MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “West Coast”

West Coast Wanderings

My hands gripped the steering wheel as my foot slammed the accelerator to the floor, the engine revving loudly as I yelled out loud ‘come on baby, you can do it!‘. I leaned forward, as if the shift in weight would help get my car up the steep incline that lay before me. My heart in my mouth, I prayed the car ahead of me did not falter. Because if he did, so would I.

I’d read about a hidden gem deep in the forest of the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, and having completed the 4-day Heaphy Track at Kohaihai, I was practically at the road end. I knew from looking on maps that it was an unsealed road to get there and it looked like it might be steep but I’d read plenty of reports about 2-wheel drive cars managing just fine so told myself my little 1.4 litre Hyundai would be okay. I turned off the main road and reached an entrance sign that also declared that it wasn’t a 4-wheel drive road. And so I continued, entering the forest on a semi-graded unsealed road as it started its climb upwards. But it didn’t take long to reach a steep hill and there was a car only a little in front of me.

My car can feel under powered uphill even on a sealed road, and I knew my car well enough to know I needed to just floor it. If I had to lay off the gas because the car in front of me was too slow, I knew I’d lose momentum and struggle, potentially stalling on the rough track under wheel. I hung back a little to give them a decent head start and then gunned it. I thanked my car out loud when I got to the top, but little did I know this was only the beginning. The road had to reach a pass which meant multiple steep sections of variably graded road, and regular blind bends with no idea about oncoming traffic, and variable widths to the road. Each time I loudly gave my car encouragement to get me up each steep section and thanked it for getting me there. As I reached the top I felt glad it was over, only to quickly realise the road dropped just as steeply down the other side, with just as many blind bends.

When I reached the car park, I was sweating and stressed, aware of the fact that the only way out was back the way I had come. So I was determined to make the most of being there by doing several walks. I took the shorter trail through the forest, following the tannin-rich Oparara river which led me to the gigantic rock structure of Oparara Arch. The arc of the arch, at 49m wide with a height of 37m, is impressive and the trail leads up to a lookout into the arch as well as down onto the rocks by the river. Despite the horrendous drive to get there, the car park had been quite full but thankfully most of the people on the trail were walking out and I almost had the place to myself, at least initially. Down at the river, I could see out the other side of the arch into the thick forest beyond, and the water reflected the opening on its surface.

 

When a few more people arrived I began back along the river where I noticed large stones at the edge creating patterns with their reflection. Upon reaching the car park I cut across to the opposite side to take a longer circular route that led through the forest. Within 10 minutes I was at the side track which led to my favourite part of the area, Moria Gate. Getting into it meant fitting through a hole in the rocks, aided by a chain to lower down into a sort of tunnel. Here another rock arch spanned the Oparara river once more and this one was just magical. There were a few people here making it difficult to photograph without other people in it, but I was reluctant to leave it, taking my time to wander back and forth from one end to the other.

 

Eventually I headed back up through the hole in the rocks and rejoined the main trail, continuing the circuit which quite quickly led me to a lookout which looked back into the arch from the outside. Continuing onwards, the trail meandered for some time through the forest, gaining a bit of height before eventually popping out at the Mirror Tarn. Even though it was a bit of a grey day, the mirror effect was still fully evident, but it felt eerily quiet here with no people and no bird song, so after a while I pushed on to complete the circuit and return to the car park.

 

I internally talked myself up for the drive back across the pass. I again had to wait for another car to get a bit of a head start, and once more I found myself gripping my steering wheel, flooring the accelerator pedal and verbally coaxing my car up every incline. When at last I reached the main road again, I allowed my pumping heart to settle. Clearly you don’t need a 4WD car if the conditions are right, but it was certainly a highly stressful drive with such a small engine, but I was very glad I’d done it. Now I could continue south cutting through Karamea and Little Wanganui before pulling over at the side of the road to take the Lake Hanlon track. After 4 days of walking on very little food I felt out of puff walking up the hill and down the other side to the long steely grey-looking lake. There were no reflections as the wind whipped through the crater a little, but a few birds gave some interest.

 

Despite it being in peak holiday season, I hadn’t booked anywhere to stay that night, but I did have my tent in the boot of my car. Having picked up a hitchhiker a few days prior, I decided to go with their recommendation of a campsite further south down the coast. Climbing up into the mountains and across a couple of saddles affording views down to the sea, almost immediately after winding my way down the other side, I took a side road down a gravel track to Mokihinui beach where Gentle Annie Campground opened up before me. It was so busy, with campervans and tents set up all over the place and children playing left, right and centre, that it felt like I’d arrived at a commune or festival. After paying an entry fee, I cut through the masses and found a spot on the edge of the crowds to set up my tent across from a field of cows.

Normally a busy campground like this would irritate me but there was such a happy vibe there with families and friends hanging out and enjoying the company and the locale, that I couldn’t help but feel relaxed there myself. I picked my way down to the beach and walked among the flotsam that had washed up, listening to the waves crashing near by and the sounds of happy children. I’d left the cloud behind and it was a gorgeous sunny summer evening. After walking to the river mouth and back, I set up my cooking stove on the beach and ate dinner for the first time in 4 days before watching the sun set over the Tasman Sea. It was the perfect end to the day, and one of those times where I couldn’t help but be in the moment. In the darkness I returned to my tent and crawled into my sleeping bag full of content.

