MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Hiking”

Helicopter Hill

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Fyffe

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Herbert via Packhorse Hut

Once upon a time, two large volcanoes stood side by side on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. As they eroded, the craters formed two large harbours which today are known as Lyttelton harbour and Akaroa harbour. The volcanic remains have become the mountainous playground of Banks Peninsula, a stark contrast to the flatness of the Canterbury Plains which sit immediately to the west. Christchurch, the south island’s largest city, nestles just the other side of the Port Hills, making the peninsula a perfect spot for getaways from the city.

Standing proudly behind Diamond Harbour, Banks Peninsula’s tallest peak, Mount Herbert is a great choice for hiking. With a choice of four main routes up, I am slowly but surely working my way through the route options. I first summited Mt Herbert via Orton Bradley Park, a track that requires private transport to get to the starting point, and since then, I took the most popular route up from Diamond Harbour which can be reached by public transport from Christchurch. I later found out about another route up from Kaituna Valley and this again requires your own transport to reach the starting point. Unlike the other two routes which start from the northern aspect, this third route starts from the south.

From Christchurch city centre it is a 45min drive curving round the side of the Port Hills on the Akaroa road before cutting up the Kaituna Valley road past open farmland, eventually arriving at Parkinson’s Road. It was a hot sunny February day when I pulled up around 11am and there was barely any space left to park. I had planned on setting off earlier to beat the heat, but as often happens on a Sunday, I’d enjoyed a bit of a lie in before eventually getting out of bed. So as I stepped out my car, the dashboard thermometer was already reading 26oC. It was going to be a scorcher.

The track I was kicking off on was to take me to one of the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) huts called the Packhorse Hut. Even this hut itself has a few options to reach there, and being within easy reach of Christchurch, it is a popular destination for people to go for a night. As such, it requires to be booked. The DOC sign stated a 2hr walk to reach the hut, and the track starts off across private farming land. Stiles are provided to cross the fences meaning gates don’t need to be touched, and at the time I was hiking, stock was everywhere. It is important not to worry stock when passing over private land, but sheep being sheep, they often make it very hard to get past them without them getting spooked.

 

There is quite a long and relatively gentle meander across the farmland before finally the wide track zig-zags across a stream and starts climbing. And once the climb starts, it just keeps on going. The summer just passed did not offer much opportunity to get up into the mountains unlike the summer before, so despite hiking the Queen Charlotte Track just 2.5 months prior, I was out of shape once more. The gradient of this hike should have been well within my capabilities but instead I found myself huffing and puffing in the heat and needing to stop often. Once the trees parted though, the view opened up more and more and looking behind me the Pacific Ocean was glinting in the sunlight through a gap in the hillside, and in front of me lay the distinctive peak of Mt Bradley. Now I started to enjoy the hike.

 

There was plenty of other people on the track heading both up and down, although most people had been sensible enough to head off hours before me, so most of the people I saw were on their way back from the hut. When I reached the Packhorse Hut there were several people milling about inside and out, and others still could be seen on the track up from Gebbies Pass to the north. Directly in front was the Port Hills across the harbour, behind which lies Christchurch, and just peaking into view was the head of Lyttelton Harbour.

 

Built of local volcanic stone in 1914, the Packhorse Hut is one of four stone huts built as a resthouse for a proposed walking route between Christchurch and Akaroa. The brainchild of Harry Ell, a city councillor and member of parliament in the early 1900s, he was well known for his interests in recreation and conservation, and played a role in the creation of many of the reserves that now exist on the Port Hills. Whilst only three of his resthouses came to pass in his lifetime, a fourth followed after his death and all of them still stand to this day. The Sign of the Kiwi at the top of Dyers Pass road is a cafe, having recently reopened following the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010/2011. The Sign of the Takahe lower down Dyers Pass road is a restaurant, although it still remains closed for repairs following the earthquakes. The Sign of the Bellbird off Summit road started life as a tearoom but now is really just a shelter. It is a great picnic spot, although unfortunately after someone set fire to the roof in 2015, it is now completely open to the elements. And the Sign of the Packhorse is what is now the DOC run Packhorse Hut.

 

After taking a quick look inside before stopping for a snack, I still had some way to go to reach Mt Herbert. It was by now about 1pm, the sun was high and the DOC sign related a 3hr hike to Mt Herbert summit. This was longer than I’d anticipated but at least there were still many hours of daylight ahead. From the hut, the track follows the Summit Walkway which has recently been renamed with its Maori name to Te Ara Pataka. The track followed the curve of the land towards a small section within the bush which was some welcome respite from the sun, but before long it was back out in the elements and the zig-zags began. About 210m (689ft) altitude gain is achieved through a series of zig-zags up the slope of Mt Bradley. Here I met a group of people coming back from the summit who seemed surprised to see me and enquired about how well equipped I was and how much water I had. It put a hint of doubt in my mind that somehow this hike was more than I thought it would be.

 

Finally though, I was on the relative flat below the bluff of Mt Bradley’s summit. The view from the track up had been impressive enough, but from this higher altitude it was stunning. Although it undulated, it stayed roughly around 720-730m (2362-2395ft) with lots of bush on either side although nothing above to shade from the sun. I was now on the lookout for a nice lunch spot but there was nowhere to stop and sit. Both ahead and behind me the track was empty of people. Most of the people at the hut turned back there, so this section of the walk was devoid of people compared to the lower section. After some time of hugging the mountainside, the track dipped slightly and went into a copse. The shade was welcome so I found a large rock to sit on to have my lunch.

