Just four days into the biggest adventure of their lives, the Hilliers wondered what they had done – son Mack, 15 months, fell off a camp chair and broke his arm, and a cyclone threatened to derail all their plans.
“It was trial by fire,” says Marnie Hillier, describing the first week after taking to the road in February with husband Steve and sons River, 3½ and Mack. “We thought we had made a horrible mistake, but we have persevered and found our groove.”
The Hilliers have swapped a house in the suburbs for a life on the road in a custom-wrapped hot pink caravan, and they intend to live this way for a year. As well as touring and “discovering” New Zealand, the Auckland family is meeting customers supporting Marnie’s statement T-shirt business, Eskimo Nell.
“We had this underlying idea that while the kids were young there were adventures to be had,” says Marnie. “We just had to figure out how to do it. We wanted to knock the status quo, and we felt there was a life away from long commutes and working just to pay the mortgage.
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“So Steve quit his job, we have rented out the house, and we have embarked on this adventure.”
Marnie says hitting the road was also a way for her to connect with her customers, “the mums and grandmothers”, whom she has come to know well through social media. “We have these conversations on social media and now we can meet up at coffee shops and markets in the towns we pass through. We have a coffee and a hug – like modern-day penpals meeting up.
“There is a yearning in women for this connection. Being close to neighbours is a thing of the past; now we have a whole new village via social media. It doesn’t look anything like it used to, but the village is still there. I don’t find it strange when they see the caravan and rock up, because I have been talking to them, but Steve finds it a little odd when they say, ‘Hi Steve, how’s it going?’.”
Steve Hillier says he found the first month on the road “really tough”. “Full-time parenting makes usual professional work seem like a holiday,” he says.
“It was challenging engaging with the kids all day everyday, especially without a network of dads to share the load with. After I got into the swing of it though, it has become more and more rewarding. Mack has gone through some major leaps, and to be there for every minute of it, rather than just in the mornings and evenings, is amazing.”
Steve says the hardest thing to come to terms with was having less time to himself. “I thought I’d be peeling through loads of books and podcasts and relaxing on the beach, but it has been quite the opposite. However as the whole family has got into the routine and swing of life on the road we are getting more free time.”
“Our roles have changed,” admits Marnie. “It has been a role reversal, with Steve now supporting me in my business, when before it was the other way round. That took a while for us to get our heads around, but he’s an amazing dad.”
Marnie says she started her T-shirt business after becoming a mum for the first time. “I went through a rollercoaster life as a new mum. I felt I was losing myself and wanted to find a way to get back to me.
“I started sharing the experience with friends, and came up with the T-shirts as a way to celebrate the fact we were surviving. People would stop me in the gym and at the playground and want to know where they could get a similar T-shirt. And the business just grew from there.”
The couple say they are amazed at how many people seem to envy their life on the road – they try and post their “radical sabbatical” every day on Instagram. “So many people we meet, in the libraries and campgrounds, tell us they have entertained the idea of taking a year off, chucking the kids in a caravan or a bus and hitting the road.
“It’s interesting to ask what is stopping them. It’s usually the practical things – they’re not sure how to manage the kids for example.
“We meet some really interesting people doing what we are doing, but they are foreigners. We haven’t yet met any Kiwi families doing this with children. But there are a lot of people having an adventure like ours in their retirement.”
The couple say they originally imagined themselves freedom camping in DOC grounds, but quickly discovered it is a lot easier, with young children, to stop at holiday parks with facilities. “There are playgrounds and there’s usually a big room where we can go if it’s raining – although we haven’t had much rain so far after that first week.” says Marnie.
The Hilliers hope to see pretty much all of the country over the next year. They started at the top of the north and have got as far as Rotorua. From here, they are going to trip around East Cape.
The “absolute highlight” of the trip so far has been Matauri Bay, which they adored. They even intend to get across to Stewart Island, because Marnie has more Eskimo Nell customers there.
Their brand new Sprite caravan from the UK was customised to suit their needs (including the pink wrapped exterior). “We looked at lots of caravans on websites and went to caravan yards,” says Marnie.
“In my mind I wanted this gorgeous little retro caravan, but we ended up with a new one wih central heating. And I wanted it to be a real head turner, hence the pink. People know we’ve arrived in town. The old codgers sometimes give us a sideways look, and then they come up and say, ‘Oh, that looks cool’.”
Since hitting the road, Marnie has also finetuned the distribution of her Eskimo Nell clothing line, outsourcing two-thirds of it to “mums in Auckland”. But she keeps some stock in the truck for customers on the road.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
Patience: “People say it takes a month or two to find your groove on the road, and that proved to be true,” says Marnie. “It does take time to get used to living in a much smaller space, and being around each other all the time.”
Go with the flow: “I’d say don’t over think it and just do it,” says Steve. “It gives a real perspective into what our significant others go through that we can’t begin to appreciate. And the way society is, most men won’t or don’t have the opportunity to get to be there for a good portion of their children’s early years. I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a parent.”
Daily routine: “Children still need a daily routine and a base,” says Marnie. “River is still getting his head around the fact that he makes friends in each place and then has to say goodbye to them.”