My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

A Right Royal Christchurch

Eighteen months after the excitement of seeing his father, I found myself thrilled to discover that my scheduled weekday off work coincided with the visit of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge to Christchurch. I had previously been present when Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited the city, and despite not being a Royalist, nor to the pleasing of my partner, I took great thrill out of following them around the annual A & P show in an effort to get up close for a picture. It made my day to shake hands with Camilla, and the giddy child within was even more excited that my handshake made it onto the national news.


Fast-forward 1.5 years, and I found myself getting up early and heading down to Latimer Square at 8am to stand by a fence for 4 hours as a gathering crowd arrived. My patience was rewarded with a greeting and a handshake with Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge as she made her way down the crowd, speaking to as many people as she could. She is an exceedingly pretty and amiable person, and across the walkway, her husband, the future King, William the Duke of Cambridge, was greeting the people of Christchurch too. As they made their way towards the centre of the square, they started the countdown clock for the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2015 before both of them took their turns batting with some local kids. They chatted with many of the kids as well as some cricket officials before smiling and waving to the crowd, and getting back in their car and leaving. It was a brief visit, but they left a very satisfied crowd behind, including myself.


Key Summit

The beautiful Fiordland National Park contains 3 of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks: the Kepler Track, Milford Track and the Routeburn Track. On the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau, is an area called the Divide, near where the Milford Highway skirts round the end of the Hollyford Valley. It marks the start (or end) of the Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike that cuts through the Humboldt Mountains. With my appetite whetted from hiking the Kepler Track, I vow to come back one day to hike the Milford and Routeburn tracks as well, but on my way back to Te Anau from Milford Sound, I pulled in at the Divide to walk to Key Summit which had been highly recommended.

The first 40 minutes or so of the walk is along the Routeburn Track, winding upwards and round the end of the Livingstone Mountain range. It is a simple gravel path, past a few small waterfalls, hidden amongst the trees but within ear shot of the Milford Highway and its passing traffic. Not until the path has skirted round quite far does the canopy allow a view of the Hollyford valley and the Humboldt Mountains. It is, like so many parts of the National Park, a stunning sight. Both the valley and the mountains were thick with vegetation and far below, the Hollyford river sparkled under the glorious sunshine.


A sign marks the split up to Key Summit, and the path winds back and forth through an increasingly alpine vegetation until the summit is reached. The summit (919m/3015ft altitude) is relatively flat and has a self-guided alpine nature walk around it, encompassing a mixture of alpine wetlands, lakes and alpine vegetation. No matter what direction you look, there are mountains on all sides: Humboldt, Darran, Ailsa and Earl Mountain ranges.


A track heads up to a higher lookout where most of the alpine nature walk is visible below, and also the hidden Lake Marian comes into view. Lake Marrian is nestled within the Darran mountain range to the west. Returning via the same path, it rejoins the nature walk which, via various lookouts, forms a loop back to the path to take you back down to the Routeburn track and back to the Divide the way you came. At just over 2 hrs, it is a fantastic walk to do on a sunny day, and gives a good taster of the spectacular views that I’m sure the Routeburn Track offers.

Kepler Track – New Zealand Great Walk

I was thankful that the weather man got it wrong. For days I had watched the MetService predictions and the weather on the Breakfast news, and I prepared myself to get very wet. I bought new waterproofs and packed my bag carefully with multiple dry bags to protect my belongings. I expected to get soaked. But on day 1, I woke in the hostel in Te Anau to see the sun rising, and a clear sky. By the time I drove to the car park at the start of the Kepler Track, it was sunny, but I could see a heavy bank of cloud rolling in from the west. I might get to stay dry for an hour, I thought, as I set off across the Control Gates at the start of the walk, looking out over Lake Te Anau. Beyond that, I could only hope that the thick forest would protect me somewhat.


The DOC sign stated 1 hr 30 min to Brod Bay where the water taxi comes in. The walk was through forest the whole way and fairly flat making for an easy, though slightly uninteresting start, to the day’s hike. As I neared Brod Bay, I met a few walkers heading the other way and I reached the beach as 2 water taxis were leaving. A group of hikers had come over on the boat and they headed off on the track to Mt Luxmore as I paused to put on my waterproofs, ever wary of the incoming clouds. I needn’t have bothered, as not only did the rain never come, but the forest canopy offered good protection from the elements and I was soon sweating in the extra layers. They didn’t last long before the whole lot came off again. From here, the DOC sign stated 4 hr 30 min to Luxmore Hut, my destination, and the path started to slowly incline soon after leaving the beach behind. I learnt many years ago to control my pace on uphill sections, especially with my pack weighing 13kg. It had been a few years since I’d done a multi-day hike with such a weight to carry, and I was nervous of hurting my back which has been so fragile for the past 8 months. I found my pace quickly though and settled into it. There’s not a lot to see for the first hour other than trees. The big group of hikers that had left ahead of me were hiking light so they motored ahead but stopped regularly, meaning that we were repeatedly passing each other as I caught them up on their rest stops but they overtook me on their pace. It became a bit of a joke and offered some light relief from the monotony of the hike.


