I remember wanting to go on a caravan holiday as a child. I also remember my mother really not wanting to go. She won that one. The closest I’ve come is staying in a static caravan through Airbnb on the Mornington Peninsula in Australia. The caravan was comfortable, but it didn’t have any cooking facilities or its own bathroom – I had access to the owner’s house on the same block of land, but that wasn’t ideal in the middle of the night. This time, I wanted to do it right.
I started by looking at luxury motorhomes, but quickly discovered that they cost about the same as a business class flight from the UK to Australia (and we all know how exorbitant that is). As a frequent Airbnb traveller and host in the good old days before coronavirus even existed, I thought there might be something similar. Lo and behold, a search of “Airbnb for motorhomes” yielded results – two main ones: GoBoony and Camptoo. Both seem to do the same thing and after a few quick searches, I noticed that at least here in the UK, they also seem to list the same vehicles. I found GoBoony slightly easier to use so it won my business.
I found a snazzy-looking, reasonably priced motorhome a few miles from home, booked it, sorted out insurance, and off my boyfriend and I went, squeezing it in right before lockdown 2.0 in the UK. Well, there may have been a tiny overlap… but Boris said that was okay and we were self-isolated in our home on wheels anyway.
Then came the learning. There are things no-one tells you about motorhomes. Here are the main ones.
1. You’re going to have to deal with human waste
No matter what kind of vehicle you’ve chosen, at some point, you’ll have to deal with your bodily dealings. It’s not a joy.
Our motorhome was an Elddis Prestige with a cassette toilet. To flush, you had to get your face nice and close to the toilet bowl to reach the lever that opened the toilet trap. (Note: this is probably the wrong terminology. These are my words, not the words of a motorhome aficionado). Once open, you pressed a button on the wall, past the toilet bowl, for water to wash the goods into the cassette. Then you closed the lever and the toilet lid to keep any scents in. The basin pulled down from the wall above the toilet so you could complete your ablutions. It’s very clever really.
Inside the cassette, there are chemicals (that you need to replace each time you empty the cassette) that break down the contents. The longer the contents stew in there, the less solid they are. This is a positive, as it means when you empty the cassette, if you’re lucky, it’s mostly blue liquid that you’re pouring away. Our cassette needed to be emptied pretty much every day.
Emptying involves removing the cassette from the rear of the vehicle – I assume most cassettes are like ours, which basically turned into a little rolling suitcase. You take your luggage to whatever facilities are nearby – most campsites have a designated drain for this – and tip it out, holding your breath. A quick rinse and it’s ready for reuse, while you eat something pungent to rid your sinuses of any memories.
2. Grey water is excessively odorous
If you thought the toilet was bad, wait until you have to deal with grey water. This is all of the “used” water from your motorhome – from the kitchen sink, the shower and the handbasin. It’s gets stored away in an integrated tank that you empty every now and then.
How do you know if it needs emptying? You can either just do it regularly, which is preferable, or drive around until your nostrils are assaulted by a foul smell that will linger for hours.
While we’re on the topic of grey water…
3. Colour is important
To empty the grey water, there is usually a valve on the outside of the vehicle that you open. You pop a bucket underneath the valve and dump the fluid into a drain.
This went smoothly for us the first time. The second time, the water seemed surprisingly clear and odour-free.
When our taps started sputtering, we realised we were running low on water, so topped up for the third time. While we filled the tank, we thought we’d make sure we dumped ALL the grey water. It just kept coming. My boyfriend checked the manual. “The lever’s not grey,” he said. “Yes, it is,” I countered. He looked at me like I was insane. I went out to confirm and that’s when we discovered there are two valves. The grey water valve is grey. Should you need fresh water, there is a blue valve. It makes sense really.
Once we stopped pouring out all of the fresh water we were putting in the tank it filled much faster.
4. Motorhomes have excellent acoustics
A motorhome is basically a box, so it is an excellent amplifier. Why is this important? Because it means every sound is magnified. You’ll understand what this means the first time you drive too close to a low-hanging branch (and you will.) It will sound like a vampire is using a giant can opener on the roof.
We learnt this on our first night, when we parked under a tree that was gently touching the van. When the wind picked up, the light brush of the branches turned into a screech as jarring as nails down a chalkboard. We had to get up and move the van at 3am so we could get some sleep.
5. Google maps is not your friend
Google maps is an amazing thing. Total respect. But there’s no “I have a large vehicle” setting. This may not be necessary in places like the USA and Canada, where roads are made for driving, but in the horse-cart inspired UK, it can be a bit of a nightmare.
Several times, we had to backtrack or reroute to avoid roads that couldn’t handle our baby’s girth. Trust me when I say that you do not want to end up on a steep, muddy road barely wide enough for a standard car, fringed by overgrown hedges. Even more so, when the road is bi-directional (although it does seem that big wins when it comes to deciding who has to reverse to allow the other to pass).
To its credit, the Elddis had an impressive turning circle for a large vehicle. To its detriment, Somerset has some ridiculously narrow paths that should not be called roads.
6. Weather is a factor
Weather is always a factor in the UK. On the plus side, when it rains – and it will – you have somewhere cosy to hole up. On the down side, rain turns dirt to mud and grass to bog.
We had to overnight stuck on a angle between two vans after trying to drive over boggy wet grass at a campsite. We then had to wait for sunrise so we could be rescued and reallocated to a hardstanding pitch. Life on the lean does funny things to your head.
I spent the night gripping my side of the mattress (the high side) so I didn’t roll down onto my partner and crush him.
7. You own a café
Remember that point about holing up when it rains? Well you can also get cosy for lunch or a mid-morning coffee or an afternoon tea break. You have a toilet with you at all times, a fridge and pantry, and gas to cook by.
We had many lovely post-lunch hikes at trailheads, and when my boyfriend slashed his finger open on a broken grater and we had to pay the local A&E a visit, I had somewhere to wait. In fact, I was quite pleased that I wasn’t allowed in to the hospital with him, as instead of sitting in a bland waiting room with the walking wounded, I scoffed caramel slice and wrote postcards in our lounge room in the carpark. If I'd been really clever, I would've turned on the gas and had a cuppa too.
8. Independence Day
You have a lot of freedom with a motorhome. Yes, you might take a bit longer to get anywhere and you might not be able to squeeze down some of those narrow roads, but that is more than made up for by the convenience of being able to go where you want, when you want.
When the UK shut down again, as we had started our holiday, we were allowed to finish it. We didn’t have any campsites booked for the last couple of nights, so we used the brilliant park4night app to find random spots to set up camp. All we had to do when we parked up was put the condensation protector on the front windscreen, turn the gas on and close the blinds and we were ready to cook.
We spent a night in a pub car park, a random roadside turning circle and a dirt area by the entrance to woodland.
It’s stories of overcoming adversity that make the best talking points. On that basis, we have enough to keep the conversation going for at least the rest of the year. But would I do it again? Absolutely!