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Archive for the category “Hiking”

Rakiura Track – Oban to North Arm Hut

Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.

Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.

 

I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.

 

At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.

 

When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.

 

From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.

 

The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.

 

The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.

 

It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.

 

One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.

 

The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.

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Heading South

Whilst not coming close to the distances of Australia or the USA, it is easy to forget how far apart some parts of New Zealand are. Having spent the morning at work, it was the early afternoon before I set off from Christchurch on the long road south to Mosgiel, near Dunedin in Otago. It is a drive I don’t do often. I used to live in Timaru in Canterbury when I first started working in New Zealand, so I’m most familiar with the commute between that town and Christchurch, but it had been some time since I’d last been down to Dunedin, and ever aware of the passing hours, I didn’t stop at any of the towns or sights on the way, too eager to get to my rest stop for the night. I’d chosen Mosgiel as a place just a little further along the road than Dunedin so I was just that little bit further south for the drive the next day, whilst not committing to added distance in case I hadn’t been able to get out of work on time. I stayed in an unusual accommodation which was a converted homestead and seminary that used to be owned by the grandnephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was an enormous building complete with chapel and singing choir, but it provided the comfortable bed that I needed to break up the journey south.

The next morning I had even more driving to do. After the 5hr trip the day before, I allowed myself another 3hrs to reach the ferry terminal at Bluff on the very south coast of the South Island. Here I was to catch the ferry to Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, New Zealand’s third largest island. I’d dreamed about visiting there for some time, but it had taken 6 years of living in New Zealand to finally get around to it. I had made good time to Bluff though, and had some spare time ahead of the 11am ferry, so I took the short drive to Stirling Point which marks the end of State Highway 1, the road that traverses the country from Cape Reinga in the north of the North Island. Here also marks the end of the Te Araroa trail, the long distance hike that also spans the length of the country. The car park was full and there were a few people milling around the lookout and the way marker that stands proudly there. Nearby there was a giant chain-link sculpture that has a corresponding part in Rakiura.

 

A coastal walk disappeared around the headland to the west, but I didn’t have time to do much exploring, choosing to walk round to the little lighthouse out on some rocks by the entrance to the harbour. The harbour itself is very industrial and the small town of Bluff seemed a little sad and run down. It had the feeling of a frontier town, stuck out as it is near the end of a peninsula on a road to nowhere, no doubt taking the full brunt of the weather that comes from the south. It is famous for its oysters as well as for being a gateway to Rakiura, but when I was there, despite the full car park at the ferry terminal, there didn’t appear to be much life about. After parking up at the ferry terminal and checking in, it was then just a matter of waiting to board and head off on my adventure.

 

The Foveaux Strait that separates Rakiura from the South Island is a notorious stretch of sea and the minute we left the protection of the harbour and the south coast, the swell picked up and we started the bouncy ride across. Normally I would spend a boat trip like this outside on the deck, but with this level of chop, that was simply not an option. When asked about the degree of roughness that day, the Captain’s comment was that it was ‘Foveaux Strait calm’ which made me laugh internally. I am exceptionally thankful to have a good sea stomach, but there were many on the boat that couldn’t keep down the contents of their stomach. The crew took it in their stride and I figured they would be more than used to it. I hadn’t stayed overnight on one of New Zealand’s outer islands since I’d first explored the country on arrival in 2012. I remembered my boat trip to Great Barrier Island, my favourite island in the Hauraki Gulf region, with its mixture of locals and tourists, and I had the same feeling as I had then, that I was going somewhere special, secluded and almost secret. Although a port of call on cruises round the archipelago and visited by Kiwis and tourists alike, it gets only a mere fraction of the visitors that other parts of the country receive, and only such a small percentage of it is actually inhabited. It is an island dominated by wildlife, lived on by the hardy, and with just a mere handful of Sub-Antarctic islands and a large expanse of ocean between it and the great Southern continent of Antarctica, it is at the mercy of the weather systems that batter its coast.

With little opportunity to see much on route, I was glad when we slowed into the safety of Halfmoon Bay, as I could finally get outside to see the islets and coastline as we passed. I’m sure those passengers who had spent the trip with their face inside a seasick bag were also glad. As we docked at the harbour, we could see a congregation of people on the beach at Oban, the main settlement on the island. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the island’s ‘Iron Man’ festival and there were all sorts of activities taking place for people to prove their strength and speed. It was a grey and overcast day with the hint of rain in the air, but thankfully it didn’t come to much as I walked around the bay, past the gathered crowd and to my hostel up a back street. It was a busy place, full of hikers as Rakiura boasts 3 multi-day hikes: The 3-day Rakiura track which is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, the Southern Circuit which is a week long trek, or the daddy of all treks, the North-West Circuit, taking up to 12 days. I was there to hike the Rakiura track as part of a week long holiday on the island and I couldn’t wait.

 

But I still had the afternoon to explore Oban’s surrounds, and the bush is dotted with walking tracks. Heading up the hill behind where I was staying, I cut through the back streets of Oban to reach Observation Rock which offered a view over the expansive Paterson Inlet, a large body of water that cut into the coastline of Rakiura. Then I cut down to Golden Bay where the Ulva Island ferry leaves from and joined the Golden Bay track which undulated up and down whilst hugging the Paterson Inlet coastline. I was actually walking under some sunshine by this stage although I could see the rain on the far side of Paterson Inlet, threatening to come closer as time went on. With Iona Island just off shore, I eventually found myself heading into Deep Bay where the wind whipped through.

 

I took the road to cut across the headland which brought me out on the cliffs above the beautiful Ringaringa beach. At the end of the road, a track took me to a monument on a slight outcrop where I had a view across to South Island and back up Paterson Inlet. This little stretch of coastline was stunning and there was barely another soul about. I had planned on cutting to the far side of Ackers Point and heading out to the lighthouse but it was already getting on in the day and I figured I’d have time to do it later in the week once I was back from my hike. So instead of going down to the beach, I took the road back to Deep Bay and took the bush walk across to the back of Oban, bringing me out at the top of Peterson Hill.

 

When I reached Halfmoon Bay, a rainbow was out over the water, and I passed Scollay Rocks where apparently penguins can be spotted. Oban is a very small settlement and there was little options for eating out in. I was already stocked up for my hike over the next few days, but I had wanted to eat out for dinner. In the end, I just got fish and chips from the Kai Kart near the beach and as I sat there in the cold evening, the rain returned. It was heavy enough that there was no point going out at night in search of kiwis as I wanted to start my hike with dry clothes so I returned to the hostel and readied myself for sleep. The next day would see me ticking another New Zealand Great Walk off the list.

 

Mount Somers Track – Day Two

New Zealand’s network of back country huts are the welcome sight at the end of many a hike, although they vary in size, style, and comfort level. What they all have in common is a lack of electricity, meaning that when the sun goes down at night, everybody tends to go straight to sleep, and in the morning as the hut lights up with the morning sunlight, the first stirrings of the early risers awaken the rest of the occupants from their slumber. And so it was as I lay asleep under the kitchen bench top in the over crowded Woolshed Creek Hut at the back of Mount Somers. I don’t know if it was the light or the early risers that stirred me from my slumber, but soon the whole hut was bustling with activity. The vast majority of the hut occupants had hiked in on the shorter Miners track from the car park off Ashburton Gorge Road, which makes it a suitable walk for families. I however, was parked at the Sharplin Falls car park on the directly opposite flank of Mount Somers and had a full day’s hike ahead of me to get there.

Being in February, I had picked an exceptionally hot weekend to do the hike, having hiked in on the Mount Somers track in 27oC. For my return leg, the temperature would peak at 29oC and the majority of the return leg was exposed to the elements. I’d gotten a little deflated at the end of the previous day, having taken 7hrs to hike what should have been a 6hr trek. With the return route listed as an 8hr trek, I set off that morning already feeling a little deflated again. First things first, there was no point even putting my boots on upon leaving the hut as I had to wade across the stream back to the far side to rejoin the Mount Somers track.

