MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “National Park”

Coastal Explorations

When you grow up watching Home & Away, Australia’s soap based around a beach-side town, it paints a picture of the stereotypical Aussie beach goer that is hard to shake even as an adult exploring the real world. Here in Queensland, there were plenty of examples of the bronze-skinned bods with sun-bleached blonde hair to keep the stereotype alive, and I was silently amused when our ride for the morning turned up with a guide looking like one of them. Full of animated chat and with a driving style to match, we were whisked off for our morning tour, heading up the river to Tewantin and beyond to where a cable-driven ferry crosses the Noosa river to the Noosa north shore. It was a short and smooth ride and then it was just a matter of driving across the forested land to reach the access point for Teewah beach.

Spanning 2500km (1553 miles), the coast of Queensland is staggeringly beautiful and there is plenty of choice when it comes to exploring it. Here on the eastern aspect of the Great Sandy National Park, we drove up the 51km (31 mile) expanse of the beach, the ocean sparkling to our right under the orb of the rising sun. It’s not often you get to drive directly on sand, and this was the most epic of beach drives I’ve ever done. The views were incredible, both out to sea and the dunes also, but being in August, we were following the coast during the migration of the humpback whales, my absolute favourite cetacean. I’ve been lucky to spot this species in 5 different countries around the world. They are playful and inquisitive, and always a joy to spot. I knew they would be around but wasn’t thinking anything of spotting them, knowing that in a few days time I was to be going on a whale watching excursion off Hervey Bay to the north. So it was amusing that within minutes of our guide telling us to keep an eye out for them, I spotted the distinctive spout that signalled a whale surfacing to breathe. A mother and calf were heading south very close to shore and we pulled up to watch them for a while. In either direction, the beach disappeared into the distance and surprisingly the beach had a lot of vehicle traffic. Aside from organised tours, it is possible to drive on the beach in a private vehicle provided you pay a fee, and there were plenty of people making use of this allowance.

 

We spotted another pair of humpback whales further up the beach and beyond that a solo whale too, all before we made it to the turnoff near Double Island Point on the spit. It was a bumpy ride across to the bay on the other side of the point, and in front of us, the sand again arced away into the distance. A little along the coast lies the settlement of Rainbow Beach, and we met up with those people who were joining the tour from there underneath the vibrant Rainbow Bluffs. After a photo stop, we convoyed back to Double Island Point where our kayaks were unloaded and we kitted up for a morning on the ocean. I’ve kayaked several times now, both on the ocean and on lakes, and although I always enjoy it, my indwelling fear of drowning always leaves me with a sense of nervous anticipation both before and during the trips. The wind direction meant the sea was relatively calm, and we were quick to get out of the bay and follow the headland.

 

Marketed as a dolphin-watching kayak, we certainly saw some dolphins, but only a small number on two occasions, and both times, they kept their distance and didn’t interact. Like on commercial whale and dolphin watching excursions, we weren’t permitted to follow them, and just sat bobbing on the water’s surface as they passed us by from afar. Continuing along the coast, we kept our eye out for humpback whales. I’ve seen plenty of videos of these 40-ton creatures breaching near kayaks, and I was torn between the desire to see it with my own eyes, and fear of the event causing us to capsize. Despite our luck at spotting them on the drive up the beach, they eluded us the whole time we were on the sea. What we did see was a large manta ray which was unexpected. I saw several of these in the Pacific Ocean around the Galapagos Islands a couple of years ago, including seeing them come flying out of the ocean in a breach-style behaviour. I was excited to see one again, not realising that they inhabited the waters here.

 

On the clifftop above us was the Double Island Point lighthouse, where several people stood at the lookout watching us as well as out to sea for signs of whale activity. By the time we were heading back, there was a bit of chop on the surface and the waves that resulted made it harder to get back round the headland and onto the beach. The water was so inviting though that I wasted no time in heading back in for a swim before it was time to jump back in the van. A little away from our kayak spot we stopped at an inconspicuous patch of beach that on closer inspection was teeming with crabs. The soldier crabs were a mix of blue and yellow, and in spite of myself I offered out my hands to hold some when our guide scooped them up for us to have a closer look. Although 2 legs short of an arachnid, I love to admire crabs but their sideways scuttle and waving pincers has always unnerved me enough to not want to touch them. But these guys had relatively small pincers and they were amusing to watch and felt ticklish in my hands.

 

Back in the van once more, we cut across the dunes to reach Teewah beach once more and immediately after hitting the beach we spotted two more humpback whales and without knowing it at the time, this was the first day of what would turn out to be an incredibly successful spotting season for me. I enjoyed the long drive back down the gorgeous beach just as much as I had the drive north, and was sad to leave it behind when the access point appeared in the dunes to return to civilisation. There was only a short wait for the cable-driven ferry back to Tewantin and in the early afternoon we were dropped off back at Noosa Heads. It was a hot and sunny day, and my partner was not in the mood to do much more, whereas I was keen to continue to explore. Our apartment was not only just a street away from the beach but just a few doors down from us was a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream outlet and it was the perfect accompaniment to a walk along the coast.

Crossing the main road to Noosa Main beach, a pathway follows the coastline to the headland to the east which, once away from the houses, is deemed as Noosa National Park. It was an exceptionally busy trail and the car park at the entrance to the National Park was also full. But it wasn’t hard to spot wildlife even with the heavy foot traffic. A monitor lizard or goanna was rustling around in the undergrowth nearby and after noticing a few people craning their necks upwards, I spotted a koala in a large eucalypt tree near the park entrance.

 

From here the coastal track had a nearly constant sea view and although undulating, was an easy grade of walk to do, although the heat and the strength of the sun meant I was regularly in need of both water and a top up of sunscreen. With a plethora of bays and beaches to choose from, many people on the track were coming back from their sunbathing or swimming spots, whereas I was forever scanning between the sea in search of whales, and the treetops in search of koalas. There was enough bird life flitting amongst the trees and stunning vistas at every turn to make up for the lack of spotting either. I even spotted some bird species that I’d never seen before.

 

From Boiling Point Lookout to Dolphin Lookout and beyond to Fairy Pools, I finally found myself at Hell’s Gate, the eastern-most point of the headland. Here a gorge within the cliff created a swirling rage of waves that smashed off the rocks, and the path turned south towards Alexandria Bay. Up on top of the cliffs, the sun was noticeably lowering, with shadows starting to stretch across the headland. Above me I spied a sea eagle, and below me I spotted some dolphins in the distance. Assuming they were the commonly spotted bottlenosed variety, it wasn’t until later when I looked at my photographs that I realised that they were in fact humpback dolphins, a lesser-spotted and shy species that I haven’t seen since I volunteered in South Africa 12 years ago. I spent quite some time at Hell’s Gate enjoying the fresh air and surveying the sea and sky for life.

 

By the time I reached the sand of Alexandria bay it was nearly completely in shadow. My partner was going to be picking me up from the end of the trail at Sunshine beach, and with the daylight starting to fade, I was quick to walk the length of the beach and rejoin the trail at the far end. It climbed back up onto the cliff tops and was in deeper vegetation than before until finally the expanse of Sunshine beach came into view. On the eastern side of the hill from Noosa, it was in shadow, but I noticed out to sea a lone humpback whale repeatedly breaching. There were some steep steps to negotiate to reach sea level once more and I struggled along the sand searching for the exit point that I needed to meet my partner at our arranged spot. We ate out in Sunshine Beach at a restaurant owned by a previous Masterchef Australia contestant before returning to Noosa for more ice cream.

 

On my last morning in Noosa, we headed over to Sunshine beach for breakfast. I was still feeling the effects from all the overindulging I’d been doing since arriving in Australia, so it didn’t take much to fill me up. With the benefit of a rental car, we took a drive south through the various seaside settlements until the road cut away from the coast. It was yet another sunny day and once more the sea sparkled. This was to be the day that my partner and I separated. He was going to be staying in Noosa for a few more days before returning to the Gold Coast and then home whereas I had another 4 weeks of Australian adventure ahead of me.

 

Back in Noosa, we both followed the coast track to Dolphin Lookout where again the route was busy with people. This time we spotted a kookaburra in the tree, a bird that I love to listen to. I remember as a youngster in the Brownies, a younger version of the Girl Guides, singing a song about a kookaburra, not really knowing what it was never mind being aware that I would one day see them for myself. It’s funny how life turns out. Even having walked the path just the day before, it was still an enjoyable walk again, but with the clock ticking down, we went for one last meal together at the Noosa Surf Life Saving club. Finally though it was time to head to the bus station and begin my Greyhound adventure. A regular solo traveller, I was sad to lose the company of my partner though, but once the bus headed out of the station, I plugged my headphones in and gave way to the soundtrack on my phone.

