MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Mount Somers Track – Day One

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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No Kiwis in Queenstown

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Spring Roadie – Coast to Coast

I was so over driving by the time we pulled in to Hokitika on the last night of my brother’s and my road trip. My brother had booked a room in a B&B who’s garden opened almost directly onto the beach. After catching our breaths for a moment, we headed out under a moody sky and wandered along the foreshore. Past the driftwood sign that the town is famous for, we meandered further to the mouth of the river as the sun lowered down. Eventually hunger drove us in search of food and finally we headed to bed.

 

After a communal breakfast with the other guests at the B&B, everybody parted company and we too made our way out of town. I drove us down the convoluted route to the busy car park at Hokitika Gorge. Like many places in New Zealand, this place has gotten busier and busier with each subsequent visit, and this day was no exception. Although it’s a bit of a drive out of town to reach it, the walk is short and easy enough to make it accessible, as long as you have your own set of wheels to get you to the start. We joined the other visitors on the familiar route through the bush towards the suspension bridge across the gorge and down to the rocky water’s edge. Due to the glacier sedimentation of this river, the colour can vary so much from one visit to the next. The first time I came here it was a milky grey, and the next a brilliant blue. This time round it was blue, but the cloud kept the brilliance of the sun hidden, meaning it was a paler shade, and I felt my brother wasn’t quite seeing it in its full glory. To him it was probably still impressive enough, not having anything like it in our native Scotland.

 

After winding our way back to Hokitika, it was time to make the journey back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. New Zealand has so many scenic drives, and this coast to coast road is the one I’m most familiar with, having driven it many times, especially the eastern half. At Kumara Junction, we cut inland, traversing the long valley eastward into the Southern Alps before turning south as the road turned into the Otira Valley. As the road starts to snake uphill here and wind its way up into the hills, it passes under a viaduct and over a road bridge, after which a couple of lookouts are located. These are almost guaranteed kea spotting sites, and I’ll always stop here to see if there’s any around. They are very popular to spot, and are immensely intelligent and cheeky birds, often working in pairs or mobs to try and snatch something of interest. Despite the frequency of sightings in this area, they are sadly endangered and suffer at the hands of people feeding them inappropriate food, despite signs advocating against this at these locations. This was the first time I’d stopped here that there wasn’t a parrot in sight.

 

In Arthur’s Pass village we took the walk to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. It can be viewed from near the car park, or from the road, or from the opposite mountain, but it’s still nice to get up close to it and hear the water gushing down. The walk involves a lot of stairs, but it is a relatively short walk making it a reasonable achievement when just passing through. The sun broke through in places whilst we were there but as we headed south east, the rest of the way home was overcast. For the rest of the drive to Porter’s Pass, we were surrounded by the Southern Alps, steep-sided mountains interspersed by lakes and rivers. I stopped a few times so that my brother could take some photographs, and there’s plenty of pull-ins to choose from along the route.

 

Eventually we reached Cave Stream Scenic Reserve where it is possible to traverse through a flooded cave system. One of these days, I hope to go through it, but I just haven’t gotten round to it yet. Even without going caving, it’s still an interesting landscape to walk around. From here through to Castle Hill, the landscape is scattered with giant rocky boulders and outcrops, and it looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a movie. In fact, a nearby area was used as a film location for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at Castle Hill. Another popular tourist spot, the car park here is often packed. We were lucky to get a spot on this occasion and I let my brother lead the way, picking his route through the behemoths. There are many worn paths round here and you can choose to circumnavigate the site or get into the thick of it, clambering up slopes and up and over boulders to get a higher perspective of it all. The cloud was down over the surrounding peaks and it was a little gloomy, but I always love exploring this place. Eventually we found ourselves down with the cows at the neighbouring field and skirting back along the front of the rock face, we returned to the car and soon headed into rain for the rest of the journey back to Christchurch.

 

For my brother’s last full day in New Zealand, we stayed local. He decided to go to the Canterbury Museum so I dropped him off there and met up with him later once he’d had the chance to wander round some of it. Later in the day we took a walk round North Hagley Park and on to Mona Vale, a homestead with a lovely waterway and garden, a little way along the Avon River. The day my brother left was a gloriously sunny one. His flight wasn’t till later in the day so we had some time in the morning to go for a walk. Driving up to Summit Road in the Port Hills, we did a section of the Crater Rim walkway that started behind the Sign of the Kiwi cafe. It was a section I hadn’t done before so it was nice to do something new and we had a beautiful view down over the harbour.

 

But eventually it was time to drive my brother to the airport. He had a couple of days in Sydney ahead of him to enjoy, but I was sad to say goodbye. His 2 week visit had been the longest time we’d spent together since we were in high school, and although I was informed that I snored, and I suspect I slightly took over his holiday, I think we did pretty well living in each other’s pockets. After all the years I’ve now lived in New Zealand, he is the first and only member of my family to visit me, and I was glad I’d finally been able to show off my new homeland to someone. His inevitable departure though reminded me sorely of the distance that I have chosen to keep between myself and my family. The choice to emigrate had been an easy one to make, but boy do I miss my family sometimes.

Spring Roadie – Glacier Country

Being one of the wettest parts of the country, receiving the brunt of the weather that swings across the Tasman Sea, it is best to expect rain when on New Zealand’s west coast. Anything better is a bonus. The two times I’ve visited Glacier Country, the region around Fox glacier and Franz Josef glacier, the peaks of the Southern Alps have been shrouded by cloud and out of view. On my last visit here in 2016, my partner and I had stayed in Franz Josef, the bigger of the two villages, but this time round, with my brother, we stayed in Fox Glacier village, the southern of the two. My brother had planned on doing a heli-hike onto Fox glacier, his one big-ticket expense whilst he was over from Scotland visiting me. As I had done it with my partner last time, I was leaving him to it, planning on doing a walk to the glacier instead. So whilst my brother had an early rise to gobble down breakfast and get going, I had a relative lie-in and took my time getting up.

