BERT, THE KOMBI VAN – part 1

In the glove box of my flash new VW Golf, there’s a tiny, very plain green knob. It’s my lucky charm and a reminder of the halcyon days of my twenties. It links me to a battered, rusting old VW kombi van I once briefly owned and drove from London to Scotland and back, and from Belgium through to Greece on one of the most extraordinary and adventurous journeys of my life.

All cars, I think, end up having some personality to its owner. And the Kombi came to me with plenty of it. Character plus! I knew nothing of its past life, but from the condition of its old bodywork, it had clearly been out and about and rarely confined in a garage! The Kombi had soul, and we gave it a name – BERT. I can’t remember how we came to this name – perhaps it had something to do with being in England, and the only German we knew of in the UK of was late Prince Albert – Bertie – the husband of Queen Victoria.

I bought Bert in London from a used car yard owner whose son worked with me in Australia. The sale was arranged from Australia at a very cheap price, and was ready to collect on my arrival in England. The yard owner ensured that, for an old camping van , Bert was in great shape for my forthcoming adventures on the road in England and Europe. Just as well. Bert was going to go a long way with me – well over 2,000 kilometres – on what was most probably his last journey!

17 year old brother John, myself and younger sister Kate – we’d just cooked a meal outside the Kombi

Aboard the Kombi as passengers were my younger sister Kate and brother John, joining me on my trip to the Northern Hemisphere. After picking Bert up at the car yard, we drove north to Cumberland first to visit relatives. En route, Bert earned a parking ticket in a small village for overstaying the parking time allowed. The parking inspector had just finished writing it when we returned to the Kombi. We told him we were Aussie travellers and were leaving England within the month. He couldn’t cancel the ticket, but kindly said to forget about it and travel on. I wonder if it’s still on the books!

We tried to call in on Birmingham en route for an overnight stay, but in a surreal scene that would have fitted in well to a Monty Python episode, we couldn’t find the way into the city from the ring roads. Bert seemed to think he was on a merry go round. Round and round the city we crept! Never actually getting there!

“We are three wise men.”
“Well, what are you doing creeping around a cow shed at two o’clock in the morning? That doesn’t sound very wise to me.”
Monty Python.

In the end, we pressed on North. I still haven’t seen Birmingham, apart from the ring road view!

We were treated well where-ever we went. People seemed to find three young Aussie siblings travelling together in an ancient Kombi van, so far from our Tasmanian (Australia) home, endearing. Or a novelty. We were a little different from other travellers/tourists.

The Kombi and Kate overnighting at an English Youth Hostel – we slept in the Kombi if we couldn’t find cheap accommodation

We stayed with relatives in Workington (Cumbria). Then, after an overnight trip to the nearby Lake district, we made a spur of the moment decision to head for Edinburgh. We sought out a telephone box (no mobiles back then) and rang through our decision to relatives, who were astounded. They had expected us home for the evening meal.

“You mean, now – this afternoon?” they queried. Trips to Scotland in the 1970’s were then, I think, planned months ahead by English people. Perhaps a big annual trip. Not a extemporaneous -“Hey, it’s 3pm – let’s turn north to Scotland for a few days – we could make Edinburgh by nightfall!” We Aussies are a impetuous lot!

True to our word to the parking inspector, within a month we were en route to Europe, crossing the English Channel with Bert by ferry into Belgium.

There was no real plan for our journey – apart from arriving in Innsbruck for the Winter Olympics – sleeping in the Kombi or at Youth Hostels en route. We visited well known tourist attractions that we came across and savoured the local food.

In Belgium I tasted yoghurt for the first time – a small tub of strawberry yoghurt. Delicious! Five years of cooking lessons at school, centred on an English diet, had done nothing to inspire me in the kitchen. That tub of yoghurt set me on a new path of international culinary exploration.

In Antwept, we visited the 1600’s home of the famous Flemish artist and diplomat, Peter Paul Rubens. Afterwards, in our irreverent Aussie way, we composed a little ditty – “We went to Rubens house, but Rubens wasn’t there.” I don’t recall if there were any more lines. It didn’t even qualify for a haiku (Japanese short poem). I think we just burst into collective laughter after the first line, and we still do when we repeat it to each other, recalling our trip. These were the silly games we siblings played as we travelled along in Bert.