 

Starting off with a wander along the valley floor, the track skirted up a low ridge to face a deep gulley across which, a long swing bridge spanned the gap. The plaque denoted that it had replaced a ladder and I wondered if that meant that previously the river had had to be forded. This seemed like it would have been a rather dodgy affair if it had. I was glad of the bridge to take me safely across, and from then onwards, the climb began. First up and over an exposed ridge from where I could still see the hut in the valley behind me, and then into a little forested section. After wading across a stream in my leaky hiking boots, I climbed back out to come across a side track leading to a waterfall. Deep in shadow, it was difficult to get a decent photo of it, but it was definitely worth the short side trip to go and view it.

 

Once back out the forest, the next section of track was probably my favourite, despite the constant climb that went with it. It was exposed but this meant the views were incredible, and as it climbed and hugged the edge of a steep gully, I could see mountains rolling off into the distance, including some distant peaks that still had snow on them. There was only a couple of other people on the track ahead of me, otherwise it was a quiet trail, and from my vantage point I could see some of the other hut occupants walking out on the lower trail they’d come in on. As the track reached its highest point for the day, it cut directly under a rocky overhang where a cut out in the rocks was known as the Bus Stop overhang. Someone had even attached a Bus Stop sign to the edge of the rocks which I passed after taking a rest to enjoy the view.

 

It wasn’t far before the track descended steeply, and suddenly the vegetation changed dramatically from the scrubby bush to reams of tussock before the stumpy trees reappeared briefly whilst the track cut down to another stream and cut back up the other side. It was then an almost flat trek across more tussock, from where there was a final view of Woolshed Creek Hut in the far distance before it disappeared out of sight. Still on the western slope of Mount Somers, I eventually came across the track junction with the Rhyolite Track which cuts steeply down to the same car park that the other hut occupants would reach on the Miner Track. For me though, it was time to cut round to the south face of the mountain and push onwards.

 

There was next to no shade on this south face, and having overtaken the couple of hikers back in the tussocks, it was just me and them some way behind me on this track. For the rest of the day, the trend was set, with a constant undulation up and down in altitude the whole way back to the car. The view south was also less interesting than the view west or the view north the day before, and under the beating sun, it didn’t take long for me to start to get frustrated again. I’ve done many hikes, including 8hr day hikes, but this was my longest hike with a full pack on my back. I’ve also let my fitness reduce and my weight increase, so it was as much frustration at my self for letting myself lose condition as it was about the monotony of the hike in the blazing heat. But there were some interesting sections as the track followed the contours of the mountainside, passing or crossing multiple streams as it went, and the vegetation was by now back to the bushy scrub or the occasional copse of trees.

 

I had my eye on a little shelter where I planned on having lunch, but as with the day before, it felt like it wasn’t getting any nearer, and eventually I decided to stop to eat in the shade of a small copse near a stream. When I finally reached the little shelter I did a quick nosey inside before continuing, realising to my dismay that there was a rather steep incline ahead. Thankfully it turned out that most of it was in the shade of a woodland, and despite the perceived exhaustion, it was actually not too bad to negotiate in the end. After reaching the top of the incline, it skirted yet another corner to suddenly open out of the trees onto the top of a large scree field. Picking my way across it carefully to avoid creating a stone avalanche, there was just another small incline until finally I found myself at the junction with the Mount Somers summit track.

 

It was all downhill from here, and I told myself gleefully that I was nearly finished, but as the sign at the junction attests and as I consulted my map to remind myself of the next section of the track, there was still 1/3rd of the south face track to walk! There were a few more people on this part of the track with those coming off the summit heading home too. I just focused on the thought of my car and picked my way down the lowering ridgeline before I finally entered the forest for the final section. I passed some older gentlemen that had come off the summit and they started congratulating me when they found out I’d walked the circuit. I’m never sure if it’s a genial hiker’s praise or a surprise at the fact that I’m a solo female hiker, because I’ve been stopped a few times by fellow hikers (always males) who seem surprised or overly congratulatory about my intentions or achievements. Certainly, I come across far more male hikers (solo or otherwise) than I do fellow female hikers (solo or otherwise), so probably I’m still in the minority.

 

When I reached my car, 8hrs 40mins after leaving Woolshed Creek Hut behind, it wasn’t long before the same men completed their hike and we shared in each other’s elation. In the intense heat and exposure, I had run out of water about an hour before finishing, as I had done the day before. This hike was the first time that had ever happened and I reflected on the fact that I had underestimated the hike. In the end though, I felt more proud of myself for completing it, having ticked another Canterbury hike off the list, and feeling far more prepared for the 3 day hike I had to come in a few weeks time.

Mount Somers Track – Day One

After New Year came and went and the days of January started ticking by, I had the sudden realisation that I had a multi-day hike just around the corner in February and I was generally unfit and hadn’t done much training. I’d struggled upĀ Ben Lomond on my recent visit to Queenstown, a mountain which I should have coped with well in my peak fitness, so I realised I was in need of an overnight hike, or tramp as it is called in New Zealand, to give my body a practice run. So I decided to do the Mount Somers Track in Canterbury, a track that wasn’t a drastic drive away, was just a 2 day hike and seemed perfectly achievable, being as it went round the slope of Mount Somers without actually summiting it. What could go wrong? I knew that the hut I wanted to stay at could be busy at weekends as it is accessible also via a shorter walk and is therefore very popular with families as a reasonable walk when kids are involved, so with a long weekend, I decided to hike Sunday to Monday, thinking I’d have a better chance of getting a bunk. I didn’t have a tent to take with me as a back-up, but I did take my camping mattress just in case.

For many reasons, the trip just didn’t go the way I had anticipated. I was a little lazy getting myself going on the Sunday morning, so I was setting off later than I really should have. I left my car at the Sharplin Falls car park near Staveley, and noted the 6hr time on the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for that night. For my general level of fitness, I find these DOC signs very generous with their estimated times, so I knew I should make the hut at a reasonable time to have a chance of bagging a bed spot if it was busy. I set off over the stream and up the winding pathway into the bush, setting my sights on Pinnacles Hut which was just a little over halfway. I planned on using it as a lunch and rest spot before pushing on to the second hut. The track was rough but obvious as it negotiated tree roots and an undulating altitude and for a while I could see little more than the bush around me. I passed several people who were hiking out from wherever they had spent the night and at one point a man stopped me and asked me where I was staying. He explained that the Woolshed Creek Hut had reached double capacity the night before and it had been rather chaotic and cramped. He wished me luck for that night and continued on his way. I continued to hold onto the belief that it was Sunday, so it had to be quieter. Shortly after, I fell on my arse.

 

A break in the trees allowed me to see Mount Somers, the mountain that I was hiking around and have previously climbed up. It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and it was getting rather hot, peaking at 27oC. There had recently been some heavy rain so as the track dipped down to Bowyers Stream there were fresh landslips to negotiate and the water level was higher, flooding small sections of the track. My trusty hiking boots have been a reliable part of my life for nearly 10 years. I knew they were coming to the end of their life, but when the water started seeping in to them as I crossed some small streams, I realised that this hike was going to be a problem for them. In the deeper patches where the stepping stones were well submerged, I was forced to take my shoes off and wade barefoot: not an ideal situation, but it seemed the better scenario than hiking in saturated shoes and socks. Further up a stream a swing bridge offered a decent crossing across a wider section but even after this there were a few more zig zags across the water.

 

The heat was beginning to get to me and I had a feeling I wasn’t making progress at a rate that I was comfortable with. I put these thoughts aside when I came across a waterfall that the track went behind. Dripping off the moss and vegetation on an overhang, the light flow of water glistened in the sunshine and it was a nice distraction from the slight monotony of the bush. Given the roughness of the track and the use of chains to negotiate a few sections, I was a little surprised to see a family with young children swimming in a pooled section of the stream which the path came really close to. I had seen this area on the map and had decided it would be a good place to have lunch given that the hut still seemed a bit away, but when I came out of the bush I saw the children were naked and it felt inappropriate for me to stop there, so I pushed on till I found a clearing with a rock to sit on.

