If you go on Instagram or Google “van life”, there is no shortage of images with people looking out of their vans while lying on a cosy-looking bed or cooking out of their van, surrounded by nothing but nature while their dog happily frolics nearby – A seemingly impossible dream for many of us working in the rat race.
At least, that was my feeling when I first discovered that this nomadic lifestyle existed.
This is the brutal but honest recount of our first night living in the car (or any other car for that matter) that we bought in New Zealand, just a couple of days after arriving in Auckland. I say “our” because I was with my boyfriend at the time. You can expect the raw reality of van life without the frills in this post.
Refer to this post if you would like to know how we got our secondhand camper car (and how you can get started on your own van life in New Zealand).
Van life – Looking for a campsite
Armed with the trusty Campermate App that the previous owner commended to us as well a full tank of petrol, we set off to find a campsite that we could take advantage of, seeing as our Toyota Estima was a certified self-contained vehicle. Basically, the blue stickers on the front and rear windows indicate that you can poop and clean your dishes in the vehicle without harming the environment.
Prior to this, our only other camping experience was in a barebones tent with just a bamboo mat and an almost non-existent pillow back in a secluded island in Malaysia. Surely living in a converted camper car would be a luxury in comparison, right?
It was low season in the north island of New Zealand but we wanted to be sure that we had somewhere to camp for the night. The recent heavy storm the other night was the main reason for this anxiety. After several calls to a few campsites, we found one that was still in operation despite the damage from the storm. Just in time too, as we could see the signs of another storm approaching. We had just about given up hope when the confirmation came in during the evening.
Our last resort would have been a hotel since AirBnB didn’t come through for us – many of the places we checked out were all hit by the aforesaid storm and had suffered considerable destruction. Our AirBnB host for the night before had a glass screen completely shattered on their back porch. Hotels in New Zealand were way out of our budget too so we were thrilled that there was still one campground that was open.
There were not many signposts for the campgrounds but we found it eventually. Spotted some other camper cars despite the onset of dusk but these were mostly giant RVs or cars with trailers attached to them. At the reception, we were told where to park – there are designated areas for powered and non-powered sites. Ours was the latter. The clerk warned us to stay clear of trees to avoid them falling over us during the night. We promptly paid and parked our car as close as we could to the kitchen facilities.
It was too early for dinner but we thought we’d better get started before the storm came into full force. There was already a light drizzle and a shift in the winds.
Vanlife – “Setting up” camp
But first, there was the matter of getting to the pots and pans. Our car was currently in “couch mode” with all the items stacked (more like squished) under the bed frame. By the way, we have a built-in kitchen at the back of the car where the boot is but why bother if the campsite had a decent full-sized kitchen at our disposal?
Anyways, the process of transforming the car to “bed mode” required a lot of huffing and puffing as we moved stuff aside all sorts of paraphernalia to prop up the other half of the bed. Tempers were on the rise and you can guess that there was some cursing involved. The foam mattresses were a lot heavier than we expected. The whole ordeal took about 20 minutes. The former owner of the car claimed he could do it in 10 minutes after much practice and he even demonstrated it for us once.
Kitchen facilities at Parakai Springs
So, the next step was dinner. We found the kitchen utilities to be clean and adequate. A microwave, a few dozen stove tops and plenty of sinks. There was a hot water dispenser and a large fridge too if I recall correctly. We had the kitchen to ourselves for the most part but we did meet an elderly couple and a Swiss couple later on. Dinner was a simple stir-fry and rice.
It was truly dark by the time we finished cleaning up. There were only a few lights on outside. We scrambled to bring all our utensils back to the car as the wind began to pick up.
Putting our feet up
We had barely a few minutes to relieve our bladders at the toilet (they have showers too) before the sky started to pour. At that point, we decided to forgo our showers. It was cold and the thought of having to shower, just to get drenched in the rain again didn’t seem very appealing. We instead towelled ourselves dry and changed our clothes in the car. Quite a struggle in such a tight space. I’m saying that in the perspective of a skinny Asian girl of 5 ft stature (or 152cm). So, unless you’ve got an RV or van, camping in a car might not be your cup of tea if you’re claustrophobic.
It was still too early to sleep so we decided to put on some Netflix via a tablet. That’s when we found (or rather heard) our unwanted guests – mosquitoes! Coming from a tropical climate, we thought we could escape these pests in a seasonal country like New Zealand but alas, that was just a naïve assumption on our part. And you’d think it’d be freezing inside the car but we were actually finding it warm so we had left the windows open as wide as we could without letting the rain in. Thus, mosquitoes.
We finally finished our episode of Black Mirror without further interruptions. By then, we figured we might as well get some sleep so we prepared to venture out to the toilets so that we could brush our teeth. Upon opening the side door, we found that not only had the rain stopped, there were a myriad of stars above us. Living at the equator, we always see the same constellations but this time, we fancied we could even see the milky way that night! Both of us lay with our heads out of the van gaping away. The occupants of the car beside us probably thought we were a little strange.
Calling it a night
It started raining again so we ended up brushing our teeth and washing our faces in the sink at the back of our car while we were lying on our bellies on the mattress. I consider that a perk of having a self-contained car. We didn’t have to get out in the rain to access the sink. It was literally behind the headboard.
We had a surprisingly comfortable sleep that night. It was such a strange feeling falling asleep to the sound of the weather lashing out around the car. We wondered if our solar panel would fly off at some point (it didn’t, thankfully).
If You Go
This was the campsite we stayed at . Call them at 0800468766 if you plan to go in case because they have limited spots. They have an indoor hot spring but entry is at an extra charge. We didn’t opt for this since we wanted to experience a natural hot spring somewhere else in New Zealand instead.
There aren’t many campsites around Auckland – you can see the map and sites marked out with the Campermate App https://www.campermate.co.nz/welcome/index.
Bonus: Here’s our favorite AirBnB place to stay – it’s close to the north of Auckland. The host family are very hospitable and the room is luxurious for the price you pay.
To anyone who is even remotely thinking about trying out van life, I’d say go for it. It’s an excellent way to push your limits and learn more about yourself. You don’t need a lot of things to have a memorable time on the road. It may be distressing and a little more than inconvenient at times but at the very least, it makes for an interesting story to tell your friends and family after the trip!
We’ve since done a couple more trips like this and have found it to be such a rewarding (monetary-wise) way to get around New Zealand. Sometimes, we don’t even have to fork out a single cent for accommodation! Can’t explain in words how satisfying that feeling is. We have no regrets.
Have you ever tried sleeping in your car? What was it like? Leave a comment below.
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Need a rain and windproof jacket to serve your time in New Zealand, regardless of the weather? We recommend the Uniqlo Blocktech Parka-see our full review here.
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