New Zealand Geography

New Zealand Geography

Unique NZ Geography

When all the dangerous cliffs are fenced off, all the trees that might fall on people are cut down, all of the insects that bite are poisoned... the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.    - R. Yorke Edwards

The best places in New Zealand lie beyond the road end. They are beyond the popular tourist routes and beyond the visitor information centers. They are beyond the guidebooks and beyond the information channel in hotel rooms.

New Zealand's unique geology and geography make it challenging to experience the wilderness. By taming the wilderness with highway tracks and hotel huts, tourism operators have managed to be able to provide a consistent, safe and easy means for people to visit the back country.

But some people are searching for something beyond travelling in large groups with other tourists. We believe there is a better way. We are dedicated to the quality of your experience, not the quantity of people we can put through. To understand what we do at Wild Walks it is helpful to start at the beginning, the land.

Hiking in New Zealand is very different than anywhere else in the world. To understand the hiking here, you first have to realise the role that water plays. The Southern Alps stick up out of the Tasman Sea over 10,000 feet, and when warm, water laden air from the tropics is pushed along by the prevailing winds, the first land it runs into is a massive chain of mountains - the Southern Alps. As the air is pushed up over the mountains, the water is squeezed out of it. The result is rain accumulation of over 6 meters a year on the western side of the mountains. Once the air crosses the divide it expands and dries out, leaving areas on the eastern side with only a fraction of the rain fall. So the land must shed itself of huge amounts of water, 100-150mm (4-6 inches) of water in a storm is not uncommon.

The mountains in New Zealand are very young, they have not had the time to wear down like the Rockies or the European Alps. These mountains are still lifting, and the loose sedimentary rock is constantly shifting. Land slips are a common occurrence. Small land slips or even whole mountain sides collapse into the valleys with frightening regularity.

Geographically, this combination of large rain events and sedimentary rock, results in a land of deep valleys and gorges. The fast moving water carves into the mountains leaving deep gorges and depositing large amounts of sediment into the valleys.

When heavy rain occurs, the rivers rise very fast. For example, in North America water which falls on The Grand Teton has nearly two thousand miles to meander its way to the ocean. Water falling on Mt Cook makes the same vertical distance to the ocean in 20 miles (32 km). This is a land covered in waterfalls and fast flowing rivers. The Clutha River which drains Lake Wanaka is a short river by world standards. But by volume of yearly discharge it is the 12th largest in the world.

The rainfall also has its effect on the vegetation. Below tree line the mountains are dense temperate rainforest. The lush undergrowth of ferns, shrubs, mosses and lichens is unique. On the eastern side of the range the under growth is relatively easy to walk through until you gain altitude into the tight sub-alpine scrub. This vegetation belt composed of Olearia, celery pine and Dracophyllum can be soul-destroying bush bashing.

Most tracks follow well known large river valleys which offer access into the mountains due to the flat alluvial path. These valleys are characterised at their beginnings by broad grassy flats which are usually grazed with sheep and cattle. As the valleys progress inland they narrow and tracks are mostly in the forest. River crossings are largely confined to established bridges since crossings are deep and hazardous.

The early settlers found that huts were indispensable for prolonged wilderness travel. When the weather was bad only some form of hard shelter provided any relative comfort. In heavy rain situations the ground water can not shed fast enough. A tent can find itself sitting on a pool of water even on well draining ground. For this reason huts have always gone hand in hand with tracks. Nearly all tracks in New Zealand have huts. At one time land owners maintained huts to provide shelter for shepards. With the advent of helicopters and four wheel drives, many of these privately owned huts have fallen into disrepair.

The terrain changes once the head of the valley is reached,. Tracks can no longer follow the narrow drainage bottoms and they must deal with the steep side hills. Intense rain results in very unstable ground and many land slides. Tracks must avoid unstable areas since washouts account for a large number of backcountry rescues. The over steepened loose rock which the washouts leave behind can be treacherous, particularly if there is a raging river at the bottom. Small side streams which are usually dry can suddenly rise and be impassable.

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