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Growing up under canvas

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October 2020 Issue

Life-long camper Matthew Cattin reminisces on his childhood summers spent camping in the Far North.

In the late 90s, my dad – an aircraft engineer – was invited to work at Boeing Seattle for several months. He came home brimming with the exciting news – the family could fly over free to visit, and what’s more, we could go to Disneyland.

It sounds like every eight-year-old’s dream, but the plan broke my heart – the trip would mean missing our annual family camping trip to Otamure Bay, Whananaki. My brothers felt the same, and though I don’t remember complaining, apparently we were so distraught, Dad rescheduled his business trip so we could go camping.

Like many Kiwi families, we spent summer after summer camping on the same small patch of grass. Our canvas city consisted of four other families for up to five weeks at a time, all stacked along the fenceline beneath towering pohutukawa.

My parents, Michael and Julie, were seasoned campers when they discovered Otamure Bay in 1993, having camped in Northland since 1980. It was January 15th, Dad’s birthday, when they drove up from Auckland to find an empty paddock full of possibility. They returned that December with families in tow, and so began the most defining chapter of my childhood; five laden trailers, 10 grown-ups, 17 kids, and four weeks of sand, sun and surf.

We kids would boogie board like it was a full time job, while our parents patiently settled into supervisor shifts on the beach, books on lap, feet in the sand. We’d be in the water until our fingers and toes pruned, and our wetsuit tan lines were permanent pale baselayers. When the waves were too small to ride, we would climb trees, build huts, snorkel, kayak, or explore around the rocks, and as we grew, so too did our means of enjoying our environment. At 17, I learned to surf, and by 19, I was diving for my first crayfish. When you’re constantly growing and changing, each summer brings new adventures, and boredom is impossible.

As teenagers, we got cellphones, though the half hour walk uphill to the reception spot made checking them rarely worth the effort. We were unplugged, off-grid, and living in the moment. Rain meant board games, playing cards, books, swims, and a reprieve for peeling necks – no screen time, and few complaints.

“It was the best family holiday you could have,” Dad remembers. “In so many other families, kids would get to 15 or 16, and they’d go away and do something else, but ours always enjoyed camping and still do.”

When my parents set themselves up in the 80s and 90s, camping gear wasn’t so easy to find as it is today, and much of our setup was homemade, including our trailer, shower tent, kitchen unit and fish-smoker.

“What was available was bulky and heavy and not built for camping. I made my own gear to get what I wanted,” Dad says.

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Otamure Bay on a summer’s day. Photo: Ryan Cattin
Known to us as ‘the next bay over’, with Motutohe Island behind. Photo: Ryan Cattin

Naturally, a friendly rivalry developed between the camping dads to see who could invent the next must-have camping accessory, and anything worth having would appear in everybody’s trailer the following summer. It was here that dad had an edge – his job as an aircraft engineer gave him access to tools, equipment, and best of all the bins at work.

Our tent carpet travelled around the globe onboard 747 airplanes and our multi-rack fish smoker once held trays of passenger meals.

“None of us would tell each other what we’d made during the year, so it was a big surprise when we arrived to see who had done what,” Dad says.

Dad’s foot-long steel tent pegs became legendary. The handmade monsters took two dozen whacks of the mallet to hammer in, and a back-breaking heave to pull back out. His windbreaks were equally impressive, and I’m yet to see campers anywhere replicate their design. Essentially sheets of woven mesh suspended between a string of 2m poles, the invention would cut strong wind like butter. Over the top? Maybe. But on more than one occasion, the mega pegs and wind breaks saved the day, and you can bet every dad built a set before the following summer. When Cyclone Drena struck in 1997, the mums and kids hunkered down in Whangarei while the dads stayed behind to guard the tents. They were soon evacuated by police to the local hall, and when they returned, their tents were the only ones left standing.

There’s never a dull summer when you’re camping amongst hundreds of others, and over the years we saw some real horrors; broken bones, snapped teeth, drunken brawls, fishing hooks through fingers, spears through feet, petrol-burns on genitals, you name it. As well as tending to our injuries – mostly cuts, bee stings, and sunburn – mum’s first aid kit was shared out every year to dozens of unprepared campers, as well as the usual mallets, airbed pumps, cups of sugar and lemons. When you’re miles from civilisation, you can’t help but feel like you’re part of a community.

My dad and brother pose with a good haul.

Malcolm Jaine – a camping cousin – says camping taught him to appreciate the simple pleasures in life.

“As I’ve grown older, I’ve always known that our time spent camping as kids taught us to appreciate what we have in our own country and that you don’t need to go on big expensive overseas trips,” he says.

“We didn’t need much to keep ourselves entertained – just a boogie board, a tent peg for crab hunting and  a heap of sunscreen.”

For many of us who spent our summers camping, Christmas at home was a foreign concept – something that shocked our friends at the time. As kids, we would wake up to a ‘Santa sack’ perched at the foot of our beds, which we’d drag into the family tent to open at an ungodly hour.

Cooked brunch would follow after a morning swim and a glass of champagne or two, all 27 of us spread around plastic tables stacked end to end. We would eat Christmas dinner – typically seafood, salad, ham, turkey and barbecue cake – whenever the Weber was ready. Depending on the number of drinks consumed by the parents, this would be anywhere between 8-11pm.

Our final years at Whananaki felt different – like we were clinging onto a dream that no longer existed. The campground – once empty enough for frisbee or soccer on Christmas Day – started getting fully booked right through the holiday period. Every summer, there were new changes to swallow, and towards the end, the campground experienced something of an industrial revolution, bringing obtrusive paved roads, marked sites and automatic gates to our beloved paddock. After 20 years,  it was time to move on.

“We definitely camped through the golden years there,” Dad says. “It started getting more crowded and more regulated, partly because of people abusing the system.

“That classic camping is still available, but it’s slowly moving further and further away.”

The next five years we spent camping on private beachfront land in Long Beach, Russell, and though I missed the many happy years at Otamure Bay – and still do – camping was always about the people, and wonderful new memories were made on our new patch of grass.

I still drop in on Otamure when I can, and though the campground is hard to recognise, I need only take a few steps over the dunes and I’m five years old again, glad to be back at my favourite place on earth. As everything else changes, the beach has remained blissfully indifferent to the passing of time, and though I will live in many houses in my life, it will always feel like home.