It’s likely the name rings a bell- Elise Cook and her husband Domenic Palumbo have been popping up everywhere from The Daily Mail to the front of the local paper as they carve out a seriously dreamy existence, both on Instagram and in real life.
They also happen to have a home-base in the Fleurieu so I’ve got to meet them casually more than once- and they really are as brilliant, passionate and positive as you might imagine.
As they head up the west coast in Scout, their beloved kombi-van, we get to go with them and soak up the idyllic landscapes and serene lifestyle along the way.
I was lucky enough to have a chat with Elise- who better than this sunshine girl, to start the Dream Weavers interview series? (nobody, that’s who!) x
Chloe: how do you feel that having an audience on this adventure shapes the way that you live it?
Elise: To be totally honest, it doesn’t.
It’s something that we made a conscious decision about before we left on this big adventure around Australia. Instagram and the blog are places we can share our experience, but in no way affect how or why we are doing what we’re doing. If it disappeared tomorrow, we’d still be living the exact same way, and we’d still be taking photos the whole way along. The only difference would be my friends and family would be seeing it in a great big photo album at the end of our journey instead of live snippets as we go.
We chose to give up most of our worldly possessions and the comforts of a traditional home (like having a toilet), and move our life into our van full-time because we wanted to achieve something on a personal level. We wanted freedom. We wanted to step back from the noise, slow down, and get in tune with what truely makes us happy. We wanted to learn.
I’ve always loved photography, and the ability a photo has to capture a moment or a magic memory, so it’s been a real joy to share my photos and stories and even more of a joy that so many people have chosen to follow along and seem to genuinely enjoy what I’m sharing. But I’m definitely of the mind that you need to live your life doing things that make you feel alive, and what you share with an audience on something like Instagram should only be an extension of what you’d be doing anyway, it should never be the focal point.
C: you’re very honest when it comes to the ups and downs of traveling in Scout- when it comes to what you didn’t expect, what you never read about or took into consideration, what is the very best thing and the most challenging when it comes to life on the road?
E: What a big, beautiful question!
Ok, the most challenging thing has been the breakdowns. I had this idea that Scout would just cruise around the country and never miss a beat, because of all the good vibes – you know?
We’ve been stranded on the side of the road more times than I’d care to remember. We stupidly left with nothing more to call a tool-kit than a tiny screw driver, a 10 inch socket spanner, and a hammer. The amount we’ve spent at various mechanics all over the coastline makes my eyes water. But – you take the good with the bad. There’s no other car you could drive around the country that would instil as much good faith from strangers as a Kombi van does.Our van is a source of happiness not just for us, but for people wherever we go. Everyone has a Kombi story and she evokes happy memories. People actually light up when we drive into a town (and you should see the delighted looks on the faces of grey nomads when we drive into a caravan park!). And all of the breakdowns have meant that we have met and connected with some really amazing people, that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Each time we’ve been left homeless while she gets worked on, we’ve been embraced and given shelter, and developed some friendships that will last a lifetime.
The best thing? The freedom. I know you asked for what I didn’t expect, and I did expect to gain a sense of freedom, but what I didn’t expect was the magnitude of it or how it would play into my life. It doesn’t come from some of the wild and beautiful places we’ve woken up, and it’s not just freedom in how we spend our days or the freedom or a long road and wondering where we’ll go next… although that all plays into it. The freedom I’m talking about is a state of mind. And I think it took about two months on the road for that to crack wide open. When that happened, there was, and still is, clarity in a way I’d never experienced in my adult years. I could suddenly imagine, dream, and learn in a way I hadn’t had ‘brain space’ to do in a very long time.
C: You probably didn’t think that you’d be doing what you do, five or ten years ago- where did you see yourself landing? How did the way that you thought your life might turn out impact the way you followed this dream?
E: Too right. Ten years ago I was saving to move to London, and I would have said I didn’t want to get married until I was 30. I wanted to spend my twenties single and backpacking around the world, working in some fairytale journalism job that enabled me to write, take photos and keep travelling. Maybe work for Lonely Planet?
