MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Taranaki Time

It was a long and tiring 5hr traverse across the country. I had left the sun shining on the east coast at Castlepoint but as I headed west and north, the clouds built up. Towns and cities came and went as I skirted round Masterton and up to Palmerston North and onward to Bulls. I would have loved to have stopped in Whanganui for a bit, a city that I spent a few days in some years prior, but there was still some way to go, so I pushed on west, ever hopeful for a view of Mount Taranaki, one of the country’s most distinguishable volcanic cones. But the clouds were low and kept it hidden. As I drove up the eastern flank, you wouldn’t even have known there was a mountain there.

The evening light was weakening as I pulled up at my Air BnB in New Plymouth, a city I’d wanted to visit for some time. I had 2 nights booked there and I’d had grand plans of hiking around the lower slopes of Mount Taranaki. It was mid-September and I knew the snow would still be an issue higher up, and I didn’t have the time to do any multi-day treks, so I was ready to just explore the lower reaches of the mountain. But for my whole stay, the entire reason I’d come to the region barely showed itself, the cloud sitting low day after day after day. It was a slight frustration but it did mean I was able to explore a bit more of the region than I’d expected to, and the area firmly put itself on the list of places to return to in the future.

My Air BnB was right on the coast and I could hear the sea from my room. It was also facing the side of sunset, providing me with a lovely vista as the sun dropped low to the horizon soon after my arrival. The clouds added a dramatic splash of colour that first night as the sun set behind the islands of Lion Rock and Moturoa just offshore in the Taranaki Bight. After grabbing takeout, I had a lovely quiet evening planning my adventures over the coming days.

 

I awoke to sunshine and clearer skies. After the previous day’s long drive, I was planning on exploring on foot. New Plymouth has a long coastal promenade that from where I was staying led off in both directions along the coast. Dotted along the route are a series of sculptures or works of art to draw attention away from the rolling waves. One of the more well known ones, and one that I wasn’t really enamoured with, was the Wind Wand, a very tall metallic pole that swings with the breeze. I continued all the way to Port Taranaki where Ngamotu beach marked the end of the coastal walkway.

 

But my goal was Paritutu Rock, the rather distinctive pointed geological feature that is visible from some distance away. I had to cut up through a rather industrial part of the city to reach the car park and the start of the trail up to its summit, but I was rather disappointed to discover that the summit trail was closed for my entire stay while track work was performed. I at least had a more close up view of the collection of offshore islands that were nearby. I considered walking round the corner to Back beach but it was downhill, so having decided I wasn’t in the mood for the extra distance and climb on the way back, I started to head back towards the city.

 

The main road offered little interest on route beyond the occasional piece of street art, but I eventually found myself at Puke Ariki, one of the city’s museums. It wasn’t the largest or most interesting of museums but it did have a few things that caught my attention, including a sign discussing a virus outbreak as a future global emergency, something that hadn’t yet happened when the sign was erected, but had become quite ironic at my time of visiting in 2020. From here, I had a walking route to take through the city to spot the variety of street art that is dotted around the place. I’m a big fan of street murals, and New Plymouth has many of them. Next to the museum was a 2-storey high tui, and spanning out from there I recognised artwork by some of my favourite street artists.

 

It was a convoluted route past space creatures, portrait mashups and a giant elephant. There was even a beautiful landscape mural depicting Mount Taranaki to make up for my lack of view. But it wasn’t long before the city streets melted away as I entered the ornate gateway into Pukekura Park, a sprawling green space at the back of the city. It was a week day, so although there were plenty of other people around, it didn’t feel crammed, and I was easily able to procure a table at the Tea House On The Lake. I was staring directly at the summit of Mount Taranaki, invisible as it was, behind the clouds. Intermittently, for brief seconds, a snow-capped peak appeared before it was quickly enveloped once more. On a cloud-free day, this vista across the lake, with its distinctive red arched bridge below the peak of the mountain is one of the city’s more well known mountain photography spots.

 

It’s a beautiful spot for a wander. From the lake the trails crisscrossed through beautiful bush with the sounds of native birds to keep me company. The furthest away lake was the prettiest, and meadow flowers were in bloom in the green space at the farther end of the park. I spotted plump kereru, noisy myna, a sacred kingfisher and tui as I skirted up the hill from the Bowl of Brooklands, past Brooklands Zoo and back towards the lakes. I love visiting gardens in the spring. It always feels like so much life is thriving as the flowers burst into bloom and the birds go about mating and breeding. Near the cafe, the Pukekura Falls added an additional sound element to the call of the birds as I headed back towards the park entrance, and I was quickly made aware of the fact that there were shags nesting in the trees on the bank of the lake.

 

Eventually I exited the park, cutting back through the city past more murals to return to the coastal walkway. Ignoring my tired feet, I headed off in the opposite direction from the morning, passing recreational reserves and East End Beach before feeling like I’d left the city behind at Waiwhakaiho Reserve where a broad river opens out into the sea. There was a lot more activity here with cyclists, walkers, joggers, and dog owners all pounding the track.

 

Down in the river bed, a myriad of shags were drying themselves, but I was here to see the famous Te Rewa Rewa bridge, a white-arced structure that spans the river. Aside from the uniqueness of the bridge structure itself, it’s more well known for photos showing it framing the peak of Mount Taranaki. But although I was under glorious sunshine and a blue sky, when I reached the other side and turned around, as I already knew it would be, the mountain was nowhere to be seen, a bank of cloud hiding its existence.

I planned on continuing on to Bell Block beach, but after a few bends of the coastline, I decided that my feet had had too much. Turning around, I re-crossed the bridge then decided on a whim to circumnavigate the nearby Lake Rotomanu, a manmade lake nearby. As I headed back along the coast I could see windsurfers out in the evening surf, and when I eventually returned to my Air BnB, I was able to watch another sunset with the added drama of a changing cloud pattern to send streaks of light across the sky.

The following day turned into one of frustration. I awoke to a slightly overcast and stormy day but I had a lot of ground to cover so was quick to leave my accommodation behind and get going. Despite a need to head south, I turned north and drove for an hour up the winding state highway away from New Plymouth. Once past Waitara, it was effectively rural, with greenery spanning both sides of the road. Eventually I pulled off onto Clifton Road and found myself at the car park for the Three Sisters and Elephant Rock. I’d wanted to visit these coastal structures for years, and had been disappointed to hear that one of them had partially collapsed in an earthquake a few years prior. But it was to be a must-do excursion when I was planning this roadie, so to say I was gutted to get to the car park and realise that I couldn’t reach them was an under statement.

