2019 NEW ZEALAND: hike Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, Milford & Pororari Tracks; Mt Cook

Beautiful New Zealand attracted my fifth visit to hike the spectacular Rees-Dart, Gillespie Pass, Hollyford, and Milford Tracks plus more in southern South Island’s unique Gondwanan wilderness. Relishing an escape to Southern Hemisphere summer, I organized a 5-person family trip tramping in lush temperate rainforests for five weeks (2018 Dec 27–2019 Jan 31). Colorful fields of nonnative Russell lupins mesmerized us on the way to Mount Cook/Aoraki, where we repeated favorite Sealy Tarns and Hooker Valley hikes. Sadly flooded out of the Milford Track after one night, we regrouped to enjoy lucky weather elsewhere, such as gorgeous Pororari River Track.

Favorite New Zealand photos from 2019


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See our detailed 2019 trip itinerary at bottom of this article. But for more comprehensive NZ travel planning tips on both North and South Islands, see “NEW ZEALAND trip guide and itinerary“.

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

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 at Mt Cook, Te Anau, Milford, and Queenstown. 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. Upscaling for higher-spending tourists, Queenstown now caps the total number of pricey legal tent sites and disallows Freedom Camping, so one must book paid sites early. 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 get good coffee, 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.

Very practical Jucy Campervans and car rentals with tailgate kitchens are seen everywhere (but we rented a cheaper Toyota Corolla as tramping in huts took us away from roads for 14 days out of 34). “Three-day Certified Self-Contained” RVs using “Freedom Camping Zones” have proliferated on South Island. Some Holiday Park public kitchens now charge $5 for use of pots/pans/utensils/cups/plates (formerly free), which seem to encourage tidier countertops.

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 now. Near Mt. Cook, we stayed 3 nights at Glentanner Park Centre; their 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. 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.

Mount Cook National Park: Sealy Tarns & Hooker Valley Tracks


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Both Sealy Tarns (4.3 mi round trip/1600 ft gain) and Hooker Valley Tracks (7 mi RT/500 ft gain) were well worth repeating this year. Native Spaniard (speargrass) plants and white mountain daisies peppered the scenic landscape. 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.

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.

Views from Mount John Observatory are well worth visiting by car or on foot from Lake Tekapo village. A 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.

Fiordland National Park: Milford Track

During our first night at Clinton Hut just 5 km in, heavy rains flooded the Milford Track and blocked the trampers in all three huts! (DOC nearly provided helicopter lifts for everyone over the floods to the next hut, but no dice.) The incoming hiker cohort was cancelled, and everyone was offered a second night in their respective huts, turning the four-day trip into five. Sadly, in order not to miss catching our Hollyford flight, we chose to exit via ferry back to Te Anau in late afternoon. After exiting the ferry and retrieving our car (left there for a planned family shuttle), we used nearby Fiordland National Park Lodge’s wi-fi to seek last-minute accommodation beyond fully-booked Te Anau. Upon driving 70 minutes, we found that the hotel in Lumsden had fumbled our Booking.com reservation, requiring staff to find us lodging 20 minutes further out. By 10pm, Carol and I went to sleep in the empty, staffless Riversdale Hotel, far from tourist crowds. Luckily, a room was available the next night in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas, albeit pricey. We could then freely day hike Earland Falls, to surprise three of our family group who were exiting from four days spent on the Routeburn Track. Their story was of not only heavy rain but also of their son being sick for two days. Luckily the remaining time in NZ improved markedly, fulfilling our goals.


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Fiordland National Park: Routeburn Track: day hikes to Key Summit and Earland Falls

We relished two wonderful day hikes from The Divide in Fiordland National Park:

  • Key Summit: 4.7 mi round trip, 1389 ft gain
  • Earland Falls: 8.7 miles round trip with 2270 feet gain.
  • Catch good a weather forecast.


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Fiordland National Park: Hollyford Track in 3 days

We staged the Hollyford Track from Milford Sound Lodge, which has a nicely remodeled public kitchen & dining area, but our dorm building (NZ$40 per person) was unappealingly dark, crowded, and located 70 meters from the renovated bathrooms. Overnight options are very limited at Milford Sound: tenting was forbidden, we had no RV, and we couldn’t stomach NZ$345-849 for a private chalet. In retrospect, the dorm situation beat backcountry NZ huts. Milford Sound Airport was within walking distance of our car left at the waterfront public parking.

We enjoyed an easy version of the Hollyford Track (brochure and map) with a 3-day independent walker itinerary via a spectacular 15-minute flight from Milford Sound to Martins Bay, two nights sleeping in DOC huts, and personal car shuttle round trip from Te Anau. Highlights of the Hollyford include: seeing playful pups in the New Zealand fur seal colony near Martins Bay Hut; circumventing the muddy 10- to 12-hour Demon Trail (which has few views) via a fun jetboat ride along Lake McKerrow to Pyke River confluence; and strolling under beautiful tree fern forest under glacier-clad peaks soaring 8000 feet above.


