The Wild West
Deep within the Lewis Pass region of New Zealand’s South Island is a myriad of hiking trails snaking through the forests and across and around the mountain ranges that snake through there. In November 2019 on a 4-day weekend thanks to Canterbury Anniversary Day, I decided to take a trip across to the western half of the island, and stopped on route to take a trip through Nina Valley. There was little space to park despite the slightly dreary day as Nina Hut at the end of the valley is a popular spot to hike into for the night. Aside from mud, I found my usual forest walk companion in the form of a South Island robin, one of my favourite birds to accompany me on hikes. What I also found was a cute pair of mice which when I stopped to watch them, proceeded to come out and nosy around the undergrowth whilst I photographed them silently. Mice are a pest here in New Zealand, one of the many invasive species responsible for decimating our native wild birds, and at the time of visiting, we were experiencing a ‘cast’, a higher than average tree seed production that led to a spike in pest numbers. Still, they were wildlife, and I love spotting wildlife. Plus they were exceptionally cute and I couldn’t help but be a little excited watching them go about their business.
I’d planned on walking as far as the Nina swing bridge, an hour along the trail, but between stopping to watch the forest creatures and taking a break by the river, I decided to turn back before I got that far. It had taken a few hours to drive this far from Christchurch and I’d stopped for lunch at a favourite cafe in Hanmer Springs, a detour off the main road, so I was mindful about the drive ahead to my destination and not wanting to arrive too late. So after spotting some riflemen flitting about the trees, and with the sun bursting out a little as I returned to my car, I finished my hike and continued westwards, crossing the summit of Lewis Pass and heading into Reefton, my home for the next few nights.
The West Coast has an unfortunate reputation for wetness, and although I was some distance from the coast, I was on the wrong side of the mountain range, so I wasn’t surprised to wake to grey skies and drizzle. I was in no hurry to do anything so had a leisurely breakfast at a local cafe before wandering along the historic street front. Like many places on the West Coast, Reefton has its history in mining and the region is full of relics. It was also the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to gain electricity with the first electric bulb to light up being outside the still-standing Oddfellows Hall off the main street. Not many people were staying here but there was plenty of traffic passing through so there was a reasonable bit of activity going on despite the drizzle.
The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop me going for a local walk so after heading up the main street, I passed the original gas lights that still lined the pavements, and continued out of the village and down towards the river which was a power source for the region back in its day. The Inangahua river is broad and tannin-stained and just outside Reefton it is crossed by a suspension bridge which leads to the remains of the old power station. The drizzle meant there were some cool views down the valley of clouds hugging the mountainside, and although still a little wet, it wasn’t too bad to walk along the river bank and read the displays about the ruins that are still left. Only as I was at the end of the circuit back across the road bridge to head into Reefton again from the other end did the rain get a bit heavier again, so I decided to take a drive and see if I could escape the rain clouds.
Heading west from Reefton, I drove almost the whole way to Greymouth before circling past the old Brunner mine which I’d visited a few years prior. Even on the main road there were signs of mining at regular intervals, be it a memorial at the side of the road, or signs pointing to historic mining routes or mining works. Both gold and coal have been mined in this part of the country, and there are still some active mining works in action today. There are hundreds of old coal mining carts littered about the countryside here, and several of the local walks have them as points of interest, where they’ve been abandoned to rust and be reclaimed by nature.
A lull in the rain by mid-afternoon allowed me to get out for another walk again. This time I headed up the hill at the eastern end of the village. Over the tops of the invasive gorse, the elevation offered a view over the rooftops of the village below and the misty-covered peaks of the mountains on the horizon. There was even a goat wandering about here, and despite the grey skies that were my constant companion, a couple of water reservoirs provided some pretty reflections as I passed them by. The trail led out towards the back of the village and I followed it for a while before heading down an access track that brought me down at an industrial area. As I cut back through the streets I passed the old courthouse and several other original buildings before finding myself back on the historic main street.
With several hours of daylight ahead, the late afternoon still allowed for another walk before darkness would fall. Taking a long drive up a gravel road, I picked the Alborn Track to visit some of the mining remnants close to a still-active quarry site. It was muddy underfoot and threatening to drizzle again, but scattered all over the place were rusting winch equipment and even an old truck alongside some large coal carts. On the return leg, the track passed the opening of a couple of caves, marked with a warning about poisonous gas and danger on entry. I do like to explore caves but I’m always wary of man-made mining caves, so I heeded the warnings and kept going, returning to my car and heading back down the hill in time for a bit of sunshine.
I’d spent the first couple of days alone, but my partner was to join me for the last night. He had a bit of a drive over so whilst he was making his way across the country the next morning, I headed east past Springs Junction to the Marble Hill campsite. From here there is a walking track to Lake Daniell which I’d read was a good hike to do, and it was indeed a lovely forest walk on a day that was actually sunny. Predicted to be 3hrs each way, I set off under a blue sky and crossed the first river before following the bank of another river as it wound through the forest. I love New Zealand’s forests, they’re so different from the cultivated forests of pine from my homeland back in Scotland. In New Zealand they feel natural and wild, even in places where that’s not actually the case, but full of various canopy levels and with a carpet that’s often as alive as the trees are, there’s so much to look at for ecology geeks like myself.
