Robie on the Road: From Rust to Roadtrip
Imagine travelling to the world’s most remote villages, immersing yourself in unique cultures and customs while learning from the most extraordinary people, becoming storytellers on four-wheels, finding peace in forgotten hot springs that make you feel you’re the only ones left on earth, and documenting every step of the journey; from the rust to the remarkable.
Well, for Lucy and Ben, that’s exactly what they do.
Back in 2013, two budding photographers found themselves on the same university course only to discover they shared more than a mutual love for photo-documentary, but the deep desire to travel, film, shoot and experience the hidden corners of our world. 10 months, one LDV Convoy, two degrees and what we imagine to be many beautiful challenges later; From Rust to Roadtrip was born. Now, 10 years on, the university dream is a way of life for Lucy, Ben and their Convoy van; a dream-turned-reality that we couldn’t wait to hear more about.
You both met at university 10 years ago, since then you’ve converted an LDV minibus, visited 32 countries, brought numerous stories to life, captured the essence of different cultures, and built a vibrant community to share your adventures with - how do you feel when you look back at 2013 Lucy and Ben?
When I look back on myself in my first year of university I see someone who had dreams but not the knowledge of how to make those a reality. I was very shy and unconfident, and would’ve never imagined myself being in front of the camera lens rather than behind it! (Despite this I walked into our first lecture brimming with fake confidence which had even Ben convinced until I told him later on - fake it til you make it!) Ben and I were actually friends for our 2 years of university, brought together by our shared interest in photo documentary, but I don’t think either of us could’ve imagined getting together at the end of uni and spending the next 8+ years of our lives together living out our ultimate dreams. -Lucy
Looking back, I see someone who was desperate to escape the small town life and reach for new horizons, I was planning a solo trip through the Stan countries. Lucy hinted she’d like to travel too, and so eventually we’d begin planning a journey together, not quite as ambitious as the Stan’s, but it would lay the foundations for the next chapter of our lives together and open up many doors and opportunities. On reflection, I’m really pleased to have the knowledge I do now, along with the tenacity to keep pushing through the challenging times. More notably though, 2013 me had an abundant head of hair. -Ben
How did you decide that life on the road was something you both wanted, and how was ‘From Rust to Roadtrip’ born?
When we graduated university together in 2015 we both knew that we wanted to travel. Ben had already been backpacking around India and Eastern Europe, and Lucy had dreams of working and travelling around Europe. Eventually our ideas came together and we decided to get a van, convert it, and travel, taking photos along the way. To this day we still don’t know exactly who proposed getting a van, but Ben had always fancied an LDV Convoy having seen them in many classic British films. He knew a friend of a friend who was selling one, so after a long summer of working and saving we took a train up to Banbury and swapped £1000 cash for the keys, despite the fact it was pretty crusty and had a broom pole holding up the roof! We also found a pair of used knickers and several tins of German stew in the back.
Neither of us had ever driven a van and Ben didn’t even have his license yet, so it was up to Lucy to drive it home where we would spend 8 months converting it over the winter. The van was always rusty from day one, and every year since pieces have been falling off it that needed to be welded back on. I don’t think we knew it at the time, but From Rust To Roadtrip would become a very apt name indeed! Some people say we should change it to ‘From Rust to Roadtrip to Rust to Roadtrip to Rust to Rust to Roadtrip…’
Back on our first trip in 2016 we were still finding our feet and adjusting to living in a small space together which was hard; Ben nearly took a one-way flight home during our first few months! Strangely it wasn’t until our van got broken into in Portugal and we nearly called the trip off, but ended up patching it up with some help from friends and driving across to Italy and the Alps in midwinter, that we realised how amazing travel could be! The lows can be really low but the highs are also incredibly high, and that feeling of overcoming challenges would become our driving force over the next few years as we embarked on journey after journey, pushing to ever-further destinations.
Creativity isn’t something you can flick on like a light switch (although we desperately wish it was), how do you both channel creativity on the road? And what helps you rejuvenate?
An often overlooked part of travelling is just how exhausting it can be! When you’re having new and incredible experiences every day you end up needing a break just to process everything for a while. When we have our down days of not driving anywhere we always opt to stay somewhere quiet in the wild, preferably by a river, lake, or hot spring. Spending time in nature without any other human beings recharges our batteries and gives us much-needed headspace. It’s during this time off that we feel most creative, giving ourselves time and space to let the creativity flow. Sometimes Lucy will get a flash of inspiration to write on a solo walk or sipping coffee on the step, while Ben is usually ploughing on with video editing. A great tip to practice when writing inspiration is running low, is to just sit and write about your day- what you see, feel, hear and smell, in great detail. It helps to get the juices flowing, and even to appreciate your surroundings that bit more, like a mindfulness exercise.
How do you overcome the highs and lows of van life? Do you find having a routine helps?
The strange thing about travel is that the lack of routine of living on the road actually becomes a routine in itself. We may not know where we’re going to sleep for the night, where we’ll get water or fuel, where our journey will take us that day, but we still have daily duties we must do, even if they look completely different one day to the next. What comes in between these tasks could be any number of adventures, mostly good but sometimes hard. Some of the low points of travelling in a van are being in an area with limited camping opportunities so you end up driving around til after dark, or worse still having to leave a camp spot in the middle of the night due to weather or safety, and of course the inevitable breakdowns. These days we tend to laugh through most breakdowns as we have a better knowledge of our van and its quirks, but to begin with these were incredibly stressful and often costly.