Despite investigating location and transit, I had failed to notice in advance that they are only accessible at low tide. As I got out the car, I looked at the gushing flow of the Tongaporutu river and stared incredulously at the sign that showed I needed to follow the river bank down to the sea. Only there was no river bank, just a high level water and no route to take me there. It was clearly high tide, not even close to being accessible, so I had to admit defeat and leave. A quick look on Google maps though had me spot a lookout just along the road, so I headed across the river and up the hill to an unmarked road with an unmarked car park and an unmarked track. But the views from the hillside made up for the lack of beach access. Although Mount Taranaki was once again invisible, I could see for miles down the coast, and the various sea stacks stood tall against the brunt of the waves that rolled in from the Tasman Sea.

 

On the way back to New Plymouth I cut down to Bell Block beach to see what I’d missed the day before. It felt rough and wild so I didn’t stay long. I only skirted the edge of New Plymouth, taking State Highway 3 south to Lake Mangamahoe. This was one of those places I’d wanted to visit for some time, in part because, like many people, I had spotted a photo on social media and felt compelled to see it for myself. The walk from the car park turned out to be rather bland with only fleeting glimpses of the lake, however it didn’t take long to reach the lookout with its famous view, only to realise once again that the cloud-shrouded mountain rather deflected from its potential glory. It felt a little underwhelming.

 

The track continued around the lake, with views patchy in places. On the south bank of the lake there is a redwood forest, where the path leads through foreign giants. It’s hard not to love redwoods even if they are an introduced species. To complete the loop round the lake, the track eventually joined the road I’d driven up, and I have to admit I was eager to get back to my car by the end of it. I think my expectations had been a little high, and as such my opinion of the place probably doesn’t serve it much justice. Yet as I pulled out of the reserve and cut round the back of New Plymouth to follow the Taranaki coastline round its volcanic cone, I was unaware that my frustrations were only going to get worse.

Wairarapa Wanderings

I awoke to a feeling of solitude. I’d arrived in darkness the night before, just the sound of waves crashing on the nearby shore and some low-level lights at the holiday park the only distraction from the darkness. There were few other people around when I ventured out, but I had a full day of exploring to do so I was quick to get breakfast in my stomach, load up the car and get going. Everything ahead of me for the day was to be new territory: a corner of the country that I hadn’t visited before and that had me quietly excited.

The road grew rougher as I headed east, skirting the coastline under some tall bluffs before leading me down a dirt track round the corner of the cape to the Cape Palliser lighthouse at the south-eastern point of New Zealand’s North Island. There was a decent blow about the place and I headed straight to the track leading up to the lighthouse. At the time of visiting in September 2020, there was some repair work being done to the lower track, but then most of the way is a very steep staircase and as I neared the top I was nearly blown off my feet. The platform on which the lighthouse stands strides the corner of the cape and the wind was slamming from one side to the other. I fought the wind as long as I could to stare out at the Pacific Ocean rolling in from both sides. I’d had an early start thanks to staying nearby, but as I headed back down the steps a few more cars began to appear. I picked my way across the rocky beach for a short distance before returning to my car and beginning to head west.

 

Almost immediately I pulled in at the nearby fur seal colony. The track was rough on my little 2-wheel car but I was able to avoid the boggy bits and find a dry spot to stop. I didn’t have to walk far to find fur seals, they were draped out to dry all over the place and I had to pick a spot to watch them while still allowing them their space. A few of them gave me some side-eye, but most of them kept sleeping as if I wasn’t there. I watched the antics of those leaping about a rock pool for a while before continuing. The road wasn’t in the best state. There had clearly been some storm damage in places that hadn’t quite been repaired yet. It was a rugged coastline and the sun was out but there were limited options to pull over and enjoy the view or take photographs.

 

Some distance along I pulled off the main road into Putangirua Scenic Reserve. I’d wanted to come here for a long time, partly because of what was here, and partly because it was a location shoot for the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I still remember watching those movies back in Scotland when I was at uni, and I would have never for a minute imagined at the time that I’d end up emigrating to New Zealand. Even without the movie reference, it’s a nice walk to do in the area. Starting from the car park, the track snakes alongside a river, a mix of rocks and sand underfoot, gradually gaining height until it turns a corner and then it’s a rougher route up a boulder field following a semi-well trodden path to the target: the Putangirua Pinnacles, reached in about 40 or so minutes.

Movie buffs will recognise these giant stony structures as the Dimholt Road in the third Lord of the Rings movie, where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas go in search of the dead. Subject to natural erosive forces, it’s a very dynamic area with scree and moving stones all over the place. The structures reminded me of the Clay Cliffs near Omarama in the South Island, but these ones are much more stony, and the walking underfoot felt much more treacherous. But there were so many passageways to explore and I was determined to poke my nose into as many of them as I could safely negotiate. Down in this valley I felt utterly tiny looking up at the sheer walls of the various spiky peaked pinnacles.

 

Rather than just head straight back, I picked my way back to a track junction half way back to the car park. This led me up the steep valley side through dense bush to a lookout giving me a bird’s eye view across to the pinnacles. This was the more classic view that I’d seen online, and up here exposed in the sunshine, it was turning into a belter of a day. From here, I opted to follow the 4-wheel drive track that leads down through farmland and takes a more scenic route back to the main road. Once I was properly out of the trees the view started to open up in multiple directions. Inland, there were rolling hills, and I could just about make out a snow-capped mountain in the South Island across the Cook Strait. To my front right was the sweeping expanse of Palliser Bay, glistening in the sunshine, and behind it, the long range of the Remutakas was shrouded in cloud demarcating so abruptly the great weather I was experiencing.

 

It was such a glorious walk, and as I picked my way down the ridge line I was startled by a green lizard running across the path. Further down the track entered farmland and some sheep were grazing the pasture as I followed the orange-topped poles lower and lower, passing small ponds and invasive gorse before eventually finding myself teetering above the road before the final descent down right by the bay. It was a short walk along the road side to reach the track back into Putangirua Scenic Reserve and my car. All up, it had been around 3hrs since I’d set off.

 

I stopped for lunch at Lake Ferry, a non-descript little settlement on the shore of Lake Onoke. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot despite the lake, but there were plenty of people on the edge of the bay hoping to catch some seafood. The weather was starting to dull a little as I set off, and I was pushing north for a couple of hours cutting up inland to Martinborough and out the other side. I contemplated getting my car looked at in Masterton following its escapades on the drive north from Kaikoura 2 days prior, but it had been mostly behaving itself since, and I didn’t really fancy getting stuck there not to mention that the quickest route to my destination bypassed the city.

From Martinborough, it felt like I was on back roads for the rest of the trip, snaking my way through rural New Zealand until eventually the road turned east again and it was a long and windy trip back to the east coast at Castlepoint. Although the sun was out on this side of the country, the wind had clearly continued to pick up since I’d been at Cape Palliser lighthouse that morning, and now there were wind warnings out for the region. I checked into my cabin at the local holiday park and was quick to get down onto the beach. The wind wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying a walk along the coast.

