Huka and hikers – the best of winter in New Zealand – part one
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Huka and hikers – the best of winter in New Zealand – part one

When the first Polynesians pulled their boats onto the shores of New Zealand a couple of thousand years ago, it must have must have been one history’s great, jaw-dropping, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more Toto,” moments. Coming from small, flat, tropical Polynesian islands, the sight of New Zealand’s huge snow capped mountains must have been truly mind-blowing.

Having never known snow before and literally lost for words they called this newfound white stuff ‘huka’ the same word as for foam or surf. The landmass that brought it became known, thanks to its snowy white skyline, as Aotearoa – land of the long white cloud.

These days the winter landscape in New Zealand still has that jaw-dropping impact (it’s one of the things that lured me across the Tasman from my home of Sydney) and just like it was for the ancient Maoris, it’s a world of possibilities if only you know where to look. Here are a few suggestions:

Take a hike
/>One of the great things about New Zealand is, being surrounded by sea; it has what the weather forecasters call a ‘maritime climate’. In layman’s terms, that means winter is cold enough to warrant breaking out the woolly mittens but never so cold to stop you getting out into the great outdoors for an adventure or two.

This is a fact the guys at Active New Zealand (for whom I do a bit of guiding) have been exploiting for years on their winter hiking trips. The crew from Active have been guiding the trails of the Southern Alps in what’s conventionally seen as the ‘off season’ since the mid-90s and by all accounts it’s been a great success.

And why not, the Kiwi backcountry is dotted with cosy huts, so there’s no need to worry about pitching tents in the cold; places like the West Coast, which are decidedly ‘damp’ through summer, experience bluebird days through winter months; and the trails that are crowded as conga-lines in January are all but deserted in June.

And of course, you’ll be doing your bit for world peace while you’re out there.

Go jump
/>Most of the world sees gravity as just the force that holds the universe together and a good reason not to stand under coconut palms – but for Kiwi’s gravity is a toy. Over the years these eccentric antipodeans have come up with all manner of ways to convert gravity into adrenalin and – with a few thankful exceptions – they’re available for the general public to have a go. It’s just a matter of deciding how bold you are feeling.

If you’re new to the plummeting game, you might want to start with something easy like Zorbing in Rotorua. This involves the slightly improbable act of climbing inside a giant, transparent, inflatable ball and rolling down grassy slopes at breakneck speed. It sounds odd, but it’s not to be missed. Remember though even if you’re not participating, the expression “keep your eye on the ball” definitely applies to zorbing –

If you like your adrenalin mixed a little stronger, the precipitous Pièce de résistance would have to be A.J. Hackett’s 134m Nevis Highwire Bungy – a jump so high that you have time to stop screaming and start wondering if it was really a such good idea before the bungy cord comes tight.

Hit the slopes
/>Skiing in New Zealand is has a distinctly different flavour to what you’d experience schussing in Switzerland or paralleling in the Pyrenees. Sure there are places with high-speed lifts and high-class clientele like Coronet Peak and Treble Cone, but the authentic kiwi alpine experience, is really found at the club ski fields. These smaller non-profit ski fields dotted around the Southern Alps are like a trip back in time.

At the club fields, you won’t see stock brokers making cell phone calls on the lift, you won’t see blonde ski bunnies in Mink-lined one-piece ski suits and the après ski nightlife will likely be pints of ale and a local reggae band on the stereo rather than cosmopolitans and Euro-pop in a trendy nightclub. It’s one of the last great unpretentious skiing experiences.

What’s less down-to-earth however is the skiing. These little alpine hideaways contain an astonishing array of terrain, from mellow beginners slopes at places like Round Hill to the wide open bowls at Ohau, to the heart-stoppingly tight chutes and crags at Craigiburn. You could spend your entire trip exploring the club fields – many people do.

And that’s just the beginning! ‘Tune in’ again next week for with the answers to those questions you’ve been dying to know like: What happens when you combine a squirrel and a kiwi? And what is (really) the national religion?

Till next time,

 – Mark