Trail Profile: Te Araroa, Your Guide to the Best Way of Experiencing New Zealand
Aotearoa, “The land of the long white cloud,” aka New Zealand is home to one of the world’s greatest long trails. Length-wise, it’s more attainable than any of America’s triple crown hikes, but its challenges exist in other forms, as do the rewards. It is breathtaking – Seriously, world-class views, and you can hike it on a visitor’s visa. Here’s a guide to Te Araroa to start you off on the right foot.
Te Araroa Basic Info
- Length: 1882 miles (3028 km)
- Expected Completion Time: 4 months at 15 miles a day
- Location: New Zealand, Cape Reinga to Bluff or vice versa
- Best season(s) to hike: Summer-Fall, (October-March in the Southern Hemisphere)
- Trail Type: Thru-Hike
- Scenery: Temperate rainforest, world-class mountain ranges.
- Terrain: Difficult, akin to the AT in elevation profile/lack of switchbacks
- Navigation: FarOut is still the convention here, though NZTopo50 is another fantastic resource with accurate topo lines. This book is by Geoff Chapple, who actually founded the trail. Besides labeled signs, keep an eye out for blazes in the form of orange triangles in the bush.
Hikers going SOBO, (the most popular choice,) will start up at Cape Reinga, Te Rerenga Wairua, the leaping-off place of spirits in Māori terms. It’s 6 hours north of Auckland, and an Intercity bus will get you as far north as Kaitiaia, still more than an hour away from the cape. A shuttle or a hitch is your best bet from there. Bluff, the southern terminus, is not nearly as remote, so no worries there.
READ NEXT — How to Plan an International Thru-Hike
There’s a reason most go SOBO. It makes for a hiking experience that builds, New Zealand’s South Island being nearly unbeatable when it comes to natural beauty. North Island is also beautiful and brings more insight into Māori culture, but if you go NOBO you’ll have quite a lot of roadwalking at the end of your journey. Go NOBO for a more solitary experience and SOBO for that increasing progression of awe.
Why Hike Te Araroa
The world-class views of Te Araroa will guide you along your adventure. A normal day of hiking in New Zealand is like the best hiking day of your life back home. And for those unfamiliar with New Zealand, walking its length is easily the best way to experience the country. You’ll cover their most isolated terrain and walk straight through their biggest cities and smallest towns. Get to know the endemic bird life, the lush, mossy forests, and the most incredible mountain ranges.
Climate and Weather
North Island has relatively moderate temperatures while South Island is in “The Roaring Forties,” which means strong winds. YR is the best app by far for weather info in New Zealand, where you can search specific backcountry huts for accurate weather forecasts.
The main weather you’ll have to consider is rain. You’ll run into a good amount of precipitation on Te Araroa, and the weather can change fast, so don’t get complacent at high elevation. UV levels in New Zealand aren’t quite as bad as in Australia, but they can get quite high in the warm months. That’s roughly October through May in this hemisphere. Sunscreen during that period is a must.
Once again, rain protection will be very important. Bring a pack cover or liner, a solid rain jacket, and rain pants. I do know one Te Araroa hiker who hiked in boots, while another would say that in this level of moisture, waterproof boots still can’t save you. This classic footwear debate persists down south too.
The local Kiwi brands like Kathmandu and Macpac are high quality, but they’re also pretty expensive. The USD is strong in New Zealand, but not that strong. Your standard thru-hiking gear will serve you well, but make sure to clean your shelter and your shoes before heading through customs. NZ is understandably keen to prevent any invasive pests from entering the country and threatening the native ecosystems.
One thing you’ll run into on Te Araroa is mud. Not just any mud either, but knee-deep, almost waist-deep mud. Look out for this, especially near the Riverton section, toward the southern terminus. Maybe try tucking your rain pants into your shoes? Invest in some waders like a fly fisherman? I’m not actually sure if there’s any gear that can save you from mud like this, which is a minor shortcoming for this Te Araroa guide, but hopefully, now you can start brainstorming before you go. And let us know what works!
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Camping on Te Araroa
Camping throughout Te Araroa is a mixed bag. On the North Island, “wild” camping as most North American backpackers are used to is often difficult and discouraged. You’ll spend a lot of time walking through private land and crowded areas. As a result, you’ll often have to pay to camp or split a cabin with your tramily in Holiday Parks. North Island can be expensive for this reason. There are some trail angels, though not a huge network. If you do accept help from angels, be prepared to contribute some “Koha,” a gift of money or a favor in return, in recognition of their services.
As you get to South Island, you’ll likely begin to use their backcountry hut system. These huts are an incredible boon for TA hikers. To take advantage, you’ll probably want to purchase a backcountry hut pass from the Department of Conservation, which will give you access to almost all the huts you’ll pass by. However, there are some private or especially popular huts (listed here) that are not covered by the pass. In peak season amid the bubble, they might be full by the time you get there. If that happens, though, there is often camping available nearby and more camping on South Island in general.
As a note, it is vital that you take good care of these huts. Graffitiing or defacing them, leaving them a mess, or failing to replace firewood are all major faux pas in Kiwi backcountry culture. Some of these huts are living memorials to the trampers that built them, and when international TA hikers come in and don’t respect them, it really damages the reputation of thru-hikers. Let the pre-existing, courteous customs along Te Araroa guide you.
Te Araroa Highlights
Honestly, this trail is one long highlight reel. Even the road walks are exceedingly pleasant. Nelson Lakes is a favorite of all the hikers I’ve spoken to, and the Tararua Range, Richmond Ranges, and the high point, Stag Saddle, are all parts to especially look forward to. Everything around Wānaka is gorgeous as well.
For our LOTR superfans, you’ll have the chance to detour and stop by Hobbiton. You’ll also love the Tongariro Crossing, depicted as Mordor in the films, where you’ll pass by Mount Ngauruhoe, which you may recognize as Mt. Doom. Since it’s a sacred peak and a sacred area, though, Māori ask that we call them by their real names. Canterbury may remind hikers of Rohan, while Lake Mavora hosted the breaking of the fellowship.
Water is plentiful on Te Araroa, so don’t worry about any particularly long water carries. The water in New Zealand is also notoriously clean, to the point where I would run into old Kiwi trampers who would claim to have never purified their water in the backcountry. The one thing to look out for when it comes to water is during the summer, when the NOBO and SOBO bubbles cross paths. At that point, you may hear about some of the rainwater tanks at backcountry huts running dry. FarOut should keep you well updated.
In fact, water is so plentiful that your water sources will also be one of your greatest hazards. If you hear the term “New Zealand Disease,” that refers to drowning. People die every year in river crossings in New Zealand. With the way the weather changes, rivers can rise surprisingly fast too. Don’t be afraid to sit down and wait for friends to cross as a group, and don’t get in over your head.
READ NEXT — How to Tackle River Crossings Safely
Who Is Te Araroa For?
If you’re a first-time thru-hiker, you might be wondering if Te Araroa is accessible to you. My answer would be a resounding “yes” with a few special considerations.
First, consider how much general hiking experience you have. Te Araroa is not always especially well-manicured, and you will certainly have harsh, exposed hiking to deal with. If you’re completely new to hiking, some of this may be intimidating to you. If you’ve done even some substantial day hikes, it will all probably be well in hand. “Expect a route, not a highway,” a friend told me. Second, I can’t stress enough that river crossings are to be taken seriously. If you’re not sure, sit and wait.
Finally, regardless of your experience level, if you’re not sure about Te Araroa in general, a section hike might be a good idea. Part of why North Island has so much roadwalking is because of something called “Kauri Dieback,” a disease threatening New Zealand’s endemic Kauri trees. Conservation efforts to prevent the spread of Kauri Dieback often result in closing what would otherwise be sections of Te Araroa.
There’s no realistic timeline for these sections to re-open. With the roadwalking and cost of camping on North Island, simply thru-hiking South Island could be a great choice for many adventurers, and may open up the opportunity for incredibly valuable side quests along the way.
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- 10 Reasons Thru-Hikers Are Secretly Jealous of Section Hikers
- 7 Simple Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Thru-Hike
- 8 Reasons the AT is the Easiest Triple Crown Trail for First-Time Thru-Hikers
By and large, resupplying isn’t too difficult on Te Araroa. Especially on North Island, as you pass through such populated areas and roadwalk quite a bit, you won’t have much trouble finding food. This Te Araroa guide has some suggestions for you on South Island, though. Here are a few places where you’d be wise to send a resupply box:
- St. Arnaud
- Arthurs Pass
- Boyle River — No post office, but you can send a package to Boyle River Outdoor Education Center
- Pelorus Bridge — Contact the local campground about sending a package, otherwise hitch to nearby Havelock
New Zealand is a great, accessible country for taking on an international thru-hike. Culture shock is minimal and mountain majesty is maximal. The mud, the rivers, and the finances will be your main obstacles, but you can overcome those.
A lot of people think of Middle Earth when they think of New Zealand, and that is certainly part of the appeal. As you let your sense of adventure guide you along Te Araroa, in this remote corner of the world, the real Aotearoa will open itself up to you. New Zealand has no natural predators, and it feels that way when you’re over there. The culture is warm and welcoming, and the environment is lush and alive.
Featured image: A Tom Wilshaw-Sparkes photo. Graphic design by Zack Goldman.
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