Kate and I – finding northern Europe too cold- no comments on the hat, please!

Another place we visited was the 2000 year old German city of Cologne – well, that’s how you spell it in Australia, causing confusion not only for us, but for perplexed German border guards!

This was, remember, well before the EU, and passports were required at manned border crossings between countries in Europe. We crossed from Belgium into Germany by a manned border control post that we thought was close to Cologne. But, pulling up minutes after crossing, we searched unsuccessfully for a direction sign to our next overnight destination, Cologne. Confused, we did an immediate u-turn back to Belgium, passing the border building we’d just driven by. Perhaps, we reasoned, we were at the wrong border crossing. We pulled over again in Belgium to examine our map and LONELY PLANET guide again. We then realised that Germans knew Cologne as KOLN, and we recalled seeing a sign for KOLN on our brief visit to Germany – has there ever been a shorter stay there? So, back we went across the border, facing some hard questions from the border authorities.

“You’ve just been here, and you turned back, and now you come again! Why?”

They seemed quite dubious about our explanation, but let us pass. We drove off into Germany in fits of laughter about our stupidity and the stern looks on the faces of the German border guards as they questioned us. We thought it was funny. The German border guards did not!

My sister Kate – the trip navigator – trying to work out our location in Germany

If Siri had been around in those days, I’m sure our German Kombi would have put us straight before we made border guards suspicious of our border wanderings back and forth within a space of ten minutes! Was there a whisper of a mechanical German voice coming from the exhaust as we moved into Germany for the second time.

“They are just foolish, ignorant Australians. Seriously DUMM (German for stupid)! Don’t worry. I’ll make sure they don’t get lost again.” DUMM! DUMM!

And we didn’t. Even when highway signs in Bavaria later pointed to what was to us another mysterious place – Munchen – we were alert and quickly realised we were on track for Munich!

We stayed at a Youth Hotel (YHA) in Munich. It was the first time I’d ever seen a doona for bedding! Another surprise was an elderly woman who turned up offering free walking tours. She led us to the Deutsches Museum, still the world’s largest museum of Science and Technology. Established in 1903, it was wondrous to us then, and I believe it is still stunning today with 28,000 exhibits. I hail volunteers who help out tourists on a shoe string budget and I try to pay back her generosity to visitors when I can.

Young brother John in the back of the Kombi – checking his passport?

Sometimes, my sister and I would find lodgings in a youth hostel, while my brother opted to sleep in the Kombi. He recalls one icy winter’s night in Germany when he was briefly was locked out, wearing nothing but a T shirt and undies.

“We had parked on a suburban street. I stayed with the van. I can’t remember if this was to guard it, or to save money. Perhaps I was seizing the chance to be alone. In any case, I was happy – snug in a bug in my down sleeping bag, despite the sub-zero temperatures. I woke up during the night needing a pee. I rubbed off enough condensation to make a spy hole in the window and saw a nearby shrub,” John recalls.
“There was no time to rug up. Nature was calling very loudly. I leapt out of the side door barefoot, shutting the door behind me to minimise more cold air getting in. It was only after watering the bush, I realised this had been a mistake. The door wouldn’t open.

“I don’t know how long I wrestled with it trying to open it. Probably only a few minutes, but I remember feeling  very panicked. Fortunately, it did finally open. The Kombi’s lock was very dodgy.”

John throws snowballs before we left the icy winter of Northern Europe

Crossing into Italy from Austria, the Kombi went into idle at a cross road as we considered our options – drive on towards Florence and Rome or head towards what was then communist Yugoslavia.

It was a defining moment of absolute freedom to determine our days ahead, untethered by anything other than to reach warm weather after an icy January in England and Europe. In my more complicated world today, I savour that memory.

All three of us would sleep in the Kombi if we couldn’t find cheap accommodation – John across the front seat, and Kate and I squeezed into the back of the van. Not very comfortable.

John – asleep on Bert’s front seat in his sleeping bag

We entered Yugoslavia, not knowing that free camping was banned. So, when we spotted a lonely and lovely field, it seemed a perfect overnight spot. We woke up early the next morning to the sound of a whole soccer team hard at training around the Kombi! Was it the local team? The National team? They were training energetically and we were parked in the middle of their training ground – central to the action! I recall us peeking out through Bert’s curtains, wondering when they would leave so that we could emerge.

