MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “tramping”

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.

 

There was a light display on the steps as I headed up to one of the food courts where I squeezed into a small space inside a ramen house for some delicious food. Afterwards, I joined the gathering crowds at the bottom of the steps to watch the display which moved through Hallowe’en-themed images, traditional images, and tourist adverts as people ran up and down, posing for photos. I stayed through several cycles, enjoying the atmosphere before my weary legs dragged me back to my ryokan and a much-needed lie down.

The Nakasendō

Japan’s Nakasendō is an ancient route that leads inland between Tokyo and Kyoto, used during the Edo period (17th-19th C.). 中山道 in Japanese, the three symbols literally say central mountain route, and when I first read about this route, and in particular the section between the mountain villages of Magome-juku and Tsumago-juku, I knew that this was a must-do for me during my time in Japan. Away from city hubs, nestled quite far inland, I had originally planned on tackling this from Tokyo, but with research realised that it was much easier to get to from Nagoya. So having jumped off the Shinkansen there on route to Kyoto, I arose early to retrace my steps back to Nagoya train station and negotiate the rabbit warren that all major Japanese train stations are, to find a baggage locker to dump by backpack, and then the correct platform to take the train to Nakutsagawa in the Gifu prefecture.

 

It didn’t take long to leave the city behind and for a large part of the nearly 1hr train trip I was riding through a mix of Japanese countryside and small settlements. Passing arable land and crossing rivers, eventually it pulled in to the small city of Nakatsugawa and outside the train station was the bus stand to catch the mountain bus to Magome and the start of the hike. A decent crowd waited for the bus and once on board it was a half an hour trip out the back of the city and up a winding mountain road. Eventually, I was at the beginning of what transpired to be my favourite hike and one of my favourite days in Japan. Magome was a cute little settlement full of traditional buildings and looking down over arable fields. The Nakasendō was originally serviced by sixty-nine stations or post-towns of which Magome is the 43rd and Tsumago the 42nd. Out here I felt so far away from the hubbub of city life and walking around the main streets I felt like I was in a classic Japanese story.

Up the initial slope and round the first corner I found a water wheel and a continuation of beautiful wooden buildings at the side of a brick pathway. With a little height I could start to see the surrounding mountain tops which were partially hidden by swirling clouds. Further along the road were little eateries and the local post office and as I passed the tourist information kiosk I was surprised to see a warning sign for bears. During my research for hikes in Japan, everything had suggested that bears were much further north and at no point had I expected to have to give them a thought on my trip, but suddenly it twigged why many of the locals I’d seen hiking on my previous hikes had had little bells attached to their backpacks. I’ve had such a sheltered hiking life. I have hiked in bear country before in the Rocky Mountains of Canada many moons ago, and I do keep a side eye out for snakes whenever I hike in Australia, but the vast majority of my hiking has been in New Zealand where nothing there wants to kill you and eat you, or in Scotland where all you have to do is a tick check at the end of the day. I felt a little unprepared to be in bear country but it was such a busy trail that I doubt there was ever one even close to me.

 

The trail through Magome led higher and higher past more and more cute little businesses until finally it reached a lookout. The post-town disappeared down the slope below me and I had a nice view across to the cloud-covered mountain tops, and from here at last, I was heading out into the relative wilderness for the nearly 8km walk to Tsumago over the mountain. Past arable fields and giant spiders, the stone trail led down then up and into the forest. When it broke out at a main road I saw a bell on a post which I soon discovered was a bear bell. There were enough people on the trail to make the use of it unnecessary and despite how much it would have been great to actually see a bear in the wild (safely), I took great enjoyment out of ringing every single bear bell on the trail (which considering there was one every half km or so, was a lot).

 

After a brief forest section, the trail again crossed the mountain road further along and I chuckled as I came across a sign welcoming walkers into somebody’s garden whilst also suggesting it wasn’t much to look at. I opted to skip the garden like everyone else that passed at the same time, and from here the trail cut through a small mountain village, with scattered homes across the hillside. At the far end was a small shrine, the entrance marked by a stone torii gate. Deeper into the forest and once more across the mountain road where the highest point on the trail was passed, a clearing in the forest revealed a large traditional building that on closer inspection was a tea house. The sign outside said it was free and I, like several other walkers, popped inside. It was dim and smoky and made me think of historic movies I’d seen. Over an open fireplace hung a large cauldron and a lovely man served us all green tea with the biggest smile and welcome.

