MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “tramping”

Winter Grind

Despite my love of the warm summer days and crisp blue skies and blooms of spring in New Zealand, once the clocks have gone back and autumn rolls in, I really have to grit my teeth and bare the months of winter. In my native Scotland, winter days are short, the temperature cold, and the weather sometimes wet. But at least they were consistent: it’s hat, scarf and glove weather during the day, and the same at night. In Christchurch, it can be single figure temperatures in the morning and night, and get well into the teens in the afternoon meaning t-shirt weather for some hours, and jacket and glove weather other hours. The simple act of the sun going behind some clouds can add a sudden chill on the skin. Despite a decade of living here, I’ve never really adapted to this style of winter, and with no Christmas festivities to break up the dark months, I have to say I really dislike winters here.

The winter of 2020 was a curious one after the release from a couple of months of enforced lockdown through autumn. After an escape to Oamaru in late autumn I wanted to make sure I made the most of my freedom in the winter months. New Brighton beach was the perfect city escape without having to travel far, and despite the cold temperatures, cloudless blue skies always make a beach walk pleasant. The receding tide as I walked south towards the estuary created gorgeous reflections on the sand, especially once I rounded the spit into the estuary proper. The sand becomes a bit more of a mudflat here making it a bit treacherous under foot in places, but it was just me and a motley band of sea birds basking under the sun’s rays whilst looking across to Ferrymead and the Port Hills.

 

The Port Hills are a hiking and biking paradise with trails for each and both dotted all over the hillside. The Christchurch Adventure Park is predominantly a mountain bike park but there are a couple of walking trails within the perimeter and I finally decided to give the summit trail a go on another sunny winter day. Starting at the entrance to the adventure park, it is a long, winding trail up several lower ridges until eventually popping out at the top of the chairlift. From here, there are views predominantly over the city, but also in some spots over to Lyttelton Harbour on the far side of the hills. You have to pay to ride the chairlift up, but riding down is free irregardless of how you got to the top, so many people hike and take the chairlift back to the car park. I was enjoying the fresh air and exercise though, so after absorbing the views, I took the trail back down again. Even by the mid-afternoon the shadows were long over the hillside and it didn’t take long to feel a little chilly on the descent.

The Canterbury Museum in the city has a changing exhibit to complement the fixed exhibit halls that are permanently on display. That winter they were running a temporary exhibit called Squawkzilla and the Giants, which was about some of the pre-historic animals that used to live on New Zealand. It was a good excuse to take a walk as I parked in the Botanic Garden car park, and walked through the gardens to visit the museum. As a country of parrots and penguins, it was incredible to see the full-scale models of some giant birds that used to roam the country, including a prehistoric penguin that would have been taller than me. There was also the reminder that crocodiles used to live in New Zealand, which is not something that a lot of people know, although it’s not that surprising given that Australia and New Zealand used to be geologically connected. It had been a while since I’d had a wander round the rest of the museum, so I headed upstairs to have a quick look at the dinosaur skeleton and the Antarctic room. I have an obsession with all things Antarctic, and living in a Gateway City to the southern continent means that there are plenty of local links to historic explorations down south, which are on display on the upper floor of the museum.

Taking advantage of a dry winter day, I took a walk along the bank of the Avon river for a bit, circling the edge of Hagley Park, and heading out towards Mona Vale, a publicly accessible manicured garden that was still looking pretty despite the many bare trees. I rarely visit here, but always enjoy the view when I do, and it’s such a short walk from Hagley Park that it makes a nice detour when walking the perimeter of North Hagley. Back at Victoria Lake, even the weeping willows, one of my favourite trees here, were joining in the autumnal colours, having faded from their dynamic green to an off-yellow.

 

I’d worked up a bit of body heat on the go, and had stripped off my body warmer quite early on. As I returned to my car, I was horrified to discover that my car key had fallen out the pocket as it had been suspended upside down while slung over my arm. I’d done such a long walk it could have been anywhere, but I hoped it had fallen out soon after taking it off in the museum. But nobody had handed it in when I enquired, so I was forced to start retracing my steps of my entire walk to try and find it. I couldn’t believe my luck when I found it in a shadowy part of the Squawkzilla exhibit, almost at the feet of a giant parrot. It would have been easy to overlook by most people visiting the exhibit, but just able to be spotted with my staring intently at the floor. That was nearly an expensive outing to what was otherwise a free day in the city.

Things took an undesired turn in June 2020 when I experienced the worst pain I’ve ever had. My back has caused me intermittent pain since 2014, and I’ve had a few flare ups of pain of varying severities over the years since that first one. This time round just simple movements had me crying in pain, and I couldn’t even stand up, being forced to crawl on my hands and knees for days on end. A scary experience involving numbness of one of my feet resulted in a trip to the emergency room, and an eventual concoction of medications to keep me comfortable. I’ve never been on so many drugs in my whole life, and I didn’t like it. Eventually an MRI image confirmed the doctor’s diagnosis of a slipped disc, but following the support of a fantastic physiotherapist, I discovered the concept of neuropathic pain syndrome, and a mental health approach that rapidly got me off pain medications and started to allow me to get moving again.

