A story about a much-loved VW Kombi, a trip around Australia and shipping the old girl back to the UK

Shipping Ethel, our VW Kombi, from Australia to the UK

Arrival in Southampton

On Friday 17th December I found out from the shipping agents handling the case for me that Ethel had arrived in Southampton at 7am and the container she was in had been pulled by Customs & Excise for further investigation. I was told that I was unlikely to hear anything over the weekend; on Monday I might get some news. So, on Sunday evening I made my way down from Swindon to Southampton (kindly given a lift by my mate Nick whom I'd be staying with). I had intended to keep the van a secret from everyone, but some people needed to be let in on the secret. Nick was one of these people as it would seem strange if I was staying at his house and kept scurrying away to dark corners to make mysterious phone calls.

Monday 20th December - First Encouraging Sign

I spent much of the morning of the 20th twiddling my thumbs waiting for a call. In the end, I gave up waiting and asked the shipping agents if Customs had finished doing whatever they were doing with the van. What they were doing, I was told, was looking at the contents of the container on a giant x-ray. Apart from that, though, there was no indication that they were yet done with the van. I explained that I was in a real rush to get the van off so that I could get it registered (ideally before Christmas or at the very least New Year). So, they promised to chase up Customs and get back to me. About two hours later I heard back from the shipping agents - they informed me that the van would be unpacked from its container overnight, but I just needed to fax a form authorising them to do that. In other words, the van would be ready to collect tomorrow. Yippee!

Tuesday 21st December - First Twist

Nick had to work this week and was on-call in the evening. Despite being busy, he was still able to run me around a little. This morning, he gave me a lift in to Southampton and as we arrived on the outskirts of the city centre, I made a call to the shipping agents again. I had neglected to get the actual directions from them. As I was on the phone to them, they told me that the van wasn't actually cleared by Customs and hadn't been unpacked overnight. In short, I wasn't going to collect it today. I had to ask Nick to do an about-turn. The rest of the day was spent waiting for a phone call that never came.

Wednesday 22nd December - Good News?

First thing in the morning, I made a call to the agents to see if things had progressed at all. No news at first, but a couple of hours later I got a more promising call back. "Good news," said the voice down the other end of the telephone line. "Customs have cleared the van and you will be able to collect it today." Within half an hour, I was showered and ready to go (just waiting for another lift, this time from my mum - another one let in on the secret). By mid-afternoon, I had stopped at the shipping agents' office to collect what I thought was an important piece of paperwork. I thanked them for all the work on clearing the van (I let them off yesterday's duff information because, well, now I was on my way to collect the van, was happy and somewhat forgiving!). Then I bounded out of the office, back in to my mum's car and we then headed back to the Free Trade Zone where the van was waiting my collection. It was a ten-minute drive through confusing and samey-looking service roads lined on both sides by stacks of shipping containers. I couldn't help thinking what a journey the van had made to get where it was, and pondered what might be in all those other hundreds of containers.

I made my way inside the office at the Free Trade Zone - essentially a warehouse operation - and said I was there to pick up the VW Kombi. "Oh, Customs have got a hold on that," said the lad behind the counter. "Ah no, they did have a hold on it," I explained confidently, "but it's been released now." "We've just been on the phone to the [shipping] agents," he continued, "and apparently they [Customs] just put a hold on it."

One minute it was cleared, the next minute Customs & Excise were blocking its release. What had changed?

"It's not been unpacked from the container either," I was informed.

Marvellous. For the second time I had been told the van was ready to collect when it was anything but. This time I had got almost close enough to touch it. I decided to ride it out and wait in their office to see if Customs would release the van in the remaining two hours of the day. I told my mum not to bother waiting outside for me any longer (she had things to do anyway) and kept my fingers crossed. A slight upturn - the van was unpacked from the container about an hour later and had survived the journey in one piece - no cosmetic damage and she had even started up first time when they moved her out of the container. I had a jerry can of petrol with me so I asked if I could go and pour it into the fuel tank (the van had to go in the container with just a dribble of petrol). They gave me a hi-visibility vest and off I went to see Ethel. It was great to see the van parked there in the hold, shining under the floodlights and looking even better than I remembered. What a pain, though - I could see the van, touch the van, I own the van but could not drive it away. I still didn't know what the reason was for its hold-up.

At 5:10pm, the shipping agents said that they still hadn't heard from Customs. With everyone about to shut up for the day, it looked like my day's efforts had come to an end. All that was left now was to wait for another hour and a half for a lift back to Nick's place (my temporary base of operations).

I was pleased to see that the van had made it across the various seas unscathed but I'd had a trying day of waiting (for a phone call, for Customs to release the van, for a lift home). I hoped for better news tomorrow.

Thursday 23rd December - Things Start to Happen!

I began the day feeling pretty lousy and a bit pessimistic about my chances of achieving anything. I hadn't heard back from the agents. What is keeping the van? Then, as I frantically hit refresh on the email window, I spotted a new message. It read:

Customs have put a hold on your camper van for the following reason:-

Query Reason - Please supply proof of 12 months continous residency outside of the EC.

