Nine Great Walks,
three islands & one tramping virgin

Gillian Orrell

To Mum and Dad

First published 2006
Second edition 2012

Exisle Publishing Limited,

P.O. Box 60-490, Titirangi, Auckland 0642.

Copyright © Gillian Orrell 2006, 2012

Gillian Orrell asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

All rights reserved. Except for short extracts for the purpose of review, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.

National Library of New Zealand Cataloguing-in-Publication Data

Orrell, Gillian.

New boots in New Zealand : nine great walks, three islands and
one tramping virgin / by Gillian Orrell. New ed.

Includes bibliographical references.

Previous ed.: 2006.

ISBN 978-1-92718-730-2

1. Hiking—New Zealand. 2. Trails—New Zealand. l. Title.

796.510993—dc 23

Text design and production by BookNZ

Maps by Fran Whild

Cover design by Nick Turzynski

ePub ISBN 978 1 77559 234 1



Taking care of things

Locations map

1    Wilderness awaits

2    Crossing Tongariro without a bus: The Tongariro Northern Circuit

3    The last place to survive: The Rakiura Track

4    The really famous one: The Milford Track

5    Deliberately painful: The Kepler Track

6    Into the long white cloud: The Routeburn Track

7    Unexpected guests: The Abel Tasman Coastal Path

8    There and back again: The Heaphy Track

9    Walking on water: The Whanganui River Journey

10  Alone at last: Lake Waikaremoana

11  Some statistics

Offsetting carbon emissions

Further reading


I owe a great debt to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) and to the many DOC officers, conservation workers, hut wardens, track workers and office staff who do such a wonderful job of looking after the natural world through which we trampers tramp. This debt extends to the peoples and government of New Zealand who value and protect their natural environments.

Thank you to the many friendly, helpful and informative New Zealanders who aided my research – particularly to staff at the National Archives, the Alexander Turnbull Library, the Auckland Central City Library and the University of Auckland, and to DOC employees Ken Bradley and Brian Dobbie for answering the questions that no one else could answer.

For their tips, company, assistance and laughter, I am deeply indebted to my fellow trampers, particularly: Gill Davidson and Sarah Gray; Ian Beadle, Matthew Cooper and Dominic Morris; Jane Palmer, Shane Hona and Leon (wherever you are); Steve Carr and Ben Stewart from Wades Landing Outdoors; honorary trampers Stewart and Robyn; and the unforgettable ‘Boys from Murupara’ – Steve Malaquin, Steve Teddy, Glen Craddock and Jason, Glen, Colin and Blair. My heartfelt thanks also to the friends who helped me on the journey between tracks, but particularly to Kanaka Ramyasiri, and Chris and Kane Dooley.

Thank you to older friends who have shaped parts or all of what follows, not least by diligently reading drafts and being brave enough to give me their honest opinion: Tamsen Harward, Karen Scardifield, Jonathan Medcalf, Emil Bernal, Steve Hill, Helen Willis and Gemma Pearson. Any remaining errors are entirely mine. Thanks too to my publishers, Simon Lowe at Know The Score Books and Ian Watt at Exisle, who believed in this book and made it happen. And humblest thanks to my parents, to whom this book is dedicated, for absolutely everything.

Finally, but crucially, thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who has ever tramped or will go tramping in New Zealand whilst leaving no trace that they were there.

Name changes: second edition

From time to time DOC changes the names of the huts and tracks it manages. The following names have been changed since the first edition of the book was published:

   The Tongariro Crossing is now the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

   Kepler Track: The Forest Burn Emergency Shelter is now the Forest Burn Saddle Emergency Shelter.

   Routeburn Track: The Howden Hut is now Lake Howden Hut; Mackenzie Hut is now Lake Mackenzie Hut.

   The Abel Tasman Coastal Path is now the Abel Tasman Coast Track.

   Heaphy Track: Mackay Hut is now James Mackay Hut.

Taking care of things

Personal safety

I did not die or sustain any serious injuries in researching and writing this book, but there were many times when I was acutely aware of how easy it would be to do either, or both.

My hope is that as you read this book you will be entertained by what the Great Walks and the backcountry of New Zealand have to offer and that, along the way, trampers and prospective trampers will pick up lots of practical information, almost without noticing it. However, what follows is not a guidebook, nor is it a comprehensive guide on what to take, how to prepare or other ways to avoid the inevitable dangers inherent in tramping.

Sadly, there are regular reports of injuries and fatalities in New Zealand’s backcountry. No one imagines that they will be the subject of such a report, yet people still make the seemingly small decisions that can lead to this. Decisions about what food and clothing to take. Or what boots to wear.

Personal safety whilst tramping depends on a number of factors: knowing where you’re going; understanding what to expect of the terrain; knowing what facilities will be available – and what won’t; knowing how to stay warm, well fed and hydrated; anticipating all possible types of weather (of which New Zealand has a breathtaking and volatile array); understanding basic first aid; taking the right equipment, knowing how to use it … and so on.

