Photo by Dahn Pratt
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Hiking in New Zealand: Te Araroa Trail Culture

Dahn Pratt shares practical advice on hiking and trail culture along New Zealand's Te Araroa.

Dahn Pratt      Te Araroa Trail Culture       04/14/2020
Dahn Pratt
Te Araroa Trail Culture
04/14/2020

Hiking in New Zealand: Te Araroa Trail Culture

By: Dahn Pratt

 

Hiking (or tramping as it’s called in New Zealand) has a distinct flavor in contrast to its North American counterpart. The lingo, attitude, approach, gear, and mindset are all very different when going out into the wilderness anywhere in Aotearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand. Literal translation: “land of the long white cloud”). North American and European hikers may find some surprising nuance in the Kiwi trail culture, none of which should discourage hopeful trampers along NZ’s 3,000 km/1,800 mile Te Araroa (Maori for “the long pathway”).

A long pathway leading up to Lake Constance in the Nelson Lakes region of the South Island.

After spending six months in New Zealand’s bush — an Oceania euphemism for backcountry, I have come to the conclusion that the local customs of outdoor recreation are an amalgamation of both North American (wild camping) and European (hut-to-hut) trail cultures. 

Many people have inquired about the modus operandi of a Te Araroa (TA for short) thru-hike so here are some common questions and answers:

A view from the Queen Charlotte Track in the South Island
Photo by Dahn Pratt

Question: I’m wondering whether hikers are absolutely required to stay in huts, or is “freedom camping” allowed in appropriate places along the trail? Staying in huts would be a deal-breaker for me; just not the experience I’m looking for in the woods.

 

 

Answer: You are by no means required to stay in the Department of Conservation (DOC) huts along your thru-tramp of the TA, in fact for nearly half of the journey huts are not available as there are none on most of the North Island portion of the trail. That being said, the price for 6 and 12 month hut passes ($92 and $122 respectively) are negligible when considering what you get; a sheltered place with beds, oftentimes a faucet connected to a water catchment system, and fire place in the middle of the bush. Although hardy walkers may be reluctant to indulge in such luxuries, having a dry place to hunker down during a storm is almost a necessity in New Zealand’s backcountry. Notoriously moody and rapidly changing weather systems in the region ensure that at some point you’ll want to wait out less than ideal situations. And besides paying for a hut pass is a definitive way to support DOC, which maintains almost the entirety of the trail as well as the huts, long drops (pit toilets), and other trail amenities. 

Some sections of trail simply had nowhere to camp, e.g. the character building Tararua Range, North Island.
A cyclone brought the snow level down to 3,000 ft, Much of the trail was above the snowline making camping unrealistic. Near Wanaka, NZ.

Question: The TA Trust doesn’t want cheapskates on the trail:

 

Those trying to walk Te Araroa on a very small budget are creating unease and annoyance in some areas by free camping where not welcome and/or not supporting enterprise along the Te Araroa route. If you wish to walk a trail on a very small budget (ie less than NZD$5000-7000) we’d respectfully suggest that Te Araroa may not be appropriate for you.

 

This language on the trail association website can be pretty off-putting: How hostile is the environment along the trail for low-budget hikers like me who aren’t going to throw a lot of money around in trail towns (staying at motels very rarely, very few restaurant meals, etc).

 

Answer: New Zealand can be an expensive place to visit. Accomodations, food, and transportation (especially getting to NZ) are all cost-prohibitive. That being said, the TA is not exceptionally more expensive than a thru-hike on any of the national scenic trails of the United States. Budget varies widely depending on what kind of splurges one wants to take or part-take in (here is a good cost breakdown). The biggest resentment echoed by Kiwis about travelers, especially of the dirt-bag variety (think hiker trash), is that they do not follow local etiquettes and try to cut corners, e.g. not paying for holiday parks (paid campgrounds). A big sticking point for locals has been that foreign travelers come into their communities, use up the resources and leave without contributing. This has caused a tension between outspoken Kiwis but is mostly relegated to the vanlife crowd, for which New Zealand is a popular destination. Nearly every interaction I had with locals was pleasant, Kiwis are generally gregarious and generous people. I’ve had more spontaneous trail magic on the TA than anywhere else and nearly all the trail angels that spoiled me didn’t even know the trail existed prior to our encounter! All of that being said, it is important to respect local’s wishes and play by the rules, whether that means paying for accomodations when hiking through private property or supporting small isolated communities that have set up amenities specifically for thru-trampers, similar to trail towns on the AT or PCT.

