Meet Raw Paua, My New Home, and My Inaugural Foray into #VanLife, Inspired by Cyrus Sutton

by Owen James Burke

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This regal red-striped rover of a land yacht is Raw Paua, my new cabin on wheels. For the next few months, along with a surfboard, a speargun and a wok, I’ll be calling her home. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I’ve more or less been a city kid throughout most of my “adult” life. I’ve never really owned a car, except for a month or two here and there. I’ve never even stayed in any one place long enough to buy a car, either. But in New Zealand, at least for the itinerant salt-junkie such as me, it is categorically imperative. -OJB

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 Raw Paua’s first trip to the beach. The gratuities of #VanLife didn’t hesitate to make themselves known on our maiden voyage. . . . 10 minutes down the road. Photo: Owen James Burke.

A while back, my sagacious editor and advisor Chris Dixon, suggested a lifestyle change which I took with a grain of salt at first. His proposition? Move out of your house and into a van. But I’m a boat guy, I thought to myself, and wasn’t there a Saturday Night Live skit about this, with Chris Farley and David Spade? Could this have been his eloquent way of handing me my pink slip?

Some weeks later, Dixon put me in touch with professional surfer, filmmaker, and #VanLife guru Cyrus Sutton. In 2005, Cyrus bought a Ford Econoline, heavily customized it and hit the road. 10 years blew by, and this summer he was still occupying it full time when he moved into his dream van, a Mercedes Sprinter. Chatting with him about his van life over Skype from his Econoline, VanHalen, the idea took deeper root, and my wheels started churning. Maybe I could ditch the boat for a while and take to the road. Still, I was scratching my head at the idea of myself living in a van. Is this me?

Then I met a few “house-truckers” and van dwellers here in New Zealand and the thought started to take hold. Was there some subversion going on here? Life on four wheels seemed to suit both Sutton and my Antipodean friends. Soon, I felt inspired–or subverted–and committed myself to the idea.

Good, now all I had to do was buy a van. Easy. Camper vans are everywhere in New Zealand. Finding one is easy. Finding one for sale, not so much.

Shopping for a utilitarian vehicle is enough of a headache, so as it happens, shopping for an automobile for more domestic purposes is something akin to hunting for a boat or a house. You didn’t think you required an espresso machine and a poultry roaster, did you? These realizations and many others only came after several weeks into my research.

All of a sudden a new world opened to me. Did I want a pop-top, a “bubble top” (or high top) or did I want a full RV? No, an RV would be excessive. At least solo. No, I’d save that for my properly domesticated years with wife and children, should they come. Would Four Wheel Drive be necessary? A refrigerator? A full bath? A stove? An oven? And what would I do for heat? It’s wintertime here in New Zealand. It soon became evident that I would be installing a wood burning stove, which meant I’d have to find something with room for a wood burning stove.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

I’d also have to have a desk, and therefore, a sizable living area–let’s call it what it is: a living room.

Room, right. Then there was my baggage: a surfboard, 5 fishing rods, a speargun, wetsuit and fins, along with just about everything else I own on this big blue marble. Yes, storage space was going to be essential.

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Above: A 1970s Bedford motorhome complete with full amenities. Photo: Bedford.

With storage space as a new critical precedent, I ditched the idea of a full bath. I would still need a porta-potty at least. This is an important factor if you ever decide to live in a vehicle, mind you that the objective is to never use it. No. The function of the porta-potty is to obtain a “self-contained” certification which doubles–or even triples–the number of places you can (legally) park up for the night. It’s a space-killer and an eyesore, but the little certification sticker it comes along with will save you a lot of hassle down, on and even off the road. But remember, you never want to use it. They can be unpleasant to clean, as I recall from my early yachting days.

I recently asked Cyrus Sutton what he found to be the most important piece of equipment for #VanLife. “A spade,” he answered without hesitation. I laughed. Now I know he wasn’t kidding.

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A 1978 advertisement for a similar model Bedford Camper, seen here in King Arthur’s Court. Photo: Bedford.

Days, weeks and months passed before anything caught my eyes. Slowly, too, I became more selective. I drove hours to look at vans all over the south island, and facing slim pickings, I almost gave up.

Then came this little gift from on high.Built in 1972 by Bedford, England’s answer to the Ford Econoline workhorse, she was bought for $2,100 and shipped over to New Zealand on a $6 import tariff. She’s lived here ever since, roamed the country top to bottom and east to west, and been jostled through a succession of owners.

