New Zealand: General Information from 2006-7
See: New Zealand: Cyclotouring for biking-specific information.
When To Go
We scheduled our 4 month trip from the first of November 'til the first of March. Ideally, a 4 month stay should probably be shifted a month, starting in December to avoid the wild spring weather. We had more than our share of wild winds and rain that can happen in November but aren't expected. And December wasn't much better--warmer but still wet. March is suppose to be better than November, so December through March would likely be a better interval. The Kiwi's refer to the late summer weather being "more settled," which sounded less optimistic that "good" but better than what we had been experiencing.
The downside of arriving in December is that December and January are the peak of high season, making it a difficult time to get oriented and line up reservations for lodging and other activities. That being said, when in the Milford Sound area of the southwest South Island, we were told that February and March were the absolute busiest times and on the east side they said they could be packed into April. Others have said that the very busiest interval is for about 2 weeks after December 26.
US citizens get a free 3 month visa upon arrival in the country. For our 4 month stay, we sent our passports to LA for a special though free visa. It only cost us the express mail fees and a little fretting over the forms. We should have been able to apply for an extension while in the country before our automatic 3 month visa expired, but it was too hard to decipher the rules while in Portland so we opted to get extension in advance.
Don't Leave Home Without
An essential item (that I have yet to find) is a wide brimmed hat for sun protection that both stays on in the wind and has a brim stays down in strong winds. The UV hazard is among the world's highest as New Zealand sits under a hole in the ozone layer. The UV exposure can be 40% greater than in Europe, according to 1 source we heard. Most days the UV index was 11 or 12--we didn't know the scale went beyond 10. The wind is relentless and a chin strap is essential. Baseball caps stay on well but more all-round coverage is helpful.
Bring your favorite high SPF sunscreen with excellent UVA blocking. You of course can buy sunscreen in New Zealand, but the prices are high and the selection is low. We didn't find any of our favorite US or European brands in New Zealand.
We had no biting bug problems on the North Island, but began to get nibbled on as soon as we crossed to Picton. The worst of the bugs was by far was from Franz Josef Glacier to Haast on the west coast of the South Island. We didn't have trouble with the occasional mosquitoes we saw, but the more stealth sand flies and other bugs were a problem. And unlike some mosquitoes, dabbling a little repellent here and there won't keep them away. We both got bites on our Achilles tendon areas from incomplete smearing of the repellent on the backs of our ankles. My old standbys of Claritin and hydrocortisone ointment helped but didn't eliminate the swelling and itching from the sand fly bites.
Boots are good for the volcanic rock hiking on Mt Tarawera at Rotorua and might suit you for the all day Tongariro Crossing south of Lake Taupo. Day packs, water bags with drink tubes and walking sticks can be useful and are expensive to buy once in the country.
-Mosquito Netting & Tape-
If you will be traveling to the southwest coast of the South Island to see the glaciers, consider bringing a 3' x 4' piece of mosquito netting and a small roll of masking tape. The sand flies were terrible and window screens seemed to be unheard of where we stayed. It's a chronically damp, moldy area so being able to open up your motel room to fresh air is very compelling except for the rush of hungry sand flies that are ready to jump in. Being able to install our own temporary window screen on even 1 window in a room would have been a delight in many of our rooms. (Mosquitoes, however, were never a problem.)
-Checking Your Health Insurance-
If any fantasies lurk in the recesses of your mind about doing edgy sports like bungy jumping or skydiving, check your health insurance before you fly. Adrenalin sports are highly visible and aggressively marketed in New Zealand, so you may find yourself fulfilling the dream unexpectedly. But it appears that liability issues in New Zealand tend to favor the the defendant, not the plaintiff, so if things don't go perfectly, you'll likely be footing the bill yourself. Some health insurance policies exclude higher risk activities, so you may want make a phone call or 2 before traveling.
Things Not to Bring
There were several items we consider either essential or highly useful when cyclotouring in Europe that we didn't need in New Zealand:
-Yellow Marking Pen. It's a very small item that is very useful in Europe for marking the day's biking route on the map. It helps Bill find the route at a glance on the road and is even more valuable when soliciting directions from locals as they can see where we are headed even if it seems unlikely to them or our pronunciation is baffling. In New Zealand, the trusty marking pen was totally unnecessary as there was never any other road to take to where we were going than the one we were on. As long as we made the proper turn out of the motel driveway in the morning, we were pretty well set for the day.
-Our "Hotel Bag"-
Our hotel bag is a light weight carry-on bag. We treasure our flimsy duffle bag that folds down to the size of a paperback book but expands at the end of the day to hold our helmets, water bottles, and groceries. It keeps us from looking like a train wreck on the sidewalk as we unload our bikes at night and prepare to haul everything up several flights of stairs. It makes us look more presentable, keeps us better organized and gives us a convenient place to stash soggy accessories on rainy days. In New Zealand, the Hotel Bag rarely saw the light of day as we invariably stayed in single-level motels and hostels and we sometimes rolled the loaded bikes right into the room.
