”The ‘Golden Road’, a winding single-track route that meanders along Harris’s rocky East Coast. Not everyone’s first choice with its blind summits, unprotected drops and tortuous bends… But an enthralling and inspiring experience at the same time, it truly engaged all of your senses.
Life is not all about posting the perfect picture. It’s about the adventures and memories that are captured forever when you explore the world with your own eyes. For Chris, the call of the open road and breathtaking landscapes led him north to the Outer Hebrides on a 2,300+ mile road trip. Packed light and only carrying the essentials in his 2003 T4 Camper, Chris experienced the freedom of living off-grid, waking up next to crystal clear turquoise shores, and driving roads reminiscent of a lunar landscape. These experiences have ignited a passion for this remote part of the UK and a need for more driving adventures.
We caught up with Chris Hamilton-Brown to find out what it was like to drive these rugged roads in an almost 20-year-old vehicle, and to hear his recommendations for the best places to visit in the Outer Hebrides.
What was the inspiration for the Outer Hebrides roadtrip?
You know sometimes you hear or read about people who buy odd things online without ever having seen them first. People buying strange things like a building they have never seen, in a different country, on an island they’ve never even been to. Well, this was me, and it ended up becoming my 2,300+miles, 13 islands and 6 ferries road trip inspiration.
This is not a bucket list type of thing for me. It goes deeper than that. I’ve had the desire to create a small live-work space mulling around in the back of my head for years. Having the opportunity to at least give it a try, was just too big an opportunity to turn down. It all seemed like a good idea at the time, what could possibly go wrong?
A couple of things should be noted at this point. I had previously only ever heard of the Outer Hebrides on the weather forecasts. I had never actually been there. I knew nothing about the archipelago of Islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. All I knew was they were a fair distance off the western coast of mainland Scotland, and Scotland was a long way north from Hastings on the south coast of England. In fact, it was a good 750 miles north of Hastings!
So based on a couple of small low-resolution pictures, I committed to buying a small old Church Mission Hall. If the recent covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing certain in life. Don’t plan too far ahead and make the most of what you have, whilst you have it!
Unfortunately, I then had to wait a further six months until Covid restrictions were finally lifted before I could visit the building. This resulted in a 2,300+ mile road trip to explore the Outer Hebrides. It was an amazing experience! So very different to the manicured landscapes of England. Here the landscape is raw, wild and untamed. It was stunning in so many different ways. I loved it!
How long had the trip been in the planning?
Normally these days I don’t spend too much time planning road trips. I find it’s too easy to overthink and over-plan things. I’m getting better at being more spontaneous and enjoying the fun of coming across things fresh for the first time without too much prior expectation.
It’s not to say I don’t come across or find interesting places before going. Often you can see/hear about places on TV, radio or social media and think that they would be a great place to visit. So I store them away in my memory ready for the next possible trip away thinking that might be a chance to go and see them.
That said, with the recent pandemic and the various travel restrictions, I did have plenty of time to think about getting away, just not the opportunity. So, like most people, once the restrictions were lifted and it was safe to travel, it was great to get back out exploring new places once again.
Do you prefer to stop at campsites or go camp off-grid?
I tend to prefer camping off-grid in my van. I’m not sure if that’s rooted in a sense of wanderlust, but I do like to explore different areas rather than just stay in one spot for an extended period. If I like a particular area I might stay a couple of days, before pushing on to find new places to explore. It’s this flexibility and spontaneity that I love the most. Plus you get to see and stay at some incredible off-grid locations! You also tend to meet a greater range of people on your travels.
The Outer Hebrides is made up of literally hundreds of different-sized islands. Collectively they go up to make the Western Isles. A perfect destination in my eyes as there is so much to explore! There are six main islands – Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. Whilst most of the other hundreds of smaller islands are uninhabited, some are lived on, but only with a small population.
”‘The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun’Jon Krakauer, 'Into the Wild'
Tell us about the T4 Camper that you travelled in.
