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For the past two years, Dr Tania Mitchell has been making her way around Australia working as Vet in a Van—and she’s brought her family along with her. By Kerryn Ramsey
Dr Tania Mitchell and her husband, Marcus, had been talking about a grand caravan trip around Australia for years. Of course, things kept getting in the way—they were renovating a house, busy at work, their kids were too young, and it’s hard to leave family and friends. They eventually put the dream on hold; something to be reconsidered when they became a couple of retired grey nomads.
“Then we thought, ‘There’s no time like the present’,” says Dr Mitchell. “It would be a great opportunity to spend time with the kids and for all of us to be part of a real adventure.”
Within three months, they had sold everything, bought a caravan, and were ready to hit the road. Dr Mitchell and Marcus loaded their sons—eight-year-old Eli, Charlie aged five, and two-year-old Toby—into their 4WD and headed west, out of Melbourne.
“We left in April 2020, just as the COVID outbreak began in the eastern states,” says Dr Mitchell. “Fortunately, by heading west, we managed to stay ahead of the disease and the lockdowns. Our plan was to spend two years on the road, seeing as much of Australia as possible.”
It took about three months for the family to get used to the van lifestyle where you live on top of each other 24/7. “It really suits us,” says Dr Mitchell. “We started asking ourselves, ‘How can we keep going for as long as possible?’”
And so, Vet in a Van was born.
Dr Mitchell grew up in Melbourne, studying for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, but moved to New Zealand to attend Massey University, graduating with a Bachelor of Veterinary Science with Distinction in 2008. She then moved to Birmingham in the UK, working in a small animal and exotics practice for a couple of years. Returning to Melbourne, she spent nine years at Warranwood Veterinary Centre, a practice specialising in unusual and exotic pets.
While researching their upcoming trip, Dr Mitchell discovered that many people travel with their pets. This was confirmed once they started their journey.
“There are a lot of dogs and cats,” she says. “There’s the odd cockatoo and a few reptiles. At one stop, we met a beautiful herd of travelling guinea pigs. I soon realised that when you’re in the middle of nowhere and the closest vet is six hours away, it’s a real drama if a pet is sick. I decided to become the Vet in a Van.”
The first thing Dr Mitchell did was to register in each state so she can work legally. Then she put together a mobile clinic or, as she calls it, “my consultation room in a bag”.
Mobile vets can’t perform surgery in Australia without a special permit, so Vet in a Van provides consultations, treats ears and eyes, itchy skin, and offers vaccinations, parasite treatments and home euthanasia.
After two years of travel, the Mitchell family are currently in East Arnhem, NT, having journeyed about two-thirds of the way around the country.
“I didn’t realise there were so many places in South Australia and Western Australia that don’t have vets,” says Dr Mitchell. “Lots of rural communities only have a local vet that’s three hours away and comes to visit once a month. I don’t want to steal anyone’s clients or stand on toes. My main aim is to help other travellers with their pets. However, if we arrive in a town with no vet, I just pop a note on the local Facebook noticeboard and say there’s a vet in town for a week. This usually attracts a fair amount of interest and appreciation.”
Quite a few people just want their dog or cat checked when they’re not sure if it’s worth a six-hour round trip. Dr Mitchell can give an assessment and advise if everything is okay or if the animal needs to go to the closest veterinary hospital for further diagnostics or treatment.
Social media and a good internet connection play a big part of Vet in a Van. They have a website (vetinavan.com.au), and are on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. The website lists all the available services and a series of frequently updated animal health blogs. Social media pages are Dr Mitchell’s connection with the travelling community and her clients. They are constantly updated with her location and forthcoming schedule. She’s also started doing online Telehealth appointments. The herd of guinea pigs she met early in her trip are long-time online clients now.
Additionally, Marcus works for Medibank and has embraced the company’s COVID work-from-home policy—home being a constantly changing series of beautiful locations. The two eldest boys are being home-schooled with extensive online options and plenty of real-life experiences.
“For the first time in two years, we’re not living in the van,” says Dr Mitchell. “It’s temporarily in storage in Darwin. I’ve taken a locum position doing remote Indigenous community work in East Arnhem. The local council gave us accommodation and we’ve had to re-adjust to living in a house. My youngest, Toby, has spent the majority of his life in the van.”
Living on the road in a tiny van for two years has seen Dr Mitchell and her husband reprioritise what’s important in their life. The attraction of big cities has diminished while quality of life and family time has superseded owning material possessions.
“When we finally finish travelling, we’ll move into a sustainable tiny house with a huge vegie garden and lots of chickens,” she says. “The whole city lifestyle of work harder to buy something bigger and better seems ridiculous now. Life should be about doing enjoyable work. And family. And fun. And adventure.”