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Archive for the tag “glacier”

Skaftafellsheiði

Accounting for 8% of the country’s landmass, the expansive Vatnajökull glacier is Iceland’s largest ice cap, and is clearly visible from space. Its scale is impressive and its beauty staggering. The Vatnajökull National Park includes the area of Skaftafell, a popular tourist draw as it sits near Route 1, the Ring Road that circumnavigates the country. Whilst the glaciers that curve down from the ice cap are visible from the highway, this is really an area for getting out on foot and exploring.

Whilst reading up on my trip to the land of fire and ice, I came across a recommendation for a half-day hike in this national park, known as the Skaftafellsheiði loop. I had set off early from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to make the most of the morning, but had managed to find myself with little in the way of supplies. As a seasoned hiker, I know how foolish it could be to head off on such a hike having had no breakfast and with little more than water and nuts for sustenance, so I was forced to wait for the cafe at the visitor’s centre to open at 10am to get something more filling.

It’s a popular tourist destination with a large campsite next to the visitor’s centre, and a myriad of walking routes of varying intensities starting here, as well as a base for glacier hiking companies too. The visitor’s centre has information boards detailing the local geology and this is the only place in this section of the park with facilities. From here, walks either start by cutting through the campground to the west, or by cutting past the visitor’s centre to the east.

Image source: www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK

THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK. (Image source: http://www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is)

 

I really recommend doing the hike in a clockwise fashion, as for me the views just got better and better and the best view was saved till the return leg. The Skaftafellsheiði loop begins by following the marked path through the campground that indicates the track for Svartifoss (S2). On leaving the campground, the path immediately starts picking its way up the hillside and it isn’t long before the expanse of the Skeiðarársandur ‘wasteland’ can be fully appreciated. This was an exceedingly popular section of trail as the waterfall is less than an hour to reach, so is a suitable destination for people short on time. When the path eventually reaches the summit of this section, Magnúsarfoss comes into view and from here, one of many path junctions can be found. It is possible to walk the loop track without going to Svartifoss, but it’s not much of a detour to include this on the walk, so I continued to follow the signs for S2 and head up river.

Wasteland near Vatnajökull

Magnúsarfoss

 

First, there is a viewpoint on the east side of the river which looks upstream to Svartifoss. Here the path splits, but keeping to S2, the path picks its way down to the river bed where you can walk up to near the base of the waterfall. As beautiful as all Icelandic waterfalls are, I was actually more drawn to the rock columns that appeared to dangle from the cliff edge like basalt stalactites. Crossing the bridge near the falls to the west bank of the river, the path climbs back up onto the plateau where the signs for Sjónarsker (S3) are to be followed.

Looking upstream towards Svartifoss

Basalt columns behind Svartifoss

 

It felt really barren and desolate on this section of the plateau, the ground rocky underfoot, and the vegetation patchy and low. But despite the gloom of the grey skies, it was possible to see across the sandur (wasteland) to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier. There were far fewer people on this part of the trail, and those that were, were all heading on the same route that I was. From the viewpoint at the track junction, in quick succession, we all took the S3 route to head up the plateau. The path continued on its rocky way heading towards the mountain peaks with the braided river behind me, snaking its way across the plains.

Looking across to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier

The path through the stony plateau

Hikers following S3 towards the mountains

Braided river cutting across the sandur

 

Finally the vegetation began to change as first dense grass and then small bushes began to spring up. The track varied in its roughness, but for the most part was on the flat until finally it started on one of many inclines up the flank of Skerhóll to a short plateau prior to one of the steeper sections. To the east, the snow-tipped mountains peaked intermittently through the clouds that constantly circled them and to the west the peaks of Skaftafellsfjöll dominated the backdrop.

Vegetation becoming more prominent

Walking through the alpine bushes

Boardwalk through the alpine vegetation

The first small ascent

Wispy clouds over the neighbouring mountain range to the west

Looking ahead to the steepest section

Clouds over the mountain tops to the east

 

With the ongoing ascent up the steepest (though by no means challenging) section, the views to the west grew ever more impressive. The expanse of the Morsárdalur valley became visible and the Morsárjökull glacier came into view. This long plateau provided plenty of opportunity to ogle over this valley and the low clouds over the neighbouring mountains in both directions continued to provide a dramatic backdrop for what was for me, an impressive vista.

Looking across the valley to the west

Beautiful snow-capped mountain

Morsárdalur valley

Morsárjökull glacier peaking behind the nearby ridge

 

Another small ascent lead to the highest point of this hike, with a couple of options for a final view over the valley. The first of these was a rocky knoll, and further up, and ignored by what few other hikers there were, was a dead-end path that lead to a large rock which was the perfect spot for lunch with the most incredible view to the Morsárjökull glacier and its terminal lake at the bottom of a large cliff where waterfalls cascaded down from an immense height. I spent a long time here on my own, lapping it all up.

Looking towards the final ascent

Incredible ice cap and waterfall

Cloud shrouded mountains

Cloud shrouded mountains to the west

The path about to head east

Panorama from the rocky knoll

Panorama from the lunch rock

 

Only when my solitude was disturbed did I leave there. Backtracking only a short distance, the loop track starts to head east. Banks of stale snow shrouded parts of the track and I had to crunch and slide my way across to follow the otherwise well-marked trail. Skirting the foot of Kristínartindar, a path separates to head up its summit after rounding its flank. Normally I would have taken this route to summit the 1126m (3694ft) peak but not only did I not have time, but the cloud base had dropped and the summit wasn’t visible. It would have spectacular views on a clear day, but I didn’t see the point that day. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given my experience on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak), most people turned up this route despite the inevitable lack of view. Instead, I continued on S3, crossing more snow and a small stream before the path turned south to skirt another mountain base. As it turned the corner at the end of the mountain, the Hafrafell mountain peaks to the east came into view. The terrain once more was barren, although a little bird flitted around the rocks along side me. I saw in the distance a steady stream of people walking up the path that I would be heading down, and on reaching the junction with it, the view in front of me just blew me away.

Crossing a snow bank

Large bank of snow crossing the path

More snow to cross

The view down the plateau

The low cloud shrouding the trail up Kristínartindar

Looking east to the mountains of Hafrafell

Little bird accompanying me on the trail

Rocky terrain

 

I wasted no time in taking the left track to Gláma where the vista was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen, and one of the highlights of my Iceland trip. Below me stretching for miles was the massive expanse of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier curling down from the giant ice cap. A mix of brilliant white and dirty morraine, I felt like my jaw was dragging on the ground as I looked at it, and I felt excited to be there. There was so much to take in, as even the jagged cliff edge of the surrounding mountains was dramatic.

Skaftafell glacier

The top of Skaftafell glacier

 

From Gláma, the S3 track heads south along the cliff top of this spit of land, with the glacier in constant sight. This whole section of the track was popular, with some people just walking to Gláma and back, and others doing the loop track anti-clockwise. For me, this section was the highlight of the hike, and I was glad to have it as the end portion of the hike. Whilst the western half of the loop was still incredible, I feel that walking it in an anti-clockwise manner might have made the west side seem less so after the incredible views on the east side. I think leaving the best till last is the way to go. There are various view points along the route, and at one particular spot where some rocks jutted out, I took the opportunity to do a little rock climbing down a path onto a promontory for a more solitary viewing spot. Here, the dramatic cliff face seemed so tall, and the people walking along the clifftop path appeared tiny in comparison.

