3D-printed coat hook for the VW California

For the most part, the design of the VW California is pretty tried-and-tested.  Most owners make a few ‘essential’ improvements to their vans including adding seat covers, carpets and perhaps a removable shelf, as well as adding those all-important accessories to personalise their van that add a splash of colour.

However, one additional accessory that I’ve recently added is a movable coat hook.  The Cali comes out of the factory with two fixed coat hooks, one on the door pillar behind the passenger seat and one above the rear seat just behind the sliding door.  Neither are very useful: the first is difficult to get to and the second risks hanging a dripping coat over your seat.

Enter the world of 3D printing.  It seems that there’s a design for almost any fixture and fitting you can imagine – and lo and behold, there’s a downloadable design for a VW California coat hook that can be positioned very flexibly.

 

The coat hook in use with the roof up

 

3D printers work by heating up plastic filament to produce bespoke parts which are very light and very strong.  The filament is heated to about 200 degrees Celsius and then laid down in a very accurate, additive manufacturing process using successive layers of material.  My 12-year old son has a small 3D printer at home which he’s used to make a whole variety of things: fidget spinners, neat boxes and even a small tripod that I use with my mobile phone.  Quite the entrepreneur, he’s sold these to generate some welcome income from his friends and family.

The coat hook seems the most useful accessory I could find for the Cali but you can also download printable designs for the small shelf clips, a strainer for the sink and a new knob for the controller unit (for the roof, heating etc).

 

Close-up of the coat hook

 

The 3D printer in action

 

The coat hook fits under the rail at either side of the ‘ceiling’.  It’s most useful at the sliding door side and is great for hanging wet jackets.  The design is almost perfect but not quite.  The end that’s opposite the coat hook is just about 5-6mm too short and otherwise would fix securely behind the aluminium rail to the side of the ‘ceiling’.  As it is, it works perfectly when the roof is down since the ‘ceiling’ holds it firmly in place and while it does work when the roof is raised, the design could be improved.

If anyone’s interested in buying one please let me know by using the ‘Get in Touch’ form.  They’re priced at £6  (or two for £10), including P&P within the UK.  If there’s sufficient interest my son could possibly also produce them in grey to blend in better with the Cali interior,

Coat hook secured with the roof down – the situation 99% of the time

 

 

Four ideas to manage the growing demand for “free camping”

The freedom of the road

As the main summer holiday season starts we’re now seeing more visitors on the roads, including motorhomes and campervans.  It’s great to see people enjoying what Scotland has to offer and also spending in the rural local economy.

That’s how tourism should work, right?  You travel, experience new places and activities, and support incomes and jobs in the local economy by buying food, accommodation and so on.

However, there seems to be a growing trend among a minority towards ‘free camping’, deliberately searching out car parks, lay-bys and roadside beauty spots where they need spend nothing.  I frequently receive e-mails from people asking me to supply them with a map of “wild camping spots”, particularly along the North Coast 500.  I don’t share such information, but politely direct them to great campsites instead, since attracting even more people to increasingly crowded hotspots just puts more pressure on local communities and the environment.

I appreciate this is a sensitive topic that can often divide opinion but I’d like to move beyond the ‘blame game’ to discuss constructive solutions.  But first, let’s set out what’s actually happening just now.

Responsible tourism?

I’ve written previously about ‘informal’ or ‘free’ camping in motorhomes and campervans.  The motivation for many people, including myself, is to get away from the crowds and deliberately search out informal camping spots in remoter locations.  The responsible approach is to arrive late, leave early and leave no trace.  This is good practice and I want to make sure that those of who do behave responsibly like this aren’t penalised for doing so.

However, I do take issue with websites and forums designed to share GPS coordinates of free camping spots.  Deliberately avoiding staying at campsites deprives local communities of much-needed income and is surely inconsistent with the idea of responsible tourism.

Take a popular beach location on the Moray coast, for example.  I was contacted recently by someone highlighting the fact that up to 12 motorhomes, campervans and minibuses regularly stay overnight in the beach car park.  This is in spite of the fact that there’s a ‘No Overnight Parking’ sign … and there’s a caravan park just 800 metres away.

A quick Google search reveals why.  The car park is incorrectly listed on a motorhome wildcamping website as allowing overnight camping.  But still, the many vehicles that continue to turn up ignore the sign – as well as the nearby caravan park.

This practice is a long way from what I see as low-impact informal camping.  While one motorhome staying for a single night might seem reasonable to their owners I wonder if they stop to consider the cumulative impact of dozens of motorhomes turning up every week from April to October?  Given such car parks generally don’t have facilities other than litter bins, what about rubbish collections, toilets, waste water and so on?  In the Moray example, the car park belongs to a popular visitor attraction, so that local residents and other visitors sometimes can’t get parked.  Some of those free campers sometimes even have the gall to walk along to the nearby campsite to use their showers and toilet facilities!!

Let’s scale up this single example across the whole of Scotland.  The growing popularity of owning as well as hiring motorhomes and campervans means that there are more people touring Scotland – which in itself is a good thing.  The recent impact study of the North Coast 500, for example, showed that it attracted an additional 29,000 visitors in its first year, with traffic volumes also increasing 10%.  However, the report also highlighted challenges to ensure long term success of the NC500.  These include maintaining the condition of the route, ensuring sufficient parking, waste facilities and public toilets, and continued efforts to encourage better driving.  While more visitors to Scotland should of course be welcomed the fact that the report highlights the additional pressure placed on local services underlines my point.

