Easy riding: small kids in a campervan – no problem

Fun and freedom on a budget? Or the family holiday from hell? Traveling some 1200 kilometres from Christchurch to Auckland in a campervan with two small children isn’t everyone’s idea of heaven. But this family survived… and then some.

Words: Debbie Harrison

Photos: Debbie Harrison and Cameron Harrison

As a parent sometimes – like, every day – we have to do things we don’t really want for the betterment of our children and to enhance their life experience. Sometime this involves ignoring the lure of balmy nights, sunshine, kids’ clubs and five-star luxury on a tropical island paradise. With reluctance, glossy brochures of hotel bedrooms and glamorous en suites were set aside as we began planning a road trip.


The mission? To drive our family of four from Christchurch to Auckland in seven days, visiting as many new places as possible. But after only 20 minutes of planning it was evident we needed to rethink the mission. Mission refined? To see as many new places as possible while driving as little as possible, to keep us all sane, happy and the marriage of myself and my husband Cam firmly intact.

How exciting to find there have been advances since the camping facilities of my childhood which – let’s face it – weren’t beloved by all. Do I need to mention shower drains clogged with hair, concrete amenities blocks with a correctional décor feel and the neighbours… loud and boisterous? Then there are the sleepless nights, mosquitos… The biggest advance, in my now-experienced opinion, comes in the form of campervans. These apartments-on-wheels have everything for traveling in comfort; double beds, enough room to stand without causing the roof to fall down, a table and booth seating for cosy family meals, a compact kitchen and a bathroom with full amenities (even if the toilet requires a 90-degree turn in order to close the door). Not that we used the latter; not only did we want to avoid emptying it, it also forced us to stop at small towns for toilet visits along the way, seeing places we wouldn’t have otherwise. Traveling via campervan also meant we didn’t have to unpack and repack at every stop, or put up tents in pitch-black darkness.

More stories you might like:
Neil McLachlan: A life saving houses

Family campervan trip

The first night at the Top 10 Campground in Christchurch was a complete surprise and knocked some of my preconceptions sideways. Pedal go-karts zipped around, there was a spotless indoor thermal pool with a slide and modern facilities (including electric sliding doors and powerful hairdryers in the ladies). Check-in was completed drive-through style, for goodness sake.
Our kids, Piper (6) and Deacon (4), would have played on the blow-up pillow (the 2016 version of a trampoline) for hours if we hadn’t dragged them away for a wholesome meal of sausages in bread, smothered in tomato sauce. We needed an early night anyway – we had to be at Whitebait Studios at 7am the next day for the filming of TV2’s What Now? Yes, the childhood institution is still going strong. It was always a childhood dream of mine to be in the What Now? audience and I was determined to live that through my offspring while we were in the area. Even if it meant leaving our campsite before the birds were up.

Four hours of laughter, saucer-wide eyes and photos with the presenters, followed by feeding eels in the Avon River and a quick play in the massive and highly recommended Margaret Mahy Playground, meant the two smallest members of our family slept the whole way to Hanmer Springs. And boy did they miss out. I was constantly reaching for my camera in an attempt to capture the beauty of the river of ice-blue water weaving along beside us, the rows of cherry trees swathed in romantic blossom, the wide expanses of lush rolling hillside and the glimpses of snow-capped mountains which grew in size as we neared the alpine-style Hanmer Springs. At times Cam and I slowed the campervan right down just to soak it all in and appreciate the view. #nzrules
Of course we’d been urged by friends and family to soak in the renowned Hanmer Springs hot pools – advice we obediently followed. It’s an impeccable venue with more than ten beautifully presented thermal pools framed by oversized rocks that double as a place to perch when you get too hot. There were also novel activities to keep kids engaged, including a lazy river that gently pulled them around a bend in the pool on flutter boards, a giant twisting water slide (for children taller than ours) and an aquatic playground with multiple sprinklers.

