283. Camping in Calais

IMG_5446 (640x480)Once we arrived on the continent with our campervan we very quickly learnt there were a few things we hadn’t quite thought through. The most pressing of which was where to park up and sleep, as it was about 11pm, and we had just completed a journey that felt exactly like The Amazing Race, with very little sleep.

The point of our campervan journey was to save both transport and accomodation costs, as well as see a whole bunch of places. But the difficulty is planning where exactly to stop when you settle in for the night. There are plenty of campsites available, but when searching around online for locations and prices, some of them seemed to be even more expensive than staying in a hostel. Not ideal.

Our first concern was safety, so we thought we would find somewhere close to public facilities and well lit, but also subtle enough so people won’t be able to spot that there were two girls sleeping in the van. We found a carpark near the shops, and there was an open subway there (also ideal for a nearby bathroom). However, the subway closed shortly after and all that were pubs. Drunk old men stumbling around? No thanks. So we were back to square one on the safety front and instead decided to follow the signs to the camping ground. (Called a ‘Camping’ in French). Once there, there was no office or anything, so we found ourselves a spot, confused as to how we were meant to pay. Eventually we spotted a sign that said someone comes around in the morning. However, we were on the road before we managed to find the person we were supposed to pay, so that was a win I guess…

The second problem we encountered was storage. As our campervan was actually a converted Toyota Previa, it was very compact. Accurately described by Spaceships UK as “The swiss army knife of campervans” there were compartments galore, but barely enough space to store everything. Our plan of including a third friend quickly had to be scrapped, and first on the agenda after a night’s sleep was stopping off at the nearest equivalent we could find to The Warehouse or IKEA to get some cheap plastic boxes. Living out of this bad boy for 5 weeks would definitely require some serious organisation! Luckily it was actually really comfortable to sleep in.

On the plus side, it came with some excellent gadgets – a little fridge, picnic table/chairs and awnings, a DVD player, and probably the thing that made our lives most do-able was a power adapter so we could charge our laptops and phones whilst driving. We even considered purchasing a low voltage hair straightener to go with.

Next issue: bathrooms. It quickly dawned on us that we were going to have to think ahead about every time we would need to go to the toilet. East enough when you are on the highway or in the centre of a city, but an important consideration when you stop for the night! As well as making toilet plans, not knowing for sure when/where your next shower would be was just the strangest sensation. Turns out our plan of not making plans might need a bit of revision. After we departed Calais in the morning, our next destination was Dunkirk. First stop was stocking up on groceries and storage, the next was Dunkirk’s Olympic Swimming Pool for showers!

The final problem, which proved to be the most crucial, was the exterior of the van itself. The bloody thing was bright orange! Could you be more conspicuous? To add insult to injury, there were stickers on it that said “Traveller’s Adventures.” Sadly we had been falsely assured by the rental company that ‘no-one can really tell its a campervan, so you can just park anywhere to sleep.’ Worst advice ever. But more on that dilemma later…

278. When Life Became “The Amazing Race”

The task was simple. Fly from Amsterdam to London, pick up campervan, drive through Euro-tunnel to France, begin awesome camping adventure around Europe.

Well, that turned out to be the biggest false assumption of summer. Within about 5 minutes of setting off on this adventure, it had began to be a very difficult mission, and began to resemble an episode of “The Amazing Race.”

The first hurdle was getting to the airport at 5am. As we left with all our packs, waddling down to the tram stop, we waited a wee while for the tram that was supposed to come by to take us to an airport train, but anxiety levels were on the increase. With no trams in sight, it was time for a quick check of travel times, in which we decided our plans were probably far too ambitious and we weren’t likely to make it to the airport. Time for a Detour, or maybe a fast forward, depending on how you look at it! We opted to grab a taxi, though the next hurdle was finding one at 5am on a weekday in the suburbs! We spotted a hotel down the road and asked the concierge to call us one. I don’t think he saw us walking in the door so probably assumed we were staying there, which proved handy, as he started carrying our bags around! When the taxi driver arrived, he was definitely on the conservative side with his estimate of the distance to the airport, which made for an anxious ride, but in the end we made it just in time, and the price was less than that of a new flight.

