ArchiveCategory Archives for "Oceania"
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Oceania.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Oceania.
Set on a 2,400-hectare working sheep and cattle station, The Farm isn’t yet 10 years old, but it feels like it’s been here forever. Perhaps the most beautiful of Julian Robertson’s stable of super-smart New Zealand lodges, it has 22 rustic-chic bedrooms and a wonderfully stylish private house, the Owner’s Cottage. All are dramatically positioned on a grassy ridge overlooking its superb 18-hole championship golf course and surrounding farmlands, with the orchards and celebrated winelands of Hawke’s Bay in the distance. On a clear day it’s possible to make out snow-capped Mount Ruapehu on the horizon. The main structures resemble a cluster of farm buildings, with a domed silo that houses a wine cellar in its basement and an intimate snug on the ground floor.
Throughout the property, wonderful farm-related objects – old tractor seats, metal cartwheels, wooden grain boxes – are deployed as artworks and the Colorado-based interior designer Linda Bedell has used plenty of tweed and leather to keep the rural dream topped up. Chef James Honore sources the best produce from this bountiful region – cheese from Havelock North, mushrooms from Napier, Hawke’s Bay lamb – and supplements them with his own home-grown sweetcorn, fennel, lettuce and tomatoes. From fresh laid eggs with crispy New Zealand bacon for breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen to pre-supper canapes by the open fire, The Farm really does deliver the whole New Zealand package – and on a wonderfully grand scale.
Somewhere above my head, R2D2 and the Clangers were having a right old ding-dong. At least, that’s how it sounded, filtered through a mass of heavily bearded branches. First a shrill volley of robotic whistles flew through the canopy. Back came a quizzical warbling, provoking a further barrage of trills, chimes and peeps. On the spat raged, accompanied by angry swishes as the combatants chased each other through the leaves. Finally, the adversaries emerged: not space raiders but a green -feathered korimako, or bellbird, retreating from a belligerent tui. In the depths of the Goblin Forest on Mount Taranaki, that fantasy sound battle seemed entirely in keeping: this photogenic volcano in the south-west of New Zealand’s North Island is genuinely Middle-Earth otherworldly.
True, Taranaki didn’t actually star in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings epic s (though it did body-double for Mount Fuji in Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai).
But its near-perfect cone, diverse habitats and Maori heritage are the stuff of travellers’ – and, particularly, trekkers’ – fantasies. Iencountered the avian rivals on a new walking route, the Pouakai Crossing, which winds around Mount Taranaki’s northern slopes. New Zealand’s second-tallest summit (2,518m), called Egmont by European colonists, has long been a magnet for peak-baggers. But this recently mintedi8.4km hike aims to attract those who might otherwise tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, 130km to the east – widely known as the world’s best one-day walk. I joined a small group to see how the Pouakai Crossing stacks up against its better-known rival.
In a land long ago… One benefit of the Taranaki trek is clear even before stepping out: it’s really convenient. New Plymouth Airport, served by numerous low-cost flights, is less than 30km north of the mountain; half an hour after my shuttle-bus pick-up I was clipping up my daypack at the walk’s start, North Egmont Visitor Centre. Alongside me on that balmy April morning was Nick Brown, my softly spoken, twinkle-eyed guide, and John Haylock, a local hiker and amateur geologist who provided a hearty helping of volcano knowhow. The visual treats began at a viewpoint a little above our drop-off.
To the north, surf rolled in to the shores of New Plymouth, guarded by the humpback Sugar Loaf Islands and Paritutu Rock. Behind us loomed the scarred slopes of Taranaki, and to the east, hazy on the horizon, rose the hefty cones of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – the volcanoes that form the backdrop for the more-famous crossing. Partly thanks to Hobbit celebrity, the popularity of the Tongariro Crossing has boomed over the past 15 years: more than 100,000 now hike between those forbidding craters annually. Yet while there’s no denying its muscular beauty, you won’t have it to yourself. In contrast, only a handful of walkers set out from North Egmont that autumn day, most heading for the summit -for now, a mere 2- or 3,000 tramp the path winding around Mount Taranaki each year.