More stories you might like:
Ruth Pretty's Pineapple sage infusion

Family campervan trip

The kids would have happily played here all day but we wanted to take the advice of our campground manager and do the nearby Conical Hill Lookout walk. As it turned out, it was one of the highlights of our trip. And like all the best things in life, it was free.We’re not natural nature buffs (we’re more likely to be inside with a good book or board game) but this gentle walk may have changed all that. The 20-minute trek follows a well-developed track that zigzags up a hill, through canopies of entwined tree branches and with savvy shortcuts up steeper sections, using tree roots as footholds. It actually took us longer than 20 minutes because we ambled – the kids were armed with a small digital camera and binoculars, so we halted regularly to check out the view and snap photos of upended tree roots resembling nests, buttercup-yellow broom and the intertwined leaves and branches of decades-old trees. The ascent was pretty but the views at the summit were something else – the perfect backdrop for selfies and family portraits, so long as you surrender to being upstaged by the beauty of a vast landscape and its luminous snow-white mountains.

Family campervan trip

We were lucky to be able to see Kaikoura in its full glory before the earthquake – the gorgeous beach with its background of snow-capped mountains. We spent the entire morning at the campground, strolling the beach, scrambling around for perfect pebbles and heart-shaped rocks. Having clocked up only 181 kilometres by this stage – day three – we needed to rattle our dags to complete the last 895 kilometres in time for our campervan return date. We hot-chocolated in Picton, the kids played in the life-sized pirate ship on the waterfront and I snipped flowers from a lilac tree – the first I’ve ever seen. Poked into a repurposed beer bottle, their potent fragrance wafted through our mobile home for the remainder of the trip.
We spent the entire crossing from Picton to Wellington on the lowest floor of the Interislander in the large kids’ playground. Cam and I took the opportunity to read books, catch up on our emails and one of us may have even been lulled by the boat’s rocking into having a quick snooze…

Once the ferry docked we whizzed through Wellington, pottered through Porirua and lumbered through Levin, stopping at the Golden Arches to fuel ourselves for our night in Palmerston North. Spookily, our night here coincided with the neighbouring haunted house’s rehearsal – the blood-curdling screams made an unnerving backdrop to our teeth brushing that night.
It was just good luck that we spent our last night at Taupo’s Top 10. If I needed any further convincing that campgrounds aren’t what they used to be, this is it. It has an electronic game for the family that has you rushing back and forth in a three-metre wide area, competing and laughing simultaneously. There’s a volleyball court, playground and a fishing station to clean your catch of the day.

More stories you might like:
Inside the world of ultra-marathon running

Family campervan trip

But the real gem is the tropical-style thermal pool with graduated edges that allow you to just ease your way in or sunbake in the shallows, just as you would on a tropical island.
But wait there’s more: also in the pool is a giant mushroom sprinkler to entertain the kids, a huge outdoor movie screen, a swim-in grotto (complete with treasure at the bottom) and, the pièce de résistance, a swim-up bar. Unbelievable. I couldn’t get the kids out of it and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you photos of the pool featured on four pages of their individual holiday journals – they reckon it’s just as much fun as Fiji “and can we spend the whole week there next time?” Looks like there will be more camping in our very near future… In fact, we’re already planning our 2017 road trip, this time up the West Coast. The week after we handed back our campervan I flew out to Fiji for a conference (I know, all the tough gigs, right?) and you know what? I was left hankering for the simplicity of the camping road-trip life and the happiness that comes from spending calm, unstressed, unplanned, quality time with my little family in new places… I’m predicting a new Harrison tradition.

Family campervan trip

The old-fashioned way – big walks, stone-finding missions on the beach (heart-shaped pebbles got extra kudos), colouring books, pens and paper, plus an assignment to take photos of their highlights to be printed out and added to their holiday journal the following week. (Yes, holiday homework – I’m a tough mum.) One rainy morning they watched a movie on our laptop while mum and dad caught a few extra zzzzzs. For those hours of traveling (which we tried to keep to a minimum), we played audio books which kept them silent, entertained and happy to do long stretches in their car seats. What we ate Continuing the theme of keeping things simple, we ate a lot of basic, fast-to-cook food so we could spend less time in the kitchen and more time exploring. Sausages became a staple – on bread and smothered in tomato sauce – cooked on the communal campground barbecues or kitchens, alongside other travelers with their packets of spiral pasta and 2-Minute Noodles. Snacks of nuts, yoghurt, apples, bananas and Krispie biscuits were always on hand, and were often all it took to break the tedium of travel on long stretches.


NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
Send this to a friend