Our mission was simple – find and acquire a campervan to tramp around New Zealand with while still partying with our travel friends Chris & Lauren for New Year’s on the beach. The challenge was in doing it all in two days! We flew into Auckland on a redeye from the Gold Coast, arriving at 1am. The airport shuttle into town rang in at $16/per person, the beginning of our New Zealand “sticker shock” having just come from Malaysia and India! Flying in on a redeye Sunday morning wouldn’t be such a big deal, if it wasn’t for the fact that the well-known Ellerslie Car Fair happens to run only on Sunday mornings! That means after checking into our hotel, Neda and I only grabbed a few hours of shuteye before catching the bus out to the fair to find our van.
First a little history about why we had this mission in the first place. While traveling in Cambodia we ran into a great couple, Chris & Lauren. Chris is a Kiwi and the couple had recently bought a campervan to travel around New Zealand’s two stunning islands before returning to sell the van and continuing with their travels. Their stories inspired us and logistically it seemed the best way to see NZ. To rely on public transportation leaves you missing the plethora of off-the-track destinations that make New Zealand so special and to rent a campervan for 2 months rings up between $5-8k. On the other hand, you can buy a decent minivan/full size van with a simple bed frame put in the back for around $3-4k. Then, at the end of your trip, there is a good chance you can sell the van at around the same cost or with a slight loss.
When we walked up to Ellerslie, the parking lot had a string of about 10 campervans to choose. The sellers were made up of either German backpackers or seedy looking locals. We had heard that rip-off artists abound at the fair and so were hoping to deal with backpackers, who seemed less likely to outright lie about the history of the car. After perusing the vehicles though we found that there are two classes of vans – those that have been fully modified to include a sink and a table and those that really just have a bed in the back. The modified ones all had price tags in the 5k+ range, which was beyond what Neda and I wanted to risk in this endeavor. But the non-modified vans were in pretty bad shape, so we took some phone numbers but left the fair by hitchhiking with some Czech backpackers who wanted to sell us their 1989 Toyota Hiace, which a mechanic had told us might struggle over the hills in the South Island.
Ringatoto Volcanic Island near Auckland
Back in Malaysia, I had used the precious internet time there (internet is costly and sparse in New Zealand!) to research campervans online. The best sites I found were Gumtree and the Backpacker Board. People had recommend trademe.co.nz, but I didn’t want to buy a car without looking at it first (its sort of like e-bay in that way). As soon as we got a NZ phone (I recommend Skinny for a cheap, good provider if you have a smartphone), we texted the people I had previously researched and found that most of the vans were available. So we woke up on New Year’s Eve, still jet-lagged with a mini car fair coming to our hotel parking lot! In the end, we turned down Germans with a Mitsubishi Spacegear and found the preferred model I had been looking for – the Toyota Estima. The Estima is a popular car in New Zealand and we see families riding around in them all the time (meaning high resale value to kiwis and tourists alike). It also has more power than some of the older models like the Hiace and is quite durable. Nigel (the seller) wanted $4,500 for the 1996 Estima with 222k km and a futon in the back that he had put in himself, as well as a customized little counter for storage and cooking sitting behind the futon. I offered him $3,500 pending a mechanical inspection and we had an agreement, but it was already getting late on New Year’s Eve so we agreed to put off the sale until the 3rd, since the 1st & 2nd are holidays in New Zealand.
BBQ'd Coromandel mussels!
Yay! Relieved that we had a solid prospect on our mini-home, we met up with Chris and Lauren, who were visiting New Zealand for a wedding and holidays. It’s always fun to meet up with those we have traveled with over our trip, and this was no exception. On New Year’s Eve we went to a friend of Chris’ house on the beach and partied the night away. New Zealand has lots of craft beers, which I heartily enjoyed while we cooked up Coromandel mussels, shot air guns, and BBQ'd the night away. Almost like being in America for the 4th of July, except it was New Year’s Eve! New Zealand is the first major country to usher in the New Year so while we were kissing and drinking champagne, it was only 6am on New Year’s Eve on the East Coast!
The sitting lion on Piha beach
New Year’s Day found us traveling with Chris’ friend Mike over to spectacular Piha beach, which has some crazy riptides. They are so bad that a baywatchesque reality TV show is filmed there where unsuspecting swimmers get pulled out of the raging rips by a darting raft filled with lifeguards. In the evening we spent some time with Chris’ fascinating parents (his dad was backpacking around the world back in the 1950’s as part of the British merchant marine!) who hosted us for a few days. This left us time to explore the volcanic Ringatoto island off the coast of Auckland (which is essentially a city built on top of volcanoes) and walk around the Auckland harbor, marveling at $18 hamburgers and $17 gyros as our sticker shock continued! Ringatoto had great views of the Skytower and it was interesting to see the unique kidney fern as well as the breeding grounds of the black back gulls.
When the holiday was over and 3rd rolled around, we had to finish the deal with the car. The seller picked me up and we went to one of the only mechanic shops I could find that was open. FYI, much of Auckland closes down between Christmas and the first two weeks of January as the locals take their summer holidays. Not a good time to visit! The pre-purchase inspection yielded some minor fixes needed on the car like windshield wipers and a new radiator cap, though nothing major for a Warranty of Fitness (WOF). The WOF is the main car inspection in New Zealand and is required every 6 months for cars older than 3 years. In the end the car seemed in pretty good shape so we decided to take the plunge and have been loving it ever since!
I have to admit that juggling the purchase of a vehicle, its registration and inspection, as well as insurance while still hanging out and partying with our friends was a challenge sometimes. But once we actually paid for the van and it changed hands, the excitement set in! We had a mobile home by which to explore this beautiful country! The next couple days also offered pure indulgence and relaxation as we hung out with a friend of Chris’ at his business partner’s mansion overlooking Ringatoto on the coast. We had but to walk down the back stairs to head to the beach and we hung out all night playing board games and sleeping in luxury. Not a bad way to preface a trip in a campervan! After Chris’ b-day smash at Ben’s bar we crashed with Ed for the night (thanks again buddy!) and set off the next day to see what the road awaited!