“For me, this was the best experience I’ve ever had.”

Share this page on: Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterest A group cheering and waving near Mt Cook.The crew from Andrea’s ‘Kiwi’ trip celebrating at Braemar Station.

Over the last twenty years or so we’ve been honing our skills in adventure travel. We started with a group of three guests on a trip around New Zealand’s South Island in 1996, and have progressed to taking groups to nine different countries on four different continents. As kiwis we are famous for our hospitality, we love welcoming people, taking care of people, and sharing in experiences with people. When our guests finally arrive in New Zealand, they’ll often pop into our office in Queenstown mid-trip, because like us, friendships are so important to them. We love being able to put a face to the voice we hear on the phone before the trip!

A group poses for a photo at Active Adventures HQ.A group of Active adventurers meet Lynette and Fiona at Active HQ in Queenstown.

That hospitality, and the sharing of experiences with new visitors to any of the countries we travel in, are the reasons we love doing what we do. And it’s guests like Andrea Rudolph (recently returned from New Zealand adventures) who help us to remember that: ‘Not only was the scenery breathtaking and the tour well run but our fun loving adventurous group made it even more special. Even the experienced travelers in our group felt it was the best tour they had ever been on. It’s been difficult to settle back into my ’normal’ life after such a life-changing experience.’

We find that guests on our adventures, because they always share common interests (adventure being just one!) really buy in to this idea that sharing the experience makes it so much more powerful. The willingness to be honest and open with one another about your life, and your achievements, and even your regrets, adds another dimension to the experience in a way that we find difficult to put in to words.

Andrea wrote some lovely comments about her South Island Explorer trip the ‘Kiwi’. On top of that she also took the time to write an awesome poetic review about the trip, here’s some of our favourite bits:

Active Adventures had everything planned

For a ‘better than average’ trip to Kiwi land

Our fearless leaders, Rachel and Koru

In every instance knew what to do

prepped us on schedules and weather every day

And tried hard to make us listen to what they’d say.

Koru told myths of Maoris and war

His tales were creative and never a bore

He showed us plants like the silver fern

This land is so varied there’s a lot to learn.

The Hector’s dolphins near the beach were rare

They amazed us by doing flips in the air

At the wildlife center we saw kiwis being fed

And heard how they’re kept safe till they’re bred.

 Braemar gave us bright stars at night

Sharing toilets and co-ed showers was also a delight

We ran through the hills, and drank lots of wine

Singing old songs and jingles, it was divine.

New Zealand is perfect except for the sandflies

Which bite all our legs as they drop from the skies

They even dare follow us into the van

Where we smash them on windows as fast as we can.

I tried really hard to write something clever

To celebrate our group and the best trip ever

Though our journey is over and we’re all back home

We can laugh and remember when we read this poem.

So when our guests return home, from adventures in New Zealand, South America, Nepal, or Europe, they return home with a warm fuzzy feeling that never wears off. And it’s that warm fuzzy feeling, and those unforgettable moments that so often lead to our guests travelling with us again: ‘I’ve spent lots of time researching my next trips. I will definitely go on the Iguana trip. and I will definitely keep checking your website for new trips I can take in the next several years.’ And when those guests take the time to write such amazing comments as the ones Andrea sent us, that warm fuzzy feeling is transferred to everyone involved with Active Adventures, and reminds us all why we love this job.

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What to expect from your Milford Sound Cruise

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Whether you’ve arrived into Milford Sound under your own steam via the Milford Track, or ridden the exciting 950m (3100ft) final descent from the Homer Tunnel to sea level by bus, we’re sure you’ll agree it is a magical place. The scale of the granite mountain faces, the flooded glacial valleys, and the mostly untouched forests, are simply breathtaking. Rudyard Kipling described this place as the eighth wonder of the world; it’s easy to see why.

Mitre Peak and its reflection in the still water of the Fiord.A still day on Milford Sound gives a perfect reflection of Mitre Peak and the surrounding peaks.

So where does the name Milford Sound come from?

