MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Southern Alps”

Tekapo Time

In the years I’ve lived in New Zealand’s South Island, the settlement of Tekapo has changed quite a bit. My first memory of it from 2012 is of a quiet little township in a gorgeous location. Within a few years, as tourism numbers in the country soared, it became synonymous with bus loads of tourists and ‘Influencers’ posing next to the lake, the lupins and the church. It’s still small, but there’s certainly been a good bit of development, one of which has been the brand spanking new YHA hostel as well as the observatory just along the road. Shortly after the hostel opened, I headed to stay there in January 2020. The C-word had been increasingly prevalent on the news but in our innocence and naivety, I thought little of it, other than being aware that Chinese New Year was just around the corner, and that flights from China into New Zealand were being restricted.

It’s a familiar drive across the Canterbury Plains and a mountain pass to get there from Christchurch, so I was there by mid-day, too soon to check in. It wasn’t the sunniest of days, but the outlook at the lake is divine so it was nice to take a wander along the lake shore before circling back. Integrated into the new hostel is a little burger bar which made a nice chill spot to wait out the remaining time until check-in. The clouds were just starting to part a bit as the afternoon wore on, and having gotten into the room and headed back outside again, a walk round the side of the building revealed a gloriously huge mirrored window spanning the two storeys of the gable end. It reflected the lake and the clouds and was simply stunning.

 

Some days, wind whips across the length of the lake creating waves, and this was one of those days. Walking along the lakeside and across the bridge past the Church of the Good Shepherd, the waves accompanied me, splashing against the many rocks on the shore. There were certainly still tourists about, but it was noticeably quieter than usual, the start of stranger times ahead. At this far end I could see glacier-like clouds snaking down the nearby mountain valleys, a really cool effect that I’ve seen several times here. The flowers along the path edge were in full summer bloom with bees floating around the invasive thistles and lupins that adorned the place. With long summer days, there was still hours of light left when I meandered back to the hostel ahead of dinner, and now the clouds had cleared enough to create an even more impressive reflection on the gable wall.

 

Tekapo sits within the Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve, an internationally recognised region for optimum stargazing and astrophotography. When at last it was dark enough to see some celestial light, I headed round to the waterfront, crossing the arched bridge that was illuminated with downlighting. The lights in the town are specialised to minimise light pollution, meaning that both in town as well as up on the nearby Mt John hillside, there is ample opportunity to see some stars and planets without having to go far.

The next day was hot. Soaring towards the 30s with cloudless skies above. I’d booked a tour of the new observatory for mid-morning which allowed enough time to take another walk along the waterfront first. The guide was great at talking about the stars and planets for a mixed audience as we walked through a series of rooms covering various aspects of the local night sky. In one room there were large bright red orbs representing either stars or planets, and at the end we came out in the observatory itself with the giant telescope which we got to watch rotate and move. I love looking up at the stars on a warm night, so this place was really interesting for me.

 

It was time to get out in the heat and have some fun. My companion wanted to go to the hot pools but I couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting in thermal pools on such a hot day. I had my eyes on the seasonal offerings at the Tekapo Springs complex, in particular the giant bouncy house they set up in the summer months. Most of it was under the direct hit of the sun, making the tarpaulin a little hot under foot, but I was all over it, and thanks to the heat, mostly had the giant playground to myself. My day to day job is exceedingly stressful and tiring, so letting my hair down at that point was just what I needed. I ran round and round the place, bouncing through obstacle tunnels, sliding down giant slides, climbing inflatable towers and throwing velcro balls at a giant inflatable dart board. Only when the heat got too much did I head inside the cafe to grab some water. But once I’d cooled down I was straight back out again to enjoy it once more.

 

Despite the ample opportunity in New Zealand, I’m not a particular fan of swimming in lakes. Partly it’s because I spend a lot of my time travelling solo, and partly it’s because I’m never quite sure what’s under the water. I hate the feeling of vegetation against my legs when I’m swimming or the discomfort of wading out over stony sediments, so rarely bother. However it was so hot on this occasion and there were so many people in the lake enjoying the water, that my companion didn’t have to work hard to convince me to get in. Of course Lake Tekapo is a glacial lake, so even with an air temperature of 31oC, the water was comparatively frigid, and it necessitated either dancing whilst talking to people, or continuously moving to save from getting a chill.

The evening light was gorgeous so I needed no encouragement at all to follow the foreshore with my camera to find a spot to watch the sunset. The surrounding hills turned a shade of red and a light breeze created small waves against the rocks once more. As I sat, I got quite irked about a trio of freedom campers who proceeded to head into the water and use products to bathe and wash their hair, the soapy remnants floating across the water’s surface. It amazes me how little people realise (or perhaps care about) the damage that even small quantities of these products can do to the lake and the shore. Dilution effect is neither accurate nor a good enough excuse, and especially in a sedimentary lake formed from glacial outflow. What’s more frustrating to me is that my introvertedness always prevents me from speaking up. I could hear from their conversation that they were French, and instead of speaking to them at all, I practiced the necessary French in my head, thinking it wouldn’t be so confronting if I spoke to them in their own language. Instead, I angrily stewed internally, and never let out a peep. Sadly, freedom campers had been starting to get a bad rep in New Zealand prior to the border closures of COVID that has since kept many of them out of the country. This incident wasn’t helping their reputation.

 

The stars eventually took my mind off it when it was at last dark enough to see them in all their glory. As I had sat on my rock, more and more people had gathered, and despite Tekapo having seemed relatively quiet during the day, the night brought hordes of people to the area around the church, including a couple of coaches that dumped a large crowd of people out of them. I hadn’t brought my tripod with me and I’m still learning how to get the best out of my camera in low light, so I tried very hard, but never really got an acceptable astro photo. When a chill hit around midnight, I weaved my way through the crowds to head back to bed.

 

The clouds were back the following day, but it was still warm and sunny. After breakfast at a local cafe it was time for a final wander around before heading home to Christchurch. The C-word continued to trickle through day after day as New Zealand watched events play out abroad. But it was summer, and I had some exciting plans coming up the following month to look forward to, including somewhere I’d been wanting to get to for years.

Summer Vibes in the Garden City

January 2020 marked 8 years since I’d moved to New Zealand. The start of the year came with no great fanfare but I had so many plans for the coming year including getting home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I was excited, and the early news reports of a new virus trickling out from China did little to dampen my spirits. When I wasn’t working, I was intent on making the most of my days off whilst the summer weather was at its best, dotting around Christchurch from the city to the suburbs as my mood took me.

On the day that marked my 8-year anniversary, I found myself down at New Brighton beach. The pier there is an iconic Christchurch landscape and despite the wind that was whipping up, there were plenty of people out and about. After the recent hiking I’d done a couple of weeks prior, I was in no great desire to walk the full length of the beach, but I did go for a bit of a toddle down the sand, listening to the surf and daydreaming. Coming here reminds me of the long walks I used to take in Aberdeenshire, walking north from Balmedie to Newburgh. Listening to the sound of crashing waves is one of my favourite things to do and is an instant mood lifter for me. I walked under the pier before heading round to the stairs to walk out on it, a long meander out over the sea where couples stroll hand-in-hand and locals stand with fishing lines cast off into the surf. For me, there’s something quintessentially Trans-Tasman about it, as it always evokes memories of time spent in both Australia and New Zealand.