Five years ago I was just about to get married… I’d met the most wonderful man 4 weeks before I left for Europe, and after a year I came back to visit him and never went back. He made me feel loved in a way I never knew was possible. Everything else went out the window. We’d just spent 3 years in Melbourne, where he worked hard while I completed my journalism degree and we were about to move back to South Australia so that he could start his dream (Down The Rabbit Hole) and I was suddenly feeling conflicted about when and how I would get to do that travel I’d always dreamt of. What was I going to take photos of? South Australia? Nothing there. And how could I do an internship if every cent we had was going towards starting this grand dream of a winery? I couldn’t. Dom couldn’t even fathom the idea of backpacking, he was a self proclaimed workaholic with very traditional ideas about success, having been raised in a (wonderful) Italian family. It was a confusing time but we knew we loved each other and were committed to finding middle ground.
Two years ago I was able to quit the full time retail job I’d kept while we got Down The Rabbit Hole off the ground. We still didn’t have the time or money to do the overseas travel that I was dreaming of, but we decided to buy a van as a compromise. Dom promised that every weekend we’d spend at least one night in the van and fill my need for a little adventure. That’s how we met Scout. And she changed our lives, especially Dom’s. Weekends in the van taught him to slow down, to switch off, and how critical a bit of rest is for productivity. Weekends in the van gave me an opportunity to start exploring South Australia, and made me realise just how much was at our door step. I fell in love with the place and began sharing my photos on Instagram… which is how that all began.
C: What was the moment that you went ‘oh my gosh, I’ve really started something here- people are really into what we’re doing?’
E: With Down The Rabbit Hole, it was the first event we threw – which was also the weekend I quit my job.
We we couldn’t afford to open a cellar door straight away, which would have been the best way for us to have people trying our wine. It’s also all anyone in SA asked about. So, we decided to bring the cellar door to the people, and throw a pop-up cellar door in the CBD. We found a big warehouse, and I spent two months op-shopping, collecting, making and painting furniture with my Grandparents. We turfed the warehouse and turned it into a ‘secret garden party’. We built a big rabbit hole that people would enter through, so we could take them ‘down the rabbit hole’ on a bit of an adventure with us. We didn’t have funding or a grand cellar door to help us stand out in a wine flooded market, but we had passion and determination.
The warehouse could hold 350 people, and we were so worried we wouldn’t fill it. However, after popping it on Facebook over 2500 people had clicked attending in 12 hours. Then we started to freak out! We introduced a $15 ticket price and they sold out in 30 seconds.
The event was so much fun! All of a sudden people in SA had heard of ‘Down The Rabbit Hole’, and we were absolutely stoked!
It was also the moment I realised how invested I was, and how much I loved running Down The Rabbit Hole with Dom. I’d helped a little bits since the beginning, and loved having an input during the first couple of years, but I wasn’t a wine maker and it wasn’t my game. However, that event made me realise I had something to bring to the table – more than just my love of drinking wine – creativity.
C: Do you ever get recognised in unlikely places?
E: Haha – yes! And it’s always very ‘unlikely’ or unexpected because it’s not very often. Like standing in a queue at Priceline, someone walking up and saying asking if it’s me and saying they love me – and then the lady at the checkout giving me a really funny look and offering for me to skip the line, to which I said- “nope, I’m all good here thanks!”. Haha.
Or in a camp kitchen at a caravan park, in my daggiest, and someone getting all flustered saying they stalk me, and then turning red wishing they didn’t use the word ‘stalk’, and then me getting equally as flustered in return saying, “thanks… Whats your Instagram? I’ll stalk you guys too!” And her husband giving us one of those odd looks like the Priceline lady did.
C: If you got to create an itinerary that would show off the most beautiful, underrated parts of Australia, what five places would make the list and why?
E: Exmouth, WA – It’s a literally a little diamond in the rough. Amidst a dry barren landscape, there’s this vibrant little town that oozes good vibes, with the most incredible coastline and an ocean that feels so alive! It’s got everything travellers want to experience, without the crowds.
Fluerieu Peninsula, South Australia – I know I’m biased, but it’s unreal. You have one of Australia’s best and most beautiful wine regions (McLaren Vale) running right next to the most beautiful coastline. You have amazing little places to eat and drink and super cute towns and boutiques. And you also have a stunning National Park (Deep Creek) with epic walks and campgrounds. For some reason it gets missed when people think of visiting South Australia, which baffles me – but it won’t be a secret for long. It is the perfect place for an idyllic summer getaway.
