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Bella Down Memory Lane

Jurgens AutoVilla Road Trip


Unbridled freedom, an open road, and a tinge of nostalgia – if this sounds appealing to you, then a road trip in a nearly 40-year-old camper van must be at the top of your bucket list, writes Julie Graham.


I have always felt a strong connection to the open road; meandering off highways to explore small towns filled with big adventures; music blasting, and the wind in my hair. On trips like these, the road becomes yours to embrace, and the journey yours to define, as you travel onwards. It is simply magical!

There truly is no better way to experience a memorable journey like this than by taking a nostalgic trip in a 1970s camper van. A friend and I (together with her faithful four-legged companion, Olive) decided to do just this.

We called up Derek Serra from Classic Camper Hire in Cape Town, to check out his impressive fleet of old school VW campers and decided to venture forth in a 1979 Jurgens Autovilla called Villa, which we quickly renamed Bella after mishearing the original name, and then sticking to it.

She was, after all, going to be our wheels – as well as our home – for the next ten days, so the personal touch of making her our own was part and parcel of the journey to follow.


Bella’s History

Being an Autovilla, Bella is a splendid example of South African ingenuity. She represents a range of VW Kombi-based motorhomes designed by Jurgens over four decades ago.

It was the first production camper in South Africa, and the moment the first unit rolled out of the factory in 1974, an outdoor legend was born. Even today, the Autovilla still represents the quintessential camper.

Bella is based on the Type 2 VW Kombi, and Jurgens later developed a new model underpinned by the Type 3 VW Kombi. The company then restructured its business, with camper vans produced under the WJ Motorhomes brand.

Autovilla production, with the final version based on the Type 5 VW Kombi chassis, finally came to an end in 2012. Yet, many examples of the original Autovillas are still surfacing across the globe where they are fetching high prices as collectors’ items.

And yes, the Jurgens Autovilla still has a Facebook page that enjoys quite a healthy following.


Old, Yet Well-Equipped

In immaculate condition, Bella now bears testimony to Jurgens’s flair for design and attention to detail. With her comfortable sleeping and living space (sleeping up to four people easily), she is still perfectly suited for long trips.

Equipped with her original built-in gas burner and 220V fridge, Classic Camper Hire provided all the other equipment one would need for comfortable camping, such as a table and chairs, crockery (the original Jurgens cups), cutlery, pots, pans and, essential to any camping trip, a braai grid for many meals on the open fire.

Way back in the ’seventies, the Autovilla was endowed with VW’s trusted, but gutless, flat-four 1.6-litre engine (later 1.8-litre). The mill delivered an underwhelming 50kW, and top speed was a modest 100 km/h.

Autovilla owners were soon frustrated by this lack of go, and started sourcing alternative power plants for their rigs. One such conversion was done by JT Developments, who supplanted the VW mill with a more muscular Ford Essex V6 with up to 103kW on tap.

Our Bella sported such an adaptation and, while it proved great for power uphill and on the open road, it was as thirsty as a desert for rain, needing to be filled up every 300 km.

Despite being able to travel comfortably at 100 km/h, it is recommended that you stick to around 80 km/h, as she does have a tendency to get a little hot under the collar (a recurring problem encountered back then as well).

After signing the necessary paperwork, and getting to know the inner workings of Bella a little better, we took her home, packed her up, and hit the road – our destination? Probably the most scenic drive of all of South Africa: the Garden Route.


The (Un)planned Route

Armed with a plan to stop at a few pet-friendly, rustic gems along the way (avoiding any kind of traditional campsite or caravan park), we were also open to taking the road less travelled, and letting the journey unfold organically.

We were seeking unbridled freedom after all, and part of that freedom is allowing for plans to not always work out according to … well, uhm, plan.

Not wanting to push old Bella too much on her first day, we took a slow meander to Pearly Beach for the evening.

Just under 190 km from Cape Town, and 20 km from the town of Gansbaai, Pearly Beach has one of the longest undisturbed sand beaches in the Western Cape. This remote, yet growing seaside hamlet, with its azure ocean, is annually visited by an influx of migrating whales.

We cheated a little on the first night and “camped out” in a little privately-owned cottage, but left at the crack of dawn to get started on the real “camping” trip. Now that we had a better feel for Bella and her rather large stature, we were confident and rearing to head off to our next destination.

The next day we covered roughly 305 km, making use of as many gravel back roads as we could find to make the most of the spectacular scenery around us. With The Doors blasting in our ears, it really felt as though we had stepped back in time to the flower-power ’sixties and psychedelic ’seventies, with not a care in the world.


