Nelson Lakes, Coromandel Cape Reinga or the Queen Charlotte Track? The race is on to become New Zealand's next Great Walk
OPINION: The Department of Conservation is deciding where New Zealand's next two Great Walks will go. We asked three mad keen trampers to make the case for their favourite walks.
COROMANDEL PINNACLES, BY JOSEPH PEARSON
The trek to the pinnacle of the Pinnacles is breathtaking; every hiker's fantasy come true from traversing tracks with epic views to the challenging summit scramble.
It's worth the nagging aches and every ounce of leg power to complete the Kauaeranga Kauri Trail (the Pinnacles Walk) and scale the final ascent after you've reached the picturesque Pinnacles Hut, which is located among thick green bush with stunning sights as far as the eye can see.
Think of the walk. The walk that has everything. The walk that has waterfalls, drawstring bridges, rock climbing, rock and tree formations you can't explain and those steep sections you love to hate - but you love for the amazing scenery.
The Pinnacles is that walk. One of New Zealand's Great Walks.
Locating the trek - found upriver from Thames in the spectacular Kauaeranga Valley - is done by driving off-road for approximately 30 minutes on one long, windy gravel road.
Keep going and going past camp ground after camp ground, as you head deep into the wilderness before the road stops and the hidden hike starts.
It begins with a walk into the unknown down paths flanked by chirpy forest.
Then you're heading upwards with an estimated return time of somewhere between six and seven hours if you stick to the Webb Creek Track.
Gentle running water from the Kauaeranga river and Autuatumoe streams can be heard as you march up dirt paths twisted together with drawstring bridges advising just one cross at once.
I dare you to try two.
Once you've weaved in and out of branches and ducked beneath or hidden inside fallen trees, it gets steep. Really steep.
You're rock climbing in some parts but for every clambering step you take, the more magnificent the views become as more of the distant green, green undergrowth begins to emerge. It's quite the sight.
Mountainous curves and lumps you'd think were impossible to form become prominent everywhere you look, with rocks shaped like pillars and posts unusually scattered across the landscape.
Once the Pinnacles Hut comes into view, you've spotted a fabulous location for one last break before reaching the summit, which takes approximately 40 minutes to scale from there.
The hut is maintained to an excellent standard and you could the stay the night in one of its 80 bunk beds, with cooking, heating, lighting and mattresses available for weary walkers.
The summit climb is the walk's steepest section with step after step going straight up before ladders and carefully placed mental handles ease your ascent, but not before more irregular rocks and paths leave you swaying as you ponder what the bewildering shapes resemble in the mountains.
'Weary but worth it' is how you'll feel on the top when you're scoffing your summit sandwich, while shuffling for comfort amongst jagged rocks and soaking up the sights, as every glimpse captured during the ascent becomes one spectacular snapshot.
The descent captures it all again. The Pinnacles peak is phenomenal.
NELSON LAKES, BY JONATHAN CARSON
If I'm being completely honest, I don't want a Great Walk plonked in Nelson Lakes National Park.
Nelson Lakes is my happy place. It's my favourite place to go tramping in New Zealand, maybe even the world.
I like Nelson Lakes how it is now. It's not overrun by visitors. The trails aren't perfectly maintained. It still retains its backcountry ruggedness.
But a compelling argument can be made for why Nelson Lakes could — not should — be the location for New Zealand's next Great Walk.
The Nelson-Tasman region is already home to two Great Walks — the Abel Tasman Coast Track between Marahau and Golden Bay, and the Heaphy Track between Collingwood and Karamea.
Adding a third would make the region a true tramping "Mecca" of New Zealand, potentially surpassing Fiordland in terms of the variety of scenery.
The Travers-Sabine Circuit, a 4-7 day tramp with serviced huts, already exists and could be developed.
The scenery is spectacular, taking in Lake Rotoiti, the tussock flats of Travers Valley, roaring rivers, and a challenging alpine pass.
There are also popular side tracks to Blue Lake, the clearest known freshwater in the world, and Lake Angelus, which would add an extra day or two to the trip.
The village of St Arnaud, about 90 minutes south of Nelson, is well set-up as a Great Walk gateway with a store, campground and high-end accommodation.
Nelson Lakes would be more demanding than most other Great Walks. Denim-clad tourists in casual sneakers probably wouldn't fare too well and the last thing brand New Zealand needs is more death in the wilderness.
The terrain should serve as a natural deterrent for the inexperienced.
But for visitors to the region who want more adventure than what the Abel Tasman or the Heaphy can offer, a third, more rigorous Great Walk could be the answer.
It would require a greater investment of time. But the pay-off, the sense of accomplishment would also be greater. And isn't that what a Great Walk should be — great?
New Zealand doesn't need another "walk in the park" with trails smooth enough for buggies and wide enough for 4WD vehicle.
If the Department of Conservation has money to spare, put it into biodiversity projects and protecting New Zealand's native species.
New Zealand's next Great Walk already exists somewhere in our incredible network of trails. If it were to be in Nelson Lakes, all that's required are a few signs and a catchy marketing campaign.
There's no need to pave paradise to put up a manicured pathway or tourist attraction. The tourists come to New Zealand to experience our great outdoors, not some watered down version.
I've spent a lot of time exploring Nelson Lakes, from St Arnaud to the St James Walkway. Every time it takes my breath away.
It's already great, just the way it is.
QUEEN CHARLOTTE TRACK, BY JEFFREY KITT
Where else can you find breathtaking waterways, monuments of historic national importance, and native bush side-by-side? I could only be speaking about the Queen Charlotte Track.
The 71-kilometre track which passes through the Marlborough Sounds should be a firm favourite to be named as a Great Walk.
I am honestly surprised it is not already: the track takes all the best bits of the Sounds and packs it into one spectacular multi-day tramp.
The one-way track can be tackled from either end, and I chose to embark from the picturesque harbour of Anakiwa, a 30 minute drive from Picton.
After only 10 minutes its natural beauty comes to the fore: the emerald waters of the Sounds, viewed from lush forest, stretches out for miles.
There is no feeling quite like waking up in a tent, listening to the tuis and bellbirds, washing your face in the crisp water of the Queen Charlotte Sound and getting on with the day.
Resorts and lodges cater for the trampers among us who would prefer not to sleep in the dirt.
Arguably the best bit comes as the track moves skyward to hug the ridgeline and offer panoramic views of both the Queen Charlotte and Kenepuru Sounds.
The track gradually comes back to earth, to end at the historic Ship Cove, which will celebrate the 250th anniversary of Cook's arrival in 2019, gives the Queen Charlotte Track an historical edge and pleasant end to the journey.
History lives and breathes through this place.
Captain Cook spent more than 100 days at Ship Cove on five separate occasions. The first significant long-term contact between Maori and Europeans took place in the Queen Charlotte Sound, or Totaranui, in the 1770s.
Trampers will then need to organise their way back to civilisation by boat, which is an experience all of its own.
The track is already a Great Ride, and I must admit jumping out the way of cyclists is not ideal.
It's well formed but can be steep, rough or muddy in some places. It is rated by the Department of Conservation as an Easier Tramping Track, and upgrades may be necessary to get the pathway recognised as a Great Walk.
Marlborough District Council, DOC and private landowners oversee the track, with 20 per cent of the track crossing private land. It remains to be seen how this may impact on its viability as a Great Walk selection.
These are minor considerations however.
I think of the undulating countryside, the green waters, the beautiful birdsong, the ridgetop views.
I already think of it as a Great Walk.
TE PAKI, CAPE REINGA, BY JOHN HAINES
Not only does it include stunning, unsurpassed coastal scenery, bountiful beaches and one-of-a-kind native flora, there is a palpable spiritual essence to the place that every visitor with a heart notices.
You quite simply feel good just being there. Te Hiku o te Ika, the Tail of the Fish, Maui's fish, also has special importance to local Maori. As is said in the north, the head of the fish is in Wellington and decisions get made there, but without the tail of the fish, those decisions can't be steered to their rightful conclusions.
Being in the warmest part of the country and offering little in the way of shelter from the sub-tropical sun, the best time to visit is arguably not in the summer. I tend to schedule day walks in Te Paki reserve for my weekly tramping group in autumn, winter and spring.
Overseas visitors to New Zealand intent on completing the Great Walks would be able to do the Te Paki Coastal Walkway, on the shoulders of their New Zealand visits, outside of the peak summer tramping season.
There are two other coastal Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coastal Walkway and the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island. Both are beautiful but neither has the diversity of landscape of what I like to call Te Ara Wairua, the Spirit Walk.
What Great Walks share is a guarantee of well-formed and well-marked trails and comfortable huts a modest day's walking apart.
Te Ara Wairua, is the ideal length for a Great Walk. Three days will cover the 48km and the Waitiki Landing Backpackers complex offers a shuttle service and vehicle storage.
Those wishing to take their time and invest in a side-trip near Pandora to the country's northernmost remnant of diverse kauri forest could extend their time to four days.
What the walkway lacks now are the aforementioned comfortable huts. There are just two micro-campsites providing covered open-sided pavilions with fixed tables and benches, composting toilets and water supply. One is at Pandora and the other at Twilight Beach.
A little about the walk itself. The trail from Kapowairua (Spirit's Bay) is initially flat but its sandy surface means it is not especially easy walking.
Cross the lagoon on a long zigzag footbridge and the short climb around a headland offers marvellous views back to the starting point before arriving at Pandora and the pristine Whangakea Beach. Here is found the first of the two micro-camps.
The steep climb out of Pandora skirts a stream replete with small waterfalls and fascinating limestone formations before cresting the ridge to find expansive views north to Cape Reinga and west across rambling dunes, an unusual bald hillock we call Red Mountain, and giant west coast surf breaking on an offshore reef beyond Twilight Beach.
The ongoing breath-taking vistas of the tramp have begun.
The trail rises over the first of several Maori pa sites, Tirikawa, (286m), descends a well-defined spur, before ascending again above rocky cliff faces and finally dropping into the estuary adjacent to the stunning DOC campsite at Tapotupotu Bay. Beware of the surf, as alluring as it seems. I've been bashed there on more than one occasion.
It's another monumental climb over a rocky headland to Sandy Bay before the final ascent to Cape Reinga.
Far below the famed lighthouse is found a gnarly windswept pohutukawa, where, according to Maori legend, the spirits of the dead descend for their undersea journey to Hawaiiki, the homeland. On a clear day the Three Kings islands are silhouetted on the horizon.
Along the track to Cape Maria van Diemen, the landscape changes to dramatic vistas of red and ochre dunes against dark, basaltic cliffs and turquoise seas.
After crossing the estuary at the end of the 3km stretch of Te Werahi Beach you climb across a gaudy landscape of dunes and peach-tinted sandstone littered with the sun-bleached shells of the now rare flax snail, pupuharekeke. To your right is the arresting rocky islet of Motuopao, home for a time to hardy lighthouse-keepers and their families.
The- second micro-camp, fringed with pohutukawa trees and perched some 20m above beautiful Twilight Beach, is another gem.
Cross elevated scrubland with views towards Te Paki farm and the country's highest sand dunes, before reaching the long flights of stairs at Scott Point and descending to the endless expanse of Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē or Ninety Mile Beach.
Here consider shucking your shoes and meandering barefoot up Te Paki stream, bringing you to the car park and a shuttle ride back to Waitiki Landing. You've now completed a truly great walk.
- Sunday Star Times