The weather out the window looked dubious, so I wasn’t fully surprised when my brother arrived back about an hour later, his trip having been canned due to weather concerns. I felt bad on his behalf but he shrugged it off. So we set off to do the hike together, making the short drive out of the village and up the valley to the start of the hike. By now mid-morning, it was a busy car park with a lot of people on the trail. Cutting through the scree-filled valley below some steep sided mountains, the clouds hung over the mountain tops, and waterfalls trickled down the slopes at varying intervals. There were rockfall warnings and flash-flood warnings dotted along the trail. Initially I couldn’t understand why the company had voted to cancel the trip as blue sky was visible, as was the top of the glacier, but as we walked further up the valley, the cloud closed in and dropped down. With tourists having been trapped up on the glacier in the past due to inclement weather, the company was taking no chances.

 

The walk was easy and pleasant, only becoming steep on the final section that rises up to the viewing spot. Like many glaciers, those of the Southern Alps are retreating and retreating fast. Eventually, loss of large ice shelves such as those of the poles will be the main cause of sea level rise, but currently it is these mountain glaciers. I hadn’t visited Fox glacier last time so had nothing to compare it to, but photos and markers on the glacier walks really demonstrate how different the glaciers looked a decade ago, never mind a century ago. It is sad to think how much further change will occur in my lifetime. Nonetheless, the view of Fox glacier at our visit in November 2017 was still impressive, and the off-white pillars on the leading face of the glacier were striking. On approach, the sight of the tiny people in the foreground against the towering glacier face was staggering. Once at the viewing spot, the glacier was some distance away. Only with a guide is it possible to get closer, but due to a combination of tourist deaths in the past as well as the retreat of the glacier face over time, it is not an option to walk up to or onto the foot of either glacier.

 

On our return, we took the drive back to the village and out the other side for the short distance to Lake Matheson. The reflections of the mountains on this lake is one of the country’s most famous photography locations, but with that pesky west coast weather, it is either pure fluke or a lot of patience to get the reward of that famous view for yourself. Both my 2016 and 2017 visits to this lake coincided with inclement weather, so not only were the tops of the mountains not visible, but the reflectivity of the lake surface was reduced and less effective under a grey sky. Nonetheless, it is still a nice wee walk around the lake, and the visitor centre has a lovely cafe for lunch.

 

Instead of heading back to the village, we continued along the road to the coast. The last section of this road is unsealed, and winding, but Gillespies Beach is a nice beach to take a walk on at the end of it, and the weather is often better here, being far enough away from the mountain-hugging clouds to make a difference. As such, it was slightly better weather when we got there and looking at the walks in the area, my brother suggested we take the long route to visit a fur seal colony quite some distance north. I’d walked part of this track before, but not the full route, so was more than happy to go with the suggestion. Passing the remnants of some old mines, the track travelled through the bush for some distance before cutting down to the beach a little before Quinlin Creek. This beach was the classic stony west coast beach, making for an awkward meander as we followed the beach to the mouth of the creek. Full of tannin, this dark river snaked upstream, and we followed its bank until some boardwalks took us across it.

 

From the far side onwards, we were fully immersed in bush, with no view to speak of for the most of it. Not only that, but the canopy above us meant that sections of the track were not drying out and time and time again we had to negotiate muddy quagmires. Despite my initial enthusiasm to get to the seal colony, and my usual enjoyment of hiking, I have to admit that as time went on I really started to hate this walk. Normally the Department of Conservation (DOC) signs that accompany most hikes in New Zealand are over generous with hiking times for someone of my fitness, and as such I’ve come to assume that I’ll do these walks in less than the suggested time. So I was irked when the displayed time for the hike came and went and there was no sign of imminent arrival at the beach we were heading to. We’d only past 2 other people coming the other way, and their response on inquiry about the remaining distance had not filled me with much reassurance. When at last we reached the steep descent down to the beach, I was both relieved as much as disappointed that we had so much distance to travel back on.

My brother kept his feelings internal. I’m not sure if he was bothered or not, or just enjoyed the exercise. It’s not often I find a walk disappointing or frustrating but at least there was a fur seal swimming in the water for my brother to see, although no sign of a colony as the sign had suggested. On our return leg, we took a side-track to an old mine which was effectively a tunnel dug through the rocks. As we came back through and down the track we stumbled across a stoat which came bounding towards us then quickly disappeared. As much as I know they are a pest species, and a destructive one at that, I can’t help being excited when I spot wildlife, even if conservationists would like to see them eradicated. The introduction of so many pest species has been the cause of extinction of, or endangerment of, many of New Zealand’s native fauna. This country is a good example of what mess humans can make when they meddle in the natural order of things.

 

The next morning was as inclement as the day before. Again the mountain tops were hidden from view and it was clear that there was no point in my brother trying again for the heli-hike that day. We took the drive through the mountain pass to Franz Josef and headed up the valley road to the start of the glacier walk. This one I had done before on the 2016 visit, and there had been some slight upgrades to the path since then. Unlike the Fox glacier walk, the track is rather more undulating in the first section, climbing up over a hillock before dropping down to the level of the river. The clouds rose and lifted as we walked, giving intermittent glimpses of blue sky and the glacier top. Immediately on arrival to the glacier viewing spot I could see a difference in the glacier front. There may only have been 22 months between the 2 visits but I was convinced there had been a visible retreat. I couldn’t quite put my finger on where or how, but there was a definite feeling of change. It wasn’t until we’d gotten home a few days later and I was able to compare photographs that I could prove there was definitely a difference.

 

As we walked back to the car, we stopped at the waterfalls on route and took a side-track to a viewing spot at the top of a hillock. As an adult I’ve discovered quite an interest in geology, including doing some distance learning courses on the subject. New Zealand is a fascinating country for geology enthusiasts with all sorts of natural forces in play to shape and mould the geography. So I love the glacier paths of the South Island as much as the volcanic rifts and historical lava flows of the North Island. All along the valley walls were clear signs of the wear that the weight of the ice has carved into the rocks as it previously flowed down the valley many years ago. Back in the car, we drove past the signs on the road that mark the end of the glacier in the years gone by, a sad indicator of the rate of retreat.

