Monday, 22 September 2014

Caesar the Bongonaut

So, since our trip to Wales, I've been thinking carefully about holidaying with dogs and I've finally come to a conclusion that I feel suits me.  

Reasons I'm not sold on holiday rentals (static caravans, cottages, lodges or hotel rooms).
1.  You cannot leave your dogs unattended
2.  Many rentals like you to clean up before you leave - this means spending your holiday hoovering up dog hair.
3.  Many rentals in the UK are very expensive
4.  There's often a limit to the amount of animals you can take.
5.  Some specify that dogs must be 'small' or 'well behaved' (define well behaved?!)
6.  You cannot guarantee that your dog won't damage something - even if it's by accident.
7.  Dogs are not usually allowed in certain rooms (e.g. the bedroom) for hygiene reasons.
8.  You have that awkward moment when you arrive and your dog has been cooped up in a car for 4 hours and needs a wee/drink/poo/mad half hour/good bark/bit of human company.  And you're worried that s/he does any or all of the above in front of the owners.

'But what about my bedtime snuggles?'

The Plan
So after travelling the 250 miles back from Wales in my lovely reliable Vauxhall Zafira family MPV, I decided that I wanted a camper van.  Here's my reasoning (in relation to the above):
1.  As with a car, as long as conditions are cool and dogs have water, it's OK to leave your dog in a camper van for short periods of time.  I'm not suggesting going shopping for the day and leaving a dog locked inside a VW transporter but certainly a trip to the shop for milk should be fine (as long as it's not too hot outside.
2.  Its your van - clean it and feel proud or leave it and hope no one asks to look's your call and you do it on your terms...
3.  Barring the initial cost of buying a campervan (which I intended to swap for my permanent car) camping should not be too expensive.  And you can get a pitch on a decent site for one night for as low as £10.
4.  You can take as many dogs as you like to most dog friendly sites as long as they are under control.
5.  The vast majority of sites that are 'dog friendly' care very little what your dog is like as long as it's not disturbing fellow campers.
6.  If your dog damages something in your camper van then it's yours and you replace it if and when you want to.
7.  Your can sleep with as many dogs in your bed as you wish!
8.  On some sites, you can arrive and pitch up, take your dogs to the loo etc before you pay for your pitch.  Although there is still the danger of someone coming over when your dog is going through there 'just been stuck in the car for 4 hours...' routine.

My Love Hate Relationship
I have very mixed experiences of camping.  I remember camping all over England and France as a child in a caravan.  We loved it!  It was always warm and we played until the sun went down every night.  Then, we came in and sat at collapsible tables with decks of cards and mugs of hot chocolate and on a Sunday morning we woke up late and had a fried breakfast.  Then we played some more.

In my early 20s, my grandad donated a tent he'd found to me and my partner.  Our plan was to travel Europe with only said tent and a 1l VW Polo.  Actually, we got as far as Whitby and hated how cold it was.  We did make one trip to France in it and after 4 days of camping and discovering that we had limited budget for food, no means of entertainment when the dark nights set in at 9 o'clock and that it wasn't as warm in Paris in August as we had hoped, I cried and said I wanted to go home.  The holiday lasted 10 days.  And I never went in the tent again...

I don't mind this type of tent...the type that's inside and next to a radiator...

The Van Plan
I have to admit; I've never been the most confident driver and, in recent years, my confidence seems to have dropped more.  It's not because anything has really ever happened to me while driving.  Mainly, it's because I tend to drive to work (2 miles away) and back a few times a week and, as risk of sounding like my gran, sometimes to the shops.  So that pretty much ruled out the idea of buying a caravan because I'd be too frightened to tow it.  Also, my excuse to most other people, I sometimes struggle to park my own car at my house due to all parking being on street so I certainly would struggle to park a caravan here.  Therefore, I'd need to park the caravan away from home and pay for it.  I didn't want to do this for 2 reasons:
1.  It would cost me more money again
2.  Once my parents did this and several incidents occurred:  someones caravan was stolen, as it was on a farm, they came back once to find a family of field mice nesting in the overhead compartment,  And finally, the icing on the cake, the farm got foot and mouth and no one was allowed to remove their caravan from it for almost a year!  By which time, they'd discovered that package holidays were usually better...