 

But at some point it really became evident that I should have reached the first hut by now. I’m normally a lot quicker than the DOC signs state, but once before I have been caught out by the time estimate being more realistic than they typically are, and I was coming to the realisation that this was going to be another one. It led to a bit of frustration kicking in and my tiredness was becoming a little more pronounced. It was dawning on me that I still had hours of hiking ahead of me, and I was going to get in later than I’d thought. The final lead up to Pinnacles Hut is dramatic though – the bush opening up to reveal the sheer wall of the north face of Mount Somers and some large rocky prominences jutting through the trees. As I finally neared the hut, I could see some people climbing the largest prominences a little way behind the hut. I peaked inside as I like to do when I pass by and I spied an updated time estimate sign and looked in dismay at the lies which it portrayed: It had taken me longer to reach the hut and I knew it would take me longer to reach the next one.

 

From Pinnacles Hut the track climbed steeply to reach a pass and followed the natural curve of the slope for a while. The bush was minimal now so it was a stunning view that I tried hard to enjoy through my growing tiredness. I passed some more people heading in the opposite direction before I finally reached the beginning of the long descent. The shadows were starting to stretch a little and I was eager to get down to the hut in the valley below. It was a straight-forward descent surrounded by mountains disappearing into the distance in several directions with the hulk of Mount Somers as a constant companion to my left, its appearance changing as the terrain around it changed. As the path levelled out, I was sure I had just a few more corners till the hut would appear, but again when I consulted the map, I proved to be sorely wrong. I still had a good 45 mins of hiking to go. I was quite deflated by this stage, disheartened with the miscalculation of time, irritated by the heat, and disappointed at the failing condition of my hiking boots.

 

Despite all this, when a little side-track appeared as the path skirted a tributary of Morgan Stream, I took it to cut down to the water and look at some faux caves where the rocks created some channels and pools for the water flow to negotiate. It was tempting to have a wade but I really needed to get to the hut. The path cut down to Morgan Stream proper where I was startled by a large hedgehog scuttling into the bush, it having gotten as big a fright from me as I had by its sudden movement. Where the path disappeared into the stream and out the other side, I had to de-boot once more to cross it. After climbing back up the far slope, over the ridge and down the other side, I was beyond ecstatic to finally see Woolshed Creek Hut at the bottom of the hill. There were a lot of people milling about and I realised it was going to be busy. I almost skipped the last section of the hike only to be brought to a standstill when I realised Woolshed Creek stood between me and the hut. Off the boots came again and I didn’t bother putting them back on, dumping my stuff on the decking and popping inside.

 

The hut was a hive of activity, full of children inside and out, which seemed so foreign to me at the end of a long hike. I love seeing a new generation get into hiking and the outdoors, away from electronic devices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to find after a 7hr hike. It had been an hour longer than the DOC sign had stated meaning it was almost 2hrs longer than I thought it would have taken. I looked into the bunk rooms to discover that all the mattresses were spoken for and I realised I would be kipping on the floor. I wasn’t even the last person to arrive, with a few other groups of hikers having walked in on the shorter track. We all fought for space to prepare food and eat, and once the kitchen area was clear, I set up my camping mattress and sleeping bag under the workbench where I thought I’d be out of the way. The bugs kept me company for a bit, and I read a magazine in the torchlight before one by one, all of us that were sleeping on the floor settled in for the night. I was exhausted and mentally drained, and the next day I still had to make it back to my car.

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

Helicopter Hill

I love the image of hiking through snow under a beautiful blue sky with the yellow orb of the sun shining overhead, but the reality is that getting out into the wilderness in the winter months takes skills that I don’t have. So inevitably, my hiking has a season, and come April it is starting to wind down as the days get noticeably short and the weather turns. Without the northern hemisphere’s luxury of having Christmas and New Year to break up the winter blues, I spend the winter months here counting down till September, the start of spring when I can start thinking about getting back to the mountains. The previous summer I’d managed to tick off a lot of mountains on my wish-list, leaving just a handful within reach of Christchurch still to summit. Unfortunately the weather of the summer just passed fell short and I barely had much opportunity to get into the mountains. So when a lovely April Sunday presented itself, I was keen to get into the Southern Alps and tick one off the list.

It takes about an hour to even reach the mountains from Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, but on the west coast road, State Highway (SH) 73, there are plenty of mountains to choose from. Passing Trig M which I’d hiked the summer before last, I continued for another half hour past the rock feature of Castle Hill, and the lookout at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, before turning in at Craigieburn Forest Park and parking up at the campground. As it turned out, I hadn’t paid much attention to the starting altitude, looking only at the summit and feeling it was a good one to add to the list of mountains >1000m (>3281ft) that I’ve hiked in New Zealand. With the car park at 800m (2624ft), it turns out this was a good cheat hike: the stunning views but without a lot of climbing. I was up and down in 3hrs.

As the sun was noticeably low at the end of April, upon entering the forest at the start of the Mistletoe track, I was plunged into a cold shade on the lee of the mountain. In places some dappled sunshine broke through the trees, but it was almost a little chilly in the shaded sections. Sticking with the Mistletoe track at the track junction, it was a pleasant enough forest walk and there were actually several other people on the trail. Eventually as the track hugged into the cold, shaded flank of Helicopter Hill, it began its zig-zag up the mountainside. Only after gaining about 250m (820ft) did the trees open up to give a hint of the view.

 

Whilst Helicopter Hill’s summit is 1256m (4121ft), it is absolutely dwarfed by most of the mountains that surround it. Looking out at this first view point, I could see over the top of the forest and beyond to the tree-less slopes of the Craigieburn Range that include the Broken River ski field. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue: a gorgeous day to go hiking. Beyond here, there wasn’t much further to go to reach the turn-off to the Helicopter Hill track that leads up to the summit. This junction meets a mountain biking trail and there were lots of bikers out that day too.

 

The whole way up the summit track there was a view to be had in at least one direction if not more. Rocky and loose under foot in places, it was an easily followed path through shrubbery and open vegetation. The peak behind me had a distinctive cone-like summit and as I gained altitude, I could see the buildings of the ski centre in the distance more clearly. I reached the summit just as some of the bikers were leaving and I had it to myself, or so I thought. Some rustling drew my attention to a tree near the summit and I saw a bird of prey sitting majestically at the top. It took to the wing before I could get a photo, and I watched it thermal out of view, leaving me on my own.

 

The view was beautiful. Far below me SH 73 curled through the valley, and the tiny vehicles occasionally glistened as they caught a bit of sun. Many of the surrounding peaks have no name, but there wasn’t a shortage to look at. After enjoying my lunch in the sunshine, I started to head back down the rocky track, passing a group of bikers carrying their bikes up the track. I lost traction in a couple of places underfoot, catching myself before I fell, then before long, I was alerted by some noise behind me to the bikers hurtling down the track towards me. There are many shared hike and bike tracks in New Zealand, but this was probably the most dangerous one I’d been on. The bikers gave no consideration to me hiking the track and I had to keep ducking into a bush to get out their way. Not an always an easy feat when the bush is at the top of a large drop off the mountainside.

 

Back down at the track junction there were even more mountain bikers. None of the hikers I’d met on the Mistletoe Track were anywhere to be seen, but there was a plethora of people out riding that day. To make the hike longer, I chose to return via the Luge track. This stays on a roughly even altitude plane for quite some distance before eventually dropping down the mountainside towards the road that leads up to the ski field. This track though was the main descent for the bikers, so I had to give way time and again as they sped towards and past me. At the bottom, there was a bubbling stream to cross, and out I popped onto the unsealed access road. From here, it was just a matter of following the road down the hill to where I’d parked my car. A much shorter mountain hike than I’m used to, it was a nice autumnal stretch of the legs. A great view for comparatively little effort. What more could you want from a hike?

