MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Great Walk”

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.

As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.

It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.

Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.

 

A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.

 

At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.

 

It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.

 

Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.

 

On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.

From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.

 

By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.

Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.

 

Where it was possible I walked along the sand, but mostly the trail sat a little elevated above it. The coast appeared shrouded in mist when looking north or south but thankfully any spots of rain never came to much. After Nettle beach, another swing bridge spanned a wide rocky gorge before the trail opened up a little at the Katipo Shelter. This rather exposed area was a campsite and a family there mentioned they had had some belongings stolen by the resident weka. I sat there watching the waves crash on Twin beach as these same weka nosied around my feet looking for an easy grab. I spotted a juvenile oyster catcher on the beach, still in its fluffy attire, not yet fully feathered, and as I went to leave I noticed the DoC sign had this campsite as half way between the Heaphy Hut and the end of the trail.

 

After traversing behind the two beaches that made up Twin beaches, the track skirted into a nikau palp grove once more, bringing me to Koura beach then Big Rock beach after yet another suspension bridge. Every single one of these beaches was empty, and had it been nicer weather I probably would have lingered for longer. The only other people I saw were those on the trail who were all hellbent on getting to the end of the hike as soon as possible. When I reached Scotts beach, there was only the expanse of the beach itself and a headland between me and the end of the hike. I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet so I dumped my bag and headed down onto the beach and sat there for some time, delighting in eating a snack whilst in a day dream.

 

After some time I eventually made the final move, climbing back up to around 100m inside the forest. After half an hour, a side track led to a lookout overlooking Scotts beach. Beyond here, the track descended down the other side of the headland, and as it dropped down I could see the car park and shelter where the hikers readied to board the shuttle bus. The threat of rain brought wispy clouds to the hillsides, slightly shrouding the view of the valley as I reached the final suspension bridge to cross the wide Kohaihai river. I sidled out the end of the hike to no fanfare, and with no-one waiting to acknowledge my achievement. I’d hiked the first 2 days on effectively zero calories, not to mention with dehydration, and I’d hiked the final 2 days on less than a day’s maintenance of calories. But I felt okay. The body is a remarkable thing, having carried me over 78km on barely any food and with a heavy pack on my back. I’d hiked out with almost as much food as I’d hiked in with, and as I sat on a washed up tree trunk on the beach, watching a red-billed gull saunter across the sand, I ate some of it, proud of myself for completing such a beautiful hike under less than ideal conditions.

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

Hiking on an empty stomach was never going to be an enjoyable experience. After ejecting all of the previous day’s sustenance while hiking up the mountain, the lack of appetite meant setting off on day 2 of the Heaphy Track tired, exhausted and dehydrated. I was still a little nervous every time I took a drink from my water bladder, but the sterilising tablets had done what they needed to and thankfully, there was no repeat of the day before. But it was to be a long day traversing the ridge from Perry Saddle Hut at 860m to James Mackay Hut at 700m, a 6.5hr walk according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) signage. The earlier risers at the hut meant I was on the track at the back of 7am, but I was sure that I was going to struggle maintaining a decent pace, and my pack was weighing heavy on my shoulder as I followed the path through the forest.

Following the contours of the mountain, views were sparse through the canopy, an occasional glimpse up to the hillside next to the track, or an occasional broader view across a valley. Streams and bridges were crossed and after an hour, the forest finally opened up to the moorland of Gouland Downs. It reminded me of Scotland, the heather-like shrubbery at shin height, and the wind whipping across. Rain clouds threatened from a distance creating a faint rainbow as I walked. This was takahe and giant snail country, both endemic and rare wildlife that could be spotted here. I passed signs alerting to look out for both but saw none.

 

As the trail dropped down a little towards a stream I came across a totem pole littered in hiking boots. I’m not sure what possesses someone to abandon their hiking boots in the middle of nowhere, but clearly lots of people have done so, as there was a myriad of shoes strung up on the pole, leading to a sign declaring the spot as ‘Boot Pole Corner’. Beyond here, the rain clouds appeared to be dispersing and I saw the rainbow once more as I got nearer the first of the day’s huts, Gouland Downs Hut. This small hut lay in a flat section which was supposed to be one of the best places to spot the takahe which had been released into the wild here. Hiking alone often gives me the best chance to spot wildlife, but although I had the place to myself, there were no birds to see.

 

I’d taken a little longer to reach the hut than the signs had predicted, but I was neither surprised nor put off doing the side tracks here. A little past the hut are some side tracks that are only obvious when you are looking for them. The first led into thick forest where a couple of caves could be found among the undergrowth. When the main track went into the forest, a network of arches cut under the track making for a neat little exploration into the limestone landscape, and at the end of the forest, a track led down into the low vegetation and round a corner to reveal a large open cave with a waterfall dripping down the front of it.