With increasing altitude, eventually some breaks in the canopy allowed me to see back down to Te Anau and out of nowhere the path came out at some limestone bluffs. Skirting them involved a few flights of stairs and the path was quite narrow in places. With rain clouds arcing around the mountain, a rainbow was visible towards Lake Manapouri. I had read a brief description of the hike which showed a slow incline followed by a steep incline. In anticipation of this steeper section, I stopped for an early lunch on a dead tree which offered a relatively comfortable seat. I was rather surprised on rounding a couple of corners afterwards to reach the end of the tree line, and realise that I had already gained nearly all of the altitude for the day. I met a couple of other hikers here who also were surprised at how easy the hike up had been. From here onwards, it was an alpine hike, cutting across a rolling summit with views down to Lake Te Anau and over to Lake Manapouri. The rainbow hung over the neighbouring mountain as I continued on the gravel path which later turned into a raised boardwalk through the expanse of alpine plants. The clouds had by now reached the Murchison mountains across the branch of Lake Te Anau, and they curled around the summit, threatening to jump across the expanse of water and reach us. By now there were quite a few hikers on the alpine section of the walk and from the boardwalk it wasn’t much further on the gravel track again till Luxmore Hut (1085m/3560ft altitude) came into view around a bend with the summit of Mt Luxmore behind it. I reached it exactly 4 hours after leaving the car park, quite surprised at how quickly I had hiked there.


This was my first experience of staying in a hut, and being a Great Walk, it was pretty big, well maintained and quite well stocked. The view from the balcony was impressive: back towards Lake Te Anau with the Murchison Mountain range across the water. I picked a spot to sleep for the night, made myself some nice warm soup and settled down for a chat with my fellow hikers. As the hours passed, the hut got busier and busier, and I decided to take the side walk to Luxmore Caves to go exploring. My torch didn’t provide as much light as I would have liked to go deep in, so after a brief delve into the entrance way, I headed back to the hut in the heavy rain that had finally broke. It was a long afternoon to pass, made easier by having someone with a lot of common interests to talk to. Eventually it was time to make dinner, and by 8 pm, the local ranger came to speak to us. His name was Peter Jackson, and he was quick to point out (as if we didn’t know!) that he was not the director of the Lord of the Rings movies, but he was funny and informative, telling us about the local conservation projects that were taking place in the area, mainly the trapping and killing of stoats which are a major pest and threat to the native fauna of New Zealand. By the time of his talk, the hut had filled to its capacity of 50 people, and the sky was growing dark. There was still a gale blowing and rain falling, but half-way through his talk, 2 people hovered outside the hut, refusing to come in. Peter went outside to speak to them whilst we waited for the gossip. Much to everyone’s shock, the 2 hikers had decided to continue on the walk to the next hut, a 6 hr walk away, across the exposed ridge in the dark during a storm. As Peter said, he couldn’t force them to stay, but he wasn’t impressed and it was all we could talk about. With the lights automatically set to turn off early, and the darkness set in, everybody retired very early.


With the smallest inkling of dawn light coming into the window, the bunk room seemed to jump to life. I wasn’t the only one that was surprised about how early some people leapt up to get going that second day, but after trying to shut out the noise for a while, I gave in and joined them. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and I waited to capture a photo of the sunrise. There was a low bank of clouds hovering over Lake Te Anau and it was certainly a beautiful spot to wake up. I headed off in the company of the hiker that I had got chatting with yesterday and we left the hut behind to continue climbing towards Mt Luxmore summit. It was a beautiful day: blue, cloudless skies, glorious sunshine, and not too windy. The climb was steady and winding, with a few alpine lakes dotted about the higher reaches of the mountain. The expanding view over Lake Te Anau and the Murchison mountain range was sublime and ahead of us we could see the coloured dots of various hikers. As we neared the top, the path became narrow with steep drops to the one side, and in places there was a scree that the thin path cut across, and we both wondered how the 2 hikers from last night had negotiated this in the wind and rain in the dark. On top of this, they would have missed out on the spectacular views, and again we found ourselves musing at their stupidity.


The path to Mt Luxmore summit (1472m/4829ft altitude) splits from the Kepler Track and cuts up a rocky slope to reach a rocky summit with a trigger point. It was slightly crowded as we waited to get our photos of the view. The clouds over Lake Te Anau were lifting and had moved over the land, and looking west there were mountain ridges as far as the eye could see. It was spectacular, and in fact the rest of the hike on day 2 was just an overload of beautiful mountain scenery at every turn. The path remained narrow in many places, with occasional scree or steep drops on one or both sides. As it curled across the neighbouring ridge line, it afforded new views of the deep branch of Lake Te Anau as well as Mt Luxmore summit behind us. At times we could see the path snake across the mountain top for what looked like miles.