Milford Sound has had a bunch of name changes since it was discovered in 1812 by Sealer Captain John Grono, who named it Milford Haven after his home town in Wales. As us Kiwis have become more conscious of conservation, and protecting our Maori culture and influence, Milford Sound became Milford Sound/Piopiotahi in 1998. But wait! There’s more! Milford Sound is actually incorrectly named… A sound is a river valley which has been flooded by the ocean, and just like so much of our dramatic South Island, Milford was formed by glaciers, and so it’s a fiord. This is a popular trivia question, so take note for your New Zealand adventure!

Milford Sound has several permanent waterfalls, including Stirling Falls – more than three times the height of Niagara Falls. And Lady Bowen Falls; a short distance from the wharf area. Seeing as the granite landscape doesn’t absorb a drop of the annual 6,412mm (252in) rainfall, it made sense for Bowen Falls to be used to power the small town of Milford Sound.  It is during the regular periods of rain in Milford when the waterfalls really come alive. Hundreds of new falls cascade down the steep faces of the mountains, and if you catch Milford on a rainy day, why not name your own?

Group of kayaks approach Lady Bowen FallsA group of Kayakers approach Lady Bowen Falls.

Overnight Cruise on Milford Sound

If you choose to take an overnight cruise on Milford Sound, you’ll be choosing luxury, tranquillity, and stunning natural beauty. You’ll board the ‘Milford Wanderer’ mid afternoon and cruise the 15km (9.3miles) out to the Tasman Sea, passing by Lady Bowen Falls, and getting close enough to Stirling Falls to feel the fresh spray from the Wanderer’s deck. As the afternoon fades into the coloured light of evening the captain will drop anchor in a sheltered cove, where you can go exploring with specialist nature guides, either by kayak or in the vessel’s small craft, until it’s time to climb back on board for your carvery buffet dinner and some stargazing with a glass of New Zealand wine.

Milford Wanderer sails the fiord.The Milford Wanderer cruises, under sail, on the fiord.

The next morning we suggest emerging from your private cabin in time to watch the sunrise, it should help to clear your head if you really enjoyed the Kiwi wine! Then tuck in to a hearty buffet breakfast. Your captain will once again point the Milford Wanderer in the direction of the Tasman Sea, take this opportunity to do some wildlife spotting: Dolphins of three different species, New Zealand Fur Seals, and Fiordland Crested Penguins can all be seen at the right time of year in the Sound, alongside New Zealand’s vast array of native and introduced bird life. Occasionally, and most recently in 2016, a pod of Sperm Whales made the 15km (9.3miles) trip into Milford from the coast, marine biologists attributed this to the uncharacteristically low levels of rainfall for that time of year, which in turn allowed Phytoplankton to thrive, the whales’ main food source. If you get to see whales on your cruise you’ll be among a very lucky few – don’t forget your camera!

A seal swims amongst kayakersA New Zealand Fur Seal playing amongst the kayaks.

Finally the Milford Wanderer will return to dock at the wharf, and we’re sure you’ll disembark rejuvenated, full of good food and great memories, to continue your New Zealand adventure.

Highlights of the Overnight Cruise:

  • Full length Milford Sound Cruise.
  • Optional access to a section of the Milford Track (guided).
  • Three course buffet dinner, fully licensed bar, cooked or continental breakfast.
  • Overnight on the Fiord in Harrison Cove.
  • Specialist Nature Guides for duration of the trip.

 Check out our Tui trip, Essence of the South Island, for an itinerary that includes the overnight option.

Day Cruise on Milford Sound

Several of our itineraries involve cruises on Milford Sound, it’s definitely one of the best ways to get out there and do it, to get up close with nature. The day cruise is included in our Weka itinerary, as well as our Kiwi, and Manuka trips.

Several companies operate daytime cruises from Milford Sound wharf, and we always aim to pick the most personal experience for our guests. We like the guys who only allow their vessel to be booked to half capacity, leaving you with plenty of room to chill out, roam around the decks, or visit the open wheel house and have a yarn with the Captain.

The two-hour Milford experience starts with a slow cruise up the left side of the fiord. Your captain will point out hanging forest, permanent waterfalls, and name some of the tallest peaks. The specialist nature guides on board can also help answer your questions about the geology and wildlife.

