Quite by accident we spent our first night “freedom” camping or camping in the wild, as opposed to a campground with all the amenities. We started out from Waiheke with a destination of Pirongia for the night. We knew nothing of this small Waikato town, south of Hamilton, except that it had a Motorcaravaner Association POP, or park-over-property. These POPs are listed in an annual guide and although they vary greatly most offer a place to camp overnight without charge. Some have toilets and showers and some are simply members’ backyards with no amenities. We were planning to spend the night at Pirongia Clydesdales, a horse farm that listed many amenities. We got to Pirongia by mid-afternoon on Saturday, stopped for coffee downtown and then searched out Pirongia Clydesdales. The farm was close to the town center and had a small building that they used as a POP and also as a function hall. Saturday it was booked for a wedding. While we were welcome to spend the night, we watched as the band unloaded a very large sound system and decided to go elsewhere.
We drove towards the coast to Kawhia, a small town with several campgrounds. After walking around the town a bit, we drove past the campgrounds. The first looked grim, the second looked worse and the third no longer took dogs. We decided we’d try the first one (maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked from the road), but first we’d drive over the hills to see the small village of Aotea. It has about 30 houses, one tiny store (see photos) and a black-sand beach. We pulled into a small parking area beside the harbor. Why not spend the night here? Isn't this why we bought a campervan? It had a level grassy area to park, picnic tables and a clean long-drop (toilet) not far away. An older Danish couple in a larger camper and some young people with tents shared our opinion of Aotea as a good place to camp for the night.
We weren’t prepared for life without a campground, however. Our auxiliary battery (for lights and refrigerator) failed us once again and we were low on water. Dinner was canned chilli complimented by a 2003 Passage Rock Sisters (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec blend), corn crackers and tea and biscotti. Despite the problems, we had a great night watching the clouds build above the opposite shore and listening to the water against the breakwater.
The couple in the camper had lots of freedom camping experience and they had heard of Aotea from yet another camper. They had lived in New Zealand for 40 years, but they still had that Scandinavian zest for the outdoor life. When the tide was low, they set a fishnet across a small channel and invited us for fresh fish the next morning. Luckily the net came up empty and we didn’t have to clean flounder before breakfast.
The next morning we went back to the town of Pirongia to find a trail map of the 17,000 hectare Forest Park. This park surrounds Mount Pirongia that at 959 metres is a landmark in the flat and rolling Waikato District. We took the Tirohanga Track to the Ruapane Lookout on the advice of a local. It was a steady climb from the parking lot, much of it along steps built in a good trail. After hiking for about 45 minutes, we reached the lookout and were rewarded with sweeping views of the countryside and ocean beyond. Sam found a shady spot under the trig and stretched out in the breeze. Steve and I tucked into sandwiches bought from a Pirongia coffee shop. The climb back down took nearly as long as the top part of the trail had some steep rock stretches that were not easy to descend.
We then headed north to Port Waikato, a town that looked interesting on the map but proved to be a little tired and shabby. The one campground, however, was charming in an old fashioned way and it was clean and well maintained. After our hike, we both needed the showers and cooking and clean up in the kitchen were easier than in the van (with its tiny amount of water). The campground manager was very strict about where we could parkonly in the “dog area.” This was fine with us. At some campgrounds, we’ve found the dog area to be more secluded than other parts. We parked carefully, had dinner and spent a quiet night. Next morning it was raining and time to head home. I went to look at the “dog area” sign and found that indeed we had parked in the “no dogs past this point” area.