Hiker's Paradise: New Zealand

If you like stunning mountains, challenging trails, breathtaking scenery and warm temperatures in winter, New Zealand is your ticket to paradise. Just watch out for the thieving parrots.
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If you like stunning mountains, challenging trails, breathtaking scenery and warm temperatures in winter, New Zealand is your ticket to paradise. Just watch out for the thieving parrots.

A babble of stories and accents crowds the Mt. Aspiring Hut. Because I speak passable French I'm helping translate for a Swiss man as he describes yesterday's glacier travel. He had tied into a rope with a couple of Australians who didn't speak a word of his native tongue. The hut full of trampers laughs uproariously as the Swiss fills in missing words with outrageous pantomimes. A German, an Israeli, a Dane, a Finn, and a Japanese join the fun, along with myself -- American -- and a token New Zealander or two. Most of these folks have been on the "road" for weeks, some for months, even years. It's a convivial group that has coalesced for a magical evening and will disperse again by morning.

We're all drawn to New Zealand by the same magnetic forces: soaring glacier-clad peaks, waterfalls cascading from incredible heights, turquoise rivers meandering swiftly down deep grassy valleys. Scenery, that is. The kind of place that you discover in a photograph and fixate on until the right time finally comes and you can at last go see it for yourself. And trails-"tracks" they call them Down Under-that a backpacker dreams about until he can't stand it anymore and has to stomp them with his very own boots.

I picked my route from a guidebook while daydreaming at my desk one gray December day in Oregon (the Southern Hemisphere's summer falls smack dab in the middle of our northern chilly season). I wanted to hike something that displays New Zealand's mountain landscape at its finest, but doesn't have the popularity of such world-famous attractions as the Milford and Routeburn tracks. Not that I've ever heard a disappointed word about those classics. It's just that I find a delicious joy in "discovering" something people at home have never heard of. Even if I did find out about it in a guidebook.

Sandy, the Mt. Aspiring Hut caretaker, shows up the next morning with the weather forecast, which she receives twice daily via shortwave radio. New Zealand huts are well-loved not simply because they can save you the weight of a tent, but mostly because the climate here can turn truly foul in a few hours. Tents have been known to rip apart under the lashing of a gale. There's even the tale of a mountain hut that blew completely off its perch. They never did find the missing hut and its three occupants, which explains why high altitude shelters now sport thick cables strapping them to bedrock.

Of more immediate concern is my hiking route of today, which climbs the steep hillside to Cascade Saddle before dropping into the popular Rees-Dart Track in a neighboring valley. Posted signs, guidebooks, and wardens all advise caution during bad weather. The hump to the saddle involves 4,000 of the steepest feet you've ever seen a "trail" climb. (To be precise, it's 4,400 feet in 2.5 miles.) The first half ascends through beech forest with the occasional pseudo-switchback thrown in for relief. The final half tackles, well, the fall line. According to a sheep farmer I spoke with on the way in, at least seven people have been killed over the years when they slipped on this route. The trouble here is that the dominant vegetation above treeline is snowgrass, which is slick as its namesake, especially when wet. At either end of the summer season, when real snow settles onto the steep landscape, slick hardly describes the stuff-the hiking route turns into mountaineering. Because it's January, I shouldn't have to worry about anything frozen, but I've still been advised to wait for a favorable weather report.

"I have good news," Sandy informs the assembled trampers during breakfast. "Today should be mostly fine, with some mist and drizzle here and there. Freezing level 3,000 meters." This being a particularly wet summer (El Ni?o, of course), anything other than heavy rain is greeted with a rousing cheer. Most of my fellow hikers are sticking to the Matukituki Valley floor, but I'm eager for altitude and strike off into the forest aiming for Cascade Saddle.