Once your vessel arrives at the Tasman Sea, the captain will turn her around and head slowly back up the opposite side of the glacial valley. On the return journey they like to point the bow towards Stirling Falls, and give you a chance, if you want, to be drenched by the spray of one of Milford’s highest permanent waterfalls. If there’s rain and wind, keep an eye out for Milford’s waterfalls to nowhere – try and grab a photo of the cascade before the wind blows it away.

A day trip boat points its bow into Stirling Falls.A day trip boat points its bow into Stirling Falls.

We know that Milford Sound is right up there on many people’s bucket lists, and can be the greatest reason our guests choose to come to New Zealand in the first place. We have put together a list below of our trips that include either the overnight cruise, or the day trip. If you’d rather have a workout whilst you explore Milford, check out our Rimu itinerary for a kayaking option, or read our page on kayaking Milford Sound here.

kayakers taking a break on Milford SoundTwo kayakers enjoy a moment of quiet on Milford Sound.

Whichever you choose, know that the majesty of this place is reserved by its remoteness, and that by making the journey to Milford Sound itself, you are experiencing somewhere special, somewhere truly New Zealand in all its rawness, and somewhere that will stay with you long after you leave.

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Best time to go to New Zealand?

You know, it’s going to be great whenever you come to New Zealand, and people will travel here for different reasons. So if you’re coming here to ski, you probably don’t need our advice! Although… for what it’s worth, September is better than July!

That said, this is a question we’re asked A LOT, so we decided to come up with six compelling reasons to travel here at certain times of the year. And the good news is, these periods all fall outside of peak season!

Autumn Colours

New Zealand is green. There’s no two ways about it. You can’t really go anywhere without being confronted with rolling green hills and vast swathes of native forest. Even the waters of the Marlborough Sounds have a stunning emerald green colour. But we’ll not be accused of being so one dimensional! No. Not even when it comes to the colour of our landscape. In addition to the widespread green we enjoy here, there are a couple of areas you can take in shades of orange during our Fall months – Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes District and the McKenzie Country near Aoraki Mount Cook National Park.Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Visit New Zealand
Autumn colours in Arrowtown – possibly one of New Zealand’s best Fall season locations

Cheapest Flights

Contrary to popular belief, New Zealand has more than one international airport. While Auckland airport takes care of most of our international arrivals and departures, there are six other international gateways. Most of which are no larger than the baggage claim area of LAX, but we only like to be grandiose and go over the top when it comes to things like scenery, our rugby team, and hospitality. Other international airports include: Wellington, Rotorua, Queenstown, Christchurch, Dunedin and uncle Bob’s farm shed on the West Coast.

Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Come To New Zealand
Ok, so it’s not an international flight. But the good news is, this flight is free! As part of your ‘Tui’ wilderness experience

Lambing Season

Spring is a great time to be in New Zealand. Every August to October, the 40 million sheep in New Zealand multiply and become quite a few more (sorry – we can’t find the stats on this one). Our green landscape becomes dotted with tiny white lambs figuring out how to walk and follow their mother around the paddock. They’re also dropped in the deep end, so to speak, figuring out how to avoid ending up on the dining room table come Christmas time (roast lamb is especially popular as Christmas dinner in New Zealand). So if you want to see new born lambs before they’re part of the December menu, you’re best to visit in our Spring time.

Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Visit New Zealand
A quintessential photo of New Zealand rural life – taken from Braemar Station, looking directly at Aoraki Mt Cook

Southern Lights

The northern hemisphere has the Aurora Borealis (the Northern Lights) and we have the Aurora Australis (the Southern Lights). Whilst the best time to get a view of this phenomenon (caused by the collision of gaseous particles in the atmosphere) in New Zealand is during our winter months, you should know that we’re actively lobbying Wikipedia to have the “Australis’ removed from the name. Just like all great New Zealand phenomena, Australia tries to steal the limelight. Not these lights though – they’re all our own!

If you’re keen to learn more, we recently bestowed our South Island wisdom on Expedia for their article, ‘Chasing the Southern Lights in New Zealand’, to help those who have taken up the quest of chasing the Southern Lights.

Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Come To New Zealand
One of our Active coaches steeling the lime light on this occasion, on a stary night in the South Island

Rich Marine Life

With over 9,400 miles of coastline, there’re a few fish here. With a small population, strict commercial fishing rules and marine environment protections in place, it’s fair to say there’s an abundance of marine life. No more so than in places like the Bay of Islands, Kaikoura and Milford Sound. During our summer months you’d be hard pressed not to encounter some sort of fish, sea lion or dolphin while exploring our coastline.

Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Come To New Zealand
The marine life in the Poor Knights Islands is incredible, whether you’re snorkelling or diving

Penguin Hotspots

Most people only associate penguins with Antarctica, but New Zealand is home to three penguin species – The Yellow-eyed penguin (hoiho), Fiordland crested penguin (tawaki) and the Little penguin (korora). You’ll find penguins in greater numbers in the South Island from August to February. Take note, seeing a penguin in New Zealand still makes you hear Morgan Freeman’s voice in your head. It’s unavoidable but who doesn’t like Morgan Freeman?

Best Time To Go To New Zealand

Best Time To Come To New Zealand
A yellow eyed penguin, found along parts of the East Coast of the South Island. Cute eh!

See all of our New Zealand Hiking Tours

Why you shouldn’t visit Starbucks when you come to Queenstown

It’s a real shame that Starbucks was allowed to set up shop in Queenstown. If that isn’t a hint as to the bias of this article, I’ll make it even clearer… If you actually do love Starbucks you should probably stop reading now. Or maybe step outside your comfort zone and keep reading, it might change your life, or at the very least it will hopefully encourage you to think twice before visiting the big green monster.

It actually amazes me that there are people in Starbucks when I walk past – I just went outside the Active office, down around the corner to the ‘local’ Starbucks to check, just to make sure they are actually real people inside. The only semi-plausible reason I can imagine for them being in there is the free WiFi (come on Queenstown, let’s get free WiFi in the CBD, then no one will go to Starbucks!)

OK, so let me set the scene a little…

Every year Phil and I travel to America to visit Active alumni, it’s a blast. It really is a fantastic adventure, where we’re able to explore a small part of our guest’s backyards and make sure we have our ‘finger on the pulse’, so to speak. We go out with our alumni on local hikes, we hold evening presentations and sometimes we opt for a good old fashioned dinner and catch up. We cherish these experiences and we believe that a bit of face to face time can really help to forge long lasting friendships.

We both have a knack for spotting the local establishments and we’ll often go out of our way to try and experience a place the way the locals would. We’ll opt for trains and busses over taxis, and local restaurants over chains. One thing we both struggle with though, is leaving behind our beloved flat white coffees. This is where it gets embarrassing. On our recent Roadshow we got sucked into the Starbucks vortex. The vortex that destroys small business and stands for everything we stand against. We needed free WiFi and we needed our double espresso, and once we found out how to order something that was marginally acceptable (a ‘double shot, short latte’) we were sucked in and spat out with bladders full of milk, on a daily basis.

Yes, it’s true, we’re coffee snobs here in New Zealand, I mean over-the-top, delusional coffee snobs. Hell, we’re even sceptical about coffee when we’re in Italy. That’s to say it’s truly a sorry state to find ourselves satisfying our coffee craving at Starbucks. At the risk of generalising, you could sum up American coffee culture as ‘big is better’. What Starbucks did was facilitate the transition from bottomless filter coffee to ‘tastes like milk’, ‘I’ll take a grande please’. To be fair, bottomless filter coffee wasn’t a great option in the first place, but at least it came hand in hand with a quirky, locally owned diner. It’s hard to find those diners these days… Capitalism and the ‘Walmart Effect’ eh.

The good news is, in New Zealand YOU STILL HAVE OPTIONS. We made a terrible mistake when we allowed Starbucks to come to Queenstown, but I’m determined to do my part here and encourage you to get your daily caffeine fix anywhere but Starbucks.

