Cicerone reader Giorgia Wollner gives a personal account of her first experience of multi-day hikes on New Zealand’s South Island, providing a glimpse of the countless wonders that can be found in the land of the Kiwis.
As work took me away for most of the British summer in 2018, therefore putting off the trip I had in mind (the Two Moors Way), I decided to take some time off during the cold winter months and head to a place where summer was on and I could test myself on long-distance tracks… New Zealand was my first choice, and probably the most sensible.
I thought that two months would be enough; I realised quickly that I was wrong.
New Zealand’s Great Walks are unique in their beauty and designed for trampers of all levels, whereas its long-distance tramping tracks are more demanding and require a different level of preparation and awareness, as I discovered. The tracks I followed are increasingly physically demanding and, indeed, tramping in New Zealand must be taken seriously. Most of the tracks are in the wilderness, far away from hospitals, with no phone reception, and most of the huts do not have a warden. I would recommend always carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB), which can be rented or bought, and a first aid kit – even if it adds unwanted grams – especially if you are travelling solo.
My adventure started in Auckland and I planned to reach the South Island as soon as possible. But before that, I decided to catch up with some training on daily hikes. I started with Rangitoto Island, a ferry ride from Auckland. As the island is of volcanic origin and pretty young (it formed only 600 years ago), the terrain is rocky, fertile and extremely hot. In order to avoid the flock of tourists (most of whom head straight up to the summit along the steep and slow-cooking trail), I followed the coastal track and then slowly made my way up. There were black headed gulls nesting, mangroves, beautiful empty beaches and turquoise waters. The view from the mountain top was incredible, aided by the clear sky. Towards the end of the day, after approximately 18km, I started to feel very tired, worn out by the heat of the volcanic rocks, the intense perspiration (more correctly, sweating) and the moderate intensity of the track. For this day out, I recommend a lot of water (there are not many water points on the island and no shops), a hat, sunscreen protection 50 (you would not believe how strong the sun is over there!).
The next hike was to the Taranaki summit. I had to try it twice, as it revealed itself to be harder than I’d imagined. On my first attempt I packed too much because I was overcautious (I even packed an emergency bag against hypothermia and too many layers – those caution signs worked well on me!). The other mistakes I made were not wearing gaiters and not having trekking poles, which would have helped during both the ascent and the descent. Unfortunately, on the second attempt I still did not have either gaiters or trekking poles. The ascent to the summit is difficult for several reasons: the steepness, the ladders, the section of brittle and frustrating rocks and pebbles (a very large section where for one step forward, you slide down two, which was so frustrating that on my first round, I stopped half way through it; it feels never ending), and the scrambling and climbing section where sometimes the route is so difficult to follow you have to make up your own.
Once you reach the top, you realise that you are not even at the actual summit; you need to go across the crater (it was snowy and the visibility turned very poor, so I had to follow other people’s steps/trails towards the summit section). When you finally arrive, you need to decide your own route to the summit point. I had to retreat behind a slab of rock to find some respite from the cold wind that was swiping the crater – I was at an altitude of 2500m, the wind was cold, there was snow and ice and the clouds had reduced the visibility. I will not deny that the descent was even harder than the ascent. The round trip was approximately nine hours – six for the ascent and approximately three for the descent. How I wanted to be in the hot sun again!
So, after these two different day-hikes, I felt it was time for my real personal challenge and I crossed the Cook Straight to the South Island.
Queen Charlotte Track
I started with the Queen Charlotte Track, which stretches approximately 70km from Ship Cove to Anakiwa and is just a water-taxi ride from Picton. The track is well marked, especially the last leg of the track which is shared with mountain bikes so is wide and easy. The elevation ranges from sea level to approximately 400m; except for some sections of steep uphill/downhill, most of the walk is flat, either along the coast or along the saddle with views of both Queen Charlotte Sound and Keneperu Sound. There are several private lodges and a few campsites managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), which are much cheaper and basic. On the DOC sites I went to, there were no hot showers, but you could plunge into the sea and refresh yourself before being targeted by sandflies. On this first track, I took soap and shampoo bars, which were useless, and too many spare clothes, but at least I carried the right amount of food. I completed the track in around four days, where the last day was just a 6km hike and then a long wait for the water-taxi to take me back to Picton.
Abel Tasman Coast Track
My next stop was the Abel Tasman Coast Track, a Great Walk and approximately 70km long, which I decided to do in five days. I chose it for the easy hike on the first and last days (well, the return to Totaranui via Gibbs Hill was not so easy). It was an incredible surprise. As the name suggests, the track mostly follows the coastline. All of the DOC campsites and huts are so close to golden beaches that you want to divide your time between an easy walk and basking in the hot sun. Another amazing experience was the plunge into the fresh and cold waters of Cleopatra’s Pool on my second day (highly recommended). There is one estuary crossing at Awaroa Inlet, which could be done only at low water, so you need to plan this in advance and, as this is a Great Walk, you need to book your accommodation before setting off.
The DOC website is comprehensive and booking online is extremely easy, otherwise you can just go to an i-Site (New Zealand's official visitor information network) or a DOC Visitor Centre for bookings and information (this is also valid for tramping tracks; it is surprising how easily it is to find all the information you need for each specific area/track). Others I met had decided to split their time between walking and kayaking – which ever way, you are going to be blown away.
