We've now spent 33 nights in our Mazda Bongo camper van, starting when Esme was about 6 weeks old, the most recent trip when she was about 7 months old. The longest we've spent in it was 14 nights on one trip, we've taken 3 shorter trips of a week, and a couple of one or two nighters too. We've been as far as the Outer Hebrides, up most of the West coast of Ireland, and a few short trips just an hour or so from our house. I've now tried and tested bongo-ing with baby enough through all sorts of weather and seasons to be able to share some of our experiences, something which I had difficulty finding when we were trying to decide which camper to buy.
The Mazda Bongo is a Japanese import, which is no longer manufactured. Ours is from 1999, but feels much more modern than a local car from that era, with electric windows, electric blinds in the back, and the roof lifting and lowering by the touch of a button. It is the same length and width as our Skoda Octavia estate car (4.5m*1.7m) which makes it pretty easy to manoeuvre in and around the city, and it doesn't feel like a beast parked outside the house. With the roof down, it's 2.09m tall, so gets through most car park height restricted barriers, and can usually just about get on the ferry for the price of a normal car. Our Bongo comes with an AFT (or Auto Free Top) which means that the roof pops up (at an angle, hinged from the back, with all of the additional height at the front. Once the roof is up, you can remove the inner ceiling of the van, by pushing it up to the same angle as the outer roof, so that you can stand up to cook, and have a great sense of roominess, great after a long drive, when you are stuck indoors due to weather or a sleeping baby. Alternatively, you can keep the ceiling down, and access the "roofspace" via a hatch. This can either be used as a sleeping area for 2 people, somewhere to get all of your stuff (baby car seat, camera gear, bumbo, backpack carrier) out of your way while you are living in the vehicle, or as somewhere nice to watch the sunset with a coffee if baby is asleep, it's raining, or the midges are out, and either way, you're stuck in the van. There's a zip right around, to allow you to remove the canvas of the roof extension, so you can enjoy the scenery and get some extra venting. We've never had to sleep in the top area, as we find the bottom area comfy enough for all three of us, but as Esme gets bigger, or with more children, I think it would come in handy.
The original 2 rows of 3 seats have been removed, and we have a full side conversion. This means down the full length of the driver side we have storage, a small fridge, a 2 burner gas hob, a sink. There is a perspex hinged cover for the hob and sink so when you aren't using them, you can use the work-top space on top of them. It's also been fitted with a rock and roll bed, with storage underneath. This gives us enough overall storage for all our food, bedding, nappies for Esme, clothes, and water for a multi-day trip without even having to use the boot, which means you can get what you need without getting wet if you happen to get caught in a downpour! We had a heater fitted which runs off the regular diesel, which means we can take Esme away all through the winter. We also had the van modified so that we can use the fridge and power socket without having a hook-up, they can now be run off the leisure battery, allowing us to keep Esme's food fresh while we wild camp our way around.
It is a very comfortable vehicle to travel in the front but the back is not very comfortable. I am quite tall (5 foot 10), and my head hits the ceiling if I sit up straight. It's also pretty bumpy in the back. It seems to be fine for Esme with the extra cushioning of her car seat, but it's not ideal for an adult. I would rarely travel in the back seat of our car, as I can easily reach in from the front to comfort Esme if I need to, and we don't tend to travel for such long distances in the car. With the long journeys we are doing in the Bongo, and the distance between the front and the back, means that I end up in the back seat quite a bit. It also has an airbag in the front which can't be disabled, so I don't tend to take Esme out on my own in the Bongo, as she would have to travel on her own in the back, and I prefer to be able to keep a closer eye on her, as she can get quite upset while driving.
Life with baby in the Bongo
Compared with a regular car, the Bongo is fabulous for spending time with a baby. Esme can kick about on the floor, and get a bit of exercise, we have plenty of space to change nappies, and there's more than enough room to feed her while she is sitting in her Bumbo, without her being able to get her mucky hands all over the place. Being able to cook up a dinner safely out of Esme's way is great too. I also love that the front passenger seat can be turned into a rear facing seat, so that it feels like a nice area just about big enough for our family. I'm not sure that would still be the case with an extra child though!
