New motorhome: Custom build by Motorhome-World
Pictures by Godfrey Castle & Stuart Reichardt
The first time we experienced this custom-built motorhome was at a trade show. At every demonstration of its unique features, a big crowd would gather around to “ooh” and “aah” at Motorhome-World’s creation.
Now, a few months later, we’ve had the opportunity to take a closer look at “Big Al”, which is short for Alexandra David-Néel – but more on the name later.
You can’t get a real feel for a big rig like this when it’s standing on a showroom floor: you need to get it out into the open, into nature, where it’s meant to be!
The man behind the project is Dennis Bouwers from Motorhome-World. We visited him at his factory in Atlantis, from where we would take the vehicle out for a day.
“Big Al” was designed for well-known writer and TV personality Patricia Glyn. Painted a wonderful greenish colour, it’s unique among motorhomes in that the passenger side of the body has a massive hinged panel that folds down (at the push of a button) to create a veranda.
Behind this panel are two doors, which open to either side to reveal the entire interior of the motorhome − a kitchen, work station, bathroom and packing space. The bed is fitted in the roof, and comes down at the press of a button.
This motorhome was conceptualised by Patricia, who spends months on end alone in the bush; she wanted a capable off-road vehicle which had a living and working area with an unobstructed 180-degree view… but was not on ground level.
Patricia says she had been to see various manufacturers, but all had turned down her concept, saying that it was impossible. But Motorhome-World has never shied away from a challenge.
And here it is, fully built, and ready for Africa. Big Al stands high on the Iveco chassis cab, and with its big knobbly tyres on black-painted wheels, exudes an air of adventure. It’s macho, with a satisfyingly stylish interior… very fitting for a motorhome named after an extraordinary female explorer born in 1868, who in her life crossed the Gobi Desert and went over the Himalayas to find the Dalai Lama…
CARAVAN & OUTDOOR LIFE SPOKE TO PATRICIA GLYN ABOUT HER UNIQUE MOTORHOME
What inspired your dream of owning a motorhome?
Well, I’ve been on the road for about 15 years in a bespoke Toyota Hilux twin-cab which has everything that opens and shuts, and although I’d never had a bad experience or tricky situation, I’d got to the point where I thought that I was possibly pushing my luck.
When I write, I look for a remote place with little (or no) cell-phone reception so that I’m not interrupted, and just park and pitch camp.
One of the reasons I gravitated to a motorhome was for security, but I was also sick of setting up camp at every stop. I just wanted something that is pick-up-and-go.
How long did the design phase of your motorhome take?
I wanted this completely-bespoke motorhome because, with respect, most motorhomes make you feel like you’re living in a cupboard. I wanted big windows, and one full side of the motorhome that folded out.
I knew it would be a big ask, so I built a small-scale model, and then a full-scale model out of cardboard and plastic on my verandah at home, with a roof so that I could gauge whether I could live in such a small space.
Bear in mind that this is not just a holiday home; this is my home now, for as long as I can manage it. I wanted it to be able to contain what I needed, which is very little, as well as able to work spatially; and because I am tall, there were further challenges with space.
It took four years from conception to the finish of the building. It was a major ask for Motorhome-World.
How did you manage to explain exactly what you needed in your camper to Dennis and the team at Motorhome-World?
I have never encountered a team like theirs. I’d done a lot of homework before deciding who would build the motorhome, and I had been met with two reactions: one was just “Ag, you silly little mevrou, what do you know about motorhome builds?” and the other was simply a flat-out “No, that can’t be done.”
Then I got to Motorhome-World, and they were happy to entertain my ideas.
I was terrified when we got to building it, because it had been my dream for so long and I’m a perfectionist; if they’d got something wrong, it would have been devastating.
But they did an extraordinary job. It’s that blend of flair, artistry, engineering and attention to detail. We also had so much fun with the build − we laughed all the time. I’m really thrilled with their professionalism; and, in fact, we have become good mates.
