MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the category “Travel”

Coastal Explorations

When you grow up watching Home & Away, Australia’s soap based around a beach-side town, it paints a picture of the stereotypical Aussie beach goer that is hard to shake even as an adult exploring the real world. Here in Queensland, there were plenty of examples of the bronze-skinned bods with sun-bleached blonde hair to keep the stereotype alive, and I was silently amused when our ride for the morning turned up with a guide looking like one of them. Full of animated chat and with a driving style to match, we were whisked off for our morning tour, heading up the river to Tewantin and beyond to where a cable-driven ferry crosses the Noosa river to the Noosa north shore. It was a short and smooth ride and then it was just a matter of driving across the forested land to reach the access point for Teewah beach.

Spanning 2500km (1553 miles), the coast of Queensland is staggeringly beautiful and there is plenty of choice when it comes to exploring it. Here on the eastern aspect of the Great Sandy National Park, we drove up the 51km (31 mile) expanse of the beach, the ocean sparkling to our right under the orb of the rising sun. It’s not often you get to drive directly on sand, and this was the most epic of beach drives I’ve ever done. The views were incredible, both out to sea and the dunes also, but being in August, we were following the coast during the migration of the humpback whales, my absolute favourite cetacean. I’ve been lucky to spot this species in 5 different countries around the world. They are playful and inquisitive, and always a joy to spot. I knew they would be around but wasn’t thinking anything of spotting them, knowing that in a few days time I was to be going on a whale watching excursion off Hervey Bay to the north. So it was amusing that within minutes of our guide telling us to keep an eye out for them, I spotted the distinctive spout that signalled a whale surfacing to breathe. A mother and calf were heading south very close to shore and we pulled up to watch them for a while. In either direction, the beach disappeared into the distance and surprisingly the beach had a lot of vehicle traffic. Aside from organised tours, it is possible to drive on the beach in a private vehicle provided you pay a fee, and there were plenty of people making use of this allowance.

 

We spotted another pair of humpback whales further up the beach and beyond that a solo whale too, all before we made it to the turnoff near Double Island Point on the spit. It was a bumpy ride across to the bay on the other side of the point, and in front of us, the sand again arced away into the distance. A little along the coast lies the settlement of Rainbow Beach, and we met up with those people who were joining the tour from there underneath the vibrant Rainbow Bluffs. After a photo stop, we convoyed back to Double Island Point where our kayaks were unloaded and we kitted up for a morning on the ocean. I’ve kayaked several times now, both on the ocean and on lakes, and although I always enjoy it, my indwelling fear of drowning always leaves me with a sense of nervous anticipation both before and during the trips. The wind direction meant the sea was relatively calm, and we were quick to get out of the bay and follow the headland.

 

Marketed as a dolphin-watching kayak, we certainly saw some dolphins, but only a small number on two occasions, and both times, they kept their distance and didn’t interact. Like on commercial whale and dolphin watching excursions, we weren’t permitted to follow them, and just sat bobbing on the water’s surface as they passed us by from afar. Continuing along the coast, we kept our eye out for humpback whales. I’ve seen plenty of videos of these 40-ton creatures breaching near kayaks, and I was torn between the desire to see it with my own eyes, and fear of the event causing us to capsize. Despite our luck at spotting them on the drive up the beach, they eluded us the whole time we were on the sea. What we did see was a large manta ray which was unexpected. I saw several of these in the Pacific Ocean around the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago, including seeing them come flying out of the ocean in a breach-style behaviour. I was excited to see one again, not realising that they inhabited the waters here.

 

On the clifftop above us was the Double Island Point lighthouse, where several people stood at the lookout watching us as well as out to sea for signs of whale activity. By the time we were heading back, there was a bit of chop on the surface and the waves that resulted made it harder to get back round the headland and onto the beach. The water was so inviting though that I wasted no time in heading back in for a swim before it was time to jump back in the van. A little away from our kayak spot we stopped at an inconspicuous patch of beach that on closer inspection was teeming with crabs. The soldier crabs were a mix of blue and yellow, and in spite of myself I offered out my hands to hold some when our guide scooped them up for us to have a closer look. Although 2 legs short of an arachnid, I love to admire crabs but their sideways scuttle and waving pincers has always unnerved me enough to not want to touch them. But these guys had relatively small pincers and they were amusing to watch and felt ticklish in my hands.

 

Back in the van once more, we cut across the dunes to reach Teewah beach once more and immediately after hitting the beach we spotted two more humpback whales and without knowing it at the time, this was the first day of what would turn out to be an incredibly successful spotting season for me. I enjoyed the long drive back down the gorgeous beach just as much as I had the drive north, and was sad to leave it behind when the access point appeared in the dunes to return to civilisation. There was only a short wait for the cable-driven ferry back to Tewantin and in the early afternoon we were dropped off back at Noosa Heads. It was a hot and sunny day, and my partner was not in the mood to do much more, whereas I was keen to continue to explore. Our apartment was not only just a street away from the beach but just a few doors down from us was a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream outlet and it was the perfect accompaniment to a walk along the coast.

Crossing the main road to Noosa Main beach, a pathway follows the coastline to the headland to the east which, once away from the houses, is deemed as Noosa National Park. It was an exceptionally busy trail and the car park at the entrance to the National Park was also full. But it wasn’t hard to spot wildlife even with the heavy foot traffic. A monitor lizard or goanna was rustling around in the undergrowth nearby and after noticing a few people craning their necks upwards, I spotted a koala in a large eucalypt tree near the park entrance.

 

From here the coastal track had a nearly constant sea view and although undulating, was an easy grade of walk to do, although the heat and the strength of the sun meant I was regularly in need of both water and a top up of sunscreen. With a plethora of bays and beaches to choose from, many people on the track were coming back from their sunbathing or swimming spots, whereas I was forever scanning between the sea in search of whales, and the treetops in search of koalas. There was enough bird life flitting amongst the trees and stunning vistas at every turn to make up for the lack of spotting either. I even spotted some bird species that I’d never seen before.

 

From Boiling Point Lookout to Dolphin Lookout and beyond to Fairy Pools, I finally found myself at Hell’s Gate, the eastern-most point of the headland. Here a gorge within the cliff created a swirling rage of waves that smashed off the rocks, and the path turned south towards Alexandria Bay. Up on top of the cliffs, the sun was noticeably lowering, with shadows starting to stretch across the headland. Above me I spied a sea eagle, and below me I spotted some dolphins in the distance. Assuming they were the commonly spotted bottlenosed variety, it wasn’t until later when I looked at my photographs that I realised that they were in fact humpback dolphins, a lesser-spotted and shy species that I haven’t seen since I volunteered in South Africa 12 years ago. I spent quite some time at Hell’s Gate enjoying the fresh air and surveying the sea and sky for life.

 

By the time I reached the sand of Alexandria bay it was nearly completely in shadow. My partner was going to be picking me up from the end of the trail at Sunshine beach, and with the daylight starting to fade, I was quick to walk the length of the beach and rejoin the trail at the far end. It climbed back up onto the cliff tops and was in deeper vegetation than before until finally the expanse of Sunshine beach came into view. On the eastern side of the hill from Noosa, it was in shadow, but I noticed out to sea a lone humpback whale repeatedly breaching. There were some steep steps to negotiate to reach sea level once more and I struggled along the sand searching for the exit point that I needed to meet my partner at our arranged spot. We ate out in Sunshine Beach at a restaurant owned by a previous Masterchef Australia contestant before returning to Noosa for more ice cream.

 

On my last morning in Noosa, we headed over to Sunshine beach for breakfast. I was still feeling the effects from all the overindulging I’d been doing since arriving in Australia, so it didn’t take much to fill me up. With the benefit of a rental car, we took a drive south through the various seaside settlements until the road cut away from the coast. It was yet another sunny day and once more the sea sparkled. This was to be the day that my partner and I separated. He was going to be staying in Noosa for a few more days before returning to the Gold Coast and then home whereas I had another 4 weeks of Australian adventure ahead of me.

 

Back in Noosa, we both followed the coast track to Dolphin Lookout where again the route was busy with people. This time we spotted a kookaburra in the tree, a bird that I love to listen to. I remember as a youngster in the Brownies, a younger version of the Girl Guides, singing a song about a kookaburra, not really knowing what it was never mind being aware that I would one day see them for myself. It’s funny how life turns out. Even having walked the path just the day before, it was still an enjoyable walk again, but with the clock ticking down, we went for one last meal together at the Noosa Surf Life Saving club. Finally though it was time to head to the bus station and begin my Greyhound adventure. A regular solo traveller, I was sad to lose the company of my partner though, but once the bus headed out of the station, I plugged my headphones in and gave way to the soundtrack on my phone.

 

As the crow flies, Hervey Bay is actually not that far away, and by car I could have reached there in about 2.5hrs. Frustratingly, though understandably, the Greyhound bus winds its way between local settlements and as the bus driver has to have statutory breaks, it was a rather arduous drive of nearly 5hrs. On route, we stopped at a service station with a giant kangaroo statue from the Olympic Games, passed several bush fires that had been lit as a controlled burn ahead of the dry season, and as the sun set I spotted some kangaroos at the side of the road. We pulled into Hervey Bay in complete darkness, and I was the last person to get off at the final stop in the Torquay end of town. I walked up and down the street of my hostel confused. Even with the benefit of Google maps I couldn’t find my hostel and had to flag down a local for some help. It turned out the place I was staying had changed names so my booking paperwork had the right address but the wrong building name, something I found a little irksome when I was tired and wandering around in the dark. I was equally annoyed to find out there was little in the way of somewhere to eat. Being a Saturday night, the local pub was more fired up for drinking and did not look enticing and after wandering the neighbouring streets, I was left with the slim pickings that the petrol station offered. First impressions were not that great, but I had an early rise to head off the next morning. Hervey Bay would have to win me over another time, as the famous Fraser Island was next in my sights.

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North to Noosa

Despite being 17 years since I left high school behind, I’ve discovered an interest in a subject that I hated at school. It may have something to do with the country I live in or just coincidental but I’m quite fascinated now by geology and how landscapes came to be. The distinctive Glass House Mountains in Queensland, Australia are a collection of domes left behind from previous volcanic activity in the region. I’d spotted them on the drive to Australia Zoo back in 2014 and this time I’d managed to convince my partner to take a detour on our drive north to Noosa. We didn’t really have a plan and weren’t sure what to expect so just followed some tourist signs. The first one we came across we had to off-road it to get to a small car park below a summit walk but my partner didn’t want to hike in the heat so we turned back. Looping round in a circle, we headed up another one which could be driven all the way to a viewing spot at the top.

It was a busy car park when we arrived and we had little time before a few coaches of Japanese tourists arrived and the place became overrun with people. It was a nice view though overlooking the surrounding bush with several of the Glass House mountains visible. We’d spotted a cafe on the drive up and were lucky to get a table on the drive back down as it too was a busy little spot with a beautiful view from their decking. As a trade off for not going to Australia Zoo, we stopped at the local kart racing track for my partner to beat me once again. I was never the best at kart racing anyway but following wrist, back and shoulder injuries I’m even more cautious in them than before. It always takes the alloted race time to get the feel of the track, such that I’m just getting into it when I get called off. Needless to say, I have a 100% record of defeat on the kart track: a record that I don’t think will ever change. If nothing else, I just end up being another obstacle for the better racers to negotiate.

 

Noosa in the Sunshine Coast is a special place for my partner, somewhere he could happily return to time and time again. When we visited in 2014, we experienced the most amazing thunder & lightening storm I have ever seen. Although popular and packed like it’s Gold Coast cousins, it has a totally different vibe to the likes of Surfers Paradise and it’s one of the few busy places I don’t mind. Many places have been ruined by their own popularity but Noosa is not quite there yet. Made up of the collective zones of Noosa Heads, Noosaville, and Noosa North Shore, Noosa is a mix of beach, sea, river and estuary. We were staying in an apartment just 1 street away from the beachfront of Noosa Heads, right by the main street and it was huge. It was also very convenient for one of our favourite hangouts, the very popular Noosa Heads Surf Life Saving Club which overlooks Noosa Main Beach. Aside from providing the obvious life saving services, many of Queensland’s surf clubs also provide eating and drinking hubs and Noosa Head’s club has a great reputation. At peak times, table and bar space is in short supply, but we managed to get a spot to enjoy an evening drink and dinner before wandering along the main street, picking up dessert along the way.

