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New Zealand hiking Jan/Feb 2020

This country has been on my list for quite a few years now but didn’t get the chance to hike it with anyone I knew until 2 of my good long-distance hiking friends from the US told me they were going.
Jan/Feb is not a good time for me to get away but, I set aside the time and said  I’m going!

Dennis is a fellow long-distance hiker from PA but lived in Alaska for 37 years working on the pipeline up there. He retired a year or so ago and was anxious to get back into some good trials. He went to Kiwi-land last year and fell in love with it. I had met him on my PCT hike, back in ’96 and kept in touch. So we sent each other lots of info as to what we had been up to lately and I told him, since he knows the islands of NZ, he can determine where we go.
We met in Christchurch around Jan 18th. I got in at 2 AM and he had a room booked downtown at the Isis.    We stayed up talking until dawn that first night as we hadn’t seen each other in about 18 years. Lots of good memories and in the morning, he showed me his favorite breakfast place:  Route 66. Played American music from the ’50s mostly and we chowed down on some bacon and eggs and toast with bottomless cups of coffee. We then enjoyed the great Botanical gardens right in the heart of the city but also saw a lot of earthquake damage all over the center city.

Later that day, we got a bus down to Sumner beach where we watched the surfers, got a Donald Trump hot dog, and leisurely got some walking in after the long flights to get there.   

Dennis had booked a train to get over to the west side of the south island and Westport. So, we boarded in the morning and went up and over Arthur’s pass, where the train stopped to stretch our legs.
The trains in NZ are great 4 people to a table, facing each other, with a dining car and huge windows to enjoy all the beautiful scenery. 

Got into the town of Greymouth after the scenic train ride and once again, Dennis had booked us in a place he had stayed last year in a campground about 7 kms from the train station.  Felt good to stretch the legs after all the flights, buses, trains etc.    We came here to hike, so, best to be in shape.    We did pass a nice microbrewery on the way, so stopped in for a pint.   

The campgrounds in NZ are great.   There are barbecue grills (propane) for anyone to use, a kitchen area, and also hotel rooms, complete with a kitchenette.     So, I cooked up some steaks on the grill and socialized a bit with a German man and English woman who were driving all around the south island.

We then took a bus up to Westport, near where we would start the 1st hike.  Following the west coast, the bus stopped at a very scenic outcropping called Pancake Rocks.   We took the loop trail and I finally bought a hat (I’d been searching for the right one for a while and didn’t really want to spend $79 for one.   I found one here for $5 and it was lightweight and crushable) 

In Westport, I had my first mutton or lamb and I got the shank. It was huge, and delicious.   Not sure why lamb is not popular in the US, but it’s good red meat and much better for you than beef.   It was good and filled me up.

But soon, time to walk and we met our shuttle driver the next morning and he drove us the 50 kms or so to the trailhead for our first hike, and one of the “Great Walks”

There are 10 “Great Walks” in NZ and they must meet a certain standard to become one.The trails are maintained, graded for easy hiking, and have huts or cabins along the way. The first one we hiked was called the

“Old Ghost Road”. 

And we started at the southern end at Lyell.  A long-ago abandoned town from the gold mining days.

Now, I’ve heard a lot about these “sand flies” but hadn’t really experienced them until we got out of the shuttle van.   Ready to walk but here they were!    As you can see from the picture, we had shorts on and when I asked the shuttle drivers what they use for bug spray, they said, we just wear long pants and long sleeve shirts.    Didn’t take me long to change into long pants!

The “Old Ghost Road” trek is one of the longest “Great Walks” and is accessible for mountain bikes also. It started out with an all-day uphill of about 20 km.

We only saw 5 other people on the trail that first day and they were all bikers. At the first hut, we did meet some Kiwi hikers at the cabin. We tented out that night amidst the ever-biting sand flies.  But my new tent worked great at keeping them out.

As you can see from the picture above, they recommended we use the wooden tent platforms to keep the area looking natural.    Luckily, I have in my pack, about 8 cup holders or eye hooks for this purpose and we needed them.   Dennis didn’t have any so we shared and put our tents back to back.     The hut looked nice but we hadn’t paid the big bucks for a bunk, only a tent site.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed out early as was our custom.  We learned our hiking technique from long-distance hiking which is more about walking and “time on the trail” rather than “time in camp”

Again, we saw no hikers on the trail that day, but what a beautiful trail it was.   I commented (numerous times) that it reminded me of Disneyworld.   Because everything was so perfect.  (except for the sandflies)

Later that day, we came upon an emergency shelter that was brand new and had a cell phone nailed to a post to show you that there was a cell phone signal here, which was rare. So, I sent off a few pics to my FB friends and we had a nice lunch there.     

