Have Van, Will Travel

I am officially, sort of against my will, a hippie! Yes, I am now the dubiously-proud owner of a 1994 Mazda Bongo van with mattress.

Our trusty twelve month home/storage unit.

I don’t know how it came to this. Okay, I do. Except for a brief stint in my teens, function has always triumphed over form. Originally, a wagon was our goal — economic, not-a-van, and a place to lay our heads instead of shelling out $50-100 to sleep every night. An attempt to fold Pat’s 6’7” frame into the back of a Subaru Legacy was the moment of truth, and the reality of van ownership slowly sunk in.

Van shopping was a piecemeal task. Astoundingly, New Zealanders do not know about and do not use Craigslist (although it is available)! The closest thing is Trade Me, but it’s like Ebay. Our best option was to bike from hostel to hostel scanning message boards and calling van owners. On Sunday, we went to the Canterbury Car Market — a parking lot where sellers and buyers can meet up. Throughout the week we test drove seven vans. Most, mechanically speaking, have been run into the ground by apathetic or unknowing short-term owners. Bad shocks, black-black oil, mismatched tires, shoddy alignment, corroded radiators — you name it. We finally settled on the most mechanically sound van we found, which isn’t saying much. We’ve got our fingers crossed that the transmission carries us through the next year without a hitch!

As luck would have it, a couchsurfing visit to the tiny town of Birdlings Flat worked out amongst the van acquisition antics. We stayed with “Wheelie Mike” – a retired sheep shearer and deep sea fisherman. Birdlings Flat is about the size of… Rozet for you Wyomingites, Hyattville for the Californians, and Cheshire for the Oregonians. Half the time, they’re not even a dot on a map. It’s a collection of about 40 houses tucked beneath a volcanic bluff by the sea — no store, pub, or post office to speak of. Wheelie Mike’s is a hub of activity, and thanks to the “drop on by” community mentality, we got to meet half the neighborhood!

Mike’s son Bradley escorted us down to the roaring sea — he on his dirt bike, we in the all-wheel-drive golf cart on steroids. I found my first agates ever (finally!) and watched the terrifying, pounding surf. Although Mike is technically a quadriplegic, he still has some use of his arms/hands. Enough that he had dinner half done by the time we made it home! We drank Speights (the local beer), traded stories, and met neighbor after neighbor well into the night!

The next day, we finally got to play tourist in New Zealand’s largest south island city. Besides the stunning cathedral on the main square, my favorite part of the day was the art gallery. They are currently running a Ron Mueck sculpture exhibition that’s all the rage throughout the country. He makes stunningly life-like sculptures, save for their size. All are either larger or smaller-than-life. My favorite is “Wild Man” – a terrified looking mountain man sitting on a block. (see photo).

A city girl, I am not, and so at the end of the day, I was happy to head off into the sunset (sort of… it actually wouldn’t be dark for hours.)

More photos, if that’s your thing, at:


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