Around the bend

First attempts at family camping

We decided on Otaki Forks for our first family camping holiday. It was far away enough to jostle the synapses. There was no cell phone coverage. There was a section of unsealed corrugated road, and a small ford. Enough deterrents that anyone going there had to go there on purpose, yet close enough to home that we could bail if the going got too tough. What ‘tough’ consisted of was vague, but with a three and five year old in tow, we knew it was ever ready to pounce.

As we prepared the long list of gear we discovered the fittings on the camp stove didn’t match the gas bottle, and decided to take our four-burner barbeque instead. Tying it down on the trailer, surrounded by folded chairs, and penned in by an enormous chilly bin, I yearned briefly for those pre-child camping days of a motorcycle and two pannier bags. I felt embarrassed by this overkill.

I needn’t have worried. As we circuited Schoolhouse Flat, the main camping area, looking for a potential tent site, we saw patio burners, solar powered fairy lights, and whole gazebos devoted to dining.

At last we settled on a place to pitch the tent. Close (but not too close) to the toilets, and a reasonable distance from neighbouring campers. Territories were subtly marked yet firm: the angle of a parked car, the reach of a chained dog, a strategically placed volleyball net. By the time we had our gear stowed it was getting late, but we were hot with exertion and eager to see the river, its distant dull roar sounding like an unseen downpour.

There was a track through patches of raspberry and mint, which we pointed out as edible to the children, and got me thinking of cocktails. Further on sparse gorse, and then tutu, which we pointed out as inedible, poisonous to stock, and humans from honey if the bees had fed from it. We felt knowledgeable, imparting the mysteries of nature to our offspring. Then the five year old asked why tutu didn’t make the bees sick. We were saved from revealing our ignorance by the distraction of reaching the river, the Waiotauru, rocks high on its banks felted with bright orange lichen.

We picked our way to the water, the stones not sharp or especially slippery, but somehow dully bruising. It was impossible to walk gracefully, arms cantilevering and awkward leg jerks, like a series of bad dance moves. But no one witnessed this display. We had the river to ourselves. My partner began reinforcing one of the shallow rock-lined pools that had been made for paddling or bathing. The children answered the inexhaustible urge to throw stones into water, to see something vanish again, again.

I stood ankle deep, the surprisingly swift current pushing the water calf-high. Rivers were new to me – a coastal dweller. This water seemed brutal, relentless, unlike the suck and push of the sea. The rush of river sound filled my ears, but was somehow peaceful. I breathed in the dense green bush of the surrounding hills and became mesmerized by the waves that, unlike surf, broke against the direction of flow as the water pushed up against submerged boulders. I was thinking admiringly of eels swimming across the ocean and then upstream, the effort, when something floated around the bend. Two shrieking bikinied teenagers on a fake suede inflatable mattress. They waved, as if they were on a parade float. We gaped. The three year old raised one hesitant hand. Then they were gone, transported along on their watery conveyor belt. The children bent to their stones, my partner to his rock pool. He pointed to its surface, pockmarked by rain we could not yet feel.