This is a really tough one to answer and maybe that’s why I feel compelled to do just that.
I’m not long off the trail and I suspect that my thoughts will change as the toil of the hard miles recedes into the rosy glow of memory. Furthermore, I didn’t actually hike the entire Te Araroa. I only did the 1,300 kilometers of the South Island so I’m not qualified to speak on the whole trail. It’s possible that adding the additional 1,700 km of the North Island to complete the set would affect my answer.
But why should I let those minor details hold me back? Here goes.
I had a great time on the TA and yet … I’m reluctant to recommend the trail to others. Somehow my own unforgettable experience, the beautiful scenery, the new friends, and scores of interesting and imminently likable people that I met on trail don’t quite translate into an unequivocal recommendation of the Te Araroa itself.
The most significant problem is that, in its current iteration, it’s hard to tell who the Te Araroa is for. The trail is not a high altitude alpine trail for those who want challenging and beautiful mountain adventures. New Zealand has that, in spades, but the Te Araroa skips most of it.
It’s not a scenic trail through New Zealand’s best natural sights and scenery. Again, many of those areas lie off the trail. The result is that the trail’s scenic element doesn’t stack up to the world’s best trails.
It’s not for people who want wilderness and wildlife. Both are in fairly limited supply, especially if you exclude mice, hedgehogs, and possums from consideration.
You’ll get some birds (kea (alpine parrot), weka, magpies, hawks, and more) and a few imported ungulates (red deer, and possibly some tahr, wapiti/elk, or chamois), but most of the animals you’ll see will be of the domestic variety.
What the TA does have aplenty is hard miles on roads and farm track, through dense bush and knee-deep mud, and up and down steep but low altitude tracks. The North Island, for example, suffers from nearly 700 kilometers of tortuous, not to mention dangerous, road walking.
These types of trail are not exactly the stuff of which hiking dreams are made.
These limitations are partly attributable to New Zealand’s topography (the best areas aren’t exactly lined up waiting to be connected by trail), but also a decision to avoid overlapping with the Great Walks, which would increase costs and traffic, while imposing scheduling restrictions that would be unworkable for a long distance through hike.
The result is, though, that the TA presents hikers with lots of hard work while too often delivering an anemic reward.
On the other hand, completing the Te Araroa (or even just the South Island, as I have) delivers a certain amount of pride. The limited aesthetic payoff even magnifies this feeling of accomplishment. Persevering across such a difficult trail demonstrates a level of physical endurance and mental stamina that few people possess.
So there it is. I can’t in good conscience recommend spending 4-6 months slogging across what is often a less-than-stellar trail when you’ll then need weeks or months more to see the amazing sights that are right around the corner.
That conclusion might change if you’re a dedicated thru-hiker looking to add to your collection or are desperately in need of some difficult to come by bragging rights.
But if you don’t fall within one of those two groups, instead of tackling the TA, take those long months and do the myriad of shorter, but sweeter, tracks that are scattered around the rest of the country. Go to Mt. Cook/Aoraki and Mt. Aspiring. Visit Fiordland National Park and Milford Sound. Check off the Five Passes, Rees-Dart, Routeburn, Kepler, and Abel-Tasman Tracks. Spend a day or two in Tekapo, Wanaka and Queenstown.
Then add in the best parts of the Te Araroa – the Tongoriro Crossing, the Wanganui River, the Richmond Range, Nelson Lakes, and the Waiau Pass track. It will require more creativity and you’ll need more than two words to describe your adventure, but you’ll leave without feeling like you’ve missed places that you really should have seen.
That’s all for the Te Araroa. I hope you enjoyed my New Zealand adventure. My next hike will be across South Africa’s Drakensburg Grand Traverse late this year. In the meantime, I’ll be doing some island hopping around the South Pacific.
I really want to visit NZ this Feb through mid April and was considering biking but realize that I’ll be limited to certain tracks and roads, missing a lot of the best backcountry scenery the country has to offer. I saw the Te Araroa and thought it might be the alternative but I’ll take your word for the route being underwhelming from a reward standpoint and missing a lot of the better parts of NZ. That being said, what is my best approach at stringing a bunch of the Great Walks and other worthy multi-day hikes?
Thanks a lot for the article
Hey, Frank! You can’t go wrong in New Zealand. The real problem is that there is so much great hiking that it’s difficult to narrow your choices. The Te Araroa was a great experience for me, but I do feel that someone with limited time in the country may want to prioritize their time a little differently.
The Great Walks are spectacular but most of them must be reserved well in advance. The Department of Conservation manages the reservations, check their site for details: http://www.doc.govt.nz/great-walks.
There are plenty of great hikes outside of the great walks. At a minimum, make sure you check out: the Richmond Range, Nelson Lakes and the Waiau Pass track, the Five Passes Track, Gertrude Saddle, and the Mount Cook area (especially Mueller Hut). This site (https://nzfrenzysouth.wordpress.com/) is a great resource for researching the dozens of great hikes that New Zealand has to offer.
Hope that helps! Let me know how your trip goes!