Giant cliffs towering above the glacier

Skaftafellsjökull halfway along

 

Eventually, the path neared the terminal lake where a collection of icebergs floated on its surface. Here at Sjónarnípa, the S3 split into the S5 which stayed on the outer edge of the spit of land, and the S6 which cut inland. I followed the S5 which slowly began to descend towards a lookout over the terminal lake. I lingered here a while to absorb the view of the glacier a little longer, but eventually I had to push on, and I left Skaftafellsjökull behind and followed the S5 round the front of the hill. It was a long descent down Austurbrekkur where the track was undergoing maintenance making it a little uncomfortable under foot in places. This section felt like it took forever as the visitor’s centre, now within sight, slowly got nearer. Passing above the centre, then above the campsite, it emerged from the bushes to join the lower path that headed to Svartifoss. Then it was just a matter of turning left back down the hill and cutting through the campsite back to the facilities.

Terminal lake

Panorama at the terminal lake

Skaftafellsjökull terminal lake

 

To really make the most of this park, a minimum of 5-6 hrs needs to be dedicated to complete this loop, or better still, stay the night to enjoy several of the walks here. With more time, I would have walked to the terminal lake of Skaftafellsjökull as well as hiking up the Morsárdalur valley. Whilst I’ve read about many incredible day and multi-day hikes in Iceland, I think this is a definite must for those of average fitness to include on any Iceland tour.

Iceland’s Southern Coast

Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1, took me east from Skógafoss where it snaked round a mountain and led me down to the coast. The little settlement of Vik rests near the black sand beach where the Atlantic waves pound the shore. Finding my way to the car park by the beach, I took myself onto the sand and looked out at the uninviting surf and the expanse of water in front of me. Standing on the shore by Iceland’s most southern village, looking directly south there is no landmass until you hit Antarctica. Amongst the gloominess of the grey sky, and finally away from the crowds of the morning, it was easy to feel isolated and I embraced the solitude.

 

It’s a popular place to stay and being so small, accommodation here books out fast. I had tried to book my stay 6 months in advance of the trip, and already prime areas in Iceland were booked out and I had to change my plans a couple of times. With no affordable accommodation available here, I was forced to head east to find somewhere to sleep that night. But despite this, I had a few hours to enjoy the place. Walking along the sandy beach, the calls of sea birds filled the sky as they circled around the cliffs that dominate the western end of the beach. I watched them for a while before turning and pounding the sand in the other direction.

 

The expanse of black sand spreads east for quite some distance, but I walked it as far as the river mouth where a man made water break juts out into the sea. A path lead through a beautiful patch of lupins to a memorial for those lost at sea. I absolutely adore lupins and they were in full bloom throughout my trip to Iceland. Some Icelandic ponies trotted by with their riders as I meandered amongst the flowers, and I looked up at the church which sat below the cloudy peaks that frame the village.

 

The church itself is elevated enough to give a good view over the village and out to sea where a collection of sea stacks sit close to the cliffs to the west. Even here the lupins were everywhere and I followed a path up the hill a little to admire them some more. Across at the cliffs, I had read about a walk up the cliff face and tried to make it out. On seeing where it started from, I drove across to the small area at the end of some houses and left my car behind to start the hike.

 

By now, I was a little low on fitness, so I puffed my way up the zig-zagging path that picked its way up the slope towards the top of the cliff. Vik grew further and further away as I climbed until I reached the top and looked over the village directly and out to sea. With the occasional sheep and bird for company, I followed the well-trodden path along the cliff top, hoping to see puffins but spotting none. First approaching and then passing the sea stacks, it eventually came out at a building with an unknown purpose and here the path petered out. I kept walking west though and not far from here found myself at the top of more cliffs overlooking the expanse of another black sandy beach, Reynisfjara, which was backed by a large lake.

 

Below me there were plenty of cars and tourists, but I was level with the soaring fulmars who thermalled around me, coming and going from their nests. Shortly after I arrived, I spotted a paraglider who was also making good use of the thermals to float with ease over the scene below. I was completely on my own and it felt great to have this view to myself after all the clamour of bus loads of tourists to the west. The sky was still so grey but it didn’t detract from the peacefulness. Retracing my steps along the cliff, I still saw no puffins, and finally made it back to the path that returned me to my car. I bade Vik farewell and continued on my journey east. The landscape turned barren as the ring road crossed a glacier flood zone and headed inland, and before long the heavens opened and a deluge came down. I discovered that my rental car was a little lacking in good windscreen wiper blades, and I had to slow right down as I struggled to see far in front of me. It remained this way for the rest of my drive.

 

I spent the night in the small settlement of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (or Klaustur for short), a completely unpronouncable place that was little more than a petrol station, a small shop and a couple of accommodations. The owner of the place I was staying pointed out a couple of walks in the area, but with the rain, I decided to get up early to do one of them rather than head off that night. So duly setting my alarm, I was rather disappointed to wake up to fog. Nonetheless, I decided to take the path up the cliff face behind the village that leads to a crater lake above the settlement. I couldn’t make out the far side of the lake through the low cloud and it was so quiet. I followed the path for a short distance but didn’t want to go too far when there was no view, but as I turned to head back, my attention was caught by a ptarmigan. These birds can also be found in my native country of Scotland, but I have never seen one. I was stoked. It flew to the cliff edge as I made my way to the top of the path down, and the cloud by now had lifted a little that I could see the village below me.

 

Once again I cursed myself for not having got food supplies as I found myself with nowhere open to get breakfast but even worse, nowhere to get supplies for the hike I had planned for the morning. I had no choice but to push on, and the ring road brought me past yet another beautiful waterfall, Foss á Síðu, and a little further to Dverghamrar, a collection of basalt columns. At this early hour, the road was quiet, and a couple of camper vans were parked up here, their curtains drawn and their occupants still. I had the place otherwise to myself as I wandered around.

 

But eventually the ring road reached the wasteland, an area of barren sand and stone which is a glacier run-off zone from the expansive Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap. It felt eerie crossing this, but finally I reached the turnoff to the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park office and I was one of the first cars to arrive. I had read about a hike here which would take half the day, but with no supplies, I was a little annoyed to be yet again reminded of the lack of early opening at Icelandic eateries. I reached a quandary: set off on a half-day hike into the wilderness with just water and nuts for sustenance, or be sensible and hang around until the cafe opened and get better supplies. I cursed my lack of forward planning with regards to food supplies, but I knew that having adequate food was the way to go, so I bummed around the visitor’s centre for over an hour waiting for the cafe to open.

