MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Bridle Path

Following a gloriously dry and warm spring, during which a near-drought situation arose in Christchurch, the summer has rather failed to start. What should be one of the best months of the year has fizzled out amongst rain, wind, and extreme jumps in temperature, meaning that my hope for a summer full of hiking is rather failing to fulfill itself. With the nearby Alps either clouded over or too windy on a regular basis, I decided to look closer to home to give me my fix. Within the boundaries of Christchurch, in the suburb of Heathcote is the gondola that takes people from the city side of the Port Hills up to a viewing platform on the summit of Mount Cavendish. From here there is a stunning view both back over the city nestled against Pegasus Bay, and also down into Lyttelton Harbour within Banks Peninsula.

In Heathcote, right next to the gondola, is the bridle path, a historical route where European settlers used to trudge over the hill from Lyttelton to Christchurch. It is a popular path, mainly with walkers, but it is also a shared mountain bike track too. I’m yet to see a single biker stay on their bike the whole way up. The path is steep and covered in loose stones, and no matter the weather, it is impossible to walk this route without breaking a sweat. It is definitely not a walk to be considered without a water supply.

Information board on the bridle path

Following the major earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011, there has been a lot of rockfall in the area, and the once distinctive Castle Rock to the right of the path has lost a large part of its structure. Previously another walk branched off the bridle path near the bottom, but nearly 5 years on, this walk remains closed, deemed as too unsafe. Even the bridle path itself has a section in the lower portion with a no-stopping sign due to rockfall risks. Frankly, I think any path around mountains, cliffs or rocks carries some inherent risk, and therefore I don’t see why these paths need any more warning or concern than any other walk, but that is just my opinion.

The remains of Castle Rock

Closed track in a rockfall zone

Rockfall zone below Mount Cavendish

The steep climb starts reasonably early on and maintains itself up a winding path that snakes high above the entrance to the Lyttelton tunnel, until eventually it reaches summit road, off to the side and below the top of the gondola. Looking north, the expanse of Pegasus Bay becomes visible and the city of Christchurch sits by its side. If the sky is clear enough, the Southern Alps span the horizon. Cross the road, and below lies Lyttelton harbour, the mountainous terrain of Banks Peninsula behind it. From here, there are plenty of walks to choose from. The most popular is to follow the Mount Cavendish bluffs track, part of the crater rim track, which rock-hops its way up to the gondola building. Behind here, other paths continue onwards, or there is a cafe, shop, and viewing platforms within the gondola building to take a break and soak up the view. Back at summit road, the crater rim also heads off away from the gondola as part of a very long day walk round what was originally a volcanic crater, and there are two paths down the hill to Lyttelton, one of which is the continuation of the bridle path.View from summit road looking over Pegasus Bay

Hiking the crater rim to the top of the gondola

Panorama over Lyttelton harbour from the gondola viewing platform

On this particular occasion, I was on a mission. I headed over the brow and followed the bridle path down a similarly steep path to the port town. This side is littered with patches of old rockfall, a testament to the power of nature. Whereas on the way up, the view is mainly behind or to the side, on the way down, it is right in front of you the whole way. On a sunny day, the water is a beautiful blue colour, and dependent on the tides, there is a large mud flat beyond Quail Island that is exposed in the depth of the harbour at low tide. The whole way down, I could see my objective: the port.

Lyttelton Port

Flowers on the walk

When the path meets suburban back street, you are still quite high up, and it is a steep walk down the pavement until eventually a flight of steps takes you down to the main road right by the roundabout where the Lyttelton tunnel exits. I headed straight to the port and joined the queue. On this particular day, there was a once-in-a-lifetime experience of an open day on the HMS Protector, an Antarctic ice-breaking patrol vessel that was in port for repairs. It proved very popular with long queues, but I had made it in plenty of time and thankfully didn’t have to wait long. Going to Antarctica constantly feels just out of my reach. I don’t have a relevant profession to work there, and now with chronic back problems for the past 2 years, I would fail the stringent medical even if I did. Going as a tourist remains financially unreachable at this stage of my life, so I have resolved myself to be an utter groupie. Without knowing it at the time, I moved to New Zealand and happened to settle in the city which is New Zealand’s gateway to the continent, and as such, I have had the pleasure of attending enough Antarctica-themed events to keep me satiated… almost.

HMS Protector

HMS Protector

After chatting with some of the crew and wandering round the ship, I headed back to town in search of brunch. Lyttelton varies between bustling little port town and sleepy suburbia depending on what is going on at the time. It suffered a lot of damage in the earthquakes, and the port itself is currently undergoing a major upgrade. This used to be where the visiting cruise ships would dock, but now they skip by and pull in at Akaroa round the coast. But it is still a busy port, especially for the export of logs to China. For people, it is also where boats cross the harbour to Diamond Harbour (from where Mount Herbert can be reached), Quail Island and out to the mouth of the harbour on a nature cruise.

Full of delicious food and coffee, I retraced my steps to the bridle path and worked my way back up the hill and over the other side. The signs at each end list 45mins to summit road, or 1hr 30mins from end to end, but even taking my time and stopping for photos, I was just over an hour each way. With the weather continuing to be grey day after day, it was nice to reacquaint myself with a local gem.

West Coast Wonders

One of the great benefits of being an immigrant, is that I get to be both tourist and local at the same time. I can find new places to explore, and take part in tourist activities, whilst having the benefit of being able to return or stay longer than many tourists, as well as gaining insider knowledge which is often invaluable. I’ve seen more of New Zealand than many Kiwis that I know, and more of the country than many tourists I’ve encountered, but yet there are parts of the country that I have still to explore, including a few key tourist zones.

With a 4 day break over New Year, it was time to head to one of these spots for the first time. The New Year was welcomed in listening to Six60 perform in Christchurch, then after some sleep, we headed off early for the long drive west. The road through Arthur’s Pass is one of my favourites in the South Island. Arthur's Pass National ParkOnce across Porter’s Pass, the road nestles and winds away across the Southern Alps, and there is so much to look at from mountains, to villages, to braided rivers. There are plenty of options for stops: Castle Hill, Cave Stream Scenic Reserve and Arthur’s Pass village are three good ones, but on this occasion, we ploughed onwards, pushing on to Hokitika on the west coast. It had been some time since I’d seen the Tasman Sea, and it was lovely and calm, crashing onto the stony beach whilst families relaxed on the shore. Hokitika driftwoodThe west coast of the South Island is quite a battered coast, and the beaches are generally stony rather than sandy, and often littered with driftwood. Hokitika has embraced this by erecting a sign on the beach made out of exactly that.

 

 

After a respite and some much needed lunch, we continued south down the coast. Leaving HokitikaIt was a lovely day for a drive, but one of the down sides of the level of tourism in New Zealand is the sometimes dangerous nature of driving witnessed on the roads. Often campervans and hire cars drive too slow causing back logs of traffic and driver frustration, or they don’t know what to do at one of the many one-lane bridges in the country. Driving down the west coastThe dangerous part is their hesitation or last-minute decision making which sees cars suddenly pull over or emergency stop in order to take photos or because they’ve seen something they want to look at. Southern Alps from OkaritoI’ve witnessed repeatedly, tourists stopped on the road round corners, or at bends, when oncoming cars can’t see them till the last minute, and worse, I’ve had a few occasions of the car in front of me pull to an emergency stop in front of me, throw their driver door open into the traffic, and jump out to take a photo. Frankly, when it comes to driving round New Zealand’s roads in the peak season, it pays to have a sixth sense. So it was unsurprising to have several emergency response vehicles whizz past us, and to eventually come across a closed section of road where a car had driven off the road. This was just a day after a tourist bus crashed into a car driven by tourists near Arthur’s Pass. Thankfully, this latest incident appeared to have no obvious casualties and the blockage was cleared swiftly.

Southern Alps from Franz JosefFinally, we rounded the mountains where the ice field and glaciers were coming into view, and we pulled into Franz Josef village. Southern Alps from Franz JosefAt the back of the village, nestled in the mountains is the glacier of the same name, and over 20kms further south, lies Fox glacier and the village of the same name. Helicopters at the Franz Josef helipadCollectively they are a big tourist draw, but the village of Franz Josef is bigger and more developed with more options for eating and sleeping. Franz Josef's back streetOn a good day, the sound of helicopters constantly fills the air as group after group are flown up onto the glaciers for a hike, or up and over the mountains for a scenic flight. We wandered around town and down to the helipads to watch the comings and goings of the various choppers. From the village itself, the glacier isn’t really in sight, but we watched as the helicopters became distant specks as they headed up the valley. The local cinema plays Imax-style movies and we watched a fascinating National Geographic piece about the ‘Age of the Airplane’ before going out for dinner.

