MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Arthur’s Pass”

Winter Wanderings

Despite all my years in Scotland, where winter is synonymous with coldness and darkness, I really struggle with the winter months in New Zealand even though the days aren’t quite so short, and the temperature where I live rarely gets cold enough for snow. I think having Christmas and New Year to break up the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months helped, and where I used to live in Aberdeen, there was plenty of snow every year. But in Christchurch where I live now, we rarely get snow, although I certainly see it coating the distant mountains, and the Port Hills behind the city gets the odd light dusting. But with no Christmas and New Year to break up the monotony of the winter months, I find that when daylight savings ends in April, and I find myself leaving work in darkness, I have to grit my teeth and bare the winter months here, spending my days dreaming of September when daylight savings return and the spring flowers start to bloom.

So last June, I decided to take a week off work to try and lighten my winter blues. I had an exciting few days planned abroad at the end of the week, but at the beginning of the week I stayed closer to home. My partner’s friend came down from Auckland and we got to show him around the city, showing him what had changed since the last time he’d visited. I’ve really loved watching Christchurch evolve over the years since it suffered incredible destruction in the February 2011 earthquake. I don’t like everything about the new layout (the city centre cycle lanes and speed limit is a bit of a bugbear), but for the most part we are getting an incredible new city and bit by bit the city is returning to full functionality.

There were some pockets of Canterbury that my partner’s friend hadn’t explored so we took a drive west to head into the Southern Alps. As is often the case, the weather to the east of the Divide can be very different from that within the mountain ranges and the clouds were low over the mountain tops as we wound our way through the Southern Alps to reach Arthur’s Pass village. We stopped for lunch in the cafe-come-village store, hugging our hot drinks for warmth. The three of us had spent a winter weekend away in Methven some years prior and whilst we didn’t visit any ski centres on this trip, it reminded me of then: sitting in a cafe in a little mountain village.

 

To the west of Arthur’s Pass are a couple of viewpoints where there is a reasonably good chance of spotting kea, the delightfully cheeky and intelligent alpine parrot. True to form, when we pulled in at the first of the lookouts, where the road spans the valley in the form of a bridge, we found some. The low cloud swirled around the bridge, and whilst we couldn’t see much of the mountains, it was actually a pretty dramatic view. Despite the cold and the threat of drizzle, we were entertained enough by a pair of kea that posed in front of the bridge, preening each other and just generally being photogenic. I’ve stopped here many times and only once not seen kea (sadly this happened to be when my brother was visiting from Scotland).

 

Just a little further along the road is another scenic lookout and excitedly there was the biggest group of kea I’d ever seen. They were merrily hopping around on the road sign and the fence nearby and as usual were completely unfazed by the attention they were receiving. As fewer people tend to stop at this lookout, and probably also because the weather wasn’t very clear, we had this lookout to ourselves for quite some time before another car pulled in. This meant we had plenty of time to just watch these parrots play, and I went snap happy, even although they rarely sat still long enough for me to get them in focus. Unfortunately the weather didn’t really permit stops anywhere on route back to Christchurch, but it was still a fun mini road trip out of the city.

 

The poor weather the next day made me head to the Christchurch Art Gallery. I’d been before shortly after its opening, and I have to admit that this place is rather lost on me. It’s personal taste, but whilst I love photography and the work of a few specific artists, I’m not really much of an art lover, so art galleries don’t tend to wow me. Thankfully, entry is free, and after wandering round rooms with different styles of art, I finally came across the yellow room, where everything within it was related to yellow. A large bull sculpture caught my eye, made out of old food tins, and it took centre stage. There is a nice viewpoint onto the street below from the opposite side of the building and having had enough of the exhibitions, I watched one of the city trams meander past before leaving.

 

With more poor weather, I ended up doing a bit of cafe hopping, just to get out of the house. I had delicious belgian hot chocolate at Theobroma, the chocolate shop, on one day, and visited Miro, a recently opened posh cafe another day for their breakfast tray. A few days later, I enjoyed brunch at Unknown Chapter, my favourite cafe in the city. But besides all of this, I was excited to have a few days across the Tasman Sea, in my favourite city in the World, for an event that I had been dreaming about attending for a very long time…

Spring Roadie – Coast to Coast

I was so over driving by the time we pulled in to Hokitika on the last night of my brother’s and my road trip. My brother had booked a room in a B&B who’s garden opened almost directly onto the beach. After catching our breaths for a moment, we headed out under a moody sky and wandered along the foreshore. Past the driftwood sign that the town is famous for, we meandered further to the mouth of the river as the sun lowered down. Eventually hunger drove us in search of food and finally we headed to bed.

