Van Life

Mitsi is a 1996 Mitsubishi L300 with approximately 269,000 kilometers on the dash. In her former life, she was driven by an English couple touring New Zealand on holiday. Her life before that was spent traveling from movie set to movie set transporting camera equipment and various other film production supplies. She came into our lives in August of 2018 in Auckland. Since then, we’ve done our best to make sure her life was filled with as much thrill as she had become accustomed to.

Leaving Auckland was in many ways a relief. We enjoyed our time in the city, but our expectations of living amongst the lush New Zealand landscapes were not being met. The added stress of city driving (mainly for Dana; I saw it as a controlled chaos) meant getting beyond the city boarder provided us with one final sigh of relief. We may have come from the city streets of Phoenix where the metropolitan population nearly triples that of Auckland, but there was more to worry about than the number of cars on the road. Yes, Mitsi was “left-handed”, as all vehicles in New Zealand are, but she was also a manual transmission. Those two on their own could be manageable, however, the stick was not on the floor, it was on the steering column. This I had never seen before. Needless to say, Dana was gripping her seatbelt for dear life.

I managed to maneuver through traffic without causing any traffic accidents (that we saw) and without breaking too many laws (we counted ten or twelve). Finally, we were out on the open road! For the next few weeks, our lifestyle would be dependent on nothing but the position of the sun in the sky. We were living the hippie dream. In the morning, we’d wake up to the sunrise, cook breakfast and decide what we would do for the day. Dana would scour the Campermate app (our bible while on the road) to find cool beaches, mountains, and waterfalls nearby and we would begin our day’s adventures. The time between destinations was spent gazing out our windows with gaping eyes and the back and forth exclamations of “Look over here!” and “Check out that view!” We were able to travel at whatever speed made us happy. Some days we would hit three or four sites between sunrise and sunset. Other days (often due to rain) we would spend the entire day never leaving the van, playing card games and drinking the cheapest wine we could find.

Eating became one of the biggest adventures of all. We came to the country with budgets that would have allowed us to eat out much more often than we did. But instead, it became a game to see how cheap we could eat while still making delicious and filling meals. We got to the point where spending $3NZ ($2US) per person for a meal seemed almost unnecessary. So, we were living off PB&J’s and ramen noodles, right? Wrong. Wait, no that’s right. But only because they are delicious. Luckily, our diets weren’t completely paralleled to that of a poor college student. We enjoyed freshly grated hash browns and eggs almost every morning. For lunches and dinners, we would usually have pasta or stir fry with brown rice. There were endless flavors of pasta sauce to choose from and every time we got veggies for stir fry we would mix up the combinations as well as try some New Zealand veggies we had never heard of, like our favorite new ingredient, New Zealand yams. All of these combinations made it easy to avoid a monotonous menu after being on the road for a few weeks. And how did we cook it all? On a single burner stove, often inside the van to avoid wind and rain. Certainly not the most efficient, nor the safest means of cooking, but it worked for us!

Mitzi’s kitchen wasn’t the only area where minor upgrades could have been made. Periodically, she would show her age and mechanical repairs were required. Luckily, we were able to salvage pretty great stories out of each of those moments. Each encounter reminded me of a recent charity adventure I’d come across that I’ve likely told some of you about. The Mongol Rally has dozens of teams each year drive from London to Mongolia through routes of their own choosing in cars with restricted engine sizes. The creators of the event limited the size of the engines for the sole purpose of putting competitors in a position where they would inevitably break down along the way and be forced into serendipitous encounters with locals. Dana and I now have a few of our own stories of this flavor. The most notable was the flat tire we got on our way up to a high mountain camp site. We managed to complete all but fifteen minutes of our three hour drive before a blowout on a gravel road stopped us in our tracks. To make things even more interesting, I was able to get us stuck in the mud while trying to get to a proper area to change that tire. After thirty minutes and dozens of handfuls of gravel shoveled from the road, we were able to get her unstuck and up on the jack just to find out we were without a tire iron. Mind you, this all took place just before ten at night, in total darkness.

The cons are fairly obvious I would say. But the pros? Well first of all, neither of us were injured, so we had that to be thankful for. We also had a deck of cards to keep us entertained for the night, and, most importantly, we had two spare bottles of wine. That night we camped on the side of the road under the brightest stars either of us had ever seen. In the morning, we walked for six miles before we came upon a lodge where we met a man named Jeff who helped us out. We learned a lot about Jeff and his adventures around the world as he drove us back to Mitsi. One story I can’t help but mention involved a glass of scotch he had with two English geologists he’d met while working in Antarctica. The scotch itself wasn’t very good, according to Jeff, but the thirty million year old ice core samples seemed to make it taste a bit better.

All in all, the time on the road with Mitsi was nothing shy of the adventure we were hoping to give her. We’ve since settled down at our new jobs and will have a permanent home base through the start of next year. We plan on taking full advantage of our weekends off by exploring the rest of the North Island on several two or three day adventures over the coming months. We can’t let Mitsi feel neglected, after all!

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