MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Southland Roadie – Coastal Gems

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to go to Antarctica. This desire has only grown stronger over the years, especially as it now remains the only continent I have not been to, and I’m particularly interested in the geological, climatological and biological studies that take place there. With the cost of travel there being prohibitive, the continent forever feels just out of reach and yet I am regularly taunted and teased with its closeness due to New Zealand having strong ties with the place. So when I found myself standing near Stirling Point, back on the mainland of the South Island, after a fantastic week in Rakiura (Stewart Island), witnessing the Heritage Expedition ship sail out of Bluff, I immediately knew that the lucky souls on board were at least going to the Sub-Antarctic Islands if not the great continent itself, and I was hit by a pang of immense jealousy.

 

It was a pleasant evening to watch it set out though as I stood by the chain link sculpture and way marker once more. I had a bit of time to head round the Foveaux Walkway around the coast and was aiming to make it to Lookout Point, but it was a longer walk than I thought and the light was reducing. I spotted a sickly looking mouse on the track that I presume had consumed something in the many pest traps around the place, and in the trees I saw a tui, a melodic song bird that I tend to associate with the north of the country rather than the south. At a wooden structure where I could see across to Rakiura on the horizon, I turned round and headed back to the car.

 

At the back of Bluff, a road leads up the hill to the Bluff Hill Lookout. By now late in the evening, there was barely anybody there. From this vantage point I could again see across the Foveaux Strait to Rakiura and it was also possible to see how narrow the isthmus of land that leads down to Bluff from Invercargill is. Bluff itself looked industrial as indeed it mainly seems to be, a frontier town that revolves around the comings and goings of the harbour. Heading north to Invercargill, it was dark by the time I found somewhere to park and reached my hostel. I’ve passed through Invercargill before and never really had any great desire to explore the city itself but it was a handy place to call it a night before hitting the Southland tourist circuit. Thankfully my hostel had its own restaurant and bar as I was hungry after all the fresh air.

 

I left Invercargill early the next morning as I had a lot of ground to cover. I headed north then west, cutting inland to cut round the back of the Longwood Forest Conservation Area. For the most part, I could have been anywhere in New Zealand, the rolling hillsides and fields being so typical of many parts of the country. As I neared Clifden, I took a detour off the main road to visit Clifden caves. The cave was in the middle of a sheep paddock and I negotiated the dung to reach the entrance and climb inside. This is very much an enter-at-your-own-risk style of caving, and as much I like going into caves, I tend to err on the side of caution when I’m on my own and never go beyond the lit section even though I had a torch with me. I’m an adventurer at heart, but the problem with solo travelling is that I often do things on a whim and nobody knows where I am if something goes wrong, so sometimes I have to listen to my brain when it tells me to be more sensible.

 

Back on the main road and it wasn’t too far to reach Clifden itself and here the back road joined onto State Highway 99 (SH99), the road that cuts down from Te Anau. I was now officially on the Southern Scenic Route, a tourist road that heads south along the Southland and Otago coasts and up to Dunedin, and I was excited to be driving it and visiting a part of the country I’d never been to before. The Clifden Suspension Bridge was the first stop on the drive and I was a little bit underwhelmed by it. Crossing the broad Waiau river it sits alongside the highway and is the country’s longest wooden suspension bridge. It was built to replace a ferry that used to carry stock across the river. On the track nearby, reams of sheep watched me as I walked by, crossing the bridge and then returning.

 

Reaching the Southland coast, under a grey sky, it was clear to see how wild this coastline could get. At McCracken’s Rest, a lookout over Te Waewae Bay, the sea looked calm with some steady waves rolling in, but the shingle shore and the battered dunes gave a hint of how bad it must get here. After initially having it to myself it wasn’t long before a group of motorbike riders joined me, and although this part of the country doesn’t get the level of tourists that some other parts do, I shared the many stopping points with plenty of other people, a stark contrast to the solitude and peacefulness of Rakiura.

 

Following the coast east, I pulled in at Gemstone beach. This time I was able to get down onto the beach itself and stretched my legs whilst looking for gemstones. I’m not very good at identifying rock types, so whilst there were plenty of mixed colour stones, I have no idea what any of them were. The surf looked rough here and the cliff behind it was heavily eroded. In one spot, someone had even built a house into the eroded cliff, a little part of it visible through a natural hole in the rock. This great sandy expanse is still part of Te Waewae Bay and at the very end of it was Monkey Island, a small bump of land that is connected to the beach at low tide. When I reached there the tide was receeding but it wasn’t quite low enough to get out to the island without getting my feet wet which I wasn’t really in any hurry to do. By the beach is a freedom camping spot so there was a lot of people around and being a Saturday, there were plenty of visitors on the beach too. I watched some motocross riders race each other along the sand and behind them, above the sandstone cliffs, low cloud hugged the mountains behind.

 

Keeping off SH99 for a while, I cut across some back roads and down a gravel track to reach Cosy Nook, a tiny fishing settlement snuggled into a small cove on the coast. The small houses themselves were sheltered but at the end of the road where it overlooked the wild coast, it was completely exposed to the brunt of whatever weather comes across the Strait. I could imagine the solitude being divine but I’m sure the residents have endured their fair share of storms blowing through here. Leaving it behind, it was time to find my way back to SH99 and keep heading east. By the time I reached Colac Bay, another broad sweeping arc of beach, the grey skies were starting to break a little and hints of sunshine were peeping through. Colac Bay is one of the region’s surf beaches and where the highway skirts the edge of the settlement, a giant sculpture of a surfer greets those passing by. Had it been better weather and had I had more time to explore, I probably would have taken a nice long walk along this beach, but as it was I already wasn’t covering as much distance as I thought I would so after only a brief stop to breathe in the sea air, I headed onwards.

 

On reaching Riverton, I took the road up to the Mores Scenic Reserve where I could see across to the start of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Oreti and Invercargill. I took the track through the forest to the Hilltop Lookout which overlooked the Riverton coastline below. This was a popular spot as was the Howells Point Recreational Reserve at the point which I drove to next. I had wished I’d brought a picnic as this would have been a great place to have it. Riverton seemed to be a popular place for holiday makers and campers and I could see why. I really liked the place, with several beaches to choose from and a really chilled-out vibe, and I could picture myself coming down here for a Southland break in the future. Even with a lot of ground still to cover before reaching my night’s lodgings, it was worth taking some time to explore further…

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Ulva Island

My last day on the bewitching Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, was back to the familiar grey skies I’d experienced at the beginning of my trip. The ferry to take me back to the South Island wasn’t till the evening, and I was up early to head to Golden Bay to make sure I was near the head of the queue for the boat to Ulva Island. New Zealand has a fascinating ecological history, home to a large percentage of flightless birds. Sadly, many species have been made extinct or brought close to, by the accidental and deliberate introduction of invasive species. With the only endemic mammal being a bat, the evolution of bird life in the country took a very different path than similar species abroad, and after hundreds and thousands of years in balance, the quick and agile rodents and other mammals that came with the early settlers took hold, quickly overcoming the birds who couldn’t evolve fast enough to evade them. In modern-day New Zealand, conservation efforts have resulted in the creation of pest-free islands: off-shore hideaways where attempts to boost native populations ploughs on in earnest. Most of these are not accessible to the public but a few are, such as Ulva Island in Southland, Kapiti Island and Matiu/Somes Island near Wellington, and Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. As a bit of a bird enthusiast, there was no way I was coming to Rakiura and not including a trip to Ulva Island.

