How to: One Week Traveling the Okanagan
(DIY Campervan Style!)
This story is about purchasing a minivan, converting it into a DIY campervan, and spending one crazy week traveling the Okanagan, British Columbia; possibly both the craziest and most memorable thing I’ve done in a long time.
Fresh into a new relationship with an Australian co-worker named Matt, our contracts as ski instructors had just ended; we had exactly 3 weeks before starting new jobs in Banff. At least that was the plan. So, with that in mind, we decided to buy a house together! I know, crazy right...
We purchased our first house together. Well, it wasn't exactly a house as you might be imagining a house. Rather, it was a 1999 Ford Windstar. Before purchasing the car, we had come across several bad reviews about it due to transmission failure. In our hasty decision, we decided there was no way this car would have issues for us. There were 1000 kilometers between us and our destination in Banff, where we wouldn't do much driving. Despite the red flags, it easy enough at the time.
Our new home
We bought the car, paid $1500, second hand, clean, well maintained, 106 000 KMs and a full-service history report. This was a RIPPER of a deal Matt insisted in his Aussie slang. It sounds too good to be true right? Little did we know that we were in for a wild ride.
We took the seats out the back of the minivan and replaced them with a fuzzy woven carpet, a compartmentalized, tall office shelf that we lay on its side, a makeshift mattress made of a folded piece of foam covered in regular bedding, a few dollar store light strings tied to the roof, cardboard pieces as luxury curtains, as well as an Australian Flag as a bed cover. We named our new home Matilda, after the Australian song Waltzing Matilda. We were overjoyed with our cool new home. We loaded up Matilda with a huge box of snacks and our clothes and belongings and off we went.
DIY Camper style
Osoyoos is a 400 km drive from Vancouver.
Day one was perfect, we were singing road trip songs and playing games to earn the right to a snack. We started a new game yelling “COW” every time we saw cows or “HORSES” when we saw horses, or at least I was, Matt was yelling “COW” for both horses and cows, such a city boy. Matilda cruised along, passing through two mountain passes and rolling down into Osoyoos, parking by the lake for the night. How nice it was to be able to sleep wherever we wanted to.
The car-alarm kept going off, we had to have the remote on hand every time we touched a door. Despite this, we were okay, we could still do this. After cooking dinner on our little pocket rocket camp stove, we hopped in the car to go to bed, only to discover that our 20-liter water dromedary had a hole and had saturated the entire left side of the foam mattress and all the bedding, even pooling underneath the carpet. We put the water dromedary underneath Matilda and threw all our extra towels and blankets over the wet spot. That’s fine, we could still do this.
Easy to say we did not sleep well that night. Both of us squished against the door trying to stay off the saturated side of the car. Trying to fit a 6-foot-2 guy into a car is difficult enough as it was, this was comically impossible.
Views from the highway
Cranbrook is a 450 km drive from Osoyoos.
Luckily for us, the next day was a sunny one. We covered the entire exterior of the car in wet blankets, duvets, carpets, towels, and the makeshift foam mattresses. Poor Matilda looked ridiculous, alarms blaring and attracting attention to her every time we opened or closed the doors. Most noteworthy was that we resolved the alarm issue, having to lock and unlock the car before touching any doors. "Do you have the keys, I’m about to open a door" became a warning and a frantic scramble to get your thumb on the unlock button. The name ‘Matilda’ took one day before it quickly morphed into ‘Moody Matilda’.
Waking up next to Okanagan Lake
Day 2 was a cruisy start, singing and snacking. We were entering the forth mountain pass of the day, I looked out the rear-view mirror, suddenly unable to see. My heart dropped when I realized it was a huge cloud of smoke, wrapping around the rear of the car. There was a loud noise and I turned the wheel to pull over immediately. I accelerated trying to keep driving to where the pullover was, but there was no acceleration...
Knowledge of cars: none, phone signal: none, transportation: none, location: middle of an infrequently traveled mountain pass. Therefore, we were useless. Helplessly, we bid farewell to Matilda for the night and hitchhiked with a passing car. All we had was a backpack each, the remaining food from the snack box, and all the much-needed warm beers We got a ride all the way to the nearest town of Creston, 65 km from our beloved Matilda...
Staying in Creston
Creson is 100 km east of the original destination of Cranbrook
Dropped outside the Creston Valley Motel feeling defeated, we checked in and were assisted by the two nicest motel owners. They helped us get phone numbers and contacts who might be able to help us with retrieving Matilda. Rather, we went for a walk around Creston to let off some steam and see the old farming town. Once back in the motel room, we started guzzling our warm beers while both eating mass amounts of pasta from our food bag and making phone calls to tow truck companies and engineers that might be able to help us.
We would need to hitchhike back across the mountain pass to a town called Salmo, where we would phone a tow truck and tow Matilda to a local mechanic in town. It was out of our broke travelers’ budget to pay for a tow truck from our current location. Salmo was closer to the exact location that Matilda broke down. Above all, it would be an additional $200 to get a tow truck from our current location, that amount of money could get us a lot of beer and there was no way we were wasting all of that!
One night in Salmo
Salmo was 22 km from broken down Moody Matilda
The next morning, we packed and hit the road. We used a neon purple marker to write "TO SALMO, CAR BROKE" on a piece of fabric. Every time a larger car turned towards us, we stood up and enthusiastically shook the fabric. But, we still had no luck.