Like any hiking trail worth its salt, the Pouakai is rich in heritage, human and natural. The history lesson started just steps from the visitor centre, at the Camphouse – “the old redcoats (British soldiers) building,” as Nick called it. This prefab corrugated-iron cabin was erected as army barracks in New Plymouth during the 1860s Taranaki land wars between local Maori and pakeha (European settlers). Relocated towards the end of the 19th century, today its abunkhouse used mainly by summiteers, and a reminder – the first of many – that this land was far from uninhabited before the British arrived.
The love lives of volcanoes – On this cloudless morning the peak seemed close enough to touch – though touching is unwise. “The mounga (mountain) is male, and the summit is his head,” explained Nick. “Standing, sitting or eating at the very top is considered tapu – very disrespectful.” I’d never really considered the sex of volcanoes until now. But in New Zealand, where legends come landscape-sized, it’s an important factor, as in the torrid rivalry between Taranaki and Tongariro, which goes back way beyond the creation of hiking trails. “Long ago, the Maori say, Taranaki lived with other volcanoes in the centre of the island,” recounted John. “He and Tongariro both fell in love with Pihanga, a beautiful female mountain – and fought a mighty battle over her. Tongariro triumphed, and Taranaki – his wounds still visible today – fled south, finally settling alongside his new partner, Pouakai.”
Quite a tale – but then this is quite a country. Beyond the Camphouse we mounted steps delving into Goblin Forest – not a Tolkien-esque invention but I a recognised term for this emerald woodland, furry with mosses, liverworts and ferns. Rarely has a wood seemed more alive, plants layered on other plants. And among the branches of the twisted kamahi trees I heard the weird warbling of the tui for the first time. “They’re angry little beggars,” smiled Nick. “And amazing mimics – they can even imitate cellphones.” This one, though, merely trilled and peeped, showing off its gleaming blue-black plumage and the white dog-collar tuft that prompted early settlers to dub it the ‘parson bird’. Egmont National Park, which embraces the mountain, is a birding hotspot, harbouring kiwis as well as rare whio (blue duck), which have been reintroduced to its remoter stretches.
Yet even here they’re not safe from predators; though New Zealand has no native land mammals, numerous stoat traps alongside the path betray the presence of rapacious invaders introduced by early settlers. After 20 minutes or so we punctured the treeline and veered west, the trail levelling out as we began to trace rather than bisect the contour lines. And over the following few hours the variety of the track became apparent. There’s curious geology, if that’s your bag. Mount Taranaki is classified as an active but quiescent stratovolcano: although it has snoozed for a couple of centuries, the volcano’s layers of ash, lumpy cumul o-domes, pyroclastic flows and lahars are testament to tens of millennia of eruptions.
Thick congealed lava streams streak its flanks like melting candle wax, or ice cream dripping down a cone. Under the Dieffenbach Cliffs we strode, a lofty organ-pipe rock formation named after the German-born naturalist who first conquered the volcano in 1839. Not that anyone really conquers such a giant; even on this relatively gentle track, it pays to be cautious. At Boomerang Slip, a sign warned us to proceed one at a time, and not to linger: landslides are common on these ever so friable mountainsides.
Stepping carefully – Then there’s the botany. Nick plucked fronds of edible kiokio (Tike cabbage leaves dropped in sand”), and pointed out rot-resistant totara trees, used by Maori for waka (canoes) and the central poles of whare (houses). We encountered several more reminders of the region’s Maori heritage along the trail. To our right, the Kokowai stream trickled into a smudge of rust-hued ochre deposits, coloured by iron and manganese oxide. This spot remains culturally important for Maori, who historically used ochre to decorate their faces, canoes and buildings. By midday the spring sun was sauteing the back of my neck a deep shade of red, and I was grateful for a lunch halt in the shade of Holly Hut.
