Travelling the road in a home on wheels

By: Jo Knox


Fancy a champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget? Jo Knox meets four couples who have made fantasy real.

Cost often stands in the way of travelling the road in a home on wheels. The following stories demonstrate how MCD readers have used ingenuity, resourcefulness and outside-the-box thinking to turn a once-unaffordable dream into reality. Their can-do attitude is infectious.

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Co-owning a camper

For many years, owning a family motorhome was financially out of reach for Aucklanders Jo and Trevor Knox. But an idea was sown when Jo’s parents, Barbara and Geoff, also began voicing an interest in travelling New Zealand. Before long, the two couples decided to buy a motorhome together.

Choosing one that would meet the needs of the Knox family of four and also be suitable for Jo’s parents turned out to be surprisingly simple. "It helps when you have incredibly easy-going parents," says Jo. "If we were happy, they were happy."

Wanting to avoid having to convert sofas to beds at bedtime (and vice versa in the mornings), ready-made beds were at the top of Jo and Trevor’s must-haves. Jo’s parents’ wishlist included a separate and roomy bathroom. Both parties also wanted the peace of mind buying a new vehicle would give them.

Each had a budget of $65,000, a sum that alone would never have come close to fulfilling their requirements. But their combined budget of $130,000 allowed them to purchase a new, 6-berth Benimar Mileo. 

"It’s the best investment we’ve made," says Jo. In just over a year, the couples have clocked an impressive 15,000km over several breaks, including an extended South Island trip for Jo and family and a North Island trip for Barbara and Geoff. "We love being able to just take off on a whim – even if it is just 5km down the road to the regional park," says Jo.

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The Knox boys at Hooker Valley track

For the Knoxs, motorhome time is the best sort of family time. At home, there always seems to be something to do, but there are fewer distractions on the road. "We go for walks and bike rides, play games, or just sit outside and be still," says Jo. For Barbara and Geoff, all that talk of ‘one day we’d like to visit...’ is being realised.

They’ve seen more places in the past 12 months than in all their previous years of travel combined. Dual ownership has meant costs are halved. It has also ensured no one feels guilty that a considerable investment is sitting on the driveway gathering dust. The family’s co-owned camper rarely spends two weeks unused.

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Barbara and Geoff, all set for one of many trips on the road

Scheduling trips has also been simple. "We just ask, ‘We were thinking of taking off on x date for x days. Does that work with you?’" says Jo. Their "unwritten rules" are similar to those of a camper-hire company: empty and clean the motorhome upon return and refill with fuel.

But while co-ownership is working like a dream for this extended family, Jo admits there is no one with whom they’d consider a similar arrangement. Her advice to others is:

  • Be confident that each co-owner will get fair use from the investment.
  • Be sure that expenses (both planned and unexpected) will always be covered and the ‘unwritten rules’ will not be an issue for either party.
  • If there are any doubts, consider making those implicit rules explicit by drawing up a contract. 

The DIY caravan

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After all that hard work, leisure is pure pleasure for Reiss

Enjoying the outdoors has always been important to Northland’s Reiss and Frances Hardy. The Mahurangi West couple spent many summers with their three children, now 15, 12 and 10, using the sea as their playground and camping at the beach. But seeing their friends Jo and Trevor enjoying their new co-owned camper stirred the hidden ‘gypsy’ in them.

For mortgage broker Frances, however, a money-smart solution was a must. DIYer Reiss had built a box trailer from scratch before and thought, ‘a caravan can’t be that much different, right?’ So, armed with the (tight) budget set by his wife, a few tools, and with YouTube serving as his teacher, he began designing and building a caravan that was:

  • made-to-measure – it needed to sleep a family of five comfortably;
  • weighed-to-measure – the family car had to tow it;
  • self-contained and compliant – it has a toilet and shower, kitchen sink, portable cooker and space for a fridge (still to come), and;
  • be multi-purpose – Reiss also wanted the capability to take at least one ‘boy’s toy’ on their trips, and so allowed space for a jet-ski or motorbike. 
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Room to keep the kids entertained outside…

"It’s impossible to buy something that meets our requirements so specifically," says Reiss. "So I built it." And while anything bespoke often comes with a hefty price tag, Reiss’ DIY version of ‘custom-made’ came in at a modest $17,000. "The real cost was time," he says.

