MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “Southland”

Southland Roadie – In To The Catlins

I was really hungry but I couldn’t help but hover at the various pull-ins overlooking the bays on Riverton’s margins. Southland was already proving to be a wild coastline, but here, on the edge of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Invercargill to the east, the calm waters lapping on the beaches gave an altogether more idyllic feel to the place. It was a little overcast but I was really liking Riverton’s vibe and I put the hunger aside whilst I meandered.

 

Eventually I took the bridge to the far shore and parked up outside the Te Hikoi Southern Journey museum. This small museum turned out to be quite well done and even though it was compact, it was full of displays about the area’s early settlers and the regional fauna. By the time I’d had a wander round the museum, the shoreline and eaten, the day was really getting on, and I was realising that I wasn’t going to have time to do everything around Invercargill that I had wanted.

 

I took the road just before Invercargill to cut down to Oreti beach, the long stretch of sand at the opposite end of the bay to Riverton, made famous by the Fastest Indian Burt Munro who practiced his land speed record attempts here before heading to the US where he got his World Record. The beach is a recognised road in New Zealand with a speed limit, but I first walked on to it and up onto the dunes before deciding that I’d take my non-4×4 car out onto it. I could see in the distance patches of sand that weren’t so suitable but near the entrance to the beach, the sand was pretty compacted making for a very smooth drive and I smiled at the simple pleasure of it.

 

I had really wanted to do a riverside walk in Invercargill but just didn’t have the time anymore. My night’s accommodation was still a few hours away and I didn’t want to turn up in darkness. It was time to keep pushing east and I skirted the city, taking the road to Fortrose followed by back roads to reach the southern coast at Waipapa Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse wasn’t open to the public and the wind was picking up but there were plenty of people that had taken the unsealed road to get here. Most people stayed up on the track, but I went down to the rocks below and was away in a reverie when I realised that there were some creatures sleeping there. A couple of New Zealand sea lions were completely unperturbed by my presence but as their reputation precedes them, I gave them a wide birth. I’ve seen plenty of New Zealand fur seals on my travels round the country, but this was my first time seeing native sea lions. I hadn’t even known that such a species existed until that trip but I had read about their aggressive tendencies. As most of the visitors only went as far as the lighthouse and back, I was one of only a couple of people who spied them.

 

Continuing on the Southern Scenic Route east, I pulled up at a small car park next to farmland and again found myself one of several people picking my way across the private land to reach Slope Point, the Southernmost Point of the South Island. It was exposed and blowing a strong gale by this point and apart from the sign, it was effectively just a worn piece of headland taking the full brunt of the southern weather system. But the steady stream of people visiting meant it was difficult to get a photo of the sign without others in the photograph. This part of the coastline east of Invercargill was notably busier than that west of the city, but being in February, still in the height of summer, this was still not as busy as New Zealand’s more famous landmarks and for that I was glad.

 

It was an unsealed road (albeit in the process of being sealed), that brought me from Slope Point to Curio Bay, my stopover for the night. The lodge I was staying in had its own access down onto the beach but the evening light was drawing in and I was quick to head down the road to the car park near the campground. From here, a path lead to a lookout over the rocks below which was so busy I couldn’t get a good vantage point. Heading through some bushes, I found myself at the top of a flight of stairs down to the rocks below and in the reducing light, a crowd was gathered at a makeshift rope fence. Finding a spot among them, I trained my eyes into the distance to see what everyone was there to get a look at: hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, one of New Zealand’s endemic but endangered flightless birds. There were 3 of them in the far distance which I did my best to get a photograph of, but after a while, when no others appeared, I turned round to meander around the petrified forest that was embedded into the rock below my feet. On my way back to the car once back up on the clifftop, I happened upon a penguin in the bushes, relatively close up.

 

The next morning I loaded up the car before taking the track down to the beach. The clouds were grey and the beach seemed abandoned. This place is known for spotting Hector’s dolphins, one of the smallest dolphin species in the World, in the surf off the shore, but there were none to see the day I was there. I headed north for a bit, past a resting cormorant and across a couple of streams that crisscrossed the sand. As I often do on coastal walks, I was in a bit of a reverie, eating my Cookie Time cookie for breakfast when I was suddenly hit on the back of my head. At the same moment as I recoiled in shock, I saw a seagull grab my cookie and try to make off with it. I thwarted its attempt, regaining control of my now contaminated cookie, and although I wasn’t going to eat it once it had been in a seagull’s mouth, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the bullying seagull have it either! I couldn’t believe the force of its wing as it had hit me on the head swooping in, but chuckled to myself a little, wondering how it must have looked from a distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the first of 3 bird wallops in the space of 12 months.

 

Shortly after getting hit on the head, I turned around and headed south, past my lodge and to the far end of the beach where the campsite sat above. Heading up onto the headland, I meandered around the coast on the margins of the popular campsite, ever hopeful of seeing dolphins, cutting round from Curio Bay proper back to the coastline where the penguins had come ashore the night before. This time I was able to get a spot at the lookout over the rocks below, but by now mid-morning, there was not a penguin in sight. The rope was gone from the rocks, and the petrified forest was fully open for exploring, the penguins having long headed out to sea to forage. Behind the cliffs, I took a walk through a small forested area before leaving Curio Bay behind to continue my drive east.

 

Before long I was leaving Southland behind and crossing into Southern Otago. I was now deep within the Catlins Conservation Park, a part of the country I’d wanted to visit for some time. There were plenty of places of interest on the Chaslands Highway, but my first stop involved a detour off the main highway to McLean Falls. Receiving a lot of rainfall, Southland has plenty of waterfalls to visit, and this is one of the most famous in the region. It was a perfectly manageable walk from the car park but it was also a very busy place. Unfortunately it also started to rain which meant dressing up in full waterproofs to make the journey into the forest. I might have stayed here a little longer if it wasn’t for the rain and the crowd of people trying to get the same photos from the same two places, but after marvelling at the gushing water for a while, I decided to head back, deciding to grab lunch at the eccentric eatery by the junction with the main road.

 

It wasn’t far from here to the turnoff to the road down to Waipati beach. The access road is only open according to the tides, so although I was planning on going here, I was a few hours early till access would be allowed. Even though it was raining, the Catlins is all about getting outside, so a little along the road I parked up at the Lake Wilkie track and headed into the bush. I pretty much had the place to myself, and it was very quiet, just the sound of the raindrops on the leaves and water to keep me company. A nature walk led me round a boardwalk that hugged the southern edge of the tannin-coloured lake. Perhaps on a nice day there would be some wildlife to spot here, but I saw none, returning to my car to dry off as I pushed on to the next stopping place.

