Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. When it comes to domestic holidays, they tend to be either a roadie or city break with my partner, or an independent hiking trip in the mountains. With my partner having to work through the Christmas weekend, I on the other hand had a few days off and figured I’d make the most of the solitude bagging some summits. I was looking for somewhere that wasn’t a crazy drive away, but yet wasn’t overly familiar either, and after a bit of zooming in and out of Google Maps, I spotted what looked like the ideal location: Lake Brunner in the West Coast region. I’d passed here on the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth a few years ago, but otherwise hadn’t given it any attention, but looking at the landscape on Topomap, I noticed there were some mountains around the lake that would serve as good day hikes. Finding a cheap and cheerful place to stay for a few nights, I was sorted for my summer break.
But despite some cracking weather in November to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, spring and now summer weren’t showing much promise weather-wise, and as Christmas came round, the forecast was underwhelming to say the least. After finishing work on Christmas Eve, I set off from Christchurch to head west and hit a wall of grey skies as I reached the Southern Alps. Still, the road through Porters Pass then Arthur’s Pass is a scenic and enjoyable trip with plenty of choice to stop at on the way. I stopped first on the shores of Lake Lyndon which sat below Trig M, a hike I’d done earlier in the year, and then ignored the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream having done them many times before, opting instead to pull in at the lookout above the Otira Viaduct to the north of Arthur’s Pass. Aside from the view down the valley, this place is almost guaranteed for Kea sightings, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Before moving to New Zealand, I had no idea such a creature existed, but the world’s only alpine parrot has become my favourite bird here. Full of cheek, curiosity and highly intelligent, they are extraordinary to watch and interact with. It is important not to feed them, and also important to be aware of your belongings around them at all times, as they will do their best to relieve you of anything you leave lying around and are notorious for pulling and chewing anything that is within reach, be it tyres, aerials or cameras. They are far from shy, and sitting in the driver’s seat with my door open, I sat and watched as one cocky individual casually gnawed on the metal of my car door before striding off proud as punch.
Arriving at Moana on the shore of Lake Brunner the sky was still moody but there were some glints of sunshine trying to burst through in places. After checking in to my cabin in the woods just outside of the village, I parked up near the lake shore and set off on one of the local walks, the Raikatane walk. This is an easy walk that crosses a suspension bridge over the Arnold river and circles in the woods to the north, as well as offering the opportunity to explore the far shore of Lake Brunner. Apart from a few birds for company, I was effectively on my own. With tourism being a major part of the New Zealand economy, it is getting harder and harder to get away from the crowds here, meaning peace and tranquility can be a pipe dream during the summer months. Thankfully Lake Brunner flies under the radar of the vast majority of foreign tourists, and it is more the realm of domestic tourists with a high percentage of Kiwi accents being heard compared to elsewhere. In my solitude I looked across the large lake to the mountains on the far side cloaked in low clouds, their summits hidden from me. The water lapped gently on the shore as I trudged across the pebbles enjoying a brief splurge of sunshine. Back in the cabin, I had the use of a shared kitchen, and over the next 3 nights, I got to know my fellow guests as we chatted over wine and food. I’d recently discovered the most heavenly sparkling wine made at a Canterbury winery to the west of Christchurch and before I knew it I was warm and merry.
I awoke on Christmas Day to more grey skies. My plan was to head round to Te Kinga, a small settlement on the eastern shore in order to hike Mount Te Kinga. As I drove there I was dismayed to see the cloud was even lower than the day before and the bulk of the mountain was hidden from view. It seemed a popular place to camp for the night at the car park at Te Kinga, and as several people were stirring, I was lacing up my hiking boots and preparing to hike. As there are a couple of viewpoints overlooking the lake on the way to the summit, several people were on the trail that morning. From early on, I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I’ve hiked a lot of mountains in New Zealand, mainly in Canterbury, and although I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees, I’d never disliked a hike as much as this one. It may in part have been because I knew I’d get no view at the top, or maybe because I felt a little lonely on Christmas Day, but as much as I trudged up the hillside on autopilot, there was just no love for me that day.
The track was not that great either. It was reasonable quality up to the first viewpoint but then a permanent sign noted an expectation of mud, and boy was it muddy. Between the wetness of the spring and the thick foliage preventing drying, there was plenty of mud underfoot and a lot of tree roots to negotiate. To top it off, my hiking trousers ripped in dramatic fashion as I stepped up over a tree root, revealing most of my thigh and part of my crotch (albeit still thankfully covered by my underpants). Thankfully I had my waterproof trousers with me which quickly were donned to save my dignity. At the top lookout everybody else on the trail was turning back but I passed the sign warning the track was for experienced hikers only and pressed on up the increasingly rough and vague track. The vegetation was dense and after a bit of rock and root scrambling I suddenly found the route blocked by a large fallen tree. It was too high to climb over it, there was no gap to climb through or under it, and the tree was big enough and the surrounding vegetation thick enough that I couldn’t see a way around it. There was no evidence of anyone else creating a route either, so I surmised that it was a relatively recent obstruction, but try as might I saw no way to continue. It was both a frustration and a godsend as I really had had no love for this hike, and took it as an omen to turn round and head back.
So now I found myself with a lot of time to kill. Thankfully my lodgings had provided me with a handy area map detailing local walks, so I headed south and round the long-winded road system that had to circumnavigate Mt Te Kinga and another lake to cut back up to the south shore of Lake Brunner to head towards the settlement of Mitchells. The road degraded from a sealed road to a metalled road but it was heavily rutted in places and having replaced my banged up motor with a newer model during the winter, I was rather cautious, especially in those sections where a skid off the road would have had me in the lake. Just outside Mitchells, a pull-in denoted the start of the Carew Falls walk. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated 30mins each way but it was more like 15mins for me and I found myself at the base of the falls in time to see a group of people abseiling down the face. It was a beautiful cascade and I watched with intrigue as the group picked their way down, briefly chatting with them at the bottom before they left me alone with the flies. I sat for a while listening to the thundering water before the swarms of flies forced me to leave.
It was just a few minutes drive down to the lakeside at Mitchells to reach the Bain Bay walk. On a mixture of boardwalks and sandy tracks it curved round Carew Bay and started with such promise. I passed a sign warning of occasional flooding on the track but thought nothing of it until just 5 mins later I discovered the track disappeared into the lake. There was no way to get round it without getting very wet, and for the second time that day I found myself immensely frustrated at having my hike thwarted by the elements. It appeared the lake level was higher than normal and there was nothing I could do about it. There was at least a beautiful mirrored vista across the lake, so despite the grey skies and occasional drizzle, it was still a pretty sight to behold. Pausing briefly at the lakeside on the way back, I made my way back to Moana and passed it by in order to do yet another walk in the area. But despite the description stating the turnoff was signposted, I drove the length of the road twice and couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go. Frustrated once more and feeling deflated, I returned to my cabin in the woods, heated up my ‘gourmet’ hikers instant dinner, filled my glass with wine and parked up in front of the tv to watch Christmas Day movies.
To the south-west of Lake Brunner lies Mount French, my chosen summit for Boxing Day. But waking up to grey sky once more, a quick drive to the lake shore confirmed my suspicion: most of the mountain was hidden in clouds. After a disasterous attempt at Mt Te Kinga the day before, I opted to cut my losses and acknowledge that the hiking gods were not smiling down on me that weekend. Anticipating this the night before, I had done some quick reading on what my local options were, and headed north-west to the west coast a short drive north from Greymouth. Here lies the Point Elizabeth walkway, a coastal walk that can be undertaken in either direction. I chose to start at the northern end and head south, meaning I parked up just outside of Rapahoe. It was a nice walk through some tropical vegetation. The sun broke through in patches and for the most part I was on my own. The odd jogger appeared from time to time, and at the halfway mark there is a lookout at Point Elizabeth. Some information posts in a few places described the flora and the possible fauna that could be spotted but despite the relatively calm sea, I spotted no marine life that day.
The west coast gets the brunt of the weather as it crosses the open expanse of the Tasman Sea which separates Australia from New Zealand. As such, the west coast is a wild and battered coastline, and the beaches here are littered with washed up flotsam and are of a stony nature rather than sand. Still, from above on the track, the long stretch of beach reaching south towards Greymouth looked inviting on approach and when I reached it, I found a handy log to park my butt on for a while, and I sat there for some time contemplating life and the universe whilst listening to the waves crashing on the shore. Eventually I set off in the return direction, stopping once more at the lookout before pushing on to return to my awaiting car.
A short drive along the road in nearby Runanga is the Coal Creek walking track. Cutting through a pleasant forest, the track gradually descends down to meet the Coal Creek, eventually coming out above and then dropping down to face onto, the Coal Creek falls. Having passed a lot of people on the track heading back to their cars, I timed my arrival with perfection, getting the falls to myself for long enough to feel satisfied before other people started to arrive. Picking your way across the rocks at the river side allows slightly differing views of this beautiful waterfall and even though the water appeared dark under the grey sky, I really liked this waterfall. As more and more people arrived, I left them to it, and headed back up to the top of the hill to sit on the bench there and watch the falls from above for a while before heading back to my car.
Greymouth itself was pretty much closed down for the day as it was a public holiday. The place resembled a ghost town, so after finding somewhere that I could grab a coffee (which turned out to be a highly disappointing coffee), I crossed the Grey river to Cobden hill from where a lot of people were surfing the breaks off the beach. Nearby a small wetlands provided a nice little walk accompanied by some waterfowl and a shag drying itself on a branch.
Sticking to the north side of the Grey river, I headed back to Lake Brunner, stopping at the site of the Brunner mine, a coal mine which suffered an explosion in 1896 killing 65 miners. To this day, even with the tragic and relatively recent events at the infamous Pike River mine, the Brunner explosion resulted in the highest death rate in the history of New Zealand mining disasters. Thanks to the gallantry of many people, all the bodies were recovered despite horrendous conditions in the mine following the event, and it is this retrieval process that has been the object of immense contention in the more recent Pike River mine disaster where sadly the bodies of those who perished still remain out of reach in the depths of the collapsed mine. The Brunner site is worthy of a look around. The entrance to the various mine shafts are fenced off, and the few remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair, but in places a smell hangs in the air, a reminder of the dangerous gases that linger below the surface. Crossing the bridge over the Grey river, an old chimney stands tall near the roadside.
Thanks to a bit of guesswork on the road back to Lake Brunner, I finally found the walk I’d looked for and failed to find the day before. The Arnold Dam walk follows the Arnold river to a dam and then heads up the hillside before returning to the power station where the walk starts from. The place felt eerie and after the track quickly became unappealing, I decided that I’d walked enough that day and turned round and headed back to my cabin. Having got chatting with some fellow guests, they had attempted Mt Te Kinga themselves that day despite me telling them of the fallen tree. They reported that they had made it past the fallen tree, but yet they too had had to turn back shortly after as the track became a ghost track and impossible to follow. Waking up to heavy rain the next morning, there seemed no point in hanging around. With the rain following me almost the whole way back to Christchurch, there seemed to be no point in stopping anywhere, so I found myself back home in time for lunch. The weekend had been a perfect example of plans in the outdoors failing to come to fruition. I’d failed to summit my target mountains, although I’d certainly managed to get some walking in anyway. But at least there were only a few days of work to get through before heading to the capital for New Years. Surely the weather wouldn’t fail me for two weekends in a row…