Thursday, March 11, 2010

We bought a home in New Zealand! But still feel homeless!

We bought a home! Well actually we bought a van, but it's our transportation and our home for the next couple of months while we tour around New Zealand!

We finally made it out of South America! Woohoo! It was an amazing SEVEN months but we are definitely ready and looking forward to being able to speak to locals in English. Our original plan was to spend four months in South America but our original plan went out the window after the second month. In the original plan we'd allowed ourselves one month for New Zealand. As of right now we've been here for two and a half weeks and have only covered north of Auckland and back so its looking like we'll be here closer to two or three months. But so far is been great.

We arrived in Auckland at 4am and the hostel desk staff doesn't start working until 8am so we spent our first few hours in a Starbucks waiting. This Starbucks had an amazing view of the city from its lounge. That is the Sky Tower lit up in green and purple.

We checked into our hostel in the suburb of Ponsonby and immediately went on the hunt to find the perfect van for us to drive around New Zealand. We found this cool park on the way that had sculptures of old buildings built into the ground. It was something interesting I hadn't seen before.

I nor Gemma have ever bought a car before. I was given my dads old car when I was 16 and then didn't need a car in college, NYC or London. I was starting to think I might be able to avoid buying a car long enough that when I finally do need to buy one, I'd be at a point in my life where I could make my first car purchase a Porche. Well sadly this dream did not come true.

I'm going to recount the whole story below but figured most people would just skip down to see the picture so here she is! Not a Porsche but I love her anyway.

After sitting in the middle seat of the middle row on the plane in economy for thirteen hours (oh how I miss first class flights on Virgin courtesy of Uncle Goog) we finally arrived in Auckland. We found a hostel and immediately started our search for a van to buy to drive around the country. New Zealand is small enough (roughly the size of Colorado) that you can drive around and see most of the country in roughly six weeks. To rent a car or camper van for this long would be just as expensive as buying one, only you don't have the option to sell it back at the end. As long as it doesn't break down on the side of the road we expect to get close to 70% of what we spent on it back (fingers crossed).

We went to the Backpackers Car Market and looked at various 1980's vans that other backpackers had just finished using on their tours. We both were pretty nervous about the whole thing since neither of us know anything about cars. And its not like we were browsing a new car lot here.
We decided to take a huge black van (a Toyota Hiace) with blacked out windows for a spin. The owner asked if I was comfortable driving over here. I nervously spewed out "Oh yeah, I've driven in London and Ireland and the States all with no trouble. What side of the road do they drive on over here?" The answer is on the left side of the road with the steering wheel on the right.
I pulled out of the car lot and on the first left curve proceed to run the left tires up onto the sidewalk! Shit! The van didn't have power steering, and the shifter thing, (gear stick?) was near the steering wheel (not in the middle of the two seats like I'm used to). I was lucky to get the thing back to the lot in one piece.

We then test drove a Nissan Vanette that was much smaller. Gemma was squeezed into the back sitting between the bed and the floor. All these backpacker vans come with a bed build into the back where the seats would have been. The Vanette however was much much smaller than the Hiace and while it was easier to drive, left us feeling that we might go crazy if we didn't have any room in the back to sit or cook in.

We asked a guy working at the market what he thought of both cars and he told us that the Hiace van is one of the most popular backpacker vans because its so big, it resells well because its highly popular as a workers van, and that more money went into the development of its engine than the Nissan.

Really tired from arriving at 4am this same day we went to lunch and talked it over. We decided to go back and make an offer on the Hiace Black van despite my less than overwhelming confidence in being able to drive it. It was bought while we were gone. We were exhausted and decided to call it a day.

The next morning we went back to the market and there was another Toyota Hiace that we immediately said we'd like to test drive. There clearly was another couple interested and I wanted to get in it before they did. We were out on our test drive and today I was feeling much more comfortable behind the wheel. This one was just as big but a bit easier to drive and came with everything we needed (two stove tops, queen size bed in the back, plates, cutlery, solar shower, curtains). At every stop light I looked back at Gemma who was telling me she wanted to buy it and I was trying to ignore her so the French guy who was sitting in the passenger seat wouldn't see her excitement.

We'd been told that it would be nearly impossible to find a Hiace for $2500NZ which was our budget. These vans go for around $5000 at the beginning of the summer. The French guy who was trying to sell it paid $4000 for it in January and was now selling it for $2500 because he needed to leave the country that evening. I offered him $150 less than he was asking and he said he'd take it. (Damn should have gone lower!)