Please can you look at this urgently & advise

So, now I knew. And this presented me with a problem. I didn't have much in the way of proof. I didn't have my passport to hand, I hadn't kept flight tickets or itinerary as proof, I hadn't kept utility bills - or any other bills - during my year out of the EU. The decision to keep the van and send it back had been a last-minute one. Consequently, I had not got the body of evidence that HM Customs & Excise wanted. This would mean that, without such proof, I would have to pay import duty on the van (10% of its perceived UK market value) and then add another 17.5%. This would be expensive, and would almost certainly add time to the process of getting the van released. Somewhat panicked, I got straight on the phone to the Customs & Excise vehicle team to find out what I could do.

I had hoped that the spirit of Christmas might mean that the people at Customs would be reasonable. I spoke to a lady who sounded like the only spirit she had was the previous evening's (lots of it). She sounded half asleep and, unfortunately, also sounded like the epitome of the phrase 'jobs-worth'. There was no way without proof of my absence from the UK that she could release the van. I made my pleas but they fell on deaf ears. What to do know? I came up with a few ideas:

  1. Ask Manda (who was back in Swindon) to take my passport in somewhere to be scanned and emailed (or faxed) to prove my movements over the year
  2. Ask someone at work to write a note on letter-headed paper declaring that I was not in their employment during that time, clarifying that I was out of the EU
  3. Request that the travel company whom we booked our flights with for the trip fax details to the Customs vehicle team, verifying our movements

I was phoning the lady in Customs frantically trying to come up with a solution that she would accept. She was obviously getting bothered with me phoning her up and distracting her on what was obviously a very busy day. I told her that item number three (on the list above) was coming through but it was only half useful - it showed the date of exit from UK but not the return date. A couple of phone calls later and she was sounding very harrassed. "I'll take a look at the fax you sent through and see if that's sufficient. If it is," she continued, "I'll call your shipping agents and tell them to release the van."

15 minutes later I got a call from the shipping agents - the van was cleared. Definitely. No question of it this time.

Evidently, my approach of continually phoning up an overworked Customs employee who was there on her own during a busy pre-Christmas build-up had worked a treat - she just wanted me out of her hair, no matter what! I then got on my bike, headed for the train station and got on a train to Millbrook (the nearest station to the docks). Soon afterwards, I had the van keys in my hand, paperwork confirming that the van could be released from the pound and I was on my way. I got Ethel started and drove her on the streets of Southampton - surely the first time this van has been on UK roads?

It is not legal to drive a vehicle without valid road tax, registration and an MoT. However, you can drive a vehicle from the docks straight to an MoT testing centre (as long as it's a pre-arranged appointment). All the same, it felt somewhat liberating to be driving Ethel through Southampton, blatantly past the main police station, with no tax and on plates that still bore the words 'Queensland: Sunshine State'.

It was nearly 2pm by the time I got the van to the MoT place. The 'pre-arranged' appointment was little more than a rolling promise from me to the garage (renewed every day) that I would be bringing the van to them very soon, Customs permitting. I just needed them to know in case I was pulled over by police so that they confirm they knew of my arrival. The truth was that I would have to hope for the best for a testing slot. Things were looking up though - after 30 minutes, the garage gave Ethel an MoT ... and she passed!

What a turn-around from this morning's bleak predicament. Now I had the van, she was driving like a dream and deemed worthy of driving on UK roads. I had everything I needed now to get her registered in the UK.

Friday 24th December - One last Hiccup

The final task. Get Ethel registered - a new number plate and all that. To do this, I had to make my way down to Portsmouth where the nearest DVLA office was situated. I was told that it would likely be very busy with people registering fancy number plates for their loved ones as Christmas surprises. The big surprise was how quickly I got served - I took a ticket and was seen within 2 minutes.

Or was that the surprise?

The surprise was that I didn't have the necessary paperwork after all. I had nearly all of it, but was missing a Customs and Excise form (c386). This was the form that was automatically generated by Customs once they were happy that the vehicle was not liable for import duty and VAT. It was the form that probably got printed out and left on a desk by the harrassed Customs worker I'd been phoning for much of yesterday morning. I needed it now but had no way of getting to it (Customs team in Southampton were not there) and there was no way of knowing where the original form was. The DVLA would not be able to accept a faxed copy (which the shipping agents did have), so I was stuck. It was Christmas Eve, everyone was closing early. I decided to call it a day (or half day) and pick up with the whole registration plans after the next few days' festivities.

Wednesday 29th December

With Christmas out of the way, people were returning to work for a short time. Some of them were, at least, but not the people I wanted to, namely the vehicle team at Customs & Excise. A quick phone call revealed that the all-important Customs form I needed could not be located today. Try again tomorrow.

Thursday 30th December

Things were looking up again! Finally, I managed to place the missing Customs form. It was at the shipping agents' office, ready to collect. While I sat in Swindon twiddling my thumbs, my mum went to collect the form in Southampton and then took it, and the other paperwork that I had mailed her, back to a DVLA office. They took a look through and said that everything was in order. Hurrah! Now it was just a waiting game. Would the DVLA want to inspect the van before registering it? Or would they be speedy? One thing was for sure, my plan to get the van registered and on the road before New Year's Eve had not worked out. I had hoped to take the van for a drive to Devon and surprise the whole family. Instead, I had a hire car for NYE and dropped a whole heap of hints about getting a Kombi 'in the near future' before finally admitting to the big secret (four months in the making).

Tuesday 4th January

The new year started well. Just one working day after the paperwork was handed in, I got a phone call from my mum - she had already got the registration documents and tax disc back from the DVLA. Ethel was now officially a UK resident, completely legal and ready to drive. If only I could get down to her and collect the old dear. Something for the weekend, then ...