MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Travel”

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Fyffe

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Kaikoura – Open for Business

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

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

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

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

Kaikoura Peninsula coastline 2017

The same view in 2013

Walking the Kaikoura Peninsula walkway 2017

The same view in 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hosier Lane Revisited

Whilst I have no great like for the majority of what constitutes as modern art these days, I have acquired a taste for street art or murals that dot the otherwise bare and drab walls of many modern cities worldwide. Whilst there will always be those that think of it as graffiti, to me there is a big distinction between the two. My home city of Christchurch has been brightened in the aftermath of some devastating natural disasters and the longstanding rebuild that follows, by the colourful, changing and varied depictions that have popped up around the city. Now, when I venture further afield, I notice similar splashes of colour either hidden down alleyways or out in the open for all to see. Melbourne in Victoria, Australia is one such place where I always keep an eye on the walls, and one of its most famous laneways for artwork is Hosier Lane. I visit this place every time I go to Melbourne because the imagery is constantly changing. New images are painted over old, or neighbouring images are incorporated into each other. My last visit was over 2yrs prior, and few of the images from that last visit were evident on this most recent of visits.

57 hrs in Melbourne

There are always places that capture your heart from the minute you reach them, and then there are those that just don’t cut the mustard or just don’t gel with you. Melbourne in Victoria, Australia was one such place for me. On my first visit in 2012, I arrived there straight from Sydney, a city which I adore, and although I enjoyed some of the things I saw and did there, Melbourne just wasn’t for me. I’d read so much hype and it wasn’t living up to my expectations. A return visit in 2015 was a vague improvement but it still didn’t excite me. When Sir David Attenborough, a man I’ve grown up with on my tv screen, announced a ‘Down Under’ tour, I quickly realised that getting to his one and only New Zealand show in Auckland just couldn’t happen. I was disappointed until a new date was added in Melbourne that just happened to be on my long weekend off work. I pounced on the ticket, secured a reasonably priced flight and waited till it was time. So in mid-February I headed across the ditch, the Tasman Sea, unenthusiastic about Melbourne and not sure what I was going to do with myself aside from the show. As it turned out, I fell in love with the place, and had a totally different experience than the two times before. Third time really is the charm.

I found myself at Christchurch airport at stupid o’clock on the Saturday morning, but it meant I arrived in Melbourne early on in the day. I had pre-purchased my bus ticket into the city so I could jump one of the queues and was on the bus with little waiting around. The traffic was reasonable, so I alighted at Southern Cross train station where the Sky Bus city stop is, and from here it was just a short walk to the YHA Central hostel, my bed for the couple of nights. The sky was grey as it always seems to be when I’m there, but it was nice and warm, so although I couldn’t yet check in, I made use of the lockers to dump my stuff, and was soon changed for the heat, and off out in search of breakfast. There’s a ridiculous amount of choice when it comes to eating out in Melbourne, and the city is famous for laneways, hidden treasures and quirkiness when it comes to eateries and cafes. I went with a recommendation from the hostel, and found myself in a crowded little espresso bar squeezed in amongst the locals.

I had arrived in the midst of the Chinese New Year celebrations, and following breakfast, I crossed the Yarra River to Southbank where there was all sorts of festival related performances and food stalls set up to mark the year of the rooster. The banks of the river are a popular place to be, especially the Southbank. It is a nice view across to the city skyline, although the grey skies turned the water a depressingly murky colour. I continued under the main bridge of St Kilda road to where the boat houses were, and being a Saturday, there were many rowing teams out on the river training. Past them, I cut up through Kings Domain and on to the Shrine of Remembrance. I’d been past here before, but hadn’t gone inside, and it was free to enter. Particularly worthy is the viewing platform on the roof offering a 360o view of its surroundings. It was busy and I spent some time just wandering around, and before I knew it, the grey skies had split open and I was being bathed in glorious sunshine. I’ve not really experienced Melbourne in the sunshine and it was radiant. Down in the basement, there is a war museum which was also very popular, and this too is free to wander around.

 

Not far from the Shrine of Remembrance is the Royal Botanical Gardens. I love walking around public gardens, so usually seek out the Botanical Gardens in any city that I go to. I had lunch at the cafe next to the entrance before heading down the slope and round the familiar lawns and borders. It was by now roasting and the park was full of families and groups of friends hanging out and wandering around. I found a quiet spot next to a pond and duly lay down on the grass to sunbathe. There was just the orchestra of birds and insects (and the occasional passerby) for company. No matter how many times I visit Australia, I’m always taken aback on my return by the cacophany of birds there. Even in the city, the sounds of raucous cockatoos screech at each other, and I’m reminded of how quiet the New Zealand wildlife is in comparison. After a while I moved on, but after my early morning flight, I didn’t need much encouragement to lay back down when I came across another inviting piece of lawn in the shade of a large tree. It was the perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday morning.