Travelling down the Croatian coast, we decided to play a travelling game. We’d ask the accommodation price at various establishments en route – prices we were sure we couldn’t afford. But by the time, nightfall came, we reasoned that we would be so overwhelmed by all the high quotes that we would be very pleased we could have a FREE night in the Kombi.

We came into a small coastal town with what looked like a sparkling new high rise seaside hotel. Amusing ourselves with our game, we stopped to ask the accommodation price and were pleasantly shocked when it was very low. What we didn’t realise was – the hotel had just opened – the town’s great hope to attract tourists – and, being out of season in early February, we were the only tourists in town!

We couldn’t resist the price. At the top of our daily budget – a stretch, but doable. Book it Danno! We rejoiced in our balcony view of the Adriatic sea and the availability of a bath in a pleasant private ensuite! First job – hand wash our pile of dirty clothes and dry them on the balcony. Second job – take turns for a relaxing soak in the bath. Third job – write postcards home. Phone calls to Australia were incredibly expensive, so postcards were our principal communication with our parents. No internet!

“Are you glad we didn’t have email then. Mum and dad would have known our every move!” John quipped when I told him I was writing this blog.

The hotel tariff included breakfast, but left little from our daily budget for an evening meal. However, we spotted a small Taverna across the road, and after freshening up, Kate and I headed there for a light, and hopefully, cheap meal. John, third cab off the rank for the bath, said he’d follow us soon.

On the Taverna menu, we spotted soup – affordable for us, so we ordered. We couldn’t afford anything more on the menu.

“Just soup’, said the incredulous waiter. “Yes, just soup”. “You want something else after soup?” “No, just soup.” “Both of you – just soup?” “Yes, just soup, thank you.” Again – another scene worthy of Monty Python !

The waiter looked very perplexed, and obviously deciding he’d lost something in translation, he quickly returned with a man we presumed to be the taverna owner. He also queried our order with a smile that quickly faded as we repeated, somewhat embarrassed by now – “Soup. Yes, Just soup, thank you”. And to drink? “Just water, thank you.” Wine, as delicious as it may have been, would have been a budget blow out.

The soup, I have to say, was delicious. Though our enjoyment of it was tempered by dark looks from the waiter and owner hovering nearby, clearly hoping we’d still order a main course. Dark looks came too from a couple of men drinking at a corner table who, we realised, were villagers, come to check out the ‘tourists’.

Afterwards, we hurried back to the hotel to stop John in his tracks heading for the Taverna. We assured him our ‘just soup’ meal was much too embarrassing for him to do a repeat performance! So, he ended up in the Kombi, warming up a can of something – was it also soup?

We had not reached the limits of embarrassment. At our free breakfast in the hotel dining room the next morning, we were mortified to find that the waiter was the very same waiter from the taverna the night before. And if looks could kill, his glare might have been the end of us!

We figured out that we were the only guests in the whole hotel, and that both the taverna across the road and the hotel restaurant had opened just for us. It probably wasn’t a great start for the new tourist venture in town!

I occasionally still think of that town. Tourism in Yugoslavia then was just getting underway, and the locals must have put their money and faith in that new fancy hotel to attract tourists to stay in their town. And they kicked off with Kombi van cheapskates like us! Hopefully, lots of tourists followed, with big pockets and plenty of cash to spend. And hopefully, people ordered more than soup.

The Dalmatian coast road trip is one of the most spectacular coastal journeys in the world. I was Bert’s sole driver, with Kate usually the navigator. John recalls that he sometimes feared for his life.

“I remember the terror of being a passenger along the Dalmatian Coast because the driver was more interested in soaking in the scenery than keeping her eyes on the narrow road on the side of a cliff. I suspect that’s a shared memory with Kate.”

All I can say to both my siblings is that is we never had an accident!

Traffic near Zadar on the Yugoslavian (Croatian) coast

Our daily budget disappeared unexpectedly several days later on the road as we drove up through the mountains from the Yugoslavian coast. In the ’70’s, you couldn’t progress along the coast to Greece because Albania – then pretty much closed to the world – was in the way. So we tackle a steep mountain climb route to the Yugoslavian interior to eventually head south to Greece.