The hike turned out to be one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, and I returned to my car at the end of it, tired but satisfied. With just 10 days to circumnavigate the island, there was so much to fit into each day, so there was little time to hang around before moving onwards. The views were incredible as the road hugged the base of the glacier and the snow-capped mountains dominated on the inland side of the road. I saw a turn-off to a glacier lagoon at the last minute and missed it, wondering whether I should turn back and take it but all of a sudden I was at the world-famous

Although the main carpark is across the river on the east side of the bridge, I pulled in at a smaller car park on the west side of the river. Right in front of me, floating on the river that leads out to the sea from the lagoon were some large icebergs. Rather than head straight to the lagoon though, I followed the river to its mouth at the sea and walked onto the black sand to admire the iceberg graveyard, where lots of iceberg shards bobbed in the shallows or lay strewn across the beach. Here, I was very much amongst the crowds again, but I didn’t care when there was so much beauty to draw my attention.

 

Back at the river, some ducks snoozed on the banks, oblivious to the goings on around them, not caring about the giant ice bergs that bobbed on the water just behind them. Following the river to the lagoon was a surreal experience, and whilst I had expected it to be amazing, it still blew me away. Although the glacier edge looked distant, there was so many icebergs close to the shore that there was no need to go on one of the boat trips out on the lake. It is a recommended excursion here, but having done the same kind of trip in New Zealand, I had opted to save my money and not do it here, and I didn’t for a minute regret that decision. The icebergs were so close, I didn’t feel that I missed out at all.

 

Even as I stood there, the movement of the tide pushed against the river causing the icebergs to be in constant movement, some quicker than others. I crossed the bridge and joined the hordes of tourists on the other bank to just wander around and admire them. The sun glared on the water from this side but with the tidal movements of the icebergs there was a constantly changing view as I meandered along the eastern shore, and as the hours headed well into the evening, a large flock of arctic terns noisily fed on whatever shoal of fish lay hidden below the surface. Boats continued to plough across the water touring the icy behemoths whilst I remained in my reverie enjoying the sight. I returned to the western shore and sat on the bank of the lagoon and watched the moving icebergs until an evening wind left me cold.

 

It was a long drive with the Vatnajökull glacier for company as I made my way to Höfn, my rest stop for the night. Out on a little peninsula off the main ring road, it was a quiet little place. The tiny cafe I had dinner in was packed with locals and tourists but away from here, it felt sedate. This next morning, the cloud was back and the glaciers just peaked out below the cloud base, the summit shrouded out of view. I headed past the small fishing harbour to the tip of the peninsula where a statue overlooked a small wetland reserve. From here, following the coast north, a walking path followed the western flank of the peninsula, and I had it almost to myself, being joined by a friendly cat for a while.

 

There were oyster catchers and ducks all along the shallows, and I watched them lazily as I made my way to the golf course before turning round and heading back again. Once back at the wetlands, I followed the narrow path round this area too which was full of bird life. Only when I was leaving were other people starting to appear. The small visitor’s centre was by now open so I had a wander round there which had a rustic display area with information about the fauna of the area as well as exploration and glaciation. I’d managed by now to kill enough time for the supermarket to open, and I was able to grab some breakfast and snacks for the road, ready to head north.

West Coast Wonders

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Tasman Glacier Tracks

It’s a strange concept to consider that at the time of my birth, Lake Tasman was barely in existence. The Tasman glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s longest glacier at 27kms in length. It is, however, undergoing a rather fast rate of retreat and experts expect that it will eventually disappear completely. In the early 1970s, pockets of melt water became evident and over successive years these pockets increased in size and eventually merged to form the lake that exists today. The presence of the lake itself speeds up the retreat of the glacier, and now in 2014, the lake is over 7km long, with the glacier retreating at a rate of 500-800m per year. Within my lifetime, the lake is expected to reach its maximum size, and even over two visits 18 months apart I can see the difference in the lake.

The road to the Tasman glacier is not far from Mt Cook village, and was upgraded a couple of years ago to make it suitable for all cars. It was previously a dirt road suitable for only 4×4 in bad weather, so the area is now much more accessible all year round. From the DOC car park, the only spot with toilets, four different track options leave from here. I had arrived very early in the morning when the sun was just reaching over the peaks of the eastern mountain range, so parts of the walk were still in shadow. I headed first to the glacier viewpoint, the paths separating quite early on. Halfway along the left fork, the path splits again, the blue lakes one way and the glacier viewpoint the other. It’s neither a long nor taxing walk with only the latter section involving some rock hopping in a section that isn’t as well marked as the rest. I had the viewpoint to myself, and it was peaceful and quiet, just how I like it.

 

The lake is flanked on two sides by steep mountains including the backside of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, with steep moraine walls piled high at the lakeside, a remnant from when the glacier was deeper and longer than its current position. In the distance, the glacier was visible, covered in dirt, and at the end of the lake, a few small icebergs floated near the river which escapes through the boulders strewn across the valley, before snaking towards Lake Pukaki. The boulders and moraine creates a barren, dirty-looking landscape which contrasts darkly against the blue-grey water of the lake. When I was here 18 months ago, there were more and larger icebergs on the lake than there were on this day. The photo on the info board at the viewpoint, taken just 3 years ago, shows a noticeable difference in position of the glacier’s terminal face which illustrates quite well the fast retreat of this glacier. Looking towards Lake Pukaki, the valley also looks barren, rocks strewn everywhere, with only the occasional hardy plant or bush poking through the debris.

 

Retracing my steps, I headed to the blue lakes, which are now green in colour. When they were named, they were glacier fed, providing the turquoise blue colour characteristic of glacial melt water, but with the retreating glaciers, the lakes are now rain-fed, allowing algal growth which gives the green colouration. A short path leads to the shore of the first of three lakes of varying shapes and sizes. Behind them, the mountains are scarred with avalanche paths and scree slopes. I had the lakes to myself also, and followed the path round the shore of the first lake and over the brow to the second and third lakes. In places, the path is broken with short sections of rock scrabbling, but other than these points, it is an easy to follow path. A pair of ducks mulled around on the second lake. The third lake was the largest and prettiest, especially with the sun by now reflecting off the surface giving it a brilliant blue-green colour. The area around the lakes was teeming with alpine vegetation, but unfortunately I was at least a month too early for the blooming of the colourful alpine flowers.

 

In stark contrast, the path to the lake side and river was a barren land of boulders and bare-looking bushes. I was surrounded by people as this path leads to the jetty where boats are boarded to tour the lake. A bus party of tourists were noisily chatting as they walked in procession along the gravel path, and I skirted round them as quickly as possible in an effort to return to some peace and quiet. After winding round the moraine wall, the path splits off to go to the river, and from here onwards, it is like walking through a sea of rocks.  Boulders lie everywhere, and the river is very well hidden, deep down in the rock bed, until it appears all of a sudden as a colour contrast to the barren rocks that form its banks. The path ends on the moraine wall just above where the icebergs rest near the start of the river. A route down to the lake side is clear enough to follow, and I quickly headed down to the lake edge to stare directly at the icebergs at their resting spot. They weren’t the biggest icebergs I’ve seen, but looking at them dead on, they still provided a stunning vista as they shone in the sunlight with the snow-covered mountains beside them. I picked my way to the river and sat on a large rock to admire the view and watch the tourist boats pass by. It was a beautiful spot to sit until the flies realised I was a tasty meal. Bigger than sandflies, I’m not sure what they were, but I ended up bearing the marks of multiple suckers up my arms, legs and chest for days to come. I put up with the biting as long as I could tolerate before heading back to the car park and starting the long journey home.

