The Campervan

 Photo: David Willersdorf

Photo: David Willersdorf

My music therapist has told me that sharing painful tour stories with others might be the cathartic release I need to unburden myself. So here it goes…

On my last tour which I did to support the community work of The Salvation Army across the eastern coast of Australia, we tried to keep costs as low as possible. Unlike previous long road-trip tours, this tour was more about geographic sections that were strung together. For the Victorian leg of the tour, we had decided to hire a campervan to save money on accommodation and eating out.

I was travelling with tour regular, Mark Darling (yes - his last name is actually “Darling” - and yes - it did make for a few awkward tour moments). Anyway…

Months before we arrived in Victoria, I researched the best campervan hire company and then booked what looked like a great, shiny new two-bed campervan. We’d planned to use it for the final two-week stint of my tour.

The time arrived, Mark and I packed our bags, flew to Melbourne and then raced in a taxi to the campervan depot. I’d arranged to get there an hour before they closed. As we arrived, the depot manager was all but locking up. His face expressed disappointment that we’d made it there before he'd left. The depot was actually a mechanics workshop with benefits.

After showing us through a ream of paperwork, we then eagerly looked for our shiny new campervan. Which of these beautiful camper vans was ours? The depot manager walked us past the newest models to one which wasn’t too old, but when we looked more closely realised that it only had one bed.

“Er… I’ve booked a campervan with two-beds.”

“Right. Well, this is the one they’ve allocated for you.”

Mark and I looked at each other, “But we booked a campervan with two beds.”

A flurry of phone calls later to head office and we were told that we’d been “upgraded” to a campervan with a toilet and shower. And one bed.

I remained unimpressed. “It’s not an upgrade if it doesn’t have two beds.”

At this stage 5pm had come and gone. I started pointing at the other new vans, one of which was the exact model I’d booked and paid for. “What about that one?” I asked.

“That van has been allocated to some people who are picking it up tomorrow.” he said. Suddenly a gleam came to his eye. “How about one of these other vans? They have two beds.”

He took us to a part of the depot that I’d originally overlooked. Earlier I’d walked straight past this area without realising that these actually were vans. I thought it was where they were keeping spare parts. The depot manager proudly waved his arm and pointed to one of the vans. “You could take this one. We’ve been hoping to sell it.”

At this point darkness had begun descending upon us, and we were desperate to get on the road for the long drive ahead. The manager and his staff were all looking hopefully at us as their eyes darted to their own vehicles and hopes of heading home and away from these troublesome northerners.

We had no choice. I nodded briefly and a surge of activity began. Firstly, the van needed a battery to be found for it. It wouldn’t start. Then it needed to be stocked with linen and plates. The crud from the opaque windscreen was scraped off.

“I think the water tank might have some water in it. But it’s probably been there a while though,” we were told.

The usual 20-30 minute “Understanding the Features of Your Campervan” tour was condensed into a very brief 2-minute spiel. We were shown how the archaic latches worked on the chipped chipboard cupboards. We were quickly bundled into the van and the few remaining staff members waved us off (and I’m pretty sure that they were in readiness to give us a push off the property if the motor died).

After dislocating my ankle, I found it possible to effortlessly use the clutch. We coasted down the hill and approached the first corner. SMASH!! There went all our plates which we were yet to even touch. The archaic latch system had obviously failed and the plates had hurtled across the van to smash on the door. By this stage Mark was wide-eyed and strangely silent.

Because the temperatures over this next leg of the trip would be so low, we had intended to buy a little blow-heater. In my manner, I’d researched the closest retailer which we could visit without interrupting the trip too much. Of course, It was assumed that we would have made it there before the store had closed. Finding a heater was especially important now that we realised that this particular van had a series of rusted-out holes through which we could see through to the outside. We began circling randomly to find a blow-heater provider who might still be open this late. On our sixth attempt, we found a heater and gathered our thoughts in the car park.

“Mark, can you find a place for my phone to plug into the stereo system?” I asked. In my manner, I’d pulled together a killer “Drive” playlist on my smartphone for our in-vehicle entertainment.

“Er… Dave… You might want to have a look at this.”

Mark gestured towards the stereo system. A tape deck. No ports of any kind. A mysterious foam-like pad stuck to it which had no apparent use.

Cue my first primal scream of this tour sector. “NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

I cast my eye around the darkness of the van (the front internal lights of the campervan were not fully functional). I caught a glimpse of the smashed plates which now resided in the slightly corroded sink. I smelt the diesel fumes of a passing truck as they blew through the rust holes of our van. I heard a quiet noise which seemed to be laughter, but I didn’t realise until later that it was coming from me. At this stage I thought it best if Mark took over the driver’s seat.

Extracting my 6’3” ox-like frame from the driver’s seat is a tale with it’s own horrors (the highest brake, clutch and accelerator pedals I’ve ever seen in a vehicle, the largest gut-plunging steering wheel and the least movable seat - all together in one place. It was akin to seeing a giraffe fall sideways through an industrial shed).

We began our drive.

Many of you who follow my tour adventures on Facebook would be used to my selfie updates filmed largely when I’m in the passenger seat of our tour vehicles. I decided that the situation was so hilarious (as in a manic psychological condition) that I should include my friends in this adventure. As Mark drove, I decided to ask people via Facebook to send us cassette tapes so that we’d have some music to play on our trip. Mark spontaneously led us in a chorus of “I Was Made For Loving You” by KISS and if you look closely, you can start to see the hysteria in my face. Aah - the joys of travel weariness meeting the ridiculous! As Mark drove, I descended into random outbursts of involuntary laughter.

Finally we arrived at the caravan park which I’d carefully researched and booked. We were so late arriving that they’d left us a late-arrival package. We found our site and parked.

