INTRODUCING NEW ZEALAND'S 8 GREAT WALKS
New Zealand's unspoilt natural beauty, its wave-pounded coastlines, high mountain ranges, tumbling waterfalls and glacial lakes, can best be explored first hand on a tramp or hike.
The Department of Conservation (DOC) has classified eight of New Zealand's finest and most popular hikes as Great Walks, but they are not literally a walk in the park. Most take several days and often cross high passes in unpredictable weather conditions - they are tramps, not walks. The Whanganui Journey, a canoe or kayak trip on New Zealand's longest navigable river, is also included in the Great Walks network.
Two of the Great Walks, the Lake Waikaremoana Track and the Tongariro Northern Circuit, are in the central part of the North Island, as is the Whanganui River Journey.
In the south west corner of the rugged Te Urewera National Park between the Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay the 46 kilometre Lake Waikaremoana Track encircles the deep clear waters of the lake, known as the Sea of Rippling Waters to the local Maori people.
The 42 kilometre Tongariro Northern Circuit explores the active volcanoes of the Central Plateau, winding over Mt Tongariro, and around Mt Ngauruhoe, the latter digitally altered to portray Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings. The 3-4 day trip goes through volcanic craters, past the brilliantly coloured Emerald Lakes, and within a 5-minute detour of the cold Soda Springs where white foxgloves and yellow buttercups flower in spring and summer. The circuit is a challenging tramp on open, exposed terrain and can be subject to sudden, rapid weather changes.
The Whanganui Journey follows the country's longest navigable river on a 145 kilometre journey between Taumarunui and Pipiriki and takes an average of five days in a Canadian canoe, or kayak. The river holds immense spiritual significance for the Maori people, and was historically a major link between the sea and the interior of the North Island.
The remainder of the Great Walks lie to the south, ranging from the sandy beaches and tranquil lagoons of the Abel Tasman Coast Track at the top of the South Island, to the Rakiura Track on New Zealand's third main island, Stewart Island.
The popular 3-5 day Abel Tasman Coast Track passes through coastal forests and along golden sandy beaches, making it one of the country's most photogenic and popular walks. The 51 kilometre route can be combined with sea kayaking, or done in short sections using water taxis for pick-ups and drop-offs.
The 4-6 day Heaphy Track lies to the west, passing through the Kahurangi National Park, and crossing a diverse range of landscapes, over expansive tussock downs, through forests and sub-tropical nikau palm groves, and alongside rough West Coast seas. The 82 kilometre track is the longest of the Great Walks, and one of the most difficult to manage logistically, its ends 463 kilometres apart by road.
New Zealand's tramping heartland lies in the south west corner of the South Island in the country's last great wilderness, the Fiordland National Park, where three of the Great Walks, the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler, are located.
The most famous of the Great Walks is undoubtedly the 53.5 kilometre Milford Track, described as the "finest walk in the world" in the London Spectator in 1908. Walking the four-day track gives the best sense of the wild, natural environment of remote Fiordland and its grand scenery, over mountains, through rainforest and past stunning waterfalls. The Department of Conservation allows limited numbers of guided and independent walkers on the track in peak season between October and April.
The spectacular 32 kilometre Routeburn Track (2-3 days) links Mt Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks via the 1,277 metre Harris Saddle, spending longer above the bushline than the Milford and offering dramatic views of the Fiordland mountains.
The Kepler Track forms a circuit from the Lake Te Anau Control Gates, offering varied scenery ranging from steep mountains and lakeshores, to limestone caves and waterfalls. The 60 kilometre track has the advantage of being easily accessible from the town of Te Anau, but is tougher going than both the Milford and the Routeburn.
The last of the Great Walks, the 29 kilometre Rakiura Track, takes its name from a Maori name for Stewart Island, which translates as 'the land of glowing skies', a reference to the periodic southern lights (aurora australis) which form over the island. The circuit follows the open coast, climbs over a 300 metre ridge and traverses the shores of Paterson Inlet.