Four possible solutions

So how do we encourage people to do the right thing?

Here are four ideas that I think now need more active consideration.  They’re not necessarily new but equally, they’re not currently being taken forward.

  1.  Do we need a network of aires in Scotland?

In France, there are over 2,000 aires – or serviced stopover sites – which are normally run by the local council and of varying sizes.  They offer low-cost overnight parking for motorhomes, often with basic services such as water, chemical disposal and waste water disposal facilities.  Toilets and showers generally aren’t provided since motorhomes tend to have these facilities anyway.  Some are free and only charge for services, and others charge for overnight stays.  Tents are not allowed so aires wouldn’t replace the great many good campsites across Scotland (and of course we need to continue to promote these).  An approach similar to aires is already used on Tiree to help protect the fragile machair as well as on Harris, where the West Harris Trust reinvests the £5 overnight charge into community projects including site maintenance.

The Britstops scheme already operates across the UK where their guide contains details of pubs, visitor centres, farm shops and so on who are happy to host motorhomes and campervans overnight on the expectation that visitors will support sustainable tourism by buying local food and other products.  The overnight stops don’t have facilities but are free to use, all for the £27.50 cost of the annual guide.  Creating an additional network for aires would essentially extend this successful model.

For:  Attracts overnighters to places where there are proper facilities; generates ongoing income; successful models already exist 

Against:  Cost to introduce; reduction in income for campsites.

2.  Can we shut down the irresponsible websites and forums?

These sites often aren’t up to date and are only as good as the information they contain.  But when they direct people towards particular locations without the proper facilities it’s no surprise that this inevitably leads to issues resulting from overuse.

For:  Tackles the cause of the issue

Against:  Can only request that the wild camping maps are removed.

3.  Can we have motorhome and campervan hire companies sign up to a code of practice that promotes responsible tourism among their hirers?

There’s clearly an education issue, and this includes people hiring motorhomes and campervans who may be under the impression that Scotland’s ‘right to roam’ land access legislation covers vehicles (it doesn’t).  A few years ago a code of practice was drawn up between SNH, Visit Scotland and several hire companies but I can’t find any information about it any longer.  I’m pretty confident that the number of hire companies has mushroomed over the last five years so reintroducing this would seem a sensible action.

Tourism promotion agencies should also promote this code of practice, including Visit Scotland and the North Highland Initiative, who run the North Coast 500 project.  The Scottish Tourism Alliance, the industry body, already has a clear position on the importance of sustainable tourism.

For:  A straightforward and obvious solution 

Against:  Nothing.

4.  Can we raise awareness of the principles of responsible tourism?

This is also a no-brainer and I would have thought this message is already communicated via the popular guide books to touring and camping in Scotland.  But given so many rely on social media these days, are the messages around responsible tourism clear enough on Facebook and Twitter?  We hear a lot about “filter bubbles”, where people only take in the information on social media via the sites they ‘like’ or ‘follow’.  So is there something more that needs to happen to raise wider awareness, particularly for those who might miss mainstream messages?

For:  Needs to remain a priority 

Against:  Some people may still miss these messages unless the campaign goes sufficiently wide.

 

What do you think?

The bottom line is that we need to ensure that Scotland is open for visitors to enjoy – and that more visitors get to enjoy its fabulous scenery and experiences.

But there’s a fine line between being open and welcoming to visitors while making sure that tourism hotspots are managed in the interests of everyone as well as the environment.  The popularity of motorhome/campervan touring is increasing and with it, the demand for free camping.  So how do we make this work for everyone?

 

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A cycle around Loch Rannoch

 

Unusually stormy weather put pay to a planned sea kayaking weekend on the North West coast at Plockton and so, looking for an alternative activity, I settled on a cycle ride around Loch Rannoch.

On a weekend when all of Scotland was being blown about, the weather forecast for Loch Rannoch – right in the middle of the country – looked marginally less windy.  But only just.  Strong gusts howled along the loch from the west creating waves at the eastern shore near Kinloch Rannoch.  Dark, brooding skies hung over the loch with the sun only managing to poke through every so often.

From a cycling point of view it seemed a game of two halves.  I decided to get the worst bit over first, cycling into a strong headwind first before getting blown back to Kinloch Rannoch.  In fact, many stretches were pretty sheltered and so it wasn’t the masochistic afternoon it might have been.  But the winds did drive many visitors away and it seemed pretty quiet for a Saturday in late June.

I decided to try something new and have a go at making a little video of the cycle around the loch.  It’s a first effort, taken on a hand-held iPhone (all except the last few scenes when I used my tripod) – I’ll get my excuses in first! – so please bear this in mind …

It’s a great, easy cycle.  It’s 20-something miles around the loch on flat, single-track roads and there’s a very good café in Kinloch Rannoch to quench your thirst.  You can also stay at a good campsite (Kilvrecht) run by the Forestry Commission about 3 miles west of Kinloch Rannoch on the southern shore.

There are some lovely little spots around the loch and even a few little beaches.  While there were a number of people camping beside the loch, I’m hoping that some of the antisocial wild camping issues in Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park aren’t displaced northwards owing to the introduction of their new camping byelaws.  However, I did see one nice spot beside the water colonised a group of fishermen with 4 or 5 caravans, various vehicles and a campfire.  Clearly they weren’t there just for an overnight stay …..

