MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “New Zealand”

North-West Chatham Island

It was never warm on Chatham Island, at least not by New Zealand standards, but yet I actually did really well with the weather in the week that I spent on this island in the middle of the southern Pacific Ocean. After the novelty of finally getting here after all these years of wanting to, I was keen to get out and about. I organised a rental car from the hotel after having breakfast, and was presented with a set of keys to Moki. All the rental cars had been named, and I was quick to acquaint myself with its quirks and get on the road. For the most part, the roads on the island are not sealed. In the settlements they have tarmac, but elsewhere they are just stoned, in a variety of grades depending on the level of traffic that passes through. Although the speed limit is 80km/hr, some of the roads don’t allow this, meaning it takes longer to drive around some parts than you’d think by looking at it on a map.

The impression I was given was that the island was mostly privately owned. A few public access walks exist which are evident on the Department of Conservation or Chatham Islands websites, but otherwise land owners need to be contacted to gain right of way, and often a levy needs to be paid, which often was quite steep. This is not a cheap place to holiday, but Toni that runs the Hotel Chatham in Waitangi kept me right about where I could and couldn’t go without permission. My first stop on my first full day though, was one of the public access tracks at Henga Reserve.

Blink and you’d miss the sign at the start. Luckily I’d spotted it from the drive from the airport the day before, and there was just enough space to pull off the gravel road to park. Over a stile, there was a long walk across a sheep paddock to reach the reserve itself. The track to the main loop track led through the edge of a small woodland area where I startled some weka as they foraged in the undergrowth. As I stepped back into a clearing, the sky was clearing up to reveal a clear blue sky, and I spent the next while layering up and layering down depending on how the wind cut across. Large parts of the island feel barren, or rather are just predominantly low bush, so it was strange to walk into a large woodland of trees that brought me to the loop track.

 

There was not a single other soul on the track until I neared the lookout. The loop track passed by a lodge at the far corner from where I’d joined the trail, so a couple were just out for a wander from there. In the final section of the forest as the trail climbed up hill, there were some large rock formations interspersed with the trees, and then suddenly I was exposed again, out on a bluff overlooking the expansive coastline. Waves crashed on the exposed shore and below me the beach was backed by a wide dune. This was the great Petre Bay, the same bay that Waitangi sits on, and that I had walked the southern end of the day previous. The track cut down the side of the bluff to the back of the dunes, and I had assumed I could just walk down to the beach and enjoy it, but all I could see was a fence and no way to get across it.

As I followed the track through the dune vegetation, my mind wandering as I walked, my attention was grabbed by some creature leaping in and out of view. It turned out to be a dog and it followed me for a bit before disappearing. I passed a few people walking the other way, and then the track turned back inland, climbing back up the low hillside once more and returning me to the bushes. As I neared the lodge, a noise in the bushes alerted me to the return of the dog, who proceeded to excitedly jump up and down, and in and out of view. He followed me to the lodge and as I reached there, I assumed that he lived there. Being a reserve, the dog should not have been in there, and a fence and gate divided the public land from the private land. But as I walked around the garden at the lodge I saw him leap exceedingly high in the air to clear the fence and get into the reserve.

Whereas my walk so far had been about looking out for bird life and enjoying the fresh air, the rest of my hike quickly turned into frustration and scenes of murder. The dog enthusiastically followed me, running ahead a bit and coming back to find me, excitedly jumping into the bushes and killing weka after weka after weka. I kept hearing the cries of the birds, and every now and again I’d witness a bird in the dog’s mouth. I tried to trick the dog to get it to leave me alone, but alas it kept finding me again, at one point running right up to me and killing a weka right in front of me. The poor thing gasped its last breath as I stood there equally annoyed and bereft.

 

I finally found myself back at the stile into the sheep paddock. It was lambing time and there were lots of young lambs in the field with their mothers. The dog poked through the fence to join me as I crossed and suddenly I found myself in an awkward position that wouldn’t look good to any passers by: an unleashed dog in amongst lambs. It had already proven itself a killer, and I ended up having to grab it by the collar and walk it back to my car. It happily jumped in next to me, eager to find out where we were going to go. I drove to the lodge and deposited it there, letting the lodge owners know that it had been in the reserve killing birds. They simply shrugged their shoulders, feigned annoyance at the dog, while declaring that the wekas weren’t protected there so it didn’t really matter. It was time to push on and get back to enjoying myself.

Further north, and on the road that cuts west, I found myself at a padlocked gate. Toni had given me the key to get in, and I went through the motions to get off the gravel road and onto a vague track that cut across a field to the coast. Exposed by the pounding and wild coast, were some basalt columns, a geological structure that I’m familiar with from Scotland and Iceland. Aside from the occasional quarry truck that passed by in the distance, there was nobody else to see. I stumbled around for a bit, getting battered a little by the wind, listening to the crashing waves just metres away from where I stood.

 

Back on the main road, I followed one arm of it to its termination at Port Hutt. Little more than a group of shacks making up a small settlement, the bay caught my attention due to the ship graveyard immediately offshore. Two boats well into their degradation sat forlornly off the beach, lending themselves to a moody photography session. The sky was mottled here, adding to the sadness of it. A couple of fishing boats sat offshore, and judging by the mish-mash of equipment that was draped around the place, I assume this is a small fishing village. It was unclear whether I was at risk of trespassing or not, and there was nowhere really to park other than a small patch of grass, so I simply stuck to the beach so as not to annoy anyone. But there was no-one around, and it was just me and a couple of seagulls until just as I left, another rental car appeared with a couple who left almost as quickly as they arrived.

