Barry Mills remembers the tents lined up every summer on the large open field which backed on to a pine forest and was within walking distance to the beach.

It was filled with campers from around New Zealand and the world.

The campsite ran on the Helena Bay School grounds every summer for about 40 years until the school was closed by the Labour Government, along with six others, in 2004 to re-allocate funding into teaching.

A Helena Bay local, Mills was the last caretaker at the campground on Northland's Russell Peninsula, 40km north of Whangārei.

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"People were in tears when it shut down.

"There was enough space for 50 or 60 campsites. Lots of family came out each year. It got to the stage where I didn't even have to ask them for money; they just took the guest book and looked after it themselves."

Childrens' fees at the tiny school - which had a role of about 20 when it closed - were covered by income made by from visitors over summer.

Now, Helena Bay attracts a high-end clientele. Russian oligarch Alexander Abramov opened his $50 million-plus luxury Helena Bay Lodge in a nearby bay in 2016. In summer the cheapest room is $2640 per night.

"You can only get there by boat and have to go through a bunch of gates," says Mills.

"They get some real famous people over there."

Locals often have to give up their lawns to tourists who walk through the town along the Te Araroa track - the 3000km route stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff - only to find no campground in sight.

"They get here at about 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening and they still have another 2 or 3 hours walking to get to a campground," says Mills.

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Helena Bay caretaker Barry Mills campaigned to allow campers on the old Helena Bay School property. Photo / File
Helena Bay caretaker Barry Mills campaigned to allow campers on the old Helena Bay School property. Photo / File

"Out of the goodness of our heart a lot of us guys let them camp on lawns."

The Whangaruru Beach Front Camp is nearly 9km north, and the Whananaki Holiday Park 34km south.

Mills says locals would like to use the former school as a community centre and would love to reopen the campground.

"People are looking for camping places. A government property like that should be utilised instead of going to waste.

"We could go to the beach and have movie nights for the kids. It's quite populated out here in summer time."

He was certain that, if managed properly, the grounds would pay for themselves.

Mills had long wanted to take the matter to Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones. However, a recent illness has left him too sick to take action.

"Politicians keep talking about infrastructure and the school is right there being wasted."

Meanwhile in Auckland, Meadowcourt Caravan Park closed in 2015 to make way for AUT University's Manukau campus to expand, Avondale Motor Park closed the same year to make room for 30 new homes and Manukau Holiday Park was also sold to allow 100 townhouses to be built.

Waitomo District Council closed down the Te Kuiti campground in 2017, which was on council land, because it was too run down for tourists.

In Mt Maunganui, Golden Grove Holiday Park was sold to a developer in the early 2000s and in 2015, Blue Bay Motor Camp in Mahia was closed.

Between 1999 and 2003, eight Coromandel camping grounds sold up and closed, including Hotwater Beach Motor Camp, Tairua Motor Camp, Whangapoua's Back To Basics Motor Camp and Water's Edge at Whitianga.

But although it may seem campgrounds are dissappearing, there are twice as many as there were in in the 1970s, new research has shown.

People still camped in the '70s, just not in formal areas.

These days, Kiwis mainly camp in official sites, as beaches and other areas become inaccessible.

Otago University researcher Leonardo Nava Jimenez has delved into the history of Kiwi camping which involved looking at historic camping guides and old newspaper advertisements for campgrounds, piecing together the locations of campgrounds throughout our history.

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The data showed there were 313 campgrounds in the 1930s, 416 in the 1970s and 876 in the 2010s.

The most recent figures show Blenheim has 18 campgrounds, more than any other town in the country.

While there are also hotspots in Northland and the Coromandel, campgrounds are well-distributed throughout the country, which was not always the case.

Campgrounds have been a fixture in New Zealand since the very beginning, with seasonal camps set up by Māori to gather shellfish or to hunt, work camps for gold miners and road builders, and camps for foreign soldiers and homeless people.

Before cars were commonplace, holidaymakers took horse-drawn caravans for the comforts of home. Other campgrounds were set up for sea access, counting on steamboats to ferry holidaymakers across the Auckland Harbour to Takapuna and Northcote, or further afield to the Coromandel.

