A Hobbit Adventure

As a writer of fantasy and adventure novels, it’s important to me to get out and have my own adventures. My adventures provide the inspiration and the gritty details for my characters’ escapades. I especially enjoy true wilderness adventures—the less sign of human impact, the better.

view from Mt Isobel
The view from atop snowy Mount Isobel

Of course, not every adventure can be a wilderness experience. Sometimes you want some fun with a little more luxury.

My husband and I recently spent a lovely weekend in Hanmer Springs. While the town is known for its hot pools, we’re not the hot pool type. What we appreciate about Hanmer Springs is the ability to step out the front door of your holiday home, climb a mountain, and end the hike at the pub a few blocks from the holiday home.

It’s hardly a wilderness experience, especially given that Hanmer Springs is surrounded by pine plantations, rather than native bush, but on a winter weekend during the rainiest month on record, it’s just right.

Our main hike for the weekend was up Mount Isobel. This wasn’t our first winter trip to the peak, but it was the first time we’d followed the ridge from the peak in order to descend via Jollies Pass. The last time we were on Mount Isobel, the wind was so fierce, there was only enough time to race to the top, snap a photo or two, and race back down before we froze. This time was entirely different.

It snowed the previous day, so we hiked through a winter wonderland. Light wind and full sun made it a stunning hike. The snow was an easily hikeable fifteen centimetres deep on the ridge—just enough to ensure our feet and lower legs were thoroughly soaked by the end.

There was nowhere dry to stop for lunch, so we ate in short snatches standing up. That was really the only downside to what was a delightful seven-hour hike.

And when your hike ends in Hanmer village, with beer and good food on offer, and a roaring fire at the holiday home to warm your toes, it’s hard to complain about anything. I think of it as a Hobbit adventure—a bit of fun without skipping second breakfast.

Matariki Hike–Tiromoana Bush Walkway

Nature pulled out all the stops last weekend for Matariki. All three days of the long weekend were stunners, with temperatures more like mid-autumn than mid-winter.

On Saturday I worked in the garden in a t-shirt, and we had all the doors and windows open for most of the day. On Sunday, with both kids home for the holiday, we headed out for a hike.

Avoiding the snowy mountains and crowded ski fields, we headed to an unlikely spot—the Kate Valley Landfill.

Well, okay, not the landfill itself, but the restoration area next to it on Transwaste land.

Tiromoana Bush Walkway wends through a patchwork of restoration planting, old paddocks, plantation forestry and regenerating bush. An active predator trapping programme has clearly done its job, and the air teems with bellbirds and pīwakawaka.

Access to the beach cuts through a steep valley between limestone cliffs busy with welcome swallows. The beach is narrow and overshadowed by actively crumbling cliffs of limestone and clay—definitely not a place you want to be during a storm, but quite fascinating on the blue-sky day we enjoyed.

The hike was only about three hours long, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach, even on a short mid-winter day.

We had relatively low expectations of the hike when we started out, but it ended up being quite a pleasant mid-winter outing. Not very strenuous, but with enough ups and downs to be interesting, and with some intriguing landforms along the coast.

Christmas Adventure–Gillespie Circuit

The family’s Christmas tramp this year took us to the Gillespie Circuit Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. The trip was a good adventure, through a dramatic landscape we don’t often hike in.

Day one started with a jet boat from Makarora to the confluence of the Wilkin and Makarora Rivers. It was my first jet boat ride, and I’ll admit my inner teenager was grinning as we slalomed down the river in a noisy, environmentally unsustainable fashion my adult self disapproves of.

From the mouth of the Wilkin River, we hiked upstream. It was decidedly the least interesting four hours of the trip—the area is grazed, so it was primarily a slog through a cow paddock. The track then turned into the forest and climbed steadily up Siberia Stream to Siberia Hut, where we spent two nights.

