Gemma and James Shooter, with their two young children Brodie and Isla, and their rescue pup Ty, have embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. They’ve sold their home, bought a camper van named Vivienne, and have set off to find out what ‘wild’ really looks like!
Holding our baby in one hand and feeding our toddler with the other, I looked wide-eyed at my husband and said, “So, we’re doing this then?” Jim leant back from the dining table and smiled nervously. This was the moment that changed our lives.
We had just made the decision to buy an old motorhome, sell our detached cottage in the Scottish Highlands and leave our jobs in wildlife conservation. Why? Because we desperately wanted to experience the wilderness we’ve lost in the United Kingdom. Despite our varied landscapes and enigmatic wildlife, the UK is considered one of the world’s poorest nations for nature-connectedness and biodiversity. Jim and I wanted real wilderness. Multiple holidays to visit such places seemed impractical, expensive and limiting. We also had two small children and a dog to think about. So, after many late nights and glasses of wine discussing options, we finally agreed to tour Europe’s wild places in a van.
We’ve always been passionate about nature. Both wildlife fanatics, Jim is an aerial photographer and filmmaker, and I am an animal behaviourist. In recent years, we’ve both dedicated ourselves to conservation communications. Our shared interest in nature restoration, also known as ‘rewilding’, was one of the things that bonded us and that interest has grown arms and legs in the time that we’ve been together. We’re determined that one day we’ll have a small plot of land to conserve and restore ourselves, but first, we felt we need to know what ‘wild’ really looked like. We wanted inspiration.
Once the romantic notions of fulltime travel wore off and we’d started our research, we quickly realised this would not be an easy process. Aside from the huge life changes, there were so many other factors to consider. New Brexit laws dictate that UK citizens are only able to spend 90 out of 180 days in the Schengen area of mainland Europe. Simply put, every three months, we would have to return to the UK for a three month break. This wouldn’t fit in with our plan at all. So, our first task was to figure out a way around this law, and that meant identifying the European countries that were not included in the Schengen zone – predominantly the Balkans. We could spend our three month “break” there instead. After some digging, we found out we were able to apply for a ‘Long Stay’ visa in France, which allowed us six months in their country, without those days counting towards our 90. The application was a lengthy process but it bought us more time. Simple? Not quite. Another Brexit law meant we could no longer get our dog an EU passport. Instead, he now requires an Animal Health Certificate issued by a UK vet every four months, an up to date rabies vaccination and a specific wormer. So, we would need to return to the UK every four months anyway. There was also the added complication of the weight limit for the motorhome, which is 3500kg. Although that may sound like a lot, when you consider that includes the van itself, all of us, fuel, gas canisters and all of our stuff for all seasons… it doesn’t stretch all that far. Most people only need a couple of travel bags for a holiday in their motorhome – not us! After countless efforts trying to minimise our payload (overall weight) and failing, we decided Jim had to do his C1 driving licence, which increases the weight he is allowed to drive to 7500kg. We also had to “up-plate” the vehicle, to make it legal to drive carrying over the standard limit.
Overwhelmed? We were. Oh, and none of the above included the sheer planning that went into which van to buy, what items to take with us (particularly considering fast-growing children in all weathers), what to store, what to rehome, the sale of our house and the associated dramas that come with that, all whilst working right up until the last minute.
Fast forward through six months of utter chaos and it was December 2022. Moving day. It probably wasn’t the best time to pack up your house in the Highlands as, predictably, it was a brisk -15OC and there were 30cm icicles dripping off the rear bumper. We had packed what we needed into the van, now fondly named Vivienne, and the rest of our belongings (mostly furniture) were being driven down to be stored in England. We didn’t know what we planned to do with those things, or if we would even return to Scotland, so our families had kindly offered to look after them for us.
The fresh, deep snow had brought countless challenges throughout the day. Naturally, we fell behind schedule and it wasn’t far off the children’s bedtime when we finally left the first house we’ve ever owned. The house our babies had been born in, and the only one they had ever known. So, both a bit emotional, we made the decision not to travel very far on our first night as nomads. Instead, we literally parked up about half a mile down the road, in a secluded beauty spot beside the frozen river Spey. The only evidence of other life nearby were the otter tracks on the frosted river banks beside us. With a hot mug of tea in hand, the kids asleep and the stars outside, it was a beautiful way to say goodbye to the Cairngorms National Park.
The following morning, we set off on our journey down the country. Jim and I finally allowed ourselves to feel excited after months of stressful preparation. We talked for miles about the wildlife we thought we’d see, particularly birds. We really love birds. I watched the children chattering away in the rear-view mirror – Brodie had not long turned three years old and Isla was just 18 months. They were leisurely “reading” some of the books that we’d stored neatly between them, and I looked on as they casually cast each one onto the already modest floor space. Our rescue dog, Ty, was cosily curled up between our seats, peacefully snoring away. Suddenly, the 20-year-old motorhome, which was straining itself to reach 50mph, felt like home. I had been tearful closing the door on our house, but in that moment, with the Scottish hills disappearing past my window, I realised ‘home’ is wherever my family are.
On the ferry crossing to Dieppe, France, we took the children up on deck and embraced the cold sea air. Gannets glided gracefully at eye level, and guillemots flapped furiously above the waves. We’d decided to start a bird list and record everything we see throughout the trip. I jotted down the seabirds and then flicked through all the blank pages. With only blue skies and endless waters in front of us, I suddenly felt very free. This was it. This was the beginning of our adventure.
Gemma, James, Brodie and Isla are travelling with the Leica Trinovid 8X32 HD
Gemma says ‘We love our Leica Trinovid binoculars and literally take them everywhere with us. As both keen naturalists and young parents, we quickly realised that our ability to get close to wildlife has changed slightly with small children in tow. Thankfully, these binoculars have more than made up for that and are enabling us to rack up the bird count without causing disturbance. They’re so clear and lightweight, even our three year old has been able to use them.”
The Trinovid range are designed for the widest array of uses and expertly combine impressive optical performance, outstanding mechanical features and easy, intuitive operation. Thanks to the time-tested Leica optics, the Trinovid HD offers excellent contrasts, optimum color reproduction and very good light trans- mission. The rubber armoring provides maximum grip in any weather and makes the glass incomparably robust.
Learn more about the Leica Trinovid 8X32 HD here
Follow the family over on their Instagram page: Just Add Wild