The benefits to you are numerous:

  • You’ll get a better coffee
  • Your coffee won’t be full of whipped cream or fake syrup
  • You’re more likely to be surrounded by locals, not tourists
  • You’ll be supporting a local business

Here are our Queenstown cafe recommendations:

Vudu Cafe & Larder

Vudu Larder Queenstown

Joes Garage

Joes Garage Queenstown

HALO Forbidden Bite Restaurant

Halo Queenstown

Bespoke Kitchen

Bespoke Kitchen Queenstown

Bob’s Weigh

Bob's Weigh Queenstown

That’s just a small selection. Next year on our Roadshow I vow to not visit a single Starbucks. Take on my challenge and don’t visit Starbucks when you come to Queenstown.

Make sure you read our tips on how to order a coffee when you’re here (or ask our guides to help you out!)

5 Adventurous Facts About Milford Sound

Milford Sound is without a doubt one of New Zealand’s most iconic destinations. When you’re dreaming about your trip, everything’s perfect. You see sunny blue skies, snow capped peaks, perfect photographs and a peaceful elegance… and you blind yourself to the possibility of unpredictable weather.

But Milford holds a few secrets that only a local will tell you, secrets that will inspire your sense of adventure.

1. Milford Sound is known as the wettest inhabited place in New Zealand.

With an average of almost 7,000mm of rainfall across 183 days of the year, I wouldn’t rely on getting a tan in Milford Sound. But don’t worry – something incredible happens when it rains…

Kayaking Milford Sound
Kayakers exploring the misty Milford Sound

2. Don’t worry about the weather, the perfect day is rain.

Sure, sunny blue skies are nice for keeping the camera dry, but the true explorer will pray for rain. The enormous granite peaks don’t absorb a drop of water and they have no beaches. The result is thousands of stunning waterfalls flowing straight into the fiord.

Kayaking Milford Sound Waterfall
Front row seats to a spectacular waterfall

3. The ocean is black.

The fiord is hundreds of meters deep, but the rainfall creates a layer of fresh water up to 6 meters deep, which sits on top of the ocean. All this rainfall washes a tannin from the forest, which stains the fresh water, resulting in its unique black appearance.

Kayaking Milford Sound
The deep, black, moody waters of Milford Sound

4. Milford Sound is NOT the Milford Track.

This is one of the most misunderstood facts about Milford. Milford Sound itself was regarded as the 8th Wonder of the World by Rudyard Kipling, it’s a fiord that’s surrounded by towering peaks, lush rainforest and incredible marine life.

The Milford Track is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, and a very different experience to visiting Milford Sound. The hike is absolutely stunning, but the local government allows 90 people on the track each day (50 guided, 40 unguided), so it can get a little crowded. Plus you can only hike it for 6 months of the year, whereas Milford Sound itself is accessible year-round.

Wouldn’t you rather wake up in Milford, sea kayak on the misty fiord as the sun rises, then venture off on a stunning bush hike that’s hidden from the crowds of tourists? I know I would.

The Milford Track
The mountains leading into Milford Sound

5. Save your time researching accommodation, there’s only one place to stay!

Flanked by the Darran Mountains, the Milford Lodge is 2 kilometres from the head of the fiord and it’s the only accommodation available in Milford Sound. If you’d like to splash out, upgrade to the luxury riverside chalets… you won’t be disappointed.

The Milford Lodge
Milford Lodge – Photo Credit @LarssonPhotography

Top 10 Guest Photos 2015

Photo competitions. They’re not necessarily a good thing for an organisation like us to run, because there can only ever be one winner, and we leave hundreds of other people disappointed. But we can’t help ourselves, can we? That’s because it’s just too damn hard to take bad photos on our trips and we’re naturally compelled to share them with everyone. And what’s life without friendly competition amongst family and peers?!

But rather than showcase just the one winner, here’s the top 10, in no particular order, all taken by you guys on our trips in 2015. What a year it was!

We’ll tell you who the winner is also – don’t worry.

