Like the Appalachian Trail in the U.S., the Camino de Santiago in Spain, or the Great Himalayan Trail in Nepal, New Zealand's Te Araroa is more than just a hike. The 1,864-mile trek spans the length of New Zealand's two main islands, starting at the northernmost tip at Cape Reinga, and ending in the deep south, at Bluff.
Meaning "the long path" in Te Reo Maori, the full trek takes about four months to complete (averaging 15 miles per day), though many people do it in sections. It passes along wild coastlines, through ancient forests, high mountains, volcanic plateaus, and even big cities and along roads.
Te Araroa first opened as a coherent track in December 2011. The idea of a connected trail spanning the length of the country had been under consideration since 1975. But lack of funding or agreement between local councils, conservation departments, and private landowners meant it wasn't until the second decade of the 21st century that the trail was officially launched. About 60 percent of Te Araroa is through Department of Conservation (DOC) land, and the remaining 40 percent is through private or local council land.
Although individual experiences vary, Te Araroa has been called the most difficult long-distance trekking trail in the world. Alpine experience and knowledge of how to cross rivers are essential. But with a bit of ambition and preparation, Te Araroa can be the adventure of a lifetime.
Te Araroa covers roughly equal distance across the North and South Islands. The North Island sections of the trail run for about 990 miles, and the South Island trails are 870 miles.
Te Araroa starts at the northernmost tip of the North Island, Cape Reinga, and passes down the eastern edge of Northland, through Auckland city, through the rolling hills of Waikato, the high volcanic plateaus of the central North Island, down the Whanganui River in a kayak, through the Tararua Ranges and to the capital, Wellington. After crossing the Cook Strait that separates the North and South Islands, the trail continues through the Marlborough Sounds and along the mountainous spine of the South Island, through the Richmond Ranges, the Nelson Lakes National Park, Arthur's Pass National Pass, Lakes Tekapo and Pukaiki, and the resort towns of Queenstown and Wanaka, before ending at Bluff.
A lot of the trail passes through national parks and along well-established trekking trails, but other parts don't. It's not all well marked, and even crosses private land in places. Hence, good navigational skills are necessary to undertake this trek.
Some hikers skip the North Island entirely or parts of it. Trekkers seeking true wilderness are sometimes disappointed that the North Island parts of the trail require a lot of road walking, especially through the large city of Auckland. There's more public conservation land in the South Island than in the North (10 of New Zealand's 13 national parks are in the South Island). Some sections in the north are also notoriously muddy, especially in the forests of Northland. But, hikers who have completed the full trek without skipping the North Island generally love both islands, as each has its own high points.
If you can't do the full length of Te Araroa, here are some shorter sections that will give you a taste of New Zealand's beauty without the huge time commitment:
- The Puhoi Track is a two-hour hike just north of Auckland.
- The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a highly popular day hike in the central North Island that crosses a stark volcanic plateau.
- The Queen Charlotte Track is a five-day hike through the forested, sunken river valleys of the beautiful Marlborough Sounds at the top of the South Island.
- The challenging three- to four-day Motatapu Track, which connects Queenstown and Arrowtown.
The Best Time to Hike Te Araroa
Most people hike Te Araroa from north to south, starting in Northland between September and December. This allows for cooler late spring and early summer temperatures in the North Island and means trekkers reach the colder, higher-altitude South Island in the mid-to-late summer, when there's less likely to be snow in the mountains, and the rivers will be lower.
Although less common to start in the south, travelers who opt for a south-to-north route generally start from Bluff between November and January. These are the warmer months in the South Island, and mean the North Island is reached before the notoriously wet winter. Whichever direction the trail is walked in, it's also important to know that much private rural land, especially in the South Island, will be closed for the lambing season in spring, until October.
- Although there's no compulsory fee to complete Te Araroa, Te Araroa Trust requests a donation of NZ$500 from thru-hikers, which goes towards maintenance of the trails.
- The only part of the trail that does require a permit is the Queen Charlotte Track in the Marlborough Sounds.
- Te Araroa Trust asks that all trekkers register, even day trekkers.
- Accommodation along the way is mostly in campsites and DOC huts. It makes sense to purchase a DOC Hut Pass. This doesn't allow you to stay in all campsites and huts en route without an extra fee, but it will help keep costs down. Free camping is not recommended or encouraged in most places.
- Trekkers must carry everything they need on the trail, including food and water between service points and water sources, and camping gear. It's important to purchase light items that are easy to carry when preparing for the trek.
- Te Araroa Trust recommends that trekkers planning on doing the whole trail budget NZ$7,000-10,000 ($4,100-5,900) for the four-month trip.