 

After a communal breakfast with the other guests at the B&B, everybody parted company and we too made our way out of town. I drove us down the convoluted route to the busy car park at Hokitika Gorge. Like many places in New Zealand, this place has gotten busier and busier with each subsequent visit, and this day was no exception. Although it’s a bit of a drive out of town to reach it, the walk is short and easy enough to make it accessible, as long as you have your own set of wheels to get you to the start. We joined the other visitors on the familiar route through the bush towards the suspension bridge across the gorge and down to the rocky water’s edge. Due to the glacier sedimentation of this river, the colour can vary so much from one visit to the next. The first time I came here it was a milky grey, and the next a brilliant blue. This time round it was blue, but the cloud kept the brilliance of the sun hidden, meaning it was a paler shade, and I felt my brother wasn’t quite seeing it in its full glory. To him it was probably still impressive enough, not having anything like it in our native Scotland.

 

After winding our way back to Hokitika, it was time to make the journey back to Christchurch via Arthur’s Pass. New Zealand has so many scenic drives, and this coast to coast road is the one I’m most familiar with, having driven it many times, especially the eastern half. At Kumara Junction, we cut inland, traversing the long valley eastward into the Southern Alps before turning south as the road turned into the Otira Valley. As the road starts to snake uphill here and wind its way up into the hills, it passes under a viaduct and over a road bridge, after which a couple of lookouts are located. These are almost guaranteed kea spotting sites, and I’ll always stop here to see if there’s any around. They are very popular to spot, and are immensely intelligent and cheeky birds, often working in pairs or mobs to try and snatch something of interest. Despite the frequency of sightings in this area, they are sadly endangered and suffer at the hands of people feeding them inappropriate food, despite signs advocating against this at these locations. This was the first time I’d stopped here that there wasn’t a parrot in sight.

 

In Arthur’s Pass village we took the walk to the Devils Punchbowl waterfall. It can be viewed from near the car park, or from the road, or from the opposite mountain, but it’s still nice to get up close to it and hear the water gushing down. The walk involves a lot of stairs, but it is a relatively short walk making it a reasonable achievement when just passing through. The sun broke through in places whilst we were there but as we headed south east, the rest of the way home was overcast. For the rest of the drive to Porter’s Pass, we were surrounded by the Southern Alps, steep-sided mountains interspersed by lakes and rivers. I stopped a few times so that my brother could take some photographs, and there’s plenty of pull-ins to choose from along the route.

 

Eventually we reached Cave Stream Scenic Reserve where it is possible to traverse through a flooded cave system. One of these days, I hope to go through it, but I just haven’t gotten round to it yet. Even without going caving, it’s still an interesting landscape to walk around. From here through to Castle Hill, the landscape is scattered with giant rocky boulders and outcrops, and it looks like it’s been lifted straight out of a movie. In fact, a nearby area was used as a film location for the first Chronicles of Narnia movie.

 

We spent quite a bit of time at Castle Hill. Another popular tourist spot, the car park here is often packed. We were lucky to get a spot on this occasion and I let my brother lead the way, picking his route through the behemoths. There are many worn paths round here and you can choose to circumnavigate the site or get into the thick of it, clambering up slopes and up and over boulders to get a higher perspective of it all. The cloud was down over the surrounding peaks and it was a little gloomy, but I always love exploring this place. Eventually we found ourselves down with the cows at the neighbouring field and skirting back along the front of the rock face, we returned to the car and soon headed into rain for the rest of the journey back to Christchurch.

 

For my brother’s last full day in New Zealand, we stayed local. He decided to go to the Canterbury Museum so I dropped him off there and met up with him later once he’d had the chance to wander round some of it. Later in the day we took a walk round North Hagley Park and on to Mona Vale, a homestead with a lovely waterway and garden, a little way along the Avon River. The day my brother left was a gloriously sunny one. His flight wasn’t till later in the day so we had some time in the morning to go for a walk. Driving up to Summit Road in the Port Hills, we did a section of the Crater Rim walkway that started behind the Sign of the Kiwi cafe. It was a section I hadn’t done before so it was nice to do something new and we had a beautiful view down over the harbour.

