Friday, June 13, 2014

Love & Trails in New Zealand

Love And Trails In New Zealand

copyright Tim Mathisby Tim Mathis

     There is an archetypal story that we might call “The One Who Got Away”, about a young man who falls in love for the first time, but loses the girl (the reason why doesn’t really matter). The man goes on to settle for another woman whom he marries and builds a life with, but he always secretly wishes he was with his first love, and wonders how his life might have been different if they’d stayed together.  

     If you plug me into that storyline, “The One Who Got Away” was a country, rather than a woman – New Zealand, to be exact. While I’ve settled down with Washington State in the last 9 years, and we’re happy, the biggest piece of my heart has always belonged to Aotearoa.

     I moved to NZ from Kentucky in 2003, with my (actual, human) first love Angel. At the time I was there partly on a spiritual quest to sort out my religious beliefs and career path by completing a Masters Degree in Theology, and partly on a classic “OE” (Overseas Experience) focused on learning a bit about a world that seemed big and foreign, having spent my upbringing entirely in a small town in Midwestern America.  

     Stepping off of the plane in Dunedin, an old Scottish South Island settlement, I was immediately in love with the most beautiful and unusual place that I’d ever been. During my two year stay in the country, I developed my first deep connection with a geographic location. The dramatic green hills of the Otago coast and the nearby Otago Peninsula, the Southern Alps and Fiordland National Park were all places that were beautiful beyond anything else I had previously conceptualized, and they sucked me in, drunk in love.  

     When the fling was over two years later, my student visa was expired and our travel plans were complete, leaving was traumatic. We moved to Seattle so that Angel could pursue an advanced degree in Nursing, and I spent the first several years here comparing the place unfavorably to New Zealand. Despite a few cursory flirtations with Mt. Rainier and the Olympic Peninsula, I obnoxiously told anyone who asked that while WA is fine, “it’s not as nice as New Zealand”. And while a new trail running habit ultimately convinced me to settle down with WA – a beauty I learned to love reluctantly, but eventually deeply – I always envisioned New Zealand as the ideal place.  

     And so, when we finally planned a return trip for March 2014, nine years after we’d left, I was a bit nervous. I wondered if she would still be as beautiful, and if I would still love her as much now that I’d travelled more and had a broader range of experiences.  

The Plan

     Having devoted much of our time to studying and establishing ourselves in careers, for the first several years we lived in Seattle Angel and I generally suppressed our international wanderlust and spent most of our time in the Pacific Northwest. However, following my graduation from nursing school, a 2013 trip to walk/run Spain’s El Camino de Santiago reminded us of earlier commitments we’d made to prioritize travel, and we immediately began thinking about another trip. That impulse quickly materialized into plans for an overdue return to New Zealand, and a conversation in a bar with friends developed the plans into a multi-week backpacking (or “tramping”, in Kiwi terms) and trail running group outing through the wilds of the South Island. 

     Tramping is a national past-time in New Zealand on par with any other sport, and they have a remarkable trail and hut network, including a system of nine multi-day Great Walks – veritable wilderness highways that attract walkers from around the world – alongside thousands of kilometers of other less-utilized trails. Our plan was to spend a few weeks completing four multiday trails in the Southern Alps around Queenstown, and in Fiordland National Park in the Southwest of the country, some as hikes and some as runs. We would backpack the 60km Rees-Dart Track with our friend Christie. We would then spend a night in the small town of Glenorchy and wake early to complete the 32 km Routeburn Track (a Great Walk) in a day, camping at the start of the connecting Greenstone-Caples Circuit (another 61km). Then we would catch a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park, and rest for a few days before running the 60km Kepler Track (another Great Walk) in a day. The Kepler is the site of one of New Zealand’s most iconic races of any type – the Kepler Challenge ultramarathon – and when we’d lived there, it seemed unfathomable that anyone would be able to complete it.  Returning as mildly-seasoned trail runners, it seemed like a fitting ending to our trip to run the course. (See the Appendix at the end if you want more logistical details on how to organize this trip!) With side trips, this would allow us to see around 150 miles of New Zealand trail in about 10 days, and get a mixed experience of both relaxed tramping and challenging push days. (Angel, who arrived earlier than the rest of us, also ran the Northburn 50k outside of Cromwell, near Queenstown, a race that was won this year by American Sage Canaday, who had coincidentally also destroyed the field and course record at our local WA race, the White River 50, when we ran it in 2012.)

