I had a request earlier this week to write about some of the 'wonderful weirdos' I've met who are on the same path as us. At first I couldn't think of any, but then Gareth reminded me of a few! Alas, they will have to wait until I can find a way to write about them in a way which protects their privacy (not to mention their modesty!)
In the meantime however, there's been a bit of discussion this week about freedom camping. Now, I know a lot of people don't like freedom camping. Jings, I should know - every time I get asked to write an article on the subject I hold my breath and wait for the inevitable backlash. I kid you not, many people don't even bother to read the article before going off on a keyboard rant about how we should all stop using the countryside as a toilet and go and get jobs. Just to see the words 'freedom camping' in the title is enough, they're like a red rag to a bull.
Freedom camping is banned at Lake Hayes, with good reason
And I get it. If I paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for a home in a nice, peaceful, scenic location, I wouldn't want it turned into a carpark full of van dwellers hanging their socks and undies out to dry and twanging away on guitars either. Last year we visited Lake Hayes in Queenstown, which had recently banned all freedom camping. It's a beautiful but very urban area, surrounded by multi-million dollar homes which directly overlook the lake. The sheer number of visitors there swimming, kayaking and having picnics was bad enough, and I shuddered to think how horrendous it must have been when camping was still permitted. Before I went there, I used to think the mayor, Jim Boult was a mean, grumpy bloke for not wanting nice people like us in his precious city. That visit however instantly changed my mind and if I met him now I'd shake his hand for protecting his district and in particular Lake Hayes, an area he has personally gone out of his way to invest in from his own pocket. That's how much he loves the place.
A secret 'village' lies beyond
When we first hit the road, I was terrified of freedom camping. Honestly, I was – which sounds really stupid for someone who was planning to do a lot of it. I thought everyone we met would be weirdos or losers and would probably be drunk and offer us drugs. And do you know what? The first one we met was indeed pissed as a newt and kept trying to give us marijuana. However, he wasn't a young European, but a Kiwi who looked to be somewhere around his forties or fifties, it was hard to tell. His name was Billy and he worked on the oyster boats. He and the rest of the crew worked hard and played harder. All day he would be out on the boat, then come in at the end of the day, get completely wasted and sleep in his car at the freedom camp before heading off again before dawn. The day before we arrived, he'd been so drunk the boat ran out of petrol and he was marooned at sea and had to go and be rescued! Still, he was harmless. Even so, it didn't do much to fill me with confidence. As yet, freedom camping was everything I had feared it would be. But there were two other vehicles there at the same camp. One belonged to Larry and Margaret, the other to Colin and Mara. Those of you who have read 'My Van, My Castle' will know they are to this day, very dear friends of ours. They restored my faith in people, and in freedom camping.
People of ALL kinds use freedom camps
I think it may have been Jim Mora who said after interviewing me, 'You guys are the real deal, aren't you? You're not like all these young people who come out here for a couple of months, blast around and go bungy jumping and then go back home to their parents and nice, comfortable houses. You're actually out there doing it, ALL the time'. From what we've seen, this sector makes up around half of the freedom campers in NZ. Hence it's hardly surprising that the general public assumes everyone who freedom camps is a foreign holiday maker. The rest however, are Kiwis and in our experience they fall into three sectors:
1. The retirees, or 'grey nomads'. Let's get one thing straight. Almost every Kiwi traveller or motorhomer uses paid campgrounds at some stage, many of us regularly. But unless you're a squillionaire nobody can afford to stay in a commercial campground all the time. When we first hit the road we used them all the time and it was a great way to get the hang of things and gain confidence. However after three or four weeks of spending between $40 and $50 a night, we soon realised we weren't going to be able to keep that up. Over a month, that worked out to only slightly less than the mortgage I'd just done away with! Retired motorhomers have worked hard all their lives and have more than paid their way. Often we meet people on the road who have had heart attacks or beaten cancer and want to make the most of every day they have left on this earth. They are a joy to meet, an absolute joy and they have earned every bit of their freedom.