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

When people think of beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery, they often think of rolling green hills or mountains reflected on lakes. But sometimes there can be something just as mesmerising as a stark and rocky landscape. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is a volcanic and geological wonderland, and it is such a contrast to what I’m used to living in the South Island. After several hours spent hiking past the dramatic peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, and climbing over the ridge of Mt Tongariro and Red Crater to descend past Emerald Lakes, I found myself at the top of a steep descent with an expansive lava field below me. To my side, steaming vents blew puffs of smoke out of the ground and as far as I could see, the ridges of lahars and the rocks from volcanic explosions littered the landscape. Here I was, leaving the crowds of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing behind and entering the wild emptiness of Middle Earth’s Mordor.

 

The swirling dark clouds over the blackened landscape created a dark and gloomy view, but the sun intermittently sparkled through the ever changing cloud base. It was a quick descent from 1700m (5577ft) down to roughly 1460m (4790ft), following the poles with orange arrow that mark out a route. Whilst the upper altitude gave a good overview for location reference, it became clear as I dropped lower that it could be very easy to get lost amongst the undulating rocky piles that littered the landscape everywhere. Whilst the peaks of Red Crater and Mt Nguaruhoe stood distinctively behind me, the rest of the lower slopes was like a rabbit warren. Initially there was some yellows and reds to the rocks around me, but the lower I got, the more the landscape darkened to the ashy black. The path was well trodden, and sprouts of vegetation poked up from the sandy substrate.

 

I naively thought once I was on the valley floor that it wouldn’t be long until I reached my hut for the night, but in fact this section of the walk felt like it went on forever. It had been many hours since I’d left Mangatepopo Hut behind, and I was getting tired. But there was so much to look at. There was evidence of rocks from a historical river bed, as well as so many formations of different rock types, created by a mix of setting lava flows, lahars, and rocks deposited by explosive force. To my left a tall ridgeline slowly dropped down, and behind me I regularly looked back to see Mt Nguaruhoe and Red Crater. The plant life around me was typical of an alpine landscape, with low shrubs and occasional flowers. The closer I got to the Oturere Hut, my bed for the night, the more it even felt a little like sand dunes, such was the dusty ground of ash.

 

Even though I knew State Highway (SH) 1 was out of sight in the distance, I felt a million miles away from anywhere, having not seen another soul since I’d taken the turn-off for the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Finally the Oturere Hut (1360m/4462ft) came into view, nestled near a drop in the landscape, and I was relieved to take my backpack off. This was another small hut for what I was expecting. Some of the hikers that I’d shared the hut with the previous night, had opted to push on to the next hut, but even still with hikers walking the trail in both directions, it was booked out for the night, and several people were camping outside.

 

I was told about a waterfall not far from the hut, so walked to the edge of the drop, and followed the worn path down towards it. The Oturere falls are a multi-tiered waterfall that spills down the mountainside, having come from the ridgeline I’d just climbed down from. It was peaceful here, and I walked slightly up stream from the falls to get a varying view of the Oturere Stream and the river valley below. Some other hikers had taken a dip here but I wasn’t brave enough to get in the cold water. Back at the hut, I wandered around the immediate vicinity inspecting plants and watching the rain move in over Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, before heading back to the hut. Shortly after, the heavens opened and the rain moved in. I was so glad I wasn’t camping as it rained a good part of the night.

 

The next day’s hike was a short one. It is easily possible to hike back to Whakapapa Village from Oturere Hut in one day, and a few of my fellow hikers were doing so. I and a few others, had decided to follow the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) suggestion of walking the circuit in 4 days. So with the DOC signage showing the next hut was only 3hrs away, I didn’t hurry myself in the morning to get going. Many people set off ahead of me, and I took one last look at the waterfall before heading off myself. It remained dry but was overcast. The hike effectively cuts up and down the old lahar ridges that mark a historical volcanic eruption. Nearest the hut there were lots of large and jagged rocks, but as the time wore on, these grew few and far between.

 

Again I mused how easy it would be to get lost if the path was left behind, although I knew SH1 was getting closer as I walked, and indeed on the lahar ridges, I could just about make out the odd truck ploughing the road in the far distance. It takes a hardy plant to live in these conditions, and it was a constantly changing patchwork between the rocks and alpine plants, and the loose ash scree between them. On the third lahar ridge, the path changed course and trees were suddenly in front of me. It was strange seeing such tall vegetation when the rest of the hike so far had only had the stunted alpine flowers and bushes. The path led right up to the trees then dropped down within them to a broad and fast-moving stream in a shallow valley. This was more like the South Island hiking I was used to, and at the bridge to cross over, I met some hikers heading in the other direction.

 

Once over the stream, the path climbed back up the slope within the forest. My legs were a little tired from the previous day’s hike so they grumbled a bit as I regained the lost altitude. Eventually breaking out of the tree line again I could see Mt Ruapehu peaking through a gap in the cloud. Some of the landscape that I could see contained the track I would follow the next day, but for now I was winding past more alpine bushes and round the corner I could already see Waihohonu hut, my bed for the night. Climbing down through the trees once more, I crossed over another mountain stream and found myself at the hut (1120m/3674ft).

 

This more modern hut was huge compared to the previous two huts, and with many hikers in both directions combining two days of hiking, there were much less people staying here, making it seem even more spacious. There were several familiar faces already there and arriving after me, and several of us had been chatting multiple times over the 3 days, and had got to know each other a little. The Great Walks of New Zealand are a mecca for tourists as much, if not more so than Kiwis, so there was a veritable collection of nationalities amongst us, with a range in age also that made for some interesting life stories. While often these are people that come into your life for only a few hours or a few days, they are people that have shared an adventure with you and some of my memories from this hike revolve around the hilarity and stories that were traded between us.

On the morning of day 4, I was one of the last to leave the hut. Many of the others had a long drive ahead of them or a bus to catch so were keen to get going. It was another grey day, and although I had a bit of driving to do myself that afternoon, I knew I wanted to explore the side tracks on this day’s trail. Close to the hut is the turn-off for another multi-day hike, the Round the Mountain track that circuits the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu. One of the hikers with me on the Northern Circuit had completed that hike recently and after she talked about it, my appetite was whetted to hike it on another occasion. I left my backpack at the junction and followed the Round the Mountain track for 20mins to reach Ohinepango Springs. On route I had a view over the eastern plains that spans the area between the Tongariro volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountain Range. Not too far away, SH 1 paves a route through here, where it is known as the Desert Road because of the apparently barren and ‘sandy’ landscape. From where I was standing though, there was plenty of vegetation everywhere I looked.

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Ohinepango Springs were not overly exciting. It was effectively a fast-flowing river coming away from a pool of water that had a slight bluish tinge to it. Probably on a sunny day they look more spectacular, but had it not been for spotting a whio (blue duck) which are rare and endangered, I would have been a bit annoyed with wasting my time. As it was, I enjoyed watching the little duck swimming around and got excited when he made his distinctive whistling sound. The whio are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world, and it is estimated their numbers are under 3000. They only live around exceptionally clean water, so whilst their presence is a good indicator of the health of a waterway, it is the contamination of waterways and more so the predation from introduced species that have played major parts in their decline.

 

Returning to my backpack, from where I could see the clouds roll over the Kaimanawa Ranges, it was only about a 10min walk to the next turn-off for the historic Waihohonu Hut. Painted in bright red, it was a remnant from a bygone era where men and women were separated for sleeping. It is open to have a nosey around, and it is littered in etchings from past occupants, as well as a few artifacts to look at. Built in 1904, it remained in use until the 60s and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It is now managed by the Tongariro National Historic Society. By the time I had returned to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, an hour had passed since I’d left the newer Waihohonu hut behind, and I still had quite a bit of ground to cover. It was time to push onwards to Whakapapa Village.

