Tramping New Zealand, 2013 and 2014

Previously published in Seattle Backpackers Magazine, www.seattlebackpackersmagazine.com

Heading for the Mueller Hut trail below Mount Sefton, Mt Cook National Park

Heading for the Mueller Hut trail below Mount Sefton, Mt Cook National Park

.Many PNW backpackers, blessed with a multitude of craggy peaks, mountain tarns, tumbling waterfalls and evergreen-clad slopes right outside the back door, may not have given New Zealand a second thought.  It’s a heck of a long ways away:   (gulp!) 16 hours by plane from the US West Coast over the vast Pacific.   And it’s a pretty small place, scarcely bigger than California.  Why, then, would you spend some of your precious life-allotment of trail miles in this out of the way outpost?

Over the past two decades I’ve trekked New Zealand’s snowy peaks, fiords and coasts on multiple trips, and I know that it will call me again.   Just a few of my favorite things about the place:

  • That “I’m not in Kansas anymore” rush:   looking up on a ridge scramble to see a big bright-plumed alpine parrot looking back at you; walking a trail under a 20-foot-high canopy of tree ferns; or a sunrise with three active volcanoes spread before you in the alpenglow.
  • Its great variety of natural wonders – lush Polynesian forests and beaches, active volcanoes and thermal pools, 12,000-foot snowcapped peaks, 3155 glaciers, plunging deep blue fiords, penguin rookeries on the pounding Southern Ocean – in a remarkably compact and accessible area.
  • Its striking beauty – sunset lighting up the glaciers on the flanks of 12,316-foot Mt. Cook; the panoramic views across a deep river canyon from the Routeburn track, with a wall of snowy peaks before you and the Tasman Sea glinting far to your west; the vantage from a kayak at the bottom of the Milford Sound with waterfalls tumbling down vertical 2000-foot cliffs all around you; the rolling golden pasturelands of Otago and Canterbury speckled with sheep with the snowy Southern Alps rising in the haze beyond.
  • The warm welcome, small-town humor and relaxed friendliness of the New Zealand people, their obvious love for active backcountry pursuits, and the passionate commitment with which they’re protecting and recovering their wild lands and endangered species.

And New Zealand delivers this with great amenities for backpackers.  Their extensive backcountry hut system affords inexpensive comforts and international camaraderie throughout the countryside (you could sleep in a hut bed every night even on the remotest of tracks).   Their public transportation system is extensive and affordable.  The food is surprisingly good, including a wide range of ‘tramping tucker’ (backpacking food) in the trail-access towns.   The entire population seems dedicated to making a backpacker’s visit seamless and fun.  English is the native tongue (even if we’re the ones with the funny accent!).  And best of all:   New Zealand offers summer in the midst of our endless dreary winter!    To a PNW backpacker, the place has the effortless fit of a well-worn, favorite pair of gloves .

An Excellent “Tramping” Adventure

Thirteen new and old friends from the Mountaineers club met up in Queenstown New Zealand on February 16, 2013 to start a three-week adventure, backpacking (“tramping” in NZ parlance) on seven different tracks in four different National Parks, from the northern end of the North Island to the far southern end of the South Island.  It was mid summer, an 80 degree blue-sky day (Christmas to late March, summer in the Southern Hemisphere, is the ideal time to tramp New Zealand’s high country, though west coast weather can be wet any time of the year).  The group ranged from 35 to 67 years old, from intermittent day-hikers with limited backpacking experience, to distance backpackers, to seasoned alpine climbers.    The 3- to 4-day tracks we had chosen all offered enough physical challenge to satisfy the more gung-ho among us, but with excellent signage and nice backcountry huts with beds, gas cookers and filtered water spaced every 7 to 13 miles, so that we could pack light and travel each at our own pace.  Everyone shopped for their own trail food at the fine grocery stores along the way, and offerings were available to meet everyone’s needs, including New Zealand’s own brand of freeze-dried meals in foil packets, and excellent local bread, fruit and cheese.  Butane canisters and white gas were available for sale at local outdoor stores to fit all the common brands of backpack stoves.

Other stories in this series will give interested readers a more in-depth account of the unique terrain, ecology and experiences of each park and track we visited along with more details on how to plan your own tramp in that location.   Here’s an overview:

Hump Ridge Track – This fairly new, privately-operated track features some of the greatest variety of scenery and terrain you can find in one three-day trek anywhere:  broad expanses of beach with picturesque haystacks (and a chance to swim with Hector’s Dolphins!), limestone tors and tarns on a high ridge with 360-degree views of Fiordland peaks, lakes and the Southern Ocean, historic wooden trestles stretching high over deep river canyons, and unique forest tree and bird communities found in only a few places in the world, plus two great huts with excellent amenities.  No camping allowed.  $175 for track fees and 2 nights in huts, porridge breakfast included.   Advance bookings required.   www.humpridgetrack.co.nz

  • 34 miles, 3200’ gain; 2.5 days, 2 nights
  • Gateway town: Tuatapere (nearest airport: Invercargill)

