My previous post summarized places to find information on hiking Te Araroa (“TA”), New Zealand’s Long Pathway. While those resources are incredibly helpful, there are a few things I learned during my time hiking across the South Island that aren’t necessarily covered there.
To fill in those gaps, here are my 10 best tips for hiking the TA:
1. Treat Kilometers Like Miles – This is primarily for Americans used to hiking in miles. People say that New Zealand’s tramping trails are some of the roughest around. They’re not wrong.
The tramping trails you’ll find on the TA are demanding. The concept of switchbacks hasn’t really caught on in New Zealand, so the trails charge straight up steeps slopes and then right down the other side just for the fun of it. Nor are they the constructed pathways that exist in the States and on most of the famous trails abroad. Be sure to allow yourself extra time to negotiate tricky sections, whether it’s ascending/descending precipitous slopes, sidling across ledges, or following rivers courses for kilometer after kilometer.
2. Be Prepared For Wet Feet – Speaking of river crossings, you’ll do hundreds of them. Some days the trails crosses a single river scores of times. I ended up with mostly or completely wet feet probably as many as one third of my days on trail. Don’t think you’ll be able to keep your feet dry by changing into camp shoes at every crossing. You’d waste hours. Just accept the fact that your feet will be completely soaked on a regular basis and charge right on in. Help yourself out by wearing shoes that dry quickly.
3. Filter the Hut Water – Nearly all the huts in New Zealand’s impressive backcountry system have systems to collect rainwater in large cisterns. Ignore anything you hear otherwise and don’t drink the hut water without filtering. I know of only one or two people who got sick along the trail, but I did hear multiple stories about dead rodents in the cisterns. I’m living proof that you won’t necessarily spend weeks in recovery from drinking dead mouse water, but at least filtering will help you pretend that you’re drinking nothing more than fresh rain water.
4. Treat Official TA Map and Notes Distances With Caution – One thing you learn during thousands of kilometers on the trail is your pace on different kinds of trail. Early on, I noticed that my times on certain sections varied fairly significantly from what I expected based on the distances in the official maps and notes (which can be inconsistent between themselves). This suspicion that the stated distances were inaccurate was confirmed when I began hiking with Justin and Patrice LaVigne, who are religious about measuring their trail miles. Know that official distances may, sometimes fairly significantly, vary from the actual trail kilometers.
5. Build in Time for Side Trips – Contrary to popular opinion, at least on the eastern side of the Pacific Ocean, the TA covers only one of New Zealand’s nine great walks. There are reasons for this, but what it means is that TA thru-hikers who stick to the official trail will miss some of the most stunning sights in a country renowned for beautiful scenery.
The easiest way to remedy this is to take side trips from the official trail as you go. For example, from Twizel, it’s fairly easy to head to Mount Cook and make a run up to Mueller Hut for the night. Other relatively easy side trips include the Routeburn Track (Queenstown), Angelus Hut (Nelson Lakes), and Cascade Saddle (Wanaka). Alternatively, if you prefer hiking straight through, make sure your flight out of New Zealand is several weeks after you finish the TA so you have time to visit the sites you missed.
6. Trail Markers Are Often Merely Suggestive – The TA is typically marked by either small orange triangles or metal poles capped by large orange cylinders. In some cases, it seemed that the primary criteria in determining placement, especially with regard to the poles, is longevity. In other words, the markers are sometimes placed so as to ensure that they wouldn’t have to soon be replaced due to damage from high water, washouts, or landslides. Providing precise navigation assistance to hikers trying to follow the trail sometimes appears to have been a somewhat lower priority. Be aware that the actual trail can often depart a fair distance from the markers, particularly when following river courses.
7. Hitching Is A Viable Way of Getting Around – That’s true even if you look moderately homeless like many TA thru-hikers do. You’ll often have to hitch from the trailhead to resupply points and back, but don’t worry. It’s usually a fairly painless process and you’ll get the chance to meet some great people along the way.
8. Don’t Rely on Weather Reports – New Zealand’s weather is erratic. As a result, weather reports, even for the same day, can be surprisingly unreliable. Be conservative with regard to weather in planning each section and be ready to adapt to quickly to changing conditions. For the more remote sections, such as the Richmond Range, this means bringing an extra day or two of food in case you get trapped by unforecasted bad weather.
9. You Can Do the TA Without Carrying the Guidebook – The architect of the TA, Geoff Chapple, has developed a walking guide for New Zealand’s Long Pathway. Although it is described as a guidebook, it’s not a practical guide to take on the trail due to its bulky size and the fact that the trail is still evolving so rapidly. Buy it if you want, but don’t plan to bring it with you on the trail.
10. Trail Magic Happens – Kiwis are, in general, some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I benefitted from some incredible trail magic while hiking across the South Island, which for me most frequently took the form of food. The most notable instance happened when I arrived in Wellington before the hike started and was treated to a delicious welcoming dinner and a home stay with some great trail angels. Other times, the trail magic came in the form of a dinner of penne with sun-dried tomatoes and ricotta, pear cider, and raspberry cheesecake with a quintet from Quebec, or a timely plate of nachos courtesy of a crew of Department of Conservation kiwi researchers at Huruni No. 3 Hut.
I heard dozens of similar stories from other hikers, especially those who did the North Island. Be open and friendly. You never know what will happen.
11. Boyle Village is Not Really a Village – Boyle Village is located at the end of the stunning Waiau Pass Track, just after the lovely Anne River Hut. Despite it’s name, Boyle Village isn’t a village, a town, or anything else like it. It’s merely an outdoor center that, if you’re lucky, might sell you old food left over by its guests. Don’t plan on resupplying there or buying a hot meal. For that, you’ll have to hitch 50 km to Hanmer Springs or be patient until you reach the next resupply at Arthur’s Pass.
12. Don’t Miss the MacKenzie’s Cinnamon Rolls – MacKenzie’s Cafe is located on the main street in Tekapo. Their cinnamon rolls, especially the cream cheese-caramel, are absolutely amazing. Don’t miss the chance to sate your trail hunger with their warm, gooey goodness.
In general, the food along the trail in the small towns was better than I would have expected. Another gem was the pub in Otautau. The food there was way better than it really had a right to be for such a small town.