 

As the crow flies, Hervey Bay is actually not that far away, and by car I could have reached there in about 2.5hrs. Frustratingly, though understandably, the Greyhound bus winds its way between local settlements and as the bus driver has to have statutory breaks, it was a rather arduous drive of nearly 5hrs. On route, we stopped at a service station with a giant kangaroo statue from the Olympic Games, passed several bush fires that had been lit as a controlled burn ahead of the dry season, and as the sun set I spotted some kangaroos at the side of the road. We pulled into Hervey Bay in complete darkness, and I was the last person to get off at the final stop in the Torquay end of town. I walked up and down the street of my hostel confused. Even with the benefit of Google maps I couldn’t find my hostel and had to flag down a local for some help. It turned out the place I was staying had changed names so my booking paperwork had the right address but the wrong building name, something I found a little irksome when I was tired and wandering around in the dark. I was equally annoyed to find out there was little in the way of somewhere to eat. Being a Saturday night, the local pub was more fired up for drinking and did not look enticing and after wandering the neighbouring streets, I was left with the slim pickings that the petrol station offered. First impressions were not that great, but I had an early rise to head off the next morning. Hervey Bay would have to win me over another time, as the famous Fraser Island was next in my sights.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Emerald Lakes to Whakapapa Village

When people think of beautiful landscapes and stunning scenery, they often think of rolling green hills or mountains reflected on lakes. But sometimes there can be something just as mesmerising as a stark and rocky landscape. Tongariro National Park in New Zealand’s North Island is a volcanic and geological wonderland, and it is such a contrast to what I’m used to living in the South Island. After several hours spent hiking past the dramatic peak of Mt Ngauruhoe, and climbing over the ridge of Mt Tongariro and Red Crater to descend past Emerald Lakes, I found myself at the top of a steep descent with an expansive lava field below me. To my side, steaming vents blew puffs of smoke out of the ground and as far as I could see, the ridges of lahars and the rocks from volcanic explosions littered the landscape. Here I was, leaving the crowds of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing behind and entering the wild emptiness of Middle Earth’s Mordor.

 

The swirling dark clouds over the blackened landscape created a dark and gloomy view, but the sun intermittently sparkled through the ever changing cloud base. It was a quick descent from 1700m (5577ft) down to roughly 1460m (4790ft), following the poles with orange arrow that mark out a route. Whilst the upper altitude gave a good overview for location reference, it became clear as I dropped lower that it could be very easy to get lost amongst the undulating rocky piles that littered the landscape everywhere. Whilst the peaks of Red Crater and Mt Nguaruhoe stood distinctively behind me, the rest of the lower slopes was like a rabbit warren. Initially there was some yellows and reds to the rocks around me, but the lower I got, the more the landscape darkened to the ashy black. The path was well trodden, and sprouts of vegetation poked up from the sandy substrate.

 

I naively thought once I was on the valley floor that it wouldn’t be long until I reached my hut for the night, but in fact this section of the walk felt like it went on forever. It had been many hours since I’d left Mangatepopo Hut behind, and I was getting tired. But there was so much to look at. There was evidence of rocks from a historical river bed, as well as so many formations of different rock types, created by a mix of setting lava flows, lahars, and rocks deposited by explosive force. To my left a tall ridgeline slowly dropped down, and behind me I regularly looked back to see Mt Nguaruhoe and Red Crater. The plant life around me was typical of an alpine landscape, with low shrubs and occasional flowers. The closer I got to the Oturere Hut, my bed for the night, the more it even felt a little like sand dunes, such was the dusty ground of ash.

 

Even though I knew State Highway (SH) 1 was out of sight in the distance, I felt a million miles away from anywhere, having not seen another soul since I’d taken the turn-off for the Tongariro Northern Circuit. Finally the Oturere Hut (1360m/4462ft) came into view, nestled near a drop in the landscape, and I was relieved to take my backpack off. This was another small hut for what I was expecting. Some of the hikers that I’d shared the hut with the previous night, had opted to push on to the next hut, but even still with hikers walking the trail in both directions, it was booked out for the night, and several people were camping outside.

 

I was told about a waterfall not far from the hut, so walked to the edge of the drop, and followed the worn path down towards it. The Oturere falls are a multi-tiered waterfall that spills down the mountainside, having come from the ridgeline I’d just climbed down from. It was peaceful here, and I walked slightly up stream from the falls to get a varying view of the Oturere Stream and the river valley below. Some other hikers had taken a dip here but I wasn’t brave enough to get in the cold water. Back at the hut, I wandered around the immediate vicinity inspecting plants and watching the rain move in over Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, before heading back to the hut. Shortly after, the heavens opened and the rain moved in. I was so glad I wasn’t camping as it rained a good part of the night.

 

The next day’s hike was a short one. It is easily possible to hike back to Whakapapa Village from Oturere Hut in one day, and a few of my fellow hikers were doing so. I and a few others, had decided to follow the Department of Conservation’s (DOC) suggestion of walking the circuit in 4 days. So with the DOC signage showing the next hut was only 3hrs away, I didn’t hurry myself in the morning to get going. Many people set off ahead of me, and I took one last look at the waterfall before heading off myself. It remained dry but was overcast. The hike effectively cuts up and down the old lahar ridges that mark a historical volcanic eruption. Nearest the hut there were lots of large and jagged rocks, but as the time wore on, these grew few and far between.

 

Again I mused how easy it would be to get lost if the path was left behind, although I knew SH1 was getting closer as I walked, and indeed on the lahar ridges, I could just about make out the odd truck ploughing the road in the far distance. It takes a hardy plant to live in these conditions, and it was a constantly changing patchwork between the rocks and alpine plants, and the loose ash scree between them. On the third lahar ridge, the path changed course and trees were suddenly in front of me. It was strange seeing such tall vegetation when the rest of the hike so far had only had the stunted alpine flowers and bushes. The path led right up to the trees then dropped down within them to a broad and fast-moving stream in a shallow valley. This was more like the South Island hiking I was used to, and at the bridge to cross over, I met some hikers heading in the other direction.

 

Once over the stream, the path climbed back up the slope within the forest. My legs were a little tired from the previous day’s hike so they grumbled a bit as I regained the lost altitude. Eventually breaking out of the tree line again I could see Mt Ruapehu peaking through a gap in the cloud. Some of the landscape that I could see contained the track I would follow the next day, but for now I was winding past more alpine bushes and round the corner I could already see Waihohonu hut, my bed for the night. Climbing down through the trees once more, I crossed over another mountain stream and found myself at the hut (1120m/3674ft).

 

This more modern hut was huge compared to the previous two huts, and with many hikers in both directions combining two days of hiking, there were much less people staying here, making it seem even more spacious. There were several familiar faces already there and arriving after me, and several of us had been chatting multiple times over the 3 days, and had got to know each other a little. The Great Walks of New Zealand are a mecca for tourists as much, if not more so than Kiwis, so there was a veritable collection of nationalities amongst us, with a range in age also that made for some interesting life stories. While often these are people that come into your life for only a few hours or a few days, they are people that have shared an adventure with you and some of my memories from this hike revolve around the hilarity and stories that were traded between us.

On the morning of day 4, I was one of the last to leave the hut. Many of the others had a long drive ahead of them or a bus to catch so were keen to get going. It was another grey day, and although I had a bit of driving to do myself that afternoon, I knew I wanted to explore the side tracks on this day’s trail. Close to the hut is the turn-off for another multi-day hike, the Round the Mountain track that circuits the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu. One of the hikers with me on the Northern Circuit had completed that hike recently and after she talked about it, my appetite was whetted to hike it on another occasion. I left my backpack at the junction and followed the Round the Mountain track for 20mins to reach Ohinepango Springs. On route I had a view over the eastern plains that spans the area between the Tongariro volcanoes and the Kaimanawa Mountain Range. Not too far away, SH 1 paves a route through here, where it is known as the Desert Road because of the apparently barren and ‘sandy’ landscape. From where I was standing though, there was plenty of vegetation everywhere I looked.

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the Ohinepango Springs were not overly exciting. It was effectively a fast-flowing river coming away from a pool of water that had a slight bluish tinge to it. Probably on a sunny day they look more spectacular, but had it not been for spotting a whio (blue duck) which are rare and endangered, I would have been a bit annoyed with wasting my time. As it was, I enjoyed watching the little duck swimming around and got excited when he made his distinctive whistling sound. The whio are endemic to New Zealand, found nowhere else in the world, and it is estimated their numbers are under 3000. They only live around exceptionally clean water, so whilst their presence is a good indicator of the health of a waterway, it is the contamination of waterways and more so the predation from introduced species that have played major parts in their decline.

 

Returning to my backpack, from where I could see the clouds roll over the Kaimanawa Ranges, it was only about a 10min walk to the next turn-off for the historic Waihohonu Hut. Painted in bright red, it was a remnant from a bygone era where men and women were separated for sleeping. It is open to have a nosey around, and it is littered in etchings from past occupants, as well as a few artifacts to look at. Built in 1904, it remained in use until the 60s and is the oldest existing mountain hut in New Zealand. It is now managed by the Tongariro National Historic Society. By the time I had returned to the Tongariro Northern Circuit, an hour had passed since I’d left the newer Waihohonu hut behind, and I still had quite a bit of ground to cover. It was time to push onwards to Whakapapa Village.

 

The landscape was a mix of bare exposed ground with the odd plant or areas completely covered with alpine plants. The mountains I’d hiked over two days prior were shrouded in cloud as I walked towards a river bank. There was some incredible erosive patterns in the banks nearby and shortly after leaving the river out of sight, a section of boardwalk crossed a rather marshy zone. Although there were mountains flanking the valley either side of me, the valley itself felt open and expansive. It was some time before I caught sight of the depression in the ground that was hiding one of two lakes near the trail. But even then, there was a bit of dropping and climbing and circling before the turn-off to the two Tama Lakes was reached.

