As I joyously bundled my beloved Mazda Bongo down a narrow country lane towards the sea, I slowed to let an approaching vehicle pass. Then with a flash of recognition, I start frantically flapping my hands at the familiar sight, its driver who was waving and grinning maniacally, seemed equally as pleased to see me. This is because the first rule of Bongo club is... always wave at your fellow Bongonauts.
Like classic Minis, 2CVs and vintage VW Campers, the Mazda Bongo minivan has attracted a cult following in recent years, especially in coastal communities like Cornwall, Devon, and my hometown of Brighton, where you can't move for cutesy, bunting-strewn vans adorning paddleboards, kayaks or 'The Future is Vegan' bumper stickers.
These Bongo e-van-gelists are known as Bongonauts and are a growing community that is ever-passionate about these boxy Japanese jalopies. Many like to personalise their vans with flower power livery, others are painted black and red like the A-Team van, or blue and green like Scooby Doo's Mystery Machine.
Last year, the National Caravan Council saw registrations increase by 71% compared to 2019, a number set to climb even higher this year as the nation once again turns to holidaying on wheels. But we don't all have to splash out on a flashy Hymer or blingy Winnebago. For me, it's my Mazda Bongo Friendee, an eight-seater Japanese minivan, fondly called Bingo Bango, who has been the saving grace of many a family camping trip.
After moving to Brighton in 2011, it was only a matter of time until I too joined the camper cult. My own magical mystery machine is a 2004 fourth generation Bongo Friendee, imported second-hand from Japan (these are known as grey imports as Mazda never officially exported them to the UK) which I bought fresh off the boat complete with chopsticks and Japanese coins tucked between the seats.
There are three other Bongos in my street alone. My neighbour, Lee Taylor, is on her third and vows never to drive anything else. “I just love them,” she says. “I love the big steering wheel, the high seats at the front, and the fact that I can keep three children apart (and therefore happy) on long journeys. And it feels like I'm in a gang like the VW camper crew, just cooler and with the added advantage that it will start first time!” It seems I wasn't just buying just a minivan, I was buying a lifestyle.
It was in the early 2000's that enterprising motor dealers decided to import the Mazda Bongo as a cheaper alternative to the VW Camper. The UK's Bongo boom was partly thanks to Japan's strict inspection policy for road vehicles. New cars have to have an expensive inspection every two or three years, while older vehicles have to pass one every year. As a result, most car owners in Japan write off their cars after 10 years and buy new.
Twenty years later and the Bongo craze shows no sign of slowing down with even more owners clubs, support forums, and meet-ups known as Bongo Bashes popping up all over the country. It's a friendly and welcoming community and one I'm proud to be a part of, even more so since the start of the pandemic, when a smile and a wave from a stranger in a matching car was often the highlight of my day.
While my Bongo hasn't been converted into a full campervan (yet), it's still a brilliant addition to camping holidays. The seats in the back fold down to make a good sized and comfortable double bed, it has electric blinds over the windows and a leisure battery for lights and electrics. Some models have a pop-up Auto Free Top (AFT) roof for sleeping in. But even with a tin top roof, it's more comfortable and spacious than any normal car and with an awning attached to the side door can really upgrade the camping experience.
When the first lockdown was lifted last summer, desperate for a change of scenery, I piled my teenage girls and Miss Babs the dog into the van for a spontaneous weekend of camping at Hook Farm in the Sussex Weald. On our second night, naturally the heavens opened, the tent leaked and so we all piled into Bingo Bango and tucked up under duvets, the dog as well, and listened as the storm raged around us, cosier than a pixie's pocket.
Now with the news that some campsites will be opening from April 12, including Ocean Pitch – Lee's favourite camping spot overlooking Croyde Bay – hopefully, me and Brighton's merry band of Bongonauts could be enjoying some camping action very soon. And maybe you too?