Wānaka Sun       

Van life in the time of COVID-19

Posted at 6:00am Thursday 23 Jul, 2020 | By Joanna Perry newsdesk@thewanakasun.co.nz

Tom Stone (26), from Nottingham, UK, has been living in his van for almost two years. Before that, he was travelling by bicycle around Asia for a year - so his high rise van provides “a very comfortable lifestyle compared to living in a tent,” he says.

After travelling and working around New Zealand on his working holiday visa, he came to live in Wānaka six months ago, utilising freedom camping sites in the surrounding areas. Stone appreciates the minimalist van life - he has all the ‘mod cons' and enjoys total freedom and independence - but it hasn't all been sunshine and rainbows.

Aside from the notorious honking from passing cars, and the occasional lack of New Zealand hospitality towards freedom campers, there was the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Stone lost his job before lockdown, missing out on the wage subsidy due to being a temporary worker on a casual contract, and was one of many freedom campers required to take refuge in a campsite when free campgrounds were shut.

When Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) camping ambassadors came knocking, he moved to Glendhu Bay Motor Camp for the duration of lockdown. Stone said there was a real “community vibe” in the slightly unusual bubble, with people who didn't know each other coming together to share meals and drinks.

“I made the most of what it was, but I wouldn't have chosen to do that,” said Stone. Although many local campgrounds offered reduced rates, it was still more than many stranded travellers could afford. 

In the midst of the welfare crisis which left thousands of migrants stranded without work in Queenstown, Stone was one of 7,000 people to request support through QLDC's welfare system - but said that he heard nothing back, either by phone or email.

Jack Barlow, spokesperson for QLDC, said that there were “a number of agencies” giving support to thousands of people during lockdown and “a range of factors” why individual requests may have gone unanswered, “including the person not fitting the criteria needed for support or not picking up a return phone call from the agency.” He envisioned that approximately 2 per cent of people who asked for support were declined.

Stone's story is unfortunately one of many; there are still a number of stranded migrants in Wānaka, several of whom are living in vans and cars. 

Bex Sarginson, co-founder of volunteer group Food for Love which is supporting struggling travellers at regular Wednesday coffee mornings at the Pembroke Pavilion, said we often take our homes for granted. “I'm sure we can appreciate how damn cold it is at this time of the year,” she said.

Despite the difficulties, Stone, an aspiring mountain guide, is very happy to be staying in Wānaka - “the place for me” -  building up his experience hiking and climbing, and taking on any odd jobs.

If you need wood piling or have jobs you don't have time for around the house, you can get in touch with him through the Wānaka Sun. 

View edition 984 of the Wānaka Sun here.

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