For as long as we can remember, New Zealand has been at the very, very top of our travel wishlist. This rugged island nation tucked far away in the southern Pacific has long captured our imagination, and, after seeing Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, we knew we would have to visit the land of Middle Earth at least once in our lifetimes. With its majestic snow-capped mountains, lush-green forests, ice-blue rivers and fiery volcanoes all on full display in the movies, our desire to photograph and hike in these stunning landscapes only grew more intense with the release of each subsequent film. Yet, for one reason or another, we never pulled the trigger.
When a former student of Matt’s brought him a rock from Mt. Doom and charged him with a quest to return the rock to the mountain from whence it came, the gauntlet was thrown, and we decided we would have to get to Zealand once and for all. Oh, but how to make it happen?
New Zealand is a long, long way from Chicago, making the timing of a vacation there that much more challenging. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, the North American winter is the perfect time to enjoy NZ’s summer, especially since trekking would, of course, be our primary mode of travel while in country. Unfortunately, teachers only get two weeks of playtime away from work during the Christmas/New Year holiday, and that has never seemed like quite enough time to enjoy a destination halfway around the world. After losing two days in flight, how much of the country’s natural beauty would we be able to enjoy before having to turn around and head back home?
After more than a decade at each of our jobs, we finally worked up the courage to ask our respective bosses for special consideration to take an extra week to turn our New Zealand dream into a reality. So, with permission from our administrators (thank you, dear principals!), we called up United Airlines, cashed in frequent flyer miles and booked our flights to Middle Earth!
Now, where to go? Visiting all the places we would like to see in New Zealand would probably take a few years, if not an entire lifetime. Over the years, we have learned to enjoy the art of slow travel, and, even with three weeks at our disposal, we decided on this first trip to concentrate our efforts solely on the South Island.
New Zealand is a legendary hiking mecca, and its incredible network of well-marked hiking trails through spectacular terrain is the stuff that hiker’s dreams are made of. With lodging often available in simple backcountry huts, multi-day hiking in this beautiful country is about as convenient as it gets.
In addition to the thousands of kilometers of “ordinary” amazing hiking trails, the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) has designated nine multi-day hiking experiences as “Great Walks.” These so-called “tracks”, as they are known,are touted as the country’s premiere walks, showcasing New Zealand’s most beautiful scenery and offering the flashiest backcountry huts to boot.
Tackling a few of the Great Walks seemed like the perfect introduction to tramping in New Zealand. The obvious problem, of course, is that everyone else visiting New Zealand has the exact same idea, making the biggest challenge booking lodging for each night out on the trail. Even tent space in high season can be hard to come by.
For the most popular hikes, it is recommended to book space as soon as the online reservations open for the year, and we were totally prepared to do that. Unfortunately for us, though, we thought the start date for booking was July 1. Everything we read in our guidebooks said this, but, unbeknownst to us, that date had changed to mid March! (It looks like reservations for 2018-19 will be opening sometime in April according to the DOC website.)
So, in late June, when we jumped online to investigate (we thought, ahead of time) how the reservation system worked, we were dismayed to discover that the reservation window had already been open for months and most of the dates during the busy holiday period when we would be there were already fully booked! In somewhat of a panic, we grabbed whatever was still available and breathed a huge sigh of relief to get anything at all.
New Zealand’s most famous tramp is the Milford Track, and this was booked up the moment it opened for reservation, so that was out. Bummer. We were, however, able to lock down three Great Walks: the Routeburn Track and the Kepler Track near Queenstown and Te Anau, respectively, as well as the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island.
The timing of the treks actually worked out in our favor as it allowed us a few days in country to recover from jet lag, explore the scenery en route and get a few warm up hikes in before the big journeys. It would also strike a nice balance between pre-booked experiences and free time to explore a bit of the island at our own pace.
We decided to fly into Christchurch and rent a car from there. Our first stop would be Mt. Cook/Aoraki National Park where we could get some pleasant day hikes in to ease back into backpacking shape. After a few days in the Wanaka and Queenstown area, we would tackle our three Great Walks, and then we would end our journey with a fun road trip along the Catlins Coast and around the Otago Peninsula before making our way back to Christchurch for our departure back home.
Stay tuned for a series of posts showcasing all of the incredible scenery and hiking terrain on offer from New Zealand’s stunning South Island!