MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “New Zealand”

Family Time

A couple of weeks after returning from an epic 35 days in Australia, I was overcome with the worst bout of anxiety I’ve ever had. This wasn’t the same as the post-holiday blues, although the addition of that certainly wouldn’t have helped, but rather a condition I’ve been living with for a couple of years now. I struggled through week after week, but I was particularly glad to have something in the future to look forward to. A couple of months after my return home I found myself back at Christchurch International Airport, this time to pick someone up, rather than to head off abroad myself. After over 5.5 years living in New Zealand, I was excited to have one of my brothers fly over to visit. He is the first of my family to come and see the place I now call home. It was a gorgeous warm, sunny November Saturday when he touched down and I was eager to whisk him out the airport and get him out and about.

I know well the importance of adjusting to the local time zone, so being mid-afternoon, I was keen to keep him active for a good few hours before letting him wind down for the night, so we headed on a drive out to the eastern suburb of Sumner for a walk along the promenade. It is one of my favourite low intensity walks to do on a nice day and it was nice and easy to let my brother stretch his legs after being cramped up in a plane for hours on end. At the far end of the promenade under the hillside that leads to Taylors Mistake, he was able to partake in his first experience of Tip Top ice cream from the hole in the wall whilst I enjoyed an iced coffee from the cafe next door. After walking the length of the promenade we found ourselves at Cave Rock. The tide was too far in to let us walk through the cave so instead my brother and I climbed up the steps to the top of the rock. For all my visits to Sumner, I’d never actually been up here. It had been fenced off for some time following the earthquakes and I hadn’t really paid attention to the fact that the fencing had gone. It was a great view along both aspects of the beach.

 

We drove home via Evans Pass Road, snaking up the Port Hills out the back of Sumner, detouring to the car park at Godley Head. This is the end of the Taylors Mistake walk, another great walk to do in the area, and even from the car park itself, there was a great view across the blue shimmering waters of the mouth of Lyttelton harbour. The grass of the surrounding hillsides was still green ahead of the browning that occurs every year in the dry summer months. Following Summit Road we followed the contours of the hillside before cutting down Mount Pleasant Road and heading back home. I made home-made pizzas which were cooked on the bbq and enjoyed outside with a cold drink in the lowering sunshine, something that was not the norm for my brother, and by 9pm he’d dozed off on the couch.

 

The next day was another sunny day, and my brother decided to spend the day exploring the city that I call home. My partner and I took him first up to the Cashmere Hills suburb where he could get an overview of the city below him. As usual, the distant Southern Alps were shrouded by haze on the horizon, but the city below was very clear and we could point out various places to him. From there, we headed into the city centre to go exploring. I’ve very much taken the city to heart. Although I moved here in the year following the destructive earthquakes and therefore did not know what it was like before, I’ve seen it change and adapt over the years and I’ve watched it push through the hardship and start to rebuild again. When I first moved to Christchurch, the city centre was fenced off and guarded by the army just 1 street away from where I lived at the time. As the months and years passed, bit by bit the fences went down, buildings were felled and new ones have sprouted up in their place. Whilst it’s still not fully functional, the city has really come on so far, and I feel that you can only really appreciate the progress and gains if you’ve lived through all that. I continue to hear and read about fly-in, fly-out tourists that just don’t rate the place and I can appreciate that a single snapshot of the city in time might not sell it that well. But I for one wouldn’t be anywhere else right now, and I was determined to show the place off to my brother.

 

My partner and I have annual passes for the trams and it seemed only right to take a tram at least for some of the route, so cutting through the colourful New Regent Street, we jumped on at Cathedral Junction and looped past the Cathedral, round the river bank and along Cashel Street to High Street. We got off here and wandered down past some street art to the junction where there is a video arcade game on the side of the Vodafone building. There’s always somebody playing it whenever I pass so I was a little excited to discover it vacant when we got there and duly jumped on to have a go. After my partner had a go, I was a little saddened to see they had removed the retro tennis game from the nearby pedestrian crossing which had been another quirky thing in the city. Heading back towards Cashel Street we cut up to Cathedral Square, where my brother could witness the sad state of the abandoned cathedral. Even now in 2018, the cathedral remains in ongoing limbo, a sad eye-sore that blots the regenerating landscape around it.

 

We jumped back on the tram to head along Worcester Boulevard, jumping off outside the Art Gallery. The nearby cafes were brimming with people sitting out enjoying the sunshine and we too were getting a little hungry. We grabbed lunch at Bunsen, one of so many great cafes in the city and wandered round the quadrangles of the historic Arts Centre before moving on to the Botanic Gardens. My partner headed home but my brother and I continued our wanderings, following the river and cutting in and out of the various garden zones where the flowers were blooming well in the spring weather. I love the gardens in spring time when everything looks at its best and there were plenty of people punting or kayaking along the river.

 

After admiring the plant life for a while and watching the ducks by the river bank, we followed the river downstream past the memorial wall that lists the names of all who perished in the 2011 earthquake. Beyond there, we wandered along Cashel Street via the Re:Start container mall which has since been removed to make way for an indoor market. The containers were one of the first retail stores to open in the city post-earthquake and they became a symbol of the defiance of the city as well as a quirky tourist attraction and retail zone. They moved twice across differing parts of Cashel Street before ending up by the Bridge of Remembrance. It was sad to see them go some months after my brother’s visit, but I can’t wait for their replacement.

 

Cutting up past New Regent Street again we stopped for a refreshment then headed past the Margaret Mahy playground and down to the Transitional (Cardboard) Cathedral and beyond to the white chairs that represent everyone who died in the 2011 earthquake. There had been some strong winds recently and several of the chairs had been blown over which I set about fixing whilst my brother looked around. Then, with aching feet from walking all day, we cut back to the bus exchange which is very similar to the one in our home city of Glasgow, before walking out of the city and meandering home. With the sun still out in force, it was another chance to enjoy sitting out in the garden for the evening. Ahead of us was a few more days in Canterbury before setting off on a South Island road trip.

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Christchurch Short Walks

It’s been a while since I’ve written about my home city, Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. Following the destructive earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, so much has changed, and whilst slow at first, the transformation of the Garden City feels like it has accelerated of late. When I first moved to Christchurch in February 2012, the city centre was fenced off and guarded by the army, just 1 street away from where I ended up living. Fast forward 6 years, and the city centre is once again open for business with an overwhelming number of eateries and bars opening up at a regular rate. The retail heart of the city is well on its way to being complete, and following shortly are entertainment zones, and further in the future, the new sports facilities. But there’s more to see here than just the city itself, with a plethora of short walks in the region.

