MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Hiking”

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.

As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.

It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.

Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.

 

A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.

 

At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.

 

It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.

 

Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.

 

On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.

From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.

 

By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.

Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.

 

Where it was possible I walked along the sand, but mostly the trail sat a little elevated above it. The coast appeared shrouded in mist when looking north or south but thankfully any spots of rain never came to much. After Nettle beach, another swing bridge spanned a wide rocky gorge before the trail opened up a little at the Katipo Shelter. This rather exposed area was a campsite and a family there mentioned they had had some belongings stolen by the resident weka. I sat there watching the waves crash on Twin beach as these same weka nosied around my feet looking for an easy grab. I spotted a juvenile oyster catcher on the beach, still in its fluffy attire, not yet fully feathered, and as I went to leave I noticed the DoC sign had this campsite as half way between the Heaphy Hut and the end of the trail.

 

After traversing behind the two beaches that made up Twin beaches, the track skirted into a nikau palp grove once more, bringing me to Koura beach then Big Rock beach after yet another suspension bridge. Every single one of these beaches was empty, and had it been nicer weather I probably would have lingered for longer. The only other people I saw were those on the trail who were all hellbent on getting to the end of the hike as soon as possible. When I reached Scotts beach, there was only the expanse of the beach itself and a headland between me and the end of the hike. I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet so I dumped my bag and headed down onto the beach and sat there for some time, delighting in eating a snack whilst in a day dream.

 

After some time I eventually made the final move, climbing back up to around 100m inside the forest. After half an hour, a side track led to a lookout overlooking Scotts beach. Beyond here, the track descended down the other side of the headland, and as it dropped down I could see the car park and shelter where the hikers readied to board the shuttle bus. The threat of rain brought wispy clouds to the hillsides, slightly shrouding the view of the valley as I reached the final suspension bridge to cross the wide Kohaihai river. I sidled out the end of the hike to no fanfare, and with no-one waiting to acknowledge my achievement. I’d hiked the first 2 days on effectively zero calories, not to mention with dehydration, and I’d hiked the final 2 days on less than a day’s maintenance of calories. But I felt okay. The body is a remarkable thing, having carried me over 78km on barely any food and with a heavy pack on my back. I’d hiked out with almost as much food as I’d hiked in with, and as I sat on a washed up tree trunk on the beach, watching a red-billed gull saunter across the sand, I ate some of it, proud of myself for completing such a beautiful hike under less than ideal conditions.

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

Hiking on an empty stomach was never going to be an enjoyable experience. After ejecting all of the previous day’s sustenance while hiking up the mountain, the lack of appetite meant setting off on day 2 of the Heaphy Track tired, exhausted and dehydrated. I was still a little nervous every time I took a drink from my water bladder, but the sterilising tablets had done what they needed to and thankfully, there was no repeat of the day before. But it was to be a long day traversing the ridge from Perry Saddle Hut at 860m to James Mackay Hut at 700m, a 6.5hr walk according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) signage. The earlier risers at the hut meant I was on the track at the back of 7am, but I was sure that I was going to struggle maintaining a decent pace, and my pack was weighing heavy on my shoulder as I followed the path through the forest.

Following the contours of the mountain, views were sparse through the canopy, an occasional glimpse up to the hillside next to the track, or an occasional broader view across a valley. Streams and bridges were crossed and after an hour, the forest finally opened up to the moorland of Gouland Downs. It reminded me of Scotland, the heather-like shrubbery at shin height, and the wind whipping across. Rain clouds threatened from a distance creating a faint rainbow as I walked. This was takahe and giant snail country, both endemic and rare wildlife that could be spotted here. I passed signs alerting to look out for both but saw none.

 

As the trail dropped down a little towards a stream I came across a totem pole littered in hiking boots. I’m not sure what possesses someone to abandon their hiking boots in the middle of nowhere, but clearly lots of people have done so, as there was a myriad of shoes strung up on the pole, leading to a sign declaring the spot as ‘Boot Pole Corner’. Beyond here, the rain clouds appeared to be dispersing and I saw the rainbow once more as I got nearer the first of the day’s huts, Gouland Downs Hut. This small hut lay in a flat section which was supposed to be one of the best places to spot the takahe which had been released into the wild here. Hiking alone often gives me the best chance to spot wildlife, but although I had the place to myself, there were no birds to see.

 

I’d taken a little longer to reach the hut than the signs had predicted, but I was neither surprised nor put off doing the side tracks here. A little past the hut are some side tracks that are only obvious when you are looking for them. The first led into thick forest where a couple of caves could be found among the undergrowth. When the main track went into the forest, a network of arches cut under the track making for a neat little exploration into the limestone landscape, and at the end of the forest, a track led down into the low vegetation and round a corner to reveal a large open cave with a waterfall dripping down the front of it.

What followed was a series of river crossings as the track remained mostly flat across a mostly open section. It seemed on the map like the next hut wasn’t that far away but my energy was flagging with every turn in the trail that didn’t bring it into sight. Finally the 1km marker popped up and I pounded the trail in anticipation of a break, arriving at the exposed Saxon Hut which was full of people enjoying the sunshine to eat some lunch. These were all people that had stayed at Perry Saddle, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet many of them yet due to my ill health. I still wasn’t hungry but forced myself to consume a small cup of hot soup in an effort to boost my energy a little. It was all I could manage, and so I pushed on, feeling weighed down by all the food I wasn’t consuming.

 

My destination for the night was still 3hrs away according to the DoC sign and to begin with the track continued through tussock and wetlands, close to the Saxon river. Turning and climbing up onto a ridge, a bench in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere denoted the division between the Tasman District and the West Coast District. I struggled as the track continued along a long and winding ridge following the contours of the land. Aside from that small cup of soup, I hadn’t kept a meal down since breakfast the day before, and I was really leaning on my poles as I dragged one foot forward and then the other. My pack was such a burden on my back and my patience was getting thin as the winding seemed never ending and it became difficult to work out on the map how far I’d actually come. At one point I realised that my jumper had fallen off my pack strap where I’d slung it, and I cursed myself for having to back track to find it.

Finally I reached the dual crossings of Blue Shirt Creek which was at least somewhere recognisable on the map. The curve and dip in the landscape offered a broader view across the landscape than I’d had for a few hours, and after a brief rest by one of the bridges, I felt a bit more motivated to get moving again. Finally, the trees parted to reveal Mackay Downs, and the track became boardwalk as it crossed a slightly alien-looking landscape. This section can apparently flood quite badly in heavy rain but it had been such a sunny day so far, the ground appeared relatively dry. At one point, the track passed some unusual boulders before finally a marker denoted the hut was near.

 

The final kilometre to James Mackay Hut felt like it took forever. I arrived at 4.30pm, over 9hrs after leaving Perry Saddle Hut behind. There was still plenty of hours of daylight left but I was exhausted and still feeling dehydrated. But the hut gave a sneaky peak of the rest of the hike, with the Tasman Sea crashing onto the west coast just about visible in the distance. I couldn’t even consider having dinner, there was just no desire for food whatsoever. Whatever bug I’d picked up had hit me good, but I was just grateful to not be throwing up, and happy to still be on the trail despite it. There was a definite sense that the next day would bring a change, with signs that the landscape would change quite a lot. But for now, it was time to rest again, and attempt to block out the snorers ahead of the next 2 days of hiking.

How Not to Hike the Heaphy Track

An unsettling feeling hit me shortly after lunch. As I hiked, the feeling got worse, a familiar and unwanted sensation brewing in my stomach, building as I made my way up the mountain. Finally it overwhelmed me and I grabbed a nearby rock to steady myself as I vomited. Immediately I felt better and I was relieved, returning to the hike. But it wasn’t long before it was back and over the next few hours as I slogged my way up in altitude, I had to stop again and again to purge my stomach, a hint of misery building as time went on and my destination failed to come into view. Having been dropped off by shuttle some hours before, I was 3 nights away from my car, and as my misery worsened, I contemplated my options: crawl back to the middle of nowhere and hope for a phone signal to call for a pick-up, or continue to traverse the mountains to reach my car. I’ve been called stubborn on more than one occasion, but never foolhardy. I’m not sure which one of these I was being (perhaps both), but I decided to push on, feeling the dizziness of dehydration creep in as I continued to be sick on the trail.

I’d spent Christmas day in 2019 packing and prepping for the hike ahead and early on Boxing Day I’d set off on the long drive from Christchurch to Kohaihai on the edge of Kahurangi National Park on the west coast of the South Island. Here marks the end of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. I spent the majority of the drive in my own World, admiring the gorgeous scenery that the country is famous for. I paused briefly in the Buller Gorge to take some photographs before hitting the west coast and turning northwards. On a whim I picked up a hitchhiker who was heading to Karamea, something which I had never done prior to living in New Zealand but have done a few times since living here. She recommended the campsite she’d just stayed at and it turned out she’d just come off the track that I was about to start. Once I dropped her off and continued onward to the end of the road, it wasn’t long till I was stepping out in gorgeous sunshine to the sound of crashing waves on the beach.

I had 40 mins to spare until my shuttle was scheduled and after a walk on the beach, I watched the weka wandering about the site, admired the pohutakawa trees which were in full bloom and readied my hiking gear together to join the large group of people that waited at the shelter. My shuttle arrived a little early and before long we were all bundled on for the long and tedious drive to Nelson. As the crow flies, the start and end of the 4-day Great Walk are only on opposite sides of the national park, but the road network meant the logistics of track transport were going to take over 24hrs from leaving home to reach the start of the trail. It had already taken 6hrs to drive there, and now I had a 6hr bus drive back through the Buller Gorge and north to Nelson. But the shuttle was also responsible for picking up hikers and bikers on several tracks and so we wound our way from main road to back roads as we offloaded and loaded people in various parts of the region. Finally, well into the evening, we pulled up in Nelson.

 

Aside from my hiking gear I’d brought the remains of a bottle of wine I’d started on Christmas day, and obtaining a pizza, I sat out on my hostel balcony and chilled out in the summer evening air. I’d wanted to walk the Heaphy track for some time and was excited about the hike to come. I rose early and readied my gear, unwittingly sealing my fate for the hike ahead, and headed back to the bus stop to jump aboard the shuttle once more. This time we circled through Abel Tasman to pick up and drop off those doing the trails in that National Park, before finally those of us walking the Heaphy were dumped at a car park in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Roughly 28hrs after I’d left home, I was on the trail.

