I’ve been walking down the same rugged stretch of coast for three days before I meet another human being. A ute stacked with fishing rods pulls up, and through a window appears a friendly face, gesturing towards a chilly bin (cool box) in the back.
This moment sums up the best bits of walking the length of New Zealand: breathtaking remoteness and — somehow at the same time — the goodness of people. I’d always looked upon my home country as a small place where not much happens, an impression I held long after I’d moved to the UK 17 years ago. But the world has changed dramatically recently and the idea of somewhere small, where not much happens, has started to sound quite appealing. Since the pandemic began, New Zealand had closed its borders to all but nationals, while in London my freelance work was in a slump and my landlord had panic-sold the flat. All signs pointed to home, and I realised it was time I changed my perspective on the place. And, as is the way when I’ve a lot to think about, I decided a nice long walk would help. I knew just the one.
Claire during her hike
Te Araroa — “the long pathway” in Maori — is a 1,850-mile trail from one end of New Zealand to the other. Known in tramping circles as TA, it connects Cape Reinga, at the very tip of the North Island, to Bluff at the very end of the South, a journey of about five months. It crosses terrain that varies from urban centres to mountain ranges, and along the way one camps, stays in hostels, or nabs a bunk in the many basic Department of Conservation (DOC) huts. This was how I’d get to know my country. To get really (and quite literally) into the weeds of it.
In October, when I set off down Ninety Mile Beach (a misnomer: it’s more like 55), I had it largely to myself, apart from a few seals and wild horses. Once I hit the surf town of Ahipara the trail turned inland, heading west across subtropical Northland, which, despite being known as the “Winterless North”, delivered some of the grottiest weather on the trail. I slopped my way through rain-drenched farms and forestry tracks and emerged into the sunny Bay of Islands. When I injured my foot a local cattle farmer gave me a ride and I convalesced at a riverside eco camp. “Here y’go, this’ll get your strength up,” said the host, delivering me a mullet he’d caught and smoked that morning.
Injuries or no, there were always going to be diversions: snap lockdowns, which rendered whole regions of the North Island inaccessible, made this an unusual year to do Te Araroa. Some TA walkers decided to start at Bluff and head northbound, while others, me included, opted to walk the North Island in sections before completing the South Island from the top down. Apart from these adjustments, life on the trail felt as far away from the pandemic as one could get. Locals still picked up hitching hikers, and the “trail angels” — a community of kind folks who actively offer assistance to TAers — were more cautious, yes, but far from quashed.
The Bay of Islands
My foot recovered, I continued to lava country, Tongariro National Park, a Mars-like desertscape of red rock and blue-green crater lakes, all watched over by three active volcanoes: Tongariro; Ngauruhoe (that’s Mount Doom to The Lord of the Rings fans); and Ruapehu. When Te Araroa joins the Timber Trail, a popular mountain biking track, I broke with convention and got on a bike, spending two days juddering at speed down a disused forestry railway line and over swing bridges strung high across gullies.
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At Whanganui I swapped the bike for a kayak, although this method is legit — the mighty Whanganui River is the only section of Te Araroa that can’t be tackled on foot. I joined a foursome of fellow TAers in open canoes, and for three days we paddled through relentless rain, the air rich with the smell of damp ferns while rain-swelled waterfalls burst forth from the sides of the gorge.
My intentions were to do this walk solo, but I soon discovered the value of community on the trail. I felt bonded to the people I met by a shared purpose and sore joints; we traded snacks, remedies and life stories. We decided to join forces again for the Tararua Range — safety in numbers being wise for the North Island’s toughest section, where the weather can turn on a dime. Thankfully we were blessed with ideal conditions. For days we sweated up steep bush track, through mossy, hobbitesque forest and along the ridgelines, where we could see all the way to the ocean.
Canoeing on the Whanganui River
By now I should have felt ready for the South Island, New Zealand’s wilder half . . . I’m not sure I did, although it begins relatively gently with the Queen Charlotte Track: picturesque blue-green coves dotted with comfy lodges, for those not into roughing it. While rough it I did, I still stopped in at one for a cold beer on the jetty. It would have been rude not to.
