Climbing high, staying low, then taking the chopper out (Young-Siberia Valleys Trek, South Island, New Zealand)

Published: February 26th 2010
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(Day 682 on the road)Before I tell you about the cheapest way to go heli-hiking in New Zealand, let me share two thoughts about the (mostly) wonderful comments I receive on my blog.

One, I would like to thank every single person who takes the time to leave a comment: Thank you! Comments are really what make the blog special and unique to me. So please keep them coming - praise, criticism, or just to say hello - anything is welcome. I try to respond to all comments I get, so make sure you leave your email address (it will not be shown to anyone but me)!

Second, I have been somewhat surprised by the number of negative or even offensive comments I am getting from some New Zealanders about my New Zealand blog entries. As with all places that I go to I write about the good and the bad, voicing my opinion, writing as I see things, trying to give a balanced account of my experiences and impressions. No country or place is perfect, so inevitably I am bound to highlight a few critical issues every now and then. But I am astonished just how worked up some Kiwis get when my blog is not always full of praise for their country and its people. The last time I encountered people that were so easily offended was during my travels in China in 2008 (where I even received a death threat at one point). So, my dear Kiwis, take it easy! You have a stunning country with wonderful and super-friendly people, rest assured. And please, no threatening or abusive comments (as happened a few times now), which I delete anyway.

But on with the actual story. From Arthur's Pass I took the coastal highway down via the two famous glaciers Franz Josef and Fox. I stopped at each of them and did a few walks, at Franz Josef quite a bit onto the actual glacier itself. There were lots and lots of guided tours all over the place, who are charging about NZ$100 per person (50 EUR) for a half-day walk - pretty much the same walk as I did on my own. With an average of ten people in a group (and one or two guides) that's 1000 dollars for half a day's work with almost no costs to the company other than the salary of the guide and a small booking office in town - crazy! And I saw at least six groups during my two hours on the glacier. I must remember this type of business for the future.

Driving further south across countless one-way bridges over little rivers with names like Cemetery Creek or Sheepskin Stream, I reached Makarora, the start of a three day trek I was about to do. The pattern was familiar by now: Up one valley (Wilkens), over the saddle at the end of the valley, then return via the next valley (Siberia).

I almost had to turn around before it even started however: There was a big river to ford right at the beginning of the hike. I spent a while looking for the best spot to cross, but even so the icy water already reached my chest and I wasn't even halfway in at that stage. Once my backpack was submerged in the water the drag from the strong current increased dramatically, and I was nearly swept away. There was no way I could cross that river, and I was forced to turn back. After trying for another 30 minutes or so I was just about to admit defeat and give up when three kayakers came along. How lucky for me in this remote spot! One guy ferried my backpack over to the other shore, and I held on to the back of another kayak and the guy rowed across, me swimming behind. I was wet to the bone and ice-cold, but I was across!

After a rest in the sun and a complete change of clothes I walked true to the old hiker's motto of climbing high and staying low for the next three days - which was just as well, as the weather at the top of the saddle was extremely cold and windy: I was wearing my long underwear, hats, gloves, and was still shivering.

In the morning of day three I was in for a special treat, and that was the main reason I had done this trek: There are two companies running expensive day trips in the area for tourists with more money than time (and/ or hiking ability). They fly people into the Siberia Valley by helicopter or small plane, the customers walk for a couple of hours, and then they are ferried back to town by jet boat. Now, as these helicopters and planes are only flying people in, they both offer cheap standby return rates, NZ$40 for the plane and NZ$50 for the helicopter. I went for the chopper of course, and I guess it must the be the absolute cheapest way to ride in a helicopter anywhere. It was a wonderfully scenic flight from Siberia Hut where I had spent the night to where I had parked my car. The only frustrating thing was the fact that it had taken me two full days of walking to get there and that it took the helicopter a mere 15 minutes of getting me back to where I started.

Finally, a few entries ago I posed the questions if the strong nationalism here in New Zealand was healthy patriotism or if there was a slight foreigner-phobia shining through. Now, a few weeks later and through a number of encounters, I have come to the conclusion that quite a few New Zealanders are not too fond of tourists, and are not afraid to voice their dislike either. That's pretty strange when you look at how important tourism is for the country (2009 figures): International tourists accounted for 9%!o(MISSING)f GDP (NZ$15 billion), with 2.5 million international tourists in 2009. They spend an average of NZ$125 a day, or NZ$2800 during their stay in the country. They also support 185.000 full-time jobs, 10% of New Zealand's total work force. But maybe 2.5 million visitors per year are just too many tourists for the country to cope with, considering that there are only four million Kiwis around. And having said all that, the vast majority of people I have met here are some of the friendliest I have come across anywhere - even the ones that seem quite annoyed by the high number of tourists.