 

The road from here climbed up and over a steep hillside. A couple of lookouts were in the clouds as the rain continued to move through and from here the main highway cut inland quite a bit, winding up and down in altitude through rolling green hills thick with vegetation. Eventually a pull-in marked the start of a short forest walk to the duo of Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls. It was a very easy and short walk with some weather protection from the thick foliage. There were much less people here than at McLean falls meaning I almost had these to myself.

 

With multiple waterfalls in the region, I’d picked the most accessible ones to visit due to time, and from here I headed off the main highway to a busy car park for Purakaunui Falls, another well known waterfall in the area. The amount of people in the car park far outweighed the people at the falls themselves thankfully, and despite how busy it looked when I first parked, I managed to get the falls to myself for a good few minutes before a group of people piled in. Of the three falls I’d visited that day, this was by far my favourite, a broad cascade with a close-up viewing platform. The rain had eased to a drizzle although there was a bit of shade from the foliage, but I was pleased to see the weather was thinking about improving as from here, it was time to back track to the tidal-access road and one of the region’s best spots…

Southland Roadie – Coastal Gems

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a desire to go to Antarctica. This desire has only grown stronger over the years, especially as it now remains the only continent I have not been to, and I’m particularly interested in the geological, climatological and biological studies that take place there. With the cost of travel there being prohibitive, the continent forever feels just out of reach and yet I am regularly taunted and teased with its closeness due to New Zealand having strong ties with the place. So when I found myself standing near Stirling Point, back on the mainland of the South Island, after a fantastic week in Rakiura (Stewart Island), witnessing the Heritage Expedition ship sail out of Bluff, I immediately knew that the lucky souls on board were at least going to the Sub-Antarctic Islands if not the great continent itself, and I was hit by a pang of immense jealousy.

 

It was a pleasant evening to watch it set out though as I stood by the chain link sculpture and way marker once more. I had a bit of time to head round the Foveaux Walkway around the coast and was aiming to make it to Lookout Point, but it was a longer walk than I thought and the light was reducing. I spotted a sickly looking mouse on the track that I presume had consumed something in the many pest traps around the place, and in the trees I saw a tui, a melodic song bird that I tend to associate with the north of the country rather than the south. At a wooden structure where I could see across to Rakiura on the horizon, I turned round and headed back to the car.

 

At the back of Bluff, a road leads up the hill to the Bluff Hill Lookout. By now late in the evening, there was barely anybody there. From this vantage point I could again see across the Foveaux Strait to Rakiura and it was also possible to see how narrow the isthmus of land that leads down to Bluff from Invercargill is. Bluff itself looked industrial as indeed it mainly seems to be, a frontier town that revolves around the comings and goings of the harbour. Heading north to Invercargill, it was dark by the time I found somewhere to park and reached my hostel. I’ve passed through Invercargill before and never really had any great desire to explore the city itself but it was a handy place to call it a night before hitting the Southland tourist circuit. Thankfully my hostel had its own restaurant and bar as I was hungry after all the fresh air.

 

I left Invercargill early the next morning as I had a lot of ground to cover. I headed north then west, cutting inland to cut round the back of the Longwood Forest Conservation Area. For the most part, I could have been anywhere in New Zealand, the rolling hillsides and fields being so typical of many parts of the country. As I neared Clifden, I took a detour off the main road to visit Clifden caves. The cave was in the middle of a sheep paddock and I negotiated the dung to reach the entrance and climb inside. This is very much an enter-at-your-own-risk style of caving, and as much I like going into caves, I tend to err on the side of caution when I’m on my own and never go beyond the lit section even though I had a torch with me. I’m an adventurer at heart, but the problem with solo travelling is that I often do things on a whim and nobody knows where I am if something goes wrong, so sometimes I have to listen to my brain when it tells me to be more sensible.

 

Back on the main road and it wasn’t too far to reach Clifden itself and here the back road joined onto State Highway 99 (SH99), the road that cuts down from Te Anau. I was now officially on the Southern Scenic Route, a tourist road that heads south along the Southland and Otago coasts and up to Dunedin, and I was excited to be driving it and visiting a part of the country I’d never been to before. The Clifden Suspension Bridge was the first stop on the drive and I was a little bit underwhelmed by it. Crossing the broad Waiau river it sits alongside the highway and is the country’s longest wooden suspension bridge. It was built to replace a ferry that used to carry stock across the river. On the track nearby, reams of sheep watched me as I walked by, crossing the bridge and then returning.

 

Reaching the Southland coast, under a grey sky, it was clear to see how wild this coastline could get. At McCracken’s Rest, a lookout over Te Waewae Bay, the sea looked calm with some steady waves rolling in, but the shingle shore and the battered dunes gave a hint of how bad it must get here. After initially having it to myself it wasn’t long before a group of motorbike riders joined me, and although this part of the country doesn’t get the level of tourists that some other parts do, I shared the many stopping points with plenty of other people, a stark contrast to the solitude and peacefulness of Rakiura.

 

Following the coast east, I pulled in at Gemstone beach. This time I was able to get down onto the beach itself and stretched my legs whilst looking for gemstones. I’m not very good at identifying rock types, so whilst there were plenty of mixed colour stones, I have no idea what any of them were. The surf looked rough here and the cliff behind it was heavily eroded. In one spot, someone had even built a house into the eroded cliff, a little part of it visible through a natural hole in the rock. This great sandy expanse is still part of Te Waewae Bay and at the very end of it was Monkey Island, a small bump of land that is connected to the beach at low tide. When I reached there the tide was receeding but it wasn’t quite low enough to get out to the island without getting my feet wet which I wasn’t really in any hurry to do. By the beach is a freedom camping spot so there was a lot of people around and being a Saturday, there were plenty of visitors on the beach too. I watched some motocross riders race each other along the sand and behind them, above the sandstone cliffs, low cloud hugged the mountains behind.

