Welcome to the F*ck Van or a Terrible Camping Trip Through an Australian National Park in a Profanity Covered Van Probably Saved My Relationship

The first thing I noticed about our rental campervan was the two foot high word FUCK on the left passengers side. To be fair, it wasn’t just the word FUCK sitting alone on the side of a camper van, it was a whole sentence that said “THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME” in red spray paint and sloppy cursive handwriting. My boyfriend Matt and I had rented the van from a place called Wicked Campers in order to spend a week camping in the Northern Territory in Australia. Matt had been in charge of a campervan rental and he’d chosen the cheapest option, which turned out to be a rental place run by 25 year old Australian stoners who spray painted all of their vans with colorful decorations such as Snow White passing a bong to Cinderella and catchy little sayings like “Virginity is Curable!” and lazier ones like “Catch a dick!” But we didn’t get the Disney-themed bong sesh, we got a black minivan painted with a portrait of shirtless Jean-Claude van Damme and the word FUCK so big you could see it from the Space Shuttle.

I understood that when travelling you’re supposed roll with cultural differences you don’t understand, but there was no way I was going to happily drive a van around Australia with the word FUCK painted on the side. Nor was I going to take part in Wicked Vans promotional deal of the day: if you posed naked in front of your van and sent them a photo, you got one night free.

The rental agent walked around the van with us, showing us the inside, a flip down table and that turned into a bed, a small stove in the back, and a foot-pump operated sink. The sink was full of dishes stuck with food. The air conditioning we’d paid extra for was clearly non-existent. The inside upholstery was peeling and graffitied with Sharpie, the memories of the travellers before us who apparently didn’t mind driving around in this thing. They probably got the free naked night.

I wanted to complain. Or cry. But I couldn’t say anything.

The trip itself already seemed cursed. We’d arrived in Darwin the night before on a five hour, middle of the night flight in which I had suffered a major panic attack squished between Matt and an Australian stranger who seemed unconcerned with my inability to breathe and form coherent sentences other than “Matt can ask the flight attendant if we can just land the plane in the middle of the Outback?”. I am a nervous flier. But then, once we’d arrived in Darwin at 3am, safe despite not making a middle of the night Outback landing, we realized our plan to sleep in the airport for a few hours before picking up the van wasn’t going to work: it was a one room airport and they were escorting everyone out to the street. Matt wanted to stay anyway, but I was exhausted from the last five hours of having to keep the plane aloft with my mind and the jarring transition that comes with travelling from one end of a continent to another. We booked the only hostel available at 3am, got a taxi, and tried to sleep in a concrete room surrounded by screaming 18 year olds still up and partying. Matt was mad we’d wasted money on a place to stay for 4 hours. I felt guilty. Our plans for a fun vacation in the wilds of Australia were deteriorating as fast as the contents of the bags of wine the kids around us were downing in the hostel courtyard.

But all of the hiccups so far: the van covered in profanity, the unexpected expense of the party hostel, were really nothing compared to why we were here in the first place. A year before, I’d broken up with Matt after five years together. He’d accepted a position in PhD program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a state I had no intention of ever living, and moved without me while I finished my own grad program in North Carolina. And a few months into our new long distance relationship, petrified at the idea that I’d have to spend the next four years landlocked in the icy tundra of the Midwest for the next four years, I’d gotten drunk, kissed another guy, and broken up with Matt over a phone call. We stayed broken up for a few months, but slowly we came back together and I moved to Ann Arbor. But then, still restless, I suddenly moved to the other side of the world.

I had been living in Melbourne, Australia for the last six months by myself working as an au pair and at the end of my stay with my host family, Matt flew out to travel around Australia with me. Although he’d agreed that it would be fun for me to fly across the world to live and work for six months without him, I knew it wasn’t something Matt was happy about. Our relationship had already been strained when I left, but living half a world apart where you aren’t even in the same day most of the time doesn’t exactly do wonders for a couple trying to rebuild their broken relationship. But I needed to go. At 26 I’d spent my entire life in school. I watched as my friends lived abroad in China, France, South Africa. I wanted to have adventures too, but now we were going straight to another five years of school and the thought of living in another small college town was too much for me to bare.

I’d never expected to have a long term relationship, but I’d made the mistake of falling for Matt while studying abroad in Wales in college. I knew from the first time we kissed that it was a mistake, not in the way every guy I’d dated before was a mistake because they were the kind of guys who said things like “We haven’t been dating long enough for me to get you a birthday present, right?” but because Matt was the kind of guy you end up with. Or at least the kind of guy I wanted to end up with: smart, funny, kind, adventurous. Our second date was a four day camping trip through the Welsh countryside where we paid farmers money to let us pitch a tent their fields and I had to sneak out of our tent to put on makeup in a tiny compact mirror so he thought I was just naturally pretty. I knew from the minute we got together that this was it, I just hadn’t expected it at 20.