 

Whilst my partner was going to be hanging out in Noosa for several days, I only had 2 full days there before we were parting company. My partner had been keen to take me on an excursion to the Noosa everglades, one of only two everglades in the world (the other being the more famous Florida everglades), so we booked on to a day tour from Noosa Heads. We were both up early due to still being on New Zealand time, so we made the most of the morning light by taking a walk along the beachfront and into the Noosa Spit Recreation Reserve. Just like on our last visit, there was a beautifully crafted sandcastle on the beach, and at the spit, the rays of morning sun streaked across the sandbar.

 

We were picked up by the tour company and driven to the pier up the Noosa river where we were to set off on our trip. Even in August, it was a busy time of year and two packed boats set off together. The Noosa river is well utilised and busy, but even with the heavy traffic, there was also plenty of bird life to see. Initially, it was mainly pelicans and seagulls, but as we left the waterfront villas behind and rounded a few bends of the river, past the pleasure boats and sails, there was a plethora of diving birds, spoonbills, brahminy kites and even an osprey to spot. The river side was an entanglement of mangroves, towered over by a forest of tall, spindly trees behind them.

 

The river opened up into a large yet shallow lake that we ploughed across before re-entering the narrower river channel. Now it felt like we were away from civilisation, the trees packed deep either side of the river, and after crossing the massive expanse of Lake Cootharaba (Queensland’s largest lake), stopping at a campsite to stretch our legs and have a snack, we finally entered the Everglades proper. Here the water changed from the green-blue seawater to the brown tannin-stained fresh water, and there was a noticeable reduction in bird life. There were many people out kayaking but the bush remained thick giving the impression of being far away from everything.

 

The further up river we travelled, the more reflective the water became and as we snaked through the waterway, the reflection of fallen trees cast a magical sight. Eventually we moored at the pier near Harry’s Hut and we were left to wander around whilst our inclusive lunch BBQ was prepared. We didn’t need to wander far to find one of Australia’s large lizards, the goanna or monitor lizard as there were 3 lace monitors (Australia’s 2nd largest lizard) hanging around the picnic area. They drew a lot of attention but also came with a warning as bites from them have occurred which can be quite nasty.

 

After a delicious lunch and more goanna watching, it was time to return to Noosa but the view on the way back was just as beautiful. Again the mirror effect on the upper river system was mesmerising, and once more as we returned to the sea within Lake Cootharaba, the bird sightings started to increase again. We saw as much, if not more birds on the way back as we did on the way up. It was a beautifully cloudless day, and there was much to look at. Returning to the lower river and back in civilisation, the river was still a hive of activity. I love to see young people learning to sail as a normal part of growing up. Growing up myself in suburban Glasgow in Scotland, we got little water exposure and as such I don’t have much confidence in the sea. As with New Zealand, many Australian children spend their childhood swimming or boating on the coast, and as such there is a noticeable difference in water confidence and I find myself jealous of their upbringing.

 

When we moored up, somebody noticed some stingrays in the water and as it was quite shallow it was easy to spot them even with their camouflage against the sandy backdrop. After being driven back to Noosa Heads, I headed out to wander along the beach as the sun set. It gets dark early in Queensland, the sun dipping below the horizon around 6pm give or take, so the sky was turning red as I meandered along the waterfront. By now the sky was full of clouds, so the red glow in the clouds reflected on the moist beach where the waves retreated. Eventually as darkness fell, I joined my partner at the Surf Life Savers Club for dinner and drinks before we retired to the comfort of our apartment. Still unaccustomed to the time difference and with the early darkness confusing our bodies, we retired early once more. In the end this wasn’t a bad thing, as it made us naturally awaken early, ready to make the most of the day. And the next morning we were to be picked up for what would be another cracking day.

Golden Sunshine

I was more upset about saying goodbye to my cat than I was excited about the impending trip. Sometimes when I book an adventure far ahead the pre-trip excitement loses momentum several weeks before and although always glad for a break from the routines of day to day life as a working adult, I spent the prior couple of days in a stressful whirlwind attempting to do everything I needed to do ahead of a long break away. So even at the airport where I usually start to feel the excited anticipation of heading abroad, I was distracted. I had a 38 day Australian adventure ahead of me and I just wasn’t feeling it.

When I’d discovered back in May 2014 that there would be a work-related conference in the beautiful Gold Coast of Australia’s Queensland, I’d made a note of the dates and then got on with my life. When it opened for sale I booked a place, got a cheap one-way plane ticket to the nearest airport and left it at that. The rest would sort itself out later. But what in my mind was originally going to be a 4 day conference followed by a few days on the Sunshine Coast to the north, morphed in my mind to a 5.5wk extravaganza and eventually I had internal flights arranged and an action packed itinerary to fulfil.

In the Gold Coast it gets dark around 6pm give or take all year round and the sun appears to almost drop out the sky at a surprising rate such that as we landed at Coolangatta airport near Queensland’s southern border with New South Wales, I’d commented to my partner that the sun was still high in the sky, only to get through customs, collect our bags and walk outside into dusk. It is incredible. We drove to our accommodation in Broadbeach in growing darkness. For many people, the Gold Coast is all about Surfers Paradise: the loud, brash and in-your-face party and beach city who’s high rises feature in many photographs of the region. I’d visited before on New Years day a few years ago and found the vibe not to my taste. But the beach here spreads for many kilometres to the south and as you extract yourself from the crowds at Surfers, the beach quickly becomes less crowded and more serene. Our apartment was within easy reach of a myriad of dining options in Broadbeach, which is just south of Surfers. Over the course of the next few days I really came to like Broadbeach and would happily stay there again.

 

Whilst my partner got to kick off his holiday there and then, enjoying the region’s beaches, shopping and theme parks, I had an early morning start at the conference, heading off in dawn for a 6.45am start, emerging again in dusk around 7pm. The second day I again had a 6.45am start but finishing this time at a more reasonable 5.30pm, meant being able to make use of the evening. Driving out to the outer suburbs we met with friends and headed to a night market near them called Helensvale Night Quarter. Being a Saturday night it was packed, and having been well catered to at conference for 2 days, it was slightly wasted on me as I wasn’t really hungry. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, drooling over the endless food options, following my nose and breathing it all in. I found some space in my stomach to fit some food including as much of a delicious but slightly sickly cookie ice cream sandwich as I could manage. At the far end of the market was a large barn with a bar and a stage where a reggae band were playing. It was an immensely enjoyable night and one of those places you’d only discover with a local: a real gem. To top it off, the moon was an incredible colour on the drive home, although it was impossible to get a decent photograph of it.

 

A third early start was at least a slight change of pace. Instead of a morning lecture, I was up for a charity run. Not being a runner, I’d signed up for the 2.5km beach walk and after watching the sunrise over Broadbeach, it was finally time to set foot on the beach. Sharing the beach with locals out walking the dog or taking a morning stroll, our group of competitors pounded past the waves as the sky and buildings changed colour with the sharply rising sun. It was simply beautiful. After a day full of more eating and more learning, we met up with more friends near Brisbane. Unfortunately I was pretty shattered by this point and it was all too brief.

 

The fourth morning I took myself back to the beach walking almost the whole way to Surfers Paradise before doubling back. The light was incredible and I noticed with envy how many locals were out for a morning walk or jog. After moving out of my parent’s home in 2006, I started my life of independence living by the coast, constantly walking the promenade or nearby beach. Sometimes I just yearn to hear the sound of crashing waves and I could totally see the benefit of living in such a place. After the closing of conference, my partner and I made use of the main street of eateries for dinner although I was very much feeling like I’d eaten a year’s worth of food in just 4 days. Thankfully it wasn’t much of a walk to waddle home.

 

Whilst for most of the delegates the conference was done and dusted, I’d signed up for a private trip to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Currumbin to the south of Broadbeach. I have mixed feelings about zoos and wasn’t sure what to expect. At its core the sanctuary has a wildlife hospital where injured animals are treated and rehabilitated. Surrounding this is a large expanse of either walk through zones or fenced exhibits with a myriad of native wildlife. For all that I love about Australia, it is its wildlife that excites me time and time again. I much prefer to see it in the wild so whilst I could see the value of the sanctuary for allowing children to see these critters, it wasn’t for me. However the whole point of us going there was to get a private tour of the wildlife hospital and that was incredible. Seeing and hearing about what work they do was awe inspiring.

 

Afterwards I took a quick walk to Currumbin beach before we were taken back to Broadbeach and finally I could count myself as being on holiday. Having been to Surfers before, there was only 1 thing I wanted to do there this time and that was to go up to the observation deck of the distinctive Q-deck tower. Last time we’d taken a spectacular helicopter flight and from both ground level and in the air, this building stands tall, a perceived giant amongst a skyline of skyscrapers. We took the tram from Broadbeach to Surfers and turned up to discover the entire observation deck was closed for a private function. I couldn’t believe it and struggled to hide my annoyance. In the end, we wandered around in the heat of the day exploring nearby parks and the busy waterfront of Surfers before catching the tram back to Broadbeach. We took a drive up the coast before heading home, enjoying our final meal in Broadbeach.

 

The next day we were headed north. Having been declined entry the day before we headed back to the Q-deck, getting up this time to see the fabulous 360o view from near the top. A little annoyed that the lower morning sun didn’t work as well for photos as the higher afternoon sun the day before would have been, I had to push my petty annoyance aside and get on with enjoying myself. It was hard to stay irked for long with such a view.

 

Last time we were in Queensland, we’d stopped at Australia Zoo on route to Noosa and that had been the working plan this time around too. But I managed to convince my partner to go somewhere different and heading north up the Bruce Highway looking at the immense queues of traffic jammed southbound, we took the Steve Irwin Highway and followed the signs for the Glass House mountains…

Na h-Eileanan Siar – Part Two

It is a strange concept to be amongst fellow countrymen and yet not to understand their language, such is the decline of the Scottish Gaelic. Once a common and widely spoken language (particularly in the north and west), it was bred and beaten out of some speakers as well as replaced for purposes of trade and commerce, first by Scots, and then by English. It hangs on for dear life in places, but aside from a few key words, place names, and the bilingual signage in the north-west of the country, most of the Scottish populace do not speak it, and so generation by generation, it seems almost doomed. As it was, I was in the heart of the Gaelic community, out in the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar). I’d spent the previous few nights based in South Uist, and now it was time to head further north to a new base.

As a lover of the outdoors, there was simply too much to explore in this bilingual frontier on the Atlantic coast off Scotland’s mainland. Although the main trunk road, the A865 carves a direct line north, there were so many side roads leading to beaches and bays and rocky coastline that I was constantly weaving my way west then east in a zig-zagging fashion as I explored these hidden pockets. I was initially greeted by a rainbow through the dark clouds, but eventually the clouds broke apart to reveal some sunshine. South Uist is linked to the island of Berneray by one of a series of causeways that link the island chain. The eastern half is pockmarked with waterways, a cluster of freshwater and seawater. Between the different islands, some of my memories are a little blurred, and I cannot remember which bay or beach was where, but one of the walks I did on Berneray was up Rueval (Ruabhal in Gaelic), the highest point of the island at a mere 124m (407ft). It was hardly taxing but the view at the top over the island and beyond was beautiful. I could still see the storm clouds to the south that I had left behind and the sun glistened on the waterways beneath me.

 

I took a side road to the island of Flodda, a small island with just a handful of buildings and the odd ruin. Back on the main road, more causeways took me to the neighbouring island of Grimsay and then onto North Uist. Dotted between the sporadic houses and farms there was the occasional ruin here and there. Some of them were old cottages or farms, others were of more significance such as the Trinity Temple. Near here was the exposed and wild expanse of Baleshare’s beach, another island reached by a causeway. On a sunny summer’s day, many of Scotland’s western beaches would rival any of those paradise-inducing photographs of worldwide beaches: pristine sand and unspoilt. But for the frigid sea temperature and biting wind that often accompanies these beaches, they are still worth the visit, and often because they will be empty apart from the local wildlife. Under the dulling sky, these places can feel wild and battered, but in fact that is exactly what I love about this part of my homeland.

 

The eastern half of North Uist is again pockmarked with waterways. Taking the A867 towards Lochmaddy, I continued past the harbour settlement to continue on the A865 that circles past these lakes and inlets. At the turn-off onto the B893, I passed houses here and there, nestled near some beautiful beaches, before reaching yet another causeway to take me to Berneray, the most northern of the linked islands. Beyond here is Lewis and Harris, linked by a ferry run by Caledonian MacBrayne. The Lobster Pot Tearoom which was closed whilst I was visiting, has a sign outside which has become quite famous and is a good indicator of the local humour when it comes to the region’s notorious weather extremes. Past Blackhill, I took the road to its end and then it was time to get out on my feet and explore.

 

Cutting first across beach and then through farmland, I ascended the hill of Beinn Shleibhe which although not particularly high gave a viewpoint across to the nearby islands of Boreray, Pabay, Harris, Ensay and Killegray. I saw one other hiker far ahead of me, but otherwise I had the whole place to myself. Cutting down the other side of the hill, I stumbled onto another of the island chain’s beautiful beaches. After following it for a while, there was a natural curve creating a corner, which as I came around it, I was stopped abruptly in my tracks by the sight of an otter running out of the sea and rolling around in the sand. This is the only wild otter I have ever seen, and I was so transfixed and in the moment that I dared not move to take any photographs. To this day, the memory is still a very clear image in my head, and I stood for some time watching it roll in the sand to remove the salt from its fur, and then it duly skipped off up the nearby sand dune. Eventually, I cut up a gap through the sand dunes myself and followed a vague track back to the road where I could reach my car from.

 

Having had a fantastic start to my last day in the Outer Hebrides, I felt rushed in the afternoon to explore the rest of North Uist. Back on the A865, I passed more beautiful sand right by the road where it was clear people took their cars onto the beach. It was tempting but I didn’t want to risk getting stuck. Further on, towards the west, I reached the turnoff to Solas beach. Out on a peninsula, this whole area was beautiful even as the rain threatened to encroach. With sandy beach on both sides, there was plenty of reason to get out of the car and go for a walk. With the hours creeping on and the weather deteriorating, I found beach after beach after beach as I continued on my way, and I wished I had had more time to spend here. Eventually it was time to leave the western coast behind, and after stopping in at the St Kilda viewing platform where I couldn’t actually see St Kilda because of the advancing rain, I returned to the guesthouse I was staying in and had a wander around the farmland and beach nearby as the sun lowered.

 

That night I treated myself to an expensive dinner at a fancy restaurant near Lochmaddy. Driving home in the dark can be dangerous around these parts and I could see why when a female red deer jumped onto the road in front of me out of nowhere and proceeded to prance down the verge ahead of me for some distance before eventually disappearing into the darkness. The next morning I had a ferry to catch and a long drive to the east to reach my home at the time in Aberdeen. I always spend ferry crossings out on deck to watch the world go by and was rewarded by some porpoises riding our wake. Returning to Uig on the Isle of Skye, it was grey and overcast. I spent a large chunk of the day taking detours and side roads round Skye, visiting Waternish, Durnish and then taking the long detour to Elgol across the water from the Cuillin Range. Amidst a break in the grey clouds, the sun shone here and I stopped often to take in the changing view as I retraced my steps back to the main road. Despite Skye not being one of my favourite islands, I could see the appeal.

 

I took yet another detour down the long road towards Armadale. Although a ferry to the mainland leaves from here, I wasn’t catching it, but instead wanted to visit a part of the island that I didn’t think I’d been to before. The area around Isleornsay was especially pretty, but eventually I had to push on. Crossing over the Skye bridge back to the mainland, I reached Eilean Donan Castle, probably the country’s most famous and most photographed castle aside from Edinburgh Castle. That evening, the water of Loch Duich was calm providing a reflection of the castle that sat regally under the grey sky. I stayed at a b&b in the middle of nowhere to break up the journey, and the following day I negotiated the competitors that were cycling around Loch Lomond in the rain. By the time I reached Carr Bridge for a late lunch, the river Carr was in good flow from all the rain that had fallen of late. Beyond here, there was just the familiar drive through the mountains to return home to Aberdeen.

Na h-Eileanan Siar

With around 14,000 years of known human habitation, Scotland has an extensive history. With so many events to choose from, it’s understandable that the school curriculum falls short at teaching an adequate amount of it. When I was at school, most of our history teachings were focused around the first and second world wars, and whilst I’ve extensively travelled my homeland and visited historical sites of interest, I’ve felt that my knowledge of the Scotland of the past has been very fragmented and jumbled. Even last year when I was playing tourist in my country of birth I was made quite aware of my lack of awareness of how the various historical events related to each other. In a book shop in Ullapool, I found Neil Oliver’s book, A History of Scotland, and over a year later I am finally ploughing through it. Whilst the age-old habit of naming children the same as their relatives has made it hard to follow who did what at times, overall it’s left me with a much better understanding of why Scotland is the way it is today. It is incredible to think the differences that could have been if just one or two battles had swung a different way or if one or two key people hadn’t been such a pushover or in contrast so defiant. The fate of the Gaelic  (pronounced Gah-lick) language is one sad example, a fading remnant of a once stubborn independent sector of a once ununited nation.

Reading this, I was reminded of a holiday I took back in 2010 to the Outer Hebrides (Na h-Eileanan Siar), a wild and rugged stretch of islands off the country’s west coast where the Gaelic language is holding on for dear life. Living at the time in Aberdeen, I had to drive the whole width of the country just to get to the Isle of Skye, my stepping off point for the Uists. Ask many a tourist (and Scot for that matter) and Skye is often lauded as their favourite of the islands. But not me. I think perhaps because every visit I’ve ever made there has involved torrential rain, or maybe it’s simply that it can’t compete with the experiences and memories I’ve gained on several of the other islands. Whatever the reason, it will never be my favourite Scottish isle, not even close.

