MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Southland”

Humpridge Track – Beyond Humpridge

A high bank of clouds hung over the mountain as the hut began to empty itself of hikers. It made for a grey start to a long day of hiking ahead up on the Humpridge, a little over 900m. I had a long descent ahead with my next bed an estimated 8hrs hiking away at an altitude of just 33m. There was a short trek up from Okaka Lodge to the ridge line and shortly after I turned to head downhill, I was greeted by a couple of kea. Kea are such cheeky interactive birds, and I always love to see them. They hung around only for a few minutes before taking off, revealing the bright orange underside of their otherwise predominantly green plumage.

 

Looking down either side of the mountain, wisps of morning cloud hung around the valleys and trees within view. I was facing directly out over Te Waewae Bay and Rakiura, surrounded by low alpine vegetation either side of the track. By the time I reached the track junction for the ascent I’d done the day before and the descent in front of me, I was walking through what is generally known as goblin forest, an ethereal type of forest typified by lichen-covered trees and moss-covered floors, where goblins and mythical creatures would not seem out of place. They can often be eerily quiet too, but on this occasion there were regular fantail and tomtit sightings as I moved through.

 

Back out on exposed ridge line, the descent was easy but the path was narrow making for the occasional jostle as faster hikers wanted to pass each other. There were great views looking behind and forwards, and I could make out the distinctive boulders atop Humpridge for quite some time. It looked stormy inland and then out of nowhere, a large cloud began to sweep up the eastern aspect of the mountain, enveloping the trail as I approached the area known as Luncheon Rock. The view was just obliterated and it became suddenly very cold. I waited it out for a bit, knowing from experience that it would only be temporary, savouring the view when it returned before disappearing into thick forest.

 

The rest of the descent was through forest similar to what I’d hiked up through the day before. I caught glimpses of kaka parrots feeding in the trees, and there was the sound of various bird species as I descended lower and lower. It took about 4.5hrs to reach the South Coast track at a mere 80m altitude and within minutes I found myself at the first of a series of historic viaducts. This coastal route used to be used by loggers and had a historic sawmill train running along it. The Edwin Burn viaduct was first, followed by the Percy Burn viaduct some time later. On the path between them, there were the hints of railway tracks just about visible through the soil. The viaducts themselves were huge wooden structures spanning wide gullies in the forest and as I crossed the Percy Burn viaduct, I could just make out the sea to the south, peaking out above the tree line.

 

After crossing the Sand Hill viaduct, the track continued to follow the contours of the coastline. I naively assumed I’d get a view of the sea as it skirted round Sand Hill Point but the forest was just too thick. Port Craig felt both tantalisingly close but also still some distance away. I was repetitively distracted by birds though with South Island robins keeping my company as I negotiated what was sometimes a rather muddy track. The foliage here meant sunlight didn’t penetrate well but being a typically wet part of the country, the undergrowth wasn’t getting the chance to dry out. By this point, the clouds had left and as the track started to turn north-east, I was bathed in glorious sunshine wherever the foliage would allow.

I reached Port Craig just shy of 8hrs since I’d left Okaka Lodge. Port Craig Lodge was a series of buildings around a central boardwalk, and my assigned bed was thankfully away from the snorer of the night before. The only view here was down by the helipad, but nearby there was a historic walk which led through some remnants from the sawmill days, as well as a track that led down to Mussel Beach at the edge of Te Waewae Bay. As I followed the beach track there was a lookout over the expanse of blue ocean and as I looked down on it, I saw a dolphin in the water. That was enough to spur me on to get down to the beach pronto.

 

The tide was out, and there was a gentle lap of water on the sand. I had no swimming clothes but I waded out to my knees to let the water soothe my aching feet and I craned my neck looking for signs of something break the water. My reward was the little rounded fin of a Hector’s dolphin feeding in the surf. Time and time again its fin cruised through the water and I caught it breathe as it moved back and forth across the bay. Sometimes it was tantalisingly close to shore, and then it would go out quite far till I could barely see it. At one point it was joined by a second dolphin and I couldn’t believe I pretty much had this moment to myself, despite how many other hikers had already arrived at the hut.

 

I spent over an hour either sitting or meandering on the beach. The dolphins kept me company for a large part of that before they moved further offshore. Latterly some other hikers joined me but they had missed most of the show. I felt so privileged to have experienced that. Eventually I headed back up the steps and walked the historical loop track past abandoned and rusting pits and chimneys. Back at the lodge, the common room began to fill up as everyone crowded in to to make and eat dinner. Once again, the presence of a bar meant I could indulge in a post hike cider. For the second day in a row, I’d hiked 21km, and I’d seen so much wildlife. I thankfully slept so much better that night.

