Families who love living on the road

Pull out onto any state highway in the summer and you’ll see scores of recreational vehicles (RVs) trundling the length and breadth of New Zealand. Many are rented by holidaymakers on a classic Kiwi road trip. However, more and more people are investing in their own caravans and making them their own. And a growing number of people even live fulltime in these tiny homes on wheels.

By Rachel Helyer Donaldson
Photography by Sanne Van Ginkel

Featured in Capital #68
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The cost of renting a motor home can be exorbitant, as Tawa newlyweds Lara and Ben Maher found when planning a South Island honeymoon. So, on a whim, they bought a gutted out, rusty 1972 caravan the week of their wedding in January 2017. 

With a one-year-old daughter, Charlotte, the Mahers always intended to delay their honeymoon. What they hadn’t planned for was starting married life with a caravan reno project in tow, involving cleaning, scrubbing and water blasting. There were cockroaches, a lot of mould, three broken windows and rust all over the chassis. “It was testing,” says Lara, “that first year of marriage!” 

Ben, a building project manager, built the internal cabinetry, did the 12V wiring and spent hours stripping rust. Tradie friends helped with the painting and plumbing. RV Dreams in Lower Hutt did the specialist electrical work and installed a solar panel. The Mahers wanted an open layout. It was also important to keep the caravan’s character. They kept the original number plate and sourced classic “beehive” caravan lights and other retro fittings. Lara, a part-time kitchen designer, came up with the “neutral, classic” look, with a tiled splashback and patterned vinyl floor to add personality.  The end result is “Daisy”, now painted a smart grey and white and residing on the grass beside the Mahers’ mid-century home, awaiting her next summer sojourn. 

Setting off for the first big trip, they encountered “a few hitches”, says Lara. On Daisy’s inaugural run, to Palmerston North for Christmas, a wheel came loose near Foxton. It happened again, a few days later, near Blenheim. Thanks to kind locals and the online caravan community, they were on the road again pretty quickly. They spent the next three-and-a-half weeks visiting glaciers and lounging by lakes. Daisy cost $1,200 to buy, the reno just over $15,000. Ben estimates additional labour would have cost “in excess” of $10,000 if they’d had to pay for it. 

Doing up a caravan is “quite an undertaking” but money well spent. “We won’t be spending a lot on accommodation now for holidays.” Charlotte, now four, has a one-year-old brother, Ollie, and the family did a Wairarapa weekender last Easter. They’re planning more adventures in their mobile holiday home. Apart from the sheer enjoyment of caravanning, Ben thinks it’s “quite cool”  that the kids will “grow up with the experience.”


A lot of people thought actor Lydia Peckham and web developer William Barber were “crazy” spending $30,000 to live in a campervan, rather than on a house deposit. Says Lydia: “Now, so many of my friends are like, gosh we want to do that too!”

In 2018 the couple was living “quite a routine lifestyle”, flatting in Newtown, says William. Working part-time and intermittently, they found “all this time between jobs wasn’t rewarding.” Lydia craved an alternative to the typical acting life – “do a job in America, live the high life, come back and work in a bar”.  The answer? A 1998 Ford Transit motorhome. “You don’t have to pay rent, you can go wherever you want for jobs. In between, you can go wherever you want for yourself.”  The couple have lived in their RV (named Lemòn because she’s an old vehicle, “a lemon, but a bit more fancy”, says William) since April. 

But life’s not all one big road trip. William, a former digital producer with Garage Project, works as a freelance web developer. Lydia has had two big acting jobs – in a forthcoming Netflix series Cowboy Bebop, and a starring role in new Chinese feature film Only Cloud Knows. The couple have mainly been “orbiting Auckland” where Lydia’s been filming, says William. “When we get a window of four days we would go up north or go to the Coromandel.” Too much freedom can be a challenge, says Lydia. “You sometimes lack routine and can get lost in the day.” The pair start each day by writing a list. As well as a few hours working, it might include a morning swim, a lunchtime walk, and a BBQ. 

