NEW ZEALAND trip guide and itinerary

New Zealand overview

New Zealand tops our list of favorite countries to visit. Below, we share detailed travel tips on how to plan your itinerary, based upon five trips in 2019, 2007, 1998, 1992, and 1981.

Favorite New Zealand photos:


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Visiting New Zealand can be as comforting as “going home to Grandma” or as exciting as the world’s first commercial bungy jumping (1986-present). I’m a big fan of the country’s wonderful hiking tracks in protected Gondwanan wilderness. Kiwi culture is very friendly, neighborly, and down-to-earth. Language is no barrier, as New Zealanders (self-described as Kiwis) speak English. Their soft accent is endearing, such as when they say “yis” for yes and politely raise the end of most “sintinces” (sentences) like a question.

Scenery in this South Pacific country varies dramatically in short distances, perfect for touring via car, bicycle or feet. New Zealand is bigger than the UK, smaller than Japan, and about the size of Colorado. Fully 30% of New Zealand is preserved in parkland, an Eden for wilderness lovers. 75% of the country’s plant species are endemic (found nowhere else). Rent a car (or campervan), stay in comfortable cabins in Holiday Parks (Motor Camps), and hike (or “tramp”) to mountain huts. Planes, buses, jetboats, and water taxis efficiently assist one-way hikes or tours. Most cities have an excellent “i-Site” or tourist office with free highway maps, pamphlets, lodging, and campground directories, and free bookings.

With reversed seasons Down Under, visitors from the Northern Hemisphere can escape winter blahs to enjoy summer fun. Jet lag is only 3 hours from western America (Pacific Standard Time, PST) to New Zealand Daylight Time (NZDT).

Our five trips in New Zealand 2019, 2007, 1998, 1992, 1981

In 1981, my first trip overseas included tramping and bicycling for two wonderful months on the South Island, based at my parents sabbatical-year home in Christchurch. In 1992, a friend and I drove two weeks exploring pleasant Walkways of North Island, staying in comfortable motor camp cabins. In January 1998, my wife Carol and I loved our 25-day honeymoon on the South Island. Hiking 100 miles with 16,000 feet of elevation gain strengthened and invigorated us. From February 12 to March 27, 2007, we returned for an equally enjoyable 6 weeks on both islands, tramping 175 miles. Most recently, the spectacular Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, and Milford Tracks lured us back to South Island’s unique wilderness, on a 5-person family trip that I organized for five weeks (2018 Dec 27–2019 Jan 31):

WHAT’S NEW in 2019 since our last visit to New Zealand 12 years ago?

Click to see my photo highlights of 2019 NZ or all photos of 2019 NZ.

At Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, a man impressed me saying that he was tramping the length of the country! In 2011, New Zealand established the Te Araroa Trail, which goes 3000 kilometers (1900 miles) from Cape Reinga to Bluff (40 percent on conservation land), requiring 3 to 6 months of walking.

As of January 2019, tourism has exploded. Reservations months in advance are recommended in popular areas in high season (December-February). Rates for Great Walk huts on the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks doubled for foreigners this year versus last. Mount Cook area sights and services were super busy all the way out to Twizel, whose grocery was packed. Wanaka’s New World grocery burst with tourists at all hours; and the city has spawned suburban growth out to Albert Town, where we stayed 5 nights at a great AirBnb. On the plus side, you can now find good coffee in NZ, such as a “flat white”. Tourist crowds and prices at Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park noticeably decreased when the kids went back to school in the last week of January.

Tourists from Hong Kong, China, and India are suddenly in abundance, reflecting rising wealth of the global middle class. Seasonal employees are often low-paid immigrants from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, and the British Commonwealth.

Sheep outnumbered people in New Zealand by more than twenty-to-one in the 1980s, but by just seven-to-one in 2014. Near Mt. Cook, Glentanner Station still runs 9000 Merino sheep which supply American Smartwool brand clothing. The fur of Australian possum, an invasive nonnative pest, is now smartly mixed with wool in NZ gloves & hats. Sheep numbers are declining but beef and dairy increasing. I was surprised to see herds of huge elk on fenced farms, supplementing red deer farms, to raise venison.

Globalization continues to disrupt New Zealand’s ecosystems. Since 2004, the unstoppable spread of didymo algae (“rock snot”, native to New York) has begun to choke native stream life. At Glade Wharf, we stepped off the Te Anau Express ferry into a chlorine pan to control possible didymo on our boots before entering the Milford Track this year. Since we last visited 12 years ago, the Department of Conservation (DOC) has spent millions of dollars on public land to control the spread of wilding conifers, which are invasive nonnative pine trees in the high country of New Zealand. In Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve reached via Skyline Queenstown gondola, I noticed vast gray wilding forests sprayed dead by DOC, to be replaced by native tussock. Wildings threaten biodiversity, farm productivity, and the landscape values of tussock grasslands.

I was glad to see extensive trap lines for stoats and rats along the Milford Track, Hollyford Track, Routeburn Track, Dart track, and Siberia Valley. These nonnative predators have devastated New Zealand’s unique bird life. Norway rats were on the ships of the first explorers, who arrived in New Zealand in the late 1700s. Stoats, weasels, and ferrets were introduced to New Zealand as early as 1879 to control nonnative rabbits that were destroying sheep pasture. Almost without exception, introduced species have been detrimental to the native flora and fauna. That being said, trekking once again into remote Fiordland and Aspiring National Parks still makes a wonderful escape into uniquely beautiful Gondwanan wilderness.

