On 31st May 2017 we fastened our seatbelts ready for take off on Qantas flight QF1 from London Heathrow to Sydney as one of the lucky winners of Heathrow’s 70th Birthday short story competition.
The prize included a fabulous 5 night stay at the ParkRoyal Hotel, Darling Harbour, after which time we were on our own and ready to set out on an incredible road trip across Australia, having extended our return flights by 6 months thanks to being able to amend our prize winning return date back to the UK.
Thinking it more economical to buy an old van and do a quick conversion into a basic camper before driving off into the sunset, we got to work on sourcing that perfect vehicle.
This is where the hard work really began, with no wheels to do the ground work, we relied on initially walking or public transport, both proved time consuming in a large city where the vans we’d found for sale online, though Facebook groups and private ads had us venturing across various districts of Sydney.
We’d been told about a one-stop used car market for the Backpacker folk located in a multi-storey undercover car park in the Kings Cross area of Sydney and aptly known as Sydney Travellers Car Market. On arrival, the place seemed deserted, an empty car park but with a small office area dutifully manned by a German traveller named Eric who informed us of a shortage of stock but happily offered to drive us towards Botany Bay where a campervan sales business was located which could be of assistance.
Jumping into his workhorse of a car, he explained en-route how the social media groups now selling various private vans, cars and campervans, had begun to take its toll on the previously thriving Car Market, where backpacker vehicles were known to change hands in quick succession in this undercover section of the multi-storey car park. Happily chatting to Eric along the way, we learned he was soon venturing off on his own road trip through Australia in his own backpacker van, which is the norm for so many in this busy backpacker community.
Pulling in to a busy industrial estate at Botany Bay on the airport side of Sydney, we passed the big boy sites of Maui and Britz, full to overflowing with rental campers of all shapes and sizes. We then arrived at the campervan rental and sales depot of Travellers Autobarn and what we’d soon come to know as the best find for us in the sequence of events to follow.
With a small selection of old ex-hire campervans on offer, some displaying bold artistically enhanced graffiti graphics, the sight of which was enough to send our older blood pressure rocketing! We instead, chose to make our excuses and obliging Eric drove us back to the Car Market where we said our farewells and wished him well on his ventures.
A few private ads took our fancy and hastily arranged viewings across town followed. We met Mike from Boston who was at the end of his road trip across Aus, unfortunately for him, the tired looking Toyota van crammed with not so fresh smelling bedding was not for us. Quickly dashing back across the other end of the city by train, we met with a young Slovakian couple. By now the heavens had opened, unleashing a torrent of torrential rain upon us, we took shelter in the back of their cramped Toyota self-build van, whist the desperate Europeans tried their best to sell the good points to us, mainly the metal fruit bowl used for washing in the morning…..yes that’s washing in not washing up in!!!
We learnt that so many youngsters do this type of trip, buy a van, a camper or basic self-build but then fail to sell in time for their flights home, leaving them no option but to move it on at rock bottom to a dealer. Winter in Sydney has fewer vans on offer and far fewer buyers, meaning even more anxious sellers trying to get rid for the best price they could. We were told that the Summer months are a different story, with role reversals in the fortunes of sellers compared to buyers who find little available in a market where even the worst choices are snapped up!
Changing tactic and having given more unwelcome news to the now soaking wet sellers, we decided to source camper dealers rather than any more private ads. Next on our list was Sean at Travellers Wheels who agreed to pick us up from Central Station to view his selection of used ex-rental Toyota campervans and cars. We had high hopes here, with online pictures looking perfectly presentable and some heavier price tags of up to $20,000, we thought we’d be falling head over heels for a shiny ex-hire model!
To be fair, the industrial unit was full of campervans but the wheels of Travellers Wheels didn’t appeal to us, as much as we willed them on to be great, we just became more frustrated at the lack of perfection available, were we just being too fussy?
Fed up with strange mould smells, worn out fitments and more stains and sticky patches than a Wetherspoons table top, we’d had enough after a week of searching and made the decision to go for the one thing left and that was to trawl the garage forecourts for an empty van.
With legs giving up the will to walk, we invested in a taxi to drive us over to Parramatta Road, a busy stretch of Sydney suburbia which is home to miles of car dealerships, rental outlets and home stores. Endless searching proved unsuccessful, vans were not cheap, certainly not particularly clean looking and most had really high mileage.
Just as we were about to give up hope of ever finding a van to suit, we stumbled upon what we thought was a perfect find for us, a 2002 Toyota Hi-Ace van, super clean and tidy despite a mileage of 360,00KM. With a price tag of $6600 and dealer warranty we’d soon have it converted to a cosy camper!
Shaking hands on a deal after a quick test drive, we paid our deposit and agreed to collect it the next morning. Before long we were heading back to the city centre to buy an Australian Sim card from the Telstra store followed by the online purchase of 3rd Party Fire & Theft insurance from Coles supermarket.
Happily driving off the next morning with the balance paid, forms filled out and handover done, we took the keys for our soon to be converted Toyota van. A quick diversion with all our dealer paperwork took us to actually register the van at the local RMS office where the very helpful staff guided us through the process. Using our accommodation address and a PO Box address that we’d already had set up, plus a registration fee of $30 per $1000 on the purchase price of the vehicle and needing 2 forms of I.D showing the full name of the new owner, we were ready to go. A UK driving licence wasn’t permitted as I.D which meant a panic moment of having to log on to an online banking account, print off the details and use this as recognition of hubby’s full name!
The whole process was pretty straightforward and unlike the DVLA, the New South Wales Registration document from the RMS office was instantly printed out and the actual new vehicle registration document given to us. The PO Box was needed in the event of any fines that could incur from driving, so as notices could be sent out.
Without further ado it was off to Bunnings DIY store for supplies to start the build of the van into a basic camper. Investing in tools to do the job, a saw, screw drivers, hammer and all those basics that we’d usually have in our tool box back home. Without the luxury of a workshop, the hotel car park would have to double up as our work area! As I relaxed in the hotel pool, hubby got to work on the conversion, lining the walls with foil insulation, applying MDF boarding to the floors and using IKEA tables to form the bed base, a rattan screen finished off the rustic look to the walls and floor whilst a hand IKEA roll mattress sprung cosily across the newly formed bed base.
IKEA provided brilliant finishing touches at reasonable prices, a bed throw threaded though curtain wire for curtains, bright fabric storage pouches, loose colourful rugs for the floor and storage containers for clothes under the bed. A portable camping stove, water containers and gas bottle, all bought from a camping store became neatly stored in the newly formed rear kitchen section, accessible from the rear tailgate door. Before we knew it after a few days hard work, the van was transformed.
Except, we had one small problem! We’d overlooked the fact that most ageing vehicles in Aus come with emissions to match!! Despite its 2002 year of manufacture, the smells coming from the otherwise perfect van, reminded us of the days spent travelling in the back of my parents old Morris Minors from the early 70’s! The van had little in the way of a catalytic convertor status to make the sweet smell of roses rather than the sickly aroma of a bygone era.
None the less we persevered, getting an extra service carried out ready for the off and investing in new tyres amongst other things amounting to a further $1500!! All to help ensure that our travels would run smoothly as we drove off into the sunset. But as much as we tried, we couldn’t adapt to the van, I’d been sceptical about not being able to stand up (yes, we are of an ageing time in our lives!!) and the idea of cooking outside for 6 months was also slightly disconcerting in the early dark cool nights of Winter.
The more we thought about it and tried to get along, the more we drifted apart, that’s the van and us I’m talking about and not literally the two of us! After all our efforts, we took the big decision to carry on with our trip without our purchase, instead choosing to source a rental camper for our big adventure across this vast continent.
We visited the main rental dealers, of Apollo, Britz and Maui but with only a few vans available and horrendously expensive prices for the length of time we needed, all were very quickly dismissed. Remembering our visit with Eric to Travellers Autobarn, we returned to their depot to enquire pleadingly on what could possibly be available for us to rent for such a long period of time at any reasonable price.
Luck was on our side, thankfully parked up in their storage yard was the van that was to become our home and travelling buddy across the amazing landscapes of Aus for duration of our trip. There was just a choice of 2 available, we climbed inside the nearest one and we were overjoyed, clean, tidy, smell free, bright and cheerful and just enough room to house the two of us, the Kuga 2-3 Berth Toyota Hi-Top Hi-Ace camper would do us just fine.
The Quotation was printed off, with a low season discounted last minute and long term rental rate of $53 per day inclusive of added protection bond, we could pick up the next day and we’d be ready to go, except for just one problem, our own van! Although we couldn’t park it in the yard at Travellers Autobarn, we could park it on the road outside, it was insured and with the New South Wales Rego, it would be fine to leave parked up until our return.
Finally, we were ready to begin our trip both happy and relieved and ready for action! We took possession of our Travellers Autobarn rental camper on the 16th June 2017, it was the best outcome in what had been a pretty stressful couple of weeks and from that moment on we never looked back.
We went on to cover an incredible 23,208KM, covering vast expanses of Australia, experiences which at times overwhelmed us, seeing, feeling and being part of the most incredible journey, both physically and mentally. We learnt so much from the rawness of it all, the delights of meeting the most interesting individuals, seeing first hand the glories of nature and witnessing the most amazing wildlife imaginable. Australia superseded all our previous expectations and instilled in us a desire and ambition for more adventure based travel across the globe to new shores that we’ve yet to explore.
Our own van was left safely parked up on the road outside their depot where it stayed until our return in the November, just needing a quick wash at the local car wash before selling it on within a couple of days of our return during the then busy Summer season, realising that we were, at our age, too fussy and were probably used to the rather finer things in life to adjust to the little basic van that we thought would work.
So all’s well that ends well, as I write today, we wouldn’t change a thing, life is after all about learning and progress, adapting and adjusting and challenging ourselves in various circumstances to better ourselves and provide inner encouragement in order to enhance our experiences of life and of those that we meet along the way. It’s only afterwards that we look back and realise those little hiccups were there to test our resilience and make us grow stronger, happier and more ambitious for the next new challenge ahead!
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