MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Travel”

Winter Grind

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Escape to Otago

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Hokitika Time

Food may not be the first thing that springs to mind when most tourists think of Hokitika. And perhaps, for many New Zealanders, the same may also be true. But for years I’d wanted to attend an annual food festival held there, and finally, in March 2020, I had a ticket in my possession and a weekend that I didn’t need to work. Traversing the width of the South Island from Christchurch on the east to Hokitika on the West, I bid the sun goodbye and arrived around lunchtime as the festival was kicking into full swing. I’d booked an Air BnB out of town so had to be sober for the drive there later on, but I readied myself for an afternoon of eating.

But this was no standard food festival, this was the famous Hokitika Wildfoods Festival, a celebration of edibles outside of the ordinary. The kind of grub that many people would balk at. I’m adventurous with food to a point. I’ve been privileged to have travelled to multiple countries across six continents and I’m always happy to try local cuisine and delicacies. It’s textures that tend to put me off, not so much taste, but I wandered round the food stalls eyeing up my options. As I did so, live music played on the main stage, and everyone was in a jovial mood. Thankfully it didn’t rain, so the cloud ended up being a blessing in disguise. It kept the temperature comfortable without being oppressively hot, and it saved my Scottish skin being over-fried.

I started off tamely with a mixed-meat kebab of rabbit, wallaby, deer, goat and wild boar. I’ve eaten all of these before so it was an easy bet. For dessert I got a grasshopper donut. Aside from the surreal experience of licking an ant’s bum in Australia (a zesty, lemony experience), I’d never eaten insects before. This was the perfect place to try as several places offered a variety of these snack-sized protein portions. The grasshoppers had been cooked so were extra-crunchy, and an odd but acceptable taste. I personally think that insects are an under-utilised food source for humans, but not everyone agrees with me.

 

After listening to the music for a while, I got myself a snail, electric eel and punga (a tree fern). The snail was always going to be a texture issue for me but actually ended up not being as bad as I expected and actually passed the taste test too. The ostrich from the South African tent was the biggest disappointment. I ate ostrich meat several times while in South Africa and it was always lovely, but this time around it was chewy and lacking in flavour.

I needed something more interesting so headed to the huhu grub tent. Huhu grubs are the larval stage of the huhu beetle, and live in rotting wood. Next to the tent were all the live grubs wriggling around in the sawdust of opened tree trunks, and whilst it was possible to eat them live and raw, I wasn’t keen on having one move around my mouth, so I opted instead for a cooked and skewered variety. A bit chewy and lacking much of a taste, I know they’ll do if I ever got lost in the wilderness for days on end.

The only ‘normal’ food I ate there was some lovely Hungarian fried bread. As I ate it, I stared at the sheep’s testicle tent for a long time trying to decide if I was game enough for one. I think if they’d been chopped up, and somehow made to look more edible I probably would have been more eager, but they were literally selling them as entire testicles, and being a vet I know exactly how solid and tough these things are, so I really couldn’t bring myself to buy one. That didn’t stop a steady queue of people lining up for them and they were the only stand I saw that sold out. In the end, my procrastination meant the decision was made for me.

As afternoon became evening, I procured some ice cream complete with witchety grubs. These were probably my favourite of the insects, and were nice and crunchy with a taste that was not off-putting. I’d easily eat these again and again and think they’d make a nice meal topper or crunchy addition to a salad. Food aside, there was such a great atmosphere there and some people had dressed up in unusual outfits which added some entertainment. I kept spotting a group of people dressed in pacman suits, and one of the event organisers was walking around dressed like a wild boar.

 

As a solo traveller, I’m used to doing a lot of things on my own. Going to a festival solo would not be everyone’s cup of tea, and in fact I know several people that would recoil at the prospect of such a thing, but I refuse to miss out on opportunities purely because I don’t have anyone to do things with, or don’t want to be tied to another person’s schedule. I had an absolute blast and spent a good 6-7hrs there enjoying the live music, filling my stomach with weird food and just generally enjoying an event that I’d wanted to do for years.

 

I pulled up to my Air BnB in the evening as the light was starting to fade. I’d booked a cabin in the woods, or at least the closest thing I could find in that area, and found myself with a view of the coast, in earshot of the waves crashing below and a nice comfy cabin to keep me warm at night. I still had a cricket donut to eat so this was my evening snack. Of all the insects, this ended up being my least favourite, partly because the crickets were so friable and bits got stuck around my teeth.

As is typical of the west coast, I woke up to grey skies and the threat of rain. This wasn’t going to put me off though, so I headed down to the beach below my cabin which felt wild and was littered with flotsam as the grey waves crashed on the shore. After grabbing brunch in Hokitika, I headed south across the river to Lake Mahinapua. It’s very hidden from the road, with a need to drive through a forest to get there, but it was drizzling when I pulled up, so I didn’t spend as long as I would have liked there. I don’t always have the best of luck with weather on the west coast, so I’ll need to make a return trip here if I ever get the weather Gods right.

 

Back in town, I did a walking tour of the many historical sites around the place. Like many places on the west coast, the presence of prospectors and historical commerce has shaped the modern town today. The drizzle was a slight nuisance but I was still able to appreciate the various sights, and old architecture that is hidden down a variety of streets. Wildfoods Festival aside, Hokitika is also known as the driftwood capital of New Zealand. The prevailing currents deposit a large amount of flotsam on the wild beach, and there is also a driftwood sculpture competition here too. Multiple sculptures were still littering the beach, and I was able to wander around them before the rain became heavier.

 

I was eventually beaten by the weather, so I grabbed a pizza from nearby Pipi’s Pizza (a Hokitika institution), and parked up in front of the Hokitika driftwood sign to watch a movie on Netflix as the rain pounded down. Rather than being frustrated by the west coast weather, it was actually quite enjoyable to just sit there in my car. I have a lot of memories of family road trips with my parents in Scotland where we’d inevitably get a good dose of Scottish rain, forcing us to park up and sit it out in the car. This just reminded me of that, and that made it feel quite homely.

 

There was still the hint of rain in the air the next morning. I had stopped working Mondays the year before meaning my non-work weekends are a 3-day weekend for me. This has made weekend getaways that bit better with having that extra day to explore before needing to head home. To the south-east of Hokitika is the large and long Lake Kaniere. When I arrived at the north-western tip of the lake, the far bank was shrouded in clouds, hiding their peaks. My original plan had been to do a walk around the western shore of the lake but with a perceived lack of time and the threat of rain still looming, I decided instead to just take the scenic drive round the lake.

