MistyNites

My Life in Motion

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.

Singapore at Night

As the sun continued to lower, I walked in the slightly cooler air from my hotel to Marina Bay. This was my first sighting of the city’s famous hotel, the tri-towered Marina Bay Sands and it was just as impressive to see for myself as it had been in photographs. The next few days were to be taken up by the conference that I had come to the city for, and the conference centre was within the mega complex that includes a multi-level shopping mall. I needed to sign-in ahead of it starting so I made my way round the marina edge and into the air-conditioned mall. Thankfully there were signs telling me where to go because it was massive, and as I continued through the labyrinthine mall, I was shocked to discover a Venice-inspired canal in the middle of it, complete with boats to go punting on. This was one of many things that utterly amazed me about Singapore, and once I’d done the formalities at the conference centre, I was quick to venture outside to one of the city’s well known attractions, the Gardens by the Bay.

 

I had arrived at the end of a festival which had seen the gardens filled with lanterns, and this was the last night it was running. The sun had set by now and as dusk grew darker, the lanterns I came across glowed brighter. Filled with lakes and gardens and giant trees, the Gardens by the Bay is spectacular. I followed a vague trail through it, trying to see as many of the lanterns as I could before finding a large food market and entertainment area at the foot of the incredible Supertree Grove. Every night at set times, the giant trees here light up to music and I found myself a spot on a hill above them, away from the crowds to wait and watch. As I sat on the grass in the dark, I was befriended by a cute little cat, and I smiled as some families joined me, inwardly laughing at one woman’s failed attempts to shoo the cat away from her. When eventually the light display started, I was enthralled from start to finish, a grin on my face in the still-warm night, as I had one of those pinch-me moments that I get when I’m somewhere foreign and exciting, and feel truly in the moment. Afterwards, I joined the crowds to get dinner at a food stall and parked my butt on a bit of grass to eat a delicious meal. I am a massive fan of a variety of Asian cuisines, and with a multi-cultural influence, I knew that it would be an easy city to eat well.

 

Each subsequent morning I would rise and walk with the locals heading to work, taking that same walk round Marina Bay, feeling the impending heat that was to come before hiding away in the air-conditioned conference hall for hours on end. I always love attending conferences, but the long days can be tiring and it can be easy to forget where you are each day, as you get shepherded from lecture hall to lecture hall to exhibition room. Finishing around 5.30pm each evening though, I was at least grateful that the outside temperature was starting to cool a little by the time I was leaving, and every night, Singapore proved itself to be just as incredible in the hours of darkness as it is in the hours of daylight. In fact at times, it could almost feel like visiting a different city, with some places coming more alive after nightfall.

I headed straight out into the Gardens by the Bay for a second night. The lanterns were in the process of being removed, and I cut round the gardens to the promenade that runs along the water’s edge. Here it was packed with locals out jogging, couples walking hand in hand and tourists intermingling with them all. Across the water, the Singapore Flyer observation wheel flashed a multitude of colours. Past the distinctive structures of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, I joined the throngs of people at a mass of food stalls. I was in heaven, wandering round and round in a sea of indecision at all the choice. Eventually I opted to try a few places, getting dumplings from one, beer at another and satay at yet another and I enjoyed every little morsel.

 

Once satisfied, I returned to the promenade and continued to the Barrage, a large structure that played a functional part in the watercourse, and had some lit-up water features nearby. I crossed the bridge to the far side but the gardens on this side weren’t very well lit, so I decided to retrace my steps back to the main gardens. I spent another evening ogling at the Supertree Grove, wishing my night-time photography skills were better. I followed a few of the paths through the gardens before heading back into the mall. Following a different concourse than I had to reach the conference hall, I passed a Formula 1 store complete with F1 racing car in the window, and walked the length of the Venetian canal to discover an incredible vortex waterfall at the far end. This indoor waterfall was stunning and I couldn’t help but admire it from all angles. Passing high-end shops with security guards, I found myself at another annex where the main food court was and here there was a giant light display complete with motion picture projected onto the floor. I got some dessert here before heading back to the hotel.

