Hiking In New ZealandMaoris have lived here for as long as these ancient trees, and the indigenous people of the country attach a strong sense of spirituality to this forest. As with most of the best hikes in New Zealand, there's a guided option within the Whirinaki Forest as well, one that includes a couple of nights at an established forest camp complete with meals and other creature comforts. The multi-day outing is led by Maori guides whose intimate knowledge of the area makes the journey as much of a cultural experience as a wilderness one.
At the conclusion of the Whirinaki trip, we made the short journey over to one of the many active geothermal areas in Taupo. A short hike took us through a landscape of steaming fumeroles, bubbling pits of hot mud, and technicolor pools tinged by various oxides.
The startlingly variety of the terrain-from lush rain forests to smoldering lunar landscapes-is just part of what makes hiking in New Zealand so mind-blowing.
On our way back to Taupo, Brian suddenly started driving with uncharacteristic haste, finally revealing that we had 'only 20 minutes to find a place to watch the Melbourne Cup.' The obvious question from me, 'What's the Melbourne Cup'? revealed more than just my ignorance: It is the super bowl of Australasia, the sporting event of the hemisphere, a long, storied Australian horse race with such a huge following that life virtually comes to a standstill all over this part of the planet for about fifteen minutes as people gather around the nearest television. This race is so traditional that even Mark Twain was impressed when he saw it, proclaiming, 'the Cup astonishes me. Nowhere have I encountered a festival of people that has such a magnificent appeal to the whole nation.'
We ended up in a country pub full of farmers, sheep shearers, diary men, townspeople and local Maoris. As the bar man brought the first beers, Brian informed me that betting was mandatory, including by me, as even total ignorance was no excuse from participating in the tradition. So I scanned the large field of contestants and, being a journalist, picked a mare at random on which to lay down my $5 notes (down here, the bills sport Hillary's face, not Abe Lincoln's). Naturally, my dumb, beginner's luck kicked in big time. Much to the annoyance of everyone in the pub, when the screaming was over, the 'Yank's' horse had won the race. My proceeds were cheerfully paid in Speights Ale, and it took hours for me and my new friends to drink all that beer. The afternoon in that country pub showed me more about New Zealand that I could have discovered in weeks of doing something else.
The last backcountry stop for me was Tongariro National Park, a stunning collection of sometime active volcanoes a few hours south of Taupo. Gifted to the country in 1887 by the local Maori, the park is one of only 20 places in the world with dual World Heritage status for both cultural importance as well as natural beauty. One of the most appealing of New Zealand's Great Walks is here, the Tongariro Northern Circuit , a multi-day route that winds its way over Mt Tongariro and around Mt Ngauruhoe through bizarre landforms, volcanic craters and glacial valleys. But with my time by now short, I had to settle for a shorter route, what many people believe is the greatest day hike on the planet: the Tongariro Crossing. This 17 kilometer route hike runs straight through the most interesting part of the sprawling park, past steam vents, colored lakes, lava flows, even an active crater. My Kiwi luck finally ran out, and the day I was there clouds, a ferocious gale, and astonishingly heavy snow obscured most of the scenery, and obviated the best side trip, to the summit of Mt Ngauruhoe. Still, this nine-hour weather fest was a great way to end my backcountry survey course of New Zealand.
A highlight of the Tongariro National Park was the Grand Chateau, a huge hotel of old world charm built in the 1920s in the tradition of the Canadian railroad hotels. It rises out of the grasses and volcanic features of the park like a vision, and an incredibly comfortable one after a gray, windy and cold day up on the hills. The place is a bit pricey, but its location makes it irresistible when you're hiking the park for just a few days. Warming up by the fire in the ornate lobby, I was reading an old copy of a New Zealand mountaineering magazine, an article about the country's 'haunted huts' on some popular alpine routes. I almost spilled my Irish coffee when one of the supposedly haunted locales was not some remote hut, but the third floor of the Grand Chateau-right where my room was! But after a last meal of New Zealand lamb and a Hawk's Bay cabernet, I crawled off to bed early and slept soundly, either unmolested by lurking ghosts of the past or too tired to notice. The next day was the beginning of the return journey, so it was off to the tiny Taupo airport for the propeller job back to Auckland and the sad end to an amazing trip--a tramping smorgasbord that can only be described as good as gold.
outdoorssp 36-40, F 0 Nov 17, 2012