MistyNites

My Life in Motion

New Year Adventures

With the toughest hike of my life just a few weeks away, every day off work was an opportunity to do some hiking. The good thing about the festive period being in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is that the public holidays mean long hours of daylight and a reasonable chance of warm and/or dry weather. I haven’t done anything special for Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve for a long time. In fact, I haven’t even made it to midnight for a few years either, and the end of 2018 was no exception. I rose early on the first day of 2019, packed up my car and headed deep into Canterbury. With Christchurch on the coastal border of the Canterbury Plains, it takes over an hour to reach the mountains to the west and I was making a very familiar drive to the foot of Mt Somers, where a road leads into Hakatere Conservation Park. I’ve done a few hikes within its boundaries, including Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, and I’d sussed out a long walk to a couple of Department of Conservation (DoC) huts nestled among the mountains. Where the tarmac ended, I turned north, taking a long drive down a gravel road to reach Lake Heron.

I’d left sunshine behind and as I arrived at the lake, a wall of cloud lingered over the nearby peaks. I wasn’t sure how far the road went, so initially drove past the start of my hike, skirting round the edge of the lake and finding myself at a rather grungy campsite. It was busy, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. But it was the only place in the area with a toilet block and it allowed me to turn my car around and return to the stony car park where my hike started. Following a 4×4 track, I took a brief detour on the Kettle Hole walk which cut up a small hill to overlook a kettle, or depression in the ground formed by a historic glacier. I was a bit underwhelmed by it so didn’t hang around long before returning to the track to follow the edge of the lake. The wind danced across the water creating a bit of chop, and despite a sign stating that the area was a nature reserve and wildlife refuge, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to spot on or off the lake. Every now and again I got covered in a cloud of dust as a car passed me on the track, heading to a car park a little way around the shore.

 

I was a little disappointed to reach the car park and see the DoC sign which stated the hut I was planning on walking to was 3hrs away. This was a lot further than I’d anticipated when I’d researched my planned walk and I started to realise that I just didn’t have the time. My camping stuff was in the car, not on my person, and I’d already booked a spot at a campsite ahead of the next day’s hike, so it wasn’t an option to break the hike up and stay in the hut. I made the decision to hike based on time, to keep going until it was time to turn back, irregardless of how far I’d reached. Through a gate, the track cut down to a river where there was a ford or a boardwalk to get to the other side. After this brief detour, the track returned to the lakeside.

 

Soon after, there was a side track to Lake Hill, a 762m (2500ft) summit that gave a raised view of the lake and the surrounding conservation park. The actual elevation gain from the lake was barely 100m (328ft) but it was enough to get a broader view of the landscape. Across the lake, the snow-speckled peak of Mt Arrowsmith poked up behind the nearer peaks in front of it. The ground was covered in meadow flowers and an information board gave a brief overview of how the glaciers formed this valley and lake. It was a great spot for lunch, sitting down among the flowers and feeling the wind on my face. After a while, I took the track back down to the lake and continued to follow it round to Mt Sugarloaf.

 

The track starts to turn away from the lake at Harrison’s Bight, an inlet that keeps Mt Sugarloaf out of reach. The 4×4 track leads to here and there were a couple of utes parked up, their occupants nowhere to be seen. Soon I reached a track junction and took the Swin River track which was to take me to join the Te Araroa trail (the long-distance walk that spans the length of New Zealand), and from there would lead to Double Hut. The DoC sign showed the hut was still 2hrs away and as I walked along this flat, rather uninteresting section of the walk, as the sky grew darker around me, I realised that I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I could see it in the far distance nestled at the base of the mountain range in front of me, but after a while of it never getting any bigger in my view, I decided that enough was enough and duly turned round to return to my car. Double Hut and Emily Hut would have to wait for another day and another hike.

Spots of rain began to fall as I headed back and the clouds grew stormier as I worked my way back round the lake edge. I set off back along the gravel road, returning to sunshine as I headed south. I pulled over at Maori Lakes, a wetland area at the side of the road which sparkled under the sunshine here. The sandflies as always threatened to ruin my enjoyment and after taking some photos I pushed onwards. Back at Mount Somers village, I turned south towards Geraldine and Peel Forest. I’d booked a camping spot at the Peel Forest campground and the place was pretty busy when I arrived. I was able to secure a spot under the shade and set up my little hiking tent which looked positively dwarfed by the family-sized camping tents that were all around me. The area is covered in walks, long and short, so before dinner I did the Kahikatea walk which looped through a forest and wetland zone near the campsite.

 

I enjoy camping although rarely sleep well, so I was up and ready early the next morning, packing up and getting on the road with a grand plan. It wasn’t too far away to reach the car park for hiking Little Mt Peel, one of my favourite mountain hikes in Canterbury. It had been a few years since I’d been up, celebrating my 33rd birthday on my first and only trip up there. My plan for the day was to aim for Mount Peel which involves summiting Little Mt Peel, and following an unmarked path across the ridges to Middle Mt Peel and Mt Peel behind that. It was an ambitious plan as it is a full-on hike, and part of the reason I’d been keen to get going early. Little had changed as I followed the Deer Spur track up the slope and despite the early hour, I was surprised at the number of people already on the trail. It is a popular hike, and with good reason: the views are spectacular on the way up and from the summit itself. Now hiking with poles, my hiking style has notably changed as I’ve adapted to their use. I do find they slow my walking down at times and with the lower parts of the hike in the forest, they became a bit of a nuisance as I needed my hands free to aid negotiating tree routes during the initial climb.

The higher I climbed, the windier it got and there was a lot of cloud in the sky above me. When I reached the summit of Little Mt Peel (1311m/4301ft) there was a strong crosswind. I sat by the trig marker eating my lunch and stared across the ridge towards the neighbouring peaks, musing how to proceed. I’d told my partner my plans for the day, but not being a hiker himself, I wasn’t sure if he actually understood where I was planning to go. As I looked at the exposed ridge and the distance, I made time calculations in my head as I watched the clouds move across the neighouring ranges. Hiking alone involves risk. Hiking in groups does also but when I’m responsible for my own safety, sometimes I chicken out and take the safe option instead. As the wind was strong, and I wasn’t 100% sure what the weather planned on doing, I decided to leave the higher Mt Peel peaks for another day. I slightly kicked myself for being too scared to continue, whilst trying to justify with myself that I’d made the right decision.

 

Last time I’d hiked Little Mt Peel, I did the loop, descending down the South Ridge track which was rough and steep. I’d decided at the time that I wouldn’t do this track again, but having already changed my plans, I decided I’d go down this route after all, rather than the more popular Deer Spur track that I’d ascended on. I skirted behind the little shelter and went to use the portaloo behind it, opening the door to be presented by a scene of mayhem where some poor sod had clearly had explosive diarrhoea all over the inside of the portaloo itself. It was utterly gross and I was quick to shut the door again. With my poles again being a hindrance on the upper sections where the track is steepest, this route is actually quite enjoyable going down because you lose altitude exceptionally quickly which looks cool whenever you turn round to check your progress. The view to the neighbouring mountains is also nicer on this track than the Deer Spur track.

 

Eventually, the track turned almost 90 degrees and disappeared into the forest, finally coming out at Emily Falls and joining the Emily Falls track. Last time I’d come this way, I lost the track as it followed the river on the way back from the Falls. I knew what to look out for but as the bank had had a slip, I nearly missed the exit again. This final section in the forest is always a little boring for me. There wasn’t much bird life to spot and I was tired from the hike. Back at my car, it was time to head home. Neither day’s hikes had gone to plan, so I was a little frustrated but I had 4 more weekends to fit in some more mountains before heading abroad, and at least I was feeling positive about my fitness as the year began.

Adventures in Tasman

It was just a matter of minutes before we hit a snag. Loading back onto the bus at the Farewell Lighthouse, we cut down onto the sand and crossed the wide pool of water that sat at the edge of the beach. As we reached the far edge of the water and began to lift out onto the sand, the large tyres of the bus dug in and lost traction and very quickly we were stuck. A brief attempt to drive us out buried us deeper into the sand and in the windy afternoon, we were instructed to get off the bus. Luckily there were two buses on the tour and the other bus picked a different route through the water and made it safely onto the firm sand on the far side. Both drivers and several of the passengers took turns digging tunnels to drain the water away from the tyres. I’ve injured my back several times and was too worried about a repeat issue to help out, but my partner despite awaiting surgery on a torn muscle in his shoulder, leapt into action to help out. I felt a little guilty just watching but at the same time was worried that he’d injure himself more, failing to talk him out of doing what was instinctual for him. It got cold as we stood there, and eventually I was able to help with some lighter work, passing the chain between the two buses. It felt like a lot of time passed when eventually to great relief, the other bus was able to pull ours out the water and haul it onto the firmer sand.

