The world's best walks: Trekking across the globe

From around the south-western tip of South Australia's Yorke Peninsula, there are views across Investigator Strait to nearby Kangaroo Island. Low, jagged limestone cliffs climb out of the sands behind me in a scene that's mirrored along the island's west coast.

The landscapes are almost identical, but that isn't all these two places share. As I hike this wild section of the 500-kilometre-long Walk the Yorke, I'm effectively looking from one of Australia's newest hiking trails towards another of the same.

Walk the Yorke opened at the end of last year, with the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail, a five-day walk through some of the island's most spectacular natural sites, to launch in October.

The two walks are part of a burst of new trails and hiking experiences across Australia, ranging from the Three Capes Track (Tasmania) to the Grampians Peaks Trail (Victoria) to the Big Uluru Trek (Northern Territory).

Coupled to that, the Bob Brown Foundation has recently proposed a 100-kilometre hiking trail through Tasmania's Tarkine region, and almost a dozen of the expressions of interest now being considered for private tourism developments in Tasmanian national parks involve hikes.

Further afield, New Zealand is constructing its 10th Great Walk, with the three-day Pike29 Memorial Track to open through Paparoa National Park in 2018. The England Coast Path, which will round the entirety of the English coastline, is scheduled for completion in 2020.

To this surge of new trails has come a corresponding rise in travellers on walking holidays. Exodus Travels reports that bookings on walking trips from this October and beyond are up more than 30 per cent year on year.

At World Expeditions, trekker numbers are 5 per cent up on last year, even taking into account a 30 per cent decline in trekkers to Nepal since last year's earthquakes. Walking, as unlikely as it may seem, is suddenly the new black in travel.

"There's a few factors at play," says Greg Donovan, organiser of the Big Uluru Trek, a new five-day 100-kilometre walk launched this month.

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"Technology is so pervasive in everybody's life nowadays. People are looking for that genuine outdoor experience that takes them away from all of that for a period of time and lets them get immersed in the environment and outdoors.

"Walking is also being seen now as a more mainstream activity. It's not just for the crusty old bushwalker types. It's promoted more as a recreational activity."

Ian Johnstone, operator of the Maria Island Walk, agrees that a modern sense of detachment from the natural world, and a craving for simplicity, may be spurring interest in walking.

"We encourage people to leave their mobile phones behind on our walk," he says. "For a lot of people it's the first time since mobile phones were invented that they haven't had one sitting by their bed blipping away. So there's the joy of that."

With the growing interest in walking has come a widening of the hiking experiences. If a multi-day walk once meant simply throwing 20 kilograms onto your back and slogging it out for hours to the next camp, today it can just as easily be about culture or gastronomy.

The luxury guided-walk market has grown to the point that there are now nine operators within Great Walks of Australia, a collection of companies running small-group hikes with emphasis on comfort, fine food and often exclusive accommodation.

"I wouldn't say people necessarily come to do a walk so much, as really coming for a natural, intimate local experience," says Johnstone, a board member of Great Walks of Australia. "The walking is the mode to enjoy the experience, but once you've done one walk, it's hard not to fall in love with them."

Broader experience is also the essence of the guided Big Uluru Trek, the new aforementioned desert walk from the South Australian border to Uluru. The first trek took place this month with the five-day journey as much about Indigenous encounters as strolling over the sands.

Each night in camp there is the likes of Aboriginal dancing and storytelling, bush tucker and medicine, and dot painting. On the final day, traditional owners and local Anangu people join the trekkers for the walk into the base of Uluru.

"The walking underpins the activity, but it's not the only focus," Donovan says. "It's about people seeing the land and experiencing it not only through their own eyes, but through the eyes and the stories of the traditional owners."

The new trails have also brought other changes to the hiking landscape. The headline act among the recently opened walks has been the Three Capes Track, a four-day cliff-top hike on Tasmania's Tasman Peninsula that launched to great fanfare last Christmas.

Much of the interest in the track wasn't so much in the walk, but in its plush huts, which took it almost into the realms of luxury private hiking, minus the guides.

It's a model that will almost certainly permeate the walking industry, dotting trails with ever-swankier digs. Even the traditional camping model is in flux, as evidenced along Victoria's Grampians Peaks Trail.

Stage one of this trail – a three-day, 36-kilometre loop out from Halls Gap – opened last year, but when completed in 2019 it will be a 144-kilometre traverse of the Grampians that's strung with architecturally designed campsites.

Tents will sit on individual circular wooden platforms, each one containing a storage cage that will allow hikers to have food, water and alcohol shuttled in by local businesses.

A few hikers will seek the challenge of the full 12-day traverse, but with the camps to be located near roads, the trail's creators anticipate that most users will sample it in sections – weekend walks, often staying off the track in local accommodation.

It's the same expectation on Walk the Yorke, the new trail that all but loops around South Australia's Yorke Peninsula. This trail was the brainchild and project of a local council maintenance manager, Steve Goldsworthy, linking up existing short trails across the peninsula by constructing around 120 kilometres of new trail.

