Campervan Chaos: What We Learned from 3 Weeks of Van Life

Campervan Chaos: What We Learned from 3 Weeks of Van Life

When we went to New Zealand, we decided to do the cliche campervan road trip. We chose a basic campervan from Jucy (i.e., the smallest, cheapest model), which had a fold-out bed in the back and a no-frills kitchen set-up in the trunk.

It was pretty comfy, and ideal for this type of trip, but it did present some challenges. Here are some of the things we learned from our 3 weeks in our campervan!

1. Don’t drive under the influence of anger

We had one “accident” while driving the van. It involved hitting a tree. Not like a full-on frontal collision, but just a glancing blow to the roof and passenger side door which happened to snap off most of the rain guard above the window.

Given that this was New Zealand, the reason we hit the tree was because we were trying to avoid some sheep on the road. But the deeper reason was because we were in the middle of a big fight and both of us were too distracted to notice the very large, stiff branch on the side of the road. And Bryan was mad enough that he had no desire to stop and evaluate the situation carefully, when he could instead push past the sheep by driving onto the shoulder.

Why were we fighting this time? Well, earlier that day we had done a really awesome glow worm cave tour in Charleston, and our guide had informed us that you could walk up through the forest to the entrance of the cave and see a big glow worm colony outside of the cave system at night. We already had a place booked further along our route, but we decided to make the drive back to do the walk at night. One of the advantages of New Zealand having no large predators is that you can walk through any forest in the middle of the night, with no one around, and have no fear of running into anything harmful. Unless, maybe, you piss off a large posse of possums. Who knows what would happen then.  

As we started walking through the forest, we started seeing little glimmers of light on some of the rocks, through the trees – glow worms! It felt like walking through an enchanted forest. Whenever we stopped near a rocky outcrop or large log and turned off our headlamps, we could see the magical glow emanating from at least a few of these little wonders. We stopped to take a couple of photos, and then pressed on.

After climbing up some stairs, we arrived at the entrance, and were rewarded with a dazzling display of glow worm lights, like constellations of stars covering all the overhanging rocks.

Sounds pretty romantic, right?

Well, as soon as we got there, Bryan got out his tripod and promptly proceeded to ignore Lisa for almost 45 minutes, trying to get the perfect photo of the glow worms. Initially Lisa didn’t think too much of this, and just enjoyed taking in the sight. She figured Bryan would get his photo and then they could enjoy it together.

But he carried on persistently, adjusting his settings and sighing with frustration at each failed attempt. It was a very difficult scene to photograph, and everything he took turned out looking a lot less cool than expected. Bryan had so enjoyed walking through the glow worm forest that he really wanted to take one nice photo for the two of us to remember this night by.

Meanwhile, Lisa grew more and more frustrated that Bryan was so single-mindedly focused on his photos and didn’t seem to have any interest in just sitting down and admiring the lights. Unfortunately, instead of saying anything to Bryan, she just let him continue down this dangerous path, until she was so annoyed that she had no more interest in sharing any moment with him at all. At that point, Bryan got annoyed that Lisa didn’t want to help him by modeling for a photo, and seemed to be annoyed at him. Lisa said, let’s just go, and started heading back down the hill. Bryan, realizing his error much too late, suggested that we spend time together enjoying the glow worms. But that ship had sailed quite a few minutes ago, and we were headed directly for very stormy waters.

As Lisa stomped down the hill, Bryan tried and tried to cajole her, but to no avail. He realized he had screwed up at the cave entrance, but also quickly became pissed that the magical walk through the enchanted forest was now also ruined, apparently.

We stomped back through 2 km of rainforest in the dark, Bryan walking faster and faster to try to leave Lisa behind, and this having the desired effect on Lisa (i.e., making her more angry). By the time we got back to the Jucy, we were both fuming. Bryan fired up the engine and hit the gas, and we bumped along the dirt road. And then he saw some sheep on the road and pulled onto the shoulder…*THWACK*…

So, in addition to the main lesson of calming down before operating heavy machinery, we also learned: a) Lisa: if you want something from Bryan, just tell him, and don’t assume that he can read your mind; b) Bryan: when sharing a special experience with Lisa, always prioritize making time to enjoy the moment together, ideally before taking a bunch of photos, or at least don’t wait for 45 minutes…

2. They aren’t kidding when they say New Zealand roads are not for the faint of heart

You have your mind fully occupied with driving on the wrong side of the road, and then you see that:

  • You’re on a “highway” with one lane in each direction, no shoulder to speak of, and large trucks whizzing past you.
  • There are sections of the “highway” covered in one lane bridges (yes, correct) and even a (deep breath) one-lane-road-along-a-narrow-gorge-with-a-big-dropoff-on-one-side-and-no-traffic-light-or–traffic-control-device-of-any-type-anywhere-what-the-hell-is-going-on???
  • There are prolonged sections that seem to be never-ending courses of winding turn after winding turn. Oh, and there’s often a steep drop-off down a cliff to your side.
  • The speed limit might be 80 or 100 km/h but it seems like there is rarely ever a section straight enough for long enough that you can safely reach this. In some parts we went as fast as we felt was safe and were still 10-20 km/hr below the speed limit.