Then things got real. I was soon into the Richmond Ranges, the first of many week-long sections in the remote back country where there’s no resupply or phone signal (carrying a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger is crucial). This is where I met the first of the South Island’s big tests: climbing two vertigo-inducing peaks of scree known as the Rintouls. The next day it was eight river crossings. And just for a little extra frisson there were the constant wasp nests to avoid, both on the forest floor and in the occasional long-drop lavatory. (You quickly learn to use the bushes.)
It’s challenging country but remarkably beautiful and the landscape can change several times in a day. In Nelson Lakes National Park I started the morning at Blue Lake, a sacred natural lagoon with the clearest water recorded in history, climbed up and over Waiau Pass, the trail’s most formidable alpine crossing, and spent that night bunked in a small DOC hut in the flats of a river valley. Canterbury and Otago are rich in striking scenery . . . braided rivers and mountain passes interspersed with a series of luminous turquoise lakes. Up on Stag Saddle, the trail’s highest point, I sat and made a cup of tea to enjoy with my view of the Southern Alps.
These rewards came hard won. Walking Te Araroa my feet were wet more than they were dry, and my legs became an abstract canvas of scrapes, bruises, stings and bug bites. By Wanaka, two thirds down the South Island, my two-month-old boots had holes big enough to put my hand through, and they went in the bin. Yet as long as there was more island ahead I was keen to continue, tuned into the simplicity of this life on trail: wake up, pack up, start walking, discover.
As I crossed into Southland the days got shorter; the air noticeably crisper, rows of poplar trees gilded with early autumn. Much of the trail here cuts across cattle stations — vast sections of private farmland where accommodations become fewer and farther between: a grassy section of DOC land where walkers can camp, or an old shearer’s hut to bunk down in for £5 in an honesty box.
Cape Reinga, New Zealand’s most northerly point
Feeling clean was a lost battle. Clothes were handwashed again and again, hung damp above hut fireplaces, but even when cleaned they never smelt like it. So at this stage I didn’t have much concern about striding into Longwood, a sprawling ancient forest notorious for deep mud pits that sometimes reach mid-thigh. It was a miracle my shoes stayed on my feet as I yanked my legs out of one bog after the next, with audible slurps. Moments after stumbling out of the forest my tramping companions and I were greeted by a local who pointed at his pick-up truck: “Want me to drive you to the pub?”
The penultimate day followed the curve of the coast, fighting a headwind as a trio of horse riders thundered past through the surf. I was reminded of where I began some months ago, on a beach at the other end of the country.
At last there was Bluff. It’s an unassuming place: industrial at the edges, a hostel in the shell of the old post office, and a couple of pubs (only one of them open), but the regulars at the bar are friendly and unfazed by trampers. One of them offered to teach us some skills at the pool table, while handles (pints) of Speight’s — “Pride of the South” — were enthusiastically drained.
Through the window the sunset burnt the sky a deep gold and I realised I wanted to keep going; to discover more of the back country, seek out more trails. I’d spent months exploring them yet I’d hardly scratched the surface. And all this time I thought that New Zealand was small. I hardly knew the place.
Claire Nelson’s first book, Things I Learned from Falling, is out now. For information, maps and trail notes see teararoa.org.nz
Camp on the shore of Lake Tekapo
Four great New Zealand holidays
1. Classic campers
New Zealand is best taken in from behind a camper van windscreen. You’ll have a good shot at ticking off the highlights on this itinerary, which includes digging yourself a natural bath on Hot Water Beach, taking in the colourful craters (and sulphurous stench) of Rotorua and picnicking beside glacier-fed, lupin-fringed Lake Tekapo. You’ll end on an adrenaline high in Queenstown, where you can try jet boating.
Details Sixteen nights from £3,944 for a family of four, including motorhome hire (trailfinders.com). Fly to Auckland
2. Ditch the driving
Don’t drive? Have someone else do it for you. After stepping off the plane in Auckland you’ll be met by a private driver, and from here the glowworm caves of Waitomo, night-time kiwi-spotting in Wellington, Marlborough wine and cruises around Doubtful Sound await — with the option of swimming in the fjord if you’re brave. You’ll travel by car, coach and train — including on the world-famous TranzAlpine.
Details Eighteen nights from £7,950pp, including flights, transfers and some meals (audleytravel.com)
3. Close encounters
The islands of New Zealand are home to wildlife found nowhere else on Earth, from kiwis to the Jurassic Park-like tuatara. You’ll tick off rare creatures on this 22-day itinerary, with the chance to see white-backed Hector’s dolphins in Kaikoura, yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago peninsula and mischievous kea on Mount Cook (beware, they have a taste for windscreen wipers).
