Kinfolk Wilderness


By John Burns

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Discover the pleasures of slow travel with this inspiring introduction to the beauty and possibility of the great outdoors.

Whatever your pace or purpose, the stories within will provide you with a fresh perspective on what it means to be “outdoorsy,” whether that means trekking from hut to hut in New Zealand, saddling up at a Patagonian ranch or simply taking a moment for mindfulness amid the pristine peaks of Bhutan. Featuring vibrant photography, practical guidance and thoughtful reflections on land stewardship, Kinfolk Wilderness brings together inspiring itineraries from five continents that promise adventure, inspire awe and spark a deeper connection to the landscape. You’ll find entry points into bucolic European idylls from Denmark to Romania, discover new hiking trails through the ancient hills of Iraqi Kurdistan and learn how to stargaze in the haunting dark-sky deserts of California.   

Guided by the belief that travel is as much a state of mind as an action or itinerary, Kinfolk celebrates a way of exploring our world that not only fosters thoughtful perspectives on the places we visit but also deepens our relationship with home once the journey is over.




New directions along ancient paths

11,833 ft / 3,607 m Height of Mt. Halgurd

150 mi / 241 km Length of Zagros hiking trail

200 Number of Kurdish hiking groups

2005 Year of Iraqi Kurdistan's autonomy

Every week, Ako Jamil Hamid puts on his hiking boots, grabs his camping gear and climbs to the top of a new mountain. "I really enjoy discovering uncharted places," he says, standing atop one such mountain, looking down at the natural beauty that unfolds below.

Hamid, thirty-one, grew up with his family in Rawanduz, a city in the northern part of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, close to the Turkish and Iranian borders. Surrounded by the majestic Zagros mountains, this ancient place is steeped in local legend. Many Kurdish songs keep alive the history of the nineteenth-century Soran Emirate that once ruled from this very village. It is also said to be the place where Khanzad, a princess who rose to power and ruled over the emirate in the fifteenth century, avenged her brother's death by killing all who had conspired to poison him.

Today, Rawanduz is the epicenter of a gentler pastime, serving as the base for popular walking routes. Hamid is at the summit of Faqyan, a peak next to the more famous Mount Korek. The morning of his journey, he bought fresh eggs, some onions and coffee at the local mini market to bring with him on the climb. Despite a sandstorm sweeping across the region, nature is flourishing, the lowlands awash with tall grasses and wild poppies. The young engineer takes a steep shepherd's path that disappears now and then underfoot.

Once at the top, he takes a few selfies and comes back down to pitch his tent by a watering hole. Like many other Kurds, he once emigrated to Germany, where he worked in a restaurant in Dortmund. "If I didn't come from Rawanduz, I would never have returned. But thanks to the nature, life here is good—even if there are no jobs. Kurds are very attached to their land," he says.

Kurdistan is a region spread over four countries—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran—and shared by many communities of different faiths and cultures. Most of the population identify as Kurds, but the region is also home to Arabs, Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and Turkmens. Although Iraqi Kurdistan largely avoided the fighting against the Islamic State that raged throughout the north of Iraq from 2014 to 2017, the autonomous region was still affected. Forced displacements and an economic crisis brought its burgeoning tourism industry to a halt. But since the end of the war, business has begun to pick up again, and adventurous tourists are returning, employing local guides or joining hiking groups.

Kurdistan Outdoor, a travel agency set up in 2013 by Arazu Hassan Mohamad, a Kurdish woman originally from Iran who is passionate about hiking, offers excursions every weekend, attracting hikers from all over Iraq and abroad. Most trips depart from the Family Mall in Erbil and will take you all over Kurdistan: to the northern villages of Zoragvan, Dorshoe, Rawanduz and Choman as well as to the province of Sulaimaniyah. "When I arrived in Sulaimaniyah, I was immediately struck by the beauty of nature," Mohamad says. "Before creating a hiking group, I went to meet shepherds and Peshmergas [Kurdish soldiers] who know the mountain and consulted the geology department at the American University of Kurdistan to increase my knowledge [of the area]."