The T4 is fairly new to me and seems like a very modern camper compared to my usual air-cooled 1964 split-screen camper! It is a later 2003 SWB model with the desirable 2.5 TDi engine. Plenty of torque whilst still giving good mpg. It was an ex-AA vehicle, so at least I knew it had been well maintained in the early part of its life. When I got it, I wanted to use it specifically for long trips up and down to the Outer Hebrides as I took on my Small Mission Hall building conversion project.
The body and structure of the bus were solid, still in its original Yellow paint (so no nasty hidden repairs underneath) with the odd scuff/dent here or there. Ideal for me as I wasn’t after a show bus, I just wanted a solid and reliable vehicle to use. I then got my local garage Resto Classics to give the T4 a thorough mechanical service so that everything was checked and replaced where necessary. All ready for my road trips ahead.
I wanted to turn the T4 into a minimalist back-to-basics camper. I already had a camping setup and solar panel that I used in my split-screen camper. The plan was to create interchangeable interiors and components that could (where possible) get swapped/shared between the two very different buses. This way it would avoid unnecessary duplication (and expense) of buying the same thing twice.
To achieve this, I needed to add a 12v AGM Leisure battery and a CTEK 250DSE dual Input DC-DC Charger and an MPPT Solar Controller charger system to the T4. This would give me all the power/charging facilities I needed, plus it meant I could then use my foldable solar panel with either bus, as well as just being able to use my Waeco compressor cool-box in either. Other camping kit gets stored in a vintage cooler and aluminium storage box. These both easily transfer between each vehicle depending on which one I go away in. Interchangeable camping interior sorted, it’s the way to go!
What about the route? Where did you start and finish?
To make most of my time on the Islands, and to avoid traffic where possible, I set off from East Sussex at crazy O’clock in the morning (05:00). My first stint of 540 miles (with food breaks) got me to Loch Lomond. The next day it was the much shorter drive to the Isle of Skye ready to catch the ferry from the port of Uig (Skye) to Tarbert (Harris). These were the longer driving days of the road trip. Whilst exploring the islands, I deliberately spent less time driving, and more time making the most of just being there.
Initially, you might think of the ferries as just a means to an end of getting to and from an island. However, they were a great addition to the whole road trip experience. They allowed you to gain unique perspectives and experiences in themselves. Whether that be seeing pods of porpoises swimming in the sea, amazing seascapes, or even experiencing a coastguard helicopter doing test lowering and evacuation of people from a moving ferry.
I have to say that the roads were generally in way better condition than those in and around where I live in East Sussex. They were an absolute pleasure to drive on in comparison.
What was it like being ‘on the road’ for this length of time?
Being a minimalist, back-to-basics camper, sleeping on a camp mattress and using a small Trangia camping stove to cook/make hot drinks, you might have thought that this experience might have worn thin pretty quickly, but it didn’t. I know for some this might sound like their idea of hell on four wheels. I’m just not a sit-by-the-pool all-day kind of person. Sure, it’s different, it lacks some of the everyday normality that we grow accustomed to in our lives. For me, it was this change that I found so refreshing. In many ways, it made me feel much more alive. It gave me a new found appreciation of the simple things in life that it’s all too easy to take for granted.
What were your highlights of driving around the Outer Hebrides?
Very hard to single out a particular highlight of the trip, there genuinely were several! However, one moment might just rise to the top. I found what I thought was a small little bay/inlet area to park up and stay for the night. Looked like an ideal stopover, so once parked, I made myself something to eat and drink before going for a little wander about to explore the area.
As I neared what I thought was the mouth of the inlet, it opened up to my right to a stunningly beautiful mile-long white sandy beach that stretched off into the distance. The crystal clear turquoise waves lapping the shore looked like absolute paradise. But what I couldn’t quite get my head around was that I was the only one on the beach at that moment. I had the whole place just to myself. I used to work for a leading travel company and was used to seeing images of amazing beaches in exotic locations. People would spend a small fortune to go and spend their holidays at such places. It was a genuine pinch-yourself moment!
Which three places would you go back to?
As a combination, Lewis/Harris does have it all as far as I’m concerned. I’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere more inspiring or varied to spend time exploring.
