The 13-Day World Heritage New Zealand Hiking Trail – Am I up for the Challenge?

With such iconic names as the Milford, Routeburn and Hollyford tracks walk including Arthurs Pass and Mount Cook, National Parks and Fox Glacier.  The New Zealand Trails - World Heritage New Zealand Hiking Tour ticked all the right boxes - but was I up for the challenge? I certainly wasn’t anywhere near ready to hang up my hiking boots, although they have been sitting around gathering moss for some time.  It was a fantastic opportunity and I had to think hard, after all this was nearly a two-week long hiking tour.

Sure I was a little hesitant, I’m a busy guy, a father of two and yep a proud owner of a couple of minor love handles, however, I don't consider myself unfit, I lead a busy life and just don’t have time to go to the gym. Its incidental fitness that I’m into, you know, walking up the stairs to work, taking the kids swimming (which does require poolside pacing).  Decisions Decisions...

I needn’t have worried, as it turns out this trip was designed for people like me, people that love the great outdoors, enjoy a good walk but don’t want to break any speed records and above all enjoy the comforts of home accompanied with great food and wine at the end of a day. And I was in good hands, the guys running the tour were hiking veterans that had guided on all of our significant tracks (Milford, Routeburn included) over the last few decades and enhanced our experience sharing with us a deep insight into the land, its people, history, and the flora and fauna.

 

Day 1) Hiking Castle Hill & Arthur’s Pass National Park

Castle Hill

I always have a little laugh to myself the way our Department of Conservation (DOC) place signs on areas of national significance, they look a little out of place. Take our first stop Castle Hill for example; its a fantasy-scape group of limestone rock formations looking like (you guessed it) ruins of a large castle on a hill, but just like the birthday cake in the bakers window DOC has a neat label stating ‘Castle Hill’ – Anyway the walk that circumnavigates the feature is very 'Out of this World', the formations are awesome. The highlight for me was seeing 600-year-old Maori Rock Art, this would have been a great place for the early Moa hunters to hold up as they journeyed between hunting grounds. 

Arthur’s Pass National Park

As we enter Arthur’s Pass National Park, everything changed, the air is crisp and high-country evident, the Majestic Southern Alps make an appearance, beckoning you further into the National Park. This was my first time hiking in Arthur’s Pass and as we followed our guide up the stunning Bealey Valley we encountered ancient beech forest and alpine wetlands. Further up we found ourselves following a crystal clear mountain stream to the edge of the alpine zone and were rewarded with views up to Mt Rolleston and her permanent glaciers. This was a perfect start to my two-week adventure, not too hard to start with and plenty of vistas to stimulate your senses.

Day 2) Tranz Alpine Train and the West Coast

After a great nights sleep and hearty breakfast we were off to the classic ‘Cass’ train station, made famous by the renowned New Zealand artist Rita Angus, prominent in the 1930s, her Cass train station portrait is now considered to be one of our iconic images of 20th-century and amazingly this quintessential New Zealand country station hasn’t changed one bit since she painted it in 1937.

The drive to the West Coast, even on a bad day, is a visual feast but the Tranzalpine train journey was just the ticket. I fidget in a car at the best of times and being able to spread out and wander around with coffee taking in the scenery is a luxury worth indulging. On disembarkation we had lunch on the deck of a very quaint café overlooking lake Brunner - life is good! The West Coast town of Punakaiki is one of those places you just don’t want to leave, lush forest and nīkau palm tree endemic to this region grow right down to the vast wild west coast beaches. Watching the sunset around a fire on the beach with wine and cheese and stories from old, it was a perfect end to day 2.

Day 3 ) The Beautiful Nile River and Caves

Just down the road in Charleston, home of the Nile River and surrounding primordial rainforest - amazing, you expect T Rex to come roaring out and grab you, the BBC's “The Lost World” was filmed here so you know you are somewhere special. The Charleston Glowworm Caves are something else, I have personally been into a dozen glowworm caves in New Zealand and these are by far the most impressive, the share volume of glowworms is incredible. We had opted for the wet trip so were in wetsuits and floating on our backs on a truck inner tube, the water wasn’t particularly deep but being able to drift in the blackness staring up at millions of twinkling glowworms was a very relaxing and peaceful experience. I Loved day 3 and was very pleased to be again back in Punakaiki staying in my beach-side hotel.

