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Between Trips

Fitting a Mini Heki Skylight to a Hymer Motorhome (or how not to!)

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Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

We’ve been hanging our noses over a new Mini Heki skylight for Zagan, our 2001 Hymer B544 motorhome, for months. The standard skylight in the kitchen area was the candidate to be replaced, as it had become opaque with age, and only lifts up a few centimetres by design. On our wanderings we’d seen these new style Heki skylights bright and wide open, and during the heat of summer had fancied the addition breeze wafting about our wagon’s cooking space.

The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light.The standard skylight on our Hymer B544. It works fine, but lets in little air and light. The top of the skylight - close to the satellite dish as it happens...The top of the standard skylight – close to the satellite dish as it happens… The underside of the skylight with the flyscreen in place.The dark underside of the standard skylight (with the flyscreen in place).

So, when we met up with a mate doing a self-build panel van conversion, who happened to have a spare Heki Mini, we were propelled into action. A quick bit of research revealed there are four variants of this particular skylight (all fit an aperture 400mm by 400mm):

  1. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  2. With permanent (forced) ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm
  3. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 25 to 32mm
  4. Without permanent ventilation, and roof thickness 43 to 60mm – this is the one our mate had

The first two, with permanent ventilation, are for caravans. They let air in even when closed, so would whistle during driving which, in turn, would drive us mad. The latter two are for motorhomes. After quickly checking the van’s roof thickness (about 50mm) and the size of the current skylight (400mm by 400mm), we picked up the skylight for the bargain price of £75 (they’re usually about £100 with postage from Amazon).

The Seitz Heki Mini Skylight UnpackedThe Seitz Heki Mini Skylight Unpacked

At this point I should note we (I) cocked up, resulting in some ‘fun’ during fitting, as the skylight didn’t, erm, fit. Measuring the roof and the aperture size with the existing skylight in place was a bad, bad idea. I really should have done more research, as the roof thickness is actually 30mm, which meant I’d got the wrong variant of the Heki, whoops. What I couldn’t have known though, or at least probably wouldn’t have discovered unless I’d really looked, is that the standard skylight opening is actually 390mm by 390mm, with small semi-circular cuts made to accommodate the 400mm-wide fittings. So we had a skylight which was both too deep and too wide…

Lifting off the old skylight housingLifting off the old skylight housing The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic.The existing aperture before cleaning up all the existing mastic. And it's 39cm across, so the Heki doesn't fit.And it’s 39cm across, so the Heki doesn’t fit.

From a previous job fitting a solar panel to Dave, our old Hymer B544, I already knew about Sikaflex, one of the ‘standard’ makes of adhesives folks use to stick stuff to the roofs of motorhomes and caravans. Checking some self-build videos, I got a tube of Sikaflex 221, which glues the the skylight to the roof, creating an elastic seal to keep water out. I was also aware of the fact Sikaflex is horrible stuff to work with if you get it anywhere it shouldn’t be (and best not breathed in or got on skin), so was careful to wear gloves and not let it get on stuff (other than Ju’s shorts, which had to be binned).

Daftly choosing a timeslot starting about 2pm, the hottest part of a hot sunny day, I removed the underside of the old skylight, then got up on the roof and used flexible knives to cut under the adhesive for the existing skylight. After going around all sides a couple of times, the top part could be lifted away (shown above). Another 30 minutes with blades, cloths and fine sandpaper removed the rest of the sealant and keyed the surface ready for new adhesive. At this point we realised the hole was too small, shook fists at the sky, borrowed a jigsaw from a friend and a power supply from a friendly bloke at the storage yard and, gulping a bit, cut a 1cm piece of roof out from two sides, so the new skylight fit with a spare 1mm or so as per the instructions.