We paused only briefly at the Forest Burn Shelter (1270m/4167ft altitude), again wondering whether the two hikers had given up here or kept going in the dark. I was having a fantastic time as we continued on through the low alpine vegetation, round more bends with more views of Lake Te Anau until we saw the final ridge crossing. With steep drops either side it was totally exposed to the elements but on such a beautiful sunny day it was amazing to be so high up surrounded by so many peaks. By now I could hear the call of the world’s only alpine parrot, the ever-cheeky kea. It took a while to locate them, but I could see them landing ahead of us on the track. We took another brief detour to climb another peak (1383m/4537ft altitude) before arriving at the Hanging Valley shelter (1390m/4560ft altitude) where a group were having a lunch break whilst being marauded by 3 loud keas. I love them. They are big and beautiful with a personality to match. They are very bold and very cheeky and they enjoy playing dare to see how close they can get to stealing your food. Like all parrots, they are highly intelligent, and looking at them, you know that they are regarding you with some intellect. We took a food break here ourselves and I enjoyed watching the 3 of them bicker amongst themselves in between jumping and flying about around us whilst we ate. I could have watched them for hours, but the wind was starting to pick up, and now the clouds were starting to roll in from the west again, meaning the potential for stormy weather again.


By now we could see the Iris Burn Valley, and we were trying to work out where our hut was. The ridge line walk continued for a while longer, dropping in altitude slightly to a last lookout (1167m/3829ft altitude) before zig-zagging back into the tree line and down the mountainside. There were varying signs of slips having taken place, with great spaces where the trees had careered down the mountainside. The trees were rife with old man’s beard lichen which of all the lichen species, needs the purest of air to grow. Six hours after leaving the Luxmore hut, we arrived at the Iris Burn Hut (497m/1631ft altitude) in time for the sky becoming overcast. From here there is a brisk walk through the forest to Luxmore falls. It is reported to be a great place to go for a dip, but on getting there we were immediately attacked by a great swarm of sand flies. We lasted as long as it took to take some photos, but with them landing and crawling through our hair, and swarming round every inch of exposed skin we had, it wasn’t long before we got moving back to the hut. Whilst a few hikers motored onwards, most of the same faces from last night were also joining us at this hut, and by now, we were all starting to get to know each other quite a bit. There was quite a mix: Kiwis from varying parts of the north and south islands, Australians, Brits, Americans, Germans and a Swede. I did my best to promote Christchurch as a tourist destination, always saddened to hear about people’s shock and lack of love for the place when as usual they have seen so little of it, rushing in and rushing out again. The ranger that night was fantastic, again very funny and entertaining. He told us where to go and see glowworms in the local forest, and took us to see an exceedingly rare black orchid. All of us that had walked to the falls had walked past it without knowing, but it wasn’t in flower so was easy to miss. In the darkness of night, we headed blindly into the forest in search of glowworms and saw the faint glow of a handful scattered amongst the bushes.


Day 3 was dry but overcast. The Kepler Track set off uphill initially to skirt round a hill, before cutting down to follow the Iris Burn. Not too far from the hut is an area known as the Big Slip, where a heavy storm in 1984 brought down a large section of the trees and vegetation on the hillside. It takes about 100 years for it to fully regenerate back to full tree coverage again after a slip, and 30 years later there is still only bush growing back in. The rest of the walk was easy going through forest, and with my companion setting the pace, we motored through, chatting away not paying much attention to our surroundings. Eventually the mouth of the burn came into view and we found ourselves on the shore of Lake Manapouri. Once at the beach, we could see the final hut not far away and decided to stop for lunch. The sand flies had the same idea and quickly set about us as we tried to eat and once again we felt forced to get moving. Skirting the end of the lake, we arrived at Moturau Hut (185m/607ft altitude) after just 4 hours. A lot of people continued on to finish the hike that day, but again the rain came in for the afternoon, and the time was passed chatting with other hikers. By sunset it had stopped and we got a brief chance between showers to take some photos from the beach of the dramatic sky over the surrounding mountains.


With a couple of exit points for the hike, my companion headed off alone to catch a bus, and I set off on day 4 at a leisurely pace, keeping my own company. Starting off in the forest, it breaks out of the trees briefly at a wetland area which was apparently used for the ‘dead marshes’ scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. From here it was possible to see the very spot where the Kepler track broke out from the trees on the ridge on day 1, made possible because of the loop nature of the track. The sun was struggling to push through the clouds at this stage of the day, and from this point on, I barely saw another soul until the end. The track cuts in and out from the bank of the Waiau river, often hidden from view by the thick foliage. At Rainbow Reach there is an exit to the shuttle bus pick up, but I continued on through the meandering forest path, broken in place by the occasional clearing. Finally, the control gates came into view round a bend in the river, and after 4 hours, I stepped out of the trees to the end of the hike. The sun was by now out to greet me and a few hikers that had already finished ahead of me, greeted me on my arrival. Lake Te Anau sparkled in the sunlight, welcoming me back to civilisation, and with my first Great Walk under my belt, I headed back to my car with a huge grin on my face.

Fiordland National Park

You know you’re in one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world when there just aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. Fiordland National Park covers the south-western corner of the South Island of New Zealand and large sections of it remain unexplored by humans. This simple fact leaves me in awe. In 2014, there are still parts of New Zealand that are rarely witnessed by human beings. Hectares of thick bush, or dramatic mountains that make it hazardous to adventure in to.