Details Twenty-one nights from £4,077pp, including transfers, car hire with GPS and some meals (discover-the-world). Fly to Auckland
Cycling near Mount Cook Village, New Zealand
4. Big adventures
Fancy replicating Claire’s journey on two wheels? Travel the length of New Zealand on a 1,850-mile cycle route from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff on the southern tip. It’ll be tough going, but fully supported, with all logistics, first aid and mechanical help taken care of. Highlights include freewheeling the Waikato River Trails and pedalling up and over the Southern Alps. And if you don’t fancy tackling the whole thing, there are options to do sections.
Details Thirty-nine nights from £8,994pp, including transfers and some meals (responsibletravel.com). Bike hire extra. Fly to Auckland
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How long does it take to hike the Te Araroa? ›
Te Araroa means “The Long Path” and so it is. At an average of 25 kms a day, the trail takes 120 days to walk – four months. The North Island route is just over 1,600 km long, and the South Island just under 1,400 km.How hard is the Te Araroa Trail? ›
Stretching 3,000 km from Cape Reinga, at the top of the North Island, to Bluff, at the bottom of the South Island, the TA is defined by its challenging terrain, unpredictable weather and navigational obstacles, and just may be the toughest of the world's major thru-hikes.How much does it cost to walk Te Araroa? ›
NZ$750pp for those walking the length of Te Araroa. NZ$400 for those walking only one island, and. smaller amounts for more specific tracks/distances.How many people have completed the Te Araroa Trail? ›
Te Araroa Trust chair David McGregor said one in five of the 550 people who walked the full length of the 3,000 km trail from Cape Reinga to Bluff over the past 12 months were New Zealanders.How many people walk the Te Araroa Trail each year? ›
Sections of the track can see more traffic; for example, one section is seeing 70,000 to 80,000 people each year.What is the easiest Great walk in New Zealand? ›
1. Abel Tasman. By far the easiest of all the Great Walks is the Abel Tasman Track. It is pretty flat and you have the option of having your pack transferred between huts by boat if you wish!What is the hardest part of the Long trail? ›
The third and final section was 86.2 miles in length and would prove to be the hardest section of the hike. The terrain would become much more extreme and we noticed our pace greatly affected by this. We climbed the tallest mountain in the state of Vermont during this stretch Mt Mansfield at 1,340m/4,395' in elevation.Which trail is the most difficult? ›
- The Death Trail -Mount Huashan, China.
- Drakensberg Traverse -South Africa. ...
- El Caminito del Rey -Spain. ...
- The Snowmen Trek -Bhutan. ...
- Skyline/Muir Snowfield Trail -Mount Rainier, Washington. ...
- Chadar Trek -Himalayas. ...
- West Coast Trail -Vancouver Island. ...
- Kalalau Trail -Kauai, Hawaii. ...
The Dusky Track through Fiordland National Park is infamous for being New Zealand's hardest hike. New Zealanders even have their own word for this kind of hiking: 'tramping'.Is the Te Araroa well marked? ›
Navigation. In general the trail is well marked. In forest sections in particular, there are frequent orange triangles, and most of the time you can see the next marker before leaving one.
How hard is te Henga walkway? ›
Explore this 6.2-mile point-to-point trail near Henderson, Auckland. Generally considered a moderately challenging route, it takes an average of 3 h 28 min to complete. This is a popular trail for hiking and walking, but you can still enjoy some solitude during quieter times of day.What is the hardest mountain to climb in NZ? ›
The Dusky Track through Fiordland National Park is infamous for being New Zealand's hardest hike.How hard is the Tarawera Trail? ›
Skirting the edge of Lake Tarawera, the 15km Tarawera Trail is considered to be moderate in difficulty and takes the average fit tramper four to six hours to reach the end. The trail passes through beautiful native bush that's been regenerating since the Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886.How long does it take to hike 4.2 miles? ›
Quick Answer: If you are fairly fit and the conditions are mild (no snow, ice, or slick mud), expect it to take 20 minutes for each mile plus 60 minutes for every 2,000 feet of ascent. If you are hiking with a heavy pack, then calculate 30 minutes for each mile plus 60 minutes for every 1,000 feet of ascent.