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Queenstown

Bustling, upscaling Queenstown has much to offer if you’re ready for crowds. From the top of the scenic Skyline Gondola, I reveled in the 5-mile scenic loop over the steep ridge trail in Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve.


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

Yearning for the Rees-Dart Track inspired this revisit down under. Starting with a good weather window forecast for Cascade Saddle, the epic 5-day Rees-Dart Track proved much better than we had imagined. We set up our own car shuttle. While we were luckily unslowed by the many stream crossings, both vehicles and trampers would have been seriously hindered in a typical rainstorm. The remote wilderness huts surprised us with flush toilets and public sinks! 7 to 9 hours per day of sweat equity spent scrambling over the steep, sometimes mucky and rooty, sometimes excellent trails rewarded us with classic scenic wonders over the course of 52 miles in five days. Streams crashed from sparkling glaciers above lush green rainforest. The spare alpine vegetation reminded me of Peruvian Highlands. Dropping our packs for the 12.5-mile side trip to spectacular Cascade Saddle was a delight.

If using a Rees-Dart Shuttle Service, ask if a four-wheel-drive shuttle will take you a few kilometers further past Muddy Creek to get a jump on the long first day hiking in scenic Rees Valley to Shelter Rock Hut. At the end of the track, consider efficiently connecting with Glenorchy Wharf via a fun prearranged jetboat, which skips the last 1.5 hours of scenic walking to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot.


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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.


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Mount Aspiring National Park: Gillespie Pass Circuit: Young & Wilkin Tracks to Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake

  • In 2019, we enjoyed tramping 4 days on the rewarding Gillespie Pass (Wilkin-Young) Circuit, to Siberia Hut and marvelous Crucible Lake. Problematic Makarora River crossings at the start and end are best done via jetboat as we did from Makarora via Wilkin River Jets. Drenching rain on the first day at Young Hut yielded to mostly sunny weather for the most important remaining three days.
  • In 2007, we did an easier, also spectacular option to reach Siberia Hut and Crucible Lake: Fly to Siberia Valley from Makarora and jetboat out. Day hike the spectacular but extremely steep and rooty track to Crucible Lake, and overnight at Siberia Hut. [Or the easiest option to sample the area is the one-day “The Siberia Experience“: fly in, hike 2.5 hours, then jetboat back.]


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South Island’s West Coast


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Along the wild coast of Paparoa National Park, we revisited the photogenic Punakaiki Pancake Rocks and Blowholes Walk, on Dolomite Point. I also loved the strikingly beautiful forest subtly transitioning between subtropical and temperate ecozones on gorgeous Pororari River Track (which is part of a new “Great Walk” to open after October 2019).

Our detailed NEW ZEALAND itinerary for 35 days (2018 Dec 27 to 2019 Jan 31)

Several months in advance, our family group of five booked lodging for our first two weeks in New Zealand, including Mt Cook area, Te Anau, and two nights in Queenstown. The first step was booking the popular Milford Track, which sold out all January slots within seconds after bookings opened 6 months in advance! We could only get slots for two out of five of our group, so those three instead booked the Routeburn Track (reservable the next day), which also filled up very quickly. After fulfilling our prudent bookings up to mid-January, a 3- to 5-day weather forecast then determined when to do the Rees-Dart Track (which requires no reservations, though pads should be carried in case bunks are full). Later, Makarora Travel Centre lodging was easily booked on short notice to stage our Gillespie Pass Circuit. West Coast lodging was tight but bookable several days in advance, with a reprieve as kids went back to school in the last week of January. [Below, RT = round trip; T&C = Tom and Carol; DRK = Dave, Rebecca, and Kylan.]

27.     Thurs Dec 27: T&C: Fly from SFO to Christchurch, 19 hrs 15 min total duration = 12 hr10min flight + 3:20 layover + 4hr5min flight. [Fly SFO on FJ 871 departing Thursday, Dec. 27 at 9:00pm, duration 11:10 hours + 4:05 hours, arriving in Christchurch on FJ 451 at 1:35 pm on Saturday Dec 29. FijiAirways.com US$1266 per person; 1 FREE CHECKED BAG up to 50lb/23kg, 62 li/158 lcm, 1 FREE CARRY-ON BAG 7kg/15lb up to 45 li/115 lcm.]

28.     [Lost day via International Dateline.]

29.     Saturday Dec 29: Arrive in Christchurch IAP 1:35pm. T&C: Apex Rental Car: Toyota Corolla midsize sedan NZ$1489.29 for 33 days, 3 free extra drivers, pay at desk.  DRK: rent a Toyota RAV4 NZ$56.67/day for 65 days. Stay at an AirBnB. Buy SIM cards for both Carol & Tom’s phones: Spark’s “NZ Travel SIM” for foreigners, $49 SIM, good for 2 months, gives 5 gb, 200min talk, 200 texts. Buy backpacking & other food; butane cigarette lighter for stove; Snowpeak Gigapower stove fuel isobutane/propane mix for dinners+breakfasts for 9 days (2 Hollyford+4 Rees-Dart+3 Gillespie). Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.