Sealy Tarns Track

For the second time in my life, I was defeated by a mountain. Call it fear, or a self-acknowledgement of my personal limitations, but sometimes, I have to know when to quit. I’m an avid hiker, and love getting out into the wilderness and the mountains, but when it comes to tramping, there are three things that I don’t enjoy: lots of stairs, boulder scrambling, and rock faces to negotiate. I’d happily walk up a steep path than have to negotiate the monotony of flight after flight of stairs, and somehow I lose the enjoyment of a walk if I have to get down on my hands to negotiate a boulder field or haul myself up a rock face.

I awoke in Mount Cook village to another glorious blue sky with the sun beating down from above. Knowing how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, I got going early. From the YHA hostel in the lower village, the path snakes through to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village and near there, a shared path leads off towards various end points. This first section is the same start as that for the Hooker Valley track, but today I took the left fork towards Kea Point. Mt Sefton glistened in the morning sunlight as I headed nearer it. Along the path the Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut track split off into the bushes, but I headed forth towards Kea Point which sat on the moraine bank of the Mueller glacier terminal lake. A small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. There were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.

 

On the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Back at the start of the Sealy Tarns track, a sign warned of avalanche risk for those heading to Mueller Hut on the Sealy range. I was heading as far as the Sealy tarns, but at the back of my mind, I hoped to continue up to the hut if the conditions would allow. Soon after getting on to this track, the steps started. 2200 of them to be precise. The altitude gain is around 540m, and it is mostly achieved through negotiating step after step after step. Despite my dislike of steps, the view is fantastic from every available vantage point. With increasing altitude, a slightly different perspective is obtained of the hooker glacier, the mueller glacier, and the valley past the village. Mt Sefton felt increasingly within reach, and there was a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.

 

On this occasion, the snowline was at the level of the tarns. Some stale snow was scattered by the path just below the final gain in height, and the tarns themselves were frozen over. A picnic table has been erected to give a perfect spot to stare out at the world below. After a brief respite for fluid replenishment, I decided to give the Mueller hut track a go. On the ascent to Sealy tarns, I had met a few hikers coming down who had spent the night in the hut. They had reported that there was plenty of snow between the tarns and the hut, and that it was quite slushy in places. By the time I reached the tarns, a group of friends that I had met lower down on the track were disappearing into the far distance above me. Another sign warns of avalanche risk, and from here onwards, the path is narrow, rough and marked only by orange poles.

 

It started off innocent enough: a rough, stony path that was easy to follow, but not hugely far up was a small rock face to scramble up, and a little beyond that another one. It was at this point that I started to question my sanity. I had done that one thing that no hiker should do: go off tramping without telling anyone my route plan or expected time of return. Not only that, but I was not at my peak level of fitness, and here I was, on my own with no-one to spot me, negotiating the best route up a rock face. Granted, it was just a small rock face, not one that needed ropes or special equipment, but I found myself pausing to decide in my head the sense in going on. I was keen to get up to the hut, to see the view, feel the achievement in doing so, and be able to tell people I’d done it. On the other hand, my dislike (and a touch of fear) of rock scrabbling, and the thought of tackling all of this just to find out that I couldn’t get across the snow, eventually made me turn back and return to the tarns.

 

Sealy tarns sits at an elevation of 1250m, and I estimate that I gained maybe only another 50m, if that. With Mueller hut at 1800m, it would have been a long stressful hike onwards for me. Defeated, I returned to the picnic table and hoovered up my lunch, my pride slightly wounded.

 

Just 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, but shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Several avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. The amount of sediment in the water determines the colour, and there was a mix of blues and greys. Unfortunately, the alpine flowers were not yet in bloom, and I’m sure they look spectacular when the time is right. Two kea appeared to goad each other, one landing briefly near the table. Many hikers appeared, and sat for a while, and I spent around 45mins soaking up the view, reluctant to leave. Eventually though, I thought it only fair to leave the view for others, and I headed off back down the many many steps to the bottom.

 

This time round, with less exertion required, I could actually pay attention to the creatures and plants around me. Little birds flitted between the vegetation, some curious, some alarmed by my presence. There were crickets everywhere: brown ones near the top, and green ones lower down. I learned later at the Mount Cook visitor centre (which is well worth a visit!) that these are adaptations to the environment, and that other colours appear at other altitudes also. I also discovered at the visitor centre, that there was an ice and crampon warning for the Mueller Hut track which made me feel slightly better about my failed ascent. By the time I was near the bottom, the cloud had started to roll in again, and the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook were once again shrouded. The morning is definitely the best time of the day to get out in the mountains. I reached the Hermitage hotel, and sat absorbing the sunshine, gazing over at the statue of Edmund Hillary who forever gazes towards the summit of Mount Cook.

Hooker Valley Track

I grew up in a suburb of Scotland‘s largest city, Glasgow, inland and away from the coast. I would always enjoy trips to the beach or into the hills, but I didn’t necessarily crave them. When I left home I moved up north to Aberdeen, and spent the next 5 years of my life living by the sea. I could smell it every day, I could see it everyday, and I routinely spent evenings after work or weekends pounding the local beaches or promenade listening to the waves crashing and falling in love with the ocean. Now I think of myself as a ‘coast’ person, someone who loves living by the sea and craves to be near it. Over this same time frame, I developed a love of hiking and camping and would disappear into the mountains and hills as much as possible, scaling my first Munro (a mountain in Scotland >3000ft), and acquainting myself with as much of the nearby National Park as I could. And so I also crave for that mountain view – the sight of majestic mountains towering above and around me. Living in the Canterbury Plains, I can spy the Southern Alps on the distant horizon, and when the opportunity arises to go play amongst them I grab it with both hands.

Mount Cook Village is a small settlement nestled in a valley under the shadow of New Zealand’s largest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook. It sits within the National Park of the same name, and lies at the end of a long road that snakes up the western shore of Lake Pukaki. I’d been here twice before, once in winter when the snow on the ground limited the ability to go exploring, and once in autumn when it was raining and misty. I had been eager to do some hikes around here, and I was also keen to see the alpine flowers in bloom so as soon as spring hit, I made sure I could find a free weekend to go there. It is a roughly 4hr drive from Christchurch, so I arrived just after midday and set about getting ready to go for a walk.

The Hooker Valley track is the most popular walk amongst visitors and is graded as an easy walk suitable for families. It can be started from the White Horse Hill campground (an estimated 3hr return), a short drive from the village, or it can be reached from the village itself via a connecting path (an estimated 4hr return). I was staying in the YHA hostel in the lower village, from where a path snakes through the village to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village. Near here a path leads to several hiking options: Kea Point, Hooker Valley, and up one of the mountains to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut. Even from the hostel, there is an impressive view with the snow covered Mt Sefton towering over the village. There were regular sounds of crashing ice as avalanches fell down Mt Sefton’s slopes sending a cloud of snow behind it.