 

The landscape was a mix of bare exposed ground with the odd plant or areas completely covered with alpine plants. The mountains I’d hiked over two days prior were shrouded in cloud as I walked towards a river bank. There was some incredible erosive patterns in the banks nearby and shortly after leaving the river out of sight, a section of boardwalk crossed a rather marshy zone. Although there were mountains flanking the valley either side of me, the valley itself felt open and expansive. It was some time before I caught sight of the depression in the ground that was hiding one of two lakes near the trail. But even then, there was a bit of dropping and climbing and circling before the turn-off to the two Tama Lakes was reached.

 

As the lakes are a little over 2hrs away from Whakapapa Village, this was a popular walk for visitors from there, and so suddenly there were other people about after I’d spent all morning on my own. I left my backpack at the junction and took only my water sack and snacks with me to go to the lookouts. It is only a short walk to the lower Tama lake viewpoint, and as I walked there I met a couple of hikers who’d stayed with me at Waihohonu hut and were on their way back from the lakes. The lower lake filled a small portion of the crater that it sat in, and it was only later after reading a book about the National Park that I discovered that the whole crater would have once been filled with water, but that part of it had filled in with sediment, and eventually so would the rest of it. There was a couple of viewing areas around the 1335m (4380ft) plateau, but although many people went no further, I was keen to head up to the higher viewing area to see the upper Tama lake too.

 

It was a good climb up to the higher viewing area at 1440m (4724ft). The upper Tama lake sits below the southern flank of Mt Nguaruhoe who’s summit remained under wraps the whole day. Under the grey sky the water took on a steely grey colour, and far below, the lower Tama lake looked more blue. Behind the lower lake, Mt Ruapehu also remained shrouded in cloud. It was an enjoyable spot to take a break, and the vista was impressive despite the lack of sunshine. To the west, the landscape rolled in hillocks towards Whakapapa village and beyond. I took my time absorbing the view as I retraced my steps back down the hillside and back towards the Tongariro Northern circuit.

 

The track cut a snaking path up and down through the rolling landscape as it cut across the valley to the west. There were plenty of people coming in the other direction, many of whom seemed dismayed with my answer when they asked how far they still had to go to reach the lakes. Eventually I saw some buildings in the distance which meant the village was within reach and a short while later I came to a track junction. Both paths led to the village, one directly, and the other cut down past a waterfall to join the track that I had left the village from 3 days prior. This junction was at the top of a large rocky drop where the Taranaki falls tumbled over the cliff. I left my backpack once more and climbed down the steps to the bottom where I soon came face to face with the waterfall. There were so many people here as I acknowledged my return to civilisation. It was a beautiful waterfall and well worth seeing. Even the cliffs were interesting to look at.

I climbed back up the stairs to retrieve my backpack and continued on above the falls, crossing the stream and negotiating the ridges of a historic lava flow. The DOC sign had stated an hour from the falls to the village, but it wasn’t even that long, and as I looked out over the vegetation for the last time, I suddenly found myself coming out at the car park by the hotel at the end of the road. Then it was just the trudge back to my car and the final removal of my backpack. Like the Kepler Track which I hiked a few years ago, the Tongariro Northern Circuit definitely peaks in terms of views on day 2, but I still enjoyed exploring the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, circuiting between the impressive volcanic summits of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Nguaruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Despite the crowds in some parts, this geological wonderland is most definitely worth exploring.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely rated as New Zealand’s best day hike. Traversing a barren volcanic landscape that appears at times as if on another planet, the scenery is for many people, like nothing they’ve seen before. Cutting up past Mount Ngauruhoe (famous to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and swinging past Mount Tongariro, the full track is just over 19kms (11.8miles), and reaches an altitude of 1886m (6188ft). Roughly 109,000 people hiked this trail in 2015, and the numbers continue to rise. We were told by the warden at our hut that in the height of summer, you have to queue to get onto the track from the hut we were staying in that night, such was the density of people walking the trail at times. He told us to get going early to beat the crowds that pile onto the trail from the shuttle buses. I had tried to do this hike twice before, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the weather had stopped me going. With day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporating the best part of the Alpine Crossing, I was set to finally join the crowds, no matter what the weather would be.

I awoke at Mangatepopo Hut to clear skies, but by the time I’d had breakfast and packed up, the clouds had piled in and the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. We’d been given a disheartening weather forecast the day before, and I was sad to see it was coming true. I had no choice but to set off, and I acknowledged with sadness that I wasn’t going to get much of a view. I left the hut behind early, but not early enough. After the short walk from the hut to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, all I could see was a stream of people walking up the trail. I sighed internally and slipped into the crowd and set off. I go hiking both to get out in nature, but also for solitude and to get away from civilisation. Straight away I was met by people jostling to get past and others that would just stop suddenly in front of you. This wasn’t going to be the hike I hoped it would be.

 

The path up the valley was plentiful with vegetation, but narrow in places. This meant that there was regularly impatient people walking off the trail and trudging through the vegetation to overtake. Early on there is a sign stating that the landscape is fragile and to keep to the path, but this was repeatedly ignored and I became silently annoyed. After a gentle climb, the path becomes a boardwalk as it passes by a historic lava flow from Mt Ngauruhoe. Under the grey sky, the dark landscape took on a gloomy hue. Carrying a large backpack as I was, I attracted a bit of attention from the day hikers who needed only supplies for the day, and who didn’t realise that there was a multi-day hike in the area. As I marched onward with the others, I tried and failed to pick out where the path would climb up the mountainside.

 

After a while, a side track leads to the Soda Springs, a volcanic waterfall that comes through the rocks from Mt Tongariro. Many of the day hikers ignored them, but it was only a short detour to take, and I dumped my backpack at the junction, giving my back a brief rest whilst I picked my way across the rocky path to them. From the vantage point back towards the mountainside, I could start to get a vague idea of where the path went and it looked very steep. My backpack was around 13kg, and I readied myself in anticipation of the strain. In 2013 I injured my back and have been left with chronic back pain. Frustratingly to top that off, I injured both my shoulders in 2016, and am still on the long road to recovery from that even nearly a year later. Chronic pain has become my life, and whilst it has changed my mental outlook in some ways, I am grateful that I can still do the physical activities that I enjoy, even if I can’t do them in comfort. The climb with my pack was going to hurt, but I was going to do it anyway.

 

Near the bottom is a sign telling you to stop and think about whether you are fit enough to do the hike. In some respects, the walk has almost been sold as such a must-do activity, that I think there are (and indeed saw that day) people out on the trail who weren’t necessarily prepared to do it. I have repeatedly seen tourists hiking mountains in New Zealand at the wrong time of day, wearing the wrong clothing or footwear and often with little water or supplies. Once again, I looked around me, and saw people pushing up the steps with just a small water bottle to sustain them all day. One woman on her own who had nothing with her other than the clothes she was wearing, breathlessly commented on my large backpack as she struggled up the first flight of stairs. How she got on for the rest of the hike I do not know, but I suspect she would have been pretty damn hungry and thirsty by the time she finished.

 

The only toilets on the hike until either the shelter near the end of the Alpine Crossing or the next hut on the Northern Circuit are just up the first few steps. For about 5-6hrs on either trail, there are no more facilities beyond that. As the steps continued their steep climb up the mountainside, the vegetation grew patchier and patchier. Either side of the track were lumps of volcanic rocks, and above me the cloud was still hanging over the summit. Below me it became increasingly obvious that the rocks formed a lave flow and the landscape began to take on that other-worldly feel that I had read so much about. A little below the summit plateau, a sign pointed out the fact that this is an active volcanic zone. The most recent eruption was only in 2012, and I was already living in the country when it happened. A side vent on Mt Tongariro known as the Te Maari craters blew themselves open sending rocks and debris into the air which damaged the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the Alpine Crossing and closed the track for a few months. Following the hike, I purchased a fascinating book about the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park that gives some background information to the various eruptions in the area, as well as how the volcanoes formed and why the landscape looks the way it does. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before I did the hike, as I would have appreciated what I was walking through even more.

