Lessons from our first month of full time Van Life
When we started our travel adventure in September 2019 we had a vague plan. We knew our first stops would be with friends (in France & Belgium), that Callum wanted to show me Amsterdam (he’d been before, I hadn’t) and that we needed to be in Munich for Oktoberfest by the end of September/beginning of October then in Malta for Christmas & New Year. Apart from that we were free to be where we wanted, when we wanted. We’d both been on ‘driving holidays’ before and on motorbike adventures through France so we thought we knew about how much to drive, how long it takes to get from one place to another etc. We had Google maps, what more did we need?!
Well, we were wrong. After a lovely week or so staying with our friends near Dinan, France we headed toward Belgium which turned out to be about a 9 hour drive (over 650km)! Doable but not in the least enjoyable. By the time we got to our friend’s house it was getting dark, we were tired and Callum’s back was really hurting. Vanlife lesson 1- slow down! We spent another few days just relaxing, exploring that part of Belgium on the bikes and spending time with my godmother. It was a great start but we’d planned another long(ish) drive for ourselves up to Amsterdam: over 3hrs and 200+km. Not so bad this time, but long enough to stress us out and feel rushed. So rushed that we had our first near disaster, in fact. Leaving Brussels, we began heading north towards Holland, sticking to the motorways (another thing that we try to avoid now!) and keeping up with traffic at about 110kmph. As the motorhome is larger and slower than most traffic, we only really leave the slow lane to overtake trucks and to give way to people coming onto the motorway from slip lanes. We were passing a service station, when a French caravan pulled onto the slip lane but didn’t start accelerating. Callum began his usual checks to make sure that there was room in the overtaking lane to pass the caravan, but there was a car overtaking us to our left. The distance was closing, the caravan was beginning to pull into the lane that we were already in and there was still a car slowly overtaking us on the outside. Suddenly we both looked up, and gasped: Traffic had slowed to a crawl just ahead of us. The problem was that we hadn’t been slowing down at all, we’d been too busy watching what everyone else was doing. Callum slammed on the brakes, steered to the left and somehow managed to thread the motorhome between the caravan to our right and the traffic jam ahead. He later told me that he’d weighed up who he was going to crash into, and running the caravan into the barriers or off the road seemed like a better idea than crashing into the back of a stationary car. Somehow (and neither of us will ever know how), he managed to avoid both and bring the motorhome to a full stop on the hard shoulder, where we sat for about 20 minutes as the adrenaline wore off and we thanked our lucky stars that we had got out without a scratch. We had come within 6 inches of ending our trip after just two weeks! The remainder of the journey was much slower, by that evening we had arrived in Amsterdam but we were thoroughly exhausted.
Whilst we were there, some friends from Jersey contacted us to say that they were heading home from a weekend at the Nürburgring in Germany. They were headed for a theme park in Holland called Efteling and did we want to join them? It was just a couple of hours from Amsterdam and heading south, in the right direction for our next stop in Luxembourg, so we said “Yes”. Vanlife lesson 2- go with the flow. Say “Yes!” more often. Even though it was raining a lot during our time at Efteling we had such a great day. We were surprised how incredible the park itself was (Disneyland quality) and so happy to see friends from home. As anyone who visits theme parks knows though; it was another long, tiring day. 2 weeks in and we’d already been to 3 countries & driven over 1000km. We’d done lots of great things & met some of our favourite people but REALLY needed to stop and relax. Where was the chilled vanlife we had hoped for?
Luxembourg did not give us that! We spent about 4hrs trying to navigate the ring road into Luxembourg city centre. Frustratingly, there were major roadworks on the main roundabout which kept spitting us out back where we’d come from so were driving round & round in circles, following diversions & trying to get back to the right place for hours. We finally found a route into town & to the only campsite in Luxembourg but by then it was just after 11pm & were told, in no uncertain terms, that they were closed for the night. Our only choice was to ‘free camp’, also known as ‘wild camping’. Thankfully we had downloaded an app called ‘park4night’ and through this we found a sports centre car park where we could stay. It was noisy with people and cars going by all night & we were scared of being told to move on so we really didn’t get much sleep. The next morning we were up early & got out of there. Sorry Luxembourg, maybe one day we’ll get to see more of you.