 

Finally we could get back on board and on our way. We were driven some way down the massive expanse of Farewell Spit before we stopped at a relatively high sand dune. A trudge to the ridge revealed a view over the sand and Golden Bay across the far side. The cloud limited the horizon a little but it still felt like we were far away from anywhere with no signs of civilisation apart from us and our buses. A little further along the beach we stopped to see some baby oyster catchers, running alongside their parents, still in their fluffy spotted fledgling wear. We were both getting tired and hungry as the bus reached the base of the Spit and turned inland to make the crossing to the far side. The sand here was really soft and as we crossed the widest section, ready to lift up onto the track, we once again ground to a halt and bedded into the soft sand. Our driver, who had been a little too cocky on the drive up to the lighthouse, was paying the price and there was much disgruntlement among the passengers as we again had to disembark and my partner again put his shoulder at risk by helping to push the bus. I was concerned that the other bus would not be able to help us this time as he had to negotiate the soft sand at an awkward angle to help us out. There was a brief moment where I held my breath, concerned that he too would get stuck, but thankfully in less time than the initial grounding, we got out of our conundrum and were finally back on the other side and heading for Collingwood.

 

But things were not over yet, as with the tide in, we had to partly drive through the sea to reach the car park and the main road. Thankfully we reached the tarmac without further ado but as we crowned the hill and reached a one-lane bridge on the far side, we came face to face with a campervan who was forced to reverse on the narrow road to give us space. A tone of shock filled the air as one of his wheels nearly went off the road, threatening to topple him into the lake by his side. We could all see the look of fear on the passengers faces, but thankfully they were able to stop themselves just in time, and with a bit more negotiation, we were finally able to get on the road and return to Collingwood for a much needed drink and food.

We awoke to sunny skies on Christmas Eve, and having had a taste of what was on offer the day before, we retraced our steps to Farewell Spit. Sadly the cloud moved in as we made the drive, but that wasn’t going to stop us getting outside. Parking up at the Farewell Spit car park, we made the walk through the farmland past grazing sheep to the beach at the bottom of the Spit on the far side where we’d stopped on the bus the day before. Sadly there were no fur seals in sight this time, and with my partner struggling with cramp, we didn’t stay for long before heading back. A cafe sits atop a hill nearby and this made a great snack spot with a view over the bay and a small exhibit on the natural history of the place. Almost immediately behind it, a path led up through a paddock to an even higher spot affording an even better view over the rolling hills and the glistening water below. New Zealand is such a stunning country, and each new place I visit never fails to disappoint with its natural beauty.

 

We’d spotted a walk whilst on the bus the day before, so although we were headed out to Wharariki Beach, we stopped at a small pull-in to make the trudge up the steep slope to meet the Hilltop Walk near a small lighthouse. It is possible to walk from the cafe where we’d eaten all the way to Wharariki Beach if you have about 4hrs to spare, but we were just using the opportunity to get some views of the coast. It was difficult to get a clear view of Farewell Spit due to the vegetation but in the other direction we could see the wonderous cliffs and rolling hills that made up the coastline as it disappeared into the distance of Kahurangi National Park. Despite the burning sun and heat of the summer, the vegetation was a lush green, a stark contrast to the browns of the Port Hills that we get back home in the summer months. We could just about make out Cape Farewell where we’d stopped on the bus, but beyond that we could see a dip in the coast that marked our destination for the day.

 

It was a long gravel road that took us to the exceptionally busy car park for Wharariki Beach. This is one of the region’s top attractions and in the height of summer, it was full of tourists and their campervans. There is a bit of a walk to get to the beach even on the most direct route, but we opted to take the long way there, following the path past grazing sheep to round a pretty little lake. The sun had all but gone now, and the clouds had thickened up to grey the sky above us. Still, I could feel the power of the UV raging through and as usual, I had to continue to lacquer on the sunscreen despite the cloud. After a while, the track cut up onto a ridge and we got our first sight of the offshore rock sculptures that this beach is famous for. Past a lake on the hilltop, we headed down through a copse of trees and finally found ourselves at a small cove, completely surrounded by giant rocks, and one that we had all to ourselves apart from a fur seal that was resting at the back of the beach.

 

Initially we weren’t sure if we could get out of the cove without backtracking but after a bit of investigation, we were able to clamber over some boulders and found a cave that led us through to Wharariki beach proper. Even here, there were more giant rocks and we discovered a multitude of caves and arches to walk through. The position of the tide meant having to get just a little bit wet, and on more than one occasion we accidentally startled a fur seal that we stumbled on without warning. The further up the beach we walked, the bigger the crowds became. Despite the overcast weather and the expanse of the beach, it was quite busy around the middle section where a large cave and the area’s most famous sea stack can be found. One of several off the coast, this most famous one resembles a baby elephant, an arch on one side making it look like a trunk, and the slope on the other side creating a head and back. I wasn’t the only one playing around with the reflections in the tide trying to get a decent photo of it.

 

Although spots of rain threatened and the temperature dropped, I was reluctant to leave. Sometimes I can find it hard compromising when I’m travelling with other people. A lover of solo travel, I enjoy the freedom of spending as much time as a I want in a place, so I was a little disgruntled that my partner wanted to go. He’d been struggling with cramp and was getting agitated and restless. I begrudgingly traipsed behind him, making an arc to follow the water’s edge at the top end of the beach, doing my best to prolong my time there. The walk out involved a long trek through soft sand that was built up on a ridge behind the beach. As we reached the top, it started raining quite hard and suddenly I was as happy as my partner was to leave the beach behind. Although we were using the direct route to return to the car park, it was still a good 15 minute walk, and despite the rain, there were still plenty of people heading down to the beach.

 

Unfortunately the rain persisted into Christmas Day and we whiled away the hours watching movies at our motel. When eventually the rain eased, we were quick to get out on the road and make the most of the weather window. Driving round to Ligar Bay and beyond, we cut up the steep hill to take the gravel road into Abel Tasman National Park. This was the opposite side of the peninsula to where we’d previously been when staying in Kaiteriteri back in 2013, and the road was steep and winding, and with the rain that had fallen, it wasn’t the most comfortable road to drive. Despite this and the lack of tarmac, there was an inordinate amount of campervans and trailers heading over it, and I was very grateful that I wasn’t the one driving. I’m not a fan of driving New Zealand’s gravel roads, but unfortunately many of the hikes I’ve done over the years have involved negotiating them. They vary a lot in smoothness and gradient and on more than one occasion I’ve lost traction on a hill or skidded on the loose stones.

When at least we reached Totoranui, the car park was full and there were people everywhere. A large camp site hugged the back of the beach and we waited in the car for a bit as more rain passed through. When it eased again, we started walking the Abel Tasman coast route, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. My partner had noticed on the map that there was a lookout about 20mins along the coast so we headed there. The view in both directions was of sweeping coast, the sand here a vibrant orange colour. On a sunny day, the waters off New Zealand are usually a staggering blue, but on this day under the constant threat of more rain, the sea was a steel grey. Heading back to the campsite, my partner stuck to the track while I cut down to the beach, listening to the waves lap against the shore as I kicked my way through the sand. There was only a handful of people on the beach because of the weather so it felt peaceful here until I cut back up to the campsite. Legs feeling stretched and cabin fever relieved, we made the drive back to our motel to settle in for a Christmas dinner feast and a night of movies. Before the sun set though, we managed a walk round the deserted streets of Takaka to ease our full stomachs.

 

Boxing Day was a gloriously sunny day, but sadly we were heading home. I had wanted to do the caving experience on the top of Takaka Hill, but overcome with festive laziness, I didn’t get ready quickly enough and by the time we’d packed up, checked out and made the trudge up the long and winding road to the brow of the Hill, we’d just missed the guided tour. We stopped at a couple of lookouts instead which on one side of the road gave us green hills descending towards Golden Bay, and on the other side green hills descending into a large and deep valley. It was stinking hot, and we decided to turn into Kaiteriteri for a wander along the beach and some brunch. Sadly, Abel Tasman National Park has become a victim of its own popularity, and unlike our visit in 2013, the place was crammed full of people. There was nowhere to park, and despite circling round a bit and getting frustrated as we dodged pedestrians at every turn, we couldn’t find any space. In a last ditch effort, we took the turn-off to Little Kaiteriteri and finally found a patch of grass to park on at the far end of its beach. There was nowhere to eat here though, so although we could get a bit of a walk along the beach, our appetite drove us onwards, so after soaking up a bit of heat it was time to bid the coastline goodbye. The traffic back to Christchurch was busy, but more people were heading where we’d come from than where we were going and I wondered where all those extra people were going to fit.

