Warm weather unofficially extends freedom camping season

Happy campers . . . Freedom campers (from left) Janice Lohs, Anne Schmautz and Christin Firchow eat their breakfast in the Thomas Burns St car park in January. PHOTO: THE STAR FILES

Dunedin’s warm autumn and the resulting sustained numbers of travellers, meant an unofficial extension to the 2018-19 freedom camping season.

Dunedin City Council Parks and Recreation group manager Robert West and his team are crunching the numbers on another bumper season, before reporting to the council’s planning and environment committee at the end of August.

Of particular interest was the resounding success of the Thomas Burns St car park trial, which showed travellers jumping at the chance to park overnight in the central city.

“The trial was due to finish at the end of April, but numbers stayed high into May, and are still fading out,” Mr West said.

Between November 30 and May 31, the Thomas Burns St car park hosted 8431 overnight stays by freedom campers.

This was more than 2000 campers ahead of the next most popular area, Warrington, which hosted 6202 overnight stays, and more than three times that of Ocean View, at 2646.

In addition, the Kensington Oval area was growing in popularity, and there were about 300 overnight stays there in April alone.

“This result is significant, and it has shifted the dynamics in lots of ways,” Mr West said.

Overall, the DCC recorded a 10% increase in freedom camping across the city, which Mr West believed was a combination of a true increase and better record-keeping.

It was pleasing that the Thomas Burns St site had helped to take the pressure off Warrington and Ocean View, and it meant that other city centre sites could feature in the future.

“Reducing that pressure was the whole rationale behind the trial,” Mr West said.

“However, what the future might look like depends on what council feels freedom camping should be in the future.

“Freedom camping is not a neutral subject in the community, so there [will] no doubt be discussion to come.”

The number of infringement notices issued to freedom campers rose from 422 in the 2017-18 season to 533 in 2018-19.

The majority were for campers in a restricted area without a valid self-containment sticker.

The number of complaints had been relatively low, apart from at St Clair, where freedom campers with self-contained vehicles were permitted to park.

Council had asked freedom campers using the Thomas Burns St site to fill out questionnaires, and these were being analysed at present, he said.

“It will be very interesting to see the data around spending, but I do know that I have seen a lot of people walking across the bridges into town.”

Mr West said the appointment of two community rangers, in a joint project for the DCC and Department of Conservation, had proven very effective.

The rangers, who worked from December to April, were able to provide people with advice on Dunedin’s bylaws and respecting the city’s beaches, reserves, and wildlife.

“It was a good opportunity to educate people, rather than just giving them infringement notices.”

MBIE has an $8million funding pool available for similar programmes in the coming season, and the DCC had put in a bid for funding for rangers in the 2019-20 season.

“We need to take a multi-pronged approach to sustainably managing freedom camping, and tourism in general, into the future,” Mr West said.