 

I ate dinner at Portree in the setting sun and pulled up to my hostel on the hill overlooking Uig in the descending darkness. I’ve stayed in so many hostels over the years that only a handful of special ones stick in my mind, and this is one that has faded into nothingness. I remember nothing of the inside but the next morning under a cloudless blue sky, I definitely remember the view from outside overlooking the harbour below. I had some time to kill before the ferry departed so I took a drive east to Quirrang, a distinctive rocky landscape that featured in the movie Stardust. Despite the sunshine at Uig, this side of the island was cloaked in patches of cloud, lending a dramatic sky to the dramatic landscape. I continued round to the Old Man of Storr, another of Skye’s famous geological features, where I took the path up to its base. Soon though, it was time to return to Uig, board the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry and set sail to Lochmaddy on North Uist.

 

My plan on arrival was to drive the chain of linked islands as far south as I could get and gradually work my way north to get the ferry back nearly a week later. And so I found myself checking into a former old folk’s home that was now masquerading as a hostel, just outside of Lochboisdale on South Uist. It had been raining the whole way down and still it rained some more. I had arrived on a Sunday, a traditionally holy day of rest here in the religious west. Until relatively recently, and against a lot of local backlash even flights to the island chain on Sundays were prohibited and at the time of my visit, businesses closed their doors (a practice long since abandoned in the cities and towns of the mainland) and the place felt deserted. With the wind and rain howling outside I felt like I was in a frontier land, wild and abandoned as it was. Eventually though, I could remain holed up no longer, and geared up with waterproofs and an Ordinance Survey map, I found a local walk to kill some time. I got utterly drenched and met just one other person but as somebody who often craves solitude away from the noise of my daily life, this was perfect. Not put off by the bad weather, I headed up another walking track behind Lochboisdale where the mist and rain swirled around me obscuring my view.

 

The following day gave promise of better weather. I headed south across the causeway to Eriskay, the most southern of the linked islands and parked up in the queue for the ferry. There’s something so endearing about this old fashioned jetty style where it’s first come, first served. I’d made sure I was there early to guarantee a spot on the ferry, and with my car holding my place, I climbed the nearby hill to take in my surroundings and watch the ferry come in. The sun was out for the crossing to Barra and it remained dry the whole day I was over there.

 

Barra is a rather small island but big enough that I was glad to have my own wheels to explore it. I went for a beach walk and passed the beach runway of the local airport, the only airport in the world that has scheduled flights land on a beach, and up to the peninsula beyond where I took another walk. The rugged beaches of the wild west coast seemed positively bustling compared to the quietness I’d experienced so far. There were so many places to stop and stretch my legs. The sky was turning grey as I continued south, taking the turning down a rural road to reach the causeway for Vatersay, yet another island in the expansive chain. The beach here was beautiful and almost empty but the wind was bitterly cold, and with lots to see, I couldn’t stay as long as I would like.

 

Castlebay is the main settlement on Barra and it was so busy I struggled to find a place to park. It was a strange contrast to the rest of the Outer Hebrides, especially as there were even coach parties of tourists here. I didn’t have time to visit the castle on its rock promontory out on the bay (hence the name), and in the end I didn’t stay here long due to the parking problems. I wound my way north up the east coast, stopping often to soak up the view, before taking the ferry back to sunny Eriskay, where I made use of the evening light to explore the coastline around the causeway and the south of South Uist.

 

There was more sunshine the next morning, and I made the most of the morning light to explore Lochboisdale’s shoreline. From there I headed to the beautiful and extensive sandy beach that spans almost the entire west coast of South Uist. It was windy but gorgeous and there was barely a soul to be seen for miles. Exposed as these islands are, the vegetation is low to the ground, exposing everything to the full brunt of the Atlantic weather. With only a handful of hills in the lower half of the island chain, they are a generally low-lying landscape, and with both salt water and fresh water in great abundance, these islands are a bird-watcher’s paradise. There’s also plenty of farmland here, as harsh as the growing would be, and I spotted the distinguishable Highland Cow which is a very hardy species of cattle, as well as the equally hardy Clydesdale horse.

 

Loch Druidibeag contains an RSPB reserve where it is possible to see a lot of waterbirds, and beyond here there was plenty of opportunities to get out and stretch my legs. The apparent desolation belies its beauty and my trip so far had firmly planted this part of the country as one of my favourite parts of Scotland. On a stormy day, I’m sure this place can seem harsh and intolerable, but on a dry autumn day, it beguiled me. It was a struggle to make it far along any road here without finding yet another spot to stop for photographs. There was so much ground to cover. I ventured east to the coastline and further north to the statue of Our Lady of the Isles, a large granite depiction of the Virgin Mary, before returning to Lochboisdale for my final night here. The rest of my trip was to be spent to the north, as equally enchanting and as beautiful as I’d become accustomed to in the last few days.

Wildlife of New Zealand

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

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

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

MAMMALS

Sperm Whale

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

 

Bryde’s Whale

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

 

Bottlenose Dolphin

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

 

Dusky Dolphin

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

 

Hector’s Dolphin

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

 

New Zealand Fur Seal (kekeno)

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

New Zealand Fur Seal

 

European Rabbit

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

 

BIRDS

Kea

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

 

North Island Kākā

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

 

New Zealand Falcon (Kārearea)

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

 

Tui

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

 

Bellbird (Korimako)

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

 

House Sparrow

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

 

Song Thrush

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

 

New Zealand Fantail

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

 

North Island Saddleback

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

 

Yellowhammer

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

 

Eurasian Blackbird

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

 

Chaffinch

Another introduced and widely distributed garden and arboreal bird.

 

North Island Brown Kiwi

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

 

California Quail

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

 

Takahē

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

 

Pūkeko

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

 

Spur-Winged Plover

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

 

Canada Goose

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

 

Weka

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

 

Pied Stilt

A distinctive wetland or estuary bird.

 

White-Faced Heron

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

 

Black Swan

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

 

Grey Teal

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

 

Mallard

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

 

Paradise Shelduck

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

 

Blue Duck (Whio)

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

 

New Zealand Scaup

Found on the many lakes of New Zealand nationwide.

 

Variable Oyster Catcher

Commonly-spotted shoreline bird nationwide.

