Tramping lightly in New Zealand

G Magazine

'Tramping', as the Kiwis call it, on an eight-day walking tour of New Zealand's Southern Alps

Tramping in NZ

Who needs the Himalayas when New Zealand has mountains this beautiful and so close?

Credit: Louise Southerden

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It's hard not to feel high when you're standing on a ridge it's taken four hours to climb, surrounded by 3,000-metre peaks and blue-tongued glaciers, breathing fresh mountain air.

It was day three of an eight-day "tramping" adventure in New Zealand's Southern Alps, a kind of pocket Himalayas on the south island, just three hours' flight from the east coast of Australia.

But it wasn't the exertion making me giddy. It was the fact that I hadn't had to walk for days to experience some of the most ruggedly handsome mountains in the world.

The South Island is famous for multi-day epics like the Milford Track, but it can also be experienced one day walk at a time on a trip that allows you to sample four of the Southern Alps' most scenic spots: Lake Tekapo, Mount Cook National Park, Mount Aspiring National Park near Wanaka and The Remarkables near Queenstown. It's like four great walks in one.

Lake Tekapo

Our first day's hike, at Lake Tekapo, a three-hour drive from Christchurch, was a pleasant amble up a grassy hill, a warm-up for new boots and urban legs.

The mountains we'd come to see were on our left and far away, like an out-of-reach bookshelf ("There's the tip of Mount Cook," said one of our two guides), but we didn't mind. The peaks could wait.

The beauty of walking is that it slows you down enough to notice the little ("wee" in Kiwi-speak) things that make the Southern Alps unique. We tasted wild snowberries sweet as a fairytale, spotted our first weta (a flightless grasshopper thought to have evolved some 200 million years ago) and learned that there are no poisonous snakes in New Zealand - good to know when you're wading through knee-high tussock grass.

Mount Cook

It goes without saying that the Southern Alps are spectacular, but that's especially true in Mount Cook National Park, our next stop. Of New Zealand's 27 peaks over 3,000 metres, 22 are in this national park.

The star attraction is, of course, Aoraki or Mount Cook (3,754 m), which the late Edmund Hillary climbed in 1948 as a warm-up for his historic Everest expedition. It's still a Mecca for mountaineers, but the walking is world-class too.

We chose a track that started on boardwalks then zigzagged up an open hill. With each switchback, we gained height and a new vantage point. Our progress was punctuated by photo stops, sips of water and "What kind of flowers are they?" questions directed at our guides (the answer: mountain daisies, gentians, edelweiss and Mount Cook lilies) - all excuses to stop and gawk at the mountains, glaciers and valleys that seemed close enough to touch.

Despite the cool alpine air, the sun was blazing and when we stopped for a picnic lunch beside a tarn (a small mountain lake) a few of us were seduced by its mirror-smooth surface, which reflected the surrounding glory. The pool was, of course, icy, but there was something surreal about swimming 1,300 metres above sea level, literally immersed in the landscape.

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