My New Zealand World Heritage Hiking Trip - Part 1

Susan Patterson shares her candid and often witty experiences while on a 13 day World Heritage Hiking Tour with New Zealand Trails.

Susan Patterson shares her candid and often witty experiences from their 13-Day New Zealand World Heritage Hiking Tour.  Hailing from Vermont in the US, Susan and Tom Patterson are somewhere deep in the wilds of Fiordland National at the time of publishing. In Part 1 Susan shares some interesting insites into New Zealand Geography, Tectonic Plates, Race Relations and her guide Andrew  - Enjoy

My New Zealand World Heritage Hiking Trip Part 1

Tom and I both think we are amazingly fortunate on our big adventure trip.  We expected a small guided group but, in fact, we are alone with our wonderful guide, Andrew Wells.  He doesn’t get off easily with two high needs semi-elders to take care of, but we get every whim and want completely catered to. We thoroughly enjoy spending our days with Andrew who is very knowledgeable, professional, friendly, competent, and caring.  He’s been a hiking guide for quite a few years in Switzerland as well as all over New Zealand, and personally traveled around the world for months as a young man. (He’s now 43 and admitted that he wouldn’t like his parents to be on his trips, but doesn’t mind his contemporaries’ parents – that would be us!) Andrew’s a big reader (currently on a Bill Bryson book) so he and I have exchanged lists of Great American Novels and Great New Zealand Novels, as well as talked about lots of books we’ve both read.  I feel like a have a personal tutor as we talk and discuss all kinds of interesting topics concerning the history, geology, botany, politics, socialism of New Zealand as well as climate change, American politics, the Great Recession, literature, etc. 

Each evening over dinner, Andrew carefully goes over the plans for the next day and then the next morning at breakfast Tom asks him what we’re going to do, and Andrew never minds going over everything again.  We are eating extremely well as Andrew is a bit of a health and fitness fresh foodie and yogi, and we’re definitely eating more gourmet than our usual diet. I’m really enjoying the stone fruits and oranges and fresh local foods we have every day.  Andrew does no food prep, but he has introduced Tom to his newest food obsession, “One Square Meal”, a Kiwi energy bar.  Tom only eats the chocolate flavored ones, but I enjoy both apricot and cranberry as well. New Zealand chocolate rates extremely highly with us.  Tom has a hot chocolate every day, made with NZ Jersey milk and NZ dark chocolate.  After trying a sip of Tom’s on day one, I’m hard pressed to stick to my tea.

Andrew has carefully vetted each café and restaurant or take-away sandwich place we eat from each day.  They are all excellent.  Andrew says the only complaint any of his clients have is that there is too much excellent food on his trips, and everyone eats more than they would at home.  I definitely am falling into that category, but am happy to see Tom eating better than he has for a couple of years since his sense of taste has changed and his favorite foods no longer tasted “right”.  He’s steadily lost weight, but isn’t during this part of the trip.

Pre travel blues & 'A poor man's trip around the world'

I picked up a United Airlines cold on the way to Hawaii.  While there I thought I was going to get off easily, but once in New Zealand, it blossomed into a true “bad cold.”  Andrew immediately got me vitamin C tablets, and a chemist chose a decongestant for me based on my symptoms, and I missed one afternoon hike to nap and now I’m definitely on the mend. This has been an unusually cool New Zealand summer on the South Island, very much like a cool Vermont summer.  I tossed in a little down puff jacket which I’ve been so thankful to have with me.  I’ve worn it part of most every day so far.

I learned on our first trip to NZ 25 years ago that NZ is called “A Poor Man’s Trip Around the World” because there are so many different environments and climates in the small space of two islands.  This was a new phrase for Andrew, but he has adopted it and is now using it back at us in his detailed commentaries.  We will be in six National Parks (Arthur’s Pass National Park, Paparoa National Park, Westland National Park, Aspiring National Park, Fiordland National Park, and Mt Cook National Park, the last four of which make up a World Heritage Wilderness Area (named Te Wahipounamu the place of greenstone in Maori) covering most of the southwest quarter of NZ.  Fiordland National Park itself covers 5% of NZ of the country and the World Heritage area covers 10%.

