MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “May, 2022”

Winter Grind

Despite my love of the warm summer days and crisp blue skies and blooms of spring in New Zealand, once the clocks have gone back and autumn rolls in, I really have to grit my teeth and bare the months of winter. In my native Scotland, winter days are short, the temperature cold, and the weather sometimes wet. But at least they were consistent: it’s hat, scarf and glove weather during the day, and the same at night. In Christchurch, it can be single figure temperatures in the morning and night, and get well into the teens in the afternoon meaning t-shirt weather for some hours, and jacket and glove weather other hours. The simple act of the sun going behind some clouds can add a sudden chill on the skin. Despite a decade of living here, I’ve never really adapted to this style of winter, and with no Christmas festivities to break up the dark months, I have to say I really dislike winters here.

The winter of 2020 was a curious one after the release from a couple of months of enforced lockdown through autumn. After an escape to Oamaru in late autumn I wanted to make sure I made the most of my freedom in the winter months. New Brighton beach was the perfect city escape without having to travel far, and despite the cold temperatures, cloudless blue skies always make a beach walk pleasant. The receding tide as I walked south towards the estuary created gorgeous reflections on the sand, especially once I rounded the spit into the estuary proper. The sand becomes a bit more of a mudflat here making it a bit treacherous under foot in places, but it was just me and a motley band of sea birds basking under the sun’s rays whilst looking across to Ferrymead and the Port Hills.

 

The Port Hills are a hiking and biking paradise with trails for each and both dotted all over the hillside. The Christchurch Adventure Park is predominantly a mountain bike park but there are a couple of walking trails within the perimeter and I finally decided to give the summit trail a go on another sunny winter day. Starting at the entrance to the adventure park, it is a long, winding trail up several lower ridges until eventually popping out at the top of the chairlift. From here, there are views predominantly over the city, but also in some spots over to Lyttelton Harbour on the far side of the hills. You have to pay to ride the chairlift up, but riding down is free irregardless of how you got to the top, so many people hike and take the chairlift back to the car park. I was enjoying the fresh air and exercise though, so after absorbing the views, I took the trail back down again. Even by the mid-afternoon the shadows were long over the hillside and it didn’t take long to feel a little chilly on the descent.

The Canterbury Museum in the city has a changing exhibit to complement the fixed exhibit halls that are permanently on display. That winter they were running a temporary exhibit called Squawkzilla and the Giants, which was about some of the pre-historic animals that used to live on New Zealand. It was a good excuse to take a walk as I parked in the Botanic Garden car park, and walked through the gardens to visit the museum. As a country of parrots and penguins, it was incredible to see the full-scale models of some giant birds that used to roam the country, including a prehistoric penguin that would have been taller than me. There was also the reminder that crocodiles used to live in New Zealand, which is not something that a lot of people know, although it’s not that surprising given that Australia and New Zealand used to be geologically connected. It had been a while since I’d had a wander round the rest of the museum, so I headed upstairs to have a quick look at the dinosaur skeleton and the Antarctic room. I have an obsession with all things Antarctic, and living in a Gateway City to the southern continent means that there are plenty of local links to historic explorations down south, which are on display on the upper floor of the museum.

Taking advantage of a dry winter day, I took a walk along the bank of the Avon river for a bit, circling the edge of Hagley Park, and heading out towards Mona Vale, a publicly accessible manicured garden that was still looking pretty despite the many bare trees. I rarely visit here, but always enjoy the view when I do, and it’s such a short walk from Hagley Park that it makes a nice detour when walking the perimeter of North Hagley. Back at Victoria Lake, even the weeping willows, one of my favourite trees here, were joining in the autumnal colours, having faded from their dynamic green to an off-yellow.

 

I’d worked up a bit of body heat on the go, and had stripped off my body warmer quite early on. As I returned to my car, I was horrified to discover that my car key had fallen out the pocket as it had been suspended upside down while slung over my arm. I’d done such a long walk it could have been anywhere, but I hoped it had fallen out soon after taking it off in the museum. But nobody had handed it in when I enquired, so I was forced to start retracing my steps of my entire walk to try and find it. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in a shadowy part of the Squawkzilla exhibit, almost at the feet of a giant parrot. It would have been easy to overlook by most people visiting the exhibit, but just able to be spotted with my staring intently at the floor. That was nearly an expensive outing to what was otherwise a free day in the city.

