Camping in Australia & New Zealand
Let me say it right away: I have absolutely NO knowledge of camping in my native Denmark or any other European country for that matter. And I actually never thought that I would ever go camping or be traveling in a campervan.
That is, until we started planning our journey around the world. During our preparations camping quickly turned out to be the best - and by far the cheapest - way of traveling for us. So it was with mixed expectations but high hopes that we pressed the “confirm booking” button, when reserving our very first campervan for our trip through Queensland, Australia.
We had made a great deal of research before we even got that far. No matter how we looked at it, we did need a car to get us around. And even the smallest “normal” cars would cost us way more than the average campervan. Furthermore, the smallest available car would not do it for us. We are traveling with a large stroller (which we are hardly using anymore though!), two large backpacks and some smaller backpacks. As a minimum we would need a station wagon, and that would bring the daily rental fee well over 100 dollars.
So instead we found a large station wagon rebuilt as a campervan. It would easily seat 4 adults, and with the many, quite smart modifications made, it could be turned into a bedroom for 2 adults and a small child. This was perfect for us! A little crammed, yes certainly, but after a few nights of “getting used to” it actually turned out to be working very well. The market for campervans in Australia and New Zealand is apparently very different from the more “traditional” car hire market. Renting a campervan is remarkably cheaper, especially if you are traveling outside the peak seasons. And this was exactly what we were doing. Hence we only paid an average rental fee of 25-35 dollars per day. Approximately one-third of what a normal station wagon would have cost us. Had we had a station wagon, we would also have had to spend at least 100 dollars per night for a motel- or hotel room, bringing our total, daily cost up to around 200 dollars. With the campervan we could check in to campgrounds and holiday parks and pay between 25-45 dollars per night for a powered camp site, bringing our daily cost up to 50-80 dollars. Of course we went for the campervan & holiday park option!
The concept “campervan” was not familiar to us before we started our research on camping in Australia. It is not like the european “mobile homes”, which are much bigger. A campervan is mostly smaller, and will accommodate 2-4 persons in a small space. On the other hand they are MUCH easier to drive around on the often small and narrow mountain roads of questionable condition with a significant number of “hairpin” curves. We are mostly talking about a remodeled Toyota Previa, Toyota Hiace, Volkswagen LT or Ford Transit. The more luxurious ones are built on a Mercedes van-frame of some kind.
Inside you find a couple of benches/sofas and a dining table where 4 persons can easily sit and eat. Also a small kitchen with a fridge and 2 gas burners. The whole cabin can easily be changed to “night mode” with a double bed and 2 bunks - suitable for 2 adults and 2 children. 4 adults would be stretching it a bit, but we actually have seen that! They must really know each other VERY well after such a trip!
Toilet and shower is not available in the van, but as the kitchen does have a small tap with an electrical pump, a sink and a water tank, you CAN maintain quite a bit of personal hygiene even when you are not staying on a regular campground. Power is provided from a small battery that will charge when the motor is running or when the van is plugged into a power outlet on a campsite, via a cable that comes with the van.
We began our first camping adventure in Queensland where the temperatures were mostly nice and comfortable. This meant that we would, in effect, only use the van to bring us around and to sleep in. The rest of the time we would spend outside. It turned out to be a very good way for us to get in touch with plenty of other travelers. Either international travelers or australians from the southern parts of the country, escaping from the winter into the warm and tropical climate under the Queensland skies.
On every campground there is a camp kitchen. A communal kitchen. A place to cook your food and to sit down and eat. This is mostly where you get in touch with the other guests, and this is where you get personal hints, tips and guidance to what you can do on your further travels. The children are all over the place playing together, making this particular travel form ideal for families. They almost take care of themselves until dinner and bedtime.
Toilets and showers are available on most campgrounds, unless you go for the far more primitive ones that are mostly run by the Department of Conservation. On these you only find cold water and compost toilets, and no powered sites for your campervan. On the other hand, you pay either no fee or just a symbolic fee for the night.
In Australia and New Zealand many campgrounds are divided into 2 sections. One for the more “permanent caravaners” staying for weeks or even longer, and one for guests staying just 1-7 nights. There are many examples of a camping and caravan culture similar to the ones in Europe, where the camping people are creating small front- and back yards with nice little fences, plants and solar powered lamps. Also quite a few examples of people having lived happily on the same campsite for more than 25 years.
And then you have the more “extreme” camping enthusiasts. Those who are turning it all into an extreme sport! We mostly saw these people in Australia where the climate and nature IS a bit more extreme than it is in New Zealand. The people I put in this category ALWAYS drive a 4-wheel drive car. Toyota Landcruiser seems to be the preferred model, but Mitsubishi also has a nice share of the market in this category. On the ever-present tow bar they bring their HUGE trailers, that can be turned into a comfortable tent, sleeping 6 adults, with one master bedroom (including a queen-size bed), 2 smaller bedrooms and a lounge area. The “de-luxe” models also have awnings. Cooking is done in the out-door kitchen area, equipped with 4 gas burners and a large barbecue. Of course there is a water tank and a tap with an electrical pump, an electrical cooler box and sufficient light coming from modern and energy efficient LED lamps. These lamps are also found in all rooms inside the tent! Everything is powered from batteries charged by solar panels within just a few hours of sunshine. Hot water is provided from solar heated tanks. They work remarkably well! You are almost self-sufficient, at least for a while, and you can be on your way for some time in the outback. The only, rather crucial point will always be WATER. But if you make sure that you always have sufficient supplies with you, you are in for a fantastic camping adventure. We have not tried this particular way of camping though, but by now we have seen enough examples to be convinced that this is something we have to try sometime. In Australia of course!
On a few occasions we have seen 4-wheel driven camping busses! Or trucks! They are in fact 3-bedroom flats on wheels. With air-condition, tinted windows and satellite TV. Wow! I would LOVE to see such a vehicle appear at the gates of a danish campground during the peak summer season. But I dread to think of the taxes and fees in order to get it on danish number plates! An average villa in fancy northern Copenhagen would probably be cheaper!
Well, back to our own, more modest experiences! The main reason why the campervan quickly became a true winner was that by traveling this way we would always have our own things and amenities with us. Particularly when traveling with children it is important to have some steady routines and surroundings of some kind. The everyday life on the road can be somewhat “vagrant” as it is, so anything to keep things familiar is needed! Anton always knows where his toys and other things are, where he sleeps and also where his mum and dad are sleeping. We eat our breakfast at the same table every morning and we brush our teeth by the same sink every evening. It gives us a calm and happy child and a greater experience for everyone!
Camping grounds in Australia and New Zealand are also known as “Holiday Parks”. In here you will typically find camp sites with or without power outlets, taps for filling your tanks with fresh water and amenities such as kitchen, showers and toilets. Most of them also have a laundry room. Some of the parks have swimming pools and other entertainment facilities such as TV- and internet rooms. Playgrounds are also found. Mostly.
Furthermore, most Holiday Parks also have small cabins for those guests that are not arriving in campervans or mobile homes. They will sleep from 2-8 persons, and typically consist of only one large room, with a combination of double-beds and bunk-beds. Prices range from 40 to 140 dollars per night depending on size, season and the location of the park.
We have actually been able to get some pretty good deals on cabin rentals a few times, when we needed a break from the thin mattresses in the campervan. It has certainly been worth the few extra dollars to sleep in a proper bed just occasionally!
What you look for and how you rate holiday parks is - of course - all a matter of taste. During our journey through Australia and New Zealand we have stayed in well over 100 different places, and one thing is absolutely certain: Price and quality does NOT go hand in hand! There seem to be an odd logic about the pricing of accommodation in holiday parks there. Apparently the rule of thumb is: Charge as much as you can get away with, if you are the only provider within a 25 kilometer radius! Often we have paid a HIGH price for checking in to a park where the amenities where built sometime back in the 1950’s or 1960’s and were never maintained or updated since. A fresh layer of paint every 5 years, maybe, but that’s it. The owner will then try to cash in on all the tired and clueless tourists arriving in the late afternoon hours after having spent many hours on the road. Mostly you do not see the facilities before you pay for the first night. So, we have learned to NEVER commit and pay for more than one night, until we know what we are getting.
As a traveling family with a small child we like a campground that is light and in a nice and friendly environment. Properly maintained facilities / amenities and a playground for Anton. A swing and a slide is enough. It doesn’t have to include a colorful castle and a big sandpit. By all means, it is certainly appreciated if it is there, but we do not expect it! In Queensland, Australia where the average temperature during the daytime would often exceed 25 degrees celsius - even though it was winter - we also enjoyed whatever pools were available. We were not willing to pay extra for this though. It was “nice”, but not “need”. Amenities does not have to be modern, but it is mandatory that they are clean and that things are kept tidy! The places where we have had a nice and cozy kitchen to stay in for cooking and eating are also the ones we have had a tendency to stay in for more than one night. Unfortunately these places were only few!
