New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks in 9 Weeks
Story & Photos: Joe Bird & Cat Smith
January 18, 2019
Joe Bird and Cat Smith had a dream to walk all nine great walks of New Zealand. So far, so outdoorsy. But all nine walks in nine weeks straight? It was the kind of epic challenge that would either turn into the adventure of a lifetime – or fail miserably.
The Nine Great Walks of New Zealand epitomize everything that keeps drawing us back to this amazing country: the huge and varied landscapes; the feeling that you’re in another world; the challenge of carrying your life on your back for up to a week at a time. We’d had the idea of hiking all nine in our lifetime but decided it would only happen if we did them all at once… in nine weeks, to be precise.
Some people thought we were mad. Others thought it was an epic adventure. Our feelings bounced between the two at different stages of the journey.
It all started with the Routeburn Track and our welcome to the fickle New Zealand weather. Heavy rain and mist so thick we could only see a few meters ahead of us, missing most of the famous valley and mountain panoramas. The moments the sky cleared were magical. New Zealand was teasing us with the theatrical – keeping us wanting more.
The stunning Milford Track, our second Great Walk, greeted us with rain: 200mm of Fiordland’s finest. Although this made the hike harder, the rain brought the valley to life, creating hundreds of waterfalls streaming from the mountaintops. With flooded boots we soldiered on as track turned to stream.
All was forgotten on day three of the walk when we reached the MacKinnon Pass. A miracle brought clear skies and we witnessed the grandeur of Fiordland’s mountains in all their glory. The challenge was turning from seeming madness to something absolutely incredible.
Things only got better with the magnificent Kepler Trail, one we didn’t expect to be our favorite. As we hiked above the bush line, the panoramic views of the Kepler Mountains and Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau were unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Despite battling high winds, with each ridge we climbed it only got better and better, our immense feelings of gratitude growing.
The highs and lows of Fiordland behind us, the walks started to get easier. We headed down south to the Rakiura Track, a leisurely two-day hike through pristine forest and untouched beaches. Then we ventured back up to Abel Tasman where we strolled along the beautiful coastline for four days. Interspersed with coffee stops, and a pizzeria, the whole track had a leisurely holiday vibe. Our final South Island Great Walk was the Heaphy Track, a quiet and beautiful four-day hike. We fell asleep to the sound of kiwi calling back and forth to each other at night.
It was when we reached the Whanganui River that the difficulty returned, as this great walk is, in fact, a great canoe journey. Until then, the most we had ever canoed was 5km; this route was 145km. It would be a bumpy five days through rapids and down a river that had recently suffered major flooding, resulting in many fallen trees and debris in the water. Surprisingly, we managed to stay in the canoe for the 50/50 rapid. We loved the whole experience.
Following Whanganui, we took on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, which includes the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. It is a track known for gale-force winds and adverse weather conditions. But the clouds cleared, the wind died down and we had the most amazing weather of any of the hikes. We spent two days walking under the shadows of volcanoes on a lunar landscape, past colored lakes that look like they are from another planet.
That moment when we stood at the top of the Red Crater, looking upon this otherworldly scene, we had a sense of reaching the pinnacle of our journey. The terrain was sometimes tough, particularly the scree on Red Crater, but the high from completing it was worth every step.
By the last hike – Lake Waikaremoana – we were feeling unstoppable. And then hiking in New Zealand happened. Snow, gale-force winds, freezing temperatures. But in the moments when the hoods could come down, we were able to appreciate the spectacular forest. We were elated to be finishing, but also didn’t want the journey to end.
The extreme highs and lows had brought us closer together. Multi-day hikes can challenge a relationship, as you deal with tiredness from hiking, sleep deprivation from bunk huts with snorers and way too much freeze-dried food. But we experienced incredible places and moments: singing Christmas carols in the summer snow on the Kepler; stumbling upon a pizzeria on the Abel Tasman Track; feeling complete despair and elation at the same time in the rain on the Milford Track.
After months of planning, booking, researching and hiking, this challenge had become our life, culminating in the kinds of moments you don’t get anywhere else but in the great outdoors. We’ll always be grateful for the privilege of experiencing those incredible landscapes on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.