From the sand dunes of the Farewell Spit, to the volcanic terrain of Tongariro National Park, to the lush forests of Rakiura National Park and the tropical beaches of Abel Tasman, New Zealand has almost every type of backcountry terrain that a hiker could want. With so many picturesque and jaw dropping locations, it is hard to find first, a bad hike in all of New Zealand, and second, “the best” hike in all of New Zealand. However, if you are a person who likes superlatives and stunning alpine views, the best hike in all of the three islands of New Zealand (North, South, and Stewart) might just be Key Summit.
The Coast Track is a hiking trail that extends from Wainui Bay to Marahau in Abel Tasman National Park. The trail is 55.2 kilometers long (for Americans, that’s 34.29 miles long, so we’ll round up, and call it 33.3 miles total distance), and it can be hiked and or backpacked from North (Wainui Bay) to South (Marahau) and South (Marahau) to North (Wainui Bay). This trail, or as New Zealanders call it, “track”, covers a variety of stunning terrain, from forested areas, to estuaries, to golden sand beaches, along the shores of the Tasman Sea. It is considered one of New Zealand’s “great walks”, meaning that while it can be hiked piecemeal in a series of day hikes, it can also covered, and is best appreciated in a one-to-four day backpack trip (which New Zealanders call “tramping”). The best time to go on this great walk along the Coast is during Spring and Summer in New Zealand, which is from October to March.
There are hikes in the world that are greater than hikes. They are greater than hikes because most of the time, they consist of distances that cannot be covered in a single day by a single person. These hikes are greater than hikes because even if the distance isn’t that great, the scenery and the natural beauty present on them demand that the individual attempting that hike stop, watch, and listen at what the world is telling them through trees, mountains, hills, meadows, streams, and every other natural feature. It is for these hikes that are greater than hikes that the backpack was developed; and the term “backpacking” invented. And, if you really stop and think about it, backpacking is one of the oldest “sports” on the planet; except that for eons, it wasn’t considered a sport – it was considered a way of life for humans to get from one destination to another!
Today, things are obviously a little different, but the lessons our ancestors took from spending time in the wild remain; carried through time by such luminaries as John Muir (“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”) While backpacking is a vacation activity or sport to many people, it also is a reflection of a world-wide historic tradition of becoming one with nature at certain points in life. In this respect, there are backpacking trips, and there are areas that are known as “Great Walks”. To me, any trip of a day or more is a great walk, but while it is hard to judge, some walks are greater than others. In any event, the purpose of this section is to discuss some of the backpacking trips and great walks I’ve been on, in all forms – gear, directions, and everything in between. If you are considering getting started in backpacking, or attempting the great walks of the world, remember this: mountaineering is the freedom of the hills; backpacking is the freedom of everything. I say this because with the right skills, the right gear, and the right motivation, a person can roam forever with his backpack, stopping only to find food – much as people have always done. Backpacking, therefore, is a great freedom – and whether you do it for a day, or two days, I highly recommend it, and hope to see you on the trail.