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Tramping New Zealand

On the South Island, it's fun and games with Kiwis on a privately operated trail that delivers fine coastal scenery, rustic lodgings and, happily, no crowds.

November 03, 2002|Robert C. Diemer | Special to The Times

Akaroa, New Zealand — My hiking socks were melting. The quick-drying blend of wool and space-age fibers smoldered on the grate by the fire, forgotten as I fixed breakfast. The parlor of Flea Bay Hut filled with acrid smoke. John Evans, a late-rising Kiwi, wrinkled his nose as he bumped into the kitchen. "What's that awful smell?"

"The Yank's socks," replied his mate, Don Reilly, stirring his porridge.

"Hey, Yank," John said. "You should try washing them." Laughter filled the hut and lifted a bit of the fog that promised to cling through our second day of backpacking on the Banks Peninsula Track. John and Don -- stand-up and straight man, respectively -- provided comic relief, as they had all along the scenic coastal trail, with Kiwi idioms, tall tales and wry humor. As usual, the greater part of New Zealand's charm was in the breezy grace of its residents.

Backpacking, or "tramping," to use the Kiwi term for one of their favorite pastimes, can reward and frustrate visitors to New Zealand. The South Pacific nation boasts scores of backpacking trails that traverse terrains ranging from flat beaches to alpine ridges. But the popularity of certain trails can detract from the experience of hiking them.

More than 20,000 trekked the Coastal Track at Abel Tasman National Park last year. The Milford Track, considered by many to be the finest walk in the world, is so crowded that hikers need reservations six months in advance. Huts along some routes are full by midafternoon, and latecomers are forced to camp or hike to another hut. Treks can turn into a race to claim the next hut's bunks, and poor company can spoil a good walk.

But the Banks Peninsula, or "BP Track," on the South Island is different. It is New Zealand's first private hiking trail, owned and operated by farmers and landowners, who have earmarked a part of the proceeds from fees of $59 to $88 to preserve native vegetation and wildlife along it. The trail is limited to 16 backpackers a day. The track's four huts are spaced no more than six hours apart, and because hikers don't have to fight for a bunk each night, they can find their own pace, explore side trails or linger at lookouts. Hikers can also get to know the quirks of those on the trail with them. If they are lucky, as I was, most of their companions will be Kiwis. In my group of 10, eight were Kiwis. Another solo hiker and I took the remaining slots.

I had encountered the Kiwis' fun-loving nature on my first trip to New Zealand, a four-month bicycle tour of the North and South islands about a dozen years ago. I returned in October, springtime here, to explore on foot parts of the country I couldn't see from the saddle of a touring bicycle. In Christchurch I heard about the BP Track from travelers who talked enthusiastically about its varied scenery and easy pace. I called the BP Track on a whim and grabbed the only opening available for four days on the trail.

The 22-mile loop begins and ends near Akaroa, a fishing town on a fiord-like harbor about a 90-minute drive southeast from Christchurch. Classified as an easy tramp, the track can be tackled in two days, but most hikers choose to take four, a more leisurely pace suitable for almost any adult or teenager.

The French influence

The village of Akaroa proved a pleasant start to my hike. The town of 750 now relies more on tourism than fishing. Founded by French settlers in 1840 on the site of a Maori village, Akaroa still has touches of "la belle" France, a standout in Anglican New Zealand. Some of the town's streets are called rue and have Parisian-style street lamps. A few buildings sport wrought-iron balcony railings. Many cafes and restaurants embrace their French connection, serving Gallic cuisine.

I spent my first night on the track at the Trampers' Hut at the Onuku Farm Hostel just outside town. Bedding was a step up from the squeaky vinyl mattresses common to many New Zealand back-country huts, but they were bunk beds nonetheless: one up, one down, in rooms of four or six bunks at Onuku, Flea Bay and Otanerito. But we spent little time inside. Instead everyone gathered on the porch for the sunset over Akaroa Harbor.

The next morning I started up the track, climbing the steep inner slope of an ancient volcano. It was a relentless introduction to Banks Peninsula topography, mostly the eroded remains of several extinct volcanoes and hills 2,100 to 2,600 feet high. From the trail head at Onuku Hostel, at about 650 feet, I climbed to a 2,300-foot pass on a trail that, for the most part, was a straight run so steep I could barely place my foot down flat. The first stretch crossed open meadows, one of the few places in New Zealand where hikers have to share trails with sheep. The only shade in the initial climb was about halfway up, where a few trees guarded the tumbled remains of an abandoned farm.

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