I had been hearing about New Zealand as a unique and special place for years, and without much expectation, hoped one day to visit. When I saw that the National Outdoor Leadership School, who I have been working with and for for 15 years had an alumni course hike in New Zealand, I said, “Here’s my chance!” and jumped on it and signed up to fly halfway around the world and finally visit New Zealand.
I gave myself a few days in NZ on either end of the 6 day hike so that I could see a bit more of of the country than simply the trail and the mountains. The whole experience was special, and what I had planned to be my one visit to New Zealand before I quit travelling, turned into what I hope will be my first visit to New Zealand. I plan to return.
I only got to see a bit of New Zealand, but enough to give me some impressions that I think hold water. I will summarize my trip in the two parts of how I experienced New Zealand: The Hike, and My Impressions of New Zealand.
THE HIKE WAS AWESOME: We hiked the Heaphy Track, the longest of the ten Great Walks New Zealand advertises. It is in the North West corner of the South Island in the Kahurangi national park, in what is called in New Zealand the “Southern Alps.” The trail was supposedly built on an old Maori trail that led from Golden Bay to the mouth of the Heaphy river. The hike was challenging enough to be interesting, the setting was truly wonderful, we had pretty comfortable digs at night, good food, great company, and not too long. Pretty awesome trip!
- DURATION: We were out 6 days and 5 nights and hiked a bit over 50 miles, an average of about 10 miles a day. Elevation gain and loss was relatively gradual. The trail was immaculately cared for and maintained, and easy to walk.
- THE GROUP: There were 5 NOLS alums on the hike, all well over 60, two women, three men, including two in their 70s, all fit, healthy, experienced hikers and campers, and damn glad to be there! Our two instructors were an engaging and very experienced Aussie couple in their early 50s who fit in well with our group and led us well. All of us in the group were/are intrepid adventurers well into middle age, who are on a path which seeks new adventures and experiences. For each of us, hiking New Zealand was part of that journey.
- BACKPACKING. We carried our own packs, to include food, sleeping bags etc. Pack weights ranged between 30 and 40 lbs at the outset depending on the individual, with all our food, personal and group gear. As we ate down our food, our packs became lighter.
- COMFORT: Our evening destinations were huts that had hostel-like bunks with padding but no sheets or pillows, flush toilets, kitchens with unfiltered running water piped in from nearby streams, and gas stoves, but no electricity and no trash cans. We cooked in the kitchen with others who were staying in the hut, carried
out all our trash. Our “youngster” instructors graciously carried a bit more weight than we did, and cooked us some great meals (we helped some.) Each hut had a path to a stream or natural water source (which they called “the spa”} for no-soap bathing or a dip in the cold water.
- ECOLOGY: The hike went thru 6 different eco-systems, starting in the mountains, ending on the coast, with the most bio diversity I’ve ever seen. Two in our group were experienced botanists and birders; hiking with them through that environment was like being in a masters class on tree, bird, bush, shrub recognition and ecology. I often felt like a red-necked bumpkin walking through the Louvre with a couple of art historians! I was fascinated with what their eyes saw that mine didn’t, and with their discussions about what they found.
- CLIMATE: We expected but didn’t get any rain. It was summer down in NZ – daytime temps in the 70s, night time temps 50s and 60s. Pretty much like San Diego weather.
- ANNOYANCES: No snakes, charismatic mega-fauna, or any concerns for threats like that. Sand flies were the biggest annoyance – tiny no-see-ums with a bite like a chigger or a spider, that you don’t feel, until it itches like crazy. Scratch it, it bleeds, and then it doesn’t heal. Also around the huts we had to watch out for the wekas – a NZ bird that looks like a cross between a chicken and a small turkey, but like crows, will run off with anything you set down. I not-so-affectionately called them the wuckin’ fekas. Otherwise no animal or insect annoyances.
WHAT IMPRESSED ME ABOUT NEW ZEALAND. Half of my stay in NZ was before and after the hike when I was able to spend a few days each in Christchurch and Nelson. I also had a few long drives through the country-side during my stay which gave me some additional perspectives. Here are my impressions.
