The first walking tracks in New Zealand were the highways of Māori society. Canoes (waka) brought the first immigrants to New Zealand from Polynesia, and were widely used to transport people and goods around the country. But the rocky rivers and hilly terrain limited the places where canoes could be used. To travel any distance on land, most people walked. Tracks criss-crossed the country.
Māori usually walked in single file, turning the tracks into heavily worn furrows. When they reached cliffs or steep hillsides, they would drive in wooden pegs or put up ladders. They crossed rivers on flax mōkihi (rafts).
Māori usually walked during the day, wearing light capes, and sandals made of flax or cabbage-tree leaves. They sometimes carried heavy loads, such as greenstone, in flax kete or kawe (packs). Food was caught or gathered along the way, although travellers sometimes carried dried whitebait or eels.
Māori had many sayings about walking on a track. One remains true today: ‘Ka uia tonutia e koe ka roa tonu te ara; ka kāore koe e ui ka poto te ara’ (If you keep asking the distance, the path will be long; if you don’t ask, it will be short).
The easiest route was along the beach, and was described as ‘te ara one a Hine-tuakirikiri’ – the path of the sand maid. In the north of the North Island, Ninety Mile Beach was used, and the west coast route from Taranaki to Wellington was a major highway, along which the invading warriors of Te Rauparaha walked in the 1820s.
In the South Island both coasts were used. When the explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy came down the West Coast in 1846, they met 25 Māori heading in the other direction.
Inland North Island routes were along ridges or carved through the bush. Near Rotorua, for example, there was a track from Rotomā north to the coast at Matatā, and just west was the more famous ‘Hongi’s track’. Such tracks were used by Māori going to the coast for kai moana (seafood), and by war parties.
The South Island interior was criss-crossed with tracks used by parties seeking pounamu (greenstone, or New Zealand jade), which is found only on the western side of the Southern Alps. The trails usually ran up river valleys and over passes.
The most important route was probably the Taramakau–Hurunui trail (later known as Harper Pass). Others were through the Lewis, Browning and Haast passes, and the Mackinnon Pass to Milford Sound. Some river tracks were also significant, such as those along the Buller Gorge, and the Waitaki and Clutha rivers.
When early Europeans set out to explore the land, they were mostly guided by Māori, along traditional pathways.
Europeans also used the old coastal routes, especially on the west coast of the lower North Island and the east coast of the South Island. Townspeople often had to walk to accomplish their business. For example, the Bridle Path linked the port of Lyttelton with the new town of Christchurch.
Settlers soon found other means to get around. By 1867 a rail tunnel linked Christchurch and its port. Rough roads were built within and between towns, and people moved by horse and carriage.
Among the few who continued to walk the roads were the swaggers or swagmen, named for the swags (knapsacks) they carried. They would traipse along the roads on the east coast of both islands, going from one sheep station to another in search of work.
In 1861 the discovery of gold at Gabriels Gully, in Central Otago, led to a rush over the Maungatua and Waipori ranges to the Tuapeka River. The next year the discovery of gold at Dunstan, up the Clutha River, brought more miners. A few used packhorses to cart their gear, and some even used their dogs, but most trudged along, carrying a swag.
From Tuapeka the miners came up the east bank of the Clutha River. From Dunedin they either went north via Palmerston and the Pigroot, or south along the desolate route to Outram and across the Lammermoor Range.
By 1863 the busy route from the Tuapeka goldfields to the Dunstan goldfield was marked out with planted saplings, each bearing a small black flag. Where there were no trees, rock cairns were built.
In 1865 West Coast gold brought miners flocking over Harper Pass from Canterbury – a track already cleared by the Canterbury provincial government. As early as 1859 a miner from the Aorere goldfields in Nelson had used the Heaphy Track route southwards to the West Coast. Explorer James Mackay marked it out when gold was found at Karamea.
In the Coromandel in the late 1860s, tracks were cut to allow miners to walk to battery sites, where gold-bearing rocks were broken up.
Many tracks soon became roads, or were replaced by new roads, such as the one over Arthur’s Pass. In the Ruahine Range the discovery of copper in 1887 led to new tracks, and down on the West Coast, coalminers forged paths that sometimes became tramlines.
Farmers formed pathways around their back-country stations, and shepherds made droving tracks to move stock onto high country in the summer, or to muster sheep for shearing. Rabbiters also followed their prey to the mountaintops, and in the Ruahine Range, hunters shooting wild dogs built huts and made tracks.
More significant were loggers. Often living in tent townships, they walked through the bush to work, and built bullock tracks or even tramways to carry out the timber. In the Waitākere Range their routes to kauri dams later became recreational trails. The Forest Service (set up to log native forests) also cut tracks.
Deer cullers made a significant number of new tracks. In 1930 George Yerex, a former captain in Britain’s Imperial Camel Corps, was appointed by the Department of Internal Affairs to direct deer-culling operations. At first the cullers worked from tent camps, blazing tracks through the back country. But ‘the Skipper’, as Yerex was known, saw the need for a more systematic network of huts and tracks. Because he wanted deer cullers to eradicate deer completely, all parts of the ranges needed to be within about three hours’ walk of a hut. Anderson Memorial Hut in the Tararua Range was the first hut to be built, but lack of funds delayed completion of the network.
