(Mis)Adventures in #Vanlife with Raw Paua. Stranded Twice in Two Days. Part I.

by Owen James Burke

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Three things I’ve quickly learned this weekend about #VanLife: 1) Never trust a digital gauge. 2) You are your own mechanic. 3) Most importantly, you never know where you’ll end up. So always keep a well-stocked fridge, preferably of fresh shellfish and good wine. Hard-learned philosophical lessons aside, Raw Paua handled the switchbacks through the Queen Charlotte Drive beautifully, even with Tindori in tow. Photo: Owen James Burke.

This past weekend, Mac and I decided to load up Raw Paua for a shakedown trip into the Marlborough Sounds with Tindori in tow. Things didn’t quite go as planned.

When I left the house around 7:30am to swing by Mac’s, Raw Paua was roaring away. We were only going to be driving 45 minutes or so, and I had the better part of one of my LPG (propane) tanks full, or so my gauge read. There was no question about it — we had enough fuel to weave our way up into Queen Charlotte Sound and back.

‘Technology’s great, when it works,’ they say. We were somewhere between one one-horse-town and the next when my engine puttered out. Then and there I learned my first lesson about running old vehicles on alternative fuels in remote lands — always fill your tanks, and never trust your gauges (especially on a 1972 Bedford, I’m told). Had my engine run on gasoline, I’d have simply emptied the gas from my skiff into the truck’s tank and had enough to reach the next station. Had I not had the boat in tow, a quick call to AA (that’s “AAA” in the US) would have landed me a roadside delivery. But how in the world do you find propane in the middle of nowhere at 8:30am on a Sunday morning? And provided you do get it, how would you feed it into your tanks?


We had an extra propane tank, which powers the fridge and stove, but we had no hose (nor a pressurized one, at that) to siphon it into the truck’s tanks, and we’d have been risking a deadly explosion. Photo: Owen James Burke.

An inclement Antarctic chill was heaving its way in from the Southern Ocean and neither of us were terribly enthused by the idea, but we had no choice; we started on foot.

I had forgone a balanced breakfast for two espressos and a handful of tortilla chips, and my scattered brain left little room for any logical wherewithal. So there we were, hoofing it down a country road as tractor trailers whizzed by at 65 mph, coming within inches of our cold, wet ears. If one of those beasts clip us, at least we were numb and might not feel it, I quietly reasoned.

We were two miles into our trek before I finally got the bright idea that to try phoning a friend for a tow. Let’s try Aza, I thought. He was just down the road, and this wouldn’t be the first time he’d heard from me in a pinch — last minute flights, broken fenders bushwhacking while hunting rabbits where my Subaru Legacy begged me not to go.

“Sure thing,” he said. “Be there in ten.” Good ol’ Aza. We turned and doubled back to the truck and boat, maybe about two miles behind us by now, meeting him just as he was pulling up in a stinging southerly rain.

Mac pointed to his watch. “Look, we’re only 20 minutes behind schedule.” He had children to tend to at home.

Aza tied us up to his Nissan SUV, which was far too small to be towing both Raw Paua and the skiff. No matter, he insisted.

New Zealand law states that automatic vehicles–which Raw Paua is–are not to be towed. The lights weren’t working on the boat trailer, and I also learned at this moment that Raw Paua was not equiped with hazard lights (they’re going in this week). This was a hell of a time to find out. But it was Sunday morning, and traffic was relatively light. Our 3-part caravan was underway.

We had a couple of hills and turns to navigate, and on a wet road with only about eight to ten feet of towing line, I was sure at some point I was going to roll, jackknife or spin out and take all of us down in flames. What a wreck that would have been. At least there was a chance we might not explode–the propane tanks were (almost) empty.

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Raw Paua bears two tanks, one in the  rear (above) and another, perpendicular, just in front of the rear axle. The operative propane tank placement keeps distance from the batteries (rear, passenger side) and most likely points of collision. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Ten nerve-rattling minutes later, we could see the sign for the next small town, which would, I hoped, have an LPG fueling station.

Then the flashing lights came. Oy Vey. Here we go. I don’t know how many laws we were breaking, but as I began tallying them I was sure that, had we been at home in the US at least, we were headed for the confines of a cold damp cell.

Fortunately, this particular keeper of the peace appeared to have an affinity for dear old Aza. She didn’t pay much mind to either of us Yanks in the house-truck, and when she did approach us, it was only to convey — very cordially, I might add — that she would be helping us arrive into town safely.

Our procession, four strong now, pulled into the fuel station after a few minutes, and then the ticket book came out.

First, the officer let me know that my registration and warrant of fitness on the boat and trailer were both four months out of date. In my defense, both of these tags were tattered beyond legibility. Aza’s truck, too, was unregistered. She was shocked to find out that my 43-year-old truck was the only one of our four vessels “up to scratch” with her documentation.

I considered photographing this momentous quartet of calamities for posterity, but thought better. Polite as the officer was, she might not have taken so kindly to my humoring the situation. I’d gambled enough today.

As I filled my two tanks with $150 worth of propane, she wrote us a handful of tickets, which I’ve yet to look at, and sent us on our way after we had the lights in working order.

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Tindori. Photo: Owen James Burke.

We hummed up the Queen Charlotte Drive, over the hills and back down to the shore. As we pulled up to the boat ramp, wind and rain gave way to spots of stillness and sun.

With about two hours to get the boat loaded and down the ramp, we didn’t have any time to kill.

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In the right light, the deceptively tropical-looking emerald waters of the Marlborough Sounds can give off a chrome-like sheen. This is the view that makes whatever you had to go through in the morning to get there worth every bit of strife. Photo: Owen James Burke.

My haplessness hadn’t finished wreaking its havoc. Suited up and ready to go, two essential items were nowhere to be seen: my dive fins.

Part of me was relieved that I wouldn’t be going into the water that day. It was particularly cold thanks to the impending cold front moving up from the south, and my surfing wetsuit isn’t designed for winter diving–or diving at all, that is. Besides, there was no need; Mac had a scuba tank, and so as long as I remained on standby, regulation permitted him to haul my limit of 50 scallops, too. Instead, I pulled some frozen squid from the fridge — which I don’t keep running, but load with freezer packs like a cooler — and rigged up a spinning rod and reel.

We dunked the boat and shot over to our usual spot on the edge of a private mooring field and while Mac was diving, I putted over to a little ledge and baited a hook with squid to see if I could outwit a few blue cod, la crème de la crème of firm white flesh for fish and chips here in New Zealand.

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Triggerfish (or leatherjacket), blue cod and scallops. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Regretfully, my hook was too large, and all but one fish ended up eating their way around it. Between the two of us, we pulled up two: a triggerfish (which Mac nabbed at arm’s length with his knife while freediving) and one blue cod.

I dropped Mac off at home and hurried to the liquor store to buy a bottle of rum for Aza, whom I felt much obliged to thank after saving the day yet again. Raw Paua pulled up to his house around sunset and we sat there shucking scallops and sipping on white wine. Then, as if the night couldn’t end any better, our Japanese friend Taka had just returned from pulling oysters off the rocks down the road from where Mac and I had been earlier. We lit a fire and placed a few on top. While those slowly cooked, we shucked our respective creels of bivalves, casually picking out the particularly good looking specimens and handing them off for one other to savor.

I went home in a thoroughly bloated, briny and gluttonous bliss. The next day’s supper was to be crayfish (Southern spiny lobster), had all gone as planned. That is, until the next day… –OJB

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