Meet the former teachers who quit their jobs to travel the world in a 48-year-old campervan with their two rescue cats.

Willow Rolfe, 33, and Lee Hodges, 37, decided to take the plunge in 2019 - they quit their jobs, shipped their VW to the USA, and embarked on the trip of a lifetime. What was originally meant to be a one-year trip has become the couple's new life - they are now on their fifth year of exploration and don't plan on giving up any time soon.

Willow, from Birmingham, West Midlands, said: "Our original plan was a sort of 'gap year' - we planned to take a year out and travel from August 2019 to September 2020, and then return to our jobs and to normal life. We shipped our van across to New York. The plan was to explore just two countries - the USA and Canada - but to be honest, we got through America quicker than expected and we wanted to do more.

"We decided to extend our trip and headed to Mexico - and of course, when the pandemic struck in March 2020, that's where we were and that's where we stayed. We've now visited 15 countries and had so many incredible experiences - we've hiked up active volcanoes in Guatemala, seen thousands of turtles laying their eggs on a beach in Costa Rica, had Colombian police buy us lunch... It's just been amazing."

While the pair enjoyed teaching, they decided to quit after realising "waiting for retirement to be able to travel is somewhat backwards". Lee added: "Why spend arguably the best years of your life working 40 hours or more a week so you can spend the weekend cleaning your house?

"We have never been particularly interest in owning 'nice' or expensive things. We would rather have an experience, so we put our time and money into setting that up rather than buying a nice car or expensive holidays." The couple bought a classic 1976 Volkswagen van from Gumtree in February 2015. It had no interior, nor engine or wiring.

Willow used to be a motor vehicle lecturer at a college in Birmingham and took the van into work to repair with her students. It took three years to refurbish the van - which the couple named Ruby - and was finally ready to go in April 2019, after numerous test runs. The next few months were spent painting and cleaning their house. The pair planned to rent it out - rather than sell it - to ensure they had a source of income while they were away on their travels.

By August 2019, their belongings were packed up, their van prepped with the possessions they would need for a year - and they were ready to go. Ruby was shipped to New York from Southampton Port on August 16 - and Willow and Lee quickly followed. They arrived in the USA on August 28 - and their adventure began.

Lee - a former primary school teacher - said: "We travelled around the US for four or five months. Our original plan had been to spend around six months there and then travel up to Canada. But the more we thought about it, the less appealing Canada became - we had spoken to Canadians on our travels who warned us we shouldn't even try it before April because of the cold.

"We had already experienced cold temperatures earlier in our trip in Colorado and knew that it was difficult to navigate with Ruby. We knew we needed to leave the US as our visas were due to expire - so instead of heading for Canada, after speaking with our insurance company and getting everything else sorted, we decided to change our plans and head for Mexico."

They arrived in Mexico in February 2020 - a month before the Covid-19 pandemic hit. When lockdown restrictions began to take hold around the world, the couple decided to remain where they were. Willow said: "I don't think there was such a thing as a 'good pandemic' - but I do feel like we had quite a good time, if that's possible.

"It was difficult at first - we had to find a place to settle which was tricky when there was so much fear and uncertainty. But after a few months, things started to chill out quite quickly in Mexico and we could continue to travel and explore. Everyone we met there was so nice and welcoming - which was so lovely, especially considering it was the pandemic."

Since Mexico, the pair have explored a further 13 countries - including Guatemala, Argentina, El Salvador and Uruguay. They have been kept company along the way by their two rescue cats - Aimee and Lexi. The former has been with the pair for almost the full five years - they rescued her from a kill shelter in Washington. Lexi joined the team a couple of years ago - they found her on Facebook Marketplace while in Ecuador.

Lee said: "Of course the money side has been tough to manage along the way. We do get money from our rental property, but we still have to make sacrifices - there are things we would love to do but just can't because they're too expensive. And Ruby is almost 50-years-old now - she's on her third engine and gearbox and it's easier to point out what hasn't broken at some point along the way.

"So we have to factor in repairs and replacements - luckily living costs are cheaper in Latin America than in the UK and Europe, so although it's been tough managing the budget, we've managed to get by." They fund their travels with money made from two rental properties in the UK and have spent an estimated £100k over the past five years.

"We would like to reduce this, over £30k is just on maintaining the vehicle!" Lee said. "We estimate we will travel a further 18 months and our ideal budget is £1k per month for everything - something that is definitely possible. We have had some very large expenses, for example shipping across the Darien, which we won't be paying for again.

"It obviously sounds like a lot, but this is a total for us living, which works out to roughly £27 a day per person." The pair have no interest in returning to the UK yet and are keen to continue their adventures. Their ultimate goal is to reach Ushuaia - the southernmost point of the world, known to many as "the end of the world".

Willow said: "We're halfway down South America right now - about 3,000 kilometres from Ushuaia. We want to be there for November - and then after that, we want to continue our travels round South America. By next year, we hope to have visited every country in the continent."

After that, the couple's dream is to buy a property in South America which they can convert into a campsite and base for fellow travellers. Lee said: "It would be amazing just to have a base to travel from - we're pretty excited for that to be honest. Travelling has been amazing but there is some sense of travellers fatigue - once we reach that point, we'll have been on the road for seven years.

"The dream is to have that property where we can provide for fellow travellers and meet new people, while also continuing to go on our own travels."

Countries they have visited: USA, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.

2024-07-10T13:11:28Z dg43tfdfdgfd