My worries and fears about travelling in New Zealand seem trivial in the time of a global pandemic. I left home when the coronavirus was something to be cautious of. I arrived in New Zealand before all new arrivals, regardless of nationality and citizenship, were required to enter self-isolation for 14 days. In my time at the hostel I could hear friends talking to those back at home, people who were meant to come out and visit for a month, six weeks. Their trips cancelled. Friends of my own not sure on what will happen to their own travel plans. Some have now been cancelled or indefinitely postponed. I start to consider what further sanctions may be imposed here. Do campsites count as large gatherings? Will DOC huts remain open? Will I have enough toilet paper to eat once I run out of food?
I had more pressing concerns before the virus expanded its reach. What to do about transport and accomodation? Looking into getting around New Zealand without a vehicle provided me with several issues. The first, I couldn’t get to half the places I wanted to. The second being if I could, I could only go for a few hours as part of an expensive tour group. This is not how I wanted to see the country. Those few people I’ve spoken to have made it clear, I need my own wheels. If I’m going to invest in transport, I might as well be able to live off them. The next problem, the initial up front costs of a vehicle are high; the metal, the registration, the insurance. I have a solution to this problem; money. Next. I’ve had it too easy from work up until now. I’ve never had a car long enough to know what to do when something goes wrong. No experience of MOTs or services. My brain hit hyperspeed, processing every possible situation in which I would encounter a problem. I have no experience in any of it. Not once does my trusted mind touch on the idea that buying my first car could work out.
I searched the notice boards, the Facebook groups. Looking at words that didn’t make sense to me. Reading articles on how to buy a van in New Zealand. More words, no more understanding. I turned to something I did understand, how much would it cost? More importantly, how much could I afford? Pricing out the anything that would swallow more than half of my budget was easy. Figuring out the price of everything else was guesswork. I talked myself into the New Zealand backpacker classic, the Toyota Estima. Taller than your average car and a little longer too, they can easily fit a bed in the back. They were also significantly cheaper than a van. Where to buy one? Other backpackers, leaving while they still can were cutting prices amid fierce competition. Picking up a bargain would be easy, if I knew anything about the mechanics of a car. I didn’t know where to begin but knew I would have to start soon. The longer I stayed in the city, in a hostel, surrounded by people, the greater my risk of infection. My other option was to buy from a licensed motor trader. I wasn’t entirely convinced this would be much better for me than buying from a backpacker. No chance of a bargain but it had to be worth a look. There were offers of buybacks at the end of your trip, some camping gear included in the cost, and importantly a little bit more peace of mind. I picked Ed’s Campers, their website felt comforting as did the complete lack of negative reviews.
Looking back, I made some commitments too soon, my initial request aimed in one direction and I was already looking in another. In the week leading up to going out to visit Edgar and his campers I thought more about how long I would be looking to live out of a van, what I would need to be comfortable. It didn’t take me long to realise that a converted station wagon probably wasn’t going to be suitable for at least a year of living. When I met Edgar out on the edge of Auckland in Papakura, he confirmed that I would definitely want a little more space for the length of my trip. He had around 70 vehicles on his site all in various stages of conversion. Ready to go campervans, gutted sports team vans awaiting new life, plenty of Estimas with beds in the back. I’d made a call to the Bank of Mum and Dad about the costs of a van and the impact it would have on my ability to travel. I’ve always been fortunate to have the support of my family in my adventures. They were willing to help me out with the enhanced costs of an actual van. I spoke to old mate Jon concerning how much I was spending. He reminded me, in a way, a van is an investment. I would have somewhere to live, my own space, no matter how small. Also when I am ready to leave, I might be able to recoup a significant chunk of my initial spend. Edgar took me around a couple of the vans. I was out of my depth. I don’t know what I’m looking for. A wheel in each corner and one in front of the driver’s seat? Overwhelmed, I almost forgot one vital piece of information; I can’t drive a real van. Legally speaking I could probably get away with it but on a functional level I only know how to drive an auto. Edgar wasn’t convinced I’d get an automatic commercial vehicle. His son, Sebastian, let him know they’d had one come in earlier that week. My run of good fortune appears to continue. We agreed a price and I made up my mind. “Come back”, they said, “ in two days and it’ll be ready.” Two days later, it wasn’t.
The outbreak of Covid-19 had intensified. The New Zealand government had locked the borders down entirely. Only permanent residents and citizens could return. This triggered several problems for Edgar. New customers wouldn’t be arriving. Existing clients were looking to leave if they could. He ended up spending most of the day on the phone, and I became part of the furniture. Luckily for me, there was a spare room and Edgar’s hospitality stretched to keeping me fed and watered until he could get me on the road. If I wanted to go, and I did want to go. He offered me the option to return if the country went into lockdown and I was grateful to know there’s some where for me to go. Four days after we’d originally agreed, I signed the final paperwork, put the keys in the ignition and set off to see what adventure awaits this man and his van.