 

The following weekend I made use of my annual pass for the Christchurch Gondola, heading round to Heathcote to take the cable car up Mt Cavendish. The views from the Port Hills over Lyttelton Harbour and Pegasus Bay are some of my favourite viewpoints in the city. It was another gorgeous day and both the sea and the sky were a brilliant blue. I enjoyed lunch at the cafe at the top before wandering around the platform and then down onto the hilltop to watch the clouds moving in from the sea, dotted across the sky.

 

I was spoiled once more the next weekend when the sun was out in force again. After all these years living in Christchurch, I’d watched the city be reborn and there is so much of the new city that I really love. I need little excuse to visit Riverside Market or walk alongside the River Avon, and I especially love to walk through the Botanic Gardens in either spring or summer. The meadow flowers in the Gardens were in full swing and they were alive with bumble bees going about their business. The colours of the flowers were gorgeous with vibrant reds and yellows popping out of the display.

 

The rose garden was also in its prime by this point in the year, and is always full of people admiring the bushes with their blooms. On this occasion, there weren’t too many people there which meant I could actually take some photos without feeling like I was intruding on people posing for the ‘Gram. As I continued through the Gardens towards Canterbury Museum I noticed some new metal sculptures of a couple of deer grazing under a tree.

 

But I was really there that day to visit the museum which had a temporary exhibit called ‘Squawkzilla and the Giants’ about the prehistoric giant birds that roamed New Zealand around 60 million years ago. Before I moved here, I’d never heard of the country’s endemic parrots, the kea and kaka, nor did I know that penguins lived here. It’s not hard to love these bird species once you’ve seen them in the wild, so I was as happy as the kids that visited to come face to face with 1m and 1.5m tall penguins that used to call New Zealand home. It’s strange to thing that there used to be a penguin as tall as a human that waddled along the beaches here.

Before visiting this exhibit, I hadn’t realised that New Zealand used to have crocodiles. I always think of our neighbour across the Tasman as being the crocodile country, but apparently 40 million years ago, so were we. Then finally, I came face to face with squawkzilla, a human-sized parrot which looked very much like a giant kaka. The rest of the museum houses mostly static exhibits which I’ve been through many times before, so I took a quick whizz through a couple of them before heading back out into the sunshine.

I took a different route back through the Botanic Gardens to reach my car. This led me past the long stretch of flowers that leads up the wall next to the College. There were more bees buzzing around and when I reached the rose garden again, I wandered round the flower bed at its perimeter before heading into the nearby conservatory to get a view from the balcony on the first floor. There was a few more people milling about the roses by now, and plenty of people up on the balcony also. The following weekend I was to have the first of many planned trips away from home, but these first few weeks of 2020 had reminded me how much I love living in the Garden City.

Return to the Mountains

After a poor night’s sleep camping through strong winds, I left Mt Thomas scenic reserve behind and continued past Glentui and Ashley Gorge to reach Oxford. I didn’t have enough supplies for the day, but thankfully the supermarket was open and I could stock up before continuing to the Coopers Creek car park to start the day’s hike. I’d hiked Mt Oxford many years ago and knew it was an arduous hike. In my head I figured I’d just hike the summit track and return the same way, so I left my car behind to start the long hike through the valley to reach the start of the climb.

The lower section is among forest and here I was overtaken by a man running the trail. Like the day before, I felt a little unfit as the track became steep, trying to tell myself it was just the heat. I’d set off before 9am but the sun felt hot above me. At the first break in the trees however, I looked behind me and realised a blanket of fog was creeping across the Canterbury Plains. The higher I got, the closer the cloud bank got, such that as I reached the more open upper ridges, the Plains were completely obliterated from view. It was pretty cool, a phenomenon I’ve seen only a handful of times from above the cloud line. Like the day before, it got windier the higher I got and the edge of the blanket seemed to wisp around itself, fingers creeping and retreating into the gullies between the lower ridges.

 

Mt Oxford is a series of false summits until at last the track rolls onto the true summit at 1364m (4475ft). I had to hunker down to shield myself from the wind while I ate some food, watching the cloud roll in and out and the wisps puff up and then retreat. I’d summited a little after 11.30am and with so many hours ahead of me, I knew I should do the longer route back across the far ridge, even though I remembered how much I hated its monotony last time. Despite this, I was in training, and needed to keep the momentum going, so despite knowing I’d get frustrated, I took off across the summit, bracing against the wind.

It’s an easy but exposed track to follow across the bare ridge before it eventually cuts back into the forest. I recalled from last time that the time on the sign underestimated this section so this time I was prepared for that. As I reached the forest once more, I could see how much the cloud had piled in and how much it was desperately trying to push up the mountain side. It was mesmerising to watch though, and I paused for a bit to do so before losing sight of it as the trees closed around me. As the track cut down the mountainside it became eerie as soon I was within the cloud. It was cooler suddenly and any gaps in the trees offered no views other than the wisps of cloud that swirled around. It made the descent through the forest much more enjoyable as I simply breathed the mist in, merely guessing where I was with my sense of altitude dimmed.

 

When at last I reached the Korimako track that I’d taken to Ryde Falls the last time I’d been here, I continued straight this time, taking an alternate route towards a different car park then cutting away to trudge the long route back to Coopers Creek. This alternate route was muddy and undulating, but it was busy because it formed a loop track to Ryde Falls, which seemed popular. The low cloud continued the whole arduous slog back, and I finally returned to my car about 7hrs after setting off.

 

The following week, I joined two local walks together, parking at the Christchurch Gondola car park to hike the Bridle Path over the Port Hills to Lyttelton Harbour. The Bridle Path is a popular local walk, but it is rough and steep underfoot, making it a good slog that isn’t to everyone’s tastes. It zig-zags its way up to summit road and from there it zig-zags its way down the other side, reaching the road by Lyttelton tunnel. I’ve walked this track from end-to-end as well as just up to Summit Road and back, and on several occasions have combined it with trips to the gondola station. This time, I was heading to the harbour, grabbing food at a local cafe before heading down to the port to catch the ferry across to Diamond Harbour.

 

Once on Banks Peninsula, a track leads from near the wharf deep into the lower forests and up a gradual slope to reach farmland where the most popular route up to Mt Herbert leads from. I’ve hiked Mt Herbert multiple times, using 3 different routes up, but this one I’ve done the most. The ferry ride over is an added bonus to this hike that I like to tack on, but it does mean the hike has to be to a timetable in order to catch the ferry back over at the end of the day. Once again there was a recurring theme of feeling slow. I’ve definitely noticed that hiking with poles takes me longer than hiking without them. But with my knees starting to show wear and tear, I feel that using them is a necessary evil. But it is hard to accept at times that I’m not making records when I return to hike mountains I’ve previously summited. Despite the amount of walking I was doing lately, I couldn’t help feel that it was my fitness that was the problem.