-Electric Cooking Pot (Maybe)-
We cook our evening meal of pasta and a vegetable virtually every night while we are traveling by bike in Europe for the enhanced nutrition, economy, and time efficiency it delivers but it was unnecessary most of the time in New Zealand's North Island where accommodations with private or shared cooked facilities were extremely easy to come by. Pots and pans are standard and extras like microwave ovens and toasters are often available. We would have mailed our cooking system home had postage not been so expensive but were glad we hadn't when we arrived on the South Island. Cooking facilities in motel rooms weren't as reliable on the South Island, even when we had understood the tourist info folks to have booked us a room with a kitchen.
Don't rely on denim jeans for your outdoor pants in New Zealand as their use is strongly discouraged for many activities, presumably because they are so slow drying and are cold when wet. The odds of getting wet while doing summer sports like kayaking and hiking are very high. And the weather changes quickly, bringing both unpredicted downpours, sudden temperature drops, and fierce winds.
220 volt like Europe but special plugs that work in Australia too. Bring your own adapter as they can be hard to find.
Arriving in the Country
New Zealand takes their biological protection rules seriously, as is prudent for an island environment, and its best to plan your packing for the inspection. Cluster all of your food items together in your bags, even if you have some both in carry-on and checked luggage. Perhaps relieve the strain on your brain by making a list of the food items as you pack. And pack them near the top so you can quickly pull them out when the sniffer dog identifies you as an importer.
Food products of all kinds must be discussed with the inspector at baggage claim. We were allowed to keep our commercially packaged sunflower seeds and nuts, as well as the macaroni and cheese mix. Had the cheese not been powdered and packaged, I am sure it would have been confiscated. Any fruits and vegetables that we hadn't finished off were taken--we couldn't even eat them while waiting for our baggage. The few olives that we emptied out of a refrigerator jar on our way out the door in Portland raised eyebrows but were allowed. We were repeated asked about meat products, which we had none.
Besides the food, the other items we carried that were of concern were our bikes and boots. Stating that our bikes were road bikes, not off-road bikes, probably saved us a lot of trouble. I suspect mountain bike boxes get opened up by the inspectors. We had to dig out our hiking boots for visual scrutiny. Mine were fortunately in an outside pocket with freshly scrubbed soles, so it was little trouble for me. Bill was left rummaging to the bottom of his duffle bag to produce his. Had we a tent, I suspect it too would have been inspected. I assume the issue is hauling dirt into the country, so if you are bringing sporting equipment or camping gear to New Zealand, wash it up first.
-North Island Experience-
Lodging can be on the low side compared with the US and Europe but everything else, including supermarket food is definitely on the outrageous side. So "Bring It, Don't Buy It" if you can. I'd bring everything you might possibly need rather than plan on picking it up along the way, including books and accessories. Even little things that you might have to replenish like buying a tube toothpaste and hand lotion can take a big bite out of your food budget.
As most places, lodging prices often didn't reflect quality differences. We set an arbitrary target of $100NZ as our upper limit, about $66US. Our cheapest place was a "backpackers" where we had a funky, small private room with shared kitchen and bath with bedding included but not towels. Dormitory accommodations in a similar place would run about $40NZ for 2. Our best value was $60NZ at the Miranda Shorebird Centre where we had bunk beds in a private 3-room arrangement with kitchen and bedding and a heater.
An upscale campground cabin we stayed at where lodging was scarce was $65NZ for 2 with a kitchen but no toilet or shower. It was unheated, which was a little brisk in early November. Outside of Auckland, lodging was generally readily available under $100NZ for 2, though got a little more expensive during the Christmas break on the South Island.
"Backpackers" are youth hostels and are a very popular lodging option in NZ though after a few, we avoided them. Many have double rooms and some have doubles with private bathrooms in the $60NZ and up range. Some motels drop that low and we found them to be much quieter. Oddly, the motels usually have a "Quiet at 10 pm" rule that is carefully observed whereas the Backpackers we used had no such rule. Being light sleepers made that a major factor in our "buy" decision, rather than the minor inconveniences of communal kitchens and bath facilities. The Backpackers tend to be much more crammed together, so anyone's noise becomes everyone's noise. And like anywhere, who happens to be staying there that night makes all the difference. The Backpackers guide books give customer ratings and are quite detailed in the availability of free bikes, barbeque grills, kayaks, and washing machines but give no clue as to a "good night's sleep" rating. The potential advantage of socializing at the Backpackers didn't materialize for us, which would be another potential drawing card.
