New Zealand

Ten Commandments of a Camper Van
May 2015

In five days we’d driven Barney, the Green and Purple Camper Van, more than 600 miles. Even though Heli and/or Flo was always within arm’s reach, living in the van was surprisingly not-too-claustrophobic. We ate together, we drank together, we laughed, we sang, we snored. Sometimes we had spontaneous dance parties while driving along the countryside, crammed into the three front seats. Other times we argued over who forgot to close the back door, where my flip flops went, whose turn it was to charge their phone, or who had gotten us lost this time. Such is vanlife, before it became #vanlife.

Through much trial and error, we established our unofficial commandments:

  1. Thou shalt not be hangry (hungry + angry). If thou is hangry, eat something.
  2. Thou shalt compromise.
  3. Keep plenty of booze on hand.
  4. And chocolate.
  5. Pitch in without being asked.
  6. Thou shalt not whine.
  7. The first song we listen to every morning shall be Are You With Me, by the Lost Frequencies.
  8. Wave enthusiastically at other Juicy camper vans you pass.

Heli and I left Flo in Queenstown for a night so he could go bungee jumping while we visited Milford Sound, the fjords of New Zealand. It was a long but beautiful drive and by this point, Heli and I were thick as thieves. My initial hesitation about committing to living in a camper van with two strangers for two weeks was gone. Heli and I barely turned on the music during the whole 4 hour drive to the Sound. Heli was concerned about the risk of avalanches since it was getting snowier the further south we drove, but luckily we only encountered avalanches of sheep. We drove up to a flock that had been blocking the road for so long that people were getting out of their cars to walk along behind the sheep.

Finally we got to Milford and enjoyed the beautiful steep hills, peaceful water, and pesky flies. In the end it was worth the effort to get there, despite the long day of driving. Little did we know, the adventures weren’t over yet and we discovered a couple unspoken commandments:

  1. Don’t run out of gas.
  2. Have a place to park for the night.

On our way back to Queenstown, Heli and I confidently drove out into the wilderness to find the campground marked on our map. Every other campsite we’d stayed at had been exactly as we expected: clean, plenty of space to park, and usually with a toilet. Sometimes even a great view. Our experience told us we didn’t need an alternate plan. We would stay the night and finish our drive to Queenstown in the morning.

However we didn’t consider that late May is the shoulder season for tourism in NZ, and winter was coming soon. We drove Barney to the campsite after dark only to find it chained shut for the season. We called the phone number on the CLOSED sign only to realize we’d called the previous owners of the campsite. The new owners hadn’t posted their contact information and lived abroad.

We tried to stay calm but we were low on gas, in the middle of nowhere, without a place to stay the night. We were tired and far away from Queenstown. So Heli asked the previous owners, an older couple, if they knew of anywhere we could park Barney. Out of the kindness of their Kiwi hearts, they invited us to park in their driveway for the night. We accepted their offer with as much gratitude as we could offer, and drove to the address they gave us.

We went from choosing between driving to Queenstown and hoping we had enough gas, or parking alongside the road and hoping no one bothered us, to a clear and safe path forward. I’ve learned while traveling for a long time that there are important plans and there is everything else. Important plans get you to food, water, a bathroom, shelter, and safety. When these plans fall through it can be very stressful to suddenly question where you’re going to sleep or how you’ll feed yourself. It always works out, but it does take work to figure things out on the fly. Sure I wish that someone would swoop in and magically procure a bed and a warm meal. But I’m a seasoned traveler and when I’m alone I don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone to fix it for me. I have to rely on myself to figure it out. This time was different. I could rely on Heli being cool-headed and she asked the previous owners if they had ideas about what we could do for the night, which lead to their inviting us over to their house.

In reality our predicament was not terribly dire. We had food, transportation, and our own shelter. We had enough gas that we weren’t really in a pickle, yet. We even had a squatty potty if we needed to use it. It wasn’t raining or hailing or snowing. We had maps and battery life, and we’re both fluent in the native language. Things could have been much worse. We just needed somewhere to stop for the night.

We pulled into their driveway fifteen minutes later and they invited us in for a beer or two, and to play with their new kittens. They were lovely people, kind and entertaining, and I think they enjoyed the novelty of having two strangers visit their home. They even let us use the bathroom and shower in the morning before we drove off. Now if that isn’t generosity, I don’t know what is.

Categories: New Zealand

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