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A North Island freedom-camping adventure

Shoshanna Shand

After my South Island trip, I decided I wanted to road trip the North Island and go all the way up to Cape Reinga. For me, freedom camping in the car was the best way to do it. 


I found some couch cushions at the recycling centre, sewing them together formed a perfect bed in the back of the car. I folded down the back seats, leaving one side with the car seat in it. This left enough space for the baby to sleep behind. I bought a gas cooker from Mitre 10 and was set to go. I also had a “pee” jug makeshift toilet which did the trick for emergencies. I had saved up $1000 and had my regular benefit payments weekly. I was still paying rent for my flat back in Nelson but I had about $300 a week to live on for food and fuel. 


I booked a ferry ticket for the 8th of October. I had a six-week window to do this, with no commitments. I felt so excited, yet nervous embarking on this trip. I worried about money and how it was all going to work. I didn’t plan ahead much, the extent of my plan was to go up one side and come down the other. 


A week before we were booked to go on the ferry, I dropped a heavy piece of wood on my toe and broke it. Ouchies. It felt okay to walk and I had a moon boot on to protect it from wild toddler and other stuff. 


We drove from Nelson onto the Interislander and had a cruisy trip over. I was having to hop all over the place juggling a toddler, a broken toe and all our gear. I drove straight up to Woodville to stay with some friends who gave us a horrible vomiting bug. Great start to the trip. 


Once recovered we headed on up to Napier where we stayed with some lovely friends, felt so classy not camping in the car. We explored Te Mata Peak which was so beautiful. We drove to the top instead of walking because why walk when you can drive). 


We carried on to Taupo and found a freedom camping spot near Huka Falls. This was my first proper experience of freedom camping since the Catlins. It was a cold night. I found out the gas doesn’t work when it’s really cold, so we ended up having a half-cooked dinner. That night was so cold for Spring, I wasn’t expecting it. We explored Huka Falls which was beautiful! 


We then drove to Rotorua for the night. We stopped in at Kerosene Creek for a swim, it was super pretty and warm but the toddler wasn’t a fan. In Rotorua we stayed at this really cool wee dinosaur park holiday park. I needed to do washing and have showers etc so it was great to freshen up. We only stayed a night in Rotorua, I wasn’t feeling the vibe, so we left the next morning and drove up the Coromandel. 


We skipped the Mount; I didn’t realise it was such an iconic place. I felt anxious I wouldn’t have enough time to get up to Cape Reinga before I had to go home. Turned out in the end I had plenty of time! 


Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove 

The next day was a big one, we explored Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove. If I did it again I would make sure to spend a whole day at Cathedral Cove. Being a true Kiwi, I walked down the steep track to the cove in bare feet carrying my 14 kg toddler in the carrier on the front and my backpack on the back. I ran into a couple on Cathedral Cove beach. I asked them to take photos of us. We got talking, they were so lovely and helped me carry the toddler and our stuff back up to the bus at the top of the very steep hill. One important thing to know about Cathedral Cove is you have to walk a lot more or take a bus from the car park in town. I was late finding somewhere to stay that night. I checked out the Campermate app and found some place to park up. 


To Auckland 

The next day was a beautiful one, we drove all the way up the coast admiring the amazing views. I was going to stop at a place just outside of Auckland where you can camp with self-contained or non-self-contained, the place is called Omana Clifftop Campground. When I arrived late in the day, I realised it was owned by Auckland Regional Council and you needed to book ahead and to get a key. 


I didn’t really know what to do because it was late, the toddler was tired out and we needed to stop for the night. At the carpark before the campground there was a freedom camping spot but only for self-contained vehicles. There was also a toilet at the carpark . So I decided to just risk it and stay the night. I felt soooo anxious about getting caught or getting into trouble over being somewhere I shouldn’t be. At around 9pm when the babe was fast asleep and I was up on my phone the security guy came around checking the car park. My heart was beating so fast and I felt like ohhh nooo im gonna get into trouble crap! He came over to my car and started writing down stuff on his phone. I got out of my car and said “hi” explaining that it got late, and I needed to stop for the night and apologised, asking if there was somewhere else I could park for the night. He was SO nice and told me I had to leave in the morning which I was happy to do of course, and let me stay the night because of the baby being fast asleep. It was such a tricky thing because I didn’t want to purposefully break any laws or rules, but it’s also dangerous to drive when fatigued and the next freedom camping spot was about half an hour away that I could find. That was quite a small but big adventure for us. 


We drove up to Auckland the next morning and stayed with friends exploring around Karekare and Piha. I’m not a big fan of big cities so I headed up to Whangarei heads. Whangarei You can camp at the carpark at Whangarei Heads without a self-contained vehicle so yay for us. We camped a night there and loved meeting another lovely older campervanning couple, a German guy who was camping out of his car too. I love meeting new people, especially travelers they are always so friendly. We went for a swim first thing in the morning. It was one of my favourite places in the north. 


