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True cost of Byron’s ‘free’ camping

It’s washing day for illegal campers in Byron Shire. Photo supplied.

Alison Drover

Byron’s iconic brand identity; the quintessential campervan with a surfboard, towel and sometimes a guitar, has morphed into a new genre of camper, the ‘free camper’.

Vehicles now include an assortment of models and sizes of vans, cars, converted removal trucks and buses. Others just pitch a tent.

There is a new attitude too. These campers claim they have a right to stay, anywhere. It’s a new way of living the dream – and the bill’s on us. They are leaving local communities to clean up their shit, pick up their rubbish, put out their fires and fix up their damage to the natural environment. 

All on social media

Social media and marketing are fuelling this free-living lifestyle as it is Instagrammed and blogged as a desired way of living. The numbers are growing, and the failure of local authorities to move people on is encouraging more.

People ‘free camp’ boldly around the Byron Shire, popping their hood or sliding their door wherever they please. Waterside views are hot at Belongil Beach and Main Beach carpark. The Pass, Cosy Corner and Broken Head are so popular that vans monopolise surf spots the whole day to get the advantage of staying overnight.

Others prefer a hilltop view, so Scarrabellotti’s Lookout is a fave. Then there’s the streets of Suffolk Park to ensure good beach access, as well as plenty wanting the Mullumbimby experience. Those that really want to push their luck head for local Nature Reserves like those at Torakina and North Wall at Brunswick Heads.

Me nature reserve, your toilet! Similar sites can be seen in many spots around Byron Shire including the river banks of the Brunswick River in Mullumbimby. Photo supplied.

Costing locals

There is nothing free about ‘free camping,’ – it’s costing local communities economically, socially and environmentally.

Ratepayers are indirectly covering water bills as many free campers, eschewing campsites, make use of public toilets and showers.

The amount of excrement that is left near pathways, on riverbanks and in car parks is becoming a serious health issue. As for waste disposal, Council’s illegal dumping accounted for well over $100k last year. Council has not confirmed if enforcement budgets have increased in line with tourism. However, anecdotally, it is still inadequate.

Locals are resorting to verbal threats, abusive notes, and leaving their lights on as a deterrent. While there is a 24-hour number at Council, there are no rangers on at night, so it is left to police or the new breed of community vigilante to respond. Police agree it’s a major issue, but have to prioritise their responses against their other duties.

Not homeless

Many of the free campers are tourists from overseas and interstate and are not homeless. Homelessness in the region is a serious issue and one that needs compassion, time, and more resourcing to create effective outcomes. 

Bushfire – drought

The impact of climate change and dangerous new fire conditions are presenting more concerns regarding free camping. On one of the highest fire-danger days in the Byron Shire last year there were campers parked in local nature reserves cooking on open stoves in tinder-dry conditions.

While Byron Shire Council states it has a zero tolerance policy, it clearly is not working. It is going to take a collaborative effort with community engagement and state funding to manage free camping effectively.

Paying for something is an exchange, a level of respect, and a commitment. There are more than 15 campsites around the Shire starting at $20 a night. Surely we are worth this?

On most weekends this residence on Keats Street in Byron Bay has illegal campers out the front. They say campers are noisy until the early hours of the morning ‘and leave tissues out the front of my yard where they have used it as a toilet’. They also use locals bins to dispose of their rubbish. Photo supplied.

Respect and protect

Solutions do exist, however, it needs prioritizing, and engagement from business, community and other relevant stakeholders, including Byron Shire Council, police and National Parks.

I would suggest maximum fines of $2,200, rather than the minimum of $110 could be issued as a deterrent.

Destination NSW and other tourism bodies have a responsibility to introduce education messaging that addresses free camping and the associated issues.

Business has a vested interest. Many of our Byron brands trade on images of our iconic beaches and nature reserves and they trade on this free-living imagery. These businesses need to get engaged in these issues and use their marketing prowess to assist in cultivating a culture of respect.

Let’s start by adding a Respect and Protect Byron hashtag to every swing tag, coaster, shopfront, Instagram post, and commercial press release. Launch a Pay to Stay in Byron Bay campaign that will work on a collaborative tourism business engagement strategy to devise and support a marketing strategy that talks to these folk.

Around the bed tax

A creative solution around the bed tax is to have a single day, weekly or monthly Byron visitors pass that has to be purchased by every visitor. All vehicles would need to provide details of accommodation and time of stay. Rangers would be able to identify vehicles without a pass, and they could be fined, or asked to leave until they have purchased one.