The start of the trail is an easy walk through lowland forest and grassland past a hut near the bank of the Aorere river. With everyone starting at almost the exact same time there was a bit of queue to sign in on the Department of Conservation (DoC) track book, but thankfully everybody spread out quite early on. Whilst I don’t mind socialising at the huts in the evening, I much prefer hiking solo. Not only does it let me get into my own head space, an act which helps me unwind from the stress of daily life, but I find I see more on my own, be it wildlife on the trail, or some random piece of beauty like the dew on a flower, or the dappled light of sun breaking through the foliage. Within half an hour of leaving the start point, the long climb up the mountain began.

 

Being summer it was a hot day, and I started throwing the water back as the trail wound its way up and up the mountainside. At a starting altitude of 140m, my destination for the night, Perry Saddle Hut was sitting at 860m, and the DoC sign stated 5hrs to get there. On these great walks, the distance signs tend to be an over-estimate, so I kept a steady pace, in no particular hurry, knowing I’d make the hut in good time. Every now and again a break in the foliage would afford a view across the valley to the nearby mountain range, but mostly I was among thick forest, passing through dappled sunlight as it peaked through.

 

But after stopping for lunch washed down with a big guzzle of water, I started walking again only to realise I just wasn’t feeling quite right. I worked out pretty quickly what the problem was and realised this was not a small issue. The day before when I had been packing, I’d gotten out my water bladder to discover I’d somehow left some water in it from a previous use and the water was bright green. I’d washed it first with soapy water then when my UV water treatment light failed to work properly, I sterilised it with boiling water, but clearly this wasn’t enough to get rid of whatever bacteria had brewed in the watery remnants. Having filled the bladder full in Nelson that morning, I’d given myself water poisoning and I was an idiot. It was a hot sunny day and I had a 4-day hike to do. I needed water to drink and I needed a receptacle to put it into. The more I was sick, the more I needed water and yet I couldn’t drink any. My increasing misery was self-induced and I staggered on in whatever stubborn foolishness took over me.

Eventually I reached the Aorere shelter after 5hrs. I should have been at the hut by now, but a vat of rain water allowed me to ditch my water supply and boil some water to replace it with. It wasn’t ideal as clearly boiling hadn’t worked the first time, but with my UV light refusing to hold its charge and with a need to drink some water, this was the best that I could do. The sign stated an hour to the hut, but this final section felt like it went on forever. Knowing though that I might not be back here again, the stubborn streak came out and I still made the most of the sidetrack to a lookout which afforded a view to the mountains to the south. Shortly after, I reached the highest point of the trail, and yet as I looked at the topographical map, I inwardly despaired about the distance in front of me.

 

It was approaching 6pm, over 6hrs since I’d started walking, when I suddenly saw a post stating the hut was 1km away. When at last I reached the hut, it was bustling with life and I headed straight to the bunk room to lie down. People came and went, and as I lay prostrate on the mattress I felt the awful sensation in my stomach return. Leaping off the bed to get outside I started retching before I’d even reached the door. Hand over mouth I was almost in tears as I pushed out into the boot room where I immediately threw up on the floor. I only made it as far as the decking outside before I was violently sick again in front of everyone walking past. My misery was overloaded with embarrassment, but I hovered there for some time as the feeling subsided. When at last it passed, I sheepishly went back inside to wash the floor of the boot room and flush the decking. This wasn’t the hike that I’d planned.

Huts of any kind are a great place to meet like-minded people from all around the country and all around the World. That night I was eternally grateful for the kind soul who provided me with sterilising tablets to treat my water bladder, which thankfully meant I could start drinking water again. Between my dehydration and a horrendous snorer in the same room, I got little sleep that night, but by the time morning arrived, I’d managed to keep my stomach contents inside my stomach for nearly 12hrs. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before and that hadn’t stayed down, but although I was no longer being sick, I couldn’t bare the thought of breakfast. I still contemplated heading back down the mountain, but not for long. As the hikers gradually packed up and moved on, I too set off across the ridge. Had things been different, I possibly would have taken the summit route up to Mt Perry, but as it was I had a long day ahead. On an empty stomach, dehydrated and tired, I started day 2 of the Heaphy Track.

The Wild West

Deep within the Lewis Pass region of New Zealand’s South Island is a myriad of hiking trails snaking through the forests and across and around the mountain ranges that snake through there. In November 2019 on a 4-day weekend thanks to Canterbury Anniversary Day, I decided to take a trip across to the western half of the island, and stopped on route to take a trip through Nina Valley. There was little space to park despite the slightly dreary day as Nina Hut at the end of the valley is a popular spot to hike into for the night. Aside from mud, I found my usual forest walk companion in the form of a South Island robin, one of my favourite birds to accompany me on hikes. What I also found was a cute pair of mice which when I stopped to watch them, proceeded to come out and nosy around the undergrowth whilst I photographed them silently. Mice are a pest here in New Zealand, one of the many invasive species responsible for decimating our native wild birds, and at the time of visiting, we were experiencing a ‘cast’, a higher than average tree seed production that led to a spike in pest numbers. Still, they were wildlife, and I love spotting wildlife. Plus they were exceptionally cute and I couldn’t help but be a little excited watching them go about their business.

 

I’d planned on walking as far as the Nina swing bridge, an hour along the trail, but between stopping to watch the forest creatures and taking a break by the river, I decided to turn back before I got that far. It had taken a few hours to drive this far from Christchurch and I’d stopped for lunch at a favourite cafe in Hanmer Springs, a detour off the main road, so I was mindful about the drive ahead to my destination and not wanting to arrive too late. So after spotting some riflemen flitting about the trees, and with the sun bursting out a little as I returned to my car, I finished my hike and continued westwards, crossing the summit of Lewis Pass and heading into Reefton, my home for the next few nights.

 

The West Coast has an unfortunate reputation for wetness, and although I was some distance from the coast, I was on the wrong side of the mountain range, so I wasn’t surprised to wake to grey skies and drizzle. I was in no hurry to do anything so had a leisurely breakfast at a local cafe before wandering along the historic street front. Like many places on the West Coast, Reefton has its history in mining and the region is full of relics. It was also the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to gain electricity with the first electric bulb to light up being outside the still-standing Oddfellows Hall off the main street. Not many people were staying here but there was plenty of traffic passing through so there was a reasonable bit of activity going on despite the drizzle.

The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop me going for a local walk so after heading up the main street, I passed the original gas lights that still lined the pavements, and continued out of the village and down towards the river which was a power source for the region back in its day. The Inangahua river is broad and tannin-stained and just outside Reefton it is crossed by a suspension bridge which leads to the remains of the old power station. The drizzle meant there were some cool views down the valley of clouds hugging the mountainside, and although still a little wet, it wasn’t too bad to walk along the river bank and read the displays about the ruins that are still left. Only as I was at the end of the circuit back across the road bridge to head into Reefton again from the other end did the rain get a bit heavier again, so I decided to take a drive and see if I could escape the rain clouds.

 

Heading west from Reefton, I drove almost the whole way to Greymouth before circling past the old Brunner mine which I’d visited a few years prior. Even on the main road there were signs of mining at regular intervals, be it a memorial at the side of the road, or signs pointing to historic mining routes or mining works. Both gold and coal have been mined in this part of the country, and there are still some active mining works in action today. There are hundreds of old coal mining carts littered about the countryside here, and several of the local walks have them as points of interest, where they’ve been abandoned to rust and be reclaimed by nature.

 

A lull in the rain by mid-afternoon allowed me to get out for another walk again. This time I headed up the hill at the eastern end of the village. Over the tops of the invasive gorse, the elevation offered a view over the rooftops of the village below and the misty-covered peaks of the mountains on the horizon. There was even a goat wandering about here, and despite the grey skies that were my constant companion, a couple of water reservoirs provided some pretty reflections as I passed them by. The trail led out towards the back of the village and I followed it for a while before heading down an access track that brought me down at an industrial area. As I cut back through the streets I passed the old courthouse and several other original buildings before finding myself back on the historic main street.

With several hours of daylight ahead, the late afternoon still allowed for another walk before darkness would fall. Taking a long drive up a gravel road, I picked the Alborn Track to visit some of the mining remnants close to a still-active quarry site. It was muddy underfoot and threatening to drizzle again, but scattered all over the place were rusting winch equipment and even an old truck alongside some large coal carts. On the return leg, the track passed the opening of a couple of caves, marked with a warning about poisonous gas and danger on entry. I do like to explore caves but I’m always wary of man-made mining caves, so I heeded the warnings and kept going, returning to my car and heading back down the hill in time for a bit of sunshine.

I’d spent the first couple of days alone, but my partner was to join me for the last night. He had a bit of a drive over so whilst he was making his way across the country the next morning, I headed east past Springs Junction to the Marble Hill campsite. From here there is a walking track to Lake Daniell which I’d read was a good hike to do, and it was indeed a lovely forest walk on a day that was actually sunny. Predicted to be 3hrs each way, I set off under a blue sky and crossed the first river before following the bank of another river as it wound through the forest. I love New Zealand’s forests, they’re so different from the cultivated forests of pine from my homeland back in Scotland. In New Zealand they feel natural and wild, even in places where that’s not actually the case, but full of various canopy levels and with a carpet that’s often as alive as the trees are, there’s so much to look at for ecology geeks like myself.

As always, there was an inquisitive South Island robin to entertain me as I followed the path through. These and the fantails or piwakawaka love to follow humans through the forest, but the fantails tend to flit-flit about more, refusing to stay still for long, and especially not for photographs. In comparison, the robins often come right up to you, cocking their head and looking straight at you in full engagement, often hopping alongside or flitting between the trees as you walk. I’m always happy to see one, and find myself talking to the birds as I go.