Castlepoint is at the southern end of a long, shallow, sweeping bay which terminates at a promontory atop which stands the Castlepoint lighthouse. The tide was in so part of the beach was cut off, sending me up onto the road, but the access track onto the promontory was still reachable. But while the wind had been buffeting me on the walk round, it was full on whacking me from all sides as I walked up to the lighthouse. When the gusts hit I had to hold onto the barrier in some places. There were a few hardy people there with me, walking around the track, soaking up the gorgeous view from the top of the rocks. The sun was setting by the time I decided to head back to the holiday park, and I discovered that Castlepoint was the windiest place in the country that day, with gusts peaking at 148km/hr that night.

 

The peak had passed by the morning but it was still quite windy. I was quick to get back out onto the beach once I was ready for the day. Aside from the promontory, to the south there is another distinctive coastal formation in the form of the Gap and Castle Rock. An open lagoon has been created by a spit of land heading south that is broken from the neighbouring portion of coastline, creating an inlet for the sea to come in. Skirting the back of it is the Deliverance Cove track which leads up the hillside for a view down on the landscape. There was hardly anyone else there although I could see a woman down on the beach doing hula hoop tricks as I walked.

 

Once on the southern ridge, the wind was slapping me in the face again, but looking south there was another long sweeping beach. In front of me was the hulk of Castle Rock which, while not having an official track up it, clearly had a well worn route up to the top. The worst of the wind had passed, but it was still hours away from the gust warning being dropped. I didn’t have time to wait and this was my one and only shot to get up there, so where necessary I hunkered low to the ground wherever it was more exposed. The direction of the wind was thankfully blowing me into the hillside and not into the sea so while not ideal, it wasn’t quite as dodgy an idea as it could have been.

 

And the views were totally worth it. Not only is the sweeping and rugged coast beautiful in both directions, the immediate prospect looking straight down the rocky ridge line to the lighthouse is spectacular. The combination of early morning and early spring meant the sun created an unfortunate glare on the glistening blue Pacific Ocean, but I still loved the view despite getting a little dazzled. The very top of Castle Rock would have been a perfect spot for a picnic and staring out at the ocean but the wind just wasn’t letting up and I had a long drive ahead that afternoon. So I headed back down the track and cut down to the beach behind the sea inlet.

 

As I neared the beach I spotted a New Zealand fur seal which had hauled itself out of the ocean. His chunky mane identified him as a male, and I was sure to give him a wide berth as I passed. There were now more people around as I neared the northern end of the inlet and the sandy bridge that connects the two beaches. I headed back on to the promontory and up towards the lighthouse where I was able to walk around without quite the same level of buffeting as the night before.

 

On the nearby rocks I looked for fossils and found some shellfish remains embedded in the rock, partly exposed and already beginning to disintegrate. By the time I’d finished exploring it was lunchtime and with a five-hour drive ahead of me it was time to get going. Since arriving in New Zealand in 2012, I’ve managed to cover large chunks of the country, with a shrinking list of unvisited places. Now, I was on route to another of the few places I’d never been before, and there were a few hundred kilometers to cover to get there.

Spring Getaway

I was supposed to be gallivanting around Europe. I had booked an epic 6 week trip taking me through Singapore to Germany and on to Scotland to see my family, before taking a road trip up the west coast of Norway. I was one of the millions of people to have overseas trips canned because of COVID. In August 2020, it was then 2 years since I’d seen my family, and I had no idea when I’d see them again next. The 6 week leave from work was pointless so I cancelled 4 weeks of it, and left myself the last 2 in mid-September, figuring I’d take a wee spring roadie around New Zealand.

The final week of winter was a mixed bag weather-wise with gorgeous blue sky days with a winter chill in the air, followed by grey days, or a hint of warmth. I spent the last weekend of August walking around the city. Christchurch is not everyone’s cup of tea, and some visitors still fail to see beyond the earthquake scars that are still present on some city streets, but I love it here, and I enjoy a good wander around the place on a regular basis. I used the Avon river as a route finder, following its course past Margaret Mahy playground, and finding I had the giant swing all to myself. In my opinion swings have no age limit, and I’ll happily have a go at seeing how high I can get if I see a vacant one on a lazy day.

 

Spring is my favourite season to visit the city’s botanic gardens. The garden city had been ignoring the fact that it was winter for quite a few weeks by this point, with the daffodil lawns next to the hospital in full bloom even in August. It was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and I took a seat on the mosaic chair for a bit before returning to the flowers. The first of the cherry blossoms had bloomed, although the main event was still weeks away. Away from the gardens, the city felt a little empty but just a week later, it was buzzing, and with a DJ playing on the balcony at Riverside Market, I had that excited feeling that comes with the turn of the season, and the thrill of the impending months of spring and summer ahead.

 

The trees were still bare, but the buildings on the Terrace were colourful, and reflected in the gently flowing water of the Avon river. It’s a popular spot to sit and eat lunch, on the steps down to the river where the eels wait for some scraps, and a myriad of water fowl paddle around. Cutting across the city centre, I took a wander around some of the sculptures in the east frame of the city. Some large spray cans formed a canvas for some changing artwork, and a large rusty-looking jagged spire sticks up towards the blue sky, framed by the Port Hills. The flatness of the city centre makes it the perfect place to explore on foot or bike.

 

After a morning of work, I set off north the next weekend, for the winding drive to Kaikoura. The mountains of the Kaikoura Range were snow-capped, framing the bay and the town itself, so I headed to the lookout at the top of the peninsula hill to take it all in from a slight vantage point. I wasn’t staying here though, it was just a handy place to stretch my legs after a few hours of driving. With the late start in the afternoon, I didn’t stay long as I still had a few hours of driving ahead of me.

 

But as I continued on the winding road north from there, my car lost power on an uphill bend. Thankfully it was only brief, and no warning lights came on, but further along the road it happened again. This really wasn’t the kind of road to lose power on, as there’s so many hills and bends to negotiate between the coast and Picton, my destination. Most of the time it was driving fine though, and as I arrived in Picton in darkness on a Saturday night, I tried to allay any concerns, and focused on settling into my accommodation. It was a very basic hostel and a quiet one at that with no international travellers, but I was happy to be joined by a cat that looked so similar to my own.

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday when I awoke, and my car was behaving itself as I drove out to Waikawa Bay. The marina was full of boats swaying gently with the ebb of the water. The mountainous ridge where the Queen Charlotte track hides sat across the water of the Queen Charlotte Sound. A little further around the coast is Karaka Point where a short walk from the car park leads down a small spit to a flight of steps down to a small beach. The views here are incredible. New Zealand is full of stunning landscapes, and the Marlborough Sounds is one of my favourite scenic regions. The sea within the sounds was so calm, and there were rolling green hillsides in all directions.

 

From the top of the stairs to the beach, I spotted a New Zealand fur seal gliding through the water nearby. It had a large linear gash on its lower back that I’m convinced was a propeller injury from a boat. It was full skin thickness, exposing raw red flesh underneath, and it looked relatively fresh. The seal appeared to be swimming normally despite this wound but it was sad to see, and I’m sure it would be in a lot of pain with an exposed wound like that. One of many examples of the harmful outcomes from human and wildlife interactions. It stayed out in the water as I watched it now from the beach, cruising up and down the coast as I followed the stony beach round the headland onto the rocks. I spotted another fur seal cruising in the water, and a little off shore, some small sea birds were fluttering and diving for food.

