Whether you want to investigate the haunts of a legendary sheeplifter or simply camp out in some of the most pristine backcountry on earth, here's a few things you'll want to know.
When to Go: New Zealand's seasons are opposite to North America's. The best weather is from January through March, though most trails can be hiked anytime from November to April.
Getting Primed: New Zealand is well promoted on the Web. Here are three sites worth checking out: www.purenz.com (the official site of the New Zealand Tourist Board), http://www.mtcook.org.nz (a site devoted to Mount Cook and the Mackenzie District), and http://www.doc.govt.nz (the best site for info on backcountry travel). For historical background, hunt down the out-of-print book Mackenzie of the Mackenzie Country by James Herries Beattie (Cadsonbury Publications, 1946).
Getting There: Christchurch is the jumping-off point for The Mackenzie and all spots south. The connecting flights from Auckland stop here. Auckland is served by Air New Zealand, Qantas, and United. Round-trip high season fares from Los Angeles range from $1,540 to $3,380.
Staying There: Tiny, windswept Twizel offers accommodations rude and refined. For my base camp, I chose a delightfully retro A-frame at Mountain Chalets ($45 per person per night; 011-03-435-0785). Backpackers with their own linen can get by for as a little as $15. If you can afford even one night at the more upscale Hermitage ($105–$285; 435-1809), the views of Mount Cook are worth it. Down in Queenstown, my B&B of choice is the Queenstown House ($165–$185; 442-9043).
Eating Out: Fairlie, the wee capital of the Mackenzie District, boasts the Old Liberty Cafe, famous, not surprisingly, for its lamb and venison. Lamb for two will set you back $40. Like Bill Clinton, I dined at Queenstown's lovely Boardwalk Seafood Restaurant & Bar (dinner for two, $75; 442-5630).
Outfitters: For weather reports and climbing guides in the Mount Cook area, try the Glenntanner Park Centre (435-1855). In the Mount Cook village, Alpine Guides (435-1834) rent virtually all climbing equipment. Mount Cook Ski Planes (435-1026) run airlifts to the top of Mount Cook. Adult fare is $225.
BUSH IN 2000
The South Island's best tramping trails
Like Patagonia, the Mackenzie and Fiordland are wild, lonely places with volatile climates, extreme winds, and, thus, some of the most experienced search-and-rescue teams in the world. The message is clear: Respect the mountain when you step out. That said, even if you have only a week to go bush, there are three excellent trails—tracks, in local parlance—that range from easy to perilous.
Serious climbers shouldn't miss out on Mount Cook. At 12,349 feet, it's the tallest peak in the Southern Alps and is conveniently ringed by climbing schools and ski-plane and helicopter outfits that lift a constant stream of mountaineers onto Tasman Glacier, which stretches over much of the mountain's topside. Many of the tracks in Mount Cook National Park can be done in a day; overnight stays require filing an intention form at the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre at Aoraki Mount Cook Village (011-64-3-435-1819).
The Copland Pass hike, which runs out to the west coast, takes four days and is rated the most challenging tramp in New Zealand. Collapsing moraine walls have made the route even more dangerous. Suffice it to say, don't attempt Copland Pass without technical climbing experience. To learn about trail conditions and to pay hut fees—there are Appalachian-Trail-style huts (right) along the route—check in at the Aoraki Mount Cook Village Visitor Centre.
The spectacular and more accessible Routeburn Track leads south from Queenstown and takes four days and three nights to complete. It connects Mount Aspiring with Fiordland National Park via the Harris Saddle, and during the summer (October to April) is so popular that you have to book a backcountry pass three to five days in advance. For conditions and reservations, contact the Glenorchy Visitor Centre (442-9937) or Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre (249-7924; [email protected]).