New Zealand – The Great Walks

And other MULTIPLE DAY FUN

January 30 till March 22, 2018

PRELIMINARY

  1. In 2018 we had planned 8 weeks in NZ during which we mainly wanted to do multiple day walks or “Great Walks” as classified by the Department of Conservation (DOC), the government body in charge of anything green or blue in NZ. We did in the following order (all self-guided except Doubtful Sound):
    1. Canoeing the WHANGANUI river (classified as a Great Walk) (we did 4 days, 3 nights), North Island.
    2. The TONGARIRO CROSSING (1 day, half day actually), North Island.
    3. The QUEEN CHARLOTTE track which we did as the “Marlborough Sounds Adventure” (3 days of which 1-day hiking, 1-day sea kayak and 1-day mountain bike)
    4. (Originally not planned) ABEL TASMAN Track, we did half because we had to delay our Heaphy track with one day: so 1 day hiking from Bark Bay to Marahau.
    5. The HEAPHY TRACK  (5 days, 4 nights)
    6. The KEPLER TRACK  (4 days, 3 nights)
    7. The DOUBTFUL SOUND  – Sea kayaking trip (3 days, 2 nights), guided.
    8. The ROUTEBURN TRACK (3 days, 2 nights)
    9. biking the CENTRAL OTAGO RAIL TRAIL  (3 days, 2 nights)

So, hereunder is a writeup of the above main walks with some of our insights as a conclusion.  As we are visiting some interesting places in between these walks like Auckland, Waitomo Caves, Wellington, Queenstown we will also cover these, but not exhaustive and on another page: New Zealand, travelling around.  (You will find nothing about the North nor East of North Island)

Note that we were in NZ a first time 13 years ago. This with our young children. We went to Kaikoura to spot whales and swim with Dolphins, paddled in Abel Tasman and visited Fox Glacier.

  • Be sure to book the Great walks as much as possible in advance! When we booked, early November to do the trail in March, some of the Routeburn huts were already full. The Milford Track, we did not even bother to look into as the huts for this walk are fully booked a year in advance. We chose to do the Doubtful Sound by kayak instead.
  • We rented a small but handy Toyota Corolla Hatch for 35 NZD a day from EZI cars via the Rentalcars website. Even when not doing that many walks or other multiple day activities, we would probably not rent a campervan as driving on NZ’s scenic roads is so much more fun with a normal car. A 2-person MPV turned into a camper with cooking facilities would anyhow cost about 130 NZD per day. There are everywhere lodges where you have a wide choice of simple rooms with communal facilities (including cooking) to full ensuite apartments.
  • We travelled to NZ with two smaller trolleys, two 40 litre backpacks for the multiple day walks and two small daypacks for city or day walks. When doing the great walks, we left all the luggage in the car which is safe to do. You don’t need to pack much for NZ anyway if you don’t mind wearing the same clothes for the whole holiday as all motels/lodges/holiday parks have excellent laundry facilities (2 x 4 NZD for laundry and drying).  And Kiwis are easy going; a comfy t-shirt and shorts will bring you everywhere!
  • NZ is also a paradise for outdoor sports clothes and gear! You will find everywhere great shops with a dangerously attractive choice of fantastic things! So, leave some space in your suitcases for things you do not really need but you cannot resist buying!
  • For the walks we could pack everything which is needed easily in the 40 litre backpacks, carrying between 10 and 12 kg each and allowing for an extra which you always crave even at home and especially when you see a fellow walker eating it! In our case: chocolate. You can buy anywhere an ever-increasing array of freeze dried/dehydrated foods to which you simply add boiling water for an acceptable meal. We bought a Summit rubber water kettle and drinking utensil set which is light and especially useful (if you don’t mind coffee with a bit of a rubbery taste).
  • We bought a Spark sim card upon arrival – literally just after leaving the plane – for 50 NZD for 2 months use. Spark has huge coverage, even where unexpected!
  • Evidently, everything you ever wanted to know about NZ is in the Lonely Planet (LP), Hiking and Tramping and the standard edition! In addition, every self-respecting town has an i-Site i.e a Tourist Information bureau with very knowledgeable and helpful people and a DOC office where you need to get (depending on the Walk!) permits, can get weather forecasts and other useful information about walks and outings.  Note though that where and when i-Site represents DOC you better double check with DOC by calling them…! Another useful source of information is the Campermate App.

OUR WALKS – TREKS – PADDLING EXCURSIONS – BIKE TRIPS

  1. The WHANGANUI RIVER TREK: 4 days, 3 nights, self-guided.

We booked our Whanganui River Journey trip with Owhango Adventures (OA) (170 NZD pp), for rental, drop off and pick up. As part of the package they also provide accommodation in their lodge in Owhango the day before you set off.

On our way, we stopped in Tamaranui a few kilometers before Owhango where we shopped in NW for our next 4-day river adventure, Owhango having no shops at all nor restaurants – we got to know from the Tourist Information in Tamaranui.

Tamaranui is a bit depressing with little more to offer than a big supermarket. We later in the day found out we had to go back there for dinner as well. There was Thai or Thai. So, we chose to eat in the Thai restaurant which serves “Thairrific” food as written on the front window.

In Owhango, in the afternoon we went down to the river for the OHINETONGA bushwalk, a 1.5 h beautiful loop walk where you can see the endangered blue ducks or phio!  The walk starts at a pleasant spot on the river offering also a “swimming pool” a bit further upstream.  (At this point the 42 Traverse, part of the Mountains to Sea mountain bike route, also passes by).

We stayed at the OA “lodge” (which had seen better times a long time before) in between the fire station and close to the highway for the night. The water faucet of the Fire station was leaking big time as to show it was ready for any bush fires. Nor did we sleep much in the wooden lodge as every so often you expect a 30-tonne truck driving through your bedroom…

Day 1 on the WHANGANUI river: from OHINEPANE to WHAKAHORO:

Grant of OA brought us to the river in OHINEPANE, gave us a short demonstration on how to tie the barrels to each other and to the boat and a small map.   We had only filled up 3 barrels with our change of clothes and food for 4 days as we looked at this trip being a great walk, so as lightly packed as possible. (Afterwards we realised we could have stuffed a lot more in the barrels, certainly after we saw what the guided groups were being served! But bear in mind that all huts are located quite a bit higher than the waterline, so you always must carry everything up for the night!)

The first day comes with great scenery, cormorant sightings, and some smaller rapids to get used to.  You often feel alone on the world, one with nature.

After about 6 hours and 37 km we reached the WHAKAHORO hut (left shore). You arrive there by paddling up the RETARUKE river for about 400 m. Then walk up the right shore before the suspension bridge and carry your barrels up for about 15 minutes to the hut.

WHAKAHORO is a basic but pleasant and clean bunkroom hut with no cooking facilities but does have drinking water and lighting (solar). And drop toilets (vault toilets). 5 minutes further up the road there is the BLUE DUCK LODGE with rooms and a cosy café which closes at 17.00 but opens for breakfast. (the Mountains to Sea MTB trail also passes here).

Day 2 on the WHANGANUI river: from WHAKAHORO to JOHN CULL

Another great day on the river, denser vegetation, and more water, so faster rapids. You can plan stops according to the map at the shelters in between, but you must be on the lookout for the signs! DOC is a bit stingy on them!  We did not see MANGAPAPA and missed OHAUORA: the sign for this one reads: “OHAUORA 200 m after the next rapid”. But there are 2 rapids in succession and no more sign…

At some stretches, the wind can be strong and blows you backwards. So, quite some paddling is needed still. You will fully deserve your dinner!

After 35 km and about 5 hours, the warden at JOHN CULL hut fortunately had put up a NZ flag at the arrival point, so we did not miss this one! The location of this hut is just stunning with great views of the river, and some grassy spots with wooden tables and benches! A perfect place to while away the rest of the day.  The hut is comfortable with cooking facilities (4 gas pits), electricity and water; but with vault toilets…

We had our first experience there with guided groups: they were served afternoon tea with cake, cheese with crackers and wine as appetizer, steaks as main dish with chocolate pie to finish with… We had our second dehydrated meal: rice risotto with lamb and traditional chicken curry which all tastes anyway like salty bean curd bits with mushy something porridge.

Day 3 on the WHANGANUI river: day 3: from JOHN COULL to TIEKE KAINGA hut.

In the morning, the guides got up at 06.00 am, woke up the whole village, took over the kitchen again and made a ridiculous amount of breakfast for the already overweight guests. And they did not leave anyhow before 08.30 ….

The water gets faster and the scenery even more beautiful with now from time to time a poisoned goat lying with its legs up in the air. (Note that DOC is making great efforts in national parks to reduce non-endogenous fauna like possum, deer, rabbits, wasps, stoats, and goats to increase local wildlife, especially birds. They do this also for flora with e.g. Canadian Pine. And this with growing success! See further)

We stopped at MANGAPURUA Landing for the “Bridge to Nowhere”, a pleasant 1 h return walk.  The Landing does also provide a nice picnic spot and makes it interesting to watch how other people are trying to moor their canoes. Expect from here on also some motorboats jetting over the river! (Note that bikers on the Mountains to Sea trail are picked up here by boat to continue further at Pipiriki!)

After the Landing there are some more interesting rapids as an appetizer for what is to come the day after. About 30 minutes before TIEKE we capsized by hitting a submerged rock. No big deal normally, our barrels were tied well together, and nothing was just lying about in the boat. And we do a lot of Outrigger canoeing and Dragon Boat paddling during the year, so we are used to being in the water…. But there was a second rapid immediately after, which took us in the direction of a dead tree. Not wanting to be pierced by a branch or a branch getting stuck in between our life vest and body, we did some frantic swimming and managed to move the boat to the shore to empty.

In the evening, we heard the guides explaining their guests how to negotiate the rapids the day after. One of the rapids is ominously called “50/50”, another “The Rock” …

TIEKE KAINGA is again a bunkroom hut with cooking facilities and vault toilets. There is a Marae next to it and thus rather a sacred place. We also had the tame deer from across the river (!) on a visit to pee and poo cutely all over the terrace.

We got to know that just on the other side of the river, there is the ‘Bridge to Nowhere Lodge” with rooms and restaurant (and a tame deer when not visiting the other side of the river).

Day 4 on the WHANGANUI river: from TIEKE KAINGA to PIPIRIKI

Only 20.5 km remaining but this is the most beautiful day with great scenery and gorgeous gorges!  Good to just go with the current and let the scenery sink in … But from NAPORO, the real excitement starts!  The guides – who had asked us to trail them – from the groups briefed us again on how to take the rapids. Basically, you avoid the “white water” because the waves of these fill up your boat quickly; you just stay 2-3 meter left or right of them, taking a side you deem the best one. The rest is good luck…!

We trailed the group for the first rapid – only one boat went over. We then paddled ahead as we were to be picked up at PIPIRIKI by 14.00 h already, much earlier than the guided group.

We did not capsize anymore, rather due to fate than talent.  And Grant was already waiting for us at PIPIRIKI to bring us back to Owhango where our car was parked.