 

 

 

 

The next day, the weather was not looking promising. We had an early rise and a sharp exit to make the drive south to Fox glacier where we were booked in for a heli-hike tour. The village of Fox glacier is much more sedate compared to Franz Josef, and I liked it much better. We’d booked to hike Fox glacier for the simple reason that Franz Josef was fully booked for our entire stay. When we arrived to check in, we were given a weather briefing: cancellation or curtailment were a high possibility due to the weather. We went through the helicopter safety briefing, boarded the bus and headed out to the helipad. Flying up to Fox GlacierAfter getting booted up and weighed, we were divided into flight groups, the weight of the passengers being precisely calculated for each helicopter’s load. View from the helicopterWe were in the second flight, and before long we were on board and sailing up the valley, the glacier suddenly in front of us. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the cloud was thick on top, but it was still an awesome view. Landing on the glacier was simple and quick, and we were out and on the ice fast to allow another load to come up.

 

 

 

Near the landing siteWith 5 loads to come up, there was time to absorb the view, and with everyone present and geared up with crampons and walking poles, we were off to explore. Crevasse starting to formI’ve been lucky to hike on a glacier before: on the Athabasca glacier in the Canadian Rockies, and Viedma glacier in Patagonian Chile. Fox glacierBut each glacier is different, and every time it is amazing. Like a frozen tumbling waterfall, Fox glacier is a maze of crevasses and caves and tunnels.

We stepped around flowing water and watched it fall deep into chasms in the ice. Ice caveWe hunkered down to crawl through tunnels and peeked into caves created by the ever changing ice flow. Looking through an ice tunnelBoth Fox and Franz Josef are relatively fast moving glaciers and are currently retreating. Fox is longer and faster flowing than Franz Josef, and despite moving an incredible 200m in a year, it feels still and quiet and a world away from civilisation.

 

 

 

 

 

View from the glacierThe cloud dropped and rose again repeatedly, and we got rained on for a while, but yet the call never came to decamp, and with relief, we got to experience the full length of the tour. Our guides were great fun, as was our group and we had plenty of time to negotiate a reasonably large area of the glacier. Leaving the glacier behindBut after a few hours, it was time to summon the helicopters, and we bundled back in in groups to head back down to the village. With the weather closing in, the rest of the day’s tours had been cancelled and we realised that we had been very lucky indeed to get up there. I had wanted to do some exploring in the area whilst we were there, but it continued to rain, so after lunch we were forced to head back to Franz Josef where at least there were more options.

The fantastic receptionist at our hostel helped us organise our next excursion and with a bit of time to kill, we headed to the Franz Josef hot pools at the back of town. A little steeply priced and very packed on such a dismal weather day, they were still lovely to soak in and pass some time. Directly across the road was our meeting point, and after bundling into the bus, we headed north to nearby Lake Mapourika for a kayaking trip. This was sand fly heaven, and kitted up, the group spread out across the smooth surface of the water. Halfway across the lake, the drizzle became more of a downpour and it wasn’t long before we were all quite wet. Kayaking across Lake Mapourika (Photo courtesy of Glacier Country Kayaks)But it didn’t detract from the beautiful and peaceful location, and we paddled on, rounding a spit of land and heading to a small opening into a narrow channel. It was fun paddling up the creek even if we did get stuck on some vegetation briefly, and we continued along until we hit the edge of kiwi country where we could go no further. Thankfully the return leg was a lot drier (at least outside the kayak it was, inside I was soaked), and after some obligatory group photos and a couple of challenges where people got out the kayak and ran across the rest of us, we headed back to shore. A few of us raced each other for a while, and back at the pier we headed back to town where following a quick change of clothes, we headed out to eat.

The next morning after breakfast, we headed back to Fox glacier village. Despite being close together, the lay of the land means that the weather in the two places can be very different. When we reached the village, the mountains were shrouded in cloud with only the base visible. Lake MathesonWith no spare time to try on another day, we headed out to Lake Matheson, a famous mirror lake not far from the village. Lake MathesonI was surprised to find a gift shop and cafe here, and it was very busy despite the less than ideal conditions. On a good day, the mountain range, including New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki/Mount Cook reflects on the surface of the lake to give a stunning picture postcard view. It was an easy 1hr walk through the bush round the lake, and despite the lack of visible mountains and the grey sky, it was still a pretty place to be.

 

Gillespies BeachFurther down the same road, and progressing onto a winding unsealed road was Gillespies beach. Here there was no cloud at all and the sunshine was beaming down on the coastline. Like most west coast beaches, it was stony and covered in driftwood. Remnants of a gold rushThere were a few walks in the area, including one north along the coast to a seal colony. We had a deadline to get back for so didn’t have time to do it, instead we went for a shorter walk to visit the remnants of a gold mine. Dotted up the west coast of the south island are multiple remnants to the gold rush of the 19th century. Heading back towards Fox we re-entered the overcast sky zone and headed back towards Franz Josef. This 22km drive is itself exceedingly stunning.

 

 

Franz Josef glacierWhilst my partner went quad biking, I drove out the back road up the valley towards Franz Josef glacier. Fox GlacierDespite being into the evening, the car park was still packed. River flowing away from Franz Josef glacierThe walk from here to the terminal face of the glacier is listed as 1.5hr return. Franz Josef glacierIt is a well marked but stony path that cuts down to the river bed and follows the river upstream, eventually cutting across several scree slopes left behind from the retreating glacier until eventually it ends at a fence and a sign. Waterfall near the glacier trackHaving been up on Fox glacier the day before, I was rather underwhelmed by the dirty and seemingly small glacier that tumbled down the wall of the valley in front of me. Glacier valleyIt wasn’t very clear where the helicopters landed for the hiking tours as this late in the day they had all finished. Reflection in Peter's PoolThe sun poked through the clouds in fits and starts, finally illuminating the glacier as I readied to leave around 6pm. The wind speed had suddenly raised dramatically and dust was whipping along down the river valley. Even on the return leg, there was still loads of people on their way out there. I passed some waterfalls, and then took a couple of detours from the returning path to get a differing viewpoint along the valley and back towards the glacier. But my favourite view was actually from a completely separate walk that led off to the far side of the valley. I only went as far as Peter’s Pool, just 15mins along the track, where despite the drizzle that had by now started, there was a mirror reflection of the glacier on its surface. The sand flies were an unfortunate distraction and it was impossible to get much time to enjoy the view without other tourists wanting to take photos so after only 5 minutes or so, I headed back to the car park and back towards the village.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That night we experienced the culmination of a few days of frustratingly poor service in an eatery in Franz Josef village. Eating out for breakfast and dinner, we had utilised 4 different eateries during our stay there, and with 1 exception, we endured rudeness, laziness, confusion and general ineptitude amongst the staff, as well as extortionate surcharges by the establishments. It became rather irksome and an annoyance that hung over what was otherwise a rather enjoyable trip. Franz Josef village would not exist were it not for the tourist draw of the nearby glacier, and it felt very obvious that the eateries in town were more about fleecing tourists out of a good buck rather than good service and tasty food. It was exceedingly disappointing.

Hokitika riverWe left early the next morning eager to avoid eating in Franz Josef again. Hokitika PanoramaHeading north back to Hokitika, we stopped here for brunch before heading up the river to Hokitika Gorge. Last time we were here, the river was a milky grey colour, and with the sun shining up above, I had my fingers crossed to see it in its full glory. Hokitika GorgeThankfully this time, we joined the path from the rather packed car park, and quickly discovered that the river was resilient blue. It is a short and easy walk round a few bends to the swing bridge that crosses the river, and round from here the track goes to a viewpoint. Hokitika GorgeThe track had been upgraded since last time too, and now there was a gated entrance to go down to the rocks by the river’s edge. It was a busy place to be but surprisingly peaceful, and there were plenty of spots to choose from for a differing view of the river as it wound its way through the gorge.

 

Arthur's Pass National ParkEventually though, it was time to head back home to Christchurch, and so we got back on the road and retraced our steps through the stunning highway through Arthur’s Pass National Park, a road that never fails to impress. Arthur's Pass National ParkIt is one of my favourite areas to go hiking in and has so much to offer for hiking enthusiasts. Nestled into the passenger seat with camera in hand, I merrily spent the drive home making the most of the opportunity to photograph the mountainous landscape. I have high hopes for the coming months of summer to conquer a few of the peaks here. Fingers crossed the weather obliges.

Southern Christmas

On January 6th 2012, I touched down in New Zealand for the first time. At the time I was tired from the flight and the jump in time zone (I only lived through 2hrs of that day), but I think deep down, I knew that I would want to stay here. Four years on, I’m still in love with the country, and I’m working hard at seeing as much of the country as possible, but still some areas remain unreached.

It was a long time coming, but on Christmas day, myself and my partner headed north from Christchurch, and inland towards our destination. Just north of the city, a lorry heading the other way, threw up a large rock which hit my windscreen leaving a large chip and crack. A couple of hours later, deep in the winding roads of the heartland, a speeding twat overtook me then proceeded to nearly crash in front of me. It was not the start to the holiday I had planned. The top of Maruia FallsBut it was a gorgeous sunny day, and just south of Murchison we stopped for lunch at Maruia Falls. Maruia FallsWe’d driven this road a few times before but never noticed this place, but I’d read about it somewhere and made a point to look for it. It was worth the stop to sit at the base of the falls and watch the river flow over it and head on down the river beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

We pulled into the sleepy village of St Arnaud, nestled within Nelson Lakes National Park in the late afternoon. The clouds had drawn in, but we headed first to the shore of Lake Rotoiti before checking into our hostel. St Arnaud school playgroundIt was, after all Christmas day, and I had made sure to bring provisions to cook a delicious Christmas dinner. Satiated, we took a wander through the sleepy village before having an early night.

