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Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

Mount Fyffe

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Kaikoura – Open for Business

In February 2012 I left New Zealand’s North Island behindĀ and set foot on the South Island for the first time in my life. I jumped straight on the train at Picton and travelled along the scenic Coastal Pacific route to reach Kaikoura, a small town spread along the Pacific coastline and within a few hours of arriving there I met a Kiwi bloke from Auckland, a man who to this day is still my partner. On our one year anniversary we returned to Kaikoura to partake in some wildlife spotting activities that I’d missed out on the first time around and since then we’ve stopped in on the place when passing north to Picton. And so I’d planned on doing again on my return from the Queen Charlotte Track in November 2016, having booked a night’s stay in Kaikoura as well as a trip out to see the local whales. But just 12 days before that night, the November 14th earthquake hit and the town, the coastline and the road north was closed down. I was keen to get up there as soon as road access was gained and finally a suitable weekend arose so that my partner and I (and some relatives in tow) could return to Kaikoura.

At the end of February when we travelled there, there were two points of access to the town: the Inland road, route 70, which cuts west to State Highway 7, or State Highway 1 (SH1) which heads south to Christchurch. The inland route is open 24/7 although there are many speed restrictions in place. SH1 was (and at the time of writing still is) only open during the day and is also subject to sudden closures in the event of bad weather or aftershocks. But Kaikoura is very much open for business and is still more than worthy of a visit.

The drive north from Christchurch is interesting to say the least. Prior to Cheviot (which has some clay cliffs nearby which are worthy of a detour) there is little to suggest that anything is amiss, but after stopping here for coffee on route, we drove the next section with fresh eyes. With a mixture of detours, speed limits and one-laned sections, SH1 snakes the familiar route north to the east coast and this is the most dramatic section of the drive where rubble still scatters the roadside and the train line disappears into rocks or blocked tunnels. I knew that the sea bed had lifted a metre or so along here, but the tide was out making it difficult to appreciate what was new. It had been a couple of years since I’d last passed through here so the coastal effects weren’t immediately obvious. Eventually arriving into Kaikoura we headed straight to the peninsula to walk the coastal walkway.

This is a beautiful and easily accessed walk from Kaikoura, following the cliffs round the peninsula’s coastline. We started at the south end which has a less steep though longer ascent, and it was a gloriously sunny day. There was definitely more rocks above sea level than I remembered but with the low tide I couldn’t quite decide how much of a difference there was. It took looking back at old photos once home to realise just what a difference there actually was. But nonetheless, this walk is stunning. With views out over the sparkling Pacific Ocean, and back towards Kaikoura town and the Kaikoura Ranges behind it, it was a popular walk. From up high, it is sometimes possible to spot dolphins and fur seals, although the wildlife spotting is best done out on a boat or down near the water. Kaikoura is famous for whale watching thanks to a deep ocean trench not far from shore, but it’s not common to see whales from the shore. There is also a pathway that follows the coast at sea level, and this allows a closer look at New Zealand’s fur seals. The Kaikoura coastline is a fantastic and fairly guaranteed viewing location for fur seals, but like any wildlife, they should be viewed from a safe distance and always given respect.

Kaikoura Peninsula coastline 2017

The same view in 2013

Walking the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway 2017

The same view in 2013

After reaching the car park on the northern aspect of the peninsula, we headed to a lookout which gives a cracking view towards the Kaikoura Ranges, part of the Southern Alps that spans the length of the South Island. My whole reason for wanting to go to Kaikoura last year was to hike Mount Fyffe, one of the distinctive peaks behind the town. The hiking track had remained closed for months following the earthquake but I had been excited to learn that it had reopened shortly before our trip. Whilst my partner and his relatives were on a sightseeing mission, I had a long weekend, and was planning on staying behind to hike after they headed back to Christchurch.