 

Keeping off SH99 for a while, I cut across some back roads and down a gravel track to reach Cosy Nook, a tiny fishing settlement snuggled into a small cove on the coast. The small houses themselves were sheltered but at the end of the road where it overlooked the wild coast, it was completely exposed to the brunt of whatever weather comes across the Strait. I could imagine the solitude being divine but I’m sure the residents have endured their fair share of storms blowing through here. Leaving it behind, it was time to find my way back to SH99 and keep heading east. By the time I reached Colac Bay, another broad sweeping arc of beach, the grey skies were starting to break a little and hints of sunshine were peeping through. Colac Bay is one of the region’s surf beaches and where the highway skirts the edge of the settlement, a giant sculpture of a surfer greets those passing by. Had it been better weather and had I had more time to explore, I probably would have taken a nice long walk along this beach, but as it was I already wasn’t covering as much distance as I thought I would so after only a brief stop to breathe in the sea air, I headed onwards.

 

On reaching Riverton, I took the road up to the Mores Scenic Reserve where I could see across to the start of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Oreti and Invercargill. I took the track through the forest to the Hilltop Lookout which overlooked the Riverton coastline below. This was a popular spot as was the Howells Point Recreational Reserve at the point which I drove to next. I had wished I’d brought a picnic as this would have been a great place to have it. Riverton seemed to be a popular place for holiday makers and campers and I could see why. I really liked the place, with several beaches to choose from and a really chilled-out vibe, and I could picture myself coming down here for a Southland break in the future. Even with a lot of ground still to cover before reaching my night’s lodgings, it was worth taking some time to explore further…

Ulva Island

My last day on the bewitching Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, was back to the familiar grey skies I’d experienced at the beginning of my trip. The ferry to take me back to the South Island wasn’t till the evening, and I was up early to head to Golden Bay to make sure I was near the head of the queue for the boat to Ulva Island. New Zealand has a fascinating ecological history, home to a large percentage of flightless birds. Sadly, many species have been made extinct or brought close to, by the accidental and deliberate introduction of invasive species. With the only endemic mammal being a bat, the evolution of bird life in the country took a very different path than similar species abroad, and after hundreds and thousands of years in balance, the quick and agile rodents and other mammals that came with the early settlers took hold, quickly overcoming the birds who couldn’t evolve fast enough to evade them. In modern-day New Zealand, conservation efforts have resulted in the creation of pest-free islands: off-shore hideaways where attempts to boost native populations ploughs on in earnest. Most of these are not accessible to the public but a few are, such as Ulva Island in Southland, Kapiti Island and Matiu/Somes Island near Wellington, and Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf. As a bit of a bird enthusiast, there was no way I was coming to Rakiura and not including a trip to Ulva Island.

Like Oban, there is an Ulva Island in my native Scotland which I’ve also been to, and whilst it would have been great to visit it in the sunshine of the day before, I was happy to be heading out even with the threat of drizzle. In my attempt to ensure I was guaranteed a spot on the first boat of the day, there was quite a bit of hanging around to do waiting for the boat to arrive and load up. The water in Golden Bay was still, producing reflections as I waited. The ferry crossing across Paterson Inlet was short and easy and the full boat disembarked at the pier where I bought a guide to the flora and fauna from the shelter nearby. Only about a quarter of the island can be explored as a visitor via a collection of trails criss-crossing across the top portion. With so many of us arriving at once, it was difficult to get away from the group initially, and so when I reached the viewpoint at Flagstaff Point, I was quickly joined by multiple people from the boat. From the lookout I could see nearby Native Island and the opening of Paterson Inlet, but importantly I could also get a hint of the bird song that would be the orchestra to my visit, and although I couldn’t yet see anything, it was a hint of what was to come.

 

My first encounter was with a South Island Robin whilst cutting through the forest to Sydney Cove. I love these immensely inquisitive birds and have been joined by them many times whilst taking a rest from hiking through the forest in various parts of the country. They often hop near you and look at you side-ways, jumping all around for a good view, often following you in the canopy for short distances whilst you walk. Whilst they don’t have the pretty colours of the European Robin that I’m used to from my former life in Scotland, their friendly behaviour means that I actually much prefer them over the Northern Hemisphere counterpart.

 

There was a light drizzle at Sydney Cove as I and several others trudged across the beach. Just offshore were a mix of gulls and strutting their stuff along the beach were some weka. Fringing the beach was thick bush and flitting amidst the branches were multiple small birds, some of which I couldn’t tell what they were, but I did recognise the Tomtit, another inquisitive little bird similar in size to the robin. Despite the other people here, it felt so peaceful with the calm waters gently lapping the shore.

 

Cutting inland, the tracks went in a figure-eight across to the far side of the island, so it was just a matter of picking one to cross over on, and the other to come back on. Never mind the birdsong, the bush was thick and gave a sense of what New Zealand used to be like before large sections of it were cut down and burned to make way for human development. At one of the track junctions I was again joined by a robin who watched me whilst I consulted my guide. As my chosen track gained a little altitude, I found myself nearer the canopy and suddenly the calls of kaka filled the air, and after only brief glimpses initially, I finally found the group not far off the track close by. An endemic parrot like my beloved kea, the kaka seem naturally more shy and with their darker colour are much harder to spot. Each evening I’d spent in Oban had involved listening to the screeching cry of the kaka as they flew over the settlement to roost, and I’d been startled by a pair near the hostel a couple of nights prior. Now finally, I was able to see them a little more closely and I stood for some time watching them dexterously handle food and branches in their talons.

 

On the western side of Ulva Island I found myself at Boulder Beach where the sun almost threatened to break through the clouds. A couple of weka sweeped through the seaweed litter that was strewn across the beach and even the robins were out too, constantly watching my comings and goings as I meandered slowly along the shoreline. Back in the bush I was this time accompanied by the squawking cries of kakariki, a type of parakeet, which tend to fly in loud, screaming flocks. I was constantly scanning the leaf litter as this is one of the few places where kiwi are seen during the day time. Every rustle or movement that caught my eye was scrutinised until I could see what was the source. Generally it was a weka scrubbing around with its feet, or occasionally it was the sound of a little bird hopping among the undergrowth. I was also keen to see the South Island Saddleback, a really rare bird who’s North Island equivalent I’d seen in Zealandia, near Wellington a few years ago. I could hear their distinctive cries every now and again but couldn’t find the bird that was making them.

 

Eventually I found myself at West End Beach, a beautiful strip of sandy shore with an island immediately offshore. I passed some people heading back along the beach as I followed it to the far end. A group of rocks seemed like a great make-shift picnic spot and I settled down to enjoy my lunch. Amusingly as I sat there, multiple wekas made a beeline for me and proceeded to goad each other whilst climbing up on the rocks beside me before eventually a particularly bold one actually walked onto my lap. They were effectively begging for food and clearly they’d been fed by people in the past. I kept my lunch to myself but enjoyed the encounter, becoming a bit of entertainment for others who were out on the beach too.