3. Jucy campervans in New Zealand have the worst slogans ever

Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I drive by again? (we had this one… yay)

The glass is half full, and the other half was delicious

Don’t play hard to get, be hard to forget

Always take the scenic route, especially if you’re lost

…and there’s nothing more to say about that…

4. Your campervan will not be as nice as the one in the ad

We had lots of problems with windows and rain covers. Keep in mind that every night, if we didn’t keep two windows a few cm open, the van would fill with condensation and make things damp. That shouldn’t be a problem for a van which had 4 windows, right? Well, that’s assuming everything works properly…

A summary of issues we experienced with our van:

  • Windows
    • When turning on the car at night to open the windows, window A would typically not open until the van had been turned off and then back on at least 3-4 times. Oddly enough, window A did a little bit better during the day, but still wasn’t very reliable.
    • Once the windows started opening they often would not stop, and you would have to fiddle around with the button to roll it back up again and then try to hopefully stop it before it rolled all the way back up.
    • Often we needed to physically force the windows closed.
  • Rain covers
    • Of course, the one we busted on the passenger side front window didn’t work so well…
    • Our first rainy night after busting the rain cover for window C, we opened window B instead. Bryan woke up in the middle of the night to find the side of his mattress soaked in water, at which point he figured out window B’s rain cover was leaking like a sieve. Lisa woke up to find Bryan cursing and trying unsuccessfully to physically close the window (which at this point was stuck down and would not close electronically). It took a few minutes of getting soaked for both of us to finally jam it closed.

5. Living in a van is all fun and games until it starts raining (and never stops)

About 10 days into our road trip, we arrived in Wanaka. The previous few days had been spent on the west coast, and it had been incredibly beautiful, but also rather rainy and cold (see above problems with windows and rain covers). And when we got to Wanaka, it was coming down relentlessly.

The rainy and dreary drive to Wanaka

Not only that, we were in the midst of one of the worst fights of our relationship. The great glow worm incident had festered, and on the day we were to drive to Wanaka, it got a lot worse. In the morning, we went to Monro Beach, a 2-3 hr roundtrip hike through luxuriant West Coast rainforest, out to a secluded beach. Bryan decided to bring his macro lens, to try to get some fern and moss close-ups, so he brought both his cameras (one with wide angle lens, one with macro lens).

As we started the hike, it started to rain. The problems really started with the ferns, though. Ferns with fiddleheads, and tree ferns, specifically. Bryan asked Lisa to pose for him for a few shots with tree ferns, and after patiently doing a few, she stopped being so keen to keep halting. Bryan got frustrated by this so he began to stop on his own to take photos, not telling Lisa. Lisa, on turning to look for Bryan, would find him either absent, or bent over a fern shooting photos from every angle.

As you can imagine, Lisa’s patience wore thin very quickly. The great glow worm incident had happened only 4 days ago and was still a bit raw. Now here was Bryan up to his same old tricks again! And even worse, it was raining… And how hard could it be to get a picture of a fern? It literally just sits there. Take the photo and let’s keep moving!

Bryan, for his part, was so excited about this hike, because it was the best temperate rainforest we had yet seen. The macro lens brought out so many possibilities, with rain drops sitting on tiny fiddleheads, and tiny little moss forests covering logs and trunks all along the trail. Bryan saw before him endless creative possibilities, and wanted to try a lot of them.

Normally, Bryan will involve Lisa in this process, and we have fun discussing different possibilities. Lisa enjoys thinking of creative compositions and giving Bryan suggestions, which he will then execute. But this time, both of us were annoyed with each other, so Lisa didn’t bother giving any suggestions, and Bryan didn’t bother trying to engage her in the process. This in turn made the whole situation worse.

As Lisa hurried on ahead, Bryan tried to catch up and talk to her, but things were too far gone at this point. So Bryan, for his part, stubbornly took extra photos here and there, because he was not going to have a fight reduce his enjoyment of this wondrous rainforest. We met again by the beach, as Lisa was returning and Bryan just arriving. It was also not the most civil exchange on either of our parts, and Lisa headed back to the van.

Bryan returned to the van about thirty minutes after Lisa, and we enjoyed a lunch of peanut butter and honey sandwiches in sullen silence. Then we hit the road again to drive to another hike, and then to make our way to Wanaka. At first we drove in silence, but soon that silence was riven by a running series of accusations, rebuttals, counter-attacks, and snarky comments. As we drove down to Jackson Bay, and then up through Mount Aspiring National Park, it built and built, into a deafening crescendo of resentment. Our day took on a rhythm:  argue – drive – stop – short hike – enjoy scenery – back in van – argue – drive – stop – and so on.

Lisa was resentful that Bryan was spending more time and effort on photography than on enjoying things with her. Bryan was resentful that he had apologized for the great glow worm incident, but it kept coming back at him and would not go away. And our other old resentments boiled back up as well – Bryan dismissing Lisa’s ideas and concerns, Lisa assuming the worst about Bryan’s intentions.