 

The long forested section that followed was lovely, deep among tall trees and a babbling water course nearby. I continued to ring every bear bell I came across, but aside from the loud dong when I did so, there was only the occasional chatter from other people to break the silence. Eventually a side trail led downhill to a pair of waterfalls. Only a handful of people took the side trail, probably because it involved a climb back uphill to rejoin the main track, but whilst they weren’t the biggest or grandest falls I’d ever seen, they were a welcome change of scenery. Back on the Nakasendō a small group of traditional houses passed by, followed by a large arable field before the path suddenly took a decent drop down in altitude, winding through the forest towards the road again. There was a brief spell of relative civilisation as the trail cut through another settlement with more traditional buildings and a water wheel turning as a stream flowed through to the main river nearby. A noodle shop where the road and trail came together was a popular snack stop but I pressed on.

 

Before I knew it I was in Tsumago-juku. Initially it didn’t amount to much, but after following the trail a little while and crossing the now larger river, more and more people appeared as I reached a car park where buses had dumped coachloads of tourists. Suddenly I was in the hub of Tsumago and the street was bustling. The buildings were very similar to Magome and likewise it focused around one long main street, but the crowds here made it feel very different. I stopped for some ice cream and watched the World go by briefly, resting my feet as I did so before the last stage of the hike. Continuing onwards, there were so many pretty buildings and bonsai trees to look at and a few temples and shrines also. The background was dominated by a green covered mountain as I strolled through the street.

 

I’m not entirely sure where Tsumago ended, it just seemed to stretch on forever, the houses eventually petering out before the mountain road was crossed again. In order to get back to Nagoya, I had a train to catch, this time from Nagiso, the next town over. The trail cut back into the forest where I came across a side trail leading to the ruins of Tsumago castle. Immediately on taking it, I found myself on a raised path with bamboo canes sprouting up on one side and the main forest sloping off either side. My attention was suddenly caught by a crashing sound in the bushes to my left. I assumed it might be boar but hoped I might get a glimpse of a bear though no matter where or how I craned my neck to look, I saw nothing. When I reached the ruins on the mound at the far end of the earthen bridge, they weren’t much to look at but there was an area with a break in the trees that afforded a view down onto Nagiso at the bottom of the hill. I continued to search the undergrowth as I followed the path back to the main trail and shortly after returning to the Nakasendō once more, I was suddenly alerted to something in the undergrowth and out popped a group of macaques. I wasn’t quick enough to get a photograph as they disappeared into the trees almost as soon as they had come out of them.

The path gradually worked its way down the hill towards the back streets of Nagiso. The houses grew tighter and tighter together, until I reached a point where the remaining elevation offered a view across the rooftops of the main stretch of the town. A train engine stood on display nearby as the road cut down to follow the train line and lead me to the train station. It began to rain whilst I waited for the train to take me back to Nagoya but I even here there was a lovely view of the surrounding mountains. Eventually I saw the train come down the hill and finally I was on my way, arriving at length to pick up my luggage at the station and board the train to Kyoto.

Mount Kintoki

The freedom afforded by having a Hakone Travel Pass meant it was easy to just hop on a local bus at Miyanoshita and head west within the Fuji Hakone Izu National Park to Sengokuhara. Early in the morning I was shocked to see some wild boar run across the road in front of the bus as we headed through the countryside. I had to walk along the road from the bus stop but it was a quiet Sunday morning and there was barely anybody else about. Reaching a trail head, I slipped on my hiking shoes and set about tackling one of the local mountains. I’m an avid hiker at home in New Zealand and had so far had some mixed success hiking in Japan, but it is a country full of stunning countryside so I set off up my third mountain since arriving and found a few other people lower down on the trail with me.

One of the slightly confusing things about mountains in Japan is that some of them have more than one name depending on where you look. My summit for the day was Mount Kintoki 1212m high (3976ft) but some places refer to it as Mount Ashigara. Either way, it turned out to be a popular hike and I regularly bumped into other people. The main signs on the trail were bilingual, although there were plenty of kanji-only signs that I have no idea what they were saying, but it was a very easy trail to follow with no risk of getting lost. In the lower forest the trail passes the Kintoki shrine, a rather sweet little shrine hidden among the trees. Once past there, the climb started almost immediately, snaking through the tall forest in relative quiet.