 

But unfortunately I had a boat to catch back to Rakiura. The best way to get the most out of a visit here would be to stop often at the areas designated for sitting and just watch and listen as the wildlife comes to you. The amount of bird song here was incredible and I would have loved to have done just that, no doubt seeing more things than I had done, but the last boat to head back wouldn’t give me enough time to make the ferry to the South Island, so I found myself a little pushed for time to make the return leg back to the pier to get an earlier one. I spoke to some people as I walked who reported their sighting of a kiwi in the undergrowth back up the trail I’d walked earlier in the day. It was tempting to head back but I just didn’t have the time. Enjoying the bush but making light work of the distance I found myself arriving to see the ferry heading over and my friends waiting for me to say goodbye. They’d come to Ulva Island on a later ferry and had a made a point of hanging around in order to see me off.

Because of the out-of-synch ferry times, I had a bit of time to waste in Oban so headed back to the little cafe in the settlement for a warm drink, and went round the couple of shops for the last time before grabbing my gear from the hostel and checking in for the Stewart Island Experience ferry. I took a last stroll along the waterfront and noticed some mollymawks, a species of albatross, bobbing around on the surface. Not quite as big as the Royal Albatross, the mollymawk is still noticeably bigger than your average seagull. Back at the wharf looking towards Oban, life was going on as usual, oblivious to the fact that I was leaving and how sad that made me.

 

Unlike the sailing from Bluff earlier in the week, the return trip to the South Island was much calmer and I was able to spend the trip out on deck. We sailed past several islands and we were almost constantly followed by some form of sea bird, from the small shearwaters to divers and gulls. Rakiura disappeared further away as the Southland coast grew nearer and before long the hour crossing was over and I was disembarking. It was evening but being February there was still a few hours of light ahead of me, and returning to my car, it was now time for my road trip to begin.

In Love with Rakiura

As I had been hiking my way back towards Oban on the last day of the Rakiura Track, my friends had flown overhead and landed on Rakiura for a holiday themselves, so once I was showered to rid myself of hiker’s aroma, I headed to one of the few eateries in Oban, a little cafe to meet them for a warm drink. It was one of those coincidental plannings where we unintentionally ended up at the bottom of the country at the same time, but it was great to see some familiar faces whilst away from home. We made plans to meet up for dinner the next day before going our separate ways that evening. I had booked myself on a kiwi-spotting tour on the off chance that I didn’t see any kiwis whilst out bush, and following my failed attempt to spot any whilst at North Arm Hut, I was glad that I made the booking. I walked along the Oban foreshore, admiring the stillness of the water in Halfmoon Bay before popping in to a restaurant for some dinner before heading round to the pier to board the boat. I had been looking forward to my first taste of paua, a shellfish that I’d never heard of before moving to New Zealand and here was one of the freshest places to get it. Unfortunately due to some diabolical service at the restaurant, not only did I never get my paua but the food that I did get was served to me half-frozen and nearly had me in danger of missing my boat.

 

When I finally got on board my tour boat, we first headed out of the sheltered bay to an outlying island in search of hoiho or the yellow-eyed penguin. As an immigrant to New Zealand, I have tried to incorporate the Maori language into my vocabulary and generally refer to the native wildlife by their Maori names, partly to be respectful to the first settlers of New Zealand but partly because the Maori names usually sound more interesting than the often bland English names. Of the 17 species of penguin that live in the Southern Hemisphere, I have been lucky on my travels to spot 8 of them in the wild across 3 continents and 5 countries. It isn’t something that I’ve particularly set out to do, but spending the majority of my life in the Northern Hemisphere, it is just one of those things that has happened as my life has moved south, and frankly who doesn’t love seeing penguins? As the boat arrived offshore at dusk, the low light and rocking motion of the boat made it nearly impossible to take a photo of the couple that we saw on the rocky shore line, and after a short while, we moved on, skirting round the Rakiura coastline and into Paterson Inlet.

Sailing past Ulva Island, a predator-free island which I would visit before leaving Rakiura, we cut down past the Neck, a north-pointing jut of land protruding from the southern coastline of Paterson Inlet, and into Glory Cove where we berthed in the darkness. At almost 47o south latitude, this is the most southern I’ve been in the Eastern Hemisphere (I’ve been further south in the Western Hemisphere) and as such the most southern part of New Zealand that I have visited. We were instructed to be silent and keep close together as we cut across the narrow isthmus from Glory Cove to Ocean Beach. There was potential to spot kiwis from anywhere within the bush or on the beach so we were all hyper-vigilant, but aside from looking for wildlife, we were as much making sure we didn’t trip over anything as we walked by torchlight through the bush. We reached Ocean Beach without spotting a thing, and now we were also on sealion alert as this beach is a favoured pull-in spot for them to rest up at night, and they are not a social creature with the potential to be highly aggressive if disturbed.

We had the length of the beach to walk and sure enough a sealion was spotted near the shoreline. We gave it a wide berth and kept going, ever watchful for signs of kiwi tracks. By the time we were approaching the top-end of the beach it was looking like a failed outing and I was feeling a little disheartened when suddenly the guide instructed us to turn off our headlamps. As we were plunged into darkness with only starlight to guide us, the guide put on a red light and motioned us to gather near him. Creeping closer we all saw the kiwi at the same time, sticking its long beak into the sand to grab the scarpering sea lice that ran around on the shore, completely unfazed by our presence. Finally my dream of seeing a kiwi in the wild had come to fruition, and I wasn’t disappointed. This particular species of kiwi is the Rakiura Tokoeka. I love that Maori names are so descriptive and Tokoeka means ‘Weka with a walking stick’. Weka are another flightless indigenous bird of New Zealand that are readily seen around coastal and peripheral bush areas, and the walking stick refers to the kiwi’s long beak. As we stood in silence in the near darkness, I happened to look up at the sky and realise that with the lack of external light sources, the sky was a brilliant array of stars, and right above my head sparkled the Milky Way. I only saw the Milky Way for the first time in my life in 2017 whilst in the Australian Outback and I was as enthralled about seeing it here as I was then. In fact, I was absolutely torn between watching the little kiwi on the beach and looking skyward at the expanse of the brilliant night sky above me. No-one else in the tour group seemed to notice the stars, and I loved that the vision was all mine. Out here in one of the wilder parts of New Zealand, I felt at peace and immensely happy. My only wish was to have had a camera and the skills good enough to photograph the Milky Way, but the memory will just have to suffice.