 

 

 

The next morning, I convinced my partner that hiking Mt Robert would be a good idea. Lake Rotoiti from the Mt Robert carparkIt was a gorgeous day, and an excellent way to get a different view on the expanse of Lake Rotoiti, one of two large lakes in the National Park. From the car park at the start of the hike, a short track leads to a lookout where a different view of the lake is given as well as rolling hills for miles on end in the opposite direction.

I’m not normally one for sitting still on holiday. I usually like to make sure I’m seeing and doing as much as possible in a new place, but it was so easy to just wind down and chill here. Growing up in Scotland, swimming is generally restricted to heated pools, with only the foolhardy taking a dip in the sea (which I had been known to do in my childhood). What Kiwi summers are all aboutIn New Zealand, summer is all about outdoors and this generally means that most Kiwis are water confident. They swim in the sea, in rivers and in lakes. They dive bomb and belly flop and jump from rocks without a care in the world. So following the hike, my partner went into the lake for a swim. It hadn’t even entered my head to bring bathers with me as this just wasn’t the done thing back in Scotland, but watching all the families playing in and around the water, I soon regretted it. Lake Rotoiti with Arnaud Range on left and Mt Robert on rightBut sitting on a bench in the shade, slapping away sandflies, it was an incredible feeling to just breath and be present. Clear water of Lake RotoitiThere was no wishing to be anywhere, no wishing for something to happen, no thinking about the past or the future, just simply staring out at the beautiful landscape and enjoying it. View from the beer gardenEventually though, hunger took over, and we went to the main eatery in town, the Alpine Lodge for pizza. Their outdoor beer garden overlooks a river and the nearby mountains, and it was a gorgeous spot to enjoy a cold drink.

 

 

Lake RotoitiThe next day we had a bit of time to kill. Duck by the lakeThere are a lot of options for walks in the area, from short local explorations, to mountains to climb, to multi-day tramps. Duck by Lake RotoitiWhilst my partner relaxed at the main bay, I headed off on a nature walk round the peninsula. Lake Rotoiti from the peninsulaThere wasn’t a lot of fauna to see, but plenty of flora, and although the lake was hidden from view for the majority of it, there were some breaks in the trees which afforded a differing view of the lake and Mt Robert. Whiskey FallsReaching almost the whole distance round to West Bay, I cut back inland and back to the pier. We had arranged for a private boat tour up the lake to see Whiskey Falls. It was another gloriously sunny day, and it was perfect conditions for a cruise around the lake. Near the far end of the lake, he berthed and took us on a short walk through the forest to the 40m tall pencil waterfall that was visible in a small clearing in the trees. The waterfall can also be reached on a long walk along the west shore of the lake, but it was nice to get out on the water.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mt Robert behind Lake RotoitiI was still keen to have fun on the water when we returned to St Arnaud, so I hired a kayak for an hour and happily paddled about from one bank to the other, listening to the birds, and watching the ducks float around. My partner had another swim, and although quiet compared to New Zealand tourism standards, it was a busy little place, buzzing with happy people, families and excited children. With fewer foreign tourists, and mainly Kiwi visitors, it was nice to embrace and feel part of the Kiwi summer culture. Unfortunately, this also included sandflies. Around many waterways in the country, these persistent creatures vie for your blood, and using insect repellent is a must. After a delicious BBQ buffet at the Alpine Lodge, I had envisioned sitting by the lakeside as the sun set, watching the colours change as dusk took over, but instead, I was hounded by swarms of the pesky flies that danced around my face. After a short time, I was forced to abandon my desire, and head indoors.

Pier at Lake RotoroaHeading back to Christchurch, we took a detour to another large lake in the National Park, Lake Rotoroa. Swan & cygnetsBeing on a no-through road, it sees less traffic than Lake Rotoiti, and as such is less developed and feels more secluded. Lake RotoroaI loved Lake Rotoiti, but I adored Lake Rotoroa. Boats moored at Lake RotoroaIt was quiet and simple yet staggeringly beautiful, and again there are many walks in the area. Buller river exiting Lake RotoroaWe would have gone for another cruise on this lake had there been someone around to organise it, but the boat lay moored up with no-one in attendance. Instead, we followed the river away from the lake for a short distance before heading back. I could have happily stayed here for days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maruia river west of the Lewis PassWe stopped for lunch on the west side of the Lewis Pass, and sat at a picnic bench surrounded by mountains. Lunch stop near Lewis PassOn the other side, we were also able to stop at a large rock formation by the side of the road that I have driven past repeatedly but never been able to explore. Giant rocks by the roadI felt like a kid reaching the top of the giant rock and surveying the land around me. View from the big rockBeing another gloriously sunny day, it was a fantastic end to our Christmas mini-break.Brown pastures of Canterbury

Mount Robert

If you were to have just one day to visit Nelson Lakes National Park, I highly recommend it is spent hiking Mount Robert. Towards the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, nestled on a road between Nelson and Blenheim, is the little village of St Arnaud that lies by the bank of Lake Rotoiti. Flanked by the St Arnaud mountain range on the eastern aspect, opposite to them, and round West Bay lies the domineering peak of Mt. Robert.

Lake Rotoiti hikes illustrated at the DOC office

It is a short drive from the village, and up a winding unsealed road to reach one of the car parks. Stopping in to the local Department of Conservation office, I was recommended to hike the summit on an anti-clockwise route, and I would definitely recommend this too. From the uppermost car park, the Pinchgut Track sets off through an impressively dense and tall forest and immediately starts the constant winding gain of altitude that leads up to the summit. The middle section of the ascent is exposed to the elements – in the case of the day I hiked it, this meant the harsh and hot sunshine. Zig-zagging upwards for over an hour, Lake Rotoiti is visible for a large portion of the hike before the trail disappears again into the forest. Being in the middle of the summer, there were alpine flowers in bloom and plenty of Tui flitting about the trees.

Forest walk on Mt Robert

Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti on the ascent

View through the forest canopy

Alpine flowers

After about an hour and a half, the path burst out of the trees at a pseudo-summit. The true summit of 1421m is unmarked, but is effectively one of the two little hillocks that sit to the side of the path which is only a metre or two off the summit height. From this ridge track, the lake is hidden, but instead the vista is of rolling green hills spreading off into the distance. Nelson Lakes National Park is undeniably beautiful, and with the sunshine and associated haze, the mountains appeared blue. A little hut, called the Relax Shelter sits near to the split in the path which marks the turning point for the loop track to head back to the car park. With more time, it is possible to continue along the Pinchgut track which climbs higher to the Robert Ridge, and beyond to the Angelus Hut by a mountain lake of the same name, and further still to connect to one of the many tracks around both Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. The National Park is a hiker’s paradise with a large selection of track options to choose from.

Relax Shelter with Robert Ridge behind

Track options from the summit of Mt Robert

Summit view west

Summit view west

My partner, who is not a fan of hiking mountains, always spends the incline cursing me under his breath. I always know he will love the view and the achievement at the end of it, which is why I talk him into it, so after receiving the evil eyes on the steep climb up, the smile broke across his face as we rested up by the shelter. The bees were busy polinating, and some other hikers chatted to us for a while. After a pit-stop, we took the loop path that split from the Pinchgut Track, called Paddy’s Track. This took us first over a fairly barren ridge where we were facing the immense wall of the St Arnaud range, and finally Lake Rotoiti came back into view.

Looking across to the St Arnaud Range

St Arnaud range from Paddy's Track

Lake Rotoiti from the shingle ridge

Beginning the descent, we passed the Kea Hut, an old ski club hut from the days when people used to hike up mountains before ski lifts were invented, and beyond this was the Bushline Hut, a decent-sized overnight hut at 1290m altitude. Being a popular trail, we got chatting to a German hiker whilst we ate lunch. After having had Mt Alford to myself the week before, it was interesting to have so many tourists to chat to as we went. From this point onwards, Lake Rotoiti is in full view for the majority of the descent. The path has loose shingle making some parts a slip hazard, but with such an awesome view it was a very enjoyable walk down. On two occasions, there is a scree slope to negotiate which needs good treads on your feet, and finally, the path disappears back into the forest for a while before eventually exiting at a lower car park.

Kea Hut poking through the trees

Panorama of Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti with St Arnaud visible

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti through the forest

Descending towards Lake Rotoiti

2nd scree slope

The DOC signs state 5 hrs for this hike, and that’s not far off what it took us to complete the circuit, although this included a lengthy lunch break and a shorter break on the summit. The majority of the hike is exposed to the elements making it a sweaty affair on a sunny day, but I was recommended this hike, and I highly recommend it as a must for any trip to this National Park.

Mount Alford

I had the whole mountain to myself. Pulling in to the little area demarcated as a car park, I was surprised to find no other vehicles, on a summer Sunday. It had even been a fairly traffic-free drive from Christchurch, along the Inland Scenic Route past the Rakaia Gorge and the bottom of Mt. Hutt, considering the tourist season is in full swing. Past the turn-off to Methven and a little further down the road, is the turn-off to Alford Forest and the road that leads to the start of the Mt. Alford summit track. Parking up next to a large field crammed full of sheep, the DOC sign marks the entrance and maps the route up.