 

I reached Lake Daniell and the hut on its foreshore after just 2hrs, and found the hut to be in the process of being rebuilt. The lake level was up from the rain so the surroundings and the end of the boardwalk were actually submerged, but I was able to pick my way out to the pier on the lake without getting my feet wet, and here the wind whipped across the lake a little as I stood enjoying the view. There had not been a single person on the trail and I was out here on my own with the view to myself also. It was delightful. I’ve been told that the hut is often busy as schools use it and with it being just a few hours from the main road it is popular for parents to take their children out to it as a starter hike. So I was lucky to find it so empty, and enjoyed the solitude for a while before heading back into the forest again. Once again I was befriended by the local robin population, and as I reached the end of the trail I stopped to watch the water rush through the ‘sluice’ a natural rapids that had been created by a gorge in the hillside.

 

By the time I returned to Reefton my partner was waiting for me. Without the rain, we took a wander through the streets and stopped at the local distillery for a tasting. Their produce was pricey but I felt awkward leaving without buying something so took a chance on a tayberry liqueur that wasn’t even able to be sampled before purchase. I’d never even heard of a tayberry, so not knowing anything about the taste it was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very sharp taste, and one that definitely is enjoyed in small quantities but the lady in the bar suggested using it as an ice cream topper and I’ve still to try it this way.

We had to set off early the next day to leave our Air BnB behind and head north then west to Charleston on the coast. Since I’d heard about the Underworld Adventure tours I’d been eager to take part in one, and finally it was time to go exploring with them. There was a threat of rain once more but we were heading underground, so this wasn’t going to matter. Set within the Paparoa National Park, the company offers a mix of tour options from a train ride through the forest, to tubing down rapids, or a cave walk. We were there to go cave exploring, a favourite activity of mine, so we bundled into the van and drove into the park, parking up in the apparent middle of nowhere next to a large container. Out of the container popped a small train and linked carriages and once on board we set off through the forest.

There was evidence all around of the limestone nature of the landscape with large limestone cliffs jutting through the foliage as we followed a river upstream. Eventually we hopped off in the forest and those going tubing went down to the river and those of us going caving followed the path across the river and up the hillside to reach the entrance of the Ananui cave system. I love taking cave tours, exploring the world of underground river systems and ogling over the stalactites and stalagmites that litter the caverns of limestone caves. I loved this place, it felt huge and there was so much to explore down the long passageways as we went deeper and deeper into the cave system. At times there were giant boulders to climb over, and after some time we found ourselves in a lower section that split into two, a large dark cavern to the right, and a large open-ended cavern to the left where the outside forest became visible.

 

We turned first to the left, and saw a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling near where the cave opened out into the forest. The river at its bottom cast a reflection of the cave entrance and it was simply glorious. We spent some time here just enjoying the view. We turned back into the cave heading into the other lower chamber where once out of the light from the lower cave entrance we turned off our headlamps to view the twinkles of glowworms. Although nothing has ever competed with the level of glowworms I saw in the Waitomo cave system back in 2012, there was still enough here to not only be pretty, but they were close enough to actually view the larval structures and their beaded web. Like a beaded necklace these larval flies pupate within a sac from where they lower these sticky threads, butts glowing to attract their prey towards the ropes of death. It’s one of so many marvellous things that nature has evolved to do to fill a niche in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

 

Climbing back up through the cave system was just as enjoyable, returning through the network of limestone formations, eventually popping out at the entrance, and hiking back down the trail to the train to return through the forest. The sun was out now, enlivening our drive back to Charleston where a viewing point at the Underworld Adventure office gave an elevated view into the forest to the east, and the crashing waves to the left. We decided to head back to Christchurch via Punakaiki, the site of the famous Pancake Rocks. Although we didn’t go to visit the rocks, we stopped here for a late lunch, and with the sun out and the crowds of the summer at every turn, I parked up next to a flax bush, spotting a tui feeding among the flowers. Tui are good pollinators for this species. For a nectar reward, the tui regularly wear a golden crown of pollen after feeding here, the yellow dust adorning their heads for them to spread onto the next flower as they move around to feed. I love tui, a bird I don’t get to see much of in Christchurch, and I was loving the close up experience here. It was a long drive back to Christchurch across the breadth of the country, but it had been well worth it to spend a snippet of time in the wild west lands of the South Island.

The Nakasendō

Japan’s Nakasendō is an ancient route that leads inland between Tokyo and Kyoto, used during the Edo period (17th-19th C.). 中山道 in Japanese, the three symbols literally say central mountain route, and when I first read about this route, and in particular the section between the mountain villages of Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, I knew that this was a must-do for me during my time in Japan. Away from city hubs, nestled quite far inland, I had originally planned on tackling this from Tokyo, but with research realised that it was much easier to get to from Nagoya. So having jumped off the Shinkansen there on route to Kyoto, I arose early to retrace my steps back to Nagoya train station and negotiate the rabbit warren that all major Japanese train stations are, to find a baggage locker to dump by backpack, and then the correct platform to take the train to Nakutsagawa in the Gifu prefecture.

 

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and for a large part of the nearly 1hr train trip I was riding through a mix of Japanese countryside and small settlements. Passing arable land and crossing rivers, eventually it pulled in to the small city of Nakatsugawa and outside the train station was the bus stand to catch the mountain bus to Magome and the start of the hike. A decent crowd waited for the bus and once on board it was a half an hour trip out the back of the city and up a winding mountain road. Eventually, I was at the beginning of what transpired to be my favourite hike and one of my favourite days in Japan. Magome was a cute little settlement full of traditional buildings and looking down over arable fields. The Nakasendō was originally serviced by sixty-nine stations or post-towns of which Magome is the 43rd and Tsumago the 42nd. Out here I felt so far away from the hubbub of city life and walking around the main streets I felt like I was in a classic Japanese story.

Up the initial slope and round the first corner I found a water wheel and a continuation of beautiful wooden buildings at the side of a brick pathway. With a little height I could start to see the surrounding mountain tops which were partially hidden by swirling clouds. Further along the road were little eateries and the local post office and as I passed the tourist information kiosk I was surprised to see a warning sign for bears. During my research for hikes in Japan, everything had suggested that bears were much further north and at no point had I expected to have to give them a thought on my trip, but suddenly it twigged why many of the locals I’d seen hiking on my previous hikes had had little bells attached to their backpacks. I’ve had such a sheltered hiking life. I have hiked in bear country before in the Rocky Mountains of Canada many moons ago, and I do keep a side eye out for snakes whenever I hike in Australia, but the vast majority of my hiking has been in New Zealand where nothing there wants to kill you and eat you, or in Scotland where all you have to do is a tick check at the end of the day. I felt a little unprepared to be in bear country but it was such a busy trail that I doubt there was ever one even close to me.

 

The trail through Magome led higher and higher past more and more cute little businesses until finally it reached a lookout. The post-town disappeared down the slope below me and I had a nice view across to the cloud-covered mountain tops, and from here at last, I was heading out into the relative wilderness for the nearly 8km walk to Tsumago over the mountain. Past arable fields and giant spiders, the stone trail led down then up and into the forest. When it broke out at a main road I saw a bell on a post which I soon discovered was a bear bell. There were enough people on the trail to make the use of it unnecessary and despite how much it would have been great to actually see a bear in the wild (safely), I took great enjoyment out of ringing every single bear bell on the trail (which considering there was one every half km or so, was a lot).

 

After a brief forest section, the trail again crossed the mountain road further along and I chuckled as I came across a sign welcoming walkers into somebody’s garden whilst also suggesting it wasn’t much to look at. I opted to skip the garden like everyone else that passed at the same time, and from here the trail cut through a small mountain village, with scattered homes across the hillside. At the far end was a small shrine, the entrance marked by a stone torii gate. Deeper into the forest and once more across the mountain road where the highest point on the trail was passed, a clearing in the forest revealed a large traditional building that on closer inspection was a tea house. The sign outside said it was free and I, like several other walkers, popped inside. It was dim and smoky and made me think of historic movies I’d seen. Over an open fireplace hung a large cauldron and a lovely man served us all green tea with the biggest smile and welcome.

 

The long forested section that followed was lovely, deep among tall trees and a babbling water course nearby. I continued to ring every bear bell I came across, but aside from the loud dong when I did so, there was only the occasional chatter from other people to break the silence. Eventually a side trail led downhill to a pair of waterfalls. Only a handful of people took the side trail, probably because it involved a climb back uphill to rejoin the main track, but whilst they weren’t the biggest or grandest falls I’d ever seen, they were a welcome change of scenery. Back on the Nakasendō a small group of traditional houses passed by, followed by a large arable field before the path suddenly took a decent drop down in altitude, winding through the forest towards the road again. There was a brief spell of relative civilisation as the trail cut through another settlement with more traditional buildings and a water wheel turning as a stream flowed through to the main river nearby. A noodle shop where the road and trail came together was a popular snack stop but I pressed on.

 

Before I knew it I was in Tsumago-juku. Initially it didn’t amount to much, but after following the trail a little while and crossing the now larger river, more and more people appeared as I reached a car park where buses had dumped coachloads of tourists. Suddenly I was in the hub of Tsumago and the street was bustling. The buildings were very similar to Magome and likewise it focused around one long main street, but the crowds here made it feel very different. I stopped for some ice cream and watched the World go by briefly, resting my feet as I did so before the last stage of the hike. Continuing onwards, there were so many pretty buildings and bonsai trees to look at and a few temples and shrines also. The background was dominated by a green covered mountain as I strolled through the street.

 

I’m not entirely sure where Tsumago ended, it just seemed to stretch on forever, the houses eventually petering out before the mountain road was crossed again. In order to get back to Nagoya, I had a train to catch, this time from Nagiso, the next town over. The trail cut back into the forest where I came across a side trail leading to the ruins of Tsumago castle. Immediately on taking it, I found myself on a raised path with bamboo canes sprouting up on one side and the main forest sloping off either side. My attention was suddenly caught by a crashing sound in the bushes to my left. I assumed it might be boar but hoped I might get a glimpse of a bear though no matter where or how I craned my neck to look, I saw nothing. When I reached the ruins on the mound at the far end of the earthen bridge, they weren’t much to look at but there was an area with a break in the trees that afforded a view down onto Nagiso at the bottom of the hill. I continued to search the undergrowth as I followed the path back to the main trail and shortly after returning to the Nakasendō once more, I was suddenly alerted to something in the undergrowth and out popped a group of macaques. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photograph as they disappeared into the trees almost as soon as they had come out of them.