History and economy of New Zealand

According to Māori mythology, Polynesian navigator Kupe discovered New Zealand around AD 925. Most Polynesians arrived in their waka (sea canoes) about 1350 AD. They mainly settled North Island, because South Island was too cold. Over about 100 years, they hunted one of earth’s largest known birds, the moa, to extinction, which also extinguished the world’s largest eagle (Haast’s eagle). The Polynesians in New Zealand were not known as Maoris until after the arrival of the Pakeha, people of European descent. Settlers introduced a menagerie of nonnative species while remolding the landscape into a version of England. British and Maori leaders signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, founding New Zealand along with Maori rights. In 1893, New Zealand became the world’s first country to grant women the right to vote. New Zealand became independent from Britain in 1947. Heavy dependence on exports peaked at 35% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2000 and is now down to 26%. Global promotional campaigns and “Lord of the Rings” (2001, 2002, 2003) films accelerated tourism. By 2008, tourism become the single biggest generator of foreign exchange. Although half of New Zealand has been domesticated with pasture and farmland, the number of agricultural employees is declining. The nation is more urban than ever, but Kiwis still love their parks and feel a strong connection with nature. New Zealand’s 4 million people mostly work in service, tourism, and manufacturing industries.

As of 2019, New Zealand is one the most socially progressive and least corrupt countries in the world. 15% of the population call themselves Maori, who are receiving new respect and improved land rights.

New Zealand geology and landscape

Geologists believe that New Zealand detached from the ancient southern continent of Gondwanaland 80 million years ago, isolating the evolution of many ancient plants and animals, most of which are found nowhere else. Thrust faulting, crustal shortening and vertical slips rapidly lift the Southern Alps up to 10 mm per year, about the same rate as heavy rainfall and erosion wears them down. Volcanoes have formed most of North Island’s mountains.

In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area, including: Fiordland National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park, Mount Cook/Aoraki National Park, Westland Tai Poutini National Park, plus nearby land:

“This park offers a landscape shaped by successive glaciations into fjords, rocky coasts, towering cliffs, lakes and waterfalls. Two-thirds of the park is covered with southern beech and podocarps, some of which are over 800 years old. The kea, the only alpine parrot in the world, lives in the park, as does the rare and endangered takahe, a large flightless bird.”

In 1990 and 1993, UNESCO honored Tongariro National Park as a World Heritage Area and Cultural Landscape.

The Kiwi spelling of “Fiordland” and “fiord” is more commonly spelled fjord elsewhere, as in Norway. Milford Sound is actually a fjord (glacier carved) not a sound (water carved).

New Zealand Trip Planning Guide

  • If you have only 1 to 2 weeks: Fly to Christchurch and drive a loop on South Island, which offers more wilderness than denser-populated North Island. See North Island later on a separate or longer trip.
  • For trips of 3 weeks or more: Save half price on transportation: fly from Auckland to Christchurch, then rent a car or campervan one-way from Christchurch to Auckland. A one-way vehicle relocation deal may be discounted when traveling south to north, and also cuts flying cost in half by eliminating a return flight. Try www.rentalcarrelocation.co.nz or www.transfercar.co.nz.
  • We recommend 6 weeks, as in our self-drive New Zealand Trip Guide and Itinerary 2007 (PDF file 18 pages).
  • After arrival in New Zealand, get excellent free road maps, area guides, and lodging pamphlets at i-Sites and tourist offices in major towns. Apex Rental Car had the best free map in 2019.

Recommended Guidebooks from Amazon.com

Search for latest “New Zealand travel” books at Amazon.com.

We optimize our valuable travel time with good guides:

2018: 2018: 2018: 2014:

Beautiful, glossy books for planning trips, making handsome souvenirs (heavier than above):

Transportation

  1. A campervan (also known as a caravan, camper, motor home, mobile home or RV) lets you stay in more places, spontaneously, close to nature, but will cost more than a car per day for rental and gasoline. As of 2019, very practical Jucy Campervans and car rentals with tailgate kitchens are seen everywhere. Three-day Certified Self-Contained RVs using Freedom Camping Zones have proliferated on South Island.
  2. Economy car plus lodging: When you add up the cost of vehicle rental, gas, lodging and campgrounds, driving an economy car can be cheaper than a campervan. In January 2019, from Apex Car Rentals at Christchurch Airport, we rented a Toyota Corolla midsize sedan for NZ$45/day for 33 days (with 3 free extra drivers), which was roomier than my brother’s pricier RAV4 (which has higher ground clearance for the Matukituki River road stream crossings). These cars both beat campervans, as tramping in huts took us away from roads for 14 days out of 34. Holiday Park tourist flats or cabins cost from NZ$80 to $200 for a double room.
  3. Sleeping in a tent is more spontaneously free from reservations, closer to nature, and cheapest, but is less comfortable due to wind, rain, and cold. Upscaling for higher-spending tourists, Queenstown now caps the total number of legal tent sites and disallows Freedom Camping, so one must book pricey camping sites well in advance. Encouraging tidier countertops, some Holiday Park public kitchens now charge $5 for use of their sets of pots/pans/utensils/cups/plates (formerly free); so come prepared with your own basic set.
  4. Buses and trains cover the country fairly well, but you’ll spend valuable trip time waiting for arrivals, multiple stops, and departures.

Driving tips: Drive on the left side of the road in New Zealand. Take time to memorize which lever flips the wipers and which operates the turn signal, as these are usually opposite to cars in right-side-driving countries. In roundabouts, yield to the car approaching on your right. Allow plenty of time for driving on the curvy roads, which average about 75 kilometers per hour across the country. Road surfaces were maintained in excellent condition everywhere in 2007. Most roads are two-lane, with frequent single-lane bridges, some shared with railways — watch for yield signs. Drive slowly and defensively, and watch out for aggressive drivers and animals in the road.

Food

  • To save money, buy food in big-city groceries and cook in public or private kitchens in Holiday Parks and campgrounds. Queenstown’s giant Pak’nSave has a truly impressive cornucopia of grocery items at low prices, including bulk food bins and pre-packaged freeze-dried backpacking meals. New World is another big option in NZ. Four Square tends to have smaller, pricier convenience stores.
  • Bring (or buy) a collapsible cooler (“chilly bin“) to store perishable items on ice in the car, then transfer to the refrigerator found in most rented rooms. Renting a campervan has the advantage of a built-in refrigerator.