DOC Sign at the car park

Map of the walk

The walk starts on private farm land where signs repeatedly note the importance of closing gates and sticking to the path. It is generally a case of follow the orange poles, but most of the track is well trodden and quite obvious. Leaving the sheep behind, the path crosses a private track and heads deep into the forest where it stays more or less for the best part of an hour. It was very muddy underfoot thanks to some recent heavy rain but the vegetation in the forest hints at frequent rainfall here, so no matter how good the weather is, this is walk worthy of good boots.

DOC sign at the transition between public and private land

Sheep at the foot of the mountain

I’m not always a fan of forest walks due to the lack of view, but this forest was teeming with birds which made it a really enjoyable place to be. In fact the whole hike was really enjoyable, and the forested section reminded me of the Kepler Track in Southland. At times, the birdsong was interspersed with the bubbling of a nearby stream, which at one stage needed to be crossed. There is only a slight break in the trees where a private track cuts through, and the next section of forest was particularly boggy in places as well as having lots of tree roots underfoot.

Alford Forest

Stream crossing

Mt Alford summit track

Finally, there is a break in the trees, and the first proper look back over the expanse of the Canterbury Plains is possible. Whilst the clouds were high, there was almost a haze over the plains, and it looked suspiciously like the weather man had got the forecast wrong. At least the sky looked promising in the direction of the summit and I remained hopeful of getting a decent outlook at the top. Through another brief section of forest, I emerged at a gate into a field of cows who all turned round to look at me as I proceeded to hit my head on the fence whilst passing through the gate.

Ashburton River

Canterbury Plains

Having worked on a farm in my younger days, I feel confident around stock, but as beef cattle are handled a lot less than dairy cattle and therefore more prone to be inquisitive or seem aggressive, I could see how someone of a fainter heart would not be thrilled about negotiating a field of cows. The orange markers mark the path along the edge of the field, but I had a hundred pairs of eyes on me as I negotiated the quagmire in places. By now the sun was beating down from above and without realising it at the time, I was approaching the half-way mark.

Mt Alford behind the cows

The gate into the cow field

The cow field

At the top of the field and through the gate, the track very briefly follows a 4×4 track before veering off across the field and for the first time, losing an obvious route. The track is not well worn here and at one orange pole it really was not obvious where to go. As I knew I was headed up, I simply picked my own way up the hillock until I came to the next fence line where I found the next gate. On the other side of the gate was a picnic table overlooking a stunning view across to the neighbouring mountains. This would have been a sensible place to stop for a while, but I opted to push on, aware of some clouds creeping over the summit, and not wanting a repeat of Mt. Thomas a month prior.

Hiking the Mt Alford track

The 4x4 track

Table with a view

From here on though, it is a relentless uphill slog. The vegetation changes to a more tussock or alpine plant, and the path underfoot is quite stony. There are several alpine plants that have spines, and I repeatedly got stabbed in the leg or the hand as I negotiated my way up the slope. But the pay-off was the view which was spectacular from this point onwards, with one side of mountains visible to begin with, then eventually another side opening up as the ridge drew nearer. Finally, the lower ridge was reached, and then it was an easy walk up to the summit (1171m).

Mt Hutt beginning to appear in the distance

Mt Alford track

View from Mt Alford track

Mt Alford summit from the lower ridge

Unlike other walks maintained by DOC, there is no summit sign or trig point. A man-made stone cairn denotes the top of the mountain and for 360 degrees, there is an amazing view of mountains spreading out in an arc behind and to the side, with the expansive Canterbury Plains opening up below. I spent an hour at the summit, just me and a few bees for company. Many of the alpine plants were in flower, and despite the high cloud, there was still an impressive vista to soak up. The sun teased me, threatening to break through, but it never did. Instead, I watched as clouds formed on the neighbouring mountains and swirled around and up the valleys.

Mt Alford summit

Yellow flower

View from Mt Alford summit

Mt Alford summit

Clouds building up

Alpine plants

In fact I was so mesmerised with the clouds that I didn’t realise how much they were building up. I had been so busy ogling the landscape and the clouds in one direction then the next, that suddenly I looked round and realised that both neighbouring mountains had been partly engulfed with clouds, and there were a cluster threatening to obscure the face of Mt Alford. With my descent purely visual based on following orange poles, I came to the sudden realisation that if I didn’t get my ass off the summit, I may lose visibility to get back down again. Supposedly, the afternoon was supposed to be better weather than the morning, but by 1.30pm, it looked the opposite.

Clouds coming up the valley

Cloud building up around Mt AlfordClouds creeping up neighbouring Mt Hutt

Pausing briefly to study some more alpine plants and to photograph my descent past the clouds, I made it back to the picnic table in no time at all. In the end, I needn’t have worried, because it wasn’t long before all the cloud dissipated and the sun appeared. Retracing my steps, I passed through the gate and picked my own way down the hillock before joining the cows once more. Again they watched as I passed by, and soon I was back in the forest where I came across the only two other people out on the track that day. Back through the forest I picked my way down, being ever careful of my footing, but once again surrounded by birdsong. The sun was out with gusto when I reached my car, still alone in the car park by the sheep.

Pretty alpine plant

Ashburton river

Cow & calf

Little waterfall

Walking at a reasonable pace, it took about 2hrs 15mins to reach the summit and about 1hr 45mins to get back down. With the start of the walk being roughly 1.5hrs drive from Christchurch, it is a very accessible and very enjoyable day trip away from the Garden City.

Old Favourites

I regularly need to pinch myself when I think how unbelievably blessed and lucky I am to call New Zealand home. I will always be a proud Scot, but there’s something about New Zealand that makes me immensely happy. I love getting out and exploring new parts of the country but I also love revisiting some of my favourites. I love living in Christchurch in the country’s South Island, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else right now, but at least once a year, I try to get up north to visit Auckland, the country’s largest city. It was the place where I touched down when I first arrived here, nearly 4 years ago, and I have spent many days here exploring different aspects of the city and its surroundings. I have my favourite places that I like to go each time, but I also try to go or do something new too.

This past weekend, I headed up for the first time in nearly a year. The weather played ball, and for the most part, I got to soak up the sun whilst making the most of the place. The greater Auckland population is over 1.5m compared with Christchurch’s roughly 360,000, and with the latter still in the throes of a post-earthquake rebuild, it is nice to escape to the Big Smoke and experience the goings on of a big city. Usually there is another reason to head north, and on this occasion it was to support some of my fellow pole dancers in a national competition. There were some amazing performances and it was lovely to see several people from the studio I attend winning awards.

Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari boatBut the most exciting thing about this trip, was the boat trip that I treated myself to the next day. Aside from travelling, I have a major love of all things cetacean, and am always eager to get out to sea at any available opportunity. Coromandel PeninsulaI had discovered a couple of years ago that a whale and dolphin safari is available from downtown Auckland, and now was my chance to head out for a new experience. The weather conditions couldn’t have been better and it was a lovely calm trip east to the dominating Coromandel Peninsula that juts sharply out into the Hauraki Gulf. A convergence of currents here brings blooms of both phytoplankton and zooplankton which attracts Bryde whales and common dolphins on a regular basis, and Orca and bottlenose dolphins on a seasonal or sporadic basis. Any or all of these was going to keep me very happy indeed.

Coromandel PeninsulaThere was a while where it looked worryingly like there wouldn’t be a sighting. I’ve been lucky enough to have a multitude of whale watching trips under my belt, and not a single one of them has occurred without a sighting. But I’m always aware that there could be a first time, and I was starting to think it might be this one. Bryde whale lunge feedingBut finally the call came out that a whale had been seen popping its head out the water straight ahead, and finally, not far off the Coromandel coastline, we came upon a Bryde whale lunge feeding. Bryde WhaleIt repeatedly threw its head straight out the water before rolling onto its side. After a few lunges, it stopped feeding and swam around us from a distance. Bryde whale near CoromandelI’d last seen this species 10 years earlier in South Africa where the sightings had been so brief that I had managed no photographs, so it was fantastic to get a much better viewing this time round. We spent some time watching it move around us for a while before we went off in search of dolphins. Common dolphins are my favourite species of dolphin, and I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing them again. My memories from my only sighting of them are fading as again it was a brief occurrence in South Africa 10 years ago. We took a long route north then west back towards Rangitoto island, but alas it was not to be. The crew told us that it didn’t happen often, but I was gutted to see no dolphins on this trip.

Standing on glass, 51 floors upThe next day, I decided to revisit a place I hadn’t been for nearly four years: the observation deck of the Sky Tower. Auckland’s most iconic building, it was officially opened in 1997, three years after construction began. Like the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Sky Tower had its critics, but like in Sydney, it is hard to imagine the skyline without this building now. Next to the SkyCity Casino, the entrance is underground, and then the elevator with its partly-glass floor whisks you up to the 51st floor to the lower of two observation decks. Sky Tower shadowFrom here there is a 360o view of Auckland and its surroundings. It was an awesome thing to do when I first arrived in New Zealand as it helped me get my bearings in such an expansive city, and on a second visit it was just nice to see everything from above again. Like many buildings of its type around the world, there are sections of the floor made of reinforced glass so that you can stand over the massive drop and laugh as people either jump up and down on them or scare themselves silly on them.

