MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “New Zealand”

Kapiti Island

For all the distance I’d travelled, the mere 7km of it, I still managed to leave the cloud behind on the mainland and arrive on Kapiti Island to glorious sunshine. I’d lost a chunk of the day on the island due to the cancelled morning sailing, and now, a little after 3pm, I was eager to make use of the remaining hours of daylight and get exploring. This was September, early spring, so the sunset was still rather early, leaving me only a few hours to wander round the northern half of the island.

Most of the island is inaccessible to the public. Day trippers visit an area to the south where there’s a selection of walking trails, but overnighters like myself stay in an area at the northern tip. The lodge is on private land and operated by Kapiti Island Nature Tours, but beyond this is reserve land with two walks managed by the Department of Conservation: one that loops the low headland, and one that heads up to a lookout on the coast. I wanted to do both, so as soon as we had our welcome to the lodge finished, I was out of there and on the trail.

The whole reason I was here was for the wildlife. Kapiti Island is a predator-free island where endangered birds are translocated to in order to try and allow breeding in the absence of rodents and stoats. But the island is only 5km from the mainland and rats are strong swimmers, so the place will forever be under constant monitoring for new invaders. It is, for some of the species, a success story though. They’re not all thriving, but there was plenty of bird life to see, even right by the lodge. Some beautiful plump and colourful kereru were feeding right next to the building and there were plenty of seabirds to be seen gliding along the coast as I walked.

It didn’t take long to reach the turnoff for the lookout, and I was soon to gain a bit of elevation. The track heads from sea level to an altitude of just 198m but it winds its way there and it was more than worth it. With plenty of vegetation about, I was accompanied by bellbirds in the branches, and weka at ground level. There was not a cloud in the sky, and off the coast, the Tasman Sea sparkled under the lowering sun. Due west there is no landfall till Australia, and the expanse of the ocean off shore looked vast. I spent as long as I could at the lookout before my mindfulness of the lowering sun sent me back down to shore.

As I got into the denser vegetation lower down, my attention was caught by a kaka. I didn’t know that New Zealand had parrots before moving here all those years ago, but they are some of my favourite birds to spot when I’m out hiking. I help rehabilitate injured kea so I see them all the time, but kaka are so much shyer and duller in colour, making a sighting of them a rarer and more special experience. It contemplated me briefly before returning to its feeding.

There was a long shadow now on this eastern half of the island as I took the track that skirts the lagoon and the seabird nesting site. Despite the fact that it was 2 months away from the breeding season, there were birds everywhere: dotted about the foreshore and shrubbery, as well as swooping and gliding overhead. Many people don’t like gulls and consider them an annoyance or a pest, but they play their part in the ecosystem and they’re also quite smart birds. The different gull species have quite distinctive personalities too, and as a wildlife rehabber, I’ve come to appreciate many of their attitudes and quirks, even when they don’t appreciate the help they’re being given.

This most northern circuit track is closed during the nesting season, mainly for the bird’s sake, but I can imagine these gulls would likely attack from the air too at that time, so it’s also for people’s safety. As I completed the loop I found myself in shadow, the sun having set behind the ridge I’d come down from. Across the water, the mainland sat in a golden glow, still catching the last light of the sun. I returned to the lodge ready for dinner which was included in the overnight stay and was delicious.

The whole reason I’d chosen to stay overnight though, was for the opportunity to go kiwi spotting once darkness fell. Our little group met up in the pitch darkness to tread carefully around the trails near the lodge in search of these reclusive birds. I saw a kiwi in the wild a few years prior on Rakiura/Stewart Island, but I’m always eager to try and spot another one. The majority of New Zealanders, colloquially referred to as Kiwis (with a capital K), will never see a kiwi (without a capital K), either at all, or at least in the wild. Often people come to New Zealand aware of the kiwi, but don’t actually realise that there’s five different species of kiwi. On Rakiura, I saw the tokoeka, but Kapiti is home to the little spotted kiwi so I was holding out hope of adding a second species to my spotted list.

We could hear them as we walked, but try as we did, we had to give up eventually. On returning to the lodge though we encountered a couple of little blue penguins which had returned from feeding at sea to come back to their burrows. Little blue penguins love to burrow under wooden decks and baches, so it can be a bonus in coastal regions where they live to hear, see, or even smell them from your holiday home. So as not to disturb them, we viewed them under red light. Like with kiwi, this light allows us to view them but these birds cannot see the red light so they go about their business without being blinded. If you are ever out hiking in the New Zealand bush and you want a chance to spot birds in the night, I highly recommend you buy a torch with a red light option.

It was another glorious day the next morning and I headed out to explore the wetland right behind my cabin. We’d rustled around it in the darkness that night before, but it was nice to experience it in the day time. Paradise shelducks and pukekos were the main occupiers but I was suddenly distracted by the distinctive call of a saddleback. These blackbird-sized birds have a stunning burnt-orange saddle and bright wattle but they’re very difficult to photograph as they tend to move quickly among the branches and leaf litter. They’re also quite rare away from sanctuaries like these as stoats love to eat them, so seeing one was a big deal for me. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’m an avid bird watcher since moving to New Zealand so places like this excite me very much.

The boat picked us up in the morning and whisked us to the part of the island open to day trippers. There is no access between the two parts of the island on land, and when we arrived, two boats full of people had offloaded and the immediate area was teeming with people. It was a big contrast to the mere few of us that had been up the northern end. I spend my working day interacting with people non-stop for all the hours of it, so I love getting away from crowds in my downtime. Crowds mean noise which isn’t great for wildlife spotting, so I did my best to separate myself from the larger groups as I followed the various trails.

The highest accessible point on this part of the island is 521m with a trail deep in the dense forest to reach it. My limit was the time of the return boat to the mainland that afternoon, so it was a balance between covering the ground to follow all the trails, whilst allowing a bit of stoppage time to bird watch. My first spot of the day was one of the two takahe on the island. These rather plump but iridescent birds appear blue from a distance but close up are a mix of green with blue. Only a few hundred of these birds exist, and like the saddleback, are rare to see away from sanctuaries.

There are two routes up to the summit, one graded as a walking track, and the other graded as a tramping track. There was a mixed level of abilities that had come over on the boat. Some stayed only on the coastal loop, and of those that climbed to the summit, most took the walking track up. A few like myself, opted for the tramping track. I’m a regular hiker, so although this trail was rougher, it was more than manageable. It also meant I got away from the majority of the visitors for a while. My reward was the red-crowned parakeet, a mainly green parrot with a red crown on its head. As I continued walking, I was serenaded by tui and followed by inquisitive robins.

About two-thirds of the way up to the lookout, the two trails joined as one. Soon I came across a picnic table where some people had stopped for a break. Their food had drawn the attention of a kaka which was unusually inquisitive and acted more like a kea, coming close and trying to steal some food. Kea in the South Island have died from eating chocolate deliberately or accidentally provided by people and many of the sugary processed foods are not good for parrots. That doesn’t stop them wanting to eat them though so the blueberry muffin being consumed by one person seemed particularly attractive to it. Thankfully it’s attempt to get some was mostly unsuccessful but it made a great photo opportunity as it walked across the picnic table and sat close by on the nearby branches. It drew quite a crowd too as people came and went on the trail.

