Real Travel Adventures International Magazine

'No worries in the other land down under', by Linda Ballou - October 2003


In New Zealand, a country that embraces tourism like no other, the outdoor loving Kiwis have made nature's treasures accessible to all. A network of trails from mild to wild, are well marked and maintained by the Department of Conservation. Numerous outfitters are happy to take visitors hiking, biking, kayaking, snorkelling, whale watching, birding and more. Just bring a fit body, plenty of sun block, and a sense of humour to the other land down under. You will be amazed at the variety of terrain from the snow-crowned Southern Alps with glaciers descending into lush rainforests, to rugged valleys carved by wild rivers rushing to sun-washed shores.

New Zealand consists of two major islands -the North and the South- and many smaller islands, including Stewart Island, recently given National Park status. Three-quarters of the not quite four million people that call themselves Kiwis live on the more temperate North Island. The South Island has the most spectacular scenery with nine National Parks dedicated to preserving the splendid native forests. The isolation of the landmass that split off from the South Pole eighty million years ago has engendered flora and fauna that is totally unique. Over 250 bird species are found nowhere else but New Zealand. Giant trees, ferns and mosses endemic to the region seem other-worldly.

The best time to visit is in spring (November) through fall (March). The temperatures these times of year are mild, averaging about 70 degrees with a tantalizing breeze, and the days are long with sunlight until about nine at night. I met Kyle, my guide from Active Adventures New Zealand, in Christchurch, the largest city on the South Island. This London knockoff is the start and end point for most outfitters and independent travelers as well. He picked me up in the van that would be my home away from home for the next two weeks. We collected the other five guests; a telecommunications whiz kid from Dallas, a systems analyst escaping from the deserts of Qatar, and a mature gentleman with his "thirtyish" daughter and son-in-law. Soon we were barreling up Highway One, a two-lane road that makes a giant loop around the South Island with unlimited opportunities for side trips to adventure.

I chose this moderately priced Kiwi-owned tour group, because they offer the closest thing to independent travel available with the comforts of lodging, food, toys and transport in an all-inclusive carefree package. The popular multi-sport adventure I selected from their list of options is an action-packed holiday. It proved to be so eventful I can only detail a few of the highlights of my incredible journey that included trekking, kayaking and biking through magical terrain filled with beautiful surprises. It's wonderful to be chauffeured, especially when everyone is driving on the "wrong" side of the road. The panoramic windows of our van brought the magnificent scenery closer to view as we cruised past golden pastures sprinkled liberally with sheep along a rugged windswept coastline. We averaged a couple of hours of driving a day between adventures. Each evening brought us another lovely setting to explore while Kyle prepared a home-cooked meal for us. Our lodgings were a mixture of small motels with self-contained units, bed and breakfasts and even a shearer's lodge on a remote knoll overlooking Mt. Cook.

It's tough to choose from the fine experiences I had in the incredible terrain of the South Island, but my top four outdoor adventures on this whirlwind holiday are as follows:

Trekking in Nelson Lakes National Park.
There are eight great walks on the South Island that require several days to complete. They are challenging, but the reward is the solitude of the native bush and genuine outback experience. Active New Zealand is one of two commercial outfitters with permits into the less-traveled Nelson Lakes National park at the northern tip of the Southern Alps. The Cascade track we were to take to the summit has a 3,500-foot elevation gain in thirteen miles. Throughout our journey we were given many choices in activities and on this leg of the trip we were offered a less strenuous track or kayaking while those who chose to do the more demanding trek were away.

Bent on having the quintessential Kiwi tramping holiday, I strapped on a backpack, even though I'd never worn one before, and followed the others in my group just as eager to get into the bush as I was. After a mellow march along the shore of sparkling Lake Rotoiti we spent a night at Lake Head Hut. It's oddly peaceful to bed down with about twenty strangers on a communal mat like sheep in the meadow.

