MistyNites

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Lemosho Route – Shira Peak to Baranco

There was always a niggling doubt in my mind that perhaps I wouldn’t make it. That perhaps the altitude would get to me, and that I’d have to accept failure. The aim of each day was to climb high but camp low, so that we graduated our altitude gain, exposed our body to higher altitudes, but slept a little lower than the day’s highest point, to allow it to recover and limit the stress that the altitude brings. Shira Peak had been day three’s highest point, so after we’d gotten our fill of the view, we followed the trail back to Cathedral Junction and after another break here, we cut back down to the Shira Plateau to continue across to join the rest of our hiking group at the next campsite.

Back on the plateau, there was again a dearth of vegetation, and after a while we came out at a smooth area where a plethora of hikers before us had erected a multitude of miniature stone cairns. We still had a bit of a walk to the campsite but it was time to answer the call of nature, and so began the search for somewhere private. Between my fellow hikers, the guides that were with us, and the lack of vegetation, there wasn’t much in the way of privacy. Being a guy definitely has its advantages in this respect, but when at last a group of large bushes lay off the track, I was quick to separate myself from the group. Although G Adventures is a Canadian company, they always make use of local guides and porters, abide by fair employment rights, promote ethical travel, and partner with the charity Planeterra to give back to the community. Our guides, who were utterly incredible, amazing at their job, funny, and selfless, had instilled in us the importance of taking our rubbish with us and not dumping or polluting the environment. I wouldn’t do this anyway, but our guide had explained that they had targets to meet with their rubbish – if they didn’t take an expected amount of rubbish off the mountain relative to the weights of what they had carried up, they would get fined. In other words, there was an incentive to bring rubbish out, and some of the guides or porters would seek out rubbish to pick up and carry, to ensure they were well above the expected minimum, as well as tidying up the mountain.

We shortly came upon a roughly marked helicopter landing spot as our track met one of the evacuation routes off the mountain. From here, the track started to climb once more and shrubbery returned again before we finally reached Shira II camp at 3850m (12631ft). The sun had by now gone, and the sky was grey and cloudy, but the campsite was full of life. By this stage, the Lemosho Route had joined with the Shira Route, and so now there were hikers gathering from two different ascent routes. Although it was spread out, there were tents everywhere and surprisingly considering the altitude, there were quite a lot of birds hanging around also. Behind our campsite were large volcanic boulders that gave an elevated view point on the campsite itself but also to the increasingly large Kibo Massif which was tantalisingly close, but as always happened in the afternoon, veiled behind a swirl of cloud. Whilst taking a wander around the campsite, I got chatting with a hiker who was ascending with another company. We shared experiences of our hike so far, as well as general chit-chat before parting ways to rejoin our groups. As time went on, more and more people arrived at the campsite.

 

When I’d hiked the Inca Trail through the Andes Mountains to Machu Picchu, I’d been so grateful for the work of the porters who’d carried our stuff and the chefs who’d created delicious meals that had fueled us to our destination. Our entire team on Mt Kilimanjaro, the G Fighters as we called them, led by G Daddy as we called our head guide, were incredible human beings. They greeted us with smiles and enthusiasm, they seemed genuinely interested in our lives, they seemed genuinely happy when we spoke in what little Swahili we knew, and among each other they had an incredible camaraderie, functioning like a family unit of loving brothers, and they all spoke highly of each other as well as how they were treated as employees. We all loved them for it, and really couldn’t have done the hike with a better bunch of human beings. After we’d had some time to ourselves, G Daddy called us all together and we stood by our incredible team as they sang and danced for us in Swahili, welcoming us to Tanzania, blessing us for our hike ahead and singing the song of the mountain. It drew a crowd and as it continued, they enticed us in to dance with them, which we did with great embarrassment. With my terrible memory I have forgotten most of their names, but I can still picture several of their faces, and even recalling the interactions that I had with them as I write this blog, I can feel the emotions that I felt on that trip rush back to the surface.

 

I’m not sure whether it was the singing and dancing, or the incredible views as the clouds parted to expose Kibo, the tallest of the three cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro, but this campsite holds a special place in my heart. I felt like I could just reach out and touch Kibo, but from this perspective it was now obvious that we had to skirt round a good chunk of the massif to reach the trail that would lead us to the summit. There was a lot more snow visible now that we were up close and I could see some steep, striated cliffs in various places. As the sun set behind us, the clouds turned red as the peak faded into the background. At our evening debrief, my oxygen saturation had reduced to 94%, still an acceptable level for the altitude, and I deliberated what to do with the diamox. As a diuretic, I was having to pee a lot, and the previous night’s shortness of breath had been really off-putting. As we listened to G Daddy tell us about the day ahead, it became clear that day 4 would likely be a bit of a challenge for at least some, if not all of the group.

 

Coming out of the tent the next morning, there was just a line of red on the horizon before the sun broke through and lit up the sky. We were provided with our large breakfast, as every meal had been, and I struggled a little to finish it. I was tired. As much as I have camped in my life, it doesn’t tend to allow a good night’s sleep, so there was a developing background level of tiredness after 3 nights of disturbed sleep. The altitude wouldn’t have helped either. By the time we were ready to head off, the sky was a brilliant blue and the sun was again ready to beat down on us, having risen above the Kibo Massif. There was a definite feeling of leaving the plant life behind as we climbed over the rocky wall that had been the background for our campsite. From then onward, rock and dust became the landscape of the day, with only the hardiest of low plants dotted around the place. As a group we were really spread out this day as we set our own pace. G Daddy and the other guides really instilled the slow and steady ideology into us, and whilst at the lower altitudes it had frustrated a little, it was really starting to make sense.

Initially the climb was gradual but I was feeling the gain in altitude, the character of my breath noticeably different and a hint of a headache threatening to form. We stopped often to regroup before once more we would spread out. In any other scenario, the bleak landscape could have become monotonous, but there was a constant activity of clouds swirling above us, the rock patterns changed often, and towering above us was the increasingly close Kibo Massif. In fact as we approached the steeper part of the day’s hike, we were practically underneath it, finally reaching the base of the Massif as we reached a brief steep push to reach our lunch stop at the Lava Tower camp at 4600m (15091ft). This was several hundred metres higher than the highest point of the Inca Trail, my only previous experience of hiking at altitude, and boy was I feeling it. Every breath I took felt dissatisfying. It felt like my lungs weren’t inflating properly, and I could just never inhale enough oxygen. I could actually feel the thinness of the air every time I inhaled. Although we were only stopping for lunch, this campsite is used by hikers on other trails, and by this stage we had actually joined up with those on the Machame Route. Having previously joined those on the Shira Route, there were now three route’s worth of people conjoined on the trail. This campsite is also the launching off point for the Western Breach trail, the most dangerous ascent route of Kibo, scaling the steeper, rougher and less stable western side.

 

We were briefly entertained by a couple of mice running around our tent. Despite the lack of air, the regularity of humans had obviously allowed life to continue here. I wasn’t hungry but managed to eat some lunch. Our guides insisted we continue to force food in, even if we didn’t want it, to maintain energy for the hike ahead. Aside from the breathing, the headache that had been threatening was getting a little more pronounced. It was still tolerable, but it was there, and at this point, still with over 1000m of gain to achieve the summit, the doubts started to creep in. News came to us that one of our group was being led down the mountain. One of the Americans, in an act of brave defiance, had decided to hike Mt Kilimanjaro less than 6 weeks after having major surgery, to honour his daughter who he’d recently lost. Whilst we’d all thought he was crazy for attempting it, we all had immense respect for him, and he had been good company on the hike. It was sad to hear he wasn’t going to make it, but as the evacuation route was easier from before the Lava Tower than anywhere afterwards, and as our incredible guides had the knowledge to know what was to come on the hike, as well as to recognise who wasn’t fit enough to do it, they had made the right decision for him, and taken him down before it was too risky. It again brought it home the immensity of this hike.

I was happy to leave Lava Tower camp behind, eager to lose a bit of altitude and give my body a break. The initial descent was steep and quick, crossing loose scree on the slope of Kibo as we skirted the western flank heading south. There was a constant procession of people and from here onward, the trail was packed with porters pushing ahead and hikers spread out across the trail. As with the previous afternoons, the familiar sight of the cloud enveloping and retreating over the Kibo Massif repeatedly played out as we made the long and gradual descent to our next campsite. This section was one of the worst for litter on the mountain. With no toilets away from camp, every person that relieved themselves on the mountain left their mark, and unbelievably, the amount of abandoned toilet paper, wet wipes and even sanitary pads and tampons was astounding. I always, and have always, carried out everything from a hike that I carry in, and I had a special bag to seal up anything I used for sanitation purposes. I just couldn’t believe that all these people had not cared about the environment they were walking through and had just left behind all these things, which not only was a contaminant for the soil and the local water supplies, but at this elevated altitude where the oxygen is reduced and the temperature is colder, they just won’t decompose at any great speed, if at all.

