If you can’t find the right product on the market, the solution must be: make it yourself! Reader Roy Kruger did just that.
Having grown up camping, my wife and I decided to buy a caravan in 2001. We chose a new Sprite Surfer, because of its modern styling and the fact that it was lightweight and easy to tow. However, after caravaning with our daughter for a few years, we began to think about acquiring a motorhome. This would mostly be for our longer trips, because of a motorhome’s fuel economy compared with a caravan, and its quick set-up times, suitable for overnighting en route. We still use our Surfer for our shorter trips and when camping with our local caravan club groups.
We found that a fully fl edged motorhome with all the features we wanted would be extremely expensive to buy – and that’s when I decided to build my own.
We opted to buy a VW Transporter TD5 panel van long-wheelbase version as it had more space than the standard version. I wanted our motorhome to be exclusive and unlike anyone else’s, so each item was handmade and painted to show its uniqueness. It also had to have a modern look, so we chose very sharp colours to reflect our thinking when designing the interior. Then, because space was limited, we decided on a fold-down bed/couch, which would provide both seating and sleeping accommodation in one unit. This layout also left stacks of unused space under the couch for an under-bed storage unit.
I made the sleeper couch from mild steel square tubing and added wooden slats for the cross-members. We then put the sleeper cushions and mattress on top of the slats. The unit is mounted on a flooring system I made from 12 mm marine plywood and attached to the van floor using the existing panel van floor attachment bolts (so that no holes needed to be drilled into the floor), covered with a carpet.
Next we fitted all the side-wall panelling. This was made from marine plywood and covered with VW patterned vinyl to match the original colouring of the van, and I fitted insulation behind the panels.
The cupboards were next. We wanted them styled in a curved manner, unlike the standard square format in most caravans and motorhomes. I built the frames of the cupboards first, as well as a dummy cupboard in order to test that everything would fit properly before screwing in all the units.
Once the checking and fitting were completed, I added the covers for the cupboards, made of 6 mm plywood, which readily follows the curves of the frames. We now have plenty of storage space, thanks to all the cupboards fitted throughout the van.
There’s a flat-screen TV fitted at the end of the bed, which is great for viewing in bed. It’s coupled to a DVD player, and we also have reading lamps and electric plugs.
Packing space for suitcases, groundsheet, satellite dish and all electrics is in the back of the van, where there are more cupboards. A further two cupboards are situated partially in the doorway of the van’s sliding side door, as most of this open space would otherwise be wasted. The electrical system caters for standard 220 volts AC and 12 volts DC, with a 2000-watt inverter system, a generator and a system of two 100-watt (PV) solar panels for charging the batteries. To keep the temperature and airflow regular throughout the van, I installed a roof vent in the shape of a rectangular yacht ‘porthole’, with mosquito netting to keep insects out. Lastly we installed a small bar fridge and fitted roofracks to accommodate an awning.
It took me six weeks to complete the conversion, and the cost came to approximately R28 000, which included the 19-inch TV (R1899), LG bar fridge (R999), LG microwave (R799) and Sony DVD player (R399). Our first trip was to the Drakensberg, and our fuel consumption varied from 7.1 l/100 km to 8.2 l/100 km, depending on the wind direction.
Then came the Teardrop
From our travels with our motorhome, we found that a standard VW Transporter has a slight disadvantage: the roof height restricts your movement when you have to prepare meals inside. This is not a problem for short stays or overnighting, but it is an inconvenience on longer trips. I decided to meet this challenge by building an outside kitchen based on a teardrop trailer design. My wife laid down the requirements, and I got to work on the little unit that we would tow behind our motorhome.
Teardrop trailers are extremely popular in the USA. They were initially designed with younger and more adventurous folk in mind, but have since found favour across the generations. A teardrop trailer normally consists of a two-berth sleeping compartment and a full kitchen unit. They are very lightweight and are designed to be pulled by an 800 cc (at least) motor vehicle. I have registered the Teardrop Trailer design in South Africa, trademarked the ‘Teardrop’ name and lodged both items with the Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office, CIPRO.
I started out with a standard Karet trailer body, which I modified and adapted to meet all our requirements. On a computer, I superimposed an initial design over a photo of the trailer. A professional drawing created with a computer-aided design (CAD) programme was then used to cut out the profiles of the trailer sides, doors, windows etc. on a laser cutting machine. Once I received the 1.2 mm aluminium profiles, I started cutting out the walls of the trailer from 18 mm commercial plywood.
The next job was to get the plywood side walls and aluminium profiles glued together. I used a veneer company, as they have big presses that can glue the sides and compress them tightly together, guaranteeing an exact fit. I clamped the side walls onto the existing trailer body and then used large-head rivets to attach them.
Next was the roof section. I fixed crossmembers (rounded versions) across the two sides to ensure that when the roof sheeting was stretched over the frame, the sheet would follow the pattern dictated by the cross-members. The roof sheeting was then applied, followed by the windows, fitted by professional glass fitters. The electrical systems were installed: the indicators, rakes and parking lights, as well as the wiring for the kitchen units and other connections for normal use. I also added some detail to the trailer, in the form of VW hubcaps to match the VW motorhome. These I made from old VW Beetle hubcaps that I cut down to fit the smaller trailer wheels.
Next came the actual kitchen units and appliances. I had built enough storage space and cupboards to store supplies for over a month if required. The stove is mounted on runners and moves forward or backward to suit the chef’s requirements (depending on whether they are tall or short).
I fitted additional shock absorbers to the chassis, as the standard leaf springs were too soft to dampen the road surface shocks. This is not really necessary, but it adds to the character of the trailer as well as having a practical purpose. And then? Off we went in our completed teardrop trailer, which now comfortably copes with all our kitchen requirements on longer trips. The trailer is extremely light, adding hardly anything to the fuel bill. It also has additional storage space in the front, which allows us to take along items that the motorhome cannot accommodate. The total cost to build our teardrop was R7500, excluding my old Karet trailer.
Astronomy & camping
This brings me to my next story: enjoying astronomy while camping. Astronomy – not to be confused with astrology and star signs! – is one of my favourite hobbies, to the extent that I have built my own observatory at home. My home telescope is fully computer-controlled and allows even an amateur to find the most distant objects in our universe.
Most of us live in a city environment, where there is a huge amount of light pollution, so it is great for my astronomy hobby when we go camping in remote places with little or no light pollution. For these occasions I bought a fully portable computer-controlled telescope that works with either batteries or 220-volt mains electricity.
What I find most amazing about setting up my telescope in a caravan park is how it attracts people, either because they are interested in astronomy or just out of curiosity at being able to look at distant objects in the sky. Generally I find that most people, young and old, have never had the opportunity to look through a telescope, and they are always amazed when they see a planet like Jupiter or Saturn for the first time.
Astronomy can be enjoyed by everyone, immediately, and you can improve your expertise continually by acquiring equipment as your finances allow. Give it a try!
(This article was published in the February 2011 issue of Caravan & Outdoor Life)