Part three of the 1974 travel chronicles of Max Williams

three 1970s era VW Kombi vans

The mother country

Gee, it’s nice to have Aussie friends meet us at Gatwick Airport and put us up for two nights. It is cold and raining – what else could we expect in the middle of winter? Our friends Col and Annette’s studio apartment is in Hamstead, London, and with six adults it’s bloody cramped – it’s ‘can’t swing a cat’ close living.

Luckily, it’s only for a short while and we are young enough to withstand hard floors to sleep on. We do have a nice bath though after topping up the gas meter with a few 5p coins. But no complaints, since we’re sponging off old friends, and they are good enough to provide us with shelter and hospitality.

We sample western food again and feel satiated with bangers and mash, washed down with a half pint (“endured our first and probably last half pint of Guinness” – writes Michael) at the Oxford and Cambridge pub. I don’t think he liked the brew!

We will come back to GB when we finish our European stint, but for now we are short-term tourists and go to Trafalgar Square (“Ursula got shat on by the pigeons”), Piccadilly Circus, ride a double decker bus, change money, have a look at Australia House, and book our flight to Rotterdam. 

The Dutch love their spuds and borreltjes

It’s the 9th of January and Col drives us to Victoria Station for a train ride to Gatwick Airport. We leave at 8.15am on a British Caledonian flight and arrive 45 minutes later in a cold 3°C Rotterdam in Holland.

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We are picked up by Michael’s cousin, Harry, and his wife Hanneke in our VW Kombi van (Michael’s parents, who used the van, have headed back to Melbourne already). We stay at their place in Breda, about 50km south of Rotterdam, for the next nine nights. Their house is large and comfortable, and we have a bed to sleep in – attic living.

We all get colds over the next week or so, probably the result of climate extremes from either side of the world. Breda is an ancient city dating back to the 11th century. Modern Breda is charming with an old and new mix. The typical Dutch meals are Rookwurst and Stampot – potatoes are obviously Holland’s staple.

They all love their borreltjes (shots) here and we seem to consume many jenevers (similar to gin) during our stay – it packs a powerful punch. Our primary communication is by aerogram. We are constantly checking the post office for news from home. Ursula and Dana have reconnected with this way of life and their European roots, having been born in Lübeck , Germany.

They love to shop and most days spend what seems hours in the midtown shopping centre. I think it’s time to get out of here before our budget is completely blown!

We’re getting ready to hit the ‘frog and toad’

Over the following days in Breda, we prepare our Kombi for the ongoing travel. We buy some camping gear, bedding, insulation for the van and a petrol cap lock – an absolute necessity now that the petrol crisis (because of the Arab-Israeli war) is ramping up. In fact, we must buy petrol vouchers in Holland. I can see that this will be an ongoing issue for us. We are now almost ready to go. Michael writes, “We are getting accustomed to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. All preparations for the ‘trek’ southwards are nearly complete and hope to set off to Spain soon.”

For our ‘last supper’ before leaving, the girls cook a good old-fashioned Aussie roast, never before tasted by our Dutch hosts. It was a huge success – they loved it. Better feedback than my scones I must say. “HandH have just patented Max’s scones as feature wall decorations.” And another comment about a photo of a smiling HandH. “Smiling – because no more of Max’s scones.” And yet another. “Today we left Breda, leaving Harry at the dentist – the after-effects of Max’s scones!” I probably squeezed the bejesus out of the dough – one of my traits is being too ‘kneady’! I never made them again, bloody ungrateful people!

Read: Max Williams experiences the magic of Lake Mungo

Our first night on the road

We travel through Belgium via Antwerp. “Very industrial and dirty,” says Dana. Brussels is interesting, particularly the red-light district. That’s odd, the ‘hairdresser’ in the ‘hairdressing salon’ that we walk past, was half dressed as were other ‘hairdressers’. They were sitting behind the window. Our eyes are hanging out. Oh, I get it now!

We pass very picturesque countryside, with quaint villages, cobblestone roads and beautiful architecture, then cross the border into France without much trouble. We use our Dutch guilders to exchange to French francs. I try out my Lonely Planet French in a bakery – okay it’s a boulangerie, right? “En pan silver plate,” or something like that. The return response is a pitiful smile. Think I’ll just point from here on. Better to keep my mouth shut and use sign language methinks! Our staple lunch is bread stick, lots of lovely French cheese and some ham or similar. We source some cheap French wine, which is very drinkable at A$0.40 per litre.

We are in the middle of nowhere, about 150km south of Paris, and free camp in a paddock, drinking cheap wine, puffing on our cheap smokes, which taste and smell like camel shit, whilst shivering in the cold.

Read: Max’s Memoirs: A travel faux pas in France

Dana writes, “Max was running around the paddock in the dark with a red torch on his head pretending to be an ambulance. We were hoping he’d trip into some cow shit.” I can’t remember that incident, but I’m guessing I was well primed on the cheap wine! Dana continues, “For dinner we have a gourmet’s meal of canned pea soup with Rookwurst and nasi goreng – yuk!”

Our Kombi wagon has an extendable rear annex as one couple’s sleeping quarters. The other couple sleeps in the van proper. We also have a tent, but the annex is okay for most overnight stays.

Our journey continues through France, over the picturesque Pyrenees mountains and into Spain where we meander down the Mediterranean coast is search of warmer weather. Being in a confined van space 24/7 with four different people is bound to create some interesting times, and we have many.

Tune in next time where you’ll find out how bodily functions are put to good use.

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Written by Max Williams

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