Uig/Great Bernera – I loved this area of the Island and would love to spend some more time exploring it as I don’t feel I did it justice when I was there.
Barra – a cool little island with an airport where planes land on the white sand beach. I feel that I didn’t get to spend enough time there or see more of what it has to offer.
Your favourite stretch of road?
That’s easy, the ‘Golden Road’, a winding single-track route that meanders along Harris’s rocky East Coast. Maybe not everyone’s first choice for an ideal driving road with its blind summits, unprotected drops and tortuous bends. However, the physical environment it takes you through was captivating. The scenery was stunning. Almost what I would imagine it to be on a lunar landscape in places. An enthralling and inspiring experience at the same time, it truly engaged all of your senses.
Best place to stay overnight?
Not sure I could choose what my favourite overnight spot was? Each was different, sometimes very different. It was their individual character and nature that appealed to me. I guess I love being near the sea wherever possible. If I wake up and can hear the waves in the morning, that’s good enough for me!
Best scenic spot?
Best scenic spot, that’s impossible to choose just one. The landscape of the Outer Hebrides is simply out of this world. The spectacular colours and formation of Seilebost beach is incredible, but so is the landscape of Loch Druidibeag on South Uist, Vatersay, then there is the Golden Road, Uig, South Lochs, Scalpay, Great Bernera, the stones at Callanish, etc. You really are spoilt for choice!
In terms of cakes, it would be hard to beat the generosity of my new future neighbour in Lewis, who when I introduced myself when viewing the Small Mission Hall for the first time, gave me one of her freshly baked fruit cakes to enjoy on the rest of my road trip! It was delicious!
One of my favourite little local independent places to stop for food is the colourful little Café Arriba in Portree, Skye. They do a daily changing mains menu with specials/soups of the day, all-day breakfasts and a great cup of coffee. Every time I have visited, I have never been disappointed or left hungry!
Did you meet other classic car owners enroute?
You tend to meet a few interesting people on a road trip, and this was no exception. One of the many things I love about Scotland is the variety of amazing places you can explore and stay over at. One such beachfront stopover I visited had options on either side of a crescent-shaped causeway on each side of the bay. I arrived at one side of the bay, but my TomTom sat nav indicated that the site I was heading to was on the other side, accessed via the causeway that cut behind the beach.
There seemed to be some evidence of a rough track heading towards the causeway, so I proceeded to slowly drive across. It was a pretty gnarly and beaten-up bit of track, so I took things nice and steady, slowly making my way to the other side. Once I had made it across, I was greeted by a couple from Edinburgh camping out in their campervan. They very generously offered me a rather nice glass of Whisky. My kind of people I thought. They had been watching me drive the T4 camper over the causeway and thought I deserved a drink for making it across in one piece! They were not sure it was possible or that I was going to make it! Their map said it was only suitable for 4WD vehicles! That kind of made my little causeway ‘off-roading’ experience all the more worth it!
Unfortunately, on this trip, I didn’t bump into many classic car owners, unless a nearly 20-year-old VW T4 is classed a classic these days! I did however, meet plenty later in the year on my road trip to the 2022 Hessisch Oldendorf VW show, but that’s another story!
What advice would you give to anyone planning their own adventure road trip?
Simple. Don’t overcomplicate things, pack light and travel far! Life’s too short for regretting the things you didn’t do. No one ever said they went on too many road trips!
So, what’s next?
Where’s next? There are so many different places I’d like to explore. I’ll be going back to Scotland and the Outer Hebrides again (and again) for sure. I’d love to do a road trip around Ireland and the Faroe Islands looks like it would be an incredible trip as well. I also want to visit Bilbao in Spain and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Thank you very much Chris for chatting to us. We’d love to hear more on your future plans and trips abroad.
To follow more of Chris’ road trip adventures head to https://www.vdubxs.com. For further information on ClassicLine’s specialist VW Camper insurance, which incorporates extended cover into Europe for up to 90 days, speak to our insurance experts on 01455 629 000 or visit VW Camper Insurance – Classicline Insurance.
Photo credits: https://www.vdubxs.com