1. Aoraki Mt Cook & Lake Pukaki, ‘Rimu’ – Allen Cameron

Aoraki Mt Cook

This is a scene our guides never tire of seeing, no matter how many times they visit the Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. There’s always the butterflies that flutter in your stomach as this landscape greets you. As you get closer, the waters of Lake Pukaki become more radiant and the slopes of Aoraki Mount Cook and the surrounding hills become more dramatic. After passing Lake Pukaki you’ll delve deeper into the National Park and get the chance to hike onto Mueller Ridge, where you’ll experience the most mind blowing mountain views in New Zealand.

2. Hiking Siberia Valley, ‘Tui’ – Bob Secor

Hiking Siberia Valley

You step out of the aircraft that has just dropped you into arguably New Zealand’s most isolated and dramatic wilderness area, and there’s just one way out from there; on foot. The plane takes off again and you realise it’s just you, your fellow hikers and the native birds accompanying you through this area of untouched beauty. Not a bad way to spend a couple of days. Well… technically you’ll get to take a jet boat ride down the Wilkin River as well, so it’s not just hiking!

3. Sand Boarding Te Pouahi Reserve, ‘Kauri’ – Bonnie Mullin

Sand Boarding

Sometimes it’s important to just be a kid again. And what better way than taking an old body board (not intended for anything other than use on the water, but hey – it’s fun!) and sliding down a huge sand dune and getting completely covered in sand? It can’t all be too civilised can it?

4. Swimming with a Turtle, ‘Tortuga’ – Charlotte Sherman

Swimming with a Turtle

If you don’t swim or at least see a turtle when you join us on our ‘Tortuga’ trip in the Galapagos Islands, then there will certainly be something wrong with the space/time continuum and we’ll have to look into getting into another business. Here’s the reason why we called the trip the ‘Tortuga’ – they’re everywhere and you never get sick of seeing them, especially in crystal clear water!

5. House on the Svelte, Patagonia, ‘Condor’ – Dennis Wilson

House on the Svelte

Patagonia has many faces, yes there’s the enormous granite peaks and glaciers of Torres Del Paine and Glaciares National Park, fiords and picture perfect lakes. There’s also the windswept plains dotted with grazing cattle and traditional “Gaucho” farm houses (now with solar power!). You find yourself wondering if you’ve stepped into a time machine.

6. Immaculate Forest Walk, Nelson Lakes National Park, ‘Rimu’ – Donal Rafferty

Immaculate Forest Walk

Can you see the hobbit in the trees in this shot? Well, there is no hobbit but you’ll be forgiven for expecting some sort of ancient creature to walk across the trail as you’re hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park. So no hobbits here, but you’ll probably be greeted by a South Island Robin – one of our most inquisitive native birds. They often peck at the ground you’ve walked on as they know your hiking boots may have opened up some soil for worms!

Skip straight to New Zealand Hiking Tours

7. Machu Picchu Selfie, ‘Jaguar’ – Jen Risser

Machu Picchu Selfie

Check out how happy Jen Risser is, after hiking for 3 days on the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu. We arrive at Machu Picchu super early in the morning before the sun comes up and get ahead of the numerous people who visit the site every day, but when the sun does come out, it shines directly down on the site all day – it’s an incredibly refreshing place to be. The other thing we’ve noticed about this photo is that it’s a reminder of how much of a big job it’d be to mow those lawns, just look at em!

8. Milford Sound Kayaking, ‘Rimu’ – Jim Lane

Milford Sound Kayaking

Believe it or not, photos like this are EXTREMELY rare. Not because it has captured a truly perfect moment in time for Jim and his son Ben Lane, in the world’s most spectacular fiord, but because it’s captured a person in a double sea kayak who isn’t engaged in an argument with their fellow paddler… For that reason, this photo is our winner! Who needs flat horizons anyway…

9. Blue Duck in Repose, ‘Manuka’ – Joyce Barbour

Blue Duck in Repose

Our native Whio (Blue Duck) are known here in New Zealand as the “whitewater duck”, as when they’re spotted, they are often seen riding the rapids in our streams and rivers. They are also extremely rare. Contrary to how it appears in this photo, they do actually have heads, and two legs.

