Livin’ in a Van, Down by the River

Finding Our New Mobile Home

When Meg and I flew into Queenstown, our plan had been to find a van in the area. There are a lot of campervans for sale in New Zealand. This is definitely a nomad’s wonderland and the local economy has taken notice. Despite this, we were having difficulty finding one in the immediate area. We had contacted at least twenty people about their online advertisements but heard back from only two. Talking it over we decided our best bet was to head over to Christchurch, which had a much larger population and more choices online for sale. After contacting the sellers, we headed there for the week after landing a cheap ($1 a day) relocation deal with a campervan company.

Leaving our hostel in Queenstown for Christchurch

We had arranged only a couple of showings for the Monday when we got there as we were still not hearing back from many of the people we contacted. First up was a trip to see a campervan owned by a guy named Rob. We had been looking at a ton of vans online and couldn’t exactly remember what make and model this one was. As we cruised along, we saw the dolphin made of sea shells. “Oh, it’s that one!” We both laughed. We would later find out that a Belgian family had owned it previous to the people we were about to meet and had decorated it with an assortment of sea shells and other dead sea creatures.


Why This Van Used to be Nickamed “Flipper”

We headed up the pathway to the door to meet Rob.  He opened the door with a smile on his face and an easygoing demeanour. It is very hard to not like him right away. I remember him making Meg laugh by describing how the previous owners had left a “present” for them in the port-a-loo when they bought it. He assured us we would be getting a pristine, mint condition, never-been-used one if we decided to buy it. As for the physical layout of the van, it was exactly what we had been looking for. The sliding door opened onto the kitchen and cupboards with the seating, which converted into a bed, located at the back. It even had an expandable roof so I could stand up in it! We told Rob we would have to talk it over and proceeded to discuss it for about 10min before walking back to the house. “Long time no see,” Rob greeted us. “We’re going to take it.”

Inviting us in, we met with his fiancée, Uta, a German who came to New Zealand to travel and ended up staying for quite a while and meeting Rob, her future husband. Unsurprisingly, she was just as nice as Rob. The four of us quickly fell into conversation; Rob letting me know all the mountain bike trails I had to visit, Uta answering Meg’s questions on her travels. We got to talking about our immediate plans, how we were going to go to a holiday park (large campsites in New Zealand for tenting or caravans) and work on the van. “Why don’t you just stay here?” they asked.

Meg and I looked at each other a little dumb-founded. We asked if they were sure. This would become the theme of our stay with them for the coming week, continually asking them if we were wearing out our welcome. Meg and I couldn’t quite believe their generosity at first but it had been so easy meeting them and starting to get to know them that we took them up on their offer for the night. If that weren’t enough, Rob showed us to the garage and told us to make use of any of the tools we needed.

It was Labour Day in New Zealand but Rob was still on call and had to run out after our sale. Uta however took us to lunch at a nearby café where we learned that she was a jeweller and had moved to New Zealand four years prior on her own. We would quickly learn how much of a thoughtful, giving person she was as she persistently played host while we tried to out manoeuvre her to at least clear the table and do the dishes. Rob, returning from his job, met us at the café later on. A great story teller, we learned how he and Uta had met, who was in his family, where they lived and what they did as well as many important facts about New Zealand life like the finer points on how to make a South Island cheesy roll.

Later on in the afternoon, Rob and I went out to some nearby trails to do some mountain biking. Rob adjusted to Meg’s bike, extra small of course, and showed me around the area. Meg and Uta helped get some things for a BBQ we would be having later with their other roommates, Samantha and Chaz. We had been so quickly invited in and welcomed that I have to say that that first dinner and night felt so comfortable it was as if we had always been friends. After some ice cream and a New Zealand movie (Boy – highly recommended if you can find it on Netflix), we went to their guest room, amazed at the kindness of others.

The next morning, with Rob and Uta off to work, we woke up to a key to the house and a note telling us to help ourselves to breakfast! I’m serious. Are these people even real we wondered? I’m vaguely aware that this post is turning into “why Rob and Uta are so great and the reasons everyone should be exactly like them” but really it is hard to thank them enough. Without them we wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much work done as we did which really set us up to start our travels. Anyway, back to the campervan. We helped ourselves to a bowl of New Zealand’s finest, All-Blacks endorsed cereal, Weetbix, downed some coffee and were fueled for our coming day of renovations.

In retrospect the week seemed to fly by as we were busy but truly enjoying ourselves. We looked forward to our dinners with our new friends to chat about the day, travel stories, the news, anything really. In the past year Meg and I had really missed regular get-togethers with friends and all be it too short, it was nice to have this sense of community for the week. We were humbled to be invited to Rob and Uta’s going away party before they headed to Germany to get married and live for a couple of years. We got to meet a lot of Rob’s family and past friends and flatmates of the two who came to wish them well. It was a fitting way to end the week and the next day we got to have one last brunch together – Meg’s famous blueberry banana French toast casserole complete with some authentic Canadian Quebec maple syrup. We didn’t want to say goodbye but we both hope to return the hospitality sometime in the future. Come back to Canada Rob and Uta!

