I was the last of my friends, and the majority of my family, to travel. This meant that I had a wealth of experience to draw upon. Several friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, family members and the odd homeless person on the street wanting to give me advice on what I should and should not do about all the places I ‘had’ to see.
I wanted a spontaneous adventure. I needed an unplanned, unscripted journey that created stories that could not be found in the bottom of a beer bottle on a Contiki tour. As fun as those booze cruises are, it was not what I was after. I wanted to make it up as I went along, make my own mistakes and form my own memories.
That is how I ended up travelling around Scotland in an old Royal Mail van.
In the lead up to my departure I had been in contact with a couple of blokes that I knew from my university days. We knew each other pretty well and had even played in some sporting sides together back in Australia. I was aware that one was now based in London, teaching English school children, while the other was cruising around mainland Europe somewhere, gallivanting through the countryside. They were both the carefree, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants people I wanted to travel with.
They had been able to purchase a retired Royal Mail van for only £400. A price like that is either a warning or a bargain. The advertising had been removed leaving it a faded, red colour. The back door was lockable only by padlock and it had a staggering 400,000 kilometres on the odometer. There were enough rust spots that you could have confused it with a ginger Dalmatian. In fact, there was so much rust that while we were driving around, exhaust fumes would waft into the van, leading us to believe that somewhere towards the back door was a hole that would require attention if we were to remain alive by the end of the first day.
The difficulty was that it was only a two seat vehicle. How do you comfortably fit three people into a two seat car to travel 1300 miles? As a solution, and without questioning the details, one of the lads acquired an old mattress. It was squeezed into the back of the van in such a way that the edges had to curl up the walls and I was guaranteed it had been deloused and disinfected. The third passenger could then be relegated to the back, forced to sit on the mattress behind the wall of backpacks specifically designed to hide them from the prying eyes of other motorists and, more importantly, the police. Cars travelling behind us had a direct line of sight into the back of our van. This was a problem. Concerned citizens had an unimpeded view of the comfortable, albeit dodgy and slightly illegal, set up we had created. A towel quickly took care of the issue although it rendered the rear-view mirror more of a decoration than a safety device. This left the third person sitting in the dark, gear piled up around them, diving for cover whenever the driver spotted a police vehicle.
To save money, we were going to sleep on the side of the road. Two blokes could easily fit side by side in the back of the van and one of us had already decreed that he was happy to sleep under a tarp outside. This was great news for me. Having done outdoor recreation at university, roughing it was not a new concept. But this was my first big trip. I wanted to be as comfortable as possible. I planned on gluing myself to that mattress and was going to sleep there no matter what.
Cooking arrangements had been taken care of in the days before we left. We had found a disused Webber style barbeque. It was the kind that used charcoal bricks and needed some sort of flammable liquid to get started. In a comedy film, these barbeques start fires, burn meat and embarrass their owners whilst smoking out the rest of the street. Being pressed for space, we came to a compromise- instead of taking the whole barbeque, with all our cooking needs taken care of, we took the wire grill and a pot. You never know when you’ll need a pot. It was a sure fire way to save space and clearly we had faith in our fire starting abilities. In reality it was fairly minimalistic, but was one of the easier decisions we had to make.
In terms of entertainment, I managed to purchase a cassette tape adapter which allowed us to play our own music if we found the local radio too hard to handle. It’s not that we didn’t like British radio; we just felt that we needed to hear more than the same twenty songs that were repeated on every station. If you have ever caught a glimpse of the U.K. music charts, you could pretty well assume that they were the tunes you were going to hear. Occasionally there were some news reports about places we knew nothing about in accents we found increasingly confusing. With this in mind, we were aware we would need the odd break. That news services felt it appropriate to detail the results of every football match in the European Union also influenced our decision.
I had managed to secure The Lion King soundtrack on cassette from an opportunity shop prior to departure in the hope of adding to our musical options. It was conveniently the only one I could find. In a world of CD’s and iPod’s, cassettes are as easy to find as an Australian who admits to drinking Fosters. It was required to balance out our entertainment choices. We did have a guitar on board but it was missing two strings and, more importantly, we each only knew how to play one song. As much fun as it is to listen to Duelling Banjo’s played out of tune, you cannot do it for an extended period of time. It’s easier listening to a seven year old practice playing Chopsticks for five hours straight on the piano. The Lion King, then, seemed like a solid solution. Childhood classics can consistently be relied on to pass the time, but before long listening to Elton John wailing about the Circle of Life and having the words “Hakuna Matata” implanted in your brain, loses its lustre. It’s a lot like shots of tequila; it seems like a great idea at the time.
The logistics of planning a road trip in expensive countries such as England and Scotland can be quite convoluted. It makes you consider elements that you had never contemplated would matter. When every little cent or penny counts, keeping the costs to a minimum becomes crucial. You will amaze yourself at what you can do without and yet still have an amazing experience.
Our next decision, which route to take…