My memory fails me a bit here. I had the idea we left the coast at Dubrovnik, but a photo taken from the front seats of the Kombi shows us approaching Kator, a coastal town in what is now Montenegro a few hours south of the old walled city. A donkey blocks our way, rolling onto his back. You think you’d remember that clearly, wouldn’t you!

Coming into Kator, a donkey blocked our way!

The steep winding mountain climb from the coast was a massive challenge for old Bert.

“I think I can, I think I can,’ we imagined Bert chuffing breathlessly in our painfully slow ascent. I think we actually said it ourselves, fearful the Kombi would blow a gasket, and roll back down the mountain again!

So, when we came up to a truck going even slower than us, I had no choice but to pass it. Otherwise, we definitely would have plunged backwards into the sea!

The driver of a tractor, also chuffing slowly up the mountain road, signalled us to pass.

To say the Kombi , the tractor and the truck were travelling at a snail’s pace would probably offended a snail! I think we were slower than a snail. To pass, I choose a straight stretch of the winding road, and floored it. I am not a fast driver at the best of times – too cautious for my own good – and flooring Bert’s accelerator didn’t actually mean the Kombi picked up any noticeable pace!

When we rounded a bend further up the mountain we were shocked to find a policeman waving us down. He demanded our passports and imposed TWO hefty on-the-spot fines for ‘SPEEDING while overtaking ‘, insisting we pay him immediately in cash – or our passports would not be returned. Speeding? Is this a joke?

My brother recalls: “The cop was waiting at the top of the hill. It smelt of a sting and corruption.”

A moment of madness flashed through my mind. I had two passports – British and Australian. And he only had the Australian one. Could I floor it again and dash away? Considering Bert’s uphill speed, even if the policeman was only an average runner, he would have easily caught us up! The moment passed, but I was still braving some rebellion, querying the fines that I knew would impact severely on our budget.

I asked why he was imposing TWO fines. He smirked and sketched a double trailer truck – indicating each fine was for each trailer.

I’m pretty sure that truck was just a regular truck, but it was well gone, and he had our passports. I rarely swear, but I did under my breath that day as I handed over our meagre cash reserve. The question still begs. Why was that policeman at that bend in the road, far away from any town or small settlement? Raking it in from tourists, me thinks!

My brother’s memory again: I think we were philosophical about it, glad to be on our way.”

Well, true – I was glad – but with a huge hole in our cash reserve and feeling unjustly done – I was fuming!

The Dalmatian coast 1970’s

We bypassed the next town – presuming it was where the policeman hailed. We didn’t want to run into him again. Towards the end of the day, we pulled into another sizeable town for the night. We are not certain now which town this was, but we think it was Trebinje, now in Bosnia/Herzegovina. It about 30 k from Dubrovnik, and was controlled by Bosnian/Serb forces during the early part of the 1990’s war.

In 1992, the town was declared capital of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Herzegovina. Residents who refused to fight with the Yugoslav People’s Army were executed or fled the region. Ten of the town’s mosque were destroyed.

On arrival in Trebinje, we planned to sleep in the Kombi as our daily funds were exhausted by the police fines.

By now, we were aware of laws banning free camping in Yugoslavia, and we didn’t want to risk a further fine for parking illegally. So I decided to ask the local police station for assistance. Police had taken our money, so police could help us find a free overnight parking spot, I reasoned in my still angry state.

Kate and John were not so sure this was a good idea, given our earlier police encounter. But I figured we had driven out of the earlier policeman’s jurisdiction, and I couldn’t see how I could get into trouble simply by asking for help at a Yugoslavian police station. You may think me brave. Naive would be a better description.

We located the police station, an imposing double storied building that seemed to be a regional police centre. I entered with confidence. Kate not so much. John stayed to guard Bert. Or so he said!

Uniformed officers on the ground floor were clearly surprised by the visit of these two tiny Australian girls. I gained the impression that people didn’t normally wandered into Yugoslavian police stations back then with a cheery smile and request for help. They decided we should be referred to higher ranks, and took us up darkened stairs to the plain clothed section. Tall, hefty and imposing fair skinned men who looked nothing like the local population, or even the officers downstairs. I suspected we had walked into the den of the local secret police – the equivalent of East Germany’s Stasi. And on reflection, we probably had.

I bet they’d never received a request like ours, so we were a novelty and a distraction from their day’s work – whatever that was!

Two of the men spoke English and escorted us to a nearby modern hotel – the only one I could see in town. In fact, if we have our research now right, it was actually an 1894 building, originally an local administration building, and then a school before being converted into what is now the Hotel Central Park.

I went with them to the lobby where they instructed the hotel management to allow us to park overnight in their car park. They also ordered that we be permitted free use of the hotel toilets and showers! I can’t say how exactly this was put, as I didn’t understand the local language. But there was no protest from the hotel management. They were quick to oblige the police. There didn’t seem to be any protest or queries made. Make of that what you will.

The two men told us they would return the next morning to escort us to the local markets. When I gently tried to refuse their offer, saying we would be fine, they insisted and said hey had escort us as ‘you can’t trust these people’. Shivers up my spine and, like the hotel management, no protest from me either. I didn’t fear the locals. My worry was with our henchmen like guards!

The market visit was frightening. I think the men with us were either Serbs or Croatians, but definitely not locals who were small built, darker skinned people – most likely most were muslims as there were many mosques in the town. I had the impression they were oppressed people, as indeed it turned out they were. The police were kind to us, but had a sinister bully boy air. So there we were – three short young Aussies with two tall plain clothed police escorts. Stall owners looked frightened when we approached. Instinctively, we knew we were in a tricky situation. We silently prayed the men would not hear of our encounter with the roadside policeman.

We cut short our market visit by telling our intimidating hosts that we needed to get going on our journey, so they escorted us back to the Kombi van.

Only we didn’t get going, because Bert refused to start.

John – who studied about one year of German in High School – recalls: “Das auto ist kaput. That might have come in handy if we had broken down in Bad Honnef instead of backblocks Yugoslavia.

Not to worry, our police escort said. We know a mechanic.

We didn’t put much faith in this. But off went our escorts, returning shortly afterwards with mechanic to examine the Kombi. This very friendly little man declared Bert’s starter engine was stuffed. So, there we were, in the back blocks of Yugoslavia, stranded in a small town with a couple of intimidating plain clothed police by our side, and frankly we held no hope that a VW starter engine could be repaired there.

But the police assured us the mechanic could fix it! And he agreed with a willing reassuring smile.

My brother recalled this week his ‘”tremendous feeling of anxiety” with “the mechanic disappearing over low stone backyard fences, holding the starting mechanism”. John’s concern was clearly greater for the Kombi than for his two older sisters, who both also disappeared over the low back fences, following the mechanic to his very humble home. His tiny backyard was his workshop, littered with mechanical hits and pieces. Low and behold, there was even a VW authorised agent sign hanging there!

The mechanic spoke some limited English, and he and his family very lovely and welcoming people. I’m fairly certain they were probably muslim. His wife offered us clear hot black tea with sugar, while he got on with the repair. I hope they survived the war ahead.

This is where the green knob, mentioned at the beginning of this story, comes in. The mechanic fossicked amongst a few boxes and came up with the green knob. He fixed the starter motor – or rather jigger rigged it – installing the green knob into Bert’s dashboard as part of the repair.

To get Bert to start, I had to pull out the green knob, turn the car key on, and push in the green knob. Don’t ask me to explain the process. I just know it worked, and we were able to finally wave goodbye to our Police guards with more than a good measure of relief.

We had one further mishap on a brief stop at Skopje when, while stocking up with food supplies at a shop, someone stole our Bert’s windscreen wipers! Oh, for dashcam then!

View from one of the Kombi side mirrors. Dashcam would have spotted Bert’s windscreen wiper thieves

PART TWO COMING next month – BERT, THE KOMBI VAN – into Greece and a sorry end.

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2 comments

  1. Therese… I loved reading this! Aha the things we did when we were young… but I think you were much braver than me!! Being a farm girl I knew a bit about fixing old cars.. but I don’t think I would have tackled an old kombi…mind you I would have been doing it on my own.. siblings at least present a trio of support!

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    • I wasn’t brave .. I just loved travelling and exploring (as you do), but I usually didn’t have anyone else to travel with. So it was either on my own, or not. Luckily, in this case, John and Kate came too… though eventually we went our own ways to pursue our travel interests. We’ve had great fun reminiscing in these last few weeks as I put together this story.

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