While “trampin’ and scroggin” sounds like the next hit buddy cop movie, it’s actually what I was doing and eating soon after landing in New Zealand. Tramping meaning hiking, and scroggin equaling trail mix here in Kiwi land. I was also up to quite a bit of craft beer-ing, Harraway oats-ing, and Transfercar-ing, but that’s too long for a post title.
Going from Egypt to New Zealand after nearly 7 months in Africa was a HUGE change, in just about every way. Of course, it wasn’t planned that way.
The idea was to go to Rome for a week for some developed world action, then down to Israel, Jordan, and India. But the travel gods had other plans. After failing to get a spot on New Zealand’s famed Milford Track – the finest walk in the world – in April or May to wrap up A Great Journey, I found a single opening in February.
I was in Kenya at the time just kicking off the new year. After mulling it a few minutes, I decided to book it and figure out the logistics later. It meant I’d have to hustle quite a bit through Egypt, but I’d been there before. Ultimately, 8 days and the Milford Track was better than more days in Egypt and the continued frustration of clicking through the DOC calendar on a daily basis without finding an option to hike in April. It’s insanely popular (and beautiful), this hike.
I was still in the throes of the Sudan visa saga, so I was mighty glad to learn that New Zealand is one of the easiest countries to get into, no matter which passport I used or where I’d been. And I was also glad United could get me there for 35,000 miles and 100 USD on a fun combination of flights.
I purposely chose the longest possible connections so I’d be able to leave the airport, reload on some necessities, and make it to New Zealand just in the nick of time.
So, four continents in two days looked like this: Cairo-Munich-Shanghai-Auckland-Queenstown.
For maximum flexibility, the only other thing I booked was a bus from Queenstown to Te Anau, where the Milford Track fun would begin.
Fast forward to February 12th and I got my first dose of reality. New Zealand was a far cry from Africa and other than the welcome free shower at the airport, everything was far more overpriced and overbooked than I had imagined. With virtually every place in Auckland sold-out, I pitched my tent in a secluded spot in a park by the airport that night and hoped the cops wouldn’t bother me. Thanks, Chinese New Year.
Not a great way to shake the jet lag, but the excitement of hiking in NZ kept me up anyhow.
Complicating my much-anticipated trip into New Zealand’s great outdoors were knee and shoulder injuries I picked up in Luxor 6 days before my scheduled departure. The left pedal snapped completely off my bike as I was pedaling upright and I flipped in an ungracious epic fail. In hindsight, I was lucky it was those two body parts and not my face/head, as I came down hard and rolled. This being Egypt, there was no helmet involved with the bike rental.
I was too stubborn (and unemployed) to cancel the epicness that awaited in the fiordlands, so against doctors orders I did three Great Walks in my first two weeks: The Milford Track, the Routeburn Track, and the Kepler Track. About halfway through, on the downward part of the Routeburn, my knee made it clear that it was not ok, no matter how many meds I took. But what could I do?
The DOC cancellation policy is financially unforgiving, so I just pretended I was Japanese and ganbaru’d the hell out of things. I ended up crushing the uphills and getting passed on the downhills, on which I gingerly moved trying to put as little weight on my left knee. It’s hard to do that with a 50 L bag strapped to your shoulders, but so it goes.
This was the first time I ever used hiking sticks, which were a damn good purchase and a useful souvenir that survived all the way home.
A little later, I added the Abel Tasman Great Walk, on which I kayaked for two days and walked one.
New Zealand’s outdoors were as good as advertised (despite the pesky, irritating, blood-sucking annoyance that are sandflies; I still have scars from scratching). And if the weather had cooperated, I would have checked out Mount Doom on the Tongariro Track. Alas, the travel gods didn’t grant me clear skies during the two windows I had to make it happen.
A quick look at the (amazing, put-them-on-your-list) tracks…
The Milford Track
Billed as the finest walk in the world, it was the reason I decided to cross the damn planet on short notice. And it did not disappoint!
You start out with a beautiful drive on a winding road, which gets you to the dock. Here you board a speedboat and enjoy the hell out of the view, which is fantastic all the way around.
Mostly miserable conditions ruled during the 3-night, four-day hike, but you got used to wet feet from the get-go and cold, wet everything by the end. It was absolutely gorgeous with lush greens, crystal-clear waters, and even snow near McKinnon pass.
Without a doubt, it lived up to its billing and was worth every penny.
The Routeburn Track
My last day on the Milford Track was my first on the Routeburn, though they were broken up with a cruise in the Milford Sound which was outstanding.
Warm weather prevailed and the bad conditions a few days earlier meant snow-capped peaks and gushing waterfalls. Right up there with the Milford Track, though the downhill was an absolutely painful endeavor.
After 6 days in the mountains, I hustled to the tourist trap that is Queenstown (shout-out to the kid from Seattle for the hitch!) and feasted upon a Fergburger. It lived up to the word-of-mouth and lines. I wish I had a pic.
Also noteworthy, the fact that you can drink on the streets in Queenstown until 10 pm, something you can’t really do anywhere else in NZ.
The Kepler Track
After experiencing so many stunning views on the previous two hikes, I must confess that the Kepler Track was closer to a very good walk than a Great Walk. Though a dusting of snow may have changed my mind.
Nonetheless, it was a fun, albeit painful, outing that involved many a Kea – New Zealand’s mischievous (and loud) alpine parrots. I crushed it in about half the time the signage said to allot, if only to get the hell off my leg.
I also met Carole and Sherry, some wonderful gals from Portland with an insane amount of travel under their belts, on my last night there. We had a great dinner the following day in Te Anau, where I saw this most Kiwi front-page.
The Abel Tasman
A great break for the knee, paddling the mostly-calm waters of Abel Tasman National Park was a great experience! The crew at Abel Tasman Kayaks provided great equipment and a solid walk-through. The clarity of the water, soft sand, seals, and low-key campsites were refreshing.
Walking back the last day, the track was a bit busy and Cleopatra’s Pool underwhelming (and over-populated by sandflies). But, the kayaking portion more than made up for it, as did the great card game at the campground my 2nd night.
Following the hikes, I gave my knee quite a rest, not hiking for the rest of A Great Journey. So I criss-crossed both islands in my transfercars, meeting great people and taking in some jaw-dropping scenery and cool cities along the way, thoroughly enjoying New Zealand. More on that soon.