Trouble in campground paradise

By Lisa Bradley

Despite recent reports of disquiet among campers, families are still committed to setting up at the nation's best beauty spots. Photo / Doug Sherring
Despite recent reports of disquiet among campers, families are still committed to setting up at the nation's best beauty spots. Photo / Doug Sherring

You can swallow somebody pinching your bangers out of the chilly bin - the aroma of a blackened sausage has tempted camping ground opportunists for generations - but how do you receive holiday season reports of racist abuse, growing disquiet shown to freedom campers and rumours of privatisation of Department of Conversation camping grounds?

Could there be trouble in canvas paradise? If there is a snag, Kiwis haven't heard about it. Summer figures reveal New Zealanders remain loyal to camping shoulder-to-shoulder at the nation's beauty spots.

New Zealand Holiday Parks Association, which represents 75 per cent of the country's commercial facilities, recorded more than 1.6 million guest nights in January last year. The group is expecting even more this year, says chief executive Fergus Brown.

DoC recorded high numbers of campers in Nelson and Marlborough until poor weather set in. And while rain may have knocked Far North campground capacity to about 70 per cent, Coromandel sites were chocka.

But are they happy campers? Despite reports of tension, campsite owners say visitors are as happy as earlier generations smothered in tanning oil and eating frozen Buzz Bars.

Reports of 30 chilly bins being swiped in Mangawhai and Tutukaka are not signs of decaying campsite communities, say camp owners.

Opportunists are a fact of life as always, says Brown. "We're still lucky here to be able to camp and know security is not a major concern. You can still put up your tent and not worry."

DoC also shrugs off new concerns about campers buying up more sites than they need to distance themselves from others. Greedy holidaymakers have been noted in the past and those abusing the system are dealt with, the department says. Meanwhile, racist attacks - such as the one reported by a Spanish woman camping at Piano Flat Camp, Southland, this month - are not on the up, camp owners say.

Brown says about 35 per cent of the association's guests come from overseas. They rub shoulders with Kiwis without incident, he says, and enjoy the chance to experience a New Zealand-style camp and meet locals.

Sue Hoyle from England agreed. "Kiwis do go for budget accommodation but you'll never meet them at backpackers. If you want to meet a New Zealander, pitch your tent in a camping ground."

But one group of international campers is not getting such a Kiwi welcome - freedom campers. A Christchurch man this week will appear on two counts of attempted murder after allegedly setting alight a campervan parked for the night in a picnic area in Golden Bay, near Nelson.

The attack on two sleeping visitors was widely condemned but it demonstrates a growing animosity towards people who pull up along the side of the road, pollute the environment and try to nip into commercial facilities for free showers.

The New Zealand Freedom Camping Forum, a group of more than 20 organisations led by the Tourism Industry Association, has sought to deter visitors from freedom camping by educating them on available sites.

It looks likely that by May the forum will help usher in laws to fine those who break the rules - a new measure in time for the Rugby World Cup.

Association advocacy manager Geoff Ensor says the changes are not an attempt to corral people into campsites. Freedom camping is trending upwards and issues such as pollution, community welfare and safety need addressing, he says.

And are changes also afoot at some of the nation's cost-friendly campsites? DoC talks with the holiday park association sparked rumours of privatisation and, according to Labour tourism spokesman Kelvin Davis, an end to the genuine cheap Kiwi holiday.

DoC, which administers more than 260 campgrounds, already works in partnership with a few private operators. However, a department spokesman says talk of privatising its facilities is unfounded - the department is committed to spending $2 million on campsite development.

He says no major changes have resulted from the talks and discussions have so far looked only at making DoC land available to neighbouring commercial grounds during peak seasons.

However, one of the biggest differences in our campgrounds is not the land but how we are camping on it.

It seems that while we like to get back to nature, we don't like to get nature in our hair. Brown says the association, which represents about 300 holiday parks, has had to meet the demands of people who like to get away from it all but who like everything to be there when they arrive.

"One of the biggest demands we are facing is wireless connection. I don't know if it's for the kids or adults."

So modern shower and toilet block facilities have replaced classic Kiwi long-drops and kids' activities are on offer alongside swimming pools and gyms. Some parks even have restaurants - at Kennedy Park Top 10 Resort in the Hawke's Bay you can wave off another night of charred BBQ steak for a $30 sit down main of baked salmon on lemon and feta mash.

DoC has also noticed a more "sophisticated" breed of camper. Thin mattresses and tent pegs fashioned from bits of metal found in the garage are the nightmares of camping holidays past.

These days Kiwis are big on comfort and many arrive with three-room tents with proper bedding and power.

However, Kiwis have not lost the ability to appreciate the simple pleasure of setting up camp in a scenic spot, says Brown.

"A guy may arrive in a BMW and another in a beat-up sedan but, once the tent is up and the Jandals are on, the kids can go wild and you can get down to some relaxing."

Windfall brings 50 years of family memories

Des Reynolds was a "bugger for the horses" but a £159 win in 1959 bought happy times to his family when he used the windfall to buy a 1934 Bedford bus.

He restored the vehicle, replacing the seats with bunks for the kids (Leslie, Glen [Wink], Shayne and Jann) and creating a real home-away-from-home for loving wife Noeline.

A year later, "Holiday Inn" rolled into what is now the Waihi Beach Top 10 Holiday resort for the summer holidays. It was the biggest camping vehicle on site, and "the flashest" - most folk had brown canvas tents.

For 26 years the Reynolds travelled from Cambridge and Matamata to holiday on the bus until sea air got the better of it. Its radiator fell off and ice cream tubs were catching drips from leaks. In 1976, a crowd watched the bus being towed away, and eventually the Reynolds brought in a caravan, which Noeline still uses.

The family has plenty of bus holidays memories - the spare coins Des saved all year and stored under the steering wheel for the kids' lollies, catching Howard Morrison perform and smelling "cool and groovy" in coconut oil. "We fried," says daughter Jann Butler, from Auckland.

And there was love. Jann met her future husband Michael while he was strolling along Waihi beach "tanned and gorgeous". Noeline, now 79, met Des there, too. She fell for him when he piggybacked her to a nearby bay.

Des died three years ago, age 75. It was hard to get used to, Noeline says, but she has kept up the couple's summer caravan tradition.

Things have changed, she says: there was no more "clang, bang" when the cart came to empty the toilets, and now the camp has a swimming pool. But many of the campers are the same, generations of people who have mingled, shared food and awnings.

"We've been camping next to the Gilchrist family for so long - almost 50 years - that we're practically one big family. Oh yes, the times we have had making lifelong friends, and on that bus ... marvellous times."

- Herald on Sunday

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