By the time we reached Wanaka, we had somewhat exhausted our arguments and were back to sitting in sullen silence. We tried to patch things up, but it was like putting a small bandaid on a big open gunshot wound at this point. Clearly a more intensive intervention was required, but we weren’t really up to it at the moment.

Making things worse, we didn’t have anywhere to stay yet. This time we hadn’t made any reservations because we had been trying to keep our plans flexible. A couple days before, we had realized we wanted to change up our route a little bit and had to cancel at a holiday park when it was too late to get a refund. So far, it seemed like the holiday parks always had some unpowered sites available – so we decided to risk it and just show up wherever our day took us.

Unfortunately, Wanaka was super busy (thanks, #thatwanakatree) and the first holiday park we tried was full. So much for freedom and spontaneity.

The famous Wanaka tree that attracts hordes of phone photographers and selfie-takers.

The other thing was, we really didn’t feel like sleeping in the van that night. Everything was damp, we were cold, we were angry, we were hurt, and we kind of just wanted a place with heating and a real bed. And where you could go to the bathroom or shower without having to run outside through the pouring rain. And where leaking windows weren’t letting cold water drip on you all night long. Basically, we needed a break from the Jucy. And if we didn’t get one, we both had a strong suspicion that our relationship might not last the night.

So we decided to try a motel for the night. But, you guessed it, the first two we stopped by were full. We did not have data on our phones, it was late and we were not sure where to find WiFi, so we just drove around looking for signs. We finally came across a Ramada which had one room left. We were so relieved. The room was like paradise. It was warm and dry. We could use the bathroom without putting on all of our clothes and getting wet. We have probably never enjoyed a hotel room as much in our lives.

Then it was time to try to fix that wound. We had a difficult conversation, where we seriously discussed ending the relationship. This was probably the first time we both seriously considered it. It just felt so broken and awful, and we couldn’t escape from it. Surely the last 10 days in the van hadn’t helped – making us feel more and more trapped with things we didn’t know how to fix.

It was probably the most stripped down, honest and bare conversation we’d had up to this point. It was hard. Really hard. We cried. We talked about our underlying mental issues, discussed getting counselling, and finally reached the conclusion that we could make things work, we just had to keep trying. Thankfully, a happy ending. But we both shudder to imagine what would have happened if we had not found a hotel, and had to spend that cold night in the van. That seriously might have been the end.

6. Driving a campervan can make you feel like an outcast from society

The more you drive around and see the endless camper vans packing the roads and holiday parks of the South Island, the more you think about what the native Kiwis (the people, not the birds) must think of you, as you drive around your Jucy with its big, gaudy, terrible slogan.

We had enough time to figure out how to drive decently, but more often than not when we came across another campervan on the highway, it was going very slowly, or doing something sketchy like driving slowly half on the shoulder and half on the road (if there was a shoulder), crossing the centerline, or something of that nature. Or, it was parked on the side of the road, and the occupants of the van were out lying or standing on the road getting photos of themselves (we saw this at least three times). We had to overtake so many other campervans that we quickly lost count.

Then, in many of the towns we went into, we found parking lots with signs saying “campervans prohibited” or “no campervans allowed.” We can understand why, but with our modestly sized minivan that could easily fit into a standard parking space, we really felt like we were being a bit discriminated against, for the sins of others.

So you can imagine how it might feel to think that, to the outside person looking in, you are no different than all the other van renters, bumbling around, blocking traffic, driving on the wrong side, and causing such a mess in parking lots that they have to put up signs prohibiting all camper vans.

7. Holiday parks in New Zealand are surprisingly fancy

We were pleasantly surprised at how well-equipped and frankly luxurious the holiday parks were. They all had clean bathrooms, flushing toilets, showers with a seemingly endless supply of hot water, and large communal kitchen facilities. They also each had their own various options for entertainment and relaxing, such as hot tubs, TV rooms, games, and (Lisa’s favourite) a big trampoline dome type thing. Compared to the stinky pit toilets we were used to from campgrounds, this was a real treat. But they also weren’t that cheap – usually around $35-40 NZD per night.

The nice kitchen at one of the Top10 Holiday Parks we stayed at

8. If you don’t kill each other, living in a van can make your relationship stronger

The 3 weeks we spent in the van has been the hardest part of our trip, relationship-wise. Much harder than camping with bears nearby, getting mauled by sand flies, or doing Lisa’s first multi-day backpacking hike (blog posts coming soon). Being with each other 24/7 with basically no escape, other than a usually busy common room at the holiday park, just wore and wore on us. It’s a very good thing we didn’t plan for any longer than 3 weeks, as that was enough. And even that was only achievable with 2 nights in hotels in Wanaka, to break things up.

Looking back at this experience, despite all the difficulties, we were very glad we did it. The scenery was fantastic, and we loved the freedom of driving “our home” around the South Island. And coming out of New Zealand, our relationship was stronger…quite a bit stronger, in fact. Although it was a difficult process, it was useful to deal with all of the issues that bubbled up to the surface during this time. So one way to think about living in a van for 3 weeks is that it is equivalent to at least 6 months of “normal” relationship building time. A fast-track intensive self-mediated and slightly confusing round of therapy. Definitely a good pre-marriage test, and not bad value for money, if you think about it.

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