On day two, we took a day trip to Crucible Lake. The track to the lake is quite steep, but worth every step. The lake sits in a basin behind a massive glacial moraine. The glacier above the lake drops chunks of ice into the water, making it look like an enormous punch bowl. Apparently it’s popular to take a dip in the lake, but we were deterred by the ice and the cool morning air. The scale of the landscape is deceptive, and photos don’t come close to capturing it.

Day 3, Christmas Day, dawned lightly overcast—perfect for the next stage of the hike, over Gillespie Pass. The track climbs steeply over 1000 metres to the pass, first through the forest, and then into alpine scrub and tussock. Mount Awful looms over the pass, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by jagged peaks and glaciers. The taller peaks, including Mount Awful, were shrouded in cloud, but the views were nonetheless spectacular. We even got a slightly white Christmas, hiking through a couple of snow patches near the top of the pass.

If we thought the way up was steep, the way down proved us wrong—it was even steeper, dropping down a precipitous ridge to the top of the Young River. From there, the nearly flat hike to Young Hut afforded plenty of opportunity to admire the rocky ridges above and the many waterfalls cascading down from them.

Day 4 was a long but relatively gentle hike along the Young River to the Makarora River through the forest. Crossing the thigh-deep Makarora River back to the car was a refreshing end to the trip.

Being a Christmas hike, the trip naturally inspired another bad tramping Christmas song. This year’s song is to the tune of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Have yourself a merry tramping Christmas.
Make the trailside gay.
From now on our cars will be so far away.

Here we are as in olden days,
Happy tramping days of yore.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Sleeping near to us—they snore!

Through the years we all will tramp together
If the joints allow,
Even when we’re eighty, though I don’t know how.
So have yourself a merry tramping Christmas now.

May you all have a lovely holiday filled with your favourite people doing your favourite things!

The Little Things–Hakatere Conservation Park

As usual, I spent most of the long Labour Day weekend in the vegetable garden. I weeded, prepared garden beds, and planted my cucurbits in trays.

Lake Clearwater with mountains
Lake Clearwater was a mirror in the morning’s still air.

But as they say, all work and no play … I didn’t want to spend the whole holiday weekend sweating in the garden.

So on Monday my husband and I went to Hakatere Conservation Park and sweated on Mount Guy instead.

The Ashburton Lakes region is a glacially formed landscape dotted with lakes and tarns. The land around the wetlands is largely tussock grassland studded with spiny matagauri bushes. An unforgiving, windswept landscape that can feel downright bleak.

That was my impression the first time I visited. Fifteen years ago, I was hired to develop an interpretation plan for what was then a proposed park only. I had the great fortune to tour the area with a Department of Conservation ranger who had worked in the area for decades and had a great love of the landscape. He showed me the little things—not necessarily obvious at first—that set the region apart. Rare insects (including an aquatic moth!), waterfowl and lizards. Unique and diverse plants. Historical use of the land, and massive changes over geologic time. There’s a lot more than meets the eye.

skink
One of the many skinks we saw.

On Monday, we were treated to a glorious day—sunny and calm at first, with a brisk breeze kicking in just when the day began to feel too warm. We parked at Lake Clearwater and hiked the track to the summit of Mount Guy. On our return, we followed the tussocky ridge down to a saddle where we picked up Te Araroa, following the track back to the edge of Lake Clearwater where we completed our large, loopy circuit of the lake.

mountains and river valley
View from near the top of Mount Guy. Mount Sunday is a small mound in the river valley, just to the right of centre in the photo.

The hike afforded stunning views of jagged, snow-capped peaks, and a view of Mount Sunday down in the river valley.

Oddly, out of all the “mountains” in the park, Mount Sunday may be the most famous. The hill was used as the location for Edoras in the Lord of the Rings movies. In the enormity of the surrounding landscape, however, it is an insignificant lump of rock.

Perhaps, like the hidden insects, birds, and plants, it is the little details that are the interesting bits.

