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Southern Christmas

On January 6th 2012, I touched down in New Zealand for the first time. At the time I was tired from the flight and the jump in time zone (I only lived through 2hrs of that day), but I think deep down, I knew that I would want to stay here. Four years on, I’m still in love with the country, and I’m working hard at seeing as much of it as possible, but still some areas remain unexplored

It was a long time coming, but on Christmas day, myself and my partner headed north from Christchurch, and inland towards our destination. Just north of the city, a lorry heading the other way, threw up a large rock which hit my windscreen leaving a large chip and crack. A couple of hours later, deep in the winding roads of the heartland, a speeding twat overtook me then proceeded to nearly crash in front of me. It was not the start to the holiday I had planned. But it was a gorgeous sunny day, and just south of Murchison we stopped for lunch at Maruia Falls. We’d driven this road a few times before but never noticed this place, but I’d read about it somewhere and made a point to look for it. It was worth the stop to sit at the base of the falls and watch the river flow over it and head on down the river beyond.

 

We pulled into the sleepy village of St Arnaud, nestled within Nelson Lakes National Park in the late afternoon. The clouds had drawn in, but we headed first to the shore of Lake Rotoiti before checking into our hostel. It was, after all Christmas day, and I had made sure to bring provisions to cook a delicious Christmas dinner. Satiated, we took a wander through the sleepy village before having an early night.

 

The next morning, I convinced my partner that hiking Mt Robert would be a good idea. It was a gorgeous day, and an excellent way to get a different view on the expanse of Lake Rotoiti, one of two large lakes in the National Park. From the car park at the start of the hike, a short track leads to a lookout where a different view of the lake is given as well as rolling hills for miles on end in the opposite direction.

 

I’m not normally one for sitting still on holiday. I usually like to make sure I’m seeing and doing as much as possible in a new place, but it was so easy to just wind down and chill here. Growing up in Scotland, swimming is generally restricted to heated pools, with only the foolhardy taking a dip in the sea (which I had been known to do in my childhood). In New Zealand, summer is all about outdoors and this generally means that most Kiwis are water confident. They swim in the sea, in rivers and in lakes. They dive bomb and belly flop and jump from rocks without a care in the world. So following the hike, my partner went into the lake for a swim. It hadn’t even entered my head to bring bathers with me as this just wasn’t the done thing back in Scotland, but watching all the families playing in and around the water, I soon regretted it. But sitting on a bench in the shade, slapping away sandflies, it was an incredible feeling to just breath and be present. There was no wishing to be anywhere, no wishing for something to happen, no thinking about the past or the future, just simply staring out at the beautiful landscape and enjoying it. Eventually though, hunger took over, and we went to the main eatery in town, the Alpine Lodge for pizza. Their outdoor beer garden overlooks a river and the nearby mountains, and it was a gorgeous spot to enjoy a cold drink.

 

The next day we had a bit of time to kill. There are a lot of options for walks in the area, from short local explorations, to mountains to climb, to multi-day tramps. Whilst my partner relaxed at the main bay, I headed off on a nature walk round the peninsula. There wasn’t a lot of fauna to see, but plenty of flora, and although the lake was hidden from view for the majority of it, there were some breaks in the trees which afforded a differing view of the lake and Mt Robert. Reaching almost the whole distance round to West Bay, I cut back inland and back to the pier. We had arranged for a private boat tour up the lake to see Whiskey Falls. It was another gloriously sunny day, and it was perfect conditions for a cruise around the lake. Near the far end of the lake, he berthed and took us on a short walk through the forest to the 40m tall pencil waterfall that was visible in a small clearing in the trees. The waterfall can also be reached on a long walk along the west shore of the lake, but it was nice to get out on the water.

 

I was still keen to have fun on the water when we returned to St Arnaud, so I hired a kayak for an hour and happily paddled about from one bank to the other, listening to the birds, and watching the ducks float around. My partner had another swim, and although quiet compared to New Zealand tourism standards, it was a busy little place, buzzing with happy people, families and excited children. With fewer foreign tourists, and mainly Kiwi visitors, it was nice to embrace and feel part of the Kiwi summer culture. Unfortunately, this also included sandflies. Around many waterways in the country, these persistent creatures vie for your blood, and using insect repellent is a must. After a delicious BBQ buffet at the Alpine Lodge, I had envisioned sitting by the lakeside as the sun set, watching the colours change as dusk took over, but instead, I was hounded by swarms of the pesky flies that danced around my face. After a short time, I was forced to abandon my desire, and head indoors.