Like Oban, there is an Ulva Island in my native Scotland which I’ve also been to, and whilst it would have been great to visit it in the sunshine of the day before, I was happy to be heading out even with the threat of drizzle. In my attempt to ensure I was guaranteed a spot on the first boat of the day, there was quite a bit of hanging around to do waiting for the boat to arrive and load up. The water in Golden Bay was still, producing reflections as I waited. The ferry crossing across Paterson Inlet was short and easy and the full boat disembarked at the pier where I bought a guide to the flora and fauna from the shelter nearby. Only about a quarter of the island can be explored as a visitor via a collection of trails criss-crossing across the top portion. With so many of us arriving at once, it was difficult to get away from the group initially, and so when I reached the viewpoint at Flagstaff Point, I was quickly joined by multiple people from the boat. From the lookout I could see nearby Native Island and the opening of Paterson Inlet, but importantly I could also get a hint of the bird song that would be the orchestra to my visit, and although I couldn’t yet see anything, it was a hint of what was to come.

 

My first encounter was with a South Island Robin whilst cutting through the forest to Sydney Cove. I love these immensely inquisitive birds and have been joined by them many times whilst taking a rest from hiking through the forest in various parts of the country. They often hop near you and look at you side-ways, jumping all around for a good view, often following you in the canopy for short distances whilst you walk. Whilst they don’t have the pretty colours of the European Robin that I’m used to from my former life in Scotland, their friendly behaviour means that I actually much prefer them over the Northern Hemisphere counterpart.

 

There was a light drizzle at Sydney Cove as I and several others trudged across the beach. Just offshore were a mix of gulls and strutting their stuff along the beach were some weka. Fringing the beach was thick bush and flitting amidst the branches were multiple small birds, some of which I couldn’t tell what they were, but I did recognise the Tomtit, another inquisitive little bird similar in size to the robin. Despite the other people here, it felt so peaceful with the calm waters gently lapping the shore.

 

Cutting inland, the tracks went in a figure-eight across to the far side of the island, so it was just a matter of picking one to cross over on, and the other to come back on. Never mind the birdsong, the bush was thick and gave a sense of what New Zealand used to be like before large sections of it were cut down and burned to make way for human development. At one of the track junctions I was again joined by a robin who watched me whilst I consulted my guide. As my chosen track gained a little altitude, I found myself nearer the canopy and suddenly the calls of kaka filled the air, and after only brief glimpses initially, I finally found the group not far off the track close by. An endemic parrot like my beloved kea, the kaka seem naturally more shy and with their darker colour are much harder to spot. Each evening I’d spent in Oban had involved listening to the screeching cry of the kaka as they flew over the settlement to roost, and I’d been startled by a pair near the hostel a couple of nights prior. Now finally, I was able to see them a little more closely and I stood for some time watching them dexterously handle food and branches in their talons.

 

On the western side of Ulva Island I found myself at Boulder Beach where the sun almost threatened to break through the clouds. A couple of weka sweeped through the seaweed litter that was strewn across the beach and even the robins were out too, constantly watching my comings and goings as I meandered slowly along the shoreline. Back in the bush I was this time accompanied by the squawking cries of kakariki, a type of parakeet, which tend to fly in loud, screaming flocks. I was constantly scanning the leaf litter as this is one of the few places where kiwi are seen during the day time. Every rustle or movement that caught my eye was scrutinised until I could see what was the source. Generally it was a weka scrubbing around with its feet, or occasionally it was the sound of a little bird hopping among the undergrowth. I was also keen to see the South Island Saddleback, a really rare bird who’s North Island equivalent I’d seen in Zealandia, near Wellington a few years ago. I could hear their distinctive cries every now and again but couldn’t find the bird that was making them.

 

Eventually I found myself at West End Beach, a beautiful strip of sandy shore with an island immediately offshore. I passed some people heading back along the beach as I followed it to the far end. A group of rocks seemed like a great make-shift picnic spot and I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Amusingly as I sat there, multiple wekas made a beeline for me and proceeded to goad each other whilst climbing up on the rocks beside me before eventually a particularly bold one actually walked onto my lap. They were effectively begging for food and clearly they’d been fed by people in the past. I kept my lunch to myself but enjoyed the encounter, becoming a bit of entertainment for others who were out on the beach too.

 

But unfortunately I had a boat to catch back to Rakiura. The best way to get the most out of a visit here would be to stop often at the areas designated for sitting and just watch and listen as the wildlife comes to you. The amount of bird song here was incredible and I would have loved to have done just that, no doubt seeing more things than I had done, but the last boat to head back wouldn’t give me enough time to make the ferry to the South Island, so I found myself a little pushed for time to make the return leg back to the pier to get an earlier one. I spoke to some people as I walked who reported their sighting of a kiwi in the undergrowth back up the trail I’d walked earlier in the day. It was tempting to head back but I just didn’t have the time. Enjoying the bush but making light work of the distance I found myself arriving to see the ferry heading over and my friends waiting for me to say goodbye. They’d come to Ulva Island on a later ferry and had a made a point of hanging around in order to see me off.

Because of the out-of-synch ferry times, I had a bit of time to waste in Oban so headed back to the little cafe in the settlement for a warm drink, and went round the couple of shops for the last time before grabbing my gear from the hostel and checking in for the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I took a last stroll along the waterfront and noticed some mollymawks, a species of albatross, bobbing around on the surface. Not quite as big as the Royal Albatross, the mollymawk is still noticeably bigger than your average seagull. Back at the wharf looking towards Oban, life was going on as usual, oblivious to the fact that I was leaving and how sad that made me.

 

Unlike the sailing from Bluff earlier in the week, the return trip to the South Island was much calmer and I was able to spend the trip out on deck. We sailed past several islands and we were almost constantly followed by some form of sea bird, from the small shearwaters to divers and gulls. Rakiura disappeared further away as the Southland coast grew nearer and before long the hour crossing was over and I was disembarking. It was evening but being February there was still a few hours of light ahead of me, and returning to my car, it was now time for my road trip to begin.