 

By the time I reached the plateau of South Crater (which isn’t actually a crater), the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the plateau but the mountain tops were still shrouded. Soon the turn-off to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe was reached, and considering the lack of visibility, there were plenty of people heading up there that day. When I was reading up on the hike before I set off, I had decided that I wanted to summit both Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, but the former has no official route up and is effectively just a scree field on the flanks. Several websites listed it as dangerous, and even the warden at the hut recommended not attempting it. If the wrong route is taken, it is apparently easy to get hit by rocks loosened by people ahead of you or descending, and it is a major slip and fall hazard. Standing at the sign watching the others disappear into the clouds, I just didn’t see the point in attempting it. There would be no view to speak of, and no way of knowing in the clouds whether you were keeping to a good line of ascent or descent. It seemed the sensible thing to skip it and keep on moving.

 

The South Crater is a large flat plateau where finally a bit of colour starts to poke through the previously perpetual blackened landscape. Volcanic zones are very much coloured according to the minerals of the rocks or the algae that grow in the often acidic environments of the waterways there. There was a distinct yellow colour to the rocks here, and the trail was enjoyably flat for a while. Here, the crowds seemed to thin out a little although it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without other people in it. The summit of Mt Tongariro was hidden in the clouds to my left, and Mt Ngauruhoe was hidden in the clouds to my right, but by the time I reached the far side of the crater, the clouds had noticeably lifted higher, and as a result, the landscape seemed to open up a little.

 

Another short steep section brought me up to the first of many incredible views that day. Despite the clouds behind me, the view east was almost clear, and far down below the expanse of what was Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a steep drop, but that didn’t stop many of the other hikers balancing precariously on the edge to pose for a photograph. This was one of many spots where large amounts of people were congregated on the hike, and whilst I was gradually losing my crankiness about having to share the hike with so many other people, I was still wishing that the place was more quiet. For me, grand landscapes demand quiet and reflection, but it was time for a snack, so I stood for awhile amongst the changing crowd of people.

 

My reward for waiting there was that the sun was starting to break through, and looking behind me, the beauty and majesty of Mt Ngauruhoe was suddenly very evident as it broke into view. Near the summit, a patch of red stood out in stark contrast to the neighbouring grey-black of the rest of the rock and I briefly had an internal conflict as I wished I’d gone up, whilst at the same time looking at all the loose scree on the slopes, and wondering how it was actually possible to summit it. I turned to look across South Crater to see that Mt Tongariro was about to poke out the clouds too, and I knew that I would definitely be taking the side track to visit its summit.

 

From this first of many viewpoints, the track narrowed down again and became both steep and loose under foot. A short section has a chain nailed to the rocks to help negotiate it, and I had heard that this was a particular bottle neck for the crowds during the peak season. Hiking as I was in March, New Zealand still has plenty of tourists at that time of year, and once again, there were plenty of impatient people who barged past the slower hikers. Looking around though it was nice to see such a diversity of ages amongst the hikers, with plenty of older hikers that were much fitter than many of the younger ones. A series of blue poles marked the route up, and from the south crater at 1659m (5443ft), the track climbs up to about 1845m (6053ft) where a path junction marks the turn-off to Mt Tongariro. This rocky plateau was littered with people taking a rest. Seeing that Mt Tongariro was still clear of cloud, I wasn’t going to waste any time in heading off for its summit.

 

Dumping my backpack at the start of the track, and taking my water sack with me, I was glad to see this route was very quiet. With the majority of hikers tied to the schedule of the shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the track ends, many of the day hikers just don’t have time to do the side tracks. Getting away from the crowds made it all the more enjoyable for me, and the views were incredible, looking both over to Mt Ngauruhoe now completely devoid of cloud, but also across the rest of the walk towards Blue Lake and North Crater, as well as to the surrounding plains on either side of the mountains. There was also a stunning yellow colour to large sections of the hike and the rocks were jagged and dramatic in places. The path was very narrow, and in a couple of places felt a little treacherous where it crossed loose scree at an angle above a drop. As I approached 1900m (6233ft), I was a little dismayed to see the cloud blow in over the summit and my view started to disappear.

 

The summit itself (1967m/6453ft) was a high stack of rocks that took several attempts to find an accessible way up. The guys at the top pointed out the way that they had come but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the foot and hand holds that they had used, and so I was forced to backtrack a little and approach from a slightly different angle. When I made it up, I was completely shrouded in cloud and couldn’t see a thing beyond the large boulders immediately next to me. The others headed off leaving me on my own, and after rock hopping a little, I stood on the summit surveying my cloudy kingdom. Then out of nowhere a break in the clouds appeared and I could see a carpet of low cloud below me. Suddenly I found myself above the clouds, and out popped the cone-shaped summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, and behind it, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Ruapehu. It was utterly amazing, and I had the view all to myself.

 

The clouds came in waves as I headed back. The rocky peaks in front of me stood out against the swirling clouds and both Blue Lake and the lower of the Emerald Lakes popped in and out of view. Plants grew in patches amongst the mostly barren and very yellow rocks of Mt Tongariro’s ridgeline. Finally though I was back at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and unfortunately thick cloud had rolled in once more. It was windy and cold, and unsurprisingly the plateau was now quite devoid of people. From here the Alpine Crossing climbs to its highest point on Red Crater. I’d already seen that the cloud was passing through in roughly half an hour waves. Had it not been so frigid in the wind I would have waited it out in order to get a view, but knowing how the afternoon usually brings a deterioration of the weather in the mountains generally, I also had doubts whether it would clear at all, so I made the decision to just get on with it and sacrifice the view here.

 

The path was easy to follow in the cloud, but it was completely exposed to the strong cross wind that buffeted me as I made my way up. There was no point in waiting at the summit, so I was quick to cross over to the descent on the other side, and this was the one place where I felt quite unsafe due to the heavy weight on my back. The track descends on a steep scree slope with little security under foot, and I was forced to adopt a skiing type movement, sliding down as gravity pulled the rocks away below each foot placement. A few times, I nearly lost my balance, as I carefully positioned myself to counter the pulling force of the 13-odd kg on my back. The rate of descent was fast but as I emerged once more below the clouds, and I looked at the path in front of me, I couldn’t decide whether it was a man-made ridge or not. It didn’t seem natural the way the scree was piled up in a narrow ledge-like ridge, but as much as a lot of the landscape is volcanic, there are also plenty of aspects that are remnants from a time of glaciation, and I suspect this was how that particular ridge had formed. But soon my attention was grabbed by the contrasting colours of the Emerald Lakes that came into view as the clouds were left behind.

 

There are three Emerald Lakes: the first two sit side by side and are the same colour as each other, and the third sits further along the track and is quite distinctive. Between the duo and the single lake, steam vents belch puffs of steam out of the ground. The swirling cloud continued to rise and fall, dancing around the upper of the lakes. This was another spot where there were plenty of people milling around as well as many people walking off the track. Whilst the first two lakes were interesting enough, it was really the third one that grabbed my attention, and oddly this was mostly ignored by the day hikers. It was near this third lake that the Tongariro Northern Circuit separated itself from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Northern Circuit cut down to this third lake whereas the Alpine Crossing skipped past it.

