New Zealand, aside from tragically being known to the masses as Lord of the Ring country, is one of the world’s premier destinations for walking, hiking, and backpacking. With a booming ecotourism industry and a backcountry hut system that surpasses most, NZ (pronounced “en zed”) is the place for anyone after a good tramp, regardless of type. Thus, New Zealand was an obvious choice for our first international trekking trip (although Patagonia is decidedly next on the list). We have 10 weeks to tramp around the North and South Islands.
One of the NZ’s finest qualities is that it is home to relatively few of the most invasive and destructive creatures on this planet: humans. Although humans have successfully removed hectares upon hectares of ancient forest to feed their 40 million sheep and 90 million cows, much of NZ’s most unique and dramatic landscapes have been preserved by the country’s Department of Conservation (or “Doc” as they call it) as parks and wildlife sanctuaries. (Tramper’s tip: As you enter the country, be prepared to have your boots and camping gear inspected at customs for dirt, insects, and seeds. Also, be emotionally prepared that you won’t get your passport stamped anymore. Oh, the digital era…).
The DOC pretty much owns the tramping industry in New Zealand. Their website (www.doc.govt.nz) is the best resource for discovering and booking treks. (If you’re confused, just keep reading around on the website and download the brochures. We’ve found that the visitor centers in country fail to provide any additional information and will only redirect you to the website.) Camping in New Zealand is different than what K and I are used to in North America. The DOC-run campsites are scattered across the country, but often hard to get to unless you have a car or can hitch a ride from a friendly stranger willing to go out of their way. Camping at a DOC site is called “conservation camping” and is the cheapest option for camping (aside from “freedom camping”, which you can only do if you have a camper-van with a toilet). For-profit tent/RV camping options are more plentiful but cost as much as a room in a backpackers hostel. Sadly, both options lack the privacy, serenity, and scenery of the campgrounds I’ve experienced in the United States and Canada. At first, camping in NZ reminded me of car camping at Bonnaroo, but quieter and with much cleaner toilets.
For those wondering how we are able to take a 10-week vacation, I’ll share the trick: we keep savings accounts and had to quit our jobs. One of the many, many good reasons for having a savings account is to allow for this type of spontaneous (and seemingly irresponsible) long-term travel. After meticulous research and careful budgeting, we decided we could get by in NZ on a daily allowance of $70 USD. This was broken down into $20 for lodging, $20 for transportation, and $30 for food and drink. Any money saved each day would go toward covering the cost of other activities and needs. I’m not sure if this fully qualifies as traveling on a shoestring, as we’ve permitted indulgences such as hiring a car, drinking wine (the craft beer scene in NZ is abysmal compared to Seattle), and splurging on a few dinners out. But we keep our spending to a minimum by staying at the cheapest AirBnB we can find or conservation camping whenever possible, buying most meals from the grocery store, and paying for as few tourist gimmicks as possible (alas, touring The Shire or abseiling down Glowworm Caves will have to wait until next time).
So for the next 10 weeks, K and I will be on the prowl for the best tramp in New Zealand. So far, we’ve signed for up several of the renowned Great Walks and pinpointed other treks that will take us further off the beaten path. From the west coast of the United States, we flew into Auckland and started our self-guided trekking tour on the North Island.