May 22, 2018
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A bumpy ride for an old Polie

By Meg Adams, Special to the BDN

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn had their raft. The Scooby-Doo gang had the Mystery Machine. Don Quixote had his horse, Rocinante. I have a 1984 Mazda Bongo camper van.

The van belonged to a friend who spent the 2008 austral winter season at South Pole Station and who had spent the four months afterward traveling. It was nearing the end of my own South Pole season when Jon first e-mailed me with the question: “Will you help me sell my van to a Polie?”

I might just buy it myself, I thought.

Weeks later, I was on a leafy side street just outside Christchurch center in New Zealand, walking a slow circle around the gray behemoth destined to become my new home.

I’ll admit it is no beauty. This van is older than I am, for one thing. The radiator demands attention every morning (“use the jug in the back to top it up,” a note instructed me) and the interior lights are beyond rewiring. It already has an unfathomable number of miles on it. But with some fresh oil and a little love, this van is both roadworthy and cozy.

Character it has no lack of, from the small Snoopy figurine attached as a hood ornament to the plastering of bumper stickers affixed by various owners on the back. The middle seats fold down to make a large, foam-padded bed in the back. I imagine my sleeping bag unrolled on it.

“Your friend left you a lot of gear,” said the Kiwi who kept it for us after its last owner had returned to the United States. “Put a lot of miles on it, he did, and left you all kinds of goodies.” Sure enough, we have inherited several crates of sundries with the Bongo van: sunscreen, rice and a small stuffed Tasmanian tiger, among other things.

A few calculations tell me that, as long as the Bongo stays in one piece, its double use as both transport and lodging will make it well worth the price. I look at my friends for their nod of agreement, then I take a deep breath and cement the deal: “We’ll take it.”

Registration turns out to be a painless 10-minute process, accomplished at the post office. The next step is relearning how to drive a manual transmission — and to drive it on the wrong side of the road.

“Stay left! Stay left!” I yell out loud — a mantra that grows only slightly more panicked as we tackle a roundabout, or traffic circle — something I’m not terribly familiar with even when I’m not driving on the wrong side of the road.

Getting the van to shift into fifth takes rather a lot of practice; it’s not exactly what you’d call “smooth driving.” Simply remembering how to work a manual shift was exciting — it had been almost a year since I had driven a car regularly, and more than four years since I had attempted to drive a stick shift, with (at best) dubious results. And now the shifter is on my left side, not my right.

The poor stuffed Tasmanian tiger is pitched from its perch on the dashboard and sent careening into the back seat more than once during those first 10 minutes. But by the end of an afternoon, the driving of the Bongo goes smoothly. For the most part.

“That was the curb!”

“Stay left, stay left!”

I’m grateful for the serendipitously placed grass island that facilitated a speedy oops-wrong-side-of-the-road lane change, and even more grateful for the people who didn’t rear-end me when I stalled. After a few more unnoticed incidents, we set off. Leaving Christchurch (“with nary a scratch!” I pointed out enthusiastically to the terrified-looking friend who was beginning to regret asking for a ride), we head off to hit the hiking trails.

This van shall be our base camp — kitchen, living room, bedroom and car. The Bongo may have many miles on it already, but I believe it has many miles to go. Stepping on the accelerator, I think of a quote from the man who wrote the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” “Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today,” Mark Twain once said. I feel exactly the same way.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures, visit or e-mail her at

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