Gourits River

Our next stop was Gourits River Eco-Camping, located on the banks of the Gourits River, about 16 km from Albertinia near Mossel Bay – the first of many ideal outdoor breakaway spots on our journey.

Gourits River Eco-Camping is on a privately-owned farm, with six campsites on the property, situated right next to a beautiful river and stunning mountain landscape. It has a communal ablution block and braai areas, and the rustic campsites have no plug points for power or fancy embellishments – just how we like it!

Being the only campers there at the time, we could enjoy the peace, serenity, and idyllic night sky, scattered with a mass of celestial bodies, constellations, and whizzing shooting stars.

After two nights of cooking over the open fire, fishing in the river, brewing our morning coffee, and enjoying the most comfortable sleeps on our big bed in Bella, we hit the road once more.

Approximately 180 km on in Bella, devouring the open road with gusto, we were in Nature’s Valley – arguably the most beautiful part of the Garden Route.

Here, we had two things planned: the first, to bungy the highest commercial jump in the world, Bloukrans Bungy, run by the incredible team at Face Adrenalin (as narrated in the November edition of InFlight online); the second was to kayak with Untouched Adventures down the iconic Storm’s River, then paddle through the ocean and the river, amongst steep cliffs in a beautiful gorge, to be finished off with a few cliff jumps.

For this leg of the trip, however, we had not planned accommodation. Fortunately, with our home conveniently situated on our back (so to speak) it was not difficult to find a place.

Some like-minded folk were willing to let us park on their premises for two nights – the first, a generous architect named Das with a beautiful home he had built himself in the pine forests of Tsitsikamma; the second, the gracious hosts at Wild Spirit Backpackers.

Soon we were back on the road. Now, half-way through our epic 10 day trip, Bella had become more than just a rented camper – she was part of the family. It was the four of us, taking on the world.


Route 62, With a Difference

We made our way inland towards Oudtshoorn and the iconic Route 62. We were greeted by vastly different landscapes as we weaved along the incredible mountain passes, which transformed into ostrich farms and vast Karoo landscapes.

Oudtshoorn has a certain magic about it. Being encircled by Victorian style houses, ox-wagons, and the kinship one feels in a small community, we again felt as though we had been transported back in time.


Amber Lagoon – a backpackers and campsite described as a “green oasis” with fantastic views of the Swartberg Mountains and Gamka Nature Reserve – was our next overnight rendezvous. Our German hosts welcomed us warmly, with open arms. They have gone out of their way to make this space a sanctuary. We spent a beautiful evening on our private wooden deck before calling it a night in the comfort of Bella.


The next leg of our journey was a 270 km drive to Assegai Rest Farm, situated at the foot of the Langeberg Mountains in the Klaasvoogds Valley just outside the quaint town of Robertson. The extremely warm and friendly hosts at Assegai, Jackie and André, have built a haven here amongst the mountains on their private farm.

We spent the night in an American style tipi (a cone-shaped tent, traditionally made of animal skins upon wooden poles). The tipis are great – sleeping up to five people in a private camping area complete with outdoor shower, fully stocked kitchen area, and fire pit.

Inside the tipi, you can make a fire, with the open top flap acting as the perfect smoke extractor without letting any rain in. This is ‘glamping’ at its best – in a magical area with an abundance of hiking trails and mountain paths to explore.

Fresh from a cosy night’s sleep and outdoor morning shower, we were off again the next morning – this time to Piketberg, our second to last stop before heading back to the city.


The Boulders of Piketberg

Kruistementvlei Farm is a one of a kind find. Even the drive up Versveld Pass leaves you breathless. Once there, ancient, magnificently formed, and shimmering boulders marked by San paintings greet you.

The eco-friendly farm has a beautiful camping site among the ancient rocks, the lush, green fynbos, and spring flowers which flourish here in abundance. After a peaceful night under a blanket of stars, we woke for a hike in the fresh, dewy, morning air. We were sad to leave, but it was road time again – going west, towards the coast.

We spent the day enjoying Bella down at the West Coast. We explored little towns and beaches, before finally settling at a little secluded beach along the coast between Elands Bay and Lamberts Bay, about 150 km from Piketberg. We watched the sunset, and toasted an incredible, insightful, and inspiring road voyage.

After spending the night on the beach, we headed back to Cape Town (but not before making a stop at the infamous Strandloper restaurant in Langebaan).

We were sad to say goodbye to Bella. She proved to be faithful and dependable on the road, and left us feeling invigorated, inspired, and enlightened. As we said our goodbyes, we realised that this freedom that she had allowed us to experience is within everyone’s reach.

So, go out there, hire a classic camper van, and experience the freedom on four wheels for yourself. It truly is magical.