MistyNites

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Archive for the category “New Zealand”

Rakiura Track – Oban to North Arm Hut

Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.

Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.

 

I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.

 

At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.

 

When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.

 

From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.

 

The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.

 

The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.

 

It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.

 

One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.

 

The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.

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Heading South

Whilst not coming close to the distances of Australia or the USA, it is easy to forget how far apart some parts of New Zealand are. Having spent the morning at work, it was the early afternoon before I set off from Christchurch on the long road south to Mosgiel, near Dunedin in Otago. It is a drive I don’t do often. I used to live in Timaru in Canterbury when I first started working in New Zealand, so I’m most familiar with the commute between that town and Christchurch, but it had been some time since I’d last been down to Dunedin, and ever aware of the passing hours, I didn’t stop at any of the towns or sights on the way, too eager to get to my rest stop for the night. I’d chosen Mosgiel as a place just a little further along the road than Dunedin so I was just that little bit further south for the drive the next day, whilst not committing to added distance in case I hadn’t been able to get out of work on time. I stayed in an unusual accommodation which was a converted homestead and seminary that used to be owned by the grandnephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was an enormous building complete with chapel and singing choir, but it provided the comfortable bed that I needed to break up the journey south.

The next morning I had even more driving to do. After the 5hr trip the day before, I allowed myself another 3hrs to reach the ferry terminal at Bluff on the very south coast of the South Island. Here I was to catch the ferry to Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, New Zealand’s third largest island. I’d dreamed about visiting there for some time, but it had taken 6 years of living in New Zealand to finally get around to it. I had made good time to Bluff though, and had some spare time ahead of the 11am ferry, so I took the short drive to Stirling Point which marks the end of State Highway 1, the road that traverses the country from Cape Reinga in the north of the North Island. Here also marks the end of the Te Araroa trail, the long distance hike that also spans the length of the country. The car park was full and there were a few people milling around the lookout and the way marker that stands proudly there. Nearby there was a giant chain-link sculpture that has a corresponding part in Rakiura.

 

A coastal walk disappeared around the headland to the west, but I didn’t have time to do much exploring, choosing to walk round to the little lighthouse out on some rocks by the entrance to the harbour. The harbour itself is very industrial and the small town of Bluff seemed a little sad and run down. It had the feeling of a frontier town, stuck out as it is near the end of a peninsula on a road to nowhere, no doubt taking the full brunt of the weather that comes from the south. It is famous for its oysters as well as for being a gateway to Rakiura, but when I was there, despite the full car park at the ferry terminal, there didn’t appear to be much life about. After parking up at the ferry terminal and checking in, it was then just a matter of waiting to board and head off on my adventure.

 

The Foveaux Strait that separates Rakiura from the South Island is a notorious stretch of sea and the minute we left the protection of the harbour and the south coast, the swell picked up and we started the bouncy ride across. Normally I would spend a boat trip like this outside on the deck, but with this level of chop, that was simply not an option. When asked about the degree of roughness that day, the Captain’s comment was that it was ‘Foveaux Strait calm’ which made me laugh internally. I am exceptionally thankful to have a good sea stomach, but there were many on the boat that couldn’t keep down the contents of their stomach. The crew took it in their stride and I figured they would be more than used to it. I hadn’t stayed overnight on one of New Zealand’s outer islands since I’d first explored the country on arrival in 2012. I remembered my boat trip to Great Barrier Island, my favourite island in the Hauraki Gulf region, with its mixture of locals and tourists, and I had the same feeling as I had then, that I was going somewhere special, secluded and almost secret. Although a port of call on cruises round the archipelago and visited by Kiwis and tourists alike, it gets only a mere fraction of the visitors that other parts of the country receive, and only such a small percentage of it is actually inhabited. It is an island dominated by wildlife, lived on by the hardy, and with just a mere handful of Sub-Antarctic islands and a large expanse of ocean between it and the great Southern continent of Antarctica, it is at the mercy of the weather systems that batter its coast.

With little opportunity to see much on route, I was glad when we slowed into the safety of Halfmoon Bay, as I could finally get outside to see the islets and coastline as we passed. I’m sure those passengers who had spent the trip with their face inside a seasick bag were also glad. As we docked at the harbour, we could see a congregation of people on the beach at Oban, the main settlement on the island. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the island’s ‘Iron Man’ festival and there were all sorts of activities taking place for people to prove their strength and speed. It was a grey and overcast day with the hint of rain in the air, but thankfully it didn’t come to much as I walked around the bay, past the gathered crowd and to my hostel up a back street. It was a busy place, full of hikers as Rakiura boasts 3 multi-day hikes: The 3-day Rakiura track which is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, the Southern Circuit which is a week long trek, or the daddy of all treks, the North-West Circuit, taking up to 12 days. I was there to hike the Rakiura track as part of a week long holiday on the island and I couldn’t wait.

 

But I still had the afternoon to explore Oban’s surrounds, and the bush is dotted with walking tracks. Heading up the hill behind where I was staying, I cut through the back streets of Oban to reach Observation Rock which offered a view over the expansive Paterson Inlet, a large body of water that cut into the coastline of Rakiura. Then I cut down to Golden Bay where the Ulva Island ferry leaves from and joined the Golden Bay track which undulated up and down whilst hugging the Paterson Inlet coastline. I was actually walking under some sunshine by this stage although I could see the rain on the far side of Paterson Inlet, threatening to come closer as time went on. With Iona Island just off shore, I eventually found myself heading into Deep Bay where the wind whipped through.

 

I took the road to cut across the headland which brought me out on the cliffs above the beautiful Ringaringa beach. At the end of the road, a track took me to a monument on a slight outcrop where I had a view across to South Island and back up Paterson Inlet. This little stretch of coastline was stunning and there was barely another soul about. I had planned on cutting to the far side of Ackers Point and heading out to the lighthouse but it was already getting on in the day and I figured I’d have time to do it later in the week once I was back from my hike. So instead of going down to the beach, I took the road back to Deep Bay and took the bush walk across to the back of Oban, bringing me out at the top of Peterson Hill.

 

When I reached Halfmoon Bay, a rainbow was out over the water, and I passed Scollay Rocks where apparently penguins can be spotted. Oban is a very small settlement and there was little options for eating out in. I was already stocked up for my hike over the next few days, but I had wanted to eat out for dinner. In the end, I just got fish and chips from the Kai Kart near the beach and as I sat there in the cold evening, the rain returned. It was heavy enough that there was no point going out at night in search of kiwis as I wanted to start my hike with dry clothes so I returned to the hostel and readied myself for sleep. The next day would see me ticking another New Zealand Great Walk off the list.