Mohamad tries to combine ecotourism with insights into the region's heritage, offering hiking, mountain biking, camping, fishing and climbing in sites of historic importance. On the bus to Zoragvan, she tells the group of how the Ottomans used to try their luck digging for gold in the hollow of a nearby mountain. Tourists from Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, Baghdad and the Netherlands are here for a walk along the Zoragvan river. Some bathe along the way, others light a fire and cook shakshuka, a dish of eggs baked in a tomato sauce. At the end of the day, the group takes a break in a restaurant on the shores of Lake Dukan before heading back to Erbil.

Experienced hikers can tackle Halgurd Mountain, which at over 11,800 feet (3,607 m) is the second highest summit in Iraq. Anyone attempting it should hire a seasoned mountain guide from the region, like Muhammed al Qaderi, known online as Wild Mann. The snowy mountain is full of treasures such as Caesar's crown (Fritillaria kurdica), a droopy red flower from the lily family. It is possible to spot the chukar partridge, a mountain bird whose staccato whistle is imitated by Kurdish singers past and present. "Kurdistan is beautiful," says al Qaderi. "It just needs to be cared for and to be seen by others."


International flights arrive in Erbil or Sulaimaniyah. Local tour operators in both destinations provide bus service to rural hiking trails. Many, like Kurdistan Outdoor, post itineraries and departure information to Facebook every week.

See & tour

The most famous hiking trails are located northeast of Erbil, in Zoragvan, the Rawanduz Canyon, Mount Korek, Choman and Halgurd. On the road, it is possible to stop at restaurants for shish tawouk (chicken kebabs) or masgouf (whole carp cooked on the grill).


There are plenty of comfortable hotels in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah. It is possible to sleep in homestays in the mountains, which can be arranged by guides. Otherwise, book a room in Rotana Hotel, the preferred option of people traveling for business.

Worth Knowing

South of Rawanduz, the Peramagrun forest is one of the last habitats of the Persian leopard. This species of leopard is present in an area covering the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan. It is considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The district of Choman is located close to the border with Iran. It is a popular destination with families, who are drawn to facilities such as this rural campsite.

The remote region of Barzan takes its name from the Barzani family, one of the most influential tribes in Kurdistan. For centuries, this area was part of the Ottoman Empire.

A 4x4 deposits hikers in the foothills of Halgurd Mountain. It is the second highest peak in Iraq—although the highest, Cheekha Dar, tops it by only a few feet.

new zealand


Scrambling hut-to-hut, backcountry style

950 Backcountry huts in New Zealand

30 in / 75 cm Average width of a sleeping platform

$5 Price per night at Cedar Flat Hut

2,910 Population of Hokitika

The entrance to a backcountry hut is a portal. Outside, in the torrential rain, with mud underfoot and sleet overhead, is a world of continual slogging. Inside, on the wooden beds, with a plastic cup of whiskey, an open fire and socks steaming on the drying rack, is a refuge. In between is a mad scramble to pull off wet clothes.

Built in 1957, the historic Cedar Flats Hut in the backcountry of New Zealand (a nation increasingly known by the Maori-language name Aotearoa) once serviced government-employed deer cullers—professional outdoorsmen who still occupy a prominent place in the local self-image. With just two bunks, hand-cut timber, a single window and an open fireplace, the hut is small, dark and dusty. But when the rain comes down, as it inevitably will in this sodden part of the country, the corrugated iron roof provides a beautifully resonant shelter from the mist and wind.

The South Island, whose Maori name is Te Waipounamu, is home to most of the 950 huts managed by New Zealand's Department of Conservation (the DoC). The Southern Alps run almost 400 miles (600 km) along the island, separating the rolling Canterbury plains from the wild and mountainous West Coast. From two-person alpine shacks no taller than most adults to modern beachfront lodges, the network stretches across the width and breadth of the terrain, providing a respite from the world and shelter from merciless weather. There are huts in the mountains, in the shadow of active volcanoes, on islands and in deep rain forest. They're accessible by foot, by air and sometimes only by boat. The most popular spots book out in minutes at the start of the Great Walks season. Others are less alluring, more like anonymous sheds.

The state of the huts and the tracks that lead to them can have fatal implications. Hikers routinely underestimate the severity of local conditions, and finding a hut in serviceable shape (they are maintained by volunteers and of variable quality) is often the difference between a close call and death by exposure. Around five people die every year in the backcountry, sometimes within shouting distance of a hut. But when maintenance turns to renovation, some argue too much is lost. Historical huts, meant only as a sanctuary of last resort, are sometimes replaced with "DoC boxes," a sort of standardized, modular prefab cubicle, stripped of chicken wire, old candles and expired cans of food (in other words, stripped of soul).

