Vanlife: My emotional getaway Kombi


Vanlife: My emotional getaway Kombi

A broken-down camper van is sometimes a handy reminder of the need to explore pain, writes LE ROUX SCHOEMAN.

  • 25 August 2023
  • Free Speech
  • 5 min to read
  • article 22 of 23
  • Le Roux Schoeman
Konstabeltjie, somewhere in the golden hour.
Konstabeltjie, somewhere in the golden hour.

“YOU have half a Kombi in Ysterplaat," says my friend Evelyn. She pronounces it “koembi", and something in the rhythm of her voice makes me think of the opening salvo in Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."

She knows about Konstabeltjie, as we've christened this Volkswagen Autovilla, because she's ridden in the back of it on occasion. It's something only a few have done over the past couple of years. Only the co-owner's wife, two Dachshunds, three mixed-breed rescue dogs and an up-and-coming comedian, to be precise. Konstabeltjie is nowadays a stay-at-home caravan. More #Vanafterlife than #Vanlife. But it wasn't always like that.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

The years on the road

In the rearview mirror, I would see how Evelyn tried to maintain her balance at the back of the double bed, which is something resembling a pole-vault mattress, covered with an old sleeping bag — unzipped — to create a homely feeling.

But time for looking around is limited from behind Konstabeltjie's low steering wheel, which I hold onto carefully kilometre after kilometre, like a pot of boiling water on my lap.

On the floor, which resembles an aeroplane aisle, sits an old leather suitcase without handles, crammed full of vintage comics that I acquired in the 1990s in Durban from a collector — he had won a jackpot of sorts back then, hastily moved, and wanted to get rid of things (mainly comics and an extensive budgie farm) for that exciting new chapter in his life. And in a well-hidden small fridge, the bottle of sparkling wine given to us by the previous owner when my friend Erns and I bought Konstabeltjie amid a series of personal crises.

Neither Erns nor I was drinking much at the time, so the bottle resembled a stripper who'd arrived at the wrong duplex. You could hear it clinking as we drove cautiously down the N1 from Gauteng to the Cape, where deep within we knew what awaited: the likelihood that the dream of a single-purchase-induced radical lifestyle change would collapse under the weight of our own expectations, and that we were actually witnessing the start of a slow osmosis from our bank account to those of two motor mechanics in Bellville, who for the next few years would be able to park Konstabeltjie on their books as a permanent source of income.

Le Roux Schoeman, left, and Erns Grundling with their Kombi when it was still mobile.
Le Roux Schoeman, left, and Erns Grundling with their Kombi when it was still mobile.

The good times

But there were beautiful times too. I still see Konstabeltjie crossing the narrow bridge at Norvalspont with the first rays of sunlight falling over the Gariep Dam. I see him sitting defiantly at Rawsonville, where gusts of wind had toppled lesser trucks onto the shoulder of the N1. I see him speeding past the orange traffic light on the corner of Loop and Shortmarket, with someone shouting after him: “Lekka djy!”

I see Erns's friend, the comedian Schalk, experiencing a road trip and patiently working on his laptop on the double bed while the Karoo landscape (and faster cars) rushed past us.

And I see Konstabeltjie guzzling petrol as if there's only one Engen station in existence. This type of Autovilla has two fuel caps and a tank like an underground lake. Until now, we haven't managed to gather enough capital to simply say “fill it up" at a fuel station.

The plan

Although Erns and I may initially have had an equal hand in this project, his grip has tightened over the years and his vision has sharpened. An appetite for risk, the only thing that might have qualified me as the primary driver on that first afternoon in Brakpan, with the horizon beckoning, disappeared from my life without notice, while Erns once again assumed a kind of “seize the day” posture that provides me with infinite joy and inspires me, from a distance.

It's a wordless thing that happened between two men who jointly owned a 1979 VW with a Ford engine and a few other comorbidities. And when one hands over the baton to the other, not too many questions are asked. Asking few questions was our strategy when we bought it, and apparently that's still the plan. Old Konstabeltjie is now parked at Erns's place, where he lives with his wife, Catharien, and their beloved dogs. In the driveway of their home in Brooklyn near Ysterplaat, it's an ark with no flood in sight.

The comedian Schalk Bezuidenhout, a friend of Erns, witnessed Konstabeltjie's maiden voyage to the Cape.
The comedian Schalk Bezuidenhout, a friend of Erns, witnessed Konstabeltjie's maiden voyage to the Cape.

The agenda

So when Evelyn reminds me of the “koembi", our investment in a murky asset class, she doesn't mean it as a wake-up call to get rid of Konstabeltjie. I think she means it more in the Casablanca way: We'll always have the thing... But my thoughts sometimes wander more towards the comics in the box on the floor, and I wonder what became of the young budgie farmer in suburban Durban with his sudden prosperity. How much of that jackpot is left? How many of those budgies are still alive? And, of course, I wonder what I was trying to acquire when I bought an Autovilla.

Erns recently shared a few thoughts from Michael Singer's book The Untethered Soul, and a question on page 130 struck a chord: “Who are you that is lost and trying to build a concept of yourself in order to be found?" The book is about the spiritual life as one of surrender and letting go.

Singer doesn't explicitly discourage the purchase of camper vans, but he seems fairly clear that you'll reach a point where you have to explore inner pain rather than avoid it in order to grow spiritually. Looking back — and here I obviously can't speak for my co-owner — Konstabeltjie was, after all, something of an emotional getaway car.

So if the story is, “divorced man escapes via less-than-roadworthy vehicle before emotional accountability", let the insight be, “it's never too late to explore pain".

♦ VWB ♦

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