1969 - An innocent abroad



My first time away from these shores - a van trip to the Alps for some winter sports.

This was the plan - fill two vans with as many people as we could find, pick up hired caravans in Belgium and tow them to a campsite in Innsbruck, Austria where we would stay over Xmas / New Year.


As one of the few people with a driving licence I was the main driver on van 2 - a Ford Thames kindly loaned to us by John's father.




















This trip was such a long time ago that all of the photographs are in black and white. I even remember it in black and white, although that may be due to the combination of snow and dirt that covers everything.


The picture on the left shows the Thames van with our caravan on the right in the Innsbruck campsite. Andy's (the driver of the other van) posh caravan can just be seen behind it.


We were using both the van and the caravan for sleeping and keeping warm with fan heaters plugged into the next pitch's electricity supply! What you can't see in this picture is the other side of the caravan. We'd not received the key from the hire shop in Belgium and had been springing the catch on one of the windows with the van starting handle to gain entry. Trying this in the cold of the campsite had resulted in the sound of shattering glass! One storm later and the caravan was full of snow.
























The route



Heading south through Belgium and Germany went well, if a little slowly with a top speed of 40mph but as we came into southern Germany things started going wrong. Thick fog made navigation slightly tricky and a slight error on Xmas day morning resulted in us leaving the autobahn at the wrong exit and following a country road into a ploughed field while still thinking that we were on the correct route.


The field was a narrow strip bounded by a canal on one side and a barbed wire fence on the other and it took most of the morning to reverse the van / caravan combination back onto the main road. The jockey wheel was the main casualty, getting caught in the frozen ruts when we forgot to raise it back up. We did manage to bend it back straight with some rocks though.


Navigation continued to be a problem even after the fog cleared. Later in the day and back on the autobahn, we'd arrived in Bavaria. Asking our navigator / map reader how much further it was to Munich, I was told "dunno, but we've just gone past some place called Munchen".



Soon after leaving London we knew we were in trouble. The van was so underpowered (down to second gear on some hills!) that we arrived in Dover just in time to see the ferry we'd booked leaving the harbour.


Fortunately we managed to get on the next one but the delay meant that we arrived at the caravan hire depot after they'd shut for the night. Andy had arrived earlier and completed the paperwork so the caravan was there for us to pick up but he had forgotton to get the door key. However we soon found that with careful use of the van starting handle we could open one of the windows, then climb through and open the door from the inside. Some cardboard to jam the lock and that was good enough. Off we went ...




































For some reason we'd decided that the best route into Innsbruck was to leave the autobahn and take the road via Garmich. This was fine until the drop down into the Inn valley which is a winding steep decent lasting several miles. The van brakes were only marginally effective on level ground but I'd never experiences alpine roads before so I had no idea what problems lay ahead.


We soon found out though. The van brakes were severely overstressed by the weight and on one steep hill we found ourselves gathering speed despite the driver literally standing on the brake pedal and someone else pulling on the handbrake.


Catastrophy was averted by a "volunteer" climbing out of the side door and inching along the side of the van holding onto the roof rack until he reached the tow hitch. It was then possible to apply the caravan brake which slowed us sufficiently to take the "escape road" - an uphill drive to someone's house, where we could let the brakes cool down.

























 Maybe it was the trauma of the decent but we managed to drive all the way through Innsbruck and out the other side without finding the campsite. After a while we were grinding up a mountain road on the other side of the valley looking for somewhere to turn around but frightened to stop because the road surface was sheet ice.


The conditions caught out one of the locals as well and on one particularly nasty stretch we were faced with a local car coming down the hill, sliding out of control on the ice. He missed the van but the caravan wasn't so lucky and the impact resulted in deep grooves along the side and a lump of the rear corner missing.





































































As you'd probably expect from a van normally used for five or ten mile trips round London a few problems had developed by the start of the return trip. The brakes had got worse and were only just about functioning on the flat and a new problem had shown up with the steering. It was getting harder to turn the wheel and by the time we got back to London the effort needed had cracked the steering wheel.


In this picture John is holding the spare steering wheel. Why did we have a spare steering wheel ... no idea, but it did give us a degree of security that if the existing one came away in my hands we could fit the spare.


Not something I've needed on any trip since!








































Perhaps it was just as well that our cruising speed was restricted to around 30mph as black ice was a constant feature of the return trip. After a long driving shift, slowly making our way along a deserted autobahn, I handed over to my co - driver and settled down to get some sleep.


Just as I closed my eyes a signpost warning of a steep hill ahead slowly drifted past. Shortly afterwards a commotion in the van made me sit up and I saw the same sign but going in the opposite direction. We'd lost traction on some sheet ice and were sliding back down the hill.


Jackknifing the caravan into the ditch at the side of the carriageway was the only way we could come to a halt. Fortunately nothing was damaged and after pulling the caravan out and straightening a few bent parts we continued. My co driver however was somewhat reluctant to get back behind the wheel and I spent the next 48hrs non stop wrestling with a fume filled cab, non existant brakes and jammed steering until we got back to London.


Negotiating the North Circular (London ring road) in rush hour traffic with no brakes or steering wasn't easy though and only a few miles from John's home we got pulled over by the police. Fortunately they were impressed by our explanation that we'd just driven from Austria and didn't look too closely.
























These days the Top Gear crew would feature this trip as a trans Europe challenge where they'd actively try to demolish the caravan.

We were actually trying to keep it in good condition, it was just circumstances that were against us.


We still lost our deposit though.