Lodging

  • Holiday Parks (motor camps & campgrounds) offer good value in lodging everywhere in New Zealand, usually cheaper than traditional motels or “Bed & Breakfasts”. Choose from the following options, all with access to public self-service kitchens and bathrooms:
    • tent sites
    • campervan sites with optional hook-ups
    • dormitory — cheap bed in shared room
    • cabins — usually very clean, many with ensuite bathroom and/or kitchen
    • Tourist Flats — “self-contained” high-end
  • Booking.com (this link supports my work) is my favorite booking site. Zero fees! Detailed searches find aptly-described lodging (superior to Hotels.com). [Allow several hours after your email confirmation for lodging to be fully aware of the reservation, or else call ahead to reconfirm, as some smaller busy hotels may forget to update their digital threads.]
  • AirBnb.com [your signup supports my work] made the best deal for our family group of five in Christchurch and Wanaka. As I’ve searched for travel accommodations over the years, AirBnB has opened a new door to many good-value lodging alternatives for us in many tight tourist markets: Japan, Scotland, British Columbia, Colorado, and Vancouver.
  • i-Sites: Reserve your lodging in advance with no fees at the very helpful tourist “i-Sites” or other tourist offices found everywhere in New Zealand. Pick from an astounding array of excellent free highway maps and detailed guides. i-Sites charge you no fees because they get 10% from lodging providers. But phoning ahead to reserve your lodging directly can be more convenient than trying to find the next i-Site during open hours.
  • Advance Bookings: You should reserve rooms weeks or months ahead in high season (December-February) in popular areas such as at Mt Cook, Te Anau, Milford, Queenstown, and Wanaka. Reserving campervan sites is also advisable, though many areas allow Freedom Camping if you are willing to drive out of town. Tenters potentially have more flexibility, except in Queenstown which. In 2019, we needed to book weeks or months ahead. If you don’t book far enough ahead, the last rooms in town tend to be the most expensive.

Telephone

  • Mobile phone: Unlock your smartphone before leaving home, if needed, to allow using a SIM from a different carrier. In New Zealand, buy a cheap Prepaid SIM card with minutes, giving you a kiwi phone number. We liked Spark’s “NZ Travel SIM” for foreigners in 2019. In ancient times before we owned a smartphone (2007), we bought a cheap international calling card from Costco, for use on public phones.

Weather forecasts

As mountain weather differs from nearby cities, get forecasts for specific peaks and ranges at
www.mountain-forecast.com/mountain_ranges/new-zealand/subranges.

Overnight Tramping/Hiking Trips

Hike well-maintained trails through lush native beech rain forest to an abrupt, surprisingly-low-elevation timberline around 1250 meters in the Southern Alps, with permanent snowline above 2000 meters, capped with scenic glaciers. The delightful alpine zone is patrolled by the clownish kea, the world’s only alpine parrot. But on the West Coast of South Island below 1000 meters elevation, beware the dreaded sandflies, discussed further below.

On the many tramping tracks (hiking trails), we enjoy self-service huts where you carry your own sleeping bag and food, cook using the hut’s stoves, and sleep in a shared dormitory on mattressed beds. Self-service huts are much more comfortable than the tenting option (where you must carry your own stove, fuel, tent, and sleeping pad), and much cheaper than the full-service hut option (which provide meals, hot showers, and guides). Some hikes such as Hump Ridge, Nydia Track and Queen Charlotte Track offer reasonably priced private rooms and hot showers. Here are some tips for overnight backpacking:

  • Bring rain gear that can withstand long downpours. In 2019 I used a poncho over a raincoat, for good measure.
  • Gas cookers (stoves) are provided in peak season on the Tuatapere Hump Ridge, Tongariro Northern Circuit, Routeburn, Kepler, and Milford Tracks, and at Aspiring Hut (NZAC).
  • For free recreation brochures, check i-Sites first, since DOC (Department of Conservation) offices charge for info sheets. (For example, at Stratford’s i-Site in 2007, we picked up the free Pouakai Track pamphlet published by Venture Taranaki, which is much better than DOC’s sheet.)
  • DOC (Department of Conservation) offices run most parks and are the best places to prepare for overnight tramping trips, reserve huts, and to buy excellent topographic maps. Most tracks are very well marked.

The following “Great Walks” require reservations for overnight huts which can sell out quickly up to 6 months in advance:

  1. Milford Track
  2. Routeburn Track
  3. Abel Tasman Coast Track
  4. Kepler Track
  5. Heaphy Track
  6. Lake Waikaremoana Track
  7. Plus a few new “Great Walks” will potentially expand this beautiful, well-maintained system.

Restricting the number of trampers per day makes these Great Walks pleasantly uncrowded. But without the benefit of a good weather forecast, reservations more than 4 days in advance randomize trampers’ chances for rainy weather. To smartly take advantage of 1- to 3-day weather forecasts, the best parts of the Routeburn Track, Abel Tasman Coast Track, and Lake Waikaremoana Track can be hiked in a day with no reservations, or as two-day adventures with a single overnight hut bookable on shorter notice.

Despite not carrying the “Great Walk” label (as of January 2019), the following enjoyable multi-night hut walks have scenic well-maintained paths: Hump Ridge Track, Nydia Track, and Queen Charlotte Track.

The following rewarding multi-night adventures on tougher trails require some scrambling:

  1. Five-day Rees-Dart Track and Cascade Saddle (enjoyed by five of us in 2019, ages 20s-60s)
  2. Two-day Siberia Valley experience with Crucible Lake day hike: fly to Siberia Hut, stay overnight, jetboat out (done by Carol & Tom in 2007). Returning in 2019, Carol was glad that she rested in Makarora to avoid the rigors of the 4-day Gillespie Pass Circuit (Wilkin-Young Tracks) enjoyed by four of us, ages 20s to 60s.
  3. Pouakai Track on Mount Egmont/Taranaki (2007).
  4. Dusky Sound Track if you like long walks in remote wilderness with few people (1981).

