MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Canterbury”

The Wild West

Deep within the Lewis Pass region of New Zealand’s South Island is a myriad of hiking trails snaking through the forests and across and around the mountain ranges that snake through there. In November 2019 on a 4-day weekend thanks to Canterbury Anniversary Day, I decided to take a trip across to the western half of the island, and stopped on route to take a trip through Nina Valley. There was little space to park despite the slightly dreary day as Nina Hut at the end of the valley is a popular spot to hike into for the night. Aside from mud, I found my usual forest walk companion in the form of a South Island robin, one of my favourite birds to accompany me on hikes. What I also found was a cute pair of mice which when I stopped to watch them, proceeded to come out and nosy around the undergrowth whilst I photographed them silently. Mice are a pest here in New Zealand, one of the many invasive species responsible for decimating our native wild birds, and at the time of visiting, we were experiencing a ‘cast’, a higher than average tree seed production that led to a spike in pest numbers. Still, they were wildlife, and I love spotting wildlife. Plus they were exceptionally cute and I couldn’t help but be a little excited watching them go about their business.

 

I’d planned on walking as far as the Nina swing bridge, an hour along the trail, but between stopping to watch the forest creatures and taking a break by the river, I decided to turn back before I got that far. It had taken a few hours to drive this far from Christchurch and I’d stopped for lunch at a favourite cafe in Hanmer Springs, a detour off the main road, so I was mindful about the drive ahead to my destination and not wanting to arrive too late. So after spotting some riflemen flitting about the trees, and with the sun bursting out a little as I returned to my car, I finished my hike and continued westwards, crossing the summit of Lewis Pass and heading into Reefton, my home for the next few nights.

 

The West Coast has an unfortunate reputation for wetness, and although I was some distance from the coast, I was on the wrong side of the mountain range, so I wasn’t surprised to wake to grey skies and drizzle. I was in no hurry to do anything so had a leisurely breakfast at a local cafe before wandering along the historic street front. Like many places on the West Coast, Reefton has its history in mining and the region is full of relics. It was also the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to gain electricity with the first electric bulb to light up being outside the still-standing Oddfellows Hall off the main street. Not many people were staying here but there was plenty of traffic passing through so there was a reasonable bit of activity going on despite the drizzle.

The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop me going for a local walk so after heading up the main street, I passed the original gas lights that still lined the pavements, and continued out of the village and down towards the river which was a power source for the region back in its day. The Inangahua river is broad and tannin-stained and just outside Reefton it is crossed by a suspension bridge which leads to the remains of the old power station. The drizzle meant there were some cool views down the valley of clouds hugging the mountainside, and although still a little wet, it wasn’t too bad to walk along the river bank and read the displays about the ruins that are still left. Only as I was at the end of the circuit back across the road bridge to head into Reefton again from the other end did the rain get a bit heavier again, so I decided to take a drive and see if I could escape the rain clouds.

 

Heading west from Reefton, I drove almost the whole way to Greymouth before circling past the old Brunner mine which I’d visited a few years prior. Even on the main road there were signs of mining at regular intervals, be it a memorial at the side of the road, or signs pointing to historic mining routes or mining works. Both gold and coal have been mined in this part of the country, and there are still some active mining works in action today. There are hundreds of old coal mining carts littered about the countryside here, and several of the local walks have them as points of interest, where they’ve been abandoned to rust and be reclaimed by nature.

 

A lull in the rain by mid-afternoon allowed me to get out for another walk again. This time I headed up the hill at the eastern end of the village. Over the tops of the invasive gorse, the elevation offered a view over the rooftops of the village below and the misty-covered peaks of the mountains on the horizon. There was even a goat wandering about here, and despite the grey skies that were my constant companion, a couple of water reservoirs provided some pretty reflections as I passed them by. The trail led out towards the back of the village and I followed it for a while before heading down an access track that brought me down at an industrial area. As I cut back through the streets I passed the old courthouse and several other original buildings before finding myself back on the historic main street.

With several hours of daylight ahead, the late afternoon still allowed for another walk before darkness would fall. Taking a long drive up a gravel road, I picked the Alborn Track to visit some of the mining remnants close to a still-active quarry site. It was muddy underfoot and threatening to drizzle again, but scattered all over the place were rusting winch equipment and even an old truck alongside some large coal carts. On the return leg, the track passed the opening of a couple of caves, marked with a warning about poisonous gas and danger on entry. I do like to explore caves but I’m always wary of man-made mining caves, so I heeded the warnings and kept going, returning to my car and heading back down the hill in time for a bit of sunshine.

I’d spent the first couple of days alone, but my partner was to join me for the last night. He had a bit of a drive over so whilst he was making his way across the country the next morning, I headed east past Springs Junction to the Marble Hill campsite. From here there is a walking track to Lake Daniell which I’d read was a good hike to do, and it was indeed a lovely forest walk on a day that was actually sunny. Predicted to be 3hrs each way, I set off under a blue sky and crossed the first river before following the bank of another river as it wound through the forest. I love New Zealand’s forests, they’re so different from the cultivated forests of pine from my homeland back in Scotland. In New Zealand they feel natural and wild, even in places where that’s not actually the case, but full of various canopy levels and with a carpet that’s often as alive as the trees are, there’s so much to look at for ecology geeks like myself.

As always, there was an inquisitive South Island robin to entertain me as I followed the path through. These and the fantails or piwakawaka love to follow humans through the forest, but the fantails tend to flit-flit about more, refusing to stay still for long, and especially not for photographs. In comparison, the robins often come right up to you, cocking their head and looking straight at you in full engagement, often hopping alongside or flitting between the trees as you walk. I’m always happy to see one, and find myself talking to the birds as I go.

 

I reached Lake Daniell and the hut on its foreshore after just 2hrs, and found the hut to be in the process of being rebuilt. The lake level was up from the rain so the surroundings and the end of the boardwalk were actually submerged, but I was able to pick my way out to the pier on the lake without getting my feet wet, and here the wind whipped across the lake a little as I stood enjoying the view. There had not been a single person on the trail and I was out here on my own with the view to myself also. It was delightful. I’ve been told that the hut is often busy as schools use it and with it being just a few hours from the main road it is popular for parents to take their children out to it as a starter hike. So I was lucky to find it so empty, and enjoyed the solitude for a while before heading back into the forest again. Once again I was befriended by the local robin population, and as I reached the end of the trail I stopped to watch the water rush through the ‘sluice’ a natural rapids that had been created by a gorge in the hillside.

 

By the time I returned to Reefton my partner was waiting for me. Without the rain, we took a wander through the streets and stopped at the local distillery for a tasting. Their produce was pricey but I felt awkward leaving without buying something so took a chance on a tayberry liqueur that wasn’t even able to be sampled before purchase. I’d never even heard of a tayberry, so not knowing anything about the taste it was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very sharp taste, and one that definitely is enjoyed in small quantities but the lady in the bar suggested using it as an ice cream topper and I’ve still to try it this way.

We had to set off early the next day to leave our Air BnB behind and head north then west to Charleston on the coast. Since I’d heard about the Underworld Adventure tours I’d been eager to take part in one, and finally it was time to go exploring with them. There was a threat of rain once more but we were heading underground, so this wasn’t going to matter. Set within the Paparoa National Park, the company offers a mix of tour options from a train ride through the forest, to tubing down rapids, or a cave walk. We were there to go cave exploring, a favourite activity of mine, so we bundled into the van and drove into the park, parking up in the apparent middle of nowhere next to a large container. Out of the container popped a small train and linked carriages and once on board we set off through the forest.