Dappled light settles softly through the beech canopy. Tree roots fan out across the ground and soon I'm walking an organic plankway that for all appearances could be wooden snakes writhing on the duff. On steep sections I grab the rigid reptiles and yard myself upward. Beech trunks seem familiar enough; smooth, gray, mottled with lichens and moss, they look like a generic blend of our basic North American birch/alder/aspen/maple. But these roots are something else again. And the canopy, too, with branches that fan out in flat tiers all covered in tiny leaves-not like home at all. Oddest, though, is how the forest is sandwiched in a narrow band between grasslands below and grasslands above. Driving toward Mt. Aspiring National Park yesterday morning, my strongest impression was of the barrenness of the landscape. Across the vast and rugged countryside, nary a tree broke the "tussock land," as the hillocky grasslands here are called.

After 2,000 feet of steady upward progress, I emerge from the upper treeline. And what a glorious feeling it is. Suddenly the views encompass this fantastic valley. Way down below I see the hut like a miniature doll house. In a great sweeping arc to the north stand glacier-clad peaks with drainage streams cascading straight down their rocky flanks. To the east is the grassy valley of yesterday's heart-meltingly beautiful walk. To the southwest, it's up. Fantastically up. I sit for a good rest while I stare dumbfounded at grassy tundra slopes that rise another 2,000 feet to the horizon. Switchbacks? Forget about them. This is New Zealand. I'm lucky to get a series of orange pickets driven into the ground every few hundred feet for guidance.

There is a slender trail, I'm glad to discover, and during the next 2 hours the only times I experience the slickness of snowgrass are when I step off the beaten track to take a photo of giant Mt. Cook lilies (the world's largest buttercup), edelweiss, or delicate white gentians. At times the "trail" is so steep that I sink to all fours-or rather, the ground rises to meet my clinging fingers.

During one of many rest breaks I think back to my visit with Stuart Thorne at the Department of Conservation (DOC), which administers the park. "People coming to New Zealand from other parts of the world often don't know what to make of our hikes," he told me. "It's a concern to us because what we consider a good tramp is getting people into trouble." Tramp. It's a uniquely Kiwi term covering everything between an easy "trek" and actual mountaineering. While most tramps follow well-defined routes that any fit hiker can tackle, even on these one might find stream fordings, passages across steep roots, and alpine crossings. Some of these walks are definitely not for the faint of heart, as I'm finding out today.

At long last the ridgecrest draws near, and finally I'm at the metal pylon that marks the top of the hump. Already the sweaty hike up has vanished from memory. The little hanging valley outstretched before me must surely rank among the most exquisite nooks on the planet. Gentle waves of sage-colored tundra roll across the land as if it were a wind-tossed lake. Above this Eden a series of waterfalls sprout from the craggy mountainside. These coalesce into a crystalline stream that forces me to take off boots and wade calf-deep for 30 feet. I spend the afternoon wandering through the enchanted landscape.

The stream leads me down to where it surges through a narrow canyon, then plunges recklessly off a 2,000-foot cliff toward Mt. Aspiring Hut, barely visible far, far below. Shallow tarns dot my little valley. I stop to feel the water in one. Splendid! I strip and lay flat in a surprisingly warm alpine bath graced with one of the most dramatic views imaginable. Spanning the entire western horizon is a series of glacier-covered peaks. From the suspended ice of the upper Dart Valley periodic booms reverberate when rocks or ice break loose and plunge to their destiny. Sweeping northward from peak to peak to peak, my eyes eventually come to a long rest on the chiseled features of Mt. Aspiring itself, the monarch of the range. But even Aspiring doesn't command the view, because yet more rocky summits and glacier-covered flanks march eastward.

"Keeahh! Keeahh!"

The sound brings me to sharp attention. It's the unmistakable call of one of New Zealand's most beloved and despised birds, the world's only alpine parrot, and it strikes terror into my heart. Just over the ridge is where I placed my pack. Stupidly I left some bags laying next to the pack, including my used film. As I dash toward my gear, I remember stories of keas carrying off equipment and dropping it over cliffs just for their kleptomaniacal fun. Friends told of keas landing on metal-roofed huts and sliding down them, over and over, each time emitting a delighted "keeahh!" to the horror of bleary-eyed sleepers. Someone told me of returning to a hut to find that keas had torn apart down sleeping bags and were hopping about in what appeared to be an indoor snowstorm, all the while cackling jubilantly, "Keeahh! Keeahh!"

