MistyNites

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Archive for the category “Travel”

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.

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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.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely rated as New Zealand’s best day hike. Traversing a barren volcanic landscape that appears at times as if on another planet, the scenery is for many people, like nothing they’ve seen before. Cutting up past Mount Ngauruhoe (famous to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and swinging past Mount Tongariro, the full track is just over 19kms (11.8miles), and reaches an altitude of 1886m (6188ft). Roughly 109,000 people hiked this trail in 2015, and the numbers continue to rise. We were told by the warden at our hut that in the height of summer, you have to queue to get onto the track from the hut we were staying in that night, such was the density of people walking the trail at times. He told us to get going early to beat the crowds that pile onto the trail from the shuttle buses. I had tried to do this hike twice before, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the weather had stopped me going. With day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporating the best part of the Alpine Crossing, I was set to finally join the crowds, no matter what the weather would be.

I awoke at Mangatepopo Hut to clear skies, but by the time I’d had breakfast and packed up, the clouds had piled in and the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. We’d been given a disheartening weather forecast the day before, and I was sad to see it was coming true. I had no choice but to set off, and I acknowledged with sadness that I wasn’t going to get much of a view. I left the hut behind early, but not early enough. After the short walk from the hut to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, all I could see was a stream of people walking up the trail. I sighed internally and slipped into the crowd and set off. I go hiking both to get out in nature, but also for solitude and to get away from civilisation. Straight away I was met by people jostling to get past and others that would just stop suddenly in front of you. This wasn’t going to be the hike I hoped it would be.

 

The path up the valley was plentiful with vegetation, but narrow in places. This meant that there was regularly impatient people walking off the trail and trudging through the vegetation to overtake. Early on there is a sign stating that the landscape is fragile and to keep to the path, but this was repeatedly ignored and I became silently annoyed. After a gentle climb, the path becomes a boardwalk as it passes by a historic lava flow from Mt Ngauruhoe. Under the grey sky, the dark landscape took on a gloomy hue. Carrying a large backpack as I was, I attracted a bit of attention from the day hikers who needed only supplies for the day, and who didn’t realise that there was a multi-day hike in the area. As I marched onward with the others, I tried and failed to pick out where the path would climb up the mountainside.

 

After a while, a side track leads to the Soda Springs, a volcanic waterfall that comes through the rocks from Mt Tongariro. Many of the day hikers ignored them, but it was only a short detour to take, and I dumped my backpack at the junction, giving my back a brief rest whilst I picked my way across the rocky path to them. From the vantage point back towards the mountainside, I could start to get a vague idea of where the path went and it looked very steep. My backpack was around 13kg, and I readied myself in anticipation of the strain. In 2013 I injured my back and have been left with chronic back pain. Frustratingly to top that off, I injured both my shoulders in 2016, and am still on the long road to recovery from that even nearly a year later. Chronic pain has become my life, and whilst it has changed my mental outlook in some ways, I am grateful that I can still do the physical activities that I enjoy, even if I can’t do them in comfort. The climb with my pack was going to hurt, but I was going to do it anyway.

 

Near the bottom is a sign telling you to stop and think about whether you are fit enough to do the hike. In some respects, the walk has almost been sold as such a must-do activity, that I think there are (and indeed saw that day) people out on the trail who weren’t necessarily prepared to do it. I have repeatedly seen tourists hiking mountains in New Zealand at the wrong time of day, wearing the wrong clothing or footwear and often with little water or supplies. Once again, I looked around me, and saw people pushing up the steps with just a small water bottle to sustain them all day. One woman on her own who had nothing with her other than the clothes she was wearing, breathlessly commented on my large backpack as she struggled up the first flight of stairs. How she got on for the rest of the hike I do not know, but I suspect she would have been pretty damn hungry and thirsty by the time she finished.

 

The only toilets on the hike until either the shelter near the end of the Alpine Crossing or the next hut on the Northern Circuit are just up the first few steps. For about 5-6hrs on either trail, there are no more facilities beyond that. As the steps continued their steep climb up the mountainside, the vegetation grew patchier and patchier. Either side of the track were lumps of volcanic rocks, and above me the cloud was still hanging over the summit. Below me it became increasingly obvious that the rocks formed a lave flow and the landscape began to take on that other-worldly feel that I had read so much about. A little below the summit plateau, a sign pointed out the fact that this is an active volcanic zone. The most recent eruption was only in 2012, and I was already living in the country when it happened. A side vent on Mt Tongariro known as the Te Maari craters blew themselves open sending rocks and debris into the air which damaged the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the Alpine Crossing and closed the track for a few months. Following the hike, I purchased a fascinating book about the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park that gives some background information to the various eruptions in the area, as well as how the volcanoes formed and why the landscape looks the way it does. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before I did the hike, as I would have appreciated what I was walking through even more.