About 90m (295ft) of altitude gain led me to a road crossing, beyond which it was straight back into the forest. There was nothing to see but trees and undergrowth as another 40m (131ft) of altitude took me up to a flatter section. At one point a giant boulder appeared in the forest that appeared to be propped up by large sticks. I’m not sure if it was a joke or if people genuinely were worried that the boulder would roll. Either that, or it was a popular spot to pick up or dump walking sticks. Probably only the locals know the reason for that. I had more and more people pass me heading up or down, the higher up I got. Another 200m (656ft) of slogging through the forest on what was now yet another hot day eventually led me out of the trees and to a clearing where suddenly I had some views. Below me was a gorgeous green valley surrounded by gorgeous green mountains, and slowly sliding over their summit was a thick bank of cloud that kept Mt Fuji out of view. A little further was a junction at 1040m (3412ft) altitude leading either up to the summit or back down via another route. I turned left, excited to see the sign stated the summit was only 20minutes away.

As the track continued its climb, the view became more and more beautiful, the slopes of the mountain becoming more visible and the wispy cloud off to my side. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the summit, just 1.5hrs after setting off, the cloud had moved in and shrouded the summit plateau. I was surprised to find a couple of buildings at the summit, including a little tea house that sold snacks and tea. With a few different routes up to the summit, there was actually a lot of people up there, all looking like locals. I’d been out-hiked by several people that looked like they were beyond retirement age and in fact I regularly saw older Japanese people out hiking where I was and they were all fitter than me. I sincerely hope I’m still fit enough well past retirement to continue my hobbies in the same manner.

 

I enjoyed my dried squid (a 7Eleven special that was the perfect hiking snack in Japan) and mulled around for a bit hoping the cloud would lift and Mt Fuji would appear. Alas it just swirled in thicker, and despite discovering some stray cats to entertain me, it was time to head back down. It was an easy descent back to the junction, but this time I took the other track which was a rather more direct descent than the winding ascent through the forest had been. Another clearing showed how much the clouds were just swirling round the neighouring mountain tops and now none of the summits could be seen. Even behind me was shrouded. As I continued down, I could see another track heading off across another ridgeline. Had I had more time I would have loved to do a longer hike but I had quite some distance to travel that day so there just wasn’t the time to explore other trails.

It took just over an hour to descend and I found myself back in civilisation at the back of Sengokuhara. Cutting down to the main street I decided to follow the road that led towards Lake Ashi as far as the Hakone Botanical Garden of Wetlands. I love botanical gardens, and I had read that this was worth a walk around. I was sweating like crazy on arrival and despite the cloud, the sun exposure was tiring, but it was a really sweet garden to walk around. A series of paths led me round lily-pad covered ponds where dragonflies flitted about and reflections shimmered on the gently moving water. I spotted all sorts of insects and there were also some huge fish in some of the ponds.

 

At the back of the wetlands was the mountain I’d driven over on the bus the day before and it was possible to walk through the wildflower meadow that was growing on the other side of the fence. Again I would have loved to have just wandered off into this large meadow but I didn’t want to spend much more of the day here when I had a lot of connections to make. As I circled back towards the visitor centre, I spotted some terrapins sunning themselves on some stones and then a large grey heron stalked about nearby in search of food.

 

Getting into the national park had been quite the transport hop and now I had the same to do in reverse. I walked up the road to the main street of Sengokuhara to catch the bus back to Miyanoshita. Picking up my backpack at the hostel I walked to the train station to get the Hakone rail back through the switchback to Hakone-Yumoto. An easy platform hop brought me to the main line to Odawara where I was to catch my first shinkansen to head south. I had a bit of time to kill at Odawara and looking at the map, the city’s castle looked like an achievable excursion. Rather than look for a luggage locker, I just carried my luggage with me, but it was so hot and the straps rubbed on my shoulders as I wound my way through the city streets. I had my pocket Wifi and Google Maps but it was well signposted, leading me to the moat and bridge that led into the grounds. It was a very popular spot, and whilst there is a fee to enter the castle itself, the grounds are free to enter.

I had no time to explore inside but it was a very Japanese-style castle, proudly standing on its built-up stone walls, the walls itself white but plain, and the roof more ornate in comparison. The path led right round the base of the castle before leading me down a back track to the main road back to the train station. As I walked the streets of Odawara I noticed cute decorated tiles at various intervals on route. They depicted little scenes that I’m not sure if they represented the city’s history or some other cultural aspect. As I neared the station I was approached by a woman who started conversing with me in English. I was in a bit of a hurry to catch my train and I wasn’t getting what she wanted. In some respects I think she just wanted to practice English, but at times she seemed to want to follow me or find out where I was heading, and then it sounded like she wanted to interview me. Japan is probably the safest I’ve ever felt travelling abroad but this was the one and only moment where I just wasn’t completely confident I wasn’t being set up for a scam.

