I arrived on the South Island of New Zealand almost a month ago, flying into Christchurch from Australia via Auckland. My first stop was the mountainous area of Arthur’s Pass, about two hours directly west of Christchurch. Driving into Arthur’s Pass, which is a National Park area, the first thing you notice is the majesty of the mountains. They are only 12,000 feet at the highest, but since they rise straight up from sea level (as opposed to, say 5000 to 8000 feet in Colorado), they look much higher. They are also still snow-covered, despite it being late spring/early summer right now in New Zealand. Which is why I spent my first day crawling on my hands and knees along a ridge on a route called Avalanche Peak, clinging to each rock because I was quite convinced that the 100 kilometer-an-hour winds were about to knock me off the ridge.
On day two, the 100k winds continued, along with rain and snow, and I decided that my life was worth more than getting a good start on my trekking ambitions for this leg of the trip. Staying inside all day was OK because one of the next things I discovered about New Zealand is that I love the backpacker’s hostels here, especially compared to Australia’s. Arthur’s Pass is a little town of 50 people, with one hostel called the Mountain Backpackers, and when I arrived a sign on the door read: “I have gone out to run errands and will be back shortly. Please come on in, make yourself at home, choose a bed, and write your name on the little white board in the living room. I’ll come see you when I get back. Bob.” My kind of place. When I walked into the living room, a cozy little den with a wood stove and attached kitchen, the eight current occupants of the hostel were sitting around the wood stove in their pajamas eating breakfast. Best of all, they were all trekkers and outdoor types, and had been traveling in interesting places and not just on the Australia/Thailand party circuit. I found this to be the case in most of the hostels in NZ, and generally met a lot more people than I did in Australia.
Unfortunately, however, part of what makes New Zealand so beautiful is the rain. And for the first 14 days I was there, it rained every single day. The weather in Arthur’s Pass was so brutal I had to cut my hiking plans short and leave on the third day, despite having met a couple of people I wanted to hike with. I drove down the west coast of the South Island, through the very English-countryside-type towns of Greymouth and Hokitika, to a region referred to as the glacier area. Two glaciers in particular predominate: the Franz Joseph glacier, and the Fox glacier. Many people take guided tours of these glaciers so they can explore the ice caves and get their pictures taken with ice axes in their hands, but I opted to just hike up to Franz Joseph on my own and get a look. It was magnificent. Then I set out on my first overnight hike, on the Copeland Pass track.
Now, a word about hiking in New Zealand. Kiwis call it tramping, not hiking or trekking. And as one of my friends pointed out, tramping should not be confused with the activity of spending time in Australian hostels with drunk, oversexed, 20-year-old British girls. The New Zealand Department of Conservation, DOC for short, maintains an excellent system of trails and huts, with visitor centers in each town from which you can purchase maps and hut passes. Huts are on a three-grade system, with the nicest ones providing running water, gas stoves and bunks for $12 to $20 per night, and then a couple of lesser grades for $4 or $8 per night. My first tramp was to a hut called Welcome Flat, where there were hot thermal pools to bathe in. Of course, it rained continuously the first day while I tramped and traded life stories with an Australian named Marty. We spent the night at the Welcome Flat hut with several Germans and a couple of mountaineering guides, one American from Boulder and one Kiwi, and this turned out to be very lucky because the next morning, after another night of rain, the guides offered to take myself and one of the German girls back down the trail if I could give them a ride to their car. This was necessary because the stream crossings had become very dangerous. The Kiwis have nothing but contempt for bridges and dry feet. When you tramp in NZ you just splash through the water and don’t even try to keep your feet dry. But if it rains enough, the crossings can become very dangerous. Some of the crossings coming down from Welcome Flat were so bad we had to cross two-by-two with our arms linked and rushing whitewater up to our chests threatening to tear our feet out from under us. I lost it on the last one and was hauled to shore grasping a ski pole that one guide had held out to me from the opposite bank.
Kiwis, I notice, are very extreme with the outdoor pursuits compared to Americans. Their terrain is so rough and untouched, after all. They still drink water straight out of streams, as Giardia is almost unheard of here. After a while, I had to stop telling people I was from Colorado because they expected so much from me, it was embarrassing. The conversations would go like this:
Me: Are there any mountains around here that I can climb with no gear and no guide?
Kiwi: Sure! Mount such-as-such is really easy, you can do it in two days, no guide. But you’ve got your crampons and ice axe with you, right?
No! I don’t even own crampons and an ice axe for god’s sake. My most humiliating moment came when I told the guides who helped me down from Welcome Flat, in my gratitude, that I wanted to come back and climb Mount Cook with them next year. You could almost see them politely stifling laughter as they asked me if I had any mountaineering experience. “Well,” I stammered, “I went to a one day climbing school with Ranier Mountaineering, but we didn’t summit, and, I um, climb fourteeners in Colorado all the time, but they are only class twos, I guess, and um…”
You get the picture. The guides tactfully suggested that I take a ten-day mountaineering course with them next year and think about Mount Cook in 2003.
With perfect timing, I received an email from my friends Ferrall and Mike from Washington, DC. They were traveling in New Zealand too, and we had been trying to hook up for some type of activity. They said they were signed up to do a three-day guided alpine crossing in the Mount Cook range, and wouldn’t I like to join them? I would, actually.
