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Walking tracks

by  Jock Phillips

The footprints of past travellers have marked out a network of scenic trails that attract trampers from around the world. Many of these pathways were once important routes for Māori transporting greenstone, for gold miners and for deer cullers.

Māori highways

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, people walked. Tracks criss-crossed the country.

On the track

Māori usually walked in single file, turning the tracks into heavily worn furrows. When they reached cliffs or steep hillsides, they drove 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.

Talking the walk

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, ‘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 to the coast at Matatā, and just to the 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.

Across the Southern Alps

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. Significant river tracks included those in the Buller Gorge, and along the Waitaki and Clutha rivers.

Walking for work


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 do business. For example, the Bridle Path over the Port Hills linked the port of Lyttelton to the new town of Christchurch.

Settlers soon found other means to get around. By 1867 there was a rail tunnel between Christchurch and Lyttelton. Rough roads were built within and between towns, and people travelled 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 trudge along the roads on the east coast of both islands, going from one sheep station to the next 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 discovery of gold at Dunstan, up the Clutha River, brought more miners the following year. A few used packhorses to cart their gear, and some even used their dogs, but most plodded along, carrying a swag.

From Tuapeka the miners walked up the east bank of the Clutha River. From Dunedin they either went north via Palmerston and the Pigroot, or south to Outram and then across the desolate Lammermoor Range.

Flagging the way

By 1863 the busy route from the Tuapeka goldfields to the Dunstan was marked 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 to the West Coast. Explorer James Mackay marked this 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. The discovery of copper In the Ruahine Range in 1887 led to new tracks. On the West Coast, coal miners forged paths that sometimes became tramlines.

Farmers and loggers

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 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 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

Deer cullers made many 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. ‘The Skipper’, as Yerex was known, saw the need for a more systematic network of huts and tracks. Because he wanted cullers to eradicate deer, all parts of the ranges needed to be within about three hours’ walk from a hut. Anderson Memorial Hut in the Tararua Range was the first 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 by 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.

Walking for recreation

The last decades of the 19th century saw the rise of walking as recreation, which created a new use for tracks. This change was due to several factors:

  • the beginning of international tourism in New Zealand
  • the emergence of a middle class, interested in healthy pursuits
  • a romantic fascination with alpine scenery, and a growing interest in native plants and animals.

Milford Track

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 (spelled as Mackinnon). 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.

Bush tucker

Explorer Quintin McKinnon was renowned for cooking pompolonas, a type of scone, for his walking parties. In memory of this, one of the huts on the Milford Track was named Pompolona.

McKinnon 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.

In 2006 over 200 people a day walked the Milford Track in the summer months (December to March).

North Island tracks

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.

No high tea

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 the mountain 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 a military barracks in New Plymouth – 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 built around and up it.

Wellington city-dwellers wanting a weekend in the hills 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 Holdsworth. 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 from the Wainuiomata Valley to the Orongorongo River was cut.

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.

    • Quoted in Barbara Cooper, The Remotest interior. Tauranga: Moana, 1989, p. 96. › Back

Tracks since the Second World War

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.

National 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.

Forest parks

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.

Impermanent markers

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.

Official walkways

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:

North Island

  • Lake Waikaremoana Track
  • Tongariro Northern Circuit
  • Whanganui Journey (by river)

South Island

  • 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.

Private walks

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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Walking tracks', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 March 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 24 September 2007, updated 1 April 2016