Ranking the Great Walks of New Zealand

One of the PRIMARY reasons to come to New Zealand is the amazing landscapes. And exploring them by Ā foot is probably the best way to see a good part of the country, at least if you have the time to do so. After nearly 12 months, I’ve gone on a lot of hikes. The single day hikes range from quick 20 minute jaunts to full day expeditions, but it is the multiple day outings that are the most notable. Through these hikes you can get completely lost in nature – many kilometers from the nearest road, with just the bag on your back to support you for several days in a row. ‘Tramping’ is something I had never tried before coming to New Zealand, but I’m definitely glad I discovered the joy of doing so.
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The Travers-Sabine Circuit

When I had planned to go hiking around Nelson, I had pictured the Abel Tasman, Heaphy and Angelus Tracks. I had never even heard of the Travers-Sabine Circuit. That was until I was at the DOC office in Nelson looking around and noticed an extended circuit in the Nelson Lakes area that could incorporate the Angelus Hut. As it was considered a much more difficult trek, I had written it off as one I wouldn’t do, as I’d need someone to go with me and I didn’t want to put in the effort to find someone, when I could just do the simpler Angelus Track by myself. Those plans changed when Danielle suggested we do the entire circuit instead of just the Angelus Hut.

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The Angelus Hut Track

After the Abel Tasman, I took a few days to rest back in Nelson. I had planned to do my final Great Walk, the Heaphy, next. At 80km long, the Heaphy Track is the longest Great Walk, though not the most difficult. I picked the hostel called ‘The Bug’ for a 3 night stay. However, plans changed.

While at the hostel I was sharing a room with Kat and an Israeli girl by the name Danielle. She found out I enjoyed hiking, and that we both had similar interests. While I had planned to do the Heaphy track next, the Angelus Hut track was another I had wanted to do while in the area. Danielle was looking for someone to join her hiking in the Nelson Lakes area, so we did the hike together. Except the hike wasn’t exactly the AngelusĀ Ā trackĀ as originally planned.

Nelson Lakes National Park is about an hours drive south of Nelson, and is the northern area of the Southern Alps.

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The Abel Tasman Great Walk

Far and away, the Abel Tasman is the most popular Great Walk in New Zealand. While the Milford is the most well known and hardest to get a spot on, the ease of access, natural beauty of the golden sandy beaches, wonderful weather and generally easy hike make this an extremely popular spot for everyone. I had already walked a portion of the Abel Tasman with my parents, and now I was back to do a larger portion of it, and in a different fashion. Via sea-kayak!

You cannot kayak by yourself here (safety), plus it is more fun to have someone share the work anyways, so I met Katharina, a traveller from Germany, and we planned out our journey. Here is what we did:

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The Kepler Track Great Walk

Just a few short days after my journey on the Milford, I was heading out for my next Great Walk – the Kepler Track. I had wanted to wait for perfect weather, and my hiking companion, Becky, and I got it just 3 days after I had stepped off the Milford. A bit of a quick turn around, but I’m not going to miss out on 3 perfectly sunny days!

The Kepler Track is probably the most ‘accessible’ Great Walk there is – you can actually just walk to it from the town of Te Anau. It was created in 1988 as a way to off-load some of the demand on the Milford and Routeburn tracks, and thus doesn’t have the history that those tracks do, but also has some nice, more modern amenities. Such as switch-backs for going up and downhill, and a fantastically laid out track itself. Very wide and easy to walk. They made some goofy decisions still (the campground spacing is terrible), but overall, it was quite a different experience compared to the other two Great Walks in the region.

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The Milford Track

“The Finest Walk In The World”

That’s a mighty bigĀ proclamationĀ to make. Even in a country known for great hiking. The Milford Track has a lot to live up to, not just that quote, which gets bandied about quite a bit in regards to the Milford, but also from general word of mouth that places it as an outstanding 4 days.

When I had made my booking for the Milford Track back in November, I had yet to set foot on any hike longer than a day. 4 months later, I had tackled 4 Great Walks and 3 other multi-day hikes. But none had the reputation the Milford has, not even the fantastic Routeburn and Tongariro Circuit walks. I really didn’t think the Milford could beat my favourite hike, the Tongariro Circuit, and most people had considered the Routeburn superior than the Milford (and in it’s own right, one of the best hikes in the world). I really didn’t see HOW the Milford could even approach it’s reputation, as the negatives to the hike hit on a few major issues I have with hiking in New Zealand:

  • The trek is primarily lower level, so walking among the trees rather than the peaks. Forest all seem to look the same after a while, and I’ve hiked in a LOT of forest here in New Zealand.
  • Sandflies. And they make them extra voracious it seems on the Milford.
  • Rain. Rain rain rain. The Milford area is one of the wettest in the world. Hiking in the rain…not fun. Especially when you get days of it.

And so, on March 13th, 2012, I found myself on a boat heading to Glade Wharf, with a sense of trepidation and doubt. I just couldn’t see how this track could live up remotely to what it had been built up to. There were just too many things stacking up against the Milford in my mind, and the forecast wasn’t promising either. The first day was to be great, 2nd day deteriorating and the 3rd day, the longest hiking day involving the highest section of track…heavy (severe) rain. Yuck.

But for the time being, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we crossed Lake Te Anau. It was a beautiful day to start hiking.

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The Routeburn Great Walk

Once I knew about Sabrina, Marc and Alexandra’s plans to travel to New Zealand, it wasn’t a matter of if we’d do a Great Walk together, it was a matter of choosing which one. The Milford Track is the obvious choice – world famous, challenging but not too difficult, excellent huts and stunning scenery. Three flaws though – it has to be booked months in advance, it often gets rained on, heavily, and the clincher – it takes 4 days and 3 nights to complete it. Which, when you only have 17 days in New Zealand, is a good amount of time. So I considered other options. The Routeburn was the next, and fit perfectly.

While the Milford Track gets the most international attention, the Routeburn is often considered to be superior (I’ll find out before this month is out). It’s a considerably shorter trek, only taking 3 days and 2 nights, and also receives less rain and heavy cloud than the Milford. Bookings don’t need to be quite so far in advance either. And what worked out perfectly was how you can hike it. You start on the Queenstown side of mountains and hike into the Milford Sound side.

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