Me looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roofMe looking nervous cutting through the motorhome roof

By this point we’d also realised the roof was only actually 30mm thick. The instructions called for small plastic pillars on the lower section to be trimmed to the correct height (4mm in our case), and when we did this we found all the screws we had were too long. Another trip back home and we cut them all down to the correct size with an angle grinder, easy job but took another hour by the time we’d supped a brew! Back at the van, popping a thick bead of Sikaflex along the groove on the underside of the Heki, we made sure we had the lower part of the skylight facing forwards, and dropped it in place. Back underneath we screwed the lower part of the frame in place, placed screws at opposite corners to avoid pushing the sealant out too far on any one side.

Marking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksawMarking the plastic pillars ready for shortening with a hacksaw Applying the SikaflexApplying the Sikaflex The upper part of the skylight dropped into placeThe upper part of the skylight dropped into place, with the hinge at the front With the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn't openWith the lower section screwed on, the skylight couldn’t open

Back on the roof the sealant looked good, just pushed out from the base of the skylight all the way around. At this point though, we realised it couldn’t actually open. Goddammiiitt!!! The lower part was made for a thicker roof, so was covering the grooves the handle needed to run through. A bit fed up, we retreated home for a few days to let the sealant go off. Back up there today, we (I) trimmed a couple of V-shapes from the lower section, refitted it and slotted the flyscreen/sun shield section in place using the little metal clips provided.

Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!Two v-shaped sections removed a few days after installation lets the skylight open, huzzah!

One final issue: the satellite dish stops the skylight being fully opened. Resolution: put up with it. If we lift the dish a few cm the skylight opens fully, so not a huge issue, and we still have the other two opening settings available to us, one of which has a locking mechanism to stop the skylight flipping open in the wind. The Heki lets in a ton of light compared with the old one, and we’re pleased with the final fitting. Lesson re-learned, once again: measure properly, and do more research!

The final result - the Heki Mini in place and workingThe final result – the Heki Mini in place and working. Took MUCH longer than expected, but only because I cocked up! All in all, well worth the effort.

Cheers, Jay

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Between Trips

Climbing the Hump, Again, 1 Week to Go Folks

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Running Club

Running Club

It strikes me from time to time just what an odd life we live.

Ju and I took part in a club trail race a few days ago, which I really enjoyed. Two decades ago I could run a half marathon in under 76 minutes, which isn’t anything special, but I doubt I’ll be running that kind of time again, not in this life. The sensation of being in among other runners though, struggling past someone about as fast as me, and having them come back at me, really got the juices flowing. It was only a 4.6 mile race, and I came about half way down the 450-strong field, but it’s fired me up for more races in the future. Huuuaaarrrggghhh!!! 🙂

At the end of the race I stood with one of the club’s other runners and mentioned we’d be away for three months so would miss some of the club’s spring and summer races. I didn’t want the club to think we’d just dropped them. He asked what I was doing and I told him we were going travelling. This (almost) always elicits the same response among those who don’t know our self-engineered-weirdo-lives: “how?”. I’ve given up going on about financial independence, which bores and confuses folks equally, so I just said I’m a contractor. “Huh, how the other half live eh?” was the response. Coming from a heavily working class background, I’ve never thought of myself as ‘the other half’! I guess that’s what I am now? I just nodded and walked back up the trail with him.

Anyway, I digress, sorry. The hump, that’s what I should be writing about.

‘The hump’ is the term we’ve come up with to describe the stuff you have to get over in order to get out. Taking off for months or even years of travel is a romantic notion when you’re fed up with work, and are sat in the pub shooting the breeze. It’s also a romantic notion once you’re on the ferry, your packed motorhome below deck, and are peering off across the sea to adventure, new friends, wine, mountains and beaches which await. In between, is the hump.

We’ve done our best to set up our lives to enable us to simply head off whenever we want to, and come back and slot back into life at home, just like that. Zagan has an all-year reserved storage spot a mile away. We share the house with tenants who accept we come and go. Letting agents make sure any problems with the houses and shop are nailed quickly. But even without the temptation of a work contract, the hump still won’t go away.

