I bought my bus in England in 1996 for about £3500. It was an old 1986 Hackney Council School Bus that had been retired. It was in pretty good shape.
I had won European Outdoor Performer of the Year in 1995 and, as a result, got a whole lot of gigs! I figured I would be touring a lot and the best way to save money was to not pay rent and live in the bus from gig to gig.
So, from June until October that year, I and my partner at the time, Abigail Collins, booted around Europe in the bus we called “LULLY”
Just after buying the bus in England, I rented some space at an Opera Company Set Workshop for seven days and renovated her. They gave me all the materials and access to the tools I needed for next to nothing.
The staff at the Opera workshop were intrigued. I pulled out the seats, bought some wood, built furniture, got a fridge, a hot water heater, a bed, a battery operated tv with a VCR in it, a satellite receiver and a bunch of other stuff to make it homey. I madly put together a living space for the two of us to camp in, working tirelessly to meet my seven day deadline. It was unfinished when we got it on the ferry for mainland Europe.
I remember turning a corner and having the entire desk assembly fall over because it hadn’t yet been fixed to the wall. We stopped, I fixed it to the wall and we continued on our way. I took 10% of the cash from each of my gigs to finish the job. YES, I always got paid in cash!
When I wasn’t at gigs, we would find places to park in big cities and busk in the centre of town, park near lakes or camp out at festivals.
Water was free at every gas station and fuel was 35 cents a litre!
Everything inside was run off of 12 volt power supplied by a marine battery.
It was glorious!
Soon we found other members of the bus dwellers tribe and became fast friends. We often parked up together on the bank of the River Schelde in Antwerp, Belgium, between gigs, not more than 500 meters from our favourite busking spot.
The city of Antwerp made parking free to encourage tourism. The city loved us. They made water available to anybody who parked there.
It was around 1998, when one of our tribe, Nick Park, took a photo of all of our busses parked by the River Schelde. It was always a party.
I called it “Busland” and, at the dawn of the internet era, I took that photo and used my laptop with a thing called “Photoshop” to make this mock up. I dreamed that this would be “our place” and came up with a sign that could be erected at the entrance to the parking lot we called home.
That logo font and the dream of an off grid life stayed glued to the back of my eyeballs for decades
Get Rid Of That Bus
Early on, shortly after I bought it, I wanted to increase the speed. I removed the governor that kept the bus travelling at a maximum of 80 km an hour. It was just a bolt underneath the gas pedal.
It took about two minutes to remove.
After that we could reach a top cruising speed of 120 km an hour going downhill.
Shortly after that I started visiting repair stations on a regular basis because, apparently, the bus was not supposed to go over 80 km an hour, but I was young and in a rush. The cost of repairs were still substantially less than paying for an apartment. About 95% less. I put about 5% of my annual touring money into new parts and repairs.
Over the course of 10 years I replaced everything until 2005 when the engine fell out. I was in Antwerp when it happened. Parking on the Schelde River was still possible but the bus needed to go into the shop for a new engine.
I knew the mechanic quite well. He’d done a lot of work on the truck. He told me to get rid of it.
EVERYBODY TOLD ME TO GET RID OF IT!
“Dave”, they’d say, “that bus is a money hole.”
But I didn’t care. I was going to nurse this bus back to health if it was the last thing I did.
Trapped in An Industrial Prison
The bus sat stationary for 4 years on the lot of Rudi Van Den Ende, Mechanic.
I called this Busland 2.0.
Sometimes I would go to the parking place and sit in my non functioning bus, surrounded by other big trucks. It was in an industrial area and felt a little like prison, but it comforted me to know that I could go there with my laptop and my electric generator and make plans for the day when a real, permanent Busland would materialise.
Rudi was an incredibly nice guy. I think helped me out because he knew I was going to give him a lot of money. He would let me take power from time to time. I could stay there on weekends when he was closed, but I wasn’t allowed to live in it full time.
Then, in 2008, he found an engine. I had been living in Antwerp for four years, renting an apartment that was far too expensive, travelling on trains and occasionally renting cars to go to the gigs that I had.
