Life in New Zealand is tied to the Great Outdoors, and no visit to the country would be complete without spending a fair chunk of your time in intimate contact with nature.
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Kiwis have long taken it for granted that within a few minutes’ drive of their home they can find a deserted beach or piece of “bush” and wander freely through it, an attitude enshrined in a fabulous collection of national, forest and maritime parks. They are all administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC; w doc.govt.nz), which seeks to balance the maintenance of a fragile environment with the demands of tourism. For the most part it manages remarkably well, providing a superb network of signposted paths studded with trampers’ huts, and operating visitor centres that present highly informative material about the local history, flora and fauna. They also publish excellent leaflets (downloadable online) for major walking tracks.
The lofty peaks of the Southern Alps offer challenging mountaineering and great skiing, while the lower slopes are ideal for multi-day tramps which cross low passes between valleys choked with subtropical and temperate rainforests. Along the coasts there are sheltered lagoons and calm harbours for gentle swimming and boating, but also sweeping strands battered by some top-class surf.
The country also promotes itself as the adventure tourism capital of the world. All over New Zealand you’ll find places to bungy jump, whitewater or cave raft, jetboat, tandem skydive, mountain bike, scuba dive and much more – if you name it someone somewhere organizes it. While thousands of people participate in these activities every day without incident, standards of instructor training vary. It seems to be a point of honour for operators, instructors and guides to put the wind up you as much as possible. Such bravado shouldn’t be interpreted as a genuine disregard for safety, but the fact remains that there have been a few well-publicized injuries and deaths – a tragic situation that’s addressed by industry-regulated codes of practice, an independent system of accreditation and home-grown organizations that insist upon high levels of professionalism and safety instruction.
Before engaging in any adventure activities, check your insurance cover.
Tramping, trekking, bushwalking, hiking – call it what you will, it is one of the most compelling reasons to visit New Zealand, and for many the sole objective.
Hikes typically last three to five days, following well-worn trails through relatively untouched wilderness, often in one of the country’s national parks. Along the way you’ll be either camping out or staying in trampers’ huts, and will consequently be lugging a pack over some rugged terrain, so a moderate level of fitness is required. If this sounds daunting, you can sign up with one of the guided tramping companies that maintain more salubrious huts or luxury lodges, provide meals and carry much of your gear. Details are given throughout the guide.
The main tramping season is in summer, from October to May, although the most popular tramps – the Milford, Routeburn and Kepler – are in the cooler southern half of the South Island, where the season is shorter by a few weeks at either end.
Rugged terrain and a history of track-bashing by explorers and deer hunters has left New Zealand with a web of tramps following river valleys and linking up over passes, high above the bushline. As far as possible, we’ve indicated the degree of difficulty of all tramps covered in the guide, broadly following DOC’s classification system: a path is level, well graded and often wheelchair-accessible; walking tracks and tramping tracks (usually way-marked with red and white or orange flashes on trees) are respectively more arduous affairs requiring some fitness and proper walking equipment; and a route requires considerable tramping experience to cope with an ill-defined trail, frequently above the bushline. DOC’s estimated walking times can trip you up: along paths likely to be used by families, for example, you can easily find yourself finishing in under half the time specified, but on serious routes aimed at fit trampers you might struggle to keep pace. We’ve given estimates for moderately fit individuals and, where possible, included the distance and amount of climbing involved, aiding route planning.
Invaluable information on walking directions, details of access, huts and an adequate map are contained in the excellent DOC tramp leaflets (usually $1 apiece). The title of each leaflet relating to an area is included in the appropriate places throughout this book, though we only include the price if it is $2 or over. Many are also available free online at w doc.govt.nz.
The maps in each DOC leaflet should be sufficient for trampers sticking to the designated route, but experienced walkers planning independent routes and folk after a more detailed vision of the terrain should fork out for specialized maps that identify all the features along the way. Most trampers’ huts have a copy of the local area map pinned to the wall or laminated into the table. In describing tramps we have used “true directions” in relation to rivers and streams, whereby the left bank (the “true left”) is the left-hand side of the river looking downstream.
Eight of New Zealand’s finest, most popular tramps, plus one river journey, have been classified by DOC as Great Walks and are covered in detail in the guide. Great Walks get the lion’s share of DOC track spending, resulting in relatively smooth, broad walkways, with boardwalks over muddy sections and bridges over almost every stream – a sanitized side of New Zealand tramping.
