I’d been in contact with the Finlays for many months – Ken and Lynn are great writers and regularly send submissions through to our Campfire pages. I also enjoyed a lot of correspondence with them while working on the article they wrote for our February 2014 issue, on how to be a full-time caravanner.
So, when they invited me to visit them at a private caravan park in Kuils River where they were staying during December and January, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out how seasoned full-timers really live – and get my chance to meet this couple face to face.
Their caravan is a pretty small - yet very cosy - Sprite Scenic; and it’s not a pop-top (they aren’t fans). Ken points out that they have the extra space and height inside, as well as the extra packing space on the upper inner walls. Their tented living space feels large and welcoming, and their add-a-room serves as a very comfortable walk-in closet.
On the wall at the entrance to this ‘closet’, they have all their electronic device chargers hanging up - cable-tied and velcroed in neat order. And this epitomises how this couple live: ordered, tidy, highly functional and with everything in its place. The numerous chargers also highlighted an interesting phenomenon: full-timers are becoming increasingly tech-savvy. I met Ken and Lynn the day before they were due to move on, to Island Lake resort in Wilderness, where they’d be meeting up with many of their caravanning friends. ‘Some of these guys and girls are in their 80s, yet they still kayak, cycle, walk and hike, and they all belong to the University of the Third Age, which represents the third cycle of life, through which we enjoy really interesting lectures and presentations,’ Lynn revealed.
‘The people who are doing this are a complete hodgepodge of humanity – doctors, dentists, scientists, train drivers and so on – it’s totally a classless society. We all sit and braai together and chat, then Ken plays the keyboard and we have some lekker lang-arm dancing. Ken and I are both ‘people’ people and we have discovered that everybody has a story; everybody has a life and problems… and everybody has the same problems, strangely enough. Their kids, their houses, and so on. Everyone on this circuit has decided, ‘To hell with life’s problems - we’re going touring!’
They describe a typical scenario they’ve heard fellow full-timers describe – first the couple’s kids and grandkids move into their house, or they sell their own house and move in with their kids. Before long they realise that they can’t handle living on top of each other, so ‘They take the caravan and they bugger off’, to quote tell-it-like-it-is Lynn. ‘They pack everything bar the kitchen sink,’ she laughed, ‘and, in fact, some of them even bring the kitchen sink along!’
Ken is the perfect foil for Lynn’s extrovert personality. He has a quick sense of humour and is wonderfully affectionate to her, but he’s often the quieter voice in the background. At this point, he adds to Lynn’s story: ‘Then, slowly, they learn what they don’t need,’ and he smiles, knowingly.
‘We caravaned for a long time and we did a lot of it, mostly just driving from Joburg down to the Vaal River,’ says Lynn. ‘We did it every second weekend for about 12 years. We used to caravan when we were first married but we packed it up when we had the kids. Not fun. It’s not fun with kids – they can say what they like, but it’s hard work,’ she says, shaking her head.
‘It’s okay for you with your son, who’s seven,’ Ken assured me, ‘or if you have older kids… especially if they have a pal at the campsite! At 7 you can put a little tent outside and your son will be more than happy to have that as his own space and not stay in the caravan with you - because that’s his space and his little bedroom. Place and space is important when you’re full-timing in such cramped quarters, and the Finlays couldn’t survive without their add-a-room. ‘Many fulltimers use this as a place for the grandkids to stay in and so on, but we just use it as a walk-in dressing room as this allows us to take a few more clothes on the road with us,’ said Lynn, with a wink. To which Ken added, ‘Everything has to have its place – and everything must be unpacked. It’s our home, so we’ve got to be comfortable and we have to know where everything is. You don’t want to start searching for stuff under beds and inside cupboards when you need something in a hurry.’
During my visit to their campsite home I felt such a wonderful sense of peace and relaxation, and every now and then I had to remind myself that they weren’t just having a camping holiday – this was their full-time home! It’s daunting to consider living with so few possessions in such a compact space, but they’re so happy that they have permanent smiles on their faces. But, surely they’ve had to make some substantial sacrifices to be able to enjoy this lifestyle?
Ken thinks for a second before answering with a laugh, ‘Nothing. We haven’t sacrificed anything.’
‘We’ve lost a bit of intimacy with the kids,’ added Lynn, ‘but I don’t think that it’s as important as a lot of people think or believe it is.’
Quality time rules over quantity; and, besides, having healthy and happy grandparents is a huge bonus for your children and grandchildren. Then, suddenly, Lynn remembers something…
‘The only sacrifice was our dogs. That was a huge thing. We watched a movie the other night called ‘My Dog Skip’… and I couldn’t stop crying. I just had that longing for our dog, and you miss that. But wherever we go, there are wild birds that become our pets; and most resorts have a resident dog who offers kisses and cuddles... But that is something that we all miss - our pets. We always lived on big plots so we were always surrounded by animals.’