When all was said and done, between 1996 in 2008, I had spent approximately €20,000 rebuilding everything from the transmission and brake drums, the driveshaft, the rear differential, the electrical and eventually the engine block itself, from the ground up. About €1600 a year, which was still less than an apartment.
The bus had this oil leak that I was trying to get on top of. I’m not proud of that. The age of the internal combustion engine was where we were living. I dreamed of one day putting the body of my bus on an electric chassis and powering it from that great fusion reactor in the sky.
I used the same two mechanics for all of the work. The best one was Rudi in Antwerp. Every time I took the bus to him he would say,”Hi Dave, are you here to give me more money?”
I would look at him sheepishly, nod my head and quietly say “Yes Rudi”.
I was always at the butt end of my friends jokes. Everybody told me to get rid of it and get Mercedes Benz or something more reliable where I didn’t have to get parts from England.
But I couldn’t do it. I had been a big fan of the original series of “Lost in Space”, and to me this bus looked like The Chariot that the characters used to get around on alien planets.
I was bound and determined to bring this thing back to life.
Rudi installed the new engine and spent weeks using different kinds of glues to get ahead of the oil leak coming from the manifold. I told him that if he couldn’t fix it, I would discard the bus. I was very sad.
He looked at me and said, “it can be done, it’s just gonna cost you a bit.” So I busked my ass off and gave all my money to him. He was always there for me. Still is. I called him recently and asked if he could do a full examination to see how his worked had progressed and he was jubilant at the opprotunity. Recently helped me, over video chat, to fix a problem with the hydraulics. I showed him, through video, the problem I had. He spoke, I did the mechanical work. Four hours later everything was fixed. He had become my mechanical mentor!
During those years the bus had been re-registered as a Dutch mobile home. Even though I had a heavy vehicle license, it was possible to drive the bus using my standard car license because of its classification as a mobile home. That changed in 2017 when it was registered in Poland as an Old Timer Bus. No more road worthy tests, but I was required to have and maintain a heavy vehicle licence.
Every winter, when I went back to my home in Australia, it would get stored in a Dutch flower warehouse that specialised in RV storage. It cost about €1000 a year.
In 2009, once the bus was repaired, I decided to relocate to Berlin. I loaded up everything I had into the bus and took it on a nice long drive.
She purred like a kitten and had lots of power. The leak was gone and I was overjoyed to be reunited with my mobile base of operations. I had visited the bus frequently in those four years and she was always clean and presentable inside.
I found a place to park it at the old Spechthausen Paper Mill, about 60 km north of Berlin. I tried to install Busland 3.0 there and managed to hang out for about 2 months, but it wasn’t a good fit, so I decided to put it into storage in one of their warehouses…again.
It cost me €400 a year.
I found a small 80 square meter half basement studio in Kreuzberg and opened a performance space called “The Space Station Gallery”. The idea of Busland started to fade from view.
I wasn’t touring quite as much by then and decided that, if I could, I would buy a plot of land in the country, get a couple of shipping containers and make the bus central to a luxurious container style home.
Then a bunch of stuff happened. My daughter Grace was born 2012 and that same year I was invited to work in Canada and USA with Cirque du Soleil.
My vision of the Bus and how it could be used as a stage at festivals had become nothing more than a distant memory. I was a Dad now. Time to shelve all of that foley of misguided youth.
I thought for the longest time that Busland had become a failed dream.
8 Years Without A Bus
The bus sat in storage in Spechthausen for 8 years and in all that time I hadn’t visited it once. I religiously paid the €400 a year stubbornly believing that my dream was not dead yet.
But really, with everything else that was going on, it was.
Then, in 2016, I made a trip with the family to do a short tour of Europe and decided to use some of the money to move the bus to Poland so it could be parked on some free land made available by my wife’s relatives.
I was not going to give it up.
When I was reunited with the bus, I was greeted with a fully functioning engine but an interior that had been assailed by the passage of time. It was filled with cobwebs, rusting stove pipes and dust, lots of dust.