 

Pied Shag

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

 

King Shag

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

 

Spotted Shag

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

 

Stewart Island Shag

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

 

Little Blue Penguin

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

 

Fiordland Crested Penguin

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

 

Southern Black-backed Gull

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

 

Red-billed Gull

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

 

Southern Royal Albatross

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

 

Australasian Gannet

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

 

REPTILES

Tuatara

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

 

Green Gecko

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

 

INSECTS & ARACHNIDS

Chorus Cicada

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

 

Brown Cricket

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

 

Green Cricket

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

 

Squeaking Longhorn Beetle

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

 

Huhu Beetle

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

 

Cave Weta

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

 

Stick Insect

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

 

Honey Bee

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

 

Monarch Butterfly

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

 

Kawakawa Moth

Endemic to New Zealand and found nationwide.

 

Carove’s Giant Dragonfly

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

 

Glowworm

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

 

White-tailed Spider

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

 

AQUATIC/OCEAN LIFE

Cave Lobster

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

 

Crayfish (kōura)

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

 

Cockles

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

 

Eleven-Armed Sea Star

The largest starfish of New Zealand.

 

Black Coral

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

 

Fish

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

 

Autumn Roadie: Napier to Christchurch

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

Napier Street Art

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

Autumn Roadie: Tongariro to Napier

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

When people think of beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery, they often think of rolling green hills or mountains reflected on lakes. But sometimes there can be something just as mesmerising as a stark and rocky landscape. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is a volcanic and geological wonderland, and it is such a contrast to what I’m used to living in the South Island. After several hours spent hiking past the dramatic peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, and climbing over the ridge of Mt Tongariro and Red Crater to descend past Emerald Lakes, I found myself at the top of a steep descent with an expansive lava field below me. To my side, steaming vents blew puffs of smoke out of the ground and as far as I could see, the ridges of lahars and the rocks from volcanic explosions littered the landscape. Here I was, leaving the crowds of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing behind and entering the wild emptiness of Middle Earth’s Mordor.

 

The swirling dark clouds over the blackened landscape created a dark and gloomy view, but the sun intermittently sparkled through the ever changing cloud base. It was a quick descent from 1700m (5577ft) down to roughly 1460m (4790ft), following the poles with orange arrow that mark out a route. Whilst the upper altitude gave a good overview for location reference, it became clear as I dropped lower that it could be very easy to get lost amongst the undulating rocky piles that littered the landscape everywhere. Whilst the peaks of Red Crater and Mt Nguaruhoe stood distinctively behind me, the rest of the lower slopes was like a rabbit warren. Initially there was some yellows and reds to the rocks around me, but the lower I got, the more the landscape darkened to the ashy black. The path was well trodden, and sprouts of vegetation poked up from the sandy substrate.

 

I naively thought once I was on the valley floor that it wouldn’t be long until I reached my hut for the night, but in fact this section of the walk felt like it went on forever. It had been many hours since I’d left Mangatepopo Hut behind, and I was getting tired. But there was so much to look at. There was evidence of rocks from a historical river bed, as well as so many formations of different rock types, created by a mix of setting lava flows, lahars, and rocks deposited by explosive force. To my left a tall ridgeline slowly dropped down, and behind me I regularly looked back to see Mt Nguaruhoe and Red Crater. The plant life around me was typical of an alpine landscape, with low shrubs and occasional flowers. The closer I got to the Oturere Hut, my bed for the night, the more it even felt a little like sand dunes, such was the dusty ground of ash.

 

Even though I knew State Highway (SH) 1 was out of sight in the distance, I felt a million miles away from anywhere, having not seen another soul since I’d taken the turn-off for the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Finally the Oturere Hut (1360m/4462ft) came into view, nestled near a drop in the landscape, and I was relieved to take my backpack off. This was another small hut for what I was expecting. Some of the hikers that I’d shared the hut with the previous night, had opted to push on to the next hut, but even still with hikers walking the trail in both directions, it was booked out for the night, and several people were camping outside.

 

I was told about a waterfall not far from the hut, so walked to the edge of the drop, and followed the worn path down towards it. The Oturere falls are a multi-tiered waterfall that spills down the mountainside, having come from the ridgeline I’d just climbed down from. It was peaceful here, and I walked slightly up stream from the falls to get a varying view of the Oturere Stream and the river valley below. Some other hikers had taken a dip here but I wasn’t brave enough to get in the cold water. Back at the hut, I wandered around the immediate vicinity inspecting plants and watching the rain move in over Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, before heading back to the hut. Shortly after, the heavens opened and the rain moved in. I was so glad I wasn’t camping as it rained a good part of the night.

 

The next day’s hike was a short one. It is easily possible to hike back to Whakapapa Village from Oturere Hut in one day, and a few of my fellow hikers were doing so. I and a few others, had decided to follow the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) suggestion of walking the circuit in 4 days. So with the DOC signage showing the next hut was only 3hrs away, I didn’t hurry myself in the morning to get going. Many people set off ahead of me, and I took one last look at the waterfall before heading off myself. It remained dry but was overcast. The hike effectively cuts up and down the old lahar ridges that mark a historical volcanic eruption. Nearest the hut there were lots of large and jagged rocks, but as the time wore on, these grew few and far between.

 

Again I mused how easy it would be to get lost if the path was left behind, although I knew SH1 was getting closer as I walked, and indeed on the lahar ridges, I could just about make out the odd truck ploughing the road in the far distance. It takes a hardy plant to live in these conditions, and it was a constantly changing patchwork between the rocks and alpine plants, and the loose ash scree between them. On the third lahar ridge, the path changed course and trees were suddenly in front of me. It was strange seeing such tall vegetation when the rest of the hike so far had only had the stunted alpine flowers and bushes. The path led right up to the trees then dropped down within them to a broad and fast-moving stream in a shallow valley. This was more like the South Island hiking I was used to, and at the bridge to cross over, I met some hikers heading in the other direction.

 

Once over the stream, the path climbed back up the slope within the forest. My legs were a little tired from the previous day’s hike so they grumbled a bit as I regained the lost altitude. Eventually breaking out of the tree line again I could see Mt Ruapehu peaking through a gap in the cloud. Some of the landscape that I could see contained the track I would follow the next day, but for now I was winding past more alpine bushes and round the corner I could already see Waihohonu hut, my bed for the night. Climbing down through the trees once more, I crossed over another mountain stream and found myself at the hut (1120m/3674ft).