Next morning found all six of us rested, standing in tall grass spiked with purple foxglove beside the Travers River. Kyle pointed to the slate gray, snow-streaked peaks in the distance and said "That is where were we will sleep tonight." The under-thirties sprang like jackrabbits up the trail and were soon out of sight. I followed behind Lutz, a fit 64 year old Californian, whose stocky body was dwarfed by his pack. He picked his way through the root-strewn trail that led us through the towering red and silver beech forest. Three-quarters of the amazing variety of plants growing in this preserve are endemic. Spreading fronds of giant tree ferns, and thick layers of moss, lichens and epiphytic vines converge to create a symphony in the key of green. Birds like the tomtits, robins, the tiny rifleman and the flashy fantail twitter from the depths of the cool forest. The friendly gossip of the energetic Hukere Stream churning over black boulders kept us company all along the challenging climb to its headwaters.

Kyle, whose father is a Maori chief, unfurled a palm frond for us to examine. The tendrils of the mother fern hide thousands of fern pods that the Maori people saw as children of the forest. Soon the pods will propagate and this world will be rejuvenated with new life. The fierce looking faces of the Polynesian people, ancestors to the Maori, who sailed here in large canoes about 1200 years ago, became gentle to me with this knowledge. The swirling tattoo patterns that covered their faces and bodies were simply imitations of the ferns in the lush rain forest they lived in. No wonder the fern is the national symbol of New Zealand.

When we reached Angelus Hut, the hub of the Nelson Lakes trail network, we were greeted by an international array of hikers. Kyle whipped up a pasta dish for us that made the rest, eating from freeze-dried packets, envious. I fell asleep to a cacophony of snores that did not betray an accent. The hike out of the park from Angelus Hut across Robert's Ridge involved a scramble up a steep face, followed by boulder hopping on a goat trail, to reach an undulating easy romp across the top of the world. For several hours, Lutz and I walked the spine of the mountain enjoying outrageous vistas of serrated peaks and the gold and green patchwork quilt of farms far below. Warm sun tempered by an intoxicating breeze kept my engine purring. Once down from the mountain, we cooled our "dogs" in glacier-fed Rotoroa Lake where Kyle waited for us with an ice chest full of cold drinks.

Kayaking in Okarito Lagoon on the Wild West Coast
We spent a couple of restful days in Okarito, a laid-back beach community, a few miles north of Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers on the windswept west coast of the South Island. At the Royal Motel, a cluster of cozy cottages framed in flowers, Kyle grilled up lamb, sausages, chicken and fish fillets and served them with mounds of fresh fruits, salad and vegetables to fortify us for our kayak outing in the morning.

The Okarito Lagoon is home to the only white heron rookery in the Southern Hemisphere and locals are proud of the 150 species of bird that breed in the region. It is the largest undisturbed wetland on the South Island and home to one of the last stands of the Kahikatea tree, the tallest of the native trees that takes hundreds of years to mature.

We were greeted with a perfect paddle day; glassy calm water, a mist hanging over the shoulder of the snow-frosted Southern Alps in the distance and a couple of promising patches of blue overhead. Wet suits, self-guiding maps and kayaks were provided by Okarito Nature Tours. Pole markers placed in the lagoon form a water trail to deep channels and the best birding spots. The estuary is a network of protected waters lined with flax, bright orange flowers, stalks of shimmering gold pampas grass (toitoi) and cabbage trees that look like a cross between a cactus and a palm. Tui, black birds with a puffy white ball at their throat, chortled as they plucked seeds from the purple seed stems of the flax. The thrum of cicadas filled the air. A flock of black swans drifted in the reflection of the shaggy Rimu and Kowhai trees, famous for yellow dripping flowers lining the shore.

Biking through Eglinton Valley to Milford Sound
No trip to the South Island is complete without a jaunt through Fiordland into moody Milford Sound on the southern tip of the Island. We did ours riding mountain bikes on the two lane road winding through bewitchingly beautiful Eglinton Valley. We pedaled past jade green Gunn Lake, stopping to admire the snowcapped spires reflected in Mirror Lake. Just before the Divide, the highest point on the route, we made a detour to hike Key Summit on the Routeburn Track. This switchback to the heavens provides staggering views of the Hollyford Valley. Once aloft, an undulating nature trail wraps around a sapphire glacier cirque, framed in low-slung alpine shrubs and ground hugging white flowers. On this plateau, I felt very close to the gods.

