Glaciers, Fjords, and Mountains: Hiking New Zealand's South Island

  |  Gorp.com

This may be the only place in the world where you can stand in a rainforest and gaze out through a mantle of giant ferns and hanging moss at a 200-foot thick, five-mile long river of ice directly below you. (If you were pitching a screenplay about the place, you'd call it "Hawaii meets Switzerland.") The South Island has eight national parks that encompass world-class glaciers, a chain of rugged snow-capped mountains where Sir Edmund Hillary trained for Everest, fjords that rate right up there with Norway and Patagonia, semi-tropical rainforest beaches, mirror-smooth lakes, tumbling whitewater rivers, as well as dozens of lesser but still spectacular mountain ranges that will keep a "tramper" (local argot for hiker) busy for a lifetime. All this in a place the size of Florida—with one-tenth of the population.
Hiking in New Zealand has a European flavor, with a broad network of well-maintained trails and huts. Some areas have an American flavor as well, with trails that meander through huge cattle and sheep stations (i.e. ranches) reminiscent of Montana. The famous five-day Milford Track is promoted as "The Most Beautiful Walk in the World," and it may well be, but there are a number of other less-known routes worthy of the name.

Practically Speaking
Tramping is a long tradition in New Zealand. Because of its well-established system of trails, substantial huts, and "bivvies" (small, rudimentary shelters), the South Island is ideal for independent tramping. Maps and guidebooks (in English, of course) are widely available, the trails are well maintained, and huts are spaced at one-day intervals along most major trails. Moreover, there are plenty of campgrounds along major roads for between-hike stays. It's quite possible to hike New Zealand on $20 a day in food, bus fare, and camping/hut fees.
More upscale accommodations are available, of course. Simple "motor camps"—modest motels with cooking facilities—run $30-$50 per night for two people. More elaborate lodges and B&Bs typically go for $50-$100 a night. A number of U.S. outfitters offer all-inclusive multi-day hiking tours of the South Island. Most run 10-16 days and cost from $160 to $250 per person per day. Local New Zealand outfitters run group walking/hiking trips as well, at about the same prices.
Be sure to take good rain gear. Except along the northern coast, rain is a normal part of any New Zealand hiking trip, although you will have beautiful sunny days as well. The prime hiking season is November through March, the Down Under summer. Be wary of January, the traditional Kiwi holiday month, when trails and huts can be

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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