 

Away from Canoe Cove and Hans Bay, the only settlements and lake access available, the road quickly became a dirt track, and a track that I quickly discovered, had been previously washed out and was in a pretty poor state of repair. Thankfully it wasn’t impassable in my 2-wheel drive, but it was muddy in places, narrow in others, and it just generally looked a mess. As I reached the eastern shore there was a light drizzle as I appeared to have caught up with the clouds, but what the rain did mean though, was that Dorothy Falls was gushing. This waterfall is a very short walk from the road side, so was easy to access, and the tannin-stained water flowed noisily over the hillside and down towards the lake.

 

It ended up being quite a long drive to circumnavigate the lake and get back into Hokitika. Heading north to start the journey home I took a road up to the cemetery where there was a bit of a view over the coast and the town. The sun was out here which made a nice change from the rain. A little further up the road was a historic railway bridge that is a remnant of the old commerce that used to exist here.

Cutting east towards Arthur’s Pass, I decided to follow some of the tourist signs that I’ve driven by multiple times without investigating. I was a little underwhelmed at the Londonderry Rock, which whilst indeed being a big rock, was effectively just a large boulder overgrown and surrounded by trees. I was already on a back road from here so I took another detour to Kapitea Reservoir which despite being a reasonable body of water, was also rather underwhelming. At least the scenery on the drive through Arthur’s Pass made up for it. This road never fails to disappoint, especially between Otira and Porter’s Pass.

There were murmurings afoot prior to this weekend away, and they grew stronger within the following couple of weeks. I hoped to be wrong, but not only would this turn out to be my last trip out of Christchurch for a few months, but it was beginning to become clear that my upcoming trip home to Scotland might be under threat. Just a few weeks after this fun weekend away, New Zealand was plunged into a 2-month lockdown, a rhetoric I would have never foreseen in my life before then. Like the rest of the World, COVID-19 was now here. And we all know how things went from there…

Reaching New Heights

Sometimes you just have one of those days that are incredibly enjoyable. Where everything is exciting or new or exhilarating or all of these things combined. After a long hike out from Port Craig on the third day of the Humpridge Track, I’d left Southland behind and driven north into Otago. One of my favourite parts of the country is Wanaka, but by this point in February 2020, it had been a while since I’d been. I’d last been there for a friend’s wedding where the sun had shone brightly above, and now, late in the evening, I arrived to overcast skies.

New Zealand is normally all bustle in February due to an influx of Chinese tourists for Chinese New Year. Still being summer, this usually adds to the large numbers of foreign visitors already here from foreign shores. Wanaka is usually packed all summer, but the gradual spread of the coronavirus, which back then was just filtering out across the globe, had curbed the usual February influx, and although still full of people, I noticed immediately that Wanaka was not as busy as usual. And that suited me just fine.

I was staying at the YHA which has a fabulous outlook over a large park with the lake behind it, and once checked in I headed straight down to the lake side for a walk along the promenade. The clouds masked the sunset over the peaks to the west and on the far side of the lake I could see rain moving across. I had my fingers crossed for some good weather the next day, and went to bed hopeful of clear skies in the morning.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was a glorious morning, and I retraced my steps down to the lakeside as the sun rose high enough to bathe the lake in light. But it wasn’t long before I needed to jump in my car and head out to the back of the town for my day’s adventure. Meeting my group and my guide, we bundled into the mini-van to head out towards Mount Aspiring National Park where we pulled in to view our challenge for the day. In front of us was a multi-tiered waterfall cascading down 450m of the mountainside, and one of the few Via Ferrata sites in New Zealand.

I’d wanted to do a Via Ferrata for many years. The ‘iron path’ in this case was a choice of 3 trips up increasingly higher routes next to the waterfalls. Wild Wire Wanaka, an awesome local company, offers Lord of the Rungs trips up and I had booked into the full ascent, all 450m up via a series of iron rungs and cable ways, which is the highest waterfall cable climb in the World. I’ve abseiled a few times and done some basic clip-climb adventures, but I hadn’t done anything to this level before. Down near ground level, there was a practice boulder to get us used to clipping on and clipping off to the safety cable, as well as getting used to the feel of our harnesses on our body. There was just 4 of us doing the full ascent, everybody else was doing a lower level climb. I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked but I’m a regular hiker and aerialist so figured my background fitness would see me right.

The lower route was a breeze, snaking up the hillside next to the lower cascade and negotiating some cable bridges that criss-crossed the water. After 150m vertical ascent, we reached the base of Picnic Falls from where we could start to get a broader view along the valley where the road heads into the National Park. Lake Wanaka was only just creeping into view from behind the nearby mountain. From here, a series of waterfalls cascaded down a fairly vertical section of rockface, and the sun was now beating down on us from above. Across more cableways and up rung after rung, we pulled ourselves up to 320m to a ledge which had a spectacular view of an increasingly visible lake.

 

By now we were at the base of Falcon Falls. This was the turning back point for everyone apart from the 4 of us and our guides. I was lucky enough to have the company owner as my guide and he was incredible at making sure we had fun and stayed safe. We had a bit of time to hang around here because this was our refreshment stop ahead of the final push. I’d been loving the trip so far, and although it was a hot day, I’d felt fit enough to cope well with the route so far. There was still another 130m ascent to gain to reach the 450m total drop of the falls, and I felt ready to take it on.

 

We ascended 2 people per guide. Myself and another solo traveller went first behind our guide as we headed up through vegetation initially, reaching the gantry which was one of my favourite sections of the whole climb. Effectively a plank of wood on metal rungs locked into the rock, we were able to cross this and go behind the waterfall we were scaling. It was beautiful and the sun against the water created a pretty rainbow to frame the view. There was a pleasant spray from the water as we cut behind it.

 

Only as we got higher did I realise that my guide had been keeping an eye on me. I had felt perfectly fine climbing up so far, and I thought I had looked that way too. I’m not sure whether I was being judged on my age, or whether something had given it away, but it turned out there was a method in my guide’s choice at putting me directly behind him. I had just thought it was luck that I was able to watch how he distributed his weight and was able to copy him, unlike the other woman who wasn’t able to see and could only watch me. For all of the climb so far, it had either been a vertical ascent or a near vertical ascent, but beyond the waterfall was a section where there was an overhang to negotiate. This involved having to trust the harness and actually hang off the mountain while using upper body strength to pull up. I hadn’t for a minute thought this would be a problem, but when it came to it, I actually struggled a bit. I couldn’t work out how to distribute my weight correctly to optimise the move and quickly fatigued in the process. Perhaps the guide had anticipated this, as his placement in front of me, meant he could offer me a bit of a haul up, something that wasn’t an option for the other climber behind me. While I was in my 30s, she was in her 20s and by comparison she was nimble and had no issues getting up to join us. I was a little embarrassed.