Here Nick doled out a curious green nugget, a little like an unripe fig: my first ever feijoa. “it’s a Brazilian fruit that grows well here,” he explained, demonstrating how to score a line around its middle in order to suck out the floral nectar inside. Botanical connections with South America continued with sightings of relic species left when New Zealand separated from the ancient Gondwanaland supercontinent: rimu podocarp trees and tussocks of fluffy-headed toetoe, akin to pampas grass. From Holly Hut we descended to Ahukawakawa swamp, a grass-clad wetland fed by the Hangatahua (Stony) River, its waters tinted orange by more ochre. Despite its soggy under layer, Ahukawakawa looks for all the worldlike African savannah -I half expected to spot lions stalking buffalo among the tall grasses and sedges. Yet this serene swathe is a unique ecosystem home to endemic plants, rare birds, insects and – Nick insisted.
“People feed the eels, which return to the same spot each day in hope of a free lunch,” he claimed. A steep trail led us out of the swamp and onto the Pouakai range, among the skeletal, bleached-white trunks of pahautea (mountain cedars). These were the victims of either the saline sea winds or gnawing possums – more invaders introduced by 19th-century settlers. The ridgetop path dipped between rows of dense kamahi and kawaka trees, trunks twisted and gnarled – as they might well be, after seven centuries living with a grumpy volcano. Emerging from the woods, the path traversed a scrubby saddle, winding east to the showcase flourish. Pouakai tarn is an unremarkable sight in itself: a smallish, roundish pond.
But stand just to the north and you get the bigger picture – one that adorns countless postcards: Mount Taranaki, reflected and framed in the tarn’s still waters in all its symmetrical, multicoloured, majestic, mystical, grandiose glory. So, lpondered, Tongariro versus Taranaki: which triumphs in the day-trek stakes? It seems unwise to take sides in a tiff between volcanoes, but here goes. In terms of visual drama and scale, Tongariro’s craggy craters, fumaroles and colourful lakes have the edge. Yet the Pouakai’s less overt charms are many: it has turbulent geology, epic beauty, Maori heritage and diverse nature, but also delightfully sparse traffic – we passed only seven other trampers, three of whom were Department of Conservation workers. So for the sheer pleasure of walking, I’d have to pick the Pouakai Crossing, just don’t tell Tongariro.
Bawah Private Island, Indonesia – A part of Indonesia’s largely unknown and untouched Anambas Archipelago, Bawah seems primed to become a bragging-rights destination when it opens in 2017. Thirteen empty beaches and epic dive sites are a quick ferry and a one-hour flight from Singapore, meaning you can wrap up business meetings in the morning and unwind in one of 24 tented safari-style villas for the weekend before flying back to the States. From $2,500 for two.
Four Seasons Maldives Private Island Voavah at Baa Atoll, Maldives – When this seven-bedroom retreat opens this month, it’s certain to be the most laze-around-and-be-spoiled experience in the Maldives. It has a dive center, a spa, and a 62-foot yacht that can take you to surf spots. Want to Napa-up the food? They’ll fly in Thomas Keller. Want a celeb to join you? They’ll bring one in. Seriously. From $38,000.
Kokomo Island, Fiji – The cultural appeal here goes way beyond the Fijian burre-inspired design of the 21 villas (all with their own pool), which will open in mid-2017 onto the South Pacific’s Great Astrolabe Reef, the fourth largest in the world and a phenomenal dive site. Guests can explore the island’s archaeological site, and if you’re lucky you’ll come across some kava (yes, that’s the alcoholic mud the locals drink). From $2,600.
Six Senses Zil Pasyon, Seychelles – Once they open next year, these three- and four-bed-room villas on Felicite in the Seychelles are where you’ll want to put up the family. While adults zen out in the spa’s rock pool and hammocks that swing over the sea, kids can play pirate in a two-story tree house and go on treasure hunts. And when you’re ready to bond, your butler can make a family swim with sea turtles happen, too. From $1,340.
