Stella Friedlander finds tramping the Great Walks makes for one of the best, and cheapest, family holidays
“I could do all the Great Walks before I’m 18,” my 13-year-old son Harry announced after we had returned from the Tongariro Northern Circuit, our third Great Walk.
Taking the boys tramping started when Harry was 9 and Edward 11. I had loved tramping as a teenager, but then did nothing for years, other than an ill-fated Otago University Tramping Club trip to Fiordland where one member of the party slipped down a cliff and broke her arm. We had to camp there the night, the injured tramper in the tent, while two others went to raise the alarm.
What a welcome sight the helicopter was the next morning, although only the patient got a flight out while the rest of us had to walk, me carrying a wet and very heavy sleeping bag.
So it was years later that I was invited to walk to Pinnacles Hut one weekend. Off I went without the kids, with my 1980s Hallmark pack and the same Fairydown sleeping bag. I had forgotten how good it was to get out in the bush, staying in the hut, eating tramping food.
Back home, I inspired another family with twin boys Harry’s age and we all did the Pinnacles, using an old collection of packs and school bags and a camping billy. The boys loved it; streams to float sticks in, eating chocolate several times a day, playing cards on the top bunk.
But could I manage to take the boys tramping on more than an overnight tramp by myself? We had a holiday in Queenstown and walked for an hour or so, at both ends of the Routeburn to try it out. I wanted it to be the boy’s idea so spoke to them of walking for three days over the mountain range. They were keen.
The following summer, the three of us set out on our first Great Walk, the Routeburn. We got transported to the Divide and walked to Howden Hut the first day. We then walked to Lake Mackenzie Hut in torrential rain. I felt apprehensive, but what else could we do? I found it reassuring being on a Great Walk; if anything happened, it wouldn’t be that long before someone came along to help.
At Lake Mackenzie Hut we learnt the card game that we have played in almost every hut ever since: Scum (the nicest of its many names). Because children under 18 are free on Great Walks, there are always kids in the huts during the school holidays. Hence the card games. Once over the pass, we had glorious sunshine to Routeburn Falls Hut. It was such a sense of achievement for all of us when we finished.
So what next? Abel Tasman looked the easiest, and would have been except for my heavy pack. The boys were still not old enough to carry all their food and I had no other adult to share in the carrying duties. But at least the weather and beaches were beautiful.
The following year we did the Tongariro Northern Circuit, once again with heavy packs as the forecast was for the weather to pack in so we anticipated being stuck at Waihohonu Hut for two nights and took extra supplies. We got drenched getting there, but spent the afternoon drying out, playing cards and, once we knew the weather was improving after all, eating. I told the boys they could eat as much chocolate as they wanted to save us carrying it all out. “You never say that at home!,” they laughed.
I must have mentioned after this walk how the Great Walks are a good-value holiday and that’s when Harry worked out he could walk them all for free if he did them before he turned 18.
We ticked off Waikaremoana in April that year, a good time to do it with fewer crowds; Heaphy the following summer and the Kepler the one after that – both with another family – then we did Milford. I never intended to do the Whanganui River because it is not a walk, but when friends said they were doing it one April, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I’m glad we did it, but I do prefer dry (or wet) land.
By the time we were up to Stewart Island, Harry was 17 and both boys were carrying their fair share of everything, and still walking miles in front of the adults. We left the Rakiura Track until last mainly for logistical reasons and cost. We combined it with a flight landing at Mason’s Bay, and walking to Freshwater Hut and on to Oban, before joining the Great Walk.
At the end of the track, I presented Harry with the DOC Great Walk T-shirt. All nine Great Walks before the age of 18 is quite an achievement.
I hope I have instilled a lifelong love of tramping and the outdoors into the boys. I have certainly loved our tramping together; it’s been one of the highlights of parenting.