Finally, a massive double oil tanker semi truck pulled up offered a ride. This was the coolest truck driver id ever met. The guy was so excited to hear our story and help us out. He drove this route two or three times a week all the way from Calgary, Alberta, a 14-hour drive one-way. Positives aside, he liked talking about how much of a waste of time it was for people to go backcountry skiing. Hence neither of us mentioning that we were ski instructors...
Our hitchhiking ride
Once back in Salmo we thanked him profusely and were blown away by the helpfulness of the owners as we checked into the Reno Motel. We called the tow truck and by the time evening rolled around, we had cracked a few drinks. During which, Matilda arrived in Salmo and was serviced. The mechanic had told us we could continue to drive, but the transmission of the car was on the way out. Unfortunately, it was just like all those google reviews had warned us before we proceeded to buy the car anyway…
Matilda back on the road
Well, we had two options. Option one: risk breaking down in an attempt to continue through to Banff. Option two: risk breaking down in an attempt to get back to Vancouver. What fantastic options we had!
Driving through Grand Forks
Another above average highway view
Returning to Vancouver was the final decision. We would drive no more than 150 km per day. Every town and viewpoint would be stopping points along the way to let the car cool down. So we began our day, taking a detour route to avoid the same mountain passes as the previous day and rode along the American Border. During the little trip, we passed several cute little towns including Fruitvale, Monrose, Trail, Warfield, Rossland and finally Grand Forks. Of which, all were roughly one street in length, just enough to walk around and admire. Above all, Rossland was my favorite, a historic ski village at the base of Red Mountain. While we were in Grand Forks, we were also able to walk along the fence between the United States and the Canadian Border.
One day in Oliver
Oliver is another 130 km north of Grand Forks
The fifth day was a breeze, passing Greenwood, Midway, and back through Osoyoos, before heading north to Oliver. Once we arrived in Oliver, we walked around for about 3 minutes before seeing the whole expanse of the main town and deciding we didn't want to stay there, and that we would press on to the larger town of Penticton. Oliver was beautiful outside of the main town, stretching with wine orchards and tasting rooms. Too bad that Matt was strictly a beer boy and we couldn't enjoy the wine capital of Canada.
Little frozen lake next to a truck rest stop
Penticton is 40 km north of small town Oliver
In Penticton, we discovered the path to the famous kettle valley rail track. As a result, we were able to walk along sheer sandstone cliffs with a view of the Lakes. We parked up outside a few houses to cook our gourmet ramen dinner and camp out for the night. Matilda blew that idea by alerting everyone of our location with her alarms, thanks, Matilda. After our cover was blown, several people were continuously watching our car through their curtains. We were forced to move locations now that we were no longer disguised.
Sandstone cliffs overlooking Okanagan Lake from the South
Spending a night in Merritt
Merritt is 150 km from Penticton
Up and at em' by early morning, both desperate to find a shower. The intention was to spend the day in Kelowna. Public showers were all closed for Easter weekend, so we wandered into Kelowna smelling like a couple of monkeys. We walked around the waterfront parks and walkways, stopping to take a photo at Kelowna's famous giant peach. Lunchtime took place at a restaurant called the Munkey's Fist, so very fitting for our scent situation. Unfortunately for us, it was a very nice restaurant, meaning we were the only monkeys in the place. Our waiter had suggested a hill nearby to hike around with a view of all of Kelowna. The hill is called Knox mountain. Naturally, we obviously had to go check this hill out.
It was black bear season and we were avidly searching for a black bear for Aussie Matt to see. Sadly, we didn't see any bears; We did see all the streets of Kelowna stretched out below us, and Okanagan Lake stretching the onward past Kelowna. We could also see west across Okanagan Lake where we would be heading once we got back to Moody Matilda.
Kelowna hilltop views facing north up Okanagan Lake
Later that evening we arrived in Merritt, wandered around the country town, met some interesting people. One guy wandered wearing all leather and asked us if we had seen the UFO on the hill. Unfortunate that we didn’t get to see that UFO... We made dinner and hopped into bed, knowing that the next day would be the biggest one yet. We needed to conquer a large mountain pass called the Coquihalla. Maybe there would be some UFO’s up that hill too, who knows.
Hope is the closest town to Merritt once across the Coquihalla Mountain Pass.
The plan was to conquer this mountain pass in 20-minute increments or stopping as soon as anything funny happened. We made it through the first section and up into the mountains. Just as we were in the middle of the pass, rounding one of the turns, it happened... Matilda made it to the summit! She had made it! Suddenly we were cruising through the summit and underneath an avalanche tunnel. All we had to do now was roll our way down to Hope! Whoop dee doo, Waltzing Moody Matilda had done it! It was flat roads the rest of the way to Vancouver.
It was Easter Sunday at this point and we decided to push on past hope for an extra hour to reach my parent's house as an Easter surprise. Little did we know that they were expecting us. My mom had been using her 'find my friend's' app to see where our adventures were leading us. She had checked our location earlier that day, only to see us descending the Coquihalla.
Overall, one week owning a home together turned out to be a crazy adventure and a wild story. Let's hope if I own a DIY motorhome in the near future, I’ll be maybe wiser going about it…