A short time after lunch, we heard a loud (real loud) explosion that sounded pretty close. 200 meters up the trail, we saw a sign warning about possible blasting in the area as they were making the trail wider. Lots of heavy equipment on the trail and then we saw 2 workers who were having lunch. Sitting down with them, we learned a lot. One of them was a founder of this trail and had spent quite a few years working on it. They get around on motorcycles and sleep in special huts designated for them. One week on, one week off.

We talked a lot about the area as well as Alaska because they were fascinated with Alaska and one of them was heading there in July. They had a gold fever and he was hoping to pan some gold there.  All was good until I said something about the grizzly bears!  WHAT? They said. Yeah, Griz is about in Alaska and you’d better carry bear spray.
NZ is unique because there are no wild mammals.  No snakes, nothing poisonous.  Nothing to worry about except the many rivers you have to ford and the numerous cliffs as the mountains are so steep.

Of course, settlers have brought wild animals to NZ but they are trying to get rid of all of them. There are signs around saying not to touch the green pellets, they are poison, put out to kill the wildlife. Also, they inject poison into sheep and drop them around the country from helicopters.

The one mammal they are having a hard time with is rats. So, there are wooden rat traps along all the trails. We saw hundreds of them. But a wooden trap can only catch one at a time. So, now they have a new kind of trap that they hang in a tree and bait it so the rat climbs up and triggers an electric eye to send a spike down through its head and it falls a meter or so to the ground. 

We spent 4 days hiking the “Old Ghost Road” and never saw another hiker on the trail.  We did see bikers and they had to be experienced bikers because some of the bridges were long and swinging and some of the trails were just a narrow ledge on a cliff. I wouldn’t want to bike it. I know that. But it was a very scenic trail in quite a wild country.

The trail ends at a beautiful, wooden decorated restaurant/bar/Bnb called the “Rough and Tumble Lodge”

We were told it was built by an American who did so much to turn the idea of this trail into a reality.  He sure must have been a work-a-holic because both the trail and the building here at the end of it were spectacular!

Down the road, a few km is a tiny town called Seddonville.   It is really just a bar/restaurant and we stopped in there too.   The Aussie open tennis tournament was on and Djokavic was playing Federer so, we spent a few hours in there. I remember I ordered the sausage. I got a plate with a hunk of sausage.  No utensils, no condiments, no bun.   Just sausage. I asked if there was any mustard or something to put on it. The barkeep said something like “only folks who want to hide the taste of the sausage put mustard on it” He was a funny guy and I must say, everyone, we met in the 3 1/2 weeks I was in NZ were the friendliest people you could imagine. Everyone seemed to go out of their way to help you or give you directions etc. Great country!

Since it was a Sunday, no shuttle’s running that day, so we tried hitchhiking. Took us over an hour as there was not much traffic and we needed to go about 70 kms to the next town.  Finally, a girl picked us up and here she was a DJ, so, I got to talk some shop with her over equipment and types of music, etc.

She took us right where we wanted to go after about an hour’s drive on the very windy road. To a beautiful hotel in the town of Karamea. Good supermarket here and we stocked up with about 4 days of food for our next hike, which would be another “Great Walk”, this one called the:

“Heaphy Track”.

Once again we did it Northbound, starting at Kohaihai, where we got dropped off by the shuttle driver. Most people do this trail in the other direction. In the 3 days, we took to hike the 78 kms. We only saw 3 other people going in the same direction as us. But saw at least 200 going the other way.

Another beautiful trail, groomed like DisneyWorld, and so scenic!

Our first stop was at the Heaphy River hut at the mouth of the famous river. What a view from this place!    We had a good lunch here and met the 3 others going in our direction. We ended up spending the night with them at a hut on a tributary of this big river, complete with a swimming hole. (very welcomed on a hot day!)

We did see some trail crew again today on motorcycles.   Lots of maintenance going on to keep these trails in tip-top shape.  

And I saw the biggest Fiddlehead ever on this day! 

Nearby, just to show you how everyone gets along down here in Kiwi-land, we saw 4 families of aquatic birds sharing a shrub tree along the river bank. All had nests with young. Makes you wonder. Was this one big clan?  Grandma and grandpa as well as cousins? Who knows, but it did attract lots of attention. Beautiful trail. All the way. With huge trees, lots of moss hanging from them, vines you wanted to swing on, but no wild animals. Seemed strange. 

