In New Zealand, a country that embraces tourism like no other, the outdoor loving Kiwis have made nature’s treasures accessible to all. A network of trails from mild to wild, are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation. Numerous outfitters are happy to take visitors hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching, birding and more. Just bring a fit body, plenty of sun block, and a sense of humor to the other land down under. You will be amazed at the variety of terrain from the snow-crowned Southern Alps with glaciers descending into lush rainforests, to rugged valleys carved by wild rivers rushing to sun-washed shores.
New Zealand consists of two major islands -the North and the South- and many smaller islands, including Stewart Island, recently given National Park status. Three-quarters of the not quite four million people that call themselves Kiwis live on the more temperate North Island. The South Island has the most spectacular scenery with nine National Parks dedicated to preserving the splendid native forests. The isolation of the landmass that split off from the South Pole eighty million years ago has engendered flora and fauna that is totally unique. Over 250 birds species are found nowhere else but New Zealand. Giant trees, ferns and mosses endemic to the region seem other-worldly.
The best time to visit is in spring (November) through fall (March). The temperatures these times of year are mild, averaging about 70 degrees with a tantalizing breeze, and the days are long with sunlight until about nine at night. I met Kyle, my guide from Active New Zealand, in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. This London knockoff is the start and end point for most outfitters and independent travelers as well. He picked me up in the van that would be my home away from home for the next two weeks. We collected the other five guests; a telecommunications whiz kid from Dallas, a systems analyst escaping from the deserts of Qatar, and a mature gentleman with his “thirtyish” daughter and son-in-law. Soon we were barreling up Highway One, a two-lane road that makes a giant loop around the South Island with unlimited opportunities for side trips to adventure.
I chose this moderately priced Kiwi owned tour group, because they offer the closest thing to independent travel available with the comforts of lodging, food, toys and transport in an all-inclusive carefree package. The popular multi-sport adventure I selected from their list of options is an action-packed holiday. It proved to be so eventful I can only detail a few of the highlights of my incredible journey that included trekking, kayaking and biking through magical terrain filled with beautiful surprises. It’s wonderful to be chauffeured, especially when everyone is driving on the “wrong” side of the road. The panoramic windows of our van brought the magnificent scenery closer to view as we cruised past golden pastures sprinkled liberally with sheep along a rugged windswept coastline. We averaged a couple of hours of driving a day between adventures. Each evening brought us another lovely setting to explore while Kyle prepared a home-cooked meal for us. Our lodgings were a mixture of small motels with self-contained units, bed and breakfasts and even a shearer’s lodge on a remote knoll overlooking Mt. Cook.
It’s tough to choose from the fine experiences I had in the incredible terrain of the South Island, but my top four outdoor adventures on this whirlwin holiday are as follows:
Trekking in Nelson Lakes National Park
There are eight great walks on the South Island that require several days to complete. They are challenging, but the reward is the solitude of the native bush and genuine outback experience. Active New Zealand is one of two commercial outfitters with permits into the less-traveled Nelson Lakes National park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. The Cascade track we were to take to the summit has a 3,500-foot elevation gain in thirteen miles. Throughout our journey we were given many choices in activities and on this leg of the trip we were offered a less strenuous track or kayaking while those who chose to do the more demanding trek were away.
Bent on having the quintessential Kiwi tramping holiday, I strapped on a backpack, even though I’d never worn one before, and followed the others in my group just as eager to get into the bush as I was. After a mellow march along the shore of sparkling Lake Rotoiti we spent a night at Lake Head Hut. It’s oddly peaceful to bed down with about twenty strangers on a communal mat like sheep in the meadow.
Next morning found all six of us rested, standing in tall grass spiked with purple foxglove beside the Travers River. Kyle pointed to the slate gray, snow-streaked peaks in the distance and said “That is where were we will sleep tonight.” The under-thirties sprang like jackrabbits up the trail and were soon out of sight. I followed behind Lutz, a fit 64 year old Californian, whose stocky body was dwarfed by his pack. He picked his way through the root-strewn trail that led us through the towering red and silver beech forest. Three-quarters of the amazing variety of plants growing in this preserve are endemic.
Spreading fronds of giant tree ferns, and thick layers of moss, lichens and epiphytic vines converge to create a symphony in the key of green. Birds like the tomtits, robins, the tiny rifleman and the flashy fantail twitter from the depths of the cool forest. The friendly gossip of the energetic Hukere Stream churning over black boulders kept us company all along the challenging climb to its headwaters.
Kyle, whose father is a Maori chief, unfurled a palm frond for us to examine. The tendrils of the mother fern hide thousands of fern pods that the Maori people saw as children of the forest. Soon the pods will propagate and this world will be rejuvenated with new life. The fierce looking faces of the Polynesian people, ancestors to the Maori, who sailed here in large canoes about 1200 years ago, became gentle to me with this knowledge. The swirling tattoo patterns that covered their faces and bodies were simply imitations of the ferns in the lush rain forest they lived in. No wonder the fern is the national symbol of New Zealand.
When we reached Angelus Hut, the hub of the Nelson Lakes trail network, we were greeted by an international array of hikers. Kyle whipped up a pasta dish for us that made the rest, eating from freeze-dried packets, envious. I fell asleep to a cacophony of snores that did not betray an accent. The hike out of the park from Angelus Hut across Robert’s Ridge involved a scramble up a steep face, followed by boulder hopping on a goat trail, to reach an undulating easy romp across the top of the world. For several hours, Lutz and I walked the spine of the mountain enjoying outrageous vistas of serrated peaks and the gold and green patchwork quilt of farms far below. Warm sun tempered by an intoxicating breeze kept my engine purring. Once down from the mountain, we cooled our “dogs” in glacier-fed Rotoroa Lake where Kyle waited for us with an ice chest full of cold drinks.