 

The trail eventually met and followed a stream, besides which life was teeming with some trees and shrubbery appearing once more. Kibo sparkled in the sun next to us until a thick bank of cloud enveloped it and us and we descended into the Baranco campsite with little visibility. At 3900m (12795ft) we weren’t much higher than the previous night’s camp, but this was important for our bodies after the jump to Lava Tower. The cloud meant I had no idea where the next day’s hike would take us and even when it lifted to reveal the surroundings of where we were, I still was naive to the next day’s task. Between the drama of the cloud and the sheer scale of the mountain around us, this was probably my favourite campsite in terms of aesthetics, but although I felt better here than I had at Lava Tower, I wasn’t really feeling great. My appetite was noticeably reduced and to top it off, I felt bloated and sore in my guts, a problem I can get even at home in normal altitude, but an issue that was accentuated by the symptoms of altitude sickness that I was experiencing. For the first time, I’d had to take pain killers to help the headache, and I had to lie down for spells to help my stomach settle. G Daddy noticed I wasn’t myself, and took me aside to check on me. I assured him I just needed rest, but I felt his attention on me from then onwards.

 

Baranco Camp is the only place on the mountain where there is cellphone service, and even then, it is only in one little spot on a bit of rock. It was amusing to watch people congregate there to rejoin the outside world. Several of those I was hiking with had children or close family in need of updating, but I had loved being off the Internet and in the moment. In fact I hadn’t had this degree of digital detox since the days of smart phones arrived, and I was so happy without it. Living in the moment had been too easy – I was after all in Africa, in Tanzania, living a dream, and focusing on surviving and putting one foot ahead of the other. My only thoughts of communication were whether I was going to be able to get a summit photo to show the World, or whether I’d have to send a sheepish and deflated message home to say I’d failed. Those thoughts remained with me from this point onwards, but I did my best to just to take in my surroundings and push those feelings aside.

 

That night at debrief, my oxygen saturation was down to 92% and I was actually surprised to still be in the 90s given how I’d felt at Lava Tower. A few of the group had dropped into the 80s but no-one was deemed as a danger to continue, and so we listened to our debrief for the following day. Day 5 was all about the Baranco Wall, the great ascent that was to take us out of our current campsite and onto the southern flank of Kibo. I’d read about it in my guidebook, I’d heard about it from other people, and now the guides were regaling the immensity of the challenge that was to face us the next day. I’d failed to work out where the trail was going in the daylight hours, so I would just have to wait till morning to see what all the fuss was about. I retired to my tent, less worried about the infamous Baranco Wall, and more worried about how my health would hold up.

Lemosho Route – Londorosi to Shira Peak

Deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro is probably the easiest of the decisions to make with regards to hiking this behemoth of a mountain. With 6 ascent routes to choose from, there is a lot weighing on the choice of route up, and then there is the choice of who or where to hire your guide and porters, or what company to hike with, not to mention which month to go for. I had the relative luxury of time and after doing some research, I opted to hike via the Lemosho Route which is the longest route, allowing for decent acclimitisation, and therefore having one of the highest summit success rates. I’ve hiked at altitude before in the Andes mountain range in Peru, but this was the first time I would be paying a lot of money to hike a mountain that I wasn’t really guaranteed to summit. For all it’s popularity, the success rate of reaching Uhuru Peak on Kilimanjaro’s Kibo Massif is only 66% (give or take, depending on the source), so the best I could do to improve my chances, was to pick the route with the best chance of leading me there. For me, choosing the route was nearly as easy as deciding to hike the mountain in the first place, and in the end, I didn’t deliberate too long about the company I went with either. Having had an incredible trip to the Galapagos with G Adventures a few years prior, I decided that they would be the people to lead me up Africa’s highest mountain.

After picking up our guides and porters outside of Moshi, we left the dry, red landscape behind and headed into the forests that grew on the fertile slope of what is a dormant volcano. I missed out on spotting the monkeys that some of my fellow passengers noticed, but I was content just watching the landscape go by, spotting people farming and workers upgrading the road under the blistering African sun. It was over an hour and a half before we pulled up at Londorosi Gate (2250m/7382ft) and all piled out. Here, everyone and everything had to come off the bus. This was the weigh-in station where all our bags and the equipment that the porters would carry for us, had to be weighed to make sure they were within the limits set out for carrying. Meanwhile, we had to check in for the hike, signing in at the office before there was a lot of hanging around waiting for the logistical side of things to get wrapped up. Even when at last we all bundled back on to our bus and everything was loaded back on to the roof, we still had a half hour drive to reach Lemosho Gate (2100m/6890ft), and from here, our hike was finally to begin.

 

With a summit altitude of 5,895 metres (19,341 ft), I felt initially dismayed that the bus climbed up and up as it drove us there, somehow thinking that we were cheating by skipping the lower slopes of the mountain. Having left Moshi at 950m (3117ft), we’d already gained over 1000m (3281ft) on the drive, but over the coming days, I’d put those feelings aside. We gathered for a group photo at the start of the hike as loud birds crowed above our heads, and finally, after over 2 years of planning, I was finally on my way to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Our first campsite was listed as 4hrs away and the trail took us through dense forest, with swathes of green below our feet as well as above our heads. This was to be the best chance of spotting monkeys and some of the rich bird life that lives on the volcano’s slopes, but alas I didn’t see much wildlife at all. The steady climb and ease of this day’s hike was a good chance to start to get to know those that were hiking with me, and for the most part we all hiked at a relatively similar pace. In part, this was at the request of our guide who wanted to keep us together and take our time. It was his mantra for the coming days too: to take our time, maintain a steady but slow pace, and prevent over-exertion.

Our porters had left us behind in order to get camp set up and ready for our arrival. Mti Mkubwa Camp was amidst the forest at 2650m (8694ft) with no view to speak of. Although this route isn’t one of the busiest, this camp site was well used and there were plenty of people packed into the gaps between the trees. The campsite ritual was to become very familiar over the coming week: sign in at the cabin, meet with our personal porter who had set up our tent and mattress, get cleaned up, have a wander round the campsite then retire to the meal tent for hot coffee and snacks before dinner and a debrief, including a run-down of the next day’s hike. There wasn’t too much to explore here as the campsite was compact, so the time spent in the tent was another chance to get to know each other. The dinner that was served to us was filling and delicious and it reminded me of the amazing meals I’d received whilst hiking to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail.

As part of our debrief each night, we had to get our oxygen saturation levels read via a finger monitor. Altitude sickness can hit anyone of any fitness level, and it is important to catch it early. Our guide was explicit from the beginning that if he wasn’t happy with how any of us were doing, he’d send us down. It was hard for people not to become competitive with this test. We were generally a bunch of fit people, used to hiking in our respective countries. The aim was to stay above 90%, but our guide said it was common for some people to drop into the 80s at higher altitudes. That first night I was sitting at 98%, a fairly normal reading for a healthy adult, and this was fairly consistent around the table. The temperature was cool but manageable in my sleeping bag, and I was able to get some rest to prepare for the next day’s hike.

I’d stocked up on diamox, a drug to reduce the effects of altitude, ahead of this trip, and my doctor had told me to start taking it once I was above 2500m (8202ft), so that second morning I took my first one, committing myself to the twice a day tablets in conjunction with the malaria tablets that I’d been taking for the past week. We still had some forest to walk through on leaving the camp behind and it remained thick for a good chunk of the morning before the height of the vegetation noticeably dropped and the canopy opened up. The tree tops were just above head height and looking behind us, we could see back down to the flat land surrounding the mountain and across to the neighbouring peak of Mt Meru in Arusha National Park. Although the plants here were distinct, the hiking reminded me a little of New Zealand, with rolling green false summits disappearing in front of me. On one of these ridges we stopped for lunch, coming out of the bush to find a large tent had been erected to accommodate us. The sun was strong and it was a pleasant temperature although some wind whipped across the exposed area.