Access to tracks is seldom a problem in the most popular tramping regions, though it does require planning. Most finish some distance from their start, so taking your own vehicle is not much use; besides, cars parked at trailheads are an open invitation to thieves. Great Walks always have transport from the nearest town, but there are often equally stunning and barely used tramps close by which require a little more patience and tenacity to get to – we’ve included some of the best of the rest in the guide, listed under “Tramps” in the index.
Backcountry accommodation: huts and camping
New Zealand’s backcountry is strung with a network of almost nine hundred trampers’ huts, sited less than a day’s walk apart, frequently in beautiful surroundings. All are simple, communal affairs that fall into five distinct categories as defined by DOC.
Basic Huts (free) are often crude and rarely encountered on the major tramps. Next up is the Standard Hut ($5.10/person/night): basic, weatherproof, usually equipped with individual bunks or sleeping platforms accommodating a dozen or so, an external long-drop toilet and a water supply. There is seldom any heating and there are no cooking facilities. Serviced Huts ($15.30) tend to be larger, sleeping twenty or more on bunks with mattresses. Water is piped indoors to a sink, and flush toilets are occasionally encountered. Again, you’ll need to bring your own stove and cooking gear, but heating is provided; if the fire is a wood-burning one, you should replace any firewood you use. More sophisticated still are the Great Walk Huts, found along the Great Walks. They tend to have separate bunkrooms, gas rings for cooking (but no utensils), stoves for heating, a drying room and occasionally solar-powered lighting. Great Walks huts cost $15–52 per adult per night. Children of school age generally pay half the adult fee and, thanks to a DOC initiative, under-18s can now use Great Walk huts and campsites for free – though you must still book in advance.
Hut fees are best paid in advance online, at the local DOC office, visitor centre or other outlet close to the start of the track. If you’re planning to tramp any of the Great Walks you must buy a Great Walks Hut Pass, covering the cost of your accommodation for the walk you intend to complete, and carry the confirmation with you, otherwise the wardens will charge you for each hut again. The pass and reservation, made simultaneously, guarantee trekkers a bed on the Kepler, Milford, Routeburn, Abel Tasman and Heaphy. No similar reservation is made with a hut pass bought for the remaining Great Walks, primarily because it’s considered very unlikely that each hut will fill up.
To get more information about the Great Walks and other tramps, check w tramper.co.nz.
In winter (May–Sept) the huts on Great Walks are often stripped of heating and cooking facilities and downgraded to Standard status, so if you have a Hut Pass you can use them, though possessing the pass or a ticket doesn’t guarantee you a bunk; beds go on a first-come-first-served basis.
Should you wish to do a lot of tramping outside the Great Walks system, or on the Great Walks out of season, it’s worth buying a Backcountry Hut Pass ($122.60 for 12 months; $92 for 6 months), which allows you to stay in all Standard and Serviced huts.
Camping is allowed on all tracks except the Milford. Rules vary, but in most cases you’re required to minimize environmental impact by camping close to the huts, whose facilities (toilets, water and gas rings where available) you can use.
Tramping in New Zealand can be a dangerous and/or dispiriting experience if you’re not equipped for both hot, sunny days and wet, cold and windy weather, as conditions can change rapidly. The best tramps pass through some of the world’s wettest regions, with parts of the Milford Track receiving over 6m of rain a year. It’s essential to carry a good waterproof jacket. Keeping your lower half dry is less crucial and many Kiwis tramp in shorts. Early starts often involve wading through long, sodden grass, so a pair of knee-length gaiters can be useful. Comfortable boots with good ankle support are a must; take suitably broken-in leather boots or lightweight walking boots, and some comfortable footwear for the day’s end. You’ll also need a warm jacket or jumper, plus a good sleeping bag; even the heated huts are cold at night and a warm hat never goes amiss. All this, along with lighter clothing for sunny days, should be kept inside a robust backpack, preferably lined with a strong waterproof liner such as those sold at DOC offices.
Once on the tramp, you need to be totally self-sufficient. On Great Walks, you should carry cooking gear; on other tramps you also need a cooking stove and fuel. Food can be your heaviest burden; freeze-dried meals are light and reasonably tasty but expensive; many cost-conscious trampers prefer pasta or rice, dried soups for sauces, a handful of fresh vegetables, muesli, milk powder and bread or crackers for lunch. Consider taking biscuits, trail mix (known as “scroggin”), tea, coffee and powdered fruit drinks (the Raro brand is good), and energy-boosting spreads. All huts have drinking water but DOC advise treating water taken from lakes and rivers to protect yourself from giardia for more on this and water-purification methods.