 

By the time I reached the plateau of South Crater (which isn’t actually a crater), the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the plateau but the mountain tops were still shrouded. Soon the turn-off to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe was reached, and considering the lack of visibility, there were plenty of people heading up there that day. When I was reading up on the hike before I set off, I had decided that I wanted to summit both Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, but the former has no official route up and is effectively just a scree field on the flanks. Several websites listed it as dangerous, and even the warden at the hut recommended not attempting it. If the wrong route is taken, it is apparently easy to get hit by rocks loosened by people ahead of you or descending, and it is a major slip and fall hazard. Standing at the sign watching the others disappear into the clouds, I just didn’t see the point in attempting it. There would be no view to speak of, and no way of knowing in the clouds whether you were keeping to a good line of ascent or descent. It seemed the sensible thing to skip it and keep on moving.

 

The South Crater is a large flat plateau where finally a bit of colour starts to poke through the previously perpetual blackened landscape. Volcanic zones are very much coloured according to the minerals of the rocks or the algae that grow in the often acidic environments of the waterways there. There was a distinct yellow colour to the rocks here, and the trail was enjoyably flat for a while. Here, the crowds seemed to thin out a little although it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without other people in it. The summit of Mt Tongariro was hidden in the clouds to my left, and Mt Ngauruhoe was hidden in the clouds to my right, but by the time I reached the far side of the crater, the clouds had noticeably lifted higher, and as a result, the landscape seemed to open up a little.

 

Another short steep section brought me up to the first of many incredible views that day. Despite the clouds behind me, the view east was almost clear, and far down below the expanse of what was Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a steep drop, but that didn’t stop many of the other hikers balancing precariously on the edge to pose for a photograph. This was one of many spots where large amounts of people were congregated on the hike, and whilst I was gradually losing my crankiness about having to share the hike with so many other people, I was still wishing that the place was more quiet. For me, grand landscapes demand quiet and reflection, but it was time for a snack, so I stood for awhile amongst the changing crowd of people.

 

My reward for waiting there was that the sun was starting to break through, and looking behind me, the beauty and majesty of Mt Ngauruhoe was suddenly very evident as it broke into view. Near the summit, a patch of red stood out in stark contrast to the neighbouring grey-black of the rest of the rock and I briefly had an internal conflict as I wished I’d gone up, whilst at the same time looking at all the loose scree on the slopes, and wondering how it was actually possible to summit it. I turned to look across South Crater to see that Mt Tongariro was about to poke out the clouds too, and I knew that I would definitely be taking the side track to visit its summit.

 

From this first of many viewpoints, the track narrowed down again and became both steep and loose under foot. A short section has a chain nailed to the rocks to help negotiate it, and I had heard that this was a particular bottle neck for the crowds during the peak season. Hiking as I was in March, New Zealand still has plenty of tourists at that time of year, and once again, there were plenty of impatient people who barged past the slower hikers. Looking around though it was nice to see such a diversity of ages amongst the hikers, with plenty of older hikers that were much fitter than many of the younger ones. A series of blue poles marked the route up, and from the south crater at 1659m (5443ft), the track climbs up to about 1845m (6053ft) where a path junction marks the turn-off to Mt Tongariro. This rocky plateau was littered with people taking a rest. Seeing that Mt Tongariro was still clear of cloud, I wasn’t going to waste any time in heading off for its summit.

 

Dumping my backpack at the start of the track, and taking my water sack with me, I was glad to see this route was very quiet. With the majority of hikers tied to the schedule of the shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the track ends, many of the day hikers just don’t have time to do the side tracks. Getting away from the crowds made it all the more enjoyable for me, and the views were incredible, looking both over to Mt Ngauruhoe now completely devoid of cloud, but also across the rest of the walk towards Blue Lake and North Crater, as well as to the surrounding plains on either side of the mountains. There was also a stunning yellow colour to large sections of the hike and the rocks were jagged and dramatic in places. The path was very narrow, and in a couple of places felt a little treacherous where it crossed loose scree at an angle above a drop. As I approached 1900m (6233ft), I was a little dismayed to see the cloud blow in over the summit and my view started to disappear.