30.     Sunday Dec 30: Drive from Christchurch 4 hours to Glentanner Park, night 1/3. Nice short loop: Big Tree Walk in Peel Forest Park Scenic Reserve. See breathtakingly colorful fields of Russell lupin flowers via Lakes Tekapo & Pukaki.

31.     Mount Cook 2/3: Glentanner Park.  Hooker Valley Track (GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 6.8 miles, 450 feet), same trailhead as Sealy Tarns.

1.      January 1: Mount Cook 3/3: Glentanner Park.  Sealy Tarns (Start on Kea Point track from GMap: White Horse Hill Campsite, 5 miles RT, 1717 feet, steep) [or hike further to spectacular Mueller Hut 7.8 mi RT/3400 ft].

2.      January 2: Drive to Te Anau 5 hours. Next 3 nights T&C, next 2 nights DRK: Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers, Booking.com (this link supports my work). DRK: tent sites for four on Jan 2, 3, and 11.

3.      Te Anau: Buy backcountry hut passes. We rested today, but here are local hiking options: Kepler Track dayhike options: Take Brod Bay Water Taxi (Fiordland Outdoors Co. – Kepler Water Taxi, GMap) then walk back to Te Anau 11km. Or Brod Bay to Luxmore Hut 10.2 mi / 2870ft RT (or shorter to views at bushline). Longer: Brod Bay to Mount Luxmore 11.6mi/4000ft gain RT. Water Taxi 8.30am or 9.30am, return 4.30pm. Or Kepler Heli Hike drops you at Mt Luxmore Hut (optional walk 3 hrs RT 1300ft to summit Mt Luxmore) then walk back 4 hrs to Brod Bay Water Taxi.

4.      DRK begin Routeburn day 1/4: hike from the Divide to MacKenzie Campsite.  T&C day hike, joining DRK on Routeburn Track, to Key Summit side trip 3 hrs RT 4.7 mi/ 1389 ft. T&C hike Marion Falls/The Gantry GMap 20min round trip [optionally one can hike onwards to Lake Marion 3 hrs RT 4.4 mi/1565 ft.]

5.      Saturday Jan 5: T&C: Leave car at Te Anau Downs Boat Launch, GMap. Take 10:30am ferry to Glade Wharf to start Milford Track; first day is easy hike 3mi/5km. [Total distance would have been 36-40 miles in 4 days with 4600ft up, 5200ft down]. [DRK 2/4: to Routeburn Falls Hut. Gas cooking stoves are provided in Milford & Routeburn Huts.]

6.      Sunday Jan 6: T&C: Milford Track second day: Due to flooding delaying forward progress by an extra night, we return 5km from Clinton Hut to Glade Wharf; catch the 3:00 pm ferry to Te Anau Downs. Because Te Anau lodging is fully booked, we drive our car 90 minutes to the deserted Riversdale Hotel. [DRK 3/4: MacKenzie Hut.]

7.      T&C hike Earland Falls, meeting DRK [on their Routeburn day 4/4] on their hike back to The Divide. DRK stay in Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers BBH (dorm room 3 people, shared bathroom). T&C: stay in Distinction Te Anau Hotel & Villas booked on short notice 2 days ago.

8.      T&C, DRK drive both cars to end of Hollyford Road End to leave one car, then all 5 go in one car to Milford Sound where it remains parked for 3 nights. Past Homer Tunnel, see The Chasm GMap via 20 minute walk. All  of us overnight in dorm beds at Milford Sound Lodge (laundry available; hot showers; public kitchen; café; GMap).

9.      Hollyford Track, map, day 1/3: Easy day: Bring cooking stove kit with lighter & fuel, backup sleeping pads in case of full hut, changes of clothing & fresh camera & backup batteries. 10:30am airplane short flight for all of us (www.tripsandtramps.com) from Milford Sound to Martins Bay airstrip, walk 3.5 miles to Martins Bay Hut, dormitory lodging with pit toilets, partly on washed-out, muddy trail. Warning: Sandflies bit us voraciously at Martins Bay and in the Hollyford Valley; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure. Walk 2 more miles round trip on good trail to see the wonderfully entertaining New Zealand fur seal colony.

10.     Hollyford Track 2/3: Jetboat charter for 5 from 2.00pm-3:00pm, run by www.hollyfordtrack.com from Martins Bay Hut along length of Lake Mckerrow to Pyke River Confluence, NZ$130/person, www.tripsandtramps.com. Ride the Jetboat. Then hike to Hidden Falls Hut (12 bunks, GMap) 10.5 km, 3–4 hr.

11.     Hollyford Track 3/3: hike from Hidden Falls Hut to Lower Hollyford Road, Hollyford Trailhead, 9 km, 2–3 hr. All of us drive in one car to recover other car at Milford Sound. Drive 2 cars back to Te Anau Lakefront Backpackers.

12.     Drive 2.3 hours from Te Anau to Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 1 of 2. GMap 1/2 T&C Self Contained Cabin. DRK in tents.

