Navigating New Zealand Great Walks

Ollie Law Chief Bushman at Bushman Tours Ollie
5 min read

To book the New Zealand Great Walks, you must apply for a hut or campsite ticket via the Department of Conservation’s website. 

But, I have some bad news. 

If you’re looking to book a Great Walk one, two or sometimes even three months before you’re hoping to lace up the boots, you’re probably too late. Furthermore, these huts aren’t much cheaper than a Queenstown hotel.

To put it into context, The Milford Track, which is NZ’s most popular hike (and arguably the world), is booked out within 5 minutes, 9 months before the summer season (2019 brought in a new record of selling out in less than 2 minutes). People from all around the world sit at their computers waiting for the DOC website to refresh and open up those hut spaces. 

With The Milford only accepting 25 hikers per day, this generates serious demand and serious frustration from Kiwi trampers.

The Paparoa is New Zealand’s latest Great Walk (and probably our most diverse) with travellers having the option of hiking or mountain biking the 3-4 day route. Beautiful views and tidy new huts grace this wide tracks while providing some interesting history and homage to our mining past; specifically the Pike River Mining Disaster.

Paparoa and Pike River memorial Track New Zealand
Pike River parallel to The Paparoa track

However, this also sold out in a few days. 

The Bushman Tours inbox becomes a rough ocean of queries about booking the Milford, Paparoa or Tongariro around November/December time. Unfortunately for many, our response is not what they were hoping to hear; with many travellers failing to do their research in advance and quickly realising they’re too late to get a spot.

There are solutions to a sold out Great Walk though. 

They are; 

  • jump on a hike that isn’t a Great Walk but is just (if not more) beautiful and exciting,
  • get on a waiting list, or
  • get on another Great Walk that’s still available. 

Let’s dive into this. 

The Wangapeka: A Kiwi’s Great Walk

A dense section of the Wangapeka

Before the borders closed and with the exception of The Paparoa, you’ll seldom see other Kiwis (people, not the bird) on your Great Walks during the summer period. Yes, we get on them, but the sheer volume of tourism focused agencies make the adventure somewhat chaotic and crowded.

The whole meaning of Bushman Tours (outside of conservation) is to showcase hidden gems that only locals know. Routes and hikes that haven’t seen another soul in months, if not years. And while the Great Walks are obvious advantages, New Zealand is generally blessed with a plethora of options.

Take the Wangapeka for example. 

It was once called “A Kiwi’s Heaphy”. Located around 100km south from The Heaphy track, this route can be done in 4 to 6 days. It’s epic, it’s got a true West Coast feel, and due to the lack of people on it, rare Kiwi are often lurking around the huts. 

Let’s head north next. If the image of standing in line, looking at the backpacks of dozens of fellow trampers, and being ushered to start the walk quickly makes you shiver, then the day route of the Tongariro isn’t for you. 

You need to be heading further south and get into the incredible Tararua Ranges if you’re seeking that privacy and calm of a good hike.

Tararua Ranges Hiking tours
One of the peaks during a typical Tararua Hike

This region is blanketed by an intense but calm aurora of ecosystems and prehistoric relics, accessible to anyone. The two hundred year old trees lurk over moss covered tracks like green sun-shades, while the mist covers your whole body in the early mornings.

The huts are made of strong timber sourced locally while the views could have been stolen from a Jurassic Park film (or did Spielberg steal it from us?) 

The point is, if you’re now gutted to hear you’ve missed out on New Zealand Great Walks, don’t hurry off just yet. Take a look around, ask what the locals are doing over the summer – because I can assure you, most are not doing Great Walks!

Get on a ‘New Zealand Great Walks’ waiting list

Who doesn’t love a good waiting list? (The idea of waiting is becoming a theme, right?) Due to demand and visitors being passionate about getting on those walks, we unfortunately have dozens of waiting lists.

For us, it’s on an application basis – not who is at the front of the line.

Say we have 50 people wanting to head out on the Paparoa, and a few spaces come available. Instead of giving it to the first person in the queue to decide, we send out a blanket email asking you why you want to walk this particular route, and, what it means to you?

By doing this, we’re able to pick people who are truly passionate about this region. People who want to be part of the environment and who we’ll know will embrace it for what it truly is, as opposed to it being “I did a Great Walk while I was in New Zealand”. 

If you do decide to add your name to a waiting list, you can still book another Adventure. If your place is picked for the Great Walk, you’ll get the option to decide which one you take and even get pre-approved discounts with us.

Other Great Walks

My personal favourite is The Heaphy. 

Guided Walks on Heaphy Track New Zealand
The final section of the Heaphy, down onto the beach

Mountain ranges that plunge and throw you down into white, sandy beaches. Tracks that run under seaside palms and beach forest. Huts that are common meeting grounds for rare birds. It’s never too busy and it brings with it a good challenge – making that pie and beer at the end incredibly tasty. 

The point is, you’ll know a lot about The Milford, Routeburn and Tongariro because those are the three that are heavily advertised. 

Why are they heavily advertised? 

Because it’s relatively easy for tour operators and guides to access and lead groups. They’re near key locations like Queenstown and Auckland, whereas The Heaphy is up north of the West Coast – a rarely visited holiday destination.

This track is a long way from anything. It’s one way too. Tour operators don’t really like the idea of sending their driver to a deadend road. We relish this though, we turn it into a multi day experience that gives back to a struggling region.

If you have missed out on the dream that was to cross the bridge of the Milford, then do not fear, there is still hope. There are still nine other tracks… 

If The Heaphy is too distant for you, then try the Kepler or Rakiura Track down in the Southland region (probably the least booked route but the one most blessed by Kiwi and sea birds for those who love bird life). These hikes won’t be as busy, there won’t be as many booking rules, they’re more affordable too – allowing you to avoid the $400 price tag of the Milford huts.

Remember…

Our 10 Great Walks aren’t great walks because they’re the top 10 we have to offer. Far from that. They’re in this list because the Department of Conservation (Doc) are able to maintain them better. Yes, the views are stunning and the surroundings are to die for, but they’re also convenient. 

If you’re investing in coming to New Zealand, or you’re local and keen to tick some bucket list walks, then you’ll want to be involved in a true Kiwi experience. You want to embrace what we do to have fun and explore our precious land.

So, consider your options and why you want to book a Great Walk, there are plenty of other options.

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Ollie Law Chief Bushman at Bushman Tours Ollie

I have been blessed to travel much of the world over the last few years and there are three things I’ve come to learn: 1) nature NEVER disappoints, 2) if EVERYONE knew who fragile the planet was, they’d try harder 3) people are remarkable if you give them the opportunity. These, and some other topics are what I love to write about.

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