East Cape: Camping doesn't get better than this

By Alex Tully

The East Cape makes for a great family holiday, writes Alex Tully.

Horses often have East Cape beaches to themselves. Photo / Alan Gibson
Horses often have East Cape beaches to themselves. Photo / Alan Gibson

Ah, this is the life. Sitting back on the shores of beautiful Hawai Bay in a comfortable moon chair, a tasty meal cooking on the camp stove, a glass of warm chardonnay - what? - in the hand and not another person in sight.

The whole point of camping, for me anyway, has always been to get away from it all, to go somewhere there is no motel, no shop, no queue of cars, where no human has been before (or at least to feel like that could be true).

For this particular escape we chose the East Cape which certainly gives that feeling of moving outside the bounds of modern urban life. As soon as you leave Whakatane it is as though you are travelling back in time.

After the historical township of Opotiki shops and coastal subdivisions begin to dwindle until they disappear completely. Gradually the sandy beaches of Tirohanga and Opape give way to the wild rock and pebble beaches along the remote Pacific Coast Highway.

Piles of sun-bleached driftwood, like the bones of giant dinosaurs, grabbed our boys' attention at Hawai, and the friendliness of the host at the local campground sealed the bargain, so we set up our base at this bay on the edge of the Whanau-a-apanui tribal lands.

Of course, as you get older you do need to take a few home comforts with you, and fortunately camping equipment firms are getting very clever at meeting this need. Nowadays you can buy almost any household item in a special camping version able to be folded up to a portable size and stowed away in the back of the car, including the kitchen sink, the bench, the cupboards, the fridge, the sofa and ... well, you get the picture.

When we were so much younger my husband and I spent nine months camping in Europe and Africa with nothing but a tiny tent, paper-thin sleeping mats, sleeping bags and a gas burner. But that was then. Our camp at Hawai was a lot more comfortable.

Although squatting on my heels to avoid ants in my pants was very good for toning the thighs, these days I prefer to lounge around in the Kathmandu moon chair, the most amazingly comfortable yet compact camping chair I have ever used. And the kids love the inflatable sofa chairs from Kathmandu so much they even like to use them at home.

I have also decided that a fold-up table is a better option than trying to get children to balance hot plates of food on their laps. The best table we found was a Basecamp from Kathmandu. This may not fold up as small as some but it is less likely to be knocked over by energetic little boys and the bench seats that come with the set work well, too.

Despite these touches of comfort we still felt we were in the wild. Except for the occasional fisherman returning home we had the beach to ourselves for the day. As far as the eye could see in each direction it was just us and the driftwood. We could almost believe we were the only people left in the world.

There was no television on offer so we whiled away the hours hunting for unusual pieces of driftwood, swimming in the lagoon made by the Hawai River before it reaches the sea, holding competitions to bounce smooth flat stones across the water and checking out washed up puffer fish and hammerhead shark heads.

Dinner was cooked on a practical little LPG two burner stove from Kiwi Camping. Foodwise we didn't miss the lack of a fridge, thanks to the wide array of dried and tinned food available these days, and the tuna pasta was consumed with great enthusiasm by hungry mouths.

However, the warm wine was a problem, so a camping fridge was added to our list of essential items.

After our meal we made a driftwood fire on the beach for roasting marshmallows in between surfcasting into the waves.

When a stingray was caught on the line it was even more thrilling than going to see a new movie and my 6-year-old exclaimed, "I can't wait to tell the kids at school."

The stingray was duly set free and the next thing on the line was a small shark. It couldn't get more exciting than this for two young boys.

By the time we returned to our tent it was getting dark so we pulled out our dynamo lantern and solar powered torches to help us locate toothbrushes and pyjamas.

I don't know about you, but batteries in torches always seem to run out just when you need them, so we prefer the dynamo/solar kind.

The New Zealand Nature Company has a really good range including solar/dynamo torch radios and a solar torch that also recharges mobile phones.

Suddenly we were all tired but content and ready to crawl into our sleeping bags to be sung to sleep by the sound of the sea.

While you can survive on little sleep when you are a tireless 20-something once you have children a good night's sleep becomes almost as important for you as it is for them. And that means comfortable beds.

Fold-up camp beds are a great space saver in the car and the tent. When we first started camping kids used to sleep on ancient camp stretchers including one their grandfather took to scout jamborees when he was a boy.

But after more than 50 years of use they have been replaced with new Maison camp beds from Kathmandu. These got the seal of approval from the kids for not only being comfortable but for the fact even 5 and 6-year-olds can put them up themselves (with a little help to do the last hook).

The beds are also high enough off the ground to avoid bruised ankles and allow bags to be stored underneath.

The adults had an airbed with a fabric layer on top to avoid that sticky feeling on hot summer nights.

We have been slowly adding to our camping equipment every year. It can be a costly exercise so we keep a look out for sales.

A cheap tent had seemed like the smart way to start our camping kit, but although the one we have is roomy, it is not designed to cope with any wind.

A new tent will be the first item on our wish list for Santa next Christmas.

Still, we slept famously in our old tent on our comfy beds, so well that we had to abandon the plan to rise early and fish. But by the time we woke we had to put on sunglasses to eat breakfast so, instead, we all took a refreshing dip in the lagoon. Then, after breaking camp, we headed slowly back to civilisation.

CHECKLIST

Where to get camping equipment:

Kathmandu
Kiwi Camping
The Warehouse
New Zealand Nature Company

Campsites: To check out campsites and other facilities round East Cape see the Opotiki i-Site Visitors' Centre or ring 07 315 3031.

- NZ Herald

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