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Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

'Rugged hike has its beauty', by Pamela LeBlanc - March 2007

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Nelson Lakes, New Zealand - Just before lunch, my backpack starts to feel like I've stuffed a circus tent inside it, and my boots and socks are soaked from slogging through calf-deep streams.

That last swing bridge over a raging river, the one with a sign warning that it could support just one person at a time? It made my knees quake. And, our guides have warned, the steepest part is yet to come. So I am happy when we break for lunch.

Tramping, the New Zealand term for hiking, is challenging but rewarding. It's one of the main reasons tourists come to this country, known for outdoorsy pursuits and adventure travel. And it's why I'm here with my husband - to hike along some of the world's most beautiful mountains and lakes.

It also burns a ton of calories, so I eat a couple of sandwiches, some cheese and a pile of chocolate cookies, then flop on the grass, arms tucked behind my head. I inhale the mountain air. Listen to the water spilling over smooth oval rocks in a nearby stream. Swivel my head in all directions to take in the panorama of snow-capped peaks. I can't believe I'm backpacking on the other side of the world.

We'd begun our adventure the day before, at one end of Rotoiti Lake, in the Nelson Lakes region of New Zealand's South Island. With two weeks to spend on our vacation, we decided to spend half our time with a tour company that specializes in adventure travel, and do the other half on our own. (Some of New Zealand's wildly popular hiking trails require advance reservations; this one does not.) This trek was part of our guided trip.

We hiked for three or four hours along a mostly flat trail, through a tranquil forest of beech trees that hugged the shoreline, then spent the night at a communal hut, throwing down sleeping bags on giant bunks that ran along one wall of a rustic shelter. "Nice day to wag (skip) school and go for a tramp, eh?" a teenager said as we settled in for the night.

This morning, we left behind the flat terrain. We climbed through a forest thick with ferns and moss and more shades of green than a leprechaun's hideaway. Our tramp turned from hike to treasure hunt, as the clear path we'd been following disappeared and we began scampering between markers placed 25 or 50 yards apart. Revived after lunch, we're ready to forge on.

In an hour, we break above the treeline. The mountainside is dotted with shrubs and herbs. We scramble up the rocks, picking our way alongside a glimmering waterfall. Every now and then, we pause for a bite of chocolate or to soak in the scenery, feeling like mountain goats as we creep along.

At one point, a waterfall blocks our path. We have to cross. Our guide helps us through, telling us to face the mountain without looking at the roiling water (it can be disorienting) and sidestep through the icy, knee-high flow. Safely across, we press on, huffing and puffing as we chip away at the 3,000-foot climb.

Finally, we reach the top. We scamper through a mountain saddle, and the Angelus Hut appears in the distance, looking to us like a luxury hotel despite the green outhouses to one side and the tangle of socks drying on the wooden deck.

We ditch our backpacks at the hut, where trampers from as far away as France and Denmark are lounging and laughing. Out on the deck, we can't believe the view. A tiny alpine lake is glinting in the sun. Temperatures are in the 50s, but this is cause for celebration. Besides, I am sweaty and stinky. My husband and I walk down to the lake. I peel off my clothes and wade into the water up to my waist. With a gasp, I slosh ice-cold water over my head: hiking nirvana.

Back at the hut, I sprawl on the deck and sip a cup of hot tea. Later, we sup on pasta and nearly fall off our bench when the guide brings in two no-bake cheesecakes she just whipped up. We crawl into bed before the sun sets. Day three begins with a trip to the lake to gather drinking water for our bottles. We don't waste any time starting the hike along Roberts Ridge, hoping to beat some dark clouds that are building in the distance.

The wind is brisk, and parts of the walk are exposed, with scree fields dropping off on both sides. Now and then I'm slammed by a wind gust that sends me dropping to all fours to clutch the rocks. The route is high and narrow, and the going slow, but the scene that unfolds around us is gorgeous. We scamper from marker to marker, scrabbling over fields of canteloupe-sized rocks, then boulders the size of hogs, then loose gravel that slides away with a rustle at each step. All I can think, as I waddle along like a crab, trying to keep my center of gravity low, is "one false step and I'll be rolling for miles . . ."