 

I had an extended lunch break on the second day of the conference and used it to head round to the far side of the bay to see the city’s famous Merlion statue. Smaller than the one I’d seen on Sentosa Island, it is probably the city’s most famous Merlion, complete with water spout coming from its mouth. I had been worried I wouldn’t get the chance to see it in the daytime, but even with an extended lunch break, it was still quite a distance to get all the way round the bay and back and still have time to look at it. The heat and humidity of the hottest part of the day blasted me in the face the minute I left the air conditioned building behind. I hot-footed it there, and joined the mix of people grabbing lunch at the nearby eateries, and the mass of people trying to take photographs at the Merlion. It was hard not to become one of them, and I too mingled for a while, trying out different angles and compositions to capture the essence of the place.

I don’t take photographs specifically for Instagram or social media, instead I take photographs that try to capture the essence of how I see or feel about a place. I’m well known among my friends and family for being terrible with memories, and I’ve become increasingly reliant on photographs to keep previous travels alive in my mind. I can remember conversations very well and things that I read well, but when it comes to names of faces, or locations I’ve been to and places I’ve stayed or eaten at, I sadly can forget all to easily. The large Merlion fountain and the cute little Merlion statue behind it were much more attractive than the stone Merlion on Sentosa, and whether it was shot with the Marina Bay Sands in the background, or the city skyline in the background, it was almost impossible to take a bad photo here. I could have hung out for much longer if it wasn’t for the heat and the need to get back to the conference. I meandered past the bars and restaurants that lined the promenade, Clifford Square and round the Fullerton hotel before returning to the much-needed air conditioning.

That evening as the sun prepared to set, I legged it across the road to the Marina Bay Sands hotel to visit the SkyPark Observation Deck on its roof. This hotel is famous for its rooftop infinity pool but as it is only accessible to guests, and the hotel’s price tag put it out of my budget, I had to make do with this one portion of roof that was open to the general public. Obtaining a frozen daiquiri from the bar, I proceeded to spend the next few hours chilling out watching the sunset. From the view over the Gardens by the Bay and the incredible number of ships offshore beyond it, to the city skyline full of skyscrapers, there was a lot to take in. Only the haze from the humidity dulled the view, but as dusk became night and the lights of the city turned on, a whole new city view came alive.

 

From the rooftop I watched the light and water display that takes place on Marina Bay. I could barely hear the music, but the light and laser show was impressive. The rooftop bar was by now spilling over, and eventually my hungry stomach dragged me away. I’d previously spotted and been recommended Black Tap which was in the mall below me. Famous as much for their shakes as their burgers, it was hard not to order both, especially as there had been quite a wait to get a table, but I was pretty full by the time I’d finished my burger, so when my monster shake arrived, I felt sick within just a few mouthfuls. I’m a glutton for punishment though and hate wasting food so I soldiered on, stuffing spoon after spoon of cream and chocolate and sauce into my mouth. I very much waddled home and rolled onto my hotel bed to wallow in my food coma.

 

The sun was a little higher when I got out of the conference on the third day, and I was able to take my time walking the long way back to my hotel, this time crossing the Helix bridge to the Grandstand where a man with a cart was selling ice cream. It was the perfect time of day to indulge in some as I slowly walked to the far side of Marina Bay as the lowering sun cast pretty colours on the reflective towers of the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel. The crowds at the Merlion were still present and after a while I left them behind to take a dip in my hotel pool. Up high among a mass of skyscrapers, it felt a little weird taking a swim with office workers visible in some of the nearby office blocks. I was lucky to get it to myself for a while before others arrived shortly before I needed to get going. I had booked a spot on the Singapore Flyer and needed to make sure I made it there on time.

