MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Pitt Island

If the people of Chatham Island were hardy, then those few living on Pitt Island were even more so. Although not far apart, the Pitt Islanders were reliant on a weather-dependent tourist plane from Chatham Island squeezing in the odd lightweight supply, or a supply boat that sailed from the mainland of New Zealand taking days to get there. I was eager to visit, and having come all this way, I would have been gutted not to make the trip. I was assured prior to my arrival on Chatham, that I was booked on a trip there during my week’s stay, as long as the weather allowed for it. I was travelling solo which gave me the advantage of being able to squeeze into a last space, so I was grateful to get confirmation of not just a space on the tiny plane, but also that the weather window was looking to hold for me to get there. The group of guys I was sharing the motel with were not so lucky. They unfortunately got mucked around quite a bit by the team at the Hotel Chatham and were overlooked for a spot, leaving them a tad disgruntled.

But none of us knew that at this point, and they bade me a good day as I got taken to the airport to wait impatiently for the plane to be ready. And boy was I impatient. Our departure time came and went and the plane was showing no signs of going anywhere. I paced back and forth, until finally we were invited down the steps to board. I calculated things just right and scored not just a window seat but the co-pilot seat for the journey over the Pitt Strait. We took off heading east, flying out over the large lagoon that takes over a large chunk of the island. Turning south I could see Lake Huro that I’d walked around a couple of days prior, and then as we reached the south coast, I was shocked to see tall cliffs dropping off into the ocean. From everywhere I’d been so far, Chatham Island looked low-lying and relatively flat, but it appeared now that the southern portion rose up somewhat, creating a coast line of dramatic cliffs.

 

Due to the size of the plane, we’d been given aviation life jackets to wear, and looking down now over the Pitt Strait, it looked uninviting and deadly. After a while though, we flew over the supply ship which sat a little off shore, and then we were over Pitt Island, and I immediately noted the contrast as it was more hilly than its neighbour, with one rather dominant mound near the coast. Soon we were banking and landing on a grass runway in the middle of nowhere. If I’d felt remote on Chatham, I felt excitedly isolated on Pitt. The pilot readied to head off as we got picked up by our guide for the day, and we watched as the plane left us behind.

There’s only one accommodation on the island, and the host there was who was running our tour. He drove us first towards the large mount where a track could be seen weaving up the side. If you stay overnight on the island, it is possible to go up to the summit, but there was no leisure time to attempt it on this day. Instead, we stopped nearby at a fenced woodland which offered a predator-free spot for the local wildlife. Even out here, several hours away from the rest of New Zealand, introduced pests have wreaked havoc on the wildlife, and like elsewhere, the unique species out here have also suffered. What was special about this area though was that deep within the trees, were some artificial nest boxes for the endangered Chatham Petrel, a seabird that came on land to breed here.

On route we spotted a Pitt Island tui, a rather scruffier version of the mainland variant, and a few of the local fantails also flitted about the branches around us. When we came out into a small opening, our guide lifted the top off one of the boxes half buried in the ground, and a startled and confused petrel was exposed as we all craned in to have a look. I’m quite a bird enthusiast now that I’m older, and I find tube-nosed birds like petrels fascinating. They spend a lot of time on the wing using their nose to sniff out food. As this little one moved around in slight agitation, a white egg was revealed, a sign of hope for the species. After a short few minutes of our collective ogling, the lid was replaced and we retreated away, so as not to cause the bird to abandon it. We followed the trail out the far side of the wood where we got a brief glimpse of the coast and a small, pointed offshore island that looked like a shark’s tooth. In the chill of the grey day, we soon retreated back to the van.

It was a bumpy and hilly drive across the middle portion of the island, leading us up and over and down towards Flowerpot Bay where the lodge was situated a little back from a beach and the pier. The island was otherwise predominantly used as farmland, and we came across some hardy looking sheep which reminded me of the hill breeds from back in the UK. We passed some angry looking rams with their thick woollen coats and curving horns, and as we approached the main building, we were joined by the farm dogs who barked their way alongside the van. The local school was right next door as we bundled out, and after dumping our layers of clothing at the entrance, we headed inside at the lodge into a cosy and very homely grand living space, complete with bar, fireplace and large vista windows looking out to the coast.

 

We were given a delightful buffet of food, including some locally caught fish, and as we hung around enjoying lunch, we watched as the supply ship, which was moored at the entrance to the bay, unloaded onto a little metal boat which zipped into shore delivering a tractor amongst other things. A jeep sat atop some containers back on the ship, and I wondered how much extra it cost to get vehicles brought out here. Quite a lot I’m sure. But with the sea air blowing in from every direction, the threat of rust probably affects the life expectancy of any machinery or vehicle in these parts.

Heading down to the beach, I strolled away from the pier to the far end where I found a perfectly carved man-made cave in the cliff. It had the air of a prison cell from the inside (and was in fact used as a jail for slaves), and on the wall the year 1878 was carved into the soft rock, a sign that this was no new structure. Creating space for others to nosy, I headed back along the beach to the pier where the few locals were busy unloading from the ship. I chuckled at the large quantity of beer that was stacked up at the end of the pier, which on first thought made me think they were perhaps a bit alcoholic, but in reality it probably has to last them quite a long time with the unpredictability of deliveries around the weather and seasons. I wandered into the shed that was nearby to be greeted by several children who were clowning around on the large mounds of tyres that were piled up inside. I’m generally very introverted with strangers, but these kids took great pleasure in asking me lots of questions and chatting away with me until somebody from my tour group yelled at me to come back to the van.

The unloading would take all the hours of daylight, and we had other parts of the island to explore. We headed back up onto the hilly spine of the island, this time heading west through large fields full of sheep. Eventually we found ourselves at a dramatic coastline where the green pasture had faded away to reveal a stark red clifftop that contrasted dramatically with the grey sea and sky beyond it. Offshore, Mangere Island sat among the waves, a tall high-cliffed lump of rock that is now a predator-free sanctuary, and one of only two islands where the rare Black Robin still resides. I could not get enough of the view here. The exposed red cliff formed a myriad of shapes and structures, some of which reminded me of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Just south of us was a bay which was also framed by the exposed and eroding red cliff edge.

 

A bird of prey circled overhead as we wandered along the cliff top while down below I spotted some sheep on lower land underneath the cliffs. As we bundled back into the van and trundled across the hilly farmland I spotted the same harrier hawk perched on a bush. Heading across to the east coast and then turning south we stopped at the airport. Due to the small size of the plane and the flight time, each day’s tour group was split into two. The first group had flown ahead and whilst we had waited back on Chatham for the return of the plane, they had gone on to do the part of the tour that we would be doing next. As such they were to now head back whilst we went on to the final stop. We sat at the strip of grass whilst they boarded the plane and it took off, then we headed south where we had a view across an equally wild coast and this time across to Rangatira Island, another predator-free island and the only other place in the World to spot the rare Black Robin.

Nestled on the grassy bank at Glory Bay was the bright red Glory Cottage, a restored wooden building that was originally used for shepherds tending the land. The bay itself is named after the shipwreck that occurred within it in 1827, from where survivors rowed 1280km to Northland on New Zealand’s North Island in a small boat to raise the alarm. I was on Pitt Island on a relatively calm day, but even then the birds that rode the thermals were being blasted by the Pacific winds, and I could only imagine how harrowing that journey must have been. The inside of the cottage gave a little respite from the chill in the air, but outside an old boat and tractor were slowly degrading in the elements, the harsh sea air having rendered them useless.

 

I was sad to leave here, as our next stop was back at the airstrip again for our own flight back to Chatham Island. We pulled in just as the plane was on final approach, and I watched the skill of the pilot come in to land smoothly despite the wind and despite the roughness of the grass strip. A local joined us on board and this time I was sat in the back, but still by the window. Whereas the flight in had been direct in order to get the tour going, the return leg was a scenic trip that was to follow the Pitt Island coast, giving us an aerial view of the island itself, the dramatic cliffs that make up the south-western corner, as well as the various offshore islands that scatter the sea around it. We flew low enough to appreciate the scale of the cliffs and we could make out places where sea birds were nesting.

