Family RV trips

By: Elisabeth Easther , Photography by: Elisabeth Easther


NZMCD's Elisabeth Easther catches up with a family of five having fun in their camper trailer

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John and Zoe at Treasure Island Holiday Park

When Vanessa Campbell was pregnant with Zoe (now 10 months old), she and husband John Chandler started looking for a camper for their growing family, including 8-year-old twins, Emma and Lily.

Today the family of five makes the most of their precious holiday time in a Jayco Eagle camper trailer. Some people would say it’s pretty bold, taking to caravanning with twins and a newborn.

What inspired you?

John: 

We’d both done a lot of camping with our families, mostly in tents, and my family also did lots of tramping in various places around the country, so we both grew up camping. But with tenting, the set-up was very labour intensive because of the amount of gear we need.

We’d throw everything on the trailer, but when we got somewhere, there was so much to set up and take down, and we wanted it to be easier and quicker so we could go away more often and have more leisure time at camp. I can now set up the camper, on my own if needed, in 15 to 20 minutes.

Vanessa: 

When I was younger, my family would make month-long New Zealand road trips, not always camping but exploring. We’re both from Auckland, but John and I both developed a passion for the South Island, and we wanted to share that with our girls.

How did you decide what to buy?

John: 

We were keen on a caravan, but it came down to size and storage. Because we wanted to keep it at home, the Jayco Eagle camper trailer was the best compromise of comfort and size, and it fits in the garage, which is a bonus.

Vanessa:

John did the research, and the camper trailer just felt right. It has canvas sides, so it still feels like camping, but it also has a fridge, freezer, sink, hot water and good mattresses, which means it’s a lot more comfortable.

And with less to set up and pack away, there’s less chance for arguments. Looking for a five-berth caravan is challenging too. Before you know it you have a double axle, and it’s quite large.

But ours isn’t too big, yet once set up, the beds are permanently up, so we’re not making beds every night. All five of us can sleep in it if we need to, the twins like sleeping in their little pup tent if we’re somewhere for more than a few days. 

Tell us more about it

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Zoe loves her bathtime routine!

John: 

The camper trailer is 5.5m long from tip to toe. It has two double beds and a dining table which can be converted into another double bed, so we could fit seven people at a squeeze. It has a three-way fridge, a grill, and we upgraded to a full oven.

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Lily & Emma about to bake a chocolate cake in the camper oven

We have a 160W solar panel, gas hot water, about 90 litres of fresh-water storage and an outdoor shower off the back which is handy for running Zoe’s nightly bath. Sometimes we take a toilet tent, but our preference is for DOC-style campgrounds, and we’re happy with long drops. It’s not much fun emptying a porta-potty.

What’s packing like with a newborn and twins? I imagine it’s something of a military operation?

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The Lily, Emma, Zoe and their new friends put the beach shelter to good use

John: 

Vanessa has a list for everything, and everyone has their list. The older girls pack for themselves with the help of a list. They’re in charge of their wardrobes and most of the time that works. Everyone but Zoe sorts their own clothes. The kitchen stuff is always onboard – plates, bowls, cutlery pots and pans – so all we do is pack clothes and food, toy boxes, kayaks and bikes, hook it up and go.

Vanessa: 

John spent months planning the itinerary and gear requirements for our first round of getaways in the camper trailer. We found the port-a-cot, camping high-chair, pop-up bucket/bath, front pack and beach shelter, which we used as the children’s play tent, of most use on our trips.

Where did the Eagle take her maiden flight?

John:

Our first trip away was just the twins and me the first week of the October school Holidays at Tāwharanui Regional Park. It’s a great spot, so handy to Auckland but quite remote feeling. We tested the oven and baked chocolate cake; the girls were very excited about that, and they asked if we could live in it permanently. We even saw takahē.

Vanessa: 

Zoe and I popped up for a day, then our first proper trip altogether was a week outside Kawhia, south of Raglan. She was quite young that trip, so I drove her separately to accommodate naps and feeding while John left earlier with Lily and Emma to set up camp.

Unfortunately on this trip, I discovered that Zoe gets carsick, so we try to keep car trips to a minimum for her. Although a week after Kawhia, we still went up north to Puriri Bay on Whangaruru Harbour.