 

It was tentative at first, starting off with walking on the flat and making use of city events. In early July, a light festival was run in alignment with Matariki, the Maori New Year which marks the rising of the Pleiades star cluster. Dotted around the streets and river bank a series of projections and animated lights lit up parts of the city, making use of river reflections and office gable ends to provide large scale images. The city typically has an annual event of some likeness to this and they always draw a crowd, especially as they are free. It is the closest thing we have to the Christmas light displays that would normally herald the mid-winter festivities in the Northern Hemisphere where I lived most of my life.

 

Aside from repeat trips to the beach, by the end of July I was ready to take on a local hike. Many years prior I’d taken the Kaituna Valley route up to Packhorse Hut, and this time I wanted to walk there from Gebbies Pass. It was sunny but the sun was so low that long shadows kept large sections of the track out of the sun’s warmth, meaning muddy and frosty patches abounded. A low mist hugged the side of the Port Hills as the track followed the logging road for the lower section of the hike. It takes a while to do much climbing, winding between sheep paddocks and forested sections where I unfortunately slipped on mud and went flying. The one side of my lower body was covered in mud but I wasn’t going to turn back. Finally the track starts to slog up the hillside, first within the forest, then exposed to reach under some tall rocky bluffs. It was a relatively busy trail and there were several other people milling around at the hut enjoying the view. Packhorse Hut is bookable under the Department of Conservation’s booking system, and it’s popular with families as an introduction to overnight hikes with kids. It’s a lovely hut with a lovely prospect, and well worth a visit, even just for a picnic.

 

The next temporary exhibit at the Canterbury Museum also caught my interest. In August 2020, it was about the moon, including a giant sphere suspended from the ceiling which had high resolution imagery of the moon projected onto it, mimicking an up-close view of this celestial body. I intermittently try to take photos of the moon myself, and sometimes get the settings on my DSLR camera to work with me, but its inconsistent, and more often than not, I get an overexposed or blurry image. I’m a science geek at heart, so I love a lot of the natural history and exploration-based exhibits, and I was really impressed by the imagery of the moon on display. A decade on since I emigrated, I really struggle to remember how the moon looked from the Northern Hemisphere. Its Southern Hemisphere facade is just so familiar to me now, and it will be such a novelty to see its alternate image whenever I get back to Scotland.

 

Although still winter, the second-half of August started to hint at the coming of spring. I was supposed to be in Europe enjoying a fantastic 6-wk multi-country adventure but like many others, COVID had me grounded and months of battle to get my money back ensued. My back was coming along well, and my mental health was improving with it, so the last few weeks of winter saw me getting out and about as much as I could. This time round at New Brighton beach, the ice cream truck had returned, and like my memories of life in Aberdeen, Scotland, buying the first ’99’ ice cream of the season is always a sure sign that warmer and longer days are coming. At that time I had no idea when international travel would re-commence, so instead I simply stood at the end of the pier staring out onto the calm blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, daydreaming of foreign lands.

For a different view of the Pacific Ocean, I utilised my annual pass to take a jaunt up the gondola to Mt Cavendish. I come up here time and time again, sometimes under my own steam via the Bridle Path, and sometimes if I’m short on time or lazy, via the power of the gondola. The view never gets old, and I can’t help take the same photos of the same view every time. It’s a great place to grab a coffee also, a financially bad habit that I’ve only more recently got on top of. The tips of the Southern Alps were covered in snow, but everywhere else looked green and fresh, another sign of the seasonal change to come. In the city though, there was still a quietness about the place.

 

A few of my work colleagues and I decided to head out to Orana Wildlife Park just outside of the city. I hadn’t been there since the year after I moved to Christchurch. I’m not a massive fan of zoos or wildlife parks as I find many of them struggle financially to create a space stimulating enough and appropriate for some of their inmates. This particular park had spent a lot of money creating a new exhibit space for some great apes amid a lot of promotion since I’d last visited. They weren’t the only new arrivals, as I found some Tasmanian Devils, my favourite Australian marsupial, had also taken up residence. But overall, the park just seemed sad. Some enclosures were empty, others looked in need of major upgrade, and even the swanky new ape house contained one of the most depressed-looking gorillas I’ve ever seen. The only fun part of the trip was doing the short zipline and taking comical photos of the giraffes eating, but otherwise I left rather jaded. Thankfully though, spring was soon to burst into bloom, and a brand new adventure awaited.

Reaching New Heights

Sometimes you just have one of those days that are incredibly enjoyable. Where everything is exciting or new or exhilarating or all of these things combined. After a long hike out from Port Craig on the third day of the Humpridge Track, I’d left Southland behind and driven north into Otago. One of my favourite parts of the country is Wanaka, but by this point in February 2020, it had been a while since I’d been. I’d last been there for a friend’s wedding where the sun had shone brightly above, and now, late in the evening, I arrived to overcast skies.

New Zealand is normally all bustle in February due to an influx of Chinese tourists for Chinese New Year. Still being summer, this usually adds to the large numbers of foreign visitors already here from foreign shores. Wanaka is usually packed all summer, but the gradual spread of the coronavirus, which back then was just filtering out across the globe, had curbed the usual February influx, and although still full of people, I noticed immediately that Wanaka was not as busy as usual. And that suited me just fine.