It was a long and tiring 8 hr drive south from Christchurch via Queenstown, and I arrived in Te Anau in the lowering sun. I was making the most of my YHA membership by staying in the local hostel but it was the start of a week of not getting enough sleep. It had been a while since I’d shared a dorm room and I’d forgotten how much a good night’s sleep was determined by those people you shared a room with. Between the people coming in late and those leaving early, it was a very disturbed sleep that first night.

The next morning, I headed out into the early morning darkness and the rain and drove to Manapouri on the shore of the lake with the same name. In the greyness of a wet morning, I boarded one of the boats to head across the water on a 45 minute cruise to the far side. The surrounding mountains looked dramatic with the low cloud hugging and framing their silhouettes. The deeper into the lake we got, the higher the mountains seemed to climb. It was a wet start to the day but I couldn’t get enough of the cloudy view. On the western shore, the boat moored next to the Manapouri power station, a rather controversial feat of engineering that changed not just the landscape, but the local ecology too. It was completed in 1971 to produce power for a smelting plant in Southland, but in doing so, it not only changed the level of Lake Manapouri, but it altered the movement of some aquatic species, most notably the eel which has to be physically captured and relocated to the sea to allow it to carry on its life cycle.


From the shore, our group was transferred by bus across the pass towards Doubtful Sound where another boat waited for us. Thankfully, albeit unusually, the weather on the seaward side of the mountains was actually drier with occasional bursts of blue sky breaking through the higher cloud bank. There was still the occasional low cloud to add to the dramatic landscape of steep mountain sides rising steeply from the wall of the fiord. Doubtful Sound is utterly breathtaking. It’s quite broad in places, but is made up also of multiple branches that delve into valleys amongst the mountains. We headed initially to the mouth of the fiord which is protected to a degree by a few relatively large islands. On a few of the smaller ones right at the entrance, New Zealand Fur Seals haul themselves up on the rocks to dry out and digest a belly full of fish. Several more frolicked in the lapping waves, showing off to us as we hovered for a while to watch. Heading back in to the fiord, the boat took us down a couple of the branches. In the first one we were very lucky to see a pair of exceedingly rare Yellow-Crested Fiordland Penguins. They were cruising along together, floating on the surface looking nonplussed by our presence. The water was still here, and with the sun trying to break through, the mountains reflected beautifully on the calm water. The captain turned the boat’s engine off so that we could appreciate the peacefulness of the area. The only thing breaking through the silence was the occasional cry of a bird amongst the foliage on the mountain sides. The serenity was fantastic.


Heading into a second branch, we came across another pair of Fiordland penguins, followed by another pair deeper in. It seems we were exceedingly lucky to see 6 of what is a very threatened species. In this deeper branch of the fiord, the mountains were especially steep, too steep for vegetation to grow in places, and these cliffs were grey and barren. On one aspect of an especially tall mountain, a deep gouge was evident running down from the summit towards the sea. This is one of a few visible fault lines in the world, and shows the dramatic meeting of two small tectonic plates. New Zealand as a whole has multiple fault lines running in various directions, and whilst always posing a risk for an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it is these same potentially deadly movements that provide a lot of the beauty and dramatic landscape that the country is so famous for.


Returning by boat and then bus, we headed underground at the Meridian-owned Manapouri power station to visit the turbine hall. Sitting 200 metres below the level of Lake Manapouri, the power station is the largest hydroelectric station in the country and produces 800MW of power. It is an amazing feat of engineering that took a lot of time and manpower to excavate and construct. A few people lost their lives in the process and a plaque of remembrance is attached to the wall at the depth of the road tunnel deep under the ground.


It was still dull over Lake Manapouri but at least the clouds had lifted giving a better view of the surrounding mountains. The following day I was to set off on the Kepler Track, one of the country’s Great Walks, that spans an area of land between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. I looked to the summit, trying to fathom out where I would be heading, and couldn’t work it out. It would have to be a surprise. Back in Te Anau, I decided to go out to the glowworm caves across the far side of Lake Te Anau, but by the time the trip set off, the rain had moved in for the night, and once again, the cloud level dropped and the view disappeared. Luckily the caves were underground and away from the worst of the weather, but unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs on the cave experience which was disappointing. There were some incredible waterfalls within the cave, carved out by thousands of years of water carving a channel through the limestone walls. At the end of it, we boarded a small boat and were guided round a cavern in the dark where the only light was from the small blue glow from a myriad of glowworms. Having visited Waitomo caves in the north island, there was a slightly disappointing amount of glowworms at the Te Anau caves, but it was still a good way to spend a few hours, and there was a couple of interesting videos at the end of it which were quite informative about glowworms and their life cycle.


