To Great Walk or not to Great Walk? – What to consider when choosing a hike in New Zealand

New Zealand is heaven for hikers. It’s stunningly beautiful, relatively uncrowded and absolutely full of trails, but how do you choose one that will suit your needs and desires?

There are currently nine ‘Great Walks’, a set of popular hiking trails developed by the Department of Conservation showcasing a variety of the country’s diverse terrain over both the North and South Islands. Their popularity is well deserved with excellently maintained trails passing through beautiful landscapes and with most walkers needs well catered for.

On the other hand there are countless equally stunning hiking trails throughout the country, serviced by nearly a thousand back country huts, so do you really need to book a place on a Great Walk?

You don't need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

You don’t need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

Tracks

Great Walks tracks are of a higher standard than many other tracks in the country and are well formed and easy to follow. They are often quite wide with gradients generally in the easy to moderate range and all rivers are bridged. This can all be a good thing if that’s what you’re looking for but just occasionally these routes lack the interest and variation in track surface provided by more natural trails. Add to this the sheer numbers of other hikers you are likely to be sharing the trail with and you can sometimes lose that full sense of being in the wilderness that many of us crave.

Beautiful walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Beautiful and easy walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Outside of the Great Walks, trails range from flat and easy to steep and gnarly with added exposure, and everything in between. You may have to tackle bouncy mesh suspension bridges to cross rivers or even ford them on foot. The rewards though are often spectacular scenery combined with the peace and serenity that comes from hiking in less visited regions.

 

Accommodation

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Great Walks huts are of an excellent standard providing bunk accommodation with mattresses for up to 50 people, and most supply gas cooking stoves, lighting, flushing toilets and toilet paper so you won’t have to carry your own. Bookings are required and for the more popular ones like the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel Tasman, sometimes six months in advance which can make planning a challenge. Huts  cost anywhere from $22 to $54 per night and if the weather is looking dodgy or you need to change your plans there are fees and charges to change dates, that is assuming your new dates are even available. These huts are busy and on the more popular trails during peak season you are likely to have a full house.  With capacity in these huts reaching up to 50 beds that’s a lot of people to share your slice of wilderness with.

Comyns Hut - a basic free backcountry hut

Comyns Hut in Canterbury – a basic free backcountry hut

Upper Travers Hut, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Upper Travers Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Regular backcountry huts come in three standards with prices ranging from free to $15 per night. Some are no more salubrious than a garden shed while others are almost at Great Walk standard, with double glazing, modern and clean design, indoor running water and wood burning stoves with fuel supplied. For the vast majority of huts, bookings are not required with beds provided on a first come-first served basis. Capacity ranges from two bunks including mattresses to up to around 30 bunks, toilets are mostly of the outdoor long drop variety and water is usually supplied by rainwater tank, though occasionally a nearby river. You will need to carry your own stove and fuel, headtorch and toilet paper.

Logistics

All the work is done for you on a Great Walk. You simply collect your trail map and notes from the Department of Conservation safe in the knowledge that someone else has already worked out a conservative itinerary that will lead you through a beautiful hike, well marked with directional signage.

Outside of the Great Walks you will need to ensure you have adequate maps and a trail description before heading out. Some of the more popular backcountry trails are well provided for with DOC brochures available describing routes and walk times, but others may require a bit of research and planning.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Safety

Great Walks trails are regularly monitored and during peak season a ranger will be on hand in most huts to answer any questions you may have or to provide support if needed. In the event the weather is not conducive to an alpine area Great Walk the Department of Conservation will advise you against starting.

If you venture out on your own backcountry hike you will need to be self-sufficient and perhaps make decisions that affect your safety. You will need to consider whether the weather forecast is adequate for the route you are planning and whether the occasional unbridged river is safe to cross. Trail signage may or may not be easy to follow. While walkers always need to be responsible for their own safety, regardless of whether it’s a Great Walk or not, the majority of huts and trails are largely unmanned by wardens and rangers so walkers need to be comfortable with being on their own.

So, which walk is right for you?

The strength of a Great Walk lies in making New Zealand’s beautiful backcountry accessible to just about anyone.  But if you have a stove, a head torch, a bit of experience and value your own space then you will find many more equally stunning trails that provide flexibility in planning, are lower cost, and you just might have the whole place to yourself.

On the Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

The Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

Stewart Island – a very Kiwi experience

With 3068km of Te Araroa trail completed I decided to head even further south for a little ‘cool down’ walk on Stewart Island.  Mission:  See a kiwi.

I had the idea in my head of a little gentle walk and lounging around in a remote hut pondering the last five months, however on the second day it was clear that Stewart Island is a pretty special place.  I started to toy with the idea of changing tack and heading off around the 10 day North West Circuit.  Hmmm…could I turn six days of food into ten?  I’d managed to turn eight days of food into six before, but never the other way around.  Excitement built as I thought of all the possibilities for discovery on that NW route but half an hour later I thought ‘Who am I kidding? I can’t ration my food!’ and promptly broke off another 2 lines of chocolate.

I did however manage to explore the Rakiura Circuit, plus a tramp west to Masons Bay, a location apparently abundant with kiwi.  For two mornings and evenings I spent a total of about 8 hours sneaking quietly up forest tracks and down sand dunes, ears pricked for the slightest rustle of a bird.  No luck. Trying to reassure myself that that was okay and it was still a great walk I shuffled back east towards Freshwater Hut.  On arrival I discovered a hunting party had made themselves (and their 50 cases of beer) very comfortable at the hut, but I soon warmed to their company when one of them arrived saying he’d just spotted a kiwi just a few minutes away.  Excitedly I followed him back through the ferns and there was my kiwi!  I quietly followed that bird for about 20 minutes as it snuffled around in the ground searching for food. I don’t think I’ve ever seen video footage of a kiwi in action but they are truly odd creatures.  Using their beaks to probe the earth, once they find a potential meal they attack the ground, digging in with their beaks with all the determination and ferocity of a terrier shaking a rat.  It’s quite amazing and amusing to observe.

Satisfied, I could now enjoy the remaining few days walking around the beautiful coastline, lined with ferns and lush forest, white sandy beaches and rocky coves.  Stopping at Port William Hut for the night I shared stories of my kiwi encounter at Freshwater Hut with a fellow tramper on the bunk next to me.  “Oh! and did you see there’s a little deer that lives there too?!” she gushed.  “Yeah, not anymore” I let her know.  Our fellow hut residents in the hunting party had gotten up for the loo in the night, spied the unfortunate deer outside and decided that right then was a good idea to do some hunting!  I heard the gun case unzip and even though I knew what was coming the sound of the rifle shot piercing the night air just a few metres from my bunk still made me gasp out loud.  Ahh, the serenity of the New Zealand bush!

Stewart Island is a very special place and worthy of a good explore.  And seeing that kiwi…well, another Mission Successful.

Laura