 

Just like seeing Mt Fuji, I feel that riding a shinkansen is a right of passage in Japan. A couple came into the station as I waited for mine and I was blown away by the speed at which they shot into and out of the station. They just whizzed past in a blur as they took off. It’s well known than when heading south from Tokyo, you want to sit on the right side of the train to get a view of Mt Fuji. Stepping on board I was more just in need of a seat as the train was packed. I did actually get a seat on the right but didn’t have much of a view. Not that it mattered as the mountain was just as shrouded from this angle as it had been from the top of Mt Kintoki a few hours previously. It took just over an hour to reach Nagoya, another busy metropolis two thirds of the way towards Kyoto. My sole purpose for stopping here was to make it easier to reach another hiking trail the next day, so I’d booked a hotel close to the hotel to make the commute easier.

 

At least on the map it looked close, but with my backpack irritating my shoulders it felt like it took forever to get there. It seemed to be the sort of hotel that was set up for business travellers, and I found myself in a rather non-descript part of the city. I had planned on visiting Nagoya Castle but arrived too late in the day to get there. My back up plan was to go to an observation deck for a city view but as I walked away from the hotel and through the uninspiring city streets, I discovered that the place I was heading to was shut. A little peeved, I knew there was another observation deck nearer the station, so with aching feet I turned around and headed towards the city centre. Stopping for savoury pancakes on route, I found the JP centre and followed the signs up to the observation deck.

It was getting dark when I got there. The sunsets in Japan were quite early during my visit in October 2019 and as the colours of the sky faded to red and then peaches and blues, the city lights began to twinkle on. Like Tokyo, there was just an urban sprawl in all directions, but unlike Tokyo, there weren’t quite the same pretty buildings to break up the sea of skyscrapers, and I just didn’t get much of a love for Nagoya. I didn’t dislike it, but it didn’t make me feel like there would be any reason to return here on another occasion. I could see Nagoya castle though in the distance, standing tall within a park full of trees. Aside from the colour of the roof it looked identical to Odawara castle, its ornate roof adorning white walls atop a stone mound. Thanks to the clouds in the sky it was a spectacular sunset, the sky on fire with deep reds and yellows. Once full darkness had fallen and I’d got my fill of the city lights, I headed back down and back to my hotel.

 

I found an ice cream shop on route which was much appreciated and when I reached my hotel I found they had a free bar in the lobby. Or rather they’d just laid out a whole load of spirits and mixers and left you to it. Every other Japanese guest poured a reasonable drink, enjoyed it then left. I don’t think they’d anticipated a Scottish person’s interpretation of a free bar. By the time I was on my third bourbon and coke I started to wonder if they’d suss me out and kick me out, but nobody paid me any attention. It would have been tempting to keep going, but after yet another day on my feet and with another hiking day ahead, I decided to call it a night and head up to my room. I didn’t know it at the time, but the following day would end up being one of my favourite days in Japan.

The Highs and Lows of the Lemosho Route

There are some mental images from my time hiking Africa’s highest mountain that will stick in my mind forever. Coming out of my tent at 11pm to ready ourselves for our midnight departure, I looked across the campsite to see an incredible trail of lights bobbing uphill in the darkness. The peak itself and the path that led up it were invisible but the headlamps that adorned every hiker who was already on route resembled a trail of ants in procession. The numbers were astounding and the excitement and tension among our group as we prepared to join them was tangible. After all the planning, and the training, and the days of hiking to get there, summit day was about to begin.

We were warmed up with hot chocolate and cookies as we listened to the plan for the day ahead. We were given snack boxes to take with us and after bundling all our layers into our backpacks, and kitting up, we gathered together to set off. This was it: the biggest hike of my life. Our campsite had been below the majority of people at Barafu Camp, and so we had to hike a little just to reach the start of the summit trail at the far end of the camp. It was so busy that there was a queue of people to set off, but before long it was time to put my head down and put one foot in front of the other. The only stimulation was the light cast by the many headlamps and the sounds of foot steps on the rock. There was no awareness of the greater landscape we were walking through and more importantly there was absolutely no idea of altitude, either literal, or relative to the summit. On top of this, there was no perception of time. I had no ready access to any form of time device due to the layers I was wearing but with a predicted 7hr hike to reach the summit, it was a difficult concept to get my head around the progress, or lack thereof, that we were making as we trudged.

