So often the best travel experiences come about purely by accident – our freedom camping experience came outside of any planning and free of the perfectly formed itineraries. This was certainly true for my partner Chris and I during one New Zealand summer when quite by chance we spent 3 super-special months with the East Cape freedom campers.
We had purposely headed to the little visited Eastland with the promise of deserted surf breaks and because we were told that this area, historically a stronghold of the Ngati Porou tribe, has a mainly Maori population – a culture to which we felt strongly drawn. The geographical situation and geological formation of the land means you don’t pass through here on the way to somewhere, making it a destination of itself unspoiled by through traffic. It is perhaps for this reason that even many New Zealanders have never visited this area and why it seems to be well off the tourist trail.
We stumbled, totally by chance, upon a beach called Kaiaua which was, although unknown to us at this time, one of the area’s ‘freedom camp’ sites – an organised system, unique in New Zealand to the Eastland region through Gisborne District Council, for what is ostensibly wild camping.
When we arrived we didn’t see another soul for days – it was just us, the gulls and the gannets and the sigh of the ocean which was each night’s lullaby. We spent those days surfing, snorkelling, swimming, collecting shells, reading and watching the sunsets which coloured the cliffs and turned the ocean lilac, rose and cream. Every day seemed to be punctuated with at least one pod of dolphins cruising past or playing in the bay’s waters.
One morning we woke to find a few other people had joined us and then steadily over the next few days, leading up to Christmas, the bay filled. By Christmas day it had come to resemble, in both appearance and atmosphere, a bizarre travelling circus. Each camp had a hub made up of colourful striped and spotted canvasses and then tumbled outwards in an eclectic mix of annexes. Flags, trailers, ‘tinnies’ (the iconic, often home-made Kiwi boat of choice), kayaks, inflatables, water containers, toilet tents and even fridges were everywhere – all separated with random washing lines full of fluttering clothes and wetsuits drying in the breeze.
None of them seemed to be strangers to each other, with children seemingly wandering at will in and out of different camps or emerging sleepy eyed each morning from a different tent to the night before. Later, we would discover that some of these families had been coming here for generations and although they might not see each other from one summer to the next, here they would all gather again in this eclectic shanty town, neighbours for a few weeks of every year.
It transpired that during the summer months – December to February – many Eastlanders shut up their houses, decamped to the beach at one of the area’s freedom camps and then just carried on their lives – heading off to work each morning and then returning each evening. Wonderful.
Being Brits, we watched all this with fascination and amusement but would have perhaps kept ourselves to ourselves – not wanting to intrude on what was obviously something very established. And perhaps in any other country this might have happened but we were in New Zealand and the Kiwis were having none of it!
We were included in every barbecue. No jaunt up the beach could be completed without a hail into a camp where we were handed a beer and treated exactly like everyone else and as if we too had been coming here for years. We would mysteriously find our water container filled again every morning if it was getting low, as if the good fairies had come calling. We were brought freshly caught fish or crayfish, paua and kina and taught how to prepare and cook them. We were swept up in the kindness and sense of community for no other reason than because, well…that’s what Kiwis do. If we attempted a thank you at any point then we were met with bewildered stares. I think for me this was the summer where I fell hopelessly in love with New Zealand and her people.
Having returned to New Zealand several times now since this first visit, I am proud to say that many of these freedom campers have become our friends and we have learned much first-hand about the proud Maori culture and how Kiwis do things. This has in turn taught me much about myself too.
I have almost more happy memories of New Zealand than I can store but nothing since has ever quite touched me in the way this beautiful summer did. We came, we camped, we partied with the Kiwis.
In order to use one of the Eastland’s freedom camps then you must obtain a permit (which works out at a couple of dollars per night) and have self-contained toilet facilities. All the information regarding this and the various locations can be viewed at www.gisbornenz.com
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