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My Hyundai for the Hills

WHILE I hugely enjoy revisiting mountains I’ve climbed in the past I do so in the painful knowledge that I can no longer treat these hills in the same cavalier fashion I did when I was younger and fitter.

Take the challenging Mamores Ridge near Fort William for example. This nine-mile long mountain crest has long been considered one of the great hillwalking outings of Scotland, with Glen Nevis separating it from the Grey Corries in the north and long slopes running down to Kinlochleven in the south, all well served by a magnificent network of stalkers’ paths.

The ridge itself is narrow, serpentine and sustained, Alpine-like in snowy winter and spring conditions. The full traverse, well over 20 miles for the round trip, is a big, energetic day out for the fit, and one I breezed as a young, lithe and fit twenty-something-year old. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it now, at least not without a NHS ambulance and resuscitation unit waiting for me at the end.

In many ways that doesn’t matter, I’m just thankful that at the age of 67 I can still get onto the top of hills and mountains, and here’s another thing: as I’ve become older I’ve learned the value of compromise. The concession in this case is breaking the long Mamores Ridge down into bite-sized chunks, a series of shorter days that can be enjoyed at a more leisurely pace.

The most challenging of these concessions takes in the dramatically named Devil’s Ridge along with four of the Mamores’ Munros, the Scottish mountains of over 3000 feet/914 metres. The fearsomely titled Devil's Ridge lies between two of those Munros, Sgurr an Iubhair and Sgurr a’ Mhaim, and despite its name and narrow crest it is far from evil, although in winter conditions it can give several heart-stopping moments.

Another lesson in compromise I’ve learned is a safety issue - I shouldn’t take on big mountain expeditions and then expect to spend several hours driving home at the end of the day when I’m physically tired. My campervan is the solution to that problem. With a comfortable camper waiting in the car park my usual routine is to drag myself off the hill, remove my boots and peel my socks off, put on a brew, have a nap, and then cook a meal. I can then tackle the long drive home in the morning, refreshed, renewed and invigorated by my little expedition to the mountains.

For the past forty years I’ve climbed mountains for a living, starting out as an outdoor instructor before becoming a full-time writer, editor and television presenter. Over the years I've owned a succession of campervans to help me in my work, including a number of classic VW models. My first model was a Toyota Hiace, which I bought away back in the early eighties when my sons were both fairly young.

With my wife Gina, another keen hillwalker, we had all kinds of adventures in that vehicle and when rusting panels became a headache we changed it for a VW T3 Westfalia with a pop-up roof. Despite its problems, and it had many including a heater that refused to work, we loved the iconic style of that vehicle and we phut-phutted over to the Alps on several occasions. At one point we put a new engine in it and eventually swopped it for a slightly bigger V-Dub.

Several VW models later, when our sons had grown up and fled the nest, we thought our campervan days were over, but a few years on the bug began to itch again and we fell for a very cheap, home-converted Renault Traffic van which went by the tantalising name of The Purple Haze. I should clarify that the name came from the colour of the vehicle and not from any illicit activities we may have enjoyed on our road trips but we loved it, and the fun we had with it convinced us we should spend a bit of money, a lot of money as it happened, (my wife’s pension lump sum) on a new vehicle.

We went off to the Camping and Caravan show at the NEC in Birmingham and bought a Romahome R40, bigger than our usual campervans but not so big it would be a problem on highland roads. Sadly it was a problem in every other way.

No sooner had the warranty run out than things went wrong. We had to have it completely rewired, the shock absorbers on the base vehicle were too light for the weight of the camper and the Webasto heater cost us over a grand in repairs because it had been fitted badly. It reached the stage when we were nervous every time we went off for a weekend wondering what was going to go wrong next. I was more than happy to eventually see the back of it, after we had spent a small fortune in repairs.

Foolishly we then bought a bigger motorhome, an Elddis Autocirrus. That was a big mistake. It didn't take us long to realise we were not motorhome people, much preferring the compact nature and car-size of a campervan. For the kind of work I do, essentially climbing mountains and writing about it, driving predominantly on narrow, often single-track, highland roads, a campervan is the perfect vehicle, tea-house and bunkhouse combined.

We traded-in the Elddis for our first Hyundai iCamper. That was a two-year old 2.5 litre Turbo Diesel, automatic base vehicle with a brand new Wellhouse conversion. We loved it and used it pretty extensively over a couple of years, running up a considerable mileage with long trips to Slovenia and a month spent in the Picos de Europa mountain range in northern Spain. In between we visited Shetland, toured Ireland, enjoyed regular trips to the Western Isles, where campervanners are made very welcome, and had many a weekend sortie to the hills and mountains of Scotland and the Lake District. Last year, convinced of the practicality and reliability of the Hyundai i800 and delighted with the workmanship of Wellhouse Leisure we changed our beloved i800 camper for a brand new model, a Rosso Special Edition.

Like its predecessor the new, 2016 Hyundai i-Camper from Wellhouse is based on the Hyundai i800 luxury people carrier and is fitted with the latest 2.5-litre, Euro 6, turbodiesel engine. It features a high standard specification, including a special edition colour scheme, and on the road prices starting from £45,500, expensive but considerably cheaper than an equivalently specced VW California.

I had fallen in love with the Wellhouse Hyundai i-Camper because of key features such as its car-like driving position, being under two metres high (with roof down), rear wheel-drive and the option of automatic transmission. It also has five travel seats and five-year Hyundai and Wellhouse warranties, plus a superb specification from Wellhouse including a SMEV mini-grill/oven, (I like my hot buttered toast and hot pies) hot water, blown-air heating, 95W solar panel, 47-litre Vitrifrigo compressor fridge, 42-litre on-board fresh and waste water tanks, plus an outside shower (brilliant for cleaning dirty hiking boots and occasionally dirty hikers) and 18 inch alloy wheels.

