Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

02 January 2007

Highland Combi Adventure 2006

Rannoch Moor I
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.

Half term, October 2006: one van purchase later, we set off to the Highlands again for a re-run of Highland Combi Adventure 2005 in order to test out our new VW T5.

The van drove brilliantly and zoomed up the motorway just as easily as our car. We rejoiced at the differences between this trip and our trip in Hectar the 1970s VW combi which we had hired in 2005- although Hectar was loveable, we really appreciated not having to wear every item of clothing we had with us; not having to sit with our hands draped over the dashboard heaters for the whole journey; and not needing endless fried breakfasts /cups of tea / fish and chips to stay warm (OK, maybe that last bit was a good thing). Admittedly the new van of dreams doesn’t look anywhere near as good as Hectar in photos, but overall we were really pleased with it.

Highland Combi Adventure 2006 itinerary:

Day 1: London to Yorkshire to stay with mum in Silkstone overnight. Gave mum the guided tour of the van, which took all of about 5 minutes (tops). She made suitably impressed noises – whether that was because she was actually impressed or simply because she was relieved that the new van is more reliable looking than Hectar, we were not sure.

Day 2: After lunch at the Potting Shed, we headed up through the Yorkshire Dales towards the Lake District, with the aim of sussing out areas where we might potentially buy a house post-RTW2007.

We hadn't even got through North Yorkshire when we realised that we were running low on diesel. We hit a series of towns and villages in which the petrol stations had all closed down. After one minor panic (think what we would have been like had we been in Kazakhstan instead of Catterick...) and one resolution to fill up our jerry cans ASAP at the next opportunity, we set off again through the beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Michael took over the driving as we turned off the main road towards a house on a farming lane which we had seen advertised by one of the estate agents. Within 20 seconds of arriving at the house, we were stuck in a ditch. The perfectly innocent looking grass verge was in fact a bog and our front right wheel instantly sank deep into the mud. Michael got out our spade, only to discover that our efforts to be well prepared by carrying a spade had been ruined by the fact that we had a chosed a folding spade which collapsed upon contact with even the softest ground. So we were not going to be able to dig ourselves out. Michael gathered flat stones and pieces of wood to lodge under the front wheel to give some traction, but to no avail. We had no phone reception, so no AA to the rescue, though we will have to get used to that given the countries we are going to. And it was getting dark very quickly.

Michael sprinted off to the next farm and came back with the farmer and his wife. The burly Yorkshire farmer in his rubber trousers prodeeded to make us feel completely usless by getting stuck in with much gusto and far more success than we had managed, directing digging and reversing in a compeltely unflappable manner. Eventually, after Michael's ankles had been snapped at by the farmer's many dogs, one of which got so far as to bite a hole in his sock, we eventually managed to get out of the mud. We had nothing to thank the farmer with other than three cans of continental lager, which he unsurprisingly didn't seem to impressed by. But at least we were out. The owner of the house we had been looking at was no doubt delighted to come home to the enormous hole we had left in the grass verge.....

Having had our first experience of why four wheel drive is a very very good plan, and having been left wondering what on earth we would have done had we been in the middle of nowhere in the Uzbek desert when we got stuck in the mud, we continued our journey to Dent for some food and some good Yorkshire bitter from the Dent brewery to cheer us up.

Day 3: A quick drive to Sedbergh to look around and drive past the school (still thinking about houses and jobs for post RTW2007); a picnic just outside Kendal; and then a drive on to Kendal to do some shopping in Booths and pop in for a cup of tea with George and Margaret at Kendal Green. We heard about their holiday to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and picked their brains about moving to Kendal, local houses and schools etc, before driving off towards Scotland.

We managed to find the unfriendliest campsite in the world, which refused to let us stay for no apparent reason other than general grumpiness, but we were saved by the owner of a hotel in Tarbet who let us park in his car park alongside all of the old people's Wallace Arnold coaches - oh, the glamour.

Day 4: Tarbet to Fort William. Breakfast in Crianlarich; then a drive to Fort William for delicious hot roasts in warm rolls; followed by the purchase of some new walking boots for Helen and a short walk around Ben Nevis to test them out.

