A few years ago, I travelled around New Zealand’s South Island with Flying Kiwi – a tour company that encourages cycling, hiking and other adventurous activities. The highlight was three action-packed days where I cycled into Milford Sound, hiked the 33km Routeburn Track, and finished the third day by jumping off the edge of a cliff (which is really not something that comes naturally). The paragliding was way outside my comfort zone, but, after all, I was in the adventure capital of Queenstown. I just had to try something adventurous.
Have you travelled to New Zealand? Did you feel any pressure to go bungy jumping, white water rafting or zorbing just because you were in Queenstown? And if you did, was it outside your comfort zone? I would love to hear your stories, and here’s a recap of mine.
Emerging from Homer Tunnel, en route to Milford Sound on New Zealand’s South Island, I see snow-covered mountains towering above the bus. A waterfall tumbles from a sheer cliff, and my gaze follows the road, which winds steeply down the valley. It’s a daunting sight. But I disembark, grab my bike, and commence cycling.
The journey into Milford Sound is via one of the world’s most scenic roads. On a bicycle, descending from 945 metres above sea level, it is 18km of pure adrenalin. Rainforest covers the lower slopes of the mountains, rivers flow through the valleys, and there is a succession of waterfalls.
Milford Sound is part of World Heritage Fiordland National Park, a coastline indented by 14 fiords and stretching for 215km. According to Maori legend, Tu-te-raki-whanoa carved the steep valleys of Fiordland. Creating a rough coastline in the south, he perfected his technique as he moved north. Milford Sound was his greatest achievement. When the goddess of the underworld saw his creation she feared many people would be attracted to the area and released the New Zealand Sandfly to prevent them staying too long.
Mitre Peak, at a height of 1,692 metres, dominates the view from the harbour. Named because it resembles a bishop’s mitre (or headdress), it’s one of the world’s highest mountains rising directly from sea level.
Lush forests of ferns and palms reach down to the water, and today, mist clings to the mountains. I scan the shore for wildlife, spotting southern fur seals lazing on the rocks and little blue penguins waddling for cover. Friendly bottlenose dolphins dive in front of the boat, accompanying us out to the rough waters of the Tasman Sea.
In 1773 Captain James Cook wrote: “Inland as far as the eye can see the peaks are so crowded together as to scarce admit any valleys between them.”
Looping back towards the fiord I see mountains rising from the sea, and understand why Rudyard Kipling once described Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. But as we cruise back into the harbour I’m thinking of my next activity, which is hiking, or tramping as the Kiwis say, on one of New Zealand’s great walks.
The Routeburn Track connects Fiordland with Mount Aspiring via a high alpine pass called Harris Saddle. At 33km, it’s considered a relatively easy three-day tramp, unless you do it the Flying Kiwi way.
In order to fit both Milford Sound and the Routeburn Track into the itinerary, hikers begin the walk late afternoon, hiking 3.4km from the Divide to Howden Hut (rather than the usual 12km to Mackenzie Hut). It means the second day is a challenging 20km, mostly uphill.
At Howden Hut I chat to backpackers hiking the reverse itinerary. They’ve taken two days to walk the section I’m about to tackle in one. Smiling sympathetically, they tell me the trail is amazing, without mentioning distance or steepness.
Departing at dawn, I enter a forest, which reminds me of Fangorn Forest in Lord of the Rings. It’s a vivid green world, with goblin moss covering twisted silver beech trees. Gaining altitude I glimpse snow-capped peaks and pass waterfalls spraying mist across the trail. Eventually I descend to Mackenzie Hut for a much-needed rest, and to summon energy for the steepest section of the hike.
It’s an emotional five hours. At times I feel I’m the luckiest person alive, relishing spectacular views over Lake Mackenzie and the Hollyford Valley. Other times I curse the trail, thinking I’ll never make it to the shelter at Harris Saddle.
But eventually I do, and from here it’s downhill, a psychological hurdle overcome. The track continues to amaze – vistas of mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls – and twelve hours after setting out from Howden Hut I finally arrive at Routeburn Falls Hut. There’s helicopter circling, and for a brief delirious moment, I think it’s for me, as a friend had joked about organising an ambulance.
The next day it’s a short walk to Routeburn Shelter, and a 90-minute drive to Queenstown. En route I travel via Glenorchy and Lake Wakatipu and although this is spectacular countryside (that was filmed in the Lord of the Rings trilogy), I begin to nod off.
With only 24 hours to spend in the adrenalin-rush capital of New Zealand, sleeping on the bus is an excellent option. A few hours later, I’d be throwing myself off a cliff.