A few days later after completing the Kepler Track, I returned to Te Anau in glorious sunshine. The lake glimmered under the blue sky, and after a drive round the waterfront in Te Anau itself, I followed the lake to its northern edge and continued on the Milford highway for some distance. The scenery changed dramatically, from lakeside, to pastures, to steep mountains rising up from the valley floor. Amongst these impressive vertical mountain slopes lay the Eglinton valley with the Eglinton river. The river courses a seemingly calm route through the valley floor, providing a perfect environment for the exceedingly annoying sand fly. The route is littered with picnic and camp sites, but everywhere I got out to enjoy the view and take photos, it would be a mere few minutes before the pesky creatures would have me swatting like a madman and running back for the safety of the car. Next time I will come armed with repellent, for they regularly interrupted my enjoyment of this staggeringly beautiful region. There is a collection of small lakes known as the Mirror Lakes because on a still day, they produce a perfect reflection of the mountains that tower over them. Whilst the sun shone over head, there was a breeze when I stopped there, so the reflection was distorted, but it was still a lovely place to sit and watch the local fowl swim around and daydream in between the incessant swatting of flies. Further along the road, there is a sign marking a latitude of 45 degrees south: the exact half-way point between the equator and the south pole. The river was particularly wide near here, and again I would have loved to have stayed here longer if it weren’t for the sand flies. I drove as far as Knobs Flat before heading back to Te Anau for the evening. The local cinema regularly shows a movie called Fiordland on Film which is a brief but incredible aerial display of the National Park, including many areas that haven’t really been explored on foot. Having watched it that evening, I would definitely recommend a viewing whilst in town.


I rose early the next morning, heading off in total darkness, to push on at a good pace before the tourist traffic built up for the morning. It is a long and winding drive on the Milford highway heading north-west towards Milford Sound. I passed the Mirror Lakes and Knobs Flat in the low sun and pushed on, passing Lake Gunn, and the Divide where the Routeburn Track finishes. Past here, the road turns sharply and follows the Hollyford river for a while. There are some single track sections, and the road bends and winds and dips and climbs towards the dramatic entrance of the Homer Tunnel. By this point I was struggling to stop my jaw dropping open. The scenery was phenomenal, and at the end of it all, the road comes to a massive wall of rock through which the road was blasted. The tunnel was opened in 1954, prior to which the only access to the west coast was by boat. It drops quite steeply to the western side and the walls have been left unlined, bearing the granite surface which drips water from the rock face. Coming out the other side in the Cleddau valley, the road winds downwards following the natural flow of the Cleddau river, and eventually coming out at Milford Sound and that famous view of Mitre Peak that is borne on hundreds of postcards across the country. The sun was still low, struggling to break over the Homer Saddle, so Milford Sound still lay greatly in the shadow whilst I awaited my boat trip. By the time we set off mid-morning, the sun had broken high enough to bathe the fiord in light. Being late March, the sun was already struggling to attain enough height to light up the entire fiord and the one side remained in shadow for the entire trip. Nevertheless, the side with Mitre Peak was illuminated and we followed this steep mountain side towards the sea.


I had been blown away by the rugged beauty of Doubtful Sound, but with the added benefit of the blue sky and glorious sunshine, Milford Sound was stunning. Though smaller in length, the mountains are much steeper here which lends an intensity to the landscape which begs your constant attention. There were several people kayaking as we passed by, and in a few spots where the rocks allowed, there were some New Zealand Fur Seals hauled up out of the water. The fiord is most famous for its waterfalls which increase in number quite dramatically after heavy rain. Whilst only the main ones were still flowing, it was still incredible to see such high drops of water splashing down the cliff side. At two of them, the boat moved in quite close so that the people at the front got wet, and a rainbow was visible in the spray. The changing prospect of the domineering Mitre Peak framed our passage out to sea where the altitude dropped dramatically. Near the entrance, we briefly saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins skirt the coastline before heading out of sight.


The coastline looking north was shrouded in a low mist, and we bobbed on the Tasman Sea for a short while admiring the view before heading back into the fiord. We hugged the opposite shore which still remained in the shadow, stopping briefly to watch more fur seals. We passed close to another waterfall before we pulled in at the discovery centre where I disembarked for a look under the water. Floating on a pontoon attached to the cliff wall, the underwater observatory descends 10 metres below the surface. The water in these fiords offers a unique marine environment. With the freshwater cascading from the cliffs into the sea, it picks up the tannins from the plants which taint the water a dark brown colour. As salt water is heavier than freshwater, the darker fresh water sits in a layer about 2 metres deep above the sea water. The darkness of this freshwater layer blocks the sunlight filtering through meaning that marine species which elsewhere would only be found at great depths, actually grow well remarkably close to the surface. At just 10 metres below the surface, they have beds growing rare black coral (which actually appears white in colour). From one side of the viewing chamber, the rock face had starfish and sea slugs amongst other things attached, and from the opposite side, there were shoals of fish of varying sizes flitting about past the windows. The water was murky but the fish came quite close up and it was fascinating to watch them. I overheard the staff telling someone that they occasionally see dolphins from the windows and the odd fur seal or penguin. Boats passed regularly so people could leave on any boat as they pleased, and after a while, I headed back to the main terminal, passing a beautiful waterfall on route.


