I love tramping in New Zealand. It has got to be one of the best hiking destinations in the world. Why? Scenery that makes your soul sing; wilderness unspoiled by human interference; an unparalleled network of hiking huts and trails; English greenery with un-English levels of sunshine; and, for me, a special ingredient – an intoxicating nostalgia for a carefree, youthful era of my life.
In 2006, aged 22, I spent four adrenaline-filled months travelling around New Zealand in a rusty old banger. I climbed snow-capped mountains, kayaked the wild fiords, bungee-jumped off a bridge and hiked hut-to-hut through breathtaking Lord of the Rings landscapes. It was the trip that sparked my burning passion for the great outdoors. New Zealand is the spiritual home of my love of hiking in wild places. I always planned to return – and, a decade later in 2016, I finally did.
It did not disappoint. My wife and toured the country for six weeks in a camper-van we nicknamed Daisy (more about that here) – and I even managed to squeeze in time for three multi-day hikes. Each one was a revelation. Freedom, adventure, escapism, nature –they had it all. I dipped my toe once again into the beguiling world of New Zealand tramping and it was the hiking paradise I wanted it to be. I hope I can share some of my experiences with you here through these four short diary extracts about each hike I completed.
Banks Peninsula Track
Time: 2-4 days
Summary: Set up in 1989, it is New Zealand’s longest-running private walking track (trails established by income-diversifying farmers on their land). It is a “boutique tramping” option, combining the luxuries of comfortable accommodation, hot showers and home-made meals with the chance to escape the crowds and get off the beaten track. The hike explores the remote outer bays of Banks Peninsula, near Christchurch, and starts and ends in the beautiful town of Akaroa.
This trail is enchanting. I perch, mountain-goat-like, on a prominent boulder and marvel at Akaroa Harbour, the huge eroded crater of an ancient volcano now invaded by the sea. I stand amongst giant mamaku tree ferns, immersed by the jungle symphony – the hum of cicadas and the buzz of insects, the trills and melodies of a thousand birds and the soothing rustle of the leaves in the wind. And I slip into a coma of relaxation stargazing from the open-air bathtub at the magnificently quirky Stony Bay Cottages. But the pièce de résistance of BPT, as it is known by some, is the extra-curricular timetable at Flea Bay. I kayak with a pod of beautiful dolphins in the marine reserve, learn about the commendable conservation work of local landowners and watch little blue penguins waddle ashore at sunset.
Time: 3-4 days
Summary: This is one of New Zealand’s nine “great walks” – trails that are so awesome they’re given an elevated status. It is less popular than others such as the Milford Track (aka “the finest walk in the world”), but it can still get booked up in advance. The looped walk, which starts and finishes in Te Anau (maybe my favourite town in New Zealand), offers an intimate encounter with the magical, must-do Fiordland National Park.
Days one and three send me into a hiking trance. My mind switches off as I blissfully put one foot in front of the other, tramping mile after mile through the beech and podocarp forests. The scenery feels almost mystical, with the sun’s rays penetrating the canopy and illuminating the thick layers of mosses and lichens. Day two – the section between Luxmore Hut and Iris Burn Hut – however provides the wow moments.
I climb a magnificent ridge, slowly emerging above the clouds. I’m greeted by curious, raucous keas – the world’s only alpine parrot – and this-is-what-I came-for views of the Murchison Mountains and the south fiord of Lake Te Anau. It is everything and more you expect from New Zealand. There and then I make a promise to myself – I won’t wait another decade before returning to this hiking paradise.
Kaikoura Coast Track
Time: 2 days
Summary: Another private walking track, this trail explores a “hidden coastline” and is described by the owners as the best two-day private walk in New Zealand – and they are probably right. It is easily accessible from both Kaikoura and Christchurch, but I’m not sure what impact the recent earthquake has had.
I’m mesmerised by a pair of Hector’s dolphins playing in the surf, their fins rhythmically arcing in and out of the shimmering Pacific Ocean. My boots crunch into the wet sand, leaving behind a virgin trail of footsteps on the deserted, cliff-lined beach – due to an absence of bookings (and a stroke of good luck) I have the whole trail to myself. On the horizon fluffy white clouds linger around the summits of the Kaikoura mountain ranges while just 20ft away a fur seal snuffles its whiskers as it sleeps on the grey pebbles.
I originally wrote about my 2016 hiking adventure in New Zealand in the ever-excellent Outdoor Enthusiast magazine – check it out online now.