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Camping in New Zealand's stunning DOClands

Camping in New Zealand's Department of Conservation parklands means waking up to some of NZ's most priceless views for a next to nothing cost.

12 Mile Creek, Camping NZ @frmelsewhere
DOC Campground 12 Mile Delta, Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown, Otago

Let's face it, most of New Zealand is pretty spectacular. From island bays in the north, past steaming volcanoes and down sweeping alps to the glaciers and fjords of the south. This is the country they filmed Lord of the Rings in because no other place on earth has such varied and surreal beauty.

If you want to get around and experience NZ as nature intended, off the badly beaten backpacker bus track, you really need your own wheels, especially in the off season when fewer local buses run. If you want to steer clear of the RV crowd it's best to stay in the DOClands.

The New Zealand government's Department of Conservation (DOC) camping grounds are usually found at a state park trail head or view point lookout. So most are a fair way out of town. Though basic - few have power and showers but most have toilets and drinking water - they are clean, well kept sites that get you close to nature and the trails. Without committing to a four day hut-to-hut hike.

I picked up my combie, "Little Mikey", in the South Island. It was fully self contained with a chemical toilet, sink, esky ("chilly bin" as Kiwi's call them) and freshwater and greywater tanks on board. For the next 2 weeks I was ready to go anywhere.


From Christchurch, my first stop was Arthur's Pass. The village is named after the pass which is named after the son of the explorer who navigated it. By the time I left the DOC office the sunshiny day was gone and replaced with driving, horizontal, subtropical rain. I was soaked in a dozen steps. And of course the reality of camping is there's no hot shower.

At least I had chosen a campsite with a big kitchen hut, a sturdy building with generous cooking and seating facilities. So, warm and dry, I made cups of tea and read as the rain made flash floods from streams and new waterfalls billowed off the cliff faces above. With the giant picture windows I was able to take all the stormy beauty in without actually having to venture out into it. I went to sleep that night in my wind and rain buffeted van wondering if the carpark would be flooded the next morning.

When I work the sun was streaming over the mountain tops and a kea was knocking on my roof.

With the weather looking better I was able to get out and onto the trails. And appreciate the mountain terrain I could barely see for clouds yesterday. The golden colours of the grass with the blue-grey granite and rust red iron in the rocks sets off the alpine countryside. Arthurs Pass is studded with mountains over 2000m. They aren't the highest peaks in the Southern Alps but, I thought, if they are a taste of what's to come that's going to be pretty special because this is breathtaking.

The trails around here range in difficulty and duration. All are easily accessible and well marked and there's no bears, snakes or machete wielding bandits in the Southern Alps, making it a really nice place to hike.

Sandflies & Stunning Views

A few days later I was learning about these things called sandflys. Of course we get them in Australia, but not like this. Wherever I went a black swarm came with me. Lucky for me they didn't like my brand of insect repellant so they hovered rather than bit. Mark from Melbourne wasn't so lucky, he was like a magnet to these tiny beasts...and the poor guy had just started a month long trout fishing trip so wasn't getting away from the lakeside monsters anytime soon.

Sandflies only come out at dusk so the trick is to get in and set up before they swarm. In the morning, you can sit around campfires with your neighbours, sandfly free, and share stories over instant coffee made with carnation milk.

DOC Campground 12 Mile, Otago
DOC Campground Lake Mahinapua, West Coast

Glaciers & Gold

A gold rush came to this unlikely spot in the southern ocean in the 1850s. Fortune hunters rushed ashore and picked their way over the mountains. The large buildings and wide streets of the west coast towns are testament to the fact that money once passed through here in large quantities. Today, the abandoned equipment and mining huts are a bit of a tourist attraction, but there is also still gold to be found.

After taking some snaps for the ladies working in the visitor centre, all dressed up in period costume for a local festival, I headed off on the gold trail. On the hillside are the remnants of homes and dangerous mining ventures. But down by the creek, where Victorian era equipment rusts quietly away, there are public leases. Owned by the crown, they let any punter have a go at making a fortune. The water was icy cold but I tried my hand and brought it out of the creek bed literally glistening with gold dust.

I presume a Ranger from DOC drops by a few times a year and sprinkles some around for the kiddies - and big kids like me - to get excited about. Still though, I put it in my pocket and stealthily went on my way.

DOC Campground Lake Paringa, West Coast

State Highway No.6

The road here is pretty dangerous when you're driving on your own because around every curve there is another stunning view, better than the last, that has you veering suddenly into a lay-by and reaching for the camera. It's not like you get tired of the scenery either. It's beautiful. And varied. There are rocky windswept beaches, glaciers, rivers, waterfalls and turquoise lakes. And, of course, the Alps. Sheer-walled granite mountains that catch the sun in amazing colours and sweep down into wooded valleys.

Eventually, after a few days of bunny-hopping down State Highway 6, I rounded a bend on the Haast Pass with a lake vista. There was a DOC campground sign so I drove in to check it out whether it was a view I wanted to spend the night with. It was. Lake Wanaka at sunset is pretty awesome.