Sandfly scourge on the wet coast

Visitors to Fiordland beware! Worse than Alaska’s mosquitoes, pesky little sandflies are the only negative about tramping in New Zealand. Sandfly bites hurt intensely, and the red swelling and itching can last for days (except for some locals who develop immunity). Sandfly infestations are mainly along the West Coast of South Island below 1000 meters elevation, more prevalent in the bush (woods) and coast near fresh running water, and less so in cities. New Zealand’s so-called “sandflies” are actually two species of black fly (genus Austrosimulium), where just the females bite. Sandflies swarm slowly outdoors during daylight hours and are usually avoided when you walk steadily. But when you inevitably stop for a rest, ouch! Hope for wind, rain, or hot sun, which suppresses sandfly activity. These insects primarily feast at dawn and dusk or throughout overcast days, in shaded forest. A landed sandfly can easily be slapped before it bites, but several of her swarming friends have meanwhile chomped your skin exposed elsewhere. Thankfully, sandflies don’t bite at night.

Treatment: Never scratch the bite, which spreads the itch and extends healing time. Instead apply hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching and promote healing (cheaper bought over-the-counter in the USA), plus bring an antihistamine (Diphenhydramine as in Benadryl). Try Vitamin B as prophylactic. Luckily, New Zealand sandflies and mosquitoes don’t spread disease.

Insect repellents: Most effective when tramping are gloves, long pants, long socks, long sleeves, and even a head net. For bare skin, DEET is the only proven insect repellent, which must be applied BEFORE leaving your car parked along the wet coast. Be prepared and don’t let this irritating black fly discourage you from visiting the beautiful Fiordland and West Coast.

** Sea Kayaking

  • Spontaneously booking sea kayak day trips with one-day notice gives you a more accurate wind/weather forecast. Beware of wind and waves.
  • Our Milford Sound kayaking day trip was difficult pulling into a strong wind, but the next day was perfect weather!
  • In warm Abel Tasman National Park, you might enjoy Kaiteriteri Kayaks “Soul Food” day trip, or multi-night options (or other companies).
  • For water sports, use a water resistant camera recommended in the BUY > CAMERAS menu. A waterproof housing ($160 and up) is available for many popular cameras, but a dedicated camera is more compact, convenient, and reliable.

*** Bicycling

  • Pad and box your bicycle very carefully to avoid damage on jet flights. Be prepared for delayed luggage.
  • Motor camps offer convenient accomodation for bicycling at good intervals almost everywhere. Train for very hilly terrain.
  • Within New Zealand, optionally ship your bicycle ahead via bus.
  • With my brother Jim in 1981, I rode 500 miles in 10 days from Lake Te Anau to Christchurch past beautiful lakes, rolling hills and pastoral farms, in the rain shadow of the glacier-clad Southern Alps.
  • My brother Dave and I bicycled an exciting, steep mountain route from Christchurch over Arthurs Pass to Paparoa National Park.

Tom’s Guide to South Island

Favorite parks, tracks (trails), and sights are labelled on this small relief map of South Island, New Zealand. In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu � South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area. (Tom Dempsey)

Favorite parks, tracks (trails), and sights are labelled on this small relief map of South Island, New Zealand. In 1990, UNESCO honored Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand as a World Heritage Area.


Rated activities below are listed in order of a (reversible) loop starting at Christchurch, going over Arthur’s Pass to the West Coast, south to Aspiring & Fiordland National Parks, back north to Mt Cook, then back to Christchurch or continuing to the north end of South Island at Picton, then car ferry to North Island, ending in Auckland.

Key to ratings:    *** Must do.      ** Do.      * Maybe if time allows.