 

The summit itself (1967m/6453ft) was a high stack of rocks that took several attempts to find an accessible way up. The guys at the top pointed out the way that they had come but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the foot and hand holds that they had used, and so I was forced to backtrack a little and approach from a slightly different angle. When I made it up, I was completely shrouded in cloud and couldn’t see a thing beyond the large boulders immediately next to me. The others headed off leaving me on my own, and after rock hopping a little, I stood on the summit surveying my cloudy kingdom. Then out of nowhere a break in the clouds appeared and I could see a carpet of low cloud below me. Suddenly I found myself above the clouds, and out popped the cone-shaped summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, and behind it, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Ruapehu. It was utterly amazing, and I had the view all to myself.

 

The clouds came in waves as I headed back. The rocky peaks in front of me stood out against the swirling clouds and both Blue Lake and the lower of the Emerald Lakes popped in and out of view. Plants grew in patches amongst the mostly barren and very yellow rocks of Mt Tongariro’s ridgeline. Finally though I was back at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and unfortunately thick cloud had rolled in once more. It was windy and cold, and unsurprisingly the plateau was now quite devoid of people. From here the Alpine Crossing climbs to its highest point on Red Crater. I’d already seen that the cloud was passing through in roughly half an hour waves. Had it not been so frigid in the wind I would have waited it out in order to get a view, but knowing how the afternoon usually brings a deterioration of the weather in the mountains generally, I also had doubts whether it would clear at all, so I made the decision to just get on with it and sacrifice the view here.

 

The path was easy to follow in the cloud, but it was completely exposed to the strong cross wind that buffeted me as I made my way up. There was no point in waiting at the summit, so I was quick to cross over to the descent on the other side, and this was the one place where I felt quite unsafe due to the heavy weight on my back. The track descends on a steep scree slope with little security under foot, and I was forced to adopt a skiing type movement, sliding down as gravity pulled the rocks away below each foot placement. A few times, I nearly lost my balance, as I carefully positioned myself to counter the pulling force of the 13-odd kg on my back. The rate of descent was fast but as I emerged once more below the clouds, and I looked at the path in front of me, I couldn’t decide whether it was a man-made ridge or not. It didn’t seem natural the way the scree was piled up in a narrow ledge-like ridge, but as much as a lot of the landscape is volcanic, there are also plenty of aspects that are remnants from a time of glaciation, and I suspect this was how that particular ridge had formed. But soon my attention was grabbed by the contrasting colours of the Emerald Lakes that came into view as the clouds were left behind.

 

There are three Emerald Lakes: the first two sit side by side and are the same colour as each other, and the third sits further along the track and is quite distinctive. Between the duo and the single lake, steam vents belch puffs of steam out of the ground. The swirling cloud continued to rise and fall, dancing around the upper of the lakes. This was another spot where there were plenty of people milling around as well as many people walking off the track. Whilst the first two lakes were interesting enough, it was really the third one that grabbed my attention, and oddly this was mostly ignored by the day hikers. It was near this third lake that the Tongariro Northern Circuit separated itself from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Northern Circuit cut down to this third lake whereas the Alpine Crossing skipped past it.

 

I dumped my backpack by the third Emerald Lake and continued on the Alpine Crossing across Central Crater (not actually a crater). With the remnants of a lava flow from Red Crater to my left I was among a large crowd of hikers pushing on towards Blue Lake. Behind me, the cloud had lifted again and I could see Red Crater in all its glory. I’m sure the view from the summit would have been incredible, but considering I had thought I would get no views at all when I set off in the morning, to have only missed out on 1 viewpoint was not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Climbing up a rocky path once more, I reached the expanse of Blue Lake which was mostly shrouded in cloud. I found a handily-shaped stone that made a nice bench to sit on, and I waited a little here to see what the clouds would do. They lifted slightly to let me just see the far shore, but not for long. With the day hikers continuing on past the lake to skirt past North Crater and descend towards the forest below, I retraced my steps back to the third Emerald Lake.

