Freedom camper Geoff Wigley got a rude awakening in the wee hours last week when two women and a man wielding torches and wearing high-viz vests rapped loudly on his van windows demanding $250 up front for allegedly camping illegally on what they said was Māori land.
But Geoff was in the carpark of Raglan Rugby Club sports ground where Park Dr meets Cross St – a popular spot for self-contained vehicles and one that is not listed as prohibited or restricted by Waikato District Council’s new freedom camping bylaw.
A young Kiwi surfer halfway through a two-month road trip around the country, Geoff reckons he was well informed and knew his rights.
All the same “I was pretty rattled”, the 26 -year-old structural engineer from Dunedin told the Chronicle.
Not only did the trio of fake freedom camping officers shine torches into his bleary eyes at 2am on the Tuesday, but they also had their vehicle’s headlights directed at him on high beam, Geoff says.
The impostors then requested Geoff step out of his campervan and show them his driver’s licence. “It was amazing,” he says of their audacity.
He refused their requests and instead questioned their claims that he was camping on Māori land, at which point they became angry and threatened to increase the fine, Geoff says.
Geoff knew that under the bylaw the fine for illegal freedom camping is a straight $200 – not the $250 demanded – and doubted any council would hire three employees to enforce it at that hour of night.
“They didn’t know the answers to any of my questions … and when I asked about the other 10 campervans (in the carpark) they said everyone was getting a fine.
“But after our argument they quickly drove off.”
Geoff says the experience left him more angry than anything else. “Imagine if it was a couple’s first night in New Zealand – it’s really intimidating to be confronted like that.”
He reported the incident the next day to local police and council staff, and talked to the real freedom camping enforcement officer. “Everyone I told was so friendly and caring that I felt the community would want to stop these people.”
As it turns out, Geoff’s experience was not an isolated one.
WDC monitoring team leader Craig Birkett said in a press release last week: “We’ve been told of six incidents where people have been asked to pay for a camping ‘pass’. They are then given a sheet of paper as their ‘permit’. Unfortunately in many of these cases the campers have handed over money, thinking they are doing the right thing.”
Mr Birkett says there is no such thing as a pass or permit to freedom camp in Raglan. “Council will not ask you for money; however if you are camping in a prohibited area you will be given an infringement notice.”
He confirms that WDC enforcement officers have identification, and will show it if asked by anyone who is unsure.
Geoff stayed on and enjoyed a few hassle-free nights in Raglan after his early morning wake-up call. He’s big on his rights as a freedom camper but recognises the tension this trend can cause.
He reckons as long as people respect the Freedom Camping Act 2011 by leaving no trace of their presence – and preferably spending locally like he does – then it’s a great way to have a sustainable, affordable adventure.
“It’s one of the best ways to see New Zealand and more people should do it.”