When Richard East decided to quit his job and travel around Australia in a sleeper van, he found an unlikely travel companion in his pet cat, Willow – and now their bond is inspiring the internet.
After what East calls “the most well-prepared mid-life crisis in history,” he and 6-year-old Willow embarked on a road trip throughout Australia. Three years later and that trip still has no end in sight. Along the way, the pair has seen beautiful sights and have bonded in remarkable and heartwarming ways.
INSIDER talked with East about their travels to learn more about their journey and their incredible relationship.
It all started back in 2014 when East quit his job as an IT professional to travel long-term.
“I had spent 10 years with one company and though my career ahead looked promising, I felt lost,” he said. “I had the thought of taking off travelling for six months, but the idea of returning to the same problems lead me to think up something longer term.”
He decided to remodel a Volkswagen van into his forever home.
“Then the idea of van life came up. I could sell my house – everything I own – and travel cheaply while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life,” East said.
He sold off all his possessions, but couldn’t part with one thing: his cat, Willow.
“To be honest, Willow wasn’t in the original plan,” East said. “But as it happens, I soon realised that I just couldn’t leave her behind. She had always been there for me, so I made a promise to never leave her – and it was one of the greatest decisions of my life.”
But it wasn’t easy to turn Willow into a travelling cat after she had spent her whole life living inside a house.
“Willow spent lots of time hanging out with me as I was building the van so it wasn’t long before she learned that it was a safe place,” East explained.
However, he introduced Willow to the travel life in small steps. “I took Willow away for weekends, then whole weeks, and not only did she cope — she thrived,” he said on his website.
“We both had a lot to learn about the intricacies of living in a small space, but we have truly found our feet (paws?) now,” he told INSIDER.
The pair travels around 40 miles a week.
Willow has crossed the Tropic of Capricorn six times now.
Willow’s favourite part of travelling is finding the best place to cat nap.
East said she is always looking for the perfect spot where “the breeze is just right and the ground is just soft enough.”
But she also loves a good “dust bath.”
“Dust baths are one of Willow’s favourite Outback activities,” East wrote in an Instagram post. “Followed closely by bringing all the dust inside the van!”
East said they now live on “cat time,” which has helped him slow down too, and appreciate life more.
“This means that if Willow decides to take a nap under the van where I can’t get her, we are staying put for a while,” he said. “Travelling with a cat slows you down and helps you sit back and watch the world go by. Willow helps me to take a step back from things and appreciate what is in front of me. I’m truly seeing Australia through the eyes of a cat, and that I will treasure for a lifetime.”
Willow also enjoys her freedom while travelling from place to place.
“We all know cats are independent,” he told INSIDER. “A cat fits in very well with van life -mainly on account of their napping schedules. So if I need to go to the shops she is fine to stay in the van for a while. But I have to make sure she gets her outdoor time or there will be hell to pay at 3 a.m. when she decides it’s now play time.”
Despite her freedom, Willow never runs away because they have an unspoken agreement.
“She will always come back to the van, and I will always wait for her,” East wrote on his website. “She rarely wanders more than 100 metres (~330 feet) from the van, but when she does I can find her with her tracking collar. I don’t believe the bond between us is greater than any other human/cat, but we are in a situation every day where we are reminded of that bond. Spending 24/7 together we have gotten to know each other very well.”
In the end, East is just as happy as Willow with their simple, relaxing life.
“We live a simple life now,” he said. “Wherever we are, we always have our home and each other. And after a feed, life feels pretty complete. I’ve discovered the ultimate luxury in life, and that is time. Time to spend on things that are important to me, and to spend it with those I love.”
They even chronicle their purr-fect life in a new book for a good cause.
After launching a successful Instagram, East has written a book about their travels on the road. It will go on sale in December. They’re also selling calendars of their best pictures, and all proceeds go towards helping to find a cure for motor neurone disease.
After travelling thousands of miles together, the two are inseparable.
“I don’t think she actually cares that we travel,” he said. “All that matters is that we are together, we have our home on wheels, and we get to spend lots of quality time together.”
But he does get nervous thinking about the future.
“When I say every moment is precious I truly mean it,” he wrote in one Instagram post. “I try to enjoy every day with Willow but in the back of my mind, I know nothing lasts forever. I know I shouldn’t think too much about what-ifs. So I bury those thoughts. We are happy and healthy now, and I think we make the most of every day with head butts and little afternoon chats.”
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