Walking Wonderlands At Home

Aotearoa’s awesome backcountry isn’t just ‘world famous in New Zealand’, but recognised across the globe, with National Geographic lauding our expansive national parks and Great Walks as offering a “one-with-nature experience you can’t get anywhere else”. Lonely Planet goes as far as describing tramping as “almost a national religion in New Zealand”, and even before the borders were barricaded there were promising signs that more and more Kiwis are becoming believers, flocking to the backcountry with their boots on—numbers of New Zealanders tackling the Great Walks rose by 13 percent in 2018.


Mark Weatherall, executive director of the Te Araroa Trust (the Te Araroa trail is a 3,000km track that stretches from Cape Reinga to Bluff, incorporating some of Aotearoa’s most iconic walks), says that sad as it is to be “cut off from the world”, the current climate “creates some unique opportunities for New Zealanders to explore their own backyard”. The trail manager has noticed a “real buzz among New Zealand walkers” and believes that this year “will be a year to remember for the Kiwi outdoorsperson”. 


When bookings for the 2020/21 Great Walks season opened last winter, numbers of Kiwi hikers increased by up to 47 percent, with DoC heritage and visitors director Steve Taylor describing the demand as “unprecedented”.


Darryl Wilson, CEO of Wilsons Abel Tasman, tells Verve that they’ve just had one of their best ever seasons.


“We had a campaign last year during a lockdown that ran: ‘escape, revive, and reconnect’,” he says. “It really resonated with a lot of people. There was the revive aspect of being in the forest and the sea which really opens the mind. The reconnect angle is a big thing with family and friends, encouraging groups to spend time together—probably having also had a reprioritisation of life values after the events of the past year.”


What’s also encouraging for the industry is that exploring the great outdoors is being contemplated by ever more Kiwi hiking novices of all ages and backgrounds.


“There are an awful lot of people that would love to go out and experience New Zealand’s backcountry, but wouldn’t know where to start,” says Peta Bamber, marketing manager of Ultimate Hikes in Southland. “They perhaps also don’t have the experience or confidence to organise a multi day hike. It can also be very daunting to be so exposed in remote locations, so having guides is beneficial. Spectacular landscapes aside, our guides are what our walkers are most grateful for.”


What has also put so many off for so long is the notion that, in order to experience the magical of the wilderness, you must forego all luxuries, which is absolutely no longer the case. Many tour operators provide premium lodgings alongside their gear and transport services. 


“There can be this misconception that the backcountry is all about dehydrated food, hairy legs, and woolly socks,” chuckles Darryl, “but that’s simply not correct. We run civilised adventures’, and have been for 40 years, so we’ve kind of got the hang of it now!”


Closer to home, Auckland-based Kiko Guided Tours, helmed by Mary Clifford, incorporates cultural teachings into her walking trips, aimed especially at first generation New Zealanders yet to “experience a Māori narrative”. 


“I practice cultural safety,” says Mary, “it’s important that new people are familiar with it and having discussions around our traditions. This entails things like undertaking a karakia around our homecooked kai, learning about Māori medicine, and understanding the value of our landscapes.”


Mary says that “new New Zealanders” are also blown away by the spectacular surrounds of Aotearoa’s biggest city. 


“There’s so much diversity to Auckland,” she adds. “You have the majestic black sands of the west coast, and the semi-tropical, golden east coast beaches and two big contrasting harbours at either side. In between, sits the Waitākere Ranges and Hunua Ranges regional parks. It’s pretty amazing really.”


Darryl says that it’s one of the few positives drawn from this pandemic era, people travelling within their own countries.


“Instead of folk venturing off the perceived brighter and shinier things, we’ve had New Zealanders—particularly first-generation New Zealanders who historically head back to visit their families—have a valid excuse to have a good luck around the country. That whole reconnection with New Zealand has been a great thing.”


With that in mind, Verve brings you a rundown of some of Aotearoa’s best guided walking and exploring tour operators…

Canopy Tours

For a different kind of exploring, call in at Rotorua’s award-winning eco-adventure park Canopy Tours, where ancient forests may be viewed by trails, swing-bridges and ziplines. Two tour options include the Original Canopy Tour and the Ultimate Canopy Tour with its mammoth 400-metre zipline (600m in total), a pair of swingbridges and several viewing platforms. Ask about options for tandem ziplining for couples and experiences aimed at senior travellers that gradually increase the comfort levels throughout the experience until guests can view the forest canopy from above.


New Zealand Trails

Offering “the trip of your lifetime”, this DoC-approved, Queenstown-based operator offers 5- to 19-day “all-inclusive, guided adventure tours in comfort and style”. Options include tours of multi-day tours of both North and South Islands for all fitness levels and hiking abilities. Daily walking times range from two to eight hours, taking in iconic sights like Aoraki/Mount Cook and Milford Sound, incorporating the likes of swimming with dolphins in Kaikōura and kayaking Queen Charlotte Sound. Accommodation takes the shape of handpicked lodgings that include “exclusive beach house, luxury wilderness retreats, mountain hideaways and stylish, lakeside hotels”. 


Hiking New Zealand

Hiking New Zealand provides a plethora of walking and touring options—including women-only adventures—again, across the whole nation, as well as bespoke packages. Owned and operated by a small and knowledgeable team of passionate hikers, you’re guaranteed to find the most appropriate adventure for your needs, whether it be a guided Great Walk or a lesser-trodden, though no less magical, trail, like the Gillespie Pass, with side trips to legendary locations such as Waitomo Caves and Rotorua’s geothermal gems.


Walking Legends

This iconic operator showcases the very best of North Island, from Great Walks the Tongariro Northern Circuit (or just the fabled Alpine Crossing) and Lake Waikaremoana to guided treks across the Coromandel and Great Barrier Island. Serious hikers can tick off all of Aotearoa’s northern half’s classics with the 12-day Legendary Bucket List tour. Another collection of impeccable—and humorous—guides, everything is taken care of on these small-group, multi-day adventures, from food through to wine and premium lodgings. 


Ultimate Hikes

Legendary operator Ultimate Hikes concentrate on legendary Great Walks, the Milford and Routeburn Tracks. But rather staying in the relatively rudimentary DoC huts, walkers rest their weary heads at private lodges replete with full kitchens (meals are included, and there’s a selection of NZ wines and beers) and views of the towering alpine landscapes and ancient forests. These guys employ some of the best guides in the business.


Kiko Guided Tours

Owner Mary (Mere) Clifford is a proud Kiwi of Māori and Pākehā descent, with ties to Waikato-Maniapoto and Ngāti Porou iwi, as well as “early bohemian settlers”. Her small, family-owned firm regale guests with pūrākau on their six, 3- to 6-hour boutique tours that include the city’s volcanoes, the Waitākere Ranges, the Muriwai coastline, Hunua Falls and Manukau Harbour. Tailored itineraries are also offered, including Hobbiton, Waitomo Caves, Rotorua and Matakana food and wine combo tours.