And trudge it was. The pace was slow, partly due to our own ability at that altitude, and partly due to the traffic on the trail. Periodically it would get bunched up or have to stop completely if people struggled up a steep bit or stopped to take a break. The steepness and altitude gain felt constant, and the higher we climbed, the more I felt it. The pace actually suited me as I could catch my breath whenever a stop was forced, but at times I had to focus hard on maintaining a regular breathing pattern to keep my momentum going. My arms and legs screamed for oxygen, fatiguing easily and tiring me further. As we climbed in absolute darkness, up and up and up, the temperature dropped and my hands and toes became cold, and then numb, and then painful. I was only aware of the people immediately in front of me and behind me. It was only when we stopped for a break that I realised how differently people were coping. We’d set off from camp three people short of our original group: one of them had sadly had to descend before Lava Tower on day 4, and two of the group had set off an hour ahead of everyone else as they had up to now been slower than the group’s average speed. Of those of us there on the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, I could see that the fittest of the group was feeling a little held back, whereas the rest of us needed every single break, and a few of the group were starting to look sorry for themselves.

We stopped often, and probably regularly, at least once an hour. I made guestimations of the time as we progressed, but I didn’t actually want to know the reality in case it deflated me or gave me false hope. The first couple of breaks had been enough to recover my limbs and even out my breathing, but by the time we were probably three or four hours into the hike, I was really struggling with the pain of my cold hands. I was hiking with poles, so I couldn’t retract my hands too far into my jacket, but it had become clear to me that my gloves weren’t enough, and I had been naive to think that my hands didn’t need layers like the rest of my body. Even with the exertion of the walk, my body was barely warm enough, and that was with the duffel jacket on that I had rented in Moshi on arriving in Tanzania. When we took another break, I was able to borrow a spare pair of gloves and some hot hands from people that had been more prepared than myself. I had another layer of trousers to put on but with my cold hands, I was slow. What prevailed was another of those vivid images that I will never forget: out of nowhere, all of the guides descended on me, took my trousers out of my bag and proceeded to dress me, standing me up and manipulating my limbs to get them into the extra clothes. They took my hands and as one hand was rubbed vigorously to stimulate some blood flow, the other hand was ungloved, and layered back up with the hot hands and the extra layers. That gloved hand was then rubbed vigorously while the other hand was covered back up. I just sat there and let them do it – grateful but a little stunned. We were given a hot drink to warm us up, and with concerned looks from the guides as I shivered, we set off again.

Even with the extra layers, I struggled to keep warm. My hands and toes remained cold and uncomfortable, and as the altitude continued to increase, my breathing became more laboured, my energy drained further and I shifted into a pattern of 2 steps forward, then a pause, then 2 steps forward, then a pause. I have no idea at what point I noticed it, but at some stage on the hike, a brief change in the density of the darkness around us made me realise that the peak of the night was over and sunrise was approaching. It wasn’t enough to make out the mountain yet, but as we continued our push up the never ending slope, the sky above us gradually changed from black to dark blue, and then through an increasingly lightening array of colours. As the landscape began to become discernible around us, we could make out the amazing stream of people that were below us, and frost became visible on the stony ground at our feet. Eventually we could make out the top of the ridge above us, and off to the side was Mt Kilimanjaro’s third cone, Mawenzi, the second tallest of the three. The horizon line turned red then yellow, and as the sun peaked above the horizon on the 7th of February 2019, we stopped to take it all in. Finally there was something to photograph but my hands were clumsy in the multiple gloves and it was still bitterly cold.

There was still a steep section to negotiate although the ridgeline was in sight. I had just 3 things in my backpack: water, a first aid kit and the snack box I’d been given, but my backpack felt like it weighed a ton and I was clearly struggling now as one of the guides insisted on taking it off me and carrying it for me. It was a little gesture but it made all the difference to me. My breathing felt inefficient, the air felt so utterly thin as it entered my lungs. I was struggling even with the 2 steps forward and pause cycle that I’d been following, but all of a sudden, as the light continued to creep up the side of the mountain, I was surprised to see the fittest member of our group, my fellow Christchurch resident, goat-hopping down the mountain from the summit. When he reached us, it turned out that in the darkness he had headed off ahead of us with a guide, and had summited before the sun had even risen, and was on his way back to camp. I hadn’t even noticed his absence at the last couple of rest stops. He left us to it as we continued on our opposite paths, and although I was exhausted, I felt spurred on to finish.

