Friday, 19 January 2018

The Myths & Reality of Freedom Camping

Tourist season is in full swing and with it comes the inevitable media coverage of hordes of freedom campers descending on some of our nation's prized beauty spots and turning them into a giant rubbish dump and public toilet.  It's a frustrating time because, as with most things in life, the reality is it is usually just a small few disrespecting our country and the privilege of being able to see and experience it at minimum cost.  Unfortunately we all unavoidably get tarred with the same brush, which we hate.  Retired Kiwi couples in $250,000 motor homes are looked upon with the same disdain and negativity by those who read the stories as a group of European teenagers in a tent.  To their mind, we're all the same.  Which technically we are.  Everybody loves something for nothing after all, and some of the most incredible camping spots in the country are free.  We've stayed at them, they remain some of my favourites - often no paid campsite could possibly compare for the views and location - and I never feel luckier than when we get to stay in a place for free.

People picture freedom camping in NZ like this...

When the reality is more like this...

Even so, you wouldn't catch us dead in most of them at this time of year.  We don't need to limit our 'Kiwi experience' to the summer months, we get to enjoy it all the time! We're happy to wait until the rest of the world has gone home and we can take advantage of these beautiful free spots in relative peace and quiet.  And beautiful or not, in summer at least many freedom camps ARE eyesores.  Imagine between 80 and 140 vehicles packed like sardines into the one space every single day and night; everyone hanging out washing, airing bedding, washing dishes, clothes and bodies in rivers and lakes or in buckets.  They're all just doing what they need to do, getting back to basics, like in the good old camping days.  But unlike the 'good old camping days' these places aren't in picturesque fields, tucked away from the rest of the world.  They're in public cark parks and prominent surf and dog walking spots, on waterfronts, in front of people's houses.  They look like shanty towns or a giant hippy gathering and many people find them intimidating.  It doesn't matter how lovely the people are on the inside; from the outside it looks bad and that's why freedom camping is so often in the news.

I'm not sure whether other countries use the term 'freedom camping' as much as we do here.  But when it comes to this country at least, I'm not alone in feeling that the term 'freedom camping' gives off the wrong connotations.  What sounds very idyllic in theory is misinterpreted widely, giving overseas visitors and Kiwis alike the impression that here in jolly old Lord of the Rings land you can STAY for free, LIVE for free and all in all BE free.  Even Gareth and I thought this was the case when we first talked about living on the road and thought we would never have to pay a cent to stay anywhere again!  Lovely as that sounds, it simply isn't true.  A couple of years ago it was, but not any more. You can indeed stay for free at a lot of places if you have the right set-up - in other words a certified self-contained vehicle, with a toilet on board which can be used at all times, as well as adequate water and waste disposal facilities.  However most overseas visitors do not have the money to afford a self contained vehicle.  It's cheap enough to buy a vehicle big enough to sleep and cook in - but if you don't have that all important self-contained status, your options for getting around New Zealand cheaply and easily become a lot more limited.

If you don't have one of these, your freedom camping spots are a lot fewer and farther between!

This is where the problem starts.  Our excited young tourists arrive in the country, hop off the plane and buy or rent a non-self contained vehicle, only to find to their horror that they cannot park in a lot of places after all, at least not without risking a $200 fine for not being self-contained.  Ironically a lot of freedom camps DO have public toilets, but still do not permit non-self contained vehicles to stay there, so they still get fined, as happened to a friend of ours who was woken at three o'clock in the morning by a warden issuing her with a sticker.  This leaves them with two options - the first of which is to stay at a paid campground or holiday park, which at this time of year will cost them between $20 and $60 per night.  In all honesty, this is the way it should be - but as we found in our first few weeks of living on the road, nobody can keep that up.  Most freedom campers have very little money.  Spending even $20 a night to stay anywhere is not an option for them because they simply don't have it.  Which sounds crazy, why would you purposely travel to a country on the other side of the world for a holiday with no money?  Simple - they have been led to believe they can stay anywhere they like for free, so they arrive here without enough funds to be able to afford anything else.  So their only other option is to park up wherever the hell they can, often en masse, as long as they can get away with it.  This of course pisses off the locals no end and they kick up a stink.  The tourist industry likes to argue that they spend a lot of money in our country, but this isn't true.  Most of them have bugger all money, and the money they do have they will save for once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as bungy jumping in Queenstown, even if it means they have to live on two-minute noodles and thin air for weeks at a time to do so.

