Travel Jottings

Celebrating the best bits and bobs to be found while exploring Britain, Ireland and beyond. Much is inspired by real outings, whether they were walking, cycling or photographic in nature, while virtual blundering in the name of planning them has turned up some gems too. Regardless of how they were found, I hope that they keep coming so I can continue to share new things with you.

New Zealand: Faraway Islands with a Multitude of Delights

Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand

As alluring as it is to many, New Zealand (known in Maori as Aotearoa) always has felt a little too far away for me to entertain anything other than mere curiosity. However, such are the changes that have happened in my circumstances during the last few years that spending a week there does not sound as outrageous as it once might have done. However , spending longer there sounds better since rest is recommended after long flights and it takes time to find one's feet anyway. That may mean taking a leave of absence from a day job instead of using up most of an annual leave entitlement at one sitting. As wonderful as New Zealand may be, there is something to be said for splitting up getaways to keep oneself adequately rested throughout the year. After all, there are other places that can be visited too and they can be nearer at hand.

Enhanced and Beset by Turbulent Geology

The inspiration for what you find here largely came from watching a three-part BBC documentary series that showed just how dramatic this part of the world can be. Since then, I have read Insight Guides' guide to the place as well as Lonely Planet's Hiking and Tramping in New Zealand in an effort to find out more about the place. Finishing the latter pair means that I have needed to add more and reorganise what you will find here. Even so, there always is more to learn and going on an actual visit is best way of all to learn about a place.

What draws so many outdoors enthusiasts is the dramatic scenery and all that is due to active geology. New Zealand is sited on part of the Pacific ring of fire so you get steaming mud pools, superheated lakes and rivers as well as steaming geysers on the North Island. More destructively, there are the frequent earthquakes with some causing extensive damage like the ones that struck Christchurch in 2010 and 2011. The same movement of tectonic plates also ensures that the glacier-sculpted Southern Alps continue to gain height much in the same fashion as the Himalayas. Only erosion has contained this growth in stature such that Aoraki (otherwise known as Mount Cook) remains below 4000 metres above sea level. Even, the stated height of 3724 metres of height shown for New Zealand's highest mountain top on a map that I have more likely is a little out of date by now.

Populated by Unique Fauna & Flora

Much of New Zealand's wildlife is unique too with penguins and sea lions rearing their young among woodlands for a start. It is not just the behaviour though for ground-dwelling kiwis are the national birds for a reason. Another unique speciality is the kea, a mountain-dwelling parrot with intelligence, inquisitiveness and associated destructiveness too. Large carnivorous snails with disgusting eating habits and reptiles dating from the time of the dinosaurs continue the uniqueness theme with the recent ingress of modern humans and their European mammalian companions threatening much of New Zealand's fauna since the island broke away from Gondwanaland much earlier in geological history than other places.

Humanity has been in New Zealand for such a short time that there are trees still growing that predate our arrival and that even includes the indigenous Maori people. After all, some of the trees have been living for between 1,000 and 2,000 years so it is easy to see how this might be. It all comes together to build up a picture of our existence there as being less dominating than in other parts yet we still have disrupted things to the point that conservation has to be an ever present thought.

Meeting with Changeable Weather

Being a collection of islands means that New Zealand has a maritime climate so weather conditions change quickly. Anyone living in Britain or Ireland will be familiar with this and the need to expect more than one type of weather in a day. There are a variety of sub-climates too and these range from subtropical through temperate to sub-antarctic as you move from the warmer north to the cooler south.

Physical geography has a part to play too and this is amplified both the heights of any mountains and the position of New Zealand within the roaring forties. The latter ensures a steady conveyor belt of weather fronts and storms so the place is not free of rain and the North Island is wetter than the South Island. Even so, the barrier presented by the Southern Alps to the prevailing westerly weather trajectory increases the amount of rain along the South Island's west coast while ensure that drier conditions prevail in the Canterbury Plains.