If you’re preparing to tramp, please make sure you get all the information you need to take good care of yourself out on the track. A great place to start is with the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) website at

Other useful websites include:

   NZ Mountain Safety Council (

   New Zealand weather (

   Avalanche warnings (

   NZ Search & Rescue Council – distress beacon information (

Finally – and as importantly – make sure that you notify the local DOC office of your intentions before you head into the bush and that you add your details into each intentions book en route. These books are found in all DOC huts, as well as at some car parks and information shelters. You should fill in as much detail as possible about your planned route, dates, times, size of party etc. It is all too easy to get into trouble in the backcountry, where rescue is only possible if someone knows to come looking and knows where to look.

Environmental care

Health and safety does not start and end with the tramper. The natural environment must survive your trip too. The aim is to leave no trace of yourself behind. This is not always achievable, given that you’re likely to encounter mud and leave a few footprints in it. But footprints should be all.

The number of different ways in which a tramper can damage the environment that he or she is enjoying is truly depressing. Worse still, few of us instinctively know and understand each of the impacts we can have on the natural environment as we tramp through it.

The good news is that it doesn’t take long to learn a great deal. Again, a great place to start is on DOC’s website at

For those travelling to New Zealand from other countries, your opportunities to protect New Zealand’s natural environments begin even before you arrive. In particular, don’t take any food or plants etc. with you and make sure you clean tramping boots and other equipment carefully, so that you don’t inadvertently import bits of another country. Fortunately, New Zealand’s airports are equipped with customs and agricultural/ quarantine officers. On arrival, after your passport has been checked, your shoes and other equipment will be too. If in doubt, declare any potentially muddied items you may have. If you haven’t already cleaned them, local officials are fully equipped to do so.

Happy – and responsible – tramping.

New Zealand Locations


Wilderness awaits

One dark February evening in London I sank down exhausted in front of ne dark February evening in London I sank down exhausted in front of the nine o’clock news and watched an item from New Zealand appear amongst the headlines. Severe and prolonged rainfall had caused the Whanganui River to flood. Footage showed buildings, animals and people being flung out to sea by a body of water much larger than the word ‘river’ normally denotes. Cattle were being catapulted along with surprised expressions on their faces. Barns and fences were in hot pursuit of their livestock. Locals were describing this as the worst flood they’d ever known. They looked and sounded like people who had seen many floods, who called a spade a spade and who were used to getting on with things, rather than talking to TV crews.

I watched with open mouth. I almost found the energy to sit up straight. I’d seen flood footage before, sometimes from Japan, sometimes from America, sometimes from the M40. But here was a story from New Zealand making prime-time headlines in the UK and it concerned one of my intended destinations.

New Zealand rarely makes international headlines for human-made disasters. Revolution, mass murder, prime-time scandals and other events featuring human beings at their most depressing or salacious rarely come from this country that is larger than the UK in land area but has a population roughly half that of London. Indeed, one of New Zealand’s most significant human-made disasters was essentially imported, when the French secret service sank the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand’s waters in 1985 and then tried unsuccessfully to deny it.

Natural disasters, on the other hand, are a very different matter. I don’t mean the greenhouse gases produced by millions of sheep and cattle gently burping and farting all over those green hills. I mean the propensity of the hills themselves to move, often quite significantly and with little or no warning. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, avalanches, landslides, floods … the islands of New Zealand can be horribly unpredictable.

The flooding of the Whanganui River doesn’t change my plans for my trip to New Zealand. However, flooding might add some interesting challenges to my scheme. I am travelling to New Zealand to take up one of the national pastimes. I don’t mean rugby – I’m far too attached to my ears for that. I’m going to do something for which the locals have invented their own word. I’m going tramping.

In New Zealand no one treks. Or hikes. Or bushwalks. No one even goes on multi-day walks. In New Zealand, everyone tramps. Well, not quite everyone. Now that New Zealand has a city with more than a million inhabitants, there are some New Zealanders alive who have never felt the rush of cold, mountain water into their boots. However, a large number of New Zealanders (or Kiwis, as they are better known) are trampers. Young Kiwi couples tramp into the bush as a courtship ritual. They stay overnight in places that are far enough away from home for privacy, but close enough for them still to have some energy left when they get there. Older Kiwi couples have been known to do the same. Thousands of Kiwis belong to tramping clubs. Every Easter holiday, Labour Day and Queen’s Birthday weekend is an opportunity to tramp. Even Helen Clark, as a serving Prime Minister of New Zealand, went tramping.

The basic principle of tramping is to head into ‘the bush’ for hours, days or weeks at a time, carrying everything you’ll need. Many trampers carry tents and camp in remote spots, but New Zealanders have also built a network of basic huts across much of the land. These structures offer a home to any creature with enough energy to reach them and enough intelligence to open a door. Or sometimes a window.

I have never tramped before. I have spent most of the last decade living in London and working in offices where a few flights of stairs and the distance to the drinks machine have been the most strenuous of each day’s physical challenges. Yet I refuse to believe that I have become a city wimp. Something deep inside me, which may yet turn out to be my Stupidity, believes that I belong in the great outdoors. Something else inside me, which may yet turn out to be my Arrogance, believes that once I set my mind to do something, I rarely fail.