 

I followed Waitangi West road almost to its end point, stopping just shy of the farm at its end, where there was a track down to a beach. This felt so much like the beaches of North and South Uist in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and with the only other person leaving as I arrived, there was just me, the wind, and the occasional bird for company. As I walked towards the point, my attention was grabbed by something shiny in the sand. A small piece of paua shell sparkled in the daylight, a brilliant blue and purple contrasting against the pale sand. I was briefly tempted to take it, but I decided to leave it where it was, ready to delight somebody else, or yet to continue its disintegration into nature. A little further along I was shocked to come across a dead cow half buried in the sand. It wasn’t too degraded so can’t have died that long ago, but the flies had certainly found their way to it.

 

I walked as far as a broad tannin river that split through the dunes to cross the beach. A myriad of oyster catchers wandered about here, and I climbed the dune to get an overview across the landscape. In the distance was a nobbly hillside sticking up against the relatively flat beach side. I knew what lay at the foot of it, and I was undecided whether I should stop by on the way back to Waitangi. Toni had highly recommended it, but it was after 3pm, and I wasn’t sure if it would be rude to turn up so late. Not to mention my introvertedness which tends to make me shy away from social contact with strangers. But in the end I did go, and I’m very glad that I did.

 

Through a gate, there was just a vague track across the grass, leading me across a field of cows and eventually to the base of the nobbly hill I’d seen from afar. Stopping at a crest where the track petered out, I got out the car to be greeted by a couple of dogs. I followed them down to a small stone cottage surrounded by a fenced vegetable garden where some chickens wandered about. As I got nearer, I saw movement, yelling out to say hello until I was greeted by Helen. Anybody who lives or visits the Chatham Islands knows about Helen. I’ve no idea how old she is, but she lives on her own with her animals in the same cottage that she grew up in, and the cottage itself is like stepping into a time-capsule. Although slightly protected from the winds by a nearby dune bank, the place is still relatively exposed, and I couldn’t believe she was living here alone, year round.

 

It was interesting to talk to her about her life there and the history of the cottage. After showing me around the place and bringing out photo albums to look at, she asked me about my job. I’m a companion animal vet, and there is no vet on the island, despite many people having pets there, not to mention the livestock. A couple of times a year, a vet from Christchurch may go out to run a clinic for a few days, otherwise, injured animals have to be flown or sailed to the mainland to get treatment, something that isn’t cheap and isn’t always done. To thank her for her time, I offered to give her myriad of animals a health check over, something which turned out to be rather complicated when most of them didn’t want to have a bar of me, and I had no work equipment with me. Helen was overjoyed at the prospect of getting the dog’s nails clipped by me, presenting me with a pair of garden secateurs. I don’t think I’ve ever been so worried cutting an animal’s nails before as I was with these plant cutters which were not designed for the job.

 

Once I’d finished with the surreal veterinary session, I bid Helen goodbye and left her behind to go down to the beach by her house. Right on her doorstep was a gorgeous beach which led to some large boulders balanced on top of each other. Here a group of shags rested on top, and it was possible to walk underneath the giant boulder that was balanced atop a collection of others, ready to one day collapse down as the tide wears them back. The tide was coming in, so I only stayed long enough to watch the oyster catchers wandering about before my feet got wet. Walking back to the car there was a great view up onto the rocky outcrop that was the backdrop for Helen’s house. I waved goodbye as I passed, trundling back through the cow paddock in the rental car, towards the gravel road to lead me back to Waitangi.

By the time I reached the main settlement on the island, it was time for dinner. The hotel was just as packed as the night before and I recognised several faces. I briefly chatted with another guest who was over doing contract work, and then Toni caught up with me to find out how my day went. She was quick to discover what my job was, and I mentioned what I had done for Helen. I had a suspicion that word might get out about my occupation, and the fellow guest, being a repeat visitor, was quick to let me know that if you had skills useful to the islanders, that you would likely be asked to do something for someone, even if you were on holiday. I was soon to discover that this was exactly the case, an event that would turn out to be one of those memorable stories that you gain in life.

The Eastern Frontier

As I sat in the regional departure lounge at Christchurch airport, I was equally nervous and excited. Many years ago I’d attended the annual A&P Show that brings the countryside to the city every spring. I’d passed through one of the giant sheds, looking at stalls, and I’d chatted with one of the stall owners that was advertising these distant islands off the east coast of New Zealand. I’d wanted to go there for a long time, and at last, there I was waiting to board the plane, in February 2020. I felt like the only tourist in a plane full of locals, and as I boarded the archaic-looking plane I was shocked to discover there were barely any windows, and there wasn’t much in the way of panelling on the inside of the fuselage. It felt more like a freight plane, and as it rattled to the motion of the propellers turning on, it felt like I was heading off on a real adventure.

We’d been instructed that all phones had to be completely off. Flight mode wasn’t an option. This added to the feeling that the plane could fall apart at any moment, and it was slow to take off, slow to fly and we kept low in the sky. As we banked and turned over the Port Hills, it was a clear enough day that I was gutted my phone was off. I’d bagged one of the few window seats, and we were so low over the hills on a clear day that the view was incredible, and not one I’ll get again. The slow speed of the plane drew the harbour view out for a long time, until we were finally over the Pacific Ocean, setting a course almost exactly east.