I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat amazed that when I reconnected the battery there was just enough power to start the engine. She started up and we drove her 600 kilometers which gave her a full charge!
It wasn’t like the old days when the interior was comfortable. This was a purely functional task. The smell of mold and must dominated the entire journey. We stopped a lot.
Once the bus was parked in a barn, for free, we went back to Canada.
By 2017 we had been living in Vancouver for four years. Then my wife had an accident that resulted in her two front teeth getting knocked out. Dental care to fix her teeth in Canada was going to cost €15,000. My wife told me that if we were in Poland she could get them fixed for €1500.
I did some math, made some phone calls and lined up some work at various locations around Europe for the 2017/2018 season. We decided to leave Canada permanently and use the money saved to re-establish ourselves in Europe.
We had decided that, seeing as how I had a bus, we could put it to use to save up some cash while touring just like I did in the old days My daughter was young enough that she, her mother and I could live in the bus for a summer or two and treat it like a vacation.
We moved the bus to a farm near Gdansk Poland. I gutted the interior and rebuilt it from the ground up.
The video that explains it all is next!
I took three weeks to do the work.
I still had all the old appliances and fixtures, so I restored them to mint condition.
When the bus interior was finished, I gave her a new exterior paint job and we set off to travel Europe just like I did on the old days.
Once the bus was refitted we drove 1200 kilometres to Mannheim where, for six months, we got to park next to the circus tent where I was working.
I built a small 2 meter wide, 7 meter long workshop that folded out of the roof of the bus on the port side (not visible here). It allowed me to realize my initial vision of building larger art projects.
It was grand. I could feel my dream of Busland coming back to life 22 years after I had first thought of what I wanted to do.
I wanted to establish the project in or near Berlin as I had originally intended.
We left Mannheim in April 2018
We drove around for a month visiting friends. I busked from time to time like I used to do all those years ago and we arrived in Berlin in May of 2018.,
I pulled our mobile art bus, LUL522X, into the Wagendorf at Karow. A friend said, “Hey if you need a place to park for awhile, you can rent a space on the Guest Parking for a few months.”
The stay was supposed to be temporary while I looked for an apartment. My Father and grandfather were born in Berlin and, in 2012, so was Grace. It seemed like the logical place to put down roots.
We had been at the Wagendorf for about a week when I met a man named Holgi.
Holgi had been charged with producing the 25th Anniversary Festival for the Wagen village. When I found out, I showed him my portfolio as a festival and outdoor theater producer and offered my services in whatever capacity he saw fit.
He immediately assigned me the task of designing the festival terrain and joining a few others in programming artists on a variety of stages.
In return for my labour, we made an agreement that my family would be able to stay on the Guest Parking for one year as payment while I searched for an apartment.
In the 5 short years we had been gone, Berlin rents had more than tripled. My old studio on Geneisenaustrasse, which had been €400 a month, was now €1600.
I was numb. I couldn’t afford that, not yet, maybe not ever. I needed much more time to get my income streams flowing.
I needed to get Busland going.
Busland is a dream come true because it is ever changing and ever evolving. This idea in temporary living art is all about motivating innovation and discovery while exploring mobility and sustainability. Busland is there to make shows and films and report about the world we live in. Busland is my Raison d’Etre.
Once in Karow Wagen Village, I unfolded LUL522X into the workshop space I had attached in Mannheim and extended it to a length of 10 meters. Over the next four months I set up covered work spaces so that I could build the 50 or so ideas I had dreamed up for the festival terrain.
My budget for the festival was incredibly small so I made a point of building most everything out of found materials.
My favourite was the Busland Passage. I took over the Guest Parking place and turned it into a festival of light.
Every time I get to set up my Giant Pencil, I know things are going to be good.
I built a stage in the centre of the Busland Passage and it became a central hub to the other 4 stages at the festival.
I did performances on the roof of the Bus. That’s me talking and people not knowing where to look.
