complicated to fast-track. So Rob went to Jaycar and took their recommendations. Which he regretted quite quickly! Thankfully the panels and batteries were great, just the MPPT controller and lack of visibility on what was going on was frustrating.
We started with one 100Ah lithium battery and two 170W panels. After hitting the low voltage shut off two or three times, and spending days trying to wrangle the Jaycar MPPT app they offer to get a sense of what was missing, Rob researched solar more thoroughly and made some changes. We swapped out the Jaycar MPPT for a Victron, and went for a Bluetooth Temp sensor, Shunt and Charger. Which all seem a bit pricey, but they were worth every dollar. They work seamlessly and give you almost all the info you need.
We also added another 100Ah battery, so we now have two. There are rules around installing lithium batteries in a group, like, you should use the exact same batteries, and you should install them at the same time. We decided it was close enough in time to go for it with a matching battery and it worked fine. Since then, we have never had to top up the batteries from mains. Our solar set up amply powers our LED lights, 12v fridge, laptops and phones.
We intentionally started with a basic, small solar system, because we wanted to learn what we actually needed, not rush and over-spec it. Initially we had two panels bolted flat onto our roof rack. We measured roughly a 30% increase in gains when we tilted these panels up. As we don’t drive daily, we don’t have a fancy rack system, just use a piece of ply to prop up each panel and a ratchet strap to keep it in place.
What’s our style? Bougie and earthy with a dash of gypsy caravan?! Although it probably makes housebuses look more spacious, neither of us are into the Instagrammable white-painted look. We wanted something more fun. We both love teal, so there’s lots of that. I had a bit of colour-over-excitement at the last minute, and threw in mustard yellow and then painted the worktops red! We both frequently find that our clothes match the bus, so it’s definitely all our favourite colours!
Our LPG and hot water system is closer to a camping than domestic set-up, which was cheaper, didn’t require certification, and we wanted to live an outdoors lifestyle, so trying to squeeze all the features of a house into a bus isn’t our thing. Rob plumbed a utility area of three taps on the outside of the bus. Here, there’s a tap where cold water can go into the tank, we also have a cold-out tap, which goes to a Joolca califante, and finally a hot-in tap, which goes from the Joolca to the kitchen sink, and, when we’ve finished building it, to our indoor shower. Rob came up with this idea and we haven’t seen anything else like it on Youtube so far!
We use a camping oven and stove top inside the bus, plumbed outside to a gas canister. We vent it well and it works brilliantly. We’ve cooked roast chicken, sourdough, banana bread… We also have a vintage outdoor gas cooker, which we use with a Woods Equip hot plate and a Madog Outdoors set of lightweight cast iron pans.
The desks were another good hack. Posh camper tables cost $3-400 for just the legs. We needed two, so we built ours out of plumbers pipe for $80 each. This was learnt from Youtube.
We do have an inverter, but we rarely use it. In an effort to resolve the best 12v work set up, we’ve gone through a few iterations. My Macbook Air runs on a 12v cigarette lighter Mac charger. Rob’s Microsoft Surface laptop can charge by USB C, and, after trying three different chargers, two of which melted, he had a winner! – a KFD 12v to USB-C.
Wifi has been a serious consideration: we started out just hotspotting from our phones, which worked when we started, but seemed to get worse. We have done the maths on running Starlink on our solar system, and it’s not going to work just yet! So we have a 4G router, which seems to keep us both connected. We’re about to trial an external antenna for it though, to see if we can boost it slightly.
Rob spends a lot of time making work video calls from the bus, and, when he wants to look professional, he casts a background image of his business logo behind him! It turns out that getting these to work well is all about getting the lighting correct, so he bought a Live Stream Pro Lighting Kit, which also holds his mobile phone, so no-one knows he’s making important calls from a bus! He also bought a compact, foldaway Nexstand to hold his laptop at the right height, which has been a game-changer. Being less techy, I just rest my laptop on top of a wine crate, which makes me smile remembering how far I’ve come on my vehicle-dwelling journey since I bought that first van in France, and call it done!
Check out more of Rob and Sarah’s bus adventures on Instagram, @sarah_stirling