     In both spirit and practice, our trip was divided into two sections: the first half spent in the mountains and on the trails in the Southern Alps, and the second spent on the coast and in the city in Dunedin near New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. During the first part of our trip we would be experiencing the country as explorers again. While we had visited some of the areas we would be in, we hadn’t seen mosty of the 150 miles of trail we’d be covering. We also spent this part of our trip as low-rent tour guides for our friends Adam and Broeck, who had never been to the country. The second part of our trip was experienced as locals –  at least sort of – as Dunedin was the town we’d lived in, and old friends would be putting us up.

On Trail

     A complex set of emotions overlaid the experience in the Southern Alps.  It felt nostalgic to be back in NZ and exciting to be experiencing one of the most beautiful places in the world in a new way. We’d come back in much better shape than we’d left, and in the first two weeks of this trip we spent more nights on the trail than we had during our two years of life there, experiencing the country as hikers and trailrunners rather than as student travelers.

     And we were a bit anxious about how Broeck and Adam would experience the country. They are our good friends, and both seasoned travelers and outdoors-people. Adam may know Washington trails as well as anyone in the state, and Broeck spent her childhood vacations in the remote Alaskan wilderness. We had bragged up New Zealand as the undisputed best place in the world, and we were worried that 1) we might have overplayed our hand and 2) they might not love it as much as we did.  

     And, there was of course the trepidation that comes along with seeing an old love for the first time after a decade of separation. Would it still seem as unique and beautiful, now that we had more worldly experience?  

The Rees-Dart Track

     By the first morning on the Rees-Dart track, all of the concerns were overshadowed by excitement and overwhelmed by natural beauty. We hiked up the Rees Valley on a rainbow-filled day that was both sunny and rainy in a way that only New Zealand can be, with its mix of alpine and island weather patterns. Our group, which included our friend Christie from Invercargill, made stupid jokes about stepping in cow poop (a very common experience on this first day of our trip) and looked forward to the days ahead in the mountains as we headed towards higher country.      

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     On our second morning, we headed out early in an attempt to get to our destination by mid-day so that we could fit in a 20km side trip up to a spot called Cascade Saddle that we’d heard was spectacular. The morning’s hike itself included a relatively short but steep climb over the Rees Saddle, before a long drop to the hut on the Dart River. On the descent, Adam and I pushed ahead a bit, but were surprised to find ourselves waiting for 30 minutes at the hut before the women arrived. It turned out that Angel had suffered a near disaster, and took a misstep that pitched her forward and slammed her knee against a rock, causing a bloody incision that would have required stitches if we had not been two days’ walk from the nearest clinic. Angel is tough. She once dropped a knife, point down, onto her toe in our kitchen and superglued the resulting puncture wound together rather than paying a medical bill. With assistance from our friend Christie (who, like Angel and me, is a nurse), she managed to clean and tape the wound in order to continue ahead. When they arrived at the hut, there was nothing to be done but elevate her knee and hope that it didn’t get infected, because continuing the hike was the only real option short of a helicopter ride.

     Angel seemed optimistic about her wound care (and as a former emergency department nurse, she was qualified to make an assessment), and she encouraged Adam and I to continue with our planned side trip to Cascade Saddle that afternoon. The trail passes through a valley formed by the massive Dart Glacier before climbing steeply to the saddle, which has panoramic views of the glacier, NZ’s iconic Mount Aspiring, and the Metukituki river valley on the opposite side of the mountains. On the return to the hut at dusk, concerns about Adam not being impressed with New Zealand had disappeared as he suggested that the route was possibly the best trail run he’d ever been on. I silently gloated that my assessment was being vindicated, that New Zealand is in fact the best place in the world.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

     Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, New Zealand is one of the world’s most active tectonic zones, which makes for a landscape that is constantly, if slowly, changing. In other terms, New Zealand is alive. Angel’s leg, thankfully, held up, and on our hike out of the Dart Valley we got a firsthand experience of that alive-ness. Several months before our trip, a massive rock slip blocked off the Dart River, creating a new, 2 mile long lake.  The flora and fauna in New Zealand have evolved separately from the rest of the world for several million years and already make for a surreal environment. The addition of a lake covering live trees to a depth of several meters made the trip seem like something out of a fantasy novel. (I wonder if anyone has thought to make a Lord of the Rings analogy?)  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Routeburn in a Day