We loved New Zealand's standard lodging, which was motels. Usually there was no problem storing the bikes indoors and it was easy to load and unload them at the door to our room. We were in heaven with their full and partial kitchens. If you are chilly at night in a motel, check the bed for controls and wiring indicating an electric mattress cover, as many had them. They were a great way to drive out the dampness and chill of stormy nights in unheated rooms. But beware of tiny hot water heaters. Most of the units we stayed in appeared to have a dedicated hot water heater and some were tiny, as in drained after hand washing a batch of dishes. We often scouted around for the hot water heater upon arrival to help determine how to stage showers, hand washing, and dish washing to avoid the dreaded cold shower. Some places will have a separate tank of scorching hot water for the kitchen sink and a much cooler setting on the tank serving the showers, so don't be fooled by that.
And the "No Smoking in the Rooms" rule at most lodging establishments was heavenly for us.
In addition to the motel format, another favorite New Zealand standard was the ready availability of washing machines for laundry at many campgrounds and motels. They ranged from free to $5, with many being $2NZ or about $1.20US. Dries were never free, ranging from $2NZ to over double that price. Usually a packet of laundry detergent was available for $1NZ but we opted to economize by buying and carrying our own.
-South Island Experience-
We were on the North Island from early November until mid-December and then hopped over to the South Island until the end of February. Our shift to the South Island preceded the Christmas holiday by about 2 weeks, but the prices jumped up nonetheless. I was never able to get a straight answer as to whether the South Island was always more expensive or if it was just the season. Nonetheless, we usually paid $70-80NZ for a pleasing motel room while on the North Island and on the South Island we generally paid $110-$130NZ. We paid $95NZ for a room with a private bath and no kitchen at a Backpackers at Fox Glacier Inn. The room was moldy smelling and the kitchen was both ill equipped and unclean feeling. A similar setting on the North Island ran under $60NZ. And on the South Island, the motel rooms we thought had been booked with a kitchen often had none.
Grocery Store Favorites
Unfortunately, it is a short list as there was little to rave about in the food markets. But there were a few things that we sought out:
-Whittakers 62% Dark Cacao chocolate bars were the best of the dark chocolates that we found in the markets. Load up when you find them as not many stores carry that particular flavor. We were known to haul out 5 lbs of these bars when they were on sale and we were in the boonies..
-Vogel Sliced Bread. My private joke is that "vogel" means "bird" in German and this bread looked like it was made with bird seed. We bought the "Toast" variety as the slices were thicker than the "Sandwich" type. It's a sturdy, flavorful bread with chunky bits of seeds and grains in it that perked up our otherwise ordinary tuna & bread lunches. Look for it in the supermarkets with the other sliced breads.
A 50-something US ex-pat that is now a New Zealand citizen working in the camp grounds and rest areas carried on about 3 tour companies that cater to young people: Kiwi Experience, Contiki and Magic. He said that locals referred to their guests as "being on the piss." The stereotypical guest is a British youth that is constantly inebriated and mildly destructive for his tour of New Zealand on one of these buses.
A week later, we spoke with a disgruntled 30-something British man who traveled the length of the North Island and much of the South Island on Kiwi Experience and was disgusted with it. He looked like he might tolerate the environment, but not so. Even though he'd prepaid for a package tour and was on a tight budget, he forfeited part of the package.
So, do some careful inquiring before signing on with the backpacker type bus companies. I am sure that the non-backpacker lines are just fine. We rode short distances with a couple of shuttle bus companies and they were traditional transportation arrangements.
Let Them Help
The tourist information offices are extremely helpful and we highly recommend using their services. Most if not all of the offices are open 7 days a week and have a clear mission to be helpful. We always appreciated their motel recommendations and the local offices knew were the better values were, like spacious but somewhat dated rooms. They knew which ones would be freer from traffic noise. And they were fearless in pursuing hosts about just where they were going to stash our bikes. We quickly learned to press for "indoors" rather than "secure" bike storage as "secure" could mean out front somewhere. The info folks were persistent in making sure the storage location promised met our needs. We did get booked into 2 regrettable places, but that's not bad for almost 4 months of reservations.
We will take the 12 hour train from Wellington to Auckland our last days in the country and found it best to reserve the tickets with the i Site folks. They had access to the online screens regarding bike fees and reservations--information we couldn't access ourselves.
Forbidden Phrase: do not use the word "Recommend" in the presence of an i Site rep. They are conditioned to withdraw and shut-up at that suggestion. "They don't make recommendations" we were repeatedly told. Thankfully, they usually made a stream of recommendations if you didn't use the "R" word.
Key Phrase: "Will I be getting my feet wet?" is the proper question way to ask if your glacier walk or water taxi ride will involve some amount of wading. "Wading" must mean something different to them because I'd be emphatically told we wouldn't be wading but that we definitely would be getting our feet (and perhaps knees) wet.