 

The lower section of the gardens contains a large Ornamental Lake where there was plenty of bird life to watch and plenty of people-watching to be had. From here I returned to the Yarra River bank, and followed it back towards the city. Crossing the St Kilda Rd bridge to the north side, there was an ecological and sustainability market taking place, and I took a wander through it down to one of the many kooky statues that lines the river bank. From there, I cut through Federation Square to visit Hosier Lane, one of the city’s famous laneways. Every time I come to Melbourne I visit this lane as I am a fan of street art, and with every visit there are newer artworks painted over the previous ones. It is an ever changing gallery. From another recommendation from the hostel, I ate dinner at nearby MoVida Next Door, a tapas-style eatery that was small but popular. The only seat was at the bar, but I very much enjoyed the food and drink that was brought to me, and I watched with interest as they went through their ritual of cocktail making.

 

That evening I retraced my steps to the Botanical Gardens for an outdoor cinema experience to see Disney’s Moana. With no forward planning, I had little of comfort to sit on, but it’s not an experience that I get to have often so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. I arrived in the late evening, and found a spot on the hillside with a reasonable view of the giant inflatable screen. As the sun set and dusk set in, I was quietly surprised to see an ever-increasing number of fruit bats fly over. I’ve seen them before in Australia, but they were another thing I had forgotten about here, and I was mesmerised watching them silently flock over us as I waited for the movie to start once darkness had taken over. I wouldn’t have gone to see this movie in the regular cinema, not being particularly attracted to it, but I actually enjoyed it. By the time it was finished, the city was alive, and I wandered back to the hostel through the bustling city streets.

 

One of the things I loved about Melbourne this time, which was new since my first visit, was the free tram service within the boundaries of the Central Business District (CBD). For any trip within the CBD borders, travel on the trams is free, meaning I could save walking from one corner of the city to the other. I still had my MyKi (public transport) card from my previous trip but in the end I didn’t need it. On Sunday morning, I took a couple of trams to reach the Queen Victoria Market which is on the northern limit of the free tram zone. On my last visit, my partner and I had gone to the summer night market here which was my favourite thing about my last trip to Melbourne. Since my visit to Adelaide a few years ago, I’ve been jealous of the awesome food markets that these two cities have. I wasn’t going to be around for the Wednesday night market this time around, but although the Sunday market wasn’t as open or as filled as the night market would be, it was still a bustling and fun place to wander around. The outdoor area was set up to celebrate Chinese New Year, and there were performers playing drums and dancers and warriors showing off their moves. This was the one place where I got caught out for not having cash on me. Australian cities are a paradise for card payments, so I didn’t bother bringing any cash on the trip, swiping away with my Pay Pass foreign currency debit card everywhere I went. But here, it was predominantly cash-only and I was forced to get breakfast from one of the few places that accepted my card, and unfortunately the food was disappointing. All around me I could see and smell delightful food, but it remained outwith my grasp.

 

Whilst Melbourne was already starting to get under my skin and win me over, I was ecstatic to find myself in a giant branch of H&M, my favourite clothes store from when I lived in Scotland. Last year, New Zealand finally got its own branch in Auckland, and I can’t wait for the Christchurch branch to open as part of the rebuild when the new city mall opens, but in the meantime I have missed it. When I was back in Glasgow last year, I made sure to include a shopping trip in the branch there, and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity here either. With my H&M hunger satiated, and my card balance a little lighter, I headed back to the hostel and then onwards to the Plenary on the South Bank.

 

As part of the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Plenary was a large auditorium, and I excitedly walked along the river bank in anticipation of the coming show. For this was the whole reason I was in Melbourne: to listen to the legend that is Sir David Attenborough. The tickets were not cheap, and I had purchased the cheapest seat I could get, meaning I was as far away from the stage as it was probably possible to be, and I was at an awkward angle for seeing the tv screen. When the man himself came out, he was so small he could have been an imposter and I would never have known. But when he spoke, there was no mistaking him, and he commanded our attention with his intriguing stories about his life and his work across the decades. I have grown up with this man on the tv, and for me his voice and his face are synonymous with any BBC nature documentary that has been made in my lifetime. I have previously read his auto-biography which is definitely worth getting a hold of, and when it comes to opinions on the natural world, climate change and conservation, his is an opinion worth listening to.

 

After a thoroughly pleasant few hours listening to Sir David, I meandered around the local river bank, admiring the skyline from a slightly different viewpoint. I continued along the south bank unhurried before stopping for dinner at a food court near the St Kilda Rd bridge, then under the clocks of the Flinders Street Station, I met up with one of my previous work colleagues who now lives in Melbourne. We went off in search of cocktails, but instead ended up sitting outside an Irish pub enjoying a pint. It was cloudy again, but it was still warm enough to sit out and enjoy a drink. Despite being a Sunday, the city streets were still mobbed as we headed back through town after our catch up, and I was excited to discover a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream bar as we approached the train station. After my friend left to catch her train, I back tracked to get myself an old favourite which I enjoyed before heading back to the hostel.

 

In the morning I had to check out of the hostel but my flight wasn’t until the evening so I had plenty of time to explore some more. Leaving my belongings in the lockers, I decided to take up the suggestion of my best friend who lives in Sydney, and make use of the rental bikes around the city. She had noticed them on her last visit there, and this was another new initiative since my last visit. For a daily fee, you can rent a bike from one of the many city bike stations for up to 30mins at a time, and unlimited times during the day. Whilst the bikes were heavy to manoeuvre and not very comfortable to ride, I loved my day spent cycling around. Following a back injury whilst mountain biking 3.5 years ago which has left me with chronic back pain, I’ve barely been on a bike since. But I felt it was time to get back on the saddle, and decided I’d use the bikes to go to St Kilda which was outwith the free tram zone. Unfortunately, due to a combination of a couple of bike stations being out of order at inconvenient locations, as well as heavy traffic, it took a little over the allotted 30mins allowed to get to St Kilda. If you go over the 30mins, your card is charged extra, and so I had to pay an overtime fine both to and from the city. Whilst there are plenty of bike stations around the CBD, they are fewer and further between to the south. St Kilda is also as far south as the stations go.

