It was just a matter of minutes before we hit a snag. Loading back onto the bus at the Farewell Lighthouse, we cut down onto the sand and crossed the wide pool of water that sat at the edge of the beach. As we reached the far edge of the water and began to lift out onto the sand, the large tyres of the bus dug in and lost traction and very quickly we were stuck. A brief attempt to drive us out buried us deeper into the sand and in the windy afternoon, we were instructed to get off the bus. Luckily there were two buses on the tour and the other bus picked a different route through the water and made it safely onto the firm sand on the far side. Both drivers and several of the passengers took turns digging tunnels to drain the water away from the tyres. I’ve injured my back several times and was too worried about a repeat issue to help out, but my partner despite awaiting surgery on a torn muscle in his shoulder, leapt into action to help out. I felt a little guilty just watching but at the same time was worried that he’d injure himself more, failing to talk him out of doing what was instinctual for him. It got cold as we stood there, and eventually I was able to help with some lighter work, passing the chain between the two buses. It felt like a lot of time passed when eventually to great relief, the other bus was able to pull ours out the water and haul it onto the firmer sand.
Finally we could get back on board and on our way. We were driven some way down the massive expanse of Farewell Spit before we stopped at a relatively high sand dune. A trudge to the ridge revealed a view over the sand and Golden Bay across the far side. The cloud limited the horizon a little but it still felt like we were far away from anywhere with no signs of civilisation apart from us and our buses. A little further along the beach we stopped to see some baby oyster catchers, running alongside their parents, still in their fluffy spotted fledgling wear. We were both getting tired and hungry as the bus reached the base of the Spit and turned inland to make the crossing to the far side. The sand here was really soft and as we crossed the widest section, ready to lift up onto the track, we once again ground to a halt and bedded into the soft sand. Our driver, who had been a little too cocky on the drive up to the lighthouse, was paying the price and there was much disgruntlement among the passengers as we again had to disembark and my partner again put his shoulder at risk by helping to push the bus. I was concerned that the other bus would not be able to help us this time as he had to negotiate the soft sand at an awkward angle to help us out. There was a brief moment where I held my breath, concerned that he too would get stuck, but thankfully in less time than the initial grounding, we got out of our conundrum and were finally back on the other side and heading for Collingwood.
But things were not over yet, as with the tide in, we had to partly drive through the sea to reach the car park and the main road. Thankfully we reached the tarmac without further ado but as we crowned the hill and reached a one-lane bridge on the far side, we came face to face with a campervan who was forced to reverse on the narrow road to give us space. A tone of shock filled the air as one of his wheels nearly went off the road, threatening to topple him into the lake by his side. We could all see the look of fear on the passengers faces, but thankfully they were able to stop themselves just in time, and with a bit more negotiation, we were finally able to get on the road and return to Collingwood for a much needed drink and food.
We awoke to sunny skies on Christmas Eve, and having had a taste of what was on offer the day before, we retraced our steps to Farewell Spit. Sadly the cloud moved in as we made the drive, but that wasn’t going to stop us getting outside. Parking up at the Farewell Spit car park, we made the walk through the farmland past grazing sheep to the beach at the bottom of the Spit on the far side where we’d stopped on the bus the day before. Sadly there were no fur seals in sight this time, and with my partner struggling with cramp, we didn’t stay for long before heading back. A cafe sits atop a hill nearby and this made a great snack spot with a view over the bay and a small exhibit on the natural history of the place. Almost immediately behind it, a path led up through a paddock to an even higher spot affording an even better view over the rolling hills and the glistening water below. New Zealand is such a stunning country, and each new place I visit never fails to disappoint with its natural beauty.
We’d spotted a walk whilst on the bus the day before, so although we were headed out to Wharariki Beach, we stopped at a small pull-in to make the trudge up the steep slope to meet the Hilltop Walk near a small lighthouse. It is possible to walk from the cafe where we’d eaten all the way to Wharariki Beach if you have about 4hrs to spare, but we were just using the opportunity to get some views of the coast. It was difficult to get a clear view of Farewell Spit due to the vegetation but in the other direction we could see the wonderous cliffs and rolling hills that made up the coastline as it disappeared into the distance of Kahurangi National Park. Despite the burning sun and heat of the summer, the vegetation was a lush green, a stark contrast to the browns of the Port Hills that we get back home in the summer months. We could just about make out Cape Farewell where we’d stopped on the bus, but beyond that we could see a dip in the coast that marked our destination for the day.
It was a long gravel road that took us to the exceptionally busy car park for Wharariki Beach. This is one of the region’s top attractions and in the height of summer, it was full of tourists and their campervans. There is a bit of a walk to get to the beach even on the most direct route, but we opted to take the long way there, following the path past grazing sheep to round a pretty little lake. The sun had all but gone now, and the clouds had thickened up to grey the sky above us. Still, I could feel the power of the UV raging through and as usual, I had to continue to lacquer on the sunscreen despite the cloud. After a while, the track cut up onto a ridge and we got our first sight of the offshore rock sculptures that this beach is famous for. Past a lake on the hilltop, we headed down through a copse of trees and finally found ourselves at a small cove, completely surrounded by giant rocks, and one that we had all to ourselves apart from a fur seal that was resting at the back of the beach.
Initially we weren’t sure if we could get out of the cove without backtracking but after a bit of investigation, we were able to clamber over some boulders and found a cave that led us through to Wharariki beach proper. Even here, there were more giant rocks and we discovered a multitude of caves and arches to walk through. The position of the tide meant having to get just a little bit wet, and on more than one occasion we accidentally startled a fur seal that we stumbled on without warning. The further up the beach we walked, the bigger the crowds became. Despite the overcast weather and the expanse of the beach, it was quite busy around the middle section where a large cave and the area’s most famous sea stack can be found. One of several off the coast, this most famous one resembles a baby elephant, an arch on one side making it look like a trunk, and the slope on the other side creating a head and back. I wasn’t the only one playing around with the reflections in the tide trying to get a decent photo of it.
Although spots of rain threatened and the temperature dropped, I was reluctant to leave. Sometimes I can find it hard compromising when I’m travelling with other people. A lover of solo travel, I enjoy the freedom of spending as much time as a I want in a place, so I was a little disgruntled that my partner wanted to go. He’d been struggling with cramp and was getting agitated and restless. I begrudgingly traipsed behind him, making an arc to follow the water’s edge at the top end of the beach, doing my best to prolong my time there. The walk out involved a long trek through soft sand that was built up on a ridge behind the beach. As we reached the top, it started raining quite hard and suddenly I was as happy as my partner was to leave the beach behind. Although we were using the direct route to return to the car park, it was still a good 15 minute walk, and despite the rain, there were still plenty of people heading down to the beach.
Unfortunately the rain persisted into Christmas Day and we whiled away the hours watching movies at our motel. When eventually the rain eased, we were quick to get out on the road and make the most of the weather window. Driving round to Ligar Bay and beyond, we cut up the steep hill to take the gravel road into Abel Tasman National Park. This was the opposite side of the peninsula to where we’d previously been when staying in Kaiteriteri back in 2013, and the road was steep and winding, and with the rain that had fallen, it wasn’t the most comfortable road to drive. Despite this and the lack of tarmac, there was an inordinate amount of campervans and trailers heading over it, and I was very grateful that I wasn’t the one driving. I’m not a fan of driving New Zealand’s gravel roads, but unfortunately many of the hikes I’ve done over the years have involved negotiating them. They vary a lot in smoothness and gradient and on more than one occasion I’ve lost traction on a hill or skidded on the loose stones.
When at least we reached Totoranui, the car park was full and there were people everywhere. A large camp site hugged the back of the beach and we waited in the car for a bit as more rain passed through. When it eased again, we started walking the Abel Tasman coast route, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. My partner had noticed on the map that there was a lookout about 20mins along the coast so we headed there. The view in both directions was of sweeping coast, the sand here a vibrant orange colour. On a sunny day, the waters off New Zealand are usually a staggering blue, but on this day under the constant threat of more rain, the sea was a steel grey. Heading back to the campsite, my partner stuck to the track while I cut down to the beach, listening to the waves lap against the shore as I kicked my way through the sand. There was only a handful of people on the beach because of the weather so it felt peaceful here until I cut back up to the campsite. Legs feeling stretched and cabin fever relieved, we made the drive back to our motel to settle in for a Christmas dinner feast and a night of movies. Before the sun set though, we managed a walk round the deserted streets of Takaka to ease our full stomachs.
Boxing Day was a gloriously sunny day, but sadly we were heading home. I had wanted to do the caving experience on the top of Takaka Hill, but overcome with festive laziness, I didn’t get ready quickly enough and by the time we’d packed up, checked out and made the trudge up the long and winding road to the brow of the Hill, we’d just missed the guided tour. We stopped at a couple of lookouts instead which on one side of the road gave us green hills descending towards Golden Bay, and on the other side green hills descending into a large and deep valley. It was stinking hot, and we decided to turn into Kaiteriteri for a wander along the beach and some brunch. Sadly, Abel Tasman National Park has become a victim of its own popularity, and unlike our visit in 2013, the place was crammed full of people. There was nowhere to park, and despite circling round a bit and getting frustrated as we dodged pedestrians at every turn, we couldn’t find any space. In a last ditch effort, we took the turn-off to Little Kaiteriteri and finally found a patch of grass to park on at the far end of its beach. There was nowhere to eat here though, so although we could get a bit of a walk along the beach, our appetite drove us onwards, so after soaking up a bit of heat it was time to bid the coastline goodbye. The traffic back to Christchurch was busy, but more people were heading where we’d come from than where we were going and I wondered where all those extra people were going to fit.