Photo: LAKE TIME, CIRCA-1982. PHOTO: MEGAN DAVIES
Snapshots from a holiday hotspot.
YOU LEAVE TOWN EARLY TO BEAT THE HOLIDAY TRAFFIC. THE CAR IS PACKED TIGHT WITH CAMPING GEAR, THE OVERFLOW STRAPPED TO THE ROOF. THE KIDS WERE BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS, BUT BY THE TIME YOU PULL INTO WĀNAKA, EVERYONE IS ASLEEP. YOU’VE LEFT YOUR WORRIES BEHIND.
Every year, around Boxing Day, there’s an exodus of citizens from the urban centres of the South Island. About 1800 of them, the equivalent of the population of Riverton or Twizel, head to one place: the Glendhu Bay Motor Camp. They come armed, packing everything from basic pup tents to multi-room affairs kitted out with flat screen TVs and king-sized airbeds. There are about 400 boats in tow.
Ringed by a necklace of mountains, Glendhu Bay’s campground sits on fluvioglacial deposits left by the glaciation that 10,000 years ago bulldozed the trench now filled by Lake Wānaka. Roys Peak leans protectively over the site, and shade-giving willow trees grow along the shoreline. Nearby, the distinctive roche moutonnees of Glendhu Hill and Rocky Hill, are meccas for mountain biking, walking and rock climbing. But the main event is Tititea / Mount Aspiring. It stands high in the distance, rivalling the greatest cathedrals.
Campers started coming to Glendhu in the 1920s. The Scaife family, who owned the land as part of Glendhu Station, would gather with five or six other families and set up beneath the willows beside the Alpha Burn. Numbers swelled during the Depression years – camping was an affordable holiday – and sanitation issues started to crop up. A formal arrangement was needed.
In February, 1939, Willis Scaife negotiated with the Lands and Survey Department to make a section of Glendhu Station a reserve. Fifteen acres of farmland was gifted to the people of Aotearoa New Zealand to be used in perpetuity as a campground. Numbers continued to swell, so Willis’ son, Arthur, gifted a further five acres in the 1950s, bringing the camp to the size it is today.
The Glendhu Bay Motor Camp is now leased from the Queenstown Lakes District Council, which keeps it out of private hands and protects it from large-scale development. In 2011, plans to upgrade the camp was met with an outcry from “long term campers” (also known as LTCs or Glendhuians) who feared Council was abandoning them in favour of short-stay internationals in camper vans. The changes, which included reducing the size of “enclaves” for camping groups, never came to fruition.
Generations of families have spent their holidays at Glendhu, and camp policy gives LTCs first right to their preferred site over the busy Christmas period. Many like to return to the same spot summer after summer to park up next to their “neighbours” who are often life-long friends. (There’s even a year off clause, which allows them to roll their booking over if they have to skip a year.)
Wendy Hasler from Dunedin met her husband Don at Glendhu
there in 1961, when she was 16 years old. Don’s parents were some of Glendhu’s original campers. They honeymooned there in the 1930s. Don has been to Glendhu every summer of his life, except for two in the 1950s, when he was forced to stay home during the polio epidemic.
No family trip is without its dramas, and Wendy remembers a few. One year, she was pregnant with her second oldest child, Jason. She wasn’t due for another couple of months, but baby had other ideas. A doctor’s assessment in Cromwell determined she was stable enough to travel in the family car, a Ford Fairlane, back to Dunedin. “I wasn’t too worried about going in the Fairlane,” she said. “The back seat was large enough to lie down on and I was comfortable. While we were at the Cromwell surgery, a young man came in with a badly broken arm. The doctor said to us, ‘Would you mind taking this guy to Dunedin Hospital as well?’ We were happy to help. This was about 50 years ago. Things were done a bit differently.” Jason was born happy and healthy, a Gledhuian from the start.
Another time, Wendy asked their daughter Sandee, to go down to the camp store on her bike to get some tomatoes. She was riding back with the bag of precious cargo when it swung into the spokes of her front wheel, pitching her over the handlebars, and soaking the gravel in tomato juice and blood.
For Sandee, though, the strongest Glendhu memory is the joy of hooning around on her bike, and spending hours water-skiing. More than 1800 people crammed onto a 15-acre block for weeks doesn’t sound tranquil or private. But what you lose in privacy you gain in living in a true village. Nobody locks their tent, and children run free, never far from the gaze of one adult or another – it’s like having hundreds of baby monitors keeping an eye on your kid.
After years of staying in tents, many LTCs progress to camper vans. When the Haslers’ time came, Don, a builder by trade, took on the job of constructing the family’s new summer home on the back of a Bedford truck. He disappeared into the basement after work each day to carry on with the fiddly and time-consuming job, which included welding an extension onto the chassis of the Bedford. He started at Easter, and by Christmas a fully functional camper emerged, complete with washing machine, shower, toilet and kitchen. With the awning pitched, there was enough space to accommodate four adults and two kids.
Don passed away about 15 years ago, but ‘The Camper’ carries on as a family heirloom, with Wendy’s daughter Paula and son-in-law Tom keeping the tradition going.
There’s a piece of Glendhu Bay history on display at the Toitū Otago Settlers Museum in Dunedin. It’s a red motorboat named Minx. Built in the late 1950s by the late Les Booth, the Minx, along with her smaller, kid-friendly sister craft, the Minxette, was a familiar sight at Glendhu for many summers. It’s wonderful to see her preserved. But it also makes you think. Will the classic Kiwi holiday soon be a thing of the past, its artefacts relegated to museums?
Camping has certainly changed since the days of canvas tents and cooking over an open fire. At Glendhu, the north end has become so upmarket, it’s nicknamed “Fendalton”. Around the Southern Lakes District, property prices are taking their toll. In 2010, the nearby Wānaka Lakeview Holiday Park nearly became an aquatic centre, before the Queenstown Lakes District Council found another site for their new sports field and swimming pool. The Penrith campground has become an upmarket subdivision, the old Queenstown camp is no more, ditto to Kawarau Falls Lakeside Holiday Park, which is now a Hilton.
But there are hopeful signs too. Frankton still has a campground, currently being upgraded with 130 tent, caravan and motorhome sites, as well 12 new cabins. Long-time Te Anau campground operators
Georgia and Bryan McChlery are behind it, with a goal to take it “back to its roots” as a New Zealand-style family-orientated facility. And Pene and Phil Hunt, the current managers at Glendhu Bay Motor Camp, are working to keep the place affordable. One initiative lets you pay off your camp fees over 12 months, so you don’t have a big bill at one of the most dollar-stretching times of the year. Phil knows the drill after all. He’s been coming to Glendhu for nearly 60 years.
You weave past the Roy’s Peak carpark, by the tarns that used to be lakes, now with their covering of reeds. There’s the long sweeping corner, and there is the bay. You wonder if the monster fish that got away last summer is still in the same spot. You slow for the final bend, where you nearly came to grief on the gravel all those years ago. Along the last straight, you glimpse the campsite through the hedge. You turn into the gate. The lake is dead ahead, and you know you’re home.