Having caught the 11am ferry, I was relatively late to head up through the farmland, and I watched sadly as several people sped ahead of me and several people passed me heading down. The route however was familiar and I knew what to expect ahead. When at last I reached the summit (919m/3015ft), there was hardly anyone around and I might as well have had it to myself. Mindful of the ferry times I didn’t stay up long before heading back down. Going down was straightforward, but as is often the case, the clouds had piled in over Christchurch and it looked a little dull. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a music festival on at Diamond Harbour so when I reached the pier there was a massive queue for the ferry. Normally only once an hour at this time of the day, the ferry company thankfully agreed to do multiple runs to lighten the load. I wasn’t successful at making it on the first sailing, but was able to get on the second one. I still had the return hike over the Bridle Path to do, so I was eager to get back and get going. When at last I reached my car once more I’d been on my feet for 8hrs and was eager to be done.

 

Just 2 weeks later, I found myself on my final training hike ahead of the toughest hike of my life. I was to leave the country in just 2 days and the anticipation was starting to get real. I took the familiar drive into the Canterbury foothills and found myself on the edge of a cloud blanket that was slowly creeping in from the east. This last hike was a return to Mt Somers, a hike that I’d found challenging the first time round, and one that was a decent length and steepness to make me feel like I was getting a good last workout. Again I felt my poles slowing me down and I took longer to hike the lower slopes through the forest and across the rising ridges to reach the summit route junction. I focused on the task at hand, aware of people overtaking me regularly. Wisps of cloud had initially hugged the side of the mountain and as I climbed I saw the cloud holding off a little distance away.

 

It was another scorching day, and the 30 degree heat got the better of me. I was struggling, wheezing for breath and having to stop often. I’m not entirely sure what was wrong those last few hikes. It had been hot, but it wasn’t the first time I’d hiked in the heat. I was using poles, but they shouldn’t have made me tired and breathless. I’d had a vaccine ahead of my travels but that had been weeks before. Something just wasn’t right, I felt super unfit now despite the regular hikes and it was starting to concern me. Up and up I went, struggling but stubborn. I reached scree and then boulders and the marked route became a matter of picking a way up and across between distant orange poles. When at last I reached the final push towards the summit, I saw that the clouds had moved in, and like the few weeks prior at Mt Oxford, they tried desperately to sneak up the side of the mountain. I needed a break and rested at the summit, but as the clouds crept higher up the slopes, I was conscious of the fact that I needed good visibility to follow the markers in a few of the lower sections. I was caught between catching a break and wanting to rush back down before I risked losing my way.

 

It had taken me so long to get up there, that I was one of only 3 people left at the summit. The other 2 started to head down as I finished my food, and wary of getting into trouble if the clouds became a problem, I didn’t waste much time following suit. It was a needless worry in the end. As much as the clouds tried to wisp upwards, they never really made much progress, and I made better time on the descent, watching the blanket gradually dissipate as I neared its altitude. By the time I was back down at the track junction to follow the Mount Somers Route back to the car park, I had a clear view across the Plains. It took me 8hrs from start to finish, a lot longer than I’d taken the first time I’d gotten up. I was disappointed, but I headed as usual to grab my favourite post-hike treat: nachos and ice-coffee at C1 Espresso in Christchurch. Hiking is a good excuse for me to have a bit of a pig-out afterwards. I wouldn’t be surprised if I eat more calories after a hike than I actually lose on the hike. Maybe that was my problem. Maybe that was why I was struggling on these last few hikes. But there was no time left to wonder. Because 2 days later, I was off on a great adventure.

Mount Thomas (Ridge Route)

With a need to take every opportunity I could to go hiking ahead of an upcoming mammoth of a trek, despite having to work in the morning and a class in the early afternoon, I set off mid-afternoon to go to Mt Thomas Forest Conservation Area. I previously hiked Mt Thomas back in 2015 and had summited to no view when the clouds descended as I ascended. I had made a couple of attempts to go back in 2018 and been thwarted by the weather each time. Now, in January 2019, I was confident the weather was in my favour. With another hike planned for the following day, I reached the Wooded Gully campsite and set up my tent for the night, choosing to camp out rather than go home. By the time I’d done that and got my hiking boots on, it was after 4pm, but with the long day to my advantage, I set off to hike Mt Thomas for the second time.

Almost immediately after leaving the campsite behind and taking the direct summit track, I was shocked by the difference. Part of the forest in the lower part of the hike had been felled and this left a giant scar in the landscape: a muddy, roughened track of clay-like dirt amidst a mess of tree stumps and abandoned branches. This also left me totally exposed to the hot summer sun and with this part of the track being especially steep, I suddenly felt immensely unfit and had to stop often to catch my breath. It worried me a little. This hike was nothing compared to what was to come the following month and I couldn’t help but chastise myself for struggling with this track. Reaching the forest only offered relief from the sun but the steepness of the hike continued.

It was only in the last 100m altitude gain that the forest opened back up again and the view across the ridge stood before me. It was at this point last time that I’d found myself in dense cloud, so it was great to finally see the vista that I had missed. Looking behind me, I could make out the expanse of the Canterbury Plains. After this short section, the track reaches a forestry road which then leads the way to the summit at 1023m (3356ft). It was very windy but at least without the cloud this time, I could see inland across the outer reaches of the Southern Alps, and seaward to the sweeping arc of Pegasus Bay and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. The heat had not browned the vegetation here, and everything looked green and beautiful. I had the place to myself, unsurprising considering how late in the day it was. I would never normally hike up a mountain this late myself, but on this occasion it had worked out well.

 

From the summit there are a multitude of walks to take. It is possible to return the way you’ve come, or to cross the ridge and take the Wooded Gully track or the Ridge track, both of which lead back to the campsite; or continue across the mountain tops and follow a track deep into the mountains to a bivvy for an overnight hike (Bob’s Camp route). Having done the Wooded Gully track last time, I opted for the Ridge track this time round, to make it a longer hike, and to prevent monotony. Crossing the ridge was exposed with a crosswind, and I was quick to make work of this section of the trail. I passed the Wooded Gully turn-off in no time at all, but the junction I needed for the Ridge track took a little longer than anticipated to reach. When at last it appeared, the sign offered 5 different hiking options to choose from. My campsite was listed as 2.5hrs walk away, and the angle of the sun was starting to lower.

Almost immediately the track delved deep into the forest, and this it shared with the Wooded Gully track. What differed though, was the route it took back. Whereas the Gully track almost immediately lost altitude to follow the lower slopes of the hillside down, this one remained up on the ridge as the name would suggest. In fact the drop in altitude was so gradual that for a long time it felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere nearer to my destination. Deep within the forest it was hard to tell what altitude I was at as the views were few and far between. The bird life was minimal and the wind caused a lot of tree movement. At one point, a large tree had fallen over and the path had to skirt round the base which had been ripped up in the process. I wondered whether I was at risk of some of the flimsier trees falling down around me.