 

I hadn’t initially planned on going on the Flyer, but after watching it from a multitude of vantage points during my stay, I’d changed my mind. It was a bit of a walk to get there, but I make a point of using my feet to explore cities wherever I can, so this was nothing unusual for me. I ended up sharing a pod with a group of friends but there was plenty of space for all of us to enjoy the view. Standing at 165m (541ft), it takes just over half an hour to do the full revolution, rising up in view of the east marina, and lowering down in view of Marina Bay and the city skyline.  There was a commentary running which I paid very little attention to, and as we lowered down towards the base, the group of friends offered to take my photo, amusing me by mocking up a mini photo studio, using their camera torches to make sure I was perfectly lit for the photograph. The eateries at the Flyer didn’t really whet my appetite so instead I headed to the food court inside the mall across the water. The food I got looked the part, but it wasn’t as good as what I’d eaten the previous few nights. In the darkness, I took the now familiar route back to my hotel, gazing over the now familiar view.

 

With the conference wrapped up after 4 days of lectures, I stepped outside to a beautiful Friday evening where locals had draped themselves along the seating areas along the waterfront. The reflections on the pool outside the mall were stunning, and as the sun lowered, the colours of the sky reflected on the water changed with it. A mass of lotus flowers were in bloom and lily pads broke up the reflections in places. I watched the sun set once more as I crossed the Helix bridge and as I reached the Esplanade area, a multi-cultural dance theatre was taking place so I joined the crowds to watch some flamenco dancing. This is the kind of thing I love to just stumble upon, and why it is important to just go with the flow sometimes. I really vary between trips that are planned to the day, and trips that I make up as I go along, and whilst Singapore certainly had more to offer than I had time to do, I was thoroughly enjoying myself just winging it each day.

 

The crowds on the Jubilee bridge and around the Merlion were the biggest yet. There was no mistaking that it was the weekend with locals and tourists alike out enjoying the warm but not oppressive temperature of the darkness. In every direction there was some kind of light display, either from lit-up skyscrapers to lasers and water features, and after several nights of enjoying these scenes, this was to be the last time I’d see Marina Bay at night. After making the most of what the marina area had to offer, it was time to delve more into the city itself and experience what the different districts had in store for me.

Sentosa Island

By the time I left my life in Scotland behind to emigrate to New Zealand back in early 2012, I’d spent more time than I would have liked transiting through American airports. They’re not the friendliest of places and with a real dislike for Los Angeles airport (LAX) I was keen for an alternative transit point between my new home and old home. My original booking that took me to New Zealand had been a return ticket, so I’d used the return leg with its LAX transit to go home and visit my family for Christmas at the end of 2012, but I was keen to avoid the same route back, and booked a ticket home via Singapore. I had a few hours layover at Singapore’s Changi airport and was blown away by the country’s national carrier that took me there and also the airport itself. I transited Changi twice more on my next visit to Scotland in 2016 and again revelled in the marvel that is now my favourite airport. With a multitude of gardens, entertainment zones and shops and eateries that stretch far through the concourse, it almost feels like the airport is a destination in itself. It also whetted my appetite to see the country who’s borders it sat within, and so when a work-related conference was announced in Singapore, there was no doubt in my mind that I would be attending. So last September, after a couple of weeks spent in Scotland, I left Amsterdam behind and flew to Asia.

 

I arrived in the early morning, and after obtaining a travel card for the public transport system, I caught the train into the city and went in search of my hotel. It was far too early to check in, so I simply dumped my bags and sat in the lobby perusing a guidebook, wondering what to do with the day. This was one of those trips that I’d left totally unplanned, making it up as I went along, and after a bit of reading and studying the transit map, I decided to take the train to Harbourfront, the gateway to Sentosa Island. Attached to the mainland via a bridge, there are a multitude of ways to get onto the island: a cable car, a train, boardwalk and road all link the island to Harbourfront. Looking to save money, and naive to the heat that would hit me that day, I decided to walk over, coming out of the Harbourfront mall and taking the boardwalk. Despite the early hour, the temperature was on the rise and a slight hazy smog coloured the sky, and before long I was sweating. In fact the humidity kept fogging my camera lens as I tried to take photos and I found myself torn between admiring the view and seeking out shade.