 

I was in a total reverie munching away when a loud and angry yell made me jump. Somebody unseen had yelled an obscenity so loudly that I had a momentary fear about who was approaching. As the unseen man grew nearer I heard more anger, albeit at a lower volume and then round a corner in the path came a man in his 20s. He asked how far the summit was and although I wasn’t sure exactly, I surmised that it was probably 60-90mins away based on the DOC sign and how long I’d been walking for. He swore again, complained about the track dropping altitude when it was supposed to be going up and stomped off, leaving me in peace once more. As he must have also come from the Packhorse Hut, regardless of which route he took to get there, he will have passed at least one sign with a distance marker to the summit, so I couldn’t understand why he was so annoyed, when it is clearly stated the length of the hike at each stage. At least he was wearing proper shoes and had a backpack. I’ve seen many tourists hiking up mountains in jandals (flip-flops) with either no water or just a small bottle in their hand.

Finally moving on myself, it wasn’t much further till the path came out at a fence line on a low ridge past the far side of Mt Bradley. Crossing the stile, I could now see Lyttelton Harbour again, and as the path meandered on, I found myself at the junction with the track down to Orton Bradley Park. Now I was on familiar territory. Some way on I came across Mt Herbert Shelter, a small hut just off the path. It has a nice view from the front deck, but I was keen to get to the summit so I pushed on without stopping. A little up the track I passed the angry man on his return trip who still looked thoroughly grumpy, and finally I was at the familiar turn-off for the summit. It was the last push up to a relatively deserted summit. This is a popular mountain to hike, so normally the summit is busy, but after 3pm as it was, it was quite late on in the day. With a predicted high of 29oC, everybody else had been much more sensible and set off earlier in the day.

 

At 919m (3015ft), there is a beautiful 360o view over Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour as well as out to the Pacific Ocean. As always, Christchurch was under a haze but the Southern Alps mountain range was still visible in the far distance. It is a broad summit, so there is plenty of space to walk around to see different aspects and I noted that the DOC signage had been updated since I’d last been there to include its Maori name of Te Ahu Patiki. From here it is possible to continue hiking along the Summit Walkway towards Port Levy, and this is the 4th route up to Mt Herbert, and the only one I am yet to walk.

After a while it was time to head home. It had taken over 4hrs to summit, but as always the downhill is easier, and although the section below the bluffs of Mt Bradley felt like it went on forever, I was back in my car in just 2.5hrs. As I passed the Packhorse Hut, there was a family setting up a tent outside, and I met some people hiking up when I reached the flat section across the farmland. They were heading to the hut and back but had waited to escape the heat of the day. It had been a scorcher for sure, and I had worried I would run out of water, but in the end all was well. Of the 3 routes I’ve done, this is the longest one to the summit, but it was good to explore somewhere new and I always enjoy discovering New Zealand’s myriad of mountain huts.

Lake Brunner

Sometimes the best-laid plans go awry. When it comes to domestic holidays, they tend to be either a roadie or city break with my partner, or an independent hiking trip in the mountains. With my partner having to work through the Christmas weekend, I on the other hand had a few days off and figured I’d make the most of the solitude bagging some summits. I was looking for somewhere that wasn’t a crazy drive away, but yet wasn’t overly familiar either, and after a bit of zooming in and out of Google Maps, I spotted what looked like the ideal location: Lake Brunner in the West Coast region. I’d passed here on the TranzAlpine train ride from Christchurch to Greymouth a few years ago, but otherwise hadn’t given it any attention, but looking at the landscape on Topomap, I noticed there were some mountains around the lake that would serve as good day hikes. Finding a cheap and cheerful place to stay for a few nights, I was sorted for my summer break.

But despite some cracking weather in November to hike the Queen Charlotte Track, spring and now summer weren’t showing much promise weather-wise, and as Christmas came round, the forecast was underwhelming to say the least. After finishing work on Christmas Eve, I set off from Christchurch to head west and hit a wall of grey skies as I reached the Southern Alps. Still, the road through Porters Pass then Arthur’s Pass is a scenic and enjoyable trip with plenty of choice to stop at on the way. I stopped first on the shores of Lake Lyndon which sat below Trig M, a hike I’d done earlier in the year, and then ignored the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream having done them many times before, opting instead to pull in at the lookout above the Otira Viaduct to the north of Arthur’s Pass. Aside from the view down the valley, this place is almost guaranteed for Kea sightings, and I wasn’t disappointed.

 

Before moving to New Zealand, I had no idea such a creature existed, but the world’s only alpine parrot has become my favourite bird here. Full of cheek, curiosity and highly intelligent, they are extraordinary to watch and interact with. It is important not to feed them, and also important to be aware of your belongings around them at all times, as they will do their best to relieve you of anything you leave lying around and are notorious for pulling and chewing anything that is within reach, be it tyres, aerials or cameras. They are far from shy, and sitting in the driver’s seat with my door open, I sat and watched as one cocky individual casually gnawed on the metal of my car door before striding off proud as punch.

 

Arriving at Moana on the shore of Lake Brunner the sky was still moody but there were some glints of sunshine trying to burst through in places. After checking in to my cabin in the woods just outside of the village, I parked up near the lake shore and set off on one of the local walks, the Raikatane walk. This is an easy walk that crosses a suspension bridge over the Arnold river and circles in the woods to the north, as well as offering the opportunity to explore the far shore of Lake Brunner. Apart from a few birds for company, I was effectively on my own. With tourism being a major part of the New Zealand economy, it is getting harder and harder to get away from the crowds here, meaning peace and tranquility can be a pipe dream during the summer months. Thankfully Lake Brunner flies under the radar of the vast majority of foreign tourists, and it is more the realm of domestic tourists with a high percentage of Kiwi accents being heard compared to elsewhere. In my solitude I looked across the large lake to the mountains on the far side cloaked in low clouds, their summits hidden from me. The water lapped gently on the shore as I trudged across the pebbles enjoying a brief splurge of sunshine. Back in the cabin, I had the use of a shared kitchen, and over the next 3 nights, I got to know my fellow guests as we chatted over wine and food. I’d recently discovered the most heavenly sparkling wine made at a Canterbury winery to the west of Christchurch and before I knew it I was warm and merry.

