Sunday, 10am, a week before Christmas 2022. I’ve just pulled our car and caravan onto a narrow strip of gravel near the highest point of Arthur’s Pass. Arguably the most stunning of three alpine passes that traverse the Southern Alps on the South Island of New Zealand, and - at over 3,000 feet above sea level - categorically the one that makes you climb the highest.

Right now we’re at about the 2,500 foot mark. The car dashboard has lit up. Every possible red light is flashing. Thick steam is pouring from the engine bay.

Warning. Engine overheating. Pull over immediately.
Warning. Engine overheating. Pull over immediately.

As I squeeze as tightly into the space as possible and shut off the engine, I can’t even see the bonnet. Just billowing clouds of THIS IS REALLY BAD, accompanied by the sounds and smells of (literally) boiling engine coolant.

And if you think the car sounds hot, you should see my face. The palms of my hands. Is the steam actually coming from the car, or from me? Hard to tell.

Buy a caravan, they said. Hitch it to your car, hit the road, and spend your days jumping in lakes without a care in the world, they said. Brew a coffee over a campfire in the mountains and watch the sunrise, they said.

If you search #vanlife on Instagram, you won’t see many photos of overheating vehicles parked on tiny gravel strips blowing steam in the middle of cell-reception-deadspot nowheres. But you probably should. Because even though we haven’t been living this nomadic, remote lifestyle very long we’ve already experienced a pretty complete spectrum of highs and lows.

  • On our first day of travelling we pulled over for a night to break the driving up. We’d go to sleep early, wake up early, and make the most of the cooler driving conditions (we’re just going out of summer here). During the night Mr 15 stretched his legs out happily in his bunk. Straight through the external storage door on the caravan, and straight through the two locks that hold it in place while you drive. It was raining. Heavily. We didn’t get on the road very early the next day. The bunk mattress - and I - took a good few days to dry out.
  • We got very excited about a camping ground with reviews that waxed lyrical about ocean-front sites, sand on your doorstep, and the most beautiful sunsets ever witnessed. We booked a full week. We arrived to a site that was jammed up against a flimsy wire fence, backing onto a busy road, across from a block of houses that really, really liked to party.
  • Our caravan fridge has stopped working. Two adults, four children, summer...and no fridge. Hard to take a photo that captures the feeling of that for Instagram, but maybe I could re-use the shot of my face from the top of Arthur’s Pass.
  • Laundry. Oh man, the laundry...
  • Ok but even the laundry has nothing on waste tank management 🙈

I could go on, but the thing is that despite all of it we’re having the time of our lives. What’s that saying about not knowing pleasure if you don’t know pain? Because that probably captures the essence of this lifestyle better than anything.

We’ve discovered camping spots that were more beautiful than we thought possible. We’ve roasted marshmallows over a campfire while the sun went down over the wild West Coast ocean. We’ve woken to warm sun hitting our face, and brewed our morning coffee on a beach that stretched as far as our eyes could see. Not another human in sight. We’ve surfed coastlines we’ve only ever read about. We’ve camped out on a farmyard, surrounded by animals. We've jumped into crystal-blue glacial lakes. We’ve taken in the history of small towns we’ve never noticed before. We’ve met other travelling families, and the kids have made new friends almost everywhere we’ve gone.

And we're just getting started.

Right now it’s early March, and autumn has arrived in New Zealand. We’ve travelled north to follow the sun - something that always appealed to us about this lifestyle. I’m at work, in the caravan, while Kate and the children are out swimming in the bay. Compared to home, the water is like a bath.

The car is still overheating when we push it. We still don’t have a fridge. And I still haven’t found a way to properly fix the bunk door. But we’re feeling more fulfilled by our lifestyle than, perhaps, we ever have.

Ok, the kids are back and trudging their soaking wet bodies into the caravan, so I've really gotta run 🤦‍♂️

But I just wanted to say how happy I am that, after 8 years of working so hard to make it happen, our roadschool is finally open.

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