Van life: Can this blind petrol head really be happy in the slow lane?

If someone had told me 6 months ago that I would be sat outside my 20+ year-old camper van at 8 o’clock on a rainy Sunday morning in early Spring looking out at the Brecon Beacons. I’d have laughed in their face. But, here I am, pen in hand, legs wrapped in a blanket and a half-drunk cup of tea on the table next to me.

Since passing my driving test at 17 I’ve had my fair share of cars. A brace of Ford Fiestas – the second one I swapped out the interior for one from a Ghia (it even had the boot release button, but that wasn’t connected to anything!), my first Mini – an applejack green, 850 from 1979 with extremely dodgy electrics and an oil pressure gauge which doubled up as the rev counter – all these before I turned 20!

Following the Mini was a short stint in a British Racing Green Austin Metro GTa which was handed to me from my nan via my mum. This one met with a very unfortunate end on the country roads of Norfolk which I try not to talk about but my elder brother and sister insist on reminding me at least once a year.

After the Metro came a quartet of estates – Escort mk3, Polo mk1 breadvan, Astra, Escort Mk4 Ghia – and then a lovely little Peugeot 106 XSi given to us as a wedding present from my brother. This was his pride and joy which he’d had for years and had even driven it to Prague and back. For me it was a bit of a white elephant after it overheated driving home from London on my eldest’s 4th birthday meaning I missed her party so I could be towed home from Membury services. This resulted in a new head gasket and then not long after it was back up-and-running I had a bit of an incident on a very wet morning in heavy traffic on the M4 near Slough. I will never understand how I missed every other car on the road and only hit the central reservation when the brakes locked on an extremely wet road. At this point she almost got written off but, as the chassis was still straight, I was able to rebuild her with a new bumper, front wing and door before she finally gave up a few months later when the crankshaft seized approaching a roundabout on the Lower Earley bypass.

After this came a Renault Clio, low mileage, reliable but I banged my head on the roof every time I came off the M25 at Heathrow and went over a dip on the slip-road on my daily commute to Staines. Then, After getting my first bonus, things became serious when I traded the Clio for another VW – this time a Bora TDi in metallic grey with black interior and stunning 5-spoke alloys. I ran the Bora for 8 years and well over 100,000 miles before eventually trading up for a silver Saab 9-3 2.2 TDi sport.

The Saab only lasted a couple of months when I discovered there was a problem with the gearbox so she was swiftly traded up for the last car I will ever drive – a beautiful blue-grey Jaguar XF-S 3.0 litre V6 with ivory interior. The Jag (or Jaaag to use its proper name) used to purr along the motorway, effortlessly eating up the miles and,when I fancied a bit of fun, her claws would come out when I got to the windy stuff and, selecting sport, pressing the chequered flag button to engage Dynamic mode and then flipping back on the flappy paddles to switch her to manual. Despite being a heavy saloon car, she handled beautifully, providing hours of fun before finally dropping back into drive and settling back for that smooth driving experience that Jags are renowned for.

I had that car for 5 years before stopping driving. Not long after that we got the dog so it was simply no longer feasible to have a car without a large boot any more. As a result, she was replaced with a nearly-new XF Sportbrake bought online during lockdown. Things were never really the same after that and, even though Kath loved driving it, I could tell it wasn’t really her cup of tea so when discussing our mobility options for the future with 2 large dogs and a family it was clear we needed something more utilitarian and van shaped. After months of debate about what would be the best thing to meet our needs we finally settled on a Volkswagen Caravelle which has all the gadgets we’ve become accustomed to with the space we need and the convenience of being Kath’s daily drive.

So how did we get from a comfortable, modern Volkswagen to a 23-year-old campervan imported from Japan?

To be fair, Kath arrived at this conclusion way before I did as she’s always been keen on the outdoor life and the ability to just pick up and leave at a moment’s notice. I’ve always been much more of a boutique hotel or B&B kind of guy – my dream was to have a comfortable grand tourer such as a an Aston DB9 once the kids had both flown the nest, but life hasn’t panned out that way and I’ve come round to her way of thinking with enthusiasm.

But why an aging Mazda called Wanda and not a VW camper?

When we finally agreed the camper was the way to go, we started looking at the many Transporter conversions available and soon decided that, no matter how good the conversion, it was still basically a works van with a kitchen and a bed fitted in the back. Now, I’m sure many VW Transporter fans will take Umbridge at this and everyone is entitled to their own opinions but, for us, there were two problems with the Transporter conversion option – the cost (for a good one you are looking at a minimum of £30,000) and, more importantly, Volkswagen’s factory-built California Ocean. These are beautiful vans with so many design elements that it’s quite clear why they are £70,000 new and a good second-hand one is typically around £40,000-£50,000 depending on age and mileage.

This is the benefit of the Bongo – it’s cheap, has many of the design elements of a VW conversion and, best of all, has a cult following akin to the original 1960’s VW Camper.

I can’t say for sure that we would never have got the van if I hadn’t lost my sight but being accepted on the Guide Dogs programme has definitely been a key factor. But it’s more than that, I’ve talked before about how going blind has changed my perspective on many things, not least the value of being able to escape the rat race, even if just for a few hours.

Only a few days ago, Kath summarised it perfectly – since becoming blind, I have become more and more isolated. I have strict routines, structured days and limited places I travel to alone. If I want to go somewhere different, then it usually takes days of planning and if there’s a sudden change due to an emergency or a cancellation then I am often reliant on others to help.

This really is the benefit of the camper – the freedom it provides. If we have a few hours spare we can hop in and head off or if we fancy a weekend away, then the essentials are already packed and ready to go. For Kath, she’s not really been one for fast, expensive cars (that was my thing). She used to enjoy driving the Jags and even the BMW we had recently was a marvel of technology but the van suits her best. Every time the engine fires up she has a huge grin on her face (especially if the low coolant warning buzzer stays off!) and she loves to bimble along the roads. Unlike the cars, the dog is more than happy to hop in the side door and curl up on his mat or peer out of the window as we pootle along whilst William plays DJ.

It also gives me something to play with because I’ve already leant that there is always something to tweak. This means I’m learning ways to adapt the way I work to cater for my poor eyesight, but that’s part of the fun.

So there you go, that’s how we went from a nearly new Jag to a 23 year-old camper in less than 6 months and I tell you what, I couldn’t be happier!

*Wanda update*

Since finishing this piece, we have finally found the reason why we are having to constantly top up the coolant. There is a cracked hose which on its own is a relatively easy fix. The bigger worry is the cause of the crack – extremely high compression and exhaust gasses seeping into the coolant system. After further diagnostics it looks like there may be a crack somewhere either in the head or in the block itself so, Wanda’s next excursion will be a 400 mile round trip on the back of a truck to Halifax where the team at will swap out her engine. Not quite the trip we were hoping for but hopefully she’ll be back with us in time for a bank holiday break to the south coast.

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