In Love with Rakiura

As I had been hiking my way back towards Oban on the last day of the Rakiura Track, my friends had flown overhead and landed on Rakiura for a holiday themselves, so once I was showered to rid myself of hiker’s aroma, I headed to one of the few eateries in Oban, a little cafe to meet them for a warm drink. It was one of those coincidental plannings where we unintentionally ended up at the bottom of the country at the same time, but it was great to see some familiar faces whilst away from home. We made plans to meet up for dinner the next day before going our separate ways that evening. I had booked myself on a kiwi-spotting tour on the off chance that I didn’t see any kiwis whilst out bush, and following my failed attempt to spot any whilst at North Arm Hut, I was glad that I made the booking. I walked along the Oban foreshore, admiring the stillness of the water in Halfmoon Bay before popping in to a restaurant for some dinner before heading round to the pier to board the boat. I had been looking forward to my first taste of paua, a shellfish that I’d never heard of before moving to New Zealand and here was one of the freshest places to get it. Unfortunately due to some diabolical service at the restaurant, not only did I never get my paua but the food that I did get was served to me half-frozen and nearly had me in danger of missing my boat.

 

When I finally got on board my tour boat, we first headed out of the sheltered bay to an outlying island in search of hoiho or the yellow-eyed penguin. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I have tried to incorporate the Maori language into my vocabulary and generally refer to the native wildlife by their Maori names, partly to be respectful to the first settlers of New Zealand but partly because the Maori names usually sound more interesting than the often bland English names. Of the 17 species of penguin that live in the Southern Hemisphere, I have been lucky on my travels to spot 8 of them in the wild across 3 continents and 5 countries. It isn’t something that I’ve particularly set out to do, but spending the majority of my life in the Northern Hemisphere, it is just one of those things that has happened as my life has moved south, and frankly who doesn’t love seeing penguins? As the boat arrived offshore at dusk, the low light and rocking motion of the boat made it nearly impossible to take a photo of the couple that we saw on the rocky shore line, and after a short while, we moved on, skirting round the Rakiura coastline and into Paterson Inlet.

Sailing past Ulva Island, a predator-free island which I would visit before leaving Rakiura, we cut down past the Neck, a north-pointing jut of land protruding from the southern coastline of Paterson Inlet, and into Glory Cove where we berthed in the darkness. At almost 47o south latitude, this is the most southern I’ve been in the Eastern Hemisphere (I’ve been further south in the Western Hemisphere) and as such the most southern part of New Zealand that I have visited. We were instructed to be silent and keep close together as we cut across the narrow isthmus from Glory Cove to Ocean Beach. There was potential to spot kiwis from anywhere within the bush or on the beach so we were all hyper-vigilant, but aside from looking for wildlife, we were as much making sure we didn’t trip over anything as we walked by torchlight through the bush. We reached Ocean Beach without spotting a thing, and now we were also on sealion alert as this beach is a favoured pull-in spot for them to rest up at night, and they are not a social creature with the potential to be highly aggressive if disturbed.

We had the length of the beach to walk and sure enough a sealion was spotted near the shoreline. We gave it a wide berth and kept going, ever watchful for signs of kiwi tracks. By the time we were approaching the top-end of the beach it was looking like a failed outing and I was feeling a little disheartened when suddenly the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps. As we were plunged into darkness with only starlight to guide us, the guide put on a red light and motioned us to gather near him. Creeping closer we all saw the kiwi at the same time, sticking its long beak into the sand to grab the scarpering sea lice that ran around on the shore, completely unfazed by our presence. Finally my dream of seeing a kiwi in the wild had come to fruition, and I wasn’t disappointed. This particular species of kiwi is the Rakiura Tokoeka. I love that Maori names are so descriptive and Tokoeka means ‘Weka with a walking stick’. Weka are another flightless indigenous bird of New Zealand that are readily seen around coastal and peripheral bush areas, and the walking stick refers to the kiwi’s long beak. As we stood in silence in the near darkness, I happened to look up at the sky and realise that with the lack of external light sources, the sky was a brilliant array of stars, and right above my head sparkled the Milky Way. I only saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life in 2017 whilst in the Australian Outback and I was as enthralled about seeing it here as I was then. In fact, I was absolutely torn between watching the little kiwi on the beach and looking skyward at the expanse of the brilliant night sky above me. No-one else in the tour group seemed to notice the stars, and I loved that the vision was all mine. Out here in one of the wilder parts of New Zealand, I felt at peace and immensely happy. My only wish was to have had a camera and the skills good enough to photograph the Milky Way, but the memory will just have to suffice.

 

The next morning was the one completely gloriously sunny day of my whole trip. I had originally planned on going to Ulva Island, but since arriving on the island, it had been brought to my attention that that day was going to be ‘cruise-ship day’, meaning the little settlement wold be inundated with disembarking cruise ship passengers and many of them would make the journey to Ulva Island. Concerned about the place being overcrowded, I decided it could wait till the next day, and instead opted to get back out on my feet and explore more of Rakiura itself. I set off out of Oban later than planned, and already the little township was bustling with hordes of cruise passengers and bus after bus ploughed the main roads to take them on sight-seeing trips. It seemed so unnatural for such a remote place to be so suddenly overrun with people. Given that the weather was so contrasting to the day I set off on the Rakiura Track a few days prior, I decided to walk myself back to the start of the track and experience the views with clearer skies. It had been pretty enough even in the rain, but boy was Rakiura stunning in the sunshine. Past Bathing Beach and Butterfield Beach and across the hillside to Horseshoe Bay, the sand looked golden and in the case of the latter was actually sparkling.

 

Cutting across towards Lee Bay where the official start of the Rakiura Track is, I cut off just before this to hike up Garden Mound, a 164m hill covered in thick bush. After all the rain in the days prior, the lower sections of track were a quagmire. There wasn’t much of a view to speak of on the way up until quite near the summit where a sneaky peak through the foliage afforded a brief view back across to Halfmoon Bay. Just shy of the summit, a lookout gave a view across the Foveaux Strait towards the nearby Muttonbird Islands, as well as across to Port William, the site of the hut I’d stayed at on the first night of the Rakiura Track. Behind there in the distance, lay the rolling hills of the less-visited portions of Rakiura to the west. A lover of solitude and wilderness, it hadn’t taken long to fall in love with Rakiura when I’d first arrived and these views on such a glorious day reinforced my desire to return here and walk the longer trails.

 

Following the trail down the other side, it joined up with the Rakiura Track to follow the coastline. I had originally planned on walking all the way to Maori Beach and back but with dinner plans set with my friends for that night, and so much to see on route back to Oban, I soon realised that there just wasn’t going to be enough hours in the day for that, so when I reached the small bay soon after joining the track, I decided to sit there and just enjoy some relaxation in the sun. I sat on a rock near the back of the beach and watched the waves in the distance and a grey heron wading around the shallows. I was very quickly joined by a large bumble bee who seemed to find me irresistible and wouldn’t leave me alone, crawling all over me and then going inside the neck of my t-shirt which was rather disconcerting. After doing my best to just sit still and not disturb it, it was really hard not to want to move when it was walking on the inside of my clothing and threatening to disappear down between my cleavage. I had to give it a bit of encouragement to come back out of my clothing and after it still wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided it was a sign to get up and get moving.

 

Returning to Lee Bay where the Rakiura Track starts, I found myself hounded by yet more bees as I tried to take a photo of the chain-link sculpture that is the twin for the chain-link sculpture at Stirling Point. Clearly I picked the wrong colour of clothing to wear on such a gorgeous day. I cut onto the beach in an effort to escape them, walking along the shoreline until I noticed a police car drive onto the beach and come towards me. My immediate assumption was that I’d done something wrong although I didn’t know what it was. I hesitated, then as the car drew up to me, the policeman said hello out the window and then kept going before coming to a stop behind me. I presume he was either taking a break or making the most of his patrol to take in the view, and with the waves crashing on the shore below a blue sky, it was certainly a stunning one.

 

Cutting back across the headland to Horseshoe Bay, I meandered along the beach which was literally shimmering in the sunlight. The sand was a mix of dark sand and sparkly particles and it just glowed. Just through the heads at the entrance to the bay I could see the cruise ship moored off shore, its wide rear end pointed in my direction, the words ‘Like No Place on Earth’ emblazoned on the stern. As an introverted nature lover who likes to explore outdoor spaces in solitude, the thought of a cruise holiday sounds awful and is so not for me. It seemed so out of place here to see this behemoth of a ship.

 

At the far end of the bay, a trail cut out across the headland to Horseshoe Point. There was an alternate view back across Horseshoe Bay from the trail and on the shore below the path I could see rock structures that resembled the strange round structures of the Moeraki Boulders on the east coast of the South Island. From the Point I had a fantastic view across the Foveaux Strait towards the Muttonbird Islands and the South Island beyond, and now I was in full sight of the cruise ship. Once more I was hounded by bees whilst I sat there soaking up the view. I watched a fishing boat come into Horseshoe Bay, dwarfed by the cruise ship, and the shore boats that ferry the cruise ship passengers back and forth were busy on their return trips to the ship.

 

The track continued round to Dead Man Beach, a cute little sheltered cove, before cutting back up to the cliff edge above it to head round Bragg Point. I came across a kakariki, a little green parakeet, having a snack before it took off loudly. Eventually I reached Bragg Bay, yet another deserted white sandy beach that I had to myself. Back on the road I passed Butterfield beach and Bathing Beach once more before cutting round Hicks Point to return to Oban. The cloud was just starting to move in a little as I returned to the settlement which was thankfully now devoid of cruise ship passengers.

 

After freshening up from my sweaty walk I met my friends for a delicious dinner at the South Sea Hotel, the pub on the front strip. After devouring that we took a walk along the foreshore where we got our obligatory photos by the Oban sign and then it was time to retire for the night. Once darkness fell, I took my head torch out to the large playing field behind the houses where I’d been told was the best kiwi spotting in Oban, but after the amusement of being one of several lights randomly walking around in the dark, I spotted nothing and eventually gave up and turned in for the night. The next day was to be the day I would leave Rakiura and there was still plenty to do before then.

Rakiura Track – North Arm Hut to Oban

Nestled among the bush overlooking a small bay within the North Arm of the extensive Paterson Inlet, the North Arm hut was a lovely hut to stay in on the second night of the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks. The tide was out when I arrived, so after dumping my stuff and claiming a mattress, I headed down the steps to the rocks where I did a bit of bird watching and soaking up the sun that was breaking through the clouds. After a while, I headed up past the hut and into the forest where a separate track led up to the much more elevated campsite. The word was that this was a great spot for kiwi watching at night and I wanted to familiarise myself with the territory during the daylight hours. The other recommended spot was near the drop-toilets a little away from the hut, and I made a mental note to come and investigate both spots once darkness fell. That was still many hours away and so when I found a track disappearing into the bush, I followed it for a bit, coming out at another small bay. By now the tide was coming in as fast as the clouds were, and I was just able to walk around the rocky shore back to the other bay and return to the hut via the steps.

 

Once dinner had been consumed and darkness fell, in small groups several of us headed out up the path to go kiwi spotting. Rakiura or Stewart Island as it is more commonly known, is a kiwi hot-spot, with the local population of these flightless birds far outnumbering the human inhabitants, and thanks to reduced predator numbers here compared with the North and South Islands, the chances of encountering a kiwi here are the highest in the country. Although generally nocturnal, they have also been spotted out in daylight hours here too, which is highly unusual for the species. But alas, despite hovering in the darkness for some time, my luck was not in and I saw none that night. At breakfast the next morning though, I was gutted to hear some other hut occupants say they had had two kiwis come right up to them not far from where I’d waited, later on in the night.

After packing up it was time to head back to Oban on the third day of the hike. After rejoining the main track near the drop-toilets, the Department of Conservation sign denoted a 5hr walk back to Halfmoon Bay, but I planned on taking a detour near the end to make the hike longer and cover more coastline. This day was a good mix of bush and coast which made up for the slightly uninteresting hike the day before. The track followed the contour of the North Arm back to the main body of Paterson Inlet. Where it dropped to the coast, I would walk the beach if possible and at the larger expanse of Sawdust Bay, there was a lot of bird activity in the shallows. There were several of us walking at a similar pace so we were constantly catching up with or overtaking each other depending on where we paused as we went.

 

From Sawdust Bay though, not only did the path cut inland for a while, but we also started to spread out, bumping into other hikers less and less as time passed on. The track passed the remnants of a sawmill, then a historic dam was blocked off due to problems with the sidetrack that led there. A nearby pier allowed a brief break back across the water, but then it was back into the bush again for quite some distance.

 

Eventually it emerged at a tidal estuary deep within Kaipipi Bay. The tide was relatively far in so the water level was up to and under the bridge that crossed the tannin-coloured river that emptied into it. A little further round, a side-track led down to Kaipipi Bay itself and this offered the perfect spot to have some lunch. I initially had the place to myself aside from the odd flying insect that bothered me from time to time, but as I ate a boat appeared round the inlet entrance and moored off shore, and as I finished my lunch the grassy knoll was suddenly inundated with a large group of hikers that had the same idea as me. After allowing myself a bit of time to digest my lunch, I left them to it and continued on in solitude.

 

Aside from some muddy patches, the walk from here was easy going, through the forest and just a light undulation. Oban crept nearer and nearer and suddenly I found myself at a junction with the end of the Rakiura Track to my left and the Ryans Creek Track to my right. In an effort to prolong my time out hiking, I took the Ryans Creek track which quickly dropped altitude down to the shoreline of Paterson Inlet. It was overcast but dry and my view was of the various little islets that sat just off the shore, as well as to the far side of the large Inlet itself. At Vaila Voe Bay there was a small beach and I could see the boats moored just off the headland which marked my near return to civilisation.

 

Eventually I reached the wharf at the end of the road that took me back to Oban. The road itself skirted Thule Bay and at the head of this, another track, the short Raroa Walk took me back into the bush again, popping me out at Traill park, a short distance from the hostel I was booked into that night. I had by this stage discovered that my phone was acting up and had deleted all the photos that I had taken with it since leaving Christchurch a few days prior. Thankfully I had some photos on my camera, but I was gutted to have lost the majority of the photos I’d taken over the last few days. There was nothing I could do about it, but it was a bittersweet end to my time on the trail.

Rakiura Track – Oban to North Arm Hut

Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.

Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.

 

I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.

 

At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.

 

When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.

 

From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.

 

The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.

 

The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.

 

It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.

 

One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.

 

The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.

Heading South

Whilst not coming close to the distances of Australia or the USA, it is easy to forget how far apart some parts of New Zealand are. Having spent the morning at work, it was the early afternoon before I set off from Christchurch on the long road south to Mosgiel, near Dunedin in Otago. It is a drive I don’t do often. I used to live in Timaru in Canterbury when I first started working in New Zealand, so I’m most familiar with the commute between that town and Christchurch, but it had been some time since I’d last been down to Dunedin, and ever aware of the passing hours, I didn’t stop at any of the towns or sights on the way, too eager to get to my rest stop for the night. I’d chosen Mosgiel as a place just a little further along the road than Dunedin so I was just that little bit further south for the drive the next day, whilst not committing to added distance in case I hadn’t been able to get out of work on time. I stayed in an unusual accommodation which was a converted homestead and seminary that used to be owned by the grandnephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was an enormous building complete with chapel and singing choir, but it provided the comfortable bed that I needed to break up the journey south.

The next morning I had even more driving to do. After the 5hr trip the day before, I allowed myself another 3hrs to reach the ferry terminal at Bluff on the very south coast of the South Island. Here I was to catch the ferry to Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, New Zealand’s third largest island. I’d dreamed about visiting there for some time, but it had taken 6 years of living in New Zealand to finally get around to it. I had made good time to Bluff though, and had some spare time ahead of the 11am ferry, so I took the short drive to Stirling Point which marks the end of State Highway 1, the road that traverses the country from Cape Reinga in the north of the North Island. Here also marks the end of the Te Araroa trail, the long distance hike that also spans the length of the country. The car park was full and there were a few people milling around the lookout and the way marker that stands proudly there. Nearby there was a giant chain-link sculpture that has a corresponding part in Rakiura.

 

A coastal walk disappeared around the headland to the west, but I didn’t have time to do much exploring, choosing to walk round to the little lighthouse out on some rocks by the entrance to the harbour. The harbour itself is very industrial and the small town of Bluff seemed a little sad and run down. It had the feeling of a frontier town, stuck out as it is near the end of a peninsula on a road to nowhere, no doubt taking the full brunt of the weather that comes from the south. It is famous for its oysters as well as for being a gateway to Rakiura, but when I was there, despite the full car park at the ferry terminal, there didn’t appear to be much life about. After parking up at the ferry terminal and checking in, it was then just a matter of waiting to board and head off on my adventure.

 

The Foveaux Strait that separates Rakiura from the South Island is a notorious stretch of sea and the minute we left the protection of the harbour and the south coast, the swell picked up and we started the bouncy ride across. Normally I would spend a boat trip like this outside on the deck, but with this level of chop, that was simply not an option. When asked about the degree of roughness that day, the Captain’s comment was that it was ‘Foveaux Strait calm’ which made me laugh internally. I am exceptionally thankful to have a good sea stomach, but there were many on the boat that couldn’t keep down the contents of their stomach. The crew took it in their stride and I figured they would be more than used to it. I hadn’t stayed overnight on one of New Zealand’s outer islands since I’d first explored the country on arrival in 2012. I remembered my boat trip to Great Barrier Island, my favourite island in the Hauraki Gulf region, with its mixture of locals and tourists, and I had the same feeling as I had then, that I was going somewhere special, secluded and almost secret. Although a port of call on cruises round the archipelago and visited by Kiwis and tourists alike, it gets only a mere fraction of the visitors that other parts of the country receive, and only such a small percentage of it is actually inhabited. It is an island dominated by wildlife, lived on by the hardy, and with just a mere handful of Sub-Antarctic islands and a large expanse of ocean between it and the great Southern continent of Antarctica, it is at the mercy of the weather systems that batter its coast.

With little opportunity to see much on route, I was glad when we slowed into the safety of Halfmoon Bay, as I could finally get outside to see the islets and coastline as we passed. I’m sure those passengers who had spent the trip with their face inside a seasick bag were also glad. As we docked at the harbour, we could see a congregation of people on the beach at Oban, the main settlement on the island. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the island’s ‘Iron Man’ festival and there were all sorts of activities taking place for people to prove their strength and speed. It was a grey and overcast day with the hint of rain in the air, but thankfully it didn’t come to much as I walked around the bay, past the gathered crowd and to my hostel up a back street. It was a busy place, full of hikers as Rakiura boasts 3 multi-day hikes: The 3-day Rakiura track which is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, the Southern Circuit which is a week long trek, or the daddy of all treks, the North-West Circuit, taking up to 12 days. I was there to hike the Rakiura track as part of a week long holiday on the island and I couldn’t wait.

 

But I still had the afternoon to explore Oban’s surrounds, and the bush is dotted with walking tracks. Heading up the hill behind where I was staying, I cut through the back streets of Oban to reach Observation Rock which offered a view over the expansive Paterson Inlet, a large body of water that cut into the coastline of Rakiura. Then I cut down to Golden Bay where the Ulva Island ferry leaves from and joined the Golden Bay track which undulated up and down whilst hugging the Paterson Inlet coastline. I was actually walking under some sunshine by this stage although I could see the rain on the far side of Paterson Inlet, threatening to come closer as time went on. With Iona Island just off shore, I eventually found myself heading into Deep Bay where the wind whipped through.

 

I took the road to cut across the headland which brought me out on the cliffs above the beautiful Ringaringa beach. At the end of the road, a track took me to a monument on a slight outcrop where I had a view across to South Island and back up Paterson Inlet. This little stretch of coastline was stunning and there was barely another soul about. I had planned on cutting to the far side of Ackers Point and heading out to the lighthouse but it was already getting on in the day and I figured I’d have time to do it later in the week once I was back from my hike. So instead of going down to the beach, I took the road back to Deep Bay and took the bush walk across to the back of Oban, bringing me out at the top of Peterson Hill.

 

When I reached Halfmoon Bay, a rainbow was out over the water, and I passed Scollay Rocks where apparently penguins can be spotted. Oban is a very small settlement and there was little options for eating out in. I was already stocked up for my hike over the next few days, but I had wanted to eat out for dinner. In the end, I just got fish and chips from the Kai Kart near the beach and as I sat there in the cold evening, the rain returned. It was heavy enough that there was no point going out at night in search of kiwis as I wanted to start my hike with dry clothes so I returned to the hostel and readied myself for sleep. The next day would see me ticking another New Zealand Great Walk off the list.

 

Mount Somers Track – Day Two

New Zealand’s network of back country huts are the welcome sight at the end of many a hike, although they vary in size, style, and comfort level. What they all have in common is a lack of electricity, meaning that when the sun goes down at night, everybody tends to go straight to sleep, and in the morning as the hut lights up with the morning sunlight, the first stirrings of the early risers awaken the rest of the occupants from their slumber. And so it was as I lay asleep under the kitchen bench top in the over crowded Woolshed Creek Hut at the back of Mount Somers. I don’t know if it was the light or the early risers that stirred me from my slumber, but soon the whole hut was bustling with activity. The vast majority of the hut occupants had hiked in on the shorter Miners track from the car park off Ashburton Gorge Road, which makes it a suitable walk for families. I however, was parked at the Sharplin Falls car park on the directly opposite flank of Mount Somers and had a full day’s hike ahead of me to get there.

Being in February, I had picked an exceptionally hot weekend to do the hike, having hiked in on the Mount Somers track in 27oC. For my return leg, the temperature would peak at 29oC and the majority of the return leg was exposed to the elements. I’d gotten a little deflated at the end of the previous day, having taken 7hrs to hike what should have been a 6hr trek. With the return route listed as an 8hr trek, I set off that morning already feeling a little deflated again. First things first, there was no point even putting my boots on upon leaving the hut as I had to wade across the stream back to the far side to rejoin the Mount Somers track.

 

Starting off with a wander along the valley floor, the track skirted up a low ridge to face a deep gulley across which, a long swing bridge spanned the gap. The plaque denoted that it had replaced a ladder and I wondered if that meant that previously the river had had to be forded. This seemed like it would have been a rather dodgy affair if it had. I was glad of the bridge to take me safely across, and from then onwards, the climb began. First up and over an exposed ridge from where I could still see the hut in the valley behind me, and then into a little forested section. After wading across a stream in my leaky hiking boots, I climbed back out to come across a side track leading to a waterfall. Deep in shadow, it was difficult to get a decent photo of it, but it was definitely worth the short side trip to go and view it.

 

Once back out the forest, the next section of track was probably my favourite, despite the constant climb that went with it. It was exposed but this meant the views were incredible, and as it climbed and hugged the edge of a steep gully, I could see mountains rolling off into the distance, including some distant peaks that still had snow on them. There was only a couple of other people on the track ahead of me, otherwise it was a quiet trail, and from my vantage point I could see some of the other hut occupants walking out on the lower trail they’d come in on. As the track reached its highest point for the day, it cut directly under a rocky overhang where a cut out in the rocks was known as the Bus Stop overhang. Someone had even attached a Bus Stop sign to the edge of the rocks which I passed after taking a rest to enjoy the view.

 

It wasn’t far before the track descended steeply, and suddenly the vegetation changed dramatically from the scrubby bush to reams of tussock before the stumpy trees reappeared briefly whilst the track cut down to another stream and cut back up the other side. It was then an almost flat trek across more tussock, from where there was a final view of Woolshed Creek Hut in the far distance before it disappeared out of sight. Still on the western slope of Mount Somers, I eventually came across the track junction with the Rhyolite Track which cuts steeply down to the same car park that the other hut occupants would reach on the Miner Track. For me though, it was time to cut round to the south face of the mountain and push onwards.

 

There was next to no shade on this south face, and having overtaken the couple of hikers back in the tussocks, it was just me and them some way behind me on this track. For the rest of the day, the trend was set, with a constant undulation up and down in altitude the whole way back to the car. The view south was also less interesting than the view west or the view north the day before, and under the beating sun, it didn’t take long for me to start to get frustrated again. I’ve done many hikes, including 8hr day hikes, but this was my longest hike with a full pack on my back. I’ve also let my fitness reduce and my weight increase, so it was as much frustration at my self for letting myself lose condition as it was about the monotony of the hike in the blazing heat. But there were some interesting sections as the track followed the contours of the mountainside, passing or crossing multiple streams as it went, and the vegetation was by now back to the bushy scrub or the occasional copse of trees.

 

I had my eye on a little shelter where I planned on having lunch, but as with the day before, it felt like it wasn’t getting any nearer, and eventually I decided to stop to eat in the shade of a small copse near a stream. When I finally reached the little shelter I did a quick nosey inside before continuing, realising to my dismay that there was a rather steep incline ahead. Thankfully it turned out that most of it was in the shade of a woodland, and despite the perceived exhaustion, it was actually not too bad to negotiate in the end. After reaching the top of the incline, it skirted yet another corner to suddenly open out of the trees onto the top of a large scree field. Picking my way across it carefully to avoid creating a stone avalanche, there was just another small incline until finally I found myself at the junction with the Mount Somers summit track.

 

It was all downhill from here, and I told myself gleefully that I was nearly finished, but as the sign at the junction attests and as I consulted my map to remind myself of the next section of the track, there was still 1/3rd of the south face track to walk! There were a few more people on this part of the track with those coming off the summit heading home too. I just focused on the thought of my car and picked my way down the lowering ridgeline before I finally entered the forest for the final section. I passed some older gentlemen that had come off the summit and they started congratulating me when they found out I’d walked the circuit. I’m never sure if it’s a genial hiker’s praise or a surprise at the fact that I’m a solo female hiker, because I’ve been stopped a few times by fellow hikers (always males) who seem surprised or overly congratulatory about my intentions or achievements. Certainly, I come across far more male hikers (solo or otherwise) than I do fellow female hikers (solo or otherwise), so probably I’m still in the minority.