CONCLUSIONS WHANGANUI RIVER GREAT WALK:

  1. A great trip! Floating down (well, paddling often helps the floating) in beautiful unspoilt surroundings for days in a row is just fantastic!
  2. We would do the same if we were to do it again: 4 days, 3 nights starting at OHINEPANE and finishing at PIPIRIKI.
  3. BUT we would probably stay in the “Bridge to Nowhere Lodge” the 3rd night (apparently, they can also arrange for canoes and pick up). So, as such you would have a nice mix of cooking facilities: none the first day, gas pits the second and a fully equipped kitchen with cook the last night.
  4. We would take some more goodies as well! (but again, be aware that you always have to carry up the barrels!)
  5. We would probably go for Whanganui River Canoes or Yeti Tours as operator. And ask for double sided paddles which are easier to steer with, but still use the same canoes: 2-seater “Canadian canoes” as they call them. They seem to be more fun than the 1-seater canoes around; at least the ones we have seen were not particularly good: you cannot sit straight enough in them! And 2-seater canoes are also ideal to test your marriage!
  6. But bear in mind that this downriver is quite different from going down the Dordogne or the Vézère! We think DOC is taking this “walk” too lightly!
  • Expect at least to go over once! Do not panic, you automatically float to the side of the river or your boat gets stuck in shallow (er) water.
  • Make sure your barrels are always tied together and tightly to the boat!
  • Wear sports shoes or at least shoes with a hard sole (crocs).
  • Do not let anything float in the boat
  • Hold on to the side of the boat when drifting (the boat will not sink), lying on your back with your feet in front, so you can push yourself away from rocks or tree branches
  • Practice a few times with your eyes closed getting your life vest off!!! If you get stuck, you can manage to get it off…. (we heard of people having drowned in the river!)

2. THE TONGARIRO CROSSING (one Day)

The night before we planned to do the crossing, we stayed at the Tongariro Family Village between WHAKAPAPA and TURANGI for 105 NZD, ensuite bedroom with communal cooking facilities in the holiday village. We had dinner in Tussock in Whakapapa, a restaurant belonging to Chateau Tongariro where they refused us entry so called because they were fully booked.  (You will often notice in NZ that restaurants claim to be fully booked but staff only allow customer numbers to what they think the kitchen and waiting staff can handle!)

We were told at Tongariro Family Village that the shuttle to take us to MANGATOPO Car Park the day after to start the Tongariro Crossing was cancelled because of bad weather. But then, “there is always Summit Shuttles as your reliable transporter between summits…!” We called them and booked space leaving from Chateau Tongariro by bus at 06:00 am.

So, we drove to the Chateau to catch the shuttle at 06:00 am to MANGATOPO Car park. The company offered 2 pickup times at KETETAHI Car park: 12:00 h and 14:00 h. As the weather forecast was not good, there were to our nice surprise not that many climbers.  We finished in 4 h 15 minutes, walking rather fast as the forecast was particularly bad for the afternoon.

But we were lucky as we saw in between patches of clouds all the beautiful sights the walk is offering including MOUNT TARANAKI to the West.

CONCLUSIONS TONGARIRO CROSSING

  • The volcanic nature of the crossing makes this a unique experience with sights of extraordinary phenomena…
  • It is called “Alpine” but is nothing more than your usual mountain hike in the Alps or Pyrenees… called alpine rather because it is above the tree line.
  • Nevertheless, your dinner will be well deserved!
  • Prepare yourself for any weather condition! Chilly winds on the South Crater made us wish we had taken some warmer gear in our daypack. Starting early gives you also more guarantees for better weather. When raining, we do not see any fun in doing the crossing; tramping through volcanic mud will not give you any added sense of achievement…
  • Stay the night before in WHAKAPAPA and start from MANGATOPO Car park as this brings you immediately in a “volcanic mood”. (you soon go through a lava stone field which resembles a Hong Kong New Territories car dump.)
  • Starting from here offers you a succession of great sights with the red crater and blue and emerald lakes as absolute highlight
  • Also, starting from here the elevation is 950 m while starting from KETETAHI means a 1220-meter ascent

We went to TURANGI later in the afternoon. Rather depressing. We went back and cooked in our lodge.

3. The QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK in the Marlborough Sounds (QCT in the MS): 3 days, 3 nights, self-guided but on a package.

We had booked in advance the “Ultimate MARLBOROUGH SOUND ADVENTURE experience” of the QCT with Marlboro Sound Adventure Company (MSA) in Picton for 975 NZD pp: 3 nights’ accommodation and 3 days “adventure” of which Day 1 is hiking on the QCT, Day 2 sea kayaking in the MS – Kenepuru Sound, and Day 3 is  mountain biking on the QCT.

The night prior to the trip we stayed in Jasmine Court in Picton as part of the 3-day package.

Day 1 on the QCT: from Ship’s Cove to FURNEAUX LODGE. We were brought by water taxi (Cougar lines) to Ship’s Cove where the QCT starts (or ends) – look out for dolphins on the way out: we spotted Dusky ones.  

We hiked to Furneaux Lodge, 15 km or 3h45 starting with a bit of a climb but undulating after and with great views over the sounds.  We had coffee at Furneaux. This is rather a grand old dame resort in a superb location off the Endeavour Inlet and also offering bunkrooms for 70 NZD, ensuite cabins for 130 NZD.

We were picked up from here by Cougar line water taxis and found out there are many more resorts in the MS that need to be discovered: Bay of Many Coves resort, Te Mahia resort, Lochmara Lodge, Punga Cove resort…..,  and the Portage Resort Hotel where we were taken  to.

The Portage is located on a shore of the Kenepuru Sound. It has very pleasant and comfy rooms with good views over the sea. The restaurant is decent with a great terrace, and its Manager thinks his huge pepper grinder makes every dish worth a Michelin star “with a dash of freshly ground pepper”.

Day 2 in the QCT: sea kayaking in KENEPURU SOUND: We had to wait 1 hour for a Chinese couple that didn’t apologize after they finally turned up, made no effort to even try paddling afterwards and were towed by our French guide the whole 15 km…

Highlight of the day: our French guide Lars picked mussels from a farm in the sound and boiled them for us as lunch on one of the beaches. The best green lip mussels we would have in NZ!

Paddling in this sound is ok but not spectacular.

Dinner at Portage.

Day 3 on the QCT: mountain biking from TOREA BAY (on the other side of Portage) to ANAKIWA (the start or end of QCT).

A fabulous day! The start is a bit arduous as you climb to SHAMROCK RIDGE pushing your bike up for about 45 minutes. But you are rewarded with stunning 360-degree views over the Sounds!