 

Eventually as the drop in altitude finally became noticeable, the forest proper suddenly came to an abrupt end, reaching a clearing which was scattered with young forest starting to push up at its margins. Finally I could see the Canterbury Plains again but I was still quite high up. As I got lower though, I reentered the active forestry zone and once more I found myself among tree stumps and a churned up and degraded track. In the process of deforesting this section, a few of the hiking markers appeared to have been lost and it was purely common sense taking me in the right direction. I knew I was on the look out for a forestry road and eventually I reached it at a large wasteland where abandoned tree limbs had been piled high at the margin. My topographical map had me follow the road to the next bend and then another track would lead me through the forest but as I trudged down the 4×4 track, this next track never materialised. I briefly clambered over some logs in search of it, but alas could not find it. Luckily the forestry road would take me to the same place, albeit with a few more bends so I just kept going.

 

I had seen not a single person on the whole hike, apart from a couple heading down right as I was setting off. But when I returned to the campsite there was a lot of activity and even more people had set up camp since I’d left it 4hrs prior. I finished at 8pm, ready for dinner, and had to make a wind break to stop my stove being blown out. Being next to the river, the sandflies of course were in full-on hounding mode and as soon as I’d eaten, I was straight into my tent to escape them. Despite being deep in the gully, the wind that I’d hiked through continued to pick up strength and seemed to just whip through the gully, rattling my tent and creaking the overhead trees. In fact it got so strong in the night that I couldn’t sleep from the noise as well as the concern that a tree might end up on top of me. In the early hours of the morning, I even got into my car and tried to sleep in there. Although I felt safer, it was so uncomfortable that I didn’t really feel any better off. Eventually, eager to get horizontal, I crept back to my tent sometime later, finally dozing for a few hours before the morning sun lit up my canvas. I love camping but I hate it at the same time. I never sleep well but there’s something kind of fun and isolating about it that makes me do it over and over again. But needless to say, having been stimulated by the increasing brightness of yet another sunny day, I arose early, shoved my camping gear in the boot of the car, and headed off for another day of hiking.

Saint James Walkway – Return to Civilisation

Of the three of us that spent the night at Anne Hut I was the last to leave on my third morning of the tramp. Leaving the hut behind, the route crossed an open expanse of ground before dropping down to the bank of a river where the route turned south. There was some vague sunshine in the sky but the threat of clouds was constantly there as they swirled around above me, blocking and unblocking the sun at irregular intervals. It wasn’t long to reach a bridge across the river and once on the far bank it continued to follow the water as it flowed at varying depths to my side. After a while, the ground underfoot became a little boggy and at an incline in the bank the track disappeared. I back-tracked a little to retrace my steps, got my map out and scoured the scene in front of me. Finally I spotted an orange marker far in the distance and came to realise that the bank had collapsed, and with it a portion of the track. I was left with two options: get my feet wet in the river or go bush-whacking.

 

I found a vague worn patch that suggested others had chosen the trees so with my large backpack to catch every possible branch as I passed, I fought my way through the thick foliage, up and over the raised embankment and down the other side where I found the trail again. Not far after that, the ground became a swamp, and with an orange marker on the far side, I had to pick my way through the boggy mess to get to it. Once there though, and through the next section of trees, the landscape opened up a little and I found myself on a boardwalk crossing an open area with rolling mountains all around me. The boardwalk led down to another bridge to take me back across the same river.

 

Looking back I could see a snow-topped peak and looking ahead of me, the river grew thinner as I walked, becoming less obvious the further through the valley I went. Stony remnants of avalanche slopes scarred the forests that grew on the slopes and the vibe of the hike changed as I continued south towards the next curve in the track at Kia Stream. By the time I was heading west again, it was a large grassy expanse with the river hidden out of view until a little before the climb began. Once back in the trees, there was the final climb to Anne Saddle at 1136m (3727ft).

 

Coming down the other side, the weather was totally different. By the time I reached the bottom, it was raining and I could see rain clouds either side of me. It started as a drizzle then grew heavier as I walked. The trail grew a little marshy under foot in places, but thankfully the rain reduced to drizzle after a while. This section of the trail was a little uninteresting and when it went back into the trees it was under construction with evidence of trail maintenance and diversions in place. It then felt like a long time to reach the bridge marked on the map. The walking was easy but the trail had lost its interest so it was very much a trudge under a couple of embankments and along side another river until finally an incline signalled that I was at Rokeby Hut.

 

The hut was a great spot to get my bag off my back for a bit and have some lunch. I took a nosy inside but as I sat outside eating, I was descended upon by sandflies, the flying/biting nuisance of being near a waterway in New Zealand. In the end, their annoyance spurred me to get going and I slung my bag on my back once more to push ever south. Across another bridge, the track followed what was now the Boyle river. In a torrent down stream, I watched some goslings white water rafting as their parents tried desperately to keep them from being swept away. Where the track kept low to the river, I once again found it disappear as another slip had caused the bank to collapse. Once more I chose bushwhacking over wet feet and struggled to push my way through the dense trees with my bulky bag.

 

The final stretch to Boyle Flat Hut felt like it went on for ever. It was pleasant enough with the bubbling water next to me but I was tired and keen to get my boots off. The river valley was nestled among some steep but pretty hillsides, and although initially narrow, the valley opened up a little ahead of the bridge which was finally spotted as I came up an incline. The metal swing bridge led me across the gushing Boyle river and through a small copse of trees to present me at the hut. The same hiker from the previous nights was already there and we were later joined by some hikers heading in the opposite direction. Compared to Anne Hut, this one felt cold, dark and damp. I was glad for the shelter though when the rain began to fall heavily in the evening and the temperature dropped more at night fall. I was exceedingly glad to have my 3-season sleeping bag with me that night.

 

Waking up on the last morning of the hike, I was shocked to look out the window and see snow falling. Growing up in Scotland, I have so many memories of snow, but now living in Christchurch on the dry east coast, snow is a rarity so I was suddenly giddy and quickly pulled my boots and layers on so that I could go outside and watch it. There’s something so magical about the silence that accompanies snowfall. Even with the lightness of the fall, there was nothing to hear as the forest life and winds had gone quiet. The hillside and ground around the hut looked like icing sugar had been sprinkled on it, and after a while I headed back in for a warm breakfast.

 

Anticipating issues following the trail in the snow, the other hiker and myself decided to stick together for this last day, setting off as the snow eased but the clouds swirled round. At the bridge, I stopped to take a photo of her crossing it and accidentally let go of my brand new hiking poles, one of which slid down the steep embankment towards the gushing river below. I immediately tried to grab it without thinking about it and the weight of my bag nearly took me off my feet and down to the fast flowing river. After steadying myself, I dumped my bag and scrambled down the side, retrieving my pole and making it back up to the path intact. I quickly crossed the bridge to join my companion and we were off.

We took it in turns to lead and it wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the sun came out. The peppered snow remained on the hills but what was on the grass at our feet was quick to melt. Behind us, Boyle Flat Hut grew smaller and smaller until we could see it no more but it felt like no time before we reached the turn-off for Magdalen Hut. We had no need to visit this hut so took the swing bridge across Boyle river and almost immediately the track left the river behind and dove into a forest. The track was narrow and a little rough but easy to follow, and the views were reduced to snippets through breaks in the foliage. My companion’s pace was naturally quicker than mine and we started to separate a little here. She disappeared out of view after a while and every now and again I’d come round a corner and find her waiting, only for her to take off again when she realised I was ok.

