Camping with the family in the same place for 50 years has seen changes but the charm remains, writes Eleanor Hughes
Since 1970, I've spent nearly every summer, from Boxing Day through to Auckland Anniversary Weekend, at the same camping ground. Driving over the bridge into Papa Aroha Holiday Park, around past the petrol pumps and shop, the gravel road leads to the campsite which my family has used since around the late 1980s. It's next to the one we used from 1970. It's like coming home. Dad called it his second home.
During the 1970s and early 80s Christmas holiday season, the camping ground, on the western Coromandel coastline, was populated with caravans and tents. The late 80s brought change, caravans with permanent awnings, and "chalets" on camp-site sized pieces of land were built. Now tents and caravans are relegated to a paddock next door and a small area within the camp free of permanents. Many of the permanents stay empty over what was once the busy period. But I still wake to the sound of the tractor launching boats, boat motors firing up, wailing children, cheery good mornings or cows mooing. By 8.30am, campers are pretty much up and about, canvas interiors too light and hot to remain in.
In the early 70s, the drive from Auckland seemed to take forever with a caravan in tow. Gravel, dust and winding roads resulted in car sickness. Finally, tarseal on the Colville Road reached the camping ground, and beyond. This was also possibly around the time we stopped collecting milk in the afternoon from the farm across the road, waiting while cows were milked. Another 70s late-afternoon highlight was the delivery of the Auckland Star, dropped by plane into the paddock. It was a race to get the package and deliver it to the camp store for a lemonade iceblock reward.
The paddock has been the site of kite flying, cricket games, Frisbee throwing, and the annual sports day, a fixture for as long as I can remember. It's usually held on New Year's Eve morning and a mown strip with ruts and dotted with cowpats and prickles is the scene of running, sack, three-legged, and golf ball and spoon races. Teenagers and over-60s have always been reluctant runners but usually take part in water-filled balloon throwing and egg-throwing between partners, which result in hilarity and sometimes a change of clothes. There were once wheelbarrow races for husbands and wives, which got a bit dangerous. The recently introduced family relay, with driftwood batons, is hotly contested. Judges - roped-in family members - may get the race placings wrong but no-one really cares… except maybe lovers of chocolate, the prize for placegetters. And we still have lolly scrambles … nobody has ever been injured.
My children's one and only prize-winner in the under-12s fishing competition, held at high-tide from the rocky beach and tidal creek, was a 178cm sprat. Sadly, the annual adults' fishing contest is no more, the organisers long gone. With weigh-in closing at 4pm there would be a crowd gathered at the beachfront to see what was brought in. Fishermen ran up the beach with last-minute catches to be weighed on an old brass spring scale in pounds and ounces. A gurnard, John Dory or kahawai usually won the heaviest-other category, sometimes a stingray or shark. One unlucky monster snapper has been mounted on the shop wall since 1971, with many a photo of grinning fishermen and giant snapper surrounding it.
In the days before fishing limits, I remember my dad and uncle returning from a day's fishing, the boat well and fish bin, a large plastic rubbish bin, overflowing with 80 snapper. They fed the camp. Seafood has provided many meals.
Also no longer are the talent contest, and the Miss Papa Aroha contest, when bikinied teenage girls struck a pose on the back of a flatbed truck. Gone is the pool room where cool camp teenagers hung around the pool table and a crackly 14-inch TV in the evenings. Now deemed a fire hazard, bonfires are no longer lit on the beach on New Year's Eve, when someone usually played guitar for a sing-a-long. Auld Lang Syne in the middle of the camp at the stroke of midnight was a highlight as a child. I remember a bagpiper in the caravan piping in the New Year — no idea where he came from. Nowadays we gather at the beachfront to watch fireworks explode from the Sky Tower … if it's not raining or too cold.
Elvis Day started about 10 or so years ago, held in the afternoon of the January 8, Elvis' birthday. Elvis, otherwise known as actor Geoff Dolan, croons his hits on a single-axle trailer surrounded by tents and campers, although in torrential rain, it was once held in the rural fire station five minutes' walk away. A few regulars dress for the occasion in Elvis jumpsuits and bad wigs, or 60s dresses and as afternoon becomes evening, the camp rocks on to modern music once Geoff has finished.