And now here we were: trying to heal the parts where we had fractured with a un-air conditioned van trip through the Outback. The rental agent warned us not to drive the van at night when the Outback creatures emerged from their hiding places to take advantage of the cooler than 106 degree air.

“If you hit a kangaroo,” he said, “They’ll kick right through your windshield and slit your throat.”

I wanted to say something. I didn’t want to drive this van, I didn’t want to die in a freak kangaroo accident, I didn’t want to sleep under graffiti that said “I got laid here”, but I wanted Matt. So I shut up.

The trip could still be salvaged, I thought. So what if passing motorists slowed down to take a photo of our van and made obscene gestures out their windows? So what if we had now confirmed the air conditioning definitely didn’t work and it was, at 9am as we started our drive to Kakadu National Park, approaching 90 degrees? We were together. Here, in this new place, having an adventure, building the scar tissue between us until it fused the wounds shut. I reached over the gear shift and squeezed Matt’s hand. He squeezed back.

We had to stop in town to get a park pass in order to camp, so we parallel parked the Fuck Van next to City Hall. As I reached for the door handle, I noticed a blurry spot in my vision. It was my migraine aura. Before I get a migraine, my vision goes blurry for about twenty minutes and then I get a splitting headache, vomit, and generally lose the ability to function at all. Fuck, I thought. Not here. Not now.

I told Matt to go ahead without me, I would lie down in our new fold down table turned bed while I waited to see if the migraine might pass without getting too bad. While Matt got the park passes, I closed my eyes and listened as passersby laughed and commented on the van. Despite the van’s graffitied message, this was not fucking awesome. But I was going to make the best of it. The trip wasn’t ruined yet. I could breathe through this migraine. By the time Matt got back with the passes, my vision was clear and my head didn’t hurt too badly. We ventured on.

An hour and a half later, we were almost to the park. The van was hot without AC, but I didn’t mind. I love hot weather, a contributing factor to my distaste for living in the Midwest. I’d been happy with the over 100 degree days in Australia. I wasn’t going to let a little heat bring me, a person who sometimes get cold suntanning, down.

We stopped for an ice cream to cool off. As Matt paid, I noticed a tiny sore spot in my throat when I swallowed. I decided to ignore it. The ice cream would help it go away. I wasn’t getting sick, the air must just be dry up here. Or it was allergies to the strange new plants I was encountering. I wasn’t getting sick.

We drove into the park and looked at the map, trying to find the place we’d chosen to camp. It was the tail end of the rainy season in the Northern Territory and we’d been warned that some of the park may be closed off due to flooding. But as we pulled in we saw that that was incorrect, some of the park wasn’t closed. Almost all of the park was closed. We tried to turn down the road where we had planned to camp and saw that an entire river had formed over the roadway, with a discernible current and a family of ducks floating by.

“Let’s just drive it,” Matt said.

But I pictured the Fuck Van having to be towed from the temporary river, explaining to the tow truck driver, who would have driven over an hour to get here from any sort of civilization that we tried to jump an actual river in a spray painted minivan from circa 1996 and as much as I wanted to drown the Fuck Van and leave it to disintegrate into scattered car parts in this national park, I just couldn’t do it.

“Let’s just camp somewhere else,” I said.

We drove around for awhile until we found what appeared to be the only open campsite in the park: a patch of grass dangerously close to a pond with a giant bright yellow sign that read “CROCODILE SAFETY: DANGER. ATTACKS CAUSE INJURY OR DEATH.” The sore patch in my throat was getting worse. For the first time I admitted to myself: things were not going well.

We settled into our camping spot. It was starting to get dark and even though it was only 5 or 6 at night, we decided to eat dinner and go to sleep. It had been a long day. We made a packet of ramen in the dishes after cleaning the bits of dried food left by the campers before us. We ate, cleaned up and got ready for bed, folding down the bed again. We shut up the van and layed down to fall asleep. Around us, we could hear the soft hum of the jungle, the animals that slunk out at night that we weren’t supposed to drive near. It was peaceful, at least. We started to drift off to sleep when I noticed it felt warm in the van. I tried to ignore it and fall asleep, but the temperature kept rising. Soon it was unbearably hot inside the sealed van, even for me: the lizard person who loved basking in the heat.

“Can we open a window?” I asked Matt. My throat had been getting worse and I couldn’t tell if the sweat on my forehead was due to the heat in the van or a breaking fever.

Matt rolled down the windows and cracked the door open. And that’s when the mosquitos came.

They gathered slowly at first. In the dark, you couldn’t see them, but we could hear their buzzing on the ceiling of the van. Every once and while I felt one dip down the bed and start to suck at a spot on my body. We turned on the light and gasped. There were at least a hundred of them, buzzing around the van, like a tiny pulsing storm cloud, attracted to us by our warm blood and our close proximity to the crocodile-infested pond.