Golden Bay

Since emigrating to New Zealand in early 2012, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the country and gradually I’ve crossed off more and more places to the point that only a few key parts of Aotearoa remain unvisited. With both myself and my partner having time off over Christmas in 2018, we had secured a motel in the Golden Bay region, a place that I hadn’t been to before. Setting off from Christchurch a few days ahead of the big day, we mosied our way up through Lewis Pass and north beyond Murchison towards Motueka before cutting west towards the infamous Takaka Hill. I visited Abel Tasman in early 2013 and this was the furthest west I’d previously been on the north coast of the South Island so as we crept towards the hill, joining the increasing traffic, I was reaching new territory. Thanks to previous foul weather, landslips had reduced the steep and winding road to a single lane in multiple places, meaning the drive was periodically held up by traffic lights and queuing traffic. As we climbed high, the view over the valley behind us opened up and when at last we reached the brow of the hill and crossed the summit to reach the steep descent on the other side, I was presented with yet another stunning part of the country.

The hills made it feel like this corner of the island was cut off from the rest of the country, and indeed it had briefly been so when the landslips initially happened. The massive Kahurangi National Park divides this corner of the north coast from the wild west coast and surrounded by hills, we descended into a lush green valley below full of farmland. Having not paid enough attention to the geography, we had booked to stay at Takaka, and it was only when we got there that I realised that we weren’t actually by the coast. My partner was tired from the drive and after a walk around the compact little town, he wanted to veg in front of the tv whereas I was antsy and eager to get to the beach. Eventually after a rest, I convinced him to come with me and we drove down to Pohara where the expanse of the sandy Golden Bay was finally in front of us. It was a gorgeous evening, and with the tide out, we took a brief wander along the wet sand.

 

A few bends further along the road is the local marina, created out of reclaimed land and after a wee wander to admire the boats and the man-made hole in the rock where the road cut through, we followed the road a little further towards Ligar Bay. On a raised part of the coast, just before the bay was the Abel Tasman monument. Abel Tasman was a Dutch explorer who is credited with discovering New Zealand (the country had in fact been inhabited with Pacific Island settlers for some time before his discovery) and this region bares his name, both in the National Park, and also in the name of Tasman District (the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand is another nod to the explorer). The monument itself wasn’t much to look at but the view down over Golden Bay proper and in particular Ligar Bay is stunning. Once down at this beach, we both took another short walk and I wished we had rented a place here as there were so many houses with an incredible view over the bay.

 

The next day we took the same drive back to Ligar Bay but this time continued to Tata Beach. Just like the night before, I was wishing we were staying round here as again there was a beautiful beach, this time with a couple of islands offshore to look at, and there was a bit more activity here as families sat on the beach while others kayaked or jet-skied out to sea. After a while, we headed back to Takaka and out the other side, heading west and making the short drive to one of the area’s most famous attractions: Te Waikoropupu Springs. The springs are the largest freshwater springs in the country and the largest cold water springs in the Southern Hemisphere. But it is the purity of the water that makes them so famous, with a recorded visibility of 63m, they are almost the purest waters in the World. I’d seen pictures of stunning blues and had been eager to see them for myself for some time.

 

Arriving early in the morning, there was already plenty of cars in the car park, a typical finding in the height of summer in New Zealand. The country has had a tourism boom in the last decade and even in the time that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen popular places get increasingly overcrowded and over-stretch local infrastructure, resulting in a lot of development in an effort to accommodate the influx. Passing the information boards at the entrance, we followed the loop trail which meanders for a while through the nearby forest until eventually it comes out at the first open expanse of the water, where a boardwalk crosses the edge of the pond. The sun was behind a thin layer of cloud creating an unfortunately dull colour to the water here and the low angle of the sun meant you couldn’t see below the surface. It wasn’t until we continued round the trail a little and found a separate section of the pond with a boarded area facing away from the sun, that we could really appreciate the clarity of the water. I’m still not sure just how deep it is here, but it looked shallow given the clarity and the hint of the blues I’d seen in photographs could just about be discerned here.

 

There really was just these two main areas to see the expanse of the water. The returning section of the loop trail was again in the forest, although this time it followed a broad and fast flowing river where we watched some ducklings trying desperately to fight against the current to stay with their parent. We took our time to read the information boards back at the car park, acknowledging the crowds that had arrived as we’d walked the trail. It wasn’t just the car park that was full of activity, as there was plenty of manuka trees here and the honey bees were busy flying from flower to flower around us. Manuka honey is special, and is used not only in the food industry, but also in medicine as it has antibacterial properties and can aid in wound care.

Continuing west we turned off the main road to cut down to Patons Rock where there was yet another expanse of sandy beach. I’m not really one for sitting still on holidays, and prefer to be on the go and exploring over sunbathing on the beach, however, when I saw the various families splashing around in the water and lounging on the sand, I did get a little pang of jealousy and wished I could do the same. But we had booked onto a tour for the afternoon and so had to keep pushing onwards, so we continued on the last stretch of road to reach Collingwood, a small town that felt a million miles from anywhere. Sandwiched between the waters of the bay and an expansive estuary, we walked around the calm waterfront behind the peninsula, overlooking the mountains of Kahurangi National Park, and continued round to Golden Bay where the wind had by now whipped up and blew sand on our face as we walked amongst the driftwood on the beach here.

 

Before long though, it was time to join our tour and at the office of Farewell Spit Eco Tours we were assigned a bus and driver that was to take us out onto Farewell Spit that afternoon. Heading north to Puponga, we cut inland a little to reach Cape Farewell, the northernmost point of the South Island. A short walk from the car park here took us up the hillside to the sheer cliffs where under the heat of the summer sun, we looked down on a dramatic cliffscape complete with sea arch. A short walk from here took me up to join the Puponga Hilltop walk where I could see behind me over the rolling hills, and in front of me to the sparkling sea over which a small group of Australasian Gannets soared over. It was a beautiful lookout spot but I was keen to get out to the Spit where I hoped we’d spot some more wildlife.

 

The giant tyres of the bus seemed ridiculous for the tarmac on the drive to get to the spit but as soon as we went through the locked gate on arriving at the end of the road, it was clear why they were necessary: from this point onwards, the rest of the tour was via the sandy beach. Farewell Spit is a long sandbar that curves east from the northern corner of the South Island. Protecting this corner of the coast from the brunt of the wild Tasman Sea, it has created the deceptively calm and shallow slope of the expansive Golden Bay. The tidal movement within the bay is so dramatic that the difference between high tide and low tide on the sheltered side of the spit is dramatic, and it is believed that the shallow shelving of the seafloor here is at least in part responsible for the sadly regular event of mass whale strandings that occur in the bay. Time and time again, large groups of pilot whales beach themselves in Golden Bay, a large percentage of them dying as a result, despite the concerted efforts of Project Jonah, the country’s registered charity to try and refloat whales.

Only the lowest section of the Spit can be accessed by the public. To experience the full length of the spit, it is necessary to join a tour. After a brief spell on the Golden Bay side of the beach, the large bus cut across to the other side where we were exposed to whatever the Tasman Sea chose to throw at us. We’d already gotten a hint of the wind whilst in Collingwood, and here with the full exposure of the sand bar to our right, we paused to watch the sand whip madly towards us. We got the chance to get out nearby to explore the geology of the rocks and managed to spot a couple of New Zealand fur seals hiding out below the cliff, but then it was time to head along the expanse of the spit, the gloomy clouds to our left and the wind whipping at us as we drove.

 

We tanked it along the sandbar, twice slowing down to negotiate and annoy a sleeping fur seal hauled up on the sand. I was a little annoyed at our driver circling one of them which clearly pissed it off as it growled at us before it ran down the beach a bit. The sand itself was dotted with pools of water left from the retreating tide and the two buses had to work out the best way to negotiate these safely to get us to the lighthouse. The largest of these was at the entrance to the lighthouse itself, where the pool was long and of varying depth. Our driver scouted it out first of all before gunning it and making it across without any issues. The second bus was some way behind us but eventually caught up and picking a different route through the water, also made it across. In the blustering wind, we all bundled out to explore the grounds of the lighthouse, poking our noses in windows and walking amongst the dunes here. Outside one of the buildings, a whale skeleton stood and I inspected it with scientific curiosity while the others on the tour relaxed with drinks and snacks. I’m a cetacean enthusiast and back in 2005 spent a glorious 3 months in South Africa studying them, and this skeleton brought back so many memories of the anatomy lessons I’d received whilst there. After a while, it was time to board the buses for the return trip down the spit, a trip that turned rather awry…

Crater Rim Walkway

By December last year, the countdown was on to the toughest hike of my life and I was using every possible opportunity to get some walking or hiking in. The weather had been so variable and unpredictable across the spring and even if the sun wasn’t shining I had to get out and do something. Having walked various sections of the Crater Rim walkway over the years, I decided to take on the full length of it, starting at the Godley Head car park and heading west towards Gebbies Pass, where my partner would pick me up at the end of the day. It was surprisingly busy as I took Summit Road round the back of Sumner and Taylors Mistake. As I reached the car park I discovered that there was an orienteering event taking place and so there were people milling around everywhere. Thankfully I was able to park and soon I was on my way. It was overcast but in the way that my Scottish skin can still get burnt so I had to lacquer up in sunscreen throughout the long day’s walk.

