Mike and I spent the last month traveling and hiking in New Zealand, and it was quite an adventure. New Zealand is a gorgeous, vibrant country where even the land seems to be alive. With the Pacific tectonic plate colliding with the Australian plate, earthquakes are common in many areas of the country. We felt two good jolts while we were staying in Christchurch on the South Island. Five years ago, Christchurch suffered extensive damage from a 6.3 earthquake, and residents are still struggling to rebuild their downtown area.
In addition to earthquakes, New Zealand has active volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs. On the South Island, we saw glaciers and vivid blue and green glacial lakes with colors so pure; it was difficult to believe they were natural. We crossed many rivers in our travels, stared straight up at towering cliffs, and in some places, we were surrounded by waterfalls too numerous to count. In pouring rain, our bus pulled into a small area that was circled by steep mountains, and as water rushed down the cliffs and swirled around us, our guide told us that this area was called “the toilet bowl,” an accurate description, at least during a rain squall. Not all the terrain in New Zealand is dramatic. Much of both islands consists of beautiful, rolling hills and pastures full of sheep, cattle, and even deer, which are farmed for their meat.
Two weeks of our trip was a hiking tour with Active Adventures New Zealand, with the emphasis on “active!” Our first big hike began by climbing 1800 large steps carved into the side of a mountain. By the time I got down, my legs were shaking, and I began to wonder if I’d make it through the next two weeks.
Our guides on the trip were Gary and Holly. Since guiding is also my job, I am always intrigued to watch other guides at work, and I was very impressed with Gary and Holly. Not only did they guide us on our many, long hikes, but they cooked most of our meals, and Gary drove our small bus with a trailer in tow over narrow, winding roads and one-way bridges. Sometimes, when it was raining, the windows became so fogged that I don’t know how he could see where he was going. While Gary drove, both he and Holly regaled us with Maori legends about how various lakes, rivers, and glaciers were formed. Most of these tales involved, at least, one or two beautiful princesses. We learned such things as how the Fox Glacier was formed, why there are sand flies in Milford Sound, how the kiwi birds lost their wings, how Maui slowed the sun, and much, much more (click on any of the above to learn the details of each legend). On top of all of this, Gary and Holly went out of their way to make sure each of their 14 charges had everything he or she needed or wanted.
We traveled with 12 other adventurers on our trip. Phil and Sue were from Canada, and the rest of us were from the U.S. One thing we soon learned about our guide, Gary, was that he is a master of the Kiwi understatement, and it didn’t take us long to translate his words:
A wee hike meant, at least, 4 to 6 hours.
A wee bit of climbing meant, at least, a 45⁰ angle
A wee bit of undulating terrain meant a steep climb followed by a steep descent followed by another steep climb and another steep descent and on and on.
A wee bit technical – Uh oh, that meant serious rock climbing would be involved.
A wee hill meant a snow-capped mountain.
Our two-week adventure culminated in a three-day option of either a multi-day hiking trip, kayaking for three days, or biking for three days. Six of us chose the hike while the rest of the group opted to go kayaking. Of the six hikers, Debbie chose to do one day of hiking, while the rest of us (obviously not the brightest of the bunch) went hiking for the full three days on the Angelus Circuit. Since we could not stop to resupply, we had to carry everything we needed for three days on our backs in large packs, including our personal gear, a sleeping bag, hiking poles, water, a bowl, cup, spoon, and a portion of the food.
The first day we hiked 3 ½ hours along beautiful Lake Rotoiti. We stayed at Lakehead Hut that night. The huts are interesting places with bunks for 28 people, and they are available to anyone who makes a reservation. You share kitchen facilities with the other campers, and yes, you sleep next to strangers. The outhouses at Lakehead Hut were a bit dicey since they were full of with sand flies and bees. This on top of the issues that normally accompany outhouses made a trip to the bathroom a bit stressful and to be avoided if at all possible. The hike to Lakehead Hut was fairly easy, but we knew the following day would be anything but easy, and I was simply hoping I could make it up the mountain! For our dinner the first night, Holly made us a wonderful pasta and vegetable meal, accompanied by wine that our fellow hiker, Mike Hofmann thoughtfully packed with him. After dinner, we enjoyed a Tim Tam Slam, an interactive dessert demonstrated by Holly. It involved sucking hot cocoa through a Tim Tam (a chocolate-frosted, chocolate cookie) and then sucking the cookie into your mouth before it disintegrated. The process left us all sticky and giggling while the other hikers in the hut watched us warily.