Auckland Harbour bridge and marinaOn the 60th floor is a smaller observation area, but the glass up here is tinted differently, so I personally prefer the view on this floor with regards to being able to take photographs. Downtown Auckland & harbourThe day I was there, there were two men doing repairs on the outside, suspended off the side of the building in harnesses and inside a ‘bucket’. It’s definitely not a job for the faint of heart. There are a few adrenalin activities available from the Sky Tower itself. Auckland CBDIt is possible to do a Sky Walk where you are harnessed up on a platform outside the building on the 53rd floor for a wander round. From here, it is also possible to do a harnessed base jump down to the ground. Auckland CBD & beyondI don’t remember there being the Sky Jump there last time (although it’s quite possible I was oblivious to it!), so although I knew about its existence more recently, I didn’t know a lot about it. As it turns out, you can be merrily looking out the window on the 51st floor to be caught off guard by a human being hurtling past the window towards the ground. It was funny hearing the gasps when people on the observation deck weren’t expecting to see this! I’m thinking next time round, this may be my new experience to try in Auckland!

 

 

Cruise ship in AucklandA trip to the City of Sails isn’t complete for me without a wander along the foreshore past the ferry terminal, the viaduct and beyond Wynyard Quarter to the marina. Auckland ViaductWith an estimated 1 in 3 households in Auckland owning a boat, there is a plethora of boats in the marina, and the harbour is always full of boats both private and commercial chugging past. Auckland ViaductIn the summer months, large cruise ships dock regularly, dwarfing the neighbouring Hilton hotel. Wynyard QuarterThere is also a multitude of spots to get a different angle of the stand-out Sky Tower dominating the Auckland skyline. Auckland SkylineIt’s a view that’s hard not to fall in love with.

Mount Thomas

If there was ever a hike worthy of a sturdy pair of hiking boots, Mount Thomas’ summit track would be it. And if there was ever a day where getting up very early makes a big difference, then this day would be it. Just over an hour north of Christchurch, in the Waimakariri District of Canterbury, north of the town of Rangiora, and nestled down an unsealed road is the Mt Thomas Conservation Area. From a car park near a camping ground, a selection of paths head off into the forest for a variety of routes.Mt Thomas Conservation Area

I set off from the car park a little before 10am with the sun shining down from a near cloudless sky. There was a hint of wind, but choosing the summit track, I was sheltered well within the forest. For the first hour of this track there is little relief from the steep uphill slog, and the path is stony with a covering of fallen vegetation making for a route in need of good grip on your shoes. The steep incline was tough on my calf muscles as I found myself a little unfit after a spring of near laziness. There is little to see other than trees, as other than a brief section next to a private road, the majority of the path is deep within the forest.The first split in the paths

Near the bottom of the summit track

A brief break in the trees

By the time the gradient began to ease a little, I was disheartened to see the sun had disappeared behind a thick blanket of cloud. When finally the trees gave way and opened up slightly to afford a view down into the gully at the side of the mountain, I realised that the wind had completely changed direction and a low-lying fast moving cloud had barrelled into the gully meaning that I was now within the clouds. It was cold and there were spots of rain, and I could barely make out the neighbouring hillside. The path hugged the upper reaches of Mt Thomas before finally the forest ended and the track emerged on a 4×4 track. There is no marker here other than the one pointing you in the direction you came from, but common sense leads you up the track instead of down, and round a couple of bends the aerials and trig point marking the summit (1023m) became visible through the racing cloud.The upper forest

Looking through the cloud bank

The cloud bank was whipping up the gully and over the nearby ridge very fast, and gusts of wind made the summit quite cold. There was no view in any direction and I was a bit gutted. Had I set off an hour earlier, I would have summited in the sunshine. After a quick wander round the summit, the sun threatened to burst through and I contemplated stopping to eat some lunch and see if the cloud burnt off. But the summit was completely exposed, and it was cold and windy, so I made the decision to push on. I had decided to return via the Wooded Gully Track which involves crossing the ridgeline next to Mt Thomas. This exposed ridgeline was where the cloud was whipping up and over, so all that was visible was the thin path snaking into the mist, marked by an orange marker.View towards the Ridge Track from the summit

Mt Thomas summit

View from the summit of Mt Thomas

The wind wasn’t strong enough to have me concerned, so I set off into the cloud and followed the ridge track through a very alpine environment. The track varies in width but is easy to follow, and as it dropped slightly down the one side of the ridge, it was possible to see down the gully slightly and get a slight view of the neighbouring mountains. Something caught my eye on the track at my feet and I was astounded to see a stone shaped like a heart. It wasn’t much further until the track disappeared back into the forest again.Following the Ridge Track into the clouds

Following the Ridge Track

Heart-shaped stone

The neighbouring ridge appearing out of the clouds

Whereas the summit track had gained the majority of the altitude in the first hour before easing off, the Ridge Track which soon after entering the forest split into the Wooded Gully Track, lost most of the altitude early on going downhill, only easing off in the lowest section. The Wooded Gully Track was much more interesting than the Summit Track with several streams to cross, and a varied forest canopy which was full of bird song. Even with the path being dry, there were several parts which were a slip risk, and on two occasions I lost my footing before managing to catch myself again. About half an hour after re-entering the forest, I was aware of the sun breaking through the canopy, and through the occasional break in the trees, I could see the now uncovered summit of Mt Thomas off to the side of me. I hadn’t met a single soul on the whole hike yet and several parts of this track were only wide enough for one person with steep drops off to the side. There were plenty of trip hazards too, so some sections took a lot of foot watching to prevent a fall. Finally, I passed a scattering of other hikers in the lower reaches of the forest where the path splits at different stages to give alternative routes back to the car park.Re-entering the forest

Wooded Gully Track splits from the Ridge Track

Stream Crossing

Looking back up the mountainside

Forest track

DOC walks are always well signposted and can sometimes be generous with their listed times for their walks. There was only one spot in the lower forest where the path forked that it wasn’t as blatantly obvious as usual which path I wanted, but again common sense prevailed. All the paths in this area lead back to the same car park though, so even a wrong turning here will eventually get you back to the same exit point. The final hour of the walk was in sunshine and I was slightly dismayed to realise that an hour either side of my leaving time would have afforded me a summit view. With just 10 mins left to walk, the path crossed a river and a picnic bench sat haphazardly to the side of the bridge. Having not eaten yet, I opted to sit for a while to have some food, but even this early in the season, the sandflies were out and about and insisted on flitting about my head. They are the bane of waterways in New Zealand and in enough numbers have the ability to ruin a pleasant summer day out in the countryside. After a fast consumption of my sandwich, it was a very brief and easy walk back to the car park.DOC sign at fork in the path

Bridge across the river

The DOC signs state a 2hr hike up the summit track and a 2.5hr hike down the Wooded Gully Track. There is also the option of following the Ridge Track to its terminus which makes it a 3.5hr walk back to the car park. I reached the summit in about 1.5hrs despite being painfully slow in the early stages whilst my legs eased into it, and including a brief stop at the summit and a lunch stop at the bottom, I made it back to the car park in 2hrs. No matter which path you choose, this is definitely a track in need of good walking boots and good hiking socks too, as there are steep sections on either route, and the Wooded Gully track has sections where streams flow down the track. The only toilets on the path are at the camping ground near the car park at the start.

This was hopefully the first of many day hikes this summer season, but alas, a summit view is going to have to wait for another occasion…

Musings of a Volunteer

I had wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands for as long as I can remember. Growing up in Scotland, I was enthralled with the multitude of BBC nature documentaries on the television and David Attenborough has been a regular on my television screen for most of my life. As an adult, I have been able to combine my love of travel with the ability to spend more quality time in a place by donating my time and my skills where I can. I spent 3 months volunteering in South Africa when I graduated, and to this day, that trip still remains one of my life’s most defining times. Prior to moving to New Zealand, I spent a month volunteering in the beautiful pacific island of Rarotonga, the biggest of the Cook Islands, and this year, despite a lot of difficulties with visas, I finally got to live my dream by heading to Santa Cruz, the most inhabited island in the Galapagos, to volunteer for a month.

Government Office, Puerto AyoraVolunteering is an excellent chance to meet, integrate and work with people from different countries and cultures, and with everyone’s dates varying, the collection of fellow volunteers is an ever changing melting pot. There were 5 other volunteers for varying time lengths during my month stay there, and everyone was from somewhere different. Not only out of work, but in the working environment, it was interesting to learn new things from different people’s experiences. But in particular, I enjoy learning more about the local culture and politics than is usually possible as a tourist and am often fascinated by what makes the local town or government or community tick.

