Fast Times in Taupo

Bongos, rowdy Australians, bold ducks, an accordion, fireworks…there’s not much our first freedom camping experience didn’t include (oh, except running water.)

I had never heard the term “freedom camping” until I came to New Zealand. The name made it seem like something nomadic hippies in VW vans would do, but then I found out that it basically just means free camping, and I was all-in.

Here’s the deal, if you have a “self-contained vehicle,” usually a van with a chemical toilet, you can camp anywhere you’d like on public conservation land, aside from the zones where signage indicates it’s prohibited, like in the more wild and protected regions of the country. And if you have a non self-contained vehicle, you can set up a tent in some of those same areas where there is a public toilet nearby.

Now, enter CamperMate, the third party on our two-person road trip. CamperMate is a sweet little app that maps all of the available campgrounds in your area (both paid and free,) as well as plenty of other camping needs like public toilets, rubbish bins, laundromats, and so on. So with CamperMate’s help, Lindsay and I found out that in Taupo we could use the thermal baths, sauna, and showers at the local recreation center for a grand total of eight dollars, and then spend the night at a campground near the local tourist attraction Huka Falls for a grand total of zero dollars. Pretty sweet deal if you ask me.

So after we finished the final long run of our half marathon training, 17 kilometers along the overcast and windy Lake Taupo, we hit up the hot pools and sauna for a little rest and recovery, then drove on over to the campground just as the summer dusk set in.

What's a run around the lake without a cheesy tourist shot?

We rolled up to what was essentially a big gravel and grass parking lot full of campervans and tents. Everyone was sitting around in their fold-up chairs, making dinner on their butane stoves, or cracking open a cold one from the chilly bin. Oh, and it was packed. I guess I didn’t expect so many people because it was still November, and most of the tourism really starts to kick up from December to February. In any case, we found a grassy corner at the back of the lot that seemed a little more subdued than the rowdier part near the entrance (Aussies, aye.) The only catch was that this patch of grass was on an incline. “Nothing we can’t handle,” we thought.

Beezy and the tent at "Camp 15-Degree-Tilt." Pro tip: wing mirrors are a great place to dry swimsuits.

Parked up and tent pitched, we grabbed our toothbrushes and followed the signs to the toilets. Nothing to write home about there, a couple of prettied-up long drops that Lindsay tells me stank to the high heavens (perks of having no sense of smell.) We brushed our teeth next to the river and watched the scattered clouds turn from orange to pink above the trees. Sounds serene, right? Well, that didn’t last for long.

Snapped this lil number while I was brushing the pearly whites.

We didn’t have to follow any signs back to the campground, just the sounds of campers screaming and yelling (Aussies, again!) and what was that other sound? “Is that…bongos?” I asked Lindsay. “Uh, I think so, I was just wondering the same thing.” Damn, I forgot my maracas.

As the bongos grew louder so did the Australians. We passed them and I checked out their site. Man, a beer pong table? They looked like they had been set up for a few days at least, and probably drinking for most of the time based on the number of empty cans around. Other campers were cleaning up dinner, repacking the shelves in the backs of their vans, and presumably getting ready for a stop at those luxurious toilets before hunkering down for the night.

On the walk back, a couple of very friendly (or obnoxious?) ducks tailed us, incessantly quacking all the way. As the van parked across the way came into earshot and we started to pick up the sound of an accordion. Yes, friends, an accordion. I felt like I had been transported to the streets of Paris. It was a family sitting in a circle, sharing a box of wine, with a pudgy little kiddo being passed from lap to lap. Every once in a while, one of them would exclaim, “Opa!” and the child would follow suit with a cute little, "Opa!" of their own.

The accordion stopped at a reasonable hour and we fell asleep to the general unavoidable hum of a free campground. I kept coming in and out of sleep as my sleeping bag slowly but surely slid down the mat, pushing my feet to the end of the tent. I’d do a little army crawl back up to the top, only to be awoken later to the same problem. Oh, but the inclined ground was the least of the sleep interruptions that night.

At about half past one a cracking and popping sound entered my dreams, and then I realized I wasn’t dreaming. Wait, what was that? Fireworks. “Hot damn, really people?! At 1:30 in the morning? Where you know hundreds of people are sleeping?” I mumbled groggily to Lindsay. Bet you anything it’s the Australians, using up their leftover Guy Fawkes fireworks, I thought as I drifted back to my inclined sleep.

With places to go and no desire to stick around for breakfast, Lindsay and I booted it out of the campground and down the road to Huka Falls at 7am. Don’t worry, we brewed some coffee first.

The gate was closed when we arrived, stating the hour the parking lot closed but giving no indication as to when it might open. Oh well, I thought, doesn’t say anything about walking in, so we parked outside and hopped the gate.

Full disclosure, I had been to Huka Falls once before, on the Kiwi bus back in January, and I remember being unsure as to why Huka Falls was such a popular tourist destination. I think maybe I was too fresh off my trip to Brazil where I saw Iguazu Falls, the waterfall to end all waterfalls--any other waterfall would be dwarfed in comparison. I really only stopped here again so Lindsay could say she had seen it and checked it off her list.

The Huk' in all its glory.

The Huk' in all its glory.

Seeing Huka Falls a second time, without having to bob and weave through throngs of tourists trying to get the perfect shot on their new DSLR, was a completely different experience. At that early hour the roaring river seemed so much more forceful and impressive; its raw power raged and roared, cutting through the stillness of those quiet morning moments when the sun is just beginning its path across the sky.

It was a little easier to imagine what it must have been like before there was a bridge, or a parking lot, or a road leading to this place. We said wow, we snapped a couple photos for the ‘gram, and then whoosh we were on the road again, this time heading west for the coast, Taranaki next on the list.