 

Mount Somers Track – Day Two

New Zealand’s network of back country huts are the welcome sight at the end of many a hike, although they vary in size, style, and comfort level. What they all have in common is a lack of electricity, meaning that when the sun goes down at night, everybody tends to go straight to sleep, and in the morning as the hut lights up with the morning sunlight, the first stirrings of the early risers awaken the rest of the occupants from their slumber. And so it was as I lay asleep under the kitchen bench top in the over crowded Woolshed Creek Hut at the back of Mount Somers. I don’t know if it was the light or the early risers that stirred me from my slumber, but soon the whole hut was bustling with activity. The vast majority of the hut occupants had hiked in on the shorter Miners track from the car park off Ashburton Gorge Road, which makes it a suitable walk for families. I however, was parked at the Sharplin Falls car park on the directly opposite flank of Mount Somers and had a full day’s hike ahead of me to get there.

Being in February, I had picked an exceptionally hot weekend to do the hike, having hiked in on the Mount Somers track in 27oC. For my return leg, the temperature would peak at 29oC and the majority of the return leg was exposed to the elements. I’d gotten a little deflated at the end of the previous day, having taken 7hrs to hike what should have been a 6hr trek. With the return route listed as an 8hr trek, I set off that morning already feeling a little deflated again. First things first, there was no point even putting my boots on upon leaving the hut as I had to wade across the stream back to the far side to rejoin the Mount Somers track.

 

Starting off with a wander along the valley floor, the track skirted up a low ridge to face a deep gulley across which, a long swing bridge spanned the gap. The plaque denoted that it had replaced a ladder and I wondered if that meant that previously the river had had to be forded. This seemed like it would have been a rather dodgy affair if it had. I was glad of the bridge to take me safely across, and from then onwards, the climb began. First up and over an exposed ridge from where I could still see the hut in the valley behind me, and then into a little forested section. After wading across a stream in my leaky hiking boots, I climbed back out to come across a side track leading to a waterfall. Deep in shadow, it was difficult to get a decent photo of it, but it was definitely worth the short side trip to go and view it.

 

Once back out the forest, the next section of track was probably my favourite, despite the constant climb that went with it. It was exposed but this meant the views were incredible, and as it climbed and hugged the edge of a steep gully, I could see mountains rolling off into the distance, including some distant peaks that still had snow on them. There was only a couple of other people on the track ahead of me, otherwise it was a quiet trail, and from my vantage point I could see some of the other hut occupants walking out on the lower trail they’d come in on. As the track reached its highest point for the day, it cut directly under a rocky overhang where a cut out in the rocks was known as the Bus Stop overhang. Someone had even attached a Bus Stop sign to the edge of the rocks which I passed after taking a rest to enjoy the view.

 

It wasn’t far before the track descended steeply, and suddenly the vegetation changed dramatically from the scrubby bush to reams of tussock before the stumpy trees reappeared briefly whilst the track cut down to another stream and cut back up the other side. It was then an almost flat trek across more tussock, from where there was a final view of Woolshed Creek Hut in the far distance before it disappeared out of sight. Still on the western slope of Mount Somers, I eventually came across the track junction with the Rhyolite Track which cuts steeply down to the same car park that the other hut occupants would reach on the Miner Track. For me though, it was time to cut round to the south face of the mountain and push onwards.

 

There was next to no shade on this south face, and having overtaken the couple of hikers back in the tussocks, it was just me and them some way behind me on this track. For the rest of the day, the trend was set, with a constant undulation up and down in altitude the whole way back to the car. The view south was also less interesting than the view west or the view north the day before, and under the beating sun, it didn’t take long for me to start to get frustrated again. I’ve done many hikes, including 8hr day hikes, but this was my longest hike with a full pack on my back. I’ve also let my fitness reduce and my weight increase, so it was as much frustration at my self for letting myself lose condition as it was about the monotony of the hike in the blazing heat. But there were some interesting sections as the track followed the contours of the mountainside, passing or crossing multiple streams as it went, and the vegetation was by now back to the bushy scrub or the occasional copse of trees.

 

I had my eye on a little shelter where I planned on having lunch, but as with the day before, it felt like it wasn’t getting any nearer, and eventually I decided to stop to eat in the shade of a small copse near a stream. When I finally reached the little shelter I did a quick nosey inside before continuing, realising to my dismay that there was a rather steep incline ahead. Thankfully it turned out that most of it was in the shade of a woodland, and despite the perceived exhaustion, it was actually not too bad to negotiate in the end. After reaching the top of the incline, it skirted yet another corner to suddenly open out of the trees onto the top of a large scree field. Picking my way across it carefully to avoid creating a stone avalanche, there was just another small incline until finally I found myself at the junction with the Mount Somers summit track.

 

It was all downhill from here, and I told myself gleefully that I was nearly finished, but as the sign at the junction attests and as I consulted my map to remind myself of the next section of the track, there was still 1/3rd of the south face track to walk! There were a few more people on this part of the track with those coming off the summit heading home too. I just focused on the thought of my car and picked my way down the lowering ridgeline before I finally entered the forest for the final section. I passed some older gentlemen that had come off the summit and they started congratulating me when they found out I’d walked the circuit. I’m never sure if it’s a genial hiker’s praise or a surprise at the fact that I’m a solo female hiker, because I’ve been stopped a few times by fellow hikers (always males) who seem surprised or overly congratulatory about my intentions or achievements. Certainly, I come across far more male hikers (solo or otherwise) than I do fellow female hikers (solo or otherwise), so probably I’m still in the minority.

 

When I reached my car, 8hrs 40mins after leaving Woolshed Creek Hut behind, it wasn’t long before the same men completed their hike and we shared in each other’s elation. In the intense heat and exposure, I had run out of water about an hour before finishing, as I had done the day before. This hike was the first time that had ever happened and I reflected on the fact that I had underestimated the hike. In the end though, I felt more proud of myself for completing it, having ticked another Canterbury hike off the list, and feeling far more prepared for the 3 day hike I had to come in a few weeks time.

Mount Somers Track – Day One

After New Year came and went and the days of January started ticking by, I had the sudden realisation that I had a multi-day hike just around the corner in February and I was generally unfit and hadn’t done much training. I’d struggled up Ben Lomond on my recent visit to Queenstown, a mountain which I should have coped with well in my peak fitness, so I realised I was in need of an overnight hike, or tramp as it is called in New Zealand, to give my body a practice run. So I decided to do the Mount Somers Track in Canterbury, a track that wasn’t a drastic drive away, was just a 2 day hike and seemed perfectly achievable, being as it went round the slope of Mount Somers without actually summiting it. What could go wrong? I knew that the hut I wanted to stay at could be busy at weekends as it is accessible also via a shorter walk and is therefore very popular with families as a reasonable walk when kids are involved, so with a long weekend, I decided to hike Sunday to Monday, thinking I’d have a better chance of getting a bunk. I didn’t have a tent to take with me as a back-up, but I did take my camping mattress just in case.