They probably wanted to kill me a few times, and I think I pushed them to the limit with certain aspects of the build, but they did it, and they did it brilliantly.
Women are going to love the design of my motorhome; it’s easy to clean, and it doesn’t get all dusty and dirty.
Where did “Big Al”, the name for your motorhome, come from?
The full name of my motorhome is Alexandra David-Néel. She’s not well- known, but she was the most extraordinary Belgian-French explorer who travelled across the Gobi Desert with a monk, went over the Himalayas to find the Dalai Lama, and was the first Western woman to get to Lhasa.
She was as much into internal discovery, finding out about herself, as she was into external travel.
It’s a very feminine motorhome, so it needed a female name, yet the interior is very neutral which enhances the experience outside. I think the interior is fresh and easy on the eye. But, then, I designed it, so I’m biased!
Where do you envisage going in your motorhome?
Western Zambia is one of my favourite places because it’s so wild. I travel with my dogs, so my wild places are not your typical national park type of adventure − and if you’re in places like western Zambia, it’s all open. You see exactly what you want, but it’s all open.
I also love southern Tanzania, Mana Pools, Luangwa… But it’s not just about wild places; it’s about wild people, too. People interest me as much as everything else does. It’s about taking time to pull into those out-of-the-way places and finding some eccentric person who has led an extraordinary life, and to photograph that person and to blog.
There is enough in this country to keep you busy for five lifetimes.
So, it’s the combination of wild people and wild places that grabs my interest. I don’t want to have a formal plan. I drive people crazy when they ask me if I have a plan, and I say, ‘No, I don’t.’
It’s about the adventure of the unknown. I don’t mind being lost! If I have food, water and whiskey, I’m okay. And rural African people are very hospitable.
What is it like travelling with your dogs?
I cannot recommend it highly enough. They are both hunting dogs, and one was trained as a hunter, which can be problematic because they are fine with horses and cattle, but if they happen to catch a flock of sheep, it can become messy.
The thing with dogs is that they are happy in any environment and have enthusiasm on tap. They love the walks and hikes.
Incidentally, I also have sleeping space and equipment for at least five people to join me on any given trip. I find that if friends know I am going to be in an area for a couple of months, they’ll join me. They can fly in because I have all the tents and mattresses that are needed.
How do you handle safety and security when you’re on your travels?
I have movement-activated solar lights that come on if there is movement outside the motorhome. These are removable, so if I’m in a game park and don’t want to disturb the animals, I simply take them off.
I do have pepper spray, but everything locks in my truck to ensure my safety. Also, don’t assume that you can just camp in a remote village; you have to ask the headman for permission and follow the necessary protocol.
Some of my problems are strength-based. I’ve been in the middle of Namibia and lost a tyre; the heat had bound the wheel to the drum and I couldn’t get it off.
It’s things like that, which are strength-related, that have challenged me; but if you wait long enough, a goat herder will come past and assist you, or you’ll have to walk a bit to the last farmhouse you saw. I carry lots of dry goods, which can keep me going for weeks if I’m stuck.
What are some of the things savvy travelers should take on their campervan journeys?
I feel safe if I have my satellite phone and my GPS. I’m at the stage where I don’t want to be too cold or too hot, so heating and cooling is essential in my motorhome.
I also carry a hot-water-bottle. I can rough it with the rest of them, but you don’t need to look rough or be rough to do it. Some creature comforts go a long way to improving overall adventure enjoyment.
What positive thoughts can you give others who want to follow a similar travel lifestyle?
Get going as soon as possible, because life is short. I hear people say “When I retire I want to do this or that”… What are you waiting for?
You don’t need a motorhome to make it happen. Just take off for a week. You don’t have to be in an exotic game park to see the beauty that surrounds you. You can see something as interesting as a chameleon on a branch, and there is wonderful fauna and flora on our beautiful continent. It’s not only about seeing leopard kills; it’s also about the small things, the wonders presented by nature.