 

We climbed higher up a rocky terrain with the vegetation continuing to get shorter as we gained altitude. It felt like the climb was never ending when all of a sudden, the track turned a corner, and there right in front of us was the Kibo Massif, the highest of the three cones that make up Mount Kilimanjaro. In comparison to the view from our hotel, it suddenly looked close and I marvelled that it was still several days hiking away. Little did I know what was to be in store over the coming days of hiking. We took a break on a prominence at the side of the track where we could look down on the expanse of the Shira Plateau and our campsite not too far ahead. We watched the cloud roll in and tease Kibo, threatening to engulf it then retreating over and over again. The snow on the side looked like icing sugar and the summit had large chunks of snow visible. It was hard to leave this vantage point behind but after walking the rest of the way to the campsite, I discovered that Shira I camp had just as cracking a view as our rest stop had had, and I was in awe.

 

By now we were at 3610m (11844ft) and the vegetation had shrunk down to low shrubs that didn’t even reach waist height. Unlike the previous night’s campsite, this one was exposed and a bit more spread out. After signing in on arrival, there was plenty of time to wander around and ogle at the view. As the night drew in, the clouds came with it, and Uhuru Peak disappeared into a veil of cloud. It felt noticeably cooler here and we were all rugged up in our layers as we ate our dinner and had our debrief. My oxygen saturation had dropped to 96% which was still a reasonable level to be at considering the altitude and I felt fine. However, among the group, the numbers were already starting to vary, and as we discussed the next day’s hike, it became clear the group was going to split up. I took another diamox before going to bed and woke up in the night with palpitations and shortness of breath. It was a wholly unpleasant sensation that took me a bit of time to get under control. Having been bundled up in my layers inside my sleeping bag, the shortness of breath had almost sent me into a panic. Thankfully I was eventually able to get back to sleep.

 

I took another diamox in the morning but after speaking to my companions, I realised that it had been the cause of my shortness of breath in the night. It was cold again as the sun was yet to rise above the Kibo Massif. The mornings were just as ritualised as the evening: a morning wake up call, hot chocolate to warm us up, pack-up, breakfast then meet up to head off. After being kept close together on day 1, we had spread out a bit on day 2 and on this 3rd day there were two options to proceed: the more direct route to Shira II camp, or the detour to Cathedral Point on Shira Peak, the lower of the 3 cones that make up Mt Kilimanjaro. This detour allowed a bit of acclimitisation which was recommended, but a few of the group chose to head straight to the next camp. It was a short walk to reach the track junction and after a brief pause there, we set off across the flatness of the Shira Plateau. The vegetation here was sparse and it was an exposed march across the unsheltered flatness. In the distance we could see the ridge of Shira Peak grow closer and closer until finally we were at its base.

 

There was an initial climb to Cathedral Junction where large volcanic rocks were interspersed with some taller vegetation again and from here, there was a large rock face to frame the view across to the Kibo Massif. It looked unbelievably close and I again marvelled that there was still several days hike ahead of us. I was yet to feel much effect of the altitude, even at 3806m (12486ft), so at that stage it looked so achievable. We paused here to allow us to take some photos, as well as due to a bit of a queue to negotiate the narrow track that led to the cone’s summit. When at last there was a chance to move on, we picked our way up the rough and wandering track to Cathedral Point at 3872m (12703ft) where there was a spectacular view. To our right was the large flat expanse of the Shira Plateau which made it look like we weren’t that high at all. However to our left, the ground dropped away in a steep and dramatic fashion, disappearing in the distance to the bottom of the volcano. The sun shone above us, and some clouds whisped around the nearby jagged rocks. I felt alive and it felt good, and we celebrated our achievement of summiting one of the mountain’s 3 peaks. I was feeling positive and pumped for what lay ahead.

Return to the Mountains

After a poor night’s sleep camping through strong winds, I left Mt Thomas scenic reserve behind and continued past Glentui and Ashley Gorge to reach Oxford. I didn’t have enough supplies for the day, but thankfully the supermarket was open and I could stock up before continuing to the Coopers Creek car park to start the day’s hike. I’d hiked Mt Oxford many years ago and knew it was an arduous hike. In my head I figured I’d just hike the summit track and return the same way, so I left my car behind to start the long hike through the valley to reach the start of the climb.

The lower section is among forest and here I was overtaken by a man running the trail. Like the day before, I felt a little unfit as the track became steep, trying to tell myself it was just the heat. I’d set off before 9am but the sun felt hot above me. At the first break in the trees however, I looked behind me and realised a blanket of fog was creeping across the Canterbury Plains. The higher I got, the closer the cloud bank got, such that as I reached the more open upper ridges, the Plains were completely obliterated from view. It was pretty cool, a phenomenon I’ve seen only a handful of times from above the cloud line. Like the day before, it got windier the higher I got and the edge of the blanket seemed to wisp around itself, fingers creeping and retreating into the gullies between the lower ridges.

 

Mt Oxford is a series of false summits until at last the track rolls onto the true summit at 1364m (4475ft). I had to hunker down to shield myself from the wind while I ate some food, watching the cloud roll in and out and the wisps puff up and then retreat. I’d summited a little after 11.30am and with so many hours ahead of me, I knew I should do the longer route back across the far ridge, even though I remembered how much I hated its monotony last time. Despite this, I was in training, and needed to keep the momentum going, so despite knowing I’d get frustrated, I took off across the summit, bracing against the wind.

It’s an easy but exposed track to follow across the bare ridge before it eventually cuts back into the forest. I recalled from last time that the time on the sign underestimated this section so this time I was prepared for that. As I reached the forest once more, I could see how much the cloud had piled in and how much it was desperately trying to push up the mountain side. It was mesmerising to watch though, and I paused for a bit to do so before losing sight of it as the trees closed around me. As the track cut down the mountainside it became eerie as soon I was within the cloud. It was cooler suddenly and any gaps in the trees offered no views other than the wisps of cloud that swirled around. It made the descent through the forest much more enjoyable as I simply breathed the mist in, merely guessing where I was with my sense of altitude dimmed.

 

When at last I reached the Korimako track that I’d taken to Ryde Falls the last time I’d been here, I continued straight this time, taking an alternate route towards a different car park then cutting away to trudge the long route back to Coopers Creek. This alternate route was muddy and undulating, but it was busy because it formed a loop track to Ryde Falls, which seemed popular. The low cloud continued the whole arduous slog back, and I finally returned to my car about 7hrs after setting off.

 

The following week, I joined two local walks together, parking at the Christchurch Gondola car park to hike the Bridle Path over the Port Hills to Lyttelton Harbour. The Bridle Path is a popular local walk, but it is rough and steep underfoot, making it a good slog that isn’t to everyone’s tastes. It zig-zags its way up to summit road and from there it zig-zags its way down the other side, reaching the road by Lyttelton tunnel. I’ve walked this track from end-to-end as well as just up to Summit Road and back, and on several occasions have combined it with trips to the gondola station. This time, I was heading to the harbour, grabbing food at a local cafe before heading down to the port to catch the ferry across to Diamond Harbour.

 

Once on Banks Peninsula, a track leads from near the wharf deep into the lower forests and up a gradual slope to reach farmland where the most popular route up to Mt Herbert leads from. I’ve hiked Mt Herbert multiple times, using 3 different routes up, but this one I’ve done the most. The ferry ride over is an added bonus to this hike that I like to tack on, but it does mean the hike has to be to a timetable in order to catch the ferry back over at the end of the day. Once again there was a recurring theme of feeling slow. I’ve definitely noticed that hiking with poles takes me longer than hiking without them. But with my knees starting to show wear and tear, I feel that using them is a necessary evil. But it is hard to accept at times that I’m not making records when I return to hike mountains I’ve previously summited. Despite the amount of walking I was doing lately, I couldn’t help feel that it was my fitness that was the problem.

Having caught the 11am ferry, I was relatively late to head up through the farmland, and I watched sadly as several people sped ahead of me and several people passed me heading down. The route however was familiar and I knew what to expect ahead. When at last I reached the summit (919m/3015ft), there was hardly anyone around and I might as well have had it to myself. Mindful of the ferry times I didn’t stay up long before heading back down. Going down was straightforward, but as is often the case, the clouds had piled in over Christchurch and it looked a little dull. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a music festival on at Diamond Harbour so when I reached the pier there was a massive queue for the ferry. Normally only once an hour at this time of the day, the ferry company thankfully agreed to do multiple runs to lighten the load. I wasn’t successful at making it on the first sailing, but was able to get on the second one. I still had the return hike over the Bridle Path to do, so I was eager to get back and get going. When at last I reached my car once more I’d been on my feet for 8hrs and was eager to be done.

