Shhhhhh shit shit shhhhhhh!! Hanging over the front seat in the dark, my shoulders squeezed between the head rest and the front window, I blindly hit the buttons on the driver door in a useless attempt to silence the deafening noise.
Behind me, a wide-awake Guilhem finally located the car keys and pressed the unlock button. The wild beeping subsided, and my heart rate with it. Nothing like setting the car alarm off at 2am – from inside the car – to get the blood pumping (and wake the entire neighbourhood).
And all I wanted was to go to the toilet…
The Nissan Elgrand I had hired was not designed or equipped to be a campervan. We shamelessly turned it into one the minute we discovered that all the back benches could be flattened into a bed which was on par with my Dubai hotel kingsize, though admittedly a bit lumpier.
Freedom camping was not legally allowed in New Zealand unless the vehicle was officially “self-contained”, meaning it had an inbuilt toilet at best and a porta-potty at least. We had neither of course, so along with finding discreet places to camp, the inevitable midnight trips into the bush were standard procedure. We quickly learned how NOT to set off the car alarm in the middle of the night.
The fact we hadn’t brought sleeping bags wasn’t even a thought; a trip to the local discount store produced a 20-dollar pack of pillows & duvet and a 10-dollar sheet. Sorted!
Our ride wasn’t a model you find on the European market. As an eight-seater van, Elgrand looked quite the part from the side on, a sleek yet muscular VIP shuttle with tinted rear windows. He wasn’t quite so sexy from the front or the back: he distinctly lacked in the should-width department and by the time we were done with him, could have done with a few less flies smashed across the bumper.
If the side-view was strongly masculine (discounting the wheels from that appreciation), the front was decidedly metro-sexual. But he could roll. He had “a bit of grunt” to him, as the kid from the rental company promised me. For some reason, he struggled between 100 and 120 km/h, shuddering along the road as if he was going to lose some vital part of his anatomy, but hit 130 and he was off (I won’t mention what the New Zealand speed limits are).
Though he had no potty, for an Asian-built, plastic box on wheels Elgrand was incredibly well-equipped. His basic options would have cost serious add-on money on any German-designed vehicle out there:
There were roof lights front and back which could be dimmed: we could even go for a semi-romantic atmosphere. Never mind motel, that was hotel standard.
There was a magic electronic door-closing system which meant you didn’t have to slam the sliding door or the boot; just push them far enough shut and a quiet zzzzziiipp would automatically seal them off – very useful when trying to be inconspicuous at night.
Even the wing mirrors folded stealthily back against the bodywork when the doors locked.
There was not one, but two radio systems: one had a mini-disc player, the other a DVD reader. Neither worked. We put this down to either the lack of radio reception in the remote areas we were driving through or the lack of antennae, and miraculously survived for two weeks with my singing in lieu of music.
An integrated GPS / TV system which would have been fancy fifteen years ago lifted out of the dashboard at the touch of a button. We were very impressed. I suppose it would have helped our navigation if everything hadn’t been in Japanese, and maybe also if there had been any kind of signal. As it was we flicked through the entire menu, got as far as bringing up a flickering grey screen which looked like an old TV channel, and gave up.
Passengers in the back could enjoy free entertainment on a drop-down screen very similar to the first ones seen in aircrafts; it should really have been explaining security procedures (how not to set off the car alarm for example) and duty free options (or showing Tom & Jerry at the very least) but was unfortunately useless as we had no DVDs and couldn’t work the aforementioned Japanese junk on the dashboard.
There were pockets and pouches, glove compartments and stashes for sunglasses, nooks and crannies, cup holders, bottle holders and about five cigarette lighters spread all around the van. There was storage room on and under every seat and bench. The step by the sliding door became our bottle store as the ten bike bidons we filled with fresh water every day inevitably ended up there (along with anything else which could roll) after the first few bends in the road. “Do you know where the insect repellent is?” Clunk. Oh yes, there it is.
– Have you seen my black helmet (not the green one, or the orange one)?
– Try the pocket to the left of the passenger seat. Who brings three bike helmets on an overseas trip anyway??
– Do you know where my razor is?
– Under the bench at the back in the blue bag. Please tell me that means it’s time to get rid of that moustache…
Similar conversations were held a number of times throughout the day. It was just that one of us was pretty organised. The other had a tendency to leave stray socks, shoes and bike gear scattered around the back of Elgrand. These belongings would take a trip around the van at every bend and if they hadn’t made it as far as the step, would have to be rounded up each evening.
I will give that second person credit though, after two weeks on the road there was barely a sock to be seen. I suppose there is nothing like traveling with two bikes, too many clothes, sports equipment, photo equipment, camping necessities and enough food (mainly in peanut-butter form) to feed two athletes for a couple of weeks, to teach you rigorous compartmentalisation skills.
We also got very good at transitions; the day-to-night transformation which was a headache to start off with was soon mastered in minutes. The bikes came out of the back, were disassembled and fitted upside down on the front seats with the wheels slotted around the frames. We luckily ran into no carjackers or forest fires as a quick getaway would have been awkward.
In the back, all bags and belongings had designated spaces: easily accessible during the day for regular street to sportswear changes, and under the flattened benches at night; the biggest bag (mine I admit) was the only one that sat at the end of the bed behind the driver seat – then again, it’s not like I need the extra leg room.
In the morning, we reversed the procedure and hit the road towards our next destination – usually the nearest coffee shop, swimming pool or petrol station.
For it has to be said that despite all his lovable qualities, Elgrand drank like a fish. We spent a small fortune on fuel and only figured out why when Guilhem got sick of my singing halfway through the second week and popped the bonnet in desperation, trying to locate the elusive radio antennae: our friend had a 3.5-litre, v6 engine hidden in his unassuming front end. His turbo-assisted backside sucked juice out of it like it was happy hour at the cocktail bar.
Thirsty or not he got us most of the way around Southern New Zealand without once complaining. In fact, he went above and beyond the call of duty. Clearly designed for motorway driving, we drove him over passes in torrential rain, down deserted beaches and gravel tracks, through forests and on one occasion across a wild mountain range (report coming soon).
We parked our home on wheels on lakeshores, waking up to spectacular views. We used a few car parks (realising one morning we were hugging a sign clearly stating “no camping”) but often just found a flat, picturesque spot away from the hundreds of other campers doing exactly the same thing.
One night we briefly considered a mosquito-infested campsite by the lake before heading 500 metres back up the hill, taking a 90-degree turn off the road and reversing Elgrand into a comfy spot behind a large pine tree, completely hidden from passing cars. We felt like truants.
I think my favourite pitch was our last night, on Lake Pukaki; as the sun started disappear we drove down a gravel road on the opposite side of the lake to the one most tourists used. We took a chance and turned off down a forest track which bumped and twisted for longer than we expected, and then suddenly spat us out onto a grassy area with a beach and the most amazing view of Mount Cook at sunset.
Two weeks of road tripping go by in the blink of an eye and all too soon it was time to hand the keys over. I’m rather ashamed to say we got the hell out of the rental office before they could give Elgrand the once-over and notice the random oil stains in weird places (on the roof of the cab for one), the hundreds of black spots on the felt ceiling (remains of the West Coast sandflies) or the blood smears on the front bumper (turns out sparrows don’t last very long at 130km/h).
Then there was the sand which had inevitably gotten most places, a few blotches of melted chocolate on seats (I will admit responsibility for that) and probably the lingering smell of two triathletes who lived and slept in a very small space and didn’t necessarily make it to a shower after every single training session.
Finally, it was difficult to ignore the fact that Elgrand was no longer white but an interesting shade of yellow thanks to the two-centimetre coating of dust we had picked up down Nevis Valley; hopefully ruining his look were the only damage we did that day…
Despite our speedy exit we were sad to turn our backs on our temporary mobile motel: Elgrand, you did us proud!