 

St Kilda is a worthy excursion from the city on any visit to Melbourne. With enough time, I would recommend heading even further south still, towards the Mornington Peninsula, but with a small beach, marina and a cute little town centre, St Kilda is a nice wee place to visit. I noticed some street art as a I wandered towards the town centre, where one of the tram lines terminates in the main street. I had a coffee and cake in the oldest bakery in the town, an eclectic mismatch of furniture and equipment, and then set off to the small St Kilda Botanical Gardens. After reaching the waterfront, I picked up another bike from one of the stations and set off as far down the coast as I could manage before turning around to be back within the 30min limit. It was blowing a gale here and the sea looked stormy, and there was a clean-up process under way for a music festival that had taken place the day before. Being a working day, it was however relatively quiet.

 

Jutting out from St Kilda is a long pier which acts as a breakwater to shelter the local marina. Near the end is a large cafe, access to the yachts and boats moored there, but also a small colony of Blue Penguins, also known as Fairy Penguins. These are the smallest of the penguin species, and normally spend their day out at sea feeding, coming in to shelter amongst the rocks during the night. Still, there were plenty of eagle-eyed tourists nosying around the rockery looking for a sighting. As it turned out, there were a few of them hunkered down in the rocks if you had a beady eye to spot them. Frustratingly, despite the barriers and the signs stating not to disturb them or clamber over the rocks, there were still plenty of people ignoring these to stick their phones right up into the holes to get a close up photo. One really irritating English guy was loudly shouting down his phone to his mate about how he’d found some penguins. When he wasn’t loudly yelling down his phone, he was up over the barrier, jumping up the rocks to take a photo of them. I was livid, but I’m too introverted and self-conscious to pull strangers up about their inappropriate behaviour so I stewed internally. Ironically, as he left with his girlfriend, I overheard him say to her that he hoped people wouldn’t abuse the access to the wildlife and scare them away! But from an acceptable distance and quietly, I was able to spot about 6 little penguins and also some water rats which are also a rare sighting. Then, when heading back to the cafe, my attention was drawn to a small crowd of people looking down to the rocks below, and there in the broad daylight, completely exposed and unfazed by people, there was a solitary penguin out in the open preening itself.

After lunch in a St Kilda eatery, I picked up another bike from a bike station to pedal back to the CBD via Albert Park. This was a little more direct than the roadway I had followed on leaving the CBD, but I was still tight on time to get the bike back to a station. I still had a few hours before I needed to get the Sky Bus to Tullamarine airport, so I grabbed another bike next to Federation Square and biked up and down the river, dodging the crowds on the busy Southbank promenade. I had an absolute ball using the bike system in Melbourne, and it was well worth the daily fee. The only downside was the 30min restriction per bike use, and the 5min downtime between consecutive bike rentals but I loved it, and the Yarra river particularly lends itself to exploring on wheels. Eventually though, I had just one more thing I wanted to do before leaving, and that was go to the Lindt cafe which I had noticed the day before. I wasn’t even hungry but I ordered one of their special summer sundaes and forced myself to eat it just because. Reflecting on my trip, the spots of sunshine and lack of rain had definitely made a big difference over my previous two trips to Melbourne, but with the addition of convenient and free public transport, and the bike rental network, as well as the vibe of the city celebrating the Chinese New year, I had felt totally different on this occasion, and I was sad to leave the city behind. Finally, I could see what all the hype was about.

A Capital New Year

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Lake Brunner

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Queen Charlotte Track: Portage to Anakiwa

I couldn’t believe my luck to awake on my final day hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, to sunshine again. After the previous week’s stormy weather, I had been immensely lucky to get dry and calm weather for the duration of the 4 day hike. The picnic lunch provided by the Punga Cove Resort the morning before had been so good I still had leftovers for breakfast that morning, then I was soon booted up and back on the road again. Cutting back down to the Portage Resort, the sea sparkled in the sunshine, visible over the rooftops as I retraced my steps back up Torea Road to the Torea Saddle where the track cut off. The people I had played a constant catch up with the day before, had been given a lift up here and they were just setting off too as I arrived. For a second day we would repeatedly pass each other until they stopped early to cut the last day into two. The sign here reminds of the need for a Queen Charlotte Track Pass to hike this section, as it is crossing private land rather than Department of Conservation (DOC) land.

 

My destination for the day was Anakiwa, 21km (13 miles) away, where the Queen Charlotte Track ends. The DOC sign stated an 8hr hike, so like day 3, it was another big day of hiking to end the track. There was a quick ascent from Torea Saddle onto the ridgeline, and across the taller bush lining the path, the view was back over Portage Bay which grew smaller down below. With all the vegetation there was plenty of insect life for company as well as the couple that set off around the same time as me. As the view switched from the Kenepuru Sound to the Queen Charlotte Sound, the changing and expanding vista remained beautiful at every angle with the cloudless sky reflecting on the calm sea below.

