This Overlanding Life is a series of blog posts about the practical side of long-term travel. The first two posts – on all things financial and on health and safety – apply to all types of long-term travel. The next two posts, on transportation and camper vanning, apply to overland camper-van travel. Today’s post will be about OUR camper van – inside and out.
Totoyaya is a conversation-starter. She’s often the reason we meet people on the road, whether it be on public beaches in the U.A.E., European towns, or African campsites. Something about her ruggedness, her unique design, or the colorful Petit-Prince quotes on her side makes for a great ice-breaker.
There almost always comes a time in the conversation with our new acquaintances where their necks strain and their eyes dart over our heads. It’s totally understandable. I love getting tours of other people’s homes, especially when their homes are camper vans. It’s amazing such tiny spaces can provide such endless possibilities.
It’s only fair, then, that I give you all the grand tour of our camper van. You’ve been waiting patiently these past three years. It’s fitting that the tour of our home happens as part of my This Overlanding Life series, not only because it’s a question we get from others (whether with their words or just their eyes). It’s also that this post just might help someone who’s dreaming or planning their own overland trip choose, or kit out, their own vehicle. That, after all, is the underlying goal of this blog series.
Totoyaya is a 1988 BJ75 Toyota Land Cruiser. She has an original 3B 4-cylinder diesel engine. Bruno chose this used vehicle in 1998 because the engine is a big, strong motor that is guaranteed to one million kilometers (we’re almost at 600,000 now and the engine has never even been opened!) and because everything under the hood is mechanical. Newer vehicles contain electronics, so when there’s a problem on the road, you need professional help. By being mechanical, Bruno is often able to take care of Totoyaya’s maintenance himself. He’s learned to take care of Totoyaya slowly and surely over the last seventeen years, and he now knows every sound and movement by heart. Being a mechanic isn’t an essential prerequisite for overlanding, but an interest in learning is a plus.
Our vehicle is a 4WD, which has proven useful from time to time, allowing us to get off the beaten track with confidence and minimal research. However, a 4WD isn’t essential for this type of lifestyle. A 2WD with high clearance can work very well in most situations.
Totoyaya has two unique features: the Petit Prince paintings and quotes on the sides of the doors, and the odd-shaped cell on back. To learn more about why we chose to decorate our vehicle in the way we did, click here and scroll to the bottom, and to learn more about the cell on Totoyaya’s rear, keep reading.
Bruno reinforced Totoyaya’s suspensions by adding more leaf springs. In 2012, he lengthened the chassis by about 40cm in order, and cut 20cm further into the cabin, to have more space for our home in the back. Our vehicle is now about 6 meters long, or 19-feet, and even with the lengthened chassis we have never hit the back of the vehicle onto the ground.
That cell is the biggest change Bruno made to Totoyaya. He cut the body in two in order to put a room on the back that he could stand up in. Ten years later, he made a new, slightly longer cell (hence the lengthened chassis) and improved the insulation by using polyutherane paneling (we plan to spend more time in cold climates, like Alaska and Patagonia). To see more before-and-after photos of these big changes, click here.
We saved a lot of money by having our cells made in Africa (Windhoek, Namibia) rather than in Europe. The finishings aren’t as beautiful, but function is more important to us than form (you’ll see for yourself in the section on Totoyaya’s interior).
First of all, our camper van is simple, and our gear is minimal. Many overlanders are amazed at how little we’ve kitted ourselves out. Our response is that we prefer only to buy things we need and/or find great utility for, and don’t like to carry extra weight for occasional need. Here are the things we do have, as well as our thoughts on a few of the common pieces of gear we’ve chosen to do without:
We have two 75-watt solar panels attached to a solar battery via a 3.6 amp regulator. For the first five years of Bruno’s travel, he didn’t have any solar panels, but he purchased one because he wanted to drive less frequently (and he wanted a fridge). If you drive four times per week or more, you can use the motor to charge things like a fridge, computers, lights, and batteries. To transform the 12v current from our solar battery to the 220v we need to charge most things, we simply use a 300 watt inverter (though we’re in the market for a more powerful one).
We can remove our solar panels from the roof and angle them on the ground in the direction of the sun. This has been helpful in hot places where we’d like to park our vehicle under the shade of a tree. Our solar hook-up has always been more than enough to support our electrical needs, even when the weather has been cloudy or rainy for a few days. We don’t have an AC or satellite television, however.
Bruno loves Michelin XZY tires. They are perfect for our uses because they perform well on tar, rock, and mountains. They aren’t as good in mud or sand, but only a very small amount of our driving occurs on these types of roads. XZY tires are pretty expensive (we only have two at the moment and are looking for two more lightly-used ones) but since they last 80,000km the cost usually evens out.
We only have one spare tire. Many overlanders find this strange – most seem to pack two. In seventeen years of traveling this way, Bruno has never needed two spare tires. That being said, the first thing we do after fitting our spare is find a shop that can repair our punctured tire, so we can get the original one back on and keep the spare as just that. There has always been a tire shop within a short drive of our accident, and if there ever isn’t one, we’re sure a local would help us out. We fit our spare under the lengthened chassis in the back.
