Nu Adventures – Setting Off

The Beginning

Welcome to the story of our Nu Adventures.

On February 22 2011 a lot of lives changed for good. Many people suffered much worse than we did, so we count ourselves extremely lucky.

The Quake

When the 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck at 12.51pm, I was at work, in an office, eating my lunch. We knew it was bad, but we didn’t know quite how bad until much, much later – the power was off so we couldn’t see what the rest of the country was seeing on news websites, and the phone network was so overloaded that text messages & voicemail were taking hours to get through, phone calls were impossible. When I eventually managed to meet up with my boyfriend at his work we heard reports that the Christchurch Cathedral had collapsed and that there were probably injuries this time round. We never listen to the radio in the car and for some reason didn’t think to switch it on for the news. I think we probably didn’t really want to hear it.

It took us about 4 hours to drive home. In normal rush-hour traffic this would take 30 minutes, but traffic was total gridlock as every single person in the city was trying to get home, pick up kids from school, or just leave town. The whole way home we were saying how much worse the damage was over our side of town that last time, but for some reason were both thinking that our house would be ok. I mean, it had come through the first Canterbury earthquake (magnitude 7.1, 4 September 2010, 4:35am) and the thousands of subsequent afterhshocks (some of which were quite sizeable and centred only a few kilometers of the house) with a bit of damage, but it was still livable. What we didn’t know was that the m6.3 earthquake was centred about a kilometer away, whereas the m7.1 was about 30 kilometers away, so the movement of the little hill we lived on was very different during the two quakes. When we first saw the house we were in total shock. Every single brick was on the ground, windows were broken and inside was pure chaos.

As I said though, we were lucky. Some people’s houses completely collapsed. Some hillsides collapsed and houses went with them. And some people never got to see what state their homes were in – we found out later that 185 people died during that quake. We should have expected fatalities, but I think we were all in a bit of a bubble, because after the m7.1 earthquake no one had died and there were very few major injuries. This one happened at lunch time, on a weekday, when people were at work and going about their business. Of course it was going to be worse.

Besides now having no cladding, running water, or electricity the house had moved away from the hillside a few inches, and all of the ties securing it to the foundations had snapped, so we decided we would go to my parent’s place. We packed an overnight bag, and grabbed a couple of precious things that we didn’t want to leave the mercies of earthquakes, weather or fire and joined the queue of traffic again.

We slowly made our way out to where my parents live, which was actually in a barn (not as bad as it sounds – it’s basic, but lined and painted and well insulated) while their new house was being built. The barn is only 80m² so it would be way too small for 4 adults. Friends of our parents heard the news and immediately volunteered to bring their family campervan up from Dunedin for us to use as a bedroom to ease conditions in the barn while we looked for somewhere else to live.

The Decision

It was basically impossible to find somewhere to rent. We’d started looking 4 days after the quake because we’d been packing up our stuff and we were way too late, people had been putting their names on rental agents’ lists on the aftternoon of the quake. There were families with children who needed rentals a lot quicker than we did and we could camp at mum & dad’s until the renting situation was a little less mad, so we weren’t totally stressed about the situation. How wrong we were. A year and a bit later and there is still a rental crisis in Christchurch.

After about a month we gave up looking for a rental and started waiting for mum and dad to finish building their house so that we could live in the barn. The building company reckoned that they were only 3 months away from finishing it. 4 months, tops.

So we decided that since we were living in a campervan anyway we might as well buy our own campervan and hit the road for 3 months while we were waiting. As you do. We were originally looking for something as new as we could afford (mid 90’s), and quickly realised that a Ford Econovan just wasn’t our style. We’re into classic cars and it seemed that for the same amount of money as an Econovan you’d get something MUCH more interesting, that was built properly and looked cool. Ok, it might break down, but then so might the 90’s Econovan if it hadn’t been properly maintained by the string of tourists who’d owned it and then promptly sold it at the end of their trip. A classic van was more likely to be owned by someone who’d had it a while and loved it and looked after it.

The Van

In the end we bought a really cool little 1981 Volkswagen Transporter which had had a proper factory hi-top campervan conversion (we think it was a Devon conversion, called the Moonraker – sweet!). It was a bit of a bargain, but it seemed in good shape and had an aircooled motor – I have a 1970 VW Beetle as my daily driver, so we knew what we were getting ourselves in for. Ok, the 1600cc motor wasn’t going to get us anywhere quickly, but we had 3 months so we weren’t in any hurry. The slower you go, the more you can appreciate the view, right?!

