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Mountains, Mongrels and Motorhomes Part Three: Hilda

Update 1: General Stuff

UNITED KINGDOM | Saturday, 27 August 2016 | Views [426]

So, after nearly three months away, I have finally gotten round to writing a blog. The primary reason is to give me something to do in the evenings other than to drink beer and the secondary reason is to share what we have been up to with anyone who might be interested. I am taking a plunge into the unknown with this blog site so I hope that it works OK.

So far it has been a trip of two halves or, in fairness, more like one quarter and three quarters as, despite this being our third long trip, it did take some time to adjust to the lifestyle so the first part was not that great but the rest has been a lot of fun.

For those of you who have jobs and better things to do than read the full blown account of our journey so far, this is a general update. If you do have some time on your hands, what will follow is a more in-depth account of our adventures.

As ever, my intention is to provide a light hearted update on our trip so I apologise in advance for any offence that I will no doubt cause to someone somewhere. Also, if it gives you any inclination to come out and join us any time, you are more than welcome.


1.       Hilda:

If you believe in reincarnation then Hilda is very much first time dog. In fact, I think that she may have skipped a few iterations of mammal and gone directly from slug to canine. She absolutely loves being alive and is genuinely thrilled at the prospect of each new day so her new life in the hills walking all day and doing lots of new stuff suits her perfectly. The general routine is to wake up full of beans, have breakfast, run around in the hills, get wet, have tea, go to bed very early, repeat.

She has a number of summits to her name and has completed three via ferrata (a sort of rock climbing where you (i.e. the human) are connected to steal cables fixed to the rock which should stop you hitting the ground if you fall) one of which was a proper route with a name and a place in the guidebook to the Italian Dolomites. She is now an old hand at riding in cable cars and has done a chair lift, which for such a skittish creature, was a much more relaxed affair than either Rachel or I had anticipated. She has managed to electrocute herself on a cattle fence (although you shouldn’t laugh, this was one of the funniest things that I have ever seen) and has come to terms with flying people - be they ski jumpers, paragliders, folk on zip wires or climbers lowering on ropes from above. Unfortunately she hasn’t overcome her fear of thunderstorms (which are rather frequent and spectacular here in the mountains) so has spent many a night shaking under her table in the van.

Although she is having a great time, she is of very little practical use and her primary contribution is to serve as a dirt transfer vehicle, moving sand, mud, gravel and assorted outdoor terrain into the van. She also gets in the way rather a lot and is suffering a slight identity crisis given the number of times that she hears “Hildaoutoftheway”. To avoid confusion, we nearly re-named her Stuart as her boundless energy and enthusiasm coupled with her propensity to shit five times a day gives her an uncanny resemblance to a certain Scottish Lawyer that some of you may know.

Overall, The Hilds is doing great.


2.       Rachel:

It was Rachel’s birthday a few days ago and by way of a present I saved her one of my chocolate biscuits from a packet that we bought a few days earlier and she was genuinely pleased with her gift. It is exactly this type of excessively low expectation of boyfriend performance that makes her an ideal partner for me. Having spent the last trip chasing mountains and people to climb them with, I vowed that I would not do the same this time (and, by and large, I haven’t) but I have spent a lot of time in the hills without Rachel and her patience is hugely appreciated. That said, she has done much more walking than she did on the previous trip and has climbed a good handful of summits including the very exposed Saulakopf. She is doing a bit of running and also rock climbing and the improvement in her health, albeit having been an extraordinarily long road to get here, has been significant.

The key strength of Rachel as a travelling partner is her ability to stay calm and deal with unexpected problems which is not something that I do not do at all well. I have been doing more or less the same job for twenty five years and, although the faces and the places change, the problems are the same and generally, when things go wrong, I have pretty much seen it before and know how to deal with it. I have also grown rather accustomed to people doing what I ask them to. In this life, everything is new every day, things go wrong all of the time and people do not do what I tell them. Consequently, I am like a fish out of water and tend to panic whereas Rachel has the knack of keeping her cool and finding a way through things. So far she has herded a cow out of a bar full of people, found a way to fix a potential trip-ending problem with the motorhome, resolved endless issues with banks and other so called service providers and overcome countless IT related issues.

