Out of all the countries I’ve visited, New Zealand is the one that has really changed me and will forever hold a place in my heart. It taught me how precious nature is, how accepting people can be, that materialistic goods are by no means needed. A simple life full of simple pleasures constitutes the greatest happiness, so I’ve learnt. It’s also in New Zealand where I took up tramping or hiking as it is known worldwide. During my last six months there I immersed myself in the great outdoors and explored a large number of walks and overnight tramps. The Department of Conservation (DOC) advise how long it should take you to walk each route. I’ve outlined this in the headings below alongside the actual time it took me. It took hours of research to learn what was out there, which I am aware some people may not have the time to do. To help, I’ve put together a summary of some of my favourite walks for those wanting to make the most of time hiking in New Zealand.
Motatapu Track (Wanaka to Arrowtown) 50km. 4/5 days advised. 2.5 days completed.
This stunning ridge track is part of the Te Araroa trail so if you want peace and solidarity, this may not be the one for you. I did, however, walk alone through the three days on the track but all the huts were full. This was perfect for me as I got the best of both worlds and when craving company had the option to join others in a hut, the majority who had some fantastic stories to share. The track itself is well-formed and it would be hard to get lost. It’s certainly a test of fitness and hard going on the knees with not a single stretch of flat ground. Another thing to note is that DOC timings are way off and I completed each section in nearly half the time.
If wanting to push on after Roses Hut (furthering your 4/5 hour day) there are some historic stone houses in Macetown which is now a tourist attraction. They aren’t really meant for sleeping in but if you have a sleeping mat or in my case a bin bag, you can lay yourself down there. Be careful though, a mouse ate through my bowl of soaked oats! This track taught me two lessons; never leave my pack on the ledge of a mountain when going to the loo. I watched in horror as my pack tumbled down over the edge. Thankfully a large tussock stopped it from going any further but I still had to walk half a kilometre down and then back up to retrieve it. Secondly, never ever ever use this walk to break in new boots. I was in agony.
Gillespie Pass extended to include Rabbit Pass. (Makarora to Wanaka) . 95km. 7/8 days advised. 4.5 days completed.
If you want a real challenge with breath-taking scenery then this is the walk for you. I’ve seen some incredible sights in this world but the enormity of the mountains and vast plains on this tramp are phenomenal. I was joined by my friend Martha who, being Norwegian, is a professional when it came to challenging terrain. Her Viking spirt helped us through and we both felt immense satisfaction when landing foot in Wanaka. We were pushed both mentally and physically each and every day which involved 10-12 hours of solid walking. Terrain was tough, phone reception nil, waist deep river crossings plentiful and some days we didn’t see a single soul. It’s vital to keep an eye on the forecast as much as possible by looking at the updates in huts and asking anyone you pass.
Waterfall Face, just before Rabbit Pass, can only be attempted in good weather. The steep climb up the face of the waterfall has claimed many lives over the years and is not to be taken lightly. If you are confident, fit and have good conditions like us, the reward of reaching Rabbit Pass is well worth it. Each day I taped my feet up and each evening I pulled the skin off along with the tape. It was an ugly sight and extremely painful but once into this tramp, there is no fast way out. Be mindful of the dangers but don’t let them put you off. I completed the track in ripped Nike Free runners. It wasn’t ideal but it happened.
Cascade Saddle via Rees Track. (Wanaka to Glenorchy). 55km. 4/5 days advised. 2 days completed.
Biggest regret of my life. Not the walk, but leaving my phone in Hugh’s car. I missed out on capturing the most outstanding scenery I’ve ever witnessed in my life. Forget the glacier walks around Mt Cook and those at the entrance of Mt Aspiring National Park, Cascade Saddle will get you within a few hundred metres of the Dart Glacier. You will see up close how the glacier has slowly retreated and the creation of glacier caves and icebergs. I camped on the edge of Cascade Saddle itself which technically isn’t allowed but when do you ever get to camp over 1500m above sea level overlooking snow-capped peaks and gigantic glaciers? As long as you leave nothing but footprints, make the most of it I say!
The walk is reasonably tough, especially if you wanted to cram it into two days like me, and shouldn’t be attempted in poor weather. I saw little people on the track and those who I did meet thought I was mad to take two days rather than four to complete. I like a challenge though and it’s certainly doable. It’s worth noting that the Dart Hut and part of the Rees Valley Road is closed (March 2018) which make logistics difficult but you can always boulder hop over the river to Dart Hut and just drive around the slip on the Rees road if need be. These closures are essentially just a safety precaution and it’s not impossible to continue the route as normal. Don’t quote me on that though.