Bookings & Vouchers
The i-Site's collect a 10% fee from the provider of the bookings, which didn't seem to affect the price we paid for lodging. This veiled fee did however exclude us from discounts that might be available on activities. We accidentally learned that on our first activity booking in Rotorua when we inquired about prices for the crater walk we did. The clerk quickly volunteered that she would pass the potential 10% discount on to us--something that would not happen at the i-Site. It seems that many activity operators have bumped their prices up to cover the 10% fee and often by asking, you can retrieve it for yourself. We had a Top10 Campground club card we bought for $30NZ and it more than paid for itself in discounts, such as on the Picton-Wellington ferry, the Franz Josef Glacier walk, and on one of the Milford Sound tours. Be bold at a non-i-Site offices, ask if there are any discounts available. We did, and were often given some tips.
Almost anytime i-Site booked lodging for us, we prepaid and they gave us a voucher. We felt that we were pretty much stuck with the reservation, but found that that is not always the case. The i-Site office in Te Anau booked us a regrettable room in the village of Manapouri. The dark, old cabin was furnished with a hodge-podge of second-hand furniture, smelled slightly of mold, and the damp, wooded area was swarming with sand flies. We left our bikes, walked back about a half mile to a well-maintained motel with a stunning view of the lake and surrounding mountains and inquired about a room and our situation. "No problem" the clerk assured us. She told us to go back, tell the manager we were cancelling and ask for our voucher back. The manager where we were booked cooperated, though was clueless as to how the paperwork should be handled. We paid the folks at the second motel the $20NZ difference and happily savored our fresh room without sand flies for what was planned as a study afternoon. The first motel clerk was entitled to charge us a cancellation fee that we expected to be about $10NZ, though she did not. So, if you don't like your digs, its worth inquiring about cancellation fees if you have somewhere better to go.
Officially, cancellations must be handled by calling the i-Site with which you made the reservations. They then call the motel, cancel your reservation, and credit your card with the refund minus any cancellation fee they negotiate with the motel.
We learned about the phenomena of "Duty Motel" the easy way on New Year's Eve, half way through our New Zealand adventure. We had lodging reserved for the next week but learned that in some towns the local motel managers have a phone network to keep track of rooms available for the night. In theory, a late traveler can stop in at a motel with the "Duty Motel" sign out front and quickly be directed to motels with rooms for rent. We were in Westport on the South Island and it was the sign just passed to our motel operators was the first we had seen. In Westport, they maintained the network only during the peak weeks but some cities provide the service all year round.
As our hostess answered our questions about the network, it became clear that even if one is greeted by a string of "No Vacancy" signs as you arrive in a town, it's worth inquiring. She told of a busy event weekend where uninformed, stranded travelers were being lodged in the back room of her cleaning lady's home and in an extra bedroom in her own home. It sounds like if you are willing to accept informal home-stay circumstances, that the local "moteliers" will try hard to bed you down for the night if it is late or the next town is also full.
We learned that a "No Vacancy" sign out front doesn't necessarily mean that they are full for the night. Some apparently hang out the sign when their office is closed for lunch, so if you are looking for a room early in the day, it might be worth a second look later on.
Where to Go
The North Island
After being in New Zealand, it became clear that one way of organizing one's sightseeing is to view the country in bands or zones that roughly slice the country into regions going from north to south.
If you have a week or less in New Zealand and are only sampling it as one of several stops in the South Pacific, visiting Auckland and traveling south to Rotorua would be a good bet. Allowing most of a day at Auckland's history museum and a few hours at the maritime museum gives one a good introduction to the country, including the geology, the flora and fauna, and the Maori. Going to Rotorua allows one to take in more Maori culture in a dinner/dance show if you like and a chance to sample some of the geothermal wonders of the region. You'd still have time for some 'adrenaline sports' that are a specialty of the region or perhaps a 4-WD ride and then hike into the Mt Tarawera crater.
With a little more time, one could travel farther south to the Lake Taupo area to view the still-active volcanoes. If both the weather and your fitness level permit, the all day hike on the Tongariro Crossing in the national park would give another view of the country.
Between the Lake Taupo area in the middle of the North Island and Wellington on the southern tip, there isn't a lot to seek out. Wellington's museum is worth a visit if you are craving more details and the city itself has another day or 2 of sightseeing to entertain one.
The South Island
Going to the South Island involves a bigger time commitment if you've flown into the North. Crossing the Straits takes about 3 hours by ferry. Be sure to allow an extra day to get back if you are flying from the North Island as the ferries won't operate in heavy weather. The longest recent lapse in service was about 3 days, though more typically only 1 of the several daily departures is cancelled because of rough seas.
We hiked and kayaked in both the Queen Charlotte Sound and Abel Tasman National Park though weren't dazzled by either. We enjoyed our full-day walk on the Franz Josef glacier which we enjoyed, but of course, thought like many things, was overly expensive. Our full day outdoor climbing experience with Wanaka Rock in Wanaka satisfied us for about half of what it would have cost in Queenstown. We opted for a Milford Sound excursion, though some recommended the more expensive Doubtful Sound trip. We found the bus ride from Te Anau to Milford Sound more interesting that the boat ride on the Sound, which was primarily wowing the tourists by nosing the boat up towards the spray of the waterfalls.