Kayaking in Okarito Lagoon on the Wild West Coast
We spent a couple of restful days in Okarito, a laid-back beach community, a few miles north of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the windswept west coast of the South Island. At the Royal Motel, a cluster of cozy cottages framed in flowers, Kyle grilled up lamb, sausages, chicken and fish fillets and served them with mounds of fresh fruits, salad and vegetables to fortify us for our kayak outing in the morning.
The Okarito Lagoon is home to the only white heron rookery in the Southern Hemisphere and locals are proud of the 150 species of bird that breed in the region. It is the largest undisturbed wetland on the South Island and home to one of the last stands of the Kahikatea tree, the tallest of the native trees that takes hundreds of years to mature.
We were greeted with a perfect paddle day; glassy calm water, a mist hanging over the shoulder of the snow-frosted Southern Alps in the distance and a couple of promising patches of blue overhead. Wet suits, self-guiding maps and kayaks were provided by Okarito Nature Tours. Pole markers placed in the lagoon form a water trail to deep channels and the best birding spots. The estuary is a network of protected waters lined with flax, bright orange flowers, stalks of shimmering gold pampas grass (toitoi) and cabbage trees that look like a cross between a cactus and a palm. Tui, black birds with a puffy white ball at their throat, chortled as they plucked seeds from the purple seed stems of the flax. The thrum of cicadas filled the air. A flock of black swans drifted in the reflection of the shaggy Rimu and Kowhai trees, famous for yellow dripping flowers lining the shore.
Biking through Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound
No trip to the South Island is complete without a jaunt through Fiordland into moody Milford Sound on the southern tip of the Island. We did ours riding mountain bikes on the two lane road winding through bewitchingly beautiful Eglinton Valley. We pedaled past jade green Gunn Lake, stopping to admire the snowcapped spires reflected in Mirror Lake. Just before the Divide, the highest point on the route, we made a detour to hike Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. This switchback to the heavens provides staggering views of the Hollyford Valley. Once aloft, an undulating nature trail wraps around a sapphire glacier cirque, framed in low-slung alpine shrubs and ground hugging white flowers. On this plateau, I felt very close to the gods.
From there we did a glide to our lodging in Milford Sound on our mountain bikes. The corkscrew descent through this spectacular valley takes you past a dozen waterfalls sliding down slick steep granite walls shimmering in the sun. We made a quick side trip at the Chasm where turbo-charged water has carved holes in huge boulders that look like great skulls with water gushing from the eye sockets. We spent the night in moody Milford Sound that reclaims its haunting majesty at the end of the day when all the tourist buses have gone back to Queenstown or Te Anau.
Jet Boating in Pristine Wilkin’s Valley
The jet boat, that rides on a cushion of air at about 60 MPH, was invented by a New Zealand farmer who wanted to get his sheep to market via rivers plagued with shifting gravel beds, snags and other obstacles. With veteran guide Brent at the wheel, we blasted up the Wilkin’s River Valley at the foot of white-caped Mt. Aspiring. A warm wind teased the sun-spangled water into small ripples. Cows munching peacefully on green grass on the shore made fun targets for Brent who swerved the boat sharply sending a rooster spray in their direction. He handily sideswiped trees growing on islands in the middle of our path. I shrieked with delight, as we charged up the river in a series of serpentine moves designed to provide maximum thrill. Brent revved the engine to power our way up a set of rapids and capped off the maneuver with a 360- degree spin that left me wet with spray and screaming at the top of my lungs. It was grand!
The sheer volume of soul stirring vistas and heart-thumping adventure on this journey was amazing. With the shackles of daily life put down for a time, my mind was free to roam unfettered. I felt soothed, as if I’d soaked in a tranquil lagoon for a century or two. Now that I’ve gained an overview of this fun-filled country, I hope to return for more of the “other land down under” where there are “no worries mate.”
New Zealand – If You Go
The best time of year to visit New Zealand is from November (spring) to March (fall).
Clothing: A light shirt, fleece jacket and hiking pants are best. Be sure to have a good rain slicker in your daypack.
For a complete listing of trip options and itineraries offered by Active New Zealand go to (www.activenewzealand.com) They have tours of the North Island and Aussie Walks, as well as the unusual policy of allowing travelers to join them on portions of their trips on a pro-rated basis.
Air New Zealand is the national carrier. (www.airnz.com). My flight arrangements were made by Down Under Answers (www.adventour.com) including strongly recommended travel insurance.
A world of information about tracks and national parks may be found at (www.doc.govt.nz) the Department of Conservations website.
For general information and deals offered in New Zealand go to (www.tourism.net.nz) New Zealand Tourism Online
My initial contact was World Outdoors, a Colorado based tour company arranging off-the-beaten path adventures. For over 15 years The World Outdoors has offered Multi-Sport and Hiking vacations throughout the Americas and South Pacific. Featuring small groups, local guides and personalized itineraries and Best Value in Active Travel Guarantee 1-800-488-8433 or (www.TheWorldOutdoors.com)
Note – If you are traveling independently you may take advantage of Tourist Information offices found in most cities to locate accommodations on short notice. However, they close at 5:00 pm daily. Online reservations may be made at (www.accommodata.co.nz)