MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “New Zealand”

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

How Not to Hike the Heaphy Track

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The Wild West

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

The New Christchurch

In September 2010 and February 2011 a couple of large earthquakes ripped through the city of Christchurch resulting in mass devastation and loss of life. I moved to the city just shy of the 1 year anniversary of the February earthquake, and was shocked to find a city locked down, shut off and covered in dust. Those first few months I thought I’d made such a huge mistake living there. But fast forward all these years later and I love the place. The regeneration has been incredible to watch, and whilst I don’t like everything that has been done with the place, the vast majority of the changes have returned this devastated city to a place of vibrancy and life. Whilst I’d been in Japan during October 2019, a much anticipated new spot in the city had opened up and on my return I was eager to get out and experience it for myself.

At one end of Cashel Mall, replacing the colourful and popular Container Mall is Riverside Market. It opened in sections, some of the external eateries opening sooner and on that first visit, the place was still filling up, but on walking into the large space filled with food stalls, I was quickly in love and eager to try out the new bites. From baked goods, to cheeses, to meats, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected but that didn’t matter. I sussed out some places to try as I wandered around, moving upstairs to take in the view from the rafters. Outside a plethora of eateries were ready to serve. The following weekend I was back, determined to try a few other places. Over a year later, it is still a firm favourite to eat out in the city.

Divali celebrations came and went in Cathedral Square. Aside from the sad spectacle of the abandoned Cathedral, the square itself is open as an entertainment space, so there was a decent crowd as the musicians and dancers performed on the stage, culminating in bhangra music which is my favourite style of Indian dance. Along the road, a giant bright red container had been set up as a form of statement art. Impressively, it had been cut out into giant letters stating ‘MADE IN CHINA’ and it was possible to climb through the letters which I duly did as a big kid that I am.

I’d already experienced the delights of spring in the gardens the month previous, but a return to the gardens in October still provided lots of colour and fresh blooms to ogle at. The cherry blossoms were past their peak but inside the Botanic Gardens there was a mass of pinks and yellows and reds and oranges. Semi-secluded at the back of the gardens is a series of small ponds, and aside from the usual ducks that are in attendance here, I was surprised to happen upon a little shag. It was merrily swimming around the shallow water and when it turned head on to face me, the natural curve of the beak made it look comically grumpy.

 

To my delight there were also ducklings everywhere. I especially love Paradise Shelduck ducklings as they are particularly cute and fluffy, but even the hybrid grey ducks that are the usual fare around there were fun to watch. The biggest of the lakes in the gardens, with its stone arch bridge across it, is my favourite part to visit and hang out as there’s always some form of bird activity going on here. At one point a mother duck led her ducklings along the path and I watched the family go about their stroll.

 

I gradually worked my way round the river Avon that encircles the Botanic Gardens, and was stoked to spot a few eels in the water. I had heard that the eel population was slowly improving after some remedial works had taken place to improve the water quality and here was the evidence that it was working. As I watched the couple of eels weaving around under the water, a punt and a few kayaks lazily passed by. These sunny spring and summer weekend days when people are making the most of the warmth, and the excitement of the change in season is tangible in the air, are my favourite kind of days. As much as I usually prefer my own company, I love to breathe in the shared joy of these kind of days.

 

It was good enough to take a walk around the city and watch the place go through its motions. The red tram trundled towards me as I walked along Worcester Street and on a whim I decided to jump on board. I usually get an annual pass which covers the tram and the gondola outside of the city for unlimited rides, so it was easy to make use of the card when I felt like playing tourist. That, and the tram drivers tend to be a font of knowledge for what is happening in the city, including the gossip among the developers, so it is a good way to find out what’s coming and when. At the margin of the city centre, the large form of the new Convention Centre was starting to take shape as we passed and before long we were turning into the colourful New Regent Street. This part of the city was a regular hangout in the earlier stages of the rebuild when it was one of the earlier parts of the city to reopen, but while it still has some great eateries, I now hardly come here at all.