What followed was a series of river crossings as the track remained mostly flat across a mostly open section. It seemed on the map like the next hut wasn’t that far away but my energy was flagging with every turn in the trail that didn’t bring it into sight. Finally the 1km marker popped up and I pounded the trail in anticipation of a break, arriving at the exposed Saxon Hut which was full of people enjoying the sunshine to eat some lunch. These were all people that had stayed at Perry Saddle, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet many of them yet due to my ill health. I still wasn’t hungry but forced myself to consume a small cup of hot soup in an effort to boost my energy a little. It was all I could manage, and so I pushed on, feeling weighed down by all the food I wasn’t consuming.

 

My destination for the night was still 3hrs away according to the DoC sign and to begin with the track continued through tussock and wetlands, close to the Saxon river. Turning and climbing up onto a ridge, a bench in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere denoted the division between the Tasman District and the West Coast District. I struggled as the track continued along a long and winding ridge following the contours of the land. Aside from that small cup of soup, I hadn’t kept a meal down since breakfast the day before, and I was really leaning on my poles as I dragged one foot forward and then the other. My pack was such a burden on my back and my patience was getting thin as the winding seemed never ending and it became difficult to work out on the map how far I’d actually come. At one point I realised that my jumper had fallen off my pack strap where I’d slung it, and I cursed myself for having to back track to find it.

Finally I reached the dual crossings of Blue Shirt Creek which was at least somewhere recognisable on the map. The curve and dip in the landscape offered a broader view across the landscape than I’d had for a few hours, and after a brief rest by one of the bridges, I felt a bit more motivated to get moving again. Finally, the trees parted to reveal Mackay Downs, and the track became boardwalk as it crossed a slightly alien-looking landscape. This section can apparently flood quite badly in heavy rain but it had been such a sunny day so far, the ground appeared relatively dry. At one point, the track passed some unusual boulders before finally a marker denoted the hut was near.

 

The final kilometre to James Mackay Hut felt like it took forever. I arrived at 4.30pm, over 9hrs after leaving Perry Saddle Hut behind. There was still plenty of hours of daylight left but I was exhausted and still feeling dehydrated. But the hut gave a sneaky peak of the rest of the hike, with the Tasman Sea crashing onto the west coast just about visible in the distance. I couldn’t even consider having dinner, there was just no desire for food whatsoever. Whatever bug I’d picked up had hit me good, but I was just grateful to not be throwing up, and happy to still be on the trail despite it. There was a definite sense that the next day would bring a change, with signs that the landscape would change quite a lot. But for now, it was time to rest again, and attempt to block out the snorers ahead of the next 2 days of hiking.

How Not to Hike the Heaphy Track

An unsettling feeling hit me shortly after lunch. As I hiked, the feeling got worse, a familiar and unwanted sensation brewing in my stomach, building as I made my way up the mountain. Finally it overwhelmed me and I grabbed a nearby rock to steady myself as I vomited. Immediately I felt better and I was relieved, returning to the hike. But it wasn’t long before it was back and over the next few hours as I slogged my way up in altitude, I had to stop again and again to purge my stomach, a hint of misery building as time went on and my destination failed to come into view. Having been dropped off by shuttle some hours before, I was 3 nights away from my car, and as my misery worsened, I contemplated my options: crawl back to the middle of nowhere and hope for a phone signal to call for a pick-up, or continue to traverse the mountains to reach my car. I’ve been called stubborn on more than one occasion, but never foolhardy. I’m not sure which one of these I was being (perhaps both), but I decided to push on, feeling the dizziness of dehydration creep in as I continued to be sick on the trail.

I’d spent Christmas day in 2019 packing and prepping for the hike ahead and early on Boxing Day I’d set off on the long drive from Christchurch to Kohaihai on the edge of Kahurangi National Park on the west coast of the South Island. Here marks the end of the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. I spent the majority of the drive in my own World, admiring the gorgeous scenery that the country is famous for. I paused briefly in the Buller Gorge to take some photographs before hitting the west coast and turning northwards. On a whim I picked up a hitchhiker who was heading to Karamea, something which I had never done prior to living in New Zealand but have done a few times since living here. She recommended the campsite she’d just stayed at and it turned out she’d just come off the track that I was about to start. Once I dropped her off and continued onward to the end of the road, it wasn’t long till I was stepping out in gorgeous sunshine to the sound of crashing waves on the beach.

I had 40 mins to spare until my shuttle was scheduled and after a walk on the beach, I watched the weka wandering about the site, admired the pohutakawa trees which were in full bloom and readied my hiking gear together to join the large group of people that waited at the shelter. My shuttle arrived a little early and before long we were all bundled on for the long and tedious drive to Nelson. As the crow flies, the start and end of the 4-day Great Walk are only on opposite sides of the national park, but the road network meant the logistics of track transport were going to take over 24hrs from leaving home to reach the start of the trail. It had already taken 6hrs to drive there, and now I had a 6hr bus drive back through the Buller Gorge and north to Nelson. But the shuttle was also responsible for picking up hikers and bikers on several tracks and so we wound our way from main road to back roads as we offloaded and loaded people in various parts of the region. Finally, well into the evening, we pulled up in Nelson.

