How to be homeless
After calling our trusty tent home for about seven of the last 10 months, we like to think we have become experts in the camping life. Some of you have no doubt found this blog while researching for your own travels, and we thought it might do some good to pass along our wealth of knowledge on camping in Australia and New Zealand. Hopefully the rest of you, clean and content under a solid roof, will still find amusement in our degenerate lifestyle.
First, let’s face it, you’re not choosing to live out of a car because you thought it would be fun. Judging by the amount of dirty young people on the road, the only way to travel for an extended period of time in a first-world country is to live out of your car. Which brings you to your first decision:
Tent vs. campervan
Though we’re by far the minority, we swear by our little red tent. For one thing, you already spend all day in the car, do you really want to sleep in it too? Unless you’re traveling solo your vehicle is going to be trashed, no matter how hard you try. Pulling into a campground, setting up a tent, and escaping from the clutter of the car brings everyone a little much-needed space at the end of each day. It’s like a little house, separate from the stress and frustrations of travel… and prone to leaking when it rains.
Tenting also gives us a definite advantage in securing a prime camping spot. On numerous occasions, we have breezed into a grungy parking lot packed with vans and had a lovely adjacent green space all to ourselves. There have only been two occasions when we have wished for a van: an unexpectedly sodden night in Blenheim, and at an Australian rest stop infested with brazen mice that enjoyed crawling up the sides of our tent.
Finally, it allows you a bit of anonymity. Drive around in a campervan, and you are immediately pegged as a backpacker. We like to think people look at our packed car and think we’re locals. Locals with no place to live… and American accents.
Where to sleep
While it’s possible to pull over and sleep on the side of the road for free, unless you have a bathroom on board it’s technically illegal. Your choice; it will surely save money, but we like to pay a nominal fee for running water and a place to take a shit.
DOC Sites (NZ) – Our homes away from home. There are a few hundred Department of Conservation sites scattered about New Zealand’s two islands, and they are excellent. Found in National Parks and elsewhere, they are generally low on amenities, but are very cheap ($6/person) and sometimes come with a view:
– Totaranui, Abel Tasman National Park – It’s sprawling, and surely packed in high season, but you can’t beat the location and fire pits.
– MacKay Creek – Nice open sites on the Milford Road.
– Ahuriri River – Free, and right on the river. If you’re in the area in December it’s worth stopping here just to wander the lupines.
– Ottos/MacDonald’s – Nice sites right on Lake ____, north of the glaciers.
– Lake Paringa – More nice sites right on the lake, south of the glaciers.
– Queen’s Reach – A free spot just south of Te Anau, get there early for a spot on the river!
– Canaan Downs – 10 km off the highway at Takaka hill. Surrounded by cool walks to limestone formations.
– Pelorus Bridge – $12, but comes with showers, a kitchen, and a beautiful river to swim or tube.
– Kohaihai – High on the west coast in Kahurangi National Park. We spent an excellent Christmas here at a beachside site.
Public domain campgrounds – Run on town or public land, these are also scattered randomly about both countries. They are tougher to find, but if there’s no other options nearby it’s worth asking at an info center. Cheap, and sometimes free.
– Little Akaloa Bay, Banks Peninsula (NZ) – $5 a person in a quiet northern bay.
– Albert Town Reserve (NZ) – avoid in the high season when it’s packed with obnoxious teenage locals, but it’s a great spot close to Wanaka when it’s quiet.
Rest areas (Australia) – There are miles and miles of incredibly boring stretches of road in Australia, and they do their best to scare you awake with threatening road signs: “Fatigue is Fatal,” “Rest or RIP,” “Drowsy Drivers Die.” Thankfully, when you finally do pull over there are plenty of rest areas in remote parts of Australia that offer free overnight stays. They are often stuffed to the gills with retirees and 20-something foreigners, scattered with bits of litter, and less than a hundred feet from the highway. But hey, they’re free. Drink a box of wine and pretend the downshifting trucks are ocean waves.
National Parks (Australia) – In New Zealand, all park sites are run through the DOC, but in Australia you’ll also find sites in almost every National Park. Again— clean, cheap (often free), and beautiful scenery. By far the best option.
– Noah Beach, Daintree National Park – On the beach, amid the rainforest. It’s small, so reserve in advance!
– Inskip Peninsula, Great Sandy National Park – Overlooking a big, beautiful beach at the gateway to Fraser Island.
– Blue Mountains National Park – Camp right on the eastern rim of the canyon…for free!
– MacDonnell Ranges – Well worth going to for the desert wilderness nearby.
– Gunlom Falls, Kakadu – Two sites, along the road and at the base of what might be the best swimming hole on earth.
Caravan parks/Holiday parks– We’d drop in at your run of the mill, stuffed with old people, serviced campground a couple times a week to get a shower, do laundry, and get online. They run about $15/person for an unpowered site. Most parks in New Zealand have the added option of a private cabin for around $25/person for when it rains.
Omarama Top 10 (NZ) – located an hour from Mount Cook, only $20/person for a cabin, and free golf clubs for use at the 9-hole course next door.