As always, there was an inquisitive South Island robin to entertain me as I followed the path through. These and the fantails or piwakawaka love to follow humans through the forest, but the fantails tend to flit-flit about more, refusing to stay still for long, and especially not for photographs. In comparison, the robins often come right up to you, cocking their head and looking straight at you in full engagement, often hopping alongside or flitting between the trees as you walk. I’m always happy to see one, and find myself talking to the birds as I go.
I reached Lake Daniell and the hut on its foreshore after just 2hrs, and found the hut to be in the process of being rebuilt. The lake level was up from the rain so the surroundings and the end of the boardwalk were actually submerged, but I was able to pick my way out to the pier on the lake without getting my feet wet, and here the wind whipped across the lake a little as I stood enjoying the view. There had not been a single person on the trail and I was out here on my own with the view to myself also. It was delightful. I’ve been told that the hut is often busy as schools use it and with it being just a few hours from the main road it is popular for parents to take their children out to it as a starter hike. So I was lucky to find it so empty, and enjoyed the solitude for a while before heading back into the forest again. Once again I was befriended by the local robin population, and as I reached the end of the trail I stopped to watch the water rush through the ‘sluice’ a natural rapids that had been created by a gorge in the hillside.
By the time I returned to Reefton my partner was waiting for me. Without the rain, we took a wander through the streets and stopped at the local distillery for a tasting. Their produce was pricey but I felt awkward leaving without buying something so took a chance on a tayberry liqueur that wasn’t even able to be sampled before purchase. I’d never even heard of a tayberry, so not knowing anything about the taste it was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very sharp taste, and one that definitely is enjoyed in small quantities but the lady in the bar suggested using it as an ice cream topper and I’ve still to try it this way.
We had to set off early the next day to leave our Air BnB behind and head north then west to Charleston on the coast. Since I’d heard about the Underworld Adventure tours I’d been eager to take part in one, and finally it was time to go exploring with them. There was a threat of rain once more but we were heading underground, so this wasn’t going to matter. Set within the Paparoa National Park, the company offers a mix of tour options from a train ride through the forest, to tubing down rapids, or a cave walk. We were there to go cave exploring, a favourite activity of mine, so we bundled into the van and drove into the park, parking up in the apparent middle of nowhere next to a large container. Out of the container popped a small train and linked carriages and once on board we set off through the forest.
There was evidence all around of the limestone nature of the landscape with large limestone cliffs jutting through the foliage as we followed a river upstream. Eventually we hopped off in the forest and those going tubing went down to the river and those of us going caving followed the path across the river and up the hillside to reach the entrance of the Ananui cave system. I love taking cave tours, exploring the world of underground river systems and ogling over the stalactites and stalagmites that litter the caverns of limestone caves. I loved this place, it felt huge and there was so much to explore down the long passageways as we went deeper and deeper into the cave system. At times there were giant boulders to climb over, and after some time we found ourselves in a lower section that split into two, a large dark cavern to the right, and a large open-ended cavern to the left where the outside forest became visible.
We turned first to the left, and saw a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling near where the cave opened out into the forest. The river at its bottom cast a reflection of the cave entrance and it was simply glorious. We spent some time here just enjoying the view. We turned back into the cave heading into the other lower chamber where once out of the light from the lower cave entrance we turned off our headlamps to view the twinkles of glowworms. Although nothing has ever competed with the level of glowworms I saw in the Waitomo cave system back in 2012, there was still enough here to not only be pretty, but they were close enough to actually view the larval structures and their beaded web. Like a beaded necklace these larval flies pupate within a sac from where they lower these sticky threads, butts glowing to attract their prey towards the ropes of death. It’s one of so many marvellous things that nature has evolved to do to fill a niche in an otherwise inhospitable environment.
Climbing back up through the cave system was just as enjoyable, returning through the network of limestone formations, eventually popping out at the entrance, and hiking back down the trail to the train to return through the forest. The sun was out now, enlivening our drive back to Charleston where a viewing point at the Underworld Adventure office gave an elevated view into the forest to the east, and the crashing waves to the left. We decided to head back to Christchurch via Punakaiki, the site of the famous Pancake Rocks. Although we didn’t go to visit the rocks, we stopped here for a late lunch, and with the sun out and the crowds of the summer at every turn, I parked up next to a flax bush, spotting a tui feeding among the flowers. Tui are good pollinators for this species. For a nectar reward, the tui regularly wear a golden crown of pollen after feeding here, the yellow dust adorning their heads for them to spread onto the next flower as they move around to feed. I love tui, a bird I don’t get to see much of in Christchurch, and I was loving the close up experience here. It was a long drive back to Christchurch across the breadth of the country, but it had been well worth it to spend a snippet of time in the wild west lands of the South Island.