 

I awoke on Christmas Day to more grey skies. My plan was to head round to Te Kinga, a small settlement on the eastern shore in order to hike Mount Te Kinga. As I drove there I was dismayed to see the cloud was even lower than the day before and the bulk of the mountain was hidden from view. It seemed a popular place to camp for the night at the car park at Te Kinga, and as several people were stirring, I was lacing up my hiking boots and preparing to hike. As there are a couple of viewpoints overlooking the lake on the way to the summit, several people were on the trail that morning. From early on, I just wasn’t feeling it that day. I’ve hiked a lot of mountains in New Zealand, mainly in Canterbury, and although I’ve enjoyed them to varying degrees, I’d never disliked a hike as much as this one. It may in part have been because I knew I’d get no view at the top, or maybe because I felt a little lonely on Christmas Day, but as much as I trudged up the hillside on autopilot, there was just no love for me that day.

 

The track was not that great either. It was reasonable quality up to the first viewpoint but then a permanent sign noted an expectation of mud, and boy was it muddy. Between the wetness of the spring and the thick foliage preventing drying, there was plenty of mud underfoot and a lot of tree roots to negotiate. To top it off, my hiking trousers ripped in dramatic fashion as I stepped up over a tree root, revealing most of my thigh and part of my crotch (albeit still thankfully covered by my underpants). Thankfully I had my waterproof trousers with me which quickly were donned to save my dignity. At the top lookout everybody else on the trail was turning back but I passed the sign warning the track was for experienced hikers only and pressed on up the increasingly rough and vague track. The vegetation was dense and after a bit of rock and root scrambling I suddenly found the route blocked by a large fallen tree. It was too high to climb over it, there was no gap to climb through or under it, and the tree was big enough and the surrounding vegetation thick enough that I couldn’t see a way around it. There was no evidence of anyone else creating a route either, so I surmised that it was a relatively recent obstruction, but try as might I saw no way to continue. It was both a frustration and a godsend as I really had had no love for this hike, and took it as an omen to turn round and head back.

 

So now I found myself with a lot of time to kill. Thankfully my lodgings had provided me with a handy area map detailing local walks, so I headed south and round the long-winded road system that had to circumnavigate Mt Te Kinga and another lake to cut back up to the south shore of Lake Brunner to head towards the settlement of Mitchells. The road degraded from a sealed road to a metalled road but it was heavily rutted in places and having replaced my banged up motor with a newer model during the winter, I was rather cautious, especially in those sections where a skid off the road would have had me in the lake. Just outside Mitchells, a pull-in denoted the start of the Carew Falls walk. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated 30mins each way but it was more like 15mins for me and I found myself at the base of the falls in time to see a group of people abseiling down the face. It was a beautiful cascade and I watched with intrigue as the group picked their way down, briefly chatting with them at the bottom before they left me alone with the flies. I sat for a while listening to the thundering water before the swarms of flies forced me to leave.

 

It was just a few minutes drive down to the lakeside at Mitchells to reach the Bain Bay walk. On a mixture of boardwalks and sandy tracks it curved round Carew Bay and started with such promise. I passed a sign warning of occasional flooding on the track but thought nothing of it until just 5 mins later I discovered the track disappeared into the lake. There was no way to get round it without getting very wet, and for the second time that day I found myself immensely frustrated at having my hike thwarted by the elements. It appeared the lake level was higher than normal and there was nothing I could do about it. There was at least a beautiful mirrored vista across the lake, so despite the grey skies and occasional drizzle, it was still a pretty sight to behold. Pausing briefly at the lakeside on the way back, I made my way back to Moana and passed it by in order to do yet another walk in the area. But despite the description stating the turnoff was signposted, I drove the length of the road twice and couldn’t work out where I was supposed to go. Frustrated once more and feeling deflated, I returned to my cabin in the woods, heated up my ‘gourmet’ hikers instant dinner, filled my glass with wine and parked up in front of the tv to watch Christmas Day movies.

 

To the south-west of Lake Brunner lies Mount French, my chosen summit for Boxing Day. But waking up to grey sky once more, a quick drive to the lake shore confirmed my suspicion: most of the mountain was hidden in clouds. After a disasterous attempt at Mt Te Kinga the day before, I opted to cut my losses and acknowledge that the hiking gods were not smiling down on me that weekend. Anticipating this the night before, I had done some quick reading on what my local options were, and headed north-west to the west coast a short drive north from Greymouth. Here lies the Point Elizabeth walkway, a coastal walk that can be undertaken in either direction. I chose to start at the northern end and head south, meaning I parked up just outside of Rapahoe. It was a nice walk through some tropical vegetation. The sun broke through in patches and for the most part I was on my own. The odd jogger appeared from time to time, and at the halfway mark there is a lookout at Point Elizabeth. Some information posts in a few places described the flora and the possible fauna that could be spotted but despite the relatively calm sea, I spotted no marine life that day.

 

The west coast gets the brunt of the weather as it crosses the open expanse of the Tasman Sea which separates Australia from New Zealand. As such, the west coast is a wild and battered coastline, and the beaches here are littered with washed up flotsam and are of a stony nature rather than sand. Still, from above on the track, the long stretch of beach reaching south towards Greymouth looked inviting on approach and when I reached it, I found a handy log to park my butt on for a while, and I sat there for some time contemplating life and the universe whilst listening to the waves crashing on the shore. Eventually I set off in the return direction, stopping once more at the lookout before pushing on to return to my awaiting car.

 

A short drive along the road in nearby Runanga is the Coal Creek walking track. Cutting through a pleasant forest, the track gradually descends down to meet the Coal Creek, eventually coming out above and then dropping down to face onto, the Coal Creek falls. Having passed a lot of people on the track heading back to their cars, I timed my arrival with perfection, getting the falls to myself for long enough to feel satisfied before other people started to arrive. Picking your way across the rocks at the river side allows slightly differing views of this beautiful waterfall and even though the water appeared dark under the grey sky, I really liked this waterfall. As more and more people arrived, I left them to it, and headed back up to the top of the hill to sit on the bench there and watch the falls from above for a while before heading back to my car.