I was staying at the YHA which has a fabulous outlook over a large park with the lake behind it, and once checked in I headed straight down to the lake side for a walk along the promenade. The clouds masked the sunset over the peaks to the west and on the far side of the lake I could see rain moving across. I had my fingers crossed for some good weather the next day, and went to bed hopeful of clear skies in the morning.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was a glorious morning, and I retraced my steps down to the lakeside as the sun rose high enough to bathe the lake in light. But it wasn’t long before I needed to jump in my car and head out to the back of the town for my day’s adventure. Meeting my group and my guide, we bundled into the mini-van to head out towards Mount Aspiring National Park where we pulled in to view our challenge for the day. In front of us was a multi-tiered waterfall cascading down 450m of the mountainside, and one of the few Via Ferrata sites in New Zealand.

I’d wanted to do a Via Ferrata for many years. The ‘iron path’ in this case was a choice of 3 trips up increasingly higher routes next to the waterfalls. Wild Wire Wanaka, an awesome local company, offers Lord of the Rungs trips up and I had booked into the full ascent, all 450m up via a series of iron rungs and cable ways, which is the highest waterfall cable climb in the World. I’ve abseiled a few times and done some basic clip-climb adventures, but I hadn’t done anything to this level before. Down near ground level, there was a practice boulder to get us used to clipping on and clipping off to the safety cable, as well as getting used to the feel of our harnesses on our body. There was just 4 of us doing the full ascent, everybody else was doing a lower level climb. I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked but I’m a regular hiker and aerialist so figured my background fitness would see me right.

The lower route was a breeze, snaking up the hillside next to the lower cascade and negotiating some cable bridges that criss-crossed the water. After 150m vertical ascent, we reached the base of Picnic Falls from where we could start to get a broader view along the valley where the road heads into the National Park. Lake Wanaka was only just creeping into view from behind the nearby mountain. From here, a series of waterfalls cascaded down a fairly vertical section of rockface, and the sun was now beating down on us from above. Across more cableways and up rung after rung, we pulled ourselves up to 320m to a ledge which had a spectacular view of an increasingly visible lake.

 

By now we were at the base of Falcon Falls. This was the turning back point for everyone apart from the 4 of us and our guides. I was lucky enough to have the company owner as my guide and he was incredible at making sure we had fun and stayed safe. We had a bit of time to hang around here because this was our refreshment stop ahead of the final push. I’d been loving the trip so far, and although it was a hot day, I’d felt fit enough to cope well with the route so far. There was still another 130m ascent to gain to reach the 450m total drop of the falls, and I felt ready to take it on.

 

We ascended 2 people per guide. Myself and another solo traveller went first behind our guide as we headed up through vegetation initially, reaching the gantry which was one of my favourite sections of the whole climb. Effectively a plank of wood on metal rungs locked into the rock, we were able to cross this and go behind the waterfall we were scaling. It was beautiful and the sun against the water created a pretty rainbow to frame the view. There was a pleasant spray from the water as we cut behind it.

 

Only as we got higher did I realise that my guide had been keeping an eye on me. I had felt perfectly fine climbing up so far, and I thought I had looked that way too. I’m not sure whether I was being judged on my age, or whether something had given it away, but it turned out there was a method in my guide’s choice at putting me directly behind him. I had just thought it was luck that I was able to watch how he distributed his weight and was able to copy him, unlike the other woman who wasn’t able to see and could only watch me. For all of the climb so far, it had either been a vertical ascent or a near vertical ascent, but beyond the waterfall was a section where there was an overhang to negotiate. This involved having to trust the harness and actually hang off the mountain while using upper body strength to pull up. I hadn’t for a minute thought this would be a problem, but when it came to it, I actually struggled a bit. I couldn’t work out how to distribute my weight correctly to optimise the move and quickly fatigued in the process. Perhaps the guide had anticipated this, as his placement in front of me, meant he could offer me a bit of a haul up, something that wasn’t an option for the other climber behind me. While I was in my 30s, she was in her 20s and by comparison she was nimble and had no issues getting up to join us. I was a little embarrassed.

There was still the final climb to go but it was just back to a vertical ascent again, and finally, and almost sadly, we reached the canyon where the river came down to the top of the falls. Our 450m ascent was over. A track led through the trees and out onto the mountainside where we could see up the river valley into the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, as well as across to Beacon Point on the far side of the lake. Above us was a 1955m peak which looked totally reachable but wasn’t actually accessible. There was a short wait till we were joined by the other pair with their guide, and then we watched as the final fun part of the trip came up to meet us.

 

Unlike the ascenders of the lower two sections of the falls, we were not going to be walking down. Instead, the full via ferrata is rewarded by a helicopter descent. I had actually thought we were going to be flown back into town which would have given spectacular views, but as it turned out, we were just to be flown back down to the car park. I wasn’t disappointed for long though as even that short flight was fun, simply because I don’t get to fly in helicopters that often. At the same time, the valley was full of paragliders which the helicopter pilot had already skillfully avoided on the flight up, and after we had watched them floating around for a bit, the helicopter had us loaded up and down on the ground in no time at all. It was the perfect end to an incredible adventure.