In spite of this, it’s a great place for a scenic cycle ride.

 

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Campsite Review – Solway View Campsite

In a nutshell

Where:

Solway View Holidays, Balmangan Farm, Borgue, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, DG6 4TR  Web:  http://www.solwayviewholidays.co.uk/   Tel: 01557 870 206 (9am – 8pm) E-mail: n.picken@btconnect.com

Cost:

Campervans/motorhomes/caravans £17.50 per night hard standing & EHU / £14.00 grass pitches – all prices include 2 people plus vehicle.   All prices per night during high season (2017).

Facilities:

Solway View was awarded the Best Campsite in the Scottish Outdoor and Leisure Awards 2016.  It’s located at Balmangan Farm, a 330 acre working beef and sheep farm.   The site is very well run and offers a flat camping field for 25 tents and small campervans (10 with EHU) and 7 hard standing and pitches for caravans/motorhomes.  All pitches have picnic benches and a campfire area.  Five well-equipped wigwams for hire sleep up to 5 people.  Washing facilities are modern, heated and spotless and include disabled access.  Washing machine, outdoor covered drying area, indoor cooking huts, children’s play area, disc golf game.

Great location within a short walk to the sea, through a beautiful wood (stunning bluebells in Spring) which leads to a secluded sandy beach.  Nature walks around the farmland.  Easy drive to Kircudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet and Castle Douglas as well as nearby Carrick Beach.

What I liked:

A really well-run site where the helpful owners have thought of everything.  Peaceful location in beautiful surroundings.  Spotlessly clean.  Picnic benches and campfire facilities at every pitch a great touch (firewood is available to buy). A ten minute walk through a lovely wood take you to a secluded bay.  Green Tourism Gold Award.

Not so wild about:

Wifi not yet available on site since the local exchange is yet to be upgraded – but why not take the chance to switch off and unwind …

 


Review:

I was really impressed  with this campsite, so much so that it’s now one of my Top 10 campsites in Scotland.

Solway View campsite is part of a working beef and sheep farm and segregated from the livestock.  It’s in a peaceful corner of Dumfries and Galloway with sea views, yet only a short drive from Kirkcudbright and other towns and a stone’s throw from gorgeous Carrick Beach.

 

Neil and Patricia Picken are keen campers themselves and have progressively developed this site over the last ten years with all the facilities they would expect.  The care and attention to detail shows: there are indoor covered eating/seating areas, wooden picnic benches and campfire facilities at every pitch, nature walks, and signs providing information about their working farm.  I highly recommend this fantastic campsite – this is what great camping is all about.  It was deservedly voted the Best Campsite in the Scottish Outdoor and Leisure Awards 2016.

 

 

The flat camping field, picnic benches and rope swing

 

One of two well-equipped indoor cooking areas

There are a mix of large grass pitches for tents and smaller campervans and hardstanding pitches with EHU for motorhomes and caravans.  Five well-equipped wigwams are also available for hire.The heated toilet and shower block is spotlessly clean, and there’s even a charging point for electric vehicles just next to it.  A new disc golf course has just been installed, where you throw Frisbee-style discs between holes.

The Disc Golf course – great fun for all ages!

There are farmland and coastal walks directly from the site where you can take in the sea views.  The walk through the wood to the secluded sandy bay is lovely, particularly in Spring where the bluebells are absolutely stunning!  The site holds a Green Tourism Gold Award and generates its own renewable energy via a turbine and solar panels.

(Click on the photos below for larger size versions).

 

 

The sandy beach

A short drive of around 6 miles takes you to Carrick Beach, giving great walks and coastal views.  At low tide you can walk across to the sandy beach on Ardwall Isle, a fantastic spot to just unwind and enjoy the scenery.

View from Ardwall Isle towards Carrick Beach

 

View towards Ardwall Isle

 

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Icebreakers and leadership games for young people

 

Sometimes, getting started on the right path is the hardest part.  It’s true of any big work project, an outdoor challenge or simply working up the motivation to go out for a run.

And as anyone who’s had to deliver a training course or other event with young people will tell you, finding ways to create a relaxed atmosphere is an essential first step in creating the conditions where valuable learning can take place.

I was pleased to get an e-mail this week from John Hardy at EPIC Adventures in Texas.  EPIC run a range of summer camps and volunteering programmes with a strong focus on outdoor adventure, helping young people grow and mature so they can become self-confident leaders.  Great stuff.

He shared with me their list of 22 icebreakers and leadership games they use at their travel camps and I thought this was a really great resource.  I work with groups of young people on the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and every year when we deliver a our training we look to try a new fun activity to get them relaxed, to open up and in the right frame of mind to absorb new learning.

With thanks to John and EPIC Adventures I’m pleased to highlight this great list – I’ll certainly be referring back to it for some good ideas.

And in the spirit of sharing good ideas, do you know of any great icebreakers or leadership games that really work for you?

 

 

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A sea kayak adventure in the Sound of Luing

 

 

On the beach at Balnahua looking towards Scarba

 

One of my goals for 2017 is to become a more experienced sea kayaker and to – literally – dip my toes into the water to see if this is something I want to take up more seriously.  Last weekend was the first of three planned trips away this year and really helped develop my paddling skills.