The only not-so-friendly local is the endangered Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, renowned for its mischievousness.

*A note on freedom camping:  Freedom camping is permitted on DOC land, which comprises a majority of the trail. In 2011, New Zealand has passed laws restricting freedom camping; these changes are directed towards car campers and vandwellers on holiday, not thru-hikers, but you should still read up on what’s allowed beforehand. In general, Kiwis are very welcoming and will let you camp on their land if you ask. In some places the Te Araroa Trust has negotiated easements over private property with the condition that camping is not permitted. Respect the signs, as these are essential connector stretches of trail; it would be a shame to lose access due to the selfish decisions of a few bad apples. Be a good steward so the trail continues to exist for years to come!

 

Question: I’m not a hiking “purist”, is it possible to pick and choose sections? Will I be ostracized for not hiking the trail in its entirety?

Crossing a tide-dependent estuary near Auckland, NZ.

Answer: The TA is a relatively new trail, formally opening in 2011. Most trampers take a much less “purist” approach to thru-hiking. A majority of the trampers on the trail are non-American and generally have not done a long-distance trail in the States. As such the focus is not on a continuous footpath but rather the experience. Indeed most people hitchhike through long road walk sections, of which Te Araroa has many. Trampers will also take alternates or even rent bikes in sections where more interesting or shorter points of interest exist. In fact, the TA Trust even says that some sections are downright impassable on foot:

 

The Rakaia is a large braided river with an unsettled shingle bed. Even in low flows it is not possible to safely ford this river on foot anywhere near Te Araroa’s trailhead on the north bank. As a result, Te Araroa Trust has declared the Rakaia a hazard zone which does not form part of the trail. Instead it marks a natural break in the continuum, just like Cook Strait. The trailheads on either side of the Rakaia make natural beginning or end points for Te Araroa section trampers and it is really only through-trampers that have to deal with the issue of getting from one trailhead to the other. Don’t risk a foot crossing. Instead go around the road in a vehicle. Doing so will not compromise the integrity of a through-tramp.

 

There are several of these “natural breaks” along the TA including the Cook Strait (separating the North and South Islands of New Zealand) as well as a river journey along the Whanganui River, which is to say a continuous footpath is not possible on Te Araroa. None of this should discourage hikers from walking the roads but it may be hard to find willing participants, during my thru-tramp in 2017-2018 I only knew of approximately 5 people, myself included, who walked the seemingly endless roads.

Getting a boathitch across Whangarei Heads through a natural break in the trail

In the same vein, hiking Te Araroa takes you through incredibly breathtaking landscapes and topographies but one constant criticism is that the TA bypasses or outrightly omits New Zealand’s “best parts”. This is a conscious decision by the TA Trust to limit excessive environmental strain on very popular places but by no means limits intrepid travelers from seeking out these highlights. A good outlook is to view the TA as a highway that gets you to an ultimate destination but one you can hop on and off of to see other attractions (e.g. Great Walks, other scenic pathways, famous landmarks and towns).

Speechless on the way up to Mueller Hut in the shadows of Aoraki/Mount Cook.

Final Thoughts on Etiquette:

It may be common knowledge but worth mentioning, the trail is new, and relies largely upon the generosity of locals to work. You are a representative of the broader community; make sure to be kind and respectful so that others can have the same opportunity. Remember that thru-hiking is a privilege, not a right.

Waiau Pass in the Richmond Range of the South Island.
All photos by Dahn Pratt

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A view from Cape Reinga on the Te Araroa on the North Island of New Zealand looks over beautiful blue ocean, white sand beaches, and green hills.
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3000 km (1860 mi)     $39.99 full guide
Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand, Te Araroa
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Cape Reinga, North Island, New Zealand, Te Araroa
Photo by T L

Te Araroa

Te Araroa is a long distance hiking trail in New Zealand, stretching 3000 km across the country’s two main islands. The trail travels from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

3000 km (1860 mi)
$39.99 full guide
Learn more
Get our trail guide for this area!
About the Author

Dahn Pratt

Dahn has been collecting trail data for Atlas Guides for more than two years across thousands of miles. His most recent journey was a 10,000 mile project called Chasing Summer. When he is not hiking he can be found camping, or making bad jokes.