Stranded in a Forest without Cell Service (and all the Road Trip Mistakes that led me to this point)

Car broke down on a road trip

“Does the car seem to be swivelling a bit, or is that just me?”

“Probably just the road, it isn’t the smoothest.”

“Yeah, but isn’t it making a weird noise too? I’m gonna pull over and check.”

“Babe, I’m sure it’s fine, you’re just being paranoid.”

But my boyfriend insisted we pull over. We were on the winding, single-lane highway that connects Milford Sound with Te Anau in South Island, New Zealand. With nothing but forest on either side for two hours and not a bar of cell reception in sight, this was not a highway to mess around on.

Why we were driving it in the dark at 8:00 pm on a Saturday night was one of many mistakes that would lead to this fateful night. It was not fine. He was not just being paranoid. The tire was shredded and hanging onto the wheel well for dear life. The car was not going anywhere, anytime soon. Let’s take a few steps back.

Mistake #1: I bought a car when I know nothing about cars

I’ve made many mistakes in my life, the most recent being my purchase of a used station wagon from 1998 coupled with an inadequate knowledge of cars.

Did I ask about the status of the cambelt? No.

Did I check to see if there was a working spare tire? Nada.

Did I do anything besides test driving it for 10 minutes and looking under the hood, as if I even knew what to look for? Nope, didn’t do that either.

All these things would come back to bite me in the ass sooner or later. At the present time, the problem was a blown tire on a dark, winding highway without cell service.

Mistake #2: I planned to drive somewhere without cell service in the middle of the night

Our initial plan was to stay at the Milford Sound lodge both Friday and Saturday night. However, the previous weekend, gale winds and freezing rain had prevented me and my group from doing the Mueller Hut overnight tramp and we’d been rescheduled for the following Sunday night (the last night of the season).

As Milford Sound is seven hours away from the start of the tramp, my boyfriend and I planned to leave late on Saturday and stay at an Airbnb near Queenstown. In the morning, we were supposed to pick up three members of our group in Queenstown and finish the drive to Mueller.

All this meant that at 8 pm, we were driving along the Te Anau-Milford Sound highway.

At least the wheel is still on the car…

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Upon realizing the tire was blown, we first attempted to turn the car around and drive back 15 minutes to the Milford Sound lodge. But before we could attempt this (very stupid) plan, we saw oncoming headlights.

We flashed our high beams and honked the horn way too aggressively, but thankfully a couple in a camper van stopped. They graciously offered to turn around and drive us back to the lodge.

At the lodge, we exhausted our options. They had no available accommodation (I had, ironically, already cancelled our beds for that night). A tow truck at this hour and for such a long distance was unlikely, and if it was possible it would cost an arm and a leg.

At this point, an employee offered to drive us to the car and help us change the tire (neither of us had changed a tire before). I was pretty confident I had a spare tire, but did I have a car jack? Couldn’t say. We brought one with us from the lodge.

Mistake #3: I didn’t actually know if I had a spare tire (or how to change one either)

Back at the car, we used headlamps to evaluate our situation. To my surprise, I was correct – we had a spare tire! Upon further inspection, however, we realized the spare was not at all similar to the other tires on the car. It was narrower and taller and had different bolts and it was completely and utterly useless.

My friend Lexie and I had slept in the car a few weeks back, so I had plenty of comfortable things left in the car.

Dejected, we had to face reality. With no room in the lodge and no way of getting to Te Anau, it looked like we’d be sleeping in the car. Although I was missing just about every essential for Van Life, bedding was finally something I was prepared for!

In the car, I had a foam mattress topper and several fleece blankets, plus five sleeping bags that were going to be used for the camping trip the next night (ok, the five sleeping bags were a little overkill). I also had over six litres of extra water, plenty of food and a cooking stove, fuel and a lighter (we were about to go camping after all).

Sleeping in a car off the side of a winding highway with no service was pretty creepy. (Criminal Minds flashed through my head more often than was needed). But overall it was completely fine.

Morning came and we hitched a ride back to the lodge and phoned a tow truck. Just as I was about to book a $200+ service, someone mentioned how convenient 24-hour roadside assistance insurance would have been…… Wait a minute….. I HAD 24-HOUR ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE INSURANCE.

Mistake #4: I didn’t check what my insurance covered

In the hectic chaos of everything, I had completely forgotten about the service I’d added to my insurance plan (something that saved me more than once and was only $3.44 biweekly). Apparently, they would not have been able to get to us that evening, but still ridiculous of me to forget.

Once we called roadside assistance, everything went smoothly. We hung around the lodge for a few hours while waiting for the tow truck. With the tow truck, we then picked up the car, drove back to Te Anau and 28 hours later I had a fully functioning four-wheeled car again.

The tow truck saving Jennie.

What happened to the others we were supposed to pick up in Queenstown?  We weren’t able to contact them until much later, but they’d ended up driving to Queenstown so they got the Mueller Hut tramp on their own.

Despite getting the go-ahead from the park rangers, they experienced crazy weather and – long story short – got stranded in a snowstorm, suffered mild hypothermia and got a helicopter lifted out. So maybe we didn’t have it quite so bad in the car after all.

More mistakes…

This was definitely the most dramatic issue I faced with my car, but far from the only one. In addition to blowing a tire, over the course of five months my car:

  • needed its cam-belt replaced
  • needed its brake pads fixed
  • had a tail light go out
  • the rearview mirror fell off
  • the stereo popped out (but we popped it back in and the tunes carried on!)
  • the central locking glitched continuously

Now, would this have happened if I’d had the car properly inspected? Probably not. I was buying a car almost as old as I was. I should have had it tested.

At least all this went down with a beautiful Fiordland backdrop!

How to avoid all of my many mistakes:

  1. Pack all the essentials for a road trip (there are a few additional items to pack if road tripping as a family)
  2. Know how to change a tire before you go road tripping
  3. Don’t drive on isolated highways at night
  4. Get the used car properly inspected before you buy it
  5. Know what is and isn’t in your car
  6. Know and remember your car insurance policy (and obviously, don’t consider going on a road trip without insurance – even I didn’t do that)

Despite all the trials and tribulations that came with owning a car, my boyfriend, my friends and I had some crazy adventures driving throughout New Zealand in Jennie. I learned a lot of important lessons about owning a car, but thankfully I won’t be buying another one anytime soon (yay for urban transportation!).


sportswear cardigan

Fleece Sweater

Maroon Arcteryx cerium LT for women

Down Jacket

Hiking boots of Merrell Moab vent

Hiking Boots

icebreaker tech lite women shirt

Hiking Shirt

deuter hiking bag

Back Pack

Hiking pants of the The north face

Hiking Pants

6 thoughts on “Stranded in a Forest without Cell Service (and all the Road Trip Mistakes that led me to this point)

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    • voyageurtripper says:

      Same here! I figure misadventures tend to follow certain people. Hopefully it hasn’t happened to you before!

  2. josypheen says:

    Oh my goodness! You poor thing, but thank goodness you had roadside assistance (I need to get that for us!!)

    I am really clueless about cars too, so we had to save up for aaages to buy a new-ish car that was still under warranty. Mostly because we were so worried about this kind of thing. It sounds like whoever sold you that car was a bit of a cowboy! I mean, leaving you with a spare tire that doesn’t match!?

    I hope you got to see the road to milford sound in the light at some point too!? It is SUCH a gorgeous place to drive when you have all four tires…

    • voyageurtripper says:

      I will definitely have to go back to Milford Sound. My time there was great of course, but so many other things I’d love to do and see. It was pretty poor weather for a good part of our trip so I didn’t really do any hikes. Do you have any you’d recommend?

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