Camp site near Franz Josef

Honkers - freedom camping New Zealand

Tue 21 Jan 2020

With the tourism numbers of New Zealand breaching 3.5 million people per annum, this country is well on its way to hosting more visitors than it has population. Since my last visit in 2005, the number of travellers has almost doubled…

Is that visible? Hell yeah! No more abundantly so than on the roads that circuit and criss-cross the South Island. Self-contained freedom campers of all sizes (Mercedes-Benz "big box" campers, Toyota Hiace hi-roofs, and everything in between) are never more than 5 minutes from sight.

It's incredibly popular, but what is the reality of the freedom camping experience of New Zealand? Let's explore:

DOC Campsites (Department of Conservation)

No question the Department of Conservation is trying to service the numbers. While we travelled, we stopped in at a number of places hidden up the back of dirt roads, nestled just off the track. Adjacent to a portable toilet of questionable hygiene, you can find a free campsite. Don't expect panoramic views, just mosquitoes.

Getting lucky

As far as 100 km around Franz Josefis is stitched up by commercial interests. We got lucky when we drifted into the car park of a helicopter tour business and struck up a conversation with the entrepreneurial farm owner turned pilot turned tourism business owner.
"We can't afford your tour, but can we pay to camp here?" we pleaded.
" We don't welcome backpackers to camp here because they shut up the place… but you seem all right - you can camp here for free," was the response.
We were stoked and enjoyed an exclusive night beside a roaring glacial fed stream.


Not Hong Kong, but the sound of horns in the middle of the night when you get too tired to drive-on and park roadside near Haast. Seems the local inbreds, despite the best bacon and egg pie anywhere in the world available in their tiny town, will show their dissent for midnight roadside camping with a long blast of the horn as they pass on the road to nowhere and their meagre lives. I note that they don't fully appreciate that they have the best road infrastructure this side of Estonia courtesy of the drive tour dollar. Ungrateful dicks.

Welcome to Wanaka, make sure you leave.

Some 15 years later revisiting Wanaka, and the chill in this chilled-out town has warmed due to global tourism pressure. We were hanging out in the car park having dinner, watching the procession of people walking back and forth to an isolated, limp, half-submerged tree in the lake, when we were confronted by the local parking do-gooders. As if the tree was not disappointing enough, the friendly banter sponsored by tourism forces was tuned to remind us to leave (ie, not park overnight). Wanaka has lost the charm I remember, perhaps forever.


Eastward on our road trip and the free camp spot of choice from one of a number of camp apps has us jam into the last spot available in a car park set aside for overnighters. Complete with temporary toilets and a number of bins, it was actually relatively peaceful despite the proximity of 25 odd self-contained campers of every dimension and budget. For a minimal stop, it was satisfactory.

OK, I'll pay

Probably the best idea of mine and in defiance of the budget-we-can-free-camp attitude of having a camper was probably the stay over at Hokitika. It was sub-NZ$ 30 to have a small camper sized park with reasonable amenities and friendly hospitality. Full-sized showers and a nearby attraction made it all worthwhile.
Central New Zealand South island Van camping

Related Links:
   DOC Campsites New Zealand

Story by:
John Nayler
John Nayler has been a flat-out-traveller for almost 20 years. 37 countries, but who's counting - he is likely to have been there, done that AND probably recorded something about it. You want entertaining answers? You have come to the right place.

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