On 31st May 2017 we fastened our seatbelts ready for take off, on Qantas flight QF1 from London Heathrow to Sydney. Amazingly, we were one of the lucky winners of Heathrow’s 70th Birthday short story competition. Something that was a true surprise, who’d have thought it would lead to us finding and buying a van in Australia?
The prize included a fabulous 5 night stay at the ParkRoyal Hotel, Darling Harbour. Although afterwards, we were on our own! It was now that we were ready to set out on an incredible road trip across Australia. After having extended our return flights by 6 months.
Thinking it more economical to buy an old van, this is what we did. Followed by a quick van conversion into a basic camper, before driving off into the sunset.
However, it wasn’t quite to go to plan. Soon we realised that sourcing that perfect vehicle was not an easy task. Finding and buying a van in Australia was to be the most difficult part of the journey!
This is where the hard work really began. Without a vehicle to drive whilst searching for a van, we initially relied on walking and public transport. These both proved time consuming in a large city. Venturing across various districts of Sydney was difficult.
We’d been told about a one-stop, used car market for the backpacker folk. This was located in a multi-storey car park in the Kings Cross area of Sydney. Aptly known as Sydney Travellers Car Market.
On arrival, the place seemed deserted, consisting of an empty car park with a small office area. Dutifully manned by a German traveller named Eric, he informed us of a shortage of stock. He happily offered to drive us towards Botany Bay, where a campervan sales business was located. This apparently could be of assistance in our search.
Jumping into his workhorse of a car, Eric explained how the social media groups were now selling various private vans, cars and campervans. This had begun to take its toll on the previously thriving Car Market. At one time, the backpacker vehicles were known to change hands in quick succession, all in this undercover section of the multi-storey car park.
Happily chatting to Eric along the way, we learned he was soon venturing off on his own road trip through Australia. He’d bought his own backpacker van, which is quite normal in this busy backpacker community.
Pulling in to a busy industrial estate at Botany Bay, on the airport side of Sydney. We passed the big boy sites of Maui and Britz, full to overflowing with rental campers of all shapes and sizes.
We then arrived at the campervan rental and sales depot of Travellers Autobarn
Soon, this was become the best find for us, in the sequence of events to follow.
With a small selection of old ex-hire campervans on offer, many displaying bold artistically enhanced graffiti graphics. We instead, chose to make our excuses and obliging Eric drove us back to the Car Market. Here, we said our farewells and wished him well on his ventures.
A few private ads took our fancy and hastily arranged viewings across town followed. We met Mike from Boston, who was at the end of his road trip across Australia. Unfortunately for him, the tired looking Toyota van crammed with not so fresh smelling bedding, was not for us.
Quickly dashing back across the other end of the city by train, we met with a young Slovakian couple. By now the heavens had opened, unleashing a torrent of torrential rain upon us. We took shelter in the back of their cramped Toyota self-build van. The desperate Europeans tried their best to sell the good points to us. This mainly seemed like the metal fruit bowl, used for washing in the morning! Yes that’s washing in, not washing up in!
We learnt that so many youngsters do this type of trip. They buy a van, or a campervan, possibly a basic self-build, but then fail to sell it in time before their return flight home. This then leaves them no option but to move it on at rock bottom to a dealer.
Winter in Sydney has fewer vans on offer and far fewer buyers. Meaning even more anxious sellers, all trying to get rid of their vans for the best price. We were told that the Summer months are a different story, with role reversals in the fortunes of sellers compared to buyers. Who then find little available, in a market where even the worst choice vans are snapped up!
Changing tactic, having given unwelcome news to the now soaking wet sellers. We decided to source Campervan dealers, rather than any more private ads.
Next on our list was Sean at Travellers Wheels, who agreed to pick us up from Central Station to view his selection of used ex-rental Toyota campervans and cars. Having high hopes here, with online pictures looking perfectly presentable, some with heavier price tags of up to $20,000. We thought we’d be falling head over heels for a shiny ex-hire model!
An industrial unit full of campervans greeted us, unfortunately, the wheels of Travellers Wheels didn’t appeal to us! As much as we hoped for some good vans, we just became more frustrated at the lack of perfection available. Were we just being too fussy?
Fed up with strange mould smells, worn out fitments and more stains and sticky patches than a Wetherspoons table top. We’d had enough, so after a week of searching the decision was made to search garage forecourts for an empty van.
With legs giving up the will to walk, it was time to invest in a taxi to drive us over to Parramatta Road. This busy stretch of Sydney suburbia is home to miles of car dealerships, rental outlets and home stores.
Endless searching proved unsuccessful, the vans were not cheap, certainly not particularly clean looking and most had a really high mileage.
Just as we were about to give up hope of ever finding a van to suit. We stumbled upon what we thought was a perfect find for us. A 2002 Toyota Hi-Ace van, which was super clean and tidy despite a mileage of 360,00KM. With a price tag of $6600 and dealer warranty, we’d soon have it converted to a cosy camper!
Shaking hands on a deal after a quick test drive, we paid our deposit and agreed to collect it the next morning. Before long we were heading back to the city centre to buy an Australian Sim card from the Telstra store. Followed by the online purchase of 3rd Party Fire & Theft insurance from Coles supermarket.
Happily driving off the next morning with the balance paid and forms filled out. Having the handover done, we took the keys for our soon to be converted Toyota van.
A quick diversion with all our dealer paperwork, took us to register the van at the local RMS office. Here, the very helpful staff guided us through the process.
