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Family

How we coped living off the grid for a week - a Kiwi mum shares her tale of 'survival' and enlightenment

Two families, one dog, one beach cottage and no phone or internet coverage – what could possibly go wrong?

By Fiona Fraser
When I first mentioned to a friend that my sister and I, plus combined broods, were about to rent a beach cottage in an extremely isolated location for a few days – no TV, no phone, no wifi and no Netflix – she had some helpful advice. "Take flares."
"Emma!" I scolded her. "It's an old bach, sure, but we're not about to convert it into Studio 54 and do the hustle!"
"Safety flares," she reiterated. "In case of a natural disaster."
She had a point. If there was another big quake, and with us only a few kilometres from the Hikurangi subduction zone on the North Island's east coast, we'd need to move fast to avoid a possible tsunami.
A scary thought, but potentially not as terrifying as the realisation that, disasters notwithstanding, we were about to have to entertain four children and a dog in a teensy house for the best part of a week.
Cresting the hill and turning sharply onto a steep gravel road, I glance down at my phone. This is it – officially out of range. A full battery, but no bars. No Google Maps. No contact with the world. If I haven't finished that text, sent that email, made that call, I'm certainly not able to do it now.
Our little cottage is perched on a blanket of green grass, overlooking a glittering sea. And once we're all on-site, cars unpacked, grizzly children refreshed after long drives in hot cars, we head straight to the golden sand. It's low tide and the most amazing rock pools have appeared – waist-deep, perfect for a dip.
My son, 11, and the Labrador are first in. The water is the most astounding blue, and the pools teem with sealife. It's an awesome start.
Back at the house, I grab my notebook and pen to jot a few initial thoughts down about this place, this view, the feeling of the sun on my face, and the quiet. As I pop the lid on my new Uniball Fine it occurs to me how rarely we use pens these days.
And what joy there is in finding a perfect one – the flow of ink to the nib, the comfortable grip, the satisfaction of seeing rows and rows of your own handwriting. These are the types of thoughts one has when one isn't checking Facebook notifications 158 times each day.
My sister and I, both Girl Guide graduates, have prepared well. Colouring pencils, frisbees, the beach cricket set, books, packs of cards, two chilly bins of food, plenty of wine. The nearest shops are 45 minutes' drive away and we're not planning on having to use them.
She's also purchased the Listener Quiz Book, so we settle in to see who's the smarter sister. At some point our quizzery erupts into a debate about what year Madeleine McCann disappeared. Nobody can pinpoint it... without Google.
Dinner is nachos, and when there's no TV to watch, it turns out that assembling them is the coolest thing out. All four children want to have a turn at grating cheese.
We lose the dog, only to discover she's busy wolfing down the contents of the compost bucket, which is hugely entertaining for the pre-schooler.
After dinner, we set up the table for Uno and while the kids play, I absent-mindedly check my mobile and discover a wifi network exists, somewhere, close by.
A surge of adrenaline courses through my body, and I start guessing at passwords, just to see if I can get in. What for, I don't rightly know. The phone is locked away.
Scattergories revives me – my sister is a dab hand and soon we're giggling uncontrollably as we review her choices. For 'D' and 'tools' she's written
"Driver of screws." Fail. For "W" and "Monster or villain" she's chosen "Whaleoil". Resounding pass.
Throughout the following days, a sort of peaceful rhythm develops – the family bounces between beach and bach, paddling, stingray spotting, playing soccer, throwing tennis balls for the dog. Sand gets in the sleeping bags. Cutty grass scratches appear on all our legs. Multiple games of backgammon and Guess Who? are started, and then abandoned.
With so much time on our hands, each meal is beautifully planned, rather than a rushed, exhausted afterthought.
There are ribs, marinated for days, and my sister has brought pastry to whip up delicate little pear tarts. By Day Three, though, supplies are beginning to dwindle. Peering into the fridge, one child requests "a steak and honey sandwich". It's a good thing we're leaving the following morning.
A storm is brewing. A real one – thunder is shaking the house and we've lit the fire in response – as well as a theoretical one. A dispute over whether one can collect rent while in Monopoly prison. I say no – surely one's assets are frozen? My brother-in-law says he's taking my money. We can't check the rules, so I have to allow it.
Our final day dawns – a howling gale, persistent rain. Without access to the Metservice app we need to decide if it's wiser to leave early, or wait for the weather to blow over.
Metal roads and mud could make the journey treacherous. Like some sort of ancient explorer I gaze at the clouds hopefully, and conclude that I don't have a blind clue. We pack up and set out.
Climbing back up over hills and through farmland to the main road pointing for home, there's a ball of dread building in the pit of my stomach. Any minute now, I know the phone will start whirring and bleeping as emails begin filing into my inbox. Coming back into range, rather than a relief, feels like a huge bummer.
And that's the thing. Days later, I'm reflecting on our time away, the peace that being blissfully unavailable afforded us. There have been no casualties from our lack of tech – unless you count my car, which now sports a dent in the rear where a cricket bat made contact during an enthusiastic backyard batting session. I quite like having it there.
That week, coincidentally, my iPhone starts asking me to set up a thing called Screen Time that will, apparently, calculate exactly how long I spend on my phone each day. I'm resistant. Handy? Probably. Great for families, I'd imagine. But am I keen to use it? Hell, no. I don't need an app to tell me how wedded to my phone I am.
But being scared techless for a few days has reminded me that when you're a working mum, or like me, run your own business, that constant blipping and beeping of a device is something you can easily become a slave to. There's plenty of language in everyday use at my house to prove it.
"I'll just quickly send a text."
"I'm just checking Facebook, and then I'll be right there."
The most frightening thing about forcing yourself to go tech-free for a few days is that fact that we have to force it at all.

Off-grid holidays

Kapowairua (Spirits Bay)
This gorgeous spot is located in the northernmost part of New Zealand, north of Kaitaia. Turn off SH1 at Waitiki Landing onto Te Hapua Road and then Spirits Bay Road, then drive 16km down a gravel road. This campsite is like something from a postcard, and being close to both the beach and the forest makes it the perfect wilderness escape.
Solscape
Just a short walk from Manu Bay and Ngarunui Beach in Raglan is Solscape. Technically, you could use your phone here – but we don't think it would be in the spirit of the place! For something truly secluded, go for Tipi Forest. Each tipi tent is nestled in the native bush, away from the hustle and bustle. How dreamy!
Waikahoa Bay Campsite
Located about 48km north-east of Whangarei with no cell phone coverage, this campsite is ideal for an off-the-grid getaway. Getting there involves a winding gravel road and all gear must be carried for a steep five-minute walk, but it's worth it. Set up your tent right by the beach, enjoy the sounds of the waves and birdlife, and take shade under the pōhutukawa trees – bliss.

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