There was still the final climb to go but it was just back to a vertical ascent again, and finally, and almost sadly, we reached the canyon where the river came down to the top of the falls. Our 450m ascent was over. A track led through the trees and out onto the mountainside where we could see up the river valley into the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, as well as across to Beacon Point on the far side of the lake. Above us was a 1955m peak which looked totally reachable but wasn’t actually accessible. There was a short wait till we were joined by the other pair with their guide, and then we watched as the final fun part of the trip came up to meet us.

 

Unlike the ascenders of the lower two sections of the falls, we were not going to be walking down. Instead, the full via ferrata is rewarded by a helicopter descent. I had actually thought we were going to be flown back into town which would have given spectacular views, but as it turned out, we were just to be flown back down to the car park. I wasn’t disappointed for long though as even that short flight was fun, simply because I don’t get to fly in helicopters that often. At the same time, the valley was full of paragliders which the helicopter pilot had already skillfully avoided on the flight up, and after we had watched them floating around for a bit, the helicopter had us loaded up and down on the ground in no time at all. It was the perfect end to an incredible adventure.

 

But the day was far from over. After being dropped back in town, I almost immediately headed back out towards the National Park. Just a little before the waterfall is the parking lot for Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain tracks. Despite a few prior visits to Wanaka, I’d only discovered the Diamond Lake track on my previous visit, and had gone as far as the lookout with my partner. This time though I was wanting to conquer Rocky Mountain which is only 775m high. I’d been looking across to it all day from the waterfall ascent, so it only seemed right to knock it off on the same day.

From the car park, the track heads up a switchback to reach the lake which, despite some incredible reflections seen from the lakeside track, is best appreciated from the lookout partway up Rocky Mountain. From the lookout, there are two ascents up to the summit, but having never been up before, I opted to take the eastern route up which included a side-track to a lookout of Lake Wanaka. As is often the case when I’m down this way, I take hundreds of photos because why wouldn’t you? The place is gorgeous, and between the lake and the mountains, there’s barely a dull spot to look at.

 

The track, while well worn, is a little rough underfoot in places, and after a day of hauling myself up the via ferrata, I was a little tired in the legs. I’d hiked 3 days solid followed by a slog up an iron ladder. I was feeling both fit yet exhausted from the exertion. But the views were worth it, and I sat on the summit for a long time as the shadows grew long as the sun dropped low to the west. Below me, the lake water looked so still, and behind me, the towering point of Mount Aspiring, the National Park’s tallest peak, stood in the shadow with its glacier perched near the top.

 

It took some pull to make me leave, but the views accompanied me on the way down too. I took the western track down, descending a different way which gave me a view across to the twin falls, one of which had been the site for the via ferrata, now in shadow. I was mainly looking across to Roys Peak, one of the first mountains that I climbed in the South Island back when I first emigrated. I haven’t been up it since, because back in 2012, I was one of only 5 people on the summit, and it was another perfect day like this one had been. Sadly, it has become Instagram famous, and since then, it has become overcrowded with queues at the top to take specific photos, and degradation of the vegetation has occurred as a result. Despite the stunning views, I’m not really in any hurry to go back up.

 

It was after 7pm by the time I got back to my car and I had a good appetite now in need of satiation. Being a Sunday night, the eateries were busy but I got my stomach filled. The following day I had to drive home to Christchurch, and I wished I could have stayed longer. When I woke up on the Monday, it was another cracker of a day. The locals were all back to their day jobs, but there were a few tourists milling around at the lakeside. After breakfast I joined them, slowly walking the shore until I reached the wharf. It would have been a perfect day to go hiking, but instead I joined the small crowd of people that were feeding the eels in the lake. I’d never seen an eel before moving to New Zealand but they’re often a bit of a local attraction wherever they can be found in accessible waterways. It was a complete melee between the large eels and the myriad of waterfowl that all fought over the food scraps on offer.

 

I took my time heading back, savouring the views before grabbing a sundae from Patagonia, the wonderful ice cream and chocolate shop that can be found in Wanaka and Queenstown. But by lunchtime, I really had to leave. It takes 4-5hrs to drive back to Christchurch but the weather followed me most of the way. I stopped at the head of Lake Pukaki to savour the blue water which shimmered under the blue sky. From here, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak, is in full view. To savour this sight, I stopped at a lakeside car park half way up the lake for a meander along the shore. I love living in Christchurch, but I’m also often sad to return to it after being away in the countryside. It was back to work and the daily grind the following day, but I didn’t have too long to wait till my next trip away.

Humpridge Track – Beyond Humpridge

A high bank of clouds hung over the mountain as the hut began to empty itself of hikers. It made for a grey start to a long day of hiking ahead up on the Humpridge, a little over 900m. I had a long descent ahead with my next bed an estimated 8hrs hiking away at an altitude of just 33m. There was a short trek up from Okaka Lodge to the ridge line and shortly after I turned to head downhill, I was greeted by a couple of kea. Kea are such cheeky interactive birds, and I always love to see them. They hung around only for a few minutes before taking off, revealing the bright orange underside of their otherwise predominantly green plumage.

 

Looking down either side of the mountain, wisps of morning cloud hung around the valleys and trees within view. I was facing directly out over Te Waewae Bay and Rakiura, surrounded by low alpine vegetation either side of the track. By the time I reached the track junction for the ascent I’d done the day before and the descent in front of me, I was walking through what is generally known as goblin forest, an ethereal type of forest typified by lichen-covered trees and moss-covered floors, where goblins and mythical creatures would not seem out of place. They can often be eerily quiet too, but on this occasion there were regular fantail and tomtit sightings as I moved through.

 

Back out on exposed ridge line, the descent was easy but the path was narrow making for the occasional jostle as faster hikers wanted to pass each other. There were great views looking behind and forwards, and I could make out the distinctive boulders atop Humpridge for quite some time. It looked stormy inland and then out of nowhere, a large cloud began to sweep up the eastern aspect of the mountain, enveloping the trail as I approached the area known as Luncheon Rock. The view was just obliterated and it became suddenly very cold. I waited it out for a bit, knowing from experience that it would only be temporary, savouring the view when it returned before disappearing into thick forest.

