By guidebook authors Craig & Kathy Copeland, originally published in the travel section of the Calgary Herald.
Hobbits don’t drive cars.
Occasionally they catch a lift on the back of a horse. But for the most part, they walk.
So for director Peter Jackson, choosing New Zealand to represent Middle Earth in his Lord of the Rings film trilogy was easy. It’s perhaps the most diversely beautiful country in which to go for a long walk.
It’s bulging with mountains, studded with glaciers, slashed by fiords.
The coast — not just isolated stretches, but most of it — remains as wild as when the first Maoris paddled ashore.
The native bush is so thick and lush that, from a distance, forested hillsides appear to be covered in broccoli florets.
The rivers have such a startling clarity that visitors stare at them, transfixed, as if they’d never seen water before, as if this weren’t water at all but some liquid form of sunlight.
And all these visual stimuli come with a soundtrack: birdsong that’s actually musical. Here, birds don’t just chirp and twitter. They emit astonishing arias that would make an angel beg for singing lessons.
New Zealanders are blessed, and they know it. They’ve protected 33% of their country as scenic reserves and national parks. As a result, they host two million visitors a year, many of whom bring their hiking boots.
So, where to hike?
It’s a big country. Take Colorado, pluck it out of North America, break it in two, and toss it into the South Pacific Ocean. That’s New Zealand.
The North Island is home to 80% of all Kiwis. Wellington, the nation’s capital, and Auckland, its largest city, are both in the north.
A mere 800,000 of the country’s 4,129,000 citizens reside on the South Island. Glance at a map and you’ll see why: topographical pandemonium. It makes the island less habitable, but more alluring for hikers.
Look closer at that map and you might see tiny golden rings. They indicate Lord of the Rings filming locations and are labeled with Middle Earth place names: “Isengard,” “Lothlorien,” “Amon Hen,” etc.
The South Island, not the North, is showered with these ring symbols. It’s an accurate measure of which island has the most captivating scenery and affords the most dramatic hiking.
So don’t dilute your New Zealand adventure by attempting to squeeze both islands into your itinerary. Fly in and out of Christchurch, the South Island’s urban hub.
But exit the city quickly. After a twelve-hour transpacific flight deposits you on foreign soil, in a different hemisphere, amid a new season, you need the kind of grounding no metropolis can provide.
Jet lag-feeling as if the essential you is a piece of lost luggage-is best overcome on your feet, out in nature. Besides, you’re here to hike, and just two hours northwest of Christchurch is the ideal place to begin.
Kura Tawhiti Conservation Area, near Castle Hill village, is a grassy basin harbouring an array of fantastic boulders and rock outcrops. Wandering among these monolithic stones and marveling at their sculpted shapes is a joy.
The beauty of this strange place is beyond what can be seen. Many visitors report feeling blissed-out here. They say the atmosphere stimulates childlike playfulness while inducing a powerful sense of tranquility.
The original Maori settlers obviously felt it, because this is where Tohungas (priests) trained their acolytes. The Dalai Lama felt it, too. He called the area “one of the energy source centers of the universe.”
After some gentle Kura Tawhiti walking therapy, you’ll be ready to start hiking.
If you’re a backpacker, you’re aware of the country’s “Great Walks,” for example the Milford Track. These multi-day trails cover spectacular terrain, but they’ve been over-hyped.
Despite quotas, a reservation system, and whopping fees, they’re crowded. Camping is generally prohibited. You’re often required to sleep in huts, which fill to capacity most nights. Jostling for bunk space and queuing up at the toilet dispel any sense of wilderness.
Yet most hikers visiting New Zealand fixate on completing several of these Great Walks. By not swerving out of the parade, they have a blinkered experience.
My wife and I have spent many months researching a New Zealand hiking guidebook. For us, backpacking has been obligatory. But it’s the country’s unheralded wealth of dayhiking opportunities that excited us most.
After boot-testing more than 100 trails, these six dayhikes were among our favourites:
location: Kahurangi National Park, near Motueka
round-trip distance: 11 kilometres
elevation gain: 875 metres
hiking time: 8 hours
From the Flora trailhead, at 920 metres, you’ll surpass treeline within an hour. An excellent ridgecrest trail-affording views over Tasman Bay, across tussocky, moor-like tablelands, and into the shaggy depths of the surrounding wilderness-leads to the panoramic summit of 1795-metre Mt. Arthur.
location: Nelson Lakes National Park, near St. Arnaud
round-trip distance: 8 to 16 kilometres
elevation gain: 520 to 1170 metres
hiking time: 4 to 10 hours
Starting at the Mt. Robert trailhead near Lake Rotoiti, ascend the steep, switchbacking Pinchgut Track. Crest the ridge in about an hour. From here, all the way to the lakeside Angelus Hut, you’ll be in the alpine zone, overlooking mountains and valleys while traversing a long, narrow, rocky, 1850-metre spine.