As I climbed higher I spotted more saddlebacks and encountered more robins. The trees are thick the whole way up and there’s little external view until finally the summit is reached. It was mobbed here, and with good reason. There were no clouds in the sky, and the calm blue sea mirrored the blue sky above it. I was dripping with sweat by this point which meant putting suncream on was a messy affair, but there was no way I wasn’t going to sit for a while too and absorb the view. At ground level, the view is a bit obscured by the vegetation so a wooden tower has been erected to get above the canopy and from here you can see all around: out to sea and back to the mainland. After the crappy weather of the previous morning I was definitely doing well with the weather now.

My luck continued on the walk back down. I stuck to the main walking trail the whole way this time, and I had some great photo ops with some birds. I spotted hihi which are one of the translocated species that aren’t quite thriving here yet, and I was finally able to get a good photo of a saddleback. Even a robin decided to sit still long enough for me to get a cracker of a photo of it.

But what I was very excited to see, and what was overlooked by most other people until I started pointing it out to anyone who passed, was a North Island kokako. The South Island variant is believed to be extinct, but the Department of Conservation is offering a $10000 reward to verifiable evidence of one’s existence. In the meantime, a couple of thousand of the North Island variant still exist but like other birds, they are heavily reliant on sanctuaries to keep them safe from predation. Grey in colour, most of the non-Kiwi visitors weren’t that interested until I told them how rare the sighting was and how lucky they were to see one. The Kiwi visitors generally appreciated how special it was to see one.

Then finally I spotted a bird I’d heard often but never seen: a ruru. These nocturnal birds spend the day fast asleep, and they’re so still and easy to miss during the day that I’m convinced I’ve likely walked under many of them while hiking in bush over the years. I was grateful to the other walkers who went out their way to tell me where to look and point it out to me meaning I was able to see it. It didn’t move the whole time I watched it. It simply stood tall among the foliage, with its head turned round and its face buried. Now, my goal is to see one awake.

I was able to cover all of the trails before catching the boat back to the mainland. Despite the lack of sighted kiwi and the lost hours the previous morning. I boarded the boat satisfied with the trip. When we reached the shore of Paraparaumu, we did a beach landing, something I haven’t experienced since my volunteering days in South Africa some 15 years prior. Essentially, the boat just drives itself out the water and grounds itself onto the sand before unloading its passengers. Once empty, a tractor comes along and backs a trailer underneath it, ready to pull it up the shore, ready for another day. For me though, it was only mid-afternoon and I still had plenty of exploring to do here.

Advertisement

Frustrations Abound

As I pulled out of the side road onto the main road that follows the Taranaki coast, my car sputtered and limped forward, failing to gather speed. As if I hadn’t already guessed, a warning light on the car’s dashboard flashed on, alerting me to engine troubles. I was thankfully able to pull off the road quickly, but I was effectively in the middle of nowhere. My car had been acting up since the drive north from Christchurch several days before, but as much as its temperamental behaviour had been so intermittent, its unpredictability had failed to hide the fact that it was now getting worse.

I’d left Lake Mangamahoe earlier that day to skirt past New Plymouth and drive round the coast of the Taranaki Bight. State Highway 45 feels like a country road, passing through villages intermittently dispersed among reams of green fields and trees. Grabbing some coffee and lunch at Oakura, I cut down to the black sandy beach there for a brief spell of fresh air before heading on. I’d seen a lot of photographs of a pretty lighthouse framed by Mt Taranaki and I knew it was somewhere along this road. With the mountain remaining hidden for my entire visit, I wasn’t going to get the classic view but I was still keen to take advantage of being in the area. But having plugged the turnoff into my route finder, the app decided not to work as I drove, and I was left having to guess where I was going.

I came across a sign for a lighthouse, and turned down the road. My car decided to stutter a little as I drove, but when I reached the end of the road I discovered this wasn’t the lighthouse I was after. Once back on the state highway, some way further round I happened upon the correct turn-off and finally found the pretty white lighthouse I’d seen in so many photographs. I just had to imagine how it would look on a sunnier day with the mountain visible.

It was on the return from this side road that my car decided it had had enough and now I was parked at the side of the road trying to work out what to do. I’d planned on spending the rest of the day leisurely exploring the coastal villages, doing some coastal walks and generally just taking my time. But now I needed a mechanic, and I was at the mercy of opening hours and a big enough settlement to have one. I still couldn’t use the search function on my phone’s map but Opunake was the next decent-sized settlement that was on route, so I crawled out of the verge and limped my way there.

I was exceptionally grateful to not only find a mechanic but to have him agree to look at my car without notice and quite late on in the afternoon. Frustratingly though, when he took it out for a test drive, the car drove perfectly and when he plugged his computer into the car’s software, no error came up. With no apparent problem to fix, there was nothing for it but to keep going. But between going to the wrong lighthouse and the trip to the mechanic, I’d lost a bit of time, so pushed on to Hawera, sacrificing any other stops I’d planned on route.

In the middle of Hawera is an old water tower and I’d been really keen to climb up it. However I’d missed the opening hours by the time I got there, making this place more of a snack stop than anything else. Feeling a little defeated with how the day had turned out, I knew there was still a good bit of a drive to go till I could stop for the night. I had a boat to catch at Paraparaumu on the Kapiti Coast the next morning, and I’d already picked out a place to stay part-way on route. As this was September 2020, at a time when closed borders meant no international visitors, I hadn’t bothered to book the accommodation but it was a large holiday park so there wasn’t really much need.

At least that’s what I thought. It was a long drive from Hawera to Whanganui, and from there, it was straight on to Bulls. The sun was lowering as I approached the town, but when I reached the holiday park at the far end, there was a no vacancy sign. I hadn’t considered that this was the intersection between State Highway 1 (the main highway north-to-south) and State Highway 3 (the main east-west trunk route), so there would be plenty of passing trade to fill the park up. Although I’ve spent far less time in the North Island than I have the South Island, I’ve still driven this route on many occasions, so I had an idea of where I could try and find a place to stay. So I continued south as the sun set, eventually finding myself driving in darkness.

I pulled off the highway at Foxton Beach, a place I’d stayed in some years ago. I simply followed the road sides in the dark which thankfully pointed towards a motel that had a vacancy. It wasn’t the cheapest place, but it did the job, and although unplanned, I did at least have a shorter drive to make the next morning to catch my boat. Thankfully the local takeaway shop was open, so I could grab a late dinner before hunkering down for the night.

I awoke early to pack my things and ready myself to leave. Checking the forecast, it didn’t look that flash and I knew the boat trip was weather-dependent. So it came as no surprise when the phone call came to say the trip was cancelled. I was initially quite disappointed. The planned trip had been one I’d wanted to do for years, and the logistics of getting there made it quite the mission from Christchurch, but I was relieved to be told that I should still make the journey to the Kapiti Coast as the boat may still be able to leave in the afternoon.

With the morning to spare, and having got up so early, I had some time to read while it rained outside. After a while, it eased to a drizzle and I was able to go for a walk. I went around the estuary and towards the beach, spotting a sacred kingfisher, a bird that’s quite shy and one that I don’t seem to see quite so much of down south. As check-out time grew closer, I reloaded my car and got back on the road.

