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I’ve found a new appreciation for the freedom of the road, which makes relocating cars our new favorite cheap way to travel. (If you’ve missed our adventures relocating vehicles in Australia, check out this post.) So when we wanted to head from Auckland on the north island of New Zealand down to the south island, finding a campervan to relocate was high up on our priority list. We used the same services as we did in Australia to look for opportunities – transfercar and standbyrelocs. But unfortunately, we hesitated on a couple of offers and missed our chance. So we were back on the bus.

It’s an 11 hour bus ride from Auckland to Wellington. From there we’d hop on the ferry to the south island. We took an overnight bus getting a pass through Intercity that would cover not only our bus fare but our ferry as well. The Interislander ferry can be tough on those faint of budget.

The Interislander ferry on a rainy morning.

It was a harsh wake up call being back on mass transit after having vehicles all to ourselves. At one point I turned to Nellu and said, “I forgot what I hate most about the bus… other people.”

Our bus driver whose name I believe was Ed sounded like Murray from Flight of the Conchords. And boy did he like to talk. This bus was a milk run bus that made many stops throughout the night. Every time a new group came on the bus, Ed went through the rules one more time, retelling an elaborate story about kicking a man off  because he was smoking and then having to call the police to arrest him because he wouldn’t get off the bus. “It’s tough to see a grown man cry,” Ed said, “But by smoking he was breaking the law and his ticket was invalidated.” The first time Ed told this story it was mildly interesting. The fourth time, it was sad.

But despite the talking and the subsequent lack of sleep, we made it to Wellington, on and off a  ferry, and on to another bus to Nelson. We ran into some trouble as we arrived in Nelson due to flooding there. But after some time and a hitchhike,  we made it to our lovely holiday home on Tahunanui Beach.  We’d have 11 days there filled with friends and Christmas celebrations and a lot of time getting caught up on our work before heading back north for a flight to South Africa.

On the way back, we vowed to snap up any relocation we could. There were no campervans available but we did find a van we could drive from Wellington to Auckland. Certainly, it had to be better to sleep in a van than in a car, even if it wasn’t a campervan.

When you relocate, you never know what condition the vehicle will be in when you get it. Usually, they’ve been cleaned up but our van this time was dirty, really dirty, both inside and out. The man at the desk at the rental car agency bragged that the Hobbit production team had been using the vehicle and dropped it off just before Christmas. It would be a bit inconvenient to live out of the muddy van for a few days but at least it makes for a good story.

It was late afternoon when we picked up our van so we drove for a few hours before stopping for dinner – takeout from a food joint that made everything from Chinese food to chicken burgers – which we took to eat on one of New Zealand’s wide beaches and watched groups of people tailgating and enjoying a beautiful Boxing Day holiday. It’s moments like these that I appreciate most the more we’re on the road.

We drove for a few more hours and settled in for the night at a rest stop. The next morning, we resolved to get coffee at a McDonald’s where we hoped we could use the free wifi and check our email.

This is the point in what should have a very easy trip where everything started to go wrong.

The gas tank was almost empty so we pulled into a station to fill up where we could use the “save 4 cents on fuel” coupons we’d earned at the grocery store. I was very proud of our diligence in collecting these coupons. Even though it would only save $1 here and $1 there,  these were dollars that we could spend on something better.

It had briefly crossed my mind that the van could have a diesel engine and I flipped through the materials the rental agency provided to check but found nothing. Surely the agency would have told us the car was diesel, I thought, and we weren’t responsible paying a diesel tax associated with such vehicles, so we barely thought twice about filling it up with 20 liters of unleaded.

This was a big, costly mistake, one that we’re blaming on the lack of coffee.

We were about 10 km outside of the town of Tokoroa when we first started noticing problems.

“Every time I accelerate, we lose speed,” Nellu said. Our Hobbit-mobile struggled to overcome even the smallest hills. By the time we had reached our McDonald’s the van started to stall. Nellu was able to coast into a spot in the parking lot. He jumped out and checked the gas tank. On the back of the door there was a small sticker that said diesel.

