The Badgers: Living the Kombi life across Australia
Living as a family in a Kombi gives new meaning to travelling light. For six months, the Badger family hit the road with only the essentials and had the extras delivered to them along the way.
Video: On a sunny day, turquoise waves churn and bubble in underwater footage. A young girl in a pink wetsuit paddles on a surfboard. Sitting in the doorway of an immaculate, mustard-yellow, classic Kombi, a brunette woman addresses an interviewer.
Text: Amber Badger.
Amber Badger: Spend time as a family and make memories together, that was our primary goal. To take ourselves away from the stress and the struggles of normal life.
Video: Amber shades her eyes and smiles out at waves rolling to a sandy shoreline. Her husband, Keenan, and their two young daughters stand in the shallows. One daughter rides a wave on her board.
Amber Badger: I think at the time we were sort of oblivious to that. We were... We were on autopilot. Keenan was working 60-, 65-hour weeks. I was running a business. We'd sort of lost touch with being together as a family. We were just sort of keeping the ship afloat.
Text: Unpack your potential.
Video: The Kombi drives along a narrow road bordered by short green grass. In the back of the Kombi, one dark-haired daughter sleeps. Her head rests on a pillow which is jammed against a side window. Curtains frame all the windows. The Kombi travels past rolling hills.
Amber: Six years ago, we had a health scare. Keenan was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Yeah, it was a life-threatening brain tumour which he needed surgery to heal from. It made us look at life a different way. It made us realise we needed to slow things down and spend more time doing the things that really... that were important to us.
Video: Snapshots show the family of four smiling in a hospital. Keenan's head is shaved. In one photo, the family pose by their Kombi on an outback road. A road sign reads 90-Mile Straight. Australia's longest straight road. 146.5km. The Kombi is parked in a grove. Its pop-top roof extends upward, and a shade cloth stretches out along one side of the van. The girls swing on ropes attached to a tree. Amber prepares food inside the van. Later, at night, the family gather around a campfire.
Amber: We saw a Kombi on the side of the road for sale. I rang Keenan and I said, There's a Kombi. Let's go look at it. And...by the end of the weekend, we'd bought one. I think we knew that it would be a catalyst to bigger things. The idea of then travelling Australia in the Kombi came to fruition. A family of four in a Kombi, it's, um... it's tight, it's cosy.
Video: Dawn. Inside the Kombi, the rear-window curtain is drawn open. Amber and the girls gaze out. Keenan stands by the van, watching the sunrise.Later, basking in golden sunshine, the family eats breakfast.
Amber: Once we'd gotten out of the built-up areas and into sort of vast landscapes, everything seemed just to slow down. We started noticing things in our girls that we hadn't really noticed before. Little quirky traits and things that we just overlooked in normal busy life.
Video: Sitting in the van, Amber views a map on her phone. The map is showing the location of Post Offices along their travel route. Her family chase each other on a sandy beach.
Amber: Travelling this way, it almost has a sense of... at times we feel like we're in our own little bubble.
Video: Amber and a daughter relax in a shaded hammock. Another daughter swings from a tree. The girls carry surfboards on their heads. At night, Amber hugs one of her daughters. Daytime - Amber carries a large white box out of a post office. Her girls follow.
Amber: When we arrive at a post office to collect something, it's like a bit of a connection. Whether it was parts for our car, clothing with the change of season or accessories for our camera, there was always that way of knowing that when you arrive at the next town, there's something for you to collect there that's going to allow your journey to continue.
Video: At the campsite, Keenan opens the box and takes out a waterproof camera case. By the beach, the girl stand, surfboards upright beside them. They check out the waves.
Amber Badger: We often say to each other, This is the best thing we ever did, buying this Kombi. It's hard to believe that a car can change your life so much, but it's so much more than the car itself. It's about everything that it brings and the people that it's brought into our lives as well.
Video: Underwater footage shows churning, bubbling water. One daughter sleeps in the van. Beneath the shade cloth, Amber grins. The wetsuit-clad family chatter on the beach. The girls poke their heads upside down into the Kombi through the van's pop-top roof. Each girl's long brunette locks dangle into the van. Later, they ride a frothy white wave. Fade to white. The red and white Australia Post logo spins into view.
“Adventure comes when you stretch yourself beyond what you ever thought possible, look over to new horizons and take a little leap of faith.”
When Amber Badger posted this caption to her social media feed in October 2017, she wasn’t just spouting an inspirational quote. She was sharing her family’s life philosophy. Two years ago, their leap of faith rewarded them with a 1975 Kombi and a second life on the road that's taking them over white sand and red earth across Australia.
Until six years ago, however, the Badgers were like “any other young Australian family.” Two working parents raising two kids, with a mortgage hanging over their heads and wanderlust simmering in their hearts. Keenan’s long shifts and late nights as an electrician coupled with the demands of Amber’s leather business left them with scant time for bonding with their daughters, Coco and Indigo.
“We were on auto pilot trying to keep the ship afloat,” Amber says. “And we were oblivious to how we had lost touch with being a family. We had also shelved our dream of travelling Australia with the kids because we didn’t think it would happen anytime soon.”
