Big Blue and Caravan Kismet were all packed up and ready to go by 9am, right on schedule.
We had appointments in Avignon the following day. After our hair-raising drive in, the plan was to leave early and get the precipitous hairpins of the Gorges du Verdon out of the way before it got too busy, but once again, the gods had conspired against us.
As Mark pulled off our pitch, I heard an ominous grinding noise from Caravan Kismet’s wheels. I shouted to Mark to stop.
“I think the brakes are locked on.”
We pulled up and checked the obvious; the caravan handbrake was off, so we faffed around going forwards and reversing to try to release the brakes, but both wheels continued to grind.
Just the ticket when you’re about to tow a caravan on one of the world’s most dangerous roads.
Mark disappeared underneath the caravan while I searched the internet for anything obvious. A forum popped up immediately which suggested that failing to pull forward slightly after reversing can lock on the brakes of a Bailey caravan. We always pull forwards to de-compress the tow hitch after reversing. This is a lesson we learned the hard way on our very first day of caravanning, when we received a practical demonstration of the effects of a compressed tow hitch;
- Either you can’t unhitch.
- If you do manage to disengage, the compressed hitch will decompress sharply, shoot forwards and register a nice dent in the back of your car.
Mark assured me that no reversing had taken place. Recently, rather than driving up ramps to level Kismet and going forwards and backwards to line up the AL-KO wheel lock with millimetre accuracy, he has employed the jack as a no-tears approach to levelling and locking.
I phoned our dealer, Lady Bailey, who suggested that rocking the caravan backwards and forwards might release the brakes. We rocked and rolled; all to no avail. Finally, it appeared that all roads had arrived inexorably at the dreaded point of last resort. Mark uttered the ominous words,
“You’ll have to phone a mechanic.”
My heart sank.
I opened Google Translate and wrote down the phrase for ‘caravan brakes locked on’ – freins de caravane bloqués. I explained our problem in French to the lady in reception as best I could. She did look up a number for a mechanic, but refused to phone on my behalf. My pleas on the grounds of diminished vocabulary fell on deaf ears. Her compromise was that if I had trouble, she would take over the call.
At that point, Mark burst into reception and told me to hold fire,
“The breakaway cable looks tight.” (The breakaway cable engages the caravan brakes if it becomes unhitched while towing.)
Relief flooded through me. A taut breakaway cable applying the brakes was another early mistake in our caravanning career. I was convinced that we had found the problem.
Defeated, I trudged back to reception to take on Practical French, Random Challenge #47: Order a Mechanic to Come Out and Fix Locked Brakes on a Caravan at the Municipal Campsite in Padon. I was in such a tizz that I even got the name of the town wrong. The campsite was in Palud-sur-Verdon.
I couldn’t understand a word from the first garage. The receptionist took over the call and quickly relayed a very succinct verdict. The mechanic had used an awful lot of impenetrable words to say, “Non”.
I got on better with the lady at the garage in Castellane, which was a good job. The campsite receptionist spent the duration of my call serving someone, then fielding an incoming phone call. I was on my own.
“Trente minutes,” the lady at the garage said. Thirty minutes.
“Thirty minutes until the mechanic comes?” Hope swelled in my heart. I could barely contain my excitement and relief.
The hope ebbed away as quickly as it arrived when madame clarified that trente minutes was not when the mechanic would arrive to save our bacon. Thirty minutes was when I needed to call her back to get a price for the mechanic to come, because, “J’ai des choses à faire” – I have things to do.
Further delving into unvolunteered T&Cs revealed that the price I would get in thirty minutes was for a mechanic to come to the campsite to give an estimate for the work. She gave me a very firm assurance that there was no way that the repair would be done on that visit, and I would have to pay mileage for every fifty-kilometre round trip from Castellane to Palud. More probing divulged that the mechanic was definitely not available today, even to do the estimate. It was Friday, so I asked if the mechanic worked Saturdays. As predictable as night follows day, the answer came,
With a sinking heart, I agreed to ring for the price in half an hour, which would at least give me time to find an alternative to what was clearly a pis aller – which means exactly what you think, but not literally!
I relayed the excellent news to Mark’s legs. He had the wheel off and was still scrabbling around beneath the caravan. I logged back on to the internet in the vain hope of finding a better solution. It was the witching hour of 10:30am, so campsite reception was now closed, along with any option to further conscript my unwilling translator.
I resigned myself to a very expensive and possibly lengthy delay to our travels. Normally, getting stuck somewhere as lovely as the Gorges du Verdon would be no problem, but tribulations such as these only ever happen when you’re on a deadline. Unlike the mechanic in Castellane, the vet in Avignon did work Saturdays, and we had a long-standing and hard-won appointment to keep the following afternoon.