 

But the day was far from over. After being dropped back in town, I almost immediately headed back out towards the National Park. Just a little before the waterfall is the parking lot for Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain tracks. Despite a few prior visits to Wanaka, I’d only discovered the Diamond Lake track on my previous visit, and had gone as far as the lookout with my partner. This time though I was wanting to conquer Rocky Mountain which is only 775m high. I’d been looking across to it all day from the waterfall ascent, so it only seemed right to knock it off on the same day.

From the car park, the track heads up a switchback to reach the lake which, despite some incredible reflections seen from the lakeside track, is best appreciated from the lookout partway up Rocky Mountain. From the lookout, there are two ascents up to the summit, but having never been up before, I opted to take the eastern route up which included a side-track to a lookout of Lake Wanaka. As is often the case when I’m down this way, I take hundreds of photos because why wouldn’t you? The place is gorgeous, and between the lake and the mountains, there’s barely a dull spot to look at.

 

The track, while well worn, is a little rough underfoot in places, and after a day of hauling myself up the via ferrata, I was a little tired in the legs. I’d hiked 3 days solid followed by a slog up an iron ladder. I was feeling both fit yet exhausted from the exertion. But the views were worth it, and I sat on the summit for a long time as the shadows grew long as the sun dropped low to the west. Below me, the lake water looked so still, and behind me, the towering point of Mount Aspiring, the National Park’s tallest peak, stood in the shadow with its glacier perched near the top.

 

It took some pull to make me leave, but the views accompanied me on the way down too. I took the western track down, descending a different way which gave me a view across to the twin falls, one of which had been the site for the via ferrata, now in shadow. I was mainly looking across to Roys Peak, one of the first mountains that I climbed in the South Island back when I first emigrated. I haven’t been up it since, because back in 2012, I was one of only 5 people on the summit, and it was another perfect day like this one had been. Sadly, it has become Instagram famous, and since then, it has become overcrowded with queues at the top to take specific photos, and degradation of the vegetation has occurred as a result. Despite the stunning views, I’m not really in any hurry to go back up.

 

It was after 7pm by the time I got back to my car and I had a good appetite now in need of satiation. Being a Sunday night, the eateries were busy but I got my stomach filled. The following day I had to drive home to Christchurch, and I wished I could have stayed longer. When I woke up on the Monday, it was another cracker of a day. The locals were all back to their day jobs, but there were a few tourists milling around at the lakeside. After breakfast I joined them, slowly walking the shore until I reached the wharf. It would have been a perfect day to go hiking, but instead I joined the small crowd of people that were feeding the eels in the lake. I’d never seen an eel before moving to New Zealand but they’re often a bit of a local attraction wherever they can be found in accessible waterways. It was a complete melee between the large eels and the myriad of waterfowl that all fought over the food scraps on offer.

 

I took my time heading back, savouring the views before grabbing a sundae from Patagonia, the wonderful ice cream and chocolate shop that can be found in Wanaka and Queenstown. But by lunchtime, I really had to leave. It takes 4-5hrs to drive back to Christchurch but the weather followed me most of the way. I stopped at the head of Lake Pukaki to savour the blue water which shimmered under the blue sky. From here, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak, is in full view. To savour this sight, I stopped at a lakeside car park half way up the lake for a meander along the shore. I love living in Christchurch, but I’m also often sad to return to it after being away in the countryside. It was back to work and the daily grind the following day, but I didn’t have too long to wait till my next trip away.

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.

An Arachnophobic’s Nightmare

As I came face to face with the umpteenth spider blocking my way, I started to second guess myself. There are only a handful of public access walks on Chatham Island, managed through New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DoC). The rest of the island is effectively private property and permission is required for access to a lot of places, and tourist levies are charged. I was keen to make use of the public routes, but when I’d voiced my intentions to walk the Rangaika track, I was informed that I should only do it with a guide. Being a regular tramper, and having studied a topographical map, I couldn’t see any reason for this, plus as an exceptional introvert, I really wasn’t keen on spending my day tramping with a stranger. So behind the wheel of yet another rental car on my last day on Chatham Island, I had set off east for the predicted 4-5hr hike.

Chatham Island does not do car parks, and there are limited places to pull over on the gravel roads that make up the island roads outside of Waitangi. There was just space for my car to pull onto the verge, and I was soon over the fence and crossing farmland next to a large copse of wind-shaped trees. I am more than familiar with DoCs orange pole markers, and the 4×4 track that led up the low hillside was so easy to follow. In places where animal tracks and quad bike tracks led off in varying directions, I knew I was heading up the hill, so even without poles it was easy to see where I was going. In fact as I gained height from the roadside altitude of about 20m, to the highest point of roughly 260m, I really couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about with having a guide.

As I’d worked my way up the hillside, the vegetation had changed from farmed grassland, to ever-taller vegetation, and a fence marked the perimeter of Thomas Mohi Tuuta Scenic Reserve, within which the trees had managed to attain a decent height away from the munching mouths of livestock. At the most southern aspect of the hike, I found myself atop a high cliff with a hazy view across Pitt Strait to Pitt Island. It was a crazy feeling to think about how isolated I was out here on a wild coast of a near-empty island far out in the Pacific Ocean. As much as I enjoy my own company, sometimes it would be nice to have someone to share those moments with. But one of the biggest things about hiking alone is the mental challenge and the personal growth that comes from getting out of my comfort zone. And after the first couple of hours of hiking, I was about to get to know my limits very well.

The track turned east and immediately dove into the dense forest across the fence line. Now it was just a matter of following the orange triangles that are another familiar sight when I’m hiking. The track was overgrown in places, and I found myself walking into a few spider webs, so started using my hands to swipe ahead of my face. But the deeper I plunged into the forest, the rougher the track got. The rougher the track got, the more caught out I would find myself when I unintentionally came across spider after spider at face height. Now, I’m not the worst arachnophobic in the World. In fact I can cope okay with being around them, and don’t mind little ones walking on me, but bigger spiders cause me to shudder and if one gets on my face I’ll let out a pathetic scream. I had to shimmy and dance round and under so many webs in an effort not to break the poor occupant’s hard work, but there were many that I just couldn’t get around, and I would break them with my arm, and then there were all the ones I didn’t see until I felt them on my skin or saw the spider right in front of my face.

I don’t know how many times I cried out involuntarily, but it was many and as the trail got harder and harder to follow, I realised why I’d been recommended a guide. This section went on for so long too which just made the experience that bit more miserable. When I finally made it out to the clearing at Rangaika it was a total relief. There was a stunning view along the coast, and I felt even more away from civilisation than I had at the last viewpoint. With all my nervousness and water consumption, I needed to use the long-drop that was conveniently placed here, but it was hardly surprising to open the door to discover a spider had spun a web across the doorway. I hesitated briefly, then realised that I could duck under it to get inside and duly did so. Looking out the doorway, I decided the view was so lovely and there was clearly no-one else around, so I didn’t bother to shut the door behind me. Instead, I sat on the long-drop throne with the toilet door open, and the view with my spider compadre suspended overhead in front of me.

The vegetation blocked the full extent of the coastal views here but what I could see was dramatic. The north end of Chatham Island is so low-lying, but as I’d discovered on my flight to Pitt Island, this southern end is so tall in comparison with steep-dropping cliffs marking the junction between land and sea. Pitt Island was still a hazy sight on the horizon, and I had merely insects to share the view with. As I left it behind, following the trail north, I was outside of the reserve fence, again following a wide 4×4 track. It was such a pleasant change, and I was glad to be out of the forest and on my way back to the car.

 

But after a couple of bends I was dismayed to see an orange marker and a stile lead me back into the forest once more, and just like the previous section, it was severely overgrown and I was immediately back to spider swatting. After a while, surrounded by what felt like an impenetrable jungle, the track petered out. I looked in front of me and to my side, trying to guess where it was supposed to go. Behind me I could see where I had come, but it really wasn’t clear where I was to go. I pushed through a patch of bush and saw a track, gratefully setting on it, but it very quickly led nowhere. I turned around to retrace my steps but because I’d pushed through vegetation to get where I was, I couldn’t see the track I’d come off, nor any markers, nor the bit of bush I’d pushed through to get there. It all just looked the same: dense and impenetrable.

 

I had a brief moment of panic as I realised I was on my own in the middle of a forest at the southern end of a barely-inhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Nobody even knew I was there. But panic gets you nowhere and with a mental map of the lay of the land in my head, I realised that even if I was lost, I just had to pick a direction and bush-bash, and eventually I’d reach the fence at the edge of the reserve which I could then follow downhill. That eased my mind, and helped me choose a spot to push through which popped me back out at the actual track. Still not seeing where it led, I took another guess and pushed through another bit of bush to be greeted by the welcoming sight of an orange track marker and a rough track leading away. It led up and over a ridge, dropping down into a creek bed and back up the other side, where at last, the vegetation opened up a bit before depositing me back at the fence line and the 4×4 track I’d followed way back at the start.

My leg was bleeding from all the bush bashing I’d done. My shin was scratched raw. I had mixed feelings of triumph and sheepish stupidity for having done it in the first place, but I’d gone out my comfort zone and successfully overcome my fear of being lost. It was just a matter of retracing my earlier steps back across the farmland and down towards the Owenga road, which I reached 6.5hrs after I’d left it.

I drove west back to Waitangi and out the other side to the hill that overlooks Waitangi wharf. Here, a short track leads to a view point where I had an expansive view of Petre Bay and Waitangi at its southern end. A small fleet of fishing boats sat moored in the sheltered waters, and I took in the view, aware that I was heading home the next day. Eventually my stomach took me to the Hotel Chatham for my last dinner, and afterwards, I stretched my legs a little on the small beach out front before heading back to the motel up the hill. Like the night before, there was a beautiful sunset to frame the tractor that sat on the hillside, and I reflected on how good I’d had it with the weather.

 

It was moody the next morning as I ate breakfast and waited for the ride to the airport. Some of my favourite parts of my Homeland in Scotland are the wild and rugged Outer Hebrides where life grits its teeth and clings on despite the barrage that the Atlantic Ocean throws at it. I felt the exact same way about the Chatham Islands. They had that same feel about them, and I was sad to leave, although I was happy I’d done them justice, having seen so much on the two main islands. The same archaic plane that brought me there, took me home on its slow and low journey with the loud Rolls Royce engines turning the propellers. But I still had another week before I returned to work, so my return to Christchurch was not the end of my summer adventure.

The Heaphy Track – James Mackay Hut to Kohaihai

I believe most people take sunsets and sunrises for granted. I myself certainly do. For the sake of extra time beneath the covers, I would normally have no desire to get up early in my day to day life, and if I see the sunset at night, it is only because I may happen to be outside at the time. But when I’m on holiday, and especially when I’m hiking, I love to watch the turning of the sun, the rise above the horizon in the morning and its graceful fall at night, the accompanying change of colours lighting up the view.

As often happens in busy huts on the trail, the stirring of one or two people soon has the whole hut awake, and on this third day of the Heaphy track, I was up in the mountains at 700m. The west coast clouds thickened the air and rather weakened the effect of the coming day. It was now two days since I’d eaten a proper meal. I still didn’t feel like having breakfast and once more packed my bag and readied to set off with almost all of the food I’d started with. Before leaving though, I took the track behind the hut to a lookout a little higher up. Some streaks of light burst through the cloud as I stood there and in the far distance I could see my destination for the day, the mouth of the Heaphy river and beyond it the expanse of the Tasman Sea.

It was to be a long descent down the mountainside surrounded by gorgeous New Zealand bush. It shrouded the view somewhat but it was a pleasant trail to take. It is strange to think how these forests would have sounded before humans came and introduced the alien species that decimated the native bird populations. There was some bird activity though and as is often the case in forests in New Zealand, if I ever slow a little as my mind wanders off, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a robin to appear and keep me company. They are such delightfully inquisitive little birds, and unlike the piwakaka (fantails), they seem to like to pause for photographs, often cocking their head in anticipation, or watching closely as you interact. As a result, I will often stop to engage one if they come close.

 

Elsewhere as the trail got lower, a weka appeared. Depending on where you see them, these birds can either by easily spooked and take off at great knots, or they will be pushy and approach you looking for an easy meal. They, like New Zealand’s alpine parrot (kea), have a reputation for stealing hiker’s belongings. This one fussed around my hiking pole before getting bored and wandering off. As I continued I found the trail was blocked by a fallen tree. This is not an unusual occurrence while hiking, and even the Great Walks can suffer at the hands of bad weather, taking days or weeks to clear blockages. It was a bit of a scramble, but it was manageable to climb over it.

 

A few hours after leaving James Mackay Hut behind, I was in constant sunshine and gaps in the bush appeared. It seemed that I was still quite high up, but the wide expanse of the Heaphy river was now just below me, its tannin-stained water snaking through the valley. The vegetation was noticeably changing as I descended with more ferns appearing and a change in the tree type to reflect the typical west coast canopy. Another robin grabbed my attention, drawing me out the reverie that always accompanies my hikes. After what felt like a long time, I finally popped out at a clearing where the small Lewis Hut sat close to the confluence of the Lewis and Heaphy rivers. The flat lawn that surrounded it was strewn with hikers taking a breather in the glorious sunshine.

 

At last I felt like eating and managed a banana smoothie. It was a small triumph after feeling ill for so long. A couple of weka patrolled the lawn, walking from hiker’s pack to hiker’s pack, testing what they could grab and run. The river by my side was broad and brown, and had it not been for the inevitable sandfly annoyance, I could have stayed here for some time. The Department of Conservation (DoC) sign stated 2hrs to the next hut but it was yet midday and I was certainly in no hurry. But once I was ready, I set off reaching the longest DoC suspension bridge in the country to cross the Heaphy river, the valley shrouded in thick bush, the odd pop of colour from a flowering pohutakawa tree breaking up the green.

 

It was a glorious day for a hike with the sun lighting up the blue sky and the hillsides swathed in native flora. Now the trail was almost at sea level, winding its way along the Heaphy river valley. Shortly after crossing the bridge the track passed some giant trees whose trunks were wound in vines. There were several focal points on this final stretch. Aside from the bridge itself and giant trees, an area to the side of the trail was jagged and contained signs of upthrust from under the sea. I was on the look out for a cave which the ranger at the hut had told me about. Unmarked but apparently obvious once upon it, I walked and walked and failed to see it.

 

Another suspension bridge took me across the Gunner river and now I felt like I was in a jungle. Yet another suspension bridge appeared and still no cave. I asked some fellow hikers who hadn’t seen it either, and I assumed it had been missed. As I continued to head west, the nikau palms became more prevalent and all of a sudden there it was, a small, unassuming cave entrance next to a small bridge. It appeared that most hikers were overlooking it, but I dumped my bag at the side and took my boots off to get into the frigid water. Armed with my light I headed in in search of glowworms. I love exploring caves but I also feel a little frightened when doing so on my own. As much as I prefer hiking on my own, I typically do it without those that know me actually knowing where I am. So I always go underground with the knowledge that if a cave-in happened or I fell, nobody would know where to look for me. It tends to mean that I limit how deep in I go.

 

On this occasion I went far enough in to not see daylight anymore, spotting some cave weta in my light. Then I turned the light off and watched the twinkle of a handful of glowworms light up. The frigid water on my feet was painful and this also drove me back outside again. The hikers I’d spoken to at the bridge had just arrived as I exited so they climbed in as I climbed out. I later discovered that had I taken just one more bend I would have been surrounded by a mass of twinkling glowworms. Unlike most of the hikers on the trail I had at least gone in, but I cursed myself for my fear holding me back from getting the full experience.

From here onwards the trail was just delightful. The palm trees were everywhere and by now I was right on the bank of the Heaphy river which by now was very broad. The vegetation was thinning out here and I spotted shags resting on trees by the river. I could hear the roar of the ocean as I continued, and soon after the vegetation dramatically shortened to reveal the full extent of the river. Within minutes I found myself at Heaphy hut around 6hrs after I’d set off. This hut was glorious, set back from the river with a large lawn in front of it and looking out to sea. After securing a bunk, it was time to explore with hours of daylight ahead. The beach was littered with washed up tree debris, salt-weathered trunks strewn all over the place. I sunbathed for a while before the sandflies drove me crazy.

 

By this stage, I’d gotten chatting with a few people over the course of the days I’d been hiking, and although I managed only a small dinner, it was good to be eating again and it was great hanging out with fellow hikers sharing stories. As the daylight faded, several of us headed back down to the beach. The plan had been to watch the sunset but thick cloud had moved in over the end of the afternoon, so there wasn’t much hope of getting great colours. It looked dramatic though as the wind had whipped up creating the effect of spray down the coast. I stayed out as long as I could until there was just enough light to make my way back to the hut.

Unfortunately the cloud that had moved in signalled a shift in the weather and I awoke to a dull day with the threat of rain. Most of the hikers at the hut had to make the lunchtime shuttle from Kohaihai that I had used to get to Nelson a few days prior. I however had the luxury of time as my car was waiting for me at the shelter. But not wanting to get caught out if it did rain, I still got moving after finally getting to eat breakfast for the first time in 3 days. It felt utterly wild walking down the west coast of Kahurangi National Park, the grey sky adding to the blow and spray from the nearby sea. Through nikau palms the path snaked behind Heaphy beach, crossing streams and a suspension bridge as the track elevated slightly before dropping down again at Twenty Minute beach.

 

Where it was possible I walked along the sand, but mostly the trail sat a little elevated above it. The coast appeared shrouded in mist when looking north or south but thankfully any spots of rain never came to much. After Nettle beach, another swing bridge spanned a wide rocky gorge before the trail opened up a little at the Katipo Shelter. This rather exposed area was a campsite and a family there mentioned they had had some belongings stolen by the resident weka. I sat there watching the waves crash on Twin beach as these same weka nosied around my feet looking for an easy grab. I spotted a juvenile oyster catcher on the beach, still in its fluffy attire, not yet fully feathered, and as I went to leave I noticed the DoC sign had this campsite as half way between the Heaphy Hut and the end of the trail.

 

After traversing behind the two beaches that made up Twin beaches, the track skirted into a nikau palp grove once more, bringing me to Koura beach then Big Rock beach after yet another suspension bridge. Every single one of these beaches was empty, and had it been nicer weather I probably would have lingered for longer. The only other people I saw were those on the trail who were all hellbent on getting to the end of the hike as soon as possible. When I reached Scotts beach, there was only the expanse of the beach itself and a headland between me and the end of the hike. I wasn’t ready for it to be over yet so I dumped my bag and headed down onto the beach and sat there for some time, delighting in eating a snack whilst in a day dream.

 

After some time I eventually made the final move, climbing back up to around 100m inside the forest. After half an hour, a side track led to a lookout overlooking Scotts beach. Beyond here, the track descended down the other side of the headland, and as it dropped down I could see the car park and shelter where the hikers readied to board the shuttle bus. The threat of rain brought wispy clouds to the hillsides, slightly shrouding the view of the valley as I reached the final suspension bridge to cross the wide Kohaihai river. I sidled out the end of the hike to no fanfare, and with no-one waiting to acknowledge my achievement. I’d hiked the first 2 days on effectively zero calories, not to mention with dehydration, and I’d hiked the final 2 days on less than a day’s maintenance of calories. But I felt okay. The body is a remarkable thing, having carried me over 78km on barely any food and with a heavy pack on my back. I’d hiked out with almost as much food as I’d hiked in with, and as I sat on a washed up tree trunk on the beach, watching a red-billed gull saunter across the sand, I ate some of it, proud of myself for completing such a beautiful hike under less than ideal conditions.

Kurama to Kibune

A short trip to the north of Kyoto brought me to one very angry face. As was often the case, the meaning was lost in translation, or rather there was no translation. Upon exiting the station at the small township of Kurama, I was met by a giant red head with a giant red nose, and was left a little bemused and bewildered by it. As unwelcoming as it seemed, Kurama was a lovely little quiet hamlet nestled among the trees and it was only a short walk around the corner to the entrance to the Kurama-dera temple where my hike was to begin. There had been several people get off the train with me with the same purpose in mind, but it didn’t take long to feel quite alone here and that was just how I liked it.

 

I ignored the cable car, opting to walk the entire route, and early on the trail through the property led up the hillside. The various shrines were an unusual shade of orange, almost bordering on peach, and every few steps in the lower portion were wooden torii gates marking the entrances to prayer areas or the next part of the trail. Snaking up the hillside, I passed an unusual sculpture known as the Monument of ‘Inochi’ which was close to the path leading to where the cable car stops. Beyond here, a series of steps led up the next section of the mountainside, lined with pretty vermillion lanterns. Like every day before, it was so hot and once again I was sweating buckets as I made my way through the trees. As the altitude continued to gain, a few breaks in the trees started to offer a little view out across the nearby tree-covered hillsides. Kyoto was not that far away but it might as well have been, as it felt so utterly natural and secluded there out in the forest.

 

The views eventually started to include rolling mountain tops further away and as I reached the flatness of the grounds of the main part of the temple, a bird of prey was spotted circling above me. The buildings were once again a peach-hued orange colour and statues abounded across the grounds. It was peaceful here, the perfect place to build a place of prayer. I set off back into the forest again and came across a giant bell which encouraged a prayer and then a ringing of the bell. I am not religious but it is not difficult to be overwhelmed by the serenity of many religious sites, so whilst I do not pray, I made an affirmation and rang the bell, the low drone echoing out into the trees.

 

At the summit, a gnarl of tree roots could be walked amongst before the trail started to descend past more Buddhist temples, eventually leading me down to another hamlet, Kibune. This place was adorable, the old-style buildings so charming. At the far end was Kibune shrine, another impressive-looking building guarded by vermillion lanterns and torii gates. At the top part of the shrine, there was a waterway where for a small fee you could purchase a prediction, a fortune that would be revealed in the water. It was a novelty but I took part, the water revealing the Japanese lettering, and a QR-code that took me to an English translation. At the time of visiting in October 2019, it was a little depressing to read and I dismissed it out of my head, but during the first COVID lockdown of 2020, I happened across the screenshot I’d captured of the translation and was dumbfounded. My future prediction read: ‘SICKNESS: Heavy sickness, have faith; DIRECTION:  Fortune favours all to the south; TRAVEL: You should practice restraint; STUDY: You are advised to calm your mind and study; BUSINESS: It may suddenly get worse; MOVING RESIDENCE: Postpone your move’. 3 months after my return home from Japan, COVID emerged and within a couple of months it was a pandemic, my country was in lockdown, and my trip home to see my family in Scotland had been cancelled. We have been exceptionally fortunate in New Zealand, down here in the Southern Hemisphere, and have escaped the worst of the mismanagement and farce that has befallen other countries, but still, many businesses have had to fold. As a result of not being able to travel abroad for the foreseeable future, I made the decision to return to university and get a post-graduate qualification. I also decided to buy a house but have been unable to due to a surge in the market. It was rather spooky to re-find this fortune and read it again with everything that happened over the first half of 2020.

 

After grabbing an early lunch in a deserted eatery, I walked back through Kibune and followed the course of the Kibune river as it flowed downhill, eventually bringing me to the Kibuneguchi train station at the confluence of the Kibune and Anba rivers. A bit of transport-hopping brought me to Ginkakujicho where I followed the Philosopher’s path (Tetsugaku no michi) south through the beautiful neighbourhoods. It skirted past many shrines, distinctive houses and some lovely artisan shops. There are simply so many temples and shrines around Japan, and with so many to visit, I had done some reading to pick a few that would hold my attention. Despite the heat, I followed the path for some distance before eventually arriving at Eikando Temple.

 

It was early autumn so there was the very start of some autumnal colours as I wandered round the grounds. At the back of the complex, some steps led up to a building from which there was a view across the rooftops of the nearby suburbs. The temple itself was simple and I was bemused by the sign warning about roaming monkeys, but it was the garden that captured my attention with a central group of ponds and a gorgeous butterfly that sunned itself on the stones at one end of the complex. As I walked around the ponds, I spotted a grey heron perched atop one of the trees, and with the sun casting down onto the water, the foliage was reflected on the still water. I’d seen photos of this place in full autumn changeover and can only imagine how stunning the place would have been in a few more weeks.

 

South from here was the grand Nanzenji Temple and the nearby Suirokaku water bridge. The crowds here were notable and the various trails around the concourse, as well as into the surrounding forest were busy with people posing for photos at every turn. The water bridge was impressive and so unexpected and the forest was lush but a little oppressive in the heat. Trails led up into the mountains but I went as far as a small waterfall before returning. Back in the temple grounds I went up to the viewing platform above the entrance gate where there was a view over the nearby temple and suburbs. The sun was already dropping low and I was keen to move on to my next destination before it got dark.

The sun was really low by the time I made it up to the viewing deck of the Kyoto Tower. The space here was cramped and the crowds increased as the sun set making for a rather unpleasant experience being shoved and squashed or blocked from being able to see as the light changed and the city lights came on. Compared to Tokyo, Kyoto is compact but it’s surrounded by mountains making for a beautiful setting. With the tower next to Kyoto station, I could watch the shinkansen come and go, zooming through the city as they left and entered. The crowds within the tower got no better so once the lights had gone out of the sky and it was fully dark, I headed down through the market at the base and into the station in search of dinner.