 

After lunch in Franz Josef village, it was time to push northwards. Past Lake Mapourika, we took the turn-off down to Okarito where a lagoon harbours wetland birds and kiwi spotting may be possible at night. There was a choice of walks from here and we decided to cut across the wetlands and up to the view overlooking them. I was only wearing my jandals (flip flops), so wasn’t really best suited to go onwards, but my brother wanted to keep walking to the trig view point up the hill, so I tagged along anyway, inwardly realising I was one of those hikers that I’ve often rolled my eyes at when out hiking in the mountains: the under-prepared hiker in inappropriate footwear. It was rather sore under foot and not the best grip on the steeper sections, so I was glad when we finally made it to the top and I could give my feet a rest. From the viewpoint we could see just how large the Okarito lagoon to the north was and to the south, the smaller Three Mile Lagoon was also evident, the end-point of a longer walk that we didn’t have time for.

 

Hitting the road yet again, I was finding the driving a bit tiring after multiple days of long distance driving in a row. Even with the regular stops it was still a drag. I’m stubborn though and was intent on letting my brother enjoy the scenery unhindered, so insisted on doing all the driving. However as we got stuck behind a lorry on a particularly winding section, I took my chance to overtake on a slow vehicle passing lane but underestimated the power of my car to gain speed up the hill. Before I knew it, the lane was running short and the lorry readied to pull back in when I was still halfway along side it. I made a split second decision to make a manoeuvre that got us past the lorry but at great risk. I don’t think my brother realised what I did as it was over before he knew it but being prone to anxiety I immediately went into a panic for not driving to my normal standards and found myself having to pull in at a lake side to calm myself down. I felt like an idiot and spent the rest of the afternoon apologising to my brother. He seemed bemused and rather confused about the whole incident, neither understanding the road rules here, nor appreciating why I’d gotten myself into such a state. With me living so far away from my family for many years, they have been spared the sight of me going through my occasional bouts of mental illness. It was with great relief when we eventually reached our destination for the night that evening, but getting closer to home, we both started to realise how close to the end our road trip really was.

Spring Roadie – From the Lakes to the Coast

With so much choice, it’s hard to pick the best drive in New Zealand. I love so many of the South Island’s roads and mountain passes, we’re really spoilt for choice here. From Wanaka, the road to the west coast via Haast Pass is one of these great drives with so many places to stop at on route. I’d previously driven as far west as the Blue Pools, but beyond that was a small part of the country that I’d never been to before. At the time, nearly 6 years since arriving in the country, I’d already crossed off a large percentage of it, and this was another little section to finally cross off the list.

A short drive from Wanaka, the views start almost immediately with the arrival at the neighbouring Lake Hawea with its small and quiet little settlement of the same name. There was a haze in the air, meaning the view wasn’t as sharp as I’ve previously seen but the lake was still a brilliant blue and by the lake side the water was crystal clear. Flanked by mountains, it is a beautiful vista, and my brother and I took a short walk along the lake side before stopping at the dam at the entrance to the village. It was so peaceful, with few people here compared to Wanaka and with little development here either. Only a handful of people were milling around, so our view of the blue lake under the blue sky was one of tranquility.

 

Continuing along the highway that flanks the lake side, there are a few places to pull in to appreciate the view. The main one is about two thirds of the way along, but it can get quite busy, especially when a coach turns up. From several of these, it is possible to appreciate the length of the lake. These are the trips where I wish I lived nearer as I know there are so many hikes that could be done in the area. Passing a couple on the way, we stopped at the first of two lookouts at the Neck, the narrow isthmus that splits Lake Hawea from Lake Wanaka.

 

Crossing to the other side, we said goodbye to Lake Hawea and welcomed the equally beautiful sight of Lake Wanaka again which the road follows for some distance. Again there are some great view points along this road, and we stopped first at a boat ramp and then at the Boundary Creek campsite which was very busy. At this point, we were oblivious to the time pressures of this drive. We hadn’t hurried ourselves to leave, and with the beautiful sunny sky above us, I was stopping left right and centre so we could take lots of photographs. Although my brother had planned the route, he’d given me plenty of leeway with where to stop each day, and determined as I was to show off the country I now call home, I was taking every opportunity to do so. This meant a very leisurely morning and a slightly rushed afternoon as the enormity of the distance to cover became more apparent.

 

Eventually though, we left Lake Wanaka behind us and started across the valley that would wind us towards Haast Pass. We were able to get a bit of distance behind us, pushing on to Blue Pools before stopping. This place is very popular, not just with tourists but with sand flies, the bane of South Island waterways. I grew up with midges in Scotland, and they never bothered me half as much as the sand flies do here in New Zealand. No matter what repellent I use, their swarms have ruined many an outdoor experience for me, and here was to be no different. They gave my brother with his foreign smell a wide birth, and pestered me like crazy once we emerged from the short bush walk to the river. Like the last time I was here, I thought I’d risk taking a paddle in the glacier water, and like last time it was so frigid it hurt my feet, and I wondered about the foolhardiness (or bravery) of the people who jump from the bridge or go for a swim.

 

From here to the west was all new territory for me and I was excited. Emerging from the trees, we reached Cameron Flat where we stopped first at the campsite and then a short distance further where we trudged up to a lookout over the river. We ate lunch here overlooking the valley below, about half-way between Wanaka and the west coast. Our destination for the night was still some distance away, and from this point onwards I unintentionally took over my brother’s road trip and kept stopping, even after my brother voiced his want to skip some places.

 

One of these stops was Haast Pass where a walk trudges up the hillside to a lookout. It was a sticky walk in the heat, steeper than I’d anticipated, longer than I’d thought it would be and the view a little less spectacular than I’d expected (although still pretty enough). In hindsight, we could have skipped this, as with Fantail Falls which we also stopped at further along the road. A short bush walk brought us out to a pebbly river bank which was littered in stone stacks. The waterfall was on the far bank of the river and as before, the sand flies descended on me.

