My apologies for not posting anything in a few weeks – I’ve been busy enjoying the beautiful summer weather of the Southern Hemisphere!
After leaving Blenheim, the worst city in New Zealand, I headed northwest and camped at Riverside Camp near Motueka. After passing the camp twice, I turned onto the gravel with a small white sign with purple lettering that read, “Rankers.” A tall lanky man with short white hair strode out of a campervan and waved to me like a parking attendant at the State Fair. The only signs of age being the deep crevasses of smile lines and burly hands. Don, the camp manager, leaned his weight against the passenger door and rested his arms on the open window. The campsite was free of cost but with stipulations of adding the Rankers app, posting something with a Rankers hashtag and reviewing six experiences in New Zealand.
I settled into a spot on the gravel, outlined by manicured grass and two picnic tables. It was three-thirty when I arrived and the camp, open at three, was already at capacity with only nine available spots. And for good reason – with a rushing river nearby and free vegetables from Don’s garden, it was a premiere freedom campground spot. After packing for my Abel Tasman trek I sat on the wooden seats situated on the hill above the river. It only took a few seconds for the sun to put me at ease and I slithered down to lay on the soft grass where a soft snooze turned into a deep sleep.
The sun was casting golden light as I walked to Don’s garden, anxious to cook fresh veggies for dinner. A spunky black lab, Tui, and two ancient white pocket dogs, Rocky and Max, greeted me as I arrived. Don was shoveling dirt along the edge either digging or planting seeds. He stopped as soon as I walked up, giving full attention to my presence. This effort may seem minimal, but over the past four months it was rare to meet a genuinely friendly camp manager. Don’s family has owned the land, about forty acres, for nearly fifteen years but only established the campsite three years ago. The intention behind the free campsite was to cater to the international tourists specifically, not New Zealanders, and to provide a FREE campsite. Freedom camping is a novelty now and rare to find, especially on the South Island. About four years ago the country cracked down on this once attractive lifestyle, doling out two hundred dollar fines without warnings if you were camped illegally. Now, backpackers have been charged upwards to forty dollars a night or just five dollars a night. This inconsistency motivated Don’s son, Nick, to take action. Nick was spending the holiday with his father and partner at the campground and he kindly joined me for an after dinner beer and informal interview. His muscular frame was outlined by the sunset throwing purples, pinks and reds across the sky.
“Let’s just take a second to look at this. Gorgeous, man.” We sit and stare a few minutes with sandflies loitering around our ankles and ears.
The story of the land we were in awe with begins fifteen years ago when Nick and his friend Simon fought their way into the bush, looking for anything and stumbled upon the river. Instantly in love with the land, they entered the real estate office with Nick’s head part shaved from a previous act of charity and Simon rockin’ a mohawk, The women out of cautious curiosity asked what they intended to use the land for – growing marijuana they both replied. With the foresight of not entering the Mary Jane world, they started Rankers in 1995, specifically for the traveler. Nick and Simon, co-owners working alongside the five full-time employees, noticed the successes of the large companies with good marketing ripping off travelers, while the smaller companies weren’t getting any exposure. The foundation of Rankers is reviews, good and bad, through submissions. Pre iPhone and smartphone apps, all the reviews were submitted and accessed online. Currently all this information can be accessed on the app, “Camp NZ,” which provides info on campsites, wifi hotspots, petrol stations, etc.
The day was coming to an end as I blindly scribbled in my notepad, hoping to make sense of the swoopy letters in the morning. It felt good to be in the reporter position once again even though it eventually became a conversation between two curious people in love with travel and adventure. Nick spends about three days a week with Rankers, while working as a medic and tour guide the rest of the week. An active and enthusiastic man, he was waking at five the next day to hike a 26 km track.
In the morning I said farewell to Don and asked if I could photograph him, but was denied with an apologetic explanation of, “I don’t know why but I’ve never liked being photographed.” I handed in my paper with reviews of the Spring Creek Holiday Park (6/10), Mt. Sunday Bivvy DOC trek (9/10) and others. My feet were ready to explore Abel Tasman Park, the next destination, but my heart was sad to leave Don’s campground. It was a special and luxurious experience to use the compost toilet, eat fresh veggies and potatoes for dinner and have great company all for the price of nada.