"Most people, especially Lord of the Rings fans, think they have a pretty clear image of New Zealand; after all many of us have relatives in Middle Earth. My wife and I had an even clearer image, so we thought; we’d lived there for nearly three years a long time ago. So when we booked our Walking in New Zealand tour for February of 2014 we thought we knew all about Te Aroha, the Land of the Long White Cloud. And yet, in all of our three weeks, there was hardly a long white cloud to be seen. The sun shone from Auckland to Christchurch, with the exception of the evening we spent in Wellington – this was where we had lived - when the heavens opened. But it wasn’t only the weather that made New Zealand such a revelation.
Our first brief walks around Rotorua took us through forests rich in native trees and shrubs. We were seven in number and were all as good as gold; no problems at all for our Tour Leader Berndt. Berndt was a mine of information about the native flora and fauna. Our first day finished with a Maori hangi when we were fed and entertained by a local tribe. This could have been very naff and commercialised but actually it was good fun. Rotorua is famous for its volcanic craters, mud pools and geysers, which we explored at leisure. The colours are stunning. Moving on to New Zealand’s largest lake, Taupo, we had a true ‘Explore experience’, bumping into a couple from Auckland whom we had met eighteen months earlier on a walking holiday on the Amalfi Coast. Small world! The next day was our most memorable on the North Island: we walked the fabled Tongariro Crossing - Mount Doom for Tolkien fans. It begins with a difficult climb but on reaching the ridge you are confronted on the other side by a different world, a set of hills and valleys looking like a scrunched up sheet of newspaper but full of rich volcanic browns and oranges and blacks and greys. As you descend the ridge you drop down towards two exquisite emerald lakes and after a slog along the bottom of what was once a volcano bed you head down to the final destination – and down, and down, passing small eruptions of steam on the way. It took all day. Some walk!
If this was spectacular, the South Island (the Mainland as the locals call it) was maybe even better. The Queen Charlotte costal track, up in the Marlborough Sounds, gave some stunning views over the bays and inlets; the Abel Tasman National Park is magnificent both to drive through and to walk and the linking boat trips gave the days an additional sparkle. We dropped down to the West Coast with its thick forests, jagged coast and small towns. This was once gold-mining country. One of many gems was a walk along the Pororari River where the flora and fauna could only be described a magical. In the town of Fox Glacier we had wonderful views of Mount Cook and its friends in the Southern Alps. Our good weather stayed with us even in fjordland with its high rainfall and we saw the famous Mitre Peak in sunshine.
Our drive eastwards took us over the Haast Pass, opened in the 1960s, and we came down on Lake Wanaka in the gold of early evening. Over the next few days we enjoyed some wonderful walking around lakes Wanaka, Wakatipu and Te Anau, including sections of the Routeburn and Kepler Tracks. Each provided vistas that were simply camera–busting. Later we took a helicopter trip up to a glacier with even better views of Mount Cook. Finally we walked in the Mount Cook National Park and grew quite blasé about that wonderful mountain. The Maori call it Aoraki, the Cloud Piercer. Not till our last morning did any clouds turn up to be pierced. By then we were on our way across dusty Mackenzie Country and down into the Canterbury plains, heading for Christchurch, with a stop just outside Geraldine to stock up on merino sweaters.
This is not a cheap trip but it is a spectacular one. The standard of food and accommodation is uniformly good; this is the only Explore walking holiday where we put on weight! But above all the beauty, splendour and abundance of this land surprised even us who thought we knew it."
Stephen Ingle, April 2014. Stephen travelled on Walking in New Zealand.