Day 5: An early start for the drive to up the beatuiful Great Glen to Loch Lochy, for Helen's first attempt at a Munro. Meall na Teanga is on the north-west side of Loch Lochy, just north of the Laggan Swing Bridge, near Kilfinnan. The mountain is part of the range above the forest which runs alongside the loch. Its only about 3011 feet on a fairly worn path, making it one of the easier Munros, but you climb up all the way from sea level and that it quite enough for a first timer. It was bitterly cold and the tomato soup in a flask which we had made in the van was very welcome. Progress was fairly slow and Helen decided that a power nap (in the middle of the path, halfway up the Munro!) would help with progress, which indeed it did. We had some great views on the way up, though the summit was shrouded in mist and there was no view at all from up there.

On the way down, we saw three RAF jets doing test runs down the length of the Great Glen, which is quite a sight against such a spectacular background, especially from the forest path where the jet felt incredibly close and certainly was close enough for us to be able to see the pilot. We also saw the jets refuelling from a Nimrod in formation, which again is incredibly skillful.

After the walk we headed off for fish and chips in Fort Augustus; a quick look at Castle Urquhart, which looks pretty spectacular lit up at night; a glance at a house for sale in Drumnadrochit (rather too close to the Nessie tourist tat for our liking); and then onto Bunchrew campsite just outside Inverness.

Day 6: Inverness and the Black Isle. The weather today was reportedly the worst in the Highlands for seven years, with flooding and strong gales. We wandered around Inverness and then went over to the Black Isle towards the "beautiful" village of Cromarty. Unfotunately, the rather extreme weather meant that our visit was tinged with fear of death (well, maybe not quite that bad). It was blowing a gale and lashing rain. On the drive back, we came across upturned trees across the middle of the road, forcing us to turn around, and also an overturned van. Lovely. But a late night visit to Hootenanny's and the classy Cactus Jack's in Inverness cheered us up somewhat.

Day 7: Another day in Inverness, including viewing a house in the Crown District; a long walk by the river to the Ness Islands and back via the Caledonian Canal; and lots of visits to Starbucks to warm up.

Day 8: From the campsite just south of Inverness, we took a detour to Loch Morlich, then went up Cairngorm mountain (the cheating way on the funicular railway) and got interviewed by some bloke who tape recorded our pearls of wisdom on how they should improve the "Cairngorm Experience".

We then went back down to Aviemore via Loch Morlich and started the seemingly endless drive back to mum's in Yorkshire via Perth, the Forth Road Bridge, a scary trip to Lindisfarne Island in the dark (avec ghosts) and endless stretches of barren Northumberland wilderness.....

Day 9: Yorkshire to London and the end of Highland Combi Adventure 2006.

This is our last test post..... roll on 6th April 2007 (start of RTW2007) and more particularly 10th April 2007 (ferry from Newcastle to Bergen).....

First night in the van of dreams

There really isn’t much to say about our trip to Southend-on-Sea. Having decided that we wanted to test sleeping in the new van, we thought that the coast might make a good overnight trip and Michael suggested Southend, thinking that it would be fairly easy to get to from London. We stupidly decided to set off on Saturday morning and promptly got stuck in horrendous traffic for a couple of hours on the way out of London. Hopefully not a sign of things to come in the new van. And when we got there, it quickly became apparent that for us, Southend doesn’t have much to commend it – a fun fair; a lot of noisy children / pikey teenagers; and a scary campsite at which they topped their resolute unfriendliness, narky signs and expensive prices by barking over the tannoy at their “guests” in the morning, reading out rules and telling them all that the Daily Mail had arrived. Not one to be repeated.

Notwithstanding Southend, we loved the van. It is a dream to drive; unlike Hectar it is (touch wood) wind and water proof; we managed to cook both dinner and breakfast the next day in relative comfort; and having worked out the basics (like how to convert the back seat into a bed / how to fill up with water / how to plug into electricity), we warmed to our new home on wheels straight away.

So, after a wander around Southend; fish and chips on the beach; our first overnight stay in the van; and a drive out to Michael’s former childhood residence in Burnham-on-Crouch just across the water, we headed back into London and started planning a more substantial test trip for the van – Highland Combi Adventure 2006.

Purchasing the van of dreams

VW T5 Badge
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
We spent ages weighing up which vehicle to buy, the standard debate for this kind of trip being Land Rover versus Toyota Land Cruiser (have they all forgotten about Hectar the 1970s VW combi as a "reliable" companion?) and looked at lots of options at the NEC. We eventually opted for an updated version of the van which we had test driven during our first Highland Combi Adventure: the VW T5.