The hard evidence is mixed. I have climbed Snowdon but I was younger then, I needed a whole day to recover and Snowdon is a foothill compared with New Zealand’s mountains. I have run the London Marathon, but I never tell any one my finishing time. Suffice to say that I beat all of the Wombles (but only just) and a few of the Save the Rhinos campaigners, who run in thick and unwieldy rhinoceros costumes that were originally intended for the opera and weigh 14.5 kilograms. There were many who didn’t wear heavy costumes, who walked most of the way and who still finished a long way in front of me. My run was slower than their walk.

Carrying a heavy backpack may not be a problem. I routinely carry one loaded with laptop, files, various heavy plug-in devices and things I needed a year ago but haven’t cleared out. Yet, if I walk up the escalators on the London Underground with my laptop on my back and a book in my hand, I feel strangely light-headed at the ticket barriers.

I will be tramping alone. It’s difficult to persuade fellow city workers to take a few months off from being paid in order to carry a heavy pack hundreds of kilometres through remote spots, utterly beyond the range of reception for any mobile phone. Besides, I haven’t tried. I want to travel alone. After living and working in a city of more than seven million, it’s not the presence of other people that will be the biggest challenge, but their absence. And, this way, no one need know the full details if I fail horribly.

I’m starting my attempt to become a tramper with the ‘Great Walks’. These tracks showcase New Zealand’s diverse and dazzling landscapes. Besides, these tracks and their huts are reportedly well maintained – making it more difficult for novices like me to get lost or injured (or worse) whilst venturing into the wilderness.

Each of the Great Walks takes between three and five days to complete but some are notoriously more difficult than others. I am curious to discover what constitutes not just a great walk, but a Great Walk. I am also curious as to why one of these Great Walks is a canoe journey. Is this something to do with the Kiwi sense of humour?

New Zealand currently has nine Great Walks. Eight are on the two main islands, which the rest of the world tends to think of as the whole of New Zealand (when it thinks of New Zealand at all). These islands are extraordinarily different from each other – one riddled with volcanoes and the other stretched around the long spine of the Southern Alps. They bear the unimaginative titles of ‘the North Island’ and ‘the South Island’.

The South Island wins the prize for largest New Zealand land mass, at around 151,000 square kilometres, or about twice the size of Scotland. (The South Island also walks away with a number of other national prizes such as those for Most Enormous Mountains, Single Highest Mountain and Most Recorded Deaths on Mountains.) The North Island comes second with around 115,000 square kilometres of land. This is roughly the size of England if East Anglia were finally to declare itself a republic.

As befits the relative size of these two islands, five of the Great Walks are on the South Island and three are on the North Island. One of the North Island tracks will take me 145 kilometres along the Whanganui River. Hopefully it won’t be flinging cattle out to sea when I get there.

The ninth Great Walk is on Stewart Island, which is the third largest of New Zealand’s islands and yet is so much smaller than the two main islands that it warrants a name unconnected with basic points of the compass. Stewart Island has an area of around 1,700 square kilometres, which makes it roughly the size of the Isle of Skye and slightly bigger than Greater London. Its permanent inhabitants number around 400 – about one twentieth of the population of the Isle of Skye and about the size of one Kiwi shared house in London. Stewart Island lies off the southernmost tip of the South Island. Only certain parts of Antarctica would take me longer to reach.

I am going tramping because I want to head deep into the wild landscapes that give New Zealand far more drama than any edition of the nine o’clock news. New Zealand has a string of active volcanoes. Its largest city, Auckland, has forty-eight volcanoes alone – and these are just some of the smaller ones. New Zealand has geysers, and hot springs that have caused people to pass out and drown. It has so many mountains that it elongates its postcards and still can’t fit them all in. It has some of the highest recorded rainfall on Earth and storms to outdo any special effects department. Each year, millions of tons of rock and vegetation are pulled off the sides of mountains by rain, wind and gravity. If this weren’t enough, New Zealand has around 14,000 recorded earthquakes each year. The road network clings to existence through gorges, canyons, creeks, mountain passes and the worst the weather can offer.

One way to explain the shapes and behaviours of this land is through the activities of gods, half-gods and legendary figures. The Maori tribes of New Zealand recount tales that explain everything from the creation of the Earth to the shaping of certain mountains, the weather and the size and shape of local flora and fauna. One of the Great Walks traverses volcanoes that erupted to provide fire for a Maori elder stranded on an icy peak. Another runs through steep, narrow valleys cut by a skilful god as he learned to use a new axe.

Another way to view the massive frolicking of the land is to take the scientific approach. This says that New Zealand is positioned at the very point where two of the largest tectonic plates on Earth collide. The Pacific and Indo-Australian plates are locked in a scrum. Under the North Island, one side is winning and the other is being pushed down into a hotter place. The result: volcanoes, boiling mud and hot springs. Under the South Island, there is stalemate in the scrum and the front row forwards from both teams are being heaved high up into the air. The result: jagged mountains that are still growing. The scientific approach also tells of glaciers and meteorological forces that shape the land from above, through erosion, landslides, floods and avalanches.

