College sweethearts Deepak (43) and Ruchi Pandey (42) have shared a love for travelling since they first met in college in Dehradun.
When they were younger, they’d bunk classes in favour of exploring the city. Twenty years later, married with two children, their curiosity to tour the country together has only grown.
Their journeys began with a Tata Indica, and slowly, a Safari. But as their family grew — with two sons and three dogs — they needed a bigger vehicle.
While they were pondering over which vehicle to buy next, the coronavirus pandemic hit and travel came to a standstill.
“We’ve been travelling for more than 20 years,” Deepak tells The Better India. “But when the first lockdown was announced, it stopped our travel plans. Later, even when everything started opening up, we avoided eating outside or staying in hotels. That’s when we found out about caravans. While this concept has been present in foreign countries for almost 50 years, it’s only just picking up in ours.”
Deepak has a transferable job, which means moving around the country every two years. He uses his leaves judiciously and embarks on a trip every quarter. So far, the couple has taken four trips in their van — Leh and Ladakh, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and Gujarat.
The couple takes us through their home on wheels.
Setting up their own caravan
While the idea seems interesting, there are a lot of challenges, which begin with getting permission from the RTO for a white-board vehicle, Deepak explains.
As the first step, he spent four months in different RTOs across the country to get permission.
“I hail from Uttarakhand but wasn’t able to get permission there. The problem lies in getting a big vehicle registered for private use. It was tough convincing the officials that I am going to use this for my family, and not for commercial work. Finally, after running around Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, and NCR, I got my breakthrough in Ahmedabad,” says Deepak.
The next step was buying a vehicle that could be converted into a campervan suitable for a large family. In April 2021, the couple bought a Force Traveller 3350. Then, the challenge was stripping down the vehicle and adding everything required for a comfortable trip.
The problem, explains Deepak, is that the materials necessary for the conversion of a vehicle into a camper van are not available in India.
“We had to import many products from the US, which increases your cost four times. For example, we paid more than Rs 2 lakh for the AC as we had to import it. We also had to import a toilet that uses less water,” he says.
He adds, “Moreover, since this has not been done before, we had to rely on videos of people from other countries. We designed the vehicle ourselves and hired skilled workers. Since this was new for them too, we had to show them videos to explain how we wanted the fittings done. Soon, they also took interest and helped us build our dream vehicle.”
The Force Traveller is a small van with around 100 square feet of space.
While designing this campervan, utilising space judiciously is of prime importance, he notes.
The van has comfortable seating, a kitchen, a bathroom, two huge beds to accommodate four people, an AC, and storage capacity. Deepak has also added solar panels on top to provide electricity, as well as a 150 litre water tank.
“I have sufficient electricity thanks to the solar panels. I also have a generator for power backup for the rainy season. We also have sufficient water to last for 4-5 days with judicious usage. We have everything in this van that we have at home — microwave, gas, bathroom, shower, etc,” he says.
After non-stop work for three months, the van was ready on 26 July 2021. It cost about Rs 18 lakh, and the cost of conversion was Rs 12 lakh. Deepak says that if one purchases a second-hand van, the total cost will come to Rs 20-25 lakh.
‘Jobs fill our pockets, but adventure fills our soul.’
The first trip of the Pandeys was to Leh Ladakh with their children and Deepak’s parents.
“We had a great time. My parents enjoyed it as a van offers you a choice to stop wherever you want, lie down when you want, and basically move at your own pace. Your plans are flexible. You can stop the van and enjoy the view while having a meal. We still remember an evening at Pangong Lake when we were the only ones there. It was truly mesmerising,” says Deepak.
Meanwhile, Ruchi notes that cooking in the van saves expenses.
“Travelling long distances in a car is not comfortable. You have to get out to stretch, eat, and sleep. In this van, our kids and parents are also enjoying it. Driving is smooth and comfortable. It also helps that we both cook and clean,” she says.
The couple says they travel an average of 200 km a day and begin looking for a parking spot by the evening. “In rural areas, it’s relatively easier to find parking space. In cities, we use 24-hour parking spaces or hotel parking,” Deepak says.
The couple says they haven’t faced any safety issues.
“People worry about parking at night in different places. We have only encountered the most friendly people on our trips so far. People have helped us everywhere. Also, since our van is self-sufficient, we don’t need to step out and set up a camp. We also have cameras on the van,” says Ruchi.
Her favourite of the four trips in the caravan was to Gujarat. Only the couple had gone on this 25-day trip, where they covered more than 5,000 km and truly enjoyed the van life.
“We had been to Rann of Kutch, which was just beautiful. We got to truly experience van life on this trip, as we didn’t stay at hotels. We even used a Roro ferry. We learn something new on our every trip, and the Gujarat one certainly didn’t disappoint,” she adds.
Deepak adds that they spent only Rs 60,000- Rs 70,000 on the Gujarat trip, which would have been much more expensive had it involved hotel stays, trains, etc.
The couple also adds that their frequent travels have taught their sons to be independent and take care of themselves.
“My elder son has finished Class 12 and is preparing for competitive exams. The younger one is in Class 9. Both of them don’t accompany us on all trips. We have help at home and they manage their studies on their own,” says Deepak.
He adds that van life has taught him that “less is more”.
“You learn to live in a minimalistic manner,” he says.
“You truly learn the value of being minimal and frugal. You won’t get the comforts of a luxury hotel. We also pack very few clothes, and pantry items to save space. We have just four plates, spoons, and cups in the van. It’s a wonderful life experience,” he says.
The couple’s long-term plan is to travel to 40 countries on the caravan.
“First, we want to explore India. Once we’re done with that, we want to cover South East Asia, Russia, Europe. We have friends who wish to join us on this trip. So hopefully this will happen in the next few years,” says Deepak.
Deepak and Ruchi document their journey on their YouTube channel.
Edited by Divya Sethu