There was evidence all around of the limestone nature of the landscape with large limestone cliffs jutting through the foliage as we followed a river upstream. Eventually we hopped off in the forest and those going tubing went down to the river and those of us going caving followed the path across the river and up the hillside to reach the entrance of the Ananui cave system. I love taking cave tours, exploring the world of underground river systems and ogling over the stalactites and stalagmites that litter the caverns of limestone caves. I loved this place, it felt huge and there was so much to explore down the long passageways as we went deeper and deeper into the cave system. At times there were giant boulders to climb over, and after some time we found ourselves in a lower section that split into two, a large dark cavern to the right, and a large open-ended cavern to the left where the outside forest became visible.

 

We turned first to the left, and saw a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling near where the cave opened out into the forest. The river at its bottom cast a reflection of the cave entrance and it was simply glorious. We spent some time here just enjoying the view. We turned back into the cave heading into the other lower chamber where once out of the light from the lower cave entrance we turned off our headlamps to view the twinkles of glowworms. Although nothing has ever competed with the level of glowworms I saw in the Waitomo cave system back in 2012, there was still enough here to not only be pretty, but they were close enough to actually view the larval structures and their beaded web. Like a beaded necklace these larval flies pupate within a sac from where they lower these sticky threads, butts glowing to attract their prey towards the ropes of death. It’s one of so many marvellous things that nature has evolved to do to fill a niche in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

 

Climbing back up through the cave system was just as enjoyable, returning through the network of limestone formations, eventually popping out at the entrance, and hiking back down the trail to the train to return through the forest. The sun was out now, enlivening our drive back to Charleston where a viewing point at the Underworld Adventure office gave an elevated view into the forest to the east, and the crashing waves to the left. We decided to head back to Christchurch via Punakaiki, the site of the famous Pancake Rocks. Although we didn’t go to visit the rocks, we stopped here for a late lunch, and with the sun out and the crowds of the summer at every turn, I parked up next to a flax bush, spotting a tui feeding among the flowers. Tui are good pollinators for this species. For a nectar reward, the tui regularly wear a golden crown of pollen after feeding here, the yellow dust adorning their heads for them to spread onto the next flower as they move around to feed. I love tui, a bird I don’t get to see much of in Christchurch, and I was loving the close up experience here. It was a long drive back to Christchurch across the breadth of the country, but it had been well worth it to spend a snippet of time in the wild west lands of the South Island.

The New Christchurch

In September 2010 and February 2011 a couple of large earthquakes ripped through the city of Christchurch resulting in mass devastation and loss of life. I moved to the city just shy of the 1 year anniversary of the February earthquake, and was shocked to find a city locked down, shut off and covered in dust. Those first few months I thought I’d made such a huge mistake living there. But fast forward all these years later and I love the place. The regeneration has been incredible to watch, and whilst I don’t like everything that has been done with the place, the vast majority of the changes have returned this devastated city to a place of vibrancy and life. Whilst I’d been in Japan during October 2019, a much anticipated new spot in the city had opened up and on my return I was eager to get out and experience it for myself.

At one end of Cashel Mall, replacing the colourful and popular Container Mall is Riverside Market. It opened in sections, some of the external eateries opening sooner and on that first visit, the place was still filling up, but on walking into the large space filled with food stalls, I was quickly in love and eager to try out the new bites. From baked goods, to cheeses, to meats, it wasn’t quite what I’d expected but that didn’t matter. I sussed out some places to try as I wandered around, moving upstairs to take in the view from the rafters. Outside a plethora of eateries were ready to serve. The following weekend I was back, determined to try a few other places. Over a year later, it is still a firm favourite to eat out in the city.

Divali celebrations came and went in Cathedral Square. Aside from the sad spectacle of the abandoned Cathedral, the square itself is open as an entertainment space, so there was a decent crowd as the musicians and dancers performed on the stage, culminating in bhangra music which is my favourite style of Indian dance. Along the road, a giant bright red container had been set up as a form of statement art. Impressively, it had been cut out into giant letters stating ‘MADE IN CHINA’ and it was possible to climb through the letters which I duly did as a big kid that I am.

I’d already experienced the delights of spring in the gardens the month previous, but a return to the gardens in October still provided lots of colour and fresh blooms to ogle at. The cherry blossoms were past their peak but inside the Botanic Gardens there was a mass of pinks and yellows and reds and oranges. Semi-secluded at the back of the gardens is a series of small ponds, and aside from the usual ducks that are in attendance here, I was surprised to happen upon a little shag. It was merrily swimming around the shallow water and when it turned head on to face me, the natural curve of the beak made it look comically grumpy.

 

To my delight there were also ducklings everywhere. I especially love Paradise Shelduck ducklings as they are particularly cute and fluffy, but even the hybrid grey ducks that are the usual fare around there were fun to watch. The biggest of the lakes in the gardens, with its stone arch bridge across it, is my favourite part to visit and hang out as there’s always some form of bird activity going on here. At one point a mother duck led her ducklings along the path and I watched the family go about their stroll.

 

I gradually worked my way round the river Avon that encircles the Botanic Gardens, and was stoked to spot a few eels in the water. I had heard that the eel population was slowly improving after some remedial works had taken place to improve the water quality and here was the evidence that it was working. As I watched the couple of eels weaving around under the water, a punt and a few kayaks lazily passed by. These sunny spring and summer weekend days when people are making the most of the warmth, and the excitement of the change in season is tangible in the air, are my favourite kind of days. As much as I usually prefer my own company, I love to breathe in the shared joy of these kind of days.

 

It was good enough to take a walk around the city and watch the place go through its motions. The red tram trundled towards me as I walked along Worcester Street and on a whim I decided to jump on board. I usually get an annual pass which covers the tram and the gondola outside of the city for unlimited rides, so it was easy to make use of the card when I felt like playing tourist. That, and the tram drivers tend to be a font of knowledge for what is happening in the city, including the gossip among the developers, so it is a good way to find out what’s coming and when. At the margin of the city centre, the large form of the new Convention Centre was starting to take shape as we passed and before long we were turning into the colourful New Regent Street. This part of the city was a regular hangout in the earlier stages of the rebuild when it was one of the earlier parts of the city to reopen, but while it still has some great eateries, I now hardly come here at all.

 

When we finally circled round to Cashel Street, the mall was alive with people. Again, my memories of this street years ago was of desolation and quietness, but now it is the heart of the city once more. From businesses on weekdays spilling their workers out for local eats and coffee, to weekend shoppers and people looking for a bite to eat or drink, this end of the city is a delight with the Riverside Market, the bubbling river Avon and the Terrace eateries and bars located within a short distance of each other. After completing a circuit on the tram, I jumped off to get back on my feet, finding myself at the MADE IN CHINA container before crossing the river to admire the glorious Terraces from the far side of the river, culminating in a bite to eat at the market.

 

A few days later on another glorious spring day, I again made use of my tram and gondola pass to take the gondola up Mount Cavendish for another favourite viewpoint of mine. Looking north, the span of Pegasus Bay sweeps away into the distance and the city itself is nestled just a little away from the Port Hills, sandwiched between the hills and the distant hulk of the Southern Alps, viewed on the horizon. On the other side of the building, the glorious turquoise water of Lyttelton Harbour sits within an old volcanic caldera, dividing the Port Hills from Banks Peninsula, the mountainous remnants of 2 extinct volcanoes. All these glorious days spent wandering around my city remind me how much I love here, and how wrong I was to be put off by first impressions. Even now in 2021, with the rebuild still ongoing, I have nothing but excitement for the new things still to come. The New Christchurch is an exciting place to live, and I can’t wait to see where it’s going.