 

As the lakes are a little over 2hrs away from Whakapapa Village, this was a popular walk for visitors from there, and so suddenly there were other people about after I’d spent all morning on my own. I left my backpack at the junction and took only my water sack and snacks with me to go to the lookouts. It is only a short walk to the lower Tama lake viewpoint, and as I walked there I met a couple of hikers who’d stayed with me at Waihohonu hut and were on their way back from the lakes. The lower lake filled a small portion of the crater that it sat in, and it was only later after reading a book about the National Park that I discovered that the whole crater would have once been filled with water, but that part of it had filled in with sediment, and eventually so would the rest of it. There was a couple of viewing areas around the 1335m (4380ft) plateau, but although many people went no further, I was keen to head up to the higher viewing area to see the upper Tama lake too.

 

It was a good climb up to the higher viewing area at 1440m (4724ft). The upper Tama lake sits below the southern flank of Mt Nguaruhoe who’s summit remained under wraps the whole day. Under the grey sky the water took on a steely grey colour, and far below, the lower Tama lake looked more blue. Behind the lower lake, Mt Ruapehu also remained shrouded in cloud. It was an enjoyable spot to take a break, and the vista was impressive despite the lack of sunshine. To the west, the landscape rolled in hillocks towards Whakapapa village and beyond. I took my time absorbing the view as I retraced my steps back down the hillside and back towards the Tongariro Northern circuit.

 

The track cut a snaking path up and down through the rolling landscape as it cut across the valley to the west. There were plenty of people coming in the other direction, many of whom seemed dismayed with my answer when they asked how far they still had to go to reach the lakes. Eventually I saw some buildings in the distance which meant the village was within reach and a short while later I came to a track junction. Both paths led to the village, one directly, and the other cut down past a waterfall to join the track that I had left the village from 3 days prior. This junction was at the top of a large rocky drop where the Taranaki falls tumbled over the cliff. I left my backpack once more and climbed down the steps to the bottom where I soon came face to face with the waterfall. There were so many people here as I acknowledged my return to civilisation. It was a beautiful waterfall and well worth seeing. Even the cliffs were interesting to look at.

I climbed back up the stairs to retrieve my backpack and continued on above the falls, crossing the stream and negotiating the ridges of a historic lava flow. The DOC sign had stated an hour from the falls to the village, but it wasn’t even that long, and as I looked out over the vegetation for the last time, I suddenly found myself coming out at the car park by the hotel at the end of the road. Then it was just the trudge back to my car and the final removal of my backpack. Like the Kepler Track which I hiked a few years ago, the Tongariro Northern Circuit definitely peaks in terms of views on day 2, but I still enjoyed exploring the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park, circuiting between the impressive volcanic summits of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Nguaruhoe and Mt Tongariro. Despite the crowds in some parts, this geological wonderland is most definitely worth exploring.

Tongariro Northern Circuit: Tongariro Alpine Crossing

The Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely rated as New Zealand’s best day hike. Traversing a barren volcanic landscape that appears at times as if on another planet, the scenery is for many people, like nothing they’ve seen before. Cutting up past Mount Ngauruhoe (famous to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies), and swinging past Mount Tongariro, the full track is just over 19kms (11.8miles), and reaches an altitude of 1886m (6188ft). Roughly 109,000 people hiked this trail in 2015, and the numbers continue to rise. We were told by the warden at our hut that in the height of summer, you have to queue to get onto the track from the hut we were staying in that night, such was the density of people walking the trail at times. He told us to get going early to beat the crowds that pile onto the trail from the shuttle buses. I had tried to do this hike twice before, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the weather had stopped me going. With day two of the Tongariro Northern Circuit incorporating the best part of the Alpine Crossing, I was set to finally join the crowds, no matter what the weather would be.

I awoke at Mangatepopo Hut to clear skies, but by the time I’d had breakfast and packed up, the clouds had piled in and the mountain tops were nowhere to be seen. We’d been given a disheartening weather forecast the day before, and I was sad to see it was coming true. I had no choice but to set off, and I acknowledged with sadness that I wasn’t going to get much of a view. I left the hut behind early, but not early enough. After the short walk from the hut to the Tongariro Alpine Crossing track, all I could see was a stream of people walking up the trail. I sighed internally and slipped into the crowd and set off. I go hiking both to get out in nature, but also for solitude and to get away from civilisation. Straight away I was met by people jostling to get past and others that would just stop suddenly in front of you. This wasn’t going to be the hike I hoped it would be.

 

The path up the valley was plentiful with vegetation, but narrow in places. This meant that there was regularly impatient people walking off the trail and trudging through the vegetation to overtake. Early on there is a sign stating that the landscape is fragile and to keep to the path, but this was repeatedly ignored and I became silently annoyed. After a gentle climb, the path becomes a boardwalk as it passes by a historic lava flow from Mt Ngauruhoe. Under the grey sky, the dark landscape took on a gloomy hue. Carrying a large backpack as I was, I attracted a bit of attention from the day hikers who needed only supplies for the day, and who didn’t realise that there was a multi-day hike in the area. As I marched onward with the others, I tried and failed to pick out where the path would climb up the mountainside.

 

After a while, a side track leads to the Soda Springs, a volcanic waterfall that comes through the rocks from Mt Tongariro. Many of the day hikers ignored them, but it was only a short detour to take, and I dumped my backpack at the junction, giving my back a brief rest whilst I picked my way across the rocky path to them. From the vantage point back towards the mountainside, I could start to get a vague idea of where the path went and it looked very steep. My backpack was around 13kg, and I readied myself in anticipation of the strain. In 2013 I injured my back and have been left with chronic back pain. Frustratingly to top that off, I injured both my shoulders in 2016, and am still on the long road to recovery from that even nearly a year later. Chronic pain has become my life, and whilst it has changed my mental outlook in some ways, I am grateful that I can still do the physical activities that I enjoy, even if I can’t do them in comfort. The climb with my pack was going to hurt, but I was going to do it anyway.

 

Near the bottom is a sign telling you to stop and think about whether you are fit enough to do the hike. In some respects, the walk has almost been sold as such a must-do activity, that I think there are (and indeed saw that day) people out on the trail who weren’t necessarily prepared to do it. I have repeatedly seen tourists hiking mountains in New Zealand at the wrong time of day, wearing the wrong clothing or footwear and often with little water or supplies. Once again, I looked around me, and saw people pushing up the steps with just a small water bottle to sustain them all day. One woman on her own who had nothing with her other than the clothes she was wearing, breathlessly commented on my large backpack as she struggled up the first flight of stairs. How she got on for the rest of the hike I do not know, but I suspect she would have been pretty damn hungry and thirsty by the time she finished.

 

The only toilets on the hike until either the shelter near the end of the Alpine Crossing or the next hut on the Northern Circuit are just up the first few steps. For about 5-6hrs on either trail, there are no more facilities beyond that. As the steps continued their steep climb up the mountainside, the vegetation grew patchier and patchier. Either side of the track were lumps of volcanic rocks, and above me the cloud was still hanging over the summit. Below me it became increasingly obvious that the rocks formed a lave flow and the landscape began to take on that other-worldly feel that I had read so much about. A little below the summit plateau, a sign pointed out the fact that this is an active volcanic zone. The most recent eruption was only in 2012, and I was already living in the country when it happened. A side vent on Mt Tongariro known as the Te Maari craters blew themselves open sending rocks and debris into the air which damaged the Ketetahi Hut near the end of the Alpine Crossing and closed the track for a few months. Following the hike, I purchased a fascinating book about the volcanoes in the Tongariro National Park that gives some background information to the various eruptions in the area, as well as how the volcanoes formed and why the landscape looks the way it does. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before I did the hike, as I would have appreciated what I was walking through even more.

 

By the time I reached the plateau of South Crater (which isn’t actually a crater), the cloud had lifted enough to reveal the plateau but the mountain tops were still shrouded. Soon the turn-off to climb up Mt Ngauruhoe was reached, and considering the lack of visibility, there were plenty of people heading up there that day. When I was reading up on the hike before I set off, I had decided that I wanted to summit both Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro, but the former has no official route up and is effectively just a scree field on the flanks. Several websites listed it as dangerous, and even the warden at the hut recommended not attempting it. If the wrong route is taken, it is apparently easy to get hit by rocks loosened by people ahead of you or descending, and it is a major slip and fall hazard. Standing at the sign watching the others disappear into the clouds, I just didn’t see the point in attempting it. There would be no view to speak of, and no way of knowing in the clouds whether you were keeping to a good line of ascent or descent. It seemed the sensible thing to skip it and keep on moving.

 

The South Crater is a large flat plateau where finally a bit of colour starts to poke through the previously perpetual blackened landscape. Volcanic zones are very much coloured according to the minerals of the rocks or the algae that grow in the often acidic environments of the waterways there. There was a distinct yellow colour to the rocks here, and the trail was enjoyably flat for a while. Here, the crowds seemed to thin out a little although it was nearly impossible to take a photograph without other people in it. The summit of Mt Tongariro was hidden in the clouds to my left, and Mt Ngauruhoe was hidden in the clouds to my right, but by the time I reached the far side of the crater, the clouds had noticeably lifted higher, and as a result, the landscape seemed to open up a little.

