When tiny means living big


Lisa Jansen gets onboard with a tiny-house devotee who designed and made a 10m bus and is now using it to explore Aotearoa

I shall start this story with a little confession. I’m probably about as forward-thinking and independent as women come. But I have to admit; when it comes to fixing and building things, I often find myself thinking, "I need a guy to help with that". This is one time where I was happy to be proven wrong.

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When I heard about Sharla May, a woman who not only converted her own house bus but also built a tiny house, I was impressed (and a little envious) before I had even met her. Sharla is also a key player in the New Zealand tiny-house community and the driving force behind the newly founded NZ Tiny House Association.

Since this is an area I’m interested in personally, she was someone I wanted to meet. We’ve met up a few times since and have become good friends, so I thought it was time to share her inspiring story with others.

Sharla and I have one big thing in common: we both realised in our early 30s that we don’t want to follow the traditional path around 9-to-5 work and mortgages and, instead, want to live a simple, less-materialistic life with more freedom.

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Sharla and her dogs in front of the house bus

For Sharla, this realisation initially led to her selling her house in Whanganui to build and live in a tiny house. She loved living tiny. However, she realised she would like to travel and see more of the country.

While her Tiny House was movable, it required a truck and was a significant undertaking - not something you want to do regularly. So she decided to swap the tiny house for a house bus.

In July 2018, she bought a 2001 Dennis Dart 10m bus and spent the next six months converting it into a tiny home on wheels.

She had some help from friends and paid someone to build the kitchen cabinets, but she did most of the other work herself and all of it was based on her ideas and designs. She knew she would want to live in the bus full-time once done, so it was important to her that it was as comfortable and well-equipped as possible.

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Sharla’s Bus Parked up in Kaikōura

Converting a 10m bus is a challenge, but Sharla was up for it, saying, "I had already built my own tiny house, so I had a bit of experience. And I knew that what I didn’t know I could learn about on YouTube."

And she’s thrilled with the result. "I love my bus. It has everything I want and need. Building it myself meant I could design it to fit my lifestyle perfectly. And buying a newer bus means it is much easier to drive having things like power steering and air brakes."

One of her favourite features is the tinted windows. "It makes for excellent people-watching." (I would definitely agree with that having recently bought a new van that also has tinted windows.) She is also glad that she kept the old-school-bus look from the outside as it makes stealth-camping easy, "people think it’s just a bus parked up waiting for its next trip".

After finishing her bus, it was time to hit the road. At the time, Sharla had been based in Manawatū. She made her way north from there, making it to the beautiful Far North.

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Lake Rotopokaka, known by locals as the Coco-Cola Lake

Among her highlights up there were the white sandy beaches at Kohanga Bay on the Karikari Peninsula, which were such a contrast to the darker beaches she is used to from the Manawatū region. Another highlight was Lake Rotopokaka, which is known by locals as the Coca-Cola Lake because the tannins from the silt make it the same brown colour as the
popular drink.

On her way back from the Far North, Sharla discovered what is now one of her favourite parts of New Zealand. Unlike most other people I’ve asked about their favourite spots, Sharla didn’t have to think too long.

"It was hands down Pātaua South. The estuary is amazing to walk around, so much to take in there. I saw lots of starfish and even saw a guy jump off the footbridge and catch a fish with his bare hands."

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This guy caught a fish with his bare hands jumping off the footbridge

Whanganui is another area she really enjoys and is also where one of her favourite overnight parking spots, Kōwhai Park North, can be found. "I love that you can park right on the riverfront, surrounded by a walking track. There is a dump station, bins, and toilets on site, a great park next door for kids, and Whanganui is very motorhome-friendly."

As much as she loved exploring the North Island, a few months ago Sharla decided to head south. She will make her way to Christchurch where she is organising the next NZ Tiny House & Alternative Living conference at the end of October. Once the conference is done, she will be heading to the West Coast and Marlborough Sounds - two areas she’s looking forward to exploring in her house bus.

Life on the road is all about freedom and independence for Sharla. Like myself, she can work while travelling and the simpler lifestyle means she can focus more time on things she is passionate about, rather than working just to get the mortgage and bills paid. And it’s also a great way to see and experience our beautiful country.

But she also admits that it’s not without its challenges. For her, the biggest downside is that she doesn’t stay in one place long enough to develop real connections and friendships with the people she meets.

"I meet a lot of really interesting people, and we have amazing conversations. But most of the time, it ends there. It’s hard to form real connections when you don’t spend more time together."

Since she left the beaten track to first live in a tiny house and now a house bus, Sharla’s perspective on life has changed. She says she has a better sense of what is truly important and an enhanced understanding of herself and what matters most to her.

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Sharla at the top of Mount Manaia, Whāngārei Heads

"I learned not to listen to other people’s opinions on how they think I should be living my life and to just embrace new opportunities and experiences that come my way. That has been a valuable lesson."

When I asked her about her number-one tip for other travellers, her answer was one I’ve heard before, "Just do it. And do it as soon as you can because you don’t know when your time on this planet is up."

Given the number of people I’ve heard this from, there must be something to it.

Find out more

Want to learn about Sharla’s work with the NZ Tiny House Association or the Tiny House Conference? Visit nztha.org or tinyhouseconference.nz

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