10. Hiking Amongst Giants, ‘AST’ – Marjorie Pilli

Hiking Amongst Giants

Almost there! In this shot, you’re only about 30 minutes from arriving at the Annapurna Sanctuary – a spectacular alpine amphitheatre that has to be seen to be believed. That’s our guide DK in the picture, pointing out the surrounding peaks but clearly not holding the attention of the other guy in the photo. It’s OK – we’re working on his presentation skills… ?

Killing Time in a Backcountry Hut

It probably doesn’t come as a great surprise that around 30% of New Zealand is public land, and a lot of it covered by 18 incredible National Parks. What you may not know, though, is that there are over 950 back country huts throughout the country (accessible to the public). They come in all shapes and sizes with varying levels of ‘luxury’ and charm.

Some of these – the most charming of the lot – date back to the 1800s and are the foundation for our Kiwi love affair with the ‘back country hut’.

There’s so many memories tied up in these huts. So many friendships forged, heroes born and, probably, people conceived! There is a certain routine that happens – it’s a totally enjoyable routine that to a kiwi usually ‘just happens’ without thought – like foraging for dry wood. And in between this routine there’s time to kill and fun to be had.

So we came up with an idea. Let’s break down the routine and also give you a few ideas for how to create uncontrollable laughter and grins from ear to ear, in a backcountry hut (you could supplement that for tea house, tent, refugio and so on!)

Here’s the routine…

Tired legs turn the last bend along the trail, only to discover that it is in fact not the last bend and the trail continues to meander along the valley floor. This goes on for a while until the ‘real’ last bend rewards you with the welcoming site of shelter.

Angelus Hut
And there it is, our home for the night! Angelus Hut in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

Spirits lift and energy comes seemingly from nowhere. Enough even, to scrounge for dry firewood on the approach to the hut.

You ease your pack off tired shoulders, a pack heavier than it needs to be, with a bladder of red wine. You hang up your hiking poles and examine your toes out of your boots. 

Boots at a Backcountry Hut
Boots drying after a day’s hiking

Damp boots and socks now lay resting next to the sizzling wood fire. No one cares about the odor. It’s worth it.

Food is a priority. Everyone chips in – or maybe it’s someone’s turn and you’re lucky enough to put your legs up. At any rate, snacks arrive quick smart.

Backcountry Hut Food
Hut food is the best!

Dinner happens. It’s epic. You look around the room in the aftermath to flushed faces, enjoying the warmth from their hearty meal, their home-made mulled wine and the glow from the fire – your new best friend.

Backcountry Hut Glow
Backcountry Hut Glow

You lie snug in your sleeping bag listening to the old guard wax lyrical with hero stories. In this particular story the old guard was a NYC fireman sharing riveting, ‘real’ stories, better than any Hollywood movie. Rain tipper-tapers on the roof lulling you away to the best sleep you’ve had in ages. 

OK, so all that happens. That stuff needs to happen. That’s basic survival stuff really. Shelter, food, rest. But what about the other stuff. The fun that happens spontaneously. Well, there’s no harm in having a few tricks up your sleeve. Here’s our favourites:

Spoons

This really is a classic, and we’d like to think it’s an Active speciality. And the best part is, you’re guaranteed to have spoons with you (if you don’t, something has gone terribly wrong!). The game is simple really – place a number of spoons on a table (1 less than the amount of people playing) and make sure they’re evenly spaced so everyone sitting around the table can reach one. Grab a full pack of shuffled cards and deal 4 cards to each player. Nominate someone to draw a card off the top of the face down deck so they have 5 cards in their hand – they need to discard one and they’re trying to get 4 of a kind. They’ll discard a card and then pick another – the quicker they do this, the faster-paced the game and the more exciting it becomes. The first person to get 4 of a kind grabs a spoon and then everyone has to grab one. The person who misses out on a spoon is OUT. If you go for a spoon before you’ve got 4 of a kind you’re out. Faking is allowed though, most definitely, as long as you don’t touch the spoon! Here’s a short video of a recent spoons game on an Active trip, in this case not a backcountry hut, but you get the idea!