Rainfall amounts are exaggerated to the point that some places on South Island get nearly fifteen metres of rainfall in a year. While this allows the formation of temperate rain forest, it also means that rivers can rise very quickly and that makes tramping tracks unusable so you need a constant flow of information about conditions if you are on a multi-day hike. Handily, Department of Conservation huts often have radio contact for doing just that.

The other thing to consider in addition of latitude and what physical geography does with rainfall is the effect that altitude has. New Zealand's mountains are loftier than their British and Irish counterparts and temperature decreases with added height as do oxygen levels. Add in a greater sense of isolation to all this and you see why there is such an organisation as the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council. These and other wilderness areas need care so it is easy to see why the same organisation has an advice website called Adventure Smart.

The same considerations mean that there are hikes that are best done between November and April every year. To do otherwise may mean that you need to be skilled in winter mountaineering because of snowfall. That makes for a avalanche risk so checking The New Zealand Avalanche Advisory beforehand is a necessity. Also, some mountains have permanent glaciers and that brings up the subject of travelling over such things because of the possibility of falling into a crevasse. There are more opportunities for building up winter skills in New Zealand than is the case in Britain or Ireland and there also is the possibility of skiing too; in some places, it is a year round activity while it is seasonal elsewhere.

All of these considerations mean that there is plenty for an independent traveller to consider when picking somewhere to walk. It may be tempting to pick something iconic like the Milford Track but starting with day walks or guided hikes like one of the Manaaki Trails sounds a bit more sensible; the Hollyford Track is an example of a Manaaki Trail. While my preference is for the former, there is a lot to learn when exploring somewhere new so the latter has its place and there are numerous providers like Hike South.

Encounters with Outdoor Delights

Emerald Lakes, Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

That unique mixture of special landscapes together unique flora and fauna is why there is a collection of National Parks and other conservation areas overseen by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The North Island has three National Parks: Tongariro, Egmont and Whanganui. There was a fourth at Te Urewera before that passed from Crown control in 2014 to a committee involving the local indigenous people and the replacement legal entity continues to be administered according to National Park principles. National Parks are more numerous on the South Island: Abel Tasman, Kahurangi, Paparoa, Westland, Mount Aspiring, Fiordland, Aoraki (Mount Cook), Arthur's Pass and Nelson Lakes. Stewart Island then has Rakiura National Park and that completes the set. After those, there are a variety of Marine Reserves and heritage sites that they manage.

Even this list does not encompass all of their activities for there is much work to do to ensure the continued survival of indigenous flora and fauna. The latter includes countering Kauri Dieback so there are areas where you are not to step on the roots of these ancient trees and there are disinfecting footbaths where you need to immerse the soles of your footwear. Battling against introduced species like stoats, rats, deer and possums to ensure that native birds and other unique animals do not go extinct is another part of their continuing work.

Hiking Trails

With all else that they have to do, you might think that the Department of Conservation does not cater for outdoors enthusiasts but nothing could be further from the truth. For instance, they maintain a number of multi-day trails that they call New Zealand's Great Walks. The Milford Track, the Heaphy Track and the soon to be completed Pike29 Memorial Track are but three of these. Some are so popular that you need to make any bookings for them in advance in order to hike along them. Handily, this can be done online and may need to be done several months in advance for the likes of the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track, such is their worldwide renown.

Of course, these are not the only trails that you will find. Examples of multi-day hikes that are managed in a similar way to the DOC managed tracks include The Old Ghost Road, the Banks Track and the Hump Ridge Track. Non-DOC trails can get busy too as you may find with the Queen Charlotte Track and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, a day walk that takes in part of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. For those with far more time to spare that a few days, Te Araroa is New Zealand's end to end national trail. Of course, not all of us have enough time to execute such a long project like that so there are plenty of shorter options  like the Lake Matheson Walkway once you know where to look. This is where websites like Banks Peninsula Walks have their part to play and DOC and i-SITE visitor centres should be able to help too.

Cycling Trails

Cycling is well covered too and there is an ongoing effort to make many current walking trails multi-use and that includes opening them up to cyclists. Even so, there are numerous options as things stand and you will find more than a few included under the heading of The New Zealand Cycle Trail. These include the Timber Trail and the Mountains to Sea track. The latter of these was not operating at the time of writing so you need to check for yourself if you plan on going that way. Otherwise, there is Rail Trails NZ and that collects a number of disused railways that have been turned into cycle trails.