 

I dumped my backpack by the third Emerald Lake and continued on the Alpine Crossing across Central Crater (not actually a crater). With the remnants of a lava flow from Red Crater to my left I was among a large crowd of hikers pushing on towards Blue Lake. Behind me, the cloud had lifted again and I could see Red Crater in all its glory. I’m sure the view from the summit would have been incredible, but considering I had thought I would get no views at all when I set off in the morning, to have only missed out on 1 viewpoint was not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Climbing up a rocky path once more, I reached the expanse of Blue Lake which was mostly shrouded in cloud. I found a handily-shaped stone that made a nice bench to sit on, and I waited a little here to see what the clouds would do. They lifted slightly to let me just see the far shore, but not for long. With the day hikers continuing on past the lake to skirt past North Crater and descend towards the forest below, I retraced my steps back to the third Emerald Lake.

 

Leaving the Alpine Crossing behind, I took the Northern Circuit turn-off back to the lakeside, reclaimed my backpack and paused here for a while to take a last look at the volcanic behemoths before leaving them behind. Finally, I was back to solitude and peace and quiet away from the busyness of the popular day hike. I stood out on the brow overlooking the upcoming descent, and stretched out for a great distance in front of me was the volcanic landscape of Mordor…

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The maiden mountain of Pihanga was much admired by the warrior mountains Putauaki, Tauhara, Tongariro and Taranaki. The warriors fought for her hand in a great and fiery battle, until Tongariro was victorious. Defeated, in the hours of darkness, the other mountains retreated, leaving Tongariro and Pihanga to look upon each other forever. Putauaki and Tauhara fled north until the morning sun froze them in their place. Taranaki headed south, carving a trail behind him (which later filled with water to become the Wanganui river), before he turned west, becoming frozen near the west coast. Although the exact details vary a little from storyteller to storyteller, the Maori legends about the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Volcanic Centre in New Zealand’s north island provide an intriguing alternate history to the fiery geology of the region. Since moving to New Zealand, I have discovered a previously unknown love for geology. From the fault lines in the Southern Alps, to the volcanic centre in the north island, there is a fascinating insight here into how the Earth’s crust changes and adapts over millennia.

I awoke on my 34th birthday to discover that Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. I was to be starting the Tongariro Northern Circuit that day, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a collection of 9 walks throughout the country that are well maintained and cover a diverse range of scenery. For just over 43km, this walk is one of only 3 loop tracks within the 9 walks. I have previously walked the Kepler Track, and like that hike, although I chose to walk it in 4 days as laid out on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, it could easily be walked in less. This particular hike incorporates the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk, and whilst it can be started at varying access points, the walk effectively cuts between the volcanic mountains of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, traversing across old lahar fields and debris spilled out historically from previous eruptions. This hike couldn’t be more different from the south island if it tried.

After breakfast at the Station cafe in National Park village, I had a short drive to the nearby Whakapapa village where I was to start the hike. On the drive over, the local radio station was reporting beautiful sunshine on nearby Mt Ruapehu, but with nothing but low cloud for company, I didn’t really pay it any attention. The village is a collection of accommodations, including the large, grand and well known Chateau Tongariro which greets you as you enter the village. There are lots of walks that head off from here, and a decent sized visitor centre which incorporates a DOC information office is on the main road. I parked up here, and inside found a reasonable exhibition display about the geology and eruption history of the region. I had a wander around, logged in my intentions to set off hiking, and then overheard that despite the cloud hugging the lower land, the ski centre up Mt Ruapehu was definitely above the cloud and basking in the March sunshine. With just a 3-hr hike to reach my first hut, I decided that there was plenty of time to explore the area before setting off on the hike.

 

So I jumped back in my car and followed the road out the back of the village, climbing higher and higher until suddenly the cloud broke away and I was in another world. A sound of excitement escaped my mouth involuntarily as I continued to drive up and through a rolling scene of black boulders, crust and apparently barren rock face. Behind it all, the dramatic peaks of the summit of Mt Ruapehu jutted up against the blue sky and white patches of snow sparkled in the sunshine. It was a little like Iceland all over again, but yet different, and I was giddy with excitement. At roughly 1600m (5249ft) altitude, there was a chill in the air, so after putting on some layers, I grabbed my camera and headed straight to the ticket office to get a chairlift pass up the mountain. Heading up the first chairlift, the distinctive cone summit of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe (familiar to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) poked up above the cloud base. Taking me up to roughly 1750m (5741ft) altitude, I swiftly headed to the upper chairlift and continued to grin widely as I headed up to the Knoll Ridge cafe at roughly 2000m (6561ft).

 

The view back down the mountainside was incredible thanks to the low cloud hugging the land beyond in every direction. The pinnacle ridge of Mt Ruapehu stood dramatically to the side, and everywhere I looked there were rocks and boulders of varying sizes. There was little to no vegetation and it felt wild and foreign. After taking a nosey at the map of the upper slope in the cafe, I realised there were some options for walking up here. The going was rough, uneven and even unsteady in places, but suddenly there was a mountain peak to explore and there was no stopping me. Early on I realised the error of my ways: having not expected to be hiking yet, I had come up the chairlift with no water and no sunscreen and as the exertion level increased, I found myself stripping off layer after layer of clothing, whilst also being paranoid about burning my face. Following first a well worn path, and then a series of poles up the rocky slope, I climbed a further 200m (656ft) to reach the ridgeline of Pinnacle Ridge.

 

The view from here was phenomenal. The cloud continued to hug most of the western land, but Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro behind it, stood tall and proud above the cloud and as I moved around the pinnacles, the line of view was in places broken by the vertical statues of rock that jutted up from the side of the mountain. Whilst I wasn’t purposefully looking for movie locations, I had been made aware that this too was used in the Lord of the Ring movies, and with all the barren volcanic rocky landscape here, I can see why it made a good set for Mordor.

 

I hung out here for a while, in no hurry to leave. It got a little cold and I had to put all my layers back on, but otherwise it was glorious. I looked longingly up at the continuing pathway that headed up to the true summit of Mt Ruapehu. The volcano has a composite summit, made up of lots of peaks of similar altitudes separated by glacial deposits, a plateau and a crater lake which is the source location for the volcano’s eruptions. Following this hike, I sourced a fascinating book, A Volcanic Guide to Tongariro National Park, which gives a lot of information about the formation and activity of the volcanoes in the region. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before my trip because I didn’t appreciate what I was standing on or what I was looking at at the time.

 

I yearned to keep going, and probably there were enough hours in the day to do so, but I had no food or water with me, and no sun protection (never mind my other usual hiking staples of a first aid kit and survival gear), and I knew deep down that to continue without these things would be a rather stupid thing to do. On such a fine day, I probably would have been okay, but I know enough to be aware how fickle the weather in the mountains can be, how much the clouds can change out of nowhere, and there was snow up there which added a whole other hazard. With a top altitude of 2797m (9176ft), it would have been a fantastic summit to tick off, but I had enough common sense to know I should leave it for another day. After accepting my decision, I retraced my steps back down to the cafe and sat outside for awhile, realising that the clouds were starting to retract a little down below. Perhaps the day’s hike wouldn’t be too bad after all. On the chairlift rides back down, I stared out at the black rocky landscape and watched as Mt Ngauruhoe popped back into view, still with the clouds swirling dramatically at its base.

 

After an unintentionally hair-raising drive back down to Whakapapa village, I kitted up, checked all my hiking gear and set off on day 1 of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. My destination was the Mangatepopo Hut, 9.4km (6miles) from the start at the edge of the village. Cutting down Ngauruhoe Place behind the Chateau Tongariro, I reached the first of two access points to the Taranaki Falls track. I was reminded a little of the vast heather moors of Scotland as I traversed the tussock and bushy vegetation. The cloud by now was indeed dispersing and I had the constant companion of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro for company almost dead ahead. The larger snow-speckled peak of Mt Ruapehu remained behind me, and then the path dipped briefly into some trees where the route to the hut split off from the track to the falls. Remaining within the trees for a short while, it crossed a couple of streams before emerging out the other side of the woods, and from then onwards, was completely exposed.

