But the search certainly hasn't been without its benefits. With a trusty A-to-Z, we have criss-crossed the city and can now say we know Auckland like the back of our hand. It's a unique metropolis. Sandwiched between two harbours, it sits on a narrow land bridge, framed by forested hills to the north and an iconic harbour bridge to the east, and all of it is dominated by the futuristic concrete spire of the Sky Tower, reaching from the heart of the city. While the centre itself is far more administrative than anything else, the edges of the city - the harbour with its countless yacht sails and rich seafood market, or the northern seafront lined by the Cloud complex, provide far more tourist interest. Boat trips out to the nearby island nature reserves of Rangitoto and Motutapo thrive on the fringes of the main harbour, beside charming 19th century buildings that echo the city's past as New Zealand's old capital.
One thing the city is not short of is food. Auckland is a rich multicultural hub drawing a fusion of every kind of cooking from the world over, and although there isn't a lot of shopping to be done in the centre, there is no scarcity of places to eat. After hungered deliberation, we eventually decided to eat at the Waterfront Cafe, situated by the water's edge, beside the Maritime Museum. Despite being on a tight budget, we enjoyed a magnificent creamy chowder for only $17. Tummies full, we made our way to the Sky Tower, but while the prospect of flinging ourselves off the 328m high building appealed, the chowder made sure we would save it for another day.
Our hunt for for a vehicle went on, and took us to Manukau - a district towards the south of city. While most of the area is unremarkable - comprised mainly of garages, suburbs and car markets - the place is home to the glorious Auckland Regional Botantic Gardens, a swathe of parkland celebrating the diversity of the island nation's plant life, but also a reminder of the threats that many native species here face.
Anyway, we found a van. An awesome van. The week of hunting gave us the chance needed to gauge what we could get for our money and buy from a trustworthy source. We ended up paying $3250 - admittedly rather higher than I had budgeted for - but with it came the assurance of a fresh Warranty of Fitness (or WOF, the NZ equivalent of an MOT), a fresh service and younger model than other vans we had seen for a similar price bracket (1992 may sound old, but the vehicles here aren't subject to the same ravages of salt and rust as in the UK). After a couple of days cleaning her up, kitting her out, and expelling the resident ant colony from beneath the passenger seat, she was ready to roll. Amy, Fiona and Olivia had replaced the garish olive green and fuchsia pink floral curtains with new blue ones crafted from an old besheet, while Matt and I tightened up a wing mirror with a piece of wetsuit, true surfer-van style.
Spending our first night in the van at Muriwai beach (we kept it local to start with), we decided to explore the Waitakere Ranges Regional Park properly, taking Scenic Drive right through the rainforest to Piha, a community on the steep hillsides where the rainforests drop down and meet the Tasman sea. The winding road snaked through kilometres of dense vegetation, and when the chance to explore it and stretch our legs came, we quickly took it up. As we rounded yet another hairpin bend, we spotted a sign for 'Fairy Falls' - a blink-and-you-miss-it entrance to a well-made pathway that takes you under the canopy of palm fronds, tree ferns and vines. After half an hour of walking, the rush of running water became louder, and the path began to descend deeper in the valley, suddenly opening up to a spectacular, paradisaical cascade. The ascent back to the car was taxing in the humidity, but well worth it.
The road wound its way some more through the rainforest before the trees quickly opened out to the coast - beaches of black sand interrupted by the volcanic monolith of Lion Rock set right in the middle of the bay. Though famed for its consistent surf, the swell had apparently decided to have a rest for our time there. We spent our first night of freedom camping there, and apart from getting the van stuck in stuck in sand and having to be dug out by locals, it was altogether rather successful. Waking to drizzle and decimated by mosquito bites, we climbed the precarious walkway up Lion Rock the following morning to take in the majesty of the bay, with it's gnarled, crumbling rock faces staring out into the grey sea, or looking back at the endless hills of rainforest behind. Even in the miserable drizzle, it was glorious.