Rent a campervan ... and you have adventure at your fingertips. With a bit of planning, your family could be star gazing through a skydome, learning to trapeze, kayaking under a waterfall, devouring freshly caught fish & chips, and boarding down sand dunes.
Remember when Mum and Dad used to load you and your siblings into the back of the car and drive off to little towns around New Zealand, sometimes visiting family and friends, and sometimes just winging it with a caravan? Kids just don’t seem to have those opportunities anymore, or at least the calling of the Gold Coast and Fiji seem to be the preferred flavour of this new generation.
Well, our kids are missing out, because apart from discovering a treasure trove of New Zealand history, a campervan road trip is also the easiest camping you’ll ever do, and a great opportunity to indulge in intrepid travel [quite economically] with your family.
start with a plan
Our ultimate destination was the lighthouse at Cape Reinga – compulsory for every good tourist! The best move we made was to go into the Destination Northland website (www.northlandsnz.com). I really recommend you do this, as it has a heap of information about things to do and places to stay, and you can also download a copy of the Northland Visitor Guide. Failing that, you could ring the Bay of Islands and Hokianga i-sites.
choose your campervan
We chose a Britz Frontier that slept six people very comfortably. See www.britz.co.nz. My advice is to choose a campervan that has as much space as your budget will allow. Ours had plenty of storage, easy cooking and food prep areas, and slightly separated areas for kids and adults (if they’re in bed early or you want a bit of adult conversation). It took one day to adjust ourselves to the compact style of living and then we fell in love with our campervan. It was super comfortable, fully kitted out and very easy to drive (it was a Mercedes after all). See campervan tips over page for more advice.
seven days in northland
There is just so much to do in Northland, so you have to choose based on what you love to do as a family. With a story to write, we decided on a mix of sporty adventures, a bit of exhilaration, history, a couple of natural wonders and some time to enjoy the Northland beaches. (This was no trip for a couch potato!)
on the twin coast discovery highway
We started in Auckland and travelled up the East Coast and then back down the West Coast, along the Twin Coast Discovery Highway.
SEE Claphams Clock Museum
I can’t believe I’ve never been to this place. Our kids were enthralled, more so than I expected, and I recommend the guided tour. claphamsclocks.com
WALK Whangarei Falls
Beautiful, really quite impressive and a great place to stretch your legs. Look up www.wdc.govt.nz and search for a map.
SEE Kawiti Glow-worm Caves
What kids don’t love caves? Head underground and discover millions of glow-worms. This cave has wooden walkways and rails. kawiticaves.co.nz
SEE Hundertwasser toilets and vintage train
A quick pit stop so the kids could experience the famous Hundertwasser Toilets (a wonderful example of practical art) and we had a quick look at the Vintage Train. The train runs from Friday to Sunday and is a one-hour round trip. bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz
STAY Beachside Holiday Park
We really enjoyed this camping ground, it’s very tidy and clean, plus right on the beach. It has a big kitchen area and unlimited hot water. beachsideholiday.co.nz
SEE Fullers GreatSights Hole in the Rock Dolphin Cruise
The kids loved the dolphins and it was really cool for them to drive through the hole in the rock. Be weather wise with this trip, as the sea can sometimes be too choppy and you may not get through the rock. dolphincruises.co.nz
DO Action World
This was a trip highlight for the kids. Freddy and Carol Osler (former World Champions on the Flying Trapeze) have developed a unique airbag landing system so you can trapeze, swing and tightrope harness-free! Exhilarating. Plus, our kids spent hours on the waterslide. actionworld.co.nz
STAY Haruru Falls Resort Panorama
I was completely in love with our camping spot here – directly in front of the Haruru Falls. Also, they have a great little restaurant if you’re in need of a cooking break – and we can all vouch for the breakfast waffles. harurufalls.co.nz
DO Coastal Kayaking
This is a very kid-friendly adventure. We paddled up the Waitangi River and explored the huge mangroves on the way to the Haruru Falls. Parents can team up with little ones, or the lovely guides will tow any tired wee souls. coastalkayakers.co.nz
Vintage car collection at Pete's Museum
VISIT The Stone Store
Wow, the museum part of The Stone Store has undergone an amazing overhaul befitting our oldest stone building. We were quite fascinated by the cast iron nails and other little historic memoirs on sale. kerikeri.co.nz/The_Stone_Store.cfm
STAY Kerikeri Top 10 Holiday Park
Next to the river with lots of trees and space, this camp is only 500m from Kerikeri township. Our kids enjoyed the little bush walk along the riverbank to the swimming spots. www.kerikeritop10.co.nz
VISIT Pete’s Museum
A cute 50s Diner (operational and great for coffee), along with a great collection of vintage cars and a pioneer village. A little MOTAT with a lot of charm.
EAT Mangonui Fish Shop
Head out to the pier and sit overlooking the water to enjoy the best and freshest fish and chips ever.
SWIM Coopers Beach and Cable Bay
Of course, there are beautiful beaches everywhere up North, but we stopped in here, replete with fish & chips, to play in the water for a few hours.
Sand-dune boarding - serious fun!
STAY Tapotupotu Bay
This is the closest camping ground to the lighthouse and is truly beautiful. This will give your kids the ultimate remote coastal New Zealand experience: a white sand beach with Pohutakawas and abundant rock pools. When dusk falls, be mosquito savvy!
VISIT Cape Reinga
A very exciting moment for the kids when we finally arrived at the lighthouse. Apart from a flurry of photo taking, we enjoyed this picturesque walk where we could see the oceans collide. Free, and sprinkled with New Zealand history.
DO Ahikaa Adventures
An absolute favourite for us all was burning down the sand dunes on boogie boards. This is serious fun. Owners Dave and Rose are the loveliest people you will ever meet, and can tell you anything you need to know about the Dunes – be it boarding or preservation. ahikaa-adventures.co.nz
90 Mile Beach
VISIT Gumdiggers Buried Forest Park
With some Croatian heritage, this place was particularly fascinating
for our family. They have uncovered a site over 100 years old with 40,000 to 150,000 year old buried Kauri forests. gumdiggerspark.co.nz
STAY Ahipara Holiday Park
This is a charming, pet friendly camping ground, set amongst trees and hydrangea bushes. It has a cosy communal room with a roaring fire in winter, computer area and kids’ playground. ahiparaholidaypark.co.nz
DRIVE along the Hokianga Harbour
We travelled through the Victorian town of Kohukohu, on to the ‘Narrows’ car ferry, through Rawene to Opononi. We stopped here for more fish & chips on the beach and a look at a small doco on show at the i-site about Opo the famous dolphin.
SEE Labyrinth Woodworks and Maze
This was a little treasure – at the end of a picturesque country road, we were astonished to find that this small Puzzling Cottage was so busy we couldn’t find a park. Part-shop/part-museum, the kids were instantly challenged with puzzling teasers by owner Louis Toorenberg, voted the world’s largest puzzle collector. We enjoyed the garden maze and bushwalks. nzanity.co.nz
Waipoua Kauri Forest
SEE Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere
Allow for a two-minute walk to Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest) and a 30-minute walk to Te Matua Ngahere (Father of the Forest). Both of these iconic Kauri trees are full of spiritual wonder. A must-see. www.doc.govt.nz
STAY Baylys Beach Holiday Park
This camping ground has a great family feel to it, with wall murals of surf boards, Pohutakawas and jandals; a big communal kitchen; and only 10 minutes walk from the beach. baylysbeach.co.nz
VISIT The Kumara Box
See Ernie’s live Kumara show and take a train ride around the farm. This is real Kiwiana – a good taste of New Zealand for the kids. kumarabox.co.nz
VISIT The Kauri Museum
This museum has so much for kids to enjoy, including really clever displays of pioneering machinery and Kauri. Our kids were fascinated with the massive collection of Kauri Gum. We didn’t have long here, so we’re coming back next time. kau.nz
TRY Matakohe House Cafe
Near the Kauri Museum, we stopped at this charming Bed and Breakfast Café for a strawberry muffin and coffee. matakohehouse.co.nz
A bit of a sheep problem on the road
campervan survival tips
- A GPS makes life easy when you’re off the beaten track. (Although ours was a little inaccurate at times.)
- The chemical toilets can get a bit woofy if you leave them un-emptied for a long time. However, we found that if you empty them regularly, the process isn’t as bad as you would imagine – so don’t be afraid to use them.
- Set the kids up with music playlists; this keeps them in their own space when tensions rise, but still looking out the window.
- Invest in a pair of jandals for everyone. They’re cheap, easy to wash and dry, they don’t smell and can be worn in the camping ground showers.
- Take Trip-Eze for queasy travellers. Seems to be very effective, even if purely psychological.
- Have an itinerary on hand for the kids to read – this gives them a chance to know what’s happening ahead of time, and take a role in navigating to the next stop.
- If you have one child who is a fly in the ointment, then start the trip with a bonus chart. For each stage, good behaviour will gain points towards a special treat, such as an ice-cream or hot chocolate.
- From Day 1, give every child their own ‘campervan responsibility’ (such as, empty the rubbish, lock all of the drawers and cupboards or pack away the outdoor furniture). It keeps them busy when it’s time to pack up and makes them feel responsible.
- If you are leaving with the campervan from your home, then pack straight into the campervan. It means less bags to lug around with you, and means you only take what you can fit in. Remember to throw in a day pack and a brolly.
- Take a drink bottle for each person – it’s easier to have your own when you are on the road or out and about.
- Keep mozzies at bay with waterproof Mozzie wrist bands. The campervan has fly nets, so unless one sneaks in before night-time, you can rest easy.
- Load up on snack foods like fruit, cheese, crackers and hummus. It’s easy to eat on the road, it’s cheaper and it’s also very convenient if your kids have allergies.
how far and how much?
for a family of five:
• We travelled 1115km.
• We spent $300 on diesel.
• Total accommodation cost was $400.
• Campervan rental cost was $269 per day (but specials do come up, and off peak is $106 per day, so keep an eye out).
• Extra activities averaged out at $83 per paid activity.
• Waterfalls, walk to Cape Reinga, Tane Mahuta, beaches, Opo documentary at the Opononi i-site, fishing off the Mangonui wharf – all free!