13.     Queenstown Top 10 Holiday Park night 2 of 2. I hiked a very scenic loop over the steep ridge of Ben Lomond Scenic Reserve starting from top of Skyline Gondola. One can extend this hike to Ben Lomond Track from 1-6.9 miles with 500-3236 ft gain in 5-6 hrs round trip. [Other good options outside of town: Bob’s Cove; or Glacier Burn: 4.6 mi/2152 ft. RT steep, rooty, GMap] (The DOC office in Makarora is unmanned, so get tomorrow’s Gillespie Circuit hut tickets and track info at Wanaka DOC office before going to Makarora; or get 6-month Hut Passes as we did.)

14.     As of today, nothing was prebooked, allowing a 3-day window for Rees-Dart Track (DOC). The forecast was good, so we hiked Day 1/5: we left one car at Chinaman’s Bluff in Dart Valley and shuttled all five of us in the other car to Muddy Creek parking lot in Rees Valley, via stream crossings possible in good weather in our Toyota Corolla & RAV4 rental cars. If in doubt, hire a car shuttle service, or possible jetboat in Dart Valley. We hike 11.9 miles, 1650 ft. up, 400 ft. down, from Muddy Creek to Shelter Rock Hut. (The first 4 miles are on a road which a 4WD shuttle could shorten, but you wouldn’t want to leave a car beyond Muddy Creek, isolated by possibly flooded stream crossings.)

15.     Rees-Dart Track 2/5: 6.2mi/9km with 1885 feet gain, steep on good trail to Rees Saddle, then a surprisingly punishing 1800 feet down on many scrambling very steep drop-offs, to Dart Hut.

16.     Rees-Dart Track 3/5: side trip: Hike to spectacular, steep Cascade Saddle (12.5 miles round trip with 3200 ft gain), the major goal and highlight of our 2019 trip! (Beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather.)

17.     Rees-Dart Track 4/5: 11.25 miles, 1150 ft. up, 2600 ft. down, to Daly’s Flat Hut, on the easiest footpath conditions out of the five days. (Except beware of several possibly uncrossable flooded stream crossings in rainy weather). Sandflies are voracious here; so put on your DEET repellent before exposure.

18.     Rees-Dart Track 5/5: 10 miles, 1250 ft. up, 1440 ft. down to Chinaman’s Bluff parking lot, car shuttle. Walk by an eerie partly-submerged forest killed by the flooded blue-green lake in Dredge Flat, which was dammed by the 2014 Jan 04 landslide, which had required rough rerouting of three sections of the Rees-Dart Track (reopened in late 2017). Watch your step when tired! Other than slow clambering steeply up and down required through the rooty reroutes, the remaining path conditions today resembled speedy Great Walk standards. A section signed for cliff “exposure” turned out to be a safe, wide, well protected path with stairs and railings, with nice views over the new lake. Suspended glacial powder colors the lake a beautiful turquoise. Although this was our most difficult ever hut walk in 30 years, Rees-Dart Track paid off as our best experience in New Zealand! This night we stayed in Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb night 1 of 5).

19.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 2 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby popular option: Roy’s Peak: park by 6:30-7am, 8-9.7 mi / 3500-4000 ft gain to good view of Lake Wanaka.]

20.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 3 of 5): Get up early to avoid the crowds, drive 80 minutes to hike the memorable Rob Roy Valley Track (easy 7 miles, 1700 feet gain).

21.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 4 of 5): We relaxed. [Nearby option: hike Diamond Lake Track 3.9 mi/1529 ft, GMap.]

22.     Wanaka (Albert Town, AirBnb 5 of 5): We relaxed.

23.     From Makarora, start Gillespie Pass circuit 1/4: NZ$25 per person jetboat on Makarora River to Young River confluence, hike 10.6 miles, 2480 ft. up, 810 ft. down, 6.5 hrs to Young Hut. [One can optionally fly (Wilkin Jetboats Siberia Experience NZ$375 or Southern Alps Air NZ$395).]

24.     Gillespie Pass circuit 2/4: Young Hut via very steep Gillespie Pass to Siberia Hut 7mi/3020 ft up/3400ft down, steep, 6-8 hours. DEET repellent is advised to ward off clouds of sandflies at Siberia Hut. [Optional side trip to spectacular Crucible Lake adds 5.3mi/2040 ft 4+hrs RT, making a strenuous 12.3-mile day with 5440 ft gain; or else hike tomorrow from Siberia Hut as we did.]

25.     Gillespie Pass circuit 3/4: spectacular Crucible Lake 9.3 miles/2100ft round trip hike starting from Siberia Hut.

26.     Gillespie Pass circuit 4/4: 4.2mi/300ft gain/1300ft down one way to the exciting jetboat ride NZ$110pp from Kerin Forks to Makarora. Stay in Makarora Travel Centre, where Carol stayed 4 nights to take a break from this rougher track.