 

We made short work of Pitt Strait and hugged the southern cliffs of Chatham Island on the other side of the Strait. I still couldn’t believe how high this end of the island was, and the cliffs continued to be the predominant portion of the view as we worked our way up the coast. The elevation shallowed as we approached Waitangi and then the great expanse of Petre Bay opened up below us. From up here Lake Huro looked massive, and by now the large lagoon was back in view. We began our descent as we worked our way north alongside the island until before I knew it, we had landed. Pitt Island was a highlight of my week out here in the Chatham Islands and I was eager to get back to tell the guys all about it, unaware that their trip wasn’t going to go ahead.

 

After the van returned us to Waitangi, I took a walk along the beach, soaking up the colours of the setting sun, before heading to the Hotel Chatham for dinner. Toni, the owner of the establishment, was quick to make a beeline for me, eager to know how my day had been. Toni knew everybody and made a point of getting to know guests as best as she could. She’d already sussed out my job early on in my stay and having been warned by a regular visitor that if your job was of use to the islanders, word would get out, I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to look in on an animal the next morning that seemed unwell. I was promised free car hire as a thanks for doing an islander a favour, and despite having absolutely no work-related equipment or supplies on me, I agreed to do so. In the meantime, I headed back to the motel where the guys were in good spirits having had a very successful fishing trip. I opened the door to be greeted by a plate full of large crayfish, but I was too stuffed to have any. We sat for a while sharing stories of our respective day before I retired to bed, unaware that the following day wasn’t to turn out as I’d planned.

North-East Chatham Island

There was a slightly awkward moment when all the seats on the bus were filled and two of us were still waiting to board. There had been a few hints of the island way of doing things in the short period of time that I’d been on Chatham Island, and that morning was no exception. In lieu of hiring a car and paying entry levies, I’d been invited to join a tour group for the day. My stay on the island coincided with a visit of an author and a tour group that were enraptured with her. They’d been travelling as a group for several days at this point, and I felt immediately like an intruder. I had no idea who the author was, and knew little about the topic that they all had in common, and now there wasn’t even space for me on the bus. Had it just been me, I probably would have just bowed out, but as it turned out, the bus wasn’t even big enough for the whole group, and two other cars ended up following behind, one of which I was able to get a lift with.

The island may not look big on a map, but the lack of sealed roads and the relatively slow speed limit as a result, means heading to the far edge of the island took longer than you would think. I’m not normally a fan of tour groups, but it was nice to have a bit of company for the day, and it definitely made it much easier to get to a couple of spots. A large lagoon cuts out a decent chunk of the centre of the island, and several lakes are dotted around it. To get to the north-east of the island, involves driving all the way to the north coast and skirting round the northern edge of the lagoon. Eventually the road became a track across a long grass field and after some time we finally pulled up at our first stop for the day.

I hadn’t even heard of this place before my visit, but the J.M. Barker National Historic Reserve is a site of great Moriori significance. Although this is a publicly accessible Department of Conservation managed region, I don’t think I would have got the same experience had I gone on my own. Hidden in the forest were a series of tree carvings or dendroglyphs, estimated to be a few hundred years old. Depicting faces and animals among other things, some were easier to spot than others, and I probably would have walked past a couple of them had they not been pointed out to me. After following the loop track through the woodland, a track cut down to a wild beach on the eastern coast of the island. Looking out across the windy Pacific Ocean, there is no landfall between where we stood and the coast of Chile in South America.

 

Back on the main road, we turned onto the peninsula that marks the very north-eastern part of the island. The last settlement here is Kaingaroa, a small village sitting on a gorgeous sandy bay. It was a week day, but the place felt like a ghost town with nobody around. There were several fishing boats moored in the bay, and as we went for a walk along the road to the pier, the only people around were busy here off loading from a boat. It was a nice vista to enjoy whilst we ate lunch, a couple of gulls eyeing us up for leftovers. A small little beach on the other side of the pier led to the headland, and were it not for the accents of the people behind me, I could have pretended I was in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.

 

The main reason I’d joined the tour group was to get access to Point Munning on the very tip of the peninsula. This involved entering private property, and the track wasn’t marked or immediately obvious, meaning I probably would have gotten lost had I driven there myself. You’re never far from the ocean on Chatham Island, but here, it was a short walk through a coastal fringe of bush to reach a rocky outcrop receiving the rolling waves from the Pacific. Nestled onto and among the rocks was a New Zealand fur seal colony. Almost completely encircled by rocks, a small bay of water acted as a nursery pool and there were seal pups strewn all over the place, with adults hauled out the ocean for a snooze and a dry-off. A few seals porpoised across the bay, and we were accompanied by the noise and smell that always hangs around a fur seal colony.

We spent a good amount of time here, although not as much as I would have liked. The tour had other places to be, whereas this was the main reason I had come. I enjoyed watching some seal pups that came tantalisingly close, and a weka wandered among them seeking out something to eat. The pups liked to watch us as much as we liked to watch them, and a couple in particular captured my attention the most with their exceedingly cute faces craned in my direction with curiosity. I’ve visited several fur seal colonies on the mainland, but this was probably one of my favourite due to the proximity and activity that took place there.

 

Not far from here was the remains of a German missionary settlement, complete with whaling vat abandoned outside the building remains. A cemetery nearby is believed to be one of the earliest European graveyards in New Zealand. Nowadays, the area is farmland, and the crooked trees from the prevailing wind left me wandering why on earth someone thought it made sense to build a missionary settlement all the way out here. Like a lot of frontier outposts, whaling in the nearby ocean had a lot to answer for, a practice that I’m glad my country does not allow to continue.

We stopped at the farm buildings of the property we had had to cut through to get to Point Munning. At the back was a huge shed, which on opening the door I was shocked to be confronted by the immense fuselage of a Sunderland Flying Boat, NZ4111, that was built in the 40s, used during World War II in the tropics, and then purchased by the New Zealand Air Force in the 50s. It struck a rock in 1959, and while it was never able to fly again, it was at least able to be salvaged, finding itself inside a large farm building in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean. It was incredible to walk around, it was simply massive, and I imagined a time when it would have been normal to see it take to the skies. There were all sorts of other vehicles in various states in the hangar with it, but it was definitely the plane that grabbed my attention the most.

We started the long drive back to Waitangi, following the north coast then turning south hugging the lagoon. We eventually reached the junction with the road that had taken me to the basalt columns and north-western corner of the island a couple of days prior. We turned up this road to stop at Admiralty Gardens, one of the accommodations on the island. Here there was also a garden full of local and introduced flowers. This stop was really for the benefit of the tour group I had tagged along with as they and the author that they were touring with, were highly knowledgeable about the flora they were looking at. I wandered around listening to them excitedly chatter away about the flowers, finding myself in the company of a very happy Golden Retriever.

 

This was to be the only time I didn’t eat dinner at the Hotel Chatham. Although I’d paid to join the group, I still felt like a bit of an imposter, but with their gentle coaxing, I was able to partake in the booze and amazing spread of food that was laid out. A couple of years prior, when I’d been on Stewart Island, I had excitedly ordered Paua at a restaurant, to try this seafood for the first time. Unfortunately they forgot my order so I was never able to try it, but finally I was able to try it both barbecued and curried and it was utterly divine. The food at the Hotel Chatham had been enjoyable each night, but this smorgasbord of a buffet was impressive, and I was grateful that the tour group had welcomed me into the fold. I was stuffed at the end of it all, and ready to fall into a food coma by the time I returned to my accommodation at the end of the day. The morning was to see me heading off on an adventure that I had been wanting to do for a long time, and I couldn’t wait.

Central Chatham Island

Despite the confused looks of the people that lived there, I had decided to forego the expense of another day of car rental and explore the island on foot. Public rights of way are a little debatable on the island, in fact, the majority of the place is privately owned, but I could see on the map that there was a road that would lead me round the expanse of Lake Huro and past the western end of the giant lagoon that sits in the middle of the island. It seemed feasible to walk the circuit in a day, and the map suggested public access. Despite that, I was never quite sure if I would meet with any hostile reception, or just a raised eyebrow at the absurdity of walking such a distance.