 

On arrival to Sentosa, I was greeted by a large resort but I was so early that nothing was open and there was hardly anyone around. It made for a pleasant walk in relative solitude as I cut along the promenade, admiring the cityscape across the waterway. At the main building complex, I cut up through what would no doubt be a bustling shopping and eating mall during opening hours and past several water features which led me up and out the other side at a raised area where I was faced with the giant structure of a Merlion. The official mascot of Singapore, represented by a lion’s head with the body of a fish, it is an iconic symbol of this island nation. There are several Merlion statues in the country, but this one on Sentosa is the largest and it is possible to climb up inside it for a fee. Here, I was thankful for the early arrival as the crowds had yet to appear and there was only a handful of people milling around, making it relatively easy to get an uncrowded photograph.

 

I skirted round the base of the Merlion and down Merlion walk, a paved route with a funky water feature running down the middle. At the far end, stairs took me down to the back of the beach amphitheatre, but rather than head straight to the coast, I double backed past a funky sculpture and a scented garden to head up into the higher points of the island where the cable car comes in. Up in the canopy, the insect noise was epic, and a boardwalk led away from the cable car complex towards a trail through a forested area. A few more people were about now and I regularly passed others as I meandered through the tree-lined path up, round and over the hill here. The path eventually cut back down to the north coast and once more I could see back across to the mainland.

 

By now I was grateful for every piece of shade I could find. The heat combined with the high humidity was intense. But the view across the water made up for that, and I soaked it in as I became more and more saturated in my own sweat. At the western end of the island I found myself at Fort Siloso, a gun battery utilised in WWII. Free to walk around, it is a cluster of buildings, tunnels and guns, and although I wasn’t really interested in the history of the place, I still took my time to wander around it. I was especially glad of the air conditioning that was on in some of the buildings which now represent a museum. At the back of the complex, I found myself at the Siloso skywalk, an elevated walkway that gave a stunning view across to both the mainland and the nearby beach of the south coast. For the first time I could see the reams of ships berthed just offshore and I realised how important Singapore must be as a shipping port. Now quite high above the main level of Sentosa, I had planned on getting the elevator down off the platform but it wasn’t working, and so I retraced my steps back to Fort Siloso and cut down the hill at the side of the walkway. Only when I got near the bottom did I realise that a high fence blocked my path, and frustratingly in the heat, I had to climb back up the hillside and cut back through the fort to get out.

 

The south coast was the gem of this place for me. An expansive series of stunning sandy beaches, turquoise water and off-shore islands welcomed me and the now increasing crowd of people. The remnants of a sand-art exhibition was being dismantled as I first hit the beach and I was quick to take my shoes off and paddle in the water as I wandered. I’m not one for relaxing on holidays, instead I have a constant urge to explore when I’m abroad, so although I was sorely tempted to get in the water and swim, I hadn’t actually brought by bathers and as such, I had to be content with just dipping my toes in the water. I was by now pretty hungry, and thankfully there were some eateries here, so I found myself a shady spot in one, ordered a nice cold drink and got myself some food to fill me up for the rest of the day’s walking.

Of the offshore islands, a couple have a bridge over to them, so at Palawan beach, I crossed the swing bridge to reach the largest of them. Immediately at the far side, a sign declared it to be the Southernmost Point of Continental Asia. Looking at the location of it on a map I highly doubt the accuracy of it but that didn’t stop me and everyone else getting a photograph at the sign. Two towers behind here took me up above the canopy for a view back onto Sentosa Island and in the opposite direction, seaward where once more I was astonished by the shear quantity of ships hanging around offshore. Back down in the undergrowth, I found a spot to lie down in the shade and promptly dozed off, overwhelmed by the heat and humidity following my inability to sleep on the plane ride there. I awoke a little while later when the shade had moved and the sun reached me. I returned to wandering around this islet before cutting back across the bridge to Sentosa.