We dropped down to the southern end of the island, the Catlins, and didn't see what the fuss was about. Things picked-up for us at Dunedin, where we enjoyed the ambiance of the city, the Otago Museum, and our half day outing with Elm Wildlife Tours. As often was the case in New Zealand, we thought the Taieri Gorge historical rail line ride was over rated and didn't think the Otaga Rail Trail was quite worth the rough riding in deep gravel.
We did enjoy being inland at 2 different times: first at Wanaka and Queenstown and the second time around Alexandra and Twizel. Stunning weather made our day hike in Mt Cook National Park an event to remember and we'd highly recommend it if it looks like the weather will be cooperating.
(southern tip of the North Island)
If you are traveling to Wellington on a weekend and are willing to give up your motel kitchenette, the business class hotels run some good deals to make up for the loss of their regular trade. Even arriving Friday afternoon, we had a choice of 3 central 3-star hotels in the $115-120NZ price range for a double. That included tax, a nice breakfast buffet with something for everyone, and a morning newspaper. That was quite a bit more than we'd paid elsewhere on the North Island but undercut the close-in motels in the city. You can check the hotel prices and specials at www.wellingtonnz.com or have the Wellington i-Site check them for you. We did try to have the i-Site at Levin, about 100km north of Wellington, line a room up for us but they didn't know how to access these specials.
Rotorua (middle of North Island)
All of the activities are expensive and most overpriced. We did the Kiwi Encounter which at $26.50NZ seemed like a rip-off, but the 45 minute tour was informative and we enjoyed the chance to see the kiwis up close--both in an egg, as a hatchling, and as adults. You can take a shuttle bus out there and back but study the limited schedule carefully.
We paid the $121NZ each for the Mt Tarawera Volcano 4WD outing to walk down into the crater and were satisfied. Again, it was about a 45 minute experience in the crater for the price and the 4 hours round trip required, but the guide was very informative. Do wear boots if you have them, borrow a free walking stick regardless of what the guide says unless you are experienced in scrambling downhill in scree, and wear a brimmed hat that won't blow off.
We thought the Buried Village was a rip-off.
The town museum is overpriced for what you see but does bring you up to speed on the local information.
The Regent Motel is a great value at $69NZ for 2. Small and a bit cramped, it looked like a real bargain as we headed south. The free wifi was a real bonus to, as internet connection in NZ often runs $5-6NZ/hr of more. The beds are good and there is plenty of hot water but everything else is a little spare. The kitchen pots are small for much cooking and our room was small, but we'd happily stay there again.
Tongariro Crossing (Lake Taupo area of the North Island) based on our December 3, 2006 experience
Yes, the 10-11 mile hike in the saddles between a couple of quiet volcanoes is worth doing but once is enough.
The info folks are very egalitarian and say you can go either direction between the Mangatepopo car park and the Ketetahi car park, but after doing it, going from the "M" place to the "K" place is the way to go. We'd been told that was the direction of more favorable grades and indeed, we did 1010m up and 1350m down going "M to K". The grades up from M are steep but are through a rocky area that allows you to pick and choose your own foot placement for the most part. From K, the steep grades are on a set path with constructed steps that are sometimes huge rises--tall enough that even a few of them would be tiring as they are out of the usual range of motion where most of us have our leg power.
The last hour or so towards K is in a forest along a stream that was welcome relief from the warm sun and drying winds and the several benches were appreciated by many of us. Even on a rainy day, the shelter would be welcome. The reprieve from the elements was a relief in that last hour when most of the walkers, including us, were ready to be done. It's shelter, benches and obscuring of the forest would be less appreciated at the beginning of the day when one is fresh. There is no protection from the elements in the comparable area near the M car park.
Car thieves reign at the 2 car parks and all walkers are urged to use the shuttle bus services that drop you off at one end of the Crossing in the morning and pick you up at the other end in the afternoon. If possible, stay at a place that has its own shuttle. We were left out on the roadside for about 45 minutes on a very cold, windy morning waiting for 1 bus for another hike in the area, and on our Crossing day, the nearby shuttle was also late. If the bus is sponsored by your lodging establishment, you should be able to wait indoors while they work out their unexpected problems. (We'd taken 4 shuttles in various areas at this point and none were close to being on time.)
Another plus is a shuttle service that has 2 afternoon pick-up times, like a 4:30 and a 5:30 bus. Our shuttle was late in picking us up in the morning but didn't adjust the afternoon pickup time, so we had less time on the mountain. We would loved to have had the extra hour afforded by a second at the top to fully take in the sights.