Twenty shelters and more than 200 interpretive signboards were also created. To walk its entirety could take up to a month (a Sydney couple completed the first through-walk in June), but like so many new trails across the world, it's designed around less-committing options.

There's a selection of walks and hikes across the world to suit all interests and fitness levels.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY RATINGS

1 boot: Gentle stroll requiring minimal effort; almost entirely flat terrain.

2 boots: Moderate-level walking, often over short stretches or single days.

3 boots: Longer days or sections, typically in mountain areas or along moderately difficult long-distance trails.

4 boots: Challenging trails with significant climbs or altitude; typically long and tiring walking days.

5 boots: Extensive and continuous climbs over long distances or at sustained altitude.

THE EASY VIEW HIKE

THE WALK

Torres del Paine Lookout, Chile.

LENGTH

20 kilometres; one day.

BEST FOR

Mountain eye candy.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Three boots out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Close-up mountain views as dramatic as this one usually require plenty of time and sweat. This hike, however, takes in one of the world's most extraordinary mountain scenes – the towers (torres) that give the Torres del Paine its name – and you can still be back at your hotel in time for dinner.

TIP

Try for a day when the Patagonian wind isn't at full force – it can be brutal here.

NEED TO KNOW

Torres del Paine treks are a staple among adventure travel companies. The lookout is often included as the first leg of the five-day "W Trek". See peregrineadventures.com

THE WELL-EARNED-VIEW HIKE

THE WALK

Alpine Pass Route, Switzerland.

LENGTH

325 kilometres; two weeks.

BEST FOR

Committed hikers who fancy the company of some of the Alps' most famous peaks.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Four out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Switzerland is almost a byword for mountains, and they spool out for days on this country-long traverse, crossing 16 passes and climbing the equivalent of two Mt Everests. Between Engelberg and Lauterbrunnen, the route passes a succession of big-name Alpine peaks: Titlis, Wetterhorn, Jungfrau and the mighty Eiger.

TIP

Pick a section and get a taste of the longer trail – with Switzerland's comprehensive and clockwork transport system, getting on and off the trail is simple.

NEED TO KNOW

Cicerone publishes a dedicated Alpine Pass Route guidebook. UTracks operates a 14-day Alpine Pass Route trip, covering eight of the trail's 14 stages. See utracks.com

THE URBAN STROLL

THE WALK

Thames Path, London.

LENGTH

50 kilometres; two days.

BEST FOR

The walker who wants big-ticket city attractions along the way.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

One and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

The 300-kilometre-long Thames Path follows the English river from source to sea, but its most interesting sections might well be those through the big smoke of London, where it passes a string of classic sights: Kew Gardens, Battersea Power Station, Big Ben, the London Eye, Tower Bridge.

TIP

Use the Tube and trains to zip between your hotel and sections of the trail, which runs along both banks of the river.

NEED TO KNOW

nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path

THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE

THE WALK

Camino de Santiago, Spain.

LENGTH

780 kilometres; one month.

BEST FOR

The devout, or those who want to feel devout.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Three and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Rare is the walk that creates such a sense of fraternity among hikers. Every hiker on this multi-stranded journey across northern Spain shares a goal – to pay homage to the supposed remains of the apostle James in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. It's a migration and, at times, a march, but its heavenly moments are quite literal.

TIP

Get the true pilgrim experience by staying each night in one of the dedicated pilgrim albergues.

NEED TO KNOW

The Confraternity of St James is the ultimate resource for pilgrim plans. See csj.org.uk

THE BUDDHIST & HINDU PILGRIMAGE

THE WALK

Mt Kailash, Tibet.

LENGTH

52 kilometres; three to four days.

BEST FOR

Rubbing shoulders with a variety of world religions.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Four and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Remote-as-remote Mt Kailash in western Tibet is the source of many of Asia's largest rivers, and is revered by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. It also just happens to be a spectacular 6600-metre-high peak. The most devout pilgrims prostrate themselves around the entire circuit – lying flat, then walking to where their hands reach and prostrating themselves again – but you'll probably find it challenging enough just to walk, with the trail rising to altitudes of 5600 metres.

TIP

This is a difficult area to access, so consider going on a guided trip.

NEED TO KNOW

World Expeditions operates a 20-day Journey to Kailash trip, which includes the trek around the mountain. See worldexpeditions.com

THE WILDLIFE WANDER

THE WALK

Wilderness Trails, Kruger National Park, South Africa.

LENGTH

Two days, three nights.

BEST FOR

Creatures from the small to the Big Five.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Two and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

A hike where your walking companions might be elephants, leopards or lions, through one of Africa's most famous national parks. There are seven guided wilderness trails in the park, with nights spent at the park's most remote rest camps. The focus is on the landscape and ecosystems, but the animals are an ever-present prospect.

TIP

Group sizes are small and departures fill up quickly, so book well ahead.

NEED TO KNOW

A list of dates and availability can be found at sanparks.org where bookings can also be made.

THE PREHISTORIC RAMBLE

THE WALK

Burgess Shale, Yoho National Park, Canada.

LENGTH

21 kilometres; one day.