 

The rest of the descent was through forest similar to what I’d hiked up through the day before. I caught glimpses of kaka parrots feeding in the trees, and there was the sound of various bird species as I descended lower and lower. It took about 4.5hrs to reach the South Coast track at a mere 80m altitude and within minutes I found myself at the first of a series of historic viaducts. This coastal route used to be used by loggers and had a historic sawmill train running along it. The Edwin Burn viaduct was first, followed by the Percy Burn viaduct some time later. On the path between them, there were the hints of railway tracks just about visible through the soil. The viaducts themselves were huge wooden structures spanning wide gullies in the forest and as I crossed the Percy Burn viaduct, I could just make out the sea to the south, peaking out above the tree line.

 

After crossing the Sand Hill viaduct, the track continued to follow the contours of the coastline. I naively assumed I’d get a view of the sea as it skirted round Sand Hill Point but the forest was just too thick. Port Craig felt both tantalisingly close but also still some distance away. I was repetitively distracted by birds though with South Island robins keeping my company as I negotiated what was sometimes a rather muddy track. The foliage here meant sunlight didn’t penetrate well but being a typically wet part of the country, the undergrowth wasn’t getting the chance to dry out. By this point, the clouds had left and as the track started to turn north-east, I was bathed in glorious sunshine wherever the foliage would allow.

I reached Port Craig just shy of 8hrs since I’d left Okaka Lodge. Port Craig Lodge was a series of buildings around a central boardwalk, and my assigned bed was thankfully away from the snorer of the night before. The only view here was down by the helipad, but nearby there was a historic walk which led through some remnants from the sawmill days, as well as a track that led down to Mussel Beach at the edge of Te Waewae Bay. As I followed the beach track there was a lookout over the expanse of blue ocean and as I looked down on it, I saw a dolphin in the water. That was enough to spur me on to get down to the beach pronto.

 

The tide was out, and there was a gentle lap of water on the sand. I had no swimming clothes but I waded out to my knees to let the water soothe my aching feet and I craned my neck looking for signs of something break the water. My reward was the little rounded fin of a Hector’s dolphin feeding in the surf. Time and time again its fin cruised through the water and I caught it breathe as it moved back and forth across the bay. Sometimes it was tantalisingly close to shore, and then it would go out quite far till I could barely see it. At one point it was joined by a second dolphin and I couldn’t believe I pretty much had this moment to myself, despite how many other hikers had already arrived at the hut.

 

I spent over an hour either sitting or meandering on the beach. The dolphins kept me company for a large part of that before they moved further offshore. Latterly some other hikers joined me but they had missed most of the show. I felt so privileged to have experienced that. Eventually I headed back up the steps and walked the historical loop track past abandoned and rusting pits and chimneys. Back at the lodge, the common room began to fill up as everyone crowded in to to make and eat dinner. Once again, the presence of a bar meant I could indulge in a post hike cider. For the second day in a row, I’d hiked 21km, and I’d seen so much wildlife. I thankfully slept so much better that night.

The cloud had moved in over Fiordland National Park during the night and I woke up to a cooler and overcast morning. There was no great mountain to conquer that day but there was still a predicted 7hr hike back to my car. Te Waewae Bay is huge, and the trail was effectively following the coastal margin, although within the forest. The vegetation was so dense away from the trail and I was again reminded how easy it would be to get lost or disorientated if you strayed too far. I spotted kaka again as I moved under the trees then the rain began, and despite the density of the canopy above my head, it made it through the foliage and it was time to gear up in my waterproofs.

Despite the rain, I paused on the beach at Breakneck Creek where I could see the rain moving across the bay. It was steady enough to feel damp, and there was only so long I wanted to hang out in the rain before moving onwards. After another forested section, the trail actually cut down to another beach and the beach became the track. Among the debris on the sand I noticed a rock that looked like it had shellfish fossils in it. Among the waves some jagged rocks were being pounded by the surf but this didn’t seem to deter the spotted shags that were hanging out there. As I moved from one beach to a second beach, the rain began to ease a little and I could see that I was going to out-walk the bad weather. Finally though, I reached the track junction that led up to Okaka Lodge, and now I was retracing my steps from day 1.

 

Exiting Fiordland National Park through the edge of the forest, the long stony beach beckoned once more but it felt a little wilder this time, with the surf breaking on the rocks. A lone shag rested there despite the steady stream of hikers that passed by. The little beach shacks were passed and the last of the swing bridges traversed. Around 2pm I found myself heading up the stairs to the final forest section, eventually popping out at the car park, highly satisfied and tired.

 

I have to admit that often the first thing I’ll do when I come off a multi-day hike is to head straight to a coffee shop for a decent coffee. I used to only drink coffee on the weekends when I lived in Scotland, but the quality coffee in New Zealand means I’m firmly a daily caffeine consumer now, and I always crave a decent brew when I return to civilisation. I had good reason to on this occasion though as I had a 3.5hr drive to my bed for the night. Always one to pack the most into my time off work, I had one more adventure to go before returning to Christchurch.

Humpridge Track – Te Waewae Bay to Humpridge

I was torn between looking out into the surf and staring at my feet. The waters of Te Waewae Bay in New Zealand’s Southland are home to Hector’s dolphins, the World’s smallest dolphin species. I hoped to see some riding the waves as I strolled along the beach on the first section of the multi-day Humpridge Track, but the stones and shifting sand under foot meant I was constantly having to watch my footing.

 

It took about 1.5 hours to walk the expanse of the bay from the car park at Rarakau. I knew I had a decent climb ahead of me but I also wanted to savour the fresh sea air before the sweat and slog began so I hadn’t hurried myself too much. Once off the beach, it was an easy track that hugged the contours of the coastline, following the edge of the forest where the odd bird began to appear. Beyond a swing bridge across a river, the sun burst through the clouds properly, bathing me in sunlight as I came across a pretty little beach just down from the track. Eventually, the track headed into thicker and thicker forest until I found myself at the junction to begin the hard slog up into the mountains. Here, I was stepping into Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in the country, and one of my favourites. Down here, in the south-west corner of the country, the land feels so remote and so far from civilisation, and I was soon to discover, it was full of wildlife.

 

From the moment I took the turnoff the forest felt deep and impenetrable. A mix of cut trail and long boardwalks, there was a sense that moving just a few metres off track could see you lost and disorientated. For an hour and a half, the track meandered through tall dense trees with the sound of forest birds intermittently accompanying me. Somewhere off to the side a river was snaking through the forest but it was out of sight until eventually I reached Water Bridge Shelter where other hikers had also stopped to take a break. Ahead lay the climb, an over 800m ascent up to Okaka Lodge where my bed for the night awaited. But by now I’d already be on the trail for 4 hours, and with the altitude gain, the prospect was of another 4 hours to go. As I replenished some spent energy with snacks and water, a South Island robin watched with great interest, cocking its head as it flitted about.