I’m not after sympathy here by the way – that would be nuts – I’m just after trying to tell anyone gearing up for a long tour who’s finding it hard work that it’s entirely normal, as far as we can tell, to feel that way. In addition to the problems of renting out or selling a house, buying a motorhome, taking the kids out of school and so on, ‘the hump’ is also the mental challenge of stepping away from a safe, entrenched life.

Life at home is easy. We have friends here we can go for a beer with in one of several great local pubs (The Stag: we’re going to miss you). Our families are a short drive away. We know where the doctors and dentists are. Everyone speaks English. We have use of a washing machine and an oven. The toilet empties itself and the shower supplies never-ending water. We’re in a running club who organise lots of events. We have a safe, flat bed each night which doesn’t bounce around in the wind. Saying goodbye to loved ones, is hard. This will be my 7th multi-month trip now (some weren’t in a motorhome), which I know is a massive privilege but it never seems to get any easier.

We’re a week away from the ferry. The Tunnel is by far Ju’s favourite but was so much more expensive we just couldn’t justify it. Fingers crossed for flat seas. While I’ve been hammering away at a keyboard slowly pulling together a book, Ju’s been sorting all the stuff that needs sorting: scanning up-to-date documents, buying travel insurance, buying Internet with Legs cards, updating our park4night and campercontact apps, updating our packing list and using it to check we have everything. And a hundred other things which I pretend don’t need doing but know do.

Dog medication the humpWe may need a bigger van for all of Charlie’s medication!

Our worldly possessions, such that they are, are gradually making their way into the van. We coughed up for an AeroPress coffee maker, to clean up the job of making a decent brew of a morning, a replacement Camping Chair for the one I finally broke last year, and a copy of the Overlanders’ Handbook to scare myself witless with. Other than a few replacement clothes, and half a ton of various Charlie dog medicines, we’re travelling with much the same stuff as we had last time out.

So, where are we going? Answer: dunno. Honestly, we don’t yet know. The only fixed point is the Zermatt Half Marathon on 7 July in Switzerland, which I’m running with Phil (who was also responsible for getting us around the Marrakech half last year). Croatia will be lovely in the spring, and is tempting but for the fact we want to keep Charlie fairly cool, and it can get hot down there as we once found out. I guess we’ll just play it by ear.

We’ve got a final (for the next 3 months at least) get-together with mates on Thursday. Ju’s then off to watch our friend Sue run her first Marathon in London on Sunday (good luck Sue!). I’m on ‘lug stuff up to the van’ and wash the car (loaned from my parents-in-law) duty. We’ll then head south on Monday morning and stay at the Canterbury aire. The ferry’s then about midday on Tuesday, and with that we’ll be over the hump and back on the continent.

What happens after that is anyone’s guess. 🙂

Cheers, Jay

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Between Trips

Should We Stay, or Should We Go?

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Back in 2011 when we published a video of Charlie going through the ultimate dog dilemma, I never thought we would be in a similar situation, but that is what happened to us last week. If you haven’t seen the video of Charlie, you can watch it below, and see his mind whirring as he tries to decide if he should keep hold of his new favourite stick, which he’d just carried back to the van, or put it down and eat a treat.

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Granted, we didn’t quite have sticks in our mouths, but we were very, very tempted by a big, juicy treat – Jay was offered a six month contract. Jay’s background is in IT Project Management, which is a lucrative business to be in. When we returned to the UK last July he took on a three month contract, which turned into four months, but that’s the nature of what he does, contracts frequently get extended. He probably could still be on his umpteenth contract extension, but we decided in December that enough was enough. I wanted my happy hubby back, and while he was at work I was tip-toeing around a stressed-out, grumpy man who was experiencing chest pains and, of all things numb hands at night.

Since finishing his contact Jay has struggled to find something to fill his time and give him a sense of fulfilment. Neither of us felt ready to hit the road again, in fact it was starting to feel like something we were doing due to our inability to think of anything else. When the contract offer came along, it sent us into a bit of a tailspin. At first I was dead against it, I only needed to read some old blog posts, or look at photos on my phone of a countdown we drew up to the end of his last contract, to remember how it made us feel. Jay on the other hand was curious, he asked for more information, and as we thought it would result in a decent chunk of money – enough to fund more than a year of our current lifestyle.

