New Zealand is simply beautiful. This country of two islands with a population of only about 4.5 million has it all……volcanoes, lush rainforests, beaches with golden sand (there are black sand beaches too!), mountains surrounded by glaciers, charming fiords, thermal hot springs and mud pools, and not to mention, all those lovely creatures that I like---sheeps and penguins!! Before coming here, I knew that this country is pretty from pictures that I have seen, but now having seen it with my own eyes and having been immersed by the stunning landscapes, I have to say that this is the prettiest country that I have ever visited.
From my experience, the best way to explore New Zealand is by car because it allows you to make stops at different scenic spots and it gives you the flexibility to change travel plans when the forecast predicts five days of rain when you want to spend some time relaxing on a beach (speaking from personal experience!)
I spent my first two weeks on the North Island and loved it! (Don’t let people persuade you to “skip the North Island and just head to the South Island”!) In the North Island, there are nice beaches all along the coast and great opportunities to hike up dormant volcanoes, to experience thermal hot springs in Rotorua and to explore caves and see glowworms in Waitomo. Perhaps the one thing that is on a lot of people’s list of “Things to do” in the North Island is the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This alpine crossing is a 19 km one-day hike that is touted as one of the best one-day hike in New Zealand and perhaps even in the world. The crossing is one section of the 4-day Tongariro Northern Circuit trek in Tongariro National Park. It is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” as set out by the Department of Conservation (http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/great-walks/). Well, I did do the 19km hike and even scaled up Mt Tongariro. I can say that it was certainly a memorable one for me but I can’t testify whether it is indeed the best one-day hike I have ever done because I hardly saw anything that day!! I didn’t even take one single picture on my camera!!!
The day started out fine but as we got higher up, the wind got stronger and the rain started and did not stop until mid-afternoon when we got down from the alpine zone, which is supposed to be the prettiest part of the walk with nice views of the surrounding volcanoes and emerald coloured lakes. Sadly we miss all of that. We did briefly have a quick peek at one of the coloured lakes before the clouds hid it from view again. The cloud/fog was so dense that we could barely see the next orange pole/trail marker in front of us.
One thing I learned from this hike is that New Zealand’s weather, especially in the alpine areas, is very unpredictable and if you are planning any hikes, especially a one-day one like the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, give yourself plenty of flexibility on the hiking date. We were actually all packed and ready to start the hike a few days before we actually did it, but only to find out that the windy weather up in the mountain is too dangerous and we were advised not to go up, so we left the park to visit other regions in the North Island and to wait for better weather. Unfortunately we did not wait long enough…..we only have pictures from postcards and posters to remind us how beautiful it would have been.
The weather in the South Island was similarly unpredictable especially in the west coast where the mountain range is. The South Island has the tallest peak in New Zealand---Mount Cook at 3754m. In contrast to the North Island, the South Island appears more dry (less ‘green’) and definitely busier (of tourists that is because there are actually more people living in the North Island than the South Island). There are also numerous parks and hiking trails here. I did three more of the “Great Walks” located in the South Island: the Kepler, the Routeburn, and the Milford Track. These are all multiday treks varying from 32km to 60km. Of these, the 4-day (53.5km) Milford Track is definitely the most well known, hence the most popular. You have to reserve your overnight hut space months in advance! I’m not exaggerating this…..when I tried to reserve space back in August last year to hike this trek in January, most of the hut spaces were already full for the month of January! So how did I end up on the Milford Track? I didn’t actually hike the Milford Track the way everyone else did. I went backwards! (During the busy walking season from October to April, you are only allowed to hike in one direction from Glade Wharf to Sandfly Point.) I stayed two nights at Quintin Lodge, about 25 km from the end point, where two of my friends work with Ultimate Hikes (http://www.ultimatehikes.co.nz/en/guided-walks/the-milford-track). Yes there is an alternate way to walk this track---the “luxury” way (that is if you don’t mind paying a couple of thousand dollars!!) I spent a day hiking up to Mackinnon Pass and visiting Sutherland Falls (at 580m, this is NZ highest waterfall). Like at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I was met with heavy clouds when I got up to Mackinnon Pass and did not get to see the ‘spectacular alpine panoramas’. This trek does pass through several pretty waterfalls. The side trip to Sutherland Falls is definitely worth a visit. Unlike other waterfalls, you can literally walk right up to it.
Another Great Walk located in the Fiordland National Park is the Kepler Track. I did the shortened 3-day version (taking an early exit at Rainbow Reach). Unlike the Milford and the Routeburn track, this one is a loop track so it is not necessary to make additional transport arrangements to get back to the start of the track or wherever you have left your car. As much as I tried not to compare these three Great Walks located in the same region, I have to say that I enjoyed the Kepler track the most. This is partly because of the nice weather that I had but I also found this track offered more varied terrain compare to the other two. The first day we walked through beech forest with large ferns on our way up to Luxmore hut. On day two, we were up early to see the sunrise over the fiord down below us (so beautiful!) and did a side trip to the Luxmore cave before setting off on an incredible day walking along the alpine ridge system. (Luxmore cave was really fun. We only walked about 100m or so into the dark cave but you can go a lot deeper. So cool!) This alpine day was so unexpectedly spectacular! It helped that the sky cleared up in the afternoon (so lucky!!) There were beautiful views every turn along the path and on both sides of the ridge, nice 360 degree alpine views! We took our time walking through this section. We didn’t want to leave!
On the last day, we were rewarded with more nice views of the mountains and of Lake Manapouri (too bad we didn’t have time to go swimming here). The Kepler track is longer than the other two, but the spectacular scenery made it all worthwhile. The weather is certainly a big factor in the level of ‘enjoyment’ in doing these Great Walks. But as I found out, sometimes the rain isn’t so bad when you are walking through a damp forest. I had so-so weather when I did the 3-day Routeburn track (32km). The forecast initially was predicting 3 days of sunshine due to a high pressure system moving in from the west coast (I couldn’t believe it when I saw this forecast, it seemed too good to be true!) Indeed the weather changed by day two as dense fog moved in and stayed in the area with little wind to push it out. My first glimpse of the beautiful Lake Mackenzie was when there was a sudden opening through the fog. This fog and mist from the light rain made my experience on the Routeburn track much more “magical” because it made the walk through the forest very enchanting. The path is narrow, so I felt like I was being surrounded by lush green vegetations and the mist added a nice touch to the atmosphere. I loved walking through the forest!
So from my experience, it’s hard to rank these Great Walks and say that one is better than another. Each has its own unique beauty and given clear weather, I think all these walks will be spectacular. And it is not to say that these walks are the “best” in NZ. I did some other spectacular walks in NZ……Mt Taranaki in the North Island, Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass national park, and Mueller hut in Mt Cook national park. NZ has so much to offer! I would certainly not hesitate to do any of the hikes that I did again if I return to New Zealand!
I can go on and on about the beauty of the landscape in New Zealand. The bottom line is if you love nature and being outdoors, then you must visit New Zealand! It is very easy to travel around this country and there is no admission fee to get into the national parks!!! Plus at each national park and around the country, there are information centers staffed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) that are super helpful in giving hiking and travelling advice. And I’m not saying this just because one of my friends work for DOC. New Zealand should most definitely be on everyone’s “must visit country list”!