A CORRESPONDENT on this page says freedom camping is a "Kiwi thing," a way of life that New Zealanders have long enjoyed and should be able to continue enjoying. Fair enough too. While some have always been happy to spend their nights at beach camp grounds with their creosote-painted lines, ablution blocks and rules, others have preferred to head for their favourite beach and simply park themselves wherever takes their fancy.
At least two things have changed over the last couple of generations though. Firstly more people want to camp where they like, and secondly, common sense and courtesy seem to have dwindled.
Once upon a time, when the writer occasionally pitched a pup tent at Puheke or Rarawa and lived off the sea for a couple of days, he would likely be the only one there, and left nothing behind when he went home. In those days no one had heard of overnight campers defecating on the roadside or leaving all manner of litter behind them when they moved on.
That began changing a long time ago. And even those who did patronise camp grounds were not always respectful of their surroundings or neighbours. Annual Easter excursions to Wagener Park at Houhora Heads began losing some of their appeal thanks to the daily discovery of soiled disposable nappies wedged into the wooden fences around the toilets that dotted the camp, and even lying on the beach at the harbour entrance, usually as dawn broke to reveal an otherwise picture-perfect scene of natural beauty and tranquillity.
Perhaps there have always been those who have abused the natural environment, although the invention of the disposable nappy seems to have given them greater opportunities to express their thoughtless contempt.
Nappies do not seem to have featured on the Far North District Council reserve at the end of Ramp Road at Tokerau Beach this summer, but many locals found the sight of up to several hundred illegal campers offensive all the same. The only specific complaints seem to have been that some left rubbish behind them, albeit apparently neatly stacked for collection by a council contractor, and that the public toilets, where queuing was reportedly a daily event, were overloaded.
There is no way of knowing if there was any truth in the claim that even those with self-contained campers preferred to use the toilets, to save themselves the cost of emptying their tanks at nearby facilities installed, at no little cost, specifically for them, but despite the outrage expressed last week, those who camped illegally at Tokerau Beach generally seemed to have behaved themselves well enough.
The attraction of that particular spot is not difficult to understand. One visitor last week described it as being as close to heaven as she could get, with a beautiful beach, fishing, walks to take and shops a relatively short drive away in Kaitaia. The fact that she was sharing it with several hundred others didn't seem to bother her. Nor, obviously, did the signs prohibiting camping.
Some have said that the rights and wrongs of camping on the reserve are clouded somewhat by the fact that the Department of Conservation allows camping on its land immediately to the south of the reserve.
It never seems to get as crowded as the reserve was a few weeks ago, but is certainly popular, and this newspaper is not aware of any complaints regarding the behaviour of those who stay there.
That hasn't always been the case. There have been claims in the past that some see their surroundings as nature's toilet, and the council's opening of the reserve to camping, at a very modest nightly rate, run on an honesty box system, only lasted one summer after some people found the walk to the toilets too onerous to undertake. If memory serves not many understood the function of the honesty box either.
Meanwhile, as in everything, freedom camping is governed by rules. It is permitted at four Far North locations - Derrick Landing in Waikare Road, Kawakawa, Lake Waiparera, just north Waiharara, the Kaimaumau recreation reserve and the Unahi recreation reserve near Awanui. A maximum of just four self-contained campers are permitted at each of those sites at any one time, and then for a maximum of 24 hours. If ever there was a token gesture at allowing freedom camping, this has to be it.
The big deterrent to freedom camping these days might not be the presence of council signs or even the negative reaction of local residents, but the potential to fall victim to robbers. That warning is offered on the council's website, but is hardly likely to concern those who find themselves sharing a reserve with scores or hundreds of others.
Perhaps it's just a matter of scale. No one would be likely to get their knickers in a twist if a solitary small tent appeared at the far end of the Tokerau Beach reserve for a night or two, but it will always be a different story when hundreds do, particularly in a location where toilets can't cope with such an influx and the not unrealistic perception is that ratepayer-funded council contractors will be called upon to do work that shouldn't need to be done.
Those who say that it is in the Far North's interests to welcome this sort of holiday-maker have a point though. They might be towards the bottom end of the continuum but even freedom campers spend money on petrol, food, bait, sunscreen etc, so the benefit isn't entirely a one-way street. It seems unlikely that Tokerau Beach will see a repeat of this summer though, given Mayor John Carter's assurances that his council will be lifting its game in terms of enforcement.
Perhaps it's a Far North thing, sending enforcement staff on holiday at what should be their busiest time of the year. Certainly very little if any effort was made to enforce the no camping rule at Tokerau this summer, which the locals did not fail to notice, and if the council can't be bothered enforcing its own bylaws it can expect them to be ignored.
Was any real harm done though? Probably not. And while the Ramp Road reserve is officially maintained for day visitors, it would be fair to say that it doesn't get a great deal of use when it hasn't been taken over by illegal campers for a few weeks of the year. Mind you, this is a place where all it takes to declare the beach intolerably crowded is half a dozen fishermen scattered over as many kilometres.
The real victims perhaps are those who have invested heavily to provide camping facilities. They are expected to meet very high standards, which don't come cheap, so it might well irk them to see potential customers camping elsewhere at no cost at all. That's the real worry. The economic viability of running a camp ground isn't what it used to be, and if those that remain find the going too tough to continue there will be no legal camping at all, in which case the very Far North will either have to accept freedom camping on an increasing scale or tell summer guests that they are not welcome.
The council could perhaps reconsider its freedom camping policy, and might conclude that four sites throughout the district is a little ungenerous, while those who remember what freedom camping used to be like must accept that heaven isn't as accessible as it once was.