From there we did a glide to our lodging in Milford Sound on our mountain bikes. The corkscrew descent through this spectacular valley takes you past a dozen waterfalls sliding down slick steep granite walls shimmering in the sun. We made a quick side trip at the Chasm where turbo-charged water has carved holes in huge boulders that look like great skulls with water gushing from the eye sockets. We spent the night in moody Milford Sound that reclaims its haunting majesty at the end of the day when all the tourist buses have gone back to Queenstown or Te Anau.

Jet Boating in Pristine Wilkin's Valley
The jet boat, that rides on a cushion of air at about 60 MPH, was invented by a New Zealand farmer who wanted to get his sheep to market via rivers plagued with shifting gravel beds, snags and other obstacles. With veteran guide Brent at the wheel, we blasted up the Wilkin's River Valley at the foot of white-caped Mt. Aspiring. A warm wind teased the sun-spangled water into small ripples. Cows munching peacefully on green grass on the shore made fun targets for Brent who swerved the boat sharply sending a rooster spray in their direction. He handily sideswiped trees growing on islands in the middle of our path. I shrieked with delight, as we charged up the river in a series of serpentine moves designed to provide maximum thrill. Brent revved the engine to power our way up a set of rapids and capped off the maneuver with a 360- degree spin that left me wet with spray and screaming at the top of my lungs. It was grand!

New Zealand
The sheer volume of soul stirring vistas and heart-thumping adventure on this journey was amazing. With the shackles of daily life put down for a time, my mind was free to roam unfettered. I felt soothed, as if I'd soaked in a tranquil lagoon for a century or two. Now that I've gained an overview of this fun-filled country, I hope to return for more of the "other land down under" where there are "no worries mate."

What people say about our trips

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- May 2022

Amazing trip with great guides

"I had a great time on the Jaguar trip - our guides were friendly, knowledgeable,… read more

"I had a great time on the Jaguar trip - our guides were friendly, knowledgeable, organized, and always helpful. Our porters and camp staff also were friendly and highly competent. The sites chosen by the guides for us to visit were always interesting, and the guides were able to provide great information about them. The information provided to us by Active Adventures was helpful and comprehensive - my only comments regarding the pre-trip information would be to update the materials to clarify that guests need a small day pack for biking and day hikes AND a 30L plus hiking bag for the Inca trail, and the pre-trip information could have included information about tipping for the porters and guides. While it is sensible that the company would not want to pressure guests into tipping a certain amount, everyone in my group had a wonderful time and genuinely wanted to show appreciation to our porters and guides. It would have been helpful to know how much cash we should have with us when departing on the trail to be able to tip each individual adequately, as well as information about when in the trip we would have an opportunity to tip both porters and guides. read less

5 Stars (2056 reviews)

Amy, United States

- May 2022

Bucket list trip for sure!!

"After having had my retirement bucket list trip snatched from under me in 2020, I… read more

"After having had my retirement bucket list trip snatched from under me in 2020, I was delighted to finally take it this April. Active Adventures deserves huge kudos for honouring its commitment to the trip. I travelled with two friends, and we were in a group of 15 on the trip - from the US and Canada. What a fantastic group of people! Best of all though, were our two tour guides from the Galapagos, Pepo and Paulo. They were the best ambassadors for the islands and Ecuador - very knowledgeable, professional, kind hearted - and just plain fun. They made us feel safe and relaxed throughout the trip. The islands are gorgeous - and the wildlife does not disappoint. I found deep ocean snorkelling a bit out of my comfort zone, and wished I had practiced a bit in a pool before I left. However, it is an essential part of the trip, and cannot be skipped. Learning about tectonic plates, volcanoes and the conservation efforts for the giant tortoises was food for thought. As for helpful tips, bring lots of sun screen, sun protective clothing, and bug spray. These items are not readily available on the islands, but they are absolutely essential. Also bring a reusable water bottle as recommended by AA, because although bottled water is available for purchase everywhere, it makes more sense to fill up from the large reusable containers provided and not create plastic waste. I would definitely recommend this beautiful active adventure - my first with this company, but not my last. read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Serena, Canada

