by: Buzz Burrell
NEW ZEALAND (“Aotearoa” in Maori) is a fabled recreation destination. Everyone you know has been there or wants to go. Including you.
One week into our 3 1/2 week trip to New Zealand this January, my companion said, “I can see why people want to move here.” Indeed: great beaches, mountains, lakes, food, wine, and people – what’s there not to like?
Well, maybe hoards of Sandflies, but everything else is top-notch. So where to go and how to do it? Here’s a few hints from my third trip to the land of the Long White Cloud – –
First, New Zealand is not part of Australia. They were both settled by the English and are way far away in the South Pacific, but are otherwise remarkably unrelated: OZ is a very old and flat continent, the same size as the continental US, while NZ is the same size (and population) of Colorado, and is partially a chain of volcanic islands, similar to Hawaii. Indeed, the original inhabitants of Aotearoa (“long white cloud”) are the Maori – if one was at a traditional Maori feast with local people, music, and language, you could easily mistakenly think you were in Hawaii.
(Late-breaking news: On February 18, because undersea surveys indicate it meets the geological definitions, New Zealand was nominated to be the worlds 8th continent! The good part is ardent “Seven Summiteers” [those who climb the highest mountains on each continent] now will have to go back and bag Mount Cook [12,218’ and a tough summit]; the bad part is 93% of “Zealandia” is underwater).
Of the two main Islands, the North Island is verdant, warm, mostly hilly, with a few recently or still-active volcano’s jutting up into the wind. The South Island, where most visitors go, is a little cooler with serious mountains, clear blue lakes, while still having excellent local food and wine. The native plants and animals evolved only here and are mostly unique to this island nation, and just as in Hawaii, there were no native mammals or predators so they did not develop defenses. Which means there are roughly three types of flora and fauna in the country: first, the native plants and animals that are in danger of being wiped out by the introduced species; second, the non-native plants and animals that are doing the wiping out of the natives and against whom a massive, constant, and futile war of extermination is being waged; and lastly, a few plants and animals that seem to be doing all right.
The national emblem, the Kiwi, is in the first group. I don’t know who picked this small, flightless, defenseless, and utterly clueless bird to not only be their symbol, but the demonym for the entire country, but it was a big mistake. This means if you graduate university with a degree in Natural Resources, you will spend your entire career killing rats in a futile effort to save the Kiwi. They could have picked the Kea instead, which is an amazingly intelligent (cooperatively prepares and uses tools) and hyper-aggressive parrot (will steal food out of your zippered closed pack) and with keenly developed survival mechanisms, but they didn’t.
Fortunately, NZ is a Commonwealth country, so traveling there is very easy – everyone speaks English, your credit cards work, and best of all, everyone is nicer than you are. I believe Kiwi’s (the people, definitely not the bird) consider friendliness a point of national pride, part of their very identity. What a wonderful quality to have. Us Yanks could start working on that.
COOL THINGS TO DO
New Zealand lives up to it’s reputation as the “Adventure Capital of the World”. Walk into any of the thousands of “iSites” (tourist info booths), plunk down your credit card, and in a few minutes you’re boarding a bus wondering what you got yourself into, as any question is met with a hearty, “No worries; off you go mate!” Tort law is very different; tour operators cannot get sued if a tourist is stupid and dies. Indeed, pick up a newspaper and many days you’ll find a story of a tourist who froze to death, drowned, broke a leg, or otherwise messed up, sometimes while on commercial group trips. In the States, Disneyland has become our model for every outdoor experience – control everything to the max, post annoying signs everywhere, require permits for everything, and while supposedly liking Mother Nature, try to ensure you have no real interaction with Her.
In Aotearoa, things will likely be mellow but might get spicy. In an ‘adventure’ hub like Queenstown, sign boards on the sidewalk outside of dozens of tour shops lure travelers with a list rarely seen anywhere: bungee jumping, para-sailing, cave-diving, sky-diving, rafting, kayaking, sailing, downhill biking, zip-lining … the list goes numbingly on, usually about 20 potential Activites, some of which I’m not even sure what they are.
Commercial bungee jumping was invented on a bridge just downstream from Queenstown; there’s still a line of people waiting to jump off that bridge, and while I’m not a thrill-seeker so haven’t tried this, there are a few great things I have done numerous times and would like to call out: Caves, Glowworms, Glowworms in caves, and Wine.
