We bought a car: how a car made me experience New Zealand

Agatha Kehayas/Staff

I’ve never crashed a car, but I’ve had nightmares about coming close to it plenty of times. I passed my New York State driving test and got a license, same in California, but rarely do I get the opportunity to drive while away at school. Rarely at home, too, because my family still doesn’t trust me with their cars yet — they might never.

Shortly after flying to New Zealand for a semester abroad, I wanted to validate my good standing relationship with cars and bought one of my own, or at least 25% my own. Sydney, Sam, Ethan and I befriended each other quickly after we decided we liked the looks of one another, and we thought what better way to seal a friendship than by splitting a 1997 Toyota Noah Townace imported from Japan — a beaut. It was almost like proposing to the significant other you met two weeks earlier: “Will you … maybe you would want to, I don’t know … buy a car with me?”

It seems romantic (it was), and it seems extravagant (debatable), but if we wanted to travel around, see the country or even just drive to the supermarket, we would have to succumb to the used car game. That first week in March, we bought our new used car, lovingly named Betsy, and it changed the trajectory of the rest of our time in New Zealand.

Based in Lincoln, a suburb of Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand, I attended Lincoln University for my spring semester, their fall (it’s all reversed). After exploring Auckland for UCEAP orientation, we traveled up and around the North Island, seeing Piha Beach with black sand, Coromandel Cove’s criminally beautiful water and Paihia’s Bay of Islands — this was all BB, Before Betsy. Finally, we settled about midway down the South Island, awaiting what our new home had to offer alongside sheep and rugby.

Lincoln became a home fast. An agricultural university comprising about 3,000 students, it was a huge breath of fresh air from the competition and intensity of Cal. It’s associated Lincoln township is a block long, complete with the Famous Grouse bar, the bank, a sushi place and a video store. The landscape is beautiful and expansive, the people friendly and easygoing and the mullets aplenty and still as bad as you think.

We wanted to see beyond the confines of Lincoln’s countryside, and with Betsy, we did. Taking her along the left side of every road, we passed through kilometers of varying terrain. For our fall break, we took a week to loop over to the west coast, down to the southernmost point of New Zealand, then back up and around to our beloved Lincoln, increasingly becoming home in light of our frequent road trips. Surprisingly — or unsurprisingly, to her faithful owners — she treated us fairly well.

As six people and their belongings packed into the van ready for a lot of bonding and not as much showering during that next week, we played Disclosure and other synthpop that mysteriously, everyone seemed to agree on, and we drove. I started, navigating from Lincoln across New Zealand to Hokitika on the west coast. When we reached Hokitika, we all climbed out to search for food, found some, then climbed back in to do the same searching for a camp site. We did find one, finally, and set up camp. While getting to know some Czechoslovakians, our tents slowly filled with the drizzled rain that started to fall. The rest of the night was a wet one, and the morning left us soaked as we piled into the van, the shelter that would inevitably smell terrible in no time at all.

The next day we stopped by Fox Glacier a little farther south and continued on to Mt. Aspiring National Park in a valley so picturesque that it looked like the label for salad dressing.

The day after, day three, we went to see the Blue Pools — miraculously clear water that looked just as it is described. We watched a man dive from the bridge we all stood on to rescue the GoPro he dropped the previous night — he saved it, and we got it on film. In late afternoon, we arrived in Queenstown and were met with a small city on the lake, mountains surrounding us. The amount of commercial establishments affronted us at first, looking foreign from our rural Lincoln home. We soon embraced the cafes and shops lovingly.

Day four, we explored Queenstown some more, inhaling the famed Fergburger and Patagonia ice cream we heard about all over the country already. Again, we piled into the car and drove halfway to Milford Sound, discovering a holiday park late at night that became free — no one was there to collect money. We got to shower, quickly and quietly pitched tents, and then hauled ass the next morning to leave before we were caught and drove to Milford Sound.

On day five, we cruised around Milford Sound and took a lot of pictures of the Sound’s green hue meeting the Tasmanian Sea’s blue one via legitimate Nikon camera, phone camera, Snapchat and GoPro. We returned to Betsy and drove halfway to Invercargill, camping lakeside for $5 NZD.

Day six, we got to Invercargill in the rain, checked into our hostel and finally spread our smelly backpacks in the Egyptian-themed room in which we were staying. We got to shower again, and our plans to go out and party quickly morphed into falling asleep early in bed.

On our final day, we drove a few kilometers to the Bluff and took in the view from the lowest point in New Zealand. Done, we piled in the car once more and decided to book it home that night, about a seven-hour drive. Ethan and Sam DJ’d while Sydney, Cassi, Marin and I screamed along with a “drunk girl playlist” from fratmusic.com. We didn’t mind; we were pumped.

That whole time, the car was respite from the cold and a rolling place for a nap. The van forced all six of us on the trip back together, no matter what tension started to build as we traveled. The same went for every camping weekend trip. Together, we dealt with the fact that the back sliding door could only be opened from the inside, the driver’s door yelled with a strong pop every time you opened it, and the entire van swayed if you surpassed 120 kilometers. We loved our van just the same.

The car became our common territory that rolled around the South Island, showing us New Zealand through her tinted windows and helping us get to know each other without the assistance of wifi and its companion, Facebook. All we had was a car, some stuff in backpacks, a bluetooth accessory for music and one another to talk to.

A few days ago, my co-owner — and I’m proud to say, friend — Ethan called all owners of the van to his room for an important meeting. In his subdued Texan accent, he told us that we all (y’all) made his trip and he would never forget it. Together, he handed Sam, Sydney and me each a frame with photos of the four of us together and our van Betsy, parked quietly in the background.

Contact Agatha Kehayas at [email protected].