The Garden City in Bloom

September is one of my favourite months of the year in either Hemisphere. In my native Scotland, it often involved some lovely spells of weather as the leaves started to loosen, whereas in New Zealand, it signals increasing daylight, new life and the promise of adventures ahead. My home city of Christchurch is known as the Garden City and the arrival of spring means it really gets to shine. As the seasons turned from winter to spring in 2019, I had been keeping a half eye on the cherry blossoms around the city and park, awaiting the spell when they were in their full glory, and finally in the second half of the month, a sunny day corresponded with the peak bloom and a day off work. There were plenty of other people making the most of it too, and the path that hugged Harper Avenue was full of throngs of people admiring and posing with the pretty pink flowers. It was impossible to resist doing the same.

 

The Avon river snakes down the side of Hagley Park, and tearing myself away from the blossoms, I followed the river towards the Botanical Gardens, passing a pair of Paradise Shelducks with their fluffy offspring. Of all the ducklings that I have seen, I think theirs are the cutest. What I love about this stretch of the river is the giant weeping willows that gently sway in the breeze, and sometimes I like to run the strands through my fingers as I pass them by. I had lunch at one of my favourite cafes, Bunsen, which is nestled in the historic Arts Centre Precinct, and with the weather so nice, I sat outside where even there I was accompanied by wildlife as a sparrow joined me on the neighbouring chair. Once satiated, it was time to enjoy the Botanical Gardens in all its spring glory.

 

Immediately on entering the gardens, I was assaulted with the striking colours of the tulip beds that hugged the lawn borders near the peacock fountain. Returning to the Avon river bank once more, it was bustling with life with punting and kayakers moving lazily across the water. It’s one of those things I’ve never done because I’m a local and I always think of it as a tourist activity, but maybe one day I’ll take a paddle myself. About halfway up the gardens, an arched bridge crosses over to a meadow nestled between the river and the Christchurch Hospital. Here, a carpet of yellow and white daffodils spread across the area below the trees and I once more found myself ogling the flora that was blooming everywhere. I was not alone here either, with nearly as many people photographing the daffodils as there had been at the cherry blossoms. With the sunshine sparkling on the gently babbling river, it was hard not to lap it all up.

 

Back in the botanical gardens, there were flowers in bloom at every turn. This is my favourite time to visit, and there was so much colour everywhere. More cherry blossoms could be found lining some of the more private nooks and there were bees buzzing everywhere. For years following the earthquakes that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011, the conservatories in the centre of the gardens had been closed. Even when they reopened, it took me some time to visit them, and finally on this day, I stepped inside and was greeted by a hot house of tropical plants. It was lush with zaps of colour, and out the back there was a cactus room full of succulents. I took my time inside, continuing my meander through the gardens on exiting, and following the river past yet more cherry blossoms and returning to Hagley Park. Strolling in the sunshine through the park back to my car, I was happy and energised for the exciting weeks to come.

 

Canterbury Tales

Having spent months recuperating from a back injury, and following a winter getaway to Samoa, there was still another 2 months of 2019’s winter to get through, and I was in need of a pick-me-up to help me through. As much as I prefer the New Zealand summers to those of my native Scotland, every winter, I pine over the lack of central heating and the absence of snow. I remember great dumps of snow and driving through blizzards where I used to live in Aberdeen, and as a result, one of the surprising things I come to miss from home, is those crisp winter days waking up to fresh snow fall. Year after year in Christchurch I’ve found I have to grit my teeth to get through the months of May to September, and so it was important I find something to occupy my days off work and make up for all the lost weekends earlier in the year. I created 2 random lists: a geographical breakdown of Canterbury, and a list of possible activities. Then, with the aid of a random number and letter selector, every weekend, I simply had the Internet pick a letter and number for me, and the rest was up to my imagination to combine the activity and the location.

First up was a scenic drive round to Diamond Harbour. The winter sunshine sparkled on the still water within the harbour and the surrounding slopes reflected through the gentle ripples. It’s a drive that always delights, and there’s so many scenic options to get you there. After stopping at a boat ramp to get some photographs, I headed back via Allandale Reserve where the receding tide exposed a mudflat, much to the delight of a myriad of wading birds that picked away for food. In the time that I spent there, the sun dipped behind the Port Hills and I could see as I headed home that a lot of cloud had moved in over the city. This created perfect conditions for a glorious sunset, and as the sun lowered in the winter evening, the sky turned an incredible orange. In a pre-COVID lifetime when planes still flew regularly, I watched as an Air New Zealand plane approached the airport from above my back garden, framed against a sky full of fire.

 

A couple of weekends later, I headed inland to Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, a little beyond Porters Pass on the West Coast road. It’s always a popular place to be, and now at the end of July, there was snow on the nearby peaks. It had been a while since I’d last stopped here, but there’s so many options for routes to take through the giant boulder field, and with a few patches of standing water around, there was some great opportunities to catch the snowy reflections. We skirted round the foot of them and round the side, past a boulder which has a graffiti inscription from 1869 on it. There were snowy peaks to be seen on the far side also, and we picked our way through the lower trails before climbing up onto the hillside at the back of the main boulders. A temporary tarn again provided more gorgeous reflections but we didn’t get such a beautiful spot to ourselves for long. With the sun low for the winter months, there were parts of the area in permanent shade and as we crossed one such spot I went flying, landing on my bum, having slipped on a spot of iced-up mud. With the boulders themselves casting a long shadow on the front side, I had to be so careful picking my way back down again so as not to fall flat on my face.

 

One of the great things about this adventure ‘game’ I was playing was that it led me back to some haunts I hadn’t visited in a while, as well as discovering a couple of new places. With another sunny weekend day the following weekend, my randomly selected region led me to a cute little wetlands on the edge of Lincoln, a relatively short drive outside of Christchurch. I previously worked in Lincoln for a short spell back in 2012 when it was just a little village, but in the years since it has expanded immensely with a plethora of new housing developments spreading out from the original core. The wetlands is right on the edge and was the location for me to practice a bit of macro photography. The waterway itself was still, reflective and surrounded by reeds and other typical plants, but I was on the lookout for flora and fauna that would allow me to practice my photography. As I walked close to the plants at the water’s edge, I found a jumping spider, the only arachnid that I like, and was quick to welcome it onto my hand to try and capture it’s cute little features. It would have been better to have my tripod and two free hands but I was able to get a couple of reasonable shots as it hurried across the back of my hand. On the far side of the wetlands, the shade meant there was some ground frost, and I probably looked a little weird to any passersby as I hunkered down on the wet grass to try and capture the water droplets.

 

The following day I took a drive to the far side of Lake Ellesmere via a nice cafe I hadn’t been to before, where the map suggested there would be a nice spot to enjoy the lakeside. I was hopeful to sit and do some wildlife spotting, but what I found was a gypsy camping site, and a rather flooded park. There was also no bird life to be seen so disappointed, I started to head through the back roads to come home, only to find myself at a ford. I just drive a little car so I wasn’t keen to drive through the river, and right on the far side were some workers doing some road upgrades, so I especially didn’t want to make a twat of myself by getting stuck in the water. It meant a massive detour to get back to the city, so I decided to make a drive out of it anyway, skirting round to the road towards Little River, but turning up Gebbies Pass and up onto Summit road. The weather was perfect for views down onto Lyttelton harbour and I was once more grateful to have so many beautiful spots within easy reach of the city. I stopped at several of the pull-ins to enjoy the view. I was already starting to get excited about the impending spring but there was still one more month of winter and one more adventure to be had before the promise of spring would come.