 

Another short steep section brought me up to the first of many incredible views that day. Despite the clouds behind me, the view east was almost clear, and far down below the expanse of what was Mordor in the Lord of the Rings movies stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a steep drop, but that didn’t stop many of the other hikers balancing precariously on the edge to pose for a photograph. This was one of many spots where large amounts of people were congregated on the hike, and whilst I was gradually losing my crankiness about having to share the hike with so many other people, I was still wishing that the place was more quiet. For me, grand landscapes demand quiet and reflection, but it was time for a snack, so I stood for awhile amongst the changing crowd of people.

 

My reward for waiting there was that the sun was starting to break through, and looking behind me, the beauty and majesty of Mt Ngauruhoe was suddenly very evident as it broke into view. Near the summit, a patch of red stood out in stark contrast to the neighbouring grey-black of the rest of the rock and I briefly had an internal conflict as I wished I’d gone up, whilst at the same time looking at all the loose scree on the slopes, and wondering how it was actually possible to summit it. I turned to look across South Crater to see that Mt Tongariro was about to poke out the clouds too, and I knew that I would definitely be taking the side track to visit its summit.

 

From this first of many viewpoints, the track narrowed down again and became both steep and loose under foot. A short section has a chain nailed to the rocks to help negotiate it, and I had heard that this was a particular bottle neck for the crowds during the peak season. Hiking as I was in March, New Zealand still has plenty of tourists at that time of year, and once again, there were plenty of impatient people who barged past the slower hikers. Looking around though it was nice to see such a diversity of ages amongst the hikers, with plenty of older hikers that were much fitter than many of the younger ones. A series of blue poles marked the route up, and from the south crater at 1659m (5443ft), the track climbs up to about 1845m (6053ft) where a path junction marks the turn-off to Mt Tongariro. This rocky plateau was littered with people taking a rest. Seeing that Mt Tongariro was still clear of cloud, I wasn’t going to waste any time in heading off for its summit.

 

Dumping my backpack at the start of the track, and taking my water sack with me, I was glad to see this route was very quiet. With the majority of hikers tied to the schedule of the shuttle buses that pick up and drop off at the track ends, many of the day hikers just don’t have time to do the side tracks. Getting away from the crowds made it all the more enjoyable for me, and the views were incredible, looking both over to Mt Ngauruhoe now completely devoid of cloud, but also across the rest of the walk towards Blue Lake and North Crater, as well as to the surrounding plains on either side of the mountains. There was also a stunning yellow colour to large sections of the hike and the rocks were jagged and dramatic in places. The path was very narrow, and in a couple of places felt a little treacherous where it crossed loose scree at an angle above a drop. As I approached 1900m (6233ft), I was a little dismayed to see the cloud blow in over the summit and my view started to disappear.

 

The summit itself (1967m/6453ft) was a high stack of rocks that took several attempts to find an accessible way up. The guys at the top pointed out the way that they had come but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the foot and hand holds that they had used, and so I was forced to backtrack a little and approach from a slightly different angle. When I made it up, I was completely shrouded in cloud and couldn’t see a thing beyond the large boulders immediately next to me. The others headed off leaving me on my own, and after rock hopping a little, I stood on the summit surveying my cloudy kingdom. Then out of nowhere a break in the clouds appeared and I could see a carpet of low cloud below me. Suddenly I found myself above the clouds, and out popped the cone-shaped summit of Mt Ngauruhoe, and behind it, the snow-capped peaks of Mt Ruapehu. It was utterly amazing, and I had the view all to myself.

 

The clouds came in waves as I headed back. The rocky peaks in front of me stood out against the swirling clouds and both Blue Lake and the lower of the Emerald Lakes popped in and out of view. Plants grew in patches amongst the mostly barren and very yellow rocks of Mt Tongariro’s ridgeline. Finally though I was back at the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and unfortunately thick cloud had rolled in once more. It was windy and cold, and unsurprisingly the plateau was now quite devoid of people. From here the Alpine Crossing climbs to its highest point on Red Crater. I’d already seen that the cloud was passing through in roughly half an hour waves. Had it not been so frigid in the wind I would have waited it out in order to get a view, but knowing how the afternoon usually brings a deterioration of the weather in the mountains generally, I also had doubts whether it would clear at all, so I made the decision to just get on with it and sacrifice the view here.

 

The path was easy to follow in the cloud, but it was completely exposed to the strong cross wind that buffeted me as I made my way up. There was no point in waiting at the summit, so I was quick to cross over to the descent on the other side, and this was the one place where I felt quite unsafe due to the heavy weight on my back. The track descends on a steep scree slope with little security under foot, and I was forced to adopt a skiing type movement, sliding down as gravity pulled the rocks away below each foot placement. A few times, I nearly lost my balance, as I carefully positioned myself to counter the pulling force of the 13-odd kg on my back. The rate of descent was fast but as I emerged once more below the clouds, and I looked at the path in front of me, I couldn’t decide whether it was a man-made ridge or not. It didn’t seem natural the way the scree was piled up in a narrow ledge-like ridge, but as much as a lot of the landscape is volcanic, there are also plenty of aspects that are remnants from a time of glaciation, and I suspect this was how that particular ridge had formed. But soon my attention was grabbed by the contrasting colours of the Emerald Lakes that came into view as the clouds were left behind.

 

There are three Emerald Lakes: the first two sit side by side and are the same colour as each other, and the third sits further along the track and is quite distinctive. Between the duo and the single lake, steam vents belch puffs of steam out of the ground. The swirling cloud continued to rise and fall, dancing around the upper of the lakes. This was another spot where there were plenty of people milling around as well as many people walking off the track. Whilst the first two lakes were interesting enough, it was really the third one that grabbed my attention, and oddly this was mostly ignored by the day hikers. It was near this third lake that the Tongariro Northern Circuit separated itself from the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The Northern Circuit cut down to this third lake whereas the Alpine Crossing skipped past it.

 

I dumped my backpack by the third Emerald Lake and continued on the Alpine Crossing across Central Crater (not actually a crater). With the remnants of a lava flow from Red Crater to my left I was among a large crowd of hikers pushing on towards Blue Lake. Behind me, the cloud had lifted again and I could see Red Crater in all its glory. I’m sure the view from the summit would have been incredible, but considering I had thought I would get no views at all when I set off in the morning, to have only missed out on 1 viewpoint was not that bad in the grand scheme of things. Climbing up a rocky path once more, I reached the expanse of Blue Lake which was mostly shrouded in cloud. I found a handily-shaped stone that made a nice bench to sit on, and I waited a little here to see what the clouds would do. They lifted slightly to let me just see the far shore, but not for long. With the day hikers continuing on past the lake to skirt past North Crater and descend towards the forest below, I retraced my steps back to the third Emerald Lake.

 

Leaving the Alpine Crossing behind, I took the Northern Circuit turn-off back to the lakeside, reclaimed my backpack and paused here for a while to take a last look at the volcanic behemoths before leaving them behind. Finally, I was back to solitude and peace and quiet away from the busyness of the popular day hike. I stood out on the brow overlooking the upcoming descent, and stretched out for a great distance in front of me was the volcanic landscape of Mordor…

Mount Ruapehu and the Tongariro Northern Circuit

The maiden mountain of Pihanga was much admired by the warrior mountains Putauaki, Tauhara, Tongariro and Taranaki. The warriors fought for her hand in a great and fiery battle, until Tongariro was victorious. Defeated, in the hours of darkness, the other mountains retreated, leaving Tongariro and Pihanga to look upon each other forever. Putauaki and Tauhara fled north until the morning sun froze them in their place. Taranaki headed south, carving a trail behind him (which later filled with water to become the Wanganui river), before he turned west, becoming frozen near the west coast. Although the exact details vary a little from storyteller to storyteller, the Maori legends about the volcanic landscape of the Tongariro Volcanic Centre in New Zealand’s north island provide an intriguing alternate history to the fiery geology of the region. Since moving to New Zealand, I have discovered a previously unknown love for geology. From the fault lines in the Southern Alps, to the volcanic centre in the north island, there is a fascinating insight here into how the Earth’s crust changes and adapts over millennia.

I awoke on my 34th birthday to discover that Mount Ruapehu and Mount Ngauruhoe were hidden behind a thick blanket of clouds. I was to be starting the Tongariro Northern Circuit that day, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, a collection of 9 walks throughout the country that are well maintained and cover a diverse range of scenery. For just over 43km, this walk is one of only 3 loop tracks within the 9 walks. I have previously walked the Kepler Track, and like that hike, although I chose to walk it in 4 days as laid out on the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, it could easily be walked in less. This particular hike incorporates the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the country’s most popular day walk, and whilst it can be started at varying access points, the walk effectively cuts between the volcanic mountains of Mt Ruapehu and Mt Tongariro, traversing across old lahar fields and debris spilled out historically from previous eruptions. This hike couldn’t be more different from the south island if it tried.

