RECREATIONAL VEHICLES

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An Education in How to Renovate a School Bus

Publish date: October 2022

Frankie, a 2004 IVECO Delta school bus, has packed a lot into her life.

The 12.5m long, former 57-seater has spent many a day transporting the likes of schoolchildren and fruit-picking backpackers from A to B.

Never, though, has Frankie looked so glamorous as she does today.

Her current owners, Kirra and Tommy – on Instagram as @freedomlivinfam – have transformed this workhorse into an absolute head-turner.

On the road fulltime with their two school-aged children, the QLD-based couple has every right to be super proud of Frankie’s new look.

Here, Kirra reveals the inspiring story behind the almighty makeover. 

Meet Frankie and her fam.

Where did you find Frankie?

We spotted her for sale on Gumtree in Childers (QLD) where she was being used to transport backpackers to farms to do fruit picking.

Before that, she was a school bus.

We were looking for a bus for only a month or so; Frankie was the second one we viewed in person. We’re quick decision makers!

We are pretty cruisy and didn’t really know what we were looking for, but there were a few random non-negotiables we had in mind when searching.

Get on board for one heck of a ride.

Firstly, because Tommy and I are quite tall, the bus needed to have enough headroom for us both to be able to stand up while walking around inside, without modification.

Secondly, it needed to be suitable for highway driving at a comfortable speed. We had heard stories of people who bought city buses for their conversions, and they were hard out getting them up to 80km/h on the highway.

Lastly, we wanted it to be air-conditioned for comfort. This is quite funny to look back on because we ended up ripping out the original AC to create more internal room and free up the roof ‘real estate’ for solar. Instead, we installed split systems.

Precious real estate up top.

What drew you to tackle this project?

For a few years pre-COVID-19, we travelled through 11 countries and six Australian states and territories with the kids. We absolutely love to travel.

During that time, we spent six weeks exploring Europe and the UK in a motorhome, which we absolutely loved. This is kinda where the seed was planted.

As the world shut down and international travel was completely off the cards for the foreseeable future, we decided to buy the bus and turn her into our home on wheels, so we could travel more of our beautiful country.

And so it begins.

Had you completed anything like this before?

Never. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing and no experience.

But I had a ton of ideas and visions for what it would look like. And Tommy is one of those annoying people who are super handy at everything, like a jack of all trades. He learns new skills super quick, so we were very lucky.

He really bought my vision to life.

Also, we have friends who have been ‘bus-lifers’ for quite some time, so we had a good sounding board for ideas.

There's no going back now...

What did the reno involve?

The first couple of months were purely committed to tearing down and demolishing everything inside.

Initially, we thought we would just take the seats out and start building from there. We could not have been more naïve!

We ended up stripping her right back to her bones, internally, and started with a blank canvas.

Once she was empty, we taped out possible layouts and planned where everything would go and how it would all fit. 

From there, we started from the back in the main room with the queen bed and made our way forward to the kids’ room with their bunks and cupboard. Then, onto the bathroom and hallway, and we finished off with the living and kitchen area.

We literally did everything ourselves, apart from the de-gassing of the AC, the 240v electricity, and gas installation, which was completed and certified by tradies.

Externally, Frankie still very much looks like a passenger bus, apart from the awning. Everything else – including the water tanks, gas bottles, and toilet canisters – is all hidden inside the bins. 

It's what's inside that counts.

How long did it take?

About nine months to renovate to the stage we are at now.

We bought her in March 2021. Tommy moved in first, in December, and that’s when we also took Frankie on her maiden voyage.

What was most challenging about the process?

For me, it was probably the early stages where you don’t see much progress and you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere. I was just wanting a ‘win’, and seeing the main bed installed was that first taste of success.

For Tommy, it was probably having to cut the big holes in the bus for the back window, toilet cartridge, hot water system, etc. He was always measuring and then reluctantly cutting and hoping it was the right size. It never got easier.

Supply-chain issues and a timber shortage, lack of stock at Bunnings, and delayed shipping were other hurdles. 

Bed installed. Win.

What was the easiest and/or most rewarding aspect?

Oh, this is a tricky one. There are so many rewarding moments, like getting the first wall up, laying in the beds for the first time, and our first family movie night after the lounge and projector were installed.