Other Pursuits

Cycling and walking may be my main outdoors activities but there are others and skiing has its enthusiasts too. This is another example where New Zealand does not fail to please among its mountain areas. Mount Ruapehu is only one of several ski centres that become havens for hikers in the austral summertime. There are plenty of places for climbers too, especially among the southern Alps where Sir Edmund Hillary practised his craft before his ascent of Mount Everest in Nepal; it is not for nothing that the New Zealand Alpine Club remains in existence with its national route database and its quarterly magazine and annual journal. With all the coastline awaiting exploration, it is unsurprising that water-based activities also draw many. These can range from wildlife watching, swimming and diving to even more energetic pursuits. In summary, there is much variety even if I have become specialised in my own exertions.

Localised Explorations

New Zealand's visitor portal (called 100% Pure New Zealand at the time of writing) is an encyclopaedic affair where you could end up spending many days surveying all that is on there. The same surely applies to the country in reality and there are plenty of ways to begin an acquaintance.

Picking a particular are to explore is one of those so I have tried to collect some added information portals that allow you to do that online. These are split by North Island and South Island with other other offshore islands collated in their own section. When in New Zealand, you can add to anything gleaned from these by visiting an i-SITE or DOC visitor centre where you can sort out travel and accommodation bookings among other things.

North Island

In some ways, South Island gets most of the world's attention because of a mix of mountainous landscapes and dramatic coastlines but there is much to savour in the North Island too. Volcanism has created its own sort of scenic drama to which many are drawn. Bar otherworldly landscapes are complemented by superheated mud pools, fumaroles and other such phenomena. With some of these, it is best to keep one's distance so as to avoid life-threatening injuries but any spectacles are worth the added care.

North Island is more populated than the south due its having New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. This once was its capital too before that role passed to Wellington. Both head major regions in their own right with Gisborne being the only other North Island region that takes its name from is principal town. Of the remaining regions, Northland has Whangarei, Manuwatu-Wanganui has Palmerston North, Bay of Plenty has Rotorua, Hawke's Bay has HastingsTaranaki has New Plymouth and Waikato has Hamilton. Each of these should offer a starting point for exploring their respective areas, especially you are likely to get to them more easily by air or land travel.

While city exploring can be interesting, there is real joy to be had in leaving urban surroundings for more natural environs. In some cases, it will bring you face to face with New Zealand's colonial history and how it was discovered by Europeans; it was during the latter that names like Bay of Islands and Doubtless Bay came into usage while others in the far north like Paihia and Kerikeri remain from Maori times. The place may have a short history compared with some parts of the world because humanity came later hear but it also had been a fast-paced one. If the subject is new to you, there is much to uncover at New Zealand in History, New Zealand History and The New Zealand Wars.

The mix of European and Maori place names continues all around North Island. The former gives us the Coromandel peninsula near Auckland and nearby Thames while the latter applies in next door Whitianga. Either will offer you a more natural alternative to residing in New Zealand's largest city. Coming south along the same coastline, we find Te Aroha and Matakana Coast to the east of Hamilton and nearby Cambridge. Wairoa then is found beside Hawke's Bay on the same side of the island and not so far away from Te Urewera, a former National Park that has passed into local control while Wairarapa is to be found further south again.

Of course, there is more to North Island than its eastern coastline and going inline will bring you to striking landscapes around Tongariro National Park. Nearby, you will find such places as Whakapapa, Taupo beside the large lake of the same name, Ruapehu near New Zealand's most active volcano and a curiously named village called National Park. There is the west coast too and that is where you will find places like Whanganui at the foot of the river of the same name, Puke Ariki near New Plymouth and Waitomo, with its famed glow-worm caves.