The origins of the modern campground came about in the 1920s, when the Automobile Association worked with local boards to set up campgrounds for motorists - motor camps - throughout the country.

In many densely-farmed areas where freedom camping was difficult, farmers were already renting out camping spots. Over time, these ad hoc spots were replaced by dedicated campgrounds.

These new camps grew alongside the road networks. For example, Gunn's Camp in Fiordland started out as a camp for workers building the Hollyford-Okuru Rd, but the scenic location later became a holiday park.

The total number of campgrounds continues to grow.

But there are more restrictions on freedom camping and with a growing population requiring more roading and housing, once large and busy campgrounds have been sold off and redeveloped.

In places like the Bay of Plenty, which experienced a boom during the 1960s, the focus has shifted towards high-end tourism in recent years.

Many councils will allow freedom camping only if the vehicle is self-contained, meaning it has a toliet, fresh water storage, waste water storage and a rubbish bin with a lid.

Every district and council has different rules - some ban freedom camping within 1km of the town, or limit the stay to one night.

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Campers can get an instant fine if they are parked in a prohibited area, damage the area, refuse to leave, refuse to give information to an enforcement officer or camp without a toilet in a place that only allows self-contained vehicles.

Court fines of up to $10,000 can also be handed out if campers leave a major dumping of waste, for example emptying sewage on to public land.

"Ironically, today [Kiwis] have an act that guarantees freedom camping almost as a civil right," says Jimenez. But in some districts, the sites where freedom camping is allowed were "the size of a parking space".

Jimenez worked in campgrounds in Mexico for years before coming to New Zealand for his PhD in tourism, and he was struck by how different our camping culture was.

In Mexico, camping was a much more limited affair, consisting of summer camps for children and private landlords who allowed camping on their land. Despite the campgrounds being relatively cheap, it was still mainly for well-off families.

"We think of camping as a cheap activity", Jimenez said, but not everyone could afford all the camping gear or have enough leisure time to go camping at all.

New Zealand's relatively egalitarian society and strong holiday culture was a key reason for our expansive camping culture, he says. Our safe environment also helped, with no snakes, few mosquitos and low crime.

A campground that has managed to stay put as multi-million-dollar development goes on around it, is Mount Maunganui's Beachside Holiday Park.

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At the foot of Mauao, facing the golden shores and rolling waves, the multi-million dollar site has sat untouched for about 80 years as apartment buildings and mansions spawned to its south.

The holiday park is owned by Tauranga City Council, which reported a $334,000 operating surplus from it last year.

Among the families who have returned every summer for decade are Sheryll and Steve Strickett of Rotorua, visiting for the last 30 years.

A support staff member at Owhata School, Sheryll says she is lucky to be able to stay "virtually the whole school holidays" each summer while her husband commutes back and forth from work as a fitter/welder.

Her mother used to have a beachfront site, so she started bringing her family to the beloved spot when their youngest was a baby.

They started in a small tent, which was upgraded to a bigger one as their family grew, then a caravan and finally their current accommodation, a campervan with plenty of home comforts.

"We're well set up. We don't camp now, we glamp," Strickett says.

Sheryll Strickett had been camping at The Mount Holiday Park for more than a few years. Photo / George Novak
Sheryll Strickett had been camping at The Mount Holiday Park for more than a few years. Photo / George Novak

Proximity to Rotorua was what keeps them coming back, as well as the rarity in New Zealand of a beachfront campsite so close to shops and eateries.

They loved knowing all their camp neighbours, and the way their children had grown up spending every day at the beach or on the mountain with their summer friends, but there had also been hard years: The huge fire on Mauao in 2016, the waist-height flooding of 2011.

Strickett says little has changed about the camp over the years, except for the price increases that recently caused them to cut a week off their annual booking.

"It's not cheap any longer."

She says they pay $65 a night for a standard powered site. With extra costs if extra people stayed, she says the cost for a young family with kids would start to rival a motel.

The rate went up by $2 in 2017, says Gareth Wallis, the council's acting general manager, city transformation.

The holiday park has been managed by the council since 2006, and has undergone upgrades over the years, Wallis says.

He believes it has lasted so long because of its location.