I guess social media has had a lot of effects on a lot of people. I’d enjoyed the digital detox over the week of hiking, but as the energy drained from my muscles, and catching my breath became increasingly difficult, and as I felt a little zoned out, I focused on one thing only: getting a photo of me at the summit to post on Instagram. We’d spent a large part of the previous days singing songs from the Lion King in a joking ode to Tanzania, and in the first few hours of the summit trek in darkness, those same songs had entertained me until our voices had petered out with the increasing exertion. Now we all hiked in silence, and as I grappled with my inner dialogue, I told myself repeatedly that I had to get a photograph for Instagram. Failing to summit was not an option because I had to get a photo for Instagram. Two steps forward then pause, then two steps forward then pause. Now coated in brilliant sunshine, we rounded the last corner and crowned the last slope to be confronted with the crater floor. We’d reached the crater rim and Stella Point at 5756m (18885ft).

Although not the highest point of the mountain, reaching Stella Point was still classed as summiting, so no matter what happened next, we’d made it. There were a lot of people recovering here, and there were people clearly in a bit of distress. With the benefit of daylight, I’d seen some people who were really in a bad way. Some of them were being dragged up the mountain by guides (something we were told happened with some independent operators who were purportedly just interested in boosting their summit success numbers) and some of them were being physically run down the mountain by guides in an effort to get them out of danger. There are definitely some people that have summited Africa’s highest peak that will probably have little to no memory of it at all due to being so spaced out or sick. I was exhausted and breathless as were my companions, but we were all lucid. We had to queue to get our photo taken at the sign, but it allowed us to rest before the final summit push. After ten minutes I actually felt better and retrieved my backpack from my guide. The summit was visible and we’d be there in no time at all. We met one of the two who had left an hour ahead of us as he was heading back down to camp. He had summited but his mother had had to turn back, struggling greatly around the point of sunrise.

 

Within ten minutes of walking I was as bad as I’d been before and I realised that despite appearances, there was still a long trek to the true summit. My backpack again felt like a burden so again one of the guides relieved me of it. I felt weak and pathetic but these guys were adapted to the altitude, doing a couple of summits a month in the peak season, so I just had to accept their help. We passed by giant glaciers that hung on to the edge of the crater a little to the side, and after trudging at a snail’s pace for the final distance, we found ourselves on the roof of Africa, Uhuru Point, the highest peak of the African continent at an altitude of 5895m (19341ft). We effectively staggered there and jolted to a stop. Any urge to rush to the sign was blocked by the queue of people waiting to get their photo taken at it. It was a busy place but not oppressively so. We spread out a bit, and I found myself dropping into a sitting position on a group of rocks, and as I sat there oblivious to anything else in the World but the view in front of me, silent tears started rolling down my face. Against the negative inner dialogue that I had been battling for the last couple of days, and after two years of planning and training, I’d only blooming gone and summited Mt Kilimanjaro.

I looked around and realised I wasn’t the only one crying. It was so overwhelming, a release of a lot of emotion in the face of utter exhaustion. Our guides came round and hugged and congratulated us. They seemed so cool and unfazed by it all while the rest of us looked beaten up and drained. Between the resting and the photography and the meandering around absorbing the view, we spent a half hour at the summit. Even with the sun up, it was still really cold. I discovered later that we’d summited at 8.20am, taking over 8hrs from leaving camp behind. As we started the trek back to Stella Point, I saw the clouds had appeared and engulfed the side of the mountain, and there we were above it all. Aside from the crater, there was no other visible landmark above this grey sea of cloud. At Stella Point, we were quick to move onwards, heading back to near where we’d stopped at sunrise. To prevent congestion, the descent route separates off from the ascent route and effectively cuts down a giant scree field. Although a path was marked, there were times where we were effectively skiing down the loose rock. We continued to see people being run down this scree path being held upright by their guides and one of our group had started to feel unwell at the summit and was sped down the mountainside back to camp. We found ourselves back at Barafu camp a little after 11am, just a few hours after summiting. Over 8hrs up, and just over 2hrs down.

