Why would you go for a walk voluntarily? We use our feet every day, as a necessary means of transport: to the bus, to the hostel, to the pub (then, if we’re lucky, to someone else’s hostel). Walking can be boring, slow and it makes your feet smell. It’s a chore, like cleaning your teeth or wiping your bum. It’s certainly not something to be enjoyed and not something you’d ever choose to do, especially on holiday. That was my mentality before I came to New Zealand. But New Zealand changed my life.

As I campervanned around the South Island I fell head over heels for the scenery. Those dashing Southern Alps, those glowing glacial lakes and mysterious fiords, ancient moss-strewn forests, moody volcanoes, rugged coastline and thundering waterfalls. You’d imagine if they ever filmed, say, The Lord Of The Rings, this would be the perfect setting for it. It’s like a fantasy land. Go on, tell me a country as beautiful. Even if you think you can name one, I bet that; A, it’s not nearly as safe, B, it’s much more crowded, and C, they talk funny there (okay, jandles is pretty funny, but funny as in you can’t understand them ‘cos they’re proper foreign).

I’ve never been hypnotised before. But when I saw the mountains, lakes and fiords, I found myself leaving my campervan almost involuntarily and walking towards it. And into it. For several days. Okay, I turned the engine off and acquired a map first, but otherwise my movements were almost entirely beyond my control. I had to experience the landscape up close, to touch it, admire it, clamber all over it and lick it. This is not a country to be admired solely from behind a bus window.

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Track record

Walking gripped me like a fever. By the time I’d left Kiwi Country, I’d walked the three-day Kepler Track, the three-day Queen Charlotte Track, the five-day Rees-Dart Track (a great one for crowd dodging), the three-day Tongariro Northern Circuit, the two-day Ball Pass Crossing (in Mt Cook National Park), part of the Routeburn (guttingly had to turn back with an abscess on my tooth which made me look like the ugly one from The Goonies), part of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track and numerous more day walks. It’s fair to say I’d discovered I liked walking, or hiking, or trekking, or tramping – as they call it here. 

There are lots of things to like about tramping: it’s very cheap, it’s very healthy, you get off the tourist trail somewhat, meet real Kiwis and lots more very likeable people (outdoor people are always good people). It’s peaceful (being away from traffic fumes and bleating communication devices, and your days are wonderfully simple – just walk from A to B), but above all it’s very, very beautiful.

Yes you get wet sometimes. Yes you get blisters occasionally. Yes you can get lost from time to time too. But boy have I seen some incredibly beautiful places in New Zealand, and often had them entirely to myself. I’ve enjoyed them all the more for knowing I’ve earned the right to see them, putting in the hard yards on foot.

At the same time as I was falling for my new hobby-turned-obsession, I was falling for New Zealand. Because the country the same size as Britain, that looks like an upside-down cut-in-half Italy, is an especially good place for walking. Probably the best place in the world in fact (I’ve since walked in many more countries too). 

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Hit the hut

As well as all the natural splendour, the country’s so safe and easy to travel in. It’s almost like NZ was built for trampers. In fact it sort of is. The Department of Conservation (DoC) has created and maintained a series of multi-day walking routes in the most spectacular parts of the best national parks. The paths are usually clear to follow and lined with surprisingly fancy huts (with toilets, cooking facilities, drinking water etc) for trampers to rest their weary heads and smelly socks in (camping is also available), and play cards and drink wine in with like-minded souls. Not many countries have a hut system like this. Every country should do it.

Nine walks in particular have been adjudged to be the best of the bunch and are called the Great Walks (see boxout), even if, um, one of them’s a kayaking trip. The nine are the most popular and include what some say is the most spectacular trail in the world, the Milford Track (which usually takes three days).

The Fiordland tramp is so popular people come from the world over to walk it and it’s booked up many months in advance. On all the Great Walks, numbers are limited and a booking system is in operation (see doc.govt.nz for more). Locals will tell you the nearby Routeburn is even better, but again book well ahead, especially in peak season (December-February).

My favourite memories of New Zealand are of hiking. Of climbing smoking volcanoes, of mist clearing to reveal gaping fiords, of devastating snow-covered mountains, of drying out clothes by a fire with new friends, of feeling exhausted but exhilarated and of feeling very happy.  

Nowadays, whenever I have free time all I want to do is go for a walk in the countryside. I used to be a football journalist, now I mostly write about the great outdoors. And I’ve got New Zealand to thank for that. What a place.