 

Heading back to Christchurch, we took a detour to another large lake in the National Park, Lake Rotoroa. Being on a no-through road, it sees less traffic than Lake Rotoiti, and as such is less developed and feels more secluded. I loved Lake Rotoiti, but I adored Lake Rotoroa. It was quiet and simple yet staggeringly beautiful, and again there are many walks in the area. We would have gone for another cruise on this lake had there been someone around to organise it, but the boat lay moored up with no-one in attendance. Instead, we followed the river away from the lake for a short distance before heading back. I could have happily stayed here for days.

 

We stopped for lunch on the west side of the Lewis Pass, and sat at a picnic bench surrounded by mountains. On the other side, we were also able to stop at a large rock formation by the side of the road that I have driven past repeatedly but never been able to explore. I felt like a kid reaching the top of the giant rock and surveying the land around me. Being another gloriously sunny day, it was a fantastic end to our Christmas mini-break.

Mount Robert

If you were to have just one day to visit Nelson Lakes National Park, I highly recommend it is spent hiking Mount Robert. Towards the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, nestled on a road between Nelson and Blenheim, is the little village of St Arnaud that lies by the bank of Lake Rotoiti. Flanked by the St Arnaud mountain range on the eastern aspect, opposite to them, and round West Bay lies the domineering peak of Mt. Robert.

Lake Rotoiti hikes illustrated at the DOC office

 

It is a short drive from the village, and up a winding unsealed road to reach one of the car parks. Stopping in to the local Department of Conservation office, I was recommended to hike the summit in an anti-clockwise route, and I would definitely recommend this too. From the uppermost car park, the Pinchgut Track sets off through an impressively dense and tall forest and immediately starts the constant winding gain of altitude that leads up to the summit. The middle section of the ascent is exposed to the elements – in the case of the day I hiked it, this meant the harsh and hot sunshine. Zig-zagging upwards for over an hour, Lake Rotoiti is visible for a large portion of the hike before the trail disappears again into the forest. Being in the middle of the summer, there were alpine flowers in bloom and plenty of Tui flitting about the trees.

Forest walk on Mt Robert

Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti on the ascent

View through the forest canopy

Alpine flowers

 

After about an hour and a half, the path burst out of the trees at a pseudo-summit. The true summit of 1421m (4662ft) is unmarked, but is effectively one of the two little hillocks that sit to the side of the path which is only a metre or two off the summit height. From this ridge track, the lake is hidden, but instead the vista is of rolling green hills spreading off into the distance. Nelson Lakes National Park is undeniably beautiful, and with the sunshine and associated haze, the mountains appeared blue. A little hut, called the Relax Shelter sits near to the split in the path which marks the turning point for the loop track to head back to the car park. With more time, it is possible to continue along the Pinchgut track which climbs higher to the Robert Ridge, and beyond to the Angelus Hut by a mountain lake of the same name, and further still to connect to one of the many tracks around both Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. The National Park is a hiker’s paradise with a large selection of track options to choose from.

Relax Shelter with Robert Ridge behind

Track options from the summit of Mt Robert

Summit view west

Summit view west

 

My partner, who is not a fan of hiking mountains, always spends the incline cursing me under his breath. I always know he will love the view and the achievement at the end of it, which is why I talk him into it, so after receiving the evil eyes on the steep climb up, the smile broke across his face as we rested up by the shelter. The bees were busy polinating, and some other hikers chatted to us for a while. After a pit-stop, we took the loop path that split from the Pinchgut Track, called Paddy’s Track. This took us first over a fairly barren ridge where we were facing the immense wall of the St Arnaud range, and finally Lake Rotoiti came back into view.

Looking across to the St Arnaud Range

St Arnaud range from Paddy's Track

Lake Rotoiti from the shingle ridge

 

Beginning the descent, we passed the Kea Hut, an old ski club hut from the days when people used to hike up mountains before ski lifts were invented, and beyond this was the Bushline Hut, a decent-sized overnight hut at 1290m (4232ft) altitude. Being a popular trail, we got chatting to a German hiker whilst we ate lunch. After having had Mt Alford to myself the week before, it was interesting to have so many tourists to chat to as we went. From this point onwards, Lake Rotoiti is in full view for the majority of the descent. The path has loose shingle making some parts a slip hazard, but with such an awesome view it was a very enjoyable walk down. On two occasions, there is a scree slope to negotiate which needs good treads on your feet, and finally, the path disappears back into the forest for a while before eventually exiting at a lower car park.

Kea Hut poking through the trees

Panorama of Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti with St Arnaud visible

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti through the forest

Descending towards Lake Rotoiti

2nd scree slope

 

The DOC signs state 5 hrs for this hike, and that’s not far off what it took us to complete the circuit, although this included a lengthy lunch break and a shorter break on the summit. The majority of the hike is exposed to the elements making it a sweaty affair on a sunny day, but I was recommended this hike, and I highly recommend it as a must for any trip to this National Park.

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