Truth be told, I’m pretty much a novice paddler just now.  I’ve messed around with my own inflatable touring kayak, taking it wild camping in Loch Moidart and along Loch Hourn to climb a remote munro on Knoydart, and also had a day’s solo instruction on Loch Leven near Ballachulish.  But last weekend I went away for two days’ instruction with Kenny Lacey of Sea Kayak Scotland.  I was in good hands: Kenny’s a Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach as well as being an International Mountain Leader, just the kind of knowledgeable expert to make sure I have a good grasp of the basics.  I’d highly recommend him.

Friday night saw me driving westwards to camp at Seaview Campsite at Benderloch, just north of Oban.  It’s a really good site (I stayed there cycling LEJOG in 2015) and much more preferable to the busy C&CC site at North Ledaig just nearby where I’ve also stayed.  And don’t be put off by the ‘sparse’ website … just take my word for the fact that it’s clean, well run and in a great location.

So my brief to Kenny was this: I’d like to learn the paddling skills to become more confident and safe on the water; experience a variety of smooth/rougher conditions; learn safety and rescue skills; and get an introduction to sea kayak navigation and tide planning.  He delivered on all counts – and then some!

I got a crash course in navigation, currents and tidal planning at Kenny’s house on the Saturday morning and then we loaded up the boats and equipment for the short drive to the launch spot.  Kenny’s based on the Isle of Seil, to the south of Oban, and luckily for him lives just a five minute drive from an excellent launch spot at Cuan Sound. Known locally as “Michael’s Place”, there’s a bunk house, wigwams, parking, toilets and showers, all just recently created for sea kayakers.  You can even stay in a converted lifeboat!

We paddled south along the coast of the island of Luing before heading across a stretch of open water to another island, Balnahua, famed for its slate industry.  In its heyday during the 19th Century it was home to 200 people but has been uninhabited since WW1.  Its industrial past is still very much in evidence in its water-filled quarries and former workers’ cottages.  It’s slap bang in the middle of the Sound of Luing, giving great views to more than 20 islands including Mull, Seil, Luing, Scarba, the Garvallachs, Jura, Colonsay and Islay.

 

 

View of the slate quarries and disused buildings on Balnahua

 

The currents in the Sound of Luing are notoriously strong and with Kenny’s expert planning we were confident that we would be paddling with the current on our way from Balnahua south, back towards Luing.  This was a real eye-opener for someone with limited experience of the effects of currents.  It meant that without putting much effort at all into our paddling we were still travelling at around 7 km/h.  Just imagine if we’d got this wrong and were paddling against the current … what a difference …

By this point I was getting some great experience of open water crossings in force 3 conditions and waves of up to 60cm.  The sun had come out, it was nearing 5pm and it was time to find a campsite for the night.  We pulled up at Mary’s Bay (unnamed on maps) and dragged the kayaks ashore.

Mary’s Bay on the island of Luing, looking towards Scarba

 

We kicked back, put the tents up and explored our little patch of wildness, with only a few cows and timid sheep for company.  The sunshine made all the difference, transforming what might have been a wet and windy camp into a lazy, outdoor evening.

Wild camp spot at Mary’s Bay

 

What a location!

 

I took a walk along the coast to collect firewood for our beachside fire that evening.  Sea thrift waved in the breeze as the sun slowly dipped towards the islands out west.  Kenny pointed out a series of strange, pointed mounds dotted around the bay.  They ranged in size from smaller grassy stumps right up to pointed peaks of 50cm or so.  There was no real pattern to their location other than they all sit on raised ground overlooking the sea.  Kenny had previously done some research and thought they might be places where Wheatear like to sit, with their droppings accumulating over many decades to build up these mounds.  It certainly sounds a plausible theory given these birds do like to perch on mounds – but please let me know if you have a different explanation.

 

Sea thrift

 

Mounds up to 50cm high, possibly created by the accumulation of Wheatear droppings ?

 

Looking through a rock window

 

We were just packing out tents up the next morning when the rain started … and didn’t let up until early-afternoon.  Given a favourable wind direction we decided to go on a little paddling adventure and take a look at the Grey Dogs.  In paddling and sailing circles the short gap between the islands of Lunga and Scarba is very well known, where fast-flowing tidal currents give rise to a tide race with waves of (sometimes) up to several metres.  Just take a look at the aerial view from Google Maps to see the currents moving from east to west in this image.  Today, the tidal range was only 1.4m and the wind was blowing a force 3-4 and so the waves looked to be 1 – 1.5m high.  We took a look, keeping out of the current that could easily draw us in, and decided to leave it for another time (I was an improving paddler but not that good yet!)

We got carried with the current north this time along the east coast of Lunga, exploring inlets and spotting seals and Canada geese.  As the rain got heavier we once again paddled the 2km open water crossing from Lunga eastwards to Luing, getting carried about 2km north with the strong current!  I found this pretty tough, paddling through waves of up to 60cm and paddling hard so as not to collide with the passing yachts.

After stopping for lunch we practiced rescue and more paddling techniques before heading back to Cuan Sound.  I feel seasick in larger boats and unfortunately as we escaped the relative shelter of the islands out towards the west the swell picked up and I started to feel a little unwell.  It’s strange that waves don’t make me ill at all but the slow up-and-down of the swell is much more uncomfortable.

In spite of this last short section I’d had a fantastic weekend’s adventure in the company of an expert coach and guide.  New experiences, wild places, sunshine and wild camping … what a great recipe!

