Great Walks can be an ideal introduction to family tramping, but make them work for you. Kathy Ombler speaks from experience.
Family tramping trips can be fun, and fraught. Sure, they are all about bonding and building resilience and introducing children to the country’s beautiful backcountry. But children also get tired, they get blisters, and bee stings. It’s worth thinking about what you really want to achieve on a trip. And to make sure your child’s gear is the right fit.
Yes, there are families that achieve impressive trips, like Te Araroa. And then there is the rest of us.
One stifling hot January afternoon on the Abel Tasman Coast Track, somewhere between Marahau and Anchorage, I came across a young boy lying on the track. He was about four, very red-faced. His dad, a huge pack towering above his head, was pleading with him, and kind of lying.
“Come on, it’s not far now,” he said.
Further on was mum, waiting with slightly bigger brother. “Have you seen a little boy with his dad,” she asked anxiously. “Yes, the boy’s having a wee rest, they’re not far away.”
She then told me how relieved she was that she’d rejigged their trip plans only the night before. “We were going to walk the whole track, with some quite long days and I started to think about how the boys would cope, especially in this heat. We also want to enjoy our holiday.”
So she’d rebooked: two nights each at Anchorage and Bark Bay, a water taxi to Onetahuti, before walking the final bit to Totaranui. They’d also be swimming and exploring.
It sounded wonderful, I said, remembering my own family coastal walk a few years back. We swam lots but the girls did get hot and bothered, and blistered and there was a bee sting. Just one rest day, at any of those gorgeous campsites, would have been bliss. We’d also dragged a big old frame pack out of the cupboard for the teenager, as you do. It didn’t fit her well and she didn’t have a comfortable time. Sending the packs out by water taxi on the last day was a popular move. The girls grinned and chattered all the way from Anchorage to Marahau.
Later, they talked positively about ‘that time’ on the Abel Tasman. One of them has returned with her partner and yes, they stopped for two nights at beautiful Bark Bay.
Last-minute changes may not be possible today on heavily booked Great Walks. So plan ahead. Camping also allows more flexibility than huts.
Here’s another thought: you don’t have to do the whole Great Walk. Maybe just walk to the first or last hut. There are some beautiful options. Stay one, maybe two nights, then walk back out. Swim, explore, sleep in, enjoy the scenery, the birds.
One April, when Sally was 19, we booked a mother/daughter Milford Track adventure. In Te Anau, we crammed our packs with treats for the easy walk to Clinton Hut, then checked in at DOC only to be told the track was flooded and closed. There was availability on other Great Walks, they said, if not good weather.
The least miserable forecast was near Te Anau so suddenly, instead of pottering gently along a valley floor we were climbing to the Kepler Track’s Luxmore Hut, with rain, gales, too much food and scarcely enough daylight.
We made it, but slept little as the wind screamed and the hut shook. The next morning, the hut warden read the forecast: “Rain squalls easing to snow, winds 90 to 110km/h. The track (across very exposed tops) is open.” Hurray, called our fellow trampers and off they disappeared into the murk.
We had a mum/daughter chat and Sally proposed a worthy compromise. “It looks silly to carry on, but I’d like to achieve something after climbing all the way up here. Shall we leave our packs here, climb Mt Luxmore, get a feel for the weather and then go down?”
Bent into the gale and rain squalls, we climbed to the trig and took a photo. We found a staunch, late-flowering edelweiss, then descended into the calm of the forest and met the water taxi we’d called up. With the weather due to clear tomorrow, we’d hatched Plan C, so returned to DOC to rebook yesterday’s rebooking.
Yes, we were off for another Great Walk overnight adventure, this time to Lake Mackenzie Hut on the Routeburn Track. Lake Mackenzie is one of my favourite places and it was special sharing it with Sally. The sun came out. The Earland Falls roared. Lake Mackenzie tinged an evening pink and, in the morning as we wandered back out, the clouds lifted and the Darran Mountains revealed their rocky ramparts.
We called our revised trip the ‘Gourmet Great Walks of Fiordland Tour’. We’d certainly enjoyed some ‘gourmet’ tramping, and one day Sally will get to walk the Milford.
Sharing a Great Walk is also a cool family thing to do in later life, as I learned last April. In her 30s now, with two preschoolers, Sally had a leave pass to go tramping with mum. She opted for the new Paparoa Track.
We booked in January, when the only places available were for the end of May, a time of little daylight. We watched and changed dates as cancellations popped up – in early May, then late April, and finally early April. Even February became available, but only with a few days’ notice.
We started walking from Smoke-ho car park. The weather was inclement. We stopped at Ces Clarke Hut for lunch and for Sally to attend to her blisters. An adult now, she refused my offer to take weight out of her pack.
She also said she’d learned never to use borrowed boots again. In the afternoon we crossed the Moonlight Tops in a westerly gale. Sally revelled in the ‘fairyland’ of misty tussock.
It cleared that evening. There was much excitement as everyone rushed out from Moonlight Tops Hut to see the actual tops, where we’d just been, and the escarpment, where we’d be tomorrow, now revealed in dramatic sunset glory. With a big grin, Sally chose this moment to produce two almost cold cans of beer from the depths of her pack. “Here you are, mum.”
So I learned that tramping with your adult kids is great. They can carry more, including treats, they can cook amazing dinners, they don’t lie down on the track and complain, sometimes they even walk too fast.
And there’s no need to dig them out of bed in the morning. At Pororari Hut, Sally woke me, fizzing with excitement. “Mum I’ve been outside, the stars were still out, they were incredible. Then kiwi started calling. There were so many of them.”
Walking the Paparoa Track at the same time, taking a more leisurely three days to do so, was Jocelyn Oldcorn and her extended family – siblings, partners, adult kids and their partners.
“We’ve done this for years, since the kids were little,” she said. “We like the Great Walks, they gave us security when the kids were young and beds were guaranteed, also now that we’re getting older. The tracks are well-maintained and it’s good having the wardens around for safety and interest.
“We all muck in, share the food and the cooking, play cards and support each other when we get tired. It’s a great leveller. Nowadays the kids arrive at the huts before us and often run back to carry our packs for the last stretch when we’re pooped. We like that new tradition!”
Great family walks
A few weeks after Great Walks bookings opened this year, Wilderness checked options for shorter family adventures. Searching throughout the season for one or two night stays, for up to four people, we found availability at the following:
Kepler Track: Moturau and Iris Burn huts. Easy walking, lake and river swimming, whio, kiwi and kea to see.
Routeburn Track: Routeburn Flats Hut and a few late season spots at Routeburn Falls and Lake Mackenzie huts. A mountain adventure.
Heaphy Track: Scotts Beach and Heaphy Hut. Stunning coastline, check out the giant rata trees just up from Heaphy Hut.
Abel Tasman Coast Track: Whariwharangi Hut and campsite. At the northern end of the park, a beautiful old hut and campsite in a grassy clearing by a gorgeous beach. Stay two nights and take a day walk to Separation Point and Mutton Cove.
Tongariro Northern Circuit: Waihohonu or Oturere Huts. Walk-in from the Desert Road, you get mountain streams and springs, beech forests and arid, rocky volcanic landscapes.
Watch for cancellations. Or try another track. Our natural landscape doesn’t know about Great Walks branding. It’s pretty darn good in lots of places, as are the huts.