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Van life: Durham couple's six years on the road (and counting)

By Duncan Leatherdale
BBC News

image copyrightDan Colegate

The idea of packing up your possessions to live life on the open road has its appeal, but the practicalities put a lot of people off actually doing it. Six years ago, after one of them nearly died and both were diagnosed with depression, Dan Colegate, 38, and Esther Dingley, 37, swapped their careers and a permanent home for motoring through the mountains, valleys and coastlines of Europe.

In January 2014, Dan and Esther appeared to have a good life.

They had a nice flat in the picturesque cathedral city of Durham, multiple degrees from universities including Oxford and Cambridge, flourishing careers and were three weeks away from getting married.

But beneath the surface, both felt hollow inside, like "zombies sleepwalking through life", Esther recalls.

Dan, a business development manager, was getting counselling for depression while Esther, who ran her own personal training firm, battled with chronic fatigue sparked by her own mental health struggles.

And then Dan nearly died.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionDan and Esther had always been keen travellers

Doctors had told Esther to say her final goodbye to her partner of 11 years just in case they were unable to halt the "flesh-eating" bacteria threatening to devour his insides; the necrotising fasciitis he had was an infection that followed surgery to ease a bowel incontinence-causing defect he had endured since birth.

They could not have known it on that fretful night, but the moment Dan nearly died proved to be the moment his and Esther's life together really started.

"It was the kick up the backside we needed," says Dan, chatting six years later via video-call from an idyllic vineyard in Gascony, France, where he is house-sitting.

In the on-screen box beside Dan - who is broadcasting live from the pair's parked-up campervan - Esther nods. "People say every cloud has a silver lining but when you're in the cloud it does not look like it," she says.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionIt's not always easy to see the silver lining when you are in the clouds, Esther says

The couple are currently several hundred miles apart, Dan opting to stay still for a time while Esther prefers to keep mobile.

"We've got the best of both worlds, really," Esther says. "We get a home bug and a travel bug. Travelling takes you to some beautiful places but it feels a bit unsettled at times, so then we house-sit somewhere to get a bit of stability.

"We realised that during the coronavirus we had not been apart from each other for a year so decided to each just do our own thing for a bit. This whole thing has been really good for us individually and our relationship; we are genuinely happy now."

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionDan and Esther say they have found true happiness on the road

The seeds of that happiness first started to be sown in the weeks after Dan's operation, when he was lying on the sofa eating chunks of discounted Christmas cake they had bought for their wedding. The nuptials had to be cancelled because of his health scare, and they've still not got around to becoming husband and wife.

"We really loved to travel and we kept saying one day we would do it, but there was always another project, another job to help pay for the future we wanted that we should do first," Esther says.

"We were always just chasing the next objective, always chasing something bigger so we could do something in the future. Then all of a sudden someone turns around and says the person I love and was planning to do it all with could be gone by the morning.

"It was time for us to think again about our lives."

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionThere was a world out there that they were missing

Dan nods, adding simply: "We were taking our future for granted."

With Dan recovering, they decided to start travelling almost immediately, and within three weeks they were on the road.

They found a campervan - quickly nicknamed Homer - a tenant for their flat and a buyer for their car.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionDan and Esther posed for one final picture in Durham before leaving in 2014

Initially they put most of their possessions in a friend's attic, but have since given most away to friends and charities. "Everything we own and consider personal possessions fits in the van," Dan says.

They reckoned with their savings and rental income from their Durham home they could head off for a year-long adventure. The two fitness fanatics were keen to hike and cycle in some of Europe's most beautiful spots.

One year has become six and counting, with the couple living off a combination of savings, rental income and money earned doing odd jobs.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionThe two fitness fanatics have biked and hiked their way through Europe

"When you are sitting on your sofa in Durham trying to decide if you can take the financial risk, with people asking you 'what about your pension?' or 'what about this or that?', you are pretty risk averse," Esther says.

"It was not until on the road and finding out how inexpensive it could be, and interacting with people living on the road for 10 or 20 years, that we started to see we did not have to go back to the careers that we had.

"We could have done this years earlier."

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionWhen not moving around, they have found work on farms and house-sitting

They have never really had a plan but instead have just been "searching for a feeling", Dan says.

They've lived in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Liechtenstein, enjoying summers in the altitudes of the Alps and Pyrenees, and have spent winters in the warmer climes of Spain.

They have biked and hiked thousands of miles, sometimes apart but most of it together; both recognise they were in a fortunate financial position that's certainly not shared by everyone.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionThey spend their summers in the mountains

No matter how hard they had worked to put themselves in that situation, there was still an element of luck to get there. And they say luck has accompanied them throughout.

"The overriding experience for me is that something always comes up," Dan says.

"Every time we said 'we needed to do this or that', something happened that made that possible."

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionThey say their only possessions are those that can fit in their campervan

There was the time they broke down in Italy on a national holiday with the garages closed, and a chance encounter with an expat Mancunian walking her dog led to them being offered a place to stay.

Or when they quickly found farm work or house-sitting jobs when they needed some extra cash or a stable base for a while.

And then there was the arrival of Leela.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionDan and Esther were staying in San José in Almeria when they made a new friend, a street dog called Leela

In January 2017, Dan and Esther found themselves in San José, a small fishing village of pristine white houses beside the dazzling blue Alboran Sea in southern Spain, enjoying lunch at a cafe with Esther's parents, who had flown out to see how the pair were getting on.

It was the cheese and ham toastie that caught Leela's attention.

The eight-month-old was a stray, a not uncommon sight in Spain.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionEsther and Dan met Leela in a cafe in Spain

This one day found Leela on the cafe's terrace, where Esther and Dan slipped her the remnants of their lunch.

After some deliberation, Dan and Esther decided to give Leela a home - but what they didn't know until they took her to the vet to be checked over was that their new friend was pregnant.

They soon rented a house in the town, where Leela could give birth to her six puppies, and helped the inexperienced mother raise them: Dan and Esther bottle-fed the pups every three hours for several weeks.

Two of the dogs found new homes in Spain, while the other four and their mother joined Dan and Esther on their travels. This was the inspiration for what became a series of children's books written by the couple, to add to several travel books Dan has authored.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionLeela and her pups have joined in with the travelling

One campervan, two people and five dogs, and there are no plans to end the adventure, no matter how much they miss friends, family and the weekend trips they used to take to the beaches of Northumberland and hills of the Lake District.

They might currently be in separate countries but they are of one mind when asked what they plan to do next.

"We haven't got a clue," Dan smiles, and Esther nods enthusiastically.

image copyrightDan Colegate
image captionThey have no plans to end their adventure any time soon

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