 

But eventually it was time to drive my brother to the airport. He had a couple of days in Sydney ahead of him to enjoy, but I was sad to say goodbye. His 2 week visit had been the longest time we’d spent together since we were in high school, and although I was informed that I snored, and I suspect I slightly took over his holiday, I think we did pretty well living in each other’s pockets. After all the years I’ve now lived in New Zealand, he is the first and only member of my family to visit me, and I was glad I’d finally been able to show off my new homeland to someone. His inevitable departure though reminded me sorely of the distance that I have chosen to keep between myself and my family. The choice to emigrate had been an easy one to make, but boy do I miss my family sometimes.

Helicopter Hill

I love the image of hiking through snow under a beautiful blue sky with the yellow orb of the sun shining overhead, but the reality is that getting out into the wilderness in the winter months takes skills that I don’t have. So inevitably, my hiking has a season, and come April it is starting to wind down as the days get noticeably short and the weather turns. Without the northern hemisphere’s luxury of having Christmas and New Year to break up the winter blues, I spend the winter months here counting down till September, the start of spring when I can start thinking about getting back to the mountains. The previous summer I’d managed to tick off a lot of mountains on my wish-list, leaving just a handful within reach of Christchurch still to summit. Unfortunately the weather of the summer just passed fell short and I barely had much opportunity to get into the mountains. So when a lovely April Sunday presented itself, I was keen to get into the Southern Alps and tick one off the list.

It takes about an hour to even reach the mountains from Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island, but on the west coast road, State Highway (SH) 73, there are plenty of mountains to choose from. Passing Trig M which I’d hiked the summer before last, I continued for another half hour past the rock feature of Castle Hill, and the lookout at Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, before turning in at Craigieburn Forest Park and parking up at the campground. As it turned out, I hadn’t paid much attention to the starting altitude, looking only at the summit and feeling it was a good one to add to the list of mountains >1000m (>3281ft) that I’ve hiked in New Zealand. With the car park at 800m (2624ft), it turns out this was a good cheat hike: the stunning views but without a lot of climbing. I was up and down in 3hrs.

As the sun was noticeably low at the end of April, upon entering the forest at the start of the Mistletoe track, I was plunged into a cold shade on the lee of the mountain. In places some dappled sunshine broke through the trees, but it was almost a little chilly in the shaded sections. Sticking with the Mistletoe track at the track junction, it was a pleasant enough forest walk and there were actually several other people on the trail. Eventually as the track hugged into the cold, shaded flank of Helicopter Hill, it began its zig-zag up the mountainside. Only after gaining about 250m (820ft) did the trees open up to give a hint of the view.

 

Whilst Helicopter Hill’s summit is 1256m (4121ft), it is absolutely dwarfed by most of the mountains that surround it. Looking out at this first view point, I could see over the top of the forest and beyond to the tree-less slopes of the Craigieburn Range that include the Broken River ski field. The sky was a beautiful cloudless blue: a gorgeous day to go hiking. Beyond here, there wasn’t much further to go to reach the turn-off to the Helicopter Hill track that leads up to the summit. This junction meets a mountain biking trail and there were lots of bikers out that day too.

 

The whole way up the summit track there was a view to be had in at least one direction if not more. Rocky and loose under foot in places, it was an easily followed path through shrubbery and open vegetation. The peak behind me had a distinctive cone-like summit and as I gained altitude, I could see the buildings of the ski centre in the distance more clearly. I reached the summit just as some of the bikers were leaving and I had it to myself, or so I thought. Some rustling drew my attention to a tree near the summit and I saw a bird of prey sitting majestically at the top. It took to the wing before I could get a photo, and I watched it thermal out of view, leaving me on my own.

 

The view was beautiful. Far below me SH 73 curled through the valley, and the tiny vehicles occasionally glistened as they caught a bit of sun. Many of the surrounding peaks have no name, but there wasn’t a shortage to look at. After enjoying my lunch in the sunshine, I started to head back down the rocky track, passing a group of bikers carrying their bikes up the track. I lost traction in a couple of places underfoot, catching myself before I fell, then before long, I was alerted by some noise behind me to the bikers hurtling down the track towards me. There are many shared hike and bike tracks in New Zealand, but this was probably the most dangerous one I’d been on. The bikers gave no consideration to me hiking the track and I had to keep ducking into a bush to get out their way. Not an always an easy feat when the bush is at the top of a large drop off the mountainside.

 

Back down at the track junction there were even more mountain bikers. None of the hikers I’d met on the Mistletoe Track were anywhere to be seen, but there was a plethora of people out riding that day. To make the hike longer, I chose to return via the Luge track. This stays on a roughly even altitude plane for quite some distance before eventually dropping down the mountainside towards the road that leads up to the ski field. This track though was the main descent for the bikers, so I had to give way time and again as they sped towards and past me. At the bottom, there was a bubbling stream to cross, and out I popped onto the unsealed access road. From here, it was just a matter of following the road down the hill to where I’d parked my car. A much shorter mountain hike than I’m used to, it was a nice autumnal stretch of the legs. A great view for comparatively little effort. What more could you want from a hike?