Milford Track – This most famous of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” starts with a boat ride in a huge glacial lake (the only way to get to the trailhead), followed by a walk under dense endemic forests along the meandering Clinton River, up and over a steep pass at the Clinton valley headwall to a monument to the trail’s premier explorer Quinton McKinnon, and down along tumbling waterfalls to the peaceful Arthur River and along the Arthur to the trail’s endpoint at the famous Milford Sound.  Another boat is takes you back to civilization.  Along the way, you’ll stay at three very nice, large huts with informative Hut Wardens and nearby waterholes for refreshing swims.  It rains 250 days a year here, so this can be a wet experience, but in exchange the high forested cliffs on either side gush with waterfalls.   No camping is allowed in most areas.  Advance bookings are required.  Approx. $250 total for transport, hut space and track fees.  http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/northern-fiordland/milford-track/

  • 33.3 miles, 3700’ gain; 4 days, 3 nights
  • Gateway town: Te Anau (also easily accessed from Queenstown)

Routeburn Track – Our group’s consensus favorite, the Routeburn (pronounced ROOT-burn) throws walkers into the midst of some of the loveliest and most remote mountains in Fiordland, with views to match.  Starting in lush forest in Fiordland National Park, the trail climbs steadily past two stunning, peak-ringed high lakes, and switches up into the subalpine country to traverse a dizzyingly high ridge far above the Hollyford river valley with the stark, snowy Darren Mountains looming across the valley.  Then it’s over the Harris Saddle, past another crystal-blue alpine lake, and steeply down into the broad golden valley of the Routeburn river in Mount Aspiring National Park.  This track has some of the most scenic huts we visited, both with great swimming spots nearby.   Regularly scheduled buses can drop off and pick up walkers at either end.  Camping available near the nuts;  advance bookings are required for camps and hut spaces.  Approx $130 for transport, hut space and track fees. http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/northern-fiordland/routeburn-track/

  • 19.9 miles, 4160’ gain; 3 days, 2 nights
  • Gateway towns: Queenstown (from northeast), Te Anau (from south)

West Matukituki Valley Track – This track wanders the path of the West Matukituki river to its headwaters under the snowy cone of 9950-foot Mount Aspiring, “the Matterhorn of the South”. Along the way, a short side trip (5 miles RT) traverses a forested ridge to the base of the Rob Roy Glacier, a truly expansive mass of ice and impressive cliff-wall waterfalls. Near the headwaters, we also explored steep side tracks climb almost straight up the steep valley wall to Cascade Saddle (gateway to the coastal watersheds of the Rees and Dart rivers), and to Liverpool and French Ridge huts, both perched on high benches overlooking the river valley and the surrounding high peaks. The large Mount Aspiring hut and the small Liverpool and French Ridge huts can’t be booked more than a day before your arrival, if room allows, but there is also a good sized campground right by Aspiring Hut (watch out for the sandflies!). $25/night hut fee. http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/otago/wanaka-makarora/west-matukituki-track/

  •  34 miles, 5500’ gain including Rob Roy, Cascade Saddle and Liverpool Hut side trips; 3 days, 2 nights
  • Gateway town: Wanaka

Mount Cook National Park – So much variety and so many short and long hikes are available in this wonderland of high peaks and moraines, the playground of Sir Edmund Hillary and the home of Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest peak in New Zealand at 12,316 feet. We chose two. The first was a dayhike up a steep boardwalk trail past deep blue Sealy Tarns – Mt Cook and the huge Hooker Glacier below – and then on up a bouldery path to tiny 8-bed Mueller hut on the ridge with no amenities except breathtaking views of the Mueller Glacier, a ring of 10,000’ peaks and their own crowns of ice all around. The second required a 4WD vehicle shuttle up the moraine of the Tasman Glacier, then a 2-hour walk to the base of a rugged ridge and the tiny 3-bed Ball Hut. A faint, much eroded climbers’ track zigzags up the ridge, across steep scree and exposed rock, to the Caroline Hut perched directly across from the imposing vertical Caroline Face of Mount Cook. On the warm day that we visited, rocks and ice were constantly tumbling down the face.

Tongariro Northern Circuit – This “Great Walk”, near the center of the North Island, is a surprisingly rugged circle track around and between three active volcanoes, with waterfalls and lakes scattered across stark and rugged lava-rock terrain. The crux of the walk is a climb to Mt Tongariro, a red crater and emerald lakes far below and the perfect, steep cone of Lord of the Rings’ Mt Doom (really Mt Ngauruhoe) straight across from you. Three well situated but cramped and busy huts with adjacent campsites offer a range of daily distance and exertion on the circuit (we stayed at Oturere and Mangatepopo huts). Advance bookings are required for huts and camps.   $32/night for huts, $14/night for camps. http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/central-north-island/turangi-taupo/tongariro-northern-circuit/

  • 26 miles, 5500’ gain; 2.5 days, 2 nights
  • Gateway town: Whakapapa Village (near Taupo).

Check out the stories in this section about each of these amazing areas!

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