For many reasons, the trip just didn’t go the way I had anticipated. I was a little lazy getting myself going on the Sunday morning, so I was setting off later than I really should have. I left my car at the Sharplin Falls car park near Staveley, and noted the 6hr time on the Department of Conservation (DOC) sign to Woolshed Creek Hut, my destination for that night. For my general level of fitness, I find these DOC signs very generous with their estimated times, so I knew I should make the hut at a reasonable time to have a chance of bagging a bed spot if it was busy. I set off over the stream and up the winding pathway into the bush, setting my sights on Pinnacles Hut which was just a little over halfway. I planned on using it as a lunch and rest spot before pushing on to the second hut. The track was rough but obvious as it negotiated tree roots and an undulating altitude and for a while I could see little more than the bush around me. I passed several people who were hiking out from wherever they had spent the night and at one point a man stopped me and asked me where I was staying. He explained that the Woolshed Creek Hut had reached double capacity the night before and it had been rather chaotic and cramped. He wished me luck for that night and continued on his way. I continued to hold onto the belief that it was Sunday, so it had to be quieter. Shortly after, I fell on my arse.

 

A break in the trees allowed me to see Mount Somers, the mountain that I was hiking around and have previously climbed up. It was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and it was getting rather hot, peaking at 27oC. There had recently been some heavy rain so as the track dipped down to Bowyers Stream there were fresh landslips to negotiate and the water level was higher, flooding small sections of the track. My trusty hiking boots have been a reliable part of my life for nearly 10 years. I knew they were coming to the end of their life, but when the water started seeping in to them as I crossed some small streams, I realised that this hike was going to be a problem for them. In the deeper patches where the stepping stones were well submerged, I was forced to take my shoes off and wade barefoot: not an ideal situation, but it seemed the better scenario than hiking in saturated shoes and socks. Further up a stream a swing bridge offered a decent crossing across a wider section but even after this there were a few more zig zags across the water.

 

The heat was beginning to get to me and I had a feeling I wasn’t making progress at a rate that I was comfortable with. I put these thoughts aside when I came across a waterfall that the track went behind. Dripping off the moss and vegetation on an overhang, the light flow of water glistened in the sunshine and it was a nice distraction from the slight monotony of the bush. Given the roughness of the track and the use of chains to negotiate a few sections, I was a little surprised to see a family with young children swimming in a pooled section of the stream which the path came really close to. I had seen this area on the map and had decided it would be a good place to have lunch given that the hut still seemed a bit away, but when I came out of the bush I saw the children were naked and it felt inappropriate for me to stop there, so I pushed on till I found a clearing with a rock to sit on.

 

But at some point it really became evident that I should have reached the first hut by now. I’m normally a lot quicker than the DOC signs state, but once before I have been caught out by the time estimate being more realistic than they typically are, and I was coming to the realisation that this was going to be another one. It led to a bit of frustration kicking in and my tiredness was becoming a little more pronounced. It was dawning on me that I still had hours of hiking ahead of me, and I was going to get in later than I’d thought. The final lead up to Pinnacles Hut is dramatic though – the bush opening up to reveal the sheer wall of the north face of Mount Somers and some large rocky prominences jutting through the trees. As I finally neared the hut, I could see some people climbing the largest prominences a little way behind the hut. I peaked inside as I like to do when I pass by and I spied an updated time estimate sign and looked in dismay at the lies which it portrayed: It had taken me longer to reach the hut and I knew it would take me longer to reach the next one.

 

From Pinnacles Hut the track climbed steeply to reach a pass and followed the natural curve of the slope for a while. The bush was minimal now so it was a stunning view that I tried hard to enjoy through my growing tiredness. I passed some more people heading in the opposite direction before I finally reached the beginning of the long descent. The shadows were starting to stretch a little and I was eager to get down to the hut in the valley below. It was a straight-forward descent surrounded by mountains disappearing into the distance in several directions with the hulk of Mount Somers as a constant companion to my left, its appearance changing as the terrain around it changed. As the path levelled out, I was sure I had just a few more corners till the hut would appear, but again when I consulted the map, I proved to be sorely wrong. I still had a good 45 mins of hiking to go. I was quite deflated by this stage, disheartened with the miscalculation of time, irritated by the heat, and disappointed at the failing condition of my hiking boots.

 

Despite all this, when a little side-track appeared as the path skirted a tributary of Morgan Stream, I took it to cut down to the water and look at some faux caves where the rocks created some channels and pools for the water flow to negotiate. It was tempting to have a wade but I really needed to get to the hut. The path cut down to Morgan Stream proper where I was startled by a large hedgehog scuttling into the bush, it having gotten as big a fright from me as I had by its sudden movement. Where the path disappeared into the stream and out the other side, I had to de-boot once more to cross it. After climbing back up the far slope, over the ridge and down the other side, I was beyond ecstatic to finally see Woolshed Creek Hut at the bottom of the hill. There were a lot of people milling about and I realised it was going to be busy. I almost skipped the last section of the hike only to be brought to a standstill when I realised Woolshed Creek stood between me and the hut. Off the boots came again and I didn’t bother putting them back on, dumping my stuff on the decking and popping inside.

 

The hut was a hive of activity, full of children inside and out, which seemed so foreign to me at the end of a long hike. I love seeing a new generation get into hiking and the outdoors, away from electronic devices, but it wasn’t what I wanted to find after a 7hr hike. It had been an hour longer than the DOC sign had stated meaning it was almost 2hrs longer than I thought it would have taken. I looked into the bunk rooms to discover that all the mattresses were spoken for and I realised I would be kipping on the floor. I wasn’t even the last person to arrive, with a few other groups of hikers having walked in on the shorter track. We all fought for space to prepare food and eat, and once the kitchen area was clear, I set up my camping mattress and sleeping bag under the workbench where I thought I’d be out of the way. The bugs kept me company for a bit, and I read a magazine in the torchlight before one by one, all of us that were sleeping on the floor settled in for the night. I was exhausted and mentally drained, and the next day I still had to make it back to my car.