South Island

South Island is less populous than its northern counterpart and the terrain may be part of the explanation for that. What is beyond doubt though is that the scenery draws many a visitor to the Southern Alps and the west coast. It is not for nothing that you have sightseeing air services like Southern Alps Air, Fly Fiordland and Wings and Water. The east coast has its appeal too as you go visiting places like AkaroaHurunui and Kaikoura.

The aforementioned natural grandeur is spread across regions like Tasman, Nelson, West Coast, Canterbury, Otago and Southland. It almost feels that no region is left without lofty mountains aside maybe from Marlborough, which has its own coastal grandeur. Nelson takes the name of its largest city and also acts as a gateway to the Tasman region so it amazes me that the two areas have not been merged. Otherwise, Canterbury has Christchurch, Otago has Dunedin and Southland has Invercargill. All of these are worth exploring in their own right but they also act as useful starting points for their respective hinterlands.

While I may favour basing myself somewhere and embarking on various day trips to places round about it, there are others who like point to point touring using a hire vehicle. Maybe that explains the rise of Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way and Scotland's North Coast 500. South Island has its counterpart to these in the form of the 610 kilometre Southern Scenic Route that goes between Dunedin and Queenstown. Looking at that distance again, it may be too long for a short trip but there is nothing to stop you taking in only part of the route.

The Southern Alps run for nearly the full length of South Island so it should not come as surprise that there are many places that you can choose to visit. Away from the coast, you will find Makarora, Methven, Wanaka, Hanmer Springs, Arthur's Pass, Castle Hill and Glenorchy (there is a website that bills the place as a "Gateway to Paradise") while useful bases by the sea include Golden Bay, Karamea, Westport, Greymouth and Punakaiki. Your explorations may take you to localities like Western Southland, Glacier Country, Mackenzie Region and Fiordland, the last of these being where you find a National Park with such world famous glories as Milford Sound. To the north, there also is Abel Tasman National Park near such places as Motueka and that is where you will find the well regarded Heaphy Track.

Smaller Islands

In addition to the two islands that most people may picture when thinking of New Zealand, there are others. In fact, some say that we should have three islands in mind with Stewart Island being the oft forgotten one beyond the southernmost tip of South Island where Bluff acts as a crossing point to Stewart Island. Touring boat trips also are offered by Aurora Charters and Sails Tours. There is plenty of hiking to found here too even if much of it can get very muddy. More about all these can be learned from Stewart Island Experience.

There are many in the north too with Great Barrier Island, Rangitoto Island, and Waiheke Island (Tourism Waiheke also promotes the island) all being accessible from the city of Auckland. The first of these was named during Cook's voyages while the second hosts a marine volcano. Much further east, you will find the Chatham Islands as well and these possibly are the first places on earth where the sun rises every day.

Having many offshore islands means that they can be used as havens for New Zealand's unique flora and fauna in a way that cannot be done so easily with a mainland reserve. That means that you have to be judicious while you are on some of these places but there can be many a walking track to explore; that is just as well since you may need to stay on them for conservation reasons.

Having Somewhere to Stay

If you are going to go exploring anywhere, then you need somewhere to stay for one or more nights and New Zealand has all the familiar options as well as trail huts operated by the DOC or some other organisation like it. Some trail hikers may like the idea of what Kiwis call Freedom Camping but it is more restricted than it would be in Scotland, Scandinavia or North America so you need to do your research beforehand. Just following the rules for what is called Wild Camping in Britain may not be enough. In fact, it seems that they would rather you use an organised campsite such as one of those included on Holiday Parks New Zealand.

Hostelling is another option and there are a few providers too. YHA New Zealand is a member of Hostelling International so you should be able to take advantage of any discounts available to members of a home association like YHA or SYHA. There are other options too in the form of BBH, Nomads and Base. Between all these, you should have somewhere to choose.

Guesthouse and bed and breakfast accommodation is there to be found too and there are listings on New Zealand Bed and Breakfast as well as Bed and Breakfast New Zealand. For those seeking hotel and apartment bookings, it is worth checking Central Reservations New Zealand. Holiday lets exist too so you can check on Holiday Houses and Bookabach for those. Staying on a farm is another possibility as you will discover on Rural Holidays NZ and there is a chance of getting free accommodation in exchange for helping with farm work though that is a less leisurely prospect.