There are some talks amongst the people of Galapagos about trying to become independent from the country of Ecuador. I’m sure other islands or provinces in other countries can relate: their hard-earned money goes to a government far far away and in return they get only a relatively small percentage of investment and funding. Also decisions about their economy, their health and their education are made by people far far away, and it has led to many people in the Galapagos feeling short-changed. Whilst I was there, there was both a rally and a demonstration about some of these matters. One of the big things that I learned, is that when tourists book and pay for their Galapagos tours whilst abroad, through travel agents, that money goes into the financial pockets of mainland Ecuador. However, when tours are paid for whilst already in the islands, that money goes directly into the local economy. As the majority of tours are booked before reaching the islands, the majority of income generated from Galapagos tourism isn’t actually going to the people of Galapagos directly, instead it goes first to mainland Ecuador and then divvied up. Had I known this, and had I known how relatively easy it is to book a tour whilst in the islands, I may have booked my trip differently.

The growth of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, San CristobalAnother thing that surprised me was the level of construction taking place on the island. There is little fresh water in the archipelago, so drinking water is shipped in bottled. There is one de-salination plant in the whole archipelago, and this means that there is a shortage of fresh water. Growth of Puerto Ayora, Santa CruzEach building is supplied water for only a few hours a day, which then needs to be stored in large tanks and rationed. The islands are very strict with recycling materials, but everything that is collected needs to be shipped back to the mainland. Growth of Puerto Villamil, IsabelaDespite all this and more, new buildings are going up left, right and centre. On one particular occasion, I spoke to an Ecuadorian man who pointed out that the new hotel next to where we sat was being built too close to the sea, and was not taking into consideration the higher tides and storms that can hit the region on occasion. Population & Visitor graph at the San Cristobal Interpretation CentreIt was a story I had heard before in Fiji when, privy to some local knowledge, we learned that a foreign investor was building a large reception hall on the opposite side of an island to what the locals recommended. The locals were fully aware of potential for storm damage on the southern side, but the foreign investor ignored them. Back in the Galapagos, it seemed that enthusiasm for the all-important sea view was over-riding local common sense. Both the local population is on the increase as well as tourism numbers, meaning more accommodation and support buildings and new streets are needed. With the exception of Floreana, all the other 3 inhabited islands’ towns have grown in size greatly in the last few decades. Two of the islands I visited also bare the scars from quarries that have been dug into what is supposed to be one of Earth’s untouched wonders.

These effects lead on to some conservation issues which I had my eyes opened to whilst I was there. Advertised as one of the few places on earth that is relatively untouched, and containing such unique wildlife, since the days of human habitation, there has been a lot of irreparable damage. Cute dog in Puerto AyoraAside from the earlier explorers eating the tortoises and sending several species extinct, they introduced mammals both accidentally and deliberately which not only challenged some species survival directly but also introduced disease. Cat wandering the streets of FloreanaCurrently there is a pox virus rampaging through some of the endemic bird species. Road kill is also an all-too-common occurrence. With the increase in people, there is an increase in vehicles and roads, and this has led to iguanas and birds especially, being hit and killed on impact. Restaurant named after the tick parasite, prevalent on Santa Cruz's dogsOne of the buses I was on, hit and killed a native bird whilst we were on our way to go on a boat trip to see some of the native birds. The irony was discomforting. But I was equally surprised by the attitudes of some of the locals. Many are so reliant on tourism for money, but as a vet volunteering at a free veterinary clinic, I was surprised by how many people didn’t want to neuter their cats and dogs who were just left to wander the streets, and in the case of the cats, were hunting the native species. Mural in Puerto AyoraThey didn’t seem to consider, or appreciate, or care, that these introduced species had a huge impact on the native species, which are what the tourists come to see. Ticks were a common problem, and these ticks carried diseases which were also a common problem. But some people relied on breeding dogs to sell the pups as an added source of income. Lonesome GeorgeIt is a conundrum. Thankfully though, with such public awareness to the wonders of this archipelago, there is no shortage of research work being undertaken there, and new discoveries continue to be made. There are also some of the islands which are off-limits to tourists and some parts of the national park are out-of-bounds unless accompanied by a park guide. With so much at stake, I for one am interested to see what will happen to one of the Earth’s gems in my lifetime. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be resoundingly positive.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 3

It was my friend’s last day, and we awoke from our exceedingly late night with plans to chill out in Puerto Ayora. From the pier we jumped on a panga (water taxi) to cross to Angermeyer Point, an upmarket part of the island which has no road access. There is a well-marked path to Las Grietas, one of the island’s recommended tourist spots. Great EgretOn route, we passed a lagoon where a great egret and heron were perched, then we skirted past the already busy Playa Aleman and on past a salt lagoon. HeronAt the top of the canyon, we first followed the path along the cliff top which gave us a view down into the canyon as well as back towards Puerto Ayora and out to sea. Playa AlemanRetracing our steps, we then took the short branch down the steps to Las Grietas. LagoonA canyon in the rocks has trapped a deep saltwater basin with no apparent connection to the sea. Puerto Ayora from Las GrietasThere are a chain of pools to explore which are divided by previous rock falls which need to be scrambled over with no dignity at all. Looking out towards Santa Fe in the distance from Las GrietasThe entrance though was swarming with paper wasps, large creatures that don’t leave you alone. Looking down on Las Grietas canyonIt meant getting in the water fast, and once in, it was incredible. The entrance to Las GrietasWhilst not containing a lot of sea life, they are surprisingly deep, so it is worth snorkelling purely for that reason alone. Galapagos GruntThe final chamber does have a shoal of a reasonably sized fish, and whilst it’s not a good snorkel in terms of seeing marine life, I was really glad I had done it. Unfortunately my friend got stung by one of the wasps whilst we were negotiating one of the rock barriers, and with them flying around everywhere at the exit, we didn’t hang around long before leaving. Playa Aleman was busy with locals and tourists, but it was a great spot to relax and sunbathe the afternoon away, before catching a panga back to Puerto Ayora.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly, it was my final week and it hit me that I was going to have to leave. Outside of work I was intent on seeing and doing everything that I could. Who knows if I’ll ever be back? The long walk to Tortuga BayI spent a few evenings playing tourist, wandering around the many tourist shops looking for memorable souvenirs, and on one of my lunch breaks, I made a last (and all too brief) return to Tortuga Bay, my absolute favourite part of Santa Cruz. Tortuga BayIt was in the blistering heat of the middle of the day, and I had to power walk to make it there and back in time as well as be able to take some photos. Marine iguana in the surfEvery time I’d been before I had not had a camera, and I just wanted to see it one last time. Gorgeous Ambas PlayaNormally an hour walk, I got there in 40mins, and then had nearly an hour to wander between Tortuga Bay and Playa Mansa, the sheltered beach through the mangroves. Ambas PlayaThere were lots of marine iguanas on the spit of land that demarcates the divide between the two beaches, and even a couple negotiating the surf. Marine IguanaEven though it was a week day, both beaches were busy, and I tried to soak it all up before I had to leave to get back to work. I was unbelievably sad leaving, having wanted to just kick back and enjoy it, but now I was just a few days away from leaving the islands behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My last day volunteering came and went and before I knew it, I had only a weekend before the start of my long journey home. I’d decided to head back to San Cristobal, the island that I started on, to try and snorkel with sea lions again. It had by now been over a month since my last visit there, and it was strange how unfamiliar it seemed at times. Getting up early to catch the boat, I was pleased to look at the sea and see utter calmness, the sure sign of a smooth ride. And for the first 45 mins it was, whilst we were in the shadow of Santa Fe. But when we hit open, unprotected water, the crests started and we became airborne again. For over an hour I had to grip onto whatever I could as we slammed onto the ocean surface from a free-fall again, and I fought hard to keep relaxed to prevent the shockwave damaging my spine. But inevitably my back had had enough, and about half an hour away from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a shooting pain shot up my neck. It was jarring and repetitive, and my heart sank at the thought of having a flare up of my chronic back issues on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Puerto Baquerizo MorenoI arrived to sunshine and went in search of somewhere to stay. It was third time lucky before I got a room, and despite a slight Spanish misunderstanding, I got a really good deal without even knowing it. Darwin Bay from the viewing platformFollowing some refreshments near the waterfront, I followed the waterfront round past sleeping sea lions and Playa Mann, and up towards the interpretation centre and out the other side. Frigatebird on Frigate HillI took the direct path up to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill), and caught my breath for a while before deciding to follow the track onwards to the north. Very quickly it became obvious that not many people came this way as it was rough going and quite overgrown. I had only jandals (flip-flops) on my feet, and despite finding it uncomfortable, I pressed on down the far side of the hill and on across the lava landscape. On the way down I nearly stood on a Galapagos snake which thankfully disappeared into the bush before my foot hit the ground. I followed the track for about 40mins for little reward. The going was rough, and in places the path was not obvious or involved rock hopping. There was little to see and I never reached the promised beach at the end of it. Sweating in the heat of the day, I turned back and headed straight for Darwin Bay.