 

 

CHRISTCHURCH CITY CENTRE

Ease of access: Pick your city car park or bus in to the central bus terminal

Time: As little or as long as you want, with plenty of places to eat and drink to break up the walk

The city centre walk can be tailored to what you want to focus on – street art, shopping, city highlights, or city parks are a few examples. The city centre is demarcated by the four avenues: Deans Avenue to the west, Bealey Avenue to the north, Fitzgerald Avenue to the east, and Moorhouse Avenue to the south. From the Bus Interchange, cross Litchfield Street and cut through the Crossings to reach Cashel Street and follow this west through the retail zone to the Bridge of Remembrance on the Avon river. Follow the river south past the Canterbury Earthquake National Memorial, and continue along the river bank to the Punting on the Avon huts and into the beautiful Botanic Gardens. Wander here to your heart’s content, exploring North Hagley Park too if desired, then exiting the Botanic Gardens via the Canterbury Museum entrance and following Worcester Boulevard past the Arts Centre and Christchurch Art Gallery before crossing back over the Avon River and arriving at Cathedral Square. From here, cut up through Cathedral Junction to the colourful New Regent Street then turn east to reach the Margaret Mahy Family Playground. Past here at the City Mini Golf, head south to Latimer Square, and beyond to the Transitional Cardboard Cathedral, and south past here the collection of white chairs that represents everyone who died in the 2011 earthquake. Then either cut down to Tuam Street to explore the popular Little High Eatery or C1 cafe, or cut along Litchfield Street to Dux Central before returning to the Bus Interchange.

 

HAGLEY PARK & THE BOTANICAL GARDENS

Ease of access: Walk from the city centre car parks or the central bus terminal; Catch the city tram and alight at stop 12; take bus 17 and alight at Christ’s College

Time: As little or as long as you want, especially on a sunny day when a bit of sunbathing in the gardens is a great way to pass some time

Enter North Hagley Park at the corner of Rolleston Avenue and Armagh Street and follow the river bank path north to Harper Avenue where the path turns west through the tall trees at the park margin. In spring, this avenue is lined with beautiful blooming cherry blossoms. At Deans Avenue, continue through the trees heading south until the park ends at Riccarton Avenue. Rather than sticking to the road, take the path cutting diagonally back through the park, past the rugby pitches and croquet lawns to Victoria Lake. From here, cut round the lake in either direction to the bridge across the Avon river next to the car park. Now in the Botanical Gardens, wander around as much or as little of the paths as desired before returning to Rolleston Avenue via any of the exits.

 

TRAVIS WETLAND NATURE HERITAGE PARK

Ease of access: The main car park is on the eastern side, accessed from the junction of Mairehau Road and Beach Road, although there is off-street parking also available on the northern aspect; Catch bus 60 and alight on Travis Road then walk the Clarevale Loop walkway to reach the wetlands from the south; Catch bus O and alight on Mairehau Road on the northern aspect of the wetlands

Time: The circuit walk takes about an hour without stopping, but with plenty of birdlife to spot, it’s worth meandering at a slow pace

From the main car park, follow the track south and stop in at the bird hide to watch the comings and goings of the birds. As you head south, the main water course will remain on your right and soon the wetland pastures open up on the left with a view across to the Port Hills beyond. At the southern end of the path, go through the gate and take the Clarevale Loop walkway west past the houses until a gate returns you to the wetlands where the path turns north, following a boardwalk. At the northern limit, the path continues to loop clockwise back towards the car park.

 

NEW BRIGHTON BEACH

Ease of access: There are plenty of parking options along the length of Marine Parade with beach access at staggered intervals; New Brighton is served by buses 60, 135, and Y

Time: Walk as much or as little of this 18km stretch of beach as desired

My favourite route is to head out first on New Brighton pier, the 300 metre long structure that gives a good view point along the beach to the north and the south. Then from the car park just south of the library, a dune walk heads south towards the South Brighton Surf Life Saving Club where it cuts down to the beach. The dune walk restarts beyond the nearby reserve, reaching almost all the way to the spit, or the beach can be followed instead. Depending on the tide, the Shag Pile rocks across the estuary mouth can look deceptively within reach, but the current is strong here and is too dangerous to cross. Return to the pier by the beach.

 

SUMNER PROMENADE

Ease of access: The drive east through Redcliffs and Moncks Bay and round the coast can occasionally be a bit of a bottleneck on sunny summer’s days, and parking by the waterfront in Sumner can also be at a premium on the weekends; Sumner is served by bus P

Time: Walk as much or as little of the beach as you want

The beach is divided into the Sumner sand bar which has the Shag Pile rocks and estuary mouth to the west and Cave Rock to the east; and Scarborough beach which is backed by the promenade and Scarborough Park. Scarborough beach is completely under water at high tide, as is the cave, but at low tide, the cave can be walked through from one side to the other, and a path up to the summit of Cave Rock offers a great panorama along the beach in both directions.

 

TAYLORS MISTAKE/GODLEY HEAD

Ease of access: Drive through Sumner to the east, then wind up and over the hill to Taylors Mistake on the other side. The road ends at the car park behind the beach which can be packed to the seams on weekends. There is no public transport to Taylors Mistake

Time: The full circuit takes about 3 hours and is fully exposed to the elements. Water and sun cream is strongly advised.

From the car park, enter the field to the east or cut down to the beach and head towards the copse of trees where the walkway begins. It follows the contours of the coast, gaining and losing altitude as it goes. Eventually it snakes up towards an old World War II battery and from here it passes the entrance of a Department of Conservation campsite before cutting back to the coast at the mouth of Lyttelton Harbour, where it passes more WWII war relics. Finally it ends at a car park on Summit Road. Returning to Taylors Mistake can be by retracing your steps, or cross Summit Road and take the track directly opposite the car park or follow the Anaconda track, a shared walking/biking track that cuts across the headland taking a slightly more direct route back to Taylors Mistake.

 

BRIDLE PATH

Ease of access: Can be walked from Ferrymead to Lyttelton or vice versa – a small car park is close to the base of the Christchurch Gondola, or park in Lyttelton; A shuttle bus to the Christchurch Gondola leaves from outside the Canterbury Museum in the city centre; Bus 28 serves both the Christchurch Gondola car park as well as Lyttelton

Time: A reasonably fit person can walk from one side of the hill to another in about 60 – 90 minutes. The route is steep and uneven under foot.

It’s a steep and winding slog up the hill regardless of the direction that you walk it. The view north is over the estuary and the eastern suburbs of the city with the Southern Alps on the horizon. The view south is over Lyttelton and across the harbour to the Banks Peninsula. At the top of the Port Hills, the track reaches Summit Road which is closed to traffic at this section. A side trip from here is to head up to the building at the top of the Gondola where there is a cafe and viewing deck. Return the same way or catch the bus back.

 

RAPAKI TRACK

Ease of access: In the suburb of Huntsbury, Rapaki Road is reached from Centaurus Road. Parking is up this narrow dead-end road which can get quite crowded; Bus 145 passes by the bottom of Rapaki Road

Time: Depending on fitness and time spent admiring the summit view, expect to take about 90 minutes return

From the top end of Rapaki Road, the track cuts through a small copse of trees before breaking out into Mount Vernon Park, where for the rest of the walk it is completely exposed to the elements as it winds its way up the side of a valley. This is a very popular walk and is shared use between walkers and bikers which can actually make it feel a little crowded at times. With an initial incline, the middle section is flat before the final push up the hill takes you to summit road where the view on the far side is down over Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour. Return via the same route.