We retreated to our favourite place to discuss future life plans, and after several pints in the local we were leaning towards staying, earning the money and ring-fencing it for adventures further afield once Charlie is no longer with us (as he doesn’t understand aeroplanes!). Prices were sought for flights to Australia, overlanding across Africa and all sorts of other adventures on our bucket lists. I don’t think this helped, as we ended up blowing the whole thing up into much more than it should have been. Instead of a question about the next six months, it became a decision about the rest of our lives, our attitudes to money and our work ethics. For nearly a week we swung from staying, to going, back to staying. Positive and negative lists were drawn up as we spun round and around, often finding that we were opposite sides of the decision.

Our current financial situation gives us freedom, we can work if we want, or choose not to. If we don’t work, we have enough money coming in to cover our bills and day to day living expenses, but not much else. More money would enable us to do more adventurous trips as I mentioned above, but one thing we realised when we were striving for financial freedom is that you can never have enough. “I just need to stay in my job for another year”, or “I only need another £x00k in the bank”, is something we often hear from people wanting financial independence, and usually it’s an arbitrary figure or timescale with no numbers behind it. It’s very, very hard to turn off the pipe of money that comes from having a job, I believe it’s the final ‘hump’ that you need to get over before you get financial freedom, and stopping it from being switched back on was equally as hard.

Eventually we decided, at the same time, that health and happiness are more important and the contract was turned down. Before we could change our minds, again, we booked the ferry – and opted for a non-changeable ticket.

dog pet passportCharlie is ready to go

So, on the 24th of April we’re off, back to Plan A and some sunshine. Zagan has been washed and is now being slowly repacked ahead of a shakedown to make sure everything has survived the cold winter – he’s not used to those. I suspect I know what Charlie’s choice would have been if he had a say in us staying or going – he loves a beach – but at least we now have a little insight into what he was going through in his dog dilemma.

Ju x

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Between Trips

Eight Months at Home, and the Road Calls!

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Flippin’ ‘eck. Would you believe it, we’ve been home in the UK now for eight months!

Zagan’s wheels rolled to a halt in his storage space up the road back in July 2017, and haven’t rotated much since. As well as regular checks to fire the engine up and turn the wheels a little, we’ve also nipped out in him to use as a base for the evening, while visiting family. The last time was a few days ago. Refilling the water after a winter’s freezing, even though we’d properly drained him down, we were both a tad nervous something would have broken. But hot water flowed from the taps and no leaks sprung forth from the heater, phew. Having had a service, MOT, new front springs, two new tyres, a new starter battery and new stainless exhaust section, Zagan’s ready for action. But what about us?

Our shop during the latest snow and ice last weekendOur shop during the latest snow and ice last weekend. We live behind the shop – note dangerous proximity to the chippy, curry house and pub down the road! Ju on a wander around the local area, enjoying the fact we had a log fire to return to!Ju on a wander around the local area, enjoying the fact we had a log fire to return to!

With Zagan straining at the leash, why aren’t we giving him the run of his rubber feet? Well, soon we will be. After all, the mountainous wine and beer stash we dragged back up the M1 eight months back has finally run dry (yeah OK, it ran out a while ago)! On a more serious note, each time we go up to the van, old tingling sensations ripple through us. Memories are starting to emerge, more of sensations than places perhaps. Of warmth, sunshine, mountains and blue skies, an ease with life. Of a newness as we moved, of a sort of identity as a ‘traveller’. When we leave the van and head home, these feelings subside, but don’t disappear. I suspect if Zagan was parked outside on the drive and not a mile away, we’d have been off in him long before now.

