Danielle McCarthy

Domestic Travel

Freedom camping: Australia vs New Zealand

Freedom camping: Australia vs New Zealand

Freedom campers in New Zealand may think they have it tough, but Tony Allsop reckons the Aussies have it even tougher.

Born in Wellington in 1940, Allsop fell for the freedom camping lifestyle when he first moved to Australia at 19 and went on to carve out a career in writing and taking photos for caravan magazines on both sides of the ditch.

Now retired and based in Queensland's Mackay, he still freedom camps regularly, but says the days of going walkabout (or driveabout) and expecting to be able to set up camp in a secluded spot in the wilds are long gone.

"In New Zealand there are many free camping spots and councils even set up places for free campers. Here now, councils are making it illegal to camp unless you are completely self-sufficient, have holdings tanks for both grey and black water and there's a limit to how long you can stay."

Many so-called free camping areas in Australia are now patrolled and have introduced fees "as the rubbish and toilet paper has become intolerable"

"Rubbish left at sites is a big problem in Australia, whereas it was not so bad in New Zealand [on a recent trip]. Backpackers are often blamed in Australia and we have had some bad experiences here with them. Once, two of them high on drugs wanted to fight us at 1am."

The costs associated with maintaining caravan parks have forced many to close or sell to developers, he said, pointing to the recent example of Discovery Parks buying the Top Parks brand. 

Allsop is a camper of the old-school variety, having spent his formative years travelling around the East Cape, Napier and other parts of the North Island with his camping-mad dad. He slept in an old army surplus pup tent alongside his parents' larger canvas one until the family upgraded to a comparatively flash plywood caravan with louvre windows when he was 10.  

"Compared to these days it was all very primitive. Caravan parks just had toilets and showers - that was about all."

On his first working holiday in Australia, he met three fellow Kiwis who were travelling around the country in an old Plymouth and even older Chrysler towing two caravans (old as well of course) and decided to join them. 

"Two of the guys had girlfriends travelling with them so I had to sleep in the Plymouth or cheap hotels."

Despite the dodgy accommodation and poor state of state of the roads in Queensland at the time - most were dirt and some were little more than tracks - he was hooked. 

After two years back in Wellington, he moved to Brisbane permanently and married his girlfriend Denyse, a doctor who luckily happened to love camping just as much as he did. 

In 1974, the couple set off in their new two-door Ford Falcon on what was to become the first of several "round-Oz" trips. 

"We freedom camped a lot, sleeping in the car or beside it in sleeping bags on a deserted beach."

They spent a year on the road, covering thousands of miles and picking up work whenever and wherever they needed it. 

"We met very little traffic and most roads were dirt. It was a real adventure in those days."

While the couple now travel in relative luxury in a well-equipped modern caravan, they consider their second round-Oz trip in 1988  - in a 1986 Holden with a small off-road camper - as the greatest camping trip of their lives. 

"We stayed mainly off-road on this 10-month trip and saw very few people as caravans with all the ensuites, batteries and DC-DC chargers... We camped on wonderful isolated beaches, in national parks and the made the most of our small camper with no real amenities apart from those I put in ... We really felt like explorers as some places had seen no traffic for a long time."

But while it might have been basic, their camper was still more or less self sufficient. Allsop had installed a battery under the seat - which they used to power two lights, one inside and one out - they used a black plastic bag left out in the sun as a shower and carried a gas stove, small fridge-freezer and port-a-loo. 

Returning home, the couple had an eight-year flirtation with boating before returning to their true love of caravanning. 

Allsop had begun freelancing for RV magazines when they set out on their third Australian tour in 2001, this time in a custom-built Roadstar caravan with low-power features which allowed them to stay off-road for a week without having to recharge their batteries. They had such a good time that they simply kept going - and going (they've only just settled down after 17 years of spending six months on the road). Denyse retired from medicine to help Allsop write, take photographs and shoot video and he says they "did very well". 

The couple enjoyed a mixture of freedom camping at staying at caravan parks. 

"Solitude, having a quiet beach or tropical forest to ourselves was wonderful and yet staying overnight sometimes in a van park was also good. The happy hours, community barbecues and companionship of other campers was very welcome in some van parks."

These days, however, Allsop finds himself whether freedom camping in Australia has changed irrevocably - for the worse. 

The couple have had several bad experiences in freedom campsites near towns where "youths have run rampant on drugs and alcohol.

"Nowadays we always make sure there are other campers there and try to get an off-road site by about midday, as they tend to become full in Australia by around 2pm."

Some popular sites are crowded with more than 200 vehicles during high season and they are usually packed in like proverbial sardines.

"You are parked as close as or closer to your neighbour than in a van park and on a dusty site. You also have no control over noisy neighbours. Apart from the cost, is it worth it?"

Have you been freedom camping?

Written by Lorna Thornber. First appeared on Stuff.co.nz.