We first got the Bongo when Esme was a lot younger and needing to be fed throughout the day, and I loved the slightly tinted windows, and blinds for the additional privacy it gave us. It's also much more comfortable and roomy than our car, so that sitting for half an hour feeding instead of going to the beach didn't feel so frustrating.
Night feeds have always been a bit difficult compared with the house, as you would expect. Specifically, it is difficult to sit upright in bed when you are in a sleeping bag, and before we got the heater, it was too cold to get out of the sleeping bag, and it is difficult to manoeuvre a sleeping baby in such a confined space without waking them, we got around most of these by getting the heater installed, getting some merino wool breast feeding thermal tops for me to wear at night, and feeding lying down. We still haven't really solved the problem of getting Esme back down to sleep in the night, but at least that doesn't happen so often now she's bigger.
We started weaning Esme while on a trip, the bumbo works really well as a mobile high chair, either inside the van, or out on the beach etc. The great outdoors was a perfect weaning venue for when she's trying to throw food about! At home, she tends to eat what we are eating, boosted with some soft boiled vegetables, as the vegetables we eat usually require teeth. While away, the food we eat is too unhealthy for her, as it's high in salt, and I don't trust my boiled vegetables enough to keep them in the fridge for too long before using them, so we've got Ella's pouches for her for the trips. They don't start going off until you open them, and then the fridge keeps them fresh enough for 24 hours.
When Esme was very young, she slept in the Koodi pop-up bassinet, on top of the counter. It was a tight squeeze, as the cupboards on top didn't leave a lot of room, and so we were only able to pop-up one half of the bassinet. As she got bigger, and more wriggly, it became more difficult to use in that way, and now we just use the front passenger seat folded down flat, with some clothing to level it out, and the mattress from her Koo-di. This probably would have worked better from the outset if we'd thought of it, and has worked well up until the last trip, but now that she is on the move, I'm not sure this will work anymore, and we may have to think about another travel cot of sorts. I'll keep you posted! We put her in a 3.5 tog gro-bag, a gro-bag sleep suit with quilted arms, and merino wool vest and baby grow, and set the heater to only come on when it drops below 14 degrees.
We have always used the rock-and-roll bed rather than the area in the roof for sleeping. It's 93 whole cm wide, which is actually comfortable enough when it's just the two of us. It can get to be a bit too snug when Esme piles in with us too! I had done a lot of research on the bed width before buying, as I thought it wouldn't be wide enough, but I'm now glad that we've kept the vehicle size, and its resulting gas guzzling to a minimum, as this is definitely wide enough for us. We sleep in our usual sleeping bags that we would take camping, which makes for a good cozy night's sleep.
We got the camper to save on accommodation so that Aaron could continue to travel for landscape photography, and we didn't feel camping in winter with a baby was feasible. It's definitely worked as far as that goes, as we've managed to take Esme to Scotland, and all over Ireland for free wild camping.
There have been times when we've not been able to find a good spot to camp, the weather has been terrible, and everyone has been a bit cranky, but that can happen on a trip no matter what vehicle or accommodation you choose. At least with the Bongo, we are warm, dry and safe, and there's always travel scrabble for an evening like that!
But for every night like that, there have been at least three that have been wonderful. From being able to watch the sunset from the roof with a coffee in Connemara, to waking up overlooking a stunning river in County Kerry, with the sunrise just visible through the morning mist, from driving across the sand while the tide is out onto Omey Island to ferry-hopping all around the Outer Hebrides, we have been in some incredibly beautiful locations with our little girl. She is very easy-going, and seems to really enjoy the wind in her hair, and the sand between her toes. We are happy as we are able to spend time as a family in beautiful locations without too much driving. We like it so much, we're beginning to feel like it's the only way to travel with a baby - minimise driving, maximise time on location, and have every thing you need at hand!
Would I recommend getting a bongo for travelling with a baby? Absolutely!