Have van, will travel

The sun sinks into the Hauraki Gulf at Long Bay Motor Camp. Photos: Jeff Kavanagh
The sun sinks into the Hauraki Gulf at Long Bay Motor Camp. Photos: Jeff Kavanagh
Opoutere Beach.
Opoutere Beach.
Otma Beach.
Otma Beach.
Our budget hi-top camper van.
Our budget hi-top camper van.

Sick of Dunedin’s miserable weather, Jeff Kavanagh jumped on a flight to Auckland, grabbed a cheap campervan and discovered the hidden delights of the Coromandel.

Throughout January we are regularly reminded how terrible summer has been by the guy at our local petrol station and the lady in the dairy round the corner, but most often by the sideways rain hammering the dining room window.

Our Christmas tans having turned to rust, my girlfriend and I decided to head north from Dunedin with our 21-month-old daughter. The plan was to rent a cheap camper van and drive first to Mount Maunganui, which seems to be perpetually bathed in sunshine on TV weather reports, and then around the Coromandel.

With galling irony we swap stunning weather at Momona for torrential rain at Auckland Airport.

There we're met by Brodie - the son of the guy we're renting the van from - who bounds barefoot out of his beaten-up stationwagon and loads it up with our stuff for the 45-minute drive south to Clevedon and our camper van.

We've rented our ''budget hi-top'' through Shareacamper, a sort of Airbnb for motorised accommodation. Brodie's dad, Mitchell, uses the site to rent out camper vans from his own business, Nomad Campervans, and has some bad news for us when we arrive: our VW transporter has been abandoned with a busted turbo in a car park by its previous users. Not that we're to worry, Mitchell assures us, we can use a newer model van until ours is fixed the next day. The down side is it isn't a high-top and it has a shonky fuel injector.

Determined not to let our spirits be dampened any further we head off, trying not to accelerate sharply least the van start shuddering like an enormous, off-kilter washing machine.

Our itinerary for the next two weeks doesn't stretch beyond a few days on the Mount and then Opoutere Coastal Camping on the east coast of the Coromandel for four nights. As we're travelling outside of school holidays, finding free campsites shouldn't prove a hassle and we've also downloaded Campermate, a free app that lists camping sites and amenities throughout the country.

A couple of hours after setting off from Clevedon, we reach the Beachside Holiday Park at the base of the Mount to find it wrapped in sheets of thick rain. A swim at the beach is off the cards, but thankfully an outdoor hot pool business sits right next to the camping ground. After some mediocre fish tacos from a Mexican place on the Mount's main drag we jump into our togs and slip into its joyously warm waters. Our replacement van might not technically be high-top, but it's still budget. A queen-size bed has been built into the back, with storage boxes, a chilly bin, a water pump and a long pull-out drawer containing a sink and ''fondue-style'' meths cookers as well as cutlery, crockery and pots and pans. Both vans also come with cassette toilets, but they remain undisturbed in their boxes throughout the trip and we make use of camping ground and public loos instead.

Getting ready for bed in the confined quarters of the van on our first night results in some bumps of the head and a few half-articulated profanities. Once tucked in, however, it's cosy and despite our daughter's need to recite the name every person she's ever met 10 times over we soon slide off to sleep with the rain rattling the roof.

A break in the rain the next day allows us a swim at the pretty crescent-moon beach that borders the holiday park, but it's not long enough to convince us to stay on at the Mount. After another swim at nearby Papamoa's sweeping, majestic beach - where our repaired, original van is delivered to us - we turn north towards the promise of better weather.

We know from a previous trip to the Coromandel that freedom camping for a few nights is permitted in the sedate holiday settlement of Onemana, which lies two hours drive up the coast.

After the rain on the Mount, it's bliss to spend a pair of marvellously sunny days building sandcastles and swimming at Onemana's golden sand beach. In the evenings we cook sausages and pasta on the van's pull-out stove and talk with fellow freedom campers, including a young German family coming to the end of their New Zealand camper van odyssey, who gift us jars of jam and curry sauce.

Our holiday properly under way, we move to our next stop - Opoutere Coastal Camping - a convenient 10-minute trundle up SH25.

Flanked by a large pine forest, the peaceful little camping ground is divided into upper and lower areas by an eel-filled creek that meanders to a nearby estuary. Access to Opoutere's long bank of white sand dunes and sparkling sea, meanwhile, is along pine needle paths that weave between whispering trees.

We've barely pulled into our camping spot under the pines when we decide that we're going to stay more than four nights.

Half-full with grey nomads - retired Kiwis who spend a large part of each year travelling around in motorhomes - and international tourists when we first arrive, the campground briefly swells with guests for a pair of weekend weddings held in a small forest clearing overlooking the sea.

The rest of the time we're there it remains laid-back and intimate. We're invited over to a neighbouring camper van for cups of tea and chats about all things camping by Rowan, a ex-builder from Auckland, and his English partner Susan, and our trips to and from the kitchen and showers are punctuated with short conversations with fellow campers about the weather, the surf, and generally how beautiful Opoutere is.

A week of eating, swimming, and sleeping soon sweeps by. Aware that our time with the camper van is running out, we make our way an hour and a-half north to Kuaotunu, where we stay for a night and make an excursion to the stunning, isolated beaches of Otama and Opito Bay the next day.

From Kuaotunu, it's a 30-minute traverse over the hills to Coromandel town and the Long Bay Motor Camp on the peninsula's western side.

Located along the edge of a serene bay, the welcoming campground has a boat ramp and mussel farms ideal for snapper fishing just off the coast. It also has captivating views of the sun sinking into the Hauraki Gulf each night. Jam-packed through the height of summer, there are plenty of spare sites in February and we spend the last days of our trip there, drinking our fill of the summer sun.

-By Jeff Kavanagh

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