 

Beyond the Gates of Haast, a road bridge that spans the Haast River, and down the hill was the prettier Thunder Creek waterfall. Feeling guilty now about taking over my brother’s trip, I quickly offered to back-track to the bridge when my brother voiced an interest in seeing it up close. So back up the hill we parked either side of it then walked down to watch the water gush through the chasm. It was exceptionally noisy but we were the only ones there and deep as it was within a canyon in the mountains, we could look up at the peaks that flanked us undisturbed.

 

Eventually the road cut once more across the Haast river, and here at Pleasant Flat campsite, there was a stunning view across a plain to a snow and cloud capped mountain peak. Following the river downstream, State Highway 6 eventually takes a near 90 degree turn where the Haast river and Landsborough river unite. As we headed west, the clouds built up more and more on the mountain tops around us and the sunshine disappeared from view. We stopped at the Roaring Billy waterfall, another stop which with hindsight we could have skipped, and wandered along the river bank a little before the final push to the west coast.

 

Finally we cut through Haast and found ourselves back in sunshine as we reached the western flank of the Southern Alps. I had pre-warned my brother about the pebbly nature of west coast beaches, so found myself eating my words as we got out the car at Haast beach and walked out onto a beautiful stretch of sand. Behind us the clouds shrouded the mountain tops but in front of us the Tasman Sea glistened under the golden orb. The west coast is notorious for its wild weather so it was nice to arrive there in sunshine. Unfortunately we were still about 120km away from our night’s stay and the afternoon was wearing on towards evening. The drive was proving why New Zealand’s distances don’t look much on paper, but can easily take a lot more time than anticipated.

 

We pulled in at Ship Creek which I would have loved to have just relaxed at for a while. There were several people overnighting here and I was a little jealous. We explored the immediate vicinity before getting back on the road. At Knight’s Point the sun was getting low causing a glare to the west, but it still seemed sunny ahead of us. But the road cut inland and as it did so, it plunged us back under the cloud that had been shrouding the Southern Alps.

 

My brother had been keen to do a walk to Monro Beach where it is possible to go penguin watching. But due to me taking over his trip and stopping at so many places on the Haast Pass road, my brother didn’t feel we had the time to do the hike and I felt guilty when he requested we keep going when we passed the start of it at Lake Moeraki. If I was to do the drive again, I’d skip the Haast Pass lookout and Roaring Billy falls if not the Fantail falls also, which probably would have given us a bit of time to do the Monro beach walk. From here onwards though, we drove through light rain, the weather that I’m more accustomed to on this coast. I was so over driving by this point too, so although we stopped briefly at Lake Puringa, the rain hadn’t dulled the sand flies, and I wasn’t keen to hang around long. In the ever darkening skies, we pushed through the remaining 70km to finally pull in at our stop for the night in Fox Glacier, at the southern end of the Glacier Country. I could but hope for the rain to have cleared by the next day, ready for us to explore another unique part of New Zealand.

Spring Roadie – Te Anau to Wanaka

Waking up to grey skies made my brother and I appreciate our fortune from the day before even more. To have had sunshine for our visit to Milford Sound had been glorious. My brother had arranged to take a boat down Lake Te Anau to visit a glowworm cave. Having done this trip on my last visit to Te Anau, and having seen hundreds of glowworms whilst caving in Waitomo, I stayed behind and mulled around the lake side. A giant takahe sculpture represents the conservation work of this rare and endangered bird that is going on nearby, and from here I followed the path along the shoreline, meandering through the trees towards the small marina. I had plenty of time to kill so admired the boats for a while before heading back. I decided to pop to the small cinema at the back of the settlement to watch their film about the local area. I had watched it 3 years prior and had been blown away by it so was happy to sit through it again. Despite looking a little dated now, it was still as spectacular as before and worth watching.

 

When my brother returned from his trip, we reunited for lunch in a cafe at the back of Te Anau before heading off north. We’d driven this road through rain a couple of days prior but had it dry this time round. I drove first to Lake Manapouri a little along the road, where the distant mountains that mark the divide between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound were shrouded in cloud, and from there we continued onward, eventually returning to the lake side of the enormous Lake Wakatipu. Without the rain though, we were able to stop in places and actually enjoy the view. Despite being a Sunday, the roads were steady enough with traffic as being November, we were into the tourist season and so there were plenty of motor homes around. The view at Devils Staircase was one of the most impressive on the drive where, even on a grey day, the winding drive along the lake edge was pretty. Further north just before the road left the lakeside, we parked up and walked down to a small pebbly beach and this gave us a view almost all the way down the southern arm of the lake. After passing some time here, it was back on the road, returning to Frankton and continuing north before taking the turn-off for the Crown Range.

 

I’d previously only driven up the first few bends of the Crown Range many years before with my partner but the conditions hadn’t allowed us to take the full drive. So this was to be my first time on this road which is the country’s highest sealed road. The weather was thinking about brightening with glimpses of sun trying to break through the cloud, but there was also a bit of wind up high adding a slight chill. The first viewpoint was at the top of the switchback which allows a rapid gain in altitude. Further along there was a scenic lookout which overlooked the Gibbston Valley below and from here it was clear to see how the planes flew low over here when on approach to Queenstown airport. After more bends and a final push in altitude gain we pulled in at the Crown Range Summit where a lot of people were milling around and an old-fashioned car was getting a lot of attention. A plaque marked it as the highest point on the road, and a walk set off from here which I would have loved to have done on a clearer day.

 

From the summit it was a long descent through the Cardrona Valley to eventually reach Wanaka, one of my favourite parts of the country. Unfortunately it is another place who’s popularity is threatening the very virtues that I love, but nonetheless I was still more than happy to be there, and I drove straight to the waterfront to show it off to my brother before we checked in. The surrounding summits were mostly visible although the cloud was threatening to hide them. We took a wander along the path by the lake as the sun dropped low, eventually finding ourselves by the crowds at the lake’s most famous tree. ‘That Wanaka Tree’ amuses me greatly. When I first visited Wanaka in 2012, few people gave the little tree in the lake a second glance. I myself walked past it daily whilst I was there and never even acknowledged it. Suddenly it started popping up on social media more and more and when I returned to Wanaka four years later in 2016, it had its own Instagram plaque and it was forever surrounded by a frenzy of people trying to photograph it. My brother felt obliged to take a photograph of it but was then more intent on photographing the crowd of people that was gathered. A non-social media user, he was greatly amused by the scene. I thought it spoke volumes about the role of social media in modern society.