 

Leaving the Alpine Crossing behind, I took the Northern Circuit turn-off back to the lakeside, reclaimed my backpack and paused here for a while to take a last look at the volcanic behemoths before leaving them behind. Finally, I was back to solitude and peace and quiet away from the busyness of the popular day hike. I stood out on the brow overlooking the upcoming descent, and stretched out for a great distance in front of me was the volcanic landscape of Mordor…

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The maiden mountain of Pihanga was much admired by the warrior mountains Putauaki, Tauhara, Tongariro and Taranaki. The warriors fought for her hand in a great and fiery battle, until Tongariro was victorious. Defeated, in the hours of darkness, the other mountains retreated, leaving Tongariro and Pihanga to look upon each other forever. Putauaki and Tauhara fled north until the morning sun froze them in their place. Taranaki headed south, carving a trail behind him (which later filled with water to become the Wanganui river), before he turned west, becoming frozen near the west coast. Although the exact details vary a little from storyteller to storyteller, the Maori legends about the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Volcanic Centre in New Zealand’s north island provide an intriguing alternate history to the fiery geology of the region. Since moving to New Zealand, I have discovered a previously unknown love for geology. From the fault lines in the Southern Alps, to the volcanic centre in the north island, there is a fascinating insight here into how the Earth’s crust changes and adapts over millennia.

I awoke on my 34th birthday to discover that Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. I was to be starting the Tongariro Northern Circuit that day, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a collection of 9 walks throughout the country that are well maintained and cover a diverse range of scenery. For just over 43km, this walk is one of only 3 loop tracks within the 9 walks. I have previously walked the Kepler Track, and like that hike, although I chose to walk it in 4 days as laid out on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, it could easily be walked in less. This particular hike incorporates the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk, and whilst it can be started at varying access points, the walk effectively cuts between the volcanic mountains of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, traversing across old lahar fields and debris spilled out historically from previous eruptions. This hike couldn’t be more different from the south island if it tried.

After breakfast at the Station cafe in National Park village, I had a short drive to the nearby Whakapapa village where I was to start the hike. On the drive over, the local radio station was reporting beautiful sunshine on nearby Mt Ruapehu, but with nothing but low cloud for company, I didn’t really pay it any attention. The village is a collection of accommodations, including the large, grand and well known Chateau Tongariro which greets you as you enter the village. There are lots of walks that head off from here, and a decent sized visitor centre which incorporates a DOC information office is on the main road. I parked up here, and inside found a reasonable exhibition display about the geology and eruption history of the region. I had a wander around, logged in my intentions to set off hiking, and then overheard that despite the cloud hugging the lower land, the ski centre up Mt Ruapehu was definitely above the cloud and basking in the March sunshine. With just a 3-hr hike to reach my first hut, I decided that there was plenty of time to explore the area before setting off on the hike.

 

So I jumped back in my car and followed the road out the back of the village, climbing higher and higher until suddenly the cloud broke away and I was in another world. A sound of excitement escaped my mouth involuntarily as I continued to drive up and through a rolling scene of black boulders, crust and apparently barren rock face. Behind it all, the dramatic peaks of the summit of Mt Ruapehu jutted up against the blue sky and white patches of snow sparkled in the sunshine. It was a little like Iceland all over again, but yet different, and I was giddy with excitement. At roughly 1600m (5249ft) altitude, there was a chill in the air, so after putting on some layers, I grabbed my camera and headed straight to the ticket office to get a chairlift pass up the mountain. Heading up the first chairlift, the distinctive cone summit of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe (familiar to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) poked up above the cloud base. Taking me up to roughly 1750m (5741ft) altitude, I swiftly headed to the upper chairlift and continued to grin widely as I headed up to the Knoll Ridge cafe at roughly 2000m (6561ft).

 

The view back down the mountainside was incredible thanks to the low cloud hugging the land beyond in every direction. The pinnacle ridge of Mt Ruapehu stood dramatically to the side, and everywhere I looked there were rocks and boulders of varying sizes. There was little to no vegetation and it felt wild and foreign. After taking a nosey at the map of the upper slope in the cafe, I realised there were some options for walking up here. The going was rough, uneven and even unsteady in places, but suddenly there was a mountain peak to explore and there was no stopping me. Early on I realised the error of my ways: having not expected to be hiking yet, I had come up the chairlift with no water and no sunscreen and as the exertion level increased, I found myself stripping off layer after layer of clothing, whilst also being paranoid about burning my face. Following first a well worn path, and then a series of poles up the rocky slope, I climbed a further 200m (656ft) to reach the ridgeline of Pinnacle Ridge.

 

The view from here was phenomenal. The cloud continued to hug most of the western land, but Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro behind it, stood tall and proud above the cloud and as I moved around the pinnacles, the line of view was in places broken by the vertical statues of rock that jutted up from the side of the mountain. Whilst I wasn’t purposefully looking for movie locations, I had been made aware that this too was used in the Lord of the Ring movies, and with all the barren volcanic rocky landscape here, I can see why it made a good set for Mordor.

