‘You could be your self’: How Vinegar Hill turned a tenting mecca for queer Kiwis

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For 45 years, members of the rainbow community have gathered over summer at a secluded campsite in Manawatū. Sinead Gill explores how Vinegar Hill became a cultural phenomenon.

The farming town of Hunterville isn’t necessarily where you’d expect to find one of Aotearoa’s largest gatherings of queer folk.

But for decades, rainbow Kiwis have gathered at nearby Vinegar Hill, a campsite in the Putai Ngahere Reserve beside the Rangitīkei River.

“In the early days I’d say the Hunterville locals weren’t so sure about us,” recalls Mal Kennedy-Vaughan​, who began going in 1984 and attended for 29 years. “Being homosexual wasn’t accepted, but we would spend our money there every year, which they liked.”

Scotty Kennedy and Mal Vaughan by the bonfire, circa late 1990s.

Supplied

Scotty Kennedy and Mal Vaughan by the bonfire, circa late 1990s.

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Back in those days, being gay was illegal, and men caught in consensual sexual acts with each other faced seven years in prison.

Vinegar Hill had obvious appeal for the first queer campers in 1977. It was remote, and the group of six men, led by a gay couple from Manawatū, didn’t mind hacking through unruly weeds to get to the bank and pitch a tent – the tall grass gave privacy from neighbouring campers who might dob them in.

They invited more friends to the Hill in ‘78. Before long, word had spread through the North Island’s gay community and the numbers increased each year, peaking at 1500 in 2020.

Since then, the annual pilgrimage has become about community, respect, and not apologising for who you are.

The founders

Then-closeted George Mason​, 72, remembers helping a carload of gay men find Vinegar Hill in the ‘70s.

George Mason comes to the Hill before Christmas, securing the best spot on the river bank.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

George Mason comes to the Hill before Christmas, securing the best spot on the river bank.

As a young man he worked on the railways based in Taihape, 30 minutes out of Hunterville.

“They were raging, saying they were looking for Vinegar Hill. I said, ‘follow me’,” Mason recalls.

“I took them there. At that point I left them to it, but one did ask me if I was gay… I was thinking, ‘oh, don’t tell those fellas’, but then said, ‘yes, I think I am’.”

Mason went on to marry a woman, but couldn’t stand being dishonest. He came out to her as gay.

“My wife told me to go, she said, ‘go do what you gotta do, don’t let me hold you back.’

“But she was pregnant with our first by then. I told her, ‘I’m not gonna leave you like this’. We now have two sons, ten grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and I think one great-great.”

Mason says his family has always been supportive, and once the children grew up, some summers they would go to the camp as a whānau.

Most campers wouldn't be out of place at any other campsite, except for the numerous rainbow flags.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Most campers wouldn’t be out of place at any other campsite, except for the numerous rainbow flags.

He was openly gay, but says he never had any boyfriends – his wife has been his lifelong companion.

He didn’t become a Vinegar Hill regular until the mid-80s, but a lot of his early memories of the camp are sombre. He says the New Year’s after homosexual law reform passed in 1986 was the last year a number of his friends went to the camp, due to illness.

Mason didn’t know what they were sick with, but the partners of those who died didn’t want to return: “The good memories were too painful.”

In the New Year’s leading into 2022, Mason camped alone only because his wife was too sick to travel.

“I love it here,” he says. “I can’t imagine not coming back… she’s gutted she can’t make it.”

Camp traditions

Dennis Ralph​, who performs under the name Gloria, or Gloriousole, 69, is another veteran of Vinegar Hill.

He began to camp when word of the Hill made its way through Hamilton’s gay scene, and he and some friends decided to check it out.

Dennis Ralph, centre, aka Gloria, being anointed honorary queen mother in 2020.

Tisha Klein/Supplied

Dennis Ralph, centre, aka Gloria, being anointed honorary queen mother in 2020.

“It wasn’t as extravagant as it is these days. Our stage would be the back of a ute, where we’d dance and play music. The sound was dreadful.”