 

Just 2 weeks later, I found myself on my final training hike ahead of the toughest hike of my life. I was to leave the country in just 2 days and the anticipation was starting to get real. I took the familiar drive into the Canterbury foothills and found myself on the edge of a cloud blanket that was slowly creeping in from the east. This last hike was a return to Mt Somers, a hike that I’d found challenging the first time round, and one that was a decent length and steepness to make me feel like I was getting a good last workout. Again I felt my poles slowing me down and I took longer to hike the lower slopes through the forest and across the rising ridges to reach the summit route junction. I focused on the task at hand, aware of people overtaking me regularly. Wisps of cloud had initially hugged the side of the mountain and as I climbed I saw the cloud holding off a little distance away.

 

It was another scorching day, and the 30 degree heat got the better of me. I was struggling, wheezing for breath and having to stop often. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong those last few hikes. It had been hot, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in the heat. I was using poles, but they shouldn’t have made me tired and breathless. I’d had a vaccine ahead of my travels but that had been weeks before. Something just wasn’t right, I felt super unfit now despite the regular hikes and it was starting to concern me. Up and up I went, struggling but stubborn. I reached scree and then boulders and the marked route became a matter of picking a way up and across between distant orange poles. When at last I reached the final push towards the summit, I saw that the clouds had moved in, and like the few weeks prior at Mt Oxford, they tried desperately to sneak up the side of the mountain. I needed a break and rested at the summit, but as the clouds crept higher up the slopes, I was conscious of the fact that I needed good visibility to follow the markers in a few of the lower sections. I was caught between catching a break and wanting to rush back down before I risked losing my way.

 

It had taken me so long to get up there, that I was one of only 3 people left at the summit. The other 2 started to head down as I finished my food, and wary of getting into trouble if the clouds became a problem, I didn’t waste much time following suit. It was a needless worry in the end. As much as the clouds tried to wisp upwards, they never really made much progress, and I made better time on the descent, watching the blanket gradually dissipate as I neared its altitude. By the time I was back down at the track junction to follow the Mount Somers Route back to the car park, I had a clear view across the Plains. It took me 8hrs from start to finish, a lot longer than I’d taken the first time I’d gotten up. I was disappointed, but I headed as usual to grab my favourite post-hike treat: nachos and ice-coffee at C1 Espresso in Christchurch. Hiking is a good excuse for me to have a bit of a pig-out afterwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eat more calories after a hike than I actually lose on the hike. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe that was why I was struggling on these last few hikes. But there was no time left to wonder. Because 2 days later, I was off on a great adventure.

Mount Thomas (Ridge Route)

With a need to take every opportunity I could to go hiking ahead of an upcoming mammoth of a trek, despite having to work in the morning and a class in the early afternoon, I set off mid-afternoon to go to Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area. I previously hiked Mt Thomas back in 2015 and had summited to no view when the clouds descended as I ascended. I had made a couple of attempts to go back in 2018 and been thwarted by the weather each time. Now, in January 2019, I was confident the weather was in my favour. With another hike planned for the following day, I reached the Wooded Gully campsite and set up my tent for the night, choosing to camp out rather than go home. By the time I’d done that and got my hiking boots on, it was after 4pm, but with the long day to my advantage, I set off to hike Mt Thomas for the second time.

Almost immediately after leaving the campsite behind and taking the direct summit track, I was shocked by the difference. Part of the forest in the lower part of the hike had been felled and this left a giant scar in the landscape: a muddy, roughened track of clay-like dirt amidst a mess of tree stumps and abandoned branches. This also left me totally exposed to the hot summer sun and with this part of the track being especially steep, I suddenly felt immensely unfit and had to stop often to catch my breath. It worried me a little. This hike was nothing compared to what was to come the following month and I couldn’t help but chastise myself for struggling with this track. Reaching the forest only offered relief from the sun but the steepness of the hike continued.

It was only in the last 100m altitude gain that the forest opened back up again and the view across the ridge stood before me. It was at this point last time that I’d found myself in dense cloud, so it was great to finally see the vista that I had missed. Looking behind me, I could make out the expanse of the Canterbury Plains. After this short section, the track reaches a forestry road which then leads the way to the summit at 1023m (3356ft). It was very windy but at least without the cloud this time, I could see inland across the outer reaches of the Southern Alps, and seaward to the sweeping arc of Pegasus Bay and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. The heat had not browned the vegetation here, and everything looked green and beautiful. I had the place to myself, unsurprising considering how late in the day it was. I would never normally hike up a mountain this late myself, but on this occasion it had worked out well.

 

From the summit there are a multitude of walks to take. It is possible to return the way you’ve come, or to cross the ridge and take the Wooded Gully track or the Ridge track, both of which lead back to the campsite; or continue across the mountain tops and follow a track deep into the mountains to a bivvy for an overnight hike (Bob’s Camp route). Having done the Wooded Gully track last time, I opted for the Ridge track this time round, to make it a longer hike, and to prevent monotony. Crossing the ridge was exposed with a crosswind, and I was quick to make work of this section of the trail. I passed the Wooded Gully turn-off in no time at all, but the junction I needed for the Ridge track took a little longer than anticipated to reach. When at last it appeared, the sign offered 5 different hiking options to choose from. My campsite was listed as 2.5hrs walk away, and the angle of the sun was starting to lower.

Almost immediately the track delved deep into the forest, and this it shared with the Wooded Gully track. What differed though, was the route it took back. Whereas the Gully track almost immediately lost altitude to follow the lower slopes of the hillside down, this one remained up on the ridge as the name would suggest. In fact the drop in altitude was so gradual that for a long time it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere nearer to my destination. Deep within the forest it was hard to tell what altitude I was at as the views were few and far between. The bird life was minimal and the wind caused a lot of tree movement. At one point, a large tree had fallen over and the path had to skirt round the base which had been ripped up in the process. I wondered whether I was at risk of some of the flimsier trees falling down around me.

 

Eventually as the drop in altitude finally became noticeable, the forest proper suddenly came to an abrupt end, reaching a clearing which was scattered with young forest starting to push up at its margins. Finally I could see the Canterbury Plains again but I was still quite high up. As I got lower though, I reentered the active forestry zone and once more I found myself among tree stumps and a churned up and degraded track. In the process of deforesting this section, a few of the hiking markers appeared to have been lost and it was purely common sense taking me in the right direction. I knew I was on the look out for a forestry road and eventually I reached it at a large wasteland where abandoned tree limbs had been piled high at the margin. My topographical map had me follow the road to the next bend and then another track would lead me through the forest but as I trudged down the 4×4 track, this next track never materialised. I briefly clambered over some logs in search of it, but alas could not find it. Luckily the forestry road would take me to the same place, albeit with a few more bends so I just kept going.

 

I had seen not a single person on the whole hike, apart from a couple heading down right as I was setting off. But when I returned to the campsite there was a lot of activity and even more people had set up camp since I’d left it 4hrs prior. I finished at 8pm, ready for dinner, and had to make a wind break to stop my stove being blown out. Being next to the river, the sandflies of course were in full-on hounding mode and as soon as I’d eaten, I was straight into my tent to escape them. Despite being deep in the gully, the wind that I’d hiked through continued to pick up strength and seemed to just whip through the gully, rattling my tent and creaking the overhead trees. In fact it got so strong in the night that I couldn’t sleep from the noise as well as the concern that a tree might end up on top of me. In the early hours of the morning, I even got into my car and tried to sleep in there. Although I felt safer, it was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really feel any better off. Eventually, eager to get horizontal, I crept back to my tent sometime later, finally dozing for a few hours before the morning sun lit up my canvas. I love camping but I hate it at the same time. I never sleep well but there’s something kind of fun and isolating about it that makes me do it over and over again. But needless to say, having been stimulated by the increasing brightness of yet another sunny day, I arose early, shoved my camping gear in the boot of the car, and headed off for another day of hiking.

New Year Adventures

With the toughest hike of my life just a few weeks away, every day off work was an opportunity to do some hiking. The good thing about the festive period being in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is that the public holidays mean long hours of daylight and a reasonable chance of warm and/or dry weather. I haven’t done anything special for Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve for a long time. In fact, I haven’t even made it to midnight for a few years either, and the end of 2018 was no exception. I rose early on the first day of 2019, packed up my car and headed deep into Canterbury. With Christchurch on the coastal border of the Canterbury Plains, it takes over an hour to reach the mountains to the west and I was making a very familiar drive to the foot of Mt Somers, where a road leads into Hakatere Conservation Park. I’ve done a few hikes within its boundaries, including Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, and I’d sussed out a long walk to a couple of Department of Conservation (DoC) huts nestled among the mountains. Where the tarmac ended, I turned north, taking a long drive down a gravel road to reach Lake Heron.

