Hiking the Great Walks on New Zealand's rugged South Island

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Associated Press
July 26, 2015

FIORDLAND NATIONAL PARK, New Zealand—Several items are essential for exploring the magical Southern Alps mountains that run across New Zealand's South Island: insect repellent, rain gear and ear plugs.

The repellent is to ward off sandflies, those annoying black bugs that are the itchy scourge of hikers in Fiordland National Park. The park, which is bigger than Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined, is one of the wettest places on earth. It gets an average 280 inches of rainfall a year, compared to Seattle's 38.6 inches.

And while there's plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy while hiking the region, you might want ear plugs to block the sound of snoring from exhausted hikers in the huts that offer lodging along the Great Walks. The Great Walks are routes featured by the country's Department of Conservation for their “diverse and spectacular scenery.” Five of the nine Great Walks are on the South Island.

The Great Walks are highly regulated by the DOC, which maintains the trails, checks for hiking passes and staffs the huts with nightly educational talks. The huts on the most popular Great Walks are large, clean cabins with bunkrooms. They're a great way to be social with like-minded tourists and hear languages from around the world. I had fun teaching my bunkmates how to play an old-fashioned card-and-board game, cribbage.

One of the Fiordland Great Walks, the Milford Track, is a world-famous four-day route. Hiking it requires planning as much as a year in advance if you're planning on visiting during peak Great Walks season, Oct. 27-April 27 (spring-fall in the Southern Hemisphere).

For other South Island adventures, though, it's good to have some flexibility in your schedule as you'll pick up tips on things to do from other hikers and from the knowledgeable staff in DOC offices throughout the country.

One excursion that's popular with hikers is an overnight cruise from Milford Sound. The boat's all-you-can-eat buffet is a nice change from ramen noodles and other backpacker fare.

The crystal-clear waters along the Milford Track make it relatively easy to spot the freshwater longfin eel, featured on an episode of Animal Planet's “River Monsters.” Elsewhere, watch out for backpack-eating alpine parrots called keas. They are ever-present in high-altitude regions and they're not afraid to peck at human gear in search of food. You'll also want to pack a headlamp, both to navigate the huts at night and for taking nighttime walks to look for glowworms, which are what they sound like.

Other popular Great Walks include Routeburn and Kepler, but there are many quieter, less-advertised routes nearby to explore with fewer tourists, such as Dusty, Hollyford, Rees-Dart, Greenstone and Caples. If time is limited, many multi-day hikes can be broken up into day hikes or one-nighters.

The hike to Mount Luxmore on the Kepler Track, just outside the quaint lakeside town of Te Anau, is a steep, challenging climb but offers spectacular views.

Farther north, the rock scramble for a night's stay at the Mueller Hut is a must-do for its close-up view of Mount Cook, New Zealand's largest peak at 12,218 feet.

On Stewart Island, a small island that's a ferry ride or short plane trip south of the South Island, you'll find another Great Walk, the Rakiura Track. Rakiura's 20-mile loop has huts as well as campsites.

Stewart Island is popular with wildlife watchers hoping to glimpse kiwi birds, the national symbol of New Zealand. The flightless birds are famous for having among the largest eggs in relation to body size of any other bird species. But they're nocturnal and can be hard to see in the wild. A number of guided kiwi-spotting tours are offered on the island.

And keep in mind when planning a trip to New Zealand that it's in the Southern Hemisphere, with winter weather June-August, spring weather September-November and summer December-February.

At some point, you'll want to ditch the rancid hiking boots and exchange them for some sandals to walk the beautiful beaches in the Abel Tasman National Park—home to another Great Walk, the Abel Tasman Coast Track—on the northern tip of the South Island.

Finally, pick up a bottle of wine from the South Island's Marlborough region or grab a local craft beer brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops and prepare yourself for a trip to the North Island, where a different type of magic awaits: the “Hobbiton” movie set.

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