This is a wild land – even before you add the bungy jumps, skydives, jet boats and numerous other ways Kiwis have invented to help visitors get excited here. Kiwis don’t need to partake in these activities. They have their own ways of flinging themselves into this wilderness. Tramping is one of them. Hunting and fishing are others, though often combined with a good tramp.

Many of New Zealand’s most arresting landscapes are only accessible by foot. A helicopter can sometimes do it, given the right kind of weather, a good pilot and enough money. But to see awe-inspiring landscapes unobstructed, and for as long as you want to stare at them, the only way to go is to tramp.

Then there are the flora and fauna. Not even a helicopter will help here. New Zealand has some of the oldest forest on Earth. About seventy-five per cent of the flowering plants in this forest only live there. It has more species of fern than ought to be distinguishable by the naked eye (about 200 at the last count). Some of its trees are thought to be up to 1,500 years old. Making their homes amongst them are some of the strangest birds, including the world’s only alpine parrot and several species that can’t even fly. Undisturbed by mammals for millions of years, they became flightless and are now some of the most endangered species on Earth.

This wild land survives in part because this was pretty much the last place on Earth discovered by human beings. It is perhaps not surprising that New Zealand was one of the last countries to be found by European explorers: it is, after all, just about as far away from Europe as it was possible to get before space travel. Historians relate that Europeans only sighted New Zealand in 1642 and left after a few days. They didn’t come to stay until after 1769.

European explorers encountered Maori tribes, sometimes quite disastrously, and many people still think of Maori as the native human inhabitants of New Zealand. However, academics who have put a good deal of work into these things relate that New Zealand Maori are descended from Polynesians who first arrived in New Zealand around 800–1,000 years before the Europeans. In other words, the Polynesians arrived first, but no human being is truly native to New Zealand.

Maori and European are still the two main cultural traditions of New Zealand. The country is officially bilingual: government departments, municipal buildings, plants, animals and mountains have both English and Maori names. Kiwis are highly conscious of their dual heritage. A Kiwi doesn’t have to be Maori to enjoy sticking his tongue out at an opposing country’s rugby team, or rolling his eyes, slapping his thighs and suggesting something more like a war than a game of rugby.

However, Maori and European traditions have had markedly different relationships with the land. For Europeans, mountains and rivers are physical barriers to be overcome or conquered. For Maori, mountains and rivers are ancestors from whom they trace their origins. Europeans divide land into plots for private ownership, whereas Maori tradition encourages people to take care of the land through collective stewardship. Europeans treat land as a resource to be harnessed for human benefit, whereas Maori tradition seems to place greater emphasis on the health and ‘happiness’ of the land.

The Great Walks are largely inside New Zealand’s National Parks, but there are areas of controversy even here. Sometimes part of a track crosses private land. Sometimes local Maori tribes feel that they are not sufficiently involved in the collective stewardship of the land traversed by a Great Walk. How best to look after the land is a subject that still causes no end of debate in parliament and in local pubs and tramping clubs throughout the islands. Walking the Great Walks will take me some way inside this debate.

I have never attempted anything quite like this before. Still, there are lots of reasons for me not to worry: I can go at my own pace; I speak the language; Kiwis have a reputation for being one of the friendliest nations in the world; I will meet lots of locals on the tracks; and it’s highly unlikely that the flora and fauna will cause me any harm. At least, not without my collusion.

I worry anyway. What will I do if I twist an ankle in a remote spot? What percentage of my body weight in chocolate will I need to carry? If I do manage to complete all of the Great Walks, won’t it be the middle of winter before I’ve finished? Is canoeing difficult? What about in winter?

Research about tramping in New Zealand has left me giddy with the knowledge that I know nothing. Waterproof overtrousers, a new backpack and new boots have been acquired, much to the relief of several salesmen in specialist outdoors shops who have begun to take a very keen interest in when I am leaving the country.

I tell myself to worry only about pack weight – because this is at least partially under my control. I need to carry as little weight as possible if I’m to have a chance of tramping (and canoeing) the full 550 kilometres of Great Walks.

On the eve of my flight, the assembled equipment is as follows:

   Items to prevent hypothermia: sleeping bag, sleeping sheet, spare jumper, spare socks, thermal underwear, woolly hat, woolly gloves

   Items to protect sensitive English skin from strongest sunlight in the world: sun hat, sunglasses, suncream (highest possible factor), lip balm

   Food-related gear: mug, bowl-plate, knife, fork, spoon, water bottle

   Items required to maintain some semblance of civilisation: soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, red bandana (for concealing long, greasy hair), toilet paper, moisturiser, underwear, towel

   Light to find my way around huts in the dark: small torch, spare batteries

   Cumbersome equipment I wish I didn’t have to carry: asthma inhalers, emergency inhaler attachment (for worst-case, middle-of-nowhere asthma attack that won’t take place as long as I’m carrying this), eczema creams

   Emergency supplies in case all else fails: ear plugs, first-aid kit, whistle, Swiss Army knife (which I’m sure I’ll need for something, I just can’t think what)

   Something to put all of this in: thirty-four plastic bags (various sizes) and a backpack that is on the small side for the purposes of a five-day tramp, thus forcing me to pack efficiently

   Things to be otherwise worn or draped round me: waterproof jacket and trousers, camera, film, those funny trousers that can be zipped to three different lengths, and a specialist tramping top that will allegedly counteract the odour of sweat.

