Van Life: On The Road #4

© Jon Butters

It's a climber's dream to have a home on wheels and the freedom to travel to climbing destinations without the need to fork out for expensive accommodation or make do with a cold, uncomfortable night in a tent. The cost and effort required to obtain a van and "pimp it out" - so to speak - is unfortunately a limiting factor for many wanting to lead a life on the road.

Te Annau to Millford Sound  © Jon Butters
Te Annau to Millford Sound
© Jon Butters

In this series, we feature a variety of vans and their owners and getting into the geeky details of their vehicle and its set-up. Whether you're looking for vanspiration as a seasoned dirtbag or you're a VW virgin, you might pick up some helpful hints and tips...

This time it's Jon Butters' turn to tell us about his van set-up which he shared with friend Ian in New Zealand. They eventually sold the van but their set-up and adventures were well worth hearing about.

"At the end of April 2012 Ian Turton and myself flew out to New Zealand to buy a van and explore the country. Within a month we had found our ride, kitted it out and were ready to hit the road. We roamed the South island working, climbing and having fun until March 2013. We then sold our home and moved on to other adventures."

Where are we?  © Jon Butters
Where are we?
© Jon Butters

When did you decide you needed a van to live in and why? 

We had been living in Sheffield for a long time after uni and felt the need to explore. Quite a few of our friends had been to New Zealand and found it hard to relate to us just how good the country is for enjoying the outdoors. We didn’t want to be tied down in one place so the idea of living in a van worked perfectly with us.

So what was is it?

Nissan Homy, long wheelbase, semi high top.

Bad Man Van  © Jon Butters
Bad Man Van
© Jon Butters

What is the sleeping arrangement?

There was a full queen-size mattress in the back. It happily slept 2, often slept 3 and on occasion we had someone on a boulder pad stretched over the counter to make it 4.

Finished Interior  © Jon Butters
Finished Interior
© Jon Butters

How do you manage storage?

When we bought the van we stripped it bare and built it back to our exact requirements. With Ian’s expert design experience, there wasn’t an inch wasted. We had a personal drawer each under the bed for clothes. The mattress lifted up at the back to allow us to store all of our gear, tools and other random bits n pieces. Over the top of the driver’s seat was a shelf that could hold any extra things that we happened to acquire.

Arthur's Pass to Castle Hill  © Jon Butters
Arthur's Pass to Castle Hill
© Jon Butters

How much power/electricity is available in your van, and from where? 

Everything we used came from the stereo head unit. The USB connection charged our phones, powered the lights and the speakers. We picked up a spare car battery for when we left the lights on too long. It was very useful until I left it the wrong way up. It leaked, disintegrating plenty of our clothes in the process.

What about water?

There was a water butt in the back that could hold around 60 litres. We filled it up every chance we had and used it for washing, cooking and drinking.

And cooking?

On the counter we had a double hob camping stove linked to a gas canister. It was easy to remove and take outside for when the weather was good. Over time we built up a nice little rack of sauces and spices to add to our meals.

The Build  © Jon Butters
The Build
© Jon Butters

What is one essential item that makes your van life easier/more comfortable?

During the winter we spent a lot of time camped up in the mountains. Luckily we had spent a lot of time thinking about the insulation. The roof was packed with wool underneath carpet, we had panels for the windows and a curtain that could seal off the bed from the front of the van to keep in the heat.

Do you have a luxury item which you might not expect to find in a van set-up, but which you can't do without?

While we were working in Christchurch, Ian had access to a workshop. We spent a few evenings putting together a design and a good few more piecing the creation together. When we were finished, the speaker was born. It had 2 6x9 cones and could rotate to face out the back of the van when the rear door was open. It meant great sound while driving and made roadside parties all along our journey.

The Good Life  © Jon Butters
The Good Life
© Jon Butters

How easy is it to relax in when not sleeping - does the set-up change?

When it was raining the van became a little uncomfortable as there wasn’t much escape. However when the weather was good we often pulled the mattress out and cooked outside.

What is your most memorable van spot?

For me it was down by Riverside Crag in Wanaka.

For Ian, Lake Clearwater.

Lake Clearwater  © Jon Butters
Lake Clearwater
© Jon Butters

Have you had any nightmare situations involving your van?

Not too many…..

After a festival we drove the van into a river in the middle of nowhere and were very luckily rescued by a team of 4x4s that drove our way.
I reversed into a storm gutter and we had to be towed out.
One day the starter motor just fell off. Every time we started the van it had to be bumped. This went on for quite a few weeks until Ian’s handy work managed to secure it back in place.
A flat tire in the middle of the Darrans mountains meant a 100km hitch to Te Annau and back with a wheel.
After putting up with a bad smell for quite a while we finally decided to investigate. A thorough examination of the van found a pumpkin that must have been hidden for over a month.

Spring Clean Day  © Jon Butters
Spring Clean Day
© Jon Butters

What advice would you give to someone wanting to buy and convert their first van?

Don’t hesitate! When you find a ride that feels good take it!  Invest the time into building it to suit your needs and then leave your house behind (for a while at least).

Any advice or experience on where to park a van overnight?

New Zealand is littered with ‘honesty box’ camp sites around its wilderness areas. These are usually very basic but are perfect with a van. Some of them are even free of charge. If none of these are available be respectful of the owners of the land and leave no trace.

Morning after the Winter Solstice Festival  © Jon Butters
Morning after the Winter Solstice Festival
© Jon Butters





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12 Jul, 2015
I think this is the best article in the series. I had a VW for 2 years, with a rock 'n' roll bed etc. and enjoyed time in the Peak, Snowdonia, Font, stopping in campsites, lay-bys, wherever. Been there, done that. This story of a Nissan Homy in NZ was inspiring, a bit different! Thanks for sharing guys. This series is keeping my dream alive of one day forking out and getting a van again.
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