 

The next morning we were back to sunshine again, and the blue sky overhead made the lake sparkle. My brother chose a route for us to walk and so after breakfast, we returned to the lake side but this time followed it in the other direction. Following Roys Bay towards Bremner Bay, we had an uninterrupted view over to Roys Peak, one of my favourite walks in the area. The summit was hidden from view but as time passed on as we walked, the cloud here, as well as that towards Mount Aspiring National Park on the far side of the lake, gradually dissipated.

 

The main town of Wanaka has changed since my first visit and the main beach can get very crowded in peak season, but round the lake at Bremner Bay, it feels more secluded and this is where I would love to live if I was ever able to move here. The views across the lake here are absolutely stunning and also remind me of Scotland. Continuing beyond here, we eventually reached the lake outlet where the first signs of the development that has occurred since that first visit became evident. We found ourselves in a holiday park that wasn’t there before and we cut from here along a new road past new housing developments to reach the back of Albert Town which had expanded outwards in my absence.

 

Our destination was Mt Iron, a distinctive hill which offers a great viewpoint over the area. There are several routes up depending on which direction you approach from and we found our way up to the top via a route I wasn’t aware of. Our view on the way up was over Albert Town which I could now see had grown so much. From the summit, the view away from Wanaka looked the same, the flat plains spreading away towards the surrounding mountain ranges. It was as we crossed over the summit and started the descent down on the Wanaka side that I could really appreciate how much the town had expanded. An entire new estate had appeared, coming right up to the bottom of the hill and a new car park and new toilet block sat at the bottom of the trail. The facilities are much needed with the increase in tourist numbers but it highlighted the fact that the once quiet Wanaka was losing its peacefulness. I don’t enjoy Queenstown because of its busyness and brashness, and I can only hope that Wanaka never completely gives in to the same folly.

 

We ate a late lunch in a cafe near the lake, and although initially disappointed with my brother’s desire to now do nothing despite several good walks in the area, by the time I’d finished sucking lemons, I found myself give into the laziness very quickly as we sat on the pebbled beach by the lakeside. My brother people watched whilst I snoozed in the warm sunshine. I’m normally an active person on holiday, always on the go, always wanting to pack as much in as possible. I don’t like sitting still, or being lazy or sunbathing. This can make me a frustrating person to travel with, or equally makes me frustrated to travel with other people, which is part of the reason I often enjoy going solo. But every now and again, and usually without forward planning, I’m either forced to or give in to being lazy and just being still, and on those rare occasions I actually enjoy it. As such, I ended up being very glad that my brother was happy to just sit there for a while, and I was very glad to rest my feet and relax.

Another sunny morning greeted us for the long day that we had planned ahead. It was time to say goodbye to Wanaka and head west through the Haast Pass. With a lot of driving ahead for me, I was to be grateful for the afternoon’s relaxing the day before. Before leaving the town behind, we took a quick trip up to the war memorial, the car park of which offers a nice view across the lake. Wanaka is such a long drive from my home city of Christchurch, that I knew I was leaving it unclear of when I’d next return. So I absorbed the view as best as I could to retain the image as a memory, before we had to head on.

Spring Roadie – Milford Sound to Te Anau

Aside from cruising down the fjord on one of the many boat trips, there is also a shoreline walk at Milford Sound that is always worth taking the time to do. By the time my brother and I had arrived back into dock in late morning, the tide was getting low, but the sun was much higher. The pier that sticks out into the water at the ferry terminal was a good place to start the shoreline walk from and after popping out to the end of it for us both to take some photographs, we meandered our way back towards the car park.

 

Beyond the other side of here is a small peninsula that juts out. A little trail leads through the bush here and with the low tide, there was plenty of opportunity to walk out onto the exposed stony shore and take in the view. It’s really hard to take a bad photograph here when the view is so stunning. Even though it wasn’t my first time, I still happily filled my memory card and in between times walked around with a smile on my face. It was a busy little waterfront by this stage with many of the tourists from the morning boat trips having the same plan, but despite this it was still tranquil and didn’t feel overcrowded.

 

But eventually it was time to push on, as the drive back to Te Anau is very scenic and there were lots of stops to be made. The first of these was the Chasm, not too far out of Milford Sound as the road starts its wind back up through the deep valley. The high volume of water through the valleys in Fiordland National Park has long been weathering and changing the landscape. In the case of the Chasm, a narrow channel of fast moving water has created a literal chasm in the rock causing the water to gush through a rocky channel and cascade over a drop. Whilst it is a short walk to see it, the bridge has been placed right over the waterfall which means it is actually really difficult to fully visualise the extent of the fall which seems to me to be a bit of bad planning. None-the-less, the gaps in the foliage as we walked through the bush to get back from it, offered a sneaky peak at the surrounding mountain peaks.

 

From there, the road winds its way uphill to the man-made wonder that is Homer Tunnel. It is particularly impressive to approach it from this side as the steep slopes of the mountains grow closer and closer as if they will swallow you, and all there is to see in front of you is a sheer rock wall. The effort involved in blasting this rudimentary tunnel through such solid rock would have been incredible, but without it, Milford Sound would only be accessible by sea or air. A series of S-bends raises the altitude and towards the top, a large area to pull in at is worth pausing at to appreciate the dramatic rocky sides of this magnificent valley. Snow melt meant there were plenty of little waterfalls cascading down the rockface.

 

Because the tunnel is unsealed and unwalled, the restricted width, height and constant dripping water throughout the length of the tunnel means it is classed as a 1-lane road, with traffic lights controlling the flow during peak season. Queuing to pass through is inevitable but it is efficient, and once back on the other side we again pulled in near the site of the morning’s kea encounter where we marvelled at the snow piled up by the roadside and once again watched the kea causing chaos. Further up the valley we paused at a lookout over the entrance to the Hollyford Valley, an area I’m keen to explore further on foot. Then beyond here, was our main stop on the drive.