 

A sign denoted Shamrock Ridge at 407m (1335 ft) which was just short of half way between Portage and the Te Mahia Saddle. Just past here, a couple of turns in the path overlooked Pukatea Bay in the Kenepuru Sound where some kayakers glided across the water below me. This was one of the most beautiful lookout spots on the track that day and with a well placed picnic bench elevated above the track, it was a perfect place to stop for a snack. It also gave a good vantage point of the route ahead, and I was happy to sit there for a while just soaking up the view.

 

From the lookout, the path dropped a little altitude, passing yet another landslide which involved actually climbing up over the back of it to get past. Aside from these slight hiccups, the path continued to be easy going, and the views were constant on both sides of the peninsula as it levelled out on a lower ridge line. Passing the 16km (10 mile) post, the turn-off to Lochmara Lodge was beyond that, hidden amongst the shade of some bushes. Keeping me company as I passed by was a fantail, a little bird that likes to sing a pretty song as it flits between the branches, occasionally displaying its tail fan that gives it its name.

 

The path took a slight climb once more before circling the back of a peak, eventually reaching a track junction which led up to the Onahau Lookout. The track zig-zagged up the hillside to a summit of 416m (1365 ft) which was proving a popular place to be. Within walking distance of several accommodations in the bays below as well as to one of the boat ramps, there were several groups that had walked here from nearby Te Mahia. As people came and went, I moved around the broad summit where the view was fractionally different depending on where you stood. This was the highest point of the day’s hike and marked a change in the hiking terrain as it descended from the peninsula ridge line.

 

Coming down from the summit after a while spent sunning myself, I rejoined the Queen Charlotte Track as it started to lose altitude on approach to the Te Mahia saddle. A couple of zig-zags in the path afforded a stunning overview of Te Mahia Bay before a junction marker pointed down to Mistletoe Bay on the Queen Charlotte Sound. Soon after, a much needed toilet was reached right before finding myself at Te Mahia saddle and the sound of cars driving by. The DOC sign denotes this as the halfway mark of the hike, and it is necessary to walk down Onahau Road a little bit to reach the next stage of the Queen Charlotte Track.

 

I could hear them before I could see them, and I was rather gutted to turn the couple of corners on the road to find a large group of teenagers on a school outing spread out around the side of the road next to the track junction. As someone who loves the solitude of hiking away from civilisation, I certainly don’t mind coming across other hikers from time to time, but a large group of noisy people is not my favourite track companion, and a large group of bored and whiny teenagers was the last thing I wanted to share the track with. Their teacher had to get them to make a space for me to pass by, and although I set off ahead of them, I didn’t get far before their loud voices and then them themselves, caught up with me.

I slowed down my speed in an effort to let them pass me by and leave me behind. It took a while as they became quite spread out with the stragglers a good 10 minutes behind the leaders. There were few members of staff despite the large group and I cringed listening to their ridiculous conversations as they passed by. There’s nothing like listening to teenage conversation to make me feel old.

But the vegetation and terrain were changing. I was suddenly among bush again with just sporadic views out over Onahau Bay. Among the tall trees were some streams which meant waterfalls by the track as well as shade which was much appreciated by this stage. The track undulated as it followed the contours of the hillside, curling round the side of the bay before suddenly opening up at pastureland where a horse grazed in a large paddock. After this open stretch, it headed back into bush as it neared its turning point from Onahau Bay into the Grove Arm of the Queen Charlotte Sound. I took a breather at a picnic table near the turn before ploughing on.

 

Now the view was all about the Grove Arm, the far side hosting a myriad of settlements. The track continued to follow the contour of the land until coming to a lookout giving a beautiful view up to the head of the Grove Arm. Anakiwa was just tucked out of sight but was getting ever closer. A few corners later the path finally started to descend, passing the 6km (4 mile) mark as it did so. It was a long drawn out descent to Davies Bay campsite at Umungata Bay. There were a few campers as well as a couple of ducks sharing the bay with me, and I had plenty of time to sit on the sand and watch some people go swimming in the sea. I had made the decision to spend the night in Anakiwa, rather than rush to catch the afternoon boat back to Picton, so I had all the time in the world to rest my feet up and sunbathe.

 

It was such a wide bay that I would move along and pick a different spot to sit after a while, moving from sunshine to shade to get a little respite from the rays. Eventually though it was time to press on to Anakiwa, my hunger driving one foot in front of the other as my legs grew weary. Back amongst the trees once more, the sea was just a fleeting glimpse, but being so close to civilisation again, there were a few people out jogging here. I passed the 1km post deep within the trees, but as I approached Anakiwa, the foliage opened a little and I could see some shags nesting on the branches. Then suddenly some houses appeared, and before long I found myself at the sign denoting the end of the hike, and there I was in Anakiwa, about 7 hrs after leaving Portage behind, passing the Outward Bound school where the teenagers that had passed me had been headed. I made my way through the throng once more in search of my hostel for the night, thankful to discover they sold food and beverages after discovering that Anakiwa lacked anywhere to eat out.

