KIWIS AND TRAVEL GO TOGETHER like fish and chips … or, for our Aussie readers, fush and chups. It’s a combination that just works. Maybe it’s our explorer ancestry – which I’m sure our great ‘OE’ tradition pays homage to. Or perhaps it’s the fact we’re stuck down the bottom of the world and long to spread our wings. Whatever it is, it’s a practice that many New Zealanders partake in … except for the last couple of years, when we literally were ‘stuck down the bottom of the world’.
But, despite the pandemic madness, our enthusiasm to explore remained … only this time, we were confined to our backyard. With borders closed, sales of motorhomes and caravans went through the roof as people realised their yearly overseas trip was no longer an option. And when the dealers’ stock levels began disappearing, crazy money started being spent in the second-hand market – sometimes more than new! There’s probably more than one person who paid off their mortgage by selling their old, dilapidated caravan to a cashed-up, desperate buyer!
Thankfully, prices have returned to less ridiculous levels, and plenty of choices exist again. But it’s still not cheap. Fancy motorhomes and caravans are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even cheap ones can cost more than half the average annual salary …
So, what’s a man to do? Actually … what’s a girl to do? A girl who (let’s say) wants to explore her own country before heading overseas or settling into full-time work or study but doesn’t have megabucks to spend?
Well, let me introduce you to my 19-year-old daughter and the ‘campervan’ concept. And … her incredible father, who spent his time and energy helping said daughter bring her concept to life.
A friend of my daughter’s from Germany messaged her last year, saying she was coming to visit for a few months and was keen on travelling around New Zealand with her. Long story short, my girl thought it’d be a great idea. So plans were put in place to figure out an affordable way to do it. While she’d saved a fair amount of money, it wasn’t enough to buy a quality motorhome or campervan (emphasis on the word ‘quality’) – nor was she keen on towing a small caravan around the South Island roads. Well … any roads, for that matter.
So, our only real option was to buy a van and convert it into a ‘camper’ ourselves. But first, a little recent campervan history …
Despite the potential issues around freedom camping, we decided to push ahead with the campervan concept. The first (and obvious) step was to choose a ‘base’ van to build from. We had a handful of pre-requisites: it had to fit within our budget; it needed to be relatively safe – some airbags and some sort of a bonnet upfront; not too big to also be a daily driver; and an added luxury of being 4WD – both for safety and for the ability to explore off the beaten track. So, after much research and looking through copious Trade Me and Marketplace listings, we finally found a 2008 Mitsubishi Delica D5 in Tokoroa that fit the bill perfectly.
Now, this next step can be done a couple of ways: The plan-and-build phase can be given over to one of a handful of companies who do this for a living … but it ain’t cheap! Or you can purchase a ‘kitset’ and build it yourself – following the manufacturer’s instructions … but that’s also pretty costly. None of those was an option for us, so we went the full bespoke route … and decided to do it ourselves.
After much time deliberating, looking at Pinterest, scouring the internet, watching YouTube, sitting in the van meditating, and sketching with pen and paper, we finally had a plan! But, of course, our build also had a few pre-requisites: we needed a decent-sized bed – comfy for two; an inside kitchen for the fickle New Zealand weather; a separate house battery (charged by the vehicle and solar) to run water pump, lights, and fridge; and comfy seating to eat from, watch a movie, read and relax! Oh, and a toilet. That was it!
So a trip to the city was organised, material bought, and the build began … and slowly, my daughter’s campervan concept became a reality!
As I write, the van is 90% there – we’re just waiting for squabs to be made … and for me to find time to put the final touches to the kitchen and electrics. (Magazine deadline is a real killjoy when it comes to getting campervans built!) But regardless, in a couple of weeks, our mission will be complete. And, I’ll be waving my daughter off on her next adventure – one that I (just quietly) have loved being a part of …
Bon voyage, babe!
CAMPERVANS: the good, the bad, and the ugly
Unfortunately, it’s not all red roses and unicorns when it comes to the campervan world – despite many vans having these painted on them. They’ve faced a bad rap during the last few years – as I’ll explain shortly. To clarify, when I say ‘campervan’, I’m not talking about those fancy, mostly factory-built motorhomes you see driving slowly along our scenic roads. I’m talking about the smaller, traditional-looking vans, many of which are driven by young foreign tourists. These are often bought cheap and can be found in various states of repair, or they’re hired from one of many campervan rental companies, some of which thought it was a good idea to make them look like a New York subway.
So, what’s wrong with these campervans? Well, nothing in and of themselves. In fact, they’re a great way to travel the country on a budget. Kiwis have been regularly converting vans into campers since the arrival of the VW Kombi in the 1950s! And today, there are many examples of amazingly built campervans, proudly owned and built by Kiwis (and some foreigners) who’re responsibly touring the country as you read this. (Perhaps my daughter will be one of them!)
But this isn’t where the cause of the ‘bad rap’ problem lies … that’s a recent issue. You see, some clever marketing in the mid-2010s (partly due to the legalisation of freedom camping in 2011) drove huge numbers of tourists into New Zealand and onto our roads in these converted vans and motorhomes. Numbers peaked at around 160,000 in 2019, just before Covid. But (along with the 90,000+ Kiwis doing the same), the infrastructure wasn’t there to cope with the increase.
Firstly, many of our small tourist towns weren’t set up for thousands of foreigners turning up in their vans. Areas to park them were a scarcity in some places, but it was the lack of amenities that caused the most significant problems. While the vans had to have a toilet in them to get their ‘self-containment’ certification (allowing them to park overnight in council-designated areas), most of those toilets were never used – for a few reasons: a) most hire companies charged extra for using their toilets, b) they were often pretty inaccessible, and c) who really wants to poop in a van – especially when you’re sharing it with a mate!
When we were travelling the South Island for six months in 2018, we saw first-hand the issues resulting from the lack of toilets (or their maintenance) caused. In some places, you couldn’t venture more than a couple of steps from a carpark without encountering human excrement under a tree or behind a bush. But usually, the smell gave it away first …
However, while the lack of facilities was a major issue, no one was forced to poop in the bush – there were always alternatives. But it was common knowledge amongst those on the road full-time that the worst culprits were tourists from a couple of European countries. And their lack of respect for our land and culture exacerbated the negative attitude towards campervans. We met people who caught perpetrators (or should that be, poopetrators?) crouched in their gardens, on their lawns, in car parks, reserves, you name it … leaving their ‘deposits’.
So, where are things at today? Unfortunately, like what happens so often in bureaucracy, the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. Instead of dealing with the source of the problem – which (for the vast majority) isn’t Kiwi campervan owners who’re out exploring their country – the government’s proposed legislation will punish everyone. Still, a few good people are fighting the proposals, so fingers crossed a positive solution is found!