27.     Leaving Makarora, we stroll to the attractive Blue Pools in Mount Aspiring National Park. Walk up Haast Pass Lookout to absorb the area’s history. Along the drive over Haast Pass to Fox Glacier, we liked popular Thunder Creek Falls. Haast Visitor Centre (run by DOC) helps organize your West Coast visit. All five of us stay in bunks in a small private room at Fox Glacier Top 10 Holiday Park.

28.     West Coast: Near Fox Glacier, we drove through nice wilderness to foggy Gillespies Beach, in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Close-ups of the exceptionally loud chorus cicadas were fun to capture on video in the bush. Walk around Lake Matheson, still attractive when the Alps are covered in cloud (but more magical when Mounts Cook and Tasman reflect, as in 2007). We five stay in a larger double room with kitchen in delightful Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 1 of 2.

29.     West Coast: Greymouth Seaside TOP 10 Holiday Park, night 2 of 2. In Paparoa National Park, revisit fascinating Pancake Rocks; and hike gorgeous Pororari River Track.  [More local options: Hokitika Gorge. Or Charming Creek Walkway.]

30.     Jan 30: Drive to Christchurch, via Arthurs Pass NP: Devils Punchbowl, 4 mi RT 745 ft gain to high waterfall. Christchurch in an AirBnb house, which lacked air conditioning. Look for Christchurch lodging with AC in summer, as temperatures reached 92 degrees Fahrenheit today!

31.     Thurs Jan 31: We returned the rental car with full tank of petrol by 2:00pm. After 5 weeks in NZ, we depart CHC at 15:30pm, arriving in SFO 12:45pm (arriving before we started that same Thursday afternoon, due to crossing International Dateline). Flight times going eastwards are quicker due to prevailing winds: 4 hrs plus 3hr40min stopover plus 10hr 30min = 18hr 10min total duration. Rent car one way from SFO to Chico 3.5+ hrs. After several nights in Chico, we drove our own car to Seattle.

AUSTRALIA

Australia travel tips and photos:

Carol and I left Seattle’s winter for 7.5 weeks exploring some great forest parks in southern Australia in the southern summer January 26-March 18, 2004. We most enjoyed Australia’s exotic animals and plants. Best weather for a separate trip to northern and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) would be September or October.


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In hindsight, we could have shortened the trip by flying straight to certain highlights instead driving extra distance. The size of Australia challenges the traveller to prioritize visiting far-flung areas of interest. To make best use of your time, fly to each major city (such as with Virgin Australia Airlines), rent a camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au), and stay at convenient Caravan/Holiday Parks. Camping vehicles can show up in most parks without a reservation, provide a kitchen, and carry all you need without reshuffling luggage. We enjoyed Melbourne and Perth via separate round trips in campers. A more relaxing way to explore Tasmania would have been renting a camper instead of a car. Without a camper, we had to worry about making lodging reservations several days in advance despite traveling in non-peak (“shoulder”) tourist season.

Within two days we adjusted to the minus 5 hours jet lag (plus one day) to Sydney from Seattle. We adjusted to driving on the left side of the road within a day or two. Traffic flows smoothly around the many roundabouts instead of being impeded by stop signs. Be prepared for narrow bumpy roads with fast traffic.

January-March: Suggested southern forest itinerary for Australia

  • For a great short trip, go to the beautiful Sydney area for a few days, then fly to Tasmania, which offers wonderful variety and lovely wilderness on a compact island.
  • To extend the trip, consider flying to Adelaide and visiting Kangaroo Island for wildlife, coastal scenery, and geology.
  • Fly to Melbourne and visit Wilson’s Promontory National Park for great wildlife, estuary, and coastal scenery. If you like beaches and waves, drive west of Melbourne on the Great Ocean Road.
  • The flight to Perth, Western Australia, is pricey and the driving lengthy before you reach interesting places, but once we arrived in the Walpole area, I really enjoyed the old growth forests of amazingly tall tingle and karri trees, which are found nowhere else on earth.
  • You will be thoroughly fascinated by native Australian birds, marsupials, reptiles, and eucalyptus. Visit Australian parks and wildlands for enrichment beyond zoos and gardens.

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Sydney and nearby parks, New South Wales


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  • Visit the Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor Bridge, and Taronga Zoo.
  • One of the many pleasures of Sydney is an abundance of weird flying creatures: Sacred Ibis, parrots, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, and big fruit bats (flying foxes) roosting in the downtown Royal Botanic Garden. The call of the Australian magpie is full of fascinating bells and whistles, and is found throughout most of Australia.
  • Sydney Aquarium is worth visiting for an overview of sea and freshwater life found around Australia.
  • Before heading for parks outside of Sydney, check the latest fire reports. Fire is a necessary and natural part of the lifecycle of eucalyptus forest, but can impact your trip.
  • Royal National Park: Located between the towns of Loftus and Stanwell Park, this reserve was established in 1879, making it Australia’s oldest national park — the world’s second-oldest. Hike a wonderful loop 11 kilometers (7 miles) through native Palm Forest, bluffs, and beach as a convenient day trip by rental car or train, south of Sydney. A 3-foot long goanna (monitor lizard) surprised me with its boldness and size. Forest parrots impressed us with their huge size. Best of all, a rare Lyrebird ran silently across the path before me. Notice the eucalyptus tree bark pealing into colorful patterns.
  • Blue Mountains National Park is a good a day trip west of Sydney, with many nice hiking opportunities. Walk the “Grand Canyon” 3-mile loop through a slot canyon which shelters a spattering stream, tree ferns, tree grass (with blooms), and unique plants. In 2000, UNESCO listed the Greater Blue Mountains (of which one quarter is Blue Mountains National Park) as a World Heritage Site.
  • Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park is worth visiting, 14 miles north of Sydney. Fire had burnt the eucalyptus forest in several areas in 2004, but will regrow as part of the natural forest lifecycle.

Tasmania


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In comparison to the rest of Australia, Tasmania offers a greater variety of sights closer together for easy travel, our favorite place in Australia. A short ferry ride from Tasmania takes you to little Maria Island which offers surprising variety — spectacular sandstone patterns, interesting history, important fossils, hiking, and biking. Tasmanian parks are beautiful, wild, and exotic. Fortunately, 37% of Tasmania lies in reserves and national parks. In 1982, UNESCO listed the parks of Tasmania as a World Heritage Area, including: Southwest National Park, Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, and Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.

Tasmania tips

Explore Tasmania for at least a week, or two weeks as we did. Booking a bed for the night can be problematic even in “shoulder season” in Tasmania, partly due to an overnight ferry bringing cars from Sydney. We rented a car and stayed in cabins and lodging booked a few days in advance, which took some extra worry and phone calls. Renting a camper would have let us show up in most parks without a reservation, provides a kitchen, and carries luggage without reshuffling (as we did in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia). Note that roads are extra narrow in Tasmania, which might seem harrowing in a camper. We enjoyed the following hikes and sights:

  • We hiked most of the world-class Overland Track from Lake St Clair to Cradle Mountain, which provides backcountry huts and tent pads. Day hike around Dove Lake and up Cradle Mountain.
  • Mole Creek Karst National Park: On a rainy day, see massive columns and straw stalactites in King Solomon Cave.
  • Mount Field National Park: Don’t miss Russell Falls, an icon of Tasmania.
  • Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park: Walk to Nelson River and Falls. Tannins from trees color the Surprise River brown, as in many other Australian forests.
  • Freycinet National Park: Climb a rough trail to Mount Amos for a views of Coles Bay and Wineglass Bay wilderness.
  • Tasman National Park: See the Dog Line Memorial, on Eaglehawk Neck. Tessellated Pavement is a unique natural geologic wonder. An easy hike takes you to a striking view high above Cape Raoul. Tasman’s Arch was carved by the Tasman Sea.
  • Port Arthur Historic Site was an English prison from 1830-1877 on the Tasman Peninsula.
  • South Bruny Island: The Fluted Cape is a pleasant hike. Nearby in the evening, we watched cute Fairy Penguins come ashore to feed their young in sandy burrows, while predatory Shearwater birds swooped overhead.
  • Maria Island National Park:
    • Catch the ferry from Triabunna to Maria Island, Tasmania. Note the piles of chipped old growth Tasmanian forest being shipped to Japan to make high grade paper — surely they could find a farmed tree substitute instead of destroying ancient forests.
    • The Commissariate, built in 1825, is now a museum in Maria Island National Park.
    • Don’t miss the colorful sandstone Painted Cliffs walk along the shore.
    • Cape Barren Geese were introduced to Maria Island National Park in 1968 from Bass Strait Islands to help ensure their survival as a species. Now they thrive and are no longer endangered. They naturally range across the coasts and islands of southern Australia. The Cape Barren Goose, Australia’s only native goose, was first sighted on Cape Barren Island (second largest of the Furneaux Group of 52 islands, located northeast of Tasmania). Cape Barren Island has the distinction of being “the largest island of the largest island (Flinders Island) of the largest island (Tasmania) of the largest island (Australia).”

Tasmania resembles lower elevations of New Zealand and Washington. The sightseeing equivalent to Tasmania in the USA might be the state of Oregon, except for the added pleasure of unique Tasmanian and Australian wildlife and plants, isolated on a remote yet civilized island.

Victoria


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Drive two hours from Melbourne to reach Wilson’s Promontory National Park in the Gippsland region. Wilson’s Promontory, or “the Prom,” offers a beautiful variety of coastal scenery, magnificent and secluded beaches, spectacular rock formations, tidal estuaries, cool fern gullies, and an abundance of easily seen wildlife. Photographers love where tannin-stained Tidal River reflects attractive orange lichen-covered boulders and lush green forest. One night in Tidal River Campground, our camper van rocked us awake in what we though was an earthquake. The rocking soon stopped and the dark shape of a wombat (a marsupial “bear”) wandered off into the night from underneath the van, where he had been licking our tasty sink drain! We were delighted to see wallabies and the Common Brushtail Possum. Visitors also commonly see echidnas, koalas, bats and sugar-gliders.

