Forget camping - try glamping

LIVE IT UP: Jessica Walsh shows off how roomy a Lotus Belle tent is.
LIVE IT UP: Jessica Walsh shows off how roomy a Lotus Belle tent is.

I was 21 the first time I went camping. As a kid we had a big, old, musty green canvas tent that was never actually used for camping.

 It only received a (much needed) airing in the backyard once every couple of summers. Dad would put it up just long enough for me and my little brother to get bored, uncomfortable and sick of the smell, creeping back inside the house before the sun had even set.

We lived in Mt Maunganui, so there was no need to pack up the car and join the annual migration to sleepy beach towns and mozzie-filled lake fronts. We were already there, and we had a roof and windows and solid beds.

A few months after my 21st I decided to try camping proper. Ten European countries, 29 days and, more importantly, 29 nights sleeping in a tent with an annoying American girl I had only just met at the back of the Contiki bus.

I quickly mastered the art of throwing a tent together in less than 10 minutes, but was less successful, it transpired, at picking camping companions.

Apart from a blip at a summer music festival, I've not slept under canvas since. But I am a New Zealand anomaly.

According to the Holiday Park Association of New Zealand (HPANZ), in the year ending September 2012 almost 1.5 million Kiwis spent one night or more at a campground or holiday park - seven per cent more than the year before. And close to 70 per cent of campers chose to sleep in tents, rather than in on-site caravans and cabins.  

"A camping holiday tends to suit New Zealanders more than people in other countries, who may prefer to rent a villa in a sunny foreign climate," says social historian Mark Derby.

"We like to think of summer holidays as low-tech affairs, spent in the outdoors, enjoying free activities like fishing and fossicking."

Forgetting mallets, losing pegs, being hot, being cold, too many bugs, not enough space, lumpy ground, clothes caked in mud... Derby says there's evidence of the Kiwi camping holiday as early as the 1840s (sleeping under the stars and cooking over fire wasgenerally unfamiliar and exciting for wealthier Britishmigrants) but before and after that, New Zealand was a nation of hunters, shepherds, surveyors and pioneers living in temporary shelters and using bush craft self-reliance to survive and thrive.

The humble family camping trip wasn't widely embraced until well into the 20th century, as roads, railways and the first locally-made tents were perfected. Since then, holidaymakers, activists, Girl Guides and keen adventurers have all made themselves at home outside.

Camping and outdoor education has even been added to the New Zealand school curriculum.

"We have an exceptionally spacious country, with coastline, rivers, mountains and bush readily available to nearly everyone. Yet we are also heavily urbanised," Derby says.

"So to truly enjoy the outdoors, it's a matter of loading up the station wagon and heading off to a favourite retreat. Minimal facilities, wild food and low costs are all part of the Kiwi summer camping holiday and they contribute to our cherished national tradition of equality, a tradition that is looking increasingly mythical."

HPANZ chief executive Fergus Brown says often it's the people, rather than the place, that lures generations of campers back to the same spot year after year.

"People from different parts of the country get to know each other; they become friends and they meet up each summer.

''They form a community. And their children become mates, so when the families arrive you quite often won't see your kids until dinnertime, and sometimes you won't even see them then - they'll be off eating somewhere else and you might end up with someone else's kids.

''It's something that wouldn't happen if you were staying in a motel or hotel."

Derby agrees camping fits with our social nature.

"I can say from long experience there are few pleasures finer than a beer on a summer evening with the occupants of a neighbouring tent whom you've never met before and may never see again."

Camping has long been seen as a cheap holiday option, more affordable than hotels, motels or overseas travel.

Brown says visitor numbers during the recent recession suggest this is still the case.

"Holiday parks and camp grounds tend to do quitewell during difficult times. We've found there is a resurgence in people wanting to go camping, which is possibly driven by access to very low-cost, high-quality equipment.

''It has become a lot more affordable, so people might try it out and then the next year they might buy a better tent."

And while countless Kiwis are happy to take off in a $16 two-person tent from The Warehouse, growing numbers of us are looking for something more.

Increasingly, campsites are expected to provide gyms, pools, children's programmes and even wireless internet so, as Brown puts it, we holidaymakers can "sit in your tent and still keep in touch with the world".

And then there is glamping. Glamorous camping, favoured by the likes of actress Sienna Miller and model pal Kate Moss, lets you rough it with all of life's luxuries: more room, complete protection from the weather and maybe an inner-sprung mattress.

Tent company Lotus Belle is leading the charge on the trend. While they are made of traditional canvas, have supporting poles, rods and ribs and still need to be put together, Lotus Belle's tents are styled somewhere between a traditional Asian yurt and the 'bell' tent, which has been around since the American Civil War. And they are big - either four or five metres in diameter.

Aucklander Jessica Walsh, 35, began bringing the tents to this side of the world last year. She had seen the rise in glamping overseas, especially around music festivals and knew it would take off here.

So far she hasn't been wrong; the first shipment of tents sold out before it had even landed in New Zealand and demand is growing.

Walsh describes the tents as a more liveable structure than the traditional "nylon nightmare" - and people have even been living in them.

A Christchurch couple bought one to stay in while their earthquake-damaged house was being repaired, one is doubling as a hospital for animals rescued from Australian bushfires, and Walsh has been contacted by a midwife about using one as a birthing room. But she doesn't think these structures would look out of place at your average beachside campsite.

"I'd like to think people will have these tents in their family for years, like the tents I grew up with in the '80s. I remember Mum and Dad brought back a Sir Edmund Hillary tent from Sears in New York and we had it in our family for absolutely ages.

''We loved it and lived in it every summer from when I was quite a young kid to [when we were] teenagers taking it to the Gathering [music festival]," she says.

Her customers tend to be women rather than men; older Baby Boomers who favour comfort over convenience, rather than teens looking for something to chuck in the back of the car.

The instruction sheets are handmade and surprisingly beautiful, with tents last year. Apparently the structure can be put together in under 30 minutes.

Walsh says this is the future of camping.

"People see it and they say, 'I haven't been camping for 20 years and even I'd give that a whirl.'"

Sunday Star Times