The US has some of the world’s biggest caves, but you or I can’t get past the guardrails in them. But a cave tour in Waitomo on the North Island is worth it. As another Yank related to me, “The guide told us, ‘Watch your step there folks; a chap slipped there last week and broke his leg in two places’”. Their delightful presumption of self-responsibility allows for much more adventurous commercial tours.
Glowworms are the larvae of tiny flies that live in the absolute blackness of caves, usually those with flowing water. They only exist in the south of NZ and Australia. Like fireflies, they biolumenesce. At Greymouth on the West Coast of the South, you plunk down your credit card and within minutes:
- You’re outfitted with a full wetsuit, helmet, and headlamp;
- Taken on a short train ride thru the rainforest;
- Handed you an inflated truck inner tube and told to carry schlep it up a trail;
- Guided thru a cave up close and personal with stalactites, ‘mites, and the other weird formations;
- (The cool part), plopped down in an underground river, where you form a people-train by locking the other people’s ankles under your armpits, whereupon you all turn off the headlamps, and it goes dark – really dark – except for about 10,000 glowworms lighting up the roof of the cave as you float down the underground stream on your back looking up;
- Emerge at a Class ll river that you tube back to the start.
Oh, and the wine – NZ is proud of it’s wines, and its Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough at the ‘Top of the South’ is world-renowned. The 1982 vintage from Cloudy Bay changed the world of wine forever; 85% of NZ’s wine exports are now this Variety. Someone said liquor is expensive in NZ, which is true, but that isn’t true if you simply do wine tours. Wineries exist all over the east side of the mountains on both the North and South. If you’re a non-wine person, their beer is great – I greatly it to ours, as the high-alcohol/high-hop craziness that’s infected our small breweries hasn’t taken hold Down Under; instead they craft excellent Pilsners and Ales in classic Czech and British style, served by the pint.We did You-Pick Raspberries as well, bought fresh Sweet Cherries (also available You-Pick), and all the produce is excellent, local, in-season, and readily available. Gas stations have trained barista’s working them, serving your favorite Americano or Chai Latte with Soy Milk. The default level of food in New Zealand is on par with our top level.
RUNNING THINGS TO DO
OK, let’s cut to the chase: what about the tracks (Down Under speak for “trails”)?
The biggie is Te Aroaroa – “The Long Path” – it runs 3,000kms the length of the entire country. Peter Bakwin and Stephanie Ehret hiked the South Island section in 63 days a few years ago. They did a terrific trip, on great trails, during the middle of our winter, and met great people (were invited in to people’s houses on occasion); Peter’s blog post – “Ta Si SOBO – Adventures in Middle Earth” is excellent. Peter also made a notable insight that NZ has 400 backcountry huts. Think about that – Colorado is the same size with the same population – imagine our state with 400 really nice huts anyone can use, all connected by purpose-built tracks.
The other macro trail system is the Great Walks. These are 8 fairly long tracks (9 if you include one which is a river canoe journey) that have been identified as being the best. The NZ Visitor website has good info on each of these, as do the local iSite’s.
So those are two basic ways to approach NZ trails: do section hikes on the Te Aroaroa or focus on the Great Walks.
Or not. There are countless things to do, it can be overwhelming, so here’s a primer to get started on the two islands.
The North Island (don’t forget, in the Southern Hemisphere “north” means warmer) is less renowned but very good. Few people travel north from Auckland, but if you do, the Te Paki (“The Sands”) track goes along a lovely sand beach right to the very tip of the country, the Cape Reinga Lighthouse.
Just south of Auckland is Rotorua, with great hot springs and a Moari cultural center, plus the Tarawera Ultra Marathon, the NZ trail race certainly best known in the US because it’s part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour and iRunFar.com covers it. It’s modeled after the WS100, so it stands out from Kiwi-style races with it’s big US-style aid stations and easy terrain (and is adding a 100 mile distance in 2018, with promotional help from the Crown).
Further south is Tongariro National Park, where the inspiration for ‘Mount Doom’ in Lord of the Rings is located (19th highest mountain and highest on the North Island, with a really active volcano). There’s the “Alpine Crossing”, which is an excellent 20k with frequent bus shuttle service back to your car, or the 50km “Northern Circuit”, one of the Great Walks, with up close views of steaming sulphur vents; either are fantastic.