After breakfast down at the Hotel Chatham, I walked down to the port along the waterfront, past the weekday goings-on of the people that lived there. A few solemn-looking fishing boats sat in the bowl of Petre Bay, and the cloud above my head was grey. A track led up the cliffside which had no suggestion of private property at the bottom. Hoping for a view at the top, I clambered up the rough ground to discover I was in the middle of a cattle pen, and realised I was in the holding pen for stock to be driven down the hill and onto the ferry. I was quick to head back down, worried I was trespassing.

Options to stock up on food for lunch were limited, so I grabbed a mid-morning snack at Waitangi whilst I could before following side-roads in the town, eager to get some kind of viewpoint, and generally just being a little nosy. From the point of leaving Waitangi behind on route north to the next settlement of Te One, I was an object of curiosity to the locals. Out of the settlements, the roads are unsealed and there is often little in the way of verge and certainly nothing resembling a pavement. In essence, nobody walks here. So I spent a large part of my time walking this main road fielding offers of a lift. Island life can sometimes be a little insular, but it’s also great for community spirit and support. It was lovely that so many people offered, but I was out for the exercise and the self-exploration, and I suspect my refusal was a little confusing and odd for those that stopped for me.

For the most part, Chatham Island appears predominantly flat, but as I left Te One to continue north, the road lifted a little providing a view across to the opening of the large expanse of Petre Bay to the west. Once at the crown of the ridge, I took the road directly east, which took me away from the regular flow of traffic, and out into a World of solitude. I used to work on a farm during my university years for a bit of spare change, but over the years, I’ve forgotten a lot about the cycles of the year that dominate farming life. Also down here in the Southern Hemisphere, everything was up on its head. As it was February at the time of my visit, mid-summer, I passed large fields full of rolled up hay bales, waiting to be bagged and stored.

 

It didn’t take long for the proper road to peter out at the farmhouse, but just past here the road became a track, passing through a gate that suggested public access was okay. I was effectively walking through the grazing fields though, with cattle spread out around me, watching me as I walked. After passing through another gate and finding myself a little elevated, I was startled by the sight of emu across a fence. This was the last thing I had expected to find out here on this little island deep in the South Pacific Ocean, but here I was with three emu running around next to me. It turned out they were being farmed here, just another Chatham Island oddity.

 

As the track turned south, it was now sheep keeping me company, and I could see across the sheep pastures to the large lagoon in the middle of the island, and even beyond there to the Pacific Ocean itself. As the track dropped down towards the lagoon, the occasional angled tree and lack of high vegetation hinted at the exposed nature of the landscape. It was a relatively settled day though, and I had good visibility. Passing through a couple more gates I came across a small group of cottages, and I felt a little self-conscious, unclear whether I was trespassing or okay to keep going. But by this stage I was approaching the far side of Lake Huron, and with nobody around anyway, it made more sense to continue as I was, than to back track. Stock tracks led down to the water’s edge where I could see a plethora of birds from swans to lapwings and the occasional heron.

I passed some horses as the track climbed up a little, leading me away from the lagoon, and eventually bringing me to the main road that leads to the east coast of the island. It was a worse grade of road than the main north road, and trying to keep to a verge made for quite uncomfortable walking. Once more, I was a curiosity with people slamming on their brakes to stop and offer me a lift. The southern end of the island is where the main elevation of the land is, and this road was much hillier to walk on than anything I’d come across so far. I was also tired and hungry by this point but determined to walk the rest of the distance.

I passed the entrance to the Marae, the centre of an important event that was happening whilst I was on the island. Since moving to New Zealand back in 2012, I’ve learned a lot about colonisation, Maori history and Maori land rights. But here, there were the descendants of Moriori, Polynesian settlers that developed their own culture independently of the Polynesian Maori settlers of mainland New Zealand. I’d never heard of them before arriving on Chatham Island, but that morning, before setting off on this hike, I’d visited the local museum in Waitangi, which was compact but crammed full of antiquities and information about the history of the people of the island group. Whilst I would not like to attest to being fully aware of what happened here, I learned that a party of invading Maori from New Zealand committed genocide of the Moriori in the 19th century, even committing cannibalism, resulting in the death or displacement of 95% of Moriori. A Hercules plane had landed on the island that day to deliver a Government-led apology and reparation for crimes committed during this time. With several of the islanders I’d spoken to being descended from the genocide survivors, this event was a big deal.

As I descended back down the hill towards the road that leads back to Waitangi, I found myself having to make way for a flock of sheep being led along the road. They can be such flighty animals, and I had to cling to the fence line to keep out their way and not spook them any more. By the time I made it back to the settlement, it was dinner time, and I parked up at the Hotel Chatham, effectively the only place to eat in the area, for my glass of wine and whatever meal was on offer that night. Although the menu was limited, they did a good job of altering the offerings despite being restricted by supply. They did, however run out of white wine partway through my stay which was amusing, but just part of island life for the locals.

I’m not an overly outgoing person, and won’t easily communicate with strangers, but by now my third night hanging out at the hotel, I was being greeted and chatted to by more and more people and I was beginning to really feel enveloped into the community, even if just on a miniscule scale. The guys I was sharing my accommodation with were also good banter, and I caught up with their fishing adventures before retreating to my room. There was nothing like a good dose of fresh air and exercise to lead to a good night’s sleep, ready to get out and explore all over again the next day.

North-West Chatham Island

It was never warm on Chatham Island, at least not by New Zealand standards, but yet I actually did really well with the weather in the week that I spent on this island in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean. After the novelty of finally getting here after all these years of wanting to, I was keen to get out and about. I organised a rental car from the hotel after having breakfast, and was presented with a set of keys to Moki. All the rental cars had been named, and I was quick to acquaint myself with its quirks and get on the road. For the most part, the roads on the island are not sealed. In the settlements they have tarmac, but elsewhere they are just stoned, in a variety of grades depending on the level of traffic that passes through. Although the speed limit is 80km/hr, some of the roads don’t allow this, meaning it takes longer to drive around some parts than you’d think by looking at it on a map.

The impression I was given was that the island was mostly privately owned. A few public access walks exist which are evident on the Department of Conservation or Chatham Islands websites, but otherwise land owners need to be contacted to gain right of way, and often a levy needs to be paid, which often was quite steep. This is not a cheap place to holiday, but Toni that runs the Hotel Chatham in Waitangi kept me right about where I could and couldn’t go without permission. My first stop on my first full day though, was one of the public access tracks at Henga Reserve.

Blink and you’d miss the sign at the start. Luckily I’d spotted it from the drive from the airport the day before, and there was just enough space to pull off the gravel road to park. Over a stile, there was a long walk across a sheep paddock to reach the reserve itself. The track to the main loop track led through the edge of a small woodland area where I startled some weka as they foraged in the undergrowth. As I stepped back into a clearing, the sky was clearing up to reveal a clear blue sky, and I spent the next while layering up and layering down depending on how the wind cut across. Large parts of the island feel barren, or rather are just predominantly low bush, so it was strange to walk into a large woodland of trees that brought me to the loop track.

 

There was not a single other soul on the track until I neared the lookout. The loop track passed by a lodge at the far corner from where I’d joined the trail, so a couple were just out for a wander from there. In the final section of the forest as the trail climbed up hill, there were some large rock formations interspersed with the trees, and then suddenly I was exposed again, out on a bluff overlooking the expansive coastline. Waves crashed on the exposed shore and below me the beach was backed by a wide dune. This was the great Petre Bay, the same bay that Waitangi sits on, and that I had walked the southern end of the day previous. The track cut down the side of the bluff to the back of the dunes, and I had assumed I could just walk down to the beach and enjoy it, but all I could see was a fence and no way to get across it.