The path gradually worked its way down the hill towards the back streets of Nagiso. The houses grew tighter and tighter together, until I reached a point where the remaining elevation offered a view across the rooftops of the main stretch of the town. A train engine stood on display nearby as the road cut down to follow the train line and lead me to the train station. It began to rain whilst I waited for the train to take me back to Nagoya but I even here there was a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. Eventually I saw the train come down the hill and finally I was on my way, arriving at length to pick up my luggage at the station and board the train to Kyoto.

Mount Kintoki

The freedom afforded by having a Hakone Travel Pass meant it was easy to just hop on a local bus at Miyanoshita and head west within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park to Sengokuhara. Early in the morning I was shocked to see some wild boar run across the road in front of the bus as we headed through the countryside. I had to walk along the road from the bus stop but it was a quiet Sunday morning and there was barely anybody else about. Reaching a trail head, I slipped on my hiking shoes and set about tackling one of the local mountains. I’m an avid hiker at home in New Zealand and had so far had some mixed success hiking in Japan, but it is a country full of stunning countryside so I set off up my third mountain since arriving and found a few other people lower down on the trail with me.

One of the slightly confusing things about mountains in Japan is that some of them have more than one name depending on where you look. My summit for the day was Mount Kintoki 1212m high (3976ft) but some places refer to it as Mount Ashigara. Either way, it turned out to be a popular hike and I regularly bumped into other people. The main signs on the trail were bilingual, although there were plenty of kanji-only signs that I have no idea what they were saying, but it was a very easy trail to follow with no risk of getting lost. In the lower forest the trail passes the Kintoki shrine, a rather sweet little shrine hidden among the trees. Once past there, the climb started almost immediately, snaking through the tall forest in relative quiet.

About 90m (295ft) of altitude gain led me to a road crossing, beyond which it was straight back into the forest. There was nothing to see but trees and undergrowth as another 40m (131ft) of altitude took me up to a flatter section. At one point a giant boulder appeared in the forest that appeared to be propped up by large sticks. I’m not sure if it was a joke or if people genuinely were worried that the boulder would roll. Either that, or it was a popular spot to pick up or dump walking sticks. Probably only the locals know the reason for that. I had more and more people pass me heading up or down, the higher up I got. Another 200m (656ft) of slogging through the forest on what was now yet another hot day eventually led me out of the trees and to a clearing where suddenly I had some views. Below me was a gorgeous green valley surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, and slowly sliding over their summit was a thick bank of cloud that kept Mt Fuji out of view. A little further was a junction at 1040m (3412ft) altitude leading either up to the summit or back down via another route. I turned left, excited to see the sign stated the summit was only 20minutes away.

As the track continued its climb, the view became more and more beautiful, the slopes of the mountain becoming more visible and the wispy cloud off to my side. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the summit, just 1.5hrs after setting off, the cloud had moved in and shrouded the summit plateau. I was surprised to find a couple of buildings at the summit, including a little tea house that sold snacks and tea. With a few different routes up to the summit, there was actually a lot of people up there, all looking like locals. I’d been out-hiked by several people that looked like they were beyond retirement age and in fact I regularly saw older Japanese people out hiking where I was and they were all fitter than me. I sincerely hope I’m still fit enough well past retirement to continue my hobbies in the same manner.

 

I enjoyed my dried squid (a 7Eleven special that was the perfect hiking snack in Japan) and mulled around for a bit hoping the cloud would lift and Mt Fuji would appear. Alas it just swirled in thicker, and despite discovering some stray cats to entertain me, it was time to head back down. It was an easy descent back to the junction, but this time I took the other track which was a rather more direct descent than the winding ascent through the forest had been. Another clearing showed how much the clouds were just swirling round the neighouring mountain tops and now none of the summits could be seen. Even behind me was shrouded. As I continued down, I could see another track heading off across another ridgeline. Had I had more time I would have loved to do a longer hike but I had quite some distance to travel that day so there just wasn’t the time to explore other trails.

It took just over an hour to descend and I found myself back in civilisation at the back of Sengokuhara. Cutting down to the main street I decided to follow the road that led towards Lake Ashi as far as the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands. I love botanical gardens, and I had read that this was worth a walk around. I was sweating like crazy on arrival and despite the cloud, the sun exposure was tiring, but it was a really sweet garden to walk around. A series of paths led me round lily-pad covered ponds where dragonflies flitted about and reflections shimmered on the gently moving water. I spotted all sorts of insects and there were also some huge fish in some of the ponds.

 

At the back of the wetlands was the mountain I’d driven over on the bus the day before and it was possible to walk through the wildflower meadow that was growing on the other side of the fence. Again I would have loved to have just wandered off into this large meadow but I didn’t want to spend much more of the day here when I had a lot of connections to make. As I circled back towards the visitor centre, I spotted some terrapins sunning themselves on some stones and then a large grey heron stalked about nearby in search of food.

 

Getting into the national park had been quite the transport hop and now I had the same to do in reverse. I walked up the road to the main street of Sengokuhara to catch the bus back to Miyanoshita. Picking up my backpack at the hostel I walked to the train station to get the Hakone rail back through the switchback to Hakone-Yumoto. An easy platform hop brought me to the main line to Odawara where I was to catch my first shinkansen to head south. I had a bit of time to kill at Odawara and looking at the map, the city’s castle looked like an achievable excursion. Rather than look for a luggage locker, I just carried my luggage with me, but it was so hot and the straps rubbed on my shoulders as I wound my way through the city streets. I had my pocket Wifi and Google Maps but it was well signposted, leading me to the moat and bridge that led into the grounds. It was a very popular spot, and whilst there is a fee to enter the castle itself, the grounds are free to enter.

I had no time to explore inside but it was a very Japanese-style castle, proudly standing on its built-up stone walls, the walls itself white but plain, and the roof more ornate in comparison. The path led right round the base of the castle before leading me down a back track to the main road back to the train station. As I walked the streets of Odawara I noticed cute decorated tiles at various intervals on route. They depicted little scenes that I’m not sure if they represented the city’s history or some other cultural aspect. As I neared the station I was approached by a woman who started conversing with me in English. I was in a bit of a hurry to catch my train and I wasn’t getting what she wanted. In some respects I think she just wanted to practice English, but at times she seemed to want to follow me or find out where I was heading, and then it sounded like she wanted to interview me. Japan is probably the safest I’ve ever felt travelling abroad but this was the one and only moment where I just wasn’t completely confident I wasn’t being set up for a scam.

 

Just like seeing Mt Fuji, I feel that riding a shinkansen is a right of passage in Japan. A couple came into the station as I waited for mine and I was blown away by the speed at which they shot into and out of the station. They just whizzed past in a blur as they took off. It’s well known than when heading south from Tokyo, you want to sit on the right side of the train to get a view of Mt Fuji. Stepping on board I was more just in need of a seat as the train was packed. I did actually get a seat on the right but didn’t have much of a view. Not that it mattered as the mountain was just as shrouded from this angle as it had been from the top of Mt Kintoki a few hours previously. It took just over an hour to reach Nagoya, another busy metropolis two thirds of the way towards Kyoto. My sole purpose for stopping here was to make it easier to reach another hiking trail the next day, so I’d booked a hotel close to the hotel to make the commute easier.

 

At least on the map it looked close, but with my backpack irritating my shoulders it felt like it took forever to get there. It seemed to be the sort of hotel that was set up for business travellers, and I found myself in a rather non-descript part of the city. I had planned on visiting Nagoya Castle but arrived too late in the day to get there. My back up plan was to go to an observation deck for a city view but as I walked away from the hotel and through the uninspiring city streets, I discovered that the place I was heading to was shut. A little peeved, I knew there was another observation deck nearer the station, so with aching feet I turned around and headed towards the city centre. Stopping for savoury pancakes on route, I found the JP centre and followed the signs up to the observation deck.

It was getting dark when I got there. The sunsets in Japan were quite early during my visit in October 2019 and as the colours of the sky faded to red and then peaches and blues, the city lights began to twinkle on. Like Tokyo, there was just an urban sprawl in all directions, but unlike Tokyo, there weren’t quite the same pretty buildings to break up the sea of skyscrapers, and I just didn’t get much of a love for Nagoya. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t make me feel like there would be any reason to return here on another occasion. I could see Nagoya castle though in the distance, standing tall within a park full of trees. Aside from the colour of the roof it looked identical to Odawara castle, its ornate roof adorning white walls atop a stone mound. Thanks to the clouds in the sky it was a spectacular sunset, the sky on fire with deep reds and yellows. Once full darkness had fallen and I’d got my fill of the city lights, I headed back down and back to my hotel.

 

I found an ice cream shop on route which was much appreciated and when I reached my hotel I found they had a free bar in the lobby. Or rather they’d just laid out a whole load of spirits and mixers and left you to it. Every other Japanese guest poured a reasonable drink, enjoyed it then left. I don’t think they’d anticipated a Scottish person’s interpretation of a free bar. By the time I was on my third bourbon and coke I started to wonder if they’d suss me out and kick me out, but nobody paid me any attention. It would have been tempting to keep going, but after yet another day on my feet and with another hiking day ahead, I decided to call it a night and head up to my room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would end up being one of my favourite days in Japan.

Kawaguchiko

Still not content with staying in Tokyo, and with legs still aching from the previous day’s 8hr hike, I had another day of walking ahead of me. But my first challenge struck before I even got out of the city. I’d based myself in Yotsuya, initially because it was near where my conference had been on those first few days in the country, but secondarily because it had turned out to be an easy base for transit around the city to where I wanted to go. I’d arrived at my new hotel in darkness, so waking up that morning I’d finally been able to experience the view from my small balcony. It was hot and stuffy and I was surrounded by a sea of buildings stretching out for miles.

It was by now a familiar saunter to the train station and I headed west a few stops to Shinjuku station, one of the larger transit hubs in the city. Despite having studied station maps online at my hotel, I stepped off the platform and very quickly found myself in a maze of artificially-lit corridors. There were signs everywhere, and a sea of people to sweep you along in the wrong direction if you weren’t careful, and I was also in a hurry, trying to make a connection. I needed to get to the bus terminal, but after following the signs, they sort of petered out and I ended up having to backtrack a bit and experiment a little before eventually I found a sign pointing out onto the street. It turned out I had to cross the road and enter another a building, and as a result of getting lost in the Shinjuku maze, I had missed the bus I had planned on catching.