It was overcast when I pulled into Paraparaumu. I’d been here a few times before so the familiarity made it a much more cheerful place to be despite the weather. There was a bit of wind about but although there were patches of rain puddles around the place, it was no longer raining. I turned up at the check-in location for the boat trip to get confirmation that the afternoon sailing was indeed going ahead. I was relieved. There was a bit of time to kill ahead of the launch so I walked to the vast expanse of Paraparaumu beach and there, staring seaward, I was faced with my destination for the night, Kapiti Island, just across the water.

The island is the symbol for the region’s ice cream export, and the namesake of the entire coastal region. But for me, the draw was the fact that it is one of a handful of predator-proof islands where not only are bird re-introductions happening, but that is also open to the public. As a conservation-enthusiast and a lover of New Zealand’s unique bird life, this place had been on my radar for a long time. As I wandered along the bare strip of sand, staring out at it, I was eager to get out there. My walk took me behind the beach to Waikanae Estuary Scenic Reserve, before finally it was time to head to the meeting point at the boat club. The previous day had been full of frustrations from access issues to failed views and car trouble to accommodation fulfillment, but ahead lay a couple of days that would go beyond all my expectations.

Taranaki Time

It was a long and tiring 5hr traverse across the country. I had left the sun shining on the east coast at Castlepoint but as I headed west and north, the clouds built up. Towns and cities came and went as I skirted round Masterton and up to Palmerston North and onward to Bulls. I would have loved to have stopped in Whanganui for a bit, a city that I spent a few days in some years prior, but there was still some way to go, so I pushed on west, ever hopeful for a view of Mount Taranaki, one of the country’s most distinguishable volcanic cones. But the clouds were low and kept it hidden. As I drove up the eastern flank, you wouldn’t even have known there was a mountain there.

The evening light was weakening as I pulled up at my Air BnB in New Plymouth, a city I’d wanted to visit for some time. I had 2 nights booked there and I’d had grand plans of hiking around the lower slopes of Mount Taranaki. It was mid-September and I knew the snow would still be an issue higher up, and I didn’t have the time to do any multi-day treks, so I was ready to just explore the lower reaches of the mountain. But for my whole stay, the entire reason I’d come to the region barely showed itself, the cloud sitting low day after day after day. It was a slight frustration but it did mean I was able to explore a bit more of the region than I’d expected to, and the area firmly put itself on the list of places to return to in the future.

My Air BnB was right on the coast and I could hear the sea from my room. It was also facing the side of sunset, providing me with a lovely vista as the sun dropped low to the horizon soon after my arrival. The clouds added a dramatic splash of colour that first night as the sun set behind the islands of Lion Rock and Moturoa just offshore in the Taranaki Bight. After grabbing takeout, I had a lovely quiet evening planning my adventures over the coming days.

 

I awoke to sunshine and clearer skies. After the previous day’s long drive, I was planning on exploring on foot. New Plymouth has a long coastal promenade that from where I was staying led off in both directions along the coast. Dotted along the route are a series of sculptures or works of art to draw attention away from the rolling waves. One of the more well known ones, and one that I wasn’t really enamoured with, was the Wind Wand, a very tall metallic pole that swings with the breeze. I continued all the way to Port Taranaki where Ngamotu beach marked the end of the coastal walkway.

 

But my goal was Paritutu Rock, the rather distinctive pointed geological feature that is visible from some distance away. I had to cut up through a rather industrial part of the city to reach the car park and the start of the trail up to its summit, but I was rather disappointed to discover that the summit trail was closed for my entire stay while track work was performed. I at least had a more close up view of the collection of offshore islands that were nearby. I considered walking round the corner to Back beach but it was downhill, so having decided I wasn’t in the mood for the extra distance and climb on the way back, I started to head back towards the city.

 

The main road offered little interest on route beyond the occasional piece of street art, but I eventually found myself at Puke Ariki, one of the city’s museums. It wasn’t the largest or most interesting of museums but it did have a few things that caught my attention, including a sign discussing a virus outbreak as a future global emergency, something that hadn’t yet happened when the sign was erected, but had become quite ironic at my time of visiting in 2020. From here, I had a walking route to take through the city to spot the variety of street art that is dotted around the place. I’m a big fan of street murals, and New Plymouth has many of them. Next to the museum was a 2-storey high tui, and spanning out from there I recognised artwork by some of my favourite street artists.

 

It was a convoluted route past space creatures, portrait mashups and a giant elephant. There was even a beautiful landscape mural depicting Mount Taranaki to make up for my lack of view. But it wasn’t long before the city streets melted away as I entered the ornate gateway into Pukekura Park, a sprawling green space at the back of the city. It was a week day, so although there were plenty of other people around, it didn’t feel crammed, and I was easily able to procure a table at the Tea House On The Lake. I was staring directly at the summit of Mount Taranaki, invisible as it was, behind the clouds. Intermittently, for brief seconds, a snow-capped peak appeared before it was quickly enveloped once more. On a cloud-free day, this vista across the lake, with its distinctive red arched bridge below the peak of the mountain is one of the city’s more well known mountain photography spots.

 

It’s a beautiful spot for a wander. From the lake the trails crisscrossed through beautiful bush with the sounds of native birds to keep me company. The furthest away lake was the prettiest, and meadow flowers were in bloom in the green space at the farther end of the park. I spotted plump kereru, noisy myna, a sacred kingfisher and tui as I skirted up the hill from the Bowl of Brooklands, past Brooklands Zoo and back towards the lakes. I love visiting gardens in the spring. It always feels like so much life is thriving as the flowers burst into bloom and the birds go about mating and breeding. Near the cafe, the Pukekura Falls added an additional sound element to the call of the birds as I headed back towards the park entrance, and I was quickly made aware of the fact that there were shags nesting in the trees on the bank of the lake.

 

Eventually I exited the park, cutting back through the city past more murals to return to the coastal walkway. Ignoring my tired feet, I headed off in the opposite direction from the morning, passing recreational reserves and East End Beach before feeling like I’d left the city behind at Waiwhakaiho Reserve where a broad river opens out into the sea. There was a lot more activity here with cyclists, walkers, joggers, and dog owners all pounding the track.

 

Down in the river bed, a myriad of shags were drying themselves, but I was here to see the famous Te Rewa Rewa bridge, a white-arced structure that spans the river. Aside from the uniqueness of the bridge structure itself, it’s more well known for photos showing it framing the peak of Mount Taranaki. But although I was under glorious sunshine and a blue sky, when I reached the other side and turned around, as I already knew it would be, the mountain was nowhere to be seen, a bank of cloud hiding its existence.

I planned on continuing on to Bell Block beach, but after a few bends of the coastline, I decided that my feet had had too much. Turning around, I re-crossed the bridge then decided on a whim to circumnavigate the nearby Lake Rotomanu, a manmade lake nearby. As I headed back along the coast I could see windsurfers out in the evening surf, and when I eventually returned to my Air BnB, I was able to watch another sunset with the added drama of a changing cloud pattern to send streaks of light across the sky.

