The People's Guide To Mexico
Carl's Mexico Notebook

Archive Issue for 29 June 2001

Speaking of... The Perfect RV

by Wild Wayne

As the old saying goes, "Different strokes for different folks." In reality, there is no such thing as the perfect RV. Cold Mountain, that crafty ancient Chinese sage, gave some good advice on this subject and others: "Do whatever works, whatever doesn't, don't."

After roaming thousands of miles across North America and Europe/Africa in various VW vans, Ed Buryn, author of the classic "Vagabonding in the USA", came to the (questionable) conclusion that a diminutive VW Bug was the best touring camper going. He yanked the back seat out of a used, 1963 volks sedan and built a plywood platform to sleep on. Why a bug? "The true beauty of the arrangement is that the small size of the vehicle forces both economy and simplicity on the traveler(s)." Those are Ed's sentiments, not mine. At the other end of the scale, we have monster Class A's with oak hardwood floors, gold plated sink faucets and towed vehicles!

The vast majority of nomads will be looking for something in between those two extremes. As a lot of people do, my wife and I started out with a car and tent. On our honeymoon trip up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, that form of transport and living quickly fizzled out. In some primitive campgrounds frequented by problem bears, tenting was actually illegal and we ended up sleeping in the backseat of our aging Dodge Dart (which, as I recall, consumed about 3 gallons of oil on the trip!). So began my quest for a cheap, relatively-bearproof camping vehicle and my ongoing association with the venerable VW van.

Our first van was a passenger type with no pop-top. I yanked the rear seat out and built a large plywood cabinet which we could sleep on (and which held all our camping gear -- at times, including our folding Folbot). We slept in the van and cooked outside with a one burner Coleman stove. That's my idea of simplicity. And it was bear-proof (although on a trip through Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, we had a midnight visit from a bruin who tried to open our side door with his/her paw -- luckily it was locked!) After going through an engine or two and putting on an excess of 100,000 miles on that vehicle, we sold it in preparation for a move to Australia.

For an Aussie slant on the perfect RV (our made-in-Australia daughter, and my wife and I, all hold dual Canadian-Australian citizenship), read "Outback Touring" by Ross McLelland and "Outback Australia on a Budget" by Brian Sheedy. Sheedy's fair dinkum book holds much that can be applied to travel in the Americas, including Mexico. And Aussies are real backroads travelers, blessed as they are with something called "Long Service Leave". You bust your butt for the same company for 15 years or more and they give you paid leave for an extended sabbatical. This is gradually accumulated as a stocked-up benefit as you put your time in. What a deal! Why don't we do that here in North America? It would sure prevent a lot of burnout and discontent. Some of these leaves can total six months, which provides a good deal of time to bum around the sun-burned country. Everything from bicycles to campervans to trailers ("caravans") to motorhomes can be seen on their byways and highways. For our 2 and a half months exploration before returning to Canada, we used a tiny Mazda 323 stationwagon with a large 4 man tent. Although there were some VW vans around, I couldn't master the left-handed shift of the old '70s manuals!

Even with the little Mazda and a two-year old in tow, we managed to sneak down sandy tracks next to the Murray River and camp out with kangaroos bounding by in the night and flocks of 50+ sulphur-crested cockatoos screaming at us to wake up. Did I see any one else on our quarter mile of sand bar? Nope. And this was in a well-known national park. No motorhomes or Class B's here because you could get stuck in the sand on the way in, which kept most folks at bay. I spotted a few 4X4's and larger truck type vehicles with large trailers, though. We also used the same trusty vehicle to poke into a few beachside campsites along the coast of Queensland (near where a PO'd male cassowary with growing offspring chased me around our wagon, the Silver Bullet). Who needs the "Perfect RV" for that? I used the same vehicle I drove in hectic Melbourne city traffic (on the 'wrong' side) for 5 years and still managed to do OK.

To each their own. An old article in Trailer Life (April 1980, pages 142-143) documents the around-the-world adventures of a retired couple from England. What did they use? A four cylinder mini-bus with a 16 and a half foot camperized interior (no pop-top). And they didn't use a fridge or ice chest either. Simple. Economical. And it worked for them. In "Gypsying After Forty" by Robert Harris (John Muir, 1987), Harris and his wife vagabonded around Europe in a modest, four cylinder Ford campervan. His advice? "Before you purchase a big van (ie motorhome) rent one and travel to small and charming villages. The great wide van gets stuck between buildings on narrow streets; the long chassis wedges at tight corners. Check the amount of fuel a van-monster guzzles. High consumption can break a budget. Our rule is: 17 mpg or better. Overseas fuel prices can run twice or three times higher than North America's top cost."

Returning to Canada after our stint down under, we immediately purchased a 5 year-old 1989 VW Westphalia. Compared to our rusty old '73, this thing felt and drove like a Cadillac. Captains chairs with arm rests! Heat in the winter time! And a pop-top to put an end to the stooped backs! Not to mention an engine that actually held its own on an uphill slog. To us, this was decadence, not mere luxury. (It took me six, guilt-ridden months to actually accept I was the owner of such an outlandish rig.) With tinted windows in the back, it also gave us privacy without resorting to closing curtains. I've had people stick their nose to within inches of the side window and not see me sitting inside. Then there was was the time a woman decided to change right next to our van, thinking no one was inside (three of us were!), but I digress.

On a trip last year to the wilds of British Columbia, it got us over stream-guttered, old logging roads to record-sized Douglas fir and miles of mountain meadowlands. No truck campers, Class A,B or C motorhomes or other heavyweights to be seen anywhere. And all I managed was a little dent in my tail pipe. Of course, you could get around the access problem by hauling along a small motorbike like John and Liz Plaxton do (See their book "Mexico and Central America by Campervan"...their "campervan" was actually a 23 foot Class C.) If you happen to be physically on the large side, a campervan may be awkward for a couple or small family to live in. So use a smaller Class C or other RV, instead.

For real life, real time examples of the possibilities of small RV travel in the southern latitudes, try the following two websites: Latin Latitudes (I think they could have gone leaner, but if it suits them, it's "perfect") and Los Ligato Overland Adventure (my kind of travelers...a 23 year-old VW Westphalia touring the world!). Again, if you need something bigger, go for it. Just remember that you won't be able to get into the real interesting stuff unless you drag a bike or motorbike along.

Another book to have (and you may do mad things like quit work after you read it) is "Continental Drifting" by Darwin Wile. It comes with a CD that holds 500 enticing photos. As described in the American Birding Association's book catalog for spring 2001 (1-800-634-7736): "Continental Drifting begins in the early seventies describing how Darwin and his family followed a dream by leaving the conventional life and becoming 'drifters', traveling the world in a Volkswagen pop-top camper. During the next 25 years he develops from a casual birder into a respected world birder." He could have also become a respected anthropologist, linguist, entomologist, beach bum or anything else he desired. The world's your pearl -- go for it!!

And so ends the sermon for the day. Adios and good luck with the website! By the way, your books are the best travel stuff ever written (although you've probably heard that a few thousand times by now).

Outback Touring by Ross McLelland [out of print]
"Outback Australia on a Budget" by Brian Sheedy
Vagabonding in the USA by Ed Buryn
Gypsying After Forty by Robert Harris (used)
Mexico and Central America by Campervan by John and Liz Plaxton
Continental Drifting by Darwin Wile



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