Stretching the entire length of the country, Te Araroa is a scenic public walkway that links New Zealand’s actual and symbolic poles - Cape Reinga, at the northern tip of the North Island, with Bluff, on the South Island’s southernmost coast.
For patriotic Kiwis, who like to wax lyrical about how Aotearoa New Zealand spans 'from Cape Reinga to Bluff', the trail is a concept that encompasses not only the landscape but also the culture, history and nationhood of New Zealanders.
Intrepid hikers who embark on the full route - a major expedition of several weeks - experience New Zealand from the grassroots up.
The journey takes walkers through every type of New Zealand landscape from coastal to volcanic, river valleys to mountains, forest to farmland, via country settlements and major cities.
But for walkers with less time, or wanting to make the journey in stages, Te Araroa also provides a series of great scenic hiking routes of varying length, difficulty and landscape.
Te Araroa - The Long Pathway is the result of a dream that was first talked about 40 years ago when the New Zealand Walkways Commission - which eventually became the Department of Conservation (DOC) - was formed.
However, most material progress has happened over the past decade.
Behind the massive development have been hundreds of passionate volunteer workers, coordinated by the Te Araroa Trust which has championed the trail for 15 years.
Kiwi journalist and Trust founder Geoff Chapple began to campaign for Te Araroa in 1994 - initially with a newspaper article that described the proposal as "patriotic, but also practical".
Chapple saw Te Araroa from a community perspective, with construction of the trail creating jobs, and the completed trail bringing tourists and business to remote rural areas.
From dream to reality
The first trail from Kerikeri to Waitangi, in Northland, was opened in 1995 but it wasn’t until 1997 that the Te Araroa Trust was able to map the North Island trail - in consultation with DOC, and local and regional bodies. The South Island came later.
By 1998, Chapple had gained increasing support for his campaign, and a substantial grant allowed him to leave full-time employment and walk the proposed North Island route.
Along the way he blogged and conducted radio interviews to promote the cause. More grants followed, and Chapple was able to complete the South Island leg of the trail in 2001.
In total, Chapple took 156 days - not including rest days - to walk the length of the country, but the idea behind Te Araroa is for everyone to have a go at walking some part of it, whether it’s the full length of New Zealand over time, or just a small day walk.
Chapple described the journey as "pretty character building … but when you get up to a high point and look back on all the ridges and headlands you’ve come over, it’s a great feeling."
Not surprisingly, the task of coordinating a trail that travels thousands of kilometres and connects New Zealand’s poles has been demanding.
Access for pathways to cross private property was one of the challenges, but many local landowners and Māori iwi / tribes were supportive of the project. Public permits sometimes took longer to come by.
Māori believe the pathway has mana / powerful value, and the Waikato’s Tainui tribe even granted Te Araroa the protection of their taniwha / water spirit or monster.
Real Kiwi experience
Chapple saw Te Araroa as an expression of New Zealand culture.
The track is designed to take hikers into heartland New Zealand, through many historical sites and significant geographical landscapes - coastal, mountainous and urban.
Cape Reinga, in the far north, is one of Māoridom’s most sacred places - the point where the spirits of the deceased leave to return to their spiritual homeland of Hawaiki. The route also passes through Waitangi, where New Zealand’s founding treaty was signed in 1840.
In the central North Island, the trail takes in the Tongariro Crossing - a world-renowned one-day mountain crossing through a unique volcanic landscape.
The 3300km trail follows dedicated walking tracks and backcountry roads, and some of the most spectacular routes are along mountain trails through the South Island’s Southern Alps.
There are 16 huts on Te Araroa's 110-kilometre traverse of the Richmond Range - the trail’s longest and most demanding section with summits consistently above 1500 metres.
Something for everyone
By the mid-2000s and well ahead of the trail’s still-to-come completion, eager walkers were beginning to hit the trail - up to 10 a year, using roads as by-passes where necessary.
Studies predicted that the fully open Te Araroa will attract around 100 people annually for the full walk, and about 3000 walkers on multi-day walks.Around 7000 people will walk overnight sections, and 350,000 people will use the trail for day walks.