Kiwi trampers often shun guided walks in favour of the independence and cheaper cost of doing it themselves, but as Paul King discovers there are real benefits to paying for a guide
Long before Tarawera and Mark Twain deposited ash on Lake Waikaremoana, guides have been plying their trade in the New Zealand outdoors.
Even so, I never thought for a moment I’d end up standing on top of Gordon’s Pyramid in Kahurangi National Park with a bunch of other guided trampers I’d only just met – and enjoying myself.
I love the outdoors and can think of nothing better than bashing through bush or sitting on the deck of some lonely hut, enjoying the view while sipping from a steaming cuppa. So when the opportunity came to do a guided walk around the South Island’s coast and mountains, my first thought was ‘Why?’ Guided walks seemed to rub against the grain of everything I enjoy about being out there: the freedom, the isolation – and most of all, the independence. If nothing else, I like to choose when to stop and start. Surely that’s reason enough not to take a guided walk.
But after some thought I decided to give it a go and soon discovered that those who choose to walk in the guided way are as many and varied as there are tracks to walk.
Outdoors people the world over have a great deal in common: they love to talk, to share their lives, and to get outdoors to experience the environment, regardless of their background. And it’s not simply baby-boomers having a final cash re-distribution flurry in their golden years. The youngest tramper one company has guided is four years old, the oldest 83. With many guiding companies providing serious adventure options, there appears to be no shortage of couples, singles, backpackers, retirees and young professionals who want to enjoy the friendship and safety found in a group of like-minded people.
I could be forgiven, too, for thinking that the vast majority of those using guiding companies are European and North American. The guiding companies I spoke to told me it varies depending on the difficulty and type of guided walk, but up to 50 per cent of their clients are Australians and New Zealanders, with northern hemisphere trampers making up the majority of the rest.
Regardless of their provenance, just about everyone loves the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and overseas visitors in particular often take advantage of many other New Zealand Great Walks while they’re here to do it. For Australians, it’s the short trip across the ditch that makes guided walks so appealing. Without a major long-haul flight to contend with, they can jet into Auckland or Christchurch and be in the bush within the day. But even those from the Northern Hemisphere looking for a short tramping getaway come here, and they do it for many reasons.
“The landscape around my city is very flat and boring,” German entertainment-industry lawyer Oliver Ehrmann, who lives in Heidelberg, told me. “You have to drive for at least four hours before you find something interesting. I had two months free time and wondered where the most remote place would be that I could go tramping. I had the choice between Canada and New Zealand, and I chose New Zealand. I’m happy with my choice.”
Another guided tramper, Ukrainian-born Marina Tov, likes the idea of just “showing up” with everything already planned and organised for her. Working in Sydney as a structural engineer, she had two weeks holiday to burn. “Everything’s planned out and I didn’t have to think about much,” she says. “All I had to bring was my backpack. It’s good to go with somebody local who knows the environment.”
From “cotton-is-rotten” clothing advice, environmental information, walking techniques, and loading your pack for better balance, guides like Hiking New Zealand’s Scotty Moore give sound advice and direction, with a local flavour, to the experienced and uninitiated alike.
But the common theme echoed by those on my guided walk down South was that hiking companies provide a safe platform to launch off.
“I’m travelling on my own and wouldn’t hike up here alone,” said Anna Spender as we sit at Kahurangi’s Salisbury Lodge. “It’s a safety thing because I’m not as experienced as some people, and with a guide you see and learn more. If you’re just walking along on your own, it’s all very nice, but you wouldn’t learn half the stuff about the trees and birdlife. And you learn a lot about different countries because you’re with their people sharing the experience.
“When you’re alone, do you text home and say, ‘Here I am at the Terracotta Warriors?’ It’s not quite the same as being able to turn to someone and say, ‘Look at that!’.”
Ehrmann agreed. “I’m travelling on my own, too, so it’s nice to do it with other people and chat about how it works. I don’t think I’d survive here without a guide. I’ve got the concern of getting lost and not being able to find the hut, and having no idea where to go. I think after three of four hikes in New Zealand I’d be able to do it on my own.” He pauses, then adds: “Maybe – this is my first time here, and I’m learning how the weather conditions can be difficult.”
We had 300mm of rain – a gentle West Coast shower – the next night. Moore had to make a choice based on the weather, so our plans were changed to take a safer alternative route. His knowledge of the region, and his experience as a bushman, made for confident decision-making. I’d like to think I’d make the same choice too, but for someone alone or new to tramping, the wrong decision could be devastating.
Rob Franklin, founder of Walking Legends, and Brad Taylor, a Waikaremoana guiding veteran, agree there needs to be strong emphasis on choosing the right guide to show clients a good time – within safety protocols. “It’s important we’re not too regimented and allow plenty of room for creativity,” they told me.
“From a client’s perspective, the tour should be relaxed and informative, operated so they don’t feel the presence of the guide at all times. They should be able to go out and feel like they’re on their own, but knowing in the back of their minds that someone’s there.”
From my own experience, a good guide sets the pace and tone for a walk. They exude a quiet confidence that allows walkers the freedom to explore without risk, while keeping the group tight and in touch.
We tramp to challenge ourselves and to be in another place outside of that which is our ordinary, but also to engage with the world around us. From the catastrophic upheavals that created Lake Waikaremoana’s Panekiri Bluff, to the macro and micro universes scattered from sea level to the mountains, there’s a genus and terrestrial event to learn about, and it’s the guides that know where to look and how to share it. You simply don’t have that when you’re tramping alone or with your mates.