Escape from Home

At the end of February 2019 I put my back out in spectacular fashion by bending down to put my shoes on. Through the weeks that followed into March and early April, my only relief from constant pain or discomfort was gentle walks and lying on the floor with my legs up the wall. I couldn’t hike, I couldn’t do my beloved exercise classes and even sitting down in the car for longer than ten minutes was out of the question. By the time April hit, I was feeling quite low and claustrophobic, having not been beyond the city limits for a couple of months. I’ve lived with chronic pain for 7 years now, stemming from when I originally injured my back in 2013, and although I’m off painkillers way more than I’m on them, it has definitely had an influence on my mood. To top it off, I’ve been tackling anxiety for four years, and the two together found me feeling very down this time last year.

But as April moved onwards, relief came and I was finally able to consider going for a drive and getting out of the city. After coping with a drive out to Little River on the Banks Peninsula, I was able to tolerate going further a few days later and headed round to Akaroa Harbour 1.5hrs away. It was a grey and cool day, but I was so grateful to change my horizons and walk somewhere different. My partner was getting on with his recovery too, having had shoulder surgery in February, and deemed recovered enough to fly, he headed off to the States for a few weeks to catch up with friends, leaving me behind.

 

When ANZAC day came around, my mind was screaming to get away somewhere, so I decided to take a day trip to Kaikoura. My plan was to enjoy the drive, test my back out and see some wildlife as a reward. It was a gorgeous sunny day and I was glad that my back coped with being seated so long. I headed straight to the peninsula on arriving and parked up on a rock to watch the adults sleeping and the pups playing in rock pools. But what was supposed to be an uplifting trip to pull me out of my pity party, ended up being highly frustrating as I watched tourist after tourist ignoring the distance rule and actively harassing the pups to get selfies. In particular, two guys forced themselves right in the face of one pup, practically touching it to get it to look in their camera. I was livid, and the multiple repeat offenders succeeded in winding me up. I left for home, more aggravated than relaxed.

 

It wasn’t till two weeks later into May that I came to realise how much the constant discomfort and cabin fever had affected me, but I was finally able to let go of it all when I decided to give Air BnB a go, and picked a part of Canterbury to get away to that I’d never visited before. Nearly 4hrs away in South Canterbury, Otematata is nestled towards one end of the Waitaki Valley. It was the last month of autumn which I hadn’t really given much thought to until I reached the valley from Kurow and found myself among an increasingly colourful landscape. It started off subtly as I reached Lake Waitaki, becoming a bit more noticeable as I reached the dam at the eastern end of Lake Aviemore and then popping into full glory as I reached Otematata itself. The little settlement didn’t amount to much, but I had a cute little apartment to spend a couple of nights in, and my host had helpfully given me an idea of some walks to do in the immediate region.

I’d lost a good chunk of my fitness, but thankfully my first walk was almost flat. Starting up the road to Lake Benmore which was lined by yellow trees, I passed the golf course which struck an incredible likeness to the Speyside region of Scotland. It immediately transported me to memories of my childhood on family holidays, and as I marvelled in the autumn glory, I finally felt myself relax a little, and weeks of pent up frustrations finally began to ease. I was only limited by the remaining hours of daylight, so I wasn’t particularly fast about my walk as I was constantly stopping to try and capture an image of the gorgeous colours around me. A pond beyond the golf course cast reflections of the autumn leaves, and shortly after that, the path cut down into a woodland where I was immediately traipsing through a carpet of fallen leaves.

 

New Zealand is full of Scottish names and Lake Aviemore was one of these places. The expansive lake could be found after a wander among the leaves and the end by Otematata was inundated with black swans and scaup. The lowering autumn light caused the mountains on the far side to glow and I felt like I was walking through an autumnal wonderland. The marshy ground at the lake edge inferred the lake had flooded recently and I had to take a couple of small detours to avoid getting my feet wet. Some way along the shore, I found myself at a camping park and boat ramp and here, a track led up a little spit of land to give another view across the lake. There was an abundance of fallen yellow leaves to kick through as I headed back to my apartment for the night.

 

The next morning, I took a different route through the same lakeside woodland where I found a small lake with another stunning reflection. There was also a hoard of bright orange berries everywhere I looked. The same road that had led me to this walk continued on through a valley of colourful foliage to Benmore Dam, a large manmade construction that walled up the end of Lake Benmore, another large lake in the region. My host had recommended the walk round the peninsula, so I followed the signs to the car park which was quite busy, and set off through the pine forest. Once again, I felt transported back to Scotland. The feeling only lasted until I got my first views of Lake Benmore, as the blue colour of the water reminded me I was in New Zealand. The lakes of mid-Canterbury are all such a stunning blue colour which I’ve never seen in any other country. The overcast weather dulled the blue here somewhat, but that didn’t detract from the view. As I climbed up and over a ridge, I was suddenly presented with the main expanse of the lake, and behind it rolling hills were framed by the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps.

 

The track took a circuit across the ridges, eventually presenting a turn-off to a lookout where a well placed bench offered a grand vista. It was occupied when I arrived, and after a brief chat with the two men, I found a nearby rock to park my bum and I sat for a long time just soaking up the view. After a while, I returned to the main trail which cut back into the forest briefly before opening up to see the lake again as it descended a little on the circuit. The track was well formed but in places had loose stones on the surface and I lost my grip in one spot, falling over and tearing a small hole in my clothes. I got a nice bruise on my knee too, but it wasn’t enough to dampen my day. As the loop turned back towards the carpark, it descended once more into the forest and the view was lost for most of the return leg.

 

I took the long road home, crossing Benmore dam and marvelling at the immensity of it, before continuing back towards Lake Aviemore, finding myself on the far bank from Otematata. It felt desolate here, with only the occasional passing car and little in the way of interest. It varied in its proximity to the lake itself with few places to stop and admire it. A campsite did offer a short walk along the lake shore before I pushed on to a walk that I’d spotted online. Some way towards the Lake Aviemore dam, I pulled in by a bridge and took a track that headed up a river. The grey skies cast the water a steely grey colour and it felt still and quiet walking here. I had the place completely to myself, as I followed the track to a small picnic area and then beyond. The track on the map stopped, but the track in reality continued, so I followed the river further upstream, not sure where it would take me. All of a sudden it just stopped some distance beyond what the map had shown. When I returned to the picnic site I was joined by a fantail, one of my favourite forest birds. They flit flit flit between the branches and are exceedingly difficult to photograph as they hate to sit still, but they’re quite bold little birds and they like to interact. I completed the drive to the dam at the far end of Lake Aviemore, and with the intention of going to the hot tubs, I took the long drive to Omarama on the inland road. But when I got there, it was dull and cold, and I changed my mind. I returned to my apartment after stopping off at another campsite for a stretch of the legs once more among some autumn colours.