 

The initial section of the walk is through bushes, then across some open scrubland and finally over a stony dry river bed until a marker denotes a split in the path. Taking the right fork, the path continues to White Horse Hill campground, where on the opposite side of the road, the start of the Hooker Valley track is evident with a domineering Mt Cook visible behind. It is a well marked and maintained walk on a mixture of gravel paths and raised boardwalks to protect the alpine plants. Despite reading that the alpine flowers would be out in spring, I was clearly early as there were none in bloom and they didn’t look close to it either. I later discovered that they wouldn’t appear till late November, meaning I was over a month too early.

 

There were a few detours from the main path, and I chose to do these on the return leg, but after a few twists and turns, the Mueller glacier and terminal lake came into view at the foot of Mt Sefton. As with many glacier-fed lakes, the water was a cloudy grey colour due to the suspension of sediment swept down from the rocky source of the glacier, and the river draining from this lake led away from the end and started its snaking journey through the valley to eventually drain into Lake Pukaki. The first of 3 suspension bridges on this walk crossed the river, and the river bed was strewn with large boulders left behind during the last age of glaciation. I had arrived in Mount Cook to gorgeous sunshine and clear blue skies, but as often happens around mountains in the afternoon, large clouds started to roll over Mt Sefton and the neighbouring mountains and threatened to block out the sun. At this stage, Mount Cook was hidden out of view so I had no idea what view to expect at the end of the hike.

 

The second suspension bridge crossed the Hooker river as it tumbles down stream from the Hooker glacier, the destination of my walk. Shortly after this bridge, Mount Cook (thankfully not hidden by clouds) came back into view and dominated the skyline for the rest of the hike. There was the start of a lenticular cloud (my favourite type of cloud) crowning its peak, and I could see the clouds on the neighbouring mountains form and disperse as they curled over their summit. They would continue to threaten to occlude the sunlight but then wisp away at the last minute.

 

As such a popular walk, and being a weekend, there were a lot of people out on the track that day. A congregation of them hung around a small hut further along the track which boasted an unobstructed view of Aoraki, and this is the only place on the track (apart from the campground) where there is a toilet. A small stream trickled by, and several families milled around here. Further on, the track continued through the alpine vegetation until the third suspension bridge was reached, and after this, large boulders appeared as a moraine wall was reached to demarcate the end of the glacial lake on the other side. Snaking through the boulders, an incline brought me to my first sighting of the Hooker glacier and its terminal lake on which floated some rather large icebergs.

 

Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy overhead, although Mt Cook’s peak remained unobscured. There was a picnic table at a raised viewing area, but most people headed down to the stony shore at the end of the lake and absorbed the view from there. Lapping at the shore were multiple smaller icebergs at the end of their melt, and the shoreline resembled an iceberg graveyard. I had previously seen these up close on a boat trip on the Tasman glacier lake and the colour and clarity of these ‘bergs are amazing. The larger icebergs afloat on the lake were dirty from the moraine, and the glacier itself was barely distinguishable from the surrounding land due to the moraine deposits on the surface. Previous to my first up-close view of a glacier in Chile, I’d always thought of glaciers being pristine white from the snow and ice, but aside from the Perito Moreno glacier in Chile, every glacier I’ve seen since has appeared dirty, covered in a layer of sediment and debris chucked up from the valley walls as the glacier moves down the mountainside.

 

I sat for a long time on the lake shore, blocking out the noises of other people and just soaking up the view and inhaling it all. Eventually, the clouds started to build up and some spots of rain could be felt. It was also exceedingly windy at the shoreline, and eventually, I decided to head back. I left just as the summit of Aoraki disappeared behind the cloud. The route back retraced the same route I had come by, but I followed the detours as they appeared. Firstly, there was a little tarn which is the name given to mountain lakes that have formed in an excavation created by a glacier. I investigated the hut that I’d ignored on the way up, and wandered along the edge of the stream at its side. The view on the way back was towards Mount Cook Village and the Hooker river snaking down the valley towards Lake Pukaki. The cloud had by now passed over the summit of Mt Sefton and hidden it from view, and was threatening to dump some rain on the village.

 

There were a couple of viewpoints that I had skipped past on the way there, giving alternate views over the Mueller glacier and its terminal lake, and nearer the campground was a memorial erected to remember those that had succumbed in the mountains. It was originally erected to remember two particular adventurists who had perished in an avalanche in 1914, but since then further plaques have been erected to remember those who had come to strife since. It was sad to read how young many of them were, and there was a definite trend relating to the location of several of the deaths. Even for the highly trained and experienced, these are dangerous and unpredictable mountains to play in.

 

The final detour was to Freda’s rock. As unassuming a rock as it was, it marked the spot where an explorer called Freda Du Faur had had her photo taken after becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Cook in 1910. This was at a time when it was frowned upon for an unmarried woman to spend the night in the company of a man, never mind go mountaineering. From here, it was a short walk back to the campground and then along the same path back to the Hermitage and the village where a warm shower and a nice cold cider awaited.

Stories from the South Island

Surprising people is immense fun; the looks on people’s faces when you turn up unannounced or the shocked silence on the phone when you call to say you are not far away makes up for the days and months of keeping a secret and covering your tracks. In 2012, I managed to keep a trip back to Scotland a secret from my family and friends for 10 months. I was immensely proud of myself for managing 10 months of keeping in touch with people without a single lie coming out of my mouth, all the while tactfully dodging the truth about my plans. I also spent a week in February 2012 pretending to my partner that I was going to be in Wellington, when in fact I was booked on the ferry to Picton and had a romantic weekend booked for us in Kaikoura.

The sailing across the Cook Strait couldn’t have been more perfect. Notorious for some foul weather and rough seas, the day I crossed the sea was as flat and calm as glass, and it shimmered under the early morning sun that gleamed with pride from a clear blue sky. Over an hour of the crossing is spent sailing through the beautiful and majestic Queen Charlotte Sound, made up of multiple islands nestled amongst the finger-like peninsulas on the north coast of the South Island. I spent the whole sailing standing on the top deck breathing it all in. Picton nestles quaintly into one of the deepest parts of the Sound, and from here I transferred to the Coastal Pacific train, part of the Tranz Scenic rail network. The first thing that struck me on the journey south was how brown the South Island was compared to the North. Trees were being felled for large stretches of the early parts of the track, and the landscape was of brown rolling hills rather than the greenery I had been accustomed to up till now. By the time Blenheim was reached, green pastures and mountains in the distance had started to appear, and this was more like the South Island that I had been expecting, and have come to love.

 

Cutting past pink salt pans, a sight I never expected to see in New Zealand, the track cut to the east coast and took us south on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, waves rolling gently at our side in the sunshine. The Kaikoura ranges shot up to the right of the train, towering above us, and New Zealand fur seals sunbathed on the rocks on our left, ignoring the passing train. At 3.15pm on such a beautiful day, the train pulled into Kaikoura and I stepped off, ready to embrace something new. After a day of silence, I finally made the phone call to my stunned partner to tell him where I was, and after he got over the shock and realisation, he jumped in his car and made the 2.5hr drive north from Christchurch to meet me.

