We named him Reggie the very first day we got him. Just like a boat, every adventure vehicle worth its salt needs a name, and one look at this staunch vessel – with its boxy lines, knobby mud tires, and flat-top wooden roof rack – had us convinced it was a ‘he’ from the beginning. We chose the name Reggie because he’s a Toyota Hiace ‘Regius’ van, and with only 225,000kms under his belt, the name Reggie seemed fitting for a carefree Toyota just hitting the prime of his life.

Buying a van was no accident. I’d always wanted to travel around New Zealand and experience the freedom of living on the road. Countless times over the years I found myself yarning with mates about how cool it’d be to buy a van and just take off. Everyone agreed, and we all started following ‘Van Life’ Instagram pages and searching online for rigs. But, nobody ever pulled the trigger. Life, and responsibilities, have a habit of getting in the way.

Then, in early 2022, when the borders were still closed due to Covid and no international tourists were allowed in, my fiance Freya and I saw a van pop-up on TradeMe that was close to her house in Taranaki. We looked at the ad, then looked at each other and agreed: “Screw it, it’s now or never.” We drove straight over to check it out; it was parked near the beach in Oakura. As we pulled into the carpark across the road from the water, I could see the salt spray glistening as it rolled over Reggie’s crisp lines, like in slow motion. And that’s when the love affair began.

The owner was a friendly Brazilian guy named Rodrigo. He had long black hair, tattoos, and wore bare feet as he gave us a tour of the van. He was selling because he had to return to Brazil (he’d been stuck in NZ for two years thanks to Covid). “I poured my heart and soul into this van,” he told us as we walked around it, ”I am so sad to sell.” I believed him. He was a carpenter by trade and had fitted the van out with beautiful bespoke cabinetry and woodwork, including an uber-comfortable transforming couch/bed inside, and an amazing kitchen in the back – complete with a working tap, sink, and two-burner stove. I promised him we would treat it well, then we agreed on the final price and he handed over the keys. Freya and I drove around the corner, trying to stay cool, and then erupted into stoke and pulled over to get some photos of our new steed. It was really happening!

Fast forward a week and we were elbow-deep in a myriad of modification projects. I’m not talking Paul-Walker-worthy NOS tanks, spoilers, and body kits; more like voltage sensor relays, inverters, solar panels, and 12-volt appliances. It wasn’t cheap (and it still wasn’t a 10-second car) but the mods would allow us to run power in the vehicle for a fridge, fan, overhead lights, blender, laptops, cameras, and phones. We’d already set a date for our departure, and it was fast approaching. The plan was in place: circumnavigate the South Island. Why? Because, like most North Islanders, neither of us had ever properly explored it before – it was the allure of the unknown. Worker bees, in the form of family and friends, descended upon our shambolic worksite one by one to help us through the final stages of modifications, or just to offer a cheeky comment and a beer.

When the day finally came for us to leave, we packed up everything we thought we might need into the van. Thankfully, Reggie came with a ‘coffin’ storage container on the roof, into which I managed to squeeze: two fly rods; one pair of waders, one pair of wading boots, one fishing net, two wetsuits (one for diving and one for surfing), one speargun, one pair of dive fins, one weight belt, two masks and snorkels, and a surfcasting rod and reel. In other words: a shit-ton of gear.

As you might imagine, ol’ Reggie was feeling pretty weighed down with all the junk in his trunk; it was a slow start as we drove south towards the Bluebridge ferry. Along the way, we stopped to pick up several last-minute items from Kmart (you know how it is) and to stock the pantry and fridge with some essentials. Once on the ferry, we finally got to relax and let it all soak in. The bucket list trip we had been dreaming and scheming about for years was becoming a reality.

We started the trip by exploring the Marlborough Sounds, sleeping in Reggie at designated freedom camping sites along the way, and cooking our meals using the fancy kitchen in the back – home was wherever we parked it. We went to Anakiwa, where 14 years earlier I’d completed an Outward Bound course, and saw some of the OB kids on the jetty, doing manus into the salty water just like I had done so many years before. It was nostalgic, to say the least, and I smiled to think of how proud my 17-year-old self would be of me now, still exploring, still striving to squeeze every last drop. Then I did a cheeky manu with them for old-times sake. We also stayed in French Pass for a night – one of the trip highlights – and got our food nicked by a hungus weka. I whipped out the spearfishing kit and jumped in near the pass to secure a feed of blue cod.

The next stop was the Nelson/Tasman region, a place brimming with endless sunshine, golden sand beaches, and charming little towns. Abel Tasman National Park, Takaka, Wharariki Beach, and Lake Rotoiti were the highlights of this section – all places that felt radically different from anything I’d ever seen on the North Island. I managed to hook into my first South Island brown trout in the Takaka River near Paynes Ford, while local rock climbers topped out above me, but the cunning bugger managed to snap my line and escape.