We crawled inside the McDonald’s with my laptop. We’d planned to use the free wifi to research what to do about our problem, but this particular Mickey Ds had no internet. We ordered our coffees (flat whites) and waited for the slow staff to bring them over to our table. Nellu and I both sat on the same side of the table, starring defeatedly over the chaotic scene in front of us.

An older couple sat directly to our left and started playing the where-are-you-from game with Nellu. “Israeli?” the man asked Nellu who was clearly not in the mood.

I was hoping that Nellu would chat this couple up and maybe, by luck or coincidence, they would have not only the expertise but the tools to solve our problem. But he wasn’t feeling chatty and I knew better than push to it. So we sat quietly sipping the coffee we needed to take on the next couple of hours.

Nellu was pretty confident that all we needed to do was get the bad gas out and the engine would quickly recover, but you’d be surprised how few people actually know how to siphon gas. There were two gas stations in walking distance and we checked with both to see if they had the materials we needed to siphon out the bad unleaded. I loudly announced our problem to the woman at the front desk at BP hoping that if she didn’t know how to help us, someone who did would overhear and offer to help. But no dice. Ironically, BP does not have siphoning tools “for environmental reasons” and the guy who usually performs this service for them was on vacation for two weeks.

But there was a car parts store in town where we bought a 20 liter red, plastic portable gas container to receive our bad diesel/unleaded mix, a 5 liter container to fill with fresh diesel and what we thought was a siphon hose. The hose turned out to be a siphon for the portable gas containers and not the gas tank, so I headed over to the hardware store across the street. The woman at the hardware store suggested I should favor a shorter clear tubing over a longer length. We learned later that this was bad advice. The hardware store closed for the day as I walked out with my short tube.

But Nellu and I were resolved. We could do this. We had a few tools. We could siphon out the gas. Maybe this problem only needed to cost us $50 to resolve. We took turns trying to suck the gasoline into the clear tube to create the pressure needed to usher our bad gas out of the tank. It didn’t work. Instead of getting a stream of gasoline rushing through the tube, we got a cupful at a time.

Who knew it’s so hard to siphon gas.

But I learned that gasoline actually doesn’t taste as bad as you’d think. I remember Harry Connick Jr. talking about gagging when siphoning off gas during the aftermath of Katrina. Considering my over active gag reflex, I assumed I would have the same reaction but I’m proud to say I didn’t. Gasoline does, however, have a greasy feeling that sticks with you no matter how many times brush your teeth or rinse out your mouth.

Several people along our tools gathering path informed us that not only did we have to clean out the tank but we also had to clear out the injector tubes or the engine simply wouldn’t work. It would be damaged, they told us. Nellu and I started to lose our confidence.

But as our desperation became stronger, a young couple from Wellington (clearly on vacation) drove past and asked if we needed help. “Do you know how to siphon gas out of a tank?” I shouted.

The man, who we came to know as Scott, parked his car and came over to help while his wife Renee and their five-year old daughter Piper watched. Nellu and Scott tried to no avail to get access to the engine underneath the front passenger seat to check the injector tubes.  This project was quickly spiraling out of control. We decided that it was not a do-it-yourself operation and Scott loaned Nellu his phone to call the rental car company for help. The rental car company referred us to their roadside assistance company with the reminder that we would be financially responsible for what ever it would cost to fix this problem.

The roadside assistance company was zero help. They straight away informed us that it would be very costly to get someone out to help us today since it was still the Christmas holiday. It was December 27th. They found a tow truck for Nellu but the truck operator asked Nellu where he’d like to have the van towed since many businesses were still closed. This guy was clearly no help either.

As we started estimating the costs in our head – the cost to get the van towed, the cost to empty the gas tank, the cost to clean out the injector tubes, the cost of returning the van a day late to the rental agency, we became exasperated. “You know what I really want to do,” Nellu announced. “I want to blow up this van so at least will get our $1500 worth.” $1500 was the amount of money we would be responsible for if anything happened to the car.

Thank God for Scott and Renee who proved to be quite resourceful at our moment of need. They spent over an hour with us, loaning us their phone, and in the end researching and finding someone who would help. They hooked us up with Bryan and his company Tirau Motors motors, a one stop shop mechanic and tow operation that was not only working that day but could come pick us up in about an hour. I didn’t get Scott and Renee’s details. I wish I did because we would have been lost with out their help.

