New Zealand; Taking the Freedom Out of Freedom Camping

Updated: Apr 19, 2019

What a time to be alive; air fares are cheaper than ever, we have maps in our hands to tell us exactly where we are and where we need to go, and when it comes to surfing, we have all the information literally telling us where to drive to to catch a swell, so what the hell went wrong?

Ever since first watching Drive Thru New Zealand, the surf trip series, back in 2008, the wild and uncrowded landscape of New Zealand drew me in. I always imagined getting a van, kitting it out to live in, and just make my way around the islands, pulling up and settling down wherever the swell was.

It took all of ten minutes to have that particular dream come crashing down on me heavier than a Porthleven lip. Picking up a good deal on a van out in Piha, a little west of Auckland, we loaded it up and prepared to trip around the country in just under a month. No campsites, just stopping wherever there were waves and staying until the swell moved on. Now I had heard how 'freedom camping' had been clamped down on pretty hard by New Zealand, and to clear things up first, I can't really blame them; backpackers are terrible people. The never-ending influx of shitty, disrespectful Europeans (I won't name specific countries) trashing places and royally pissing off the locals has left a sour taste in almost everyone in New Zealand.

Years of hippies and bums camping everywhere has forced the hand of the government to blanket ban most places with 'no overnight stay' signs, thus ending the dream of finding your own patch of surf paradise without angry wardens or locals moving you along. It is pretty disheartening driving along the endless coastline and seeing 'no camping' signs occupying every single point, a guaranteed $200 on the spot fine for anyone busted.

The consolation is a weird one. If you are in a designated 'Self Contained' vehicle; you must have a toilet onboard and enough water storage to be self-sufficient for three days, thus you are self-contained. With this ruling, freedom camping in designated areas is allowed, for a maximum of three nights in a 30 day period. So if you take anything from this, it is that if you are going to road trip around New Zealand in a van, just make sure it is certified 'Self Contained', an official blue sticker you can proudly display on your window to let everyone know you are allowed to shit in your own van. My next venture will be selling these stickers.

A month in New Zealand, and we were mostly confined to council approved 'freedom camping' stops, usually away from the surf and most of the time in some run down car park next to a McDonalds, frequented by the local homeless or the heavy drinking population, neither distinguishable from another. For times when we caved in and went to a campsite, it was now abundantly clear the real reason for no freedom camping; the campsites don't want to lose their business, and man is business booming. Average price of $30-40 a night for an unpowered patch of soil, grass if you're lucky, and if you have a hot shower available for 'free', then you probably have less than five minutes before the ice runs.

These places feel more like refugee camps than holiday parks, the more greedy operators won't even bother keeping one van/tent per spot, they'll double up to double their profits. Showers not working? Well, one still does so why waste money to fix anything? Nobody gives a shit, tourists will continue to pile in because what other options do we have? Nobody comes back so who needs a good reputation to uphold? If you do want to stay in a moderately well kept campsite, you're looking at over $50 per person per night, all the while sharing the space with families, seasonal workers and other disgruntled travellers. Not quite the dream I had in mind.

The days of rocking up to a firing beach break and pitching tent are over, and after dealing with the same shit in Australia as well, it is time to change it up. Time to plan for remote surf trips in paradises of a different sort. Forget Europe, the 70s ain't coming back. Forget Australia and New Zealand, the backpacker swarm will only grow. Africa? the Middle East? Tales of uncrowded waves peeling in isolation are still out there, somewhere, you just have to give up the home comfort of safety to find it in these overpopulated and restricted times we live in.