As I followed the track through the dune vegetation, my mind wandering as I walked, my attention was grabbed by some creature leaping in and out of view. It turned out to be a dog and it followed me for a bit before disappearing. I passed a few people walking the other way, and then the track turned back inland, climbing back up the low hillside once more and returning me to the bushes. As I neared the lodge, a noise in the bushes alerted me to the return of the dog, who proceeded to excitedly jump up and down, and in and out of view. He followed me to the lodge and as I reached there, I assumed that he lived there. Being a reserve, the dog should not have been in there, and a fence and gate divided the public land from the private land. But as I walked around the garden at the lodge I saw him leap exceedingly high in the air to clear the fence and get into the reserve.

Whereas my walk so far had been about looking out for bird life and enjoying the fresh air, the rest of my hike quickly turned into frustration and scenes of murder. The dog enthusiastically followed me, running ahead a bit and coming back to find me, excitedly jumping into the bushes and killing weka after weka after weka. I kept hearing the cries of the birds, and every now and again I’d witness a bird in the dog’s mouth. I tried to trick the dog to get it to leave me alone, but alas it kept finding me again, at one point running right up to me and killing a weka right in front of me. The poor thing gasped its last breath as I stood there equally annoyed and bereft.

 

I finally found myself back at the stile into the sheep paddock. It was lambing time and there were lots of young lambs in the field with their mothers. The dog poked through the fence to join me as I crossed and suddenly I found myself in an awkward position that wouldn’t look good to any passers by: an unleashed dog in amongst lambs. It had already proven itself a killer, and I ended up having to grab it by the collar and walk it back to my car. It happily jumped in next to me, eager to find out where we were going to go. I drove to the lodge and deposited it there, letting the lodge owners know that it had been in the reserve killing birds. They simply shrugged their shoulders, feigned annoyance at the dog, while declaring that the wekas weren’t protected there so it didn’t really matter. It was time to push on and get back to enjoying myself.

Further north, and on the road that cuts west, I found myself at a padlocked gate. Toni had given me the key to get in, and I went through the motions to get off the gravel road and onto a vague track that cut across a field to the coast. Exposed by the pounding and wild coast, were some basalt columns, a geological structure that I’m familiar with from Scotland and Iceland. Aside from the occasional quarry truck that passed by in the distance, there was nobody else to see. I stumbled around for a bit, getting battered a little by the wind, listening to the crashing waves just metres away from where I stood.

 

Back on the main road, I followed one arm of it to its termination at Port Hutt. Little more than a group of shacks making up a small settlement, the bay caught my attention due to the ship graveyard immediately offshore. Two boats well into their degradation sat forlornly off the beach, lending themselves to a moody photography session. The sky was mottled here, adding to the sadness of it. A couple of fishing boats sat offshore, and judging by the mish-mash of equipment that was draped around the place, I assume this is a small fishing village. It was unclear whether I was at risk of trespassing or not, and there was nowhere really to park other than a small patch of grass, so I simply stuck to the beach so as not to annoy anyone. But there was no-one around, and it was just me and a couple of seagulls until just as I left, another rental car appeared with a couple who left almost as quickly as they arrived.

 

I followed Waitangi West road almost to its end point, stopping just shy of the farm at its end, where there was a track down to a beach. This felt so much like the beaches of North and South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and with the only other person leaving as I arrived, there was just me, the wind, and the occasional bird for company. As I walked towards the point, my attention was grabbed by something shiny in the sand. A small piece of paua shell sparkled in the daylight, a brilliant blue and purple contrasting against the pale sand. I was briefly tempted to take it, but I decided to leave it where it was, ready to delight somebody else, or yet to continue its disintegration into nature. A little further along I was shocked to come across a dead cow half buried in the sand. It wasn’t too degraded so can’t have died that long ago, but the flies had certainly found their way to it.

 

I walked as far as a broad tannin river that split through the dunes to cross the beach. A myriad of oyster catchers wandered about here, and I climbed the dune to get an overview across the landscape. In the distance was a nobbly hillside sticking up against the relatively flat beach side. I knew what lay at the foot of it, and I was undecided whether I should stop by on the way back to Waitangi. Toni had highly recommended it, but it was after 3pm, and I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to turn up so late. Not to mention my introvertedness which tends to make me shy away from social contact with strangers. But in the end I did go, and I’m very glad that I did.

 

Through a gate, there was just a vague track across the grass, leading me across a field of cows and eventually to the base of the nobbly hill I’d seen from afar. Stopping at a crest where the track petered out, I got out the car to be greeted by a couple of dogs. I followed them down to a small stone cottage surrounded by a fenced vegetable garden where some chickens wandered about. As I got nearer, I saw movement, yelling out to say hello until I was greeted by Helen. Anybody who lives or visits the Chatham Islands knows about Helen. I’ve no idea how old she is, but she lives on her own with her animals in the same cottage that she grew up in, and the cottage itself is like stepping into a time-capsule. Although slightly protected from the winds by a nearby dune bank, the place is still relatively exposed, and I couldn’t believe she was living here alone, year round.

 

It was interesting to talk to her about her life there and the history of the cottage. After showing me around the place and bringing out photo albums to look at, she asked me about my job. I’m a companion animal vet, and there is no vet on the island, despite many people having pets there, not to mention the livestock. A couple of times a year, a vet from Christchurch may go out to run a clinic for a few days, otherwise, injured animals have to be flown or sailed to the mainland to get treatment, something that isn’t cheap and isn’t always done. To thank her for her time, I offered to give her myriad of animals a health check over, something which turned out to be rather complicated when most of them didn’t want to have a bar of me, and I had no work equipment with me. Helen was overjoyed at the prospect of getting the dog’s nails clipped by me, presenting me with a pair of garden secateurs. I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried cutting an animal’s nails before as I was with these plant cutters which were not designed for the job.

 

Once I’d finished with the surreal veterinary session, I bid Helen goodbye and left her behind to go down to the beach by her house. Right on her doorstep was a gorgeous beach which led to some large boulders balanced on top of each other. Here a group of shags rested on top, and it was possible to walk underneath the giant boulder that was balanced atop a collection of others, ready to one day collapse down as the tide wears them back. The tide was coming in, so I only stayed long enough to watch the oyster catchers wandering about before my feet got wet. Walking back to the car there was a great view up onto the rocky outcrop that was the backdrop for Helen’s house. I waved goodbye as I passed, trundling back through the cow paddock in the rental car, towards the gravel road to lead me back to Waitangi.

 

By the time I reached the main settlement on the island, it was time for dinner. The hotel was just as packed as the night before and I recognised several faces. I briefly chatted with another guest who was over doing contract work, and then Toni caught up with me to find out how my day went. She was quick to discover what my job was, and I mentioned what I had done for Helen. I had a suspicion that word might get out about my occupation, and the fellow guest, being a repeat visitor, was quick to let me know that if you had skills useful to the islanders, that you would likely be asked to do something for someone, even if you were on holiday. I was soon to discover that this was exactly the case, an event that would turn out to be one of those memorable stories that you gain in life.

The Eastern Frontier

As I sat in the regional departure lounge at Christchurch airport, I was equally nervous and excited. Many years ago I’d attended the annual A&P Show that brings the countryside to the city every spring. I’d passed through one of the giant sheds, looking at stalls, and I’d chatted with one of the stall owners that was advertising these distant islands off the east coast of New Zealand. I’d wanted to go there for a long time, and at last, there I was waiting to board the plane, in February 2020. I felt like the only tourist in a plane full of locals, and as I boarded the archaic-looking plane I was shocked to discover there were barely any windows, and there wasn’t much in the way of panelling on the inside of the fuselage. It felt more like a freight plane, and as it rattled to the motion of the propellers turning on, it felt like I was heading off on a real adventure.

We’d been instructed that all phones had to be completely off. Flight mode wasn’t an option. This added to the feeling that the plane could fall apart at any moment, and it was slow to take off, slow to fly and we kept low in the sky. As we banked and turned over the Port Hills, it was a clear enough day that I was gutted my phone was off. I’d bagged one of the few window seats, and we were so low over the hills on a clear day that the view was incredible, and not one I’ll get again. The slow speed of the plane drew the harbour view out for a long time, until we were finally over the Pacific Ocean, setting a course almost exactly east.

