Jon and Emily’s latest foray into camper vans has seen them move away from older VWs to a Mazda Bongo – a practical, well-specced and affordable option. It helps when you’re mechanically-minded, and Jon offers lots of tips below for others who may be contemplating buying a Bongo. And for those thinking of a camping trip to Scotland, Jon and Emily’s recent tour to Skye and the West Highlands offers lots of inspiration.
Happy Campers’ is a series of posts featuring camper vans and their owners. It’s designed to offer advice and inspiration to new and existing camper van owners – featuring members of the WildaboutScotland community. To take part, please send an e-mail to me answering the standard question format below together with a good photo or two.
1. Introducing ourselves and our camper van
We replaced the bus with an estate, then a Galaxy and enjoyed many holidays under canvas. At heart though, we always wanted to get back into the camper van world but prices had gone so crazy, we felt like it would never happen. Eventually though, we found ourselves with about £6000 to get ourselves back on the ladder – but what to spend it on?
With a small budget and 3 children, you’d be surprised how limited the options are. Any decent T2 is too expensive. T3s can be had for 5-6k but few have 3 belted rear seats. A T5 is a distant dream. So with a heavy heart, I began looking for an alternative without the badge premium.
Fast forward to our Mazda Bongo. It’s a year 2000, 2.5 Turbo Diesel, Automatic, 2 Wheel Drive model (most are 4WD), with a “midi” kitchen conversion in the rear. Couldn’t be much further from our last Westy apart from the elevating roof perhaps. A Bongo (or Freda if it has a Ford badge) will have been imported from Japan but there are loads already in the UK and a healthy support network already exists. Buying one can be a little complicated when it comes to service history etc, but with a bit of common sense, it’s not a big problem.
So here’s a list of the things we have that an early VW almost certainly won’t:
- 120 BHP
- Air con (front and rear systems)
- Air bags
- Power steering
- 4 speed auto
- Electric windows
- Electric roof elevation
- Auto closing sliding door
The strong pulling engine is mid mounted, so you effectively sit on it. Access to it is great however if you flip the seats back. The driving position is nice and high and to drive, it is great fun (we fight over it!). It’s smooth and quiet at speeds up to 70mph, beyond which it starts to sound a little busy and climbs hills with ease – all nice new experiences!
It has a single rear bench seat with 2 full and one lap belt. This slides forward when loaded with kit and back to create a dining space with a side mounted table when you are camped. The two front seats and rear bench lie flat to create a full width double and upstairs, there’s enough sleeping space for 2 adults at a push. To elevate and close the roof, you push a button and off it goes in a flurry of beeps to attract the attention of other campers. So that’s really a four berth and explains why we also travel with a drive away awning. Emily and I sleep in the awning and the boys in the Bongo.
The rear kitchen includes sink and hob but that’s as far as it goes, so no electrical gubbins except for a 13 amp socket connected to the hook up point on the side. This means no leisure battery or charging controls but for us, it’s fine. We use a large cool box and chill with ice. A system we’ve got used to when under canvas. With a BBQ for heavy duty cooking under our tarpaulin and the hob for the bacon, baked beans and the kettle, we have everything covered.
You’ll get an idea as to how we set ourselves up from the pictures.
However – Bongo ownership does come with risks and they are mostly related to the cooling system. Of the complex front and rear heating loops, there is an untold number of pipes and hoses snaking back, forth and even across the underside. This is fine until one of them lets go while driving and results in an engine write-off unless you are very quick to realise what’s happening. Since vehicles in Japan are not routinely undersealed, the metal pipes degrade quickly once exposed to our lovely salty conditions and so you have to be extremely careful to inspect and maintain these, as I found out just in time!
You can see a leak from one of the water pipes that I set off when poking around at the rusted areas with a wire brush. This pipe had to be replaced together with the pair of pipes above it which feed the gearbox oil to an oil cooler. There was one other in a similar condition which rain across the vehicle. How glad I was that I’d checked! Replacing these pipes cost about £200 in parts but I was able to fit them myself. If you ever think about buying a Bongo, check here first! Walk away if you see this level of corrosion unless you are as brave/mad as me.
One of the important criteria for us was that our camper should be a practical daily driver. We use it for shopping, ferrying kids about and all the usual chores. That fact that it is compact and not too tall (for those multi-story car parks) suits us well. We have used it for day trips to the coast, swallowing up the BBQ, buckets and spades, an inflatable kayak and all the other essentials. It’s nice to be able to have a brew on these occasions too
We have made a number of weekend excursions over the summer and it’s worked very well, especially the drive-away awning (an Outwell Country Road) and with some extra cover from a simple tarpaulin stretched across the front. The kids love it.
We added a bike carrier to the rear which sometimes carries bikes but also allows us strap a large holdall to it stuffed with camping kit when on extended trips. You might notice that we now have to prop the rear door open due to the extra weight. I’m sure renewing the struts would help but it’s not a big problem.
Well, it is nice to drive even in heavy traffic due to the auto box and the self-elevating roof is cool but really, it’s not about the van but what it allows us to do – getting out there. I guess the big difference for me personally is that I don’t have to love it like I used to with my old VWs, I can just get on with the fun. I do miss the camaraderie and envious looks that went with a pretty Type 2 but equally, I appreciate the many practical benefits and having some confidence that you’ll reach the destination.