All in all, there are plenty of options that fit a range of budgets and some providers like Mountain House near Arthur's Pass offer more than one kind of accommodation. Of course, you always can make use of the services of a tourist information centre or a travel agent if you do not want to all the organisation yourself. For a longer visit with lots of touring, there is something to be said for doing just that.

Organising Travel

From many places in the world, New Zealand is a long way away and that especially applies if you are travelling from the northern hemisphere. Even air travel times are so lengthy that avoiding deep vein thrombosis becomes a consideration. Breaking up the journey only helps a little because you need to keep your limbs moving more often than you might be tempted to do.

After that, it may take a few days to decompress afterwards and there is the fact that seasons are swapped. That may make heading this far south attractive in many ways, especially during a northern hemisphere winter, but there is the consideration of its being a shock to your system if you are unaccustomed to such a sudden change.  Much of this thinking is enough to make thoughts of multi-week trips more likely and this may explain why many engage the services of companies like New Zealand Encounters when organising an outing from half way around the world.

Another approach would be to base yourself in a city for a shorter stay and make use of taxis and shuttles for getting about a smaller area. There are airport shuttle services like those offered by ABC Shuttles & Tours or SuperShuttle and taxi firms like Wana Taxis, Blue Bubble Taxis or Gold Band Taxis can augment these. However, it better to go further afield should you have come a long way as most of us have to do.

International Air Travel

Returning to the subject of coming from afar, there are those with enough time and a sufficient sense of adventure to try their luck with merchant shipping but most of us will fly for sake of speed and ease. That means that you are more likely to arrive at one of New Zealand's international airports. The main ones are at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch while Queenstown and Dunedin see service from flights from Australia. Those arrival points should be enough to get anyone started.

Being more of an independent explorer though, I must admit to a preference for organising things myself and curiosity can lead me to investigating more unlikely journeys. That is how I spotted something offered by Singapore Airlines with a stopover on their own turf. Handily for me, these start from Manchester too so that is why they caught my eye and it helps that Singapore Airport is well regarded by many travellers. Naturally, there are other options and you cannot overlook Air New Zealand since it is the national flag carrier.

Internal Air Travel

While on the subject of air travel, it can be handy for getting about a country when you are pressed for time. In addition to the already named international airports, there are regional ones like Nelson, Buller, Hokitika, Hamilton and Invercargill and that list may be incomplete. Air New Zealand or Jetstar Airways offer flights and the former's Grabaseat website could come in handy for finding a low fare.

In addition to the aforementioned larger operators, there are smaller ones too and planes can be a lot smaller than some would expect. That is not so much the case for Air Chathams services to and from the Chatham Islands but is the case for those crossing the Cook Strait, saving you both time and avoiding any rough sea crossings. Sounds Air, Air2there, Golden Bay Air and Adventure Flights Golden Bay all address that need.But for air travel, getting from Auckland to nearby Great Barrier Island would involve another sea crossing. Here, flights are offered by Fly My Sky and Barrier Air with the latter also flying from Auckland to other parts of North Island too. Lastly, Stewart Island Flights connects Invercargill with what some consider to be New Zealand's third island.

Ferry Travel

New Zealand may be an island nation but ferry travel plays less of a role when it comes to getting around. Auckland does have ferry services though and these are operated by companies like Fullers and Sealink. Wellington also has a local ferry service operated by East by West Ferries in addition to those crossing from North Island to South Island. The latter are offered by  Kiwirail's Interislander and Bluebridge with their three hour crossings. There also are sailings between Bluff on South Island and Oban on Stewart Island operated by Real Journeys.

Railway Excursions

The national rail network appears to be mainly for the transportation of freight but KiwiRail does operate some scenic rail routes and these are described on The Great Journeys of New Zealand. At the time of writing, earthquake damage has put the Coastal Pacific route out of action until the line is fully repaired but the Northern Explorer and TranzAlpine ones are available. Also included in the same offer is the Interislander ferry crossing between the North Island and the South Island so there is the possibility of going from Auckland to Christchurch and Greymouth once repairs are complete.