The weather was perfect on day two, but the hike was a brutal ascent to 4800 ft. We began the day by hiking across two “wee” rivers up a steep “wee” bit of elevated path through the trees, and then we knew we were really in trouble when Gary told us, “I won’t lie to you. The rest of the trek is steep and difficult.” There was no “wee” in his description, and I half expected him to pull climbing ropes and pitons from his pack. It was a tough climb. I think I stopped at every single trail marker and sucked in air. As I craned my neck back and looked upward there, seemed no end to the trail, and the few times I thought I could see the last marker; the trail turned, and the markers continued upward. Gary told us it would take 8 to 9 hours to get to the top, and I was proud that I made it up there in just over 7 hours. Mike and Denny, two of the guys in our group, made it in 6 hours. We all agreed that the hike had been tough, but the view from the top was worth our effort. As we crested over the top near Angelus Hut, we were treated to the breathtaking (what little breath I had left) view of sapphire-blue Lake Angelus, its windswept waves sparkling in the sun. That is a sight I will remember for the rest of my life!
Angelus Hut next to the lake was also a treat. It was very clean with large picture windows looking out on the lake. Its volunteer caretaker, Mary, saw to it that the windows were spotless so that the hikers could enjoy the view. The outhouses were also spotless and mostly bug-free. The only downside to Angelus Hut was that hikers appeared from every direction, and the hut was full – all 28 beds. The hut was noisy most of the night with doors banging and people shuffling in and out. That evening for dinner, Holly and Gary served chicken curry with a dessert of deconstructed cheesecake. It was delicious, and the mood was light. After all, Mike, Denny, Tara, Mike and I had completed the toughest day of the hike – at least, we thought it was the toughest day.
After a fitful night’s sleep, we awoke at 6:00, ready to tackle the last section of our hike. This morning we would hike another 45 minutes up and along the ridgeline for 4 hours before dropping down below the tree line for the final hour of hiking down to the car park. Gary did mention something about large rocks and small loose rocks, but I admit I wasn’t listening very closely. I just wanted to get back to our bus, and I thought it sounded like an easy day once we got to the ridgeline. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The hike to the ridgeline was no problem, but once we got up there, we were buffeted by winds that were gusting to 50 mph. The ridge was fairly narrow, and we had big packs on our back. When the wind gusted, I staggered, hunkering down to hold my position. I admit I was terrified I would be blown off the mountain, and those large rocks Gary had briefly mentioned turned out to be more of a problem than I had anticipated. We had to hop from one to the next in the driving wind. Thankfully, Gary stayed with me all the way, because it was not easy. He was also there to help me through the “loose rock” section, and then when a huge gust knocked me over and nearly sent me tumbling down the mountain, Mike held my hand for the rest of the hike along the ridge. Not only was it windy, but clouds were settling on the mountain, and was starting to rain. As our visibility decreased and the wind increased, I could sense the strain in Gary’s demeanor. He told us to keep moving as fast as we could, and Mike said, “You want us off this ridgeline, and I couldn’t agree more.”
Tara and I needed no encouragement. We wanted off the mountain worse than anyone. Finally, we began to descend, and the minute we dropped below the tree line, the world changed. We were out of the clouds, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and below us, we could see Lake Rotoiti, gleaming like a jewel. The lake was home that day to speed boat races, and we could hear the roaring engines from high on the mountain. As the participants and spectators enjoyed a beautiful, Saturday afternoon in the sun, we marveled that they had no idea what the weather conditions were like on the mountain that towered above them. We stepped out of a world filled with wind, rain, fog, and peril and into a beautiful weekend afternoon at the beach.
Once we reached the carpark, Holly greeted each of us with a beer, and I told her I loved her. Then, we were off to meet the rest of our group for a wine tasting at a nearby winery, and this action perfectly captured the essence of our tour. We had three days of rugged hiking and staying in bare-bones huts, followed by a civilized wine tasting. I did, note, though, that we hikers looked a bit less civilized at the winery than did our fellow kayakers.
That night at our farewell dinner, Denny, one of my fellow travelers, made an eloquent toast to our guides. He said, “We will soon fade from your memories, but you will never fade from ours.” So true!
If New Zealand isn’t on your travel wish-list, it should be. It is a clean, beautiful country with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. I can’t say enough good things about it!
We are now on our way back to Alaska, and I can’t wait to get home. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for my Mystery Newsletter. Due to my vacation, there will be no March Newsletter, but I am already working on my April Newsletter.
If any of my fellow hikers is reading this, thanks again for being a part of my very memorable New Zealand adventure!