The money we save in managing the issues of illegal camping could help to fund programs to support homeless people. It would provide a ‘public’ tourism income that we urgently need.

At the point of purchase Byron Council could provide information airdropped to their smartphone, like fire safety, driving conditions, local laws and some Indigenous cultural and educational information.

There are decisions to be made, if illegal camping continues in the current vein, around how we manage our natural areas so that vehicles can’t physically access them at night.

As I type these last words I am told that two doofs have taken place – one at Tallows and the other at Goonengerry National Parks. Around 150 people would have camped overnight with no toilets or water. The areas have been trashed, rubbish left, and again our environment has been put at risk of bushfire.

Mmm, the price of freedom.

♦ Alison Drover is a resident of Byron Shire.


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18 responses to “True cost of Byron’s ‘free’ camping”

  1. Geoffrey leach says:

    Any if not all of these proposed solutions should be supported by all residents. Council will need more manpower but there’s no other option.

  2. The whole thing ‘sucks’. Fine the buggers.
    $2,500 should stop the flow.

  3. Rossco Phillips says:

    Oh dear … the Rainbow Region … land of the free … or is it now free-loaders ?
    Once again the impact of ‘TOO MANY PEOPLE’ presents itself.

    People like me who came here nearly fifty years ago are aghast at what has happened to this once quiet coastal / rural area.

    Doesn’t matter what issue you look at, it basically comes back to “TOO MANY PEOPLE”…

    But no one wants to admit it, let alone deal with it in a meaningful way … except me and Sir David Attenborough … and Sustainable Australia, who are now what the lost Greens used to be … a beacon of light in this dark political landscape.

    Can’t mention that I’m against immigration ’cause I’ll be branded a racist … in this country where freedom of speech and ideas is being stifled by political correctness. Ssshhh…

  4. Jenny Sudmalis says:

    Well written and very much needed. This issue and others drove us out of Byron. The health hazard of human waste, dirty underwear, toilet paper etc were a daily reality when living there, it was vile. I love the area and hope this issue is addressed by a community that is amazing in so many ways

  5. Ilan says:

    You sound very bitter and twisted . Surlly the environment impact of living in a house are much higher then van living. Remember you are a tourist here as well living on the land of the indigenous people.
    Maybe you can invite travelers to use your toilet as a way to keep your street clean.
    What gives you more right on the Byron shire then any one else?

  6. Cheer up and chill out says:

    >moves to Byron for the good vibes, man.
    >Young people do young people things.
    > Damn hippies get off my lawn.

  7. Gary Lawrance says:

    The Rangers need to do a couple of Nightshifts a week. The amount of fines issued would easily pay the extra wages. A bit of enforcement of the rules will be a great help in this matter.

  8. Peter Graham says:

    I know I will probably get flamed for this but it has to be said…

    “Byron, you wanted and went out of your way to culture & attract tourism, the paradise theme..look at me aren’t we just the coolest., instagram mums’ on main beach, alternative lifestyle, You can have it all people….”
    Guess what?
    They came and they want to enjoy what you have been spruiking for those many years..
    So what have you got in return?..developers by the dozen waiting in the wings with their next “vision of what Byron should be”.. traffic congestion, high cost of living, pot holed roads, crap infrastructure and the ever present “free loading tourist .”
    Now it dawns on you..
    Bugga we don’t like this…we want it all to ourselves.. !
    Get over yourselves..
    Stop being so precious.
    Suck it up…stop whinging..
    Deal with it. !!!!

  9. NJF says:

    How do you fine people of no fixed address? Or spot fine? They can say they have no money on them. They can leave the country without ever paying fines. These people have no respect and should be called out for it by those who catch them in the act whether they be rangers or residents. Maybe tell them to F off they are not welcome. And if enough people do it they may get the message. Byron bay doesn’t need tourists like this. It gives the now glamorous destination for visitors a bad look. Sad really….

  10. Paul Heffer says:

    There surely are issues that need redress. Before the motivated mob obliterate the vibe of tourists desirous of visiting the shire, consider enforced actions vs encouraged actions or, I believe, the tourists will leave, businesses will close, property prices will plummet and you will be left in the mire of your self made misery. Too far fetched? Recall, if you dare, how Byron bay was first settled: VW beetles, tents and a youthful vibe that resonated with the nature. Facilitate rather than force.