It was so peaceful, and I’ve no idea how long I stood on those rocks for, but when I turned back around the headland, I found the injured fur seal had hauled out right by the base of the steps. It put its mouth on its wound, and I knew it needed to rest, but it was blocking my exit, and I couldn’t leave it alone without first disturbing it. Unfortunately it took off back into the water as I approached and I was quick to exit the beach in the hope it would come back out again. I savoured the views as I headed back to my car, returning to Waikawa Bay for a walk around the foreshore. Now there were many locals out enjoying the place, but it was still so peaceful, and I stayed here before heading back to Picton for brunch, which I ate out while watching the inter-island ferries come and go.

 

I always feel like I’m on a grand adventure if I have to fly or sail somewhere. I checked in for the lunchtime sailing on the Bluebridge ferry, and counted down till boarding, eager to set sail. The crossing from Picton to Wellington is one of the most beautiful ferry crossings I’ve ever done, in particular the hour and a half that it takes to sail between Picton and the Cook Strait. It was not only calm, but it was a semi-blue sky with just some thin clouds to blur the sun a little, and I was certainly going to spend the entire time out on the deck admiring the view. The first few times I sailed the Cook Strait, I’d taken the Interislander ferries, but the last couple of times I’ve taken the Bluebridge, due to the convenience of their sailing times for my needs. They’re very different ships, and on the Bluebridge ferry the outdoor passenger deck looks down over the vehicle deck, and on that particular sailing there was a truck loaded with sheep among the cargo trucks.

 

The inter-island ferries seem like utter behemoths compared to the little boats that ploughed the waters within the sound. Being a Sunday, there were lots of private sail boats out and about, and every now and again a water taxi or fishing boat whizzed by, all utterly dwarfed by the ferry, and all having to contend with the wake the ferry created behind it as it cruised slowly by. It was cold out on deck, and I needed gloves and a windbreak, but there was no way I was going inside with the scenery as beautiful as this. From the blue water, to the rolling green hills in every direction, there’s just nothing like it. Then as the ferry snakes through the sounds, and a gap finally becomes visible in the distance, the North Island suddenly comes in to view and the Cook Strait becomes broader and broader.

 

The North Island looks so tangible from this point, and yet it takes a full hour to cross it. I’ve had one rough crossing in the past, otherwise mostly I’ve been lucky with the weather on the trip over. This time round there was a strong cross wind and a bit of chop, but the limited spray meant I could still stay out on deck. The blue sky had all gone though, and the cloud overhead turned the water a steely grey colour. As we headed east towards the entrance to Wellington harbour, I could see the snow-capped mountains of the northern end of the Kaikoura Range poking up above the north coast of the South Island.

 

From the green hills of the Marlborough Sounds, the urban sprawl that appears on entering Wellington harbour is such a contrast. Again a myriad of boats moved around us, and city life framed the coast as we sailed round Miramar Peninsula and deeper into the harbour. The office buildings and the sky scrapers of the country’s small capital city grew larger as we crept towards our berth. Everywhere you looked there were signs of movement and life despite the greyness of the day. I stayed on deck till the last possible minute when drivers were called down to the car deck to ready to disembark. The car deck was mostly empty with only a handful of trucks and cars, so once the ramp was down I didn’t need to wait too long before I was signalled to move forward and head off.

But there was to be no lingering in the capital as I still had some distance to travel to reach my bed for the night. I was soon out of the city and in new territory for me, heading north-east around the back of the bay and up into the Hutt Valley. I had a two-hour drive that led me up into the winding hilly road that crosses Remutaka Hill. There’s so many hiking and biking trails around here, and I would have loved to have stopped and explored some of them, but it was well into the evening, and the light was getting low.

I’d never been to the Wairarapa region before, and turning off the main highway, I soon found myself deep in rural Wairarapa, seeing fewer and fewer cars as I eventually hit the south coast as the sun readied to set. I don’t like driving unfamiliar roads in the dark, but the Cape Palliser road wasn’t exactly a place to get lost. However, the sea came right up to the road in places, and with a slight wind buffeting from offshore, it felt wild as I passed the final kilometres. There was no one to greet me as I arrived at my cabin in the middle of nowhere, part of a small camping ground that was mostly empty. I settled in for the night as the place was shrouded in darkness, until it was almost pitch black outside. The sea was somewhere nearby, but it was no longer visible. With a coastal chill in the air, I could only hope for dry weather the next day.

Winter Grind

Despite my love of the warm summer days and crisp blue skies and blooms of spring in New Zealand, once the clocks have gone back and autumn rolls in, I really have to grit my teeth and bare the months of winter. In my native Scotland, winter days are short, the temperature cold, and the weather sometimes wet. But at least they were consistent: it’s hat, scarf and glove weather during the day, and the same at night. In Christchurch, it can be single figure temperatures in the morning and night, and get well into the teens in the afternoon meaning t-shirt weather for some hours, and jacket and glove weather other hours. The simple act of the sun going behind some clouds can add a sudden chill on the skin. Despite a decade of living here, I’ve never really adapted to this style of winter, and with no Christmas festivities to break up the dark months, I have to say I really dislike winters here.

The winter of 2020 was a curious one after the release from a couple of months of enforced lockdown through autumn. After an escape to Oamaru in late autumn I wanted to make sure I made the most of my freedom in the winter months. New Brighton beach was the perfect city escape without having to travel far, and despite the cold temperatures, cloudless blue skies always make a beach walk pleasant. The receding tide as I walked south towards the estuary created gorgeous reflections on the sand, especially once I rounded the spit into the estuary proper. The sand becomes a bit more of a mudflat here making it a bit treacherous under foot in places, but it was just me and a motley band of sea birds basking under the sun’s rays whilst looking across to Ferrymead and the Port Hills.

 

The Port Hills are a hiking and biking paradise with trails for each and both dotted all over the hillside. The Christchurch Adventure Park is predominantly a mountain bike park but there are a couple of walking trails within the perimeter and I finally decided to give the summit trail a go on another sunny winter day. Starting at the entrance to the adventure park, it is a long, winding trail up several lower ridges until eventually popping out at the top of the chairlift. From here, there are views predominantly over the city, but also in some spots over to Lyttelton Harbour on the far side of the hills. You have to pay to ride the chairlift up, but riding down is free irregardless of how you got to the top, so many people hike and take the chairlift back to the car park. I was enjoying the fresh air and exercise though, so after absorbing the views, I took the trail back down again. Even by the mid-afternoon the shadows were long over the hillside and it didn’t take long to feel a little chilly on the descent.