Matt started the van and drove around the campsite, trying to flush them out through the open windows. We had signed a document saying we wouldn’t drive at night, but surely flushing an angry cloud of mosquitoes was an exception. After a few rounds, the mosquitoes were gone, but we were left with a choice: roll the windows up and sleep in a sauna, or roll the windows down and get slowly drained of our blood overnight.

We opted for open. The heat was too much. We couldn’t sleep. Instead, Matt read aloud to me from the only book we’d brought, thinking we wouldn’t have time to read with all the hiking and exploring we were going to do: a collection of sports essays. I hate sports, but I listened anyway to Matt’s voice in the buzzing darkness, explaining the best way to throw a basketball. Every thirty minutes or so, Matt would start the van up again and do another loop to blast the bugs out. My throat was very sore now. I was tired and sick. I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to be able to scream “I HATE THIS.” and for Matt to scream it, too. But I couldn’t. We couldn’t. We couldn’t admit yet that any of this was a mistake because once we unraveled this mistake, how many more would we have to examine?

I tried so hard to keep everything in, but after the third trip around the campsite, blowing the mosquitos from the van, I finally broke down. There was a resort about 30km down the road. We’d seen it on the map. A jungle lodge with air conditioning and a bar and beds and dishes people washed before you ate off of them.

“Please, can we go to the resort and see if they have a room?” I asked. I was admitting defeat, but I didn’t care. I already had so many mosquito bites I looked like a smallpox patient. My head was pounding. The fold down bed was soaked in my sweat along with whatever other liquids I didn’t want to think about that it was already soaked with.

“Fine,” he said, and started up the van again. We drove 30km in silence, partially because we didn’t know what to say and partially because we were both focusing on the pitch black road in case a throat-slitting kangaroo crossed our path. It felt like the middle of the night. I expected the resort to be empty when we got there, but as we pulled in we were surprised to find it bustling with tourists, kids running around, patreons drinking at the tiki bar. A jarring juxtaposition from the crocodile and mosquito infested wilderness we’d been battling. I checked the clock. It was only 9:30pm.

We waited in line at the front desk.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to Matt and he nodded. I knew he was disappointed, he’d wanted this trip to work out. He also wanted adventure, I knew, but he was the responsible one. The one who finished school while I flitted around Australia for half a year after breaking up with him and then begging for him back. I imagine he was tired of me. I was exhausting. I never knew what I wanted until I needed it so badly I couldn’t hold it back. But he didn’t say anything, he just waited in line for his turn at the front desk. I was relieved. I needed to lie down and we were only steps away from a hotel room where we could finally fall asleep. Maybe even get a beer. Everything was ruined, but at least we could fall asleep. And then the front desk attendant said the worst words I have ever heard in my entire life.

“We don’t have any rooms available.”

“Do you have a camping spot open? We have a camper van,” Matt asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “I can book you a room for tomorrow and the next day, but tonight you’ll have to go back to your campsite.”

My nose was starting to run really badly. I was getting sicker by the minute, and now we had to drive all the way back to our campsite and try to sleep under a cloud of mosquitoes when there were beds with real sheets only a few feet away. We paid for the room for the next two nights, an expensive suite that cost us a third of the budget for our whole trip, but was the only thing they had available. And then, we got back in the Fuck Van and started driving back the way we came.

“This is terrible,” I said.

“It’s so bad,” Matt said.

“I hate this van,” I said.

For the first time, we laughed. We were stuck in the Australian wilderness in a van that said FUCK on it’s side and not even in good handwriting. I was sick. The only hotel for 100 miles was full. It was a thousand degrees and we were enroute back to exactly where we came. But we’d been through worse than this. That night, a year ago, when I called Matt drunk and sobbed my way through what had happened, the night I broke up with him, that was worse. The day I left for Australia and realized I wouldn’t see him again for six months, or maybe, if I messed up again, ever. That was worse. But bit by bit things were getting better between us. Even though this trip was a disaster, when we laughed somewhere a spell felt broken, a piece of scar tissue grew between us.

“What was that?” Matt asked and I looked up to see a giant, white owl glide in front of the van. It flew silently on soft wings and landed on a post. I’d never seen an owl so close before. It was so beautiful and peaceful. It stared at us for a second, then flew away into the dark. It was the only animal we saw on the drive.

I don’t remember how we slept, but somehow, it was morning. We drove back to the resort where we parked the Fuck Van in the far end of a parking lot and checked into our fancy suite. We counted our mosquito bites. I had over 100, Matt was just shy. We turned on an episode of Death in Paradise, a who-dunnit murder mystery show set in the Caribbean, a show my au pair family had introduced me to. I explained the premise to Matt and caught him up on the episodes he’d missed. I tried to follow the plot but felt myself drifting off to sleep. I woke up what seemed like hours later, wrapped in Matt’s arms. My throat felt better. The same episode of Death in Paradise was playing.

“This episode isn’t over yet?” I asked.

“No,” said Matt. “It ended, but they started the same episode again. I just didn’t want to move.”