Cleanliness – We found that three days is about the longest you can go without a shower and still feel like a functioning member of society. The time will eventually come when you need to clean up, and short of paying for a hostel or a caravan park, you’ve got a few options.
Public showers are available in some towns and many fitness clubs will offer showers for a nominal fee. The Base hostel chain also offers just showers for around $3.
Swimming, when its warm, is almost as good. Northern Queensland and the Top End of Australia are well endowed with world class swimming holes— just make sure it’s croc-free. New Zealand rivers are generally quite shallow, though for a quick dip there is no shortage of clear, cold water running off the Southern Alps.
Communication – Unfortunately, in the words of an Australian crew we encountered, both countries down under are “well behind” when it comes to hooking you up with the World Wide Web. The idea of buying coffee at a café and receiving free, unlimited wifi along with it has just not caught on here yet like it has in say, Europe, North and South America and remote corners of Southeast Asia.
Generally, McDonalds and public libraries are the only two places where you can rely on free access. However, servers are often so clogged— there are always more people facebooking than reading books in the library— that it’s infuriatingly slow and useless for tasks like uploading pictures.
If you want a fast connection you will have to pay for it, either at a hostel or caravan park (in addition to your room), or a café (in addition to your coffee). Some are better than others, generally $5 an hour is a good price for wifi, and watch out for data limits.
Recommended: if you’re in Wanaka, NZ go the Ardmore Street Café by the lake. Free internet with your coffee! What a concept.
Also, the pedestrian mall in downtown Darwin, Australia is a free wifi zone.
Appearances – Yes, they’re comfortable, but try not to wear sweatpants the entire day. Nothing will make you feel more like a piece of garbage than hanging out in McDonalds in your sweatpants. Real people wear real pants, and you should too.
Oh, and please, shave that scraggly excuse for a beard, I beg you.
Arriving early – Back in the States, we thought nothing of driving till midnight and pulling off at a campsite or getting a motel, but in unfamiliar territory this is always a recipe for disaster. The few times we found ourselves looking for a place to sleep after dark were miserable. We’ve learned its best to arrive around 5 or 6 to snag a decent site and maybe a picnic table. Set up, eat some dinner, and relax. It is well worth a saving the rest of the drive for the morning, and really, what’s the rush? You’re homeless.
Food – While we’ve seen countless travelers surviving on instant noodles and white bread, decent food is just not something we’re willing to sacrifice. A delicious dinner has the power to keep you from utter despair in the darkest of times. Pasta is far and away the cheapest, quickest, and tastiest way to fill up, and we’ve found that adding just one or two additional ingredients classes it up: carbonara, meat or veggie sauce, meatballs, mac and cheese or a light cream sauce. Different shapes even let you pretend you are eating something different every night.
Otherwise, fresh fish cooks quickly and is fairly cheap. We coat it in a bit of flour and pan fry in lemon juice or splash of white wine. Ground beef is also cheap standby, and transforms into delicious burgers with lots of vegetable toppings, a simple meat sauce, or burritos.
We also developed a habit of making a large batch of something (chili, lasagna, meatballs, stew) in a hostel or campground kitchen so we’d have it for the next few days on the road.
Alcohol helps – When the weather goes south at the end of a long day, being homeless tends to lose its already questionable appeal. At this point, never underestimate the power of a solid alcoholic beverage. However, drinking down under is an expensive proposition on either side of the Tasman Sea. Save it for the times you need to drink your troubles away or you’ll be going home early.
It won’t take long for an Australian traveler to discover box wine, or as they call it, “goon.” It tastes bad, it feels bad, it is bad, but you learn to love it and really, it’s the only affordable way to get drunk.
In New Zealand, even boxed wine is pricey but you can take heart in a better exchange rate. We’ve diverted back to beer here, but keep an eye on alcohol content as a lot of beer is a scant 4%, and let’s face it, the idea of drinking because it tastes good was lost to you long ago. Monteith’s and Mac’s have good options, and will run about $20 a twelve pack.
None of this info will do you a whole lot of good unless you know how to get from one campground to the next. Both countries are used to the tourist crush and it’s all very easy to figure out once you’re there.
New Zealand – Getting around in New Zealand is incredibly simple, and only requires two things. First, buy a good atlas. You’ll need it to get around anyway, and Hema Maps makes an atlas displaying DOC and public campground locations.
Next, drop in at an information center and pick up the DOC campsite brochure. It fills in any sites the atlas missed, and gives details about pricing, amenities, and directions.
Australia – There is a similar atlas on sale in Australia, called Camps 6. It is good—complete with pictures and pricing— though it will set you back $80. If you don’t want to fork over that kind of money, you can still get by. The info centers in Australia are everywhere, generally excellent, and run by nice retired ladies who want nothing more than to help you. Ask where there is free or cheap camping nearby and they’ll show you the way nearly every time. Also, load up on maps and tourist literature to help pass the miles.
In Queensland, the highway department issues a map showing all the rest area stops and cheap camping options. More specifically, the Townsville info center has created a great home-made map of all the budget camping in the region. Just ask.