There have also been some extremes on our recent trip through Türkiye, Georgia and Armenia, like nearly losing our van on icy mountain roads- twice! But as many lows as there are on a trip there’s always a greater number of highs, unforgettable memories, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and meaningful encounters. Just a handful of highlights are being invited in for tea and food at a village mosque in Türkiye, reaching the border with Iran, meeting the polyphonic singers of Georgia, and driving our 2WD van off-road for 2 days around a national park that is only recommended for 4x4s!
Do you have any tips or tricks for those wanting to make a home on four wheels?
When we started building our van in 2015 there were virtually no guides on how to go about it, but these days the internet is awash with manuals, guidebooks and blogs offering everything from solar charge calculators and wiring diagrams to full-on academies offering multi-day courses! We’ve learned a lot about van building since converting our LDV, but one of the most important things we’ve learned is that it needn’t be complicated. It’s easy to get swept away in aesthetics and apocalypse-worthy set-ups, but at the end of the day only you will know what you need and want in your van, and the simpler you make things, the less there is to go wrong. Over the years we’ve simplified and downsized our set-up, removing our shower, water tanks and over half the items we used to carry in our van. We take only the bare minimum now and buy, borrow or beg for help with anything we don’t have. We’ve learned that you can be massively over-prepared for scenarios that may never occur, and that you can get virtually anything you need abroad, which even results in some pretty cool stories and encounters! For example, we never had heating in our van, and only realised when it got to -11ºC in the East of Türkiye that it might be a good idea! So we got a little aluminium wood stove at a market in Georgia for £20, and paid a craftsman to make us a custom window plate for the flue to poke out of for an extra £3. When we ran out of wood, we drove around a snowy neighbourhood until we found someone with a log pile and asked in our best Russian if we could buy some. Not only did he chop all the logs down to size for us, he didn’t even want any money, and invited us in for a drink too! The wood stove would really come into its own later on when the temperature dropped to -22ºC in the Caucasus mountains.
Bonus tip: If you're not sure what size van to go for, hire an empty van or a camper for the weekend and see how it feels- you'll soon get an idea of what works for you and what doesn't.
Has your Robie been an essential kit for life on the road? Do you find them to be easy travel companions?
When we were gifted our Robies for Christmas one year we didn’t realise just how useful they would turn out to be. Whether we’re warming up after a wild swim or wrapping up to keep the heat in after bathing in a hot spring, they’re always with us, and provide an ideal cover for getting changed in public too! Not only this, but they dry out really quickly after, which is essential in a van that’s prone to damp and condensation. We only take essential items with us in our van, and the Robies take up surprisingly little space. They’ll definitely be joining us on future trips, and have even been used in the past for lying on when we need to fix something under the van, or mop up after our roof has sprung a leak- sorry, Robie!
Where did your love of hot springs spark from?
Our love affair with hot springs began around early 2017, when we bathed in our first ever hot spring in Italy. I remember saying: “It’s like sitting in a river, but hot!” We spent at least a week there, bathing up to 5 times a day! On our second trip we made a point of visiting as many hot springs as we could, way-marking our routes around them. When you’ve been travelling in a van for days or weeks without a shower, your muscles are aching from sitting in uncomfortable seats, getting into a hot spring is pure bliss. Around this time we realised how little documented these were online, and began compiling a resource on our blog*. We got increasingly nerdy with it, researching for hours, photographing them and even probing the temperature and reading up about the different mineral compositions (this is why different hot springs are reported to treat different ailments). It was in 2021 that we began working with a Japanese TV company to produce and present a documentary series about hot springs in Europe, and this was when our passion bloomed into a full-blown obsession. We’ve bathed in over 70 hot springs across Eurasia so far, and probably have another 300 or so marked on a map of ones to visit eventually, in places as remote as the far East of Russia and Greenland! As a side note, our Robies have been really handy for when we’re standing around waiting to film at hot springs, and we’ve even been known to film the odd interview in them too as they’re so warm and cosy!
*We’ve since learned how sharing locations freely online can be damaging to both the eco-system and local populations around hot springs, with some even being closed due to neglect or the impact of huge numbers of visitors. These days we’re very careful about sharing exact locations in the hope that we can aid in preserving these wonderful natural places by not over-popularising them.
Do you have one project that sticks out when you look back on your travels?
Our most memorable and meaningful experiences on the road are always photo documentary projects we’ve embarked on. Researching and organising these are not easy when you have no backing or team other than yourselves, but not only has the work we’ve produced been better every time, we’ve also made some lifelong friends and told some truly inspiring and humbling stories. A few years ago in Albania we arranged to meet a local guide who would hike with us to see his ‘neighbours’- 3 hours up a near-vertical mountain face along paths of rocky scree that we would’ve certainly been lost on without his help! We ended up meeting the most inspiring matriarch who was running her homestead single-handedly, butchering and preserving her own meat, knitting her own socks from wool, taking her water from a nearby spring. It’s always difficult to describe how remote her house was, on top of a mountain plateau 1200m high with no vehicular access, but it was simply awe-inspiring to us. We asked how she’d managed to get her large wood burner up to her house, and her reply was that it took her and her husband 3 hours with the aid of a mule!
If you’ve found yourself wanting to explore your creativity, seeking a new direction, undergo a van conversion, looking to work, live and travel from a four-wheeled home, or you’re just really big fans of Lucy and Ben (as are we!); then we hope this conversation has given the inspiration to take the next step. Dream big, you never know where you’ll end up!
Follow Lucy and Ben’s adventures over on social media @fromrusttoroadtrip, or via their website From Rust to Roadtrip