Now back to the campervan itself…

The Renovations & Remodel

Step 1: Inventory

We began by taking everything out of the back and taking stock of everything. What had we bought? All the pots and pans we would need, check. Dishes, check. Cutlery, check. Tools were included, lots of cleaning products, cloths, etc. I got to say it was pretty decked out but there were a few things we wanted to get:

  1.  New mattress. We ended up buying two twin foam mattresses and cutting them to   size so that we now have a king size, comfortable bed in the back. Sometimes it’s   hard to get out of!
  2.  Good pillows are vital, this is going to be our home for a year so good sleep is a   must.
  3.  New comforter and sheets. Have I mentioned sleeping is important to us?
  4.  Some containers for coffee, trail mix, oatmeal and rice.
  5.  Blackout curtains so that we could get a better night’s…well, you get it

Step 2: Removal of Sea Crustaceans

Chisel in hand we began to change the van’s nautical theme to something more us. Removing all of the shells and crab legs we then set out sanding things down and getting ready to paint. We ended up taking off the backsplash which was an off-white plastic sheet so we could do the whole wall in faux-wood.

I know I have the perfect sailing beard to fit this theme but the shells have got to go
Free Crab Leg!

Step 3: Sanding, Cleaning and Painting

Choosing to bring a little home to our travels, Meg got some red and white paint from the store and we worked on redoing the inside along with the cupboards. We got new knobs for the drawers and ended up with a faux-wood laminate that was supposed to be for flooring but we would use for one of the walls.

We also created a shelf at the back to hold all of our bedding under the pop-up roof while we were driving. Also saving some serious storage space.

Meg note: New Zealand has embraced chalk paint, which requires very little prep and no primer. This was important for us because the weather was a little damp and cold still, so we needed something that would dry quickly and be durable enough for everyday use. We used Annie Sloan Chalk Paint in Old White for the walls, Emperor’s Silk (the red) for the cupboards, Honfleur as the base for the table, Coco and clear wax as the layering on the table, and clear wax to seal the other colours. The lovely ladies at Cosi Fan Tutte in Christchurch helped to make sure I had all the tools needed for this project, and if you’re in the Christchurch area and itching to bring some furniture back to life, they’re the people to visit!

Chiseling completed and onto sanding everything smooth
Meg making our Canadian red drawers
Late night painting prep by taping up all the edge work
“Of course we can stay up longer to work on this”
Time for a good scrub down, then I’ll finish cleaning this van
Now painting can begin, really helps clean up the inside
Goodbye Flipper
I found the blue really brought out my eyes


Meg note: Rob had told us the story of the ongoing pranks he and his friends occasionally engaged in, and told us about one of their friends they had pranked by putting brightly coloured lubricant inside of his earmuffs. The next day, I find Dave’s been working and is now sporting some fashionably blue smurf ears.

Step 4: Some Detail Work

Some of the little extras we’ve got for the van were:

  • Hanging felt pouches that absorb any water poured into them so you can use them indoors. Perfect for our little herb garden of cilantro, rosemary, basil and thyme.
  • Solar powered twinkle lights have been awesome at night. They are even bright enough to read by.
  • Little calendar to hang.
  • Tiny solar powered lantern thing with light bulb. Nice find Meg.


The Finished Product

Well after a week’s worth of work we’ve made this van our own. We still have some ideas to work on, like putting up a map of New Zealand on the blank white wall and checking off our visits. We are also in the midst of installing a house battery to run the refrigerator off of as this will make us a lot more self-sufficient once we can keep food in there. All in all though we have made a comfortable space for us to truly test out this whole marriage thing 😉 If we can survive some rainy days cooped up in this then I think we’ll go the distance.

Here are some shots after our week of work and will post updates as they come:



A look into our tiny home
Our Kitchen / Living / Drawing Room
Drawers up top hold quite a bit of food, power bar for when we’re plugged in somewhere, gas stove works great and hopefully the fridge will too sometime soon
A gift from our new friends Rob and Uta! A little taste of home.
Lounge mode, very comfortable for an afternoon nap or for reading
Table that can be put up
Cushions fit snugly to create our king-size mattress
A look out the back in bed mode, better with an ocean view
Fully set up for sleeping


Thanks Rob and Uta! 

Until We Meet Again


6 thoughts on “Livin’ in a Van, Down by the River

  1. Kia Ora Guys! Love seeing the updates and the pictures and love the work you’ve done on the camper van. Anxiously awaiting the next update!


    1. Thanks Mom, it’s been fun writing them. Hopefully this will act as a good journal for our kids one day. So they can see how cool Mom & Dad, or grandpa and grandma used to be 😉


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