Lichens Rule

Not long ago, I spent a glorious sunny day wandering around Cass Field Station while my husband met with some students there. It was nice to take a solo walk and go at my own pace, stopping at whatever plants, bugs or rocks caught my fancy.

Once nice find was this beautiful lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum.

Lichens are strange organisms comprised of an alga living within a fungus. The alga provides food through photosynthesis and the fungus provides protection and nutrients for the alga.

R. geographicum is an alpine/subalpine lichen and, like many lichens, is sensitive to air pollution, thriving only where the air is clean. It is not, however, a fragile organism.

In 2005, R. geographicum was one of two lichens launched into space. The lichens were exposed to 14.6 days of open space—vacuum, wide temperature fluctuations, intense UV light and cosmic radiation. Upon return, R. geographicum showed little harm from the experience.

Not only is R. geographicum tough, some individuals in the Arctic are estimated to be 8,600 years old, making them the oldest living organisms on Earth. Their longevity and predictable growth rate make them useful tools for determining when glaciers retreated from an area.

But I didn’t know all this about R. geographicum when I found it on the rocks at Cass. I simply admired its beautiful mottled colours and soft texture. 

Wild West

On a whim, my husband and I spent last weekend on the west coast. We stayed in our favourite west coast town—Hokitika—and hiked in the mountains nearby.

view from Mt Greenland
The view from the top of Mt Greenland

Having lived in a rainforest for two and a half years, I know I wouldn’t want to live on the west coast (where rainfall ranges from 2 to 11 metres per year), but I love visiting.

On this visit, we hiked up Mount Greenland. The path up is an abandoned road that used to connect the small gold mining settlement of Veronica to the township of Ross. An article in the West Coast Times in 1888 records Veronica as a promising settlement, complete with a hotel and two stores. Even then, the road from Ross was apparently atrocious—other newspaper accounts from the 1880s colourfully describe knee- and waist-deep mud on the way to Veronica.

The mine near Veronica was abandoned in 1940, and the rainforest has been reclaiming the road ever since. The day we hiked it was sunny and cool, but even without active precipitation, the road streamed with water in places. There were a few short stretches without washouts, deep puddles or slips, but only a few. Ferns leaned over the edges of the narrow track, so that in spots, even hikers were forced into single file. It is clear some informal maintenance of the track still goes on, but the forest is doing its best to erase it.

rainforest

And this is probably what I appreciate most about the west coast—nature is in charge, and humans maintain only tenuous grip. The settlement of Veronica has all but vanished under vines and tree ferns. The gold rush of the 1800s left no ghost towns—the forest has swallowed them all up. Other west coast townships, like Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, and Kumara Junction, feel equally under siege by Mother Nature, as though it would only take a few moments of inattention before the trees would creep down the streets, and the vines snake over the houses.

As apocalyptic as that vision is, it gives me hope. Hope that one day, the planet will erase the scars of our fleeting presence here and carry on in a riot of life.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

Weekend Getaway

Carrington Peak

Over the long Waitangi Day weekend, we hiked up the Waimakariri River to Carrington Hut. Using Carrington Hut as a base, we took day walks to Kilmarnock Falls and Waimakariri Falls Hut.

The weather was glorious, and hiking on the riverbed, it was easy to cool off with a quick dip in icy water. The hike to Waimakariri Falls Hut was particularly rewarding: there are two ‘official’ falls on the river, and dozens of smaller streams dropping off the surrounding peaks in spectacular fashion, so you feel as though you’re walking through a watery wonderland.

Wading in to see Waimakariri Falls.

The upper falls, just below the hut, are hidden in a deep, narrow fissure in the rock. Waist deep in icy water is the only way to see the water roaring down—great fun, but not something you’d want to do on a cold day. 

Above the falls, the river is narrow enough to jump across with dry feet, and flows through a fabulous alpine landscape. We didn’t hike all the way to the snowfield where the river actually begins, but we were close. 