 

When we finally circled round to Cashel Street, the mall was alive with people. Again, my memories of this street years ago was of desolation and quietness, but now it is the heart of the city once more. From businesses on weekdays spilling their workers out for local eats and coffee, to weekend shoppers and people looking for a bite to eat or drink, this end of the city is a delight with the Riverside Market, the bubbling river Avon and the Terrace eateries and bars located within a short distance of each other. After completing a circuit on the tram, I jumped off to get back on my feet, finding myself at the MADE IN CHINA container before crossing the river to admire the glorious Terraces from the far side of the river, culminating in a bite to eat at the market.

 

A few days later on another glorious spring day, I again made use of my tram and gondola pass to take the gondola up Mount Cavendish for another favourite viewpoint of mine. Looking north, the span of Pegasus Bay sweeps away into the distance and the city itself is nestled just a little away from the Port Hills, sandwiched between the hills and the distant hulk of the Southern Alps, viewed on the horizon. On the other side of the building, the glorious turquoise water of Lyttelton Harbour sits within an old volcanic caldera, dividing the Port Hills from Banks Peninsula, the mountainous remnants of 2 extinct volcanoes. All these glorious days spent wandering around my city remind me how much I love here, and how wrong I was to be put off by first impressions. Even now in 2021, with the rebuild still ongoing, I have nothing but excitement for the new things still to come. The New Christchurch is an exciting place to live, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

The Garden City in Bloom

September is one of my favourite months of the year in either Hemisphere. In my native Scotland, it often involved some lovely spells of weather as the leaves started to loosen, whereas in New Zealand, it signals increasing daylight, new life and the promise of adventures ahead. My home city of Christchurch is known as the Garden City and the arrival of spring means it really gets to shine. As the seasons turned from winter to spring in 2019, I had been keeping a half eye on the cherry blossoms around the city and park, awaiting the spell when they were in their full glory, and finally in the second half of the month, a sunny day corresponded with the peak bloom and a day off work. There were plenty of other people making the most of it too, and the path that hugged Harper Avenue was full of throngs of people admiring and posing with the pretty pink flowers. It was impossible to resist doing the same.

 

The Avon river snakes down the side of Hagley Park, and tearing myself away from the blossoms, I followed the river towards the Botanical Gardens, passing a pair of Paradise Shelducks with their fluffy offspring. Of all the ducklings that I have seen, I think theirs are the cutest. What I love about this stretch of the river is the giant weeping willows that gently sway in the breeze, and sometimes I like to run the strands through my fingers as I pass them by. I had lunch at one of my favourite cafes, Bunsen, which is nestled in the historic Arts Centre Precinct, and with the weather so nice, I sat outside where even there I was accompanied by wildlife as a sparrow joined me on the neighbouring chair. Once satiated, it was time to enjoy the Botanical Gardens in all its spring glory.

 

Immediately on entering the gardens, I was assaulted with the striking colours of the tulip beds that hugged the lawn borders near the peacock fountain. Returning to the Avon river bank once more, it was bustling with life with punting and kayakers moving lazily across the water. It’s one of those things I’ve never done because I’m a local and I always think of it as a tourist activity, but maybe one day I’ll take a paddle myself. About halfway up the gardens, an arched bridge crosses over to a meadow nestled between the river and the Christchurch Hospital. Here, a carpet of yellow and white daffodils spread across the area below the trees and I once more found myself ogling the flora that was blooming everywhere. I was not alone here either, with nearly as many people photographing the daffodils as there had been at the cherry blossoms. With the sunshine sparkling on the gently babbling river, it was hard not to lap it all up.

