Monday, January 17, 2011

They Hate Us For Our Freedom Camping

My wife and I spent 1 year freedom camping in America, 1 year freedom camping in Australia, and the last 8 months freedom camping in New Zealand. The level of hysteria over this issue in New Zealand is unlike anything we've experienced. We were planning to extend our visa from 9 months to 12 months, but now we're wondering if we shouldn't just cut our losses and travel to a more hospitable country.

Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear--littering and leaving shit for others to clean up is not acceptable. Afterall, the whole reason we are here is to enjoy New Zealand's natural beauty. I strongly support severe penalties for littering of any sort, both for locals and tourists, but the demonization of freedom campers in New Zealand is pure hysteria.

Thanks to Campbell Live and the echo chamber of NZ talk radio, it is accepted truth that freedom camping is synonomous with littering and public defecation. The media has created a climate of hostility towards freedom campers. Now, a freedom camping couple (Kiwis no less) have been violently assaulted. Of course, the media says they're not to blame. Afterall, they never promoted violence, they just promoted the outrage that led to the violence.

Now, the talk radio hosts are condemning the "alleged" actions of the vigilante, even as they brainstorm non-violent methods of harassing freedom campers. Radio Live's Jeremy Parkinson even claimed it is the duty of all New Zealanders' to harrass freedom campers to protect their country. Great idea. Self-annointed deputies waking up and harrassing strangers in the middle of the night certainly won't lead to violence.

The whole freedom camping issue has become nothing less than a witch hunt. First of all, the accepted truth that freedom camping is synonomous with littering and public defecation is ridiculous. Of course, there are some freedom campers who litter, defecate, and leave the mess for others to clean up, but who exactly determined that this is representative of a majority, or even a significant number of freedom campers?

It is easy for Campbell Live to go looking for evidence of misbehaving freedom campers. Toilet paper and human poo makes for great TV. But how do you find evidence of well-behaved freedom campers? There is none! They leave the place as they found it, perhaps better. No litter and no poo? That makes for terrible TV!

In the past 7 months, as we've traveled throughout NZ, we've witnessed 1 freedom camper littering, and 3 Kiwi's littering. We didn't see any human waste, but since we weren't filming for TV3, we didn't go sniffing around for it either.

Not surprisingly, the media focus is on the international freedom camper. Nothing like a little xenophobia to help fuel the fire of outrage. It's always the fault of those international tourists. Apparently, the numerous Kiwi freedom campers, multi-day trampers, hunters, fisherman, beachgoers, OE travelers, etc.--they never litter or defecate. Kiwis are special. This sort of behavior just isn't part of their culture. At least that's what Jeremy Parkinson says.

Our experience says otherwise. Freedom campers seek remote spots where they're unlikely to get hassled. Unfortunately, partying Kiwi hoons also seek out remote spots where they're unlikely to get hassled. As a result, more than once, we've found ourselves cleaning up after Kiwis before moving on.

Just outside Kaka Point, we parked literally on top of a seaside trash heap. The foreshore was layer upon layer of rusty old farming equipment, auto parts, and appliances. Who knew that international freedom campers traveled with so much baggage?

On the west coast, a beautiful Denniston lookout has been turned into a dump site. We found an abandoned car, a rusty barrel, old fencing, irrigation pipe, lawn waste, and part of a broken toilet. How's that for irony? Foreign freedom campers finding a discarded Kiwi toilet.

In Dunedin, two surf beaches had signs warning people not to enter the water due to sewer discharge directly onto the beach. While we were there, officials put up new signs in the dunes adjacent to the surf club warning about exposure to arsenic and asbestos from the former ocean-front landfill. Near Greymouth, it was some unidentified poison in the water.

The one night we actually paid for camping was at the gorgeous DOC campsite at Purakaunui Bay. Fortunately, we were in a van. It would have been absolutely impossible to set up a tent amidst all the sheep poo. More was nearly impossible to walk from the van to the toilets without stepping in sheep poo. And all of this sheep poo was right next to a creek flowing directly into the ocean.

Unfortunately, this is often the norm here. There are 50 million sheep, 9 million cows, 1.2 million deer, 0.4 million pigs, and 0.3 million goats. That's nearly 62 million farm animals, and as far as I know, none of them are toilet trained. Compare that to the number of international tourists. At any one time, there are around 133 thousand international tourists in NZ.

A Ministry of Economics survey says 5% of those travel via campervan/motorhome/RV and that 2% of all international visitors camp at DOC sites. So, lets say 1% are freedom camping. Of those, lets assume 10% have no qualms about defecating outside, and that they only manage to find a public toilet every other day.