BEST FOR

Stepping back around 500 million years.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Two out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

Yoho National Park adjoins famed Banff National Park, so there's immense mountain beauty here, but it's almost secondary to the experience of unearthing and handling fossils in what's been described as the world's most important fossil site. If the fossils get too much, just turn around and take in the view.

TIP

To get the most from the experience, read Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life before you hike.

NEED TO KNOW

It's illegal to enter the fossil site unless you're on a guided hike with the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation. See burgess-shale.bc.ca

THE ANCIENT HISTORY TREK

THE WALK

The Inca Trail, Peru.

LENGTH

43 kilometres; four days.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Three out of five.

BEST FOR

A combination of natural and human history, or simply for bucket lists.

WHY WE LOVE IT

It's the most famous hike in South America for a reason, rolling through the Andes to a once-forgotten Incan settlement draped over the most spectacular of mountain ridges. There are various routes, but the famous and classic trail passes through a series of Incan ruins, and over 4200-metre-high Warmiwanusca Pass, to the evocative ruins of Machu Picchu.

TIP

The days of just turning up and strolling onto the Inca Trail are long gone. Trek permits are compulsory, so plan months ahead.

NEED TO KNOW

The Inca Trail is a core trip among adventure-travel operators, and trekking independently is no longer permitted. See visit incatrailperu.com; gadventures.com.au

THE BEACH HOP

THE WALK

Abel Tasman Coast Track, New Zealand.

LENGTH

51 kilometres; three to five days.

BEST FOR

Beaches, bliss and sunshine.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Two and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

It's like a beachside holiday in boots. Around every corner there seem to be a new and idyllic beach or bay, so that walking days feel barely an effort at all. The terrain makes for easy hiking, and the reasons to linger are as clear as the ocean that wraps around this national park just outside of Nelson.

TIP

This is the most popular hiking trail in New Zealand, so try to schedule your walk outside of busy holiday times.

NEED TO KNOW

The track has four huts and an abundance of campsites, but they must be booked in advance. See doc.govt.nz/abeltasmantrack

THE PICTURE POSTCARD WALK

THE WALK

Cinque Terre, Italy.

LENGTH

12 kilometres; one day.

BEST FOR

The finer things in walking life.

DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY

Two and a half out of five.

WHY WE LOVE IT

The Cinque Terre is as beautiful as its name is lyrical, with its five towns sitting like bags of colourful sweets along the rock-lined coast. The low-level Sentiero Azzurro trail connects the five towns, bringing an intimacy and a satisfaction that's lost if you simply visit the Cinque Terre and don't hike.

TIP

If you only have time to hike one section, the path from Vernazza to Monterosso al Mare has views encompassing all five towns.

NEED TO KNOW

Walking here is as simple as arriving and setting out. Trains between La Spezia and Genoa stop in all of the five towns. See parconazionale5terre.it

PACK MENTALITY: FIVE TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL WALKING HOLIDAY

1. Plan ahead. More and more hikes require permits, and many book out months ahead.

2. Wear in your boots before setting out; your blister-free heels will thank you.

3. Bone up on map and compass skills, not just for your safety, but also to give you a better read and understanding of the landscape.

4. Ditch the extras. The less weight you carry, the more your body will enjoy the walk.

5. Carry a water purifier, or boil any water you source from streams for at least five minutes.

TRACKS WINDING

BACK: 10 GREAT AUSTRALIAN WALKS

OVERLAND TRACK, TASMANIA

Arguably the most famous hike in the country, wending for a week through the glacially sculpted peaks between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. See parks.tas.gov.au

GREAT OCEAN WALK, VICTORIA

The 100-kilometre walk that gets you even closer to the coast than the parallel Great Ocean Road. See parkstay.vic.gov.au

COAST TRACK, NSW

A two-day, 26-kilometre sandstone stroll along the cliffs and beaches of Royal National Park. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

CAPE TO CAPE TRACK, WA

Walk beside whales and waves on this 125-kilometre coastal track between a pair of lighthouses at the country's southwestern edge. See parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au

THORSBORNE TRAIL, QUEENSLAND

Beaches lead to beaches on this 32-kilometre walk along the east coast of one of Australia's most naturally spectacular islands. Stretch it out over a few days and enjoy the tropical vibe. See nprsr.qld.gov.au

THREE CAPES TRACK, TASMANIA

Four days across the tops of the highest sea cliffs in the land, with stylish public huts to boot. See threecapestrack.com.au

LARAPINTA TRAIL, NT

More than 220 kilometres of lofty desert ridges and cooling gorges along the length of the West MacDonnell Ranges outside of Alice Springs. See nt.gov.au

JATBULA TRAIL, NT

The Top End distilled – waterfalls, Indigenous art sites, rust-red cliffs and savannah – in about five days on foot. See nt.gov.au

MAIN RANGE, NSW

Climb Australia's highest mountain (and perhaps its second, third, fourth and fifth highest ...) on a traverse along the ridge of the Snowy Mountains. Do it in a day or stretch it out to two or three. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au

BIBBULMUN TRACK,WA

Got time and boot-tread to burn? Spend a few weeks along this 1000-kilometre trail through the tall timber and wild coast of southwestern WA. See bibbulmuntrack.org.au

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