Surf photographer Craig Levers, or CPL, as many will know him by his picture credit, is a bit of a nomad. Like most surfers he likes to travel. That has led him into a whole new world of escapism and the vehicles that deliver us to dream locations.
Craig was so inspired he started Recreational Society – an online community dedicated to all that is good (and some of the pitfalls) about converting your favourite wagon to a camper. Who knew it was about to trend its nuts off? Craig did. His reaction? To do what he does best: capture the community in the type of book your coffee table yearns for. And this is how his latest book The Recreationalists came about.
Well, Craig puts it slightly differently.
“I sat down with a sheet of A3 paper and filled it with names and ideas,” he tells me. “I put down any and everything from Kiwi Kampers to Expedition Explorers, it was quite easy to fill up the A3 with some terrible ideas!”
He said the title had to be encompassing and, ideally, timeless.
“In a way the Recreational Society is a little bit of fun, kind of an officious title for something which is all about fun and enjoyment,” he laughs. “Then from that, the people doing it and the section on the website The Recreationalists became a bit of a monster. It’s the profiles and interviews of Kiwis out there doing it and the stories of how they have done it. The binding theme of the tribe is really a group of people that have figured out the best way to do what you love is to be there on site … so, if you’re a surfer you want to stay at the beach right? If you’re a mountain biker, then isn’t it ideal to camp at the head of the trail?”
When I first met Craig at the surfing magazine back around 1994 I was a teenager and he wasn’t too much older. I was a farm boy and he was a city slicker. I knew I could dig a post hole quicker than him and probably skin a possum quicker, too. But he taught me a lot about photography and how to travel. He was a nomad in the making.
“You noticed that,” he smiles. “I grew up dreaming of waking up to pumping surf outside the tent, but I found out pretty quickly that tents are cold. Before I started working at the surf magazine I was on the road a lot. My first car was an EH Holden Station wagon with a mattress in the back. As a grom I dreamed about owning a Holden Panel Van to surf around New Zealand. I actually got the job at the surf mag because I had a 4×4 Mitzi van. The editor thought I knew my way around New Zealand pretty well, much to my chagrin, it wasn’t my photographic prowess. The point being I’m pretty boring. I’m still the same grommet with the same goal – how do I chase swells comfortably and maximise surf time?”
After a lifetime of coveting campers in the Auto Trader newspaper, then Trade Me, Craig dipped his toes in six years ago.
“I bought a Hiace 4×4 Japanese camper,” he reveals. “It was epic! A real ‘should’ve done this decades ago’ thing. I loved it. I loved being around the reef at Shippies, even just between surfs, to be able to get out of the wind and make a hot drink and cruise. To be self contained, taking out what you take in. Having a mobile lounge and work station. Having a camper for a photographer is priceless, especially at surf comps. I can walk off the beach, get out of the sun, sit comfortably at my computer and smash out the delivery for the media officer on site.”
Craig found the Hiace to be painfully slow so he, and partner, Ange, decided to trade up.
“We overcompensated and bought a converted St John 4×4 Chevy ambo that had done its service in Ranfurly,” he laughs. “It was amazing to drive, so powerful. But it was also amazing to fuel – the petrol 6-litre V8 was thirsty. We owned it for three years. I did two big South Island circuits in it. But it cost $300 to do a round trip from Piha to Ahipara, plus it was on a COF not a WOF, so it cost a lot more every six months. This led to the current camper, which is pretty close to the perfect surf wagon for me.”
While they had the ambo, Ange and Craig started obsessing over Landcruiser Troop Carriers – they even rented one in Queensland for a week to feel it out.
“Then a hi-top Land Cruiser Troopy popped up at Turners in Dunedin,” Craig recalls. “Ange told me it was too close to Christmas, ‘we’ve got a perfectly good camper, let’s wait till the new year’. She was probably right, but I bought it. And it has been so good. Over the three years we’ve owned it I’ve completely rebuilt the back of it, stripped out a perfectly functional camper and redone everything, from insulation, plumbing, electrics and all the cabinetry. I’ve loved tinkering away, learning new skills and how things work.”
I ask Craig what’s the ultimate goal for a recreationalist?
“I think it’s escape, escape from your daily grind, even if it’s dreaming about what the next adventure will be,” he tells me. “I think the real difference between recreationalists and, say, the Hash Tag Van Life movement is that most recreationalists have no intention of living full-time in their camper. The camper facilitates the primary recreation. Surfing, kayaking, trout fishing, mountain biking … it is the way to be there more, to do it more. There are generations now of Kiwis who will never afford a bach – they are struggling to own a home. The explosion in campers is a reaction to that, and that’s had petrol poured on it with Covid. With overseas holidays off the menu, more Kiwis are thinking how can I enjoy New Zealand better?”
One of the big barriers to New Zealanders exploring their own country in this way has been the sweeping introduction of freedom camping laws as a reaction to mostly foreign tourists defecating everywhere and anywhere. Even without tourists, with this new normal pandemic world, Kiwis remain shut out of their favourite places with councils using draconian measures to enforce, and refusing to find solutions.