 

Aside from my hiking gear I’d brought the remains of a bottle of wine I’d started on Christmas day, and obtaining a pizza, I sat out on my hostel balcony and chilled out in the summer evening air. I’d wanted to walk the Heaphy track for some time and was excited about the hike to come. I rose early and readied my gear, unwittingly sealing my fate for the hike ahead, and headed back to the bus stop to jump aboard the shuttle once more. This time we circled through Abel Tasman to pick up and drop off those doing the trails in that National Park, before finally those of us walking the Heaphy were dumped at a car park in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Roughly 28hrs after I’d left home, I was on the trail.

The start of the trail is an easy walk through lowland forest and grassland past a hut near the bank of the Aorere river. With everyone starting at almost the exact same time there was a bit of queue to sign in on the Department of Conservation (DoC) track book, but thankfully everybody spread out quite early on. Whilst I don’t mind socialising at the huts in the evening, I much prefer hiking solo. Not only does it let me get into my own head space, an act which helps me unwind from the stress of daily life, but I find I see more on my own, be it wildlife on the trail, or some random piece of beauty like the dew on a flower, or the dappled light of sun breaking through the foliage. Within half an hour of leaving the start point, the long climb up the mountain began.

 

Being summer it was a hot day, and I started throwing the water back as the trail wound its way up and up the mountainside. At a starting altitude of 140m, my destination for the night, Perry Saddle Hut was sitting at 860m, and the DoC sign stated 5hrs to get there. On these great walks, the distance signs tend to be an over-estimate, so I kept a steady pace, in no particular hurry, knowing I’d make the hut in good time. Every now and again a break in the foliage would afford a view across the valley to the nearby mountain range, but mostly I was among thick forest, passing through dappled sunlight as it peaked through.

 

But after stopping for lunch washed down with a big guzzle of water, I started walking again only to realise I just wasn’t feeling quite right. I worked out pretty quickly what the problem was and realised this was not a small issue. The day before when I had been packing, I’d gotten out my water bladder to discover I’d somehow left some water in it from a previous use and the water was bright green. I’d washed it first with soapy water then when my UV water treatment light failed to work properly, I sterilised it with boiling water, but clearly this wasn’t enough to get rid of whatever bacteria had brewed in the watery remnants. Having filled the bladder full in Nelson that morning, I’d given myself water poisoning and I was an idiot. It was a hot sunny day and I had a 4-day hike to do. I needed water to drink and I needed a receptacle to put it into. The more I was sick, the more I needed water and yet I couldn’t drink any. My increasing misery was self-induced and I staggered on in whatever stubborn foolishness took over me.

Eventually I reached the Aorere shelter after 5hrs. I should have been at the hut by now, but a vat of rain water allowed me to ditch my water supply and boil some water to replace it with. It wasn’t ideal as clearly boiling hadn’t worked the first time, but with my UV light refusing to hold its charge and with a need to drink some water, this was the best that I could do. The sign stated an hour to the hut, but this final section felt like it went on forever. Knowing though that I might not be back here again, the stubborn streak came out and I still made the most of the sidetrack to a lookout which afforded a view to the mountains to the south. Shortly after, I reached the highest point of the trail, and yet as I looked at the topographical map, I inwardly despaired about the distance in front of me.

 

It was approaching 6pm, over 6hrs since I’d started walking, when I suddenly saw a post stating the hut was 1km away. When at last I reached the hut, it was bustling with life and I headed straight to the bunk room to lie down. People came and went, and as I lay prostrate on the mattress I felt the awful sensation in my stomach return. Leaping off the bed to get outside I started retching before I’d even reached the door. Hand over mouth I was almost in tears as I pushed out into the boot room where I immediately threw up on the floor. I only made it as far as the decking outside before I was violently sick again in front of everyone walking past. My misery was overloaded with embarrassment, but I hovered there for some time as the feeling subsided. When at last it passed, I sheepishly went back inside to wash the floor of the boot room and flush the decking. This wasn’t the hike that I’d planned.

Huts of any kind are a great place to meet like-minded people from all around the country and all around the World. That night I was eternally grateful for the kind soul who provided me with sterilising tablets to treat my water bladder, which thankfully meant I could start drinking water again. Between my dehydration and a horrendous snorer in the same room, I got little sleep that night, but by the time morning arrived, I’d managed to keep my stomach contents inside my stomach for nearly 12hrs. I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime the day before and that hadn’t stayed down, but although I was no longer being sick, I couldn’t bare the thought of breakfast. I still contemplated heading back down the mountain, but not for long. As the hikers gradually packed up and moved on, I too set off across the ridge. Had things been different, I possibly would have taken the summit route up to Mt Perry, but as it was I had a long day ahead. On an empty stomach, dehydrated and tired, I started day 2 of the Heaphy Track.

