New Zealand has a vast network of spectacular walkways and tracks providing access to unique wilderness areas and virgin rain forests.
Energetic hikers (or trampers) can discover glacier-carved valleys and traverse mountain passes, while more sedate day-walkers can explore golden beaches, bush walks and other sites of scenic, historic and cultural interest.
About one third of New Zealand’s sparsely populated land has been set aside in national parks or reserves for the enjoyment of the public and increasing numbers of eco-tourists.
While opportunities for exploration exist all over the country, nine destinations are recognised as significant and have been designated ‘Great Walks’ by the Department of Conservation (DOC).
Apart from the coastal Abel Tasman track in the north of the South Island, the tracks are in high country or mountain areas. Ranging in duration from two to six days, the tracks cover a variety of landscapes on safe, well maintained pathways.
All tracks offer guided tours for which bookings are essential. Accommodation is generally in basic huts or lodges, but some guided talks offer luxury options. The high season starts in October (late-Spring) and lasts until April (early-Autumn).
South Island Great Walks:
Five of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’ are in the South Island; a sixth is further south on Stewart Island.
The Milford Track in Fiordland – New Zealand’s largest national park – is the most famous. Visitors spend four days / three nights following historic Maori routes through a dramatic landscape of forest-covered valleys, mountains and steep fiords from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound. For this much demanded route, bookings are necessary well in advance, for both independent and guided walks.
The Routeburn Track, another famous South Island track, has some of the most diverse scenery: forests, alpine flora, lakes, several waterfalls and panoramic views. The three-day trek covers 39km (24 miles).
The Kepler Track follows a loop that begins and ends at the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre in Te Anau. It takes four days and traverses lakeside forest and open tussock grasslands, with one day spent walking along the mountain tops above the bush line.
Wilderness explorers wanting to experience the ‘end of the earth’ head for Stewart Island, New Zealand’s southernmost and least populated island. The Rakiura Track has the most birdlife, least predictable weather and conditions but planked walkways keep feet dry and ensure the three-day walk is possible year-round. It has gentle gradients – never more than 300m above sea level – and two huts provide accommodation.
The Heaphy Track, in the northwestern corner of the South Island, has undemanding gradients over 80km (around 50 miles).The walk takes about five days. The track is accessible year round, but winter snows can make the higher sections chilly. Attractions on the Heaphy Track include the nikau palm-lined beach at its western end, red tussock downs, lush beech forests and fields of alpine herbs.
Abel Tasman Coastal Track
The Abel Tasman Coastal Track, at the top of the South Island, only requires light walking shoes for the 50km (31 miles) route lined with miles of golden beaches. Along the way, five huts and 21 campsites offer accommodation, but transport has to be arranged from one end or the other.
North Island Great Walks:
Three ‘Great Walks’ are in the North Island: Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Waikaremoana Track and Whanganui Journey. Each offers a distinctive landscape and challenges for energetic walkers.
Tongariro Northern Circuit
The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a loop track of three to four days, starting and finishing at the foot of Mount Ruapehu. Few places equal the drama of this active volcanic region with its lava formations, tussock grassland, fumaroles and geysers, and emerald green mineral lakes – the setting for the scenes in New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Altitude and climatic conditions mean the Tongariro circuit is best walked from late November to March. The Tongariro Crossing – one section of the circuit – is one of New Zealand’s most renowned day walks.
Lake Waikaremoana Track
Lake Waikaremoana is situated east of the central volcanic plateau, in one of the North Island’s most remote regions. The 46km (28 miles) track encircles the lake, providing a four to five-day walk. Apart from one day climbing a steep bluff, the track follows a leisurely path through rainforest.
Included as one of New Zealand’s ‘Great Walks’, the Whanganui Journey is more correctly a 145km kayak or canoe journey down the Whanganui River. Beginning in Taumaranui, this journey takes about five days to complete and provides an early New Zealand history experience. For hundreds of years the Whanganui River was an important Maori route; later, in early European settlement days, it became a steamboat highway. The winding river and surrounding lowland forest are now a national park.
New Zealand’s sparse population and huge wilderness areas mean that most walking tracks are remote from many of the comforts of civilisation. Facilities at the 900 huts maintained by DOC are basic, and walkers need to equip themselves with adequate food and clothing.
Weather conditions can change rapidly, especially in the mountains, and it is essential, even in summer, to carry warm, waterproof clothing. No hike should be undertaken without consulting a detailed guide book and a map.
For any of the ‘Great Walks’, a pass is required for accommodation in huts, but permits or admission fees are not required for day walking. Passes are issued by the Department of Conservation.
There are day walks through areas of unique flora and fauna in many New Zealand regions.
The Coromandel Peninsula – two hours’ drive south of Auckland – offers forest and coastal walks. The virgin rain forest that once covered much of the peninsula was heavily logged in the late 19th century, and visitors can see the remains of enormous dams and tramways used to transport logs of the giant and much-prized kauri trees. The regenerated forest is spectacular and the coast has isolated bays of exceptional beauty.
Day-walkers not wanting to leave the city far behind can set out from Auckland with a map of the Waitakere Ranges which fringe the western city. These tracks skirt high cliffs and cross wild beaches of black sand.
In Kahurangi National Park – in the northwestern corner of the South Island – the Oparara Track offers 31km of pathways through virgin rainforest and access to a series of spectacular limestone caves, home to some of New Zealand’s unique fauna and flora.
Further south, Central Otago’s Rail Trail is a unique recreational facility preserving an important part of New Zealand history. The 150km section of old railway route has been redeveloped for walkers, cyclists and horse riders who can enjoy the unique Central Otago scenery and experience the South Island’s remoteness and history.