Hiking through a microcosm of Earth
The shores of Lake Manapouri, where the waters are as warm as any lake on the South Island, just begging to cool your legs. (Ethan Todras-Whitehill)
If a traveller from another planet wanted to visit some of the Earth’s greatest landscapes, you might diplomatically send him to Nepal’s Himalayas for icy mountains, Tanzania's Serengeti for endless plains, Brazil’s Amazon for lush rainforests, Australia’s Gold Coast for beaches and the United States’ Yellowstone for volcanic splendour. Or, you might whisper, “Skip all that and just spend two weeks walking around New Zealand.”
From the semi-tropical beaches of Cape Reinga to the glaciers of Franz Josef, and from the fiords of Milford and Doubtful, over the Southern Alps, to the plains of Canterbury, New Zealand packs stunning examples of Earth's most beautiful ecosystems into a land mass the size of Colorado. Moreover, the hiking is some of the most hassle-free in the world, with no snakes, poisonous insects, large predators or even significant altitude to contend with, as the scenery at 4,000 feet rivals the Andes at 14,000. And best of all, with a full third of the country designated as National Parks and a hands-on Department of Conservation, the tracks are obsessively maintained, with backcountry huts that feel more like stripped-down inns. From north to south, four hikes provide a diverse sampling of New Zealand's ecosystems.
Tongariro National Park (also known as the setting for Mordor, the fictional universe of Middle-earth in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.)
Best known tracks: Tongariro Crossing/Northern Circuit
The North Island is not known for its multitude of mountains: the area's three lone peaks - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu - stand isolated, rising up from the surrounding farmland. The trio of volcanoes were donated to the British Crown and became the country's first National Park in 1894. The Northern Circuit circumnavigates Mount Ngauruhoe, better known to the world as the Lord of the Rings' Mount Dhoom. The four-day walk passes through old lava flows that have eroded into black-and-red sand deserts, dotted here and there with a hump of pale white moss or a spray of neon yellow wildflowers. The aridity and bareness of the place tends to leave trampers a bit shell-shocked when they pass from the edge of a desert into a dense beech forest slaked by a rushing river.
The most spectacular part of the trek is the second day, which doubles as the one-day Tongariro Crossing, the most popular one-day walk in New Zealand. Walkers climb to the base of Ngauruhoe in the morning (with many choosing to climb the absurdly steep ash cone as well), passing between Ngauruhoe and the once mighty Tongariro (now the exploded shell of a mountain more so than a real peak). But the main draw is the prism of geology on display: Red Crater, with its lip of deep purple, Emerald Lakes, with their popsicle-hued yellow and orange streams, and finally Blue Lake, the normality of its colour perhaps the most shocking of all against the unearthly surrounds.
Abel Tasman National Park
Best known track: Abel Tasman Track
In a country known for its mountains, the most popular trek is a beach walk. The Abel Tasman Coastal Track sees 30,000 visitors a year, with hikers and kayakers dipping in and out of its limestone coves and stopping to lounge on its white sand beaches. The jewel-like colour of the water as it shifts from blue to green to almost yellow invokes the North Island's volcanic region. Abel Tasman is flatter than most of New Zealand's walks, but it replaces climbs with a different obstacle: tides. Hikers have to decide if they are going to plan their whole day around low tide crossings or just walk the extra distances around the bays. Still, following the high tide crossing helps avoid the hike's other two pests: sand flies, which cannot fly as fast as people walk, and those pesky other hikers, who are probably looking for the same beachside solitude as you.
Arthur's Pass National Park
Best known track: Avalanche Peak