Hibernation is for bears - get out there and soak up the winter wonderland, writes Thomas Bywater
The days are getting shorter again, and somehow longer. New Zealand's front-loaded calendar makes much of the summer season, with March to September all but written off. This is a mistake. The milder, mellow mornings and crisp winter walks capture Aotearoa in a different light.
It is half of the year that doesn't get nearly its fair share but all that is about to change.
On June 24 next year New Zealand gets its first midwinter public holiday to observe the Matariki. Te ao Māori realises that midwinter isn't something to hide away from indoors. It's about heading outdoors, looking up and appreciating the moment when days are at their shortest.
Resist the urge to hibernate. Here are New Zealand's 10 top wilderness areas, best served cool.
Seaward Kaikōura Ranges
You can enjoy the snow-capped Kaikōura Ranges without ever leaving your car on the wintery State Highway 1.
Cruising alongside the "whale superhighway" there is a chance you'll be joined by some of the local wildlife. It is in the colder months sperm whales and humpbacks are on their way to the Kermadecs and the Cook Islands.
The scenic drive is only half the fun. Leave your car for a bracing walk along the peninsula seafront. Or for more of a challenge and a higher vantage point, Mt Fyffe is a moderate eight-hour return, which can be tackled all year round.
Seaward Kaikōura Ranges
Milford and Fiordland National Park
Eighth wonder of the world, and No 1 by rainfall, Milford Sound is the wettest place in the country – though no less wonderful. Rain is just part of the experience
However, few people realise that June to July are the dryer months. The cooler months also offer fewer sandflies - an added bonus. The drive through the Te Anau Downs and Eglinton Valley is transformed by the autumn beech forests.
Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park
Sir Edmund Hillary's training ground for the Himalayas, midwinter the Mt Cook/Aoraki park is an exotic snowscape. Ahead of you, Mt Cook is transformed into Annapurna. Much of the national park is off-limits to anyone without suitably honed mountain skills, however the Hooker Valley Track is the perfect way in for those not heading to Everest. Dodge the snowdrift on duckboards and suspension bridges that help navigate the terrain.
Te Paki Recreation Reserve / Cape Rēinga
The "Winterless" North may just be a slogan. Even Northland gets a few degrees chillier, however the northernmost tip of the country enjoys midwinter days to make a Southland summer envious. Take a dip in the reliably warm waters of Spirits Bay or make a pilgrimage along the Aupouri coastal track to Te Rerenga Wairua. The approach shows a different side of the Lighthouse, and the point where New Zealand disappears into the sea and souls depart for Hawaiiki-A-Nui.
Te Rerenga Wairua Lighthouse Walk
Egmont National Park
Maunga Taranaki is magnificent on crisp winter's day - but don't be tempted to climb it. Treacherous in colder seasons, the mountain is also at its when best viewed from afar. Trails throughout Egmont Park offer new vantage points, as day walks or tramping tracks along the Pouākai Range. Visit the goblin forests on the Kāmahi Loop Track or go up to the snow line on the Maketawa Hut Circuit, which DoC says is "a good overnight tramp for families with children and new trampers".
Maketawa Hut Circuit
Aotea/Great Barrier Island
Auckland's timeless summer island, Aotea closes down for winter. The cutesy pop-up tourist kiosks go into hibernation. However, there's plenty to be found on off-grid Great Barrier, even in the offseason. Brave the brakes for some surfing, or snorkel in the chilly, gin-clear waters. Bring a wet suit!
As New Zealand's first dark skies island sanctuary, the scenic Mount Heale hut is the perfect midwinter vantage to welcome Matariki.
Karamea and Kahurangi National Park
The West Coast's a backdoor to the tropical top of the South Island. White-sand beaches and palm trees bring a touch of winter sun to your outdoors tramp.
It is also home to the Heaphy Track. Winter is mountain-biking season. Between May and November, the Great Walk welcomes cyclists to take on the trails on a two- three-day ride.
Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park
Carving through the bottom of the Coromandel, from the Thames estuary to the Bay of Plenty, the Kaimais are a treasure trove of winter walks and gold mining history. Seize the opportunity to for a crisp day out in the Karangahake Gorge and Wairere Falls. Or, link some of the tracks and backcountry huts for a longer winter adventure.
Notoriously unpredictable Tongariro Alpine Crossing becomes even more so in winter. Freezing temperatures and avalanche risks make the route inaccessible to anyone but alpine guides. But elsewhere in the central North Island, the snow can be an attraction rather than a hazard. From the Whakapapa village, the Whakapapaiti valley walk and mighty Taranaki Falls routes offer alpine scenery and mountain views.
Since the kauri dieback disease scare, many of the West Auckland trails have been closed for more than a year. Over autumn and winter, 11 tracks in the Waitākere Ranges will be reopening following upgrades to make them safe to use and reduce the spread of tree diseases. Aucklanders can head out again for day walks and enjoy the bracing Te Henga Walkway coastal route. Check with the Auckland Council website for track details.
Extra layers, extra care: Winter wilderness safety tips
DoC's Land Safety Code applies when planning your trips outdoors, especially in the colder seasons. Follow these five tips for safe and enjoyable expeditions.
1 Choose the right trip for you
Plan ahead and pick a route to match your outdoor abilities, as well as interests.
2 Understand the weather
Understand and respect the fact that weather changes. Make plans for all conditions.
3 Pack extra layers and food
Prepare for bad weather and an unexpected night outdoors.
4 Share your plans and take ways to keep in touch
Let someone know your plans and details of your trip, taking a beacon can save lives.
5 Take care of yourself and each other
Rest together and stick together while outdoors as a group.