The following day turned into one of frustration. I awoke to a slightly overcast and stormy day but I had a lot of ground to cover so was quick to leave my accommodation behind and get going. Despite a need to head south, I turned north and drove for an hour up the winding state highway away from New Plymouth. Once past Waitara, it was effectively rural, with greenery spanning both sides of the road. Eventually I pulled off onto Clifton Road and found myself at the car park for the Three Sisters and Elephant Rock. I’d wanted to visit these coastal structures for years, and had been disappointed to hear that one of them had partially collapsed in an earthquake a few years prior. But it was to be a must-do excursion when I was planning this roadie, so to say I was gutted to get to the car park and realise that I couldn’t reach them was an under statement.

Despite investigating location and transit, I had failed to notice in advance that they are only accessible at low tide. As I got out the car, I looked at the gushing flow of the Tongaporutu river and stared incredulously at the sign that showed I needed to follow the river bank down to the sea. Only there was no river bank, just a high level water and no route to take me there. It was clearly high tide, not even close to being accessible, so I had to admit defeat and leave. A quick look on Google maps though had me spot a lookout just along the road, so I headed across the river and up the hill to an unmarked road with an unmarked car park and an unmarked track. But the views from the hillside made up for the lack of beach access. Although Mount Taranaki was once again invisible, I could see for miles down the coast, and the various sea stacks stood tall against the brunt of the waves that rolled in from the Tasman Sea.

 

On the way back to New Plymouth I cut down to Bell Block beach to see what I’d missed the day before. It felt rough and wild so I didn’t stay long. I only skirted the edge of New Plymouth, taking State Highway 3 south to Lake Mangamahoe. This was one of those places I’d wanted to visit for some time, in part because, like many people, I had spotted a photo on social media and felt compelled to see it for myself. The walk from the car park turned out to be rather bland with only fleeting glimpses of the lake, however it didn’t take long to reach the lookout with its famous view, only to realise once again that the cloud-shrouded mountain rather deflected from its potential glory. It felt a little underwhelming.

 

The track continued around the lake, with views patchy in places. On the south bank of the lake there is a redwood forest, where the path leads through foreign giants. It’s hard not to love redwoods even if they are an introduced species. To complete the loop round the lake, the track eventually joined the road I’d driven up, and I have to admit I was eager to get back to my car by the end of it. I think my expectations had been a little high, and as such my opinion of the place probably doesn’t serve it much justice. Yet as I pulled out of the reserve and cut round the back of New Plymouth to follow the Taranaki coastline round its volcanic cone, I was unaware that my frustrations were only going to get worse.

Wairarapa Wanderings

I awoke to a feeling of solitude. I’d arrived in darkness the night before, just the sound of waves crashing on the nearby shore and some low-level lights at the holiday park the only distraction from the darkness. There were few other people around when I ventured out, but I had a full day of exploring to do so I was quick to get breakfast in my stomach, load up the car and get going. Everything ahead of me for the day was to be new territory: a corner of the country that I hadn’t visited before and that had me quietly excited.

The road grew rougher as I headed east, skirting the coastline under some tall bluffs before leading me down a dirt track round the corner of the cape to the Cape Palliser lighthouse at the south-eastern point of New Zealand’s North Island. There was a decent blow about the place and I headed straight to the track leading up to the lighthouse. At the time of visiting in September 2020, there was some repair work being done to the lower track, but then most of the way is a very steep staircase and as I neared the top I was nearly blown off my feet. The platform on which the lighthouse stands strides the corner of the cape and the wind was slamming from one side to the other. I fought the wind as long as I could to stare out at the Pacific Ocean rolling in from both sides. I’d had an early start thanks to staying nearby, but as I headed back down the steps a few more cars began to appear. I picked my way across the rocky beach for a short distance before returning to my car and beginning to head west.

 

Almost immediately I pulled in at the nearby fur seal colony. The track was rough on my little 2-wheel car but I was able to avoid the boggy bits and find a dry spot to stop. I didn’t have to walk far to find fur seals, they were draped out to dry all over the place and I had to pick a spot to watch them while still allowing them their space. A few of them gave me some side-eye, but most of them kept sleeping as if I wasn’t there. I watched the antics of those leaping about a rock pool for a while before continuing. The road wasn’t in the best state. There had clearly been some storm damage in places that hadn’t quite been repaired yet. It was a rugged coastline and the sun was out but there were limited options to pull over and enjoy the view or take photographs.

 

Some distance along I pulled off the main road into Putangirua Scenic Reserve. I’d wanted to come here for a long time, partly because of what was here, and partly because it was a location shoot for the original Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. I still remember watching those movies back in Scotland when I was at uni, and I would have never for a minute imagined at the time that I’d end up emigrating to New Zealand. Even without the movie reference, it’s a nice walk to do in the area. Starting from the car park, the track snakes alongside a river, a mix of rocks and sand underfoot, gradually gaining height until it turns a corner and then it’s a rougher route up a boulder field following a semi-well trodden path to the target: the Putangirua Pinnacles, reached in about 40 or so minutes.

Movie buffs will recognise these giant stony structures as the Dimholt Road in the third Lord of the Rings movie, where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas go in search of the dead. Subject to natural erosive forces, it’s a very dynamic area with scree and moving stones all over the place. The structures reminded me of the Clay Cliffs near Omarama in the South Island, but these ones are much more stony, and the walking underfoot felt much more treacherous. But there were so many passageways to explore and I was determined to poke my nose into as many of them as I could safely negotiate. Down in this valley I felt utterly tiny looking up at the sheer walls of the various spiky peaked pinnacles.

 

Rather than just head straight back, I picked my way back to a track junction half way back to the car park. This led me up the steep valley side through dense bush to a lookout giving me a bird’s eye view across to the pinnacles. This was the more classic view that I’d seen online, and up here exposed in the sunshine, it was turning into a belter of a day. From here, I opted to follow the 4-wheel drive track that leads down through farmland and takes a more scenic route back to the main road. Once I was properly out of the trees the view started to open up in multiple directions. Inland, there were rolling hills, and I could just about make out a snow-capped mountain in the South Island across the Cook Strait. To my front right was the sweeping expanse of Palliser Bay, glistening in the sunshine, and behind it, the long range of the Remutakas was shrouded in cloud demarcating so abruptly the great weather I was experiencing.

 

It was such a glorious walk, and as I picked my way down the ridge line I was startled by a green lizard running across the path. Further down the track entered farmland and some sheep were grazing the pasture as I followed the orange-topped poles lower and lower, passing small ponds and invasive gorse before eventually finding myself teetering above the road before the final descent down right by the bay. It was a short walk along the road side to reach the track back into Putangirua Scenic Reserve and my car. All up, it had been around 3hrs since I’d set off.

 

I stopped for lunch at Lake Ferry, a non-descript little settlement on the shore of Lake Onoke. It wasn’t the most picturesque spot despite the lake, but there were plenty of people on the edge of the bay hoping to catch some seafood. The weather was starting to dull a little as I set off, and I was pushing north for a couple of hours cutting up inland to Martinborough and out the other side. I contemplated getting my car looked at in Masterton following its escapades on the drive north from Kaikoura 2 days prior, but it had been mostly behaving itself since, and I didn’t really fancy getting stuck there not to mention that the quickest route to my destination bypassed the city.

From Martinborough, it felt like I was on back roads for the rest of the trip, snaking my way through rural New Zealand until eventually the road turned east again and it was a long and windy trip back to the east coast at Castlepoint. Although the sun was out on this side of the country, the wind had clearly continued to pick up since I’d been at Cape Palliser lighthouse that morning, and now there were wind warnings out for the region. I checked into my cabin at the local holiday park and was quick to get down onto the beach. The wind wasn’t going to stop me from enjoying a walk along the coast.

Castlepoint is at the southern end of a long, shallow, sweeping bay which terminates at a promontory atop which stands the Castlepoint lighthouse. The tide was in so part of the beach was cut off, sending me up onto the road, but the access track onto the promontory was still reachable. But while the wind had been buffeting me on the walk round, it was full on whacking me from all sides as I walked up to the lighthouse. When the gusts hit I had to hold onto the barrier in some places. There were a few hardy people there with me, walking around the track, soaking up the gorgeous view from the top of the rocks. The sun was setting by the time I decided to head back to the holiday park, and I discovered that Castlepoint was the windiest place in the country that day, with gusts peaking at 148km/hr that night.

 

The peak had passed by the morning but it was still quite windy. I was quick to get back out onto the beach once I was ready for the day. Aside from the promontory, to the south there is another distinctive coastal formation in the form of the Gap and Castle Rock. An open lagoon has been created by a spit of land heading south that is broken from the neighbouring portion of coastline, creating an inlet for the sea to come in. Skirting the back of it is the Deliverance Cove track which leads up the hillside for a view down on the landscape. There was hardly anyone else there although I could see a woman down on the beach doing hula hoop tricks as I walked.

 

Once on the southern ridge, the wind was slapping me in the face again, but looking south there was another long sweeping beach. In front of me was the hulk of Castle Rock which, while not having an official track up it, clearly had a well worn route up to the top. The worst of the wind had passed, but it was still hours away from the gust warning being dropped. I didn’t have time to wait and this was my one and only shot to get up there, so where necessary I hunkered low to the ground wherever it was more exposed. The direction of the wind was thankfully blowing me into the hillside and not into the sea so while not ideal, it wasn’t quite as dodgy an idea as it could have been.

 

And the views were totally worth it. Not only is the sweeping and rugged coast beautiful in both directions, the immediate prospect looking straight down the rocky ridge line to the lighthouse is spectacular. The combination of early morning and early spring meant the sun created an unfortunate glare on the glistening blue Pacific Ocean, but I still loved the view despite getting a little dazzled. The very top of Castle Rock would have been a perfect spot for a picnic and staring out at the ocean but the wind just wasn’t letting up and I had a long drive ahead that afternoon. So I headed back down the track and cut down to the beach behind the sea inlet.

 

As I neared the beach I spotted a New Zealand fur seal which had hauled itself out of the ocean. His chunky mane identified him as a male, and I was sure to give him a wide berth as I passed. There were now more people around as I neared the northern end of the inlet and the sandy bridge that connects the two beaches. I headed back on to the promontory and up towards the lighthouse where I was able to walk around without quite the same level of buffeting as the night before.

 

On the nearby rocks I looked for fossils and found some shellfish remains embedded in the rock, partly exposed and already beginning to disintegrate. By the time I’d finished exploring it was lunchtime and with a five-hour drive ahead of me it was time to get going. Since arriving in New Zealand in 2012, I’ve managed to cover large chunks of the country, with a shrinking list of unvisited places. Now, I was on route to another of the few places I’d never been before, and there were a few hundred kilometers to cover to get there.

Spring Getaway

I was supposed to be gallivanting around Europe. I had booked an epic 6 week trip taking me through Singapore to Germany and on to Scotland to see my family, before taking a road trip up the west coast of Norway. I was one of the millions of people to have overseas trips canned because of COVID. In August 2020, it was then 2 years since I’d seen my family, and I had no idea when I’d see them again next. The 6 week leave from work was pointless so I cancelled 4 weeks of it, and left myself the last 2 in mid-September, figuring I’d take a wee spring roadie around New Zealand.

The final week of winter was a mixed bag weather-wise with gorgeous blue sky days with a winter chill in the air, followed by grey days, or a hint of warmth. I spent the last weekend of August walking around the city. Christchurch is not everyone’s cup of tea, and some visitors still fail to see beyond the earthquake scars that are still present on some city streets, but I love it here, and I enjoy a good wander around the place on a regular basis. I used the Avon river as a route finder, following its course past Margaret Mahy playground, and finding I had the giant swing all to myself. In my opinion swings have no age limit, and I’ll happily have a go at seeing how high I can get if I see a vacant one on a lazy day.

 

Spring is my favourite season to visit the city’s botanic gardens. The garden city had been ignoring the fact that it was winter for quite a few weeks by this point, with the daffodil lawns next to the hospital in full bloom even in August. It was warm enough to walk around in a t-shirt and I took a seat on the mosaic chair for a bit before returning to the flowers. The first of the cherry blossoms had bloomed, although the main event was still weeks away. Away from the gardens, the city felt a little empty but just a week later, it was buzzing, and with a DJ playing on the balcony at Riverside Market, I had that excited feeling that comes with the turn of the season, and the thrill of the impending months of spring and summer ahead.

 

The trees were still bare, but the buildings on the Terrace were colourful, and reflected in the gently flowing water of the Avon river. It’s a popular spot to sit and eat lunch, on the steps down to the river where the eels wait for some scraps, and a myriad of water fowl paddle around. Cutting across the city centre, I took a wander around some of the sculptures in the east frame of the city. Some large spray cans formed a canvas for some changing artwork, and a large rusty-looking jagged spire sticks up towards the blue sky, framed by the Port Hills. The flatness of the city centre makes it the perfect place to explore on foot or bike.

 

After a morning of work, I set off north the next weekend, for the winding drive to Kaikoura. The mountains of the Kaikoura Range were snow-capped, framing the bay and the town itself, so I headed to the lookout at the top of the peninsula hill to take it all in from a slight vantage point. I wasn’t staying here though, it was just a handy place to stretch my legs after a few hours of driving. With the late start in the afternoon, I didn’t stay long as I still had a few hours of driving ahead of me.

 

But as I continued on the winding road north from there, my car lost power on an uphill bend. Thankfully it was only brief, and no warning lights came on, but further along the road it happened again. This really wasn’t the kind of road to lose power on, as there’s so many hills and bends to negotiate between the coast and Picton, my destination. Most of the time it was driving fine though, and as I arrived in Picton in darkness on a Saturday night, I tried to allay any concerns, and focused on settling into my accommodation. It was a very basic hostel and a quiet one at that with no international travellers, but I was happy to be joined by a cat that looked so similar to my own.

It was a beautiful sunny Sunday when I awoke, and my car was behaving itself as I drove out to Waikawa Bay. The marina was full of boats swaying gently with the ebb of the water. The mountainous ridge where the Queen Charlotte track hides sat across the water of the Queen Charlotte Sound. A little further around the coast is Karaka Point where a short walk from the car park leads down a small spit to a flight of steps down to a small beach. The views here are incredible. New Zealand is full of stunning landscapes, and the Marlborough Sounds is one of my favourite scenic regions. The sea within the sounds was so calm, and there were rolling green hillsides in all directions.