The fuzzy flower of a South Island edelweiss

My favourite two things on the hike were the South Island edelweiss (Leucogenes grandiceps), which looks like it was made out of felt by someone named Aunty Flo, and the river water itself. The water was crystal clear, yet colourful (the gorgeous turquoise of glacier-fed rivers) and full of substance. I could have watched it flow over the rocks for hours (come to think, I did watch it flow over the rocks for hours).

Waimakariri Falls Hut. The snowfield visible to the right of the hut is the source of the Waimakariri River.

Least favourite part of the hike was Carrington Hut. It’s a great hut in a stunning location, but last weekend, it felt as though everyone from Christchurch was there. Carrington Hut has 36 bunks, but only 1 toilet and 1 sink. With about 40 people in the hut and another 20 or so tenting nearby, it was way over its capacity. As usual, everyone was considerate and did their best to make it work, but it was still unpleasant.

All in all, a lovely weekend getaway, and an easy hike, as long as you’re comfortable with river crossings.

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Hanging Out with the Locals

Sunday’s family hike took us to Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Several years ago we’d been to the peak on our way to Crow Hut, but we’d never done the day hike loop from Arthur’s Pass Village to the peak and back. So in the interest of leaving no track unwalked, we did the loop.

Last time we were there, we reached the peak to find it packed with people. So many people jostled to stand at the top, I was worried about being shoved off. Stretched down the mountain, a line of hikers ascended to join us. We didn’t stay long, but quickly dropped off the peak, sidling up the ridge toward our destination, which was similarly crowded (there were 16 people staying at the 10-bunk Crow Hut that night).

Looking down on the Waimakariri River

Sunday’s experience was entirely different, in spite of it being a similar beautiful summer day. With no foreign tourists in the country, the only hikers were Kiwis. 

The long slog to the top was rewarded with a prime seat on the jagged peak (it’s the most uncomfortable mountaintop I’ve ever sat on—rocks like razors). We shared the summit with just two other hikers and three kea.

The weather was perfect—light winds, cool air, warm sun—and we took our time over lunch, chatting with our fellow hikers and fending off the the kea, who angled for our sandwiches, considered ripping open our backpacks and took a swipe at my daughter’s apple.

It was the most intimate kea encounter I’ve had (excepting the time one bit me on the butt). 

Wade, the cheeky kea

For those of you unfamiliar with kea, they are endemic to New Zealand and are the world’s only alpine parrot. They are an endangered species (estimated population of 4000 adults). A large factor in their endangered status is their lack of fear of humans and their incredible curiosity. Combined with a huge beak like a can opener, it means they get into all sorts of things they shouldn’t They have a deadly fondness for the lead heads of roofing nails, they like to tear apart automobiles and camping gear, and they irritate farmers by killing sheep (yes, a sheep-eating parrot—scary eh? Don’t mess with that beak!). 

Two of the birds hanging out with us were banded, and we were able to identify them on the kea database. ‘Wade’ was the most in-your-face bird of the trio—of all the photos I took, only a few didn’t include Wade. And, of course, I took lots of photos, in spite of the fact I have dozens of photos from previous kea encounters. I swear, it’s part of their strategy—one poses for the camera while the others rifle through your bags looking for treats. 

Eventually we said goodbye to our fellow hikers and our feathered companions and descended to a quiet Arthur’s Pass Village—so different from the frenetic activity of summer with overseas tourists. I feel for the tourism industry, suffering this year with a lack of business. But I love the opportunity to enjoy our backyard without teeming masses of people.

I look forward to the day we can invite our overseas visitors back—international tourism is not only an important part of the economy, but also a strong impetus for protecting the stunning and unique natural landscapes, flora and fauna we have here in New Zealand. It’s good to see Aotearoa through the eyes of tourists now and again, to remember just how special our natural heritage is.

But until then, I’ll enjoy hanging out with the locals.