Look: UAE couple drives for 9 months to Arctic Circle, reaches 18 countries in camper van

During their time on the road, the Willsons' calendar was packed: They attended their daughter’s wedding, stopped at picturesque locations, celebrated holidays with family, visited friends, and explored local flavours


Nasreen Abdulla

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Published: Wed 22 Nov 2023, 4:38 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 Nov 2023, 11:42 AM

Driving a trusty camper van, a couple in Abu Dhabi has hit the roads from the UAE all the way to the Arctic Circle over the course of nine months. During this time, South African Hanneke Willson and her Irish-South African husband John Willson have covered 18 countries across the Middle East and Europe covering more than 33,000km in the van they lovingly named Jannah.

“Having lived in Abu Dhabi for more than 24 years, we have missed seeing four seasons of the year,” said Hanneke, speaking to Khaleej Times from Norway, where the couple is now. “During this trip, we got to experience all the seasons and we have been able to see a lot of agriculture. However, what we love the most is our ability to go anywhere we want and at any time we want, while having our house with us at all times.”

During their time on the road, the Willsons' calendar was packed: They attended their daughter’s wedding in Fiji; stopped at picturesque locations; celebrated holidays with family members; visited friends they made in Abu Dhabi; and explored local cuisines.

There was no plan for the trip, though, Hanneke said. They just took each day as it came.

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“We plan day to day,” she said. “It depends on how far we can drive, what we are seeing, if there is a nice place to stay over or a nice place to stay for a few days.”

Here are snaps from the day they reached Finland:

Although they make it seem easy, Hanneke said the trip came with its own set of challenges, especially because of her South African passport, which meant she had to organise multiple visas to enter several countries. At one point, the couple even had to fly back to the UAE to keep their residence visas intact.

From fatigue to a robbery attempt

For Hanneke and John, the most rattling experience during the entire trip was the robbery attempt they faced in Italy during Easter.

“We were sleeping when we heard the sound of two people trying to smash our window,” said Hanneke. “John tried to get into the driver’s seat and drive away but the men were still brandishing their crow bars.”

With timely action from some neighbours and the couple themselves, the robbers left them alone but it took them several days to be able to sleep easy again. Since it was Easter, the couple had to wait two days for the windows to be repaired to hit the roads again.

Here's a photo of John outside the van after the robbery attempt:

At some point, the non-stop travel had taken a toll on their well-being. Hanneke said they started feeling low and fatigued.

“That is when a friend of ours invited us to stay with them in a small village in Austria,” she added. “We stayed there for a few days and completely decompressed. It was a much-needed break during the stressful time of planning each day, deciding where to park and how to go about our trip.”

The couple also had to watch the temperatures in their destinations like a hawk. “Our van can only take temperatures up to -10 degrees because, otherwise, it would damage our diesel tanks,” she said. “So, weather conditions had to be carefully monitored.”

Memorable moments

For them, one of the most memorable moments on the entire trip was visiting their friends. “Living in the UAE, you have friends in various corners of the world,” Hanneke said. “We visited many friends throughout our trip.”

She enjoyed watching rugby with her friends in Denmark, while in the UK, the couple spent time with more pals, with Jannah parked in their driveway.

However, there was one place that made Hanneke miss Abu Dhabi — Sweden.

“We were stuck in the snow for several hours,” she said.

“Many people passed by us and no one even checked to ask if we were OK. We missed the friendliness of people in the UAE. This would not happen in Abu Dhabi.”

For Hanneke, Jannah is a piece of their own heaven. “It is like our own home,” she said. “We brought our comfortable mattresses from our Abu Dhabi home with us in the van. It is really our safe place. However, we do miss having a washing machine and a shower. There is a shower in the van, but it just isn’t the same.”

Planning the once-in-a-lifetime journey

Although they had always loved travelling, Hanneke and John had not thought of going on an epic trip across Europe in their wildest dreams.Things changed when they bought a van during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The thought of buying a van and travelling in it just grew on us,” Hanneke said. “The idea was to ship the van to Canada, where we will be moving to next year. However, we realised later that the van wasn’t built to Canada specs and hence we won’t be able to do that.”

That is how the couple hit upon the idea of a European trip, which developed further into a tour of the Arctic Circle. Their son Liam and son-in-law Daniel helped modify the vehicle to meet the demands of extensive travel, while their daughter Kelcey helped with the interior design and furnishings.

The couple set off in February by shipping their caravan from Sharjah to the south of Iran.

As of Wednesday, the couple’s travel itinerary looked like this:

  • Iran- Turkey- Greece(ferry)-Italy
  • Austria, popped into Southern Germany, Austria, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium
  • Netherlands-France-UK (ferry)- Scotland- (Left the van in Glasgow to go back to the UAE)
  • Scotland- Ireland- UK (ferry)- France- Netherlands-flew to Fiji for two weeks (daughter's wedding)- flew back to Netherlands- Denmark- Sweden- Finland- Norway

The couple will cover another 8,000km to get back to the UAE in mid-January.


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