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As a 'trekker' in New Zealand, you're in for endless spectacles

By MARK MUCKENFUSS | THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Published: April 21, 2016

The hike had been invigorating — as in just this side of grueling. A 6-mile ascent into Mount Aspiring National Park had brought us to an overlook of Routeburn Falls, a thundering multilevel cascade of crystalline water (standard for New Zealand) jumping from the rock face above our heads and rushing into the deep valley below us. There we could see the Routeburn River winding through the high-shouldered Humboldt Mountains on its way to Lake Wakatipu.

We were breathless not only because of the impressive scenery but also because we had run out of time. Sights along the Routeburn Track earlier in the day had slowed us down, and in order to see the falls, we had sprinted the last mile up the steep trail. The effort was completely worth it.

Other than the danger of overextending yourself, hiking New Zealand’s abundance of trails is rarely disappointing. The Kiwis work hard to make hiking attractive. The maintenance on the trails we hiked was impressive: crushed-rock trail beds; comfortable clearance even in the most dense areas of the beech- and fern-dominated rain forests; boardwalks that meander over wetlands; and well-built, if unnerving, suspension bridges that span the roiling creeks.

Richard Davies, a recreation manager for New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, said about $65 million is pumped into the country’s park areas annually. Much of that is devoted to trail development and maintenance.

“It hasn’t happened by chance,” Davies said of the manicured trails. “All our staff is working on certain service standards — how much vegetation is cleared, the gradient of the track, whether the water courses are bridged or not. We can provide a really consistent service. Wherever you go in the country you get a similar experience.”

There is good reason for the effort. The spectacular scenery this island nation has to offer is unsurpassed. Director Peter Jackson didn’t just film his J.R.R. Tolkien epics here because he didn’t want to leave his home country. The vertical landscapes lend themselves to fantasy.

What we were seeing often felt unreal: The knife-edged ridges on the mountains, the steep faces of which are frequently laced with waterfalls. The dense forests filled with calling birds and towering giant ferns that make you feel as if you’ve stumbled into a prehistoric world. The lakes are so clear you can look through them to the bottom.

All of these, and more, make this a country of constant surprises. And hiking is one of the best ways to see it.

What we call hiking, Kiwis refer to as trekking or tramping, and it’s a bit different from what we’re used to in the States. There aren’t many places on the popular trails where you can head out into the wilderness and plunk your tent down when you think you’ve found a good campsite.

On many trails, you can set up camp only in designated campgrounds. On some, trekkers can only stay overnight in huts, many of which are rather primitive.

New Zealand’s most famous trail, the Milford Track in Fiordland, is also its most restrictive. Both ends of the track are accessible primarily by ferry. Hikers can only do the route in one direction, and you have to have a permit or be with a guide to access the trail at all. Reservations are hard to come by. When I looked in October, shortly after we decided to travel to New Zealand, there were no reservations available until April.

Booking campsites and huts is required on the more popular trails. January weekday spots for the Routeburn Track, perhaps the next most popular after the Milford Track, were still available when I checked in late November. But if you plan to go during New Zealand’s summer, January to April, you are best off booking as early as possible.

We started our South Island trip in Nelson, a quiet town but one with enough restaurants to make it interesting. After an overnight stay at the very comfortable Bretton’s Retreat bed and breakfast amid the vineyards of nearby Brightwater, we took a 45-minute drive to Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes.

Here there are several trails around the lake and up adjoining valleys. We took one of two steep trails to the top of Mount Roberts, a 3,800-foot climb, where there was a spectacular view of the lake below and of the steep slopes of the St. Arnaud Mountains to the south.

Trail distances in New Zealand’s parks are typically measured in time rather than distance. We found the times to be pretty liberal estimates. The Mount Roberts loop is listed at five hours. We finished in 3  ½ without pushing it.

Our drive for the remainder of the day took us through the Marlborough region, famous for its wineries, and down the picturesque east coastline, where we saw ample numbers of surfers and sea lions, to Kaikoura. The seaside village is known for its crayfish, or spiny lobster, and ocean excursions to see whales or swim with dolphins.

One of the things we had hoped to see was Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest peak, in its Southern Alps. So the following day, we drove through the busy city of Christchurch and miles of green farmland to reach the tiny resort town of Lake Tekapo.

Along the way, we stopped at the occasional roadside stand to buy blueberries, peaches and, of course, kiwi. We were surprised to discover that the quality and price of the produce was pretty comparable in the supermarkets. And while the cost was a bit higher than in the States, we did not run into the exorbitant prices we’d been warned about. The same held true for hotel rates and dining out.

We left Lake Tekapo in the morning rain. The weather hadn’t improved much by the time we had skirted the shores of glacier-fed Lake Pukaki with its steel gray surface, and reached the trail leading into the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. An hour’s hike took us over roaring streams and along the base of cliff faces cut with waterfalls. When we reached the trail’s end at the milky Hooker Lake, the clouds had only slightly lifted and offered us only occasional glimpses of Mount Cook. Nevertheless, the scenery was stunning.

New Zealand’s weather can be dicey, even in summer. These are, after all, rain forests that we were hiking through. They’re called rain forests for a reason.

Three days later, when we were trekking along the southern end of the 30-mile-long Routeburn Track, we took a detour to Key Summit. There we were perched above a dramatic landscape. I know this because it said so in large letters on the sign in front of us. It was one of those sloped metal signs that depict the view before you, labeling all of the important geographic features. Wrapped in a drizzling fog whiteout, we could see none of it.

There was nothing else to do. I took a picture of the sign.

Fortunately, this was the exception. Though we dealt with overcast skies on many days, the clouds often added to the landscape, rather than detracting from it. They were part of the experience.

But, as if bestowing a parting gift upon us, the following day was sunny. We had returned to the North Island and had started our final day with a hike on the coast directly west of Auckland, above Mercer Bay, where the coastline rivals Big Sur’s.

At one headland stands a carving of the Maori maiden Hinerangi, who married a young chieftain but lost him at sea. Legend says she died on this spot of a broken heart, looking out to sea, hoping for the return of her love. Her face is said to appear on a nearby cliff side.

I wasn’t able to pick out her features, but that hardly diminished the beauty of the place. Nor did her sad tale dampen my enthusiasm or appreciation for what we had experienced along the trails we tramped in New Zealand.

A trekker enjoys the view of Lake Rotoiti near the top of Mount Roberts in New Zealand. (Mark Muckenfuss/Orange County Register/TNS)

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