What the town lacks in size, the location makes up in grandeur. Sitting out on a peninsula, it sits at the base of the Kaikoura ranges, and is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean. Not far off shore is the Hikurangi Trench, an immense sea trench reaching depths of >3000m, which brings an abundance of marine life and an ecosystem that supports one of the largest creatures on earth: the sperm whale. As an avid cetacean enthusiast, I take great passion from getting out to sea to watch whales and dolphins frolicking and surviving in the world’s oceans. On a return visit to the town for our anniversary, we took a flight from the nearby airport which headed off the coast in search of sperm whales. Spending most of their lives feeding at great depths, they spend only 15mins at the surface re-oxygenating their blood in between dives. It took a bit of time, but eventually we found one, and it was fantastic to get an aerial view of a mammal that I am used to seeing from sea-level. It was beautiful, and we circled above it until it arched its tail and dived to the depths in search of giant squid.

 

The following day, we opted for the sea safari. The weather was squally, and there was a high level sea sickness warning. Determined to get closer than the plane had allowed, we opted to go ahead with the trip. I normally have a pretty iron stomach out at sea, having spent months in South Africa doing regular trips out to watch whales, and various sailings in all sorts of weather, but stupidly I doubted myself on that day. Shovelling a herbal sea sickness remedy and some ginger candy down my throat, I almost immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat. This escalated when we got on the boat and headed out to sea, and it wasn’t long before I was throwing up. We stopped to watch some dusky dolphins, and 3 sperm whales, but I could only stand so much in between curling up on the deck and filling sick bag after sick bag. It was not the whale watching trip I had imagined.

 

Walking from the town of Kaikoura round the peninsula, takes you to a carpark from which New Zealand fur seals can be seen everywhere you look. The peninsula walk itself is lovely, following the coast round to the south side of the peninsula and back into town. If you know where to go in New Zealand, the fur seals can be found in abundance on both the east and west coasts.

 

Another favourite place of mine is the French town of Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula. A 1.5hr drive out of Christchurch, the road winds round then over the rim of what used to be a volcano, until the remains of the volcanic crater, now filled by the sea is visible, and within this lies the beautiful Akaroa. It is a small settlement, but like Kaikoura, it has the draw of wildlife. Reached either by 4×4 over the hills, or on a harbour cruise, there is another colony of fur seals just outside of the harbour entrance. The real draw here though is the Hector’s dolphins. Found only in New Zealand’s waters, they are one of the smallest cetacean species in the world, and unfortunately, they are endangered. On a sunny day, the water around Akaroa is so clear, that it is easy to watch these little dolphins even when they are below the surface, and they are always a joy to behold. On my second trip out on a harbour cruise, I even saw a little blue penguin out fishing.

 

I will always have a slight soft spot for Timaru because I spent a few months there working, but most people would drive through it without giving it a second glance. The beachfront at Caroline Bay with the park behind has been lovingly maintained, and I spent many an hour wandering through here and the coastline around. Further south, the next big tourist draw is Oamaru. It has a few pretty old-fashioned buildings, but for me it held 2 draws: the large blue penguin colony that lives nearby, and as a base to see the Moeraki boulders. In the not-too distant past, the blue penguins came ashore every night to burrow into the hillside by the sea, on the edge of town. Many penguins were killed by drivers and dogs, as they negotiated the road, the railway line, and anybody who came along at the same time. As a result, an area was artificially created to allow the penguins to get to burrows without having to risk crossing traffic, and also to keep nosy people from scaring them. So as a result, you now have to pay to see them come ashore, but it is worth it. My partner and I were there in the dead of winter, and we sat on a viewing stand in the cold dark of an early night, the slipway from the sea illuminated by infra-red light, allowing us to see the penguins, but keeping us in the dark to them. After a bit of a wait, a single penguin negotiated the waves and came running up the slipway only to come across a fur seal that was asleep on the grass. The fur seal didn’t move, and the penguin slipped past and headed towards a burrow. Shortly after, a ‘raft’ of 6 penguins appeared. They hustled each other up the slipway, but this time at the top, the fur seal moved and sent them scattering, 2 towards the burrows, and the other 4 back down the slipway. It was amusing to watch them renegotiate the route back up again, taking small steps then pausing, looking at each other and nudging each other. It was as if they were daring each other to go first. They spent about 10 minutes with this game before eventually they made a run for it. This time the fur seal didn’t bother itself, and they all made it into the burrow area.

 

Immediately south of Oamaru is a beach where the rare yellow-eyed penguin comes ashore. We had been told to go at sunset to see them come in and sunrise to see them leave. We headed to the lookout and waited and waited and waited. After nearly an hour, not a single penguin had appeared so we headed off. The next morning, we headed out a little late, and met a local who reported that the penguins had arrived shortly after we left. We proceeded back to the lookout and sat for a while, but the sun was already quite up by this point, and we left having seen none.

About 40 mins south of Oamaru is the Moeraki boulders, a natural phenomenon of wave erosion on the local mudstone that exposes near-spherical rocks that then appear to march towards the ocean where they break apart. No two visits to the beach are the same as the structures change shape and form as time and sea break them down. The beach is littered with them, and it was bizarre to wander along and see a newly emerging one appearing out of the cliff. Some were small like footballs, and others were as big as a person, and those that had cracked like an egg were big enough to climb into.

 

Dunedin is referred to as the Edinburgh of the South; having been to both cities, I have no idea why. It is supposed to have an overwhelming Scottish influence, but aside from 1 restaurant that served whisky and haggis, I can’t say that I saw a lot of that influence myself. Nor was I ever aware of a lot of Scottish people living there, although there are a few Scottish surnames hanging around in New Zealand as a whole. I personally can’t say anything exciting about the city itself. My Scottish friend recently emigrated to Dunedin from Aberdeen, and she seems happy there, but I was not overly fussed with the city myself. What I do love about Dunedin though, is its location, because the Otago Peninsula is just beautiful. Following the coast road round inlets of perfectly still water, beside rolling hills, takes you eventually to Taiaroa head at the tip of the peninsula where the only mainland place in the world to view Royal Albatross is. When I visited in winter, there were several fluffy white chicks being catered to by their parents who came soaring in from the Pacific Ocean beyond.

 

In the lowering mid-winter sunshine, I headed onwards around the peninsula to Larnach Castle. Heralded as New Zealand’s only castle, it is more like a mansion, but it sits atop a ridge of the Otago Peninsula and commands a stunning view from both the gardens and the rooftop view point. At the southern edge of Dunedin is the suburb of St Clair which commands a view out onto the wilds of the Pacific Ocean and has a beautiful stretch of beach to wander along, as well as some good cafes that are always crammed full of people. Even on a cold winter’s day, I loved pounding the beach, my hair whipped around my face as I breathed in the sea air.

 

Leaving Dunedin train station is an old-fashioned steam train that travels through the Otago countryside and up the Taieri Gorge. Across viaducts and through tunnels we travelled through some beautiful countryside. In winter it is a 4hr return trip, but the summer offers excursions which allow the train ride to link up to the start of the Otago rail trail, a 150km bike trail cutting an arc through the central Otago landscape. Having regained a love of cycling (something which I used to live for growing up but as an adult had become the stuff of annual jaunts whilst on holiday) since living in Christchurch, I am looking forward to riding the rail trail in the summer of 2014.