Day 4) Okarito Lagoon

So it was day 4 and we were heading down the West Coast to Okarito Lagoon and I had no idea what this was going to be like. The tiny settlement of Okarito is very isolated and some of the residents include people like the New Zealand Booker Prize-winning author Keri Hulme, eccentric to say the least. The lagoon itself was very large, New Zealand’s largest we were told and mostly surrounded by dense forest and overlooked by the towering Southern Alps. Home to well over 70 species of native bird, Okarito offers a rare opportunity to silently glide in and view the birdlife without scaring them off, my highlight was we managed to get very close to a rare Kotuku (White Heron).

Interested in Bird Watching or Wildlife? Check Out - The North Island Birding and Wildlife Tour

Day 5) The River of Ice

A morning guided glacier hike up to and on Fox Glacier is an invigorating way to start the day and with an hour on the river of ice with our specialist glacier guide makes lunch around the tranquil Lake Matheson all the more worthwhile. Then it's down the West Coast and into the famous Mount Aspiring National Park, over the Haast Pass, and into the Wanaka Lakes Area. A lakeside room is just the ticket for a relaxing night in Wanaka.

Interested in Alpine or Glacier Walking? Check Out - The 7 Day Southern Alps Circuit Itinerary

Day 6) Mou Waho Island Nature Reserve

A Morning cruise up the lake gets us to Mou Waho Island, a bird sanctuary and starting point for our eco hiking tour. Accompanied by our long term resident guide and eco-warrior we learn the Maori history and meet the various native bird populations. The hike to the top of the island revealed another beautiful lake with fantastic views up Lake Wanaka (a lake on an island that's on a lake that's on an island) -  a gem of a day. Next, it’s over the Crown Range into the Wakatipu basin and onto Queenstown the countries adventure capital. This mountainside village is a great place to spend a couple of nights and has a great selection of restaurants, clubs, and pubs.

Interested in Bird Watching or Wildlife? Check Out - The South Island Birding and Wildlife Tour

Above: Guide Chris Riley knows his stuff and in good old Kiwi colloquial slang, he's known as a 'good joker' and a veritable walking encyclopedia of local knowledge.

Day 7 ) The Routeburn Track

Up with the sparrows we travel to the far end, the Glenorchy side, of Lake Wakatipu for a full Day-walk on the Routeburn Track. This part of the Routeburn has something for everyone certainly the massive beach tree’s impress as you follow the Routeburn River up to the valley. The ferns, mosses, and ground-cover between the trees are impressive and the higher we go the wilder the river is and the flats, when encountered, is totally unexpected and exactly that - ‘Flat’, long grass completely covers the plain that runs between three mountain valley and hides even the river. This so-called “Flat” is home to some amazing birdlife and we were lucky to see the very rare mohua/yellowhead a small, insect-eating bird which lives only in the forests of South Island. I opted to hike up to the Routeburn Falls, which is a good hours climb - certainly worth the effort. I think the way this trip has been planned is perfect and over the course of the 13 days, the physical excursion required gradually intensifies allowing you that extra bit of push if you want to extend yourself to see a little more on the walks. These options are available without disrupting the group.

Interested in the 3 Day Routeburn Track? Check Out - The 13 Day Routeburn Track and Other Iconic Walks

Above: Our lead guide Andrew from New Zealand Trails explaining the Flora and Fauna on the Routeburn Track.

Day 8) Gibbston Valley Wine Walk

The Gibbston valley makes for a very nice walk. Following a well-built trail down beside the Kawarau River, the lookout points along the river were exceptional with awesome views along this steep Central Otago River. The obvious highlight of such a walk in the vineyards and the award-winning Pinots, but as well as wine, the Valley is known for its delicious cheese and I picked up a sheep's milk cheese and it went down very well washed down with a wee Pinot picnicking on the banks of the Kawarau down from the Waitiri Creek winery. We did an amazing tasting at Peregrine Winery and spent some time at Gibbston Valley Winery, all very worthwhile.

NB All my photo's seemed to come out blurry on day 8  - sorry about that :)

Day 9) The Big Day Out

Morning: Milford Track Walk

We are up very early this morning as we had a big day ahead of us, firstly we cross Milford Sound by boat and are delivered to Sand Fly Point – I have to say the view from the stern of the boat back to Milford and staring at Mitre Peak would have to be the best view in the country – Picture Postcard. From here it is a beautiful walk up the Milford Track following the river to the spectacular Giant Gate Falls – they say there are 50 Shades of Green on the Milford Track, but this little walk must have produced an easy 100.

Interested in the 5 Day Milford Track? Check Out -  The 12 Day Milford Track & World Heritage Westland

Off to the remote Martins Bay by helicopter and up the Sound itself, this trip truly gives you the full impact of Milford and its not until you are up in the clouds that you can really appreciate just how remarkable and the sheer scale of what is Milford Sound – it can only really be seen to be appreciated.