The bus terminal was crowded, and my next challenge was finding the one I wanted. Unable to speak Japanese beyond basic pleasantries, and always feeling guilty about having to speak English, I chose to use a ticket machine over a person. However, it quickly transpired that I couldn’t pay with my prepaid card and so I had to go to the counter after all. But it turned out my destination was so popular that the next bus was fully booked, and I had to wait for the one after that. It felt like an age before I was finally onboard, and leaving the city behind. Although I’d already been out to a national park, this trip felt different, and from a bus, it felt a bit more immersive, and the scenery a bit more interesting to travel through. It was a 2hr drive into the Fuji Five Lakes, and I was super excited when Mt Fuji, the country’s highest mountain appeared in view with a ring of cloud below its summit. From that point onwards, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, and finally, after a detour to Fuji-Q Highland theme park, I was deposited at Kawaguchiko bus station.

The walk from the bus station to Lake Kawaguchi led me downhill through winding streets of shops and businesses for about 10 minutes, until finally I found myself staring out at a gorgeous lake with rolling green hills on the far side. Paddle boats shaped like swans lay stacked up in the foreground and just past them, a paddlesteamer was berthed, loading up ready to take day-trippers across the lake to Oishi. It felt so different to Tokyo, and I immediately loved the place. The foreshore was easy to follow, mainly on a separate path away from the road, and in the glaring sun, I started the anti-clockwise walk around the lake. Understandably given the scenery, I became rather snap happy. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. The lake itself had a gentle ripple on the water, and the reflections of the surrounding landscape and the blues of the water and sky against the green of the hills created an amazingly scenic location. Then, after a few curves of the lake had been passed, I looked back and realised that Mt Fuji was poking up in the background, and the smile on my face grew wider.

 

Mt Fuji remained in view as I continued to circle round this end of the lake. The cloud continued to swirl around its top, sometimes obscuring the summit, other times sitting just below it like a collar. When I’d initially booked my trip to Japan, I had thought I would hike up Mt Fuji, but upon researching the hike, I discovered that there was a short official hiking season, outwith which the hiking huts were shut, transport to the hiking routes limited, and indeed it wasn’t recommended to hike it at all because of safety concerns. There was no snow on the summit whilst I was there in October 2019, so in reality I probably could have done it, but I had opted for common sense and following advice as it was over a month past the end of the hiking season. But also in reality, I didn’t actually have time in my two week trip to Japan, and frankly the views of the mountain were probably more appealing to me than the views from the mountain would be.

I neared and then passed under a row of accommodations that would have great views of Mt Fuji from their balconies, and I continued to follow the path round towards the broad expanse of the Kawaguchiko Ohashi bridge that cut across this end of the lake, transecting it. The whole lake is huge, and there was not a hope of covering the full circumference of it, so the circle that was created by the bridge and the eastern foreshore was enough of a taster that day. Before I cut up to the bridge itself, I found myself down at the lakeshore near the legs of the bridge, sitting among some locals who were fishing, eating my lunch as the clouds swirled across my view of Mt Fuji. Looking under the bridge, I could see through not only to the far side of the lake, but I was able to watch the paddlesteamer chug across, peacefully sailing across the calm water.

 

Crossing the bridge, I didn’t know where to look. The view in both directions was divine, and I jogged back and forth across the road as I wandered, taking a ridiculous amount of photographs, and sweating in the incessant heat. To my left was the foreshore I’d just walked round as well as the dominating outline of Mt Fuji. To my right, was the large expanse of lake and the gorgeous rolling mountains that stood tall beyond it. In fact I took so long to cross the bridge that the paddlesteamer was making its return journey from the far side, and I was able to watch it return to the original pier I’d passed it from earlier that day. Reaching the far side of the bridge, there were more locals fishing and the path immediately turned into a park, skirting round to Oike Park where there was a small shrine, and some statues nestled among the trees. Flying overhead a large bird of prey caught my attention which I later discovered was a black kite.

 

The final section of the lake continued to give me views across the lake before it cut back to streets. From this angle I could see the ropeway that went up the nearby mountain, and as I reached the street that would lead me there, I spotted the same black kite perched atop the roof of a nearby building. It was nearing lunchtime by the time I made it to the Mt Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. The queue was frustratingly long and also in direct sunlight making for a slightly unpleasant experience. It was possible to hike up the mountain but I didn’t have time for that, and so the ropeway was going to have to be worth the wait. It was a slightly disorganised affair to buy a ticket from a machine, which was a surprise considering how organised Japan usually comes across for absolutely everything, and when my time finally came to board the ropeway I was incredulous at how many of us they squeezed on there. It was roasting, and despite the open windows, there was little air circulation in the cabin, making it a little unpleasant to breathe. We were crammed in so badly that I couldn’t actually move. For the entire ride up I was stuck in the position I was in, unable to shift my weight or even lift my camera up to my face to take photos. I don’t get claustrophobia but with the lack of personal space, the inability to reposition myself and the stiff, hot air, it was hard not to get a little panicked, and I couldn’t wait for the ride to be over.

 

But it was all soon forgotten once I’d spilled out at the top and saw the view. From the top station I had a gorgeous view across the lake and then once I’d walked round to the entrance of Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park, I could see across to Fuji-Q Highland theme park and Mt Fuji behind it, albeit now hidden behind some clouds. I treated myself to a matcha float complete with foam rabbit, before swapping my trainers for hiking boots and heading into the trees. The initial track up to Mt Tenjo was packed, with most of the people that had taken the ropeway up heading here, as it was only a 10 minute walk to the summit (1140m/3740ft). I was expecting an awesome view but in actual fact the trees were so tall here, that it was mostly closed in, apart from a gap that allowed Mt Fuji to be seen, framed by the tall trunks of the trees. I could see on my topographical map that a track from here led off across the nearby mountains, and I had my sights set on nearby Mt Shimo (1302m/4272ft).

 

There was little view as I walked deeper into the tall forest, following the ridgeline as it undulated and gradually gained further altitude. I had little respite from the heat and my energy began to wane. It took me longer to reach the road crossing high up the mountainside than I’d anticipated, and after an hour, I found myself at a lookout just shy of 1300m (4265ft). As with my hike the day before, I’d brought some 7Eleven dried squid, a Japanese snack that I ate a lot of whilst out and about. It was just the taste I wanted after all the sweating and it gave such an energy boost. That being said, I spent a lot of time eating whilst studying the topographic map, arguing in my head whether I wanted to push on to Mt Shimo. I’d learned on the hike the day before that a summit doesn’t necessarily equal a view, and where I was sat was specifically marked as a viewpoint. Indeed I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji from where I sat, and I reckoned the summit push would add at least another hour roundtrip. With it already being after 2pm, I made the executive decision to let the summit go, and once I was satiated, I pushed back down the gradual slope, to return to Mt Tenjo.

By the time I reached the gap in the trees at Mt Tenjo it was 3.30pm and the summit of Mt Fuji was visible once more. Back at the cafe I bought a snack that was translated as raccoon balls. In the 5 days I’d been in Japan, I’d eaten a lot of unrecognisable foods in a multitude of new textures that I’d never experienced before. I’m fairly up for trying a variety of cuisine and love to experiment abroad, so I was intrigued to see what raccoon tasted like. I still have no idea what exactly it was that I ate, but it didn’t appear to have any meat in it at all, but it was food and it was edible so I hoovered it down all the same. The sun was lowering towards the mountains at the far side of the lake but still the crowds came up the ropeway.

 

I discovered that you could go up to the roof of the cafe where I could see down towards the lake as well as Mt Fuji, and where I could do a bit of people watching as I ate. I hovered between the rooftop and the viewing area below for a long time, getting my photo taken against the backdrop of Japan’s most famous volcano, and watching as people put prayers on the local prayer wall. A bell hung within a heart-shaped frame that was great for framing Mt Fuji, and again I took a lot of photos as the shadows got longer. I started to realise that the mountains beyond the lake would lead to an earlier sunset, and I still had to hike down the mountain back to the lake. After an hour of soaking up the view, I started the descent through the forest. The track switch-backed downhill, occasionally providing views of the lake. A few side tracks led off through gardens, but I stuck to the main track, by now sore on my feet and tired.

 

I reached the lake at dusk, and I sat watching the lights across the lake twinkle on as I swapped my hiking boots for my trainers once more. When I had bought my return bus ticket, I had had to select a specific bus to catch. I left the lake in plenty of time to slog back up the hill to the bus station, and as I reached the road across from it, in the darkening night I could just see the summit of Mt Fuji looming above the station roof. Locating my bus stop, I waited impatiently for it, tired of being on my feet, and always a little unsure that I was in the right spot. The time came and went and by now there was a crowd of us waiting. Eventually the Tokyo bus arrived and everybody surged forward, ignoring the Japanese rule of queuing. But the driver wouldn’t let us on. The bus that had arrived was the one after ours, and there was no way he was letting us on the bus. His English was broken but his message was clear: our bus was delayed and we just had to wait. Confusion and frustration rose when the same scene played out with the next bus. I was shattered, and just wanted to get back to Tokyo, a nearly 2hr drive away.

When the third bus arrived, I was overjoyed to be let on, but immediately concerned to discover that I was the only person that the driver let onto the bus. There were those that had waited as long as me, by now, nearly an hour, and I was immediately doubting that I was going to end up in Shinjuku. I could see some of the other passengers getting riled up and the language barrier was clearly causing some problems. But all I wanted was to sit down and get to Tokyo, so as much as I couldn’t understand why no-one else was being allowed on, I stayed rooted to my seat and watched the drama unfold. Within 5 minutes, in pitch darkness, we were on our way, leaving Kawaguchiko behind. I followed our route on my GPS until I was satisfied we were heading towards Tokyo and felt I could relax. We pulled into Shinjuku bus station at nearly 8.30pm having made good time back to the city. The city lights were shining bright in what is one of the popular night-time spots in the city. I was tired and hungry, but couldn’t completely ignore all the lights and sounds, so took a detour as I crossed between the bus station and the train station to get a brief view of the goings on. Back at my hotel in Yotsuya, I was excited to discover a vending machine that sold beer, a complete novelty, and another of those oh-so-Japanese things that I loved so much. I loved my choice of fruit beer so much that, like the dried squid, it became a regular consumption on my travels around the country.