The downhill from there is often a bit more than intermediate grade, often a bit challenging but exhilarating all the way!! We had our picnic lunch (secretly) and coffees and a water refill on the beautiful terrace of TE MAHIA LODGE.  After that the mountain biking is fun!  Towards the end do not get too carried away, though because it remains a track with some tricky bits and pieces!

At ANAKIWA, a lovely lady in a caravan sells you coffees, ice creams and other goodies while waiting for the ferry to bring you back to Picton.

We stayed in the Harbour View Motel (a bit overpriced in comparison with Jasmine) for 230 NZD. We cooked ourselves as the budget was reached for that day.

CONCLUSIONS QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK /MARLBOROUGH SOUNDS

There are plenty of ways to explore the QCT knowing that Cougar Lines can bring you and/or your luggage to any place in the Queen Charlotte Sound.

If we were to do it again, we would probably walk 2 days and bike one day, so the first day water taxi to Ship’s Cove and walk to Camp Bay, 26.5 km and book in Punga Bay resort or Mahana Lodge. (Alternative: break down the first day to Furneaux (15 km) and 2nd day to Camp Bay (11.5 km)). The 2nd day from Camp Bay to Torea saddle and stay in Portage Hotel. The 3rd day arrange for bikes to be delivered to Torea Bay by one of the operators at the Waterfront of Picton and mountainbike to Anikawa.

We would reserve the sea kayaking for Abel Tasman as we were not impressed with the paddling in the Kenepuru Sound (see later: doing the Abel Tasman Track as a 3-day sea kayak paddle)

The Marlborough Sounds are just stunning and can be explored for weeks by car, foot or bike or boat or combination of all. What we certainly want to do later is to explore the sounds (all three of them) by driving/cycling down the Kenepuru road and further; cycle around the Pelorus Sound, walking the Nydia Track, Okiwi Bay, French Pass, everything all the way up to d’Urville Island…

4. ABEL TASMAN TRACK (ATT): we walked about half of it: 24 km from Bark Bay back to Marahau.  

AQUATAXI brought us to BARK BAY (45 NZD pp) with picture stops at Split Apple Rock and Seal Island (Tonga Island). We walked back from Bark Bay to Marahau, a very pleasant and easy walk (the path almost looks manicured) but with stunning views of the sea and beaches. We had a picnic stop at Cleopatra’s pool, a 1-hour worthwhile detour on the trail. We walked for about 5 hours and had coffees at the Park Café at the end (beginning) of the ATT.

CONCLUSIONS ABEL TASMAN TRACK :

Like with the QCT, also here you can arrange any distance along the ATT that suits you! Or combinations hiking and kayaking.

Because of a few heavy cyclones that passed earlier on in the year, part of the ATT – apparently the most beautiful and least tramped part- was closed: i.e the loop from Totaranui via Separation point, around Whariwarangi hut. Check with DOC before you book whether the whole trail is open! Mutton Cove was closed already quite a while!

We certainly want to go back and probably walk the northern loop and then kayak from Totaranui down to Marahau in 3-4 days while staying at DOC huts (there are 4 Great Walk huts, no cooking facilities!) or do the same on a “luxury” package with Abel Tasman Kayak Tours.

5. THE HEAPHY TRACK. 5 days, 4 nights. Self-guided.

We booked in advance the Golden Bay Air Heaphy package (210 NZD pp) to bring us by shuttle from Takaka airport – leaving the car safely parked there –  to Brown hut and at the end of the trail shuttle us from Kohaihai to Karamea and fly us back to Takaka.

Day 1 – Heaphy Trek: from Brown Hut to PERRY SADDLE HUT: 4 hours with picnic at Aorere shelter), 17 km, climbing from 200m to 915m altitude.

From Brown Hut the path goes up gently to Perry Saddle. Our heartrate hardly went up.  Although it was raining, we wished all ascents were like this!  

We arrived at Perry Saddle hut which is just above the tree line with an amazing change of landscape and flora. Perry is a nice new hut with 3 rooms of 8 bunks each! We lit the fireplace to dry our clothes and enjoyed views of raging clouds and rain outside. We did not check out the Perry Spa…

Day 2 on the Heaphy Track: from Perry Saddle to SAXON HUT (3.0 h).

We started the clear sky morning with a little hike back to Flanagans corner, the lookout just after Aorere we skipped the day before because of the weather. From there you have good 360-degree views over the forests. After this we went up to Perry Summit, of which the trail starts about 200 m passed Perry Saddle Hut.  It is quite a steep climb to 1285 m – becoming a bit technical when coming down – with good views also over the Abel Tasman sea. We did it in 1.5 h. With lunch back on the wonderful terrace at Perry all to ourselves with instant soup, tuna spread, Tasty cheese and crackers.

The walk to Saxon Hut in the afternoon was just gorgeous! Make sure you spend enough time exploring the “enchanted forest” just after and around Gouland Downs Hut where you indeed expect elves and fairies (or even hobbits) to pop up from behind curtains of lichens and cushions of mosses.

We had a quick dip in the Saxon River “spa” behind the Saxon hut. The hut is a bit older but still charming. And we were only 4 that night.

Day 3 on the Heaphy Track: from Saxon Hut to MAC KAY. (2.5 h)

Another lovely walk with sightings of a phio couple, evidently on the blue duck creek!

Mac Kay is a splendid hut (4 x 8 bunks) with great views over the Heaphy river and the Tasman Sea and a wonderful sunset, weather permitting. (And with flush toilets!). From here we did also the little climb to the lookout behind the warden’s hut.

At night we heard the resident kiwi calling for his mate.

Day 4 on the Heaphy Track: from Mac Kay to HEAPHY HUT.

A smooth and gentle descent –  you wish all descents were like this! – with plenty of birds to spot and stop for (they spot you first, though): Fantails, Tui, Robins, Kereru, Bellbirds and Cormorants on the river! Suspension bridges bring further excitement. And fantastic views, 2 huge ROTA trees – you cannot miss them – and again varied scenery now coming with Nikau palms make this another perfect day!