After checking in to our accommodation we took a walk to the main street to go to the pub for a drink in the sun. It was nice to see plenty of people about, but in relative terms, the town was very quiet considering this was normally their peak season. It was sad to see the place that I had met my partner was closed down, as was the place that we stayed on our anniversary. Even the pub we usually went for breakfast at was closed. One of the stores that I was keen to visit had also gone, and it was clear that there had been widespread effects from the earthquake. Thankfully the wildlife, which is one of the big draws for the town is still around, although the risen sea bed has influenced the way the whale watching tours run, and one of the area’s great spots for seeing fur seal pups, the Ohau Falls, is sealed off and unreachable. But the whale watching and dolphin swimming tours are still running and seem to be just as popular as ever. By all accounts, there is no reduction in sightings either, so thankfully, some businesses are able to function in a nearly normal manner.

After drinks on a rooftop at one of the pubs that was still open, we headed out for dinner at a pizza parlour. The owner’s home was unlivable and he had been moved around a few times over the past few months. Whilst I am painfully introverted, my partner loves making conversation with shop owners and staff wherever we go so we got chatting to a few locals over the weekend, enquiring how things had been for them. There was many concerns for the future for several of them, especially as some of the businesses rely heavily on the profits made through a busy summer season to get them through the quieter winter season. For many, there were big financial concerns.

The next morning we ate breakfast in a local cafe. I had planned to hike Mt Fyffe that day but the weather was dismal and the tops of the mountains weren’t even visible. My partner and his relatives were leaving soon and I pondered what to do with myself. By coincidence, I spotted a poster on the cafe wall for a free concert in Kaikoura that very day to raise the spirits of the locals and figured that would be fun. In the meantime, I headed past some murals to the Kaikoura museum, a new addition to the town which hadn’t existed the last time I was there. I didn’t expect much, but with the rain turned on and not much else to do, I paid the entrance fee and made a point of reading every single display sign that was there. A little jumbled and haphazard, it was actually interesting enough to while away a good amount of time. Other people came and went but I slowly meandered around. There was information about the fauna of the area, the whaling history of the area, immigration and it even contained the entire old jail which was effectively a two-roomed building: a normal cell and a padded cell for those deemed mentally disturbed. The staff at the museum seemed rather surprised at the amount of time I was in the museum for, but I emerged to a drier sky.

It remained cloudy but dry for the afternoon. I took my time wandering along the long shoreline to the Pier Hotel where the concert was taking place. I figured I’d hang out for an hour or so before continuing along to the fur seal colony on the peninsula, but with the likes of Sunshine Sound System, Tiki Taane and Peacekeepers playing I ended up staying till the end of the show. Entrance was free but the sale of food and alcohol was going towards a community rebuild and it was great to see such an event taking place. There was a good crowd, and I sat first on the shore taking in the view with the music as my background, then later I joined the crowd by the stage to dance the hours away. It was pitch black by the time I left, and I headed back to my hostel in the dark.

The next morning was the glorious day I was wanting for my hike. It was a little cold first thing as I headed out to the peninsula to enjoy breakfast whilst looking out for fur seals. The Kaikoura Range brooded behind the town and I contemplated the amount of altitude gain I had to make that day. I anticipated a tough hike. Again, I couldn’t quite decide if the amount of rocks was tidal-related or uplift related, but I managed to spot a heron and as is often the case here, a sleeping fur seal lay right next to the car park. But soon it was time to head off for the hike. I anticipated a full day’s walk and then I had to drive straight back to Christchurch afterwards. I always love visiting Kaikoura. It is such a stunning setting and a great place for both relaxation and activity. It is most definitely open for business, albeit in a slightly reduced capacity, but now more than ever, this place needs visitors. Although it is not as straightforward to get there as it used to be, it is still very much worth the detour.

Destructive Beauty

I don’t remember how or when I found out, but somewhere between getting to Melbourne‘s Tullamarine Airport and getting in the taxi to go home in Christchurch, I absorbed some brief information about a couple of fires on the Port Hills, the hills behind my home city. One of the people I shared the taxi shuttle with had been on the opposite side of the plane and she had seen the fires illuminating the dark night sky as the plane approached the runway. It was after 1am when I got to bed, and I gave it no thought, falling asleep ahead of work later that morning. As I head towards the Port Hills from home to work, I was aware of some smoke in the distance on the opposite side of the hills to the city and helicopters flying nearby, but there otherwise wasn’t much to see. Aside from the occasional murmur from people coming into work, and some road closures announced on the hills to keep gawkers at bay, little concern was suggested.

That evening after work, I could see there was going to be a beautiful evening and dusk so I decided to head through Lyttelton tunnel and drive round to Governor’s Bay in order to park up and watch the colours that I suspected might be made through the smoke as the sun lowered. From this side of the hills it was possible to see separate fires in the bush on the hillside, although there was little in the way of flames, just smoke billowing up from the tree line, and helicopters moved around with water buckets suspended below. I was far from the only one parked up watching the evening light fall over Lyttelton Harbour. Despite being a Tuesday, every pull-up on the road was full of cars. And whilst I knew that below that smoke, the bushland of the hills was being destroyed, I found the scene quite beautiful. I know how regenerating a bush fire can be, and whilst destructive, I thought nothing more of it, snapping photos as the light changed, then driving home as it grew dark.

 

But the next morning things were different. I hadn’t seen any news on the Tuesday, and now on the Wednesday, I discovered that one of the helicopters fighting the fires had crashed the previous afternoon, killing the pilot. Even to this day they are yet to announce the trigger of the fires, but with one of them starting at a car park on the hills, I am convinced it was caused by an idiot throwing a cigarette or dumping glass that has reflected the sunlight. And now somebody had died. Not only that, but the fires were anything but under control, and they continued to move nearer and nearer to the hill suburbs of Christchurch. The smoke was by now very obvious on my commute to work and from my home the smoke hung over the house.

 

By the Thursday, things were getting more serious. The two fires were now one large out of control fire, and people we knew were being evacuated. The recently opened Adventure Park, a fantastic addition to the post-earthquake city, was now at risk of being damaged, and homes were now being destroyed. That evening I could see flames from my driveway as the fire had moved to Victoria Park, a popular recreational spot. It burned for many days, with some people out of their houses for 1-2 weeks. The Adventure Park remains closed still with no known time of reopening. The buildings at the base remained untouched, but large sections of the trees in the park as well as the chairlift were in the fire zone.

I have been up at the summit several times since the fires were extinguished and the roads reopened. Over 2000 hectares of land burned, and the hills now look very different. The spot on the summit where one of my best friends got married a few years ago is now black. But whilst there’s a lot of ground to be cleared, areas at risk of slip to be fortified, and houses to be rebuilt, there was already a lot of fresh green grass budding through the blackened soil within a couple of weeks of the fire. Having gone back up the hill again a couple of weeks ago, the rate of grass regrowth was amazing. Out of the ashes comes growth. And if there’s anything Christchurch is good at, it is regenerating after a disaster.

Mount Herbert via Packhorse Hut

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

A Capital New Year

Whether it be self-inflicted or societal in origin, I always feel an inordinate pressure to do something exciting for New Year’s Eve (or Hogmanay as it is known in my native Scotland). In the northern Hemisphere, this means either shivering outside in the cold with a thousand layers on, or packing into someone’s house or a local venue to share in the festivities. In the southern Hemisphere where summer is in full swing, for me at least, it generally means escaping somewhere for a holiday or mini-break to enjoy some warmth and sunshine. Or so was the plan, anyway.

On a clear day, the flight from Christchurch in the South Island to the North Island of New Zealand is always worthy of a window seat. Hugging the east coast, we flew over the Southern Alps and stunning coastline. The flight to Auckland usually takes in the sweeping expanse of Golden Bay and Farewell Spit, but on this occasion, on route to New Zealand’s capital city of Wellington on a lower altitude flight path, and with cloud hugging the west coast, this landmark point was out of sight. On arrival, we wasted no time at all catching the bus to Courtenay Place in the city centre (or central business district [CBD] as it is called here). It had been some time since I’d last been in ‘Windy Welly’, a city that I’ve always enjoyed visiting. Following the November 14th earthquake, although the epicentre was in the south island, Wellington such as it is, suffered some damage also. Here, on Courtenay Place, a whole facade of businesses was fenced off and closed down. Suddenly, Wellington reminded us of Christchurch, a city that for years has been defined by cones, fences and cranes.

 

After checking in, my partner and I took a wander along the main streets of the CBD and were shocked at how deserted the place seemed. We’d been there in summer and winter in the past and this was the quietest we’d both ever seen the place. It was a sunny morning though, although the cloud was building, and we took the famous cable car up the side of the hill to the top of Wellington’s Botanic Gardens. Next to the top station is one of those postcard views of the city and harbour, especially when the cable car slides into the view. Sprawled across a steep hillside, the Botanical Gardens has plenty of colour-coded options for walking routes, and we picked a route we hadn’t done before to get us to the bottom. Once there, a marked route leads back into the streets of the city.

 

On a whim, my partner suggested we jump on a train and go out to one of the suburbs. Not knowing what was there, but always eager to do something different when I return to a previously visited city, we checked out the timetables and bought ourselves a ticket to Upper Hutt. For 45 minutes we followed first the Wellington shoreline and then the Hutt valley to reach our destination. The scenery wasn’t particularly exciting and as it turned out, neither was Upper Hutt. My partner had been convinced there was something to see there but couldn’t think what it was, but as it turned out there really is no reason to visit as anything other than a resident. We did a circuit round the main streets, the outer park and then back to the train station where we then waited for the return train to Wellington. Still, not every new experience is exciting, and we laughed at ourselves for the randomness of our failed spontaneity.

Back in Wellington we took my favourite walking route round the foreshore to Oriental Parade. The sun was shining gloriously but unfortunately the wind that the city is famous for was so strong that we were being whipped by sand from the small beach as we walked along. We got our customary ice cream which is always a must at the beach only to find it hard to enjoy with the added flavour of sand, and in my case my hair blowing onto it all the time. In the end, we decided to retreat for a bit to have a rest ahead of the night’s festivities. Like many big cities, there was a public firework display to mark the coming of the new year. We wondered if the wind would put a stop to it, but we never got word to say it was cancelled, so as the evening wore on, we set about heading out for dinner.

 

Like Melbourne in Australia, another city famous for its eating and drinking culture, Wellington has a great selection of places to eat and imbibe, and like its bigger Aussie brother, wandering down an alleyway can often yield a secret and intriguing find. Down one such alley we found Little Beer Quarter, a neat, slightly grungy bar that served us a delicious pizza. After a while we headed off to catch up with my partner’s cousin who was working in a pub on the edge of the CBD. Even though there was no change in time zone and no jet lag to contend with, we were both tired, so decided that instead of going to the midnight fireworks, we’d go for the 9 o’clock display then head back to the pub to hang out. But with a cider in hand and some dessert in my belly, I found myself struggling to stay awake. During the process of drinking and chatting we found ourselves too late to go to the fireworks and shortly after 9, we decided to have an early night. It didn’t take either of us long to drop off to sleep, although I awoke to the sound of fireworks and was delighted to discover on looking out my window, that my room was facing the ocean and I had a prime view of the display. My partner slept through it, but I watched the flashing lights until they finished and promptly returned to bed. This was the exciting action-packed Hogmanay of a 33-year old.

Well waking up on the first day of 2017 was rather different to what we’d closed our eyes to the night before. It was torrential rain and blowing a gale. There was little incentive to get moving, but mid-morning, we found ourselves in a nice cafe near the hotel where we had a lovely breakfast and caught up with my partner’s aunt who lives in the city. Unlike me, who was off work for 4 days, my partner had to go back to work that night, so after brunch, he made his way to the airport to catch his flight home. The airport in Wellington has a reputation for some rather dramatic flying conditions, and with the rate of rain and wind, I was in no way envious of his flight that day. I on the other hand, sought out one of the city’s main indoor attractions, the Te Papa museum. I’d been there before, and worthy as it is of a visit when in the city, it is far from my favourite museum. But at the time of visiting, there was a temporary exhibit called Gallipoli: the Scale of Our War which I was very keen to visit. With models constructed by the Weta workshop (of Lord of the Rings fame), it had rave reviews, and although the exhibit was free to enter, it was so popular there was a queuing system to get into it.

Also on at the time was another special exhibit with an entrance fee, known as Bug’s World. With giant bug sculptures again thanks to the Weta workshop, this was an awesome exhibit even if it was largely aimed at children. With bug-related science experiments, and giant moving bugs, psychedelic colours and loud noises, it was busy, stimulating and very popular. From there I headed straight downstairs and joined the very long queue for the Gallipoli exhibit. Coming from Scotland, where history lessons revolved around the British army’s involvement in the two World Wars, I knew nothing about Gallipoli when I moved to New Zealand. But since then, between both Australian and New Zealand museums, I have picked up a lot of information about this famous battleground. At times when scenes of modern warfare are so rife on the daily news that it is possible to feel numb about it all, it takes a well-designed exhibit to grasp the frustration, heartache, and dizzying waste of life that is the reality of war. Spread through inter-connecting rooms, the main draw of this particular exhibit are the larger-than-life but amazingly realistic figures that depict particular people from the annals of history. A lieutenant, a medic, a nurse and a collection of other soldiers are impeccably detailed right down to the hairs on the legs or arms.

 

I hadn’t planned on staying at Te Papa beyond that exhibit, having seen the other unchanging exhibits before, but the weather was still diabolical outside so I ended up jostling with the large crowd that was also hiding out in the museum. But even having seen it all before, I managed to kill a few hours here before eventually having to brave the bad weather again. I found a nearby place to eat dinner which was understandably packed, before retiring to my comfy bed with a bag of junk food for dessert and an evening of holiday movies to watch.

The next morning it was still raining, although thankfully not as hard as the day before. Prior to coming to Wellington, I’d planned on spending a day out on Matiu Sommes Island, a bird sanctuary out in the harbour, but the poor weather meant there was no point, and I’d reluctantly canned the idea. My other desire for this visit was to go to Zealandia, a wildlife ecosanctuary on the edge of the city. Another outdoor activity, I toyed with the idea of canning this too, but decided that the rain was of a level that could be tolerated, and so I headed down to the visitor information centre in the CBD from where a free shuttle bus takes you to the entrance of the sanctuary. In the end, despite the drizzle, this was the highlight of my whole trip.

A 250-hectare fully predator-fenced ecosanctuary designed to allow a small spot of New Zealand to return to its wild origins sits a mere 4km out of Wellington’s CBD and as obsessed as I am with native fauna, for me it was paradise. For a country famous for its landscapes and its controversial ‘100% Pure’ slogan, the New Zealand of today couldn’t be more different from the New Zealand of the past. Before man invaded, burned forests for pastureland, and introduced non-native mammals, historically, New Zealand was a land of dense jungle-like forests filled with a cacophany of birdsong, and prowled by large creatures such as the Giant Moa and their equally large hunter, the Haast’s eagle. Now, thanks to industrialisation, farming and the ever-present bane of hungry predators, there are many woodlands and forests that lie eerily quiet, many rivers that have changed their course, and many species that have fallen into the abyss of extinction. The videos and displays within the visitor centre are a real eye-opener to the negative impact of humans on an environment.

But outside was what I really enjoyed. There are a choice of walking paths to take, with most people following the main, low-level circuit to the upper dam and back. But in reality this is a mere fraction of the sanctuary’s size, and there are rougher hiking tracks heading further into the bush from here. I had arranged to meet up with my partner’s aunt again that afternoon, so I restricted myself to the main track and a few side tracks to places of interest. Firstly the track followed the lower lake to a lookout near where some shags were nesting, and some juveniles were evident amongst the adults, neither perturbed by the constant flow of people passing nearby. Near here, I was excited to see a sign saying takahe were nearby. A relative of the comical-looking pukeko, these stocky flightless birds are severely endangered, having already been thought to have become extinct before later being rediscovered. I’d never seen one, and struggled to contain my excitement when one came wandering down the path ahead of me.

 

Past wetlands and into the woods, I was acutely aware of the impressive volume of birdsong. Nowhere else in New Zealand had I heard this much life in the forest and it was incredible. More so than this was the sightings of bird species I’d never seen before including some Kaka, a species of parrot. I adore Kea, the smaller alpine parrot that lives in the south island, and it was a total joy to see the larger Kaka, another vulnerable species. They were loud and rambunctious and a total pleasure to watch. Skirting the upper dam where the surrounding vegetation was thick, I took a side track which was deserted in comparison to the main track, and there I came across the noisy antics of the North Island saddleback, another bird I’d never seen before. Reportedly recovering in numbers, I’d never even heard of them before, but one in particular, which given its behaviour I assumed it was a fledgling, was so unbelievably loud for such a little bird.

 

On my way back to the visitor’s centre, I spotted a tuatara, a native reptile that outlived the dinosaurs. Technically wild, all the tuatara in the ecosanctuary are tagged, and are known to reside in specific locations making them semi-easy to spot. Past them, a side track took me up the hill to a cave which is open for a distance to enter. In the darkness, you would have no idea what was in there with you, but the torchlight on my phone illuminated an expansive population of cave weta. Weta are a group of insects endemic to New Zealand which includes the Giant Weta, one of the heaviest and larger insects in the world. On my first sweep with the torch, the weta within the cave looked quite small, but as I turned round to face the opposite wall, I was suddenly presented with some rather large specimens that had been hair-raisingly close to the back of my head just moments before. Insects don’t normally bother me, but these large creatures with their swaying antennae were big enough and close enough to my face to make my skin crawl. Still, I was fascinated enough to suppress this sensation in order to look at them for a while.

 

Following lunch at the visitor’s centre, I was picked up and whisked away to the hillside suburbs to the south, first visiting the giant Meridian wind turbine overlooking the city, and then heading to the southern suburbs on the coast where the waves pounded angrily on the shore. It was cold and grey overhead as we drove round the coast briefly before I was taken to the renovated Roxy Cinema in Miramar, a beautifully restored building outside of which stood a statue of Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey from the Lord of the Rings franchise. Miramar is the realm of Peter Jackson, the film director, and round from here is the Weta workshop which I visited on a previous occasion and is well worth a tour around. But now it was time to retire, and my partner’s aunt cooked me a lovely dinner before I headed back to my hotel for the night.

 

The next morning it was torrential rain again. It had been such a frustrating trip this time round, and I really wasn’t feeling the love for Wellington on this occasion. Being a public holiday, it felt like large portions of the city were closed down, and zones of the city were like a ghost town. I was struggling to find things to fill my time with. I’m not a fan of art galleries, and with all the usual things I like to do outdoors, I found myself back at Te Papa where I once again waited out the rain. In between breaks in the showers, I took a brief wander around the marina, before eventually finding a movie to watch at the Embassy Theatre. This was the location for the grand premier of the Lord of the Rings trilogy movies, but unlike the Roxy Theatre which had been lovingly restored, the Embassy Theatre looked drab, old and greatly in need of some TLC. It was still raining when I left the movie a couple of hours later, and with nothing else to do, I simply retrieved my stuff from the hotel and headed to the airport. Taking off in the rain, the plane arrived back in Christchurch to relatively clear skies. With an approach heading right over the city, it was a welcome sight to be back home after a washout of a weekend in the capital.

Lake Brunner

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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