After breakfast at the Station cafe in National Park village, I had a short drive to the nearby Whakapapa village where I was to start the hike. On the drive over, the local radio station was reporting beautiful sunshine on nearby Mt Ruapehu, but with nothing but low cloud for company, I didn’t really pay it any attention. The village is a collection of accommodations, including the large, grand and well known Chateau Tongariro which greets you as you enter the village. There are lots of walks that head off from here, and a decent sized visitor centre which incorporates a DOC information office is on the main road. I parked up here, and inside found a reasonable exhibition display about the geology and eruption history of the region. I had a wander around, logged in my intentions to set off hiking, and then overheard that despite the cloud hugging the lower land, the ski centre up Mt Ruapehu was definitely above the cloud and basking in the March sunshine. With just a 3-hr hike to reach my first hut, I decided that there was plenty of time to explore the area before setting off on the hike.

 

So I jumped back in my car and followed the road out the back of the village, climbing higher and higher until suddenly the cloud broke away and I was in another world. A sound of excitement escaped my mouth involuntarily as I continued to drive up and through a rolling scene of black boulders, crust and apparently barren rock face. Behind it all, the dramatic peaks of the summit of Mt Ruapehu jutted up against the blue sky and white patches of snow sparkled in the sunshine. It was a little like Iceland all over again, but yet different, and I was giddy with excitement. At roughly 1600m (5249ft) altitude, there was a chill in the air, so after putting on some layers, I grabbed my camera and headed straight to the ticket office to get a chairlift pass up the mountain. Heading up the first chairlift, the distinctive cone summit of neighbouring Mt Ngauruhoe (familiar to some as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) poked up above the cloud base. Taking me up to roughly 1750m (5741ft) altitude, I swiftly headed to the upper chairlift and continued to grin widely as I headed up to the Knoll Ridge cafe at roughly 2000m (6561ft).

 

The view back down the mountainside was incredible thanks to the low cloud hugging the land beyond in every direction. The pinnacle ridge of Mt Ruapehu stood dramatically to the side, and everywhere I looked there were rocks and boulders of varying sizes. There was little to no vegetation and it felt wild and foreign. After taking a nosey at the map of the upper slope in the cafe, I realised there were some options for walking up here. The going was rough, uneven and even unsteady in places, but suddenly there was a mountain peak to explore and there was no stopping me. Early on I realised the error of my ways: having not expected to be hiking yet, I had come up the chairlift with no water and no sunscreen and as the exertion level increased, I found myself stripping off layer after layer of clothing, whilst also being paranoid about burning my face. Following first a well worn path, and then a series of poles up the rocky slope, I climbed a further 200m (656ft) to reach the ridgeline of Pinnacle Ridge.

 

The view from here was phenomenal. The cloud continued to hug most of the western land, but Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro behind it, stood tall and proud above the cloud and as I moved around the pinnacles, the line of view was in places broken by the vertical statues of rock that jutted up from the side of the mountain. Whilst I wasn’t purposefully looking for movie locations, I had been made aware that this too was used in the Lord of the Ring movies, and with all the barren volcanic rocky landscape here, I can see why it made a good set for Mordor.

 

I hung out here for a while, in no hurry to leave. It got a little cold and I had to put all my layers back on, but otherwise it was glorious. I looked longingly up at the continuing pathway that headed up to the true summit of Mt Ruapehu. The volcano has a composite summit, made up of lots of peaks of similar altitudes separated by glacial deposits, a plateau and a crater lake which is the source location for the volcano’s eruptions. Following this hike, I sourced a fascinating book, A Volcanic Guide to Tongariro National Park, which gives a lot of information about the formation and activity of the volcanoes in the region. In hindsight, I wish I had read it before my trip because I didn’t appreciate what I was standing on or what I was looking at at the time.

 

I yearned to keep going, and probably there were enough hours in the day to do so, but I had no food or water with me, and no sun protection (never mind my other usual hiking staples of a first aid kit and survival gear), and I knew deep down that to continue without these things would be a rather stupid thing to do. On such a fine day, I probably would have been okay, but I know enough to be aware how fickle the weather in the mountains can be, how much the clouds can change out of nowhere, and there was snow up there which added a whole other hazard. With a top altitude of 2797m (9176ft), it would have been a fantastic summit to tick off, but I had enough common sense to know I should leave it for another day. After accepting my decision, I retraced my steps back down to the cafe and sat outside for awhile, realising that the clouds were starting to retract a little down below. Perhaps the day’s hike wouldn’t be too bad after all. On the chairlift rides back down, I stared out at the black rocky landscape and watched as Mt Ngauruhoe popped back into view, still with the clouds swirling dramatically at its base.

 

After an unintentionally hair-raising drive back down to Whakapapa village, I kitted up, checked all my hiking gear and set off on day 1 of the Tongariro Northern Circuit. My destination was the Mangatepopo Hut, 9.4km (6miles) from the start at the edge of the village. Cutting down Ngauruhoe Place behind the Chateau Tongariro, I reached the first of two access points to the Taranaki Falls track. I was reminded a little of the vast heather moors of Scotland as I traversed the tussock and bushy vegetation. The cloud by now was indeed dispersing and I had the constant companion of Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro for company almost dead ahead. The larger snow-speckled peak of Mt Ruapehu remained behind me, and then the path dipped briefly into some trees where the route to the hut split off from the track to the falls. Remaining within the trees for a short while, it crossed a couple of streams before emerging out the other side of the woods, and from then onwards, was completely exposed.

 

By now, it was well into the afternoon. I assumed most of the hikers would have set off ahead of me, but there was the odd other hiker also setting off as late as me, and I was overtaken by a few as I stopped often to take photographs. The path quality was rough and uneven considering it is a Great Walk (although my only comparison is the Kepler Track), and it undulated up and down over hillocks and dry river valleys for kilometre after kilometre. At times there were boardwalks, and at other times, boulders to walk over, and in almost every direction there were volcanoes to look at. With the ever changing shape of them as I moved across the landscape, it was hard not to take photographs every few hundred yards. I was exceedingly snap happy, and I hadn’t even reached the true volcanic landscape yet.

 

Eventually though, Mt Ngauruhoe started to disappear behind the hulk of Pukekaikiore, and Mt Ruapehu was by now looking distant behind me. Negotiating some steps, and coming level with the mound of Pukeonake to my left, the track started to curl a little and I knew I was getting close. Finally I spotted the hut in the far distance and a little later I found myself at the junction with the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The clouds had reappeared a little around the summits as I reached the turn off for the hut, and I found myself shortly after at a packed hut. Working on a booking system in the summer months, these huts book up far in advance in the peak season. With a camping area immediately outside, there were people milling around everywhere. It was a struggle to find space to put my backpack once I’d found a free mattress to stick my sleeping bag on. After a snack, I sat outside to survey my kingdom, and over the course of the next few hours as the sun lowered, and the clouds moved around and away, we were treated to a spectacular view of an incredible volcanic landscape.

 

There was so much chatter in the hut. It turned out that several of those hikers who had arrived early, had been encouraged to continue on to the Alpine Crossing that day as the following day was to be poor weather with potentially poor visibility. Having seen the clouds leave whilst I was up Mt Ruapehu, I could see how this would have been a stunning day to walk the famous track. I was gutted to hear the weather report for the following day, but at the same time, had had such an incredible morning up Mt Ruapehu that it was hard to regret my choice. I could only hope that the weather man got it wrong, and as darkness fell, I like everyone else in the hut, retreated to my sleeping bag in order to get some sleep ahead of the big hike on day 2 of the circuit. Finally on my third attempt, I would be hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day, come hell or high water…

Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

The first six weeks of my life in New Zealand, back in early 2012, were spent exploring the North Island. But after setting up a life in Christchurch, in the country’s south island, aside from flying up to Auckland and Wellington from time to time, I haven’t really explored or re-explored the rest of the north island. In the 5.5 years that I have been here, I’ve managed to explore the vast majority of the country but there are still some pockets left to conquer, and in particular I had a hike that I was keen to do but had been thwarted from doing on two previous occasions. So with a week off for my birthday in March, I decided that I was going to head north to do the hike no matter the weather, and faced with the decision of flying to Wellington then relying on public transport, or making a road trip (or roadie) out of it, I had no doubts in my mind I was going to drive myself there.

But just as my previous drive north to hike the Queen Charlotte Track had been disrupted by the closure of State Highway (SH) 1 post-earthquake, this trip too would be longer than anticipated. I had booked the ferry and all my accommodation in October last year, so I had a morning of work to get through first before what should have been just a 4hr drive to Picton from Christchurch. Instead, I was forced to follow SH 7 through the Lewis Pass and onwards through Murchison, and St Arnaud to Picton. I’d had to take this same route for the hike in November, and it had taken 6hrs, but to add insult to injury, just a few days before I was due to leave, a bush fire sprung up on SH 7 and the road closed briefly. As it turned out, this drive couldn’t have been more different than the last time.

SH1 between Christchurch and Picton was always the main thoroughfare between the two settlements, and freight typically travelled by train between them. Now, with both the road and railway out of action, the traffic volume, and in particular the massive increase in heavy goods vehicles using the inland route, the road surface has taken a drumming. With speed restrictions due to road upgrades and slow moving vehicles through the twisting pass, this route is now at least a 7hr drive. It was a beautifully sunny day, and after having done a morning at work, it was a tiring and rather relentless drive, requiring a lot of concentration. The area of the bush fire was still smouldering as I passed through the now blackened landscape, and as the road twisted onwards, spots to overtake the slower HGVs were precious in their rarity, meaning I was reluctant to stop anywhere lest they catch up with me.

