Backpacking in New Zealand


Last weekend we went backpacking (or tramping as they call it here in New Zealand) with one of Tom’s co-workers, Jens Dietrich, and his two daughters Xiomara (age 12) and Keira (age 8). Jens is from Germany and was there as a young adult when the Berlin Wall came down. He and his family have lived in Namibia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, as well as Germany.

Because we had three pre-teenage girls with us on this particularly weekend, we chose a relatively easy and short hike into the Ruahine Forest and made plans to spend the night at the Alice Nash Memorial Hut.

The Hut system is a prominent and well-utilized lodging program run by the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Huts were built in the remote parts of the backcountry as a place for hikers and campers to spend the night. Built mostly by tramping and deer stalking (hunting) clubs and typically include sleeping bunks or platforms, a fire stove, countertops and kitchen sinks for cooking and of course an outhouse. They can range in size from sleeping four to sleeping 30 or more, and they essentially serve two purposes: first to provide an enclosed place to stay free from the bugs and the weather elements, and second to reduce the impact that free or non-designated camping can have on the land (fire rings, human waste, etc.). The price to stay at a hut runs from about $10-$15 for non-serviced or non-staffed facilities to $20-$35 for those that are staffed and/or serviced. Users purchase hut tickets from any of the I-site information centers across the country, and at some huts reservations are required.

Linda & Maddy on the Deck

Linda & Maddy on the Deck of The Alice Nash Memorial Hut.

The Alice Nash Memorial Hut is located in the Iron Gates area of the West Ruahine Mountain Range, about 70 kilometers northeast of Palmerston North. The hut was built by the Manawatu Deer Stalkers Association in 2007, thanks to a significant contribution from the family of the late Alice Nash. The original lodge on the site burned down in 2005.

On this particular weekend, it rained for a good portion of our travels up to the hut. The forests are green, lush and dark due to significant foliage and moisture. Upon arrival, we discovered there were three separate groups there: a family of five with three children and three individual deer hunters, one of whom had shot a small red deer earlier in the day. Needless to say, there weren’t enough beds for everyone, so Tom and Jens slept outside on the deck. Thankfully Maddy and I got to sleep indoors on the upper deck of the sleeping platform with two young girls who were there with their brother, mother and grandmother, all of whom were from a small town called Bulls.

Despite being strangers, all of us gathered together after dinner and played cards, and all six children (ages 8-16) had a good time. Of course, it got dark around 6:30 pm and without electricity or candles (we only had headlamps), we all retired to bed around 9:30pm. That led to everyone getting up and out of bed around 7:30 am the following morning to a bright, beautiful, clear and cold day. We built a fire, drank lots of coffee and had oatmeal and granola bars for breakfast. We then pulled together our packs and headed out around 11am.

Down the Trail

Tramping in the Iron Gates area of the West Ruahine Mountain Range.

Our destination was to some glow worm caves in the area. Glow worm caves are all over the North Island of New Zealand, and many of them are unknown or off the beaten track. Some, such as the Waitomo Caves, about four hours northwest of Palmerston North, are quite accessible and commercialized. Unique to New Zealand and Australia, glow worms are the larvae of a fungus-feeding gnat.  Similar to a mosquito, glow worms use a self-produced light to attract small flying insects into a snare of sticky threads that hang about six inches from the maggot that clings to the roof of a cave or the overhang of an embankment. They live in dark, damp places where the wind does not blow so they can construct their traps. In a dark cave, glow worms appear like the stars in the night sky.

We found the remote glow worm cave about 30 minutes south of the Nash Hut. We kicked off our hiking shoes in exchange for flip flops (or jandals as they call them in NZ), climbed down an embankment, and walked upstream, around a dead and rotting possum (gross!), and under an enormous overhang of solid rock into the cave. It was really cool, but the lighting was too bright to see the glow worms.

The Other Side of the Cave

Glow Worm Cave.

Following our weekend’s adventure in the woods and as is custom for our family, we stopped at a restaurant in town called Breakers Café, and ordered up some burgers and fries. Boy, were they delicious! We had a wonderful weekend and got to spend some time with others, which has been rare on this trip. I guess that’s one thing that I really like about Missoula. You are only a stranger there for five minutes! Missoulians are so warm and welcoming and are extraordinary in reaching out to newcomers and inviting them in. I appreciate that characteristic of our city even more now.

Our time in New Zealand is winding down as we look to return home at the end of the month. We have traveled a great deal and visited as many places as we could, wandering out nearly every weekend to some destination. However, there are so many places we haven’t seen. Like Montana, New Zealand is big country!




Linda McCarthy has served as Executive Director of the Missoula Downtown Association since 1999. Prior to that, she served as a Sports Information Director for Grizzly Athletics for 10 years. She is a two-time graduate of The University of Montana, where her husband, Tom Gallagher, is a professor in the Applied Computing and Electronics Program at Missoula College. Her daughter, Maddy Gallagher, is an outgoing and kind 11-year-old who has spent all of her school years at Lewis & Clark Elementary. They can be reached via email at: