Published in Adventure Magazine NZ, Feb/Mar 2016
Dirtbag Dispatches – Vanlife
by Derek Cheng
My first love wasn’t much to look at. She was as curvaceous as a fridge, cantankerous in the mornings, and her lack of conversational skills tended towards uncomfortable silences. She trundled clumsily, rather than glided with speed or grace.
But we shared divine experiences, and she instilled in me a set of values that changed the course of my life, seeking travel and adventure above a steady paycheck.
We had met on the internet. People would raise their eyebrows quizzically when I referred to her as The Summerhouse, but it was an apt name, as our romance lasted several months over a balmy New Zealand summer. I’d taken a gamble on her, turning my back on a good job and a comfortable life in a large heated house, featuring such luxuries as an oven, a heat pump, and a flushing toilet.
We were homeless by choice, living frugally, buying nothing more than food and gas, and rock climbing as much as possible. When we ran into kindred spirits on the road, we discovered there was a name for our kind: dirtbags.
There were picnics, sunbathing by rivers, music sessions, in between vertical adventures on the steep limestone of Paynes Ford in Golden Bay, the colossal, bulbous boulders of Castle Hill, the razor crimps weaving a path up Wanaka schist.
It was the best of times, and a sad moment when the Summerhouse and I parted. It wasn’t her. It was me. I longed to travel through Latin America. She was less willing, being a 1987 long wheel-base Toyota Hiace with a double bed fitted into the back. For starters, finding her passage to Argentina would have been less than straight forward.
When I returned to the land of the long white cloud a few years later, I tried to rekindle our romance, but it was too late. She did not want to be found. She had moved on.
I never really got over her. It was entirely predictable that my second love, Kiki, was almost a perfect reflection of my first. Same make and model, though a year younger. She, too, could be quarrelsome on a cold morning, refusing to turn over. She, too, lacked fluidity and elegance when she moved, especially up steep hills.
Like the Summerhouse, Kiki (a name bestowed on her by previous lovers) came to know the west coast of the South Island, its wild ocean waves and deep, verdant gorges. We slept by lakes and rivers, swam in the untamed Tasman Sea, and warmed ourselves by campfires under starry skies.
She cared for me by the dramatic seacliffs of Charleston, when my foot slipped off the slick rock at the start of the route Shark’s Breakfast (18). It is an infamous traverse that follows a horizontal break across a face, firstly above broken rock platforms, and then savage ocean waves, to the top of the cliff. I tumbled four metres to the rock below, lucky to walk away with nothing broken except my dignity. Had I traversed a few metres further, the landing would have been substantially more soggy.
Kiki helped me by the shores of Lake Wakatipu, when nature called and there was a distinct dearth of conventional loos. She shielded me from view as I trudged off into the rain and dug a hole with my trowel, and she comforted me and my 50-plus mosquito bites – on, or near, my exposed rear – in the aftermath.
But like my time with the Summerhouse, I grew restless, eager for overseas adventure. I dreamed of China and its giant stalactites, hanging from limestone caves so ginormous that they stretch the boundaries of belief. Of granite steeples in North America with rock faces that stretch like wild highways to the sky. Of stomach-shattering street-food in languid streets of forgotten, rural hamlets in India, Turkey, Morocco.
So Kiki and I parted ways. She moved on quickly, sharing nocturnal shenanigans with former flatmates of mine that I’d always suspected had a thing for her. I didn’t mind. I wanted her to be happy.
Fast-forward a few years. Back in New Zealand, older now, with more mature needs. Doris was fit to meet those needs. She was a classier beast, complete with pop-top, kitchen sink and shower head (operated by foot pump). Doris didn’t even mind other female company in her presence. Embraced it, even.
The pattern of behaviour should, by now, be familiar. Doris and I roamed the South Island together, from Golden Bay to the Milford Sound, visiting familiar crags and exploring new ones. She was not used to this life, but she didn’t complain when torrential rain drenched her in the Darren Mountains, transforming dry creek beds to deadly torrents, and unleashing thousands of waterfalls over steep, grey inclines. She relished the landscapes, the sunsets, the friendly rangers who chose not to ticket us when they sprung us camping next to ‘no camping’ signs.
Enchanted by the beauty of the south, it came as little surprise to me that she wanted to stay. She left me for an older man who had roots firmly planted down south. She’s probably still there, next to a stream below a horizon of snow-capped peaks, basking in the gentle warmth and soft light of dusk, while stoically ignoring sandflies.
These summer romances were more than just a fun roll in the hay. They were profound forks in the road, the kind that offer you wildly different versions of your future. They delivered me from the clutches of the 9 to 5, which ensnares so many in a host of pitfalls: stress, debt, a ball and chain on your free time.
Some welcome the comfort of familiarity and routine. I used to be one of them, lucky enough to enjoy my work, and live among good friends in a great city. I didn’t lack for romances of the non-vehicular variety. But there was always this nagging feeling in the back of my mind, asking: “Is this all there is?”
On the road, life is simple. First-world problems – where is my matching sock!? – evaporate. Vanity shrinks, along with hygiene standards. The road melts away all that truly doesn’t matter, replacing it with a renewed perspective on what is valuable.
Vanlife brings you an abundance of liberty, the time to climb vertiginous rock faces in remote places, to move up mountain ridges as the dawn kisses a ring of summits, to tar with nakedness the most delicious hot springs at the foothills of sublime landscapes. Such transcendent experiences are never plagued by a voice asking, “Is this all there is?”
In the words of beat author Jack Kerouac: “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing the lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.”
My latest romance, a 1980 GMC van known as Morrison, shares with me a vision of a lengthy North American roadtrip. There are so many glorious places to experience. The heavenly glow of Yosemite granite. The wonderfully sparse desert-scapes of Utah, punctuated by skinny, wind-worn towers. The rugged beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
Morrison, like everyone, has his quirks. He can be stubborn at times. Emotionally unavailable. Lacks spirit in the Canadian winter when the mercury struggles to -20C. But his dedication to vanlife and road-tripping is infectious. Almost obsessive.
With Morrison, it feels genuine, easy. Not forced, or exhausting. Maybe this time, I’ve found The One.