My hands gripped the steering wheel as my foot slammed the accelerator to the floor, the engine revving loudly as I yelled out loud ‘come on baby, you can do it!‘. I leaned forward, as if the shift in weight would help get my car up the steep incline that lay before me. My heart in my mouth, I prayed the car ahead of me did not falter. Because if he did, so would I.
I’d read about a hidden gem deep in the forest of the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and having completed the 4-day Heaphy Track at Kohaihai, I was practically at the road end. I knew from looking on maps that it was an unsealed road to get there and it looked like it might be steep but I’d read plenty of reports about 2-wheel drive cars managing just fine so told myself my little 1.4 litre Hyundai would be okay. I turned off the main road and reached an entrance sign that also declared that it wasn’t a 4-wheel drive road. And so I continued, entering the forest on a semi-graded unsealed road as it started its climb upwards. But it didn’t take long to reach a steep hill and there was a car only a little in front of me.
My car can feel under powered uphill even on a sealed road, and I knew my car well enough to know I needed to just floor it. If I had to lay off the gas because the car in front of me was too slow, I knew I’d lose momentum and struggle, potentially stalling on the rough track under wheel. I hung back a little to give them a decent head start and then gunned it. I thanked my car out loud when I got to the top, but little did I know this was only the beginning. The road had to reach a pass which meant multiple steep sections of variably graded road, and regular blind bends with no idea about oncoming traffic, and variable widths to the road. Each time I loudly gave my car encouragement to get me up each steep section and thanked it for getting me there. As I reached the top I felt glad it was over, only to quickly realise the road dropped just as steeply down the other side, with just as many blind bends.
When I reached the car park, I was sweating and stressed, aware of the fact that the only way out was back the way I had come. So I was determined to make the most of being there by doing several walks. I took the shorter trail through the forest, following the tannin-rich Oparara river which led me to the gigantic rock structure of Oparara Arch. The arc of the arch, at 49m wide with a height of 37m, is impressive and the trail leads up to a lookout into the arch as well as down onto the rocks by the river. Despite the horrendous drive to get there, the car park had been quite full but thankfully most of the people on the trail were walking out and I almost had the place to myself, at least initially. Down at the river, I could see out the other side of the arch into the thick forest beyond, and the water reflected the opening on its surface.
When a few more people arrived I began back along the river where I noticed large stones at the edge creating patterns with their reflection. Upon reaching the car park I cut across to the opposite side to take a longer circular route that led through the forest. Within 10 minutes I was at the side track which led to my favourite part of the area, Moria Gate. Getting into it meant fitting through a hole in the rocks, aided by a chain to lower down into a sort of tunnel. Here another rock arch spanned the Oparara river once more and this one was just magical. There were a few people here making it difficult to photograph without other people in it, but I was reluctant to leave it, taking my time to wander back and forth from one end to the other.
Eventually I headed back up through the hole in the rocks and rejoined the main trail, continuing the circuit which quite quickly led me to a lookout which looked back into the arch from the outside. Continuing onwards, the trail meandered for some time through the forest, gaining a bit of height before eventually popping out at the Mirror Tarn. Even though it was a bit of a grey day, the mirror effect was still fully evident, but it felt eerily quiet here with no people and no bird song, so after a while I pushed on to complete the circuit and return to the car park.
I internally talked myself up for the drive back across the pass. I again had to wait for another car to get a bit of a head start, and once more I found myself gripping my steering wheel, flooring the accelerator pedal and verbally coaxing my car up every incline. When at last I reached the main road again, I allowed my pumping heart to settle. Clearly you don’t need a 4WD car if the conditions are right, but it was certainly a highly stressful drive with such a small engine, but I was very glad I’d done it. Now I could continue south cutting through Karamea and Little Wanganui before pulling over at the side of the road to take the Lake Hanlon track. After 4 days of walking on very little food I felt out of puff walking up the hill and down the other side to the long steely grey-looking lake. There were no reflections as the wind whipped through the crater a little, but a few birds gave some interest.
Despite it being in peak holiday season, I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay that night, but I did have my tent in the boot of my car. Having picked up a hitchhiker a few days prior, I decided to go with their recommendation of a campsite further south down the coast. Climbing up into the mountains and across a couple of saddles affording views down to the sea, almost immediately after winding my way down the other side, I took a side road down a gravel track to Mokihinui beach where Gentle Annie Campground opened up before me. It was so busy, with campervans and tents set up all over the place and children playing left, right and centre, that it felt like I’d arrived at a commune or festival. After paying an entry fee, I cut through the masses and found a spot on the edge of the crowds to set up my tent across from a field of cows.