Thanda Island, East Africa – About 18 miles off the Tanzanian coast, it’s a sanctuary with one five-suite villa— and the dugongs, whale sharks, and sea turtles that call the surrounding marine reserve home. Guests can balance indulgence (copper tub bubble baths on the beach) with conservation projects like turtle tagging. From $10,000.
Gorge on Flavor While Hiking Through China – Nestled in the mountains of northern Yunnan, Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most rugged and scenic hiking spots in the world. Your reward for tromping over the steep trails between Lijiang and Dali? Some of the most delectable Chinese food you’ll ever have, served at a number of authentic guesthouses set up along the way. The Naxi Family Guesthouse is a highlight; a family-run operation that you can reach only by foot. It‘s a great place to meet other travelers and feast on regional specialties, including kung pao chicken. You’ll also get a kick out of western-themed options, like a sweet flatbread with banana slices. Everything is prepared using fresh ingredients from the mountains, making for an experience that can’t be had anywhere else.
Cook What You Catch In New Zealand – If you want to try your hand at living off the land, head to Big Bay, one of New Zealand’s most renowned surf spots Situated on the country’s southwestern coast just outside Mount Aspiring National Park. Big Bay has become a haven for foraging and cooking in the wild. Big Bay offers glassy swells, beautiful hikes, and an abundance of sea life to catch for supper. Awarua Guides hosts expeditions and provides tips for campfire cooking come sundown. You’ll feast on hand-caught lobster, mussels, and trout. When supplies run low, you can always make a run for the supermarket, which is Guides proprietor Warrick Mitchell’s loving nickname for the ocean. Meat eaters can enjoy venison caught in the hills surrounding the camp’s main cabin, which Mitchell’s parents built in the ’60s when they settled the area with a dozen other families.
Over my post graduation summer, before most young men my age would (or are supposed to) settle down into a life-long career and a solid ten-year financial plan, I decided to pack up my bags and spend three months working and backpacking through New Zealand. One of the months 1 spent woof-ing for a nice elderly couple who own a little farm growing hazelnuts, just an hour’s drive from Christchurch. I spent most of my days working and travelling around the country with them, experiencing what it truly feels like to lie treated like family in a total stranger’s home.
They taught me a very important life lesson: that we are all born equal, and that it is every person’s equal right to be loved. To love a stranger unconditionally, not knowing or holding against them who they are or what they did, that is something that I will never forget. Ever.
Unfortunately, what I only realised on hindsight was that summer in the Northern Hemisphere meant winter in the South. But beyond the constantly chilly hands, a close encounter with frostbite, and the tragic loss of a camera lens over a cliff, winter meant great opportunities for glacier hiking, comfortably uncrowded tourist spots, and spectacular sunrises. If I had to do it all over again, I would – but perhaps in the summer this time round.
It’s a wild, wild world out there – especially in the northern fringes of New Zealand. Filled with magnificent beaches, geothermal wonders and mysterious landscapes, the Northern Bay is brimming with great nature and even greater adventure. Start with a relaxing flight on Air New Zealand before heading to the iconic Bay of Plenty in Tauranga; grab a taste of the land’s bounty with lunch at the Mills Reef Winery, and gear up for a Waimarino Evening Glow Worm Kayak Tour, which will see you paddling through a moonlit cave filled with these luminescent critters. Hike the summit of Mauao or explore its base track through archaeological landmarks before unwinding with a relaxing dip in Mt Manuganui’s hot salt water pools.
En route to Whakatane, explore the world of honey bees, step into the enchanting forest of Tane Mahuta, or stop to savour the fruits of many a berry farm along the way. 49km offshore is White Island, a volcano that spews vivid hues of sulphur, which can be explored through scenic flight or helicopter. A Maori Cultural Tour will have you learning all about Maori legends, history and customs, complete with traditional hangi feast. In Taupo, aquatic activities await; take an adrenaline-pumping jet boat ride down Huka Falls or go prawn fishing at Huka Prawn Park. Rotorua, a popular tourist destination, is a geothermal wonderland renowned for its therapeutic mud baths; go on a magical tree-top adventure with Rotorua Canopy Tours, visit a unique farm experience at Agrodome, or relax with an indulgent spa therapy at Polynesian Spa or Hell’s Gate.
