Natural Born Campervanners

May 2020. First week out of lockdown. We were trucking along nicely when my wife made an announcement: “I’ve done something. I’ve booked us a campervan for ten days!” 

I had many thoughts, largely circling around the theme of whether or not she had paid any attention AT ALL in the 24 and three-quarter years we’d been together. Not once had I expressed the spirit of adventure required to cram our three-person family into a giant moving suitcase on wheels. But I agreed; we needed to go somewhere, anywhere, after lockdown and I didn’t want to be labelled the anti-fun mum. I also made a mental note to someday revenge-book a holiday that would be her equivalent of a nightmare. A month-long silent meditation retreat, perhaps? 

Day One 

Having collected our campervan in Frankton, we lumbered off through the winding gorge to Cromwell. We arrived at the camping ground in the dark, partly because in Central Otago the winter night sets in early. Plus, earlier that day, we’d spent too long in a cafe in Arrowtown, cackling about how we’d most likely wish we’d brought along a SheweeTM (an ironic conversation, as it turned out later). Also, it had taken us hours to figure out how to transfer enough clothing for the entire Kardashian family into a van more appropriate for a trio of ants.

The one thing we hadn’t packed was a single freaking clue about how campervans work. We couldn’t get the power connection to fasten, we didn’t know how to switch on the gas or hot water, and even the kitchen sink drain had the better of us. 

I avoided dealing with the issues by heading to the communal kitchen to charge my phone, where I met a man called Gary. Gary was juggling three fractious preschoolers while simultaneously whipping up frozen pizza and chips, problem-solving a wife’s-missing-keys scenario and listening to a whiny, desperate, camping-naive stranger (me). He told me approximately 50 useful things about how campervans work, which was 50 more things than we’d learnt at the rental company office. If not for him, we would have gone to bed with no power or gas. We liked Gary.

Day Two

One member of our party may not have watched the instructional videos sent by the rental company in advance. That person (I won’t say who, but not me) did not follow vital procedures before using the toilet. Result: a considerable amount of cleaning up, which led to more problems because we then discovered the bathroom drain was clogged. Therefore, the bathroom floor became a bonus built-in pungent foot spa. It also became unusable. If we had a roll of that orange and white diagonally-striped Danger Tape, we would have stuck it over the bathroom door.

Gary’s advice from the previous day notwithstanding, we were still incapable of managing the power connection. We had also neglected to turn on the gas. In an unrelated turn of events, the hot water pump didn’t seem to work. But bad things come in threes, right? Surely things would now get better.

No. Within 24 hours we used the campervan rental company’s phone helpline, I kid you not, ten times. At the start of each call, we were forced to relisten to the automated message stating that most problems could be solved by watching the videos on the information tablet provided in the front of the vehicle. We searched in vain; our tablet was in absentia. Previous occupants must have adored their trip and stolen it for nostalgic reasons.

The call centre staff were always delighted to hear that it was us yet again. They must have been muting themselves and doubling over with laughter as they insisted we provide the vehicle registration over and over. We followed all the helpline steps to drain the toilet foot spa, but it was an ongoing fail. Roadside assistance needed to come and clear it, but couldn’t because it was Sunday, so we were given a voucher for a free night in a cabin near Aoraki Mount Cook. Technically that was cheating on the campervan, but I for one jumped at the chance.

Day Three

It wasn’t all bad. I began to notice good things about our campervan. Firstly, we were having no dramas at all with the wi-fi. The twelve-year-old was fully vibing with this. The lighting was excellent. We had an external spotlight which could illuminate the entirety of any town we were staying in. Very useful as, at least twice, our son stepped out the door and headed entirely in the opposite direction from his intended destination. Because of the handy light, we spotted him before he stumbled off any treacherous cliff drops. Excellent.

Also, the foot spa was no more, thanks to a mechanic called Brian at the Ōmarama garage, who’d sighed a lot and pulled apart the drainage system, out of which fell a bunch of coffee grounds, some sturdy pieces of plastic and what looked like an orthopaedic insert from a child’s boot. That explained a lot. Brian grunted at, then opened and shut, the water heater door. We had hot water for the first time! I felt like we’d won Lotto. We liked Brian. 

Another plus: the handbrake alarm. You know how you sometimes drive for a while and then realise the handbrake’s on? That wasn’t happening here. The handbrake was a clunky piece of work and it was easy to think it was fully released when it wasn’t, so there was a warning sound to prevent the van from dragging itself along the road like a worn-out fur seal. You would think only the driver would need this crucial piece of information but, NO, it was made apparent to everyone within a five-kilometre radius due to the piercing orchestral volume of the alarm. 