Romantic old school van (as per our original plan) it is not. Rugged four wheel drive Land Rover (as per everyone else's advice) it is not. So it is probably a rubbish choice. Nonethless, we convinced ourselves that it is better to have something newer and (hopefully) more reliable than Hectar if we are to make it much further than the UK and that we can justify sacrificing the Land Rover for a proper bed (as opposed to a roof tent), heating, a fridge and a bit of home-from-home comfort (I say a bit - everything is relative). Whether this is revealed to be a really, really poor decision, only time will tell - ask us again when we get stuck in the middle of nowhere with no four wheel drive, and / or we break down with no parts readily available, and/ or the van gets stolen because it just doesn't look decrepit enough....

We plumped for an off road grey VW T5 converted into a "Celex" model by Bilbos (http://www.bilbos.com/). We made a few changes to the standard spec (really exciting stuff like losing the grill in favour of an extra drawer, given that storage is at a premium, and adding diesel air heating for the cold months in Scandinavia and Russia etc) and then ordered our van. No technical modifications at this stage - quite frankly we don't know enough about any vehicle, let alone the T5, to know what is necessary for a trip like ours. Given the number of techie sounding changes which other people on long overland trips have made to their already more rugged Land Rovers, this feels more than a little worrying.

The fact that the T5 is about the size of a builder's van and we are supposed to live in it for a year made no difference to our enthusiasm. We took delivery; played around with the various features of the van for a bit; wondered where on earth we are going to keep everything; and then got so over excited about spending our first night in the van that we set off on a test drive to....... Southend-on-Sea. Why wouldn't you? Where could be more romantic???

Highland Combi Adventure 2005

Half term, October 2006: the test trip that started it all.

Having seen an old VW surfer-style camper van chugging up the motorway one day, we started to ponder the idea of buying something similar and heading east on a long overland trip. We vaguely mooted the idea of a year long trip driving from London to Japan. The fact that we had no idea whatsoever how feasible that was did not in any way curb our enthusiasm.

But you don’t embark on a long journey around the world like that without having some idea of whether your relationship and sanity will survive a year on the road in a van only marginally bigger than a sardine can. So we decided that a trip in a hired van driving around the north coast of Scotland might be a good test run.

We stuck to the original plan of an old school VW combi and hired Hectar from Kamper Hire (www.kamperhire.co.uk) for nine days. Hectar was great - a bright blue and white 1975 edition VW with a spare tyre for a nose. He was like a wendy house on wheels, with dinky furniture, roll out bed and pop-top roof. His quirks made him all the more attractive. The fact that we could see the road passing beneath us through a hole in the floor around the gear stick didn’t seem to matter, mainly because we were distracted by the constant battle of trying to get Hectar into gear, which was not the easiest of tasks.

Hectar certainly gave us the freedom we were looking for - there was no need to find hotels or B&Bs in remote Highland villages. We pretty much decided on a day-to-day basis where we fancied going, there being no constraints other than the need to return to work on the following Monday. We developed a real affection for Hectar and he found himself featuring in a huge number of photos around the north coast of Scotland.

But then the weather set in. Heavy rain, high winds and looming skies. It lasted (bar a glorious sunny day on the sandy beach at Gairloch) for much of the trip. Sitting in Hectar in the lashing rain suddenly made his sardine tin like qualities seem like his most prominent features. We found ourselves driving along wearing every item of clothing we had with us, desperately tying to absorb some of the very limited heat being churned out by the dashboard heaters before it disappeared into the ether. Hectar certainly wasn’t great at holding onto that heat. The standard camper van tagline is “Home is where you park it” - that is true, but only if your home is very small, cold and damp for much of the time. Suddenly, Hectar’s quirks seemed a little less attractive. We ate more fried breakfasts, cups of tea and fish and chips in a week that we usually would in several months, just to give us some warmth and blubber to keep us going.

Hectar has since had a face lift, which is just as well given that part of the roof blew off one windy and fairly stressful day on the Isle of Skye. Hopefully he is now off enjoying trips out to sunny summer festivals, where he will no doubt be far more at home than he was in the Highlands in the pouring rain. We meanwhile, had decided that whilst we could (just about and by no means without some tetchy moments) cope with each other’s company in such a confined space, that space would have to be a little more watertight and homely.

Which led us on to the next stage of our plans.......

Highland Combi Adventure 2005 itinerary:

Day 1: London to Yorkshire to stay with mum in Silkstone overnight. She clearly wondered how we were going to survive the week in Hectar. Given that she can barely cope on a trip without an iron, this was not an adventure to which she could easily relate.

Day 2: Via a meeting with our wedding photographer at Rudding Park (where we felt rather self conscious driving up in a 1970s combi rather than a Rolls Royce, which would have been more appropriate) we headed up through the North East for a stop at the Angel of the North before going on to Peebles. Not the most glamorous of stops, you might think, but we felt distinctly underdressed in the pub wearing jeans, given that we spotted a couple who clearly had aspirations to be the Gavin and Charlotte of Scotland. She was dressed mainly in St Tropez, with a small glitzy sequined number to cover the bear essentials - no coat, of course, despite the freezing temperatures - it would have ruined the look. He teamed a kilt with the latest designer clobber and even more St Tropez than his girlfriend, his hair gelled in spikes high enough to make Mr Henson proud.

Day 3: From Peebles we headed into Edinburgh, though we were clearly in the wrong mood for cities as we were distinctly underwhelmed, such that we ate, wandered for a bit and then headed back into the countryside. Next stop was Dunkeld, a surprisingly pretty place, where we took a slightly scary walk from our van across some dodgy bridges and through some none too safe looking tunnels to a couple of pubs for yet more “something with chips” and a chat with the locals about Polish immigration and the like.

Day 4: Peebles to John O’Groats via some craggy eastern coastal scenery and a storm which was sufficiently fierce to make the coastal road a bit hair raising. People in Wick were shopping away in the supermarket as though this was normal. We wanted to wander around telling them to look outside where it appeared to us that the apocalypse was taking place. They seemed unperturbed. We ventured into the pub in John O’Groats for some food, but faced with listening to endless machismo from the souped up Ford owners who had just driven Lands End to John O'Groats, we opted to head back to Hectar for some much needed sleep.

Day 5: After a disturbed night parked outside the house of one of the dodgiest people we have ever met, where Hectar was rocked none too gently by the storms, we left John O’Groats for the sea stacks, arches and deep rock clefts of Duncansby Head. The area is stunning - more northerly and far more appealing than the tourist trap at John O’Groats, yet apparently little visited by Lands End to John O’Groaters and other day trippers. From there we continued around the north coast, heading west, via a work crisis in Thurso (Blackberrys being the evil gadgets that they are). Then down the west coast, past the white beaches of Durness and the lochs of the North West Highlands to Inchnadamph (for some good pub food and an encounter with what sounded like wolves but were most likely just particularly vocal Highland cattle).

Day 6: To Gairloch via the coastal roads of the Wester Ross peninsulas. Tea and cake in a traveller-style café in Gairloch, followed by fish and chips washed down with local beer.

Day 7: The sun shone and suddenly Hector seemed right at home. After a great breakfast we headed to Gairloch beach. Bizzare after all the storms to suddenly be on a deserted white sandy beach in a remote part of the Highlands with the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky. It felt more like Cornish surfing territory than remote Scotland. After a short walk we drove to Eilean Donan for the obligatory photo shoot, though the photos are never quite as impressive as the sight of the castle as you round the corner from the Kyle road and catch sight of the curved bridge and the castle for the first time and in the sunshine. Then on to Skye, supposedly to drive to Portree with great views of the Cuillin ridge. Instead, the winds reappeared and Hectar’s ventilation chimney disappeared, suddenly remerging in the rear view mirror as it pelted down the road behind us, leaving a gaping hole in our roof. Michael sprinted down the road for a successful chimney rescue attempt and the rest of the journey to Portee was spent trying to hold the chimney and the roof down until we could repair it. Two rolls of duct tape and several shoe laces later, Hector’s roof was in good enough shape to at least sleep under, but by the we were sick of him and opted for the pub, a curry and a bed in a B&B instead.

Day 8: A wander around Portree in the morning, followed by a long drive to Penrith for more beer and some horse / camel / pig racing at the local pub’s race night with Chris.

Day 9: Another long drive, from Cumbria to London.

Day 10: Bye bye to Hectar and the end of Highland Combi Adventure 2005.