I’ve been solo travelling since I was 19 years old, and most of the time I stay in hostels, either in shared dorms or private rooms. Now 34, although sometimes I opt for more comfort and stay in hotels or motels, I still regularly stay in hostels both internationally and domestically. They offer a cornucopia of cultural and social exposure with all sorts of people coming through their doors. I’ve shared rooms with quiet people, loud people, extroverts and introverts, males and females and whilst I’ve had my food stolen from the hostel kitchen, and at times secretly imagined throttling the people who loudly make noise in the small hours of night through the often paper-thin walls, I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a hostel, until my stay in Napier in New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay.
I’d returned late in the evening following an awesome production of Mary Poppins at the city’s theatre, and had been happy to return to an empty dorm. I have no problem sharing but sometimes it’s nice to get a room to your self for the price of a dorm bed. But just as I was getting ready for bed, the door was opened and in came a rather confused lady who was struggling with her bags. We exchanged pleasantries as is expected in a dorm room and I proceeded to get into bed, leaving her to get settled and go to bed herself. But instead of doing so, she proceeded to sit on the chair in the corner of the room with the light on and just stare into the middle of the room saying nothing. After some time of failing to get to sleep with the light on, I eventually enquired if she was okay, and she asked me to get her toothpaste out of her bag. She seemed frail, so I got up to help her but what followed was me having to empty the very bizarre and random contents of her bag to find it, before she asked me to open her suitcase for her. An old case, the lock was jammed and I was unable to help her, which upset her greatly. She sat bereft on the chair and stared into the distance again, but by now after midnight, the reception was closed and there was nothing I could do. Apologising, I went back to bed and lay there, aware of her still sitting and staring before eventually, and finally she made movements to go to bed. After lots of loud coming and going between the room and the bathroom, she finally stripped near naked in the middle of the room, fell onto the bed and was soon snoring very loudly, her dignity barely covered by the duvet. It took some time to get to sleep.
I had an early rise the next morning as I set off for Cape Kidnappers to the east of the city. I’d longed to visit since I’d heard about the place a year or so prior, as it is famous for a large colony of gannets, my favourite ocean bird. There are a few options to visit, and it is recommended to go with a tour guide, however, if you get the tidal times right, it is possible to take a long (19km return) walk along the exposed beach at low tide to reach the colony on foot. An avid hiker and eager to save some money, I opted for the self-guided option. I’d checked in at the tourist information on the promenade and they’d supplied me with the tide timetable. It is a long walk, and the beach is exposed and wild, so it is exceedingly important to follow the locals recommendations. It was a bit of a drive to get there, and after the sunshine the day before, unfortunately it was drizzling and grey. But geared up in my waterproofs, there was no stopping me.
The hike begins at the small car park just before the caravan park at the end of the road in Clifton. Cutting through this, it’s then straight onto the beach and there was no-one else around. It felt wild and a little bit scary under the steep cliffs where the waves pushed me high up the beach under the rocks. There was a bit of scrambling involved in places and there were regular streams to cross below waterfalls that cascaded down from the cliffs in places. Away from the tide, the sea was actually quite calm, but the tidal zone felt squally and the outlook under the grey sky was bleak. There are two zones to the Cape Kidnappers colony, and the first to be reached was still a good distance (7.5kms from the starting point) away round several headlands. Half-way to the first colony I was overtaken by a tractor pulling a trailer of tourists, one of the guided options to reach the colonies. It made light work of the tidal zone whereas I was driven high up over rocks in places as the tide seemed in no hurry to retreat.
The recommendation is to leave no sooner than 3hrs after high tide, and to set off on the return leg no later than 90mins from low tide. Despite leaving at the correct time, the tide was still high in places, and there were parts of the walk that I didn’t enjoy. But after being overtaken by a second tractor further along the beach, I was overjoyed to finally approach the first gannet colony at Black Reef, 2km shy of the main colony. It may have been the smaller of the colony but there was still plenty of activity and the birds were tantalisingly close, just a little above head height on a shelf within the cliffs. The second tractor had stopped here and I had to share the experience with the others, so after briefly watching the birds, I decided to push on to the main colony, and cut round yet another headland to be confronted by a slanting rockface that cut across the beach. As I got closer I could see the rock face was too high and too slippy to negotiate, but where it stopped suddenly on the beach was still submerged under water, the waves lapping the end of the rocks.