Do the math. That's 67 freedom campers versus 62 million farm animals crapping all over NZ every single day, and I'm not even including the dogs that crap all over the beaches. That's nearly one million farm animals per freedom camper, but by all means, blame the evil foreigners for fouling your waterways.

Since it is obvious that the poo and litter issue is being blown out of proportion, how about the focus on cheap vans?

That too is blown out of proportion. Freedom campers drive all kinds of vehicles, including no vehicles at all. Ever heard of tents? Some freedom campers hitch rides or travel on foot. Some ride bicycles. Some ride motorcycles. Some drive hatchbacks, sedans, wagons, utes, or trucks. And yes, some drive cheap vans. And some of those cheap vans have graffiti-esque paint jobs with words designed to offend. And apparently, that's working. Some freedom campers drive self-contained motor homes or house trucks. And some of those, like us, never use those on-board toilets!

Does that mean we're crapping all over NZ? No. Just like any other traveler, we use public toilets. They are available at rest stops, supermarkets, petrol stations, restaurants, visitor centers, shopping centers, libraries, parks, boat ramps, and trailheads. It's not that difficult to find a toilet, but some council policies force freedom campers far away from these facilities. Toilets that are available for free for 16 hours of the day are suddenly off-limits for the other 8 hours of the day. Why is that?

Money. That is the one aspect of freedom camping that isn't sufficiently examined. If a town or council welcomes freedom campers, you can bet that they do so because their economy needs the business. Just consider the differences between the freedom camping policies of Queenstown versus Wanaka.

Queenstown doesn't want to completely ban freedom camping because those are the people who support their bar scene. They are also the people who support their bungee jumping, jet boating, white water rafting, and other businesses that make Queenstown the "Adventure Capital of the World". Of course, Queenstown politicians have to simultaneously appease the snooty residents who don't want to share their piece of paradise with the riff raff. Their solution is to allow freedom camping 10km from town, away from residential areas--close enough to support local businesses, but hidden from the precious eyes of Queenstown's royalty.

Wanaka, on the other hand, completely bans freedom camping. It's a no-brainer for them. Unlike Queenstown, Wanaka businesses don't cater to the less affluent. Wanaka is a playground for the rich, and the rich kids don't want to play with the poor kids.

It is obvious that this dynamic was at play in the assault in Golden Bay. The assailant was a Christchurch man who is affluent enough to have an ocean-view vacation home in Pakawau, and his lofty reputation is so delicate that the court has granted him name suppression. He is a rich kid.

The poor kids were in a self-contained motorhome. One of them was a Kiwi. There was no suggestion that they were littering or defecating outside. They were not camping in a prohibited area. What they were doing was interrupting his view. That was enough of an outrage that the man smashed the windscreen with a machete and attempted to set fire to their vehicle with methylated spirits...all while the couple was inside.

If money is mentioned at all in the debate about freedom camping, it is usually to suggest that freedom campers are parasites who aren't spending enough of it. However, at the very least, international freedom campers pay for their flight to NZ (perhaps on Air New Zealand), their vehicles, their petrol, and their food. GST applies to all of those purchases. In 2010, New Zealand collected about $1.3 billion in GST from international tourists.

Visitors pay this tax, but they don't get to vote, they don't get public health care, public education, or public pension. Is it too much to ask for some of this GST to be directed towards public toilets and rubbish bins?

Apparently so for people like Jeremy Parkinson. He claims that any international visitor who can afford to come to NZ can afford to pay for a campground. Even if that were true, it could come at the expense of restaurants, souvenir shops, tour operators, etc. No one has unlimited finances. Lots of people have a budget for annual vacations. New Zealand is not a cheap or convenient destination. The choice may be a luxury trip to Costa Rica versus a freedom camping trip to New Zealand.

However, arguing about the affordability of campgrounds misses the point. Freedom camping isn't about the cost. It's about the freedom. New Zealand weather is volatile to say the least. Having the ability to change plans, without worrying about making or canceling reservations has been hugely important to our New Zealand experience.

Furthermore, paying campgrounds for the privilege of parking side by side with other vehicles, while paying for ammenities we don't want, simply makes no sense. In fact, you couldn't pay us to stay in most campgrounds. For us, it is simply not enjoyable, and if we can't enjoy ourselves, what are we doing here? There are a lot of other countries in the world. Almost all of them are easier to get to, and surely most of them are more welcoming.

Note: I don't mean to single out Jeremy Parkinson. He just happened to be broadcasting in the aftermath of the attempted murder of the freedom campers in Golden Bay. It is clear from comments from his callers and other radio hosts that there are plenty of people in NZ who are more than willing to ban things they don't like or understand.

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