Fuel economy is not fantastic, but then an old T2 is no better. We get just about 30mpg from the van on a long run, sometimes a little more. Apart from the worries mentioned before about corroded pipes, there are rust issues waiting to become bigger in some areas of the bodywork which are common to all Bongos. A visit to the body shop will be needed next year I think. The cupboards in this layout are generally well designed but sometimes I wish there were roller shutters rather than doors to get stuck the wrong side of.
Not exactly an accessory but we’ve been very impressed with the Outwell awning. I did consider cheaper alternatives but having enjoyed the quality of an Outwell before, decided to pay a little extra. We were extremely glad that we did when we found ourselves in the tail of Hurricane Bertha (more later!). It is very stable and just the right size for both storage and a double air bed.
As mentioned earlier, check all pipes and hoses, especially the ones running under the off-side of the van. Most owners will be able to tell you if anything has been replaced which it this kind of age, is pretty much an expectation. Also check that its been undersealed and that the main support brackets underneath are in good shape. Front and rear arches rust quickly so need to be inspected.
As imports, there are extra questions to be asked about service history and mileage confirmation. When buying, there are many reputable importers who will take care of all road legal preparations, MOT etc (rear fog light for example) who are worth considering. If you have less than 10k so spend on a camper van, I can recommend a Bongo as decent option as long as you go about it with common sense.
The main reason for getting back into camper van ownership was an invitation to visit Scotland this summer. A good friend of ours “emigrated” from Cornwall and asked us to swing by. When contemplating a tour of Scotland from Kent, distance is an obvious factor. We could have kept the Galaxy and pitched our enormous tent, but that didn’t really suit our desire to cover as much ground as we could in only two weeks. Scotland is a big place! So the Galaxy went and the Bongo took its place.
At the end of July we travelled up the Peak District, set up camp and took the kids to Alton Towers. Having done half the mileage north, we then set out for East Lothian to stay with our friends. The adventure began when we set out on our planned journey: Fort William – Skye – Arisaig – Mull – back home.
At Fort William we used the Glen Nevis site which is in a great spot right under the mountain. We weren’t quite up to the ascent, but enjoyed exploring the Nevis river. We took the train to Mallaig which was just awesome, crossing the Glenfinnan viaduct and snaking through breathtaking scenery. Once at Mallaig, we admired the Jacobite steam train which impressed our Harry Potter loving kids. (Top Tip: the same journey on the Jacobite would have cost our family about £120, taking the scheduled service cost £30!)
Next came the journey to Skye. We opted for the road bridge simply to extend the journey through some more scenery and a brief flirtation with Loch Ness. Headed for Glenbrittle (thanks to WildaboutScotland) and the remote campsite at the foot of the Cuillin Hills. On arrival, we checked the weather forecast and it was not promising. The remains of Hurricane Bertha were about to arrive and so we pitched the van/awning with our backs to the forecasted wind direction,which happily left us with a sea view.
We loved this site. I kept catching myself gazing up at the hills in disbelief. The hills are stunning and constantly changing in the shifting light. The kids quickly made friends with fellow campers and we settled down for a cup of tea and a BBQ.
That night, the storm came in and we began to appreciate the qualities of the Bongo and the awning. The elevated roof held firm and stayed water tight. The awning never felt like it was going to fail despite very high winds and teeming rain. We might not have had the best night’s sleep but at least we knew we were safe.
The following day was a bit “midgey” so we stayed close to the waters edge and took the kayak out for a brief paddle around the bay. I noticed a lot of bait fish being chased, so went out at high tide on a mackerel hunt. Fishing from a rocky point, my eldest son and I caught five fish in no time at all, cleaned them and popped them on the BBQ as a super-fresh starter for our tea. All this with a very cheap telescopic rod and simple spinner.
The weather looked set-in so we headed to the ferry terminal and back to Mallaig, heading for the campsite at Camusdarach, near Arisaig (also thanks to WildaboutScotland).
We loved this area and the campsite was a nice place to be. The coast line hereabouts was the nicest we saw on our trip. Since it wasn’t really beach weather, we went exploring the coast from here around to the Morar River. It was heavy going at high tide but well worth it, we found caves and a nice spot for a picnic by the river and a giant rope swing. Some of the views here are worthy of ‘Robinson Crusoe’ for those of you old enough to remember the TV series:
Although we were quickly falling in love with the area, the weather forecast was so poor that we decided to head back south and save Mull for another time – and we are determined to return.
In all, we covered about 1400 miles and apart from a flat battery (our fault!), the Bongo performed really well.
Having whetted our appetite for Scotland, we’d love to explore more of the west coast and its islands. We plan to attend a music festival on Eigg in 2016 but before that, we shall think carefully about a return to the Hebrides earlier or later in the season, and hopefully get the kayak in the water for more that five minutes.
Each of the three we used in the summer were excellent but in different ways. Our main priority is that it’s a safe and sociable place for the kids to explore and we find smaller places generally better in this respect. Glen Nevis had great facilities but was a bit too big to properly relax when the kids were out of sight. Camusdarach was lovely with a great position near the coast but while we had a great pitch, not all looked ideal. I wouldn’t hesitate to go there again though. Glenbrittle had a special feel. It felt remote, exciting and attracted adventurous campers who made for great company. The scenery is dramatic and the folk in the little shop were really enthusiastic. The mackerel are easy to catch too!
For my all-time favourite campsite though, the award goes to Nantcol on North Wales which is heaven for us and the kids. If you are considering Wales, you have to try it – book in advance though.
My day job is with Cummins (awesome diesel engines!) but my passion is for music. I work in the business as smallfishrecordings, mixing and mastering for artists from all over the world but mostly from Scotland and from the Glasgow based record label Olive Grove.