 

I briefly considered continuing along the coast to Tanjong beach but as beyond that the island is pretty much consumed by a golf course and resort, I decided that I’d had enough of the heat, and instead retraced my steps back to the Merlion walk. Cutting across the island here, I headed to the S.E.A. Aquarium and decided to head inside. I’m not a big fan of aquariums and zoos, and discovered after buying my ticket that this aquarium had captive dolphins which I really don’t agree with, but I was desperate for some air conditioned indoor time so headed on in anyway. What I discovered inside blew me away. After going downstairs and into the complex, I came through the entrance to a floor to ceiling glass wall that was the end of a huge exhibit, complete with shipwreck and a collection of sharks and large shoals of fish. It was exceptionally crowded, but I didn’t mind that I couldn’t get right up to the glass, because even from a few steps back, it was so high that there was plenty to take in. I stood here at this first exhibit for quite some time before moving on. Nearby there was a skeleton of a Great White Shark, which due to its nose, was rather amusing.

 

Through a tunnel below sharks and past eels I came out at a coral garden, and wandered past a really cool tubular aquarium. At the far end of the complex was the extensive Open Ocean Exhibit, another exceedingly large floor to ceiling glass panel wall that looked into one of the largest aquarium exhibits I’ve ever seen. Containing 40,000 fish within it, it was mesmerising and it was no wonder there were so many people draped across the various levels of the viewing area just staring at it. I too parked up in different areas to just watch the creatures swim by, and was torn between the happiness of seeing manta rays and the sadness that they were in captivity. I’ve seen manta rays in the wild off two different continents and they are an awesome sight to see. When I finally pulled myself away from the place, I found some jellyfish appearing to dance. Then there were octopus and more coral exhibits and I was glad to see that I could skip the dolphin section without visiting it, as I really didn’t want to see them in there. Finally, the route takes you back through the other side of the shipwreck exhibit and I left the building utterly impressed with what the place had achieved. It is definitely the best aquarium I have ever visited in my life.

 

The sun was dropping low as I returned to Harbourfront mall to catch the train back to my hotel. The mall was a total rabbit warren and I went round in circles looking for the station within it. I ended up among the rush hour crowds so I was happy to finally reach my hotel although I felt rather self conscious appearing in my sweaty and disheveled state. I’d booked my accommodation some time in advance and I can only assume I got some kind of deal because what I had noticed when I’d dumped my bags that morning was that it seemed rather posh, and this was confirmed on checking in as I discovered that my hotel was 5-star. As someone who regularly stays in hostels, and had in fact just been staying in a shared dorm in Amsterdam prior to arriving, this was a slightly shocking change of scene. Nonetheless, I was certainly going to make the most of it and had a huge grin on my face as I wandered round my large and fancy looking room. This would be just the ticket to come back to each day whilst in the city, and I soon felt at home.

Return to Amsterdam

It was an early morning flight that took me away from my Homeland once more, speeding towards Amsterdam with an unusually high tail wind. In fact, the flight I was on broke a record for the route, having reached Amsterdam well ahead of schedule and before I knew it I was back at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord. There was a totally different vibe to the city than there had been a couple of weeks prior. The weather was looking a lot more unsettled for one, but it was a Saturday, and as it turned out, there was a city-wide walking festival taking place in a city full of bikes. The crowds on both sides of the IJ river were intense. But despite this, I couldn’t come back to Amsterdam and not do it on wheels this time, so after dumping my stuff at the hostel, I hot-footed it round to the nearby bike rental office to get myself some transport for the day.

The free ferry across the IJ river was as packed with walkers as it was cyclists, and a surge of people disembarked at the Amsterdam Centraal pier. I cut up and under the railway station and immediately came out at a mass of people, cyclists, trams and cars. It took every sense I had at full alert to navigate this sea of hazards whilst trying not to get herded in the wrong direction nor fall off the bike. I didn’t want to end up in the city centre which was where the masses were going, so I cut off towards the Jordaan district to try and shed the crowds. I wasn’t always sure of the street signage to determine rights of way so at times I meandered off in random directions, doubling back or winding round canal networks if necessary. It wasn’t being lost, it was just making an interesting route. I knew where I was aiming for, but I had no time commitments and it was fun to explore side streets as I went. There were pockets of the Jordaan district that were busier than others but the main bridges across the canals were often a focal point for tourists and I could see some locals getting annoyed with those that abruptly stopped on the bridges when they were trying to go about their daily lives.