 

Having lived in New Zealand for well over 6 years now, and having seen the increasing tourist numbers and the environmental effects that is occurring as a result, I’m torn about recommending my favourite places to go, because I want to keep them the way I found them: quiet and untouched. But if I was asked what one short walk shouldn’t be missed on a New Zealand trip, then Key Summit would be it. Reached from the Divide on the Te Anau-Milford Highway, it is also the start of the very popular Routeburn Track, one of the country’s multi-day Great Walks. But within 2-3 hours, you can hike up to Key Summit and be back at your car, and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges on a clear day are just incredible.

Like the last time I hiked it, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, but this time round, it was so bright that I had great issues with over-exposure of the photographs I was taking. About 3.5 years after the last visit, we pulled into the car park, and not only was it packed, but the extension (which hadn’t been present when I was there last time) was also packed, and a spill-over car park down a steep and rutted slope was also nearly full. I couldn’t get over the difference. The trail was also full of people coming and going and this is why I am torn to recommend my favourite places: I hike to be amongst nature and seek solitude, so I hate walking busy routes.

The initial part of the trail is amongst bush with just the occasional break in the trees to see a glimpse of the nearby peaks. It isn’t until close to the turn-off to Key Summit that the real views begin. Away from the Routeburn Track, the Key Summit route zig-zags up the mountainside until eventually it reaches a plateau where a boardwalk takes you on an alpine nature walk. From shrubs to tarns and the mountain peaks around it, I cannot do the view justice with words. Even the photographs fail to show the splendour of the view and I’m pretty sure my brother was blown away. He wasn’t in the country long enough to tackle any lengthy hiking trails, but here he was getting a good idea of what the country has to offer.

 

Although the plateau is Key Summit, at 919m (3016ft), there is a higher peak behind it which offers a really good view point back down over the tarns. This path had been completely upgraded since my last visit, as had the lookout itself which was busy, unlike the last time I was here when only myself and 1 other person had bothered to take the rudimentary track up the slope. Now a proper gravelled track led up here and I again pondered about the changes that were needing to be made to meet the demands of foot traffic. From this height though, it is just possible to make out a sliver of Lake Marian which sits hidden within a mountain valley near the entrance to the Hollyford Valley.

 

Returning to Key Summit, we continued the circuit of the alpine nature walk, crossing boardwalks, then rocks, absorbing the view around us. In shaded patches, stale snow lay on the ground and I left my brother to enjoy himself, myself slipping into my own wee world as I tend to do when I’m out hiking in nature. Had we had endless hours to spare, I could have happily sat up there with a picnic and just stared out at the mountains. As it was, the hours of the day were creeping onwards and so having had our fill of the fresh mountain air, we finished the circuit and made our way back down to the Routeburn Track, and back towards the car.

 

We stopped at the Mirror Lakes further along the road, which like last time I was here, was not reflective due to an afternoon breeze. Like many reflective lakes in New Zealand, early morning on a still day is the best time to see the effect. We stayed long enough for my brother to read all the info boards before we pushed on. As we cruised through the Eglinton Valley which had been cloaked in a mesmerising mist that morning, we stopped a couple of times at the side of the road just to appreciate the difference that full daylight made.

 

By the time we reached the top of Lake Te Anau, I was getting tired. It was still sunny overhead but the sun was dropping creating a glare across the water. We paused briefly at the pier that the Milford Sound track boat leaves from and eventually pulled into Te Anau in the early evening. We went out for pizza at an Italian restaurant near the main street before retiring to the hostel along the road to rest our legs from a day of activity. I adore Fiordland National Park, but I was just as excited to take my brother to another of my favourite places the next day.

Spring Roadie – Queenstown to Milford Sound

Three and a half years after my last visit, when I had come to hike my first multi-day walk in New Zealand, I found myself back in Te Anau, having driven from Queenstown through rain and arrived in cloud. The area of Fiordland National Park and its immediate surroundings is the wettest part of the country and it is said that you should go there expecting rain, with anything better being a bonus. Last time round I’d managed to miss the worst of the weather whilst walking the Kepler Track and had then been rewarded with a glorious day in Milford Sound. The drive to Te Anau was the first bad weather my brother had experienced since arriving in the country for the first time, and I was inwardly concerned about what we would get the next day. But we busied ourselves with dinner ahead of an early night; an early rise was to follow.

The Milford Highway is one of the most stunning drives in the country, and also one of the busiest. Milford Sound may be at the end of a long dead-end road but it is top of many a tourist’s wish list and so its worth planning the best time to tackle the drive to avoid the bulk of the crowds. I knew from last time that it was best to head off in darkness, get the drive out the way to catch the morning boat trip, and then take your time driving back, stopping at all the highlights on the way. I convinced my brother that this was the best choice, and so we duly set off at dawn. The mist was incredible and I wished I wasn’t driving so that I could take some photos of it, but at least my brother got to soak it in, and I glanced at it often when I was able to take my eyes off the winding road. The sweeping Eglinton Valley was spectacular with the mist, and it only started to disappear once we were more nestled amongst the mountains.

We stopped at Pop’s View Lookout for a breakfast snack overlooking Mount Christina and the Hollyford Valley. There was snow on the peaks poking up in the background, and somewhere hidden nearby was Lake Marion, out of sight. As we continued onwards, I noticed there had been a few road upgrades since I’d last been there and by the time we reached the entrance to Homer Tunnel, we had made good time. My attention was grabbed by some kea on a car parked by the road so I pulled over for my brother to get a look. Immediately a kea flew over and landed on the roof as my brother watched it. I suddenly realised my brother had left the passenger car door open as the kea hopped onto it and eyeballed me inside. I adore kea, the cheeky alpine parrot that is endemic in New Zealand, but with their cheekiness comes a destructive inquisitiveness and I had visions of it coming in the car and causing havoc. I called to my brother to close the door, the bird hopping back onto the roof as he did. We enjoyed the close encounter, surrounded by the steep mountains of the alps. Moving around the car to photograph the kea from a different angle, I realised too late, and to my dismay, that my brother hadn’t closed the door properly, and I cried out as the kea’s sharp beak bit a hole in the door’s rubber seal.

