Much of freedom campers' DIY lifestyle should be applauded, writes Paul Davies.
It's become so commonplace, it's almost part of the great Kiwi summer. Beaches, barbies, bombs off the wharf — and having a dig at freedom campers. It's a hobby for some and certainly a favourite topic for the media. If it'll get up the nose of the honest, humble Heartlander, then it'll get eyeballs. The fascination with tourists has got so out of hand the Government has set up a working group to deal with it. Great to see they're tackling the big issues — tax, welfare, climate change, why Francois pooed on the side of a road in Southland.
Of course, nobody condones such headline-grabbing behaviour, especially when it negatively effects locals' quality of life. However aren't these campers embracing the most quintessential New Zealand behaviour? One that we tout as our own personal lovemark? If a tourist has no money, no contacts and they're in the middle of nowhere, wouldn't camping on the side of a road qualify as Kiwi ingenuity? Hanging a clothes line between two cars certainly would, though I think, for hygiene reasons, we'll disqualify washing your undies in a drinking fountain.
Shouldn't we embrace these young people who've come to see our country? They pay the tourist tax to get here, they're buying petrol, food and alcohol. Sure, the camping grounds aren't always clipping the ticket, but often they're full, not in the right location or beyond the budget of these passionate youngsters. Gas companies, supermarket chains, motorhome companies and liquor stores are definitely profiting from freedom campers — then there's orchards, kitchens and tourist operations that benefit from cheap labour.
Perhaps it's time to ask those businesses to help create more, adequate, respectable places to park?
There's definitely more to the issue than the current discussion. It's easy to shout about used toilet paper and make broad brush strokes, but most of these freedom campers are good people. When walking the Kepler Track, my partner and I met many fascinating, friendly young foreigners. Some even gave us a lift back to town when we missed the last boat taxi to Te Anau. They were lovely — a smorgasbord of 20-somethings who'd work in kitchens and orchards around Nelson to save up enough to go on their next adventure.
They were definitely doing it cheap and you wouldn't hug them, on account of a rather special aroma, but at least they were out there. While we were capturing the stunning sights of an untouched wilderness, we didn't meet any other New Zealanders on a day when we spoke with 20 to 30 people. The international travellers were thrilled to engage with such a rare sight — Kiwis in the wild.
And whereas many in New Zealand criticise those who navigate the great expanses of the shaky isles — their driving, appearance, cleanliness, lack of understanding of our "culture" — locals aren't without sin. To chastise only foreigners for causing problems on our roads or the great outdoors is a bit unfair. Especially considering how we can act overseas. One Dunedin woman rightly complained about freedom campers urinating at her local domain. Spare a thought for the London locals tired of young Kiwis watering their neighbourhood green every year on Waitangi Day.
I've encountered a number of terrible Kiwi travellers. The couple who blatantly cut to the front of a long line at LAX, but got away with it because they were older. The angry farmer from Queenstown who slapped my chest and shoved me because I moved his cowboy hat in the overhead locker. The Northland lads in Australia who followed me all night to harangue me with their best Jafa jokes. The loud, proud, rugby jersey and Jandal type in Europe, who don their uniform throughout winter and label those who don't follow their game as "poofs". The woman from Tauranga who can't understand why "they do it like that" in the US.
And then there's me, who's flown far and wide only to make a token effort to learn other cultures, never really learned another language, probably offended a few with my haste and, in hindsight, spent far too much time whinging about how things are better back home.
The point being, we're not perfect. It might serve as good clickbait, but criticising foreigners who travel New Zealand doesn't make sense given we're such big travellers ourselves.