 

 

 

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Product Review – Vango Kela III Driveaway Awning

Travelling in a campervan offers flexibility, self-sufficiency and the ability to quickly set up and strike camp.  But there are times when a little extra comfort and room is needed.  Teenagers or dogs might need their own space, or perhaps you want some shelter from the weather.  Whatever the reason, this is when a driveaway awning can come into its own.

I’ve been testing out the Vango Kela III driveaway awning (2017 version), provided for review by Outdoor World Direct.  According to Vango the Kela is the “driving force” behind their current line-up of campervan and motorhome awnings, which also includes the Galli, Cruz and Idris.  All three come in either ‘tall’, ‘standard’ or ‘low’ versions and I tried out the ‘low’ which attaches to a campervan with an awning rail height of 180 – 210cm.  Vango introduced their AirBeam technology range over a decade ago, followed by several updates, and this latest version creates a strong impression.

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking there’s an inherent contradiction in the notion of taking a separate tent awning away in a campervan.  If the whole point of a campervan is to camp flexibly in a self-contained unit, why have a driveaway awning?  Doesn’t this add time and hassle to the fast-and-light, happy-go-lucky experience you’re after?  At first sight this might seem the case but the big advantage of AirBeam awnings is the speed and ease in which you can pitch them.  From unpacking the awning bag it took me just 25 minutes to put it up for the first time (by myself) .  Vango’s website ambitiously states that the pitching time is 8 minutes but with a bit of practice I reckon I could pitch it in 15 minutes and probably less with a helper.

It has to be said that the tent bag, including pegs and pump, is still fairly bulky (L78 x H35 x W37cm) and weighing in at a pretty hefty 17.35kg.  There are much heavier awnings on the market and so with some justification, Vango may well claim this weight and bulk to be in the Kela’s favour, but it still does take up a fair amount of storage room.

 

I was impressed with the quality of the materials.  The double ripstop polyester fabric is durable and likely to last many years, there’s a fully sewn-in groundsheet that keeps out creep-crawlies and draughts and the groundsheet is attached to the flysheet with an external storm skirt to provide all round protection.

The first step in pitching the awning is to connect it to your campervan.  The easiest way to do this is by threading the 6mm kador strip already attached to the awning into the rail on the side of your van.  However, to give greater flexibility Vango recommend using a figure-of-eight strip to connect the awning to your van’s wind-out awning, which essentially means it’s easier to reattach and re-tension the awning after driving away for a day’s exploring.  If your van doesn’t have an attached awning or awning rail then you have other options.  You can use either a pole-and-clamp or hook-and-loop method to attach the awning to your van gutter or roof bars respectively, or simply throw the long webbing straps over the roof and secure them on the other side of the van.

I found it easy to attach the awning to the awning rail of my van using the integral 6mm kador strip.  I managed to fit this on my own although having another pair of hands to assist in threading it into the rail would be even easier.  (I didn’t have the opportunity to use the separate figure-of-eight strip unfortunately since this didn’t arrive in time for my review weekend away but this also seemed simple and straightforward to use).

Inflating the Kela is a case of connecting the included pump to the valves on the outside of the two AirBeams and inflating up to 7psi (there’s a handy pressure gauge on the pump).  The rear beam is inflated first, you then pitch out the corners loosely, inflate the front beam, then adjust and finish pegging out the awning.  There are lots of guylines and some strong, reflective webbing guys at the front.  Internally, Vango have used their patented Vango TBS® II Tension Band System which helps strengthen the structure for windier conditions and there’s also an inflatable bracing beam to avoid any sagging canvas (especially when it rains) at the apex of the roof.  This worked well and as I discovered, the key thing to remember is to remove the bracing beam before you decided to pack up the tent!

 

Pump attached to an AirBeam valve

 

Close-up of the inflatable bracer pole inside the awning roof

 

I really liked the flexible layout of the awning.  As can be seen in the photo below, it creates a light, airy space with very good headroom and a footprint measuring 370cm by 310cm  There’s a large PVC window at the front of the awning and with the addition of poles (not included), this front section could be zipped open to form a canopy, giving a breeze and feeling of space on a sunny day.  There’s a large, zippable side door that leads into the front section, which has the groundsheet.  This can be used as a living and/or sleeping area and an optional bedroom inner tent is available to order.  To the rear (next to the van sliding door) there’s a walkway-cum-storage area with a zippable door at either end.  Since this has no groundsheet this is a practical thoroughfare to use when entering the awning and van.  No muddy foot or pawprints!

When setting off from your campsite for the day it’s a simple case of unthreading the kador strip from your van (a separate figure-of-eight strip makes this a much easier task), rolling up the rear ‘porch’ area and zipping a panel across the rear opening of the awning.  Your awning is then left as a weather-proof, freestanding tent to mark your pitch.

The flysheet and groundsheet seams are all factory-taped to give watertight seals, strong steel pegs and a rubber mallet are included and there’s even an internal lantern hanging point.

It’s a spacious, light and airy interior

 

I’ve used various designs of tents and awnings over the years and am a real convert to the AirBeam.  I was curious at first to know whether the ‘poles’ were really strong enough to withstand the weight and weather without sagging overnight but I’m pleased to report that they remain firm and strong.  Since the AirBeams are integral to the tent it’s a weight- and space-saving solution compared with conventional awnings.

I found the Kela III to be well designed, with little details including ventilation points, ‘tidies’ to hide guylines when not in use and the option to create a canopy opening at the front.