Day Four

Remember yesterday’s Brian? I really wish he hadn’t kept those magic words he muttered at the water heater to himself, as it only worked for him. Technically it also worked for us if we opened the door covering it  ̶  which he told us to try, and we did  ̶  but then the catch broke and the door refused to close.

So rather than drive two and a half hours with the door flapping wildly, we fastened it with twine (step aside, MacGyver!) and I made call number 13 to the campervan help desk. They would have been missing us, as we’d not been in touch for a full 24 hours. We then arrived at our destination to find we’d left another, larger, gas cylinder door swinging open towards the oncoming traffic, because I hadn’t locked it correctly. It was a miracle we didn’t cause a full-scale escapee gas cannister crisis on the motorway. 

Day Five 

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there were NO DRAMAS on this day. 

At a picnic spot near Ashburton, we met another group with an identical campervan to ours, rented from the same company. They were on day one of their trip, and bamboozled by the same issues we’d stumbled over to begin with. They asked me a couple of questions about how things worked and in a remarkable turn of events, I could actually answer them! I was their equivalent of our Day One Gary. Then those grateful folks drove off and set off their handbrake alarm. Us three pros fell about laughing like the Peppa Pig family at the end of each episode.

We were all rather scratchy by the evening and I suspected that was because there was no Big Brother Australia to watch that night. You might think we spent our time in deep philosophical post-hoc analysis of all the once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences, but honestly we were done with that in five minutes, and henceforth were all about watching trash reality TV in campground lounges.

Day Six 

The weather turned feral overnight: howling wind, daggers of rain, sleet and hail hammering the skylight. In the morning, I was surprised to find we hadn’t rolled off the ledge behind us and headed for the Akaroa Harbour; all the other campers had sensibly shifted away from the drop beside us. I had suggested this to my wife in the night, in what I considered a pleasant (but some might say shrill) tone. She’d grumbled something that sounded like “you do it then” and turned over. At least we now knew our handbrake worked.

Day Seven 

Why I’m poorly suited to campervanning reason : I am high maintenance.

Years ago, I was on holiday with my family. My sister, passing my room, asked, “why are you travelling with a slow cooker?” and I replied, “that’s not a slow cooker, that’s my toiletries bag”. 

I have never intentionally under-packed in my life. You just don’t know when something will turn out to be vital. If you’re away from home and you feel poorly and you say, “does anyone have [insert random wellness or pharmaceutical product here]?”, you want to be friends with ME, because there is a better-than-average chance it’s in my possession.

This did not work well in a campervan, where there were many nifty little storage spaces, the operative word being “little”. I packed the best I could for the trip and still took ten times too much. We tripped over my stuff on an hourly basis. In not unrelated news, on this day we went on a boat trip to see dolphins. They were cute, but it was hard to know what to focus on: the dolphins, or the folks spewing. I’m not saying the reason us three didn’t need those extra-strength paper bags was the ginger tablets, ginger oil and seasickness tablets I had on hand. But I am saying it a little bit.

Day Eight

We hadn’t stuffed up the appliances or set off any alarms for a solid two days. Obviously, we were at risk of becoming overconfident. It was time to remedy that, so my wife unintentionally did the handbrake alarm trick in the main street of Akaroa, terrifying at least a dozen tourists out of their Saturday morning reveries. 

Then we realised the toilet wasn’t flushing so we tried all the sensible solutions we’d seen the mechanics try (empty this, switch that off and on again, retry this button, grunt at things) to no avail. Cue call number 15 to the hotline. A-ha! Might have been an idea to refill the toilet water tank, which we’d failed to notice for an entire week. Campervanning idiot status reactivated.

My Instagram feed that day kindly provided me with a delightful ad from Wish for adult nappies. It’s almost as if Meta had been eavesdropping on the incessant conversations we’d been having about the toilet. Such a shame their timing was off. If only it had been a bit earlier in the trip (or even in the day). But now that we’d refilled the tank, my spammy stalky ad algorithm was TOO LATE, that sh*t had sailed. (Actually no, we had rules about what happened in the van. Number ones only.)

Day Nine

Why I’m poorly suited for campervanning reason : I like to know which way is up. 