I walked up and down and back and forth looking for a way to continue that didn’t have me walking into the sea and I was disheartened to see that there wasn’t one. Low tide was still about an hour away, and I considered asking the tractor for a lift past this section, but with no idea how low the tide would go, I wasn’t sure if I would get stranded on the other side trying to get back again. I considered waiting it out, but going through the tide calculations in my head, I wasn’t sure it would give me enough time to get to the main colony and back again (a 4km return hike including scaling the cliff face) before again I risked being stranded. I was frustrated and disappointed, and as the tractor passed me by once more I watched it plough into the sea, the water covering the full height of the large tyres, and I fully realised that wading was not an option, with the water level at my waist height. Even with a bit of hopping across some lower rocks, there was nowhere to go lower than knee height water. Gutted, I gave up and returned to the Black Reef colony.
By this stage, a few other beach walkers could be seen along the beach that I had earlier traversed. I watched the birds in peace and quiet for some time before heading back. An even mix of adults and pre-fledged juveniles, there was also the odd younger chick hidden away, their downy fluff drawing my attention. Living in Scotland for most of my life, the Northern Hemisphere’s version of the gannet was a regular sighting when around the coast, and I think they are beautiful birds, especially loving their bullet-like dive that they do when they are fishing at sea. Despite seeing them often, I’d never seen them so close, and I’d only recently discovered that they were a member of the Booby family, a species of bird I’d been lucky enough to see in the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago. Now so close to them, I could see the resemblance, but what took me by surprise was not just the size of them, but how clumsy they were at taking off. Lifting off from cliffs just above my head height, almost all of them crash-landed on the beach before having to smack repeatedly off the sand and then the tide to get the required lift to make them airborne.
Although the sea was by now lower on my return along the beach, the weather was deteriorating, and as I passed the first few people I passed on the news about the route being blocked past the colony. There was less rock-hopping involved with more beach exposed but in one section, a large rock slip that spanned the whole width of the beach made my heart race. On the way to the colony, with the tide high, it had seemed easy enough to cross up the beach. Now with the tide much lower, the lower newly exposed section was covered in small streams so I naturally picked my way higher up the slope to where I had crossed a few hours prior. But what had appeared to be firm footing that morning, was now like quick sand and I quickly sunk down into the quagmire, causing my heart to jump into my mouth. With every attempt to move onwards, the ground gave way below me and I panicked a little as I tried to free myself. When I gratefully reached the other side, my legs were covered in mud, yet there was not even a trace of my passage, the ground having swallowed up my foot holes.
After lunch in the cafe in Clifton, I returned to Napier where the sky was starting to clear up a bit. Armed with the walking map that the tourist information centre had supplied the day before, I parked up at one of the car parks on the waterfront, and set off up Coote Road past the Centennial Gardens. A waterfall was a nice distraction from the urban landscape, and then the hard slog started following the Bluff Hill walkway to the Bluff Hill Lookout. Mainly overlooking the commercial port immediately below, there was a view along the coast in both directions, still quite shrouded in clouds, as well as the estuary behind the suburb of Ahuriri. Parts of the land immediately around the current city of Napier were previously under water or unusable prior to the destructive earthquake of 1931, but with around 2 metres of uplift created, 40 square kilometers of seabed was suddenly exposed to form new dry land.
I followed the Bluff Hill walkway down the other side of the hill past the harbour and round to Ahuriri where I followed the foreshore to the same bars I’d passed the day before. Now the sun was glaring down on Napier, and it was the perfect excuse to pull up a bench at one of the bars and enjoy a nice cold cider. Cutting up Chaucer Road, I reached the Botanical Gardens which was compact and not looking its best. Crossing Bluff Hill through the residential streets to the east, there were a few lookout out spots offering a a beautiful view across the rooftops of Napier’s Art Deco city centre. Heading back to the hostel I opened the door to my dorm and was astounded to see my roommate’s stuff was strewn all across the room including on my bed. She might as well have thrown all her belongings in the air, such was the scattered mess, and I looked despairingly at the set of false teeth that lay at the foot of my bed. Just like the night before, she sat on the chair in the corner of the room. I chatted to her for a bit, trying to normalise the situation, but the atmosphere was uncomfortable, and I was eager to head out again. There was no-one at reception, and so I scurried away to have dinner.
Unfortunately dinner did not agree with me, and rather than having an enjoyable night out, I lay curled up in my car in the darkness, trying to delay going back to the hostel. But there was only so long I could delay the inevitable need for a toilet stop, and I sheepishly crept back into my room which was thankfully a little tidier than I’d left it before and also unoccupied. I curled up in bed cradling my stomach and turned the light off, knowing it would only be a matter of time before my roommate would return. True to form, I was awoken by the light turning on as she proceeded to leave the dorm door wide open and go back to sitting on her chair staring into space with the light on. I wasn’t feeling well enough to deal with a second night of strange behaviour so I desperately tried to get back to sleep, but the minute somebody came along the hall, she asked them into the room to open her suitcase and find some things for her, just as she had asked of me the night before. Twice I watched through slits in my eyelids as two confused people bided her wish before departing. To my despair, she sat with the light on staring into space until well past 1am, and when she finally went to bed, she left the light on and was snoring once more. I was tired and exasperated, and made no attempt to be quiet as the inevitable need for the bathroom arose in the middle of the night.
