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Driving the wagon of my gypsy dreams from Motueka to Tūātapere  

The 'turtlebus'. Illustration/Daron Parton.

 James W. Barnes drives the wagon of his gypsy dreams from Motueka to Tūātapere.  

The flight from Invercargill to Nelson was clear and the Southern Alps gleamed with a week-old mantle of snow. Considering the severe temperature change, however, the flight could have originated in Scott Base. As I stood in the terminal awaiting my host, happy tourists bustled about, marvelling at the sun and scenery. The passenger page came over the loudspeaker, then at the counter:

“James Barnes?”

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Kelvin left a message that he’s been held up and you’re to make your own way to the Motueka Information Centre, and he’ll pick you up there.”

I was the proud owner of a 1952 Bedford bus converted into a Douglas fir- and rimu-panelled house-bus that looked like a mobile mountain lodge. My wife and I decided this could give us the gypsy life we had been living, in essence, since we’d shifted back to New Zealand two years earlier. I bought the nine-tonne bus on Trade Me sight unseen, with only verbal assurances from its Nelson creator, who was no longer the owner. Kelvin, who’d had the “Turtlebus” for a year, knew very little.

I stepped into the Motueka i-Site worrying I’d purchased a pile of scrap metal on six wheels. I phoned Kelvin, who apologised profusely for not being at the airport, explaining he had spent all day getting my bus out of the mud.

On the drive to Kelvin’s house and the bus of my gypsy dreams, I was told how he’d had to use a neighbour’s tractor to pull the bus out of the mud, where it had been resting for six months, serving as his private bach and love-nest on his parents’ land. The sun had set by the time we pulled up in front of the Turtlebus. In the dusk, it looked old and tired, yet still possessed a sense of dignity.

“Well, there she is,” Kelvin announced as I stepped out and began walking around the vehicle. I ran my hand along the green walls. I climbed onto the rear deck and entered through the lead-lighted back door – its only entry, nine metres behind the driver’s seat. I admired the tongue-and-groove interior and walked its length a few times, feeling surprisingly at home.

Kelvin supplied me with paper, a cooking pot and firewood, and I settled in for my first night in the bus. I built a fire in the potbellied stove, ate my lentil lasagne and settled to sleep with ease in the loft above the driver’s seat, after clearing out a couple of love-nest unmentionables from the foam mattress.

The next morning, a mid-July frost shivered me awake. My ability to light a quick fire was hampered only by my condensating breath and frozen fingers. But with the stove going, I took stock of my new home. I shook out rugs and dismantled the old, rat-eaten couch. I took it out the back door in pieces, left it on the side of the road and messaged Kelvin that I’d pay him to take it to the tip. Just as I finished my toast, cooked over the gas burner, the man who built the Turtlebus, Chris, arrived and gave me a “crash course in turtle driving”. He chuckled at his own pun.

After a barrage of complex instructions, I was on my own. I realised having so much size and weight at my control was enough to distract me on the road, if I let it. Instead, I focused on the intersection ahead and my entry to the open highway.

The double-clutching was easy enough to remember, as the shifting itself was such a major exercise.

Second gear was the gruntiest, third the most uncooperative and fourth, the most welcome. I even worked out the switch from petrol to LPG without issue, saving the petrol power for the hills and cruising on LPG. Drivers behind me sped past, oblivious to my mechanical discoveries. Some waved, most disappeared up the road at warp speed, while I trundled along at turtle speed – 40kmh tops.

The road was friendly until I reached the first set of hills and found out what the turtle had: a lot of weight. Dropping to third, then to second and climbing at 15kmh was the accepted hill routine from then on.

All was going well until I passed the turn-off to St Arnaud and got too confident; I switched to petrol while climbing a gentle hill in dense bush and hit a sharp turn, with a drop to the river on my left. I thought I’d judged it right, but as I shifted, the Turtle lurched, slowed and died.

The motor started but there was no power in gear. Call it the intervention of gypsy angels, but no traffic appeared behind me and I finally got her going again and rolled into Murchison at about 4pm. When a shower blew through, I discovered why Chris never drove in the rain. The wiper was all but completely manual. It would have been more effective to lean out the window every now and then and clear the water with my fingers.

I pulled off at the confluence of the Owen and Buller rivers and settled beneath a beech canopy to the sound of rapids and bellbirds. The rain subsided as night fell and the moon shone through the Turtle’s skylight eyes.

