Destinations

The Walk Line: New Zealand’s Great Walks

From snowy mountains and alpine forests to coastal and volcanic landscapes, GREG DIXON take a hike through New Zealand's Great Walks.
New Zealand Great Walks - the best hiking tracks in New ZealandGetty Images

As I scrambled up the rough track to the top of Conical Hill, the swirling cloud parted, uncovering the Hollyford Valley below me, before snatching it from view again.

Even with the temperature falling from the raw breeze, and without my pack, left at the Harris Saddle shelter below, I was sweating freely. It wasn’t just from the demands of the climb, it was from anticipation, too.

At 1515 metres above sea level, I was making for the loftiest point on New Zealand’s famous Routeburn Track, reached by a rapid ascent from the saddle, the highest section of the main track, and some 260 metres below. On sapphire sky days, the views from Conical Hill make you feel you have wings. Standing high above the Hollyford, you can look west to the Darran Mountains, where the highest peaks in the Fiordland National Park are found, still tipped with snow in late summer.

Tongariro Northern Circuit

But it is the view to the north that is the reason you take this sidetrack up Conical Hill. With the Hollyford Valley leading your eye, you can see many, many kilometres northward along the Hollyford River to the narrow waters of Lake McKerrow / Whakatipu Waitai, before you spy, some 40 kilometres away from where you’re standing, the blue smudge of Martins Bay and the Tasman Sea.

Or so I’d heard. When I first walked this South Island track one spring 10 years before, I had no chance of seeing anything. After a brilliant morning, I’d reached the A-framed shelter at Harris Saddle about lunchtime to find it blanketed in thick cloud – I could barely see my fellow walkers as they sat about the shelter shivering – there was no reason to climb up Conical Hill that day.

This visit promised disappointment too. As I walked from the Ultimate Hikes lodge at Lake Mackenzie to start the second day of the Routeburn, a heavy mist lay about the boggy tussock land near the lake and followed me up the switchback track through the dense, dripping rainforest. As I’d cleared the bush line and walked along the bluffs above the Hollyford, the cloud retreated. But it was back again when I started up Conical Hill.

As I approached its top, I had a single thought nagging every step: would I get the view to Martins Bay?

You can have the biggest backpack in the world and fill it with everything you need before you go bush in New Zealand. But you never know whether you’ve packed enough luck.

When you go tramping, as Kiwis call it, you go knowing that, if the weather gods have it in for you, you could spend days walking in rain, and nights trying to dry out wet socks in fuggy huts. But if your luck holds, and the gods are kind, you may be granted just the right mix of sun and cloud and rain, and see what you’ve come to see. And there is just so much to experience on the country’s most popular, multi-day tramps, the nine so-called “Great Walks”, of which the Routeburn and the Milford tracks are the most celebrated.

Each of the walks has its own character, and each has its rewards, whatever the weather.

Heaphy Track, South Island

In the North Island, walkers can spend three or four days, exploring the Tongariro Northern Circuit, a 43 kilometre loop around the flanks of the three mountains that dominated the island’s central plateau: Tongariro, Ngāuruhoe and Ruapehu. Its blasted, volcanic landscape was made famous by The Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

At the top of the South Island, the five-day Abel Tasman Coast Track is a very popular mix of bush and sand walking, with the chance of seeing kekeno, or fur seals, and the guarantee of a cooling dip in the sea most days.

The longest Great Walk, the Heaphy, has a unique mix of subtropical podocarp forest and a long coastal section. The southern most, the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island, is an easy, looped bush walk from the main village of Oban, where you might hear wild kiwi at night and, if you’re very lucky, see one scuttling about.

The other southern walks, including the Routeburn, Milford, Kepler and the newest, Paparoa, blend alpine, rainforest, beach forest and river valley walking.

All the Great Walks are managed by a government agency, the Department of Conservation (DOC), which maintains the tracks and provides hut accommodation for a per-night fee through an online booking system. For those wanting to go properly bush, DOC has camping sites on its tracks, too.

