Feet first on the kiwi trail

Leonie Lamont explores the South Island on a gentle trekking tour of alpine and coastal wilderness.

It's a light-bulb moment as we watch a ferryload of New Zealand schoolchildren clutch their vomit bags. This was the experience of antipodean convicts and free settlers, miserable in creaking timber ships, sloshing through a swell the likes of which they had never seen.

Latitude does matter and here it's called the Roaring Forties. Mercifully, instead of months at sea, we're crossing Foveaux Strait in an hour on the fast ferry from Bluff to New Zealand's third-biggest island, Stewart, latitude 47 degrees south.

It's as natural for Stewart Island's 400 residents to know their degrees and minutes as it is for us to know our postcode. For the record, Sydney's latitude is 33 degrees south, which is similar to Cape Town in South Africa; Melbourne is at 37 degrees south. Macquarie Island and its resident population of millions of penguins lies at 54 degrees south.

Our visit to 47 degrees south has come during a seven-day trekking tour on the South Island - a round trip taking in Queenstown, Milford Sound, Stewart Island and the Catlins, a region hunkered along the south-eastern coast.

We'll stay in motels in towns and self-contained cabins bordering alpine and coastal wilderness areas and have a taste of the country's walks, including the stunning Kepler Track.

It's a region with plenty of highlights. Queenstown, which labels itself the "action capital", is pulsing year-round with travellers. A cruise on Milford Sound in Fiordland National Park is on most itineraries. Stewart Island is a step back in time, when hardier souls braved the cold and wild oceans to make a living from forestry and fishing. And the Catlins coast has some surprising opportunities to commune with nature. Being a trek neophyte, my experienced bushwalking friends were worried at my lack of fitness and paucity of trek gear.

I invest a couple of hundred dollars in waterproof boots that could take me to the foothills of the Himalayas. Hats (for sun and snow), gloves, microfibre shirts, thermals and walking pants with zips and pockets follow.

The most essential item is Skins, the tight black leggings generally seen on athletic fields, which are warm and compress tired muscles. Add a blister pack and gaiters - good to counter snake bite in Australia, essential for the rain and mud in New Zealand. And fitness. No doubt I could have done more. Perhaps even taken my hiking boots off track instead of dawdling on city footpaths on my way to work.

I browsed Di Westaway's book, Wild Women on Top: How to Prepare for World Class Treks, which would indeed prepare me to climb the peaks of the Himalayas. Did you know there is a technique for walking? Longer strides equals fewer steps equals less stress on dodgy knees.

And I became a convert to walking poles.

Australians bushwalk. In New Zealand, they tramp. By accident rather than design, our group of happy trampers is all women: three New Zealanders and three Australians, outnumbering our guide, Stefan.

Four are experienced trampers or cyclists and have walked to outposts as varied as the Gobi Desert and Nepal. Two of us are greenhorns. Most are on the other side of 50 and discovering a passion for travel, physical challenge, the outdoors and simplicity.

After our first night on Stewart Island, we wake to a wet dawn. The remnant fishing and lobster fleet is either at sea or the rain has obscured the boats in Halfmoon Bay. We're in Oban, the village centre of the island.

Last night we dined on melt-in-the-mouth, beer-battered blue cod in a dining room of the historic South Sea Hotel, resplendent with pressed-tin ceilings. The shellfish lovers have given their required 24 hours' notice, ordering in lobsters ($NZ46, or $35 each), for the next dinner.

This is a free day and, this far south, a long one - night falls about 10 o'clock. There's a multitude of walks around Oban and in Rakiura National Park where, after a day knee-deep in mud, trampers can bunk at one of the park huts in an impressive network run by the Department of Conservation. I decide to book a cruise that traverses the marine reserve of Paterson Inlet (Te Whaka a Te Wera) and the bird reserve of Ulva Island. By early afternoon the pelting rain has stopped. Our host on Stewart Island has warned us against swimming in Halfmoon Bay - 48 tagged white pointer sharks venture back and forth to Fiji from here. And the water is cold: eight degrees in July to a high of only 16 degrees in January.

On the shore, we see the occasional seal and a crested penguin. Once there were settlements where men in their hundreds cut and milled rimu, the native timber, but the past has been covered by new growth.

Rats were eradicated on Ulva, which boosted the native bird population. But there has been another rat incursion and park officials are baiting again. The woods are eerily quiet, dripping from the morning's downpour, with little bird noise.

At last we see a bird - a fat, lazy wood pigeon on a high branch - but no one goes wandering in New Zealand without hoping to see the elusive kiwi. Stewart Island offers the best chance anywhere in the country for viewing kiwis in the wild but it remains a rare treat. Our guide on Ulva describes an encounter in her backyard in Oban, when a kiwi nuzzled its beak against her trousered leg.

Others in our group have picked up a "secret" map of the places in Oban where kiwis have been seen. Two of us head out that night in the drizzle with rapidly fading torches to search the undergrowth. There is only disappointment. Which raises the question: if white pointers can be fitted with tracking devices, why not kiwis?

On the Catlins coast, animals of another kind demand attention. Gale-force winds have set in; tortured trees are permanently transfigured by the prevailing winds; and behind towering hedgerows, the deer and sheep lie low.

At Surat Bay we're pummelled by the wind but set off regardless for a coastal walk, sunglasses in place as protection from the flying sand. It's high tide and before us lounges a mature male sea lion. Before we can snap more than one photo, it heaves its body towards us.

Our fearless guide yells "Run!", later admitting he was worried we would scatter in all directions with a territorial, 400-kilogram sea lion blocking the only path between the surf and dense scrub.

Four days earlier, we had blue-sky tramping on the Kepler Track at Lake Manapouri in the Fiordland National Park. Ian Brodie, in his guidebook to the film locations of The Lord of the Rings, recalls an unseasonal November snowfall at the lake. "The wet snowflakes began to settle on the ground and cover the poor hobbits. Showing no sign of dissipating, when the snow was over 20 centimetres deep, the cast and crew quickly decided to change scenes to the local Manapouri Hall."

The Kepler Track, one of the country's designated "Great Walks", is a 60-kilometre trail built in the 1980s to take pressure off the Milford Track. Serious trekkers take a few days to complete it. We take a few hours to complete a "taste of Kepler" tramp. A suspension bridge over a sage-coloured river leads to a walk through beech forest.

We find hobbit trees and hobbit holes; we skirt alongside the Waiau River, through wetlands and mires, until we emerge to see Lake Manapouri, framed by snow-capped mountains. As the waves lap on the stony beach, we sip tea made on a camping stove.

The tour's toughest walk is on the first day: a section of the 11-kilometre Ben Lomond Track above Queenstown. At the walk's end, I feebly manage a high-five with the other tramping novice, Jen. By the end of the tour, we're fit enough to manage a high-10.

Leonie Lamont travelled courtesy of Adventure South.


Getting there

Air New Zealand has a fare to Queenstown from Sydney (3hr non-stop) for about $570 low-season return, including tax; on certain days of the week you will travel via Christchurch. Melbourne passengers pay about $660 flying non-stop to Christchurch (3hr 20min), then non-stop to Queenstown (65min). See airnewzealand.co.nz.

Walking there

Adventure South's seven-day Milford and Stewart Island Trails tour costs $1995 a person, which includes a professional wilderness guide, private minibus transport, five dinners, six lunches and breakfasts, six nights' motel/lodge accommodation, a Milford Sound cruise and Stewart Island ferry. Trips run monthly from November to April. Phone 1800 107 060; see adventuresouthnz.com.au.