Rakiura Track – North Arm Hut to Oban

Nestled among the bush overlooking a small bay within the North Arm of the extensive Paterson Inlet, the North Arm hut was a lovely hut to stay in on the second night of the Rakiura Track, one of New Zealand’s Nine Great Walks. The tide was out when I arrived, so after dumping my stuff and claiming a mattress, I headed down the steps to the rocks where I did a bit of bird watching and soaking up the sun that was breaking through the clouds. After a while, I headed up past the hut and into the forest where a separate track led up to the much more elevated campsite. The word was that this was a great spot for kiwi watching at night and I wanted to familiarise myself with the territory during the daylight hours. The other recommended spot was near the drop-toilets a little away from the hut, and I made a mental note to come and investigate both spots once darkness fell. That was still many hours away and so when I found a track disappearing into the bush, I followed it for a bit, coming out at another small bay. By now the tide was coming in as fast as the clouds were, and I was just able to walk around the rocky shore back to the other bay and return to the hut via the steps.

 

Once dinner had been consumed and darkness fell, in small groups several of us headed out up the path to go kiwi spotting. Rakiura or Stewart Island as it is more commonly known, is a kiwi hot-spot, with the local population of these flightless birds far outnumbering the human inhabitants, and thanks to reduced predator numbers here compared with the North and South Islands, the chances of encountering a kiwi here are the highest in the country. Although generally nocturnal, they have also been spotted out in daylight hours here too, which is highly unusual for the species. But alas, despite hovering in the darkness for some time, my luck was not in and I saw none that night. At breakfast the next morning though, I was gutted to hear some other hut occupants say they had had two kiwis come right up to them not far from where I’d waited, later on in the night.

After packing up it was time to head back to Oban on the third day of the hike. After rejoining the main track near the drop-toilets, the Department of Conservation sign denoted a 5hr walk back to Halfmoon Bay, but I planned on taking a detour near the end to make the hike longer and cover more coastline. This day was a good mix of bush and coast which made up for the slightly uninteresting hike the day before. The track followed the contour of the North Arm back to the main body of Paterson Inlet. Where it dropped to the coast, I would walk the beach if possible and at the larger expanse of Sawdust Bay, there was a lot of bird activity in the shallows. There were several of us walking at a similar pace so we were constantly catching up with or overtaking each other depending on where we paused as we went.

 

From Sawdust Bay though, not only did the path cut inland for a while, but we also started to spread out, bumping into other hikers less and less as time passed on. The track passed the remnants of a sawmill, then a historic dam was blocked off due to problems with the sidetrack that led there. A nearby pier allowed a brief break back across the water, but then it was back into the bush again for quite some distance.

 

Eventually it emerged at a tidal estuary deep within Kaipipi Bay. The tide was relatively far in so the water level was up to and under the bridge that crossed the tannin-coloured river that emptied into it. A little further round, a side-track led down to Kaipipi Bay itself and this offered the perfect spot to have some lunch. I initially had the place to myself aside from the odd flying insect that bothered me from time to time, but as I ate a boat appeared round the inlet entrance and moored off shore, and as I finished my lunch the grassy knoll was suddenly inundated with a large group of hikers that had the same idea as me. After allowing myself a bit of time to digest my lunch, I left them to it and continued on in solitude.

 

Aside from some muddy patches, the walk from here was easy going, through the forest and just a light undulation. Oban crept nearer and nearer and suddenly I found myself at a junction with the end of the Rakiura Track to my left and the Ryans Creek Track to my right. In an effort to prolong my time out hiking, I took the Ryans Creek track which quickly dropped altitude down to the shoreline of Paterson Inlet. It was overcast but dry and my view was of the various little islets that sat just off the shore, as well as to the far side of the large Inlet itself. At Vaila Voe Bay there was a small beach and I could see the boats moored just off the headland which marked my near return to civilisation.

 

Eventually I reached the wharf at the end of the road that took me back to Oban. The road itself skirted Thule Bay and at the head of this, another track, the short Raroa Walk took me back into the bush again, popping me out at Traill park, a short distance from the hostel I was booked into that night. I had by this stage discovered that my phone was acting up and had deleted all the photos that I had taken with it since leaving Christchurch a few days prior. Thankfully I had some photos on my camera, but I was gutted to have lost the majority of the photos I’d taken over the last few days. There was nothing I could do about it, but it was a bittersweet end to my time on the trail.

Rakiura Track – Oban to North Arm Hut

Before man discovered New Zealand, it was a land coated in dense forests brought to life by the sounds of a cacophony of birds. Over the hundreds of years since the first settlers arrived, large chunks of the forest were felled and burned to make way for villages, grazing and farming. With the habitat destruction, the hunting, and introduction of pests and diseases that followed, modern-day New Zealand is a far cry from its natural state. But in some parts of the country at least, there are pockets of nature which feel like a snapshot of the past. I’ve been to some predator-free zones where the bird life sings stronger than elsewhere, and I’ve been to dense, expansive forests where you could really feel lost within were it not for the guiding path through it. And whilst Rakiura (Stewart Island) has not been saved completely from the impact of humans, you only need to look at a map of the island to see how little of the place has been touched. Here, so far south, it is possible to feel a million miles away from civilisation.

