Setting off for the French Alps on Monday 2nd January I felt a bit apprehensive to say the least. As a rule I really felt that the Sick Bay was a warm weather vehicle. It’s always a pain when something goes wrong but if it’s nice and warm then it’s no more than a nuisance. A breakdown in the Alps in winter could be life threatening. So after consulting my Oracle, the Late Bay Forum, I made sure that I had snow chains for my tyres. Actually I didn’t, I had a cheaper and easier alternative in snow socks. These just slide over the tyre (like a sock in fact) and will get you out of trouble. But I took the rest of the advice to heart so I have also got two hot water bottles, an electric blanket, an oil filled heater, an Arctic rated Nato issue sleeping bag and a full canister of gas. And three cartons of Cuppa Soups.
My plan was to take three days driving down to Les Deux Alpes ski area and stay in a campsite, Le Champ du Moulin, in Venosc. That is three nights driving and two nights wild camping with no electric hook up. An electric blanket is no good without EHU and neither is your oil heater. That’s where the winter sleeping bags and hot water bottles come in. (I can boil water in the van, provided there is gas in the canister).
I made Folkestone for my 16-20 tunnel crossing and arrived in France as it got dark. I had set the sat nav to avoid toll roads and so found myself heading for Brussels on a good free motorway. I called in to the first aire because it was raining and my windscreen wipers are pretty useless and it’s difficult to see in the dark – to be honest, not only is it a summer vehicle, it is also a broad daylight vehicle.
I was tired, the back was full of stuff and I just couldn’t be bothered to set up the gas to boil up a hottie so I just rock and rolled the bed, chucked on my blankets and crawled into my ‘Arctic’ bag. The first thing I learnt was that this bag has a slippery texture and if you park on a slope the bag will want to slide down all night. The second lesson is that it might be considered warm by an SAS squaddie in the Arctic but for me just outside Brussels it was pretty damn chilly. I vowed that for the second night of wild camping I would get my act together and sort out my hottie. And park on the flat.
I was expecting a route through the nice warm lowlands of France but the sat nav had other ideas. She took me through three mountain ranges – the Ardennes, the Vosges and finally the Jura Mountains. All very pretty but bloody cold and that’s where I learnt another lesson about driving the Sick Bay in winter. Just because it has a Subaru engine, and the heater that goes with it, don’t imagine that it is warm enough to be comfortable in sub zero temperatures. It is not – even with layers of thermal clothing, woolly hat, anorak and gloves it was freezing. If I do this journey again I will have to think about some additional form of heating like Propex.
At one point my sat nav died and I thought the fuse had gone. In fact it was just a bad connection but I could not imagine that my frozen fingers would have been capable of the dexterity required to change a fuse in a VW. Those fiddly little bullet fuses in their secret and inaccessible hidey holes will be the death of me.
Even in winter the French are effusive in their delight at seeing an old bay and I got all the usual flashings and VW waves – even more than you get in the UK. At a petrol station I told the cashier my pump number and she came back with, ‘C’est jolie!’ I thanked her and, despite a lengthy queue behind me, she came back with the stock question of anyone interested in old VWs – what year is it? The French have a really tricky numbering system that requires you to do mental arithmetic before you can answer so I have 1972 off pat. You literally say 1000 + 900 + 60 + 12 So ‘mille neuf cents soixante douze’ tripped off my tongue before the guys behind got even more impatient. (To say 80 you have to say 4 X 20 so for us it is very complicated).
The second night, high in the Vosges mountains, I passed a very attractive looking aire in order to make more ground and ended up in a grotty little lay-by at a corner with speed humps. So I got bumpty bumpty bump as the cars sped by all night. But I got the gas going and made 3 cuppa soups and a hottie before the water ran out. I got thirsty in the night but at least I was warmer.
I awoke to blizzard conditions so quickly got going in the hope that as I came down off the mountains conditions might improve. The alternative was to sit and wait it out but that prospect was just too dire to contemplate. After an hour of scary driving in the snow the sun came out and it was blue skies the rest of the way.
I decided to make the most of the good weather and get to my destination come what may. So I didn’t stop driving apart from petrol and ‘comfort breaks’. I even ate Joy’s sandwiches at the wheel. My reward was to arrive at the site just before dark and as I type this I’ve got a beautiful oil heater pumping out heat into my van. Bliss.
The site looks fine, just a few large motor homes dotted about. I’ve heard the snow is not good but right now I couldn’t care less. I’ll check it out tomorrow but now I’m just looking forward to a cozy night’s kip.
I must admit I’m sorry to be on my own. Joy really didn’t fancy this trip, and I can see why. She tends to be a bit more realistic about these things than me. It also felt very strange driving down without Leo and I kept thinking I should stop to let him have a pee etc and I miss him too. He’s as good as any hot water bottle – and he doesn’t go cold in the night.