Star gazing

So you’re going to need a nice, clear night for this. If you’re really lucky you might be on our ‘Winter Rimu‘ trip, relaxing in the natural hot springs at Welcome Flat, on the Copland Track. It’s a dreamy experience to lay under the stars and listen to the natural sounds of the forest, whilst you rest your tired legs. It’s also a pretty special way to bond together as a group.

Star Gazing
Star Gazing from a NZ backcountry hut

Uno

More colourful than your average card game, essentially it’s all about getting rid of  your cards. Each suit has a colour (red, yellow, blue or green) and a number. Like a normal game of cards, you’ll follow the circle around and place a card from the 7 in your hand, onto the pile (so long as it’s the same number OR colour as the previously laid card).  The tactics begin when you change the colour to suit yourself (by laying the same number in a different colour) or by throwing down a ‘wild card’…  Sprinkled through the pack are ‘specialty cards’ which could either mean your neighbour has to pick up another 2, 4 or even 8 new cards to add to their hand, skip their go or switch the direction of play – which may or may not make you some new friends and enemies! Once you’re down to a single card in your hand, you have to shout ‘UNO!’ and the first person to lay down their final card wins. Pick up the pace, add a few more rules to the game and you’ve got yourself an evening of fun as well as a great way to make some new hut-friends (unless you screw them over…!).

Meet the wildlife

Many of our backcountry huts are situated in beautiful alpine environments, so when you visit one of these huts you’ll be sharing your home with the Kea, an endemic South Island parrot. The kea is thought to have developed its own special characteristics during the last great ice age, by using its powers of curiosity in its search for food in a harsh landscape. It’s a highlight for many, to sit and watch as inquisitive Kea fly around the hut. Just make sure your belongings are inside and please don’t feed them!

Kea
Endemic NZ Alpine Parrot – the Kea

Build a dam

Assuming you have some energy left. There’s nothing more satisfying than diverting a stream’s river flow. Even if it’s only for half an hour. Unleash the engineer within and get to work! A dam, with 100% no end goal, is a beautiful thing.

Bananagrams

It’s the “anagram game that will drive you bananas!” If you’re OK about calling out ‘Peel’, ‘Split’ and ‘Bunch’ in a public hut, and judged accordingly, this game is for you.

Look for glow worms

You’ll need a local guide for this. Coerce them into an evening tour and go to find some glow worms. It’s like star gazing but you don’t need to crane your neck!

NZ Glow worms
NZ Glow worms. Image courtesy of nz-trip.com

Whittle a walking stick

So you’ve built a dam and you’ve still got some energy. It must be the middle of summer and the days are long, allowing for extra MacGyver time. You’ll need a good bush knife for this and remember to whittle away from you, not towards your body! Don’t cut down our native tress either, please find a tree that’s already fallen down naturally. A Lancewood would do the trick. Oh, and be careful about trying to take your new walking stick through customs on your homeward journey…

Bush rummy

You’ll need at least two packs of cards for this game and any number of players. It would take a whole post to explain the rules of bush rummy, so you’re going to need a resident expert within your group. Essentially though, it’s based off gin rummy, but once you go past the first round you can place cards down at any time – you don’t have to wait your turn. So like many of the games listed here, it can get pretty crazy!

Country-themed sing along

One of the brilliant surprise elements of a backcountry hut experience is the mix of people you’ll be sharing your evening with. It’s like the fun part of flatting, without the hassle of having to do it day in/day out. You’ll always find some banter, whether it be around sport, politics or pop culture. And if you’ve got a merry crowd you might just get into a good old fashioned sing-along – so bring along a ukulele if you have one (and can carry it)!

Tantrix

We had to include this game – it’s from New Zealand! Tantrix is “the world’s most twisted puzzle game!” So what is it exactly? It’s a hexagonal tile-based abstract game. Huh? There are 56 tiles in a set, each containing 3 lines going from one edge of the tile to the other. The aim is to use the tiles to create the longest line or loop. It’s probably best if you invite Miriam along on your next backcountry hut adventure – she’s our resident Tantrix expert.

Tantrix Backcountry Hut games
Tantrix – we thought you’d need a photo to understand it!

Cards against humanity

If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.