Afternoon - Remote Martins Bay Wildlife Walk  

Martins Bay, if anything is remote. In fact, it is the location of the last credible sighting of New Zealand’s giant flightless bird “the Moa” that was recorded here in 1880, by local farming lass Alice McKenzie. For such a remote location I was surprised at just how comfortable the lodge was, considering everything needs to be flown in by helicopter. I would consider it the best true wilderness lodge in the country and piping hot showers and flushing toilets are testaments. To cap off a wonderful day, we spent the afternoon hiking to the amazing Martins Bay seal colony, and I got to see a Fiordland Crested Penguins nesting near the seals. It's also known as a Macaroni Penguin and It bears a distinctive yellow crest, for me, this was a highlight, they are very cool looking penguins and very rare. On our return to the lodge (by jetboat) we had one of the Lodges famous 3-course dinners before sleeping in one of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful locations. – I would have to save this is one of the best days I’ve experienced in a long time.

Day 10) The Hollyford Track

The Hollyford Track is less well known to the world than perhaps the Routeburn and Milford Tracks, this is the second time I’ve walked it and I just can't get enough. It’s more than just a walk, its an experience and sure the walking is great but there is so much more to it than that. The history of this region, both Maori and Colonial is extraordinary and the guides are well versed and passionate about the Hollyford Valley. On one section of the track, we travel by Jet boat to get into the old abandoned James Town to hear the harrowing stories of the families that perished there. The spectacle of 1000- year-old giant rimu trees get me every time, they are just so big. An earthquake in a time before a single soul had a walk on this land left a stand of rimu decimated with only a few individuals surviving and this allowed the trees to grow and spread their branches unusually wide thus dominating everything in the forest, a site worth seeing.

Interested in the 3 Day Hollyford Track? Check Out - The 11 Day Contrasts: Two Strikingly Different – Comfortable Hikes

The track itself is a full day hike on a beautifully manicured track leaving plenty of time to learn about the Flora and Fauna from the guides on the way – a cracker of a day.

Day 11) Starstruck Lake Tekapo

We now follow the eastern side of the Southern Alps to Tekapo, the color of the lake almost looks fake, like a photoshopped postcard, the luminescent turquoise effect is caused by billions of suspended rock grind, a by-product of an ancient glacier moving too and fro suspending particles from the grind,  add sunlight to the mix and you get a spectacular effect. But what we are here to see is the night sky, if there was ever a place to have a close encounter it would have to be lake Tekapo, the night sky here is something else and for good reason the region has been earmarked by UNESCO, as the world’s first recognized “starlight reserve”- a very peaceful place to spend the two nights.

Day 12) Cloud Piercer, Hiking Mt Cook National Park

Aoraki /Mt Cook will not be ignored, dominating everything, in every direction for a long long way – it is our highest mountain. This National Park is spectacular, a fantasyland of ice and rock. We had two choices to hike, the Hooker Valley or the Sealy Tarns, both giving breathtaking views of the park, but the latter being more demanding on your lungs. Hiking in this alpine region is special and has a unique characteristic with its mustard-colored tussock grass and surprisingly beautiful alpine lilies blooming in the reflected heat from ice sheets high up.

Interested in an alternative tour in this region? Check out - The Relaxed Adventure in the Scenic South

Day 13) Scenic Canterbury Plains - Return to Christchurch. 

My Conclusion: For me, this trip was totally invigorating and yet I end this trip feeling remarkably relaxed and rejuvenated. Even though I have traveled extensively throughout New Zealand, I felt this trip really captured the essence of the South Island, a land forged in mountains, lakes, and forests that make your heart sing. The guys operating and guiding the tour are passionate professionals, no one was left wanting for anything and solutions to any unexpected problems were dealt with quickly and professionally. The food and accommodation were spot on and exactly what you would expect for a 4-star tour. I think this tour would suit anyone from mid thirty's too active folk in their late sixties. Well done Andrew, you have a great company with an inspired product.

NOTE: The World Heritage New Zealand Hiking Tour itinerary has slightly changed (for the better) See the new itinerary dates and costings Here

For Further Reading & Information

Great Walks in New Zealand
Best Day Hikes in the South Island
Best New Zealand Day Hikes – North Island
New Zealand National Parks – South Island
New Zealand National Parks – North Island

Last updated on the 17 January 2019 by Brent 

First Light Travel's Hiking Tours
Tags
New Zealand
Hiking
Caving and Canyoning
Adventure
Wine and Food
Nature
Brent Narbey
Submitted by
Brent Narbey
: 30 Sep 2013 (Last updated: 9 Jul 2019)

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