In July / August we made a three week trip through the south of France. During our 4'000km tour we discovered the Ardèche, the canal du Midi, the Pyrenees on the Spanish and the French side and the Dordogne valley. Since our Benny is still in construction and we wanted to get some experiences with an expedition vehicle, we rented an expedition vehicle from Exploryx. It is an Exploryx Impala on a Mercedes Sprinter chassis with a total weight of 3.5 tons. So its half of the weight of Benny, but we were more interested in the functions of such a vehicle.

 

In retrospect, the tour for only 3 weeks was way too long. Too much driving, too little sightseeing. There was no time for a hike in the Pyrenees or a kayak trip on the Ardeche. A lesson for the next time.

 

Mountains of Bauges
Mountains of Bauges

During our trip we never saw other expedition vehicles except for some VW buses. There were a lot of campers on the road, of which nearly 99% were based on a Fiat Ducato. This is because in France boondocking is prohibited and you have to park your rig on special campgrounds. On these campgrounds our Sprinter always was the exotic vehicle between the Fiat Ducato's. One of the good things of camping is that you easily get in contact with neighbours and other interested people with a lot of questions about this vehicle. During our trip we never needed our 4x4 drive. There are a lot of nice and challenging offroad routes in the Pyrenees, but with a rented vehicle and no all-terrain tires the damage risk seemed too big to us.

In den Mont d'Ardéche vor dem Gerbier de Jonc, einem ehemaligen Vulkankegel
In den Mont d'Ardéche vor dem Gerbier de Jonc, einem ehemaligen Vulkankegel

 

With its 2.2 litre diesel engine (160 HP) the Sprinter is running smoothly and fast enough. On steep roads the Sprinter engine is at its limits, but we will have the same experience with our Benny with its 4,3 litre diesel engine and 7.5 tons of weight.

For the first nights we chose beautiful campgrounds to get used to the camping experience. The Garmin 770 has some useful apps to find nice campgrounds quickly. But not all campsites were great: too many people on the campground, little distance to other vehicles, dirty bathrooms and noisy children entertainment programs.

Too little distance - thats not what we like
Too little distance - thats not what we like
Nice boondocking
Nice boondocking

 

Now we looked for nice official boondocking spots and learned to live with our onboard resources (power and water supply, waste management). After some days we had something like routine: Get fresh baguettes in the morning, go walk the dog, get the vehicle ready to go, get fresh water and drain waste water. Afterwards we do sightseeing and then use the late afternoon to find a suitable parking space. This search for a good boondocking spot is part of the travel experience.

Boondocking at Ardéche river
Boondocking at Ardéche river
Boondocking at Lake Lanuza
Boondocking at Lake Lanuza
Fantastic views
Fantastic views

 

Below, we summarise our impressions what we liked driving the Sprinter and what we will realize also in our Benny.

 

Good experience

 

The higher ground clearance and the height of the cabin and the windows provide a good perception of safety, because uninvited visitors can not view inside the cabin from outside too easily. Sometimes we heard voices around the vehicle during night, but harmless in retrospect.  We also enjoyed the comfort of an automatic transmission, whereas our Benny as a manual transmission combined with a rough truck engine.

 

 The build quality of the Exploryx vehicle was great. A big compliment to Exploryx.

 

Regarding the technical equipment: The 11 litre water heater was enough for the morning shower of 2 people and to wash the dishes. Also, the power supply (150 AH battery 110 W solar system) was sufficient for the operation of the fridge and the evening reading lamps. How that would have worked out in cloudy weather (we only had sunshine), we can not judge. In this respect more water and power reserves would be helpful.

 

We had enough storage space. Well, we were on the road for only 3 weeks. On longer trips with 2 ebikes and other stuff it would be more difficult.

 

Our last pass in the Pyrennes before heading to Biarritz
Our last pass in the Pyrennes before heading to Biarritz

 

Things to consider

 

The water tank offers 110 litres. With 2 persons and also with economical use of water, you are always in search of water. In the 3.5 tons class there is not much reserve for larger tanks due to the weight. Better to have a water tank for 300 to 400 litres as we will do in our Benny.

 

The cassette system for the toilet works fine, but must be emptied every second day. A reason for us to realize a large black water tank or a composting toilet in Benny.

 

The shower not separated from the bathroom is a no-go for us. Having enjoyed the shower, we always set our bathroom under water. Therefore we will plan for a separate shower in Benny. 

 

The Seitz windows fullfil their functions and also have a darkening and fly screen. But these are plastic windows easily exposed to scratches through trees for example. In addition, they offer little protection against burglary. But their weight is low. In our Benny we will install KCT windows that are much more expensive, but offer much more protection.

 

The pull-out bed is clever made. In less than 1 minute the double bed is ready. It can become difficult when someone needs to go to the bathroom during the night. This is the main reason for us to have a comfortable bed in the alcove.

 

The electric outside ladder is also clever made clever. However, if you are on uneven terrain, you need to correct manually. In our Benny we will have a simple manual outside ladder to avoid any risks with failing electricity.

 

Durch die Pinienwälder entlang der Atlantikküste zwischen Biarritz und Bordeaux
Durch die Pinienwälder entlang der Atlantikküste zwischen Biarritz und Bordeaux

 

Other experiences

 

Our cooking experience was very positive. With a rather small fridge of 100 litres and two gas burners we always had the opportunity to cook simple and fresh food from the local markets. Sometimes there was no French bakery in walking distance, and that was the moment for the Omnia oven. With this oven you can bake as in a normal oven. We used the Omnia oven for baking bread, making tortillas, cooking a trout which was a gift by a fisherman. A normal oven costs you a lot of weight, so we will keep the Omnia oven also in our Benny.

 

And another conclusion: It makes no sense to take porcelain tableware and glass jars with you. Two broken glasses and one broken coffee jar are proof. We are looking for a quality plastic tableware. 

 

With such a large vehicle (3.30 m height) you can not avoid contact with trees or other obstacles. The consequences are scratches everywhere on your windows and on the body paint. This can be a costly repair exercise.

 

Boondocking at the Gironde
Boondocking at the Gironde

 

Conclusion

 

The 3.5tons Exploryx Impala is a very practical and relaxed expedition vehicle. For Europe you don't need anymore. We have travelled many beautiful but narrow roads that were blocked for vehicles over 3.5 tons and wider than 2.20 m. And detours are not so easy to find. However, for longer trips (and this is our plan) we appreciate some comfort items that only can be realized in a higher weight class. To that extent we are right with our Benny and its 7.5t gross vehicle weight.

 

At the end of our road trip we felt happy and that is the best reason to continue our Benny project. 

 

Below are some more pictures of our trip:

 

Mountains of Ardéche
Mountains of Ardéche
Omnia oven at work
Omnia oven at work
Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi
Good food is always a must
Good food is always a must
Endless passroads in the Pyrennees
Endless passroads in the Pyrennees
Auvergne
Auvergne
Auf dem Weg nach St. Etienne
Auf dem Weg nach St. Etienne