 

I awoke on the last day of 2019 with a long drive ahead. There was no great need to pack my tent up properly, so everything was thrown into the boot of my car allowing me to set off without wasting much time. It was unfortunately cloudy as I returned to the main road and followed the highway south. A little way down the road at Waimangaroa I cut inland to take a steep and winding road up into the clouds. At the top in the mist was Denniston, an abandoned settlement from the coal mining days. I’d read about this place some years prior and was excited to finally be visiting. Despite being summer, it was chilly in the clouds and they also brought drizzle, so I sheltered at the top by the information boards reading every single line, soaking up the history of the place.

There used to be an entire town here, perched atop the hill, frequently enveloped in mist or rain for weeks on end. It seemed to be a miserable place, not to mention a dangerous one, with mining works and conditions bringing all sorts of risks to those that braved a life there. What brings people there now is the impressive Denniston Incline, a 1:1.25 (80%) gradient altitude gain which the old coal track used to run up and down. It was a feat of engineering at the time and the thought of it now is still impressive. From the information boards, a track leads down to an area where remnants of buildings and machinery lay scattered across a flattened area, across which two separate viewpoints overlook the start of the incline.

Despite the mist, I could just about make out the surf on the west coast, and I looked down the slope impressed with it all. A few coal trucks sat locked forever in place on the cusp of the drop down, and in the distance I could see the route of the track fall away far below me. Walking around the site there are signs of broken and discarded coal trucks everywhere. The mist made it a little eerie but it was a pretty cool place to walk around. Out the back the track led below a huge stone viaduct that leads into the closed off mine shafts. The west coast is littered with abandoned gold and coal mines, most of which are closed off and deemed too dangerous to enter.

I watched a tomtit for a while before cutting back to the incline. The heavy blanket of dark clouds had lifted revealing a bit more of the view, so I spent some more time here, walking down into the meadow flowers at the top of the incline. After taking a drive across the summit past what was left of the old settlement, I headed back down to the bottom of the hill and took a side road to where the bottom of the Denniston Incline was served by a train track. It looked just as steep from this end, and yet more remnants of machinery were strewn around the place. Had I had more time and energy, I would have loved to walk the track to the top, but by now lunchtime, it was time to push on.

 

After stopping in Westport for lunch and a wander along the short main street, I drove out the other side to take the road to Tauranga Bay on Cape Foulwind. It had been years since I’d last been here and the place was full of holidaymakers from kids building sandcastles on the beach to surfers riding the waves in the bay. The clouds seemed to hug the southern end of the bay but as I followed the coastal track to the north, the clouds were breaking up and the sun was trying to come out. A little way around the coast is a lookout overlooking a New Zealand fur seal colony. It’s pretty much a guaranteed place to spot them and there was plenty of activity on the rocks below to entertain everyone.

 

I didn’t have time to walk the full length of the cape and back, but I walked up the hill a little past a multi-city distance marker and to a viewpoint overlooking the next bay. Heading back past the fur seal colony once more, I drove the short distance to the far end of the Cape Foulwind walkway where the lighthouse stands. The clouds had completely gone from this end of the trail, and I sweated my way up to the lighthouse from where there was a gorgeous view out over the Tasman Sea and the coast in either direction. I kept putting off leaving, but I had a New Year’s Eve dinner to attend outside of Christchurch so I really had to get going. That didn’t stop me from stopping multiple times in the Buller Gorge to take photographs. It had been less than a week since I’d passed through here twice in one day, but this time round it was under a blue sky and the river sparkled blue as it flowed through the deep and lusciously green valley.

 

As I cut from west coast to east, the sky began to change. For weeks Australia had been burning in one of the worst fire seasons on record. A few weeks prior I had left Sydney behind under a smoke-filled sky, and now a month and over 2000km later, the smoke had reached New Zealand’s skies. The sky turned hazy and red as the sun lowered, creating a really spooky effect. I couldn’t smell it, but it was a vision I can still remember nearly 18 months later. I didn’t even stay up for the turn of the new year, I was too exhausted from the drive, but I went to sleep full of the knowledge that 2020 would bring me lots of travelling, including a much-anticipated trip home to see my family and visiting a couple of new countries. I could never have guessed what was to come.

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.

The Heaphy Track – Perry Saddle Hut to James Mackay Hut

Hiking on an empty stomach was never going to be an enjoyable experience. After ejecting all of the previous day’s sustenance while hiking up the mountain, the lack of appetite meant setting off on day 2 of the Heaphy Track tired, exhausted and dehydrated. I was still a little nervous every time I took a drink from my water bladder, but the sterilising tablets had done what they needed to and thankfully, there was no repeat of the day before. But it was to be a long day traversing the ridge from Perry Saddle Hut at 860m to James Mackay Hut at 700m, a 6.5hr walk according to the Department of Conservation (DoC) signage. The earlier risers at the hut meant I was on the track at the back of 7am, but I was sure that I was going to struggle maintaining a decent pace, and my pack was weighing heavy on my shoulder as I followed the path through the forest.