So here are a few experiences of mine what Kiwis think about foreigners, in pretty much random order: The ranger at the Department of Conservation (DOC) at Arthur's Pass who started his explanation where I could ho hiking with the words "Basically, tourists are stupid". The woman at the tourism information office who told me that Search & Rescue operations should not be free to foreigners (they are free to anyone who needs rescue), "because foreigners don't pay any tax". A lead article in the magazine of the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ (FMC) that made a very narrow-minded case that huts should be more expensive for foreigners than for New Zealanders. The DOC ranger who told me that she couldn't understand that facilities in New Zealand cost the same for Kiwis as they do for foreigners. The newspaper that called freedom campers "filth". The Kiwi hikers I was chatting to who said they like foreigners, and then added that they are not happy however when they get to a hut at the end of a day and find the hut full of foreigners. Or the omni-present "Kiwi-owned" advertisements I mentioned earlier.

All in all, I think as beautiful New Zealand is, this resentment of foreigners would make it very hard for a non-Kiwi living here to ever fully integrate. On top, the country is pretty far from anywhere else really - weekend trip to Paris anyone? Also, a combination of low income levels (even for professional jobs) parred with a relatively high cost of living means living standards are lower than in many other developed countries. Over the last few months I have heard quite a few people saying that they would like to live here. I wonder how these people would fare if they did move here at one stage. However, for travelling and especially hiking in the just stunning mountains here beautiful New Zealand is pretty hard to beat.

Next stop: Rees-Dart & Cascade Saddle, Routeburn and Capler Treks (Mt. Aspiring & Fjordland National Parks, South Island, New Zealand).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


26th February 2010

Hallo Ben, ich finde den Blog super. Habe Dich so lange nicht gesehen und bin so hautnah dabei. Echt cool. Deine Fotos sind einfach genial und Deine Erzählungen sind echt spannend. Mach weiter so :-) Gruß
26th February 2010

NZ'ers in general aren't prone to sugar-coating their opinions like other more prominent western cultures seem inclined to doing, which can have the side-effect of coming across more negative than they may necessarily feel about a subject. I'd say that in general, NZ'ers would be more inclined to ambivalence than dislike towards tourism. Plus it seems you're getting your opinions from people who are most likely to harbour negative views on tourism since they're being more directly impacted by tourists then the average person.
26th February 2010

I am waiting....
I will be interested to see the comments you get on this one Ben. I didn't experience this bad feeling towards foreigners when I was there, albeit I wasn't in the country anywhere near as long as you have been. I hope that it's not typical. On the issue of fees, I think it would be crazy to introduce split tariffs with higher rates for foreigners and would penalise those coming from countries like Taiwan, with whom NZ is improving visa offerings to try and encourage reciprocal tourism. But this could be a case of what the government want and what the people want being in conflict as 2.5 million tourists must make quiet an impact. But surely without the income from tourists the DOC wouldn't be able to support the infrastructure of trails, lodges and huts that local people benefit from too? Tourist income versus impact will always generate a lively debate. Keep blogging.
26th February 2010

Tourists ARE stupid =). And man, if 1 out of every 3 people I met in the place where I live and work were on vacation, I'd be annoyed at them too. Where was your very warm Mt. Ruapehu coat on top of those passes?
26th February 2010

yes Judy, tourists are indeed stupid :-) Oh, and the nice warm jacket was in my car - great, um?
26th February 2010

I've enjoyed reading your blog and your photographs are simply exceptional.
27th February 2010

Mt Aspiring National Park
Hi. How are you? Thank you for the wonderful pictures you take, which I can only behold and hope some day I can have the courage to travel and trek mountains like you. What will I do if there are no people like you? :) Anyways, may i ask what is that chimney like smoke on the North Central Area of the picture. I notice there is a limiting plateauic atmospheric pressure as the smoke is emitted. Is that a smoke? and why is it so black? is that a volcano spew? Thanks.
28th February 2010

great blog
Hi Ben, Just catching up with some of your latest entries. Thanks for some great pictures and stories. I am impressed with your trekking ability, I am looking forward to summer here where i might be able to do a couple of treks. Safe journey. AL
28th February 2010

I have to say I spent 7 weeks in New Zealand and found them one of the most friendliest nations I have been too. I couldn't go into a shop to get a bar of chocolate without coming out with a map or some bit of advice from a local behind the counter. I never had any negativity towards me as a tourist but maybe I was lucky. I have to say I found them slightly racist which is kind of along the lines of what you are saying. I hope it improves for you Ben! Love the blogs.

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