When we flipped the lid on the Camp-o-matic to initiate a pre-summer test run of our famous five-second tent-pitching routine, there was a sickening, tearing sound. The ancient, faded blue canvas finally decided it had been stretched and abused enough, and it parted company from the fibreglass base on the trailer. We sat on the grass in disbelief, staring at the sorry sight. Our beloved tent on wheels – that had seen us through our heady days as newly-weds; accommodated babies, toddlers and teens; provided shelter for Rhythm and Vines extras, and was to see us through our retirement years – had abruptly given up the ghost.

‘What now?’ we wondered, in a state of shock.

The Camp-o-matic with its smart new canvas and windows with fly screens

Well, we clearly couldn’t survive the summer without the old girl so we packed her up and trundled along the road to consult Sam, the canvas wizard.

He took a good look at her and gave us some heartening news. Not only could he renew the canvas but his team would wave a magic wand and make her better than ever.

With our annual Anaura Bay weekend coming up fast, there was a sense of urgency which Sam fully grasped. He allocated the task to master canvas man Tony who just happened to be a Camp-o-matic owner himself with a real affinity for the dear old things.

Tony came up with some clever modifications to the original design – extra zips, insect screens and a new window or two – and called us within a few days to come and witness the rebirth. We were absurdly excited to see our new khaki-coloured tent taking shape on top of the trailer.

The Anaura Bay Motor Camp is right on the beach

Two weeks later, we collected our ‘born again’ Camp-o-matic and shortly thereafter, we were driving up the coast to the Anaura Bay Motor Camp with our mates.

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They gathered round, as usual, to watch our lightning-fast setup procedure, otherwise known as the flipping of the lid, which literally erects the tent in five seconds flat.

Within minutes we had zipped on the fancy new awning which had front flaps that unzipped and flipped up and out to provide extra shade.

The Camp-o-matic with its smart new canvas and windows with fly screens

Our new picture window faced directly to the beach so we could wake up in the morning and watch the sun rise over the sea, knowing we were among the first on the planet to see the light of the new day on this most easterly of beaches.

Looking around, I realised we were not the only ones of our crew to have upgraded our camping kit. Others were busy erecting smart multi-room tents, attaching elaborate add-ons to vans and setting up sophisticated Weber BBQs on proper tables rather than Warehouse cheapies on wobbly legs.

Anaura Bay on the East Coast of the North Island with the motor camp right on the beach and Motuoroi Island just off the coast Picture by Liam Clayton

One couple, who had always slept in a pup-tent in the past, were poring over a manual to learn how to operate their brand new, fancy push-button Aussie camper trailer with a pull-out kitchen, fridge-freezer, zip-on shower room and fabulous king-size bed.

It was a super-sophisticated version of our modest Camp-o-matic so we christened it the ‘Mother Ship’ and ours the ‘Baby Ship’.

Once we had critiqued each other’s camp sites, the boys launched a long line and rowed out to drop a few crayfish pots near Motuoroi Island while the girls set off to walk the length of the sickle-shaped bay, barefoot in the soft white sand, and swim in the frothy surf.

Erecting the Camp-o-matic takes all of five seconds

By the time we got back to base, the pots and fishing line had been retrieved and crayfish and fresh sweet tarakihi were on the dinner menu.

Evening is a magical time at Anaura Bay – the sea breeze dies away, you settle on not particularly comfortable fold-out chairs, open a cold beer or bubbly and watch the sunset, one of nature’s wonders. The communal peeling of vegies as the sun sinks below the hills in a kaleidoscope of gold and red is one of life’s sweetest pleasures and far surpasses any ritzy resort.

Setting the table is another highlight. Hoots of laughter greet relics from the past pulled from the murky depths of camping hampers – like my hideous checked seersucker tablecloth, circa 1953, and Chianti bottle salt and pepper shakers from my in-laws’ trip to Italy last millennium.

The boys getting the last bits of crayfish

We ate by candle and gas light and I’ve never had tastier food or more luscious wine.

Later in the evening, Victor, the camp manager, sauntered over for a chat. He’s a colourful character with many a story to tell and a few tricks up his denim shirt sleeve. He was carrying a piece of wood and some nails, and wearing a silly grin on his weathered face.

“I challenge you to balance these six nails on top of this one nail,” he said.

An hour later after our many inventive but failed attempts, he came back and showed us the ingenious solution to the puzzle … very clever.

Fresh crayfish - what a treat

Looking around our group of 12 old friends, I felt a sudden rush of nostalgia for the years gone by. Anaura Bay was the place we always came to in summer when our children were young. It wasn’t always easy, supervising a tribe of kids at the beach from dawn till dark but Anaura is blessed with wonderful natural terrain whereby a lagoon develops each day during the tide cycle, providing the perfect spot for little ones to play safely in warm, shallow water … and for parents to relax.

We never gave a thought to the fact those idyllic holidays would one day come to an end.

Our ‘Baby Ship’ (right) attached to the ‘Mother Ship’ at the Anaura Bay Motor Camp

Two decades or more have elapsed since then but the attachment to Anaura Bay remains strong enough to drag us all away from our busy lives and commitments at least once or twice a summer. We miss our young ones but there are some bonuses. We are able to tell silly stories that would have embarrassed the kids, and indulge in long walks which they would have found tiresome.

The Anaura Bay Walkway is one such hike. It’s a good hour-and-a-half to two-hour loop track that winds its way through native bush and grassland to a ridge with fantastic views over the whole expanse of the bay. It’s an important place historically. Nearly 250 years ago, Captain James Cook made his second landing on Aotearoa soil at Anaura Bay. When HMS Endeavour entered the bay on October 21, 1769, the crew were welcomed by Māori in their waka. Cook and his men were given a warm reception by local chiefs and replenished their fresh water supplies from the Hawai Stream.

Camp manager Victor Jacobs and his clever nail-balancing trick at Anaura Bay

Another excellent hike is the two-and-a-half hour (return) Cooks Cove Walkway at Tolaga Bay, 15–20 minutes south of Anaura Bay. As the name suggests, it’s also historically significant. Captain Cook and the crew of the Endeavour came ashore at the sheltered cove and dug a well to collect fresh water. Joseph Banks, the botanist on board, collected 20 new plant species from the surrounding land. There was a great deal of friendly contact between the locals and the visitors while the ship was anchored in the bay, with Māori taking fish and kumara to the crew by waka.

Justine and friend in the surf at Anaura Bay

One of the crew described the landscape as ‘agreeable beyond description’. They were impressed with the Hole-in-the-Wall (Te Kotere o te Whenua) rock formation, an archway carved by the sea and, these days, a perfect frame for photographs. Excellent information panels at the cove explain the history of local iwi, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, and the excavation of an archaeological site once occupied by Māori.

A walk to the end of the historic Tolaga Bay Wharf is also a must. The wharf, the longest in the Southern Hemisphere, is still standing thanks to the outstanding efforts of fundraisers who could not bear to watch it crumble into the sea. The 660m-long structure is a stunning sight stretching far into the blue-green sea against a backdrop of sheer white cliffs.

Anaura Bay on with the motor camp at the far end

At the end of the weekend, we dismantle the camp and head back to our lovely houses with comfortable beds and fully-equipped kitchens and bathrooms. There’s a flurry of texts saying, “That was fun! When can we do it again?”