You should also carry basic supplies: a first aid kit, blister kit, sunscreen, insect repellent; a torch (flashlight) with spare battery and bulb, candles, matches or a lighter; and a compass (though few bother on the better-marked tracks).
In the most popular tramping areas you will be able to rent equipment. Most important of all, remember that you’ll have to carry all this stuff for hours each day. Hotels and hostels in nearby towns will generally let you leave your surplus gear either free or for a small fee.
Most people spend days or weeks tramping in New Zealand with nothing worse than stiff legs and a few sandfly bites, but safety is nonetheless a serious issue and deaths occur every year. The culprit is usually New Zealand’s fickle weather. It cannot be stressed too strongly that within an hour (even in high summer) a warm, cloudless day can turn bitterly cold, with high winds driving in thick banks of track-obscuring cloud. Heeding the weather forecast (posted in DOC offices) is crucial, as is carrying warm, windproof and waterproof clothing.
Failed river crossings are also a common cause of tramping fatalities. If you are confronted with something that looks too dangerous to cross, then it is, and you should wait until the level falls or backtrack. If the worst happens and you get swept away while crossing, don’t try to stand up; you may trap your leg between rocks and drown. Instead, lie on your back and float feet first until you reach a place where swimming to the bank is feasible.
If you do get lost or injured, your chances of being found are better if you’ve left word of your intentions with a friend or with a trusted person at your next port of call, who will realize you are overdue. DOC make no attempt to track hikers so make your intentions clear to friends by using w adventuresmart.org.nz., but by the time they’re checked you could have been missing too long for it to matter. While on the tramp, fill in the hut logs as you go, so that your movements can be traced, and check in with the folk you told about the trip on your return.
Animals are not a problem in the bush, the biggest irritants being sandflies whose bites itch (often insufferably), or kea, alpine parrots that delight in pinching anything they can get their beaks into and tearing it apart to fulfil their curiosity.
Swimming, surfing and windsurfing
Kiwi life is inextricably linked with the beach, and from Christmas to the end of March (longer in warmer northern climes), a weekend isn’t complete without a dip or a waterside barbecue – though you should never underestimate the ferocity of the southern sun. Some of the most picturesque beaches stretch away into salt spray from the pounding Tasman surf or Pacific rollers. Swimming here can be very hazardous, so only venture into the water at beaches patrolled by surf lifesaving clubs and always swim between the flags. Spotter planes patrol the most popular beaches and warn of the occasional shark, so if you notice everyone heading for the safety of the beach, get out of the water.
New Zealand’s coastline offers near-perfect conditions for surfing and windsurfing. At major beach resorts there is often an outlet renting dinghies, catamarans, canoes and windsurfers; in regions where there is reliably good surf you might also come across boogie boards and surfboards, and seaside hostels often have a couple for guests’ use. For more information, see w surf.co.nz and w surf2surf.co.nz.
New Zealand’s numerous harbours, studded with small islands and ringed with deserted bays, make sailing a favourite pursuit, which explains why New Zealand and Kiwi sailors have been so influential in the fate of the America’s Cup. People sail year-round, but the summer months from December to March are busiest. Unless you befriend a yachtie you’ll probably be limited to commercial yacht charters (expensive and with a skipper), more reasonably priced and often excellent day-sailing trips, or renting a dinghy for some inshore antics.
Scuba diving and snorkelling
The waters around New Zealand offer wonderful opportunities to scuba dive and snorkel. What they lack in long-distance visibility, tropical warmth and colourful fish they make up for with the range of diving environments. Pretty much anywhere along the more sheltered eastern side of both islands you’ll find somewhere with rewarding snorkelling, but much the best and most accessible spot is the Goat Island Marine Reserve, in Northland, where there’s a superb range of habitats close to the shore. Northland also has world-class scuba diving at the Poor Knights Islands Marine Reserve, reached by boat from Tutukaka, and wreck diving on the Rainbow Warrior, from Matauri Bay, plus a stack of good sites around Great Barrier Island. On the South Island, there are wrecks worth exploring off Picton and fabulous growths of black and red corals relatively close to the surface, in the southwestern fiords near Milford.
For the inexperienced, the easiest way to get a taste of what’s under the surface is to take a resort dive with an instructor. If you want to dive independently, you need to be PADI-qualified. For more information consult w divenewzealand.com.
