Ocean Beach residents and visitors had a stink weekend after the water supply for their public toilets ran dry and faeces started overflowing.
While Whangārei District Council contractors have since fixed the problem, residents remain concerned that this won't be an isolated incident as the rising numbers of visitors put more pressure on facilities at Whangārei Heads.
Located on the Ocean Beach car park right next to the beach entrance, the toilet block usually draws its water supply from a nearby creek.
"We are up against an extremely dry period at the moment," Whangārei Heads resident Lew Hart said.
"The creek has been stagnant for at least six weeks. So we've had concerns for a while. Last Friday then, the toilets ran dry."
With permission from Armourguard, Hart put up "Out of order" signs on the toilets which didn't deter people from using them.
"The toilets were full of poo and paper and started to overflow. It's not terribly healthy."
Over the weekend, plumbers and drainlayers inspected the facilities and found that the connection to the nearby bore – the back-up water resource in case the creek wasn't supplying enough water – was faulty.
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They installed a pipe to hook up the bore with the toilets, bypassing the faulty line, so that the toilets could flush again.
WDC spokeswoman Ann Midson confirmed that after the facilities were temporarily fixed over the weekend, the connection between bore and toilets are now adequately repaired and fully functioning.
Hart, who ended up cleaning the mess left behind in the facilities, said a neighbour had a bore for his private use and that was running low on water too.
While the incident was a drought-related issue, Hart's main concern is the influx of freedom campers who use the toilets and shower, which is installed at the outside of the toilet block.
The car park offers space for five self-contained vehicles that can stay up to three nights but freedom campers have started using the overflow car park on the south side of the entrance.
Hart, along with 38 other Ocean Beach residents, signed a joint letter notifying council about the influx of freedom campers.
The residents requested a "No Camping" sign at the entrance of the overflow car park which is only meant for day-use.
"This has to stop. The facilities can't handle this onslaught of campers," Hart said.
Midson acknowledged that there were a lot of freedom campers occupying space across the district and everywhere around the country.
"There's no doubt at all that we have a much bigger volume of campers than ever before.
"They are putting constant pressure on the facilities, and it's a matter of adapting to these circumstances."
Midson said council had been upgrading facilities in other parts of the district – the latest being a $1.1m investment into Matapōuri – and will look into applying for a grant from the Tourism Infrastructure Fund to improve the Ocean Beach toilet block.
The council's Camping in Public Places Bylaw will come up for review within the next two years, and WDC's parks and recreation manager Sue Hodge said the concerns of the Ocean Beach community had been duly noted.
Freedom camping ambassadors programme wraps up for season
Whangārei's responsible freedom camping ambassadors have handed out their last camper information packs for the season, wrapping up a summer that took freedom camping management in the district to the next level.
"This is the second consecutive season of ambassador patrols for these community-minded volunteers, who this summer managed to deliver more of everything," Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai said.
The team of volunteers under guidance of Whangārei District Council's responsible camping co-ordinator Sue Halliwell visited 16 of the most popular freedom camping sites – five more than last season – since mid-December, doubling last summer's freedom camping site visits to over 1000.
The team worked closely with Armourguard enforcement officers who doubled their daily patrols at targeted sites over the peak freedom camping period.
"Both the ambassadors and officers reported a significant change in camper attitudes this season, the vast majority showing greater awareness of responsible camping behaviours," Mai said.
Halliwell added that many campers would pick up rubbish – not only their own but also waste left behind by others.
"We were pleasantly surprised by the campers' behaviour," Halliwell said. "Many of them asked the ambassadors for rubbish bags and collected rubbish around the campsites."
However, there are still "a few who ignore or are ignorant of the appropriate actions", according to Mai, and these few breached the freedom camping bylaw by staying in places not allocated for freedom campers.
The number of complaints rose slightly this summer. Mai said it was possibly due to the broader ambassador coverage, a more comprehensive recording system and greater resident willingness to support responsible freedom camping in the district.
Meanwhile, some freedom campers told ambassadors that more camping sites and toilet facilities would be a good investment in the future.
Campers were encouraged to use commercial campgrounds regularly to support these businesses, and to shop locally, or donate to local conservation groups.
Halliwell confirmed that most commercial campground recorded an increase of visitor numbers, some of whom were referred by her ambassador team.