Tim Roxborogh had a difficult history with camping but he has had a revelation in the Bay of Plenty.
My wife is always trying to get me to go camping. For her, camping is all about fond extended family memories of summers spent at Papamoa where magically it never once rained and — even more magically — every night you had a great sleep despite the fact that, you know, you were in a tent.
For me the associations are somewhat less enthusiastic and go back to three different school camps.
There was Form 1 (Year 7) camp in 1993 where my sleeping bag was so flimsy and the nights so cold that I had to wear all my clothes to bed and drape myself in both my beach towel and tea towel. Handy hint: tea towels aren't that warming. Then there was 4th Form (Year 10) camp in 1996 when I left the bottom of the tent open and forgetting I was on an incline, woke up with only my head still in the tent and my classmates laughing at the headless body falling out of the bottom zip.
And the final in the terrific tenting trifecta was 7th Form (Year 13) camp in 1999, when I was using a portable shower that doubled as a head pillow. Only problem was it leaked and in the morning I found myself lying in a pool of water. Good memories, good times.
I'm suddenly a camping convert. Sort of. Having heard about the self-described "Airbnb of motorhomes", a company called Mighway, my wife and I decided to do the great Kiwi road trip where we'd stay in a different campsite every night. Winningly, I get to call this camping and we didn't have to pack a tent!
With the holiday doubling as a "babymoon" before the arrival of our first child in July, we decided to head both to the region of all those wonderful childhood summers for my wife — the Bay of Plenty — as well as to a part of the country neither of us had been, the East Cape. The road trip would begin in Papamoa and take us all the way along the sparsely populated Pacific Coast Highway before reaching our furthest point, Gisborne. Then we'd head west again, but this time the more direct route through the lush mountains of the Waioeka Gorge.
Choosing where we wanted to go, we then had to choose the motorhome. Mighway has you renting direct from the owners so having selected what looked like a suitably appropriate vehicle for a non-camper prima donna like myself — a luxurious doozy named Beyond Imagination — the next step was turning up to Val and Ken's. The proud owners of Beyond Imagination, Papamoa residents Val and Ken are the dearest of couples, who immediately invited us in for a cup of tea, told us a couple of yarns about their children and grandkids and, oh yes, showed us what's what with their motorhome.
After figuring out all the buttons and mod-cons (I couldn't get enough of the living area that expands out like a set change at a musical to give you an extra metre of space when parked), as well as the more awkward necessities like how to change the toilet and the grey water, we were on our way.
Farewelling Val and Ken, first stop was for lunch on the beach at Papamoa, then along the coast past Whakatāne, through Ōhope and on to the Ōhiwa Beach Holiday Park. Located on the outskirts of Ōpōtiki (population 9000, most famous local James Rolleston of Boy fame), this was the penny-dropping moment for me. With partially forested hills behind, different tiers of campsites on those hills, clean facilities that don't have you freaking out about your ablutions (remembering only a fool goes for No 2s in a motorhome), a swimming pool and a gigantic bouncing trampoline-pillow-thingee, I could see why people might be a little fond of this whole camping malarkey. Especially in a motorhome where you don't have to do any packing up.
And it all overlooks Ōhiwa's biggest selling point, that glorious beach. Soft sand, Whale Island looking like a separated-from-the-mainland version of The Mount, White Island way off in the distance and a gentle but steady lap of waves that was as hypnotic as it was meditative. We loved it. We loved visiting the glow-worms in the bush behind the property too, an experience we shared with a young German couple who'd just arrived in the country and were already declaring they'd fallen for Aotearoa.
The next day we unplugged Beyond Imagination, buzzed back in our extended living area and headed even further east for the tiny settlement of Te Araroa. Along the way we did a short detour to the Hukutaia Domain just out of Ōpōtiki, following up on the recommendation of a handy "things to do" sign in the men's toilets of the Ōhiwa Beach Holiday Park.
Well thank goodness I wasn't doing all my business in the motorhome because if I hadn't seen that sign, we wouldn't have discovered one of the most serene little tracts of native forest in the North Island. A long-term labour of love for conservation-minded people in Ōpōtiki, Hukutaia Domain is a 5ha reserve, the focal point of which is a colossal pūriri tree named Taketakerau that could be anywhere from 2000 to 5000 years old. Once a burial site for distinguished Māori, the tree and the surrounding forest are one of the true gems of Ōpōtiki.
Returning to the coast, we passed kiwifruit orchards, endless cornfields and frequently, the almost jungle-like hills of the interior East Cape, hinting at the dense, mysterious forests that eventually lead to the Ureweras. All of that would've been beautiful enough, but the colour of the water seemed to be getting more turquoise the further east we got. We stopped at a beach — there were so many we lost track — had a swim and then eventually found our way to the Te Araroa Holiday Park.
It is set in attractive gardens and we shared our campsite with piglets and sheep. Speaking of which, animals were becoming a dominant part of the road trip, especially on day 3 as we left Te Araroa, although not before checking out the largest pōhutakawa tree in the world, a sprawling 600-year old on the waterfront of the extremely cute little township. Just as the sea was getting more surreal in the pop of its colour the more east we drove, more and more we started to see horses. And not just horses in fields, but adults and children riding horses as a means of getting from A to B.
The feeling that this was not just a remote part of New Zealand, but a snapshot of New Zealand from decades gone by was entrenched on the narrow, winding roads that took us to the Anaura Bay Campsite. It is the site of Captain Cook's second landing in New Zealand in 1769 and he received a much warmer welcome from Māori here than he'd done in Gisborne just a short time earlier. This year is the 250th anniversary of those landings and apart from perhaps a further loss of trees on the hills, lovely Anaura Bay — with its bookending cliffs and marae — wouldn't have looked a great deal different.
As my wife said, there was peaceful vibe and, with us parked up so our bedroom window looked straight out to the beach, we felt very grateful.
Day 4 of the babymoon, Pacific Coast Highway road trip dawned and, after stopping off at the 660m long Tolaga Bay Wharf, we carried on our way to our final destination, Gisborne, which is gearing up for the big 250th commemorations of Cook's first landing.
The town has a developing waterfront/marina precinct and a boardwalk that parallels Waikanae Beach and the body of water Cook labelled Poverty Bay. Staying at the Waikanae Beach Holiday Park (not only in possession of one of those outrageous gigantic bouncing trampoline-pillow-thingees, but a proper-length heated indoor pool), we had one crucial stop before heading west again.
We weren't sure what to make of the prospect of feeding stingrays, but never one to pass up the opportunity for a bit of adventure (unless tents are involved), we said yes to an invitation from Dive Tatapouri. Having spent a lifetime with a healthy fear of menacing marine creatures like stingrays, our early morning, wader-wearing expedition out into a bay just north of Gisborne had us realising that not only are these creatures gentle, they are frequently affectionate too. Learning from our guide that stingrays recognise people based on heartbeat, if the stingray trusts the guide, she also trusts his guests. And given that Tara, the very pregnant, 200kg gal who rules these waters, loved our guide Jack, she also couldn't stop rubbing up against our waders and demanding pats and strokes like a giant cat.
Out of the water and gifted a little soft toy stingray by the Dive Tatapouri staff for our baby girl once she arrives, it was back into Beyond Imagination for the drive through the Waioeka Gorge (like many gorges, very gorgeous) for a final night of seaside bliss at Ōhiwa. Road trip and babymoon over, the Pacific Coast Highway conquered, we returned Beyond Imagination to Val and Ken who treated us like long-lost grandchildren with hugs all round. Little had they known they'd initially hired their precious motorhome out to a defiant non-camper, but five days later, that had all changed. Provided we're not talking tents.
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