We also don’t have a winch. There have only been two or three incidences when Bruno might have liked one, but within a few minutes someone always comes around and helps us out. We prefer not to carry the extra weight of equipment like a winch or a second spare because the heavier the vehicle, the worse it performs off-road. Totoyaya only weighs three tons.
Perhaps this is also why we don’t carry a lot of water. We currently have a water storage capacity of about 70L, but most often we only pack 40L. (We have fittings for two 20L water jugs outside on the back end of the cell). We use about 20L per day if we’re drinking, doing our dishes, and showering, and we don’t mind refilling our water every second day. Nowadays, there’s water everywhere. Only once have we wished to have more water capacity, and that was because we were in the desert of coastal Sudan and we didn’t feel like driving 20km to town. We bought a few plastic bottles for that trip.
For our main water storage, we use an old alcohol jug from a pharmacy and connect it by electric pump and tube to a sink. We may consider getting a foot pump to turn on and off the water, as it appears to conserve it better than turning a nob.
We have two diesel tanks, for a total capacity of about 170L. We rarely use the second tank, but have found it handy when trying to juggle big differences in diesel prices from one country to the next. For example, before entering Malawi, we filled both tanks because we Malawi had the most expensive diesel in Africa. When passing through Saudi Arabia and Iran, we filled up both tanks, and it was a huge money-saver, particularly when we were in Turkey. A second tank can be helpful if you’re aware of a fuel scarcity (northern Ethiopia, Zimbabwe) or worried about fuel quality (not an issue for us since our motor gobbles up whatever we give it, even vegetable oil!).
We have sand channels under our chassis. We’ve rarely had to use them, but they came in handy recently when we got stuck in the sand in a desert near Dubai. I guess it’s the one exception to our “don’t keep heavy things for occasional use” rule, but the channels date back to Bruno’s early years traveling from one end of the Sahara Desert to the other.
A few extras we have and like?
1. Garmin GPS Map 76CS. It’s getting old now, but we love its simplicity and durability. We download free maps online (notably from the Garmin website itself).
2. Katadyn Combi water filter. A recent purchase, but useful when we’re around questionable water sources. Pumps a liter in a couple minutes, but it’s a bit of a workout if you don’t have a pressurized tap to connect to.
3. Herberspacher D2 heater. Another relatively recent purchase for Bruno (though I’ve never lived in Totoyaya without it), it’s our most-appreciated luxury. Expensive, but amazing. Works using 12v solar energy and diesel. About a liter for 10 hours of heat. Quiet, dry, simply wonderful.
As I mentioned, our cell was made in Africa, and it came with nothing inside. Bruno fitted out the interior, which is why it’s not as pretty as if it had been done professionally. Bruno loves reusing random things that he finds to make things inside our house, like our light bulbs made from plastic cookie jars and clothing storage made from grocery store cartons.
At least we can stand up inside it. That’s pretty much all that matters.
On one side of our home is our sleeping and storage area. There is storage over the cabin front seats for lighter things, like clothing, bedding, and backpacks. Under our bed (which measures 120x190cm), we have eight deep bins where we store everything else – foodstuffs, personal items, medicine, tools, and books. To reach a bin, we simply fold over our foam mattress and pop open the wooden lid. I also have a single drawer that Bruno lovingly carved for me on the side of the bed. It’s amazing how much I appreciate the convenience of having a drawer after going two years without one. Besides that drawer, all our other storage is made of simple cartons and bins without complex and heavy pulley systems. That keeps our weight down and maximizes space.
Unlike most, our bed doesn’t turn into a day-table, because we don’t want to have to make and unmake the bed every day. Since this isn’t just a short-term trip, we try to make our preparations and transitions as convenient and easy as possible. I actually love having the bed there all the time – if we feel like taking a nap when we’re driving or safariing, we can. If I want to read lazily or do computer work inside, I often find myself spread-out on the bed. It’s the most homey part of our home.
On the other side of our home is the kitchen and seating area. We have a solar-powered Engel fridge that doubles as a seat, a countertop with sink, and a gas burner ready and waiting. Most of the time, though, I bring the gas canister outside and do my chopping and cooking under our awning. If we do need to eat inside (or if we’re catching a quick bite on a driving day), one of us sits on the fridge and the other pops open a stool, and we both eat on the countertop facing out toward our back window.
The awning is my favorite part of our home. It adds a second room to what would otherwise be a very tiny space. We spend almost all our time outdoors, so our awning comes in handy to protect us from sun or rain. Highly recommended for any camper vanner.
The other best part of our home? The homemade bicycle rack we have in the back of the vehicle. For over two years, Bruno maintained that only one bike could fit on it. When I forced him to buy me one in Dubai, we found a way to make it fit two. I’m a very happy camper now that I have a bike!
Totoyaya might seem overly simple and functional at the cost of beauty and comfort. But, I assure you she does just the trick. She’s reliable, strong, and rugged. She contains everything we need, and a few extras. She allows us to visit the globe from the comfort of home. She’s one of a kind.
Totoyaya is perfect, at least in our eyes.