My one major criticism is the design of the awning bag, which I found far too narrow to be able to comfortably repack the tent.  In dry conditions I really struggled to fold up the awning sufficiently small and wouldn’t even bother trying to force the awning into the bag when it’s damp or if I was in a rush to pack up.  At first, I thought the AirBeams weren’t sufficiently deflated but found this wasn’t so.  Eventually I resorted to repacking the awning on my drive at home – and still struggled!  A far simpler solution would be for Vango to provide tensioning webbing straps to tighten the rolled-up awning, together with additional webbing straps to secure it inside a much larger outer bag.

Apart from this one failing I was really impressed with the Kela III.  Over the years I’ve become sceptical of the extra hassle that comes with erecting a separate awning but would happily consider putting up the Kela for even a short stay.  It’s a robust, well designed and flexible product that’s sure to last many years.

There are two zippable side doors to this side

The sewn-in groundsheet creates a cosy ‘front room’ while the rear section provides a practical access thoroughfare

 

Note:  The Kela III Low driveaway awning was provided to me to review for free by Outdoor World Direct.  I have no connection with the company and have provided an honest and impartial review based on my personal experience in using the awning.  The Kela III is currently available for £549.

 

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Review: The Jerba Tiree Campervan

I think I first became aware of campervans in 1977 when a friend’s family bought a bright orange bay-windowed VW. Even in the 1970s, when orange furniture and curtains adorned our living rooms and orange melamine kitchenware jostled for attention, their bright, brand spanking new campervan stood out. It made a statement.

So fast forward forty years, and I find myself walking up to a brand new VW T6 campervan that I’ve been loaned for a long weekend. It’s that exact same orange that I remember from my childhood. A wide smile breaks out; things are off to a good start.

Based in North Berwick, Jerba Campervans have been producing VW campervans for 12 years. Run by Simon Poole and his partner Cath Brookes, this innovative and growing company have their eye on an expanding niche. Their customers have a sense of that timeless appeal of a VW camper but are looking for the flexibility, reliability and modern gizmos that bring the experience bang up to date. Let’s call it retro – with a modern twist.

Jerba Campervans are an officially-recognised vehicle body builder for VW Commercial Vehicles. They offer five standard conversions of the base T6 Transporter van but with a long list of VW factory options and extras. This means that a range of short- and long-wheel layouts, engine sizes, gearboxes, seat fabrics and so on are available to order. At their North Berwick factory the Jerba cabinetmakers and mechanics then set to work building and finishing the van by hand, also including several cutting-edge innovations.

Back outside the factory, Simon Poole introduced me to the Jerba Tiree short wheelbase camper, which sleeps four and at 5 metres is no longer than many cars on the road. Customer Manager David Miller briefed me on how to operate the ‘camping’ side of the van: elevating roof, fridge, sink, hob, heater, electrics and fold-down rear bed. Between them they know a thing or two about campervans, Simon having owned and driven campers in various far-flung parts of the world and David having sold me my VW California when he previously worked at the VW Van Centre in Edinburgh.

I stayed the first night just a stone’s throw from the Jerba factory, at Tantallon Camping and Caravan Park, overlooking Bass Rock and the Fife coastline. It was so near I don’t think the smile had even left my face!

I found setting up the van for an overnight stay easy and straightforward. The downstairs bed folds down flat in under a minute just by shifting a couple of levers. It’s flat and comfortable too but like most campers, benefits from an extra mattress to sleep on. The blackout curtains are robust and well designed, fixing with press studs. Customers can specify their own curtain material, a great illustration of how you can design your own van. There are lots of well-positioned LED lights for reading, cooking and other tasks.

Jerba stand out from the crowd not only in the colour choices of their vans but also in the design of the elevating roof. Having seen too many instances of the metal ‘scissor’ mechanism damaging roof material in factory-built as well as campervan conversions, Jerba set out to design some ingenious solutions. First, their own-design roof is operated manually. It’s well designed, simple to operate and with a bit of practice, it’s easy to lift and retract the roof. Lowering the roof manually doesn’t eliminate the potential for damage completely but it makes it much easier to spot since you’re in full control.

But in order to fix any damage, Jerba have patented a removable roof canvas. So rather than incur the expense and complications of refitting a new canvas (a procedure that could take a couple of days in a workshop), theirs is a zip-off solution that can be swapped over in quite literally 5 or 10 minutes. You don’t need to be a qualified fitter to perform the tasks, so it’s quite possible to do at home without even leaving your drive.

As I discovered, zipping off the roof canvas soon gets you as close to a convertible campervan as you will ever get. Sitting in the van with a view over the sea and the sunshine pouring in was a fantastic experience – roll on Summer!

When the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature dropped I soon zipped the roof back on to cook my evening meal. I found that the roof canvas, made from Ventile, is not only waterproof but also very effective at keeping out the wind.

After being treated to a rare sighting of the northern lights directly from the campsite I meandered the next day south along the coast to Dunbar and Cove Bay, one of Scotland’s hidden gems, before heading west across the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway.

The Tiree was a joy to drive and once you’re used to the higher driving position, it’s easy to forget you’re driving a van. Compared with my California I found the Tiree much lighter to handle and while its base-level 102bhp engine might be a little underpowered for some, I was happy with its performance. The campervan experience is all about the journey after all, not getting from A to B as fast as possible.

