THE famed beauty of the Franklin River Reserve outside Toora has spread far and wide, with scores of caravans, tents and campervans regularly parked there. Locals who have kept tabs have counted an average of 25 to 30 vehicles there each day over summer, often many more.
Those in favour of free camping at the reserve argue that the campers contribute to the local economy by buying provisions of one sort or another in the nearby towns of Toora and Foster.
‘But at what cost?’ say others, pointing to the overflowing rubbish bins and the overused toilet facilities, originally designed for no more than a dozen flushes per week.
“So much for ‘leave no trace’,” said Rachel Brown, who runs the nearby Toora Tourist Park with husband Andrew. She was referring to the self-containment code of conduct for Recreational Vehicle (RV) users, which promotes environmentally responsible camping.
South Gippsland Shire Council’s highly contentious decision to allow free camping at the reserve as part of its Recreational Vehicle Strategy 2014 was made primarily to attract RV users.
“RV users are self-contained, self-sufficient and do not require external toilet, shower and BBQ facilities,” reads the RV Strategy. Yet the majority of people who overnight at Franklin River Reserve are clearly far from self-sufficient. From her observations, Rachel Brown estimates as few as 10 or 20 per cent of the campers are RV users, with the majority being travellers in small vans, cars and/or tents.
Multiply the number of vehicles commonly at the reserve by two, to allow for a couple of holidaymakers per vehicle at the very least, and numbers of visitors making use of the limited facilities at the reserve mounts up significantly. Shire workers generally collect rubbish bins three times each week, but often this is not enough. Last weekend (a long holiday weekend) had barely started when the bins were already full and overflowing, creating a terrible eyesore, if not a health hazard. This is the case more often than not.
The health of the Franklin River is also at risk, suggested Ms Brown. “The septic system is not designed for this amount of use.”
She said that a shire truck and excavator recently spent a day at the reserve digging trenches to deal with problems with the septic system. “And it’s the ratepayers who are paying for all this,” she pointed out.
“It was a challenging process when we developed the RV Strategy,” admitted South Gippsland Shire Coastal Promontory ward councillor Cr Mohya Davies. “A large percentage of the community is in support of free camping, although there is some opposition. There are pros and cons, and I am aware it comes at a cost.”
Cr Davies said that Council had increased the rubbish collection at the reserve in a bid to keep up with the demand from campers, and the septic issue has been fixed – for the moment – with no plans to upgrade the current small toilet block.
The councillor said that she regularly calls into Franklin River Reserve and acknowledges that there are very few self-contained RVs among the many users of the reserve.
“Council needs to understand the costs of allowing people to camp there. I acknowledge there are very strong opinions on both sides of the debate. The RV Strategy will be reviewed at some stage. We have to ask ourselves: ‘Is this what we want the Franklin River Reserve to look like?’”