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A repository of dangerous thinking: Otaki beach. Photo: Tom Raven/getty
A repository of dangerous thinking: Otaki beach. Photo: Tom Raven/getty

PoliticsDecember 17, 2017

The return of the Kiwi summer camp, a seething hotbed of political ideas

A repository of dangerous thinking: Otaki beach. Photo: Tom Raven/getty
A repository of dangerous thinking: Otaki beach. Photo: Tom Raven/getty

NZ’s tradition of political summer camps stretches back to 1949. Organisers of an Ōtaki event in January explain why they’re reviving it.

After the political chaos of 2017, a bunch of disparate individuals have come together to organise an event which will start the new year with an optimistic bang. Drawing on a long history of political summer camps in New Zealand, Ōtaki Summer Camp is an attempt to encourage our generation to discuss today’s important issues.

Victoria University is credited with starting our tradition of political summer camps. It founded the Curious Cove Congress in 1949 by bringing like-minded students, university staff, and public figures together at a former WW2 convalescent camp in Queen Charlotte Sound. The mornings were filled with lectures and discussion, followed by swimming, tramping, and poetry. After dinner, the camp would come alive with films, dancing, and all-night parties where some of the most animated discussions flourished.

In 1962, Victoria University student paper Salient reported from Curious Cove:

Picture an angry young man of today. Con O’Leary, seizing on Professor Musgrove and telling him the defects in his department and how it should be organized – it could only happen here!

The Curious Cove Congress carried on for a number of years, and in the 1970s, another political youth conference was held twice in Ōtaki.

Trawling through photos from these camps in the National Library collections, it is clear the camps were an opportunity not only to speak about the issues that were important to a young generation, but to enjoy the company of others working to make a difference.

In the photos, you will see some familiar faces. Some of those present went on to be household names in Aotearoa. Among those in attendance was Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who said in his memoir, “I recall it being a stimulating and active time with lively discussion of public affairs.”

In the past, these summer camps were credited with fostering networks, and starting widespread social movements, like the nuclear-free law change in 1984. Ōtaki Summer Camp is aiming to do the same, and start something exciting.

Movers and shakers from across Aotearoa are speaking, volunteering, and performing at this event, with speakers covering a range of issues from national identity, to the environment, to freedom of speech.

The speakers include human rights lawyer Deborah Manning, justice advocate Julia Whaipooti, and writers Morgan Godfery, Rachel Stewart and Nicky Hager.

In the evenings, entertainment will be provided by comedy acts White Man Behind A Desk and PSUSY, and musicians Finn Johannson, Disasteradio, Motte, and Onono.

One of our fellow organisers, Wiremu Demchick, 26, put it like this: “Politics and society have changed much since the meetings at Curious Cove, but the importance of location remains. Ōtaki is one of those immortal places that unfailingly stimulates the mind. I am very excited to see what comes out of this next year.”

Let’s keep the tradition of Kiwi political summer camps going.

Ōtaki Summer Camp, Jan 19-22, is for young people (17–30 years old) who care about political issues and ideas. More information and register at

Kimberley Collins and Emily Menkes are part of the team organising the Ōtaki Summer Camp. If you attended any of those historic camps, they’d love to hear from you. Email

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