The New Zealand Van Saga – Part 1

I’d like to start off by saying that the misadventures in this first instalment are not entirely my fault. I don’t really take responsibility for any of my travel mishaps thus far, but the problems chronicled hereon in are in large part due to the chaotic and poorly thought out life choices of an extremely disorganised friend of mine (love you).

First things first, a little bit of background. I decided quite early on in my trip planning to start off in New Zealand. I wanted to rent a van and road trip from North to South. However this friend of mine, Tall, decided she wanted to buy a van instead and keep it after our trip had finished.

(Sidenote: Tall knows nothing about cars, has never driven a car and doesn’t even have a driving license.)

So, the deal was that Tall would buy the van and I would drive it from Queenstown to Auckland for her, teaching her to drive on the way – simple! In exchange for being her chauffer, I got a sweet ride, a cool place to sleep and a way to see the whole of New Zealand without shelling out my whole travel budget – anyone who knows New Zealand knows this is a serious accomplishment. It all sounds too good to be true, right? Well, it was.

I arrived in Auckland, settled in and spent a few days excited about our big road trip. After cajoling Tall into some organisation (insurance, tax, you know…necessary things), we set off on our journey to Queenstown. We arrived after a quick flight, filled with anticipation to explore whilst making our way back up to Auckland in our wonderful van.

Landing in Queenstown

After collecting our bags we made our way to a car rental company just outside the airport where the van was being looked after until we needed it. We arrived, we paid, we sorted ourselves out, we picked a playlist and we made Instagram posts about the beginning of our road trip. The time had come to set off, so I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing happened. No click, no engine turning, nothing. Initially, we found this pretty hilarious, but over the next few hours, our situation became more and more dire and significantly less funny.

Now I guess a little more backstory is probably necessary for you to fully understand the poorly thought out decisions that lead to us being sat behind the office of a car rental company in Queenstown in a van that didn’t work. After deciding that buying a van was the way forward, Tall found one on a New Zealand version of gumtree. Its previous owner was a Canadian girl who had spent a year travelling New Zealand. According to her, it was in great condition; old and well-loved but most importantly, functional. Considering our current situation, we realised that she might not have been entirely truthful with us.

The important thing to take away here is that the van had been sitting behind this office for 3 months. It was a 1989 Toyota Liteace that was far too decrepit to sit anywhere for 3 months without dying (even if it hadn’t been dying beforehand), which, knowing nothing about cars, we had just conveniently learnt.

The infamous van

So what do you do when a car won’t start? You jump start it of course! One of the rental company employees, the first of many people to take pity on us on this extremely taxing day, said he would come and jump it for us, so I tried to open the bonnet. It turned out (of course, because this couldn’t be easy could it?) that the bonnet didn’t open. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but no word of a lie, we couldn’t find the engine. We tried everything. We pushed every button, pulled every lever and it was nowhere to be found. We tried googling a manual, but apparently, the van was so old it was made before manuals were a thing. After several hours of trying to figure this out, we discovered that the engine was actually underneath the passenger seat. Because that’s totally the first place you look when trying to find a car engine, right? To make matters worse, the entire search was futile because obviously, the battery wasn’t in the engine…why would it be?! We looked into calling the AA, but naturally, you can’t call them if you’re not a member and once you’ve made a membership you have to wait for 24 hours before you can get roadside assistance.

At this point, we decided to take a break and go for food while we figured out our options. As it turns out, we didn’t have too many. We were so demoralised at this point we started looking into scrapping the van and flying back to Auckland. Tall called a few scrap companies while I looked at flights. That was when the next bombshell hit us: there were no flights back to Auckland for 3 days because a cyclone was coming into the South Island. Yup, you read that right…an honest to god, bonafide cyclone. Why not eh?

With the flight option written off, I started looking at places to stay for the night. We were mutually agreed that we didn’t want to sleep in the van. It was dirty as hell and smelt really weird and after the day we’d had we couldn’t think of anything worse. We’d also developed a serious resentment to the van and all the grief it had caused us. Then came the final nail in our proverbial coffins: there was nowhere to stay. Everywhere was booked out because of the cyclone. At this point, we really were despairing. It was torrentially raining and we were cold and tired and genuinely didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I messaged a few people on Couchsurfing – our last resort. I wasn’t feeling too good about staying with a stranger, but what else could we do? One of them got back to me saying he might be able to put us up for the night. But only might – he’d have to get back to us later. At a complete loss, we sat outside a New World supermarket in the rain eating deli counter pasta, chain-smoking cigarettes and debating what the hell we were going to do.

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