OK, so I wasn't sold on caravanning and many of these limitations also applied to large motorhomes and trailer tents.  And never again in my life do I ever want to attempt to camp in a tent and especially not with a dog that howls when it's cold.

So that left me looking at vans and van conversions.  Firstly, VW transporters; lovely cars but totally out of my price range.  Secondly, Transit Vans; I did go and see one but felt they were too wide to parallel park on a road full of cars. just wasn't cool.  This is when I discovered the Mazda Bongo.  For those of you who are not familiar here are a few fast facts about Bongos:

1.  The Mazda Bongo is an 8 seater van which is available for purchase in Japan.  They have never been officially sold in the UK so all available vans have been imported.
2.  The rear 6 seats fold down into a bed.
3.  On some models there is a 'pop top' which raises to make a sleeping space for 2 which can be accessed through a hatch.
4.  They're around the same width as a normal car but taller and longer.
5.  They have a cult-like following that makes you feel like your part of a group.

Mr Caesar and Mr Bennett

Mr Bennett the Bongo
A few weeks after making my decision to buy a Bongo and struggling wildly to get a decent one, I bumped into a nice chap online who was considering selling his.  He invited me to come and look at it and I knew the moment I set eyes on it that it was my Bongo.  Luckily, I persuaded him to part with it.  And so my Bongo experience began.  I decided to call it 'Mr Bennett' although I usually call my cars girls names because 'Bennett' means 'blessed' and because I feel that any camper van that has to house 2 adults and 3 dogs needs to be!

Mr Bennett in York
Unfortunately for me, I purchased Mr Bennett at the end of the summer and had little time to organise camping trips in him.  However, the weekend past, I decided to give it a go.  I wanted everything to be perfect and refused to go anywhere that had a poor forecast or bad reviews.  I eventually chose a 'Wagtail Park' in York.  And Caesar and I took off on our adventure.  We were to meet my parents there.

The Bongo fit Caesar's XL cage in wonderfully and did not prevent the back seats from being used (as happened in my previous car).  Although I did bash the plastic as I put it in (oops).  I got Caesar settled with his travel bowl of water and blankets.  He was quiet for the fill hour and a half journey.

All set up and ready to go...

At Wagtail Park
Arriving at Wagtail Park (<-- link), we met the owner - Caesar was whining and whimpering a bit because we stopped but shutting the doors made me realise that you can't hear him from outside the van.  The owner asked me to make sure he was kept on a lead and that all 'oopsies' were picked up and put in the dog bins around site.  We found a very quiet corner with no cars for miles and pitched up there.  By 'pitched up' I actually mean 'parked the van' for that is all I had to do.  

For anyone who is camping with dogs, Wagtail Park is a nice big site with all the facilities to meet your basic needs: nice clean toilets, washing up facilities, waste disposal and a nice small to medium sized fishing lake for anyone who is interested.  Caravans, motorhomes, camper vans and tents are all welcome and pitches have lights and electricity.  We paid £20 per night, which I felt was very reasonable.

What's going on out there?

On the doggy side, there's a nice little wander around the lake and lots of space on site.  On the personal side; the showers are amazing and the toilet block is lovely and clean (the fishermen have their own toilet I noticed).  There are even little details like washing up liquid and towels provided to make everything easier.

Caesar the Camper Van Dog
Now to the main point (sorry it took so long).  Caesar.  I had worried that this first experience may be a disaster.  That a few weeks down the line I'd be advertising a 'Mazda Bongo for Sale' and keeping hold of my good old reliable Zafira.  And, Caesar had a big part to play in this.  If he doesn't like something, he can make my life a nightmare.  He can cry and howl and bark and bang scratch and carry on for hours on end - he never tires!  

It was partly due to this that my mum and I almost had an argument about my meticulousness about where and when to go and how warm the weather forecast must predict the weather to be before I will commit to the mini-break.  The weather for York looked good.  However the forecast was sadly wrong and it ended up drizzling most of the time anyway!  I had been concerned that this would ruin our holiday but I was very wrong.  My parents showed me that, unlike tent camping, you can get inside your van and put a heater on.  Or, if you have one, you can erect an awning and sit in there away from the wind and rainy weather.  We were even able to put a little heater in the awning to keep us all toasty warm.  In fact, at one point, it got so warm that we had to turn it off!