When I reach my pack my heart sinks to find various plastic bags with peck holes scattered about. My film is nowhere to be seen. Finally, in a discouraged slump, I roll my pack over and there is the film, right where I'd apparently stashed it. Breathing again at last, I can enjoy the company of the three chicken-size parrots who've decided to watch over me during dinner. Flying pebbles keep the pranksters from joining me at the stove. This being about as picturesque a campsite as our green Earth can provide, I've decided to roll out my bivy sack and spend the night right here.

A white figure appears on the skyline just above, pauses dramatically at the edge of the monstrous cliff that drops away beneath us, then ambles in my direction. It's a chunky man hiking in his underwear. "G'day" he offers out, then settles in for conversation in an accent so thick it takes my ears a while to adjust. New Zealanders speak a nasal brand of English, and from the mouths of certain natives you'd hardly recognize the language. In extreme cases, such as this fellow, I can only describe how to speak New Zealandese thusly: Pinch your nose (for the appropriate nasal tone), mumble, then swallow what remains, all the while keeping your teeth clenched.

Our conversation wanders across the globe, but mostly remains here in the Mt. Aspiring bush. My camp guest has tramped these parts for decades. For the vistas, he feels, nothing surpasses the Cascade Saddle, where we now perch. But his favorite walk, which he's done some 15 times, is the track along the Dart Valley, where I'll be hiking over the next few days.

"Yeah," he says, injecting the most oft-used word in the Kiwi lexicon, "yeah, it's good and wild, that tramp. There's places you got to scramble up headlands by grabbing roots. There's even ladders bolted to a cliff face. Good stuff. Not all civilized like some others."

Sounds perfect, just what I had hoped to find while daydreaming back in cold, gray Oregon. Was it really just three days ago that I left that chilly clime behind? My arms and nose give me away-they sizzle from not having applied sunscreen early enough on yesterday's hike.

As darkness falls (it's almost 10 p.m., after all) I settle into my bag and wonder how New Zealand valley hiking will compare with being way up here cheek to jowl with mountain tops. Just fine, I reckon, and with a few surprises, too, if I'm lucky.

That night bright stars spangle the heavens. Orion, one of the few constellations I know well, appears upside down, a disconcerting habit it picks up below the equator. But it's the famous Southern Cross I search for. And there it is, glowing brightly, confirming that I am indeed a long, long way from home.

New Zealand

With 13 national parks, 14 forest parks, and a score of reserves, huge chunks of both the North and South islands are ripe for tramping. "Tramping" down here describes overnight backcountry hiking-the term "backpacking" is used for budget travel when you carry your supplies in a pack rather than a suitcase. If you're relatively new to international travel and not prepared for the rigors of foreign languages or less developed countries, New Zealand is ideal.

Where To Go: Hiking is enormously popular in New Zealand, and the most famous tracks-including eight the government has designated "Great Walks" and manages accordingly-will expose you to more people than a get-away-from-it-all American wilderness aficionado might like. But there are scads of alternatives. For example, my Cascade Saddle/Dart Valley hike, while considered one of the most scenic mountain walks on the islands, sees a tiny fraction of the trampers who seek alpine vistas on the nearby Routeburn Track, a Great Walk. To get a sense of New Zealand's many options, you really must study a guidebook (see my recommendation, under "Guidebooks").

Dusky Track: This difficult four- to nine-day (most hikers fly out via float plane after four or five days) tramp on the southern end of Fiordland National Park offers rugged mountain scenery and a salt-water fiord like the Milford Track, but without the advance-booking requirements of that superstar Great Walk. Dusky is a remote wilderness experience.

Queen Charlotte Walkway: A medium difficulty, four-day track along coastal bays and over ridges on the relatively tropical northern shore of the South Island, this is a much-less-used alternative to the superbly scenic Abel Tasman Coast Track, a nearby Great Walk.

Mt. Taranaki Round-the-Mountain Track: Rated medium difficulty and requiring four days, this alpine and forest trail encircles a volcano on North Island. It provides an alternative to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a popular Great Walk that encircles another North Island volcano and includes hot springs and active volcanic areas.