The historical Cedar Flats Hut is not one of them. Rather, the single-room bivvy is a faithful restoration, its bright "rescue orange" evocative of a specific time and place in New Zealand's young history.

To reach Cedar Flats Hut, your journey begins in the settlement of Hokitika, four hours from Christchurch and deep within the rohe (tribal territory) of Ngai Tahu, the largest Maori iwi (tribe). Here, the echoes of primary industry, particularly mines, still linger in the region's native forests and swamps. The hills are rich with pounamu, a form of the gemstone nephrite, traditionally worn and wielded by Maori. Far from the famous ski resorts of Queenstown and Wanaka, colonial settlements like Ross, a small town established in the 1960s, are relics of a gold rush past, and remote backcountry huts are a reminder of the days of sheep mustering, deer culling and pest control. The graveyards of machinery and workers dot the landsCAP1e.

Backcountry hut passes must be bought from the DoC in advance, and visiting the local office is a good opportunity to lodge your plans and get expert advice on weather and safety. Buy provisions in town. Take a small folding saw to create poles for forging creeks that become dangerous in the rain, and to cut firewood to heat the hut. Carry a personal locator beacon. And expect to carry everything you need to eat, sleep and drink. Remember, misreading the conditions can be deadly.

Head 18 miles (30 km) inland to the end of the Middle Branch Road. From the trailhead, the track winds for 4 miles (7 km) through native forest, traversing private farmland, shingled riverbeds, mountainous saddles and rushing creeks marked by blazes and stone cairns. In a downpour, the water level rises dramatically. Rivulets turn to torrents, and waterfalls appear where there were none a day before. Visibility is low, but on the far side of a six-wire swing bridge, the hut can't be missed. A ten-minute detour and another river crossing lead to the Wren Creek hot springs; the smell of sulfur signposts the way.

A four-hour return journey will bring you back to the trailhead. From there, head to Hokitika and relax with a beer at the Railway Hotel. Time your journey for March to catch the iconic Wildfoods Festival and refuel with local paua (abalone), moonshine or even a "mountain oyster"—a sheep's testicle, a backcountry delicacy.

getting there

Catch a flight from Wellington to Nelson, rent a car and drive around 215 miles (347 km) to the Middle Branch Road turnoff. Alternatively, drive 170 miles (275 km) from Christchurch over Arthur's Pass and across the Southern Alps. Access to the trailhead is across private land; gates may be locked. Cedar Flats Hut is a 4-mile (7 km) hike through the forest.

See & tour

South Island is almost 560 miles (900 km) long with minimal public transport, so book a rental car. Explore the brilliant teal waters of the Hokitika Gorge. Farther north are the Pancake Rocks at tropical Punakaiki, a coastal forest. South is glacier country; hike or charter a flight to reach the ice flow at Franz Josef Glacier.


Mount Brown Hut, pictured throughout, offers a similar experience to Cedar Flats Hut. Hikers can continue along the Lower Whitcombe Track, although alpine and navigation skills are essential. Hokitika's historical fire station has been converted into boutique short-term rentals, and campsites can be found at Lake Kaniere and Lake Mahinapua.

Worth Knowing

Pounamu is a local form of nephrite, considered a sacred taonga (treasure) by Maori. Rainfall and glacial movements pull pounamu from the mountains and down the region's rivers to the sea; small amounts can be found on the beaches near Hokitika. At workshops in town, visitors can fashion pounamu into jewelry and weapons.

New Zealand boasts a network of more than 950 wilderness huts. The Mount Brown Hut has expansive views from the deck overlooking Lake Kaniere, Hokitika and out to sea.


On Sale
Apr 11, 2023
Page Count
256 pages

John Burns

John Burns

About the Author

John Burns is the editor in chief of Kinfolk, a quarterly magazine based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Founded in 2011, Kinfolk delves into personal values and quality of life, and inspires its readers to approach life with intention, energy, and a sense of community. Burns is the author of Kinfolk Wilderness, Kinfolk Islands, Kinfolk Travel, and The Kinfolk Garden; other books in this series include The Kinfolk Table, The Kinfolk Home, and The Kinfolk Entrepreneur.

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