We flew for over 2hrs across the bleak expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and yet I didn’t need a passport. Because despite the distance, I was still going to be in New Zealand. They’re not widely known about outside of the country, but the Chatham Islands are on the frontier of New Zealand’s eastern reach, a small archipelago over 1000km to the east of the South Island. Only Chatham Island and nearby Pitt Island are inhabited, and like any remote island, it takes a hardy person to make a living and a life in a place like that. But I come from Scotland, where the Outer Hebrides, a chain of wild, frontier islands, is one of my favourite parts of the country, so I flew there fully expecting something similar. And that was exactly what I got.

It was grey, blustery and overcast with low clouds as we descended. The view of a grey churning sea seemed bleak until finally surf became visible, and the flattest, lowest landscape I’d seen in a long time. On a map, a large chunk of Chatham Island is a central lagoon, and after flying over a long stretch of beach and its backing dunes, we crossed small lakes and a lone road that transected the visible landscape. Circling round and banking by the lagoon, we were soon landing in what essentially was the middle of nowhere. The small airport had been built away from any settlement, at the end of a single road, and after disembarking into the shack of a terminal, we watched the vital supplies for the island that had come with us, and the luggage of returning residents. There was no rush and no fanfare. The locals simply got on with their lives whilst those few of us that were there for a holiday waited for our bags to appear.

 

When it comes to visiting as a tourist, everything needs to be organised ahead of time. Turning up without a bed booked would be foolhardy. There’s only a handful of options, and only one proper settlement, so I’d chosen a motel room that formed part of the main accommodation on the island, located at the back of the main settlement of Waitangi. I’d decided to hire a car for only a few days of the week that I was there for, so paid for a pick up from the airport which was a 20km drive away. Unknowingly, my life was to revolve around the Hotel Chatham for the week of my stay, which was certainly not a bad thing, but the motel accommodation was out the very back of Waitangi. I had paid for a private ensuite room which suited me perfectly and I was sharing the building with a great bunch of blokes who were over for a mates holiday, essentially a prolonged fishing trip, and I loved the chats we had on passing each day.

Walking down the hill to the coast at the southern end of Petre Bay, the wind nearly blew me in two. Here, I was looking out at a landscape that might as well have been in Scotland. It was empty, low-lying and wild. The weather reminded me of home, and I was ecstatic to be there. I had planned to grab food to make lunches with from the Waitangi store but was shocked to discover that it mostly sold snacks and tinned food. I got what I could and trudged it back up the hill before making the return trip down to go for an evening walk. I had the beach to myself and duly began walking the long stretch of sand that lay before me. In a short period of time, I’d seen a bird of prey, a shag, and a myriad of gulls, all within a short stretch of coastline.

 

The longitude had found me 45 minutes ahead of mainland New Zealand, but it was summer and the days were long enough. After I’d filled my lungs with enough fresh air to make me tired, I headed to the hotel for dinner. Stepping inside it was packed. To the left was the pub, mainly full of locals, and to the right was the restaurant which had a mix of tourists, visiting contractors and locals enjoying an evening meal. I managed to squeeze into a spot for dinner, and silently watched and listened to the island life playing out around me. Everyone knew everybody, and if they didn’t know you yet, they soon would do. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to the proprietor, and general organiser of almost everything that appeared to be happening. I have Toni and her office manager Francesca to thank for everything that I experienced that week.

I’m not a big drinker at the best of times, but if I’m out for a meal on holiday, I’ll often enjoy a wee drink or two. What I was to discover though, was that re-stocking a bar on a frontier island was not that simple. I’d enjoyed the wine I got on my first night, but was quietly amused to be told a night or two later that they’d run out of an entire type of wine. That was just life, and everybody rolled with it, so so did I. And thus began the immersion into life in the Chatham Islands.

Summit, Sea and Middle-Earth

I found myself with a few spare days ahead of a couple of much anticipated trips. Still in blissful naivety of what was to come in the following months, I boarded a plane to New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland, in early February 2020. Being a Saturday morning, there was a small market on downtown in the city so after dumping my bag at my hostel, I headed to the Britomart and out the far side of it to take a nosy. I’ve visited Auckland many times in the 9 years that I’ve been living in the country. Like Sydney, another place I go back to time and time again, I have my favourite parts that I make a point of going to every time, and in addition I do my best to explore somewhere new or do something different. In the case of Auckland, my favourite thing to do is to head to the viaduct and wander around the waterfront.

 

Normally I take the direct route across the bridge that raises and lowers to let the boats in and out, but I decided to wander around the other side of the Viaduct Basin and meander below the apartment buildings that circle it. I grabbed a light lunch at a cafe before continuing round as the sun intermittently popped through the circulating clouds. At Karanga Plaza is one of my favourite spots to take a photo of the Sky Tower. Like Sydney and the Opera House, I can’t imagine Auckland without the distinctive spire of the Sky Tower. It’s strange to think it was only completed in 1997 when I was already a teenager. As I stood near the steps by the edge of the marina, my attention was suddenly pulled to a movement in the water. To my delight, a large eagle ray was gliding through the surface water. I was the only one to see it, and it was gone before I could get my camera out to get a picture, but I love those moments that are yours and yours alone, a sneaky moment with nature that nobody else spots.