 

The climb was exhausting but as I made my way up higher and higher in the forest, I saw flashes of tomtits following close by, and even kaka, a shy forest parrot. At one point I stumbled across a large group of riflemen, a really tiny bird that are normally very difficult to photograph due to their shyness and incessant need to keep moving. I would have been able to snap a photo of this group if I had thought to, but I was so caught off guard at the number of them just partying in the ground vegetation that I ended up just watching them without daring to move. There was a constant tag team of passing or being passed by fellow hikers but despite that, I still felt for the most part that it was just me and the forest and it was total bliss despite the effort of the hike.

 

After a couple of hours, a low ridge provided a break in the trees, and the higher altitude meant the trees were a little shorter. For the first time the Okaka Lodge came into view and it looked tantalisingly close. There was also a lookout called Stag Point which gave an incredible view over Te Waewae Bay and I could see over to Rakiura/Stewart Island. The cloud had moved in and the sun had faded but the view was still expansive.

I was by now exhausted and eager to reach the lodge, so I was a little disappointed to see a sign stating there was still another 1.5hrs to go. I could see and hear kea, an alpine parrot flying up by the lodge and the bluffs off to the side of it, and hoped they’d still be there when I reached it. As much as seeing kaka in the wild is exciting due to their rarity, they are typically shy and hide out of sight, unlike the kea which are inquisitive, comparatively bold and more likely to interact. Therefore, I’m always more excited to see kea than I am to see kaka.

Once more delving into thick forest, I finally came upon the ridge junction that would take me onto the alpine ridge towards the lodge. Shortly after making the turn, the track broke out of the trees and I was surrounded by stubby alpine plants and a chill in the air. To protect the fragile plants here, the track became a long boardwalk snaking across the ridge, depositing me at the turn off to the hut. There it was a drop down of about 20m to reach a beautiful lodge nestled between two ridges with a prospect overlooking Te Waewae Bay. I’ve stayed in many Department of Conservation (DoC) huts where it’s first come, first served for bunk beds, but the Humpridge Track is privately run and on arrival I discovered I had a pre-assigned bed. I was to be sharing a bunk room with a family group, of which the matriarch proudly declared to me that she was a loud snorer and laughed as she told me not to expect any sleep that night. I realised I hadn’t brought any ear plugs with me and sighed inwardly.

 

It was by now 5pm, but being summer, sunset was still several hours away, so after I felt adequately rested in the legs, I decided to head back up to the ridge to walk the Humpridge Loop track. Up at around 1000m, the ridge is littered with large and unusually shaped boulders which gives a distinctive skyline. I could see rain moving in from deep within Fiordland National Park, and the sky over me was growing greyer and greyer. I headed clockwise round the loop, where I could see across a span of mountains to Lake Poteriteri to the west. A couple of mountain tarns sat near the top and a few hardy alpine flowers were in bloom. In the far distance were some tall peaks with a dusting of snow still clinging to their slopes.

 

A few spots of rain began as I skirted round the top of the loop to come back on the eastern side. From up here, Rakiura was now in full view and I could see so far along the Southland coast also. It wasn’t quite the blue sunny sky I’d had earlier in the day but the cloud was staying high enough that the view thankfully wasn’t occluded. I took a quick second loop around the trail before the spots of rain became more of a drizzle, sending me back to the lodge for the evening.

 

Away from the bunkrooms, the common rooms felt packed with all the hikers congregated in one space preparing meals and chatting together. The novelty of this being a private lodge was the cupboard full of dehydrated meals, snacks, soft drinks and booze. It was a nice treat to end the long day of hiking by grabbing a can of cider to wash down my dinner and the evening was buzzing with chatter as people got to know each other. I much prefer hiking on my own, and am incredibly introverted in large gatherings. Nonetheless, huts on a hiking trail are a good chance to mingle and meet people from all over the country and abroad, and so I always force myself to talk to people in huts more than I would in my day to day life.

As I retired to bed, it wasn’t long before I discovered that my bunk mate was not kidding about her snoring. It was like a foghorn. I tried and tried to shut off to it but I just got tired and cranky. After a while I grabbed my sleeping bag and walked to the living room where I discovered two other outcasts asleep on the couches. Thankfully there was a spare couch, and I settled in for an awkwardly positioned sleep in a much quieter space. In the early hours of the morning we were disturbed by the early risers. Anyone who has slept overnight in a DoC hut in New Zealand knows that there are always those that rise early, and don’t seem to care who they disturb. As the three of us were occupying the common room, it was difficult for them to tread around us, so in the end, I acknowledged that it was time to get up. I’d hiked 21km to Okaka Lodge, and ahead of me was another 21km to my next bed. I might as well get moving.

A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.

One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.

Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.

 

I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.

 

I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.

 

I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.

 

It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.

The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.

When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.

 

Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.

An Arachnophobic’s Nightmare

As I came face to face with the umpteenth spider blocking my way, I started to second guess myself. There are only a handful of public access walks on Chatham Island, managed through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). The rest of the island is effectively private property and permission is required for access to a lot of places, and tourist levies are charged. I was keen to make use of the public routes, but when I’d voiced my intentions to walk the Rangaika track, I was informed that I should only do it with a guide. Being a regular tramper, and having studied a topographical map, I couldn’t see any reason for this, plus as an exceptional introvert, I really wasn’t keen on spending my day tramping with a stranger. So behind the wheel of yet another rental car on my last day on Chatham Island, I had set off east for the predicted 4-5hr hike.

Chatham Island does not do car parks, and there are limited places to pull over on the gravel roads that make up the island roads outside of Waitangi. There was just space for my car to pull onto the verge, and I was soon over the fence and crossing farmland next to a large copse of wind-shaped trees. I am more than familiar with DoCs orange pole markers, and the 4×4 track that led up the low hillside was so easy to follow. In places where animal tracks and quad bike tracks led off in varying directions, I knew I was heading up the hill, so even without poles it was easy to see where I was going. In fact as I gained height from the roadside altitude of about 20m, to the highest point of roughly 260m, I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with having a guide.

As I’d worked my way up the hillside, the vegetation had changed from farmed grassland, to ever-taller vegetation, and a fence marked the perimeter of Thomas Mohi Tuuta Scenic Reserve, within which the trees had managed to attain a decent height away from the munching mouths of livestock. At the most southern aspect of the hike, I found myself atop a high cliff with a hazy view across Pitt Strait to Pitt Island. It was a crazy feeling to think about how isolated I was out here on a wild coast of a near-empty island far out in the Pacific Ocean. As much as I enjoy my own company, sometimes it would be nice to have someone to share those moments with. But one of the biggest things about hiking alone is the mental challenge and the personal growth that comes from getting out of my comfort zone. And after the first couple of hours of hiking, I was about to get to know my limits very well.