Sleeping was great too.  Caesar and I jumped aboard (after putting an air bed on the folding beds in the boot) and fell sound asleep.  The only issue was when I needed the toilet but it was that comfortable inside, I couldn't have bribed Caesar to leave - he just stayed cuddled under the double duvet!  

It's fair to say that Caesar took to camping like a duck to water.  And, even made me really proud when I accidentally left the crate door open in the dark and he followed me round to the side of the van and sat by my legs - I didn't know he was there until I tripped over him!  
Who would have thought it?  Caesar, a natural camper van dog!

Out and About in York.
On Saturday, due to the ever so slightly dodgy weather, we caught the 'Park and Ride' bus into York.  Caesar wasn't sold on the idea of bus travel but did make a lot of new friends on the bus who thought he was very cute in his sheep jumper and kept talking to him and reassuring him.  The same has to be said for York city centre, where lots of people stopped me to ask about him and pat him and wonder why he was shaking - don't we all?  We had dinner at a little outdoor cafe near to the river and watched members of York Rowing Club row up and down on their long boats.  Caesar was great, especially considering that there were other dogs running around - sometimes off lead.  Actually, he was so great that another, unsuspecting, couple with a dog decided to come and sit next to us which, as you can probably guess, caused much stress - more to me than Caesar whom I had to bribe with cake to keep quiet.  Finally, we decided to go when he barked at a small terrier carrying a huge lump of wood that everyone was 'awww'ing at.  And made him drop his wood and run away (oh no!).

Camping With a Dog - My Findings
The purpose of my initial camping trip was to determine the answers to the following questions:
1.  Would I enjoy camping?
2.  Would Caesar enjoy camping?
3.  What did I NEED if I was going to go on camping holidays with the dog?

Morning weather check...looks a bit rainy...but it's warm in here!

I have compiled a list of what I feel are necessities for camping with a dog, particularly a difficult dog like Caesar:

1.  A camping electric extension with a trip (for safety).  Electric items could also be run from a leisure battery but my research has led me to believe that this is an easier option by far.
2.  A heater - although, surprisingly for the end of September, we did not use ours for the first night.
3.  Towels!!!  - More than you think you need because they come in handy for things such as cleaning up cans of Coke that Caesar has knocked over all over the centre console...  And also for things like drying paws before bedtime.  And for putting on the floor in the showers - so take more than you think you need.
4.  Baby wipes - useful for many of the above reasons and more!  Also useful for cleaning mucky dogs paws quickly.
5.  Some form of enclosure of crate.  Caesar is a jumper and not the warm snuggly type that you wear in winter.  He's the type that launches 6 foot over a fence to chase a dog.  So I'm much happier having him enclosed within a crate (which effectively has a roof).  Although I am also attempting to use windbreaks to create an enclosure type effect that Caesar can't see through.
6.  Something to tie your dog to.  Whether it be (in my case) bull bars or some type of ground peg.  Something solid and safe where you know you can leave your dog while you sort out the interior of your van for bed time.
7.  An awning!  I came home and immediately bought one after seeing the benefit of having my parents' awning space.  We managed to fit in a kitchen unit, tables, 3 large chairs and a rather large boisterous Caesar and it didn't feel at all cramped.  I've fallen in love with the ease of air awnings and I treated myself to a Vango Kela (well worth it I think).
8.  An open mind - When I left, I had a cold, and I was worried about rain and was feeling concerned about leaving the warmth of my lovely house to spend one of my precious autumn weekends in the back of a van.  What I found is that I had an absolutely wonderful time with lots to do.  And Caesar, once again, exceeded my expectations with great behaviour, minimum whining and not disrupting everyone on the site.

Conclusion: As long as you're warm and comfortable, camping is great!

Hopefully, you should hear more of Caesar's Bongo adventures in the coming months!

Thanks for reading - leave a comment or simply 'like' at the top of the post!