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A New Zealand Hiking Odyssey

From the northern tip of New Zealand to its Great Walks of the South Island, we sample some of the country's most interesting hikes in a single trip
By Peter Potterfield - October 26th, 2013

It may be fall in North America, but it's springtime in New Zealand, a good time to head down for some hiking just as the snow begins to fly at home. This makes an opportune time to share a recent hiking adventure I had in New Zealand, from the extreme northern tip of the North Island—the Northland—to one of the classic hikes of the South Island. This would be my fifth hiking trip to New Zealand, and I was going to make the most of it.

This was my plan for a three week trip: hang in Auckland for a short day getting the gear and equipment I couldn't fly with, and then head up to the small airport at Kerikeri, from there drive to the Bay of Islands region. My goal was to hike out to the end of Cape Brett, overnight there, and hike back. The funky and historic beach town of Russell is the logical staging area, and with any luck I might get in some kayaking as well. From Bay of Islands, I’ll make the long drive up to Ahipara, then drive over to the Northland West Coast for 90-Mile Beach and the Herekino Forest Track. From there it’s another flight down to Gisborne for the Lake Waikaremoana Track, then finally the flight down to Blenheim on the South Island for the four day Queen Charlotte Track.
 
Incredibly, the trip went like clockwork. Thanks to the international date line, one actually arrives in Auckland the day before you leave LA.  Air New Zealand Flight Number 1, coming from London and New York, got me and all me gear to Auckland on time. After a day of preparations and recuperation in the Viaduct Harbour neighborhood of the capitol city, I got an early start back to the airport for the flight up to Kerikeri. One of the country’s most northern airports, the small strip sits among the rolling hills above blue inlets and small harbors.
 
Bay of Isles 
This is an area better known for great kayaking and good beaches, but here I did the hike out to Cape Brett. The hike is about 20 kilometers one way, most people either stay overnight at the Department of Conservation hut, or boat out and hike back. It had been stormy enough recently the airport was  closed the previous two days. But on the flight in, the weather was decent I caught a glimpse of blue water and green hills from the air.
 
When Captain Cook first sailed off the coast of New Zealand he spied a prominent peninsula of land, and named it after a trusted officer: Brett Piercy. This is Cape Brett. Little did he know it was also the landing site of what may be the very first Polynesian travelers to arrive on New Zealand, the people who later evolved into the Maori culture. The rich history of the place adds interest, but the 17 kilometer hike from the Maori settlement of Rawhiti out to the cape is a great backcountry adventure in itself. There's lots of ways to do it, best is to get a lift from Russell about an hour out to Rawhiti at the end of the road, and just hike out to the cape. The route follows the ridgelines of the seven peaks that form the dragon like spine of the peninsula.
 
The Department of Conservation has turned the lighthouse keeper’s house into a hut, with gas cookers and bunks. It's a dramatic place to spend a few days whether it's stormy or sunny. I'm on a tight schedule, so to save a day Peter Stuart of Cape Brett Walkways chartered a boat to take us out to the Cape early in the morning so we could hike back, and thereby see the whole route in a day. Jeremy, the driver of the high performance inflatable, was actually making an epic beer run out to a remote  luxury lodge on one of the islands nearby before heading off to dive on a newly sunken former New Zealand navy frigate. The warship was sunk to provide a recreational dive location for the Russell area.
 
Like most Kiwis, Jeremy was happy to abet the cause of fun, so was okay with making a short detour to drop us off before heading for the wreck. The Cape Brett track itself, which was used by the lighthouse keepers before the light was automated in 1978, is in pretty good shape, just be prepared for some serious effort. Peter and I took a full seven hours on the hike back, which included a gain of four thousand feet of elevation as the route follows the dragon’s back ridgeline and descends to the water on several occasions. But with the views and beach access and the historical element, this is a hike not to miss.
 
The Far North
From Russell, I made the three hour drive up and over what New Zealanders call the Far North, the very northern frontier of their country, along two lane blacktop roads that are virtually empty. Even though this is the most northern and therefore warmest part of the country, it is sparsely populated, and mostly agricultural. Tourism is a growing part of the equation, however, which is not surprising, given the beauty of the beaches and green hills. I took the ferry over to Paihia, then followed Route 10 to funky and relaxed Mangonui, a small town on a pretty cove on Doubtless Bay.
 
I got to Ahipara by 1, and from there drove another 15 minutes to Taharangi Marie Lodge on the south end of 90-mile beach, one of the longest hiking routes in New Zealand. It’s starts at the sourthern end, and goes all the way to Cape Reinga, the northern most point in New Zealand, and one that resonates with the mythology of the Maori Culture.
 
When I arrived, lodge owner Ron Adams drove me south along the beaches where he regularly dives to harvest dinner for the lodge guests, gathering fresh seafood meals of abalone and clams. Ron knows the area as well as anyone, and his wife Connie and young son make you feel like you've come home. This is the quintessential Kiwi lodging up here in the far north, shared when I was there by two European couples, one from Germany and one from Britain. The couples occupied the upstairs rooms at the lodge proper, while I had my own house down by the beach. I was lord of my own manor, and it's a place I hope to return to again, when I've got more time to absorb the tranquil beauty of this remote coast.
 
But this visit, I was here to hike. Peter Griffith, the hard bitten Kiwi who has worked for decades to save the ancient forest in the country's far north, picked me up at the lodge and drove Nick Mason and me to the trailhead for the gnarly 17 kilometer Herekino Forest Track. While hiking routes in the north, such as North Cape to Cape Reinga, 90 Mile Beach, or Cape Brett, are better known, this full on journey through one of the most diverse forests in New Zealand shows you a different side to the region. The Herekino forest contains remnants of old growth forest that escaped the loggers ax because it was just too difficult to get to. Hikers who do this newly restored trail can get a glimpse of what this part of New Zealand looked like before it was cleared for farming.
 