The cloud had moved in over Fiordland National Park during the night and I woke up to a cooler and overcast morning. There was no great mountain to conquer that day but there was still a predicted 7hr hike back to my car. Te Waewae Bay is huge, and the trail was effectively following the coastal margin, although within the forest. The vegetation was so dense away from the trail and I was again reminded how easy it would be to get lost or disorientated if you strayed too far. I spotted kaka again as I moved under the trees then the rain began, and despite the density of the canopy above my head, it made it through the foliage and it was time to gear up in my waterproofs.

Despite the rain, I paused on the beach at Breakneck Creek where I could see the rain moving across the bay. It was steady enough to feel damp, and there was only so long I wanted to hang out in the rain before moving onwards. After another forested section, the trail actually cut down to another beach and the beach became the track. Among the debris on the sand I noticed a rock that looked like it had shellfish fossils in it. Among the waves some jagged rocks were being pounded by the surf but this didn’t seem to deter the spotted shags that were hanging out there. As I moved from one beach to a second beach, the rain began to ease a little and I could see that I was going to out-walk the bad weather. Finally though, I reached the track junction that led up to Okaka Lodge, and now I was retracing my steps from day 1.

 

Exiting Fiordland National Park through the edge of the forest, the long stony beach beckoned once more but it felt a little wilder this time, with the surf breaking on the rocks. A lone shag rested there despite the steady stream of hikers that passed by. The little beach shacks were passed and the last of the swing bridges traversed. Around 2pm I found myself heading up the stairs to the final forest section, eventually popping out at the car park, highly satisfied and tired.

 

I have to admit that often the first thing I’ll do when I come off a multi-day hike is to head straight to a coffee shop for a decent coffee. I used to only drink coffee on the weekends when I lived in Scotland, but the quality coffee in New Zealand means I’m firmly a daily caffeine consumer now, and I always crave a decent brew when I return to civilisation. I had good reason to on this occasion though as I had a 3.5hr drive to my bed for the night. Always one to pack the most into my time off work, I had one more adventure to go before returning to Christchurch.

Humpridge Track – Te Waewae Bay to Humpridge

I was torn between looking out into the surf and staring at my feet. The waters of Te Waewae Bay in New Zealand’s Southland are home to Hector’s dolphins, the World’s smallest dolphin species. I hoped to see some riding the waves as I strolled along the beach on the first section of the multi-day Humpridge Track, but the stones and shifting sand under foot meant I was constantly having to watch my footing.

 

It took about 1.5 hours to walk the expanse of the bay from the car park at Rarakau. I knew I had a decent climb ahead of me but I also wanted to savour the fresh sea air before the sweat and slog began so I hadn’t hurried myself too much. Once off the beach, it was an easy track that hugged the contours of the coastline, following the edge of the forest where the odd bird began to appear. Beyond a swing bridge across a river, the sun burst through the clouds properly, bathing me in sunlight as I came across a pretty little beach just down from the track. Eventually, the track headed into thicker and thicker forest until I found myself at the junction to begin the hard slog up into the mountains. Here, I was stepping into Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in the country, and one of my favourites. Down here, in the south-west corner of the country, the land feels so remote and so far from civilisation, and I was soon to discover, it was full of wildlife.

 

From the moment I took the turnoff the forest felt deep and impenetrable. A mix of cut trail and long boardwalks, there was a sense that moving just a few metres off track could see you lost and disorientated. For an hour and a half, the track meandered through tall dense trees with the sound of forest birds intermittently accompanying me. Somewhere off to the side a river was snaking through the forest but it was out of sight until eventually I reached Water Bridge Shelter where other hikers had also stopped to take a break. Ahead lay the climb, an over 800m ascent up to Okaka Lodge where my bed for the night awaited. But by now I’d already be on the trail for 4 hours, and with the altitude gain, the prospect was of another 4 hours to go. As I replenished some spent energy with snacks and water, a South Island robin watched with great interest, cocking its head as it flitted about.

 

The climb was exhausting but as I made my way up higher and higher in the forest, I saw flashes of tomtits following close by, and even kaka, a shy forest parrot. At one point I stumbled across a large group of riflemen, a really tiny bird that are normally very difficult to photograph due to their shyness and incessant need to keep moving. I would have been able to snap a photo of this group if I had thought to, but I was so caught off guard at the number of them just partying in the ground vegetation that I ended up just watching them without daring to move. There was a constant tag team of passing or being passed by fellow hikers but despite that, I still felt for the most part that it was just me and the forest and it was total bliss despite the effort of the hike.