My housemate arrives home, runs a glance over the items on display at my feet and picks up the single roll of toilet paper.

‘You know, they do have toilet paper on the other side of the world,’ she says. ‘I’ve not been to New Zealand myself, but I’m told that it is so.’


Crossing Tongariro without a bus:
The Tongariro Northern Circuit

I have chosen my first track on the carefully considered basis that it’s the nearest Great Walk to Auckland, which is where my plane landed. The Tongariro Northern Circuit is also one of the most difficult Great Walks. It is a series of ascents and descents around the volcanic heartland of the North Island. I am assured that one of these ascents is painful even for the fittest tramper. In good weather, the horizon-filling views of volcanoes are supposed to take your mind off the pain. However, the weather here can change more quickly than I can yet pull on my waterproof trousers.

The second day of this four-day track is known as the Tongariro Crossing, which is labelled (and heavily marketed as) ‘New Zealand’s finest one-day walk’. In a country full of exceptional walks, this is not to be ignored – and people don’t ignore it in their tens of thousands. Upwards of 65,000 people walk the Crossing each year and the majority walk it during the summer months, when crampons, ice axes and mountaineering experience are finally dispensable. On an average summer’s day, more than 500 people troop along the track. Should I get into trouble on the most difficult and dangerous day of my tramp, at least I won’t be alone.

Just before I set out, I sit in the Visitor Centre in Whakapapa Village watching an information video on volcanoes and the things they get up to (and yes, Kiwis do pronounce ‘wh’ as ‘f’ with some occasionally interesting consequences). The video is a small treat before a tiring and potentially quite painful four days of hard labour. I don’t have to leave until nearly lunchtime, and watching educational TV is an excellent excuse to spend the morning sitting down. What I see, however, makes me think that I shouldn’t get up again.

The Tongariro Northern Circuit

These volcanoes are big and they are active. Footage from eruptions in 1995 and 1996 (the most recent of many) includes eyewitness accounts from skiers who were on the mountains at the time but who escaped without any injuries – other than the usual ones self-inflicted by skiers. I hear all about how quick and deadly lava flows can be and I pay particular attention to the ongoing attempts we tiny humans make to predict when eruptions will occur and to keep ourselves out of the way of freshly thrown-up rock. By the time the documentary credits fade, I have a new-found respect for the mountain underneath which I’m sitting and for the other mountains I’m about to walk up to and over. I also have a small twinge of excitement in the pit of my stomach at the mere prospect of the earth moving more violently than usual at some point over the next four days. I know it’s unlikely that any one of these volcanoes will spit out anything interesting while I am scrambling my way round them, but a girl can dream.

No imminent eruptions are predicted, but I have nevertheless been warned that I could die if I set out on the track within the next forty-eight hours. The risk of being smothered by hot lava or choked by clouds of ash is low. However, the risk of dying from exposure or from being irretrievably blown off the higher sections of the track is apparently high.

For almost a week I have been seeking regular advice about the weather from the DOC outpost in Whakapapa Village. DOC stands for Department of Conservation, although the short form is so widely used that any one who’s been in New Zealand for more than a couple of hours should be ‘DOC’ing with ease.

They have been watching the progress of a particularly nasty front over the mountains, and I have been waiting. Until today, when, after three days of snow and gales, the front seems finally to have shuffled off and I really feel that, in the company of merely a heavy downpour of rain, it is time for me to set off. The extremely hardy-looking lady behind the counter disagrees.

‘As you’ll see from the board, we’re forecasting severe gales and snow for tomorrow and the next day. You won’t be able to make it across the saddle on either day – and the forecast isn’t great for the day after that either.’

I stare pleadingly at the nice lady. It is March, and late summer in New Zealand. I glance at the forecast. More snow. More gales. I look back into her eyes. She knows that I want to set out anyway. She tries another tactic, ‘Two days ago, two men went out onto the track and were separated in a blizzard. They were experienced. They had all the right equipment. They were big men. Yet, they both spent a night alone on the mountain and had to be picked up by helicopter the following morning, suffering from exposure.’


She doesn’t have to say the rest. I know that, unlike the volcanoes all around us, I am small and mostly inactive. The day I stretched myself over the five foot mark on the measuring wall is still fresh in my mind. I am inexperienced. I am female. I am on the less acned side of thirty. I am on my own.

I distract her attention, ‘How do you pronounce this?’ I point to Mount Ngauruhoe on the parkmap.

‘Yeah, it’s a difficult one. It’s now-roo-hoi.’

