Affectionately dubbed ‘Activist Camp’, Ōtaki Summer Camp is where under-30s learn how to put their principles into action.
It’s a Friday afternoon in late January, and a Ngāti Kapu group is doing a stirring mihi whakatau, welcoming 220 young people to a community farm in the foot of the Tararua Ranges. In a nearby field, the campers pitch their tents among the apple trees and sheep before gathering under the fairy lights and bunting of a large marquee to embark on three days of activities and discussions.
This is Ōtaki Summer Camp, a political gathering for youth aged 17-30ish who have been brought together by a shared passion for the environment and social justice, and a desire for collective action and change.
The first evening at camp is dedicated to settling in and making everybody feel welcome. In between card games and river swims there is music, locally-sourced vegan kai and a sprinkling of announcements about the weekend ahead.
Benefits of congregating in person in this beautiful location is the focus on connection, both with nature and with other like-minded people. Attendees at the annual event are mostly students, artists and political types with a mix of those who want to get involved but don’t know how, and returning campers who form tuakana-teina relationships with newcomers and share their previous experience.
Jack Barlow was 15 when he first attended camp in January 2020. While the majority of his peers were partying it up on the summer festival circuit or chilling at baches in Whangamata, he was on an overnight bus from Auckland, excited to meet up with other youth from the climate activism space that he had spent hours with on Zoom, but hadn’t yet met in person.
His mum affectionately called Ōtaki “Activist Camp”, but this simplistic description – that conjures up images of bra burning and placard panting en masse – never sat right with Jack. “That sort of implies that we are learning how to form human blockades or how to get arrested,” he laughs. “I have been to those sorts of events, but camp really wasn’t that.”
While some workshops run by experienced activists do provide practical advice on how to build solidarity and run a successful campaign, the broader kaupapa is that everyone has something to contribute and can help make change happen.
Te reo teacher Hannah Higgison (Ngāti Whātua), 25, who grew up in Palmerston North discussing politics with her family and going to protests, first attended camp in 2019. “I would have been 19 or 20 and I was still trying to figure out what it meant to be political and how you do good work,” she says. “There was such a range of people and speakers, everyone from the hardcore frontline activists to teachers, community workers, people who work out in the bush and are really passionate about what they do.”
Ōtaki Summer Camp was started in 2017 to revive the long tradition of political summer camps in Aotearoa. Annual student congresses were held in the Marlborough Sounds from 1940s until the ’70s, and several other influential political youth conferences were held in Ōtaki in the ’70s. As well as being famously attended by the likes of future prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, such camps have been credited with starting widespread protests like the successful nuclear-free campaign of 1984. Recent movements like the Hit and Run campaign (against New Zealand’s involvement in covering up civilian deaths in Afghanistan) and the Choose Clean Water campaign have either come out of this new generation of political camp or gained momentum there.
Every year, an impressive line-up of guest speakers are specially curated to educate and inspire around a range of themes, including the climate crisis and antiracism. Camp gets into full swing on Saturday with a focus on big ideas. Tāme Iti and his grandson Te Rangi Moaho share stories about multiple generations working together for Rangi and Papa, and Bernard Hickey presents on the housing crisis. It’s all very powerful and thought-provoking stuff, and the youth in attendance are a captive audience.
Afterwards, people break off into smaller groups under the trees for discussions over carrot cake and tea on how to be an ally for intersex whānau, or how to use stories to connect with the public. The setting may be peaceful and idyllic, but the atmosphere is buzzing.
While Ōtaki Summer Camp is open to everyone, it naturally attracts people on the left of the political spectrum, so it would be easy to assume that everyone’s views would be too aligned to allow for much debate, but that’s not the case. “There’s definitely going to be things that the speakers say that not everyone is going to agree with,” Hannah says, “so that’s a chance to kind of chew up things and have discussion about what really is the problem here and the specifics of how we make change.” The strict code of conduct with its focus on kindness and compassion means that while discussions can be lively, they are always respectful.
It’s important to the organisers that camp is not only educational and enlightening, but fun, so Saturday ends with live music and a big old barn dance. The drug and alcohol-free policy doesn’t stop everyone partying hard, with the toe tapping and heel stomping continuing long into the night. For some, this opportunity to let loose, balancing out the often serious issues dissected during the day, is one of the highlights of the weekend.
The social aspect of Ōtaki is something that Hannah values deeply – the bonding and deep connections made there, a direct contrast to the fickle and flighty nature of the digital world. “I’m the social media generation, so a lot of politics is online,” she says. “There’s obviously upsides to that as a tool for education and political organising, but I think there is a big downside with a culture of combativeness, shallow engagement with ideas, and assumptions about people.”
Jack agrees, and feels there is a lot to be learnt from engaging with a range of people in a safe and welcoming space. “A real strength of camp is the chance to meet people with incredibly diverse backgrounds and experiences, similar values but very different lived experiences.”
After a big night, everybody eases into Sunday morning with some low-key talks over breakfast. Leah Bell shares insights from the successful campaign to include the New Zealand land wars in the school curriculum, while in another comfy spot Steve Abel from Greenpeace talks about the history of climate campaigning in Aotearoa. But the main focus of the day is the activities, with campers opting for tramps, bush and river ecology tours, or helping in the organic veggie garden for those who prefer a chill day on site.
Hannah, who is now involved in camp in a volunteer-organising capacity, says there is something about being in nature that heals and inspires. “The chance to talk about big ideas while you’re walking through the bush is going to be a thousand times better than just a lot of sitting and listening.” Back at the camp, the sunset is accompanied by the swing and roar of Lyttelton country band The Eastern, before the happy campers retire to “tent city” to rest their weary bones.
Monday – the last day of camp – is a call to action with an emphasis on creating political change. Attendees are invited to take part in workshops for active campaigns such as the “Make it 16” campaign or “Justice for Palestine”, and while there is no pressure to join, Hannah points out that after two days of talks and workshops, motivation is high. “I don’t think you can sit around hearing about some of these issues and not come away wanting to do stuff,” she says. “You might meet an activist who is in their 60s talking about the campaigns they worked on and you’re like, if they did this in the ’70s and ’80s and made change happen under some really tricky circumstances, surely we can get it together in 2023.”
For many others, inspiration often follows beyond the farmers’ fields and shared meals of camp. “It’s the sort of place where you have that conversation which creates the spark to go on and do something,” Jack says. At a previous camp, a rousing korero by Pania Newton from Ihumātao – who told the story of the land and their efforts to protect it – had a particularly profound effect on young Hannah, who went on to do things she had never done before, like collecting signatures for the petition in Wellington and travelling up to Auckland to show solidarity and support at the occupation itself.
As the 2023 camp draws to a close for another year, the attendees are given a chance to share their experiences. Some say that it has been life changing, with new friendships and networks made, while others are happy to have been reminded of their values and of how good people can be. Jack remembers leaving his first camp with his faith in humanity restored. “Camp is just so wonderful on a human level,” he says. “It’s so clearly put together with consideration and passion. It really does feel like the organisers have unconditional love for everyone who attends.”
As the final notes of the farewell poroporoaki echo over the farm, the young campers leave with their rucksacks and sleeping rolls strapped to their backs, and hopefully a renewed sense of optimism radiating from their hearts. This is why Hannah and the team of hardworking volunteers are committed to keeping camp going year after year. “I really don’t want to see my generation consumed by hopelessness and despair because we are faced with doom-scrolling through the issues of the day,” Hannah said. “The best antidote to fear and climate anxiety and existential dread is doing stuff. Yes things can be really difficult, things can be shit, but actually we can make change happen.”
The next Ōtaki Summer Camp will be held on 20-22 January, 2024. More information is available at otakisummercamp.com