Queenstown is generally famous the world over for its adrenalin inducing activities and for Fergberger. I remember laughing when my partner insisted that I had to go there on my first trip to the town in 2012, but on arrival I was astounded by the lengthy queue out the door every day, be it lunch time or dinner time. Soon realising that there was no quiet time there, I joined the masses and quickly became a devotee. Anybody who has eaten there knows that there is no burger like it anywhere else in the world. They are hands-down the most scrumptious meal-in-a-bun that you will ever eat. Another favourite eatery was Patagonia. Having travelled in Patagonia a few years previously, I knew just how decadent ice cream was from that part of the world, so I needed no persuasion to visit this ice-cream parlour-come-coffee shop. Several days of my trip included a fergburger for main course and some delicious Patagonia ice cream for dessert.

 

Short of eating an extra few inches onto my waistline, I was keen to see what Queenstown was all about. The day I arrived in early March 2012 it was 28oC and the small beach on the shore of Lake Wakatipu was packed. 2 days later I awoke to snow on the ground – I couldn’t believe the transformation. Lake Wakatipu is a long, sinuous lake stretching for 80 km. Getting out on a boat cruise barely covered a tiny patch of this lake, heading from the harbour in the town centre, and round Queenstown gardens before heading up the Frankton Arm of the lake towards the Kawarau Rd bridge. Overlooking the town itself is a number of hills and mountains. The most visited is Bob’s Peak which is accessible by hiking trail and by gondola. I accidentally picked the mountain bike trail to hike up and was quickly yelled at to get out the way. The route was so steep that the bikes were zooming towards me at immense speed and I was in danger of causing an accident. Hiding my blushes, I headed on up the steep slog to the viewpoint at the top of the Gondola. It wasn’t the sunniest of days but the visibility was still great and the view over the lake towards the Remarkables Mountain range was spectacular. Never one for taking the easy route down, I had signed up for the zipline experience to ride 6 flying foxes back down to the town. This was as much splurging as I could afford at this point in time, and it was worth every penny. Each ride we got to try a different maneuver such as riding upside down or flipping positions and it was a new way to experience the forest, feet above my head and staring straight down at the leaf litter below me as the trees whizzed past my ears. Queen’s Hill is also a rewarding hike starting in the back streets of town. The summit offers an alternate view of the lake, but unfortunately, the heavens opened when I reached the top, and the cloud cover came down obscuring a lot of my view.

 

In winter, Queenstown is all about skiing. The surrounding mountain ranges look pretty in glistening white, and there’s plenty of choice. Within easy driving distance is Coronet Peak, the Remarkables and Cardrona. In July 2013, my partner and I spent a long weekend in Queenstown enjoying the food and the mulled wine which was served almost everywhere. The weather was not in our favour, and the propeller plane we flew down on nearly wasn’t able to land as the clouds were so closed in. With lots of rain, we experienced the indoor life that the town has to offer. The Fear Factory is a new haunted house that has opened up on Shotover Street. In pitch black, you follow a maze of red lights whilst things grab at you from the darkness or leap out at you in a flash of light. The Caddyshack Mini Golf near the Gondola was also a surprise delight. We stumbled across it by chance, but it was full of 18 holes of electronically controlled fun. Embracing the cold weather theme, we spent some time in 1 of Queenstown’s two Ice Bars, Below Zero. Maintained at a chilly -8oC, we enjoyed cocktails out of an ice glass surrounded by ice sculptures. In one of the few gaps in the weather, we managed the scenic drive round Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy, a cute little village at the head of the lake. The views were stunning even in the low cloud, so it will be somewhere to head back to in the warmer months.

 

To this day, Wanaka remains one of my favourite parts of New Zealand. Like the more developed and commercialised Queenstown, it is nestled on the shore of a large lake, but Wanaka offers everything I love: peace and quiet, fewer people, less commercialism, and reams of hiking trails in every perceivable direction. I spent several days here after my time in Queenstown, in March 2012, and the weather was generally perfect. I hiked east round the lake one day, taking in the ever-changing vista of water and mountains, up one of the rivers towards Albert Town, and then back to Wanaka via Mt Iron for an impressive panorama of the town and the surrounding countryside. The following day I hiked west to Glendhu Bay where my hand was savaged by a portaloo (a scar that I still bare to this day!) but I was rewarded with my first glimpse of the glacier streaming down from Mt Aspiring. The weather turned on the long walk home, and I limped soaking into a Greek restaurant in town for a tasty dinner and some well-deserved wine. Having imbibed a little too much wine, I took a slight detour on the way back to the hostel to climb a tree as the sun set.

 

My favourite hike in Wanaka headed west round the lake as the day before, but detoured half-way to head up the impressive Roy’s Peak. It was a hard and steady slog, winding zig-zagged up a rather steep incline. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the hike was very popular. From quite early on, the view was stunning. The higher I climbed, the more of Lake Wanaka and the surrounding mountain ranges I could see. The lake has several islands within it, and every where I looked was a disappearing expanse of greenness. The view from the top trumped it all though. Nearly the full extent of the lake was visible, with Mt Aspiring in one direction, and a stream of mountains in many others. The town of Wanaka itself looked tiny, and even Mt Iron which I had hiked a couple of days before was easily dwarfed. I ate my lunch amongst a cluster of other hikers sharing the summit, and I got great joy from an up close and personal encounter with a couple of falcons who flitted about the summit mobbing each other. On my final day in Wanaka, I opted for the water’s view of the place, taking one of the excursions out to one of the islands on the lake. The area reminded me so much of Cairngorm National Park in my home country of Scotland, and its grandeur took my breath away.

 

The MacKenzie District will always be a special place for my partner and I. In winter 2012, we headed inland to take up a deal at the Hermitage hotel in Mount Cook Village. Like a little alpine village in Europe, it is nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains including New Zealand’s highest: Mount Cook, or Aoraki in Maori. There was plenty of snow as we travelled up the west bank of Lake Pukaki and the village itself was white, with plenty of snow to tramp through and skid on as we negotiated the surrounds of our hotel. The hotel was fantastic, and our ‘cheap’ room included a balcony view overlooking the village and the behemoth of Mt Cook across the valley.

 

The unfortunate effect of the snow was that a lot of the local tours were cancelled as some of the roads disappearing through the valley were classed as treacherous. The only thing still running was a glacier flight. Mt Cook village sits nestled on the eastern valley of the Southern Alps. Directly west of there sits the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers in all their icy glory. We opted for the cheaper flight which took us on an aerial view around the glaciers, but when we got to the airfield, due to numbers, we got upgraded to the longer tour which encompassed the same scenic flight but included a snow landing on the ice field at the top of the glacier. From the airfield, we headed up and over the Tasman Glacier with its lake, and headed towards the ridge line of the alps. The sun shone for us and sparkled on the glistening snow behind us, and we gawked at the view towards the peak of Mt Cook, and the west coast beyond. The plane circled above Franz Josef glacier before heading up Fox glacier’s ice field to land on the powder. First out the plane was a petite woman and her feet disappeared to her ankles in the snow. My partner got out next, expecting a similar experience, only for him to disappear down to his knees. I fared little better, and we laughed at each others’ struggles to negotiate the snow, and ‘walk’ about the ice field. The sun beat down on us from above, but it was the middle of winter, and with the altitude we were both freezing, neither of us having dressed for the occasion.