The van was in Nelson, so we had a friend look it over for us. He’s not a car-guy as such, but he is an engineer so I figured he’d be able to tell us if there was anything worrying like, say, a huge puddle of oil under it, or a weird smell inside (we’d viewed a van that smelled damp recently – leaky windows, not cool). As it turned out he did an incredibly thorough job of taking photos from every conceivable angle and a video so we basically felt like we’d seen it in person. Plus the guy we were buying it from is well known in VW circles, knew what we wanted it for and was very honest about it’s condition, was asking a sensible price for it and seemed like a good guy, so we were pretty happy that it would do the job. We flew up to collect the van and drove it on it’s maiden voyage home. 500km or so, and it mostly behaved. We drove down the coast route, because the hills aren’t as steep so we were likely to make better time, and the view is pretty cool too.

There was a worryingly strong smell of petrol with a full tank, but that is just kind of how older VW’s smell, and it did develop a tiny wee issue where it would cut out as you were pulling up to stop and then not want to start again with the key, but so long as you were rolling when it did it you could pop the clutch at get it going again. Ok, so we weren’t going to be doing any sightseeing on the way home but we were kind of wanting to get home by dinner time anyway so no biggie. Red traffic lights when we hit Christchurch were a bit unwelcome, but there aren’t many if you skirt the city so we made it home without needing to push start it.

We rolled up, slightly worried (what else is the old fella hiding…?), but mostly triumphant. It was a great van (well, it would be once we dealt with the aforementioned issues), it had a bed (narrow), a 2 ring gas cooker, a grill (fancy!) a little gas fridge, a table, and the co-pilots chair swiveled around for extra seating, brilliant! We named it Newt, sorted out the cutting out issue (fuel cut-off solenoid connector was just a bit loose) and took it in to the mechanic who looks after my Bug for a service and tune-up. He’s an aircooled VW specialist and seemed to approve of our choice of live-in transport.

We spent the 3 weeks after we’d bought it rummaging through our boxes at the storage unit trying to locate stuff we’d need while we were away (we packed in a bit of a hurry and under a little stress so boxes weren’t necessarily labelled), I made some curtains (it had some already, but not for all of the windows) – thermal lined, ooh la la – and we scrounged some carpet off cuts from a local carpet manufacturer to cosy up the floor.

The Adventure Begins

We set off on a very frosty morning, heading towards the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. It would be a good test of our little van on steep hills and we were right: Newt wasn’t the fastest, but put it in second gear and it’ll chug it’s way up eventually. We stopped beside Lake Pearson to admire the beautiful morning view – all misty now that the frost had mostly burned off. It was a beautiful day, and felt like we were beginning what was going to be an amazing adventure.

Next stop was at the look out on Death Corner towards the Otira Viaduct. Driving through the Pass we’d decided we were pretty clever in our choice of van, the engine was at the back and under the bedding so it was really quiet (we both drive old cars as daily drivers so this was a bit of a novelty). With the windows open driving through the forest we could hear birdsong and smell the damp leaves and moss. Plus the seating position meant we got a great view of the scenery.

We got to the West Coast pretty early in the day. We hadn’t quite got the hang of this whole tourist thing yet, so we were still driving to make good time, not stopping frequently to take in the view. We made it to Hokitika by lunch time! We stopped to get some supplies and then drove off to check out prospective Department of Conservation Campsites. High on the list was Lake Ianthe. The view (below) was top notch, but the sandflies were in plague proportions. Seriously, we were going to get eaten alive if we whiled away the afternoon there. Even obvious signs of fish rising in the lake (we had fishing gear with us) wasn’t enough to tempt us to stay.

When we’d had enough of the sandflies we jumped back in the van and headed on. We stopped in at some other campsites but one wasn’t very nice and the other seemed to be being dug up and re-gravelled. Light was fading, temperatures were dropping (it was late Autumn) so we decided to push on and head for the little village of Franz Josef and (I’m slightly ashamed to say it) plug in at one of the powered sites at the Holiday Park. It was really cold, we really wanted to have a heater on for the evening!

The next morning we woke up to a stunning view and a stunning blue sky.

It was going to be a good day. A lazy first breakfast of bacon, poached eggs and toast, along with a coffee from our neat little stove-top espresso pot and then we would hit the road again…

Nu Adventures is the story of our 3 month adventure around the South Island of New Zealand in over Autum/Winter of 2011. The rest of the adventure will be published soon, follow my blog for updates. 

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