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Equipment and safety

Didn’t count on doing any tramping when you packed your round-the-world bag, but now you fancy a go? The most important thing is comfortable footwear, which doesn’t have to be walking boots (sometimes trainers will do), but they’re you best bet. New Zealand is well stocked with good gear and most towns have outdoor shops. You’ll also need a waterproof jacket, ideally Gore-Tex or equivalent, to allow your body to sweat.

Plus, get a water bottle (plastic bottles will do), sleeping bag and mat, a map (DoC can provide these) and compass (which you should know how to use), some food, basic first aid (plasters, pain killers and antiseptic cream) and something to carry all that in (your backpack?). And you’re set. Most hostels are happy to look after any kit you don’t want to take on your hike – and the lighter your pack the more you’ll enjoy yourself.

Though New Zealand has no grizzly bears, crocs or snakes to threaten the tramper, there is a serious and often underestimated outdoor adversary: the weather. Referred to as having “five seasons in one day” by locals, the climate changes faster than you can say “jandles”.

Needless to say, being a weather reporter here is a thankless job. Trampers need to be properly equipped for all conditions. This often means setting off in shorts and t-shirt in the glorious morning sunshine with your back weighed down with warm and waterproof layers. It can seem over cautious, but many have lived to be thankful. 

The Great Walks are all well marked, with warden-manned huts and you’re rarely far from helicopter access. But the country has many – often more dangerous – routes, some in alpine terrain and all the dangers that brings. Make sure you do your research. Talk to locals, or better still the Department of Conservation (DoC) and heed any warnings.

Plus, always tell someone where you’re going – leave an itinerary with a friend (DoC have a good system in place for this). And of course, it’s hard to drink too much water or wear too much sunscreen.

It may feel like you’re being molly-coddled by an especially protective Grandmother, but to experience the country’s profoundly beautiful scenery, and return safely to show off your photos, all the hassles are well worth it. 

For more info, try the Department of Conservation website. You may also enjoy reading Kiwi Tracks, a book about a guy who walks all nine Great Walks while dealing with a broken heart.

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The Nine Great Walks

1. Lake Waikaremoana Great Walk

Where: Te Urewera National Park, North Island

The details: Three to four days (46km)

Tell me more: A moderate tramp, this mostly lakeside trail climbs up the Panekire Ridge before winding round parts of Lake Waikaremoana. 


2. Tongariro Northern Circuit

Where: Tongariro National Park, North Island

The details: Three days (50km)Tell me more: The circuit includes the Tongariro Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk (and if you’ve only got time for one, make it this). Brightly coloured rock pools, hissing sulphur, lavic rock and smoking volcanoes. It’s like Mars. Or Mordor (which was filmed here).  


3. Whanganui Journey

Where: Whanganui National Park, North Island

The details: Four to five days (145km)

Tell me more: Although a river journey, the Whanganui is one of the Great Walks. Paddle the Whanganui from Taumarunui to Pipiriki and visit a remote Maori meeting house. 


4. Abel Tasman Coast Track

Where: Abel Tasman National Park, South Island

The details: Four days (54.4km)

Tell me more: An easy, mostly flat tramp that features superb coastal views and lovely beaches.  


5. Heaphy Track

Where: Kahurangi National Park, South Island

The details: Four to six days (78.4km)

Tell me more: The longest of the Great Walks includes some spectacular coastline, lush forests and expansive tussock downs. One of the less crowded. 


6. Routeburn Track

Where: Mount Aspiring National Park/Fiordland National Park, South Island

The details: Three days (32km)

Tell me more: Possibly the best of the lot. To really make an epic of it, the stunning Routeburn Track can be walked in conjunction with the Greenstone and Caples tracks. 


7. Milford Track

Where: Fiordland National Park, South Island

The details: Three days (53.5km)

Tell me more: One of the world’s most famous walks is often booked up. It starts at the head of Lake Te Anau and ends at Milford Sound.


8. Kepler Track

Where: Fiordland National Park, South Island

The details: Three days (60km)

Tell me more: A long ascent leads to alpine terrain then down again through ancient beach forests. Nutty Kiwis run this trail in an annual race. 


9. Rakiura Track

Where: Rakiura National Park, Stewart Island

The details: Three days (37km)

Tell me more: Nice and remote. Definitely for those who don’t like sharing the trail with crowds of trampers.

The Great Walks are the most popular, but there are lots more very good trails too. Just go into a DoC office and ask about the nearest national park. Better still, if you’ve really caught the bug and have the time, you could try Te Araroa, a new 3,000km trail that “links New Zealand’s most spiritual, historic and scenic locations,” say DoC, from Cape Reinga in the north to Bluff in the south.


Photos: Thinkstock, Tourism New Zealand/Julian Apse