And so I ploughed through Springs Junction, skipped past Maruia Falls, ignored Murchison, and only pulled in at Lake Rotoiti where I knew I could stretch my legs and use a restroom. When my partner and I stayed at nearby St Arnaud for the first time a couple of years ago, the place was like a sleepy little village, more commonly full of Kiwis than tourists. Now, the traffic passing through is massively increased, and there were more campervans there than usual. There happened to be a boat show on that weekend, so the waterfront at the boat launching part of the lake was pretty busy, but I pulled up near the pier, where I went for a brief walk to stretch my legs. I love the view here. Unfortunately the sandflies love it too, so any outdoor time needs repellant, otherwise relaxation here can quickly be ruined.

 

Time was not on my side though. The evening was stretching on and I was keen to stop in and say hello to a friend that I would be passing by on route. The reception for my accommodation in Picton closed at 9pm so I was running tight on time to make it there. I had an all-too-brief catch up over a cup of tea in Renwick, near Blenheim, but then it was time to crack on in the dark. It was a little hard to see the potholes coming without the benefit of daylight, but finally I was in Picton, my rest stop ahead of my morning sailing to the north island. I ended up in the exact same room that I had stayed in after completing the Queen Charlotte Track in November last yr.

The following morning there was a beautiful clear sky. It takes a bit of time for the sunlight to creep over the mountains that surround Picton, but I knew it would be a beautiful sailing through the Queen Charlotte Sounds and across the Cook Strait. I’d used the ferry between the islands three times before, but always on the Interislander ferries. For the first time I was using the opposition, Bluebridge. Once on board, I grabbed myself a take-away breakfast and headed up to the outside top deck to watch the changing view of what I think is the most beautiful ferry crossing in the world. The first 1.5hrs of this sailing is curling through the stunning sounds, surrounded by rolling hillsides which hide secluded homes overlooking sparkling bays. The sea was calm and reflective and near Picton there were even some people out on kayaks following the coast.

 

Past East Bay, the route turns a near 90 degree angle, then turns again to cut through between Arapawa Island and the mainland peninsula. Finally, through a dramatic gap in the rocks, it pushes forth into the Cook Strait, the body of water that separates the two main islands of New Zealand. The Cook Strait can be notoriously rough, but on a good day it is a smooth crossing, and I remained outside watching the South Island grow further away and the North Island become sharper through the haze. It takes about an hour to negotiate this section of open water, and there was a little chop on the sea, but nothing that the boat couldn’t handle.

 

Finally, in the middle of Fitzroy Bay, the ferry turned to point in towards Wellington Harbour, and that familiar sight of the country’s capital city. After a wash-out of a New Year’s trip here, it was nice to see Wellington basking in the sunshine again, and I wore the smile I always get when an adventure is coming. Whilst driving in the north island is no different than the south island, this would be the first time I’d been in control of a car in the north island, and as silly as it seemed, this just added to the feeling of being on an adventure. By the time the ferry had berthed, and the announcement had come to return to the car deck, I was excited to get going.

 

After disembarking, I headed straight onto SH1 and left Wellington behind. Climbing up over the hills at the back of the city, SH1 winds its way north, cutting across to reach the Kapiti coastline at Pukerua Bay. A large section of the highway here had been upgraded to an expressway since I’d last passed through, so it was easy to get many kilometers behind me at a good pace. After a while, the coast remains close although hidden out of view. I passed through Foxton where my partner and I had spent the night on our way to Auckland back in late 2013, and finally I reached Bulls, a town which always stuck in my mind from 2012 when I stopped here whilst traversing the island on a Stray Bus pass as a new arrival. From this point onwards though, I was touching new territory for me. My destination was National Park on the edge of Tongariro National Park, and whilst I could have gotten there by staying on SH1, I had decided to follow SH3 to Whanganui (also Wanganui).

With a reputation, I discovered later, for gang-related incidents, I went there without knowing this, and on such a sunny day, I really liked the place. I parked up on Anzac Parade opposite the Wanganui City Bridge, from where a long white tunnel leads underground to an elevator shaft. Built in 1919, the Durie Hill elevator is a kooky tourist attraction taking you up inside the hillside for $2 cash each way. It is a rattly piece of equipment but it does the job, and at the top, the building that houses the elevator also doubles as an observation platform, from where there is a cracking view over the city and the river that snakes past it. Behind it is the tall War Memorial tower. 176 spiralling steps lead up to the top which again gives an impressive view of the city and its surroundings. It was windy up here, and the horizon was a little hazy in places, but I could see both the volcanic Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park as well as the equally volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki in Egmont National Park. I was excited because the previous 3 times I’d driven through Tongariro National Park, the cloud cover had been low and I’d never actually seen the summit of her famous volcanoes, so this was my first sighting of the impressive Mt Ruapehu summit.

 

After soaking up the view on both building’s roof platforms, I retreated back down the rickety elevator and along the extensive tunnel once more before driving across the Wanganui river and parking up in the city. On face value, the city’s waterfront was pretty. The river was rather brown, but there was a pleasant boardwalk along the riverside, with an interesting orb sculpture as well as a paddlesteamer moored up for interest. I cut up from the riverside to Queens Park where the city’s war memorials stood amongst some galleries and sculptures. Despite it being a hot and sunny Sunday, I had the park to myself, and the city was quite a quiet place to be. After a wander round here, I cut through Majestic Square and up onto the hillside overlooking the stadium at Cooks Gardens, before cutting back to the main thoroughfare of Victoria Avenue. Returning to the riverside once more, I returned to my car having fallen in love with Whanganui, but in need of heading ever onwards.

 

The Wanganui river is the largest navigable river in New Zealand, and following SH4 it is possible to follow it upstream to the north. Its origin is Mount Tongariro in the National Park of the same name, and I decided to take the scenic route north by cutting off the main highway and sticking to the road that hugs the river. Almost immediately the Whanganui River Road snaked up a hillside and presented me at lookout spot with a beautiful view up the river valley. In the far distance, the snowy summit of Mt Ruapehu glistened in the sunlight. I was very glad I took this detour. Although the road conditions weren’t great (it is technically a sealed road, but there was a lot of resurfacing going on when I passed through in early March), the views were incredible. It also felt nicely isolated and peaceful with only a handful of other cars travelling the same road, and whenever I stopped, I was serenaded by cicadas. The river flowed peacefully through the ever changing valley, and although it was quite a time-commitment to take this detour, it was worth every minute.

 

It was some time though, before eventually I reached Pipiriki where I took the turnoff to lead me up and through a forestry zone. For more than half the distance, it wound its way through the trees, up and over and around the rolling hillside. When eventually the trees came to an end, and the open countryside spread away before me, I could once again see Mt Ruapehu and this time just beyond it, the distinctive cone shape of Mt Ngauruhoe (better known to some as Mt Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies) peaked above the horizon behind it. Reaching Raetihi, I rejoined SH4 heading north to pass the western flank of Mt Ruapehu on route to National Park village. I’d unknowingly stayed here before back in 2012, but at the time the weather had been so abysmal, there was no view to speak of and I had no idea how close I was to the volcanoes at the time. This time though, I could see they were right in front of me, although the cloud bank had started to move in for the night.

 

Pretty much everyone at my hostel was there either before or after walking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s most famous and most popular day hike. It would have been a beautiful day to have done the hike, and I wondered what weather those hiking it the following day would get for it. I had a 4-day hike ahead of me, so after rearranging all my hiking gear, I set off to one of the few places to eat in the village, The Station, which is a cafe by day and restaurant by night. Being a Sunday, they were offering a roast dinner which I duly took up the offer of, washed down by some cider. The following day was my birthday, and as I would be without phone signal or internet for nearly 4 days, I found myself having a video call with my brother and nephew in Scotland, whilst in the middle of the restaurant. Finally though, it was time to retire, for the next day, I would finally be setting off on a much-anticipated hike.

Ben Lomond

In 2002, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was born, encompassing 720 square miles of mountains, lochs and forests. To the north-west of Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, it is an easily accessible playground for the outdoor enthusiast. From water sports to hiking and family activities, there are plenty of options for enjoyment, and for hikers like me, it encompasses not only the earlier sections of the West Highland Way, but 21 Munros (Scottish mountains >3000ft).

I enjoy hiking mountains, not just for the exercise and achievement in doing so, but mainly for the reward in the view at the top and the satisfaction of ticking another summit off the list. I don’t personally see the point in hiking a mountain when it is poor weather, as the view is my favourite part, but yet nearly a week after summiting Ben Nevis in low cloud, I found myself with just one chance at hiking Ben Lomond and a poor weather forecast to contend with. Without my own transport, it didn’t take much to convince my brother to drive me there and join me on the hike, and so, despite the predictions, we set off from my parent’s house on the nearly 1.5hr drive to the car park at Rowardennan.

Within the trees on the banks of Loch Lomond, the large car park (cash payment only) was nearly full despite the grey clouds that hung overhead. Aside from the munro, there are a few local walks as well, but it seemed that Ben Lomond was a common destination. On stepping out of the car, I was immediately overwhelmed by a large swarm of midges. When I used to live in Scotland, midges were a presence but rarely an annoyance for me. Perhaps my blood wasn’t that attractive, or perhaps my memories are selective, but of my 29 years of living in Scotland, and many trips to the west coast, I can only remember a couple of occasions where they were a pain. Now however, I had the allure of foreign-tasting blood, and in just a t-shirt, my arms were soon blackened with the largest concentration of midges I have ever seen. The ones that weren’t munching on my arms were swirling around my face, and my patience quickly went as I waited for my brother to get geared up.

The last time my brother had hiked Ben Lomond, the start of the track was being upgraded and there was a detour from the information centre. On this day, the track had reopened at its original location behind the information centre and we set off, hounded by the midges the whole time. Starting in the lower forest where the view was minimal, we reached a clearing where shortly after we were sent on a diversion as the next section of track was being upgraded. The track was still obvious but a little rougher under foot, and with less trees, it soon became obvious that the summit of Ben Lomond was nowhere to be seen.

Looking up at the clouds

 

Despite gaining altitude from the beginning, the midges continued to follow us, and through bracken we continued our gentle climb until we reached a bridge which led us onto grazing land. Below us, Loch Lomond was disappearing into the distant cloud, and now Ben Lomond stood in front of us, low cloud swirling around. Like Ben Nevis the week before, I was amazed at the number of people out hiking on such a poor weather day. Groups of kids were out doing a charity walk and they showed me up with their youthful fitness. They stopped often though, so eventually we passed them by as the path continued its steady climb.

Looking down towards the hidden Loch Lomond

The path up Ben Lomond

Looking towards the summit of Ben Lomond

 

A light drizzle started, and whilst my brother kitted up in his waterproofs, I decided to press on without as I was quite warm from the effort. It wasn’t particularly heavy at this stage, but by now we were in the cloud, and I had no idea how far we had to go with no point of reference. I just followed my brother and the well-trodden path, but the higher we got, the more I noticed people giving me a strange look as they came down in wet weather gear and I plodded on in capri-pants and a t-shirt. At about 850m, the path began to zig-zag, and on turning a corner at a low false-summit, it was like walking in to a wind tunnel, and I found myself suddenly cold and wet. It was a mission to put on my waterproofs in the driving wind and rain, and I was aware of plenty of soaked-looking people emerging out of the mist above us.

Duly kitted up, we pushed on for the final summit push. Unfortunately, the weather meant I spent most of the time staring at my feet, so the summit push is a bit of a blur. There was an initial steep section followed by tracing the outline of the eastern corrie, a rocky plinth that gave brief shelter before we were left exposed again for the final trail along the summit ridge until the summit emerged from the gloom. It was so busy here despite the now heavy rain, that we couldn’t even get a photo at the summit marker, having to make do with a photo on the path at the summit edge. We could have been anywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were up there, but with the rain quickly drenching us, there was no point hanging around.

View from the summit of Ben Lomond

Obligatory summit photo at Ben Lomond in the rain

 

There are two options for descending: back the route you’ve just come up, or going down the Ptarmigan route. I assumed with the weather that my brother would want to do the quicker, easier route back down, but having done it before, he suggested we take the Ptarmigan route so despite not being able to see it through the clouds, I followed his lead and was amazed at the barely visible path disappearing over the cliffs. Had I been on my own, I would never have even noticed this as a path, it was so discrete in the clouds. I certainly didn’t feel unsafe, but it was a shame to miss out the views that I’m sure this route would afford on a good weather day. It reminded me somewhat of the hike I did on Little Mount Peel in New Zealand with a rapid descent over rocky drops in altitude towards the summit of the Ptarmigan.

Looking down towards the Ptarmigan Route in the driving rain

 

Crossing near a series of small peaks (of which one is the Ptarmigan), the path turns to descend back onto the green-covered hillside. The rain was still ongoing, and despite having not eaten and both being quite hungry, there was nowhere sheltered to stop. By now several hours into the hike, my jacket was starting to lose it’s waterproof abilities and I could feel myself getting damp within. As we continued on a now gentle descent down the front face of Ben Lomond, the grass changed to bracken, and we could just about make out Loch Lomond through the occasional break in the clouds.

Following the Ptarmigan Route down the face of Ben Lomond

Loch Lomond just about visible through the clouds

 

Eventually we found ourselves back in the forest above Rowardennan and we followed a burn as it made its way down towards the road. Then it was just a matter of walking along the tarmac back to the car park where we tried to warm back up in the car, eating our lunch surrounded by the midges that sneaked in with us. Whilst I’m very glad I ticked another Munro off the list, it reinforced why I don’t enjoy hiking when there isn’t a view involved. Perhaps on a sunnier occasion when I’m next in the country I might try this one again, but for now, I’m going to leave the mountains for better weather.

Avalanche Peak

Shortly after moving to Christchurch in New Zealand’s South Island over 4 years ago, I read about an enticing peak nestled within the Southern Alps near the village of Arthur’s Pass. I was keen to get up it but life and a dramatic change in fitness got in my way. But after spending the Southern Hemisphere’s summer hiking as many peaks within reach as the weather would allow, I finally felt that Avalanche Peak was within grasp. Only the seasons have turned, meaning shortening days and cooler weather and a risk of wind and snow about the peaks grows ever more likely. I had started to think that it would have to wait another year, when thankfully, some good weather coincided with a day off, and I realised my luck had turned.

And what a perfect day it turned out to be. The little alpine village of Arthur’s Pass is just over a 2 hr drive west from Christchurch, but nestled as it is amongst an impressive mountain range, its weather system is so very different to that of the Canterbury Plains to the east, and even with the MetService website suggesting all would be well, you are never sure what you are going to get until you get there. The west coast road from Christchurch to Greymouth is one of my favourite drives in the country. There are so many scenic routes to choose from in New Zealand, but this is the road I’ve travelled the most and it never fails to impress.

Over Porter’s Pass from where Trig M is reached, past Lakes Lyndon and Pearson, and onwards to the little settlement of Bealey Spur from where the track of the same name begins, the road winds round the towering mountains and along river beds until, shaded by the hulks of Mounts Bealey & Rolleston, Arthur’s Pass appears. Directly behind the village, the steep slope of Avalanche Peak disappeared above.

There are two routes up Avalanche Peak: the Avalanche Peak track and Scott’s track. The first begins behind the Department of Conservation (DOC) visitor centre, and the second begins just north of the village. Due to the nature of the track, it is recommended to only ever go up the Avalanche Peak track, and not to descend by this route, meaning it should either be hiked as a loop track (up Avalanche Peak track and down Scott’s track), or ascend and descend the same way via Scott’s track. My friend and I were both happy to hike a loop, so we parked at the visitor centre and set off on the marked path behind the building that hugged the tree line.

The start of the Avalanche Peak track

Avalanche Peak route map

 

Almost immediately after entering the trees, the Avalanche Peak track sets off on a steep incline through the forest. Several other people were heading up at the same time and the whole way up we were playing tag with them as each of us hiked and rested at our own pace. Early on, a stream flowed down the lower rocks in a series of pretty waterfalls, but otherwise for the first hour, most of the hike involved concentrating on your feet as the best foot hold up tree roots and rock faces was sought out. Despite being physically tiring, I was enjoying the process, although it became a lot nicer of a hike when the tree line was reached after not quite an hour and a quarter. Once out of the tree line, the view in all directions was phenomenal. Ahead on the path, the various lower ridges could be seen snaking into the distance. To the left Mount Bealey, and to the right the glacier-clad summit of Mount Rolleston dominated the skyline, and behind us, the valley below opened up.

Avalanche Creek waterfall

Nearby Mt Bealey

Looking south

 

It was now easy to see that this hike was extremely popular. With little wind on a gorgeously sunny autumn day, there were plenty of people strewn along the path both ahead and behind us. The higher we got, the steeper the drop-off either side became but it was an easy path to follow. Several bluffs created a dramatic vista, and later on, like so many mountains I have hiked recently, a scree slope appeared near the top. On this occasion, the path picked its way up the side of the scree, making for a winding, though relatively easy passage. In fact, despite being classed as an alpine hike requiring experience in back country navigation, this was actually not really a technical hike. Only as the summit became within reach, did it change quality.

View south from the Avalanche Peak track

Hikers ahead on the upper slopes of Avalanche Peak

Mt Rolleston peaks up behind the slope of Avalanche Peak

Avalanche Peak route disappearing up the slope

Yellow poles mark the route

Avalanche Peak's scree field

 

At the top of the path next to the scree field lay a cluster of large boulders that needed to be scrambled over, and then the narrow ridgeline of Avalanche Peak opened up before us. The width varied between a narrow track on a ledge next to some rocks that only 1 person could sidle along, to wider areas that a few people could sit on. As it was, the unmarked summit (1833m/6014ft altitude) could sit about 6 of us comfortably whilst allowing a little space for others to move around us. Summiting just shy of 2hrs 45mins after starting, I joined my companion who had made it in less time, and we joined some others in a spot of lunch at the summit with a ream of mountain tops for company. It was simply stunning, and worth every drop of sweat on the way up.

The path already travelled

Hikers in the distance on the narrow ridge of Avalanche Peak

Arthur's Pass National Park

Sitting on the rocky summit of Avalanche Peak

The glacier on nearby Mt Rolleston

Summit view south

Summit view north & east

Summit view west

 

With the lack of wind, despite being autumn, it wasn’t too cold at the top, and there was little rush to leave. We saw some hikers head off the track onto the lower ridge that leads to Mt Rolleston, and still there were more and more people arriving on the upper reaches of Avalanche Peak. After about half an hour we set off, back across the narrow ridgeline towards the boulder cluster, and here the two tracks split. The Avalanche Peak track had been dotted with yellow poles, but this time, we followed the orange poles down Scott’s track.

