We arrived in Auckland just for a brief one-night stopover at a hotel that, although modern, was probably the smallest hotel we’ve stayed anywhere in the world. Our room had a double bed, a bunk bed, and a very small bathroom; there was just enough room to squeeze around the furniture. When we arrived at the airport we asked a guard to help us find the right location for the shuttle bus to our hotel. His enthusiastic assistance reminded me of my trip to New Zealand 40 years ago when I found people very friendly and helpful to tourists.
We ordered a pizza (which has been a staple around the world) delivered to the hotel, ate it in the lobby (because our room wasn’t big enough for the four of us and the pizza) and crashed for the night. The next morning we flew to Christchurch picked up a Ford Transit motor-home from Mighty Campers. Our camper was a bit cheaper than some other options because it was few years older with a few more kilometers on the odometer. Spoiler Alert: Within a couple of days we nick-named our Ford Transit the Cursed Camper. After a quick stop at the store to provision for the week, we hit the open road. Les got right back into the groove of driving on the left and managed to get us out-of-town without hitting anything that would leave a mark. The Cursed Camper was lulling him into a false confidence.
The next day we headed towards Queenstown. We could not believe the amazing scenery around us. New Zealand is a beautiful country. We stopped in Cromwell to get gas and have a picnic lunch. Les jumped out of the car and filled the tank and we went across the street to enjoy our picnic in the park. When we started to leave the park, the camper hesitated to start but eventually got going. We drove one block to stop at a minimart for sodas. When we went to leave the car would not start – bummer. After many guesses of what might be wrong, I said, “You put diesel in the tank, right?” Les said, “Of course, I’m sure I did”, but after looking at our receipt his face went pale and he said “I think I blew it”. We became sadly aware that we now had a tank with half-diesel and half-petrol – not a good mixture.
I could see the knot turning in Les’s stomach. It turns out the pump handle for diesel in New Zealand is black and petrol is green, the opposite of the U.S.. It was time to make our second call to customer service to help connect us with a mechanic that would be able to help us in Cromwell. Luckily we only had to be towed a few blocks to the mechanics shop where they drained the full tank of mixed fuel. The mechanic said this happens quite frequently to visitors from the U.S.. It took a few hours to fix things up, so we walked to a nearby lake and practiced our rock skipping skills. Eventually, we were on our way, but we had to skip Queenstown to make it to Te Anau the next day. We arrived in Te Anau the following day and scheduled our visit to Milford sound.
Our trip to Milford Sound deserved its own post.
After a full day of riding around looking at things at Milford, Patrick and Les were itching to get out and try their luck/skill at the world-famous NZ fishing. So while Alex and I hung out at the Holiday Park, Patrick and Les hiked into town, rented a couple spinning rods/reels, purchased a license and a few lures that were supposed to be “sure fire”, and walked to the nearest river.
Unfortunately the walk from town to the river was a little more than they expected, about two miles. They arrived at the river at about 7 PM and started working the sure-fire lures. After two hours, hundreds of casts, and another couple of miles of walking along the river bank, they concluded that there are no fish in New Zealand – and the comments that we heard from many a New Zealander along the lines of “There is great fishing in that river” is just a ploy to rent rods and sell lures to American tourists. Anyway, as they hauled their tired selves back to the holiday park in the dark the rain began to fall in earnest, and the only consolation was that we didn’t need to wash any fishy smells out of their clothes.
The next day we were planning to try out one of the DOC (Department of Conservation) camping sites at a more remote lake about 20 miles back on a gravel road. The lake was one of the primary filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies. So after breaking camp at Te Anau, which consisted of stowing luggage, unplugging electric, and emptying the on-board toilet (Les’s job) we headed to the grocery store to provision. As we started to leave the parking lot the Cursed Camper stalled and wouldn’t start again. Mighty Camper customer service was now on speed dial. This time Larry answered the call, quickly contacted a local mechanic, and had him over and take a look in about 30 minutes. The mechanic couldn’t get it started either, so he hooked up a tow line (2nd tow in 4 days) and drug us to his shop around the corner. The family disembarked at the mechanics shop and walked through the rain back into town. We found a cafe that served expensive pizza and free WiFi. We killed about 4 hours in the cafe while the mechanic tried to diagnose the problem. When Les picked up the Cursed Camper the engine started; but the mechanic had no idea why. It just started working on its own – spooky. He gave Les some instructions on how to do an emergency start of the engine using a jury-rigged starter switch in the engine compartment. He warned Les several times to not stand in front of the vehicle while pushing the red button, or he might run himself over while starting his own camper. I pictured this scenario, and one of the kids capturing it on video, then posting it on YouTube, and being so proud when it went viral… Anyway, before he let Les drive away he asked how to put the darn thing into park, Les shrugged and said “I just turn it off when I want to park it”. The mechanic shook his head and revealed that it took him ten minutes to figure out how to shift it into reverse; which made Les feel a little better about resorted to calling customer service for that bit of esoteric information.
We were now back on the road, but much less confident in our vehicle. So we opted not to go 20 miles on a gravel road to a DOC campsite, we would just head straight to Queenstown where would at least have cell phone coverage so we could call customer service. This turned out to be a great decision, at least compared to our other decisions. The Cursed Camper once again stalled and died on the highway about 95 Km South of Queenstown. Les pushed the darned thing off the highway and to the shoulder of the road as the rain started to fall. Les tried the emergency start button, and managed not to run himself over. He also made sure no one had their cameras pointed in his direction, to avoid any YouTube embarrassment The Cursed Camper was once again dead. Luckily we had cell coverage and this time Rose got the call and started mobilizing our rescue. As the light started to fade, Earl the AA (road-side assistance) showed up. We gave Earl the story and he set about trying to get us started. Les warned him to not stand in front of the Cursed Camper when pushing the red emergency jury-rig start button or the camper might run over him. He looked at him with a puzzled/annoyed expression and “OK – sure”; while he stood in front of the camper with his head in the engine compartment repeatedly pushing the red button. I was thinking that either this guy is either really good – or he has a death wish. I hoped for the first.
Anyway, the Cursed Camper was not about to start for anyone that evening. So Earl asked if Les had ever been towed. Les smiled and said “I have recently had some practice in this very vehicle”. He said “Good, we will be going about 15 Km down the highway, and I will raise my hand if I needed to stop”. Les said “Ah, OK”. Then Earl rigged up a 15 foot tow strap from his minivan to our Cursed Camper. After a quick U-turn in a farmers driveway, Earl picked up speed to about 40 km/hr over a country highway. I couldn’t believe it, there was no way we could have stopped the Cursed Camper before it slammed into the back of the minivan. Now I was really hoping Earl was good and didn’t have a death wish. When we finally rolled into the small holiday park near the small town of Lunsden, Les’s fingers were cramping from squeezing the steering wheel so tight. As Earl unhooked the tow strap he said he could see white knuckles in his rear-view mirror during the drive. Yikes!
The next morning Les convinced Mighty Camper that they needed to come and pick up the Cursed Camper; give us a another, better one that was not Cursed; and compensate us for the days of our lost vacation. This time Larry from customer service was on the line, and he managed to get us a significant upgrade – a newer, bigger, Mercedes! They delivered it on a truck around 1 PM and we hurriedly transferred all our stuff out of the Cursed Camper and into the our wonderful new yacht on wheels. The only thing we lost in the transfer between vehicles were Les’s flip-flops (called Jandels in NZ), which he had used to wedge into our bed in the Cursed Camper to make it level enough to sleep.
With a full tank of diesel, dependable equipment, and no rain in the forecast; we once again hit the open road and restarted our exploration of the South Island.