By 1939, trampers and hunters spent weekends on hill tracks accessible from the cities – the Tararuas for Wellingtonians, the Waitākeres for Aucklanders, and Arthur’s Pass (made the third national park in 1929) for Christchurch people.
After the war, growing prosperity, increasing car ownership and improved outdoor gear spurred interest in recreational walking. Tramping club members often cut tracks, and the government made more trails in the state-owned parks.
The National Parks Act 1952 officially set aside the parks for public enjoyment and recreation. As new parks were added, walking tracks followed.
- Abel Tasman National Park (1942): a track was made around the coast, linking routes used for moving stock and timber.
- Nelson Lakes National Park (1956): lake tracks and the popular Travers/Sabine circuit were made.
- Mount Aspiring National Park (1964): walks at the head of Lake Wakatipu were improved, particularly the Routeburn and Dart–Rees tracks.
The Forest Service set up forest parks that combined conservation and recreation – Tararua Forest Park (1954) was the first. In the 1970s, as helicopters replaced foot-slogging for the capture and recovery of deer, huts and tracks built for deer cullers became recreational amenities.
New forest parks were set up, mainly for walkers and hunters. In 2007 there were 20 – 13 in the North Island, including most of the main ranges from the Remutaka to the Raukūmara, and seven in the south. They had short, well-kept tracks for day trips, and longer blazed tracks with huts.
As people began hiking for fun, rather than to get to work, the track markers changed. The bushmen’s blaze cut into trunks was replaced with a painted tin lid, then with a white aluminium strip like a piece of Venetian blind. The latest version is a bright orange plastic triangle.
In the early 1970s the Federated Mountain Clubs promoted the idea of a walkway running the length of New Zealand. At the time, this was too ambitious (the idea was reborn in the early 2000s as the Te Araroa project). Instead a network of walkways was established by law in 1975, under the New Zealand Walkways Commission.
Marked by a ‘W’ in orange and white, the walks often crossed private land – a response to public pressure for access to the high country. Although there were a few long hikes, such as the five-day St James Walkway in the Lewis Pass, most were close to cities and designed as 2–5-hour walks.
They often incorporated interesting natural features, such as the Cook’s Cove walkway in Tolaga Bay or the Organ Pipes walk on Dunedin’s Mt Cargill. By 2007 there were 125 walkways covering 1,200 kilometres.
New Zealanders were recognising the importance of exercise. Local and regional councils, seeing the success of the walkway system, developed other day walks. Some were in regional parks, while others such as Wellington’s ‘City to Sea’ walk were in urban areas.
Some tracks are historical – Golden Bay’s Aorere walk follows a gold-mining water race, Coromandel trails follow old railways, and at Ōtaki Forks the track to Waitewaewae runs along a bush tramway.
Department of Conservation
In April 1987 the Department of Conservation (DOC) was set up, bringing together government agencies in outdoor recreation and conservation (including the Forest Service and the Lands and Survey Department). The department took control of walking tracks in the national and forest parks. After some teething problems, DOC improved tracks, standardised signage, and introduced a system of fees for using back-country huts.
The ‘Great Walks’
In the early 1990s DOC established a category of nine ‘Great Walks’ – tracks of outstanding natural beauty:
- Lake Waikaremoana Track
- Tongariro Northern Circuit
- Whanganui Journey (by river)
- Abel Tasman Track
- Heaphy Track
- Routeburn Track
- Milford Track
- Kepler Track
- Rakiura Track (Stewart Island).
A new 55-kilometre Great Walk was constructed in Paparoa National Park from 2017 as a memorial to the 29 men killed in the 2010 Pike River mine disaster. It opened to trampers and mountain-bikers in late 2019. A side track leads to the mine site.
In the high season, a pass is needed and a higher fee is charged for accommodation; in return the huts and tracks are of a better standard than in other areas. Some huts have flush toilets, heating, and gas cooking.
Te Araroa: the long pathway
Imagine walking the length of New Zealand – more than 2,600 kilometres. For years this was a dream for many people, but journalist Geoff Chapple made it a reality. He walked from north to south, through small towns and across stunning landscapes. Eventually the Te Araroa Trust, headed by Chapple, began making official trails along the route. In 2011 the collaborative venture ‘joined the dots’ from Cape Rēinga to Bluff. By 2018 a thousand ‘through walkers’ were completing the whole trail each year.
There was still an unsatisfied demand for walking tracks. It came partly from overseas tourists and partly from urban baby-boomers wanting to stay fit, and from an appreciation of New Zealand’s distinctive environment.
Private walks were developed as farmers looked to diversify their income streams and find a new use for old shearers’ huts. Usually the accommodation is comfortable and meals are provided. The Banks Peninsula Track and Tora Coastal Walk in south Wairarapa are well-known examples. People pay several hundred dollars for the privilege of using private tracks, and the walkways have become a major recreational resource.
Acknowledgements to Shaun Barnett