 

QUAIL ISLAND

Ease of access: Reached by Black Cats ferry from Lyttelton (seasonal). Lyttelton is reached by car via the tunnel through the Port Hills from the city or via the Governor’s Bay road; Lyttelton is served by bus 28

Time: The circuit walk is listed by the Department of Conservation as 2.5hrs but there is a shorter loop or it’s just a short walk from the ferry jetty to a swimming bay and picnic spot

The circuit walk provides an overview of the island’s former uses with old stables, abandoned machinery and old quarries in evidence. There are the shells of scuppered ships by the coast and a stunning view of the surrounding harbour and hillsides of the Port Hills to the south and Banks Peninsula to the north. There are swimming beaches on the northern side and a family-friendly picnic spot close to the ferry jetty.

 

CRATER RIM WALKWAY

Ease of access: Depending on section to be walked, access to Summit Road is via Evans Pass Road or Dyers Pass Road from the city side, Dyers Pass Road from the Lyttelton side or Gebbies Pass Road. There are a variety of pull-ins or basic car parks along the road. Various walking trails from the suburbs lead up to Summit Road. There is no direct public transport access, although it can be reached via the Christchurch Gondola which is serviced by a shuttle bus and bus 28

Time: To walk the full length of the crater rim (about 20km one-way) would take all day, but it is easily divided into a multitude of short sections of varying lengths

The views from the Crater Rim Walkway are stunning on a clear day. To the north are the Southern Alps which stand tall behind the city of Christchurch. On the other side is Lyttelton harbour and Banks Peninsula and towards Gebbies Pass it is possible to see Lake Ellesmere. The Bridle Path, Godley Head track and Rapaki track all lead up to the Crater Rim walkway. A favourite section to consider is between the Sign of the Kiwi and the Sign of the Bellbird, two resthouses that sit by Summit Road. Another good spot is around Gibraltar rock.

Wildlife of New Zealand

When most people think of New Zealand, they think of grand vistas, towering mountains, reflective lakes and sweeping glaciers. But whilst it wasn’t top of my considerations when I first moved here 5.5 years ago, I’ve discovered that it is a country brimming with wildlife too, many of which is endemic to (can only be found in) New Zealand. The country has long flaunted its clean, green image, and whilst there are certainly those who would argue the truth in that, there is certainly no denying that this country is brimming with countryside, nature areas and untouched wilderness. Coming from the UK where every inch of the place has been conquered, owned and settled on, I still find it astounding that there are parts of New Zealand where people just haven’t and can’t set foot. Vast hectares of the southwest are like a jungle and many of the southern fjords remain accessible only by boat.

With no native land mammals, the native birds grew flightless, and in some cases large. Although the giant Moa and its hunter the giant Haast’s Eagle, have long since been made extinct by the arrival of man, New Zealand still remains an island nation of flightless and ground nesting birds. Unfortunately, the accidental and deliberate introduction of mammals and pest species has left some species extinct, and others critically endangered, but find the right piece of forest and the cacophany of birdlife in the canopy brings goosebumps. It is a bird enthusiast’s paradise here, and nowhere else in the world is there an alpine parrot, who’s cheeky antics are always a joy to watch.

With mile after mile of coastline, the seas around New Zealand are breeming with incredibly diverse marine life from the smallest plankton to some of the largest marine mammals in the world. On land, sea and air, there is always something to see if you know where to look.

MAMMALS

Sperm Whale

These behemoths are most consistently spotted off the coast of Kaikoura in the South Island. The 1200m deep Kaikoura Canyon just 500m off shore leads out into the Hikurangi Trench, a 3000m submarine canyon that skirts north past the North Island. This depth houses a submarine world that includes giant squid, the favoured diet of the 56-ton male sperm whales that reside here. Viewed either by plane where the whole body can be appreciated, or by boat where you can get up close to watch them idle at the surface then dive to the depths.

 

Bryde’s Whale

Similar in size and shape to the Minke whale, the best place to see these shy whales is the Hauraki Gulf near Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island.

 

Bottlenose Dolphin

These large dolphins are best spotted in the Hauraki Gulf and around the Bay of Islands in the North Island.

 

Dusky Dolphin

These playful and acrobatic dolphins are smaller than the bottlenose dolphin. Best spotted off the Kaikoura coastline in the South Island. Although difficult to spot in this photo, there are two dorsal fins poking up in this photograph.

 

Hector’s Dolphin

Like the almost identical Maui’s Dolphin, these are the smallest and rarest dolphin in the world. They are also unusual in having a rounded dorsal fin unlike other dolphins that have a pointed fin. They are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world. The most consistent place to spot them is off the coast of Banks Peninsula to the east of Christchurch, particularly around Akaroa, although they can be seen up and down the eastern coast of the South Island.

 

New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)

Although they look fat and uncoordinated on land, they are acrobats and outstanding hunters in the water. Recovering from years of historical hunting following the habitation of New Zealand, they are abundantly spotted up and down the coastline of the South Island. Guaranteed places to spot them are the coastline of Kaikoura Peninsula, Banks Peninsula near Akaroa, Cape Foulwind near Westport and the outer coastline of both Milford and Doubtful Sounds in Fiordland.

New Zealand Fur Seal

 

European Rabbit

One of many deliberately introduced pest species, these non-native rabbits and hares are most easily spotted in open pastures. The Ministry of Primary Industries estimate their presence in New Zealand results in $50M of lost production and so there are multiple methods in place to reduce their numbers.

 

BIRDS

Kea

The world’s only alpine parrot, these immensely intelligent and fascinating birds are a much-loved sighting in the mountains of the South Island where they are endemic. They have easily become my favourite bird since moving to New Zealand. The most consistent place to spot them is around Arthur’s Pass on the west coast road in the Southern Alps. As they associate humans with both food and toys, they are more than happy to come right up to you, and have been known to work in mobs as decoys whilst they steal your belongings.

 

North Island Kākā

This vulnerable species is another endemic parrot species, living at lower altitudes than the Kea, in low-mid altitude forests. Infrequently spotted in wilderness areas, the Zealandia Sanctuary in the capital city of Wellington offers near-guaranteed sightings of these playful birds.

 

New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)

The only falcon in New Zealand, they are more commonly spotted in the South Island, especially around bush or the high country. This particular bird was one of two that kept me company at the summit of Roys Peak by Wanaka.

 

Tui

Another endemic bird, they have a beautiful song which is a lovely accompaniment to a woodland walk. With their puffy white bib they have a distinctive look, and are more easily spotted in the North Island, although they are present in the South Island albeit to a lesser degree.

 

Bellbird (Korimako)

For me, this endemic bird has the most beautiful song of all the forest dwellers of New Zealand. I love listening to them when I’m out hiking in the bush. Commonly spotted in the woodlands of both islands.

 

House Sparrow

One of many introduced bird species, I’m used to these birds from growing up in Scotland, but I’ve been struck by how much bolder the New Zealand descendants are. Commonly spotted in rural and urban zones, they are a regular visitor to outdoor cafe tables in the city as they brazenly look for wayward crumbs.

 

Song Thrush

Another introduced species, these can be spotted in woodland areas and occasionally urban gardens.

 

New Zealand Fantail

These playful little birds love flitting through the trees as you walk by. The more common variety has a grey back and yellow belly, but there is also a colour morph in the South Island which is black.

 

North Island Saddleback

Even if you can’t see these birds, boy do you know if they’re around: they’re an incredibly noisy bird. An endemic species, they have seen a local resurgence at the Zealandia Sanctuary in Wellington after having previously been extinct on the mainland.

 

Yellowhammer

Introduced from Europe, this pretty little bird loves nothing more than a tree to perch on near open land to sing its song from.

 

Eurasian Blackbird

Introduced in the second half of the 19th century, the blackbird is now the most widely distributed bird in the country and is commonly seen in rural and urban areas.

 

Chaffinch

Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.

 

North Island Brown Kiwi

The species of bird that New Zealand is probably most globally famous for, these birds are actually very difficult to see in the wild and it is said that most human Kiwis (natives of New Zealand) will never see their avian namesake in the wild during their lifetime. The best chance of seeing a kiwi is actually in Stewart Island where they aren’t so strictly nocturnal. This particular bird was rescued following an injury and is now used for education at a wildlife sanctuary in Northland.

 

California Quail

Introduced as game from North America, they are established in pockets of the North and South Islands and are found fossicking around the undergrowth.

 

Takahē

One of many of New Zealand’s endemic flightless birds, originally there was both a North Island and South Island variety, but the former is extinct. Even the latter was thought to have been lost to history but surviving birds were discovered and thanks to intensive conservation efforts it survives. Most of the population (just 306 in 2016) survives on predator-free offshore islands, but it is possible to see them wandering in Zealandia in Wellington as well as in Te Anau in Fiordland where there is a captive breeding programme.

 

Pūkeko

Known by its Māori name in New Zealand, it is known by the rather less interesting name of Australasian Swamphen in other countries. I fell in love with this bird when I moved to New Zealand and love their comical look and walk. Easily found around wetland areas.

 

Spur-Winged Plover

Like their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these birds are often sighted around wetlands, or pastures. Their call is quite distinctive.

 

Canada Goose

Widespread in the South Island, but localised in patches of the North Island, these large geese are best spotted on grassland close to waterways.

 

Weka

Another one of New Zealand’s flightless birds, I’ve often overheard tourists confusing these guys for kiwi. Spotted in a variety of habitats from woodland to the coast, mainly in the South Island.

 

Pied Stilt

A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.

 

White-Faced Heron

First spotted in the 1940s, these are a very common heron spotted nationwide around waterways.

 

Black Swan

Spending most of my life in Scotland, I grew up with white swans. Initially a novelty seeing black swans, they’ve quickly become my norm here. Evident in waterways in both the North and South Island.

 

Grey Teal

The largest concentration of these ducks is Canterbury in the South Island although they can be found in the North Island also.

 

Mallard

Commonly spotted in urban rivers and lakes as much as in rural regions, and present in both the North and South Islands. One of the game species allowed to be hunted during the shooting season. Hunting is very popular here with an estimated 500,000 mallards and hybrids shot every year.

 

Paradise Shelduck

Another of New Zealand’s endemic birds, I think they have the cutest ducklings of any duck species I know. Widely visible nationwide, including in urban parks. The fluffy ducklings are a common sight in spring in Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens.

 

Blue Duck (Whio)

If you see one of these, you are very lucky. Endemic to New Zealand they are Nationally Endangered due to both predation from introduced mammals and competition for resources. They have a preference for high quality water and reside in very small geographic pockets. I was lucky enough to spot this solitary whio in Tongariro National Park.

 

New Zealand Scaup

Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.

 

Variable Oyster Catcher

Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.

 

Pied Shag

Of the 36 species of shag worldwide, 12 of them are found in New Zealand. This species is the most commonly spotted, seen singly or in groups around coastal regions.

 

King Shag

Exceptionally rare (836 were recorded in 2015), these endemic shags only reside in the Marlborough Sounds and specifically on just 4 special rocky sites. They may not look anything special, but to see such a rare bird is a true privilege.

 

Spotted Shag

Another endemic shag species, mainly spotted in the South Island. In this photograph, the spotted shag are behind the king shag.

 

Stewart Island Shag

Another endemic species of shag, generally around the southern parts of the South Island and Stewart Island. There are two colour morphs, both of which are seen in the photograph.

 

Little Blue Penguin

The smallest species of penguin, these are the same as Fairy Penguins in Australia. The outer reach of Akaroa harbour on Banks Peninsula, South Island is one of the more reliable places to spot these little guys, but I also saw one whilst kayaking off the Coromandel Peninsula in the North Island. Otherwise, there are rescued ones on display at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch, where a home is provided for injured birds that won’t survive in the wild.

 

Fiordland Crested Penguin

An endemic species of penguin, these penguins are localised to the south-west of the South Island and the coast of Stewart Island. Listed as vulnerable, I was lucky enough to see 6 of them swimming as 3 pairs whilst on a nature cruise in Doubtful Sound in Fiordland National Park.

 

Southern Black-backed Gull

Similar to their Northern Hemisphere counterpart, these are a common sighting around New Zealand’s coastal regions. Bigger than the other gulls they can be a bit of a bully.

 

Red-billed Gull

The most common gull sighting around the country, they are easily spotted nationwide.

 

Southern Royal Albatross

One of the two largest species of Albatross in the world, seeing these large birds is an awesome sight. Spending the vast majority of their life at sea, they come to land only to breed. Most of the world’s breeding sites are on offshore and uninhabited islands, but on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin in the South Island, it is possible to visit the only mainland breeding colony in the world.

 

Australasian Gannet

Their Northern Hemisphere counterpart has always been my favourite seabird growing up in Scotland. Not as commonly spotted as in my native land, the best place to see them is Cape Kidnappers to the east of Napier in the North Island. Here there are 3 colonies that nest in the breeding season.

 

REPTILES

Tuatara

New Zealand’s endemic reptile, tuatara are the only surviving lizard of their order, which started 200 million years ago. In other words, there were tuatara around when the dinosaurs existed. They are exceptionally difficult to spot in the wild and are under threat from predators. Most people’s best bet of seeing them is at a zoo, however, Zealandia in Wellington has a small number that live a semi-wild existence, and if you are lucky, you can see them in the undergrowth when visiting there.

 

Green Gecko

There are multiple subspecies of green gecko that are endemic to New Zealand. Due to predation, they are now very rare. Seeing one in the wild would be a sheer fluke, but several wildlife centres have them on display. These guys were at Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch, New Zealand.

 

INSECTS & ARACHNIDS

Chorus Cicada

The sound of thrumming from these abundant endemic insects is one of my favourite sounds of summer. Found nationwide wherever there are trees, they are at their peak in January and February.

 

Brown Cricket

Crickets are a common accompaniment to hikes up mountains where the size and colour of the cricket can vary depending on the altitude.

 

Green Cricket

Smaller than the brown crickets, I have been regularly hit on the face by these as they jump away when I’m out hiking.

 

Squeaking Longhorn Beetle

Another creature endemic to New Zealand, they have long antennae, and are spotted seasonally from spring to autumn.

 

Huhu Beetle

The largest of New Zealand’s endemic beetles, they are capable of flying. They are best spotted in and around forests as their grubs love rotting wood.

 

Cave Weta

Another endemic insect, there are 60 subspecies of cave weta. Despite their name they are often found outside of caves in the forest, but I spotted this large collection down an old mine entrance near Wellington.