The Canterbury Museum in the city has a changing exhibit to complement the fixed exhibit halls that are permanently on display. That winter they were running a temporary exhibit called Squawkzilla and the Giants, which was about some of the pre-historic animals that used to live on New Zealand. It was a good excuse to take a walk as I parked in the Botanic Garden car park, and walked through the gardens to visit the museum. As a country of parrots and penguins, it was incredible to see the full-scale models of some giant birds that used to roam the country, including a prehistoric penguin that would have been taller than me. There was also the reminder that crocodiles used to live in New Zealand, which is not something that a lot of people know, although it’s not that surprising given that Australia and New Zealand used to be geologically connected. It had been a while since I’d had a wander round the rest of the museum, so I headed upstairs to have a quick look at the dinosaur skeleton and the Antarctic room. I have an obsession with all things Antarctic, and living in a Gateway City to the southern continent means that there are plenty of local links to historic explorations down south, which are on display on the upper floor of the museum.

Taking advantage of a dry winter day, I took a walk along the bank of the Avon river for a bit, circling the edge of Hagley Park, and heading out towards Mona Vale, a publicly accessible manicured garden that was still looking pretty despite the many bare trees. I rarely visit here, but always enjoy the view when I do, and it’s such a short walk from Hagley Park that it makes a nice detour when walking the perimeter of North Hagley. Back at Victoria Lake, even the weeping willows, one of my favourite trees here, were joining in the autumnal colours, having faded from their dynamic green to an off-yellow.

 

I’d worked up a bit of body heat on the go, and had stripped off my body warmer quite early on. As I returned to my car, I was horrified to discover that my car key had fallen out the pocket as it had been suspended upside down while slung over my arm. I’d done such a long walk it could have been anywhere, but I hoped it had fallen out soon after taking it off in the museum. But nobody had handed it in when I enquired, so I was forced to start retracing my steps of my entire walk to try and find it. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in a shadowy part of the Squawkzilla exhibit, almost at the feet of a giant parrot. It would have been easy to overlook by most people visiting the exhibit, but just able to be spotted with my staring intently at the floor. That was nearly an expensive outing to what was otherwise a free day in the city.

Things took an undesired turn in June 2020 when I experienced the worst pain I’ve ever had. My back has caused me intermittent pain since 2014, and I’ve had a few flare ups of pain of varying severities over the years since that first one. This time round just simple movements had me crying in pain, and I couldn’t even stand up, being forced to crawl on my hands and knees for days on end. A scary experience involving numbness of one of my feet resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and an eventual concoction of medications to keep me comfortable. I’ve never been on so many drugs in my whole life, and I didn’t like it. Eventually an MRI image confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis of a slipped disc, but following the support of a fantastic physiotherapist, I discovered the concept of neuropathic pain syndrome, and a mental health approach that rapidly got me off pain medications and started to allow me to get moving again.

 

It was tentative at first, starting off with walking on the flat and making use of city events. In early July, a light festival was run in alignment with Matariki, the Maori New Year which marks the rising of the Pleiades star cluster. Dotted around the streets and river bank a series of projections and animated lights lit up parts of the city, making use of river reflections and office gable ends to provide large scale images. The city typically has an annual event of some likeness to this and they always draw a crowd, especially as they are free. It is the closest thing we have to the Christmas light displays that would normally herald the mid-winter festivities in the Northern Hemisphere where I lived most of my life.

 

Aside from repeat trips to the beach, by the end of July I was ready to take on a local hike. Many years prior I’d taken the Kaituna Valley route up to Packhorse Hut, and this time I wanted to walk there from Gebbies Pass. It was sunny but the sun was so low that long shadows kept large sections of the track out of the sun’s warmth, meaning muddy and frosty patches abounded. A low mist hugged the side of the Port Hills as the track followed the logging road for the lower section of the hike. It takes a while to do much climbing, winding between sheep paddocks and forested sections where I unfortunately slipped on mud and went flying. The one side of my lower body was covered in mud but I wasn’t going to turn back. Finally the track starts to slog up the hillside, first within the forest, then exposed to reach under some tall rocky bluffs. It was a relatively busy trail and there were several other people milling around at the hut enjoying the view. Packhorse Hut is bookable under the Department of Conservation’s booking system, and it’s popular with families as an introduction to overnight hikes with kids. It’s a lovely hut with a lovely prospect, and well worth a visit, even just for a picnic.

 

The next temporary exhibit at the Canterbury Museum also caught my interest. In August 2020, it was about the moon, including a giant sphere suspended from the ceiling which had high resolution imagery of the moon projected onto it, mimicking an up-close view of this celestial body. I intermittently try to take photos of the moon myself, and sometimes get the settings on my DSLR camera to work with me, but its inconsistent, and more often than not, I get an overexposed or blurry image. I’m a science geek at heart, so I love a lot of the natural history and exploration-based exhibits, and I was really impressed by the imagery of the moon on display. A decade on since I emigrated, I really struggle to remember how the moon looked from the Northern Hemisphere. Its Southern Hemisphere facade is just so familiar to me now, and it will be such a novelty to see its alternate image whenever I get back to Scotland.

 

Although still winter, the second-half of August started to hint at the coming of spring. I was supposed to be in Europe enjoying a fantastic 6-wk multi-country adventure but like many others, COVID had me grounded and months of battle to get my money back ensued. My back was coming along well, and my mental health was improving with it, so the last few weeks of winter saw me getting out and about as much as I could. This time round at New Brighton beach, the ice cream truck had returned, and like my memories of life in Aberdeen, Scotland, buying the first ’99’ ice cream of the season is always a sure sign that warmer and longer days are coming. At that time I had no idea when international travel would re-commence, so instead I simply stood at the end of the pier staring out onto the calm blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, daydreaming of foreign lands.

For a different view of the Pacific Ocean, I utilised my annual pass to take a jaunt up the gondola to Mt Cavendish. I come up here time and time again, sometimes under my own steam via the Bridle Path, and sometimes if I’m short on time or lazy, via the power of the gondola. The view never gets old, and I can’t help take the same photos of the same view every time. It’s a great place to grab a coffee also, a financially bad habit that I’ve only more recently got on top of. The tips of the Southern Alps were covered in snow, but everywhere else looked green and fresh, another sign of the seasonal change to come. In the city though, there was still a quietness about the place.

 

A few of my work colleagues and I decided to head out to Orana Wildlife Park just outside of the city. I hadn’t been there since the year after I moved to Christchurch. I’m not a massive fan of zoos or wildlife parks as I find many of them struggle financially to create a space stimulating enough and appropriate for some of their inmates. This particular park had spent a lot of money creating a new exhibit space for some great apes amid a lot of promotion since I’d last visited. They weren’t the only new arrivals, as I found some Tasmanian Devils, my favourite Australian marsupial, had also taken up residence. But overall, the park just seemed sad. Some enclosures were empty, others looked in need of major upgrade, and even the swanky new ape house contained one of the most depressed-looking gorillas I’ve ever seen. The only fun part of the trip was doing the short zipline and taking comical photos of the giraffes eating, but otherwise I left rather jaded. Thankfully though, spring was soon to burst into bloom, and a brand new adventure awaited.