- May 2022

Bucket List Trip

"We loved our trip to Galapagos! Our guides, Pepo and Paulo were so knowledgeable… read more

"We loved our trip to Galapagos! Our guides, Pepo and Paulo were so knowledgeable about the islands and loved sharing it all with us. The warm weather was so welcome after a winter in New England. All of the logistics were handled smoothly so that all we had to do was enjoy the varied land and marine wildlife. An amazing trip that I highly recommend! read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Claudia, United States

- May 2022

Somethings really do live up to the hype. This was AMAZING!!

"To be honest, I was a little leery traveling with a new company, with new… read more

"To be honest, I was a little leery traveling with a new company, with new people and well, Covid. But this was abso-fricking-lutely the BEST ADVENTURE TRIP! From our guide, Pepo (who completely hit it out of the park), to the places we saw, to the organization behind the scenes and those wonderful meals, this was amazing! If you want the best way to SEE the Galapagos Islands, this is it. I can't say enough great things about Galakiwi (Active's partner) and our guides. They made this trip unforgettable. Pepo and Paolo answered our flora/fauna questions (we had lots!) and happily shared us what makes this place so special. And man, Pepo can dance - and surf! We're already talking about our next Active Adventure - we can't wait! :) read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Lori, United States

Ultimate Patagonia & Chile Adventure - April 2022

Wonderful Patagonia

"Although initially disappointed that the border with Argentina remained closed, the Torres del Paine hiking… read more

"Although initially disappointed that the border with Argentina remained closed, the Torres del Paine hiking with Alvaro and Christian was compensation aplenty. read less

4 Stars (1175 reviews)

Nick, United Kingdom

Ultimate Patagonia & Chile Adventure - April 2022

Bucket List Trip!

"I finally made it to Patagonia! And I couldn't have done it with a better… read more

"I finally made it to Patagonia! And I couldn't have done it with a better company! This was my 5th tour with Active!
The landscape was even more breathtaking than I had imagined. And every guide was so much fun to hang out with and incredibly knowledgeable about the culture and the land. If you are planning a trip to Patagonia and you love being in the outdoors, this is the tour company for you! read less

5 Stars (1175 reviews)

Jolene, Canada

- April 2022

West Coast is a must visit

"This is our second Active Adventures trip and we weren't disappointed. The itinerary was excellent… read more

"This is our second Active Adventures trip and we weren't disappointed. The itinerary was excellent and food and accommodation of a high standard. We loved the West Coast scenery. The walks were amazing, particularly around Lake Matheson and Punakaiki. Kayaking on Okarito Lagoon, heli-hiking on Franz Joseph Glacier and the scenic flight over Mt Aspiring National Park out to Milford Sound were fantastic experiences. Our guide Clare was first class. Everything was organised to perfection and nothing was too much trouble. read less

5 Stars (2 reviews)

Robert, New Zealand

- April 2022

Fabulous trip!

"First “big” trip in 2 years due to the pandemic. Honestly, more anxiety than excitement… read more

"First “big” trip in 2 years due to the pandemic. Honestly, more anxiety than excitement prior to the trip but once I arrived in the Galapagos, the excitement hit and so glad my friend and I decided to go on the adventure together. AA tour made the trip really easy. I really like the balance of being “active” and some downtime of my own. The tour guides were friendly and very knowledgeable. The meals were all very good except for the first night dinner on San Cristobal Island…to me, it wasn’t good. I thought the fish weren’t well prepared and tasted too fishy. Another person ordered the same meal and I noticed she hardly touched hers. Later I found out hers was too salty. Another low light for me was the accommodations on Floreana Island. Apparently, very limited hotel selections on the island. Hotel Wittmer was ran down and we all had cold showers that night. I also found a smashed dead mosquito with blood on the wall! Isabela Island was fun and where we stayed was wonderful. I wish we had more time on Santa Cruz Island. All in all, I had a fantastic trip and would recommend this trip to my friends who enjoy the outdoor and animals! read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Hui-Chien, United States