Keeping checking the twice daily forecasts for the area to plan your hike in the best conditions: www.metservice.co.nz. Depending upon who you ask, either 50kph or 60kph winds are the cut-off for a safe and pleasant experience. On our crossing day, the winds at 1500m were predicted to be 40kph, at 3000m, 70kph, though the Crossing peaks at about 1900m. I registered 40kph (25mph) gusts at both the low and high point of our journey, with 10-15mph winds being the norm.
If you are in a spell of bad weather and are waiting for a good day, I would not base at National Park village or Whakapapa Village which are the closest clusters of humanity to the Mangatepopo starting point as there is little there. The 1 market at National Park is spare and expensive and there is little to do. Turangi to the north or Ohakune to the south would be better places to tread water for a few days while you wait for a break in the weather. The down side of either of those is the longer shuttle ride at the beginning and end of your Crossing day, but it would be worth it if you were waiting for 2 or 3 days.
On your hiking day, take a map on which you have recorded the estimated walking times between as many of the reference points as you can locate in the prior days. Your shuttle driver will tell you what time you need to be at the parking lot and when you should be leaving the last hut, but that gets you down to the last 2 hours of an 8 hour day. You need reference points along the way to judge if you can linger at lunch or not. (Our driver said to allow 2.5 hours from Ketetahi Hut to the Ketetahi Car Park and other sources said to allow 2 hours. We kept a brisk walking pace and stopped once for a sit-down rest and made this leg of the journey in 1'40".)
Take as much as you can carry. Bill and I each took almost a gallon of water--a little over 3.5 quarts and I drank every drop of mine. Bill typically drinks quite a bit less than I do and did so this day, drinking about 2 1/2 quarts. It was about 60° in the morning when we started and in the low 70's when we finished, but you are fully exposed to the sun and wind for all but about 1 hour of 8 that you are out. The "K" hut near the end had a sign for drinking water but the tap seemed to be dry that day, so plan on bringing all that you need.
We took our usual active day food stash of around 800-900kcal for lunch, plus some extra snacks and were fine. It wasn't real strenuous and we weren't famished and didn't eat all of our extra food, it was just a long day. You'll be packing out your garbage, so plan your food with the garbage you'll have to carry in mind.
There are toilets at the car parks at each end and another 1-2 hours from each car park but bring your own paper for at least 1. We needed a pee-break at our lunch stop at Emerald Lakes and the few bunches of tall grasses were all that there were to aid in being discreet. It's swarming with people, but it was the best coverage for a mile or more in each direction so we seized the opportunity.
"Strong shoes or boots" are recommended everywhere you look. We say wear whatever you believe in. If high top hiking boots are the only proper mountain footwear for you, wear them and you'll feel vindicated. If you have aggressive soled, sport or hiking shoes that you love, you'll be satisfied with their performance here too. And if you feel like an invincible mountain goat in your sturdy sport sandals--go for it!
We wore our bottom of the line Teva "Hurricane" sandals for the first half of the day, carrying our boots until we hit the scree at the summit and did just fine. I descended part of the scree field in my sandals and did surprisingly well as the rock was mixed with sand. Going straight down the fall line and digging my heels in with each step worked as well in sandals as it did in boots. I finally relented and donned my boots as I thought I could go faster in them than sandals and one must keep moving to make it to the car park to meet your shuttle bus on time. But the scree field from the Emerald Lakes overlook to about Blue Lake is the only place I could imagine the boots offered an advantage.
Of course, if there is snow on the track, you may want to make different choices in your footwear. All of the reports we read said there was no snow on the track, though we crossed two short stretches of it. It was shallow and mushy, so footwear selection wasn't a consideration.
Hiking Sticks & Rental Equipment
We have learned to love hiking sticks and recommend them for this hike. One is better than 2 as the track is often too narrow to be "poling" on each side. But a telescoping stick is reassuring when descending down steps designed for a giant and in the lose scree. A stick also allows one to keep their tempo up in the more squirrelly footing areas and tempo is important unless you have your own transportation.
Hiking sticks and other gear can be rented from some of the area lodging establishments and shuttle services. Our shuttle driver offered loaner hats and gloves to passengers as they exited and packs, poles, boots and jackets were available to be rented if arranged in advance. New Zealanders tend to be very helpful and I suspect that you could get help in buying, renting or borrowing just about any item you lacked for doing The Crossing.
Believe it when they say to be prepared for anything as they are right, the weather is wilding unpredictable and can change in a flash. People die of hypothermia before the sun goes down on The Crossing in bad weather. We hauled every bit of rainwear and cold weather wear with us despite the lack of rain in the forecast and would do it again. Unexpectedly, it got hot while we were hiking and the the excessive amount of water that we carried was the right thing for that day.
The winds can be brutal and suck the heat out of your layers of technical fabrics in no time. One bus driver commented that recently one group of hikers were on hands and knees near the crest 'cause the winds were so strong.
