Karl Mackie Photography | Journal

Karl Mackie is a surfer, photographer, craftsman & owner of Mackie Studio, the creative branding agency based on the coast of Cornwall UK.

Why that little caravan taught me everything I didn’t know!

Why that little caravan taught me everything I didn’t know! | A tale of making choices and living simply | Karl Mackie Photography

A taster for things to come

I grew up in a small town 20 miles outside of Bristol in the UK, which was approximately 34 miles from Weston Super Mare beach or 114 miles from a clean ocean we could all enjoy swimming in. In the case of my family, this was a 2hr car journey to North Devon and Westword Ho!.

Some of my earliest and favourite memories are of watching my Dad swim (seemingly) far out to sea and then power back to shore, sometimes he did this with me on his back, my Mum and younger siblings would be camped out in the pebble dens above the shore. We would stride on up the beach, ready to eat the packed lunch prepared earlier, we also had a Border Collie who would break away to chase the farmers sheep at any given opportunity, striking us all with dread in case the farmer got a hold of her or worse still she got hold of a poor sheep!

Those carefree days seemed to be every weekend in my young mind, and at some point, my parents bought a large static caravan in Westwood Ho! Finally, we had a real base, somewhere to stay whenever we wanted to! This meant more time to explore and we became locally familiar with the town, my siblings and I particularly looked forward to the Nickerbocker Glories in Wimpy, playing the ‘slot’ machines or dodging the waves at high tide as they crashed against the wall! We also loved exploring Bideford and Clovelly. It was a very fortunate home away from home but…for whatever reason we never made that move permanent and as we all got a little older, the caravan was sold and life started to take on a very different shape.

Fast forward to my late teens and freedom. I was driving from 17 years old and the first thing I did was take off at any opportunity I could with a car full of friends to surf, we discovered the North Devon (now hot spots) like Saunton, Croyde and Putsbough. Braunton was a revelation, a perfect little surf town, we would always drop in at ‘Chaplin’s’ for a coffee after a surf — without fail! The bonus of Bristol is it’s closeness to the surf beaches of Devon, and in the summer months it was completely possible to drive down in the evening for a surf, either sleep in the car and surf again come morning, or head home that night! It was basically accessible at last.

My first board was a ‘Lazer’ and proudly stood in my bedroom alongside the girly posters of the time and my collection of Anne Rice vampire books.

This would be the board I rode at Llangennith beach in Wales for the first time, an early morning phone call to Pete Jones ‘Your roving surf reporter’ would tell us the conditions for the visit and that was doable quicker than Devon, from what I remember its a beautiful surf there!


Things progress and it wasn’t long before I and my friends were all proudly riding Gulf Stream surfboards, this is a testament to how bloody good Gulf Stream Surfboards are when they are just as relevant today as they were back then! As friends, we were also branching out, I had hooked up with a bunch of older guys who I worked with, they were a part of the classic ‘Green Room’ surf team, a surf shop based in Bristol’s Park Street. They all drove kitted out vans and surfed Newquay and so from here on in, Newquay became my newfavourite place to surf, it was van life before #vanlife and it was brilliant!


The UK surfs turned into travels overseas with frequent trips to the north shore of Fuerteventura, I remember being sat in the hire car looking out at the giant waves of ‘The Bubble’ a reef break on the island, getting myself pumped to paddle out! My brother equally pumped, goading me into the paddle out, the pair of us living incarnations of Beavis and Butthead. Truth is at that point myself and my friends were no where near ready to cut our teeth on that wave but not knowing is sometimes better and a no fear balls to the wall attitude is there for the taking when you are 19-20!.

The weekend warrior

Behind the scenes though, I was no more than a passionate weekend warrior like so many other landlocked surfers. I was studying design at Bristol College and working hard in-between, surfing with friends was purely an outlet. 
The other part of me was a dedicated and ambitious creative, from very early on, I knew I wanted to work overseas and I knew I wanted to climb the ladder fast, it wasn’t long before I found myself graduating and starting my first job, and not long after that, flying to LA for a job interview at Burbank Studios. Naturally, I made sure I was holed up in a motel on the beach in Santa Monica just so I could surf off the pier.


The USA thing didn’t work out long term and with no regrets I returned. Back in the UK, I switched up my career path, working my way up through various agencies until I reached a point where I was working on high-end brands and holding a level of responsibility way beyond my young years.

I never faltered in my love for the ocean though and surfing was always everything, but in between work and life I had all but buried the idea of it being anything more than a weekend outlet — but there is a turning point for everyone. Mine came in the way of an expensive wake-up call!.


Change is coming

I had bought a house, I had a girl, I had a nice car on the drive, a black Jeep Wrangler, I had always wanted one from back when I was a kid and Lee Majors was the Fall Guy! and hell why not, I could afford it, but…there was that wake up call, one day while I was driving, I suddenly looked at myself from within and thought ‘You look like a right plonker, driving this huge black jeep around in your small, landlocked town’ so after only 7 months I sold it and I went back to what I knew best, an old Peugeot 405 estate, a car I could gladly chuck boards and wetsuit in and get sandy!.

Next up was my career, It was yet another Friday night and I was still at my agency, 11 pm at night was not unusual to be still be working, the hours were insane, it was more live to work than work to live and though I had wanted this, I had worked hard to get here, I was done!.

I knew something needed to change, a friend introduced me to freelancing at a well-known agency that produces books and magazines, I left my current agency with their blessing and a day later I began freelancing in the world of magazines and to my surprise I loved it. The passion and excitement from the whole team on producing something each month was addictive and I happily freelanced for a further 6–12 months. But those salty ambitions never left and so it was on May 22nd 2003 I finished my job. Paid up my debts, rented my home out and bought a caravan for £450.00!.
I towed it 175 miles down the M5, then onto the A30 where I arrived at my destination! My address for the foreseeable future would be; Trebellan Park, Newquay, Cornwall, UK! Essentially my new home, complete with awning would be parked at the bottom of the field in front of the fishing lake!.

Why that little caravan taught me everything I didn’t know! | A tale of making choices and living simply | Yate to Newquay map | Karl Mackie Photography

Stripping back for a richer experience

My last day of agency life was on May 22nd 2003, I left the town I had grown up in with a surfboard, wetsuit, laptop, camera and a bag of clothes. Two days later I was picking fruit for a living, and two weeks after that I was pulling pints in Newquay town centre.

I soon began to structure my days in a manner that meant every hour was accounted for. Mornings felt like holidays, something about being in a caravan perhaps! Waking up to the Cornish radio surf report was absolutely brilliant! as was wandering up to the bathroom for a shower, such small things meant so much, it was quite strange! My new working life behind the bar, began in the evenings which left the daytime hours to surf and to explore the area around my new home.

From basecamp, It was a short walk to the beach and one of the best surf spots around in Holywell Bay and neighbouring Penhale Sands and these were the two spots I frequented the most. There were many carefree days of setting up on the beach to surf, eat, rest, surf etc…in fact to date I still rode some of the best waves of my life in that period particularly in Penhale corner during the winter month of February.


It would be perhaps more interesting to write about how I couldn’t adjust to this life, but the truth is I could — quite easily, living simply just came naturally. I chose not to have electric hook up, most likely to save money, instead I relied on a leisure battery for my essentials and candles for evening reading etc…my diet became incredibly simple, mostly centred around salads, baked potatoes, fish and chicken. Fitness came quickly and more naturally than before, my finances had never been so low, but I was living my new torn down lifestyle and they became relative to how I was living. My possessions were stripped back to barely anything at all and again, this came naturally, there was never a point where I wanted more. I was too busy enjoying the outdoors and everything Cornwall has to offer.

Space began a challenge! Having lived in a 3 bedroom semi in my previous life this was something I expected to be an issue, but I just got clever with the way I lived, and routines were crucial, wake up, flip bed into a table, make breakfast, wash up, wash self, get creative, go to work, flip table into a bed and repeat etc…

I kept my hand in the agency game during the caravan years freelancing whenever the financial need arose or if I was asked to work on something I found inspiring I would jump at it, one of the projects proposed to me was to be part of a team that would create a brand new magazine and that was the only time I returned to Bristol for 2 weeks solid to work. I missed the excitement of being in a team and those times were welcomed.

Why that little caravan taught me everything I didn’t know! | A tale of making choices and living simply | Surfers at south fistral | Karl Mackie Photography

‘Without doubt one of the most important aspects of the caravan years was once again, picking up a camera. It was during this time I revisited my 35mm days and I bought a 1978 Canon AV-1 camera from a local car boot sale and I began to shoot prolifically’

What followed was 2 years of documentation of life on film. My friends and I even made a short surf film using the very first incarnation of the GoPro camera, we’ll never know if it was any good as there are no traces of that film left! But I do remember gaffer taping the camera to my surfboard to record surfing this tiny wave at Fistral Beach!

I happily resided in that little caravan, with the flies and the Jack Daniels on optics (seemed cool at the time) for a lot longer than I had ever planned, living simply with a minimal set up of surfboards, cameras, wetsuits, drawing pads and a head full of ideas until I had gotten out of my system, everything that led me to take up that lifestyle in the first place! It was ‘absolutely’ the best thing I had ever done and I will always be grateful that I was able to do so in the first place.

Fistral cliff path
Why that little caravan taught me everything I didn’t know! | A tale of making choices and living simply | Newquay big waves spot is the Cribbar | Karl Mackie Photography

What did I learn from all of this?

  • Those seaside trips as a child installed something very special.

  • Where I wanted to be and how I wanted to live my life.

  • I did not need ‘things’ to make me happy, thats what memories are for.

  • That the great outdoors was indeed, my calling.

  • Living in Cornwall is absolutely beautiful.

  • A broader perspective on consumerism..

  • How richer life is when meeting people from all walks of life.

  • Naturally, less will always be more in every walk of life.

  • Working in a bar is one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

  • You can learn to love and live with the flies during hot summers.

  • That surfing is my fuel for inspiration in every aspect of life.

I never left Cornwall, or ever intend to and yes!, I live in a real house now, with a real job and responsibilities, but that’s absolutely ok! I have no desires to ‘drop off’ or live in a caravan in a field again…though, never say never!