Arrival at the 5-star Heaphy hut (certainly 5 star for location!) off a lagoon on the Heaphy River and Tasman Sea. Take a dip in the lagoon but stay under as long as you can because sand-flies are welcoming you to the West Coast!  Spend the day further exploring the river and coast! You may encounter fur seals soaking up the sun on the beach.

In the evening, you may have fellow walkers staying with you and having just started the track from Kohaihai into the opposite direction and carrying fresh produce, making your salivary glands working profusely when pan frying shallots with garlic and mushrooms for their fresh Bolognese sauce … while you are heating up water for your last remaining air-dried space spaghetti…

Day 5 on the Heaphy Track: from Heaphy Hut to KOHAIHAI SHELTER.  (17 km, 3h10)

The weather forecast was grim with heavy winds and rain and high tide at 08.30 am.  We started early at 08.00 to be able to cope with any unforeseen circumstances and to make it in time for the shuttle in Kohaihai at 13.00 .

Because of the weather we could not entirely enjoy the views but the roaring sea and the many streams we had to walk through made us appreciate again the raw power of nature! (Check tides and condition of the path after rainfall!)

In the shelter at Kohaihai we changed our wet clothes for dry ones while doing our own versions of hip hop and other kinds of spastic movements to scare off sand-flies. We then called the shuttle company (there is a phone in the shelter) to pick us up earlier, so we could have a nice little lunch in the Last Resort Hotel in Karamea before taking the flight back to Takaka.

Upon boarding the 5-seater Piper, the skies opened, and we had a most magnificent end to our already magnificent walk. We flew back right above the Heaphy Track the way we came.

CONCLUSIONS on the HEAPHY TRACK

If you want to try one walk which is not too strenuous and to see whether you like the multiple day treks while staying in huts, then Heaphy should be your choice! Heaphy is lovely through its diverse scenery and gentle through its slow ascent and descent and the many boardwalks now put up by DOC.

The track is very well maintained, although the section between Heaphy Hut and Kohaihai Shelter will need more maintenance soon! Always check with DOC or with the wardens after heavy rainfall!

The huts are as nice as huts can be. The walk is not that busy (yet) as the Kepler and Routeburn; prices for a bed in the huts reflect this.

We would still opt for doing the walk in the direction as we did: from Brown Hut to Kohaihai just because of the variety of scenery and vegetation with views of the Heaphy river and the Tasman Sea as highlight at the end.

The ultimate of the whole experience is of course flying back from Karamea to Takaka.

We did the walk in 5 days, 4 nights. We would probably do it again in this format: it allows you to enjoy thoroughly the magnificence of the walk and its ambience and to make some extra excursions.

All the huts have cooking facilities and even pots and pans. All have fireplaces (very welcome when humid and cold!), Mackay and Heaphy have flush toilets.

6. THE KEPLER TRACK: 4 days, 3 nights. Self-guided. 

Day 1 on the Kepler Trek: from the “control gates “of the Lake and the Waiau river to LUXMORE HUT.

We drove early from Qeenstown to Te Anau (2h15m, the road leads further to the Divide which is the end of Routeburn and ends at Milford Sound), picked up the tickets for Kepler at the DOC office, parked the car at the Control Gates (Kepler is a circular track) and set off. 

You start with a nice flat walk along the Lake through mainly beech trees and a huge variety of fungi.

From Brod Bay on the track starts to go up:  from about 215 m altitude to 1085 m over 8.2 km. So, about 10% or double the inclination as the first day on the Heaphy Trek. Once the tree line reached you have panoramic views over the lake and the surrounding mountains.  It took us 3h15m to reach Luxmore Hut (the hut has a “changing room” with water, the only hut we stayed in with this facility)

Luxmore hut has superb views over the Te Anau Lake and its Southern Fiord. Also explore the Luxmore Cave (slippery so wear your hiking shoes and take a headlamp!).

In the evening, the warden gave us a tour explaining the main flora of the tussock around the hut and how it has adapted to high(er) altitude and dry weather. Note that the tree line in NZ is about 1000 m lower than in most parts in Europe. Apparently, this because the soil is much colder and the layer of soil much thinner…

Day 2 on the Kepler Track: from Luxmore to IRISBURN HUT.  We did it in 3h30m. With no stops as it was raining seriously.

This should be the most beautiful day of the track! With great views along the trail and apparently the best from Mount Luxmore (1472 m) – which we didn’t even climb.  (So, the good thing is that we must do the walk again!). But even in the rain we enjoyed the limited amount of views.

This is a tougher day than the elevation profile on the map lets you believe!  You basically climb twice to about 1385 m from around 1000 m and then a steep descent to Irisburn at 497 m altitude.

At Forest Burn Saddle shelter, look out for Kea’s, the world’s only alpine parrot. From this shelter on, the track follows a splendid ridge (great job done by DOC!) all the way to Hanging Valley. And then in beautiful forest and in an endless series of zigzags down to Irisburn.

From Irisburn Hut, a nice little walk leads to the Irisburn Falls and swimming hole (for the brave). Look out for blue ducks!

In the evening, the warden treated us with funny stories on walkers’ behaviour…

Day 3 on Kepler: from Irisburn to MOTURAU HUT. 16.2 km, 3h 40m.

A gentle and nice walk. Look out for riflemen! (a bird!) and Rimu trees towards the end. At Moturau you can take a dip in Lake Manapouri.  And enjoy the shrooms around.

Day 4 on Kepler: from Moturau hut back to the CONTROL GATES.

The last section of Kepler is a wonderfully pleasant hike with a few possible side trips along the trail to explore!  And take time to be awed by the sheer power of the majestic Waiau river!!

We stayed at Te Anau for the night (Dinner at the Redcliff Restaurant: very good! Book in advance!)

CONCLUSIONS KEPLER TRACK

Without a doubt a great walk but we could not fully appreciate its greatness because of the weather. The few dramatic views we had during the second day hold a promise for when we return in fine weather!

We met a lot of people that did the walk in 2 or 3 days, cutting the trail short by taking a ferry to Brod Bay and start/finish there or stop/start at Rainbow Reach to take the shuttle bus there.