Following the contours of the mountain, views were sparse through the canopy, an occasional glimpse up to the hillside next to the track, or an occasional broader view across a valley. Streams and bridges were crossed and after an hour, the forest finally opened up to the moorland of Gouland Downs. It reminded me of Scotland, the heather-like shrubbery at shin height, and the wind whipping across. Rain clouds threatened from a distance creating a faint rainbow as I walked. This was takahe and giant snail country, both endemic and rare wildlife that could be spotted here. I passed signs alerting to look out for both but saw none.

 

As the trail dropped down a little towards a stream I came across a totem pole littered in hiking boots. I’m not sure what possesses someone to abandon their hiking boots in the middle of nowhere, but clearly lots of people have done so, as there was a myriad of shoes strung up on the pole, leading to a sign declaring the spot as ‘Boot Pole Corner’. Beyond here, the rain clouds appeared to be dispersing and I saw the rainbow once more as I got nearer the first of the day’s huts, Gouland Downs Hut. This small hut lay in a flat section which was supposed to be one of the best places to spot the takahe which had been released into the wild here. Hiking alone often gives me the best chance to spot wildlife, but although I had the place to myself, there were no birds to see.

 

I’d taken a little longer to reach the hut than the signs had predicted, but I was neither surprised nor put off doing the side tracks here. A little past the hut are some side tracks that are only obvious when you are looking for them. The first led into thick forest where a couple of caves could be found among the undergrowth. When the main track went into the forest, a network of arches cut under the track making for a neat little exploration into the limestone landscape, and at the end of the forest, a track led down into the low vegetation and round a corner to reveal a large open cave with a waterfall dripping down the front of it.

What followed was a series of river crossings as the track remained mostly flat across a mostly open section. It seemed on the map like the next hut wasn’t that far away but my energy was flagging with every turn in the trail that didn’t bring it into sight. Finally the 1km marker popped up and I pounded the trail in anticipation of a break, arriving at the exposed Saxon Hut which was full of people enjoying the sunshine to eat some lunch. These were all people that had stayed at Perry Saddle, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet many of them yet due to my ill health. I still wasn’t hungry but forced myself to consume a small cup of hot soup in an effort to boost my energy a little. It was all I could manage, and so I pushed on, feeling weighed down by all the food I wasn’t consuming.

 

My destination for the night was still 3hrs away according to the DoC sign and to begin with the track continued through tussock and wetlands, close to the Saxon river. Turning and climbing up onto a ridge, a bench in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere denoted the division between the Tasman District and the West Coast District. I struggled as the track continued along a long and winding ridge following the contours of the land. Aside from that small cup of soup, I hadn’t kept a meal down since breakfast the day before, and I was really leaning on my poles as I dragged one foot forward and then the other. My pack was such a burden on my back and my patience was getting thin as the winding seemed never ending and it became difficult to work out on the map how far I’d actually come. At one point I realised that my jumper had fallen off my pack strap where I’d slung it, and I cursed myself for having to back track to find it.

Finally I reached the dual crossings of Blue Shirt Creek which was at least somewhere recognisable on the map. The curve and dip in the landscape offered a broader view across the landscape than I’d had for a few hours, and after a brief rest by one of the bridges, I felt a bit more motivated to get moving again. Finally, the trees parted to reveal Mackay Downs, and the track became boardwalk as it crossed a slightly alien-looking landscape. This section can apparently flood quite badly in heavy rain but it had been such a sunny day so far, the ground appeared relatively dry. At one point, the track passed some unusual boulders before finally a marker denoted the hut was near.

 

The final kilometre to James Mackay Hut felt like it took forever. I arrived at 4.30pm, over 9hrs after leaving Perry Saddle Hut behind. There was still plenty of hours of daylight left but I was exhausted and still feeling dehydrated. But the hut gave a sneaky peak of the rest of the hike, with the Tasman Sea crashing onto the west coast just about visible in the distance. I couldn’t even consider having dinner, there was just no desire for food whatsoever. Whatever bug I’d picked up had hit me good, but I was just grateful to not be throwing up, and happy to still be on the trail despite it. There was a definite sense that the next day would bring a change, with signs that the landscape would change quite a lot. But for now, it was time to rest again, and attempt to block out the snorers ahead of the next 2 days of hiking.

The Wild West

Deep within the Lewis Pass region of New Zealand’s South Island is a myriad of hiking trails snaking through the forests and across and around the mountain ranges that snake through there. In November 2019 on a 4-day weekend thanks to Canterbury Anniversary Day, I decided to take a trip across to the western half of the island, and stopped on route to take a trip through Nina Valley. There was little space to park despite the slightly dreary day as Nina Hut at the end of the valley is a popular spot to hike into for the night. Aside from mud, I found my usual forest walk companion in the form of a South Island robin, one of my favourite birds to accompany me on hikes. What I also found was a cute pair of mice which when I stopped to watch them, proceeded to come out and nosy around the undergrowth whilst I photographed them silently. Mice are a pest here in New Zealand, one of the many invasive species responsible for decimating our native wild birds, and at the time of visiting, we were experiencing a ‘cast’, a higher than average tree seed production that led to a spike in pest numbers. Still, they were wildlife, and I love spotting wildlife. Plus they were exceptionally cute and I couldn’t help but be a little excited watching them go about their business.

