Do you remember when New Zealand used to shut down for three weeks at Christmas? If you could go away, you did.
Some people had baches (cribs) others took tents, there were some caravans.
A network of motor camps around the coasts, rivers and lakes filled up to overflowing. Many families went to the same place and the same site every year meeting up with families they only ever saw on their holiday.
Light at night was a Tilley lamp, cooking was on kerosene or white spirit stoves. A safe, a netted box that let the wind through, was hung in the shade in lieu of a fridge. You might use a super-efficient thermette (aka Bengazi boiler) to boil the water. Adults slept on canvas stretchers, children on the floor in sleeping bags. The camps always provided toilets, sometimes showers, sometimes an electric kitchen, sometimes a shop.
Baches were basic, quite like a permanent tent. The toilet might be a long drop out the back. If there was no power there might be a safe instead of a fridge, kerosene for cooking and heat, and a Tilley lamp for light. Beds were bunks. The bach was the place for the old, unmatched china, rickety surplus furniture, the raggedy quilts and mats retired from home. Like a tent, you slept in it, you ate in it, but you lived outside.
What did we do?
We swam until chilled then lay in the sun baking dry until overheated, then swam again. Adults joined us in the water or sat on the beach keeping a careful eye: few beaches had life savers. We played games on the beach. Some mothers had a picnic lunch ready on the sand, some had everyone return to the tent or bach for lunch. At the end of the day we compared skin color and slathered remedies on our sun burn. There might be games around the table under the hiss of the Tilley lamp before bed.
Times have changed
Times have changed. New Zealand does not shut down for three weeks anymore. The network of camps is disintegrating — the prime beach sites they occupy not prosperous enough to compete against a subdivision offer. Otaki Beach lost the old motorcamp to such a scheme.
There are not so many baches left. If you cruise the Otaki Beach streets you can still see some old baches interspersed among the new. The new ‘baches’ are just houses at the beach, no different from any modern home and too costly for most families to consider as a second home just for holidays.
Motorhomes and the again-fashionable caravans are the new holiday homes. The NZ Motor Caravan Association has over 60,000 motorhomes listed, increasing by about ten thousand per year. They can be as costly as a house and land, as sleek and beautiful as a yacht, but there are also models priced like the old family baches, and many families use these for their holidays. The Department of Conservation now provides more places for camping and parking, picking up some of the slack as the camping grounds disappear.
There is the odd corner in New Zealand where the old style holiday has slowly morphed without losing those special qualities. I visited friends at a four-wheel-drive club camp on their latest site, leased from a farmer far from ‘civilisation’.
Each year club members come up in spring to check what the winter rains have done to the site, trim the trees, do any repairs, dig new long drops, and chop firewood for the boilers for the showers.
A stream loops around the site, huge willows on each bank, and the camp sites are tucked into these willows to make surprisingly private spaces. People have a tent, motorhome or caravan; beside it a marquee or a gazebo, maybe an outdoor fire (each approved by the camp marshall as safe enough at this high-fire-risk time of year). Some have baths beside the stream, fire-heated. There is a large open central area for children, bikes, dog walking.
Over the years they have refined their personal sites. The fireplace, flagstones, hooks on the willow to hold utensils, towels. A stump here for the water tank, a kitchen sink bench, mint under the willow.
Families arrive around Christmas. Some stay to the end of January, some for a week or fortnight, others come and go as their work demands. They bring bikes and dogs, their friends and of course their 4-wheel drive vehicles. Every so often some head into the hills after goats and rabbits which are cooked up on their return.
Otaki has a beach with changing rooms, toilets, an outdoor shower to get the sand off and life savers to make sure our children don’t drown. There’s a bike path to the beach. There is even a bus service, even on weekends (if you are careful about time) which is more than you can say for our swimming pool. You don’t need a bach or a motorhome to spend time there. There’s a dairy, a coffee shop, and a restaurant at the camping ground. Let’s make the most of it this summer.