The track turned east and immediately dove into the dense forest across the fence line. Now it was just a matter of following the orange triangles that are another familiar sight when I’m hiking. The track was overgrown in places, and I found myself walking into a few spider webs, so started using my hands to swipe ahead of my face. But the deeper I plunged into the forest, the rougher the track got. The rougher the track got, the more caught out I would find myself when I unintentionally came across spider after spider at face height. Now, I’m not the worst arachnophobic in the World. In fact I can cope okay with being around them, and don’t mind little ones walking on me, but bigger spiders cause me to shudder and if one gets on my face I’ll let out a pathetic scream. I had to shimmy and dance round and under so many webs in an effort not to break the poor occupant’s hard work, but there were many that I just couldn’t get around, and I would break them with my arm, and then there were all the ones I didn’t see until I felt them on my skin or saw the spider right in front of my face.

I don’t know how many times I cried out involuntarily, but it was many and as the trail got harder and harder to follow, I realised why I’d been recommended a guide. This section went on for so long too which just made the experience that bit more miserable. When I finally made it out to the clearing at Rangaika it was a total relief. There was a stunning view along the coast, and I felt even more away from civilisation than I had at the last viewpoint. With all my nervousness and water consumption, I needed to use the long-drop that was conveniently placed here, but it was hardly surprising to open the door to discover a spider had spun a web across the doorway. I hesitated briefly, then realised that I could duck under it to get inside and duly did so. Looking out the doorway, I decided the view was so lovely and there was clearly no-one else around, so I didn’t bother to shut the door behind me. Instead, I sat on the long-drop throne with the toilet door open, and the view with my spider compadre suspended overhead in front of me.

The vegetation blocked the full extent of the coastal views here but what I could see was dramatic. The north end of Chatham Island is so low-lying, but as I’d discovered on my flight to Pitt Island, this southern end is so tall in comparison with steep-dropping cliffs marking the junction between land and sea. Pitt Island was still a hazy sight on the horizon, and I had merely insects to share the view with. As I left it behind, following the trail north, I was outside of the reserve fence, again following a wide 4×4 track. It was such a pleasant change, and I was glad to be out of the forest and on my way back to the car.

 

But after a couple of bends I was dismayed to see an orange marker and a stile lead me back into the forest once more, and just like the previous section, it was severely overgrown and I was immediately back to spider swatting. After a while, surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable jungle, the track petered out. I looked in front of me and to my side, trying to guess where it was supposed to go. Behind me I could see where I had come, but it really wasn’t clear where I was to go. I pushed through a patch of bush and saw a track, gratefully setting on it, but it very quickly led nowhere. I turned around to retrace my steps but because I’d pushed through vegetation to get where I was, I couldn’t see the track I’d come off, nor any markers, nor the bit of bush I’d pushed through to get there. It all just looked the same: dense and impenetrable.

 

I had a brief moment of panic as I realised I was on my own in the middle of a forest at the southern end of a barely-inhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody even knew I was there. But panic gets you nowhere and with a mental map of the lay of the land in my head, I realised that even if I was lost, I just had to pick a direction and bush-bash, and eventually I’d reach the fence at the edge of the reserve which I could then follow downhill. That eased my mind, and helped me choose a spot to push through which popped me back out at the actual track. Still not seeing where it led, I took another guess and pushed through another bit of bush to be greeted by the welcoming sight of an orange track marker and a rough track leading away. It led up and over a ridge, dropping down into a creek bed and back up the other side, where at last, the vegetation opened up a bit before depositing me back at the fence line and the 4×4 track I’d followed way back at the start.

My leg was bleeding from all the bush bashing I’d done. My shin was scratched raw. I had mixed feelings of triumph and sheepish stupidity for having done it in the first place, but I’d gone out my comfort zone and successfully overcome my fear of being lost. It was just a matter of retracing my earlier steps back across the farmland and down towards the Owenga road, which I reached 6.5hrs after I’d left it.

I drove west back to Waitangi and out the other side to the hill that overlooks Waitangi wharf. Here, a short track leads to a view point where I had an expansive view of Petre Bay and Waitangi at its southern end. A small fleet of fishing boats sat moored in the sheltered waters, and I took in the view, aware that I was heading home the next day. Eventually my stomach took me to the Hotel Chatham for my last dinner, and afterwards, I stretched my legs a little on the small beach out front before heading back to the motel up the hill. Like the night before, there was a beautiful sunset to frame the tractor that sat on the hillside, and I reflected on how good I’d had it with the weather.

 

It was moody the next morning as I ate breakfast and waited for the ride to the airport. Some of my favourite parts of my Homeland in Scotland are the wild and rugged Outer Hebrides where life grits its teeth and clings on despite the barrage that the Atlantic Ocean throws at it. I felt the exact same way about the Chatham Islands. They had that same feel about them, and I was sad to leave, although I was happy I’d done them justice, having seen so much on the two main islands. The same archaic plane that brought me there, took me home on its slow and low journey with the loud Rolls Royce engines turning the propellers. But I still had another week before I returned to work, so my return to Christchurch was not the end of my summer adventure.

Island Life

There was a moment of incredulity as I stared at the vehicle in front of me. On my second to last day on Chatham Island, I’d agreed to do an islander a favour, and in return, I’d been offered a free rental vehicle for the day. But after breakfast down at the Hotel Chatham, I was handed a key and pointed in the direction of outside, only to find myself staring at a 16-seater mini-bus. I double checked the tag on the key, confirming that this was indeed my free rental, and inwardly I had a slight panic. Did my driver’s licence cover me for this? Could I drive this thing? What the hell had I agreed to? Because not only was I to safely drive this behemoth without damaging it, but the directions I had been given boiled down to a description of the house and roughly where to find it, and to top it off, I was to let myself into somebody’s house while they weren’t there and go into their bedroom where my task would await me. My holiday was suddenly an adventure.

