I think that many of us have a romantic view of living in a van (or a large car). I was one of these people – I longed for the effortless freedom that living in a tiny, moving home could bring. Being able to uproot yourself and go wherever and whenever you want certainly has its appeal.
Until I moved to New Zealand, van life seemed like a lovely, but distant, idea.
It simply wasn’t achievable in Ireland. Endless rain, as well as the ridiculous expense of owning and insuring a large vehicle (or any vehicle, for that matter), prevented me from getting too swept away in the fantasy.
I was told that it is super common to own a van or a sleeper car (such as a Toyota Estima or a Honda Odyssey) in NZ.
I knew that van life was something I really wanted to try while I was here.
First of all – there are so many campsites here. The Department of Conservation (DOC) do a stellar job at providing basic, but beautiful, campsites. Most of these have a loo and a water source (though the water is often untreated) and you pay in cash at a drop box as you enter the sites. Most of the time, reservations are not necessary and they run on a first come, first serve basis. There are even a few free, or ‘basic’ campsites, which still have the rudimentary facilities. Self-contained vehicles (ie. Those with a toilet and waste water storage system) can camp for free in many areas, but the process to get your car certified for this adds an extra layer of complication for those who are converting their cars or vans themselves.
Secondly – Insurance here is actually affordable – I pay under $300 NZD a year for third party, fire and theft insurance for my 2.3L car. That is the equivalent of roughly €170. In Ireland, this would likely cost me at least €1000. As a full-time worker in Ireland I still struggled to cover the costs of car ownership – don’t get me started on the injustices of the insurance companies there – but here, this is not so much an issue. Cars themselves are also affordable and in hot supply.
Public transport exists but I did not want to rely on it. Unlike Australia, where I stuck to public transit on the more touristic routes, NZ offered an exciting independence which I truly believe can only be accessed by car (or hitching – but that is not fun with luggage).
And then I found Susie. Susie is my beautiful 1998 Honda Odyssey, so-called in honour of her previous owner. At 22, Susie is the same age as my brother, but she is also suffering from an identity crisis. She is a practical, hard-working 7-seater car but she has been fitted with a body-kit and has been lowered to make her extra cool (I would like to add that I did not make any of these changes). In essence, she is the car you could drop the kids to soccer practice in, on your way to smoke up a rally. I saw her for sale by the side of the road and I fell in love. What can I say – she makes me laugh. Susie has now been kitted out with a (delightfully comfy) bed, and we go on all kinds of adventures together.
Throughout my travels in NZ there have been many ups and downs, but my beloved van has always been my happy place.
I am currently writing this in what I call ‘the lounge’ – stretched across the front seats of Susie, a pillow behind my back and a beer in the cup holder.
I now work in an orchard (you can read more about that here) and I live out of Susie full-time. There is a kitchen and a toilet/shower block, but aside from these, my orchard home is Susie. All my stuff is in here – my ski stuff, my camping gear, deck chairs, a tent I have yet to use – all stored below my bed. The bed can be retracted to allow Susie to be a five-seater, which has proved so useful over the winter months.
I love climbing into my van in the evening, and settling in to read a book with the fairy lights on.
My bed is quite close to the ceiling – I had to sacrifice on head-space in order to keep the seats – but this makes it even cosier. Releasing the curtains and hearing the ‘click’ of the central locking are my bedtime rituals, and make me feel so secure. Waking up in the morning to birdsong, and feeling the whoosh of the cold, fresh air coming through the first opening of the door – those things are good for the soul. And when it rains, the pitter-patter of the droplets on the roof – inches away from my face – is magical.
There are downsides too, I suppose. If the weather is terrible, there is limited space to hang out (the lounge is fairly restricted). I can’t sit up fully in bed. Needing to pee in the middle of the night requires double the effort, and can be scary for someone like me who listens to far too many true crime podcasts.
But I love the adventure it brings. I love the independence of being a solo female traveller, making a home for myself wherever Susie and I venture. With Susie, I know I have my own little capsule home.
My van is my happy place.
What do you think of van life? Let me know in the comments below, and don’t forget to check out my blog for more travel tales!