All Jerba T6 campers come with a host of mod cons to support the driving experience including a touchscreen digital radio with AUX and USB connectors, a CD drive and Bluetooth. Blue Motion Technology improves fuel economy (there’s a start/stop engine system when stationary as well as a regenerative braking that charges your vehicle battery as you brake) while various driver alert and brake assist systems provide additional safety features.

After a great journey across the back roads of Southern Scotland I stayed the next night at Solway View Campsite near Kirkcudbright. By this point I was starting to get to grips with the storage on board. As every seasoned campervanner knows, there’s a place for everything and everything must have its place. Not having a ‘system’ can be a recipe for family strife, as well as lost belongings, but I found appropriate cubby holes for everything. There are lots of little storage lockers for food, crockery, books, clothes and other gear. I soon discovered, though, that once the downstairs bed is made up you no longer have access to the two large cupboards below – so make sure you retrieve your wash kit and change of clothes first!

Another distinctive innovation offered by Jerba as an internal conversion option is the Wallas twin-burner hob. Not only does it run on the van’s diesel – there’s no gas in the van at all, saving space and weight – but it also doubles up as the internal heating.

This was a completely new feature to me, having been used to gas burners and separate cooking and heating equipment. The hob takes 5 to 10 minutes to heat up sufficiently for cooking (use this time to prepare your food) and the temperature can be controlled during cooking. After use, the hob stays hot but in cooler temperatures you can use this warmth to heat the van. Ingeniously, the hob lid is lowered to convert it into heating mode and it blows out hot air from the front of the unit.

It did take me a while to get used to this arrangement. I can definitely see the advantages in having a combined cooker and heater, particularly from a space-saving perspective, but perhaps because I’m so used to the immediacy of gas I did find cooking slower than I’d hoped for. The heater too was less effective than the Webasto heater in my California and since the warm air was blown out at waist height it didn’t circulate evenly around the van. The combined hob and heater is also a slightly noisier solution than I’m used to and so for all of those reasons I wasn’t completely won over. However, a more powerful Webasto heater is available as an option, installed below the driver’s side of the van, and able to blow out hot air from the base of the side pillar within a few minutes.

As for other aspects of the camping equipment, the good-sized fridge was useful and the sink large enough to wash up. While there’s no waste water tank on board any water draining from the sink can be collected underneath the van. There are handy USB charging points beside the kitchen and a 3-pin socket for when the van is hooked up to a mains power source. Talking of which, the electric hook-up is cleverly hidden behind a panel just below the driver’s side rear light cluster, and a 100-watt SunFlex roof-mounted solar panel continuously switches between the main engine and leisure batteries to keep them both charged. While I didn’t have the opportunity to test this, Simon told me that using the solar panel you could easily stay off-grid for several weeks during the summer months.

Given glorious weather I took the Tiree to the beach on my final day. This is where the flexibility and comfort of a campervan really comes into its own. With the roof up and the ‘upstairs’ windows open the sunshine flooded in, cooled by an onshore breeze through the side mesh windows. It’s useful to know that the mesh is not only mosquito-proof but also midge-proof!

Both front seats swivel and there are two internal tables allowing a range of configurations for sitting and eating. But on this sunny afternoon at the beach, I instead folded down the lower bed and raised the rear section so I could relax while keeping an occasional eye on the comings and goings at the seashore.

That evening I paid an overdue visit to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, near Dalmellington in Galloway Forest Park. The stargazing session I was booked into finished late at night, well past locking-up time for any campsite. This was a great opportunity to find an informal ‘campsite’ just off a forest track and to try the van off-grid. The van performed admirably and I slept peacefully.

However, it was a chilly night with hail showers in the morning. In cool weather I would personally prefer to choose the option of double glazing in the side and rear windows – which as an added benefit would also decrease the likelihood of condensation forming on the inside of the glass.

Overall, I really liked the Tiree and would recommend this as a very good option for anyone considering buying a campervan. It’s ingeniously-designed, flexible in use and provides all the mod cons you’d want in a modern camper. And in a retro colour option it really does make a positive statement!

Overview

What I liked:

  • Easy to drive and good fuel economy
  • Well-designed and ingenious elevating roof design
  • Water, wind and midge-proof roof canvas/window
  • Ample and well-designed storage
  • Effective blackout curtains
  • Lots of well-positioned LED lights and USB connectors for tablets/phone
  • The roof-mounted solar panel
  • The gorgeous colour!
  • The long list of options available
  • Jerba’s focus on innovation and attention to detail

 

What I wasn’t so keen on:

  • Combined diesel-powered hob and heater unit a little slow and noisy
  • The 102bhp engine might be slightly underpowered for some tastes
  • I recommend double-glazed rear and side windows for cooler weather

 

Note:  The Jerba Tiree was loaned to me by Jerba Campervans in order to write an independent product review.  I have no connection with the company.

You can read my review on the Jerba Campervans website.

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The northern lights … also available in purple

Last weekend was a good weekend for viewing the aurora.  In fact, the lights showed up both on Friday and Saturday nights when Scotland was enjoying a rare period of high pressure with limited cloud cover.

But the most remarkable thing about last weekend’s showing of the northern lights was that for the first time in my aurora-chasing experience, the lights on Saturday night were only purple with no green aurora visible at all.  And on Friday, the sky at higher altitude was a gorgeous deep purple hue.