Climbing again, we came up to one of the most beautiful huts we saw on any of the trails. This was a fairly new one and near the top of a mountain. Called the MaKay hut, it was very modern, incredible views and nice and warm on a cold day this time. 

Again, we only had lunch here as we normally walked 3 huts in a day because we start early and hike till supper time normally. People often comment that our packs look small. I guess one reason is because we only need 3 days food and they might take a week’s worth. We do carry tents though because we would rather sleep in them then with a bunch of snoring, late-night owls, or crowded rooms. That’s our style and I guess, once again, we learned it from our long distance experiences.     NZ seems to have the European style where most hikers sleep in cabins and bunks and don’t carry tents. Different strokes for different folks! No problem. More choice tent sites for us. 

On our 3rd day, we saw some interesting birds. Dennis said they were quite rare and we tried to get good pictures but couldn’t get very close.
This was a beautiful section with lots of caves. I used to do some spelunking when I was much younger, but get a bit claustrophobic in them now, so, we passed them by. We did meet some European’s who were exploring some caves in this area. 

Big downhill to the northern end where we were hoping to catch a shuttle.   Sure enough, after waiting only about 30 minutes, here comes a van dropping off some folks from Wyoming. Lucky for us, so we got a ride back and all the way to my favorite town we visited in NZ:

Takaka

This was a bit of a Hippy town with lots of dreadlocked people, many Bohemian-style shops selling long dresses and colorful clothes and trinkets. Dennis had been here before and we headed to his favorite restaurant/bar for dinner.

We stayed at an awesome bed and breakfast here in Takaka. He restored an old medical center/doctors office and it was full of artwork, and nooks and crannies, and just awesome things everywhere you look.

That’s part of breakfast in the middle (above). After eating, he loaned us his car and we did a little sightseeing as there are a few unique things around this town. First, we went to an artesian well that is so big, and clear, that it forms a river. Another guest from the BnB joined us.     

Yes, Takaka was our favorite town in NZ but, while searching the weather in the southern part of the south island, down around the Kepler track and Milford sound, where we were hoping to tramp next,  we found out a HUGE storm was coming and about to hit there in a day or two.

Now I hadn’t experienced much of the rain I had heard so much about in NZ, but Dennis assured me, this was a big one. So we quickly looked for other options and saw a few trails up in the north island, where neither of us had ever been before.
So, we booked buses, and flights, and more buses and went on a scenic ride up to the town of Nelson, near the top of the south island.
A friend had told me that Nelson was a cool town, so when we got there, we walked all around town, only to discover that this town is very much like a European city with its sidewalk cafes everywhere and international food.
So, we had an Italian dinner on the sidewalk and listened to some live music while eating.

Then we flew up to Aukland

where we switched planes and continued down to the town of Taupo, which is a town smack in the center of north island on the shores of a big lake by the same name.

Had a great breakfast across the street from the bus station and I-site location.   These I-sites are great.   Very helpful staff to assist tourists in any and all questions and possibilities for traveling, hiking, hotel recommendations, etc.   We used them often and they even give you a free hour of WIFI while you hang around.
We discussed out plans and decided it was a good one, to go hike 2 trails nearby:
In the nearby Tongariro National Park,  there are a few trails, one being a “Great Walk” but a very popular one. (as I said before, this is a bit of a turnoff for us as we preferred not so many other hikers.

So, we decided to do the “Round the Mountain” trek or tramp first as it was not a great walk and not so popular.

There are 12 volcanoes in the area and a few of them quite active with the last eruption only 20 years ago in 1997 I believe.
It is a beautiful area and lots of shuttle drivers ready to take you up there into the mountains (for $50 NZ each from the town of Tongariro.    So we hopped on a bus, and a shuttle, and got up into the mountains to start our next hike:

      

Round the Mountain Trek 

This trail starts out near the small village of Wakapapa.

This is not really a town. Just an I-site cabin with some hiking supplies, a campground and a 5 star resort. After paying the $23/night, we set up our tents, charged our phones, and cooked up some grub. A few other tents set up nearby and we learned a bit more about other options in NZ. They were mostly going to the other trail we were going to hit, after our “Round the Mtn” tramp.

We got up early, as is our custom, and headed out on the trail.   Passing through nice conifer forests with many bridges to cross the sulfur smelling creeks (remember this water is all coming off the volcanoes, and we were warned not to drink it)

Once we got to the first hut, or cabin (only about 2 hours out, the pretty boardwalks pretty much ended and the trail got quite tough with just posts to direct you where you should hike.

