30 years, one campsite
An enduring family tradition
I– wife to Jono and mum to Aaliyah (4 ¾) and Matthew (3 ½) – is our homegrown camping guru for this issue. If you've ever wondered what successful family camping looks like, this is it.
have been camping at the same spot, every year, since I was born – bar the one year I was sight-seeing around Europe with my husband. It started with my parents taking me and my three older sisters camping at Whananaki 30 years ago. Over the years we moved sites around the campground and eventually got, what we think, is the best spot. The campground is situated on a 75-hectare farm with beautiful beaches and views and has been owned by the same family since 1915. It has the bare minimum – clean running water, long drops and cold showers, but this hasn’t stopped us from going back every year. In fact, it’s not only my family of four who have kept up the tradition – my parents and all of my sisters and their families join us each year too. It’s wonderful (and a little squashed with our rapidly expanding crew).
Every summer, nearly 20 of us descend on Whananaki. We pitch all of our tents and caravans around a shared gazebo and seating area (in the ‘perfect spot’) – and after a couple of hours, our pop-up village is complete. The set-up works really well for everyone – a shared space for eating together and hanging out, and our own tents and caravans to retreat to for down time. We have gotten to know the people who camp either side of us each year too, and it’s fantastic to watch our kids grow up together.
Camping is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think it is simply the best way to spend summer with our family. And it’s relaxing! I can do as little or as much as I like while the kids roar around with their cousins. I love the feeling of one day rolling into another and losing track of what day of the week it is.
In the early days, Mum used to bath us in a tub, much like I do today with my own children. There were sheep that wandered around the grounds and I remember being woken often by one bleating right outside the tent! In my teenage years, it was a New Year’s tradition to walk out to the furthest point on the reserve with friends and sleep the night there. We packed our pillows, torches and warm clothes into our sleeping bags and threw them over our shoulders. We navigated the dark hills by moonlight, trying to stay on the thin path the sheep had made. We stargazed and stayed up late into the night, watching for shooting stars and sharing stories and jokes. In the early hours of the morning we were woken up by
watch other holidaymakers jump off into the estuary below. Speaking of estuaries, every year my dad puts a net out in the estuary near our campsite. We watch from the rocks while he and one of the son-in-laws brave the cold to drag it into place. We make a daily trip, sometimes two, to check if we have caught anything, and on average we catch seven fish a day! The children are fascinated when watching their Papa fillet the fish – they squirm or giggle at the sight of fish guts being pulled out by hand. The brave ones want to poke and prod the fish to see if they will still move.
I recall a time when we decided to smoke some of the fish that we’d caught. There was an old wooden toilet box that we transformed into a smoke house. Branches and twigs were collected and the fire was started. The fish were prepped, wrapped in tinfoil and placed inside as the fire began to smoulder beneath the racks. Off we all went to prepare the rest of dinner while the fish smoked. Once it was done we plated it and sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour. But it wasn’t long before we heard shrieks of panic and saw billowing smoke pouring from the smoke house – it had well and truly caught fire! Campers scrambled to grab buckets of sand to throw on it and others filled containers with water to douse the flames. It was quite a spectacle, and of course, the whole campground heard about it. It was the first and last time we used the smoke house.
A more pleasant Whananaki memory, and one of my favourites, is swimming with dolphins! Quite often a pod of dolphins visits the bay, but one particular year they came in much closer than usual. People gathered at the top of the bank and lingered around, pointing fingers. We joined the crowd to see what all the fuss was about. After about five minutes of watching I realised the dolphins were playing around and not going anywhere soon. I threw on my
togs and borrowed my brother-in-law’s long board to swim out. My husband also lent me his goggles (he will not let me forget that I lost them out there). I headed out to join a bunch of other campers who had the same idea. The dolphins swam under and around us and I was amazed at how close they came to us. They graced us with their presence for a good half hour or more before swimming back to the deep waters.
When I asked my kids what their favourite thing about Whananaki is, Aaliyah said, “I love getting to sleep in the tent”, and Matthew said, “Filling up the water canister at the tap with Dad.” Perhaps they’ll swim with dolphins too and these sweet, simple memories will be replaced with more enduring ones. But I hope it’s these little things that stick in their hearts and minds too. I love that our camping holidays are all about connecting with one another and getting all of our families together. With memories like these, it’s hard to imagine our camping tradition coming to an end.
Vanessa’s top tips for family camping
Having no fridge and running out of fresh produce in the first few days is one of the classic camping challenges. To get around this, we go without anything that needs to be kept in a fridge – cheese, milk etc. Milk powder is helpful for milos or cereal, and tinned fruit comes in handy after our fresh produce has been eaten. Chilly bins can be used, but I found buying ice or constantly changing the slicker pads from the freezer more hassle than it’s worth. Also -
Take flexi-tubs with you – they make great kids’ baths. Pack extra clothes for your kids to avoid hand-washing. Take an extra tarpaulin in case of leaks in bad weather. You’ll need a decent light for evening games and activities.
Prepare and cook meals at home, then freeze them so that each evening you can just reheat (there is freezer space we can hire at Motutara farm which makes this pretty easy).