As a young girl, Leone O’Connell would sit at her grandmother’s knee and listen to her stories – tales of travel, adventure and being a free spirit.
Her grandmother had an EH Holden panel van and when she felt the wanderlust, she’d throw a mattress in the back and take off.
“She’d go off fossicking to places like Coober Pedy, places that women rarely went alone in those days,” Leone said.
“What I am doing now is just trying to go to all the places she told me about when I was a little girl.”
Although she has a home in Cooma which she rents out, for the past two-plus years Leone has been living in a 2001 Toyota Matilda Hilux motorhome she has named Grace, after her mother. When Region Media met up with Leone she was staying with a friend in Yass, en route to Tumut, then Wagga, then wherever the mood took her.
Today, at age 69, she spends her days exploring her country, meeting new people and having the best time. There’s just enough room in Grace for Leone and her constant companion, Zara; a 13-year-old dog who sits in the front passenger seat, harnessed in for safety. They’ve been together since Zara was nine weeks old and Leone says she “couldn’t imagine doing this without her”.
Originally from the Central Coast, Leone lived in Cooma for many years before moving to Canberra to work in the Public Service.
In 2017, she heard about a group called Rolling Solo Australia, the nation’s largest road-tripping, camping and adventure group for women. The group has an app that members use to keep in contact and help each other if needed. They may travel alone but often meet up at caravan parks or camping grounds or do tag-alongs, when they organise to travel in convoy for a while.
Prior to that, Leone and a friend had done “a lap” – a trip around Australia – and fell in love with the romance of travel.
As luck or fate would have it, Leone was at a supermarket carpark in Queanbeyan when she saw Grace.
“I had no plans to buy a motorhome, but I saw her in the carpark and by the time I came back, she had gone. Weeks later, I saw her again on the road, she passed me and I saw that she had a for sale sign on her so I chased her home. Some things are meant to be.”
By connecting with the Rollers group, Leone said she rarely feels scared travelling the country on her own.
“I suppose what cemented it for me was when I first started travelling, I heard about this woman who had broken down towing a caravan in outback Queensland. She was told it would take a week to get the part she needed to get on her way again. Turns out there was a Roller an hour away who ended up towing her van for her and then showed her around the area,” she said.
“So, rather than be stuck in the middle of nowhere for hours, she ended up getting that support from a stranger.”
Leone has been travelling in Grace for almost three years now and has only once felt nervous as a woman travelling alone. It was in Norseman, Western Australia, and she had just stopped at a roadhouse to fuel up before heading across the Nullarbor.
“This man started talking to me about Zara,” she said. “I was concentrating on filling up the van with petrol so I was a bit distracted and probably told him too much. Then, when I stopped at the next place, he was there too. I got a bit paranoid but there was this couple there and when I told them what was happening they were lovely and suggested I stay next to them.
“But I’ve never really had any dramas while travelling. I’d say I’d travel half the time on my own and the other half I’d meet up with other Rollers at a certain location. I’m not one to drive for a long time in one stretch, I like to stop every couple of hours. I’m not in a hurry anymore, I don’t have to rush anywhere. ”
Leone keeps in close contact with her three sons, two of whom live in Canberra and one in Mittagong.
“They are very supportive of what I’m doing,” she said. “I thought they might be funny about it but they reckon, like me, that I should do what I want while I still can.”
How long will she keep on driving? “For as long as I can, maybe for at least another 10 years,” she said. “Hopefully, I’ll recognise when it’s time to give it up.”
Original Article published by Sally Hopman on About Regional.