 

My plan had been to go kayaking the next day ahead of the afternoon boat back to Picton, but I awoke to overcast skies and rain showers. Having to check out of the hostel, I wandered along the shoreline in both directions before eventually heading to the Anakiwa pier where the shelter had a selection of books to read and shortly after a food cart opened to serve hot drinks and snacks. As time went on, more and more people arrived to sit on the grass waiting for the boats to arrive. Just like on day 1 from Picton, there are choices of boat operators to get back to Picton, and I had booked a transfer with the same company that I had headed to Ship’s Cove with. They arrived early and with all the booked passengers on board early, we set off ahead of schedule to sail back up the Grove Arm and round the bay to Picton. I returned to the relative bustle of Picton, exceedingly satisfied to have completed the hike that I had yearned to do for some time.

Queen Charlotte Track: Punga Cove to Portage

I’d eased myself in nicely to the Queen Charlotte Track, but waking up on day 3, I had a lot of ground to cover before the day was out. Despite being built on a steep hill, I loved Punga Cove, the resort in Camp Bay where I’d spent the night. I could picture coming back here on holiday, catching the boat from Picton and then lounging in the hammocks. It’s a rare occurrence for me to want to relax on holiday, but here was somewhere I could see myself doing so. It is a stunning part of the world.

I had awoken to yet another cracker of a day with a predicted high of 30oC, and from the balcony of the common room, there was a beautiful vista back down to the pier below. From the restaurant where I filled up with breakfast, I could see across Endeavour Inlet and watched as fingers of cloud wrapped over the summit peaks across the bay. Today’s hike was expected to be 8 hrs, and with nowhere to get food on route, I paid to get a packed lunch made up at the resort and it was totally worth it. Unlike the Furneaux Lodge the night before which had been expensive and a little lacking in portion size, Punga Cove was much more reasonable and the lunch looked appetising. Pulling my hiking boots back onto my feet, and throwing my backpack on, I followed the signs out of the resort to the dirt track that led up the hill.

Punga Cove pier at Camp Bay

Endeavour Inlet from Punga Cove's restaurant

This way to the Queen Charlotte Track

 

With a full belly, this long and windy track up to the Kenepuru Saddle was a little tiring, and the rough stony surface was uncomfortable under foot. Near the top, a man coming downhill seemed lost and he joined me as we made our way to rejoin the Queen Charlotte Track. For those that weren’t staying at Camp Bay, the track had climbed up to the Saddle on a separate route, and here at this junction, the track switched from Department of Conservation (DOC) land to private land managed by a trust. From Kenepuru Sound onwards, users of the trail need to possess a pass which can be purchased in advance or through some of the resorts on route. The fee is to aid in the upkeep of the land, and spot-checks can occur to ensure compliance. My companion hadn’t realised that he needed one, and didn’t know what to do. The Punga Cove resort sold them but that meant going all the way back down the hill again, and I could see him torn about whether to turn back or risk going onwards. In the end I left him dithering.

DOC Signage at Kenepuru Saddle

 

The track immediately climbed to a low ridgeline offering a stunning view along the valley. For the first time, the Queen Charlotte Sound was out of view, and now I was looking out towards the Kenepuru Sound on the opposite side of the peninsula in the distance. The valley view kept me company for some time, the water creeping ever closer as I looked down over farmland. The 41km (25.5 mile) marker came and went and yet another landslide was passed. The track changed to a woodland walk, giving some brief respite from the sun which was already warming up well. There were lots of hand-painted signs along the track, many giving distance markers to local places or further afield. As the Kenepuru Sound reached a head-on view, the track shifted slightly and I found myself looking back over the Queen Charlotte Sound again. It was a little hazy but with blue skies and blue sea, there was much to look at.

Looking across to Mt McMahon

Kenepuru Sound peaks into view

The first of many landslides on day 3

Walking through the woods

Woodland track

Looking out towards a hazy Queen Charlotte Sound

 

Beyond here, the tall trees framed the view over Kenepuru and a short while later a side track led up to Eatwells Lookout at 474m (1555ft). A weka wandered around, and I left it stumbling around the undergrowth and slogged up the rough track to the lookout. At the top was a trio of hikers who I ended up repeatedly bumping into for the next two days. We shared some conversation as we all absorbed the view and then they left me to it. There was some cloud hovering over the Queen Charlotte Sound meaning the North Island was hidden from view. Another hand-painted distance marker showed that I was a long way from a lot of places and that suited me just fine. One of my favourite things about hiking is the feeling of isolation and being a long way from the world and its troubles. I was hot, but I was completely at ease.

Kenepuru Sound

Kenepuru Sound and valley panorama

Eatwells Lookout signage

Eatwells Lookout panorama

A long way from anywhere

Distance marker at Eatwells Lookout

Looking towards the North Island shrouded in cloud

Kenepuru Sound from Eatwells Lookout

 

I’d made the mistaken decision to wear my gym capris for that day’s hike instead of my usual hiking trousers, and already I was regretting it. Unlike my trousers which are looser and help the air flow to keep me cool, my capris were encouraging me to sweat, and they felt tight and clingy. But after some other people appeared at the lookout, I headed off to continue on the long day’s hike. Back at the track junction, a DOC sign listed just 30mins to reach the Bay of Many Coves Shelter. The track disappeared into a tunnel of trees where I was taunted by South Island Robins, a small and quick little bird that always eludes my camera. When at last there was a view again, it was over the beautiful Bay of Many Coves, who’s name is descriptively accurate. The changing viewpoint of this gorgeous bay was to be my companion for some time.