In addition to the above, Dunedin Railways operate some excursions of their own. Some go inland from Dunedin along part of a former freight line through the scenic Taieri Gorge while others follow the coast north of the city and cruise ship passengers are served as much as those staying in the area. The company is owned jointly by The Otago Excursion Train Trust and Dunedin City Council but that does not stop it operating rail tours from Christchurch on occasion. None of these are hauled by steam locomotives but the Mainline Steam Heritage Trust can help you with those.

Scheduled Bus Services

Interurban bus and coach services compensate for the lack of an extensive rail network with operators like Atomic Travel, InterCity and Nakedbus covering much of the country. In addition to these, you get additional services provided for outdoors enthusiasts. The popularity of Heaphy Track justifies the existence of what is offered by the Heaphy Bus Company and Golden Bay Coachlines. Those going to the Abel Tasman National Park benefit similarly from the operations of ScenicNZ Abel Tasman. After these, there is the Hanmer Connection, Methven Travel, East West Coaches, West Coast Shuttle, Akaroa Shuttle, Akaroa French Connection, Hanmer Tours & Shuttle, Budget Buses & Shuttles, The Cook Connection, Tracknet and Info & Track. Some also offer private transport to and from long distance trails and the remoteness of the terrain often explains such diversification.

Bus networks also form the backbone of local urban public transport as you will find when you check with Auckland Travel, Wellington's Metlink, Christchurch's Metro. Auckland and Wellington do have local railway networks managed by the same respective organisations but this is specific to those areas. Christchurch is the only place with a tram line while Wellington has its own funicular railway. However, the latter pair of curiosities is tourism oriented while bus travel is for everyone.

Other named bus networks include Nelson's NBus, Gisborne's Gizzybus, Waikato's Busit and the Bay of Plenty's BayBus. As well as these, there are bus networks in Invercargill, Otago, Blenheim, Taranaki, Hawke's Bay, Northland and Manawatu too. Many such services are contracted out to private bus companies like GoBus, Ritchies or Nelson Coachlines but public subsidy and/or private sponsorship often is needed to keep them operating.

Shuttles & Tours

This section mainly deals with the subject of getting to and from trails where there is no scheduled public transport. Using a hired car is more tricky unless you either find secure storage for your hire car or someone like Trackhopper that is in the business of moving it for you for a fee. Otherwise, you could need to book with one or more shuttle bus or water taxi companies to get there and away.

It all means booking your return trip at the same time as you are booking your outbound trip. Since you likely will be operating to a constrained timetable because of annual leave restrictions or track accommodation bookings, it should not be such a restriction anyway. In any event, i-SITE visitor centres help with sorting out such arrangements. What follows is a list of different local operators whose area should be apparent from their business names in many cases.

Shuttle Buses: Ritchies (formerly Alpine Connexions), Nelson Lake Shuttles, Marlborough Sounds Shuttles, Karamea Express, Trek Express, Topline Tours, Kiwi Shuttles, Tairua Bus Company, Topline Tours, Trips & Tramps, Fiordland Outdoors Company, Turangi Alpine Shuttles, National Park Shuttles, Buckley Track Transport, Glenorchy Journeys, Yello Cabs, KT Sightseeing & Taxis.

Water Taxis: Big Bush Water Taxi, Rotoiti Water Taxis, Rakiura Charters & Water Taxi, Aihe Eco Charters & Water Taxi, Wilkin River Jets, Dart River Adventures.

Joining a tour or an organised activity also is an option and there are hop-on/hop-off backpacker bus tours like Ireland's Paddywagon or Scotland's Rabbie's. In New Zealand, you will find Stray, Kiwi Experience, Flying Kiwi and Haka Tours. These also allow you to fit in cycling tours or hikes but you may want a more structured approach offer by the likes of Headfirst Travel or Go Orange instead. As much as I may be an independent traveller, I realise that others have different preferences and we all share the same world.