The initial section of the trail is the Breeze Bay walking track which curved around a low peak overlooking Mechanics Bay and then Breeze Bay. The cloud was low over the mountains of Banks Peninsula and the summit of Mt Herbert, the peninsula’s highest peak, was hidden from view. It was an easy track, barely varying in height and with a constant view of the harbour with its blue-green water. As it continued on, curving round Livingstone Bay, the Lyttelton port came in to view and shortly after the track takes a turn and heads up an incline to skirt round a rocky bluff before cutting down to the road at the junction of Evans Pass. At the time of walking, the road down to Lyttelton was still closed off but since then it has opened up again after being closed for 8 years following the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.

 

A short walk along Summit Road is necessary before heading back onto the ridge again and away from the traffic. This next section is high above the port town of Lyttelton following the ridgeline round to an old gun emplacement from WWII. The place was full of invasive and introduced thistles but it was also full of insects as a result, including a gorgeous red admiral butterfly which sat perfectly still as I photographed it. There were a few people milling around here, the first people I’d come across since leaving the orienteering participants behind at Livingstone Bay. Once at Mt Pleasant, I got the first view over to Pegasus Bay since I’d left the car at Godley Head, and here, on weekends, there would be the option of cutting down the road to My Coffee at Hornbrook, a quaint little cafe in a local’s back garden with a great view over the spit at New Brighton. I wanted more than coffee though, so stayed up on the ridge, continuing on to Mt Cavendish where the Gondola top station and the Red Rock Cafe is.

 

It was a late lunch, by now after 2pm, but the food at the cafe here is delicious and filling, and I chowed into some Thai noodles whilst watching the tourists come and go. The Christchurch Gondola is a popular tourist attraction and with having an annual pass myself, I come up regularly throughout the year. But I still had so far to go and I was already realising that I’d set off too late to make Gebbies Pass a reality. I decided to make the Sign of the Bellbird my destination and was soon on my way again, heading down the most familiar section of the walkway from the Gondola down to the top of the Bridle Path. The views here are of Lyttelton Harbour and Quail Island to the left and Ferrymead with the estuary to the right. For visitors that are short of time, this is my most recommended section of the walkway both for the views but the ease of accessibility via either the gondola or the bridle path from both Lyttelton or Ferrymead.

 

From the junction with the Bridle Path, I was most used to joining the road but this time I stuck to the walking track which was raised just a little bit off the tarmac. Once past Castle Rock, the view into the harbour was blocked as the track stays a little below the ridgeline on the city side, and so for the next wee while, the city and if you’re lucky with the weather, the Southern Alps, are the main focus. When the harbour comes back into view, you are almost directly opposite Quail Island above Cass Bay. The track skirts under Mt Vernon, effectively hugging Summit Road, cutting briefly through a small copse of trees before dropping below Sugarloaf where the large antenna stands out as a landmark. It was muddy underfoot where the vegetation had prevented the track from drying out, and as I approached the road where the Sign of the Kiwi cafe stands, the number of people on the track steadily grew.

 

The cafe wasn’t far off closing but I was able to get an ice cream to keep me going for the final section of the hike. I’d previously walked this part when my brother had visited in 2017, and although a few others were milling around this section, I soon lost the crowds again as I left the cafe behind, continuing west above Governor’s Bay and joining the Mitchells Track. The grasses were high here and peppered with foxgloves and as I continued, I found myself among the new growth that had sprouted following the bush fire of February 2017. Approaching the bend before Kennedys Reserve, the path split and I could choose which side of the peak I walked past. I chose to cut down underneath it on the harbour side and as I dropped to the lowest point, I passed 2 climbers that were rope climbing below the peak. Beyond here, I found the blackened and scorched sign that prior to the bush fire was a track marker and soon after that I found myself at the Sign of the Bellbird, a little after 6pm.  The clouds had never lifted from the mountains of Banks Peninsula and with the tide now out, the water of the harbour looked dull and grey. I hadn’t managed to make it to Gebbies Pass, but I’d managed to walk a decent chunk of it, and I was nonetheless satisfied with my achievement.

Pigeon Bay Walkway

After 7 years of living in Christchurch, and within a week of gaining my New Zealand citizenship, I was still finding new places to explore. I’d noticed a coastal track while looking at a topographical map and decided to make the hour drive to Pigeon Bay on the Banks Peninsula. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and in hindsight, I wish we’d left sooner to make more of a day of it. Reaching the end of the road and the start of the track, the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated it to be a 5hr walk to the point and back, and we simply didn’t have enough time to walk the whole thing before I had to get back for a class.

There was a sailing race on in the harbour as we trekked across the farm land following the orange poles, and up onto the dirt road that led us out past the glistening blue water. The views were simply stunning – there’s just nothing like the blues of New Zealand’s waters under a blue sky. It undulates a little, with a little more altitude gained as it follows the slope of the hill out to sea. We made it about halfway out to the point before having to turn back but even although we didn’t complete the full hike, it was a gorgeous spot to be.

Saint James Walkway – Return to Civilisation

Of the three of us that spent the night at Anne Hut I was the last to leave on my third morning of the tramp. Leaving the hut behind, the route crossed an open expanse of ground before dropping down to the bank of a river where the route turned south. There was some vague sunshine in the sky but the threat of clouds was constantly there as they swirled around above me, blocking and unblocking the sun at irregular intervals. It wasn’t long to reach a bridge across the river and once on the far bank it continued to follow the water as it flowed at varying depths to my side. After a while, the ground underfoot became a little boggy and at an incline in the bank the track disappeared. I back-tracked a little to retrace my steps, got my map out and scoured the scene in front of me. Finally I spotted an orange marker far in the distance and came to realise that the bank had collapsed, and with it a portion of the track. I was left with two options: get my feet wet in the river or go bush-whacking.

 

I found a vague worn patch that suggested others had chosen the trees so with my large backpack to catch every possible branch as I passed, I fought my way through the thick foliage, up and over the raised embankment and down the other side where I found the trail again. Not far after that, the ground became a swamp, and with an orange marker on the far side, I had to pick my way through the boggy mess to get to it. Once there though, and through the next section of trees, the landscape opened up a little and I found myself on a boardwalk crossing an open area with rolling mountains all around me. The boardwalk led down to another bridge to take me back across the same river.

 

Looking back I could see a snow-topped peak and looking ahead of me, the river grew thinner as I walked, becoming less obvious the further through the valley I went. Stony remnants of avalanche slopes scarred the forests that grew on the slopes and the vibe of the hike changed as I continued south towards the next curve in the track at Kia Stream. By the time I was heading west again, it was a large grassy expanse with the river hidden out of view until a little before the climb began. Once back in the trees, there was the final climb to Anne Saddle at 1136m (3727ft).

 

Coming down the other side, the weather was totally different. By the time I reached the bottom, it was raining and I could see rain clouds either side of me. It started as a drizzle then grew heavier as I walked. The trail grew a little marshy under foot in places, but thankfully the rain reduced to drizzle after a while. This section of the trail was a little uninteresting and when it went back into the trees it was under construction with evidence of trail maintenance and diversions in place. It then felt like a long time to reach the bridge marked on the map. The walking was easy but the trail had lost its interest so it was very much a trudge under a couple of embankments and along side another river until finally an incline signalled that I was at Rokeby Hut.

 

The hut was a great spot to get my bag off my back for a bit and have some lunch. I took a nosy inside but as I sat outside eating, I was descended upon by sandflies, the flying/biting nuisance of being near a waterway in New Zealand. In the end, their annoyance spurred me to get going and I slung my bag on my back once more to push ever south. Across another bridge, the track followed what was now the Boyle river. In a torrent down stream, I watched some goslings white water rafting as their parents tried desperately to keep them from being swept away. Where the track kept low to the river, I once again found it disappear as another slip had caused the bank to collapse. Once more I chose bushwhacking over wet feet and struggled to push my way through the dense trees with my bulky bag.

 

The final stretch to Boyle Flat Hut felt like it went on for ever. It was pleasant enough with the bubbling water next to me but I was tired and keen to get my boots off. The river valley was nestled among some steep but pretty hillsides, and although initially narrow, the valley opened up a little ahead of the bridge which was finally spotted as I came up an incline. The metal swing bridge led me across the gushing Boyle river and through a small copse of trees to present me at the hut. The same hiker from the previous nights was already there and we were later joined by some hikers heading in the opposite direction. Compared to Anne Hut, this one felt cold, dark and damp. I was glad for the shelter though when the rain began to fall heavily in the evening and the temperature dropped more at night fall. I was exceedingly glad to have my 3-season sleeping bag with me that night.

 

Waking up on the last morning of the hike, I was shocked to look out the window and see snow falling. Growing up in Scotland, I have so many memories of snow, but now living in Christchurch on the dry east coast, snow is a rarity so I was suddenly giddy and quickly pulled my boots and layers on so that I could go outside and watch it. There’s something so magical about the silence that accompanies snowfall. Even with the lightness of the fall, there was nothing to hear as the forest life and winds had gone quiet. The hillside and ground around the hut looked like icing sugar had been sprinkled on it, and after a while I headed back in for a warm breakfast.

 

Anticipating issues following the trail in the snow, the other hiker and myself decided to stick together for this last day, setting off as the snow eased but the clouds swirled round. At the bridge, I stopped to take a photo of her crossing it and accidentally let go of my brand new hiking poles, one of which slid down the steep embankment towards the gushing river below. I immediately tried to grab it without thinking about it and the weight of my bag nearly took me off my feet and down to the fast flowing river. After steadying myself, I dumped my bag and scrambled down the side, retrieving my pole and making it back up to the path intact. I quickly crossed the bridge to join my companion and we were off.

We took it in turns to lead and it wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the sun came out. The peppered snow remained on the hills but what was on the grass at our feet was quick to melt. Behind us, Boyle Flat Hut grew smaller and smaller until we could see it no more but it felt like no time before we reached the turn-off for Magdalen Hut. We had no need to visit this hut so took the swing bridge across Boyle river and almost immediately the track left the river behind and dove into a forest. The track was narrow and a little rough but easy to follow, and the views were reduced to snippets through breaks in the foliage. My companion’s pace was naturally quicker than mine and we started to separate a little here. She disappeared out of view after a while and every now and again I’d come round a corner and find her waiting, only for her to take off again when she realised I was ok.

 

After a change in direction from south to south-west, the path reached a break in the trees which allowed a view back up the valley. I could still see snow on the tallest peaks but by now the rest of it had melted. For a long stretch, the path teetered at the edge of the forest, idling by its side before cutting through the edge of it repeatedly. The Boyle river lay across the far side of the valley floor and eventually the path climbed up the hillside a little before disappearing back into the trees. I hadn’t seen my companion for some time now. She’d stopped waiting for me, our paces being too different, so I had no qualms about stopping and taking a break for a snack. Almost immediately, a South Island robin (kakaruwai) appeared and started flitting around me. These birds are so bold and inquisitive and it flew and hopped right up to me, watching me with a cocked head before flitting off to another branch and doing the same again. It was almost close enough to touch at several points and I think it knew I was eating nuts. It seemed to look hopeful for something but I never feed wildlife and did my best to make sure I didn’t contaminate the environment with any dropped portions.

 

Shortly after making tracks again, I met a hiker heading in the opposite direction. A brief chat revealed that my companion was about 10 minutes ahead of me, and shortly after that, the treeline broke and the path was up above the river. Cutting across a scree bank, the track headed back into the forest once more and it was a long amble to reach the final swing bridge back across the Boyle river. It felt like the end of the hike was in sight but in actual fact this last section seemed to take longer than I expected it to. Initially it was low to the river and suddenly the walking track was regularly crossed by horse riding trails. After a while it went up an incline again and the river seemed some way down below. Eventually, it intersected with a road and finally I was on the final descent down the hillside towards Boyle village. At the edge of the campgrounds, the trail stopped being marked and I picked a direction that I thought was the right one but turned out to circumnavigate the whole campground before finally depositing me at the Outdoor Centre that makes up Boyle village. The other hiker was lounging on a bench with a long wait till her bus to take her to the west coast. In the end, she’d completed about 15mins earlier than me, and as I was heading east, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

 

Back in the comfort of my car, I set off to head back to Christchurch but it was only lunchtime so I took the Hanmer Springs turn-off and at my new favourite cafe there I ordered a massive lunch before heading to Hanmer Springs. Nothing beats a soak in the hot pools, and after 4 days of hiking it was a joy to get in the thermal water. My new hiking boots felt well worn in ahead of the biggest hike of my life a couple of months later and my poles had survived too. It was shaping up to be a good summer of hiking.

Saint James Walkway – Reaching Anne Hut

I’m pretty spoiled for choice here when it comes to hiking options in New Zealand. With a multitude of short walks, half-day, full-day and multi-day options available around the country, the biggest obstacle that I have is having enough time off or energy to do them. Last November I had 4 days off work thanks to a fortuitously placed local public holiday, and with the biggest hike of my life in the pipeline, I was in need of some training. Nestled among the foothills of the Southern Alps near Lewis Pass is the St James Walkway, a 66km (41 mile) walk that traverses a sub-alpine zone. It is listed as a 5 day/4 night hike but I was confident that I could shave a day off, so I was planning on skipping a couple of the huts to walk it in 4 days/3 nights. Although traditionally started from a pull-in by a picnic site at the side of State Highway 7, and completed at the settlement of Boyle, it can be hiked in either direction. Irregardless of the route chosen, it does take a bit of arranging to either get dropped off at, or picked up from, the non-Boyle end of the hike.

I had an early start from Christchurch to make the arduous drive to Boyle settlement where I’d arranged a park and transfer with the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. On arrival, it was just a matter of filling in some paperwork with my trip intentions and then the lady that worked there drove me in my car to the start of the hike before she would return with it to park it for me to collect later. The car park at the start of the hike had a good few empty cars in it, and it was a quick deposit before I found myself alone in the middle of the mountains. With my boots strapped up and my bag slung over my back, I was experimenting with hiking poles for the first time having been feeling my knees ache for some time on mountain descents.

A small lake near the car park formed a local nature walk, and it made a nice foreground for the snow-topped peaks behind it. The track continued past here across the sub-alpine meadow, crossing a river and cutting into the trees. A little further along, it cut down to a long swing-bridge that spanned the Maruia River and on the far side the track followed the bank of Cannibal Gorge. As I’d approached this bridge, I had heard voices, the first sign of other people on the trail. I caught up with them just across the bridge and discovered that one of their party knew me. I’m terrible with people out of context so took a minute to make the connection. They were travelling as a group of friends and family and were heading to Cannibal Gorge Hut to spend the night before heading back to the city. With kids in tow I was quick to leave them behind, their pace more casual than mine. There was a lot of undulation ahead and large sections of the track were deep within the forest, breaking the treeline where avalanche routes have scourged the mountainside. Most of these tree breaks had waterfalls trickling down through the rocks or the bush and they were a great distraction from the occasional monotony of this part of the hike.

 

I was distracted to my joy at a bend in the track by a South Island robin (kakaruwai). These birds are incredibly bold and inquisitive and love to come close and interact. They are an absolute joy to have as a hiking companion and I watched it a while before moving on. With all the waterfalls, there were more distractions than I had time for, but eventually I made a snack stop near one of them. Pushing on I eventually reached another swing bridge that meant I was near the hut. The avalanche route that this bridge crossed was littered with giant rocks and tree fall. There is a good reason that this hike is risky when there’s heavy snow above, and the multitude of avalanche warning signs on this first day of the hike really brought it home. But finally there was a change in scene as the route quickly dropped down to the bank of the Maruia River and out of the trees I found myself at a flat staring across to the mountain hut near the treeline.

 

Despite the grey skies, the back drop of the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps provided a dramatic backdrop to the Cannibal Gorge Hut which grew bigger and bigger as I crossed the grassy path to reach it. There was no-one to be seen when I made it, and I was quick to dump my stuff and take a nosy inside. These Department of Conservation (DoC) mountain huts can vary in size and quality, but this was one of the bigger ones, complete with separated bunk rooms and kitchen space. Whilst the group I’d passed earlier were staying here the night, this was just a stopping point for me. I ate whilst I wandered around inside, then sat for a while at the picnic table outside until the swarming sand flies started to drive me crazy. It was a good encouragement to push onwards, and as I slung my bag back over my shoulders to leave, I heard voices followed by the sight of children bursting from the forest.

 

Behind the hut I was immediately thrust back into the forest again, but this time the route kept low, mostly following the course of the Maruia River upstream. When it finally opened up into a clearing there was a striking view of a cone-like mountain top in front of me, and steep mountain slopes to my side. It seemed clear to me that these nearby peaks acted as a bit of a weather divide as I could see high up above the movement of poorer weather skirting round the mountain tops close by. There is so much hiking I’d love to do on the western half of the island, but the weather is notoriously wet, windy and unpredictable to the west of the divide and so it’s always hard to plan ahead. I was at the mercy of the weather Gods on this weekend, and I knew it could get a lot worse if it wanted to. But this clearing meant I was very close to my destination for the night. Crossing another bridge back to the original side of the Maruia River, there was only a short muddy section before I found myself at Ada Pass Hut, my rest stop for the night. There were already many people at the hut by the time I arrived. Several people from Christchurch were there for an overnight hike and would return to their car back at the start of the hike the next day. Another couple were going to walk to the next hut and then head back, and there was myself and another solo hiker that were walking the full St James Walkway. After nabbing a mattress, I headed out to explore the immediate surrounds but again the sand flies were out in full force and as the hours before darkness ticked by, more and more people arrived in the hut and it was full to the brim.

 

Inevitably on a multi-day hike there is a day that is way longer or more strenuous than the others. With compressing the 5 day hike into a 4 day hike, the second day on the trail was to be a long one. As the crow flies, my bed for that night was just on the other side of the peak behind Ada Pass Hut, but to reach there on foot meant circumnavigating a giant chunk of rock that made up a conglomerate of peaks, the highest of which was Philosophers Knob at 1921m (6302ft). After leaving the hut behind, my fellow multi-day hiker having left some time ahead of me, I was quick to reach Ava Pass (1008m/3307ft) which were it not for the sign to mark it, would have otherwise been non-descript. The forest here reminded me a little of the forests back in Scotland, especially those of the Rothiemurchus Estate in one of my favourite parts of the country. With grey skies above me and the absence of birdsong it felt a little bleak and I could feel a change in weather in the air.

From the pass, the track follows the valley floor with minor undulation. A lake with some waterfowl was a nice distraction from the trees, and beyond here a sign denoted yet another avalanche risk zone as it moved below some rather steep slopes. It was nice to be out of the trees though with the expansive open space allowing views up onto the nearby peaks and also a good distance ahead. Orange-tipped poles peppered the route and the trail was well-trodden and easy to follow. The bubbling stream nearby was also a welcome sound to the otherwise silent hike. There was no-one to see ahead of or behind me and it was easy to feel miles from civilisation – just what I want when I go hiking.

 

As the route continued, the view opened up more and although there was swirling rain clouds over the peaks of the Spenser Mountains, it was a spectacular view. Past Camera Gully the Ada River grew larger and at a notable change in track direction it intermingled with the Christopher River and from here the route lifted up a little enhancing the view even more. After the slightly uninteresting forested sections of the earlier parts of the hike, I was starting to love where I was, and even though I could see and feel rain moving in, I made a point of fully taking in the view as I walked, keeping a good pace without over-rushing it. After the change in direction I popped out at a historic hut, Christopher Cullers Hut. It was basic, effectively a tin-shed with a couple of bunks and a fireplace. It would make a good windbreaker or emergency shelter but I wouldn’t choose to stay here, especially as a proper hut was just 1km (0.62miles) further ahead.

 

An expansive valley floor led the way to Christopher Hut. Set within a fenced-off zone, a stile provided access and I arrived just as a fellow hiker was leaving. He was walking the St James in the opposite direction so was heading to Ada Pass Hut. He reported that the lady who was walking in the same direction as me had left just as he had arrived. After a brief further chat, he left me to it and as the sand flies quickly descended on me as I took my boots off, I got inside as quickly as possible, eager to make some lunch. I eat a lot of food when I’m hiking even although the calories often aren’t required. This kind of hike was about stamina rather than cardio but I needed little excuse to eat a good-sized lunch and the warm soup was a welcome source of heat. But I wasn’t even half-way through the day’s hiking yet so once finished and washed up, it was time to get back out and at it again.

 

By now the peaks behind me had disappeared in cloud. I only felt the occasional spot of rain but the hint of heavier falls haunted me for some time. I was now fully exposed with the continuing valley floor ahead of me, the river set apart from the track for some time before the two came back together again. Where they met I could see another valley begin to open up to the left and as I neared it I saw horses and eventually a homestead appear. At the confluence of the Ada and Waiau rivers, the track skirted the foot of Mt Federation. Coming down the Waiau Valley, the Waiau Pass track is part of the Te Araroa (TA), the full-country hike that traverses both islands from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Although the rivers and valleys merge here, the TA and St James walkway remain separate for some time, and following this new valley, the St James turned south onto Ada Flat.

 

Initially the track followed the river bank where the water was fast flowing and the river broad but a sudden change in direction of flow a little down the valley meant the track left the watercourse behind and an expanse of grassland and bog lay out beside me. The Waiau River valley coursed off in another direction as the St James walkway followed a separate valley in a south-westerly direction. The track started to undulate a little and included some boardwalks across some of the dips. Eventually the track joined up with the TA and here it expanded from a route to a 4×4 track through a low thicket. The DoC sign at the junction stated the hut was still 1.5hrs away, and whilst their signs are usually over-generous with time, I was a little disheartened to think there was still so much to go. It had been a long, though interesting hike, but I was eager to get off my feet.

 

Up and down the track went for a while until the route split off from the 4×4 track. The markers didn’t quite fit the topographical map I had for following the route but I put trust in the markers that were placed and sure enough they led me to a swing bridge across the Henry River. At the far side, the route was a narrow ledge that gradually cut down to the level of the river then swung away and towards it as it coursed along. After it rejoined the 4×4 track which had forded the river, it looked on the map like I should be close but the hut remained out of sight. FInally though, as I cut through a small group of low trees I saw it in the distance and my pace quickened as I quickly covered the distance across the flat ground to reach it. Anne Hut was massively exposed, slap bang in the middle of an expansive clearing in the wide valley so I laughed when I saw the graffiti on the sign at the door stating it was the most exposed hut in NZ. Clearly some people had sat through some very wild weather here.

 

For me though I was just glad to get my boots off. There was still a good bit of daylight ahead but there was a hiker asleep in the one bunkroom and the lady from the night before was also there. It turned out the third hiker was walking the TA and planned on pushing on to Boyle Settlement the next day, a 2 day hike away for myself and the other woman. Despite servicing both routes as well as a cycle trail, no other people showed up that night and it was just the three of us in a very large hut. It felt exceedingly spacious and bright, a total contrast to the Ada Hut which had been relatively small, cramped and dark in comparison. Without a pile of other snoring bodies to contend with, I was able to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a 3rd day of hiking that turned out to be more challenging than expected.

Mount Isobel

After 7.5 years living in Canterbury in the South Island, I’ve managed to get up a good few mountains in the region’s Southern Alps. I have a few favourites that I go back to, but every now and again I’ll try something new. I’d known about Mount Isobel for some time, but it wasn’t until November last year that I finally got around to hiking it. The mountain sits overlooking the town of Hanmer Springs, what used to be a 90 minute drive away from Christchurch, but realistically is longer now with the speed restrictions that were introduced after the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016. With weather forecasts for the mountains being vague, I was hopeful for a clear day when I set off, but the reality is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get until you reach the mountain. The closer I got to Hanmer, the more I could see a thick bank of cloud sitting atop the range to the west and it was only on the final approach to the town that I could finally see a clear summit, separated from the cloud bank by the Clarence Valley.

There are several routes up Mt Isobel, and I drove through Hanmer and out the other side to turn onto Clarence Valley Road, a steep, winding and unsealed road that leads deep into the Southern Alps. I don’t have a 4×4 or a fancy traction system in my little car and have previously lost traction driving up a steep unsealed road, so I’m always a little nervous taking my car on some of New Zealand’s back country roads. It was only a few kilometres to reach the pull-in for the Mt Isobel track but when I got there it was full, and I had to pull up on the verge just a short distance away. For me, the initial part of the hike was rather uninteresting. It started across a deforested section of slope, where there was a glimpse of Hanmer Springs in the valley below before it disappeared into the trees; a narrow, rough, and at times zig-zagging path up the slope. Intermittent breaks in the foliage gave views of a town getting smaller and smaller, but I have to admit I found this lower section a bit of a drag.

 

After about 50 minutes, I reached the junction where the Dog Stream Waterfall track met up to share a route to the summit. There was no signpost here to direct but it was clear that up was the way to go and as the track broke free from the trees and onto the alpine slopes, I started to enjoy the hike a little more. Even although the track was steep here, by the time I’d reached the ridge and the junction with the Jacks Pass track, another 30 minutes later, the views had really started to become delightful and I loved this upper section.

 

I’d already passed a few people coming down from the summit. The early start from Christchurch had me at the start of the track late morning, but clearly those with the benefit of staying more local had managed an earlier start than me. I could see a couple of groups of people ahead of me on the ridgeline, and even though it is classed as a route rather than a track from here onwards, it really isn’t difficult to follow at all. The well trodden route follows the contours of the rising ridgeline towards the summit proper, and to my left I had mountain peaks disappearing into the distance, and to my right I had the plains of the valley with the buildings of Hanmer Springs.

Only near the final ascent did the alpine plants thin out a bit, and a scree slope had to be crossed to reach a rocky climb up to the summit marker at 1319m (4327ft). I’d made it up in just under 2hrs, less than the track sign at the start had listed. Surprisingly I had the summit to myself and made the most of it, taking photos and eating my lunch in solitude, admiring the view. From the summit, it is possible to walk down to Jollies Pass Road to the east, and one of the groups ahead of me had continued this way. After about 20 minutes to myself, a couple of other hikers arrived, so I started back down the mountain, leaving them in peace.

 

The view on the way down was full frontal mountains and valley and without the exertion of the climb, it was much easier to take it all in on the way back. I passed several people working their way up the slope as I descended, and as the alpine plants became replaced with trees and I once again reached the lower track, I found myself hurrying to complete this uninteresting section once more and I was back at my car a little over an hour from leaving the summit behind. The downhill return to the town was easy and quick and I found myself at a new cafe hidden down a side street where I enjoyed a post hike coffee and cake. But the best thing about Hanmer Springs is the thermal spa in the middle of town, and this was the perfect place to soothe my post-hike muscles, something that became a recurring theme after the next weekend’s hike.

Otira Valley

When it comes to hiking, I’m utterly spoiled in New Zealand. From short walks of a few hours to multi-day tramps, there’s plenty of choice, and I’m a particular fan of getting in amongst, or up on top of, the many peaks of the Southern Alps. The west coast road that spans between Christchurch and Kumara Junction has offered me some incredible hikes, but one that had eluded me until last October was the walk up Otira Valley in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The marked trail looks quite short on the map, so to make the over 90 min drive from home worthwhile, I decided to combine it with a few nearby tracks. Parking up at the bottom of the Temple Basin track, I passed the bottom of that walk to cross the road to join the nature walk that lead onto the Lake Misery track.

Despite the proximity to the state highway with its regular traffic noise, the surrounding peaks seemed to pull my mind away from the noises of civilisation and frankly I was surrounded by a stunning landscape that was difficult to ignore. There were a few other people on the nature trail that had walked from Arthur’s Pass village but as I continued on to the lake, I felt more and more on my own. Looking back across the road as the trail gained a bit of height, I could see a great waterfall spilling down the opposite mountainside, and the zig-zagging Temple Basin track headed up the slope at its side. According to the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, the boardwalk that passes Lake Misery can be under water. It was such a gorgeous sunny day, that even though there had recently been rain, I was hopeful that there wouldn’t be any issues here, and thankfully the walkway was high and dry. At the far side of the lake, there was a large rock wall to climb up and over and now I was at the end of the Otira Valley look up at distant snowy peaks.

 

The track is poled but is also well-worn and easy to follow as it skirts the slope of the rock wall I’d climbed over to get there. The alpine vegetation was coming to life in spring, and below me the babbling waters of the lower Otira River accompanied me as I cut up the valley. A few places were rougher than others, including a few spots where the track had collapsed a little creating the occasional steep drop down, but otherwise it was a decent meander to reach the little wooden bridge that leads to the far side of the river. A DOC sign here marks it as the end of the track, the upper reaches of the valley deemed fit for mountaineers only. Everyone else on the trail with me turned back at this point, and I scrambled up onto the bridge to cross it and sit on the other side. It was such a lovely day, I was happy to just watch the running water for a while. But as I looked up the valley, I could make out a well-trodden path and far in the distance I could see a couple of people following it. It really hadn’t taken me that long to reach this point, and with time on my side and a blue sky above, it seemed like a good idea to keep going. And boy am I glad I did.

Following the path of the river for the most part, it hugged the slope as it headed upstream. Behind me, the road seemed so far away and the peaks of Mt Temple dominated the background. As the track hit a wide section of scree, the still-obvious track followed the natural curve of the valley and the road disappeared out of view and the incredible peaks of Mt Rolleston appeared. Cutting down towards the river, a series of small waterfalls created a stunning foreground to the view. It was hard not to get a little giddy with it all and it was also hard not to want to keep going. Despite clearly being in an avalanche zone, there wasn’t enough snow to be concerned, and I decided I’d just keep walking until the track stopped. Despite the lack of poles, it was well worn and therefore easy to pick a route past large boulders that littered the river side.

 

A myriad of waterfalls streamed down the steep wall of rock to my left and in front of me a basin became visible, surrounded by steep snowy peaks. I saw the pair far ahead of me trudging towards the snow, and after reaching the end of a flat area strewn with boulders, I found a spot to sit down and have lunch. As I ate, I was privy to the sight of several small avalanches skipping down the mountainside. The sight and the sounds were as incredible as each other, the basin causing the sound to magnify. Not far ahead, the track appeared to fade, but from my vantage point, I watched the pair cross a section of snow and clamber up another rock field to reach the true basin, and I watched in awe as they sat for a while, the avalanches coming down right in front of them.

 

I sat so long there that they headed back whilst I was still ogling at the view. When they reached me, one of them stopped for a brief chat, congratulating me for being out on my own. I’m never sure if it’s because I’m female or hiking solo (or the fact that I’m both female and hiking solo) that seems worthy of congratulating me for but these are the occasions where the male dominance of the hiking world becomes clear. I’ve taken my freedom for granted all my life, and thought nothing of taking myself up mountains on my own or heading off with a tent on my own, but every now and again I’m reminded of how I’m in a minority. But this man encouraged me to head up to where they had been before leaving me alone, and as I watched them disappear down river, I looked up at the beautiful white snow and decided I’d go the extra distance.

Thanks to their footprints, I could pick a route across a wide bank of snow, a couple of times dropping deeper down into the snow than anticipated. But once I was at the other side, I was greeted by a large boulder pile that I picked my way up to find myself staring at the backside of Mt Rolleston. The whole time I was there I was nervous. I hadn’t seen a single avalanche reach this far whilst I’d been sitting having lunch, but all around me were signs of recent avalanches and I was acutely aware of the fact that no-one knew I was there. Whilst I love hiking solo, it does make me heavily responsible for my own safety and at the mercy of my ability to make rational judgements. But the whole time I stood there, the nervousness was mingled with the thrill of the view in front of me, and the excitement and rush of having it all to myself.

 

This is definitely the kind of place that would be totally different to hike on another occasion: the view and risk changeable with the season and the snow level. Spring was a great time to be there, with the flowering alpine plants, the sunshine in the sky but the snow still present in the higher reaches. I cut back down the boulder field to the snow bank I’d crossed earlier, trying a different route to avoid the dips I’d fallen into on the way up. The view was just as phenomenal on the way back as it had been on the way there, and it was hard not to keep looking backwards as the basin grew further away and then disappeared out of sight as the valley curved back towards the road.

 

There was not a soul to be seen as I made my way back down the valley towards the little wooden bridge. A couple of people were on the marked trail as I continued back towards the road, crossing a lower scree field before reaching the turnoff to Lake Misery. Even with the road and power poles cutting across the landscape, there was no escaping the beauty of this place and it was a pleasure to retrace my steps past the lake and towards the nature trail. Only the cold of the shaded trail on the way back to my car reminded me that it wasn’t quite summer yet, but I was elated to have finally walked this track, and I was equally glad I’d had the guts to keep going up the valley. The Otira Valley track is now officially an Arthur’s Pass favourite.

Districts of Singapore

I’d read about a restaurant in Chinatown that took my fancy. After 4 days of hanging around Marina Bay, I was ready to see a bit more of what Singapore had to offer. The city was bustling at night when the temperature was much more pleasant and being a Friday, there were a multitude of bars spilling out onto the street as I headed from my hotel through the backstreets towards Chinatown. Unfortunately, the place I’d planned on grabbing dinner in was small and full so I headed into the nearby hawker food centre for what was a great meal anyway. These hawker centres are dotted about the city. Effectively a multitude of food stalls under one roof, they are a great way to try different foods and often a cheap way to eat out too. Feeling satiated, I headed to central Chinatown where there was a street full of food vendors surrounded by streets full of shops selling a myriad of souvenirs. It was packed full of tourists with a few locals intermingled and I grabbed some dessert to eat whilst wandering around. I rarely buy souvenirs, but these places are great for people watching, something that I do love to do, so I hung around for a bit before wandering off. I didn’t really have a plan of where to go, simply following alleys or lights or sounds. On a main street I found a collection of Chinese Lanterns depicting early settler life in Singapore.

 

I had one full day to myself before heading home on the Sunday evening, so I was glad to wake up to a gorgeous sunny day on the Saturday. The heat of this city in the daytime is incredible, but I decided to take a walking tour of the city’s districts. Whilst public transport can be a necessity in some places, it adds to the budget and I also feel like I see more of a place if I walk it, rather than disappear underground into a network of tunnels, so even in sweltering heat, I will often choose to stick to my own leg power. Heading down Raffles Place and around a corner, I started at the Singapore River outside the Fullerton Hotel. From here, the Cavenagh bridge and a collection of bronze statues dotted along the promenade provided regular distractions from watching the river boats heading up and down the river. There was just so much to look at, and I took my time to watch it all as I meandered upstream to a collection of old-fashioned shop fronts which were all bars. At nearby Elgin Bridge, I crossed the river to the far bank and started to walk back down river again. But shortly after crossing, I spotted a bench in the shade, and struggling with the heat, and an overwhelming tiredness, I lay down on the bench and promptly dozed off. I’d done a similar thing whilst on Sentosa Island, and whilst a little self-conscious about sleeping in a public spot, it was just what I needed, and an hour passed by before I knew it.