The Three Peaks

Despite having barely explored any of the World’s second-largest city, rather than stay in Tokyo for my first proper day of my holiday, I chose instead to head out of the city into the surrounding countryside. I love hiking and think of Japan as a hiking country, so I’d researched some hiking trails that were within my means and geographically attainable. Within easy reach of the city was Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, the location of a full day’s hike. From my hotel in Yotsuya, I train-hopped my way to Mitake station from where I caught the local bus to the base of the Mitake-Tozan Cable. If I’d been really inclined, I could have walked from the station, and I always could have hiked up instead of taking the cableway, but the hike before me was going to be long enough, so it wasn’t hard to put aside the notion that I had ‘cheated’. Although the main forms of public transport in Japan are relatively cheap (especially with the top-up card I possessed), there were plenty of touristy transports around that were a lot more costly. Although there wasn’t much to see aside from forest on the way up, the hillside was so steep that at no point did I regret taking the cable up rather than walking.

 

The views at the top of the cableway were of the surrounding hills rolling off into the distance. There were several people in the immediate vicinity having ridden up together, but we were all quick to spread out and it wasn’t hard to feel like I was far away from city life. In fact there was a series of trails leading through the small village that was nestled among the trees, and my plans for the day were to head beyond and into the mountains. In researching the hikes I would be doing in Japan, I had read that it was important to make note of the lettering for the places that would appear on signs as it couldn’t be relied upon to have English translations. Across the day’s hike there was a mixture of signs that included English and those that didn’t, so I was regularly checking the maps I’d downloaded onto the phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

My route for the day was to lead me across three local peaks: Mt Mitake (929m/3048ft), Mt Otake (spelt Ohtake or Odake in some places – 1266.4m/4155ft), and Mt Nokogiri (1109m/3638ft), emerging at Okutama, an anticipated 6hr hike from my research. It was just before 10am as I left the cableway behind and followed the paved pathway that wound through the village on the flanks of Mt Mitake. It was a hot day for a hike, and after the initial flat section, the road began to cut up the remains of the mountainside, past old-fashioned buildings towards the Musashi Mitake Shrine. At the bottom of the steps a large torii gate framed the staircase that led up to a series of buildings. This was the destination for almost everyone else I saw that day, but from here, a bilingual sign pointed me towards the forest and the mountains that they grew from.

It didn’t take long to reach the first of many track junctions. I headed along a short ridge to reach a lookout where the neighbouring mountains appeared hazy. Retracing my steps to the junction, I followed the sign saying Rock Garden, immediately beginning a descent of around 200m (656ft), starting with a long set of stairs and the occasional section of tree roots to negotiate. I was among giants: tall trees that grew far above my head but there was little in the way of bird life to see or hear. I was passed by another solo hiker, but otherwise I was out here on my own. Another junction was reached with a bilingual sign and then it was just a short while later till I found myself at the bottom of Nanayonotaki waterfall which cascaded down a rock face in the middle of the forest.

 

I paused here briefly for a snack, leaving it behind when a couple of people arrived, and having reached the lowest point on the hike, I acknowledged I had to climb back up the hillside again as I was presented firstly with a steep metal staircase, and then a maze of tree roots with a rope to cross. Once back on the main path again, I was following the sign for the Rock Garden once more, arriving at a conglomerate of rocks by 11.30am. Deep within the forest it was a little dull but still hot. I could see the clouds were covering the previously blue sky but the canopy high above me was blocking some of the light too adding to the perceived gloom. Atop a giant boulder there was a shrine and a statue, and it was necessary to use a rope to climb on top to take a look. I had initially thought that this was the rock garden, but actually it was further into the forest, and the trail headed into thicker vegetation that hugged the curve of the mountainside.

 

A few streams trickled through the undergrowth and the path cut across them, large stone steps helping to keep my feet dry. It was peaceful if a little eerie being out in the middle of nowhere on my own. The deeper into the forest the trail went, the more boulders appeared around the trail and I could appreciate why the Rock Garden got its name. I passed several other people at a picnic spot, but I opted to push on to Ayahira waterfall, which I was able to enjoy by myself while taking a snack break. Stone steps led away from here past a giant rockface as I continued to regain the lost altitude up the hillside. Eventually, by 12.20pm I found myself back on the original track that I had left behind near the Mitake Shrine.

I think I had assumed this trail would have been spectacular for views, but actually the forest canopy was so well developed that there was little to see other than the forest itself, so as I continued along the rising ridgeline towards Mt Otake, there was just the trees for company. Other hikers had been few and far between once I’d left Mt Mitake, and the trail became a little uninteresting. I was still very hot and sweating profusely and I was glad for the occasional trail junction to break up the monotony. Eventually I reached a section that involved chains to help negotiate a rough area where the track jumped up suddenly at the side of some large boulders. Beyond that there were some gnarly tree rooted sections as well.

Suddenly I found myself at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading through a torii gate to a shrine. The trail led me up through here and then beyond the buildings the track became quite rough and threatened to trip me up. I have to admit, I was eager to reach the next summit, and was looking forward to getting a view of something other than the forest, so I was glad to finally break out of the trees at 1.30pm to an opening where a group of men were taking a break from their own hike. The sky had become uniformly grey in the time I’d been in the forest but I could still see rows of mountains spanning the view in front of me. I’d brought some dried squid with me, a 7Eleven special, and started a love affair with it at the summit of Mt Otake. It was just what I needed to give me a bit of an energy boost and I ended up making sure I had some with me for every hike I did for the rest of the trip.

 

The topographical map on my phone made it look like Mt Nokogiri was halfway between where I was standing and Okutama. In the blog I’d read when researching this hike, I’d read that this descent from Mt Otake to Okutama would feel never-ending, so I didn’t hang around at the summit for long. Leaving the other hikers behind, I set off into the forest once more, almost immediately losing the view of the landscape again. It was a gradual and undulating slight descent along a ridgeline for 1.5hrs to reach the third peak of the day. This time though, the summit was within the forest and there was only a small sign to announce that you’d made it. By now just past 3pm, and having been hiking for 5hrs, I was starting to appreciate that the 6hr estimate for the hike was rather off. But in my head I had just another 1.5hrs to go, based on my assumption from the map on my phone, and although I was getting tired, it was a time that I could muster up some energy for.

Oh how wrong I was. After an hour of walking across the undulating ridgeline, I was not only aware that I’d barely dropped any altitude, but having been tracing my hike on a tracker app, I was dismayed to see that Okutama was still several kilometres away. Even when a break in the trees offered me the first glimpse of some houses in the valley below, again the map showed I was still some distance away. Suddenly I could appreciate where the comments from the other blogger had come from, but as I stood there mildly miffed with my choice of hike, my attention was grabbed by a sudden screeching sound that shot across the valley. I had no idea what it was and in the middle of a forest up a mountain, it was slightly unnerving but I found out a few days later that it was the call of a bird of prey (possibly a northern goshawk).

 

I got a slight puff of energy again as I started to descend away from that first glimpse of Okutama, but after a brief descent, the track starting heading up again, involving metal stairs and chains, and I have to admit that I started cursing out loud. It was nearly 5pm, and I started to realise that I had just roughly an hour of daylight left. Any second wind I’d gotten quickly dissipated and instead I spent the eventual descent down the mountainside rather deflated. Finally the descent began to be more consistent, remaining in the forest the whole way aside from a brief reprieve where some pylons cut through. By the time I reached the very margin of Okutama at 5.45pm, it was dusk, and the light was fading fast as I cut through what was left of the forest, finally reaching the main road that would lead me into town.

 

I watched the train leave for Tokyo without me, having not quite made it in time, the hike eventuating as an 8hr hike instead of the 6hr trek I’d anticipated. I hadn’t even enjoyed the second half of it, having been frustrated with the length of it, and the lack of views. The forest was pretty, but with little to break up the monotony of it, it had rather detracted from the hike in the end. To top it off, it was now pitch black and I had to wait half an hour for the next train. Okutama is a small settlement, but despite that, I initially couldn’t find the train station platform, somehow ending up on the wrong side of both the track and a fence, and having to back track my weary legs to try a different road. When eventually I could board the train, it was empty, a complete shock compared to all the train rides I’d done so far in Japan. It was after 8pm by the time I reached my hotel in Yotsuya, picking up my luggage from the original hotel, and walking the couple of blocks to my new hotel on the other side of the road. I slumped onto my nice pristine bed just in time to catch the end of one of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup matches. My feet were throbbing and my calves resembled elephant legs from the heat, but I could only hope they’d have settled by the morning as I had another day of walking ahead of me.

The Highs and Lows of the Lemosho Route

There are some mental images from my time hiking Africa’s highest mountain that will stick in my mind forever. Coming out of my tent at 11pm to ready ourselves for our midnight departure, I looked across the campsite to see an incredible trail of lights bobbing uphill in the darkness. The peak itself and the path that led up it were invisible but the headlamps that adorned every hiker who was already on route resembled a trail of ants in procession. The numbers were astounding and the excitement and tension among our group as we prepared to join them was tangible. After all the planning, and the training, and the days of hiking to get there, summit day was about to begin.

We were warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies as we listened to the plan for the day ahead. We were given snack boxes to take with us and after bundling all our layers into our backpacks, and kitting up, we gathered together to set off. This was it: the biggest hike of my life. Our campsite had been below the majority of people at Barafu Camp, and so we had to hike a little just to reach the start of the summit trail at the far end of the camp. It was so busy that there was a queue of people to set off, but before long it was time to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. The only stimulation was the light cast by the many headlamps and the sounds of foot steps on the rock. There was no awareness of the greater landscape we were walking through and more importantly there was absolutely no idea of altitude, either literal, or relative to the summit. On top of this, there was no perception of time. I had no ready access to any form of time device due to the layers I was wearing but with a predicted 7hr hike to reach the summit, it was a difficult concept to get my head around the progress, or lack thereof, that we were making as we trudged.

