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Tramping - A Noble Pursuit

New Zealanders are so good at exploring their country they have had to give it its own name - "Tramping". With its long history dating back to the Maori and the early settlers, going for a tramp is the best way to experience New Zealand's diverse terrain and scenery. With its nine Great Walks attracting visitors from all over the world, all levels, ages and fitness are accommodated.

With its sparse population, unique and beautiful fauna, diverse terrain and temperate climate, not to mention the best hut and track network anywhere in the world, New Zealand boasts some of the most spectacular hiking trails in the world. Fourteen national parks offer hikers - or “trampers” in local parlance – a truly sea to summit experience. Coastal paths become absorbed into thick forestry, opening out into expansive valleys and lakelands, and soaring mountain altitude unlocks the true majesty of New Zealand. For anyone wishing to experience the full flavour of New Zealand’s heritage and place in the world, don your hiking boots, fill a backpack, and follow your feet.  

Tramping has a long and noble tradition in New Zealand, stemming from the early European settlers in the early 1800s for whom hiking became an occupational joy whilst studying the topography and botany of the land. Similarly, when game such as deer and trout were introduced to the country, the act of tramping became its own leisure pursuit, as well as the only means available to enter the dense forestry in which hunting was conducted.  

As European settlement began in earnest, so New Zealand’s frontier was continually expanded. Prospectors were lured by the gold rush, and in the process beat paths which exist today. The Harper Pass Route is probably the best example of this. A 76km walk in North Canterbury, it follows the same route taken by Maori traders of pounamu – greenstone – moving across the Southern Alps to the West Coast, and it was also an important route during the 1860s gold rush.


Perhaps not quite as lucrative as gold, sheep farming nevertheless became another reason why tramping became so prevalent in New Zealand. With the land so diverse and wild, many early settlers succumbed to “New Zealand death” – drowning in hidden rivers. It thus became imperative to find the safest routes to uncover fertile farmland. And whilst they were not quite to the Taraua Range as Wainwright was to the Lake District, early missionaries such as Charles Heaphy and William Colenso set about documenting passes and routes through the uplands of the North Island.  

Realising the health benefits, tramping had become a popular past-time by the early 1900s, with the celebrated New Zealand botanist Leonard Cockayne remarking, “Mountains are the noblest recreation ground, the finest school for physical and moral training, a source of perfect health to those who visit them, and the place for enlarging our minds by the study of nature in Nature’s greatest laboratory”. This is a sentiment as true today as it was then, observed in the passion New Zealanders have for the outdoors, and the pride they have for the diversity of their country. 


With New Zealand’s ecological sensitivity, tramping and the routes it established became an integral part of conservation from the 1930s onwards. Stoats, deer and feral cats became a threat to the indigenous species, and the leisure pursuit of tramping was partnered with the sport of hunting. Thus a great hut and track network was established in both islands, eventually to be taken over in 1987 by the Department of Conservation (DOC). Under the DOC’s stewardship, the great trails of New Zealand have acquired a global cachet, attracting walkers from all over the world to its stunning scenery. 

The Nine Great Walks  

The Tongariro Northern Circuit 

Located in the centre of the North Island, the Northern Circuit encircles Mt. Ngauruhoe, (in)famous for not only being an active volcano, but also having a bit part as Mt. Doom in The Lord Of The Rings. At just over 43km, the three huts from the start at Whakapapa Village make it a not-too-daunting four day tramp. Taking in the enchanting Blue and Emerald Lakes, endless valleys, waterfalls and explosion craters, the terrain is considered intermediate. Just as well, as you will spend most of your time in awe of almost other-worldly scenerely. Days one and two are the most challenging as you gain altitude up to 1800m, with days three and four being a gentler descending gradient back to the starting point of Whakapapa Village. The DOC-operated huts along the route must be booked in advance. For further information, check out the Tongariro section on the DOC’s website 


Lake Waikaremoana Track 

Another four day tramp towards the East coast of the North island, the Waikaremoana features a more lush, dense forestry setting. A cooler and wetter part of the country, the calls of the Tui and Kereru are carried by the mists in the morning, and the calm stillness of the lake make this a perfect walk for those wishing to escape to nature. Based in the Te Urewera national park, this is a quite untouched part of New Zealand, protected and retaining its spiritual links with Maori history. An intermediate walk at 46km, you will find day one the most arduous, and the huts which break the journey up are well maintained. Again, find more information at DOC's section on Lake Waikaremoana


Whanganui Journey 

The third largest in New Zealand, the Whanganui River has the distinction of being the only river in the world which has the same legal rights as a human being. This reflects the supremely important place the river occupies in Maori history and spirituality. This is not so much a walk as it is a paddle through Maori heritage, and what is still some of the least touched region of the country. At an impressive 145km it is a long five day journey, and an absolute must if you wish to experience New Zealand as its ancient residents will have. It is also a bird watcher’s paradise, with the unspoiled wilderness host to the Tui and Kereru, and best of all the elusive Kiwi can be heard during its nocturnal foraging. There are a mixture of campsites and huts along the route. The DOC provides more information on its Whanganui page


