With the toughest hike of my life just a few weeks away, every day off work was an opportunity to do some hiking. The good thing about the festive period being in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, is that the public holidays mean long hours of daylight and a reasonable chance of warm and/or dry weather. I haven’t done anything special for Hogmanay or New Year’s Eve for a long time. In fact, I haven’t even made it to midnight for a few years either, and the end of 2018 was no exception. I rose early on the first day of 2019, packed up my car and headed deep into Canterbury. With Christchurch on the coastal border of the Canterbury Plains, it takes over an hour to reach the mountains to the west and I was making a very familiar drive to the foot of Mt Somers, where a road leads into Hakatere Conservation Park. I’ve done a few hikes within its boundaries, including Mt Guy and Mt Sunday, and I’d sussed out a long walk to a couple of Department of Conservation (DoC) huts nestled among the mountains. Where the tarmac ended, I turned north, taking a long drive down a gravel road to reach Lake Heron.
I’d left sunshine behind and as I arrived at the lake, a wall of cloud lingered over the nearby peaks. I wasn’t sure how far the road went, so initially drove past the start of my hike, skirting round the edge of the lake and finding myself at a rather grungy campsite. It was busy, but it didn’t seem all that appealing to me. But it was the only place in the area with a toilet block and it allowed me to turn my car around and return to the stony car park where my hike started. Following a 4×4 track, I took a brief detour on the Kettle Hole walk which cut up a small hill to overlook a kettle, or depression in the ground formed by a historic glacier. I was a bit underwhelmed by it so didn’t hang around long before returning to the track to follow the edge of the lake. The wind danced across the water creating a bit of chop, and despite a sign stating that the area was a nature reserve and wildlife refuge, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to spot on or off the lake. Every now and again I got covered in a cloud of dust as a car passed me on the track, heading to a car park a little way around the shore.
I was a little disappointed to reach the car park and see the DoC sign which stated the hut I was planning on walking to was 3hrs away. This was a lot further than I’d anticipated when I’d researched my planned walk and I started to realise that I just didn’t have the time. My camping stuff was in the car, not on my person, and I’d already booked a spot at a campsite ahead of the next day’s hike, so it wasn’t an option to break the hike up and stay in the hut. I made the decision to hike based on time, to keep going until it was time to turn back, irregardless of how far I’d reached. Through a gate, the track cut down to a river where there was a ford or a boardwalk to get to the other side. After this brief detour, the track returned to the lakeside.
Soon after, there was a side track to Lake Hill, a 762m (2500ft) summit that gave a raised view of the lake and the surrounding conservation park. The actual elevation gain from the lake was barely 100m (328ft) but it was enough to get a broader view of the landscape. Across the lake, the snow-speckled peak of Mt Arrowsmith poked up behind the nearer peaks in front of it. The ground was covered in meadow flowers and an information board gave a brief overview of how the glaciers formed this valley and lake. It was a great spot for lunch, sitting down among the flowers and feeling the wind on my face. After a while, I took the track back down to the lake and continued to follow it round to Mt Sugarloaf.
The track starts to turn away from the lake at Harrison’s Bight, an inlet that keeps Mt Sugarloaf out of reach. The 4×4 track leads to here and there were a couple of utes parked up, their occupants nowhere to be seen. Soon I reached a track junction and took the Swin River track which was to take me to join the Te Araroa trail (the long-distance walk that spans the length of New Zealand), and from there would lead to Double Hut. The DoC sign showed the hut was still 2hrs away and as I walked along this flat, rather uninteresting section of the walk, as the sky grew darker around me, I realised that I wasn’t even going to get close to it. I could see it in the far distance nestled at the base of the mountain range in front of me, but after a while of it never getting any bigger in my view, I decided that enough was enough and duly turned round to return to my car. Double Hut and Emily Hut would have to wait for another day and another hike.