Again, we probably would do it as we did: 4 days and 3 nights, allowing plenty of time to absorb the beauty of the surroundings.

Expect the huts to be full along this Great Walk. (and all other ones in this part of NZ!)

There is a “changing room” in Luxmore with a faucet and little basin, so you don’t have to change into dry clothes in the bunkrooms. All huts should provide this as often you are wet to the bone by rain and sweat and changing clothes in the bunkrooms makes the whole place wet. Toilets are of the flushing type. There are cooking facilities everywhere on the walk but no pots and pans.

 7. DOUBTFUL SOUND:  3-day Sea Kayaking; guided.

The day before we set off we had to go and try our gear for the Doubtful Sound at “GO ORANGE “ (actually all belonging to Real Journeys that own about half of all Southern Island adventure activities) in Te Anau.  The 3-day trip cost 565 NZD pp and includes transfers, kayak rental and gear rental.

On day 1, we were picked up at 06.15h in Te Anau (at the long term parking), went for a 30 min drive to Manapouri, changed onto the ferry from Manapouri to the Power Station across the Lake (50 min) and finally a short busride to Deep Cove (30 min).

During the three days we paddled from Deep Cove to Crooked Arm, about 25 km, the second day further into Crooked Arm, a leisurely 15 km and the last day return to Deep Cove, again 25 km.  To sum it up (but of course the sum doesn’t justify by far the beauty of it): we had majestic views of mountains reflected into the lake-like water and of magnificent waterfalls; we spotted twice bottlenose dolphins and up close, a fur seal sunbathing.

We had exceptionally good weather: 3 days of sunshine, only the last day strong (head) winds! That day we left in the dark at 06.00 am (so clearing the campsite and putting the gear in the canoes starting at 04.30) to arrive in Deep Cove at 12.30 (pick up at 13.30 to go all the way back to Lake Manapouri and Te Anau). We had Joel as guide, a knowledgeable and cautious but funny guy!

CONCLUSIONS DOUBTFUL SOUND (DS) 3 -DAY KAYAKING

  • Without a doubt – so not doubtful at all as James Cook thought the prevailing winds would not allow his ships from sailing back out of the sound and therefore called it “Doubtful”! – one of the experiences of a lifetime! One way to feel as one with nature!
  • When you really want to explore the Sound, 3 days is a minimum. The “Overnight on the boat” and so called “one day paddling” also advertised means that you really only go paddling for 2 hours in Deep Cove. (“a day” is what it takes the operator to organise the event, not the time you expect spending the adventure!). So, not worth all the hassle nor the money…!
  • Doubtful Sound is peaceful! During the 3 days you see about 2-3 tourist boats per day. In Milford (we were told) about 50 in the morning alone. How long DS can keep out the hordes of tourists remains the question.
  • Fiordland is one of the wettest places in the world! It gets 300 days of rain per year with an average of 11.5 meters (= 4 times London). So, the 3 days of sunshine we had resembled almost a drought!
  • We were well prepared but still not well enough:
    • The campsite is nothing more than some cleared vegetation and flattened soil and a vault toilet.
    • The first night temperatures dropped to 6 degrees Celsius. My > 15-degree Celsius sleeping bag could hardly keep me warm, even when wearing all the layers I had brought.
    • Rainproof warm clothes are not a luxury! And bring at least one extra change of clothes!
    • Hard sole shoes are also a must because you need to carry your canoes a few times per day over rocky beaches! Painful if you have soft soles (like diving shoes) (crocs or croc-like are the most convenient as you can wear them in the boat and in the evening.)
    • The first day after having set up your tent, while changing from your wetsuit into dry clothes, you will be cursing yourself or the one that dragged you into this adventure!! But… always think: “The sheer beauty of nature outweighs by far little inconveniences (like sandflies?)”!
    • The shelter tent set up by the guide makes the evenings bearable and even cosy!
    • Bring handy pots and easy to cook foods: we had one gas stove with 2 small pits for 8 people.
    • Bring headlamps.
    • Don’t forget the thing you would crave the most. There is quite some space in the canoes! And share with all! You are eight in total, so you can share 8 personal cravings!
    • The canoes are very stable and with double-sided paddles, easy to navigate
    • Be prepared to paddle quite a bit and quite hard, though!
  • Go down to Moose Café in Te Anau after your return to continue the experience and the fun!

 8. THE ROUTEBURN TRACK: 3 days, 2 nights. Self-guided.

Pick up your permit for the track in Queenstown DOC; where you can also book your single or return transportation to and from the Divide…

Day 1 on Routeburn: from Routeburn shelter to ROUTEBURN FALLS HUT

The drive along Wakatipu Lake to GLENORCHY (on itself also a pleasant place to stay and use as a base!)  and then further up over the Dart and Rees Rivers is already stunning! On the way you will also notice a sign to “Paradise”! When so nearby already, it is certainly worth visiting! (This is also the way to start the Rees Dart Track).

Note that around Routeburn Shelter there are also quite a few day walks while the easy climb to ROUTEBURN FLATS (at 458 m altitude only) is a very pleasant day walk on itself!

From Routeburn shelter to the Falls Hut it is an 8.8 km with 560 m ascent, a moderate climb which we did in 2h15m. This in stunning surroundings and with the Routeburn river heavenly blue and making its way down in every possible physical form.  The Routeburn Falls hut (1005 m alt) has a terrace with splendid views.  In the afternoon, you can go up a further 10-minutes to see the Falls.

The Falls hut is brand new and has 2 big bunkrooms arranged in 2 x 2 bunks, with flush toilets, cooking facilities but no pots nor pans. As the hut is just above the tree line, nights can be chilly though, even in summer. The fireplace functions well in having your clothes dry overnight, plain luxury for the commoners or riffraff we are. Just behind this hut you will notice the luxury hut for the guided tours where clothes are machine washed and dried while guests are nipping from their G&T’s….

Day 2 on the Routeburn Track: from Routeburn Falls Hut to LAKE HOWDEN.