The combination of challenging rapids and gorgeous scenery makes whitewater rafting one of New Zealand’s most thrilling adventure activities. Visitor numbers and weather restrict the main rafting season to October to May, and most companies set an age limit at 12. You’ll usually be supplied with everything except a swimming costume and an old pair of trainers and, after safety instruction, spend a couple of hours or so on the water.
Thrilling though it is, rafting is also one of the most dangerous of the adventure activities, claiming a number of lives in recent years. Operators have a self-imposed code of practice, but there are still cowboys out there. It might be stating the obvious but fatalities happen when people fall out of rafts: heed the guide’s instructions about how best to stay on board and how to protect yourself if you do get a dunking.
Canoeing and kayaking
New Zealand is a paddler’s paradise, and pretty much anywhere with water nearby has somewhere you can rent either canoes or kayaks. Sometimes this is simply an opportunity to muck around in boats but often there are guided trips available, with the emphasis being on soaking up the scenery. The scenic Whanganui River is a perennial favourite.
The shallow, braided rivers of the high Canterbury sheep country posed access difficulties for run-owner Bill Hamilton, who got around the problem by inventing the Hamilton Jetboat in the early 1960s. His inspired invention could plane in as little as 100mm of water, reach prodigious speeds (up to 80km/hr) and negotiate rapids while maintaining astonishing, turn-on-a-sixpence manoeuvrability.
The jetboat carried its first fare-paying passengers on a deep and glassy section of the Shotover River, which is still used by the pioneering Shotover Jet. Rides last around thirty eye-streaming minutes, time enough for hot dogging and as many 360-degree spins as anyone needs. Wilderness trips can last two hours or longer.
Bungy jumping and bridge swinging
For maximum adrenaline, minimum risk and greatest expense, bungy jumping is difficult to beat. Commercial bungy jumping was pioneered by Kiwi speed skiers A.J. Hackett and Henry Van Asch. They began pushing the bungy boundaries, culminating in Hackett’s jump from the Eiffel Tower in 1987. He was promptly arrested, but the publicity sparked worldwide interest that continues to draw bungy aspirants to New Zealand’s sites – some of the world’s best, with bridges over deep canyons and platforms cantilevered out over rivers. The first commercial operation was set up just outside Queenstown on the 43m Kawerau Suspension Bridge. Its accessible location and the chance to be dunked in the river make this the most popular jump of many on both islands. For a bit of variety you could try a close relative of the bungy, bridge swinging, which provides a similar gut-wrenching fall accompanied by a super-fast swing along a gorge while harnessed to a cable.
The easiest way to get your hands on New Zealand rock is to go canyoning (or its near relative by the sea, coasteering), which involves following steep and confined river gorges or streambeds down chutes and over waterfalls for a few hours, sliding, jumping and abseiling all the way. Guided trips are available in a handful of places, the most accessible being in Auckland, Queenstown, Turangi and Wanaka.
In the main, New Zealand is better suited to mountaineering than rock climbing, though most of what is available is fairly serious stuff, suitable only for well-equipped parties with a good deal of experience. For most people the only way to get above the snowline is to tackle the easy summit of Mount Ruapehu, the North Island’s highest point, the summit of Mount Taranaki, near New Plymouth, or pay for a guided ascent of one of the country’s classic peaks. Prime candidates are New Zealand’s highest mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook (3754m), accessed from the climbers’ heartland of Aoraki/Mount Cook Village, and the nation’s most beautiful peak, the pyramidal Mount Aspiring (3030m), approached from Wanaka. In both cases networks of climbers’ huts are used as bases for what are typically twenty-hour attempts on the summit.
Flying, skydiving and paragliding
Almost every town in New Zealand seems to harbour an airstrip or a helipad, and there’s inevitably someone happy to get you airborne for half an hour’s flightseeing. Helicopters cost around fifty percent more than planes and can’t cover the same distances but score on manoeuvrability and the chance to land. If money is tight take a regular flight somewhere you want to go anyway. First choice here would have to be the journey from either Wanaka or Queenstown to Milford Sound, which overflies the very best of Fiordland.
In tandem skydiving, a double harness links you to an instructor, who has control of the parachute. The plane circles up to around 2500m and after you leap out together, you experience around 45 seconds of eerie freefall before the instructor pulls the ripcord.