Avalanche Peak

Shortly after moving to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island over 4 years ago, I read about an enticing peak nestled within the Southern Alps near the village of Arthur’s Pass. I was keen to get up it but life and a dramatic change in fitness got in my way. But after spending the Southern Hemisphere’s summer hiking as many peaks within reach as the weather would allow, I finally felt that Avalanche Peak was within grasp. Only the seasons have turned, meaning shortening days and cooler weather and a risk of wind and snow about the peaks grows ever more likely. I had started to think that it would have to wait another year, when thankfully, some good weather coincided with a day off, and I realised my luck had turned.

And what a perfect day it turned out to be. The little alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is just over a 2 hr drive west from Christchurch, but nestled as it is amongst an impressive mountain range, its weather system is so very different to that of the Canterbury Plains to the east, and even with the MetService website suggesting all would be well, you are never sure what you are going to get until you get there. The west coast road from Christchurch to Greymouth is one of my favourite drives in the country. There are so many scenic routes to choose from in New Zealand, but this is the road I’ve travelled the most and it never fails to impress.

Over Porter’s Pass from where Trig M is reached, past Lakes Lyndon and Pearson, and onwards to the little settlement of Bealey Spur from where the track of the same name begins, the road winds round the towering mountains and along river beds until, shaded by the hulks of Mounts Bealey & Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass appears. Directly behind the village, the steep slope of Avalanche Peak disappeared above.

There are two routes up Avalanche Peak: the Avalanche Peak track and Scott’s track. The first begins behind the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, and the second begins just north of the village. Due to the nature of the track, it is recommended to only ever go up the Avalanche Peak track, and not to descend by this route, meaning it should either be hiked as a loop track (up Avalanche Peak track and down Scott’s track), or ascend and descend the same way via Scott’s track. My friend and I were both happy to hike a loop, so we parked at the visitor centre and set off on the marked path behind the building that hugged the tree line.

The start of the Avalanche Peak track

Avalanche Peak route map

 

Almost immediately after entering the trees, the Avalanche Peak track sets off on a steep incline through the forest. Several other people were heading up at the same time and the whole way up we were playing tag with them as each of us hiked and rested at our own pace. Early on, a stream flowed down the lower rocks in a series of pretty waterfalls, but otherwise for the first hour, most of the hike involved concentrating on your feet as the best foot hold up tree roots and rock faces was sought out. Despite being physically tiring, I was enjoying the process, although it became a lot nicer of a hike when the tree line was reached after not quite an hour and a quarter. Once out of the tree line, the view in all directions was phenomenal. Ahead on the path, the various lower ridges could be seen snaking into the distance. To the left Mount Bealey, and to the right the glacier-clad summit of Mount Rolleston dominated the skyline, and behind us, the valley below opened up.

Avalanche Creek waterfall

Nearby Mt Bealey

Looking south

 

It was now easy to see that this hike was extremely popular. With little wind on a gorgeously sunny autumn day, there were plenty of people strewn along the path both ahead and behind us. The higher we got, the steeper the drop-off either side became but it was an easy path to follow. Several bluffs created a dramatic vista, and later on, like so many mountains I have hiked recently, a scree slope appeared near the top. On this occasion, the path picked its way up the side of the scree, making for a winding, though relatively easy passage. In fact, despite being classed as an alpine hike requiring experience in back country navigation, this was actually not really a technical hike. Only as the summit became within reach, did it change quality.

View south from the Avalanche Peak track

Hikers ahead on the upper slopes of Avalanche Peak

Mt Rolleston peaks up behind the slope of Avalanche Peak

Avalanche Peak route disappearing up the slope

Yellow poles mark the route

Avalanche Peak's scree field

 

At the top of the path next to the scree field lay a cluster of large boulders that needed to be scrambled over, and then the narrow ridgeline of Avalanche Peak opened up before us. The width varied between a narrow track on a ledge next to some rocks that only 1 person could sidle along, to wider areas that a few people could sit on. As it was, the unmarked summit (1833m/6014ft altitude) could sit about 6 of us comfortably whilst allowing a little space for others to move around us. Summiting just shy of 2hrs 45mins after starting, I joined my companion who had made it in less time, and we joined some others in a spot of lunch at the summit with a ream of mountain tops for company. It was simply stunning, and worth every drop of sweat on the way up.