We headed for southern Germany & one of my favourite places: the Schwarzwald (Black Forest). This was a test for Callum’s driving, bearing in mind we’d mainly been sticking to motorways so far. Winding mountain roads took us to a quaint little campsite near Bad Wildbad- one of the best place names we’ve come across! The campsite owners were really friendly & helpful. They showed us where to park, how everything worked and what was near them that we could explore. After cycling to the next town on the mountain roads accompanied by lots of ‘beeps’ and fist waving we found the cycle track back through the forest. Every corner we turned gave us breathtaking views, the cycle tracks had been brilliantly executed (of course, we were in Germany) and we found our way to Bad Wildbad- a spa town. Excellent! We LOVE spas, swimming and thermal baths. What we didn’t know, until we saw lots of naked spas users, is that this was a spa where you had to be naked to enter some areas. After some deliberation and embarrassment we decided to embrace the experience and made our way to the rooftop pool, where everyone was completely naked, and then also to our first fully naked massage which was a bit weird but so very much needed.
Also in Bad Wildbad we found a funicular railway that took us up to the top of the mountain, with our bicycles (the Sommerbergbahn Bergstation). At the top we started exploring and came across a treetop walk which rose 25m above the forest floor, then led to an incredible spiral wooden tower (the Baumwipfelpfad Schwarzwald) which reached 44m high! The views from the top, over the forest, were just magnificent. Definitely worth a visit if you are ever in the area (check out our YouTube channel for a video). Unfortunately the spiral slide down was closed due to high winds, we might just have to go back another time to experience that. We now had two choices: do we go back down to town on the railway and cycle back along the cycle track (ie the sensible option)? Or do we try to make our own way down the mountain on our electric folding bikes? There was only ever going to be one answer! There were some vehicle access lanes, for parts of the way down the mountain. Most of it though was made up of near vertical dirt tracks, perfect for mountain bikes or dirt bikes. Not so perfect for our nearly new electric city bikes. But, wow! It was fun!! The andrenaline was pumping and we made some unforgettable memories that day.
Munich for Oktoberfest was our next stop, not too long a drive this time but we needed to refuel the motorhome with diesel and fill up with gas in the refillable canisters (we have a gasflo system). It was our first time refilling the gas canisters and we were a bit wary- the system hissed and popped a lot as it was being filled- but we did it and carried on our journey towards Munich. We could smell gas for a little while after filling, which we thought was probably normal, but after an hour or so the smell hadn’t gone away. We pulled over in a layby and discovered that the seal of one of the welded parts of one of the two canisters was leaking gas. What do we do now? We couldn’t go to a campsite whilst we were leaking gas. We needed help and we needed it NOW! Thankfully motorhoming is hugely popular in Germany so we easily found a motorhome dealer. The owners were really helpful and found a ‘gas guy’ for us, who was about 20 minutes away from their site. The ‘gas guy’ was called Gunnar and he was probably one of the coolest guys we’ll meet. Different countries have different systems, connectors and canisters, thankfully he keeps an assortment of bottles and connectors. After a few minutes of sifting through his site, he swapped our British canister for an old skool German one that he had at his ‘gas place’.
After such a stressful day we just wanted to get to the campsite and fall asleep. We’d totally forgotten about Oktoberfest until we were surrounded by what looked like an 18-30s holiday. Oktoberfest turned out to be a bit of a wash out: it rained pretty much every day over the next 4 days & Callum also wasn’t well either so our beer drinking was minimal. The Oktoberfest carnival was pretty cool, but really busy & each aisle was just a repeat of others we’d just walked through. It was good to tick it off our list but I’m not sure I’d go back again, Callum might with his friends next time. Munich itself was a different story. Bike friendly & people friendly the city was perfect for exploring. We had decided to try out a ‘secret city trail’ which is a paid for scavenger hunt that you download to your phone. You follow clues & answer riddles to guide yourself around the city. It was about €20 and well worth it. We certainly wouldn’t have see so much of the city without it. We even made our own for St Helier, in Jersey.
As we were preparing to leave Munich we were contacted by another friend, who was heading from Austria to visit her mother in southern Germany, a little further east. She asked if we would like to join her there in a few days. Of course, we said “yes” (remember rule number 2) and made our way to stay near Lake Chiemsee and some of the most beautiful natural landscapes we had yet to come across. We were finally starting to live the proper ‘vanlife’ that we’d read about. We spent a few days relaxing by the lake and then she showed us around the area including one of the coolest swimming baths we’d ever seen. We happened to be swimming in the outside pools as the sun set & the sky turned orange then red then purple. What an experience!
Our first month had been so busy, too busy! We had already visited 5 countries & driven over 2000km. We needed to slow down, but how do we learn to change pace? Our next few months of fulltime travel gave us exactly that chance.