When To Go: New Zealand's summer coincides with North America's winter. The best weather typically comes between November and April, though you'll want to give the high country time to melt. December and January are when New Zealanders tramp with vacationing schoolkids, which leaves February and March as the ideal time for international visitors. Lowland walks typically can be hiked year-round. But remember that at any time of year the weather can change rapidly for the worse. Take all New Zealand weather reports seriously.

Getting There: Flights to and from New Zealand are overnight, which makes the 11 hours (direct from Los Angeles International to Aukland) seem like many fewer. Time change from Los Angeles is a mere 3 hours, reducing jet lag to tolerable levels. But beware the date change! You lose a day crossing the international date line getting there, and gain a day returning. In Aukland, you'll change terminals to fly to Queenstown to reach Mt. Aspiring National Park and Fiordlands. Round-trip flights between Los Angeles and Aukland run about $1,400 to $2,200 during prime season (December through February), $700 to $1,000 mid-April through August, and in between during the shoulder seasons.

Sometimes the best deals (especially at the last minute) are "bucket shop" tickets advertised in the travel sections of major newspapers, but as of this writing I could find nothing better than the $700 low-season and $1,400 high-season offered by Air New Zealand. A national discount airfare provider is STA Travel, (800) 777-0112. Flights between Aukland and Queenstown run about $300. In New Zealand you can generally get around easily-even to trailheads-via bus. The Backpacker's Express is one of several that will take you to most trailheads in the Mt. Aspiring/Fiordlands area. Make arrangements at any travel office in town. Costs are minimal (about $5 to Rees-Dart). Or rent a car. Queenstown even has the equivalent of American "Rent A Wreck" cheapo rentals.

Backcountry Huts and Camping: Most trampers take advantage of the huts, which provide a guaranteed dry night and some company. (A hot tip for happy hutting: While I found New Zealand hut users to be exceptionally courteous, a pair of foam-rubber earplugs will ensure a good night's sleep.) You can also cook, eat, and hang out inside a hut, then sleep in your tent for a $6-$10 fee. Buy tickets in advance from a Department of Conservation office (see "Maps and Information"). Price: $2.50 to $12 per night, except for Great Walks huts, which can cost $18. Higher priced huts have gas, stoves, and even cookware; lower priced ones don't. Check ahead to know what you must carry. Having a ticket doesn't assure you a bunk, so come prepared or ask ahead about the likelihood of a full hut. The Mt. Aspiring Hut is owned by the New Zealand Alpine Club, costs $18, and doesn't accept either the DOC tickets or their Annual Pass (the latter is the best buy if you'll be tramping for a couple of weeks). Backcountry camping typically is free.

Hazards: A good drenching isn't the only potential consequence of New Zealand's sometimes heavy and unpredictable rains. So are flooded creeks and rivers. Even tiny streams can quickly surge to extremely dangerous levels. Sometimes you'll have to wait out the high water-do not attempt a flooded crossing! Fortunately, the waters recede as quickly as they rise. Giardia is making inroads into New Zealand, especially around huts and where domestic animals graze. In Mt. Aspiring National Park, at least, local mountain guides never treat the water when away from such popular sites. I didn't either and suffered no ill effects.

Maps and Information: Almost every place you'll want to hike is administered by the Department of Conservation, which goes by the acronym "DOC" and is pronounced as a word. DOC offices grace most major towns near national parks and should be your first stop. They are a fountain of information: maps, guidebooks, fliers, and cordial assistance. This is also where you buy hut tickets and fill out "Intentions Forms," their low-key version of a permit. The main DOC office for trampers is Visitor Information Center, P.O. Box 5086, Wellington, New Zealand; phone from the United States: 011-64-4-472-7356. For general outdoors information, see the DOC Web site at http://www.doc.govt.nz/consexpe/index.htm. Map sources within the United States include Chessler Books (800-654-8502), Adventurous Traveler Bookstore (800-677-1821; http://www.AdventurousTraveler.com), and Map Link (805-692-6777).

Guidebooks: The best is Tramping in New Zealand by Jim DuFresne and Jeff Williams ($13.95, Lonely Planet Publications, 800-275-8555), also available from Chessler and Adventurous Traveler (see above).