 

Finding my feet once more, I passed the Asian Civilisations Museum and found more bronze sculptures depicting different stages of settler life in Singapore. Cutting round the back of it, the distinctive Gallery of Singapore, Singapore Parliament and Supreme Court added to the nearby architectural gems. At the far end of Supreme Court Lane was the beautiful St Andrew’s Cathedral. It was open to the public so I took a look inside and enjoyed some much-needed air conditioning before touring the grounds and the nearby city streets.

 

At the far end of Coleman St, I cut up past a museum to enter Fort Canning Park, a hilly green space within the city skyscrapers. A walk-way halfway up the slope led me through herb gardens and artisan gardens towards an exceedingly distinctive and beautiful building. A variety of routes lead away from here, but I had so much to see that day, so I just stuck to the one side of the hill, heading back towards where I’d started and beyond there to the flagstaff and lighthouse. I spotted several squirrels in the trees as I walked, and enjoyed the sounds of the birds flitting around me. Down the steps towards the main street below I found a large stone carving depicting a multitude of historical scenes. From here I cut back to the Cathedral and followed North Bridge Rd towards one of the city’s shopping districts.

 

At the time of visiting in September last year, the famous Raffles Hotel was closed for renovations. The Long Bar, home of the infamous Singapore Sling had only just reopened and it seemed only right to head inside out of the heat to get one. I got sat at the bar and provided with peanuts whilst I watched the bar tenders mix a whole host of gorgeous looking cocktails. The Singapore Sling was probably the most expensive cocktail I’ve ever drank, but it was a novelty worth doing. I was a little tipsy by the time I headed out into the heat again, and the food that I ate for lunch from a nearby stall was the most disappointing meal I’d gotten on my whole trip thus far. I washed it down with Singapore’s version of an iced coffee from a popular store along the road, and continued on my way towards Kampong Glam.

 

Kampong Glam was a glorious neighbourhood with so much to see and so much bustle. I zig-zagged up and down streets full of gorgeous boutique shops selling all sorts of wares, making my way towards Masjid Sultan, the Sultan Mosque, one of the city’s most famous sights. Having a multi-national and therefore multi-cultural background, Singapore is also a melting pot of religion, with a variety of religious buildings catering to different faiths. I am an atheist but religious buildings are often the most stunning buildings in a city and irregardless of what faith they belong to, I love visiting them. I came prepared, knowing I would need to be covered up to go in, but I immediately started dripping in sweat with the extra layers as there was no air conditioning inside. A wedding was taking place inside and volunteers were on hand to answer questions, so I had a brief chat with one before the heat got too much for me.

 

Leaving Arabia behind, I headed towards Little India which was like a rabbit warren of streets full of stores that reminded me of my trip to India many years ago.  This area is known for its murals and I had a walking route planned to try and make the most of this, again zig-zagging through streets in search of them. There are some well-known landmarks here such as Tan Teng Niah and the Sri Veeramakaliamann Hindu temple, and there were cow references in many places, from the artwork to the statues. I even found another mosque and church within Little India too. Between Kampong Glam and Little India, I’d spent hours on my feet and as evening approached, it was time to start heading back, grabbing a cute little panda cake from one of the city’s many bakeries. I had to pack that night, and try and squeeze a ton of conference acquisitions into my bag so didn’t feel like eating out. Instead, I got some food from the 7 Eleven and watched a movie as I tried to rearrange my belongings.

 

I didn’t need to leave for the airport till the afternoon so after a morning swim in the hotel pool, I was quick to get out to complete my Singapore explorations. This time I had Chinatown in my sights, so headed to Raffles Place to start a walking route I’d been recommended. My first stop was the Yueh Hai Ching temple which was small and peaceful, and from here I followed Telok Ayer St into Chinatown proper. At Far East Square I went for breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. I’d read it was a great place for an authentic breakfast, and it certainly felt that way with a reduced comprehension of English, but as much as I like eggs, I struggled to eat the half-raw egg whites that were presented to me, and the iced coffee was gritty and bitter. I left feeling dissatisfied. Round the corner was the Fuk Tak Chi museum which I had to myself but as I continued deeper into Chinatown, a few more people started to appear.

There were so many photogenic buildings around here, and at Telok Ayer Green there were more of the bronze sculptures that I had become accustomed to. The nearby Thian Hock Keng temple got a quick look around and outside, on its back wall was an extensive mural depicting the history of Singapore. I cut up through Ann Siang Hill Park to find myself among street after street of beautiful buildings with shuttered windows. Eventually I found myself at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the city’s most famous buildings. Beyond here there was a lot of construction work going on so it was a bit complicated to cross the road to get to it, but once inside it felt nice and cool although the crowds were heavy here. I didn’t fully appreciate everything I was seeing inside, and there was a phenomenal amount of buddhas within it, but I still enjoyed wandering around the inside of it and then out onto the roof terrace.

 

Heading up through the chaos of the construction sites, I cut down through Banda St where there were yet more gorgeous shop fronts, and then found myself back at the Chinatown Food Street and souvenir shops I’d seen on the Friday night. It was just as bustling in the daytime and I was hungry again so grabbed some fried chicken from a van that was parked up. Like the breakfast, it was really disappointing and half of it ended up in the bin. Nearby around Mohamed Ali Lane I found some more murals painted on the walls and took my last fill of the colourful and clashing buildings of the area as I left Chinatown behind. I’d spent more time there than I’d thought I would and suddenly had a bit of an urgency to get to my last port of call before leaving, so I hot-footed it through the business district. I called into the Market Street Hawker Centre for a drink, and ordered something that I didn’t understand what it was purely because it sounded intriguing and it was purple in colour. Sadly, for the third time that day I was disappointed with my choice. I’ve still no idea what it was but it was not pleasant, and again it ended up in the bin. Clearly this was not to be my day for food.

 

A trip to Singapore is not complete without a visit to the Gardens by the Bay, and whilst I’d certainly wandered around the outdoor space during the conference, I hadn’t actually done any of the paid attractions, and now I had just a few precious hours to pack them in. I headed straight to the SuperTree Grove and up onto the OBC Skyway, a raised walkway that connects several of the giant trees. The views were simply incredible and vast, with the Marina Bay Sands hotel, the Singapore Flyer and aspects of the garden all visible. There were plenty of people about but it didn’t feel crowded and I meandered slowly across the expanse of it. The grove is gorgeous at nighttime when it’s all lit up but the views in the daytime made me glad I’d saved the Skyway till the daytime hours.

 

Two domed buildings sit near the edge of the gardens and contain the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. It is cheaper to buy the entrances for both together than it is to buy them separately, and I started with the one I wanted to see the most, the Cloud Forest. This turned out to be one of my most favourite things in Singapore, and walking inside to be faced with a giant waterfall spilling down a wall of lush green vegetation was magical. Sometimes if you read about a place too much it can be a disappointment when you finally go there, but this place was incredible. Circling the flower displays at the base, I reached the far end to see a sign stating the wait to reach the top could be up to 30mins. I didn’t have time to waste in a queue, and suddenly regretted spending so much time in Chinatown that morning. Thankfully though, the queue was moving quickly and I was up within 5mins. Once at the top of the dome, a 1-way system leads down a series of walkways and escalators back down the levels. Intermittently steam is pumped out and it can at times feel like there are clouds in there. The whole concept was incredible and if I’d had the time I could have just gone round and round. There was so much to look at from the plants and sculptures to the views out the glass roof. Not to mention the waterfall that spilled off the one side. I spent over an hour there and really had to force myself to leave.

 

The Flower Dome was larger and busier and consisted of an upper concourse and a lower concourse with a couple of bridging gardens on a mezzanine level. The upper level was mainly arid or desert plants and there was an incredible dragon sculpture made out of wood at the far end. There was also some Alice in Wonderland sculptures hidden amongst the smaller plants too. There was a massive sunflower exhibit on whilst I was there which incorporated the Wizard of Oz. Upstairs this meant Dorothy outside her house in a small sunflower patch but on the lower level was a bigger spread where Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion were hanging out. A castle stood within it and standing out the front was the Wizard himself. The whole concept was impressive and the flowers and trees were beautiful. The wooden sculptures were so clever too, and whilst I much preferred the Cloud Forest, this place was still very much worth a visit.

 

I left the Gardens by the Bay reluctantly. I’d loved my week in Singapore and was totally in love with the city. Collecting my bags from my hotel, I took the metro out to the airport only for the train to break down on route. With it being the main line to the airport, I had confidence that something would be sorted soon, but there was still a good 20 minutes of not knowing what was going on before finally they announced a contingency plan and we were on our way. Singapore will remain firmly my favourite stopover spot on route to Europe and with the opening of Jewel a few months ago, I can’t wait to go back.

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