 

I’d planned on walking as far as the Nina swing bridge, an hour along the trail, but between stopping to watch the forest creatures and taking a break by the river, I decided to turn back before I got that far. It had taken a few hours to drive this far from Christchurch and I’d stopped for lunch at a favourite cafe in Hanmer Springs, a detour off the main road, so I was mindful about the drive ahead to my destination and not wanting to arrive too late. So after spotting some riflemen flitting about the trees, and with the sun bursting out a little as I returned to my car, I finished my hike and continued westwards, crossing the summit of Lewis Pass and heading into Reefton, my home for the next few nights.

 

The West Coast has an unfortunate reputation for wetness, and although I was some distance from the coast, I was on the wrong side of the mountain range, so I wasn’t surprised to wake to grey skies and drizzle. I was in no hurry to do anything so had a leisurely breakfast at a local cafe before wandering along the historic street front. Like many places on the West Coast, Reefton has its history in mining and the region is full of relics. It was also the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to gain electricity with the first electric bulb to light up being outside the still-standing Oddfellows Hall off the main street. Not many people were staying here but there was plenty of traffic passing through so there was a reasonable bit of activity going on despite the drizzle.

The rain wasn’t hard enough to stop me going for a local walk so after heading up the main street, I passed the original gas lights that still lined the pavements, and continued out of the village and down towards the river which was a power source for the region back in its day. The Inangahua river is broad and tannin-stained and just outside Reefton it is crossed by a suspension bridge which leads to the remains of the old power station. The drizzle meant there were some cool views down the valley of clouds hugging the mountainside, and although still a little wet, it wasn’t too bad to walk along the river bank and read the displays about the ruins that are still left. Only as I was at the end of the circuit back across the road bridge to head into Reefton again from the other end did the rain get a bit heavier again, so I decided to take a drive and see if I could escape the rain clouds.

 

Heading west from Reefton, I drove almost the whole way to Greymouth before circling past the old Brunner mine which I’d visited a few years prior. Even on the main road there were signs of mining at regular intervals, be it a memorial at the side of the road, or signs pointing to historic mining routes or mining works. Both gold and coal have been mined in this part of the country, and there are still some active mining works in action today. There are hundreds of old coal mining carts littered about the countryside here, and several of the local walks have them as points of interest, where they’ve been abandoned to rust and be reclaimed by nature.

 

A lull in the rain by mid-afternoon allowed me to get out for another walk again. This time I headed up the hill at the eastern end of the village. Over the tops of the invasive gorse, the elevation offered a view over the rooftops of the village below and the misty-covered peaks of the mountains on the horizon. There was even a goat wandering about here, and despite the grey skies that were my constant companion, a couple of water reservoirs provided some pretty reflections as I passed them by. The trail led out towards the back of the village and I followed it for a while before heading down an access track that brought me down at an industrial area. As I cut back through the streets I passed the old courthouse and several other original buildings before finding myself back on the historic main street.

With several hours of daylight ahead, the late afternoon still allowed for another walk before darkness would fall. Taking a long drive up a gravel road, I picked the Alborn Track to visit some of the mining remnants close to a still-active quarry site. It was muddy underfoot and threatening to drizzle again, but scattered all over the place were rusting winch equipment and even an old truck alongside some large coal carts. On the return leg, the track passed the opening of a couple of caves, marked with a warning about poisonous gas and danger on entry. I do like to explore caves but I’m always wary of man-made mining caves, so I heeded the warnings and kept going, returning to my car and heading back down the hill in time for a bit of sunshine.

I’d spent the first couple of days alone, but my partner was to join me for the last night. He had a bit of a drive over so whilst he was making his way across the country the next morning, I headed east past Springs Junction to the Marble Hill campsite. From here there is a walking track to Lake Daniell which I’d read was a good hike to do, and it was indeed a lovely forest walk on a day that was actually sunny. Predicted to be 3hrs each way, I set off under a blue sky and crossed the first river before following the bank of another river as it wound through the forest. I love New Zealand’s forests, they’re so different from the cultivated forests of pine from my homeland back in Scotland. In New Zealand they feel natural and wild, even in places where that’s not actually the case, but full of various canopy levels and with a carpet that’s often as alive as the trees are, there’s so much to look at for ecology geeks like myself.

As always, there was an inquisitive South Island robin to entertain me as I followed the path through. These and the fantails or piwakawaka love to follow humans through the forest, but the fantails tend to flit-flit about more, refusing to stay still for long, and especially not for photographs. In comparison, the robins often come right up to you, cocking their head and looking straight at you in full engagement, often hopping alongside or flitting between the trees as you walk. I’m always happy to see one, and find myself talking to the birds as I go.