Bryan picked us up as promised about an hour later and we got help from a few random men to push the van in neutral from the McDonald’s parking lot to the street and pulled it up onto the flat-bed. We drove about 30km north to Tirau, where his shop was located. On the way we chatted and learned that it was a very common mistake to put unleaded into a diesel running car, even by people who actually owned the vehicles. I suspected this all along. In fact, I kept telling everyone, “This has to happen all the time.”

It took Bryan less than 10 minutes clear our gas tank. He raised the van up with a lift, unscrewed a bolt under the tank and let the unleaded drain out. Once the gas tank was clear, he filled it up with our diesel and through in some of the diesel he had in his shop for no cost. He then pressed the gas pedal to rev the engine and clear out injector tubes and our big problem went up in a puff of smoke.

We got the shy Bryan to pose for a picture before we headed out. If you have any needs on the north island of New Zealand, Bryan and Tirau Motors are top notch.

Bryan: Our knight in cotton armor.

All the worse case scenarios we had been considering never came to pass. We were quickly back on the road, heading up to Auckland to return our van on time, and even managed to visit Hobbiton itself, the town of Matamata which was used as a backdrop for the Lord of the Ring movies.

Our credit card statement may bear the scars of our bad decision but we’re both really glad we didn’t blow up our Hobbit-mobile.

TIRAU MOTORS LTD TIRAU (The fix) Gas/Automotive $248.51
BUNNINGS – 9432 TOKOROA (Our too short plastic tube) Merchandise $4.05
MOBIL TOKOROA TOKOROA (The replacement diesel) Gas/Automotive $6.12
REPCO TOKOROA 18 TOKOROA (Gas containers, siphon tube) Gas/Automotive $36.26
GULL ATIAMURI ATIAMURI (The bad unleaded) Gas/Automotive $33.43
Total Cost of Putting Unleaded in a Diesel Van
$328.37

~ Molly

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Before we get into the meat of this post, there are a few concepts that our regular readership may find quite foreign, so I’ll take a moment upfront here to explain them:

The Campervan Phenomenon: A campervan is van of any size that has been pimped out to provide both transportation and lodging. Some campervans have room to sleep two people. The one that we drove slept four – the passenger seating section converted to a double bed and on the roof, an oversized-luggage compartment popped up to display another double.

Our bed in our first campervan

Campervans often have pull away blinds on the windows for a little extra privacy because there’s really nothing like waking up to some stranger staring at you while you sleep inside your van. Many campervans also have built-in stoves, refrigerators and sinks so you can just pack up and go. You often see retrofitted VW buses as campervans and there are backpackers who live out of these vehicles for weeks, months or even years. There’s a book you can buy with comprehensive listings of all the free and cheap campgrounds and other sites where you can park and sleep in your campervans across Australia – Camps 6.  In many ways the campervan is more than a phenomenon, it’s a way of life and maybe even a movement.

Campervans: a room with a view

Relocation Cars:  Rental car companies often need people to drive their cars or campervans from one city to another so that a paying customer can have access to the vehicle. They call it a relocation. We had heard about relocations from other travelers we had met along the way, but it didn’t really hit us that we too could relocate until our friends from Two Backpacks, One World did it and blogged about it in New Zealand.

In Australia, the distances are far and traditionally cheap methods of getting around (bus or train) weren’t cheap down under. So we looked into relocating cars and campervans. You can sign up to relocate these cars for free or often $1 a day, but you have to pay for most of your gas and put down your credit card for damage under a fixed amount. I should also mention that gas, or petrol as they call it in Oz, is about $4.50 to $6 a gallon. You can also purchase additional insurance. To offset these charges, it’s best to get a campervan so at least you save on lodging for the nights you are relocating and sleep comfortably. We used two sites to find these opportunities: www.standbyrelocs.com and www.transfercar.com.au.

Relocation #1 Sydney to Cairns

The route from Sydney to Cairns along the coast is a little more than 2600 km or 1600 miles. In U.S. terms, it’s roughly the equivalent of driving from Boston, MA to Key West, FL. We had five days to do it. This would be our first drive on the other side of the road, but aside from occasionally turning on the windshield wipers when you wanted to signal a turn, we got used to the concept fairly quickly.