John:

The DOC campground has beachfront sites, and it doesn’t get overly busy. It’s about three and a half hours from Auckland past Bland Bay on the old Russell Road. The swimming is safe for kids, there’s a sandy harbour, and I take a little rubber ducky with an outboard motor and tow the kids in a sea biscuit. There are some excellent walks around the end of the peninsula. There was even kiwi at night, just a couple of metres from us.

What was next on your travel list?

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Vanessa, Lily, Emma & Zoe at Golden Bay

John: 

We wanted to make the most of Vanessa’s maternity leave by doing as many holidays as possible, and I’d saved up my leave, so we decided to head south. We focused on the Nelson region. We love the area, and it’s relatively easy to access from Picton and the ferry. We chose six nights on a beachfront campsite at the Golden Bay Holiday Park, halfway between Tākaka and Collingwood.

We did lots of swimming and kayaking. The girls went horse riding on the beach, and we swam at Salisbury Falls near The Langford Store. The Golden Bay Holiday Park was an ideal base for short day trips, so we also included Pupu Springs, a trip to Farewell Spit and Wharariki Beach on the West Coast. 

Vanessa:

In Golden Bay, quite a few people operate businesses from their homes, like little art studios. There was a rustic bakery just down the road from the campground and a yoga studio that sold coffee.

John: 

After Golden Bay, we went to the DOC campground in Tōtaranui. You need to take all your food there, as it’s 40 minutes back to Tākaka along a windy, gravel road but, once you’re there, it’s magnificent. The running water provided by DOC is safe to drink, but the camp store just had emergency stuff, so you want to be self-reliant.

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All set up at Totaranui

Vanessa: 

That’s the benefit of having a gas fridge, food is so much easier. We keep the kids full with a good breakfast, lunch and dinner and plenty of fresh fruit, home baking and snacks in between so no one ever gets ‘hangry’. Having a freezer stocked with re-freezable camping juicies became a favourite late afternoon treat.

John: 

We also have a Weber Q barbecue which we use for all sorts of things from roasting lamb to cooking sausages. I was surprised how many people had a Weber – it felt like the common denominator at Tōtaranui.

A highlight there were the crystal-clear water and gorgeous sunrises. I always think of estuaries as muddy with mangroves, but this water was so clear and fun to explore on foot at low tide or kayak at high tide.

Vanessa:

The girls made friends with some other girls next door, two wonderful sisters from Nelson. They were doing gymnastics, cicada hunting, exploring, and playing games without props. They had such quality fun just using their imaginations.

When we left Tōtaranui, John drove, and the girls and I jumped on the ferry down the coast of Abel Tasman National Park. It took just over an hour while John did all the hard work over the windy, gravel roads.

How do you keep everyone on an even keel?

John: 

We have a big box of toys, board games and colouring books and on the road, we talk to the kids or play ‘I Spy’. 

Vanessa: 

Having baby Zoe keeps the girls quite busy as they often help bath, feed or play with her. Zoe is also a source of entertainment, and there are always lots of other kids to play with. Each holiday seems to have a new thing, a Christmas present they love to play with. For example, on one trip they had a board game called Rubik’s Race that they played for hours and hours, another time it was swingball. 

What advice would you give to people who want to take their families on the road?

Vanessa: 

Just go for it and hope for good weather. We were lucky this first summer that the kids could spend lots of time outside. Take lots of food, lots of games and have a variety of outdoor activities on offer. I was a bit apprehensive staying at remote DOC camps with a baby.

I worried about her crying, and some nights she did cry. Fortunately, other campers were incredibly understanding, and it surprised me how many other babies were there. I think when you’re camping, you’re with people who are cut from the same cloth.

It’s impressive how manageable you make camping with a baby.

Vanessa:

Because you’re housebound with a tiny baby, camping is very practical because everything you need is right there. John would take the girls out in the morning, then they’d come home for lunch, and we’d do something together in the afternoon.

It was so much better than me home alone with Zoe, John at work and the girls at school. We all loved the quality family time, and Zoe thrived with so much going on around her all the time and getting to eat, bath and sometimes even sleep outdoors. 

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