Living in one's car is often regarded as a final step towards homelessness but for a growing number of Perth people it's also a lifestyle choice.
They aren't grey nomads. Rather, they would better be described as being of the blue-collar - or high-vis - variety...such as Ben.
For the past five years, Ben has been living in his van around the beaches, parks and rivers of Perth. These are the place where passers-by come to jog, stroll and swim away the endless cycle of routine and day-to-day monotony. Ben is one of many that have decided set up camp here semi-permanently.
But Ben is among those who have decided set up camp here semi-permanently.
The assortment of individuals living this life are motivated by different reasons, but they are drawn together by common interests - love of freedom and the outdoors, and appreciation for the beauty of Western Australia.
“It’s becoming a trend,” Ben says.
“A lot of people are starting to realise the true potential of outdoor living, and how well it fits into the Australian way of life.”
There are almost 10,000 people of no fixed address in Western Australia, many of whom live in their cars. For some, this is that final stop before homelessness, but Ben and his mates have chosen to live this way.
“Don’t call me homeless. That’s my home right there,” Ben grunts, gesturing toward the tinted windows of his transit van.
Ben gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘taking your work home’. His van is sectioned into two partitions. The back half contains all the chemicals required to run his cleaning business, and the front half doubles as his bedroom, office, lounge room and kitchen.
The casual observer may not discern any difference between Ben and the other homeless who frequent the area. Suddenly, a bedraggled regular begins to rifle through the bins, replacing the rubbish with a bizarre collection of rocks. While many find themselves living a transient life due to mental health reasons or substance abuse, Ben has shunned society’s standards and conformity.
“The beauty of it is that where ever you decide to go, your already home,” Ben says.
“I know a lot of people that dream of doing this but they’re tied down with family and responsibilities.”
Ben grew up on WA’s Coral Coast, a region world renowned for its outdoor lifestyle and rugged terrain. After moving down to Perth, Ben still manages to maintain the lifestyle that Western Australia is famous for.
There have always been those who have chosen to inhabit our harsh landscape since the dawn of Australian history. From transient aboriginal tribes to wandering stockmen, swagmen and bushrangers like Ned Kelly, they have all roamed as wild and free as the country itself. Today, these travellers have adapted the attitude into their own modern day lifestyle.
The evening news echoes through the slightly ajar door of Ben’s van. The solar panels on the roof power Ben’s van, including the printer he requires to run the administrative side of his business. Whilst his small living area may not contain all the comforts of a modern home, it comes close. And the mobility compensates for any lack of creature comfort.
“I wouldn’t change this for all the money in the world,” Ben gleams, gesturing out toward the moonlight glowing on the still banks of the Swan River.
“There’s my veranda, he says.
“Some people pay millions for this view. Once you start living this life, you can’t go back.”
A duck glides effortlessly through the freedom of the crisp night air, the whispering wind tickling the tinted windows of Ben’s transit van. Ben watches the bird with interest and intrigue, before glancing back toward the freeway. He scratches the top of his straggling grey ponytail, disillusioned by the oblivion of passing motorists.
Further down the river bank, two people converse on the street, a hi-vis vest flickering in the early evening moonlight.
“I’m doing my Cert 4 in pneumatics and diesel fitting!” a coarse tone thunders.
Both men are FIFO workers, and rather than renting a room they only occupy for two weeks of the month, they have decided to live in their vans in order to save money.
But Ben’s isolation from the two men is not accidental. An earlier altercation with one – who has an apparent meth problem – has led to Ben seeking his own secluded spot away from their deafening bellows.
Suddenly, Ben shudders as sirens blare past, the serene stillness transforming to tension. Despite this life’s romantic notions of freedom, it is also one of precaution and uncertainty.
“You need to be switched on to do this,” Ben says.
“You’re exposed to all elements of society, and if you’re not alert or aware you won’t last.
“A lot of backpackers come and leave their mess everywhere and draw attention to us. You just wait for them to leave and pick it up. It’s best to stay out of troubles way.”
But this is not always possible. A few nights ago, Ben narrowly avoided being involved in a nasty punch up. A dispute over the sale of a generator became violent, and an attempt at resolving the altercation peacefully almost saw Ben involved.
While many such as Ben have been living like this for a number of years, the emergence of the digital era has seen blogs and Instagram accounts - such as thevandiaries.com and #vandogtraveller - being successful enough to generate a source of income from the documentation of this lifestyle.
Websites such as youcamp.com even offer these people a safe and scenic place to park their vans for the night, a testimony to this lifestyle’s increasing popularity.
And Ben doesn’t plan to abandon it anytime soon.
“If you offered me a two bedroom house on the beach tomorrow I wouldn’t take it,” he says.
“It’s freedom mate, you’re completely mobile. This life has opened my eyes and made me fully aware of everything that’s going on in the world.”