The path already travelled

Hikers in the distance on the narrow ridge of Avalanche Peak

Arthur's Pass National Park

Sitting on the rocky summit of Avalanche Peak

The glacier on nearby Mt Rolleston

Summit view south

Summit view north & east

Summit view west

 

With the lack of wind, despite being autumn, it wasn’t too cold at the top, and there was little rush to leave. We saw some hikers head off the track onto the lower ridge that leads to Mt Rolleston, and still there were more and more people arriving on the upper reaches of Avalanche Peak. After about half an hour we set off, back across the narrow ridgeline towards the boulder cluster, and here the two tracks split. The Avalanche Peak track had been dotted with yellow poles, but this time, we followed the orange poles down Scott’s track.

Views over Arthur's Pass National Park

 

Whilst still steep in places, it was a much easier track to follow down, initially dropping off down the side of some impressive bluffs before rolling down a gentle slope towards the treeline. From this track, the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall was clearly visible across the valley on the opposite mountain, and it remained in view for most of the hike down. It was easy to see the west coast road continue north through the valley from here, and only now as we reached some of the lower slopes, did the wind pick up a little. It took only an hour to reach the treeline again, from where it was just another hour to reach the end of the track on the west coast road.

Bluffs in Arthur's Pass National Park

Hikers on the Scott's track above the bluffs

Tiny hiker next to large bluffs

Mountain tarn

Looking across to the far side of the valley

Looking back up Scott's track

 

Although the path wound its way through the lower forest, the canopy was still open enough to afford a good view for the vast majority of the descent. There was still a lot of need to watch footing through tree branches, streams and over rocks, but there was plenty of opportunity to soak up the view and the image of the waterfall changed as the perspective altered and I took my time going down to enjoy this. My companion reached the end of the track a little ahead of me as I had gone a little snap happy, but still, we were back in the village in a respectable 5.5hrs.

The far side of the valley with waterfall framed int he trees

Descending towards the west coast road

Arthur's Pass village in the valley

Full height of Devil's Punchbowl waterfall

 

Although for most people, Arthur’s Pass village is a convenience stop on route from coast to coast, it does have a few places to sleep as well as a couple of cafes, a small convenience store and a train station, so it is a useful place to make as a base for exploring some local hikes. Aside from the nearby mountains, there are also a few lower-level hikes, and the most popular is the walk to the base of the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The DOC website lists the Avalanche Peak as 4-5hrs each way which is certainly being generous, but it is definitely a hike requiring a good bit of fitness, and the upper sections definitely need respect in poorer weather conditions. But steep as it was, this is now a firm favourite amongst the many hikes I’ve now down in New Zealand.

Trig M

Sometimes you have to take a gamble and choose to ignore the weather report. In my experience, even the most reliable of weather forecasts can struggle at times to give an accurate description of what is going on in the mountains. Especially the Southern Alps where there are so many forces working together to affect the wind direction and the rainfall. With a day off work, I got up with a plan in mind, looked out the window and was disappointed. The thick clouds above Christchurch was not what I had been hoping for. But as I sat eating breakfast, wondering what I could do instead, I noticed the clouds change, and whilst the forecast for the mountains was still rather questionable, I decided to take a chance and stick to my original plan.

About 1.5hrs to the west of Christchurch is Porter’s Pass, the gateway to the Southern Alps and the west coast beyond that. As I left the Garden City behind, I realised to my dismay that the mountains weren’t even visible. Mentally set up for a hike, I pushed on passing country town after country town until there was just about 20kms to go. The sun was trying to push through the thick cloud, and as the kms ticked by, I considered turning around until suddenly the cloud bank broke and I was greeted by glorious sunshine and blue skies over the mountains. I had made a good call.

As the west coast road delves into the mountains and starts to gain a bit of altitude, on the east of the Porters Range is a hairpin bend at which a low-key pull-in denotes the start of the Coach Stream track in the Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park. Following the small stream through a valley and marked by orange poles, it crosses the stream twice before starting a steep climb up, first through private land then conservation land, as it winds its way up to a ridge line. Every now and again a glimpse of traffic heading up to Porter’s Pass is seen and behind me in the distance, I could see the enormous cloud bank still hanging gravely over the east coast.

