Hikes on New Zealand’s south island

New Zealand, Walking

We spent our last couple of weeks in Aotearoa (New Zealand) hiking some astoundingly beautiful routes in the regions of Mount Aspiring, Fiordland and Aoraki.

The hiking trails that we did can be linked up (via a bit of road walking or hitching) to make a longer trail. At the bottom of this blog post is a hand-drawn map of the routes showing this.

Here’s a brief review of the trails we hiked.

 Mount Aspiring region: French Ridge route (1 day)

“The French Ridge is amazing! So beautiful!” two hikers tell us as they come down from the mountain. So we delay our initial plan to hike the Cascade Saddle and detour to the French Ridge route.

We scramble through forest, using our arms to pull us vertically up, tree roots acting as footholds and handholds.

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After some of our most difficult hiking of New Zealand, we reach the modern French Ridge hut, perched high up on the side of the mountain, surrounded by tussock and rocks.

Beyond the hut is a route up towards the glacier, vaguely-waymarked by rock cairns. As we near the ice, the glacier groans and we hear blocks of ice fall, reminding us that we aren’t mountaineers and that we should know our boundaries in this extreme environment.

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The view from the toilet at French Ridge hut

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French Ridge hut

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Hiking the French Ridge gives me the urge to be a mountaineer, to learn the skills to trek over the glacier and all the way to Mount Aspiring. I’m reminded that the truly courageous hikers are not the masses like me, who hike the popular walking trails. It’s those who venture into the wilderness areas into places where they see few other people and need to rely on their skills to survive.

But because we’re not mountaineers, we must return back down the way we came, which leads us to the Cascade Saddle route…

Mount Aspiring region: Cascade Saddle route (1 day)

“Hi! How are you?” a relaxed looking hiker asks me with a big smile as she waits on a precarious ledge whilst I climb vertically up, using all four limbs to scramble up the rockface.

“Terrified,” I reply.

The Cascade Saddle hike is infamous amongst Te Araroa hikers, who talk about the astounding views, and how it’s the hike to do off of the main trail. Meanwhile, others have told us about the dangers of the trail. The hike starts easy, and then becomes both amazing and terrifying for a short distance.

I wonder why the trail has to cling to the edge of the cliff. I’m shaking and swearing, but my anxiety has been made all the worse by the warning signs on the route, telling hikers about the multiple fatalities that have occured. These signs make me question my capability and unsure of my footing.

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The trail clings to the edge of the mountainside, with steep drops

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‘Multiple fatalities have occured beyond this point’

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A view of the Dart glacier

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The route becomes much easier when reaching the mysteriously name ‘pylon’ area (there’s no pylon) and suddenly we find ourselves walking in a dark grey moon-like landscape. The trail passes right at the foot of the Dart Glacier, which – like all glaciers in the country – is receding due to climate change.

After a cold night in the tent, we hike to the Dart hut and join the Rees-Dart Track. Most hikers usually link up the Cascade Saddle route with the Rees-Dart track and end up in Glenorchy.

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The trail gets easier as we hike through moon-like landscape after passing the Cascade Saddle

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Rock cairns guide the way

Mount Aspiring region: Rees-Dart Track (2 days):

Despite one initial steep climb, the Rees-Dart is a relatively flat, straight-forward route through tussock and farmland. With freezing cold, wet feet, we squelch through boggy land. I laugh as Chris disappears into a bog which is cleverly disguised as wet grass.

We arrive at the end of the Rees-Dart track to find nature being decimated for a film set. A team of builders is constructing the set for the new Mission: Impossible film.

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The view from the Rees-Dart track

Fiordland region: Routeburn Track

The Routeburn is marketed as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. As such, it’s a big money-maker, with people booking months in advance to stay in the expensive huts on this trail. The government splits the 32km Routeburn into a three-day trail, but it’s really a two day walk.

The beauty of the Routeburn is that all sorts of hikers are doing it: old people fulfilling life-long ambitions, young kids with their parents, and everyone in between.

