The South Island of New Zealand is one of the southern hemisphere’s worst kept secrets. The fjords of Norway, alps of Switzerland, summer temperatures of Australia and some of the friendliest people you will meet all rolled in to one rugby loving country. Not to discredit the North, but the South Island is where all the postcard, spectacular mountains, glaciers, fjords, climbs, tracks and lakes are that you’ve no doubt heard about are. That first guy to climb Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary? He was a New Zealander and he wet his climbing teeth on the mountains and glaciers of Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. With such spectacular and amazing scenery all through the island, on our recent NZ adventure we put together our top 5 New Zealand walking tracks for the
adventurous casual hiking tourist who wants to explore this amazing piece of the world.
Hooker Valley Track | Aoraki / Mt Cook
The Hooker Valley Track is one of the most popular short hikes in New Zealand’s South Island. Located in the picturesque Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, the walking track offers some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding glaciers, icebergs, lakes and majestic mountains. The biggest drawcard on the walk are the 3 swinging suspension bridges perched precariously over the large gorges; underneath the ferocious, surreal green glacier water. Definitely our favourite photo stops on the track! The hike begins at the Visitor’s Centre at the end of Hooker Valley Road off State Highway 80 and takes around 4 hours return if you walk casually. If you have more than a few hours you should definitely stop at the camping grounds located at the base of the mountain range – it has a perfect view of Mount Aoraki (Mt. Cook)!
- Duration: 3-4 hours return
- Difficulty: Easy
Gertrude Saddle Route (Milford Sound)
The Gertrude Saddle Route is a challenging track inside the iconic Milford Sound fjordlands area and a good alternative to the very popular Key Summit Track. Perhaps it was coincidence or maybe the upcoming storm but we were one of the few tourists on the Gertrude Saddle Route which made the whole experience even more adventurous. The track starts at a carpark east of the Homer Tunnel (ie, BEFORE you drive through the tunnel to get to Milford Sound) and begins with a pleasant alpine meadow. It’s a bit of a freedom track, there isn’t a specific route, so you can just follow the marker sticks (very easy to spot) every few hundred metres and find your own route through the streams and grasses, forest and rocks. There is a few difficult sections crossing the streams which were quite slippery as it was raining while we walked (hint: it’s always raining at Milford Sound). After about 1 hour in to the trek you reach the peak of the hill with an amazing view of the glacial valley. At this point, the track becomes a steep route for experienced climbers only. As the storm was setting in around us and the rain was getting heavier we din’t progress any further than that point; if you are feeling more adventurous – the views from the top are apparently worth the climb!
- Duration: 4-5 (full track), around 2-3 hours return to reach the steep track.
- Difficulty: Expert
- Warnings: Not recommended in winter due to the avalanche danger
Fox Glacier is one of the two famous and easily accessible of New Zealand’s South Island glaciers. The other is the Terry Fox Glacier – right next door – which as of 2016’s melting measurements you can actually get closer to than Fox Glacier however we thought the walk at Fox was much more interesting. The glaciers are constantly on the move, and for those who’ve visited Fox Glacier in the past 20 years you’ll notice the ice has retreated up the hill a few kilometres as it slowly melts in the increasing summer heat each year. From the glacier carpark plenty of signs mark the beginning of the short walking track up to the glacier. You can see it from as little as 500m up the track, but you should continue you all the way to the end at least to get a glimpse of the sheer awesomeness of hundreds of metres of ancient glacial ice precariously hugging the mountainside.
Don’t be fooled in to thinking it’s safe. As the track crosses a few creeks it can be a dangerous area. The creek can flood in a matter of minutes and ice and rock often fall from the glacier face. The track can sometimes be closed due to ice collapse, flooding or rock fall but it is heavily monitored and well fenced and sign posted where the safe areas to walk are. Just don’t head over the guide fences as you can get yourself in to a world of trouble (a few people have died doing this actually!).
- Duration: 1 hour return (2.6km)
- Difficulty: Easy
Hokitika is a pretty little town on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island and is usually the first town you discover after taking Arthur’s Pass from the east side of the island. 33km up the road from Hokitika is where the real action is though. The Hokitika Gorge walk is a very easy track – around 15 minutes each way through a hardwood forest. On the track you can find a couple of lookout platforms which give an impressive view of the gorge, swingbridge and the Kowhitirangi farmland which surrounds the Gorge. What makes Hokitika Gorge so worth the visit is the vivid turquoise water and the lush native bushlands surrounding it. Wonder how the water looks that crazy colour? This river is fed from ancient glaciers; the melted ice mixes with minerals, ground schist and greywacke rock (rock flour!) which produces this vibrant colour!
Photo tip: have one of you stand at the lookout and the rest walk onto the swingbridge to capture the whole of Hokitiki Gorge. Don’t stop just past the swingbridge – if you continue for another 100 meters you will reach another magnificent lookout.
- Duration: 30 minutes
- Difficulty: Easy
Nugget Point Light House Walk
On our way to Dunedin we decided to do a pit stop at Nugget Point. We found a sweet camping ground – highly recommended if you want to experience a bit of New Zealand’s agricultural atmosphere (or watch all the Lord of the Rings movies which the owner offers for rent – obviously!). The Nugget Point path leads to an amazing lighthouse and is a perfect track for all ages and experience levels. The whole area is rich in wildlife and at every step you can observe New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) which breed here as well as other marine mammals. If you go for a short 20 minute detour you can reach the Roaring Bay viewing hide – a wildlife reserve full of sea lions and rare yellow-eyed penguins. On the way back we went on the beach and experienced a one-on-one with an enormous sea lion which was casually sun tanning and disregarding the tourists.
- Duration: 20-30 minutes return ( 1 hour with a trip to the Roaring Bay)
- Difficulty: Beginner