Normally a busy campground like this would irritate me but there was such a happy vibe there with families and friends hanging out and enjoying the company and the locale, that I couldn’t help but feel relaxed there myself. I picked my way down to the beach and walked among the flotsam that had washed up, listening to the waves crashing near by and the sounds of happy children. I’d left the cloud behind and it was a gorgeous sunny summer evening. After walking to the river mouth and back, I set up my cooking stove on the beach and ate dinner for the first time in 4 days before watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea. It was the perfect end to the day, and one of those times where I couldn’t help but be in the moment. In the darkness I returned to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag full of content.
I awoke on the last day of 2019 with a long drive ahead. There was no great need to pack my tent up properly, so everything was thrown into the boot of my car allowing me to set off without wasting much time. It was unfortunately cloudy as I returned to the main road and followed the highway south. A little way down the road at Waimangaroa I cut inland to take a steep and winding road up into the clouds. At the top in the mist was Denniston, an abandoned settlement from the coal mining days. I’d read about this place some years prior and was excited to finally be visiting. Despite being summer, it was chilly in the clouds and they also brought drizzle, so I sheltered at the top by the information boards reading every single line, soaking up the history of the place.
There used to be an entire town here, perched atop the hill, frequently enveloped in mist or rain for weeks on end. It seemed to be a miserable place, not to mention a dangerous one, with mining works and conditions bringing all sorts of risks to those that braved a life there. What brings people there now is the impressive Denniston Incline, a 1:1.25 (80%) gradient altitude gain which the old coal track used to run up and down. It was a feat of engineering at the time and the thought of it now is still impressive. From the information boards, a track leads down to an area where remnants of buildings and machinery lay scattered across a flattened area, across which two separate viewpoints overlook the start of the incline.
Despite the mist, I could just about make out the surf on the west coast, and I looked down the slope impressed with it all. A few coal trucks sat locked forever in place on the cusp of the drop down, and in the distance I could see the route of the track fall away far below me. Walking around the site there are signs of broken and discarded coal trucks everywhere. The mist made it a little eerie but it was a pretty cool place to walk around. Out the back the track led below a huge stone viaduct that leads into the closed off mine shafts. The west coast is littered with abandoned gold and coal mines, most of which are closed off and deemed too dangerous to enter.
I watched a tomtit for a while before cutting back to the incline. The heavy blanket of dark clouds had lifted revealing a bit more of the view, so I spent some more time here, walking down into the meadow flowers at the top of the incline. After taking a drive across the summit past what was left of the old settlement, I headed back down to the bottom of the hill and took a side road to where the bottom of the Denniston Incline was served by a train track. It looked just as steep from this end, and yet more remnants of machinery were strewn around the place. Had I had more time and energy, I would have loved to walk the track to the top, but by now lunchtime, it was time to push on.
After stopping in Westport for lunch and a wander along the short main street, I drove out the other side to take the road to Tauranga Bay on Cape Foulwind. It had been years since I’d last been here and the place was full of holidaymakers from kids building sandcastles on the beach to surfers riding the waves in the bay. The clouds seemed to hug the southern end of the bay but as I followed the coastal track to the north, the clouds were breaking up and the sun was trying to come out. A little way around the coast is a lookout overlooking a New Zealand fur seal colony. It’s pretty much a guaranteed place to spot them and there was plenty of activity on the rocks below to entertain everyone.
I didn’t have time to walk the full length of the cape and back, but I walked up the hill a little past a multi-city distance marker and to a viewpoint overlooking the next bay. Heading back past the fur seal colony once more, I drove the short distance to the far end of the Cape Foulwind walkway where the lighthouse stands. The clouds had completely gone from this end of the trail, and I sweated my way up to the lighthouse from where there was a gorgeous view out over the Tasman Sea and the coast in either direction. I kept putting off leaving, but I had a New Year’s Eve dinner to attend outside of Christchurch so I really had to get going. That didn’t stop me from stopping multiple times in the Buller Gorge to take photographs. It had been less than a week since I’d passed through here twice in one day, but this time round it was under a blue sky and the river sparkled blue as it flowed through the deep and lusciously green valley.
As I cut from west coast to east, the sky began to change. For weeks Australia had been burning in one of the worst fire seasons on record. A few weeks prior I had left Sydney behind under a smoke-filled sky, and now a month and over 2000km later, the smoke had reached New Zealand’s skies. The sky turned hazy and red as the sun lowered, creating a really spooky effect. I couldn’t smell it, but it was a vision I can still remember nearly 18 months later. I didn’t even stay up for the turn of the new year, I was too exhausted from the drive, but I went to sleep full of the knowledge that 2020 would bring me lots of travelling, including a much-anticipated trip home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I could never have guessed what was to come.