When we made it to the West Coast, it surprised me. Some friends had suggested we skip it altogether, while others wouldn’t stop raving about it. I didn’t know what to expect, but what we found there can only be described as real-life Jurassic Park. The sea was a deep blue and the surrounding mountains were covered with a vibrant green forest, teeming with native trees: rimu, kahikatea, manuka, beech, and nikau palm. We stopped off in Punakaiki for a couple of nights and then pushed on to Greymouth and Hokitika, stopping at least 20 times along the way to take in the sights. After exploring the Hokitika Gorge, we passed a sign saying ‘Precision Helicopters’. “Stop!” Freya yelled to me, “I think that’s Matt Newton’s company, he’s a good family friend.” As we pulled into the carpark of the hangar, we could see a chopper warming up on the helipad, almost ready to take off. As we stepped out of the van a guy came around the corner and beamed a smile at us. “Freya!?” he said incredulously. “What are you doing here?!” And then came the next question: “How much do you both weigh?” After running some quick and dirty calculations he told us to grab our stuff and jump in the chopper – we were going to pick up some hunters!

We were buzzing as we grabbed our cameras and climbed into the heli. Within minutes we were flying high above the Hokitika River, looking down on its turquoise-blue glacial waters and tracing its outline with our flight path. Then, we rose higher and higher, up into the alpine zone. It was our first real glimpse of the New Zealand Alps and we savoured every moment. We picked up the hunters from an elevated tussock flat and then continued on, over several craggy mountain peaks and expansive glaciers, until we reached the Main Divide. Suddenly, the heli started to bump around with turbulence and rain started to fall on the windscreen. “There’s some bad weather coming in,” Matt muttered through our headphones. “We’d better head straight back.”

He wasn’t wrong. After safely landing the heli back at the hangar, we got into Reggie and drove through to the Hokitika township, where there were rumours going around town that there was a savage rainstorm on the way. We checked the news and, sure enough, there was a red alert over the whole West Coast region for a rainstorm of epic proportions. We decided we’d try to outrun it and made it down as far as Fox Glacier township before it caught us. I have never, ever heard rain like that in my life. That first night, we were huddled in Reggie as the sound of rain battered the roof like machinegun shots. After a sleepless night, the next day we heard that all roads were closed because of several bridge wash-outs and major slips. We were stuck. Thankfully, we found an Airbnb that was available in town, so we ditched Reggie and settled in for what ended up being five long days with intermittent power and internet, and torrential rain that just wouldn’t stop coming. On day five, the skies miraculously cleared and the road crews got to work – clearing debris, mud, and rocks off the roads, and repairing bridges. By midday we got the green light to travel again, so it was back to Reggie and the freedom of the road.

The next couple of weeks passed by in a glorious blur of lakes, mountains, and fjords. We stayed with friends at Lake Hawea, doing some fishing and tramping, and then pushed on down to Te Anau and Milford Sound. The Fishing in the Eglinton River (on the road to Milford) was absolutely ridiculous: gin clear water, surrounded by mountain vistas, and choca with big fish that were eager to take a dry fly off the surface – heaven. But Milford was the real star of the show, and part of the reason that we’d planned the trip to begin with. Thanks to the borders still being closed due to Covid, we’d heard that Milford tours were running at a third of their normal price and that there weren’t the usual 50 buses per day on the road. Sure enough, we found the roads to be empty (the same could be said about the roads during our whole trip) and we managed to book a bougey overnight cruise in the Sound for a pittance of its normal value. The whole experience made us feel like royalty and allowed us to properly soak up the experience without the distraction of hundreds of people all up in our grill.

After Milford, we stayed with some friends in Colac Bay and went surfing in the cold waters of Foveaux Strait. We had the break completely to ourselves, and while we were surfing a pod of hector’s dolphins swam up to us and started poaching waves. I’d never seen these dolphins before (they are the smallest and rarest dolphins in the world), and it was such an amazing experience to be so close alongside them in the water as they frolicked around. The next day we went jet boating on the Waiau River with the same crew, and I fished the Mataura River, catching a few nice chunky browns with the fly rod.

The last section of our trip took us up through Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, Twizel and Lake Tekapo, then up into Christchurch, Kaikoura, and Blenheim. We walked the Hooker Valley trail in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park on a beautiful bluebird day and decided it was one of our favourite hikes of all time. I fished a creek outlet flowing into Lake Pukaki and hooked a fat silver rainbow that we cooked up with some friends for dinner – baked in the oven (we were all convinced afterwards that it was the tastiest trout any of us had ever eaten). I also tried my luck at fishing for king salmon and steroidal trout in the famous Ohau/Twizel/Tekapo canal system, and for naturalized chinook salmon at the mouth of the Rakaia River; two unique kiwi fisheries with their own rich cultures and steeped histories.

When it finally came time to drive Reggie onto the ferry and leave the South Island behind, it was with mixed emotions. Sure, it had been an intense month, with the usual mixture of highs and lows that we’ve come to expect from travelling, and we were keen as mustard to have a proper shower and sleep in a proper bed. But, it was also a spectacular opportunity for us to explore our own backyard at a time of unprecedented silence, without competition from others, and with the ability to go at our own pace rather than rushing to the next booking. I can honestly say that the South Island is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and I’ve seen a few. Its diversity is astounding: oceans, rivers, mountains, glaciers, deserts, and rainforests – all within a stone’s throw of each other. If you’re a Kiwi who hasn’t explored the South Island yet, then you’ve got a job to do. And what better way to do it than by van? Your own version of Reggie is out there waiting for you.