Share this page on: 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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
With Nancy’s permission, we’d like to share a note she sent to us, after her ‘Tour du Mont Blanc’ trip with Active Adventures Europe in June. It really sums up why we do what we do! Hopefully it helps to motivate you for your next adventure trip. Thanks for sharing Nancy!
“Hi Phil. I’m back home, suitcases unpacked and hiking boots put away for the next trip. Seems like the trip was months ago, until I look at the calendar and see that it was just two weeks ago that we said our goodbyes and set out in the van to Geneva.
Reflections on the trip are still sinking in, but this I know: The trip was everything we hoped for and more. We took a (calculated) leap of faith when we signed up for the Mt. Blanc circuit, new trip, new company (although we had long decided to go with you guys to New Zealand when the opportunity arose.) You’ve put together a really fine team, and seem to know in your bones what people like us look for and need on a trip like this. Good humor, fun, seriousness of purpose when serious things arise. And above all, responding to each traveler’s particular needs and challenges.
I will be ever grateful to you, Andy and Jean-Marc for seeing me through to the end of our incredible journey. The hiking was harder on me than I had expected (maybe altitude, I don‘t know.) But at the end of the eight days of hiking, I felt such a sense of accomplishment in having made it the whole way. And I did it with your support, your patience and your watchful eyes. There was one day when I was tempted to just head to the van, and I just knew I’d regret it. It was a proud moment, indeed, for me to stand with the group in the park on that last night knowing that I had contributed to us all completing the circuit. I saw just this morning that you had awarded me the trip hero. Thank you, thank you, and know that I know I did it with lots of help!
So, cheers. We’ll hope to see you if get up this way next year, and will be looking for our next trip with you guys. Keep in touch. Nancy.”
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
HALO Forbidden Bite Restaurant
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.
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 happenswhen it rains…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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…
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)!
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.
Cards against humanity
If we need to explain this game, you’ve been hiding under a rock.