 

After a change in direction from south to south-west, the path reached a break in the trees which allowed a view back up the valley. I could still see snow on the tallest peaks but by now the rest of it had melted. For a long stretch, the path teetered at the edge of the forest, idling by its side before cutting through the edge of it repeatedly. The Boyle river lay across the far side of the valley floor and eventually the path climbed up the hillside a little before disappearing back into the trees. I hadn’t seen my companion for some time now. She’d stopped waiting for me, our paces being too different, so I had no qualms about stopping and taking a break for a snack. Almost immediately, a South Island robin (kakaruwai) appeared and started flitting around me. These birds are so bold and inquisitive and it flew and hopped right up to me, watching me with a cocked head before flitting off to another branch and doing the same again. It was almost close enough to touch at several points and I think it knew I was eating nuts. It seemed to look hopeful for something but I never feed wildlife and did my best to make sure I didn’t contaminate the environment with any dropped portions.

 

Shortly after making tracks again, I met a hiker heading in the opposite direction. A brief chat revealed that my companion was about 10 minutes ahead of me, and shortly after that, the treeline broke and the path was up above the river. Cutting across a scree bank, the track headed back into the forest once more and it was a long amble to reach the final swing bridge back across the Boyle river. It felt like the end of the hike was in sight but in actual fact this last section seemed to take longer than I expected it to. Initially it was low to the river and suddenly the walking track was regularly crossed by horse riding trails. After a while it went up an incline again and the river seemed some way down below. Eventually, it intersected with a road and finally I was on the final descent down the hillside towards Boyle village. At the edge of the campgrounds, the trail stopped being marked and I picked a direction that I thought was the right one but turned out to circumnavigate the whole campground before finally depositing me at the Outdoor Centre that makes up Boyle village. The other hiker was lounging on a bench with a long wait till her bus to take her to the west coast. In the end, she’d completed about 15mins earlier than me, and as I was heading east, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

 

Back in the comfort of my car, I set off to head back to Christchurch but it was only lunchtime so I took the Hanmer Springs turn-off and at my new favourite cafe there I ordered a massive lunch before heading to Hanmer Springs. Nothing beats a soak in the hot pools, and after 4 days of hiking it was a joy to get in the thermal water. My new hiking boots felt well worn in ahead of the biggest hike of my life a couple of months later and my poles had survived too. It was shaping up to be a good summer of hiking.

Saint James Walkway – Reaching Anne Hut

I’m pretty spoiled for choice here when it comes to hiking options in New Zealand. With a multitude of short walks, half-day, full-day and multi-day options available around the country, the biggest obstacle that I have is having enough time off or energy to do them. Last November I had 4 days off work thanks to a fortuitously placed local public holiday, and with the biggest hike of my life in the pipeline, I was in need of some training. Nestled among the foothills of the Southern Alps near Lewis Pass is the St James Walkway, a 66km (41 mile) walk that traverses a sub-alpine zone. It is listed as a 5 day/4 night hike but I was confident that I could shave a day off, so I was planning on skipping a couple of the huts to walk it in 4 days/3 nights. Although traditionally started from a pull-in by a picnic site at the side of State Highway 7, and completed at the settlement of Boyle, it can be hiked in either direction. Irregardless of the route chosen, it does take a bit of arranging to either get dropped off at, or picked up from, the non-Boyle end of the hike.

I had an early start from Christchurch to make the arduous drive to Boyle settlement where I’d arranged a park and transfer with the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre. On arrival, it was just a matter of filling in some paperwork with my trip intentions and then the lady that worked there drove me in my car to the start of the hike before she would return with it to park it for me to collect later. The car park at the start of the hike had a good few empty cars in it, and it was a quick deposit before I found myself alone in the middle of the mountains. With my boots strapped up and my bag slung over my back, I was experimenting with hiking poles for the first time having been feeling my knees ache for some time on mountain descents.

A small lake near the car park formed a local nature walk, and it made a nice foreground for the snow-topped peaks behind it. The track continued past here across the sub-alpine meadow, crossing a river and cutting into the trees. A little further along, it cut down to a long swing-bridge that spanned the Maruia River and on the far side the track followed the bank of Cannibal Gorge. As I’d approached this bridge, I had heard voices, the first sign of other people on the trail. I caught up with them just across the bridge and discovered that one of their party knew me. I’m terrible with people out of context so took a minute to make the connection. They were travelling as a group of friends and family and were heading to Cannibal Gorge Hut to spend the night before heading back to the city. With kids in tow I was quick to leave them behind, their pace more casual than mine. There was a lot of undulation ahead and large sections of the track were deep within the forest, breaking the treeline where avalanche routes have scourged the mountainside. Most of these tree breaks had waterfalls trickling down through the rocks or the bush and they were a great distraction from the occasional monotony of this part of the hike.

 

I was distracted to my joy at a bend in the track by a South Island robin (kakaruwai). These birds are incredibly bold and inquisitive and love to come close and interact. They are an absolute joy to have as a hiking companion and I watched it a while before moving on. With all the waterfalls, there were more distractions than I had time for, but eventually I made a snack stop near one of them. Pushing on I eventually reached another swing bridge that meant I was near the hut. The avalanche route that this bridge crossed was littered with giant rocks and tree fall. There is a good reason that this hike is risky when there’s heavy snow above, and the multitude of avalanche warning signs on this first day of the hike really brought it home. But finally there was a change in scene as the route quickly dropped down to the bank of the Maruia River and out of the trees I found myself at a flat staring across to the mountain hut near the treeline.

 

Despite the grey skies, the back drop of the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps provided a dramatic backdrop to the Cannibal Gorge Hut which grew bigger and bigger as I crossed the grassy path to reach it. There was no-one to be seen when I made it, and I was quick to dump my stuff and take a nosy inside. These Department of Conservation (DoC) mountain huts can vary in size and quality, but this was one of the bigger ones, complete with separated bunk rooms and kitchen space. Whilst the group I’d passed earlier were staying here the night, this was just a stopping point for me. I ate whilst I wandered around inside, then sat for a while at the picnic table outside until the swarming sand flies started to drive me crazy. It was a good encouragement to push onwards, and as I slung my bag back over my shoulders to leave, I heard voices followed by the sight of children bursting from the forest.

