What's it like on the edge of other people's holidays? Kim Knight reflects on the eight years her family lived at the Punakaiki Seaside Motor Camp.
Halfway to the camping ground, the car stopped. We were moving forward but the U-Haul trailer containing our every possession wanted to go backwards. On a steep section of the Buller Gorge, gravity took over. My dad unhooked the overheated Vauxhall Cresta and left our every possession on the side of State Highway 6.
"Dad went back to town!" I wrote in my red, hard-backed diary.
We'd lived in, or near, Blenheim my entire, short childhood. It didn't occur to me it was ceasing to be "town" even as we completed the 302km journey to Punakaiki.
When I was 9 years old, my family moved to a motor camp. We left Marlborough for the West Coast and, for the next eight years, other people's holidays came to us.
Friends imagine this time in the halcyon tones of a perpetual summer. It's true West Coast sunsets are pretty but, when asked to imagine the colour pink, the first image in my head is always shower scum.
Technically, we lived across the road from the Punakaiki Seaside Motor Camp. It was 1979 and Dad was a ranger for Lands and Survey. His job came with the house and a bonus job for the missus - $100 a month for looking after one kitchen, two ablution blocks, a drying room and assorted tent and powered caravan sites.
Mum managed the bookings and did the cleaning. Dad and a rotating team of people from various compulsory work-for-the-dole schemes did the rubbish runs, mowed the lawns and changed the light bulbs in the toilet blocks with the very high ceilings. It is the stuff of family legend that Dad once climbed a ladder to discover dozens of cannabis seedlings flourishing in the dormer window space metres above the women's hand basins.
Our house across the road from the motor camp had two bedrooms, scuzzy mustard-yellow carpet tiles and an office with a sliding glass door and a buzzer. There were no computers. Other people's holidays were mapped on a giant piece of cardboard that Mum ruled up annually - 365 days across, 68 campsites down.
That buzzer rang in the middle of every evening meal, because other people can be rude and demanding. I am sure that's why my family eats quickly, even now. When we answered the phone, we had to say "Barrytown 894" because maybe someone was actually after the tearooms or the souvenir shop, which were on the same shared phone line. A "party" line they called it, like one day a bunch of disembodied voices might get together to listen to each other drink Marque Vue.
We went on just one family holiday in those eight years. It was the dead of winter, when the camping ground (and also every camping ground we stayed in on the drive around the bottom of the South Island) was empty. I thought I would probably die of cold in Dunedin, but I also had my first ever restaurant dinner (Cobb & Co).
In 1979, it did not seem strange or sad to me that there was another little kid who really did live in the motor camp, possibly in the awning of his mother's caravan. He caught our bus and went to our school and our gang, which was called The Smurfs, went to war against his gang, which was called The Stormtroopers. Then one day he and his mum didn't live there anymore.
Everything was transitory. For so many years, nothing was fixed except my family. Those strangers who gave us their name-address-car registration and cash (50c for a tent site; $3 for a caravan power point) existed for one night or two nights or sometimes an entire summer, as a shaded square on Mum's giant booking chart. Then they left. Well, most of them.
In 1979, it did not seem strange or scary to me that very occasionally total strangers would end up sleeping on our scuzzy mustard-yellow floor tiles. Maybe it was raining and the motor camp was full and it was too late to hitch a ride to town (Greymouth, now). Maybe, back then, we feared less and cared more. My mum has always cooked like she expected more people for dinner.
Lindi was a floor-tile guest. In her lifetime she had slept on a beach in India, a ski lodge in Canada and many other places I had yet to even imagine. She wore silver and turquoise jewellery and gave me my first driving lesson around and around the camping ground in a column-shift car called Big Al. She introduced me to garlic bread and Bruce Springsteen.
Every child should make friends with one of their parents' friends. You become a teenager and catch the bus to Christchurch and sleep in their spare room under the Indonesian batik wall hangings they actually brought in Indonesia. They teach you to read tarot cards. The day before you go to journalism school, they give you a metal box full of ancient buttons that have been unearthed from the floorboards of a house they've done the new kitchen design for. (Much later, you meet a man with a penchant for op shop suits and, when he loses a button, you have just the thing.)
In my late 30s, when Lindi's children were older than I was when she first met me, she picked me up from my flat in Christchurch for a road trip to Kaikōura. I was so hungover, I asked her to stop in a small North Canterbury town. I needed to vomit.