I'm sure summer weather was way better back in the 70s. We spent hours on the water fishing, pipi gathering, scallop dragging or water-skiing, or lay on the rocky beach all day smothered in coconut oil, swimming, rowed rubber dinghies, skimmed stones or threw them at driftwood targets, capsized sailing dinghies; maybe whizzed to Coromandel Township by boat for cream doughnuts at 25c each. Now we seem to spend days sheltering out of wind, wishing we'd brought warmer clothes.
With forecasted bad weather, hammers clang on tent pegs and guy ropes are tightened, stabilising tents and awnings. When rain pattering on canvas becomes tumultuous, there are frequent checks for leaks and puddles. I've walked on groundsheets resembling waterbeds, been awoken by spraying water from slapping canvas, retrieved floating belongings from shin-deep water. Sleepless nights have been spent in a rocking caravan or booming awning, listening for the next howl of wind that could destroy canvas.
Beachfront chalets have flooded — walls holed by tree trunks thrown by the sea, campers with sea views have fled, low-lying campsites become paddling pools. We remain unscathed… maybe thanks to Dad's foot-long, reinforcing steel tent pegs. With snapped tent poles and shredded tents, many tenting families have had to abandon their holidays, although the bridge out of camp was once washed away leaving all stranded.
Deserted tent sites in the 70s, were great to scour for left behind Fanta, lemonade and Coke bottles which, returned to the shop, got you around 5c for each, spent straightaway on lollies. When weather calmed, those still around united to clean up and share storm tales … a kayak blown out to sea, floating air mattresses, leaking roofs, a caravan written off after a pōhutukawa limb crashed on to it.
Many times the wind has whipped a flat sea into churning waves. Boats fly and crash through them heading for shore, while those in camp watch, ready to help. When the calm haven of the tidal creek can't be accessed, those on shore brave pounding waves and grab bucking boats, while others organise trailers. Someone mans the tractor and boats are winched out, repeated again and again until the last one heads up the boat ramp, water pouring from it. Drenched heroes head for hot showers.
The rocky boat ramp, the original concrete one usually buried below pebbles these days, has entertained many relaxing on the beach. Novice tractor drivers trying to back boat trailers down the ramp; newcomers launching with cars, their wheels spinning deeper into shingle or sand; bungs left out. Regulars will lend a hand or advice.
When we were children, my mum and aunty walked us along the beach in the evenings, or up "the hill" and down the other side to return via the beach. It was probably to wear us out. A dirt road ran along the top of the shore where, at the end, an elderly Māori man stayed for the summer in a corrugated iron, haphazardly-built structure.
The road had eroded away by the time I walked the beach with my own children. My aunty, sisters and I still walk; usually accompanied on the return by a spectacular sunset. Becoming a brilliant red ball, the sun slowly sinks behind islands, turning clouds and sky pink, red and orange. The sea shimmers. It's beautiful … something that hasn't changed. Family members have dozens of sunset shots. Fifty years on, I've never taken one. Maybe this summer.
Handy camping hints
• Get decent tent pegs – 30cm reinforcing steel ones rarely move.
• Don't forget the clothesline – plastic coated cord has done the trick for 50 years, wrapped around awning guy ropes. If you don't have guy ropes, get a foldable, camping clothesline.
• Heavy rains forecast? Raise everything off the floor before going to bed, or stick it in the car. It saves retrieving floating gear at 4am.
• Buckets are handy. For vomiting kids, clothes washing and taking dishes to the camp kitchen. Rinse between uses.
• Pack enough food for the holiday – who wants to hit busy little supermarkets on a hot day when you could be fishing, spending time on the beach, walking, reading a book …
• Pack boardgames and books for wet days. Leave electronic devices at home.
• Remember, tents and awnings are not soundproof. And keep the noise down after 10.30pm – you may think your singing is great but, probably, it isn't.
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