 

Greymouth itself was pretty much closed down for the day as it was a public holiday. The place resembled a ghost town, so after finding somewhere that I could grab a coffee (which turned out to be a highly disappointing coffee), I crossed the Grey river to Cobden hill from where a lot of people were surfing the breaks off the beach. Nearby a small wetlands provided a nice little walk accompanied by some waterfowl and a shag drying itself on a branch.

 

Sticking to the north side of the Grey river, I headed back to Lake Brunner, stopping at the site of the Brunner mine, a coal mine which suffered an explosion in 1896 killing 65 miners. To this day, even with the tragic and relatively recent events at the infamous Pike River mine, the Brunner explosion resulted in the highest death rate in the history of New Zealand mining disasters. Thanks to the gallantry of many people, all the bodies were recovered despite horrendous conditions in the mine following the event, and it is this retrieval process that has been the object of immense contention in the more recent Pike River mine disaster where sadly the bodies of those who perished still remain out of reach in the depths of the collapsed mine. The Brunner site is worthy of a look around. The entrance to the various mine shafts are fenced off, and the few remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair, but in places a smell hangs in the air, a reminder of the dangerous gases that linger below the surface. Crossing the bridge over the Grey river, an old chimney stands tall near the roadside.

 

Thanks to a bit of guesswork on the road back to Lake Brunner, I finally found the walk I’d looked for and failed to find the day before. The Arnold Dam walk follows the Arnold river to a dam and then heads up the hillside before returning to the power station where the walk starts from. The place felt eerie and after the track quickly became unappealing, I decided that I’d walked enough that day and turned round and headed back to my cabin. Having got chatting with some fellow guests, they had attempted Mt Te Kinga themselves that day despite me telling them of the fallen tree. They reported that they had made it past the fallen tree, but yet they too had had to turn back shortly after as the track became a ghost track and impossible to follow. Waking up to heavy rain the next morning, there seemed no point in hanging around. With the rain following me almost the whole way back to Christchurch, there seemed to be no point in stopping anywhere, so I found myself back home in time for lunch. The weekend had been a perfect example of plans in the outdoors failing to come to fruition. I’d failed to summit my target mountains, although I’d certainly managed to get some walking in anyway. But at least there were only a few days of work to get through before heading to the capital for New Years. Surely the weather wouldn’t fail me for two weekends in a row…

Queen Charlotte Track: Portage to Anakiwa

I couldn’t believe my luck to awake on my final day hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, to sunshine again. After the previous week’s stormy weather, I had been immensely lucky to get dry and calm weather for the duration of the 4 day hike. The picnic lunch provided by the Punga Cove Resort the morning before had been so good I still had leftovers for breakfast that morning, then I was soon booted up and back on the road again. Cutting back down to the Portage Resort, the sea sparkled in the sunshine, visible over the rooftops as I retraced my steps back up Torea Road to the Torea Saddle where the track cut off. The people I had played a constant catch up with the day before, had been given a lift up here and they were just setting off too as I arrived. For a second day we would repeatedly pass each other until they stopped early to cut the last day into two. The sign here reminds of the need for a Queen Charlotte Track Pass to hike this section, as it is crossing private land rather than Department of Conservation (DOC) land.

 

My destination for the day was Anakiwa, 21km (13 miles) away, where the Queen Charlotte Track ends. The DOC sign stated an 8hr hike, so like day 3, it was another big day of hiking to end the track. There was a quick ascent from Torea Saddle onto the ridgeline, and across the taller bush lining the path, the view was back over Portage Bay which grew smaller down below. With all the vegetation there was plenty of insect life for company as well as the couple that set off around the same time as me. As the view switched from the Kenepuru Sound to the Queen Charlotte Sound, the changing and expanding vista remained beautiful at every angle with the cloudless sky reflecting on the calm sea below.

 

A sign denoted Shamrock Ridge at 407m (1335 ft) which was just short of half way between Portage and the Te Mahia Saddle. Just past here, a couple of turns in the path overlooked Pukatea Bay in the Kenepuru Sound where some kayakers glided across the water below me. This was one of the most beautiful lookout spots on the track that day and with a well placed picnic bench elevated above the track, it was a perfect place to stop for a snack. It also gave a good vantage point of the route ahead, and I was happy to sit there for a while just soaking up the view.

 

From the lookout, the path dropped a little altitude, passing yet another landslide which involved actually climbing up over the back of it to get past. Aside from these slight hiccups, the path continued to be easy going, and the views were constant on both sides of the peninsula as it levelled out on a lower ridge line. Passing the 16km (10 mile) post, the turn-off to Lochmara Lodge was beyond that, hidden amongst the shade of some bushes. Keeping me company as I passed by was a fantail, a little bird that likes to sing a pretty song as it flits between the branches, occasionally displaying its tail fan that gives it its name.

 

The path took a slight climb once more before circling the back of a peak, eventually reaching a track junction which led up to the Onahau Lookout. The track zig-zagged up the hillside to a summit of 416m (1365 ft) which was proving a popular place to be. Within walking distance of several accommodations in the bays below as well as to one of the boat ramps, there were several groups that had walked here from nearby Te Mahia. As people came and went, I moved around the broad summit where the view was fractionally different depending on where you stood. This was the highest point of the day’s hike and marked a change in the hiking terrain as it descended from the peninsula ridge line.

 

Coming down from the summit after a while spent sunning myself, I rejoined the Queen Charlotte Track as it started to lose altitude on approach to the Te Mahia saddle. A couple of zig-zags in the path afforded a stunning overview of Te Mahia Bay before a junction marker pointed down to Mistletoe Bay on the Queen Charlotte Sound. Soon after, a much needed toilet was reached right before finding myself at Te Mahia saddle and the sound of cars driving by. The DOC sign denotes this as the halfway mark of the hike, and it is necessary to walk down Onahau Road a little bit to reach the next stage of the Queen Charlotte Track.