Wear a hat with a wide brim that stays down in 25mph winds. New Zealand is suffering from a hole in the ozone layer and even on cloudy days, we haven't seen a UV forecast for less than 10. A hat is good protection for your eyes, good for your skin and is good to have in the changing conditions.
Queen Charlotte Sound (north end of the South Island)
We hiked about half of the Queen Charlotte Track: backwards on the last 15 km from Ship Cove to Furneaux Lodge (15 km, 550m elevation gain) at Endeavor Inlet and the beginning 22 km from Torea Bay to Anakiwa (22km, 800m elevation gain--both about 36-37m/km). Those were the most highly rated segments by the tourist info folks. The forests of Ship Cove segment was more interesting for the effort but we weren't overwhelmed with any of it. We didn't find any of the views in the Queen Charlotte Sound to be show-stoppers--pretty but by no means exceptional.
We aren't hikers at heart and prefer hiking above tree line or in rockier lands vs forest walks. The boat shuttles cost us $90NZ ($62US) for 2 people on 1 day's leg and $130NZ ($88US) on the other. These were regularly scheduled water taxi's that were making detours to drop off packages and shuttle locals around too, not private taxi rides. The tourist industry folks raved about these hikes but I must say that we didn't see any other tourists taking photos and didn't hear any of them rave about the experience en route or at the end.
One can walk the entire track and camp or stay at lodges along the way, thus only paying for the water transportation once at each end, which is $90NZ per person. I'm not sure it would be a net savings given the premium that would be paid on food and lodging along the track. We opted to make 2 day trips, returning to our motel in Picton each night which simplified bike storage and gave us access to the biggest grocery store for miles. The water taxis will shuttle your luggage or camping gear each day (for a fee) so that you only have to carry day-hike supplies, which is a lovely concept.
Abel Tasman National Park (north end of the South Island)
We walked much of the main track, which was from Tonga (Onetahuti) to Marahau. If you are short on time, the most interesting segment was from Bark Bay to Anchorage. That's were the vegetation was the most distinctive. We kayaked from Tonga to Anchorage and were disappointed in the trip. The friendly, enthusiastic guide made for a pleasant social experience, but we primarily paddled in the open water and not along the shoreline, missing out on the close-up look at the birds, geology, and plant life that we had wanted to see. We enjoyed our unguided kayak trip out of Anakiwa Bay near Picton much more because we could cruise the shore at our own speed. I don't know if a different company or a different guide within the company would have made a difference in our experience out of Marahau.
When lining up water taxis, be sure to ask "Will we be getting our feet wet?" Some taxis have elaborate gangplanks for clients use at the beach landings, others expect you to wade in thigh deep water and waves. Knowing what to expect helps in planning your footwear and pants. I enjoyed having a small viscose rag along for wiping the sand and water from my feet and legs before donning shoes.
We finally settled on staying at Motueka instead of the better situated Marahau and were very pleased that we did. Enough of the water taxi and kayaking companies provided transport from Motueka at no extra charge. We weren't as conveniently located for launching our activities but being walking distance from the i-Site info office, supermarket, and other services was well worth the inconvenience. (Some companies will also transport you from Nelson into the park, though for a fee.)
We found the activities at Abel Tasman overpriced for the quality of the experience. The cheapest transport (bus + water taxi) we found for a day's walk in the Park was $52NZ per person. All day experiences with half or all of it being kayaking with a group were in the $100-150 range, and an overnighter with spare, indoor accommodations was around $250 per person. It's not easy to spend less than these prices, though it is quite easy to spend more.
The Glaciers (west coast of South Island)
We did the all day glacier walk at Franz Josef and were pleased with the experience but not thrilled. It was cool to walk in the bottoms of some ice crevasses but the whole event was a bit over hyped--the guide admitted that the ice picks we were issued we just for show and had no utility for us. At Fox, we settled for riding our bikes out on the 2 different access and view point roads and walked part way to the foot of the glacier. The glow worm dell at Fox is an easy and cheap opportunity to see the unusual sight if you are at Fox after sundown.
Book ahead for lodging as the rooms fill-up quickly. Rooms are expensive and overpriced, so you might want to "buy-up" a bit. We were one pair of a number of middle-aged couples that ended up in much dodgier accommodations that we anticipated at Fox Glacier (The Fox Glacier Inn.) The small, dark rooms smelled of mold, the sand flies were numerous, and the communal kitchen was very marginally equipped and a highly disagreeable place to cook or eat.
Queenstown (central-southern South Island)
The i-Site folks in Wanaka confirmed that $130NZ was a standard summer time price for 2 in a motel with a kitchen in Queenstown, so Bill booked us online from Wanaka at the Grand Mercure Hotel St Moritz for about the same price. Our room was upgraded upon check-in and we had a fantastic room. The king-sized bed in the separate bedroom (instead of our usual studio arrangement), a rare bathtub, a first-ever free washing machine/dryer in the room, our 3rd place in 3 months with international news on the TV, new furniture and tasteful decor, and a view of the lake--we were in heaven. They cheerfully stashed our bikes in the locked ski room. We'd happily stayed a week but of course the prices which vary each day would likely have gone up. So, if you are going to Queenstown, its worth a look online to see what they are doing with their prices: www.accorhotels.co.nz. (We however declined the breakfast that would have cost almost $50NZ for the 2 of us per day.)