 

The next morning was the one completely gloriously sunny day of my whole trip. I had originally planned on going to Ulva Island, but since arriving on the island, it had been brought to my attention that that day was going to be ‘cruise-ship day’, meaning the little settlement wold be inundated with disembarking cruise ship passengers and many of them would make the journey to Ulva Island. Concerned about the place being overcrowded, I decided it could wait till the next day, and instead opted to get back out on my feet and explore more of Rakiura itself. I set off out of Oban later than planned, and already the little township was bustling with hordes of cruise passengers and bus after bus ploughed the main roads to take them on sight-seeing trips. It seemed so unnatural for such a remote place to be so suddenly overrun with people. Given that the weather was so contrasting to the day I set off on the Rakiura Track a few days prior, I decided to walk myself back to the start of the track and experience the views with clearer skies. It had been pretty enough even in the rain, but boy was Rakiura stunning in the sunshine. Past Bathing Beach and Butterfield Beach and across the hillside to Horseshoe Bay, the sand looked golden and in the case of the latter was actually sparkling.

 

Cutting across towards Lee Bay where the official start of the Rakiura Track is, I cut off just before this to hike up Garden Mound, a 164m hill covered in thick bush. After all the rain in the days prior, the lower sections of track were a quagmire. There wasn’t much of a view to speak of on the way up until quite near the summit where a sneaky peak through the foliage afforded a brief view back across to Halfmoon Bay. Just shy of the summit, a lookout gave a view across the Foveaux Strait towards the nearby Muttonbird Islands, as well as across to Port William, the site of the hut I’d stayed at on the first night of the Rakiura Track. Behind there in the distance, lay the rolling hills of the less-visited portions of Rakiura to the west. A lover of solitude and wilderness, it hadn’t taken long to fall in love with Rakiura when I’d first arrived and these views on such a glorious day reinforced my desire to return here and walk the longer trails.

 

Following the trail down the other side, it joined up with the Rakiura Track to follow the coastline. I had originally planned on walking all the way to Maori Beach and back but with dinner plans set with my friends for that night, and so much to see on route back to Oban, I soon realised that there just wasn’t going to be enough hours in the day for that, so when I reached the small bay soon after joining the track, I decided to sit there and just enjoy some relaxation in the sun. I sat on a rock near the back of the beach and watched the waves in the distance and a grey heron wading around the shallows. I was very quickly joined by a large bumble bee who seemed to find me irresistible and wouldn’t leave me alone, crawling all over me and then going inside the neck of my t-shirt which was rather disconcerting. After doing my best to just sit still and not disturb it, it was really hard not to want to move when it was walking on the inside of my clothing and threatening to disappear down between my cleavage. I had to give it a bit of encouragement to come back out of my clothing and after it still wouldn’t leave me alone, I decided it was a sign to get up and get moving.

 

Returning to Lee Bay where the Rakiura Track starts, I found myself hounded by yet more bees as I tried to take a photo of the chain-link sculpture that is the twin for the chain-link sculpture at Stirling Point. Clearly I picked the wrong colour of clothing to wear on such a gorgeous day. I cut onto the beach in an effort to escape them, walking along the shoreline until I noticed a police car drive onto the beach and come towards me. My immediate assumption was that I’d done something wrong although I didn’t know what it was. I hesitated, then as the car drew up to me, the policeman said hello out the window and then kept going before coming to a stop behind me. I presume he was either taking a break or making the most of his patrol to take in the view, and with the waves crashing on the shore below a blue sky, it was certainly a stunning one.

 

Cutting back across the headland to Horseshoe Bay, I meandered along the beach which was literally shimmering in the sunlight. The sand was a mix of dark sand and sparkly particles and it just glowed. Just through the heads at the entrance to the bay I could see the cruise ship moored off shore, its wide rear end pointed in my direction, the words ‘Like No Place on Earth’ emblazoned on the stern. As an introverted nature lover who likes to explore outdoor spaces in solitude, the thought of a cruise holiday sounds awful and is so not for me. It seemed so out of place here to see this behemoth of a ship.

 

At the far end of the bay, a trail cut out across the headland to Horseshoe Point. There was an alternate view back across Horseshoe Bay from the trail and on the shore below the path I could see rock structures that resembled the strange round structures of the Moeraki Boulders on the east coast of the South Island. From the Point I had a fantastic view across the Foveaux Strait towards the Muttonbird Islands and the South Island beyond, and now I was in full sight of the cruise ship. Once more I was hounded by bees whilst I sat there soaking up the view. I watched a fishing boat come into Horseshoe Bay, dwarfed by the cruise ship, and the shore boats that ferry the cruise ship passengers back and forth were busy on their return trips to the ship.

 

The track continued round to Dead Man Beach, a cute little sheltered cove, before cutting back up to the cliff edge above it to head round Bragg Point. I came across a kakariki, a little green parakeet, having a snack before it took off loudly. Eventually I reached Bragg Bay, yet another deserted white sandy beach that I had to myself. Back on the road I passed Butterfield beach and Bathing Beach once more before cutting round Hicks Point to return to Oban. The cloud was just starting to move in a little as I returned to the settlement which was thankfully now devoid of cruise ship passengers.

 

After freshening up from my sweaty walk I met my friends for a delicious dinner at the South Sea Hotel, the pub on the front strip. After devouring that we took a walk along the foreshore where we got our obligatory photos by the Oban sign and then it was time to retire for the night. Once darkness fell, I took my head torch out to the large playing field behind the houses where I’d been told was the best kiwi spotting in Oban, but after the amusement of being one of several lights randomly walking around in the dark, I spotted nothing and eventually gave up and turned in for the night. The next day was to be the day I would leave Rakiura and there was still plenty to do before then.

