As he returns to his native grey and overcrowded England after five years on these shores, Matthew Pike gets all nostalgic about the land he regards as the world's finest tramping destination
As I gaze over the New Zealand hills for the final time through the window of the Boeing 747, a hollow feeling engulfs my lower gut. I’m heading back to the UK – the country of my birth – after five years in Aotearoa.
I’ll be closer to family, but oh so far from the landscapes that formed such a valuable part of my recent life.
How lucky I am to have spent such a lengthy period in this tramping Mecca. In case you’re in any doubt, New Zealand is the best hiking destination in the world. I’m most probably preaching to the converted, but there are so many things the rest of the world would kill for that is just taken for granted in this neck of the woods. Here are a few...
1. There are no bears…
… or lions, alligators, snakes, rhinos or any other animal that might maul you and feast on your innards. In this, New Zealand must be unique. As impressive as animals like tigers and hippos are, for a tramper they are, at the very least, hazardous.
In the New Zealand bush there’s no need to worry if your child puts their hand down a hole; there won’t be a snake pouncing with razor-sharp teeth and glands full of venom.
Imagine how different a night at Heaphy Campsite would be if crocs cooled themselves in the river next to you. Would Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges be such a great family destination if leopards roamed the valleys? And would a dip in the Pelorus River seem such a good idea if it contained the candiru fish (known for its tendency to swim up urethrae)?
New Zealand does have the venomous katipo spider, but this species has become very rare – a fact I’m not entirely upset about. Other than this, the worst you’ll experience is an itchy sandfly bite or a weka stealing your beef jerky.
2. There are backcountry hotels
On a rough, seldom-visited track in a rough, seldom-visited valley in any other country, the last thing you’d expect to see is a cosy wooden building specifically for you to use at virtually no cost. A hiker might simply dismiss it as a hallucination.
Other countries do have their own version of backcountry huts, but never to the same scale as in New Zealand. Overnight trips in remote regions elsewhere in the world require a willingness to camp out, regardless of the weather. Yet there are seemingly endless options available to Kiwis for trips to the middle of nowhere, where you can sleep on a mattress with a roof over your head while the wind and rain batter your weather-proof haven.
Huts aren’t just life savers. They’re part of tramping culture and we’re all the better for it. How many great yarns have you had by candlelight over a deck of cards and a dram of something bulletproof?
3. It’s not Hughenden
Hughenden is a small town in rural Queensland, Australia. Its surroundings are flat, dry and dusty. From Hughenden you could, theoretically, walk 3000km west and the entire trip would be similarly flat, dry and dusty. It’d be duller than a Chinese tourist’s photo album.
The Australian example may be an extreme one, but in New Zealand we can look at a map and say ‘over here is rainforest, down here are glaciers and snowfields, up there are great beaches, across here are live volcanoes, these hills are good for beginners, this river’s great for packrafting, these lakes have beautiful camping spots, these islands are ideal for kayaking to, this stretch of coastline has magnificent cliffs’, and so on.
The variety is like nowhere I’ve ever been. It’s one of the reasons the Te Araroa Trail is getting such a name for itself worldwide, and it’s why no Kiwi can ever legitimately say ‘there’s nothing to do’.
4. The best things are free
There aren’t too many countries around the world where the most popular natural features and national parks are available free of charge. Some countries charge for upkeep of facilities, others see their parks as a cash cow so charge well over the odds.
New Zealand has never gone down that road, which means the country’s finest lakes, rivers, forest and mountains are there for anyone who can be bothered to go and see them.
5. It’s clean
On my way back to the UK, I stopped over in Malaysia and took a walk through a patch of rainforest. It was spectacular ancient forest with macaque monkeys swinging from the branches above. The track took me to a popular beach where I was shocked to see empty bottles, cans and food packets strewn along the high tide line. The trouble was, however great the clean-up operation, copious litter would be washed up at the next high tide. The rainforest was pristine, but the surrounding ocean was a tip.
New Zealanders rightly campaign for cleaner rivers and for people to use hut toilets, rather than the doorstep. But generally, people respect the backcountry and you rarely see (or smell) anything revolting enough to write disparagingly about it in an outdoor magazine.
6. DOC is good
OK, so DOC can get a hard time – and often deservedly so – but strip it down to basics and DOC does a damn good job. There are good tracks, good huts, unspoilt landscapes and rangers who generally greet you with a smile and the odd handy tip when you need it.
It helps to provide visitors with such a good experience that DOC possibly does more for tourism than Tourism New Zealand.
And even though species decline continues, some of the rarest species, including the takahe and kakapo, are recovering from the brink of extinction.
7. The TV is bad
Really bad. And this is great for the nation’s fitness and wellbeing. In the UK, people suffer good television, so as a nation they’re glued to couches, slowly becoming fatter and less mobile.
In New Zealand, there are only so many shouty ads and cringeworthy ‘banter’ between presenters that I can take before I throw the remote down and say ‘life’s too short for this crap; time to go outside and live a little’.