Spots of rain began to fall as I headed back and the clouds grew stormier as I worked my way back round the lake edge. I set off back along the gravel road, returning to sunshine as I headed south. I pulled over at Maori Lakes, a wetland area at the side of the road which sparkled under the sunshine here. The sandflies as always threatened to ruin my enjoyment and after taking some photos I pushed onwards. Back at Mount Somers village, I turned south towards Geraldine and Peel Forest. I’d booked a camping spot at the Peel Forest campground and the place was pretty busy when I arrived. I was able to secure a spot under the shade and set up my little hiking tent which looked positively dwarfed by the family-sized camping tents that were all around me. The area is covered in walks, long and short, so before dinner I did the Kahikatea walk which looped through a forest and wetland zone near the campsite.
I enjoy camping although rarely sleep well, so I was up and ready early the next morning, packing up and getting on the road with a grand plan. It wasn’t too far away to reach the car park for hiking Little Mt Peel, one of my favourite mountain hikes in Canterbury. It had been a few years since I’d been up, celebrating my 33rd birthday on my first and only trip up there. My plan for the day was to aim for Mount Peel which involves summiting Little Mt Peel, and following an unmarked path across the ridges to Middle Mt Peel and Mt Peel behind that. It was an ambitious plan as it is a full-on hike, and part of the reason I’d been keen to get going early. Little had changed as I followed the Deer Spur track up the slope and despite the early hour, I was surprised at the number of people already on the trail. It is a popular hike, and with good reason: the views are spectacular on the way up and from the summit itself. Now hiking with poles, my hiking style has notably changed as I’ve adapted to their use. I do find they slow my walking down at times and with the lower parts of the hike in the forest, they became a bit of a nuisance as I needed my hands free to aid negotiating tree routes during the initial climb.
The higher I climbed, the windier it got and there was a lot of cloud in the sky above me. When I reached the summit of Little Mt Peel (1311m/4301ft) there was a strong crosswind. I sat by the trig marker eating my lunch and stared across the ridge towards the neighbouring peaks, musing how to proceed. I’d told my partner my plans for the day, but not being a hiker himself, I wasn’t sure if he actually understood where I was planning to go. As I looked at the exposed ridge and the distance, I made time calculations in my head as I watched the clouds move across the neighouring ranges. Hiking alone involves risk. Hiking in groups does also but when I’m responsible for my own safety, sometimes I chicken out and take the safe option instead. As the wind was strong, and I wasn’t 100% sure what the weather planned on doing, I decided to leave the higher Mt Peel peaks for another day. I slightly kicked myself for being too scared to continue, whilst trying to justify with myself that I’d made the right decision.
Last time I’d hiked Little Mt Peel, I did the loop, descending down the South Ridge track which was rough and steep. I’d decided at the time that I wouldn’t do this track again, but having already changed my plans, I decided I’d go down this route after all, rather than the more popular Deer Spur track that I’d ascended on. I skirted behind the little shelter and went to use the portaloo behind it, opening the door to be presented by a scene of mayhem where some poor sod had clearly had explosive diarrhoea all over the inside of the portaloo itself. It was utterly gross and I was quick to shut the door again. With my poles again being a hindrance on the upper sections where the track is steepest, this route is actually quite enjoyable going down because you lose altitude exceptionally quickly which looks cool whenever you turn round to check your progress. The view to the neighbouring mountains is also nicer on this track than the Deer Spur track.
Eventually, the track turned almost 90 degrees and disappeared into the forest, finally coming out at Emily Falls and joining the Emily Falls track. Last time I’d come this way, I lost the track as it followed the river on the way back from the Falls. I knew what to look out for but as the bank had had a slip, I nearly missed the exit again. This final section in the forest is always a little boring for me. There wasn’t much bird life to spot and I was tired from the hike. Back at my car, it was time to head home. Neither day’s hikes had gone to plan, so I was a little frustrated but I had 4 more weekends to fit in some more mountains before heading abroad, and at least I was feeling positive about my fitness as the year began.