 

Stick Insect

Probably one of the hardest insects to spot due to their incredible camouflage, they are actually very abundant throughout New Zealand.

 

Honey Bee

Like many places, these guys are in decline, but due to the market for Manuka honey products, they are often farmed and seen easily in the summer months out and about.

 

Monarch Butterfly

Probably the most striking butterfly, they are found nationwide. I’ve ended up having to handle these loads because my cat’s favourite game in summer is to grab them, bring them inside the house and let them go.

 

Kawakawa Moth

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.

 

Carove’s Giant Dragonfly

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide, although more commonly on the western half.

 

Glowworm

The most beautiful light in the darkness is that created by the larvae that cling to caves and forest walls and light up at night to entice their prey. The most famous caves to see these are those of Waitomo in the North Island, and the glowworm caves near Te Anau in the South Island is another pay-to-enter cave with guaranteed sightings. However, there are many places to spot them for free if you know where to go, just ask the locals. They are hard to photograph unless you are a professional with the equipment to match. These faint twinkling lights were seen at Abbey Caves near Whangarei in Northland.

 

White-tailed Spider

Introduced from Australia, there is a North Island variety and a South Island variety. They are bold spiders that hunt other spiders. They also move quickly and have been known to bite people and pets.

 

AQUATIC/OCEAN LIFE

Cave Lobster

I didn’t even know it was possible to see these in inland caves until I came across one whilst exploring Abbey Caves near Whangarei in the North Island.

 

Crayfish (kōura)

Similar to lobsters, the particular species found around New Zealand are endemic to these waters, with a separate variety between the North and South islands. They are a popular seafood to eat in the country, and the name of the town Kaikoura incorporates the crayfish, translating to ‘eat crayfish’. Best spotted on your dinner plate or if you are a scuba diver.

 

Cockles

Another popular seafood, these are often spotted in the tidal zone on beach walks.

 

Eleven-Armed Sea Star

The largest starfish of New Zealand.

 

Black Coral

Normally growing in deep water due to their preference for darkness, the tannin that leaches into the Fiordland waters creates a false darkness that allows the coral to grow relatively close to the surface. The internal structure is black (hence the name), but they appear white on the outside.

 

Fish

The waters around New Zealand are rife with life, with many fish species to be found if you are a scuba diver or a fisherman.

 

Helicopter Hill

I love the image of hiking through snow under a beautiful blue sky with the yellow orb of the sun shining overhead, but the reality is that getting out into the wilderness in the winter months takes skills that I don’t have. So inevitably, my hiking has a season, and come April it is starting to wind down as the days get noticeably short and the weather turns. Without the northern hemisphere’s luxury of having Christmas and New Year to break up the winter blues, I spend the winter months here counting down till September, the start of spring when I can start thinking about getting back to the mountains. The previous summer I’d managed to tick off a lot of mountains on my wish-list, leaving just a handful within reach of Christchurch still to summit. Unfortunately the weather of the summer just passed fell short and I barely had much opportunity to get into the mountains. So when a lovely April Sunday presented itself, I was keen to get into the Southern Alps and tick one off the list.

It takes about an hour to even reach the mountains from Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, but on the west coast road, State Highway (SH) 73, there are plenty of mountains to choose from. Passing Trig M which I’d hiked the summer before last, I continued for another half hour past the rock feature of Castle Hill, and the lookout at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, before turning in at Craigieburn Forest Park and parking up at the campground. As it turned out, I hadn’t paid much attention to the starting altitude, looking only at the summit and feeling it was a good one to add to the list of mountains >1000m (>3281ft) that I’ve hiked in New Zealand. With the car park at 800m (2624ft), it turns out this was a good cheat hike: the stunning views but without a lot of climbing. I was up and down in 3hrs.

As the sun was noticeably low at the end of April, upon entering the forest at the start of the Mistletoe track, I was plunged into a cold shade on the lee of the mountain. In places some dappled sunshine broke through the trees, but it was almost a little chilly in the shaded sections. Sticking with the Mistletoe track at the track junction, it was a pleasant enough forest walk and there were actually several other people on the trail. Eventually as the track hugged into the cold, shaded flank of Helicopter Hill, it began its zig-zag up the mountainside. Only after gaining about 250m (820ft) did the trees open up to give a hint of the view.

 

Whilst Helicopter Hill’s summit is 1256m (4121ft), it is absolutely dwarfed by most of the mountains that surround it. Looking out at this first view point, I could see over the top of the forest and beyond to the tree-less slopes of the Craigieburn Range that include the Broken River ski field. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue: a gorgeous day to go hiking. Beyond here, there wasn’t much further to go to reach the turn-off to the Helicopter Hill track that leads up to the summit. This junction meets a mountain biking trail and there were lots of bikers out that day too.

 

The whole way up the summit track there was a view to be had in at least one direction if not more. Rocky and loose under foot in places, it was an easily followed path through shrubbery and open vegetation. The peak behind me had a distinctive cone-like summit and as I gained altitude, I could see the buildings of the ski centre in the distance more clearly. I reached the summit just as some of the bikers were leaving and I had it to myself, or so I thought. Some rustling drew my attention to a tree near the summit and I saw a bird of prey sitting majestically at the top. It took to the wing before I could get a photo, and I watched it thermal out of view, leaving me on my own.

 

The view was beautiful. Far below me SH 73 curled through the valley, and the tiny vehicles occasionally glistened as they caught a bit of sun. Many of the surrounding peaks have no name, but there wasn’t a shortage to look at. After enjoying my lunch in the sunshine, I started to head back down the rocky track, passing a group of bikers carrying their bikes up the track. I lost traction in a couple of places underfoot, catching myself before I fell, then before long, I was alerted by some noise behind me to the bikers hurtling down the track towards me. There are many shared hike and bike tracks in New Zealand, but this was probably the most dangerous one I’d been on. The bikers gave no consideration to me hiking the track and I had to keep ducking into a bush to get out their way. Not an always an easy feat when the bush is at the top of a large drop off the mountainside.

 

Back down at the track junction there were even more mountain bikers. None of the hikers I’d met on the Mistletoe Track were anywhere to be seen, but there was a plethora of people out riding that day. To make the hike longer, I chose to return via the Luge track. This stays on a roughly even altitude plane for quite some distance before eventually dropping down the mountainside towards the road that leads up to the ski field. This track though was the main descent for the bikers, so I had to give way time and again as they sped towards and past me. At the bottom, there was a bubbling stream to cross, and out I popped onto the unsealed access road. From here, it was just a matter of following the road down the hill to where I’d parked my car. A much shorter mountain hike than I’m used to, it was a nice autumnal stretch of the legs. A great view for comparatively little effort. What more could you want from a hike?

Autumn Roadie: Napier to Christchurch

I’ve been solo travelling since I was 19 years old, and most of the time I stay in hostels, either in shared dorms or private rooms. Now 34, although sometimes I opt for more comfort and stay in hotels or motels, I still regularly stay in hostels both internationally and domestically. They offer a cornucopia of cultural and social exposure with all sorts of people coming through their doors. I’ve shared rooms with quiet people, loud people, extroverts and introverts, males and females and whilst I’ve had my food stolen from the hostel kitchen, and at times secretly imagined throttling the people who loudly make noise in the small hours of night through the often paper-thin walls, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a hostel, until my stay in Napier in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.