I’d left sunshine behind and as I arrived at the lake, a wall of cloud lingered over the nearby peaks. I wasn’t sure how far the road went, so initially drove past the start of my hike, skirting round the edge of the lake and finding myself at a rather grungy campsite. It was busy, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. But it was the only place in the area with a toilet block and it allowed me to turn my car around and return to the stony car park where my hike started. Following a 4×4 track, I took a brief detour on the Kettle Hole walk which cut up a small hill to overlook a kettle, or depression in the ground formed by a historic glacier. I was a bit underwhelmed by it so didn’t hang around long before returning to the track to follow the edge of the lake. The wind danced across the water creating a bit of chop, and despite a sign stating that the area was a nature reserve and wildlife refuge, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to spot on or off the lake. Every now and again I got covered in a cloud of dust as a car passed me on the track, heading to a car park a little way around the shore.

 

I was a little disappointed to reach the car park and see the DoC sign which stated the hut I was planning on walking to was 3hrs away. This was a lot further than I’d anticipated when I’d researched my planned walk and I started to realise that I just didn’t have the time. My camping stuff was in the car, not on my person, and I’d already booked a spot at a campsite ahead of the next day’s hike, so it wasn’t an option to break the hike up and stay in the hut. I made the decision to hike based on time, to keep going until it was time to turn back, irregardless of how far I’d reached. Through a gate, the track cut down to a river where there was a ford or a boardwalk to get to the other side. After this brief detour, the track returned to the lakeside.

 

Soon after, there was a side track to Lake Hill, a 762m (2500ft) summit that gave a raised view of the lake and the surrounding conservation park. The actual elevation gain from the lake was barely 100m (328ft) but it was enough to get a broader view of the landscape. Across the lake, the snow-speckled peak of Mt Arrowsmith poked up behind the nearer peaks in front of it. The ground was covered in meadow flowers and an information board gave a brief overview of how the glaciers formed this valley and lake. It was a great spot for lunch, sitting down among the flowers and feeling the wind on my face. After a while, I took the track back down to the lake and continued to follow it round to Mt Sugarloaf.

 

The track starts to turn away from the lake at Harrison’s Bight, an inlet that keeps Mt Sugarloaf out of reach. The 4×4 track leads to here and there were a couple of utes parked up, their occupants nowhere to be seen. Soon I reached a track junction and took the Swin River track which was to take me to join the Te Araroa trail (the long-distance walk that spans the length of New Zealand), and from there would lead to Double Hut. The DoC sign showed the hut was still 2hrs away and as I walked along this flat, rather uninteresting section of the walk, as the sky grew darker around me, I realised that I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I could see it in the far distance nestled at the base of the mountain range in front of me, but after a while of it never getting any bigger in my view, I decided that enough was enough and duly turned round to return to my car. Double Hut and Emily Hut would have to wait for another day and another hike.

Spots of rain began to fall as I headed back and the clouds grew stormier as I worked my way back round the lake edge. I set off back along the gravel road, returning to sunshine as I headed south. I pulled over at Maori Lakes, a wetland area at the side of the road which sparkled under the sunshine here. The sandflies as always threatened to ruin my enjoyment and after taking some photos I pushed onwards. Back at Mount Somers village, I turned south towards Geraldine and Peel Forest. I’d booked a camping spot at the Peel Forest campground and the place was pretty busy when I arrived. I was able to secure a spot under the shade and set up my little hiking tent which looked positively dwarfed by the family-sized camping tents that were all around me. The area is covered in walks, long and short, so before dinner I did the Kahikatea walk which looped through a forest and wetland zone near the campsite.

 

I enjoy camping although rarely sleep well, so I was up and ready early the next morning, packing up and getting on the road with a grand plan. It wasn’t too far away to reach the car park for hiking Little Mt Peel, one of my favourite mountain hikes in Canterbury. It had been a few years since I’d been up, celebrating my 33rd birthday on my first and only trip up there. My plan for the day was to aim for Mount Peel which involves summiting Little Mt Peel, and following an unmarked path across the ridges to Middle Mt Peel and Mt Peel behind that. It was an ambitious plan as it is a full-on hike, and part of the reason I’d been keen to get going early. Little had changed as I followed the Deer Spur track up the slope and despite the early hour, I was surprised at the number of people already on the trail. It is a popular hike, and with good reason: the views are spectacular on the way up and from the summit itself. Now hiking with poles, my hiking style has notably changed as I’ve adapted to their use. I do find they slow my walking down at times and with the lower parts of the hike in the forest, they became a bit of a nuisance as I needed my hands free to aid negotiating tree routes during the initial climb.

The higher I climbed, the windier it got and there was a lot of cloud in the sky above me. When I reached the summit of Little Mt Peel (1311m/4301ft) there was a strong crosswind. I sat by the trig marker eating my lunch and stared across the ridge towards the neighbouring peaks, musing how to proceed. I’d told my partner my plans for the day, but not being a hiker himself, I wasn’t sure if he actually understood where I was planning to go. As I looked at the exposed ridge and the distance, I made time calculations in my head as I watched the clouds move across the neighouring ranges. Hiking alone involves risk. Hiking in groups does also but when I’m responsible for my own safety, sometimes I chicken out and take the safe option instead. As the wind was strong, and I wasn’t 100% sure what the weather planned on doing, I decided to leave the higher Mt Peel peaks for another day. I slightly kicked myself for being too scared to continue, whilst trying to justify with myself that I’d made the right decision.

 

Last time I’d hiked Little Mt Peel, I did the loop, descending down the South Ridge track which was rough and steep. I’d decided at the time that I wouldn’t do this track again, but having already changed my plans, I decided I’d go down this route after all, rather than the more popular Deer Spur track that I’d ascended on. I skirted behind the little shelter and went to use the portaloo behind it, opening the door to be presented by a scene of mayhem where some poor sod had clearly had explosive diarrhoea all over the inside of the portaloo itself. It was utterly gross and I was quick to shut the door again. With my poles again being a hindrance on the upper sections where the track is steepest, this route is actually quite enjoyable going down because you lose altitude exceptionally quickly which looks cool whenever you turn round to check your progress. The view to the neighbouring mountains is also nicer on this track than the Deer Spur track.

 

Eventually, the track turned almost 90 degrees and disappeared into the forest, finally coming out at Emily Falls and joining the Emily Falls track. Last time I’d come this way, I lost the track as it followed the river on the way back from the Falls. I knew what to look out for but as the bank had had a slip, I nearly missed the exit again. This final section in the forest is always a little boring for me. There wasn’t much bird life to spot and I was tired from the hike. Back at my car, it was time to head home. Neither day’s hikes had gone to plan, so I was a little frustrated but I had 4 more weekends to fit in some more mountains before heading abroad, and at least I was feeling positive about my fitness as the year began.

Crater Rim Walkway

By December last year, the countdown was on to the toughest hike of my life and I was using every possible opportunity to get some walking or hiking in. The weather had been so variable and unpredictable across the spring and even if the sun wasn’t shining I had to get out and do something. Having walked various sections of the Crater Rim walkway over the years, I decided to take on the full length of it, starting at the Godley Head car park and heading west towards Gebbies Pass, where my partner would pick me up at the end of the day. It was surprisingly busy as I took Summit Road round the back of Sumner and Taylors Mistake. As I reached the car park I discovered that there was an orienteering event taking place and so there were people milling around everywhere. Thankfully I was able to park and soon I was on my way. It was overcast but in the way that my Scottish skin can still get burnt so I had to lacquer up in sunscreen throughout the long day’s walk.

The initial section of the trail is the Breeze Bay walking track which curved around a low peak overlooking Mechanics Bay and then Breeze Bay. The cloud was low over the mountains of Banks Peninsula and the summit of Mt Herbert, the peninsula’s highest peak, was hidden from view. It was an easy track, barely varying in height and with a constant view of the harbour with its blue-green water. As it continued on, curving round Livingstone Bay, the Lyttelton port came in to view and shortly after the track takes a turn and heads up an incline to skirt round a rocky bluff before cutting down to the road at the junction of Evans Pass. At the time of walking, the road down to Lyttelton was still closed off but since then it has opened up again after being closed for 8 years following the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.

 

A short walk along Summit Road is necessary before heading back onto the ridge again and away from the traffic. This next section is high above the port town of Lyttelton following the ridgeline round to an old gun emplacement from WWII. The place was full of invasive and introduced thistles but it was also full of insects as a result, including a gorgeous red admiral butterfly which sat perfectly still as I photographed it. There were a few people milling around here, the first people I’d come across since leaving the orienteering participants behind at Livingstone Bay. Once at Mt Pleasant, I got the first view over to Pegasus Bay since I’d left the car at Godley Head, and here, on weekends, there would be the option of cutting down the road to My Coffee at Hornbrook, a quaint little cafe in a local’s back garden with a great view over the spit at New Brighton. I wanted more than coffee though, so stayed up on the ridge, continuing on to Mt Cavendish where the Gondola top station and the Red Rock Cafe is.

 

It was a late lunch, by now after 2pm, but the food at the cafe here is delicious and filling, and I chowed into some Thai noodles whilst watching the tourists come and go. The Christchurch Gondola is a popular tourist attraction and with having an annual pass myself, I come up regularly throughout the year. But I still had so far to go and I was already realising that I’d set off too late to make Gebbies Pass a reality. I decided to make the Sign of the Bellbird my destination and was soon on my way again, heading down the most familiar section of the walkway from the Gondola down to the top of the Bridle Path. The views here are of Lyttelton Harbour and Quail Island to the left and Ferrymead with the estuary to the right. For visitors that are short of time, this is my most recommended section of the walkway both for the views but the ease of accessibility via either the gondola or the bridle path from both Lyttelton or Ferrymead.

 

From the junction with the Bridle Path, I was most used to joining the road but this time I stuck to the walking track which was raised just a little bit off the tarmac. Once past Castle Rock, the view into the harbour was blocked as the track stays a little below the ridgeline on the city side, and so for the next wee while, the city and if you’re lucky with the weather, the Southern Alps, are the main focus. When the harbour comes back into view, you are almost directly opposite Quail Island above Cass Bay. The track skirts under Mt Vernon, effectively hugging Summit Road, cutting briefly through a small copse of trees before dropping below Sugarloaf where the large antenna stands out as a landmark. It was muddy underfoot where the vegetation had prevented the track from drying out, and as I approached the road where the Sign of the Kiwi cafe stands, the number of people on the track steadily grew.

 

The cafe wasn’t far off closing but I was able to get an ice cream to keep me going for the final section of the hike. I’d previously walked this part when my brother had visited in 2017, and although a few others were milling around this section, I soon lost the crowds again as I left the cafe behind, continuing west above Governor’s Bay and joining the Mitchells Track. The grasses were high here and peppered with foxgloves and as I continued, I found myself among the new growth that had sprouted following the bush fire of February 2017. Approaching the bend before Kennedys Reserve, the path split and I could choose which side of the peak I walked past. I chose to cut down underneath it on the harbour side and as I dropped to the lowest point, I passed 2 climbers that were rope climbing below the peak. Beyond here, I found the blackened and scorched sign that prior to the bush fire was a track marker and soon after that I found myself at the Sign of the Bellbird, a little after 6pm.  The clouds had never lifted from the mountains of Banks Peninsula and with the tide now out, the water of the harbour looked dull and grey. I hadn’t managed to make it to Gebbies Pass, but I’d managed to walk a decent chunk of it, and I was nonetheless satisfied with my achievement.

Pigeon Bay Walkway

After 7 years of living in Christchurch, and within a week of gaining my New Zealand citizenship, I was still finding new places to explore. I’d noticed a coastal track while looking at a topographical map and decided to make the hour drive to Pigeon Bay on the Banks Peninsula. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and in hindsight, I wish we’d left sooner to make more of a day of it. Reaching the end of the road and the start of the track, the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign stated it to be a 5hr walk to the point and back, and we simply didn’t have enough time to walk the whole thing before I had to get back for a class.

There was a sailing race on in the harbour as we trekked across the farm land following the orange poles, and up onto the dirt road that led us out past the glistening blue water. The views were simply stunning – there’s just nothing like the blues of New Zealand’s waters under a blue sky. It undulates a little, with a little more altitude gained as it follows the slope of the hill out to sea. We made it about halfway out to the point before having to turn back but even although we didn’t complete the full hike, it was a gorgeous spot to be.

Saint James Walkway – Return to Civilisation

Of the three of us that spent the night at Anne Hut I was the last to leave on my third morning of the tramp. Leaving the hut behind, the route crossed an open expanse of ground before dropping down to the bank of a river where the route turned south. There was some vague sunshine in the sky but the threat of clouds was constantly there as they swirled around above me, blocking and unblocking the sun at irregular intervals. It wasn’t long to reach a bridge across the river and once on the far bank it continued to follow the water as it flowed at varying depths to my side. After a while, the ground underfoot became a little boggy and at an incline in the bank the track disappeared. I back-tracked a little to retrace my steps, got my map out and scoured the scene in front of me. Finally I spotted an orange marker far in the distance and came to realise that the bank had collapsed, and with it a portion of the track. I was left with two options: get my feet wet in the river or go bush-whacking.

 

I found a vague worn patch that suggested others had chosen the trees so with my large backpack to catch every possible branch as I passed, I fought my way through the thick foliage, up and over the raised embankment and down the other side where I found the trail again. Not far after that, the ground became a swamp, and with an orange marker on the far side, I had to pick my way through the boggy mess to get to it. Once there though, and through the next section of trees, the landscape opened up a little and I found myself on a boardwalk crossing an open area with rolling mountains all around me. The boardwalk led down to another bridge to take me back across the same river.

 

Looking back I could see a snow-topped peak and looking ahead of me, the river grew thinner as I walked, becoming less obvious the further through the valley I went. Stony remnants of avalanche slopes scarred the forests that grew on the slopes and the vibe of the hike changed as I continued south towards the next curve in the track at Kia Stream. By the time I was heading west again, it was a large grassy expanse with the river hidden out of view until a little before the climb began. Once back in the trees, there was the final climb to Anne Saddle at 1136m (3727ft).

 

Coming down the other side, the weather was totally different. By the time I reached the bottom, it was raining and I could see rain clouds either side of me. It started as a drizzle then grew heavier as I walked. The trail grew a little marshy under foot in places, but thankfully the rain reduced to drizzle after a while. This section of the trail was a little uninteresting and when it went back into the trees it was under construction with evidence of trail maintenance and diversions in place. It then felt like a long time to reach the bridge marked on the map. The walking was easy but the trail had lost its interest so it was very much a trudge under a couple of embankments and along side another river until finally an incline signalled that I was at Rokeby Hut.

 

The hut was a great spot to get my bag off my back for a bit and have some lunch. I took a nosy inside but as I sat outside eating, I was descended upon by sandflies, the flying/biting nuisance of being near a waterway in New Zealand. In the end, their annoyance spurred me to get going and I slung my bag on my back once more to push ever south. Across another bridge, the track followed what was now the Boyle river. In a torrent down stream, I watched some goslings white water rafting as their parents tried desperately to keep them from being swept away. Where the track kept low to the river, I once again found it disappear as another slip had caused the bank to collapse. Once more I chose bushwhacking over wet feet and struggled to push my way through the dense trees with my bulky bag.

 

The final stretch to Boyle Flat Hut felt like it went on for ever. It was pleasant enough with the bubbling water next to me but I was tired and keen to get my boots off. The river valley was nestled among some steep but pretty hillsides, and although initially narrow, the valley opened up a little ahead of the bridge which was finally spotted as I came up an incline. The metal swing bridge led me across the gushing Boyle river and through a small copse of trees to present me at the hut. The same hiker from the previous nights was already there and we were later joined by some hikers heading in the opposite direction. Compared to Anne Hut, this one felt cold, dark and damp. I was glad for the shelter though when the rain began to fall heavily in the evening and the temperature dropped more at night fall. I was exceedingly glad to have my 3-season sleeping bag with me that night.

 

Waking up on the last morning of the hike, I was shocked to look out the window and see snow falling. Growing up in Scotland, I have so many memories of snow, but now living in Christchurch on the dry east coast, snow is a rarity so I was suddenly giddy and quickly pulled my boots and layers on so that I could go outside and watch it. There’s something so magical about the silence that accompanies snowfall. Even with the lightness of the fall, there was nothing to hear as the forest life and winds had gone quiet. The hillside and ground around the hut looked like icing sugar had been sprinkled on it, and after a while I headed back in for a warm breakfast.

 

Anticipating issues following the trail in the snow, the other hiker and myself decided to stick together for this last day, setting off as the snow eased but the clouds swirled round. At the bridge, I stopped to take a photo of her crossing it and accidentally let go of my brand new hiking poles, one of which slid down the steep embankment towards the gushing river below. I immediately tried to grab it without thinking about it and the weight of my bag nearly took me off my feet and down to the fast flowing river. After steadying myself, I dumped my bag and scrambled down the side, retrieving my pole and making it back up to the path intact. I quickly crossed the bridge to join my companion and we were off.

We took it in turns to lead and it wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the sun came out. The peppered snow remained on the hills but what was on the grass at our feet was quick to melt. Behind us, Boyle Flat Hut grew smaller and smaller until we could see it no more but it felt like no time before we reached the turn-off for Magdalen Hut. We had no need to visit this hut so took the swing bridge across Boyle river and almost immediately the track left the river behind and dove into a forest. The track was narrow and a little rough but easy to follow, and the views were reduced to snippets through breaks in the foliage. My companion’s pace was naturally quicker than mine and we started to separate a little here. She disappeared out of view after a while and every now and again I’d come round a corner and find her waiting, only for her to take off again when she realised I was ok.

 

After a change in direction from south to south-west, the path reached a break in the trees which allowed a view back up the valley. I could still see snow on the tallest peaks but by now the rest of it had melted. For a long stretch, the path teetered at the edge of the forest, idling by its side before cutting through the edge of it repeatedly. The Boyle river lay across the far side of the valley floor and eventually the path climbed up the hillside a little before disappearing back into the trees. I hadn’t seen my companion for some time now. She’d stopped waiting for me, our paces being too different, so I had no qualms about stopping and taking a break for a snack. Almost immediately, a South Island robin (kakaruwai) appeared and started flitting around me. These birds are so bold and inquisitive and it flew and hopped right up to me, watching me with a cocked head before flitting off to another branch and doing the same again. It was almost close enough to touch at several points and I think it knew I was eating nuts. It seemed to look hopeful for something but I never feed wildlife and did my best to make sure I didn’t contaminate the environment with any dropped portions.

 

Shortly after making tracks again, I met a hiker heading in the opposite direction. A brief chat revealed that my companion was about 10 minutes ahead of me, and shortly after that, the treeline broke and the path was up above the river. Cutting across a scree bank, the track headed back into the forest once more and it was a long amble to reach the final swing bridge back across the Boyle river. It felt like the end of the hike was in sight but in actual fact this last section seemed to take longer than I expected it to. Initially it was low to the river and suddenly the walking track was regularly crossed by horse riding trails. After a while it went up an incline again and the river seemed some way down below. Eventually, it intersected with a road and finally I was on the final descent down the hillside towards Boyle village. At the edge of the campgrounds, the trail stopped being marked and I picked a direction that I thought was the right one but turned out to circumnavigate the whole campground before finally depositing me at the Outdoor Centre that makes up Boyle village. The other hiker was lounging on a bench with a long wait till her bus to take her to the west coast. In the end, she’d completed about 15mins earlier than me, and as I was heading east, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

 

Back in the comfort of my car, I set off to head back to Christchurch but it was only lunchtime so I took the Hanmer Springs turn-off and at my new favourite cafe there I ordered a massive lunch before heading to Hanmer Springs. Nothing beats a soak in the hot pools, and after 4 days of hiking it was a joy to get in the thermal water. My new hiking boots felt well worn in ahead of the biggest hike of my life a couple of months later and my poles had survived too. It was shaping up to be a good summer of hiking.

Saint James Walkway – Reaching Anne Hut

I’m pretty spoiled for choice here when it comes to hiking options in New Zealand. With a multitude of short walks, half-day, full-day and multi-day options available around the country, the biggest obstacle that I have is having enough time off or energy to do them. Last November I had 4 days off work thanks to a fortuitously placed local public holiday, and with the biggest hike of my life in the pipeline, I was in need of some training. Nestled among the foothills of the Southern Alps near Lewis Pass is the St James Walkway, a 66km (41 mile) walk that traverses a sub-alpine zone. It is listed as a 5 day/4 night hike but I was confident that I could shave a day off, so I was planning on skipping a couple of the huts to walk it in 4 days/3 nights. Although traditionally started from a pull-in by a picnic site at the side of State Highway 7, and completed at the settlement of Boyle, it can be hiked in either direction. Irregardless of the route chosen, it does take a bit of arranging to either get dropped off at, or picked up from, the non-Boyle end of the hike.

I had an early start from Christchurch to make the arduous drive to Boyle settlement where I’d arranged a park and transfer with the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. On arrival, it was just a matter of filling in some paperwork with my trip intentions and then the lady that worked there drove me in my car to the start of the hike before she would return with it to park it for me to collect later. The car park at the start of the hike had a good few empty cars in it, and it was a quick deposit before I found myself alone in the middle of the mountains. With my boots strapped up and my bag slung over my back, I was experimenting with hiking poles for the first time having been feeling my knees ache for some time on mountain descents.

A small lake near the car park formed a local nature walk, and it made a nice foreground for the snow-topped peaks behind it. The track continued past here across the sub-alpine meadow, crossing a river and cutting into the trees. A little further along, it cut down to a long swing-bridge that spanned the Maruia River and on the far side the track followed the bank of Cannibal Gorge. As I’d approached this bridge, I had heard voices, the first sign of other people on the trail. I caught up with them just across the bridge and discovered that one of their party knew me. I’m terrible with people out of context so took a minute to make the connection. They were travelling as a group of friends and family and were heading to Cannibal Gorge Hut to spend the night before heading back to the city. With kids in tow I was quick to leave them behind, their pace more casual than mine. There was a lot of undulation ahead and large sections of the track were deep within the forest, breaking the treeline where avalanche routes have scourged the mountainside. Most of these tree breaks had waterfalls trickling down through the rocks or the bush and they were a great distraction from the occasional monotony of this part of the hike.

 

I was distracted to my joy at a bend in the track by a South Island robin (kakaruwai). These birds are incredibly bold and inquisitive and love to come close and interact. They are an absolute joy to have as a hiking companion and I watched it a while before moving on. With all the waterfalls, there were more distractions than I had time for, but eventually I made a snack stop near one of them. Pushing on I eventually reached another swing bridge that meant I was near the hut. The avalanche route that this bridge crossed was littered with giant rocks and tree fall. There is a good reason that this hike is risky when there’s heavy snow above, and the multitude of avalanche warning signs on this first day of the hike really brought it home. But finally there was a change in scene as the route quickly dropped down to the bank of the Maruia River and out of the trees I found myself at a flat staring across to the mountain hut near the treeline.

 

Despite the grey skies, the back drop of the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps provided a dramatic backdrop to the Cannibal Gorge Hut which grew bigger and bigger as I crossed the grassy path to reach it. There was no-one to be seen when I made it, and I was quick to dump my stuff and take a nosy inside. These Department of Conservation (DoC) mountain huts can vary in size and quality, but this was one of the bigger ones, complete with separated bunk rooms and kitchen space. Whilst the group I’d passed earlier were staying here the night, this was just a stopping point for me. I ate whilst I wandered around inside, then sat for a while at the picnic table outside until the swarming sand flies started to drive me crazy. It was a good encouragement to push onwards, and as I slung my bag back over my shoulders to leave, I heard voices followed by the sight of children bursting from the forest.

 

Behind the hut I was immediately thrust back into the forest again, but this time the route kept low, mostly following the course of the Maruia River upstream. When it finally opened up into a clearing there was a striking view of a cone-like mountain top in front of me, and steep mountain slopes to my side. It seemed clear to me that these nearby peaks acted as a bit of a weather divide as I could see high up above the movement of poorer weather skirting round the mountain tops close by. There is so much hiking I’d love to do on the western half of the island, but the weather is notoriously wet, windy and unpredictable to the west of the divide and so it’s always hard to plan ahead. I was at the mercy of the weather Gods on this weekend, and I knew it could get a lot worse if it wanted to. But this clearing meant I was very close to my destination for the night. Crossing another bridge back to the original side of the Maruia River, there was only a short muddy section before I found myself at Ada Pass Hut, my rest stop for the night. There were already many people at the hut by the time I arrived. Several people from Christchurch were there for an overnight hike and would return to their car back at the start of the hike the next day. Another couple were going to walk to the next hut and then head back, and there was myself and another solo hiker that were walking the full St James Walkway. After nabbing a mattress, I headed out to explore the immediate surrounds but again the sand flies were out in full force and as the hours before darkness ticked by, more and more people arrived in the hut and it was full to the brim.

 

Inevitably on a multi-day hike there is a day that is way longer or more strenuous than the others. With compressing the 5 day hike into a 4 day hike, the second day on the trail was to be a long one. As the crow flies, my bed for that night was just on the other side of the peak behind Ada Pass Hut, but to reach there on foot meant circumnavigating a giant chunk of rock that made up a conglomerate of peaks, the highest of which was Philosophers Knob at 1921m (6302ft). After leaving the hut behind, my fellow multi-day hiker having left some time ahead of me, I was quick to reach Ava Pass (1008m/3307ft) which were it not for the sign to mark it, would have otherwise been non-descript. The forest here reminded me a little of the forests back in Scotland, especially those of the Rothiemurchus Estate in one of my favourite parts of the country. With grey skies above me and the absence of birdsong it felt a little bleak and I could feel a change in weather in the air.

From the pass, the track follows the valley floor with minor undulation. A lake with some waterfowl was a nice distraction from the trees, and beyond here a sign denoted yet another avalanche risk zone as it moved below some rather steep slopes. It was nice to be out of the trees though with the expansive open space allowing views up onto the nearby peaks and also a good distance ahead. Orange-tipped poles peppered the route and the trail was well-trodden and easy to follow. The bubbling stream nearby was also a welcome sound to the otherwise silent hike. There was no-one to see ahead of or behind me and it was easy to feel miles from civilisation – just what I want when I go hiking.

 

As the route continued, the view opened up more and although there was swirling rain clouds over the peaks of the Spenser Mountains, it was a spectacular view. Past Camera Gully the Ada River grew larger and at a notable change in track direction it intermingled with the Christopher River and from here the route lifted up a little enhancing the view even more. After the slightly uninteresting forested sections of the earlier parts of the hike, I was starting to love where I was, and even though I could see and feel rain moving in, I made a point of fully taking in the view as I walked, keeping a good pace without over-rushing it. After the change in direction I popped out at a historic hut, Christopher Cullers Hut. It was basic, effectively a tin-shed with a couple of bunks and a fireplace. It would make a good windbreaker or emergency shelter but I wouldn’t choose to stay here, especially as a proper hut was just 1km (0.62miles) further ahead.

 

An expansive valley floor led the way to Christopher Hut. Set within a fenced-off zone, a stile provided access and I arrived just as a fellow hiker was leaving. He was walking the St James in the opposite direction so was heading to Ada Pass Hut. He reported that the lady who was walking in the same direction as me had left just as he had arrived. After a brief further chat, he left me to it and as the sand flies quickly descended on me as I took my boots off, I got inside as quickly as possible, eager to make some lunch. I eat a lot of food when I’m hiking even although the calories often aren’t required. This kind of hike was about stamina rather than cardio but I needed little excuse to eat a good-sized lunch and the warm soup was a welcome source of heat. But I wasn’t even half-way through the day’s hiking yet so once finished and washed up, it was time to get back out and at it again.

 

By now the peaks behind me had disappeared in cloud. I only felt the occasional spot of rain but the hint of heavier falls haunted me for some time. I was now fully exposed with the continuing valley floor ahead of me, the river set apart from the track for some time before the two came back together again. Where they met I could see another valley begin to open up to the left and as I neared it I saw horses and eventually a homestead appear. At the confluence of the Ada and Waiau rivers, the track skirted the foot of Mt Federation. Coming down the Waiau Valley, the Waiau Pass track is part of the Te Araroa (TA), the full-country hike that traverses both islands from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Although the rivers and valleys merge here, the TA and St James walkway remain separate for some time, and following this new valley, the St James turned south onto Ada Flat.

 

Initially the track followed the river bank where the water was fast flowing and the river broad but a sudden change in direction of flow a little down the valley meant the track left the watercourse behind and an expanse of grassland and bog lay out beside me. The Waiau River valley coursed off in another direction as the St James walkway followed a separate valley in a south-westerly direction. The track started to undulate a little and included some boardwalks across some of the dips. Eventually the track joined up with the TA and here it expanded from a route to a 4×4 track through a low thicket. The DoC sign at the junction stated the hut was still 1.5hrs away, and whilst their signs are usually over-generous with time, I was a little disheartened to think there was still so much to go. It had been a long, though interesting hike, but I was eager to get off my feet.

 

Up and down the track went for a while until the route split off from the 4×4 track. The markers didn’t quite fit the topographical map I had for following the route but I put trust in the markers that were placed and sure enough they led me to a swing bridge across the Henry River. At the far side, the route was a narrow ledge that gradually cut down to the level of the river then swung away and towards it as it coursed along. After it rejoined the 4×4 track which had forded the river, it looked on the map like I should be close but the hut remained out of sight. FInally though, as I cut through a small group of low trees I saw it in the distance and my pace quickened as I quickly covered the distance across the flat ground to reach it. Anne Hut was massively exposed, slap bang in the middle of an expansive clearing in the wide valley so I laughed when I saw the graffiti on the sign at the door stating it was the most exposed hut in NZ. Clearly some people had sat through some very wild weather here.

 

For me though I was just glad to get my boots off. There was still a good bit of daylight ahead but there was a hiker asleep in the one bunkroom and the lady from the night before was also there. It turned out the third hiker was walking the TA and planned on pushing on to Boyle Settlement the next day, a 2 day hike away for myself and the other woman. Despite servicing both routes as well as a cycle trail, no other people showed up that night and it was just the three of us in a very large hut. It felt exceedingly spacious and bright, a total contrast to the Ada Hut which had been relatively small, cramped and dark in comparison. Without a pile of other snoring bodies to contend with, I was able to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a 3rd day of hiking that turned out to be more challenging than expected.

Mount Isobel

After 7.5 years living in Canterbury in the South Island, I’ve managed to get up a good few mountains in the region’s Southern Alps. I have a few favourites that I go back to, but every now and again I’ll try something new. I’d known about Mount Isobel for some time, but it wasn’t until November last year that I finally got around to hiking it. The mountain sits overlooking the town of Hanmer Springs, what used to be a 90 minute drive away from Christchurch, but realistically is longer now with the speed restrictions that were introduced after the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016. With weather forecasts for the mountains being vague, I was hopeful for a clear day when I set off, but the reality is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get until you reach the mountain. The closer I got to Hanmer, the more I could see a thick bank of cloud sitting atop the range to the west and it was only on the final approach to the town that I could finally see a clear summit, separated from the cloud bank by the Clarence Valley.

There are several routes up Mt Isobel, and I drove through Hanmer and out the other side to turn onto Clarence Valley Road, a steep, winding and unsealed road that leads deep into the Southern Alps. I don’t have a 4×4 or a fancy traction system in my little car and have previously lost traction driving up a steep unsealed road, so I’m always a little nervous taking my car on some of New Zealand’s back country roads. It was only a few kilometres to reach the pull-in for the Mt Isobel track but when I got there it was full, and I had to pull up on the verge just a short distance away. For me, the initial part of the hike was rather uninteresting. It started across a deforested section of slope, where there was a glimpse of Hanmer Springs in the valley below before it disappeared into the trees; a narrow, rough, and at times zig-zagging path up the slope. Intermittent breaks in the foliage gave views of a town getting smaller and smaller, but I have to admit I found this lower section a bit of a drag.

 

After about 50 minutes, I reached the junction where the Dog Stream Waterfall track met up to share a route to the summit. There was no signpost here to direct but it was clear that up was the way to go and as the track broke free from the trees and onto the alpine slopes, I started to enjoy the hike a little more. Even although the track was steep here, by the time I’d reached the ridge and the junction with the Jacks Pass track, another 30 minutes later, the views had really started to become delightful and I loved this upper section.

 

I’d already passed a few people coming down from the summit. The early start from Christchurch had me at the start of the track late morning, but clearly those with the benefit of staying more local had managed an earlier start than me. I could see a couple of groups of people ahead of me on the ridgeline, and even though it is classed as a route rather than a track from here onwards, it really isn’t difficult to follow at all. The well trodden route follows the contours of the rising ridgeline towards the summit proper, and to my left I had mountain peaks disappearing into the distance, and to my right I had the plains of the valley with the buildings of Hanmer Springs.

Only near the final ascent did the alpine plants thin out a bit, and a scree slope had to be crossed to reach a rocky climb up to the summit marker at 1319m (4327ft). I’d made it up in just under 2hrs, less than the track sign at the start had listed. Surprisingly I had the summit to myself and made the most of it, taking photos and eating my lunch in solitude, admiring the view. From the summit, it is possible to walk down to Jollies Pass Road to the east, and one of the groups ahead of me had continued this way. After about 20 minutes to myself, a couple of other hikers arrived, so I started back down the mountain, leaving them in peace.

 

The view on the way down was full frontal mountains and valley and without the exertion of the climb, it was much easier to take it all in on the way back. I passed several people working their way up the slope as I descended, and as the alpine plants became replaced with trees and I once again reached the lower track, I found myself hurrying to complete this uninteresting section once more and I was back at my car a little over an hour from leaving the summit behind. The downhill return to the town was easy and quick and I found myself at a new cafe hidden down a side street where I enjoyed a post hike coffee and cake. But the best thing about Hanmer Springs is the thermal spa in the middle of town, and this was the perfect place to soothe my post-hike muscles, something that became a recurring theme after the next weekend’s hike.

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