No Kiwis in Queenstown

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I’m not a great fan of Queenstown, New Zealand’s adventure mecca in the South Island. Don’t get me wrong, the place definitely has its virtues: after all it sits by a massive lake flanked by mountains so there’s definitely beauty and outdoor adventures on its doorstep. But the town itself does not enthrall me, being targeted towards garnering the tourist buck, and too busy for my liking (and heaven help you if you want to park anywhere!). So whilst I wouldn’t say no to a visit there, it’s not a place I feel the need to rush off to on a regular basis. Having not visited for sometime though, when I noticed in January 2017 that flights to Queenstown for Christmas 2017 were dirt cheap, I took the opportunity to book a long weekend away there. Then in February 2017 my brother announced he was flying over to visit me in November 2017 and wanted to do a road trip, and so when that Christmas break came round, I found myself in Queenstown just 5 weeks after I’d been there with him.

After finishing work for the day, I headed to the airport for an afternoon flight south from Christchurch. Queenstown airport was packed and it took a while to get the travel pass that would allow me to use the local bus network. The bus network had only been overhauled in the weeks running up to this visit and now there was a convenient and cheap bus service into town from the airport at neighbouring Frankton. It dropped me off almost opposite the hostel I was staying at which was just back from the lakefront and I checked myself into a private room. It was a nice afternoon so I didn’t take long to head back outside and wander along the promenade on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. These days, Queenstown is busy year round, but being the Christmas weekend it was especially busy. I didn’t hear a single Kiwi accent though, with tourists everywhere. Even the shops and eateries seemed to be staffed by travellers. It felt like the locals had abandoned the place and up and left, and in some respects I couldn’t blame them. It does feel a little bit like a tourist town run by tourists for tourists.

 

It was warm enough to have a little paddle in the water and I took my time meandering. At the beach, I found a spot to myself and sat down, ready to do a bit of people watching. Within minutes, a guy joined me and started chatting away. I’m a very introverted person and enjoy my solitude. I also enjoy watching the world go by at times without actually taking part in its goings on (which is why I prefer countryside and quiet places over thriving cities and large groups), so I was initially reluctant to engage too much, but eventually his persistence wore me down and I found myself passing quite a bit of time chatting. He too was travelling solo and was just looking for some company, and I had nowhere particular to be.

After a while, we parted ways, and I took a wander along the beach for a bit before turning back and heading to Fergburger, the town’s famous burger joint. Both because of its popularity as well as the increasing tourist numbers to the place, it often has a line so long as to be off-putting. My brother hadn’t wanted to join the queue whilst we had visited in November, but I was prepared to wait, and wait I did. I started quite a bit of the way up the street, and queued for about 40 minutes to get to the head of the line. Then it was about a 20 minute wait to get the food, but I knew that what was coming was worth the wait. I also always have to make at least one trip to Patagonia, the ice cream and chocolate shop, when I visit Queenstown, so I got dessert and ate it on the way back to the hostel. I’d spent the last few weeks doing a distance learning course at university, so I had to sit my last assessment online that night before retiring to bed.

 

The following day was Christmas Eve, and with this to be the best day of the long weekend for weather, I slogged my way up to the summit of Ben Lomond. I returned via the Gondola building where I caught my breath a little over looking the lake and town below. By the time I hiked down to the town via the Tiki trail, things were starting to close up and it took quite a bit of wandering to find somewhere open to grab some takeaway. My partner was working over the Christmas holiday which was why I was on my own. I didn’t so much mind that day, but this was to be the first time I’d spent Christmas day on my own in about a decade. Even on Christmas Eve, all I could see around me were families and friends. I might be an introvert, but sometimes even I can get a little lonely.

 

I woke to torrential rain on Christmas morning. In the hostel kitchen, a large group of friends were having a party, so after eating, I retreated to my room and read a magazine. Before I knew it, I had fallen asleep and when I awoke, it was dry and the morning was gone. By the time I forced myself to go outside, the sky was blue and the clouds were dissipating and suddenly it was a glorious Southern Hemisphere sunny day. People were out having picnics and being social and relaxing everywhere. The green spaces and beach were covered in people chilling out. Kids paddled in the water, and there was a man on a jet pack performing in the lake nearby. I could see a crowd of people on the main beach in town and it turned out that the backpacker buses had got together and arranged a backpackers party on the beach. The numbers increased as time wore on and I could see santa hats mingled with bikinis and rubber rings and floaties on the water as the party spilled over into the lake. I bypassed them to reach the Botanic Gardens.

 

The TSS Earnslaw made its regular passage to and from the waterfront, and I joined the steady stream of people out for a stroll along the foreshore. The clouds never fully retreated but the sunshine was still able to beat down for the most part and after soaking up the views and listening to the music drift on the wind, I found myself at the far end of the peninsula, stepping down onto some rocks and duly falling asleep. It’s rare for me to be lazy when I’m way from home, so it was a nice change to just doze under the sun and rest up after the previous day’s exertion. When it eventually grew cooler, I continued round the peninsula and cut up to the gardens, wandering around the blooms before eventually cutting back to the beach where the backpacker party was still in full swing. Taking my time to return to the hostel, it was soon time to enjoy my Christmas platter and wine.

 

Boxing Day was a rather moody day with a bit of wind and clouds in the air. The beach seemed so quiet compared to the day before but the streets and eateries were bustling. I found a table in a cafe away from the lake and enjoyed a tasty brunch before wandering around the crammed shops with their Boxing Day sales, and back to the lakefront where I hovered for a while. The sun had returned and people were spilling out on the streets as the hours passed. Eventually it was time to head back to the airport and return north to Christchurch and work the next day. I may find the town’s crowds a little suffocating, but I had achieved a summit that I had wanted to hike for some time, and I’d also caught up on some much needed relaxation, so perhaps the place can’t be all that bad really.

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

Spring Roadie – Coast to Coast

I was so over driving by the time we pulled in to Hokitika on the last night of my brother’s and my road trip. My brother had booked a room in a B&B who’s garden opened almost directly onto the beach. After catching our breaths for a moment, we headed out under a moody sky and wandered along the foreshore. Past the driftwood sign that the town is famous for, we meandered further to the mouth of the river as the sun lowered down. Eventually hunger drove us in search of food and finally we headed to bed.

 

After a communal breakfast with the other guests at the B&B, everybody parted company and we too made our way out of town. I drove us down the convoluted route to the busy car park at Hokitika Gorge. Like many places in New Zealand, this place has gotten busier and busier with each subsequent visit, and this day was no exception. Although it’s a bit of a drive out of town to reach it, the walk is short and easy enough to make it accessible, as long as you have your own set of wheels to get you to the start. We joined the other visitors on the familiar route through the bush towards the suspension bridge across the gorge and down to the rocky water’s edge. Due to the glacier sedimentation of this river, the colour can vary so much from one visit to the next. The first time I came here it was a milky grey, and the next a brilliant blue. This time round it was blue, but the cloud kept the brilliance of the sun hidden, meaning it was a paler shade, and I felt my brother wasn’t quite seeing it in its full glory. To him it was probably still impressive enough, not having anything like it in our native Scotland.