 

We remained at camp till 1pm, resting and having lunch, but the hike was not over yet. We had to get down the mountain now and we’d collectively decided to walk to the lower of the two descent camps in order to make a short hike out for the following day. It hadn’t been a unanimous vote and there were clearly some people who wished the vote had gone the other way. From Barafu camp we were soon at the track junction from the day before, and this time we headed straight ahead and immediately started losing altitude. We were amidst the cloud and the landscape that was visible was barren and volcanic. Everyone was quiet and tired, and it was as much by autopilot that my legs continued to move one after the other. As the low vegetation returned, it started to rain, becoming quite heavy by the time we reached the higher of the two descent camps. It would have been a bit miserable to get into the tents here, but at the same time, a few of the group were really flagging. This trail that we were descending was a supply route, and so we regularly passed porters that were laiden down with supplies to take to Barafu Camp. It was incredible to see the poor state of some of the shoes on their feet and incredibly some of them were hiking in just jandals (flip-flops). We’d learned a lot about the variable state of pay and care that was received by the porter teams, depending on which company or guide they worked for. All of our team spoke highly of G Adventures and they all seemed appropriately kitted out for the terrain so I felt satisfied that I’d picked a good company to hike with. It can be so hard to know at times how ethical your travel is, and whether people are being taken advantage of or not.

The rain turned the track into a river as we squelched our way down the mountainside. Eventually we found ourselves among tall trees again, a novelty after the days of exposed and arid volcanic landscapes. It felt like an age before we finally popped out at Mweka Camp at 3100m (10171ft), over 2500m (8202ft) below where we’d summited in the early morning. It was amazing how good I felt after a rest: breathing was suddenly so much easier and I even felt my energy return. My appetite was back also and we tucked into our dinner full of elation and chatter. My oxygen saturation on the final reading was back at 98%, just how it had started a week before. The next morning we had a group debrief with our guides and porters. Each and every one of them had played a role in getting us up the mountain, and I was particularly grateful to the guides who’d supported me in those final hours of the summit push, the chef who’d continued to fill us with the most amazing meals, and my personal porter who’d set up my tent and greeted me with the biggest grin and ‘Jambo!’ every time he saw me. It was emotional to think it was all over and we sang the song of the mountain to each other in thanks for the time of our lives.

The descent from camp was similar to the hike on day 1: walking through thick forest, listening out for monkeys and tropical birds. The pace was relatively quick, and we were quite spread out, chatting away with whoever was nearest, and passing the final hours on the mountain in no time at all. Bursting out of the forest at the end of it all, we just had to sign out at the office, and then wait for everyone else to come down. Bundling back onto the bus, we stopped some way down the road for lunch at a roadside rest stop. It already felt surreal that we’d just come off the mountain, and removed from the exertion of breathing, there was only my sore knees to remind me what I’d just done. Our porter team had been either from Moshi or Arusha, so we dropped them off either at the main road to catch a ride home, or in Moshi. We returned to the gear rental store so I could drop off my duffel jacket, and finally we returned to the same hotel just outside of Moshi where we were greeted with open arms by the bubbly team that worked there. It was fantastic to see the American who’d had to be taken down on day 4 looking rested and in good spirits. He’d gone on safari for a few days to wait our return and although a little sad, he vowed to come back and summit another time. He definitely deserves his chance to get there.

After resting and a much-needed shower, we had a small celebration to receive our certificates and say goodbye to our guides. We had a communal dinner together ahead of us going our separate ways the next day. A couple of people were heading on to Zanzibar for a bit of R&R, but most people were going home to return to their normal lives. It was strange to say goodbye the next morning to these people that I’d shared such an experience with but whilst the majority were set to head to the airport, I wasn’t done with Tanzania yet. Myself and one of my hiking companions had a new set of people to become acquainted with as my great African adventure continued.

Return to the Mountains

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Mount Thomas (Ridge Route)

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

Crater Rim Walkway

By December last year, the countdown was on to the toughest hike of my life and I was using every possible opportunity to get some walking or hiking in. The weather had been so variable and unpredictable across the spring and even if the sun wasn’t shining I had to get out and do something. Having walked various sections of the Crater Rim walkway over the years, I decided to take on the full length of it, starting at the Godley Head car park and heading west towards Gebbies Pass, where my partner would pick me up at the end of the day. It was surprisingly busy as I took Summit Road round the back of Sumner and Taylors Mistake. As I reached the car park I discovered that there was an orienteering event taking place and so there were people milling around everywhere. Thankfully I was able to park and soon I was on my way. It was overcast but in the way that my Scottish skin can still get burnt so I had to lacquer up in sunscreen throughout the long day’s walk.