Intro to NZ - People, pests, tectonic plates, primary industry & Polynesians

New Zealand had no native mammals (with the exception of two bats) before human habitation so the bird life here was abundant and many bird species (like the kiwi) gave up flying since they had no predators.  The Polynesians who first arrived 1000 years ago and became the Maori brought rats and dogs with them.  The English brought cows, horses, sheep, pigs and rabbits.  Of course, the rats and rabbits quickly got out of hand so some rogue farmers brought in stoats and weasels to eat the rabbits.  Now, rats, possums, stoats and weasels have eradicated some of the native bird species and most of the rest are endangered.  Both the government and volunteer groups attempt to trap those four predators, at least in national parks and designated native life areas, but it’s a huge problem.  We met one morning in Arthur’s Pass National Park with the head of one of the volunteer organizations who gave us a great private presentation of his group’s work and demonstrated how the traps work.  NZ Merino Possum is a lovely soft (cashmere-like) mix of wools which I highly recommend for knitting and wearing, but it’s a drop in the bucket for getting rid of NZ possums.

The geology of the South Island is all about two plates – the Pacific and the Indo-Australian – pushing up against each other to form the Southern Alps which run nearly the length of the South Island.  They are magnificent and keep some of their snowfields as well as many glaciers year ‘round.  The lakes area below the center of the South Island has several very large and very deep north-south glacial lakes and lots of smaller ones.  New Zealand separated from the super-continent Gondwana about 80 million years ago.  Yet it is the newest country in the world, socially, as humans only inhabited the islands 1000 years ago.  It’s also one of the most geologically unstable as part of the Ring of Fire.  There’s a 40% chance of a major earthquake in the South Island in the lifetime of, say, Andrew, which would devastate and change the island beyond all recognition with 50 feet shock waves up and down.  Same goes for the North Island, but there it’s more likely to be a volcanic eruption, as there’s a semi-dormant volcano in the middle of the island, like Mt St Helen in Oregon.  So, if you’re hoping to visit NZ, you should come sooner than later – and bring your children and grandchildren, as it may not be here by the time they are able to come as retirees.

What constantly startles me is how undeveloped everything is on the west coast of the South Island.  Even lakes not in the National Parks have almost no development on them and few boats or activities (compared to the US).  Part of that is because the population of NZ is very low still for the land mass, part is that large land holdings by farming families that date back to early settlers go right down to the water, and part is that the lakes are very, very deep (like 1200+ feet) and never warm up.  Some west coast towns had much larger populations during the brief gold rush of 1860s than they do now. 

Primary industries now are dairy, beef, sheep, and tourism.  Officially, tourist ranks first in size in all of NZ, but that is because the government separates out daily from sheep farming.  Dairy itself is nearly equal to tourism.  But tourism employees the most people and it brings in billions of foreign currency, great for the country.  There are gobs of young people from all over the world working here in tourism (like my nephew Peter Davis over the NZ winter).  They can work for three months for the same employer, and then they go off traveling during the low seasons of spring and fall, and often return to work again.  That works very well for the high seasons when employers are looking for workers.

The primary Maori tribe on the South Island (Ngai Tahu) now has the right to all the greenstone (jade) that is mined here.  They sell it to artists and trades people and the profits are put to the benefits of the whole tribe.  Maori history among the different tribes and the history of the relationship between Maori and Europeans are very interesting and significantly different from the history of aboriginals in Australia or Native Americans in the US.  I will only say here, that NZ has done a much better job than either Australia or the US in integrating both ways – Maori culture permeates all of NZ culture and there is little to no discrimination shown to Maori peoples.  Intermarriage is common and totally accepted, Andrew says.  All children here learn the Maori language in elementary school.  Unfortunately, like all Polynesian groups, the Maori never had a written language; all knowledge, including navigating the Pacific over by stars thousands of miles in the triangle formed by Hawaii, NZ and Easter Island off South American, was handed down through chants repeated daily.  Once the generations here when Europeans came died out, much knowledge of the Maori culture died also.

Mostly due to my cold and early bedtime, I have gotten terribly behind in writing my blog.  Everyday has been chocked full of activities and attractions, and I fear the days are beginning to run together in my mind.  So, I will try to tell about the highlights of our “Travels with Andrew”.  If you’ve been to the South Island or are thinking about doing so, get a map out and follow along.

Day 1 - Christchurch, Arthur's Pass hiking and Kea

Andrew picked us up at our Christchurch B & B early Monday morning in a gleaming 10 passenger van with only three of us to knock about in.  Driving up to Arthur’s Pass we got to know each other, and Andrew told us about the Canterbury Region and Arthur’s Pass National Park.  The pass is one of three (four counting the Milford Pass road) over the Southern Alps Continental Divide.  Early settlers include a German couple who brought skiing to the Southern Alps.