     The Routeburn is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks – trails through some of New Zealand’s most beautiful genuine wilderness that are maintained as well as most city-park trails in the US. After we finished the Rees-Dart, we stayed for a night in Glenorchy at a classic New Zealand Hotel/Pub, the Glenorchy Hotel (we camped in their yard), and then were dropped off by Christie to tackle the Routeburn as a day hike. It was a bizarre experience in some ways, walking 19 miles from the middle of nowhere to the middle of nowhere and finding dozens of half-ton bags of gravel that had been helicoptered in for trail maintenance, and passing huts with full electricity and stoves, and hundreds of beds for hikers.  But it was also remarkable that there was literally no trash visible anywhere on the trail. The Routeburn was, in my opinion, the most beautiful day of walking on our trip, and we used the trail to cross from Glenorchy to the start of the Greenstone-Caples track in Fiordland National Park, a trip that would have taken three hours to drive due to limited road access to the area. It was a long day, and we shared the trail with hundreds of other hikers, and a couple of runners, but it was still genuinely spectacular.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Greenstone-Caples

     The Greenstone-Caples sticks to lower elevations than the other tracks we were walking, so we expected it to be the least spectacular. But it isn’t just alpine scenery that makes New Zealand seem like Narnia.

     Because New Zealand split from Australia before they evolved, the country has no indigenous mammals aside from a few species of bats. The ones that have been introduced are an interesting hodgepodge of pets, stowaways, and beasts that Europeans thought would be fun to hunt: mountain goats, Australian possums (cute things that resemble the offspring of a house cat and a raccoon more than the rat-faced opossums we have in North America), hedgehogs and wild pigs. There are even legends about moose wandering Fiordland National Park, the probably mythological remnant of a small population introduced in the early 20th century.  

     Though there are some indigenous reptiles (and one dinosaur-like creature that evolved separately from the reptiles – the tuatara), New Zealand is really an island of birds, the descendants of winged ancestors who happened upon the island by chance or misfortune, depending on your perspective.  The Moa was a giant ostrich-like flightless bird that was likely hunted to extinction by the Maori, NZ’s original human inhabitants, before Europeans arrived.  Everyone has heard of the iconic kiwis, but they exist mostly on offshore islands now due to predation by introduced mammals. So perhaps the most interesting, extant, and readily visible species in New Zealand now is the Kea. The world’s only alpine parrot, Keas are quite endangered, but also quite social and are often visible approaching hikers (or drivers) above the treeline. Commonly described as “cheeky”, they are well-known as camp robbers that destroy boots, tents and weather stripping on cars in their quest for food and nesting material. They are named after their call, which is frequently audible for miles in the mountains, and have a typical parrot look, if not coloring. Their feathers are dark green, except for a distinctive flash of dull orange under their wings.  

     On our first morning hiking the Greenstone, Broeck and Adam had a magical and rare experience of being approached first by one kea, then by six more simultaneously. They resisted the temptation to feed them, which apparently frustrated the band of marauders. They seemed to block their path as they attempted to move forward, and followed them as they hiked ahead before eventually giving up and flying away.  

“There’s a Dead Sheep in the River”

     Each of the Department of Conservation huts on the trip had a register where hikers could state intentions, note where they were from, and offer comments on the trail.  In the evening we would routinely read through the register, and on our first night on the Greenstone we laughed about one commenter, who simply wrote: “There’s a dead sheep in the river.”  

     Like the Rees-Dart, the Greenstone-Caples is named after, and follows, two river valleys. Our second day’s hike was a warm day along a particularly clear and inviting stretch of the Greenstone, and about mid-day we arrived at a perfect swimming hole: deep water, a slow current, and multiple rocks to jump off. Just as I was stripping down to jump in, Broeck yelled: “Oh gross! There’s that dead sheep in the river!”

     And indeed, on the opposite river bank from where I was preparing to dive, there was a dead, bloated sheep with feet raised in the air almost comically. It was downstream, and after considering the likelihood that it would be a long time before I would have this opportunity again, I jumped in. The water was cold, and I didn’t seem to catch anything.

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The End of the Hike
     A few years back, New Zealand officially introduced its own long distance through-hike: Te Araroa (“The Long Trail”), which traverses from the Northern tip of the North Island at Cape Reinga to the South end of the South Island at Bluff. On the second-to-last night of our hike, our hut happened to sit at the intersection of the Caples track and a section of Te Araroa. In the evening, after the day’s walk, we followed it up the hill to a viewpoint of the Caples Valley, and then followed a cattle trail down the hill to the river. In order to get back to the trail we had to ford the Caples, and while it wasn’t the last thing we did on the trail, it is the lasting image that I have of the end of our hike: shoes off, crossing a crystal clear river with friends, mountains on either side at sunset: 100% Pure New Zealand.  

photo copyright Tim Mathis

The Kepler

     The day after the Caples crossing, we hiked out and caught a shuttle to Te Anau, a small tourist town on the edge of Fiordland National Park. We spent a few days recuperating, sight-seeing, and catching up again with Christie (who had dropped us at the start of the Routeburn before heading off to work for a few days). The Kepler Track starts within walking distance of town, so Te Anau made a great base both for exploring Fiordland and preparing for our planned run.  