2. The work/life balancers. People like Gareth and I, Colin and Mara and many more. We combine work with travel, so we can support our lifestyle. Like I said, even with the benefits of free camping options, this way of life is still far from free. Granted, the cost of living is still a heck of a lot less than most people's but it's definitely not free. A good number of us work from home, like we do, running businesses or doing freelance work. It's funny and a bit annoying that people often assume we don't do anything but it's a fair enough assumption seeing as we don't have to physically go to an office each morning and come home again each day. I mean, it's not as though we need to dress up or anything! More often though, people travel around, working in different locations, doing casual or fixed contract work for a period of weeks or months. If I was to run out of work tomorrow, I'd head to Central Otago or the Bay of Plenty and pick fruit. As long as it's not blueberries, I'm really bad at picking those. But seriously, if you see Kiwi travellers using freedom camps and they're not of obvious retirement age, it's pretty safe to assuming they are working and are paying bills and taxes just like everyone else.
3. The battlers. I think it was the late Robin Williams who said 'Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind, always'. Not everyone is lucky enough to be using freedom camps out of choice. There are people who live in their cars and vans because they have to. We have met a lot of them and that's why I refer to them as battlers, rather than losers, lowlifes and other judgemental and unfortunate names. Do not assume these people are living this way because they want to, or that they are lazy. I mean think about it, given the choice, would you want to live in your car? Sometimes yes, their circumstances have come about through their own poor choices. But they're trying to fix them. It could also just as easily be the result of a relationship break-up, lack of work or lack of housing. Whatever the reason, these people are doing their best to survive each day and sort themselves out, and shouldn't be just written off.
A lot of people have to sleep in their cars when they are trying to find work in a new area, or starting a new job. You can tell them by their clothes hanging up in their cars. Not everyone can pull bond money out of the sky for a rental deposit. One example which springs to mind is a young chap who came down to the Deep South from Auckland to try and make something of himself. He was so quietly spoken, none of us knew what his actual name was, we'd all misheard it differently! Anyway, he was getting into trouble in the city, so was sent to live with family at the other end of the country. He still wasn't pulling his weight and paying his rent however, so he got told to leave. From now on, he was on his own, with nothing but his car and a tent. He got a job and was hoping to rent a place but first he needed to save enough of his pay to afford a bond, so he did what he had to. He worked long hours doing shifts, and would crawl into his tent to get some sleep just as everyone else was waking up. Of course all the other campers were oblivious and I used to feel so sorry for him, trying to sleep in his tent when everyone else was talking and banging and crashing about right outside. I didn't expect him to stick it out, I really didn't. But he did, and around 4 – 6 weeks later, he moved into a rental house of his own. One of our friends saw him just a few months ago and he's still there, still working and doing really well. Sometimes people are just doing what they need to. It's their stepping stone to a more secure future and without freedom camps to help pave the way, they would quite frankly be stuffed.
The number of homeless people sleeping in cars or vans is growing at a frightening rate because there aren't enough houses for the low income bracket to live in. Even when we lived in Whangamata, it made me so angry at the number of my friends, lovely people with young families, who were constantly being given two or three week's notice to vacate long-term rental properties to make room for higher paying holiday makers. It was so heartbreaking to see them fighting desperately to be able to find somewhere in the area so they could keep their jobs, and their children in school with their friends. They rarely succeeded. In my first home at Whangamata, there were 25 houses in our cul-de-sac, yet only five of them were lived in. The rest were all holiday homes, which sat empty for all but a few weeks of the year. Even trained and qualified people such as teachers and tradesmen had to live at campgrounds for years at a time because the waiting list for rentals to become vacant was so impossibly long. If only people realised how much their empty houses could help good people who are desperately in need, perhaps these type of 'freedom campers' wouldn't be such a blot on the landscape.
Freedom camps aren't just free, they're priceless
A lot of people who pay to live in houses feel that freedom campers are bludgers who take advantage and are a drain on the economy. Consider this, however. Would you rather a person slept in their vehicle at a freedom camp while trying to get by and find work, or would you rather Work and Income NZ paid $1250 a WEEK for someone who doesn't work and has no intention of doing so, to stay in a motel? Because this is what is happening, right now, due to the shortage of rental homes available. I know for sure, if I were ever in that position, I would much rather rough it and rely on myself. I would think that would make me far less of a bludger.
I'm not saying everyone who freedom camps is an angel. Some are indeed hideous and a prize pain in the bum. And as I said at the start, I wouldn't want it constantly on my doorstep either. But freedom camps do have their place, a very valuable place which many Kiwis are lucky to have and can attribute their very survival to. Done properly and done well, they are a huge asset to our unique melting pot of a country.