The famous West Coast rain had little bearing on the overall guided experience for us. Some clients almost seem to relish adverse conditions. “Wind, rain, snow, white-out conditions and sun all played a factor in making the crossing a great event,” Canadian Steve Avery told me about his Tongariro Alpine Crossing walk. “I found myself cursing the weather at every step as I crossed the summit; however, I’m strangely enough pleased that I got to encounter every conceivable weather condition. It only added to the adventure.”
Of more concern, he said, was looking out of shape in front of his two female companions.
With my reservations slowly evaporating, I struggled to find many negatives about guided walks. But in a time when money is hard to come by, cost is important so I wasn’t surprised hear some trampers voice concerns about just that. However, the price is directly proportional to the amount of luxury you expect, and the gear you need to hire. If you supply and carry most of your own equipment on a gut-busting bash, the price will be much less than a three star, all-gear-included series of day hikes. But that’s what some people want, and are prepared to pay for. Prices vary from a couple of hundred dollars for a day-long guided walk of Rotorua’s scenic highlights, to a full blown 11-day guided walk down the length of the South Island for more than $2000.
From not much more than that, some local companies even head offshore with clients to sail the South Pacific or walk the Larapinta Trail in Australia’s Red Centre.
Whichever you choose, when you consider the organisation, food, transport, accommodation and in-depth local knowledge, it can be a cheap getaway when stacked up against a week in a motel with meals out.
“The experience is in the experience,” Franklin says. “People are becoming less bush and outdoors savvy, which, with the advances in technology is only going to increase. Guided walks are a great way to meet others in a safe environment.”
With more than 20 years experience in the outdoors, I was concerned I would find guided walks frustrating and restricting, but instead they have been surprisingly liberating. As a freelance writer, I can be a problem for guides. I want to lag behind or rush ahead, wander off the track to unearth some relic or get the light just right for my next shot. Whether it’s because of my tramping background or because they understand I’m actually working, they’ve all been accommodating and have given me a great deal of latitude.
The real bonuses for me, though, have come from rubbing shoulders with new friends and personalities, the encouragement when the going gets tough and the more-than-I-expected camaraderie of the shared experience.
Walking in a downpour, or lying amongst the silver tussock as it wafts back and forth in the breeze, is still readily available under the guided umbrella. But if your motivation for tramping is to simply knock off as many peaks as you can in the shortest possible time, guided walks won’t be for you.
I still enjoy my solo hikes, and always will, but sometimes the journey really is about getting there. To share your experience on top of a windswept hill with a bunch of people you’ve just met isn’t a bad way to do it.
Four guided trips to consider
Gillespie/Rabbit Pass, eight days
Who do you go with? Aspiring Guides, www.aspiringguides.com
The route: The route is entirely in Mt Aspiring National Park, beginning at Makarora at the northern end of Lake Wanaka and ending at Cameron Flat at the intersection of the East and West Matukituki valleys, whilst crossing the two significant 1600m passes. It includes route finding and a number of major river crossings.
What’s so good about it? Aspiring Guides proudly claim this to be New Zealand’s hardest guided hike. “I can’t think of any other guided trip as hard as Gillespie and Rabbit Pass,” says company director Andy Oxley. “It not only has technical route finding and altitude, it also has rough terrain. Once you get over the Rabbit Pass you pretty much have the whole of the east Matukituki Valley to yourself.”
Ball Pass, three-days
Who do you go with? Alpine Recreation, www.alpinerecreation.com
The route: A challenging alpine trek in the Mt Cook Range, the route follows Ball Ridge above the Tasman Glacier and opposite the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook to private Caroline Hut (1800m). Hikers spend two nights at the hut climbing Ball Pass and Kaitiaki Peak, exploring the Ball Glacier and learning how to use crampons and ice axes. Then, it’s a descent down the Tasman Valley.
What’s so good about it? All of New Zealand’s 3000m-plus peaks, except Mt Aspiring, are contained in the park and the adjacent Westland National Park. As Alpine Rec’s Elke Braun-Elwert says: “This is New Zealand’s climbing mecca.” While most peaks are accessible only to experienced mountaineers, alpine hiking close to Mt Cook is possible on the guided Ball Pass Trek.
Cost: $1200/ person
Lake Waikaremoana Guided Walk, four days
Who do you go with? Walking Legends, www.walkinglegends.co.nz
The route: The first two days follow the lake edge, along beaches and inlets and through dense native forest. The one-hour side trip to Korokoro Falls is a must. On the third day there’s a 600m climb to Panekiri Hut with views of the lake, bush-clad mountains and even the Pacific Ocean. The final day is an easy stroll back to lake level.
What’s so good about it? “The richness and diversity of forest is undoubtedly New Zealand’s best,” says Walking Legends’ Hilary Sheaf. There’s also geology, secluded beaches and the famous Te Urewera mist. “The mist-cloaked forests shroud an interesting history and the area possesses a magical and spiritual quality,” says Sheaf.
Heaphy Track, five days
Who do you go with? Kahurangi Walks, www.kahurangiwalks.co.nz
The route: The Heaphy goes from the Collingwood area in Golden Bay to Karamea, crossing Perry Saddle, Gouland Downs, the Heaphy river mouth and coastline.
What’s so good about it? “The Heaphy has New Zealand’s best variety of forest and ecosystems, is the home of kiwi and powelliphanta snails and has a gorgeous coastal walk at the end,” says Kahurangi Walks’ owner/operator john Croxford. The track is also one of the country’s nine great Walks.