 

I had a full day to make my return to Christchurch, and with the Waitaki Valley being part of the Whitestone Geopark, there was plenty of stop-offs to be made on route. Sadly it was another grey day but that wasn’t to stop me getting out into the fresh air. Driving into Kurow, I parked up in a cul-de-sac at the start of the Kurow Hill Walkway, a locally-managed track that led up the steep hillside. Zig-zagging up the hillside for over 1km, there are a host of armchairs that have been placed to take a break on, although they all looked mouldy and sodden as I passed them by. It didn’t take long for the views of the valley to open up as the altitude gain was acquired, and from the top of the hill I could see the braided Waitaki river disappearing off in both directions. The cloud hugged the hillside on the far expanse of the river and the small town of Kurow lay spread out immediately below.

Along the road near Duntroon was the first of a few rock art sites that I stopped at. Similar to that of the Indigenous Australians, the early Maori who inhabited the area drew pictures on the rocks. The ones here were under an overhang of limestone rock, and although they weren’t always clear what they were, I could make out a sailed boat or waka canoe in one of them. Duntroon had a lovely little wetland out the back of it which had a walkway leading through. There was just me and a local there and I was enjoying being in a part of the country that isn’t frequented by tourists. Although a year later its a mute point in a post-COVID World, prior to any knowledge of the chaos that was to come, it could be hard at times not to get frustrated with the crowds that descend on some of my favourite parts of the country. Back on the main road, there was evidence of the white stone that gives the geopark its name. The famous Oamaru stone was evident here in the form of a couple of statues and a gorgeous white stone church.

Cutting inland from Duntroon, I took Earthquake Road to visit a spot where an upthrust had created a limestone cliff where a whale’s skull was uncovered. The site itself was a little underwhelming but the road led me round to the turn-off to Elephant Rocks, a place I hadn’t heard of before this trip. The giant boulders of Castle Hill in Arthur’s Pass are well known to local and tourist alike, being a popular stop-off on the road from coast to coast. But looking very similar, only hidden down a country road in South Canterbury, the Elephant Rocks felt like a secret spot. I wasn’t alone there though, but it felt far from crowded and it was peaceful to wander around there among the giant rocks. The site is part of a working farm, and just across the fence some curious cows watched those of us who wandered there.

I completed my tour of the Whitestone Geopark by visiting Anatani not far from the rocks. Here, some fossils had been discovered and were on display but I was more interested in the rock formations and the harrier hawk that was circling through the valley. Heading back to the main road there was another short walk to another spot where there was historic rock art. It was less discernible and a smaller site than the first place I’d stopped so it didn’t hold my attention for long. To break up the long drive from here back to Christchurch, I decided to stop at Riverstone, a place off State Highway 1 that I’d ignored time and time again, and was finally curious enough to explore. I was immediately shocked to find a large white-stone castle at the back of the complex. I’d planned on stopping for a late lunch at the restaurant I’d heard so much about, but was instead presented with not just the castle, but a lovely little garden to wander through, a pond with ducks (and inflatable flamingos!) to look at, and a myriad of eclectic and jam-packed brick-a-brack stores to peruse through, never mind the delicious food to eat at the restaurant. The whole weekend had been just what I’d needed to perk up my sad soul, and the unassuming Waitaki Valley had more than delivered.

Life at Home

The day I arrived home from Tanzania, my partner went into hospital to have surgery. I managed to get a decent sleep and get out to stretch my legs, and I even felt energised enough to get to an exercise class before visiting him that evening as he recovered. I had the next day off work, and was tasked with picking him up that morning, as well as being his nursing aide as he was rendered limited by an unusable arm for the weeks ahead. He had torn his rotator cuff in his shoulder and he wouldn’t be able to lift his arm or take weight for some time. Picking him up should have been a straight forward task, but as I bent down to put my shoes on, I was suddenly hit like a brick with excruciating pain and I immediately fell to my knees, crying out and swearing as the pain repetitively shot from my lower back. The tears immediately started rolling down my face and with every attempted movement, more pain kept coming. I was stuck on the floor, writhing and swearing. I tried to get up but that was the worst pain of all. I had to get to my feet, there was no getting round that fact, so through screams, I forced myself upright, reeling as I made it to my feet, rushing as well as I could to the first aid kit to grab some painkillers. I took all that I safely could from what I had, and found myself unsure what to do next.

With my partner relying on me and a very stubborn streak to contend with, I grabbed my keys, and went out to my car. Opening the door was the easy part, but as I tried to sit down, the incessant throbbing became a crescendo once more and I got into the drivers seat with more tears running down my face. I spent the entire drive to the hospital groaning, tears continuing to fall out. I panted incessantly, trying to use my breathing to ease the pain. I’ve put my back out before, but the circumstances surrounding this time made this ten times worse. When I arrived, the nurse asked me to help dress my partner and it suddenly became clear that my role as his nurse was going to be a bit of problem. He had a working back and one arm, and I had two working arms but a bad back. In hindsight, it was the most comical thing that a stranger could have witnessed.

As a contractor with no sick pay, I had to go back to work the next day. What followed were days of physio strapping, pain with sitting and driving and a restricted ability to lift things. My only relief was walking. It had been the same the last time I’d put my back out in 2013, so whilst my sports were completely out of the question, I made a point of walking on my days off work, the gentle movement giving me some relief from the constant ache that came with sitting and standing still. Thankfully, it was still summer, so there were some beautiful days of sunshine to enjoy, and being last year before any concept of coronavirus could ever have been fathomable, there were still events going on in my home city of Christchurch.

The Garden City, made famous by a devastating and destructive earthquake in 2011, has changed so much in the years that I have lived there. There is still so much to complete, but the city is a hive of activity once more, and parts of it have been completely revitalised. That first weekend, my partner and I headed into the city, him with his arm in a sling, and me eager to get mobile. It was the opening day for the Christchurch Town Hall which had had a massive renovation inside. This was my first chance to get inside the building, and there was a good crowd of locals reminiscing and marvelling as the tour went round. Outside the streets were busy and we wandered down to the Avon River where the Terraces and Cashel Mall make up one of the completed parts of the city. The Terraces are a mish-mash of building styles, and whilst not aesthetically to my taste, it has become a popular spot for drinks and a bite. The iconic Christchurch trams trundled below the balconies and the city felt alive.

 

The dominating structure of the Bridge of Remembrance marked one end of the Christchurch Lantern Festival’s displays for Chinese New Year. Whereas they had been pulling them down in Sydney the weekend before, they were still in full swing in my home town, and although we wandered round some of them during the day, it was at night that they really came to life. Needing no excuse to go for a walk, we headed back into the city in the dark, to experience them in all their glory. Lining both sides of the Avon River as well as within the river itself, there were plenty of lanterns to look at, and there was a good crowd of people enjoying it all.

 

After my initial reservations about moving to Christchurch in 2012, back when it was still sealed off and desolate, reeling from the grief and loss of that earthquake, I’ve come to love the city and been proud of its progress and what it has to offer. So on 15th March 2019, when news reached my work of a terrorist attack in the city, I was dumbfounded. In the days and weeks that followed, I proudly watched as my city rallied and came together, united in shock and defiance, publicly rejecting the ideology that had led to that heinous act. We spent weekends joining the crowds of people reading messages among the flowers, and joining vigils. We remained unafraid to go out and move around, and we continued to make the most of the city that was open around us.

 

In April, Evans Pass road, the final link between Sumner and Lyttelton, reopened after eight years. We took a drive through the tunnel to Lyttelton on a gorgeous sunny autumn day, and drove up and over to Summit Road, looping round and stopping at the various lookout points. It gave a whole new view of the harbour, including a direct view down onto Lyttelton Port, where the wharf was covered in colourful containers. We watched the port in action for a while before heading round to the Lyttelton Timeball, another place to reopen after extensive earthquake repairs. Originally completed in 1876, the historic structure was created to allow sailors of the time to check the accuracy of their chronometers, the ball set to drop at a predetermined time every day. Although you can’t go into the building, its elevated position gives yet another differing viewpoint of the blue harbour below.

