As you can probably deduce from the title of this blog, one of the things I love to do most is roam around. You could probably go as far as saying I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to a good ol’ fashioned road trip. No matter if it’s a simple overnighter somewhere around home or a larger undertaking like going internationally, I love hitting the road with an open slate as an itinerary. As a matter of fact, as of this very moment, I’m lounging about here on a rainy night in a campervan on the the South Island of New Zealand in a tiny seaside hamlet called Portabello.
Once again, we’ve opted to get out and do some exploring on our own and not plunk ourselves too much into the mainstream of tourist haunts and hotels. Granted, New Zealand is an island, a rather small one, so it’s not like we’re breaking new ground on some untapped territory. However, as we’ve been cavorting around in our self contained turbo diesel campervan, it “seems” like a big adventure even though we’re on paved roads…for the most part anyhow (shhhhhh, don’t tell Britz!).
Most of the places we’ve been camping have been quaint family owned holiday parks overlooking alpine lakes, the southern alps, the fiords and like today, here on the beaches of the east coast. The beauty of this style of travel has been that before we left to fly half way round the world, the only reservation we had to make outside of airline tickets was for this campervan. When we landed in Christchurch we had absolutely no idea where we’d go, how far we’d go or how long we’d stay at a given spot. Pretty easy to “plan” for a trip like that!
The first order of business after leaving the campervan hire place in Christchurch was figuring out how to drive on the left hand side of the road — in a fair sized campervan no less. The other key part of driving was getting used to the steering wheel being on the right side of the car, instead of on the left like back in Colorado. Oh, and lest I forget to mention that all the driver’s controls are positioned completely backward from what I’m accustomed to.
My first test with all this driving newness came straight away in the form of a busy roundabout, about one kilometer in. We have lots of roundabouts in Colorado, but they go anti-clockwise, not clockwise — and we drive on the right hand side of the road —- and our steering wheel is on the left. Anxious, but not about to let this get the better of me, I employed the dive in head first methodology like I do most everything in life and just went for it.
I did manage to look right instead of left as I merged into the busy roundabout so things started off well enough. It seemed to be going well until I read one of the signs that indicated I needed to bail out at the 3/4 around mark. I flipped the turning indicator, ooops, nope, that was the windscreen wiper…oh shit, my exit point was coming up fast…found the turn indicator but the windscreen wipers were still going at full tilt….oh shit, which mirror should I look out?!?!?….cars coming at me from every direction….whew, windscreen wipers back under control…THERE’S MY evac point…get the correct turn indicator on and make a move…made it.
After we got through I thought about a friend of ours from London who says to never use your turning indicators in busy roundabouts because that’ll let the bastards know what you’re up to! I think I used both indicators in my effort, but in random fashion so essentially it was the same as not using them at all since I’m sure nobody knew where I was going at any time!
Before I patted myself on the back too much, I figured all the kind Kiwis who were in the roundabout saw the Britz Campervan Hire decals emblazoned on the side of our van and just got the hell out of the way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that was the real key to my first successful soiree into the clockwise direction roundabouts.
The lady at the campervan hire place also told us that we should stop at a supermarket there in Christchurch to get our staple food items because we’d find them far more expensive once we were out in the country. She gave us good directions but she failed to mention the supermarket shared a car park with New Zealand’s equivalent of Home Deport. It was a complete zoo in the car park and I was still reeling from the harrowing roundabout adventure just a few blocks prior. We did escape the supermarket without hitting another vehicle while maneuvering our van’s massif around those tight quarters so that was a another success. Fortunately it wasn’t long after that until we cleared the city and hit the motorway where we were somewhat free of busy intersections, roundabouts and car parks.
It took a few kilometers after leaving the business of Christchurch before my butt cheeks released the upholstery on the driver’s seat, but once it did we could finally start thinking about which direction we wanted to go. One option was to go straight down the coast and try and make Dunedin on our first night. However, the nice girl on reception at the campervan place said it’d definitely be a “less amazing” place to start so we should head west into the Alps as soon as possible. Being a mountain boy at heart, I liked that option, a lot. We consulted our road map, located what looked to be a small country road heading directly into the mountains and headed west.
Our first night in the van was along the shores of Lake Tekapo. We had the broad overview of how all the systems worked in the van before we left, but implementing those things wasn’t quite as seamless as the representative made it look. We seemed clunky trying to cook, move around inside the van, figuring out how to stow this and that and how to switch from “living arrangements” to “sleeping arrangements”. Couple that up with the exhaustion from the stress of driving in a new system and it didn’t take long after having one beer before we were nestled away and fast asleep.
From there we got further into the Alps and we started finding ourselves in places like Lake Pukaki, Wanaka, Twizel and various others incredibly scenic areas as we headed south down toward Queenstown. To be such a small island, New Zealand simply seems larger than life. We’re from Colorado and are very accustomed to seeing gigantic, snowcapped mountains and vast plains stretching as far as the eye can see, but the landscape here is so lush, so big, so, so mind bogglingly beautiful that it almost strangles our ability to process it. I know this sounds cliche, but every time we’d round a corner the scenery would change. I honestly can’t ever remember using the word “wow” more in my life!
