Six years ago, after being diagnosed with depression and one of them passing close to death, Dan Colegate, 38, and Esther Dingley, 37, exchanged their careers and a permanent home for driving across Europe.
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Before adopting this nomadic lifestyle, Dan and Esther seemed to have a good life.
In January 2014, they had an apartment in the picturesque city of Durham, several university degrees, including Oxford and Cambridge, prosperous careers and were three weeks away from getting married.
But they both looked empty inside, like “zombies roaming through life,” remembers Esther.
Dan, a business development manager, was treating himself for depression while Esther, who ran her own personal training company, struggled with chronic fatigue from her own mental health problems. So, Dan almost died.
Dan and Esther have always enjoyed traveling – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
The doctors told Esther to say her last goodbye to her 11-year-old partner. He had a bacterial infection, necrotizing fasciitis, contracted after surgery to relieve a defect that had caused intestinal incontinence since birth.
They did not suspect that that eventful night when Dan almost died turned out to be the moment when their life really started.
“It was the boost we needed,” says Dan, six years later, in an idyllic vineyard in Gascony, France, where he works as a caretaker. Esther agrees.
Dan and Esther visited the Alps across Europe – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
But they are not together. The couple is currently hundreds of miles apart. Dan chose to stay still for a while, and Esther preferred to keep moving. Both talked to the BBC on videoconference.
“We actually have the best of both worlds,” says Esther. “Traveling takes you to some beautiful places, but at times it seems a little unstable, so we work as a caretaker somewhere to achieve a little stability.”
“We realized that during the pandemic we were not apart all year, so we decided to do what we want for a while. All of this has been very good for us individually and for our relationship; we are genuinely happy now.”
Dan and Esther say they found true happiness on the road – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
The seeds of that happiness began to be planted weeks after Dan’s operation, when he was lying on the couch eating pieces of discounted Christmas cake they had bought for the wedding. The nuptials had to be canceled because of the health scare, and even today they have not managed to get married.
“We loved to travel and kept saying that one day we would do that, but there was always another project, another more immediate job to help pay for the future we wanted,” says Esther.
“We were always chasing the next goal, always chasing something bigger so that we could have fun in the future. Then, suddenly, someone tells me that the person I love and who I planned to do everything with could be gone forever that morning. It was time to rethink our lives. ”
There was a world out there that they were missing – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
Dan agrees: “We were assuming that our future was guaranteed.”
When he recovered, the couple decided to start traveling almost immediately and in three weeks they were on the road.
They found a trailer (nicknamed “Homer”), a tenant for his apartment and a buyer for his car.
Dan and Esther posed for a final photo in Durham before hitting the road in 2014 – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
Initially, they put most of their belongings in a friend’s attic, but have since given most of it to friends and charities. “Everything we own and that we consider personal belongings fits in the van,” says Dan.
They calculated that with their savings and rental income they could have a one year adventure. The two, who are fitness fanatics, were looking forward to walking and cycling in some of the most beautiful places in Europe.
A year has now become six and with no signs of ending, with the couple living on a combination of savings, rental income and money earned by making beaks.
The two fitness fanatics pedaled and walked across Europe – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
“When you are sitting on the couch in Durham trying to decide if you can take the financial risk and people ask you ‘what about your retirement?’ or ‘and this or that?’, you end up being quite risk averse “, says Esther.
“It was only when we hit the road we discovered how cheap could be, and interacting with people who lived on the road for 10 or 20 years, we begin to see that we needed not return to careers we had. We could have done this years ago.”
When they are not on the move, they find work on farms or as caretakers – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
They have lived in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Liechtenstein, enjoying summers in the altitudes of the Alps and Pyrenees, and spending their winters in Spain’s hottest climates..
They cycled and walked thousands of kilometers, sometimes separated, but mostly together. Both acknowledge that they are in a comfortable financial situation, which is certainly not everyone’s reality.
They spend summers in the mountains – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
As much as they worked to be in this situation, they say that there is an element of luck to achieve their goals.
“The most recurring experience for me has been that things always come when we need them,” says Dan.
“Every time we said ‘we needed to do this or that’, something happened that made it possible.”
They say their only belongings are those that fit in their trailer – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
There was a time when the van broke down in Italy in the middle of a holiday, with all mechanics closed. A casual encounter with a woman walking the dog led to an offer of a place to stay.
Or they quickly found work on farms or housekeepers, when they needed some extra money or a stable base for a while. And then there was Leela.
Dan and Esther were staying in San José, Almeria, when they made a new friendship, a street dog named Leela – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
In January 2017, Dan and Esther were in San José, a small fishing village with pristine white houses next to the stunning Blue Alboran Sea, in southern Spain, having lunch in a cafe with the parents of Esther, who had gone see how they were doing.
A toast of cheese and ham caught Leela’s attention, an 8-month-old mutt.
Esther and Dan met Leela at a cafe in Spain – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
After some deliberation, Dan and Esther decided to give Leela a home – but what they didn’t know until they took her to the vet to be examined is that their new friend was pregnant.
They soon rented a house in the city, where Leela could give birth to her six puppies, and helped the inexperienced mother raise them: Dan and Esther bottle-fed the puppies every three hours for several weeks.
Two of the dogs found a new home in Spain, while the other four and their mother joined Dan and Esther on their travels. That was the inspiration for what became a series of children’s books written by the couple, to add to several travel books authored by Dan.
Leela and her puppies joined the trip – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
The family now consists of a van, two people and five dogs. And there are no plans to end the adventure, no matter how much they miss friends, family and weekend trips to Northumberland beaches and hills in the Lake District.
They may currently be in different countries, but they remain united in future plans. “We have no idea what we’re going to do,” says Dan smiling. Esther enthusiastically agrees.
They have no plans to end their adventure anytime soon – Photo: Dan Colegate / BBC
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