Natalie Akoorie recalls the highlights of a classic Kiwi van tour around Europe.

Every year in the Northern Hemisphere summer, groups of eager young Kiwis, Aussies and a handful of South Africans ditch their jobs in London and take off around Europe on van tour.

The unofficial three-month tour of van-loads of antipodeans on their OE, is a booze-filled, debauched affair that starts at the Running of the Bulls in July and ends at Munich's Oktoberfest in September.

The annual van tour is a wild ride as writer Natalie Akoorie can testify. Photo / Supplied
The annual van tour is a wild ride as writer Natalie Akoorie can testify. Photo / Supplied

It has been a rite of passage for Kiwis living in the UK for decades and my boyfriend and I [now my husband] did it in 2001. These tips below are taken from that trip and tours in 1994, 1998, 2000, and 2005.

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Buy your van in Europe

In the old days van owners would line up their recently completed tour vans back in London for next year's wannabes and sell them like hot cakes. But it's worth considering buying a van in France.

There are two reasons for this. One, it will be left-hand drive, which will take a bit of getting used to but it matches the roading system on the continent.

And two, Europeans have an age-old dislike of the English, so if you're driving around with a GB [Great Britain] symbol on the van you could attract unwanted attention. Equally you can blame your road rudeness on the French if you are sporting an F symbol.

My husband and I actually leased a brand new Peugeot car and collected it from Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. We wanted to travel in style mainly with air-conditioning because, beware, the vans — which range from pop-tops to old ambulances — are pretty rough and prone to breaking down. One friend missed the famous first stop, the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain because of mechanical failure.

Camping

When we did our big trip we didn't have mobile phones. That means no easy access to emails or the internet. We had a Lonely Planet guide and a map, and so we ended up at all the same campgrounds as everyone else on van tour.

"Horse", aka Dan, cooks up dinner at a campground in Spain. Photo / Natalie Akoorie

Because we weren't in a van we needed a tent. We pretty quickly upgraded to a three-man tent just for the extra storage space, and it wasn't long before we bought deckchairs — an essential for eating dinner. Because when you are camping around Europe for three months in your 20s, you can't afford to eat out every night.

The camps themselves are not like anything in New Zealand. Many have supermarkets, pizza parlours, beer vending machines, hydroslides and some swell to the size of my hometown in summer; 5000 people. But don't get so drunk you never make it out of the campgrounds to see the sights. One van tour traveller sent his camera out with friends most days because he was too hung over to leave camp.

Everything you need, like our trusty little gas cooker, can be bought at the massive Carrefour "supermarches" in France, a cross between a supermarket, hardware store and K-Mart.

Life on the road in Europe

Europe is big, hot and really dusty, but amazing. Be prepared for squatter toilets and paying for the privilege of using them. Also paying for beach access or a sun lounger on a pebbly beach.

Be weary of bottles of 80 per cent alcohol — yes, you read that right. Horse meat is one of the main steaks offered in the supermarkets so you might want to brush up on your French before you go shopping.

Don't bother trying to do anything during siesta. Spain, mostly, shuts down for two hours every day in the middle of the day, so if you're hung over and hungry, get food early.
Keep a diary. Before smartphones we kept postcards, beer labels, museum and cathedral brochures, road maps and general memorabilia, and of course we took photographs — the non-digital kind. Take a prop to photograph in each country — ours was "Horse", the horse mask.

The main attractions

The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona is the first main stop. I did not run with the bulls, but I watched people do it.

I watched people kill bulls by repeatedly stabbing them, and I'm pretty sure we saw someone get killed by a bull. I found the whole thing quite upsetting. Apparently the after-party is good.

Then there's 100 Club. The year we went most of the vans were banned from the campground at Thalkirchen, so we hiked over to a carpark the day before Oktoberfest kicked off to watch this "competition" for anyone who wants to enter: They must drink a shot of beer (from film canisters), every minute for 100 minutes.

It is by far the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. I almost vomited just watching it, sober. It's not the shot drinking. It's the punishments the "judges" inflict on the participants and bystanders. Drinking rotten fish guts and urine from a gumboot are images that spring to mind.

Beerfest itself is a drunken mess.The antipodeans head to the Hofbrau beer tent. There's rules like not wearing underwear, yikes. And being seated at a table, served by the costumed frauleins carrying massive steins [mugs] of beer, about five in each hand.

If you go outside for a pork knuckle or to ride the fairground attractions make sure you get back inside a beer tent before they close. It's like a pub lock-in. Once closed you have to wait several hours to get back inside.

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