Things took an undesired turn in June 2020 when I experienced the worst pain I’ve ever had. My back has caused me intermittent pain since 2014, and I’ve had a few flare ups of pain of varying severities over the years since that first one. This time round just simple movements had me crying in pain, and I couldn’t even stand up, being forced to crawl on my hands and knees for days on end. A scary experience involving numbness of one of my feet resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and an eventual concoction of medications to keep me comfortable. I’ve never been on so many drugs in my whole life, and I didn’t like it. Eventually an MRI image confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis of a slipped disc, but following the support of a fantastic physiotherapist, I discovered the concept of neuropathic pain syndrome, and a mental health approach that rapidly got me off pain medications and started to allow me to get moving again.

 

It was tentative at first, starting off with walking on the flat and making use of city events. In early July, a light festival was run in alignment with Matariki, the Maori New Year which marks the rising of the Pleiades star cluster. Dotted around the streets and river bank a series of projections and animated lights lit up parts of the city, making use of river reflections and office gable ends to provide large scale images. The city typically has an annual event of some likeness to this and they always draw a crowd, especially as they are free. It is the closest thing we have to the Christmas light displays that would normally herald the mid-winter festivities in the Northern Hemisphere where I lived most of my life.

 

Aside from repeat trips to the beach, by the end of July I was ready to take on a local hike. Many years prior I’d taken the Kaituna Valley route up to Packhorse Hut, and this time I wanted to walk there from Gebbies Pass. It was sunny but the sun was so low that long shadows kept large sections of the track out of the sun’s warmth, meaning muddy and frosty patches abounded. A low mist hugged the side of the Port Hills as the track followed the logging road for the lower section of the hike. It takes a while to do much climbing, winding between sheep paddocks and forested sections where I unfortunately slipped on mud and went flying. The one side of my lower body was covered in mud but I wasn’t going to turn back. Finally the track starts to slog up the hillside, first within the forest, then exposed to reach under some tall rocky bluffs. It was a relatively busy trail and there were several other people milling around at the hut enjoying the view. Packhorse Hut is bookable under the Department of Conservation’s booking system, and it’s popular with families as an introduction to overnight hikes with kids. It’s a lovely hut with a lovely prospect, and well worth a visit, even just for a picnic.

 

The next temporary exhibit at the Canterbury Museum also caught my interest. In August 2020, it was about the moon, including a giant sphere suspended from the ceiling which had high resolution imagery of the moon projected onto it, mimicking an up-close view of this celestial body. I intermittently try to take photos of the moon myself, and sometimes get the settings on my DSLR camera to work with me, but its inconsistent, and more often than not, I get an overexposed or blurry image. I’m a science geek at heart, so I love a lot of the natural history and exploration-based exhibits, and I was really impressed by the imagery of the moon on display. A decade on since I emigrated, I really struggle to remember how the moon looked from the Northern Hemisphere. Its Southern Hemisphere facade is just so familiar to me now, and it will be such a novelty to see its alternate image whenever I get back to Scotland.

 

Although still winter, the second-half of August started to hint at the coming of spring. I was supposed to be in Europe enjoying a fantastic 6-wk multi-country adventure but like many others, COVID had me grounded and months of battle to get my money back ensued. My back was coming along well, and my mental health was improving with it, so the last few weeks of winter saw me getting out and about as much as I could. This time round at New Brighton beach, the ice cream truck had returned, and like my memories of life in Aberdeen, Scotland, buying the first ’99’ ice cream of the season is always a sure sign that warmer and longer days are coming. At that time I had no idea when international travel would re-commence, so instead I simply stood at the end of the pier staring out onto the calm blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, daydreaming of foreign lands.