Overall, she is frustrated by her inability to do as much walking as she would like but it is fair to say that she is enjoying the trip and I wouldn’t want to spend two years in a van with anyone else.


3.       Me:

I am not at all sure that middle-age is suiting me. For a start, I have developed a taste for gherkins which hitherto I found to be revolting, I have come to realise that elasticated clothing is simply more comfortable and I look at pretty young girls with a sense of wonder that such perfect human specimens exist rather than with the more primitive desires that used to prevail. I seem to adapt to change much less easily now and it was a good month or so before I started to enjoy this trip. I know that it seems extremely ungrateful for someone who is on a two-year holiday but I really couldn’t settle at first and, as the problems (both real and imagined) started to mount up, I could honestly have come home on a number of occasions at the start of this venture.

However, I can accept all of the above as a natural consequence of getting older (although I admit that the gherkin thing is a bit weird) but my biggest problem with middle-age is my ongoing struggle to accept my changing attitude towards risk. By way of an explanation...

When I was in my twenties and going on my first motorhome trips, pushing the chemical toilet to capacity was a game. I justified the risk by claiming that it reduced the frequency of emptying (a task that I was simply not designed to carry out) but in reality I simply enjoyed taking the risk. I knew at the back of my mind that the consequences of an error of judgement would be horrific and that the impact would not be restricted to me but would also cascade to those around me but I just enjoyed taking the chance. In my thirties, I became much more aware of the consequences should things go wrong but I saw these as an integral part of the game and application of good judgement made the risk manageable. Now, in my forties, I see the consequences far too clearly and in my mind I dwell on the multitude of things that can go wrong. Now, as soon as the red warning light goes on, I am itching to get to the chemical disposal just in case.

My issue is that I simply cannot accept that I have turned into a lightweight and I hate myself for letting the fear get in the way of my enjoyment. And so it is in the mountains. My fear of what might happen is now much greater than it ever was yet I still want to be out there. I just cannot seem to make a call. I either need to accept that I have turned into a fairy and only do the stuff that doesn't scare me or I need to grow a pair and get out there and do what I would love to say that I have done.

Overall, all of the above can be condensed into one very simple question – to Matterhorn or not to Matterhorn?

For what it is worth, my current strategy is to park the question. Whether I eventually cop out or face what is a part realistic and part phobic fear of this particular mountain, I will need to be very fit, much stronger and altitude and exposure acclimatised. My logic is that I can enjoy the ride getting practiced at these things and see what happens.


4.       The Motorhome:

I genuinely didn’t think that I would be writing about the motorhome but, if you read what we have been up to, dealing with the many problems that we have had with it has influenced plans and taken up far more time that it ever should have. I recall a few times when minor problems with our old motorhome caused us to change what we were doing but that was over a period of two years and there was never any real inconvenience. This time it has been a completely different story...

The best analogy that I can come up with is that buying the new motorhome has proved to be an experience akin to leaving your wife for a supermodel. At the start, everything is great, your new beau looks fantastic and your mates are seriously impressed but, not long into the relationship, you start to realise that the new model is a little harder to live with and somewhat less practical than the older version. As time goes on, some really fundamental design floors start to show through and then, after a few months, you realise that you have made a huge and expensive mistake and wish you were back where you started from.

OK, I have never had a wife to leave and I am pretty sure that I am not on your average supermodel’s wish list but I think that the analogy does hold true. At the start the van was great but, within a week or so, some of the problems were becoming evident. For a start it proved impossible to open any form of ventilation in the slightest of showers which makes for a stuffy living space when it is warm and rainy. In the old van, the position of the boiler meant that the bathroom heated up first (which made it an ideal drying room for wet gear) and the living space only heated when you put the heating on. In this van, as soon as you turn on the hot water to wash up, the living space heats up (which very annoying when it is hot weather) but we have yet to get the bathroom anywhere north of baltic (which means that it is impossible to dry anything in there and it is damn cold when you clean your teeth in the morning). It takes five minutes every night to cover up the multitude of flashing lights on every appliance and the storage space is sufficient but completely impractical and we have ended up with various drawers and cupboards of discontent; so called because they mainly contain one type of kit but something else unrelated has to be stuffed in with it because it doesn’t fit anywhere else.