Tararua Peaks Main Ridge Circuit. (Otaki Forks). 41km. 8 days advised. 4 days completed
Like the Motatapu Track the first section of this walk is part of the Te Araroa trail so you are likely to come across other walkers but once up on the peaks it’s likely you will encounter only a few. The circular walk from/to Otaki Forks, follows the main ridge line of the Tararua Ranges. Distances between huts are fairly short (4/5 hours) but the steep terrain means it is difficult to skip huts unless you are up for a real challenge. Another thing to consider is the weather. The Tararua Forest Park experiences rain and gale force winds for nearly 300 days of the year. That’s not ideal when wanting to navigate over mountain ridges. I, however, was lucky and only had to wait for the cloud to clear for a few hours each morning. If you don’t like heights then this probably isn’t the walk for you.
What makes this walk stand out from the crowd is the 60 metre vertical ladder up/down one of the peaks, depending which way you walk. Surprisingly I rather enjoyed the infamous ladder despite saying to myself “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me” out loud when laying eyes on it for the first time. Once again, extra caution should be made to the weather with a strong possibility that you may have to wait it out in a hut for a day or two, so pack extra food and warm clothing. Once up on the peaks it’s a good two to three days to civilisation so keep this in mind. Go careful and you will be rewarded with stunning views over the ranges and as far as the coast. Read about my walk in full here (part 1) and here (part 2).
Mount McIntosh Loop. (Glenorchy). 18km. 2 days advised. 2 days completed).
Not quite a tramp as such, as this loop can be walked in a day but no less worthy of a mention. Troy and I split the walk up into two half days so we could stay a night at McIntosh Hut. As chief navigator, I had planned to do the loop backwards so we got the most diffucult part of the track over with first whilst we still had good weather. Thank God we did as next day the heavens opened and we would have been sliding down the muddy mountain. To put it in perspective, we returned to the car hours ahead of the people we shared the hut with even though we had more ground to cover and left later.
The start of the track is harder to find if done backwards. The sign is hidden in the bushes a short walk along the road from the car park towards Glenorchy. Despite this I still recommend doing it this way. The climb up to Mt McIntosh is steep and tough on ground but rewards of Lake Wakatipu, Glenorchy and the Rees and Dart Valleys are worth it. McIntosh Hut is a pleasant suprise and remains the nicest DOC hut I have ever stayed in. A hidden gem, there were only a handful of other walkers on his track which makes it one of my best finds in New Zealand.
Kepler Track. (Te Anau). 60km. 4 days advised. 48 hours completed
I had always stayed clear of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” opting for less well travelled, more challenging routes. After spending nearly two years in New Zealand in a place close to three of the Great Walks I was eager to see what all the fuss was about and whether they lived up to their name. I made it slightly more challenging by trying to walk the 60km in under 48 hours, which I did, and by wild camping (technically illegal but I won’t tell if you don’t) as opposed to staying at one of the luxurious DOC huts on route.
So how did I rate what’s regarded as New Zealand’s greatest walk? It was good. Good but not mind blowing and to be honest, exactly as I expected. Walking on a well-trodden path alongside hundreds of others with the safety net of huts and DOC wardens fairly close-by doesn’t exactly thrill me. However, I would never bad mouth NZ’s Great Walks because they serve their purpose well. They make outstanding views and multi-day walking accessible for all. No matter what age, fitness, gender or experience, New Zealand’s Great Walks allows everyone to give it a go and uncover their sense of adventure. That can never be a bad thing in my eyes.
Here are some of my top tips for hiking in New Zealand:
- Hiking boots aren’t always best. River crossings often go waist deep and are too frequent to keep stopping to take your boots off. Comfortable, breathable trail runners that can dry overnight should do the trick. The most important thing is that they are comfortable and well worn in.
- Download these top 50 apps $4.99 South Island and North Island. Not only will they tell you where you are and where the tracks and huts are but it will enable you to put a name to each peak and creek. They work well offline.
- Always pack more food than you need. Food will boost your mood as well as your physical energy. You may have to wait out bad weather and you don’t want to be rationing food when it’s wet and cold.
- You will get bitten by sandflies. They are everywhere, especially on the South Island. Pack 80% deet if you don’t want to be up all night scratching your skin raw.
- Don’t be afraid. Be cautious, be careful but don’t let others put you off. Plenty of people said I shouldn’t go alone, I wouldn’t make the distances or I should be packing more but I had no issues and quickly learned what worked well for me. Everyone is different.
And lastly, enjoy! New Zealand is one of the best countries for walking and overnight hikes. You can see more of my New Zealand photos on my Instagram @felicitymacintosh