Marine Turtle in Darwin BayDarwin Bay is the place where Charles Darwin first set foot on the Galapagos in 1835, and the water is crystal clear. Notably though the sea was also very cold and despite the sun shining directly on it, I had to keep moving to generate some heat, snorkelling with an increasingly foggy mask clouding my view. Sea lion tugging on a marine iguanaIt was an awesome spot to snorkel. There were fish everywhere in varying sizes and colours; I watched a marine turtle feed for a while; and a sea lion swam up to me then past me. The same marine iguana once out of the waterI saw something floating on the water and realised there was a large chunk of blubber on the surface. I’d seen this once before near a dead whale, but I didn’t want to get too near as rotten blubber usually stinks, and I couldn’t see where it came from. Sea lion swimming at Darwin BayNothing was feeding on it, and it moved on the surface with the wind and the tide. After a while, I found some sea lions playing. They weren’t really interested in me, so they didn’t come particularly close but they circled and dived in front of me, and then suddenly one of them grabbed the tail of a marine iguana that was swimming to the surface. It would grab the tail then let it go before grabbing it again just to release it again. It did this repeatedly until the iguana finally got itself out the water and up on a rock. I’d heard about this behaviour before. The sea lions don’t eat the iguana, they just seem to like to play with it like a toy. I’m sure the iguana didn’t like it, but I felt lucky to witness such behaviour. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the last good snorkel I would have on the trip. I sat on the shore for a long time just soaking up the view and watching the sea lions leaping out of the water, whilst another one slept next to me on the rocks.

Charles Darwin statue above Darwin BayEventually I headed up towards the large statue of Charles Darwin that overlooks the bay. Coastline near Darwin BayFrom here the path follows the coastline round and down to Punta Carola beach. I hadn’t walked this section before, and from the viewpoint I could see sea lions fishing below me and had an uninterrupted sea view. Sea lion swimming in clear waterIt was just stunning. Further round there was an old armament from the war, and finally I came out at Punta Carola and nearly stumbled over some sea lions that were right at the end of the path. Sea lion mother and pupI loved this beach. Punta CarolaThere were sea lions everywhere, and they were noisy but it was amazing to sit and watch them going about their lives. Sea lion in the murky waterEarly on I got in the water to snorkel with them, but the swell here meant I could barely see my hand in front of my face, and I couldn’t see them coming. I gave up and went back to the beach to relax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sea lion on Punta CarolaI spent several hours drifting between sleeping and watching the nearby goings on. At one point I was woken with a start to something tickling my bare foot and sat up quickly to find a sea lion staring at me from past my feet. It must have sniffed me and touched me with its whiskers. It ambled past me as if nothing was the matter. Sea lions on Punta Carola in the lowering sunLater on a group of tourists and a guide appeared. They were noisy and insisted on posing for photo after photo with every single sea lion they could find. There was a group of sleeping sea lions in a bush not far from me and that was where most of the tourists were standing. I tried to fall asleep again to block them all out when suddenly I got covered in sand. Again I sat up with a start to discover that one of the sea lions had run away from the group of tourists towards me. It looked as surprised as me with my sudden movement and then hobbled past me just inches from my head, kicking up sand as it went. I was immensely glad when the group finally left and peace and quiet returned.

Lowering sun over Punta Carola with Santa Cruz on the horizonI had nowhere else to be, so watched the sun set over the beach, during which time a mother and juvenile sea lion ignored the 2m rule that is advertised across the islands, by coming right up to where I was lying, sniffed my stuff then promptly lay down for a suckle. Juvenile sea lion on Punta CarolaIt was an amazing experience and I waited there as long as I could until the light level was dropping too low.

I walked back to town in the darkness where local girls were performing dances on the promenade. It was a lovely atmosphere and the evening was warm and welcoming. I had a lovely dinner before doing some last minute souvenir shopping in the local stores, and finally it was time for my second last night in the islands. I crashed out when my head hit the pillow only to be woken ridiculously early by the irritating chirrup of a cricket or locust nearby. The night before, the shops had been over-run with locusts, and the shopkeepers were killing them as quick as they saw them. At 4am, I couldn’t locate it, but I had to put the fan on just to drown the sound out in order to get back to sleep.

It was my last full day in the islands and I woke with a sore back, no doubt the result of the previous day’s boat trip. It was really windy and the sea was choppy, and I started worrying about the return leg and what further damage it might do to my spine. I tried to shake off the feeling and make the most of my last day, so I headed first to a local cafe and enjoyed some delicious fresh fruits and granola. Depiction of the islands at the Interpretation CentreIt was a grey day, and following the same well-travelled route I followed the shoreline and headed back to the Interpretation centre. We had visited here as part of my tour on my first day in the islands, but we had skipped sections and our guide had summarised sections, so now I wanted to read it all for myself. It is a really good place to learn about the geological history of the islands and the human history from its first discovery. Human habitation has a lot to answer for with regards to species eradication and introduction of pests and diseases. One of the most sobering sections was the future predictions for the island group, and the things I read there as well as things I had been privy to witness and learn about during my volunteering stint has left me sad for what may occur in these most wonderful islands. I can only hope that positive steps for conservation outweigh the negative steps being made to promote tourism.

Another murky underwater sea lionThe last hours on the island were spent on Playa Mann. Mother and juvenile sea lion on Playa MannI again tried to snorkel but again the visibility was poor, and with a heavy heart, I drew my snorkelling excursions to a close. Sea lion having a scratchWith fewer sea lions than Punta Carola, it was possible to get a bit more space to yourself here but there was still plenty of sea lions rolling around in the shallows to keep me entertained. Sea lion on Playa MannI was daydreaming when someone broke my reverie and I ended up chatting for a while with an Ecuadorian man who was there on a research trip. Mural at the pier of Puerto Baquerizo MorenoIt was interesting to get his opinion and views on what was going on in the country and the islands, as well as a fantastic opportunity to speak Spanish. The last sea lions to be seen in the GalapagosI came to realise that whilst my speech hadn’t improved much, my understanding of the language was much better and I found myself a lot more aware of what was being said to me, which was quietly satisfying. I didn’t always know how to reply, but at least I knew what was being said. We walked together back to the pier, from where he was heading to the far side of town to go surfing. By now though, it was time for me to bid San Cristobal adios for the final time. There was the usual organised chaos waiting to board the boat, and on the steps at the side of the pier, a group of sea lions were piled up for a sleep. They were the last sea lions I would see on this trip, and I boarded the boat satisfied yet sad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the apparently choppy sea, the return leg was surprisingly smooth, and to top it off, we slowed down on the way to watch some bottlenose dolphins cavorting around the boat. Back on Santa Cruz, I had my final dinner with one of the volunteers, and then it was time to check my luggage for the last time and try and get to sleep. When I woke the next morning it was torrential rain, the worst rain I’d seen the whole trip which was perfect timing given that I had to wander the streets to hail a taxi. Thankfully it only took about 5 mins to find one, and it drove me to the bus station on the edge of town, where there was only a short wait till the bus left for the port on the north side of town. It was packed, full of both locals and tourists, and most of us got off and piled straight on the cross channel ferry. In fact all the transport ran so smoothly that I ended up catching the bus on Baltra straight away which got me to the airport with 4 hours to spare. I couldn’t even check in yet. There was nowhere to sit apart from a couple of stools in a corner, and I sat here daydreaming for as long as I could. I was hungry but there was nowhere to eat, and nowhere to leave my bag, so I was forced to ride it out. Finally after getting my boarding card, I walked through to the boarding area to discover a food court that I could have accessed pre-check in. I was gutted, because by then I had no time to order a cooked meal and eat it, so I was forced to go through to my departure gate and buy the only food I could find: potato chips and cookies.

Sitting on the runway at Baltra looking over to Santa CruzBut now it was over. I boarded the plane and took my window seat, and after 5 incredible weeks, I watched as first Baltra then Santa Cruz disappeared below us, and I settled in to the flight to Guayaquil that signalled bFlying over the Itabaca Channel between Baltra island and Santa Cruzeing homeward bound. There really is nowhere on Earth like the Galapagos Islands: a magical place full of wildlife and adventure. I will probably never return, but having managed 10 out of the 17 islands, I think I did good. I definitely have my favourite islands, but it’s hard to fault a place where the wildlife appears to be literally everywhere. I only hope the magic continues for generations to come.

Life in Slow Motion, Part 2

I was grateful to have as much time as I did, because I was able to explore so much of the Galapagos islands. Each island offered something different to see and explore, and there were so many opportunities for wildlife spotting it was nearly impossible to keep a smile off my face.