- CLEAN. What struck me most about New Zealand was the emphasis I saw everywhere in preserving the beauty and integrity of the natural environment. I saw virtually no garbage – on the trails, in the cities, nowhere. The river that ran through Christchurch was crystal clear – I could see every stone on the riverbed and felt I could take my canteen cup and drink right out of it. In fact, that was true of EVERY river I saw in New Zealand.
- RURAL AND AGRICULTURAL. On the several long rides through the country we saw lots of farmland and much of the country reminded me of Sonoma County in Northern California. Lots of sheep, a fair amount of cattle, and a couple of red deer farms -yes – deer raised on farms in fenced in fields, happily grazing, eventually to become venison.
- AN ECO-AWARE COUNTRY. There is a very strong focus on preserving their unique biological heritage – birds, plants, animals. There is an ongoing effort to rid the country of “invasive species” – especially predators (stoats, rats, and possums) that have decimated their unique bird population. The whole country seems to be aware and proud that nearly 3/4 of the species in NZ are unique, and from what I saw, there is a clear nationwide goal to preserve them, since many are endangered.
- LESS URBANIZED. I had heard that NZ was like America 50-75 years ago. I’d amend that by saying the best of what America was like 50-75 years ago, combined with the best of America today. Small towns along the coast, without all the hotels and big box stores. A lot less traffic. Relatively affluent – I didn’t see any poverty (which I know doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.) Simpler life-style, with people in less of a hurry, more trusting and friendly. Getting on the airplane in Nelson, there was no security check – just show your boarding pass and get on. Like getting on a bus. And less aggressive security in Auckland and Christchurch airports, and security personnel were friendly and personable – which I’m not used to!
- STREET ART. In both Christchurch and Nelson there was an abundance of pretty
amazing street art – paintings, and sculptures and quirky little additions that added to the playful and light-hearted feel of the place. Sometimes it felt a bit like the 1960s meet the 21st century.
- MAORI CONNECTION. I had read several books on New Zealand’s Maori past and influence on their culture, and you see it everywhere – all the signs were in English and Maori, and carvings and other Maori designs were everywhere evident. That said, I saw very few actual Maori people or manifestations of the current Maori culture, which makes me wonder how deep that connection really is today, and whether it might be largely PR gloss, like kilts and haggis in Scotland.
- OUTDOOR CULTURE: There are 10 great walks in NZ, 13 national parks and a host of mountains and kayak-ready rivers. These attractions draw outdoors people from around the world and I saw a lot of evidence that many New Zealanders themselves are active in the outdoors.
- POLITE AND PROFESSIONAL. The bus drivers, taxi drivers, waiters/waitresses, shopkeepers – all were polite and professional and seemed to be happy, in a way that harkens back to older times or other countries. I and others noticed this – I didn’t sense what I often sense in America – a chip on the shoulder projecting: “I deserve much better than this, and I don’t want to be here. And so, I’m pissed off. And I want you to know it.”
Also, there is no custom of tipping and the service I got was great. It was awkward when I wanted to leave a tip – kinda like offering to tip your neighbor for giving you a hand with carrying in the groceries. There’s no spot on the credit card bill for a tip. When I asked how to express my appreciation for great service, the waiter told me, “Just say thank you.” How un-American!
- PRICES – You spend New Zealand Dollars. Prices comparable to or a bit less than US prices. The exchange rate is a favorable $1 USD = $1.46 NZD.
- A FEW OTHER INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT NEW ZEALAND
- 1/3 of the country’s land area is managed by their Dept of Conservation.
- They have 14,000 km of hiking trails and 960 managed huts and 330 campsites for hikers and campers. Amazing for a country this size, with a population less than San Diego!
- 70% of their birds, and 80% of their native invertebrates, reptiles, bats, frogs, etc are found nowhere else in the world.
- 80% of New Zealanders visit public conservation land every year.
- Books I’d recommend:
- Come on shore and we’ll kill you and eat you – a New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson (see my review)
- The Whale Rider, by Witi Ihimaera (see my review)
- The Penguin History of New Zealand by Michael King. The part of this book that I have read is quite good. One in our group was reading the entire book and was very impressed with how interesting and well written it is.