New Zealand offers thousands of kilometres of tracks of various grades, and around 1,400 back-country huts, bivouacs and shelters. About 1,000 of these huts are managed by the Department of Conservation for public use. Almost all tramping takes place in national parks, reserves and other land managed by the Department of Conservation.
Tracks were originally marked by ‘blazes’ – axe or knife marks on tree trunks. Later, preserving jar lids were painted white and nailed to trees, and then white and red aluminium strips were used. By the 2000s the standard markers were bright orange plastic triangles. Over open ground, especially above the bush line, some tracks are marked by poles, which stick out of the snow. Rock cairns are also used.
Track maintenance and standards
The standard of tracks varies. In the more popular tramping areas they are maintained, with huts about 3–5 hours’ walk apart. Typically tracks follow valley floors, climb ridges to alpine passes, and then drop into another valley.
The long pathway
The Te Araroa Trust linked existing tracks to create a continuous 2,600-kilometre track running the length of New Zealand that opened in 2011. Te Araroa (the long pathway) is somewhat like North America’s Appalachian Trail.
Swing bridges cross the rivers. In some remote areas trampers cross rivers on bridges that consist of just two or three wires strung from bank to bank. Another version is a cage suspended by a single steel wire (like a flying fox) that can be hauled across.
Ten official ‘Great Walks’ in national parks are managed and maintained for high use, with large huts where wardens are often resident during the summer. One of these ‘walks’ is the Whanganui Journey, a paddling trip down the Whanganui River. On the Milford, Routeburn and Abel Tasman walks, huts and camp sites must be booked in advance. The cost of administration increases the hut fees.
Private companies offer guided walks on the Milford, Routeburn and Greenstone tracks. Walking trails on private land sprang up during the 1990s and 2000s. Most gear is transported for walkers and meals can be provided.
At the other extreme are wilderness areas in which huts, bridges and tracks are not allowed. Trampers must be experienced in route-finding and navigation, and they need to carry tents.
One of the rewards of tramping is to arrive at a hut. After hours on your feet the hut represents more than shelter: it is where you take off your pack, cook a meal, sit and reflect on the day, and socialise.
It is part of backcountry culture that huts are left tidy, rubbish is carried out and firewood replaced. (Many huts have signs spelling this out.) Hut fees contribute to their maintenance.
Each hut has a visitors’ book in which people write their names, date of arrival and intended route. These are useful to Search and Rescue in cases of emergency. The ‘comments’ column provides insights into tramping culture.
No to Neptune’s daughter
This anonymous poem was found in 1923 in the Lake Howden hut book, on Otago’s Greenstone Track.
Once the very Gods themselves,
Doubt, Drank you –
Hangs in dozens cooling on the shelves
Thank you. 1
Types of hut
The first huts were of split tōtara or beech. Later, corrugated iron was used. Typically they were quite small – four to six bunks. Many were built by tramping clubs during the 1930s and 1940s. Still standing are many small huts built by the New Zealand Forest Service for deer-culling operations in the 1950s and 1960s, often painted orange to show up in mist or at twilight. The majority, over 500, are still in use. Originally four- and six-bunk designs (with some two-bunk ‘bivvies’), many have since been upgraded.
In popular areas, many older huts have been replaced by bigger, well-appointed cabins. Pot-belly stoves have replaced smoky open fires, which were often roughly put together from corrugated iron or tin sheeting. In the 21st century, new huts have to comply with building and other regulations. Their colours tend to be muted to blend into the landscape, but some brighter colours were used in the mid-2000s.
Overhanging rocks can also provide shelter. Known as bivs or bivvies (bivouacs), the largest and most renowned occur in the schist rocks of Mount Aspiring National Park, and in limestone formations around Mt Arthur in Kahurangi National Park. Some have in-built bunks and dry-stone walls.