 

I reached Lake Daniell and the hut on its foreshore after just 2hrs, and found the hut to be in the process of being rebuilt. The lake level was up from the rain so the surroundings and the end of the boardwalk were actually submerged, but I was able to pick my way out to the pier on the lake without getting my feet wet, and here the wind whipped across the lake a little as I stood enjoying the view. There had not been a single person on the trail and I was out here on my own with the view to myself also. It was delightful. I’ve been told that the hut is often busy as schools use it and with it being just a few hours from the main road it is popular for parents to take their children out to it as a starter hike. So I was lucky to find it so empty, and enjoyed the solitude for a while before heading back into the forest again. Once again I was befriended by the local robin population, and as I reached the end of the trail I stopped to watch the water rush through the ‘sluice’ a natural rapids that had been created by a gorge in the hillside.

 

By the time I returned to Reefton my partner was waiting for me. Without the rain, we took a wander through the streets and stopped at the local distillery for a tasting. Their produce was pricey but I felt awkward leaving without buying something so took a chance on a tayberry liqueur that wasn’t even able to be sampled before purchase. I’d never even heard of a tayberry, so not knowing anything about the taste it was a bit of a gamble. It’s a very sharp taste, and one that definitely is enjoyed in small quantities but the lady in the bar suggested using it as an ice cream topper and I’ve still to try it this way.

We had to set off early the next day to leave our Air BnB behind and head north then west to Charleston on the coast. Since I’d heard about the Underworld Adventure tours I’d been eager to take part in one, and finally it was time to go exploring with them. There was a threat of rain once more but we were heading underground, so this wasn’t going to matter. Set within the Paparoa National Park, the company offers a mix of tour options from a train ride through the forest, to tubing down rapids, or a cave walk. We were there to go cave exploring, a favourite activity of mine, so we bundled into the van and drove into the park, parking up in the apparent middle of nowhere next to a large container. Out of the container popped a small train and linked carriages and once on board we set off through the forest.

There was evidence all around of the limestone nature of the landscape with large limestone cliffs jutting through the foliage as we followed a river upstream. Eventually we hopped off in the forest and those going tubing went down to the river and those of us going caving followed the path across the river and up the hillside to reach the entrance of the Ananui cave system. I love taking cave tours, exploring the world of underground river systems and ogling over the stalactites and stalagmites that litter the caverns of limestone caves. I loved this place, it felt huge and there was so much to explore down the long passageways as we went deeper and deeper into the cave system. At times there were giant boulders to climb over, and after some time we found ourselves in a lower section that split into two, a large dark cavern to the right, and a large open-ended cavern to the left where the outside forest became visible.

 

We turned first to the left, and saw a waterfall streaming down from the ceiling near where the cave opened out into the forest. The river at its bottom cast a reflection of the cave entrance and it was simply glorious. We spent some time here just enjoying the view. We turned back into the cave heading into the other lower chamber where once out of the light from the lower cave entrance we turned off our headlamps to view the twinkles of glowworms. Although nothing has ever competed with the level of glowworms I saw in the Waitomo cave system back in 2012, there was still enough here to not only be pretty, but they were close enough to actually view the larval structures and their beaded web. Like a beaded necklace these larval flies pupate within a sac from where they lower these sticky threads, butts glowing to attract their prey towards the ropes of death. It’s one of so many marvellous things that nature has evolved to do to fill a niche in an otherwise inhospitable environment.

 

Climbing back up through the cave system was just as enjoyable, returning through the network of limestone formations, eventually popping out at the entrance, and hiking back down the trail to the train to return through the forest. The sun was out now, enlivening our drive back to Charleston where a viewing point at the Underworld Adventure office gave an elevated view into the forest to the east, and the crashing waves to the left. We decided to head back to Christchurch via Punakaiki, the site of the famous Pancake Rocks. Although we didn’t go to visit the rocks, we stopped here for a late lunch, and with the sun out and the crowds of the summer at every turn, I parked up next to a flax bush, spotting a tui feeding among the flowers. Tui are good pollinators for this species. For a nectar reward, the tui regularly wear a golden crown of pollen after feeding here, the yellow dust adorning their heads for them to spread onto the next flower as they move around to feed. I love tui, a bird I don’t get to see much of in Christchurch, and I was loving the close up experience here. It was a long drive back to Christchurch across the breadth of the country, but it had been well worth it to spend a snippet of time in the wild west lands of the South Island.

Spring Roadie – Glacier Country

Being one of the wettest parts of the country, receiving the brunt of the weather that swings across the Tasman Sea, it is best to expect rain when on New Zealand’s west coast. Anything better is a bonus. The two times I’ve visited Glacier Country, the region around Fox glacier and Franz Josef glacier, the peaks of the Southern Alps have been shrouded by cloud and out of view. On my last visit here in 2016, my partner and I had stayed in Franz Josef, the bigger of the two villages, but this time round, with my brother, we stayed in Fox Glacier village, the southern of the two. My brother had planned on doing a heli-hike onto Fox glacier, his one big-ticket expense whilst he was over from Scotland visiting me. As I had done it with my partner last time, I was leaving him to it, planning on doing a walk to the glacier instead. So whilst my brother had an early rise to gobble down breakfast and get going, I had a relative lie-in and took my time getting up.

