By Colin Woodley
After two weeks in Gibraltar both Gloria and I were eager for the return journey. During our stay Gloria had suffered an evasion of giant ants, the constant threat of aggressive apes and the risk of rock falls. So as the family slept on the penultimate day of their holiday, Gloria and I headed for home.
The first day flew by as I retraced my original route. Despite the bland scenery it was nice to be on the road again. After an uneventful day I pulled into the campsite at Hotel Regio. The campsite seemed emptier than my previous visit until I spotted a sea of small tents.
This canvas meadow was strangely quiet and absent of any type of vehicles. Having missed out on the pool during my last visit, I switched into my swimwear and stepped out of Gloria. The ground suddenly vibrated to the sound of a coach meandering through the site before stopping by the tents. The doors opened and a stream of young women poured out and into tent city. Within seconds they were out again, dressed in bikinis and heading to the pool. I looked down at my pale, 40 something, flabby torso; turned and went back into Gloria.
The following morning I felt anxious as I was about to tackle the route that had caused so much trouble two weeks before.
I wanted to get through Spain quickly and preferably before the midday sun. The first 15 minutes took me slowly through the centre of Salamanca which was when I noticed the noise coming from Gloria’s front wheel.
Shhh, shhh, shhh.
I carried on but the noise gnawed in the back of my mind. I can’t break down in Spain, I must keep going.
By noon I was in the mountains again but when I stopped outside Irun for fuel, Gloria decided to cause me more worry. She always starts immediately from cold but when hot Gloria stubbornly refuses to easily turnover and can take a while to get started. Today she was taking longer each time I stopped. Eventually Gloria started and I set off for the border hoping she would last all the way home.
I’m not a particularly religious man but I rubbed those rosary beads hard as we worked our way out of Spain and across the border back into the lush countryside of France.
At the first Aires I pulled alongside a beautiful orange campervan. Out popped a French family from Toulouse and we swapped stories as we ate ice-cream. I was then approached by a young German who said he and his friend were trying to hitch a lift home. I politely turned him down but as I set off I saw his friend who turned out to be a stunning young blonde. Perhaps I should have considered their request after all?
When I finally arrived at Saint Leger I found no other campers. Most people don’t turn up until later in the evening so I wandered over to the shop to buy dinner. At the front of the queue were two British ladies in lavender. The first lady approached the counter and in typical British fashion shouted at the assistant.
“Excuse me dear. We are looking for tonic”. Why do we think shouting helps when we can’t speak the language? Her friend appeared embarrassed as she turned to me.
“I’m terribly sorry” she said “we’ve had a horrendous day and simply must have a gin and tonic”.
“I’m not sure you will get tonic here. You may have to drink the gin neat” I suggested.
“Oh no dear” she exclaimed “It hasn’t been that bad a day”.
At 10pm with no sign of other campers I decided it would be safer to move Gloria to the main services car park. Ironically this was full of people camping in their cars under the harsh glare of the forecourt lights. Lorries were constantly arriving/departing and the motorway was right next to the car park. Didn’t these people realise there was a lovely camping spot just 100 metres further along?
At 2am I was woken by the sound of scratching coming from Gloria’s lockbox. The box is located above the driver seat and forms part of the roof space. I lay there in the dark waiting to see if it happened again.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
What on earth was it? I was not keen on opening it in the dark so I stepped outside to check if there was something on the roof. The ground felt soft underneath my foot and as I looked down I saw a dead cat. This stuffed furry doormat had no obvious sign of what it died from or how it got there. I didn’t like it. I got back into Gloria and locked the door.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I reached into a cupboard and pulled out my torch and camping knife. I crept towards the lockbox and slowly pulled it open. I nervously searched amongst the water bottles and hook-up cables. Nothing.
I shut the door again and got back into my sleeping bag.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
I didn’t know what it was but there was no way I was opening that door again.
I woke up at 6am, gave the lockbox an evil glare, opened up Gloria’s sliding door and stepped out. The first thing I noticed was the silence. All night it had been noisy but now all of a sudden there was uneasy stillness. The cat was still there but as I looked across the car park I saw the outline of a body, then another and then a third. Human shaped torsos lying beside cars and wrapped head to toe in blankets. My heart was in my mouth until I realised that these were just fellow travellers who couldn’t sleep in their cars so decided to sleep by the road and had covered themselves to ward off the insects.
I set off for the final days drive but now my nerves were shot. The wheel was still making a noise, Gloria was even harder to start, there was something alive in the roof and the car park bodies had unnerved me. I was convinced something was going to happen to Gloria.
Despite my fears I made it to the channel tunnel by early afternoon. The queues at customs were huge as the traffic crawled through each stage. I decided it would be safer to keep the engine running as I was not confident Gloria could handle the constant stop/starting. But as we sat in the heat, her temperature needle started to rise. I remembered a trick my wife told me about old cars. I turned the heaters on full blast which diverted heat away from the engine making it cool down.
As I got to the UK customs desk I realised I was in trouble. The guy looked in Gloria then looked at me and saw the sweat pouring off my face having sat an hour with the heater on.
“Yes” I gulped as the sweat dripped off my nose.“Travelling alone sir?” he asked suspiciously.
“All your suitcases?”
“Yes” I tried to blink the salt water from my eyes.
“What have you been up to then?”
And so I blabbed about my fear of flying, how I had driven down to Gibraltar without the family and was now on the way home. I was surprised by his response.
“Fantastic. How did it go?”
He was amazed by what I had achieved and asked me lots of questions about the trip. Now I didn’t mind too much although I think the hundred cars behind me were not impressed. After a while I think even he realised he had been holding things up too long.
“I better let you go sir” he said “Besides you look like you could do with a drink”. He wasn’t wrong!
As I arrived in the UK the heavens opened and the rain bounced off Gloria’s windows. Two hours later I pulled onto my drive and into the arms of my wife who had left a day later and arrived the day before.
Days later, as I cleaned Gloria, I considered my journey and realised my initial mistake. Having followed the original planned route I had driven in some of the harshest conditions that were not best suited for my campervan. If I had reviewed the route before setting off I would have seen that in an extra four hours I could have travelled down the eastern coast of Spain where the views would have been spectacular, the weather less sever and the drive easier. Spain was not as bad as it had seemed, I had just taken the wrong road. Of course if I hadn’t taken that route then I would not have met all the interesting people that I did.
The main thing I learnt was that right now there are thousands of people around the world having their own adventures. Why not get out there and join them?
By the way, I never did find what was in the roof space so I guess it escaped after I got home. so you’d better keep your eyes peeled!
Part 1 of the VW Campervan Road Trip[hr]
My name is Colin Woodley and I am a husband, father of two, salary slave and late bloomer in the world of camping (having only started this year aged 42).
I own a T25 VW campervan called Gloria and my new life goal is to get out of the rat race, move to Sussex, sell cider, write blogs, drive around in an old Range Rover and campout every weekend.[hr]
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Picture Credits: Colin Woodley