Christchurch
Arthur’s Pass National Park
  • * Devils Punchbowl Walking Track: A short walk of 3 km round trip with 100 m gain goes through lush beech forest to a striking waterfall which plunges 131 m. Start at the northern end of Arthur’s Pass village (740 m elevation), just off SH73 at the Punchbowl car park. Five kilometers north of the village is the actual saddle of Arthur’s Pass (920 meters or 3020 feet elevation), reached via paved auto road or the Arthur’s Pass Walking Track. Arthur’s Pass straddles the Southern Alps between the Canterbury and West Coast regions (between the Selwyn and Westland districts).
  • * Avalanche Peak: day hike 4-8hrs round trip, up to 1100 meters vertically from the village, on an extremely steep and rocky journey to the top of an 1833-meter peak. On a fine day, see grand views of surrounding peaks, Mt Rolleston/Kaimatau and the Crow Glacier on its southern face. For the round trip go up Avalanche Peak track and down Scotts track which is a more gradual descent and easier on the knee joints. DESCRIPTION: The “new” start to this track is signposted at the beginning of the very first bridge on the Devils Punchbowl Track, up across the highway and onto the original Scott’s Track. Do not walk up the highway as there is no longer a formed footpath. The track continues onto the bushline (1.5 hours). If visibility is poor at this point, STOP, hold your ground and wait for a possible improvement, if visibility remains poor TURN BACK! The best views commence about 20 – 30 minutes outside tree-line at an old metal survey station beside the track. It then climbs steeply following a route marked with orange tipped poles along a rocky ridge. Avalanche Peak is reached after 3 – 4 hours from the valley floor. Scotts Track connects with the Avalanche Peak track (yellow markers) just below the summit. The final ridge is a razor-blade with cliffs on either side, only venture out here if confident of heights, and the wind-speeds are low. The round trip is possible, but only in fine weather and good track conditions.
West Coast
  • *** Paparoa National Park:
    • Popular, photogenic *** Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk, on Dolomite Point, was worth visiting all four times that I came to South Island. 1km north is:
    • *** Pororari River Track follows an impressive limestone gorge along the river with big rocks set in deep pools, through strikingly beautiful forest subtly transitioning between subtropical and temperate ecozones. Pororari River flows northwest from its sources in the Paparoa Range to reach the Tasman Sea at Punakaiki. From Pororari River Track’s parking lot, stroll 1 km to a seat overlooking an attractive river bend. At about 3.5 km turn left at the Inland Pack Track to soon reach the swing bridge, a good turnaround point (as we did for 4.3 miles round trip). Or continue on a loop including Pancake Rocks. (This is part of a new “Great Walk” to open after October 2019). Multi-day option: do the Inland Pack Track starting at Fox River mouth, visiting Upper Fox Cave, overnighting at The Ballroom, and exploring Dilemma Creek as a day hike.
    • Stay at *** Punakaiki Beach Camp or ** Greymouth Seaside Top 10 Holiday Park
  • Westland / Tai Poutini National Park: Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier
    • *** Lake Matheson boardwalk trail (2.5 miles round the lake; just west of the town of Fox Glacier) has spectacular reflections of Mounts Cook and Tasman on a calm day. It’s still beautiful when the mountains are hidden behind clouds.
    • ** Walking to the tongue of Fox Glacier is an easy and rewarding 4 miles round trip. Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers uniquely extend tongues of ice into lush temperate rainforest, about 300 meters (980 feet) above sea level (and rising).
    • * Roberts Point Track: This slippery and rocky track traverses some fun suspended boardwalks through lush forests of tree ferns, taking you to nice views of Franz Josef Glacier. Try it if you like vigorous exercise in beautiful native forest away from the crowds, though expect frequent helicopter noise.
  • Haast Pass
    • Haast Visitor Centre, run by DOC, helps organize your West Coast visit when traveling northwards. The road through Haast Pass (State Highway 6) was converted from a rough track to a formed road in 1966 and finally received a complete tarmac surface by 1995. At 562 metres elevation, Haast Pass is the saddle between the valleys of the Haast and Makarora Rivers. The pass forms part of the boundary between Otago and the West Coast.
    • Popular * Thunder Creek Falls is worth a quick look.
    • A walk up * Haast Pass Lookout (4km round trip steeply with 130 meters gain) helps absorb the area’s human and natural history. Haast Pass was named from Julius von Haast, a 19th-century explorer who also served as Provincial Geologist for the Provincial government of Canterbury.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Siberia Valley / Gillespie Pass Circuit
  • ** Blue Pools Track: is an easy short walk through mature beech and podocarp forest to a swing bridge over the glacier-fed Blue River, whose water color depends upon flood & gravel cycles.
  • ** “The Siberia Experience“: is a one-day, easy option to experience the remote, wonderful wilderness of Siberia Valley. Fly from Makarora to Siberia Valley (ask for a flightseeing extension over Lucidus Lake). See the pretty waterfall at Siberia Hut. Walk 2-3 hours (4.2mi / 300ft up /1300ft down) on a wide, easy trail to Kerin Forks. Enjoy a high-speed jetboat ride back to Makarora.
  • *** 2-day Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake: Fly to Siberia Valley from Makarora. Day hike the spectacular but intimidatingly steep and rooty track to Crucible Lake (nicknamed “Crucifix Lake” after it destroyed our untrained thighs in 2007). Sleep overnight at Siberia Hut. Hike out to Kerin Forks (4.2mi / 300ft up /1300ft down) then jetboat out.
  • 3- to 4-day scenic *** Gillespie Pass Circuit (Wilkin-Young Tracks): Sweat equity invested in this wonderful adventure paid off with exhilarating views. Problematic river crossings at the start and end are best done via jetboat from Makarora as we did in 2019:
    1. Starting from Makarora, a jetboat took us a few minutes up Makarora River to Young River Mouth, where we tramped Gillespie Pass Track 10.6 miles (2480 feet up, 810 ft. down) to reach Young Hut. Tricky exposure was required twice: to traverse a steep sandy cliff, and to hang from bushes to keep out of a raging river flooded by heavy rain. Contact: Wilkin River Jets, 3-person minimum, NZ$25 per person to Young Mouth, NZ$110 from Kerin Forks to Makarora, in 2019. Some trampers save money by wading across the Makarora River if flood levels allow; or else Blue Pools Bridge allows reaching Young River Mouth by adding 4.4 miles on the Gillespie Pass Track.
    2. Gillespie Pass was a very steep and long 7.5 miles, with 3180 feet vertical gain, 3640 feet descent on a alternately mucky, rooty, eroded, or overgrown track. Our athletic training built on the previous week’s Rees-Dart Track powered us through.
    3. Crucible Lake day hike (9.3 miles / 2430 ft up & down) required slogging through 2 miles of cold wet dewy grass in the morning, three cold stream/river crossings, and 1000 feet climbing straight up or down on slippery roots.
    4. On Day 4, hike out to Kerin Forks (4.2mi / 300ft up /1300ft down) to catch the prearranged jetboat. A stiff wind kicked dust into our faces from exposed river flats, giving us a choppy yet exhilarating high-speed jetboat ride back to Makarora.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Rob Roy Track
  • *** Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 8 miles, 900 feet gain) is one of our favorite day hikes in the world. Start early in the morning to avoid inevitable crowds. From Wanaka, drive up Matukituki Valley on a gravel (“metal”) road with water crossings to the trailhead. Great hanging glaciers, crashing streams & waterfalls, swing suspension bridge, and kea alpine parrots.
  • Optionally hike onwards to scenic Aspiring Hut, overnight in dorms. Scrambling up very steeply on a rooty track reaches spectacular French Ridge Hut for an optional second night. A day hiking option from Aspiring Hut to spectacular Cascade Saddle is very steep and dangerous when wet or icy, so instead consider doing it via the adventurous Rees-Dart Track as we did in 2019.


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Queenstown
  • Don’t miss the view atop *** Skyline Gondola, then walk further up. I liked the steep but rewarding loop of 5 miles with 1600 ft cumulative gain over the ridge of Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve, which rejoins the Ben Lomond Track back to the Gondola. Or do 6.9 miles round trip with 3236 ft gain in 5-6 hrs round trip to Ben Lomond peak.
  • *** Kiwi Birdlife Park (not yet seen by me): This conservation-oriented private park, partnered with DOC, may be your only opportunity on South Island to see active kiwi birds plus other rare NZ wildlife.
  • * Bob’s Cove (not yet seen by me).