We have realized that some camping grounds / holiday parks are more suited for contact with other travelers than others. More “inviting to conversation” if you like. We really cannot figure out how and why. Because even though a park has had really nice facilities and a great location, we have sometimes felt isolated and not really interested in interaction with others. And then, in places where we would have never expected a good talk with anyone, we meet the nicest people. For some reason, some places are better conversation starters than others. Having thought long and hard about this, we still cannot “crack the code”. But it DOES always help when the people at the reception desk are nice, informative and service minded. It is definitely a good start and I guess the guests will then open up more... Furthermore, a nice and cozy camp kitchen with good eating areas will also start a good conversation.
In Australia and New Zealand we have had MANY really good experiences on campgrounds and in holiday parks. We have gathered a small Top 3 list for each country:
Ellis Beach Oceanfront Bungalows and Campsite, Queensland:
Fantastic location! Un-powered sites located ON the beach between the palm trees. If you must have power you will need to camp a bit further inland between the trees, but the view is still pretty great! A simple but nice and welcoming camp kitchen is found between the sites, under the trees, close the beach front. Lovely pool! All guests are naturally talking and interacting with each other. Evenings are often spent under a starry sky to the sound of waves brushing in and the rattling of the palm leafs. Our favourite place! And not at all expensive!
Big 4 - Coconut Resort, Cairns, Queensland:
Fantastic family park! Very well maintained! A beautiful park/garden with lots of mature palm trees and tidy beds with plants. The camp kitchen is welcoming and you speak naturally with all the other guests. LOTS of things to do for children: Jumping pillow, GIGANTIC playground and a terrific water-park. Also a nice hall with indoor activities such as table tennis and fitness, for the rainy days. Every wednesday morning there is a free pancake breakfast for all guests. Eat as much as you can! Nice pool areas for the warm days! Twice a week they are showing movies on a big, outdoor screen in the corner of the park area. A huge holiday park, yet still somewhat intimate!
Wilpena Pound Resort, Flinders Ranges Nationalpark, S.Australia:
Located in the middle of a large forest inside Flinders Ranges Nationalpark. You will need a “Nationalpark License” to get in and camp here, but you can get this at the reception for just 10 dollars. This will then be valid in all other Australian Nationalparks for a limited time. (Note: In the Nationalparks you are generally NOT allowed to camp. The license will give you permission to stay during the daytime, but NOT for camping overnight, unless there are specific areas or resorts for camping!) Wilpena Pound Resort is a rather simple place, but very cozy. You instantly talk with the other guests and all the children are playing together and having a fantastic time! The wild kangaroos are jumping around eating grass in the early morning hours. A small specialty here is that all campsites have a little, dedicated fireplace!
Waitaki Waters Holiday Park, Oamaru, Otago:
One of the cheapest places we have stayed in. VERY clean and tidy. Well maintained! A wonderful host with an eye for all the small details and for what the guests may be needing during their stay. A nice communal kitchen (2 actually!) inviting to conversations with the other guests. Lovely location, just a few hundred meters from the beach! Good playground!
Ahipara Holiday Park, Northland:
Lovely park and location. The amenities are a bit simple, but everything has a nice and cozy atmosphere. In the kitchen the walls are decorated with delicious recipes meant as inspiration for the future camp dinners on your further travels. The kitchen has all the tools and utensils you need for cooking and eating. A lovely fireplace in the TV lounge for the colder evenings. Good playground!
Matakohe Holiday Park, Northland:
Located on the top of a hill with a wonderful view over the surrounding area. Just a few hundred meters from the only attraction in the small town, The Kauri Museum. The museum is well worth a few hours of your time, by the way! The campground is kept nice and tidy and the whole park has a certain “something” that just makes it very charming and welcoming. Lovely camp kitchen and TV lounge where we liked to just sit and relax for hours. A good corner for children, with a playground and trampoline.
In both countries we could have listed a few more great ones, but we have to keep this a simple list!
The places we liked the least have all been mismanaged, run down, poorly maintained, wet and deserted. The hosts have often been unkempt and absent. Sometimes we have felt like intruders when we arrived and wanted to pay (a HIGH fee) for a site for the night.
We have almost never booked in advance. It is simply not needed when traveling outside the peak seasons. And it makes our days less stressful when we do not have to make it to a certain destination within a certain time. However, I would recommend calling in advance when traveling in the peak seasons.
After our 6 months as campers in Australia and New Zealand, we are able to make status and determine, that we have gotten a good inside knowledge to the world of camping. We have enjoyed the advantages and lived with the downsides. Whether we will be doing this again sometime in the future is too early to say. But we are a bit hooked on that outback, extreme camping-thing in Australia. Maybe we will do that, following the motto: “Let’s do it! ALL in and 200%!”