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Freedom camping in New Zealand

A phenomenon exists in New Zealand that dominates the tourist industry here. Freedom camping is the art of driving around this magnificent country, usually in a campervan, and camping in areas of outstanding natural beauty (or beside smelly long drop toilets depending on the site you end up with!)

Blocked by sheep. Pic: Conor Lappin

As part of a year-long expedition, my boyfriend and I decided to hire a camper and explore alone. After many bus journeys of more than 24 hours in South America we were happy to be in control of our own destiny.

By the time I arrived in New Zealand I had well eaten into my allocated budget. Without wanting to rely on credit cards, I have compiled a list of budget stretching tips to help enhance your freedom camping experience.

The aim of this article is to enrich the knowledge of anyone considering freedom camping, with tips on “off the beaten track” camp spots and ideas for cost free activities.

Go off Peak

Travelling in winter gave us the best bargaining tool when choosing our hire company. Most hire companies we approached had a reduced rate for off peak hire (up to $115/day difference).  In the end we set aside nine weeks to explore both the North and South Islands, and managed to bag the campervan with fully covered insurance for less than $2000. This included two drivers and some additional treats thrown in as a bonus.

Be aware that campervans have limited or no insulation and so get cold, particularly at night. Many of the campsites we used did not have power points and so the only way to stay warm is to wrap up in as many layers as possible and cuddle up! Of course, when restrictions do not apply, a great big fire also saves on the cooking LPG and will keep you warm until you turn in for the night.

The fire is also a great social point for other campers you may meet. No one can resist the temptation to hang by the fire with a beer and new friends! But being off peak also meant that we didn’t meet too many people; often we stayed in isolated campsites or roadside lay-bys in hidden corners of the country. In fact, one DOC campsite that is reservation only in summer we had to ourselves.

Do you really need all those extras?

When choosing your campervan and deciding which one is best for your needs, make sure you ask yourself this simple question: do I need this?

We chose a campervan with a straightforward two berth design; with a bed that folds up to a table and bench set, complete with under-floor storage and a simple pump sink and gas cooker. As freedom camping gets banned and frowned upon by more and more councils around the country I would recommend upgrading to a portable or on-board toilet as it is only legal to camp in many places with a self-contained unit. However, if you plan to stay in campsites every night then you would have no use for this; a simple fold out van should be adequate.

The author. Pic: Conor Lappin

It is not necessary to hire snow chains from your rental company. Often they charge by the day, but if you need them (at ski fields or Milford Sounds) you can get cheap day or multi-day hire deals.

When covering both islands consider a one way hire and fly back across the Strait. It will save you the cost of the crossing (up the $400 with the van) and a no frills airline, such as JetStar offer flights between the cities for as little as $59.

Do take out full insurance. It is costly, but after a broken window on our third night we were happy to have the stress of paying for it off our shoulders. Particularly useful on long term rentals are capped rates. Escape Rentals offer a reasonable $700 cap.

Do not pay for internet

A simple and straightforward tip, but anyone away from home for long periods of time knows the value of checking emails and “touching base” with home. Internet rates vary greatly ($2 – $6/hr) but many coffee shops (Esquires) and bars offer free wifi with a purchase. Better than that, many local libraries offer completely free internet access.

Gypsy camping grounds

Some local councils offer areas of land that can be used by campers, free of charge. They have toilet facilities and sometimes even BBQ grills. These areas are often right in townships, with the best on offer in Southland District Council zone. Check in local iSites and on council websites for details.

Look out for Department of Conservation campsites. Charging very little they offer a great option for those on a budget. Although in the summer more of the sites are open and more facilities are offered, they still give you somewhere to rest your head safely. They are especially useful in council areas where freedom camping is banned and campsites have raised their prices accordingly ( Deer Valley Camp about 40km from Hanmer Springs Village for example). Take time and plan your route, and where you will sleep each night.

Free activities

My top free activities are the ones that other people are paying for! Harvest your own green-shell mussels from the rocks by the coast and cook yourself a delicious sunset meal. Stop at local produce shops, often offering free tastings and mouth-watering treats to take back to the van for later. Take the tourists routes and enjoy the scenery from your own bedroom.

On the South Island; see the endangered yellow-eyed penguins waddle clumsily ashore from the lookout about the petrified forest in Curio Bay. Soak in the natural hot pools at Sylvia Flat, only 30km or so from the thermal resorts at Hanmer Springs. Take a stroll along the Kaikoura Peninsula, but watch you don’t trip over a southern fur seal.

Have fun!

Not all activities in New Zealand can be done for free; I certainly don’t advise a DIY bungee jump or homemade skis but shop around to get the best deal available. Don’t commit until you have priced everywhere else and know what you are getting for your money! The cheapest company may not be the best for your needs; sure you can see dolphins from a boat, but if you want to swim with them you have to pay a little more.

Lastly, collect any vouchers that you may get on the back of shopping dockets and receipts, or hidden in the pages of tourist pamphlets and newspapers. These alone can save you a small fortune, with buy one get one free and half price offers regularly popping up.

Now go enjoy the peacefulness of Cape Reinga, burn your bum in your own spa at hot water beach, say “Kia Ora” to a Maori in Rotoura. Don’t forget to salute Mt Cook while cuddling a Kiwi and drinking some Speight’s; just make sure your handbrake’s up for the night.

More by this author on her blog.

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