 

Despite being a busy city, Auckland actually offers a lot for nature lovers. Straddling between two harbours, it is nestled into the perimeter of the Hauraki Gulf, a large harbour with a winding coastline made up of both the mainland itself and a series of volcanic islands. I decided to book myself onto a whale and dolphin watching cruise for the afternoon. I’d last done this trip in 2015 where I’d witnessed a Bryde’s whale out near the Coromandel Peninsula. This time around we sailed out into a sunnier Gulf and looked and looked and looked. I’ve been on a lot of whale-watching trips around the World and had had a 100% success rate until a trip from Picton a couple of years prior had failed to spot any humpback whales. As time went on, despite the glorious sunshine and harbour views, we failed to find any marine life. I’d just started to right off the trip as a run of bad luck when we eventually found a pod of common dolphins, my favourite species of dolphin as they chased down fish to the delight of the Australasian gannets that dive-bombed into the ocean around them.

Different dolphin species demonstrate very different behaviour traits. Whereas bottlenose dolphins are much more interactive and acrobatic, travelling in smaller social groups, common dolphins tend to keep their eye on the prize: locating food, and they also usually move in large groups. They’re also very fast to surface, making photography a challenge. I had at times to remind myself to just enjoy the view, as I sometimes get so wrapped up in trying to get a photo that I forget to actually be in the moment that is playing out in front of me. That being said, I got one amazing photo that I love, and otherwise I enjoyed watching the gannets shoot through the sky like arrows as the dolphins herded the fish below the surface. Every now and again I spied a petrel in the mix too. I’ve become a bit of a bird enthusiast since living in New Zealand. What we lack in native mammals here we make up for in birds, and I pay so much more attention to the fauna when I’m out and about.

 

Being summer, there was still a good few hours of daylight left when we returned to the marina. I’d spotted a place that had an interesting looking cocktail at Wynyard so I meandered back across the bridge and settled down at a Chinese restaurant for a delicious meal and a beautiful pink cocktail. The SARS-CoV-2 virus had been making its way around the World by this point, although it hadn’t yet reached our shores. February marks Chinese New Year, a time of year that normally sees an influx of tourists from China. There were still a lot of international tourists, but I noticed not just the reduction in number of Chinese tourists, but also how this particular restaurant was comparatively empty compared to those around it. In fact, everyone else at the restaurant conversed with staff in Mandarin, and I had wondered at the time if there was a bit of racist avoidance of the place. Sadly, even the normally welcoming and laid back country of New Zealand has its racist backbone.

 

I had an early rise the next morning to catch a bus out of the city to somewhere I’d wanted to go to for many years. A couple of hours south of the city is the unassuming town of Matamata. But it is what lies on its outskirts that is the lure to movie fans from around the World. Back in 2001, when I was at university, I, like many others, made a special trip to the cinema to see the first Lord of the Rings movie. If someone told me then I would end up living in New Zealand, I would never have believed them, but yet a decade later I left my home country of Scotland to emigrate there. Now I was on route to Hobbiton, the film set of the Hobbit village that was left intact after the Hobbit movies were filmed and is now a popular tourist attraction. Several of my friends had visited in the past, and I was quietly excited to finally make it there myself.

After a brief respite from breakfast somewhere along the way, we pulled up at the tourist centre to wait for our tour to begin. Whilst I would have loved to have just had free range of the place, you can only visit on a guided tour, meaning booking into a timed shuttle bus that drives you from the main centre, across the farm to the entrance into Hobbiton. There you are taken around a set route by a guide, to curl around past familiar Hobbit holes towards the Green Dragon Inn. The farm itself seems so quintessentially New Zealand, as across the road near the entrance was a load of sheep grazing some crops against a backdrop of rolling hills. As often happens in summer here, there was a bit of a drought going on, making a lot of the landscape quite yellow and brown. And yet, as we reached the film set itself, it was transformed into greenery, as the landscape was clearly being artificially hydrated to maintain the aesthetic.

Firstly, we stopped by the Hobbiton sign before descending through the trees and popping out at a vegetable patch. Looking up the hillside there were Hobbit holes a-plenty, a series of colourful round doorways under turf humps. Whilst not a die-hard fan, I liked the franchise enough to be enchanted by the place as we moved from residence to residence, past small rocking chairs and clothes-lines draped with Hobbit-sized clothing. While almost all of the Hobbit holes are purely a facade, there were a couple that we were able to get right up to or pose by, including one where the door opened into a small vestibule to allow photographs to be taken as if we were going inside. It was a gloriously hot day and I was so happy to be there.

 

Finally, after working our way up the hill at the back, we found ourselves outside Bilbo Baggins’ home, complete with ‘No Admittance, except on party business‘ sign outside. From there, it was a matter of wandering down the other side of the hill to come out at a pretty stone thatched building with a water wheel, and a gorgeous little stone arched bridge that led across to the Green Dragon Inn. Inside, I claimed my cider, part of my admission ticket, and enjoyed it as I wandered around looking at the gorgeous wooden beams and authentic signs on display. Outside the inn, a small lake provided some stunning reflections on such a sunny and still day. I could have sat here for hours just enjoying the weather and the view. The attention to detail everywhere I looked was incredible, and I’d happily come back another time and do the tour all over again.

 

To break up the two hour drive back to the City of Sails, we stopped at Hampton Downs motor park, just a little past half way. I’ve watched the odd bit of motor racing over the years here so recognised some of the cars and names that were displayed across the place. It was a non-race day but the display showroom was full of freshly waxed racing cars, and outside the building there were a few cars racing round the track. I had enough time to watch them do a few laps as well as spot a car doing doughnuts in the skid zone.