 

After winding our way back to Hokitika, it was time to make the journey back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. New Zealand has so many scenic drives, and this coast to coast road is the one I’m most familiar with, having driven it many times, especially the eastern half. At Kumara Junction, we cut inland, traversing the long valley eastward into the Southern Alps before turning south as the road turned into the Otira Valley. As the road starts to snake uphill here and wind its way up into the hills, it passes under a viaduct and over a road bridge, after which a couple of lookouts are located. These are almost guaranteed kea spotting sites, and I’ll always stop here to see if there’s any around. They are very popular to spot, and are immensely intelligent and cheeky birds, often working in pairs or mobs to try and snatch something of interest. Despite the frequency of sightings in this area, they are sadly endangered and suffer at the hands of people feeding them inappropriate food, despite signs advocating against this at these locations. This was the first time I’d stopped here that there wasn’t a parrot in sight.

 

In Arthur’s Pass village we took the walk to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. It can be viewed from near the car park, or from the road, or from the opposite mountain, but it’s still nice to get up close to it and hear the water gushing down. The walk involves a lot of stairs, but it is a relatively short walk making it a reasonable achievement when just passing through. The sun broke through in places whilst we were there but as we headed south east, the rest of the way home was overcast. For the rest of the drive to Porter’s Pass, we were surrounded by the Southern Alps, steep-sided mountains interspersed by lakes and rivers. I stopped a few times so that my brother could take some photographs, and there’s plenty of pull-ins to choose from along the route.

 

Eventually we reached Cave Stream Scenic Reserve where it is possible to traverse through a flooded cave system. One of these days, I hope to go through it, but I just haven’t gotten round to it yet. Even without going caving, it’s still an interesting landscape to walk around. From here through to Castle Hill, the landscape is scattered with giant rocky boulders and outcrops, and it looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a movie. In fact, a nearby area was used as a film location for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at Castle Hill. Another popular tourist spot, the car park here is often packed. We were lucky to get a spot on this occasion and I let my brother lead the way, picking his route through the behemoths. There are many worn paths round here and you can choose to circumnavigate the site or get into the thick of it, clambering up slopes and up and over boulders to get a higher perspective of it all. The cloud was down over the surrounding peaks and it was a little gloomy, but I always love exploring this place. Eventually we found ourselves down with the cows at the neighbouring field and skirting back along the front of the rock face, we returned to the car and soon headed into rain for the rest of the journey back to Christchurch.

 

For my brother’s last full day in New Zealand, we stayed local. He decided to go to the Canterbury Museum so I dropped him off there and met up with him later once he’d had the chance to wander round some of it. Later in the day we took a walk round North Hagley Park and on to Mona Vale, a homestead with a lovely waterway and garden, a little way along the Avon River. The day my brother left was a gloriously sunny one. His flight wasn’t till later in the day so we had some time in the morning to go for a walk. Driving up to Summit Road in the Port Hills, we did a section of the Crater Rim walkway that started behind the Sign of the Kiwi cafe. It was a section I hadn’t done before so it was nice to do something new and we had a beautiful view down over the harbour.

 

But eventually it was time to drive my brother to the airport. He had a couple of days in Sydney ahead of him to enjoy, but I was sad to say goodbye. His 2 week visit had been the longest time we’d spent together since we were in high school, and although I was informed that I snored, and I suspect I slightly took over his holiday, I think we did pretty well living in each other’s pockets. After all the years I’ve now lived in New Zealand, he is the first and only member of my family to visit me, and I was glad I’d finally been able to show off my new homeland to someone. His inevitable departure though reminded me sorely of the distance that I have chosen to keep between myself and my family. The choice to emigrate had been an easy one to make, but boy do I miss my family sometimes.

Spring Roadie – Glacier Country

Being one of the wettest parts of the country, receiving the brunt of the weather that swings across the Tasman Sea, it is best to expect rain when on New Zealand’s west coast. Anything better is a bonus. The two times I’ve visited Glacier Country, the region around Fox glacier and Franz Josef glacier, the peaks of the Southern Alps have been shrouded by cloud and out of view. On my last visit here in 2016, my partner and I had stayed in Franz Josef, the bigger of the two villages, but this time round, with my brother, we stayed in Fox Glacier village, the southern of the two. My brother had planned on doing a heli-hike onto Fox glacier, his one big-ticket expense whilst he was over from Scotland visiting me. As I had done it with my partner last time, I was leaving him to it, planning on doing a walk to the glacier instead. So whilst my brother had an early rise to gobble down breakfast and get going, I had a relative lie-in and took my time getting up.

The weather out the window looked dubious, so I wasn’t fully surprised when my brother arrived back about an hour later, his trip having been canned due to weather concerns. I felt bad on his behalf but he shrugged it off. So we set off to do the hike together, making the short drive out of the village and up the valley to the start of the hike. By now mid-morning, it was a busy car park with a lot of people on the trail. Cutting through the scree-filled valley below some steep sided mountains, the clouds hung over the mountain tops, and waterfalls trickled down the slopes at varying intervals. There were rockfall warnings and flash-flood warnings dotted along the trail. Initially I couldn’t understand why the company had voted to cancel the trip as blue sky was visible, as was the top of the glacier, but as we walked further up the valley, the cloud closed in and dropped down. With tourists having been trapped up on the glacier in the past due to inclement weather, the company was taking no chances.

 

The walk was easy and pleasant, only becoming steep on the final section that rises up to the viewing spot. Like many glaciers, those of the Southern Alps are retreating and retreating fast. Eventually, loss of large ice shelves such as those of the poles will be the main cause of sea level rise, but currently it is these mountain glaciers. I hadn’t visited Fox glacier last time so had nothing to compare it to, but photos and markers on the glacier walks really demonstrate how different the glaciers looked a decade ago, never mind a century ago. It is sad to think how much further change will occur in my lifetime. Nonetheless, the view of Fox glacier at our visit in November 2017 was still impressive, and the off-white pillars on the leading face of the glacier were striking. On approach, the sight of the tiny people in the foreground against the towering glacier face was staggering. Once at the viewing spot, the glacier was some distance away. Only with a guide is it possible to get closer, but due to a combination of tourist deaths in the past as well as the retreat of the glacier face over time, it is not an option to walk up to or onto the foot of either glacier.

 

On our return, we took the drive back to the village and out the other side for the short distance to Lake Matheson. The reflections of the mountains on this lake is one of the country’s most famous photography locations, but with that pesky west coast weather, it is either pure fluke or a lot of patience to get the reward of that famous view for yourself. Both my 2016 and 2017 visits to this lake coincided with inclement weather, so not only were the tops of the mountains not visible, but the reflectivity of the lake surface was reduced and less effective under a grey sky. Nonetheless, it is still a nice wee walk around the lake, and the visitor centre has a lovely cafe for lunch.

 

Instead of heading back to the village, we continued along the road to the coast. The last section of this road is unsealed, and winding, but Gillespies Beach is a nice beach to take a walk on at the end of it, and the weather is often better here, being far enough away from the mountain-hugging clouds to make a difference. As such, it was slightly better weather when we got there and looking at the walks in the area, my brother suggested we take the long route to visit a fur seal colony quite some distance north. I’d walked part of this track before, but not the full route, so was more than happy to go with the suggestion. Passing the remnants of some old mines, the track travelled through the bush for some distance before cutting down to the beach a little before Quinlin Creek. This beach was the classic stony west coast beach, making for an awkward meander as we followed the beach to the mouth of the creek. Full of tannin, this dark river snaked upstream, and we followed its bank until some boardwalks took us across it.

 

From the far side onwards, we were fully immersed in bush, with no view to speak of for the most of it. Not only that, but the canopy above us meant that sections of the track were not drying out and time and time again we had to negotiate muddy quagmires. Despite my initial enthusiasm to get to the seal colony, and my usual enjoyment of hiking, I have to admit that as time went on I really started to hate this walk. Normally the Department of Conservation (DOC) signs that accompany most hikes in New Zealand are over generous with hiking times for someone of my fitness, and as such I’ve come to assume that I’ll do these walks in less than the suggested time. So I was irked when the displayed time for the hike came and went and there was no sign of imminent arrival at the beach we were heading to. We’d only past 2 other people coming the other way, and their response on inquiry about the remaining distance had not filled me with much reassurance. When at last we reached the steep descent down to the beach, I was both relieved as much as disappointed that we had so much distance to travel back on.

My brother kept his feelings internal. I’m not sure if he was bothered or not, or just enjoyed the exercise. It’s not often I find a walk disappointing or frustrating but at least there was a fur seal swimming in the water for my brother to see, although no sign of a colony as the sign had suggested. On our return leg, we took a side-track to an old mine which was effectively a tunnel dug through the rocks. As we came back through and down the track we stumbled across a stoat which came bounding towards us then quickly disappeared. As much as I know they are a pest species, and a destructive one at that, I can’t help being excited when I spot wildlife, even if conservationists would like to see them eradicated. The introduction of so many pest species has been the cause of extinction of, or endangerment of, many of New Zealand’s native fauna. This country is a good example of what mess humans can make when they meddle in the natural order of things.

 

The next morning was as inclement as the day before. Again the mountain tops were hidden from view and it was clear that there was no point in my brother trying again for the heli-hike that day. We took the drive through the mountain pass to Franz Josef and headed up the valley road to the start of the glacier walk. This one I had done before on the 2016 visit, and there had been some slight upgrades to the path since then. Unlike the Fox glacier walk, the track is rather more undulating in the first section, climbing up over a hillock before dropping down to the level of the river. The clouds rose and lifted as we walked, giving intermittent glimpses of blue sky and the glacier top. Immediately on arrival to the glacier viewing spot I could see a difference in the glacier front. There may only have been 22 months between the 2 visits but I was convinced there had been a visible retreat. I couldn’t quite put my finger on where or how, but there was a definite feeling of change. It wasn’t until we’d gotten home a few days later and I was able to compare photographs that I could prove there was definitely a difference.

 

As we walked back to the car, we stopped at the waterfalls on route and took a side-track to a viewing spot at the top of a hillock. As an adult I’ve discovered quite an interest in geology, including doing some distance learning courses on the subject. New Zealand is a fascinating country for geology enthusiasts with all sorts of natural forces in play to shape and mould the geography. So I love the glacier paths of the South Island as much as the volcanic rifts and historical lava flows of the North Island. All along the valley walls were clear signs of the wear that the weight of the ice has carved into the rocks as it previously flowed down the valley many years ago. Back in the car, we drove past the signs on the road that mark the end of the glacier in the years gone by, a sad indicator of the rate of retreat.

 

After lunch in Franz Josef village, it was time to push northwards. Past Lake Mapourika, we took the turn-off down to Okarito where a lagoon harbours wetland birds and kiwi spotting may be possible at night. There was a choice of walks from here and we decided to cut across the wetlands and up to the view overlooking them. I was only wearing my jandals (flip flops), so wasn’t really best suited to go onwards, but my brother wanted to keep walking to the trig view point up the hill, so I tagged along anyway, inwardly realising I was one of those hikers that I’ve often rolled my eyes at when out hiking in the mountains: the under-prepared hiker in inappropriate footwear. It was rather sore under foot and not the best grip on the steeper sections, so I was glad when we finally made it to the top and I could give my feet a rest. From the viewpoint we could see just how large the Okarito lagoon to the north was and to the south, the smaller Three Mile Lagoon was also evident, the end-point of a longer walk that we didn’t have time for.

 

Hitting the road yet again, I was finding the driving a bit tiring after multiple days of long distance driving in a row. Even with the regular stops it was still a drag. I’m stubborn though and was intent on letting my brother enjoy the scenery unhindered, so insisted on doing all the driving. However as we got stuck behind a lorry on a particularly winding section, I took my chance to overtake on a slow vehicle passing lane but underestimated the power of my car to gain speed up the hill. Before I knew it, the lane was running short and the lorry readied to pull back in when I was still halfway along side it. I made a split second decision to make a manoeuvre that got us past the lorry but at great risk. I don’t think my brother realised what I did as it was over before he knew it but being prone to anxiety I immediately went into a panic for not driving to my normal standards and found myself having to pull in at a lake side to calm myself down. I felt like an idiot and spent the rest of the afternoon apologising to my brother. He seemed bemused and rather confused about the whole incident, neither understanding the road rules here, nor appreciating why I’d gotten myself into such a state. With me living so far away from my family for many years, they have been spared the sight of me going through my occasional bouts of mental illness. It was with great relief when we eventually reached our destination for the night that evening, but getting closer to home, we both started to realise how close to the end our road trip really was.

Spring Roadie – From the Lakes to the Coast

With so much choice, it’s hard to pick the best drive in New Zealand. I love so many of the South Island’s roads and mountain passes, we’re really spoilt for choice here. From Wanaka, the road to the west coast via Haast Pass is one of these great drives with so many places to stop at on route. I’d previously driven as far west as the Blue Pools, but beyond that was a small part of the country that I’d never been to before. At the time, nearly 6 years since arriving in the country, I’d already crossed off a large percentage of it, and this was another little section to finally cross off the list.

A short drive from Wanaka, the views start almost immediately with the arrival at the neighbouring Lake Hawea with its small and quiet little settlement of the same name. There was a haze in the air, meaning the view wasn’t as sharp as I’ve previously seen but the lake was still a brilliant blue and by the lake side the water was crystal clear. Flanked by mountains, it is a beautiful vista, and my brother and I took a short walk along the lake side before stopping at the dam at the entrance to the village. It was so peaceful, with few people here compared to Wanaka and with little development here either. Only a handful of people were milling around, so our view of the blue lake under the blue sky was one of tranquility.

 

Continuing along the highway that flanks the lake side, there are a few places to pull in to appreciate the view. The main one is about two thirds of the way along, but it can get quite busy, especially when a coach turns up. From several of these, it is possible to appreciate the length of the lake. These are the trips where I wish I lived nearer as I know there are so many hikes that could be done in the area. Passing a couple on the way, we stopped at the first of two lookouts at the Neck, the narrow isthmus that splits Lake Hawea from Lake Wanaka.

 

Crossing to the other side, we said goodbye to Lake Hawea and welcomed the equally beautiful sight of Lake Wanaka again which the road follows for some distance. Again there are some great view points along this road, and we stopped first at a boat ramp and then at the Boundary Creek campsite which was very busy. At this point, we were oblivious to the time pressures of this drive. We hadn’t hurried ourselves to leave, and with the beautiful sunny sky above us, I was stopping left right and centre so we could take lots of photographs. Although my brother had planned the route, he’d given me plenty of leeway with where to stop each day, and determined as I was to show off the country I now call home, I was taking every opportunity to do so. This meant a very leisurely morning and a slightly rushed afternoon as the enormity of the distance to cover became more apparent.

 

Eventually though, we left Lake Wanaka behind us and started across the valley that would wind us towards Haast Pass. We were able to get a bit of distance behind us, pushing on to Blue Pools before stopping. This place is very popular, not just with tourists but with sand flies, the bane of South Island waterways. I grew up with midges in Scotland, and they never bothered me half as much as the sand flies do here in New Zealand. No matter what repellent I use, their swarms have ruined many an outdoor experience for me, and here was to be no different. They gave my brother with his foreign smell a wide birth, and pestered me like crazy once we emerged from the short bush walk to the river. Like the last time I was here, I thought I’d risk taking a paddle in the glacier water, and like last time it was so frigid it hurt my feet, and I wondered about the foolhardiness (or bravery) of the people who jump from the bridge or go for a swim.

 

From here to the west was all new territory for me and I was excited. Emerging from the trees, we reached Cameron Flat where we stopped first at the campsite and then a short distance further where we trudged up to a lookout over the river. We ate lunch here overlooking the valley below, about half-way between Wanaka and the west coast. Our destination for the night was still some distance away, and from this point onwards I unintentionally took over my brother’s road trip and kept stopping, even after my brother voiced his want to skip some places.

 

One of these stops was Haast Pass where a walk trudges up the hillside to a lookout. It was a sticky walk in the heat, steeper than I’d anticipated, longer than I’d thought it would be and the view a little less spectacular than I’d expected (although still pretty enough). In hindsight, we could have skipped this, as with Fantail Falls which we also stopped at further along the road. A short bush walk brought us out to a pebbly river bank which was littered in stone stacks. The waterfall was on the far bank of the river and as before, the sand flies descended on me.

 

Beyond the Gates of Haast, a road bridge that spans the Haast River, and down the hill was the prettier Thunder Creek waterfall. Feeling guilty now about taking over my brother’s trip, I quickly offered to back-track to the bridge when my brother voiced an interest in seeing it up close. So back up the hill we parked either side of it then walked down to watch the water gush through the chasm. It was exceptionally noisy but we were the only ones there and deep as it was within a canyon in the mountains, we could look up at the peaks that flanked us undisturbed.

 

Eventually the road cut once more across the Haast river, and here at Pleasant Flat campsite, there was a stunning view across a plain to a snow and cloud capped mountain peak. Following the river downstream, State Highway 6 eventually takes a near 90 degree turn where the Haast river and Landsborough river unite. As we headed west, the clouds built up more and more on the mountain tops around us and the sunshine disappeared from view. We stopped at the Roaring Billy waterfall, another stop which with hindsight we could have skipped, and wandered along the river bank a little before the final push to the west coast.

 

Finally we cut through Haast and found ourselves back in sunshine as we reached the western flank of the Southern Alps. I had pre-warned my brother about the pebbly nature of west coast beaches, so found myself eating my words as we got out the car at Haast beach and walked out onto a beautiful stretch of sand. Behind us the clouds shrouded the mountain tops but in front of us the Tasman Sea glistened under the golden orb. The west coast is notorious for its wild weather so it was nice to arrive there in sunshine. Unfortunately we were still about 120km away from our night’s stay and the afternoon was wearing on towards evening. The drive was proving why New Zealand’s distances don’t look much on paper, but can easily take a lot more time than anticipated.

 

We pulled in at Ship Creek which I would have loved to have just relaxed at for a while. There were several people overnighting here and I was a little jealous. We explored the immediate vicinity before getting back on the road. At Knight’s Point the sun was getting low causing a glare to the west, but it still seemed sunny ahead of us. But the road cut inland and as it did so, it plunged us back under the cloud that had been shrouding the Southern Alps.

 

My brother had been keen to do a walk to Monro Beach where it is possible to go penguin watching. But due to me taking over his trip and stopping at so many places on the Haast Pass road, my brother didn’t feel we had the time to do the hike and I felt guilty when he requested we keep going when we passed the start of it at Lake Moeraki. If I was to do the drive again, I’d skip the Haast Pass lookout and Roaring Billy falls if not the Fantail falls also, which probably would have given us a bit of time to do the Monro beach walk. From here onwards though, we drove through light rain, the weather that I’m more accustomed to on this coast. I was so over driving by this point too, so although we stopped briefly at Lake Puringa, the rain hadn’t dulled the sand flies, and I wasn’t keen to hang around long. In the ever darkening skies, we pushed through the remaining 70km to finally pull in at our stop for the night in Fox Glacier, at the southern end of the Glacier Country. I could but hope for the rain to have cleared by the next day, ready for us to explore another unique part of New Zealand.