Who’s driving on the correct side of the road?

On this trip, we relocated a Jucy campervan and boy was it nice. The back hatch opened up to reveal a sleek little kitchen complete with gas stove, sink, and refrigerator.

Nellu boils eggs in our campervan kitchen.

It had cups, plates, knives, a cutting board, almost anything you might need. They provided bedding and towels. The entertainment system came complete with a DVD player and iPod jack so we could finally finish the book Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance along the way. We’d downloaded the audio version from audible.com and we’d been working on it for more than a year. But let’s be honest, when in real life do you really have the chance to to explore the metaphysics of quality.

Our Jucy campervan framed by the lavender blooms of the Jacaranda tree.

For me, this was the best of our relocation trips.  We stopped along the way at some of Australia’s beautiful beaches: Byron Bay and Mission Beach. The more north we drove, the warmer the water got.

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We also clued into another Australian phenomenon – the Big Things.

Australia is filled with more than 150 sculptures know as the Big Things. A friend of ours had mentioned it to us before we left on our road trip but we didn’t get it. We didn’t get it until we saw the Big Pineapple. I am happy to report it really is a Big Pineapple. And even better, it wasn’t real. I think I would have been sorely disappointed if it was real. A real Big Pineapple is a miracle, a marvel of mother nature. A real Big plastic Pineapple is a study in human nature. You can entertain yourself for miles wondering, “Who would spend all this money to create a giant plastic pineapple?” and probably more importantly, “Why did we exit the highway and drive all the way over here to see. it?” Finding Big Things became a mission on our Australian road trip.

Nellu and the Big Pineapple

Me and the Big Mango

We also discovered that Australians love to engage in random acts of small talk. People would regularly come up to us while we were pumping our gas and say things like, “Enjoy the drive.” It really caught us off guard at first. One time I walked out of the store after paying for gas to find a dumbfounded Nellu.“That guy just told me to have a nice day,” he said. “I was about to tell him to f-off but then I realized he really meant it.”

But by the end of our 3000 km drive (all those Big Things added a few kilometers), I believe we embraced the spirit of the Australian road. We even started waving to everyone we passed who was also driving a bright green Jucy van.

Relocation #2 Cairns to Melbourne

We could have driven Cairns to Melbourne back a long the coast, but we’d done that already. So on this leg of the trip we went inland to the outback. This trip would be just under 3000 km and we had six days to do it. Our vehicle was a four-berth, full-on camper home with walk in kitchen, table and standard bathroom. I think our living space in this mobile home was bigger than our room in Hong Kong.

This camper was a beast. Not only was it a beast but it was an old manual beast. If you thought driving on the other side of the road was hard, add in the extra fun of shifting gears with your left hand. Now when I say this camper was old, it had over 350,000 km (about 220,000 miles) on it. It was also one of those old manuals where everything doesn’t click as well as it does in a newer car. The gears have been abused so much the channel markers become a little ambiguous. You thought you were in third but you’re really in fifth. The clutch/gas pedal balance was extremely off, which would cause you to rev the engine quite dramatically. And there was a prominent creak coming from somewhere underneath when turning or going over minor bumps. It sounded quite structural.

The beast in all its glory.

It didn’t take us long to realize that driving at night wasn’t a good option. On our first trip, we were on well-traveled roads through highly populated areas and we still saw the occasional kangaroo along the side of the road. On this trip, we drove right through the middle of nowhere and the animals were everywhere or at least the remains of animals were everywhere. We saw more dead kangaroos than live ones during our days on the road. We would have been devastated if we hit one, and so would our camper. And there weren’t just kangaroos. Cows, sheep, emus, cassowaries, and even an echidna (an Australian porcupine) wandered across our path.

We saw more dead kangaroos than live ones. Photo by Nellu.

Not that we needed to drive during the night. We got plenty of driving in during the day because there was nowhere to stop. You’d go hundreds of kilometers before finding your next gas station and drive for hours before seeing another car. I told you on the way up we would wave at other Jucy campervans. On the way down I just started waving at everyone.

Nellu in the middle of nowhere.

