At the end of February 2019 I put my back out in spectacular fashion by bending down to put my shoes on. Through the weeks that followed into March and early April, my only relief from constant pain or discomfort was gentle walks and lying on the floor with my legs up the wall. I couldn’t hike, I couldn’t do my beloved exercise classes and even sitting down in the car for longer than ten minutes was out of the question. By the time April hit, I was feeling quite low and claustrophobic, having not been beyond the city limits for a couple of months. I’ve lived with chronic pain for 7 years now, stemming from when I originally injured my back in 2013, and although I’m off painkillers way more than I’m on them, it has definitely had an influence on my mood. To top it off, I’ve been tackling anxiety for four years, and the two together found me feeling very down this time last year.
But as April moved onwards, relief came and I was finally able to consider going for a drive and getting out of the city. After coping with a drive out to Little River on the Banks Peninsula, I was able to tolerate going further a few days later and headed round to Akaroa Harbour 1.5hrs away. It was a grey and cool day, but I was so grateful to change my horizons and walk somewhere different. My partner was getting on with his recovery too, having had shoulder surgery in February, and deemed recovered enough to fly, he headed off to the States for a few weeks to catch up with friends, leaving me behind.
When ANZAC day came around, my mind was screaming to get away somewhere, so I decided to take a day trip to Kaikoura. My plan was to enjoy the drive, test my back out and see some wildlife as a reward. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was glad that my back coped with being seated so long. I headed straight to the peninsula on arriving and parked up on a rock to watch the adults sleeping and the pups playing in rock pools. But what was supposed to be an uplifting trip to pull me out of my pity party, ended up being highly frustrating as I watched tourist after tourist ignoring the distance rule and actively harassing the pups to get selfies. In particular, two guys forced themselves right in the face of one pup, practically touching it to get it to look in their camera. I was livid, and the multiple repeat offenders succeeded in winding me up. I left for home, more aggravated than relaxed.
It wasn’t till two weeks later into May that I came to realise how much the constant discomfort and cabin fever had affected me, but I was finally able to let go of it all when I decided to give Air BnB a go, and picked a part of Canterbury to get away to that I’d never visited before. Nearly 4hrs away in South Canterbury, Otematata is nestled towards one end of the Waitaki Valley. It was the last month of autumn which I hadn’t really given much thought to until I reached the valley from Kurow and found myself among an increasingly colourful landscape. It started off subtly as I reached Lake Waitaki, becoming a bit more noticeable as I reached the dam at the eastern end of Lake Aviemore and then popping into full glory as I reached Otematata itself. The little settlement didn’t amount to much, but I had a cute little apartment to spend a couple of nights in, and my host had helpfully given me an idea of some walks to do in the immediate region.
I’d lost a good chunk of my fitness, but thankfully my first walk was almost flat. Starting up the road to Lake Benmore which was lined by yellow trees, I passed the golf course which struck an incredible likeness to the Speyside region of Scotland. It immediately transported me to memories of my childhood on family holidays, and as I marvelled in the autumn glory, I finally felt myself relax a little, and weeks of pent up frustrations finally began to ease. I was only limited by the remaining hours of daylight, so I wasn’t particularly fast about my walk as I was constantly stopping to try and capture an image of the gorgeous colours around me. A pond beyond the golf course cast reflections of the autumn leaves, and shortly after that, the path cut down into a woodland where I was immediately traipsing through a carpet of fallen leaves.
New Zealand is full of Scottish names and Lake Aviemore was one of these places. The expansive lake could be found after a wander among the leaves and the end by Otematata was inundated with black swans and scaup. The lowering autumn light caused the mountains on the far side to glow and I felt like I was walking through an autumnal wonderland. The marshy ground at the lake edge inferred the lake had flooded recently and I had to take a couple of small detours to avoid getting my feet wet. Some way along the shore, I found myself at a camping park and boat ramp and here, a track led up a little spit of land to give another view across the lake. There was an abundance of fallen yellow leaves to kick through as I headed back to my apartment for the night.
The next morning, I took a different route through the same lakeside woodland where I found a small lake with another stunning reflection. There was also a hoard of bright orange berries everywhere I looked. The same road that had led me to this walk continued on through a valley of colourful foliage to Benmore Dam, a large manmade construction that walled up the end of Lake Benmore, another large lake in the region. My host had recommended the walk round the peninsula, so I followed the signs to the car park which was quite busy, and set off through the pine forest. Once again, I felt transported back to Scotland. The feeling only lasted until I got my first views of Lake Benmore, as the blue colour of the water reminded me I was in New Zealand. The lakes of mid-Canterbury are all such a stunning blue colour which I’ve never seen in any other country. The overcast weather dulled the blue here somewhat, but that didn’t detract from the view. As I climbed up and over a ridge, I was suddenly presented with the main expanse of the lake, and behind it rolling hills were framed by the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps.
