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First trip to NZ (2 weeks in Dec/Jan)

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Hi everyone-

I'm looking for suggestions for my first trip to NZ, Dec 2014/ Jan 2015. I'll be going during peak season, I wish I could go during a quieter time but schedules won't allow it.

My travel companion and I will be arriving in Aukland and leaving from Christchurch, so we plan to see both islands. I've read that most people have rented a car separately on each island and ferried across, but we're open to flights if this will save us time.

We are both looking for a nature-centered trip, ie neither of us is too keen on spending a lot of time in the cities, nor the wine country (sorry but we have plenty of that back home). Ideally we'd like to explore some quiet beaches on the north island and do some backpacking in the south.

Given time constraints and overall peak tourist levels, thoughts on the following?
I'm between the Milford Track and the Routeburn Track in the south... and is booking this doable given the time frame?
I'd really love to incorporate both a kayak trip in Whanganui and the Tongariro crossing in the north...
Any suggestions on quiet beaches?
What are the restrictions on bringing our own camping gear from home? I heard gear has to clear inspections upon arrival? Is that an iffy prospect? Would we be better off renting gear in NZ?

Thanks all for your help!
E

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