Aaron Burchael with his Cocker Spaniel Charlie at their new camper van which was formerly a HSE ambulance
A HSE ambulance consigned to a scrapyard has been given a new lease of life as a camper van by a Carrick-on-Suir based man who plans to spend the summer touring Ireland in it with his pet dog, Charlie.
Camper van enthusiast Aaron Burchael, who hosts the Charlie & Me Our Camping Vlog on YouTube, escaped the tedium of the Covid-19 lockdown by transforming a scrapped ambulance into a mini-holiday home on wheels.
Now that Covid-19 restrictions are finally being lifted, Aaron is raring to go on the road in his distinctive new camper van with his canine companion, Charlie, who is the star of Aaron’s weekly YouTube vlog reviewing Irish camp sites.
Aaron, who lives at Castle Court in Carrick-on-Suir, has been a camper van fan for over 25 years. The native of Lucan in Dublin purchased his first camper in 1995 and the ambulance is his 12th holiday home on wheels and the second he has converted from another vehicle.
Aaron has travelled extensively with his wife Deirdre around France, Spain, Portugal, the UK and Ireland in camper vans.
He set up the YouTube channel Charlie & Me Our Camping Vlog three years ago. He has run the campsite review website: www.campsitereview.com since 1995 and also co-hosts a weekly podcast called, The Camping Crew with Chris Byrne. It is about all aspects of camping and is broadcast at 8pm on Wednesdays.
For the Charlie & Me vlogs, he loves nothing more than setting off for weekends to campsites around the country. He has produced about 80 videos so far for the vlog, which has 2,700 subscribers and attracted 196,000 views.
Aaron says he is not afraid to give his honest opinion if he doesn’t like a campsite, particularly if he feels it lacks a “cead míle failte” for visitors. However, he stresses he always endeavours to follow up a negative view by pointing out any positive points such as if the campsite has facilities suitable for families with young children or is an ideal location if you like hiking or water sports.
When the pandemic hit last year, his work as a photographer dried up and the travel restrictions brought a temporary halt to his and Charlie’s campsite visits. They were thankfully able to resume their touring last summer after the first pandemic wave abated.
When the second lockdown came last October, Aaron decided to keep his weekly YouTube vlogs going by buying an old ambulance and shooting weekly videos on the step-by-step process of turning it into a camper van.
The vehicles most commonly converted into campers are mini-buses and vans, so he thought an ambulance would be a different challenge.
“I bought the ambulance for €2,400 from a scrapyard in Clara, county Offaly on October 10 last year. It’s a 2011 model with only 60,000 miles on the clock. It originally operated as a HSE ambulance in Kildare and also spent a few years in Belfast.”
Aaron worked every day from 9am to 12.30pm between October and March 15 on remodelling the ambulance and spent the afternoons editing the videos he shot of his work. He has produced 38 videos of the ambulance conversion. Each new video is broadcast on the Charlie & Me Our Camping Vlog every Friday at 9am. The final ambulance conversion video was uploaded onto the channel last Friday, May 22.
Aaron confesses converting the ambulance proved to be an “awkward” project as there are no “square levels” in the vehicle’s box build trailer. Despite the ambulance being designed to have high tech medical equipment, the most tricky part of the conversion was installing the electrical wiring.
“I thought the ambulance would be ideal for installing electrics but it broke my heart,” Aaron recalls
The former radio broadcaster gutted the ambulance’s interior and donated the stretcher to the Order of Malta.
Clonmel carpenter Tommy O’Neill helped Aaron build kitchen presses fitted with a gas hob, sink and battery powered mini-fridge along with two seats that double up as storage units and a large storage unit next to the back door. This storage unit also acts as base for the bed which is fitted with a double mattress.
The ambulance’s trade mark blue flashing roof light and siren had to be removed but Aaron replaced the ambulance sign light over the driver’s windscreen with a light illuminating a Charlie & Me Our Camping Vlog sign.
A compact toilet installed just behind the driver’s cab, doubles as a dressing area when a shower curtain is pulled across. Just inside the side door are two little bowls decorated with paws where Charlie eats his meals.
Aaron bought Charlie, a chocolate brown Cocker Spaniel, for his wife for their first wedding anniversary eight years ago. He is an impeccably behaved, placid travelling companion and a big hit with everybody they meet on their travels.
Charlie loves to sit with Aaron up on the bed watching Netflix on his laptop during their camping trips. When they are on the move, Charlie sits up in the driver’s cab. There is a special seat belt to keep him safe.
Aaron originally budgeted €5,500 to convert the ambulance and in the end it cost €6,800. Aaron fortunately got the project fully sponsored through deals with Dublin based glue manufacturing firm Gary’s Glue and M. Murphy’s Tools in Waterford in return for advertising and using the firms’ glue and power tools on his videos. Buy Me a Coffee donations from fans of his vlog also contributed to paying for the conversion.
Aaron stressed that wherever possible, he sourced materials for the conversion from Irish companies.
His favourite fitting in the snug camper van is a retractable table that he also uses for food preparation. It is built into the storage area/bed base.
He is delighted with the end result of his months of hard work.
“I have a gang of friends we call the camping crew and they saw it last Saturday and were so proud of it. I was chuffed and started welling up. I had to go into the house and pretend I was going to the toilet,” he jokes.
Aaron also received a lot of positive public reaction to his unusual camper van on his first trip in it to Terryglass Marina a few weeks ago.
“Three people came up to us in Terryglass because they had been following the conversion on YouTube while one person asked if I was doing Covid shots.”
Aaron and Charlie’s first post lockdown weekend away to a campsite to start the fourth season of reviews for the vlog will be a return to the Glen of Aherlow Caravan Campsite run by George Drew on the June Bank Holiday Weekend. It’s his favourite campsite in the country. “It’s so peaceful, clean and George Drew is a gentleman,” says Aaron.
Stone Lodge in Garrykennedy near Lough Derg and Powers The Pot near Clonmel are two other Tipperary campsites he will be visiting and reviewing this summer while Morriscastle Strand in Wexford, Campail Teach and Aragail in Dingle and Clifden Eco Park in Galway are other destinations on his itinerary.
“I like everything about camping even emptying the toilet when we are parked,” he laughs. “The only thing I don’t like is coming home. I hate driving home on a Sunday.”
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