I'm finally back in cosmopolitan Auckland after three weeks of hiking on both islands of this friendly country. And even though the city reflects the laid-back Kiwi way, it still reverberates with the international buzz of last year's Americas Cup competition. One has the sense of being at the center of things despite being deep down under.
There's a lot to do in town, so choosing how to pass my final afternoon isn't easy. I could join some of the tourists and head up to Sky Tower, which looks like the Space Needle on steroids and is the highest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Some people don a heavy orange jumpsuit and take the ride of their lives, 900 feet from the observation deck to the ground on a couple of cables strung right down to the sidewalk.
"Easy on the body, hard on the mind," they say, and they've got that right: I notice about half the would be jumpers chicken out as the actual plunge comes near. The whole thing is kind of wild, but what can you expect from a country that invented jet-boating and bungee jumping?
Right now I'll head down to a table on the waterfront, order a Speight's Ale, and finish up my notes before the long ride back home. Air New Zealand Flight 6 leaves for LA tomorrow, and reluctantly, I'll be on it. The time has gone quickly, but good journeys are like that. I knew this would be a lucky trip from the beginning, when I ran into Sir Edmund Hillary at the Auckland Museum on my first day in the country. It just got better from there.
And the hiking - they call it 'tramping' down here - measures up to any world-class standard for variety of terrain and pure scenic pay-off. I've put in backcountry miles in a lot of places, but have to say New Zealand ranks among the richest, yet easiest international adventures I've done. The experience is enhanced by the friendly Kiwis and a pervasive sense of light-hearted fun that has been sorely missing in North America the past few years. Here's how to get started. Summer is almost over down here, but there's still time.
If you're coming from North America or Europe, the first stop is Auckland on the North Island, the country's largest city and destination for international flights. When you fill out the landing card before arrival you find out that 'dangerous goods' include your 'tramping' boots and tent stakes. Weaponry is not the issue, but potential contamination. Micro-organisms carried here from other continents on a Vibram sole could wreak environmental havoc on this remote island country. So declare yourself on arrival and brace for a good going over.
From Auckland, most mountain lovers head to the South Island. A two hour flight from Auckland took me to Queenstown, a small, positively humming city nestled by the shore of Lake Wakatipu, in the very shadow of a range of mountains called the Remarkables ('the Remarx' to the locals). Remember those fairy tale mountains you saw in Lord of the Rings? Those were the Remarx. In fact, part of the fun of being here is seeing how director and native son Peter Jackson utilized New Zealand's unbelievable scenery to make his fantasy movie come alive.
Queenstown is a hub for outdoor activity on the South Island. Think of the place as the Jackson Hole or Chamonix of New Zealand. The well-practiced informality of this town reflects the fact it is all about having fun. Whether you're looking for a gas canister for the stove, a guide service or a topo map, maybe a jet-boat excursion or a helicopter ride, you'll find everything within a block or two. Its popularity with foreign visitors means there's food and lodging across the range of possibilities. For the traveler in this berg, the living is easy, and quirky. At Winne Bagoes, currently the hot bar in town, they're liable to open the roof and let in a few snow flurries just for the fun of it.
How to 'do' Queenstown is a matter of personal style. With tourists from all over the world, accommodations and restaurants come in all flavors, from backpackers' hostels to five star luxury hotels. I chose the middle ground: a comfortable place called the Dairy Guesthouse a former general store that combines the best features of a hotel and a bed and breakfast, with large rooms and private baths. The couple who ran the guesthouse graciously accommodated my ridiculous schedule (gone for a few days, back for a few days, out at the crack of dawn, etc), and stored my humongous duffle bags without complaint during my absences.
For the hiker, some of the best trails and alpine routes in the country can be found nearby in sprawling Fiordland and Mount Aspiring national parks. The crown jewels of New Zealand hiking are called the Great Walks by the Department of Conservation. Of the nine such officially designated Great Walks in New Zealand, six can be found on the South Island, and half of those are best accessed via Queenstown. (Mount Cook, and the World Heritage Park that encompasses it, is better accessed from Wanaka, about an hour away.)
The Milford Track may be the best known of all the Great Walks, perhaps the most famous hike in the country. This amazing four day backcountry trip extends for 54 kilometers from the northern end of Lake Te Anau, to Sandfly Point near Milford Sound. Renowned for its glacially carved valleys, alpine flowers and waterfalls, the highlight of this route remains its destination: the incomparable Milford Sound, a true fiord impossibly nestled among the snow-capped peaks of the coastal mountains on the Tasman Sea. Day three ascends Mackinnon Pass, a high alpine route that provides an unforgettable climax to the track before it descends to the shores of the sound.
For me, the standout among the Great Walks near Queenstown was the Routeburn Track. Slightly shorter than the Milford, and less popular, the Routeburn is an alpine journey of surprising grandeur and tremendous diversity of terrain. The 32 kilometer track connects Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks via the Harris Saddle (1,277 meters), so it starts wild and stays high. Beautiful forests of gnarly beech trees, waterfalls, hanging valleys, snowy passes, and lingering views into the scenic Darran Range (where Hillary trained for Everest) make the Routeburn an unforgettable hike.