Then, of course, is the famed Matamata, the site of the Hobbiton Movie Set. Explore the remnants of the original Hobbiton village that appeared in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with a 2-hour guided tour. A short drive away, the sprawling Hamilton Gardens, a collection of 21 themed gardens ranging from Italian Renaissance and Tudor to the exotic Taj Mahal-inspired Char Bagh, beckons for that picture perfect shot.
Central New Zealand – After a luxurious flight on Air New Zealand, start your tour of New Zealand’s boutique cities at the international Art Deco icon of Napier, which rose to fame after a massive earthquake in 1931. Indulge in great local produce such as Manuka honey from Arataki Honey, luxurious lambskins from Classic Sheepskins, and fresh fruit from Pernei Orchard, before driving up to Te Mata Peak for a spectacular sunset view.
Wellington, dubbed ‘the world’s coolest little capital’, is famed for its vibrant arts and gastronomy and quaint harbour front setting. Here, a plethora of activities await – take a cable car up to Carter Observatory to visit planetariums and multimedia galleries; join a Zest Food Tour for some of the best-tasting produce in town; visit the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa for culture galore; and visit the Weta Cave Workshop for a behind-the-scenes peek into the world of blockbuster design and effects. As dusk falls, uncover the nocturnal world of glow worms, kiwis, and other birds with the Zealandia Night Tour.
Foodie adventures continue in Blenheim; taste New Zealand’s most awarded wines at Villa Maria or enjoy a sumptuous lunch with the world’s first Sauvignon Blanc in Brancott Estate. Marvel at Sir Peter Jackson’s personal collection of WWI aircraft and artefacts at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, or head down to unique Nelson to visit the World of Wearable Art and Classic Cars Museum, the latter boasting one of Australasia’s largest private collection of classic cars. End off with a beautiful picnic at the Abel Tasman National Park, filled with golden beaches and sculptured granite cliffs. The park’s world-famous track will see you hiking through ancient Maori sites to discover wild natives such as cormorants, gannets, and even fur seals as they sunbathe and swim the day away.
Money: NZ dollar
Health: Excellent facilities. Beware changing weather and strong sun
Get orientated. Rising magnificently from deep within New Zealand’s Southern Alps, the Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is located at the centre of the South Island’s humped glacial spine. Taking its name from 3,754m high Mount Cook (first ascended 120 years ago in 2014), the park contains 19 peaks over 3,000m, and covers a whopping 700 sq km. Around 40% is covered by glaciers, including New Zealand’s longest, the 27km-long, 3km-wide Tasman Glacier.
Getting there. The easiest way to get to the national park, which is located off State Highway 80, is to hire a car; it’s a four-hour drive west of Christchurch and a three-hour drive north of Queenstown.
Intercity Coachlines runs daily services from Christchurch and Queenstown to the park . Alternatively, catch a public bus to the towns of Twizel or Lake Tekapo; from there, Cook Connection runs shuttlebuses to and from Mt Cook (Oct-May).
It takes 12 minutes to walk across Auckland at its narrowest point. Let me elaborate. The North Island of New Zealand, of which Auckland is the largest city, looks like a fish with its head pointing south. At roughly the base of the fish’s tail, two decent-size bites have been taken out of each flank, leaving two harbours. Central Auckland fills the isthmus in between. Maori dragged their canoes across the isthmus here, on what is now known as Portage Road. At an intersection, a weathered plaque informs passers-by that this kilometre-long connection “must be surely the shortest road between two seas anywhere in the world.” There’s a volcano nearby, and I climb it. Auckland is a city of volcanoes.