Thinking that we had fallen into some dreamland where everything is perfect, we continued south on down to Queenstown. Our original thought was that we’d stay there for a while and do some exploring, hiking, paddling or whatever struck our fancy. So many people had chatted up how amazing it was and how we were going to “love it” that we actually allocated more time in our travels to make sure we gave it it’s due. Well, it didn’t quite pan out that way.
Queenstown is indeed one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth, there is no argument about that at all. Queenstown is also a tourist mecca where people come to jump off bridges, race around pristine glacial lakes in 1,000-horsepower jet boats, climb higher, go faster, blah, blah, blah then sit around in the evening and have penis and bicep measuring contests with all their friends to make sure they’re up to standard with everyone else. This also happens in Colorado during tourist season but it didn’t soften the blow of arriving there and finding the same thing half way around the globe. Silly and a bit disappointing to be honest, for us anyhow.
And of course Queenstown, like any other respectable tourist destination, has any number of fashionable boutique hotels and spendy restaurants to take your money…all your money. One night we were walking back to our campervan parked just outside of the main town centre and we passed one of those little boutique hotels along the way. It was super cute for sure but you could just tell that it wouldn’t take much to drop some serious coin for a night’s stay there. As we walked by, we both thought about Chris Farley and his old Saturday Live skit when he played the out of work motivational speaker and had the tag line, “I’m livin’ in a van, down by the river“. Well guess what, we were “livin’ in a van, down by the river“! If you haven’t seen it, YouTube it!
Later that night, as we sat in our van, down by the river (seriously), we decided we’d seen quite enough of Queenstown after only a few hours and we’d leave first thing the next morning in search of quieter, less testosterone laced places. By 09:00 the next day, we were headed further south to check out a range of mountains called the Remarkables, then on down to Fiordlands and Milford Sound.
The longer we’ve stayed on the road, the more efficient we’ve become with setting up and taking down our campervan. We found the systems of “living” that’ve worked and kept those, and conversely, figured out which systems didn’t work and abandoned those. We’re living very comfortably now with very little. We’ve kept our “plans” simple and never gotten too far ahead with thinking out too many days forward — just live in the day and figure out tomorrow when it gets here. Essentially we’ve gone from living in a 350 square metre home back in Colorado to living in a 14 square metre “home” here in New Zealand. Despite that precipitous drop in living space, there was ironically no drop in happiness, wants or needs.
I just thought about a quote I once found that said something like “I can’t think of anything more sad than becoming accustomed to living a life of luxury“. I have to agree.
Yeah, I love road trips of all kinds, especially international road trips, for the very reason of simplicity. They don’t require much planning per se, they are generally quite cheap and you get to meet amazingly fun (i.e. genuine) and like minded people along the way. I sometimes dream of going out on a perpetual road trip in order to maintain this level of simplicity forever. My friends Brenda and CeCe bought an Airstream http://www.greenrvlife.com/ kitted it out with environmentally friendly products and are driving all over the US and Canada to show just how easy it is to live a nomadic life in an eco-friendly way. My friends down here in Australia who bought and Airstream http://airstreamfamily.com.au/ packed up their entire family and are roaming around for a while. What an education for those kids! I even met a couple from England last year when I was bumming around Nepal who were taking two years off and are traveling the world (they were currently in a beat up old Land Cruiser) — homeschooling their two kids as they went. And of course there’s my good friend Kevin back in Albuquerque who has spent his entire life roaming the American West looking for whitewater, fresh powder and sweet singletrack in a tricked out 1987 VW Vanagon. Oh, the stories I could tell about camping at ski resort car parks in Kevin’s Vanagon!
I love roaming around, I love living simply and I love becoming part of where I go…and letting where I go become part of me. I love waking up in places that even Donald Trump can’t afford to buy like National Parks and remote lakes with towering peaks reflecting off glass smooth water. I love cooking amazing meals on a tiny gas stove. I love sitting in a camp chair drinking Nescafe out of travel cup while I ponder a map and figure out what to do next. EVen on a smaller scale back home, I love skiing hard in the backcountry with my friends then coming back to cook fajitas on the tailgate of my truck. I love having all my possessions and all my needs contained in one tidy little van or truck. Less is definitely more and it’s why I love living simply.
Today we drove close to 350 kilometers from the Fiordlands of the west coast over to the east coast and then up to the Otago Peninsula. We spent the afternoon walking along the beach looking for blue penguins, spotting a few Royal Albatross’, taking photos of gulls and seals and now here we are in a secluded little valley, again, listening to it rain while we drink hot tea and coffee in the confines of our little van.
Tomorrow I think we’ll move up the coast toward Oamaru with hopes of finding some yellow eyed penguins. Or maybe we’ll find something else on the map and go there.
I can’t think of a better way to explore a new country than to simply buy a road map, hire a campervan and set off on our own with no plan whatsoever. I love being on the road. I love New Zealand. I love being on the road in New Zealand.
Ski fast. Pedal hard. Climb high. Run far. Live big.