Family Adventures at the Bottom of the World

Our 22-foot Britz Frontier motorhome may not have been in the same league as Robert de Niro’s palatial RV in 'Meet the Fockers', but it seemed to have everything we could possibly need. Actually, Mary and I hadn’t a clue what we would need for a month on the road in New Zealand with our 6-month-old twins, Maud and Olive. Optimism and Dunkirk spirit were clearly going to come in handy.

We began our adventure in Auckland, which lies two thirds of the way up New Zealand. Also known as the City of Sails because of its yacht-filled harbour, it is the country’s largest city by some distance.

Home from home

As we trundled through the rolling countryside north of Auckland, windows down, Old MacDonald playing on the stereo, cutlery clanking around in the drawers, we felt wonderfully free. The beauty of travelling by campervan is the independence of being totally self sufficient and having a flexible itinerary. We had a shortlist of places we wanted to visit, but the rest we would make up as we went along.

It was our first of many tastes of the incredible camaraderie that exists amongst the campervan set.

It was almost dark by the time we arrived at the Pakiri Holiday Park (two hours from Auckland) for our first night – thanks mainly to a mega supermarket shop earlier in the day.

With suitcases, shopping bags and nappy boxes piled high inside the living quarters, and a two wailing babies letting everyone know that the Averys had arrived, we fumbled around in the gloom frantically looking for the matches so we could put the girls’ milk on, when it dawned on us that we had forgotten to buy any.

Thankfully, Phil and Heather, an Australian couple in the van next door, heard our plight and came to our rescue with a box of matches and a torch. It was our first of many tastes of the incredible camaraderie that exists amongst the campervan set.

It took several hours to get our house in order, to find out where everything was and how it all worked. Mod con’s included microwave, 4-ring cooker, fridge-freezer, dining table, flatscreen TV, 3 double beds, shower and loo. The cab above the driver’s seat would make the perfect bed for the girls, the string mesh across the front hopefully enough to prevent them rolling off.

With beds assembled and everything finally stowed away, we collapsed in a heap, safe in the knowledge that we wouldn’t have to pack up again for a whole month.

Exploring North Island

Dawn revealed a magical scene. The holiday park was on a five-mile long deserted white sandy beach, with the jagged outline of the Hen and Chicken Islands rising majestically above the horizon. As a family of black oystercatchers danced in and out of the surf, we set up the breakfast table on the sand and tucked in to croissants and kiwi smoothies, taking in the breathtaking panorama before us.

Our first week was spent exploring New Zealand’s subtropical north, a long finger of land at the top of the North Island. We were out of high season (mid March) but the weather was still perfect – almost unbroken sunshine, and temperatures a constant 25°C.

With the girls strapped into their Baby Bjorns, we ambled amongst giant kauri trees in the Waipoua Forest, along deserted beaches in the Bay of Islands and through the 150-year-old botanical gardens on the idyllic Kawau Island. The whole family bathed in the turquoise waters of the Kai Iwi Lakes and with one of us on baby supervision duty, Mary and I took it in turns to snorkel with a myriad of brightly coloured fish in the Goat Island Marine Reserve.

new-zealand-Tourism-Radio-Baby-smOne of the pitfalls of travelling with little ones is the regular pit stops for nappy changes and feeds. Coupled with our habit of underestimating distances (Kiwi roads are notoriously wiggly and hilly), journeys often took longer than planned. Fortunately, wherever we drove, the scenery was jaw-dropping. No wonder they call New Zealand the world’s biggest film set.

Passing back through Auckland, we tracked southwards through the heart of the North Island, stopping off at the dramatic Huka Falls, spouting geysers and towering Redwood forests in Rotorua and the enormous Lake Taupo.

We passed perfectly symmetrical volcanic peaks of the Tongoriro National Park, the largest of which, Ruapehu, I had tried to climb as a naïve teenager on my Gap Year. Not appreciating it was one of the world’s most active volcanoes, I got the fright of my life when it decided to erupt as I was traversing the crater’s edge.

New Zealand boasts a sophisticated network of holiday parks. As well as power and fresh water, facilities include wireless internet access, barbeque areas and washing machines (which, thanks to the girls, received much use). Most come with “dump stations” for emptying the van’s waste tank. It’s a pretty unpleasant job and Mary would stand well back and giggle each time I tried to wrestle the giant hose as it writhed around like an elephant’s trunk, threatening to discharge sewage all over me.

