Deborah Coddington: Draconian ground rules make us unhappy campers

You can hardly blame owners and operators of camping grounds around New Zealand for subdividing, selling up and moving on. Traditionally their operations are sited on prime coastal real estate. At today's prices, when it costs more to buy a waterfront bach in New Zealand than to purchase the equivalent on the coast of Sardinia, camping ground owners are sitting on millions of dollars worth of land.

But when we turn up at a camping ground we expect to pay next-to-nothing in order to pitch our tent, inflate the airbed, unfurl the sleeping bags and crank up the primus. Camping has always been the cheap alternative for family holidays no matter what weather is forecast. Come rain, come shine, come Christmas hols, Kiwis pack the chilly bins with food and drink, fill the car with kids and the toys, and head for their favourite piece of New Zealand - anywhere away from home.

And every Christmas the weather obligingly gives the news bulletins their pictures of flooded campsites, sodden tents and disappointed campers heading home.

To say nothing of the unhappy campground owner waving goodbye to honest income as the last of his disgruntled customers disappear down the road.

But that's not the whole of it. Get on the internet, while it's raining, and take a look at the Camping Grounds Regulations 1985, passed under the auspices of the Health Act 1956, and, if you have any heart at all, you'll be dismayed to see the expensive and ridiculous standards to which camping grounds must comply.

I knew nothing of these regulations until Robert, the friendly caretaker at the Department of Conservation's Spirits Bay camping ground, last week alerted us to their existence.

For instance: "There shall be an adequate supply of hot water, provided to the satisfaction of the local authority, to ablution, kitchen and laundry facilities."

So hot water means electricity - expensive. Drinking water supply in camping grounds must be "wholesome and potable".

Water must be reticulated throughout the camping ground, with taps no more than 25m from each camp site. No wonder we're all obese - we can't even walk 50m to fetch a pail of water.

The regulations go on and expensively on, including the mandatory supply of toilets (ensuring "adequate privacy"), urinals, showers, wash basins and - get this - washing machines and driers! And the owner's expected to cover all these costs from a mere $20-something per guest? No wonder they're giving up in disgust - they'll never get a decent return on their investment.

Luckily camping grounds on Crown land, such as our blissful haven at Spirits Bay, can apply to their local authorities for exemptions from such draconian regulations. For the moment, that is.

Chris Carter, the Minister of Conservation, has said he will consider opening up more DoC land for use as camping grounds, and that is a good thing, as all New Zealanders own and pay for the upkeep of these estates via their taxes.

(I can understand, sadly, DoC's aversion to dogs, given their destructive tendencies. However, after witnessing a camera-wielding woman and her aggressive child tormenting a nesting pair of oyster-catchers at Tapotupotu Bay until the hen's distressed cries caused my husband to march over and tell the woman to let the poor bird get back on her egg, I'd recommend DoC ban stupid humans too.) But I fear the public's expectations have already been raised to demand unrealistically high standards from camping grounds. What's wrong with not washing for six days except for a daily dip in the surf? I soon got used to tying back with elastic the matted thatch on my head that once resembled hair, and took a perverse pleasure in feeling the salt bake dry on my arms, legs and face. What's the smell of BO compared with insect repellent, sunscreen, and calamine lotion? So long as your teeth are brushed, the rest of your body feels clean.

And isn't camping all about boiling water to drink or wash your dishes, not having to care about washing your clothes, squatting in manuka bushes for a pee and braving a long-drop for the other?

Memo to Carter: if you want to preserve a New Zealand way of holiday, bring about an Order in Council and revoke the over-protective standards in the Camping Grounds Regulations and bring some relief to the private owners still left in the business.

Then ensure you don't allow your bossy-boots Government to turn DoC camping grounds into risk-free motel-like homes away from home.

Think of it, Minister, as the happy campers' kiss - keep it simple, stupid.

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