Rise of recreational camping
Camping as a recreational activity became steadily more popular during the 20th century. New Zealand’s population was becoming urbanised, and valued the opportunity to escape into wilderness. As the landscape was changed by farming, bush-felling and other activities, New Zealanders grew more appreciative of its natural state. Railways and roads made even remote regions increasingly accessible. Men who had spent time under canvas as boy scouts or territorial soldiers often wished to repeat the experience with family and friends. After the First World War army-surplus materials included many tents and other camping equipment.
One of the first locally made tents was the Auckland-made Reliable brand, produced from the late 1920s. Within a few years New Zealand campers could buy ridge, touring or ‘squat’ tents, made in canvas, calico or duck. There was even a motorist’s tent that accommodated both campers and car. By the 1950s the square family tent with extendable walls for ventilation and a green roof with central tent pole was standard. Inside it, campers made use of rubber groundsheets, collapsible canvas beds, and a methylated spirit cooker for when the campfire was not suitable.
First motor camps
Camping holidays by private car first became popular during the 1920s. New lightweight tents, fold-up furniture, camp beds and even portable record players and radios were produced to meet a growing demand. Motor camps, often provided by local councils, could be found in most centres. By 1928 Temuka in South Canterbury had ‘a splendidly equipped camping ground with all the necessary cooking and sanitary conveniences’1 while Hastings Borough Council claimed to offer ‘probably the best camp site in the Dominion’.2 Many farmers also offered camping on their land, often for a fee, and campers were also welcome to pitch their tents for free in public places. New Zealand’s extensive coastline attracted campers from the first years of the 20th century and about half of the country’s campgrounds were located at beaches.
Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937
Bill Parry, minister of internal affairs in the 1935 Labour government and a noted outdoors enthusiast, believed that ‘all sections of our people should be given the cheapest and most interesting facilities possible to see our beautiful country under health-giving conditions.’3 He introduced the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937, which authorised local authorities to finance the recreational needs of their communities and resulted in many more, and larger, municipal campgrounds. The Annual Holidays Act 1944 granted all workers two weeks’ annual leave, ensuring that almost everyone could afford an annual holiday. By December 1944 its effect was already apparent as camping grounds at popular resorts such as Mt Maunganui were booked to capacity.
A woman’s work is never done
A motor-camp holiday permitted men to spend the day fishing, or drinking beer around a wobbly table. Children suffered less supervision than at home or school, and often made formative friendships. For women, however, a camping holiday still entailed caring for children and preparing meals, often under more difficult circumstances than at home. Older and more basic motor camps provided only minimal shared cooking and washing facilities. Until affordable gas-fired camp stoves became widely available, the thermette, a New Zealand invention for boiling water in any outdoor conditions, was a standard camping accessory.
Post-war petrol rationing finally ended in 1950 and during the next decade car ownership more than doubled, freeing motorists to travel further and more often for leisure. A growing number towed caravans as a more weatherproof and luxurious alternative to the tent. Caravans first became available in New Zealand from the 1920s but they soared in popularity in the 1950s. The New Zealand Motor Caravan Association was formed in 1956 by a small number of enthusiasts, and held its first Easter Rally that year at Clifton beach, Hastings.
The great New Zealand holiday
‘On the Friday before Christmas,’ said one popular magazine, ‘New Zealand shut up shop, office and factory and went on holiday’.4 Well into the 1970s almost the entire population took its annual holiday over the same period, resulting in notoriously quiet and vacated cities, and crammed camping grounds. Although their cars theoretically gave them freedom of movement, many campers returned to the same place year after year, battling traffic jams in each direction.