On the way up to the pass we stopped first for morning tea at The Drovers Café in Springfield, then in the Canterbury High Country for our first walk (hike to us) up to a group of limestone boulders and ridges called Castle Hill from which we could see snow covered high peaks.  We picked up a packed lunch at The Wobbly Kea in Arthur’s Pass before our afternoon major hike up the Bealey Valley toward snowfields.  We hiked first on a nice track, and then a steeper trail, then over large stones alongside the river, and finally bushwhacked our way up to a second scree field on Rolleston Mt.  We decided that this was our test for Andrew to see what sort of hikers he had to deal with.  For my WofUVM mates, it was a true A Hike.  I’ve made huge progress recovering and reconditioning since my fall and breaks, but the last part to come back seems to be my balance (closely related to my confidence).  I found the rock climbing quite challenging and was worried about coming back down especially.  I decided to put my hiking sticks away and use veggie belaying and my butt coming down which worked well.  Andrew claimed we did just fine and there need be no adjustments to his hiking plans for us.  As I’ve walked more each day, I do feel my balance and stability improving.

We learned a lot about native New Zealand birds on the first day and saw several (Rock Wren, Rifleman, NZ Robin, Tomtit), but the highlight was getting reacquainted with Kea birds.  They are a large high alpine parrot, very smart and very cheeky.  We remembered them from hiking the Milford Track about 20 years ago with Bob and Martha Manning.  At the top of that pass, I set my pack (with lunch zipped inside) down to go take photos, and I think it was Bob who called to me that I was losing my lunch to a Kea who had unzipped my pack and taken out my sandwich bag.  Another time on that trek, Tom and I had to push a chair against our cabin door at night because Keas kept opening the door and coming inside.  We saw lots of Keas at the top of Arthur’s pass and then one landed very near us at the top of our hike up Bealey Valley.  The Great Spotted Kiwi lives in Arthur’s Pass National Park, but is strictly nocturnal, so no chance to see one in the wild.
Birdlife was so abundant here when Europeans arrived that the morning and evening chorus was deafening enough for the sailors to move their ships further out from shore.  That is the goal of the NZ conservation/environmental movement today – to restore NZ bird life to abundance again.

We spent our first night at Bealey Hotel outside Arthur’s Pass.  It was originally the first stage coach stop built on the old road over the pass and has a colorfully decorated bar with lots of old pictures.  It was also the last (supposed) sighting of a Moa bird which is extinct.   They were very large flightless birds, similar to Emu in Australia, hunted for their meat and feathers for cloaks by Maori.  The colorful owner of the hotel took a fuzzy picture of one in 1993 and stuck to his story that he was sure it was a Moa.  Press and tourists came from all over the world for years after as a result.

Day 2 - The TranzAlpine and Punakaiki on the West Coast

After breakfast, we met with Gerald, the head of the Arthur’s Pass Wildlife Trust for an interesting and enlightening hour of learning about invasive animals and attempts to curtail them to save native NZ birds.  Then Andrew took us a little ways back down the highway to the tiny settlement of Cass where we flagged down the Transalpine Train that runs from Christchurch (East Coast) to Greymouth (West Coast) over Arthur’s Pass and the Continental Divide. 

The train ride is rated one of the top six scenic train journeys in the world and has a couple of open air cars for picture taking.  Waiting for the train, we checked out the view of the Alps from Cass which has been immortalized in the most famous painting in NZ by Rita Angus in 1936 and reproduced in prints everywhere in the country.  We rode the train through Arthur’s Pass, through a 8 mile tunnel, then over viaducts, through  gorges, and across braided rivers to Moana, at the bottom of the mountains on the western side where Andrew and our van was waiting for us.

We drove on up the West Coast to Punakaiki and the famous Pancake Rocks.  We had stopped here with our kids and my mother on our first trip to NZ 25 years ago, and Tom loved them.  The phenomenon isn’t completely understood, but it’s an area of huge towers of layers of rock stacked like pancakes just off shore in the Tasman Sea.  Back in the day, we remember climbing out on the rocks themselves.  None of that nowadays as there’s now a very nice walk and railings keeping you off the rocks and a visitor center, café, and bathrooms across the road.

That night we spent at Punakaiki Resort where we availed ourselves of the laundry room, and had a nice beach campfire after dinner using driftwood on the beach next to the Tasman Sea.

End of ‘Part 1' - Go here to see the full gallery from Tom and Susan's trip.

Susan and Tom travelled with New Zealand Trails - small group guided walking adventures in New Zealand’s Southwest World Heritage Area - with 11 or 13 day tours starting in Christchurch and finishing in Queenstown or back in Christchurch again.  You’ll love guided walks on the New Zealand’s best tracks including the Routeburn, Hollyford and Milford Tracks.  As well as the great hiking you’ll never forget iconic activities such as the TranzAlpine train, the Mt Cook night sky, Fiordland helicopter ride and backcountry jetboat.  Expert guides and all the comforts of home with four star accommodation and award winning dining.

For more information please download a brochure or get in touch now.

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