Nick, who has been tramping these woods since 1980, was the perfect companion. A woodworker as well as an avid hiker, Nick appreciates the different qualities of the many species of trees that make up the dense forest, and brings that perspective to the hike. In about eight hours on the steep, winding trail, we saw most of the major tree species of New Zealand: tarari, tawa, rata, rimu, totara, miro, and rewa rewa, to name a few.
 
But the highlight comes about three hours in when you reach a grove of giant kauri trees. Prized by shiprights for masts, the towering trees once covered the west coast of New Zealand. Now only a few remain, so impressive that the Maori people of the area gave them names, like people, recognizing them for the individuals they are. The biggest of all, a little south of here, is called Tanu Mahuta. The big grove of kauris made the elevation gain and muddy trail worth the effort.
 
Lake Waikaremoana Track
I had warmed up on a couple of unique routes in the northern most part of New Zealand, the Cape Brett Track, 90 Mile Beach, and the Herekino Forest walk, but it was time to take on one of New Zealand's Great Walks: in this case, the Lake Waikaremoana Track. There are only nine hikes so designated in the country, and this is one of only two Great Walks hiking routes on the North Island. It was time to fly from Ahipara to Gisborne, a surfing hot spot, where I would stage before doing the classic Lake Waikaremoana Track.
 
Located in the sprawling 212,000 hectare Te Urewera National Park, fourth largest in in New Zealand, the Lake Waikaremoana Track covers 46 kilometers around the deepest lake in on the North Island, set in the middle of one of the most remote regions of the country. Most people take four days to cover the route, but with a tight schedule, I had to do it in three. Fortunately, I had the right company.
 
In 2002 I had hiked one of New Zealand's premier trails, the Routeburne Track, with Rob Franklin. When I learned that he had transformed his passion for hiking into a profession by forming Walking Legends, a hiking guide and logistical support service for Lake Waikaremoana area, I asked him to join me. On any big route in a far-away place, it's crucial to have someone with local knowledge along, otherwise you miss a lot of cool detail.
 
As the two of us old friends followed the varied terrain along the lake shore, through the dense forest and up onto the highlands that form the climax of this stunning route, Rob filled me in on the unique history and culture of the area. One of the few predominately Maori regions of New Zealand that never came to treaty terms with the government, the Tuhoe people of the region to this day exercise a degree of cultural and political independence that is unusual. This, after all, is the people once lead in the late 1800s by the iconic Maori leader, Takooti. Due to my tight schedule, we had to shave a day off the route, but still savored the old growth forests and stunning lake shore of this aptly named Great Walk.
 
The Queen Charlotte Track
Back in Gisborne, I flew to Welllington on an Air New Zealand Beechcraft 1900, and then made the short hop over Cook Straight to the town of Blenheim, in the center of the famed Marlborough wine growing region. But my goal was not a world class sav blanc, but another classic hike, so I made the half hour drive to the resort town of Picton, the South Island terminal city for the ferries coming over from Wellington.
 
I had an afternoon to catch up on my notes at the comortable Yacht Club in the heart of funky, laid back Picton before departing early the next morning to do the Queen Charlotte Track. My partner would be Ray Waters, a guide for Marlborough Sound Adventures, and New Zealand's masters-level half-marathon champion. We caught the Cougar Line shuttle out to Ship Cove, a famous bay that became Captain Cook's base of operation, a place he stopped five times between 1770 and 1779.
 
Most people take four days to do this impressive 71 kilometer route up the spine of the peninsula separating Queen Charlotte Sound from Kenepuru Sound, but if you make the long trek out to Punga Cove on day one you can do it in three long days, about 23 kilometers per day. A unique feature of the route is that it's a bit like trekking in Nepal--you can do it with a day pack, while the boat, and not a yak or a porter, takes the rest of your gear onto the next stop. The light load makes the long days no problem.
 
Ray and I hiked up and over the ridge, then made a complete circuit around Endeavor Inlet, arriving in Punga Cove by 4. Yet another unique feature of this relatively new route, built in 1995, is that it connects a number of former boat-in only accommodations that are way beyond the level of hiking hut. At Punga Cove, as at all the stops, you get a resort quality room, with food and wine to match. It's positively sinful, but this civilized style of hiking can be habit forming.We eventually reached the end of the track at the village of Anakiwa.
 
After finishing the 71 kilometer Queen Charlotte Track I spent one more night in Picton, and the next day visited someMarlborough district wineries and Peter Jackson's (director of Lord fo the Rings) museum of World War I airplanes before heading to the small airport at Blenheim; the combination made for a unique final day in New Zealand.
 
Homeward Bound
With hikes in four distinct districts--the Bay of Islands, Cape Reinga, Lake Waikermoana and finally the Queen Charlotte--this was a visit that reflected all the secret tips I had picked up on in the five years of coming here.
The fact is, there are so many beautiful places to see down here, traveling and hiking in New Zealand can keep you busy for a lifetime. But it's the personal connections I make with the people of this island country that keeps me coming back. When all is said and done, that's the best part of any trip to New Zealand. And the season is just beginning.
 
Getting There
Despite the long distances between New Zealand and North America or Europe, travel in this island nation is laid back and easily planned. Start with an overview from New Zealand Tourism, and get flight information from Air New Zealand . Get information on the country's Great Walks and other trekking routes from its Department of Conservation

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