7 Nov 65 : Customs nightmares and Ham radio fun : Auckland, New Zealand

Sunday 7th November 1965

Auckland. New Zealand

Dear Family,

Wonders will never cease! I actually had a letter from Nigel this week. I picked it up when we arrived here. Actually it was the only letter I had here as none of the others seem to have arrived yet. However I was glad to hear that everything is OK at home.

I certainly hope you have good luck with the jobs, Nigel. I am sure that everything will work out fine soon. Anyway thanks for the letter, I did appreciate it – incidentally it was sent on from Sydney as will be any others.

I expect by now Mum has had a very excited Mrs H down at the shop with a story about a phone call from a man in Street, Somerset, who we have been talking to. I expect you must have been very puzzled by all this, and I will explain how this came about later in this letter.

Our first two days here were a nightmare. We spent two whole days visiting Banks, Insurance Companies, Loan Associations, AA officials, Customs officials, etc. In each case the answer was the same. We had to have £500 in cash to hand over as a bond before we could have our campervan. Our money in the US didn’t mean a thing to them, and they weren’t interested.


Tony with VW campervan
Tony with their beloved VW splitscreen campervan


In the midst of all this we got into further difficulties. We went off on the first day taking with us the keys of the Volkswagen and when we got back in the afternoon we found that we had held up the unloading of the ship – as they couldn’t move the Volkswagen. The cargo officer was livid and said we would be fined £20 as the whole gang had been sitting down for an hour doing nothing. As you can imagine we began to feel really fed up!

At this stage one of the customs men suggested we went straight to the top. “Go and see the Collector of Customs” he said. “He is the top man and you can’t go any higher”. So we went to his office and made an appointment, and were ushered into his office. We told him everything and he listened without saying much. We threw in remarks like “We have come to see your country” and “How can anyone be expected to carry £500 when they are working their way around the world?” etc, etc.

Gradually he thawed and began asking questions about our trip, and finally asked us how much cash we had on us. We said £150 and he said he would accept £125 as a deposit – the balance to be got from the US as soon as possible. We were delighted (although it meant we were almost broke) and thanked him profusely.

We then had to go through the most fantastic procedures of forms, declarations, obtaining stamps, etc, that you could ever imagine – and this took another whole day! We had to then get insurance, join the AA, register it, and get another insurance which is a State insurance and is compulsory. We had to register, licence, and insure the trailer also. We have to have a USA plate on the back of the VW and have it inspected at a Government Testing Centre.

Finally it was ours again and we took delivery. We got some petrol and put it in, but found that the battery was as flat as a pancake! We suddenly realised that we were members of the AA (of about two hours) – so I phoned them up and down came a car and started it for us – we saved 12/6 (twelve shillings and sixpence) right away for charging the battery – and the membership fee was only £1-1-0 !!


1965 06 New Orleans Colin on the Riverboat President
Colin (taken earlier in 1965)
1965 06 New Orleans Tony on Riverboat President2

During all this trouble we had been sleeping on the ship, and having our meals there too, nobody seemed to mind, and this saved us quite a bit of money – which is now pretty low.

Jim, our friend from Bristol, has found a room at £4 a week but has to eat out which seems to be very expensive to us. He had an accident on the ship on the last day and hurt his foot. Crossing the Tasman Sea, it was rough and all the cargo in one of the holds shifted and collapsed, and we all had to go down and we re-stack it. During this, Jim stepped on a piece of wood with a 6 inch nail sticking out of it, and it went right into his foot. He can’t walk too well and has not been able to job hunt yet.


Jim Gardiner in New Zealand cropped
Jim Gardiner (taken in New Zealand)


I don’t know if I mentioned it in my last letter, but I had to go down and help them move the Volkswagen during the rough weather, as they were afraid it would turn over. However, when we took delivery there was hardly a mark on it and nothing stolen.

We finally left the ship and said goodbye to the few members of the crew who were sober enough to even see us, and set off.

We now had another snag. We couldn’t get inside the van, as it was full with the trailer wheels, axles, girders, etc, and we had to get it out before we could sleep in it. At this point we remembered the Swifts, a couple we met on the Queen Elizabeth. They live near Auckland and gave us their address telling us to look them up when we arrived. So we phoned them up and told them our problem and asked if we could dump the trailer parts at their place until we need it.

They said ‘yes’ – and told us how to get there. It was about 30 miles north of Auckland at a place called Helensville, and we soon found it.

When we arrived at 9:30 (Friday night November 5th) Mr Swift was, at that moment, operating his radio set (he is a HAM) and was speaking to a man (George) in Street, Somerset, and for the next 45 minutes all three of us chatted to him.

Note: Amateur (HAM) radio was the original global social network, dating back to the early 20th century – using simple home radio equipment, Ham operators could connect and chat to any other ham, worldwide, for free. It was a hugely popular hobby until the advent of free international communication online, although there are still Ham radio enthusiasts worldwide today.) 


ham radio photo
Vintage ham radio equipment


He (George) offered to phone our parents, but of course he could only phone Colin’s parents.

NOTE: In the 1960s, less than a third of UK homes had a home telephone line – Colin’s family owning a phone was very advanced. Like the majority in the UK, Tony’s parents would walk to a public telephone box if they needed to make a call.   


British telephone box. Public source photo by Dave.Dunford – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84475840


He went off the air for about ten minutes and when he came on again, he informed us that he had indeed phoned Colin’s mother and had given her all our news, and she in turn had sent messages back to us. She assured me that she would go down to see you right away (at the shop, I presumed).

It is illegal apparently to allow any actual speaking to be done using the telephone so we couldn’t actually hear Mrs H. It was a wonderful experience talking to George in Street, and the reception for most of the time was excellent. He told us all about the weather and the recent gales you have had, but assured us that October had been a real Indian Summer.

We finally ended at 11pm at night here (11am in the morning there) (same day) and were promptly invited to stay the night which, of course, is just what we had ‘planned’!! We had a very good night sleep there and a very good breakfast too – and our plans for lunch worked out also and we were duly invited and stayed after a few ‘mild protests’.

We spent the morning unloading our trailer and stowing it into their garage, and generally straightening out the van, and discussing our various experiences in the States with them and also hearing their experiences.

They stayed mostly with fellow ‘hams’ that Mr Swift had contacted. Their daughter and her fiancé arrived for lunch and both of them had been on similar world tours (separately) and they were interesting to talk to.

To be continued… 

Note from Tony:

Our problems arose because we had arrived in New Zealand without an International ATA Carnet, which is currently recognised by 78 countries, and used for the temporary importation of goods, equipment, vehicles, etc. The Carnet proves you have deposited money somewhere as a bond, which is returned to you when you relinquish the Carnet.

In New Zealand in the mid 1960s, selling a vehicle could be very profitable – hence the need for money deposited in lieu. We should have obtained a carnet before leaving the US, but didn’t, thinking that we could talk our way out of it on arrival in New Zealand.

As you can see, we failed miserably!

However the Collector of Customs was a very nice man.  At first he seemed rather aloof, but as we pleaded with him to allow us to have our campervan, he visibly relaxed. We told him we had no intention of selling it, as it was our home – we travelled in it, cooked in it, slept in it, lived in it – so why would we want to sell it? He then told us he had sons about our age, and he would hate to think of them in a similar situation. 

He said he would take most of our money, trusting us to get the rest as soon as possible (which we did). He then issued the release of our vehicle.  When we explained that we now needed jobs urgently, he recommended we try the New Zealand Glass Works, as they operated 365 days a year and were always looking for people. We followed his advice, leading to some incredible experiences… 

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