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.
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).