I had been in two minds about going to Vinegar Hill for a few weeks. Vinegar Hill, for the uninitiated, is a great big gay camping event that’s held here in New Zealand every year and every year I seem to be able to come up with an excuse: too far away, too busy, don’t have a tent. It was still 50/50 when I popped into the car in Hamilton to begin the journey down, but just like all journeys, once you get started it’s hard to stop.
It’s a beautiful drive down, I particularly like the little stretch of road between Taihape and Hunterville: long, winding roads between rolling hills, trees planted as grand wind breaks marching off into the distance, the railway line a fine scar through the countryside. I wish I could bring everyone I know on this drive at least once to share it with them.
All too soon I came upon the campsite and apprehension gripped me. I didn’t really expect to know many people there and I’m not particularly good with strangers. Seeing as I was already all this way I may as well go on.
Now, as you enter the camp grounds the gravel road forks. I took the right because that seemed to be where all the tents were. I didn’t know it at the time but left is the “gay” end while right is the “straight” end of the camp. I rolled up to the first set of tents I saw, casting around desperately for someone I recognised.
Ben! I recognised the diminutive Asian guy setting up his tent with his partner Nathan so I made a bee-line for them. “You don’t happen to know where the queen is, do you? I introduced myself awkwardly. “Huh? Oh, hi, Stephen. No, we just got here.”
I turned around and Andrew was there setting up his tent as loudly as only Andrew can. “hello Stephen, and how are we today?” Neither he nor the nearby cluster of lesbians knew where the queen was. Now, I understand it’s customary to present yourself to the queen and I wasn’t about to breach protocol on my first day.
I parked my car out of the way and cast around looking for a place to pitch a tent, maybe I should go for a walk first before I find a spot. Make sure I go have a talk to the locals and such. As the thought crossed my mind one of the locals waved at me and came on over and introduced himself. “Is… that the queen?” I asked, gesturing to the guys sitting around under the shade of a gazebo.
“What? No” he chuckled. “She’ll be over there somewhere, but you don’t have to go pay just yet.”
“OK, well, I think I should go see her anyway, pay my dues and get a map or something…”
“Well, if you want to be near the young twinky boys” (he looked me up and down a moment and added “and I think you probably would”) then you should pitch your tent here. I took it as a compliment. “I think I’ll just go for a walk and see if I can find the queen”.
With that I headed off towards the “gay” section of the camp to the sound of laughter behind me. (No, this is not high school, they’re not laughing at you, get over it). It doesn’t seem particularly gay during the day, just a bunch of tents and camper-vans evenly spaced on either side of the gravel road.
I wandered around till a chap bounced up to meet me. He was an uncommonly tall fellow, his long naked torso bronzed with the sun, his modesty preserved only by a thin pair of basketball shorts. “I’ve been drinking since three.” he announced, brandishing his beer by way of amplification. “Hello, who are you, is this your first time, are you with anyone?” We established that I was a “Vinegar Hill Virgin” and I was alone.
He’s a character, had I come across him in a bar I might have discreetly sidled away, but out here in the sun with the birds chirping and all the peaceful activity of a lively campsite going on around us he was amusing, not scary. We talked a bit and he took me on a grand tour of the “gay end”.
“You’ll need this”
“No, really, I won’t”
This part of the camp is where the queen lives. A modest $5 per day goes towards paying for the New Years extravaganza and any other costs. Further on towards the beach and you come across the nude beach. There’s apparently also a maze for those who have an interest in such things.
“Hello gorgeous” one man said after being introduced. I gave him a puzzled look. “Pardon?”
“I said you’re gorgeous, which you are, but you don’t seem to realise that, which is very endearing”.
“Oh, well… that’s very kind of you to say…” I could get used to this. They encouraged me to join them at their campsite, but I wanted to check out the rest of the camp before making any commitments.
On my way past the centre of the gay end of the camp, another man went so far as to offer to let me stay in his tent: a flattering offer which I politely declined. It’s nice to be desirable for a change.
I returned to my car, the camp had meanwhile begun to spring up around me. The guys with something of a more practical nature recommended a spot and Ben & James enthusiastically offered to set up the tent. We made a fine job of it, unnecessarily reading the instructions while James diligently hammered the tent pegs into the ground before the poles went in. “Men” scoffed a nearby lesbian. It was fun to make a hash of camping with a bunch of guys.
Our hosts were relatively long-term veterans of Vinegar Hill. Drew sat there in his chair with a wry smirk, drinking his beer: the classic picture of a Waikato man. If he hadn’t just called his long term partner “dear” you wouldn’t have the first clue he was a gay man at the gayest camping event in the kiwi calendar.
Those were our days: sitting in the sun or the shade (mental note: bring a gazebo next time) working so hard at doing nothing much that we got tired. The nights were a lot more active. I mixed drinks. I originally said I’d bring all the ingredients for a Long Island Iced Tea as a joke, it would have been a lot more practical to just have something a lot simpler, but hey, it was fun.
The first night I was there they had a toga party (mental note: bring a toga next time) the second night was the mad hatter’s tea party (mental note: bring a mad hat next time).
The river essentially runs in a horseshoe shape around the campsite, running rapidly over polished rocks. One hot day B-rad, another camper and I got it into our heads that we would float down the river (mental note: bring a flotation device next time).
Then came the big event: New Year’s Eve. The camp engorged itself of patrons, swelling to three times its size in the course of a single day, and you can understand why. I mean, camping is not for everyone especially (let’s face it) gay guys. Most people were really only there for that one event.
And quite an event it was! It essentially consisted of a sound stage with live music and a big-assed bonfire (click for video).
You know, I have never had so much fun in a New Zealand night club as I had out there on that field at midnight. Sure, the music was pretty average, and sure it was dark and a little but chilly, but hell, the crowd was buzzing (click for video) with such a positive life-affirming vibe, it was hard not to enjoy yourself. I think the company had a lot to do with it too. There were far more people my own age here.
I left for home with a warm buzz, promising myself that not only would I come back next year but I would drag every gay friend I could find along for the experience.