Views over Arthur's Pass National Park

 

Whilst still steep in places, it was a much easier track to follow down, initially dropping off down the side of some impressive bluffs before rolling down a gentle slope towards the treeline. From this track, the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall was clearly visible across the valley on the opposite mountain, and it remained in view for most of the hike down. It was easy to see the west coast road continue north through the valley from here, and only now as we reached some of the lower slopes, did the wind pick up a little. It took only an hour to reach the treeline again, from where it was just another hour to reach the end of the track on the west coast road.

Bluffs in Arthur's Pass National Park

Hikers on the Scott's track above the bluffs

Tiny hiker next to large bluffs

Mountain tarn

Looking across to the far side of the valley

Looking back up Scott's track

 

Although the path wound its way through the lower forest, the canopy was still open enough to afford a good view for the vast majority of the descent. There was still a lot of need to watch footing through tree branches, streams and over rocks, but there was plenty of opportunity to soak up the view and the image of the waterfall changed as the perspective altered and I took my time going down to enjoy this. My companion reached the end of the track a little ahead of me as I had gone a little snap happy, but still, we were back in the village in a respectable 5.5hrs.

The far side of the valley with waterfall framed int he trees

Descending towards the west coast road

Arthur's Pass village in the valley

Full height of Devil's Punchbowl waterfall

 

Although for most people, Arthur’s Pass village is a convenience stop on route from coast to coast, it does have a few places to sleep as well as a couple of cafes, a small convenience store and a train station, so it is a useful place to make as a base for exploring some local hikes. Aside from the nearby mountains, there are also a few lower-level hikes, and the most popular is the walk to the base of the Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall. The DOC website lists the Avalanche Peak as 4-5hrs each way which is certainly being generous, but it is definitely a hike requiring a good bit of fitness, and the upper sections definitely need respect in poorer weather conditions. But steep as it was, this is now a firm favourite amongst the many hikes I’ve now down in New Zealand.

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.

Bealey Spur Track

A morning without an alarm wake-up call is like gold-dust to me, and usually occurs on those hallowed Sundays when I don’t have work or exercise classes or other commitments to get up for. But after an unseasonably early cold snap in April, it was too much temptation to fore-go my beloved lie-in to make the most of a forecasted sunny autumnal May Sunday. Christchurch itself was shadowed under low-lying cloud when I set off early in the cold morning, and it was nearly an hour of driving through cloud and fog before the blue sky and sunshine was seen. But 2hrs to the west of the Garden City, nestled in Arthur’s Pass National Park, the sky was cloudless and it was a gorgeous day.

State Highway 73 is rightly classed as a scenic highway, and traverses the Southern Alps on its way to the west coast. Crossing between the Big Ben Range and Torlesse Range at Porters Pass, it continues past the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream Scenic Reserve; the reflective waters of Lake Pearson; and eventually hugging the wide expanse of the Waimakariri river bed. Without much warning, the little settlement of Bealey Spur nestled amongst the trees comes in to view on a hillock, and from here the Bealey Spur Track starts. The car park for this walk is next to the highway at the bottom of the road that leads up through the settlement. By the highest house in the settlement, the path starts heading off through the forest.

View from the Bealey Spur Car park

Start of the hike

 

The early track trudges through the beech forest, with no real view to speak of and the path at this time of year was quite muddy in places. After a while, the trees open up, and the steep slope of Mt Bruce comes in to view with the sound of the rapids of Bruce stream heard down below. A couple of spots allow for a fantastic view of this neighbouring mountainside, but with a sheer drop to the river below, some caution is required near the edge. Further up the track, the taller vegetation opens up more and the first views back down on the Waimakariri river valley are achieved.

Beech forest

Mt Bruce

Waimakariri river valley

 

Crossing a landscape of tussock and alpine plants, the stony path follows the line of the spur, gaining altitude in a relatively gentle manner. Around the halfway mark for the hike, a fantastic viewing point is reached overlooking Turkey Flat and Klondyke Corner where the road turns to follow the Bealey river up towards Arthur Pass village, 14km to the north. After a brief spell through more beech trees, and reaching 1000m (3281ft), a boardwalk leads across an open alpine section where a collection of tarns can be found. With the sun quite low at this time of year, a couple of the smaller tarns, still in shadow, were covered in a thin layer of ice. In the distance, Mt Bealey and Mt Stewart, covered in snow, peaked above the horizon.

Alpine vegetation

Looking down on Turkey Flat

Klondyke Corner

Looking down river

Reflections in a tarn

 

Rounding the smaller tarns before skirting past more beech trees, the path climbs again to another stunning viewing area again looking over to Mt Bealey and Mt Stewart across the Waimakariri river valley as well as looking down on the largest of the tarns. This is the last of the viewing areas before the track disappears into the forest again, emerging only once the Bealey Spurs hut is reached at 1230m (4035ft) altitude. The hut itself is classed as historic, having been built in 1935, and sits at the edge of the clearing which marks the end of the hike. Bealey Spur itself can be hiked for a further 1.5hrs one-way but the track is unmarked and therefore this section requires some experience in back-country off-piste hiking.

Looking down on a large tarn

Bealey Spur hut

 

Whilst the hut itself acts as a good location for a stop-over (and indeed it can sleep 6 people), the lack of view meant that most of the hikers I came across this day, opted not to stay there for any length of time. I ate my lunch in peace and solitude before making the return journey. This time, on the way down, the full view of the valley is evident in front of you, making for just as enjoyable a walk down as the way up. Taking my time, the whole walk took just over 4hrs return, and despite mud and stones, the track itself is of a reasonably good quality. Heading back to Christchurch on the scenic highway, the autumn yellow on the leaves by the river brightened up the already gorgeous drive home.

Looking up the Bealey river valley

Tarn and river valley

Waimakariri river valley

Autumn yellow

Roys Peak

I could live my whole life in New Zealand, and still have explored only a mere sample of it. There’s simply an overwhelming choice of places to go. As an avid hiker (or tramper, depending on where you’re from), I love getting out into the countryside, no matter where I am in the world. I may have only been there once, but Wanaka in New Zealand’s South Island, remains one of my favourite parts of the country. It is a place of paradise for outdoor lovers. On the bank of a large lake, it is near mountains, glaciers and ski fields. Year round, there is plenty of choice for adventure, whilst remaining much more quiet and idyllic than its better known neighbour, Queenstown.

 

The town of Wanaka lays subtly sprawled along the shore round Roys Bay and Bremner Bay and the vista from the waterfront is spectacular. The water sparkles, and the mountains rise up from the far side and as you inhale the air around you, the freshness invades your pores and brings a glow of total happiness to your body.

Looking round the western side of Roys Bay, stands Roys Peak at 1578m, my favourite hike to do in the area. By car, heading round the western edge of Lake Wanaka on Wanaka-Mount Aspiring Road, a car park will be found on the left from where the hike up begins. But even without a car, it is accessible from the town itself.

Lake Wanaka

Roys Peak

 

For me, I had arrived by bus, and was keen to explore the area on my own two legs. Following the shoreline promenade, a path takes you through the edge of a resort and along the Te Araroa trail which eventually becomes the Waterfall Creek Track. This track follows the lake side all the way round to Glendhu Bay, but long before this, a sign directs you up another track across private land to the road across from the car park which marks the start of the hike.

The path itself for a large part of it is broad enough for a vehicle to drive up it, and livestock can at times be wandering around the area. It gains height in zig-zag fashion, resulting in a steady gain in altitude without a severe gradient. Behind and to the side of you as you work your way up the mountainside, Wanaka gets smaller and smaller, and more of the lake and its surrounding mountains spread out for miles around. Eventually the town disappears out of view and the long main stretch of the lake is visible in its entirety.

Lower Roys Peak

WanakaPath leading along the lower ridge line

 

About two thirds of the way up, a path leads across a lower neighbouring ridge line and from here, as well as near the top where the path skirts round the northern aspect of the summit, the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park become visible on the horizon. In every direction the view is unbelievable, and even rounding the summit edge, and reaching the top, it is breathtaking. The lake, the mountains, the town, and pastures spread out around you, and the day I was up there, two peregrine falcons mobbed each other, dipping and diving around those of us at the summit. With a fresh layer of snow on the distant mountains, there was a nip in the air at the summit, but it didn’t deter me from spending a long time up there breathing it all in. It was a popular walk that day, and well worth the effort. On such a clear day, I could see for miles.

Glendhu Bay, Lake Wanaka

Glendhu Bay from near the summit

Lake Wanaka Panorama

 

I was exceedingly reluctant to leave, but at least on the way down, I was staring out at the changing vista the whole way, and there was a steady stream of people to smile at and say hello to as they worked their way up. I even followed the spur track along the neighbouring ridge line as well. Down at the car park is the only toilet on the whole walk, but retracing your steps takes you back down to the lake side, and back into town for a well earned drink at the pub of your choice.

Lake Wanaka from the ridge line spur track

Wanaka

The view on the way down

The bottom of Roys Peak

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