Ralph began performing drag as Gloria, but says for years no one knew of Gloria’s real identity. He said he’d sneak into the camp in costume, perform, then leave and return as the quiet Dennis Ralph, preferring then to keep to himself.

These days he’s known as the fairy godmother, and honorary queen mother. Several campers say if it wasn’t for Gloria, the camp, and many current members of Aotearoa’s drag scene, wouldn’t be as active as they are today.

“The first generation who came here, came to party hard,” recalls Ralph. “It felt like the only safe place to do it. People were terrified. There was a sense of desperation.

“Every year became a roll call of who was still here.”

Until homosexual law reform in 1986, the camp was a male-only affair.

“The movement of making it legal couldn’t have been done without women, so after that we agreed they should be invited.”

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The inclusion of other rainbow identities meant the numbers at Vinegar Hill grew again, though was still a male-dominated camp. By the 90s, dozens became a couple of hundred. Events became tradition.

It was Kennedy-Vaughan who created the Queen of the Hill ceremony in ‘85, though it was unintentional.

“Bill Armstrong​, though we knew him as Wellamiena​, was a fabulously outrageous man who would do anything to help you. If you ran out of batteries, he’d give you his. Anything you needed, he found.

“He’d bring plastic plants to camp, build a picket fence, and every morning would come out in nothing but an apron and bonnet and water them.

“I saw a trophy when I was in the shops at Hunterville and presented it to him on New Year’s Eve. He then got it mounted and engraved, the next year he gave it back to me and said ‘hey, b…., it’s your turn now.’”

In the years to follow, the queens were appointed by vote of former queens, who formed the Queens’ Council. The reigning queen receives a ‘queen tax’ from people who want to attend the camp, which is invested in events and equipment.

Camper and unofficial Vinegar Hill historian Calum Bennachie​, 60, says in those days it was more of a “beauty queen-type thing”.

“A Miss America song would play,” Bennachie says, recounting the experiences of people he has spoken to throughout the years. Bennachie himself only began coming to the hill in the late nineties.

Steve McTague (left) with his dog Stellar, and Calum Bennachie in their campsite by the river.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Steve McTague (left) with his dog Stellar, and Calum Bennachie in their campsite by the river.

“At the camp you feel like you’re in the majority for once. You don’t have to hide you are. People come here and they live as they wish they could everywhere else.”

Bennachie says while some “camped it up” when they went to gay bars or a pride parade, the camp is incredibly ordinary.

In the mornings, people in pyjamas and messy hair get up and make their coffee. During the day it’s togs, sunbathing and board games.

It’s like any other family camp, but with rainbow flags.

“It’s important we record the stories of people who come here, for the people who come later. When I die, who is going to know the history, the significance of this place?”

An evolving community

In the 90s, women and children became a more regular sight. More events were created to cater for the different tastes and needs of the campers.

“The worst event I’d say is when I was crowned [in 2003],” laughs Bennachie.

“I only brought one CD, the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. People got very tired of the time warp by the end.”

Shayno Baron​, the reigning queen of 2021 and 2022, doesn’t remember much about the early years at the camp, beginning in ‘84 – he was too busy having fun.

Shayno Baron became the camp queen for 2021, and kept the title for an extra year due to Covid-19.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Shayno Baron became the camp queen for 2021, and kept the title for an extra year due to Covid-19.

But he does remember how it felt to be queer at the time. He lived in Whanganui, only 45 minutes from Vinegar Hill, and grew up with normalised homophobia.

“I remember in ‘85, seeing the Salvation Army out with their petitions to stop homosexual law reform,” he recalls. “We met up and went out and scribbled all over their pages.”

He and his then-partner adopted a son in ‘94, and when he turned three they became one of multiple queer couples who brought their children to the Hill. Baron says it cemented the camp’s reputation for being a safe place for everyone.