Start of the hike

Map of the two tracks

Following the coach stream through the valley

Crossing onto the private Benmore station

View on the way up to the ridge

There are some interesting rock formations in the area but a lot of the surrounding mountains appear barren or have brown or green shrubbery covering their slopes. The easy to follow track through tussock was dotted with the occasional alpine plant but the low shrubs meant it was fully exposed. After following a ridge for a while, the path curved onto a neighbouring ridge and then sneaked up the side of a copse where the quiet was temporarily breached by birdsong. Not much further up the track I was surprised to reach a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marking the junction with the Starvation Gully track, a shorter route from another starting point along the west coast road. The information that I had read on this track had stated 3hrs from the pull-in to the summit of Trig M, and yet here I was just a little over 1hr, at a sign saying I was only an hour away.

Rocky outcrops

Porters Range

Near the copse

View from the track junction

Track junction

Now, the view got more interesting and it wasn’t long before I could see the trig on a nearby peak. Not only that, but I could now see up the neighbouring valley that contains the west coast road heading towards Arthur’s Pass National Park, as well as peer down on Lake Lyndon which nestled in the valley below. There was some cloud starting to build up overhead but it was still pleasant and I covered the rest of the easy, though occasionally slippery, track up to Trig M (1251m) in just half an hour. Wandering around the peak I realised I could see Mt Hutt towering over the Rakaia river valley and realised how relatively close I was to Peak Hill which I had hiked a few weeks earlier.

Looking towards the summit

Lake Lyndon

Trig M summit

Summit panorama

Looking towards the Rakaia river valley in the distance

It was a good enough day to keep hiking but going any further meant going off piste so I decided on this occasion to stick to the marked route. Following lunch at the summit, I retraced my steps soaking up the view of the valley and the lake below. As I came down from the peak and headed back towards the route junction, a cloud band blocked the sun and the temperature dropped a little. It was still a very pleasant walk and as my altitude dropped, eventually the sun reappeared. I was not far away from dropping back into the valley when I passed two German tourists coming the other way. I was astonished to see one of them wearing jandals (flip-flops/thongs), especially knowing there was a few slippery stony sections up ahead for them. I am regularly astounded to see people ill-equipped for hiking in the mountains, and these two girls had nothing but water with them, although at least they had that!

Porters Pass panorama

Return hike

Dropping altitude

Beautiful views in every direction

I soaked up the view the rest of the way back and I reached my car just 1.5hrs after having left the summit behind. Having expected a 5-6hr hike, I had completed it in just 3hrs 40mins including time spent at the summit. It was a relatively short walk compared to what I have been used to of late, but it did mean that I was home in time to enjoy a nice coffee and treat at one of my favourite coffee shops before closing.

West Coast Wonders

One of the great benefits of being an immigrant, is that I get to be both tourist and local at the same time. I can find new places to explore, and take part in tourist activities, whilst having the benefit of being able to return or stay longer than many tourists, as well as gaining insider knowledge which is often invaluable. I’ve seen more of New Zealand than many Kiwis that I know, and more of the country than many tourists I’ve encountered, but yet there are parts of the country that I have still to explore, including a few key tourist zones.

With a 4 day break over New Year, it was time to head to one of these spots for the first time. The New Year was welcomed in listening to Six60 perform in Christchurch, then after some sleep, we headed off early for the long drive west. The road through Arthur’s Pass is one of my favourites in the South Island. Once across Porter’s Pass, the road nestles and winds its way across the Southern Alps, and there is so much to look at from mountains, to villages, to braided rivers. There are plenty of options for stops: Castle Hill, Cave Stream Scenic Reserve and Arthur’s Pass village are three good ones, but on this occasion, we ploughed onwards, pushing on to Hokitika on the west coast. It had been some time since I’d seen the Tasman Sea, and it was lovely and calm, crashing onto the stony beach whilst families relaxed on the shore. The west coast of the South Island is quite a battered coast, and the beaches are generally stony rather than sandy, and often littered with driftwood. Hokitika has embraced this by erecting a sign on the beach made out of exactly that.

 

After a respite and some much needed lunch, we continued south down the coast. It was a lovely day for a drive, but one of the down sides of the level of tourism in New Zealand is the sometimes dangerous nature of driving witnessed on the roads. Often campervans and hire cars drive too slow causing back logs of traffic and driver frustration, or they don’t know what to do at one of the many one-lane bridges in the country. The dangerous part is their hesitation or last-minute decision making which sees cars suddenly pull over or emergency stop in order to take photos or because they’ve seen something they want to look at. I’ve witnessed repeatedly, tourists stopped on the road round corners, or at bends, when oncoming cars can’t see them till the last minute, and worse, I’ve had a few occasions of the car in front of me pull to an emergency stop in front of me, throw their driver door open into the traffic, and jump out to take a photo. Frankly, when it comes to driving round New Zealand’s roads in the peak season, it pays to have a sixth sense. So it was unsurprising to have several emergency response vehicles whizz past us, and to eventually come across a closed section of road where a car had driven off the road. This was just a day after a tourist bus crashed into a car driven by tourists near Arthur’s Pass. Thankfully, this latest incident appeared to have no obvious casualties and the blockage was cleared swiftly.

