We've been travelling Europe in a motorhome for nearly two years, on and off. We started as complete and utter beginners… and we're STILL learning things two years later.
But one of the scariest (and most important) lessons we've learnt so far happened on our very first trip!
Travelling in a Motorhome- our scariest moment (so far!!?!?!?!)
We took our first motorhome into Europe, through Italy and up into the Swiss Alps. On our second day in the Alps, we stopped at a little place called Gelmer for lunch, a walk and so our daughter, Jade, could find out her GCSE results (we'd been homeschooling her for a year.)
It was a glorious sunny day, her results were good (yay!) and we survived the trip up the terrifying Gelmerban funicular (a VERY old train which goes backwards up a mountain!)- so what could possibly go wrong??
Well, quite a lot as it happens.
Gelmer is halfway up a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Whichever way you go, you're immediately driving on tiny, hairpin, mountain roads. And as soon as we set off, we realised there was something seriously wrong with our brakes.
We'd been wild camping in the Alps the night before- which was MAGICAL. But we'd been going up and down STEEP mountain roads for the past 24 hours. We'd stopped fairly frequently to allow the brakes time to cool, and we'd been stopped for about 4 hours this time whilst we did the funicular.
But, unbeknownst to us, the brake fluid had completely disappeared.
Travelling in a motorhome- our mistake
When we bought the van 3 months earlier, we'd been assured it had just had a full service and MOT. We did our own checks, but we never thought to check the brake fluid. Turns out, it hadn't been changed for many, many years and was mostly water- which meant it had evaporated over the past 48 hours as the brakes got hot.
All this led to us hurtling down a steep mountain, with a trailer pushing us even faster… and no way of slowing down except for our hand brake.
I am forever grateful that Mr WB was driving, not me. Honestly, I'm not sure I would have known what to do. There was nowhere to pull over, nowhere to stop and turning around wasn't an option.
All we could do was continue down the mountain, trying desperately to slow down as we approached each hairpin turn and praying we didn't catch up to a slow vehicle in front.
I couldn't even speak, I was that scared. I just let my husband do his thing- which he did brilliantly. He used engine braking as much as possible- and the handbrake to supplement that. Yes, it probably ruined the handbrake. No, we didn't care.
Travelling in a motorhome- the good part
At the bottom of the mountain was a small village (a fairly common sight when you're driving in Switzerland). Just off the main road was a garage, and we pulled into the forecourt in a cloud of smoke.
The mechanics didn't speak a word of English (why should they?!) but they did speak the universal ‘Oh'.
These guys were brilliant. They had several cars and jobs already in, but they stopped what they were doing to help us. The owner called his son, who came to help too, and they quickly replaced the brake fluid, changed the pads and checked wheels, tyres, handbrake (luckily not damaged) and fixed anything which needed fixing.
They also checked the oil and did a couple of other essential checks for us, as we no longer trusted the ‘service' the motorhome had apparently had. Within a couple of hours, it was all done and sorted.
Travelling in a motorhome- our advice
Luckily, this story had a happy ending. We were ok. The van was ok. We bought a big crate of beer for the mechanics and headed off on the road again.
On England road trips, we were not used to driving up and down mountains. We certainly didn't fully appreciate the toll it could have on a vehicle. But it could easily have been a different story.
Please please PLEASE, before you go travelling in a motorhome, get it fully checked by an independent mechanic- NOT the people you bought it from. Especially if you're planning to take your van overseas into some fairly harsh terrain. There's a complete list of essential motorhome checks you should do HERE.
This story isn't meant to frighten anyone from travelling, whether in a motorhome, a camper or a car. Heck, it didn't put us off!
But it's DEFINITELY made us more wary about trusting salesmen and garages when we buy a vehicle- our new van got a full check before we took it to Cornwall and ANOTHER one before we headed off to Europe. (Yes, we're uber-cautious.) We urge you to consider doing the same, especially if it's a new (to you!) vehicle.
I hope sharing our story (and mistake!) will help you avoid being in such a terrifying situation yourself. If you know anyone else who might benefit from a bit of friendly advice, feel free to share this with them on Facebook or Pinterest.