A Van Update: Meet Philben + HOBBITON

One of the lengthiest and most frustrating experiences of my life finally culminated in this…

Regius Philben

This beautiful Toyota Regius, who you may call Philben, is now our home, and we are overwhelmed with joy at how much we love it!

A bit of a 180 from the van saga post, no? Well, that is because THIS IS A DIFFERENT VAN! Yes, we bought a second van. Ridiculous? Maybe… definitely.

Essentially it boiled down to happiness.

We were able to get the fuel smell under control in our first van, lovingly known as Shitbox, or SB. In fact, after trying to figure it out for over a week and two mechanics, all that needed to be done was to get a new fuel cap. I kid you not.

As it turned out, the current aftermarket fuel cap was unable to release air pressure that builds up in the tank. Obviously that pressure has to go somewhere, and because it couldn’t get out through the cap, it decided to push its way out through the carburetor, taking some fuel along with it. Thus the persistent fuel smell in the van.

Time to head South.

With the fuel smell relegated we finally said goodbye to Auckland and took SB South. Our first stop… Hobbiton. Why the hell not? It was a (surprisingly) beautiful day… and by that I mean NO RAIN! We made the 2.5 hour drive and did a tour of the external set.

Photo by J. Howell Photography

It was pretty great. Whether you have realized it or not, I am a bit of a cinephile + TV. Seeing the Dharma Village in Hawaii was hands down the biggest highlight for me, and I have dreams of taking a RTW following the footsteps of Wes Anderson and another following the exploits of James Bond. Would that not be SO cool? I will answer that for you. Yes, yes it would.

And now, back to Hobbiton.

Back in the day, I really geeked out about Lord of the Rings. I even went to see one of them at a midnight showing. But, I can’t remember which one… maybe the second?

This may be blasphemy, but the movies haven’t really held up over time for me. I tried rewatching The Fellowship of the Ring a few years ago and couldn’t get through it. Perhaps I have just lost the brainpower to stay focused that long. I also have never seen a single movie in The Hobbit franchise, or ever read any of the source material. I feel like that makes me shockingly unqualified to visit Hobbiton. Too late.

Photo by J. Howell Photography

I really enjoyed our time there, despite my lack of LOTR zeal at present.

You arrive at the Shire’s Rest. An underwhelming picnic area and building complex comprised of the ticket office, souvenir shop and overpriced cafe. This is where you hop on the bus to the Shire.

Across the street is an entrance to Alexander Farm, a 1,250 acre sheep farm that has been used as a set since the very beginning. And you immediately see why. Lush green hills dotted with satisfied sheep. Happily grazing, they don’t even notice the buses loaded with hoards of tourists rumbling by. This is what you think of when you think of New Zealand.

The set is nestled in a little valley surrounded by more hills and indescribable natural beauty. I want to live there. I don’t care that I would hit my head 100 times a day. Totally worth the headaches/minor concussions.

The only downside is that, as this is solely an external set, you can’t really go into any of the hobbit holes. Not that there would be anything to see, they aren’t furnished. All interior shots were filmed on a soundstage in Wellington. It was a lot of fun to walk around the town, though. And there are ample opportunities for photos.

Photo by J. Howell Photography
The most famous hobbit hole, Bag End.

I also found out what I want my next job to be. The Shire’s orchards and vegetable garden has human people gardeners year round! AND they get to take all the produce home. #BESTJOBEVER #LifeGoals.

Photo by J. Howell Photography

The tour ends with a complimentary drink at the Green Dragon Inn. The only thing that could have made the experience better was if I had hobbit feet to walk around in.

Photos by J. Howell Photography

Back to the van.

After the tour we continued South, and grabbed a bite to eat in Tirau. We were the only people in the restaurant, because, well, travel has a way of turning you into an old person and we were having dinner at 4:30.

The proprietor was a very friendly Kiwi and told us of few places where we could freedom camp on a nearby lake. We planned to stop by a market on the way so we would be set for food for the next few days.

We were having such a nice day, SB just couldn’t handle it. When J went to start up the van, it wouldn’t turn over. FUCK. Ever the cool-headed maverick, he was able to jumpstart it rolling down the slight hill we had parked on. And we were on our way… until we stopped at at supermarket.

I ran in to grab some essentials (meaning hummus and things to put hummus on) thinking J would leave the van running. Sigh. I guess you know where this is going. It wouldn’t start again, but this time we were on flat ground. We tried rocking it, getting nowhere.

It just so happened that the local fire brigade was having a fundraising 24-hour bike-a-thon 30 feet from us. We were able to rally some help from a few on the sidelines. One very helpful Kiwi assured us that his brother-in-law would be able to figure it out, and would be there soon.

Not twenty-minutes later we were back on the road with the knowledge that our solenoid (I have no idea what that is) probably needs to be replaced. He did show J how to get it started in the event that it happens again. Kiwis really are some of the friendliest and most helpful people I’ve ever encountered.

Feeling rather defeated and yes, frustrated, we made a decision. Head back to Auckland and take this motherfucker to the car fair in the morning.

Ellerslie Car Fair, Round II

We were able to check in to a Best Western right next to the Ellerslie Race Course that night and spent a good bit cleaning it out and fixing it up so that first thing in the morning we could head on over.

Of course, it was raining in the morning. And it misted all the way through the 4 hours of the fair. We had a few interested parties despite the low turnout and bad weather, but no firm offers. We did end up meeting an adorable British couple on their RTW journey. They had built-out their own van and definitely had the cutest one there that day, although it wasn’t self-contained. They mentioned that they hadn’t really run into any issues not having the self-containment, though.

We had a good time chatting with them between prospective buyers and as it turned out we had met some friends of theirs a few weeks earlier when we had been looking for a van! Jason and this guy (whose name I cannot remember) got to chatting about fly fishing, as you do, and Jason mentioned that he had worked for Orvis. If you are unaware, Orvis is kind of an amazing company. A piece of this guys’s fly fishing rod had gone missing in transport and he called Orvis to see where he could buy a replacement. Orvis being Orvis, they shipped him an entire new rod for free. #BallerStatus.

I think I may have had too much coffee this morning, I just can’t help dropping in the #s. Seriously, I can’t help it, its how I think now… I guess that means I’m a millennial? Bad news. But in my head I do it in an ironic way… oh shit, does that make me a millennial hipster? I have to stop this train of thought right

Moving forward.

We weren’t able to sell SB, at the car fair. That was a serious downer. We did talk to lots of people, many of them dealers, who recommended we wait and sell it at the beginning of “backpacker” season next year when the demand is much higher do to the influx of backpackers in New Zealand for the Summer.

Once again we were faced with a decision. It seemed that the only feasible time to sell our van would be months from now. While sticking with it would be the practical move, we just didn’t feel like it was an option. We would rather have scrapped the whole idea of touring New Zealand in a camper than take that van out on the road long term. We decided, no matter what, we were going to find a way to store it until the time came that selling would be feasible. For less than $30 USD a month we are renting a parking space in a secure lot in Hamilton, a little town just over an hour South of Auckland.

Once that was taken care of everything else just fell into place. We were oscillating between scrapping the camper idea completely – busing around New Zealand and staying in hostels – and looking for another camper. That is when we found Philben (unnamed at that time). It was probably impetuous, but as soon as we had checked it out and taken it for a test drive, we knew we wanted it.

We haven’t had a single second thought – in fact, its probably the best decision we’ve made since we’ve been in New Zealand. We are currently touring the South Island in our new camper, and so far things are perfect. Except for the rain.





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