We’ve both enjoyed being at home, feeling a community around us, helping out here and there, seeing friends and family, supping a few fantastic beers in the locals, hitting the gym, even running with the local club (the heroic Kimberley and District Striders – the ‘drinking club that runs’). But time’s passing and the weather’s changing. The idea of a short tour’s formed, and we’ll be outta here in about six weeks.

The plan is this:

  • Ju’s watching our mate Sue run the London Marathon towards the end of April. I’ve been doing a few training runs with Sue, although so far I’ve only managed a 14 mile run while she’s done 19 miles (hardly breaking a sweat), so I know she’s well-set for a great day down ‘souf’.
  • We’ll get Zagan cleaned up and packed ready for a three month jaunt, hopefully down as far as Croatia, starting when Sue’s done the big one. We’ll then be heading north again to Switzerland for a half marathon I’m running with our mate Phil in early July, up a mountain near Zermatt, **wince**.
  • Ju’s managed to get tickets for Children in Need’s Carfest in the UK towards the end of July. So, we’ll try and spot a stage of the Tour de France in the Alps, before heading back up for the festival. Hopefully Blighty will have a summer in 2018, fingers crossed folks!

After that we’ll either stay in the UK, maybe tour Scotland or Ireland, maybe head back home, maybe swing south again. Much depends on what’s happening with the aged pooch. Charlie’s spending more and more time wide-eyed and trying to escape from the nation’s veterinary surgeons. His medicine cabinet’s bursting with pills and potions, and we now have a sheet listing which to dispense when, in among his meals. Being a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, he was almost always certain to face a bunch of inbred neurological and cardiovascular issues, along with good old-fashioned arthritis. As he’s 11 years old, he’s now most certainly facing ’em, the poor fella. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and I won’t dwell on it.

Just some of Charlie’s daily medication. Thankfully he likes the taste of all of the pills…

Quickly touching on the ‘financial freedom’ stuff, things are panning out mostly as we expected. No massive surprises, the income flows, the bills for maintenance and repairs are about as we guessed, our costs remain fairly steady. We still have our emergency fund sat waiting to solve any financial earthquakes. Of course, whether our plan will actually stretch out decades into the future, only the gods know. Doing more to reinforce our income (in other words, doing more paid work), remains an option on the table.

Two things have happened which I didn’t expect though:

  • I’m finding being financially free in our 40s a little socially isolating, though I think this is more a reflection on me personally, than on our ‘financial status’. In other words, very few people around us are in the same boat. One thing which binds people together, I think, is shared difficulties, some of which we no longer share. One of the ladies at the running club gets up before 5am to run before work. I go out when I like, so I’m simply not in the same position. For me, a string of small things like this makes it harder to relate with folks day-to-day. I’ve found getting to financial independence has, while releasing me from work-induced chest-pains, made me just that bit lonelier.
  • In stopping travelling, I also found I lost my sense of who I was too. My status has bounced over the past few years between ‘someone who does IT‘ and ‘someone who renovates a house‘ and ‘someone learning about personal finance‘ and ‘someone who travels‘, and continued to bounce back and forth when I started and completed the IT contract last autumn. After that though, my status changed to ‘ermmmm???‘. Neither employed, nor a contractor, nor traveller, nor house renovator, nor unemployed. None of those terms fitted. I suspect we all need some kind of status, some sense of who we are, something to give us fulfilment and purpose, and I’ve not had that for the past few months. I’ve felt I’ve not had the tools to find it either, despite trying a few different methods.

I do have a new project now though, which I’m finally getting my teeth into with gusto: let me introduce the OurTour Guide to Motorhome Europe! The aim is to sum up all the cock-ups we’ve made over the years touring the UK and Europe in vans, and describe how we somehow survived :-). It’ll end up being a printed book, assuming we can get it down to less than a thousand pages, and an eBook too. It’s taking a fair while to pull together and edit, so it’ll be a few months before it hits the shelves. It’s proving a really fun project to work on, and I’ll continue to search for similar projects in the coming months and years to keep me challenged.

Right, that’s it for now, catch you later guys, have fun!

Cheers, Jay

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