The weather out the window looked dubious, so I wasn’t fully surprised when my brother arrived back about an hour later, his trip having been canned due to weather concerns. I felt bad on his behalf but he shrugged it off. So we set off to do the hike together, making the short drive out of the village and up the valley to the start of the hike. By now mid-morning, it was a busy car park with a lot of people on the trail. Cutting through the scree-filled valley below some steep sided mountains, the clouds hung over the mountain tops, and waterfalls trickled down the slopes at varying intervals. There were rockfall warnings and flash-flood warnings dotted along the trail. Initially I couldn’t understand why the company had voted to cancel the trip as blue sky was visible, as was the top of the glacier, but as we walked further up the valley, the cloud closed in and dropped down. With tourists having been trapped up on the glacier in the past due to inclement weather, the company was taking no chances.

 

The walk was easy and pleasant, only becoming steep on the final section that rises up to the viewing spot. Like many glaciers, those of the Southern Alps are retreating and retreating fast. Eventually, loss of large ice shelves such as those of the poles will be the main cause of sea level rise, but currently it is these mountain glaciers. I hadn’t visited Fox glacier last time so had nothing to compare it to, but photos and markers on the glacier walks really demonstrate how different the glaciers looked a decade ago, never mind a century ago. It is sad to think how much further change will occur in my lifetime. Nonetheless, the view of Fox glacier at our visit in November 2017 was still impressive, and the off-white pillars on the leading face of the glacier were striking. On approach, the sight of the tiny people in the foreground against the towering glacier face was staggering. Once at the viewing spot, the glacier was some distance away. Only with a guide is it possible to get closer, but due to a combination of tourist deaths in the past as well as the retreat of the glacier face over time, it is not an option to walk up to or onto the foot of either glacier.

 

On our return, we took the drive back to the village and out the other side for the short distance to Lake Matheson. The reflections of the mountains on this lake is one of the country’s most famous photography locations, but with that pesky west coast weather, it is either pure fluke or a lot of patience to get the reward of that famous view for yourself. Both my 2016 and 2017 visits to this lake coincided with inclement weather, so not only were the tops of the mountains not visible, but the reflectivity of the lake surface was reduced and less effective under a grey sky. Nonetheless, it is still a nice wee walk around the lake, and the visitor centre has a lovely cafe for lunch.

 

Instead of heading back to the village, we continued along the road to the coast. The last section of this road is unsealed, and winding, but Gillespies Beach is a nice beach to take a walk on at the end of it, and the weather is often better here, being far enough away from the mountain-hugging clouds to make a difference. As such, it was slightly better weather when we got there and looking at the walks in the area, my brother suggested we take the long route to visit a fur seal colony quite some distance north. I’d walked part of this track before, but not the full route, so was more than happy to go with the suggestion. Passing the remnants of some old mines, the track travelled through the bush for some distance before cutting down to the beach a little before Quinlin Creek. This beach was the classic stony west coast beach, making for an awkward meander as we followed the beach to the mouth of the creek. Full of tannin, this dark river snaked upstream, and we followed its bank until some boardwalks took us across it.

 

From the far side onwards, we were fully immersed in bush, with no view to speak of for the most of it. Not only that, but the canopy above us meant that sections of the track were not drying out and time and time again we had to negotiate muddy quagmires. Despite my initial enthusiasm to get to the seal colony, and my usual enjoyment of hiking, I have to admit that as time went on I really started to hate this walk. Normally the Department of Conservation (DOC) signs that accompany most hikes in New Zealand are over generous with hiking times for someone of my fitness, and as such I’ve come to assume that I’ll do these walks in less than the suggested time. So I was irked when the displayed time for the hike came and went and there was no sign of imminent arrival at the beach we were heading to. We’d only past 2 other people coming the other way, and their response on inquiry about the remaining distance had not filled me with much reassurance. When at last we reached the steep descent down to the beach, I was both relieved as much as disappointed that we had so much distance to travel back on.

My brother kept his feelings internal. I’m not sure if he was bothered or not, or just enjoyed the exercise. It’s not often I find a walk disappointing or frustrating but at least there was a fur seal swimming in the water for my brother to see, although no sign of a colony as the sign had suggested. On our return leg, we took a side-track to an old mine which was effectively a tunnel dug through the rocks. As we came back through and down the track we stumbled across a stoat which came bounding towards us then quickly disappeared. As much as I know they are a pest species, and a destructive one at that, I can’t help being excited when I spot wildlife, even if conservationists would like to see them eradicated. The introduction of so many pest species has been the cause of extinction of, or endangerment of, many of New Zealand’s native fauna. This country is a good example of what mess humans can make when they meddle in the natural order of things.