We stupidily hadn't came to the market with enough cash to buy it and asked him if we could go to my bank to get the money. He wanted to return back to the car market and told us we could just go to the atm from there. This was no good. If I let him go back, the other couple would be there waiting to take it for a test drive, hear that we wanted to buy it and we'd be in a bidding war. So we essentially held him hostage for the next hour while I was in HSBC getting them to do an emergency cash withdrawl because the amount we needed was more than I could get out of the ATM. The car market called him three times to check to make sure we hadn't kidnapped him and to let him know the other couple was there waiting to see it again.

We got the cash went back to the market and started the paperwork. The other couple was still there and luckily they accepted that we were going to buy it. We didn't have enough time to get it checked before we bought it because he needed to catch his plane. But he had it checked in January and had fixed the things that were listed as major issues. What the hell, he'd only put 4,000 kms on it, not alot could have gone wrong by then right?

In my classic "negotiate and accept offer then renegotiate it anyway" move, I asked him if he'd take less than what we agreed on because there might be a few hundred dollars of repairs to be made that we couldn't be sure of since he didn't have enough time to allow us to get it checked. He said he would have had time if we hadn't taken so long at the bank and that we'd denied other couples the chance to buy it by doing so. Then proceeded to take another $150 off the price. NICE! So we bought it for $2200!
We had to pay another $200 for insurance, $105 to fill it up, $30 for registration and we were on our way! We drove her back to the hostel and loaded all our stuff into the van. We then decided we'd go to the grocery store to stock up on food, but wouldn't start.

Oh great. She starts beautifully everytime we start her during the test drive (which was probably four times) and then the second or third time we start her after we buy her she won't start.

She eventually did start but we took her to get checked out the next morning. Turns out she needs new brakes, brake hoses, and a new ball and pivot on her front. We get all the repairs made (Thanks Mr Nicholas!) and the mechanic tells me I just need to pump the gas twice everytime I start her up. This trick works but I am not sure how understanding the next potential buyer might feel about it.

But really this is a sweet ride. The living space in the back is way bigger than my first bedroom in NYC! After mostly sleeping in four to ten person dorm rooms for most of the last seven months it is pretty awesome having our own queen size bed and all the privacy we need whenever and wherever we want it.
In between the back of the driver and passenger seats is about four feet where we keep our two stove tops, food, chilly bin (greatest and funniest kiwi word we've fully embraced so far aka cooler). Our bags and most of the rest of our food stores underneath the bed. The pic below shows it in a bit of a mess but you can see how much room it gives us. I mean its still just a van, but its a pretty spacious one. (I'm starting to feel a bit like my brother Jason when he was showing me his new minivan and trying to explain to me how pimpin a ride it was as I was trying desperately to hold back my laughter).
Even though it affords us to travel around the country in style and have our own double bed everynight, we feel homeless. I mean it doesn't have a bathroom which is the biggest downside to having to sleep in it. When you have to pee in the middle of the night and in the morning, there isn't anywhere to go. So we find ourselves peeing here:

Thats the county library if you couldn't tell.

We also found ourselves cooking dinner in the shopping mall parking lot. This was right after we saw Alice and Wonderland in IMAX 3D in Auckland. So its a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes and makes us feel a bit homeless not being able to shower everyday, but as far as living in a van goes, its "Sweet As" (second favorite kiwi saying).

After spending the greater part of our first three days in Auckland trying to sort out our ride, we finally were able to start seeing the sites. It happened to be the weekend of the Pasifika Festival which celebrates Aucklands Pacific Islander community. Its the largest in the world which makes sense as its the closest big city to all these tiny little islands. Ever hear of Kiribati? Me neither. There were exhibits and food from all these little island nations like Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Kiribati.
I saw my first ever cricket match played by some Mauri men wearing traditional skirts.

Then we stuck around for a concert by a band from Samoa named Fiji. They were really good and the crowd was going crazy for them. They must be a big deal amougnst the Islanders.

We also saw some performances of men doing tradional dances.

After a few hours we decided we'd been in Auckland long enough and we headed north. Auckland sits pretty far north on the North Island but there is still a good bit to see all the way to the tip top. Our plan is to head all the way to the top to Cape Regina and then back down to Auckland before continuing on to do the rest of the North Island and then taking the ferry to the South Island.

Our first stop was at Matheson Bay. We were able to park our van right along the water and it was everything I had hoped driving around New Zealand would be.