In 1945 Internal Affairs took on possum hunting, and set up a Wildlife Service. Trappers, paid a bounty for each pelt, used the old tracks and forged new ones. In 1956 the Forest Service took over the job of destroying noxious animals. A hut and track programme began, and the first part of Yerex’s goal was finally achieved.
New huts were airlifted in planes and later by helicopters. By the mid-1970s there were over 600 huts, many painted orange, and a network of tracks, carefully marked with blazes or cairns. Today’s recreational trampers enjoy the benefits.
The last decades of the 19th century saw the rise of walking as outdoor recreation, which created a new use for tracks. This change was due to several factors:
The first purely recreational track was cut in the isolated rainforests of Fiordland. In 1880 Donald Sutherland, exploring from Milford Sound, discovered the spectacular Sutherland Falls. Eight years later Quintin McKinnon, exploring from Lake Te Anau, crossed over the pass which was given his name. A 53-kilometre walking track was made, from the lake to the sound. By the end of 1888 McKinnon was guiding tourists along the route.
Explorer Quintin McKinnon was renowned for cooking pompolonas, a type of scone, which he gave to his walking parties. In memory of this, one of the huts on the Milford Track was named Pompolona.
Mackinnon drowned in 1892, and in 1903 guiding was taken up by the newly formed Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, which built Glade House at the head of Lake Te Anau. The Milford walk soon gained an international reputation. In 1908 an article in a London paper called it ‘the finest walk in the world’ and the description stuck.
In the summer of 1910–11, 2,627 people stayed at Quintin Hut near Sutherland Falls. The success of the Milford Track encouraged the cutting of other tracks in the area, notably the Routeburn and Greenstone trails at the head of Lake Wakatipu.
By 2006 over 200 people a day were walking the Milford Track in the summer months (between December and March).
The establishment of Tongariro National Park in 1887 and the founding of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts led to recreational development in the North Island. By 1904, huts had been built at Ketetahi and Waihohonu in the national park. The completion of the main trunk railway in 1908 increased the demand for walking trails. In 1929 the government built the Chateau Tongariro hotel on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
In 1889 the newspapers reported that hikers were flocking to Tokaanu, near Lake Taupō, and that women were easily climbing Tongariro and in ecstasy over ‘the marvellous handiwork of Nature’ 1. But when Frances Beetham climbed it three years later she remarked that the group had to go without a cup of tea, as there was no wood to boil a ‘William’ (a billy, or pot).
The Camphouse – originally military barracks in the New Zealand wars – was moved to Mt Taranaki (Mt Egmont) in 1891, as accommodation for walkers and climbers. The mountain became Egmont National Park (New Zealand’s second) in 1893, and tracks were forged around and up it.
In Wellington, locals wanting a weekend in the hills, away from their desks, turned to the Tararua Range. By 1895 there were separate track committees on both sides of the range. A track up Mt Holdsworth was completed, and Mountain House was built. In 1910 over 1,000 people climbed the mountain. Two years later a track was completed from Ōtaki Forks to Mt Alpha, forming the celebrated ‘southern crossing’ over the southern Tararuas. The Tararua Tramping Club (1919) intensified efforts to build a network of huts and walking tracks. In the 1920s the Five Mile Track was cut into the Orongorongo Range.
To encourage healthy outdoor activity, the Physical Welfare Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs reopened the Harper Pass track in the late 1930s and built new huts, bureaucratically named Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4.
By 1939, hardy trampers and hunters spent their 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.
From 1954, when the Tararua Forest Park was established, the Forest Service set up forest parks that combined conservation and recreation. In the 1970s, as helicopters replaced foot-slogging for the capture and recovery of deer, the 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, first 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 (although the idea was reborn in the early 2000s with 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 or 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.
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 started a system of fees for back-country huts.
In the early 1990s DOC established a category of nine ‘Great Walks’ – tracks of outstanding natural beauty:
In 2015 the government announced that a 45-kilometre Great Walk would be constructed in the Paparoa National Park as a memorial to the 29 men killed in the 2010 Pike River mine disaster.
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.
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.
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.
Some private walks were developed as farmers looked to diversify 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 the 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 in New Zealand.
Acknowledgements to Shaun Barnett
Brailsford, Barry. Greenstone trails: the Maori and pounamu. 2nd ed. Hamilton: Stoneprint, 1996.
DuFresne, Jim. Tramping in New Zealand. 6th ed. Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2006.
Hewson, Pearl. New Zealand’s Great Walks. Auckland: Hodder Moa Beckett, 1996.
Maclean, Chris. Tararua: the story of a mountain range. Wellington: Whitcombe Press, 1994.
Pickering, Mark. A tramper’s journey: stories from the back country of New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2004.
Watson, James. Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: GP Publications, 1996.