Once at the airport, a bit of a “road block” as he dropped us in completely the wrong place! A bit of sprinting around like headless chickens later we managed to get to our check-in desk in the nick of time.

Once arriving in London (with a major grilling at customs, despite heading back out of the country less than 24 hours later!), the next task was navigating through the underground system and finding the rental company. The underground was a total mess, as they completed the last of the pre-olympics works. The timetables were pretty much no help at all, and we took forever, getting beached at a few stations to finally get where we wanted to go. Once we eventually got to the right station, we were really in the middle of nowhere. Once again waddling around with all our bags,  trying to find a street sign so we could correctly orientate our terrible map!

Finally, around midday, we found the tiny, barely marked office of ‘Spaceships UK’ and went through a very long process of paperwork, and probably really annoyed the poor man as we asked a million questions and got them to show us everything from how to set up all the awnings etc to how to check the oil. Better safe than sorry! To be fair, they also left as waiting as they were trying to add a whole bunch of stickers with their logo etc to the van and slogans like “traveller’s adventures.” We had a bit of a debate with them over that, saying “Don’t you think that kind of screams out ‘rob me I’m a tourist’?” As they assured us it would be fine, we eventually got them to cut back on some of the tacky branding. We later learned we probably should have been a bit more adamant on that front…

Next stop, driving. As I pulled out of the carpark and set off, it was incredibly stressful – who would have thought that only 6 months of driving on the right side of the road would cause me to have to think twice about everything when driving on the left! So we switched drivers – Claire would drive on the left, and I’d take over when we were on the right in France!

What should have been a simple drive down to Dover also turned out to be quite complex! When I’d looked up prices to get over to France, the Eurotunnel and ferry were about the same, so we opted for the tunnel as it was faster. After plugging it into the GPS, we then discovered she was pretty free and easy with her direction giving, often telling us to turn left after we’d gone past etc. We got there in the end, only to find out that even though it is a tunnel, you actually have to book in a time to drive across and purchase tickets in advance, or they go up in price. Who would have thought? Though of course it took a long time to work this out, as we pulled up to a whole bunch of unmanned gates that did everything electronically. After literally driving around in circles we managed to find one where we could press a button and ask for help, and a woman appeared from God knows where. After informing us of the rules, she then told us it would cost almost £250 to drive through the tunnel and the next opening wasn’t for another few hours! Ummm no thanks.

So we opted to take the detour down to the ferry, and hope we could get on one that night. As we neared the town of Dover and the harbour, there were actual roadblock and detour signs everywhere, and the odd one that simply said “Event !” We had no idea what was going on, but we couldn’t get to the ferry. We decided to head toward the town, find a petrol station and ask what was going on. As we got closer there was a lot more sign-age and advertising and we realised that the olympic torch was arriving off the ferry, touching down in the UK for the first time. Well we could hardly be annoyed at being held up if it meant we had the opportunity to see the Olympic torch! So we parked up and headed in to town to join the crowds and check it out. It was about 6pm by this stage.

Once all the crowds dispersed, we head to the harbour and tried to investigate the ferry. We definitely had some deja vu as we drove around a massive complex, following arrows and lanes and signs, having to go through what I like to call “car customs” where they looked around with torches to make sure we weren’t smuggling drugs or illegal immigrants, walked through a huge empty office complex and finally found a little wee building before we could even enquire about tickets, let alone get on a ferry. Luckily the different companies had desks in the same building, and we managed to get a ticket to the 9pm ferry. The whole day had been cold, miserable and rainy, we’d been up since 5am, and finally at 11pm we touched down on French soil!

The next problem, which we’d been a bit preoccupied to work out, was where to park up and sleep. We decided to head into the town centre of Calais, and we found a big, well lit car-park  Problem was there were some bars around, and we didn’t fancy the safety factor of trying to sleep where there were drunks about! There was some sign-age to a campsite/campervan park so we headed there and at last we could relax. Definitely made us think a bit of advanced planning of where to actually sleep each night was a very good idea!

All in all a marathon of a day, including 3 countries, 4 cities, a taxi ride, a flight, 5 trains, and a ferry ride. I just wish there was a prize! Getting a photo with the Olympic torch was a good bonus though I suppose…