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Freedom campers say NZ is too expensive

Budget travellers Leonard and Celina from Germany said NZ was expensive and facilities in free campgrounds poorly maintained. Photo: Michael Andrew
We’ve heard what Kiwis and local councils think about freedom camping, but what do those who practise it think of the kerfuffle? Michael Andrew finds out

With freedom camping coming under increasing scrutiny because of pollution and overcrowding, some tourists have argued that poor infrastructure and the high cost of living is to blame.

German visitors Celina and Leonard, who were travelling in a rental car, were unaware of the controversy of freedom camping before they arrived in New Zealand. However, they learned the rules from fellow travellers and apps like Campermate.

While they attempted to be as respectful and tidy as possible, it was often difficult due to poorly maintained facilities at free camping spots.

“The toilets are disgusting,” Celina said. “They’re not taken care of so we sometimes saw people walking into the bushes with toilet paper.”

Human waste at camping spots has been a major issue this summer, with reports of toilet paper strewn down the side of tracks at pristine locations.

“Rubbish bins are also a problem,” Celina said. “We picked up someone else’s rubbish once and had to carry it in the car for a week because we couldn’t find a bin.”

Fresh out of high school, the couple was travelling on working holiday visas. They sought out free campgrounds instead of the better-equipped paid ones because New Zealand was far more expensive than they expected and wages were usually too low to afford the cost of paid campgrounds every night.

“In Australia, we saved $800 in three days,” Leonard said. “Here, we saved $800 in a month. Australia also has many more free camping spots than New Zealand, and with better facilities.”

While the couple did find a few free camping spots with excellent facilities, such as Te Kauwhata Domain in Waikato, there were so few that overcrowding was often a problem.

It’s not just foreigners that find budget travelling in New Zealand a challenge. Kiwis Alex and Ben were exploring Northland in their self-contained campervan. Although they never saw any mess, they often found the freedom camping laws to be confusing and inconsistent.

While the pair were camping in Whangarei, which has a district-wide allowance for freedom campers in self-contained vehicles, a hired contractor arrived and attempted to send them away.

“He said we couldn’t stay there,” Ben said. “So I showed him the rules in the council pamphlet, but he still said we had to leave.”

They emailed the council a few days later, which confirmed they were permitted to camp there.

“Nobody seems to know anything. And people end up getting funnelled to designated free spots like Waipu Caves which end up overcrowded.”

Despite the overcrowding and vague rules, Celina and Leonard loved travelling in New Zealand and would return, even if the freedom camping rules were tighter.

“There just needs to be more toilets, showers and bins,” Leonard said. “We could pay a fee at the airport – $20, $30 even $100. It would still be cheaper than paying for a campground and a shower every night.”

– All those interviewed for this story requested their surnames not be published.