For a different view of the Pacific Ocean, I utilised my annual pass to take a jaunt up the gondola to Mt Cavendish. I come up here time and time again, sometimes under my own steam via the Bridle Path, and sometimes if I’m short on time or lazy, via the power of the gondola. The view never gets old, and I can’t help take the same photos of the same view every time. It’s a great place to grab a coffee also, a financially bad habit that I’ve only more recently got on top of. The tips of the Southern Alps were covered in snow, but everywhere else looked green and fresh, another sign of the seasonal change to come. In the city though, there was still a quietness about the place.

 

A few of my work colleagues and I decided to head out to Orana Wildlife Park just outside of the city. I hadn’t been there since the year after I moved to Christchurch. I’m not a massive fan of zoos or wildlife parks as I find many of them struggle financially to create a space stimulating enough and appropriate for some of their inmates. This particular park had spent a lot of money creating a new exhibit space for some great apes amid a lot of promotion since I’d last visited. They weren’t the only new arrivals, as I found some Tasmanian Devils, my favourite Australian marsupial, had also taken up residence. But overall, the park just seemed sad. Some enclosures were empty, others looked in need of major upgrade, and even the swanky new ape house contained one of the most depressed-looking gorillas I’ve ever seen. The only fun part of the trip was doing the short zipline and taking comical photos of the giraffes eating, but otherwise I left rather jaded. Thankfully though, spring was soon to burst into bloom, and a brand new adventure awaited.

Escape to Otago

For weeks I was stuck in a triangle of home, work, and the supermarket. When New Zealand’s Government declared a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, I continued to work through as an essential worker, but outwith my work hours, like the rest of the country, I left home only to do a weekly shop or to go for a brief walk or bike ride around my neighbourhood. It was a strange 5 weeks. At first, we were granted movement within our region, and I was quick to include the coast in my off-day wanderings, enjoying the sunshine on New Brighton beach, and heading up onto the Port Hills to enjoy the views over Lyttelton Harbour. I even managed to find a trail that I hadn’t walked before. Being autumn, the light was low and it created a beautiful pale blue colour in the water and the sky. It was a novelty to see some wildlife too.

 

By mid-May, we were allowed to travel out of our region, and I was quick to book an Air BnB in Oamaru, Otago. A 3hr drive away, it was enough of an adventure for a weekend away without feeling like we were flouting any rules, and it felt great to get away from what had felt like a box for the last few months. The hillside to the west of Oamaru was creating a long shadow over the town when we arrived, and there was a late autumn chill in the air. We took a walk down to the harbour which still had some sunlight on it, before wandering through the deserted streets of the historic precinct nearby. As the sun set, the sky turned through pinks and purples before darkness fell.

 

For the first time in months, we went out for dinner. 15mins north of Oamaru is Riverstone Kitchen, a lovely little restaurant/cafe in the complex in front of Riverstone Castle, one of only 2 castles in New Zealand (and being Scottish, I use the term ‘castle’ here loosely). Despite the socially-distanced table placements and the lack of tourists, it felt almost normal to be eating out for dinner on a Saturday night.

The sun was shining the next morning but there was no doubting the time of year with the temperature staying low. We had a lovely view over the harbour from the balcony of the Air Bnb but there wasn’t going to be any sitting out on it that late in the season. We found a spot for breakfast in the historic precinct before jumping in the car and heading down the coast. Otago has some great wildlife viewing spots and I’m always keen to seek them out whenever I have enough time in this region. About 40mins south of Oamaru is the turnoff for Shag Point, a small community of baches hugging the coastline where it juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Where the road ends is a lookout and fur seal colony.

You can often smell fur seals before you see them. Most of them were fast asleep on the rocks so there wasn’t a lot of activity to draw attention. They stand out against the rocks better when they’re still wet from the ocean, but when they dry off they go pale and can often be overlooked from a distance when they’re snoozing and still. But as we walked around the coast, there were plenty to see, and the sea was calm by our sides, gently swelling to and from the rocks nearby. As my gaze moved offshore to some gulls and shags that were draped across some outlying rocks, I spotted some people fishing from a dinghy. It felt like a normal weekend day in New Zealand.

