New Zealand possesses some of the world’s most dramatic long-distance hiking trails, which for many American visitors provide the highlights of their trips. The tracks are well-maintained and run through routinely spectacular mountain and coastal scenery. There are nine premier trails, known as the “Great Walks” (although, confusingly, one of them is a kayaking journey on the North Island’s Whanganui River). Perhaps the two most famous are the Kepler Track and the Milford Track, both of which are in Fiordland at the tip of the South Island.
The Kepler is a 37-mile-long circular trail that begins near the town of Te Anau. Generally, it takes hikers three to four days to make the trek, though runners on the annual Kepler Challenge complete the same route in less than five hours! The track ascends to a high point of 4,600 feet at Luxmore Saddle, from where there are stupendous panoramic views over Fiordland National Park. Sections of the Kepler cross mountain ridges, pass through mossy beech forests and run along the shorelines of lakes Manapouri and Te Anau.
The 33 miles of the Milford Track extend from the head of Lake Te Anau to the sheer cliffs and mirrorlike waters of Milford Sound. The route traverses temperate rainforests and wetlands, as well as mountainous terrain. Highlights include the 1,900-foot Sutherland Falls and the 3,800-foot Mackinnon Pass.
On both Kepler and Milford tracks, camping is severely restricted. Hikers must either spend nights in one of the huts owned and maintained by the Department of Conservation or sign up for a guided trek with one of the private companies that have their own more comfortable accommodations, with hot showers, proper beds and catered meals. Another option, which may particularly appeal to Andrew Harper members, is to be dropped off by a helicopter for a day trek and then picked up in the late afternoon for the return flight to a resort or hotel near Queenstown.