Woodland tunnel

Tree tunnel

Bay of Many Coves panorama

Directional Markers above Bay of Many Coves

Bay of Many Coves

 

Near the 36km (22 mile) marker a juvenile weka wandered out the bushes and eyeballed me for a while, it’s sprouting feathers a dishevelled mess. It proceeded to plonk itself down next to the path and preen itself whilst I watched. After the shelter, the track started to climb again until it reached a side track leading down to a resort on the waterfront. From here onwards, the track was quick to switch back to views of the Kenepuru Sound and I was regularly coming across a spread out group of mountain bikers using the trail that day. The track quality here was probably the poorest of the whole hike: obvious to follow but very uneven and stony under foot.

Weka juvenile

Kenepuru Sound

Head of Kenepuru Sound

Looking back up the valley towards Kenepuru Saddle

Rocky path

 

After a long section overlooking the Kenepuru side of the peninsula, the track curved round a peak towards the Queen Charlotte Sound again, and for the first time since I’d left it 2 days prior, I could see Picton, the town where the interisland ferry departs from, and where I’d caught the boat to Ship’s Cove to start the hike. It seemed both far away and so close at the same time, an illusion created by the continued snaking of the track and the peninsula that it followed. The busyness of the track that day meant I regularly found the viewpoints and benches were taken up when I got to them, and I was eager to find somewhere with a view to stop and have lunch. I’d already had a few snacks but I was eager for a break to rest my feet. Finally I found a perfectly shaped stone seat overlooking Blackwood Bay to enjoy a late lunch.

Kenepuru Sound

Picton

Queen Charlotte Sound

Blackwood Bay panorama

Blackwood Bay

 

The sky continued to remain cloudless, keeping the mercury high that day, but the haze had reduced since the morning, making the distant viewing much clearer. There simply wasn’t a bad view in sight, and as I wandered along with Picton in the visible distance, I watched the two interisland ferries plough through the Queen Charlotte Sound seeming small like a toy. By the time I reached Black Rock Station, I was once more looking over the Kenepuru Sound and there was the occasional hint of civilisation with a road curving round the shore below and the occasional house or building. Passing the 26km (16 mile) marker, I was afforded a view all the way back up to the Kenepuru Sound Head which I’d passed many hours prior.

Interislander ferry

Blackrock Station viewpoint

26km to go!

Looking back up Kenepuru Sound

 

When at last I reached Black Rock Campsite, I met the same group of hikers I’d met at Eatwell Lookout earlier that morning. My energy was starting to flag a little, and 6hrs into the hike, I needed to start conserving my water. The trees meant the view was limited here, so once I’d refuelled, I moved on. After a while, the trees grew taller and denser and the track began its long descent towards Portage. It is possible to leave the Queen Charlotte Track behind and hike up another peak for an alternative, less marked route to Portage, but I opted to stick to the proper track meaning a long forest walk that swung out on a long ridge before almost doubling back on itself. Within this forest section I played tortoise and hare with the same 3 hikers from before, and here, the landslides were the worst of the entire hike. The bikers that had passed me earlier would have had quite a bit of effort getting their bikes over these ones with a good bit of climbing up over tree branches required.

View from Black Rock Campsite

Back in the forest

Rockface amongst the bush

 

The occasional break in the trees provided some distraction from the feeling that the path would never end. I knew it was to double back at a point, but it felt like forever before this happened, and then with glee I realised that Portage and the food and cold cider that that would bring were getting more and more within reach. When finally I reached the 21km (13 mile) marker, it was almost just a stumble to come out of the trees and reach a tarmac road where a war memorial sat at the saddle of the hill. This road crossed the peninsula from one side to the other and I followed it north to head down the hill to Portage. Even it had not escaped damage from the recent storm and there were landslides on both sides of it, including one large one halfway down where the side of the road and the bank that had supported it had collapsed and slid down the hillside.

View through the forest foliage

Tui singing in the trees

War Memorial on Torea Rd

Washed out road

 

Portage sparkled in the sunshine and I followed the signs to my accommodation for the night. It had taken me 3 attempts to find somewhere to stay here, finally bagging a bed at the Treetops Backpackers. Only once I reached the shoreline at Portage did I realise with dismay that my backpackers was up a hill. My feet were moving purely on autopilot by this stage after well over 7hrs, and the thighs started screaming at me as I began the hike up the driveway to reach the house at the top. I was delighted to discover that I had the backpackers to myself, there having been some cancellations following the earthquake the week before, and I kicked my shoes off and peeled my clothes off to have a much needed shower at just the right temperature.

After resting my feet briefly, I headed down the hill once more to the Portage Resort where I nabbed myself a nice cold cider, and found myself a table with a sea view to enjoy it. All the bikers that had passed me that day were at a nearby table, and the place was popular and bustling. After a while I ordered dinner and tucked in to a much deserved meal whilst the sun began to dip low behind the nearby hill. Only when the air grew colder and my eyes began to feel heavy did I leave to make my way back up the hill to my private cabin in the woods. There was no view other than trees, but this place was just what I needed, and once again it took little effort to drift off for another restful sleep.

