Hiker's paradise. Walk unspoiled, uncrowded trails through New Zealand's breathtaking natural beauties

IT was a crisp, clear late-summer day, the kind of day when Dad says, ``Get your stuff together, we're going to the park''; the kind of day that produces five-mile traffic jams in Yosemite and Yellowstone; the kind of day that gives park rangers extra work. As we left Wanganui early in the morning on our way to Tongariro National Park -- the most visited park in New Zealand -- we pondered those long traffic jams, packed trails, and strained facilities. So far we had not encountered any crowds at all -- but perhaps that was because we had been caught in five days of rain on the west coast of the South Island. Now, we were on the more populous North Island, heading for Mt. Tongariro in the center -- an easy half-day drive from Wellington in the south or Auckland in the north.

On the 130-kilometer (about 80-mile) drive from Wanganui to the National Park, with barely an intersection marked with a gas station and signpost, we played leapfrog with a camper, a van, and two other cars. So much for traffic jams. Another all-but-deserted 18 kilometers took us to the park headquarters -- although we did have a five-minute stop to let a herd of cattle cross the road.

We learned later that New Zealand gets about 500,000 overseas visitors a year -- about the same number Walt Disney World sees in one week during the winter. The most popular tourist attractions, the national parks, lakes, thermal areas, and other natural wonders, get a peak of 1,000 or so visitors per day.

Total population of the country is only about 3.1 million, about the same as South Carolina, but the large land area leads to a population density of only one person per 21 acres. Moreover, better than half the population is concentrated in the three major cities -- Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch -- so the countryside is sparsely populated indeed.

At the visitors center, a huge map shows a network of trails ranging in length from 3 to 50 kilometers (2 to 31 miles). The recommended time to hike the longest, the Tongariro Traverse, is four days. Huts and shelters are found about every 25 to 35 kilometers. The hut fee is NZ$2 (US$1.10) per night per adult. Camping is permitted around the huts.

Prevailing moist westerly winds influence the climate of the park, which can be described as extremely variable. Frosts occur throughout the year in the higher elevations, and temperatures in the summer average 55 degrees to a maximum of 75 degrees F. No month can be described as the wettest, as most are wet.

We chose one of the shorter tramps, the Taranaki Falls Walk, about 6 kilometers long. The track starts in an area of open tussock and manuka shrub lands with patches of beech forest. Along the way, we were treated to excellent views of the symmetrical cone of Ngauruhoe Volcano, and the older, more eroded mountains of Tangariro and Pukekaikiore.

After entering the mountain beech forest, the track follows several streams. A gradual climb brought us to a broad lava flow, most of which is covered with red tussock. The far shoulder of the lava flow is at the top of a high cliff that affords a fine view of Mt. Ruapehu, Taranaki Falls (from above), and distant farmland. After a steep descent we came to the base of the falls, where the Waiere Stream spills over a 20-meter (66-foot) cliff into a pool ringed with boulders. The track then follows the stream, passing the upper and lower Cascade Falls. The forest here consists mainly of large mountain beech trees, shiny broadleaf, mountain five-finger, umbrella ferns, and small tangle coprosmas.

As the track emerges from the forest, it crosses a series of eroded gullies created by wind, rain, and frost action on the volcanic soil. Emerging from the last patch of bush, the track passes again into red tussock, leading back to Whakapapa Village and the visitors center.

It was a pleasant 2-hour tramp, more varied in terrain, perhaps, but otherwise typical of many walks that beckon hikers and naturalists throughout the country. Brochures describing area walks are available from public-relations offices and motels in nearly every town in New Zealand. For example, in Greymouth, a small town on the west coast of the South Island, are found no fewer than 12 walks, ranging from a 15-minute bush walk around Blaketown Lagoon to a half-day tramp along the Point Elizabeth Track.

The latter walk leads you through a wind-swept coastal forest, across a stretch of exposed limestone, where you can hear nothing but the pounding surf of the Tasman Sea, to a lookout at Point Elizabeth. From there you get a marvelous view of snowcapped Mt. Cook and the Southern Alps. The track then skirts the beach, follows an old mining road through the Rapahoe Scenic Reserve, and finally leads you back to the Greymouth Road.

Most of the tracks as well as the huts are maintained by the Department of Lands and Survey or by the New Zealand Forest Service. Some towns and villages maintain local walks. We found the trails well marked and reasonably well maintained -- on a par with the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The flyer for each track specifies the distance, approximate walking time, and degree of difficulty.

New Zealand has no snakes or other dangerous animals, so trampers need have no worry on that account. The country does, however, boast a large number of unusual native trees and plants that add beauty and variety to any trek.

On the more popular tracks, the huts can be crowded at times, particularly during the December and January summer holidays. Before setting out on some of the longer tracks, you may have to register with the Forest Service. This is a safety precaution and is well advised on any track where you expect to spend more than half a day. Also, on some of the longer, more difficult tracks you may be required to travel in a group.

If you are seeking some of the finest scenery in the world, the friendliest people, and the exhilaration of the out-of-doors, head on down to New Zealand. Practical information

Commercially operated walking tours that provide a guide, food, and guaranteed space in the huts are available on several of the longer tracks. The most popular walk is the Milford Track. Other commercial tours on the South Island include Hollyford Valley near Milford Sound, the Routeburn Walk in Mt. Aspiring National Park, and the Abel Tasman National Park Guided Walk.

Only one guided walk is offered on the North Island, the Te Rehuwai Safari at Urewera National Park near Rotorua. Prices for these guided walks are relatively modest. For example, the Milford Track (5 days and 4 nights, the last being in a resort hotel) costs NZ$550 (US$297) and the Routeburn Walk (4 days and 3 nights) costs NZ$320 (US$175). For information, contact New Zealand Tourist & Publicity, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1530, Los Angeles, CA 90024; (213) 477-8241 or 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 530, New York, NY 10111; (212) 586-0060 or the Milford Track Office, THC Te Anau Hotel, Te Anau, New Zealand. Some dos and don'ts in New Zealand

Do go to New Zealand as soon as possible as the US dollar is particularly strong against the New Zealand dollar.

Don't take dressy clothes. New Zealand is a casual country and you'll want comfortable clothes suitable for the out-of-doors.

Do plan to visit New Zealand for at least two weeks, preferably three or four. It's a diverse country, and it's hard to get a good feel for it in a short time.

Don't waste much time in Auckland. It's a big city, relatively expensive, and not really typical of New Zealand.

Do try to stay several nights on a farm. You'll find it's the best way to meet the locals; moreover, you'll probably get an outstanding meal featuring local specialties.

Don't be afraid to try exotic fruits and vegetables; you'll find a taste treat in passion fruit, feijoas, kumaras, and, of course, kiwi fruit.

Do try tearooms for a light lunch. Best bets are the homemade quiches and hearty soups. ``Mince'' pies are usually made from mutton and not to American tastes.

Don't tip. New Zealanders don't and they don't expect you to tip either.

Do buy what you want when you first see it. Prices don't vary much throughout New Zealand but selections do.

Do talk with New Zealanders; you'll find them remarkably well informed about world affairs and extremely friendly.

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