Riverton, near Invercargill (southern tip of South Island)
I can't imagine why anyone but cyclotourists would stop 40 km out of Invercargill for lodging but we did and stayed in a wonderful place. It is the Globe Motel Beach Retreat operated by the same folks who manage the Globe Backpackers. For $95NZ we had a 2 bedroom cottage that was half of an older duplex. Huge living room windows looked out onto an ocean view slowly disappearing behind the trees on the sloping front lawn. Outfitted to sleep 6, it was spacious and very tastefully redone in late 2002. They should have replaced all of the plumbing, but it is a delightful place to stay with extras like a boom-box for getting the local classical radio station and a free washing machine in addition to the fully equipped kitchen. We didn't want to leave because it was so spacious and bright.
We didn't know that we shouldn't have been able to pick-up the key until after 4 pm at the Backpackers in town, which would have been disappointing on our short riding day, but someone was in early to give us our key. The "motel" is several kilometers out of town from where you pick-up the key, and that's where the bigger grocery store is too.
email@example.com, www.theglobe.co.nz, 0800-843-456.
This was one of our best values on the South Island were prices were generally over $100, usually delivering less.
Dunedin (southeast coast of the South Island)
Dunedin was a highpoint for us. The hilly university town of 120,000 had a welcome lively energy and no doubt the fine weather colored our experience. The Otago Museum was well done and had sophisticated exhibits to round out our New Zealand education. The visit to the Royal Albatross Colony was interesting, though felt overpriced at $30NZ for 30 minutes on the viewing platform. But our early February visit was perfect for seeing birds nesting on their chicks and we were glad to have the experience.
The best of our Dunedin visit was the time spent with Elm Wildlife Tours. They hauled us out to the Albatross Colony and then on to a private conservation area they've developed with the farmer who owns the land favored by the wildlife. There we walked on the beach between the sea lions, got close looks at yellow-eyed penguins from hides, and looked down on several hundred fur seals with their pups. Our guide, like most of their half-dozen guides, was a master's level student in biology. His specialty was sea lions and he was generous with his knowledge. He also happily answered all of our questions, including clarifying that part of our misery on the road is that in New Zealand that cars have the right-of-way over pedestrians and cyclists. Of our half-dozen guided tour experiences in New Zealand, this was the cheapest at $75NZ each and unlike all the others, felt under-priced for what we got. You do have to be capable of hoofing it up several long steep hills on uneven ground to access their wildlife areas. www.elmwildlifetours.co.nz.
We stayed at the Allan Court Motel on George Street and were very happy with our accommodation. Our 1 bedroom unit with tub and full kitchen was $125NZ per night. Their beds are much better than most in New Zealand, it is quiet, and about as close-in to the center as most of the lodging. Try for an upstairs, corner room if you consider the view out your window as a part of your space--the view out the window isn't anything special, but the light is nice.
The Reed Field Guide to New Zealand Geology by Jocelyn Thornton was the only geology book we found. It is more focused on looking at specific rocks in specific locations than describing general formations, which is my interest.. It's written to be technically accurate and yet an easy read for motivated beginners. She even includes a map of each of the 2 main islands with page numbers referencing geological phenomena you can see from the roadside.
Nature Flip Guides to New Zealand Birds by Andrew Crowe is a delightful fold-out flip chart to 95 New Zealand birds. The very high quality reproductions of well illustrated birds make it easy for non-birders to get it right when it comes to identifying birds.
The Miranda Shorebird Centre about 100 km southeast of Auckland at RD3 Pokeno is a treasure of a place to stay for the night away from the campground scene. Instead of being oriented inwards in the fortress style of campgrounds, the tiny Centre orients the eye outwards to the horizons. We were delighted with 1 of the 2 modest, self-contained units with kitchen and private bath for $50NZ plus another $5 each for bedding. They also have dormitory rooms with kitchen access that would run $35NZ for 2, plus linens if needed. Bring your own food to prepare as the nearest market or restaurant are 7 km away. Their small information center and friendly staff will quickly bring you up to speed on some of New Zealand's natural novelties, like chenier shell banks, braided rivers, and the bizarre salt water mangroves in addition to educating you about the birds and their migration patterns. www.miranda-shorebird.org.nz, firstname.lastname@example.org, Tel: 64 9 2322781.
Be forewarned that you must pay a $25NZ departure tax upon leaving the Auckland airport--a tax that may be raised soon to help pay for a new rugby stadium that is on its way to being a debacle.