Straight west from there is Mt Taranaki/Egmont (the Maori and the English name, and the 2nd highest on the North), which is an excellent straight-up volcano crank, very close to the ocean, which you could easily see from the top if you could see anything but the hand in front of your face due to thick clouds. Wellington is the southern-most city on the North, the capital of the country, site of the World Mountain Running Championships in 2005, and the port for the Ferry to the South.
South Island – Top
Moving around the Island, the Wet Coast (“West”, actually) is wild, wet, and wooly, and probably worth a visit, but not especially for running. Looking at a globe, there’s 20,000kms of open ocean to the west, pounding into this coast, making for a scenic drive but not ideal trail running. Just south of Westport there’s the afore-mentioned “blackwater rafting” tour thru Glowworm caves, the Old Ghost Trail recently has become popular (although it may be better for mountain bikes), and there’s all kinds of other features (glaciers that come down to 1,000’ above sea level), but the tracks are a bit short, wild, or wet.
The Southern Alps bisect the South Island, with the crest aligned more to the west side, with longer gentler foothills and plains to the east, and are serious mountains. Normally I would be attracted to climbing whatever I encounter in any country, but I’ve never touched these and surprisingly few people do. Mt Cook (the highest) is 12,272’ and Mt Aspiring (the “Matterhorn of New Zealand”) is 9,951′. Very moderate elevation by Colorado standards, but their national parks are between 50% and 70% permanently covered in snow or ice. You can’t just put on a windshell and run up this stuff – these are multi-day projects, or multi-weeks if one includes waiting for the weather to clear. There’s also plenty of great tracks off Arthur’s Pass, a highway which crosses between the West and the East, but the higher summits require gear, from crampons on the feet to waterproof/breathable clothing head to toe.
The East Coast is drier, flatter, and sunnier. This, along with the east and north central parts of the North, are where all of New Zealand’s cities are located, and where the great tracks are not.
The Southwest of the country is the iconic (and largest Park in NZ) Fiordlands National Park- the topography, weather, and scenery in this national park looks just like Alaska, Norway, and Southern Chile, because they all are the same geomorphology, climate, and latitude. Temperate Rainforest covered peaks drop steeply down into cold and blue fiords. Spectacular. The 53.5km Milford Track is here – a Great Walk, requiring a bus ride, a boat ride, 4 days of tramping, then another boat to get to the nearest road, where another bus takes you back to the start, all done with a group that stays together – very tightly regulated. The 32km Routeburn Track (probably the best regarded Great Walk for runners) is on the edge of Fjiordlands, which means it’s wet but not underwater, like sections of the Milford. There’s plenty of other serious tracks in this region but note: the reason for those hundreds of spectacular waterfalls is 2-300 inches of rainfall every year.
The Lakes District
The above descriptions circle the South Island but do not describe it’s middle, the epicenter of trail running, and indeed the recreation capital of the country: just east of the crest of the Southern Alps is Queenstown. This famous town has become overrun with tourism so I don’t recommend it, but the area, which could be called the Lakes District, has fairly high summits with large natural lakes between them, good weather, and outstanding tracks, both famous and to-be-discovered, as the terrain is largely open pasture rather than rainforest. It’s a popular place for skiing in the Austral winter, both resort and backcountry (very little X-C), along with dizzying varieties of ‘adventure sports’. To complete the package, just east of Q’Town is the Pinot Noir center for NZ, and where most of the Sweet Cherries are grown.
At the southern end of the Lakes area is Te Anau, on the lake of the same name which is the largest on the South Island, and which is the departure point for the Milford to the west and the Kepler Track to the East. And besides being a Great Walk, the 60km Kepler Challenge is a race held on this track the beginning of December. An hour north of Q’Town, on Lake Wanaka and sort of on Lake Hawea, is the town of Wanaka, which is probably where I’d live 3 months of every year if I won the lottery.
And btw, so would lots of other people – Q’Town’s housing market and prices are similar to Boulders, the population of Wanaka is growing 20% every 5 years, and indeed, the whole country is in a housing crunch. Even before the upswing in Yanks after the recent US Presidential Election.
Besides Tarawera and the Kepler Challenge, there are plenty of other races for those so inclined. One would have to dig into the NZ Trail Running website, but the effort would be very worth it – those two biggies are by far the best known but might not be the best – the local races tend to be steeper and more interesting, attracting the aficionado’s who likely are quite familiar with Skyrunning in Europe and are comfortable on razzy terrain.
So there you have it. An Overview of this small but famous country, cool things to do, and what a trail runner might do. Just remember: No worries mate! Off you go!