I’d returned late in the evening following an awesome production of Mary Poppins at the city’s theatre, and had been happy to return to an empty dorm. I have no problem sharing but sometimes it’s nice to get a room to your self for the price of a dorm bed. But just as I was getting ready for bed, the door was opened and in came a rather confused lady who was struggling with her bags. We exchanged pleasantries as is expected in a dorm room and I proceeded to get into bed, leaving her to get settled and go to bed herself. But instead of doing so, she proceeded to sit on the chair in the corner of the room with the light on and just stare into the middle of the room saying nothing. After some time of failing to get to sleep with the light on, I eventually enquired if she was okay, and she asked me to get her toothpaste out of her bag. She seemed frail, so I got up to help her but what followed was me having to empty the very bizarre and random contents of her bag to find it, before she asked me to open her suitcase for her. An old case, the lock was jammed and I was unable to help her, which upset her greatly. She sat bereft on the chair and stared into the distance again, but by now after midnight, the reception was closed and there was nothing I could do. Apologising, I went back to bed and lay there, aware of her still sitting and staring before eventually, and finally she made movements to go to bed. After lots of loud coming and going between the room and the bathroom, she finally stripped near naked in the middle of the room, fell onto the bed and was soon snoring very loudly, her dignity barely covered by the duvet. It took some time to get to sleep.

I had an early rise the next morning as I set off for Cape Kidnappers to the east of the city. I’d longed to visit since I’d heard about the place a year or so prior, as it is famous for a large colony of gannets, my favourite ocean bird. There are a few options to visit, and it is recommended to go with a tour guide, however, if you get the tidal times right, it is possible to take a long (19km return) walk along the exposed beach at low tide to reach the colony on foot. An avid hiker and eager to save some money, I opted for the self-guided option. I’d checked in at the tourist information on the promenade and they’d supplied me with the tide timetable. It is a long walk, and the beach is exposed and wild, so it is exceedingly important to follow the locals recommendations. It was a bit of a drive to get there, and after the sunshine the day before, unfortunately it was drizzling and grey. But geared up in my waterproofs, there was no stopping me.

 

The hike begins at the small car park just before the caravan park at the end of the road in Clifton. Cutting through this, it’s then straight onto the beach and there was no-one else around. It felt wild and a little bit scary under the steep cliffs where the waves pushed me high up the beach under the rocks. There was a bit of scrambling involved in places and there were regular streams to cross below waterfalls that cascaded down from the cliffs in places. Away from the tide, the sea was actually quite calm, but the tidal zone felt squally and the outlook under the grey sky was bleak. There are two zones to the Cape Kidnappers colony, and the first to be reached was still a good distance (7.5kms from the starting point) away round several headlands. Half-way to the first colony I was overtaken by a tractor pulling a trailer of tourists, one of the guided options to reach the colonies. It made light work of the tidal zone whereas I was driven high up over rocks in places as the tide seemed in no hurry to retreat.

 

The recommendation is to leave no sooner than 3hrs after high tide, and to set off on the return leg no later than 90mins from low tide. Despite leaving at the correct time, the tide was still high in places, and there were parts of the walk that I didn’t enjoy. But after being overtaken by a second tractor further along the beach, I was overjoyed to finally approach the first gannet colony at Black Reef, 2km shy of the main colony. It may have been the smaller of the colony but there was still plenty of activity and the birds were tantalisingly close, just a little above head height on a shelf within the cliffs. The second tractor had stopped here and I had to share the experience with the others, so after briefly watching the birds, I decided to push on to the main colony, and cut round yet another headland to be confronted by a slanting rockface that cut across the beach. As I got closer I could see the rock face was too high and too slippy to negotiate, but where it stopped suddenly on the beach was still submerged under water, the waves lapping the end of the rocks.

 

I walked up and down and back and forth looking for a way to continue that didn’t have me walking into the sea and I was disheartened to see that there wasn’t one. Low tide was still about an hour away, and I considered asking the tractor for a lift past this section, but with no idea how low the tide would go, I wasn’t sure if I would get stranded on the other side trying to get back again. I considered waiting it out, but going through the tide calculations in my head, I wasn’t sure it would give me enough time to get to the main colony and back again (a 4km return hike including scaling the cliff face) before again I risked being stranded. I was frustrated and disappointed, and as the tractor passed me by once more I watched it plough into the sea, the water covering the full height of the large tyres, and I fully realised that wading was not an option, with the water level at my waist height. Even with a bit of hopping across some lower rocks, there was nowhere to go lower than knee height water. Gutted, I gave up and returned to the Black Reef colony.

By this stage, a few other beach walkers could be seen along the beach that I had earlier traversed. I watched the birds in peace and quiet for some time before heading back. An even mix of adults and pre-fledged juveniles, there was also the odd younger chick hidden away, their downy fluff drawing my attention. Living in Scotland for most of my life, the Northern Hemisphere’s version of the gannet was a regular sighting when around the coast, and I think they are beautiful birds, especially loving their bullet-like dive that they do when they are fishing at sea. Despite seeing them often, I’d never seen them so close, and I’d only recently discovered that they were a member of the Booby family, a species of bird I’d been lucky enough to see in the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago. Now so close to them, I could see the resemblance, but what took me by surprise was not just the size of them, but how clumsy they were at taking off. Lifting off from cliffs just above my head height, almost all of them crash-landed on the beach before having to smack repeatedly off the sand and then the tide to get the required lift to make them airborne.

 

Although the sea was by now lower on my return along the beach, the weather was deteriorating, and as I passed the first few people I passed on the news about the route being blocked past the colony. There was less rock-hopping involved with more beach exposed but in one section, a large rock slip that spanned the whole width of the beach made my heart race. On the way to the colony, with the tide high, it had seemed easy enough to cross up the beach. Now with the tide much lower, the lower newly exposed section was covered in small streams so I naturally picked my way higher up the slope to where I had crossed a few hours prior. But what had appeared to be firm footing that morning, was now like quick sand and I quickly sunk down into the quagmire, causing my heart to jump into my mouth. With every attempt to move onwards, the ground gave way below me and I panicked a little as I tried to free myself. When I gratefully reached the other side, my legs were covered in mud, yet there was not even a trace of my passage, the ground having swallowed up my foot holes.

After lunch in the cafe in Clifton, I returned to Napier where the sky was starting to clear up a bit. Armed with the walking map that the tourist information centre had supplied the day before, I parked up at one of the car parks on the waterfront, and set off up Coote Road past the Centennial Gardens. A waterfall was a nice distraction from the urban landscape, and then the hard slog started following the Bluff Hill walkway to the Bluff Hill Lookout. Mainly overlooking the commercial port immediately below, there was a view along the coast in both directions, still quite shrouded in clouds, as well as the estuary behind the suburb of Ahuriri. Parts of the land immediately around the current city of Napier were previously under water or unusable prior to the destructive earthquake of 1931, but with around 2 metres of uplift created, 40 square kilometers of seabed was suddenly exposed to form new dry land.

