Many of us have thoughts and ideas about how we might escape into an adventure somewhere, but like many, the conjured reality in the mind often prevents us from taking steps outside our comfort zones. For a while, it’s easy to find excuses but as, one by one, these start to disappear, you are suddenly faced with the real possibility of having to follow through. Such was the case recently.
I knew I wanted to travel around a bit more, but with my love of vehicular transport, it had to be more adventure vehicle than public transport. Furthermore, 14 years of self-imposed social exile wasn’t easy to brush off. The sort of thing I imagined, was this:
But then, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be in a group. I thought about going it alone in something ex-military. Four-wheel drive and good ground clearance with large enough accommodation to live in. Something a bit more robust and secure than a tent. The first vehicle that I discovered back in 2002 that met the criteria, was a Russian Gaz-66 from a site called ‘Tanks For Sale’.
I also thought about adding a workshop in the form of a 4-wheel steer trailer:
There were a few drawbacks to these vehicles. Although they had that purposeful, rugged look I liked, they barely managed 15 mpg and a top speed of about 60 mph if you were lucky… and driving them was probably an experience in itself, since they only had the most basic of interior comforts. In fact, to even use the term ‘comfort’ in any description of these dinosaurs is potentially oxymoronic. In the past, a couple of my cars parked in a shared yard with my neighbours had just about scuffed acceptability, but at something in the order of 18 feet in length and around 8 feet in height, it wasn’t going to be easy to hide the Gaz in a corner. I also considered 4×4 regular trucks and self-building my own back end accommodation… or failing that, getting a Jeep or Land Rover conversion – something smaller that would be easier to live with on a day to day basis and usable in Britain’s, often cramped, villages and towns.
Through Pinterest and also learning that these vehicles actually had the name ‘expedition vehicles’, I discovered more of them. By now, I reckoned that a Unimog conversion (bottom right) would probably serve me best. It was big enough to carry accommodation but small enough to be driven unobtrusively anywhere on a daily basis.
However, reality struck again when I realised how expensive these vehicles were and also how sought after. I kept searching the Internet and in particular, eBay. I came up with a few possibilities, but they were either too expensive or didn’t have the right back boxes for accommodation conversion. Since I had decided that four-wheel drive was my essential baseline, I decided to run new searches using that criteria. This narrowed things down a lot and certainly made searching faster. What started to show up were various variants of Volkswagen campers, Mazda Bongo’s, Toyota’s and Nissan’s. It gradually dawned on me that I already knew a couple of people who owned Mazda Bongo’s and I recalled how much they said they liked them. One suddenly appeared locally, so to cut the story short, I arranged a visit to view… and bought it.
In addition to some suggestions from the seller about fitting a water level alarm on the expansion tank, I did a bit of further research. The water level alarm turned out to be a popular addition, along with immobilizers and trackers. I also had the driver’s side sill renewed, and although not essential for its remaining 11 months of MOT, I nevertheless decided it would be one less thing to bother with the following year. I also had the van looked over by my mechanics on a ramp and everything, apart from a slight weep on a front off-side shock absorber, was deemed fine. I had the flat, spare wheel tyre refitted by my tyre people for a tenner and did one or two other small jobs. However, for the first 3 weeks of ownership, other things took up my time and I wasn’t actually able to go anywhere in the van. (I call it a van, since it is actually classed as an 8-seater multi-purpose vehicle or MPV. Apart from the raising roof tent, there is no camper conversion – see more on this below).
Another thing I discovered, was that Mazda Bongo’s have quite a developing following and a growing network of advice, clubs, and spares. Originally privately imported from Japan, by individual’s and not by commercial dealers, these vehicles have started to get the sort of status normally associated with VW Campers of the 60s and 70s. For a vehicle now 20 years old, mine seems in pretty good condition… and I have to add here, that the James Bond style (see ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, Karl Stromberg’s sea palace, ‘Atlantis’) electric window blinds are pretty neat too.
As someone who has camped under canvas and also had a few different caravan types in the past, I realised quite early on, you don’t need much to survive quite comfortably. Seasoned caravaners would probably disagree with me, but I really can’t see why a fitted kitchen with sink, a big cooker and big fridge, is really so necessary. All I need is a plastic washing-up bowl, a small suitcase gas cooker, and a 240VAC/12VDC portable cooler. Anything more, in a relatively small space, simply takes up room and adds weight. This is one reason why I like my Mazda being devoid of a full conversion. It preserves its utilitarian practicality whilst offering comfortable accommodation when required. So far, the only additions that I may invest in are a removable table and a side awning tent.
An inaugural visit to Filey, North Yorkshire (as it was forecast to have two hot, sunny days, together) went seamlessly, with the van performing well.
Experiments with interior layout and roof up or down suggested that for one person, you couldn’t get much better. As someone with an interest in survival skills and associated equipment, I often find that I tend to take more than I actually need, let alone use. Sometimes, covering every eventuality isn’t really necessary – particularly if one is within a short distance of modern-day population. With this in mind, I decided to make some notes of what I actually used and found useful, and what I could have done with, if I’d thought to bring it, or them, with me.
The first surprise, was how pleased I was that I had taken my computer laptop as well as a smart phone. This gave me access to all my usual activity, helped pass the later part of the evenings, and enabled me to email a few photos, in addition to anything uploaded by mobile. Since I was on a regular camp site (for this first test trip) I also had access to WiFi, albeit unsecured. Although I didn’t manage to connect on the first evening, by the second day I’d sorted it. If I needed to log in to anything more important, I switched to my own secure data via a tether hot-spot to my phone.
The second surprise was how quick I could make toast – or at least I’d forgotten this from past usage. I have a little wire trapezoid toasting frame that lies across the gas burner. After slightly burning the first toast, in the time it took to reach into the van for my cup of tea, I realised it only took 12 seconds per side. Of all the gas appliances I have used, I have to say that these cheap little single burner stoves are excellent. You can get them from supermarkets for £10 and the gas cylinders last longer than you might expect.
Other things that I was grateful for included the cooler box, my shorts and sandals, some spring clips for gripping shut the van’s end curtains, extra guy ropes to secure my windbreak, and my proper camera to capture anything of interest throughout the days.
What I missed most, was not having a female companion, or for that matter, anyone to talk to or share things with. Perhaps next time, I will try a wild camping trip – simply parking up somewhere remote. Eventually, I might even try venturing abroad… but ideally, not on my own.