This was also the leg of the trip where we drove 100 km in the wrong direction before we saw a sign that clued us into our mistake. The site of this famous wrong turn – an eerie little town called Charter Towers. The first time we drove through, it was just getting dark and we were anxiously looking for gas and a place to park for the night. The sky was full of bats and the road was all of a sudden filled with frogs. It was as if we were in a Steven King novel or the book of Exodus. (The floods came later). Nellu tried his best to dodge the frogs but I think he squished one or two.

Charter Towers was also the scene of our first road fight. We had just retraced the 100 km track of road we had followed north when we were meant to be going south. I was in the driver seat for the first time with the beast. I pulled into the gas station, the same one we had filled up at the night before, and I got all the way next to the pump before Nellu looked at me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What do you mean?” I asked accusingly.

“The gas tank is on the other side.”

My response to this observation was heavy-handed. The truth is I was a little nervous about driving such a large vehicle especially a clunker. “Why didn’t you tell me,” I yelled. “Why did you let me pull all the way in. You never back me up.”

I put the beast in reverse and pulled back in with the gas tank on the right side of the pump. I was going to let the situation go but Nellu was not. There was a new dynamic developing. Let’s call it extreme proximity. You see, for the majority of the last few months, Nellu and I have operated in roughly a 20 meter radius of each other at every waking moment. On the road, we spent the days operating within a 1 meter radius of each other with little else going on. This extreme proximity was slowly cultivating extreme detest.

“How much should I put in,” I asked.

“Whatever,” he said shortly enough to make my temper flare. I slammed the door hard enough to let him know I was pissed.

As I started to fill up, a sea of obscenities, directed at me of course, came from Nellu’s side of the car. He then did something very curious. He got out of the camper with his bag and everything, walked over to the phone booth and just stood there. He must have stood there for a full five minutes before he walked back.

“Please get in the car or go pay,” I said and was relieved when he went into the station to pay.

Later I tried to restore a little humor to our lives by teasing him. “Who were you going to call back there?”

I have a friend who once comforted me with the declaration, “You don’t have a real marriage until one of you threatens to file for divorce.” I know some people find this statement shocking, but for me it’s a huge relief. We’ve both cried wolf several times, mostly for dramatic effect. When I recounted the phone booth story over Skype to this friend, she shared another simple truth with me: “There’s nothing like a road-trip to test your relationship.”

I know some of you are wondering if Nellu knows I am telling everyone on the internet about our fight. He does. I asked him one day if it bothered him that I told everyone (of course at that time I was talking about the everyone we knew and not the everyone on the internet but that’s just semantics). He said, “I guess if you’re telling everyone then it’s not a big deal.” So see, he’s ok with it and I am running with that until I hear otherwise.

Over the next few days the tension would come and go. But we made it out of outback and into wine country.

Hello wine country!

Nellu and I love wine country. It’s a magical place on earth created for exploring, tasting wonderful wine, and swapping stories with interesting people. Our Sydney host Art had recommended this particular wine region, called Mudgee, to us. It was lesser known than some of Australia’s other valleys but had some top quality wines. We spent one afternoon and one morning driving to some of the area’s vineyards but it was what happened in between that time that deserves a mention here.

Because we had our camper, we weren’t going to get hotel room in town. Mudgee has a campervan park where they charge about $30 to park overnight and use the facilities, but we were on a tight budget here. So we found a nice little spot in the park, right by the river, where we decided to rest for the night. We parked the camper around 5pm or so, took a nap, and made some dinner. After dinner, I suggested we walk up the street to one of the town’s bars for a little more local color.

The bar was fairly busy for a Monday night but not overly entertaining so we each had a couple pints and left. We got all the way back to the park before we realized they’d locked the bathrooms for the evening. We returned to the bar and I slipped back inside, noticing on my way in a shirtless man talking to the bartender.

(I should point out that Australia and New Zealand don’t have no-shirt, no-shoes, no service policies like we have in the U.S. Quite the contrary. You often see shoeless men, women and children in stores, walking down the street, and just about everywhere. Of course, being who we are and where we’re from, we look on these situations in horror and proceed to point out to each other all the pieces of broken glass and other awful things on the ground that could get possibly get stuck in your feet whenever we pass a footloose friend.)

