A family affair: running Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park

By: Lisa Jansen, Photography by: Lisa Jansen


Ever wondered what life is like as a campground manager? Lisa Jansen goes behind the scenes at Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park

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Richard and Noela Gunson

Originally from a farming background, Noela and Richard Gunson have been campground managers for over 20 years now. Richard explains, "We were keen to try something other than farming, so we looked around to see what was out there. When we heard the council was looking for campground managers in Waipu Cove in 2000, we thought ‘Living by the beach doesn’t sound too bad’, so we applied and got the job. 

"We liked Waipu Cove. We were there for 11 years. But we knew if we stayed there, we would only ever be managers, whereas here in Mangawhai Heads, we knew there would most likely be an opportunity to buy the business and get a bit more control and autonomy," says Richard.

And that’s exactly what they did. The council still owns the land, but Noela and Richard own the campground, which means they can now do things their way and reap the long-term benefits of their hard work and the improvements they are making.

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"When we bought the business, there were no facilities on the north side of the campground, so that’s the first thing we did. Now that we have modern and spacious facilities in that part of the camp, we’re looking to replace the older ones on the south side. And we’re also looking to improve a few other things such as getting faster internet and a few more cabins."

Today, camp management at Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park is a family affair. Noela and Richard share the workload with their daughter Hayley and son-in-law Eugen, who live onsite with their five children. Two of their young grandchildren are already making plans to take over one day, so chances are the camp will stay in the family for generations to come.

"It’s really great having Hayley and her family here. It means the workload is spread over more people, and in the off-season, we can take turns going away to have our own holidays."

Richard and Noela will use that freedom to join the other side of the fence. They have just bought a Crusader caravan in Australia and plan to head over there as soon as possible.

"We chose to buy a caravan in Australia because it will still be nice and warm during our off-season here in New Zealand. And there is so much to explore and see."

While Richard and Noela are away, Hayley and her family will keep the campground running – which will keep them busy even in the off-season. Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park has 104 unpowered sites, 52 powered sites, 49 permanent onsite caravans and four cabins split over two areas (the north side and the south side).

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The perfect lunch spot

With three toilet/shower blocks and two kitchens, it is comfortable even when up to around 650 people make the park their temporary homes over the busy summer period.

From reception and cleaning to repairs and maintenance, there is a lot to do, and it never stops. "I like to call it ‘a way of life’, not just a lifestyle. It involves really long hours. There is no work-life balance, it’s just all muddled together all the time."

Good thing that, as farmers, the family is used to hard work, long hours and little time off. As Richard says,"There are a lot of similarities between farming and campground management. Both are a way of life and usually involve the whole family."

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The north side of the campground

Lucky then that the job provides such a fantastic outdoor work environment. The park thrives on its location right on the estuary, with stunning views over the dunes and easy walking distance to both the surf beach and the town centre. There are not a lot of holiday parks in New Zealand where the views from your motorhome, caravan, or tent are as good as they are here.

Not surprisingly, the campsite sees a lot of return visitors. "It’s one of our favourite things about being campground managers. Meeting all these different people and seeing the friendships that develop here, especially among the regulars.

"Some families have been coming here every summer for years. Many have become good friends even though they only see each other for those few days or weeks each year. That is really nice to see."

However, although meeting and looking after new people can be the best part of owning a campground, it can also be the hardest. "It’s very rare for visitors to cause issues, but when they do, that’s when we find our work hard. We want everyone who comes here to have a great time, but that also means that certain rules need to be in place and we sometimes have to tell people off for not following them, or even turn them away when they are not a good fit for our family camp culture. That part is no fun."

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My beachfront setup at Mangawhai Heads Holiday Park

I asked Noela and Richard what they think makes good campground visitors and both agree it’s all about respect.

"Being a good guest is simple. Be respectful. Respectful to us, the land and the facilities, but also other guests." I think that should be an easy request for all of us to follow.

I was also curious to hear how campground owners feel about freedom camping, given it’s a much talked about topic among us travellers.

Richard and Noela are members of The Holiday Accommodation Parks Association of New Zealand (HAPNZ), the industry association that represents the commercial holiday park sector. For several years, Richard was a very active member, and the topic came up often. It may be surprising to some, but many campground owners, including Richard and Noela, are not generally opposed to freedom camping.

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Playground with a view

"We think New Zealanders have the right to enjoy their country and freedom camp when and where it is appropriate – and as long as it’s done respectfully. That includes not freedom camping right next to a commercial campground and sneaking in to use the facilities!

"However, we feel that whether tourists should be allowed to freedom camp should be a separate conversation."

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Looking out over the estuary

Talking to Noela and Richard has given me a new appreciation for the hard work they, and so many others, do to make sure we travellers have beautiful, safe and comfortable places to stay – probably something we all too often take for granted.

So next time you’re on a campground, make sure you thank the people who do all the work behind the scenes. I definitely will. 

Find out more at mangawhaiheadsholidaypark.co.nz

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