Just as a heads up, the following will contain whining about not getting enough things for free. There will also be some negativity about the important work of the Department of Conservation in New Zealand. Let it be noted here that they do a great job at managing nature reserves and tramping routes all over the country. That being said, here's what I wrote originally, before starting to feel bad about it:
We had been driving around the south island in New Zealand for only a few days before we were stranded in a town called Haast due to heavy rainfall. Apparently SH6 was blocked by either flooding or by landslides, even the visitor center had no idea. Whatever the reason, we were stuck there, but luckily only for a day. Haast was singularly boring, the town seemed to consist of little more than a few motels. The only reason for it to show on every single map of New Zealand is that there is absolutely nothing else in the neighborhood. At the gas station they had a big sign saying "The last petrol for 88km". This doesn't sound like much but considering that the major road on the west coast, the SH6, was littered with signs suggesting a speed of 25km/h in sharp corners, or informing that the next sixteen kilometers are going to be on a winding road. Getting around is not a simple matter of driving with cruise control at the top of the speed limit. You even need to start thinking about filling up the gas tank when it's halfway full.
Luckily we were able to do just that in Haast for a fairly reasonable price of 211.9 cents per liter. Our Mighty Jackpot had consumed 11.1 liters per 100 kilometers while driving along the west coast, which included going up to the glacier country. We were pretty glad about that, it's a big car after all. The weather forecast had promised more rain for the night but the morning turned out to be almost sunny. They had even figured out how to get the power back on, after the power station had been flooded. And most importantly, the road was open once more. We took off at about 9.30 to get the most of the weather and were bothered by heavy rain or flooding no more. This encouraged us to make stops along the way south, at Thunder Creek Falls and at Haast Pass, where we climbed the steep gravel track up to the viewpoint for a fine panorama of the valley made even finer by the rainbow stretching over it in the light drizzle. The track should take half an hour one way, we made it in twelve minutes, we like to get our heartrates up with these climbs. We also stopped for toilets at the Department of Conservation (DoC) standard campsite at Cameron Flat, which seemed like a great place to spend a night for $6 per adult.
We had been a little saddened by the rain and the mist of the last few days but as we once again went deeper into the country we found the scenery we had sorely missed. It was high mountains and steep walls of rock again, with rain enforced waterfalls rumbling on every side. The route was infinitely scenic and it seemed that the weather had been somewhat kinder here. Some flooding was still evident on a few fields but the ground seemed almost dry at other points. We didn't have much of an idea of where we were going, since all our plans depended much of the weather. Our nearest larger town was going to be Wanaka, so that was where we would stop for some information about that.
Still a few dozens of kilometers short from Wanaka we started spotting possible campsites for the following night. We were hell-bent on doing freedom camping since that had been refused us so many times before and here we saw an endless amount of possible spots along the road. These were rarely more than points where the road turned and some gravel protruded from it to allow the space of a campervan, but every once in a while there were rest area sized plateaus for more comfort. These were mainly along the two bigger lakes, Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, where there were actually signs telling that freedom camping was generally allowed with a self-contained vehicle. They also had the other signs, telling you that if you still ended up parking in the wrong place you could end up with a $200 fine. They do this to you in New Zealand, they allow freedom camping but try their hardest to make it as scary and unappealing as possible. In my opinion there are only two good options: either they should ban freedom camping altogether or put up signs in favorable places stating something like "Freedom camping allowed for self-contained vehicles". Instead they say that it's only not allowed where there are no signs prohibiting it, but you should always check with the local Department of Conservation visitor center first.
The problem is this: they constantly refuse to give out the information. As we drove in to Wanaka we stopped at the visitor center to ask them about what there was to do for outdoorsy people. The guy told us to check out the Mount Iron loop track a kilometer or so back the way we came (it was great by the way, it took us about 75 minutes and we got some great views of the surrounding mountains and the two before mentioned lakes). When we asked about the weather forecast he kindly directed us to the nearest wall where there were a bunch of printed out papers detailing the forecasts by region. Putting it short, it might rain a lot, or a little, or none at all. It's hard to say in NZ, apparently. Only after this did we ask about the camping, as we have found it best to leave it for last. He kindly suggested a number of holiday parks, or possibly the Albert Town Reserve not far off, where they had a campsite resembling a standard DoC campsite for $7 per person. We asked about freedom camping instead and got the same reply we always get at these places. He tried to make it sound almost polite, but basically he said that freedom camping is for the scum of the earth and everywhere else in the world it would be called trespassing. Funny for him to mention that to a couple of Finns, who, at their home country, can set up camp even on privately owned ground as long as it's a reasonable distance away from any buildings. It's a part of our "everyman's rights" and it's great. And the thing is, you hardly ever hear anyone whining about it, most only enjoy it. Here they have something kind of similar, but all they do is complain. The guy at the visitor center pretty much told us to do what we deem fit, sleep on the side of the road if we want to. And here's the thing, he wouldn't direct us to a designated free camping area on DoC land just outside of town until we asked him about it. We had looked it up beforehand and when we mentioned it, he just said that with the weather being what it was, he would go to a real campsite instead. Only, at a normal DoC standard campsite the only cover from rain is in the provided toilet…
We went to check out the free campsite at Diamond Lake, about 12 kilometers from town towards Mt. Aspiring in the west. What we found was by any standards a DoC campsite without a toilet. And here's another thing, at the entrance they had a sign saying "Camping allowed for self-contained vehicles only". So they do exist… Anyway, this was indeed a DoC site with multiple tramping routes sprouting from the carpark. And they actually had a toilet, only it was located 500 meters behind a closed fence. They had seen the trouble to dig the pit toilet where it would be as difficult to maintain as possible, but they wouldn't mark this place on the free maps provided all over the island. Better yet, the people working at their visitor centers wouldn't tell us about the place without being asked about it specifically. Even then they would badmouth it for no other apparent reason than to make people pay for their camping. I can understand their want of money, I have it too, but I return to my previous point: either they should ban freedom camping altogether or make it easier. The way they are doing it now only provokes people into finding hundreds of different bush areas to camp at, resulting in just the damages to the environment they are trying to avoid. By designating a fair number of spots for this purpose they could, instead, reduce the impact to only these areas. Then it would be an easy matter of directing the resources now used for handing out the $200 fines towards keeping the free camp areas in order and yes, still fining those who are careless with their rubbish and so on.
In the end, what possible damages are we likely to inflict to the environment by parking overnight at the entrance to one of their tramping areas? Around us stood four other self-contained vehicles but during the evening I didn't see one person venturing outside. We cooked indoors with our gas stove, we put our rubbish in the bag by the door, we peed in the porter potty. If they are to allow freedom camping they should hand out the much needed information without prejudice. They should see it as a possibility and a wealth, a thing to make people see the great outdoors more often. If they did, I might even leave a coin or two in the donation box next to us. With the things standing as they are, the slot won't be seeing any action tonight.