New Zealand Van Life – Rolling Solo

You’re on the road
But you’ve got no destination
You’re in the mud
In the maze of her imagination


In the Summer of ’17 I was living out the back of a beat out Toyota Estima, tramping the New Zealand byways and skyways. An adventure. A lifestyle. A dowdy dream and a sobering reality. Not a glamorous Insta-fad of perfect moments, but a beautiful mess of feral memories and rustic leisure. As simple as necessity. As handsome as a smile.

I arrived in Auckland feeling like Dali’s clock and was flooded with basics to sort out. Somehow the details of travel are lighter when there are two of you, and singling out a decent van during the Summer rush is tough going. I learnt to avoid the dodgy car markets and follow the Facebook listings groups or pay a bit more for a dealer. In the end I went with the latter, Discount Campers. It took a week and a half to customize my van, but the yard was a fantastic place to meet fellow van lifers and experience yard life. A lifestyle with a sort of demure ‘touch but don’t look’ appeal to it. Oddly, one of my fondest memories of New Zealand.

And so off I went in my tricked out Toyota Estima, too old to own to its age. My anxiety slowly giving over to the passing miles. At first I spent a week in Matata, where I learnt the ins and outs of van life the hard way, and lost myself on the endless beach. For some reason it fascinated me to sit and stare out at the Pacific, knowing there was nothing but sea in front of me for half a world. At this point I was plotting a vague route and drawing inspiration from the New Zealand Backpackers group on Facebook, a very active community, and I made plans to meet up with Julija who was looking for a lift down South.

I collected Julija in Rotorua, an eggy thermal paradise come tourist trap, and cruised onward to Taupo; a far nicer mountainous paradise nestled on a pristine lake. Taupo was also our base for the Tongariro Crossing, by far the my favourite day hike in New Zealand, especially if you do the extra Mount Doom summit. This too was commercialized, just as you will find is the case with most of the major natural havens of New Zealand, but a must-do for sure.

We made good time going South, meeting up with a friend and plenty of sky along the way, and before I knew it we were on South Island, in Nelson, and parting ways, but it was just the beginning. December was spent with various friends, old and new, from the sands of Farewell Spit and Whites Bay to the wonders of Abel Tasman and Takaka. A whirlwind adventure that left me sat on the shores of Motueka in bloated exultation. I was starting to understand what it was all about. I wasn’t the same as when I began. An unfamiliar feeling pulling me South.

After my manic time in the North of South I was on a shoe string budget, camping free on beaches and sharing stories. Simplistic. Essential. The bare necessities. This was what van life was really about, and Kaikora was paradise! The surf, the sun, the smiles. Waaay out there. More a way of thinking than a camping spot.

Then, leaving my mind in Kaikoura, I took to the Southern Alps over Arthur’s Pass, down the West Coast via the glaciers and back over to Wanaka. And it is true, those Instagram pictures you see of people camped on the shores of ineffable mountain lakes. Picture perfect. Free. Happy. Lake Pearson is all of these things. Lake Pearson is officially van life paradise.

Things go wrong on the road though. I made it over Arthur’s Pass to Greymouth, where perfect surf and sunshine greeted me. Too good to be true. I found myself staggering to the hospital early the next morning, with kidney stones dicing up my insides. The hospital was too remote to have access to equipment to brake the stones down and I spent a week and a half by myself on a cocktail of painkillers in the back of my van instead. An ex typhoon blasted Greymouth, shutting down the city center and roads in and out, seeping into my van, and into my weary eyes.

The time lost meant I never made it beyond Wanaka, down to the Sounds, to the wild and barren beauty of the far South. A reason to return one day, perhaps. Instead I turned Northward and headed up the the inner side of the Southern Alps, via Mount Cook in all it stature, and back up the West coast of North Island.

When you ask people which island, South or North, is their favourite, they invariably say South Island. South Island is dramatic; it is romance and adventure. As grandiose as it is breathe taking. How strange then, that having done most of New Zealand, I discovered my favourite part to be a lesser traveled section along the coast North of Teranaki. A truly incredible drive, with a magic little surf spot in the middle of nowhere.

I guess, at the end of the day, its not too important where you go in New Zealand. So long as you have a trusty van, plenty of time and some good tunes, that’s plenty to go by. You won’t be the same by the end of it.


TOP 5 Picks from my New Zealand Road Trip playlist:

The Lumineers – Where The Skies Are Blue

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole – Somewhere Over the Rainbow

U2 – Beautiful Day

Elton John – Rocket Man

The Chainsmokers & Coldplay – Something Just Like This

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Add Your Comment
    • Lindi
    • May 25, 2018

    Breathtaking is one word… I don’t think I have ever heard of breathe taking. I am not sure we can be friends anymore 😛

    1. Reply

      But who will get you back in the surf?

    2. Reply

      Besides, I’d argue that “breathe taking” probably sits somewhere between “breathtaking” and “suffocating” 😛

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