 

I could hear them before I could see them, and I was rather gutted to turn the couple of corners on the road to find a large group of teenagers on a school outing spread out around the side of the road next to the track junction. As someone who loves the solitude of hiking away from civilisation, I certainly don’t mind coming across other hikers from time to time, but a large group of noisy people is not my favourite track companion, and a large group of bored and whiny teenagers was the last thing I wanted to share the track with. Their teacher had to get them to make a space for me to pass by, and although I set off ahead of them, I didn’t get far before their loud voices and then them themselves, caught up with me.

I slowed down my speed in an effort to let them pass me by and leave me behind. It took a while as they became quite spread out with the stragglers a good 10 minutes behind the leaders. There were few members of staff despite the large group and I cringed listening to their ridiculous conversations as they passed by. There’s nothing like listening to teenage conversation to make me feel old.

But the vegetation and terrain were changing. I was suddenly among bush again with just sporadic views out over Onahau Bay. Among the tall trees were some streams which meant waterfalls by the track as well as shade which was much appreciated by this stage. The track undulated as it followed the contours of the hillside, curling round the side of the bay before suddenly opening up at pastureland where a horse grazed in a large paddock. After this open stretch, it headed back into bush as it neared its turning point from Onahau Bay into the Grove Arm of the Queen Charlotte Sound. I took a breather at a picnic table near the turn before ploughing on.

 

Now the view was all about the Grove Arm, the far side hosting a myriad of settlements. The track continued to follow the contour of the land until coming to a lookout giving a beautiful view up to the head of the Grove Arm. Anakiwa was just tucked out of sight but was getting ever closer. A few corners later the path finally started to descend, passing the 6km (4 mile) mark as it did so. It was a long drawn out descent to Davies Bay campsite at Umungata Bay. There were a few campers as well as a couple of ducks sharing the bay with me, and I had plenty of time to sit on the sand and watch some people go swimming in the sea. I had made the decision to spend the night in Anakiwa, rather than rush to catch the afternoon boat back to Picton, so I had all the time in the world to rest my feet up and sunbathe.

 

It was such a wide bay that I would move along and pick a different spot to sit after a while, moving from sunshine to shade to get a little respite from the rays. Eventually though it was time to press on to Anakiwa, my hunger driving one foot in front of the other as my legs grew weary. Back amongst the trees once more, the sea was just a fleeting glimpse, but being so close to civilisation again, there were a few people out jogging here. I passed the 1km post deep within the trees, but as I approached Anakiwa, the foliage opened a little and I could see some shags nesting on the branches. Then suddenly some houses appeared, and before long I found myself at the sign denoting the end of the hike, and there I was in Anakiwa, about 7 hrs after leaving Portage behind, passing the Outward Bound school where the teenagers that had passed me had been headed. I made my way through the throng once more in search of my hostel for the night, thankful to discover they sold food and beverages after discovering that Anakiwa lacked anywhere to eat out.

 

My plan had been to go kayaking the next day ahead of the afternoon boat back to Picton, but I awoke to overcast skies and rain showers. Having to check out of the hostel, I wandered along the shoreline in both directions before eventually heading to the Anakiwa pier where the shelter had a selection of books to read and shortly after a food cart opened to serve hot drinks and snacks. As time went on, more and more people arrived to sit on the grass waiting for the boats to arrive. Just like on day 1 from Picton, there are choices of boat operators to get back to Picton, and I had booked a transfer with the same company that I had headed to Ship’s Cove with. They arrived early and with all the booked passengers on board early, we set off ahead of schedule to sail back up the Grove Arm and round the bay to Picton. I returned to the relative bustle of Picton, exceedingly satisfied to have completed the hike that I had yearned to do for some time.

Queen Charlotte Track: Punga Cove to Portage

I’d eased myself in nicely to the Queen Charlotte Track, but waking up on day 3, I had a lot of ground to cover before the day was out. Despite being built on a steep hill, I loved Punga Cove, the resort in Camp Bay where I’d spent the night. I could picture coming back here on holiday, catching the boat from Picton and then lounging in the hammocks. It’s a rare occurrence for me to want to relax on holiday, but here was somewhere I could see myself doing so. It is a stunning part of the world.

I had awoken to yet another cracker of a day with a predicted high of 30oC, and from the balcony of the common room, there was a beautiful vista back down to the pier below. From the restaurant where I filled up with breakfast, I could see across Endeavour Inlet and watched as fingers of cloud wrapped over the summit peaks across the bay. Today’s hike was expected to be 8 hrs, and with nowhere to get food on route, I paid to get a packed lunch made up at the resort and it was totally worth it. Unlike the Furneaux Lodge the night before which had been expensive and a little lacking in portion size, Punga Cove was much more reasonable and the lunch looked appetising. Pulling my hiking boots back onto my feet, and throwing my backpack on, I followed the signs out of the resort to the dirt track that led up the hill.

Punga Cove pier at Camp Bay

Endeavour Inlet from Punga Cove's restaurant

This way to the Queen Charlotte Track

 

With a full belly, this long and windy track up to the Kenepuru Saddle was a little tiring, and the rough stony surface was uncomfortable under foot. Near the top, a man coming downhill seemed lost and he joined me as we made our way to rejoin the Queen Charlotte Track. For those that weren’t staying at Camp Bay, the track had climbed up to the Saddle on a separate route, and here at this junction, the track switched from Department of Conservation (DOC) land to private land managed by a trust. From Kenepuru Sound onwards, users of the trail need to possess a pass which can be purchased in advance or through some of the resorts on route. The fee is to aid in the upkeep of the land, and spot-checks can occur to ensure compliance. My companion hadn’t realised that he needed one, and didn’t know what to do. The Punga Cove resort sold them but that meant going all the way back down the hill again, and I could see him torn about whether to turn back or risk going onwards. In the end I left him dithering.