     The Kepler is another of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and one that we thought would be too difficult to tackle when we lived in the country. Running it was one of my main personal goals for the trip. I hear that it features some of the best scenery of any New Zealand hike, and it seemed like the perfect capstone project for our trip.

     Fortunately, on the day of our run, we had great temperatures and no precipitation. Unfortunately, we had dense low cloud cover that persisted throughout the day. We spent a large portion of our day traversing along a ridge at the top of a mountain range, and I’m sure the views were spectacular. We just saw cloud. After 12 straight days of beautiful weather, we couldn’t really complain, but it was disappointing. Still, we finished the run and finished off our time with Broeck and Adam with a satisfying bit of evidence that we had significantly improved our personal fitness in the time since we’d left.  


     After the Kepler, we had completed the first, and trail-focused, part of our trip, and we reluctantly parted ways with Broeck and Adam so they could return to Queenstown and then on to home, and we could return to Dunedin – our own home, of sorts.

     Dunedin is a much different place from the Southern Alps, despite its relative proximity (just a three hour drive away). It is an old settlement, New Zealand’s first major city and a very Scottish place. “Dunedin” is the old Celtic word for Edinburgh, and Mark Twain said of the original settlers that "The people here are Scots. They stopped here on their way to heaven, thinking they had arrived." It is spectacularly beautiful in its own right; surrounded by dramatic bald hills and spectacular ocean views reminiscent of the San Francisco Bay area, only greener due to the rain. (The hills in Dunedin are bald because they were cleared for sheep, which still shear the grass, not because things won’t grow there.) The town is comprised of cute bungalows, spectacular stone cathedrals, and stately manors built by 19th century gold barons.  

     It’s also the place that I had personally loved the most, and I was strangely nervous about returning.

     I have to admit that the first few days there, though nostalgic, felt vaguely disappointing, not because things were bad, but because they felt so…average. After years of fantasizing about moving back any time things weren’t going well in Seattle, and playing it up as the place where the grass is always greener, returning felt like meeting a celebrity in real life, or seeing a much-hyped movie for yourself. It was great, but it was also pretty normal. The setting was still spectacular, but it also rained for most of the time we were there. The architecture was still beautiful, but the city also smelled a bit like the coal that is used to heat many of the houses. And our friends were still our friends, but we had all changed in the last 9 years, and we sometimes struggled to find points of connection rooted in the present rather than just our past together. 

     But after spending several days catching up with friends and the place, we managed to redeem Dunedin, and make it feel more than normal again.

     When I had come to Dunedin before, I had done so for religious reasons. While I was returning after having left the religious world, one of the lingering lessons I’d kept had to do with the power of ritual. Religious ritual, in its daily routines and organized communal activities, comprises a set of physical actions that are, among other things, aimed at connecting people emotionally with the spiritual aspects of life. In basic terms, and at their best, they are things that you do so that you will experience the meaningful aspects of existence more fully. Even no longer practicing an organized religion, I still participate in rituals, intentionally or not. And in the last four years the ritual that has most reliably connected me to the meaningful aspects of existence is running, and particularly running long.

     After we moved away from New Zealand in 2005, one of our friends, Steve Tripp, had become both a mission worker in the slums of Cambodia and an avid long distance runner. (He completed his first ultramarathon with Angel at Northburn Station.) He and his family moved back to New Zealand just a few months before we visited, and he insisted on both putting us up for a few nights and taking us out for a run on some of his favorite trails on our last night in town.

     Dunedin has actually achieved a small amount of fame within the trail running world.  The town is home to Anna Frost, one of the world’s top ultra runners, and it was featured in a promotional video from Solomon that profiled some of her favorite trails. We went for a run in some of those profiled places; to the top of Mt. Cargill, the highest point in the city, across logging roads before bushwhacking through clearcut to get to one of the most rugged trails I’ve ever run on; through dense bush, all ferns, vines, streams and birdsong, and back down a long road descent into town. 