The Great Walk huts are almost all of a very high standard for back country accommodation, but they are not hotels, and if you crave privacy or a shower, you’ll be out of luck. Most have individual bunk beds (though I recall sleeping on platforms, which meant strangers either side), all have communal kitchens (some have gas cookers, many don’t) and eating areas. The toilet facilities run from basic to very basic, and it’s almost always BYO toilet paper.

Forest along the South Island’s Routeburn track walk.

In fact, it’s BYO everything: you must bring your own food, clothing, cooking gear, sleeping bag, lights and hip flask of whisky, a must after the sun goes down. You must also carry your rubbish out.

But there are choices about how much you’ll rough it, and how much you’ll have to lug. Private, guided walking tours can be arranged on all of the Great Walks, and will often mean your guide carries the food and cooks it for you.

But those craving proper creature comforts on the Milford and Routeburn tracks should book with Ultimate Hikes. It offers very comfortable, well-appointed lodges with private rooms, ensuite bathrooms with toilets, drying rooms, excellent food and – surely the ultimate mark of civilisation – a choice of wine with dinner.

As I reached the top of Conical Hill, I knew that a hot shower, my own bed and a drink would be awaiting me just a few kilometres away at Ultimate Hike’s Routeburn Falls Lodge.

It wasn’t like that the first time I walked the Routeburn. Then, I carried my life on my back and stayed in DOC’s huts. I loved every minute of it.

The Routeburn is quite short – just 32 kilometres in three days – but it packs in plenty. On the Fiordland National Park side of the alpine section, which peaks at Harris Saddle, is lush rainforest thick with ferns. On the other, is a sparser, airy bush filled with giant red and mountain beeches. There are mountain views and rare bird life, including bellbird and rifleman, and, below the Routeburn Falls Lodge, an absolutely stunning, alpine meadowland with the Humboldt mountain range as its backdrop.

Mount Ngāuruhoe and Upper Tama Lake on the North Island’s Tongariro Northern Circuit.

As I stood puffing on its crown, the cloud continued to swirl and surge, opening up most of the valley to me. But not the outlook to Martins Bay. I waited and hoped. Then, just for a moment, I had the view, before it was gone again. Oh well.

Every walk in New Zealand is a unique experience. And each time you do one, it will be different. If you’re fortunate, you’ll get the view. If you don’t, well, a glass of something good with dinner will definitely ease any disappointment.

Three best New Zealand Great Walks

Lake Waikaremoana Track, North Island

The homeland of the Ngāi Tūhoe people, on the remote East Coast, is an incredibly rugged, protected area called Te Urewera. At the centre of this wildness is Lake Waikaremoana, a place apart, and one well worth the long journey. The semi-circular lake walk begins at the south-eastern end, at the small settlement of Onepoto. It begins with a gut-busting climb up the precipitous Panekire Bluff to a hut sitting nearly 1200 metres above sea level. The views, will leave you more breathless than the climb. The track then drops back to lake level, and you walk its bush-clad western then north shores before catching a water taxi back to Waikaremoana township. Magical.

Tongariro Northern Circuit, North Island

Singular among the Great Walks, this features three active volcanoes. Its three-to four-day circular route goes up and across Mount Tongariro, then around the cone volcano of Mount Ngauruhoe before returning across the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu, the tallest of the three peaks. There are a number of excellent sidetracks, including the walk to the Blue Lake.

Heaphy Track, South Island

The longest of the New Zealand Great Walks, though not necessarily the most demanding. Its 78 kilometres has utterly contrasting landscapes. There is dense podocarp forest filled with nīkau palms and northerns rātā trees, which are covered in rich, red flowers in high summer. At the highest point of the track, there are tussock lands on the Gouland Downs. And on the final day, you walk along the northernmost part of the rugged West Coast, towards the hamlet of Karamea. If you pick plenty of luck, you might hear great spotted kiwi on the downs at night, and maybe even spot the takahe, an endangered ground bird that was long thought extinct.

How to book

Each of the Great Walks is managed by the Department of Conservation and numbers are limited. To secure a spot, visit doc.govt.nz and search ‘Great Walks’. Some tracks are seasonal and not open year-round so be sure to research and plan ahead. For premium guided walks, book via ultimatehikes.co.nz.

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