Spring Roadie – Te Anau to Wanaka

Waking up to grey skies made my brother and I appreciate our fortune from the day before even more. To have had sunshine for our visit to Milford Sound had been glorious. My brother had arranged to take a boat down Lake Te Anau to visit a glowworm cave. Having done this trip on my last visit to Te Anau, and having seen hundreds of glowworms whilst caving in Waitomo, I stayed behind and mulled around the lake side. A giant takahe sculpture represents the conservation work of this rare and endangered bird that is going on nearby, and from here I followed the path along the shoreline, meandering through the trees towards the small marina. I had plenty of time to kill so admired the boats for a while before heading back. I decided to pop to the small cinema at the back of the settlement to watch their film about the local area. I had watched it 3 years prior and had been blown away by it so was happy to sit through it again. Despite looking a little dated now, it was still as spectacular as before and worth watching.

 

When my brother returned from his trip, we reunited for lunch in a cafe at the back of Te Anau before heading off north. We’d driven this road through rain a couple of days prior but had it dry this time round. I drove first to Lake Manapouri a little along the road, where the distant mountains that mark the divide between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound were shrouded in cloud, and from there we continued onward, eventually returning to the lake side of the enormous Lake Wakatipu. Without the rain though, we were able to stop in places and actually enjoy the view. Despite being a Sunday, the roads were steady enough with traffic as being November, we were into the tourist season and so there were plenty of motor homes around. The view at Devils Staircase was one of the most impressive on the drive where, even on a grey day, the winding drive along the lake edge was pretty. Further north just before the road left the lakeside, we parked up and walked down to a small pebbly beach and this gave us a view almost all the way down the southern arm of the lake. After passing some time here, it was back on the road, returning to Frankton and continuing north before taking the turn-off for the Crown Range.

 

I’d previously only driven up the first few bends of the Crown Range many years before with my partner but the conditions hadn’t allowed us to take the full drive. So this was to be my first time on this road which is the country’s highest sealed road. The weather was thinking about brightening with glimpses of sun trying to break through the cloud, but there was also a bit of wind up high adding a slight chill. The first viewpoint was at the top of the switchback which allows a rapid gain in altitude. Further along there was a scenic lookout which overlooked the Gibbston Valley below and from here it was clear to see how the planes flew low over here when on approach to Queenstown airport. After more bends and a final push in altitude gain we pulled in at the Crown Range Summit where a lot of people were milling around and an old-fashioned car was getting a lot of attention. A plaque marked it as the highest point on the road, and a walk set off from here which I would have loved to have done on a clearer day.

 

From the summit it was a long descent through the Cardrona Valley to eventually reach Wanaka, one of my favourite parts of the country. Unfortunately it is another place who’s popularity is threatening the very virtues that I love, but nonetheless I was still more than happy to be there, and I drove straight to the waterfront to show it off to my brother before we checked in. The surrounding summits were mostly visible although the cloud was threatening to hide them. We took a wander along the path by the lake as the sun dropped low, eventually finding ourselves by the crowds at the lake’s most famous tree. ‘That Wanaka Tree’ amuses me greatly. When I first visited Wanaka in 2012, few people gave the little tree in the lake a second glance. I myself walked past it daily whilst I was there and never even acknowledged it. Suddenly it started popping up on social media more and more and when I returned to Wanaka four years later in 2016, it had its own Instagram plaque and it was forever surrounded by a frenzy of people trying to photograph it. My brother felt obliged to take a photograph of it but was then more intent on photographing the crowd of people that was gathered. A non-social media user, he was greatly amused by the scene. I thought it spoke volumes about the role of social media in modern society.

 

The next morning we were back to sunshine again, and the blue sky overhead made the lake sparkle. My brother chose a route for us to walk and so after breakfast, we returned to the lake side but this time followed it in the other direction. Following Roys Bay towards Bremner Bay, we had an uninterrupted view over to Roys Peak, one of my favourite walks in the area. The summit was hidden from view but as time passed on as we walked, the cloud here, as well as that towards Mount Aspiring National Park on the far side of the lake, gradually dissipated.

 

The main town of Wanaka has changed since my first visit and the main beach can get very crowded in peak season, but round the lake at Bremner Bay, it feels more secluded and this is where I would love to live if I was ever able to move here. The views across the lake here are absolutely stunning and also remind me of Scotland. Continuing beyond here, we eventually reached the lake outlet where the first signs of the development that has occurred since that first visit became evident. We found ourselves in a holiday park that wasn’t there before and we cut from here along a new road past new housing developments to reach the back of Albert Town which had expanded outwards in my absence.

 

Our destination was Mt Iron, a distinctive hill which offers a great viewpoint over the area. There are several routes up depending on which direction you approach from and we found our way up to the top via a route I wasn’t aware of. Our view on the way up was over Albert Town which I could now see had grown so much. From the summit, the view away from Wanaka looked the same, the flat plains spreading away towards the surrounding mountain ranges. It was as we crossed over the summit and started the descent down on the Wanaka side that I could really appreciate how much the town had expanded. An entire new estate had appeared, coming right up to the bottom of the hill and a new car park and new toilet block sat at the bottom of the trail. The facilities are much needed with the increase in tourist numbers but it highlighted the fact that the once quiet Wanaka was losing its peacefulness. I don’t enjoy Queenstown because of its busyness and brashness, and I can only hope that Wanaka never completely gives in to the same folly.

 

We ate a late lunch in a cafe near the lake, and although initially disappointed with my brother’s desire to now do nothing despite several good walks in the area, by the time I’d finished sucking lemons, I found myself give into the laziness very quickly as we sat on the pebbled beach by the lakeside. My brother people watched whilst I snoozed in the warm sunshine. I’m normally an active person on holiday, always on the go, always wanting to pack as much in as possible. I don’t like sitting still, or being lazy or sunbathing. This can make me a frustrating person to travel with, or equally makes me frustrated to travel with other people, which is part of the reason I often enjoy going solo. But every now and again, and usually without forward planning, I’m either forced to or give in to being lazy and just being still, and on those rare occasions I actually enjoy it. As such, I ended up being very glad that my brother was happy to just sit there for a while, and I was very glad to rest my feet and relax.

Another sunny morning greeted us for the long day that we had planned ahead. It was time to say goodbye to Wanaka and head west through the Haast Pass. With a lot of driving ahead for me, I was to be grateful for the afternoon’s relaxing the day before. Before leaving the town behind, we took a quick trip up to the war memorial, the car park of which offers a nice view across the lake. Wanaka is such a long drive from my home city of Christchurch, that I knew I was leaving it unclear of when I’d next return. So I absorbed the view as best as I could to retain the image as a memory, before we had to head on.

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