"It is nestled at the foot of Mauao with Mount Maunganui Main Beach on one side and Tauranga harbour on the other. The main street of Mount Maunganui is a short walk away with plenty of cafes, bars and shops to be enjoyed."

A Mount Maunganui campground which didn't survive was the Golden Grove Holiday Park on Oceanbeach Rd.

It quickly filled up over the summer months.

Paul and Keri Jeffries and their kids Chelsea, 15, and Kent, 16, stayed at Golden Grove Holiday Park for the last time in 2015/16. Photo / File
Paul and Keri Jeffries and their kids Chelsea, 15, and Kent, 16, stayed at Golden Grove Holiday Park for the last time in 2015/16. Photo / File

Aucklanders Keri and Paul Jeffries took their two young kids every summer for 14 years.

They decided to head to the Mount one summer because they had never been before and loved it so much they kept going back.

Golden Grove was affordable, in a great location and more relaxed and social than staying in motels or hotels, Keri Jeffries says.

Golden Grove Holiday Park on Girven Rd, Mt Maunganui, was sold in 2015. Photo / File
Golden Grove Holiday Park on Girven Rd, Mt Maunganui, was sold in 2015. Photo / File

"The campsite was really good for the kids to socialise. They were able to go outside and play really safely."

And they made friends with the other regular families that they looked forward to seeing year after year, she says.

It was the "typical Kiwi summer".

In 2015, the campground - only metres from the city's biggest mall, Bayfair - was sold to a developer and has since been bowled to make way for a new development.

"It was quite sad really. We got to know the owners really well. It was like going back to family. It was a home away from home," Jeffries says.

The 9500sq m site had been a campground for 21 years but with the growing demand for property in Mt Maunganui, the developer had plans to build 71 units on the site.

Property development is underway at the former Golden Grove Holiday Park in Mt Maunganui. Photo / File
Property development is underway at the former Golden Grove Holiday Park in Mt Maunganui. Photo / File

Jeffries says it is disappointing to see campgrounds closing down and feared that "typical Kiwi summer" experience was becoming out of reach for many families these days.

"A lot of people don't go away and stay in motels and hotels. You haven't got that community feeling. It's quite social and relaxed."

For 30 years, Phil Pollett and his family camped at Blue Bay Motor Camp, which occupied 3ha of prime coastal land in Mahia on the east coast for about 60 years.

Blue Bay Motor Camp in Mahia was closed down in the early 2000s. Photo / File
Blue Bay Motor Camp in Mahia was closed down in the early 2000s. Photo / File

The campground was dotted with pine trees that provided shade in the summer and backed on to the calm waters of Blue Bay.

"It's a beautiful beach - a safe beach for the kids. It was a dream really," Pollett says.

"We just never had any hassles with anything. The facilities weren't that great. It was a real community there."

The campground closed down due to financial issues in the early 2000s.

Blue Bay Motor Camp was a popular camping spot before it was sold to developers. Photo / File
Blue Bay Motor Camp was a popular camping spot before it was sold to developers. Photo / File

But it didn't close quietly, Pollett says.

The feeling was "very bitter" and sparked protests at the site which lasted years, he says.

The protesters were mostly people who camped there and, while Pollett didn't join them, he encouraged them.

"They were trying to highlight that all the coastal camping grounds were being sold.

"The great Kiwi way of life was under threat."

The development of Blue Bay Motor Camp by 2007. Photo / File
The development of Blue Bay Motor Camp by 2007. Photo / File

Pollett and a group of about six other families who camped there accepted its fate and between them bought just over 6ha of land a couple of kilometres east of Blue Bay. They built small units on it and have holidayed there every summer and long weekend since.

But the protests weren't the end of the drama at Blue Bay.

The developer split the land into 44 sections, constructed streets and installed infrastructure. Then, amid financial difficulty, the land was sold to a second developer through a mortgagee sale in 2008, just before the global financial crisis hit.

Locals were unhappy about the development, Pollett says.

They threatened to burn down any homes built there. In 2008 the first house built there was burned down in suspected arson. No one was charged.

The site then remained untouched until the remaining 35 lots went up for mortgagee sale again in 2017. Properties that were originally up for sale for $650,000 went for between $50,000 and $213,000.

What will come of those sites now remains to be seen.