 

Finally, we rounded the mountains where the ice field and glaciers were coming into view, and we pulled into Franz Josef village. At the back of the village, nestled in the mountains is the glacier of the same name, and over 20kms further south, lies Fox glacier and the village of the same name. Collectively they are a big tourist draw, but the village of Franz Josef is bigger and more developed with more options for eating and sleeping. On a good day, the sound of helicopters constantly fills the air as group after group are flown up onto the glaciers for a hike, or up and over the mountains for a scenic flight. We wandered around town and down to the helipads to watch the comings and goings of the various choppers. From the village itself, the glacier isn’t really in sight, but we watched as the helicopters became distant specks as they headed up the valley. The local cinema plays Imax-style movies and we watched a fascinating National Geographic piece about the ‘Age of the Airplane’ before going out for dinner.

 

The next day, the weather was not looking promising. We had an early rise and a sharp exit to make the drive south to Fox glacier where we were booked in for a heli-hike tour. The village of Fox glacier is much more sedate compared to Franz Josef, and I liked it much better. We’d booked to hike Fox glacier for the simple reason that Franz Josef was fully booked for our entire stay. When we arrived to check in, we were given a weather briefing: cancellation or curtailment were a high possibility due to the weather. We went through the helicopter safety briefing, boarded the bus and headed out to the helipad. After getting booted up and weighed, we were divided into flight groups, the weight of the passengers being precisely calculated for each helicopter’s load. We were in the second flight, and before long we were on board and sailing up the valley, the glacier suddenly in front of us. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the cloud was thick on top, but it was still an awesome view. Landing on the glacier was simple and quick, and we were out and on the ice fast to allow another load to come up.

 

With 5 loads to come up, there was time to absorb the view, and with everyone present and geared up with crampons and walking poles, we were off to explore. I’ve been lucky to hike on a glacier before: on the Athabasca glacier in the Canadian Rockies, and Viedma glacier in Patagonian Chile. But each glacier is different, and every time it is amazing. Like a frozen tumbling waterfall, Fox glacier is a maze of crevasses and caves and tunnels. We stepped around flowing water and watched it fall deep into chasms in the ice. We hunkered down to crawl through tunnels and peeked into caves created by the ever changing ice flow. Both Fox and Franz Josef are relatively fast moving glaciers and are currently retreating. Fox is longer and faster flowing than Franz Josef, and despite moving an incredible 200m in a year, it feels still and quiet and a world away from civilisation.

 

The cloud dropped and rose again repeatedly, and we got rained on for a while, but yet the call never came to decamp, and with relief, we got to experience the full length of the tour. Our guides were great fun, as was our group and we had plenty of time to negotiate a reasonably large area of the glacier. But after a few hours, it was time to summon the helicopters, and we bundled back in in groups to head back down to the village. With the weather closing in, the rest of the day’s tours had been cancelled and we realised that we had been very lucky indeed to get up there. I had wanted to do some exploring in the area whilst we were there, but it continued to rain, so after lunch we were forced to head back to Franz Josef where at least there were more options.

 

The fantastic receptionist at our hostel helped us organise our next excursion and with a bit of time to kill, we headed to the Franz Josef hot pools at the back of town. A little steeply priced and very packed on such a dismal weather day, they were still lovely to soak in and pass some time. Directly across the road was our meeting point, and after bundling into the bus, we headed north to nearby Lake Mapourika for a kayaking trip. This was sand fly heaven, and kitted up, the group spread out across the smooth surface of the water. Halfway across the lake, the drizzle became more of a downpour and it wasn’t long before we were all quite wet. But it didn’t detract from the beautiful and peaceful location, and we paddled on, rounding a spit of land and heading to a small opening into a narrow channel. It was fun paddling up the creek even if we did get stuck on some vegetation briefly, and we continued along until we hit the edge of kiwi country where we could go no further. Thankfully the return leg was a lot drier (at least outside the kayak it was, inside I was soaked), and after some obligatory group photos and a couple of challenges where people got out the kayak and ran across the rest of us, we headed back to shore. A few of us raced each other for a while, and back at the pier we headed back to town where following a quick change of clothes, we headed out to eat.