 

I hung out here for a while, in no hurry to leave. It got a little cold and I had to put all my layers back on, but otherwise it was glorious. I looked longingly up at the continuing pathway that headed up to the true summit of Mt Ruapehu. The volcano has a composite summit, made up of lots of peaks of similar altitudes separated by glacial deposits, a plateau and a crater lake which is the source location for the volcano’s eruptions. Following this hike, I sourced a fascinating book, A Volcanic Guide to Tongariro National Park, which gives a lot of information about the formation and activity of the volcanoes in the region. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before my trip because I didn’t appreciate what I was standing on or what I was looking at at the time.

 

I yearned to keep going, and probably there were enough hours in the day to do so, but I had no food or water with me, and no sun protection (never mind my other usual hiking staples of a first aid kit and survival gear), and I knew deep down that to continue without these things would be a rather stupid thing to do. On such a fine day, I probably would have been okay, but I know enough to be aware how fickle the weather in the mountains can be, how much the clouds can change out of nowhere, and there was snow up there which added a whole other hazard. With a top altitude of 2797m (9176ft), it would have been a fantastic summit to tick off, but I had enough common sense to know I should leave it for another day. After accepting my decision, I retraced my steps back down to the cafe and sat outside for awhile, realising that the clouds were starting to retract a little down below. Perhaps the day’s hike wouldn’t be too bad after all. On the chairlift rides back down, I stared out at the black rocky landscape and watched as Mt Ngauruhoe popped back into view, still with the clouds swirling dramatically at its base.

 

After an unintentionally hair-raising drive back down to Whakapapa village, I kitted up, checked all my hiking gear and set off on day 1 of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. My destination was the Mangatepopo Hut, 9.4km (6miles) from the start at the edge of the village. Cutting down Ngauruhoe Place behind the Chateau Tongariro, I reached the first of two access points to the Taranaki Falls track. I was reminded a little of the vast heather moors of Scotland as I traversed the tussock and bushy vegetation. The cloud by now was indeed dispersing and I had the constant companion of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro for company almost dead ahead. The larger snow-speckled peak of Mt Ruapehu remained behind me, and then the path dipped briefly into some trees where the route to the hut split off from the track to the falls. Remaining within the trees for a short while, it crossed a couple of streams before emerging out the other side of the woods, and from then onwards, was completely exposed.

 

By now, it was well into the afternoon. I assumed most of the hikers would have set off ahead of me, but there was the odd other hiker also setting off as late as me, and I was overtaken by a few as I stopped often to take photographs. The path quality was rough and uneven considering it is a Great Walk (although my only comparison is the Kepler Track), and it undulated up and down over hillocks and dry river valleys for kilometre after kilometre. At times there were boardwalks, and at other times, boulders to walk over, and in almost every direction there were volcanoes to look at. With the ever changing shape of them as I moved across the landscape, it was hard not to take photographs every few hundred yards. I was exceedingly snap happy, and I hadn’t even reached the true volcanic landscape yet.

 

Eventually though, Mt Ngauruhoe started to disappear behind the hulk of Pukekaikiore, and Mt Ruapehu was by now looking distant behind me. Negotiating some steps, and coming level with the mound of Pukeonake to my left, the track started to curl a little and I knew I was getting close. Finally I spotted the hut in the far distance and a little later I found myself at the junction with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The clouds had reappeared a little around the summits as I reached the turn off for the hut, and I found myself shortly after at a packed hut. Working on a booking system in the summer months, these huts book up far in advance in the peak season. With a camping area immediately outside, there were people milling around everywhere. It was a struggle to find space to put my backpack once I’d found a free mattress to stick my sleeping bag on. After a snack, I sat outside to survey my kingdom, and over the course of the next few hours as the sun lowered, and the clouds moved around and away, we were treated to a spectacular view of an incredible volcanic landscape.

 

There was so much chatter in the hut. It turned out that several of those hikers who had arrived early, had been encouraged to continue on to the Alpine Crossing that day as the following day was to be poor weather with potentially poor visibility. Having seen the clouds leave whilst I was up Mt Ruapehu, I could see how this would have been a stunning day to walk the famous track. I was gutted to hear the weather report for the following day, but at the same time, had had such an incredible morning up Mt Ruapehu that it was hard to regret my choice. I could only hope that the weather man got it wrong, and as darkness fell, I like everyone else in the hut, retreated to my sleeping bag in order to get some sleep ahead of the big hike on day 2 of the circuit. Finally on my third attempt, I would be hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, come hell or high water…

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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