Former OHbaby! Editor Ellie Gwilliam packs the family into a campervan for a weekend break in the Coromandel.
Our kids were looking forward to our weekend in a “Campfor Ban” with the level of anticipation usually reserved for birthdays and Christmas. So it was amidst many a giggle and squeal that we swapped the family car for a six-berth Britz Renegade campervan on a Friday morning and set off on our adventure.
And being the intrepid travellers that we are, first stop was to pick up bikes for the whole family. Offering bike hire and tours, Natural High are “adrenalin dealers”. Unfazed by their byline, we checked out our kit — a brand-new mountain bike each for Mum and Dad, a “tag along” bike (attaches to an adult bike, with its own back wheel and handle bars) for our eldest, and a “Burley” trailer for the younger two.
Next stop, Countdown, where we stocked up on supplies, kids in tow. And as lame as it sounds, we were really excited to be able to unpack our groceries straight from the trolley into the campervan’s well-appointed kitchen storage cupboards.
Okay, so here’s an initial disclosure statement: jobs, babies and life have clipped our wings somewhat. A campervan with bikes strapped on the back offered a novel sense of freedom and adventure. So once we got over the thrill of lunch in the carpark, we were off!
The Coromandel Peninsula made an ideal destination — an easy drive from Auckland, but far enough for all three daughters to fall asleep in the back seat of the cab. Obviously we were tempted to drive all day but by mid-afternoon we were in Coromandel Town, our first stop. We were warmly greeted at Coromandel Top 10 Holiday Park by managers Trevor and Helen who showed us where we could park up for the night. While our campervan was entirely self-sufficient, stopping at a Top 10 park was a great option. The kids took one look at the giant “jumping pillow” (similar to a bouncy castle) and heated pool and thought we’d driven to heaven. And as much as I appreciated the convenience of the Renegade’s chemical loo/shower combo, we used conventional bathrooms whenever we could.
Campervans offer young families a convenient adventure. Transport at the front, home comforts in the back. The ease of being able to stop anywhere you choose for food, naps, ablutions or a game of cards, all contained within one vehicle without need of a guy rope or tent peg, is priceless.
Each time we parked the girls were excited to rediscover the wonder of our home away from home — the cupboards, the tiny fridge, the toilet… all thrilling for under-sixes. They entertained themselves for hours on the top double bunk. All three were small enough to fit in sardine-style, so we decided they could sleep there. We grown-ups naïvely thought that would give us the rest of the campervan in which to enjoy peace with a glass of wine while children slumbered. Not quite. The first night we sat in the dark in silence, bar regular “shushing”, until excited children eventually fell asleep, just moments before we did.
On Saturday morning we drove to Otama, with stops to admire views, buy famously large ice creams from the Kuaotunu store and browse at a roadside stall where some local girls were selling plasticine creations. For $2 each, we provided them with three happy customers.
From the neat and tidy convenience of Top 10 Coromandel we decided to mix it up with a night at Otama Beach Camp. This is a working farm with a long-drop toilet or two and fresh water from a hose. But that is all that stands between campers and the wild. There is also a freezer and a multi-box for charging appliances. We did the embarrassing townie thing of using it to charge our phones, even though there was no coverage.
Families have been returning to Otama Beach Camp for years. The beach is breathtakingly beautiful, the sort that makes your children want to run for miles. And when they tire of sand and sea there are farm animals to greet. This camp is very popular during peak season, but we shared it with only two other campervans, some sheep, four horses and a bunch of turkeys.
Rising soon after the turkeys’ dawn chorus, we fed the horses bread, chatted with the camp’s owners, Claire and Dean, and then it was back on the road to Whitianga for coffee, church and supplies. Then over to Hot Water Beach and, much to the thrill of the kids, we found another member of the Top 10 franchise and happily parked up alongside another jumping pillow, just across from the playground.
Top 10 Hot Water Beach is extremely well-appointed — they have thought of everything from computer lounges to family bathrooms. A boardwalk runs from the holiday park to the beach, mere minutes away on our trusty bicycles.
We packed the kids, towels and snacks into the Burley and headed to the beach. Unfortunately the low tide with its world-famous hot water opportunities was happening too late at night for our little ones, but we happily spent an hour or two dancing in and out of the waves and making sandcastles. The Burley went to a whole new level when my husband Josh unhooked it from the bike and towed it along the beach with all our gear still on board, much to the interest of tourists. A trailer on the beach — just how the typical Kiwi family rolls.
Back to camp to barbecue some dinner and then wrangle our children into bed amidst much protest because other, more fortunate children were still allowed to be jumping on the giant pillow. This is where parking your campervan in an empty paddock with only stars for light and turkeys for entertainment has a distinct advantage.
We headed over to Thames nice and early to put our bikes to the serious test of the Hauraki Rail Trail. This is a mostly flat two-to-three-day ride from Thames to Waihi and Te Aroha. It would make a brilliant adventure holiday in itself but time constraints (and muscle tone) meant we would manage only a taster.
Our two smaller daughters were in the Burley behind me while Josh was with our eldest on the tag-along. It was a bit tricky to get the balance sorted on this bike, but once they had the hang of it they were off. Four-year-old Lottie had a go on the tag-along too and managed fine, even if she pedalled backwards.
Off we went, out of Thames and along the Hauraki Plains, the wind blowing us along with a sense of confidence and exhilaration. We were like one of those European families who swap cars for bikes and get everywhere they need to go on two wheels, kids tucked in backpacks and perched on handle bars.
Fresh air in our lungs and muscles pumping as we pedalled, we could have ridden all day, except for our afternoon deadline to return the campervan to Britz.
So we turned around, and then rode into a headwind. And the happy healthy European family vision disappeared on the breeze (gale, I mean) and my thighs complained bitterly about having to pedal not only the bike but also the Burley, now acting as a parachute.
To add insult to injury my passengers started grizzling for me to go faster because Daddy was winning. But I resolved not to complain and to smile through the pain, to show my children that physical activity is a great option for recreation and family fun. But, boy, was I pleased to spot our Britz logo when the carpark finally came back into view.
A final word on the bikes — they are convenient, cute with their kiddy carriers, and a lot of fun. They were brilliant to go to the fish and chip shop or the beach without re-parking the campervan.
However, if it’s windy, ride only in the direction of the wind. Then when you tire, unpack the picnic, lie about in the shade of a tree and wait for your husband to ride back to get the campervan so he can collect you.
Ellie and her family travelled courtesy of Britz. To book your own Britz Bikes getaway head to www.britz.co.nz or phone 0800 081 032.
Coromandel Top 10 Holiday Park, coromandeltop10.co.nz
Natural High Adventure Tourism Company, naturalhigh.co.nz
Otama Beach Camp, otamabeachcamp.co.nz
Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park, hotwaterbeachtop10.co.nz
Johanna, aged six: Swimming at Coromandel Top 10
Lottie, aged four: Sleeping on the top bunk
Abigail, aged two: The cat coming into our campervan at Hot Water Beach Top 10
Ellie Gwilliam hadn’t riden a bike since the mid-nineties. The Britz Bikes trip inspired her to drag out her old 10-speed and one day she may even ride it.