I immediately hear one of the other members of the DOC team pronounce it differently. Then I have an idea.

‘There’s a hut warden at Mangatepopo Hut, isn’t there?’

‘Yeah, there are still wardens at all the huts.’

‘Well, how about I walk as far as Mangatepopo Hut today? That’s only three or four hours away and it’s before the alpine section of the track. Tomorrow the hut warden will radio in for the early morning weather forecast. If that forecast is bad, I promise I won’t try to go up over the saddle.’

I leave the Visitor Centre in possession of a hut pass for the next four nights and a slightly manic grin. I don’t know what’s going to happen. All I know is that after five days of waiting I can finally see a volcano appearing on the horizon and I want to go and say hello.

Day one: Playing with fire

It is raining hard and I have no idea how far I’m going to get. I could be about to spend an afternoon walking with a heavy pack in the rain only to have to spend all of tomorrow trapped in a hut at the bottom of an active volcano. Worse still, I may have to wait out two days in the hut, driven mad by boredom and running so low on food that I end up having to walk back here again. Whatever happens, I have to live with the knowledge that at the start of my first tramp, I have already been tempted to break the first rule in the tramping book: never go against DOC advice.

To go tramping in New Zealand and ignore the advice of DOC is a foolish thing to do – more so, even, than letting someone secure a long, elasticated rope to your ankles with a towel and then obeying their instruction to jump into a void.

DOC is unlike any other government department I have ever experienced. Its influence on everyday life in New Zealand makes Defra (the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) look like it chose the wrong gene pool. Defra has more than 13,000 employees, making DOC’s 1,500 permanent force seem small. However, that’s one Defra employee for roughly every 4,400 people in the UK, but one DOC employee for every 2,700 people in New Zealand – dropping to 2,000 when you take into the account the additional 500 or so foot soldiers that DOC employs each year on a temporary or seasonal basis.

The reach of DOC goes beyond the statistics. DOC staff are stationed around the country in green and yellow huts and offices. Many of these outposts are key focal points in New Zealand’s towns, particularly those where the town centre comprises a high street with a supermarket, a few essential shops (which always include at least one outdoors activity shop) and a DOC office. DOC offices often double up as the local visitor centre, which means that most tourists in New Zealand meet many members of the green and yellow army. The centre of Whakapapa Village, where I currently stand, is an extreme example of this: here, the ‘village’ centre comprises one small store that can physically hold no more than about seven shoppers, and the DOC Visitor Centre, which could accommodate a small supermarket.

Almost without exception DOC staff are passionate about the natural environment. In this they reflect the priorities of a good proportion of the general population – the farmers, the trampers, hunters, fishermen, those who believe in the important spiritual connection between human beings and the rest of the natural world, and those who simply appreciate the mountainous views from their back doors.

The DOC staff I have met so far look hardy, fit and made for the Great Outdoors. They are the distilled essence of Kiwi. Their uniforms comprise practical fleeces, sweaters, shirts, trousers and shorts in browns and greens, with neat DOC logos on their chests. Every fibre of their beings was made to be climbing mountains and fording rivers.

DOC strives to preserve Mother Nature’s beauty indefinitely. DOC staff also do their utmost to stop people dying in her sometimes merciless grip. In 2002 a television documentary series in New Zealand followed the work of thirteen conservation officers as they went about the daily business of saving endangered species, fighting fires, conducting research, killing pests, monitoring avalanches, maintaining tracks and many, many more tasks – including search and rescue operations for those less skilled in handling themselves in the bush. I don’t know many countries where conservation officers are TV heroes.

Thus, when a number of DOC officers tell me not to attempt the high altitude section of the Tongariro Northern Circuit for yet another couple of days, I pay attention.

Ten minutes down the track, the sun appears and there’s just me and my pack in the whole world. My pack isn’t as light as it could be because I’ve decided that I should avoid freeze-dried specialist outdoors food and instead carry the produce of a small market garden.

Raw vegetables have a hold over me, established two years ago when I contracted a ‘glandular-fever-like illness’ that caused several doctors to stare worryingly at blood test results and keep telling me to stay away from work. They couldn’t offer a cure (they could barely offer a diagnosis), but they diligently performed blood tests until I began to think that my main problem might be loss of blood. With nothing better to do between trips to the blood bank, I tried to eat myself better. My eventual recovery probably had nothing to do with raw carrots, but by then I was addicted. Nowadays the memory of illness tells me that I’m likely to find tramping tiring, but it doesn’t deter me from going. Instead it makes me want to take several pounds of fresh vegetables along for the ride.

To my shame, the other heavy load I bear is a broken saucepan, ‘borrowed’ from the kitchen in the hostel where I’ve been staying. A chance conversation with a fellow traveller in Whakapapa Village had revealed my mistaken interpretation of the DOC guidelines for trampers on the Tongariro Northern Circuit. ‘Utensils’ apparently encompasses things in which food can be cooked – not just, as I had thought, things with which food is eaten once cooked. Suddenly discovering this whilst staying in a retail vacuum posed something of a problem. The small store in Whakapapa Village sells only basic food at imaginative prices. Anything else must be sourced many miles and over an hour’s drive away – and it seemed rather pathetic to have to leave again just after I’d arrived. So I tried to charm the reception staff at the hostel into letting me borrow a saucepan. When this failed, I rooted around the back of the hostel cupboards, found a small saucepan with a handle missing (presumed melted) and asked my conscience to look the other way while I stashed it in my pack.