 

Behind the hut I was immediately thrust back into the forest again, but this time the route kept low, mostly following the course of the Maruia River upstream. When it finally opened up into a clearing there was a striking view of a cone-like mountain top in front of me, and steep mountain slopes to my side. It seemed clear to me that these nearby peaks acted as a bit of a weather divide as I could see high up above the movement of poorer weather skirting round the mountain tops close by. There is so much hiking I’d love to do on the western half of the island, but the weather is notoriously wet, windy and unpredictable to the west of the divide and so it’s always hard to plan ahead. I was at the mercy of the weather Gods on this weekend, and I knew it could get a lot worse if it wanted to. But this clearing meant I was very close to my destination for the night. Crossing another bridge back to the original side of the Maruia River, there was only a short muddy section before I found myself at Ada Pass Hut, my rest stop for the night. There were already many people at the hut by the time I arrived. Several people from Christchurch were there for an overnight hike and would return to their car back at the start of the hike the next day. Another couple were going to walk to the next hut and then head back, and there was myself and another solo hiker that were walking the full St James Walkway. After nabbing a mattress, I headed out to explore the immediate surrounds but again the sand flies were out in full force and as the hours before darkness ticked by, more and more people arrived in the hut and it was full to the brim.

 

Inevitably on a multi-day hike there is a day that is way longer or more strenuous than the others. With compressing the 5 day hike into a 4 day hike, the second day on the trail was to be a long one. As the crow flies, my bed for that night was just on the other side of the peak behind Ada Pass Hut, but to reach there on foot meant circumnavigating a giant chunk of rock that made up a conglomerate of peaks, the highest of which was Philosophers Knob at 1921m (6302ft). After leaving the hut behind, my fellow multi-day hiker having left some time ahead of me, I was quick to reach Ava Pass (1008m/3307ft) which were it not for the sign to mark it, would have otherwise been non-descript. The forest here reminded me a little of the forests back in Scotland, especially those of the Rothiemurchus Estate in one of my favourite parts of the country. With grey skies above me and the absence of birdsong it felt a little bleak and I could feel a change in weather in the air.

From the pass, the track follows the valley floor with minor undulation. A lake with some waterfowl was a nice distraction from the trees, and beyond here a sign denoted yet another avalanche risk zone as it moved below some rather steep slopes. It was nice to be out of the trees though with the expansive open space allowing views up onto the nearby peaks and also a good distance ahead. Orange-tipped poles peppered the route and the trail was well-trodden and easy to follow. The bubbling stream nearby was also a welcome sound to the otherwise silent hike. There was no-one to see ahead of or behind me and it was easy to feel miles from civilisation – just what I want when I go hiking.

 

As the route continued, the view opened up more and although there was swirling rain clouds over the peaks of the Spenser Mountains, it was a spectacular view. Past Camera Gully the Ada River grew larger and at a notable change in track direction it intermingled with the Christopher River and from here the route lifted up a little enhancing the view even more. After the slightly uninteresting forested sections of the earlier parts of the hike, I was starting to love where I was, and even though I could see and feel rain moving in, I made a point of fully taking in the view as I walked, keeping a good pace without over-rushing it. After the change in direction I popped out at a historic hut, Christopher Cullers Hut. It was basic, effectively a tin-shed with a couple of bunks and a fireplace. It would make a good windbreaker or emergency shelter but I wouldn’t choose to stay here, especially as a proper hut was just 1km (0.62miles) further ahead.

 

An expansive valley floor led the way to Christopher Hut. Set within a fenced-off zone, a stile provided access and I arrived just as a fellow hiker was leaving. He was walking the St James in the opposite direction so was heading to Ada Pass Hut. He reported that the lady who was walking in the same direction as me had left just as he had arrived. After a brief further chat, he left me to it and as the sand flies quickly descended on me as I took my boots off, I got inside as quickly as possible, eager to make some lunch. I eat a lot of food when I’m hiking even although the calories often aren’t required. This kind of hike was about stamina rather than cardio but I needed little excuse to eat a good-sized lunch and the warm soup was a welcome source of heat. But I wasn’t even half-way through the day’s hiking yet so once finished and washed up, it was time to get back out and at it again.

 

By now the peaks behind me had disappeared in cloud. I only felt the occasional spot of rain but the hint of heavier falls haunted me for some time. I was now fully exposed with the continuing valley floor ahead of me, the river set apart from the track for some time before the two came back together again. Where they met I could see another valley begin to open up to the left and as I neared it I saw horses and eventually a homestead appear. At the confluence of the Ada and Waiau rivers, the track skirted the foot of Mt Federation. Coming down the Waiau Valley, the Waiau Pass track is part of the Te Araroa (TA), the full-country hike that traverses both islands from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Although the rivers and valleys merge here, the TA and St James walkway remain separate for some time, and following this new valley, the St James turned south onto Ada Flat.

 

Initially the track followed the river bank where the water was fast flowing and the river broad but a sudden change in direction of flow a little down the valley meant the track left the watercourse behind and an expanse of grassland and bog lay out beside me. The Waiau River valley coursed off in another direction as the St James walkway followed a separate valley in a south-westerly direction. The track started to undulate a little and included some boardwalks across some of the dips. Eventually the track joined up with the TA and here it expanded from a route to a 4×4 track through a low thicket. The DoC sign at the junction stated the hut was still 1.5hrs away, and whilst their signs are usually over-generous with time, I was a little disheartened to think there was still so much to go. It had been a long, though interesting hike, but I was eager to get off my feet.

 

Up and down the track went for a while until the route split off from the 4×4 track. The markers didn’t quite fit the topographical map I had for following the route but I put trust in the markers that were placed and sure enough they led me to a swing bridge across the Henry River. At the far side, the route was a narrow ledge that gradually cut down to the level of the river then swung away and towards it as it coursed along. After it rejoined the 4×4 track which had forded the river, it looked on the map like I should be close but the hut remained out of sight. FInally though, as I cut through a small group of low trees I saw it in the distance and my pace quickened as I quickly covered the distance across the flat ground to reach it. Anne Hut was massively exposed, slap bang in the middle of an expansive clearing in the wide valley so I laughed when I saw the graffiti on the sign at the door stating it was the most exposed hut in NZ. Clearly some people had sat through some very wild weather here.

 

For me though I was just glad to get my boots off. There was still a good bit of daylight ahead but there was a hiker asleep in the one bunkroom and the lady from the night before was also there. It turned out the third hiker was walking the TA and planned on pushing on to Boyle Settlement the next day, a 2 day hike away for myself and the other woman. Despite servicing both routes as well as a cycle trail, no other people showed up that night and it was just the three of us in a very large hut. It felt exceedingly spacious and bright, a total contrast to the Ada Hut which had been relatively small, cramped and dark in comparison. Without a pile of other snoring bodies to contend with, I was able to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a 3rd day of hiking that turned out to be more challenging than expected.

Winter in Tekapo

Last year, my partner and I only had two coinciding full weekends off the whole year, one in June and one in December. I don’t know whether a week day 9-5 job is still classed as the norm, but neither me nor my partner know that life and as such, scheduling weekends away far ahead of time is just how it rolls with us. So I had found us a nice place to stay on the shore of Lake Tekapo for a summer weekend break in December, but a change of plans meant rescheduling it for the June weekend instead and when that weekend rolled around, we duly headed off across the mountain passes to get there. As it turned out though, the weekend didn’t quite work out the way I had wanted it to.