DOC Signage at Kenepuru Saddle

 

The track immediately climbed to a low ridgeline offering a stunning view along the valley. For the first time, the Queen Charlotte Sound was out of view, and now I was looking out towards the Kenepuru Sound on the opposite side of the peninsula in the distance. The valley view kept me company for some time, the water creeping ever closer as I looked down over farmland. The 41km (25.5 mile) marker came and went and yet another landslide was passed. The track changed to a woodland walk, giving some brief respite from the sun which was already warming up well. There were lots of hand-painted signs along the track, many giving distance markers to local places or further afield. As the Kenepuru Sound reached a head-on view, the track shifted slightly and I found myself looking back over the Queen Charlotte Sound again. It was a little hazy but with blue skies and blue sea, there was much to look at.

Looking across to Mt McMahon

Kenepuru Sound peaks into view

The first of many landslides on day 3

Walking through the woods

Woodland track

Looking out towards a hazy Queen Charlotte Sound

 

Beyond here, the tall trees framed the view over Kenepuru and a short while later a side track led up to Eatwells Lookout at 474m (1555ft). A weka wandered around, and I left it stumbling around the undergrowth and slogged up the rough track to the lookout. At the top was a trio of hikers who I ended up repeatedly bumping into for the next two days. We shared some conversation as we all absorbed the view and then they left me to it. There was some cloud hovering over the Queen Charlotte Sound meaning the North Island was hidden from view. Another hand-painted distance marker showed that I was a long way from a lot of places and that suited me just fine. One of my favourite things about hiking is the feeling of isolation and being a long way from the world and its troubles. I was hot, but I was completely at ease.

Kenepuru Sound

Kenepuru Sound and valley panorama

Eatwells Lookout signage

Eatwells Lookout panorama

A long way from anywhere

Distance marker at Eatwells Lookout

Looking towards the North Island shrouded in cloud

Kenepuru Sound from Eatwells Lookout

 

I’d made the mistaken decision to wear my gym capris for that day’s hike instead of my usual hiking trousers, and already I was regretting it. Unlike my trousers which are looser and help the air flow to keep me cool, my capris were encouraging me to sweat, and they felt tight and clingy. But after some other people appeared at the lookout, I headed off to continue on the long day’s hike. Back at the track junction, a DOC sign listed just 30mins to reach the Bay of Many Coves Shelter. The track disappeared into a tunnel of trees where I was taunted by South Island Robins, a small and quick little bird that always eludes my camera. When at last there was a view again, it was over the beautiful Bay of Many Coves, who’s name is descriptively accurate. The changing viewpoint of this gorgeous bay was to be my companion for some time.

Woodland tunnel

Tree tunnel

Bay of Many Coves panorama

Directional Markers above Bay of Many Coves

Bay of Many Coves

 

Near the 36km (22 mile) marker a juvenile weka wandered out the bushes and eyeballed me for a while, it’s sprouting feathers a dishevelled mess. It proceeded to plonk itself down next to the path and preen itself whilst I watched. After the shelter, the track started to climb again until it reached a side track leading down to a resort on the waterfront. From here onwards, the track was quick to switch back to views of the Kenepuru Sound and I was regularly coming across a spread out group of mountain bikers using the trail that day. The track quality here was probably the poorest of the whole hike: obvious to follow but very uneven and stony under foot.

Weka juvenile

Kenepuru Sound

Head of Kenepuru Sound

Looking back up the valley towards Kenepuru Saddle

Rocky path

 

After a long section overlooking the Kenepuru side of the peninsula, the track curved round a peak towards the Queen Charlotte Sound again, and for the first time since I’d left it 2 days prior, I could see Picton, the town where the interisland ferry departs from, and where I’d caught the boat to Ship’s Cove to start the hike. It seemed both far away and so close at the same time, an illusion created by the continued snaking of the track and the peninsula that it followed. The busyness of the track that day meant I regularly found the viewpoints and benches were taken up when I got to them, and I was eager to find somewhere with a view to stop and have lunch. I’d already had a few snacks but I was eager for a break to rest my feet. Finally I found a perfectly shaped stone seat overlooking Blackwood Bay to enjoy a late lunch.

Kenepuru Sound

Picton

Queen Charlotte Sound

Blackwood Bay panorama

Blackwood Bay

 

The sky continued to remain cloudless, keeping the mercury high that day, but the haze had reduced since the morning, making the distant viewing much clearer. There simply wasn’t a bad view in sight, and as I wandered along with Picton in the visible distance, I watched the two interisland ferries plough through the Queen Charlotte Sound seeming small like a toy. By the time I reached Black Rock Station, I was once more looking over the Kenepuru Sound and there was the occasional hint of civilisation with a road curving round the shore below and the occasional house or building. Passing the 26km (16 mile) marker, I was afforded a view all the way back up to the Kenepuru Sound Head which I’d passed many hours prior.

Interislander ferry

Blackrock Station viewpoint

26km to go!

Looking back up Kenepuru Sound

 

When at last I reached Black Rock Campsite, I met the same group of hikers I’d met at Eatwell Lookout earlier that morning. My energy was starting to flag a little, and 6hrs into the hike, I needed to start conserving my water. The trees meant the view was limited here, so once I’d refuelled, I moved on. After a while, the trees grew taller and denser and the track began its long descent towards Portage. It is possible to leave the Queen Charlotte Track behind and hike up another peak for an alternative, less marked route to Portage, but I opted to stick to the proper track meaning a long forest walk that swung out on a long ridge before almost doubling back on itself. Within this forest section I played tortoise and hare with the same 3 hikers from before, and here, the landslides were the worst of the entire hike. The bikers that had passed me earlier would have had quite a bit of effort getting their bikes over these ones with a good bit of climbing up over tree branches required.

View from Black Rock Campsite

Back in the forest

Rockface amongst the bush

 

The occasional break in the trees provided some distraction from the feeling that the path would never end. I knew it was to double back at a point, but it felt like forever before this happened, and then with glee I realised that Portage and the food and cold cider that that would bring were getting more and more within reach. When finally I reached the 21km (13 mile) marker, it was almost just a stumble to come out of the trees and reach a tarmac road where a war memorial sat at the saddle of the hill. This road crossed the peninsula from one side to the other and I followed it north to head down the hill to Portage. Even it had not escaped damage from the recent storm and there were landslides on both sides of it, including one large one halfway down where the side of the road and the bank that had supported it had collapsed and slid down the hillside.

