If not now…
It’s good to be challenged and pushed outside your comfort zone. It helps avoid getting stuck in a rut. Often these sorts of experiences help you to realise and develop your real potential.
A little while ago I was asked if I would write an article for Classic Line Insurance about my recent road trip experience to the Outer Hebrides. This was certainly a bit of a challenge and adventure for me. However, there was a bit of a twist behind the inspiration for the road trip.
Road trips normally bring their own unique sense of adventure as you get to explore pastures new. If you enjoy road trips or classic VW Campers, check out my other site vdubxs.com.
2,300+ mile road trip
You know sometimes you hear or read about people who buy odd things online without ever having seen them first. People buy strange things like a building they have never seen, in a different country, or on an island they’ve never even been to. Well, this was me, and it ended up becoming my recent 2,300+miles, 13 islands and 6 ferry road trip inspiration.
This is not a bucket list type of thing for me. It goes deeper than that. I’ve had the desire to create a small live-work space mulling around in the back of my head for years. Having the opportunity to at least give it a try, was just too big an opportunity to turn down. It all seemed like a good idea at the time, what could possibly go wrong?
A couple of things should be noted at this point. I had previously only ever heard of the Outer Hebrides on the weather forecasts. I had never actually been there. I knew nothing about the archipelago of Islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. All I knew was they were a fair distance off the western coast of mainland Scotland, and Scotland was a long way north of Hastings on the south coast of England. In fact, it was a good 750 miles north of Hastings!
So based on a couple of small low-resolution pictures, I committed to buying a small old Church Mission Hall on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. If the recent covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing certain in life. Don’t plan too far ahead and make the most of what you have whilst you have it!
Unfortunately, I then had to wait a further six months until Covid restrictions were finally lifted before I could visit the building. When the restrictions on travel were lifted, it resulted in a 2,300+ mile road trip to explore the Outer Hebrides. It was an amazing experience! So very different to the manicured landscapes of England. Here the landscape is raw, wild and untamed. It was stunning in so many different ways. I totally loved it!
Normally these days I don’t spend too much time planning road trips. I find it’s too easy to overthink and over-plan things. I’m getting a bit better at being more spontaneous and enjoying the fun of coming across things fresh for the first time without too much prior expectation.
It’s not to say I don’t come across or find interesting places before going. Often you can see/hear about places on TV, radio or social media and think that they would be a great place to visit. So I store them away in my memory ready for the next possible trip away thinking that might be a chance to go and see them. That said, with the recent pandemic and the various travel restrictions, I did have plenty of time to think about getting away, just not the opportunity. So like most people, once the restrictions were lifted and it was safe to travel, it was great to get back out exploring new places once again.
I tend to prefer camping off-grid in my van. I’m not sure if that’s rooted in a sense of wanderlust, but I do like to explore different areas rather than just stay in one spot for an extended period. If I like a particular area I might stay a couple of days, before pushing on to find new places to explore. It’s this flexibility and spontaneity that I love the most. Plus you get to see and stay at some incredible off-grid locations! You also tend to meet a greater range of people on your travels.
The Outer Hebrides is made up of literally hundreds of different-sized islands. Collectively they go up to make the Western Isles. A perfect destination in my eyes as there is so much to explore! There are six main islands – Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Whilst most of the other hundreds of smaller islands are uninhabited, some are lived on, but only with a small population.
‘The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun’
Jon Krakauer – ‘Into the Wild’
The VW T4 is fairly new to me and feels like a very modern camper compared to my usual air-cooled 1964 split-screen camper! It is a later 2003 SWB model with the desirable 2.5 TDi engine. Plenty of torque whilst still giving good mpg. It was an ex-AA vehicle, so at least I knew it had been well-maintained in the early part of its life. I got it specifically for long trips up and down to the Outer Hebrides as I took on my Small Mission Hall building conversion project.
The body and structure of the bus were solid, still in its original Yellow paint (so no nasty hidden repairs underneath) with the odd scuff/dent here or there. Ideal for me as I wasn’t after a show bus, I just wanted a solid and reliable vehicle to use. I then got my local garage Resto Classics to give the T4 a thorough mechanical service so that everything was checked and replaced where necessary. All ready for my road trips ahead.
I wanted to turn the T4 into a minimalist back-to-basics camper. I already had a camping setup and solar panel that I used in my split-screen camper. The plan was to create a form of an interchangeable interior with components that could (where possible) get swapped/shared between the two very different buses. This way it would avoid unnecessary duplication (and expense) of buying the same thing twice.
To achieve this, there were a couple of key components I needed for the T4 camper. One was a 12v AGM Leisure battery and the second was a CTEK 250DSE dual Input DC-DC Charger/MPPT Solar Controller charger system. This would give me all the power/charging facilities I needed for being off-grid on a road trip, plus it meant I could then use my foldable solar panel with either bus, as well as my Waeco compressor cool-box in either. Other essential camping kit gets stored in a vintage cooler and aluminium storage box. These both easily transfer between each vehicle depending on which one I go away in. Interchangeable camping interior sorted – it’s the future I tell you!