Conservation Hill Koala Centre on Philip Island gives close views of cute, sleepy koalas. Koalas move and metabolize very slowly, resting or sleeping motionless for about 16 to 18 hours a day, and feeding on eucalyptus leaves usually at night.

Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park has nice hiking trails and an impressively rich variety of native birds and animals. Stay at Halls Gap Lakeside Caravan Park. Look for the colorful Eastern Rosella (Platycercus eximius), a parrot native to southeast Australia and Tasmania (and introduced to New Zealand where feral populations are found in the North Island). The bird can grow 30 cm long, with a red head and upper breast and white cheeks. The rest of the breast is yellow becoming more greenish toward the abdomen. The feathers of the back and shoulders are black with yellowish margins, giving rise to a scalloped appearance. The wings and lateral tail feathers are bluish while the rest of the tail is dark green.

For close contact with captive wildlife, camp at Emu Park Holiday Park, in the Wartook Valley, in the Northern Grampians.

The large Eastern Grey Kangaroo, also known as the Great Grey Kangaroo or Forester, has a soft grey coat, and is usually found in moister, more fertile areas than the Red Kangaroo. Indigenous Australian names include iyirrbir and kucha. The Eastern Grey Kangaroos live in open grassland and bushland near the major cities of the south and east coast of Australia, and are much more commonly seen than the Reds, which live in the outback. Like all kangaroos, it is mainly nocturnal and crepuscular, mostly seen at dawn or dusk.

Melba Gully park is a remnant of the rainforest which formerly covered large portions of Victoria.

Cape Otway National Park: Stay at Bimbi Caravan Park, and hike 5 miles round trip to Rainbow Falls, a stunning orange travertine waterfall on a remote coast with wild white beaches. We observed wild koalas sleeping in trees during daytime.

12 Apostles Marine National Park: Walk the beautiful wild beach at Gibson Steps. The 12 Apostles are a spectacular formation of seastack rocks (or haystacks) on the Victoria coast. The number of Apostles changes with time as old castles of sand collapse and new monuments are cut.

South Australia


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Use one company to book your camper (Apollocamper.com) or car (Bayswatercarrental.com.au) at different flight destinations to get a discount for the total length of time rented within Australia. Make sure that your Adelaide car rental agency allows you to take the car ferry to Kangaroo Island, forbidden by some.

Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island is one of the best places in Australia to view wildlife and remarkable geology. Our two nights were insufficient — a week would have been better.

  • When to go: March to May and August to October are probably the best times to visit Kangaroo Island.
  • Getting there: To save time, fly to Adelaide and rent a vehicle to visit Kangaroo Island — or fly to Kingscote Airport on Kangaroo Island if affordable.
    • Compare the cost of bringing a car on the ferry versus flying directly to Kangaroo Island and renting a car there. For one person, flying might be a better value, but for two people, driving may be better, depending on your budget.
    • Book your car ferry to Kangaroo Island several days in advance to assure a spot.
    • Avoid the fatiguing drive from Melbourne to Kangaroo Island and back, unless you driv more than our 11 days. The best scenery on the “Great Ocean Road” in Victoria is between Melbourne and Port Campbell, with the 12 Apostles as the highlight, best seen as a round trip from Melbourne.
Flinders Chase National Park
  • The campgrounds at Flinders Chase National Park are some of the best places to view wildlife in Australia.
  • Flinders Chase Visitor Centre: The adjacent campground includes hot showers. All around the Visitor Centre and adjacent campground, we admired wild Kangaroo Island Kangaroos, cute Tammar Wallabies, brushtail possums, birds, echidnas, goannas, and more. A curious Common Brushtail Possum climbed atop our camper one night as koalas screeched in trees above.
    • Reserve the campground a day or two ahead if you can, or be sure and arrive early to get a spot. Phone (08) 8559 7235 or e-mail: kiparksaccom@saugov.sa.gov.au
  • We saw eight live echidnas (a spiny mammal resembling a porcupine but hatching from eggs) along the roadside as we drove just before sunset to see the Remarkable Rocks!
  • Don’t miss capturing dramatic photographs of the Remarkable Rocks, especially at sunset. Walk the short nature trail and admire every angle of what looks like modern art in ancient stone. Remarkable Rocks originally formed as a single granite monolith and became cracked and eroded by seashore weathering.
  • Walk near sunrise and sunset to best see wildlife: Ravine des Casoars, Platypus Waterholes & Rocky River, and Snake Lagoon.
Kangaroo Island Kangaroos

Upon landing in 1802, famous explorer Captain Matthew Flinders shot the first Kangaroo Island Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus fuliginosus). Not until the 1990s did taxonomists clarify that it was a subspecies of the large brown Western Grey Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus, a marsupial mammal species in the Macropod family, Macropodidae), which lives across the southern part of Australia, from just south of Shark Bay to coastal South Australia, western Victoria, and the entire Murray-Darling Basin in New South Wales and Queensland. It breeds year round with a peak during summer months. Be cautious of kangaroos when driving roads at night.