Then life threw them a curveball. Keenan was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour. After a successful surgery, the shaken family were determined to change their way of living. But old habits can be hard to break. Keenan says, “The health scare really put things into perspective during the first year of recovery. But it’s amazing how quickly you fall back into the rut of life and forget what you went through.”
Amber, though, wasn’t about to tempt fate twice. Their brush with mortality spurred her to not only revisit their travel dream but also resurrect another one - owning a Kombi.
“Time was passing us by too quickly,” she says. “Our girls were growing up and we hadn’t created enough memories with them. As soon as we started believing it could happen, it was just a matter of putting one thing after another to make it so.”
“If this is everything we think it is, let’s just do it.”
Not long after setting the wheels in motion, Amber stumbled across a yellow Kombi in a barn in Bathurst, New South Wales. On their way to view it together, the couple agreed they would not make an offer that day. But their instincts were telling them otherwise.
“We finally said, if this is everything we think it is, let’s just do it,” Amber laughs. “We got there and it was perfect. All the parts were original and it only needed a good clean and a replacement of the canvas pop top. We knew we had to do it.”
“It was very uncharacteristic for us to be so spontaneous with such a big decision but we knew it would be a catalyst to bigger things. It would be living a little on the edge, doing something out of the norm. That’s where we wanted to be.”
They christened the Kombi Summer for the memories it evoked of cruising the coast, exploring beaches and picnics in the sand. A month-long trial run in Tasmania convinced them that they were more than ready for this adventure and so they began planning their great Australian road trip.
The Badgers charted a route from Western Sydney to Broken Hill, across to Port Augusta in South Australia, straight up the middle to Darwin, down the Western Australia coastline to the Nullarbor Plain and through South Australia back to Sydney. The whole trip would take nearly six months and cover just over 25,000km. Throughout that time, they would be living entirely in the Kombi.
“We could have gone around Australia in a bigger van but that would defeat the purpose of what we were trying to do,” Amber explains. “It was all about stripping away the modern conveniences so that we could slow things down, live simply and make memories together.”
This approach meant packing minimally and getting any extras items, like clothes and camera accessories, sent to post offices in the most convenient locations along their route. With this meticulous planning in place, the Kombi was loaded with gear and the Badgers set off on their long-awaited road trip in July 2017.
“It’s hard to believe that a car can change your life so much.”
Within days of being on the road, Keenan and Amber began noticing a shift in themselves and their connection as a family. As they entered vast landscapes, it slowly became apparent how small their world had once been and how far the hustle of daily life had taken them from each other.
“We noticed a different side to our girls that we hadn’t seen before,” Amber recalls. “They were truly blossoming in this environment. Keenan and I also had many conversations about what really mattered to us, and that common objective has made us better parents.”
Coco and Indigo were home schooled throughout the trip - an approach that Keenan and Amber were initially anxious about but needn’t have been. Whether on a remote beach, between the trees of a national park or beneath the stars in the Australian bush, the girls thrived in their new learning environment.
Each morning, the family would pull back the curtain to watch the sunrise over the ocean or red earth. At night, a board game or a pack of cards would be brought out after dinner and they would play until heavy eyelids brought yet another day of memory-making to an end.
“It’s the simplest things that we remember most,” says Keenan. “I can see that what we’re doing is pivotal to their upbringing. It’s reflected on their faces and I hope they carry it with them throughout the rest of their lives.”
“You have to go into this with an open mind and heart.”
Before they set off, Keenan had a new engine and gearbox fitted in the Kombi for peace of mind. Yet within a few days, he found himself getting a crash course in navigating the Kombi’s fuel system when it sputtered to a stop on Broken Hill. It would be the first in a long and varied list of mechanical problems.
“My relationship with the Kombi is definitely a love-hate one,” he says. “Cruising through Australia and looking through the bay window is awesome. Repairing it in the middle of nowhere? Not so much. There were times when the isolation and urgency to get us to the next town almost broke me.”
“I had done a lot of reading beforehand and took a few service manuals with me but I had no hands-on experience. Each time we had a problem, I’d try to diagnose it and search online for a solution. Remarkably though, we never had a single flat tire!”
That resilience was further tested in Darwin when the engine failed completely. Arrangements had to be made for parts to be delivered to the town’s post office and that access, Amber says, was what kept them on the road and their dream alive.
“There was always excitement when we knew we’d be receiving a parcel in the mail whether it was clothes, camera accessories or car parts. And it also gave us a sense of connection. Travelling this way can encase us in our own little bubble so going to the post office let us connect to the outside world.”
“It’s part of us now. It’s in our fibre. We live for it.”
It’s always easy to live your best life when you’re far removed from the daily grind. But once that escapade is over and the magic begins to fade, it’s even easier to get sucked back into old routines.
To keep from falling into that trap, the Badgers discussed how they would maintain their connection and slow way of life once they returned home. Now whenever they feel the hustle taking over, they pile into the Kombi for a late afternoon picnic at the beach or a spontaneous weekend getaway.
“We often say to each other that buying this Kombi is the best thing we’ve ever done,” Amber says. “When we’re in Summer, all our troubles just melt away. We have such a deep connection with it. It’s part of our family and literally our happy place.”
All images by Amber Badger