Tramping in the wilderness of New Zealand is an activity that most New Zealanders enjoy to various degrees, from a family stroll along a forest walkway to multi-day treks into the depths of the back country. This section of my site gives an overview of the features of tramping in New Zealand, the national parks (where most of the best scenery is) and the tramping tracks that are available.
Features of tramping in New Zealand
When a New Zealand tramper refers to "the bush", they are not talking about a lone shrub in the middle of a lawn. This is a slang term for any forest (thus tramping is also known as "going bush"). New Zealand bush is generally sub-tropical rain forest with a dense undergrowth that is difficult to travel through. Thus you should keep to tracks or routes unless you have the appropriate bush navigation skills.
New Zealand extends over 1600 kilometres (1000 miles) on a north-west line from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South and Stewart Islands. This gives a wide range of weather conditions. Generally it gets drier and sunnier as you go north. The mountain ranges up the middle of each island also means that there is a striking east/west difference in rainfall. The West Coast of the South Island is famous for its rainstorms (and wild, rugged coastline). The wettest place in New Zealand is Fiordland National Park in the South Island's south-west corner. Milford Sound receives an annual average of 6500 mm (250 in.) annually, spread over 180 days of rain per year. But most of the rain falls west of the main divide, and precipitation decreases sharply eastwards. Te Anau receives about 1200 mm (47 in.) annually. Good wet weather gear should be carried on all tramping trips.
The climate can change quickly due to weather systems moving onto land from the sea. Even in summer the temperature can drop sharply at night in the bush. Above the bush-line, wintery conditions can be expected at any time of the year.
NZ has about the same latitude as Spain, and dawn and dusk are rather short in summer. Make sure that you arrive at your hut or set up camp well before nightfall. As NZ is a sparsely populated country, it gets really, really dark at night in the bush. Take a torch (Kiwispeak for the American "flashlight") or better yet a head-torch if there's any chance that you might get delayed. Remember that some form of lighting (candle, torch, gas lantern) should be carried anyway for use in the huts.
There is a high level of ultraviolet light in New Zealand due to our clear air and the closeness of the hole in the ozone layer. Sunburn times for fair-skinned people can be as little as 15 minutes. Wear sunblock (suntan) lotion with a high SPF factor (15+) and a hat along with sunglasses is also advisable.
Strong winds can be experienced in any season and may prevent progress along the mountain tops or the crossing of saddles between valleys. Be prepared to wait for the winds to subside.
In general, there is clear weather just after a southerly blow subsides.
New Zealand offers a generous selection of terrain from the flat expanses of the Canterbury Plains (east coast of the South Island) to the jagged and steep Southern Alps. The hills and mountains tend to be steep since they are geologically young and still building due to the uplift between the South Pacific and Australian tectonic plates.
The main cause of deaths among trampers are river crossings.
New Zealand rivers rise and fall very quickly. Crossing rivers in flood is not recommended. If you cannot see the bed of the river or you can hear stones being pushed along the river-bed then do not cross. Wait a day for the river to drop before attempting a crossing. Use a log or branch for support and cross as a group with the strongest member upstream. There are a number of techniques - learn and practice one or more of them. The main tracks have bridges across the rivers but many side-streams do not have bridges and can be just as dangerous as the rivers.
Dangerous Fauna and Flora
There are no really dangerous native animals or plants in New Zealand. But there are a few things you should look out for:
The katipo spider can give a nasty bite but is rare, has a well-defined habitat (living in and around New Zealand beaches inside burrows or under logs and other debris) and is quite timid. The poisonous female is easily recognised by the red stripe running the length of her black abdomen.
Slightly more dangerous is the ongaonga (native tree nettle) which has claimed one tramper's life and many animals. This low dense bush has typical serrated nettle leaves with tiny hypodermic needles in the form of fine white hairs sticking out. The main danger is striding through a thicket in shorts and getting a large dose of their toxins which cause pain, weakness and perhaps death.
An increasing problem in the southern beech forests are the large number of introduced species of wasps. They are seriously disrupting the ecology of these forests where they compete with birds for honeydew (the nutritious secretion of a bark-dwelling insect). During summer, carrying antihistamine is recommended if you are allergic to their stings.
Some imported animals can be dangerous if cornered, eg. do not get between a wild sow and her litter.
The sandfly is a common irritant at the edge of water or on swampy ground. This is a tiny black biting insect similar to Scotland's midges or America's black flies. Luckily they rarely bite moving targets and there are plenty of insect repellents on the market to shoo them away.
Many native plants and fungi are poisonous - do not eat them unless you know what you are doing.
The sea has its normal quota of dangers. Of interest to the tramper hiking along the water's edge are jellyfish, although the pale common variety is completely harmless. The blue bottle or Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish floats with an air-filled bladder along the surface of the sea but is often washed ashore on open shores. The painful stings are still active in these dead specimens.
Giarda is another import that can affect tramping. These are microscopic aquatic parasites that live part of their life-cycle in the intestines of unfortunate passers-by. Symptoms include diarrhoea, stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, and occur within 6-25 days of ingestion. Treatment for giardiasis is essential. You can become infected by drinking water containing giardia cysts. Beware of major rivers running the lengths of valleys and draining a large area. It is safer to drink from small creeks running down the sides of valleys. Rain water supplies at huts are safe. If in doubt then purify, boil or filter the water.
Never, ever defecate near rivers - always use hut toilets or dig a latrine at least 50 metres from any water source.
Amoebic meningitis inhabits many thermal pools. This is a very serious disease, but you are perfectly safe if you keep your head above the water.
Or exposure. This is a drop in core body temperature, a life-threatening condition. Causes include inadequate protection from cold, wind and rain, immersion in water, lack of food, exhaustion and errors in judgement. Symptoms are lack of co-ordination and sluggish pace, confusion, lack of alertness, and lack of response to the cold. Set up camp immediately and take steps to ensure other members of the party do not also develop hypothermia. Get the patient dry and under shelter, and use body heat to warm them gently inside a sleeping bag.
Trampers in New Zealand are well served by a network of bush huts managed by the Department of Conservation (look at their factsheet on huts). If you want some examples of huts then try my descriptions of New Zealand huts
There are a number of organisations that produce maps of New Zealand. The main sources of maps are two government departments:
Land Information New Zealand (Toitu te whenua) is responsible for the actual topograhical information about New Zealand (as well as land titles, hydrographic information and other data). They produce the standard 260 series of maps, also known as "Topomaps". These maps are the most useful for tramping since they are at a scale of 1:50,000 and have contour lines (at 20 metre intervals).
The Department of Conservation manges conservation land (National and Forest Parks, reserves and other areas). They produce "Parkmaps" (series 273) for the National Parks where the scale is chosen to fit the size of the park. Thus a small park (Paparoa) is at a scale of 1:50,000 while a large park (Fiordland) is at a scale of 1:250,000. This gives a good overview of the area that is useful for planning but not for the trip itself. Forest Parks also have their own series (274) of Parkmaps. Each Parkmap tends to have an individual quality steming from the interests of the park. For example, the award-winning Tararua Parkmap lists 10 different types of vegetation. "Trackmaps" are other maps that concentrate on a particular track (eg. Heaphy, Milford, Routeburn/Greenstone, Hollyford and Kepler). These are more popular as souvenirs rather than serious tramping maps.
A good source of maps to buy online is the TerraLink Map Shop