 

Driving through the Homer Tunnel, dripping with water from the roof onto the uneven ground below, and emerging at the far end to the steep mountain sides flanking the valley below, is an utter sight to behold. I was excited that the day was clearly a gloriously sunny one, and for the second time, I was lucky to experience the wettest part of the country on a beautiful sunny day. I was so glad that my brother got to experience the sunshine too. We finally pulled in at Milford Sound where the car park was starting to fill up for the day. We had picked the quieter time to take a boat trip there, but Milford Sound is far from quiet with a plethora of cruise options attracting plenty of tourists at all times of the day.

The foreshore walk from the car park to the ferry terminal offers one of the classic viewing spots across to Mitre Peak, the mountain peak that the area is famous for. Adorning every postcard and promotion material you can come across, the lighting wasn’t at its best at that time of the day, but with the tide in, the mountain reflected well in the water. We were nearly at the terminal when I realised I’d left the ferry ticket in the car and I had to run back through a sea of people coming against me, to grab it. I was knackered by the time I made it back to my brother, where he informed me that he’d checked us in without it. As we waited to board, we were the last boat to load and we discovered that our boat had been changed to a smaller vessel. I didn’t think anything of it, but my brother seemed disappointed, and I realised that this must have been a part of the trip that he was really looking forward to and the limited space on the boat concerned him that it would be overcrowded.

 

In the end though, I think he quickly forgot this as we got going. With the blue sky, sunshine and stunning scenery, it would have been hard to hold a grudge for long. Crossing first to the base of Mitre Peak, our boat joined the procession of tour boats that were ploughing the same route along the western slopes. The sides of the fjord are steep and covered in thick green vegetation, broken intermittently where a waterfall cascades down from somewhere on high. After heavy rain the waterfalls increase in number and strength, but even on a dry day, there were plenty to see. Passing a New Zealand fur seal hauled out on some rocks, we waited our turn to point the bow underneath one of the waterfalls, soaking the people at the front of the boat. Then, a little further along, some rare Fiordland Crested penguins were spotted on rocks and we hovered by them for some time. The bow of the boat quickly became packed with people desperate to take photos but my brother remained at the stern. I was surprised he would let himself miss out on the opportunity to see them, but assumed he was irked by the sudden squash of people on the small boat. It turned out he could see them just fine as the boat had angled enough to the side, and so he spotted his first ever wild penguins.

 

Eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to the fjord, staring out at the Tasman Sea, and here the boat sat for a while, bobbing around on the waves as my brother got to see the west coast for the first time. When we headed back into the fjord, the boat hugged the opposite side which was mostly in the shade. This was the compromise for the morning boat trip in November: the sun wasn’t high enough to light up both flanks. But it was still a gorgeous view, and my brother was able to get a close up of some New Zealand fur seals, another creature that’s different from the wildlife of Scotland. Then a little further into the fjord, a call went up that dolphins were about. I wasn’t expecting them and was caught off guard, and both of us scrambled over to the edge to look, catching an all-too-brief sighting before they disappeared out of view.

 

As we approached Harrison Cove, the view opened up a little to reveal the snowy peak of Mount Pembroke. Nestled within the cove is the underwater discovery centre that I had stopped at on my last trip here. This time round we were skipping this, and passing the cove signalled that the tour was almost over. As we cruised back to the ferry terminal, the familiar face of Mitre Peak crept back into view as Bowen Falls gushed down in the shadows to our side. There was still so much ahead of us that day, but it had been a cracking start and I’m pretty sure my brother enjoyed his sail through New Zealand’s most famous fjord.

Spring Roadie: Mount Cook to Queenstown

My brother and I awoke to a sunny morning, however the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. Mount Cook village is nestled amongst some of the tallest mountains in the country, close to the west coast, and as such, the area is privy to its own weather system, and at the mercy of the cloud systems. Luckily my brother had had plenty of opportunity to see Aoraki/Mount Cook the previous day, because we were not to see it again on our trip. I love this part of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, littered with walking and hiking trails, and due to being at the end of a very long dead-end road, it feels secluded and a bit less touristy than some of the rest of the South Island. I’ve visited a few times previously, including a visit where the village was surrounded by snow. The most recent visit prior to this one with my brother was to attempt to hike up to the Mueller Hut, high up in the mountains above the village, but I was a bit early in the season to go up, and wasn’t prepared for the snow in the upper reaches, thus being thwarted.

With an action packed 10 days of South Island driving to get through, my brother had selected the Hooker Valley track as his walk to do in the National Park. It is one of the country’s most popular walks, leading across alpine vegetation from the village to the lake at the base of Aoraki. We left the village in sunshine, but the clouds were falling over the mountain tops all around us, and it was clear the weather would close in as we progressed along the hike. There were plenty of other people on the trail that day, and we made good time treading along the well-maintained path. Some of the alpine flowers were starting to bloom, which along with the glacier lakes and nearby river, were a ready distraction as we hiked. As we neared the final rise at the end of the trail, spots of rain began and accompanied us as we reached the viewing area of the lake and Aoraki. The bulk of the mountain was hidden behind the cloud, which was a shame, but there was plenty of iceberg activity below to look at.

 

A path leads down the scree to the lakeside and this is the place to go for a close up of the icebergs. The rain was driving into us a little here which made it cold, so we hid in the lee of a large boulder whilst we had a snack, popping out briefly to take photos and pick up shards of ice. This was my brother’s first experience of icebergs, and it made me realise how much I’ve gotten used to the New Zealand landscapes in the 6 years I’ve lived here. I certainly don’t take it for granted, ever in awe when I see the glacier lakes, the towering mountains and the braided rivers, but I’d certainly forgotten what it was like to see these things for the first time. Whilst New Zealand has many similarities to Scotland, there are enough differences to make you appreciate you’re somewhere different.

