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The Tidy

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“Hmm,” I said as I let go of the steering wheel and felt the car drifting inexorably toward the middle of the road. “Do you think that’s a problem?” It was the first car we had looked at, a twenty-year-old beige saloon with nearly as many rust patches as it had previous owners and a leaky trunk to boot. As I walked around it, kicking the tyres authoritatively, Caelen looked under the bonnet and stroked his beard. There was an engine under there, of that we were certain, but our scanty understanding of what went on under the hood ended there. Still, we hoped that we could make our 1000 NZ bucks (US$500) stretch a little further than this.

New Zealand is a pretty big place, and in our seven weeks we hoped to cover a lot of ground, while carrying packs so big that a little gentle subterfuge had been required to bypass excess luggage charges in Sydney. Climbers have been known to present themselves at check-in wearing their harnesses, several kilos of climbing hardware dangling from the gear loops. We didn’t quite go to those lengths, but it took some very heavy hand luggage to get our rucksacks to duck under the 25kg limit. Bussing or hitching our way around NZ with all that gear was unthinkable. Besides, how would we get to the crags? A car was essential, the only question was whether to rent or buy.

Renting had its appeal - a much better car with no need to worry about insurance or AA membership. On the other hand, it was money down the drain – NZ$60 (US$30) a day or more for a long-term rental from one of the major companies. Backpacker rentals as low as NZ$18 (US$8) a day were advertised, but on investigation there always seemed to be a catch. Traveller wisdom said we’d be mad to hire for seven weeks. Fabulous cars at rock bottom prices abounded in New Zealand, and at the end of our trip we’d sell it in Auckland … at a profit! Reality and traveller wisdom diverge frequently, and while we would in all likelihood recoup most of our costs on resale, you couldn’t always be confident that the long-suffering cars being sold for under a grand would make it to Auckland in the first place.

Judging by the ads on the hostel notice boards, many of the departing travellers either hoped to make a huge profit, or had paid far too much for their cars. Unsurprisingly, those advertised at a reasonable price turned out to have been sold already. Buying from a local seemed like a better bet, and our eye was taken by a 1988 Mazda 626 advertised in the paper at a mere US$325. It sounded too good to be true, and when we called we learned the car had been in a crash. It was quite tidy, we were assured, but the hood was a different colour to the rest of the car. It sounded worth a look, and we arranged to see it the next morning.

When we turned up at the appointed time after a stiff walk out from town, there seemed to be no-one in. We hung around for a while, rung the door bell some more, and eventually managed to disturb the seller’s wife from her day-off lie-in. A few phone calls later and she managed to track him down, working on his father’s car a few miles away. It was becoming apparent that looking for a car without actually having a car was going to prove a real pain in the proverbial. Luckily she offered to drive us there, and we were soon behind the wheel on near-country roads. This car seemed more than a step up from the previous test drive, in our untutored opinion. The steering drifted only a little, the engine sounded nice and engine-like and the trunk was bone dry. We were keen, but nervous – what did we know about cars?

A fellow backpacker had had his car repossessed just as he was trying to sell it – the previous owner had put it up as security on a loan and then defaulted. We’d heard there was a check you could run, so I stopped by the post office. In fact the post office doesn’t run those checks, but for a couple of dollars they will tell you the name and address of the registered owner. I was a little confused to discover that this was definitely not the person who was trying to sell it to us.

We were meeting up with our friend Richard that afternoon, a Christchurch climber we’d met in Indonesia, and decided to ask his advice. He said pretty much what we’d been thinking – there could be a good reason why the seller wasn’t the car’s registered owner, but there could also be several dodgy ones. The crash itself was a worry, but we decided we’d let a professional mechanic worry about that after the ownership question was put to rest. A call to the seller failed to satisfy us, and we reluctantly let this one go.

The next day was Friday, when the weekly classifieds paper came out. It would be full of thousand-dollar cars, Richard told us. Even better, if we gave him a hand painting his eaves, he’d help us look for a car. We were thrilled – a phone number we could be contacted on, a lift to look at the cars and, best of all, some common-sense advice from someone with a bit more knowledge than us.

As Richard leaned over the roof with the paintbrush, Caelen sat on the apex belaying him on a safety rope and I sat in the garden reading the ads. Apparently Christchurch was full of “tidy” cars, and it dawned on me that perhaps this didn’t mean the owner had been spring-cleaning, but that the car was a “tidy little runner”. We’d decided on a sensible family saloon, with a big boot to hide away our huge amounts of gear, and a decent sized engine for overtaking on NZ’s roads. By the time the guys had finished I had a long list of Mazda 626s, Nissan Bluebirds and Honda Accords to follow up on.

As we began calling, the next obstacle became obvious – all these people were out at work. Most calls went through to voicemail, a few to random family members and just a couple to the vendors themselves. Finally we hit paydirt – a suitable sounding car, at the right price, that we could view right away. I took the details and we piled into Richard’s car.

Streets in Christchurch generally run from one side of town straight though and out the other side, with a few meandering along the river bank. It’s very easy for a visitor to find a given street, but hard to know where on its length the destination will be. Richard was confident that the house we were looking for was quite near his own, but on the other side of the river. After 10 minutes of following house numbers and negotiating a slightly convoluted traffic flow system, we were all amused to find that it was indeed near – so near that we could see Richard’s house.

The tyre kicking, engine examining, beard stroking charade began again. Everything looked good, as far as we could tell, and we went off for a test drive. Following Richard’s directions we put the car through a much tougher test than we’d thought to before, getting some speed up on the open road, checking the steering on winding stretches and taking her up Christchurch’s steepest hills. We reckoned this was the car for us.

After a bit of gentle persuasion from Richard, the price was knocked down from NZ$1050 (US$525) to NZ$950 (US$475). We had a deal. After tying up a few loose ends (car not reported stolen, not currently security for a loan, owned by the people trying to sell – all good), we handed over our cash and drove away proud owners of a 1987 Nissan Bluebird. Our NZ road trip could begin.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picutre of Barbara and her car - New Zealand Travelogues
Photograph of the scenery en route to Mount Cook New Zealand Travelogues
Our lovely car

Car en route to Mount Cook

Picture of Barbara at  Bretton Crag near Christchurch New Zealand Travelogues
Photograph of Richard climbing at Bretton Crag near Christchurch New Zealand Travelogues
View of Christchurch from Bretton Crag

Richard on the rock

Picture of our car New Zealand Travelogues
Picture of the climbing wall Christchurch New Zealand Travelogues
Another picture of our lovely car Christchurch's fab climbing wall