the very best of New Zealand

If you ever come to New Zealand there are 3 places you definitely have to visit (or things you have to do) and I did all of those 3 in my final week in NZ: 1) drive to Mount Cook Village to hike up to the wonderful Mueller Hut to get a 360 degree view of the glaciers and Mount Cook 2) spend a couple of days in Marlborough, THE wine region in NZ (particularly for white wines), to do wine tastings and savour the wonderful food at the wineries 3) do the Tongariro Circuit which leads you along craters and 3 impressive volcanoes.

3 years ago I had already done the hike to Mueller hut but I decided to do it once again since the weather was supposed to stay nice for the next 2 days, so I headed to Mount Cook village. The drive itself is already amazing, passing emerald blue lakes (they get the color from the sediments from the glaciers) and driving for about 70 km along a beautiful valley until you reach the village and stand right infront of the Mount Cook mountain range. This mountain is NZ’s highest mountain and it has a magical appearence to me. I made my way up to Mueller Hut which is a 1000 meter climb and half way up the snow was sometimes up to 1 meter high (the rain we got on the Milford Track was snow in the mountains) so the steep ascent was quite tough and challenging but when you turn around and see the beautiful valley and all the glaciers (and even avalanches every other half hour (which is great to watch when you know that the only area where they don’t come down is where you are) every single step is soooo worth it! Once again I climbed up the big rocks infront of the hut to pose for a sunset photo (the big photo on my blogsite was taken at the same spot 3 years ago). I had an incredibly beautiful sunset with views from the hut once again, followed by a freezing cold but stary night. When I had to get up in the middle of the night to go to the toilet which is about 100 meters away, I put on your hiking shoes, stepped through the frozen snow and looked up to see the milky way and millions of stars and I experienced one of those “I am truly happy”-moments.

I had met 3 nice older KIWI guys at the hut, one of them being a professional photographer who took amazing photos on this walk, and we had a lovely evening, chatting away and exchanging stories about our other hiking experiences.  The next morning we enjoyed a wonderful sunrise, no wind, just the mountain peaks slowly turning orange. The way down the mountain was just as challenging as the slopes are sometimes really steep and the snow covered holes between big rocks. But after only 3 hours I had descended the 1000 meters and said bye-bye to wonderful Hooker Valley and the Mount Cook mountain range and headed towards Kaikoura, about 600 km further up the island.

The next morning on my way to Marlborough I stopped on a little car park on the coastal road close to Kaikoura to stretch my legs for a few minutes. I looked down on the cliffs and saw 6-10 fur seal pups making their way out of the ocean and along the rocks towards the mouth of a river that came down the mountains and flowed into the sea. It was a very awkward picture, seeing those animals “wobble” along a fresh water river. I thought that they would probably turn around any second but as a nice old couple approached me and we started chatting they asked me if I had been to the close-by waterfall. “No, I haven’t”, I said, “but what’s so special about the waterfall”, I asked. “Well there are a lot of fur seal pups in the pool of that waterfall”, the old man said and I thought how does that work? Seals and fresh water? So I followed the river 10 minutes uphill and heard and saw quite a few of the little cuties squeak and paddle around along the rocks. I increased my pace as I was really curious what would await me and as I reached the waterfall and the pool I could not believe my eyes! About 150 fur seal pups right in front of me: about 100 in the pool, jumping and playing around (it looked like the water was boiling from all the movement) and another 50 or more along the river, in the forest (!) and on the path right next to me. I was in HEAVEN again, particularly because pups are extremely curious and playful as they are only a few months old and are exploring themselves and their surrounding. While I was taking some photos and videos I suddenly saw a shadow right next to me and one of the little guys was right next to my feet, sniffing me out and making the funniest sounds! I stayed there for 3 hours, just watching them. And if my hands hadn’t frozen that much I would have stayed another few hours. I don’t think it can get much better than that.

After this amazing experience I continued along the wild and beautiful coast up to Marlborough where I stormed the visitor information center right away to fetch the wine-trail map they provide visitors with. I had gotten a few good tips from  Kiwis which wineries were worth a visit so I circled them on my map and headed for the first one, Alan Scott, right away. Lovely wines, beautiful architecture of the cellar door restaurant and wine tasting area, great food and very friendly staff. What more do you want? I absorbed a huge cheese, dip and chutney platter with a few nice glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and enjoyed the views of the vineyards with their leaves turning red. On the next day I visited 3 more wineries (Hunters, Cloudy Bay and Wither Hills) with a few more wine tastings, great lunch and interesting chats with the people who performed the wine tastings. After all the hiking and eating dehydrated food on my hikes or cooking rather basic dishes for the last 4 weeks this was a real treat for myself!

On May 5 I headed to Picton and took myself and my van to the North Island and to Wellington. I drove straight up North towards Tongariro National Park where I stayed at a forest campground and was welcomed by frost and ice when I stepped out of the van the next morning. The thing I really wanted to do on the North Island was the Tongariro Nortern Circuit, a 3-4 day track through Tongariro National Park. Last time I did it I had to skip one third of the walk because I had gotten a fever and a bad toothache. But this time I finished the whole loop – and once again in perfect weather! The walk is stunning because it leads you around Mout Ngauruhoe, the volcanoe which is Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings. This volcanoe has a perfect cone-shape and it is very pretty to see it from every side because the landscape changes between shrub, forests and lava-desert with lava towers in all kinds of shapes. My favorite day is the day where you walk past many craters and the 3 Emerald Lakes. Vou climb up to the Red Crater where you see smoke steaming out of many cracks and Mt. Ngauruhoe is right in front of you. It is such a stunning site, incomparable to any other walks I had ever done. On the last night I met 2 very nice Spanish guys, Aritz and Alex, and we did the last day of walking together and spent the rest of the day in Taupo, an area which is famous for its many hot springs. We found the place I had been to 3 years ago again – a really cool experience: you park your car at a park and walk for 5 minutes until you reach a wide dark river. There is a tiny waterfall and spring of boiling hot water that flows into the wide river and you can just hop into the shallow water and pick your spot, depending on how hot you want the water to be…every other minute you can walk a few meters closer to the river and the temperature drops enormously – a nice way to cool off. After wallowing in this wonderful water for 1.5 hours we went back to the campground and cooked a nice dinner together. It was really nice to spend the last day of walking and the day in Taupo together with great company (thanks, guys!). The next morning I drove up to Auckland and visited my friend Anna whom I had met in Nepal 3 years ago on a hike. We stayed in touch over the course of time and now we had 3-4 hours for catching up what had happened in the last few years! Anna, her baby girl Bella and I took a stroll on a beautiful beach and chatted away until I had to leave and return my dear Jucy van – my home of the last 5 weeks. The last evening I wandered through the shopping streets of Auckland and to the Harbour where I had my last glass of wine before I feft for Adelaide early next morning.

I know, I will be back to New Zealand again, exploring the many more hikes I hadn’t done yet.

P.S: Franz, this one is for you. I am sure you would have loved each one of those 3 wonderful experiences:)

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