 

Back in the botanical gardens, there were flowers in bloom at every turn. This is my favourite time to visit, and there was so much colour everywhere. More cherry blossoms could be found lining some of the more private nooks and there were bees buzzing everywhere. For years following the earthquakes that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011, the conservatories in the centre of the gardens had been closed. Even when they reopened, it took me some time to visit them, and finally on this day, I stepped inside and was greeted by a hot house of tropical plants. It was lush with zaps of colour, and out the back there was a cactus room full of succulents. I took my time inside, continuing my meander through the gardens on exiting, and following the river past yet more cherry blossoms and returning to Hagley Park. Strolling in the sunshine through the park back to my car, I was happy and energised for the exciting weeks to come.

 

A Winter Weekend in Wellington

It’s always a good idea to take a break away from your home city once in a while. Gritting my teeth in earnest for the end of winter last year, I boarded an early morning flight from Christchurch to the country’s capital, Wellington. The last time I’d been there it had been a rather stormy New Years, and sadly the forecast wasn’t looking the best for this weekend either, but still, it was a break away and that was all that mattered. Taking off from Christchurch, the plane was quick to ascend above a thick cloud bank which covered the entire South Island, obscuring any hope of a view out the window. Just as we reached the Cook Strait, a few gaps in the cloud gave a brief peak down to the island slipping out of view. As we descended into Wellington, I was really confused by the sights that appeared below as we lowered back under the clouds. An island appeared and the coastline was unfamiliar and nowhere could I see the usual approach into Wellington. It turned out we’d flown up the south-western coast of the North Island a little before taking a wide arc back to approach over the harbour. It was as grey here as it had been at home but at least the water looked still so that gave hope that the city wasn’t living up to its Windy Wellington moniker that day.

The early arrival meant that we couldn’t check into our hotel yet, so we dumped our bags and went for a wander, first through the nearby streets, and then down to the waterfront. A few murals caught my eye but sadly we were soon joined by a drizzle as I went to explore an old boat that has been completely transformed into a floating mural. We continued towards Te Papa, at first circling around it past the statue of the naked man leaning over the water’s edge, but then briefly heading inside to escape the rain for a bit. The rain mainly remained at drizzle level thankfully, so even though it wasn’t completely dry, we were able to keep walking around the city streets, grabbing some food before taking the train out to Khandallah to visit a relative for a few hours.

 

I was woken in the early hours of the Sunday morning by a loud bang, followed by yelling and a general disturbance outside. We were several floors up, but the sounds from below still drifted upwards and they sounded urgent and distressed. I sleepily rolled out of bed, and pulled back the curtain to be greeted by smoke billowing up from below. I was jolted awake, aware there was a restaurant directly below, and in a panic yelled at my partner to get up. His voice of reason at the lack of smoke alarm sounding and the fire wall that would separate the eatery from the hotel did little to calm me, but there was no suggestion of anyone else in the building moving, and in little time at all, the fire brigade arrived and I was able to watch the light show of sparks that regularly flew upwards as they dampened down the flames. When we eventually got up properly and headed downstairs, we were greeted with the shell of a burnt out car in the hotel’s driveway.

A Sunday market was in full swing at the Te Papa car park, and it was packed full of locals buying their fresh fruit and veg. We were at that point weeks away from an indoor market opening in Christchurch, and I was secretly hoping we’d be getting something as good as this one. Wandering round food markets in any city in any country is always a cultural insight and something that I love to do. It’s a snapshot of local life, local cuisine, and local businesses. Thankfully it was dry as there was no cover whatsoever here, but it was quite windy and the sea in the harbour was showing a good bit of chop. After a while we headed off to spend the afternoon with some relatives near Mount Victoria. By the time we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon the burnt out car was still sitting there looking sorry for itself.

