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Kiwis and Campgrounds

By John Locke - Posted on 13 April 1997

The New Zealanders flock to Motor Parks during the "Silly Season." Written for Transitions Abroad, March/April 1997. 

Budget travel in New Zealand has become big business. The Kiwi Experience and the Magic Travelers Network compete for backpackers' dollars and the opportunity to escort them around the country, while at least two major associations of backpacker's hostels vie with the traditional Youth hostels to provide accommodations. Many hostels are run by foreigners, often students on a working holiday. It is possible to take a "budget" tour of New Zealand, without more than passing interaction with the locals.

But getting to know "Kiwis," as New Zealanders call themselves after the endangered bird that has become their national symbol, is one of the best reasons to visit the country. Not only are they hospitable and friendly, their perspective on the world is interesting, and they love to have fun.

Get off the backpackers' circuit, and it is easy to meet Kiwis. You can get to know them in their working environment by going to a farm-stay program, or volunteering for one of the several work-study programs. You can meet Kiwis at the local pub on a Friday afternoon. But if your time is limited, and you are there during the Southern Summer (December-February), you can do no better than to visit a motor park, a combination campground/RV Park/vacation rental cabin resort.

On December 24th each year, motor parks throughout New Zealand are almost empty, and many still charge the cheaper winter rates. But two days later, on Boxing Day, they are filled to capacity with Kiwis on holiday. "Silly Season" has begun.

Unlike the Northern Hemisphere, the Christmas Holiday season coincides with the school-children's summer vacation. Much of the country closes its doors for the last week of December and all of January, to celebrate and enjoy the summer. Kiwi families load up the children, the grandparents, and whoever else wants to come, and drive to the traditional vacation campground for three weeks.

Once there, they pitch large cabin tents, set up tables and chairs, and often a television. Some stay in campers, others rent the cabins always available at the motor park. For most of them, it is a ritual repeated yearly--some stay in the same site, year after year, and have a long history with the people in neighboring sites, whom they see once a year.

For the traveler, it can be hard to get a site in some of the more popular motor parks, since they have been reserved weeks in advance. But if you see a "Full" sign, take heart--if you don't have a car, there always seems to be room for one more tent, somewhere in the campground.

If you are touring by "pushbike" (bicycle to the rest of us), motor parks provide almost ideal accommodation. All the motor parks have cooking facilities, hot showers, and laundry machines. Many have lounges with games and television, pleasant for rainy evenings. Some even have pots, pans and dishes, but enough don't that you should bring your own. You don't need a stove, unless you stay at the undeveloped Department of Conservation campgrounds. Most motor parks charge NZ $6 -- $12 a night for a tent site. A bed in a dorm at a typical hostel runs NZ $12 -- $20. ($1 US equals approximately $1.40 NZ.)

With a bicycle it is possible to free-camp in most of the country. Most farmers are friendly, not only allowing you to camp on their land, but often inviting you in for tea or a shower. But I felt a bit uncomfortable intruding on their privacy, and found the campgrounds satisfied my social needs much better than solitary camping elsewhere.

Without a bicycle, it is a bit harder to get to the motor parks. In some towns the backpackers' buses will drop you off, but in other places the motor parks are slightly out of town. You can get there by walking or hitchhiking, or in the larger cities, by city bus. If you are driving, it is easy to reach them, but much harder to find a site. During the summer, call ahead if you are driving, or risk having to drive on.

The motor parks are Kiwis' summer homes. From them, they take day trips fishing, "tramping" (hiking to the rest of the English-speaking world), biking, or whatever. They play cards and drink tea with their neighbors. They watch cricket on the "telly" and drink beer. They relax, enjoy being out of the city, away from the work world.

At times, it is hard to get from the cooking shelters back to your tent without getting stopped half-a dozen times. "Hey, mate, how're ya goin'?" you'll hear from a fortyish man lounging in a lawn chair. "How far 'ave you ridden that pushbike? Good on ya!"

Before you know it, you'll have a beer in your hand, be learning the finer points of cricket strategy, and swapping tales with your new friend. And when you leave, you'll have an invitation to stay in Nelson, or Hamilton, or wherever.

The reputation of Kiwi hospitality is no exaggeration, but you have to meet a Kiwi first. There are few better places to meet Kiwis than at the local motor park at the height of silly season, when they're relaxed and have left their troubles at home.

The non-profit New Zealand Camp and Cabin Association puts out a free directory of motor parks yearly. Contact them at (+64) 4 298-3283 by phone or fax. The New Zealand Tourism Board has an office in Santa Monica, and keeps a limited supply of the directory on hand, besides a free color 124-page brochure that they publish. Call them at 1-800-388-5494.

Or figure it out when you get there.

John Locke is a freelance writer who just moved to Seattle from Alaska. He has travelled extensively within Alaska, and last winter toured New Zealand by bicycle, visited Thailand and the Southwestern United States. He finances his travels by counting salmon as they migrate up Alaskan rivers to spawn. His next trip is Mexico.