Tandem paragliding involves you and an instructor jointly launching off a hilltop, slung below a manoeuvrable parachute, for perhaps ten to twenty minutes of graceful gliding and stomach-churning banked turns. Alternatively tandem hang-gliding or parasailing are usually available.
Skiing and snowboarding
New Zealand’s ski season (roughly June–Oct) starts as snows on northern hemisphere slopes melt away, which, combined with the South Island’s backbone of 3000m peaks, the North Island’s equally lofty volcanoes and the relative cheapness of the skiing, means New Zealand is an increasingly popular international ski destination. Most fields are geared to the domestic downhill market, and the eastern side of the Southern Alps is littered with club fields sporting a handful of rope tows, simple lifts and a motley collection of private ski lodges. They’re open to all-comers, but some are only accessible by 4WD vehicles, others have a long walk in, and ski schools are almost unheard of. Throughout the country there are, however, a dozen exceptions to this norm: commercial resorts, with high-speed chairs, ski schools, gear rental and groomed wide-open slopes. What you won’t find are massive on-site resorts of the scale found in North America and Europe; skiers commute daily to the slopes from nearby après-ski towns and gear rental is either from shops in these or on the field.
The main North Island ski-fields include the country’s two largest and most popular skiing destinations, Turoa and Whakapapa, both on the volcanic Mount Ruapehu.
On the South Island, the west coast of the Southern Alps offers a variety of glacier-climbing experiences on the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers. On the other side of the Alps you can shoot up to Mount Cook and take a boat or a kayak to the foot of a glacier and watch the ice crumble. Mix all this in with the party atmosphere and uncrowded runs on the commercial ski-fields – Coronet Peak and The Remarkables by Queenstown; Treble Cone, Cardrona and the Waiorau Snow Farm near Wanaka; and Porter Heights and Mount Hutt, both within two hours’ drive of Christchurch – and you’re guaranteed a memorable time, as well as some of the most spectacular snow-dusted scenery you’ll ever see.
The best up-to-date source of skiing information is the annual Ski & Snowboard Guide published by Brown Bear Publications. It is freely downloadable from the website, and the printed guide can be picked up from visitor centres ($5). For each field it gives a detailed rundown of facilities, season length, lift ticket prices and an indication of suitability for beginners, intermediates and advanced skiers. Heli-skiing is also dealt with and there’s coverage of the main ski towns. Another website for all things skiing in New Zealand is w snow.co.nz.
All around the coast there are low-key canoe, yacht and launch trips on which there is always time for a little casual fishing, but you’ll also find plenty of trips aimed at more dedicated anglers. From December to May these scout the seas off the northern half of the North Island for marlin, shark and tuna. Regulations and bag limits are covered on the Ministry of Fisheries website, w fish.govt.nz.
Inland, the rivers and lakes are choked with rainbow and brown trout, quinnat and Atlantic salmon, all introduced for sport at the end of the nineteenth century. Certain areas have gained enviable reputations: Lake Taupo is world-renowned for its rainbow trout; South Island rivers, particularly around Gore, boast the finest brown trout; and the braided gravel-bed rivers draining the eastern slopes of the Southern Alps bear superb salmon.
A national fishing licence ($113 for the year from Oct 1–Sept 30, $22.50/24hr) covers all New Zealand’s lakes and rivers except for those in the Taupo catchment area, where a local licensing arrangement applies. They’re available from sports shops everywhere and directly from Fish and Game New Zealand (w fishandgame.org.nz), the agency responsible for managing freshwater sports fisheries. The website also lists bag limits and local regulations.
Wherever you fish, regulations are taken seriously and are rigidly enforced. If you’re found with an undersize catch or an over-full bag, heavy fines may be imposed and equipment confiscated. Other fishy websites include w fishinginnewzealand.com and w fishing.net.nz.
New Zealand’s highly urbanized population leaves a huge amount of countryside available for horse trekking, occasionally along beaches, often through patches of native bush and tracts of farmland. There are schools everywhere and all levels of experience are catered for, but more experienced riders might prefer the greater scope of full-day or even week-long wilderness treks (see Multi-day tours). We’ve highlighted some noteworthy places and operators throughout the guide, and there’s a smattering of others listed at w truenz.co.nz/horsetrekking.
You’ll find a stack of places renting mountain bikes. The main trail-biking areas around Rotorua, Queenstown, Mount Cook and Hanmer Springs will often have a couple of companies willing to take you out on guided rides. For information about Kiwi off-road biking consult w mountainbike.co.nz.