New Zealand's Great Walks
James Lowe introduces the Great Walks, a collection of classic Kiwi trails that showcase the amazing diversity of New Zealand, hands down one of the best walking destinations on the planet.
From all over the world, travellers flock to New Zealand for its hiking. It is a national pastime that has even garnered its own phrase, Tramping. But what happens when some tracks become so popular that they can no longer sustain their visitors?
The Kiwi solution was the 'Great Walks' a set of highly managed tracks containing some of the most breathtaking scenery the country has to offer. These tracks offer exploration into wild and varied terrain, each with its own wow factor. The tracks are managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC) who manage bookings, provide wardens in the huts and have rangers in visitor centres to offer information and advice. In total ten tracks have now been designated as 'Great Walks' and they draw thousands of visitors a year. For many they offer a straightforward ticklist, but are often more than even a single trip can handle.
During my own trip I managed to sample four in their entirety, and sections of two others. The landscapes were often mind-blowing, crossing unique and fragile environments and offering glimpses of the extensive scenery beyond. Yet often the tracks were busy, the trail itself tame and the trips complicated by booking systems and trailhead logistics.
So, are the great walks worth it? In a word: definitely.
The Ten tracks are spread geographically across New Zealand. Three are in the North Island, six in the South Island while the final track is on Stewart Island, the lesser known third island at the country's southern tip.
The Three tracks on North Island are very distinct from one another. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a journey through volcano country made famous by Mt Ngauruhoe which performed as Mt Doom in 'The Lord of the Rings' film trilogy. Lake Waikaremoana is a huge stunning lake where the track is operated by the local Maori tribe. Finally the Whanganui Journey (pronounce a 'Wh' as an 'f') is not a walk at all but instead a kayak journey down the mighty Whanganui River.
The Tongariro Northern Circuit
50km, 2-3 days
Tongariro, New Zealand's first National Park, is Volcano country featuring the three diverse shapes of Mt Tongariro, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Ruapehu. The circuit crosses the passes between the three cones and forms a circular route.
From its start in Whakapapa Village, a ski village, you enter an ever changing environment from the initial tussock lands, to a climb up through ever bleaker volcanic terrain to arrive at the 'Tongariro Crossing' with its unique (and highly noxious) Emerald Lakes. These sulphur lakes are one of New Zealand's most sought after sights and you will likely find yourself joined at the Crossing by hundreds of other tourists undertaking a shorter day hike, the most popular in the country. Timing your arrival at the crossing for the most secluded time is an ambition of many trampers and it is unfortunately true that the hordes at the crossing can spoil its incredible beauty. Try to arrive early or late!
Undertaking the full circuit offers the opportunity to see many of the other wonders on the track. It provides time on the climb to the crossing to stop and marvel at 'Red Crater' and enjoy the truly barren volcanic wastleland after the tramp diverges from the day hike. This terrain is stunning in its quiet brooding seriousness. You are acutely aware that the volcano above you remains active and while no eruptions have occurred for a number of years this adds to the drama of the trip. With sufficient time a trip to Taranaki Falls or the Tama Lakes offer additional interest.
Top Tip: Go lightweight and undertake the trip in two days. Contrary to the above description, head anticlockwise and take your night at Oturere Hut. Make an early rise and arrive at the crossing before the crowds arrive and have this wonder all to yourself.
35km, 2 days
While Lake Taupo is larger, more accessible and better known, the remoteness of Lake Waikaremoana makes it an exciting prospect to visit. Access to the beginning of the track is a battle in itself with a minimum of 30km of gravel roads required. Given that the track is already remote, set out on the east coast, by the time you arrive at the trailhead you already feel cut off.
The track itself is currently somewhat of an unknown entity. In the last five years the ownership and running of the track has been handed over from the government to a joint venture with the local Maori tribe following a long and complicated negotiation. As part of this the National Park in which Waikaremoana resides, Te Urewera, became recognised as a living person with its own rights. The changeover in the running of the track is still in flux and some track infrastructure is already entering some measure of disrepair. The tramp, which takes in 35km of the lakeshore, explores the wonders of Te Urewera's ancient forests and has spectacular views from the high point on Panekire Bluff. To make the most of a visit to the track, immerse yourself in the changing nature of the park and take interest in the Maori beliefs and culture that will shape its future.
Top Tip: Try not to visit with preconceptions of a typical tourist track. The infrastructure is sure to change and the guidebook may be out of date. Travel to Te Urewera with an open mind and learn about the ancient and spiritual Maori culture.