“My son only said to me yesterday how going to the camp still resonated with him, and that it was cool I took him out there. He’s straight but said because of it he is more accepting of gay people, because he saw them as just normal people.”

A place to feel safe

Amy Rijuamanaq​, 74, was the first transgender woman to become a regular at the Hill.

She doesn’t remember exactly when she started going – just that once she started, it was home, and she’d stay for weeks on end.

“Some of my favourite memories were in the girls’ bathroom,” she says. “It was huge. I don’t know whether the parties were bigger outside or inside the bathroom in those days.”

Amy Rijuamanaq and her home away from home - a caravan she has kitted out herself.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Amy Rijuamanaq and her home away from home – a caravan she has kitted out herself.

Lesbians would cram in like sardines and dance, giving toilet-users the dignity of a momentarily turned back.

Another stand-out was how kind the locals were. She has a fond memory of someone she only knew as “the bush man”, who’d come to party at night then wander off home. He’d walk Amy back to her caravan after dark: “And he’d never try it on, he just wanted me to get home safe.”

Amy Rijuamanaq loves collecting trinkets from her travels – everything has a story.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Amy Rijuamanaq loves collecting trinkets from her travels – everything has a story.

“The last time I ever saw him I asked him, ‘when will I see you again’? He gave me a map with random dots all around it, and said ‘when you figure out the map’. I never did. I still carry it with me.”

Rijuamanaq says after a difficult upbringing and life, Vinegar Hill is one place where she feels she belongs.

“This is the only place I really feel at home and safe. You can be yourself… nothing would stop me coming here. I’d walk here if I had to.

“You don’t even need to know names here, you learn their faces. Every year its like, ‘oh they’re back, good’.”

Younger members of the community look to Rijuamanaq as a mother figure, often in awe of her stories and memorabilia, which include a police baton she stole after being chased for ‘loitering’ (she was wearing a dress in public).

“I’m just so glad we’ve got children and teenagers coming here. If they love it enough, they’ll keep it going. I could die peacefully knowing the camp is in safe hands.”

The ‘Lesbian Corner’

When Lynette Knox​, 67, and Iria Pene​, 61, began coming to the Hill in 2000, they were among the few lesbians in attendance. They said by 2022 the ratio was 50:50 to gay men.

They had been invited by Kennedy-Vaughan and his partner, so camped “with the boys”, but life at the Hill was different for women.

“The boys had their traditions, and we didn’t fit in with a lot of their events… the other women there were incredible.

“We thought we’d only go for a day, but knew we wanted to stay longer when we met everyone.”

They stayed for eight days, and have been going ever since. More lesbian-inclusive events have been created since then, and older women began to pitch their tents in “Lesbian Corner”.

Ellie Barker’s​ life completely changed in the year after going to the Hill.

The 23-year-old came out of the closet at 18, but it was in 2020 that a friend suggested she checked the gay camp out.

Ellie Barker credits a life full of travel, friends and drag to her time at the Hill.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Ellie Barker credits a life full of travel, friends and drag to her time at the Hill.

She ended up staying for a week and a half. She has since travelled the country to visit “our gay grandads” and others she met at the camp. She performed drag for the first time in 2020, and it’s now an important part of her life.

“There are a lot of expectations put on you in everyday life, but here I can just be myself.”

Her new queer whānau didn’t just help her come out of her shell. She’s learnt a lot about Aotearoa’s queer history – the struggles, pride and wins.

Barker’s first year at the Hill was the first time in two decades campers were confronted with abuse.

A couple of car loads of people pulled up and began shouting homophobic slurs.

It was a much smaller, but still shocking, reminder of the carloads that began to do burnouts and ransack tents in the 1990s before the police got involved.

“Without a word, hundreds of us came out from our tents and surrounded them. We just walked them out of the grounds.

“I’d never seen homophobia so blatant before, but there were too many of us to take on.

“It makes you not take for granted what New Zealand is like now… it makes you more aware of where we have to go, how we don’t repeat mistakes.”