Even if I wasn’t a business writer, I would feel compelled to take notes when Peter van Delft tells a story. Peter’s the co-owner of Wild Coast Camping Gear, a leading Nova Scotia-based innovator and retailer of rooftop tents, but more than that he embodies Ethiopian jazz musician and arranger Mulatu Astatke’s “Yèkèrmo Sèw” (a man of experience and wisdom). When he spoke to Spotlight on Business in early June, I found myself hurriedly and methodically jotting down notes in the margins of my legal pad like I did as an eager first-year history student at King’s College. There are several moments in the recorded phone conversation where I – confessedly unprofessionally – am heard over a background of two-way silence scratching pen on paper before acknowledging Peter’s latest answers and anecdotes and transitioning into the following question. There’s a fireside effect to his Dutch accent and storyteller’s inflections that just can’t be denied. “The term ‘wild coast’ originates from South Africa and it refers to the Indian Ocean,” he began. “My wife, Trish is from South Africa. She grew up in the bush, actually. It was so remote that their mail was dropped out of a Sesna. Her father was a trader; he had a trading post. He traded finished products and goods to locals who would trade for sheep’s wool and then he would take that to market. That’s actually where we saw our first rooftop tent, in South Africa.”
I’ll be honest, Peter, the only place I’ve encountered rooftop tents is on the pages of National Geographic – I’m what you’d call an infrequent camper. Why do they inspire you?
PvD: During a visit a number of years back, Trish and I discovered that rooftop tents are really big in South Africa – and Australia, actually. We also discovered that rooftop tents have been around since the ‘30s. When I was a kid back in Holland, I had a great-uncle and aunt who retired and traveled all through Southern Europe and Northern Africa, Morocco, all those places, in their Volkswagen bus. It’s the sort of thing a lot of people dream about. All they did was live out of their van and they’d pick fruit and fish. One of my warmest memories of them was a time they visited after a long trip and we fished from the canal beside our home and caught a couple of fish and cooked on a summer day. Those are sorts of memories, the things that have been inspiring to me in this business.
So it’s a genuine, heartfelt passion that drove you to bring this international concept to the Canadian market?
PvD: Absolutely. Rooftop tents are just a fantastic way to travel and it is just amazing, in hindsight, that there wasn’t anything available in this market before us at the time. We’re such a great overland country, a massive country. We also have extensive backroads, old fireroads, and crown land where people can camp. It’s a growing business, a growing market with a new generation that is embracing the outdoors. But what’s important is that it’s our passion. We vowed to ourselves in the beginning where we’d never allow this business to grow into something where we’re just selling a commodity; we’d only stick to selling items that we really appreciate for what they are and that we’d only work with vendors who’d be willing to make changes. Every tent is manufactured for us and to our specs. It’s the same with Wild Coast’s awnings.
How diverse, or how complete, is the selection you offer your customers, Peter?
PvD: All the products in those lines, the Wild Coast Camping Gear and the Wild Coast Tents, are solid products. I’ve become very partial to the G-Stove. It’s a stainless steel stove with stainless steel accessories available. There is also the Snomaster, which is a fridge-freezer, so that when you’re off the grid you can actually have frosted beer glasses with ice-cold beer. We have some really fantastic products and some really great people who we work with. Portable Winch Co. out of Sherbrooke, Quebec is one of those great companies. They have been a great company to deal with and have an awesome product and they are Canadian. Their product a portable winch that can be used anyway you can imagine.
I also understand that your clients are an ardent bunch, as well.
PvD: Our customers have a lot of the passion. It’s not just that they can go off-grid and be self-sufficient; they also love tinkering with our products. Some people design their own light schemes; some people rig-up their vehicles by putting in our solar systems with dual-batteries. With the solar systems you can put in the fridge and we offer some great cooking gear. People build trailers, as well, and incorporate our rooftop tents. We have one customer who has rebuilt four trailers in just the last four years and customized it every time with our camping gear. It’s become such a trend in itself that we’ve picked up a line of Scout Trailers, products from TMG. There’s a lot of potential for this product. It’s a really beefy trailer that can be towed behind a Jeep, which is a fairly light vehicle. We bring them in and mount 35-inch tires on them – and they have independent suspension. It’s a great way of extending the distance someone can travel.
I see at wildcoasttents.com that you host a section where you profile pictures sent in by your customers. You must hear a lot of great stories from them as well about their adventures in your rooftop tents.
PvD: We’ve also met a lot of very great people through this company and we’ve been touched by a lot of inspiring stories. Three years ago there was a 78-year-old gentleman from the north shore of Vancouver who saw our website. He actually contacted us from the road, when he was close to Nova Scotia, to let us know that he was going to drop by and pick up a tent. When he got here, he told us how he gave up his apartment, bought a pickup truck with a cab where he had put down a decent foam, because he had always dreamed of travelling from one coast to the other. He traveled all through Northern Canada and then south to the East Coast to visit us. When he was here he showed us pictures and told us stories of places where he had stayed to camp and observed a family of beavers. He didn’t see another person for three days. After he left us he drove back to British Columbia through Southern Canada. To take that on at 78 is an amazing feat – I find that absolutely inspiring.
Is it ultimately these sorts of inspiring experiences that moved you and Trish to start your annual camping event for Wild Coast customers?
PvD: For sure. We host an event for our customers in the Annapolis Valley here in Nova Scotia called Lala Phezulu, which means “sleep on top” in Zulu. We planned this event with our good friend Robert who helped us find the perfect camping site to accommodate a number of people because in the beginning we didn’t know how many people would show up. We chose a place with bathroom facilities just outside of Middleton, Vidito Family Campground & Cottages, considering that whole families might show up. We’re in a section where the Annapolis River runs in the shape of a horseshoe. So on three sides there’s the river and the other is a grassy open space with very large, very old trees – it’s a beautiful setting.
That first year we did a pig roast. Robert made a solar-powered rotisserie in order to do a one hundred-plus pound pig. The whole event turned out great. A number of customers showed up and we not only heard a lot of inspiring stories, we also heard a lot of direct feedback about our camping gear. We’re constantly trying to improve the product and these kinds of interactions let us do that like nothing else can. We’ve expanded the annex of the rooftop tent, the lower part, because of listening to what our customers need and want.
We also make changes based on our own experiences. We’ve increased and strengthened our tie-down points, for instance, because of an experience we had in Cape Breton. There was a tremendous storm that knocked out power and forced the Canso Causeway to close for hours. That was a learning experience. Like I said, we never wanted to offer our products as a commodity. We implement all approved changes to our tents.
What would you say about rooftop tents to a parent of young children reading this article who is looking for a new kind of adventure this summer, Peter?
PvD: The big advantage of rooftop tents is comfort and convenience. It comes with a mattress and it sets up easily. It doesn’t matter if there are sticks and stones on the ground – nothing like that will interfere with your sleep. If you’re on off-level ground, you can always put a big rock down under a wheel and even things out. I know customers with trailers who use jack stands to level out their vehicles. It’s a very easy, very quick set up.
We’ve had customers tell us that they sleep better in their rooftop tent than anywhere else. Being outdoors in the fresh air, being back in nature and also getting a comfortable night’s sleep is as refreshing as it gets.
By David MacDonald