Accompanying the freedom camping patrol

Illegal freedom camping on the Wanaka lakefront - Feb 2018. Photo: Nikki Heath / Wanaka Sun

As Wanaka’s shops, cafes and restaurants begin to wind down of an evening, there is activity on the lakefront. When 9pm draws near each night, Queenstown Lakes District Council’s (QLDC) enforcement officers will begin their patrol. And, after several months of asking to tag along, the Wanaka Sun was invited to see firsthand what goes on.

I make my way down to the Dinosaur Park just before 9pm and I am greeted by Ricky Campbell, operations manager for Cougar Security, the firm QLDC has outsourced its enforcement to. He’s been doing the job for five years and in that time, he’s seen it all.

He once found seven vans on school land claiming they stayed awake at night and slept in the day. He caught the same person freedom camping four nights in a row. He’s seen a girl squatting in a gutter on Hedditch Street, clutching a toilet roll. Groups of people using the region’s lakes and rivers as toilets, showers and sinks are far from unusual.

As we meet, he explains that the patrol, which varies its route each night so it cannot be predicted, is two-fold. At 9pm, it is all about education. He speaks to 20-30 people every night at this time, the vast majority of whom are accepting and polite. Between 2 and 4am, Ricky and his team return to hand out $200 fines for anyone freedom camping where they shouldn’t be. He writes six to ten tickets every night, often to people who have already been warned.

During Christmas, or when there are large events on in town, these numbers can swell to 20-30 receiving a 9pm reminder and 50-60 getting tickets in the small hours. He also estimates that half of those getting fined are repeat offenders.

We meander down the lakefront first, with Ricky reminding potential campers that they cannot stay.

One man, fully tucked up in bed in the back of his car, claims to be watching a movie. A group of girls are definitely moving on because they’ve paid a fine this week already. Another tourist says he is going to Roy’s Peak.

I ask Ricky how tickets are given out, and whether it results in confrontation. As it turns out, many rule-breakers simply wake to find a $200 fine on their windscreen. He explains that his team don’t wake them. It is about avoiding confrontation, not unreasonable given they are working in darkness, and often alone.

With so many people being fined, I have to ask whether the system is working. After all, less than two thirds of people pay their fines. It used to be less. Ricky says they have agreements with rental companies. The company will pay the fine and charge their renter.

However, a major problem is where someone is not the registered owner of their car. People sell vehicles all across New Zealand and often don’t change the registration, so the person listed as the owner may have left years ago, he explains wistfully.

QLDC is responding with clamping. From Saturday February 17, Ricky’s team will carry five or six wheel clamps. If you’re caught freedom camping, you will get clamped. Ricky and his team will be carrying portable EFTPOS machines and offenders can also call up QLDC with their card details. No one will be unclamped until they pay.

Next, we drive out to Hawea lakefront, stopping at various hotspots along the way. Ricky is surprised to see no one, pointing out how quiet it is.

As we drive, he explains that another major problem is self-contained vehicles. There is plenty of space to freedom camp in the area if you are self-contained. Ricky and his team carry out inspections and although they leave out camper vans, they ask six questions of others claiming self-contained status.

Question one is whether they are carrying 12 litres of water per person. Few pass even that first test. Ricky estimates he’s inspected 140 vehicles claiming to be self-contained since Christmas. Of those, no more than three have passed the test. Anyone who doesn’t and gets caught camping at 2am receives a ticket.

So who freedom camps? Ricky says many are tourists, but others have jobs and cannot find or refuse to pay for accommodation.

We finish our journey with a drive around Eely Point, but see little in the way of freedom camping. Ricky drives me back to town and we part ways. My night is over, but his is barely halfway through. As I wander home, he begins a patrol of Wanaka’s streets after some recent complaints about campers in residential areas.  

Despite it being an unusually quiet night, despite the countless ‘No Camping’ signs around town and despite the patrol’s efforts to warn everyone hours in advance, his team still issues seven tickets that night, including four on the lakefront.

It must have been a long movie.

  - By Rob White

Cover image: Illegal freedom camping on the Wanaka lakefront - Feb 2018. Photo: Nikki Heath / Wanaka Sun

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