Last year more than three million foreigners descended on the tiny South Pacific islands. Proportionally that’s equal to Indonesia getting 165 million visitors a year instead of its current nine.
NZ is just twice the size of Java but with a population below Surabaya’s. Sprawling Auckland is the biggest city holding a third of the nation’s 4.5 million citizens; it’s also astonishingly multi-ethnic; Indonesian migrants who prefer urban living settle in this warmer city.
Most visitors want to see deep valleys, snow-capped mountains, regimented vines marching up brown hillsides and scattered white sheep nibbling green paddocks.
They also want to scale the peaks, ski the slopes, dive with sharks, get close to whales, tramp through passes, bungy-jump off viaducts, raft clean cascading rivers, test their courage and get close to nature. For these folk freedom camping is the only way to go.
With limited public transport and then only between the major centers, NZ is DIY (Do It Yourself) tourism for the frugal traveller. Buy a bike and pedal down dedicated cycleways stretching the length of the land, with most already completed.
For those hooked on the scent of burning fossil fuels a motorbike is ideal. The step-through 80 cc Japanese sepeda motor that clog the Republic’s roads are seldom seen. To tackle NZ’s long highways and steep hills grunt is needed with a heavy machine – not recommended unless the rider is an experienced throttle-twister on the big brutes.
That leaves camper vans and here the choice is rich. Clear Customs (international entry points are Auckland, the capital Wellington and the South Island’s Christchurch) and you’ll find more rental companies than taxi touts at Ngurah Rai.
Around NZ $50 (Rp 470,000) a day gives visitors the key to a simple van, the type normally used for small goods deliveries and with just enough space to squash a mattress behind the front seats. It helps to have a partner who doesn’t kick in bed.
Top of the range are the big purpose-built motorhomes with air conditioning, a kitchen with electric stove, TV, a double bed and bunks for the kids plus shower and toilet. Renters can stand without cracking skulls
These are the Ritz on Wheels vans that commercial camp operators like to see enter their gates. That’s because cashed-up campers pay NZ $50 (Rp 470,000) a night for the privileges of using club rooms, swimming pools and other comforts. .They call their sites ‘Holiday Parks’ and usually include basic cabins.
Inevitably it’s the budget conscious teens and young adults who go for the cheapest transport with no toilets so rely on public facilities. The businesspeople allege that tourists who huddle in sleeping bags on the roadside use the bushes as lavatories and trash cans.
Although this occasionally happens despite a NZ$ 400 fine (Rp 3.8 million), the case has been overstated as most visitors come to view, not vandalize.
Some local councils have passed laws to restrict campers without on-board WCs – but this is hurting the bottom end of the market. These travellers may not select from restaurant menus but they still spend in supermarkets.
Fortunately there’s an alternative. The Department of Conservation, widely known as DOC has more than 200 ‘conservation campsites’ in the North and South Islands. The two are connected by a car-carrying scheduled ferry through the spectacular Marlborough Sounds where hills plunge straight into a still sea.
Facilities at the DOC sites go from basic with no water and ‘long drop’ or compost toilets through to ‘scenic’ with sealed roads, hot showers and on-site rangers. DOC publishes free maps and details of locations. Some sites have to be pre-booked through the Internet to prevent overcrowding.
Fees vary from zero to NZ $20 (Rp 190,000) a night per person.
Freedom camping is not for the pernickety but it’s a great way to meet people from around the world. Most come from Australia, then China, the US, Britain, South Korea, Japan, Germany. France and Malaysia. Indonesians get grouped among ‘Other’.
They are usually found in off-highway wilderness and conservation zones, giving visitors intimate access to the parks and rivers they’d never experience bussing to the next manicured resort. .
How to enjoy
Although NZ gives footloose folk the chance to let the day make the decisions, some forward planning is advised. Most businesses and services have their own websites so booking transport ahead ensures visitors won’t go without during the peak season.
This starts in October, goes through summer and ends in April as fall, which Kiwis call autumn, begins to bite. This is the most spectacularly beautiful season as green leaves turn to every russet hue known to nature.
Those planning to stay longer than the minimum two weeks needed to appreciate the country often chose to buy a van and sell on their departure. Tourist visas are usually valid for three months stay. Trade Me is the on-line trading site where most sales are made. Also check notice boards in backpacker hostels.
All vehicles must have a Warrant of Fitness, known as a WOF. This ensures the tyres have tread, the brakes and steering work and all is safe, but it’s no guarantee that the engine won’t fail – so mechanical knowledge can be helpful.
Indonesians can use their own driving licences and will be glad to know the traffic drives on the left. But this doesn’t mean Indonesian rules apply.
Stop signs mean what they say. So do speed limits. Vehicles must halt when pedestrians step onto the zebra stripes. At roundabouts the hard rule is give way to the right. Drivers tend to be disciplined and polite, but the police are everywhere – often in unmarked cars – and fines heavy.
Distances are deceptive; because roads twist and turn, rise and fall allow extra drive time. Petrol costs about NZ $2 (Rp19,000) a liter.
DOC is online and bristling with tips. Big towns have I-Sites giving free advice on local attractions. Calling into these well-signed centers is strongly recommended.
(First published in J Plus, The Jakarta Post, 18 January 2017)