Campervan life with Lenna the hiking cat and friends
- Credit: @tom.nw.photo_
Sarah Clifford spent her life savings on a campervan, packed up her cat and two dogs and hit the road. From riding gondolas in Switzerland to climbing Ben Nevis, her four-legged friends are always by her side - by Julie Lucas
Anyone who has travelled with a family will agree that the journey can often be fraught at times. But what about travelling with pets? Sarah Clifford not only takes her two dogs on her travels but her cat comes too.
‘I have always loved to travel,’ says Sarah. She credits her wanderlust to her parents. Her mother, Viv, travelled solo around America in the seventies. But it was when climbing Kilimanjaro in 2017 that she ‘caught the bug’. ‘It changed my life,’ she says. ‘I used to go out partying every weekend and when I started training for the trip, I realised that there was more to life. I thought, I can do this on my own.’
She took to the open road, taking 11-year-old Layla, a black Labrador, and nine-year-old Logan (bred from Layla), a Labradoodle, with her as they were getting older, but decided she couldn’t leave behind Lenna, her four-year-old beautiful snow savannah cat.
The 32-year-old used money she had saved up for a mortgage, and following her instincts instead invested in a Mercedes Sprinter. The van was named Ky-mani, an African name meaning adventurous traveller. Like many, her plans were scuppered with lockdown and she wasn’t able to collect the van for six months, but this gave her a chance to find someone who could convert it, adding extra windows and an interior.
In April last year, Sarah made her inaugural trip to Rendlesham Forest in Suffolk, also known for its UFO sightings. 'I was very excited when I parked up, I didn’t care where I went,’ she says. There were no little green men this time, just a beautiful forest. ‘I had my first shower and cried, because I could see all the trees; it was quite magical.’
Her images of stunning scenery and hiking with her animals, which she regularly posts on Instagram as @poochies.vanlife.adventures, has attracted a band of followers. ‘It’s kind of exploded,’ she says. ‘I have received messages saying "you have given me the push to do it and I have just bought a van"; it makes me quite emotional that I have inspired others.’
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North Wales has become a favourite, particularly Ogwen Valley in the north west, and it’s where she met her partner, Tom. ‘It’s got everything: the mountains, valleys and people are lovely.’ The Scottish Highlands have also been a highlight, ‘I cried when I left the Isle of Skye; I didn’t want to leave. I did part of the North Coast 500, up the west coast, it’s just stunning. You can wild camp, there are beautiful spots.
‘On one of the first trips to South Wales, I got stuck on a hairpin bend. My van couldn’t get any grip, so I decided to do a three-point turn and got stuck. My bumper was touching the barrier that stops you going over the edge. I was panicking, had no signal, I had to floor it into reverse and keep on turning the steering wheel until I got traction. I think I needed that moment. It taught me to know my limits.’
In between her travels, Sarah works as a dog groomer in her home town of Rayleigh, taking time off from her business Pampered Poochies, for her trips. When home, she catches the sunrise or sunset at Two Tree Island, Leigh-on-Sea and loves walking in Thorndon Country Park, Brentwood or Paper Mill Lock in Little Baddow. And wherever Sarah goes, so do her animals. They have been 2,000 meters up in a gondola in Switzerland, paddleboarded and climbed mountains. ‘We have actually climbed Ben Nevis. I am claiming that Lenna is the first cat on the summit,’ she exclaims.
‘From day one, I have always taken Lenna everywhere. I have a harness so she walks with the dogs and a little carrier that she sits in; she is really good. It is the breed; they think they are dogs,’ she laughs. ‘Most other dogs don’t acknowledge that she is a cat, I think because cats run, they want to chase them, but she doesn’t run away.’
Do people do a double take when they see Lenna? Sarah says it’s a point of conversation wherever she goes. ‘Everyone second glances,’ she laughs, ‘She gets lots of attention, especially when she is on the lead as people think she is a dog at first and then she will try and climb a tree. She also likes water; yesterday we were down by the river and she was sitting in the water watching the ducks.
‘I remember going to Coed Y Brenin. It was a hot day and the cat was sunning herself. I came out the shower and didn’t realise that there were loads of people around the front window all looking at her. It was then I realised I needed to invest in a curtain!’
The dogs love being in the van, and as if to agree, while we are talking Logan barks. ‘When I got back from one trip, they were sitting in it while I was unloading; I had the door open and went in the house for 10 minutes and they waited in the van for me to come back. They thought they were going off again.’
She has met lovely people on her travels but got the full wrath of one Welsh farmer when she parked up for lunch. But she is mindful of leaving places as she finds them and always takes rubbish with her. ‘Being a female on her own, it’s a good community and everyone looks out for one and other.’
As well as meeting new people, travelling has given Sarah a new-found confidence. ‘I have learned I’m very independent and braver than I thought. It’s made me appreciate things a lot more. I appreciate water a lot, as I am only allowed a certain amount on board the van. Travelling with the animals is possible, you just have to slightly adapt. I think they really appreciate being with me.
‘It’s unlocked so much. It’s given me a sense of freedom and calmness. I don’t like planning things, I just go with the flow. I believe in myself more now.
‘I have created such a lovely life being in the van. Driving is my meditation. Having everything in a smaller space makes life less complicated; it simplifies things. I have my fur babies with me and the world’s my oyster.’
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