You don't need reservations to camp in the DOClands, you just roll up and find a spot. So you have this freedom to go at your own pace and stop when you want, which I like.

And there's something nice about living outdoors. Standing among an alcove of trees with the sunsetting over the lake while a few meters from where you're cooking dinner trout fishers are catching theirs.

Wanaka & the Food Trail

I spent the next days in Wanaka. The lake is an ever-changing deep blue expanse backed by snowcapped mountains. On a sunny, warm, spring day everyone is out picking their way around local gourmet food stands at the markets, cycling around the lake or parasailing over it.

Ortago is New Zealand's extreme sports heartland and known world wide as the birthplace of bungy-jumping and jet boating. The shock of jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet or off an old bridge is numbed by the extraordinary views. But when your done for the day, or trying to drill up some dutch courage, Otago is also a great place to eat and drink. In fact, if you are an adventure-foodie, this is the place to be. There are several food and wine cycle trails in the region. One of the most popular being the Gibbston River Trail. It starts just outside of Queenstown, at the Kawarau suspension bridge - the world's first bungy-jump - and winds along the majestic Kawarau River to some of the best wineries in the region. After a day peddling around, filling up on cheese, chocolate and plonk, you'll be pleased to know there's a bus back.

'Oh, there's another mountain'

From Wanaka I criss-crossed the alps down past Queenstown to Glenorchy - an end of the earth landscape where Narnia, X-men and Lord of the Rings were filmed. Then north again, driving across the barren landscape of the McKenzie ranges to Aoraki, Mt Cook National Park.

This is mountaineering territory. Peaks of rugged ice and rock and the clearest starry skies in NZ. Men like Edmund Hillary have checked their egos against these peaks. Some have conquered them, many have fallen. Climbing in Mt Cook is NZs most extreme sport.

And yet there's a stillness here, as I sit by my camper under a starlit, looming Mt Sefton I contemplate the silence that's only broken by the crumbling sound of avalanches. Avalanches that have occasionally taken out accommodation huts. The night passes without incident. I lay in my camper watching the full moon beautifully hovering over the snowcapped mountain. In the morning I drop in at the Mt Cook Visitor Centre with its museum dedicated to the wildlife and mountaineers. Then set off to try some of the less arduous trails for myself.

Forests, pastures & plains

The Canterbury plains provides a 180 degree turn to the scenery I've become accustomed to. It's no longer rugged mountain ranges, but smooth pastures and soft woods, peppered with quaint villages full of farmers rather than mad explorers on an adrenaline high. Peel Forest is a remnant of the woodland that used to cover this entire area. The park itself still boasts big trees, ferns, grassy clearings and waterfalls and with an abundance of vegetation and small animals is a nature-lovers dream. It has a much more intimate feeling to it than the vast expanses of granite and glacier, though we're hardly far from that at all. Or the big city. Christchurch, my last stop.

Everything and more

From the beaches to the alps, food, fjords and forests New Zealand seems to have it all. What's more, with your own wheels it's all easily accessible. Even better when your wheels comes with its own bed so that you can explore the backcountry. The variety of the parks and trails on offer truely makes New Zealand one of the best camping holiday hotspots in the world. It's understandable so many people chose the van life when travelling here. But what's more surprising is how under used the Department of Conservation campgrounds are, especially in the shoulder season. With all those holiday nomads I was worried I wouldn't get the wilderness camping experience I came for. Instead, it was a perfect mix of accessibility and remoteness.

Whether you want a full on mountaineering, adrenaline-pumping adventure or a quiet forest stroll you're going to find it here. And at the end of the day you can relax in the DOClands with a cuppa and one of the best views in the world.

(Top Row L-R: Mckenzie Rangers, DOC Campground White Horse Hill, Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park; Lake Wanaka; Bottom Row: L-R dinner time; Glenorchy; DOC Campground Peel Forest, Canterbury Plains)



GET THERE: International Flights to NZ operate in/out of Auckland & Wellington on the North Island and Christchurch & Queenstown on the South Island.

GET AROUND: NZ has great car-camping rental options Campervans, RVs, stationwagons and 4wd are all decked out with cooking and sleeping facilities. You need to be fully 'self-contained' i.e. have a toilet on board to 'free-camp' legally. Vehicle rices during the off-season are exceptionally discounted.

DOC CAMPING: A Campground directory can be downloaded or picked up in DOC office. You can pay per night at DOC office/ranger or, if renting a vehicle, purchase a pass in advance. Weekly passes cost are NZ$20 (time of writing). That's $3.00 a night!!

HIKING SAFELY: With no dangerous animals (incl. people) NZs southern alps making it a pretty safe place to hike. BUT weather can change quickly and be severe. The trails are clear marked, however they are often rough 'ankle breakers' and it's easy to get lost if you get off the tracks. There's no mobile phone coverage and no shops for miles so make sure you're well stocked with food & water. Check in at DOC offices or online for the latest trail information.




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