It was now that we looked around the van and started examining the huge undertaking of making the campervan habitable for the night. With the engine off, I could see our breath floating in the air - it was so cold!

We’d predetermined that feather-weight and gazelle-like Mark would be sleeping in the ceiling “sleeping pod”, whilst the big Dave gorilla would take the firm lower bed. That was all great in theory of course, but in the rush to get us away from the campervan depot, the depot crew had neglected to include some vital parts for the lower bed on which I’d be sleeping. It was also at this time that the highly condensed 2-minute “Understanding the Features of Your Campervan” tour did it’s worst as we examined what looked to be half a child’s play gym and tried to understand how it would create two beds.

I started recalling the images on the campervan company’s website of a perfect happy Swedish couple with perfect teeth, laughing at the pleasantries of life in their van by the deep blue ocean whilst their ideal children smiled down on them from the ceiling sleeping pod. Continued tears of hysteria sprung to my eyes as I took in the reality of the fog of my own breath, the chaos of Mark and I attempting to created two beds without having all the parts and our grumpiness as we came to the end of a day that had started at 5am and had led us to this hell on wheels. Mark finally tamed his ceiling sleeping pod (really a series of old wooden boards) while I decided to sleep on one of the dinette seats.

With Mark’s ceiling sleeping pod boards in, it left us the vertical space of half a phone booth to change in. Unfortunately we were both so eager to get to sleep that we attempted to change at the same time. It’s better that I don’t describe the hideousness of that moment in writing.

As I lay down on the dinette seat, I faced another conundrum: the dinette seat’s width (now my bed) was equal to one and a half of my buttock cheeks. It would be the perfect width for someone of a more delicate size to sleep on. Someone of my ample frame and proportions, however… Unfortunately, in the five-minute snatches of sleep my exhaustion-riddled mind forced upon me, I couldn’t avoid having dreams of falling from great heights.

An hour into the night, I heard movement above me. Mark was abandoning his ceiling sleeping pod boards. Unlike me, with my pleasant internal heating system, in his gazelle-like slimness, Mark has always felt the cold quite keenly. Also, I had lugged a cutting-edge sleeping bag with me, while Mark had relied purely upon the complementary sleeping bag provided by the campervan company. With my help, we repacked the ceiling sleeping pod boards away - immediately giving us what felt like an instant cathedral head height - and he settled down on the other dinette seat.

I’m sure both of us awoke many times during the night from cold, night-sweats and terror. One thing I hadn’t anticipated was that the cold would so badly affect my bladder, and that I would be forced multiple times during the night to dash to the caravan park amenities block. Each time I would try to escape the van silently like a urinary night ninja, however I had to abandon my dreams of stealth as the rusted sliding door of the van would wail like a banshee stepping on a nail each time it was touched. And due to the layout of the van and the corrosion of the door frame, the door never closed on the first attempt, which led to repeated screams from both the van and our neighbours.

As attractive a man as I think I am, I’m pretty sure I looked a hundred years old by the morning. My own laughter woke me (I was still having outbursts of hysteria). It was at this stage that I thought about the next thirteen nights ahead of us. It was also when I developed an eye twitch which continued for the rest of the journey.

While Mark went off for a shower, I set about setting up the dinette table. Unfortunately, we were given mismatched parts. The dinette table was a slightly larger version of what you see circus performers use for plate spinning. It both span and toppled and was at a height that would have made for precarious eating if we’d used it.

As I went to put the dinette table away, I noticed something small and tucked away in the storage area. I started to reach for it and thought I should first examine it with a torch. It was a tampon. Great! I started to look around the van and started seeing what I couldn’t see at night. Filth. Dirt. A random pine tree air freshener which had lost it’s scent. Rust. Corrosion. Despair. I quickly packed everything for the next travel section of the tour.

That night I played a concert in Bairnsdale to some incredible people. Once again, we stayed at another caravan park and had another sleepless night. Sometimes you get so tired that you end up telling yourself, “Who cares if I’m sleeping in filth?” We had an unspoken agreement that it wouldn’t be safe to attempt to cook, eat or drink anything in the van. In view of the other things that I could see, I didn't have a lot of faith in the gas lines I couldn't see. I deliberately didn’t look too closely at the tyres. I made the decision - we’ll return the van on our way back through Melbourne.

I made the phone call. This time I spoke with the General Manager of the company who told me that even if we’d return the van early, that we’d have to pay for the full fourteen days. He then promptly hung up on me. It was at this stage that I started to share my tale on social media. I hate doing that, but it was my only choice. Soon people started making contact with me, telling me “We sent a message to that company you posted about.”

At one stage I had a call from the owner of the campervan company. He launched into a tirade and attempted to bully me into giving up.

"You have defamed us!" he declared.

"In what way?" I asked, knowing that I'd been very careful to be very accurate in what I'd posted. The photo's I'd posted also told the true tale.

"Er..." he responded.

"Have you even read the post?" I asked.

I put my reasonable voice on and calmly told him that I’d like to return the van early, not pay for the remaining days, yet still pay for the time used. It somehow found it’s way through his tornado of words. He eventually told me to bring the van back early and he’d refund us for the unused days.

We ended up back at the depot and were given their phone - the owner wanted to talk to me again. Once again it was a wall of angry words. He demanded that I take down all social media posts regarding his company or he’d insist that we pay the full amount - including the unused days. I stood firm and questioned whether what he was asking was actually legal. He backed down, however I wasn’t sure if he’d honour what he’d promised. Fortunately, a couple of weeks later the refund came through. Phew!

It still cost us more than originally budgeted for because we had to eat out all the time, and book motels and stay with people (which I don’t mind) and hire a car. My hysteria gave way to a more usual tour finance depression but I did get to keep the twitching eye for a good while. Aah! The joys of touring!