 

From the top of the stairs to the beach, I spotted a New Zealand fur seal gliding through the water nearby. It had a large linear gash on its lower back that I’m convinced was a propeller injury from a boat. It was full skin thickness, exposing raw red flesh underneath, and it looked relatively fresh. The seal appeared to be swimming normally despite this wound but it was sad to see, and I’m sure it would be in a lot of pain with an exposed wound like that. One of many examples of the harmful outcomes from human and wildlife interactions. It stayed out in the water as I watched it now from the beach, cruising up and down the coast as I followed the stony beach round the headland onto the rocks. I spotted another fur seal cruising in the water, and a little off shore, some small sea birds were fluttering and diving for food.

It was so peaceful, and I’ve no idea how long I stood on those rocks for, but when I turned back around the headland, I found the injured fur seal had hauled out right by the base of the steps. It put its mouth on its wound, and I knew it needed to rest, but it was blocking my exit, and I couldn’t leave it alone without first disturbing it. Unfortunately it took off back into the water as I approached and I was quick to exit the beach in the hope it would come back out again. I savoured the views as I headed back to my car, returning to Waikawa Bay for a walk around the foreshore. Now there were many locals out enjoying the place, but it was still so peaceful, and I stayed here before heading back to Picton for brunch, which I ate out while watching the inter-island ferries come and go.

 

I always feel like I’m on a grand adventure if I have to fly or sail somewhere. I checked in for the lunchtime sailing on the Bluebridge ferry, and counted down till boarding, eager to set sail. The crossing from Picton to Wellington is one of the most beautiful ferry crossings I’ve ever done, in particular the hour and a half that it takes to sail between Picton and the Cook Strait. It was not only calm, but it was a semi-blue sky with just some thin clouds to blur the sun a little, and I was certainly going to spend the entire time out on the deck admiring the view. The first few times I sailed the Cook Strait, I’d taken the Interislander ferries, but the last couple of times I’ve taken the Bluebridge, due to the convenience of their sailing times for my needs. They’re very different ships, and on the Bluebridge ferry the outdoor passenger deck looks down over the vehicle deck, and on that particular sailing there was a truck loaded with sheep among the cargo trucks.

 

The inter-island ferries seem like utter behemoths compared to the little boats that ploughed the waters within the sound. Being a Sunday, there were lots of private sail boats out and about, and every now and again a water taxi or fishing boat whizzed by, all utterly dwarfed by the ferry, and all having to contend with the wake the ferry created behind it as it cruised slowly by. It was cold out on deck, and I needed gloves and a windbreak, but there was no way I was going inside with the scenery as beautiful as this. From the blue water, to the rolling green hills in every direction, there’s just nothing like it. Then as the ferry snakes through the sounds, and a gap finally becomes visible in the distance, the North Island suddenly comes in to view and the Cook Strait becomes broader and broader.

 

The North Island looks so tangible from this point, and yet it takes a full hour to cross it. I’ve had one rough crossing in the past, otherwise mostly I’ve been lucky with the weather on the trip over. This time round there was a strong cross wind and a bit of chop, but the limited spray meant I could still stay out on deck. The blue sky had all gone though, and the cloud overhead turned the water a steely grey colour. As we headed east towards the entrance to Wellington harbour, I could see the snow-capped mountains of the northern end of the Kaikoura Range poking up above the north coast of the South Island.

 

From the green hills of the Marlborough Sounds, the urban sprawl that appears on entering Wellington harbour is such a contrast. Again a myriad of boats moved around us, and city life framed the coast as we sailed round Miramar Peninsula and deeper into the harbour. The office buildings and the sky scrapers of the country’s small capital city grew larger as we crept towards our berth. Everywhere you looked there were signs of movement and life despite the greyness of the day. I stayed on deck till the last possible minute when drivers were called down to the car deck to ready to disembark. The car deck was mostly empty with only a handful of trucks and cars, so once the ramp was down I didn’t need to wait too long before I was signalled to move forward and head off.

But there was to be no lingering in the capital as I still had some distance to travel to reach my bed for the night. I was soon out of the city and in new territory for me, heading north-east around the back of the bay and up into the Hutt Valley. I had a two-hour drive that led me up into the winding hilly road that crosses Remutaka Hill. There’s so many hiking and biking trails around here, and I would have loved to have stopped and explored some of them, but it was well into the evening, and the light was getting low.

I’d never been to the Wairarapa region before, and turning off the main highway, I soon found myself deep in rural Wairarapa, seeing fewer and fewer cars as I eventually hit the south coast as the sun readied to set. I don’t like driving unfamiliar roads in the dark, but the Cape Palliser road wasn’t exactly a place to get lost. However, the sea came right up to the road in places, and with a slight wind buffeting from offshore, it felt wild as I passed the final kilometres. There was no one to greet me as I arrived at my cabin in the middle of nowhere, part of a small camping ground that was mostly empty. I settled in for the night as the place was shrouded in darkness, until it was almost pitch black outside. The sea was somewhere nearby, but it was no longer visible. With a coastal chill in the air, I could only hope for dry weather the next day.

Winter Grind

Despite my love of the warm summer days and crisp blue skies and blooms of spring in New Zealand, once the clocks have gone back and autumn rolls in, I really have to grit my teeth and bare the months of winter. In my native Scotland, winter days are short, the temperature cold, and the weather sometimes wet. But at least they were consistent: it’s hat, scarf and glove weather during the day, and the same at night. In Christchurch, it can be single figure temperatures in the morning and night, and get well into the teens in the afternoon meaning t-shirt weather for some hours, and jacket and glove weather other hours. The simple act of the sun going behind some clouds can add a sudden chill on the skin. Despite a decade of living here, I’ve never really adapted to this style of winter, and with no Christmas festivities to break up the dark months, I have to say I really dislike winters here.

The winter of 2020 was a curious one after the release from a couple of months of enforced lockdown through autumn. After an escape to Oamaru in late autumn I wanted to make sure I made the most of my freedom in the winter months. New Brighton beach was the perfect city escape without having to travel far, and despite the cold temperatures, cloudless blue skies always make a beach walk pleasant. The receding tide as I walked south towards the estuary created gorgeous reflections on the sand, especially once I rounded the spit into the estuary proper. The sand becomes a bit more of a mudflat here making it a bit treacherous under foot in places, but it was just me and a motley band of sea birds basking under the sun’s rays whilst looking across to Ferrymead and the Port Hills.

 

The Port Hills are a hiking and biking paradise with trails for each and both dotted all over the hillside. The Christchurch Adventure Park is predominantly a mountain bike park but there are a couple of walking trails within the perimeter and I finally decided to give the summit trail a go on another sunny winter day. Starting at the entrance to the adventure park, it is a long, winding trail up several lower ridges until eventually popping out at the top of the chairlift. From here, there are views predominantly over the city, but also in some spots over to Lyttelton Harbour on the far side of the hills. You have to pay to ride the chairlift up, but riding down is free irregardless of how you got to the top, so many people hike and take the chairlift back to the car park. I was enjoying the fresh air and exercise though, so after absorbing the views, I took the trail back down again. Even by the mid-afternoon the shadows were long over the hillside and it didn’t take long to feel a little chilly on the descent.

The Canterbury Museum in the city has a changing exhibit to complement the fixed exhibit halls that are permanently on display. That winter they were running a temporary exhibit called Squawkzilla and the Giants, which was about some of the pre-historic animals that used to live on New Zealand. It was a good excuse to take a walk as I parked in the Botanic Garden car park, and walked through the gardens to visit the museum. As a country of parrots and penguins, it was incredible to see the full-scale models of some giant birds that used to roam the country, including a prehistoric penguin that would have been taller than me. There was also the reminder that crocodiles used to live in New Zealand, which is not something that a lot of people know, although it’s not that surprising given that Australia and New Zealand used to be geologically connected. It had been a while since I’d had a wander round the rest of the museum, so I headed upstairs to have a quick look at the dinosaur skeleton and the Antarctic room. I have an obsession with all things Antarctic, and living in a Gateway City to the southern continent means that there are plenty of local links to historic explorations down south, which are on display on the upper floor of the museum.

Taking advantage of a dry winter day, I took a walk along the bank of the Avon river for a bit, circling the edge of Hagley Park, and heading out towards Mona Vale, a publicly accessible manicured garden that was still looking pretty despite the many bare trees. I rarely visit here, but always enjoy the view when I do, and it’s such a short walk from Hagley Park that it makes a nice detour when walking the perimeter of North Hagley. Back at Victoria Lake, even the weeping willows, one of my favourite trees here, were joining in the autumnal colours, having faded from their dynamic green to an off-yellow.

 

I’d worked up a bit of body heat on the go, and had stripped off my body warmer quite early on. As I returned to my car, I was horrified to discover that my car key had fallen out the pocket as it had been suspended upside down while slung over my arm. I’d done such a long walk it could have been anywhere, but I hoped it had fallen out soon after taking it off in the museum. But nobody had handed it in when I enquired, so I was forced to start retracing my steps of my entire walk to try and find it. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in a shadowy part of the Squawkzilla exhibit, almost at the feet of a giant parrot. It would have been easy to overlook by most people visiting the exhibit, but just able to be spotted with my staring intently at the floor. That was nearly an expensive outing to what was otherwise a free day in the city.

Things took an undesired turn in June 2020 when I experienced the worst pain I’ve ever had. My back has caused me intermittent pain since 2014, and I’ve had a few flare ups of pain of varying severities over the years since that first one. This time round just simple movements had me crying in pain, and I couldn’t even stand up, being forced to crawl on my hands and knees for days on end. A scary experience involving numbness of one of my feet resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and an eventual concoction of medications to keep me comfortable. I’ve never been on so many drugs in my whole life, and I didn’t like it. Eventually an MRI image confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis of a slipped disc, but following the support of a fantastic physiotherapist, I discovered the concept of neuropathic pain syndrome, and a mental health approach that rapidly got me off pain medications and started to allow me to get moving again.

 

It was tentative at first, starting off with walking on the flat and making use of city events. In early July, a light festival was run in alignment with Matariki, the Maori New Year which marks the rising of the Pleiades star cluster. Dotted around the streets and river bank a series of projections and animated lights lit up parts of the city, making use of river reflections and office gable ends to provide large scale images. The city typically has an annual event of some likeness to this and they always draw a crowd, especially as they are free. It is the closest thing we have to the Christmas light displays that would normally herald the mid-winter festivities in the Northern Hemisphere where I lived most of my life.

 

Aside from repeat trips to the beach, by the end of July I was ready to take on a local hike. Many years prior I’d taken the Kaituna Valley route up to Packhorse Hut, and this time I wanted to walk there from Gebbies Pass. It was sunny but the sun was so low that long shadows kept large sections of the track out of the sun’s warmth, meaning muddy and frosty patches abounded. A low mist hugged the side of the Port Hills as the track followed the logging road for the lower section of the hike. It takes a while to do much climbing, winding between sheep paddocks and forested sections where I unfortunately slipped on mud and went flying. The one side of my lower body was covered in mud but I wasn’t going to turn back. Finally the track starts to slog up the hillside, first within the forest, then exposed to reach under some tall rocky bluffs. It was a relatively busy trail and there were several other people milling around at the hut enjoying the view. Packhorse Hut is bookable under the Department of Conservation’s booking system, and it’s popular with families as an introduction to overnight hikes with kids. It’s a lovely hut with a lovely prospect, and well worth a visit, even just for a picnic.

 

The next temporary exhibit at the Canterbury Museum also caught my interest. In August 2020, it was about the moon, including a giant sphere suspended from the ceiling which had high resolution imagery of the moon projected onto it, mimicking an up-close view of this celestial body. I intermittently try to take photos of the moon myself, and sometimes get the settings on my DSLR camera to work with me, but its inconsistent, and more often than not, I get an overexposed or blurry image. I’m a science geek at heart, so I love a lot of the natural history and exploration-based exhibits, and I was really impressed by the imagery of the moon on display. A decade on since I emigrated, I really struggle to remember how the moon looked from the Northern Hemisphere. Its Southern Hemisphere facade is just so familiar to me now, and it will be such a novelty to see its alternate image whenever I get back to Scotland.

 

Although still winter, the second-half of August started to hint at the coming of spring. I was supposed to be in Europe enjoying a fantastic 6-wk multi-country adventure but like many others, COVID had me grounded and months of battle to get my money back ensued. My back was coming along well, and my mental health was improving with it, so the last few weeks of winter saw me getting out and about as much as I could. This time round at New Brighton beach, the ice cream truck had returned, and like my memories of life in Aberdeen, Scotland, buying the first ’99’ ice cream of the season is always a sure sign that warmer and longer days are coming. At that time I had no idea when international travel would re-commence, so instead I simply stood at the end of the pier staring out onto the calm blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, daydreaming of foreign lands.

For a different view of the Pacific Ocean, I utilised my annual pass to take a jaunt up the gondola to Mt Cavendish. I come up here time and time again, sometimes under my own steam via the Bridle Path, and sometimes if I’m short on time or lazy, via the power of the gondola. The view never gets old, and I can’t help take the same photos of the same view every time. It’s a great place to grab a coffee also, a financially bad habit that I’ve only more recently got on top of. The tips of the Southern Alps were covered in snow, but everywhere else looked green and fresh, another sign of the seasonal change to come. In the city though, there was still a quietness about the place.

 

A few of my work colleagues and I decided to head out to Orana Wildlife Park just outside of the city. I hadn’t been there since the year after I moved to Christchurch. I’m not a massive fan of zoos or wildlife parks as I find many of them struggle financially to create a space stimulating enough and appropriate for some of their inmates. This particular park had spent a lot of money creating a new exhibit space for some great apes amid a lot of promotion since I’d last visited. They weren’t the only new arrivals, as I found some Tasmanian Devils, my favourite Australian marsupial, had also taken up residence. But overall, the park just seemed sad. Some enclosures were empty, others looked in need of major upgrade, and even the swanky new ape house contained one of the most depressed-looking gorillas I’ve ever seen. The only fun part of the trip was doing the short zipline and taking comical photos of the giraffes eating, but otherwise I left rather jaded. Thankfully though, spring was soon to burst into bloom, and a brand new adventure awaited.