- April 2022

Wonderful wildlife adventures

"The Tortuga trip was full of once in a lifetime experiences. Pablo, our guide was… read more

"The Tortuga trip was full of once in a lifetime experiences. Pablo, our guide was so passionate about the islands and knowledgeable about the wildlife and all aspects of our trip. We swam with sea turtles, rays, sea lions, and sharks!. The land tortoises were great to see in their natural habitat and in the breeding centers. I learned so much about the history of the islands, the environment, Darwin's studies and plans for the furture on the island. The snorkeling in Los Tunels was the highlight as well as the hike to the volcano lava fields. The Galapagos is truely a unique and fascinating place. read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Barb, United States

- April 2022

Great experience

"Well organised trip read more

"Well organised trip read less

5 Stars (863 reviews)

Adrian, New Zealand

Ultimate Patagonia & Chile Adventure - April 2022

Almost to Antarctica

"The Condor trip and the W Trek were wonderful. I was there in early February… read more

"The Condor trip and the W Trek were wonderful. I was there in early February and the weather was good; clouds mixed with sun, and surprisingly warm…but windy. The guides, as always, were special and took care of everything. The scenery is amazing, and constant for the entire 4+ days. The Argentina border was closed so the trip was modified to include the Chile Lake District, and I opted out of that portion of the trip because it was similar to the Active Adventures Puma trip which I did a couple years ago (also a great trip!). Even doing only the W Trek was great…and I hope to return for the whole trip! read less

5 Stars (1175 reviews)

Mark, United States

- April 2022

Great trip with Great people

"I could write pages about our Tortuga trip in April . Instead I will just… read more

"I could write pages about our Tortuga trip in April . Instead I will just say that we were so surprised how much we enjoyed traveling with Active Adventures. We are typically not "group travel" people but in the Galapagos it seems necessary...so many things to line up and local people and facilities to communicate with. AAdventures did this with amazing competency. Things flowed seamlessly. Our guide Pepo and his assistant Paolo were amazing. They seemed to do all this and yet still ENJOY being with us, answering questions and getting everyone excited for the next adventure. I will advise that this is an active trip, not intense but lots of exercise, sweating and moving every day. It is important to know that and be prepared or know that you might skip some of the longer things. I also want to add that the guides' English was beautiful and Pepo's knowledge about the area, the geography and the animals was impressive. To anyone who is worried about the "group" aspect but needs the logistics AAdventures can provide, be assured. They still respect your privacy, your right to skip something if its not for you and the small size makes it not feel chaotic. Food was also very good, fresh and simple but abundant and well prepared. I had dreamed of this trip since I was a little girl and read about the tortoises in National Geographic. I never thought the experience would live up to the dream, but it truly did and I think Active Adventures had a big part in that. read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Lynn, United States

Ecuador Volcano and Jungle Adventure - April 2022

Tapir with Alberto

"This was an excellent way to see more of mainland Ecuador. The scenery was… read more

"This was an excellent way to see more of mainland Ecuador. The scenery was breathtaking with waterfalls, rushing river and majestic mountains. Got to sample local cuisine with I enjoyed very much. read less

5 Stars (294 reviews)

Sandy, United States

- April 2022

Takahe trip 27 Mar-31 Mar 22

"This was a trip down memory lane for me revisiting old haunts & visiting new… read more

"This was a trip down memory lane for me revisiting old haunts & visiting new ones. I was thrilled with how it all went & with the experience of our guides & their enthusiasm. The weather was perfect & I achieved everything on my bucket list! read less

5 Stars (863 reviews)

Colleen, New Zealand

- April 2022

Our 4th trip with Active

"Another great guide. Beautiful diving, biking and hiking adventures. Great local food and accommodations. We… read more

"Another great guide. Beautiful diving, biking and hiking adventures. Great local food and accommodations. We have loved every single Active Adventure. As always though, the Active guides are what make the trip special. This time Pepo and Paulo were absolutely awesome with their knowledge and communication. The people in the group always seem to come together as great friends and we have the guides to thank for that! Can't wait for the next one! read less

5 Stars (1564 reviews)

Paul, United States

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