Portage panorama

A well-deserved cider with a view

Queen Charlotte Track: Furneaux Lodge to Punga Cove

I awoke following a restful sleep to a beautiful sunny morning. Stepping out of my cabin, there was not a cloud in the sky and the sea was calm and still. It was going to be another stunning day in the Marlborough region of New Zealand. After another expensive meal for breakfast at the idyllic Furneaux Lodge, I took my time milling around the grounds in no hurry to leave. This was to be the shortest day’s hike of the Queen Charlotte track and I had time on my side. My destination for the night was visible on the far side of the glistening waters of Endeavour Inlet and I had a couple of side trips that I wanted to make on route.

Morning sunshine at Furneaux Lodge

Endeavour Inlet from Furneaux Lodge

 

The moon was still visible in the sky as I left the lodge behind and headed back onto the Queen Charlotte track. It was a little vague in places with multiple side routes heading off into bushes and down to a nearby stream. Not too far along the track was a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marking a 1 hour return track to a waterfall. With plenty of daylight hours ahead of me, this was the first of two detours to make that day. Nobody else seemed to be on this track and it was with good reason: shortly after leaving the main track behind, the quality deteriorated dramatically and I found myself pushing through the overgrowth and climbing over tree roots blindly following the orange arrows that pointed the way. A giant tree and the occasional glimpse of the nearby stream broke up the view of thick bush, and after what felt like forever, I was a little underwhelmed with what I found at the end of the bush track. A large boulder had created a high rock wall next to what I assume used to be a waterfall. There was only a small trickle, but the moss on the rock surface suggested this has had a lot of water over it in the past. There was a waterfall not far from here but I had to climb through tree branches to view it properly so I’m not convinced this was the original waterfall that the track was created for.

Half moon in the daylight

Waterfall track turnoff

Rimu tree

Rimu trunk with creepers

Path crossing a stream

Waterfall near the end of the track

 

Back on the Queen Charlotte track, the detour had taken a little under an hour, and the main route remained amongst the trees for a little longer. Only at the next resort did the sea come back into view, and just past here I passed the 56 km (35 mile) mark, before reaching a suspension bridge over a river. Here was the head of the Endeavour Inlet and over the bridge there was some pasture land with grazing cattle to the right and signs relaying information about the mining works of the area. Up the valley is the remains of an antimony mine, and down where I stood used to stand the village where the miners and their families lived. There wasn’t much evidence left of their presence. The DOC sign detailed the mines as being an hour away, and this was to be my second detour of the day, stretching what would otherwise be a 5hr hike into a 7hr hike. Passing the rusted remains of old farm machinery, and some properties hidden amongst the bush, the track followed a 4×4 track to a river and crossed the other side via a ford. I walked up and down the river bank looking for another way across but with no gaiters to help keep the water out of my boots there was no way that I was crossing this deep a river without the right gear. I was a little annoyed and a little frustrated as I had assumed it would be a straightforward track to follow. I wandered back and forth a couple of times in case I’d missed an obvious turn in the track, but eventually had to admit defeat and turn back.

Endeavour Inlet

56km to go...

Suspension bridge

Pastureland

DOC sign at Head of Endeavour Inlet

Antimony Mine turn-off

Head of Endeavour Inlet

Rusty tractor

 

I wasn’t disheartened for long though with such fabulous scenery to grab my attention. I wandered down to the mudflat at the head of Endeavour Inlet and breathed in the fresh sea air for a while before rejoining the track. A little down the track there was a well placed stone bench that I made use of for a snack stop, looking out at the sea. After a brief respite, I started meandering along the track again, taking the fork away from the shoreline where it started to pick its way up the hillside again. I could see back over to Furneaux Lodge on the far side, and the track varied between being amongst thick bush, and being more open. Small streams trickled past the track, and a couple of bridges spanned a couple of them.

Panorama at Head of Endeavour Inlet

Reflections on Endeavour Inlet

View from the seat

Fork in the road

Looking across to Furneaux Lodge

 

After a while, the bush opened up, and a gate marked a transition into a more cultivated landscape where the grass was short and a couple of baches (holiday homes) sat on the hillside above the track. A lone weka rummaged around in the undergrowth near a picnic table, and these birds were a constant companion on this hike. In wild bushland in New Zealand roams wild boar, introduced historically for hunting purposes. I have once come across some whilst out hiking in the bush in the North Island and they gave me such a fright when they burst out of nowhere in front of me on the trail. I had read that boar could occasionally be spotted on this track, and on a frequent basis the sound of rustling in the undergrowth would get my curiosity up only to find it was a weka, either on its own, or with a chick. These chicken-sized birds are one of many flightless bird species in the country and many tourists confuse them for kiwis.

Panorama from the gate

Panorama in front of the baches

 

After returning to the bush once more, the track showed lots of evidence of the earthquake and flash flooding that had occurred just a week prior. In one section the ground had cracked and dropped, creating stepping and past this a landslide littered the path with debris. I passed the 51 km (31.5 miles) mark surrounded by bush before a break in the vegetation allowed me to get a view across the Endeavour Inlet to where it branches off the Queen Charlotte Sound. Just as the path took a near 90 degree turn, I was once more distracted by a rummaging in the bush. Out fell a one-legged weka who contemplated me briefly before hopping and falling over to my feet. They are quite bold birds and eager to grab any tasty morsel they can claim from you given half a chance. They are even known to peck at cameras and steal lens caps. I watched it for a while, crouching down to its level and eyeballing it whilst it stood there. After some time though, something spooked it and it went racing back to the bushes as fast as its one leg could carry it.

