Sunday, October 6, 2013

Just an old hippy

Deep down, maybe I’m an old hippy at heart. Why else would I have felt such nostalgia last weekend when I read of the death of the Volkswagen campervan?

At the end of the year, the very last Type 2, as it was officially called (Type 1 being the VW beetle), will roll off its production line in Brazil, killed off by health and safety’s requirements for airbags and anti-lock brakes. 

Kombi, bus, dormobile, whatever you call it, this was the most iconic, adored vehicle of the 60s and 70s: workhorse, surfboard-carrier and love shack, owned by overlanders, caravanners, celebrities, and me. 

I bought one in 1979, when my girlfriend Jilly and I decided to take a year out of our BBC lives and drive to India. We couldn’t afford a brand new, fully equipped, chromium-bumpered version, and, besides, we wouldn’t be seen dead in something called a “Devon”, designed for Caravan Club sites in the Lakes. 

Instead we paid £2,000 in cash for an old blue builder’s van with a “high top”, hired a joiner in Croydon to convert it with fridge, two-burner cooker and built-in mosquito nets, while Jilly made blue and white checked curtains and smart blue covers for the cushions. 

It had a bench seat at the front, which you had to climb over to reach the fridge, and the back seat folded down into a bed (which was only 4 foot wide to accommodate the wardrobe beside it). There was a table stored behind the fridge which swung outside when the sliding door was opened so we could sit and watch the sunset. 

We named it Mutton, because it was really a piece of old tat dressed as lamb, but we loved it, our home for an entire year. 

We drove across Europe, the Middle East, then across the Saudi Arabian desert. We hoisted it onto a wooden dhow, which perilously carried it across the Arabian Sea to Pakistan. We drove it all around India, right up to the Himalayas, where we got married in a Tibetan ceremony, with Mutton parked outside. Oh yes, we were hippies alright: we still have pictures to prove it. 

Mutton had a top speed of 75, not that we ever reached anywhere near that, even with the desert winds of Baluchistan behind us. It didn’t actually accelerate, more urge itself along the roads, its 60bhp engine growling in the back like a cross lawnmower. 

It had petrol cans strapped to the roof and a spare wheel on the front, which saved the life of a buffalo we hit outside Bombay. We never bothered to remove the dent. 

Over 25,000 miles of dusty potholes, Mutton hardly ever broke down. That’s probably because there wasn’t a lot of technology to break. It needed a few spark plugs, and I learned how to replace the clutch cable myself, a feat that gave me such satisfaction, I am still writing about it more than 30 years later. 

We’d filled the wooden boxes under the seats with essentials: mostly packets of Batchelor’s dried beef stroganoff, Supertramp cassettes, and bottles of gin. Most of the food remained unopened, for we ate from roadside cafés, or stewed up vegetables on our stove. We finally fed the last packet of stroganoff to our Sherpa in Nepal, who so was violently sick I had to carry his rucksack as well as ours across the high mountain passes. 

Every night at 6pm, we’d pull off the road, swing back the sliding door and, with gin and the BBC World Service news, toast our families and our survival. 

Mutton was part of our family. Back in England, after our son Ben was born, we would drive off most weekends to find a field to sleep in. When our family grew, Mutton wasn’t quite big enough. We cried when we exchanged it for a larger, more impersonal, Fiat Ducato. Things were never the same again: we divorced shortly afterwards. 

I’m pleased that Jilly never shed her love of Mutton, and still owns a campervan to this day. Meanwhile I’m perfectly happy in a hotel, thank you. 

So maybe I’m not quite such a hippy after all.


ADDY said...

I remember the Camper Vans for sale outside Bush House when the Ozzies were done touring Europe

Anonymous said...

Aw, Mutton sounds fab, I love campervans and am very jealous of your travels!