     The run was beautiful, but not the most spectacular of the trip (that honor belongs to the Cascade Saddle route that Adam and I ran after Angel’s injury). But it was among the most meaningful runs that I’ve ever taken. Dunedin was a place that I loved, and that shaped me in my early 20’s. And it was a place that I’ve always viewed unrealistically as a less-crazy version of Billy Madison’s “Happy Place”. After spending he first part of the visit trying to recapture a relationship to the place that had passed, experiencing Dunedin again as a runner helped establish a new relationship. Neither Dunedin nor I were the same as when we’d last parted, but there was still something meaningful and beautiful there, something that helped me to experience Dunedin (and by proxy, New Zealand) again like home.         

photo copyright Tim Mathis

A Brief Logistical Appendix: The Central Otago/Mt. Aspiring/Fiordland Tramping Route      

Rees-Dart > Routeburn > Greenstone-Caples > Kepler

     When we were planning our trip, we wanted to maximize our time on the trails and minimize travel time and costs, and we wanted to spend the bulk of our time in New Zealand’s most beautiful areas. While the route we came up with was intuitive and would work well for anyone from the average hiker interested in about 2 weeks in the NZ bush to an intrepid runner who wants to cover a lot of beautiful terrain in 4 – 5 days, I didn’t find anything similar outlined on the internet, so I’d like to take a minute to describe our logistics for anyone who might be interested in using the template.  

     The starts of the Rees-Dart, Routeburn, and Greenstone-Caples tracks are all in relatively close proximity to one another outside of Glenorchy, and the tracks can actually be combined in a number of ways. Some automobile transport is necessary, but shuttles serve all of the trailheads (none take more than 45 minutes or so from Glenorchy). This map from the shuttle service we used illustrates the layout nicely.

     Flying in to Queenstown, our basic strategy was to 1) get car transport to start our trip with a night in Glenorchy (hitched with a friend but buses run regularly), 2) catch a shuttle to the start of the Rees-Dart, 3) shuttle back to Glenorchy for a night and resupply (2 notes: the Rees-Dart Circuit is a horseshoe rather than a loop, so you have to shuttle from a different point than where you started.  Also, Glenorchy has a small grocery, but it’s really expensive and selection is very limited.  We stocked up on our food in Queenstown and most any accommodation will allow you to leave things to pick up on the return – their economy is based on backpackers.), 4) catch a ride to the start of the Routeburn and walk it in a day at which point we could, 5) camp at the start of the Greenstone, which intersects the Routeburn, 6) walk the Greenstone-Caples circuit, 7) catch a shuttle from “the Divide” (just a carpark, no services) to Te Anau, 8) stay a few nights in Te Anau and 9) run the Kepler, which is a loop trail within walking distance/a 5 minute shuttle ride from Te Anau.

     The advantages of this approach were:

1) It was convenient: it was possible to start each trail the day after completing the previous one.

2) It was flexible: no forward booking required. The disadvantage of having popular trails (the Great Walks) is that forward booking is required to stay in the huts, and they fill up months in advance on the Routeburn in particular.The huts on less popular trails generally don’t. In our case, because we never spent a night on a Great Walk, we weren’t locked in to our itinerary if something came up, although this did require us to carry tents in case huts were full (only happened one night) and to camp at the start of the Greenstone.

3) It was pretty cheap. NZ does require payment for camping and hut use, but it is generally cheap, except on the Great Walks. The huts on the Routeburn were $52/night, which included a bed, running water/toilet, and gas stoves. The Kepler huts were similar, but slightly cheaper. Camping was $15 on the Great Walks. All other huts in the country are $15/night max, which generally includes a bed w/mattress, toilets and a water source. Backcountry camping permits are $5/night, I believe. The nice thing is that you can purchase a 6 month pass from any Department of Conservation office (DOC) for $96 as of 2014, and that gives you unlimited hut access (excluding Great Walks, which are on their own system). Pretty cheap rent for really excellent facilities on this circuit. And if you’re going anywhere else on the trails, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use the pass – there are 950+ huts in the country covered by the DOC! 

4) It covered amazing, varied scenery: four mountain Saddles (five with the side trip to Cascade Saddle), four river valleys, three major lakes, multiple glaciers, two national parks, high country and low country.  

     From the map linked above, you can see that it would be easy to mix things up with these trails. Either the Greenstone or Caples could be used to connect back to Glenorchy rather than shuttling on to Te Anau. And Te Anau can be used as a base for a ton of other trails, including the Milford Track, which is supposed to be amazing. 

     One word of caution is that if you hope to cut out the Routeburn but want to see Fiordland, it’s a three hour drive (or so) from Glenorchy to Te Anau. The Routeburn is actually a much more direct route to Fiordland from the Queenstown area than the road, and you could probably run the trail from end to end as quickly as you could drive from one end to the other due to the peculiarities of mountain passes and Lake Wakatipu’s location. 

Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and is a regular contributor to He has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years.  One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso.  He blogs occasionally at and has contributed to and Trailrunner Magazine.


  1. I loved reading this, Tim. Sounds like a great adventure!

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