Next morning, I swapped the wiper on the passenger side with the less-than-functional driver’s side. No intricate mechanical feat, but the first of many renovations to come. I enjoyed the easy, picturesque drive from Murchison to the Lewis Pass, with the welcome experience of next-to-no traffic. I filled up with petrol at Springs Junction, checked the road conditions and set out for what I felt would be the greatest test of the Turtle’s endurance – and mine.

Lewis Pass. Photo/Krzysztof Golik/Wikimedia Commons-CC BY-SA 4.0.

I’d forgotten how abruptly the pass climbs. I was in second gear as I tackled the tight corners of the ascent. Snow piles lined the road but the surface was wet only in places where the ice and snow had been melting. All went well to the summit, and I pulled off at the James Creek trail for a lunch of smoked salmon and rye bread and a check of the Turtle’s systems. My six-wheel lodge appeared to be in her element.

From there, it was relatively smooth driving, at least until I reached the long stretch of winding hills before Hanmer Springs. As we hit the open expanses, a nor’wester struck and, though it didn’t affect the Turtle’s hold on the road, it did a little deconstruction work I was only to discover further down the highway.

When I finally reached the Hanmer intersection around 1.30pm, the traffic lined up behind me like a herd of menacing, turbo-powered buffalo. I tried pulling over, but within a few minutes I was leading the parade again. I learned to simply slow down below my cruising speed often, turn on my indicator and let them stream past on the straights.

The wind blew, the wheels rolled and the Turtle hummed through the farm-patterned highway of North Canterbury to Christchurch. The trucker’s wave flashed at me occasionally from drivers of real trucks, the giant 18-wheelers who recognised a fellow king of the road. This fellowship would serve me well on the road south of Ashburton.

I stopped at Amberley and filled up with LPG as if I’d done it all my driving life. Thankfully, the staff were too busy to bother checking a short-haired hippie for his LPG warrant. When I arrived in the big smoke, I pulled off to the side of the road to phone my Canterbury Uni son, Andrew, and arrange a meeting point for a grand tour of the Turtlebus.

As I waited at the roadside near the entrance to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, I tidied the bus, thinking of the many kilometres of quiet highway we’d travelled. When Andrew arrived, I proudly explained the Turtle’s beauty and practical marvels. As the tour neared completion, I gestured to my sleeping loft and froze – a gaping rectangular hole opened to the sky where one of the latched skylight panels had been torn away.

“That’s a bummer, Dad.”

“The nor’wester’s gift.”

After this father-son assessment of the situation, I set out for the nearby Top 10 campground as my son hurried off for class. I negotiated the campsite drive through the hanging willow branches and found the proprietor, who had a hydraulic staple-gun to secure the tarp I’d discovered in the storage compartment. I climbed atop the Turtle and patched her wound.

The afternoon sky was reddened by the recent nor’wester and I felt a satisfied kind of weariness. The night before, I’d been sleeping beside the river and beech trees; now I was among noisy campers with a background hum of city traffic.

Once I reached the Canterbury Plains, the only misfortune to beset me was a flat tyre south of Ashburton. As it was the inside tyre of the rear duals, I hardly noticed it; I’d pulled over only because I felt the bus pulling to the left. A fellow trucker stopped behind me and located the problem, telling me I could easily drive to the next service station for a repair. That accomplished, I closed the distance to North Otago and spent a night by the beach in Kakanui, giving old friends there a tour of the Turtle, complete with patched skylight.

“You and Jack Kerouac,” my friend said with a grin.

“Yes, but I’m glad it’s a shorter distance from coast to coast.”

I arrived in Southland at the end of the following day. My single manual wiper – unworkable while I double-clutched and shifted – made a feeble attempt to ward off the horizontal rain blasting in from Foveaux Strait. In low visibility, I drove into Tūātapere’s near-empty streets, then deftly backed my tired bus into our drive and cut the motor.

“That’ll do, Turtle,” I sighed.

Kathy and our visiting eldest son welcomed Odysseus home, marvelling at my adventures and exploring the gypsy bus.

My story ends with the Turtle’s soft solar lights glowing beneath a starry Southland sky, the Persian carpet warmed by the potbellied stove, and memories of my faithful (albeit cumbersome) carriage that bore me from balmy Tasman Bay to the stiff winds of the southern ocean.

This article was first published in the July 2019 issue of North & South.

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