And trudge it was. The pace was slow, partly due to our own ability at that altitude, and partly due to the traffic on the trail. Periodically it would get bunched up or have to stop completely if people struggled up a steep bit or stopped to take a break. The steepness and altitude gain felt constant, and the higher we climbed, the more I felt it. The pace actually suited me as I could catch my breath whenever a stop was forced, but at times I had to focus hard on maintaining a regular breathing pattern to keep my momentum going. My arms and legs screamed for oxygen, fatiguing easily and tiring me further. As we climbed in absolute darkness, up and up and up, the temperature dropped and my hands and toes became cold, and then numb, and then painful. I was only aware of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. It was only when we stopped for a break that I realised how differently people were coping. We’d set off from camp three people short of our original group: one of them had sadly had to descend before Lava Tower on day 4, and two of the group had set off an hour ahead of everyone else as they had up to now been slower than the group’s average speed. Of those of us there on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, I could see that the fittest of the group was feeling a little held back, whereas the rest of us needed every single break, and a few of the group were starting to look sorry for themselves.

We stopped often, and probably regularly, at least once an hour. I made guestimations of the time as we progressed, but I didn’t actually want to know the reality in case it deflated me or gave me false hope. The first couple of breaks had been enough to recover my limbs and even out my breathing, but by the time we were probably three or four hours into the hike, I was really struggling with the pain of my cold hands. I was hiking with poles, so I couldn’t retract my hands too far into my jacket, but it had become clear to me that my gloves weren’t enough, and I had been naive to think that my hands didn’t need layers like the rest of my body. Even with the exertion of the walk, my body was barely warm enough, and that was with the duffel jacket on that I had rented in Moshi on arriving in Tanzania. When we took another break, I was able to borrow a spare pair of gloves and some hot hands from people that had been more prepared than myself. I had another layer of trousers to put on but with my cold hands, I was slow. What prevailed was another of those vivid images that I will never forget: out of nowhere, all of the guides descended on me, took my trousers out of my bag and proceeded to dress me, standing me up and manipulating my limbs to get them into the extra clothes. They took my hands and as one hand was rubbed vigorously to stimulate some blood flow, the other hand was ungloved, and layered back up with the hot hands and the extra layers. That gloved hand was then rubbed vigorously while the other hand was covered back up. I just sat there and let them do it – grateful but a little stunned. We were given a hot drink to warm us up, and with concerned looks from the guides as I shivered, we set off again.

Even with the extra layers, I struggled to keep warm. My hands and toes remained cold and uncomfortable, and as the altitude continued to increase, my breathing became more laboured, my energy drained further and I shifted into a pattern of 2 steps forward, then a pause, then 2 steps forward, then a pause. I have no idea at what point I noticed it, but at some stage on the hike, a brief change in the density of the darkness around us made me realise that the peak of the night was over and sunrise was approaching. It wasn’t enough to make out the mountain yet, but as we continued our push up the never ending slope, the sky above us gradually changed from black to dark blue, and then through an increasingly lightening array of colours. As the landscape began to become discernible around us, we could make out the amazing stream of people that were below us, and frost became visible on the stony ground at our feet. Eventually we could make out the top of the ridge above us, and off to the side was Mt Kilimanjaro’s third cone, Mawenzi, the second tallest of the three. The horizon line turned red then yellow, and as the sun peaked above the horizon on the 7th of February 2019, we stopped to take it all in. Finally there was something to photograph but my hands were clumsy in the multiple gloves and it was still bitterly cold.

There was still a steep section to negotiate although the ridgeline was in sight. I had just 3 things in my backpack: water, a first aid kit and the snack box I’d been given, but my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and I was clearly struggling now as one of the guides insisted on taking it off me and carrying it for me. It was a little gesture but it made all the difference to me. My breathing felt inefficient, the air felt so utterly thin as it entered my lungs. I was struggling even with the 2 steps forward and pause cycle that I’d been following, but all of a sudden, as the light continued to creep up the side of the mountain, I was surprised to see the fittest member of our group, my fellow Christchurch resident, goat-hopping down the mountain from the summit. When he reached us, it turned out that in the darkness he had headed off ahead of us with a guide, and had summited before the sun had even risen, and was on his way back to camp. I hadn’t even noticed his absence at the last couple of rest stops. He left us to it as we continued on our opposite paths, and although I was exhausted, I felt spurred on to finish.

I guess social media has had a lot of effects on a lot of people. I’d enjoyed the digital detox over the week of hiking, but as the energy drained from my muscles, and catching my breath became increasingly difficult, and as I felt a little zoned out, I focused on one thing only: getting a photo of me at the summit to post on Instagram. We’d spent a large part of the previous days singing songs from the Lion King in a joking ode to Tanzania, and in the first few hours of the summit trek in darkness, those same songs had entertained me until our voices had petered out with the increasing exertion. Now we all hiked in silence, and as I grappled with my inner dialogue, I told myself repeatedly that I had to get a photograph for Instagram. Failing to summit was not an option because I had to get a photo for Instagram. Two steps forward then pause, then two steps forward then pause. Now coated in brilliant sunshine, we rounded the last corner and crowned the last slope to be confronted with the crater floor. We’d reached the crater rim and Stella Point at 5756m (18885ft).

Although not the highest point of the mountain, reaching Stella Point was still classed as summiting, so no matter what happened next, we’d made it. There were a lot of people recovering here, and there were people clearly in a bit of distress. With the benefit of daylight, I’d seen some people who were really in a bad way. Some of them were being dragged up the mountain by guides (something we were told happened with some independent operators who were purportedly just interested in boosting their summit success numbers) and some of them were being physically run down the mountain by guides in an effort to get them out of danger. There are definitely some people that have summited Africa’s highest peak that will probably have little to no memory of it at all due to being so spaced out or sick. I was exhausted and breathless as were my companions, but we were all lucid. We had to queue to get our photo taken at the sign, but it allowed us to rest before the final summit push. After ten minutes I actually felt better and retrieved my backpack from my guide. The summit was visible and we’d be there in no time at all. We met one of the two who had left an hour ahead of us as he was heading back down to camp. He had summited but his mother had had to turn back, struggling greatly around the point of sunrise.

 

Within ten minutes of walking I was as bad as I’d been before and I realised that despite appearances, there was still a long trek to the true summit. My backpack again felt like a burden so again one of the guides relieved me of it. I felt weak and pathetic but these guys were adapted to the altitude, doing a couple of summits a month in the peak season, so I just had to accept their help. We passed by giant glaciers that hung on to the edge of the crater a little to the side, and after trudging at a snail’s pace for the final distance, we found ourselves on the roof of Africa, Uhuru Point, the highest peak of the African continent at an altitude of 5895m (19341ft). We effectively staggered there and jolted to a stop. Any urge to rush to the sign was blocked by the queue of people waiting to get their photo taken at it. It was a busy place but not oppressively so. We spread out a bit, and I found myself dropping into a sitting position on a group of rocks, and as I sat there oblivious to anything else in the World but the view in front of me, silent tears started rolling down my face. Against the negative inner dialogue that I had been battling for the last couple of days, and after two years of planning and training, I’d only blooming gone and summited Mt Kilimanjaro.

I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one crying. It was so overwhelming, a release of a lot of emotion in the face of utter exhaustion. Our guides came round and hugged and congratulated us. They seemed so cool and unfazed by it all while the rest of us looked beaten up and drained. Between the resting and the photography and the meandering around absorbing the view, we spent a half hour at the summit. Even with the sun up, it was still really cold. I discovered later that we’d summited at 8.20am, taking over 8hrs from leaving camp behind. As we started the trek back to Stella Point, I saw the clouds had appeared and engulfed the side of the mountain, and there we were above it all. Aside from the crater, there was no other visible landmark above this grey sea of cloud. At Stella Point, we were quick to move onwards, heading back to near where we’d stopped at sunrise. To prevent congestion, the descent route separates off from the ascent route and effectively cuts down a giant scree field. Although a path was marked, there were times where we were effectively skiing down the loose rock. We continued to see people being run down this scree path being held upright by their guides and one of our group had started to feel unwell at the summit and was sped down the mountainside back to camp. We found ourselves back at Barafu camp a little after 11am, just a few hours after summiting. Over 8hrs up, and just over 2hrs down.

 

We remained at camp till 1pm, resting and having lunch, but the hike was not over yet. We had to get down the mountain now and we’d collectively decided to walk to the lower of the two descent camps in order to make a short hike out for the following day. It hadn’t been a unanimous vote and there were clearly some people who wished the vote had gone the other way. From Barafu camp we were soon at the track junction from the day before, and this time we headed straight ahead and immediately started losing altitude. We were amidst the cloud and the landscape that was visible was barren and volcanic. Everyone was quiet and tired, and it was as much by autopilot that my legs continued to move one after the other. As the low vegetation returned, it started to rain, becoming quite heavy by the time we reached the higher of the two descent camps. It would have been a bit miserable to get into the tents here, but at the same time, a few of the group were really flagging. This trail that we were descending was a supply route, and so we regularly passed porters that were laiden down with supplies to take to Barafu Camp. It was incredible to see the poor state of some of the shoes on their feet and incredibly some of them were hiking in just jandals (flip-flops). We’d learned a lot about the variable state of pay and care that was received by the porter teams, depending on which company or guide they worked for. All of our team spoke highly of G Adventures and they all seemed appropriately kitted out for the terrain so I felt satisfied that I’d picked a good company to hike with. It can be so hard to know at times how ethical your travel is, and whether people are being taken advantage of or not.

The rain turned the track into a river as we squelched our way down the mountainside. Eventually we found ourselves among tall trees again, a novelty after the days of exposed and arid volcanic landscapes. It felt like an age before we finally popped out at Mweka Camp at 3100m (10171ft), over 2500m (8202ft) below where we’d summited in the early morning. It was amazing how good I felt after a rest: breathing was suddenly so much easier and I even felt my energy return. My appetite was back also and we tucked into our dinner full of elation and chatter. My oxygen saturation on the final reading was back at 98%, just how it had started a week before. The next morning we had a group debrief with our guides and porters. Each and every one of them had played a role in getting us up the mountain, and I was particularly grateful to the guides who’d supported me in those final hours of the summit push, the chef who’d continued to fill us with the most amazing meals, and my personal porter who’d set up my tent and greeted me with the biggest grin and ‘Jambo!’ every time he saw me. It was emotional to think it was all over and we sang the song of the mountain to each other in thanks for the time of our lives.

