Still some unbeaten bits along the beaten track.
This article was submitted to me a few years back. Things seem to have changed in New Zealand over the last few years. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on which way you look at it tourism in New Zealand has exploded resulting in local councils banning freedom camping in may areas. This is very unfortunate, especially for the local population as many of us have fond memories as children camping beside a river or a lake and for our children to miss out on this makes me sad and angry. But if people refuse to clean up after themselves and use our country as a toilet then they had no option, so thanks to those lazy and inconsiderate people.
I would appreciate if anyone can send me a message correcting any of the camp sites listed on this page. The prices may also be a little out but checking out the DoC campsite page it seems un-powered sites range from $8 - $13 and in serviced campsites $18. Thanks Garry, 2018.
This is a list of camping grounds and roadside stops for travellers who like peace and quiet, and nice natural surroundings. The Department of Conservation runs most of these places, so they are cheap (usually $5 or less) and clean, and you pay in an honesty system. Not widely publicised, but offering natural beauty and a bit of isolation, they are well worth a look. Discouraging to some folks, these places are usually lacking flush toilets.
A quiet, isolated place to camp in Nelson town is the Maitai Valley Motor Camp , a very quiet, nicely treed camping ground 4-5km SE of town on the road following the Maitai River (which, cycle tourists, is a rough shortcut to the Picton road at Pelorus Bridge.) This non-DoC facility is busy around the new year period, but for the rest of the year you should have the place to yourself. There is a swimming hole with a rock shelf just across the back fence, and plenty of walks and rides in the surrounding hills.
Pelorus Bridge is a popular cafe/picnic and camping area between Havelock (southwest of Picton) and Nelson. The forest and river are beautiful, it is a fine place to enjoy camping among native trees. You could as happily spend a week here as an hour breaking the journey.
Nelson - Westport
Want to camp in what was the main street of a ghost town? A more interesting campground than most is that at Lyell, right on Highway 6 in the Buller Gorge. This DOC camp (no flush toilets, $4) has excellent signs detailing the busy town once stood where you are camping. No buildings remain, but use your imagination, and there are plenty of walks.
Between the Visitor Centre and the pub/camping ground there is a cave that can be explored with a torch, ten minutes and a bit of care. The gorge marked Bullock Creek is also worth a short exploratory walk, opposite the pub/camping ground.
Franz Josef Glacier
There's not much camping in the Franz Josef township, but you can pitch your tent 7km or so north beside the highway, at Lake Mapourika. By the northern end of the lake, there is nice camping by a stream. Misty mornings are beautiful here.
For what must be the best value camping in New Zealand, try the Rakaia Gorge Camp (SW side of bridge on the Christchurch - Mt Hutt Road). This has bargain rates for longer stays, (something like $30 for 10 days) but even for a night it is a treat, located above cliffs. The river was a beautiful blue my first time here, and an angry grey colour the next - it was a metre higher and fast taking tree branches out to the sea. An interesting spot, although probably crowded when the fishing season is high.
There is good camping right off the road at Arthur's Pass, on a bend 5km southeast of the town called Klondyke Corner. You can surround yourself with beech forest, near the junction of the Waimakiriri River (crossed by the road) and the Bealey River (which the railway crosses).
In the Haast Pass area
Imp Grotto is 20km or so SE of Haast Visitor Centre. A simple road sign at a bridge over a side stream is all the markings. Even if you do see the sign, there is not much room to stop, but you can pull over and walk back to the bridge. The Haast is broad and mighty, but the tributary is a bottle-green waterfall in a narrow slot canyon, with an inviting pool at its base. No camping here - not that there is space anyway.
Pleasant Flat is a clearly well marked (flush) toilet stop and picnic/camping area. A short walk upstream leads to a swimming hole worthy of the name. The tour buses race past, but this is a place to linger.
Blue Pools (25km north of Makarora) is marked by a tourist sign, and for a 15 minute forest stroll, you are presented with surely the clearest water in this part of the world. No camping, but definitely not to be driven past.
In the Queenstown/Wanaka area
Want to camp out of Wanaka, under pines by the beautiful Clutha? Albert Town is 3-4km from the town, up the West Coast Highway. Very peaceful old cemetery, nice willows, poplars and pines where the clear, fast river has just left the lake. It's an underage party zone around Christmas and New Year, but for the rest of the year it is a beautiful place. Again, for those who don't mind roughing it a bit.
Glenorchy is definitely worth a visit for seekers of solitude. Even on the millenial New Year's Eve a few years ago, there were just a few small families camping at Kinloch, on the far side of the lakehead. There isn't much there, but this campground is a nice base for exploring the tramping tracks in this area. Lovely swimming with the lake all to yourself if you drive down the shoreline towards the Greenstone track end. For those who prefer beech to beach, another beautiful remote camp in the area is Lake Sylvan, the last turn off the Routeburn road.
In the Milford area
Any of the DOC remote camps along the Milford - Te Anau Road are worth a look, for a picnic or camping ($4, no flush toilets). Perhaps the nicest is marked East Branch Eglinton, by a bridge approximately 60km from each Milford or Te Anau.
Key Summit must be the best reward for a two-three hour return walk. Incredible 360 degree views, leaving the Milford Road at The Divide, about 12km SE of Homer Tunnel. This is where the Routeburn Track begins, but for a taste of its best, try this.
On the Milford side of the Homer Tunnel, the Chasm is worth a 10 minute stop. Clearly marked, it shows the power of the rivers in this area. Look for large flood-deposited logs twenty feet above the river's flow.
Dunedin - Oamaru
Oamaru has lots of fascinating wildlife and buildings that are very accessible. Their botanic gardens, on the southern edge of town, are a terrific picnic or relaxing spot.
Between Dunedin and Oamaru is a tiny town called Herbert, a little to the north of the intriguing Moeraki Boulders. There is a very unknown camping ground 2km west (inland) from this town. The campground is signposted as the Glencoe Domain, and is located behind a Christian camp. There is a great swimming river, a playing field size lawn, and a native wood pigeon/kereru which swoops and dives across the clearing at regular intervals. Stay here for a donation, and for some reason, there IS a flushing toilet here.
For the best view of Dunedin, drive or walk up Mount Cargill (easily identified by its TV tower). There is a very nice walk from Bethune's Gully in North-east Valley to the summit. The very energetic can walk from north end of town (Botanic Gardens, the steep Baldwin St, etc) to the summit and back in a day, just under 20km. Watch for ice slabs falling from the tower in winter.