I spent 4 months in New Zealand in the winter of 2008/09. My main activity was hiking and I did all nine Great Walks and many day hikes. NZ is a wonderful place to travel with an excellent hosteling system and it’s a great place to hike. The DOC (Department of Conservation) maintains over 900 huts and at least 55 tramps (overnight backpacking trips) along with many day hikes. Their web site, doc.govt.nz is easy to navigate and everything can be organized online. Hut backpacking means no tent, sleeping pad, or stove (this varies with some tramps) but bring along good ear plugs for the snorers and large bunk rooms. When camping the huts are completely off-limits so there is no haven from rain or the sandflies.
I used the bus system to travel and thus had to hitchhike to many day hikes. A car definitely will increase the number of sites you can see. A car left at remote trail heads is a target for vandals and foreigners driving on the left hand side are involved in a disproportionate number of accidents. Several great walks are not loops and returning to your car often means backtracking. I mailed my excess traveling gear along to my next hostel 3 times for very cheap rates avoiding long return drives.
After landing in Auckland, I took the ferry through the Hauraki Gulf to Coromandel Town. The Coromandel Coast Walk is a three-hour one way trek along very pretty coast. The best way is to drive to the north end at Fletcher Bay, camp or stay in the hostel and then hike the trail down and back to make a great day. One of the icons of NZ, also on the Coromandel Peninsula is Cathedral Cove, best at low tide. Near Thames, in Coromandel Forest Park is the Pinnacles, a 71/2 km one way trip to the height of land in the center of the peninsula with panoramic views. Do this as a day hike instead of staying in the massive 80 bunk Pinnacles Hut.
The Great Walks are theoretically the nine best tramps in the country. They have better trails, signage and bridges, theoretically the nicest scenery, and nicer huts, but heaps more people. Some diehards refuse to go near them because of the crowds and there are lots of other hikes. Most kiwis avoid them as they don’t like the fees. My goal was to do all nine. Three are in the north island, the Tongariro Northern Circuit, Lake Waikaremoana, and the Whanganui Journey (actually a river trip).
Tongariro National Park is a World Heritage site, has a fantastic volcanic landscape and contains the Tongariro Crossing, the most popular day hike in NZ with up to 1000 hikers per day in peak season. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 3 or 4 day, 50 km tramp that goes around Mt Ngauruhoe – Mt Doom of Lord of the Rings. Instead of starting at Whakapappa Village, I, like most trampers, skipped the first uninteresting 9 km and like all doing the Crossing, started at Mangatepopo Rd. Shuttles to the beginning and end are widely available from all the surrounding towns. This alpine tramp passes unique craters and volcanic formations, emerald-green lakes and has an optional 3 hour climb of Ngauruhoe. Weather can be severe and snow, wind and cold are common. The available huts are day1 – Ketetahi or Oturere Huts, day 2 – Waihohonu Hut and day 3 exit at Whakapappa Village.
The Whanganui Journey is a river trip not a walk but is still one of the great walks. The beginning is SW of Tongariro and explores a section of the 329 km long Whanganui River, the longest navigable river in NZ. Most trips end at Pipriki. The 5 day trip over 148 km starts at Taumarunui, the 4 day trip over 125 km starts at Ohinepane and the 3 day 88 km trip starts at Whakahoro (this is what I did). The scenic canyon has a thick podocarp forest and ferns and an easy hike to The Bridge to Nowhere. This was my and my Swiss companions first time in a canoe and the class 2 rapids produced lots of excitement. There are many outfitters who rent single kayaks or canoes complete with systems to keep everything dry (I used Yeti Tours and was happy). After doing 2 great walks, I was now on a mission.
The only other great walk on the north island is the 42 km Lake Waikaremoana tramp. This lake is almost the only lake in the north island not of volcanic origin and its multiple bays are the result of a landslide blocking 5 creeks. This is not a loop hike so a shuttle must be arranged and one can start at either end. I took 3 days and with a choice of 5 huts, be sure to spend at least one night at the Panekiri Hut high on the ridge 532 m above the lake. This walk goes through a magnificent mature beech forest dripping with moss.
