When it comes to playing outside, those Kiwis punch well above their weight. They’ve done a brilliant job of turning their country into an open-air gym, and when the skiing season ends around October, there is what Kiwis call ‘tramping’.
In New Zealand anyone with limbs in reasonable working order can enjoy some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. So assuming you have a few days and some excess energy, which tramp is for you?
Nine routes are officially designated ‘Great Walks’ by the Department of Conservation (DOC). The tracks and huts are kept in better condition than those on other routes, and in peak periods booking systems allow hikers to reserve accommodation. DOC huts are an affordable and comfortable alternative to carrying a tent or paying serious money for a luxury lodge.
Tongariro Northern Circuit. 41km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.
Is there anywhere on the planet quite like this amazing volcanic moonscape in the centre of the North Island? The Tongariro Crossing is regarded by many as the best one-day walk in the country, and in the high season you’ll share it with dozens of others who pour out of backpacker shuttle buses. They’re there for good reason. Barely a blade of grass grows along the track past Mt Tongariro and the pile of volcanic scoria that is Mt Ngauruhoe. Sulphurous smoke oozes out of cracks and the colours of the Red Crater, Blue Lake and Emerald Lakes are extraordinary.
Three or four days walking will take you away from the backpacker hordes, on a circuit past the active volcano Mt Ruapehu, and through areas of lovely forests and streams.
Where: Central North Island
Closest towns: Whakapapa Village or Turangi.
Lake Waikaremoana Track – 46km, 3-4 days, 5 DOC huts
Driving on unsealed roads to reach this remote lake, and remembering its name when asking directions, may be harder than doing the walk itself, an easy loop with only a few lumps to clamber up. But you’ll certainly feel you’ve got away from the crowds, and seen some of the most spectacular old growth forest on the North Island. It’s apparently a great fishing spot too, though I’m no expert there.
Where: Central North Island
Closest town: Wairoa
Queen Charlotte Track 71km, 3-5 days, 6 DOC campsites and a number of lodges.
The Queen Charlotte is not exactly a wilderness walk, since it passes through attractive farmland as well as forest, but it has the advantage of great flexibility if you don’t have the time or inclination to walk the whole route. Highlights are the great views of Queen Charlotte Sound on one side and Kenepuru Sound on the other.
Access is from Picton by ferry or water taxi, so day walks on the track are easily organised. By arrangement, water taxis will also take your gear to the following night’s lodge or campsite, so wussy trampers need only carry daypacks. The track can be walked year round, but is most popular in the summer.
Where: Northern tip of South Island – the Marlborough region
Closest town: Picton
Routeburn Track 32km, 2-3 days, 4 DOC huts.
The Routeburn can be done as a guided walk staying in commercial huts, with showers, food and wine available, but it is also well served with DOC huts. It’s a spectacular and relatively easy alpine trek (consequently very popular), and can be combined with two more days on the slightly tougher, less well-maintained and less busy Caples Track or Greenstone Track to make a loop walk.
Where: Mount Aspiring National Park, central South Island
Closest towns: Queenstown and the lovely village of Glenorchy on the end of Lake Wakatipu.
Kepler Track 60km, 3-4 days, 3 DOC huts.
The Kepler Track in Fiordland was opened to take some pressure off the very popular Milford and Routeburn Tracks. The track being relatively new is in excellent condition, and the alpine scenery is brilliant. The tramp begins with a solid 850metre climb from Te Anau to the Luxmore Hut, but after that the walking is comfortable, and the descent into the forest by Iris Burn Hut is particularly beautiful. We did it during a light snowfall and the effect was magical. Probably my favourite of the Great Walks.
Where: Fiordland, south of the South Island
Closest town: Te Anau. The route is a circuit beginning and ending in the town itself.
Abel Tasman Track 52km, 3 days, 4 DOC huts
Walking the coastal Abel Tasman Track is not too demanding, and the route offers beaches and a range of accommodation from camping to up-market lodges. If you want to combine a day of sea kayaking with a couple of days walking, this can be arranged. Another two days of (harder) walking will take you over the higher Inland Track to make a loop with the Abel Tasman.
The track can be walked year round, but is crowded during school holidays in January. Best times are probably February-May.
Where: Northern coast of South Island
Closest town: Nelson
Milford Track 53km 4 days No camping permitted. 3 DOC huts for independent walkers, and separate huts for guided groups.
Number one on many trampers’ list of New Zealand hikes is the famous Milford Track, though I confess it’s one Great Walk I’ve never done. I’m sure it’s beautiful, and others speak highly of it, but I’ve been slightly deterred by its very popularity. Advance bookings are essential, which means no flexibility in case of bad weather, though guided tours with up-market huts are also available for those who want more creature comforts in the evenings.
Where: Fiordland South Island
Closest town: Te Anau.
Hikers using DOC huts need to bring their own food and sleeping bags, but the huts offer gas stoves and bunks. There are toilets and cold water, but generally no showers. Arrangements are pretty communal, but that can be a plus. You meet nice people, all in high spirits and excited about what they are doing.
Buy hut passes on-line (website address below) or at DOC visitor centres in towns before beginning your walk. Costs are different for each route, and are cheaper in the low season, but are between $12- $45NZ (about $10-$35) per person per night.
Safety and weather
The weather, particularly in the alpine areas, can turn nasty at any time of year. Good footwear and wet-weather gear are essential, and a bit of physical condition will help to make your tramp a pleasure rather than an ordeal.
When to walk
In the winter, the alpine routes (Tongariro, Routeburn, Kepler and Milford Tracks) can turn into serious mountaineering adventures, suitable only for very experienced and well-equipped parties. Best times to walk are October to May.
In good weather, fit trampers can do the walks in fewer days than those given above, but what’s the hurry?
Read: Tramping in New Zealand Jim Dufresne, Lonely Planet Publications
Website: www.doc.govt.nz (search site for “Great Walks”) gives information on all walks and operates an accommodation booking service.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney