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Trail running: New Zealand’s Great Walks

A trio of fleet-footed explorers attempt to decant four weeks of track-tramping time into nine days of trail running on New Zealand’s Great Walks. But can they set a record and see stunning scenery along the way?

Trail running: New Zealand’s Great Walks
Ben, Luke and Pat beach running on the Abel Tasman Track. Image: Patrick Kinsella

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It may be hard to believe that running with a wild kiwi bird can invoke the same level of froth-spluttering excitement as bigger-animal encounters on the hoof, but as I exchange startled sideways glances with my unexpected big-bottomed trail buddy, I know I wouldn’t swap this magic moment for a million stage-managed bull runs.

I’m halfway around the Heaphy Track in the middle of a dense New Zealand night, running dangerously close to my lowest ebb, when the emblematic and notoriously elusive creature bursts from the bush and begins wobbling along beside me. The encounter is as brief as it is bizarre. The kiwi keeps pace with me for maybe a minute, as if it’s been dared to do so by one of its mates, and then scuttles back into the scrub.

It’s just one micro-moment in a week crowded with extraordinary and epic experiences. But this one’s different. It revitalises and reminds me exactly why I’m out here in a pair of shorts at 3am, and convinces me to carry on running, just when I’d started contemplating my alternatives.

New Zealand is a nightmare to travel around, for all the right reasons. It’s almost impossible to stick to a plan here, because there are dramatic distractions around every corner, waiting to trip you over, grab you by the eyeballs and arrest that part of your brain where our human sense of wonder lives.

Glaciers. Mountains. Fiords. Waterfalls. Islands. Volcanoes. Deserted ocean-stroked beaches. Hanging alpine lakes. Ancient forests. Roaring rivers. Thermal springs. It’s a mystery how Kiwi commuters manage to get past it all on their way to work each day, let alone how travellers are supposed to try and take in everything during a frustratingly finite holiday.

It’s rarely possible to do any more than skim the surface of a country unless you have months to spend there, anyway. I don’t have that kind of time in the bank, but I do have a theory: I believe you see more when you pack a pair of running shoes in your baggage.

Runners don’t just move across new ground quicker, they also think harder about that terrain before they arrive. Some of them plan entire trips around running; others let serendipity send them feet first to wherever the trails lead. Either way, they see places from an entirely alternative perspective to non-running travellers, and at very different times of the day.

This is true for anyone pounding the pavements and exploring the backstreets of the world’s big cities, but in a country like New Zealand, it’s off-road runners who really get beneath the skin of the destination. Unsurprisingly, given its tortured topography, New Zealand is dissected by thousands of trails, but nine special tracks have been declared the country’s ‘Great Walks’ — a premier league of paths — either because they showcase a particular facet of the incredibly eclectic terrain, or because they’re simply great walks. (Although one of them — the Whanganui River Journey — isn’t a walk at all; it’s a river.)

Putting my idea to the ultimate test, I’m trying to complete all nine of these Great Walks in as many days, along with fellow runners Ben Southall and Luke Edwards. Supporting us are our two dedicated drivers in a camper van. If successful, we’ll run right into the record books, because this has never been done before.

But, despite its obsession with adrenalin sports, New Zealand isn’t a destination that likes to be rushed. All nine tracks are intended as multi-day adventures. We’re facing 250 miles of running, plus a 90-mile river paddle. New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC) recommend allowing a total of 28 days to complete the Great Walks — and that doesn’t allow for natural disruptions or travel time between trailheads, which are scattered across the country and separated by some of the most contorted roads on the planet.

Milford Track. Image: Patrick Kinsella

Milford Track. Image: Patrick Kinsella

Fiordland on foot

Hearing of our quest, the local Maori treat us to a ‘welcome to country’ challenge and ceremony in Queenstown, which underlines the toughness of this place and its people in spectacular tongue-waggling, nose-rubbing fashion.

Our expedition begins at the shallow end, with the 20-mile Rakiura Track on Stewart Island in the remote far south. Everything about this eccentric isle is tropical — except, oddly, the weather — but we score near-perfect conditions for our shortest run. The trail too, is kind, dancing through forests and along beachside tracks with no nasty climbs.

Infamously feisty Fiordland isn’t so gentle. The track profiles snarl here, revealing jagged peaks. Avalanches, flooding, blizzards and high winds are all common, and each could scupper our plan to tick off the tough trio of Great Walks that tiptoe through this wet wilderness on South Island. A ferocious wind pursues us along the bladelike ridges of the 37-mile Kepler Track, flattening me several times. But, geared up and prepared for the conditions, we thread the pass and run into the embrace of the valley with excited whoops.

Declared ‘the finest walk in the world’ by Blanche Baughan in the London Spectator in 1908, the 34-mile Milford Track is the original Great Walk. Its finest features, though, are the waterfalls that cascade either side of the trail, and these heavenly hydraulics are powered by rain that strafes us relentlessly from the moment the water taxi leaves us at the top of Te Anau lake. We receive an elevated avalanche warning at one point and negotiate a steep B-route to sidestep the danger, before making it safely to our rendezvous with the boat at Sandfly Point.