We did meet a big group at a water crossing.  They were out for a day hike, and I asked if everyone was treating the water as it seemed to be coming right from the glaciers we could see on the mountain.     One guy said he was just drinking it.   I seldom treat water, unless I know there are people living above the source, so I started drinking it without treating it also.

The trail got tougher and tougher. Simply because they didn’t build many trails in here, just flagged a route and went up and down over the many moraines.     Slippery, black dirt, and small lava and rocks made it tougher.    But beautiful scenery as the Mt Naugaruhoe mountain was full of glaciers.
We spent 3 days circumventing this beautiful mountain.    About 1/3 of the river or stream crossings had bridges, but the smaller ones did not.
One, in particular, was quite scary as we had been seeing this long waterfall for at least a day and sure enough, we had to cross it up above one of the major drops.    The rock in the creek was silica and looked just like ice. The drop-off was about 30-50 meters just below where they expected you to cross and I didn’t feel comfortable at all crossing there.
But Dennis had sticks (trekking poles) and tested it and said it wasn’t slippery rock, it just looked that way.

Whew.  A sigh of relief after getting across that one.

We slept in one of the huts that night and called our mutual friend: Pieps, whom we’ve both done a LOT of hiking with, back in CO.     We talked for at least 30 minutes as cell phone reception was good here.

The next day was Super Bowl Sunday and I’m a big NFL (American football) fan.    So we were resting on top of a moraine, seeing the big river and our route below us, when my phone beeped.  Ahh, phone signal.
It was a good friend of mine back in Thailand who was texting me about the game.  Turns out there were only about 3 minutes left in the game (which can easily turn into 30-40 minutes if you know American football), and he was telling me I should stay in touch to find out the ending.   But Dennis already headed down and there was a big river down there.
For safety reasons, we always stick fairly close together when fording because some of these fords can be dangerous.   So, I said, I can’t and I headed down also.

Turns out we had some beautiful desert hiking not long after this and got to a hut with 3 other hikers. We had seen 3 hikers on the trail that morning, so, these 6 were the only other hikers we saw in the 3 days on the “Round the Mountain” trek.

That was all soon to change, however. The next morning, after a beautiful sunrise from the hut,

and after about 3 hours of hiking, we hit one of the biggest huts in all of NZ and a brand new one. The Waihohonu Hut!

Of course the “Crack of Nooners” was still there and there were plenty of them.

We had planned to stay at this hut but didn’t feel all that comfortable around the crowds, so the hut master guy told us if we were tenting, we could pretty much stay at any hut we wanted to, even though we had reservations at this one.

We continued on as we were in pretty good shape by now and the trail was now one of the “Great Walks” which meant it was graded and much easier trekking. But now, we saw lots and lots of hikers coming the other way. Most people do this

    

Tongiriro Northern Circuit Trek 

Clockwise, but here again, we were going the opposite direction.  (which in NZ they call “Anti-clockwise”)

That night, we stayed in a hut that was quite old.   And when I went inside.  There were 8 women in there.
I said “am I dreaming here” there must be 8 or 9 women in here and I’m the only man???

The next day, the wind continued and we were in it all day.  He got to the hut first and chose a great spot, a little out of the wind, to set up his tent.   I quickly followed as there were lots of people tenting.   I helped a few of them set up and we all looked for big rocks to put over our tent stakes to help hold them in the ground.
Then, after dinner, it started raining.
So, we retired early and it was a loud night with the wind never ceasing.

About an hour before dawn, the rock finally sawed through my main tent line and it collapsed on top of me. So, I got up especially early on this day. Was ready to hike at first light and so was Dennis.
So we headed up into a beautiful sunrise, at least until we entered the cloud.

Once we entered that cloud, it was really hard to see more than 10-20 meters.    And it was another steep climb. With no way to see when it would end, we just kept going up, and it got colder and colder with a slight drizzle. That drizzle then turned to ice and near the top, we heard voices of some hikers coming the other way. I asked this guy if he minded if I took a picture of the ice in his beard.

This (unfortunately) was the last picture I took that day, but I’ll tell you about it.
It was lava and loose black dirt all the way up and at the top, of course there was no view at all and it was very cold and windy. We were both totally Gore-Tex’ed up and didn’t spend very long at the top. (nothing to see anyway)

A film of ice formed on my eyeglasses and I couldn’t see. I kept wiping them but eventually, had to take them off.   When I did, my depth perception changed and I was seeing the ground further away than it actually was.  I had to slow way down!