 

A few weeks later we took a trip up the Christchurch Gondola, a favourite activity to do in the winter months when I don’t tend to hike much. An annual pass means I can go up as often as I like, and another sunny autumn day was the perfect excuse to go up. The views along the Port Hills are incredible, but the top of Mt Cavendish where the gondola top station is, is particularly special. Looking north, Pegasus Bay sweeps away from the city in a beautiful arc, the distant views of the Southern Alps snaking off to meet it. On the other side of the building, Banks Peninsula and Lyttelton Harbour make up the view and whether the tide is in or out, the colour of the water is always stunning. I will never tire of this view, no matter how many times I head up to the summit, and it is one of many reasons why I love living here.

 

And to prove how much I’ve made a home for myself here, I finally got round to planting my citizenship tree in late April 2019. In New Zealand, newly appointed citizens are gifted a native tree that you can plant as a symbol of laying roots. I’d gotten my citizenship in December 2018, and my plant had sat on the dining room table for months. Finally, my partner and I headed down to the community garden to plant it. I wandered around for a while, trying to find the perfect spot when suddenly a New Zealand fantail flitted excitedly around us as we stood in one particular spot. This was to be where I was to plant it. I’m not religious or spiritual, but this was as good a sign as any, and the bird chirped in the nearby branches around us as we dug a hole and laid my roots. Despite missing my family and aspects of my life back in Scotland, I’ve never doubted for a minute that New Zealand is where I was meant to be. Christchurch is my home, and I continue to be very proud of its progress and happy to enjoy all that it offers me.

Return to the Mountains

After a poor night’s sleep camping through strong winds, I left Mt Thomas scenic reserve behind and continued past Glentui and Ashley Gorge to reach Oxford. I didn’t have enough supplies for the day, but thankfully the supermarket was open and I could stock up before continuing to the Coopers Creek car park to start the day’s hike. I’d hiked Mt Oxford many years ago and knew it was an arduous hike. In my head I figured I’d just hike the summit track and return the same way, so I left my car behind to start the long hike through the valley to reach the start of the climb.

The lower section is among forest and here I was overtaken by a man running the trail. Like the day before, I felt a little unfit as the track became steep, trying to tell myself it was just the heat. I’d set off before 9am but the sun felt hot above me. At the first break in the trees however, I looked behind me and realised a blanket of fog was creeping across the Canterbury Plains. The higher I got, the closer the cloud bank got, such that as I reached the more open upper ridges, the Plains were completely obliterated from view. It was pretty cool, a phenomenon I’ve seen only a handful of times from above the cloud line. Like the day before, it got windier the higher I got and the edge of the blanket seemed to wisp around itself, fingers creeping and retreating into the gullies between the lower ridges.

 

Mt Oxford is a series of false summits until at last the track rolls onto the true summit at 1364m (4475ft). I had to hunker down to shield myself from the wind while I ate some food, watching the cloud roll in and out and the wisps puff up and then retreat. I’d summited a little after 11.30am and with so many hours ahead of me, I knew I should do the longer route back across the far ridge, even though I remembered how much I hated its monotony last time. Despite this, I was in training, and needed to keep the momentum going, so despite knowing I’d get frustrated, I took off across the summit, bracing against the wind.

It’s an easy but exposed track to follow across the bare ridge before it eventually cuts back into the forest. I recalled from last time that the time on the sign underestimated this section so this time I was prepared for that. As I reached the forest once more, I could see how much the cloud had piled in and how much it was desperately trying to push up the mountain side. It was mesmerising to watch though, and I paused for a bit to do so before losing sight of it as the trees closed around me. As the track cut down the mountainside it became eerie as soon I was within the cloud. It was cooler suddenly and any gaps in the trees offered no views other than the wisps of cloud that swirled around. It made the descent through the forest much more enjoyable as I simply breathed the mist in, merely guessing where I was with my sense of altitude dimmed.

 

When at last I reached the Korimako track that I’d taken to Ryde Falls the last time I’d been here, I continued straight this time, taking an alternate route towards a different car park then cutting away to trudge the long route back to Coopers Creek. This alternate route was muddy and undulating, but it was busy because it formed a loop track to Ryde Falls, which seemed popular. The low cloud continued the whole arduous slog back, and I finally returned to my car about 7hrs after setting off.

 

The following week, I joined two local walks together, parking at the Christchurch Gondola car park to hike the Bridle Path over the Port Hills to Lyttelton Harbour. The Bridle Path is a popular local walk, but it is rough and steep underfoot, making it a good slog that isn’t to everyone’s tastes. It zig-zags its way up to summit road and from there it zig-zags its way down the other side, reaching the road by Lyttelton tunnel. I’ve walked this track from end-to-end as well as just up to Summit Road and back, and on several occasions have combined it with trips to the gondola station. This time, I was heading to the harbour, grabbing food at a local cafe before heading down to the port to catch the ferry across to Diamond Harbour.

 

Once on Banks Peninsula, a track leads from near the wharf deep into the lower forests and up a gradual slope to reach farmland where the most popular route up to Mt Herbert leads from. I’ve hiked Mt Herbert multiple times, using 3 different routes up, but this one I’ve done the most. The ferry ride over is an added bonus to this hike that I like to tack on, but it does mean the hike has to be to a timetable in order to catch the ferry back over at the end of the day. Once again there was a recurring theme of feeling slow. I’ve definitely noticed that hiking with poles takes me longer than hiking without them. But with my knees starting to show wear and tear, I feel that using them is a necessary evil. But it is hard to accept at times that I’m not making records when I return to hike mountains I’ve previously summited. Despite the amount of walking I was doing lately, I couldn’t help feel that it was my fitness that was the problem.

Having caught the 11am ferry, I was relatively late to head up through the farmland, and I watched sadly as several people sped ahead of me and several people passed me heading down. The route however was familiar and I knew what to expect ahead. When at last I reached the summit (919m/3015ft), there was hardly anyone around and I might as well have had it to myself. Mindful of the ferry times I didn’t stay up long before heading back down. Going down was straightforward, but as is often the case, the clouds had piled in over Christchurch and it looked a little dull. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a music festival on at Diamond Harbour so when I reached the pier there was a massive queue for the ferry. Normally only once an hour at this time of the day, the ferry company thankfully agreed to do multiple runs to lighten the load. I wasn’t successful at making it on the first sailing, but was able to get on the second one. I still had the return hike over the Bridle Path to do, so I was eager to get back and get going. When at last I reached my car once more I’d been on my feet for 8hrs and was eager to be done.

 

Just 2 weeks later, I found myself on my final training hike ahead of the toughest hike of my life. I was to leave the country in just 2 days and the anticipation was starting to get real. I took the familiar drive into the Canterbury foothills and found myself on the edge of a cloud blanket that was slowly creeping in from the east. This last hike was a return to Mt Somers, a hike that I’d found challenging the first time round, and one that was a decent length and steepness to make me feel like I was getting a good last workout. Again I felt my poles slowing me down and I took longer to hike the lower slopes through the forest and across the rising ridges to reach the summit route junction. I focused on the task at hand, aware of people overtaking me regularly. Wisps of cloud had initially hugged the side of the mountain and as I climbed I saw the cloud holding off a little distance away.