When we booked in November the year before, Lake Mc Kenzie Hut (LMK) was already fully booked, so we had to walk till Lake Howden Hut! We walked exactly 1h to Harris Saddle, from there 2h05 to Lake Mc Kenzie and a further 2h15 to Lake Howden.

After having passed the Falls, the hike becomes really “alpine”! You are passing a chilly saddle with potential gale winds and often snowfall, even in summer! But views from Harris Saddle onwards are just wonderful! (We got a good idea of them for about an hour only).

Mac Kenzie hut ‘s location (see picture) deserves its popularity! The Lake and surroundings need a further exploration on a next visit!  We had lunch in the Hut (instant soup, Tasty Cheese and crackers, indeed!)

The hike continues to have its surprises, though. Pictures of the 174 m high Earland Falls, about an hour from LMK are probably making their way onto Instagram or FB about twice every minute during summer!

Lake Howden is a sweet little hut of 20 places lying at a corner of Howden Lake.  We just had enough energy left that day to go along the lake and check out the campsite.

Day 3 on Routeburn: from Lake Howden to THE DIVIDE (the end)

We did it in 1.5 h BUT definitely leave more time in nice weather to go up to KEY SUMMIT (we did, so is included in the 1.5 h but Key summit was surrounded by clouds so we just had a look at the picture posted there of the possible view of Hollyford Valley… ). We had booked a shuttle via Tracknet (80 NZD pp) to bring us back to Queenstown picking us up at 10.15 h at the Divide. A beautiful ride but taking 4 hours…

CONCLUSIONS ROUTEBURN:

  • In terms of total experience, from the drive to the start, from the setting at Routeburn Shelter to long after the end at Divide, probably our favourite walk! (well, hard to beat Heaphy with the flight back…!)
  • If you manage to book so, we would still walk it in 3 days, 2 nights: book Routeburn Falls Hut, Lake Mac Kenzie Hut and the 3rd day from Lake Howden either to the Divide and go and stay in Te Anau and go back to the beginning of the Track via Greenstone Caples Track the day after or go straight from Lake Howden to Caples (then you miss Key Summit)! As such you avoid the long ride back to QT (which is not that unpleasant)
  • Using Glenorchy as base (or even Queenstown but much more expensive) you could spend a whole 2-3 weeks having the ULTIMATE WALKING experience doing the Routeburn, Milford Track (booking opens July 1 for the next season!), Hollyford Track and then coming back via Greenstone Caples, then spend some time in PARADISE and finish with the Rees Dart Track. In between you can go shopping for new supplies in Te Anau, Glenorchy or Queenstown…
  • All huts have cooking facilities, a fireplace and flush toilets. No pots and pans.

9. THE CENTRAL OTAGO RAIL TRAIL (CORT):  3 days, 2 nights. Self-guided.

In Clyde we stayed in an ensuite room at the Antique lodge for 130 NZD excl bf.  A good place. Had dinner in Oliver’s Lodge and Stables, a” white tablecloth dinner” as they call it in NZ. The restaurant is in a nicely restored grocery store with own brewery and good food. They also have rooms in their beautiful courtyard, but pricey! (note there is one more restaurant in town worth checking out plus a takeaway)

When we returned from the CORT 3 days later, we stayed at Dunstan House for the night, right across the street.  The place could feature easily in any Western movie and is kept beautifully in style! The hotel just had new owners, a nice couple! They also plan to serve food later on.  Check this out as it always feels better to eat in places where the owners are directly involved in cooking and serving you than when the place is owned by a large group – like across the street –  where the service is impersonal and indifferent.

Day 1 on the Central Otago Rail Trail: from Clyde to LAUDER.

We picked up our bikes at Trailjourneys, a friendly and well organised lot down the road to Alexandra. We rented 2 bikes, panniers and return shuttle from Middlemarch for 220 NZD pp. They can arrange the whole tour or parts of it with accommodation and suitcase transfer every evening. Anything is possible. They designed the bikes themselves for this trail, simple but good enough trekking bikes. (Note that there are three more operators serving the trail.)

We cycled a bit back to Clyde town and took the trail along the impressive Clutha river to ALEXANDRA. This adds about 8 km to the trail but is worth it!  In Alexandra you connect with the CORT by first passing a great looking mountain bike track, probably the Flat Hill Trail! (for more mountain biking, check out www.centralotagonz.com with more on the Roxburgh trail as well.)

After Alexandra you enter “block-mountains “country, with interesting rock formations, rolling hills and undulating grasslands.  We had a nice lunch in the garden of Chattoo Creek. After lunch we luckily had tailwind all the way to OPHIR, a 3 km detour from the trail.  Ophir is nothing more than a street but coming with charming Art Deco buildings! We had coffee and great pastries at the beautiful and friendly Pitches Store. They also have rooms! Also Blacks Hotel looks inviting – they were renovating when we passed. Ophir, worth checking out!

Lauder is really in the middle of nowhere. Spielberg could have filmed part of “Duel” here. We stayed at the Lauder Railway School B&B, indeed the former school of the village; cosy and sweet. 130 NZD incl bf. We stayed in the Sports Shed. And for a bit of a Faulty Towers’ experience, head across the road. There is the Lauder Hotel, but they do not provide rooms anymore! They do serve dinner – the only food available in Lauder! –  but you must go and book immediately after you arrive in Lauder.  They decide when you can have dinner…   And only mains and dessert! But dinner was good. And to make the picture complete, later in the evening the owner of the B&B gave us a rendition of “King of the Road” accompanied on his ukulele.  Sweet!

(Check out Lauder before you go because the owners of the B&B are looking to sell and move as do the owners of the hotel!)

Day 2 on the Central Otago Rail Trail: from Lauder to RANFURLY.

A simple but good breakfast at the B&B before a magnificent day! The POOLBURN GORGE between Lauder and AURIPO is just lovely! Take time to dismount and climb some trails for even better views.  And do not forget to put off your shades in the tunnels and put on your headlamps!