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Rees-Dart Track & Cascade Saddle

*** Ascend spectacular Cascade Saddle on a steep trail along the *** Rees-Dart Track, a strenuous 5-day backpack with huts. Start with a base in Queenstown or Glenorchy. Although this was our most difficult ever hut walk in 30 years, Rees-Dart Track paid off as our favorite NZ experience (see 2019 NZ article). Some hike Cascade Saddle via a dangerously steep track from Aspiring Hut, but be very cautious hiking steeply downhill on slippery vegetation.


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A shorter, one-day option: Glacier Burn: is a steep, rooty hike of 4.6 mi/2152 ft. RT GMap]

Mount Aspiring & Fiordland National Parks: Routeburn Track

*** The Routeburn Track traverses the scenic alpine pass of Harris Saddle, with views especially impressive from Conical Hill side trip. Buses from Queenstown help stage a one-way hike. The Routeburn Track crosses from The Divide in Fiordland National Park over the alpine pass of Harris Saddle into Mount Aspiring National Park, ending at Routeburn Shelter. In 1998 we booked the Routeburn several months in advance, with a bus to The Divide and 3-day hike to Routeburn Shelter, and enjoyed the adventure despite rain and mist obscuring views. We returned in 2007 to catch good a weather forecast by booking Routeburn Flats Hut on short notice, 2 days in advance, enjoying the day hike to Conical Hill in sunny weather. If not filled up, instead book the more strategically-placed, spectacular treehouse of Routeburn Falls Hut. Or conveniently without reservations, if you don’t mind 17 miles with 2600 feet ascent and descent, consider the Routeburn’s Harris Saddle as a strenuous all-day hike from Routeburn Shelter, as two of our group did in 2019.


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Fiordland National Park: Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour

** Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour is worthwhile, but if you have a choice, instead see ***Waitomo Glowworm Caves on North Island.

Fiordland National Park: Kepler Track

*** Kepler Track, 3 days tramping. In 1998, reserving with just two days notice matched a perfect weather forecast. This high alpine ridge hike has expansive views, insect-eating sundew plants, pretty rainforest with tree ferns, and great huts (new at the time), with playful kea mountain parrots that like to slide down the roof. As of 2019, Kepler Track is now a super popular Great Walk, requiring reservations recommended 4-6 months in advance.

Fiordland National Park: Milford Track

** The Milford Track is an athletic 4-day adventure, starting from a boat launch on Lake Te Anau, wandering through glaciated valleys and over an alpine pass to Milford Sound, an impressive glacier-carved fiord (hiked by Tom in 1981). Carry your own food and sleeping bag for use in 3 nights of dormitory huts supplied with gas cookers; and apply DEET sandfly repellent liberally. In 2019, Milford Track cost for foreigners doubled to NZ$140 per person per night for dormitory beds; plus NZ$90 ferry from Te Anau Downs to Glade House; plus NZ$52 ferry from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound; plus cost of buses from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs and from Milford to Te Anau (where we instead set up a private 2-car shuttle).

Sadly on 06 January 2019, flooding blocked our progress beyond Clinton Hut, the first hut, forcing a one-day delay, an extra night for those in all three huts. In order not to miss our Hollyford Track flight scheduled from Milford Sound in three days hence, we chose to exit the track (losing our investment in the remaining two huts). We ferried back to Te Anau Downs, then found lodging after driving 1.5 hours to Riversdale, as Te Anau was fully booked. To hedge against such a rare flooding delay, add an extra flex day after your Milford Track. One can stay an extra night or two at scenic Milford Sound, which offers a 2-hour boat tour *, or a one-day kayak trip **, but beware frequently-stormy weather. Most trampers return to Te Anau via prearranged bus.


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Fiordland National Park: Hollyford Track

** Hollyford Track (brochure and map) can be enjoyed with a 3-day independent walker itinerary via scenic coach round trip from Te Anau to Milford, spectacular 15-minute flight to Martins Bay, fun jetboat ride across Lake McKerrow to Pyke River confluence, with 2 nights sleeping in DOC dormitory huts (as we enjoyed in 2019). Or pay more for luxurious 3-day guided trip with private lodging and hot showers.


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Fiordland National Park: Dusky Sound Track

* Dusky Sound Track: In 1981, my brother Jim and I hiked this long adventure of 8+ days by boat across Lake Manapouri, tramping through remote rain forest over Centre Pass towards Dusky Sound and back, across numerous exciting three-wire bridges over crashing streams. You can also access the route via a boat ride across Lake Hauroko. Twisting my ankle delayed our return by two days spent resting in Loch Maree Hut plus flooded trails slowed our exit.

Fiordland National Park: Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track

*** Our favorite track of 2007: privately-run Tuatapere Hump Ridge Track (new in 2000) in Fiordland NP, which has excellent new dormitory huts, breakfast included, with optional hot showers and private rooms***. You can also helicopter your pack for a fee. This track has it all: lush wilderness, excellent footing, extensive boardwalks, alpine views, ocean beaches, history, and a walk across the world’s largest existing wooden viaduct. Take the 4WD Track Transport to shorten the track to a more comfortable 27 miles over 3 days.


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Southeast coast
  • ** The Catlins are fun to explore, including Nugget Point, Cathedral Caves, and waterfalls.
  • *** Moeraki Boulders: Fascinating rock spheres up to 2 meters in diameter scattered along the seashore. These calcite concretions formed slowly 65 million years ago and were tectonically uplifted.
  • * If you like birds, the colonies of blue penguins and rare yellow-eyed penguins are worth visiting, such as at Oamaru, Dunedin and Otago Peninsula (Sandfly Bay). (We didn’t see these little New Zealand penguins because we had already seen other penguins in Australia and Antarctica.)
  • * Royal Albatross Colony on Otago Peninsula is best December through February. See the world’s largest flying seabird and world’s smallest penguin (blue penguin) in one place.
  • ** Stewart Island, Ulva Island: best chance to see or hear kiwis and other native birds in the wild


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*** Mount Cook National Park, Mt. Cook Village

Glacier-covered Mount Cook rises abruptly like a knife to 3724 meters or 12,218 feet (elevation updated in 2013). Although it poses a daunting challenge for climbers, you can easily see Mount Cook from roads and good hiking trails. Mount Cook is the world’s 39th most prominent peak (relative to its surrounding topography).


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  • The prevailing Westerly winds dump most of their moisture on the West Coast, leaving Mount Cook Village with a sunny climate east of the Southern Alps. Find a good-value private double room at YHA Youth Hostel at Mount Cook Village. Easier to reserve, if you have a vehicle, are cabins or caravan sites at nearby **Glentanner Park campground.
  • *** Hike easy & very scenic Hooker Valley Track (6 miles, 850 feet). Native Spaniard (speargrass) plants and white mountain daisies peppered the exotic landscape.
  • *** Hike Sealy Tarns (5 miles, 1700 feet, steep). Or hike further to spectacular Mueller Hut (with optional overnight booked at DOC, requiring a sleeping bag).
  • Also worth seeing is * Tasman Glacier, which offers ** boat tours. Just a few meltwater ponds existed in the early 1970s at the current viewpoint on the glacier’s terminal moraine, but by 1990 they had merged into Tasman Lake. In further melting from 1990-2011, Tasman Glacier retreated a shocking 2 kilometers, and continued to disappear at an accelerating rate through 2019. See my Global warming, climate change gallery.
  • Copeland Track: In 1981, my brothers and I hiked this fantastic 3 day traverse over the shoulder of Mt. Cook one way to the rainforest side and relaxing Welcome Flat Hot Springs, requiring bus/car shuttle. But a 1995 landslide wiped out the track on the eastern side (Mount Cook area), creating a dangerous scree traverse on unstable moraine, now walked by few. ** Copeland Pass is still accessible as a long round trip via the West Coast trailhead to Welcome Flat Hot Springs & Hut, and up to the pass. Check with the DOC (Department of Conservation). Venturing onto snowfields of Copeland Pass requires mountaineering experience plus ice axe and crampons (rental).
** Lake Tekapo, Mount John Observatory, and nonnative Russell lupin flowers

Views from ** Mount John Observatory are well worth visiting by car or on foot from Lake Tekapo village. In early January 2019, riot of nonnative *** Russell lupin flowers bloomed in patches on Mt John and areas around the shimmering turquoise lake.

The widespread diaspora of Russell lupins began with David Douglas bringing the herbaceous lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) from North America to Britain in the 1820s. In the early 1900s, George Russell, a horticulturist from York, UK, spent two decades breeding the Russell hybrids (Lupinus X russellii hort). First naturalized to New Zealand by local farmers wanting to beautify their landscape in the 1950s, Russell lupins have invaded large areas of roadsides, pastures, and riverbeds. This alien plant most threatens indigenous species in the braided river beds of Canterbury region. Russell lupin is classed as an invasive species in New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Finland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.

* Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve

On the way from Christchurch to Mt Cook, near Geraldine (22 km north off SH72), * Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve was worth seeing again, strolling on Big Tree Walk through a magnificent podocarp (conifer) forest. Huge native totara trees, one almost three meters across, are thought to be about 1000 years old. A DOC campground with cabins is available.

Northern end of South Island


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  • ** Nelson Lakes National Park: the Honeydew Nature Trail is informative about the non-native wasp problem. A day hike of **Robert Ridge is scenic.
  • ** 2-3+ day backpack from St. Arnaud: water taxi to the south end of Lake Rotoiti (or hike there in a day to Coldwater Hut or Lakehead Hut), hike Cascade Track to Angelus Hut for 1 or more nights; hike back to St. Arnaud over Robert Ridge (or take Speargrass Creek Track if weather turns bad). Good wilderness hiking through native forest and alpine views down to wild Lake Rotoiti.
  • ** Nelson: WOW, the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum is a visual feast. The WOW live show is a world-class nouveau art event, held yearly in Wellington, North Island (such as September 20-30, 2007). See the video at the museum if you attend the live performance.
  • ** Nydia Track, Marlborough Sounds: The best part can be done as a day hike from the Duncan Bay side over to Nydia Bay and back. We hiked the full two days with help of water taxi and bus, a good hike if you have time.
  • ** Queen Charlotte Track, Marlborough Sounds: The best part of the Queen Charlotte Track can be walked as a day hike round trip from Picton via water taxi: drop off at beautiful and historic Ship Cove, and walk to Furneaux Lodge for pick up. In the remainder of the track, clear cuts alternate with forest, mostly not wilderness, but you get sweeping views of Marlborough Sounds from the ridge walk. Most people have their pack transported via water taxi from hotel to hotel on this comfortable track.
  • * Abel Tasman National Park: If you like beaches and don’t mind sharing with lots of hikers and boats, the Abel Tasman Coastal Track is an easy jaunt along former logging roads through green forest. However, the native forest throughout the park needs another 100 years to recover from logging that ended in the 1970s. Most of the ecosystem is in stage 2 of the 4 regrowth stages, so you won’t see much old growth forest — we were not impressed. Our day hikes to Separation Point and Anapai Beach were pleasant, but we prefer the purer wilderness of Fiordland and Mount Aspiring National Park.


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Key to ratings:    *** Must do.     ** Do.     * Maybe if time allows.

A map of North Island, New Zealand, suggests favorite parks and sights. (Tom Dempsey)

A map of North Island, New Zealand, suggests favorite parks and sights.

Tom’s Guide to North Island

First, read New Zealand Overview, Trip Planning, and Tom’s Guide to South Island above. Relocation cars and campervans can be half price going one way from Christchurch to Auckland. Rated activities are listed on a tour route from Wellington to the far north:

Key to ratings:    *** Must do.     ** Do.     * Maybe if time allows.

** Wellington area
  • ** Te Papa Museum
  • * See city and harbor views from Mount Victoria.
  • * Walk downtown Wellington to see the iconic Beehive and neogothic Parliament House.
  • * Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
  • ** The WOW live show is a world-class nouveau art event, held in Wellington, North Island (September 20-30, 2007). Don’t miss the event video at the museum in Nelson (South Island): ** WOW, the World of Wearable Art & Classic Cars Museum is a visual feast, a breathtaking array of wearable art.
  • ** Putangiura Pinnacles: Drive 3 hours each way to reach Putangiura Pinnacles on a day trip from Wellington. Hike 2-3 hours round trip on an uneven rocky stream bed beneath weird gray hoodoos. The spires starred as the “Dimholt Road” in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy (directed by Wellington’s Peter Jackson 2001, 2002, 2003), where Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli ride into a tunnel to meet the Army of the Dead.
  • * Tararua Wind Farm: largest wind power installation in the Southern Hemisphere. Located 10 kilometres northeast of Palmerston North, sprawling across a 5 kilometer long ridge in the Tararua Ranges. Palmerston North is home of Massey University, New Zealand’s largest educational institution.
*** Taranaki / Mount Egmont National Park
  • ** Admire this perfect volcanic cone from any angle. Taranaki and surroundings were filmed as a stand-in for Japan’s Mount Fuji in the Tom Cruise movie, “The Last Samurai” (2003).
  • *** Hike the scenic but rough Pouakai Track 2-3 days (20+ miles), staying overnight in dormitory style Pouakai Hut and others. Bring your own stove, as the wood fired stove is slow for cooking. Pouakai Track requires scrambling over rocks, roots, ladders with missing rungs, and washed-out trail sections. Purchase the required hut pass at the DOC office at North Egmont. At Stratford‘s i-Site, we picked up an excellent free Pouakai Track pamphlet published by Venture Taranaki, a better value than info at DOC office.
  • * Stratford to Taumarunui “Forgotten World Highway” is a quiet back road with rolling hills and ranches mixed with native forest. See *Mount Damper Falls, highest on North Island.
*** Tongariro National Park
  • *** Tongariro Crossing day hike is a 10 mile traverse (2900 feet up, 4000 feet down). A bus from Whakapapa Village drives to and from this spectacular hike, one of the most crowded tracks in New Zealand. Base yourself in attractive Whakapapa Village at the Skotel (highest hotel in New Zealand), which has range of comfortable rooms and a public kitchen.
  • * Tongariro Northern Circuit is a long backpack with huts, 3 days through a desolate moonscape. If you love backpacking, the rating is *** must do.
  • *** Take the ski lift up Mount Ruapehu, and climb to the top of North Island’s highest peak to see the famous Crater Lake responsible for destructive lahars (mud flows). The tephra ash dam broke in March 2007 relieving pressure from Crater Lake — check latest safety warnings.
*** Rotorua & Taupo area
  • *** Tamaki Maori Village: NZ$93 includes hotel pickup, Maori Concert & Hakari (feast), with great food cooked in a hangi, steamed for hours on hot stones underground. You will see a performance of the challenging haka (or more precisely, the haka taparahi) and other dances. A hongi is the Maori nose press greeting (double or single). As you load your dinner plate, remember that tuna is the Maori word for the New Zealand Longfin Eel.
  • *** Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
  • ** Orakei Korako Cave & Thermal Park
  • *** Fishermen can reliably pull giant fish out of Lake Taupo and many New Zealand rivers.
  • * Thundering Huka Falls is the headwaters of New Zealand’s longest river, Waikato River, flowing out of Lake Taupo.
  • * Agrodome: Sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations show a dozen or more sheep breeds.
  • *** White Island: Tour 6 hours by boat from Whakatane to an active offshore volcano and former sulfur farm for intriguing photography. Gas masks provided.
  • *** Waitomo Glowworm Caves boat tour reveals a fascinating insect which shines like a star (better than **Te Anau Glow Worm Caves Tour on South Island).
  • ** Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park is one of the few places in New Zealand where you can see active kiwis, because the exhibit building reverses day and night. See many other rare native birds and the small tuatara, a rare dinosaur/lizard relative.
*** Lake Waikaremoana, Te Urewera National Park
  • *** Day hike Panekiri Bluff, 5 miles round trip, 1900 feet gain. Or hike the *Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk 4-day circuit, hut to hut, through lush wilderness.
  • ** East Cape Road: 1-2 day drive encompassing modern Maori culture, empty beaches, ranch life, & history.
  • ** Shine’s Falls on Boundary Stream: 2 hour hike to a beautiful high waterfall. Near Napier, the art deco city.
* Coromandel Peninsula

Wander pleasant public Walkways in mixed ranchland, crossing over fences on stiles (stepped ladders) into native forest and back to fields:

  • * Moehau Track is a pleasant 2 hours round trip walk.
  • ** Coromandel Track: 7 miles round trip along the South Pacific Ocean. Bell birds call and cicadas buzz.
  • ** Hot Water Beach & Cathedral Cove
** Auckland
North of Auckland
  • * Mangawhai Walkway: native palms & tree ferns intersperse with ranch land
  • *** Northland Forest Park, at Waipoua offers a pleasant walk to see tree ferns and the world’s largest Kauri trees, which grow up to 153 feet high, 46 feet circumference & 1200 years old. Kauris are the second largest tree species in the world, next to California’s Sequoia Redwood. This forest gives a sense of the wilderness before humans arrived. An interesting logging museum is nearby, detailing the near destruction of kauri forests.
  • Kauris only grow half as fast as California’s Monterey Pine, called locally by its Latin name Pinus radiata, which now dominate the huge tree farms marching across New Zealand.
  • * Waiotemarama Bush Walk, near Opononi
  • * Many remote beaches, with warm temperatures.

Key to ratings above:    *** Must do.      ** Do.      * Maybe if time allows.

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