Saturday, April 14, 2007

Camping: the art of getting closer to nature...

... while getting farther away from the nearest cold beverage, hot shower and flush toilet.

Ah, Easter….the end of the busy season at work and time for a week off to recharge the batteries. And what better way than pursue the Kiwi Dream – the outdoors life getting back in touch with nature. So we headed off to the far North for a few days’ camping. We’d picked up a bargain family tent a couple of months back and had accumulated bits and pieces of camping gear along the way – camp beds, a travel BBQ, a mini gas burner, a whistling kettle and four sleeping bags. In fact, barring the really exotic gear your average seasoned campers had, we’d pretty much got all we needed.

So I packed up the car (note the use of the first person singular for reference later!), squeezed the kids in the back and headed off. Not having camped since we were both much younger, it’s probably fair to say Mrs C and I weren’t really sure what to expect but, after a 2 hour drive we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the campsite – communal kitchen, hot showers, standpipes aplenty and recreation room that young Miss C insisted on calling “the Staffroom”.

Having done one trial run with the tent in the back garden a few weeks ago, we set about setting it up for the real thing. With the instructions discretely hidden for reference by the car wheel, we actually managed to get the whole thing set up within about 15 minutes. Now for people of a certain age, my age, you'll recall that family tents used to be made of canvas - you made the frame up on it’s knees, draped the canvas over, raised it to its full glory, hung the bedrooms inside, pegged out the groundsheet and, three hours later sat back sweating. Well, not these days, this is kind of a family sized version of a kiddies’ pop-up tent. You roll it out, stick a few fibreglass poles in and hey presto, the thing magically becomes inhabitable. The only real downside was that we didn’t have a tent peg mallet. After about five pegs the palms of my hands were becoming quite painful and swollen. Undeterred, I pushed the rest in with that universal of tools, the sole of my jandal. The fact that the pegs went in so easily should perhaps have triggered a few warning signs in my mind as to the current weather situation, but I suppose I was too full of glory from the ease with which we’d raised the tent – a feat made more remarkable by the fact that I hadn’t sworn at Mrs C or the kids once during the process!!

Quite impressed with myself, I set about putting together the camp beds. Now the traditionalists out there will be pleased to note that the passage of time has not changed the basic design of these things – a series of short tubes, connected together and slotted down either side of a canvas sheet, which is then stretched by the insertion of W-shaped legs. Each bed on its own took longer than the tent to put together! After about an hour of sweating and swearing I finally managed to get the damn things looking like camp beds. After that, I treated myself to a cold beer and inspected the various cuts, welts and bruises around my ankles – it’s quite amazing the amount of damage a piece of W-shaped steel can cause when the tensioning pressure is suddenly released!

But that said, we were done – quite a tidy little campsite all set up and very professional-looking too! By this time everyone was getting hungry, so we popped open the chilly bin to survey a plethora of pre-packed meat cuts, just waiting to be BBQ’d… about four days’ time when they’d thawed out!! Another weather warning sign for you there folks – the meat was still frozen, despite the absence on any kind of powered refrigeration. Never mind, first day of the holidays, we’d worked hard; the least we could do is treat ourselves to a meal out.

It was after the meal and back at the campsite we noticed the first of the things we’d forgotten – it gets pretty dark around 6pm after daylight saving finishes! Still, it gave the kids chance to have a bit of fun with their head torches and we settled back for a game of cards and a glass of wine….at which point we noticed the next thing we’d forgotten. Most wine bottles in New Zealand are screw capped and I’d managed to bring the only two cork-sealed bottles in the house….and no cork screw! Now anyone who has studied physics, or has tried to open a bottle of wine by pushing the cork down with a fork handle, knows what it’s like to have a glass of cheap, cold Sav Blanc squirt up your armpit!

Oh well, time for bed, a chance to lie back and listen to the night sounds of nature – the occasional screech of a Possum, the squawking of Pukekoes as they settle down for the night and the strange call of the Ruru – a small native owl, also called a 'Morepork' because of his call…..morepork, morepork. Quite relaxed, we all settled down for the night.