Heaphy Track 

Based in the Kahurangi National Park at the North East tip of the South Island, the Heaphy Track is widely considered to be the most gentle of all the Great Walks, good for beginners as well as seasoned trampers. A five day tramp over 82km, the route takes in every possible variety of terrain – beech forests, cliffs and caves, river crossings, tussock country and, as you approach final kilometres, incredible coastline and beaches. With such diverse landscape comes an equally diverse wildlife. Along the way, you will be treated to a cacophony of birdsong from every imaginable species, and with many trampers opting to do the Heaphy Track during darkness, there is always the chance of coming close the elusive Kiwi – just listen for its delicate rustlings. Unlike most of the other Great Walks, it is also open during winter if you fancy slightly more challenging conditions. As always, further information can be found at the DOC website


Routeburn Track 

If desolate and soaring mountain scenery is more your thing, then the Routeburn Track is definitely for you. Linking the Mount Aspiring National Park and the Fiordland National park it the South Island, this route offers two awe-inspiring and contrasting landscapes as it follows the glacial scar which divides the Southern Alps from Fiordland. Although only 32km in length and a suggested three day duration, the mountainous terrain takes in considerable altitude and it is definitely a challenging walk. The scenery, however, makes any walking fatigue recede. The walk is peppered with beautiful tarns, waterfalls, and lakes which change colour depending on the weather, and the summit on the final day of the tramp provides panoramic views over the Darran Mountains, and some of the highest peaks in the country. Check out the DOC’s site for more advice. 


Abel Tasman Coastal Track 

Although the smallest of New New Zealand’s national parks, Abel Tasman is possibly the most popular, and in no small part to this stunning five day coastal tramp. Over 51km, here again you get the best of both worlds, with some of the sections following the coast line so closely that it’s best to remove your walking boots in favour of sandals. And yet very quickly you can become lost in dense manuka forest, with ubiquitous birdsong to keep you entertained. Given its popularity, you will find many facilities along the way if you fancy taking a break. You can try snorkelling and cliff diving, and if you find you get your sea legs, you can choose to kayak some of the sections. The Abel Tasman Track is very popular with tour providers, so you may find this route busier than some of the others, although on the plus side there are more accommodation options available. See the Abel Tasman section of the DOC’s website for further information.  


Milford Track 

Beginning at crystal clear Lake Te Anau and showcasing the brutal beauty of New Zealand’s ancient glaciation, the Milford Track has earned its reputation as the best walk in the world. Thick beech forests lead the way on the first day of this five day walk, before the MacKinnon Pass emerges and opens up views to Mount Aspiring to the North and Fiordland to the South. The mountain terrain continues, taking in Mount Balloon and the Jervois Glacier, before finally arriving at Sutherland Falls. This 580 metre waterfall is the tallest in New Zealand, with water fed from glaciers above. Many of the Lakes you meet along the walk are strangely warmer that would seem, and make for excellent swimming. Smaller waterfalls continue in abundance, and you’ll have your vertigo tested by the many rope suspension bridges traversing the creeks towards the end of the walk. Bear in mind that purists consider this walk to best completed when the weather is at its most foul, with torrential rain flooding down the mountain sides bringing an untamed force to the experience. Learn more about the Milford Track here


Kepler Track 

A relatively new addition to the Great Walks at 60km, The Kepler Track is a four day custom-built exploration through New Zealand’s deep Fiordland at South Eastern tip of the South island. With a more forestry and tussock feel than its closest neighbour, the Milford Track, Kepler nevertheless continues the theme of bruising mountains, spectacular waterfalls and calming lakes. Although classified as intermediated, exposed ridge sections make this a challenging walk, but you will be kept company by the cheeky mountain Kea, and as this is Kiwi country you might hear its occasional nocturnal shriek. Walkers familiar with Scotland might remark on how similar the terrain and landscape is to the Trossachs, with fern covered hill sides and cloud hanging low in deep valleys. You will come across Lake Manapouri on the third day, and whether it’s more beautiful that Loch Achray is a subject sure to animate New Zealanders and their Scottish cousins. Check with the DOC website for further information and hut bookings. 


Rakiura Track 

Remote, peaceful and romantic, Stewart Island is where you’ll find the most southerly of all the Great Walks. A twenty minute ferry ride from Invercargill, the Rakiura National Park comprises 85% of the island, and provides the setting for this 32km three day walk. The island truly is an unspoiled gem with only 400 residents, and as you’d expect the wildlife thrives, unencumbered by human interruption or the usual animal pests that brings. Bird fanciers from around the world beat a path to view unique species resident only on the island. And if you fancy trying the walk at night, you stand a good chance of encountering the Island’s own Kiwi, the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. The walking terrain is very pleasant, quite flat and much of it coastal, with plenty of opportunities for diving and boating along the way. As on the mainland, the DOC do a fine job of maintaining the hut network along the route

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