We flew for over 2hrs across the bleak expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and yet I didn’t need a passport. Because despite the distance, I was still going to be in New Zealand. They’re not widely known about outside of the country, but the Chatham Islands are on the frontier of New Zealand’s eastern reach, a small archipelago over 1000km to the east of the South Island. Only Chatham Island and nearby Pitt Island are inhabited, and like any remote island, it takes a hardy person to make a living and a life in a place like that. But I come from Scotland, where the Outer Hebrides, a chain of wild, frontier islands, is one of my favourite parts of the country, so I flew there fully expecting something similar. And that was exactly what I got.

It was grey, blustery and overcast with low clouds as we descended. The view of a grey churning sea seemed bleak until finally surf became visible, and the flattest, lowest landscape I’d seen in a long time. On a map, a large chunk of Chatham Island is a central lagoon, and after flying over a long stretch of beach and its backing dunes, we crossed small lakes and a lone road that transected the visible landscape. Circling round and banking by the lagoon, we were soon landing in what essentially was the middle of nowhere. The small airport had been built away from any settlement, at the end of a single road, and after disembarking into the shack of a terminal, we watched the vital supplies for the island that had come with us, and the luggage of returning residents. There was no rush and no fanfare. The locals simply got on with their lives whilst those few of us that were there for a holiday waited for our bags to appear.

 

When it comes to visiting as a tourist, everything needs to be organised ahead of time. Turning up without a bed booked would be foolhardy. There’s only a handful of options, and only one proper settlement, so I’d chosen a motel room that formed part of the main accommodation on the island, located at the back of the main settlement of Waitangi. I’d decided to hire a car for only a few days of the week that I was there for, so paid for a pick up from the airport which was a 20km drive away. Unknowingly, my life was to revolve around the Hotel Chatham for the week of my stay, which was certainly not a bad thing, but the motel accommodation was out the very back of Waitangi. I had paid for a private ensuite room which suited me perfectly and I was sharing the building with a great bunch of blokes who were over for a mates holiday, essentially a prolonged fishing trip, and I loved the chats we had on passing each day.

Walking down the hill to the coast at the southern end of Petre Bay, the wind nearly blew me in two. Here, I was looking out at a landscape that might as well have been in Scotland. It was empty, low-lying and wild. The weather reminded me of home, and I was ecstatic to be there. I had planned to grab food to make lunches with from the Waitangi store but was shocked to discover that it mostly sold snacks and tinned food. I got what I could and trudged it back up the hill before making the return trip down to go for an evening walk. I had the beach to myself and duly began walking the long stretch of sand that lay before me. In a short period of time, I’d seen a bird of prey, a shag, and a myriad of gulls, all within a short stretch of coastline.

 

The longitude had found me 45 minutes ahead of mainland New Zealand, but it was summer and the days were long enough. After I’d filled my lungs with enough fresh air to make me tired, I headed to the hotel for dinner. Stepping inside it was packed. To the left was the pub, mainly full of locals, and to the right was the restaurant which had a mix of tourists, visiting contractors and locals enjoying an evening meal. I managed to squeeze into a spot for dinner, and silently watched and listened to the island life playing out around me. Everyone knew everybody, and if they didn’t know you yet, they soon would do. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the proprietor, and general organiser of almost everything that appeared to be happening. I have Toni and her office manager Francesca to thank for everything that I experienced that week.

I’m not a big drinker at the best of times, but if I’m out for a meal on holiday, I’ll often enjoy a wee drink or two. What I was to discover though, was that re-stocking a bar on a frontier island was not that simple. I’d enjoyed the wine I got on my first night, but was quietly amused to be told a night or two later that they’d run out of an entire type of wine. That was just life, and everybody rolled with it, so so did I. And thus began the immersion into life in the Chatham Islands.

Summit, Sea and Middle-Earth

I found myself with a few spare days ahead of a couple of much anticipated trips. Still in blissful naivety of what was to come in the following months, I boarded a plane to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in early February 2020. Being a Saturday morning, there was a small market on downtown in the city so after dumping my bag at my hostel, I headed to the Britomart and out the far side of it to take a nosy. I’ve visited Auckland many times in the 9 years that I’ve been living in the country. Like Sydney, another place I go back to time and time again, I have my favourite parts that I make a point of going to every time, and in addition I do my best to explore somewhere new or do something different. In the case of Auckland, my favourite thing to do is to head to the viaduct and wander around the waterfront.

 

Normally I take the direct route across the bridge that raises and lowers to let the boats in and out, but I decided to wander around the other side of the Viaduct Basin and meander below the apartment buildings that circle it. I grabbed a light lunch at a cafe before continuing round as the sun intermittently popped through the circulating clouds. At Karanga Plaza is one of my favourite spots to take a photo of the Sky Tower. Like Sydney and the Opera House, I can’t imagine Auckland without the distinctive spire of the Sky Tower. It’s strange to think it was only completed in 1997 when I was already a teenager. As I stood near the steps by the edge of the marina, my attention was suddenly pulled to a movement in the water. To my delight, a large eagle ray was gliding through the surface water. I was the only one to see it, and it was gone before I could get my camera out to get a picture, but I love those moments that are yours and yours alone, a sneaky moment with nature that nobody else spots.

 

Despite being a busy city, Auckland actually offers a lot for nature lovers. Straddling between two harbours, it is nestled into the perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf, a large harbour with a winding coastline made up of both the mainland itself and a series of volcanic islands. I decided to book myself onto a whale and dolphin watching cruise for the afternoon. I’d last done this trip in 2015 where I’d witnessed a Bryde’s whale out near the Coromandel Peninsula. This time around we sailed out into a sunnier Gulf and looked and looked and looked. I’ve been on a lot of whale-watching trips around the World and had had a 100% success rate until a trip from Picton a couple of years prior had failed to spot any humpback whales. As time went on, despite the glorious sunshine and harbour views, we failed to find any marine life. I’d just started to right off the trip as a run of bad luck when we eventually found a pod of common dolphins, my favourite species of dolphin as they chased down fish to the delight of the Australasian gannets that dive-bombed into the ocean around them.

Different dolphin species demonstrate very different behaviour traits. Whereas bottlenose dolphins are much more interactive and acrobatic, travelling in smaller social groups, common dolphins tend to keep their eye on the prize: locating food, and they also usually move in large groups. They’re also very fast to surface, making photography a challenge. I had at times to remind myself to just enjoy the view, as I sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get a photo that I forget to actually be in the moment that is playing out in front of me. That being said, I got one amazing photo that I love, and otherwise I enjoyed watching the gannets shoot through the sky like arrows as the dolphins herded the fish below the surface. Every now and again I spied a petrel in the mix too. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since living in New Zealand. What we lack in native mammals here we make up for in birds, and I pay so much more attention to the fauna when I’m out and about.

 

Being summer, there was still a good few hours of daylight left when we returned to the marina. I’d spotted a place that had an interesting looking cocktail at Wynyard so I meandered back across the bridge and settled down at a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal and a beautiful pink cocktail. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been making its way around the World by this point, although it hadn’t yet reached our shores. February marks Chinese New Year, a time of year that normally sees an influx of tourists from China. There were still a lot of international tourists, but I noticed not just the reduction in number of Chinese tourists, but also how this particular restaurant was comparatively empty compared to those around it. In fact, everyone else at the restaurant conversed with staff in Mandarin, and I had wondered at the time if there was a bit of racist avoidance of the place. Sadly, even the normally welcoming and laid back country of New Zealand has its racist backbone.

 

I had an early rise the next morning to catch a bus out of the city to somewhere I’d wanted to go to for many years. A couple of hours south of the city is the unassuming town of Matamata. But it is what lies on its outskirts that is the lure to movie fans from around the World. Back in 2001, when I was at university, I, like many others, made a special trip to the cinema to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. If someone told me then I would end up living in New Zealand, I would never have believed them, but yet a decade later I left my home country of Scotland to emigrate there. Now I was on route to Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit village that was left intact after the Hobbit movies were filmed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Several of my friends had visited in the past, and I was quietly excited to finally make it there myself.