 

The crowds started to build up as I circumnavigated the main city centre and aimed for the crossing near the Rijksmuseum, marking the entrance to the museum district. This is one of the city’s major tourist zones and there were people walking, cycling and stopping everywhere. Whilst the large facade of the famous museum dominated the view forward, I was more interested in the beautiful turreted building that stood on the river opposite it. The bridge here, like many of the city’s bridges, had flower baskets along the railing and the blooms added a pretty touch to those canal views. Amsterdam has some incredibly famous museums with some incredibly famous exhibits, but the museum district was not my target destination at that stage, so after getting my fill of photographs of the canal, I cut in front of the museum instead of under it as most people were doing, and headed a couple of blocks away to the narrow entrance of Vondelpark.

 

I loved cycling through Vondelpark. From this access point, the park was narrow, and consisted mainly of the access path and a bit of green space either side, but after a long stretch of this, it cut under a road and entered the main part of the park where immediately I found myself at a lake and a route decision to make. Although busy being a Saturday, only small pockets felt crowded, and I was loving the cycling, so I started off by looping the park round the outer trail, past pretty buildings, statues and lakes. The main track was wide enough for multiple bikes to pleasantly pass each in other in both directions and before I knew it, I was back at the first lake where I’d started. The second time through, I utilised the narrow secondary tracks to snake through the park and enjoy the various points of interest. Being late September, it was autumn, so there was a variable amount of blooms and foliage. I spied a heron in a lake where some fountains sprouted up, and nearby there was a rose garden where some roses were still thinking about blooming.

 

After this second circuit, I was getting hungry and decided to get lunch at one of the cafes halfway up the park, but when I got there there was absolutely nowhere to lock up my bike. I’d noticed often as I’d cycled through the streets that every available post or bike park was often taken and in other places, especially bridges, it is not allowed to lock your bike. I certainly didn’t want to risk losing the bike, so after circling round the area looking for somewhere free, I eventually had to give up. I cut across to the more southern side of the park where a path hugged a lake across from some large houses. The sky was rather grey but the reflections of the houses on the water were still distinct. Nearby, there was an exit from the park and I headed back into the melee of streets and urban life.

 

I was only a few blocks from the museum district and turning onto the main street of Van Baerlestraat took me deep into chaos. The pavements were packed with people, the cycle lanes packed with cyclists and between all of this was a very busy tram line. I passed eateries that were packed to the brim, and struggling to negotiate the crowds, I found it difficult to get off this street, being herded by the masses in a straight line. There was definitely a knack to turning against the flow, and whilst the locals knew how to do it, I certainly did not. I ended up a lot further down than I’d planned to before I was able to cross over and double back. My hunger was driving me, so I decided to park up the bike and look for a place to eat on foot, but this was easier said than done as every possible bike park was full. Cutting down back street after back street I finally found a single bike park and quickly claimed it, only to discover that I couldn’t work the padlock. Finally sussing it out, I was glad to get walking for a bit, mentally making a note of where I’d left the bike as I made turn after turn to retrace my steps back to the main street.

The cafe that I’d eyed up from the bike was beyond crammed when I walked there and so was every other cafe within sight. Only when I found myself at the Stedelijk Museum did I realise there was a large restaurant there, so finally I could satiate my appetite. I spend a lot of time travelling solo and this means I eat out a lot solo. Even at home in New Zealand, I have no qualms about dining alone, but in different countries, this habit is often met with a variety of responses. The man that was serving me here at the museum restaurant seemed a little put out that I was on my own. It wasn’t that there was a shortage of tables, but I seemed a little unimportant to him, and I struggled to get served. If I hadn’t been so hungry I might have walked out, but eventually I got myself a coffee and a sandwich. My coffee arrived with a little Stroopwafel, a small Dutch wafer biscuit, and although the coffee was much better than the one I’d had near Anne Frank Huis on my first visit to the city, it still wasn’t as good as back home.