 

I followed the Bluff Hill walkway down the other side of the hill past the harbour and round to Ahuriri where I followed the foreshore to the same bars I’d passed the day before. Now the sun was glaring down on Napier, and it was the perfect excuse to pull up a bench at one of the bars and enjoy a nice cold cider. Cutting up Chaucer Road, I reached the Botanical Gardens which was compact and not looking its best. Crossing Bluff Hill through the residential streets to the east, there were a few lookout out spots offering a a beautiful view across the rooftops of Napier’s Art Deco city centre. Heading back to the hostel I opened the door to my dorm and was astounded to see my roommate’s stuff was strewn all across the room including on my bed. She might as well have thrown all her belongings in the air, such was the scattered mess, and I looked despairingly at the set of false teeth that lay at the foot of my bed. Just like the night before, she sat on the chair in the corner of the room. I chatted to her for a bit, trying to normalise the situation, but the atmosphere was uncomfortable, and I was eager to head out again. There was no-one at reception, and so I scurried away to have dinner.

 

Unfortunately dinner did not agree with me, and rather than having an enjoyable night out, I lay curled up in my car in the darkness, trying to delay going back to the hostel. But there was only so long I could delay the inevitable need for a toilet stop, and I sheepishly crept back into my room which was thankfully a little tidier than I’d left it before and also unoccupied. I curled up in bed cradling my stomach and turned the light off, knowing it would only be a matter of time before my roommate would return. True to form, I was awoken by the light turning on as she proceeded to leave the dorm door wide open and go back to sitting on her chair staring into space with the light on. I wasn’t feeling well enough to deal with a second night of strange behaviour so I desperately tried to get back to sleep, but the minute somebody came along the hall, she asked them into the room to open her suitcase and find some things for her, just as she had asked of me the night before. Twice I watched through slits in my eyelids as two confused people bided her wish before departing. To my despair, she sat with the light on staring into space until well past 1am, and when she finally went to bed, she left the light on and was snoring once more. I was tired and exasperated, and made no attempt to be quiet as the inevitable need for the bathroom arose in the middle of the night.

I was glad to leave the hostel behind early the next morning. After the failed attempt to reach the Plateau colony of gannets at Cape Kidnappers the day previous, I had succumbed and booked a guided tour for my morning. Unlike the tractor that trundled the beach, this tour followed a clifftop road through private land to reach the colony, and with no walking involved, I was the youngest on the tour group by several decades. Still, it was a nice alternate view of the coast from up high, and I was glad I did it as the plateau colony were even closer than the Black Reef colony had been. It was noisy and smelly, and a hive of activity as birds soared the coastal thermals above and around us. The Cape coastline was a dramatic stepping of rocks down to the sea, with the distinctive point that looked like a shark’s tooth. We got plenty of time to explore the edge of the colony watching the goings on, and many of the pre-fledged juveniles were very curious and happily wandered very close to the barrier.

 

Despite the awkwardness of the hostel situation, I’d really liked Napier, but it was time to start the two day trek back to Christchurch. After lunch and spending a lot of money on chocolate at the Silky Oak chocolate shop & cafe, I cut through nearby Hastings, but found nothing worth stopping for. I had a long drive ahead to Palmerston North and as I crossed the plains and rolling hills of the North Island countryside, the sky grew concerningly dark and the lashing rain that soon followed caused flash flooding of the road and slowed me down to a crawl as my wiper blades struggled to keep up with the deluge. It was a miserable drive. Thankfully though as I wound through the Manawatu Gorge, it had cleared and I was able to see the river below, a view I’d seen for the first time only a few months before on a flying visit north to see a friend. It is a shame that this road has now been indefinitely closed following some recent landslips.

As a tourist, there’s not a lot of excitement about Palmerston North but the Square in the city centre offered me the respite I needed to stretch my legs. A couple of sculptures and a duck pond took my attention and I wandered around the neighbouring area before pushing onwards to the Kapiti coast. I was spending the night in Paraparaumu which offers a prime vista across to Kapiti Island, a place that I am yet to get out to. The lowering sun had broken through the clouds once more and I took a sunset walk along the serene beach, the sky reflected in the moist tidal sand. There were several locals out for a walk, and everyone was pleasant and smiling as they passed. Following a dinner of fish and chips, I was dismayed to get to my dorm room at the nearby hostel to be greeted by the sour and grumpy persona that was my roommate. A long-term occupant, she made it very clear that my presence in the room was a major inconvenience for her. I went straight to bed and felt sadistically pleased that she was disturbed by my very early alarm the next morning. After 3 consecutive nights of the worst hostel roommates I’ve ever had in 15 years of travelling, I wasn’t in the mood to be considerate.

 

It was still dark when I left Paraparaumu for Wellington. Being a weekday, I’d had to take the morning rush hour into consideration as I headed off to catch my ferry back to the South Island. But even then, I got stuck in jam after jam after jam and I started to panic that I would miss my ferry. Check in time came and went and I was still on the outskirts of the capital city, but I couldn’t believe my luck when I eventually turned up to be checked through and I was straight on the boat with no waiting around. It rained almost the whole crossing, and the unprotected section across the Cook Strait was the roughest I’d experienced on this crossing. With nobody out on deck, there was barely a seat free anywhere, but when we reached the entrance to the Queen Charlotte Sounds, despite the rain, I headed out on deck to enjoy what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world.

I was one of the last cars to disembark, and there was no hanging around. With the closure of State Highway 1 down the coast, the route between Picton and Christchurch is now a mammoth 7hr drive on a road that is a patchwork of roadworks as its quality degrades under the unusually high level of traffic it now takes. I was quick to leave Picton and Blenheim behind, but once more I stopped at Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park, where the clouds hung broodingly over the mountain tops. Even without the sunshine, the sandflies here were still out in full force, and after I felt a little more refreshed I pushed on. Unfortunately the deluge I’d driven through the day before between Napier and Palmerston North had clearly tracked south in the night, and I found myself once more driving through lashing rain for a large part of the drive home. I’d enjoyed my trip up to the North Island but between the dismal weather of the last two days and the draining experiences at the last two hostels, I was exceptionally glad to crawl into Christchurch in the rainy night and crawl into my own bed.

Napier Street Art

On my wanderings around Napier, Hawke’s Bay’s main settlement, I was delighted to see the frequent splash of colour adorning many walls. Thanks to the international festival Sea Walls: Murals for Oceans, there was a plethora of murals with a nautical theme, that had been painted the year before in March 2016. Following my visit earlier this year, Napier has held the event again, and there are newer additions to the collection. I’ve really grown to love street art and outdoor murals. My home city of Christchurch has used these to brighten up the many drab walls that have resulted following the earthquakes, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised in a few other cities around the globe to discover more. I found out later that there were others, some of which I was sad to miss out on, but I was glad to find the ones that I did.

Autumn Roadie: Tongariro to Napier

It was a grey afternoon as I left Tongariro National Park behind to head north. On State Highway (SH) 47, I was covering fresh ground, but it wasn’t a long drive to reach first the large expanse of Lake Rotoaira, and then the car park for the hidden Lake Rotopounamu. Nestled on the slopes of Pihanga (a volcano that, according to Maori legend, was a maiden that was fought over by the warrior mountains, of whom Mt Tongariro was triumphant, getting to stand by her for the rest of eternity), the lake feels secretive and secluded. There were plenty of parked cars, but it appeared that most people were heading back as I was heading in, so it felt nice and quiet. A circuit trail heads round the circumference of the lake, taking about an hour. Despite the occasional drizzle, and the overcast sky darkening the waters, it was a pleasant stroll with an ever-changing perspective.