The initial section of the trail is the Breeze Bay walking track which curved around a low peak overlooking Mechanics Bay and then Breeze Bay. The cloud was low over the mountains of Banks Peninsula and the summit of Mt Herbert, the peninsula’s highest peak, was hidden from view. It was an easy track, barely varying in height and with a constant view of the harbour with its blue-green water. As it continued on, curving round Livingstone Bay, the Lyttelton port came in to view and shortly after the track takes a turn and heads up an incline to skirt round a rocky bluff before cutting down to the road at the junction of Evans Pass. At the time of walking, the road down to Lyttelton was still closed off but since then it has opened up again after being closed for 8 years following the Christchurch earthquake of 2011.

 

A short walk along Summit Road is necessary before heading back onto the ridge again and away from the traffic. This next section is high above the port town of Lyttelton following the ridgeline round to an old gun emplacement from WWII. The place was full of invasive and introduced thistles but it was also full of insects as a result, including a gorgeous red admiral butterfly which sat perfectly still as I photographed it. There were a few people milling around here, the first people I’d come across since leaving the orienteering participants behind at Livingstone Bay. Once at Mt Pleasant, I got the first view over to Pegasus Bay since I’d left the car at Godley Head, and here, on weekends, there would be the option of cutting down the road to My Coffee at Hornbrook, a quaint little cafe in a local’s back garden with a great view over the spit at New Brighton. I wanted more than coffee though, so stayed up on the ridge, continuing on to Mt Cavendish where the Gondola top station and the Red Rock Cafe is.

 

It was a late lunch, by now after 2pm, but the food at the cafe here is delicious and filling, and I chowed into some Thai noodles whilst watching the tourists come and go. The Christchurch Gondola is a popular tourist attraction and with having an annual pass myself, I come up regularly throughout the year. But I still had so far to go and I was already realising that I’d set off too late to make Gebbies Pass a reality. I decided to make the Sign of the Bellbird my destination and was soon on my way again, heading down the most familiar section of the walkway from the Gondola down to the top of the Bridle Path. The views here are of Lyttelton Harbour and Quail Island to the left and Ferrymead with the estuary to the right. For visitors that are short of time, this is my most recommended section of the walkway both for the views but the ease of accessibility via either the gondola or the bridle path from both Lyttelton or Ferrymead.

 

From the junction with the Bridle Path, I was most used to joining the road but this time I stuck to the walking track which was raised just a little bit off the tarmac. Once past Castle Rock, the view into the harbour was blocked as the track stays a little below the ridgeline on the city side, and so for the next wee while, the city and if you’re lucky with the weather, the Southern Alps, are the main focus. When the harbour comes back into view, you are almost directly opposite Quail Island above Cass Bay. The track skirts under Mt Vernon, effectively hugging Summit Road, cutting briefly through a small copse of trees before dropping below Sugarloaf where the large antenna stands out as a landmark. It was muddy underfoot where the vegetation had prevented the track from drying out, and as I approached the road where the Sign of the Kiwi cafe stands, the number of people on the track steadily grew.

 

The cafe wasn’t far off closing but I was able to get an ice cream to keep me going for the final section of the hike. I’d previously walked this part when my brother had visited in 2017, and although a few others were milling around this section, I soon lost the crowds again as I left the cafe behind, continuing west above Governor’s Bay and joining the Mitchells Track. The grasses were high here and peppered with foxgloves and as I continued, I found myself among the new growth that had sprouted following the bush fire of February 2017. Approaching the bend before Kennedys Reserve, the path split and I could choose which side of the peak I walked past. I chose to cut down underneath it on the harbour side and as I dropped to the lowest point, I passed 2 climbers that were rope climbing below the peak. Beyond here, I found the blackened and scorched sign that prior to the bush fire was a track marker and soon after that I found myself at the Sign of the Bellbird, a little after 6pm.  The clouds had never lifted from the mountains of Banks Peninsula and with the tide now out, the water of the harbour looked dull and grey. I hadn’t managed to make it to Gebbies Pass, but I’d managed to walk a decent chunk of it, and I was nonetheless satisfied with my achievement.

Saint James Walkway – Return to Civilisation

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Saint James Walkway – Reaching Anne Hut

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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