 

When I reached my car, 8hrs 40mins after leaving Woolshed Creek Hut behind, it wasn’t long before the same men completed their hike and we shared in each other’s elation. In the intense heat and exposure, I had run out of water about an hour before finishing, as I had done the day before. This hike was the first time that had ever happened and I reflected on the fact that I had underestimated the hike. In the end though, I felt more proud of myself for completing it, having ticked another Canterbury hike off the list, and feeling far more prepared for the 3 day hike I had to come in a few weeks time.

Mount Somers Track – Day One

After New Year came and went and the days of January started ticking by, I had the sudden realisation that I had a multi-day hike just around the corner in February and I was generally unfit and hadn’t done much training. I’d struggled up Ben Lomond on my recent visit to Queenstown, a mountain which I should have coped with well in my peak fitness, so I realised I was in need of an overnight hike, or tramp as it is called in New Zealand, to give my body a practice run. So I decided to do the Mount Somers Track in Canterbury, a track that wasn’t a drastic drive away, was just a 2 day hike and seemed perfectly achievable, being as it went round the slope of Mount Somers without actually summiting it. What could go wrong? I knew that the hut I wanted to stay at could be busy at weekends as it is accessible also via a shorter walk and is therefore very popular with families as a reasonable walk when kids are involved, so with a long weekend, I decided to hike Sunday to Monday, thinking I’d have a better chance of getting a bunk. I didn’t have a tent to take with me as a back-up, but I did take my camping mattress just in case.

For many reasons, the trip just didn’t go the way I had anticipated. I was a little lazy getting myself going on the Sunday morning, so I was setting off later than I really should have. I left my car at the Sharplin Falls car park near Staveley, and noted the 6hr time on the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for that night. For my general level of fitness, I find these DOC signs very generous with their estimated times, so I knew I should make the hut at a reasonable time to have a chance of bagging a bed spot if it was busy. I set off over the stream and up the winding pathway into the bush, setting my sights on Pinnacles Hut which was just a little over halfway. I planned on using it as a lunch and rest spot before pushing on to the second hut. The track was rough but obvious as it negotiated tree roots and an undulating altitude and for a while I could see little more than the bush around me. I passed several people who were hiking out from wherever they had spent the night and at one point a man stopped me and asked me where I was staying. He explained that the Woolshed Creek Hut had reached double capacity the night before and it had been rather chaotic and cramped. He wished me luck for that night and continued on his way. I continued to hold onto the belief that it was Sunday, so it had to be quieter. Shortly after, I fell on my arse.

 

A break in the trees allowed me to see Mount Somers, the mountain that I was hiking around and have previously climbed up. It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and it was getting rather hot, peaking at 27oC. There had recently been some heavy rain so as the track dipped down to Bowyers Stream there were fresh landslips to negotiate and the water level was higher, flooding small sections of the track. My trusty hiking boots have been a reliable part of my life for nearly 10 years. I knew they were coming to the end of their life, but when the water started seeping in to them as I crossed some small streams, I realised that this hike was going to be a problem for them. In the deeper patches where the stepping stones were well submerged, I was forced to take my shoes off and wade barefoot: not an ideal situation, but it seemed the better scenario than hiking in saturated shoes and socks. Further up a stream a swing bridge offered a decent crossing across a wider section but even after this there were a few more zig zags across the water.

 

The heat was beginning to get to me and I had a feeling I wasn’t making progress at a rate that I was comfortable with. I put these thoughts aside when I came across a waterfall that the track went behind. Dripping off the moss and vegetation on an overhang, the light flow of water glistened in the sunshine and it was a nice distraction from the slight monotony of the bush. Given the roughness of the track and the use of chains to negotiate a few sections, I was a little surprised to see a family with young children swimming in a pooled section of the stream which the path came really close to. I had seen this area on the map and had decided it would be a good place to have lunch given that the hut still seemed a bit away, but when I came out of the bush I saw the children were naked and it felt inappropriate for me to stop there, so I pushed on till I found a clearing with a rock to sit on.

 

But at some point it really became evident that I should have reached the first hut by now. I’m normally a lot quicker than the DOC signs state, but once before I have been caught out by the time estimate being more realistic than they typically are, and I was coming to the realisation that this was going to be another one. It led to a bit of frustration kicking in and my tiredness was becoming a little more pronounced. It was dawning on me that I still had hours of hiking ahead of me, and I was going to get in later than I’d thought. The final lead up to Pinnacles Hut is dramatic though – the bush opening up to reveal the sheer wall of the north face of Mount Somers and some large rocky prominences jutting through the trees. As I finally neared the hut, I could see some people climbing the largest prominences a little way behind the hut. I peaked inside as I like to do when I pass by and I spied an updated time estimate sign and looked in dismay at the lies which it portrayed: It had taken me longer to reach the hut and I knew it would take me longer to reach the next one.

 

From Pinnacles Hut the track climbed steeply to reach a pass and followed the natural curve of the slope for a while. The bush was minimal now so it was a stunning view that I tried hard to enjoy through my growing tiredness. I passed some more people heading in the opposite direction before I finally reached the beginning of the long descent. The shadows were starting to stretch a little and I was eager to get down to the hut in the valley below. It was a straight-forward descent surrounded by mountains disappearing into the distance in several directions with the hulk of Mount Somers as a constant companion to my left, its appearance changing as the terrain around it changed. As the path levelled out, I was sure I had just a few more corners till the hut would appear, but again when I consulted the map, I proved to be sorely wrong. I still had a good 45 mins of hiking to go. I was quite deflated by this stage, disheartened with the miscalculation of time, irritated by the heat, and disappointed at the failing condition of my hiking boots.

 

Despite all this, when a little side-track appeared as the path skirted a tributary of Morgan Stream, I took it to cut down to the water and look at some faux caves where the rocks created some channels and pools for the water flow to negotiate. It was tempting to have a wade but I really needed to get to the hut. The path cut down to Morgan Stream proper where I was startled by a large hedgehog scuttling into the bush, it having gotten as big a fright from me as I had by its sudden movement. Where the path disappeared into the stream and out the other side, I had to de-boot once more to cross it. After climbing back up the far slope, over the ridge and down the other side, I was beyond ecstatic to finally see Woolshed Creek Hut at the bottom of the hill. There were a lot of people milling about and I realised it was going to be busy. I almost skipped the last section of the hike only to be brought to a standstill when I realised Woolshed Creek stood between me and the hut. Off the boots came again and I didn’t bother putting them back on, dumping my stuff on the decking and popping inside.