The Top 10 Holiday Parks are generally recognised as the best, but there are some real gems off the beaten track. A tip-off from a friendly petrol station attendant led us to an oasis called Waikite, a tiny park with just ten powered sites, up a remote valley outside Rotorua. A nearby natural spring provides the park with enough hot water to replenish six thermal pools every day, and the girls loved splashing around in the mineral-rich waters with us under the shade of giant tree ferns.

Not parent-trapped  

Only a three-hour ferry ride from the North Island, the South Island is the adventure capital of the world, even if you have babies in tow. Before leaving the UK, we had already lined up various nurseries and babysitters through fantastic organisations like Annie’s Nannies, who could take the girls off our hands for a few hours every few days whilst Mary and I got our adrenaline fixes.

Everywhere we went, we were bowled over by the Kiwis’ hospitality and warmth.

Our first day out without kids was sedate enough, as we explored the Marlborough wine region by bike, our cycling becoming increasingly wobbly the more wines we sampled.

new-zealand-journo-tom-avery2-family-pano

A few days later it was on to Nelson, two hours up the coast, where we kayaked from one golden sand bay to the next in the sheltered waters of the Abel Tasman National Park. We had left Maud and Olive for the day with a delightful couple called Gav and Deb, who not only looked after the girls brilliantly, but also washed all their clothes for us too. They then insisted we stay for roast lamb dinner, so they could hear all about our day on the water. Everywhere we went, we were bowled over by the Kiwis’ hospitality and warmth.

In Otago, we rafted down the gurgling twists and turns of the Shotover River, clinging on for dear life as a succession of rapids with sinister names like Pinball, Miners Revenge and Toilet tried to flip us overboard.

From Queenstown, our faces were pressed against the windows of our 4-seater Cessna as we flew over Lord of the Rings country, the awe-inspiring majesty of the Milford Sound and the snow-covered Southern Alps, where my team and I had trained for our South Pole expedition in 2002.

The windswept Otago Peninsula near Dunedin is an excellent place to get up close and personal with New Zealand’s coastal wildlife. The four of us were shown round by the enthusiastic Brian Templeton from Elm Wildlife Tours, whose conservation work has been responsible for increasing the local populations of the Yellow Eyed Penguin and Hooker’s Sea lion, the world’s rarest penguin and sea lion species. They were completely unfazed by our presence, quite remarkable given the girls’ excitable shrieks.

A bit of a treat

Kaikoura was one of many highlights during our 3,000-mile journey. For starters, we ditched the motorhome for a couple of nights and checked into the totally unique Hapuku Lodge, a collection of luxurious tree houses nestled between the Pacific and the spectacular Seaward Kaikoura Mountains.

Having a baby (or two) shouldn’t get in the way of a visit to the ultimate adventure holiday destination.

With the girls in crèche all day, Mary and I were booked on a dolphin swimming trip. It wasn’t long before the boat’s skipper spotted a 200-strong pod of Dusky Dolphins. “Remember folks, you’re their entertainment for the day, so make as much noise as possible”, he said as we donned wetsuits, masks and snorkels.

We leapt overboard, straight into the path of the oncoming pod. The dolphins were clearly impressed with our efforts because within seconds they were cavorting all around us, jumping clean out of the water and mimicking our movements as we swam in tight circles and made silly noises through our snorkels. To interact with wild dolphins was incredible, although an unwelcome surprise were the dust clouds of dolphin poo left behind as parting gifts.

After lunching on the most incredible crayfish at a roadside barbeque, we boarded another vessel to watch one of the many Sperm Whales inhabiting the waters off Kaikoura, snapping furiously with our cameras to get the perfect fluke shot each time the enormous creature arched his back for the next dive. With Royal Albatross circling overhead, and a family of fur seals escorting us back to shore, it capped off a truly magical day.

New Zealand may be the other side of the world, but having a baby (or two) shouldn’t get in the way of a visit to the ultimate adventure holiday destination. And six months is the perfect age to take them – they’re small enough to fit in a skycot, aren’t too heavy to carry in a Baby Bjorn, haven’t yet started to crawl, and are sleeping through the night (if we were lucky!).

The only downer of course is that they won’t remember a thing. Which gives you the perfect excuse to return to paradise when they’re a bit older, and do it all over again.

by Tom Avery

(Appeared in Daily Mail on 27 November 2010)

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