Over the first few kilometres and under fresh sun, I have soon forgotten that I am carrying much weight at all. I am so excited that I turn off on the first side trip I see, along a springy path by a stream, towards Taranaki Falls. It would be much easier to see these falls from the final section of the track, but I am feeling so keen that I bound along the additional hour’s walk. Besides which, I don’t know if I will make it to the later section of the track three days from now.

The sun has woken a couple of day trippers and one other lady, who displays the full rigging of backpack and waterproofs. I greet them all with smiles and friendly comments, which perplex the day trippers. They are clearly not Kiwis, who are so far proving to be as friendly and welcoming as their reputation foretells – except when they’re trying to discourage you from walking up mountains. We stare up at the water hurtling off the edge of the cliff above us. I feel the first stirrings of relaxation.

Back on the proper track, I get into a rhythm on the gentle ups and downs of volcanic furrows. I trip along – sometimes quite literally – a narrow path over tussock, rock and heather. Heather was introduced here by early twentieth-century Brits trying to recreate highland hunting scenes for their amusement and acclimatisation. The heather did what came naturally to it, and local plant species promptly began to expire. Years later people noticed that this wasn’t helpful to the local ecosystem and have been trying to eradicate the heather ever since. Every time I spot a clump amongst the tussock my genes feel the dull thud of the imperialist guilt hangover.

Water, wind and feet erode the track, the ridges it crosses and the plants gripping onto this world of moving rock. Apparently, at higher altitudes in this alpine scrub the plants are so delicate that a single footprint can last one hundred years. I have no desire to create fresh guilt, so I try to stick precisely to the path. This is not easy. The terrain is so fragile that erosion has converted the path into a deep, winding canyon in many places, up to four feet deep, but only about one foot wide. Were I to follow this path, either my hips or my pack would become wedged in the side of the crevasse. Self-rescue would only be possible through starvation, abandonment of my belongings or by digging myself out. I don’t even want to think about having to be rescued from this position by someone else. So I do what many other pairs of feet before me have done: I trample on the tussock above and to the side of the official track. Trampling does not feel as good as tramping.

The panorama of vents on view from the top of each furrow provides an outstanding distraction from heather guilt, attempts to avoid being wedged into the canyon path and the endless ups and downs of this terrain. The most mesmerising sight, forward right, is Mount Ngauruhoe. When I stop to stare at this mountain, I can’t help but bow my head towards it. I don’t even feel daft for doing so.

Mount Ngauruhoe’s name is almost as difficult to explain as it is to pronounce. The most often cited explanation is of a revered Maori, Ngatoro-i-rangi, who climbed the mountain but fell victim to the extreme cold at the summit. Close to death, he prayed to his sisters to save him and they sent fire-demons to his rescue. The fire-demons travelled along the line of greatest thermal activity in New Zealand (from White Island through the centre of the North Island) and burst out from the mountain top. Ngatoro was thus saved from freezing to death – and presumably also spared from being blown to pieces, although most versions of this legend make no reference to this. In gratitude, he slew the female slave who had accompanied him and cast her body into the crater (now that’s gratitude for you). Her name was Auruhoe and the mountain was named after her. However, another version relates that the slave was called Auruhoe because this was the local Maori name for the mountain. This appears to leaves us back where we started.

Two different explanations come from direct translations of the component parts of the name. Unfortunately, the only point on which the translations agree is that ‘nga’ means ‘the’. One translation says that Ngauruhoe means ‘the hair of Hoe’ – Hoe being Ngatoro’s grandson, and his hair representing the plumes of smoke that escape from the mountain. Another translation says that Ngauruhoe means ‘the act of tossing hot stones out of an earth oven’, which links Maori cooking techniques with eruptions of rock from the volcano. Much as I love the image of little wild-haired Hoe, my money is on the hot stones.

Whatever the origins of its title, it is impossible not to stare and stare at the vent. It is a perfect cone and exactly what I would have drawn for a volcano when I was ten years old (although it is not currently belching forth the clouds of orange and purple squiggles that I would have enthusiastically included). Its width is vast, but the vertical lines in the solidified lava also make it seem imposingly tall.

Yet Mount Ngauruhoe is the underdog in this volcanic playground. It is a young slip of a volcano; its neighbours – Mounts Tongariro, Ruapehu, Pukekaikiore, Pukeonake and several others – are older, bigger, more complex, or all of the above. This only makes it more appealing to me. Of course, it’s also hard to avoid the landscape marketing phenomenon of The Lord of the Rings films. I am, after all, standing transfixed by none other than Mount Doom.