Our new 2016 Rosso features the classic campervan layout of a side kitchen, all in a glorious shade of shiny flaming red, a sink with a two-burner gas hob and oven/grill underneath, a compression fridge, plenty of storage, including a dedicated space for the standard portable toilet, plus a wardrobe unit and a locker for the gas bottle. Unlike our previous i800 the new wardrobe is fitted with two folding shelves, a new addition that delighted us. Being active outdoors folk we never carry any clothing that requires to be hung in a wardrobe, but a cupboard with two shelves is our idea of heaven-in-a-camper! That wardrobe is now home to our sleeping bags, utensils, crockery and lots of tins of this and that. And the little rail that was originally used for hanging coat hangers is now, thanks to the addition of two or three wire hooks, where our tea and coffee mugs hang out.

The front passenger seat swivels round to make a comfortable armchair and the Hyundai i800 has the distinction of having two tables – an easy assemble occasional table, that can be used outside as well as inside, and a neat little passenger seat table.

The seating and sleeping arrangements are almost identical to our previous camper. The Variotech rear bench seat has seat belts for three people and folds down to make a comfortable double bed. Unusually, the i-Camper has twin sliding side doors to maximise ventilation and also provide easier access for servicing the kitchen appliances or to remove the toilet.

Our Rosso Special Edition model has body-coloured bumpers, side-mouldings and roof and features full colour-coded exterior fittings and internal furniture, plus larger alloy wheels and two-tone (red and grey) leather upholstery with armrests for the front seats.

The base vehicle began life as an 8-seater MPV with a beast of a CRDI 2.5 litre engine with 168bhp. It offered roughly 30 mpg, but the new i800 campervan is fitted with a 6-speed manual gear-box, a 2.5 turbo diesel engine that offers a respectable 134bhp. I’m getting about 35 mpg with the help of the Euro 6 compliant engine and the fully loaded campervan easily copes with the long and often steep hills of the highlands. There is an automatic option, which returns to the original 168bhp engine.

I use the Hyundai for work and pleasure, although the margins between the two often become blurred. The Hyundai gives me a comfortable mobile base to work from and has carried me to some of the most fantastic locations imaginable, like the shores of Lake Maggiore in Italy, Venice, the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the Bernese Alps, the Mont Blanc Alps and the beautiful Covandonga Lakes of the Picos de Europa in Spain. I’ve sat in the van and admired blood-red sunsets in Shetland, across the magical Luskentyre Beach of Harris and over the Atlantic from Connemara in Eire.

More recently I’ve made television programmes for BBC Scotland that have featured my campervan. I initially travelled between Oban and Ullapool and made two hour-long programmes called Roads Less Travelled, with a nod to Robert Frost’s poem:

‘Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.’

We followed some of the quieter byways of the Western Highlands and climbed some hills, did some mountain biking and made use of my packraft to visit the Arising Skerries and a holy island on Loch Maree in Wester Ross. Viewers seemed to like the idea of a campervan journey so we did a similar trip last year between Dornoch in the North East of Scotland and Orkney.

We travelled through some of the delightful little towns of Sutherland, the cathedral town of Dornoch, Brora, Golspie, Embo and Helmsdale before heading for the very heart of the Flow Country peatlands. I had enjoyed the wide-open spaces and the domed skies of Caithness before heading across the Pentland Firth to Orkney and visits to South Ronaldsay, Burray, Mainland, Rousay, Sanday and North Ronaldsay.

All went well until we queued up for the ferry to North Ronaldsay. The ferryman on the pier at Kirkwall on Mainland Orkney had a sense of humour, or so I thought. He took a long look at my campervan, my pride and joy, checked his notes and asked if I really intended taking it on the ferry to North Ronaldsay, the most northern of the islands in the Orkney archipelago.

‘You do realise there’s no slipway at the pier on North Ronaldsay,’ he said, eyebrows furrowed. ‘They’ll lift the van oot o’ the ferry on some auld fishin’ nets.’

I was convinced he was joking, but he wasn’t. Three hours later I stood trembling on the North Ronaldsay pier as my beloved campervan was lifted by crane and dumped unceremoniously on the pier. It was hardly an auspicious introduction to Orkney’s most northerly island, but my producer assured me it would make good television.

Hyundai i800 Rosso Edition from Wellhouse Leisure

Owned since October 2016

Drive: Rear-wheel drive

Engine: Euro 6 2.5 turbo diesel

Power: 134bhp (also available in 168bhp automatic version)

Economy: About 35 -38mpg (estimated)

Gearbox: 6-speed manual

Travel seats: 5

Berths: 4

Leisure Battery: 115 A/h

Length x width x height 5.1m x 1.9m x 1.98/2.6m raised roof

Insurance: £300

Equipment: Passenger swivel seat, all seats with 3-point seatbelts, Reimo 333 Variotech bed, additional 2-berth bed with elevating roof, SMEV combination 2 ring hob with Piezo ignition, SMEV over/grill with light & electric ignition, Vitrifrigeo 47L compressor fridge, Eberspacher blown air heating and hot water system, external shower unit, 240v & 12v power outlets, 12A intelligent battery charger, split charging system from engine battery, 25m mains hook up lead, gas locker for 6kg propane cylinder, 42L fresh & waste water tanks, Whale pressure water pump, LED lighting all round, two adjustable roof reading lamps, Dometic 972 porta-loo, easy assemble portable table, easy assemble passenger table, lined curtains, 18inch alloy wheels, leather two-tone upholstery, heated driver seat, high-gloss furniture, driver and passenger armrests, 100w solar panel and colour coded body mouldings

The above feature was foirst published in Campervan Magazine in 2017

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