Ahead of me lay 3 days of tramping across the headland at the back of Halfmoon Bay, the Rakiura Track, one of the Department of Conservation (DOC) Great Walks. Despite its remoteness, like the other Great Walks, the huts on this route book out far ahead, and with Southland being the wettest part of the country, any trip here is at the mercy of the weather Gods. So whilst I was disappointed to wake to grey skies and inclement weather, I wasn’t surprised. Kitted up in my waterproofs from the beginning, I set off from my hostel in Oban and started the march to Lee Bay. It is possible to organise transport for the 4km trip to the start of the hike, but I like several others, decided to include this as part of the walk. Cutting up over Church Hill, the road skirting behind Bathing Beach and cut down past Butterfield Beach before climbing up and across another headland ahead of Horseshoe Bay.

 

I was accompanied by a steady drizzle so my camera and phone were tucked away to keep them dry, but even through the rain, Horseshoe Bay with its large expansive curve of sand was beautiful, and aside from another hiker far ahead of me, and a couple of hikers some distance behind me, there was not a soul in sight. At the far end of the bay, the road cut inland across yet another headland, and climbed up over a hill and down to Lee Bay and the official start of the track. Here there was only the raging Foveaux Strait between the bay and the South Island of New Zealand. The rain was whipping in here, and the sea rolled into the beach below it. Off to the side was the massive chain-link sculpture, a twin to the one at Bluff I’d seen the day before, and once through here, I was officially on the track, the rain accompanying me into the forest.

 

At an undulating altitude, the track sticks close to the coast, although the varying density of the trees affected the level of views from one section to the next. It cut down to a small beach where a boardwalk crossed a river and here the path had a low-tide and high-tide option. As the sea was well out, it was safe to walk across the beach, finding some steps back into the forest at the far side. As the path continued on its snaking route to Peters Point, the rain got heavier and heavier and I was reminded of the fact that my 10-year old hiking boots were no longer waterproof. I hadn’t found a replacement pair since this discovery whilst walking the Mount Somers track a few weeks prior. Eventually it cut down to a river mouth and I had the option of wading across the river or heading up a high-tide route. I knew there was a nearby shelter, and being hungry, wet and cold by this stage, I was keen to get to it sooner rather than later so opted to pick my way across the river as best as I could to reach the sand of Maori Beach in Wooding Bay.

 

When I reached the shelter and found it packed with a group of fellow hikers I was rather dismayed. There was simply no dry space for me. I saw a sign that pointed to a historic site just behind the shelter so went to look at what was left of an old sawmill before cutting down to the same river a little further upstream. By the time I got back to the shelter, the other hikers were leaving and I was able to get under the roof to eat some food whilst staying dry. I was just finishing my lunch when a few more hikers arrived and suddenly the shelter was back at capacity again. It was only fair to get moving as soon as possible and give the new arrivals some space.

 

From the shelter, the track followed the beach to an estuary at the far end. The rain was getting a little miserable and I was glad to have had my GoPro with me or would have had no photos from this first day of the hike. Near the far end of the beach I stumbled across an eel in the sand, slithering across a patch of water streaming down the sand. I wasn’t sure whether to leave it or move it, but as it seemed perfectly mobile and partly submerged, I opted to leave it be. Beyond this, the track cut round the bend to a long suspension bridge that spanned the estuary and led the path back into the bush.

 

The track gained a little altitude and felt deep within dense forest, away from the coastal views. Eventually it reached the junction in the track where the Rakiura Track cut inland, and the North-West Circuit cut back towards the coast. Although I was walking the Rakiura Track, the first night’s hut involved going down to Port William where the Port William Hut serves both tracks. I was just eager to get to the hut with the rain still falling, and when I eventually made it, it was already buzzing with the activity of those hikers who had left the shelter ahead of me. It also wasn’t long before other hikers trickled in and soon the hut was full of hikers stripping off wet clothing and trying to find a dry place to hang their stuff up. When the rain finally eased by the evening, I stretched my legs by taking a wander around the immediate vicinity of the hut, taking in the view of the bay and looking for wildlife.

 

The next morning started off with better weather and once packed up it was time to move on. I was one of the last people to leave the hut but I was in no hurry to get anywhere, taking my time to walk along the shore of Port William and going out to the wharf to enjoy the view under the sunshine. It took me some time to make it back to the track junction where the Rakiura Track cuts inland, and by this stage the rain was back.

 

It was heavy as I reached the remnants of some log haulers, another historic site detailing life for the early settlers to the island. I didn’t hang around long, eager to get into the thick forest where I hoped the foliage would offer a little protection from the elements. The theme for the rest of the day was intervals of showers followed by sunshine. My waterproofs were on and off repetitively and under foot, the path was quite churned up in places. The walk threatened to become a little monotonous in places, but then something would spike my interest like an unusual looking tree, or a river to cross, and overhead the foliage changed quite a lot.

