Foreign Correspondence: Tramping Around In New Zealand

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Glenn Carroll, 25, a native of Charlotte, moved to New Zealand on a working holiday visa. When not working at a gift shop in Te Anau, in Fiordland — in the southwest of that country's South Island — Carroll, an Eagle Scout, hikes in Fiordland National Park.

Q. How is hiking different there?

A. Instead of hiking, they call it tramping, and what we call trails, they call tracks.

Hiking often lasts several nights, and most people don't take tents as we would. The parks have cabins in the middle of the mountains where you can stay. They're basic facilities, with running water only in the better ones. There are bunks with mattresses to sleep on, a kitchen area to cook and a firepit for winter. They're nice shelters, really.

They have a booking system for the popular ones, like the Milford Track: You can't just walk in and sleep there. People book them in through the Department of Conservation; some of the best get fully booked long in advance. That branch of the government is a big thing in New Zealand because its responsible for taking care of all natural walks all over the country. The DOC keeps up the grounds and books the "Great Walks," which include nine trails around the country.

Parks that aren't on one of the Great Walks, or in places that aren't extremely popular, have smaller cabins and aren't booked in advance. But you have to go to DOC and pay $15 NZ (about $11.13 U.S.) to stay in them. For those, you're not guaranteed a bunk, but the chance of their being filled is almost none. On those tracks, you may come across some people, but maybe only three or four. If a cabin is full, you'd have to sleep on the floor.

Q. When you're out on a trail, how do you know where the cabins are?

A. They're well-posted but give time instead of distance. It may say the next hut is five hours away.

You might come up to a side trip you can go on, and there'll be a sign that says how long it will take you to get to its end and back.

One time I tracked how far I went, and the whole trip was 100 km (about 62 miles). It took me four days, but I was going fast — I had to get back to work. Typically you start out in the morning and reach the next hut by lunch, and the hut after that by dinner. So I had to skip one hut every day to cover the distance in half the time.

Q. Does the wilderness look different?

A. Yes. In the mountains of North Carolina, you reach the foothills in Hickory; heading west it becomes gradually mountainous.

Here, you can be standing someplace as perfectly flat as a football field, and 500 yards ahead you can see a mountain — as tall as the ones around Boone — that skyrockets straight up. The valley may be a grassland that may have one or two trees, but the mountain can be covered with trees. Up from the trees there's brush, up from that it's topped with snow.

And as you hike you can feel the temperature drop. You always need to keep a rain jacket and toboggan cap in your pack. It may be 65 degrees when you're in the valley, but after 90 minutes of hiking up the mountain you're at the tree line and it starts to get cooler and the wind is unrestricted. In a few hours you're in snow.

The trees are different, too. There are no hardwoods. The vast majority of ones you see on the trails are beech covered in moss.

Q. The actual trails — are they different from those in the Southern Appalachians?

A. My own experience is that they're better kept up in New Zealand. The popular trails here are gravel the whole way, or have stepping-stones; in the U.S. they're often dirt, and rudimentary.

Q. How many trails have you done there?

A. The Milford, which is the most popular. Also the Routeburn and the Kepler Track — all are among the Great Walks. I've done Greenstone-Caples, which is a loop: The trails meet at their far side where there's a parking lot. Many hikers just park there. I've also taken a lot of day trips on hikes that don't have cabins.

Q. Is there a better season to do this?

A. It's always rainy in Fiordland. The rain clouds get stuck in the ocean sounds and dump rain. Most people come to Fiordland between late November and early March, when there's little avalanche danger.

Q. Is the same type of gear used in New Zealand?

A. The same basic sleeping bag and cooking utensils. But gaiters are a lot more popular here. You can start out in comfortable weather and eventually be wading in 6-plus feet of snow, so gaiters are essential.

Q. Encounters with unusual animals?

A. New Zealand doesn't have much variety when it comes to land mammals. The islands are young, geologically, and rose out of the water. The only land animals are what European settlers brought with them. There were rabbits. Then they brought in stoats (short-tailed European weasels) to control the rabbits. But instead of eating rabbits, the stoats killed birds. So they brought over possum to control the stoats. That didn't work, either.

There are many unusual birds here. Flying birds include the only alpine parrot in the world: keas, which are green and have magnificent orange underwings you can see if you get them to fly. Keas are interesting birds — curious and smart. They're not afraid of you, and will walk right around you and poke at your shoes. If you leave your boots outside the cabin at night, keas have been know to fly off with them to inspect them, tear them to shreds and heave them out in the woods. It's bizarre how they cling to human stuff and then rip it up.