The weather was really making a turn for the worse by the time I was back out on my bike. The clouds were thicker and darker and there was a hint of rain in the air. There had been a few light and brief showers as I’d cycled that morning, but the afternoon was looking ominous. I’d seen photos on social media of the ‘I amsterdam’ sign outside of the Rijksmuseum and when I first saw it in the distance, it was only a hint of the red and white amongst a sea of people. The crowd here was phenomenal and for the first time I felt like was seeing the Instagram effect. As I moved closer, I was astounded by the mass of people posing on or in front of this sign, with people dictating to and grumbling about the people in and around their shot. It was impossible to get a photo without a multitude of other people and I found myself taking photos of the crowd itself rather than the sign. It was an unbelievable scene. There were some distinctive buildings around here though, so I left the crowd to ogle at these for a while before it started to rain.

 

I wasn’t interested in visiting any of the museums, so when it looked like it might get quite wet, I decided to head for the nearby Heineken Brewery. Finding a bike park round the cornere from it, I joined the long crowd of people waiting to get in. If planned ahead, it is possible to book a time slot to turn up for, but on a whim, I had to wait in a queue for a space to open up. It took quite a while to get in, and the rain was just starting to get heavy as I finally made it indoors. It turned out to be both interesting and fun. In groups, we were led round an introductory section where staff talked about the history and the beer itself, and as we went deeper into the experience, the groups merged together to form a mass of people gradually meandering around the one-way system. Passing giant vats and an old cart horse, the experience became a bit more digital as we got shepherded into a large room for a CGI experience. Out the other side of that, we got our first taste of the beer with a small glass of Heineken.

 

The rest of the levels were quite interactive with the ability to film short movies, and pose for silly pictures. There was so much information about the history of and association with this famous beer, and I was amazed with how much time could be spent here. These latter levels were also completely blocked in with no windows to see the world outside, and it felt like a rabbit warren walking through small corridors and holes in the wall, up and down stairs with no idea where I’d come out. Where the route did end up was what I assume was down in a basement, in a busy and loud bar where you could claim the 2 glasses of Heineken that were part of the entry fee. This sort of thing is the one time I can feel a bit self conscious being on my own, especially as I’m introverted and won’t openly talk to strangers. Nonetheless, I found a spot with my beers to hover and I enjoyed them immensely. I’m really not into beer, but Heineken and Stella Artois are the two that I actually quite like, so I enjoyed these more than I had done the Tennents Lager on my recent trip to that brewery a week or so prior.

After quite some time in the cocoon of the Brewery, I was shocked to step outside to heavy rain. Back on my bike which was soaking wet, I pedalled back to the Rijksmuseum to discover that the crowd had thinned out a lot by the famous sign. The food trucks I’d spotted earlier were thankfully still open and I ordered some waffles to huddle up and eat under an umbrella as the workers started to pack up for the day. The rain got heavier and heavier until it was torrential so by the time I’d finished my waffles, there was barely a sole at the sign and I was able to snap a quick photograph before the cold drove me onwards. In the archway of the Rijksmuseum, there was a group of men playing classical music and they had drawn a decent crowd. It was a good excuse to shelter from the rain for a bit, but it became increasingly clear that the weather was not planning on abating. I had had a whole route planned back to the hostel to see a few more sights but the weather meant that my day was going to have to be curtailed as before long once back on the road, my waterproof jacket failed and I became soaked to the skin.

 

By the time I reached Amsterdam Centraal it was dark and gloomy and I was hungry again. I parked my bike and headed inside to eat at one of the eateries there. Grabbing a free spot in an otherwise busy restaurant, I waited and waited and waited to get served. I failed to grab anyone’s attention, and after an extended time drooling over other’s people meals and feeling positively ignored, I walked out and bought some food at the market shop to take back to the hostel. It was still grey the next morning when I made the now familiar trundle with my suitcase to the pier, across the IJ river and into the train station to head to the airport. I’d left with plenty of time and so had a lot of time to wander around the expansive terminal. The elephant parade was on display so there were several of these dotted around the terminal to look at and I laughed to myself when at the end of the terminal, I stepped outside to find another ‘I amsterdam’ sign with absolutely no-one about. The backdrop might not be as impressive as the Rijksmuseum, but that was okay. Finally it was time to leave Europe behind and head to Asia, to finally explore the city who’s airport I know so well.