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On the Routeburn

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Chris swims in this beautiful waterfall

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It’s illegal to wild camp within 500 metres of the track. This ensures that most campers will pay to use the designated campsites. We pick a spot on my Topo Map that’s 500 metres from the trail, hoping to break the walk up into two days by wild camping. Whilst hiking happily along, we’re stopped by a warden and interrogated like we’re naughty school children.

“Where are you staying tonight? Do you have camping tickets? You’re camping where? There?! You won’t make it there before dark. I’m phoning through to the warden near there so that she can watch out for you and check that you’re over 500 metres away from the trail. It’s a $500 fine if you camp less than 500 metres away!”

We’re shocked by this policing of nature. Because of this we want to get off the Routeburn as quickly as possible. Despite the warden’s lack of faith in our fitness or our abilities, we finish the three-day Routeburn as night falls.

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The Routeburn leads to Glenorchy

Fiordland region: Gertrude Saddle (half a day)

Despite the warnings of multiple fatalities on this route, the Gertrude Saddle trail is a relatively straightforward climb. As we reach the Saddle, I feel elated. THIS is why I came to New Zealand, I think. There are mountains behind mountains, as far as the eye can see. In my imagination, this was always how I imagined New Zealand to be. After hiking 1000km, I have finally found what I was looking for.

Chris and I continue upwards towards the peak of Barrier Knob mountain. As we approach the peak, the snow and ice crack off, creating the sound of a mini-avalanche, and we’re once again reminded that we’re no mountaineers, and we head back down the way we came.

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Above Gertrude Saddle

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Friendly kea

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The view of Milford Sound from Gertrude Saddle

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The hike through the valley up to the Saddle

 

Fiordland region: Lake Marian track (2 days)

Lake Marian is a very short trail (about 1.5 hours each way) which we split up into two days, camping overnight at the Lake itself. The route is full of tree roots and scrambling, but it’s nowhere near as demanding as the hikes in Mount Aspiring National Park.

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Camping at Lake Marian

Aoraki region

Because of my knee injury, Chris and I can only hike the very flat route with a hundred other tourists in the Hooker valley at the foot of New Zealand’s largest mountain. There’s a good reason why the Hooker Valley route is busy with tourists: it’s easy and it’s astoundingly beautiful. Experienced hikers usually hike to the Mueller hut and stay overnight.

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Hooker Valley Track, Aoraki

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Aoraki

Our Top Ten Hikes of Aotearoa (New Zealand)

Chris and I rated our favourite hikes and wrote them in my diary. For me, I couldn’t decide between the top four, and they are equal favourites.

Here’s the list:

Me:

  1. Cascade Saddle
  2. French Ridge
  3. Gertrude Saddle
  4. Waiau Pass (via the Te Araroa, but can also be walked on the Travers-Sabine circuit)
  5. Tongariro Crossing
  6. Queen Charlotte Track
  7. Hooker Valley, Aoraki
  8. Arthur’s Pass track (on the Te Araroa)*
  9. Richmond Ranges (on the Te Araroa)
  10. Routeburn Track

*Because of the robins, hotsprings and Deception river; not because of the whole trail.

Chris:

  1. Cascade Saddle
  2. French Ridge
  3. Tongariro Crossing
  4. Gertrude Saddle
  5. Waiau Pass
  6. Richmond Ranges
  7. Northland Forests (on the Te Araroa)
  8. Deception River (part of the Arthurs Pass track on the Te Araroa)
  9. Queen Charlotte Track
  10. Hooker Valley track, Aoraki

Finally, many of the trails in this blog post can be joined up to make a longer trail…

The below rough sketch shows how the hikes in the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland region can be joined up (with some road walking or hitchhiking in places). And there are even more routes that can be added to this, such as the Milford Track, the Hollyford Track and the Green Lake Track. You can also look at NZtopomaps.com to see the hiking routes in detail on a Topo Map.

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