On to Cape Reinga 

After Whangarei Heads we drove up to Paihia and stayed at the Top 10 Holiday Park which was a nice wee stop to recharge devices and do a load of cloth nappies. Then it was only a wee drive up to Cape Reinga. My goal. My dream. It felt surreal as I was driving up the last leg of the road. To the very end of New Zealand. Where the Maori believe the spirits of the dead travel on their journey to the afterlife, to leap off the headland and climb the roots of the 800-year-old pohutukawa tree and descend to the underworld to return to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. 


We hung around the lighthouse for a while soaking up the surreal vibes. Eventually it was time to cruise, I found the Te Paki sand dunes and we spent the rest of the hot afternoon climbing to the top of the sand dunes and back down again, eventually the toddler got tired and requested we go back to the car. I went searching on the Campermate app for a place to crash the night. I found a DOC campground, Spirit Bay where we could camp for the night. It was FULL of campers, a long weekend I forgot about. We found a space though and parked for the night. 

We watched the sunset on the beach, I put the toddler to bed and jumped into the freezing cold showers that we were lucky to have at this campground. I collapsed into our car camper bed exhausted but feeling ecstatic that I had reached the Cape and survived camping with my toddler. 


The next day was beautiful and sunny (so blessed with good weather up in the Far North). I wanted to find 90 Mile Beach. Google maps, of course, lead me on a goose chase up a gravel road with no reception. My fuel tank was running low and I was getting stressed out. I got back onto the main road and found a fuel station to fuel up at (not many fuel stations up there so make sure if you’re going up far north to fuel up when you can). Driving back south I passed the sign for 90 Mile Beach and did a big face palm. I don’t know why on earth Google maps wouldn’t take me straight there. Oh well. 


90 Mile Beach 

This was my favourite place I think in the north. I drove my Toyota Wish onto the sand dunes and had so much fun driving down the beach. (Definitely do not drive on the beach like me unless you’re in a four wheel drive.) I cooked up a feed of instant noodles then parked my car closer to water. 


That was a bit of a mistake because a wave came up and almost killed my car. I panicked and tried to drive it up the beach but it was bogged, I tried again slower and yes! It moved. Heart attack moment averted. I drove back up the beach and we had made some new friends near Cape Reinga so stayed there for a night. 


Next day we went to Rainbow Falls which was beautiful and crowded, long weekend vibes. Such an incredible waterfall to visit though, so highly recommend it. 


West coast 

We cut across from the east coast to the west coast and drove through the amazing kauri forest stopping in to visit big old Tane Mahuta. I found a camp for the night called Glinks Gully which was such a cool spot, no reception and right on the beach, low cost campground with hot showers available for a token and a kitchen area to use. We walked up a track to a gentle cliff overlooking the open ocean of the rugged west coast. 


We drove back to Auckland for a night and stayed with a new friend we made along the way. Only one night because we had booked for a Hobbiton tour, which is near Hamilton, for the next day. 


Hobbiton 

The Hobbiton tour is expensive but WELL WORTH IT. Two hour guided tour around the set, and then a stop at the wee pub for a complimentary pint afterwards. Hamilton, Kawhia We stayed in Hamilton for the night parked in someone’s driveway (they invited us to). 


Explored the Hamilton Gardens the next day and then drove down to Kawhia, Hot Water Beach was pretty cool. We turned up just after someone had left, so I soaked in the hot water while the toddler reminded me he wanted to go back to the car, and played in the sand. The Oparau Roadhouse hosts freedom campers so we stopped there for the night. The owners were so friendly and gave me lots of local tips and recommended we visit Marokopa Falls so we did the next day and it was amazing! 


Taranaki 

Next stop Taranaki. I had my best friend living in the Naki and we stayed with her for almost a week just recouping after a busy few weeks travelling. The mountain was amazing, we tried walking up the mountain but it was so cloudy we turned back. Then the sun came out and the clouds moved so we could see the peak. What a magnificent mountain. 


Southwards 

On to Palmerston North to stay with more good friends for a week. I quite liked Palmy. It was chilled and friendly. I had itchy feet though and didn’t wanna stay around for too long. We had our ferry booked so had to keep moving. 


Driving down the west coast of the north island now we stayed on Otaki beach where technically only self contained campers are allowed but according to locals everyone camps there anyways. I had my makeshift toilet to use anyways so it wasn’t a bother. We watched the sun set and just chilled out on the beach, I went for a quick swim the next morning. A local mum saw me share on my Instagram and invited me to her cafe for a chai which was so lovely.


BY: Shoshanna Shand

PHOTOS: ©2022 Shoshanna Shand


I love meeting new people, especially travellers; they are always so friendly.

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