This is where eccentric and uncaring SatNavs can lead you sometimes!

After All: Four voices in a campervan (to say nothing of the bark)

Image credit: Christine Bohling

Continuing his campervanning adventures, our columnist introduces to the readers his fleshless, yet vociferous, techno-travel companions.

There were not three, but four of us, in that relationship. To say nothing of the dog...

All four (or five) of us were stuck inside the moving Toyota Alphard (aka Alphie) converted campervan. No wonder the atmosphere inside it was often volatile.

“You are over the speed limit!” George would crackle in his rough ear-grating voice.

“Oh, George, here you go again!” my wife would exclaim. “Don’t you see that we are actually standing in a queue?”

“Yes, George, why don’t you shut up once and for all?” I would echo from the driver’s seat.

“At the roundabout in 800 metres, take the third exit and turn right,” Liz would butt in. She spoke with a posh accent, which made her sound permanently annoyed...

Heading for Dumfries, I was driving Alphie through the Scottish Borders, which H V Morton once described as a “queer compromise between fairyland and battlefield”. It was our fifth camping journey this year, and by now I could proudly admit that we had learned the basics of campervanning. Gone were the times when it took us over two hours to set up camp. We came to discover the advantages of a concerted team effort, with me unloading Alphie, setting up a storage tent and starting the fire, my wife turning around the seats inside the salon (easier said than done) to create a comfy Pavarotti-size bed, and Tashi, our fluffy Tibetan terrier, sitting on the grass chewing on a bone and barking half-heartedly at the low-flying birds, or bats (depending on the season). Each of us knew what to do, and we hardly spoke until everything was ready for an unhurried evening feast around the bonfire.

Packing up in the morning was a tad more cumbersome, but not half as tricky as finding our next camping place. For some reason, most campsites are in the middle of nowhere. They are connected to the rest of the world by narrow and often unpaved unnamed paths, consisting almost entirely of bumps and potholes. In Russia, they aptly refer to such locations as ‘bears’ corners’.

It is here that satnavs, with their dubious ability to make no distinction between a motorway and a permanently deserted country road (because they tend to calculate your route by distance alone, you see), come into the picture: tired after spending the best part of the morning packing up, you don’t want to worry about how to negotiate every road turn and roundabout.

We inherited ‘George the SatNav’ (that was how my wife monikered him) as part of an outdated sound system that bore more than a passing resemblance to the original Game Boy and was firmly embedded into the dashboard of our Toyota Alphard, made in Japan, yet converted into a campervan in the UK some years later. Operated via a series of buttons and with no touchscreen, the system was clearly antediluvian. With his favourite mantra being the cantankerous and crackling “You are over the speed limit!”, often voiced when the car was stationary, George was useless. No wonder that soon we started referring to him as “our SatNag”!

George’s other annoying eccentricity was to triumphantly announce “Route recalculation!” at the most inappropriate moments, such as when negotiating a seemingly endless roundabout – an unasked-for intervention that could easily lead to an accident.

Why didn’t we get rid of George straight away, you may ask? Well, just like turning around the seats inside our campervan, that was much easier said than done. George proved to be extremely resilient and – like a courageous voice of the determined political opposition in a totalitarian country – utterly irrepressible. Not just ourselves, but a number of experienced audio technicians were unable to silence him completely.

Not quite defeated, George remained grossly unreliable, so we started using a Google Maps satnav from my wife’s smartphone instead. ‘Liz’ was how we christened the pleasant female voice – a direct opposite of George’s, best described as the half-hearted drawl of a life-long geezer. Liz was posh, precise and matter-of- fact, her only eccentricity being an unbridled affection for bridleways and semi-abandoned trails where she would send the not-so-tiny Alphie without the slightest hesitation, as if directing him (it) to a toll-​free flyover or an autobahn. As a result, I once had to back down a super-narrow dirt track for about a mile to give way to a farm tractor. On another occasion, we got stuck on top of a small mountain on ‘the roof of England’, i.e. in the Pennines, and I was only able to retreat after several dozen frantic three-point turns on the edge of a steep drop.

As you see, having two vociferous and mutually incompatible satnavs inside one vehicle, with George’s demented “route recalculations” in the middle of Liz’s instructions on how to negotiate yet another octopus-like giant roundabout, is not conducive to successful navigation. And here I’d like to urge all members of my Virtual Campervanning Club (see E&T June 2021) to be very careful when choosing their satnavs, which (who) – like pets – are not just for Christmas. Whether you want it or not, you end up forming an almost intimate relationship with them, for how can it be otherwise when they become directly responsible for the lives of yourself and your campervan companions? In my dreams, I can see a new generation of satnavs that could be interviewed before you buy them to allow you to decide whether you like their voices, accents, and manners. Ideally, you should be able to take them on a test drive to see if you could work together as a team. Because teamwork, as I have already said in this column, is a guarantee of successful campervanning!

...Well, unlike that of George, Liz’s speech has always been formal. Therefore, it came as a surprise when at some point in our trip to Scotland I heard her say: “In 500 metres, turn left towards Devil’s Porridge!”

My first thought was that she has somehow – perhaps under George’s corruptive influence – learned to swear. But then I spotted a road sign: ‘Devil’s Porridge’. We followed it and soon arrived to one of many engineering wonders of Dumfries & Galloway. Which wonders? With Liz’s and George’s help, I will navigate you around them in my next column.

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