 

One such curiosity was a ball that someone had hung from a tree marking it as the half-way point of the hike. It seemed so out of place there in the middle of the natural forest. On and on the track went, past more quirky trees, more streams and eventually coming to a downhill section that was in the process of being repaired, but meanwhile was an utter quagmire. I had heard that the Rakiura hiking tracks were notorious for being muddy and this section was a challenge trying not to get stuck or slip in the various bogs and mud patches. I was glad to finally reach another track junction and realise I was close to the end of the day’s hike. My second hut, the North Arm Hut, also accommodates those hiking the North West Circuit and was once again booked out for the night.

 

The forest of Rakiura is beautiful, varying and thick, but I’d still found the hike of day 2 comparatively dull with little in the way of views other than the immediate foliage around me. But now I was back at the coast, this time that of Paterson Inlet and with an evening and another day’s hiking ahead of me, there was still so much of Rakiura’s beauty to see.

Key Summit

The beautiful Fiordland National Park contains 3 of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks: the Kepler Track, Milford Track and the Routeburn Track. On the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau, is an area called the Divide, near where the Milford Highway skirts round the end of the Hollyford Valley. It marks the start (or end) of the Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike that cuts through the Humboldt Mountains. With my appetite whetted from hiking the Kepler Track, I vow to come back one day to hike the Milford and Routeburn tracks as well, but on my way back to Te Anau from Milford Sound, I pulled in at the Divide to walk to Key Summit which had been highly recommended.

The first 40 minutes or so of the walk is along the Routeburn Track, winding upwards and round the end of the Livingstone Mountain range. It is a simple gravel path, past a few small waterfalls, hidden amongst the trees but within ear shot of the Milford Highway and its passing traffic. Not until the path has skirted round quite far does the canopy allow a view of the Hollyford valley and the Humboldt Mountains. It is, like so many parts of the National Park, a stunning sight. Both the valley and the mountains were thick with vegetation and far below, the Hollyford river sparkled under the glorious sunshine.

 

A sign marks the split up to Key Summit, and the path winds back and forth through an increasingly alpine vegetation until the summit is reached. The summit (919m/3015ft altitude) is relatively flat and has a self-guided alpine nature walk around it, encompassing a mixture of alpine wetlands, lakes and alpine vegetation. No matter what direction you look, there are mountains on all sides: Humboldt, Darran, Ailsa and Earl Mountain ranges.

 

A track heads up to a higher lookout where most of the alpine nature walk is visible below, and also the hidden Lake Marian comes into view. Lake Marrian is nestled within the Darran mountain range to the west. Returning via the same path, it rejoins the nature walk which, via various lookouts, forms a loop back to the path to take you back down to the Routeburn track and back to the Divide the way you came. At just over 2 hrs, it is a fantastic walk to do on a sunny day, and gives a good taster of the spectacular views that I’m sure the Routeburn Track offers.

Kepler Track – New Zealand Great Walk

I was thankful that the weather man got it wrong. For days I had watched the MetService predictions and the weather on the Breakfast news, and I prepared myself to get very wet. I bought new waterproofs and packed my bag carefully with multiple dry bags to protect my belongings. I expected to get soaked. But on day 1, I woke in the hostel in Te Anau to see the sun rising, and a clear sky. By the time I drove to the car park at the start of the Kepler Track, it was sunny, but I could see a heavy bank of cloud rolling in from the west. I might get to stay dry for an hour, I thought, as I set off across the Control Gates at the start of the walk, looking out over Lake Te Anau. Beyond that, I could only hope that the thick forest would protect me somewhat.

 

The DOC sign stated 1 hr 30 min to Brod Bay where the water taxi comes in. The walk was through forest the whole way and fairly flat making for an easy, though slightly uninteresting start, to the day’s hike. As I neared Brod Bay, I met a few walkers heading the other way and I reached the beach as 2 water taxis were leaving. A group of hikers had come over on the boat and they headed off on the track to Mt Luxmore as I paused to put on my waterproofs, ever wary of the incoming clouds. I needn’t have bothered, as not only did the rain never come, but the forest canopy offered good protection from the elements and I was soon sweating in the extra layers. They didn’t last long before the whole lot came off again. From here, the DOC sign stated 4 hr 30 min to Luxmore Hut, my destination, and the path started to slowly incline soon after leaving the beach behind. I learnt many years ago to control my pace on uphill sections, especially with my pack weighing 13kg. It had been a few years since I’d done a multi-day hike with such a weight to carry, and I was nervous of hurting my back which has been so fragile for the past 8 months. I found my pace quickly though and settled into it. There’s not a lot to see for the first hour other than trees. The big group of hikers that had left ahead of me were hiking light so they motored ahead but stopped regularly, meaning that we were repeatedly passing each other as I caught them up on their rest stops but they overtook me on their pace. It became a bit of a joke and offered some light relief from the monotony of the hike.

 

With increasing altitude, eventually some breaks in the canopy allowed me to see back down to Te Anau and out of nowhere the path came out at some limestone bluffs. Skirting them involved a few flights of stairs and the path was quite narrow in places. With rain clouds arcing around the mountain, a rainbow was visible towards Lake Manapouri. I had read a brief description of the hike which showed a slow incline followed by a steep incline. In anticipation of this steeper section, I stopped for an early lunch on a dead tree which offered a relatively comfortable seat. I was rather surprised on rounding a couple of corners afterwards to reach the end of the tree line, and realise that I had already gained nearly all of the altitude for the day. I met a couple of other hikers here who also were surprised at how easy the hike up had been. From here onwards, it was an alpine hike, cutting across a rolling summit with views down to Lake Te Anau and over to Lake Manapouri. The rainbow hung over the neighbouring mountain as I continued on the gravel path which later turned into a raised boardwalk through the expanse of alpine plants. The clouds had by now reached the Murchison mountains across the branch of Lake Te Anau, and they curled around the summit, threatening to jump across the expanse of water and reach us. By now there were quite a few hikers on the alpine section of the walk and from the boardwalk it wasn’t much further on the gravel track again till Luxmore Hut (1085m/3560ft altitude) came into view around a bend with the summit of Mt Luxmore behind it. I reached it exactly 4 hours after leaving the car park, quite surprised at how quickly I had hiked there.

 

This was my first experience of staying in a hut, and being a Great Walk, it was pretty big, well maintained and quite well stocked. The view from the balcony was impressive: back towards Lake Te Anau with the Murchison Mountain range across the water. I picked a spot to sleep for the night, made myself some nice warm soup and settled down for a chat with my fellow hikers. As the hours passed, the hut got busier and busier, and I decided to take the side walk to Luxmore Caves to go exploring. My torch didn’t provide as much light as I would have liked to go deep in, so after a brief delve into the entrance way, I headed back to the hut in the heavy rain that had finally broke. It was a long afternoon to pass, made easier by having someone with a lot of common interests to talk to. Eventually it was time to make dinner, and by 8 pm, the local ranger came to speak to us. His name was Peter Jackson, and he was quick to point out (as if we didn’t know!) that he was not the director of the Lord of the Rings movies, but he was funny and informative, telling us about the local conservation projects that were taking place in the area, mainly the trapping and killing of stoats which are a major pest and threat to the native fauna of New Zealand. By the time of his talk, the hut had filled to its capacity of 50 people, and the sky was growing dark. There was still a gale blowing and rain falling, but half-way through his talk, 2 people hovered outside the hut, refusing to come in. Peter went outside to speak to them whilst we waited for the gossip. Much to everyone’s shock, the 2 hikers had decided to continue on the walk to the next hut, a 6 hr walk away, across the exposed ridge in the dark during a storm. As Peter said, he couldn’t force them to stay, but he wasn’t impressed and it was all we could talk about. With the lights automatically set to turn off early, and the darkness set in, everybody retired very early.

 

With the smallest inkling of dawn light coming into the window, the bunk room seemed to jump to life. I wasn’t the only one that was surprised about how early some people leapt up to get going that second day, but after trying to shut out the noise for a while, I gave in and joined them. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and I waited to capture a photo of the sunrise. There was a low bank of clouds hovering over Lake Te Anau and it was certainly a beautiful spot to wake up. I headed off in the company of the hiker that I had got chatting with yesterday and we left the hut behind to continue climbing towards Mt Luxmore summit. It was a beautiful day: blue, cloudless skies, glorious sunshine, and not too windy. The climb was steady and winding, with a few alpine lakes dotted about the higher reaches of the mountain. The expanding view over Lake Te Anau and the Murchison mountain range was sublime and ahead of us we could see the coloured dots of various hikers. As we neared the top, the path became narrow with steep drops to the one side, and in places there was a scree that the thin path cut across, and we both wondered how the 2 hikers from last night had negotiated this in the wind and rain in the dark. On top of this, they would have missed out on the spectacular views, and again we found ourselves musing at their stupidity.

 

The path to Mt Luxmore summit (1472m/4829ft altitude) splits from the Kepler Track and cuts up a rocky slope to reach a rocky summit with a trigger point. It was slightly crowded as we waited to get our photos of the view. The clouds over Lake Te Anau were lifting and had moved over the land, and looking west there were mountain ridges as far as the eye could see. It was spectacular, and in fact the rest of the hike on day 2 was just an overload of beautiful mountain scenery at every turn. The path remained narrow in many places, with occasional scree or steep drops on one or both sides. As it curled across the neighbouring ridge line, it afforded new views of the deep branch of Lake Te Anau as well as Mt Luxmore summit behind us. At times we could see the path snake across the mountain top for what looked like miles.

