Wanaka’s long-held reputation for alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour on New Year’s Eve has always carried an undercurrent of sexual assault rumours, long-serving Wanaka Community Board member Jude Battson says.

This year’s Ardmore St gathering occurred against a backdrop of Covid-19 restrictions on events.

Thousands of young people, many intoxicated, gathered on the lakefront as usual, even though there was not the usual ratepayer-funded entertainment and fireworks.

Thousands more people gathered at the ticketed, 10th annual Rhythm & Alps music festival in the Cardrona Valley.

Wanaka has been a New Year’s Eve holiday destination since around the 1960s, when people began converging on camping grounds and baches for big drinking sessions.

Riots of varying sizes have occurred over the years, and Wanaka police routinely bolster their numbers during the festive season.

For example, in 1987, every window of the newly built Lake Hawea Hotel was broken in a riot.

On December 31, 2005, a mob of 500 revellers overturned a car at the Albert Town camping ground and set it alight.

In 2009, Wanaka Community Board members rejected proposals to create a Schoolies-style graduation event, because it wanted Wanaka to be seen as family-friendly, rather than a party hub.

The revellers keep coming.

Ms Battson has lived in Wanaka since the 1980s, was first elected to the community board in 1998, and has volunteered for the Upper Clutha Women’s Support Group for 20 years.

“I think sexual assaults were possibly even more then than what they are now, but not reported. I know from Women’s Support there are some people who don’t go to the police.”

Drunken behaviour, litter, broken glass and freedom camping have been the main focus of community efforts to keep things seemly.

The crowd in Wanaka on New Year’s Eve was, in many ways, similar to previous end of year celebrations.

News reporters observed police out in force, issuing fines for breaches of the liquor ban, while a team of 20 security officers from Christchurch also worked the crowd.

One security guard, who declined to be named, said news the entertainment had been cancelled because of Covid-19 had not reached everyone and many had come down town expecting something to happen.

On January 1, News reporters received anecdotal information many people had reported unwanted sexual approaches to health workers, volunteers and social workers.

Ms Battson said her time with the Women’s Support Group had been a “constant learning curve”, but sexual abuse, rape and alcohol issues existed in all communities, not just Wanaka, and were New Zealand’s biggest problems.

Where the complainants and perpetrators lived did not matter that the behaviour happened at all, she said.

“It is about New Zealand and New Zealanders, everything from the way parents parent to the education system . . . the behaviour of sexual abuse just seems to increase and there seems no solution to the problem.”

She recalled the 1980s window-smashing event triggered community soul-searching and prompted the council to get involved in organising New Year’s Eve events.

“It all started from the big horrible event that year . . . I can recall when all the windows were smashed in town and I recall . . . we didn’t have emergency services and support services like we do now. It is not something new.”

After a “particularly serious” series of incidents at Lake Hawea reported sexual offending, broken glass, freedom camping and public defecation and the Queenstown Lakes District Council redoubled efforts to find meaningful solutions and focused arrangements, she said.

“Over the years, meetings have included police, waste management, and other emergency services, about what the setup will be. [For example] The police would discuss what sort of bus they would bring. That culminated in the Red Frogs. They’ve been needed because, over the years, there has never been enough support on the day for what can happen.”

Red Frogs volunteers on the Wanaka waterfront during New Year’s Eve 2021. PHOTOS: MARJORIE COOK

Red Frogs Otago co-ordinator Ray Thomson said volunteers were operating in Wanaka from December 29-31 and the early hours of January 1.

“On New Year’s Eve in particular our volunteers experienced an increase of female patrons saying they were feeling unsafe, or had experienced negative interactions including unwanted sexual attention.

“This had increased from the previous responses we have done in Wanaka during the New Year period.”

Asked if Red Frogs had concerns about alcohol consumption, event organisation or the trend of youth drinking, Mr Thomson said young people congregated every year along the waterfront, at the skate park and in the Dinosaur Playground.

“Some are perfectly fine, out having a good time with their mates; however we do encounter a large number of young people at various levels of intoxication, as well as drug use.

“Many of the youth come from outside of the region and can range from early teens through to young adults.

“We are concerned about young people drinking is why we work with the Queenstown Lakes District Council, police, St John and security to reduce harm during this period.”

He said steps to stay safe included staying with your mates, looking out for one another, and having a plan if you become separated.

“Have a get home plan. Prearrange a time to get picked up by a responsible adult, or if you have to walk, walk in a group.

“If you are feeling unsafe there are support agencies there to help .. Don’t be afraid to ask us for help. We aren’t there to judge you, but to make sure you are safe.”

He also recommended adults be present and available for their young people barbecue at a bach or at the end of the phone”.

Over the past six years, actions in Wanaka to minimise harm during New Year’s included installing additional lighting towers to light key risk areas, additional personnel on duty, safe chillout zones and onsite medics.

These measures were also in place in the nights leading up to December 31, Mr Thomson said.

Preventing sexual assault was a team effort and a real concern for the Red Frogs.

“In New Zealand, sexual assault is a major health and wellbeing issue and unfortunately is more common than people realise.

“We need to move away from a culture of victim shaming, of where sexual assault is acceptable and raise awareness that it is a genuine issue.

“It is easy to think in regional areas such as Wanaka it won’t happen here, but unfortunately it does and the effects are devastating,” he said.

Ms Battson urged all people who have been abused to speak out, even anonymously.

If parents knew their teens were coming to Wanaka at New Year, they should talk about what could happen and reassure their teens they were there for them.

New Year parties were also something schools could talk about, in terms of what people were going to do in their holidays and how to keep safe, she said.

“This year we can look forward to having events in place, and an area on Pembroke Park for younger teens, so people can get dancing and moving. That seems to have worked in the past .. We can blame Covid, but it doesn’t alter the problem are still going to be there.

“The biggest problem we are talking about here is the alcohol because that’s what changes people’s behaviour. That is New Zealand’s biggest problem,” Ms Battson said.