‘You can take a small dog with you to a lot of caravan parks, especially out of season,’ added Ken, ‘but it limits you because then you can’t go into many of the nature reserves or into the national parks.’ In the absence of man’s best friend, Ken and Lynn’s next golden nugget is, not surprisingly, about friends, as well! ‘We make friends in the towns that we stay in, especially places such as Sedgefield, Wilderness or George, because we spend a long time there,’ said Lynn.
‘You get to know the people in the area and it’s really important, because, aside from being good friends to spend time with, these are the guys who can service your car or your caravan or be there when you have a drama. We’ve got our caravan family and friends all over the country, and it’s wonderful.’
‘The way that the fuel prices are going up, means that we’re all going to end up spending longer and longer in the caravan parks; not because you get a better rate for a longer stay, but because it pays you not to be travelling,’ Ken said. So how did these two crazy kids first get the idea of joining the full-timer circuit? Lynn admitted that Ken had thought about it first. ‘I had to do a bit of selling on it, though, you know,’ says Ken, winking at me.
Lynn said, ‘It was about four years ago. We were on holiday at Areena for a couple of days and we saw permanents at the campsite; and that’s when Ken started to think about our doing it, but I didn’t want to know, I just didn’t want to know. The idea of getting rid of my house and losing my base and moving away from my roots and getting rid of all my furniture… You see, you have to wrap your mind around it and you have to get rid of everything. You can’t keep anything.’
‘And despite getting rid of everything, you want to see the car when we travel,’ laughed Ken. ‘It’s packed to the roof… and then we still put the kayaks on top! We put all our clothes and everything in ammo boxes and then we use those ammo boxes as furniture inside the tent.’ ‘With most full-timers,’ Lynn said, waving her hand dramatically to cover the whole campsite, and no doubt all campsites across South Africa, ‘the guys do it at the drop of a hat… but the women are the ones who struggle to come to terms with the idea. We’re all the same - it’s that nesting instinct and the idea of getting rid of everything.’
Ken: ‘We have friends all over who are keeping their furniture in lockups - they’re paying R800 a month for their furniture to be stored, in case they decide to go back!’
Lynn: ‘No: if you do this, you have to decide on it and then sell up everything. If something happens to us and we have to relook at our lifestyle, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.’ ‘But it’s been worth it – and you can’t put a price on the experiences we’re had on the road these past two years,’ added Ken.
‘We’ll never go back,’ Lynn said, smiling broadly. ‘In fact, we’ve become so accustomed to living like this that if we go and stay with the kids or with our old friends from home then we actually get claustrophobic! We sit outside in their garden all the time – we cannot stand being in a brick environment. Can’t sleep in a brick place. Very strange!’
The Finlays don’t even carry their family photo albums with them – no space! They have pics stored on their computer and regularly get sent new ones of their children and grandchildren via email. ‘We boxed up the photo albums and gave them to the kids – after all, that’s their legacy now and will be their memories once we’re gone. They’re going to get bugger-all else, anyway – we’re spending their inheritance!’ laughed Lynn. ‘Whatever furniture the kids didn’t want, we sold or gave to charity, including some lovely antiques which we ended up getting just about nothing for. We packed up two trailers full of kitchenware, linen and clothes that we gave to charity. That’s when we realised that you hold onto these things because you feel they are so valuable, yet at the end of the day you get almost nothing for them.’
The message they share is loud and clear: the value in our life is not in our things but in our memories. Living surrounded by ‘memories,’ (i.e. things) might be comforting, but your greatest happiness will be found in going out and creating new memories, together.
‘There are a lot of English-speaking people full-timing now,’ said Ken. ‘It used to be largely an Afrikaans thing, but there is a high proportion of English full-timers now and its a good thing because it’s forced the two language groups to mix more at campsites, and we do really socialise together a lot in the evenings. When you spend two months in a place, you really get to know your neighbours; unlike sitting at home where you can live for five years and not know your neighbour.’
There was something really lekker about wandering around the campsite with Ken and Lynn as they introduced me to their full-time friends. There are sacrifices, difficulties and tough decisions to make at times, and for sure you have bumps and potholes to navigate on the way, but without a doubt, Ken and Lynn are the poster-kids for the full-time lifestyle.
‘You gain a fantastic lifestyle living like this,’ said Ken. ‘As we say to everyone, we sleep in the caravan, we eat in the tent and we live outside. That’s it – every day we go out and do things and see things.’
I don’t know how you feel, but to me that sounds like the right way to spend one’s golden years.
- Story and photos by Simon Lewis
This article was published in Caravan & Outdoor Life Magazine.