Just past the bus I built The “RadoFone” an analogue drum machine made out of old bike parts that could be played by up to 8 people (mostly kids) at one time. I designed a small show around it.
I built numerous signs, pallet lamps and other installation pieces for all of the different venues.
Over 1000 people attended the celebration.
The Festival WegWeizer
The closing day of the festival took the form of one of my signature events “Pizza Sonntag”, a variety show with pizza that lasts 7 hours. Everybody, anybody can get up and do a bit. Then I serve pizza, over and over and over again.
Busland Version 4.0 by Day
As part of my agreement for organizing and building the festival, I had been given permission to build a small 5 meter x 5 meter temporary production facility off the front of the bus. I took all of the art I created and hung it off the building.
For the next 7 months I hosted a variety of music, theater and film making events that were attended by local residents.
My biggest commercial project in this version of Busland was a series of 18 climate change awareness music videos that I made for the Broward Water Partnership In Florida.
It had been the best year of my life. Everything that I had wanted to do in a single year.
Busland was a functioning reality. I only needed two solid years to make it stable.
Plumber Man – Environmental Stew
This is a montage of 18 Videos I created for my client the Broward Water Partnership in Florida USA inside Busland 5.0
I completed the work over 5 months.
The Man With Two Faces
Busland 5.0 was a full service production facility that included a music recording studio, green screen, video editing and special effects production. I produced my album “The Yin and Yang of All Things” there which included this music video.
When I got word that we had to move, I cubed everything and prepared it for storage in a small tent I put beside the bus.
The whole building cost €500 to build. What you see here, all the way to the black bags of insulation at the back, was the entire structure.
This is a picture of the bus parked on the street in front of a friends house just around the corner from the Wagon Village, mid pandemic.
Initially I had been asked by the Wagon community to create long term art that could remain installed in the Wagon village indefinitely. They had even given me a letter stating that the wanted to do it every year so that I could get funding. But in June 2019, the decision was reversed. I was asked to take everything apart. No real explanation was given.
The festival had been a massive success and, for a time, I was a local hero. Everybody was visiting Busland and participating in the myriad of events I was hosting. I thought I had won a place in the community, but that turned out not to be the case. Other people were in front of us on the list of people waiting for positions to park. We were asked to leave when the year was up.
Busland 5.0 was dismantled.
It was a promethean task.
I had been working continuously, building up and taking down, for 24 months straight. The result was massive injuries in my shoulders, hip and knees. I was incapacitated and couldn’t move for three months. It was mid pandemic. I was beside myself that we had to leave during this global catastrophe with no where to go.
The Wagendorf chapter of Busland’s history is most important because this is where the building and the first projects took place. 26 music videos and short films were produced and 4 live shows, 8 hours long, each with food, were presented. The parties were spectacular. The Synth Pop Troubadour himself, Stephen Paul Taylor, did me the huge honour of playing a dance show in my tiny theatre/studio. It was electric!
We arrived at THMB, a four story facility dedicated to the creation and rehearsal of cultural events, on January 26th, 2021 and parked in the front of the building. The shrt video below shows you our initial view on arrival. The video takes you inside the bus as it looked mid pandemic. No different than any other time really. It was our home. Grace is watching her favourite show “Big Bang Theory”. Hanging beside her is the first newspaper article that had appeared in the Berliner Zeitung
By the middle of the Pandemic we had been living rough for almost 9 months, moving daily from parking lot to parking lot. Occasionally I would find a field where I could park for a week or so until some park ranger came and moved me along. I ran the bus on a solar cell that my fan base had crowd funded for us and during the summer months. We were literally running the bus using solar panels connecting us to that great fusion reactor in the sky.
Several national news agencies picked up on our story and did reports on us. But the stories were stilted and did not address our existential problem in any tangible terms. We needed a legal parking place.
In one news story they called me a “Star Clown” and did this brilliant retrospective of my career. Even though my experience at Cirque du Soliel had been largely unsatisfactory, they never asked, they just jumped to conclusions. “WOW you worked for Cirque!” They wanted to use my connection to the biggest Circus in the world to spin the story. even though I don’t particularly hold the experience in any exceptional regard.
