The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.
But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.
SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.
And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.
Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.
The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Straight. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.
Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.
Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.
After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).
With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.
After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.
The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.
It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.
Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.