Heading South

Whilst not coming close to the distances of Australia or the USA, it is easy to forget how far apart some parts of New Zealand are. Having spent the morning at work, it was the early afternoon before I set off from Christchurch on the long road south to Mosgiel, near Dunedin in Otago. It is a drive I don’t do often. I used to live in Timaru in Canterbury when I first started working in New Zealand, so I’m most familiar with the commute between that town and Christchurch, but it had been some time since I’d last been down to Dunedin, and ever aware of the passing hours, I didn’t stop at any of the towns or sights on the way, too eager to get to my rest stop for the night. I’d chosen Mosgiel as a place just a little further along the road than Dunedin so I was just that little bit further south for the drive the next day, whilst not committing to added distance in case I hadn’t been able to get out of work on time. I stayed in an unusual accommodation which was a converted homestead and seminary that used to be owned by the grandnephew of the Scottish poet Robert Burns. It was an enormous building complete with chapel and singing choir, but it provided the comfortable bed that I needed to break up the journey south.

The next morning I had even more driving to do. After the 5hr trip the day before, I allowed myself another 3hrs to reach the ferry terminal at Bluff on the very south coast of the South Island. Here I was to catch the ferry to Rakiura, or Stewart Island as it is also known, New Zealand’s third largest island. I’d dreamed about visiting there for some time, but it had taken 6 years of living in New Zealand to finally get around to it. I had made good time to Bluff though, and had some spare time ahead of the 11am ferry, so I took the short drive to Stirling Point which marks the end of State Highway 1, the road that traverses the country from Cape Reinga in the north of the North Island. Here also marks the end of the Te Araroa trail, the long distance hike that also spans the length of the country. The car park was full and there were a few people milling around the lookout and the way marker that stands proudly there. Nearby there was a giant chain-link sculpture that has a corresponding part in Rakiura.

 

A coastal walk disappeared around the headland to the west, but I didn’t have time to do much exploring, choosing to walk round to the little lighthouse out on some rocks by the entrance to the harbour. The harbour itself is very industrial and the small town of Bluff seemed a little sad and run down. It had the feeling of a frontier town, stuck out as it is near the end of a peninsula on a road to nowhere, no doubt taking the full brunt of the weather that comes from the south. It is famous for its oysters as well as for being a gateway to Rakiura, but when I was there, despite the full car park at the ferry terminal, there didn’t appear to be much life about. After parking up at the ferry terminal and checking in, it was then just a matter of waiting to board and head off on my adventure.

 

The Foveaux Strait that separates Rakiura from the South Island is a notorious stretch of sea and the minute we left the protection of the harbour and the south coast, the swell picked up and we started the bouncy ride across. Normally I would spend a boat trip like this outside on the deck, but with this level of chop, that was simply not an option. When asked about the degree of roughness that day, the Captain’s comment was that it was ‘Foveaux Strait calm’ which made me laugh internally. I am exceptionally thankful to have a good sea stomach, but there were many on the boat that couldn’t keep down the contents of their stomach. The crew took it in their stride and I figured they would be more than used to it. I hadn’t stayed overnight on one of New Zealand’s outer islands since I’d first explored the country on arrival in 2012. I remembered my boat trip to Great Barrier Island, my favourite island in the Hauraki Gulf region, with its mixture of locals and tourists, and I had the same feeling as I had then, that I was going somewhere special, secluded and almost secret. Although a port of call on cruises round the archipelago and visited by Kiwis and tourists alike, it gets only a mere fraction of the visitors that other parts of the country receive, and only such a small percentage of it is actually inhabited. It is an island dominated by wildlife, lived on by the hardy, and with just a mere handful of Sub-Antarctic islands and a large expanse of ocean between it and the great Southern continent of Antarctica, it is at the mercy of the weather systems that batter its coast.

With little opportunity to see much on route, I was glad when we slowed into the safety of Halfmoon Bay, as I could finally get outside to see the islets and coastline as we passed. I’m sure those passengers who had spent the trip with their face inside a seasick bag were also glad. As we docked at the harbour, we could see a congregation of people on the beach at Oban, the main settlement on the island. It turned out that we had arrived on the day of the island’s ‘Iron Man’ festival and there were all sorts of activities taking place for people to prove their strength and speed. It was a grey and overcast day with the hint of rain in the air, but thankfully it didn’t come to much as I walked around the bay, past the gathered crowd and to my hostel up a back street. It was a busy place, full of hikers as Rakiura boasts 3 multi-day hikes: The 3-day Rakiura track which is one of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks, the Southern Circuit which is a week long trek, or the daddy of all treks, the North-West Circuit, taking up to 12 days. I was there to hike the Rakiura track as part of a week long holiday on the island and I couldn’t wait.

 

But I still had the afternoon to explore Oban’s surrounds, and the bush is dotted with walking tracks. Heading up the hill behind where I was staying, I cut through the back streets of Oban to reach Observation Rock which offered a view over the expansive Paterson Inlet, a large body of water that cut into the coastline of Rakiura. Then I cut down to Golden Bay where the Ulva Island ferry leaves from and joined the Golden Bay track which undulated up and down whilst hugging the Paterson Inlet coastline. I was actually walking under some sunshine by this stage although I could see the rain on the far side of Paterson Inlet, threatening to come closer as time went on. With Iona Island just off shore, I eventually found myself heading into Deep Bay where the wind whipped through.

 

I took the road to cut across the headland which brought me out on the cliffs above the beautiful Ringaringa beach. At the end of the road, a track took me to a monument on a slight outcrop where I had a view across to South Island and back up Paterson Inlet. This little stretch of coastline was stunning and there was barely another soul about. I had planned on cutting to the far side of Ackers Point and heading out to the lighthouse but it was already getting on in the day and I figured I’d have time to do it later in the week once I was back from my hike. So instead of going down to the beach, I took the road back to Deep Bay and took the bush walk across to the back of Oban, bringing me out at the top of Peterson Hill.

 

When I reached Halfmoon Bay, a rainbow was out over the water, and I passed Scollay Rocks where apparently penguins can be spotted. Oban is a very small settlement and there was little options for eating out in. I was already stocked up for my hike over the next few days, but I had wanted to eat out for dinner. In the end, I just got fish and chips from the Kai Kart near the beach and as I sat there in the cold evening, the rain returned. It was heavy enough that there was no point going out at night in search of kiwis as I wanted to start my hike with dry clothes so I returned to the hostel and readied myself for sleep. The next day would see me ticking another New Zealand Great Walk off the list.

