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Campervan Travels To Free Camp Site In Whangarei, New Zealand

We discover New Zealand’s incredible network of free camping sites.

WHANGAREI, New Zealand- “I think it’s beautiful when nature and technology are together,” my eight-year-old daughter Petra said to me as we stood together on the shore of the bay to the north of Whangarei on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island.

I agreed with her, but I didn’t quite know if she really meant what I took her to mean.

I asked her to explain.

“Like the lights shining on the water over there,” she said. “I like that.”

Few adults are able to be mutually fascinated by both the works of nature and those of man. We often choose one camp or the other. Like my daughter — and probably most kids for that matter — I straddle both sides of the line. I like mountains and I like skyscrapers. I like rolling hills of green and seas of high-rises. I too like the sight of lights glimmer off of the surface of a beautiful bay.

***
We left Auckland this morning and traveled two hours up to a free camping spot that sits just to the north of Whangarei.

Whangarei itself is a bit of a podunk NZ town. Discordant, narrow streets that were tough to drive the campervan through, small dirty little shops, and what appeared to be a relatively high proportion of poor/beat people — they kind of had the look and demeanor of the people of my rural hometown in the USA.

But the campsite that we were staying at was beyond excellent.

By campsite, I actually mean parking lot with a bathroom, as that’s what they actually amount to. They are designated locations which the local government has — sometimes grudgingly — set aside for travelers to camp at for free.

The governments seem to be kind of pressured into providing these sites, as it’s clear that if they don’t travelers will just park their campers or set up their tents and sleep where they please, which is actually a bit of a social issue in New Zealand. The country is loaded with travelers moving up and down the islands, camping out and digging the nature, but many local people don’t really like travelers clogging up the public toilets or using the ground as such.

So there is this massive network of free camping lots all over the country, which we plan to make use of as we travel here.

***
There are three types of camping areas in New Zealand:

  1. Free sites, like the lot we’re staying in in Whangarei.
  2. Department of conservation sites, which are formal campgrounds that have a range of prices from around $5 to $15 per person, per night.
  3. Private campgrounds, which hose travelers for relatively exorbitant amounts of money — often as much or even more than a hotel.

***
Camping next to us in Whangarei were a couple of Germans in a minivan. They had been traveling around New Zealand for five months, and were just getting ready to end their trip and return to the real world at home: university, job, kids, spouse, all that crap.

European gap year kids often amaze me because they actually go home. For real. They really go out into the wilds of the world, take a look at the view outside, and then go back into their little cove and rejoin society. I have no idea how they do this: how can anyone really go back?

Anyway, they had an interesting gear setup in their van that I questioned them about. The thing was fully rigged for long-term travel, and I momentarily admired their ingenuity.

But then they informed me that they neither designed nor carried out any of the customizations. They bought the van that way.

It’s a thing in NZ for vehicles to be converted for travel and then continuously passed on to other travelers. The Germans were the third wave of travelers to use this van to travel around NZ. They bought it from some departing travelers when they arrived and they will sell it to another group of travelers just before they leave, who will more than likely do the same before they leave as the cycle continues.

The guy believes he may actually make a small profit on the resale because he bought it in the travel offseason for cheap and intends to sell it just as the tourist season heats up in mid-spring.

Truly, this is not a bad way to get a free form of transport, and is similar to what I would do when I used to be an archaeologist in North America. I would buy a truck at the beginning of the field season, travel around and work out of it, and then resell it for what I paid for it when the season wraps up and I leave the country.

***

Travel turns a family into a team of sorts. Everybody has their role, and if they don’t do it well then everybody is fucked. It makes things a little more tight knit, and, ultimately, a little more fun. When we have an apartment somewhere that I use as a base to travel out of, it’s often every man for himself. I do my thing, Petra does her thing, my wife does her thing … We live these separate little lives. But traveling together in a van, well, it all tosses us into the same boat — we’re all in it together. It’s a good thing to do every once in a while.

***
My wife is sleeping next to me. My two daughters are sleeping on the level above me. There is a gentle rain coming down. I can hear the slight waves lapping against the shore ten meters away. The orange lights from the village across the bay are reflecting off the water’s surface.  Everything else is quiet.

First night of free camping in NZ.

Click on the images below for a larger view or a slideshow.

Filed under: New Zealand, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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