Also, some of our biggest wins and most exciting moments were things we often take for granted in house life, like getting the water running for the first time, being able to turn on the lights inside, and just being able to flush the toilet!

So much to love.

What surprised you?

That people were right when they said a renovation takes twice the amount of time and money than you would expect.

Also, how freaking incredible the bus-life community is. We have met so many amazing new friends through this process, and everyone is always willing to give a hand or share tips and advice.

Look, this doesn't come without expense.

What are you most proud of?

Another hard one. We are still so shocked at how much we love our bus home.

We absolutely love the finish of the roof and the custom cupboards in the main bedroom and the custom windows in the kids’ bunks.

I love that everything has its spot, and Tommy is excited to have a little man-shed installed for all his tools!

The bunks came up well.

What did you learn along the way?

One of the biggest things we learned is that we are such different people in the way we approach big tasks like this.

I love to plan, write lists, and have a clear idea of how it’s all going to play out. I think I was quite naïve at the size of the task we were undertaking.

I also like to go to Bunnings just once in a day and get everything we need in that trip.

Meanwhile, Tommy is quite happy to plod along with the tasks that pop up and take it as it comes. He is more than happy to visit Bunnings multiple times a day to get what he needs for the task at hand.

We also learned that minimalist living really is for us and, most importantly, that you really can do anything you put your mind to. 

Tommy was happy to plod along.

What would you do differently with time again?

At this point, we are very much still in the honeymoon phase. We can’t really think of anything major we would do differently, apart from provide a bit more headroom for the top bunk.

Any handy hints for others?

Our main tips are:

  • If you are thinking of renovating an RV, just rip off the Band-Aid and give it a crack. We literally had no experience, so if we can do it, so can you.
  • Join bus conversion groups, as the community is incredible.
  • Watch YouTube videos to learn from others.
  • Once the bus is empty, draw out on paper a bunch of different layout options and play around by taping them out to scale.
  • Release any expectations of how the process should go and enjoy the journey. It’s a wild ride but well worth it.

Strap in for a wild but rewarding ride.

Is there anything left to do?

Yes, and I don’t know if the list will ever end!

But the main things are the bathroom roof and the entry area. Oh, and Tommy’s custom man-shed for all his tools still needs to be installed.

You’re on the road fulltime. How is that?

We all officially moved into the bus in March 2022 and have not even left QLD with her yet!

But we have travelled all around, from Brisbane to Chinchilla and Blackdown Tablelands to Bluewater and everywhere in between.

We are settled on the Fraser Coast for the next couple of months and then, well, who knows? Maybe down to SA for the summer.

And how do you find it as a family, including home schooling?

Honestly, there are good days and rough days, which would be the same as if we lived in a house. But definitely more good days.

We had quite a slow transition into the bus, which I think really helped everyone find their feet.

This lifestyle just suits our family. We love the simple life; we love to travel, explore, and see new places, and be outdoors. And that is the epitome of bus life.

It’s just a huge bonus now that our house comes along with us for all our adventures, and we rarely have to pack a bag.

And the kids love making new friends at all the new places we visit.

Our first term of distance education was a write-off. It all felt very overwhelming and quite stressful. But after a break for term two, we got back into it and had found our groove.

Life's good on the road.

What’s been the most memorable destination or experience during this time?

We recently had a six-week road trip with our family who were over from Europe and the UK. There were eight of us travelling in the bus, and we had two swags, and it was a whole vibe.

There were so many highlights on that trip, but I think the favs were Finch Hatton Gorge, Blackdown Tablelands, and Big Crystal Creek.

We love a good freshwater swimming hole, and these did not disappoint.

But if you ask our 5yo, he will say Airlie Beach, by which he means BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort!

BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort. We get it.

Is there any particular place on your travel radar?

We are super keen to take Frankie to a few places we have been before we had her, including the Eyre Peninsula in SA and Exmouth and Broome and surrounds in WA.

The Eyre Peninsula would suit Frankie well. Pictured: Lake MacDonnell. Credit: Jaxon Foale.

Want to see more? Follow Frankie and her family’s adventures on Instagram @freedomlivinfam.

Keen for a break? Book a stay with BIG4 now. It all starts here.

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