Lindi said, "Oh, I'm such an idiot - I've got cancer."
"I know," I replied. "I'm so sorry."
"No," she said. "Anti-nausea tablets!"
Less than hour later, we were drinking white wine and eating good cheese. The next day, we sat on the beach and Lindi talked about transitions and the lost world of Atlantis and two dolphins leapt out of the water in poster-perfect unison.
We all just need somewhere safe and warm and dry to sleep.
Twice a year, the motor camp got really busy. In the whitebait season, the track beside the Pororari River smelled like plain biscuits and a thermos flask of tea. I remember the old men and women with a capacity for stillness. They'd sit on small folded stools for days on end; human herons stalking translucent wriggles in the water. A fat, silvery trout swam right into my dad's whitebait net. We were tremendously excited. "Be quiet," said the ranger who didn't have a trout-catching licence. He threw it back. Or he took it home and Mum stuffed it with lemon, onion and bay leaves. I forget which.
In December and January, there were tents everywhere. Small, nylon spaces with gauzy light. Our lawn sprouted its own spare room. The tent in our front yard was standard issue green and white canvas that was always almost dry from the last time it rained. We lay on sleeping bags on stretchers that had raw potatoes jammed onto the metal pointy bits so no-one gouged an ankle in the dark. We read Trixie Beldon and Nancy Drew and decided the mail order Sea Monkeys on the back of the comics were probably not worth it.
The top half of the camping ground turned caravan-brown and blue. A sun-bleached paint-by-numbers of regulars who parked in the same spot, year after year, unpacking leftover Christmas cake from Tupperware boxes and mixing gin and tonics at that hour when the sun gave everything a gilt-edge. Suburbia with awnings and plaques that read "Seldom Inn" or "Roam Sweet Roam".
In the beginning, the kids from those summer caravans were just kids. We played Spy in the giant pine trees that stood sentry around the camp's perimeter, though I had no idea what the rules or goals were. Eventually those kids became teenage boys and I still had no idea what the rules or goals were but there was definitely more at stake. Growing up is that weird feeling you get when the boy you built bonfires with every summer arrives from Christchurch with a friend who wears mascara and has a jacket from Thornton Hall.
I never really understood why people from Christchurch wanted to get away from the cinemas, shops and U2 concerts. The city was sparkly, and the motor camp was dusty-hot with nothing but a boring beach that was too wild to swim in. At night the boom of the ocean against the giant limestone cliffs was so loud you had to turn your Walkman up if you wanted to dance to Midnight Oil in your head. Tour buses stopped at the pancake rocks and blowholes, which were geologically interesting but it's not like you could get KFC or a filet o' fish afterwards. Now, of course, I crave the salve of green and blue spaces. Unfettered. Anything could happen here.
Motor camps are democratisers. Facilities are communal and the early birds get the hottest showers. At the Punakaiki Seaside Motor Camp it cost 20c for three minutes of hot water in the cubicles with the walls that didn't meet the floor. Once, when half my school had head lice, it was the scene of a mass decontamination: Cold water. Lather. Slide the nit shampoo along to the next cubicle. Insert coin. Rinse with hot water. Repeat.
Caravan folk trekked to the bathrooms in their jandals, carrying giant floral toilet bags. They emerged washed and coiffed, but behind the "closed for cleaning" signs I knew about their flaky skin and straggly pubic hairs. I grew up judging people who do not properly scrub the bit where the bathroom tap meets the basin. If you are one of those holidaymakers who routinely says things like, "Oh, don't worry, the cleaners will take care of it," then I hope it rains very hard on the last three days of your vacation.
I am dredging my memory banks for the Kumbaya moments, when my small part in this big mass of humanness made my heart swell whole. But you grow up in a motor camp and all you're really doing is growing up. Any kid lucky enough to be fed, clothed and treated decently by people who love them, doesn't think about the big picture until it's only pictures. Scenes from the time when your feet were tanned the colour of dirt and you didn't know that one day, you'd pay for a product that made your hair look like you'd been river-swimming.
For the longest and most formative time, the Punakaiki Seaside Motor Camp was the centre of my universe. In 1987, I went to Canada on a Rotary student exchange and, when I came home, my family had moved to a cottage on the other side of the state highway. The powers-that-be had decided the motor camp would become a more commercial entity. My parents were free from the 24/7 tyranny of other people's holidays and they were building a new house with a stained glass front door that did not have a buzzer.