Kilian and I were very lucky. We met on my first day at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ while we were both waiting in line to change our courses for the coming semester. A few weeks in to our friendship, Kilian and I decided we needed to be mobile because we were both going to be in NZ for significant amounts of time, so we started looking into the car market on trademe.co.nz and we found tons of cars! After a few weeks of watching the market closely we had checked out a few cars, but nothing had spoken to us. Then one day, Kilian tells me he found us a minivan, and her name was Betty!
Kilian was born in Germany, goes to school in Heidelberg and during the last 3 years has spent considerable time in Australia, Thailand, and travelling around Europe. So naturally, when he planned his trip to NZ, he didn’t go through a study abroad program like I did, instead opting to apply directly to the University of Otago, find a flat on an online website outside of the University, and generally plan his own trip. Kilian found a flat that advertised as “two female students looking for a third student to split the rent” and thought that sounded perfect. When he showed up at the start of the semester, he found a woman and her daughter…surprise! While this was not expected or ideal, the mother turned out to be one of the most kind and generous individuals Kilian and I have ever met. In fact, upon hearing that we were in the market for a car, she decided that we could simply have her old minivan, Betty! Betty had not been registered for 1.5 years, so we had to pay for the Warrant of Fitness and the registration, but after those expenses, the van was ours (to be returned to the nice lady before we left the country).
Betty opened up a whole new world for us. Instead of having to plan with a group of people to rent a car for a weekend trip, we could leave plans more loosely defined since we already new transportation was covered. Having wheels during the semester allowed Kilian and I to take 20+ trips to Long Beach (a local climbing spot) even during the week! While Betty was useful during the semester, Betty became our home after the semester ended.
I had received a 6 month visa before coming to NZ and Kilian had planned an even longer trip, so as the end of the semester approached, we removed all the back seats of the van and built a raised bed in the back. When it came time to vacate our flats, we packed our bags, threw them under our new bed and hit the road.
Our first stop was to hike the Silver Peaks, a tramp not far from Dunedin.
Next, Kilian and I drove to the west coast of the South Island and stayed at at a dairy farm near Hokitika where we explored the nearby area, going on walks with the dog and tramping. While on the farm we rode horses, dirt bikes, tractors, and argued with the farmer about politics, life, and the rest over a few beers, while the 5 kids (ages 8-20) ran around causing a ruckus.
After our 10-day-stay was up we headed up the coast and found a small Christian cult known as Gloriavale. The farmer had told us a little about it, that everyone wore blue, that it was a strange, totally self-sufficient group of evangelists, etc. Kilian and I figured that at the very least they would give us a nice meal and a warm bed out of Christian kindness, so I called and scheduled a visit. We found it to be similar to the farmer’s description: people totally cut off from the outside world, living simply and for God. There was some social weirdness and strange rules, so after one night, Kilian and I were ready to move on.
With Gloriavale in Betty’s rearview mirror, we headed up to Golden Bay and the northern most tip of the south island. There we met some Canadians who had recently moved to the area. They were very friendly and welcomed us into their home. We had planned to move on quickly, but their house served as a perfect base from which we could launch various climbing and tramping adventures, so we ended up staying 4 extra days, even getting in part of the Abel Tasman!
Over the next month Kilian and I worked our way back down the east coast past Kaikoura, Akaroa, and Christchurch, then turning inland and making one last stop at the lakes near Mount Cook, Wanaka, and Queenstown, ending the journey in Dunedin a few days before my flight back the USA. During this month Kilian and I slept in many huts along various tramps, showered in houses of hospitable kiwi and international people that we randomly met along the way, and of course, had many front and backcountry adventures.
I will always remember my 6 months in NZ as one of the most transformative experiences in my life. Being in a new place, with a slightly different culture, interacting predominantly with people who didn’t know me, set me free. With no one looking over my shoulder, I could plan trips without really planning and try things that voices of authority back home might have shot down. Here I was able to follow my heart.
Although Kilian and I have fallen back into our respective lives in our respective corners of the world, we carry with us the memories of Adventures With Betty, always and forever.
Nick Knoke is a student at Colgate University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2015.