 

Spring Roadie – Te Anau to Wanaka

Waking up to grey skies made my brother and I appreciate our fortune from the day before even more. To have had sunshine for our visit to Milford Sound had been glorious. My brother had arranged to take a boat down Lake Te Anau to visit a glowworm cave. Having done this trip on my last visit to Te Anau, and having seen hundreds of glowworms whilst caving in Waitomo, I stayed behind and mulled around the lake side. A giant takahe sculpture represents the conservation work of this rare and endangered bird that is going on nearby, and from here I followed the path along the shoreline, meandering through the trees towards the small marina. I had plenty of time to kill so admired the boats for a while before heading back. I decided to pop to the small cinema at the back of the settlement to watch their film about the local area. I had watched it 3 years prior and had been blown away by it so was happy to sit through it again. Despite looking a little dated now, it was still as spectacular as before and worth watching.

 

When my brother returned from his trip, we reunited for lunch in a cafe at the back of Te Anau before heading off north. We’d driven this road through rain a couple of days prior but had it dry this time round. I drove first to Lake Manapouri a little along the road, where the distant mountains that mark the divide between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound were shrouded in cloud, and from there we continued onward, eventually returning to the lake side of the enormous Lake Wakatipu. Without the rain though, we were able to stop in places and actually enjoy the view. Despite being a Sunday, the roads were steady enough with traffic as being November, we were into the tourist season and so there were plenty of motor homes around. The view at Devils Staircase was one of the most impressive on the drive where, even on a grey day, the winding drive along the lake edge was pretty. Further north just before the road left the lakeside, we parked up and walked down to a small pebbly beach and this gave us a view almost all the way down the southern arm of the lake. After passing some time here, it was back on the road, returning to Frankton and continuing north before taking the turn-off for the Crown Range.

 

I’d previously only driven up the first few bends of the Crown Range many years before with my partner but the conditions hadn’t allowed us to take the full drive. So this was to be my first time on this road which is the country’s highest sealed road. The weather was thinking about brightening with glimpses of sun trying to break through the cloud, but there was also a bit of wind up high adding a slight chill. The first viewpoint was at the top of the switchback which allows a rapid gain in altitude. Further along there was a scenic lookout which overlooked the Gibbston Valley below and from here it was clear to see how the planes flew low over here when on approach to Queenstown airport. After more bends and a final push in altitude gain we pulled in at the Crown Range Summit where a lot of people were milling around and an old-fashioned car was getting a lot of attention. A plaque marked it as the highest point on the road, and a walk set off from here which I would have loved to have done on a clearer day.

 

From the summit it was a long descent through the Cardrona Valley to eventually reach Wanaka, one of my favourite parts of the country. Unfortunately it is another place who’s popularity is threatening the very virtues that I love, but nonetheless I was still more than happy to be there, and I drove straight to the waterfront to show it off to my brother before we checked in. The surrounding summits were mostly visible although the cloud was threatening to hide them. We took a wander along the path by the lake as the sun dropped low, eventually finding ourselves by the crowds at the lake’s most famous tree. ‘That Wanaka Tree’ amuses me greatly. When I first visited Wanaka in 2012, few people gave the little tree in the lake a second glance. I myself walked past it daily whilst I was there and never even acknowledged it. Suddenly it started popping up on social media more and more and when I returned to Wanaka four years later in 2016, it had its own Instagram plaque and it was forever surrounded by a frenzy of people trying to photograph it. My brother felt obliged to take a photograph of it but was then more intent on photographing the crowd of people that was gathered. A non-social media user, he was greatly amused by the scene. I thought it spoke volumes about the role of social media in modern society.

 

The next morning we were back to sunshine again, and the blue sky overhead made the lake sparkle. My brother chose a route for us to walk and so after breakfast, we returned to the lake side but this time followed it in the other direction. Following Roys Bay towards Bremner Bay, we had an uninterrupted view over to Roys Peak, one of my favourite walks in the area. The summit was hidden from view but as time passed on as we walked, the cloud here, as well as that towards Mount Aspiring National Park on the far side of the lake, gradually dissipated.

 

The main town of Wanaka has changed since my first visit and the main beach can get very crowded in peak season, but round the lake at Bremner Bay, it feels more secluded and this is where I would love to live if I was ever able to move here. The views across the lake here are absolutely stunning and also remind me of Scotland. Continuing beyond here, we eventually reached the lake outlet where the first signs of the development that has occurred since that first visit became evident. We found ourselves in a holiday park that wasn’t there before and we cut from here along a new road past new housing developments to reach the back of Albert Town which had expanded outwards in my absence.

 

Our destination was Mt Iron, a distinctive hill which offers a great viewpoint over the area. There are several routes up depending on which direction you approach from and we found our way up to the top via a route I wasn’t aware of. Our view on the way up was over Albert Town which I could now see had grown so much. From the summit, the view away from Wanaka looked the same, the flat plains spreading away towards the surrounding mountain ranges. It was as we crossed over the summit and started the descent down on the Wanaka side that I could really appreciate how much the town had expanded. An entire new estate had appeared, coming right up to the bottom of the hill and a new car park and new toilet block sat at the bottom of the trail. The facilities are much needed with the increase in tourist numbers but it highlighted the fact that the once quiet Wanaka was losing its peacefulness. I don’t enjoy Queenstown because of its busyness and brashness, and I can only hope that Wanaka never completely gives in to the same folly.

 

We ate a late lunch in a cafe near the lake, and although initially disappointed with my brother’s desire to now do nothing despite several good walks in the area, by the time I’d finished sucking lemons, I found myself give into the laziness very quickly as we sat on the pebbled beach by the lakeside. My brother people watched whilst I snoozed in the warm sunshine. I’m normally an active person on holiday, always on the go, always wanting to pack as much in as possible. I don’t like sitting still, or being lazy or sunbathing. This can make me a frustrating person to travel with, or equally makes me frustrated to travel with other people, which is part of the reason I often enjoy going solo. But every now and again, and usually without forward planning, I’m either forced to or give in to being lazy and just being still, and on those rare occasions I actually enjoy it. As such, I ended up being very glad that my brother was happy to just sit there for a while, and I was very glad to rest my feet and relax.

Another sunny morning greeted us for the long day that we had planned ahead. It was time to say goodbye to Wanaka and head west through the Haast Pass. With a lot of driving ahead for me, I was to be grateful for the afternoon’s relaxing the day before. Before leaving the town behind, we took a quick trip up to the war memorial, the car park of which offers a nice view across the lake. Wanaka is such a long drive from my home city of Christchurch, that I knew I was leaving it unclear of when I’d next return. So I absorbed the view as best as I could to retain the image as a memory, before we had to head on.