I was glad to leave the hostel behind early the next morning. After the failed attempt to reach the Plateau colony of gannets at Cape Kidnappers the day previous, I had succumbed and booked a guided tour for my morning. Unlike the tractor that trundled the beach, this tour followed a clifftop road through private land to reach the colony, and with no walking involved, I was the youngest on the tour group by several decades. Still, it was a nice alternate view of the coast from up high, and I was glad I did it as the plateau colony were even closer than the Black Reef colony had been. It was noisy and smelly, and a hive of activity as birds soared the coastal thermals above and around us. The Cape coastline was a dramatic stepping of rocks down to the sea, with the distinctive point that looked like a shark’s tooth. We got plenty of time to explore the edge of the colony watching the goings on, and many of the pre-fledged juveniles were very curious and happily wandered very close to the barrier.
Despite the awkwardness of the hostel situation, I’d really liked Napier, but it was time to start the two day trek back to Christchurch. After lunch and spending a lot of money on chocolate at the Silky Oak chocolate shop & cafe, I cut through nearby Hastings, but found nothing worth stopping for. I had a long drive ahead to Palmerston North and as I crossed the plains and rolling hills of the North Island countryside, the sky grew concerningly dark and the lashing rain that soon followed caused flash flooding of the road and slowed me down to a crawl as my wiper blades struggled to keep up with the deluge. It was a miserable drive. Thankfully though as I wound through the Manawatu Gorge, it had cleared and I was able to see the river below, a view I’d seen for the first time only a few months before on a flying visit north to see a friend. It is a shame that this road has now been indefinitely closed following some recent landslips.
As a tourist, there’s not a lot of excitement about Palmerston North but the Square in the city centre offered me the respite I needed to stretch my legs. A couple of sculptures and a duck pond took my attention and I wandered around the neighbouring area before pushing onwards to the Kapiti coast. I was spending the night in Paraparaumu which offers a prime vista across to Kapiti Island, a place that I am yet to get out to. The lowering sun had broken through the clouds once more and I took a sunset walk along the serene beach, the sky reflected in the moist tidal sand. There were several locals out for a walk, and everyone was pleasant and smiling as they passed. Following a dinner of fish and chips, I was dismayed to get to my dorm room at the nearby hostel to be greeted by the sour and grumpy persona that was my roommate. A long-term occupant, she made it very clear that my presence in the room was a major inconvenience for her. I went straight to bed and felt sadistically pleased that she was disturbed by my very early alarm the next morning. After 3 consecutive nights of the worst hostel roommates I’ve ever had in 15 years of travelling, I wasn’t in the mood to be considerate.
It was still dark when I left Paraparaumu for Wellington. Being a weekday, I’d had to take the morning rush hour into consideration as I headed off to catch my ferry back to the South Island. But even then, I got stuck in jam after jam after jam and I started to panic that I would miss my ferry. Check in time came and went and I was still on the outskirts of the capital city, but I couldn’t believe my luck when I eventually turned up to be checked through and I was straight on the boat with no waiting around. It rained almost the whole crossing, and the unprotected section across the Cook Strait was the roughest I’d experienced on this crossing. With nobody out on deck, there was barely a seat free anywhere, but when we reached the entrance to the Queen Charlotte Sounds, despite the rain, I headed out on deck to enjoy what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world.
I was one of the last cars to disembark, and there was no hanging around. With the closure of State Highway 1 down the coast, the route between Picton and Christchurch is now a mammoth 7hr drive on a road that is a patchwork of roadworks as its quality degrades under the unusually high level of traffic it now takes. I was quick to leave Picton and Blenheim behind, but once more I stopped at Lake Rotoiti in Nelson Lakes National Park, where the clouds hung broodingly over the mountain tops. Even without the sunshine, the sandflies here were still out in full force, and after I felt a little more refreshed I pushed on. Unfortunately the deluge I’d driven through the day before between Napier and Palmerston North had clearly tracked south in the night, and I found myself once more driving through lashing rain for a large part of the drive home. I’d enjoyed my trip up to the North Island but between the dismal weather of the last two days and the draining experiences at the last two hostels, I was exceptionally glad to crawl into Christchurch in the rainy night and crawl into my own bed.