To make the most of my time on the Islands, and to avoid traffic where possible, I set off from Hastings East Sussex at crazy o’clock in the morning (05:00). My first stint of 540 miles (with food breaks) got me to Loch Lomond. The next day it was the much shorter drive to the Isle of Skye ready to catch the ferry from the port of Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris). These were the longer driving days of the road trip. Whilst exploring the islands, I deliberately spent less time driving, and more time making the most of just being there.
Initially, you might think of the ferries as just a means to an end of getting to and from an island. However, they proved to be a great addition to the whole road trip experience. They allowed you to gain unique perspectives and experiences in themselves. Whether that be seeing pods of porpoises swimming in the sea, amazing seascapes, or even experiencing a coastguard helicopter doing test lowering and evacuation of people from a moving ferry.
Luxury not required
Being a minimalist, back-to-basics camper, sleeping on a camp mattress and using a small Trangia camping stove to cook/make hot drinks, you might have thought that this experience might have worn thin pretty quickly. It didn’t. I know for some this might sound like their idea of hell on four wheels. I’m just not a sit-by-the-pool all-day kind of person. Sure it’s different, it lacks some of the everyday normality that we grow accustomed to in our lives. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For me, it was this change that I found so refreshing. In many ways, it made me feel much more alive. It gave me a newfound appreciation of the simple things in life that its all too easy to take for granted.
Very hard to single out a particular highlight of the trip, there genuinely were several! However, one moment might just rise to the top. I found what I thought was a small little bay/inlet area to park up and stay for the night. Looked like an ideal stopover, so once parked, I made myself something to eat and drink before going for a little wander about to explore the area.
As I neared what I thought was the mouth of the inlet, it opened up to my right to a stunningly beautiful mile-long white sandy beach that stretched off into the distance. The crystal clear turquoise waves lapping the shore looked like absolute paradise. I couldn’t quite get my head around that I was the only one on the beach at that moment and that I had the whole place just to myself.
Back in the day I used to work for a leading travel company and was very used to seeing images of amazing beaches in exotic locations. People would spend a small fortune to go and spend their holidays at such places. So this was a genuine pinch-yourself moment! To me, this is what luxury is really about, and it was totally free!
The ‘Golden Road’, is a winding single-track route that meanders along The Isle of Harris’s rocky East Coast. Maybe not be everyone’s first choice for an ideal driving road with its blind summits, unprotected drops and tortuous bends. However, the physical environment it takes you through was captivating. The scenery was stunning. Almost what I would imagine it to be on a lunar landscape in places. An enthralling and inspiring experience at the same time, it truly engaged all of your senses. An amazing experience. In general, I have to say that the roads were in way better condition than those in and around where I live in East Sussex. They were an absolute pleasure to drive on in comparison.
Not sure I could choose my favourite overnight spot. Each was different, sometimes very different. It was their individual character and nature that appealed to me. I guess I love being near the sea wherever possible. If I wake up and can hear the waves in the morning, that’s good enough for me! The landscape of the Outer Hebrides is simply out of this world.
The spectacular colours and formation of Seilebost beach are incredible, but so is the landscape of Loch Druidibeag on South Uist, Vatersay, then there is the Golden Road, Uig, South Lochs, Scalpay, Great Bernera, the stones at Callanish, etc. You really are spoilt for choice!
A path less travelled…
You tend to meet a few interesting people on a road trip, and this was no exception. One of the many things I love about Scotland is the variety of amazing places you can explore and stay over at. One such beachfront stopover I visited had options on either side of a crescent-shaped causeway on each side of the bay. I arrived at one side of the bay, but my TomTom sat nav indicated that the site I was heading to was on the other side, accessed via the causeway that cut behind the beach.
There seemed to be some evidence of a rough track heading towards the causeway, so I proceeded to slowly drive across. It was a pretty gnarly and beaten-up bit of track, so I took things nice and steady, slowly making my way to the other side. Once I had made it across, I was greeted by a couple from Edinburgh camping out in their camper van. They very generously offered me a rather nice glass of Whisky. My kind of people I thought. They had been watching me drive the T4 camper over the causeway and thought I deserved a drink for making it across in one piece! They were not sure it was possible or that I was going to make it! Their map said it was only suitable for 4WD vehicles! That kind of made my little causeway ‘off-roading’ experience all the more worth it!
Design adventure ahead…
All in all, it was a brilliant road trip experience. However, the major good news was that I got to finally see the building I had bought blind! Yes, it really does exist! As a project, this building will really push me well beyond my comfort zone. Equally, it’s a really exciting design project opportunity that goes beyond the limitations of print and pixels into being a physical entity you can live and work in. There is no safety net. I’m my own client on this one, so really I have no excuses. Life’s too short to regret the things you didn’t do, so let’s see how this works out, shall we…
So if you want to find out what I’ll do with the Small Mission Hall, simply subscribe to see how things progress…