Escape to Otago

For weeks I was stuck in a triangle of home, work, and the supermarket. When New Zealand’s Government declared a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, I continued to work through as an essential worker, but outwith my work hours, like the rest of the country, I left home only to do a weekly shop or to go for a brief walk or bike ride around my neighbourhood. It was a strange 5 weeks. At first, we were granted movement within our region, and I was quick to include the coast in my off-day wanderings, enjoying the sunshine on New Brighton beach, and heading up onto the Port Hills to enjoy the views over Lyttelton Harbour. I even managed to find a trail that I hadn’t walked before. Being autumn, the light was low and it created a beautiful pale blue colour in the water and the sky. It was a novelty to see some wildlife too.

 

By mid-May, we were allowed to travel out of our region, and I was quick to book an Air BnB in Oamaru, Otago. A 3hr drive away, it was enough of an adventure for a weekend away without feeling like we were flouting any rules, and it felt great to get away from what had felt like a box for the last few months. The hillside to the west of Oamaru was creating a long shadow over the town when we arrived, and there was a late autumn chill in the air. We took a walk down to the harbour which still had some sunlight on it, before wandering through the deserted streets of the historic precinct nearby. As the sun set, the sky turned through pinks and purples before darkness fell.

 

For the first time in months, we went out for dinner. 15mins north of Oamaru is Riverstone Kitchen, a lovely little restaurant/cafe in the complex in front of Riverstone Castle, one of only 2 castles in New Zealand (and being Scottish, I use the term ‘castle’ here loosely). Despite the socially-distanced table placements and the lack of tourists, it felt almost normal to be eating out for dinner on a Saturday night.

The sun was shining the next morning but there was no doubting the time of year with the temperature staying low. We had a lovely view over the harbour from the balcony of the Air Bnb but there wasn’t going to be any sitting out on it that late in the season. We found a spot for breakfast in the historic precinct before jumping in the car and heading down the coast. Otago has some great wildlife viewing spots and I’m always keen to seek them out whenever I have enough time in this region. About 40mins south of Oamaru is the turnoff for Shag Point, a small community of baches hugging the coastline where it juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Where the road ends is a lookout and fur seal colony.

You can often smell fur seals before you see them. Most of them were fast asleep on the rocks so there wasn’t a lot of activity to draw attention. They stand out against the rocks better when they’re still wet from the ocean, but when they dry off they go pale and can often be overlooked from a distance when they’re snoozing and still. But as we walked around the coast, there were plenty to see, and the sea was calm by our sides, gently swelling to and from the rocks nearby. As my gaze moved offshore to some gulls and shags that were draped across some outlying rocks, I spotted some people fishing from a dinghy. It felt like a normal weekend day in New Zealand.

One of Otago’s most known attractions is Moeraki Boulders, a geological anomaly where perfectly spherical boulders emerge from the cliffs under the erosive powers of wind and sea. I remember the first time I visited them in 2012 there were certainly a few other people around, but in the years that followed, like elsewhere in the country, tourism numbers had soared to levels that in my opinion, were a detriment to many sites like this one. The tourism sector has taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic and many people have lost their livelihoods. It is a sad time for many, but I have to admit that I haven’t missed the crowds at all. As much as I know that the economy needs those foreign dollars, I’m not looking forward to see the influx return. We certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves on this day, but it was respectably quiet and I was able to enjoy exploring the boulders and marvelling how they’d changed in the 8 years since I’d first visited.

 

The boulders are quite concentrated in one area of the beach, but the beach itself has a lovely prospect out onto the Pacific Ocean and it’s a nice place to take a stroll even without the boulders. At the southern end the coast juts out at Moeraki, a small settlement with a fishing hub, a plethora of holiday baches, and a great pub to stop for a meal. It’s also where the road cuts off to Katiki Point where a lighthouse stands proudly at the top of a spit of a land jutting south. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but it marks the start of a track down to Katiki Point Reserve which is a must visit in the hours leading up to sunset. The gate closes and is locked at a set time each day, so it’s important to check this in advance, but the reason for going is the guaranteed sightings of hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest penguin species in the world and endemic to New Zealand.

The track follows the spit of land, remaining on its ridge, so you look down on the beach where the penguins come ashore. I’ve seen hoiho in several spots in Otago, but this is the closest I’ve been to them. A fence does separate the track from where the penguins are but that didn’t stop them jumping up the hillside to come closer to the band of people that were sitting on the slope watching them with glee. Further along the spit, the penguins were replaced by fur seals, gulls and shags. One or two fur seals seemed to share the penguins’ spot, but otherwise there did seem to be quite segregated areas for the different species to haul up out of the sea. Where they did overlap, there was often a loud bit of drama as the young seals chased the penguins or the penguins tried to stand up to the fur seals. Even just watching the interactions between the various penguins was like watching a soap opera. I could have stayed there till darkness, but the gate locking meant we all eventually had to head back to the car park and leave them to their own lives.

 

There was still enough daylight on our return to Oamaru that we took a walk along the perimeter of Friendly Bay past Sumpter Wharf. With the lowering of the sun ahead of sunset, the wharf was crammed full of spotted shags and gulls getting settled to roost for the night. It was incredible how many of them there were and there was a constant influx and occasional outflux of birds joining and leaving the throng. Like the night before, the sky turned pink and purple as sunset became dusk signalling time to go and grab some dinner.

 

I have to admit that one of my favourite things about not working Mondays is seeing most other people head into work when I know I don’t have to. We grabbed breakfast at a cafe not far from where we had stayed, and I smiled when I was presented with my coffee which had the words Good Morning on it written in chocolate syrup. I might not have needed to go to work, but we still had to head back to Christchurch that day. I wasn’t in charge of driving but I was allowed to dictate the route home, so rather than just heading straight up State Highway 1 and being home in a matter of hours, I chose to direct us on a detour to Elephant Rocks which I had discovered on a weekend away in the Waitaki Valley the previous autumn.

It was a bit of a convoluted route to get there, but although they don’t quite have the grandeur of Castle Hill in Canterbury, they’re still a pretty neat place to explore. On private land, they are publicly accessible but may be grazed by stock at times so there’s often a lot of dung around the place. There is also a pretty nice view across the nearby farm which is framed by some Otago hills and some taller peaks which had a light dust of snow on their tops. There is such a variety of shapes with a mixture of domes and wind-blasted exposed sides. There were a few other people there, but these rocks are so off the main roads and away from the typical tourist routes that they are quiet in comparison to their northern equivalents.

 

After snaking back and forward among them, it was time to head back to the car and start heading home. Although my favourite part of Otago is the Otago Peninsula, Oamaru and the nearby coast is a great spot for geology and wildlife. Having not stopped-off there in a long time, little did I know I’d end up passing through here again and again and again over the next 12 months.

