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Sam Shead finds there's no room to manoeuvre his self-contained camper.
We risked it in our camper van just outside Wanaka. We'd found a patch of grass that we thought we might be able to freedom camp on, just off a road by Glendhu Bay, where Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel owns a 193ha farm.
"I'm scared Sam," my girlfriend, Ally, tells me before she attempts to drift off to sleep in the back of the converted Ford Transit we're renting. She's worried someone is going to come knocking on our door and give us a $200 fine we can't afford for breaking New Zealand's freedom camping laws.
My girlfriend and I are respectful people who care deeply for the environment. As are, I suspect, the overwhelming majority of campers who travel around New Zealand. We don't want to poo in your bushes, urinate in your rivers, or leave litter on your roads. We want to leave places as we find them. We also want to stay in the wilderness and get away from it all.
Today, campers travelling around the South Island typically have to pay to stay with hordes of others at designated Department of Conservation (Doc) campsites or other official campsites.
London, which we've recently left, is a busy city full of people and cars. But, it turns out, so are many of New Zealand's campsites.
What's worse is many of the campsites are also a rip-off. We paid more than $60 in some towns. When you're trying to travel on a backpacker budget and you're already paying more than $150 a day to hire a basic, self-contained camper that allows you to stay practically anywhere, these camping fees are annoying.
The campsites we paid for often had slightly better facilities than the ones on board our camper but we could have lived without them, and we often did. There were several occasions where we forked out for an expensive campsite and didn't use anything there as we were perfectly happy in our van. Occasionally we got lucky and found a free campsite just outside a town, but many of New Zealand's most popular tourist spots don't have free campsites.
In some parts of the country, we found we could freedom camp outside campsites — on roads and in other public areas — but it wasn't always easy to tell when it was allowed and the rules change everywhere you go.
When we inquired about freedom camping in Tekapo, a rather rude lady working in the iSite told us it was strictly forbidden and that we'd have to leave if we didn't want to pay to stay in the local campsites. We got the impression that lots of Kiwis hate freedom campers. We left Tekapo and stayed at a Doc campsite at Lake Alexandrina, where we paid $10 each (and didn't use any facilities).
As for the rest of the trip, we ran the gauntlet in Kaikoura and slept on the side of the road in a cul-de-sac just outside town but we lay in bed nervous that we were going to be woken up by a local and ordered to move somewhere else. In Wellington, we paid $29 to sleep in a noisy carpark called Cuba Street Motorhome Park, and we had to leave by 8am the next morning. In Dunedin, one of the more accommodating cities for freedom campers, we managed to park overnight for free in a carpark outside The Kensington pub. In places such as Queenstown, we had no choice but to stay in Top 10 Holiday Parks, where we paid more than $60.
We must have spent hundreds of dollars to stay in campsites that, in our heads, we didn't need to stay at. When you're already spending extortionate amounts on experiences, the trip ends up costing a fortune.
Finding peace and solitude in the New Zealand countryside turned out to be harder than we'd anticipated because of the country's ridiculous camping laws.
Something needs to change.