 

It was another scorching day, and the 30 degree heat got the better of me. I was struggling, wheezing for breath and having to stop often. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong those last few hikes. It had been hot, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in the heat. I was using poles, but they shouldn’t have made me tired and breathless. I’d had a vaccine ahead of my travels but that had been weeks before. Something just wasn’t right, I felt super unfit now despite the regular hikes and it was starting to concern me. Up and up I went, struggling but stubborn. I reached scree and then boulders and the marked route became a matter of picking a way up and across between distant orange poles. When at last I reached the final push towards the summit, I saw that the clouds had moved in, and like the few weeks prior at Mt Oxford, they tried desperately to sneak up the side of the mountain. I needed a break and rested at the summit, but as the clouds crept higher up the slopes, I was conscious of the fact that I needed good visibility to follow the markers in a few of the lower sections. I was caught between catching a break and wanting to rush back down before I risked losing my way.

 

It had taken me so long to get up there, that I was one of only 3 people left at the summit. The other 2 started to head down as I finished my food, and wary of getting into trouble if the clouds became a problem, I didn’t waste much time following suit. It was a needless worry in the end. As much as the clouds tried to wisp upwards, they never really made much progress, and I made better time on the descent, watching the blanket gradually dissipate as I neared its altitude. By the time I was back down at the track junction to follow the Mount Somers Route back to the car park, I had a clear view across the Plains. It took me 8hrs from start to finish, a lot longer than I’d taken the first time I’d gotten up. I was disappointed, but I headed as usual to grab my favourite post-hike treat: nachos and ice-coffee at C1 Espresso in Christchurch. Hiking is a good excuse for me to have a bit of a pig-out afterwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eat more calories after a hike than I actually lose on the hike. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe that was why I was struggling on these last few hikes. But there was no time left to wonder. Because 2 days later, I was off on a great adventure.

Mount Thomas (Ridge Route)

With a need to take every opportunity I could to go hiking ahead of an upcoming mammoth of a trek, despite having to work in the morning and a class in the early afternoon, I set off mid-afternoon to go to Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area. I previously hiked Mt Thomas back in 2015 and had summited to no view when the clouds descended as I ascended. I had made a couple of attempts to go back in 2018 and been thwarted by the weather each time. Now, in January 2019, I was confident the weather was in my favour. With another hike planned for the following day, I reached the Wooded Gully campsite and set up my tent for the night, choosing to camp out rather than go home. By the time I’d done that and got my hiking boots on, it was after 4pm, but with the long day to my advantage, I set off to hike Mt Thomas for the second time.

Almost immediately after leaving the campsite behind and taking the direct summit track, I was shocked by the difference. Part of the forest in the lower part of the hike had been felled and this left a giant scar in the landscape: a muddy, roughened track of clay-like dirt amidst a mess of tree stumps and abandoned branches. This also left me totally exposed to the hot summer sun and with this part of the track being especially steep, I suddenly felt immensely unfit and had to stop often to catch my breath. It worried me a little. This hike was nothing compared to what was to come the following month and I couldn’t help but chastise myself for struggling with this track. Reaching the forest only offered relief from the sun but the steepness of the hike continued.

It was only in the last 100m altitude gain that the forest opened back up again and the view across the ridge stood before me. It was at this point last time that I’d found myself in dense cloud, so it was great to finally see the vista that I had missed. Looking behind me, I could make out the expanse of the Canterbury Plains. After this short section, the track reaches a forestry road which then leads the way to the summit at 1023m (3356ft). It was very windy but at least without the cloud this time, I could see inland across the outer reaches of the Southern Alps, and seaward to the sweeping arc of Pegasus Bay and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. The heat had not browned the vegetation here, and everything looked green and beautiful. I had the place to myself, unsurprising considering how late in the day it was. I would never normally hike up a mountain this late myself, but on this occasion it had worked out well.

 

From the summit there are a multitude of walks to take. It is possible to return the way you’ve come, or to cross the ridge and take the Wooded Gully track or the Ridge track, both of which lead back to the campsite; or continue across the mountain tops and follow a track deep into the mountains to a bivvy for an overnight hike (Bob’s Camp route). Having done the Wooded Gully track last time, I opted for the Ridge track this time round, to make it a longer hike, and to prevent monotony. Crossing the ridge was exposed with a crosswind, and I was quick to make work of this section of the trail. I passed the Wooded Gully turn-off in no time at all, but the junction I needed for the Ridge track took a little longer than anticipated to reach. When at last it appeared, the sign offered 5 different hiking options to choose from. My campsite was listed as 2.5hrs walk away, and the angle of the sun was starting to lower.

Almost immediately the track delved deep into the forest, and this it shared with the Wooded Gully track. What differed though, was the route it took back. Whereas the Gully track almost immediately lost altitude to follow the lower slopes of the hillside down, this one remained up on the ridge as the name would suggest. In fact the drop in altitude was so gradual that for a long time it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere nearer to my destination. Deep within the forest it was hard to tell what altitude I was at as the views were few and far between. The bird life was minimal and the wind caused a lot of tree movement. At one point, a large tree had fallen over and the path had to skirt round the base which had been ripped up in the process. I wondered whether I was at risk of some of the flimsier trees falling down around me.

 

Eventually as the drop in altitude finally became noticeable, the forest proper suddenly came to an abrupt end, reaching a clearing which was scattered with young forest starting to push up at its margins. Finally I could see the Canterbury Plains again but I was still quite high up. As I got lower though, I reentered the active forestry zone and once more I found myself among tree stumps and a churned up and degraded track. In the process of deforesting this section, a few of the hiking markers appeared to have been lost and it was purely common sense taking me in the right direction. I knew I was on the look out for a forestry road and eventually I reached it at a large wasteland where abandoned tree limbs had been piled high at the margin. My topographical map had me follow the road to the next bend and then another track would lead me through the forest but as I trudged down the 4×4 track, this next track never materialised. I briefly clambered over some logs in search of it, but alas could not find it. Luckily the forestry road would take me to the same place, albeit with a few more bends so I just kept going.

 

I had seen not a single person on the whole hike, apart from a couple heading down right as I was setting off. But when I returned to the campsite there was a lot of activity and even more people had set up camp since I’d left it 4hrs prior. I finished at 8pm, ready for dinner, and had to make a wind break to stop my stove being blown out. Being next to the river, the sandflies of course were in full-on hounding mode and as soon as I’d eaten, I was straight into my tent to escape them. Despite being deep in the gully, the wind that I’d hiked through continued to pick up strength and seemed to just whip through the gully, rattling my tent and creaking the overhead trees. In fact it got so strong in the night that I couldn’t sleep from the noise as well as the concern that a tree might end up on top of me. In the early hours of the morning, I even got into my car and tried to sleep in there. Although I felt safer, it was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really feel any better off. Eventually, eager to get horizontal, I crept back to my tent sometime later, finally dozing for a few hours before the morning sun lit up my canvas. I love camping but I hate it at the same time. I never sleep well but there’s something kind of fun and isolating about it that makes me do it over and over again. But needless to say, having been stimulated by the increasing brightness of yet another sunny day, I arose early, shoved my camping gear in the boot of the car, and headed off for another day of hiking.

