From Here to the Other Down Under

Jeff Williams

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New zealand may be smaller than Colorado, but it sure crams a lot of outdoor superlatives into a tiny space—mountains rivaling Europe’s Alps, fjords to match Norway’s, and beaches, forests, and hiking trails as beautiful as any in the world. If you have limited time to see it all, head straight for the more rugged South Island.

Queen Charlotte Walkway

Some of New Zealand’s so-called “great walks” are getting a little overcrowded these days. The popular Abel Tasman Coastal Walk is great only if you think staring at a succession of wide-eyed hikers deserves such an appellation. The Milford and Routeburn walks are strangled in their own popularity by bureaucratic measures—numbers are now limited during peak walking season. A new, hassle-free walk is the 36-mile Queen Charlotte Walkway, based on a system of bridle paths in the Marlborough Sounds in the northeast of the South Island.
You’ll start from Ship Cove at the north of the sounds (where the explorer Captain Cook stopped four times between 1770 and 1777) and hike through rainforest with intermittent views of the islands of Queen Charlotte Sound. After four hours you’ll come to the very English Furneaux Lodge—some people stop here and never leave. The determined hiker will push on, paralleling the water’s edge, for another four hours to Punga Cove; here you’ll have the choice of camping or resort accommodations. (If you camp, be sure to sneak from your tent site to the resort’s fine restaurant to sample scallops, oysters, the delectable green-lipped mussel, and Mac’s beer.)

The next day is a bit of a grind, about eight hours, but the views down into the sounds (Kenepuru and Queen Charlotte) compensate for the trudge through regenerating scrub. Drop down from Torea Saddle (across which Maori warriors once dragged their war canoes) and stop overnight at The Portage—the camping here is better than the hotels. The last day you’ll pass through magnificent primeval beech forest before reaching Anakiwa.

To get to Ship Cove, take a water taxi (about $20 one-way; Couger Line, 011-64-3-573-7925) from Picton, terminus for the Cook Strait ferry. You’ll also need transport from Anakiwa back to Picton (contact Barry’s Bus, 3-577-9696). You can arrange to sea kayak a section of the walk; call Marlborough Sounds Adventure Company, 3-573-6078, to arrange rentals. Accommodations en route range from $52 to $85. For more information call The Villa (3-573-6598), a popular backpackers’ place in Picton, or the Department of Conservation office (3-573-7582).

Fishing the Nelson Lakes and Mount Cook National Park

Fishing the Nelson Lakes

Alaska for salmon, New Zealand’s Westland for brown trout (Salmo trutta). From Christchurch it’s about a three-hour drive to Lake Brunner and Lake Rotoroa (in the Nelson Lakes region), where five-pound trout are stalked and captured (to be photographed and released if they’re lucky, eaten if not). Fishing is much less expensive here than in North America and the surroundings are just as beautiful—lakes reflecting the high mountains and remote, clear streams. The almost up-market Lake Brunner Lodge at Mitchells on the shores of Lake Brunner (3-738-0163), near where the first browns were released at the turn of the century, operates from October through April and has an all-inclusive six-night guided package for $1,800-$2,135 (the head guide is the renowned Ray Grubb). Lake Rotoroa Lodge (3-523-9121), far more luxurious with gourmet meals, has an all-inclusive three-day, four-night package for $1,500. (Outside of these packages, a guide for a day for two people costs about $375.) Another competent guide is Brent Beadle, based at the more budget-conscious Moana Hotel (3-738-0388) on Lake Brunner. He uses a drift boat down the Arnold River and can arrange helicopter trips to the top of the Grey and Rough rivers (where the really big ones lurk)—a full day’s guiding (not including the helicopter) costs about $300.