I’m the reader of user manuals, the person with the game rules beside her, the perpetual learner via YouTube. A friend once described me as “particular”, and that person was 99% correct. So it was perplexing to me that we’d received minimal info when we picked up the vehicle on Day One. The person on the desk sighted our drivers’ licences, we did that strange electronic signing thing (I could have scribbled ‘Winston Peters’ and it would have looked more like my actual signature), she gave us the keys and said “let us know if you have any questions” (how prophetic!). That was it. I’ve received more comprehensive directions picking up pizza from Domino’s.

Talking with other people at campgrounds, we discovered this was a common theme. When one campground owner and I were laughing about all the incompetencies and misunderstandings, he said “it must be overwhelming when they tell you so much, it’s a lot to remember”. I said it might well be, if they’d told us anything at all. He looked shocked and told me that, pre-Covid, international tourists who picked up a campervan as they arrived in the country used to take, on average, TWO FULL HOURS to get through their intro. We took roughly two minutes. (It would have been faster, but the photocopier needed to warm up to copy our licences.)

He called over his co-worker. “Denise, did you hear that? This woman says they were told nothing about their van when they collected it. Nothing. They don’t know ANYTHING!” Then they stared at me like I was a moa who’d trudged out of the bush and was now loafing around in their reception area. Despite it all, still alive!

Back up the (house) bus. To stay afloat, it took us one Gary, multiple fellow van renters and two Brians (the second one was technically a Clive, a man at a garage in Akaroa who had the air of someone who spends much of the day whistling because he’s very content with life and said, “oh, I see a lot of these!” before proceeding to fix everything: broken doors and sticky hinges and we lost track of what else). Plus there were those many, many, many calls to the helpline. 

I can’t help but think that a stitch in time might have saved at least twenty here. If I could have gone back to Day One, I’d have asked for a walk-through. 

I had reached saturation point. I jumped ship and forked out for a cabin for the night. It is impossible to convey how excited I was about this. My wife immediately developed a rampant vomiting migraine and I reluctantly offered the cabin to her. She whimpered, “no, I’ll be ok” and I’m ashamed to say I did not look back as I fled for the room. 

Day Ten 

Having slept in a real bed, I was a much happier (non) camper. I was now fortified for one final night, an extremely brave, intrepid foray into freedom camping. The middle of nowhere. No power, no mobile coverage, no Garys or Brians. This was the real test. Had we actually learnt anything at all?  

We freedom camped in a paddock not far from Lake Hāwea. No other signs of human life visible. It was a crisp, completely clear evening, a new moon, and the tail end of Matariki. We sat in the hot tub and gazed at the Milky Way and its thousands and thousands and thousands of stars. None of us had experienced anything like it. Suddenly, momentarily, we loved the campervan.

Day Eleven (the Final Day)

A few years back some friends (two adults, two small children) came to Aotearoa from overseas and travelled the entire length of the country in a campervan over the course of a month. They were so fond of their van that they gave it a name, and when they dropped it off, they grieved.

We’re not those people. 

As we returned our camper to the depot, we reflected on the trip. Key findings: We didn’t crash the van or scrape it and it didn’t break down or require towing. We always found somewhere to park. We didn’t slide off the side of the road on the snowy hills above Akaroa. I did twice try to get into the wrong (identical) vehicle. We only almost set fire to the vehicle once, while cooking porridge on the last morning.

The first night it took roughly an hour to set up the beds and bedding; by the last night we had it down to nine minutes and fifteen seconds. We know, because we timed ourselves. We lost the keys daily (twice in an hour on one especially irritating day) and while I was consistently accused of being the offender, I was legitimately at fault only once. We all came home bruised from constantly whacking into things, but some of us would do that even in a campervan the size of the Taj Mahal. And we seldom set off the handbrake alarm by the end, but now, more than three years later, it still brings us great joy if we hear someone else’s alarm booming in the street. 

On the last day, there was also a major breach of campervan toilet protocol. All I’m saying is, there was a good reason we had the number one rule that we did. It was fitting that we finished with this. Also, traumatic. We shall never speak of it again.

Afterthought

Near the end of the trip we saw people on a tandem bike doing the Alps 2 Ocean Cycle Trail. I said to my wife, “ooh, we could do that for our next adventure!” She laughed and said,”yeah right! You’d be in the back and you’d find LOADS of things to complain about!” I had no idea what she meant. So long as we can haul a trailer with all my toiletries, and we’re being shadowed by a guy called Gary, and there’s a 24/7 helpline, I’m in.

Nicola Brown