New Year Adventures

With the toughest hike of my life just a few weeks away, every day off work was an opportunity to do some hiking. The good thing about the festive period being in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is that the public holidays mean long hours of daylight and a reasonable chance of warm and/or dry weather. I haven’t done anything special for Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve for a long time. In fact, I haven’t even made it to midnight for a few years either, and the end of 2018 was no exception. I rose early on the first day of 2019, packed up my car and headed deep into Canterbury. With Christchurch on the coastal border of the Canterbury Plains, it takes over an hour to reach the mountains to the west and I was making a very familiar drive to the foot of Mt Somers, where a road leads into Hakatere Conservation Park. I’ve done a few hikes within its boundaries, including Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, and I’d sussed out a long walk to a couple of Department of Conservation (DoC) huts nestled among the mountains. Where the tarmac ended, I turned north, taking a long drive down a gravel road to reach Lake Heron.

I’d left sunshine behind and as I arrived at the lake, a wall of cloud lingered over the nearby peaks. I wasn’t sure how far the road went, so initially drove past the start of my hike, skirting round the edge of the lake and finding myself at a rather grungy campsite. It was busy, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. But it was the only place in the area with a toilet block and it allowed me to turn my car around and return to the stony car park where my hike started. Following a 4×4 track, I took a brief detour on the Kettle Hole walk which cut up a small hill to overlook a kettle, or depression in the ground formed by a historic glacier. I was a bit underwhelmed by it so didn’t hang around long before returning to the track to follow the edge of the lake. The wind danced across the water creating a bit of chop, and despite a sign stating that the area was a nature reserve and wildlife refuge, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to spot on or off the lake. Every now and again I got covered in a cloud of dust as a car passed me on the track, heading to a car park a little way around the shore.

 

I was a little disappointed to reach the car park and see the DoC sign which stated the hut I was planning on walking to was 3hrs away. This was a lot further than I’d anticipated when I’d researched my planned walk and I started to realise that I just didn’t have the time. My camping stuff was in the car, not on my person, and I’d already booked a spot at a campsite ahead of the next day’s hike, so it wasn’t an option to break the hike up and stay in the hut. I made the decision to hike based on time, to keep going until it was time to turn back, irregardless of how far I’d reached. Through a gate, the track cut down to a river where there was a ford or a boardwalk to get to the other side. After this brief detour, the track returned to the lakeside.

 

Soon after, there was a side track to Lake Hill, a 762m (2500ft) summit that gave a raised view of the lake and the surrounding conservation park. The actual elevation gain from the lake was barely 100m (328ft) but it was enough to get a broader view of the landscape. Across the lake, the snow-speckled peak of Mt Arrowsmith poked up behind the nearer peaks in front of it. The ground was covered in meadow flowers and an information board gave a brief overview of how the glaciers formed this valley and lake. It was a great spot for lunch, sitting down among the flowers and feeling the wind on my face. After a while, I took the track back down to the lake and continued to follow it round to Mt Sugarloaf.

 

The track starts to turn away from the lake at Harrison’s Bight, an inlet that keeps Mt Sugarloaf out of reach. The 4×4 track leads to here and there were a couple of utes parked up, their occupants nowhere to be seen. Soon I reached a track junction and took the Swin River track which was to take me to join the Te Araroa trail (the long-distance walk that spans the length of New Zealand), and from there would lead to Double Hut. The DoC sign showed the hut was still 2hrs away and as I walked along this flat, rather uninteresting section of the walk, as the sky grew darker around me, I realised that I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I could see it in the far distance nestled at the base of the mountain range in front of me, but after a while of it never getting any bigger in my view, I decided that enough was enough and duly turned round to return to my car. Double Hut and Emily Hut would have to wait for another day and another hike.

Spots of rain began to fall as I headed back and the clouds grew stormier as I worked my way back round the lake edge. I set off back along the gravel road, returning to sunshine as I headed south. I pulled over at Maori Lakes, a wetland area at the side of the road which sparkled under the sunshine here. The sandflies as always threatened to ruin my enjoyment and after taking some photos I pushed onwards. Back at Mount Somers village, I turned south towards Geraldine and Peel Forest. I’d booked a camping spot at the Peel Forest campground and the place was pretty busy when I arrived. I was able to secure a spot under the shade and set up my little hiking tent which looked positively dwarfed by the family-sized camping tents that were all around me. The area is covered in walks, long and short, so before dinner I did the Kahikatea walk which looped through a forest and wetland zone near the campsite.

 

I enjoy camping although rarely sleep well, so I was up and ready early the next morning, packing up and getting on the road with a grand plan. It wasn’t too far away to reach the car park for hiking Little Mt Peel, one of my favourite mountain hikes in Canterbury. It had been a few years since I’d been up, celebrating my 33rd birthday on my first and only trip up there. My plan for the day was to aim for Mount Peel which involves summiting Little Mt Peel, and following an unmarked path across the ridges to Middle Mt Peel and Mt Peel behind that. It was an ambitious plan as it is a full-on hike, and part of the reason I’d been keen to get going early. Little had changed as I followed the Deer Spur track up the slope and despite the early hour, I was surprised at the number of people already on the trail. It is a popular hike, and with good reason: the views are spectacular on the way up and from the summit itself. Now hiking with poles, my hiking style has notably changed as I’ve adapted to their use. I do find they slow my walking down at times and with the lower parts of the hike in the forest, they became a bit of a nuisance as I needed my hands free to aid negotiating tree routes during the initial climb.

The higher I climbed, the windier it got and there was a lot of cloud in the sky above me. When I reached the summit of Little Mt Peel (1311m/4301ft) there was a strong crosswind. I sat by the trig marker eating my lunch and stared across the ridge towards the neighbouring peaks, musing how to proceed. I’d told my partner my plans for the day, but not being a hiker himself, I wasn’t sure if he actually understood where I was planning to go. As I looked at the exposed ridge and the distance, I made time calculations in my head as I watched the clouds move across the neighouring ranges. Hiking alone involves risk. Hiking in groups does also but when I’m responsible for my own safety, sometimes I chicken out and take the safe option instead. As the wind was strong, and I wasn’t 100% sure what the weather planned on doing, I decided to leave the higher Mt Peel peaks for another day. I slightly kicked myself for being too scared to continue, whilst trying to justify with myself that I’d made the right decision.

 

Last time I’d hiked Little Mt Peel, I did the loop, descending down the South Ridge track which was rough and steep. I’d decided at the time that I wouldn’t do this track again, but having already changed my plans, I decided I’d go down this route after all, rather than the more popular Deer Spur track that I’d ascended on. I skirted behind the little shelter and went to use the portaloo behind it, opening the door to be presented by a scene of mayhem where some poor sod had clearly had explosive diarrhoea all over the inside of the portaloo itself. It was utterly gross and I was quick to shut the door again. With my poles again being a hindrance on the upper sections where the track is steepest, this route is actually quite enjoyable going down because you lose altitude exceptionally quickly which looks cool whenever you turn round to check your progress. The view to the neighbouring mountains is also nicer on this track than the Deer Spur track.

 

Eventually, the track turned almost 90 degrees and disappeared into the forest, finally coming out at Emily Falls and joining the Emily Falls track. Last time I’d come this way, I lost the track as it followed the river on the way back from the Falls. I knew what to look out for but as the bank had had a slip, I nearly missed the exit again. This final section in the forest is always a little boring for me. There wasn’t much bird life to spot and I was tired from the hike. Back at my car, it was time to head home. Neither day’s hikes had gone to plan, so I was a little frustrated but I had 4 more weekends to fit in some more mountains before heading abroad, and at least I was feeling positive about my fitness as the year began.