Mount Cook National Park

When you take your first look at the Southern Alps you’ll understand why Sir Edmund Hillary, a Kiwi, was so inspired. A half day’s bus ride north of Wanaka is Mount Cook Village, at the base of one of the most attractive pieces of rock and ice you’re likely to ever gaze upon—Mount Cook, a cloud-piercer of 12,316 feet and New Zealand’s highest peak. The 434-square-mile national park it sits in is synonymous with New Zealand mountaineering, and over the years has been a magnet for a hoary bunch of locals and foreigners (although the gridlock of tourist buses at The Hermitage Hotel will have you temporarily believing otherwise).
The 6,986-foot Ball Pass crossing is one way to get up there without any mountaineering experience, allowing you views of Cook that most tourists only see through the windows of a light aircraft. The first day is a tough six-hour, 2,788-foot climb out of the glaciated Tasman Valley to the private Caroline Hut, a comfortable aerie that looks straight across to Cook’s dramatic Caroline Face. Climb a nearby peak the next day and rest up for Day 3, a demanding nine-hour trek across the pass and down through tricky gorges and bluffs into the East Hooker Valley. If necessary you’ll use crampons and an ice ax and the guide will belay you. Alpine Recreation (3-680-6736) offers this three-day hike for $463. The National Park Visitor Center (3-435-1818; fax 435-1895) in Mount Cook Village can provide advice on weather and other hiking choices.

Mount Aspiring National Park, Fiordland, and Steward Island

Mount Aspiring National Park

Southwest of Mount Cook is Mount Aspiring, a pyramidal masterpiece of 9,952 feet lording it over the national park of the same name. Problem is, you can’t see the peak unless you get up high. On a four-day guided hike you’ll trek through meadows and rainforest to Shovel Flat in preparation for the next day’s steep, four- to five-hour “gorilla grunt” ascent to barebones French Ridge Hut at 4,805 feet, where there are gorgeous views of the surrounding glaciers and the Gloomy Gorge. Day Three takes you up the Quarterdeck, an icy ramp where you’ll use crampons and an ice ax and be roped up. The three-hour climb to the summit of Mount French (7,678 feet) is dwarfed by the spectacle of Aspiring, but is a solid achievement in its own right. Mountain Recreation (3-443-7330) charges $630 for the trip, including all equipment, transportation, and meals. For more information contact the Mount Aspiring National Park visitor center (3-443-1233) in Wanaka.


Chances are, if you’re a keen hiker, that you’ve heard of New Zealand’s much-vaunted Milford Track. Gorgeous as it is, it’s but a morsel of what you can do in Fiordland National Park. New Zealand’s largest, the park stretches from Martins Bay on the west coast (Tasman Sea) to the South Island’s far southwest corner. In the fjords—steep-sided U-shaped valleys that rise up out of the water for nearly a mile—thick bush clings to every crevice. The terrain is so wild that 300 miles of trails still don’t give you access to much of the park—which is why it’s best to explore it by sea kayak.
The two-day trip into Doubtful Sound is a good place to start. It begins in Te Anau with a drive to Lake Manapouri, a 20-mile boat trip across the lake, and then a 13-mile trek in a four-wheel-drive vehicle over Wilmot Pass to Deep Cove. The paddle down Doubtful Sound passes Rolla Island, where you might spot the Fiordland crested penguin, detours up deathly silent Hall Arm, and continues down the sound to Elizabeth Island, home to fur seals, bottlenose dolphins, and little blue penguins. From there, put your sails up and, wind willing, get blown back to Deep Cove. Fiordland Wilderness Experiences (3-249-7700) will set it all up for $163 per person. They also rent kayaks and gear to those wishing to do their own trips. If you only have one day, consider paddling Milford Sound with Rosco’s Milford Sound Sea Kayaks. Try the Sunriser Wildlife and Waterfall Trip ($51 per person; 3-249-8840), a six-hour trip running every morning. For more information, call the Fiordland National Park visitors center (03-249-7921).

Stewart Island

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive on Stewart Island, off the south coast of the South Island, is the number of inhabitants wearing white gumboots. Sure, it gets muddy on this 40- by 25-mile island, which is why the 20-mile, circular Rakiura Track (one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks”) has been extensively boardwalked. The three-day walk starts from Oban, the island’s main settlement, on the east coast. First you head north on undulating terrain past secluded beaches to Port William Hut, then west through thick bush to North Arm Hut on Paterson Inlet. You can walk or sea kayak the last leg on Paterson Inlet back to Oban. Accommodation is in comfortable huts ($6 per night) where wood-burning stoves, billies (cooking pots), and foam-rubber mattresses are provided—you have to carry in all other necessaries. To rent a sea kayak, call 3-219-1080; to reserve huts, call the Department of Conservation visitor information center in Oban (3-219-1130). Southern Air (3-218-9129) flies from Invercargill to Stewart Island for $90 round-trip. For more information, call the New Zealand Tourist Board in Los Angeles (310-395-7480) or New York (212-832-8482).