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…and inside

"Whatever time you think you’ll need to finish, double it and add some more." He estimates he spent at least 400 hours on building the trailer and another 200 fitting it out. Would he do it again? When he finally finished the caravan, the answer was, "No way. Never again." But just six months on, he says he wants to capitalise on lessons learnt and build a new and improved version. 

Renovating

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Bonnie (pre-reno)

In 2017, after spending a year in Ireland, Danielle Bellamy and Cain Tonkin moved home to the Kaipara District for the birth of their first child, Archie. But the extra work involved in being first-time parents didn’t prevent them from thinking of renovating a caravan for future family holidays. For them, new wouldn’t do; a makeover was a must.

Not only would a restoration save them money, Danielle and Cain also preferred the character of older caravans. The pair tried to find a vehicle locally via Trade Me and Facebook, but the only one of interest sold for well over their budget. They eventually found Bonnie, a 1977 Oxford Crusader, languishing at a scrap-metal yard around the corner.

At $1000, Bonnie was within budget, but she was in a sorry state requiring extensive work, including structural. But in adversity comes silver linings and the overhaul allowed Danielle and Cain to design the interior from scratch. The caravan had to be self-contained to meet the requirements of a growing family.

The couple wanted to avoid the hassle of setting up each night. So out went the vehicle’s three original single beds and in came a cot (for Archie) over a queen bed (for them), plus an extra single bed upfront. The existing layout made way for a custom-built kitchen, a bathroom with shower, toilet and basin, and intelligent storage solutions. Now there’s a place for everything styled to their taste.

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And with reno underway

Cain says their bespoke interior is like a "villa on wheels". Bonnie’s exterior didn’t need such extreme cosmetic surgery. Her aluminium cladding was salvageable, so the couple reused it to retain the caravan’s vintage look. Danielle’s experience in architecture and design and Cain’s skills as a furniture-maker meant they could design and do most of the work themselves.

They outsourced powder-coating, gas-fitting and brake-plumbing. Considerable time was spent planning, talking with experts (e.g. painting, electrical, plumbing, setting up solar panels) and searching social media for information. Their best advice to others is to allow enough time for preparation. "Don’t set unrealistic expectations. Plan, plan and plan some more," says Danielle.

Bringing Bonnie back to life has taken a while, and she still isn’t completed. The couple is hopeful she’ll be roadworthy soon, and they aim to have her fully completed by the end of the year – all within an impressive $15,000 budget. Bonnie’s first outing will be weekend trip to Ātiu Creek Regional Park before, ultimately, a tour of the South Island.

"We’ve learnt so many new things through this restoration process," says Danielle. "But what we will love most is being able to say we’ve done it ourselves." See more of Bonnie’s transformation on Instagram, instagram.com/thetonkincollective/ 

Hiring it out

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Ever since their boys were newborns, Nicci and John Weild from West Melton, Canterbury, have enjoyed (or was it endured?) years of tenting. But they longed for a motorhome. In 2011, the Christchurch earthquake led to the loss of John’s parents, and then John himself was severely injured and had to give up work.

The events made the family even more determined to live for now. A move from Sumner to West Melton provided a ‘geographical cure’. And, inspired by friends who were hiring out campers, they signed up with Mighway with three campers, two bought purely to rent out.

Nicci says the move was a great lifestyle choice. Summer is flat out while winter is quiet, allowing the couple to take off to somewhere warm overseas each year. They take several New Zealand weekend minibreaks and make at least three one-to two-week excursions a year.

Renting out a vehicle means they meet people from all over the world and love helping them plan their trips, and they get to work from home. Nicci appreciates how easy Mighway makes it. "We can get them on the phone and work through issues promptly." The venture has gone from strength to strength.

They currently have five campers and often manage others for friends. There are things to consider, says Nicci. The campers can get damaged and although John is a proficient handyman, time off the road can mean losing a booking. Accumulative wear and tear falls outside of an insurance claim, and sharing your ‘pride and joy on wheels’ means unpacking belongings after each trip and then packing back up afterwards.

Demand also dictates you’re less likely to be able to use it when you most want – in summer. After eight years of renting out campers, Nicci and Johnny recently bought another motorhome, a UCC. For their use exclusively, it has a big lounge with large windows for Nicci and the capacity to carry all their toys – inflatable kayak, mountain bikes and even John’s motorbike. 

She and John love their camper lifestyle. "A roadie down south stirs the same excitement in us both as going to Europe or the United States," says Nicci. But best of all, they have created a business out of their passion. They are doing it their way with help from Mighway (mighway.com).

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