When I start up the campervan, still on the forecourt of the rental office, two things happen. The van lurches horrifyingly because someone’s left it in gear and an alarm starts beeping because one of the back doors isn’t properly closed after my inspection of its contents.
I have a campervan because… well, because it’s autumn. In order to get out of Reykjavik, you either have to join tours every day (coaches packed full of tourists, time restricted at each place, gets expensive) or you have to have your own vehicle. Accommodation with a solid roof is also expensive, especially if you’re making up your itinerary as you go along, and I’m not willing to commit to an itinerary and guesthouse bookings in advance. It’s far too cold by September to be camping in a tent in Iceland so the answer to transport & accommodation is to rent a campervan.
Of course, there are problems with campervans. This particular one is a van. A two-person panel van, the sort a plumber turns up in. It happens to have a mattress in the back instead of a flat floor. I have had to disabuse so many people of their image of my campervan. No, it doesn’t have a toilet. No, it really doesn’t. Doesn’t have a kitchen either. No, it’s not a caravan. No, it’s not a Winnebago. No, it’s not a motorhome. It’s a van. “Yeah, but it’s got-” “No, it hasn’t. Whatever you’re about to say, it doesn’t have it. It’s a van. It’s like a car but it’s got a boot big enough and airy enough to sleep in. It’s a van.”
And when I say airy… it’s chilly. Especially if you’re camping in autumn. UK autumn. By Icelandic standards, where summer ends halfway through August, September is verging on winter.
The van is cosy enough if you sleep in full-length thermals and a fleece hat but that didn’t occur to me until the last night in the thing. Also, because there’s a cupboard/shelf arrangement in the back, it’s almost impossible to get into a sleeping bag without smashing your kneecaps, so I mostly used it as a nice warm blanket. You don’t desperately need the insulation of the sleeping bag underneath you when you’ve got a mattress. It’s also noisy – when it rains, you hear every raindrop pattering on that tin roof. The flipside of that is that when you get up, scramble awkwardly into your waterproofs and go outside, you find it’s not actually raining as hard as it sounded like it was.
Do you want a quick tour? That orange thing in the middle is my cupboard/shelf. Inside the cupboards are 1) a box of cleaning stuff 2) a box of eating stuff 3) a box of cooking stuff 4) an empty box. A table pulls out from the back. A table folds down from the front, through which I can reach the cooking and eating boxes. The support shelf functions as a normal shelf too. My blankets & sleeping bag live on the left, my pillows and pyjamas on the left. I’ve slotted assorted drinks along the front. There is a travel towel hanging up to dry over the whole thing in this photo. My big bag goes on the far side, with the food bag on top and assorted other stuff mostly shoved down the far side. I sleep on the side nearest the sliding door, where I’ve left a space.
Here’s the view from the back. Empty box, food box, cooking box, cleaning box. Swimsuit drying over one of the bungees, waterproofs by the back door opposite the sleeping side.
And then there’s driving the thing. Problem one is that it’s left-hand drive. I’m a Brit. I’ve been driving right-hand drive for the last fifteen years. I’ve rented cars in Iceland before but it takes a few days to convince myself that I’m positioning the car ok on the road, that I’m not going to hit oncoming traffic or going to slide off into the lava. It takes a couple of hours to get used to not fondling the door trying to change gear with the wrong hand. On one memorable occasion, I tried to put my seatbelt on with the wrong hand. And I never mastered the art of stopping without saying out loud “Handbrake on, into neutral, engine off, lights off.”
But the real problem with driving is the restricted vision. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see much out of the back but because of the cupboard/shelf, I could see nothing. What I didn’t realise is how difficult it is to drive without rear windows. I had no idea how often I look through my rear windows. When I’m reversing. When I try to turn out of junctions. When I just try to move away from wherever I’m parked. A good half the time, I drove off muttering “If there’s anything behind me, it’s going to have to either move or take its chances…” I have never felt so blind.
So it’s small, it’s cold and it’s awkward. But it’s freedom. I can get up in the morning, when I like, and drive off to where I like. When I find out that the campsite I planned to stay on is closed, I can go to a different one and change my plans for the next day to fit my new start point. I can eat my lunch sitting in the back of it in a lay-by over looking Hvalfjörður or Þingvellir. I can flit from campsite to campsite, stay here an extra night because it’s nice, leave here because I hate it.
And it certainly did good things for my accommodation budget. In total, for five nights camping, I paid 4,200kr. That’s £30 / $40 which is possibly the cheapest five nights’ accommodation ever. On the second night I met a man who had hired a Range Rover campervan conversion, full 4×4, for sixteen nights and paid $4,000 for it. I mean, it’s quite the remarkable vehicle but… that’s a lot of money. You could hire a good car and spend every night in a good-quality hotel for that price. My little van did not cost that.
The downside of freedom is that it becomes claustrophic. You drive the van. You sleep in the van. You eat in the van. You go sightseeing or climb a volcano and return to the van. You’re in the van for five solid days. Well, I was in the van for five solid days. I wasn’t entirely heartbroken to hand it back on Saturday morning and get back under a real roof, in a room with heating and windows.
Would I hire another campervan? I might. Right now, to be honest, I’m kind of thinking that’s the sort of “I might” that probably means “I might not” but by next summer I’ll be remembering it as an exciting and liberating experience and a much better idea than a tent. To be fair, it is a much better idea than a tent. I did come across half a dozen tents over those five nights, mostly at Selfoss and… well, I went for a campervan over a tent for a reason.
Yes, I would hire another campervan. I would just like it not to be cold, wet and windy for the entire duration of my time with it.