After less than a month we got our first taste of the poor build quality when the ‘sky roof’ (a sort of large sunroof that opens outwards) blew off on what was a breezy day at best. These things shouldn’t simply break off in a bit of wind and the result was a two foot by four foot hole in the roof of the van. We started to realise that our initial problems were more than bad luck when one of the lockers started to leak and then, when we could see daylight through another locker, it became apparent that our van was not of the quality that we had expected (to add to the frustration, the water leaking into the lockers got into the alarm sensors and now they are also knackered). We have had an engine issue to boot and are finding that the much touted extensive European service network is made up of dealerships that are simply too busy or not interested in addressing our issues - we were even told by one approved partner simply to “go away”. As it stands today, we have very little confidence in the vehicle and now find ourselves just waiting for the next thing to go wrong.

The sting in the tail is that we nearly bought our old van back from the guy we sold it to. We knew that he was likely to be selling it but we had to put a deposit down on this van to get it built in time for us to go away so we told the guy that we had a deadline. We chased him a few times but, by chance or judgement, he waited until literally one hour after our deadline expired to get back to us; by which time we had placed the deposit. I don’t know if he was testing to see whether our deadline story was a bluff but it most definitely wasn’t and his not getting back to us before it cost us our old van and cost him a few grand (we watched our old van sell on EBay for a price far lower than it was worth). With hindsight however, I wish that I had thrown in the deposit and bought the old van back anyway but there you go.

Overall, I want the motorhome to be a car and a home where I can stay dry, eat, sleep, shower and do my ablutions and it is purely a means to allow us to do this type of trip. The old van was great, this one is not. Yes, it does have some redeeming features in that the living space is a nice place to be but, for the money, the build quality should be much better than it is. The moral of this story is never leave your wife for a supermodel and never buy a new Burstner motorhome.

There is just one footnote to the van saga. Every problem with the van has been preceded by us shopping at Liddl. On one occasion we nearly shopped at Liddl but didn’t and that afternoon I nearly reversed the van into a wall but stopped just in time. I didn’t think that I was superstitious but frankly I am just not prepared to take the risk. As far as I am concerned, the curse of Liddl is real.


5.       Motorhome Life:

I remember getting stressed on the last big trip but in hindsight the issues were very trivial so this time I promised myself that I would be much more chilled. It hasn’t exactly worked out as planned and, now I am back in the lifestyle I can remember why. Every day is like starting a new job but in a foreign country. You know basically how things should work but you don’t know who to talk to when you need to get something done and when you do get to talk to them they can’t understand you and you can’t understand them. In light of this, rather like the old DIY adage, when you live a life travelling from place to place, everything costs four times as much as you thought it would and takes ten times longer. By way of example, one day we drove to Trento in Italy to try to get one of the problems with the motorhome fixed and all we wanted to do was park up for a while. In your home town and in your own car this is an extremely straightforward task. In the motorhome, the following happened:

The town of Trento is pretty much pedestrianised so all parking is on the outskirts. However, all of the car parks had a height restriction so we ended up driving around for ages trying to find a car park without one. After doing battle with Italian rush hour, we spotted a sign for large vehicle parking and took the slip road. We stopped at the barrier and there was a €1 charge. We didn’t have a Euro so Rachel went to ask if any anyone did. Interestingly, she spotted two policemen but was not aware initially that they were in the process of arresting someone so she waded in and, in a typically Italian scenario, both coppers and the arrestee started rifling through their pockets for change. Anyway, Rachel came away with her Euro and the arrest continued. We put the coin into the machine and the barrier didn’t move. We were now blocking the entrance to the parking, there was no option to reverse and another motorhome drew up behind us. Rachel phoned the number on the machine and the people who answered didn’t speak English but it looked like she was making progress until she got cut off. She phoned again but this time nobody answered at all. At this point, a random man riding a bicycle and carrying a guitar rode up to us and explained in perfect English (although it was clear from his accent that he was not English) that we needed to get closer to the barrier. We went looking for more change, found some, put it into the machine and this time the barrier opened. The moral of this story is that, in motorhome life, nothing is simple but eventually the kindness of strangers will help you out. We have many examples of this type of thing and we have started to get used to it but it has taken a bit of time.