 

By now, it was well into the afternoon. I assumed most of the hikers would have set off ahead of me, but there was the odd other hiker also setting off as late as me, and I was overtaken by a few as I stopped often to take photographs. The path quality was rough and uneven considering it is a Great Walk (although my only comparison is the Kepler Track), and it undulated up and down over hillocks and dry river valleys for kilometre after kilometre. At times there were boardwalks, and at other times, boulders to walk over, and in almost every direction there were volcanoes to look at. With the ever changing shape of them as I moved across the landscape, it was hard not to take photographs every few hundred yards. I was exceedingly snap happy, and I hadn’t even reached the true volcanic landscape yet.

 

Eventually though, Mt Ngauruhoe started to disappear behind the hulk of Pukekaikiore, and Mt Ruapehu was by now looking distant behind me. Negotiating some steps, and coming level with the mound of Pukeonake to my left, the track started to curl a little and I knew I was getting close. Finally I spotted the hut in the far distance and a little later I found myself at the junction with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The clouds had reappeared a little around the summits as I reached the turn off for the hut, and I found myself shortly after at a packed hut. Working on a booking system in the summer months, these huts book up far in advance in the peak season. With a camping area immediately outside, there were people milling around everywhere. It was a struggle to find space to put my backpack once I’d found a free mattress to stick my sleeping bag on. After a snack, I sat outside to survey my kingdom, and over the course of the next few hours as the sun lowered, and the clouds moved around and away, we were treated to a spectacular view of an incredible volcanic landscape.

 

There was so much chatter in the hut. It turned out that several of those hikers who had arrived early, had been encouraged to continue on to the Alpine Crossing that day as the following day was to be poor weather with potentially poor visibility. Having seen the clouds leave whilst I was up Mt Ruapehu, I could see how this would have been a stunning day to walk the famous track. I was gutted to hear the weather report for the following day, but at the same time, had had such an incredible morning up Mt Ruapehu that it was hard to regret my choice. I could only hope that the weather man got it wrong, and as darkness fell, I like everyone else in the hut, retreated to my sleeping bag in order to get some sleep ahead of the big hike on day 2 of the circuit. Finally on my third attempt, I would be hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, come hell or high water…

Mount Fyffe

Since moving to New Zealand 5.5yrs ago I’ve summited a good few mountains, often with peaks that are around the same height as or taller than, the tallest mountain of my homeland, Scotland. But the actual altitude gain of the hike varies quite a lot. An impressive summit height is not always reached by way of an equally impressive altitude gain, depending on how far into the mountains the starting point is. But standing on the Kaikoura Peninsula looking inland at the Seaward Kaikoura Ranges of the Southern Alps, my hike for the day looked daunting. For this time round I would be starting close to sea level, and there was a lot of mountain to climb.

 

In February whilst up in Kaikoura for a long weekend, it was the Monday when the conditions were right to head up, and I set off after breakfast down the back roads to reach the carpark. But these back roads were actually a bit of an adventure as repairs following the November 14th earthquake were under way and the road conditions were interesting to say the least. The latter section of the drive on Postmans Road is unsealed and where it went up a steep embankment, my car lost traction on the stony track. Thankfully no-one was coming in the other direction. Parked up and kitted out, I was then ready to set off.

The track itself is a well-defined 4×4 track, quite wide although in places the substrate can be slippy under foot. In the lower section, there was evidence of recent landslips, evidence of the earthquake and some of the rains that have fallen since. It is a steady and zig-zagging climb surrounded by trees with the initial views being of the river valley where the braided Kowhai river snakes through on route to the Pacific Ocean which is also just visible beyond the flatness of the Canterbury Plains to the east. There were portions of this lower section that were shaded, but once the zig-zagging stopped, the rest of the hike was almost completely exposed to the elements, so under a nearly-cloudless sky, I was slapping on the sunscreen like it was going out of fashion. I learnt early on that my Scottish skin burns in little time at all in the Southern Hemisphere summer so from November through to March, I’m permanently shiny with the oil effect of sun lotion.

 

I was enjoying this hike from very early on, and despite being overtaken by a few other hikers, I still felt I was maintaining a good pace. With increasing height, it was possible to appreciate the Kaikoura Peninsula starting to jut out into the Pacific Ocean as well as the peak of Mt Fyffe in the distance, and eventually a lookout was reached on a little flat outcrop of land from where the Kowhai River could be seen snaking across the plains. Continuing on from here, the track continued onwards until it reached an area overlooking Sandy Saddle where the mountains behind Mt Fyffe were the dominant view. The Kaikoura Ranges were a beautiful and staggering view with their steep sides and green vegetation, and sneaking in and out of sight in the valley below was the upper reaches of the Kowhai River. There were puffs of clouds above these inland mountains but otherwise it was exceptionally clear.

 

There was a short flat section before once again the gradient steepened and the track zig-zagged again. The view was staggering in every direction and already I was approaching the 1000m (3281ft) mark and beyond. Then further along the track, a junction appeared where the Spaniard Spur track offers a steep descent down to the Kowhai River. From here it is just a few minutes walk to the Mt Fyffe Hut at 1100m (3609ft) where there is a drop toilet and the ability to sleep, shelter and cook. There was a couple there that had come up the day before in the bad weather and camped the night, waking up to a beautiful sunrise. From here, the view out to the Kaikoura Peninsula was unobstructed and I can only imagine how amazing that dawn view would have been from there.

 

Leaving the hut and several other hikers behind, I continued on up the summit track which is narrower, cutting through a copse, before again starting its long snaking wind up the ridgeline. The stony ground was a slip hazard in places and I passed several people heading down from the summit. The further I walked I could now see some clouds whipping down into the valley between the two lines of mountains and I always find it fascinating watching the clouds form, swirl, then disperse. I imagined what it would have felt like to have been up Mt Fyffe the night of the earthquake as I saw large stones and boulders littered across the path. It’s one thing to feel a large earthquake when you are home in your own bed away from the epicentre, but I think it would have been very different to be in a hut 1100m (3609ft) up a mountain right over the source.

 

Higher still there were some sections of walking through tightly packed bushes, and eventually I reached a sign denoting 1500m (4921ft). It was incredible to look back down at the ridgeline already hiked and the Pacific Ocean was now a huge expanse spreading out to the east. The cloud was really starting to build up now over the valley at times obliterating the view of the neighbouring mountains. But still the track climbed higher until close to the summit it felt like I was walking into the cloud. I reached Mt Fyffe summit at 1602m (5256ft) just as the last people there were leaving, and so I had it to myself.

 

Looking west, the cloud bank was now thick and it swirled upwards to hover above my head where it was dissipating in a wisp that looked like a large wave about to break. Out east though, the coastline was mostly clear and Kaikoura lay sprawled out below me, stretching along the coastline of the peninsula. The Pacific Ocean shimmered by its side. A couple of picnic benches were handily placed to give a rest spot with a view. It was a little chilly now with the altitude and the clouds overhead, and unfortunately the view west was mostly obliterated, but I enjoyed my lunch in peace and quiet, only being joined by another hiker when I was getting ready to leave.

 

As I returned to the track to head down, the swirling clouds gave me sneaky peaks of the mountains hidden behind them and it really split the view in two. There was still plenty of people heading up as I was going down, by now in the early afternoon. The hut seemed deserted when I reached it again and now there were large shadows created by the clouds behind and to the side of me. The best of the weather is always in the mornings in the mountains, so it pays to set off early for the best views. But as the altitude started to drop away, and the track moved south, the clouds were left behind and the sunshine remained, treating me to a very pleasant walk back to my car. The view steadily dropped away again until I was back amongst the trees, snaking my way down the final decline towards my waiting car. I had a long drive back to Christchurch to get under way, and first I had to negotiate the track that I had lost traction on on the way in. Thankfully my car managed the incline in reverse without problems, and picking my way past the potholes, missing verge and diggers, I made my way back to Kaikoura, and set off on the long drive home.

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