Freedom Camping in New Zealand – Tor’s Traveller Tales

At the moment I’m counting the days until I leave work and start my winter travels again. I’m lucky enough to earn enough money in the summer (mainly because I live in my van and spend nothing!) so that I can travel every winter, a life I’ll never get tired of. Why? Because there’s always somewhere new to go…

”actually the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I went off to the Russian Visa Processing Centre on Friday, getting prepared for my winter trip on the Trans-Mongolian Express (blog post coming soon). But today I’m going to continue my new Tors Traveller Tales series (check out last weeks post about Nepal) and tell you all about the time I went to New Zealand, bought a backpacker car and travelled the North Island parking in freedom spots, surfing, hiking and kiwi spotting.

Great Barrier Island, New Zealand
Another amazing view, Great Barrier Island, New Zealand

Why New Zealand?

I’ve been to New Zealand several times now (one of the few countries I keep revisiting). It never gets boring! I love the scenery there, the laidback culture and the great hiking and beaches. I decided to spend the winter of 2017 there but rather than travel around on buses as I’ve done before, I was determined to buy a car and be able to go to remote areas I hadn’t yet reached. I did countless research into how to buy a car (I’ve never owned a car before – always been more of a motorbike fan), how/whether to tax and insure it, how not to get ripped off, etc.

 

In the end, it was pretty simple. I browsed Facebook Marketplace for backpacker used cars, went to see several around Auckland, then bought one! I did a thorough check of the car (using a list I’d downloaded from the AA website), had a little test drive, paid the seller then we went together to the Post Office where I registered it in my name and voila, the car was mine.

It was a typical ‘backpacker car’ – a Honda Odyssey estate car, with the back seats taken out and replaced by a wooden raised frame and a double mattress. Under the bed was oodles of storage space filled with camping gear, from folding chairs and tables to a storage box of pots and pans and a gas stove.

I couldn’t wait to get on the road!

My Backpacking Trail

I headed north out of Auckland, following State Highway 1 with the intention of getting all the way to Cape Reinga, the northernmost accessible spot in New Zealand, where two oceans collide and a sacred spot in Maori mythology.

Of course I made several stops along the way, including a two week spot of volunteering with a Workaway family nestled deep in the Maungataniwha forest, where I lived in an old camper van in the driveway and spent most of my stay trying to tame the bush encroaching on the family property. If you’ve never heard of Workaway, it’s one of the best traveller inventions of all time (along with GPS, powerbanks and Bananagram). It’s a website that matches hosts who are looking for volunteers to help out on their land, property or small business in exchange for food and accommodation. It’s a cultural exchange, so the best hosts will make you a part of their family for the time you are visiting and give you a taste of local life. I’ve volunteered for two or three week stays from Tasmania to Belize and loved every one.

 

After mooching up the East coast to the very tip of New Zealand then back down the West coast with lots of hiking and swimming at beautiful beaches along the way, I then went south to Raglan, a popular surfing town. I was using CamperMate, a great app that lists all the campsite in New Zealand from free to cheap to expensive. In Raglan I stayed three nights at Kevs Place, just out of town. Kev himself lives in a boat in a field (yes, you read that correctly) and rents out the rest of the field to campers. I hired a surfboard in town and surfed every day at Ngarunui Beach before driving over to watch the serious surfers in the line-up at Manu Bay (the break used in classic surf movie Endless Summer).

Too soon though, it was time to move on and head for Mount Taranaki, a perfectly symmetrical conical volcano. It’s classed as dormant, not extinct, and last erupted in 1775. There’s wonderful walking on the slopes (or a summit challenge for serious hikers) as well as being surrounded by an amazing coastline along its western boundaries. I did another two week Workaway stint here, painting a garage roof and bottling countless apples and pears for Margie and Ian.

I was joined on the next section of my trip by my friend Tierney, who I met in National Park Village (yes, its real name) after travelling two days along the Forgotten Highway. We immediately went out and hiked the Tongariro Crossing, a gruelling day hike crossing volcanoes, crater lakes, alpine meadows, forests and waterfalls.

After a week with Tierney, meandering slowly back northwards via Taupo, Rotorua and the Coromandel, I was back in Auckland and ready to sell the car, while I did my final Workaway stint. Zoe and I met some years ago when I first volunteered at her waterfront lifestyle block (or smallholding) in the Waitakere Ranges on the outskirts of Auckland. I had two weeks to sell the car before getting on my flight and I just managed it, passing it on to an English backpacker the day before I left. Phew!

Where did I sleep?

Well this was the best part – in the car of course! Every night after cooking my meal under the stars, using my little camp stove, I put all the pots and pans and cooker and chair away underneath the car, then crawled onto the mattress through the back door and carefully pulled it shut. I pulled tight my makeshift curtains (made from a bedsheet) and settled in for the night,. A midnight toilet trek became a mini circus act as I opened the car door, pulled my trainers from under the bed, put them on with my feet dangling out the door then hopped out, reversing the action on the way back in…

New Zealand is fantastic in that there are many legal places you can park up for the night. It’s decided by the individual councils and some don’t allow it but others have designated areas, usually beachside car parks (with toilets and water point). There was always a limit to how many cars could be there but I never struggled to get a space.  If you’re certified self-contained (toilet etc onboard) then there are even more options for freedom parking.

It was pretty amazing to wake up at a beautiful beach, hearing the waves crashing on the sand, and know that it cost me nothing.

 

How did I travel?

The car of course was my mode of transport. I chose my route around the North Island based on my Workaway stays. On a day to day basis though I simply woke up, mapped out the days route, with half of it driving and half doing a hike somewhere enroute and then found somewhere on CamperMate to sleep that night.

The Department of Conservation is fantastic in New Zealand. They maintain hundreds of trails from short hikes to multi-day treks (some so popular that you need to prebook). There’s free parking at the trailheads, clear maps with trails of varying difficulty and good directional markers along the trail. One of my favourite hikes was the Ruakuri loop in Waitomo, which I did after dark to see the trail spectacularly lit up by thousands of glowworms.

My favourite memory

Everything! I really do love New Zealand. It’s definitely a country with something to offer backpackers of all ages. Young first-time travellers can try extreme sports and sleep in hostels for the first time, couples can try out romantic oceanside air BnBs, while older couples can relive their youth in a motorhome.

My favourite memories range from completing the Auckland Colour Run with Paula (now Kiwi citizen, but originally a friend from England), waking up in the car and hearing the sound of the waves crashing on the beach below and driving deeper and deeper into Pureora woods on a narrowing dirt track with Tierney searching for the geographical centre of the North Island.

I’m really enjoying dredging my memory for these tales. What’s your favourite traveller tale and why?

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