Our accommodation address as well as a PO Box address that we’d already had set up, was needed for the registration. In addition, a fee of $30 per $1000 on the purchase price of the vehicle had to be paid. We were also needing 2 forms of identification, both showing the full name of the new owner, after which, we were ready to go.
However, a UK driving licence wasn’t permitted as identification, which then resulted in a bit of a panic moment. Fortunately, after being told to log on to our online banking account for a bank statement, we got sorted. The RMS accepted a print out of our details, so this was used as recognition of our full name!
The whole process was pretty straightforward. Unlike the DVLA, the New South Wales Registration document from the RMS office was instantly printed out. We couldn’t believe it when the actual new vehicle registration document given to us. A PO Box was needed only in the event of any fines that could incur from driving, so that any notices could be sent out.
Without further delay, it was off to Bunnings DIY store for supplies, for us to start the build of the van into a basic Campervan.
We needed tools to do the job, including a saw, screw drivers, hammer and all those basics, that we’d usually have in a tool box back at home. Without the luxury of a workshop, the hotel car park would have to double up as our work area!
As I relaxed in the hotel pool, Nigel got to work on the conversion. First he lined the walls with foil insulation, then applied MDF boarding to the floors. IKEA tables were used to form the bed base and a rattan screen finished off the rustic look to the walls and floor. A really handy IKEA rolling mattress, fitted neatly across the newly formed bed base.
IKEA provided brilliant finishing touches at reasonable prices. A bed throw threaded though curtain wire for curtains. Bright fabric storage pouches and loose colourful rugs for the floor co-ordinated with storage containers for clothes, fitting neatly under the bed.
We bought a portable camping stove and water containers along with a gas bottle. These stored easily, in the newly formed rear kitchen section, which was accessible from the rear tailgate door. Before we knew it, after a few days hard work, the van was transformed.
Except, that is, for one small problem!
We’d overlooked the fact, that most ageing vehicles in Australia come with emissions to match! Despite the 2002 year of manufacture, smells coming from the otherwise perfect van, reminded us of days spent travelling in the back of my parents old Morris Minors from the early 70’s!
The van had little in the way of a catalytic convertor. Making the sweet smell of roses, rather than the sickly aroma of a bygone era was a difficult task.
None the less we persevered. Paying for an extra service to be carried out and investing in new tyres, amongst other repairs, lead to a $1500 bill. Hoping this would ensure our travels ran smoothly, as we drove off into the sunset, we were disappointed when things didn’t improve.
As much as we tried, we couldn’t adapt to the van. I’d been sceptical about not being able to stand up inside it and yes, we are of an ageing time in our lives! Also, the idea of cooking outside for 6 months, was slightly disconcerting in the early, dark cool nights of Winter.
The more we thought about it and tried to get along, the more we drifted apart. That’s the van I’m talking about and not the two of us! After all our efforts, we took the big decision to carry on without our purchase. Instead, choosing to source a rental camper for our big adventure across this vast continent.
We visited the main rental dealers, of Apollo, Britz and Maui. With few vans available and horrendously expensive prices, for the length of time we needed, all were very quickly dismissed.
Remembering our visit with Eric to Travellers Autobarn, we returned to their depot. Enquiring what could possibly be available for us to rent. for such a long period of time, at a reasonable price.
Luck was on our side. Thankfully, parked up in the storage yard was the van that was to become our home and travelling buddy. Taking us across the amazing landscapes of Australia for duration of our trip.
There was a choice of just 2 vans available. As we checked inside the nearest van, we were overjoyed. It was clean, tidy, smell free, bright and cheerful. It had just enough room to house the two of us. The Kuga 2-3 Berth Toyota Hi-Top Hi-Ace camper, would do us just fine.
The Quotation was printed off. A low season discount as well as last minute, long term rental rate was offered to us. With a price of $53 per day, inclusive of added protection bond, we could pick up the next day and we’d be ready to go.
Except for just one problem, our own van! Although we couldn’t park it in the yard at Travellers Autobarn, we could park it on the road outside. It was insured and with the New South Wales Rego, it would be fine to leave parked up until our return.
Finally, we were ready to begin our trip, both happy and relieved and ready for action!
We took possession of our Travellers Autobarn rental camper on the 16th June 2017. It was the best outcome, in what had been a pretty stressful couple of weeks, from that moment on we never looked back.
We went on to cover an incredible 23,208KM. Covering vast expanses of Australia, with experiences that overwhelmed us. Seeing, feeling and being part of the most incredible journey, both physically and mentally, it was liberating.
We learnt so much from the rawness of it all. The delights of meeting the most interesting individuals and seeing first hand, the glories of nature. Witnessing the most amazing wildlife imaginable.
Australia superseded all our previous expectations. It instilled in us a desire and ambition for more adventure based travel, across the globe. The need to visit new shores that we’ve yet to explore.
Our own van was left safely parked up on the road outside the depot, where it stayed until our return in the November. It just needed a quick wash at the local car wash, before we sold it on, a couple of days after our return to Sydney.
We realised that we were, at our age, too fussy. Probably being used to the rather finer things in life. It was too much to adjust, to the little basic van that we thought would work when we bought it.
So all’s well that ends well and as I write this today, we wouldn’t change a thing. Life is all about learning and progress, as well as adapting and adjusting. The way we challenge ourselves in various circumstances can be a positive thing. It’s all about being better people ourselves and providing an inner encouragement to each other. All to enhance our experiences of life and of those that we meet along the way.
It’s only afterwards that we look back and realise those little hiccups were there to test our resilience and make us grow stronger, happier and more ambitious for the next new challenge ahead!
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