I scrolled through the thoroughly British A.A., R.A.C and Red Pennant European Recovery websites. The straightforward solution was clearly one that involved a transaction carried out in conversation with native English speakers, followed by handing over an immense wad of cash. Then I heard a huge clang and a yelp. I leapt out of Big Blue,
“Are you OK?” I asked Mark’s legs, convinced that he had been crushed by Kismet.
“I’ve fixed it!” came the jubilant cry. “Come and look!”
I joined him underneath the caravan and saw the system of levers that operate the caravan brakes.
“What did you do?” I asked, expecting some technical wizardry.
“I hit it with the torque wrench. It just clunked back into place!” Mark said.
So, while I had challenged my French vocabulary in conversation with two mechanics and sought creative and inventive solutions via the internet, Mark had deployed simple brute force. The mechanical equivalent of turning it off and on again had won the day. I hugged him in relief.
With the wheel re-attached, we re-hitched. As Mark drove Caravan Kismet forward, I noticed a very distinctive sound.
I called Madame to say that I no longer needed the estimate for the estimate. Her deadpan reaction was hard to decipher, but as a salesperson, I can verify that it is really annoying to spend ages working out a quote, only to be told, “Oh, you needn’t have bothered. I don’t need it now,” or worse, just never hear back from the customer. However, I knew in that moment that another payment had just become due.
The torque wrench had spared us hundreds of euros and a lengthy delay. The gods would need to exact their price.
We executed the terrifying hairpins to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie without incident and continued on our way through the lavender fields of Valensole. Beautiful scenery, cicadas chirruping and heady scents drifted in through Big Blue’s open windows. It was beyond Apt that the deities deployed the next surprise they had in store.
In Languedoc dialect, mistral means ‘masterly’. There was little question about who was in control. Our journey became a white-knuckle ride with the famous, wild wind of Provence buffeting the caravan with the subtlety of a steam hammer. I was genuinely scared that Kismet would overturn. At one point, we had to pull over near a stand of thrashing trees to tie down the SUPs on Big Blue’s roof more firmly. For the first time in two passionate decades of board sports, wind had worked the cam-straps loose; I got a shock when the wagging nose of a blue board suddenly appeared in my field of vision at the top of the windscreen.
With our late start, we had pushed on without lunch and were both really hungry. On the outskirts of Avignon, we passed a McDonalds.
“Shall I pull in here?” Mark said.
“Yes!” I quipped, thinking he was joking. Then, “What the f*** are you doing?!” as he swerved into an industrial estate.
The stress of the day caught up with us both and there were tears before bedtime. Mark was upset at my reaction, but it had been an awful start to the day, followed by hairpins and high winds. I had undergone a full, eight-hour shift of terrified.
We have done some strange things with the caravan in tow, but I really hadn’t thought Mark was serious about taking a twelve-metre rig through a drive-through. Besides, I had lunch prepared in the caravan fridge. Although it was late afternoon, I was under the misguided impression that we were only a few miles from our destination.
As we sat and starved in horrendous traffic and roadworks through the industrial outskirts of Avignon, we settled our differences. I was devastated that we’d had cross words.
“We never argue,” I lamented. As usual, Mark put it into perspective with gentle wisdom,
“But when we worked, we used to be apart much more of the time. Now, we spend all our time together. We do well. We agree on all the big things, we just have the very occasional misunderstanding about something small.”
It’s true – and the arguments usually follow the same pattern. Something scares me into anger or silence, then Mark misinterprets my reaction as directed at him.
As my blood sugar plummeted to new depths, I wholeheartedly wished that I had agreed to the drive-through.
Our campsite, Bois des Écureuils – ‘The Wood of the Squirrels’ was off the main road in Domazan, just beyond Avignon. A sinister, stuffed red squirrel guarded the reception desk.
The site seemed a bit rough; a number of permanent-looking caravans and chalets mouldered away under the trees. Three vicious dogs, tied on long ropes outside one of the chalets, looked like they had been abandoned for the day as their owners went to work. They barked non-stop, adding to the cicadas, who achieved a decibel level akin to that of a pneumatic drill. A logoed chip van was parked opposite our pitch. In case I put you off eating, I won’t mention the toilets. We were glad of our on-board facilities.
It was a sharp reminder of why we don’t book campsites. This was a functional stop and we had appointments, so we had made a reservation and paid a deposit. The site was reasonably priced for the area and in a convenient location. We assured ourselves that, on the up side, it was very shady in the mid-thirty-degree heat, but made sure that everything was very securely locked when we took The Fab Four out for an evening leg stretch.
Unintentionally, we strayed through the vineyards towards the nearby castle, Chateau du Bosc, whose advertising promises, ‘8 Quality Activities for the Family’.
We happened upon part of their Quality sculpture walk and aviation park.
Athough our day had been a roller-coaster ride of the unexpected, with brake failures, multi-lingual cries for help, gales and an escape attempt by a SUP from the roof rack, at no point had I anticipated seeing a medieval turret juxtaposed with a MIG jet!