After a brief respite from breakfast somewhere along the way, we pulled up at the tourist centre to wait for our tour to begin. Whilst I would have loved to have just had free range of the place, you can only visit on a guided tour, meaning booking into a timed shuttle bus that drives you from the main centre, across the farm to the entrance into Hobbiton. There you are taken around a set route by a guide, to curl around past familiar Hobbit holes towards the Green Dragon Inn. The farm itself seems so quintessentially New Zealand, as across the road near the entrance was a load of sheep grazing some crops against a backdrop of rolling hills. As often happens in summer here, there was a bit of a drought going on, making a lot of the landscape quite yellow and brown. And yet, as we reached the film set itself, it was transformed into greenery, as the landscape was clearly being artificially hydrated to maintain the aesthetic.

Firstly, we stopped by the Hobbiton sign before descending through the trees and popping out at a vegetable patch. Looking up the hillside there were Hobbit holes a-plenty, a series of colourful round doorways under turf humps. Whilst not a die-hard fan, I liked the franchise enough to be enchanted by the place as we moved from residence to residence, past small rocking chairs and clothes-lines draped with Hobbit-sized clothing. While almost all of the Hobbit holes are purely a facade, there were a couple that we were able to get right up to or pose by, including one where the door opened into a small vestibule to allow photographs to be taken as if we were going inside. It was a gloriously hot day and I was so happy to be there.

 

Finally, after working our way up the hill at the back, we found ourselves outside Bilbo Baggins’ home, complete with ‘No Admittance, except on party business‘ sign outside. From there, it was a matter of wandering down the other side of the hill to come out at a pretty stone thatched building with a water wheel, and a gorgeous little stone arched bridge that led across to the Green Dragon Inn. Inside, I claimed my cider, part of my admission ticket, and enjoyed it as I wandered around looking at the gorgeous wooden beams and authentic signs on display. Outside the inn, a small lake provided some stunning reflections on such a sunny and still day. I could have sat here for hours just enjoying the weather and the view. The attention to detail everywhere I looked was incredible, and I’d happily come back another time and do the tour all over again.

 

To break up the two hour drive back to the City of Sails, we stopped at Hampton Downs motor park, just a little past half way. I’ve watched the odd bit of motor racing over the years here so recognised some of the cars and names that were displayed across the place. It was a non-race day but the display showroom was full of freshly waxed racing cars, and outside the building there were a few cars racing round the track. I had enough time to watch them do a few laps as well as spot a car doing doughnuts in the skid zone.

 

Back in Auckland, I jumped on the ferry across to Devonport on the opposite side of the harbour to the CBD. It’s only a 10 minute ferry ride, and it was a gorgeous evening as I headed over. I decided to have an early dinner, eating at a Greek restaurant on the main street, before heading up the hill, breathless on a full stomach, to reach the summit of Mount Victoria, one of the 53 volcanic cones that dot the greater city landscape. By now evening, the views over to Rangitoto Island and the city of Auckland were divine. I sat for a long time at the top watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I made the decision to wait for sunset, and in doing so, the colours in front of me glowed through shades of yellow, and orange before the sun dipped below the cloud line at the horizon. Then the pinks and purples burst out, and the city turned into a sparkling electric light show as the various skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky.

 

The purple hung around in the air for quite some time, and below me a constant flow of boat traffic moved in and out of the harbour, they too glowing against the dark water as they zoomed across the surface. Ever aware of the need to get back for the last boat, I eventually had to haul myself away from the view and head back down the hillside to the wharf. As the boat left Devonport, I noticed the Sky Tower was putting on a light show, changing through a series of bright colours, switching from blues and purples, to reds and greens. I wandered through the city streets catching glimpses of the light show as I headed back to my hostel.

 

The next morning after grabbing breakfast at a popular and crammed cafe near to my hostel, I took a wander into Albert Park, passing a myriad of sculptures and finding an alternative viewpoint for the Sky Tower. Down from here, I cut towards Chancery Square where I was amused for a while by a gull that kept challenging its own reflection, thinking it was another gull. Then, because I love it there so much, I headed back to the Viaduct, at first watching the boat life come and go, before parking up on one of the giant wooden loungers on the plaza to just enjoy the sunshine. When at last it was time to head back to the airport, I found myself with a window view for the flight back to Christchurch, flying over Taranaki which looked bizarre without any snow on it. Landing at Christchurch airport, I headed home, excited about my return to the airport the next day for the start of a week long adventure far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Tekapo Time

In the years I’ve lived in New Zealand’s South Island, the settlement of Tekapo has changed quite a bit. My first memory of it from 2012 is of a quiet little township in a gorgeous location. Within a few years, as tourism numbers in the country soared, it became synonymous with bus loads of tourists and ‘Influencers’ posing next to the lake, the lupins and the church. It’s still small, but there’s certainly been a good bit of development, one of which has been the brand spanking new YHA hostel as well as the observatory just along the road. Shortly after the hostel opened, I headed to stay there in January 2020. The C-word had been increasingly prevalent on the news but in our innocence and naivety, I thought little of it, other than being aware that Chinese New Year was just around the corner, and that flights from China into New Zealand were being restricted.

It’s a familiar drive across the Canterbury Plains and a mountain pass to get there from Christchurch, so I was there by mid-day, too soon to check in. It wasn’t the sunniest of days, but the outlook at the lake is divine so it was nice to take a wander along the lake shore before circling back. Integrated into the new hostel is a little burger bar which made a nice chill spot to wait out the remaining time until check-in. The clouds were just starting to part a bit as the afternoon wore on, and having gotten into the room and headed back outside again, a walk round the side of the building revealed a gloriously huge mirrored window spanning the two storeys of the gable end. It reflected the lake and the clouds and was simply stunning.

 

Some days, wind whips across the length of the lake creating waves, and this was one of those days. Walking along the lakeside and across the bridge past the Church of the Good Shepherd, the waves accompanied me, splashing against the many rocks on the shore. There were certainly still tourists about, but it was noticeably quieter than usual, the start of stranger times ahead. At this far end I could see glacier-like clouds snaking down the nearby mountain valleys, a really cool effect that I’ve seen several times here. The flowers along the path edge were in full summer bloom with bees floating around the invasive thistles and lupins that adorned the place. With long summer days, there was still hours of light left when I meandered back to the hostel ahead of dinner, and now the clouds had cleared enough to create an even more impressive reflection on the gable wall.

 

Tekapo sits within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an internationally recognised region for optimum stargazing and astrophotography. When at last it was dark enough to see some celestial light, I headed round to the waterfront, crossing the arched bridge that was illuminated with downlighting. The lights in the town are specialised to minimise light pollution, meaning that both in town as well as up on the nearby Mt John hillside, there is ample opportunity to see some stars and planets without having to go far.

The next day was hot. Soaring towards the 30s with cloudless skies above. I’d booked a tour of the new observatory for mid-morning which allowed enough time to take another walk along the waterfront first. The guide was great at talking about the stars and planets for a mixed audience as we walked through a series of rooms covering various aspects of the local night sky. In one room there were large bright red orbs representing either stars or planets, and at the end we came out in the observatory itself with the giant telescope which we got to watch rotate and move. I love looking up at the stars on a warm night, so this place was really interesting for me.

 

It was time to get out in the heat and have some fun. My companion wanted to go to the hot pools but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in thermal pools on such a hot day. I had my eyes on the seasonal offerings at the Tekapo Springs complex, in particular the giant bouncy house they set up in the summer months. Most of it was under the direct hit of the sun, making the tarpaulin a little hot under foot, but I was all over it, and thanks to the heat, mostly had the giant playground to myself. My day to day job is exceedingly stressful and tiring, so letting my hair down at that point was just what I needed. I ran round and round the place, bouncing through obstacle tunnels, sliding down giant slides, climbing inflatable towers and throwing velcro balls at a giant inflatable dart board. Only when the heat got too much did I head inside the cafe to grab some water. But once I’d cooled down I was straight back out again to enjoy it once more.