“This is a can of worms aye, the problem being freedom camping is an easy punching bag for media,” Craig admits. “It’s easy to point a finger at the visible 0.1% of campers that do something shit. We constantly make laws as a reaction to the lowest denominators, not the overwhelming majority. So no, we are having a shocker.”
“Personally I think fines should be through the roof if a camper is busted littering or defecating in the wrong place,” he adds. “There’s no excuse not to have a portable loo that fits in 1/8th of your boot and can cost as little as $50. Local councils have to stop dodging responsibility and play the game, too. Buller and Westland are stellar examples of this, they have set up simple freedom camping areas with a loo and a recycling station: three coloured 44-gallon drums. I actually don’t freedom camp at all. DOC camps are an amazing resource, so our adventures are based around those and motor camps that have hot showers, barbecues and laundry facilities.”
Travel has been an essential part of producing the latest book, The Recreationalists, which includes images that were taken six years ago – three years before the book idea sprang to life.
“The website was started up because the original idea of the book was surfers and their campers,” Craig explains. “While that’s probably a very cool looking book, not every New Zealand surfer wants to own a camper. I lost faith in such a specialised theme being a goer. The website was started in early 2020, prior to Covid. I’d written half the book already, all the ‘how to’ stories so populating the website was super easy. Over the lockdowns I was able to really concentrate on The Recreational Society – I couldn’t do photoshoots and I wasn’t allowed to surf. Why not power into the site, right? Very quickly it became evident that the ‘how to’ pages weren’t as popular as expected. It was the interviews of other Kiwis that were stealing the show. I went with it. I really enjoyed finding the recreationalists and chatting (virtually) with them. I just kept on interviewing people – it was fun.”
Earlier this year Craig realised he had more than a book’s worth of stories. And his website metrics gave him a clear insight into what people liked and didn’t like. Stories like Jamie Nicoll’s and the J2 Bedford Bus that he converted when he was 17, saw the traffic go nuts. It helped Craig to fine tune his offering.
“There was no shrewd or great master plan at work here,” he laughs. “It was more like; ‘you’re such a plonker, you’ve effectively reversed engineered a book here ya dork’. But doing the website first was a great way to hone in and evolve the theme. The book would’ve been a how to guide if the website didn’t come first. People like reading how other people have tackled the challenges of fitting out a vehicle, first hand accounts as opposed to a dictate, and that’s really what the book is, working examples and inspiration.”
Craig said that while he had a penchant for Land Cruisers he doesn’t really have a favourite vehicle anymore.
“The website has shown there’s no right way – there’s a hell of lot of cool ways,” Craig smiles. “From 4x4s with roof tents, the humble tradie’s Hiace van, to bespoke fitted out buses. It really depends on what the recreationalists’ requirements are … and that’s ever evolving. There’s a common undercurrent with most recreationalists; they aren’t locked in to one mode of travel.”
With book projects there often comes a point where an author might start to think they won’t get it completed, but because of the reverse engineering, The Recreationalists came together well.
“I employed my good mate Luke Darby to do the graphic design. He’s a great designer and he’s a surfer/recreationalists himself and he’s featured in the book,” Craig explains. “Luke had an innate feel for the style of the book, that helped the production process flow. We finished the book a month ahead of deadline … although Luke doesn’t know that … I’d built in the extra month to compensate for shipping issues. As it’s turned out, I was right to, the four pallets of books sat in an Auckland warehouse idle for three weeks because we were in Level 4 Lockdown.”
The most important twist in the production process of any book is the cover. Craig admits that is his bugbear.
“We tried a dozen or so. I didn’t want it to be a surf cover,” he shares. “We tried ones with a camper set up under trees and the title got lost in the foliage. We tried stereotypical vans under starry skies … too, cliché. Van setting off into a sunset, too dense ink wise. Luke kept coming back to Jackson Bright’s rig on the beach. I really thought it was too surf-orientated. I was concerned that Luke and I were defaulting to our roots too much.”
They took the final three candidate covers to their book reps who put them in front of the Whitchoulls and PaperPlus head buyers. They loved the Jackson Bright one.
“The old school way of selecting covers is to operate in a bubble and surprise everyone with the cover, but now I like involving the people who are going to have the book on their shelves. They are tapped into what people like. So with their nod, we went with the surfing cover. I love that it’s a crisp blue and white image, and it is the grommet’s dream; a nice camper set up on the beach with a pumping A-frame straight out in front. It’s where we wanna be!”
When we spoke to Craig, he’d just taken delivery of the new book and was in a storm of packaging and supplying orders, having sold 50 percent before he even pressed the green light for the print.
“I’ve never had that happen before, so that’s a huge relief and weight off as a small publisher,” he reveals.
Auckland’s Lockdown hasn’t made it easy for Craig, but he’s battling on and has plans to keep feeding the dream.
“I’d be stoked to be finding more recreationalists and to keep that community going,” he adds. “There’s a large community around the website, so I’m still finding and featuring new recreationalists on the website. Warren Hawke and I are working on his next surf book, which is planned for release in a year. With lockdown dragging on, I haven’t been on the road or surfing at all, so I’m hanging for a roady.”