IF YOU READ THE TITLE OPPOSITE and thought, “Wait – part #2? You mean there was a part #1?” … this might be because you didn’t have the pleasure of reading part #1. Maybe this is the first Grapevine you’ve ever seen? Maybe someone stole that earlier edition out of your letterbox? Or, maybe you did read it, but 2020 was such a diabolical year that you’ve permanently wiped it from your memory.
Whatever the reason, you’re in luck: like any good series, this episode starts with a recap:
PART #1 RECAP:
In the previous issue, Mike reminded readers of his earlier, world-renowned articles about their 2018 family adventure, travelling the South Island in a caravan for six months. He explained the history of caravanning in New Zealand (and why it’s so cool), reported on the subsequent explosion in caravan and motorhome sales due to said articles, then delved into the expanding retro caravan market.
More recently, the family’s purchase of an old ’80s caravan saw Mike and his wife, but mainly Mike, begin the arduous task of restoring their Liteweight Cavalier Five Star (codenamed Kōwhai). Thus began their foray into retro-caravanning.
However, Covid complications and a looming trip to Kaikōura for a surf competition now meant the rebuild had to be finished urgently. And the rest of part #1 gave us a peek into Mike’s world … in particular, what can happen to a man’s mental state when he’s suddenly up against limited time, unlimited stress, and (on its maiden voyage), a refurbished caravan with its brakes seized on …
As I mentioned last time, it’s amazing what a few sleepless nights will do to a guy’s ability to think rationally. We were already a few days late getting to the South Island, and the seized brakes were almost the straw that broke the camel. However, a three hour snooze on the ferry did wonders, and as we rolled into Picton at 5.30 that morning I devised a cunning plan …
By now, our brakes were poked. The eight-hour drive from the Coromandel to Wellington with them locked on the whole time sorted that. But I can hear you wondering, “Why on earth didn’t you notice it earlier?” – and that’s a good question!
To be fair, the brakes were fine when we left … I think. But here’s the thing: we drive a mighty Landcruiser – which doesn’t feel anything. We could’ve inadvertently hooked a bus full of children in Waihi, dragged it and the caravan to Wellington, and we’d’ve been none the wiser. What’s more, there are six of us in the truck – and we’re all noisy – so the screeching brakes didn’t register until we were in Levin. We simply thought we’d run over a cat …
Anyway, back to the cunning plan: I figured that Nelson was only 90 minutes away, and despite the lack of brakes on the caravan, the Landcruiser could easily meet the challenge. I figured right. I also figured that Nelson would have plenty of resources to get the old girl up-and-running again.
I figured wrong.
We arrived in the sunshine capital of NZ just as the shops opened. And, after parking up at a campground, I got to work …
The first thing I needed to do was check the damage so I could explain our dilemma to a ‘brake expert’. I won’t bore you with the details, but things took a turn for the worse when I removed the caravan wheels. Not only had the pads disintegrated, but both disks were gouged beyond repair – and both hubs had cracked from overheating. My hopes of getting it fixed and then heading to Kaikōura later that evening quickly evaporated.
We ended up being stuck in Nelson for two more days, during which time I visited nearly every brake specialist in the entire district. Someone finally pointed me in the right direction, after cleverly concluding that an earlier owner of our beloved Kōwhai had machined up some custom hubs! (Little wonder no one else could help us.) He also discovered (after a quick measurement with his vernier calliper) that there was a hub size available which would do the job … and, as luck would have it, there were two left in the country!
So, with our credit card maxed-out but Kōwhai back on the road, we continued our southern adventure … finally making it to the Crayfish Capital and the boys’ surf comp. As per usual, we were greeted with stories from our friends like, “You should’ve been here yesterday – the surf was pumping!” Good friends are a rarity …
As it turned out, we had a great couple of days – enjoying the sights and sounds (and surf) of Kaikōura. And if you’ve not yet been for a visit, let me encourage you! Scars from the 2016 earthquake are still noticeable, giving a little insight into just how devastating it was. In fact, their new museum is a ‘must-see’ featuring some incredible photos and stories of that fateful day. Right now, Kaikōura (like many tourist towns) relies on us Kiwis getting out and visiting these places for ourselves. We love it down there – and I’m sure you will, too!
The rest of our trip was uneventful, caravan-wise. Kōwhai left Kaikōura, continuing down to Twizel and as far south as Queenstown, before slowly making her way north, back to the Coromandel … and she never missed a beat!
So (I hear you ask): How does Kōwhai compare to the fancy, modern beast you bought for your 2018 trip? Answer: It’s not really a fair comparison! That brand new Aussie machine was made out of the latest materials, had more room plus all the latest bells and whistles, and was built like the proverbial brick! It was a beast! But (and it’s a big butt), it cost us a small fortune … five times what Kōwhai cost us!
Kōwhai was not only cheap, she was also a piece of New Zealand caravanning history. Sure, we spent a fair amount of money bringing her up to scratch, but we can now travel off the grid for days and still live in relative comfort – even with four teenagers! Yes, she was a challenging restore at times – like breaking in an old wild stallion, except she was a mare. And there were moments she bucked and kicked me in the guts, revealing some nasty surprises lurking beneath her classic looks. But, like a great horse whisperer, I soon had her eating out of my hand. Except for the brakes … but let’s just ignore that for now.
Would I do it again? Absolutely! Kōwhai has weaselled her way into our family. We’ve already made a bunch of great memories with her – and we’re about to make plenty more!
Okay, I can already see the comments coming in … “Mike, your world-class, award-winning articles have changed my life! Please tell me: how do I become a retro-caravanner?” So, here are a few carefully chosen tips on how you, too, can live the dream of retro caravanning:
- Find an old caravan.
- Restore it.
- If you wish, add some modern luxuries (like a diesel heater, solar power, spa pool etc).
- Drive around New Zealand.
If that all looks too difficult (maybe you don’t have the time, or a practical bone in your body), fear not! There are guys around who specialise in restoring caravans (check out the before and after photos!) – and compared to buying new, these beauties can be quite reasonable.
So, enough chatter. It’s time to go retro!