 

The hut was a hive of activity, full of children inside and out, which seemed so foreign to me at the end of a long hike. I love seeing a new generation get into hiking and the outdoors, away from electronic devices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to find after a 7hr hike. It had been an hour longer than the DOC sign had stated meaning it was almost 2hrs longer than I thought it would have taken. I looked into the bunk rooms to discover that all the mattresses were spoken for and I realised I would be kipping on the floor. I wasn’t even the last person to arrive, with a few other groups of hikers having walked in on the shorter track. We all fought for space to prepare food and eat, and once the kitchen area was clear, I set up my camping mattress and sleeping bag under the workbench where I thought I’d be out of the way. The bugs kept me company for a bit, and I read a magazine in the torchlight before one by one, all of us that were sleeping on the floor settled in for the night. I was exhausted and mentally drained, and the next day I still had to make it back to my car.

No Kiwis in Queenstown

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m not a great fan of Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure mecca in the South Island. Don’t get me wrong, the place definitely has its virtues: after all it sits by a massive lake flanked by mountains so there’s definitely beauty and outdoor adventures on its doorstep. But the town itself does not enthrall me, being targeted towards garnering the tourist buck, and too busy for my liking (and heaven help you if you want to park anywhere!). So whilst I wouldn’t say no to a visit there, it’s not a place I feel the need to rush off to on a regular basis. Having not visited for sometime though, when I noticed in January 2017 that flights to Queenstown for Christmas 2017 were dirt cheap, I took the opportunity to book a long weekend away there. Then in February 2017 my brother announced he was flying over to visit me in November 2017 and wanted to do a road trip, and so when that Christmas break came round, I found myself in Queenstown just 5 weeks after I’d been there with him.

After finishing work for the day, I headed to the airport for an afternoon flight south from Christchurch. Queenstown airport was packed and it took a while to get the travel pass that would allow me to use the local bus network. The bus network had only been overhauled in the weeks running up to this visit and now there was a convenient and cheap bus service into town from the airport at neighbouring Frankton. It dropped me off almost opposite the hostel I was staying at which was just back from the lakefront and I checked myself into a private room. It was a nice afternoon so I didn’t take long to head back outside and wander along the promenade on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. These days, Queenstown is busy year round, but being the Christmas weekend it was especially busy. I didn’t hear a single Kiwi accent though, with tourists everywhere. Even the shops and eateries seemed to be staffed by travellers. It felt like the locals had abandoned the place and up and left, and in some respects I couldn’t blame them. It does feel a little bit like a tourist town run by tourists for tourists.

 

It was warm enough to have a little paddle in the water and I took my time meandering. At the beach, I found a spot to myself and sat down, ready to do a bit of people watching. Within minutes, a guy joined me and started chatting away. I’m a very introverted person and enjoy my solitude. I also enjoy watching the world go by at times without actually taking part in its goings on (which is why I prefer countryside and quiet places over thriving cities and large groups), so I was initially reluctant to engage too much, but eventually his persistence wore me down and I found myself passing quite a bit of time chatting. He too was travelling solo and was just looking for some company, and I had nowhere particular to be.

After a while, we parted ways, and I took a wander along the beach for a bit before turning back and heading to Fergburger, the town’s famous burger joint. Both because of its popularity as well as the increasing tourist numbers to the place, it often has a line so long as to be off-putting. My brother hadn’t wanted to join the queue whilst we had visited in November, but I was prepared to wait, and wait I did. I started quite a bit of the way up the street, and queued for about 40 minutes to get to the head of the line. Then it was about a 20 minute wait to get the food, but I knew that what was coming was worth the wait. I also always have to make at least one trip to Patagonia, the ice cream and chocolate shop, when I visit Queenstown, so I got dessert and ate it on the way back to the hostel. I’d spent the last few weeks doing a distance learning course at university, so I had to sit my last assessment online that night before retiring to bed.

 

The following day was Christmas Eve, and with this to be the best day of the long weekend for weather, I slogged my way up to the summit of Ben Lomond. I returned via the Gondola building where I caught my breath a little over looking the lake and town below. By the time I hiked down to the town via the Tiki trail, things were starting to close up and it took quite a bit of wandering to find somewhere open to grab some takeaway. My partner was working over the Christmas holiday which was why I was on my own. I didn’t so much mind that day, but this was to be the first time I’d spent Christmas day on my own in about a decade. Even on Christmas Eve, all I could see around me were families and friends. I might be an introvert, but sometimes even I can get a little lonely.

 

I woke to torrential rain on Christmas morning. In the hostel kitchen, a large group of friends were having a party, so after eating, I retreated to my room and read a magazine. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep and when I awoke, it was dry and the morning was gone. By the time I forced myself to go outside, the sky was blue and the clouds were dissipating and suddenly it was a glorious Southern Hemisphere sunny day. People were out having picnics and being social and relaxing everywhere. The green spaces and beach were covered in people chilling out. Kids paddled in the water, and there was a man on a jet pack performing in the lake nearby. I could see a crowd of people on the main beach in town and it turned out that the backpacker buses had got together and arranged a backpackers party on the beach. The numbers increased as time wore on and I could see santa hats mingled with bikinis and rubber rings and floaties on the water as the party spilled over into the lake. I bypassed them to reach the Botanic Gardens.

 

The TSS Earnslaw made its regular passage to and from the waterfront, and I joined the steady stream of people out for a stroll along the foreshore. The clouds never fully retreated but the sunshine was still able to beat down for the most part and after soaking up the views and listening to the music drift on the wind, I found myself at the far end of the peninsula, stepping down onto some rocks and duly falling asleep. It’s rare for me to be lazy when I’m way from home, so it was a nice change to just doze under the sun and rest up after the previous day’s exertion. When it eventually grew cooler, I continued round the peninsula and cut up to the gardens, wandering around the blooms before eventually cutting back to the beach where the backpacker party was still in full swing. Taking my time to return to the hostel, it was soon time to enjoy my Christmas platter and wine.

 

Boxing Day was a rather moody day with a bit of wind and clouds in the air. The beach seemed so quiet compared to the day before but the streets and eateries were bustling. I found a table in a cafe away from the lake and enjoyed a tasty brunch before wandering around the crammed shops with their Boxing Day sales, and back to the lakefront where I hovered for a while. The sun had returned and people were spilling out on the streets as the hours passed. Eventually it was time to head back to the airport and return north to Christchurch and work the next day. I may find the town’s crowds a little suffocating, but I had achieved a summit that I had wanted to hike for some time, and I’d also caught up on some much needed relaxation, so perhaps the place can’t be all that bad really.

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

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