Another day trip took me from Puerto Ayora to the island of Santa Fe almost directly south. It wasn’t the sunniest of days on Santa Cruz, but thankfully on reaching Santa Fe, the cloud finally broke and we ended up in sunshine for most of the trip. Sea lions on Santa FeOn the far side of the island is a beautiful lagoon where we anchored and a dinghy took us to shore: a beach which was littered with sea lions basking. Sea lion on Santa FeI don’t think it is possible to get enough of seeing sea lions as they noisily shuffle around the beach, and plonk down next to each other, or roll around in the surf. Land IguanaWe watched them for a while before heading inland on an easy trek in search of land iguanas. Mockingbird on cactusWe found a few sunning themselves on rocks underneath cacti trees where they wait patiently for the fruit and flowers to fall. Beach at Santa FeWe gained enough altitude to have a beautiful view over the lagoon and out to the waves crashing on the coast. Like a lot of the archipelago, it was stunning and it was unique.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a dead sea lion on the small beach reached at the end of the walk. I’m as fascinated with dead things as I am with the living so I gave it a good close-up inspection. Our guide pointed out the shark bites on its side before we left it to nature to make use of such a good meal. Spotted Eagle RayBack out at the boat, we were dropped off at the lagoon entrance for snorkelling where the water was deep but still relatively sheltered. Lots of fishAlmost straight away we saw two eagle rays swimming towards us, and the depth meant there were large shoals of fish below us, bunched together in giant balls. Sea lion underwaterWe swam to the wall of the lagoon and followed it for some distance until we found some sea lions who promptly jumped in the water and played with us briefly, blowing bubbles and swimming loops in front of us. King AngelfishWe turned round to keep going and saw a shark swim past. Marine turtleWe were ferried across to the far side of the lagoon where we got back in the water where there were some marine turtles resting. Marine turtles under a rockOne swam past and away from us and the others were resting next to a rock on the lagoon floor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frigate birdWe had a 3 hour slow sail back up to the port on the north of Santa Cruz, and following another delicious lunch, I sat up top and sunbathed watching the large frigate birds circle above us. They joined us close to Santa Fe and thermalled above us the whole way, only leaving the boat when we moored at the end. A couple of them landed on the bridge briefly resting before taking off again. Up close these birds are huge. Known as the pirates of the sky, they steal food from the other sea birds rather than catch it themselves. With no webbed feet they can’t land on the water, and their feathers can’t get wet either or the weight will drown them or affect their flight. Despite these downfalls, they seem to be thriving with two species of frigate birds very prevalent in the region. Anchoring in the Itabaca channel, it was a short dinghy ride back to the port and then the long bus ride back to Puerto Ayora and my ‘home’ where a new volunteer had arrived.

My favourite of the day trips involved an early start for another long bus ride north to the Itabaca Channel. Joining the same crew as an earlier trip, we set off north-west on a long crossing to the island of Bartolome. Nazca BoobyFollowing breakfast on board, we passed the rock island of Daphne Major where some seabirds were nesting, and for the first time I saw some Nazca boobies, a similar species to the blue-footed boobies. The water was extremely calm so I climbed the side of the boat to reach the bow, and sat there almost the whole way scanning the horizon for life. I was secretly hopeful for spotting whales, but instead, I was treated to several sightings of various sea creatures. First, something large flapped out and slapped the water right by my side. It looked like the wing of a very large ray, probably a manta ray. Then to my complete surprise, a manta ray jumped out of the water and somersaulted before splashing into the depth again. It happened so fast I nearly didn’t believe it, but I later found out that they are known to do this to shed parasites from their skin. In the far distance, I saw a splash which was big enough to have been a whale breaching, although I never saw what caused it. Shortly after, what looked like a large shark fin was seen, and later again something that may have been a sunfish. By the time we reached Bartolome I was already wearing a huge grin and excited for the rest of the day.

Pinnacle Rock in front of SantiagoBartolome is a relatively small island that sits in front of the large island of Santiago. BartolomeBoth are very volcanic looking, and Bartolome especially is near barren, with only a smattering of hardy cacti growing in rock crevices. HeronSantiago in the distant past was multiple smaller islands close together that became joined up by a later eruption. Cacti on BartolomeFrom the top of Bartolome, the hills of the former islands stick up smartly above the flat ‘fresh’ lava that joined them all. BartolomeOn the far side of Bartolome we anchored in view of Pinnacle rock, a large pointy rock that sits at an angle like the leaning tower of Pisa. Santiago behind BartolomeWe were ferried ashore where a heron was sunning itself, and then it was a steep climb up the beautiful but stark volcanic rock to several view points. The most famous view in the GalapagosThe lava had hardened in flows, making for some visually stunning striations, and there were remnants of some fumaroles on the side of the main peak. Bartolome with Santiago's lava flow field behindThe higher we got, the more stunning the vista, and eventually we reached the point to overlook Pinnacle rock and the nearby bay, one of the archipelago’s most photographed views. I personally love volcanic landscapes, and to me the barrenness was simply stunning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the way back down we saw a track in the sand for a snake, although we never saw the creature itself, and on boarding the boat we took the short ride over to a sheltered bay on Santiago. I was exceedingly keen to go snorkelling because just a week prior my friend had been here and swum with lots of penguins. Marine TurtleI was keen to be in the water with them, and headed straight in on arrival ahead of everyone else in my group. The reward for my impatience was almost immediately coming across a marine turtle in the crystal clear water. There was nobody else around, and it seemed totally unfazed by me, going about its business whilst I watched. There is something so special about those moments that you have to yourself with nature, and I floated for some time watching it until it swam away. Lots of fishFollowing the rock wall at the edge of the bay, the water became deeper and larger shoals of fish were plentiful. By this point there was another group of snorkellers from another tour group who were intent on barreling into anyone else who got in their way. Even in the Galapagos, it can feel overcrowded. I did my best to keep my distance, hugging the rock wall until eventually a nearby boat signalled for me to go no deeper, and I turned and headed back to land. Streamer HogfishThere was not a penguin in sight and I came to the realisation that swimming with penguins was likely going to elude me. In the shallows a hogfish repeatedly charged me when I tried to swim to shore. I’m not sure exactly what it would have done, but it was a reasonable sized fish and I didn’t want a bite.

Santiago lava, old and newFrom the beach, I took a quick walk to the flat of the local lava field, walking barefoot on the lava and seeing it stretch for miles ahead. Lava on SantiagoNobody else came to see it, but there was little time to explore before we had to leave. On the dinghy to our boat, we found a penguin drying itself on the rocks, and although I didn’t know it yet, it would be the last penguin I would see on the trip. From Santiago, the spray was too much to sit on the bow of the boat, so I sat up top where it was easy to spot the multitude of manta rays in the ocean. Galapagos PenguinThey are huge creatures, and I lost count of how many we came across swimming near the surface. Daphne Major & Daphne MinorIn between, there was also plenty of marine turtles popping up to breath, and again I enjoyed the crossing as much as the islands themselves. Red-billed Tropic BirdA red-billed tropicbird lazed on the ocean near Daphne Major, and suddenly the captain cried out that he’d seen a whale. We were all up on our feet scanning the horizon, seeing nothing until as we approached the entrance to the shipping lane into the Itabaca channel, we all saw the distintive dorsal fins that signalled orca, and two orca broke the surface to breath. I was lucky enough to see a massive pod of orca in the north pacific off the west coast of Canada when I was 19, but my memories are becoming more vague and blurred and I’ve been desperate to see them again in recent years. They only came up in sight for 2 breaths, and whilst it was such a brief viewing, I was absolutely stoked.

My final day trip was to the very popular island of North Seymour. It is the most commonly visited non-inhabited island by tourists, and with good reason: it is the nearest and most accessible breeding colony of blue-footed boobies and frigate birds. Sea lion on North SeymourBy now I knew the drive to the Itabaca channel well, and from here it was a relatively short boat ride to the island which sits just north of Baltra island to the north of Santa Cruz. Blue-footed boobyImmediately we were overwhelmed with birds flying above our heads, and the path from the boat was partially blocked with 3 dozing sea lions. Juvenile frigatebirdAs much as I loved Bartolome, it was hard to beat being surrounded by hungry chicks and adults doing mating displays. Blue-footed booby and chickThere is a set path to stick to round the colony but there were plenty of blue-footed booby chicks to see and we were entertained with the whistle of the adult males as they tried to attract a female. Male frigatebirdsWe saw the famous blue-footed booby dance and even an actual mating. They are gorgeous.

Frigatebird chickFurther round we were treated to juvenile frigate birds of varying ages perched on the low-lying trees waiting for a feed. Land iguanaThe males were grouped together with their inflated red throat pouches desperately trying to lure in a female. There were two different species of frigate birds nesting there and no matter which direction you looked there was something worth seeing. There was even some land iguanas towards the back of the colony, and I was reluctant to leave at the end of the tour. I would have happily walked round again and again.

 

 

 

 

 

Marine turtleBut lunch and another snorkel called us, so we boarded the boat again and headed south. The food on all of the trips had been utterly delicious and plentiful, and that day was no exception. Marine turtleIn no time at all though, we reached Playa Bachas on the north coast of Santa Cruz where we landed. The water was very murky and quite cold making for a less than enjoyable snorkel, but having such poor visibility meant that on 3 occasions I almost swam directly into 3 huge marine turtles that were eating algae off the rocks. Brown pelicanI couldn’t see them coming and then all of a sudden they were right in front of me, about to be barreled down by my breaststroke. Pink flamingoEach time I had to suddenly back track to give them space and avoid touching them, but it was an exceedingly close encounter every time. Marine iguana on the beachThe cold eventually took over and I exited to an overcast afternoon sky. Playa BachasJust behind the beach, a single flamingo fed in a small lagoon, and with time to spare, I wandered along the length of the beach watching an iguana running across the sand, and looking at crabs in the rock pools. It was another satisfying day, and it was rounded off with dinner out and then dancing at Bongo Bar to see off my friend who was leaving soon. For me, my remaining days were also reducing fast…

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