Beyond the Cook Strait lie seven more tracks full of adventure. Abel Tasman and the Heaphy explore the diverse environments of the north-west. The Paparoa track traversing from the west coast inland has only just recently been opened after years of work. Fiordland offers dramatic wonders and will be top of many hikers' lists. Meanwhile a short ferry ride further will drop you at Stewart Island, home to copious quantities of mud and incredible birdlife.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
50km, 3 days
Featuring some of New Zealand's most beautiful beaches, the Abel Tasman is the most popular of all the Great Walks. With a number of huts, numerous campsites and water taxi services available at numerous stages, the track boasts a large amount of flexibility.
The track itself is extremely well formed, providing a smooth surface that means many walk the track in approach shoes. While the path sticks to the coast those who have experienced Britain's coastal paths will be wary. The path regularly climbs in and out of numerous coves which makes the journey tougher than might be imagined. The bonus is the regular reward of an ocean swim and relaxation on the golden beaches. The only drawback might be that some will find the journey monotonous. An option many instead choose is to take a kayak along the coast before returning via the track, giving a more varied outing.
Regardless of how you undertake the track just make sure you arrive at Awaroa Bay for the low tide crossing or you will be left with a long wait and feeling very foolish (I stand guilty as charged).
Top Tip: Hire a kayak and take it along the coast before arranging its collection and hiking back to the start. This gives you the opportunity to see the coastline from both angles. Take plenty of time to stop and enjoy the sea!
Set on the weather-challenged southwest tip of the South Island, Fiordland is New Zealand's true wilderness. The glacier formed fiord landscape is something to behold and draws many day tourists who marvel at the views. The majority of the park is dense forest, steep cliffs and in places is known for its intense mud. Luckily, the three Great Walks within the park avoid this mud and make for spectacular journeys. The caveat that comes with trekking in Fiordland is the weather. The area is famous for its seven plus metres of annual rainfall. Be prepared to get a little bit wet!
The Milford Track
55km, 4 days (mandatory)
This gem of a track has received the 'most beautiful walk in the world' moniker on more than one occasion. The wilderness here is so fragile that the number of trampers allowed onto the track is highly regulated. This is enabled by the fact that the track is highly remote, with boats required to reach both of the trailheads. In many ways this only adds to the mystery of the track and makes it quieter than other Great Walks.
The greater frustration for many fit and able hikers is the requirement to stop at each hut on the track. This means the days are relatively short and there is no option to skip huts and save on costs. With three huts and two boat journeys you're already at $520 before you've even arrived at the track. Why would anyone do such a thing? The reward is a breathtaking experience. The track is simple, climbing up one valley to a saddle and descending into the next. However both valleys pack a punch. With short days, there is ample time to take in the variety of side trips, often giving access to stunning waterfalls and swim spots. At the high point of the track, Mackinnon Saddle, the vista may well blow your mind with the Fiords diving away into the distance.
The end of the track then deposits you at Milford Sound, where coach loads of tourists will be arriving to ogle at Mitre Peak and perhaps take a boat out into the sound. A visit to the Sound is a New Zealand bucket list item but there is really no comparison between the experiences of arriving with the hordes versus an epic journey along the track.
Top Tip: The days will be short on this trip, so take plenty of time to enjoy the scenery on route and take plenty to entertain yourself with in the afternoons/evenings.
The Kepler Track
65km, 2-3 days
Beginning only a short drive outside the tourist town of Te Anau and being a circular track, the Kepler is the most accessible Great Walk in the South Island. It begins with a lakeside wander before 'The Luxmore Grunt', a winding 1000m climb through the forest. Shortly before Luxmore Hut you emerge above the bush line and the hut hosts some of the best porch views in New Zealand. Beyond the hut you stay high, taking in ridgelines and a short side trip to the summit.
It is unusual in New Zealand to spend so much time above the bush line and that is really what makes this walk special. The high ridges allow you to peer deep into Fiordland as well as back across to the many other mountain ranges you will have passed on your journey to the track. It feels unfair to leave the ridgelines and commit yourself back to the forest for the remainder of the track. You are left with a long walk out of over 20 miles, and while the terrain is friendly with only minor undulations it is unwise to expend all your energy getting over Luxmore.
The two further huts down in the Valley offer a number of options for how to split up the journey. Meanwhile there are a number of campsites on the track which can be easier to book. The simplicity with this track compared to many others is its circular nature, and while there are water and land shuttles that will shorten the journey you are best to save your money for other tracks. While walking the track in two days may seem like a stretch, active hikers will find it no trouble. Some even do the track in a day when the summer months offer long daylight hours. That is not to say this is advisable, the track is long and inescapable and you risk a fine if you don't complete the journey in your pre-booked time frame.
Top Tip: If pushed for time, forego the entire track and take a day trip up and down Mt Luxmore where you are rewarded with the best of the views.
The Routeburn Track
32km, 1-2 days
The shortest Great Walk - but don't be fooled. This is a real trip of two halves, and often hailed as the ultimate alpine walk in the country.
The Routeburn side of the track features smooth paths, and beautiful waterfalls and lakes. Reaching Harris Saddle the landscape quickly changes, with the path becoming more rugged and views opening up into the Darrans, New Zealand's most dramatic mountain landscape. Just reaching the trailheads is in itself a pleasure with the views around Glenorchy and down the Eglinton Valley providing highly scenic drives. The issue is that the trailheads lie five hours' drive apart. Many will opt for one of the car moving services who will transport your car to the finish, while there are also a number of shuttles that will return you to Queenstown.
Top Tip: Go lightweight and complete the trail in a day, having arranged for your car to be transferred to the Divide which will place you perfectly for exploring Fiordland
- The Whanganui Journey – A kayak and not a tramp, a magical journey down the mystical river.
- The Rakiura Track – Set on Stewart Island, a remote wildlife paradise. The classic great walk is a short journey on boardwalks but the 10 day Northern Circuit offers a more epic (and very muddy) adventure to make the ferry to Stewart Island worthwhile.
- The Paparoa Track – The newest Great Walk which has been purpose built and is set to open for the 2020 season.
- The Heaphy Track – The longest great walking threading its way through the forest to reach the sea:
- Unfortunately you'll have to fly to NZ, but you might consider offsetting the CO2 - see carbonfootprint.com
What it's like
My own experience of the walks was different to many. As a long distance fell runner I was regularly attempting to complete the tracks in a single day. This was unusual as all the tracks are over 30km and take most parties multiple stages. However, the reason that many of the tracks were possible in such a timeframe was the well-built nature of the trails. Many of the climbs are well graded, the forest trails cleared of roots and rocks and all the tracks are extremely well signposted. Therefore, depending on your fitness level it is entirely possible to walk the tracks in a shorter timeframe than the one put forward by DOC or the guidebooks. That is not to say that this is preferable, many tracks have multiple side trips often to impressive lakes, waterfalls or lookouts. Active hikers will however find no trouble with the climbs, they often cover more elevation than their British counterparts but are far less steep and rocky.
How long you choose to take on the track will likely depend on your own preference for down time. It will depend if you want to have a long lunch break, regular photo stops and socialising time in the evening. Instead you may be more inclined to have longer 'epic' days out taking in a range of scenery and to save your money on huts or campsites for future trips. If doing so The DOC website outlines the tracks, side trips and accommodation options in significant detail, giving plenty of planning potential before you head on your trip.
Where to stay
The key element is your accommodation choice. The Great Walks huts are typically made up of alpine bunks with mattresses, a large cooking and communal eating area with gas stoves, a cold water supply and toilets. Huts do not provide hot water, showers or meals although they do have a warden present during the season. Bookings for huts and campsites open before the summer tramping season even begins (remember in the Southern Hemisphere the seasons are reversed). Huts will then sell out at the rate of Glastonbury Festival tickets. It is therefore key to forward plan and decide on which walks you would like to undertake in advance. While some cancelled booking will open up places during the season these will again be quickly snapped up.
Huts on the Great Walks are expensive, beginning at around $30 - a lot considering what is on offer in comparison to their European counterparts. However, due to a desire to make tracks more accessible to Kiwis, the price of some huts was doubled for international visitors to a pricetag of $140 a night. This was just a trial system for the 2018 season on four tracks but this is likely to extend to other tracks in the coming years. The cost of campsites is significantly cheaper ranging from $14 - $40 although this obviously makes the journey a more difficult task as a tent and cooking gear must be carried.
Transport and logistics
Unfortunately getting to and from the tracks is often an issue. Only three (Tongariro, Kepler and Stewart Island) of the tracks form a circular loop. The rest are point to points with often a significant distance between trailheads. While hitchhiking is common in many areas of New Zealand the remote nature of many trailheads mean this is not an option for most tracks. Instead a number of commercial services must be utilised to return to your vehicle at the start point. This includes land shuttles, water taxis and a number of key drop services that will transport your car for you. These services all add to the cost and time associated with these trips. The Routeburn Track for example is only just over 20 miles long yet it is a five hour drive between the two trailheads!
The logistics and the cost all sound very doom and gloom but that is an unfair representation of the tracks. Just one of these trips is likely to be the highlight of travels around New Zealand. It is however important to understand what is involved in the trips so that you can plan for them appropriately.
Safety and planning