I drove to Lake Tekapo, which is in the center of the central province of Otago and at the southern end of the Alps and the Mount Cook range. There I met up with Alpine Recreation, a classy guiding company who provided me with literally every detail I needed for the trip, including long johns, boots, gaiters and a fleece jacket. Our group included two young guys, Ferrall and Mike and myself, and two guides. The company owned a private hut, a charming and luxurious little place by hut standards, right in front of the Ball Glacier on the northern face of Mount Cook. We spent two nights there, our guides cooking feasts for us every night, and during the day we played in the snow, climbed an unnamed peak next to Mount Cook, slid on our fannies down the glaciers, watched some awesome avalanches on the Ball Glacier, and eventually crossed Ball Pass. We also got a little basic mountaineering instruction (OK, now can I climb Mount Cook?) This was a highlight of the trip.
My next destination after Lake Tekapo was Wanaka, an Otago adrenaline town, where I had decided to attend paragliding school. (In case anyone does not know what paragliding is, it is using a foot-launched parachute. You climb a mountain, and then jump back off it). New Zealand is known as a very good place to learn paragliding, and in line with my early dive school endeavor, I was on a mission to face some of my fears. Unfortunately, the school was rained out that morning. I resolved to come back later, and headed south to Queenstown for a few days.
If you have never heard of Queenstown, you should have. It’s commonly described as the adrenaline capital of the world, and while this may be a slight exaggeration, it’s not too far off. In Queenstown you can bungy jump off bridges and other structures (some of the highest bungy jumps in the world are here), paraglide, skydive, parasail, jetski, jetboat, whitewater raft, mountain bike, go canyoneering or caving, climbing or rappelling, take helicopter tours, or consign your life to some ridiculous and far-out contraptions like the “fly-by-wire” (a rocket-like thing that killed someone the week before I arrived) or the Zorb (a big plastic ball that reminds me of a hamster wheel, which they fill with water and people and then send it rolling down a hill). And other such nonsense. But Queenstown is also a beautiful city, perched on the shores of Lake Whakatipu, with a mountain range called the Remarkables on one side and lots of great hiking and biking in the area and some interesting historic gold mining settlements. And it’s a cosmopolitan city with great restaurants and shopping and cafes. It reminded me a little of Vancouver.
I spent five days there and one of the highlights of the week was a half-day of whitewater river boarding. This is a relatively new sport that’s only being done commercially in a handful of countries, of which the US is not one. Since it is becoming a more and more frequent event in adventure racing, I thought I’d better try it. Basically, you just don a wetsuit and flippers, and cruise down a river on a boogie board through class I to III rapids. It was a blast. For you adventure racers out there, I should also mention that on the bus on the way back from the river I sat next to a DOC employee who turned out to be a member of the Kiwi team that won the Southern Traverse the week prior.
I also did quite a bit of tramping in Queenstown, including one day on the Routeburn Track, one of the famous New Zealand Great Walks, and a day doing some off-track tramping and climbing in the Remarkables. On the way back from a day of hiking I picked up a hitchhiker named Sheila who turned out to be my age, an American, and traveling for all the same reasons I was (a corporate dropout and all that), and we became friends. Another day was spent mountain biking with Ferrall and Mike through mountainous sheep farms that had us “baa-ing” back at the sheep and then eventually at each other by the end of the ride. (Note to self: when Kiwis say, “not very technical” and “not too much climbing” you should automatically translate this as “you slip and you fall off the cliff” and “you will be walking those hills.”)
After Queenstown, I went back to Wanaka to try for the paragliding school again. This time we actually made it through part of the ground school and learned some theory, but when it came time to fly, the winds were too high and class got cancelled again. I stuck around for a couple of days, climbing a small mountain called Mount Roy and discovering some good single-track mountain biking trails, but when rain canceled the paragliding school again on the third day, I gave up and moved on. Oh well. I think I would have been terrified anyway.
My last stop on the South Island was Fiordland National Park, possibly the most well-known attraction on the South Island and home of the famous Milford Sound and Milford Track. I spent five days there, hooking up once again with Sheila, who tracked me down by phone in Wanaka. We stayed in a little cabin at a hostel on a deer farm called Barnyard Backpackers, a very cool place, and drove up to Milford Sound for a look. It rained that day, but rain only makes the many waterfalls more beautiful. Then I did a two-day kayaking and camping trip on Doubtful Sound, which is just below Milford Sound and is much less crowded, due to the difficulty in getting there. In two days, our group saw only one cruise ship and two other kayakers, plus five bottlenosed dolphins, which swam right up to us on the beach one day as we were having lunch, and one Fiordland crested penguin.
Following the Doubtful Sound trip, I did the Kepler Track, another of the Great Walks and one that, unlike the Milford, you don’t have to book in advance. The track follows the top of the Kepler mountain range, with beautiful views of the Sounds and lakes Te Anau and Manipouri.
After a hectic eight-hour drive to Christchurch to catch my flight to Auckland, I finished up New Zealand with four days on the North Island. The North Island is not the adventure destination that the South Island is, but it has lots to offer and I wished I had more time. I visited Rotorua, a sulfur-smelling town of thermal pools and geysers, locally nicknamed Roto-Vegas because of its tourist orientation, and known for being a center for Maori culture. The Maoris are the original settlers of New Zealand, much like the Australian Aboriginals or our own Native Americans. I toured one of their thermal villages, where much of their culture revolves around using the hot pools for cooking (called hangi), bathing and healing, and saw a concert featuring a lot of painted and tattooed warrior-types shouting Maori war chants and making fierce faces and jabbing motions with spears. The following day, I drove to Tongariro National Park and did another of the Great Walks for two days, this one through a series of colorful volcanoes.
After a couple days in Singapore, assuming I survive them, I’m off to Tanzania and Kenya, so my next newsletter will be in mid January from Africa. Somehow, I have to figure out how to stop eating entire bags of vinegar and salt potato chips for breakfast, since I assume these won’t be available in Africa.