After a couple hours, the slopes smooth out and the rock turns to alpine grass and cushion plants. Our guide tells us that ranchers sometimes mistake these low, spongy white plants for wayward sheep, spending hours to hike up and rescue them. Unlike lost sheep, we make steady progress down the ridge. We pause for lunch at a wooden lean-to, and march on. We pass an abandoned ski resort. The grasses turn to shrubs. We meet a few trampers on their way up. The shrubs turn to trees, and then we hit the switchbacks. For an hour, we pace downhill, weaving back and forth in a never-ending crisscross. The lake, once so far below, gets bigger and bigger. And finally, three days after we set out, we stumble into a parking lot.

Funny thing about this adventure: If I'd clearly known what I was getting into before taking my first steps, I probably wouldn't have done it. The wind, the precarious walk out, the close quarters with complete strangers - it all would have scared me away. I'm glad I did it, though. The feeling when we reached Angelus Hut, after a day and a half of hiking, was worth every step along the way.

Trip Reviews

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    The only way to experience the Galapagos

    This trip was the perfect blend of nature, culture, and fun and it is the best trip for anyone with kids 13-21 years old.
    Miller Ward Review Image
    – Massachusetts, United States
    Tortuga, January 2017
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    What an adventure!

    Great adventure with wonderful guides Alex and Tia!
    Stephanie Eskuri Review Image
    – Michigan, United States
    Rimu, January 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 15866 reviews)

    Great trip! Wonderful guides!

    We loved our Rimu adventure! Tia and Tess were fabulous guides. Always cheerful and wonderful ambassadors for their country. The trip was a great mix of touring and challenging mountain experiences.
    Carl Helmetag Review Image
    – Rhode Island, United States
    Rimu, February 2017
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 15866 reviews)

    Trip of a life time

    My wife and I planned this trip with some friends to try something new and to maximize the experience of New Zealand. We spent 8 days hiking, biking, and kayaking through the South Island. Every day was action packed with something different to do. We got to try new things, test a few of our limits that we wouldn't have normally done, and learn a few things about local culture along the way. I can't say enough good things about our guides Ben and Liana. They were enthusiastic about everything we did and full of information. They helped us push limits and get the most out of the experiences we had. Everyone I've told about our trip has been wowed by the awesome things we got to see and do.
    Chris Busch Review Image
    – Pennsylvania, United States
    Tui, January 2018
  •   4.53 out of 5 (from 15866 reviews)

    Fantastic Adventure!

    This trip was wonderful on so many levels. It was a perfect experience for our family of three college "kids", my husband and me. We traveled with two other families- a total of eight kids and six adults, a good group size. There was lots to see and do and we appreciated the opportunity to be active! Seeing the wildlife and learning about the Galapagos Islands was fantastic!! Zambo, our naturalist was terrific and related well to children and the adults. One of the unexpected pleasures my husband and I experienced was hearing our children utilize their seven years of middle and high school Spanish as they communicated with locals. Also, needless to say, they were pleased that the drinking age on the Islands is 18. We all enjoyed having a beer at the end of each wonderful day. The December weather was lovely. Comfortably warm and the water was beautiful!! We took full advantage of any extra snorkeling and swimming opportunities.

    Our family had an extra day in Quito. We took the opportunity to hire a guide to take us around the city. What a great opportunity it was to learn about so many aspects of Ecuador's capital city. The Equator Museum was great and we enjoyed walking around the Plaza and seeing a couple of churches. Walking to the edge of the Pululhua crater was awesome! Lenin was a terrific guide!
    Katherine Babbott Review Image
    – Massachusetts, United States
    Tortuga, January 2017

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Why travel with Active Adventures?

Above all, we aim to be amazing hosts. We're proud of our kiwi roots, and our professional, warm and relaxed style of running trips around the world is unforgettable.

We're VERY picky about who we select to work in our team, and we have people from all over the world lining up to guide our trips. So we get to hire the absolute BEST in the business.

As soon as you get off the plane, we've got all the details of your vacation covered – top notch meals, comfortable transport & accommodation, amazing guides and INCREDIBLE service.

Whether you’re new to adventure travel, or you’ve never travelled in a group before, you’ll find yourself arriving home positively different from when you left.

With our small groups (no more than 14), you'll get to know our team, your fellow travellers, and have the flexibility and freedom to do as much (or as little!) as you like.

It's all about getting there under your own steam – on foot, in a sea kayak, or by bike. What better way is there to experience mind blowing scenery? If it's your first time, no worries – our expert guides have got you covered.

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