 

Another grey day welcomed us the next morning, and having checked out of our hotel and grabbed some breakfast, we caught the shuttle to Zealandia, the ecosanctuary that nestles behind the city. I’d been once before on the New Years trip, so was happy to go with the suggestion to go back. Despite the lack of sunshine, there were still incredible reflections on the lake at the bottom end of the park, and the nearby hillsides had mist trailing along them. We saw some spotted shag by the waterway, and beyond there some rotund takahe, one of New Zealand’s flightless species of birds. We took the walking track that leads through the forest and up to a dam in the middle of the sanctuary, before skirting round to return on the large loop track. The poor weather meant the bird life was relatively quiet compared to my last visit. Despite how successful the kaka reintroduction here has been, we didn’t see any. Nor did we see any tuatara as it wasn’t warm enough for them to be out basking and I was disappointed to see that the caves where the weta live, had been closed. But we did see the usual forest birds, including the ever inquisitive New Zealand robin who always loves to follow people through the trees.

 

When the rain drove us back to the visitor’s centre, we grabbed lunch before heading back to the city. Again we went into Te Papa to look at one of the exhibits before deciding to walk to the airport along the waterfront as we had plenty of time to spare. I love the walk round Oriental Bay, and on my first visit to Wellington back in 2012 I had continued into Evans Bay round the headland. The long stretch up towards the airport mainly hugged the road so was noisy but once we reached Greta Point, the parks and marina made it much more enjoyable. We had made good time to the airport so wandered among the World of Wearable Art exhibits that were dotted around the terminal. It’s a popular event in the Wellington calendar but never anything that excites me and I looked at the metallic wasp costumes with a raised eyebrow. Before long though, it was time to head south again and home.

Canterbury Tales

Having spent months recuperating from a back injury, and following a winter getaway to Samoa, there was still another 2 months of 2019’s winter to get through, and I was in need of a pick-me-up to help me through. As much as I prefer the New Zealand summers to those of my native Scotland, every winter, I pine over the lack of central heating and the absence of snow. I remember great dumps of snow and driving through blizzards where I used to live in Aberdeen, and as a result, one of the surprising things I come to miss from home, is those crisp winter days waking up to fresh snow fall. Year after year in Christchurch I’ve found I have to grit my teeth to get through the months of May to September, and so it was important I find something to occupy my days off work and make up for all the lost weekends earlier in the year. I created 2 random lists: a geographical breakdown of Canterbury, and a list of possible activities. Then, with the aid of a random number and letter selector, every weekend, I simply had the Internet pick a letter and number for me, and the rest was up to my imagination to combine the activity and the location.

First up was a scenic drive round to Diamond Harbour. The winter sunshine sparkled on the still water within the harbour and the surrounding slopes reflected through the gentle ripples. It’s a drive that always delights, and there’s so many scenic options to get you there. After stopping at a boat ramp to get some photographs, I headed back via Allandale Reserve where the receding tide exposed a mudflat, much to the delight of a myriad of wading birds that picked away for food. In the time that I spent there, the sun dipped behind the Port Hills and I could see as I headed home that a lot of cloud had moved in over the city. This created perfect conditions for a glorious sunset, and as the sun lowered in the winter evening, the sky turned an incredible orange. In a pre-COVID lifetime when planes still flew regularly, I watched as an Air New Zealand plane approached the airport from above my back garden, framed against a sky full of fire.

 

A couple of weekends later, I headed inland to Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, a little beyond Porters Pass on the West Coast road. It’s always a popular place to be, and now at the end of July, there was snow on the nearby peaks. It had been a while since I’d last stopped here, but there’s so many options for routes to take through the giant boulder field, and with a few patches of standing water around, there was some great opportunities to catch the snowy reflections. We skirted round the foot of them and round the side, past a boulder which has a graffiti inscription from 1869 on it. There were snowy peaks to be seen on the far side also, and we picked our way through the lower trails before climbing up onto the hillside at the back of the main boulders. A temporary tarn again provided more gorgeous reflections but we didn’t get such a beautiful spot to ourselves for long. With the sun low for the winter months, there were parts of the area in permanent shade and as we crossed one such spot I went flying, landing on my bum, having slipped on a spot of iced-up mud. With the boulders themselves casting a long shadow on the front side, I had to be so careful picking my way back down again so as not to fall flat on my face.

 

One of the great things about this adventure ‘game’ I was playing was that it led me back to some haunts I hadn’t visited in a while, as well as discovering a couple of new places. With another sunny weekend day the following weekend, my randomly selected region led me to a cute little wetlands on the edge of Lincoln, a relatively short drive outside of Christchurch. I previously worked in Lincoln for a short spell back in 2012 when it was just a little village, but in the years since it has expanded immensely with a plethora of new housing developments spreading out from the original core. The wetlands is right on the edge and was the location for me to practice a bit of macro photography. The waterway itself was still, reflective and surrounded by reeds and other typical plants, but I was on the lookout for flora and fauna that would allow me to practice my photography. As I walked close to the plants at the water’s edge, I found a jumping spider, the only arachnid that I like, and was quick to welcome it onto my hand to try and capture it’s cute little features. It would have been better to have my tripod and two free hands but I was able to get a couple of reasonable shots as it hurried across the back of my hand. On the far side of the wetlands, the shade meant there was some ground frost, and I probably looked a little weird to any passersby as I hunkered down on the wet grass to try and capture the water droplets.

 

The following day I took a drive to the far side of Lake Ellesmere via a nice cafe I hadn’t been to before, where the map suggested there would be a nice spot to enjoy the lakeside. I was hopeful to sit and do some wildlife spotting, but what I found was a gypsy camping site, and a rather flooded park. There was also no bird life to be seen so disappointed, I started to head through the back roads to come home, only to find myself at a ford. I just drive a little car so I wasn’t keen to drive through the river, and right on the far side were some workers doing some road upgrades, so I especially didn’t want to make a twat of myself by getting stuck in the water. It meant a massive detour to get back to the city, so I decided to make a drive out of it anyway, skirting round to the road towards Little River, but turning up Gebbies Pass and up onto Summit road. The weather was perfect for views down onto Lyttelton harbour and I was once more grateful to have so many beautiful spots within easy reach of the city. I stopped at several of the pull-ins to enjoy the view. I was already starting to get excited about the impending spring but there was still one more month of winter and one more adventure to be had before the promise of spring would come.

Escape from Home

At the end of February 2019 I put my back out in spectacular fashion by bending down to put my shoes on. Through the weeks that followed into March and early April, my only relief from constant pain or discomfort was gentle walks and lying on the floor with my legs up the wall. I couldn’t hike, I couldn’t do my beloved exercise classes and even sitting down in the car for longer than ten minutes was out of the question. By the time April hit, I was feeling quite low and claustrophobic, having not been beyond the city limits for a couple of months. I’ve lived with chronic pain for 7 years now, stemming from when I originally injured my back in 2013, and although I’m off painkillers way more than I’m on them, it has definitely had an influence on my mood. To top it off, I’ve been tackling anxiety for four years, and the two together found me feeling very down this time last year.

But as April moved onwards, relief came and I was finally able to consider going for a drive and getting out of the city. After coping with a drive out to Little River on the Banks Peninsula, I was able to tolerate going further a few days later and headed round to Akaroa Harbour 1.5hrs away. It was a grey and cool day, but I was so grateful to change my horizons and walk somewhere different. My partner was getting on with his recovery too, having had shoulder surgery in February, and deemed recovered enough to fly, he headed off to the States for a few weeks to catch up with friends, leaving me behind.

 

When ANZAC day came around, my mind was screaming to get away somewhere, so I decided to take a day trip to Kaikoura. My plan was to enjoy the drive, test my back out and see some wildlife as a reward. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was glad that my back coped with being seated so long. I headed straight to the peninsula on arriving and parked up on a rock to watch the adults sleeping and the pups playing in rock pools. But what was supposed to be an uplifting trip to pull me out of my pity party, ended up being highly frustrating as I watched tourist after tourist ignoring the distance rule and actively harassing the pups to get selfies. In particular, two guys forced themselves right in the face of one pup, practically touching it to get it to look in their camera. I was livid, and the multiple repeat offenders succeeded in winding me up. I left for home, more aggravated than relaxed.

 

It wasn’t till two weeks later into May that I came to realise how much the constant discomfort and cabin fever had affected me, but I was finally able to let go of it all when I decided to give Air BnB a go, and picked a part of Canterbury to get away to that I’d never visited before. Nearly 4hrs away in South Canterbury, Otematata is nestled towards one end of the Waitaki Valley. It was the last month of autumn which I hadn’t really given much thought to until I reached the valley from Kurow and found myself among an increasingly colourful landscape. It started off subtly as I reached Lake Waitaki, becoming a bit more noticeable as I reached the dam at the eastern end of Lake Aviemore and then popping into full glory as I reached Otematata itself. The little settlement didn’t amount to much, but I had a cute little apartment to spend a couple of nights in, and my host had helpfully given me an idea of some walks to do in the immediate region.

I’d lost a good chunk of my fitness, but thankfully my first walk was almost flat. Starting up the road to Lake Benmore which was lined by yellow trees, I passed the golf course which struck an incredible likeness to the Speyside region of Scotland. It immediately transported me to memories of my childhood on family holidays, and as I marvelled in the autumn glory, I finally felt myself relax a little, and weeks of pent up frustrations finally began to ease. I was only limited by the remaining hours of daylight, so I wasn’t particularly fast about my walk as I was constantly stopping to try and capture an image of the gorgeous colours around me. A pond beyond the golf course cast reflections of the autumn leaves, and shortly after that, the path cut down into a woodland where I was immediately traipsing through a carpet of fallen leaves.

 

New Zealand is full of Scottish names and Lake Aviemore was one of these places. The expansive lake could be found after a wander among the leaves and the end by Otematata was inundated with black swans and scaup. The lowering autumn light caused the mountains on the far side to glow and I felt like I was walking through an autumnal wonderland. The marshy ground at the lake edge inferred the lake had flooded recently and I had to take a couple of small detours to avoid getting my feet wet. Some way along the shore, I found myself at a camping park and boat ramp and here, a track led up a little spit of land to give another view across the lake. There was an abundance of fallen yellow leaves to kick through as I headed back to my apartment for the night.

 

The next morning, I took a different route through the same lakeside woodland where I found a small lake with another stunning reflection. There was also a hoard of bright orange berries everywhere I looked. The same road that had led me to this walk continued on through a valley of colourful foliage to Benmore Dam, a large manmade construction that walled up the end of Lake Benmore, another large lake in the region. My host had recommended the walk round the peninsula, so I followed the signs to the car park which was quite busy, and set off through the pine forest. Once again, I felt transported back to Scotland. The feeling only lasted until I got my first views of Lake Benmore, as the blue colour of the water reminded me I was in New Zealand. The lakes of mid-Canterbury are all such a stunning blue colour which I’ve never seen in any other country. The overcast weather dulled the blue here somewhat, but that didn’t detract from the view. As I climbed up and over a ridge, I was suddenly presented with the main expanse of the lake, and behind it rolling hills were framed by the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps.

 

The track took a circuit across the ridges, eventually presenting a turn-off to a lookout where a well placed bench offered a grand vista. It was occupied when I arrived, and after a brief chat with the two men, I found a nearby rock to park my bum and I sat for a long time just soaking up the view. After a while, I returned to the main trail which cut back into the forest briefly before opening up to see the lake again as it descended a little on the circuit. The track was well formed but in places had loose stones on the surface and I lost my grip in one spot, falling over and tearing a small hole in my clothes. I got a nice bruise on my knee too, but it wasn’t enough to dampen my day. As the loop turned back towards the carpark, it descended once more into the forest and the view was lost for most of the return leg.

 

I took the long road home, crossing Benmore dam and marvelling at the immensity of it, before continuing back towards Lake Aviemore, finding myself on the far bank from Otematata. It felt desolate here, with only the occasional passing car and little in the way of interest. It varied in its proximity to the lake itself with few places to stop and admire it. A campsite did offer a short walk along the lake shore before I pushed on to a walk that I’d spotted online. Some way towards the Lake Aviemore dam, I pulled in by a bridge and took a track that headed up a river. The grey skies cast the water a steely grey colour and it felt still and quiet walking here. I had the place completely to myself, as I followed the track to a small picnic area and then beyond. The track on the map stopped, but the track in reality continued, so I followed the river further upstream, not sure where it would take me. All of a sudden it just stopped some distance beyond what the map had shown. When I returned to the picnic site I was joined by a fantail, one of my favourite forest birds. They flit flit flit between the branches and are exceedingly difficult to photograph as they hate to sit still, but they’re quite bold little birds and they like to interact. I completed the drive to the dam at the far end of Lake Aviemore, and with the intention of going to the hot tubs, I took the long drive to Omarama on the inland road. But when I got there, it was dull and cold, and I changed my mind. I returned to my apartment after stopping off at another campsite for a stretch of the legs once more among some autumn colours.

 

I had a full day to make my return to Christchurch, and with the Waitaki Valley being part of the Whitestone Geopark, there was plenty of stop-offs to be made on route. Sadly it was another grey day but that wasn’t to stop me getting out into the fresh air. Driving into Kurow, I parked up in a cul-de-sac at the start of the Kurow Hill Walkway, a locally-managed track that led up the steep hillside. Zig-zagging up the hillside for over 1km, there are a host of armchairs that have been placed to take a break on, although they all looked mouldy and sodden as I passed them by. It didn’t take long for the views of the valley to open up as the altitude gain was acquired, and from the top of the hill I could see the braided Waitaki river disappearing off in both directions. The cloud hugged the hillside on the far expanse of the river and the small town of Kurow lay spread out immediately below.

Along the road near Duntroon was the first of a few rock art sites that I stopped at. Similar to that of the Indigenous Australians, the early Maori who inhabited the area drew pictures on the rocks. The ones here were under an overhang of limestone rock, and although they weren’t always clear what they were, I could make out a sailed boat or waka canoe in one of them. Duntroon had a lovely little wetland out the back of it which had a walkway leading through. There was just me and a local there and I was enjoying being in a part of the country that isn’t frequented by tourists. Although a year later its a mute point in a post-COVID World, prior to any knowledge of the chaos that was to come, it could be hard at times not to get frustrated with the crowds that descend on some of my favourite parts of the country. Back on the main road, there was evidence of the white stone that gives the geopark its name. The famous Oamaru stone was evident here in the form of a couple of statues and a gorgeous white stone church.

Cutting inland from Duntroon, I took Earthquake Road to visit a spot where an upthrust had created a limestone cliff where a whale’s skull was uncovered. The site itself was a little underwhelming but the road led me round to the turn-off to Elephant Rocks, a place I hadn’t heard of before this trip. The giant boulders of Castle Hill in Arthur’s Pass are well known to local and tourist alike, being a popular stop-off on the road from coast to coast. But looking very similar, only hidden down a country road in South Canterbury, the Elephant Rocks felt like a secret spot. I wasn’t alone there though, but it felt far from crowded and it was peaceful to wander around there among the giant rocks. The site is part of a working farm, and just across the fence some curious cows watched those of us who wandered there.

I completed my tour of the Whitestone Geopark by visiting Anatani not far from the rocks. Here, some fossils had been discovered and were on display but I was more interested in the rock formations and the harrier hawk that was circling through the valley. Heading back to the main road there was another short walk to another spot where there was historic rock art. It was less discernible and a smaller site than the first place I’d stopped so it didn’t hold my attention for long. To break up the long drive from here back to Christchurch, I decided to stop at Riverstone, a place off State Highway 1 that I’d ignored time and time again, and was finally curious enough to explore. I was immediately shocked to find a large white-stone castle at the back of the complex. I’d planned on stopping for a late lunch at the restaurant I’d heard so much about, but was instead presented with not just the castle, but a lovely little garden to wander through, a pond with ducks (and inflatable flamingos!) to look at, and a myriad of eclectic and jam-packed brick-a-brack stores to peruse through, never mind the delicious food to eat at the restaurant. The whole weekend had been just what I’d needed to perk up my sad soul, and the unassuming Waitaki Valley had more than delivered.

Life at Home

The day I arrived home from Tanzania, my partner went into hospital to have surgery. I managed to get a decent sleep and get out to stretch my legs, and I even felt energised enough to get to an exercise class before visiting him that evening as he recovered. I had the next day off work, and was tasked with picking him up that morning, as well as being his nursing aide as he was rendered limited by an unusable arm for the weeks ahead. He had torn his rotator cuff in his shoulder and he wouldn’t be able to lift his arm or take weight for some time. Picking him up should have been a straight forward task, but as I bent down to put my shoes on, I was suddenly hit like a brick with excruciating pain and I immediately fell to my knees, crying out and swearing as the pain repetitively shot from my lower back. The tears immediately started rolling down my face and with every attempted movement, more pain kept coming. I was stuck on the floor, writhing and swearing. I tried to get up but that was the worst pain of all. I had to get to my feet, there was no getting round that fact, so through screams, I forced myself upright, reeling as I made it to my feet, rushing as well as I could to the first aid kit to grab some painkillers. I took all that I safely could from what I had, and found myself unsure what to do next.

With my partner relying on me and a very stubborn streak to contend with, I grabbed my keys, and went out to my car. Opening the door was the easy part, but as I tried to sit down, the incessant throbbing became a crescendo once more and I got into the drivers seat with more tears running down my face. I spent the entire drive to the hospital groaning, tears continuing to fall out. I panted incessantly, trying to use my breathing to ease the pain. I’ve put my back out before, but the circumstances surrounding this time made this ten times worse. When I arrived, the nurse asked me to help dress my partner and it suddenly became clear that my role as his nurse was going to be a bit of problem. He had a working back and one arm, and I had two working arms but a bad back. In hindsight, it was the most comical thing that a stranger could have witnessed.

As a contractor with no sick pay, I had to go back to work the next day. What followed were days of physio strapping, pain with sitting and driving and a restricted ability to lift things. My only relief was walking. It had been the same the last time I’d put my back out in 2013, so whilst my sports were completely out of the question, I made a point of walking on my days off work, the gentle movement giving me some relief from the constant ache that came with sitting and standing still. Thankfully, it was still summer, so there were some beautiful days of sunshine to enjoy, and being last year before any concept of coronavirus could ever have been fathomable, there were still events going on in my home city of Christchurch.

The Garden City, made famous by a devastating and destructive earthquake in 2011, has changed so much in the years that I have lived there. There is still so much to complete, but the city is a hive of activity once more, and parts of it have been completely revitalised. That first weekend, my partner and I headed into the city, him with his arm in a sling, and me eager to get mobile. It was the opening day for the Christchurch Town Hall which had had a massive renovation inside. This was my first chance to get inside the building, and there was a good crowd of locals reminiscing and marvelling as the tour went round. Outside the streets were busy and we wandered down to the Avon River where the Terraces and Cashel Mall make up one of the completed parts of the city. The Terraces are a mish-mash of building styles, and whilst not aesthetically to my taste, it has become a popular spot for drinks and a bite. The iconic Christchurch trams trundled below the balconies and the city felt alive.

 

The dominating structure of the Bridge of Remembrance marked one end of the Christchurch Lantern Festival’s displays for Chinese New Year. Whereas they had been pulling them down in Sydney the weekend before, they were still in full swing in my home town, and although we wandered round some of them during the day, it was at night that they really came to life. Needing no excuse to go for a walk, we headed back into the city in the dark, to experience them in all their glory. Lining both sides of the Avon River as well as within the river itself, there were plenty of lanterns to look at, and there was a good crowd of people enjoying it all.