I shakily set off east, driving carefully on the unsealed road to the settlement of Owenga. I looked for the house in question, and pulled the mini-bus over on the grass verge, unwilling to take it down the slope to the house in case I couldn’t get back up again. There was an awkward few moments where I couldn’t work out how to get to the front door, and then silently and cautiously I let myself inside, calling out just in case anyone was home. Then it was a matter of guess which room was the bedroom in question, before slipping inside to be greeted by a curled up kitty on the end of the bed. Word had gotten out about my job and with no resident vet on the islands, there was an unwell cat in need. Despite having absolutely nothing work-related on me, for the second time on my trip, I found myself doing what I could with not very much. It was a beautiful cat and it enjoyed some pats, but the minute I got down to business to give it a physical exam it started hissing and swiping, especially when I found the bite wound on its tail that was making it so unwell. The poor thing was clearly in pain and I had absolutely no way of alleviating it. It felt like a fruitless exercise.

I had a nerve-wracking multi-point turn to get the mini-bus facing the other direction to head back to the hotel. The person that I needed to speak to wasn’t going to be back till the evening. In fact the hotel was pretty much empty with everyone out for the day except the tour manager. Whilst not wanting to look ungrateful for the free vehicle, I was able to politely request an exchange in rental vehicle as there is little in the way of parking areas around the island, and the hefty bulk of the mini-bus was going to limit me getting around the place. When I set off back east again, it was in a jeep. I passed back through Owenga and continued on the road to reach the very end. My plan was to visit a statue near the point but when I got there, it was mobbed with a large number of islanders parked up on every inch of available grass. They were there to honour the man whose statue it was, and I felt like such an intrusive tourist as I really had no idea what I was gatecrashing.

I found a patch of long grass that I could squeeze onto out of the way and hung around at the margins of the crowd. Everyone smiled at me though and one lady explained what they were there for and told me not to feel shy about being there. Still, I hesitated as they were all taking family photos, and I only approached as most of them were leaving. I’d never heard of the man who the statue represents prior to arriving on the island and I still don’t feel adequately knowledgeable to talk about him. Feeling like I’d intruded on a private event, and secretly wondering if the owner of the house I’d just been in was here, I stayed for only a brief period before heading off.

On the western edge of Owenga is the wharf where fishing charters take off from. I pulled down the hill to the slipway and was surprised to come across the group of guys from my motel. They were supposed to be going out on a fishing trip but it had been cancelled, and they were stuck with a flat tyre and no spare. They were struggling to get the tyre off, and I offered to shuttle them and the tyre back to Waitangi to get it fixed. There was little I could do to help get the tyre off when they were struggling, so I simply waited. Eventually a local turned up, saw the predicament and took off with the tyre on the back of his quad bike. Some time later, he reappeared, having patched the hole and reinflated it. Islanders are more than used to a dose of resilience, and with my services no longer required, I bid everyone goodbye and headed off.

I’d planned on doing a multi-hour hike in the area but felt it was a bit late in the day now to set off so changed my plans and decided to stick to the southern end of the island, but this time on the western half. But as I drove back to Waitangi, I found myself getting flagged down by the driver of one of the tour buses. He’d broken down with a busload full of passengers on board. He hopped in and I took him to another random house upon his direction. It was Sunday and what few businesses there are on the island were either not open at all, or only open for very limited hours. I was beginning to feel like an islander, and didn’t mind one bit. It felt nice to be helpful, and I was happy to ferry the driver to get what he needed and take him back to the bus.

From Waitangi, I took the only road south which gave me a gorgeous view of the south-west coast. I would have loved to stop and take photos but there was simply nowhere to pull over and I didn’t want to be a nuisance for the islanders. I kept going for some distance until I wasn’t sure if I was entering private property or not. When the opportunity arose to turn the car around I took it, hovering briefly in a couple of spots to absorb the view when I was confident nobody else was coming.

 

It was by now mid-afternoon, and I had to decide what to do next. Pulling the map out, I decided to drive all the way to the north coast to do a couple of walks I’d spied while being taken to the fur seal colony earlier on my trip. The sun was out and it was a gorgeous day. My first stop on North Road was a wetland walk that led to one of the many lakes in the region. I had the place to myself and it felt so still and peaceful. There were a few birds around at the water’s edge, but not enough to keep me there for long. I completed the circuit and moved on to Ocean Mail Scenic Reserve a little further along the road. I was grateful for the jeep with the bit of off-roading I had to do to reach the parking spot and I stepped out into a mildly windy afternoon and found I had the place to myself.

 

Stepping onto the white sand I was presented with a stunning stretch of beach, buffeted by the coastal wind and with a mild chop on the waters offshore. I felt transported to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, and walks along similar desolate beaches on similar remote islands, and I spent the next few hours with a giant grin on my face as I traipsed along the sandy substrate spotting jellyfish and crab shells galore. In fact the numbers of crab shells was insane. To this day I’m not sure what happened to their former occupants – were they caught, eaten and discarded, or had there been some mass mortality and feast, or was it simply the prevailing winds driving successively dead crab shells on the same beach? The vast numbers of jellyfish I suspect were due to the currents and wind, so perhaps this was the same fate for the crabs.

 

I walked until my body told me to turn back. I watched groups of oyster catchers feed in the tidal zone as I wandered, and I was most certainly in no hurry to leave. This became my favourite spot on the whole island and it was only the call of dinner that could drag me away. Back at the Hotel Chatham I was finally able to give my report on the poor kitty from the morning, and word had got back about me rescuing the bus driver. I’d come to the Chatham Islands on my own, to find solitude and tranquility, and I’d found heaps of both, in conjunction with an exceptionally welcoming community of people. I was going to be sad to leave. Back in my motel, I had a quick catch up with the guys, who’d thankfully been able to make the most of their afternoon after their car troubles. I retired to my room where I had a great view of the sky changing colour as the sun set behind the nearby farm. A tractor on the ridge provided a nice silhouette, and tired as I was from a lot of fresh air and excitement, I was soon out for the count ahead of my last full day on this magical island.

Pitt Island

If the people of Chatham Island were hardy, then those few living on Pitt Island were even more so. Although not far apart, the Pitt Islanders were reliant on a weather-dependent tourist plane from Chatham Island squeezing in the odd lightweight supply, or a supply boat that sailed from the mainland of New Zealand taking days to get there. I was eager to visit, and having come all this way, I would have been gutted not to make the trip. I was assured prior to my arrival on Chatham, that I was booked on a trip there during my week’s stay, as long as the weather allowed for it. I was travelling solo which gave me the advantage of being able to squeeze into a last space, so I was grateful to get confirmation of not just a space on the tiny plane, but also that the weather window was looking to hold for me to get there. The group of guys I was sharing the motel with were not so lucky. They unfortunately got mucked around quite a bit by the team at the Hotel Chatham and were overlooked for a spot, leaving them a tad disgruntled.