Friday saw me camping at Tantallon Camping and Caravan Park at North Berwick, on the east coast just about 30 minutes southeast of Edinburgh.  I was testing out a Jerba campervan (more about this in a later post) who are based no more than two miles from the campsite.  I couldn’t believe my luck when my aurora apps signalled ‘minor storm’ conditions !

I had a clear view north across the Firth of Forth to Fife (say that after a drink or two …).  But while there was lots of light pollution along the coast to contend with it didn’t prevent me from seeing the aurora.  Things got off to a fairly slow start: a nice green auroral arc developed but nothing much happened for a while.  Then, around 10.45pm, the sky noticeably lit up to the naked eye.  Something was definitely happening !  For about ten minutes the aurora kicked into life.  Green and purple shafts reached up from the arc, the sky above was painted a gorgeous deep purple and all the while the stars shone brightly.

By 11pm things quietened down again and the auroral arc gradually faded into the background.  Short but sweet.

 

 

The next night I was camping at Solway View Campsite, near Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland.  I was hoping for a good night of stargazing since the skies had gradually cleared on my journey west during the day and as dusk fell I could see this was going to be a rare, cloudless night.

I set up my camera at a suitable spot to take multiple shots I could put together into a star trail photo.  Not only was there a ‘minor storm’ (Kp5) in terms of the solar conditions but the weekend was the peak of the Lyrids meteor shower so I was hoping to see some nice bright streaks across the sky too.  I wasn’t disappointed.

I watched and waited for a while in the stillness as other campers gradually switched off lights and went to sleep.  A few meteors briefly darted across the sky before burning up and fading in the atmosphere.  But there was no sign of an aurora – at least to the naked eye.

I kept the camera running automatically, taking shots every 20 seconds, then returned after an hour once 100 or so were captured.  For some reason the camera had decided to stop itself so I flicked backwards to review the photos.  I was really surprised to see big patches of purple show up but with no green lights whatsoever, the usual colour of auroral activity through a camera lens.

 

 

I used the Star Trails software to produce a composite picture using those 100 shots, where you have a good sense of the purple aurora showing through the rotating stars in the bottom left corner.  It’s even more visible looking at a single photo where the lights were brightest.  There were a few streaks across the sky that showed up on those photos but given that they tend to be visible on more than one 20 second exposure they’re almost certainly planes or satellites rather than meteors.  (Now, a combined star trail, (purple) aurora and meteor photo really would have been something !)

 

Did you see the northern lights last weekend?  If so, where were you and what did it look like for you?

Scottish mountain and coastal webcams

Webcams provide an easy way to check the weather conditions before you head out.  Here’s my selection of 25 good webcams of mountain and coastal locations across Scotland, plus a link to a long list of traffic cams.

I’ve provided thumbnails of those webcams that refresh every few seconds.  Those without any pictures are more modern cams that provide a live stream, and some of which you can pan around to get a wider view.

The map below (courtesy of www.scotland-landscapes.com) includes many of the webcams I’ve linked to below and serves as a good location guide.

 

 

 

Click on the links below to see the latest views

Ski and Mountain areas
Loch Morlich, Cairngorms National Park

Look for sunbathers in summer and snowcapped hills the rest of the year!

Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area

View from the Scottish Ski Club Hut, looking to the Shieling and lower ski slopes towards the Fiaciall Ridge.

Lairig Ghru, from Aviemore

Looking towards the Cairngorms with Ben Macdui (left, 4295ft)) and Braeriach (right, 4252ft)

Glenshee Ski Area

A great webcam that gives a panorama of the ski area.

Glencoe Ski Area

Various views including this one of Buachaille Etive Mor.

Nevis Range Ski Area, Fort William

Looking down the slopes.

Ben Nevis and Fort William

Ben Nevis (4411ft) towering over Fort William (on a clear day!)

Braemar snow gate webcam

Is the road open from Braemar south towards Glenshee?

Ben More, Crianlarich

Ben More rises to 3852ft, just SE of Crianlarich.

Ben Cruachan & Loch Etive

Ben Cruachan (3694ft) from across Loch Etive.

 

Torridon Youth Hostel
Torridon Hotel
 

Island and Coastal webcams
 
Beinn Sgritheall and Knoydart from Skye

Looking across the Sound of Sleat to Beinn Sgritheall (3196ft) and Knoydart from Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College on Skye.

 
Waternish, Skye

Looking west towards Loch Dunvegan, Uist and Harris from near the NW tip of the Isle of Skye.

 
Eiliean Donan Castle

An iconic Scottish landmark near the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Dundonnell

Little Loch Broom, near Ullapool.

Plockton

Good views around the harbour and village of Plockton.

Isle of Coll

Looking out from the Isle of Coll Hotel.

Taymouth, Loch Tay

Looking north across Loch Tay from the Taymouth Marina (with the crannog on the right).

Oban

Good views of Oban harbour.

Orkney

From the pier at Stromness.

Shetland

Cliff Cam 3 looks north from Sumburgh Head. On a clear winter’s night you’ve got a good chance of catching a glimpse of the aurora and in summer you can also experience close-ups from the seabird colonies as they rest on the cliff edge.

Fair Isle

This webcam doesn’t seem to be in operation at present unfortunately.

Arran

View towards Goat Fell (2867ft) from Brodick harbour.

North Berwick

View from the roof of the Scottish Seabird Centre.

 

 

 

 

Traffic cameras

 
Traffic Scotland webcams