View through the forest foliage

War Memorial on Torea Rd

Washed out road

 

Portage sparkled in the sunshine and I followed the signs to my accommodation for the night. It had taken me 3 attempts to find somewhere to stay here, finally bagging a bed at the Treetops Backpackers. Only once I reached the shoreline at Portage did I realise with dismay that my backpackers was up a hill. My feet were moving purely on autopilot by this stage after well over 7hrs, and the thighs started screaming at me as I began the hike up the driveway to reach the house at the top. I was delighted to discover that I had the backpackers to myself, there having been some cancellations following the earthquake the week before, and I kicked my shoes off and peeled my clothes off to have a much needed shower at just the right temperature.

After resting my feet briefly, I headed down the hill once more to the Portage Resort where I nabbed myself a nice cold cider, and found myself a table with a sea view to enjoy it. All the bikers that had passed me that day were at a nearby table, and the place was popular and bustling. After a while I ordered dinner and tucked in to a much deserved meal whilst the sun began to dip low behind the nearby hill. Only when the air grew colder and my eyes began to feel heavy did I leave to make my way back up the hill to my private cabin in the woods. There was no view other than trees, but this place was just what I needed, and once again it took little effort to drift off for another restful sleep.

Portage panorama

A well-deserved cider with a view

Queen Charlotte Track: Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove

I awoke following a restful sleep to a beautiful sunny morning. Stepping out of my cabin, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sea was calm and still. It was going to be another stunning day in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. After another expensive meal for breakfast at the idyllic Furneaux Lodge, I took my time milling around the grounds in no hurry to leave. This was to be the shortest day’s hike of the Queen Charlotte track and I had time on my side. My destination for the night was visible on the far side of the glistening waters of Endeavour Inlet and I had a couple of side trips that I wanted to make on route.

Morning sunshine at Furneaux Lodge

Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge

 

The moon was still visible in the sky as I left the lodge behind and headed back onto the Queen Charlotte track. It was a little vague in places with multiple side routes heading off into bushes and down to a nearby stream. Not too far along the track was a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marking a 1 hour return track to a waterfall. With plenty of daylight hours ahead of me, this was the first of two detours to make that day. Nobody else seemed to be on this track and it was with good reason: shortly after leaving the main track behind, the quality deteriorated dramatically and I found myself pushing through the overgrowth and climbing over tree roots blindly following the orange arrows that pointed the way. A giant tree and the occasional glimpse of the nearby stream broke up the view of thick bush, and after what felt like forever, I was a little underwhelmed with what I found at the end of the bush track. A large boulder had created a high rock wall next to what I assume used to be a waterfall. There was only a small trickle, but the moss on the rock surface suggested this has had a lot of water over it in the past. There was a waterfall not far from here but I had to climb through tree branches to view it properly so I’m not convinced this was the original waterfall that the track was created for.

Half moon in the daylight

Waterfall track turnoff

Rimu tree

Rimu trunk with creepers

Path crossing a stream

Waterfall near the end of the track

 

Back on the Queen Charlotte track, the detour had taken a little under an hour, and the main route remained amongst the trees for a little longer. Only at the next resort did the sea come back into view, and just past here I passed the 56 km (35 mile) mark, before reaching a suspension bridge over a river. Here was the head of the Endeavour Inlet and over the bridge there was some pasture land with grazing cattle to the right and signs relaying information about the mining works of the area. Up the valley is the remains of an antimony mine, and down where I stood used to stand the village where the miners and their families lived. There wasn’t much evidence left of their presence. The DOC sign detailed the mines as being an hour away, and this was to be my second detour of the day, stretching what would otherwise be a 5hr hike into a 7hr hike. Passing the rusted remains of old farm machinery, and some properties hidden amongst the bush, the track followed a 4×4 track to a river and crossed the other side via a ford. I walked up and down the river bank looking for another way across but with no gaiters to help keep the water out of my boots there was no way that I was crossing this deep a river without the right gear. I was a little annoyed and a little frustrated as I had assumed it would be a straightforward track to follow. I wandered back and forth a couple of times in case I’d missed an obvious turn in the track, but eventually had to admit defeat and turn back.

Endeavour Inlet

56km to go...

Suspension bridge

Pastureland

DOC sign at Head of Endeavour Inlet

Antimony Mine turn-off

Head of Endeavour Inlet

Rusty tractor

 

I wasn’t disheartened for long though with such fabulous scenery to grab my attention. I wandered down to the mudflat at the head of Endeavour Inlet and breathed in the fresh sea air for a while before rejoining the track. A little down the track there was a well placed stone bench that I made use of for a snack stop, looking out at the sea. After a brief respite, I started meandering along the track again, taking the fork away from the shoreline where it started to pick its way up the hillside again. I could see back over to Furneaux Lodge on the far side, and the track varied between being amongst thick bush, and being more open. Small streams trickled past the track, and a couple of bridges spanned a couple of them.

Panorama at Head of Endeavour Inlet

Reflections on Endeavour Inlet

View from the seat

Fork in the road

Looking across to Furneaux Lodge

 

After a while, the bush opened up, and a gate marked a transition into a more cultivated landscape where the grass was short and a couple of baches (holiday homes) sat on the hillside above the track. A lone weka rummaged around in the undergrowth near a picnic table, and these birds were a constant companion on this hike. In wild bushland in New Zealand roams wild boar, introduced historically for hunting purposes. I have once come across some whilst out hiking in the bush in the North Island and they gave me such a fright when they burst out of nowhere in front of me on the trail. I had read that boar could occasionally be spotted on this track, and on a frequent basis the sound of rustling in the undergrowth would get my curiosity up only to find it was a weka, either on its own, or with a chick. These chicken-sized birds are one of many flightless bird species in the country and many tourists confuse them for kiwis.