Snow is our companion on the rugged Routeburn Track — but the 20-mile ‘short’ day we expected soon turned into an eight-hour wintery epic through a brutally beautiful white-cloaked landscape. Ours are the only footprints on the track — sensible walkers remain huddled in huts, stoking pot-belly stoves and nursing steaming cups of tea.

After a 17-hour drive, we’re well behind schedule as we begin our biggest challenge, the 49-mile Heaphy Track that wends a serpentine route through Kahurangi National Park. From Kohaihai, the route traces the wild west coast, ducking through ancient rainforests and skirting deserted beaches that face the tempestuous Tasman Sea. But when the climbing begins, my right knee threatens mutiny. By nightfall it’s swollen like an alarmed pufferfish. Every step is agony, but the only option is to continue. Our support drivers are en route to the far trailhead, 288 miles by road from where they left us.

Darkness has been on our heels from the outset, and the night soon catches us. Buoyed by the kindness of complete strangers in huts, who insist on making me mugs of coffee, I limp on. But the temperature plummets and after the final hut, I insist Ben and Luke run ahead. I know I can drag myself to the end, but as day four segues into five, amid a fog of fatigue, negativity begins chewing on my tired mind.

Momentarily, the point of the exercise slips out of focus. Some of the negative comments we’ve had fired at us — about running routes that were meant to be enjoyed at walking pace — begin haunting me. What’s the point of doing one of the world’s best walking tracks, if all you can see is a circle of torch-lit trail five feet in front of you?

Then, into that circle of light, runs my kiwi. It’s a surreal and wonderful moment that never would have happened if I’d been walking the track at a more sociable hour, and it instantly slaps me out of my malaise.

Dawn delivers a glorious sunrise, which blossoms into a bluebird day — perfect conditions for the 34-mile Abel Tasman Track, possibly Planet Earth’s finest coastal path. My knee allows me to stumble onwards. The toughest part of this run is resisting the pull of the sparkling ocean as we cross one outrageously beautiful bay after another, but we’ve a boat to catch, so we have to be content with just wading through the occasional tidal crossing. Even then, it’s tight. We reach the ferry with just 60 seconds to spare, and that’s where the real trouble begins.

Kepler approaching Luxmore Hut. Image: Patrick Kinsella

Kepler approaching Luxmore Hut. Image: Patrick Kinsella

Northern exposure

On the North Island, we’re immediately faced with a new challenge, swapping running shoes for kayaks to tackle the Whanganui River. Usually this waterway is benign enough for families to float down it in canoes, but we find fast-flowing water and discover that a three-day deluge upcountry has put the river in flood. Not ideal, especially as we’ve chosen kayaks that offer speed at the expense of stability.

Luke looks out of his element as we approach the first rapid, and he instantly takes an involuntary swim. Bucked from his boat several more times, his body temperature drops dangerously low, and he decides to bail. We pull off the river and assess the situation. One man down and seriously behind schedule, there’s no option. We put our shoes back on and face the remaining two tracks. Our record, if we set one, will be for trail running. What’s a river paddle doing in a list of great walks anyway?

The slightly satanic volcanic landscape that the 27-mile Tongariro Northern Circuit takes us through is almost shocking after the verdant south. Again we have the track to ourselves, as icy 50mph winds screech across the saddle, giving the whole scene an apocalyptic aura. Heads bent, we round the luminous Emerald Lake and hightail it back to the trailhead.

No overnight respite awaits us this time, though. To finish our mission in less than 10 days, we must leave immediately to begin the 27-mile Lake Waikaremoana Track. There’s a helicopter waiting in Taupo. We hit the road, and then the sky — all three of us dazed and confused.

There’s nothing like a chopper flight to shake you awake, though. Peering down on Lake Waikaremoana and the escarpment that traces its southern shore, the finish line is visible on the horizon. But as the sun dips, setting the rippling water ablaze, we can also see the challenge ahead, starting with a savage climb up to Panekire Hut, surely one of the most dramatically positioned accommodation options in all of New Zealand.

I gulp in as much of the scenery as possible. Most of this route will be run by torchlight, and I can’t count on the company of a kiwi bird to get me through this one — a cold celebratory beer will have to suffice, plus the mental showreel of a month’s worth of travel and trail experiences compressed into an unforgettable nine days.

Pat, Ben and Luke set a new speed record for running New Zealand’s eight land-based Great Walks in nine days, 23 hours and 20 minutes.

Essentials

How to do it
New Zealand’s nine Great Walks make excellent runs, but they’re also superb for hiking (clue in the name). You can even mountain bike the Heaphy during the winter months and, of course, paddle the Whanganui Journey. For more details on all of these tracks, including hut fees, route profiles and recommended time allowances, visit doc.govt.nz and click on the ‘Great Walks’ tab.

To arrange water transfers to and from the trailheads on the Milford Track, see fiordlandwatertaxi.co.nz and roscosmilfordkayaks.com

Hiring a campervan as a means of independent transport/accommodation is recommended for anyone attempting multiple Great Walks. britz.co.nz

More info
newzealand.com


Published in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)