Fifty of them lie within a 19-kilometre radius of downtown. They have been erupting for a quarter of a million years. The most recent—and the biggest—was Rangitoto, an island on Auckland’s front doorstep. The volcanoes blew’ up, and then they went extinct. Not one of them has erupted twice, but the magma field beneath the city is still alive. Between a hundred and a thousand years from now, say the volcanologists, it will give fiery birth again. Fourteen of the city’s volcanic cones have been returned to Maori ownership. I’m not Maori, but it matters to me that the people of the land have been given back their ancestral peaks. Maori named and knew all these volcanoes.
They terraced them for gardens, built redoubts on them, fought bloody battles to defend them. When they recount the history of Auckland (which they know as Tamaki Makaurau—Tamaki of a hundred lovers), their words swoop like seabirds across the many summits as they name the cardinal points of their tribal geography. I envy their connection to place. I have lived 54 of my 57 years in this city, but I seem to have occupied it without really inhabiting it. Kentuckian author Wendell Berry says you can’t know who you are until you know where you are. What seems important to me now is not just to be aware of my place but to be alive to it. So I stand on a cattle-cropped summit and pay my respects to a 30,000-year-old mountain.
This time of year—July—sees the rising of the star cluster, Pleiades in the night sky. To Maori it is Matariki, the pivot of each year. The old people often die at Matariki. They see it as a time for the changing of the guard. The old net is put away, they say, and the new net goes fishing. I head west to the mountainous rim of the city, the Waitakere Ranges. Logged for its prime timber a century ago, this 24-kilometre stretch of rugged forest is now a heritage area, criss-crossed with trails, a green rampart between the city and the coast. I cycle the ridge road through thin drifts of cloud, the forest s exhalations. It would be easy to get a crick in the neck on this road, self-evidently named Scenic Drive, where tree ferns lean into the roadway and forest birds soar overhead.
A short walking track takes me to a solitary kauri. If I had a totem tree, the kauri would be it. Kauris have trunks like stone columns and crowns that spread like worshipping arms. In those crowns live multitudes. Perching plants build miniature forests in the forks of the branches. No one knows how many creatures live in these islands in the sky. I’ve climbed into these crowns and felt I was in a foreign country.
Beyond the western range lies an even wilder side to Auckland. Here the mountains fall sharply into the Tasman Sea. Powerful surf pounds this coast incessantly. Most of the beaches have black iron sand, which heats up in summer to almost untreadable temperatures. But it’s winter, and on a windy Saturday afternoon at Te Henga, the surf is too big for swimming, the undertow too strong. I wade in as far as I dare. I grin wildly as the water sucks at my legs. I’m drawn to these city fringes—the harbours, mountains, islands, and coasts—but I’ve also learned to look for the wild in the cracks of the tame. Jogging distance from my suburban home, there’s a creek that runs in a deep valley between a commuter road and a sprawling university campus. Few Aucklanders know it exists, but it’s become the place I go to be stitched into the fabric of the world.
A century ago, Englishman Rudyard Kipling commemorated Auckland in a poem. It was the first poem I learned at school, and, even to a child, the first line struck a plangent chord: Last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart. Auckland’s a grown-up city now. Like any city its size, Auckland has money on its mind. As if 50 volcanoes weren’t a sufficient visual signature, the city fathers decided 20 years ago to erect a 1,000-foot-high tower in the heart of the commercial district. But down by the creek, or in the forest, or on a wind-lashed shore, Kipling’s words still hold true. These are places of loneliness and loveliness, places apart. These are the places that hold me.
Get orientated – Westland/Tai Poutini National Park is the ideal space to let your inner explorer off the leash. The park stretches from the top of the Southern Alps in the east to the Tasman Sea in the west, and its dramatic glaciers, dense rainforest, coastal lagoons and vast lakes make it a haven for walkers and climbers. One of its highlights – the Roberts Point Track – is set to reopen by March 2015; it has been closed since sustaining severe flood-damage in 2013. Starting at Douglas Bridge, the route meanders through Waiho Valley, across ice-carved rock, glacial outcrops and a vertigo-inducing suspension bridge, rewarding visitors with panoramic vistas of peaks and ice caps, including Franz Josef Glacier.
