Aotearoa’s last summer of cheap freedom camping

Aotearoa’s last summer of cheap freedom camping

For many New Zealanders, camping in a renovated van somewhere remote and beautiful has long been a treasured summer tradition. A new law will change that for good, explains Jacob Metzger.

We always rode with a third wheel. It’s not that we didn’t want it there – in a pinch, it would have provided sweet, sweet relief – but we did our best to ignore its presence. We rode up front and forced it to sit haphazardly in the gap between the sliding door and the cupboard in the back. When we arrived, we lounged in the rear while it sat alone on the front passenger seat, relegated to holding our drying towels or whatever beer we couldn’t fit into the chilly bin. We didn’t call on it once. And we never really intended to. Because we always parked up where we could make use of its permanent and much easier cousin. But its presence was always comforting. Just us – and a portable toilet.

That arrangement – a van, its people, and this slightly shiny, depletedly grey-coloured, awkward plastic defecation box – has for years allowed swaths of New Zealanders to explore Aotearoa at little cost. Thousands will right now, despite the rain, be riding to their next freedom camping spot down astride the coastline or up among the bush. Until we sold it last year, my girlfriend and I would set off like this in our early ‘90s Nissan, every other week if we could afford it, to some isolated new hiding place. Days like those, though, are almost certainly numbered due to a proposed new law requiring all self-contained vehicles – the certification which will soon be required to freedom camp on any council land unless a local bylaw says otherwise – to have a fixed toilet.

In August of last year, tourism minister Stuart Nash, introduced a new bill, the Self-Contained Motor Vehicles Legislation Bill. It’s still at the select committee stage, but it would introduce a bunch of changes, big and small, based on recommendations from a working group commissioned by the government in 2018 and a report by the parliamentary commissioner for the environment. 

Why? Well, tourism has always sparked debate, but few issues have been as clamorous as the freedom camping one. You remember, surely: tourists in decrepit, rust-plagued old death traps caught short, shitting in our city streets and native bush then peeling away in a cloud of diesel smoke, their litter and faeces strewn about the earth. It’s an image. And it’s not inaccurate, but in reality it reflects a small minority of those who choose to explore Aotearoa by van.

Nevertheless, the uproar over dirty campers has forced the government’s hand. In a discussion document released last year, the minister said an overhaul was needed to protect whatever withering social license freedom camping had left with the general public. Two years ago a petition to ban it entirely garnered almost 8,000 signatures. And in recent years, both Queenstown Lakes and Marlborough District Councils have passed highly restrictive freedom camping bylaws, though Marlborough’s one was partially struck down by the courts. This is despite it being a pastime for tens of thousands of locals: nearly a quarter of a million people reportedly freedom camped here in 2019, 37% of whom weren’t tourists.

“The thing that we really want to stop is people driving around in these vans – they call them sliders,” Nash said, referring to typical vans with sliding doors. Presently, all you need to qualify as “self-contained” is basically a rudimentary sleeping platform, a sink, some decent-sized water storage tanks, and the ability to actually use your portable john. To some, such Zen-like minimalism is the whole point.

Farewell to (fixed toilet-free) freedom camping (Photo: Getty Images)

If the bill passes in its current form, this will probably be the last summer to cheaply and easily build a “slider” in which to freedom camp around Aotearoa. If it becomes law (around the middle of the year), your freshly built but uncertified van will from that day need a fixed toilet to be certified self-contained. And so will any vehicle that needs to be re-certified (as they do every four years). Twenty-four months after the law kicks in, all vehicles will require a fixed toilet to be legally self-contained. Parliament might, after the select committee hands the bill back, decide to be a bit more lenient with all this. Or it might not.

Either way, while some would dramatically toss the current rules with feelings of “good riddance!” and disgust — the requirement to have a fixed toilet will, in theory at least, be better for the environment — many who can’t afford the new cost to install a fixed toilet will find it means the end of freedom camping entirely. Two years ago, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment paid a firm to conduct research to help inform any changes. It concluded that the cost to upgrade a vehicle could range from $1,200 to $5,000.

It’s hard to know exactly how many people this would affect because there’s no database of certified vehicles (something the bill will change). But the New Zealand Motor Caravan Association, the largest such organisation in the country, reportedly boasts 113,000 members, while MBIE believes there are at least 60,000 self-contained vehicles in private ownership. For some of them, and for many who might be dreaming of cheaply building their own van one day, the dream, not unlike an actual house, may for now fall out of reach.

It would have for us. A van granted access, for years, to beautiful little nooks of the country that otherwise would’ve gone overlooked. It was bliss on a budget. Such a cost, though, would probably have meant foregoing the self-contained sticker, and the freedom that came with it, for the much less adventurous camping ground.

And in the end this is all, on balance, perhaps a good thing. But it’s hard to forget that the cost of living pinch is hurting – a lot. A pain that will probably only get sharper next year. Everything, from cabbages to caravans, is glumly unaffordable. It seems that even the unglamorous Kiwi camping holiday is, as The Spinoff has already discussed, no exception. Still, while it may be the cheap van’s last true summer, for now at least its austere simplicity is all you need, in all its portable throne humility.