Living the “glam life” of an actor can be difficult in the tight space. A shelf-and-a-half each for clothes leaves little space for red carpet outfits. In May, Lydia had to rush to Auckland to meet with film executives. With just hours to spare, the campervan broke down, then her straighteners blew the power. She did hair and make-up behind the counter of a Pukekohe petrol station while waiting to be picked up. Arriving for dinner, she was unfazed: “You just act casual and no one knows.”

Winter was hard, says William, “especially in Auckland because it rains a lot.” There’s “a continuous starting again” when it’s time to move, or dump grey water (from the kitchen, bathroom sinks and shower) and black water (from the toilet). 

Overall, though, “the pros outweigh the cons so massively.” He goes spear fishing for their kai and being reliant on solar power has made the couple more energy conscious. “We’re doing a lot more drawing, playing chess, things that aren’t screen-based.”

Lydia’s “big fear” was that they might become “really antisocial” but in fact “it’s probably the most social I’ve ever been.” However, the couple always turn down the offer of a bed. “We’re like, ‘no, we love living here’.” William says he can’t imagine selling Lemòn. “Right now, the idea of living in a flat feels really restricting. No part of me wants to lose this anytime soon.”

The mother ship

Growing up in Kilbirnie, Mels Berg and her father would spend school holidays touring the country on a motorbike, trying to go down every road. 

Road trips are in her blood, she says, “You have that adventure and curiosity in you, to see what’s out there.” Yet, working at iconic cafes Midnight Espresso and Deluxe, she was a self-described city girl. “I thought I’d never leave.”  Nevertheless, save for winter breaks, Mels has spent the past 18 years on the road. She lives in a 20sqm house bus with her partner Jonas Karsten, their eight-year-old daughter Koco, and two chihuahuas, Izzy and Pepper. Son Jamal, now 19 and living in Wellington, was a pre-schooler when he first started tripping around. When they met, Jonas was a German backpacker, keen to see more of New Zealand. Mels’ dad encouraged the couple to get a bus and trip around. They planned to live in it for a year, she says. “Then we joined travelling markets and did some music festivals, and we’ve managed to make a life of it, running shows and events.”

The bus is a 1964 Bedford J4, once the Mt Cook school bus. Inside it is surprisingly roomy, thanks to alterations – a pop-out side room, an extended ceiling, and a roof deck. “It’s like a Tardis,” says Mels, “it’s way bigger than you think.” Also in tow is the Lucky Star, a glittering blue caravan where Mels sells Havana coffee and freshly made juices. Jonas runs their clothing stall. 

One of the biggest music events they do is Splore. Their 24-hour Lucky Star Zone is “legendary” among festival-goers, Mels says. 

Five years ago they set up the Extravaganza Fair, a family-friendly old-school travelling fair, complete with circus acts, clothes stalls, candy floss. This year there are 34 trucks, more than 70 adults, 24 children, and 26 dogs travelling the length of Aotearoa for 32 weeks a year, a different town every weekend. 

Last September, while parked near Lyall Bay, the family returned home from dinner to find the bus “engulfed” in flames. Their two chihuahuas were right at the back. Mels found Pepper straightaway. But it took five attempts, in thick smoke and darkness, before she located tiny Izzy. “She was completely limp, no heartbeat.” Happily, a burst of mouth-to-nose revived her. The bus was saved too, but it was completely gutted. A year on, the “Mother Ship” (or “Mother Phoenix”, her post-fire nickname) has a new look: white walls and pops of teal. “It used to be all house-trucky and wood and dark but we’ve lightened it up. It’s quite vintage-y.” 

Winters are spent in a cosy cabin in New Plymouth, maintaining the Extravaganza fleet, and on buying trips to Bali, Thailand, and India. Koco attends school in winter. On the road she does correspondence and home school, and “adapts really quickly.” Raising children on the road makes them “the most confident, adaptable little humans” says Mels. “They all have jobs around the fair – they’re doing money handling, learning people skills.” 

Mels still calls Wellington home. But there are always new roads to discover. “If you’re prepared to go down a dirty, dusty road, there’s usually something magic at the end of it. We’re lucky enough to stay there, because we have our house with us. We get to enjoy the mountains and the serenity and no people.”  


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