I keep having to flick glances its way as I walk. Do I expect to see the vast armies of Sauron marching forth at any time? Do I expect it to blow up in a cloud of special effects and not be there any more? Actually, yes – I am concerned that it will disappear: the cloud coming in with that next front could steal it from me at any point and potentially for the next four days. Every look could be my last.

Back behind the now invisible Whakapapa Village, Ruapehu slowly pushes the remaining clouds off its peaks. If Ngauruhoe is the perfect barnacle shape, then Ruapehu is a mass of barnacles, limpets and corals that would grace the belly of the oldest whale. There is no comparing the size: Ruapehu is immense and is difficult to comprehend in one look, even as it appears slowly from underneath its duvet of cloud. It is also behind me, which means that I keep stopping to look behind as well as in front. I can’t help it. I am gloriously alone in a sweeping volcanic landscape and all the mountains are coming out to play.

After three hours I still love the views, but I can’t wait to see Mangatepopo Hut in one of them. I wince at the freshly filling blisters on both feet. I thought I’d worn my boots in, but I clearly have much to learn about the art of lace tying. Tight for down; looser for up. Goodness knows what for endless ups and downs over scores of dry stream beds.

The hut finally pops out from behind a piece of tussock. I don’t expect there will be any one in tonight other than the hut warden and me, but some company will be good, particularly if this is to be home for the next day or two.

As I approach the door, I see belongings strewn everywhere. Bags and boots cover the wooden porch and excited children swarm out from their hiding place behind the hut. I add my boots to the collection and go inside, where every surface is coated with belongings and where a German tramper sits in a corner, fuming. Five very tall men follow me into the hut.

‘Hey, how are you? Where are you from?’

‘Erm … England.’

‘Oh great! Would you mind talking to the kids about the UK? Just ten minutes or so – and maybe to answer some questions.’

‘Yes, OK. Although could I just grab a few minutes to sit down first?’

‘Sure. Oh – and sorry there aren’t any beds left. There’s thirty-five of us.’

Thirty-five. Mostly children, ages ten to thirteen. DOC huts operate on a first come, first served basis and officially this hut can accommodate twenty-two people. The hut warden is nowhere to be seen.

The evening blurs in a series of practicalities. Before we can all sit down to Tales from the Land of Jonny Wilkinson and Harry Potter, the hut warden arrives and is a little startled. She is twenty-three-years old, arrived in New Zealand (from her native Canada) a week ago and has been in the job for three days. She immediately instils order in the bedding scrum and insists that the trampers get bunks. She stands up to the six-feet-plus male parents, who crowd round her talking about the first come, first served rule and insisting that they gave someone from DOC advanced notice. She is inexperienced, foreign, short, blonde, petite and absolutely in charge.

I keep my head down and chat to the lone female parent, who has the best washing-up view in the world: from the sink we watch the sun set over Mount Taranaki, another of New Zealand’s volcanoes and a whitened pimple some 140 kilometres away on the west coast of the North Island. New Zealand was the first sovereign state in the world to give women the vote, so I trust that tomorrow morning one of the male parents will be doing the washing-up. Tonight, there’s already enough controversy in the hut, so I make no comment. From the other side of the hut, the deep, pink light of the sun flushes the valley along which I hope to walk tomorrow and makes me stare all over again at the remarkable Ngauruhoe.

One of the evening duties is signing the intentions book. The purpose of these books, which are in every DOC hut, is to provide basic information to assist anyone who is following on behind looking for your body. In addition to the basic practical information required (name, number in party, planned route and destination, date due out etc.) the two final fields for entry are ‘Main Activity on This Trip’ and ‘Comments’. Previous signatories have scribbled a mixture of amusing, earnest and inspired remarks. Some of the entries have even avoided mentioning Mordor. Nevertheless, Frodo and Sam somehow arrive here afresh every day. If Gandalf had read this book to find out how their quest was progressing, he would have thought they were caught in an evil time warp.

My Comment comes easily (‘The 30 children were a surprise!’), but I have to wonder about my Main Activity. What am I doing here, exactly? Trying to get as far away from mobile phone reception as I can? Trying to get fit again after two years feeling tired? Fulfilling a life-long ambition to become a hobbit? Or just the usual: trying to work out what to do next, now that I’m in my thirties, man-less and, for all that I care about it, career-less? No. This is too dull and too long to write in the space provided. In the end I write what I ought to be doing: ‘stopping thinking’.

Torches and candles provide the only light after sunset. Leaving the table, I take my plate to the sink but don’t see the bench that has been moved since I sat down. I land heavily on my knees on the hard wooden floor, much to the amusement of the children. Deeply embarrassed, I jump up light-heartedly and move quickly to the sink, pretending that my knees aren’t exploding in pain. No one could mistake me for an experienced tramper.

In the night the storms start. Before sleep has taken hold, a deafening crack signals the near loss of the hut roof and the wind whips on and on into the night, battering up loud protests from every surface. There’s nothing we can do but lie in our sleeping bags waiting for it to be over (please, God, let it be over): if anyone were to venture outside, they would be swept down the valley in an instant.