Meeting like-minded people during your travels is great, hearing about their trips and exchanging some advice about the local attractions vital – but after seeing the same people at the different campsites for three days in a row was getting too much for us. We decided to go wild. They call it freedom camping here, you are actually allowed to stop anywhere on suitable places outside of rural areas and spend the night in your campervan. (This is very different e.g. to California in the US where I once travelled and was told very clearly to move on and book into a motel.)
There are exceptions of course, it’s wise to look for signs and do a quick web search about the region. As too many people have misused this privilege by staying in unsuitable places or leaving trash or damage behind, restrictions have been put in place by the DOC (department of conservation) and local authorities. Some regions publish maps (e.g. here is one from the Queenstown Lakes District council which we used to freedom camp near Wanaka). In general rural areas are unsuitable, so driving a few kilometers outside of town and looking for a “Freedom Camping area start” sign (written in red) is the best thing to go on.
And of course you have to be a “self-contained” vehicle (with sticker on the van), so that you can be independent and no waste will be left behind. Our mother-of-all campervan is self-contained for sure (Except for situations where the battery runs flat in the middle of the mountains and the van becomes dependend on the friendly man from the AA to jump-start us, but that’s a different story) and we often try to take more rubbish than we produce away from where we go.
So much for the theory.
So here we are in the middle of nowhere on very small parking space at the shores of Lake Waihola in the south-east of the south island of New Zealand. The van filles the space almost entirely. While enjoying the sunset we already spotted some birds (mostly Silvereyes and New Zealand Hawks), dragonflies and rabbits around us. It’s all quite lovely and peaceful. We’re preparing a quick meal in our little kitchen (our dinners somehow tend to get a bit late in situations like these) and are getting ready for the night.
But we actually aren’t experienced campers and both of us always worry too much. So it was only a matter of time until one of us comes out with the question, “Are we actually allowed to stay here?” The fines are pretty painful, the matter would be pretty embarrassing. But we know that there were no signs, we’re outside of the city and the council information suggests that it should be OK. But what if in the middle of the night someone tells us…? We do like it here though and decide to stay.
But as mentioned we aren’t experienced campers and both of us always worry too much. “Are we actually safe here in the middle of nowhere at night?” had to be the next question to pop. A car had stopped a few hundred meters up the road. Why was that person just sitting there, was he watching us? Anja pulls out the large binoculars but it remains a mistery. Eating our dinner is interrupted by looks back over there, yes, he’s still there. After a seemingly very long time the car finally drives off, leaving us not less worried. Will he come back?
Trying to forget these thoughts we are going to bed in the back of our van. It’s completely dark out here, you can see millions of stars. We haven’t seen the milkyway like this in a long time. But out of the darkness comes a car and pulls up next to us on the little parking place. All the worries come rushing back. We can see two people in the pick-up truck. We have locked the doors. We have kitchen knifes. We can try to drive off quickly. But after a while there is a small light visible in the car going back and forth between them and the two young men start giggling. We probably don’t have to worry about these two anymore.
I go to sleep and stop worrying, while Anja listens carefully to the freight trains passing by throughout the night. We didn’t realize that there are active train tracks pretty much immediately next to our spot. The trains are impressively long and apparently impressively loud.
We did enjoy our night out in the bush, but we might need more practice in order to sleep better or pick our spots better. We were certainly rewarded by a beautiful bird concert in the morning before hitting the road again.