There are many day hikes in the north island. At Cape Reinga, hike to the most northerly point of NZ or do a 5 hour trek to Cape Maria van Dieman, the western most point in NZ. Stay at the excellent Kahoe Farms Hostel (superb pizza) and hike on a private trek on the farm to kauri dams or to Duke’s Nose. The short hikes to the large kauri trees in Waipoua Kauri Forest are a must. Around Whangarei are short hikes to Abby Caves and AH Reed Kauri Forest. At the end of my holiday on a 10 day kayaking trip, I hiked the length of Motukawanui Island in the Cavelli’s and around Moturua Island in the Bay of Islands. I spent 5 days in Auckland at the very end and cycled through many marinas (Auckland has more boats per person than anywhere else), to St Heliers beach and over to Devonport. I spent most of one day doing the Coast to Coast Walk that traverses Auckland from south to north. There are great views from One Tree Hill and Mount Eden. The highlight hike and the most difficult on the north island was the 1600m climb of Mt Taranaki (Mt Fuji in Last of the Samurai), a perfect volcanic cone. Views of the entire area were spectacular.
Six of the great walks are in the South Island. From north to south are the Abel Tasman, Heaphy, Milford Tract, Routeburn, Kepler and Rakiura on Stewart Island.
The 51 km Abel Tasman is one of the most popular great walks. Every permutation and combination of water taxi, kayaking and day hiking is possible in this over commercialized park. This is the only tramp I camped on so carried a tent, sleeping pad and stove. Avoiding the crowded huts and some camping areas for isolated beach camping was worth it. This was basically a walk in the woods with occasional hiking on a beach. We swam every day in the cold ocean. On the first two days one passes hundreds of day hikers. Recommended beaches for camping are Te Pukatea Bay, Tonga Quarry, Awaroa Bay, and Mutton Cove (the last possible camp to do Separation Point and catch the shuttle at the Wainui car park at 11:20 am).
In the one day off between the Abel Tasman and the Heaphy, I hitchhiked to Farewell Spit and did a tremendous 3 hour hike out along the spit, across the dunes to Fossil Point and then along the cliffs to Wharariki Beach. This hike was at the limit of flip-flops. I also mailed my tent and sleeping pad to my cousin in Auckland as I planned on staying in huts from now on. The sandflies were getting progressively worse and I was looking forward to carrying less weight. Sandflies are actually a small black fly similar to, but smaller, than the small black fly we get in the alpine. They don’t bite when you are moving but can be merciless with a predilection for your feet and ankles.
The 82 km Heaphy Track crosses the mountains ending on a spectacular walk along the ocean. Taking 4 days, I stayed in the Perry Saddle Hut (climbed Mt Perry for sunrise and great views of Farewell Spit and Taranaki), James McKay Hut (can see 20 km down to the ocean from the hut) and Heaphy Hut. Many added a fifth day by staying in the Saxon hut between Perry and McKay. The last 17 km along the wild west coast just inside a mature nikau palm forest was one of the highlights of NZ.
Karamea is a worthwhile place to stay in order to make a trip out to Honeycomb Caves with their moa bones and hike to the two large limestone bridges. Continuing down the west coast, a long day walk is the 27 km Inland Pack Tramp near Punakaiki. It goes up the scenic Pororari River and descends the spectacular Dilemma Gorge and Fox River arriving back at the highway 12 km north of Punakaiki. There is a hut 19 km into the hike. Going on a guided hike (or helicopter or plane ride) up either the Franz Josef or Fox Glaciers is a must for most travelers (one I easily avoided). Instead I climbed Mt Fox, a grueling 8 hour day to views (rarely available through the clouds) of the Fox Glacier. This hike is recommended only for masochists. South of Fox is the scenic Copland Track, a 17 km climb to Welcome Flat where there is a hut and hot springs. Most stay 2 nights day hiking up to the Douglas Rock Hut in the middle day.
Arthurs Pass is between Greymouth on the west coast and Christchurch on the east coast in the southern alps. Avoid the train trip as it is expensive and has identical views as the bus. After a short day hike to Devils Punchbowl, Avalanche Peak at Arthur’s Pass is a must. With panoramic alpine views very reminiscent of the West Kootenay and a flock of keas (only alpine parrot in the world) to keep you amused, this is the premier day hike on the south island. In Christchurch, a great hike is the climb of Cavendish Mt with stunning views and great hikes along its length. Then walk down the other side to Lyttelton (try to time it for the wonderful Saturday morning market). I then went back over the mountain to Sumner and its fantastic beaches. This was a very long day in flip-flops. Many people recommended going to Banks Peninsula with the French town of Akaroa and the private 35 km Banks Peninsula Tract.
