App means end of quiet campsites

German tourist Hannes Meeh (18) displays the Camper Mate app on his smart phone at the Warrington Reserve. Photo by ODT.
German tourist Hannes Meeh (18) displays the Camper Mate app on his smart phone at the Warrington Reserve. Photo by ODT.

Everything a freedom camper needs to know about New Zealand is now just a button-press away. But what does the rise of smartphone apps like CamperMate mean for Dunedin's previously quiet beach camping grounds? Chris Morris reports.

When German tourist Hannes Meeh landed in New Zealand to start his six-month adventure, one of his first moves was to reach for his smartphone.

There, at his fingertips, was an app called CamperMate, providing an instant link from his phone to information about more than 16,000 camping sites scattered across the country.

It included sites from the big and popular to the small and hidden, and even illegal sites where campers faced $200 fines.

• App has many followers
• Call for freedom camping rules rethink 

In the weeks since, the app has helped guide the 18-year-old safely around New Zealand and to Warrington domain, where the Otago Daily Times found him happily cooking onions for a burger this week.

He was not alone, however.

Cooking with him was fellow German tourist Moritz Stockinger (19), who crossed paths with Mr Meeh on the West Coast while also following CamperMate's tips two days earlier.

The pair decided to travel together, and found themselves cooking alongside more than 20 other clusters of campers on Warrington's domain this week.

Mr Meeh told the ODT the smartphone app was an invaluable tool that had guided him to places he otherwise might have missed, including Warrington domain.

''You don't find places like this when you don't get a tip or something like that,'' he said, prodding his sizzling onions.

''Some people could tell us, but CamperMate is the safest place.''

Mr Meeh said it also helped him understand the rules that applied in each campsite, which varied from district to district, but there was a downside.

''It depends on the place, but some places are very busy. In some places you have to come very early to get a place,'' Mr Meeh said.

But, while the domain was quiet when the ODT visited on a cloudy and cool Wednesday night, temperatures have been rising for some along with the numbers using the domain this summer.

At peak times, encouraged by CamperMate and similar apps, more than 100 vehicles a night are crammed on to the domain, with vehicles and tents occupying almost every spare blade of grass.

With most vehicles carrying two or more people, that could mean upwards of 200 people jostling to use a solitary toilet block and four Portaloos, squeezing their rubbish into bulging bins, and making do without a shower.

That has led to a rise in complaints about a lack of facilities and problems with rubbish, campfires and, occasionally, human waste.

Dave Cull
Dave Cull

It was a situation Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull described as ''unsustainable'' as Dunedin City Council staff admitted facilities were now stretched to breaking point.

But, according to Adam Hutchinson, the man behind Campermate, criticism aimed at his app is ''short-sighted''.

Mr Hutchinson developed the app in 2011, when the looming Rugby World Cup, a predicted influx of freedom campers and a lack of easily accessible information threatened to combine and overwhelm the country's camping facilities.

Mr Hutchinson approached councils to build a database of 6000 camping sites and associated facilities, like public toilets and effluent disposal areas, to promote through his app.

Users were soon also able to add their own, once verified, and the database grew to more than 14,500 sites.

The app's popularity has since soared, with more than 190,000 downloads to date and 2.92 million page views by people wanting information about freedom-camping sites around the country.

Users can post their own tips and reviews about individual sites, and share information about illegal sites along the way.

And, among all those page views, two Dunedin campsites sit near the top of New Zealand's list - Warrington domain and Ocean View reserve.

The two locations are Dunedin's only designated sites for freedom campers in non-self-contained vehicles - those without toilets - and cater for tourists not wanting to pay for a night's sleep.

They have been promoted since the introduction of the council's new freedom-camping bylaw on November 1 last year.

The bylaw itself was required by the Freedom Camping Act 2011, and had to identify sites for freedom camping within Dunedin's city limits.

But the new approach, coinciding with the rise of CamperMate and other smartphone apps like WikiCamp, mean the numbers of freedom campers stopping at Dunedin's two identified sites have soared.

Warrington resident Lisa Cambridge said she had lived in the settlement for five years, and had observed a ''steady increase'' in freedom campers using the domain over the last 18 months.

What had been a quiet spot for ''a few house buses and tents'' at the height of summer was now a bustling campsite, even into winter, drawing mainly young overseas tourists, she said.

While campers' behaviour was generally good, the sheer weight of numbers had led to problems - queues for toilets, overflowing rubbish bins, more campfires being lit and, in some cases, dunes being used as toilets, she said.

While the council had responded, adding more rubbish bins and Portaloos, apps like CamperMate were having a ''huge impact'' on the popularity of sites like the Warrington domain, she believed.

That raised concerns for her about the threat to Warrington spit's ''fragile'' ecosystem and wildlife.

The situation was not sustainable, she said.

''Waitangi weekend this year, for example, there were people camping on the playground next door and camping further down the road to the bay, in the trees and bushes along the spit.

''The domain is a fabulous place to camp, but in the very near future it will not be able to support the growing number of campers,'' she said.

Andrew Noone
Andrew Noone

Cr Andrew Noone, the area's councillor, agreed the numbers posed a risk to the Warrington environment and visitors' enjoyment of it.

''We really didn't appreciate that the whole freedom-camping scenario was going to boom the way it has, particularly this season. We've never experienced this in the past - not to these sorts of numbers.''

A similar debate was also taking place online, within the messages section of the CamperMate app and its website.

While most messages focused on the positive attributes of individual campsites, touting their merits to future visitors, some criticised the overcrowded facilities at Warrington.