Hokitika Time

Food may not be the first thing that springs to mind when most tourists think of Hokitika. And perhaps, for many New Zealanders, the same may also be true. But for years I’d wanted to attend an annual food festival held there, and finally, in March 2020, I had a ticket in my possession and a weekend that I didn’t need to work. Traversing the width of the South Island from Christchurch on the east to Hokitika on the West, I bid the sun goodbye and arrived around lunchtime as the festival was kicking into full swing. I’d booked an Air BnB out of town so had to be sober for the drive there later on, but I readied myself for an afternoon of eating.

But this was no standard food festival, this was the famous Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, a celebration of edibles outside of the ordinary. The kind of grub that many people would balk at. I’m adventurous with food to a point. I’ve been privileged to have travelled to multiple countries across six continents and I’m always happy to try local cuisine and delicacies. It’s textures that tend to put me off, not so much taste, but I wandered round the food stalls eyeing up my options. As I did so, live music played on the main stage, and everyone was in a jovial mood. Thankfully it didn’t rain, so the cloud ended up being a blessing in disguise. It kept the temperature comfortable without being oppressively hot, and it saved my Scottish skin being over-fried.

I started off tamely with a mixed-meat kebab of rabbit, wallaby, deer, goat and wild boar. I’ve eaten all of these before so it was an easy bet. For dessert I got a grasshopper donut. Aside from the surreal experience of licking an ant’s bum in Australia (a zesty, lemony experience), I’d never eaten insects before. This was the perfect place to try as several places offered a variety of these snack-sized protein portions. The grasshoppers had been cooked so were extra-crunchy, and an odd but acceptable taste. I personally think that insects are an under-utilised food source for humans, but not everyone agrees with me.

 

After listening to the music for a while, I got myself a snail, electric eel and punga (a tree fern). The snail was always going to be a texture issue for me but actually ended up not being as bad as I expected and actually passed the taste test too. The ostrich from the South African tent was the biggest disappointment. I ate ostrich meat several times while in South Africa and it was always lovely, but this time around it was chewy and lacking in flavour.

I needed something more interesting so headed to the huhu grub tent. Huhu grubs are the larval stage of the huhu beetle, and live in rotting wood. Next to the tent were all the live grubs wriggling around in the sawdust of opened tree trunks, and whilst it was possible to eat them live and raw, I wasn’t keen on having one move around my mouth, so I opted instead for a cooked and skewered variety. A bit chewy and lacking much of a taste, I know they’ll do if I ever got lost in the wilderness for days on end.

The only ‘normal’ food I ate there was some lovely Hungarian fried bread. As I ate it, I stared at the sheep’s testicle tent for a long time trying to decide if I was game enough for one. I think if they’d been chopped up, and somehow made to look more edible I probably would have been more eager, but they were literally selling them as entire testicles, and being a vet I know exactly how solid and tough these things are, so I really couldn’t bring myself to buy one. That didn’t stop a steady queue of people lining up for them and they were the only stand I saw that sold out. In the end, my procrastination meant the decision was made for me.

As afternoon became evening, I procured some ice cream complete with witchety grubs. These were probably my favourite of the insects, and were nice and crunchy with a taste that was not off-putting. I’d easily eat these again and again and think they’d make a nice meal topper or crunchy addition to a salad. Food aside, there was such a great atmosphere there and some people had dressed up in unusual outfits which added some entertainment. I kept spotting a group of people dressed in pacman suits, and one of the event organisers was walking around dressed like a wild boar.

 

As a solo traveller, I’m used to doing a lot of things on my own. Going to a festival solo would not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in fact I know several people that would recoil at the prospect of such a thing, but I refuse to miss out on opportunities purely because I don’t have anyone to do things with, or don’t want to be tied to another person’s schedule. I had an absolute blast and spent a good 6-7hrs there enjoying the live music, filling my stomach with weird food and just generally enjoying an event that I’d wanted to do for years.

 

I pulled up to my Air BnB in the evening as the light was starting to fade. I’d booked a cabin in the woods, or at least the closest thing I could find in that area, and found myself with a view of the coast, in earshot of the waves crashing below and a nice comfy cabin to keep me warm at night. I still had a cricket donut to eat so this was my evening snack. Of all the insects, this ended up being my least favourite, partly because the crickets were so friable and bits got stuck around my teeth.

As is typical of the west coast, I woke up to grey skies and the threat of rain. This wasn’t going to put me off though, so I headed down to the beach below my cabin which felt wild and was littered with flotsam as the grey waves crashed on the shore. After grabbing brunch in Hokitika, I headed south across the river to Lake Mahinapua. It’s very hidden from the road, with a need to drive through a forest to get there, but it was drizzling when I pulled up, so I didn’t spend as long as I would have liked there. I don’t always have the best of luck with weather on the west coast, so I’ll need to make a return trip here if I ever get the weather Gods right.

 

Back in town, I did a walking tour of the many historical sites around the place. Like many places on the west coast, the presence of prospectors and historical commerce has shaped the modern town today. The drizzle was a slight nuisance but I was still able to appreciate the various sights, and old architecture that is hidden down a variety of streets. Wildfoods Festival aside, Hokitika is also known as the driftwood capital of New Zealand. The prevailing currents deposit a large amount of flotsam on the wild beach, and there is also a driftwood sculpture competition here too. Multiple sculptures were still littering the beach, and I was able to wander around them before the rain became heavier.

 

I was eventually beaten by the weather, so I grabbed a pizza from nearby Pipi’s Pizza (a Hokitika institution), and parked up in front of the Hokitika driftwood sign to watch a movie on Netflix as the rain pounded down. Rather than being frustrated by the west coast weather, it was actually quite enjoyable to just sit there in my car. I have a lot of memories of family road trips with my parents in Scotland where we’d inevitably get a good dose of Scottish rain, forcing us to park up and sit it out in the car. This just reminded me of that, and that made it feel quite homely.

 

There was still the hint of rain in the air the next morning. I had stopped working Mondays the year before meaning my non-work weekends are a 3-day weekend for me. This has made weekend getaways that bit better with having that extra day to explore before needing to head home. To the south-east of Hokitika is the large and long Lake Kaniere. When I arrived at the north-western tip of the lake, the far bank was shrouded in clouds, hiding their peaks. My original plan had been to do a walk around the western shore of the lake but with a perceived lack of time and the threat of rain still looming, I decided instead to just take the scenic drive round the lake.

 

Away from Canoe Cove and Hans Bay, the only settlements and lake access available, the road quickly became a dirt track, and a track that I quickly discovered, had been previously washed out and was in a pretty poor state of repair. Thankfully it wasn’t impassable in my 2-wheel drive, but it was muddy in places, narrow in others, and it just generally looked a mess. As I reached the eastern shore there was a light drizzle as I appeared to have caught up with the clouds, but what the rain did mean though, was that Dorothy Falls was gushing. This waterfall is a very short walk from the road side, so was easy to access, and the tannin-stained water flowed noisily over the hillside and down towards the lake.