The Routeburn grabs you with a constantly changing eco-zone. Long grades up through the moss-covered beech forests suddenly end as you round a corner to stunning views: all the way down the long Hollyford Valley to the Tasman Sea shimmering silver between the peaks. This is home to the kea, an alpine parrot prone to comic behavior, swooping overhead, making a racket, hoping for a hand out at lunch stops. So appealing was this walk, so varied the landscape, that when me and my companions reached the end of this glorious walk we felt like turning around and doing it again. How often does that happen?
The Milford, Routeburn and nearby Hollyford Track make a delicious sampler of New Zealand backcountry, and a good introduction to how it's done down here. The hiking styles of this country are unique. Independent hikers (called 'freedom walkers') need only permits from the Department of Conservation to hike the tracks from hut to hut. The huts or lodges on all the Great Walks and most of the popular routes are quite comfortable, many with coal-fired heating stoves and even gas stoves for cooking. It's a civilized arrangement that makes for a light pack, though it takes some getting used to by North American backcountry types accustomed to pitching tents.
If you want to hike in New Zealand but don't relish taking all your backcountry gear along, just sign up for the guided-hiking options for trail such as the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track. That way, packs and sleeping gear is provided, you stay in more comfortable lodges, and enjoy meals prepared by the guides.
The hiking down here can be as wild or as comfortable as you want it. Heli-hiking lets you get out into the mountains in only a half day. Queenstown HeliHikes has a day-trip that starts with a helicopter ride to the base of Cecil Peak for a thousand meter ascent above Lake Wakatipu to "Big Ledge" near the summit, where you get picked up and flown home. True wilderness jaunts can be found further south, near the extremities of Fiordland National Park and beyond, on Stewart Island. Once you're here, experienced, well equipped backpackers can choose between wild costal and mountain trails that see very little traffic--but still enjoy the security of huts when ferocious southern storms roll in. Many of these rustic shelters date from the 1930s, and make what can be wet and wild conditions bearable.
From Queenstown, I flew via Christchurch and Wellington to Taupo, on the North Island. I figured the more populous and civilized North Island would harbor fewer hiking opportunities, and I was dead wrong. Three of the Great Walks, including a long route in Tongariro National Park, are here, as well as some of the country's most unique and out of the way wilderness excursions.
The small city of Taupo, on the shores of the largest lake in New Zealand, is all about wild trout. But since I don't know one end of fly rod from another, the legendary browns and rainbows of this country are treasures lost on me. I stayed at a place on the lake famous for its fishing guides, because that's what there is. But in the friendly spirit of this island country, the people who run the Albion Lodge showed me what I needed to know about hiking Taupo, and helped me get where I needed to go.
I warmed up with a hike out to Kawakawa Bay on the wild west side of the huge lake with a Department of Conservation ranger named Ralph Turner. Expansive Lake Taupo, with the volcanoes of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu rising at its southern end, is a 620-square kilometer wonder formed by a volcanic eruption so big it darkened the sun as far away as China. The lake is dotted with rocks carved by the Maori people who have lived in this volcanic area for so long. Turner, affable and reserved like so many of the Kiwis, spoke of his personal dream of seeing a trail built completely around the lake, a project that at present is more vision than reality.
The surprise of the trip was when Brian, one of the most experienced fly fishing guides in the country, dropped me off at the trail head for hike through the Whirinaki Forest. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I'm naturally drawn to hiking rain forests, but I never saw anything like this.
Towering old-growth trees, clear rivers, big ferns and moss covered rocks you might expect, but there the similarities end. The ferns are as big as trees (in fact they are trees), and the hundred-foot high trees are ancient relics from the time of dinosaurs, unheard of species such as rimu, matai and miro, trees that actually change form as they mature. This forest of 'podocarps,' as the trees are known, is very little changed from prehistoric times, and you can see it nowhere else.
The main drainage through the Forest Park is the breathtaking Whirinaki River itself. With two huts along the trail and vehicle access at either end, the Whirinaki offers several multi-day options and a great day hike as well. One of the more ambitious three-to-five day hikes in the park is to start from the trailhead south of Maori village of Minginui, walk down the Whirinaki river track, up over a ridge to the to the Upper Te Hoe hut, and then back north past the Mangakahika hut to the Okahu Valley and the road end there.
Maoris have lived here for as long as these ancient trees, and the indigenous people of the country attach a strong sense of spirituality to this forest. As with most of the best hikes in New Zealand, there's a guided option within the Whirinaki Forest as well, one that includes a couple of nights at an established forest camp complete with meals and other creature comforts. The multi-day outing is led by Maori guides whose intimate knowledge of the area makes the journey as much of a cultural experience as a wilderness one.
At the conclusion of the Whirinaki trip, we made the short journey over to one of the many active geothermal areas in Taupo. A short hike took us through a landscape of steaming fumeroles, bubbling pits of hot mud, and technicolor pools tinged by various oxides.
The startlingly variety of the terrain-from lush rain forests to smoldering lunar landscapes-is just part of what makes hiking in New Zealand so mind-blowing.