 

The next morning was as inclement as the day before. Again the mountain tops were hidden from view and it was clear that there was no point in my brother trying again for the heli-hike that day. We took the drive through the mountain pass to Franz Josef and headed up the valley road to the start of the glacier walk. This one I had done before on the 2016 visit, and there had been some slight upgrades to the path since then. Unlike the Fox glacier walk, the track is rather more undulating in the first section, climbing up over a hillock before dropping down to the level of the river. The clouds rose and lifted as we walked, giving intermittent glimpses of blue sky and the glacier top. Immediately on arrival to the glacier viewing spot I could see a difference in the glacier front. There may only have been 22 months between the 2 visits but I was convinced there had been a visible retreat. I couldn’t quite put my finger on where or how, but there was a definite feeling of change. It wasn’t until we’d gotten home a few days later and I was able to compare photographs that I could prove there was definitely a difference.

 

As we walked back to the car, we stopped at the waterfalls on route and took a side-track to a viewing spot at the top of a hillock. As an adult I’ve discovered quite an interest in geology, including doing some distance learning courses on the subject. New Zealand is a fascinating country for geology enthusiasts with all sorts of natural forces in play to shape and mould the geography. So I love the glacier paths of the South Island as much as the volcanic rifts and historical lava flows of the North Island. All along the valley walls were clear signs of the wear that the weight of the ice has carved into the rocks as it previously flowed down the valley many years ago. Back in the car, we drove past the signs on the road that mark the end of the glacier in the years gone by, a sad indicator of the rate of retreat.

 

After lunch in Franz Josef village, it was time to push northwards. Past Lake Mapourika, we took the turn-off down to Okarito where a lagoon harbours wetland birds and kiwi spotting may be possible at night. There was a choice of walks from here and we decided to cut across the wetlands and up to the view overlooking them. I was only wearing my jandals (flip flops), so wasn’t really best suited to go onwards, but my brother wanted to keep walking to the trig view point up the hill, so I tagged along anyway, inwardly realising I was one of those hikers that I’ve often rolled my eyes at when out hiking in the mountains: the under-prepared hiker in inappropriate footwear. It was rather sore under foot and not the best grip on the steeper sections, so I was glad when we finally made it to the top and I could give my feet a rest. From the viewpoint we could see just how large the Okarito lagoon to the north was and to the south, the smaller Three Mile Lagoon was also evident, the end-point of a longer walk that we didn’t have time for.

 

Hitting the road yet again, I was finding the driving a bit tiring after multiple days of long distance driving in a row. Even with the regular stops it was still a drag. I’m stubborn though and was intent on letting my brother enjoy the scenery unhindered, so insisted on doing all the driving. However as we got stuck behind a lorry on a particularly winding section, I took my chance to overtake on a slow vehicle passing lane but underestimated the power of my car to gain speed up the hill. Before I knew it, the lane was running short and the lorry readied to pull back in when I was still halfway along side it. I made a split second decision to make a manoeuvre that got us past the lorry but at great risk. I don’t think my brother realised what I did as it was over before he knew it but being prone to anxiety I immediately went into a panic for not driving to my normal standards and found myself having to pull in at a lake side to calm myself down. I felt like an idiot and spent the rest of the afternoon apologising to my brother. He seemed bemused and rather confused about the whole incident, neither understanding the road rules here, nor appreciating why I’d gotten myself into such a state. With me living so far away from my family for many years, they have been spared the sight of me going through my occasional bouts of mental illness. It was with great relief when we eventually reached our destination for the night that evening, but getting closer to home, we both started to realise how close to the end our road trip really was.

Spring Roadie – From the Lakes to the Coast

With so much choice, it’s hard to pick the best drive in New Zealand. I love so many of the South Island’s roads and mountain passes, we’re really spoilt for choice here. From Wanaka, the road to the west coast via Haast Pass is one of these great drives with so many places to stop at on route. I’d previously driven as far west as the Blue Pools, but beyond that was a small part of the country that I’d never been to before. At the time, nearly 6 years since arriving in the country, I’d already crossed off a large percentage of it, and this was another little section to finally cross off the list.

A short drive from Wanaka, the views start almost immediately with the arrival at the neighbouring Lake Hawea with its small and quiet little settlement of the same name. There was a haze in the air, meaning the view wasn’t as sharp as I’ve previously seen but the lake was still a brilliant blue and by the lake side the water was crystal clear. Flanked by mountains, it is a beautiful vista, and my brother and I took a short walk along the lake side before stopping at the dam at the entrance to the village. It was so peaceful, with few people here compared to Wanaka and with little development here either. Only a handful of people were milling around, so our view of the blue lake under the blue sky was one of tranquility.

 

Continuing along the highway that flanks the lake side, there are a few places to pull in to appreciate the view. The main one is about two thirds of the way along, but it can get quite busy, especially when a coach turns up. From several of these, it is possible to appreciate the length of the lake. These are the trips where I wish I lived nearer as I know there are so many hikes that could be done in the area. Passing a couple on the way, we stopped at the first of two lookouts at the Neck, the narrow isthmus that splits Lake Hawea from Lake Wanaka.