But none of us knew that at this point, and they bade me a good day as I got taken to the airport to wait impatiently for the plane to be ready. And boy was I impatient. Our departure time came and went and the plane was showing no signs of going anywhere. I paced back and forth, until finally we were invited down the steps to board. I calculated things just right and scored not just a window seat but the co-pilot seat for the journey over the Pitt Strait. We took off heading east, flying out over the large lagoon that takes over a large chunk of the island. Turning south I could see Lake Huro that I’d walked around a couple of days prior, and then as we reached the south coast, I was shocked to see tall cliffs dropping off into the ocean. From everywhere I’d been so far, Chatham Island looked low-lying and relatively flat, but it appeared now that the southern portion rose up somewhat, creating a coast line of dramatic cliffs.

 

Due to the size of the plane, we’d been given aviation life jackets to wear, and looking down now over the Pitt Strait, it looked uninviting and deadly. After a while though, we flew over the supply ship which sat a little off shore, and then we were over Pitt Island, and I immediately noted the contrast as it was more hilly than its neighbour, with one rather dominant mound near the coast. Soon we were banking and landing on a grass runway in the middle of nowhere. If I’d felt remote on Chatham, I felt excitedly isolated on Pitt. The pilot readied to head off as we got picked up by our guide for the day, and we watched as the plane left us behind.

There’s only one accommodation on the island, and the host there was who was running our tour. He drove us first towards the large mount where a track could be seen weaving up the side. If you stay overnight on the island, it is possible to go up to the summit, but there was no leisure time to attempt it on this day. Instead, we stopped nearby at a fenced woodland which offered a predator-free spot for the local wildlife. Even out here, several hours away from the rest of New Zealand, introduced pests have wreaked havoc on the wildlife, and like elsewhere, the unique species out here have also suffered. What was special about this area though was that deep within the trees, were some artificial nest boxes for the endangered Chatham Petrel, a seabird that came on land to breed here.

On route we spotted a Pitt Island tui, a rather scruffier version of the mainland variant, and a few of the local fantails also flitted about the branches around us. When we came out into a small opening, our guide lifted the top off one of the boxes half buried in the ground, and a startled and confused petrel was exposed as we all craned in to have a look. I’m quite a bird enthusiast now that I’m older, and I find tube-nosed birds like petrels fascinating. They spend a lot of time on the wing using their nose to sniff out food. As this little one moved around in slight agitation, a white egg was revealed, a sign of hope for the species. After a short few minutes of our collective ogling, the lid was replaced and we retreated away, so as not to cause the bird to abandon it. We followed the trail out the far side of the wood where we got a brief glimpse of the coast and a small, pointed offshore island that looked like a shark’s tooth. In the chill of the grey day, we soon retreated back to the van.

It was a bumpy and hilly drive across the middle portion of the island, leading us up and over and down towards Flowerpot Bay where the lodge was situated a little back from a beach and the pier. The island was otherwise predominantly used as farmland, and we came across some hardy looking sheep which reminded me of the hill breeds from back in the UK. We passed some angry looking rams with their thick woollen coats and curving horns, and as we approached the main building, we were joined by the farm dogs who barked their way alongside the van. The local school was right next door as we bundled out, and after dumping our layers of clothing at the entrance, we headed inside at the lodge into a cosy and very homely grand living space, complete with bar, fireplace and large vista windows looking out to the coast.

 

We were given a delightful buffet of food, including some locally caught fish, and as we hung around enjoying lunch, we watched as the supply ship, which was moored at the entrance to the bay, unloaded onto a little metal boat which zipped into shore delivering a tractor amongst other things. A jeep sat atop some containers back on the ship, and I wondered how much extra it cost to get vehicles brought out here. Quite a lot I’m sure. But with the sea air blowing in from every direction, the threat of rust probably affects the life expectancy of any machinery or vehicle in these parts.

Heading down to the beach, I strolled away from the pier to the far end where I found a perfectly carved man-made cave in the cliff. It had the air of a prison cell from the inside (and was in fact used as a jail for slaves), and on the wall the year 1878 was carved into the soft rock, a sign that this was no new structure. Creating space for others to nosy, I headed back along the beach to the pier where the few locals were busy unloading from the ship. I chuckled at the large quantity of beer that was stacked up at the end of the pier, which on first thought made me think they were perhaps a bit alcoholic, but in reality it probably has to last them quite a long time with the unpredictability of deliveries around the weather and seasons. I wandered into the shed that was nearby to be greeted by several children who were clowning around on the large mounds of tyres that were piled up inside. I’m generally very introverted with strangers, but these kids took great pleasure in asking me lots of questions and chatting away with me until somebody from my tour group yelled at me to come back to the van.

The unloading would take all the hours of daylight, and we had other parts of the island to explore. We headed back up onto the hilly spine of the island, this time heading west through large fields full of sheep. Eventually we found ourselves at a dramatic coastline where the green pasture had faded away to reveal a stark red clifftop that contrasted dramatically with the grey sea and sky beyond it. Offshore, Mangere Island sat among the waves, a tall high-cliffed lump of rock that is now a predator-free sanctuary, and one of only two islands where the rare Black Robin still resides. I could not get enough of the view here. The exposed red cliff formed a myriad of shapes and structures, some of which reminded me of the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Just south of us was a bay which was also framed by the exposed and eroding red cliff edge.

 

A bird of prey circled overhead as we wandered along the cliff top while down below I spotted some sheep on lower land underneath the cliffs. As we bundled back into the van and trundled across the hilly farmland I spotted the same harrier hawk perched on a bush. Heading across to the east coast and then turning south we stopped at the airport. Due to the small size of the plane and the flight time, each day’s tour group was split into two. The first group had flown ahead and whilst we had waited back on Chatham for the return of the plane, they had gone on to do the part of the tour that we would be doing next. As such they were to now head back whilst we went on to the final stop. We sat at the strip of grass whilst they boarded the plane and it took off, then we headed south where we had a view across an equally wild coast and this time across to Rangatira Island, another predator-free island and the only other place in the World to spot the rare Black Robin.

Nestled on the grassy bank at Glory Bay was the bright red Glory Cottage, a restored wooden building that was originally used for shepherds tending the land. The bay itself is named after the shipwreck that occurred within it in 1827, from where survivors rowed 1280km to Northland on New Zealand’s North Island in a small boat to raise the alarm. I was on Pitt Island on a relatively calm day, but even then the birds that rode the thermals were being blasted by the Pacific winds, and I could only imagine how harrowing that journey must have been. The inside of the cottage gave a little respite from the chill in the air, but outside an old boat and tractor were slowly degrading in the elements, the harsh sea air having rendered them useless.