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April 2005

New Zealand Backpacking

It's better than you've heard, and closer than you think. Here's how to see it all in 10 perfect days.

You’ve heard the tales of wild Kiwi adventure, seen the photos of outrageous mountains and fjords, and suspect that life in New Zealand is, well, better. It’s true. And here’s how you can join the party. Use our exclusive guide to create a custom vacation that combines classic hut-to-hut trekking with undiscovered trails and high-adrenaline fun-the whole thing so easy to pull off you won’t even need a rental car. Our reconnaissance team designed a 5-day base route that combines two of New Zealand’s most dramatic tracks. Alone, this hike is magnificent, but we also scoped out must-see detours-sea kayaking with dolphins in Milford Sound, bushwhacking a forgotten rainforest trail, and more-that let you tack on up to 4 days. And that’s not all. Since no Kiwi tour is complete without a dose of highwire adventure, we’ve bonused you with four memorable multisport trips: climbing on Mount Cook, canyoneering off the Routeburn River, and paddling through glacial icebergs or to a secluded bird sanctuary.

Routeburn: Day 1

The Trail New Zealand is so riddled with amazing hikes that choosing just one would seem impossible. Thankfully, the Routeburn Track simplifies the task. Of the South Island’s six Great Walks-the must-see stars of Kiwi trekking-only the Routeburn blends life-list alpine scenery with Lord of the Rings rainforests, classic hut hiking, secret pockets of solitude, and the opportunity to customize a route up to 9 days long.

Here’s how:

Link the 20-mile Routeburn with the 15-mile Caples, creating a loop that begins and ends just a short shuttle ride from Queenstown. Want the complete package? Add up to three detours, and enjoy the best of Mt. Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks in one unforgettable trip.

The Details:

The Routeburn starts with a gentle 4-mile climb through a tangled beech forest. The wide, well-tended track tempts you to speed up. Don’t. Every step of this trail is foot-draggingly beautiful. Rainforest ferns and mosses drip primordial green just beyond your elbows. The weirdly Caribbean-blue Routeburn River pools and drops in the canyon bottom, and you’ll cross and recross the water on swinging bridges (memo to fly fishermen: rainbow trout can be caught in the lower Routeburn). After 4 miles you’ll reach Routeburn Flats, a broad meadow where you have the option of exploring the North Branch (at right), or ascending 1.5 miles to the Routeburn Falls Hut.

The Huts:

New Zealand has an extensive backcountry hut system. Some are little more than dirt-floor shacks (free), others, like the four on the Routeburn, are spiffy cabins with mattresses, stoves, and toilets (NZ$40 per night per person). The Routeburn Falls Hut (48 bunks), located next to its namesake cascades, is perched at the edge of treeline, with a glorious deck overlooking Routeburn Canyon. The quiet, valley-bottom Routeburn Flats Hut, with only 20 bunks, is a great base for exploring the overlooked North Branch. Less than 2 miles separates the two huts, but a night at each is a great plan, if your schedule allows. (For reservations, see our Trip Planner on the last page).

Don’t Miss: A cold shower

One of the Routeburn’s great attractions is the concentrated amount of world-class scenery in just a few short miles. Don’t plan a hurried schedule. In warm weather, the falls–a series of cascades hanging at the lip of Routeburn canyon and descending to the valley below–offer one of the world’s most astounding, if chilly, showers. Of course, that’s after you wander the tussock- and flower-filled meadows above the falls. Best plan: arrive at routeburn falls hut by noon, allowing half a day to explore the area before moving on.

Local Beta: The Maori trail

The Routeburn track was pioneered by New Zealand’s original settlers, the Maori. They crossed the southern Alps in search of pounamo, or greenstone, which they used for tools and jewelry.

The Land of Ferns (and Frodo)

What: Yes, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Yes, there are numerous Middle Earth tours on which diehard fans spend an entire vacation visiting shooting locations. But no, you won’t find hordes of movie buffs lurking in the secluded North Branch of the Routeburn, where an otherworldly forest of giant ferns sprouts from ground so sponge-soft it feels alive. Waterfalls pour down the lush canyon walls, crystalline ponds reflect the overhanging peaks, and every moss-shrouded boulder could hide a hobbit.

Where: The North Branch is a tributary of the Routeburn that joins the main river at Routeburn Flats. Ford the river at the Flats Hut, then follow the flagged path up the west side of the North Branch. The trail becomes indistinct in places, but it’s not difficult to stay on track in the narrow valley. Explore all the way to the head of the valley (4.5 miles), where experienced mountaineers can tackle 7,521-foot Mt. Somnus.

How: There are two ways to see the North Branch. Stay a night at Routeburn Flats Hut, at the mouth of the valley, and make that your basecamp. Or bring camping gear and enjoy solitude and surreal scenery on an overnight trip. You can avoid the weight of a tent by bedding down in one of two rock bivvies (overhanging boulders, used frequently by Kiwis and often marked on maps). The first rock bivvy is just a quarter-mile in, on the east side.

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