Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen

There’s a certain attitude that goes with being a motorhomer. It’s wrapped up in enjoying and living life to the full while seizing opportunities along the way. AJ and his late wife Daphne Bertelsen certainly embraced life on the road in their Winnebago Vectra, exploring New Zealand together. Now without his beloved wife at his side, AJ continues touring their favourite spots in her memory. Paul Owen chats with him to find out more about their adventures.

The late Daphne Bertelsen loved the Winnebago Vectra motorhome that she shared with her husband, AJ. Following the passing of Daphne, AJ has embarked on a two-year-long memorial tour of Daphne’s favourite camping spots in the Winnebago they shared so many adventures in.

The 1996 Winnebago Vectra parked in Orewa’s beachside motorcamp immediately caught my eye as I rode past on a recent bicycle ride. It’s a rare slide-out equipped version of the popular American RV, and it had a patina that hinted at an extended period of ownership in this country.

With the name ‘II Ride Inn High’ emblazoned above the cab, the Winnebago obviously had a story to tell. So, taking a punt, I spun the bike around and presented myself at the open side door in the hopes I could find out more.

The owner, AJ Bertelsen, greeted my suggestion of a feature story with a quick glance to his left, where the ashes of his wife, Daphne were resting in peace on her favourite pew, the swivelling left-side passenger seat of the Winnebago.

AJ had turned the seat and its surroundings into a mini-remembrance space for Daphne, who departed this life just a few months earlier. There was a framed photo of her on their wedding day 30 years ago, a poem celebrating her bubbly personality, and on the dashboard sat a beautiful statuette of a man and a woman locked in a tender embrace.

I quickly expressed my sympathy to AJ and suggested that maybe it wasn’t the right time to do a story on the Winnebago and his relationship with it. To my surprise, he was still keen to go ahead and share their experiences.

“It (grieving) is part of life and if you’re living in a motorhome, then it’s something you must go through as part of the lifestyle,” he says. “Besides, it was Daphne who talked me into the idea of buying a motorhome and living and travelling in one together.”

The seed that Daphne planted about living in a motorhome together germinated 18 years ago while the couple were on an extensive round-the-world tour.

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen
The Vectra is in pretty good nick at 37 years old

“We had hired a motorhome, just a crappy cab-over, to tour the US for three months, and Daphne said: ‘I could really get used to this back in New Zealand.’

“I told her ‘I’ll think about it’ but two days later she asked ‘Well, have you thought about it yet?

“We had used a hired motorhome during our honeymoon, but we were still working then, and this was the first time that we looked into the idea of living in one.”

Spring In To Action

As the couple kept on travelling around the world, a plan for a new mobile lifestyle upon their return to New Zealand began to take shape.

“Originally, we were just going to convert the high-top Toyota Hiace van that we used in our catering business into a campervan, but by the time we’d got through Europe and into Asia, the plan was out the window. If we were going to travel for a long time, we knew we’d need something that was more comfortable and luxurious.

“So instead of converting the Toyota, we put our house on the market.

“We were looking for a suitable motorhome all through the selling period and lined up our first Vectra in Levin. When the house sold, we just went for it.”

Exciting adventures

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen
Three generations of the Bertelsen family inside the Vectra: Natalie, Leanna, Michael, Heather, and Daphne

Daphne and AJ toured in their first Winnebago Vectra (christened ‘Ride Inn High’) for eight years, but always wanted one of the rare slide-out versions. Ten years ago, they saw this one advertised on Trade Me.

“We were miles away at the time and quickly packed up and made a beeline for where the seller was located.

“Daph said that if it’s there when we get there, then it’s meant to happen. We got to Murchison and there she was – turned out that it belonged to the brother of a motorhoming mate.”

The slide-out is one of the things AJ loves most about II Ride Inn High.

“The first Vectra was a bit of a crush, but you can have 10 people in here and if the weather turns sour, you don’t have to send anyone home.”

Daphne and AJ were some of the most sociable campers around when they were together, a tradition that AJ continues now that he’s flying solo, especially when it’s time for ‘4zzzz’s’ – the routine 4pm coming together of many motorhomers to raise their glasses together and have a chat.

“Every day that we extended the awning, people would turn up.

“At times, 20 to 30 would show up, and one memorable afternoon, we had 82 clustered around the motorhome.”

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen
Daphne loved the kai moana opportunities motorhoming gave her

AJ would often slide out the BBQ built into the Vectra as the late afternoon slid into evening and invite people to fetch their own meat there so that the gathering would continue. With 34 years of catering experience to call upon, he’s used to cooking for a crowd.

As they travelled, the two Vectras became increasingly personalised, the first getting a large mural painted on the rear panel of a bald eagle descending on a raupō bush at Lake Tekapo. When it needed some work done beneath it, AJ parked it up in the yard of a house-moving company.

“They quickly jacked it up several feet in the air on four house stands, giving me easy access underneath.”

The second Vectra has a custom dashboard that AJ put together. He was a qualified panelbeater early in his work history and is a pretty handy bloke all round.

Practical advice: Campground etiquette

Over the years, the interior of II Ride Inn High has attracted lots of Kiwiana and momentos. There are colourful butterflies on AJ’s side of the cab and potted plants on Daphne’s, along with an extra freezer added to the electrical system. He’s also carrying on Daphne’s practice of growing a few veggies while on the move.

AJ chose the Winnebago because he likes the simplicity of living in it.

“It’s easy to drive, and everything is push-button – you push one button to level it when parking it up, and another to operate the slide-out.

“The Americans don’t like hassles when they’re on the road, so they put a lot of work into making something that’s easy to use.”

Solid performer

Life on the road: AJ Bertelsen
The beachside park at Orewa was one of Daphne’s favourite spots

That attitude carries over to the bulletproof nature of the Winnebago’s Cummins 230B (“the B is for Baby” says AJ) engine.

The six-litre six-cylinder turbodiesel engine develops 145bhp, and progress in the Vectra can be a bit sedentary at times, such as when it’s towing AJ’s Suzuki Vitara V6 SUV up a steep hill. But never mind the speed, appreciate the reliability.

“When we got our first Vectra, I went to Freightliner to ask if there were any potential problems mechanically and was told that ‘apart from regular servicing, you should not have to put a spanner on the engine before the odometer clicks over one million miles.’” Daphne was keen on fishing, and the Vectra often towed a trailer with a boat and an upturned beach trailer on top, with a Toyota Cavalier coupé stowed and hauled beneath it.

For the memorial tour with Daphne’s ashes, there’s just the Vitara to tow along. The tour will take two years because that was what the couple had planned to do after another house sale before Daphne fell ill, first with pneumonia, followed by a heart attack.

“The tour will visit all the places where we had good times,” says AJ.

Orewa was one of Daphne’s favourite camping locations, and the Vectra had been parked facing the panoramic ocean view at the council-owned motor camp four times before. Before I say goodbye to AJ and he packs up the Winnebago to head further north, I persuade him to pose in front of the Vectra for a few photos first.

He’s tense during the first clicks of the camera shutter, his expression showing that he’s keen to get moving and uncertain of how the day will end. Then some pedestrians walk past and there’s a bit of banter between AJ and them about an old fella being the star model of a photo shoot.

AJ’s face cracks into the willing laugh that all the motorhomers who have ever parked near him will instantly recognise. Daphne may be gone now, but the momentary return of AJ’s sense of humour suggests that maybe the early stages of healing have slowly begun.

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