I took care of business and walked back out of the bar to find a shirtless husband. My first thought was that Nellu had taken his shirt off as a joke, making fun Australia’s clothing optional policy perhaps. But he stopped me. “Wait for it,” he said.

Less than thirty seconds later, the shirtless man I had seen on my way to the bathroom came out wearing Nellu’s white v-neck t-shirt.

“Thanks so much, man,” he said, handing the shirt back.

Apparently this guy approached to Nellu and said, “Hey, I have a strange question for you. I am on my honeymoon…”

Nellu wondered exactly where this was going.

“…There’s a party we’re trying to get to and the bartender won’t let me buy booze without a shirt. Can I borrow yours for a minute.”

Nellu gave someone the shirt off his back so that someone could go buy beer on his honeymoon. Isn’t that heroic?

This whole situation had an “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” feel to it, which was only heightened by the idea that we were living in the park that night.

We returned to the park to get ready for bed. Then we heard a car pull up and someone got out.

This was it I thought, the police have come to tell us that we can’t stay here overnight and we’ll have to move. Frankly, I’m just used to hearing “no” and “you can’t” by police and security at home even if there are no signs or good reasons why you can’t do things. But wait, this was Australia. You’re allowed to do things unless there was a sign that said you couldn’t. We certainly looked for such a sign in the park and didn’t find one.

“Hello in the camper,” the voice outside said. “Yes,” Nellu replied and opened the door.

“I am part of the park security staff. I just wanted to let know that I have to lock the gate overnight and you won’t be able to drive out until after 7am tomorrow. I hope that’s okay.”

Relocation #3 Melbourne to Sydney

Our last relocation in Australia was in many ways our easiest but in some ways the hardest. The route was just over 1000 km long, which we could do in one day flat if we need to. Our vehicle was a brand new Holden sedan with all the comforts of a new modern car. It was a joy to drive after, especially after the beast. We had an unlimited kilometer allowance and three, full, 24-hour days until we needed to drop the car off at Sydney airport. So we took a little detour in the completely wrong direction – west of Melbourne.

Our first day with the car we drove to Geelong, another lesser known wine region and then met our friends for dinner. Now the one issue with having a car instead of a campervan is that you really don’t have a place to sleep when you’re relocating. The first night we rented a cabin at a tourist park in town. It was big and clean but a whopping $100 a night. We couldn’t let that happen again. As we waited for our friends to arrive for dinner, Nellu and I checked out what would be our 2nd and 3rd nights accommodation – our car seats. Parked with the nose of the car going up a hill, we lowered our seats back as far as the could go.

“See it really wouldn’t be that bad,” Nellu said and I giggled at the thought of us sleeping in the car.

“This is the kind of thing that’s only really fun to do if you’re doing it with someone else,” I told him.

Our second day with the car, we drove out along the winding path of Great Ocean Road in western Victoria to the 12 Apostles, a collection of naturally formed rocks jutting out of the sea. It was quite a drive and quite a view.

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We then crossed back through Melbourne to make our way back toward Sydney.

We did sleep in the car that night and it was not as fun as I thought it was going to be. The car got quite cold during the night and even though I was dressed up in half of my clothes like the scene from “Friends” where Joey wears everything that Chandler owns, we both slept poorly.

Our third day was a long drive with surprisingly less to see and do than we anticipated. We were both tired and irritable and at the end of the day we got into the second fight of our road trip and the second big fight of our year-long adventure. I’m going to save all the gory details for the Lifetime Original Movie version of this trip. But just know, it was bad. I would say it was one of the worse fights of our more than decade long relationship. But don’t worry, we’re fine now. We’re already back to being the annoying couple who mixes our travel memories into every day conversation saying things like: “Where are those Mongolian farmers when you need them?” and “I think the Incans build a much better rock path.”

When we arrived back in Sydney, we went straight to our hostel and had one of those great it’s-been-a-long-road-and-now-I-can-rest-and-don’t-care-how-long-I-sleep-even-though-it’s-the-middle-of-the-day-or-if-I-drool-on-the-pillow naps. Aaaahhhhh!

So with over 8000 km of pure Australia road behind us, you could say we’re now fully road-tested … in SO many ways.

To be continued…

~ Molly

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