 

By the time we had returned to the village, the clouds had closed in a little more. I had wanted to take my brother to the nearby Tasman glacier lake, but it was clear as we passed the turnoff that there would be nothing but cloud to see if we went, so it wasn’t worth wasting any more time. We had a few hours driving ahead to reach Queenstown, so by late morning we were on the road. Down the long stretch of road past Lake Pukaki, and onwards to the south, we had lunch in Twizel before continuing. There is a definite change in landscape as you follow the inland road south, and a somewhat desert quality starts to creep in. A little north of Omarama, I drove off the main road and headed along a dirt track, past an honesty box at the gate onto private property, and onwards to the Clay Cliffs. I’ve driven past the sign for these every other time I’ve been through this way, and so this was the first time I’d actually visited.

From the car park, an obvious track leads up to the base of the cliffs which stood distinctively like pinnacles against the blue sky. We had returned to sunshine, and meandered into the gaps between the peaks. It initially looked like there was an obvious path to follow, but after an initial climb and slide up loose scree, it became quite clear that the path petered out and became vague and loose under foot. Some people ahead of us sent a wake of loose stone in our direction and we did the same to those behind us. In the end, we backtracked a little, picked a different route through then once again reached an impasse. It felt like we were in some kind of foreign desert landscape and I was glad to have finally visited. My brother enjoyed squirrelling around the place also, and we found more paths to follow, away from the main track, as we slowly made our way back to the car park.

 

Continuing south, we cut through Omarama and onwards to Lindis Pass, one of the many mountain passes that New Zealand has. At 971m (3186ft), the Lindis Pass is the highest road pass in the South Island. The vegetation here is rather scrubby, which makes the view a little uninteresting to me, but at the top is a viewpoint where you can stop to look back at the road already travelled. From here, the drive down the other side towards Cromwell is windy, and we snaked our way down the hill, eventually arriving at Lake Dunstan which the road hugs all the way to Cromwell. We stopped briefly by the lake shore and also the giant fruit in Cromwell’s town centre, but the shadows were already starting to lengthen, accentuated by the steep mountain sides that flank the Kawarau Gorge on route to Queenstown. I’ve never had the opportunity to stop anywhere in the gorge before, and didn’t really know where was worth stopping at, so apart from a brief pull-in near a power station, we pushed on, arriving in Queenstown by the late afternoon.

 

Nestled around the shores of the large expanse of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown is an odd place. The main settlement is sandwiched between the lake and the mountains and as such sits in shadow for the latter part of the day. Kelvin Heights across the Frankton Arm of the lake is better situated for sunshine hours. Queenstown will always be an immense drawcard for many, with nearby ski fields for winter lovers, adrenalin activities on its doorstep, water sports and hiking within easy reach and a plethora of bars and eateries to choose from. I however, am not one of its fans. I’ll happily visit it from time to time, but it is overcrowded and eager to part you with your cash. We were staying along the lakeshore away from the main drag which was great, and it was a pleasant walk along the lakefront as the sun was lowering. We went for dinner at The Cow, one of my favourite places to eat in town, and afterwards, I always find it impossible not to visit Patagonia, a chocolate and ice cream shop that sells divine ice cream. I didn’t need it, but I sure did my best to shove the cold chocolatey delight down my gob.

 

The next morning was one of sunshine, and we had another morning hike planned. Although Queenstown has a gondola, it is also possible to hike up the hillside to the viewing platform, rather than pay the fee for the gondola. So as we are both avid walkers, and by way of saving money, we left our accommodation that morning and picked our way up into the forest behind the hostel. Ironically, before my brother had announced his visit to New Zealand, I’d already booked to fly to Queenstown for Christmas, in order to hike Ben Lomond, the tall mountain immediately behind the lake. So a month before I’d be back to hike it, we found ourselves on the Ben Lomond track which eventually joins up with the road up to the gondola building. Some old pipes litter the track and as we found ourselves at a waterfall, the route became a little unclear. I discovered when I was back in December that we had taken a wrong turn, but we did eventually make our way back to the proper path.

The route eventually breaks out into the mountain bike park that is scattered across the hillside. Here the Ben Lomond track separates from the road to the gondola building and we had to keep our eyes and ears open as the bike tracks regularly cut across in front of us. There were plenty of bikes out on the trails, whizzing past us at speed at regular intervals. Finally, the familiar view of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu opened up below us, and we were back amongst the crowds jostling around the viewing spots. With the ziplines, luge and bungy jump, this was a good example of how you could spend a lot of money here, but we simply meandered around and watched as people either raced down the tracks in their little carts or chucked themselves off a platform. At the time of visiting in November, there was plenty of work being done here to upgrade the facilities and this made a couple of spots extra busy, but we did manage to get some spots of grass to ourselves to soak up the view.

 

We hiked down via the Tiki trail which brought us out at the back of town. Picking our way through the streets, we stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking a square, and then headed into the Queenstown gardens. The blue skies had been replaced by clouds, but the mountain tops were still clear so despite the change in outlook, we still had a great view over to the summits. It is a lovely walk along the lake foreshore round the little peninsula, and is another example of a free thing to do in Queenstown. In fact, if you don’t mind using your own two feet, there are several free things you can do here. Once on the far side of the peninsula, overlooking the Frankton Arm, we cut up onto the hill in the middle and into the compact Botanic Gardens. Being springtime, there were plenty of flowers in bloom to look at and we both found plenty to take photographs of.

 

We walked back to the car parked far around the lakefront and although we didn’t have enough time to drive all the way to Glenorchy, I took my brother to Bennet’s Bluff lookout about half way there where there is a stunning view across the lake. The cloud detracted from it a little, but the steely colour of the water was still stunning and it was worthwhile taking the detour. We weren’t to see any sun for the rest of the day, and on return to Queenstown, I drove through it and out the other side, cutting across the Kawarau river bridge tracking south. Hugging the southern arm of Lake Wakatipu for some distance, we hit rain as we continued onwards on our South Island road trip.

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