MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “January, 2022”

A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.

One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.

Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.

 

I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.

 

I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.

 

I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.

 

It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.

The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.

When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.

 

Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.

An Arachnophobic’s Nightmare

As I came face to face with the umpteenth spider blocking my way, I started to second guess myself. There are only a handful of public access walks on Chatham Island, managed through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). The rest of the island is effectively private property and permission is required for access to a lot of places, and tourist levies are charged. I was keen to make use of the public routes, but when I’d voiced my intentions to walk the Rangaika track, I was informed that I should only do it with a guide. Being a regular tramper, and having studied a topographical map, I couldn’t see any reason for this, plus as an exceptional introvert, I really wasn’t keen on spending my day tramping with a stranger. So behind the wheel of yet another rental car on my last day on Chatham Island, I had set off east for the predicted 4-5hr hike.

Chatham Island does not do car parks, and there are limited places to pull over on the gravel roads that make up the island roads outside of Waitangi. There was just space for my car to pull onto the verge, and I was soon over the fence and crossing farmland next to a large copse of wind-shaped trees. I am more than familiar with DoCs orange pole markers, and the 4×4 track that led up the low hillside was so easy to follow. In places where animal tracks and quad bike tracks led off in varying directions, I knew I was heading up the hill, so even without poles it was easy to see where I was going. In fact as I gained height from the roadside altitude of about 20m, to the highest point of roughly 260m, I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with having a guide.

As I’d worked my way up the hillside, the vegetation had changed from farmed grassland, to ever-taller vegetation, and a fence marked the perimeter of Thomas Mohi Tuuta Scenic Reserve, within which the trees had managed to attain a decent height away from the munching mouths of livestock. At the most southern aspect of the hike, I found myself atop a high cliff with a hazy view across Pitt Strait to Pitt Island. It was a crazy feeling to think about how isolated I was out here on a wild coast of a near-empty island far out in the Pacific Ocean. As much as I enjoy my own company, sometimes it would be nice to have someone to share those moments with. But one of the biggest things about hiking alone is the mental challenge and the personal growth that comes from getting out of my comfort zone. And after the first couple of hours of hiking, I was about to get to know my limits very well.

The track turned east and immediately dove into the dense forest across the fence line. Now it was just a matter of following the orange triangles that are another familiar sight when I’m hiking. The track was overgrown in places, and I found myself walking into a few spider webs, so started using my hands to swipe ahead of my face. But the deeper I plunged into the forest, the rougher the track got. The rougher the track got, the more caught out I would find myself when I unintentionally came across spider after spider at face height. Now, I’m not the worst arachnophobic in the World. In fact I can cope okay with being around them, and don’t mind little ones walking on me, but bigger spiders cause me to shudder and if one gets on my face I’ll let out a pathetic scream. I had to shimmy and dance round and under so many webs in an effort not to break the poor occupant’s hard work, but there were many that I just couldn’t get around, and I would break them with my arm, and then there were all the ones I didn’t see until I felt them on my skin or saw the spider right in front of my face.

I don’t know how many times I cried out involuntarily, but it was many and as the trail got harder and harder to follow, I realised why I’d been recommended a guide. This section went on for so long too which just made the experience that bit more miserable. When I finally made it out to the clearing at Rangaika it was a total relief. There was a stunning view along the coast, and I felt even more away from civilisation than I had at the last viewpoint. With all my nervousness and water consumption, I needed to use the long-drop that was conveniently placed here, but it was hardly surprising to open the door to discover a spider had spun a web across the doorway. I hesitated briefly, then realised that I could duck under it to get inside and duly did so. Looking out the doorway, I decided the view was so lovely and there was clearly no-one else around, so I didn’t bother to shut the door behind me. Instead, I sat on the long-drop throne with the toilet door open, and the view with my spider compadre suspended overhead in front of me.

The vegetation blocked the full extent of the coastal views here but what I could see was dramatic. The north end of Chatham Island is so low-lying, but as I’d discovered on my flight to Pitt Island, this southern end is so tall in comparison with steep-dropping cliffs marking the junction between land and sea. Pitt Island was still a hazy sight on the horizon, and I had merely insects to share the view with. As I left it behind, following the trail north, I was outside of the reserve fence, again following a wide 4×4 track. It was such a pleasant change, and I was glad to be out of the forest and on my way back to the car.

 

But after a couple of bends I was dismayed to see an orange marker and a stile lead me back into the forest once more, and just like the previous section, it was severely overgrown and I was immediately back to spider swatting. After a while, surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable jungle, the track petered out. I looked in front of me and to my side, trying to guess where it was supposed to go. Behind me I could see where I had come, but it really wasn’t clear where I was to go. I pushed through a patch of bush and saw a track, gratefully setting on it, but it very quickly led nowhere. I turned around to retrace my steps but because I’d pushed through vegetation to get where I was, I couldn’t see the track I’d come off, nor any markers, nor the bit of bush I’d pushed through to get there. It all just looked the same: dense and impenetrable.

 

I had a brief moment of panic as I realised I was on my own in the middle of a forest at the southern end of a barely-inhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody even knew I was there. But panic gets you nowhere and with a mental map of the lay of the land in my head, I realised that even if I was lost, I just had to pick a direction and bush-bash, and eventually I’d reach the fence at the edge of the reserve which I could then follow downhill. That eased my mind, and helped me choose a spot to push through which popped me back out at the actual track. Still not seeing where it led, I took another guess and pushed through another bit of bush to be greeted by the welcoming sight of an orange track marker and a rough track leading away. It led up and over a ridge, dropping down into a creek bed and back up the other side, where at last, the vegetation opened up a bit before depositing me back at the fence line and the 4×4 track I’d followed way back at the start.

My leg was bleeding from all the bush bashing I’d done. My shin was scratched raw. I had mixed feelings of triumph and sheepish stupidity for having done it in the first place, but I’d gone out my comfort zone and successfully overcome my fear of being lost. It was just a matter of retracing my earlier steps back across the farmland and down towards the Owenga road, which I reached 6.5hrs after I’d left it.

I drove west back to Waitangi and out the other side to the hill that overlooks Waitangi wharf. Here, a short track leads to a view point where I had an expansive view of Petre Bay and Waitangi at its southern end. A small fleet of fishing boats sat moored in the sheltered waters, and I took in the view, aware that I was heading home the next day. Eventually my stomach took me to the Hotel Chatham for my last dinner, and afterwards, I stretched my legs a little on the small beach out front before heading back to the motel up the hill. Like the night before, there was a beautiful sunset to frame the tractor that sat on the hillside, and I reflected on how good I’d had it with the weather.

 

It was moody the next morning as I ate breakfast and waited for the ride to the airport. Some of my favourite parts of my Homeland in Scotland are the wild and rugged Outer Hebrides where life grits its teeth and clings on despite the barrage that the Atlantic Ocean throws at it. I felt the exact same way about the Chatham Islands. They had that same feel about them, and I was sad to leave, although I was happy I’d done them justice, having seen so much on the two main islands. The same archaic plane that brought me there, took me home on its slow and low journey with the loud Rolls Royce engines turning the propellers. But I still had another week before I returned to work, so my return to Christchurch was not the end of my summer adventure.

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