Esperance, WA – It’s miles from nowhere but it is quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, with the most turquoise coastline I’ve ever seen. This is also where we camped with a friendly bunch of kangaroos right on the beach. Already planning to go back.
Bay of Fires, Tasmania – You may have realised but I like uncrowded, untouched, coastal destinations with an abundance of natural, wild beauty. Bay of Fires in Tassie is all of these things, but best of all – you can camp anywhere along the stretch, free of charge, for as long as you want. It has this relaxed, wild and free feel that is rare to find in Australia. In WA they charge you to camp at the end of a dirt road. In Tassie it’s gloriously carefree, and you’re welcome to stop and enjoy the solitude as long as you like.
Ask me for number five in a months time, I have a feeling that where we’re headed next will make this list. We’d never heard of it, but everyone we’ve met travelling WA has told us it’s easily one of the most beautiful places in Australia. So stay tuned 🙂
C: The #vanlife, up until recently, has been more of a ‘grey nomad’ thing- what made you yearn for this way of living and travelling, and why or why not would you recommend it over the traditional hire a car, check in at hotels, grab a flight to the next capital city style of movement that has been popular with young people for years?
E: People chalk #vanlife up to being this new trend, but long before hashtags and instagram – there were nomads.
This is a movement that has deep roots in the past. What originally drew me to van travel was the carefree way in which you could pack what you need in your vehicle, and set off without a destination in mind. You can pull up anywhere, and explore in a way planned travel doesn’t quite allow.
What drew me in to van LIFE was how it allowed us to really simplify living. Travel for a couple of months in a van and you begin to realise all the material things you’ve accumulated, filling your cupboards at home, really don’t contribute to your happiness… because you feel happier than you’ve ever known you could. All of the ideas, expectations, and concerns you have, that really you’ve been taught your whole life, about how you SHOULD live your life, begin to fall away.
It comes down to that state of mind and sense of freedom I mentioned earlier, and the fact that at least once a day we look at each other and say something along the lines of how much we love our life, how much we love living, and how grateful we are that we took a leap of faith and moved our lives into our van.
We’ve travelled both ways, we’ve done the hotels and flights and hours of googling – and felt we caught the travel-bug. But van travel gave us the life-bug. Can I coin that? haha – #gotthelifebug
A huge number of the grey nomads we’ve met did their own trips in Kombi vans in the 70s, and we have relished in hearing their stories and words of wisdom. One thing they all say is how great it is that we’re doing this NOW – not waiting until one day. This is building a foundation upon which we will build and create the rest of our lives, and we’re learning things we hope to teach and show our children about living.
C: Is there anything that you miss about home?
E: Family. Family is everything. Our one year old niece, our siblings, our parents, and our grandparents. We’re grateful for FaceTime, and look forward to visiting soon.
Dom has lost two of his grandparents in the past two years, so we know how precious time is. But we also know that what we are doing is what we’re meant to be doing, and we’re where we’re meant to be – on our own path. And if there’s anything loss teaches you it’s how short our time on this earth is, and how important it is to live it today.
C: How does Down The Rabbit Hole fit in with all of this? Do you always have ten dozen on hand?
E: I have the smallest wardrobe imaginable, and it’s always half filled with wine!
As I’ve already touched on, we worked hard to get the business off the ground, and up and going. Owning your own business can often feel like one step forward, two steps back… constantly trying to keep on top of cashflow, constantly chasing goals, building towards ‘the dream’ – getting to that point where you can breath, when you’ve made it.
We’re not there yet, but suddenly, we’re not in such a rush to be. Travelling in the van really helped us to detach from the end goal and to enjoy the ride. That old saying, “happiness is a journey, not a destination” couldn’t be more fitting.
Don’t get me wrong, we still have goals, they’re essential, but it taught us that it’s ok to slow down, and to really enjoy where we are at right now.
A lot of people thought we were crazy for stepping away and taking the business on the road. The fear of taking your finger off the pulse and everything going backwards.
But, as we are travelling we are visiting restaurants and bottle shops together and hoping they’ll put our wines on. We still do a little happy dance in the bottle shop cark parks if we walk out after they’ve said yes. And sometimes I stop and think, ‘this is exactly where we need to be right now. If we’d already made it, we wouldn’t be dancing over this little win. I want to dance over the little stuff right now.’