 

Despite the ample opportunity in New Zealand, I’m not a particular fan of swimming in lakes. Partly it’s because I spend a lot of my time travelling solo, and partly it’s because I’m never quite sure what’s under the water. I hate the feeling of vegetation against my legs when I’m swimming or the discomfort of wading out over stony sediments, so rarely bother. However it was so hot on this occasion and there were so many people in the lake enjoying the water, that my companion didn’t have to work hard to convince me to get in. Of course Lake Tekapo is a glacial lake, so even with an air temperature of 31oC, the water was comparatively frigid, and it necessitated either dancing whilst talking to people, or continuously moving to save from getting a chill.

The evening light was gorgeous so I needed no encouragement at all to follow the foreshore with my camera to find a spot to watch the sunset. The surrounding hills turned a shade of red and a light breeze created small waves against the rocks once more. As I sat, I got quite irked about a trio of freedom campers who proceeded to head into the water and use products to bathe and wash their hair, the soapy remnants floating across the water’s surface. It amazes me how little people realise (or perhaps care about) the damage that even small quantities of these products can do to the lake and the shore. Dilution effect is neither accurate nor a good enough excuse, and especially in a sedimentary lake formed from glacial outflow. What’s more frustrating to me is that my introvertedness always prevents me from speaking up. I could hear from their conversation that they were French, and instead of speaking to them at all, I practiced the necessary French in my head, thinking it wouldn’t be so confronting if I spoke to them in their own language. Instead, I angrily stewed internally, and never let out a peep. Sadly, freedom campers had been starting to get a bad rep in New Zealand prior to the border closures of COVID that has since kept many of them out of the country. This incident wasn’t helping their reputation.

 

The stars eventually took my mind off it when it was at last dark enough to see them in all their glory. As I had sat on my rock, more and more people had gathered, and despite Tekapo having seemed relatively quiet during the day, the night brought hordes of people to the area around the church, including a couple of coaches that dumped a large crowd of people out of them. I hadn’t brought my tripod with me and I’m still learning how to get the best out of my camera in low light, so I tried very hard, but never really got an acceptable astro photo. When a chill hit around midnight, I weaved my way through the crowds to head back to bed.

 

The clouds were back the following day, but it was still warm and sunny. After breakfast at a local cafe it was time for a final wander around before heading home to Christchurch. The C-word continued to trickle through day after day as New Zealand watched events play out abroad. But it was summer, and I had some exciting plans coming up the following month to look forward to, including somewhere I’d been wanting to get to for years.

Summer Vibes in the Garden City

January 2020 marked 8 years since I’d moved to New Zealand. The start of the year came with no great fanfare but I had so many plans for the coming year including getting home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I was excited, and the early news reports of a new virus trickling out from China did little to dampen my spirits. When I wasn’t working, I was intent on making the most of my days off whilst the summer weather was at its best, dotting around Christchurch from the city to the suburbs as my mood took me.

On the day that marked my 8-year anniversary, I found myself down at New Brighton beach. The pier there is an iconic Christchurch landscape and despite the wind that was whipping up, there were plenty of people out and about. After the recent hiking I’d done a couple of weeks prior, I was in no great desire to walk the full length of the beach, but I did go for a bit of a toddle down the sand, listening to the surf and daydreaming. Coming here reminds me of the long walks I used to take in Aberdeenshire, walking north from Balmedie to Newburgh. Listening to the sound of crashing waves is one of my favourite things to do and is an instant mood lifter for me. I walked under the pier before heading round to the stairs to walk out on it, a long meander out over the sea where couples stroll hand-in-hand and locals stand with fishing lines cast off into the surf. For me, there’s something quintessentially Trans-Tasman about it, as it always evokes memories of time spent in both Australia and New Zealand.

 

The following weekend I made use of my annual pass for the Christchurch Gondola, heading round to Heathcote to take the cable car up Mt Cavendish. The views from the Port Hills over Lyttelton Harbour and Pegasus Bay are some of my favourite viewpoints in the city. It was another gorgeous day and both the sea and the sky were a brilliant blue. I enjoyed lunch at the cafe at the top before wandering around the platform and then down onto the hilltop to watch the clouds moving in from the sea, dotted across the sky.

 

I was spoiled once more the next weekend when the sun was out in force again. After all these years living in Christchurch, I’d watched the city be reborn and there is so much of the new city that I really love. I need little excuse to visit Riverside Market or walk alongside the River Avon, and I especially love to walk through the Botanic Gardens in either spring or summer. The meadow flowers in the Gardens were in full swing and they were alive with bumble bees going about their business. The colours of the flowers were gorgeous with vibrant reds and yellows popping out of the display.

 

The rose garden was also in its prime by this point in the year, and is always full of people admiring the bushes with their blooms. On this occasion, there weren’t too many people there which meant I could actually take some photos without feeling like I was intruding on people posing for the ‘Gram. As I continued through the Gardens towards Canterbury Museum I noticed some new metal sculptures of a couple of deer grazing under a tree.

 

But I was really there that day to visit the museum which had a temporary exhibit called ‘Squawkzilla and the Giants’ about the prehistoric giant birds that roamed New Zealand around 60 million years ago. Before I moved here, I’d never heard of the country’s endemic parrots, the kea and kaka, nor did I know that penguins lived here. It’s not hard to love these bird species once you’ve seen them in the wild, so I was as happy as the kids that visited to come face to face with 1m and 1.5m tall penguins that used to call New Zealand home. It’s strange to thing that there used to be a penguin as tall as a human that waddled along the beaches here.

Before visiting this exhibit, I hadn’t realised that New Zealand used to have crocodiles. I always think of our neighbour across the Tasman as being the crocodile country, but apparently 40 million years ago, so were we. Then finally, I came face to face with squawkzilla, a human-sized parrot which looked very much like a giant kaka. The rest of the museum houses mostly static exhibits which I’ve been through many times before, so I took a quick whizz through a couple of them before heading back out into the sunshine.

I took a different route back through the Botanic Gardens to reach my car. This led me past the long stretch of flowers that leads up the wall next to the College. There were more bees buzzing around and when I reached the rose garden again, I wandered round the flower bed at its perimeter before heading into the nearby conservatory to get a view from the balcony on the first floor. There was a few more people milling about the roses by now, and plenty of people up on the balcony also. The following weekend I was to have the first of many planned trips away from home, but these first few weeks of 2020 had reminded me how much I love living in the Garden City.

West Coast Wanderings

My hands gripped the steering wheel as my foot slammed the accelerator to the floor, the engine revving loudly as I yelled out loud ‘come on baby, you can do it!‘. I leaned forward, as if the shift in weight would help get my car up the steep incline that lay before me. My heart in my mouth, I prayed the car ahead of me did not falter. Because if he did, so would I.

I’d read about a hidden gem deep in the forest of the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and having completed the 4-day Heaphy Track at Kohaihai, I was practically at the road end. I knew from looking on maps that it was an unsealed road to get there and it looked like it might be steep but I’d read plenty of reports about 2-wheel drive cars managing just fine so told myself my little 1.4 litre Hyundai would be okay. I turned off the main road and reached an entrance sign that also declared that it wasn’t a 4-wheel drive road. And so I continued, entering the forest on a semi-graded unsealed road as it started its climb upwards. But it didn’t take long to reach a steep hill and there was a car only a little in front of me.

My car can feel under powered uphill even on a sealed road, and I knew my car well enough to know I needed to just floor it. If I had to lay off the gas because the car in front of me was too slow, I knew I’d lose momentum and struggle, potentially stalling on the rough track under wheel. I hung back a little to give them a decent head start and then gunned it. I thanked my car out loud when I got to the top, but little did I know this was only the beginning. The road had to reach a pass which meant multiple steep sections of variably graded road, and regular blind bends with no idea about oncoming traffic, and variable widths to the road. Each time I loudly gave my car encouragement to get me up each steep section and thanked it for getting me there. As I reached the top I felt glad it was over, only to quickly realise the road dropped just as steeply down the other side, with just as many blind bends.

When I reached the car park, I was sweating and stressed, aware of the fact that the only way out was back the way I had come. So I was determined to make the most of being there by doing several walks. I took the shorter trail through the forest, following the tannin-rich Oparara river which led me to the gigantic rock structure of Oparara Arch. The arc of the arch, at 49m wide with a height of 37m, is impressive and the trail leads up to a lookout into the arch as well as down onto the rocks by the river. Despite the horrendous drive to get there, the car park had been quite full but thankfully most of the people on the trail were walking out and I almost had the place to myself, at least initially. Down at the river, I could see out the other side of the arch into the thick forest beyond, and the water reflected the opening on its surface.

 

When a few more people arrived I began back along the river where I noticed large stones at the edge creating patterns with their reflection. Upon reaching the car park I cut across to the opposite side to take a longer circular route that led through the forest. Within 10 minutes I was at the side track which led to my favourite part of the area, Moria Gate. Getting into it meant fitting through a hole in the rocks, aided by a chain to lower down into a sort of tunnel. Here another rock arch spanned the Oparara river once more and this one was just magical. There were a few people here making it difficult to photograph without other people in it, but I was reluctant to leave it, taking my time to wander back and forth from one end to the other.

 

Eventually I headed back up through the hole in the rocks and rejoined the main trail, continuing the circuit which quite quickly led me to a lookout which looked back into the arch from the outside. Continuing onwards, the trail meandered for some time through the forest, gaining a bit of height before eventually popping out at the Mirror Tarn. Even though it was a bit of a grey day, the mirror effect was still fully evident, but it felt eerily quiet here with no people and no bird song, so after a while I pushed on to complete the circuit and return to the car park.

 

I internally talked myself up for the drive back across the pass. I again had to wait for another car to get a bit of a head start, and once more I found myself gripping my steering wheel, flooring the accelerator pedal and verbally coaxing my car up every incline. When at last I reached the main road again, I allowed my pumping heart to settle. Clearly you don’t need a 4WD car if the conditions are right, but it was certainly a highly stressful drive with such a small engine, but I was very glad I’d done it. Now I could continue south cutting through Karamea and Little Wanganui before pulling over at the side of the road to take the Lake Hanlon track. After 4 days of walking on very little food I felt out of puff walking up the hill and down the other side to the long steely grey-looking lake. There were no reflections as the wind whipped through the crater a little, but a few birds gave some interest.

 

Despite it being in peak holiday season, I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay that night, but I did have my tent in the boot of my car. Having picked up a hitchhiker a few days prior, I decided to go with their recommendation of a campsite further south down the coast. Climbing up into the mountains and across a couple of saddles affording views down to the sea, almost immediately after winding my way down the other side, I took a side road down a gravel track to Mokihinui beach where Gentle Annie Campground opened up before me. It was so busy, with campervans and tents set up all over the place and children playing left, right and centre, that it felt like I’d arrived at a commune or festival. After paying an entry fee, I cut through the masses and found a spot on the edge of the crowds to set up my tent across from a field of cows.

Normally a busy campground like this would irritate me but there was such a happy vibe there with families and friends hanging out and enjoying the company and the locale, that I couldn’t help but feel relaxed there myself. I picked my way down to the beach and walked among the flotsam that had washed up, listening to the waves crashing near by and the sounds of happy children. I’d left the cloud behind and it was a gorgeous sunny summer evening. After walking to the river mouth and back, I set up my cooking stove on the beach and ate dinner for the first time in 4 days before watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea. It was the perfect end to the day, and one of those times where I couldn’t help but be in the moment. In the darkness I returned to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag full of content.

 

I awoke on the last day of 2019 with a long drive ahead. There was no great need to pack my tent up properly, so everything was thrown into the boot of my car allowing me to set off without wasting much time. It was unfortunately cloudy as I returned to the main road and followed the highway south. A little way down the road at Waimangaroa I cut inland to take a steep and winding road up into the clouds. At the top in the mist was Denniston, an abandoned settlement from the coal mining days. I’d read about this place some years prior and was excited to finally be visiting. Despite being summer, it was chilly in the clouds and they also brought drizzle, so I sheltered at the top by the information boards reading every single line, soaking up the history of the place.

There used to be an entire town here, perched atop the hill, frequently enveloped in mist or rain for weeks on end. It seemed to be a miserable place, not to mention a dangerous one, with mining works and conditions bringing all sorts of risks to those that braved a life there. What brings people there now is the impressive Denniston Incline, a 1:1.25 (80%) gradient altitude gain which the old coal track used to run up and down. It was a feat of engineering at the time and the thought of it now is still impressive. From the information boards, a track leads down to an area where remnants of buildings and machinery lay scattered across a flattened area, across which two separate viewpoints overlook the start of the incline.

Despite the mist, I could just about make out the surf on the west coast, and I looked down the slope impressed with it all. A few coal trucks sat locked forever in place on the cusp of the drop down, and in the distance I could see the route of the track fall away far below me. Walking around the site there are signs of broken and discarded coal trucks everywhere. The mist made it a little eerie but it was a pretty cool place to walk around. Out the back the track led below a huge stone viaduct that leads into the closed off mine shafts. The west coast is littered with abandoned gold and coal mines, most of which are closed off and deemed too dangerous to enter.

I watched a tomtit for a while before cutting back to the incline. The heavy blanket of dark clouds had lifted revealing a bit more of the view, so I spent some more time here, walking down into the meadow flowers at the top of the incline. After taking a drive across the summit past what was left of the old settlement, I headed back down to the bottom of the hill and took a side road to where the bottom of the Denniston Incline was served by a train track. It looked just as steep from this end, and yet more remnants of machinery were strewn around the place. Had I had more time and energy, I would have loved to walk the track to the top, but by now lunchtime, it was time to push on.

 

After stopping in Westport for lunch and a wander along the short main street, I drove out the other side to take the road to Tauranga Bay on Cape Foulwind. It had been years since I’d last been here and the place was full of holidaymakers from kids building sandcastles on the beach to surfers riding the waves in the bay. The clouds seemed to hug the southern end of the bay but as I followed the coastal track to the north, the clouds were breaking up and the sun was trying to come out. A little way around the coast is a lookout overlooking a New Zealand fur seal colony. It’s pretty much a guaranteed place to spot them and there was plenty of activity on the rocks below to entertain everyone.

 

I didn’t have time to walk the full length of the cape and back, but I walked up the hill a little past a multi-city distance marker and to a viewpoint overlooking the next bay. Heading back past the fur seal colony once more, I drove the short distance to the far end of the Cape Foulwind walkway where the lighthouse stands. The clouds had completely gone from this end of the trail, and I sweated my way up to the lighthouse from where there was a gorgeous view out over the Tasman Sea and the coast in either direction. I kept putting off leaving, but I had a New Year’s Eve dinner to attend outside of Christchurch so I really had to get going. That didn’t stop me from stopping multiple times in the Buller Gorge to take photographs. It had been less than a week since I’d passed through here twice in one day, but this time round it was under a blue sky and the river sparkled blue as it flowed through the deep and lusciously green valley.

 

As I cut from west coast to east, the sky began to change. For weeks Australia had been burning in one of the worst fire seasons on record. A few weeks prior I had left Sydney behind under a smoke-filled sky, and now a month and over 2000km later, the smoke had reached New Zealand’s skies. The sky turned hazy and red as the sun lowered, creating a really spooky effect. I couldn’t smell it, but it was a vision I can still remember nearly 18 months later. I didn’t even stay up for the turn of the new year, I was too exhausted from the drive, but I went to sleep full of the knowledge that 2020 would bring me lots of travelling, including a much-anticipated trip home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I could never have guessed what was to come.

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.

As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.

It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.

Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.

 

A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.

 

At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.

 

It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.

 

Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.

 

On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.

From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.

 

By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.

Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.