location: Kahurangi National Park, near Karamea
round-trip distance: 8 to 32 kilometres
elevation gain: negligible
hiking time: 3 to 9 hours
Yes, it’s one of the Great Walks, but you can make it greater by dayhiking rather than backpacking it. Most of it is submerged in forest. But the south end follows the ocean’s edge for 16 kilometres. The crashing surf is always within earshot, usually within view, and occasionally close enough to spritz you. After walking the sumptuously long beach to Khohaihai River, turn around and enjoy it all again.
location: Mount Cook National Park, near Twizel
round-trip distance: 10 kilometres
elevation gain: 1000 metres
hiking time: 4 to 6 hours
Though gruelingly steep, the trail to 1800-metre Mueller Ridge is mercifully short. It catapults you onto a natural grandstand where you can stare in amazement at New Zealand’s highest peak, glacier-draped Mt. Cook, and its equally icy lieutenant, Mt. Sefton.
location: Fiordland National Park, near Glenorchy
round-trip distance: 26 kilometres
elevation gain: 1000 metres
hiking time: 8 to 10 hours
The eastern half of the famous Routeburn Track is the most varied and dazzling. And the trail’s climax-1515-metre Conical Peak, just above Harris Saddle-is within range of strong dayhikers. So thumb your nose at fees, reservations and shuttle buses, wait for a shatterproof blue sky, then dash for it. Hike streamside, past numerous cascades, through a magnificent native beech forest. Skirt Harris Lake, high in the alpine zone, then nip up to this diminutive peak for a sweeping view of Fiordland.
location: Fiordland National Park, near Te Anau
round-trip distance: 10 kilometres
elevation gain: 600 metres
hiking time: 7 to 8 hours
Probe a steep-walled cirque, then negotiate a cairned alpine route that aims for the sky. It follows plummeting streams, rounds a gorgeous lake, then crosses broad, smooth slabs before granting access to the 1410-metre saddle, which from below appeared unassailable. The view is astonishing: an aerial perspective of Milford Sound, New Zealand’s most celebrated natural wonder.
When to go
For optimal weather and fewer crowds, visit New Zealand during February and March-late summer in the southern hemisphere. The South Island tends to remain cool and rainy in November and December. Most Kiwis vacation from Christmas through January.
What to bring
Switchbacks, which make ascents easier, are common in the Canadian Rockies. They’re almost non-existent in New Zealand. So their trails are excruciatingly steeep-an entirely new order of verticality, hence the third “e.” Be prepared for an occasional gravity-defying ordeal by bringing all the physical fitness you can muster, plus a pair of trekking poles.
What to buy
Due to the earth’s curvature and variances in the magnetic field, a compass designed for the northern hemisphere won’t work properly in the southern hemisphere. The needle will drag and stick. So buy one when you arrive in New Zealand. Silva makes a simple, inexpensive model that sells for about NZD $20. It’s royal blue, about the size of a twooney, and shaped like a fat teardrop.
Where to shop
The Mainly Tramping store in Wanaka (Dunmore Street, ph +03 443 2888) has a good selection of name-brand hiking gear and clothing. They also have some of friendliest, most knowledgeable gearheads in the country.
What to eat
For a delicious, high-carb hiking snack try Bumper Bars. They’re made in Christchurch and sold at most South Island grocery stores. The main ingredients are oats, butter, apricot shreds, and chocolate chips. It’s certainly not health food, but it’s excellent mood food for when the hiking gets tough.
How to talk
Kiwis don’t call it hiking. They call it tramping. You’re a tramper, not a hiker. It sounds like you’re a bum, but you’re actually a few rungs higher on the social ladder. They also call them tracks instead of trails. So asking for directions to the trailhead is futile. They call it the road end or car park.
Who to ask
The Department of Conservation is the government agency devoted to preserving New Zealand’s natural heritage. It’s the primary source of information about hiking trails. You’ll find DOC offices throughout the country. You’ll find their website, (http://www.doc.govt.nz” www.doc.govt.nz) invaluable when planning your trip.
Where to splurge
For a cushy heli-hiking experience, stay at Whare Kea Lodge on Lake Wanaka. The lodge itself is exquisite, but think of it only as basecamp. A helicopter will whisk you from the front lawn, up to Dragonfly Peak, on the edge of Mt. Aspiring National Park. Your guide will then lead you to Whare Kea Chalet-the poshest digs ever to grace an alpine wilderness. Visit http://www.wharekealodge.com for details.
What to avoid
The farther southwest you travel on the South Island, the more remote it feels, and in fact is. Then suddenly, you enter Queenstown, a tourism vortex, as incongruous in this wild land as a goiter on a supermodel. It’s beyond buzzy. The crowds and commercialism are cloying. So pierce it with sufficient momentum to glide out the other side, unsullied, on up the shore of 50-mile-long Lake Wakatipu, where you’ll find the abundant natural splendor that Queenstown falsely lays claim to. Coast to a stop in the village of Glenorchy.