 

Crossing to the other side, we said goodbye to Lake Hawea and welcomed the equally beautiful sight of Lake Wanaka again which the road follows for some distance. Again there are some great view points along this road, and we stopped first at a boat ramp and then at the Boundary Creek campsite which was very busy. At this point, we were oblivious to the time pressures of this drive. We hadn’t hurried ourselves to leave, and with the beautiful sunny sky above us, I was stopping left right and centre so we could take lots of photographs. Although my brother had planned the route, he’d given me plenty of leeway with where to stop each day, and determined as I was to show off the country I now call home, I was taking every opportunity to do so. This meant a very leisurely morning and a slightly rushed afternoon as the enormity of the distance to cover became more apparent.

 

Eventually though, we left Lake Wanaka behind us and started across the valley that would wind us towards Haast Pass. We were able to get a bit of distance behind us, pushing on to Blue Pools before stopping. This place is very popular, not just with tourists but with sand flies, the bane of South Island waterways. I grew up with midges in Scotland, and they never bothered me half as much as the sand flies do here in New Zealand. No matter what repellent I use, their swarms have ruined many an outdoor experience for me, and here was to be no different. They gave my brother with his foreign smell a wide birth, and pestered me like crazy once we emerged from the short bush walk to the river. Like the last time I was here, I thought I’d risk taking a paddle in the glacier water, and like last time it was so frigid it hurt my feet, and I wondered about the foolhardiness (or bravery) of the people who jump from the bridge or go for a swim.

 

From here to the west was all new territory for me and I was excited. Emerging from the trees, we reached Cameron Flat where we stopped first at the campsite and then a short distance further where we trudged up to a lookout over the river. We ate lunch here overlooking the valley below, about half-way between Wanaka and the west coast. Our destination for the night was still some distance away, and from this point onwards I unintentionally took over my brother’s road trip and kept stopping, even after my brother voiced his want to skip some places.

 

One of these stops was Haast Pass where a walk trudges up the hillside to a lookout. It was a sticky walk in the heat, steeper than I’d anticipated, longer than I’d thought it would be and the view a little less spectacular than I’d expected (although still pretty enough). In hindsight, we could have skipped this, as with Fantail Falls which we also stopped at further along the road. A short bush walk brought us out to a pebbly river bank which was littered in stone stacks. The waterfall was on the far bank of the river and as before, the sand flies descended on me.

 

Beyond the Gates of Haast, a road bridge that spans the Haast River, and down the hill was the prettier Thunder Creek waterfall. Feeling guilty now about taking over my brother’s trip, I quickly offered to back-track to the bridge when my brother voiced an interest in seeing it up close. So back up the hill we parked either side of it then walked down to watch the water gush through the chasm. It was exceptionally noisy but we were the only ones there and deep as it was within a canyon in the mountains, we could look up at the peaks that flanked us undisturbed.

 

Eventually the road cut once more across the Haast river, and here at Pleasant Flat campsite, there was a stunning view across a plain to a snow and cloud capped mountain peak. Following the river downstream, State Highway 6 eventually takes a near 90 degree turn where the Haast river and Landsborough river unite. As we headed west, the clouds built up more and more on the mountain tops around us and the sunshine disappeared from view. We stopped at the Roaring Billy waterfall, another stop which with hindsight we could have skipped, and wandered along the river bank a little before the final push to the west coast.

 

Finally we cut through Haast and found ourselves back in sunshine as we reached the western flank of the Southern Alps. I had pre-warned my brother about the pebbly nature of west coast beaches, so found myself eating my words as we got out the car at Haast beach and walked out onto a beautiful stretch of sand. Behind us the clouds shrouded the mountain tops but in front of us the Tasman Sea glistened under the golden orb. The west coast is notorious for its wild weather so it was nice to arrive there in sunshine. Unfortunately we were still about 120km away from our night’s stay and the afternoon was wearing on towards evening. The drive was proving why New Zealand’s distances don’t look much on paper, but can easily take a lot more time than anticipated.

 

We pulled in at Ship Creek which I would have loved to have just relaxed at for a while. There were several people overnighting here and I was a little jealous. We explored the immediate vicinity before getting back on the road. At Knight’s Point the sun was getting low causing a glare to the west, but it still seemed sunny ahead of us. But the road cut inland and as it did so, it plunged us back under the cloud that had been shrouding the Southern Alps.

 

My brother had been keen to do a walk to Monro Beach where it is possible to go penguin watching. But due to me taking over his trip and stopping at so many places on the Haast Pass road, my brother didn’t feel we had the time to do the hike and I felt guilty when he requested we keep going when we passed the start of it at Lake Moeraki. If I was to do the drive again, I’d skip the Haast Pass lookout and Roaring Billy falls if not the Fantail falls also, which probably would have given us a bit of time to do the Monro beach walk. From here onwards though, we drove through light rain, the weather that I’m more accustomed to on this coast. I was so over driving by this point too, so although we stopped briefly at Lake Puringa, the rain hadn’t dulled the sand flies, and I wasn’t keen to hang around long. In the ever darkening skies, we pushed through the remaining 70km to finally pull in at our stop for the night in Fox Glacier, at the southern end of the Glacier Country. I could but hope for the rain to have cleared by the next day, ready for us to explore another unique part of New Zealand.

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