Forgive me here if that paints these poor young people in a negative light.  I'm trying to explain the situation, not the people.  We have made a lot of wonderful friends from all over the world, who rely almost totally on freedom camping to be able to fulfil their dreams.  They live on a miniscule amount of money and struggle every day to a) make ends meet and b) find the next place they can stay safely and legally.  One couple we met had managed to survive for six months with just $1200.  That's just $6.60 per day.  Most of them work to supplement their travels, picking fruit or whatever they can find, working long hours for minimum wage.  I admire the heck out of them, they are all lovely people who are not scared to work hard; they learn very fast that they have to.  It is wrong and inaccurate to call them bludgers for being 'too stingy' or 'lazy' to pay for accommodation; in the majority of cases they are simply trying to survive.  The hardest hit places are the popular tourist centres such as Wanaka, Golden Bay and New Plymouth - places with amazing lake or ocean views.  And what tourist wouldn't want to stay in a place like that for free if they could?

Still, as any New Zealander living on the road will tell you, Kiwis are just as bad as overseas visitors when it comes to flouting the rules.  In fact they're probably worse as for some reason they seem to feel that the rules and laws don't apply to locals.  Which is very poor because we have no excuse.  We have the time, the money and the facilities to all be able to achieve certified self-contained vehicles.  In addition, we also have a nationwide motorhoming association, the NZMCA which makes it super cheap and easy to stay all over the country for next to nothing in their 'member only' camping grounds.  These grounds are increasing in number all the time and cost as little as $3 a night for a safe and pleasant place to stay at anywhere from Kerikeri to Whitianga, Waihi Beach, Fiordland and everywhere else in between.  It costs around $90 a year for our membership and you get a heap of awesome discounts to boot, from the Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, to insurance, Department of Conservation camps - even Specsavers!  If you're planning to travel between the North and South Islands even once a year the discount more than covers the cost of the membership.  We Kiwis are incredibly lucky and well provided for.  For overseas campers in search of freedom however, unfortunately it is only going to get harder, as more and more councils and communities are cracking down and putting new laws and boundaries in place; going as far as to literally lock campers out.  It's a huge shame, but to my mind, it seems our country has become a victim of its own misleading marketing and reputation.

Watch out!  Gareth is on the warpath :-D

No matter what though, you always get a few dishonest people who no matter what, try and pull the wool over your eyes.  We've learned that well and truly these past couple of weeks helping to look after the campground.  Our campground is a public domain, with several entrances, meaning that anyone can come in and use the showers or stay for one night or more if they want - for a small fee.  It seems however that for some people even $3 for a shower or $5 for a campsite is more than they are willing to pay and will go to extreme and often amusing lengths to get out of doing so.  Unfortunately for them, they haven't banked on a big hairy Welshman!  The other day Gareth saw a family of Asian motorhomers acting strangely and being deliberately elusive.  Sure enough, his instincts were correct, and despite having brand new signs up, specifically telling campers that washing clothes and dishes in the showers is not permitted, Bevin went and confronted them and discovered that they had paid just $3 (the price of one shower) for four people, and washed around five bags of clothes in the shower!  For starters we have laundry facilities available, as well as water sources all around the campground for washing clothes and dishes, but the biggest problem is the cost of using all the hot water meant for showering.

We ALL need to look after places like this

We've also had to get wise to several people in rental vehicles who like to try and sneak out without paying.  They typically like to slip in late at night, try and park as snugly alongside a fenceline or close to an exit as possible, then leave early in the morning before everyone else is up, so that nobody realises they have even been there.  What they don't realise is that Gareth already has their number plate and we simply ring the rental companies!  If people don't even have $5 to spend, or want to spend at a beautiful campground, surrounded by mountains and some of the most spectacular countryside they can ever hope to see, well then they shouldn't be travelling.  Places like ours are truly unique and precious; we should treasure and respect them, no matter where in the world we come from.  Or as Bevin so rightly sums up.  'If you want to have a great time travelling in New Zealand, don't take the piss!'

1 comment:

  1. You have some valid points Jackie, however I also think those travelling here must respect our rules. If we say use toilets, do not use the ground for example. It is so unhealthy. All travellers I have met have a fund for emergencies and back up, some camp grounds have got expensive, I heard the other day we are on of the most expensive places to travel. I would be keen to support freedom camps with shower and toilets just to stop the filth. We have a few camps here in Hawkes bay, I think they are wise as they have toilets and cold showers, not perfect but something I guess. Respect goes for everyone locals and travellers.