I love wild places. In Britain: Cape Wrath, Ben Hope, the Coruisk Basin on Skye and deserted Ynys Enlii – the Island of the Currents – off the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales. In Canada: the Bedivere lakes in Quetico and the North Saskatchewan River. In Germany: Darsser Ort on the Baltic, the Naturpark Oberpfälzer, and the Bavarian Alps beyond Bayrischzell. Many years ago a friend and I decided to go Wildcamping in the dunes of Portugal’s Vale de Lobos. We rode the coast road bus until all signs of civilisation vanished behind us. We tramped for half-a-day deep into the unknown. We crossed salt flats and sandy wastes, dreaming of a halcyon, hidden cove far ahead. In the early evening, as the sun dipped toward the horizon, we heard the distant roar of Atlantic rollers. We crested the last dune and looked down at the beautiful shoreline, and beheld a German couple, frying bratwurst beside their campervan by the sea.
At any one time during the summer holiday there are as many as 573,000 caravans and Kombis on European roads, the vast majority of them immediately ahead of you on a narrow, twisting mountain pass. Of that number, a large percentage are German, piloted to every corner of the continent by intrepid adventurers who see no incompatibility between the ideal of footloose, unrestrained Wanderlust and keeping up with the next instalment of their favourite television series Musikantenstadl.
For me, there is something deeply funny about middle-aged Europeans pottering in the slow lane while singing along to Steppenwolf’s Born to Wild or Springsteen’s Hungry Heart (me doing the same thing on my bicycle in Berlin is a totally different kettle-of-poisson, of course). Equally, the brand names of Europe’s lumbering lumps of metal never fail to bring a smile to my lips: Buccaneer, Dart, Eagle, Sprite, Sterling and Swift. But cynicism aside, motorised camping is hugely popular with retirees, families and budget-conscious travellers.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hymer, the German company which ranks among the most innovative, most successful caravan and motorhome manufacturers in Europe. For many Germans, Hymer has become the generic name for caravans and motorhomes, whether made by Hymer or by competitors like Karmann, T.E.C., Dethleffs, Hobby and Niesmann+Bischoff. At Bad Waldsee, Hymer Feelings, Novas, Tramps and Starliners (don’t you love the names?) roll off the assembly line, as does their classy Hymermobil S-Class. Based on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis, the S-Class features under-floor air conditioning, luxurious ‘Noce Bergamo’ furniture, a flat-screen TV, a surround sound system, a power shower and a TEC Tower fridge with 175 litre capacity (oh yes, and a steering wheel). It’s a Schloss-on-wheels more lavish than most people’s humble homes.
The company was founded in 1956 when Erwin Hymer built his first caravan in his father’s vehicle repair workshop. Five years later production started on the Hymermobil. During those Wirtschaftswunder years, when post-war industry created an economic miracle, Germans started taking vacations on the Baltic or in southern Europe, often in converted VW buses. The Hymermobil gave them a new kind of mobility, which through the Sixties became popular throughout Europe and the world. Today Hymer’s exports – across Europe, in Asia and South Africa – account for 65% of its sales. Yet like many German companies it remains a family-owned business, with almost 80% of its stock belonging to Erwin Hymer and his family.
Naturally no self-respecting travel writer would be caught dead in a caravan or camper, whether it’s made by Hymer, Winnebago or Lamborghini. We strike out on our own path, with only a woolly hat and packet of dry biscuits in our tiny rucksack, travelling lightly, without expectations, open to chance. The novelist and travel supremo Jonathan Raban once wrote, ‘When the true and sincere traveller pulls the front door shut and turns the key in the lock, he casts himself adrift in the world. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be a creature of chance and accident.’
These days that’s what true travellers still do, head out into the unknown, filled with anticipation, asking themselves as the walk alone through rural Balochistan or pull themselves up onto a lofty Andean plateau, ‘How the hell did that Hymer get here before me?’