THIS WAS NOW THE THRD TIME we’d postponed our ferry crossing (thankfully we’d bought a flexi-fare) … and after two solid weeks of late-night caravan renovating, we still weren’t going anywhere. The boys’ surf competition in Kaikoura was rapidly approaching, and we were stuck in the Coromandel – with a caravan in pieces, a diminishing holiday window, and me: an exhausted, grumpy dad/husband, questioning his wisdom in trying to pull-off a caravan restoration in two weeks. Damn my optimistic outlook!
According to comments from someone involved in a recent caravan and motorhome expo, the level of interest in this form of recreation/holidaying has skyrocketed. There are huge waiting lists from many of the local manufacturers, and the industry is currently experiencing unprecedented growth.
To be fair, however, this comes as no surprise to me …
In the 2018 editions of Grapevine, I wrote a series of world-class, award-winning articles about our family’s six-month adventure, travelling around the South Island in a big, new caravan. It was obviously my articles that triggered the massive growth in caravan and motorhome sales throughout the country – not (as some commentators claim) the fact that Kiwis are now stuck in New Zealand and are using their overseas trip money to buy RVs.
Anyway, I digress …
It does seem that the world, or at least New Zealand, has been reminded that caravans are cool – especially when you use them, rather than park them in a paddock on the side of the road. For those who enjoy a little history, back in the day (circa. 60s, 70s and 80s) thousands of Kiwis used the humble caravan as a way to explore our backcountry. Unfortunately, this recreational pastime diminished in the late 80s – thanks (historians agree) to the growing number of drivers unable to reverse a trailer; a national travesty politicians of the day refused to address.
It wasn’t until the motorhome was invented that those incompetent backers finally had another way to go holidaying on wheels. As I mentioned earlier, this, combined with the impact of my articles, has brought us to the situation we find ourselves in today: a thriving pastime enjoyed by a growing number of Kiwis. And for those who aren’t scared of reversing a trailer, one of the more popular developments is in the retro caravan market … the restoring, refurbishment, and renovation of the classic caravans of yore.
Seen at events like Whangamata’s Beach Hop, these vintage beauties are bringing a whole new level of class to the RV market, and can cost a fraction of what a new caravan does … as we were about to find out.
They can also bring on bouts of psychosis … as we were also about to find out.
One of the more difficult steps we had to take after our big South Island trip was to sell our caravan. It was like selling a much-loved pet or child! We’d spent six months in her, and without a single complaint, she’d provided us with a reliable and comfortable home-away-from-home. We’d created life-long memories in her. And, when her new owner came to pick her up, the rest of the family couldn’t bear to watch, so they left me and went into town. I was there, alone … and, as I watched her being towed down our driveway for the last time, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a tear.
Anyway, the simple fact was we couldn’t afford to keep her. She was like an expensive pedigree poodle – except massive, much tougher looking, and with ongoing vet bills. While our family is incredibly rich in many ways, we’re not so much when it comes to money. And she was a pricey beast – custom-made (all the way from Australia) to accommodate us and our four, unruly teenagers. So, we had to let her go … but always on the understanding that someday, in the not-so-distant future, we’d get another caravan.
Just not one we’d have to take a mortgage out for …
Fast-forward to the beginning of 2020. We were moping around home, missing gypsy life, when a friend of my wife mentioned they had an old caravan they were keen to sell. It’d been sitting in their barn for 20 years, unused, and was in good condition. Plus, it was big – not as big as our flash Aussie beast, but big enough for the six of us … just!
The best thing was, she was the opposite of an expensive pedigree poodle. It was more like buying an old dog – slightly deaf, with a questionable history, but a kind face, and fair bit of life left in her. You’d probably put her down rather than pay expensive vet bills. Still, she’d sleep outside, and most importantly, would be happy with a Tux biscuit rather than some fancy scientific formula.
We named her ‘Kowhai’. She is a 1984 Liteweight Cavalier Five Star (phew!) – which, back in the day, was pretty flash. She was made in New Zealand, and she’s beautiful … according to my wife. But, like most old girls, she needed some work to bring her up to spec.
In no particular order, the following list records her essential upgrades:
- Diesel heater
- Solar power and battery
- Chassis stripped and painted
- Diesel heater
- 12V lighting and accessories
- Hot water
- New shower and toilet
- New plumbing and water tanks
- Diesel heater
Highest priority was the heater. My lovely wife does not like being cold. And, if you know anything about travelling in caravans or motorhomes, diesel heaters are the duck’s nuts.
Anyway, like all good projects that seem to come my way, I (a) figured I could do most of the work myself, and (b) severely underestimated how long it would take. The problem was twofold. Firstly, before anything else, the chassis needed sorting – something I wasn’t keen on doing personally. I found someone willing to do it, but then Covid-19 stuffed things up. And, by the time we were out of lockdown, we were only a month away from our already-planned maiden voyage: a three-week trip to the South Island.
The second problem was: I do actually have a job (or two). And finding space in my calendar to complete these projects required some creative time-management – not one of my strengths. Which explains my severe underestimation of how long this would take …
It all started well. The chassis was done (and looked great), the solar (plus associated paraphernalia) went in without a hitch, and the diesel heater install was legendary. It was mostly going to plan. But then lots of little hiccups began slowing the job down: hours of driving to various cities for parts … wrong items turning up in the mail … hidden issues that weren’t realised until a wall was ripped open. They added up to days of extra work … and in the time left prior to our departure, they were days we didn’t have.
I don’t want to bore you with the details, but, after many all-night sessions, we ended up postponing our ferry crossing three times – which meant we left a full five days later than we’d planned. This was somewhat problematic, due to the fact my boys had a surfing competition starting in Kaikōura a few days into our trip. It also meant we didn’t have an opportunity to give Kōwhai a good test-run. Our trip south was the test-run. And when we drove onto the ferry at 2am with the caravan brakes seized on, I almost kept driving … right off the edge, and into the cold waters of Wellington Harbour.
It’s amazing what a few sleepless nights do to your mental wellbeing!
Anyway, perspective is important. And this was just another day in the life of a time-poor retro caravanner. We urgently needed to find somewhere to get the brakes sorted – so, at 5.30am, we drove off the ferry at Picton, dragging a reluctant caravan through snow and rain to Nelson.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger – right?
(To be continued …)