Spring Roadie – Milford Sound to Te Anau

Aside from cruising down the fjord on one of the many boat trips, there is also a shoreline walk at Milford Sound that is always worth taking the time to do. By the time my brother and I had arrived back into dock in late morning, the tide was getting low, but the sun was much higher. The pier that sticks out into the water at the ferry terminal was a good place to start the shoreline walk from and after popping out to the end of it for us both to take some photographs, we meandered our way back towards the car park.

 

Beyond the other side of here is a small peninsula that juts out. A little trail leads through the bush here and with the low tide, there was plenty of opportunity to walk out onto the exposed stony shore and take in the view. It’s really hard to take a bad photograph here when the view is so stunning. Even though it wasn’t my first time, I still happily filled my memory card and in between times walked around with a smile on my face. It was a busy little waterfront by this stage with many of the tourists from the morning boat trips having the same plan, but despite this it was still tranquil and didn’t feel overcrowded.

 

But eventually it was time to push on, as the drive back to Te Anau is very scenic and there were lots of stops to be made. The first of these was the Chasm, not too far out of Milford Sound as the road starts its wind back up through the deep valley. The high volume of water through the valleys in Fiordland National Park has long been weathering and changing the landscape. In the case of the Chasm, a narrow channel of fast moving water has created a literal chasm in the rock causing the water to gush through a rocky channel and cascade over a drop. Whilst it is a short walk to see it, the bridge has been placed right over the waterfall which means it is actually really difficult to fully visualise the extent of the fall which seems to me to be a bit of bad planning. None-the-less, the gaps in the foliage as we walked through the bush to get back from it, offered a sneaky peak at the surrounding mountain peaks.

 

From there, the road winds its way uphill to the man-made wonder that is Homer Tunnel. It is particularly impressive to approach it from this side as the steep slopes of the mountains grow closer and closer as if they will swallow you, and all there is to see in front of you is a sheer rock wall. The effort involved in blasting this rudimentary tunnel through such solid rock would have been incredible, but without it, Milford Sound would only be accessible by sea or air. A series of S-bends raises the altitude and towards the top, a large area to pull in at is worth pausing at to appreciate the dramatic rocky sides of this magnificent valley. Snow melt meant there were plenty of little waterfalls cascading down the rockface.

 

Because the tunnel is unsealed and unwalled, the restricted width, height and constant dripping water throughout the length of the tunnel means it is classed as a 1-lane road, with traffic lights controlling the flow during peak season. Queuing to pass through is inevitable but it is efficient, and once back on the other side we again pulled in near the site of the morning’s kea encounter where we marvelled at the snow piled up by the roadside and once again watched the kea causing chaos. Further up the valley we paused at a lookout over the entrance to the Hollyford Valley, an area I’m keen to explore further on foot. Then beyond here, was our main stop on the drive.

 

Having lived in New Zealand for well over 6 years now, and having seen the increasing tourist numbers and the environmental effects that is occurring as a result, I’m torn about recommending my favourite places to go, because I want to keep them the way I found them: quiet and untouched. But if I was asked what one short walk shouldn’t be missed on a New Zealand trip, then Key Summit would be it. Reached from the Divide on the Te Anau-Milford Highway, it is also the start of the very popular Routeburn Track, one of the country’s multi-day Great Walks. But within 2-3 hours, you can hike up to Key Summit and be back at your car, and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges on a clear day are just incredible.

Like the last time I hiked it, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, but this time round, it was so bright that I had great issues with over-exposure of the photographs I was taking. About 3.5 years after the last visit, we pulled into the car park, and not only was it packed, but the extension (which hadn’t been present when I was there last time) was also packed, and a spill-over car park down a steep and rutted slope was also nearly full. I couldn’t get over the difference. The trail was also full of people coming and going and this is why I am torn to recommend my favourite places: I hike to be amongst nature and seek solitude, so I hate walking busy routes.

The initial part of the trail is amongst bush with just the occasional break in the trees to see a glimpse of the nearby peaks. It isn’t until close to the turn-off to Key Summit that the real views begin. Away from the Routeburn Track, the Key Summit route zig-zags up the mountainside until eventually it reaches a plateau where a boardwalk takes you on an alpine nature walk. From shrubs to tarns and the mountain peaks around it, I cannot do the view justice with words. Even the photographs fail to show the splendour of the view and I’m pretty sure my brother was blown away. He wasn’t in the country long enough to tackle any lengthy hiking trails, but here he was getting a good idea of what the country has to offer.

 

Although the plateau is Key Summit, at 919m (3016ft), there is a higher peak behind it which offers a really good view point back down over the tarns. This path had been completely upgraded since my last visit, as had the lookout itself which was busy, unlike the last time I was here when only myself and 1 other person had bothered to take the rudimentary track up the slope. Now a proper gravelled track led up here and I again pondered about the changes that were needing to be made to meet the demands of foot traffic. From this height though, it is just possible to make out a sliver of Lake Marian which sits hidden within a mountain valley near the entrance to the Hollyford Valley.

 

Returning to Key Summit, we continued the circuit of the alpine nature walk, crossing boardwalks, then rocks, absorbing the view around us. In shaded patches, stale snow lay on the ground and I left my brother to enjoy himself, myself slipping into my own wee world as I tend to do when I’m out hiking in nature. Had we had endless hours to spare, I could have happily sat up there with a picnic and just stared out at the mountains. As it was, the hours of the day were creeping onwards and so having had our fill of the fresh mountain air, we finished the circuit and made our way back down to the Routeburn Track, and back towards the car.

 

We stopped at the Mirror Lakes further along the road, which like last time I was here, was not reflective due to an afternoon breeze. Like many reflective lakes in New Zealand, early morning on a still day is the best time to see the effect. We stayed long enough for my brother to read all the info boards before we pushed on. As we cruised through the Eglinton Valley which had been cloaked in a mesmerising mist that morning, we stopped a couple of times at the side of the road just to appreciate the difference that full daylight made.

 

By the time we reached the top of Lake Te Anau, I was getting tired. It was still sunny overhead but the sun was dropping creating a glare across the water. We paused briefly at the pier that the Milford Sound track boat leaves from and eventually pulled into Te Anau in the early evening. We went out for pizza at an Italian restaurant near the main street before retiring to the hostel along the road to rest our legs from a day of activity. I adore Fiordland National Park, but I was just as excited to take my brother to another of my favourite places the next day.

Key Summit

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

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

 

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

 

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

Kepler Track – New Zealand Great Walk

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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