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I can’t believe it! I am going overseas for the first time. I have been on a ferry before but that was to the Isle of Wight, which is really not the same as going abroad. The Sap and The Chief sat inside me a few weeks back and talked about things they wanted to get done to me before we go. It turns out we’re going to a place called Holland to see The Chief’s cousin who has lived there for years.
They intend to catch a ferry from Dover to France, then drive through Belgium, apparently all on the wrong side of the road...now I am worried.
The Sap has been busy improving my kitchen all week and now I boast a microwave oven and some fold-down work surfaces. Today he’s changed my oil and filters and given me a good once-over to make sure I won’t let them down. I can’t wait to get going.
The ferry leaves Dover at 10.30am but we must be there well before this and we set off at the crack of dawn for the long journey, all up the A3 and on to the M25. Everything goes without incident but after an hour heading down the M20 something doesn’t feel right to me and The Sap swears when he notices that the red warning lamp has come on telling him my batteries are not being charged.
“Looks like we have a broken alternator drive belt,” he curses, “but we have a spare. It’s simple to change, but a damned nuisance as I haven’t got time to fix it before the ferry leaves.”
I know he’s wrong about the belt because the water is still being circulated around my engine.
After he pauses at the roadside to take a look under my bonnet, he soon climbs back in with a woeful expression, “Perhaps a wire has come off or it’s the alternator itself. We only have an hour before the ferry leaves, so let’s get there and decide what to do.” When we pull into the waiting queue The Sap remarks that there are a lot of Belgian vehicles towing trailers with classic cars on them and he wanders off to speak to some of them.
He’s back just as the attendant starts waving frantically to call us on to the ferry. “We’re not really going like this...surely we must get Sammy fixed,” says The Chief.
“Don’t worry, I spoke to a Belgian and he knows a garage with lots of Mercedes trucks that have the same alternator. We’ll meet up on board the ferry and get the details.”
“Are you sure Sammy will make it there?” asks The Chief, obviously worried about being stranded across The Channel.
“I don’t intend to go all the way to this garage today because it will be getting dark and I don’t really want to put the lights on for long or we will be in trouble. I am going to follow the Belgian pair on sidelights and they’ll take us to somewhere we can stop safely for the night just inside Belgium and then we’ll carry on by ourselves in the morning using a map they’ll draw for us...don’t forget we have the leisure battery too, so we’ll be okay.”
I think The Sap is right; once I’m underway, my diesel engine doesn’t take any power out of the battery so if he goes easy on the brake lights and is careful...there should be enough power in the battery to start my engine in the morning. Yes, I think everything should be okay.
After almost an hour tailing our heroes out of the port and into Belgium, The Sap is getting anxious driving on sidelights in worsening light on a busy, strange road, but soon the car ahead indicates to leave the motorway and The Sap breathes a sigh of relief, “Just in time, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay on this road much longer.”
But our way isn’t straight anymore and too often we are losing the ability to see where we are going by the light of the Belgian’s headlamps so The Sap has to turn on my headlamps quite often. I am praying we haven’t far to go and after ten minutes we follow our Belgian guide into the car park of a big store that apparently specialises in cheap cigarettes, booze and tobacco. Our friend climbs out of his car and speaks to The Sap in words I have never heard before, which I later discover to be French, “You can park just over there...you will be quite safe here, there are already quite a few British trucks and vans waiting for tomorrow’s opening and the ferry home. Now you have the map I drew for you...I’m sure you won’t have a problem getting your alternator fixed. Bon Chance!”
We feel abandoned and anxious as his lights disappear away towards the motorway, but my owners soon rustle up some food before they turn in for the night. It is not the quietest spot, because lorries are arriving all through the night to stop over before stocking up, en route to the Channel ferries.
At eight o’clock in the morning we are ready to go and The Sap turns the key anxiously, but my engine bursts into life and, with the red warning light still glowing, we set off down minor roads to find the garage to which the Belgian has directed us. An hour or so later, we draw up outside the garage that is just opening and after The Sap has spoken with the owner, one of the Belgian mechanics is underneath me whipping out the carbon brush pack from my alternator. He shows it to The Sap who says he feels quite ashamed for never checking such a vulnerable part that can have major consequences. After fitting a new pack, my red light goes out once the engine is started and with everything solved quite cheaply, we head back to the motorway that The Sap accepts is the only sensible route for the long, delayed drive to Holland.
This outing is unusual for me, mainly because I don’t go on motorways very often but also because this driving-on-the wrong-side thing feels strange especially when on the odd occasion I find myself moving to the left to overtake some seriously slow lorry battling its ponderous load up the slightest of hills. For mile after mile or I suppose I should say ‘kilometre after kilometre’ I am racing along at 60 miles per hour...again being a good continental visitor, that’s almost 100 km/h. In fact at one stage, admittedly on a slight downhill stretch, I even topped the ton or should that be the tonne? These continental terms don’t resonate in quite the same way, do they? I am still trying to picture a Belgian ‘Ton(ne)-up-Boy’ flat out on his motorcycle’s petrol tank at only 62.5 miles an hour!
After a journey through mostly flat countryside with more heavy lorries than I have seen in my lifetime, we skirt Antwerp, which The Sap says we’ll explore on our return and head for a small town in Holland called Venlo where there is a campsite especially for campervans. This should be a novelty; I have only been on two campsites since they’ve had me. The Sap says that the Dutch are very strict about wild camping, so we will stop behind a restaurant with campervan parking that our Belgian friend recommended.
It’s just getting dark when we pull in and the proprietor is quickly out to welcome his English guests to an otherwise deserted site. He tells them that he waives the camping fee if they dine in his restaurant and has even had the foresight, or maybe business acumen, to greet us equipped with a menu. A quick leaf through seems to encourage them, so I am parked in a corner, hooked up to the electricity and settle down while they ready themselves for dinner. I heave a sigh of relief when they go...it’s been a long eventful day and weary old Sammy just wants to rest before tomorrow’s onslaught.
The next day turns out to be another trial for me because although Holland is flat, so am I...flat-out all the way, as we make for the small town of Medemblik in the north of the country. It is next to the huge dyke-controlled Eselmeer which The Sap says used to be called the Zuyder Zee when he went to school, just before man landed on the moon. We pass the battlegrounds of Arnhem and the bridges of Nijmegen both renown for events during the last war and immortalised in hit films. The Sap says that he wants to reach Amsterdam and visit a coffee shop...there must be loads of places to stop for coffee, so just why he must reach Amsterdam I really don’t know.
Nearing dusk we thread our way into the city and I find myself parked up next to a canal with loads of bicycles whizzing past me. They’ve gone for their much needed refreshment in some local coffee shop, but are back before too long. Then it’s off to another special campervan park where, in the strangely pungent foreign city air, I and my owners drift off and dream.
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