It was a glorious day, and after a wander along the shoreline to get a differing view of the stunning Mitre Peak and surrounding mountains, I headed back onto the Milford highway to head back towards Te Anau. There was plenty to see on the way, which I had rushed past in the morning in an effort to beat the crowds at the ferry terminal. I stopped first not far up the road at an area called The Chasm. A short walk from the car park brings you to a rather noisy part of the wood where the Cleddau river has carved a deep chasm creating a raging waterfall below a bridge. It is quite impressive to see although the view is somewhat blocked by the positioning of the bridge that you walk across. From here I followed the winding road up to the immense granite wall where the Homer Tunnel entrance lies. It looks solid and towers above the entire valley, looking indestructible, making the fact that a hole has been blasted through it that bit more impressive. During the summer months, the flow of traffic through the tunnel is controlled with traffic lights, but in the winter months, there is no such system. Inside the tunnel, the road is uneven and poorly tarred, not to mention wet from the regular dripping of water from the roof and sides. Heading out of the Cleddau valley, it went uphill, eventually returning to the Hollyford Valley where the mountains look equally as high.  Before the sharp turn at the Divide, a lookout spot gives a view up the Hollyford Valley with the Hollyford River down below.


I stopped at the Divide to hike to Key Summit before taking the long drive back to Te Anau. Arriving back at the top of the lake I got the best view of the lake yet under a near cloudless sky. It was a fitting end to my trip to Fiordland. The next morning I headed off on the long journey home to Christchurch, deciding on an impulse to go via Invercargill on the south coast, and swinging up via Dunedin. It was a long drive and a long day, but I was ever keen to drag out the holiday as long as possible. With my taste buds whetted for more hiking in the area, I will definitely aim to get back to this beautiful National Park soon.

Sydney for Two

When I was 19 years old, I travelled across Canada and fell in love with the city of Vancouver. It has, for over 10 years, remained my favourite city in the whole world. Until now. On my first visit to Sydney in 2012, I was travelling solo but this time, not only was I going with my partner and excited to show him my favourite places, but one of my best friends now lives there, meaning an insiders guide to the city. By the end of the week’s holiday, not only had I convinced my partner of the city’s charms, but I had sealed the love for the place which has firmly made it my new favourite city in the whole world.

We arrived on my birthday which was almost coincidental. The real reason we had booked the trip to Sydney was to see the live show of Mrs Brown’s Boys at the weekend. We decided to go a couple of days ahead, meaning no lie-in for me on my birthday. Instead, we had a ridiculously early rise to get to the airport, but the pay-off was that we arrived in Sydney still early in the morning, giving us the use of the whole day. After we hauled our bags up the many many steps from Circular Quay up into the Rocks, we reversed our route and jumped on a ferry out to Taronga Zoo. Last time I had visited, I had been blown away by the bird show and had sold it as a good enough reason to go to the zoo. Arriving in the early afternoon we wound our way through the exhibits under the blazing sunshine. Like Australia Zoo at the end of last year, I was as much (if not more so) enthused about the wild creatures flitting about, as I was about the animals in the enclosures. We were near the kookaburra enclosure when 2 wild kookaburras flew down onto the pathway, which was the closest I had ever been able to see a wild one. I felt sorry for the captive ones, as it seemed as if the wild ones were taunting the others. There was definitely a good bit of vocalisation in what was probably some territorial stand off.


I continue to feel very uneasy about captive mammals performing tricks for show, but I guiltily enjoyed the seal show. All the seals they have there were injured individuals that were rehabilitated, and they do seem to enjoy themselves, but I couldn’t help but watch and have thoughts of Blackfish in the back of my mind. From there, we headed straight to the outdoor amphitheatre where the bird show is held, but when we got there, they had a sign up informing us that the afternoon show was cancelled. I was rather disappointed, as it was the main reason for coming back here, but with views over the harbour and the city skyline beyond, it was still a good trip for the afternoon. That evening, we had a wander around the Rocks, and along Circular Quay towards the Opera House. The most amazing red sunset took place over the harbour, and we watched it until the darkness took over, before we headed back for an early night.


As an avid fan of Home & Away, it seemed only appropriate to make the long bus journey up to Palm Beach, north of the city. It was a lovely, though long, drive over the harbour bridge, through the northern suburbs and up the east coast past beach after bay after beach after bay. Most people got off at the wharf on the west coast of the peninsula, but we stayed on till it crossed to the east side, getting off at the park which backs the long stretch of golden sand. There was no mistaking this place for the back drop of the fictitious Summer Bay, but it was quiet with barely a soul around and the building that plays the part of the Surf Club was shut up and empty. The beach was stunning, but it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. We walked from the surf club to the southern edge of the beach where there were a couple of shops and restaurants but still very few people, then headed back to the surf club again. Unsure of how to get up to the lighthouse, we decided to head back to the wharf on the western shore where there was a bit more life, although still very quiet. Unlike the surf on the eastern side, this western side was very protected and the water was lovely and clear. We waded about for a while before heading over the brow of the hill to the pier where it turned out we had missed the one and only sailing of the day. With nothing else happening, and with neither of us having swimwear with us, we decided to head back towards the city. We detoured at Manly to head to the beach, another gorgeous stretch of beach which was conversely crowded with people: sunbathing, in the water, and generally milling about the place. After lunch overlooking the beach, we did a bit of shopping in the surf shops before heading back to Circular Quay. It had been a lovely but hot day, so it was almost a relief when the clouds rolled in for the evening.