 

We paused only briefly at the Forest Burn Shelter (1270m/4167ft altitude), again wondering whether the two hikers had given up here or kept going in the dark. I was having a fantastic time as we continued on through the low alpine vegetation, round more bends with more views of Lake Te Anau until we saw the final ridge crossing. With steep drops either side it was totally exposed to the elements but on such a beautiful sunny day it was amazing to be so high up surrounded by so many peaks. By now I could hear the call of the world’s only alpine parrot, the ever-cheeky kea. It took a while to locate them, but I could see them landing ahead of us on the track. We took another brief detour to climb another peak (1383m/4537ft altitude) before arriving at the Hanging Valley shelter (1390m/4560ft altitude) where a group were having a lunch break whilst being marauded by 3 loud keas. I love them. They are big and beautiful with a personality to match. They are very bold and very cheeky and they enjoy playing dare to see how close they can get to stealing your food. Like all parrots, they are highly intelligent, and looking at them, you know that they are regarding you with some intellect. We took a food break here ourselves and I enjoyed watching the 3 of them bicker amongst themselves in between jumping and flying about around us whilst we ate. I could have watched them for hours, but the wind was starting to pick up, and now the clouds were starting to roll in from the west again, meaning the potential for stormy weather again.

 

By now we could see the Iris Burn Valley, and we were trying to work out where our hut was. The ridge line walk continued for a while longer, dropping in altitude slightly to a last lookout (1167m/3829ft altitude) before zig-zagging back into the tree line and down the mountainside. There were varying signs of slips having taken place, with great spaces where the trees had careered down the mountainside. The trees were rife with old man’s beard lichen which of all the lichen species, needs the purest of air to grow. Six hours after leaving the Luxmore hut, we arrived at the Iris Burn Hut (497m/1631ft altitude) in time for the sky becoming overcast. From here there is a brisk walk through the forest to Luxmore falls. It is reported to be a great place to go for a dip, but on getting there we were immediately attacked by a great swarm of sand flies. We lasted as long as it took to take some photos, but with them landing and crawling through our hair, and swarming round every inch of exposed skin we had, it wasn’t long before we got moving back to the hut. Whilst a few hikers motored onwards, most of the same faces from last night were also joining us at this hut, and by now, we were all starting to get to know each other quite a bit. There was quite a mix: Kiwis from varying parts of the north and south islands, Australians, Brits, Americans, Germans and a Swede. I did my best to promote Christchurch as a tourist destination, always saddened to hear about people’s shock and lack of love for the place when as usual they have seen so little of it, rushing in and rushing out again. The ranger that night was fantastic, again very funny and entertaining. He told us where to go and see glowworms in the local forest, and took us to see an exceedingly rare black orchid. All of us that had walked to the falls had walked past it without knowing, but it wasn’t in flower so was easy to miss. In the darkness of night, we headed blindly into the forest in search of glowworms and saw the faint glow of a handful scattered amongst the bushes.

 

Day 3 was dry but overcast. The Kepler Track set off uphill initially to skirt round a hill, before cutting down to follow the Iris Burn. Not too far from the hut is an area known as the Big Slip, where a heavy storm in 1984 brought down a large section of the trees and vegetation on the hillside. It takes about 100 years for it to fully regenerate back to full tree coverage again after a slip, and 30 years later there is still only bush growing back in. The rest of the walk was easy going through forest, and with my companion setting the pace, we motored through, chatting away not paying much attention to our surroundings. Eventually the mouth of the burn came into view and we found ourselves on the shore of Lake Manapouri. Once at the beach, we could see the final hut not far away and decided to stop for lunch. The sand flies had the same idea and quickly set about us as we tried to eat and once again we felt forced to get moving. Skirting the end of the lake, we arrived at Moturau Hut (185m/607ft altitude) after just 4 hours. A lot of people continued on to finish the hike that day, but again the rain came in for the afternoon, and the time was passed chatting with other hikers. By sunset it had stopped and we got a brief chance between showers to take some photos from the beach of the dramatic sky over the surrounding mountains.

 

With a couple of exit points for the hike, my companion headed off alone to catch a bus, and I set off on day 4 at a leisurely pace, keeping my own company. Starting off in the forest, it breaks out of the trees briefly at a wetland area which was apparently used for the ‘dead marshes’ scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. From here it was possible to see the very spot where the Kepler track broke out from the trees on the ridge on day 1, made possible because of the loop nature of the track. The sun was struggling to push through the clouds at this stage of the day, and from this point on, I barely saw another soul until the end. The track cuts in and out from the bank of the Waiau river, often hidden from view by the thick foliage. At Rainbow Reach there is an exit to the shuttle bus pick up, but I continued on through the meandering forest path, broken in place by the occasional clearing. Finally, the control gates came into view round a bend in the river, and after 4 hours, I stepped out of the trees to the end of the hike. The sun was by now out to greet me and a few hikers that had already finished ahead of me, greeted me on my arrival. Lake Te Anau sparkled in the sunlight, welcoming me back to civilisation, and with my first Great Walk under my belt, I headed back to my car with a huge grin on my face.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: