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Autumn Roadie: Christchurch to National Park

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Southern Christmas

On January 6th 2012, I touched down in New Zealand for the first time. At the time I was tired from the flight and the jump in time zone (I only lived through 2hrs of that day), but I think deep down, I knew that I would want to stay here. Four years on, I’m still in love with the country, and I’m working hard at seeing as much of it as possible, but still some areas remain unexplored

It was a long time coming, but on Christmas day, myself and my partner headed north from Christchurch, and inland towards our destination. Just north of the city, a lorry heading the other way, threw up a large rock which hit my windscreen leaving a large chip and crack. A couple of hours later, deep in the winding roads of the heartland, a speeding twat overtook me then proceeded to nearly crash in front of me. It was not the start to the holiday I had planned. But it was a gorgeous sunny day, and just south of Murchison we stopped for lunch at Maruia Falls. We’d driven this road a few times before but never noticed this place, but I’d read about it somewhere and made a point to look for it. It was worth the stop to sit at the base of the falls and watch the river flow over it and head on down the river beyond.

 

We pulled into the sleepy village of St Arnaud, nestled within Nelson Lakes National Park in the late afternoon. The clouds had drawn in, but we headed first to the shore of Lake Rotoiti before checking into our hostel. It was, after all Christmas day, and I had made sure to bring provisions to cook a delicious Christmas dinner. Satiated, we took a wander through the sleepy village before having an early night.

 

The next morning, I convinced my partner that hiking Mt Robert would be a good idea. It was a gorgeous day, and an excellent way to get a different view on the expanse of Lake Rotoiti, one of two large lakes in the National Park. From the car park at the start of the hike, a short track leads to a lookout where a different view of the lake is given as well as rolling hills for miles on end in the opposite direction.

 

I’m not normally one for sitting still on holiday. I usually like to make sure I’m seeing and doing as much as possible in a new place, but it was so easy to just wind down and chill here. Growing up in Scotland, swimming is generally restricted to heated pools, with only the foolhardy taking a dip in the sea (which I had been known to do in my childhood). In New Zealand, summer is all about outdoors and this generally means that most Kiwis are water confident. They swim in the sea, in rivers and in lakes. They dive bomb and belly flop and jump from rocks without a care in the world. So following the hike, my partner went into the lake for a swim. It hadn’t even entered my head to bring bathers with me as this just wasn’t the done thing back in Scotland, but watching all the families playing in and around the water, I soon regretted it. But sitting on a bench in the shade, slapping away sandflies, it was an incredible feeling to just breath and be present. There was no wishing to be anywhere, no wishing for something to happen, no thinking about the past or the future, just simply staring out at the beautiful landscape and enjoying it. Eventually though, hunger took over, and we went to the main eatery in town, the Alpine Lodge for pizza. Their outdoor beer garden overlooks a river and the nearby mountains, and it was a gorgeous spot to enjoy a cold drink.

 

The next day we had a bit of time to kill. There are a lot of options for walks in the area, from short local explorations, to mountains to climb, to multi-day tramps. Whilst my partner relaxed at the main bay, I headed off on a nature walk round the peninsula. There wasn’t a lot of fauna to see, but plenty of flora, and although the lake was hidden from view for the majority of it, there were some breaks in the trees which afforded a differing view of the lake and Mt Robert. Reaching almost the whole distance round to West Bay, I cut back inland and back to the pier. We had arranged for a private boat tour up the lake to see Whiskey Falls. It was another gloriously sunny day, and it was perfect conditions for a cruise around the lake. Near the far end of the lake, he berthed and took us on a short walk through the forest to the 40m tall pencil waterfall that was visible in a small clearing in the trees. The waterfall can also be reached on a long walk along the west shore of the lake, but it was nice to get out on the water.

 

I was still keen to have fun on the water when we returned to St Arnaud, so I hired a kayak for an hour and happily paddled about from one bank to the other, listening to the birds, and watching the ducks float around. My partner had another swim, and although quiet compared to New Zealand tourism standards, it was a busy little place, buzzing with happy people, families and excited children. With fewer foreign tourists, and mainly Kiwi visitors, it was nice to embrace and feel part of the Kiwi summer culture. Unfortunately, this also included sandflies. Around many waterways in the country, these persistent creatures vie for your blood, and using insect repellent is a must. After a delicious BBQ buffet at the Alpine Lodge, I had envisioned sitting by the lakeside as the sun set, watching the colours change as dusk took over, but instead, I was hounded by swarms of the pesky flies that danced around my face. After a short time, I was forced to abandon my desire, and head indoors.

 

Heading back to Christchurch, we took a detour to another large lake in the National Park, Lake Rotoroa. Being on a no-through road, it sees less traffic than Lake Rotoiti, and as such is less developed and feels more secluded. I loved Lake Rotoiti, but I adored Lake Rotoroa. It was quiet and simple yet staggeringly beautiful, and again there are many walks in the area. We would have gone for another cruise on this lake had there been someone around to organise it, but the boat lay moored up with no-one in attendance. Instead, we followed the river away from the lake for a short distance before heading back. I could have happily stayed here for days.

 

We stopped for lunch on the west side of the Lewis Pass, and sat at a picnic bench surrounded by mountains. On the other side, we were also able to stop at a large rock formation by the side of the road that I have driven past repeatedly but never been able to explore. I felt like a kid reaching the top of the giant rock and surveying the land around me. Being another gloriously sunny day, it was a fantastic end to our Christmas mini-break.

Mount Robert

If you were to have just one day to visit Nelson Lakes National Park, I highly recommend it is spent hiking Mount Robert. Towards the northern end of New Zealand’s South Island, nestled on a road between Nelson and Blenheim, is the little village of St Arnaud that lies by the bank of Lake Rotoiti. Flanked by the St Arnaud mountain range on the eastern aspect, opposite to them, and round West Bay lies the domineering peak of Mt. Robert.

Lake Rotoiti hikes illustrated at the DOC office

 

It is a short drive from the village, and up a winding unsealed road to reach one of the car parks. Stopping in to the local Department of Conservation office, I was recommended to hike the summit in an anti-clockwise route, and I would definitely recommend this too. From the uppermost car park, the Pinchgut Track sets off through an impressively dense and tall forest and immediately starts the constant winding gain of altitude that leads up to the summit. The middle section of the ascent is exposed to the elements – in the case of the day I hiked it, this meant the harsh and hot sunshine. Zig-zagging upwards for over an hour, Lake Rotoiti is visible for a large portion of the hike before the trail disappears again into the forest. Being in the middle of the summer, there were alpine flowers in bloom and plenty of Tui flitting about the trees.

Forest walk on Mt Robert

Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoiti on the ascent

View through the forest canopy

Alpine flowers

 

After about an hour and a half, the path burst out of the trees at a pseudo-summit. The true summit of 1421m (4662ft) is unmarked, but is effectively one of the two little hillocks that sit to the side of the path which is only a metre or two off the summit height. From this ridge track, the lake is hidden, but instead the vista is of rolling green hills spreading off into the distance. Nelson Lakes National Park is undeniably beautiful, and with the sunshine and associated haze, the mountains appeared blue. A little hut, called the Relax Shelter sits near to the split in the path which marks the turning point for the loop track to head back to the car park. With more time, it is possible to continue along the Pinchgut track which climbs higher to the Robert Ridge, and beyond to the Angelus Hut by a mountain lake of the same name, and further still to connect to one of the many tracks around both Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotoroa. The National Park is a hiker’s paradise with a large selection of track options to choose from.

Relax Shelter with Robert Ridge behind

Track options from the summit of Mt Robert

Summit view west

Summit view west

 

My partner, who is not a fan of hiking mountains, always spends the incline cursing me under his breath. I always know he will love the view and the achievement at the end of it, which is why I talk him into it, so after receiving the evil eyes on the steep climb up, the smile broke across his face as we rested up by the shelter. The bees were busy polinating, and some other hikers chatted to us for a while. After a pit-stop, we took the loop path that split from the Pinchgut Track, called Paddy’s Track. This took us first over a fairly barren ridge where we were facing the immense wall of the St Arnaud range, and finally Lake Rotoiti came back into view.

Looking across to the St Arnaud Range

St Arnaud range from Paddy's Track

Lake Rotoiti from the shingle ridge

 

Beginning the descent, we passed the Kea Hut, an old ski club hut from the days when people used to hike up mountains before ski lifts were invented, and beyond this was the Bushline Hut, a decent-sized overnight hut at 1290m (4232ft) altitude. Being a popular trail, we got chatting to a German hiker whilst we ate lunch. After having had Mt Alford to myself the week before, it was interesting to have so many tourists to chat to as we went. From this point onwards, Lake Rotoiti is in full view for the majority of the descent. The path has loose shingle making some parts a slip hazard, but with such an awesome view it was a very enjoyable walk down. On two occasions, there is a scree slope to negotiate which needs good treads on your feet, and finally, the path disappears back into the forest for a while before eventually exiting at a lower car park.

Kea Hut poking through the trees

Panorama of Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti with St Arnaud visible

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti through the forest

Descending towards Lake Rotoiti

2nd scree slope

 

The DOC signs state 5 hrs for this hike, and that’s not far off what it took us to complete the circuit, although this included a lengthy lunch break and a shorter break on the summit. The majority of the hike is exposed to the elements making it a sweaty affair on a sunny day, but I was recommended this hike, and I highly recommend it as a must for any trip to this National Park.

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