Once I had completed the Abel Tasman, I was proud of myself. I had carried less and I was surprised by my level of fitness. The downsides were that I ran out of gas, so my last dinner was half-boiled noodles and I had no morning coffee (a tragedy in itself). And wekas – they would do anything to steal your food or waste bag. The flightless bird, almost resembling a weird chicken, are a native species and under threat unfortunately, but you would be surprised by their determination in getting what they are after.
The Copland Track
My next stop was the Copland Track, which is reasonably well marked and winds through the Copland Valley along the Copland River. It crosses rivers and creeks, scrambles between rocks and tree roots, negotiates deep mud pools and natural waterfalls via the cables of suspended bridges.
The Welcome Flat Hut and its hot pools (yes, natural hot pools generated by geothermic energy of the seismically active Southern Alps) is six to eight hours’ walk. It is also possible to continue the track up to Douglas Rock Hut (approximately three more hours) and even further up the Copland Pass, where the track becomes a route, so navigation skills, common sense and PLB are advised. From there it is possible to see Aoraki/Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. I stayed at the Welcome Flat Hut for two nights, intending to use the second day to walk to Douglas Hut, but I lost the track at Welcome Flat and I felt that the weather was turning, so I retreated in order to enjoy the hot pools all by myself. Because the track contours the valley, the exit is the same as the entrance, so you will have to follow the same track in order to return to the car park. In case the river close to the car park is flooded, there is a bridge to access/exit the valley safely.
Gillespie Pass Circuit
My final stop, for now, was the Gillespie Pass Circuit. This was an eye opener. The first section was difficult for me, as there were steep sections of scrambling uphill and downhill between rocks and tree roots. The route is marked but there are sections where you need to look carefully around you to spot the orange markers. You follow the Young River and there are a few areas of incredible beauty: you find yourself walking in the valley with the stunning view of the surrounding ranges and no one in sight… For me, this was exciting and scary at the same time. People knew where I was, but I realised that if something happened, I would be on my own. I made the mistake of not carrying a beacon with me.
The first stop for the night was the Young Hut. When I arrived, only one other guest was there, and it was nice to have a double bunk to myself! Later on, other guests arrived, including two brothers, who turned out to be my saviours the next day. During that night heavy rain arrived as forecast, and it continued until mid-morning. Once the rain stopped, the sky cleared and a discussion with the two brothers revealed that we were going in the same direction to the Siberia Hut via Gillespie Pass, so we decided to set off together. I wanted to do this part of the track with them; the previous day had given me a lot to think about, and I had to admit that I was scared to continue up the pass on my own, knowing from other trampers that it would only become harder.
It was the most sensible choice I had made in a long time: just after the bridge on the Young River, I put my right foot in a hole and sprained my ankle. After few moments of pain, my companions forced me to sit down and bandaged my foot, adding a thick sock I had, in order to minimise my ankle movements. If it had been just me, I would probably have tried to soldier on, possibly making it even more difficult to continue. Once the pain eased, we continued and approached the ascent: from 800m to 1600m in a few kilometres, where the track is just an indication. The pain increased as we proceeded but there were no other options; we had to try to get to the Siberia Hut before it was too late (from Young Hut to Siberia Hut is approximately 12km and the DOC estimation of nine hours, without stops, is not far off).
Once we finally reached the top, I realised that it was worth the sweat and the pain. The view of the Young Valley and Siberia Valley are outstanding, especially as Mount Awful still dominates above. There is a little portion of the track that follows the saddle and it is generally flat (of course I sprained the same ankle again, just putting down my foot on a rock, so this time I put my pride aside, we swapped backpacks and I took a couple of painkillers), and after that, what a descent! It got steeper and steeper as we moved from the rock/brush line towards the treeline. Once back in the forest, the pace had to slow down, and we had to step from one level to another between treacherous tree roots, rocks and mud puddles. Once we finally reached the Siberia Valley, darkness was approaching and we reached the hut 45 minutes later, pitch black, our steps illuminated by headtoches.
Dinner never felt so good and the ankle seemed ok… however, the next morning, after a chilly rush to the toilet (the DOC warden, Sally, told us that that morning the temperature was a low as -2°C), I discovered that the ankle was more painful and swollen than the previous night, so unfortunately I had to give up the idea of walking to the Cruciable Lake or even walking back to Makarora (an easy 22km walk in the valley, with a not-so-straightforward river crossing to reach the town). My last option was to take either an aeroplane, helicopter or jetboat; the last two were too expensive, whereas I was lucky that on that day a few aeroplane flights were planned to take the tourists up the Siberia Valley, and the airstrip was not that far.
The flight was a beauty: the view from above the valley and the northern end of Lake Wanaka was astonishing, and it was my first ever flight in a small tourist plane.
Unfortunately, after that I had to look from afar. Around Wanaka and towards Glenorchy a few tracks are still awaiting, like the Rees-Dart crossing (another 4/5 days tramping track that could be combined with the daily hike on Cascade Saddle to admire Mount Aspairing)… or the Routebourne track… Too many choices, not enough time for all, especially when you are just trying to slow down and get your ankle back to normal…