We had arranged to meet some friends in Darling Harbour, so we opted to walk from Circular Quay round the harbour, under the Harbour Bridge and round the other side. Since last time I was here, part of the walk had been removed whilst building work was going ahead. A brand new casino is in the process of being built, amongst other things, so there was plenty of activity going on. We had to skirt the building site to get back to the waterfront at Darling Harbour and we followed the harbour round, cutting up at Tumbalong Park. I had previously found Darling Harbour quite garish and brash, and hadn’t been a particular fan of the place last time. This time, it was a little different. Whilst still a bit loud and intense, it is changing quite a bit. The monorail tracks are still in the process of being removed and there is some construction work taking place to redevelop it a bit. But it was Tumbalong Park that really helped me change my mind a little. It has an amazing children’s play ground with all sorts of structures for them to play around, and climb over, as well as paddling pools and water features for them to interact with. Being a Saturday, it was absolutely mobbed, and it seemed a great place to keep the kids cool and entertained at the same time. There was plenty of eating options nearby for the parents to get a snack or drink to indulge in whilst supervising their children at play. In the green space behind there was a Thai festival taking place, with stalls serving a wide range of Thai foods, as well as tents to indulge in a Thai massage, tourism spots for Thailand, and Thai entertainers.


After a brief wander round, we cut over to Chinatown, another place I hadn’t been to last time, and we gawped at the tanks crammed full of giant crabs and lobsters on display in the windows of the restaurants. It was just a case of crossing the street to go inside Paddy’s Market, one of the largest indoor markets I have ever seen. It was huge, and the range of things on offer was immense, from clothes and toys, to jewellery and souvenirs, and fruit and veg out the back too. We spent a wee while wandering around and still didn’t cover even half of the floor space. Outside at the corner was a wee takeaway shop selling some strange concoction of green tea. The English descriptions were quite vague, with most of the writing being in Mandarin, but I joined the queue and ordered a passion fruit green tea. The tea itself was really nice, but it came with a load of weird jellied sweets at the bottom that would get sucked up the straw and give a weird taste or sensation in my mouth. Looking around, the drinks seemed really popular amongst the predominantly Asian crowd, but I was slightly put off by those jellied sweets. Cutting back through Chinatown, we returned to the Thai festival and partook in a Thai-style neck & shoulder massage whilst waiting on our friends. It was sore in a good way, and the food from the stalls that we all sat down to afterwards was delicious. It was a good way to pass a few hours.


After our friends left, we caught the ferry back to Circular Quay for a brief respite before catching another ferry up the Paramatta River to the Sydney Olympic Park. The further up river we went, the more residential the buildings became, and the Olympic Park itself was a surprisingly large area incorporating some wetlands and several walks. Towards the back of the park, there are multiple events buildings and some restaurants. The bus from the wharf took us on a rather convoluted route before we eventually jumped out near the main stadium. Mrs Brown’s Boys was playing at the Allphones Arena and I was very impressed with the whole set up of the park in general but also the building itself. The food and merchandise areas allowed a lot of people to get served at once, meaning quite an efficient service most of the time. They also allowed food into the main auditorium meaning we could sit down whilst we ate. The show itself was great. I was a little disappointed in the first half as, having watched all the series’ several times, it was just an elongated version of a couple of the episodes from the television show. Whilst padded out with plenty of humour and plenty of ad-libbing, it was hard not to feel like I knew a lot of the punch lines before they came. The second half was much better though, and when the cast came out at the end and ‘Agnes Brown’ read out some messages, it was hysterical. Just like in the television series, the actor who plays ‘Rory Brown’ can’t help himself sometimes, often bursting out laughing in anticipation of an upcoming line, and the banter between the cast with impromptu lines was hysterical.


The following day was an event that had been quite short-notice, having only found out about it within the week. We caught the train to Blacktown Station on the Blue Mountains line, and from there caught the free shuttle bus to the Sydney Motorsport Park for the Top Gear Festival. My memories of Top Gear on British television go back years, and with a rather long waiting list to be in the audience of said show, I jumped at the chance of going to the festival when I found out that both Jeremy Clarkson and James May were to be there. There was a lot going on at the festival, from stunts and racing displays on the track, to stunts to take part in, as well as stalls selling everything you could ever need for a car, and opportunities to meet drivers, as well as multiple racing car simulators. After a morning spent wandering round the stalls and looking at a lot of cars, we settled into the grandstand seats for an afternoon of stunts and action. The range of stunts was amazing, from motorbikes in mid-air to trucks driving on 2 wheels, and even the Top Gear presenters got in on things. The absolute highlights of the afternoon included Jeremy Clarkson challenging an Olympic Hurdler to a race; car football, whereby James May & Jeremy Clarkson took on the Australian Top Gear presenters at the wheel of Reliant Robins; and a car attached to a bungee cord with someone sitting at the wheel. It was a fantastic day, more than worth the entrance fee, and considering that it had been short notice, it was a major highlight of the trip.