We stopped at HAYES ENGINEERING to visit the museum (strongly recommended! you visit also the “Homestead” , i.e where the family lived) ) and had lunch in Hannah’s kitchen with rhubarb and ginger cake as  dessert. Delicious!  We spent a pleasant 3 hours at Hayes. The weather was beautiful, the skies were blue, the air crisp and the grass freshly cut.

WEDDERBURN also makes for an interesting stop! In the unmanned info kiosk, you get to see the difference between the many kinds of wool that are produced in the area and their applications. And 500 m further down the road is Wedderburn Tavern where you could have dinner when staying in Wedderburn.

We stayed in RANFURLY, advertised as an “Art Deco” capital…  Indeed, there are some interesting buildings and murals in town.  We expect it only to be bustling though during the Art Deco festival in February. By then it was virtually dead (except for some Irish descendants dressed in green celebrating St Patrick’s in their garden); the Centennial Milk Bar was closed; only the hotel was showing some signs of life. The Ranfurly Hotel on the outside is beautiful but is missing soul….  The restaurant, the usual fare, was okay and the room comfortable. There is a 4Squares in town.

Note that a popular activity done by many is curling in NASEBY. You can arrange pick up in Ranfurly by the Naseby guys. Checkout the website!

Day 3 on CORT:  from Ranfurly to MIDDLEMARCH.

We started the day by watching the interesting video on the history of the Rail at i-Site, in the grand old railway station.

The next section of the trail, from WAIPIATA to HYDE is as beautiful as the Lauder to Auripo section!   Also make time here to explore some of the small trails going up the hills along the road.

From Hyde onwards, the track is gliding down to Middlemarch. Lunch at the Kissing Gate recommended! The shuttle brought us back to Clyde at 13.30 h. This makes also for an interesting ride as you can follow and recognise many places you have passed the 3 days before!

In Clyde, we stayed at the Dunstan House, see higher. Recommended!

CONCLUSIONS on the CENTRAL OTAGO RAIL TRAIL

  • We would call it a ride through mesmerising scenery. Relaxing and just lovely!
  • The trail can be done by everybody with only very gradual ascents and descents to be done! But if you want, the operators also have e-bikes available!
  • Read all the panels along the trail! And appreciate what our forbearers have gone through to build this rail and for what purpose…
  • The climate here in Central Otago is quite different from Fiordland with dry and crispy mornings (8 degrees C)! As our panniers were only half full, bring certainly long pants and enough layers plus hat or beany, buff and gloves!
  • We would still do it in the 3 days, 2 nights format! But sleep in Ophir the first day (Pitches Store or Black’s Hotel, early bookings for both are needed, we guess!); day 2 stay in the Waipiata Country Hotel.
  • Check out also Wedderburn Lodge, Wedderburn Tavern and Kokonga Lodge (a beautiful setting, between Waipiata and Hyde).

CONCLUSION (so far) on the GREAT WALKS

  • There are still 3 on the DOC list to do for us: Lake Waikaremoana, the Rakiura on Stewart Island and finish the Tongariro crossing. But we would not mind doing again all the above 6! And there are many more we want to walk: Rees Dart, Hump Ridge, Mt Taranaki, etc. Also mountain biking the Mountain to Sea Trail , the Old Ghost trail  ….
  • The DOC is really doing a great job in making these walks very accessible and Great in every sense of the word. The DOC sites are well organised and give excellent service! The paths are well maintained, and the huts are attended by wardens who love nature in the first place and want to pass on this passion to all passing by. Note that all huts offer info on the track and have maps and books on fauna and flora!
  • The walks described above are not that tough. Much less so than walking from Hut to Hut in the Alps or the Pyrenees or hiking in Nepal.
  • The Great walks will remain great as the paths will probably never be inundated with large masses of walkers! But DOC allowing private lodges along the Milford and Routeburn does not help keeping the numbers low on the tracks! Milford is already paying the price for it.
  • As a reference, we want to list some of the useful things (we think “useful”) next to the obvious to take on the walks:
    • Really Waterproof rain jacket and waterproof long trousers
    • Really Waterproof covers for the backpacks (we found out that our first cover was not “really” waterproof!)
    • A beanie and light gloves; and a buff can serve for anything.
    • A hat or cap to protect against the sun.
    • Sleeping bag: from 10 degrees C and above (when in summer).
    • One pair of sandals or similar for the evening in the huts (most huts ask to leave the walking shoes outside)
    • Clothes pegs (6 pp) to hang your clothes outside the huts and prevent them from blowing away
    • A few empty Ziplog log bags of various sizes, they are light, handy and waterproof
    • As breakfast we had various cereals, muesli, oats, granola, nuts and dried fruits mixed to one’s liking in a Ziplog bag with the amount of breakfast for each day times the number of days. Next a Ziplog bag with milkpowder. In the morning you just heat up water, add milkpowder to a portion of the mix.
    • For lunch: crackers, tuna spread and Tasty Cheese and sometimes salami. As dessert peanut butter in small sachets.
    • For each of us per day: 2 x instant soup, 2 x instant coffee, 1 x tea, 1 x chocolate milk; ideally not individually packed but in a plastic jar or ziplog! (note that none of the huts have garbage bins, so you need to take all wraps and packaging with you!)
    • For dinner: freeze dried meals: check out: The Back Country, The Gourmet Company, Absolute Wilderness,….(Note that you need long enough spoons to spoon out the food!), in Wanaka : check out the outdoor sports stores: there is a local duo that just started making these foods. There are also high-pressure steam cooked foods (A bit heavier to carry but a lot tastier!): Kaweka Food Company. Most are available at large grocery shops, outdoor stores, even some DOC offices.
    • Coming handy always: a lighter, a swiss knife, headlamp.
    • Except for Whakahoro on the Whanganui, you do not need to take a camper gas stove. Where cooking facilities are available, there are usually plenty, so you do not have to queue long to heat something up (except along Whanganui where guided groups may monopolise the facilities for a longer while.)