 

Lake Tekapo neighbours Lake Pukaki in the MacKenzie District, and we spent a few nights there over Easter 2013. The relatively new Spa Pools were a delight to soak in of an evening, enjoying the delightfully warm (though crowded) pools in the fading light. At the top of Mt John behind the Spa Pools is the Mt John Observatory. The whole region around this observatory has been declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 4 in the world. The light pollution is so low here, that it is an excellent place to go stargazing, and the Milky Way is often visible above the township. We took a guided tour to the observatory with Earth & Sky and the guides were so passionate. It was amazing to see Saturn’s rings through the telescope, as well as Jupiter and an amazing close up of the moon.

 

Within a reasonable drive from my home in Christchurch is Hanmer Springs. The main reason for visiting here are the amazing geothermal pools. I could sit in these pools for hours, happily becoming a prune, and there are varying pools of varying temperatures to satisfy the relaxation needs of adults, whilst a water park area serves the kids. Attached to the pools is a Spa offering massages and private hot pools. Aside from several trips to the hot pools, on our last visit, my partner and I opted to go on a quad biking adventure out of town. On the drive into Hanmer Springs is a bungy jump centre, and they also offer quad biking through the nearby river valley. Having driven quads before from my younger days as a milkmaid, I started off confident, keeping up with our guide. Unfortunately, within 20 minutes, I took an embankment too quickly and drove head-first into a tree. I did my best impression of Superman over the handlebars, and the tyre of the quad was punctured on a branch. My pride was just as hurt as my limbs were, and I sported some amazing bruises for several weeks after as well as an injured wrist that still gives me problems nearly 6 months later. On the day though, after my quad bike was replaced, I continued with the ride, albeit at a much more timid pace.

 

The Tranz Alpine train runs from Christchurch to Greymouth via Arthur’s Pass and Lake Brunner. Part of the Tranz Scenic rail network, we took the ride west in July 2012, hoping to see some snow on the mountains. We had previously driven to Arthur’s Pass and enjoyed a walk through the trees to a beautiful waterfall, but this time we could sit back and enjoy the scenery. The train speeds across the flat of the Canterbury Plains before snaking through the Southern Alps through river valleys, gorges and through tunnels in the mountains. Passing the side of Lake Brunner, it continues west towards Greymouth. It was a beautiful trip, and we spent the weekend at Greymouth before heading home on the train. There are so many beautiful vistas from the train, but even the road from the west coast is spectacular. Driving along side glacier-fed rivers, and rolling hills, and across a viaduct, this is the land of Kea, mountain parrots unique to New Zealand. They are cheeky and bold birds, that will chew attachments to vehicles if given half a chance. Resembling a scene from the Lord of the Rings movies, Castle Hill is a boulder-strewn hillside that is worth a wander around. Not far from there is Cave Stream Scenic Reserve, a cave system that is open for unguided, at-your-own-risk exploring. The day we visited we had come unprepared, not knowing of its existence, but now the owner of a wetsuit, I intend to get back here one day and go caving.

 

The north-west corner of the South Island is a mass of National Parks, and the countryside and coastline are overwhelmingly beautiful. In January 2013, I spent my summer holidays road-tripping from Abel Tasman National Park down the west coast. Spending several nights in Kaiteriteri on the edge of the National Park, it was an easy boat trip from the beach up the coast to a variety of bays to allow exploring such a beautiful area. The sea was blue, and home to New Zealand fur seals, and the land was lush with thick vegetation. The first bay, Halfmoon Bay, was home to Split Apple Rock, the most photographed piece of rock in the National Park. We hiked from Torrent Bay to Apple Tree Bay as well as from Tonga Bay to Bark Bay, both sections of a multi-day hike. From Bark Bay we kayaked south to Anchorage, negotiating strong winds to make it back in time for the ferry back to Kaiteriteri. It was an amazing few days, and I loved it there. Along the coast is Golden Bay and Fairwell Spit, a large sand bar projecting north into the Cook Strait. It is infamous as a common stranding zone for whales that get disorientated and stuck on the expansive sand flat.

 

It was blowing such a gale and pouring with such rain, that we did not spend long in Nelson. Cutting from the north coast to the west coast meant heading deep inland across hills and through reams of farmland and forest, eventually linking up with the Buller river and following its course to Westport. The whole drive was in torrential rain, so we didn’t stop much, managing a zipline across the swollen river in a brief lull in the otherwise incessant rain. There isn’t a lot to Westport, it is an old town that housed gold and coal miners, but on the western edge of Buller Bay is Cape Foulwind where there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seals. The day we visited there were lots of seal pups on the rocks below the viewing area, and the males were making lots of noise and throwing their weight about.

 

For most of the drive south to Greymouth, State Highway 6 hugs the stunning coastline. The Tasman Sea is rough and unforgiving, the coastline scattered with weather-beaten cliffs and rocks, and dotted with stretches of beautiful sandy beaches. The mountains rose to our left, including those that supported Fox glacier, and the vegetation was thick. Tropical plants vied with temperate plants near sea level, and the only breaks in the tree line were where rivers coursed through. The surprise for me though, was Pancake Rocks, so called because of their resemblance to stacks of pancakes. These limestone formations are most evident near Punakaiki, and in several areas the erosion from the sea underneath has created caverns which become blowholes when wave conditions are right. It was a blisteringly hot day when we were there, but I could have happily spent a lot of time here ogling this unique coastline.

 

From Greymouth, we headed further south to Hokitika at the mouth of the Hokitika river. Another township founded due to gold mining, it is famous now for its jade, with multiple shops catering to this market. South of here, we drove to the newly opened tree top walk. Having gone on one in Victoria, Australia, we went there with high expectations. We were mainly disappointed with the exorbitant entry price, but something just seemed lacking compared to the one in Australia that we had done the year before. Having said that, it was a nice viewpoint east towards the Southern Alps. To the east of Hokitika towards the mountains, was the Hokitika Gorge. Here, the river is fed from the glaciers and mountains above, and on a sunny day, the waters are a deep aquamarine. Unfortunately, after days of heavy rain, the river resembled more of a milk bath, with immense quantities of silt having been washed downstream. It was still a great sight, but I can only imagine how beautiful it would look in all its glory.

 

After nearly 18 months in this country, I have explored so much. However, there is still so much to see. Milford and Doubtful Sounds are two big draws that have so far eluded me, mainly due to their distance and relative inaccessibility. Also due to time and planning constraints, I am yet to hike any of the Great Walks, something which I hope to rectify over the next few summers. The lesser-visited island of Stewart Island is also a place I long to visit too. My New Zealand adventures are a work in progress…

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