Being in the middle of winter, there was enough snow on the surrounding mountains to paint a pretty picture. We arrived early enough to have several hours of daylight ahead of us and it was gloriously sunny, although cold. We couldn’t check in to our accommodation yet so we parked up in the main car park and wandered along the lake shore. I had been here 7 months prior on a road trip with my brother who was over visiting from Scotland, but my partner hadn’t been in quite some time and the village has undergone a bit of change since he’d last been. Yet more development was in the process even as we visited. It is one of so many changes occurring around New Zealand in response to massively increasing tourist numbers. I was beginning to feel a little under the weather that day, but not enough to stop me from enjoying a nice cocktail at the pub before we headed to check in to our place for the next couple of nights.

 

I’d been excited by the lakefront location of our cottage until as we headed up the driveway we discovered that not only was lakeside a bit farfetched, but our ‘cottage’ was in fact a converted garage, hidden behind another building. It was also exceedingly dated inside, and more importantly for the time of year, not very warm at all. My partner and I just looked at each other silently as we walked around rather disappointed. It had not been a cheap booking either, and my partner thought it was hysterical to bring it up for some time to come. Nonetheless, we made a point of getting straight back out again and wandering around another section of the lake before the short winter afternoon came to a close. I stayed by the lake to watch the changing colours of the sunset for as long as I could tolerate the coldness, before heading inside.

 

In the darkness, we headed to the far end of the village to the Tekapo Springs where 3 pools, shaped to coincide with the nearest lakes, offered a thermal experience. It was cold to nip between the pools but in the water itself it was divine. It’s no Hanmer Springs, but with the steam rising into the darkness, it was nice enough. Back at our cottage though it was freezing and the heating failed to make much headway in the large open plan living space. Thankfully the bedroom was much more compact so we were able to stay warm in the bed and get a reasonable sleep.

The next morning was another beautiful day. I still wasn’t feeling completely right but after breakfast we took a drive up to the Mount John observatory that overlooks the lake. One of these days, I’ll do the walk up, but circumstances have always led to me driving up. From the car park and the observatory itself, the views over snow capped mountains and the glistening blue lakes is divine. There is a cafe here which is always busy, and now there is a fee to drive up when it used to be free, but whether you walk up or drive up, it is a definite must-do viewing spot in the area. From here we took a drive along the road that heads up between Lakes Tekapo and Alexandrina, turning round at Lake McGregor.

 

We had reservations for an early dinner at one of the eateries in town which was delicious. But unfortunately, back at the cottage, we struggled to get the place warmed up and to top it off, the anxiety which I had been living with for a couple of years by that point, hit me with a vengeance as I fretted over something outwith my control and started to have a panic attack. Sadly, this is not the first time that my mental health issues has tainted a trip away. It is an affliction with no logic, hitting me out of the blue at times, and often interfering with my down time. I have wasted many days off over the past couple of years, wallowing in my angst and feeling ill. So it was no great surprise that I felt rundown and pretty blah the next day, and I didn’t feel like doing anything. In fact I felt feverish and ended up just sleeping through portions of the drive home. Tekapo had been as beautiful as ever, but it hadn’t quite been the weekend away that I’d hoped for.

New Zealand’s Ben Lomond

The inevitably of New Zealand being settled by the British is that there are a lot of common place names between New Zealand and the United Kingdom. When I discovered that there was a mountain called Ben Lomond, it seemed only natural that I should hike it when the opportunity arose, even though at the time I hadn’t even summited its Scottish namesake. In 2016, I made it up to the cloudy and wet summit of Scotland’s munro, and finally the time came in December 2017 to summit New Zealand’s version which dominates the skyline over Queenstown in Otago.

My original plan had been to hike up on Christmas Day. By this stage 6 years into my life in the Southern Hemisphere, it is still a novelty to have Christmas in the summer, and with my partner on shift work through the holiday season, I was spending the festive days on my own. But the weather forecast wasn’t the best for Christmas Day so I made the decision to hike on Christmas Eve instead and I was rewarded with a glorious day for it.

The track starts a little past the YHA Lakefront hostel where I was staying, almost immediately before entering Fernhill. A track and road cut away from the lakeside to reach a historic power house. From here, the One Mile track begins its zigzag through the dense forest, and this is also one of the routes up to the Skyline Gondola. I’d walked this track already with my brother the month before so it was familiar and for the most part well marked and obvious. The day my brother and I had walked it last time, we’d cut down to a waterfall and ended up having to rough it a bit to rejoin the track. I made sure not to make the same mistake again.

 

At a small dam on Wynyard Creek, the track turns upwards towards the mountain bike park, and from here onwards, the mountain bike trails criss cross the walking track at regular intervals meaning having to keep your ears open to avoid being taken out by a zealous rider. The forest here reminded me greatly of some of the cultivated forests in Scotland, the trees bare of leaves and the ground littered with pine cones. It is so different from the wild bush that I’m more accustomed to when out hiking in New Zealand. The forest opens up a little where the service road to the Gondola cuts through it and soon after, the Ben Lomond walkway begins and I was plunged back into the forest once more. The view was a little monotonous until eventually the tree-line was reached and from here onwards I was totally exposed to the elements.

 

Now, the summit of Ben Lomond was in sight and as I worked my way up the track, it became clear that it was going to be a populated hike. After a few bends, Lake Wakatipu came into view behind me, and some distance later, a side-track to the Skyline Gondola cut away. Then the long slog began as the curve of the mountain was followed, the lake growing larger behind me and Ben Lomond being a constant at my side. Despite the ever gain in altitude, the summit failed to look like it was getting any closer, and as the time passed, I came to realise how much I’d let my general fitness slide. I’m an avid hiker, but the last couple of years I hadn’t done as much summer hiking as previously, and I’d allowed myself to gain quite a bit of weight. Even before I was half-way up, I was sweating buckets and feeling like I was making slow progress.

 

After a few lower ridges of increasing altitude, the track finally reached the saddle at 1316m (4317ft) where the track makes a T-junction: the Ben Lomond summit track to the left, and the Moonlight track to the right. There was a bit of a congregation of hikers here, and for the first time, I could see over into the valley and mountains behind Ben Lomond. This is a world that is very much hidden from Queenstown and all I could see was the mountains of the Southern Alps stretching into the distance. Now I turned to face the summit push, and watched the dots of people in the distance grow smaller and smaller.

 

The summit track was tough going and I was finally realising that I needed to work on getting myself back in shape. But the view was spectacular with the mountain ranges to my right, and Lake Wakatipu to my left. Initially the track followed the brow of the ridge but eventually at about 1600m (5249ft), the track skirted behind the summit and became much more rough under foot. Most of the hike till now had been following a wide path, but here it was narrow, and where people came the other way, it necessitated balancing off the track to let them pass. I could see a large boulder field grow nearer and before I knew it I was amongst them, diligently following the route to the other side.

 

Now the dark water of Moke Lake came into view and as I curved round a little below the summit, Lake Wakatipu popped back into view as well, and finally I just had the last little incline to reach the busy and rocky summit of Ben Lomond (1748m/5735ft). The summit was so busy in fact that it was hard to find a spot to take a seat and people were wandering around taking photos, with bags strewn around the place. I ended up with a great view over Frankton and Lake Wakatipu to enjoy my lunch. Queenstown itself was almost totally hidden from view but I could see the tiny shape of the TSS Earnslaw steamship ploughing the waters between the town and the station on the far side of the lake. I took my time at the summit, enjoying the sunshine and the view. I normally hate busy trails but this time I actually quite enjoyed listening to the chatter and the buzz from everyone who was at the summit. It was a real mix of seasoned hikers who’d found it relatively easy, and those who were so proud of themselves for making it to the top when it had been tough for them.