 

It ended up being quite a long drive to circumnavigate the lake and get back into Hokitika. Heading north to start the journey home I took a road up to the cemetery where there was a bit of a view over the coast and the town. The sun was out here which made a nice change from the rain. A little further up the road was a historic railway bridge that is a remnant of the old commerce that used to exist here.

Cutting east towards Arthur’s Pass, I decided to follow some of the tourist signs that I’ve driven by multiple times without investigating. I was a little underwhelmed at the Londonderry Rock, which whilst indeed being a big rock, was effectively just a large boulder overgrown and surrounded by trees. I was already on a back road from here so I took another detour to Kapitea Reservoir which despite being a reasonable body of water, was also rather underwhelming. At least the scenery on the drive through Arthur’s Pass made up for it. This road never fails to disappoint, especially between Otira and Porter’s Pass.

There were murmurings afoot prior to this weekend away, and they grew stronger within the following couple of weeks. I hoped to be wrong, but not only would this turn out to be my last trip out of Christchurch for a few months, but it was beginning to become clear that my upcoming trip home to Scotland might be under threat. Just a few weeks after this fun weekend away, New Zealand was plunged into a 2-month lockdown, a rhetoric I would have never foreseen in my life before then. Like the rest of the World, COVID-19 was now here. And we all know how things went from there…

Reaching New Heights

Sometimes you just have one of those days that are incredibly enjoyable. Where everything is exciting or new or exhilarating or all of these things combined. After a long hike out from Port Craig on the third day of the Humpridge Track, I’d left Southland behind and driven north into Otago. One of my favourite parts of the country is Wanaka, but by this point in February 2020, it had been a while since I’d been. I’d last been there for a friend’s wedding where the sun had shone brightly above, and now, late in the evening, I arrived to overcast skies.

New Zealand is normally all bustle in February due to an influx of Chinese tourists for Chinese New Year. Still being summer, this usually adds to the large numbers of foreign visitors already here from foreign shores. Wanaka is usually packed all summer, but the gradual spread of the coronavirus, which back then was just filtering out across the globe, had curbed the usual February influx, and although still full of people, I noticed immediately that Wanaka was not as busy as usual. And that suited me just fine.

I was staying at the YHA which has a fabulous outlook over a large park with the lake behind it, and once checked in I headed straight down to the lake side for a walk along the promenade. The clouds masked the sunset over the peaks to the west and on the far side of the lake I could see rain moving across. I had my fingers crossed for some good weather the next day, and went to bed hopeful of clear skies in the morning.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was a glorious morning, and I retraced my steps down to the lakeside as the sun rose high enough to bathe the lake in light. But it wasn’t long before I needed to jump in my car and head out to the back of the town for my day’s adventure. Meeting my group and my guide, we bundled into the mini-van to head out towards Mount Aspiring National Park where we pulled in to view our challenge for the day. In front of us was a multi-tiered waterfall cascading down 450m of the mountainside, and one of the few Via Ferrata sites in New Zealand.

I’d wanted to do a Via Ferrata for many years. The ‘iron path’ in this case was a choice of 3 trips up increasingly higher routes next to the waterfalls. Wild Wire Wanaka, an awesome local company, offers Lord of the Rungs trips up and I had booked into the full ascent, all 450m up via a series of iron rungs and cable ways, which is the highest waterfall cable climb in the World. I’ve abseiled a few times and done some basic clip-climb adventures, but I hadn’t done anything to this level before. Down near ground level, there was a practice boulder to get us used to clipping on and clipping off to the safety cable, as well as getting used to the feel of our harnesses on our body. There was just 4 of us doing the full ascent, everybody else was doing a lower level climb. I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked but I’m a regular hiker and aerialist so figured my background fitness would see me right.

The lower route was a breeze, snaking up the hillside next to the lower cascade and negotiating some cable bridges that criss-crossed the water. After 150m vertical ascent, we reached the base of Picnic Falls from where we could start to get a broader view along the valley where the road heads into the National Park. Lake Wanaka was only just creeping into view from behind the nearby mountain. From here, a series of waterfalls cascaded down a fairly vertical section of rockface, and the sun was now beating down on us from above. Across more cableways and up rung after rung, we pulled ourselves up to 320m to a ledge which had a spectacular view of an increasingly visible lake.

 

By now we were at the base of Falcon Falls. This was the turning back point for everyone apart from the 4 of us and our guides. I was lucky enough to have the company owner as my guide and he was incredible at making sure we had fun and stayed safe. We had a bit of time to hang around here because this was our refreshment stop ahead of the final push. I’d been loving the trip so far, and although it was a hot day, I’d felt fit enough to cope well with the route so far. There was still another 130m ascent to gain to reach the 450m total drop of the falls, and I felt ready to take it on.

 

We ascended 2 people per guide. Myself and another solo traveller went first behind our guide as we headed up through vegetation initially, reaching the gantry which was one of my favourite sections of the whole climb. Effectively a plank of wood on metal rungs locked into the rock, we were able to cross this and go behind the waterfall we were scaling. It was beautiful and the sun against the water created a pretty rainbow to frame the view. There was a pleasant spray from the water as we cut behind it.

 

Only as we got higher did I realise that my guide had been keeping an eye on me. I had felt perfectly fine climbing up so far, and I thought I had looked that way too. I’m not sure whether I was being judged on my age, or whether something had given it away, but it turned out there was a method in my guide’s choice at putting me directly behind him. I had just thought it was luck that I was able to watch how he distributed his weight and was able to copy him, unlike the other woman who wasn’t able to see and could only watch me. For all of the climb so far, it had either been a vertical ascent or a near vertical ascent, but beyond the waterfall was a section where there was an overhang to negotiate. This involved having to trust the harness and actually hang off the mountain while using upper body strength to pull up. I hadn’t for a minute thought this would be a problem, but when it came to it, I actually struggled a bit. I couldn’t work out how to distribute my weight correctly to optimise the move and quickly fatigued in the process. Perhaps the guide had anticipated this, as his placement in front of me, meant he could offer me a bit of a haul up, something that wasn’t an option for the other climber behind me. While I was in my 30s, she was in her 20s and by comparison she was nimble and had no issues getting up to join us. I was a little embarrassed.

There was still the final climb to go but it was just back to a vertical ascent again, and finally, and almost sadly, we reached the canyon where the river came down to the top of the falls. Our 450m ascent was over. A track led through the trees and out onto the mountainside where we could see up the river valley into the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, as well as across to Beacon Point on the far side of the lake. Above us was a 1955m peak which looked totally reachable but wasn’t actually accessible. There was a short wait till we were joined by the other pair with their guide, and then we watched as the final fun part of the trip came up to meet us.