Travel Story Peaks of perfection on stunning alpine ways

Photo of Ebony Swetman

New Zealand is a country of giants so it only makes sense to see it from a height. Here are EBONY SWETMAN’S three favourite spots to take in Middle Earth among the clouds.

Tongariro Alpine Crossing — North Island

A world-renowned hike like no other, this crossing will take you through unbelievably stunning scenery that changes every hour.

My travelling partner, Natasha, and I began our trek at the Mangatepopo Road end, a recommended starting point for the full trek which places you on a boardwalk that leads to the base of an old lava flow. It was autumn, so the colours of rust, red, yellow and green filled our view. As we began our ascent on The Devil’s Staircase — a steep climb to 1600m above sea level — the scenery changed again to deep browns and blacks as we walked on layers of ancient lava flows and volcanic deposits.

If you’re lucky, it’s at this point you’ll get your first glimpse of the volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki, a Mt Fuji look-alike.

We descended into the south crater, two hours into our hike. As we walked across the yellow sandy crater and into a cloud, we felt like we were alone on a distant planet. The crossing is a popular trek but, when the clouds swallowed us up for a moment, we were alone and hopefully not lost. After the pain of the previous ascent, the flat ground of the crater was a blessing too.

Unfortunately that ended where the ridge climb to the red crater began. Harder than the staircase because of exposed nature, hard winds and unstable ground, we took several breaks to catch our breath and footing and get a view of Mt Ngauruhoe, an active stratovolcano, known to Lord of Rings fans as Mt Doom.

We took some time at the top to wait for the clouds to pass so we could see the Oturere Valley, Rangipo Desert and Kaimanawa Ranges — or as I put it, “Mars, Jupiter… who knows.” Our landscape now included deep reds among the black, with loose, shifting slate below our feet and sharp rocks jutting out for us to use as shelter from the intense wind.

We made our way down the other side of the ridge where we were greeted with a slippery slope that took many victims on the way down, as the slate gave way, sending many a hiker sliding a metre or two at time.

At times I felt more like a surfer but we made it to the bottom where we were met with the unbelievable Emerald Lakes. The brilliant, vibrant colours are caused by partly dissolved minerals, left over from ancient glaciers. The perfect spot for a lunchbreak.

After one final ascent to Blue Lake, a sacred, cold acidic lake, we made our way through a winding, open landscape with shrubbery, hot springs and bushland.

Our final trek took us downhill into a thick rainforest that seems to go on forever until opening into the Ketetahi carpark. It’s here hikers collapse and nap while they wait for transport. We did both.

As beautiful as the crossing is, it’s dangerous for the unprepared. This is an alpine crossing, so weather can be brutal — check for warnings and dress appropriately. All up, it took us 6 1/2 hours.

Arthur’s Pass — South Island

One of the best things about driving around New Zealand is that sometimes, just the journey itself, getting from point A to point B, is the highlight of your day. As we began plotting our route to our next stop, Mt Cook, one particular such journey jumped out at us. Arthur’s Pass — an almost direct line along the Great Alpine Highway from Greymouth to Christchurch that cuts right through the guts of the island, taking you into Arthur’s Pass National Park.

We never planned to visit Christchurch. It was meant to be a drive down the west coast to Queenstown but the discovery of a new highlight was too good to “pass” up.

We left Greymouth at 6am while it was still dark and foggy. The landscape gave way to seemingly flat plains, with almost ominous snow-capped mountains on the horizon.

Suddenly though, the fog lifted and the sun was up. We began driving though incredibly windy, narrow roads, ascending higher and higher into the park. It was so green it started to blend together.

We drove under a waterfall shooting out of a viaduct and peeled off into the Otira Viaduct Lookout so we could park, brave the chill, stand amongst the giants.

Being in Arthur’s Pass feels like being inside a movie. The vegetation is thick and lush, a beautiful alpine rainforest with deep cutting gorges, rock shelters and riverbeds.

We drove on, arriving at Arthur’s Pass Railway Station. Here we stopped for lunch and listened out for the rare kea bird, incredibly intelligent large alpine parrots. There’s a handy information bay with tips on how to spot them and report them if you do. Some of the regulars even have names and profiles.

We left the station and continued into the mountains. We pulled over to take in the 360-degree views and spotted two large, green birds floating above. Our first kea sighting.

We finally left and continued on our way to Christchurch, driving through more flat plains, with snow-capped mountain all around us and frosty grass alongside. It’s the most photogenic drive you’ll do in New Zealand, I guarantee it. For us it was an add-on, but it’s a must-see destination.

Mt Cook — South Island

Another scenic drive that takes in canals, farmland, lakes and a mountainous ascent towards New Zealand’s highest peak.

We began in Christchurch and cut our way through flat pastures known for merino wool, and spots for salmon fishing. The vistas are beautiful and bright, supercharged by autumn’s contrasting colours. Eventually it became more barren and rocky but no less beautiful, just striking.

After passing through the small community of Omarama, we arrived at Lake Pukaki, a turquoise lake fed by the Tasman and Hooker glaciers. It’s here we stop to visit the Church of the Good Shepherd, the most photographed church in New Zealand.

It’s tiny, cute and quaint and can easily claim to be the church with one of the world’s best views.

Another hour of driving and we finally made our way to the base of Mt Cook and the Southern Alps, still capped with a dusting of snow. The whole drive was just over two hours but I’d recommend two to three hours if you want to stop at one of the many coffee shops along the way. We slept at the Aoraki Mt Cook Village and got up early to hike to the Tasman Glacier. There are plenty of ways to view the mountain and glacier, by foot, air and boat.

We opted for a short hike, about 20 minutes, to get a good view of the front of the glacier and its grey acidic lake. There are hikes of all lengths and difficulties in the area, including a stunning three-hour Hooker Valley track.

Having finished the Tongariro Crossing a few days before, we opted out this time and took more time at the top of our short hike, taking in the fresh air and sights of the alps, a world away from our flat, red home.

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