One user, Paul Bingham, even took aim at CamperMate itself, saying in a message he was ''disgusted'' by the behaviour of van-based tourists visiting locations they ''did not know about before these app sites''.

''It is important that this app-based site understands the negative impact it is having on our special campsites and you should not be proud of this.

''It is like a virus spreading throughout our beloved South Island because of the info from this app,'' he wrote.

Mr Hutchinson disagreed, telling the ODT such criticism was ''a bit short-sighted''.

He acknowledged some freedom-camping sites were now ''too popular'', but said the issue was a management one for councils and the Government, and not the fault of apps like his.

CamperMate provided legal and public information to tourists, which helped them to enjoy their stay, understand the rules and avoid camping where it was not permitted, he said.

That, in turn, meant economic returns for the country and a reduced environmental impact on New Zealand's quieter corners, as more tourists found their way to designated areas like Warrington, he argued.

"What we're doing is helping those people to travel around New Zealand and have a good experience and therefore contribute to the economy.

''It's not perfect by any stretch, but we are bringing significant benefits to both New Zealand and to the tourists.''

The challenge for councils was to provide facilities and other infrastructure to accommodate that demand, which in areas like Warrington now needed to ''catch up'', he said.

''Better management. Better infrastructure. That is, in my opinion, the solution to really making the most out of this opportunity - and it is an opportunity.''

The numbers appeared to support Mr Hutchinson's view.

A study released by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) this week shows the 60,000 freedom campers who visited New Zealand annually over the last three years together spent $260 million each year.

The visitors spent about $4880 per person, per trip, on average, the figures show.

In Dunedin, MBIE figures released last year showed freedom campers represented 6% of Dunedin visitors and spent, on average, $195 a day in the city.

By comparison, cruise ship passengers, who made up 8% of Dunedin visitors, stayed less than eight hours and spent up to $125 a person.

Mr Cull sees the advantage of having an app like CamperMate providing accurate information to freedom campers, particularly when rules could change from one council district to the next.

''You could argue that's providing quite a good service.''

But the experience of quiet camping seclusion ''cherished'' by New Zealanders in the past was under threat, having relied on ''there being very few people, frankly'', he said.

The rising popularity of apps like CamperMate, and the campsites they promoted, meant the situation in Dunedin and across the country needed a rethink, he said.

''I'm not sure that the numbers that are increasing are sustainable ... and I mean that for the whole South Island.''

Existing facilities at Warrington domain were already old and inadequate, but if numbers of freedom campers kept increasing, simply providing more facilities might not be the answer either, he said.

Instead, the DCC, other councils and the Government needed to look at ''the bigger picture'', including comparing the value added by freedom campers to the costs incurred by local communities, he said.

''I think we need a rethink of the legislation and what it was intended to encourage.''

The crowds of tourists also posed other issues for Dunedin, which would also be considered by the council's review, Saddle Hill Community Board chairman Scott Weatherall said.

Up to 30 vehicles a night stayed at the Ocean View site north of Brighton during peak times this summer, which meant the area was also at capacity.

He welcomed the visitors, saying their presence was ''fantastic'', and concentrating them at Ocean View, with its facilities, meant they were not sleeping on roadsides and using bushes as toilets.

Ocean View's facilities appeared to be coping, for now, but the crowds squeezing into a limited space raised health and safety concerns, he said.

''What happens if a gas cooker explodes and you've got 30 vehicles, and 60 people, in a really tight space? What does that look like?''

Council parks, recreation and aquatics group manager Richard Saunders said a council review of the freedom-camping season would begin next month and consider all issues raised by the boards.

That could include considering the need for extra investment in facilities to cope with demand, as well as the possibility of opening up more sites to freedom campers in other parts of the city, he said.

The council was also keeping a close eye on Prime Minister John Key's suggestion government funds could be made available to councils needing support to deal with rising numbers of freedom campers, Mr Saunders said.

''We're certainly making sure we're involved in those conversations.''

The number of freedom campers using Warrington domain had regularly topped 70 vehicles this summer, and peaked at more than 100.

That traffic was driven in part by apps like CamperMate, but Mr Saunders said the information the apps provided was a ''positive''.

''Yes, it does mean the sites that are dedicated to particular types of camping are seeing very high use.

''But it also means we're not getting huge instances of non-compliance across the city, because people have access to the right information.''

The council had responded to complaints about problems with overflowing rubbish bins and human waste at Warrington by installing four Portaloos and extra bins, which were cleared frequently, but facilities remained stretched, he said.

''The numbers we've seen this year would be considered too great for the facilities we've got there,'' he said.

It was difficult to predict what numbers would do next year, but changes arising from the review would need to be in place before next summer, he said.

Cr Noone believed that should include considering the case for charging freedom campers a small entry fee, or collecting donations, to help cover maintenance costs.

Mr Hutchinson agreed that was an option worth considering, although it should be discarded if it risked discouraging freedom campers from visiting.

In the meantime, the Waikouaiti Coast Community Board remains supportive of freedom camping at Warrington domain.

Board chairman Gerard Collings said the emphasis was on the council to provide adequate facilities, although funding should be discussed nationally.

Board member Geraldine Tait, a Warrington resident, also sounded a note of caution about blaming the city's visitors amid all the ''hysteria'' over freedom camping.

''They're really well behaved ... they're polite, they're not partying, and if you talk to them they say `oh, it's so beautiful here'.

''We get grumpy when people don't respect it, but mostly they do.''

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