I dropped my backpack, which was heavy with water, on the path with a loud bang. A moment later, my body landed beside him. My knees were throbbing, my back hurt and my breathing was irregular.
Through the blooming red Pōhutukawa trees, boats bobbing in the turquoise bay below, their riders happily oblivious that far above, a sweaty pedestrian questioned his life’s decisions.
Maybe the incessant 16.5-kilometer Cape Brett Track in New Zealand’s Northland region wasn’t the best choice for my first solo night hike. But it’s too late to turn around now.
I winked. No one else can get me through this. There’s only me.
When I first moved from Toronto to New Zealand in late 2018 on a work holiday visa, completing an overnight “homeless” (Kiwi for “hike”) quickly became one of my goals. With a population of only about five million, the country is known for its vast wilderness, with rainforest, waterfront coves, and snow-capped mountains to explore. At the end of the trail, I gazed longingly at the points marked on the map, far from where I could get to in the afternoon.
Problem? My partner is not the most enthusiastic hiker, and I am not the most enthusiastic about listening to someone complain for eight straight hours.
That’s not the only problem. Even though I have taken supported multi-day trips before, I am still, in many ways, a novice outdoor woman. People assume Canadians are campers by birthright – emerging from the womb holding a canoe paddle in one hand and bear spray in the other – but barriers exist for many groups, including new Canadians and people of color.
For women, often it’s not about accessibility and more about perception, which is part of what’s holding me back. The assumption that women are only interested in low-risk, low-risk adventures remains: According to a 2017 survey of more than 2,010 American women conducted by retailer REI, about 60 percent believe men’s interest in the outdoors is taken more seriously than women.
I didn’t really start outdoor adventures until I was in my 30s, and most of my skills – including what to pack, how to start a fire and the right angle to urinate outdoors – were self-taught. New Zealand was my chance to level up, thanks in part to the extensive network of outback huts.
Similar shelters can be found in Canada – including along the 180 kilometers of BC’s Sunshine Coast Trail, the country’s longest hut-to-hut hike – but New Zealand’s system is the largest in the world. First built in the 19th century to protect sheep gatherers, hunters, and miners from storms, today there are 1,400 huts scattered across the country. Of these, 950 are managed by the Department of Conservation (DOC), a government agency similar to Canadian Parks.
Deeply rooted in Kiwi culture, the buildings range from two-person bunk beds by the river to 80-person lodgings tucked among the tussock of high mountains. The serviced huts usually have a gas stove, a bunk bed with a mattress, running water, a toilet and sometimes even an on-site wardrobe.
For novice hikers and visitors to the country, huts make it possible to spend several days on trails without the need to invest in tents or other expensive equipment. Most cost $ 5 to $ 15 per night, while the most primitive huts – the standard bunkyards offering few perks – are free.
For my first solo overnighter I chose Cape Brett Track partly because of its shack history. Originally built in 1908, it was once a lighthouse keeper’s hut. During the previous 800 years, Rākaumangamanga (the Māori name on the peninsula) had been used as a beacon by Polynesian explorers.
But while the huts make access inland easier, hiking here is not a stroll in the park – even when you’re in an actual park. Sure, New Zealand doesn’t have bears, but it has something that is arguably worse: wind.
Located along the “Roaring Forties” – strong western currents found between latitudes 40 and 50 degrees – this small country is notorious for its extreme winds, especially in high mountain environments. In one scary bum on the West Coast, I had to hold on to a tussock so I wouldn’t be swept off the slopes of the mountain.
Snow and rain are both problematic. Areas such as Fiordland National Park, which is home to the famous Milford Track, receive up to seven meters of rainfall each year. In 2020, my coveted booking at the track was canceled after a storm caused a “slip” (polite Kiwi-ism that roughly translates to “landslide disaster”).
Today, however, the weather is in my favor. As my breathing slowed, I saw sunlight filter through the bush. Nearby, endemic tuis sweeping the manuka trees, their cries prompted me to continue.
While standing, I tied my backpack back. I’m not sure I’ll be able to walk tomorrow, but I’m sure that at the end of the path is a bed with my name on it.
3 bums overnight to suit any skill level
Whether you’re a seasoned adventurer or a novice hiker, New Zealand’s extensive hut system makes the outdoors easily accessible.
Best for adrenaline seekers: Kauaeranga Kauri Trail
In the summer, Aucklanders undertake a mass exodus to their “baches” (huts) on the Coromandel Peninsula. It’s also here you’ll find the Kauaeranga Kauri Trail, a historic horse-drawn route used by bushmen in the 1920s. Although the eight-hour trek can be done in a day, most hikers choose to spend the night in the 80-bed hut, so they can watch the sun rise from the top of the 759-meter-high Pinnacles. The final hike involves steep steps and ladders bolted to the rocks, which are not good for those with a fear of heights.
Best for nature lovers: The Paparoa Track
With well-formed tracks and serviced huts, New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks can be handled by anyone of a reasonable level of fitness. The most famous is the Milford Pass, but the most recent is the Paparoa Pass. Built for mountain bikers and hikers, this 55-kilometer trail traverses the gorges of the Pororari River and the ridges of the Paparoa mountains, where large, spotted big kiwis live.
Best for history buffs: Waiuta
You’ll need a good pair of hiking or boat boots to access most NZ cottages, but there are a few exceptions to the rule, including the ride huts at Waiuta. Once a thriving community of gold miners, the town was abandoned almost overnight when the mine shaft collapsed in the 1950s. Today, you can sleep all night in where the hospital once stood and spend your days wandering among the ruins.
The Star understands travel restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. But like you, we dream of traveling again, and we publish this story with future travels in mind.