 

After a couple of hours, a low ridge provided a break in the trees, and the higher altitude meant the trees were a little shorter. For the first time the Okaka Lodge came into view and it looked tantalisingly close. There was also a lookout called Stag Point which gave an incredible view over Te Waewae Bay and I could see over to Rakiura/Stewart Island. The cloud had moved in and the sun had faded but the view was still expansive.

I was by now exhausted and eager to reach the lodge, so I was a little disappointed to see a sign stating there was still another 1.5hrs to go. I could see and hear kea, an alpine parrot flying up by the lodge and the bluffs off to the side of it, and hoped they’d still be there when I reached it. As much as seeing kaka in the wild is exciting due to their rarity, they are typically shy and hide out of sight, unlike the kea which are inquisitive, comparatively bold and more likely to interact. Therefore, I’m always more excited to see kea than I am to see kaka.

Once more delving into thick forest, I finally came upon the ridge junction that would take me onto the alpine ridge towards the lodge. Shortly after making the turn, the track broke out of the trees and I was surrounded by stubby alpine plants and a chill in the air. To protect the fragile plants here, the track became a long boardwalk snaking across the ridge, depositing me at the turn off to the hut. There it was a drop down of about 20m to reach a beautiful lodge nestled between two ridges with a prospect overlooking Te Waewae Bay. I’ve stayed in many Department of Conservation (DoC) huts where it’s first come, first served for bunk beds, but the Humpridge Track is privately run and on arrival I discovered I had a pre-assigned bed. I was to be sharing a bunk room with a family group, of which the matriarch proudly declared to me that she was a loud snorer and laughed as she told me not to expect any sleep that night. I realised I hadn’t brought any ear plugs with me and sighed inwardly.

 

It was by now 5pm, but being summer, sunset was still several hours away, so after I felt adequately rested in the legs, I decided to head back up to the ridge to walk the Humpridge Loop track. Up at around 1000m, the ridge is littered with large and unusually shaped boulders which gives a distinctive skyline. I could see rain moving in from deep within Fiordland National Park, and the sky over me was growing greyer and greyer. I headed clockwise round the loop, where I could see across a span of mountains to Lake Poteriteri to the west. A couple of mountain tarns sat near the top and a few hardy alpine flowers were in bloom. In the far distance were some tall peaks with a dusting of snow still clinging to their slopes.

 

A few spots of rain began as I skirted round the top of the loop to come back on the eastern side. From up here, Rakiura was now in full view and I could see so far along the Southland coast also. It wasn’t quite the blue sunny sky I’d had earlier in the day but the cloud was staying high enough that the view thankfully wasn’t occluded. I took a quick second loop around the trail before the spots of rain became more of a drizzle, sending me back to the lodge for the evening.

 

Away from the bunkrooms, the common rooms felt packed with all the hikers congregated in one space preparing meals and chatting together. The novelty of this being a private lodge was the cupboard full of dehydrated meals, snacks, soft drinks and booze. It was a nice treat to end the long day of hiking by grabbing a can of cider to wash down my dinner and the evening was buzzing with chatter as people got to know each other. I much prefer hiking on my own, and am incredibly introverted in large gatherings. Nonetheless, huts on a hiking trail are a good chance to mingle and meet people from all over the country and abroad, and so I always force myself to talk to people in huts more than I would in my day to day life.

As I retired to bed, it wasn’t long before I discovered that my bunk mate was not kidding about her snoring. It was like a foghorn. I tried and tried to shut off to it but I just got tired and cranky. After a while I grabbed my sleeping bag and walked to the living room where I discovered two other outcasts asleep on the couches. Thankfully there was a spare couch, and I settled in for an awkwardly positioned sleep in a much quieter space. In the early hours of the morning we were disturbed by the early risers. Anyone who has slept overnight in a DoC hut in New Zealand knows that there are always those that rise early, and don’t seem to care who they disturb. As the three of us were occupying the common room, it was difficult for them to tread around us, so in the end, I acknowledged that it was time to get up. I’d hiked 21km to Okaka Lodge, and ahead of me was another 21km to my next bed. I might as well get moving.

A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.

One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.

Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.

 

I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.

 

I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.

 

I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.

 

It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.

The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.

When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.

 

Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.

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.

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