Cracks in the path

Landslide across the path

Blue waters of Endeavour Inlet

Curled fern

51km to go...

Endeavour Inlet opens into the Queen Charlotte Sound

Weka

Weka mimicking a Kiwi

Eye-balling a one legged weka

 

The track changed from a clay-like soil to tree roots and fallen leaves as it once again returned to the bush. In the blistering heat, the regular shade was a welcome relief, and then I turned a corner to come across a fallen tree that spanned the path. As a hiker, these obstacles were easy enough to manoeuvre around but the Queen Charlotte track is a shared biking track, and there were plenty of people biking the track whilst I was hiking it. The regular landslips and leaning trees were merely a side-step or easy clamber over or under for me, but they would have meant a dismount or a lifting over of a bike for the many riders on the track.

Looking across to Camp Bay

Walking through the forest

Stream by the QCT

Tree fallen across the path

 

It was a long section in the bush rounding the headland into Big Bay. Once more there were plenty of streams and waterfalls to look at and the beautiful canopy above and around me was ever changing. I was serenaded by bellbirds and robins that flitted through the trees as I passed below them. Where the track skirted the shoreline again I passed through the tree line onto the rocky shore and found a handy log to sit on. It was a beautiful snack stop listening to the gentle lapping of the waves near my feet under a still cloudless sky. I was less than an hour away from my destination and it was only early afternoon. I toyed with the idea of taking a swim then thought better of it, and chose to sunbathe for a while instead.

Big Bay sign

Beautiful canopy above

Waterfall next to the QCT

Bellbird in the canopy

Rest stop at Big Bay

 

Back on the track, there was a nearly uninterrupted sea view for the rest of the hike. Beyond here the track divided: the lower track heading to a variety of accommodation options in Camp Bay, and the upper track cutting up the hillside to reach the Kenepuru Saddle. I had booked a cabin at Punga Cove in Camp Bay so stuck to the lower path which almost immediately demonstrated a high level of erosion. It is possible that either the earthquake or the flash flooding of November 14th did the damage, but I suspect a lot of the cracks and holes in the ground were more likely due to the wash-out effect of the rain. A large crack split the track lengthways down the middle and past this, a large hole had swallowed up half the width of the path. Undeterred I could see Punga Cove through the trees and kept going.

Big Bay panorama

Approaching Camp Bay

Big Bay

Large crack in the path

Large hole in the path

Looking across to Punga Cove

 

The amble into Camp Bay’s campsite is beautiful with boats anchored in the water, and houses peaking through the trees. I could see people swimming in the sea in the distance and could hear the sound of people enjoying themselves. A DOC sign at the campsite showed I’d walked 27 of the 71 km track and I was just 15 minutes away from my night’s stop. Passing a jetty I followed the signs to Punga Cove as they separated from the main track and as it curved round a bend I came across a large hole in the track. There was just a ledge left, big enough to fit a foot and little more and I hastily crossed it, aware of the drop if the ground decided to give way below me. But waiting at the other side of me was the most fantastic spot to spend the night.

House in the bushes

Camp Bay Campsite

Punga Cove turn-off

Track washed out

 

Punga Cove is spread out across the hillside overlooking Camp Bay. At the pier at sea level is a bar and cafe, next to which is a grass lawn littered with deck chairs and hammocks hanging amongst the trees. Just behind this is a hot tub and swimming pool, and the accommodation is littered at various levels up the hill. I checked in at reception to discover my hiker’s cabin was right at the top of the hill and I sweated my way up in the heat to find my little room waiting for me. Upstairs, the shared kitchen/lounge had a balcony which overlooked the bay. After removing my shoes and gingerly heading downhill in my bare feet, I stopped by the pool to soak my legs for a while then picked my way to the bar, ordered a pizza and a cider and parked up on the pier to relax. It would have been a good place to go swimming but I had packed light and had nothing to swim in, so I took the lazy and leisurely approach of sunbathing whilst watching everyone else play in the water.

Punga Cove panorama

View from the kitchen/dining room

Pier panorama

 

The mail boat came and went and I strolled along the pier to watch the fishes before finding a large hammock suspended amongst the lower trees next to the lawn. I swayed and dozed here until the sun had dropped low enough to leave me cool in the shade. Following a snack, I returned to the pier bar for some ice cream and hot chocolate and waited for the sun to get low behind the hill. Then I just had to retreat up the hillside once more and find my bed to give my legs a rest. The shared lounge had a book share so I took a book to read which I struggled to get into, but it wasn’t hard to fall asleep after all the fresh air and walking. I woke in the night to the sensation of an earthquake and thought to myself that I wouldn’t have wanted to be perched on that hillside if a big quake ripped through there. But after a 5 hr hike that day, I was quick to get back to sleep, ready for the big day’s hike ahead of me.

Punga Cove pier bar

Punga Cove nestled among the trees

Hammock time

View from the hammock

Giant bug at Punga Cove

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