Going down the other side, we started seeing more and more people going up. We found out that this is not only the “Northern circuit” “Great Walk” but also there is a high traverse that so many tourists want to do because the view (that was totally socked in) is of a famous mountain that is called “Mt. Doom” in the “Lord of the Rings”. The whole movie was shot in NZ and they flock to see the sights where it was filmed. Well on this day, it was a bit useless as there was nothing to see and quite dangerous if you didn’t have the right gear.  And it looked like most of these people did NOT have the right gear. Some were actually in cotton summer dresses!

We tried to tell a few of them how cold it was at the top. (especially people with eye-glasses) But there were so many of them. I stopped counting at around 200. There were probably more like 400-500!

Eventually, we got to the last hut and stopped in for lunch. We talked a while with the hut master there and he said, on most days, there’s over 1,000 and they have to rescue a few every week. I can believe that. Not much further and we got to the trailhead where there were about 10 people waiting for the shuttle. We hadn’t booked it, so we’re glad when the driver said he had room for 2 or 3 more. I started looking at my map and figured he was taking us the wrong way, so, at the first intersection of a decent-sized road, I asked if we could get out here.
Dennis didn’t like the idea too much but I knew it was a good idea, especially if the hitchhiking was decent. And it was!

We got a ride right away taking us right to the town of Tongario where we started with 2 young girls who worked at the big resort. Much warmer down there, and we got a hotel with a laundry, swimming pool, and steak house!  Yes, swimming the day after my glasses iced over about 30 miles from there.

Dennis said he didn’t really like steak but I told him that NZ beef is considered some of the best in the world. So, we went there that night and ordered the big one.    It was Awesome!

Dennis’ eyes lit up and he said (a few times) that this was the best steak he had ever eaten. We told the bartender of course.

We got on an early morning bus to head back towards the south island as it was only 3 or 4 days before I had to fly back to Thailand. The bus was quite scenic and we could see much of what we had hiked, looking north.
Then the big city of Wellington. Wow!  What a difference from the rest of NZ. The other cities we had been to: Christchurch, Nelson, Westport, Taupo, were nice towns with most houses having front and back yards. But Wellington was a city of skyscrapers, big ships, and Dennis had us booked in one of the big places downtown.

Somehow the guy at reception liked our stories and upgraded us to the top floor.    With a view! Wow, it was a great view too, of the harbour (that’s how they spell it down there too)

Later that evening (after ANOTHER steak dinner (Dennis was hooked!), we took a long walk around the harbor area and there was a lot going on. Salsa dancing, chess games, the music here and there, artwork, lots of restaurants, bars, etc. Nice city, but didn’t really feel like New Zealand to me.

In the morning, we decided to walk to the ferry we had booked. For some reason, we thought it was only a 15-minute walk, but it took us 45! We just made the cutoff time as they were finishing loading and ready to weigh the anchor.

It was a beautiful crossing of Cook Strait and very scenic, especially coming into the port and very scenic city of Picton.

My Aussie friends had told me this was a picturesque town and to try the specialty there of green-lipped mussels. I tried them (while Dennis had steak again!!!) and wasn’t really impressed but I had to try the seafood.
This town is set inside a long bay and channel with many cool-looking houses along the river that are accessible only by boat. Very cool. I took a long walk around in the morning and we stayed at a cool hotel, a bit away from the hustle and bustle and they had fruit trees all over and we were welcomed to eat what we wanted from these trees. Like I said, these people from NZ are SO friendly.

We booked a train to take us back to Christchurch and it would follow the east coast of the south island. Dennis made sure we got seats on the left-hand side because that’s the scenic, seaside. Sure enough, it was another awesome trip. I love the train travel down there. Huge windows, tables, dining car (they even deliver), and headphones that have a recording of all the highlights you are breezing past.

We saw lots of cows and sheep of course, but also seals hanging out on the rocks near the shore.

Back to Christchurch, where it all began, and time to get ready for my flights the next day.

One more stroll around town, breakfast at the Route 66 diner, set up my tent near the Botanical Garden, and cleaned up for the ride.

Traveling in NZ, you sort of forget about all the Corona virus stuff going on in the rest of the world like almost no one wears the masks and you often get a feeling that you are on the edge of the world here. I talked to other travelers and they said they got that same feeling. There’s nowhere further away from it all. I like that.

Great country, great wilderness trails, best steak and lamb, and lovely small villages with the friendliest people!!!

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