Life in a Camper Van

The morning light shines through the cracks of our burnt orange, 70s drapery, which covers half a dozen windows around our “cadillac of camper vans”. As I stretch out the soreness from sleeping on nothing more than a cushion converted into a substandard bed and climb over to reach the fridge to grab breakfast, Dan cracks his head whatever cabinet or object is in the way this time. It’s time to get up, crawl out of the comfort of our covers and into the freezing cold to begin dragging cushions and bedding away in an effort to covert our tenement on wheels into its day-time setup.  Yes, after three weeks and more 5,000 kilometers the old homestead is beginning to smell a bit despite my constant use of cleaners. After a quick shower – and I use that term loosely –  we’re headed out of whatever roadside pullout or parking lot we found for the night.

It seems renting a camper van in New Zealand equates to a repeat of Willy Nelson’s “On the Road Again”.. and again and again. As Dan and I wind down our three week tour of New Zealand, we’re eagerly looking forward to life “on the outside”..of a camper van that is. It hasn’t been easy, but it hasn’t been hard. Thanks to our complete procrastination and total exhaustion, we threw out months of research and simply booked a bigger, fully outfitted camper van online just two days before arriving in Auckland. We had the same gentle arguments any couple would have when weighing price against convenience as I reminded him how wonderful life would be with a toilet on board, and he reminded me of the hundreds of extra dollars it would cost. It was sometime during that debate, the majority of campers we were considering were booked leaving us without the few options we quibbled over for so long.

We ended up with an Alpha standard 2 plus 1 Berth (basically three person), self contained camper van. As we pulled out from the rental company office in Auckland, we jerked and jumped across the street and through each subsequent intersection. To say it “drives like a car” as the description online eluded to is a lie. It took Dan awhile to get the hang of it, but once he realized skipping first gear and starting in second was the key – we were smooth sailing.

Our first night out, unsure of the rules of the road, we paid about 40 bucks to stay in what Kiwi’s call a holiday park. It’s simply a large area jammed with camper vans side-by-side with power plug-ins, kitchen facility, shower and bathroom facility, trash collection and a dump station to get ride of your waste. Some are a bit fancier offering pools, saunas and playgrounds as well as individual cabins, but the truth is it’s far from what it’s like to camp in the U.S. Even most Department of Conservation camp grounds equate to nothing more than a parking lot with little to no privacy between campers and tents. The towering trees of the mountains or thick vegetation near the coast seem to be void at all camper parks leaving nothing to help hide you away from the masses and there is absolutely no sitting around a roaring campfire roasting marshmallows. I find it bizarre Kiwi’s would pay for a tent fee only to set up camp in an open area with tents side-by side. I’d rather stay home!

Still, traversing New Zealand in a camper van is the most economical way to travel and still have the freedom you want to explore. We’ve been on the road three weeks now with nothing more than a general outline of the things we wanted to see and approximately where we should be at in our journey to reach Christchurch on time to catch our flight out to Australia.

We are literally stepping all over each other, running into each other, hitting our heads on anything and everything in the way – and, yet there has been minimal slamming of doors and arguing. At this point it’s more comical than anything when we round a curve or hit a bump sending our stuff flying off shelves onto the floor.

Each day we start from scratch..peel the sheets off of the “bed” and fold them to be stored, convert the bed back into our seating area and move the table back into place. We’re constantly sweeping dirt from the floors and wiping grease from the stove, but we’re not complaining. We feel sorry for those who are living out of nothing more than a van, going days without showering and forced to cook their meals on a portable stove outside in the cold. It’s for these reasons Dan and I call our camper van the “Cadillac”..although we know it’s far from it.

The van is stocked with exactly the right amount of anything and everything you need. Three glasses, three wine glasses, three sets of silverware, four chefs knifes, a cutting board, a strainer, two mixing bowls, three pots and a pan, a cooking tray for the oven, a tea kettle, an electrical device to boil water, a french coffee press, two dish towels, dish soap, a sponge and scrubber, two towels, bedding and even a clothesline to line dry your clothing (Yep, people on the street have chuckled at Dan when he’s caught driving with my underwear strung out in the back window, but hey – we’re just trying to get by).

All previous arguing over whether we should splurge for a camper with a bathroom stopped immediately when we realized how wonderful it is. We don’t have to be in a camper park to take a hot shower each day and we’re able to use the restroom inside instead of crawling out into the dark of night to find the nearest bush. The more we realize we have the tools we need, the less and less we find ourselves at those outrageously over-price camper van parks.

In three weeks we’ve operated within the same routine: covert the camper van, eat some cereal, drive, hike, ooh and aah over the beauty of New Zealand, eat a sandwich, drive or hike some more, search for a place to pull off for the night, fire up our four burner gas stove and make dinner (steak included!), and convert the seating area back into a bed.  It may sound mundane, but we’ve been blessed to see some of the greatest sights New Zealand has to offer.  In three weeks time, we’ve cruised the water of the Bay of Islands, hiked through rolling farmland filled with sheep and cattle, looked over Auckland from the tallest tower in the city, floated beneath a grotto of glowworms inside caves filled with formations, walked through the geothermal areas and witnessed steaming lakes and boiling mud pots, hiked an active volcano, tasted wine at a few of hundreds of New Zealand wineries, wandered the floors of the Te Papa heritage museum, toured Parliament, took the ferry across the Cook Straight, camped in the Marlborough Sounds, hiked more than five glaciers, camped along the coast near seal colonies, sat on a sandy beach and watched the rare yellow-eyed penguins come ashore, marveled at the glory of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, and cruised the waters of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea.  Whew.  I feel truly blessed.

Just thinking of it all means Willie was right..I just can’t wait to get back on the road again.