Getting there – Emirates flies London Gatwick-Christchurch from £826 return; flight time 30 hours with stopovers. The easiest way to reach the national park is by car. Located off State Highway Six, Westland/ Tai Poutini is a 5.5-hour drive from Christchurch. Alternatively catch an internal flight from Christchurch to Hokitika and then drive (90mins). The Roberts Point Track is accessible via the Douglas Walk from Franz Josef Glacier car park.
The visit – The park’s biggest draws are its 60 staggering glaciers, in particular Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers – the largest. For glacier views without having to step on the ice, the Roberts Point Track is your best bet. You can buy trail maps and find the latest weather forecasts at the DOC Westland/Tai Poutini National Park visitor centre. Beware of changing conditions; the weather can worsen suddenly so organise your trip wisely and make someone aware of your plans. Checkwww.doc. govt.nz for opening updates. There’s more to the park than glaciers, though. Also explore its lowland rainforests and coastal wetlands and lakes, such as the calm, reflective waters of Lake Matheson. These areas are perfect for wading birds: see threatened great-crested grebe at Lake Mapourika, elusive white heron at Okarito Lagoon and endangered rowi – the country’s rarest kiwi – in the forests.
I wiggled my toes on the rock, its cool, smooth surface chilling the soles of my feet. I thought, if I don’t jump now I never will… So, one big step forward and I plunged beneath the water, emerging with a gasp, a shudder – and a massive smile. I swam towards the waterfall at the far end of my private swimming pool’, stroking through the ice melt, feeling its cold embrace. I looked up at the ribbon of water plunging over the sharp edge of the rocky escarpment in front, and wondered at its power.
This clear, crisp water was, until recently, frozen in the lake above; now it would make its way down through the Southern Alps, following the same path as the glaciers that formed this dramatic alpine landscape thousands of years ago. It seemed unbelievable that this water, currently falling as mere droplets and collecting in a small placid pool, could be stronger than the rock it was cradled by. I was blown away by its strength – and yet, almost more unbelievable was the fact that I had this landscape all to myself.
I was at the end of day two of my walk along the 32km Routeburn Track, which links Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks. The three-day tramp through meadows and forest, past lakes and tarns, is one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’, a series of nine well-maintained tracks through some of the country’s most dramatic scenery – and yet it is largely quiet. Maintained by the Department of Conservation, the Routeburn Track is well-defined and easy to follow, making it perfect for independent hikers. It is even carved up into manageable sections, bookended by huts that have toilets, running water and cooking facilities. So why had I only seen a handful of people all day? Why don’t more people hike this trail?
The answer lies a few clicks west: the Milford Track. Another of the Great Walks, this 53km hike through Fiordland National Park is said to be one of the finest in the world; it steals all the headlines and tops all the ticklists. Given its proximity to the Routeburn, most trampers who come to the area opt to walk Milford instead. But to me, this seemed foolish. Not only do some believe the Routeburn to be more beautiful that Milford, its location is ideal for those wanting to link two of South Islands big hitters. Starting just 68km north-west of adventure-capital Queenstown, and finishing close to Milford Sound, the Routeburn offers a tranquil conduit between them.
ON THE TOWN – There was less tranquility in Queenstown. For years travellers intent on getting away from it all in New Zealand’s sublime South Island have congregated here, filling the bars with tales of adventure – and complaints about how too many people have followed their trail. It’s a common gripe as popularity turns into commercial success. But although Queenstown has embraced its status as New’ Zealand’s all-action hub it remains a small town at heart and there is a strong sense of community – albeit a transient one.
Here I met effusive travellers who waxed lyrical about lakes and forests, and I gathered advice on everything from rucksack size to sock brand from hardened hikers. I also picked up information on the Routeburn from the Department of Conservation office, where you must book tickets and accommodation for the track. I was itching to get out on the trail but there is something seductive about Queenstown; something in the air that makes you do mad-cap things you wouldn’t usually contemplate.