The price was right, and the miles–or Ks–low. Her 4-speed carbureted straight-six Holden was loud but smooth. These engines, I’m told–not just by the previous owner but several Kiwi motorheads whom at least I’ve deemed to be reputable–are nearly inexhaustible. In place of the gasoline tank are now two 80-liter propane tanks, which collectively last about as long as a 16-gallon tank in a Jeep Cherokee might. Propane, aside from being more economical, doesn’t burn as hot as gasoline (there’s less CO, CO2 and unburned fuel), so it’s more environmental AND it may even generate less wear. It is however said to lose something like 10% of its horsepower through the conversion. In turn, “Raw Paua” is anything but, cruising at a modest 90 km/h (about 56 mph).

I handed the man a fistful of cash which he did not concern himself with counting, signed a couple of papers and my ‘brand new’ 1972 Bedford Camper and I were on our way.

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The spectacularly shag-chique interior of a 1974 Bedford (which vaguely resembles how mine might have looked out of the factory). Image: Bedford.

No vehicle is ever sold with a full tank of fuel, and this was no exception. So naturally, Raw Paua needed propane. But not every service station sells propane. In fact, most don’t. I decided to fuel up before leaving the small town. I’d be lucky to find a propane station within the series of mountain passes that lay ahead. I can envision that operating on propane could spell inconvenience later on.

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A 1973/74 Bedford. This was the first Bedford model I looked at, but she fetched nearly twice as much at auction compared with what I paid for Raw Paua, who’s only one year her senior. Photo: Bedford.

Never having driven a truck, my first three minutes on the road were feeling good. I had the window down, and I was playing with every switch and nob on the dash trying to learn what runs what.

I pulled into the gas station and began coasting toward the pump, pausing to take a glimpse of the overhang. Plenty of clearance, I thought.

. . . –There’s nothing like the shrill screeching of corrugated metal on steel. Unnoticed by all mechanics, attendants or any possible witnesses, I hadn’t hurt the overhang much, but the 1970s vintage red-orange paint on my new chariot was tarnished. I bit my lip before I let out a shrill screech of my own before falling into a quiet chuckle over the embarrassment I’d just been spared.

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Along the top right (center frame) you can spot the damage. Could be worse. Photo: Owen James Burke.

No matter, I reasoned. I’ll need to cut a hole there and install a window anyhow. That’s my new bedroom wall.

Still unsuspected, I filled up, paid my bill, and with about two and a half feet less paint on my new house, sealed my tanks and shot for the mountains. Would this 43 year old truck and its funky little propane-fueled engine take me over them?

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At least if I did run out of propane, I’d have the prospect of a bed. Photo: Bedford.

She growled steadily–but deafeningly–the whole way home, and without a radio I grew restless. I could hardly hear myself singing a cappella–a radio and four Blaupunkt speakers are in order–but there was no smoke, no jarring metal sound, no broken glass and no loss of blood. Already, she was turning out better than my last mechanical endeavor.

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The next thing I learned was that it’s worth making an effort to park on even surfaces. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Inside, she’s spartan for now. Two deep-cycle 12-volt batteries power all electrical matters, including a small power strip with the option to run the Electrolux bar fridge on propane–a very sensible measure. Brown-stained carpets will soon give way to finished wooden floors and my excess settee will be pulled out to make space for a work desk and small potbelly stove, which will be used both for cooking and heat.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

So meet “Raw Paua” (paua being the Māori word for “abalone,” one of New Zealand’s premier culinary delicacies). For now, she’ll be my new beachfront office until she’s ready for life on the road. Then I’ll just call her “home.”

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The helm, with tack-on compass and all. And, why yes, that is an obligatory abalone, or paua shell on the dash. I’m now accepting donations of plastic religious ornaments. How about a Virgin Mary?

Much more to come from this Yankee’s adventures in Kiwi land, but right now it’s -2° C (28° F) which means it’s time for me to go see a man about a stove, and a new carbon monoxide detector. -OJB


Required Reading:

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Home Is Where You Park It is a photography book by#VanLife founder Foster Huntington.

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How to Live in a Car, RV or Van. Learn how to quit your job, stop paying rent, and live in a van from original #VanLifer Bob Wells.

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