On our way back to Taupo, Brian suddenly started driving with uncharacteristic haste, finally revealing that we had 'only 20 minutes to find a place to watch the Melbourne Cup.' The obvious question from me, 'What's the Melbourne Cup'? revealed more than just my ignorance: It is the super bowl of Australasia, the sporting event of the hemisphere, a long, storied Australian horse race with such a huge following that life virtually comes to a standstill all over this part of the planet for about fifteen minutes as people gather around the nearest television. This race is so traditional that even Mark Twain was impressed when he saw it, proclaiming, 'the Cup astonishes me. Nowhere have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation.'
We ended up in a country pub full of farmers, sheep shearers, diary men, townspeople and local Maoris. As the bar man brought the first beers, Brian informed me that betting was mandatory, including by me, as even total ignorance was no excuse from participating in the tradition. So I scanned the large field of contestants and, being a journalist, picked a mare at random on which to lay down my $5 notes (down here, the bills sport Hillary's face, not Abe Lincoln's). Naturally, my dumb, beginner's luck kicked in big time. Much to the annoyance of everyone in the pub, when the screaming was over, the 'Yank's' horse had won the race. My proceeds were cheerfully paid in Speights Ale, and it took hours for me and my new friends to drink all that beer. The afternoon in that country pub showed me more about New Zealand that I could have discovered in weeks of doing something else.
The last backcountry stop for me was Tongariro National Park, a stunning collection of sometime active volcanoes a few hours south of Taupo. Gifted to the country in 1887 by the local Maori, the park is one of only 20 places in the world with dual World Heritage status for both cultural importance as well as natural beauty. One of the most appealing of New Zealand's Great Walks is here, the Tongariro Northern Circuit , a multi-day route that winds its way over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngauruhoe through bizarre landforms, volcanic craters and glacial valleys. But with my time by now short, I had to settle for a shorter route, what many people believe is the greatest day hike on the planet: the Tongariro Crossing. This 17 kilometer route hike runs straight through the most interesting part of the sprawling park, past steam vents, colored lakes, lava flows, even an active crater. My Kiwi luck finally ran out, and the day I was there clouds, a ferocious gale, and astonishingly heavy snow obscured most of the scenery, and obviated the best side trip, to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe. Still, this nine-hour weather fest was a great way to end my backcountry survey course of New Zealand.
A highlight of the Tongariro National Park was the Grand Chateau, a huge hotel of old world charm built in the 1920s in the tradition of the Canadian railroad hotels. It rises out of the grasses and volcanic features of the park like a vision, and an incredibly comfortable one after a gray, windy and cold day up on the hills. The place is a bit pricey, but its location makes it irresistible when you're hiking the park for just a few days. Warming up by the fire in the ornate lobby, I was reading an old copy of a New Zealand mountaineering magazine, an article about the country's 'haunted huts' on some popular alpine routes. I almost spilled my Irish coffee when one of the supposedly haunted locales was not some remote hut, but the third floor of the Grand Chateau-right where my room was! But after a last meal of New Zealand lamb and a Hawk's Bay cabernet, I crawled off to bed early and slept soundly, either unmolested by lurking ghosts of the past or too tired to notice. The next day was the beginning of the return journey, so it was off to the tiny Taupo airport for the propeller job back to Auckland and the sad end to an amazing trip--a tramping smorgasbord that can only be described as "good as gold."
Money: The New Zealand dollar converts to about $.70 U.S, so if the prices seem high at first glance, just do the math. The country is not expensive, but it's not really an outrageous bargain either-expect to pay $200-$300 (NZ) for a decent accommodation, $30 or $40 (NZ) for a nice meal of local lamb or seafood, and $4 to $5 (NZ) for a good beer.
Getting There: Los Angeles is the U.S. gateway to New Zealand, and several airlines make the journey from there to Auckland. Air New Zealand (www.airnz.com) makes a lot of sense, as the airline knows the country, can help with trip planning, and is a good way to get in a Kiwi frame of mind on the long ride down. The domestic flights I needed to make in New Zealand were often to obscure places where only Air New Zealand flew, so it was much easier to stay with one airline. The flight from LA to Auckland is about 12 hours, a long haul, but no more so than Kathmandu or Patagonia. For serious backcountry types who work hard to sample the best of wilderness, it's no big deal. Flying around domestically is a snap; arrive 30 minutes before a scheduled flight and you're fine, it's much easier than what North American air travelers are accustomed to.
Trip Planning: New Zealand, being a wired and modern western country, is up to speed on all fronts. Planning for a hiking trip is made effortless by the help of numerous websites operated both by the government Department of Conservation (loosely comparable to the U.S. National Park Service), the country's tourism department or independent operators. The best places to start, for a comprehensive overview, is probably www.purenz.com, and for hikers and other backcountry lover, the Department of Conservation site at http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/. For more information on the guided option for the Milford Track, check out: www.ultimatehikes.co.nz/Milford_Track/, and for the Routeburn, check out: www.ultimatehikes.co.nz/Routeburn_Track/.