A campervan full of kids forget TV when there are sights to see, says Rob Cox.
To my surprise, the wonderful news that I was taking my family on a campervan safari through Raglan and Waitomo was met with a mixed reaction. My wife looked at me as though I had just imposed a jail sentence. I assured her it would be the holiday of a lifetime and in many ways I wasn't wrong.
Okay, so I do suffer slightly from over-enthusiasm at times, but who could blame me? Here we were roaring down the Bombay Hills' slopes in our gleaming new, six-birth Maui campervan. First stop, Raglan.
As I didn't know the area or the ins and outs of the van just yet, an ideal first day at our campground would be to turn up well before dark and let the kids out for a run, giving myself plenty of time to find the power box and sort our campervan for the evening.
What we did was take the longest route, arrive well after dark, with tired and hungry kids and a completely useless dad who forgot where he packed the torch. It was hell. Our not-quite two-year-old daughter Evie deservedly let us have it — all night.
The next morning Raglan turned on a cracker day for us. We were lucky enough to be there for the Creative Market, the place buzzing with crafts and food stalls. My boys sat down in the ceramics studio and happily painted tiles for a community project. It started to feel like a holiday.
Raglan Kopua Holiday Park was great for the kids, too. Our boys got on stage, had a game of outdoor chess, lost a few limbs at the skateboard park and satisfied their bizarre obsession with public toilet and shower facilities.
On the way out of Raglan we drove out to see the famous surf beaches.
Fifteen minutes out of Raglan we came to Bridle Veil Falls, a beautiful experience for the family, with a not overly demanding 20-minute walk to the bottom of the falls and a lovely family photo opportunity.
By this stage we were evolving into true campervanners. Stopping to make yourself a cuppa on the side of the road is such a stress relief. It's like living inside your very own transformer — one minute it's three double beds, the next you have a TV lounge, breakfast bar and dining room with open-plan kitchen.
Better still, the drive to Waitomo wasn't far, which suited our impatient children. And when we arrived our Waitomo Top 10 Holiday Park had just what the doctor ordered: a spa under the stars.
Our first caving adventure was into the famous glow worm caves. Once all of our touring party had entered the hillside, the giant iron and stone doors were closed behind us, the tourists hushed and the guide was about to speak ... Evie lost it.
My daughter's demonstration of her level of discomfort was really quite a display. A very calm tour guide appeared as if from nowhere, bent down and asked Evie if she would love to take a look at all the wonderful things outside. A happy tot trotted out the door with her new best friend.
Finally our guide got a chance to talk about these magnificent caves, telling us that it was, in fact, his great-great-great grandfather who discovered them in 1887. He showed us stalactites and stalagmites and explained how the water makes them grow.
Standing in these underground cathedrals, you are witnessing millions of years of natural interior design.
Normally I wouldn't hop into a boat and push off into pitch darkness, but there is a certain blind faith you accept when entering these caves.
So there we were, deep in the cave, drifting silently. Suddenly there they were, thousands of them, tiny luminous glow-worms lighting up the catacomb-like caves around us. It's great watching your kids looking in amazement at something not TV-related.
To bring you back to reality, I can tell you it's the poo that is glowing and the worms eat each other to survive. Let's move on.
Day two was the Aranui Cave: spectacular caverns and passageways decorated with thousands of intricate formations which reminded me of Gaudi's cathedral in Barcelona. The lights are cleverly placed to show off every feature, the acoustics are incredible in the larger caverns and performances and weddings are held each year to show them off.
Our final cave adventure was the Ruakuri Cave. Our guide Janna convinced my boys that the only way to get the huge doors open was to be a Jedi and use the force. Imagine their amazement when they discovered their new-found powers.
The entrance is fantastic, a huge hole, absolutely massive, and while walking down the lit-up spiral staircase we all leaned over the rails to check our vertigo levels.
We walked in pitch black for what felt like five minutes holding on to the person in front. It was spooky and I was expecting my boys to lose it — maybe they were about to — but luckily we suddenly found ourselves standing on a bridge overhanging a group of blackwater rafters. We all waved as they bobbed along in their tyres — then came the voice: "Lights off".
The great thing about Ruakuri is that you get deep into the cave. Really deep. So when you are at the farthest point, the last thing you want to hear is, "Dad, I need to go."
In hindsight, the lemonade just before entering the cave may have been a bad call.
These caves are not to be touched by human hands so I assumed there was no "just go behind that million-year-old stalagmite" opportunity nearby.
I won't go into detail. Let's just say the problem was resolved, the caves stayed untouched and I will never be drinking from that bottle again.
Rob Cox travelled courtesy of Maui New Zealand.