Sarah Daniell: Glorious moments brighten a soggy Kiwi summer

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Opononi Beach on the Hokianga Harbour. Photo / APN
Opononi Beach on the Hokianga Harbour. Photo / APN

There are few experiences as seductive and appalling as camping. The idea is to abandon the relentless riff of poor man's ocean (the traffic outside my bedroom window) for the real thing in the Bay of Islands. The criteria are modest: unbroken sunshine, reading, endless eating and drinking, swimming, reading, sleeping. Unbridled indolence, basically.

From a distance, the dozens of tents on Urupukapuka Island look like pretty sweet wrappings, littered all over a green canvas. It is only apparent on landing that many of them more closely resemble canvas super yachts.

The campers play and chat, giving advice on where best to erect the tent. Everyone has an opinion: over there is sheltered, should a small hurricane arrive (it does) but there's also more chance of flooding if it rains (it does).

The neighbours are near and they are many. They know what you're having for dinner and if they don't, they'll ask. If you don't have any, they'll give you theirs.

It's like Coronation Street without walls.

There is the youth group leader who materialises beside me to provide vital survival tips (how to open a can with a knife and how to best store bread). He has four daughters - all delightful, not least because they seem to have a Pied Piper power to entrance and entertain my kids, along with 20 others scattered across the site.

Our immediate neighbours have he-and-she padded camping chairs with foot-stools. He talks about the virtues of a Honda four-stroke outboard over a Yamaha two-stroke. She has a heavy truck licence: "Looks like I'd better put my sunnies on today, darling," she says to me one morning, smiling up at the cloud and drizzle.

It's a gentle wilderness, accessible only by boat, but it may as well be a small flimsy subdivision of nylon and cotton canvas infill housing, without the benefit of modern plumbing.

There is the large group who've been coming here for 30 years. One among them is from Dunedin. They arrive like a small army and they operate with terrifying efficiency. They have left nothing to chance. Their infantry of essential camping items include: sleeping tents; a communal tent - a sort of town hall - where they will congregate to eat and drink; a fridge; an ear-bleedingly loud water pump which will help create a water slide for the children; a washing machine; a bathroom; an inverter; solar-powered phone chargers; spades (for trenches); a flag which says 'Bar Open'; kitchen shelving units; and, yes, a kitchen sink.

I have brought: a tent; table and bench seats that ingeniously fold up to the size of a small carry bag; a four-person badminton set (never used); a set of indestructible wine glasses (used); a bottle of 70 spf sun block (never used); wine (used).

I have left behind: cooking oil; cooking utensils; a raincoat; gumboots; can opener; a spade; and long-life milk.

The first morning I awake to the side of the tent banging me in the face. It rights itself then, as the next gust arrives, screaming off the hills, it slams down again. A day that starts this way seldom ends well.

It's no good. The tent will have to be moved. I drag out the boxes of food and bags. We pick up the tent and move it, through the mud and rain.

Overnight, tents are abandoned and torn. Those who stay are digging trenches and building sand banks to divert the water. It's a forlorn scene but the optimism is staggering. One fellow says, while standing in a downpour so heavy he can't even open his eyes, "Ah, this is the stuff that makes you," before marching off to dig another trench.

There is nothing to do except find a shelter which has a bar and food supplies. One such place exists, just a 10-minute walk over the hill.

We arrive at Otehei Bay Lodge, which was established by American adventurer and author Zane Grey and was once a magnet for the rich and famous. Today, it's a magnet for sodden tourists. About 100 arrive at precisely the same time as we do.

They have come - from as far away as Germany - to see dolphins. Instead they get truculent weather, pies clad in cellophane, hot chips and tea.

We eat, drink and play charades before making our way back over the hill to examine the carnage before nightfall. My friends' tent is swimming with books and plastic plates. They bail to Paihia and I spend a night alone, reading by torchlight.

The next day, campers tentatively stick their heads out of tents, like meerkats, before gradually venturing out to survey the damage. My friends return and bring with them sunshine: intermittent bursts of warmth between the showers. It's never quite enough to dry out the ground but after five days I become accustomed to the feeling of mud oozing between my toes.

Camping is the great leveller. It's definitely some kind of madness. There are glorious moments. The water-pump starting up on our first sunny, tranquil day is not among them. But the snapper moment is. And the scallops. But mostly, and miraculously, it's the underlying bedrock of optimism; the sense among this disparate bunch that they will not only survive but, somehow, enjoy it.

Sarah Daniell is an Auckland freelance journalist.

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