I was lucky to obtain my permits for the Milford tract by going online daily for months hoping for a cancellation in the right time period. The Milford books out usually in July and is the only one that must be planned long in advance. With that one booked, I made my bookings on the other premier walks in the south island, the Routeburn and the Kepler. Queenstown, the adventure capital of NZ (with many ways to separate you form your money) is the access point for the Routeburn and I mailed my travel pack on to the hostel in Te Anau so that I would not have to backtrack. This 3 day, 32.1 km tramp is popular as it leaves the trees for the alpine for one whole day (most walks in this country are in trees and can get tedious). The Routeburn Falls Hut (no camping allowed) has tremendous views and is right below a series of falls and gorges with great swimming. On the second day, I was hiking before sun rise, in the cool, to get over Harris Saddle and climb Conical Hill, with its panoramic views down to Harris Lake, the Hollyford Valley, Darran Mountains and the Tasman Sea. The third day, from Lake Mackenzie (nice swimming) to the divide, passes the 80m Earland Falls and climbs Key Summit. Instead of finishing at the Divide, many people continue on and do the Greenstone and Caples track right after the Routeburn.
I was then in Te Anau five different times as it is the base for most adventures in Fiordland. I went on an overnight cruise to Doubtful Sound, a multiarmed 47 km long fiord southwest of Te Anau that was very nice. The 60.1 km Kepler track is a loop that begins in Te Anau itself. Many skip the walk from town to the control gates and the 4 kilometres along the lake by taking the $25 water taxi across Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay. The first hut, Luxmore, has enormous views of Lake Te Anau and beyond. The second day follows an exposed ridge with top of the world views all day ending in a knee crunching descent. The walk out on the third day is in trees with many trampers bypassing the Moturau Hut and catching the shuttle at Rainbow Reach, 11 km from the control gates.
The 53.5 km Milford Track has been billed as the greatest walk in the world. I wouldn’t go that far but it is a wonderful trek and I believe the best Great Walk with the continuously best scenery of any great walk. Camping is not allowed and all 40 people move together each day. People book this in July so most were older, more likely to be Kiwi or American, less experienced and this was their only tramp. It is expensive with total fees of $270 to cover the bus trip from Te Anau to Te Anau Downs, the boat trip to the end of Lake Te Anau, $45/night for 3 huts and the boat ride at the end from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound. The first day includes the bus and boat ride and it is only an hours walk to the Clinton Hut. The second day follows the Clinton River (clear green water with fish and eels) through a sheer walled valley, a few permanent waterfalls, and hundreds of dry watercourses hinting at what this place must be like in rain. Rocky glacier scoured granite knobs and peaks often had small clinging glaciers. Day 3 is the alpine day over MacKinnon Pass. After big views around to the surrounding peaks and down to our days destination, the trail descends beside a mountain creek with multiple waterfalls and pools. A must is the 1 hour detour to the huge 580 m high Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in NZ. The last day follows the river and passes several very pretty waterfalls before catching the boat. I finished the day with another NZ icon, a Milford Sound cruise. The drive back to Te Anau passes through some of the most stunning mountain scenery in the world.
With 8 down and one to go, I was keen to get on with it. The day after finishing the Milford, I took the bus to Invercargill and Bluff and then the ferry to Stewart Island. After a quick lunch I started day one of the 3 day, 36 km Rakiura Track. Its first and last days are the same as the 8-10 day Northwest Circuit where virtually everyone sees real kiwis (nobody else in NZ has ever seen a kiwi). Day one follows the nice coast with many pretty beaches. Day 2 crosses the peninsula on heaps of boardwalk and stairs. After another walk in the woods on the last day, I caught the afternoon ferry back to Bluff. Then it was through the Catlins and up the east coast of the south island stopping in Dunedin (Tunnel beach is nice), Oamaru, and Kaikoura to see all the wildlife before heading home.