"So where do you want to go?"
"Cool, ok lets go then"
That’s how it began, the mad trip from London, through France, Belgium, The Netherlands, on to Germany and back, that would soon be known as Van tour 2007.
Well, not The Van Tour - an annual pilgrimage where a whole bunch of Aussies, Kiwis, South Africans and others, pack up their belongings into rusted buckets of campervans, held together by paint and superglue, and hit all the major summer tourist destinations in a loud, alcoholic, convoy of destruction and social disgrace... But close...
Our plan began as an overland journey through Western Europe to meet up with our great friends Ela and Darek, for their party in August. The thing is, once we got on the road we realised that the party wasn’t until 15 September. The same night as the rugby world cup match we had organised tickets for some 10 months earlier. Not only had we botched plans to help them celebrate their recent wedding, now we had a full tank of gas, four weeks to fill in before the rugby, a well thumbed lonely planet guidebook and no idea where we should go.
"Lets go to the beach for a few days"
After arriving in Calais, we trolled the northern beaches of France and Belgium looking for what would pass for a beach - even a muddy swamp would have sufficed if there was a hint of direct sunlight and a little less than gale force winds.
We did find a nice deserted beach called Oye Plage. Peppered with War ruins, bunkers and machine gun pits it proved to be a very eerie sight on an early morning run.
That’s right fans, an early morning run. We have started running again and we both look very very buff.
Surrounding the Oye Plage area is a stretch of coast housing many bird hides and nature trails. With our recently educated bird watching eyes we had a bit of a go at spotting avian rarities. Not much to report there though I’m afraid - I guess it is a lot easier at the Wetlands Centre in London, with a professional guide at your side helping out.
Northern Belgium was packed to the gunnells with summer tourists seeking sun and sand. Though there wasn't any sun, the sand was a plenty. Practically the entire coastline of Belgium is one massive beach resort. The road that follows the coastline is lined with apartments, restaurants, carnivals and children riding 4 person bikes that look like dune buggies - in traffic. Suffice to say it was pretty slow going.
Somewhere along the way Meaghan read about Texel in the Netherlands. An island surrounded by flat sand beaches. So off we went back to the Netherlands. Our first port of call was Rotterdam. What to say of Rotterdam - it was big and it has a really nice
campsite. It does seem to be less hip than its big sister Amsterdam. But... In the Zoo in Rotterdam there is a Gorilla called Bokito.
Bokito spends most of his time sitting at the window of his enclosure looking back at the people that come to look at him. One of those people is a woman who visits him often, smiling and waving at him. One day, Bokito was taunted by some of the visitors and apparently was subsequently in a pretty bad mood. When his special lady friend came to visit (waving and smiling) his natural instinct apparently took over and he acknowledged the smile - apparently quite an offensive thing to do to a great ape - by jumping the safety moat of his enclosure, grabbing his special lady friend, dragging her into a full café and beating the daylights out of her in front of the assembled masses enjoying their apple cake and lattes.
Strange but true - type in Bokito in You Tube if you don’t believe me...
We didn’t go to the zoo and we didn’t meet Bokito, both he and his special lady friend are safe and well now though.
After Rotterdam we had another weekend in Amsterdam - the city of red lights, coffeeshops and canals. Do yourself a favour - go to Amsterdam. Should you go, check out the Canal Bikes - a system of ferries and pedal boats that allow you to hop on and hop off around the City. We hired a pedal boat and toured the canals of Amsterdam for a couple of hours - they are really cool, you can pick up the boat in one location and drop it off on the other side of town - it is a really good way of seeing parts of the city that many of the visitors to Amsterdam would not otherwise see.
Another must see is the red light district - Coffee Shops, Sex Shows and the infamous windows lining the streets, Women and Men of all shapes and sizes parading their wares for the passers by. It is a strange thing to be amongst bucks nights, tour groups, families and locals in such a buzzing area of the city. We walked around for hours, and hours.
After Amsterdam we headed to Texel. An island surrounded by flat sand beaches, caught in the midst of an eternal cyclone - apparently. The beach was great, the towns on the island were small, slow paced and welcoming. The Campsite was really cool, nestled in amongst the dunes that shelter the towns from the wind.
The Wind... Yes.. We endured 5 days of gale force winds that threatened to launch the tent - with us inside - into flight (like a now famous jumping castle ride at the Dandy Show some years back) until we finally succumbed and headed for Germany.
Again reading the Lonely Planet, Megs read about a medieval town called Goslar in the German Harz mountains. A small town, surrounded by dark mountains, steeped in myths of witches, with a few hundred year old Glockenspiel - sounded just like a Hostel style horror film. Sounded great.
Following with the hostel theme, when we got to the campsite at Goslar we were greeted by the manager - a hairy, grumpy, evil looking woman - more interested in her taxidermic displays surrounding the office than us. We headed into town - and just like in the Hostel film we stumbled on a wine festival - we even had an Aussie wine. Then we broke down. The Starter motor gave way so we had to follow our non English speaking Recovery Mechanic out of town to a deserted industrial site. The van would not be ready until after the weekend so we had arranged a hotel back in town.
"No bus, no taxi, walk..."
Ok, luckily that was the end of the hostel parallels and we were able to enjoy a weekend in a top range hotel courtesy of RAC UK. If you have to breakdown in Europe and you are covered by RAC - you could choose worse days than a Friday afternoon to breakdown.
Goslar is a beautiful city that retains most of its medieval charm and has not yet fully been consumed by tourism. Hotels are cheap, beers are very cheap - the only problem - one shared by much of Europe - is dubbing. They love it, every English program and film we saw on TV that entire weekend was dubbed. Why?!?!?!?!?!?
We had also planned on catching up with one of my high school mates from Bunbury, but his work schedule and our travel dates just did not meet this time. But as we plan to be in this hemisphere for a bit longer yet, I’m sure we'll catch up with Shane and his family in the near future.
After Goslar we toured around the Northern coastline of Germany and Netherlands on route to Groningen, and our good friends Lowrens and Marianne. On the way we had occasion to have a quite van warming at a town called Esens Benesiel in Germany. The town is nestled on the coast by a nature reserve in the very North Western coastline. Anyway, a couple of hours later and we were both three sheets to the wind and retired early. The next day - the only sunny day on Van tour to date was a day of quiet repose and recuperation. We had not only warmed the van, but apparently, with the help of some really cheap and somewhat dodgy Aldi rum, we had nearly succeeded in burning it down. But after an extension to the stay and a good pasta meal we were back and ready to continue on towards The Netherlands.
We spent a week with Lowrens and Marianne in Groningen in their new castle on the other side of town. That week proved to be the most tiring week of the trip - they were determined to be primo hosts and ensured that every day had a new adventure for us. We spend a couple of days aboard their pirate ship cruising the canals of Friesland. Followed the next day by a 50 km round trip bike ride in storm conditions up to Pieterburen to check out the Seal Rescue and Research Centre. That was a real eye opener. Every year seal cubs are orphaned by natural and not so natural causes in the North Sea. Many of them are found undersize and struggling for survival on the beaches of Northern Holland. This place takes them in and gets them back to strength for ultimate re release. Like the London Wetlands Centre, the Seal Rescue and Research Centre survives mostly on donations. They do an amazing job, also heavily involved in clearing the discarded commercial fishing nets from the North Sea environs. Many of the seals bear the scars of being caught in these nets when they arrive at the Centre.
Boating with Lowrens and Marianne
We also had the rare opportunity to experience the rather curious sport of Korf Ball. Similar in many respects to Netball, Korfball is a national obsession and the only sport I am aware of that must be played in mixed teams. Lowrens and Marianne are in pre season training at the moment for a regional Friesland team.
Then we went to the swimming centre. That was really really ace! There was a waterslide (a fast, twisting turning dark waterslide that we spent hours on) a wave pool, a whirlpool pool, a spa, sauna.. Oh man it was an awesome way to recharge at the end of van tour and get ready for the return to England.
The newest addition to the castle
We said our farewells again to Lowrens and Marianne and headed back to Hoek Van Holland to catch our overnight ferry to Harwich. Although sad to be saying goodbye to our friends we were pretty excited about our ferry crossing. I had made an expensive mistake when booking the ferry and we ended up in a Captain Class cabin, which meant we had complimentary mini bar, TV, double bed, forward facing front row windows and movies all night - in English.
Well rested we returned to Harwich and made the final drive back to London in Timmy the Talbot Van. Having advertised him for sale as we left Holland we planned to test the waters and sell him early if we had enough interest, otherwise drive him to Istanbul after the rugby.