New Zealand’s nine great walks are some of the nation’s biggest natural assets, and a reason over two million people flock to the multi-island nation every year. Technically eights walks and a canoe route, the treks are for the most part really, really great hiking opportunities. While the trails can be expensive, they are some of New Zealand’s best attractions so at some point you’ll most likely find yourself forking out money to the DoC to hike at least one of them. If you want to be frugal, you can always tent rather than staying in the often crowded huts (huts can between $22 and $54 per night per person). During my time in New Zealand, I had enough time to hike four of the treks while still seeing the rest of the country. Of those four, I have so far managed to write about two. The others will come soon, and will be able to be found here.
The Routeburn runs in a direction best described as mostly parallel to the island’s coast and can be accessed at two points: one about 70km from Queenstown and the other a little over 80km out of Ta Anau. Unfortunately, the trail’s beginning and end are on very separate ends of an otherwise impassable set of mountains. This means that for anyone wishing to hike from trailhead to trailhead, they will have to organize for transportation to pick them up on the other side. The downside here is that (like many things in New Zealand) the rates for these kind of services are budget-blowing for those looking to make the most of their money. Some companies will even drive your car from one end to the other, but I’ve not seen any advertised for less than $200.
As an alternative to finding yourself at the opposite end without a vehicle (or with a vehicle but no money), either plan to hike back out to your car or hitchhike. Regardless of what transportation method you choose, the trail is best begun from the North entrance. If hitchhiking, getting out of the North end can be tricky, since more hikers enter here than leave. The south entrance is situated on a major road into (and out of) Milford Sound, so getting picked up shouldn’t be too hard.
We began during mid-afternoon at the north end, marching into a forest echoing with bird calls and in short order we began to ascend, switchbacking up the mountain. As you climb through the densely forested slopes, you can see more and more of the valley falling away behind. About halfway (around 3km) to the first campground, the trail curves toward the right and in through a narrow canyon. Looking up, the overhanging stone of the opposite cliff seems to rise indefinitely, eventually breaking to show blue sky far above. As the trail continues up the canyon, the walls begin to widen and ease into a more gradual slope, opening into the grassy basin of Routeburn flats, where the first campground is located. It was late summer when we visited New Zealand, and thanks to the dry, hot months which had preceded our visit, the tall grass covering the flats was dry and brittle, shimmering like a golden sea in the light of the setting sun and breeze that accompanied it. This was to be our camp for the night.
The following morning, we awoke to find the valley blanketed in thick fog. Not even the snowline was visible on the mountains which ringed our camp. Undeterred, we ate breakfast and marched up the trail, into cloud. Passed the next hut in seemingly record-breaking time. The Great Walks have a tendency to mark destinations in hours and minutes, rather than units of distance–which never provide an accurate measurement for a moderately fit person. If a sign described a segment of the trail as being two hours long, we would typically finish it in 45 to 75 minutes.
Finally we reached Harris Saddle, where an alternate path can be taken to climb Conical Hill, the trail’s highest point. So far, visibility had been nonexistent, and we waited in a nearby hut for the weather to clear before venturing up. Thankfully, the weather did eventually clear and up we went. The panorama from the top is stunning, staring out at the snow-peaked Southern Alps. Quite frankly, I doubt there is a better view anywhere on the rest of the trail. As we headed down under what was now clear blue sky, I was shocked to realize I had been walking along cliffs for much of the latter half of the hike. With the fog being so dense, I had completely missed everything aside from the trail directly underneath my feet. I am glad the weather cleared, because the descent back into Routeburn flats is gorgeous, filled with undulating cascades of water and stone. We ate dinner once we arrived at our campsite before walking the remaining six kilometres to the car.
This trail had been on my father’s bucket list for a very long time. Removed from New Zealand’s South Island by a one hour ferry ride, the Rakiura trek skirts along the contours of Stuart Island’s coastline. Hiking the trail you’ll find yourself trudging through humid forests, densely populated by conifers and hardwoods and despite being advertised as a coastal trek, you see actually relatively little of the ocean after the first day.
The trail is not overly difficult per se, but be prepared for the overland crossing between Maori Bay and North Arm Hut to be unpleasant. The trail here rarely runs flat, and the humidity will drench you in your own sweat, guaranteed. Apart from the humidity, the trail is not unlike a coastal trail back home, on the west side of Vancouver Island.
Disappointments aside, the island is a literal paradise for bird watchers. Providing a home and feeding ground to over 100 species of bird, the island protects and encourages healthy populations of many threatened or endangered species. On the ride in, albatross swoop in low around the back of the ferry and while hiking the trail itself, the only thing louder than your breathing will be the deafening melody of the islands inhabitants. If you are lucky enough, you might even spot a kiwi. There are an estimated 20,000 living on the island, and though we heard them from North Arm Hut, we never once saw the famed flightless bird.
The trail begins several kilometres from where the ferry arrives in Oban, and although there are taxis which will get people to the trailhead, we would happily walk and avoid paying anyone for a service our feet can do for free. In hindsight, the walk to the trailhead is nicer than anything I encountered on the trail. Near the start of the trek, there is a large sculpture of a chain, anchored into the soil and trailing off into the sea. A similar sculpture can be found in the community of Bluff, on the South Island. Together, the two chains are intended to depict the cultural unity of New Zealand.
As we walked on towards what would be our first campsite, clouds rolled in. The dense canopy became very dark with the disappearance of the sun, though the vegetation made for a good umbrella. Once we arrived at Maori Beach, we unpacked, set up the tent, and cooked dinner as quick as we could in order to beat the rain and insects.
To bed we went, swatting and clapping the air until the tent seemed free enough from the bugs.
We woke up to sun. I walked along the beach for a while, collecting shells of various colours and sizes. Little did I know upon leaving the bay, that it would be last glimpse of ocean we would spot until we reached North Arm Hut, some five hours later.
As previously mentioned, the overland crossing from Maori Beach to North Arm Hut is less than desirable. I have never before sweated so much in my life as I have hiking this trail. With every step, the humidity closes in and dampens each breath, making the uphill sections (of which there are many) more tedious. At one point, I startled a deer, which bounded away across the trail, confusing me to no end since I was under the impression that Stewart Island housed no mammals whatsoever. Finally I reached the hut and went for a swim before changing into new clothes and drying the old ones.
The following day’s hike led us from North Arm back to Oban, completing the circular route. This section of the trail is not as painfully uneven and undulating as the prior day’s segment, and was in fact quite pleasant to walk. Some uneven terrain at the start quickly gives way to a long, shallow incline, before cresting a large hill (small mountain?) and dropping sharply to connect with the community. Again, the trailhead is not located near the terminal, so another few kilometres ensued.
If you fancy yourself as an avid birder, then Rakiura might be the hiking trip of a lifetime; but as someone who grew up on the west coast of Canada, the trail seemed to be too close to home for me to feel as though my money (and this trail is expensive, guys… Really, really expensive) went to good use. All in all, if birds just don’t do it for you, give Stewart Island a skip and come visit Canada’s west coast instead.