Another thing about this life is that you often end up carrying your own water, pooh and rubbish around with you which causes you to question how the western lifestyle can ever be sustainable. By way of an explanation, we use our water for washing up, hand washing and cleaning teeth and our 120 litre tank only lasts about four days of free camping during which time we usually have generated three 25 litre bags of recyclable rubbish and one 25 litre bag of ‘proper’ rubbish and filled a 25 litre toilet casette (and that is with me peeing in the trees). At home the water supply is endless, stuff in the toilet just goes somewhere else and rubbish moves from bins to dustbins that get emptied so you just don’t get a sense of the scale. I have not done the extrapolation but I cannot get my around why the developed world is not dying of thirst at the same time as drowning in a sea of rubbish and human waste. 

It is also a life of contrasts. One day you can be sitting outside of the van having a beer on a warm summer evening under a crystal blue sky surrounded by a fantastic mountain vista and the next day you can be parked next to brothel walking your dog along the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway (this exact scenario happened a week ago). Also, just as the events of one day can be completely different to what happens the next day, because we are living in a motorhome, we need to do stuff that people on holiday don’t do. One such example is Rachel cutting my hair and another is hanging the bed sheets out to dry after they have been washed. I am sure that the old adage that “it is rude to stare” is uniquely British so we often find ourselves being observed by curious European types and you can almost hear them asking why I have waited until my holiday to have my hair cut or drawing the conclusion that I had an unfortunate bed soiling event the previous evening.

Another thing of note is that, when you are at work, you always want it to be the weekend or a holiday but it always seems to be a week day. When you are on a trip like this, you always want it to be a week day out of holiday season because it is quieter but it always seems to be a weekend and it is always the holiday season. Speaking of holiday season, I am tempted to make a one-man attempt to invade Holland on the grounds that everywhere we go on this trip there are millions of Dutch and one is forced to draw the conclusion that the country must be completely empty at the moment.

In terms of differences to the last trip, the primary con is the cost; everything is about 25% more expensive than it was ten years ago. I guess that this was to be expected but, in my general apathy towards anything financial, this fact took me by surprise. The main pros are that the IT works better (internet access is much more available than it was, although we now have a whole drawer full of electric things with wires and stuff) and money is easier to manage; we are using pre-paid debit cards which means that we are not getting shafted by banks on exchange rates and for withdrawing cash.

Finally, for a man who drinks as much beer as me, you would be excused for assuming that I am somewhat of a connoisseur but you would be wrong. To be honest, it all tastes the same to me so, ever since our first trip, I have been on a quest to find the cheapest beer around. On this trip I have already been below the €0.40 per 50cl can threshold but, no matter where I get this stuff, it always calls itself ‘premium’ or ‘high quality’. I have come to realise that to really make the breakthrough that I am seeking, I need to find where the ‘average’ or ‘standard’ beer is being sold. All suggestions are most welcome and, if anyone can tell me where the ‘poor’ quality beer is then I could even get below the €0.10c per 50cl mark and that would be a real achievement.

Overall, this trip is about the places we visit and the people that we meet but it is a very different life to the one we have at home and it does make you appreciate some of the things that you used to take for granted.

The motorhome (or the 'mistake' as it now known)

The motorhome (or the 'mistake' as it now known)

Tags: alps, climbing, dogs, hilda, motorhomes, mountaineering, mountains, rachel, simon, walking

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Rachel, Hilda and I on the summit of the Reidkopf

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