Travel With Grandkids

9410 Picton Harbour
9410 Picton Harbour

Seasoned traveller and magazine columnist Peter Mead joins his long-suffering wife Shelley and four grandsons on a once-in-a-lifetime (he hopes) ‘cramper-van' holiday

It seemed a good idea at the time. Take four grandsons aged between eight and 14 on a three week camper-van trip around the South Island.

Shelley and I are seasoned travellers but it had usually been with packs on our backs through South-East Asia and Australia.

At 6.5m our vehicle seemed huge – then we collected the grandkids.

I've never really understood the difference between a motorhome and a camper-van before but now I think I'm beginning to see. With two of us, the vehicle is a motorhome, featuring a bathroom, dining area, kitchen area and bedroom. Any more than two and it becomes a tiny room with basic amenities and the definite feel of camping – a camper-van (cramper-van?) However, put two oldies and four grandkids in a 6.5m van and it's like holding a scout jamboree in a pup tent on wheels.

We drove off the Picton ferry and headed south toward Kaikoura. We knew the trip was off to a good start when the calls of "There's a McDonalds" were replaced with "Wow, look at the snow on those mountains" and "There's a seal" and "I think I saw a whale". The last one may have been wishful thinking but at least they were looking.

The seal colonies north of Kaikoura had us all captivated. I obviously haven't being watching enough Richard Attenborough so to walk up a river and find dozens of baby seals frolicking in a pool at the base of a waterfall took me completely by surprise. The look of joy on our grandkids faces was as rewarding as the seals themselves. It was better than a dozen Rainbow Ends – and it was free.

Kaikoura was the peninsular Maui sat on when he fished up the North Island. In Maori Kai means food and koura is crayfish so if there is anywhere in New Zealand to buy seafood it's got to be here. We took the boys to a seafood restaurant that offered crayfish, mussels, paua, whitebait fritters, blue cod, groper… the list went on and on. We were in for a real treat. Naturally, the two youngest boys chose chicken nuggets and the next oldest asked for crab sticks (freshly imported from a fish head factory in Vietnam).

You can lead a kid to a decent restaurant but you can't make him partake.

As we continued south the two-generation age difference began to show. Shelley and I wanted to see things, the boys wanted to do things. For us it was the journey, for the boys it was all about the destination. Happily, with the South Island, it was a point of difference but not a problem. We stopped often and there was always something to do and see.

We wend our way south, getting ourselves into hot water in Hanmer Springs, visiting the Antarctic and African lions in Christchurch, penguins in Oamaru, and alien boulders in Moeraki. In Dunedin we munched our way through Cadbury World and then called in at the Otago museum.

In retrospect, it may have been better if we had done this the other way around. The chocolate high kicked in as we entered the museum and we became, officially, the loudest and most invigorated party to purvey the hushed exhibits of its hallowed halls. The kids bounced their way into each new room giving plenty of warning that traditional museum decorum was about to be shattered. Shelley and I gave up halfway through and walked them back to the van. On the way, a miraculous change occurred. Our campervan was a whole three blocks away and now, suddenly, they had no energy. "How far is it?" "Why did you park so far away?"

"You kids," I bemoaned, "Back in my day…" I quickly stopped. Next I'd be lecturing them on the length of their hair or what constitutes proper music. When I was a kid God did actually forbid that I got driven to school, walking everywhere was a part of childhood.

The Catlins were another unexpected delight. We almost missed them when I missed the turn off at Balclutha. It wasn't until we reached Clinton, which Shelley assured me wasn't on the map, that I realised something was wrong. The town may not be as infamous as the president (they merely share the same moniker) but surely it deserved a mention in Hema Maps. We were a whole road atlas page off where we should have been.

Turning back was worth every millilitre of diesel. The highlight was one very large sea lion and a flippery of yellow-eyed penguins that waddled and bounced their way up the rocks at Curio Bay. For the next two days our youngest grandson, arms at his side, waddled and bounced everywhere, looking somewhat like a slightly deranged, wannabe Riverdancer.

The highlight at Bluff was not the obligatory photo under the famous signpost but rather the talking toilet. If it wasn't for a rather desperate looking bunch of Japanese tourists the boys would have played there for hours and how the Japanese managed with spoken English instructions, I have no idea.

We headed north via the West Coast. Gold panning, gondolas, and glaciers grabbed the boys' attention. Wandering wekas proved popular at Punakaiki.

The only sour moment of the trip came when the boys decided to hold a farting contest inside the campervan. Shelley stepped inside and went septic (which seemed appropriate given the atmosphere). She gave them a huge telling-off. The boys argued that I was the worst and that I had an unfair advantage since they had spaghetti for lunch but I loaded up with baked beans. This made Shelley even madder and she switched her anger toward me (not my fault she fed me baked beans).

But overall the trip was great success. I have been on holiday with my delightful wife and four boisterous kids; Shelley has been on holiday with five boisterous kids. Next time we'll do the central North Island. It'll be a jamboree.