The descent from camp was similar to the hike on day 1: walking through thick forest, listening out for monkeys and tropical birds. The pace was relatively quick, and we were quite spread out, chatting away with whoever was nearest, and passing the final hours on the mountain in no time at all. Bursting out of the forest at the end of it all, we just had to sign out at the office, and then wait for everyone else to come down. Bundling back onto the bus, we stopped some way down the road for lunch at a roadside rest stop. It already felt surreal that we’d just come off the mountain, and removed from the exertion of breathing, there was only my sore knees to remind me what I’d just done. Our porter team had been either from Moshi or Arusha, so we dropped them off either at the main road to catch a ride home, or in Moshi. We returned to the gear rental store so I could drop off my duffel jacket, and finally we returned to the same hotel just outside of Moshi where we were greeted with open arms by the bubbly team that worked there. It was fantastic to see the American who’d had to be taken down on day 4 looking rested and in good spirits. He’d gone on safari for a few days to wait our return and although a little sad, he vowed to come back and summit another time. He definitely deserves his chance to get there.

After resting and a much-needed shower, we had a small celebration to receive our certificates and say goodbye to our guides. We had a communal dinner together ahead of us going our separate ways the next day. A couple of people were heading on to Zanzibar for a bit of R&R, but most people were going home to return to their normal lives. It was strange to say goodbye the next morning to these people that I’d shared such an experience with but whilst the majority were set to head to the airport, I wasn’t done with Tanzania yet. Myself and one of my hiking companions had a new set of people to become acquainted with as my great African adventure continued.

Lemosho Route – Baranco to Barafu

Stepping out of the tent as light returned to the sky, I was feeling better than the night before, but I still wasn’t feeling great. I had cut my diamox down to once a day, skipping the evening dose which had alleviated the nighttime shortness of breath, but I still felt tired and lethargic, and my stomach still felt uncomfortable. Thankfully the headache had gone, but my appetite was low, and I again had to force feed myself breakfast. Our camp spot had been down in a dip, so it was only once we’d packed up and headed up to the ridge beside us that I suddenly realised what the big deal about the Baranco Wall was. Off to the side of the camp was a tall and wide cliff face. I had seen it the day before as we’d descended, but never for a minute had I fathomed that we actually had to scale it. I’d assumed the track skirted round the bottom of it, but in the early morning light, all I could see was a stream of people dotted up the sheer cliff face and my heart sunk a little. It looked tough, and physical and I just didn’t feel like I had the energy for it. Our head guide G Daddy checked in with me and after I assured him that my headache had gone and I was vaguely better, we set off.

 

Everybody from Baranco Camp was heading in the same direction, and soon after leaving the campsite, the trail narrowed and started to climb onto the cliff face. The pace slowed right down and immediately we joined a queue of people at the first climbing point. My breathing was ok, but it was my tiredness and sore stomach that I had to suppress and block out. The pace was so slow with regular pauses to let the people in front get out the way, that it never felt exhausting and it was only when we were about half way up the cliff that I realised that not only was I feeling better, but I was actually enjoying the Baranco Wall, and it wasn’t anything to stress about at all. There were places that involved using your hands to haul yourself up or across narrow ledges, and I can imagine if you had vertigo that this would have been a frightening section of the hike, but for me it was a welcome change to the style of hiking that had been the previous 4 days on the trail, and the higher we got, and the better I felt, the happier I became and the more I enjoyed it. In fact it felt like we reached the top in no time at all and I was almost sad to have finished it.

 

The valley which we’d ascended from had been in shadow the whole way up, but by the time we’d summited the wall, sunshine lit up the campsite and the far ridge as well as Kibo Massif which now sat to our left. To our right, there was a staged drop-off towards the Plains which lay shrouded in clouds. There was a second section to the Baranco Wall, which we made light work of, and finally at the true top, we took a breather and some group photos to celebrate. The cloud which had been below us began to lift as we were there and soon after leaving we found ourselves within it. The gradient of the next section was mild and what we could see among the cloud looked barren, but the overall perspective of where we were heading was lost, with only the sight of people disappearing ahead of us and appearing behind us to see. The cloud lifted and dropped as we walked, giving us brief glimpses of a wider landscape.

 

As we continued across this vague plateau, the usual conundrum of where to find privacy to go to the toilet arose. There generally was none. Any boulder cluster would be quickly commandeered, but nothing ever offered 360 degree privacy, and there was always the likelihood of someone behind spotting you with your pants down. Not to mention that it was clear where the popular spots were, as often there was a pile of paper or wet wipes to negotiate just to find a spot to balance on. It was definitely the gross side of the mountain, as even without the litter that had been left, the amount of urine and human faeces that were present was pronounced. As is often the case, the negative impact of tourism and adventure travel is a hard pill to swallow and I could see first hand why hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in the current manner is becoming contentious.

After a while, we found ourselves at the top of a ridge with a valley below us. Across the valley and up an equally tall ridge lay our next campsite. There was a lot of loose scree on the trail, meaning I had to focus on my feet for most of the way down, but I was able to notice the pocket of vegetation that was thriving in this valley where shelter and water allowed life to flourish. Only when I was looking back from the valley floor did I appreciate how steep the descent had been, but on the flip side, there was now a similar gradient to negotiate to get up the other side. Again, there was a bit of loose scree to negotiate, and it meant there was a vague queue to get started up the slope, and we watched as a steady stream of people worked their way up. I was slow on the ascent, using my hiking poles to my advantage to get purchase and optimise my energy output. When we reached Karanga Camp on the top, it was surrounded by cloud, limiting our view. The site was broad and exposed but it meant the campsite didn’t feel too crowded despite the numbers of people staying there.

At 3995m (13107ft), we were less than 100m (328ft) higher than Baranco Camp but these gains and losses were essential to give my body the best chance of adapting. We hung out as a group together as the hours passed, and only as the sun was setting did the cloud level drop back below us to expose the campsite a little. My oxygen saturation remained stable at 92% and I was glad that the headaches were keeping away. I was still tired though and now the cold was really starting to hit. Even wrapped up in layers whilst we ate dinner, it was hard to stay warm, and at night in my thick sleeping bag, I struggled to get warm, waking up often and having to pile clothes into the bag to insulate me further. The more layers I wore and the more insulation I put in the bag, the more restricted and claustrophobic I felt, and on several occasions I woke up feeling trapped and having to stifle a panic.

 

On paper, day 6 on the Lemosho trail didn’t look too bad. And in terms of distance it wasn’t, but not only would we end up camping at our highest point yet on the hike, we’d have only a few hours rest and sleep before setting off at midnight to push for the summit. As always, there was just a vague hint of light in the air as we rose, but with the cloud off the mountain, we got to watch the sky brighten up as the sun rose, and although it was cold, it became a beautiful day. It became clear that we had camped right next to the Kibo Massif, and our plan for the day was to continue our circumnavigation of it round to the eastern flank where the ascent trail lay. Immediately the trail headed uphill but despite the rocky terrain and lack of vegetation, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Kibo. Ignoring the effects of the altitude, it looked so achievable, and less of a hardship than some of the mountains I’d summited in New Zealand. Right then I could have been in Tongariro National Park; it reminded me of that volcanic landscape so much. At one point there was another collection of stone cairns laid by those who’d hiked before us, and we paused here to rest and take photographs.

 

A ridge of rock swept down from the summit to the trail as we continued our climb, and looking back from here, Mt Meru, a nearby peak in the neighbouring national park looked both close and far away at the same time as it stood tall amidst the haze. We crossed a plateau under the rocky ridge before climbing up a neighbouring ridge. Here we reached a track junction: turning left would take us to our campsite and, all being well, the summit of Africa’s highest mountain; turning right was the descent route. We turned north to follow this ridgeline to the Barafu camp, our second-to-last camp site before leaving the mountain behind. At 4673m (15331ft), this was the highest point I’d hiked to both on the trail and in my entire life. The campsite was very spread out and balanced on a ridge with some people on the ridge top, and others like ourselves, having to descend into rocky crevices to squeeze into small flat areas where only 1 or 2 tents could fit. After signing in at the cabin, we spent the rest of the day down in our little pocket of Barafu. The rest of the campsite was visible above us, but Kibo had once again been swallowed by cloud, and for the rest of the daylight hours, it remained out of sight.

Just negotiating the space between our tents and the portaloos or the food tent was a threat to the ankles with large boulders and small loose rocks everywhere. Even the guylines of the tents were a trip hazard here and I had to make a mental note of what was around me in order to be safe once darkness fell. As we ate our dinner, the oxygen saturation monitor was passed around and despite the jump in altitude I was surprised to see that my oxygen saturation had increased to 94%, a sign that my body was responding to the increased stress I was putting it under. It had become obvious that our food offerings had changed as we’d ascended. Several of us were struggling to eat everything that we were given, but in the lower camps we’d had red meat, and then it turned to white meat meals, and now we were on a vegetarian diet. It wasn’t just due to the freshness of the meat that could be provided, but also a well thought out plan by the chefs to acknowledge how our digestive system would be coping at altitude. I’d made the decision before Karanga Camp that I was going to stop the diamox tablets. I was sure they were giving me some undesired symptoms, and I wasn’t convinced they were doing much to help with the effects of the altitude. I had by now missed several doses and I wasn’t the only one. Several of us hadn’t liked the effect that it had on us, so whilst a few of the group continued with their prescriptions, a couple of us had stopped, and a few of the group had never even started to take it in the first place.

Nerves and excitement built as dinner came to an end. Where on the previous nights we had sat up chatting until the coldness or tiredness had sent us to bed, this night we had only a few hours to rest before our 11pm wake-up call, so as soon as our debrief was done, we retreated to our tents in anticipation. The moment of truth was not far from us, and I for one was excited and nervous all rolled into one. It was hard to relax enough to sleep, and I actually didn’t think I would sleep but both myself and my tent companion managed to drop off for a bit. I’d needed every single layer I had to be just warm enough to fall asleep, something which should have raised alarm bells for me for the summit attempt. But in that moment, there was just me and my emotions, drifting off into a brief lull ahead of one of the biggest days of my life.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: