5 most rewarding hikes on New Zealand's South Island
New Zealand’s South Island is a hiker’s paradise.
Encompassing golden sand beaches, high alpine passes and prehistoric forests, many of the world’s greatest walks within easy reach of each other.
Here, five unforgettable multi-day treks that showcase the South Island’s best bits.
1. Hollyford Track
Duration: Three to five days
Length: 56 kilometres
Where: Fiordland National Park, a two-and-a-half hour drive from Te Anau
Highlights: Views of Mt Tutoko; ancient, untouched forests; rich Maori and settler history.
Take a three-day guided walk from the mountains to the coast along the Hollyford River, and by the end of it you’ll have gained such an appreciation of the unique flora here that you’ll be trying to avoid stepping on individual mosses that carpet the path.
The Hollyford Track’s expert guides seem to know the role that every fern, tree and moss plays in the forest ecosystem of this remote region of the Fiordland National Park, and they’ll teach you which plants are safe to eat and their various medicinal properties too.
The route is rich in settler and Maori history as you pass through towering podocarp forests with views of glaciers and the mighty Mt Tutoko, all the way to the coast where a seal colony awaits at Martins Bay.
You can always walk the track yourself of course, staying in huts, but then you won’t get the fine dining and comfort that awaits tired legs at two lodges along the way. Oh, and returning via helicopter along the sheer cliffs of Milford Sound isn’t bad either.
If you want to see the South Island at its rugged best and gain a deeper understanding of its biodiversity then this walk is essential.
2. Rakiura Track
Duration: Three days
Length: 36 kilometres
Where: A one-hour ferry ride from Bluff to Stewart Island, or a 20-minute flight from Invercargill
Highlights: The best place in New Zealand to spot kiwi birds; immerse yourself in Maori history.
Walk anywhere on the South Island and you’ll hear word of Stewart Island. Hanging just off the south coast, it’s a place where the Department of Conservation is making a big push to restore the environment to its original state, eradicating pests so unique animals like kiwis can flourish once again.
Indeed, the Rakiura National Park is a wildlife haven, home to seals, penguins and the Rakiura tokoeka, the southern brown kiwi, which can be seen foraging during the day, unlike its northern cousins.
There are two huts to stay in or you can pitch a tent at a few campsites along the way, one of which is at Maori Beach. Indeed the trail itself is rich in Maori culture, which dates back to the 13th century.
Departing Lee Bay, it’s a leisurely walk through the island’s interior and along its pristine coastline, where you can see conservation efforts in action and towering forests brought back to former glory.
3. Heaphy Track
Duration: Four to six days
Length: 78 kilometres
Where: Kahurangi National Park, a 40-minute drive from Collingwood
Highlights: Diverse rainforest and alpine landscapes; kiwi country.
This hike through Kahurangi National Park to the sub-tropical forests of the west coast is possibly New Zealand’s most diverse, boasting a myriad of landscapes as well as one of the easier hiking trails featured.
Starting at Brown Hut, 156 kilometres from Nelson (or you can do it the other way around and start on the coast), the scenery is a microcosm of the entire South Island.
Staying at Department of Conservation huts along the way, you pass through the vast alpine tussock grass planes of the Gouland Downs, exploring caves and waterfalls, before descending through lush prehistoric forests dotted with giant rata trees on the banks of the Heaphy River.
Leaving the mountains behind, you eventually finish amid the coastal wilderness of the west coast and its nikau palm-fringed surf beaches at the mouth of the Kohaihai River.
While you’re in these dense forests, keep an eye out for screeching kea and kaka parrots. And if you’re really lucky, you may hear the bizarre warbling screech of the Great Spotted Kiwi.
4. Abel Tasman Coast Track
Duration: Four days
Length: 55 kilometres
Where: Abel Tasman National Park, a half-hour drive from Motueka
Highlights: Paradise white sand beaches; fur seals; kayaking.
Set off from Marahau or Totaranui, or catch a boat from Kaiteriteri to Tasman Abel’s pristine beaches – one of the most beautiful corners of New Zealand, if not the world.
The Abel Tasman’s aquamarine waters and exquisite, golden sand beaches are startlingly beautiful and would be crowded with sunbathers were they anywhere else on the planet.
Here though, the park’s numerous coves remain wild places where you can often find secret corners to take off your hiking boots, dip into the surf and have the place to yourself.
The walk meanders along the coast, taking in the beaches and imposing cliffs, as well as boardwalks through the dense surrounding forests. One major highlight is the crossing of Falls River on a 47-metre long suspension bridge.
If you have the time, hire a sea kayak and further explore the park’s bays – you’ll often have a fur seal or two for company.
5. Milford Track
Duration: Four days
Length: 53 kilometres
Where: Start from Lake Te Anau and walk into Fiordland National Park
Highlights: Quite possibly the most beautiful view in the world; a spectacular mountain pass.
This is New Zealand’s most famous walk, and it’s easy to see why when you reach the end.
The view of the Milford Sound has graced many a canvas over the centuries for the beauty of its sheer rock walls, the imposing Mitre Peak and mountain-fringed horizon reflected in the fjord’s waters.
It’s a wonderful reward for completing this hike that sets out from Lake Te Anau, following in the footsteps of past explorers.
There are three huts to sleep in as the walk takes you up through beech forest and grassy plains to the peaks and back down to crystal clear rivers and waterfalls.
A highlight is the walk through MacKinnon Pass. Up here, surrounded by snowy peaks, you’ll have breathtaking views of the glacier-carved valleys, the Pompolona ice field and the expanse of the World Heritage Area that is the Fiordland National Park.
Don’t miss a side trip to Sutherland Falls, the tallest in the country with a drop of 580 metres, and keep an eye out for cheeky kea parrots.
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