on May 26, 2010
I learned a lesson during my eight hours on Unlimited New Zealand’s TranzAlpine Train & Arthur’s Pass Guided Walk excursion: I learned the mark of a truly great hiking tour. I hope you’re spared this same lesson when you find yourself at Arthur’s Pass, but here it is, the mark of a great tour: it’s raining heavily, you’re slip-sliding atop boulders, and still you think, "Wow! This is the life!"The quiet beauty of Arthur’s Pass National Park inspires that reaction, as does the experienced guiding of Unlimited New Zealand founder and guide Andrew Wells. So even in the rain, even with clouds contending with my views from the train and trails, I had a singularly wonderful time.The day started early with a 7:30am pickup at my hotel and a seat on the 8:15am TranzAlpine train from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass. Andrew, meanwhile, drove to Arthur’s Pass to meet me there with his van.There was a buzz on the TranzAlpine as train enthusiasts—some of whom had waited their entire lives to take this trip—chattered and discussed strategies for getting the best views. We crossed the Canterbury Plains, the largest flatland in New Zealand, and climbed some of the route’s 19 viaducts and tunnels, including, at 73 meters, the highest: Staircase Creek Viaduct over the Waimakariri River.With cloud cover and crowds, ultra-reflective windows and high speeds, it was difficult to take good photographs but easy to love the scenery: sheep-station high country rising from a braided, blue river. The conductor’s humorous commentary answered any questions I might have had about the land and its history, and she gave us tips on when to head to the viewing platform and when to hop off the train for a quick photo opportunity at Springfield Station.Two-and-a-half speedy hours later, I was meeting Andrew again to start the hiking portion of the day. First we took in a couple of viewpoints, and then we hit the trailhead of the Bealey Valley Track, where Andrew wisely lent me waterproof pants (the back of his van is a gearhead’s dream).The track was challenging—mostly because it was so wet—but absolutely gorgeous. It began in a mountain-beech forest and went through grass wetlands—where every shade of amber and yellow swayed—before turning into boulders along the Bealey riverbed. Andrew was full of information about every piece of flora and every rock we saw, including my favorite feature, the post-bloom alpine "lilies" that Andrew described as New Zealand’s answer to edelweiss.We took a lunch break overlooking the crystal-clear river, listening to amazing bird songs as we scarfed down a very hearty lunch from Arthur’s Pass Village café The Wobbly Kea. (Kea birds are, in fact, often seen along the Bealey Track, but not on that drizzly day.) The second half of our ascent up the riverbed was a bit more challenging than the first, but even more rewarding. (At least, I had to believe that the stunning sight of a glacier—which Andrew explained was a fake one, as it melts in summer—was reward enough for having taken a tumble in the river at one point.) Another highlight was being able to drink water straight from a small waterfall—I don’t think I’ve ever done that before, anywhere, but the handful of water was cool and clean.From the apex of our hike, I could see straight across to Temple Basin Ski Area, where skiers have to walk an hour uphill for a run. And in that spirit, when we were about three-quarters of the way back to the van and Andrew asked me if I wanted to finish with an easier route or a harder route, I went for the more difficult—an excellent decision.We headed into the village for two last stops: the excellent Arthur’s Pass information center and the cozy Wobbly Kea for a flat white. Both were the perfect caps to a wonderful day amid some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery, and the coffee kept me warm all the way back to Christchurch.I highly recommend a day with Unlimited New Zealand. They guide people of all ages and customize each trip; a typical group has between 2 and 20 people, and tours can be given in English or Japanese. Andrew brings many years of experience—from both guiding and traveling—to each trip, and his passion for the area is contagious.Follow the Unlimited New Zealand blog for a taste of their adventures.
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