 

The next morning after breakfast, we headed back to Fox glacier village. Despite being close together, the lay of the land means that the weather in the two places can be very different. When we reached the village, the mountains were shrouded in cloud with only the base visible. With no spare time to try on another day, we headed out to Lake Matheson, a famous mirror lake not far from the village. I was surprised to find a gift shop and cafe here, and it was very busy despite the less than ideal conditions. On a good day, the mountain range, including New Zealand’s highest mountain Aoraki/Mount Cook reflects on the surface of the lake to give a stunning picture postcard view. It was an easy 1hr walk through the bush round the lake, and despite the lack of visible mountains and the grey sky, it was still a pretty place to be.

 

Further down the same road, and progressing onto a winding unsealed road was Gillespies beach. Here there was no cloud at all and the sunshine was beaming down on the coastline. Like most west coast beaches, it was stony and covered in driftwood. There were a few walks in the area, including one north along the coast to a seal colony. We had a deadline to get back for so didn’t have time to do it, instead we went for a shorter walk to visit the remnants of a gold mine. Dotted up the west coast of the south island are multiple remnants to the gold rush of the 19th century. Heading back towards Fox we re-entered the overcast sky zone and headed back towards Franz Josef. This 22km drive is itself exceedingly stunning.

 

Whilst my partner went quad biking, I drove out the back road up the valley towards Franz Josef glacier. Despite being into the evening, the car park was still packed. The walk from here to the terminal face of the glacier is listed as 1.5hr return. It is a well marked but stony path that cuts down to the river bed and follows the river upstream, eventually cutting across several scree slopes left behind from the retreating glacier until eventually it ends at a fence and a sign. Having been up on Fox glacier the day before, I was rather underwhelmed by the dirty and seemingly small glacier that tumbled down the wall of the valley in front of me. It wasn’t very clear where the helicopters landed for the hiking tours as this late in the day they had all finished. The sun poked through the clouds in fits and starts, finally illuminating the glacier as I readied to leave around 6pm. The wind speed had suddenly raised dramatically and dust was whipping along down the river valley. Even on the return leg, there were still loads of people on their way out there. I passed some waterfalls, and then took a couple of detours from the returning path to get a differing viewpoint along the valley and back towards the glacier. But my favourite view was actually from a completely separate walk that led off to the far side of the valley. I only went as far as Peter’s Pool, just 15mins along the track, where despite the drizzle that had by now started, there was a mirror reflection of the glacier on its surface. The sand flies were an unfortunate distraction and it was impossible to get much time to enjoy the view without other tourists wanting to take photos so after only 5 minutes or so, I headed back to the car park and back towards the village.

 

That night we experienced the culmination of a few days of frustratingly poor service in an eatery in Franz Josef village. Eating out for breakfast and dinner, we had utilised 4 different eateries during our stay there, and with 1 exception, we endured rudeness, laziness, confusion and general ineptitude amongst the staff, as well as extortionate surcharges by the establishments. It became rather irksome and an annoyance that hung over what was otherwise a rather enjoyable trip. Franz Josef village would not exist were it not for the tourist draw of the nearby glacier, and it felt very obvious that the eateries in town were more about fleecing tourists out of a good buck rather than good service and tasty food. It was exceedingly disappointing.

We left early the next morning eager to avoid eating in Franz Josef again. Heading north back to Hokitika, we stopped here for brunch before heading up the river to Hokitika Gorge. Last time we were here, the river was a milky grey colour, and with the sun shining up above, I had my fingers crossed to see it in its full glory. Thankfully this time, we joined the path from the rather packed car park, and quickly discovered that the river was resilient blue. It is a short and easy walk round a few bends to the swing bridge that crosses the river, and round from here the track goes to a viewpoint. The track had been upgraded since last time too, and now there was a gated entrance to go down to the rocks by the river’s edge. It was a busy place to be but surprisingly peaceful, and there were plenty of spots to choose from for a differing view of the river as it wound its way through the gorge.

 

Eventually though, it was time to head back home to Christchurch, and so we got back on the road and retraced our steps through the stunning highway through Arthur’s Pass National Park, a road that never fails to impress. It is one of my favourite areas to go hiking in and has so much to offer for hiking enthusiasts. Nestled into the passenger seat with camera in hand, I merrily spent the drive home making the most of the opportunity to photograph the mountainous landscape. I have high hopes for the coming months of summer to conquer a few of the peaks here. Fingers crossed the weather obliges.

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