I’ve written an article for a certain VW magazine. Whether it gets published or not, who knows, but they seemed keen. Anyway, here’s what I wrote:
When we first started telling people that we were going to take a year out of our careers, and that a large chunk of that time was going to be spent in Australia touring around, inevitably the question we’d get asked was: "So, are you going to get yourself one of those old campers then?" The answer was always pretty non-committal: "Well, we’ll get something. We’re not sure what, but we’ll work it out when we get there."
Somehow, the prospect of driving around Australia in a Kombi seemed like a cliché. I almost didn’t want to live up to that cliché, and besides, the prospect of driving an air-cooled vehicle in a hot climate like Australia’s seemed somewhat crazy. In my heart of hearts, I really only wanted something that went, wouldn’t cost the earth and would be easy enough to sell at the end of our travels (we had heard some horror stories of people not being able to sell their travelling vehicles and almost giving them away just to catch their next flight).
We spent a couple of weeks in Cairns, in the far north of Queensland, trying to track down a van. Every time one came up, it was sold before we had the time to look it over, or I took too long deciding whether it was a good old runner or a breakdown waiting to happen. So many characterless Mitsubishi L300s and Toyota Hiaces passed under our noses, we wondered if we’d ever leave Cairns. And then I saw an interesting advert.
"1975 Kombi, fresh interior, pop-top, tasty mag wheels"
Well, words to that effect. I gave the owner a call and he brought the van over that same evening. Immediately, Manda and I had that ‘good feeling’ about the van. It’s not wise to inspect a vehicle in the dark (or under streetlights), but our first once-over was very encouraging. There was no interior, but we could sort that out. The main thing was that the van looked as solid as hell, had a good paint job and seemed to run well. The next day we’d decided this was the vehicle for us. We made an offer of AU $2200 (about £880 at the time of writing) which was accepted. The van was ours, but it would still take almost a week to find someone to fit out a basic storage/bedding unit, get the van roadworthy and get a valid rego (Aussie car tax) for it.
Before not too long, the van had taken us down the east coast of Australia, up into the Tablelands around the waterfalls circuit, over to Magnetic Island, through Brisbane and on to Sydney. The van earned a nickname (as they inevitably do), so from here on in I’ll refer to the van as a she, going by the name of Ethel. She may be young compared to many other VWs out there, but to me she was an old lady and needed an old lady name!
In Sydney we had to say our farewells for 6 weeks as we jetted off to New Zealand. She sat, dejected no doubt, in Sydney Airport’s car park for the duration. Meanwhile, I was committing adultery (so to speak) with a very well equipped rental camper van from Tui Campers in Christchurch on the Southern Island. It had a sink, a gas cooker that doubled up as a heater in extreme cold (although you didn’t hear that from us, OK?!), plenty of storage and it was adaptable â a bed that converted to two rows of seating with a decent table. Oh heck, while I’m at it, there was power steering and a heater. We were being spoiled! When we came back to Sydney, perhaps somewhat inevitably she didn’t want to start. It must have been a protest of some kind. The strange thing is that even though she wasn’t as well set up as our rental van, I was pleased to see her again, warts and all.
Our journeys continued around Australia â we made tracks to Canberra and then on to Melbourne. Ethel had a boat trip too, making the choppy route across the Bass Strait to the ‘Apple Isle’ Tasmania. It felt like a small version of New Zealand, so perhaps it was a way of making up to the old girl for leaving her behind before. Back on the mainland again, we continued on to Adelaide (home of Sopru, the conversion that Ethel sports) and other towns along the way before the final big push across the Nullarbor. For those who don’t know, the Nullarbor Plain gets its name from the (pigeon) Latin "Nullus Arbor", meaning no trees. It’s a very featureless area that was once the seabed and includes the longest straight stretch of road in Australia â 90 miles without a single deviation. Oh, and it’s a good 2,500 kilometres until you get to the next ‘major’ town, Norseman. So, it’s a long journey, and Ethel did us proud,
After 8 months on the road (including our NZ jaunt), it was time to say farewell to Ethel. We did the usual thing of flyering the various backpackers around Perth, but had few people calling up. Perhaps we were asking a little too much? In Australia, Kombis don’t sell for anywhere near the price that they do in the UK. I had advertised the van on the Internet, too, and one day we got a phone call from a lady who wanted to import the van. That got me thinking â someone who’s not seen the van is thinking of importing it, paying the asking price and paying the import duties and VAT? Maybe there’s something in this, I thought.
So, we got the wheels in motion to get the van shipped back home to the UK. We were leaving Australia for Thailand at the end of August and were not due to return to the UK until December. What we ended up doing was putting the van into storage for 12 weeks and then getting it shipped from Fremantle, WA to Southampton. One week after we returned home from travels, Ethel arrived back in the UK too. The plan was almost complete, only HM Customs & Excise and the DVLA to deal with (not that I’m trying to trivialise that aspect â it was hellish, but I don’t want to bore people with the fine details of that here!). Finally, there was our surprise â we hadn’t told anybody about our plan to ship the van back home, so it was great fun to reveal our 4-months-in-the-making secret to my family (all Kombi lovers) on New Years Eve.
Now, we’re getting settled in again in the UK and finding all manner of jobs that need doing on the van. She’s a rust-free Aussie battler, for sure, but she’s not show car material. She won’t win any prizes for now, unless there’s one for ‘Biggest Holiday Souvenir’. For now, I’m happy to get her acclimatised to the UK weather and cover up any little areas of stone chipped bare metal, lest the rust creeps in. Manda and I are both looking forward to taking Ethel to some shows and letting her be part of the British VW gang. If you see us, come on over and say g’day!