C: When it comes to DTRH, what’s the vision that you and Dom share for the future of the label?
E: We’ve got some big dreams! We see ourselves making our way back to South Australia late 2018 and building our cellar door. We’ll fly home for vintage at the beginning of the year for wine making time, and then fly back to Scout and keep moving.
Dom loves to cook and we love to entertain, so there’s lots of different things we’re dreaming about doing with our cellar door. But basically we want to create a place that is a real reflection of us and all we’ve taken on board already, and all we’re still yet to learn.
C: What’s your ‘actual job title?’
C: How has living in Scout over the past six months changed you as a person?
E: Well, I think I’ve spoken a bit about this already… but to add to it slightly; I think it has helped me to really look inward at who I am, who I want to become, and how I can add value and be of service to the people and the world around me. How has living in a van does this? It has allowed me to find stillness away from the noise.
C: Your photography is incredible. How do you get a moment from a raw state to what we see? (ie. Do you use your phone, or a camera? Are you a Lightroom fan? Do you prefer using presets or making it up as you go?)
E: Thank you very much! First of all, is about working with real moments, with real life. That is key.
I use a Canon DSLR, and I generally use a landscape lens (a 16-35 mm). We also have a little travel drone and a GoPro for my underwater footage. Using the app it streams straight to the phone which is super handy.
For my editing I use Lightroom and sometime VSCO – and I always make it up as I go, just working with whatever the photo needs or whatever I’m feeling.
I then upload to Instagram straight from Lightroom.
C: You’re in the middle of a three hundred-km stretch of track, not even Triple J is reaching your radio antenna and you’re stoked because you’ve just remembered that you recently saved the ultimate roadtrip playlist to your phone- what’s on it?
E: My favourite playlist on Spotify is always saved to my phone. It’s one I made and am always adding to. It’s called Life’s A Road Trip and it has all my favourite songs for the road.
It’s also public – so if you need some road trip tunes, you’re welcome. 🙂
C: Where to from here?
E: It’s a long road out of Exmouth, and we’ll be heading inland to a National Park, I’m not sure where or what route we’ll take yet. Then we’ll be heading up to Broome and then through The Kimberly. Loads of ground to cover but I can’t wait to hit the road again.
FINISH THESE SENTENCES:
I feel inspired when… I watch the sunrise or sink over the ocean.
I’ll never forget the day… We sat at an old man’s table, and he told us he’d sell us his beloved Kombi van so long as we promised him we’d have adventures. That day changed our life.
The words I live by are… “Its a good day to have a good day.”
I’m happiest when… I’m sitting behind the wheel, Dom’s next to me, the windows are down, there’s music drifting through the speakers, the sun’s shining, the road is long, we don’t know where we’ll be camping that night, but life’s good and we’re enjoying the ride.
You probably didn’t know that… I went to high school in Jakarta. Or that Dom has a monkey bone in his foot…? OR that when I first got Scout and would be driving around SA she tooted every time I indicated right, which cause a lot of confusion and a wee bit of road rage, because it was every time I had to overtake someone or change lanes, and then I’d start laughing which probably didn’t help things.
My best bit of advice would have to be… Be YOU. Be your authentic self. Give yourself the time to workout what that is, and then have the courage to be it and to do what it is you really want to do. Don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. The people you will attract into your life when you’re in this state are the people you’re meant to have in your life.
I’m so looking forward to… Getting Scout back TODAY!!! She’s just had open heart surgery (her engine had to be rebuilt). It was a hard hit and we’ve been in a tent that someone leant us for the last 3 weeks – BUT, I’m grateful for the people we’ve connected with and the friendships we’ve made because that happened. We’ve been invited for home cooked meals, people have picked us up hitchhiking, people have picked us up and taken us out for adventure days (because we’re careless), and of course the tent we were loaned.
I’m grateful for every inch of generosity we’ve experienced in these three weeks.
Bliss. Thank you so much to Elise for her generous time and for being a little bit of sunshine in everybody’s day: if you’d like to follow the journey that she, Dom & Scout are currently on, you can perve on her Instagram here x