One of Otago’s most known attractions is Moeraki Boulders, a geological anomaly where perfectly spherical boulders emerge from the cliffs under the erosive powers of wind and sea. I remember the first time I visited them in 2012 there were certainly a few other people around, but in the years that followed, like elsewhere in the country, tourism numbers had soared to levels that in my opinion, were a detriment to many sites like this one. The tourism sector has taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic and many people have lost their livelihoods. It is a sad time for many, but I have to admit that I haven’t missed the crowds at all. As much as I know that the economy needs those foreign dollars, I’m not looking forward to see the influx return. We certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves on this day, but it was respectably quiet and I was able to enjoy exploring the boulders and marvelling how they’d changed in the 8 years since I’d first visited.

 

The boulders are quite concentrated in one area of the beach, but the beach itself has a lovely prospect out onto the Pacific Ocean and it’s a nice place to take a stroll even without the boulders. At the southern end the coast juts out at Moeraki, a small settlement with a fishing hub, a plethora of holiday baches, and a great pub to stop for a meal. It’s also where the road cuts off to Katiki Point where a lighthouse stands proudly at the top of a spit of a land jutting south. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but it marks the start of a track down to Katiki Point Reserve which is a must visit in the hours leading up to sunset. The gate closes and is locked at a set time each day, so it’s important to check this in advance, but the reason for going is the guaranteed sightings of hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest penguin species in the world and endemic to New Zealand.

The track follows the spit of land, remaining on its ridge, so you look down on the beach where the penguins come ashore. I’ve seen hoiho in several spots in Otago, but this is the closest I’ve been to them. A fence does separate the track from where the penguins are but that didn’t stop them jumping up the hillside to come closer to the band of people that were sitting on the slope watching them with glee. Further along the spit, the penguins were replaced by fur seals, gulls and shags. One or two fur seals seemed to share the penguins’ spot, but otherwise there did seem to be quite segregated areas for the different species to haul up out of the sea. Where they did overlap, there was often a loud bit of drama as the young seals chased the penguins or the penguins tried to stand up to the fur seals. Even just watching the interactions between the various penguins was like watching a soap opera. I could have stayed there till darkness, but the gate locking meant we all eventually had to head back to the car park and leave them to their own lives.

 

There was still enough daylight on our return to Oamaru that we took a walk along the perimeter of Friendly Bay past Sumpter Wharf. With the lowering of the sun ahead of sunset, the wharf was crammed full of spotted shags and gulls getting settled to roost for the night. It was incredible how many of them there were and there was a constant influx and occasional outflux of birds joining and leaving the throng. Like the night before, the sky turned pink and purple as sunset became dusk signalling time to go and grab some dinner.

 

I have to admit that one of my favourite things about not working Mondays is seeing most other people head into work when I know I don’t have to. We grabbed breakfast at a cafe not far from where we had stayed, and I smiled when I was presented with my coffee which had the words Good Morning on it written in chocolate syrup. I might not have needed to go to work, but we still had to head back to Christchurch that day. I wasn’t in charge of driving but I was allowed to dictate the route home, so rather than just heading straight up State Highway 1 and being home in a matter of hours, I chose to direct us on a detour to Elephant Rocks which I had discovered on a weekend away in the Waitaki Valley the previous autumn.

It was a bit of a convoluted route to get there, but although they don’t quite have the grandeur of Castle Hill in Canterbury, they’re still a pretty neat place to explore. On private land, they are publicly accessible but may be grazed by stock at times so there’s often a lot of dung around the place. There is also a pretty nice view across the nearby farm which is framed by some Otago hills and some taller peaks which had a light dust of snow on their tops. There is such a variety of shapes with a mixture of domes and wind-blasted exposed sides. There were a few other people there, but these rocks are so off the main roads and away from the typical tourist routes that they are quiet in comparison to their northern equivalents.

 

After snaking back and forward among them, it was time to head back to the car and start heading home. Although my favourite part of Otago is the Otago Peninsula, Oamaru and the nearby coast is a great spot for geology and wildlife. Having not stopped-off there in a long time, little did I know I’d end up passing through here again and again and again over the next 12 months.

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