 

Back in Auckland, I jumped on the ferry across to Devonport on the opposite side of the harbour to the CBD. It’s only a 10 minute ferry ride, and it was a gorgeous evening as I headed over. I decided to have an early dinner, eating at a Greek restaurant on the main street, before heading up the hill, breathless on a full stomach, to reach the summit of Mount Victoria, one of the 53 volcanic cones that dot the greater city landscape. By now evening, the views over to Rangitoto Island and the city of Auckland were divine. I sat for a long time at the top watching the sun lower and the sky change colour. I made the decision to wait for sunset, and in doing so, the colours in front of me glowed through shades of yellow, and orange before the sun dipped below the cloud line at the horizon. Then the pinks and purples burst out, and the city turned into a sparkling electric light show as the various skyscrapers illuminated against the darkening sky.

 

The purple hung around in the air for quite some time, and below me a constant flow of boat traffic moved in and out of the harbour, they too glowing against the dark water as they zoomed across the surface. Ever aware of the need to get back for the last boat, I eventually had to haul myself away from the view and head back down the hillside to the wharf. As the boat left Devonport, I noticed the Sky Tower was putting on a light show, changing through a series of bright colours, switching from blues and purples, to reds and greens. I wandered through the city streets catching glimpses of the light show as I headed back to my hostel.

 

The next morning after grabbing breakfast at a popular and crammed cafe near to my hostel, I took a wander into Albert Park, passing a myriad of sculptures and finding an alternative viewpoint for the Sky Tower. Down from here, I cut towards Chancery Square where I was amused for a while by a gull that kept challenging its own reflection, thinking it was another gull. Then, because I love it there so much, I headed back to the Viaduct, at first watching the boat life come and go, before parking up on one of the giant wooden loungers on the plaza to just enjoy the sunshine. When at last it was time to head back to the airport, I found myself with a window view for the flight back to Christchurch, flying over Taranaki which looked bizarre without any snow on it. Landing at Christchurch airport, I headed home, excited about my return to the airport the next day for the start of a week long adventure far out in the Pacific Ocean.

Tekapo Time

In the years I’ve lived in New Zealand’s South Island, the settlement of Tekapo has changed quite a bit. My first memory of it from 2012 is of a quiet little township in a gorgeous location. Within a few years, as tourism numbers in the country soared, it became synonymous with bus loads of tourists and ‘Influencers’ posing next to the lake, the lupins and the church. It’s still small, but there’s certainly been a good bit of development, one of which has been the brand spanking new YHA hostel as well as the observatory just along the road. Shortly after the hostel opened, I headed to stay there in January 2020. The C-word had been increasingly prevalent on the news but in our innocence and naivety, I thought little of it, other than being aware that Chinese New Year was just around the corner, and that flights from China into New Zealand were being restricted.

It’s a familiar drive across the Canterbury Plains and a mountain pass to get there from Christchurch, so I was there by mid-day, too soon to check in. It wasn’t the sunniest of days, but the outlook at the lake is divine so it was nice to take a wander along the lake shore before circling back. Integrated into the new hostel is a little burger bar which made a nice chill spot to wait out the remaining time until check-in. The clouds were just starting to part a bit as the afternoon wore on, and having gotten into the room and headed back outside again, a walk round the side of the building revealed a gloriously huge mirrored window spanning the two storeys of the gable end. It reflected the lake and the clouds and was simply stunning.

 

Some days, wind whips across the length of the lake creating waves, and this was one of those days. Walking along the lakeside and across the bridge past the Church of the Good Shepherd, the waves accompanied me, splashing against the many rocks on the shore. There were certainly still tourists about, but it was noticeably quieter than usual, the start of stranger times ahead. At this far end I could see glacier-like clouds snaking down the nearby mountain valleys, a really cool effect that I’ve seen several times here. The flowers along the path edge were in full summer bloom with bees floating around the invasive thistles and lupins that adorned the place. With long summer days, there was still hours of light left when I meandered back to the hostel ahead of dinner, and now the clouds had cleared enough to create an even more impressive reflection on the gable wall.

 

Tekapo sits within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an internationally recognised region for optimum stargazing and astrophotography. When at last it was dark enough to see some celestial light, I headed round to the waterfront, crossing the arched bridge that was illuminated with downlighting. The lights in the town are specialised to minimise light pollution, meaning that both in town as well as up on the nearby Mt John hillside, there is ample opportunity to see some stars and planets without having to go far.

The next day was hot. Soaring towards the 30s with cloudless skies above. I’d booked a tour of the new observatory for mid-morning which allowed enough time to take another walk along the waterfront first. The guide was great at talking about the stars and planets for a mixed audience as we walked through a series of rooms covering various aspects of the local night sky. In one room there were large bright red orbs representing either stars or planets, and at the end we came out in the observatory itself with the giant telescope which we got to watch rotate and move. I love looking up at the stars on a warm night, so this place was really interesting for me.

 

It was time to get out in the heat and have some fun. My companion wanted to go to the hot pools but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in thermal pools on such a hot day. I had my eyes on the seasonal offerings at the Tekapo Springs complex, in particular the giant bouncy house they set up in the summer months. Most of it was under the direct hit of the sun, making the tarpaulin a little hot under foot, but I was all over it, and thanks to the heat, mostly had the giant playground to myself. My day to day job is exceedingly stressful and tiring, so letting my hair down at that point was just what I needed. I ran round and round the place, bouncing through obstacle tunnels, sliding down giant slides, climbing inflatable towers and throwing velcro balls at a giant inflatable dart board. Only when the heat got too much did I head inside the cafe to grab some water. But once I’d cooled down I was straight back out again to enjoy it once more.

 

Despite the ample opportunity in New Zealand, I’m not a particular fan of swimming in lakes. Partly it’s because I spend a lot of my time travelling solo, and partly it’s because I’m never quite sure what’s under the water. I hate the feeling of vegetation against my legs when I’m swimming or the discomfort of wading out over stony sediments, so rarely bother. However it was so hot on this occasion and there were so many people in the lake enjoying the water, that my companion didn’t have to work hard to convince me to get in. Of course Lake Tekapo is a glacial lake, so even with an air temperature of 31oC, the water was comparatively frigid, and it necessitated either dancing whilst talking to people, or continuously moving to save from getting a chill.

The evening light was gorgeous so I needed no encouragement at all to follow the foreshore with my camera to find a spot to watch the sunset. The surrounding hills turned a shade of red and a light breeze created small waves against the rocks once more. As I sat, I got quite irked about a trio of freedom campers who proceeded to head into the water and use products to bathe and wash their hair, the soapy remnants floating across the water’s surface. It amazes me how little people realise (or perhaps care about) the damage that even small quantities of these products can do to the lake and the shore. Dilution effect is neither accurate nor a good enough excuse, and especially in a sedimentary lake formed from glacial outflow. What’s more frustrating to me is that my introvertedness always prevents me from speaking up. I could hear from their conversation that they were French, and instead of speaking to them at all, I practiced the necessary French in my head, thinking it wouldn’t be so confronting if I spoke to them in their own language. Instead, I angrily stewed internally, and never let out a peep. Sadly, freedom campers had been starting to get a bad rep in New Zealand prior to the border closures of COVID that has since kept many of them out of the country. This incident wasn’t helping their reputation.

 

The stars eventually took my mind off it when it was at last dark enough to see them in all their glory. As I had sat on my rock, more and more people had gathered, and despite Tekapo having seemed relatively quiet during the day, the night brought hordes of people to the area around the church, including a couple of coaches that dumped a large crowd of people out of them. I hadn’t brought my tripod with me and I’m still learning how to get the best out of my camera in low light, so I tried very hard, but never really got an acceptable astro photo. When a chill hit around midnight, I weaved my way through the crowds to head back to bed.

 

The clouds were back the following day, but it was still warm and sunny. After breakfast at a local cafe it was time for a final wander around before heading home to Christchurch. The C-word continued to trickle through day after day as New Zealand watched events play out abroad. But it was summer, and I had some exciting plans coming up the following month to look forward to, including somewhere I’d been wanting to get to for years.

Summer Vibes in the Garden City

January 2020 marked 8 years since I’d moved to New Zealand. The start of the year came with no great fanfare but I had so many plans for the coming year including getting home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I was excited, and the early news reports of a new virus trickling out from China did little to dampen my spirits. When I wasn’t working, I was intent on making the most of my days off whilst the summer weather was at its best, dotting around Christchurch from the city to the suburbs as my mood took me.

On the day that marked my 8-year anniversary, I found myself down at New Brighton beach. The pier there is an iconic Christchurch landscape and despite the wind that was whipping up, there were plenty of people out and about. After the recent hiking I’d done a couple of weeks prior, I was in no great desire to walk the full length of the beach, but I did go for a bit of a toddle down the sand, listening to the surf and daydreaming. Coming here reminds me of the long walks I used to take in Aberdeenshire, walking north from Balmedie to Newburgh. Listening to the sound of crashing waves is one of my favourite things to do and is an instant mood lifter for me. I walked under the pier before heading round to the stairs to walk out on it, a long meander out over the sea where couples stroll hand-in-hand and locals stand with fishing lines cast off into the surf. For me, there’s something quintessentially Trans-Tasman about it, as it always evokes memories of time spent in both Australia and New Zealand.

 

The following weekend I made use of my annual pass for the Christchurch Gondola, heading round to Heathcote to take the cable car up Mt Cavendish. The views from the Port Hills over Lyttelton Harbour and Pegasus Bay are some of my favourite viewpoints in the city. It was another gorgeous day and both the sea and the sky were a brilliant blue. I enjoyed lunch at the cafe at the top before wandering around the platform and then down onto the hilltop to watch the clouds moving in from the sea, dotted across the sky.

 

I was spoiled once more the next weekend when the sun was out in force again. After all these years living in Christchurch, I’d watched the city be reborn and there is so much of the new city that I really love. I need little excuse to visit Riverside Market or walk alongside the River Avon, and I especially love to walk through the Botanic Gardens in either spring or summer. The meadow flowers in the Gardens were in full swing and they were alive with bumble bees going about their business. The colours of the flowers were gorgeous with vibrant reds and yellows popping out of the display.

 

The rose garden was also in its prime by this point in the year, and is always full of people admiring the bushes with their blooms. On this occasion, there weren’t too many people there which meant I could actually take some photos without feeling like I was intruding on people posing for the ‘Gram. As I continued through the Gardens towards Canterbury Museum I noticed some new metal sculptures of a couple of deer grazing under a tree.

 

But I was really there that day to visit the museum which had a temporary exhibit called ‘Squawkzilla and the Giants’ about the prehistoric giant birds that roamed New Zealand around 60 million years ago. Before I moved here, I’d never heard of the country’s endemic parrots, the kea and kaka, nor did I know that penguins lived here. It’s not hard to love these bird species once you’ve seen them in the wild, so I was as happy as the kids that visited to come face to face with 1m and 1.5m tall penguins that used to call New Zealand home. It’s strange to thing that there used to be a penguin as tall as a human that waddled along the beaches here.

Before visiting this exhibit, I hadn’t realised that New Zealand used to have crocodiles. I always think of our neighbour across the Tasman as being the crocodile country, but apparently 40 million years ago, so were we. Then finally, I came face to face with squawkzilla, a human-sized parrot which looked very much like a giant kaka. The rest of the museum houses mostly static exhibits which I’ve been through many times before, so I took a quick whizz through a couple of them before heading back out into the sunshine.

I took a different route back through the Botanic Gardens to reach my car. This led me past the long stretch of flowers that leads up the wall next to the College. There were more bees buzzing around and when I reached the rose garden again, I wandered round the flower bed at its perimeter before heading into the nearby conservatory to get a view from the balcony on the first floor. There was a few more people milling about the roses by now, and plenty of people up on the balcony also. The following weekend I was to have the first of many planned trips away from home, but these first few weeks of 2020 had reminded me how much I love living in the Garden City.

West Coast Wanderings

My hands gripped the steering wheel as my foot slammed the accelerator to the floor, the engine revving loudly as I yelled out loud ‘come on baby, you can do it!‘. I leaned forward, as if the shift in weight would help get my car up the steep incline that lay before me. My heart in my mouth, I prayed the car ahead of me did not falter. Because if he did, so would I.

I’d read about a hidden gem deep in the forest of the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and having completed the 4-day Heaphy Track at Kohaihai, I was practically at the road end. I knew from looking on maps that it was an unsealed road to get there and it looked like it might be steep but I’d read plenty of reports about 2-wheel drive cars managing just fine so told myself my little 1.4 litre Hyundai would be okay. I turned off the main road and reached an entrance sign that also declared that it wasn’t a 4-wheel drive road. And so I continued, entering the forest on a semi-graded unsealed road as it started its climb upwards. But it didn’t take long to reach a steep hill and there was a car only a little in front of me.

My car can feel under powered uphill even on a sealed road, and I knew my car well enough to know I needed to just floor it. If I had to lay off the gas because the car in front of me was too slow, I knew I’d lose momentum and struggle, potentially stalling on the rough track under wheel. I hung back a little to give them a decent head start and then gunned it. I thanked my car out loud when I got to the top, but little did I know this was only the beginning. The road had to reach a pass which meant multiple steep sections of variably graded road, and regular blind bends with no idea about oncoming traffic, and variable widths to the road. Each time I loudly gave my car encouragement to get me up each steep section and thanked it for getting me there. As I reached the top I felt glad it was over, only to quickly realise the road dropped just as steeply down the other side, with just as many blind bends.

When I reached the car park, I was sweating and stressed, aware of the fact that the only way out was back the way I had come. So I was determined to make the most of being there by doing several walks. I took the shorter trail through the forest, following the tannin-rich Oparara river which led me to the gigantic rock structure of Oparara Arch. The arc of the arch, at 49m wide with a height of 37m, is impressive and the trail leads up to a lookout into the arch as well as down onto the rocks by the river. Despite the horrendous drive to get there, the car park had been quite full but thankfully most of the people on the trail were walking out and I almost had the place to myself, at least initially. Down at the river, I could see out the other side of the arch into the thick forest beyond, and the water reflected the opening on its surface.

 

When a few more people arrived I began back along the river where I noticed large stones at the edge creating patterns with their reflection. Upon reaching the car park I cut across to the opposite side to take a longer circular route that led through the forest. Within 10 minutes I was at the side track which led to my favourite part of the area, Moria Gate. Getting into it meant fitting through a hole in the rocks, aided by a chain to lower down into a sort of tunnel. Here another rock arch spanned the Oparara river once more and this one was just magical. There were a few people here making it difficult to photograph without other people in it, but I was reluctant to leave it, taking my time to wander back and forth from one end to the other.

 

Eventually I headed back up through the hole in the rocks and rejoined the main trail, continuing the circuit which quite quickly led me to a lookout which looked back into the arch from the outside. Continuing onwards, the trail meandered for some time through the forest, gaining a bit of height before eventually popping out at the Mirror Tarn. Even though it was a bit of a grey day, the mirror effect was still fully evident, but it felt eerily quiet here with no people and no bird song, so after a while I pushed on to complete the circuit and return to the car park.

 

I internally talked myself up for the drive back across the pass. I again had to wait for another car to get a bit of a head start, and once more I found myself gripping my steering wheel, flooring the accelerator pedal and verbally coaxing my car up every incline. When at last I reached the main road again, I allowed my pumping heart to settle. Clearly you don’t need a 4WD car if the conditions are right, but it was certainly a highly stressful drive with such a small engine, but I was very glad I’d done it. Now I could continue south cutting through Karamea and Little Wanganui before pulling over at the side of the road to take the Lake Hanlon track. After 4 days of walking on very little food I felt out of puff walking up the hill and down the other side to the long steely grey-looking lake. There were no reflections as the wind whipped through the crater a little, but a few birds gave some interest.

 

Despite it being in peak holiday season, I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay that night, but I did have my tent in the boot of my car. Having picked up a hitchhiker a few days prior, I decided to go with their recommendation of a campsite further south down the coast. Climbing up into the mountains and across a couple of saddles affording views down to the sea, almost immediately after winding my way down the other side, I took a side road down a gravel track to Mokihinui beach where Gentle Annie Campground opened up before me. It was so busy, with campervans and tents set up all over the place and children playing left, right and centre, that it felt like I’d arrived at a commune or festival. After paying an entry fee, I cut through the masses and found a spot on the edge of the crowds to set up my tent across from a field of cows.

Normally a busy campground like this would irritate me but there was such a happy vibe there with families and friends hanging out and enjoying the company and the locale, that I couldn’t help but feel relaxed there myself. I picked my way down to the beach and walked among the flotsam that had washed up, listening to the waves crashing near by and the sounds of happy children. I’d left the cloud behind and it was a gorgeous sunny summer evening. After walking to the river mouth and back, I set up my cooking stove on the beach and ate dinner for the first time in 4 days before watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea. It was the perfect end to the day, and one of those times where I couldn’t help but be in the moment. In the darkness I returned to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag full of content.

 

I awoke on the last day of 2019 with a long drive ahead. There was no great need to pack my tent up properly, so everything was thrown into the boot of my car allowing me to set off without wasting much time. It was unfortunately cloudy as I returned to the main road and followed the highway south. A little way down the road at Waimangaroa I cut inland to take a steep and winding road up into the clouds. At the top in the mist was Denniston, an abandoned settlement from the coal mining days. I’d read about this place some years prior and was excited to finally be visiting. Despite being summer, it was chilly in the clouds and they also brought drizzle, so I sheltered at the top by the information boards reading every single line, soaking up the history of the place.

There used to be an entire town here, perched atop the hill, frequently enveloped in mist or rain for weeks on end. It seemed to be a miserable place, not to mention a dangerous one, with mining works and conditions bringing all sorts of risks to those that braved a life there. What brings people there now is the impressive Denniston Incline, a 1:1.25 (80%) gradient altitude gain which the old coal track used to run up and down. It was a feat of engineering at the time and the thought of it now is still impressive. From the information boards, a track leads down to an area where remnants of buildings and machinery lay scattered across a flattened area, across which two separate viewpoints overlook the start of the incline.

Despite the mist, I could just about make out the surf on the west coast, and I looked down the slope impressed with it all. A few coal trucks sat locked forever in place on the cusp of the drop down, and in the distance I could see the route of the track fall away far below me. Walking around the site there are signs of broken and discarded coal trucks everywhere. The mist made it a little eerie but it was a pretty cool place to walk around. Out the back the track led below a huge stone viaduct that leads into the closed off mine shafts. The west coast is littered with abandoned gold and coal mines, most of which are closed off and deemed too dangerous to enter.

I watched a tomtit for a while before cutting back to the incline. The heavy blanket of dark clouds had lifted revealing a bit more of the view, so I spent some more time here, walking down into the meadow flowers at the top of the incline. After taking a drive across the summit past what was left of the old settlement, I headed back down to the bottom of the hill and took a side road to where the bottom of the Denniston Incline was served by a train track. It looked just as steep from this end, and yet more remnants of machinery were strewn around the place. Had I had more time and energy, I would have loved to walk the track to the top, but by now lunchtime, it was time to push on.

 

After stopping in Westport for lunch and a wander along the short main street, I drove out the other side to take the road to Tauranga Bay on Cape Foulwind. It had been years since I’d last been here and the place was full of holidaymakers from kids building sandcastles on the beach to surfers riding the waves in the bay. The clouds seemed to hug the southern end of the bay but as I followed the coastal track to the north, the clouds were breaking up and the sun was trying to come out. A little way around the coast is a lookout overlooking a New Zealand fur seal colony. It’s pretty much a guaranteed place to spot them and there was plenty of activity on the rocks below to entertain everyone.

 

I didn’t have time to walk the full length of the cape and back, but I walked up the hill a little past a multi-city distance marker and to a viewpoint overlooking the next bay. Heading back past the fur seal colony once more, I drove the short distance to the far end of the Cape Foulwind walkway where the lighthouse stands. The clouds had completely gone from this end of the trail, and I sweated my way up to the lighthouse from where there was a gorgeous view out over the Tasman Sea and the coast in either direction. I kept putting off leaving, but I had a New Year’s Eve dinner to attend outside of Christchurch so I really had to get going. That didn’t stop me from stopping multiple times in the Buller Gorge to take photographs. It had been less than a week since I’d passed through here twice in one day, but this time round it was under a blue sky and the river sparkled blue as it flowed through the deep and lusciously green valley.

 

As I cut from west coast to east, the sky began to change. For weeks Australia had been burning in one of the worst fire seasons on record. A few weeks prior I had left Sydney behind under a smoke-filled sky, and now a month and over 2000km later, the smoke had reached New Zealand’s skies. The sky turned hazy and red as the sun lowered, creating a really spooky effect. I couldn’t smell it, but it was a vision I can still remember nearly 18 months later. I didn’t even stay up for the turn of the new year, I was too exhausted from the drive, but I went to sleep full of the knowledge that 2020 would bring me lots of travelling, including a much-anticipated trip home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I could never have guessed what was to come.

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

How Not to Hike the Heaphy Track

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The Wild West

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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