Escape to Otago

For weeks I was stuck in a triangle of home, work, and the supermarket. When New Zealand’s Government declared a nationwide lockdown in March 2020, I continued to work through as an essential worker, but outwith my work hours, like the rest of the country, I left home only to do a weekly shop or to go for a brief walk or bike ride around my neighbourhood. It was a strange 5 weeks. At first, we were granted movement within our region, and I was quick to include the coast in my off-day wanderings, enjoying the sunshine on New Brighton beach, and heading up onto the Port Hills to enjoy the views over Lyttelton Harbour. I even managed to find a trail that I hadn’t walked before. Being autumn, the light was low and it created a beautiful pale blue colour in the water and the sky. It was a novelty to see some wildlife too.

 

By mid-May, we were allowed to travel out of our region, and I was quick to book an Air BnB in Oamaru, Otago. A 3hr drive away, it was enough of an adventure for a weekend away without feeling like we were flouting any rules, and it felt great to get away from what had felt like a box for the last few months. The hillside to the west of Oamaru was creating a long shadow over the town when we arrived, and there was a late autumn chill in the air. We took a walk down to the harbour which still had some sunlight on it, before wandering through the deserted streets of the historic precinct nearby. As the sun set, the sky turned through pinks and purples before darkness fell.

 

For the first time in months, we went out for dinner. 15mins north of Oamaru is Riverstone Kitchen, a lovely little restaurant/cafe in the complex in front of Riverstone Castle, one of only 2 castles in New Zealand (and being Scottish, I use the term ‘castle’ here loosely). Despite the socially-distanced table placements and the lack of tourists, it felt almost normal to be eating out for dinner on a Saturday night.

The sun was shining the next morning but there was no doubting the time of year with the temperature staying low. We had a lovely view over the harbour from the balcony of the Air Bnb but there wasn’t going to be any sitting out on it that late in the season. We found a spot for breakfast in the historic precinct before jumping in the car and heading down the coast. Otago has some great wildlife viewing spots and I’m always keen to seek them out whenever I have enough time in this region. About 40mins south of Oamaru is the turnoff for Shag Point, a small community of baches hugging the coastline where it juts out into the Pacific Ocean. Where the road ends is a lookout and fur seal colony.

You can often smell fur seals before you see them. Most of them were fast asleep on the rocks so there wasn’t a lot of activity to draw attention. They stand out against the rocks better when they’re still wet from the ocean, but when they dry off they go pale and can often be overlooked from a distance when they’re snoozing and still. But as we walked around the coast, there were plenty to see, and the sea was calm by our sides, gently swelling to and from the rocks nearby. As my gaze moved offshore to some gulls and shags that were draped across some outlying rocks, I spotted some people fishing from a dinghy. It felt like a normal weekend day in New Zealand.

One of Otago’s most known attractions is Moeraki Boulders, a geological anomaly where perfectly spherical boulders emerge from the cliffs under the erosive powers of wind and sea. I remember the first time I visited them in 2012 there were certainly a few other people around, but in the years that followed, like elsewhere in the country, tourism numbers had soared to levels that in my opinion, were a detriment to many sites like this one. The tourism sector has taken a big hit thanks to the pandemic and many people have lost their livelihoods. It is a sad time for many, but I have to admit that I haven’t missed the crowds at all. As much as I know that the economy needs those foreign dollars, I’m not looking forward to see the influx return. We certainly didn’t have the place to ourselves on this day, but it was respectably quiet and I was able to enjoy exploring the boulders and marvelling how they’d changed in the 8 years since I’d first visited.

 

The boulders are quite concentrated in one area of the beach, but the beach itself has a lovely prospect out onto the Pacific Ocean and it’s a nice place to take a stroll even without the boulders. At the southern end the coast juts out at Moeraki, a small settlement with a fishing hub, a plethora of holiday baches, and a great pub to stop for a meal. It’s also where the road cuts off to Katiki Point where a lighthouse stands proudly at the top of a spit of a land jutting south. The lighthouse is not open to the public, but it marks the start of a track down to Katiki Point Reserve which is a must visit in the hours leading up to sunset. The gate closes and is locked at a set time each day, so it’s important to check this in advance, but the reason for going is the guaranteed sightings of hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin, one of the rarest penguin species in the world and endemic to New Zealand.

The track follows the spit of land, remaining on its ridge, so you look down on the beach where the penguins come ashore. I’ve seen hoiho in several spots in Otago, but this is the closest I’ve been to them. A fence does separate the track from where the penguins are but that didn’t stop them jumping up the hillside to come closer to the band of people that were sitting on the slope watching them with glee. Further along the spit, the penguins were replaced by fur seals, gulls and shags. One or two fur seals seemed to share the penguins’ spot, but otherwise there did seem to be quite segregated areas for the different species to haul up out of the sea. Where they did overlap, there was often a loud bit of drama as the young seals chased the penguins or the penguins tried to stand up to the fur seals. Even just watching the interactions between the various penguins was like watching a soap opera. I could have stayed there till darkness, but the gate locking meant we all eventually had to head back to the car park and leave them to their own lives.

 

There was still enough daylight on our return to Oamaru that we took a walk along the perimeter of Friendly Bay past Sumpter Wharf. With the lowering of the sun ahead of sunset, the wharf was crammed full of spotted shags and gulls getting settled to roost for the night. It was incredible how many of them there were and there was a constant influx and occasional outflux of birds joining and leaving the throng. Like the night before, the sky turned pink and purple as sunset became dusk signalling time to go and grab some dinner.

 

I have to admit that one of my favourite things about not working Mondays is seeing most other people head into work when I know I don’t have to. We grabbed breakfast at a cafe not far from where we had stayed, and I smiled when I was presented with my coffee which had the words Good Morning on it written in chocolate syrup. I might not have needed to go to work, but we still had to head back to Christchurch that day. I wasn’t in charge of driving but I was allowed to dictate the route home, so rather than just heading straight up State Highway 1 and being home in a matter of hours, I chose to direct us on a detour to Elephant Rocks which I had discovered on a weekend away in the Waitaki Valley the previous autumn.

It was a bit of a convoluted route to get there, but although they don’t quite have the grandeur of Castle Hill in Canterbury, they’re still a pretty neat place to explore. On private land, they are publicly accessible but may be grazed by stock at times so there’s often a lot of dung around the place. There is also a pretty nice view across the nearby farm which is framed by some Otago hills and some taller peaks which had a light dust of snow on their tops. There is such a variety of shapes with a mixture of domes and wind-blasted exposed sides. There were a few other people there, but these rocks are so off the main roads and away from the typical tourist routes that they are quiet in comparison to their northern equivalents.

 

After snaking back and forward among them, it was time to head back to the car and start heading home. Although my favourite part of Otago is the Otago Peninsula, Oamaru and the nearby coast is a great spot for geology and wildlife. Having not stopped-off there in a long time, little did I know I’d end up passing through here again and again and again over the next 12 months.