In July 2020 we decided it was about time we finally bought ourselves a camper – a Mazda Bongo 4×4 camper from eBay! We’re a family of four (our boys are age 5 and 6) and if you’ve been following us for a while, you know we love a good road trip.
Whether it was overlanding Africa in a Land Rover for 100 days, or our European road trips in France or Iceland, we’re happiest on the road with the freedom to take each day as it comes. We love camping and exploring the great outdoors, and as a family of four, we have no problems living on top of each other in a confined space.
So why had we not bought a camper before?
In all honesty, it came down to freedom of travel. We didn’t want to be tied down to how far we could drive from our front door in a school holiday. We love travelling to far flung destinations and wasn’t too sure we’d get enough use out of owning our own camper. We always loved the idea of having a one, but we thought we’d just make do with a tent in the back of the car for European road trips. A camper was always a ‘nice to have’.
But 2020 has changed all that.
We had big plans for 2020. We hadn’t yet announced them and one day I will share them with you. But due to COVID-19 they aren’t going to happen for a while. The current pandemic has put a spanner in the works for all travellers and we’ve all had to adjust our expectations.
As the lockdown started to ease, the camper idea that was probably first seeded when Jay and I drove a high-top camper around New Zealand in 2012, came to the forefront of our minds again. It would give us the freedom to go where we pleased, without having to tie ourselves down to accommodation or flights, and it may perhaps be our full time home one day… you know I’m always dreaming of long term travel again 😉
Why a Mazda Bongo camper?
We didn’t have a huge budget (£7500 absolute max) and we wanted something compact, yet sleeps the four of us comfortably. We wanted something that could navigate narrow roads and mountain passes, and also had 4WD functionality for use in snow or sand. It had to stand the test of time and be up for an epic adventure.
We went through A LOT of permutations of camper. As we have very little mechanical know-how (translation: zilch) it took us a long time to even realise the Mazda Bongo existed. But thanks to our frequent eBay searches one appeared as a camper and 4WD. This was EXACTLY what we were looking for, although we missed out on that one…
The Mazda Bongos have been imported from Japan and are no longer made, so they’re becoming quite a classic. It’s the 2.5 diesel Bongos that are 4WD (the petrol ones are all 2WD). Many have the AFT (Auto Free Top) which creates a sleeping compartment and have been converted in to a camper with kitchen facilities.
I’ve been following this Mazda Bongo Facebook Group for a while and have learnt that the Bongos are a labour of love. You need to look after them and keep them regularly serviced. Some Bongos suffer from corrosion if not looked after, and they are prone to over heat, so it’s just a case of being wary of that. Plus with the low clearance, the 4WD capability isn’t like a ‘normal’ 4WD to go on dirt tracks, it just gives you more control if you find yourself off tarmac.
But for us it ticks the boxes:
Can sleep all four of us
How much was it?
After deciding on the exact camper we wanted, we just couldn’t seem to find one to buy. There’s no car showroom to go to, and the specialist conversion companies tend to import the 2WD only. It was just a case of waiting it out until the right one came along on eBay or Autotrader. We were happy to buy a cheap, unconverted one and then pay for a conversion on top (similar to what Otis and Us did with their VW camper conversion). But in all honesty, all the cheaper ones we found (around £3k) had serious corrosion issues and weren’t mechanically sound. A conversion on top is around £4k.
Then one Friday night this one popped up on our eBay search. It already had the interior side conversion we were looking for, the AFT, a rock and roll bed (where the back seats pull out to a bed), and it was mechanically sound!
We checked the MOT history on this government site and it looked good. So we jumped on it with an offer of £7150, which was accepted. I’ll have to add in here that my Father-in-law helped us out with his mechanical know-how. If we didn’t have him helping us, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to spend this much on an eBay purchase!
With the boy racer markings down the side, I was surprised to meet a sweet-natured retired couple selling it to us, and they had obviously taken care of it. The jury is still out on whether we’ll keep the markings. The boys absolutely love it, but I’ll be honest, it’s not quite ‘us’!
Aside from the paint work, there were just a few things we wanted to sort. The hydraulics of the AFT creeked a bit, we wanted an underseal added to prevent corrosion, and a coolant alarm. We also wanted to add a bike rack to the back and solar panels on the roof so we can be off grid. There were also a few niggly little things we had looked at by Bongo Spares.
Have a look inside our Mazda Bongo
The photos below are what our Mazda Bongo camper looked like when we first bought it. Since then it has had a little cosmetic touch up (check out our Bongo renovations here). But it’s great how we didn’t have to spend any money (or time!) doing an actual conversion (these cost around £4k if you get a conversion garage to do it for you).
Our Mazda Bongo from eBay has almost everything we need: a kitchenette on the side with cupboard space for storage, a rock and roll bed that pulls our for sleeping, the AFT where our boys sleep (they’re 5 and 6 years old), and the passenger seat swivels round to provide more space. I also like how the roof inside can lift up to allow more headspace when the kids aren’t sleeping up there.
The boys sleep in the AFT. There’s a little hatch for them to climb through, they then close this, put the mattress down on top and snuggle down to sleep.
We sleep in the main section. The back seats fold out into a bed.
So where are we taking our Mazda Bongo?
Our first trip was to Hayfields campsite in the Peak District, which is perfectly located for a hike up the Kinder Plateau! And in August we’re heading to France (read our planned itinerary here)!
Watch this space for more adventures…
Our Mazda Bongo packing checklist
Organisation is key when it comes to packing for a family camping trip and a camping checklist is paramount! Otherwise there will always be at least one thing I would forget.
So I’ve put together this Bongo packing checklist to tick off items for every trip that we go on! Feel free to print it off for your own use.
Were you an intrepid backpacker in your previous life? Exploring distant and exotic lands on a budget, getting off the beaten track and feeling like you were doing something different? Now that young kids are in the picture, travel priorities may have changed. But you don’t have to get sucked into the package holiday bubble. Adventure travel with young kids is possible! Jenny x