  11. Rohan Stewart says:

    There has been a lot of chatter on the facebook page of Byron Bay community board but I thought this one posted by someone was a fantastic creative response that could be easily done here:

    We love this concept from Kiwi Camp. This one can be found in the National Park Village near Tongariro National Park. It has 197 parking spaces where you can camp free of charge (vehicles only, not tents), and a bunch of facilities you can use on a pay per use basis. So if you’re like us, and only need a dump point, a water top up and a hot shower, then that’s all you use!

    Access to facilities is fully automated so the camp is unstaffed. You buy a $5 KiwiCash fob card, then use an app to top it up as required. Then you just swipe your card to access the facilities you need.

    Prices for this particular site are:
    Camping: Free
    Caravan Power Points: $7 for 14hrs
    Hot Showers: $2 for 5 mins
    Cook tops: $1 for 1hr
    Dish Washing: $0.50
    Laundry: $4 per load
    Fresh Water Fill: $2 (although this particular site also had a free potable water tap out near the dump point)
    Toilets: Free
    Electronic Vehicle Charging: Free (there are free EV charging stations all over NZ)
    Dump Station: Free
    WiFi (limited): Free

    Genius! ?

  12. Damien says:

    Also, van tourists have started parking cross ways at car parks – taking up 3 “nose in” park spaces. Sometimes there’s a whole convoy of them reducing Belongil car park by about 15 spaces altogether for daytime tourists and locals. One van has been parked at the first car park on Kendall St for around 3 weeks. I don’t have a real problem with a bit of overnight camping, but when it’s that long it starts becoming a ghetto and is unfair to other people who want to use the space.

  13. James says:

    Start building underground;
    Get inspired by Musk’s boring company.
    Celebrate the van culture. Don’t become another soulless Aussie town. Integrate innovative street furniture/ infrastructure solutions to all these highlighted issues which will benefit the homeless too. .look at how laterally the Japanese think for example. Don’t be punitive. International travellers are on a budget but your article makes no appraisal of what they actually spend or other ways they contribute. . They should be perhaps a reminder to you of what it’s actually all about. Those enjoying home ownership in this town are the minority but they think they are better human beings. . Are local Surfers not allowed to open their sliding doors either.

  14. rick k says:

    Fuel stop east of Uluru has a free camp spot, next to a basic restaurant that does ten times the trade in home cooked meals than for site fees. Re-purpose a free camp spot on the edge of town – get a local Uni to do studies on it – after a year assess if its worked for local community or shut it down. Do something instead of nothing…people will always want to sleep next to the beach in their car – we all did it. Yes have big ugly signs saying park near beach pay BIG fine – but create a space they can be moved to, so they dont bad mouth the area – more than international tourists already do… try make tourists feel they can relax without fear of council / cops, like we all do day to day, driving 25 different speed zones on roads littered with cams to rob you.

  15. Barrow says:

    Peter i agree , However there’s a right way of doing
    Things and wrong ! There’s legal and illegal
    These people are not stupid, they clearly are aware
    Of what they are doing by illegally camping .
    They are taking the piss !!

  16. upsidedahead says:

    Ok boomer…

  17. Pete Kartu says:

    Well I don’t agree at all. I lived in Byron in the 80’s. It was a welcoming, multi-cultrural place where people engaged with travelers and saw them as an asset. “Why travel the world when the world comes to us?”
    Now all we hear is “Byron for Byronites”. Instead of making this a confrontation make it a win win. If you are worried about sanitation the put a loo with a 50c tab – just like in Germany. If you are worried about water then put in a public water meter, just like at the car wash, you put in your coins and get so many minutes of flow. If you are worried about rubbish then put a dumpster in every car park. If you are worried about parking then add a “camper ticket” to all the parking meters so visitors can pay $10 to camp overnight in any public place.
    Just because you bought a house in Byron it does not mean you own the place. You don’t own the beach, the views, the history, the public roads, the car parks or anything else. Many first nation peoples would say you don’t even actually own that house.
    So come on, a little love, compassion, common sense and make some money while your at, not this aggressive horrible and frankly xenophobic rhetoric

  18. Ursula Dennis says:

    I feel very sad at the lack of compassion in a town that should be setting an example, we don’t know what people are going through, everyone wants to feel the freedom that Byron promises but unless you are very well off you couldn’t afford to buy a house or even rent without really struggling, if the council provided areas for free parking, they are surely making enough money in payed parking and high rates, and build decent bathroom facilities, which the payed parking would also cover, everyone would be happy.
    I think it’s time the council gave back.

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