On the other hand, they painted an “oh poor them” portrait of us, which in my view, didn’t serve us or the issue that was plaguing us. When I asked if there was some way to find a voice for this specific issue, they told me that their publishers didn’t want to be political.
It was a “tug on your heart strings” puff piece.
In one video they said that Grace spoke 5 languages, but, in reality, she only speaks three. After much thought I decided to own their article. YES, I am a star clown and my daughter is now working on her other two languages. So, in some twisted way they managed to create some objectives for us and i am thankful for their support.
Ultimately the article on ARD did nothing to address the existential problem of finding a place to live during a pandemic. No recommendations on places we could go or how to tackle the ridiculously obese rent scenario this city’s leaders have allowed to evolve. My first question during the pandemic was “If this is about proteting the vulnerable, why not suspend the property ownership and rental paradigm during this crisis? Why not get the banks and property owners to float the costs? It’s not as if they cant afford it”
Before the article was presented on national television, a freind suggested that we approach THBM. She said that they had a yard we should be able to lock down in. She said this on the facebook feed of someone who had shared one of my posts. I wouldn’t have seen it had I not gone looking to see who had shared my Facebook request for assistance.
I decided to approach THBM and, after a meeting, they extended their resources to Grace and I. For a few months we were parked in their front parking lot.
I decided to install a green screen in the bus so that I could do monthly livestreams and teach on line classes during the pandemic to make money. It was surprisingly successful. Cramped, but successful.
Necessity has always been the mother of invention.
Three months later, on March 27th, 2021, I got permission to build a wood box measuring 6m x 2m x 3m tall, 100 meters from the bus to store all of my installation and art materials. I had created a lot of elements for the Wagon village festival. I called it “The Box”
THBM had a garbage dumpster in front of their building and every day the companies working inside were throwing out perfectly good timber and other materials that would have cost a fortune if I had had to purchase them. I started to accumulate the best stuff in “The Box”.
The stuff had no value to anyone else, but it was a gold mine to me. Over the course of the time we were there I recovered over €5000 in studs, road case wheels, electrical cable and a variety of other valuable supplies that had all been disposed of as garbage.
It amazed me to no end what people would throw away. Used once for a show and then dumped in the dumpster.
Even our cultural undertakings are overwhelmed by the creation of garbage and waste.
My life long dream of creating a sustainable art installation, built from found materials, was slowly becoming a reality.
In April, they gave me permission to move into the backyard. You could see Berlin’s signature landmark, the Fernsehturm (TV Tower)from the right angle. It was only 900 meters away as the crow flies.
We really were in the heart of the city.
It was dreamlike. The sort of thing that only happens in movies.
It was all at once fantastical and perplexing. All of a sudden we had been plucked out of disaster and placed in this massive serene garden setting, alone, in the geographical center of Germany’s capital city.
We had access to power, water, toilets and a bath tub once a week.
It was a little piece of the country for our bus in the heart of a major city. A unique event that could only have occurred because of the compassion displayed by the CEO of the facility. Close to ur departure from the space, he got into trouble for showing us compassion during a crisis. It makes you wonder what goes on in some people’s minds. I often ask myself, “Where did the love go?”
FOr the two years we were there, I had been placed on the staff as a “cleaner”. For the first four months they gave me a wage which helped to make ends meet after all the jobs had dried up.
After my four month stint ended, I continued to do the work as a cleaner with the understanding that the value of my 40 hours of work per month was €450.
The “rent” and electricity was taken “in kind” at a value of €150/mo.. I actually had a credit of €300 a month for the work I had done. At one point I traded some of that for space in the facility for my clown workshop, but the pandemic made it impossible to get students.
The weather warmed, the pandemic waned and summer came, but uncertainty was still everywhere. There was no rush to leave. Discussions with the CEO made it apparent that we had at least a year.
I decided to make the best of it and started devising how Busland 6.0 would work and how I could use this opportunity to springboard us towards a permanent location.