 

This more modern hut was huge compared to the previous two huts, and with many hikers in both directions combining two days of hiking, there were much less people staying here, making it seem even more spacious. There were several familiar faces already there and arriving after me, and several of us had been chatting multiple times over the 3 days, and had got to know each other a little. The Great Walks of New Zealand are a mecca for tourists as much, if not more so than Kiwis, so there was a veritable collection of nationalities amongst us, with a range in age also that made for some interesting life stories. While often these are people that come into your life for only a few hours or a few days, they are people that have shared an adventure with you and some of my memories from this hike revolve around the hilarity and stories that were traded between us.

On the morning of day 4, I was one of the last to leave the hut. Many of the others had a long drive ahead of them or a bus to catch so were keen to get going. It was another grey day, and although I had a bit of driving to do myself that afternoon, I knew I wanted to explore the side tracks on this day’s trail. Close to the hut is the turn-off for another multi-day hike, the Round the Mountain track that circuits the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu. One of the hikers with me on the Northern Circuit had completed that hike recently and after she talked about it, my appetite was whetted to hike it on another occasion. I left my backpack at the junction and followed the Round the Mountain track for 20mins to reach Ohinepango Springs. On route I had a view over the eastern plains that spans the area between the Tongariro volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountain Range. Not too far away, SH 1 paves a route through here, where it is known as the Desert Road because of the apparently barren and ‘sandy’ landscape. From where I was standing though, there was plenty of vegetation everywhere I looked.

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Ohinepango Springs were not overly exciting. It was effectively a fast-flowing river coming away from a pool of water that had a slight bluish tinge to it. Probably on a sunny day they look more spectacular, but had it not been for spotting a whio (blue duck) which are rare and endangered, I would have been a bit annoyed with wasting my time. As it was, I enjoyed watching the little duck swimming around and got excited when he made his distinctive whistling sound. The whio are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world, and it is estimated their numbers are under 3000. They only live around exceptionally clean water, so whilst their presence is a good indicator of the health of a waterway, it is the contamination of waterways and more so the predation from introduced species that have played major parts in their decline.

 

Returning to my backpack, from where I could see the clouds roll over the Kaimanawa Ranges, it was only about a 10min walk to the next turn-off for the historic Waihohonu Hut. Painted in bright red, it was a remnant from a bygone era where men and women were separated for sleeping. It is open to have a nosey around, and it is littered in etchings from past occupants, as well as a few artifacts to look at. Built in 1904, it remained in use until the 60s and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It is now managed by the Tongariro National Historic Society. By the time I had returned to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, an hour had passed since I’d left the newer Waihohonu hut behind, and I still had quite a bit of ground to cover. It was time to push onwards to Whakapapa Village.

 

The landscape was a mix of bare exposed ground with the odd plant or areas completely covered with alpine plants. The mountains I’d hiked over two days prior were shrouded in cloud as I walked towards a river bank. There was some incredible erosive patterns in the banks nearby and shortly after leaving the river out of sight, a section of boardwalk crossed a rather marshy zone. Although there were mountains flanking the valley either side of me, the valley itself felt open and expansive. It was some time before I caught sight of the depression in the ground that was hiding one of two lakes near the trail. But even then, there was a bit of dropping and climbing and circling before the turn-off to the two Tama Lakes was reached.

 

As the lakes are a little over 2hrs away from Whakapapa Village, this was a popular walk for visitors from there, and so suddenly there were other people about after I’d spent all morning on my own. I left my backpack at the junction and took only my water sack and snacks with me to go to the lookouts. It is only a short walk to the lower Tama lake viewpoint, and as I walked there I met a couple of hikers who’d stayed with me at Waihohonu hut and were on their way back from the lakes. The lower lake filled a small portion of the crater that it sat in, and it was only later after reading a book about the National Park that I discovered that the whole crater would have once been filled with water, but that part of it had filled in with sediment, and eventually so would the rest of it. There was a couple of viewing areas around the 1335m (4380ft) plateau, but although many people went no further, I was keen to head up to the higher viewing area to see the upper Tama lake too.

 

It was a good climb up to the higher viewing area at 1440m (4724ft). The upper Tama lake sits below the southern flank of Mt Nguaruhoe who’s summit remained under wraps the whole day. Under the grey sky the water took on a steely grey colour, and far below, the lower Tama lake looked more blue. Behind the lower lake, Mt Ruapehu also remained shrouded in cloud. It was an enjoyable spot to take a break, and the vista was impressive despite the lack of sunshine. To the west, the landscape rolled in hillocks towards Whakapapa village and beyond. I took my time absorbing the view as I retraced my steps back down the hillside and back towards the Tongariro Northern circuit.

 

The track cut a snaking path up and down through the rolling landscape as it cut across the valley to the west. There were plenty of people coming in the other direction, many of whom seemed dismayed with my answer when they asked how far they still had to go to reach the lakes. Eventually I saw some buildings in the distance which meant the village was within reach and a short while later I came to a track junction. Both paths led to the village, one directly, and the other cut down past a waterfall to join the track that I had left the village from 3 days prior. This junction was at the top of a large rocky drop where the Taranaki falls tumbled over the cliff. I left my backpack once more and climbed down the steps to the bottom where I soon came face to face with the waterfall. There were so many people here as I acknowledged my return to civilisation. It was a beautiful waterfall and well worth seeing. Even the cliffs were interesting to look at.

I climbed back up the stairs to retrieve my backpack and continued on above the falls, crossing the stream and negotiating the ridges of a historic lava flow. The DOC sign had stated an hour from the falls to the village, but it wasn’t even that long, and as I looked out over the vegetation for the last time, I suddenly found myself coming out at the car park by the hotel at the end of the road. Then it was just the trudge back to my car and the final removal of my backpack. Like the Kepler Track which I hiked a few years ago, the Tongariro Northern Circuit definitely peaks in terms of views on day 2, but I still enjoyed exploring the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, circuiting between the impressive volcanic summits of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Nguaruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Despite the crowds in some parts, this geological wonderland is most definitely worth exploring.

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