The track took a circuit across the ridges, eventually presenting a turn-off to a lookout where a well placed bench offered a grand vista. It was occupied when I arrived, and after a brief chat with the two men, I found a nearby rock to park my bum and I sat for a long time just soaking up the view. After a while, I returned to the main trail which cut back into the forest briefly before opening up to see the lake again as it descended a little on the circuit. The track was well formed but in places had loose stones on the surface and I lost my grip in one spot, falling over and tearing a small hole in my clothes. I got a nice bruise on my knee too, but it wasn’t enough to dampen my day. As the loop turned back towards the carpark, it descended once more into the forest and the view was lost for most of the return leg.
I took the long road home, crossing Benmore dam and marvelling at the immensity of it, before continuing back towards Lake Aviemore, finding myself on the far bank from Otematata. It felt desolate here, with only the occasional passing car and little in the way of interest. It varied in its proximity to the lake itself with few places to stop and admire it. A campsite did offer a short walk along the lake shore before I pushed on to a walk that I’d spotted online. Some way towards the Lake Aviemore dam, I pulled in by a bridge and took a track that headed up a river. The grey skies cast the water a steely grey colour and it felt still and quiet walking here. I had the place completely to myself, as I followed the track to a small picnic area and then beyond. The track on the map stopped, but the track in reality continued, so I followed the river further upstream, not sure where it would take me. All of a sudden it just stopped some distance beyond what the map had shown. When I returned to the picnic site I was joined by a fantail, one of my favourite forest birds. They flit flit flit between the branches and are exceedingly difficult to photograph as they hate to sit still, but they’re quite bold little birds and they like to interact. I completed the drive to the dam at the far end of Lake Aviemore, and with the intention of going to the hot tubs, I took the long drive to Omarama on the inland road. But when I got there, it was dull and cold, and I changed my mind. I returned to my apartment after stopping off at another campsite for a stretch of the legs once more among some autumn colours.
I had a full day to make my return to Christchurch, and with the Waitaki Valley being part of the Whitestone Geopark, there was plenty of stop-offs to be made on route. Sadly it was another grey day but that wasn’t to stop me getting out into the fresh air. Driving into Kurow, I parked up in a cul-de-sac at the start of the Kurow Hill Walkway, a locally-managed track that led up the steep hillside. Zig-zagging up the hillside for over 1km, there are a host of armchairs that have been placed to take a break on, although they all looked mouldy and sodden as I passed them by. It didn’t take long for the views of the valley to open up as the altitude gain was acquired, and from the top of the hill I could see the braided Waitaki river disappearing off in both directions. The cloud hugged the hillside on the far expanse of the river and the small town of Kurow lay spread out immediately below.
Along the road near Duntroon was the first of a few rock art sites that I stopped at. Similar to that of the Indigenous Australians, the early Maori who inhabited the area drew pictures on the rocks. The ones here were under an overhang of limestone rock, and although they weren’t always clear what they were, I could make out a sailed boat or waka canoe in one of them. Duntroon had a lovely little wetland out the back of it which had a walkway leading through. There was just me and a local there and I was enjoying being in a part of the country that isn’t frequented by tourists. Although a year later its a mute point in a post-COVID World, prior to any knowledge of the chaos that was to come, it could be hard at times not to get frustrated with the crowds that descend on some of my favourite parts of the country. Back on the main road, there was evidence of the white stone that gives the geopark its name. The famous Oamaru stone was evident here in the form of a couple of statues and a gorgeous white stone church.
Cutting inland from Duntroon, I took Earthquake Road to visit a spot where an upthrust had created a limestone cliff where a whale’s skull was uncovered. The site itself was a little underwhelming but the road led me round to the turn-off to Elephant Rocks, a place I hadn’t heard of before this trip. The giant boulders of Castle Hill in Arthur’s Pass are well known to local and tourist alike, being a popular stop-off on the road from coast to coast. But looking very similar, only hidden down a country road in South Canterbury, the Elephant Rocks felt like a secret spot. I wasn’t alone there though, but it felt far from crowded and it was peaceful to wander around there among the giant rocks. The site is part of a working farm, and just across the fence some curious cows watched those of us who wandered there.
I completed my tour of the Whitestone Geopark by visiting Anatani not far from the rocks. Here, some fossils had been discovered and were on display but I was more interested in the rock formations and the harrier hawk that was circling through the valley. Heading back to the main road there was another short walk to another spot where there was historic rock art. It was less discernible and a smaller site than the first place I’d stopped so it didn’t hold my attention for long. To break up the long drive from here back to Christchurch, I decided to stop at Riverstone, a place off State Highway 1 that I’d ignored time and time again, and was finally curious enough to explore. I was immediately shocked to find a large white-stone castle at the back of the complex. I’d planned on stopping for a late lunch at the restaurant I’d heard so much about, but was instead presented with not just the castle, but a lovely little garden to wander through, a pond with ducks (and inflatable flamingos!) to look at, and a myriad of eclectic and jam-packed brick-a-brack stores to peruse through, never mind the delicious food to eat at the restaurant. The whole weekend had been just what I’d needed to perk up my sad soul, and the unassuming Waitaki Valley had more than delivered.