 

The descent to the saddle was relatively quick despite the still steady stream of people hiking upwards that necessitated pausing on the trail. I didn’t linger at the saddle too long before retracing my steps back down the mountainside. This time I took the side track to cut across to the Skyline Gondola. I was tired and my legs were sore, and this section felt longer than it probably was. I was relieved to finally reach the Skyline Gondola terminal where hordes of people were everywhere ogling over the famous view. After pausing here for a while, I took the steep Tiki trail back through the forest down the hillside. My legs were really feeling the steepness and I was a little jelly-legged by the time I made it back into Queenstown about 8hrs after I left it, but I was thoroughly satisfied to have ticked another New Zealand summit off my list.

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.

In Search of Snow

It’s been a relatively mild winter in New Zealand this year with barely any snow where I live and the local ski-fields have had intermittent falls interspersed with strong winds and unusually warm weather, resulting in a poor ski season. I’m a summer-loving person, but back in my native Scotland, the one thing that made the cold, dark winter days and nights bearable was the promise of snow, and lots of it. I love snow, and in Aberdeen where I used to live, we got plenty of it. It wasn’t unusual to get an autumnal blizzard that would dump the first snow of the season in October, and often into November, but the main snow months were January and February. In one epic year, we had snow every month from October through to May, and then it started again in October. The ski centres still had plenty of snow on the longest day of the year in June, and with the most northern ski-field having daylight till around 11pm, it was an epic day to hit the slopes.

Moving to New Zealand was the right thing for me to do for so many reasons, but boy do I miss snow. I never thought I would, but after three winters here with so little reward for the colder temperatures of the season, I’ve found myself staring jealously at the distant Southern Alps with their white tips and yearning to feel snowflakes fluttering down on me, craving the glorious silence that only a snowfall can bring and dreaming of first footprints on a fresh bed of snow. Clearly my desires were becoming more vocal than I realised, because despite not being a skier, my partner insisted on taking me to the mountains to visit one of our nearest ski-fields.

Not quite an hour and a half from Christchurch is Mt Hutt (2086m/6843ft). The nearest settlement is Methven which has a scattering of cheap digs, bars and ski-hire shops – all you could ever need for the perfect weekend trip. From the base of the mountain, it is a long and winding drive up a gravel road that overlooks the vast flatness of the Canterbury Plains. The tall mountains are a stark contrast to the flat barrenness below and they stand tall against the horizon from some distance away. On that particular day, the snowline was roughly half-way up, although it was patchy and stale. Even at the level of the ski centre, there was plenty of rock face peering through the thicker banks of snow. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot at the top car park and we got out to soak up the view. My partner looked at me as if to say ‘Ta da!‘ and then couldn’t understand my disappointment. Don’t get me wrong, the view was stunning: with patches of sunshine making the snow on the surrounding range glisten, and with the snow-topped range flanking the nearby plains, it was a stunning vista. But the snow was not powdery under foot, it was stale and crusty. There was no fresh flurry of snowflakes falling on my skin, and apart from the buzz of the skiers and snowboarders enveloping me, I wasn’t feeling the vibe that fresh snow brings. It was better than nothing but I struggled to hide my disappointment.

 

We stayed for a while, and watched the people whizzing down the mountainside, enjoyed some warm drinks in the cafe and then wandered around the car park watching 6 cheeky keas (the world’s only alpine parrot, and one of my most favourite birds in New Zealand) taunt each other and hop from vehicle to vehicle looking for trouble. Like all parrots, keas are highly intelligent and probably the most mischievous of all the parrots that I have seen. They thrive round people, and are notorious in parts of the country for removing the seal round car windows, and bending aerials and puncturing bike tyres. Needless to say I love them. I could have watched them all day, especially the two that were playing (or fighting, or mating, or whatever they were doing) with each other, one lying submissive on its back for the other who mobbed it open-winged, displaying its bright orange under-plummage. A couple of hours after we arrived, we set off back down the mountain and home.

 

The following weekend, my partner’s friend came to visit from Auckland. He hadn’t skied for some years, and my partner was wanting to get a bit of snowboarding in this winter, so we set off back to Methven only to hit gale force winds, sandstorms, and then torrential rain. The road to the ski-field had been closed for nearly a week due to high winds, and arriving in Methven at lunchtime, there was nothing to do and nowhere to go but to camp out in the pub or our lodge. There were hopes of fresh snow being dumped in the night so we clung to the hope of the road being open in the morning. I had originally planned on taking a skiing lesson whilst the boys hit the slopes but having obtained a horrendous cough, I was slightly spaced out on the prescription-strength cough suppressants and it was easy for me to sleep the afternoon away. I didn’t miss much – the torrential rain continued all through the night.

 

On the Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that the road to Mt Hutt ski-field was open to 4-wheel drives and 2-wheel drives with chains fitted. We gathered the hired gear and set off in our 4-wheel drive early. It was clear from the start that this would be a totally different experience than the weekend before: it was still overcast and raining in Methven and as we started the long wind up the mountain road, the rain became sleet and then snow. The snow became heavier the higher we climbed, and the visibility grew poorer and poorer. The surrounding mountains that had glistened last week were nowhere to be seen through the clouds, and the snow on the road grew denser as we travelled. Like many mountain roads to ski-fields, there is often a long drop down so they are definitely not the kind of road you want to lose control of your vehicle on. But as our altitude increased, so did the snow on the road, and eventually even our 4-wheel drive decided to lose traction after coming round a bend. The procession of cars grew slower and slower until we rolled into the top car park in by now quite thick snow, and parked up one by one. I got out as quickly as possible to see and smell and feel the snow flakes falling down on us. Shortly after our arrival, they closed the road to all traffic except chained 4-wheel drives, and we faced a possible reality of being stranded up the mountain as conditions worsened. After an hour of waiting for news on the likelihood of us getting back home that day, we could finally go off and enjoy ourselves. The boys bought their passes and headed off and I hung around the base, taking photos of them through the incessant snow fall and just generally breathing in the snowy scene.

 

There is nothing like the silence of snow. Anybody who has stood outside during a heavy snow fall should know what I mean. Birds are silent, and most other sounds grow distant or still (not to mention the scientific reasons that snow covered ground absorbs sound waves and falling snow causes sound waves to curve upwards towards the sky – but that’s not quite as poetic and romantic, is it?). I love that silence and stood happily enveloped by it, watching nearby kids throwing snowballs whilst I looked for an untouched patch to place those first footprints. A 360 degree wonderland of fresh powder snow and I breathed in memories of Scotland. For those hours that we were up there, I couldn’t have felt happier. My toes and fingers grew uncomfortably cold but I didn’t want to go anywhere. For that brief moment in time, I was home.

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