And at 1am, the old body clock kicked in….the night’s intake of cheap wine was now looking for a way out. Ordinarily it’s no problem to rise and walk, eyes closed, around the bed, into the bathroom, release the pressure and tread the well worn path back to bed, almost without losing snoring rhythm. But not when you are zipped into a sleeping bag, inside a well-zipped tent in the pitch dark 30yds from the nearest dunny. After half an hour of trying to ignore the growing pressure in my bladder I finally succumbed and staggered around the tent looking for a torch and some clothes. It’s only when you exit a sleeping bag at 1am on an autumn night you realise just how cold it can be. And of course the cold does things to you! Having legged it across to the toilet, through cold, wet grass, twanging guy ropes like a virtuoso Spanish guitarist, I finally made it to the dunny…just in time. With a bladder the size of a barrage balloon, I set about trying to find the ‘Old Fella’, who rather sensibly it seemed had decided to escape the cold by shrinking inside where it was still nice and warm!

Mind you. It was probably worth the trip to see the most amazing, clear, star-filled night sky you only get to see by being miles away from any kind of urban life.

Now the thing about going to bed early, is that you generally get up early, but the fact that we were all wide awake at 6am didn’t seem to matter once we got the BBQ going and bacon, eggs and sausages sizzling away. Disregarding the fact that the only pan we had brought wasn’t non-stick, which meant we had shredded bacon, we really were quite enjoying this camping lark.

The next day, we set out for a thoroughly enjoyable trip further north to the Bay of Islands, where the sun beat down on us all day. Tired and fulfilled, we set about the hour long trip back to the campsite….towards ominously black clouds. About 20 minutes into the trip we hit the south-bound storm, and began the race to get back home before the torrential rain beat us to it. Exiting the storm about 10 minutes from home, we raced back and got there just in time to get the kit indoors and the BBQ set up under the awning. Shame the chicken still hadn’t defrosted. Mind you, there were more sausages, so they’d do. Torch in hand, hunched on deck chair like a war torn refugee I set about getting the food cooked before the downpour reached us – no such luck! It’s amazing just how loud the rain is when it’s hammering on a tent! It’s also quite amazing how much water leaks down your neck when your head brushes an, until then, waterproof canopy. With our ears bleeding, and my collar soaking, we tucked into sausages and salad before retiring for another early night.

And once the storm had passed, the local wildlife set about its nocturnal symphony. Now it could be that we were too spellbound by our first night to realise just how loud the Great Outdoors really is, or how savage it can be. It’s not so much a symphony as the soundtrack to mass murder. You’ve got Pukekoes (probably the crappest bird ever invented – they can fly - badly, they can walk – stupidly, they can eat - messily and they don’t even squawk properly) sounding like they are being strangled……squawk, squawk, honk, SQUAWgluklglukgleeeeAAYYK. The Possums were clearly having a gang fight, with a posse from over the valley mounting some kind of dusk turf challenge – Eeeeeeeech, Eeeeeecccchhh, EEEEEECCCCHHHHH. The Rurus, being somewhat pissed at being left out of the action, decided to voice their scorn over our somewhat unoriginal sausage diet…Morepork? Morepork? MOREPORK?? MOREBLOODYPORK!!!! (They were beef sausages for christ's sake!) And then, to cap it all, the cows in the next field clearly came into season at some time around 3am, much to the enjoyment and gleeful anticipation of the resident bull – mooo…..moooo….mooooo…..MOOOO ...MMMOOOOOO...MMMOOOOOOOOMOOOOOO!!! Judging by the amount of bellowing going on he must have had an erection the size of a telegraph pole! I couldn't quite decide whether to be worried he'd have a coronary or worried he'd pole-vault over the fence and onto our tent!!!

Now don’t get me wrong, camping is great and we all thoroughly enjoyed our first trip and we learnt a lot. However, for those that haven’t tried it and aren’t sure if they’d like the Kiwi camping culture, here’s a little experiment you might try before you waste a lot of money on expensive gear – get a deckchair and one of those disposable picnic BBQs, set them up in the bathroom, stick “Good Morning, Good Morning” by the Beatles (Sgt Pepper album) on the HiFi at full tilt, turn the shower on to cold, turn all the lights off and get some sausages going – If you can drink a cold beer and still smile, you’ll do okay camping.

Oh, by the way, Mrs C asked me not to mention the fact that she wiped all the tent pegs clean with toilet paper before putting them back in the bag… I won’t!! I also won't mention the fact that when I packed the car everything fit in, but when WE packed the car to come home, using Mrs C's alternative suggestion, we had to unpack it again and repack it using my original method, so that we might take home everything we had brought with us!

Happy camping!!