Side trips recommended north of Adelaide
  • If you like wine, be sure to visit the Barossa Valley and other vineyard areas near Adelaide.
  • Mount Remarkable Gorges: Walk 2 days in a loop and stay in a tent. Or drive to the middle of the trail and day hike a shorter loop. I haven’t been there, but the gorges and scenery should be fascinating — best August-October.
  • Coober Pedy: opal mines, photography, history, film settings

Western Australia


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We flew to Perth from Melbourne and immediately drove our rental camper southwards towards some unique ecological areas found nowhere else on earth. Swim in the Indian Ocean from smooth sand beaches. Watch for trucks pulling double trailers called “road trains” roaring along highways.

South of Perth, the enthralling Fremantle Museum succinctly portrays a vivid vision of Western Australia history: Early pioneers made their own lives much harder by ignoring the valuable live-off-the-land knowledge of local aborigines. Australians seriously worried about possible Japanese invasion in World War II, then Europeans dispossessed by war were imported en masse to populate the large empty continent.

Further south, swim with wild bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) at the Dolphin Discovery Center in Koombana Bay, off Koombana Beach at the town of Bunbury, Western Australia. On a cloudy day, we waded into chilly water and joined a line of a dozen tourists, as a single dolphin cruised around us. Volunteers in red shirts enforce the rule of not touching or feeding the dolphins, in order to keep them wild. We would have been more impressed with this dolphin experience if the day had been warm enough to snorkel more comfortably. (Much further north of Perth you can wade in warmer waters at Monkey Mia where dolphins approach more closely in greater numbers, but feeding makes the dolphins less wild.)

On Nancy’s Peak Loop in Porongurup National Park, we explored an impressive karri tree forest. On the high point of this short loop over some 1.1-billion-year-old granite domes, we spotted a huge kite, which turned out to be a big Wedgetail Eagle gliding in a strong updraft.

The Diamond Tree is a 51 meter (167 foot) high public Fire Lookout built into a living karri tree, located 10 kilometers south of Manjimup on the South Western Highway, in Western Australia. The impressive karri trees are only found in a few small parks in south-Western Australia, and nowhere else on earth. Ascend a breathtaking a ladder of thick rebar posted into the Diamond Tree. Anyone is free to climb and access is not controlled.

Walpole-Nornalup National Park

The “Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk” is a wide ramp (suitable for baby strollers) which reaches 125 feet (38 meters) above the ground in the course of its half-mile length, passing through a forest of exceptionally tall eucalyptus trees, worth experiencing near Nornalup.

Hike to the impressive Giant Tingle Tree. The tingle is a type of eucalyptus found only in south-Western Australia and nowhere else on earth. Look for Australian pelicans on Coalmine Beach.

Australia climate and when to visit

Best weather and timing for a tour of southern Australia forests is late January through March, as we did. A separate trip to northern (monsoonal “Top End”) and interior Australia (the “Red Centre”) is best in September or October. See Lonely Planet Walking in Australia (2006) and Australian Bureau of Meteorology.

Australia destinations:

Optimal time to visit:

Climate Comments:

WESTERN AUSTRALIA, Perth

Southern WA: September-February (spring-summer)


Northern WA: September-November

Southern WA: good in spring to summer. Albany=70 high/50F low, Perth=85/63F.


Northern WA: June-August is the Dry season. (December-February is the Wet, with monsoon thunderstorms, high humidity, tropical cyclones, many roads impassable.)

VICTORIA, Melbourne

November-April

Visit Victoria’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer). Melbourne summer=77 high/55F low. Melbourne best Oct/Nov (spring). Inland best in winter.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA, Adelaide

September-November

Kangaroo Island best March-May and August-October. Hiking best in spring. Inland best in winter.

NEW SOUTH WALES (NSW), Sydney

all year

Good hiking in Kuscuiscko National Park and Australian Alps in Jan-March (summer), but hot at lower elevations. Sydney=77 high/66F low in February, 75/65F March. Inland best in winter.

CAPITAL TERRITORY, Canberra

spring-summer (September-February)

Visit Canberra’s Australian Alps in January-March (summer).

TASMANIA

October-April

Best weather is in March/April, with beech fall color. Jan/Feb/March has lowest rain in Cradle Valley.
December-March is peak tourist season.  Few tourists come in November, sometimes warm, but storms arrive weekly.

QUEENSLAND

May-October

March-November is best walking season in the Top End and Great Barrier Reef.  (Jan-March is the Wet in northern coastal areas, 91F and very humid.)  In Brisbane and southern Queensland, walking in summer (Dec-Feb) is okay but not ideal.

NORTHERN TERRITORY

May-October

April-October is the Dry season. The Red Centre and Uluru have best weather April-June (fall). September-October can have wildflowers in Centre.
(November-March is the Wet).

Recommended books for Australia

Search for latest Australia travel books at Amazon.com.

2011: 2006: 2011: 2012: 2011: 2001: 1988:

Fiction:

1950/2010: Movie on VHS tape: 2008 DVD:

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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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