 

My bed for the night and my first chance of a shower in 4 days, was in Taupo, a town I’ve stayed in several times. I’ve always approached it via SH1 up the east coast of Lake Taupo, but I decided to keep west on this occasion to see a part of the countryside that was new. Taking SH 41, there were a couple of lookouts over the lake towards Tauhara, another volcano, in the far distance. But after just a short while, the road left the lake side behind and I discovered that this route didn’t really offer a lakeside view unless you took a side road. Turning north on SH32, I eventually reached a back road to Taupo that would allow me to visit Kinloch on the north shore of the large Lake Taupo. I was intrigued by the Scottish name, and arriving in the evening, it was peaceful and quiet.

 

With some chips from the local fish and chip shop, I quickly garnered some feathered friends as I sat by the beach to eat them. A heron waded in the shallows as a family played near the water’s edge. Behind me, a pretty little marina was packed with boats and a plethora of ducks slept, bobbing on the water in between them all. Despite being so close to Taupo which is a popular tourist spot, this place felt so peaceful and empty, and I could see the appeal of having a bach (a Kiwi holiday home) here. Taupo itself doesn’t really float my boat much. It’s always just a place to break up a journey, and that was pretty much its purpose this time round too. I checked into my hostel, had a lovely warm shower to clean off the 4 days of hiking, and headed off to a local restaurant for dinner.

 

After a delicious breakfast in a nearby cafe, I was quick to leave Taupo behind. I pulled in at Huka Falls and was appalled at the crowds here. Perhaps I’d just picked a bad time, as there were several coachloads of people milling around, but this was the busiest I’d seen the place, and it was very off-putting. I remember many years ago one of my colleagues at my old job in Scotland coming back from a holiday in New Zealand and proclaiming it a beautiful country but she wouldn’t want to live there on account of all the tourists. I thought it an odd comment at the time, but now having lived here for 5.5years, I really do see what she means. Whilst there are still plenty of untouched spots in the country, and areas that are more frequented by locals than travellers, the main places in the country can be rather unpleasant during the high season from November through to March. I stayed only long enough to take some photos and was quick to get on my way again.

 

Whenever I am in the geothermal zone between Rotorua and Taupo, I try and visit a different thermal park. First time around I visited Waimangu Volcanic Valley (which to this day remains my favourite) and Wai-O-Tapu (one of the region’s most famous). On a later trip I visited the Craters of the Moon, and on this trip, I was keen to visit one that had been on my radar for a while: Orakei Korako. At the end of a road in the middle of nowhere, the visitor centre is on the western bank of a narrow arm of Lake Ohakuri, whereas the thermal area is across the water on the east bank. Only accessible by boat from the visitor centre, it makes for a slightly more unique experience. The water had a glass-like quality to it as the little boat carried us across, and at the far side we were all greeted by columns of steam rising from the ground around us.

 

Previous volcanic eruptions have destroyed some of the regions most historically beautiful geothermal areas, in particular the famous pink and white terraces. From the dock, the boardwalk (which has a recommended directional route to follow) leads up past a large steaming rock that appears to roll down the hillside to the lake, even extending out of sight below the water. There is plenty to look at in the park as the route winds its way up and around a collection of steaming vents, bubbling mud and hot pools, and large patches of silica deposits that are variably stained with the colourful microbes that live in such hot and often acidic or alkalinic environments.

 

Living in the South Island where the island is dominated by mountains and lakes, and the driving natural force is earthquakes, it is easy to forget about this world of volcanism that exists in the North Island. A few months following this trip, through research for some coursework, I have gained a bit more knowledge on the geology of this fascinating zone, and whilst it can still be enjoyed without any knowledge about how this part of the world is formed, it is definitely appreciated more with even the lightest of research in advance. But like the other geothermal zones, Orakei Korako is a delight for the senses: from the sulphuric smell for the nose, and the hissing and popping sounds for the ears, to the colourful contrasts for the eyes. The only thing that cannot be experiened is touch, with many of the rocks and water spills dangerously hot or erosive.

 

After completing the almost figure of eight circuit of the park, I took the boat back to the visitor’s centre and pushed on. I had a long drive east to Napier on the Hawke’s Bay coastline, and I had no idea what was in store for me. It took a while to reach SH5 which took me south to skirt past Taupo before cutting east to the coast. It started off innocently enough, cutting across a vast plain and then through forests, before suddenly it cuts a winding pass through the Ahimanawa Range. For the most part following the gorge cut by the Waipunga River, I was blown away by this part of the drive, and it really challenged my car when the only overtaking zones coincided with an incline. I regularly spotted areas that would have been amazing to go hiking through, but unfortunately there wasn’t really anywhere to stop and take photographs, so I emerged on the other side with nothing visual to show for it. I did however find myself in sunshine, and coming across a multitude of signs for wineries. The great expanse of Hawke’s Bay greeted me as I turned onto SH2 to reach Napier, a city who’s charms were quick to wash over me.

 

Following the earthquake of 1931, New Zealand’s deadliest natural disaster, much of the city of Napier was razed to the ground. A widespread rebuild in this era has resulted in a predominantly Art Deco theme to parts of the city which now acts as a major draw card for tourists. Split across either side of a natural hillside and divided in two by the harbour, the main waterfront spans the long promenade of the expansive Hawke’s Bay, and it is behind here that the bulk of the Art Deco building’s lie.

I was delighted to discover that my hostel was across the road from an ice cream parlour and some creamy delight from here was the perfect accompaniment to walking along the foreshore. Starting at the Tourist Information centre with its unusual sculpture outside, I picked up a walking and cycling map of the city and headed back out where I was immediately greeted by a shiny open top car. In the sunshine it was a colourful place with sculptures on the street corners and the buildings of the high street were painted in a variety of pastel shades. From the lampposts to the street names and the facades, the theme was pretty solid throughout, and in some of the tourist stores, the staff were dressed up like cast members of the Great Gatsby movie.

 

By sheer coincidence, it turned out to be the opening night at the theatre for the stage show of Mary Poppins and I managed to score a ticket for later that night. Returning to the promenade, there was ongoing work here to upgrade the facilities, but there was a fountain and gardens to look at as well as a skate park and an old-fashioned open-air auditorium. I snaked through the various points of interest to return to my car before cutting round Bluff Hill past the harbour to the Ahuriri suburb where a collection of bars and restaurants line the marina front. It was Friday evening and they were all packed. I grabbed a pizza from a local takeaway and enjoyed it by the park before taking a wander around here. Eventually though, it was time to head to the theatre for what turned out to be a really enjoyable production. Exiting to darkness, the fountain at the park was lit up in ever changing colours, illuminating the night sky and there was an infectiously positive mood in the air as people moved between the bars. I was buzzing and on a high when I returned to my room to discover that I had it to myself. But just as I was getting ready to turn in for the night, late as it was my luck changed, and so began the most uncomfortable and unnerving stay at a hostel that I have ever had.

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…

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