Panorama from the gate

Panorama in front of the baches

 

After returning to the bush once more, the track showed lots of evidence of the earthquake and flash flooding that had occurred just a week prior. In one section the ground had cracked and dropped, creating stepping and past this a landslide littered the path with debris. I passed the 51 km (31.5 miles) mark surrounded by bush before a break in the vegetation allowed me to get a view across the Endeavour Inlet to where it branches off the Queen Charlotte Sound. Just as the path took a near 90 degree turn, I was once more distracted by a rummaging in the bush. Out fell a one-legged weka who contemplated me briefly before hopping and falling over to my feet. They are quite bold birds and eager to grab any tasty morsel they can claim from you given half a chance. They are even known to peck at cameras and steal lens caps. I watched it for a while, crouching down to its level and eyeballing it whilst it stood there. After some time though, something spooked it and it went racing back to the bushes as fast as its one leg could carry it.

Cracks in the path

Landslide across the path

Blue waters of Endeavour Inlet

Curled fern

51km to go...

Endeavour Inlet opens into the Queen Charlotte Sound

Weka

Weka mimicking a Kiwi

Eye-balling a one legged weka

 

The track changed from a clay-like soil to tree roots and fallen leaves as it once again returned to the bush. In the blistering heat, the regular shade was a welcome relief, and then I turned a corner to come across a fallen tree that spanned the path. As a hiker, these obstacles were easy enough to manoeuvre around but the Queen Charlotte track is a shared biking track, and there were plenty of people biking the track whilst I was hiking it. The regular landslips and leaning trees were merely a side-step or easy clamber over or under for me, but they would have meant a dismount or a lifting over of a bike for the many riders on the track.

Looking across to Camp Bay

Walking through the forest

Stream by the QCT

Tree fallen across the path

 

It was a long section in the bush rounding the headland into Big Bay. Once more there were plenty of streams and waterfalls to look at and the beautiful canopy above and around me was ever changing. I was serenaded by bellbirds and robins that flitted through the trees as I passed below them. Where the track skirted the shoreline again I passed through the tree line onto the rocky shore and found a handy log to sit on. It was a beautiful snack stop listening to the gentle lapping of the waves near my feet under a still cloudless sky. I was less than an hour away from my destination and it was only early afternoon. I toyed with the idea of taking a swim then thought better of it, and chose to sunbathe for a while instead.

Big Bay sign

Beautiful canopy above

Waterfall next to the QCT

Bellbird in the canopy

Rest stop at Big Bay

 

Back on the track, there was a nearly uninterrupted sea view for the rest of the hike. Beyond here the track divided: the lower track heading to a variety of accommodation options in Camp Bay, and the upper track cutting up the hillside to reach the Kenepuru Saddle. I had booked a cabin at Punga Cove in Camp Bay so stuck to the lower path which almost immediately demonstrated a high level of erosion. It is possible that either the earthquake or the flash flooding of November 14th did the damage, but I suspect a lot of the cracks and holes in the ground were more likely due to the wash-out effect of the rain. A large crack split the track lengthways down the middle and past this, a large hole had swallowed up half the width of the path. Undeterred I could see Punga Cove through the trees and kept going.

Big Bay panorama

Approaching Camp Bay

Big Bay

Large crack in the path

Large hole in the path

Looking across to Punga Cove

 

The amble into Camp Bay’s campsite is beautiful with boats anchored in the water, and houses peaking through the trees. I could see people swimming in the sea in the distance and could hear the sound of people enjoying themselves. A DOC sign at the campsite showed I’d walked 27 of the 71 km track and I was just 15 minutes away from my night’s stop. Passing a jetty I followed the signs to Punga Cove as they separated from the main track and as it curved round a bend I came across a large hole in the track. There was just a ledge left, big enough to fit a foot and little more and I hastily crossed it, aware of the drop if the ground decided to give way below me. But waiting at the other side of me was the most fantastic spot to spend the night.

House in the bushes

Camp Bay Campsite

Punga Cove turn-off

Track washed out

 

Punga Cove is spread out across the hillside overlooking Camp Bay. At the pier at sea level is a bar and cafe, next to which is a grass lawn littered with deck chairs and hammocks hanging amongst the trees. Just behind this is a hot tub and swimming pool, and the accommodation is littered at various levels up the hill. I checked in at reception to discover my hiker’s cabin was right at the top of the hill and I sweated my way up in the heat to find my little room waiting for me. Upstairs, the shared kitchen/lounge had a balcony which overlooked the bay. After removing my shoes and gingerly heading downhill in my bare feet, I stopped by the pool to soak my legs for a while then picked my way to the bar, ordered a pizza and a cider and parked up on the pier to relax. It would have been a good place to go swimming but I had packed light and had nothing to swim in, so I took the lazy and leisurely approach of sunbathing whilst watching everyone else play in the water.

Punga Cove panorama

View from the kitchen/dining room

Pier panorama

 

The mail boat came and went and I strolled along the pier to watch the fishes before finding a large hammock suspended amongst the lower trees next to the lawn. I swayed and dozed here until the sun had dropped low enough to leave me cool in the shade. Following a snack, I returned to the pier bar for some ice cream and hot chocolate and waited for the sun to get low behind the hill. Then I just had to retreat up the hillside once more and find my bed to give my legs a rest. The shared lounge had a book share so I took a book to read which I struggled to get into, but it wasn’t hard to fall asleep after all the fresh air and walking. I woke in the night to the sensation of an earthquake and thought to myself that I wouldn’t have wanted to be perched on that hillside if a big quake ripped through there. But after a 5 hr hike that day, I was quick to get back to sleep, ready for the big day’s hike ahead of me.

Punga Cove pier bar

Punga Cove nestled among the trees

Hammock time

View from the hammock

Giant bug at Punga Cove

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