A week of waiting

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Free camping at Brighton

After purchasing Sassy, we spent a week hanging out at the bottom of England trying to figure out how to work all of her quirks. The thing about buying DIY campervans is that there are no manuals. Just a bunch of wires and passed on information and tips from previous owners. So we had a little bit to learn. We also wanted to get her serviced and make sure our purchase was living up to the agreed contract conditions.

The first thing we learnt was how little the leisure battery could actually power. The fridge drained it, tripped fuses and then the headlights also wouldn’t work. So we spent a few days trying to decipher Sassy’s complicated code. As it so happened, we actually needed a new leisure battery as the previous owners had cooked the one we had and that was why we were having all the problems. We tried leaving the battery on charge for a long weekend with a lovely English gentleman, but after that, we knew it was done for and that we would have to purchase and install a newbie. We spent our days of waiting using ice in the fridge just like an esky, but we were loving the freedom having a van was giving us. We pulled up wherever we liked, free camped, soaked up the serenity, enjoyed wine, cheese and dinners with some spectacular views of southern England.

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Brighton Pier at sunset

We explored Brighton, Deal, Sandwich and Ham (the full baguette it would seem), and surrounding areas marvelling at the countryside and coastal towns as we plotted our future trip and fantasised about all the possibilities. Then we drive to Dover in preparation for booking and catching our ferry to Calais, France. We spent a day shopping at the gloriousness that is ASDA stocking up on all the household things we were missing (Sassy did come semi-stocked). We also did a big food shop before chugging up a large hill leaving Dover port behind us. Halfway up, as semi trailers easily flew past us, Sassy started grunting and Rhys puzzled over the loss of power. I kept commenting (probably unhelpfully) on the smell of diesel being SO strong.

Next thing we knew, smoke was pouring out of Sassy’s engine and we pulled off the main road and came to a stop next to an open field overlooking the port as sheep lazily raised their heads to see if we were threatening or not only to resume grazing. It would be an understatement to say we were a little bummed about our seemingly dud purchase. Eventually, we got onto a tow truck company and Sassy was hooked and winched up by a father and son team who could have passed as the Weasley family from the Harry Potter films, except for all the colourful, not so PG-13 language that was spilling regularly from their mouths.

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Sassy was down for the count with a snapped fuel injector line and we were told it could be a three day wait before a replacement would arrive. We settled into the glamorous life of living in a van in a mechanic’s yard in southern England. Luckily enough, we had already purchased our bicycles and were able to venture out choosing to spend our time drowning our sorrows at the local pub, riding around town taking in the sights, shopping at Lidl and we spent a full day exploring Dover Castle (which exceeded expectations) before we were handed the expensive tow and labour bill and were on our way yet again. After the somewhat depressing previous days, our excitement bubbled as we booked our barge ticket with optimism in our hearts that maybe the breakdown was just a once off. Fingers crossed!

 

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France was just noticable off in the distance and at night was lit up quite beautifully

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

@sassythevan

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Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ in Belgium

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Less than 20 minutes north from where we stayed the night in Calais, we had arrived in beguiling Belgium. There was a noticeable change in the scenery and streets as we crossed over the imaginary border and pulled in to refuel. Spectacular views of rolling hills with little white dots that turned into grazing sheep distracted us from the continues kilometres we clocked. Our excitement climbed towards its crescendo at having finally reached the mystical, far away land of Europe and we were feeling outrageously optimistic about the rest of our itinerary (especially after the first fuel injector hiccup in Dover) as we sped towards Brugge. Cantankerous clouds gathered overhead, growing darker and eventually the drizzle commenced as we crossed over canals announcing our arrival in Brugge.

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Cheese and Beer

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So wet.

Brugge is truly a romantic city with that fairytale feel from my childhood princess dreams. The streets are cobblestoned and the buildings emulate a gothic tinge with skyscraper spires. Buildings stand stoic like castles as flags fly high and as we wandered through them, I thought about all the history that was contained within their walls knowing Belgium’s reputation as the ‘Battlefield of Europe’. The market square was quite busy considering the woeful weather (mostly scattered showers but with occasional torrential downpours) and Rhys and I ambled around in our raincoats enjoying the unfamiliar sights and wafting, delectable smells. The medieval shop facades had every outsider looking up admiring and awed as I snapped a few pictures before my camera started getting too wet. As the rain became more constant, we naturally ended up taking cover in the nearest bar which happened to be below a beer museum. Luckily, it overlooked the main courtyard and we spent the next hour beer tasting, eating cheese and watching people go about their day through the the huge, rain streaked windows. We decided not to stay the night (mainly due to the weather and a lack of spacious free parks), so we jumped back in Sassy typing Brussels into the GPS thinking we would easily make it there before sundown. Belgium is a fairly small place right?

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We were speeding along the highway surrounded by farmland when it happened. Sassy rapidly lost power and the smell of smoke and burning diesel filled the car as we pulled her off to the side of the road. We jumped out and popped the bonnet as trucks raced past the skinny median strip shaking us violently only to discover the exact same fuel injector hose had snapped! After some initial swearing and anger, we kicked our brains into gear, locked Sassy up and began walking to the closest farm to try and get help. We didn’t have a working SIM card for Belgium (one of the few countries that the Three London SIM doesn’t work) and we didn’t really know what else to do. As we walked, we tried to figure out where we were exactly so we could find our way back and we comforted ourselves by discussing some scenarios we might like to act out with Sassy right at the moment. Some of these included pushing her into a dirty lake, a molotov cocktail into the windscreen or rolling her off a tall cliff. Not long after we started walking, the driver of a fancy looking black Mercedes took pity on us offering a lift into town. Our saviour was a real estate agent on his way home who happened to speak very good English. He offered life advice from his experiences and encouraged us to continue on our trip regardless of the car outcome. We were dropped off at a service station so we could use the phone to call a tow truck, but the lady behind the counter didn’t seem to have a number and our request got a little lost in translation. Instead, she drew us a mud map to find the Ford dealer in town and our unexpected exploration of Aalter began. We walked for a few kilometres and dropped in on various shop owners to confirm we were going the right way, eventually finding the Ford workshop.

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Our home in the mechanic’s yard.

Once there, everybody was extremely helpful and a tow truck was organised but wouldn’t be available for four hours. To fill in time, we conversed with the staff, drank lots of their free coffee from their first class machine, used the very fast wifi and flicked through all the new car leaflets with a little envy. Eventually, the tow truck arrived and we jumped in the back to show them to Sassy’s resting place. After our second tow truck joyride in as many weeks, Sassy was parked alongside the showroom competing against the shiny new models for our attention. The right part was easily ordered as we still had the original broken piece and the box from the previous repair. We were told to get comfy as it could be up to four days before the new piece arrived. The next three nights were spent in the Ford carpark but we occupied ourselves by getting to know the small, sleepy town of Aalter quite well via our bicycles. We picnicked, participated in a small fete and made friends with some local ducks. Once the part arrived, it took all of 30 minutes to install it and Sassy was back up and roaring with life once again. We knew we would have to take it a little easier on the old girl this time around. Ths staff came out to wave us off and we thanked them for their help and for letting us crash their showroom and use their facilities before we pulled out onto the highway and headed for Brussels feeling full of hope once again.

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Brussels is a bustling metropolitan area and we were headed towards an aire that backed onto a hostel in the middle of the city. After spending four days without a shower (amen to baby wipes) in a mechanic’s carpark, I was desperate for hot water and a freshen up.  Later on, we jumped on our bikes and headed out to discover what Brussels had to offer us. We spent the whole day traveling between restaurants, bakeries and cafes with stops to major attractions and historic buildings. We had lost a little time and were trying to make up for it. Our weariness showed when we bought the biggest meringue we could find only to accidentally leave it at a restaurant after too many wines before getting a chance to taste even on bite. Doh! We didn’t arrive home until midnight and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow feeling extremely content. The next day, we decided we had better keep moving to make up for lost time, thinking we might even still make Oktoberfest in Germany. Our only stop was to pick up some cherry beer on our way out of the city. With luck (hopefully) on our side and in good spirits we left Brussels behind and continued north to the Netherlands. I had managed a taste of what Belgium had to offer and knew I would return sometime in the future. 

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Chocolate, waffles and meringues galore.

-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble

Purchasing ‘Sassy’ the van

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She looked pretty good when we inspected her. She is not quite this clean anymore.

We knew before we left on our around the world trip that we wanted to travel Europe by campervan rather than backpack or by flying between big cities. We started researching the associated costs of renting versus buying a couple of months out from our departure date.

Though renting a van seemed more safe, simple and organised we also felt that it was more restricting (not allowed in certain countries, extra costs, season price changes, time restrictions) and would impede on our desired travel plans, especially because our plans were very open. The vans that we truly loved (check out @vanlifediaries or Quirky Campers for some serious van-spiration) were pushing our budget to the limit and the vans within our price range were quite basic and didn’t quite feel like ‘us’.

We were also unsure of where we wanted to go or how long we would be gone for which made hiring all the more difficult. It was way more exciting thinking that we could buy our van, extra responsibilities and all but  it would at least be ours to do with what we wanted. Repairs, breakdowns, modifications, restorations and all. A reassuring thought was that if we did buy, we might even manage to get some money back at the end of our trip when we sold it on to someone else so they could start their own adVANture.

The process for Australian and New Zealand citizens is not as straight forward as you might think (even with a UK working visa), but it is totally doable once you know what you are trying to get done. Some key terms for your consideration:

MOT= a roadworthy certificate done every year to check for basic safety – every car needs to have an up to date one.

Road tax = Registration costs – must be paid by the new owner

V5 form = Name transfer form – must be completed once there is a new owner. A new one will be sent to the UK address you provide.

Green Card= Comprehensive car insurance receipt

The MOST USEFUL INFORMATION EVER was from The Macadames blog. They explained everything in beautifully organised detail (way more than I will below) and I am eternally grateful for their information. Most importantly, you will need to swindle a UK address to attach the car to and a friendly someone who will happily receive any mail related to the vehicle for you (not much after the initial transfer forms). We also found that down under insurance seemed to be the only option for insuring vehicles across multiple countries if you are NOT a UK resident. They do offer travel insurance as well for combination discounts but I cannot confirm if they deliver on claims as we are yet to put one in (touch wood). We also didn’t opt for breakdown assist, though in hindsight it probably would have been worth it. I’ll talk about our many engine mishaps another time. All I can say is that any payment in British pounds hurts a whole lot more when you are an Aussie because of the currency exchange rate at the moment.

We used Gumtree and auto search sites as our main form of research and contact. Though I have heard renting and buying vans in other European countries such as Germany or France can prove cheaper, we decided that the language barrier would be too big of an issue for us. We were a little concerned about the right hand drive versus left hand drive factor, but now that we are doing it, it hasn’t been an issue at all. The only disadvantage is checking oncoming traffic when overtaking (which Sassy doesn’t do much of) and some corners or roundabouts where the driver has to rely on the passenger a little more for giveway clearance. We inquired about many vans, but actually inspected only 5. We had our hearts set on one particularly awesome van, our money at the ready only to be told we were the second to see it and that the first group had already bought it. Spewing!

Next up was Gene, an older gentleman who continually told us about his heart condition and the the good times he had spent in his van. We spent a lot of time testing it out while he spilled his wealth of knowledge about vans and engines. We felt that his van was great but a little too small for our needs and left saying we would let him know after we viewed a couple more for comparison. We contacted him after deciding on a different van and he unleashed quite a scathing text attack on us wishing poor fortune with our future van which was a little shocking from such a seemingly kind and gentle man. Perhaps he felt we had swindled him in some way. I am still unsure but try to laugh about it instead and hope that his words aren’t the reason we ended up breaking down as much as we did in the beginning.

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Sassy has truly become our home away from home.

Eventually we found Sassy who was at the lower end of our budget which we decided could be an advantage or a disadvantage depending on which way you looked at it. She was fully stocked and ready to go (cutlery, kitchenware, bedding and a chemical toilet) and lastly, she was already owned by an Australian couple who were just wrapping up their own Eurotrip (they provided a wealth of information and tips). We caught a train out to see her and after a lengthy conversation with her owners, lunch and a couple of beers at the closest pub we decided she would do and we began to prepare for our next leg with much excitement.

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-rocketandramble

@rocketandramble #rocketandramble