Every waking hour became about preparations, producing a budget and planning the move to a permanent location, if one could be found.
I have never been one to dilly dally.
Busland at the end of our first party celebrating Grace’s birthday. The bus acted as a barricade against prying eyes. Mind the mess, it was always usually very tidy.
There was always this over arching feeling what I was doing was illegal, because, in reality it was. You are not allowed to live a vehicle in Germany, even if it is the only option you have. No other affordabl options were being made available to us no matter where I looked. I had no real wages except the grants the state was handing out and payment for classes and shows that I did on line. The way I saw it, this was our only option. It was a most excellent option and as long as I was respectful of my neighbours, didn’t make too much noise and kept the place tidy, I didn’t expect to get any complaints.
And I didn’t
My objective was to make Busland version 6.0 an immaculate location that people would love to visit. I started musing how this could potentially become a permanent situation if I played my cards right.
I knew the place had a use by date. But that had not been set. I figured a couple of years, but, if I could wiggle my way into the hearts of the facility staff and the surrounding neighborhood, perhaps Busland could finally became a fixture on the Berlin urban landscape.
It could become a symbol to anyone who passed by that another, less expensive, sustainable and ecologically friendly option for residence was available. If the state could pass legislation to make vacant lands available, the need to pay obscenely overpriced rents would be removed from domestic budgets allowing families to get on with the real business of living.
On September 26, 2021, during the city election, the public voted an overwhelming 56% in favour of expropriating vacant apartments and properties from major real estate corporations. Part of that referendum including limiting the amount of property a private corporation could own.
But before we could see any progress on that front, the election was upended by claims of fraud and any chance we had of seeing that vote implemented as policy, evaporated.
I often wonder what our children will have to contend with. It strikes me as a kind of ‘intergenerational tyranny” that will chain them to simply staying alive and never having he chance to own place of their own if they are not born into money and do not come from a family of privilege.
My credo had become “Don’t eat the children”
On November 14th, 8 months after setting down in the yard, I had my first “event”. I invited all my friends to my 60th Birthday.
Music got played, jokes got told, food got eaten, and drinks got drunk. There were a lot of kids, so Grace had a ball showing off her rooftop room.
The floor of the tent was dirt.
I had a fire pit outside and people moved between the two locations. At one point a little dance party erupted in the tent which made me see that this idea, the same idea I had birthed in 2018 could be viable as a “mini venue”.
My design mind took over from there. I didn’t know how much time I had left. The clock was ticking.
In May I got “permission”, (more of a nod of the head from the Hausmeister, nothing written down of course) to put up the small 2 m x 6 m workshop tent that had originally built in Mannheim back in 2017, so that I could get back to work and not get rained on.
This time I hung it off the roof of the bus which gave me a 3 meter high ceiling, enough to hang a green screen.
I started to re-assemble my art projects with a view to slowly installing them inside the tent and around the bus.
I designed and built a pop up room on the roof of the bus so that Grace could have her own space. Heat from the oven would rise up and make the room toasty. The Roof was made of heavy vinyl so it trapped the heat very well. I built it with the knowledge that one day we would have to leave so it would have to fold back down.
Everything in the room sits at a maximum height of 50 cm, so that when the roof is folded down, nothing has to be moved except for a cabinet and toys that might be lying around.
The last project I mounted from November 2022 until April 2023 at Busland 6.0 was fittingly called “Exit Strategy”. It recounted my family history and how my daughter and I came to live in this magical place in the center of Berlin. It was full of comedy, drama, tragedy, music and song. Grace even sang with me on stage. This is the trailer I create for the event.
I spent the better part of 2023 doing pre production for a 10 part series of films I want to make called “Busland”. Yes, it’s a tv show based on all of the colourful people, vehicles and experiences I have been blessed to be a part of over my life time.
As part of my “pitch process” I made this trailer. I hope you enjoy it. With any luck I can turn this adventure into an inspiring story that you can stream into the comfort of your own, possibly overpriced, home.
See you at Busland!