New Zealand’s newest long-distance hiking path is a 3,000-kilometer monster that spans the length of the country. Here’s how to tackle it.
Opened in 2011, the Te Araroa—Maori for “long pathway”—stretches more than 3,000 kilometers from Cape Reinga at the top of the North Island to Bluff at the bottom of the South. A trip along the entire trail usually takes four to six months. But no matter what you hear about its wild and rugged nature, don’t be scared: there’s no place in your pack for fear.
1) Who can do it?
How long of a visa you get depends largely on what country you come from, so check with Immigration New Zealand before entering the country. Since the trail’s opening, the number of hikers on the Te Araroa have doubled annually, according to Rob Wakelin, chief executive officer of the TA Trust. During the 2014-15 hiking season, the TA Trust estimates approximately 200 people attempted thru hikes, with many more tackling sections of the trail. Although there are plenty of first-time hikers on the TA, this trail is not recommended for the inexperienced.
2) What are the best resources?
Prepping for the Te Araroa is like studying for a difficult test, with information scattered randomly across the Internet. Start with the TA Trust and TA Wiki web pages. Join the TA Facebook groups to see what others have asked and ask your own questions. Read blogs from TA alumni. There are trail notes and maps, but there is no guidebook, since the TA Trust continues to be in negotiations with private landowners.
3) No guidebook? Really?
Nope. Without an official guidebook, the Te Araroa can feel like a “choose your own adventure” sometimes. The route is fixed and sometimes marked by orange poles and triangles. It’s a very good idea to have a GPS and PLB on the TA, especially in the more remote sections of the South Island. (Search and rescue is complimentary in New Zealand). In a few sections, the route is entirely up to you.
4) What is the tread like on the Te Araroa?
The biggest misconception about the Te Araroa is that since it is in New Zealand, which is known for its “Great Walks,” this must be easy tramping. That’s wishful thinking. The TA mostly takes the rugged path, overlapping with just two of the nine Great Walks. The best way to describe the trail quality is “mixed”: one minute you’re slogging up and down near-vertical muddy slopes with the biggest tree roots you’ve ever seen, and the next you’re channeling your inner mountain goat on a six-inch-wide trackless scree path, nothing below but imminent death.
On the flip side, more than 30% of the “trail” is made up of paved and gravel roads. There’s even a paddling portion. Despite the foreboding description, the New Zealand scenery is worth the trip, with impossibly lush, moss-draped alpine beech forests, windswept beaches lined with seals and penguins, and frequently active volcanoes.
5) Where do I camp?
There are very few places in the New Zealand bush that prohibit camping. There is even an entire Department of Conservation hut system, which operates on a ticket scheme. (You can also buy a six-month hut pass that will cover all your stays on the Te Araroa). In the more populated areas of the trail, like on the North Island, finding stealth camping becomes a little more difficult. Be sure to ask permission to camp when you are on private property.
6) What is the resupply strategy?
Resupplying is easy on the North Island, as you walk through a village every few days. The South Island is more desolate, and the choices more limited. There are also longer hauls (6-10 days) between resupply options. Lower your expectations for food options and hitch to bigger towns, or send yourself some mail drops.
7) What is the most important gear for hiking New Zealand?
Don’t consider this a gear list so much as a round-up of country-specific items you’ll want. Must-haves include sunblock, sunglasses and a hat. Don’t underestimate how close you are to the equator: those UV rays are strong. Another must-have: trekking poles. They’ll save your knees and sometimes your life as you find yourself going straight up and straight down (switchbacks are out of favor in New Zealand) or crossing your 50th river of the day. A GPS and/or mapping app on your smartphone helps avoid the urge to pull out your hair when navigating the Te Araroa. And because your battery will drain faster than you can find outlets, a solar charger will help keep you in business.
8) What’s the weather like?
Being in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand’s seasons are opposite those of the US. The North is the warmer island, while the South Island is colder and wetter. Don’t trifle with the weather in New Zealand: wait out river crossings until storms pass and always be prepared for the worst, even in the heart of summer. Most people travel southbound as the southern hemisphere’s spring begins in October, and continues through November and December.
9) Who are these Kiwis I keep hearing about?
They aren’t fruit or birds, but New Zealand locals. Kiwis are notoriously hospitable, so don’t be surprised if someone invites you into their home for “a cuppa” and to say “good on you!”
“The bigger goals for the TA Trust are to have the trail really mean something to New Zealanders both walking the trail and supporting walkers and the trail itself,” Wakelin says. This is part of the reason the TA will never be 100% off-road: “We are creating a uniquely NZ experience which involves interaction with the local people and culture as well as wilderness walking.”