Spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve at the Vinegar Hill campground has become a GLBT community institution in New Zealand. Since the first gay men camped there in 1977, a growing number of people have made the pilgrimage to the Rangitikei riverside for fun in the sun.
With more than three decades of history under its belt and a 25-year history of the Queen of Vinegar Hill, the holiday campsite has become one of the most successful and longest-running GLBT events in the Southern Hemisphere – it’s even older than Sydney Mardi Gras! Here we find out more about the camp’s history, speak to the man who set up the Queen of Vinegar Hill tradition and try and entice you into heading there for your holiday season!
History of the camp
Back in January 1977, six gay men camped at Vinegar Hill shortly after New Year’s. Among the group were Kevin and Pearl (aka Peter) and Owen Draper. They loved it so much that they decided to return to the campsite the following year and take a few people with them.
A few years later, Mal Vaughan – now known as the “M” in S&Ms cocktail bar in Wellington – went there with a few friends and has been heading along ever since.
“I’ve been heading up to Vinegar Hill for about 32 years now,” he says. “In the old days it was all guys – you’d probably get around 150 guys turning up. There were only ever two women. It was like that for the first 15 years.
“Of course as it built up, momentum built up – nowadays the campsite packs in 1500 people over New Year’s. People come from all over the world too – every year we don’t just see people who come from all over the country, people from South Africa, Canada, America and Australia turn up too. It’s got to be the longest running gay camp in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Queen of Vinegar Hill?
The camp’s longest-running tradition is the crowning of the Queen of Vinegar Hill. What has come to be one of the camp’s most important events started somewhat accidentally however, when Mal and a friend ventured into nearby Hunterville to collect supplies from the local shop, Taylors General Store.
“It was 1985, and at the time we were camping with this guy Bill Armstrong. Bill would do a lot around the camp – if you needed batteries or toilet paper, Bill was your man,” says Mal. “He’d put up shower curtains and all that brilliant stuff. So one day this friend of mine and I went into to Hunterville and we saw this little silver trophy that resembled the America’s Cup. I picked it up and said, ‘Let’s give this to Bill on New Year’s Eve’.
“Back then the New Year’s celebrations involved drag shows on the back of a ute with someone else’s headlights shining at the show – the campsite is pretty remote. So during all of this we got Bill up in front of the group and gave him the cup as a little thank you from everyone at the camp for all the hard work he did.
“Bill took the trophy away and had the cup mounted on a wooden base with a silver plaque. Then the next year he brought it back and presented it back to me. That’s how the whole thing started. The next year I passed it on, and it’s gone on and on and got bigger and bigger!”
The new Queen is crowned every year just before midnight, but her reign is decided long before the fanfare. Every previous Queen present at the camp on the day of New Year’s Eve meets as The Queen’s Counsel, to nominate would-be Queens. The name of the chosen Queen is a sworn secret until 11.55pm that night. The next day, the new Queen will do a lap of the campsite on the back of a ute or a car and the outgoing Queen will put on a cocktail party.
Fun and fabulosity aside, the new Queen cannot rest on her laurels and wait for the next camping season to come around. Instead, the Queen is charged with organising the big ticket items for the next year such as the sound system and lighting.
“[Being crowned] can be a bit bittersweet because you’ve got to put on this huge do, but I think this year we’re finally paring it back and having a more basic New Year’s,” laughs Mal. “This is mostly because people were always trying to one-up the person who did the job before them and the party gets bigger and bigger! Now it’s got to the stage where people are fundraising throughout the year for the party, then bringing in the rear end of a giant truck and unloading staging, fabulous costumes, bloody disco balls and lighting gear! It’s a huge job but the big party is what really brings people coming back. And they do come back, with their friends.
“Those of us who have been coming to Vinegar Hill for years know that we’ve started to take over the better part of the main campsite. The gay part used to be down one side of the campsite, and now the straight campers have been relegated to a little area down to one side!”
Entertainment & events
Vinegar Hill has a number of competitions and events throughout the New Year period. Every year a series of awards are given out – best buns, best boobs, best legs, the works! Prizes are awarded for hospitality whilst on the campsite, best use of technology, lighting, decorations, the campest campsite, and of course the coveted best campsite. Dance parties, drag shows and pumping sounds are par for the course every night whilst at the camp.
We Heart Hunterville
Mal says the local town, Hunterville, has really got behind Vinegar Hill as a gay destination.
“It’s got so big now that the local pub in town, the Argyle Hotel, closes for New Year’s night and all the locals came down to party with us at the park. Vinegar Hill now even takes part in the Hunterville Christmas Day parade! Thirty odd years ago the locals would have turned their noses up when the poofters came to town, but over the years they’ve realised the value of the pink dollar. The whole town’s behind the event now they’ve realised that the money they make over that time takes them through the coldest of winters.
“Taylors, the general store, brings in hundreds and hundreds of bags of ice (which sell out every day) and they make a decent amount off alcohol sales! The lady who owns the laundry in town comes down and grabs bags of laundry – you get your clothes washed, dried and folded for $5! And the Argyle Hotel will give you a hot breakfast and a hot shower for $20.”
The department of conservation runs Vinegar Hill, so anyone can camp there. Obviously you’re going to want to be part of the action, so it pays to visit the Queen on your first day at the camp for a welcome pack and to pay your fee (a whopping $5 a night if you’re there from Christmas until New Year’s). People start turning up before Christmas however, so if you want to avoid the traditions this year, or want to hang out with Family instead of your family, head along early and find a good spot! But remember to respect the unwritten park rules.
“There’s the unwritten law that if you go there every year, wherever you camp is your site; it’s just out of respect for the people who come every year,” says Mal. “But if you miss one year – that site’s up for grabs! You can always spot the different sites too – people will go and create little awnings from the trees or make little rock garden paths around their site. People become known for their sites too – the Hamilton crew that come down call themselves Melrose Place, we’re the Vinegar Hilton and everybody’s got different names for their sites.
“The first people who come around then will set up and you can look down at this little group,” says Mal. “Then by New Year’s you can look down on this huge tent town; it’s really quite spectacular.”So come along!“I’d recommend anybody to come along,” says Mal. “Me and Scotty shut the bar and head up there after Christmas, then again for New Year’s. We make it a yearly pilgrimage and just love it.
“The best part about Vinegar Hill is how the gay community have really got behind it and made it a really great venture – but you’ve got to join us to truly experience it!”