The next morning we woke up and drove to Goats Island Marine Reserve. They declared this section of water a marine reserve about thirty years ago and its been a huge success. There are an incredible number of fish there due to fishing now being illegal in the area and its a really popular place to go snorkeling.

Here is the view from the car park looking down on the reserve. The water was freezing but we went snorkeling anyway and saw alot of cool fish.

Our next stop was further up the coast to Pakiri Beach were we stopped for lunch and laid out on a beach that stretched on for miles. There was maybe five other people on this huge stretch of sand. I had no idea we'd see beaches like this in New Zealand! I'd seen alot of pictures of NZ from my friends and the guidebooks, but I was picturing a really mountainous land and for some reason never considered that we'd find amazing beach after amazing beach here.

We then drove north to Mangawhai Heads. Our trip up the coast was going nicely until we hit a stretch of unpaved roads. It was so bumpy the van was shaking violently even when I was going slowly. Well it must have shook our battery loose or something because when I came to a fork in the road and stopped to ask these cows for directions, the van stopped running.

Driving around NZ you see tons and tons of sheep. There are something like 41 million sheep and 4 million people in NZ. At this point in time it happened to be cows. After about ten minutes she finally started up and we were on our way.

We arrived at Mangawhai Heads there was a three hour walk along the top of these cliffs and then back along the beach.

Once we reached the beach we realized that there was a sign advising against walking this way during high tide. Well when is high tide? How am I, from Indiana, supposed to know if its high tide or not? The ocean was definitely coming up and over the first part of the path but I was sure I'd see a clear path back most of the way when we were on the top looking down. I convinced Gemma that it would be ok and we waded through the water through a hole in the rocks and to a beach on the other side.

Luckily I was right and we were find walking along the beach the rest of the way. Gemma started her shell collection which is displayed on our dash board. The sand and rocks along the beach were pretty dramatic so we decided we should be too.

The next stop was to visit the Abbey Caves in the town of Whangarei. These are small caves that you are free to explore on your own. We took in a flashlight and spent a couple hours climbing and crawling through them. There were two really funny German girls in front of us at first. They all the sudden stopped and turned to me and said there was a puddle of water in front of them and they didn't know what to do. I just stepped in front of them and straight into the puddle and showed them how to do it. Did they really think they could go exploring in caves without getting wet?

The coolest part of these caves are the Glow Worms that live on the cave ceiling. Its difficult to see in the pic below, but if you click on the pic to blow it up or just look closely you'll see lots of blue dots. When you turn off your flashlights in the cave and look up, there are hundreds of these little glow worms lighting up the cave. It looked like you were standing amounst the stars as they were really close to you.
Gemma found a tree to climb inbetween caves. She didn't make it much higher. ;o)

Sheep Sheep everywhere!

After the caves we went to an "I-site" which is an information site and tourist office that most every town in New Zealand has to help tourists find their way. Its pretty incredible how well New Zealand is set up for tourism. Even if a town has next to nothing to offer the average backpacker, there is an i-site to tell you about the minimal historic significance of its town hall.

We slept at the i-site and got our first shower of the week. We visited the marina in town and bought the most incredible fudge at the New Zealand Fudge Farm. It was really really good and this highly embarrassing pic of me below should prove it.

We then hiked to Whangerei Falls which was set alongside a scenic little lake.

We drove up the coast to Matapouri Bay which is on the coast near Tutukaka. It was another amazing beach. We ran along the beach in the morning and swam in the ocean. Life here has been pretty good so far.

At the end of the bay there is a path that leads to the "Mermaid Pool" The path leads to a massive wall of rock that has a tiny sliver running through it. You kind of shimmy your way sideways through the sliver and emerge on the other side. Below is a pic of the sliver, its the dark hold in the middle of the pic.

And on the other side is this amazing scenery.

After you then walk along the rocks to the right for ten minutes you come to a pool of water that forms on the rocks after high tide. They call it the mermaid pool but there were no mermaids and it wasn't really deep enough to swim in which in my mind doesn't make it a pool. Pretty nevertheless.

We started walking back and I turned around to see Gemma almost get swallowed up by a huge wave that had crashed over the site of the rocks.

We then drove into Tutukaka where I was to go diving the next morning. Below are a few pics to show you the kind of scenery we park next to most nights.

Here is the view from our bed. You can see the top of our trunk in the top of the pic.
Its been a great first week so far! We are traveling super slowly but we are time rich so why not.