After a long day, we took ourselves round to Chinatown where we went in search of a restaurant to have dinner. Just walking down the main street we were almost grabbed at every restaurant by one of the staff trying to tempt us in with their menu and general refusal to take no for an answer. We didn’t make it far before giving in to one determined woman, and taking a seat outside in the warm evening air. We weren’t disappointed though: the food was divine and we ate our fill heartily, watching the large crustaceans being presented to various customers at the restaurants around us. Down the street a busker was playing a lyre and on the boat back to Circular Quay, a lightning storm rolled in to the south of the city, momentarily lighting up the city skyline in a beautiful purple glow. It was a fantastic end to a fantastic day.


The next day brought clear blue skies, and a return trip to Manly in the morning which gave fantastic views over the city, the harbour and the Tasman Sea beyond. Back in the city, we jumped on a bus to Bondi, a place I had seen through the rain on my last trip. On this day, it was hot, sunny and the beach and surrounding streets full of eateries and shops were packed. Lunch was enjoyed on a grassy hill behind the beach, people watching those around us whilst trying to fend off the swarm of seagulls that threatened to ruin our enjoyment. Eventually we took to the promenade and wandered along the beachfront before hooking up with the coastal walk south to Coogee. It was a popular walk, and I could see why. On such a beautiful day, there were cracking views north and south along the dramatic coastline, but round every bay was another inlet with another beach offering a multitude of choice for sunbathing, swimming and surfing. Each little bay was beautiful in its own way, and after an hour of snaking round the rugged coastline, we came across Coogee. Coogee was just as gorgeous as Bondi was and nearly as busy, and after all the walking in the heat, the iced coffee from the cafe across the road was well earned and well received. Catching a bus back into the city centre, we retrieved our bags and caught the train to Redfern where my friends live. From the balcony of their flat they have an awesome view back towards the city centre, and I am more than a little jealous that they get to live in this incredible city. It was great to get a local’s perspective of the place, and with them having previously lived in neighbouring Newtown, we headed there for dinner where there was lots of choice for food and drinks.


Our last full day was a long one. Getting up early, we caught the Blue Mountains train to Wentworth Falls, the location of my favourite of the 3 walks I did in the region. I had talked this trip up to my partner for months and was determined to show him why I loved it there. After nearly 2 hrs, we stumbled off the train with a few other groups of walkers and jostled with them on the way to the park and on the Charles Darwin walk through the forest. We had been told about a flash storm that had hit the region not long before we arrived in the country but the water level in the river was less than when I had been there in September 2012. It was still a beautiful walk along the riverside, past several waterfalls until we came out at Wentworth Falls and that oh-so-familiar view of the expanse of the Blue Mountains. Like last time, there was a crowd of people at the top of the falls, and the various view points on the way down the steep staircases to the side of the falls, down the canyon wall. Upon reaching the ledge of the National Pass, the crowds thinned out, with many people going no further and heading back up the stairs.

The path passes under the top section of the falls, and above the bottom section, and from here onwards, we had the path mainly to ourselves. Hugging the natural cliff ledge, we walked under dripping overhangs and across stepping stones with loud cockatiels flitting amongst the branches of the thick vegetation. At the far end, we stopped for lunch before heading up the many steps past a couple of waterfalls back up to the top of the canyon, and up to the cafe for a rest stop. The Overcliff track back to the starting point of the hike was closed due to storm damage, so we had to take a detour which shortened the return leg dramatically. We managed to cut back to the cliff edge for the Undercliff track which gave us a higher view of Wentworth Falls and a last sighting of the expanse of the Blue Mountains before heading back up Darwin’s walk to catch the train back to the city.


Our flight home the next day was in the evening which gave us some time to have a leisurely breakfast with our friends in Newtown before catching the ferry out to Watson’s Bay to meet up with another friend for lunch. We went to the famous Watson’s Bay hotel by the waterfront which was surprisingly busy on a week day. Still stuffed from a late breakfast, we forced down some fish & chips, then went for a walk over to the ocean where the waves of the Tasman Sea pound against the cliff edges. It is a beautiful and dramatic coastline but the renovations to pull back the barrier, the security cameras that had been installed, and the various signs for the suicide hotlines (all of which were new since my previous visit) drew attention to the darker side of these cliffs. None-the-less, we vowed to walk from the heads all the way down to Coogee if we were to come back again. Sydney’s charms had worked their magic on my partner and he is as in love with the place as I am. It was with sadness that we caught the ferry back to Circular Quay. We could see smoke arising from behind the city, and we discovered later that part of the new casino under construction at Darling Harbour had caught fire. We collected our bags and headed to the airport, but before our plane had even taken off from the tarmac, we were well under way with making plans to return.

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