I drove to Napier with my hands painfully gripping the steering wheel. I rarely tow my caravan, and my head was full of images of it wobbling and jack-knifing, coming unhooked and crashing into the car behind, and somehow dragging us to our deaths off the road as we passed through the gorge between Shannon and Dannevirke. I kept my speed somewhere around 80kmh on the flat while I chugged at just over 40 kmh uphill. I pulled over as often as I could to let the traffic behind pass, but only on my terms, when I knew it completely safe to do so. I soon became addicted to the little double toot of thanks as cars and trucks hooned past. There’s also a small wave between retro caravan draggers, barely discernable really, just a small raise of the fingers on the steering wheel as they pass. Addicted to that too.
We got to Napier soon after lunch, and I curled the caravan into its space with the help of a man who emerged from a tent nearby. He stood behind my van and guided me in with a mixture of hand signals, nods and the words ‘bring her in, bring her in, now bring her round’. When I say he emerged from a tent, I mean he emerged from a large detached bungalow made of canvas. Seriously. He had a full-sized fridge in there. His wife loitered under their camp shade, wielding a bottle of beer and a sausage from their full-sized barbeque/kitchen. Later, when I took the girls for a stroll and a nosey around the campsite, I saw that this was completely normal. There were people with wooden furniture in their tents, microwaves and even television sets.
Most of these campers had been in situ for Christmas and would be there for New Year and would probably pack up and leave the day before they had to return to work. This is very much a traditional kiwi way to spend Christmas. I’d made the mistake of trying to recreate a typically English Christmas this time round, as I had the kids, and I was reminded just how much you are tied to the kitchen that way. This year, if I find myself with them again, we’ll go camping earlier: chill out, put fairy lights along the awning, make a driftwood Christmas tree.
The stop-over in Napier basically consisted of me working out the logistics of camping alone with small children. Did I have to take them with me every time I needed to visit the toilet and shower? That was just undoable. My six year old is very mature and very sensible, as children of solo parents have to be. She is however nervous of being left alone. My three year old on the other hand is a maniac, as three year olds are, and would happily run off to find some fun in someone else’s tent or van if left unsupervised. Thankfully, we soon fell into the pattern of needing the loo at the same time, and once little one was asleep in the evening, I could explain to Miss Six that I was just going to have a shower and that I’d be back very soon. She looked worried, but snuggled down in her sleeping bag anyway. I’d have a fast shower, racked with guilt and fear, and head back. That became the pattern for the rest of the holiday, and it was fine.
Cooking and washing up was a different kettle of fish. Mine were the only children in the communal kitchen. Others could be left to play, watched by a parent while their other parent sorts out the meal. Obviously that was impossible with mine. So, after getting stressed and making the unrealistic rule of ‘sit there quietly’ (hopeless), I gave them the job of washing up and they rose to the challenge beautifully. I still had to keep Miss Three on a tight rein, but all in all, we dropped into our own systems, where I involved the girls whenever I could, smoothly and easily really. It was single parent paranoia keeping me on my toes much more than the children were, giving my parenting skills a boost. It dawned on me that first night in Napier just how unusual this was, going camping as a solo parent. But why should kids from two parent families have all the fun?
In the morning, we ventured into town for breakfast and a visit to the National Aquarium. It was lovely. Before moving to New Zealand, Napier was where I’d wanted to live. I loved the art deco style of the place, and the interesting Art shops and boutiques. I’m glad now that it didn’t work out like that. I found the place lacking in warmth despite the heat of summer. The aquarium was fantastic however, and well worth the trip.
It was wonderful spending time with the girls without the nagging guilt that I should be either writing or doing housework. We strolled around shops and tried on hats, and when we returned to camp, mixed burger patties with our hands sitting on grass.
I’m very regimented about bedtimes, but I was happy to let 7 o’clock slide, then 8, and then put them down in their bags only once they were ready.
As I walked toward the ablution block, towel and pyjamas in hand, leaving them sleeping alone in the van, I wondered what others thought of the frizzy-haired single mum rolling up with an old caravan and two children. But as I went, the ladies in the motorhome across the way waved and smiled, the man and his wife who’d helped us came out and chatted, and little kids of all ages and sizes were playing like wild things completely unsupervised, and I knew that my two were safe, and watched. And so was I.
When I got back to the van after my shower, I was exhausted and relaxed, but slept in fits and bursts, unused to the cushions of the pullout double bed. I kept waking during those first couple of nights remembering all that I’d forgotten: to tax my car, the can-opener, and all of my knickers…
(Next stop: Hicks Bay)