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.

Mount Somers Adventure

The Two Thumb Range with Aoraki peeking up from behind.

The family’s weekend hike took us to the summit of Mount Somers last week. 

We’ve hiked the Mount Somers Track more times than we can remember. Our first visit to the old coal mine along Woolshed Creek was with both children on our backs. Since then we’ve hiked the whole Mount Somers Track both directions and explored all its side tracks and variations. 

Except the summit track. By the time the kids were old enough to do it, we were all bored of Mount Somers. So it was good to tick the summit track off our list.

The summit track isn’t as popular as the other tracks on the mountain. We learned why when we hiked it. At 1688 metres, Mount Somers isn’t the tallest peak, though its volcanic origin is unusual on the South Island. Striking geometric rhyolite columns form cliffs that make finding a good route up or down a challenge and provide homes for an array of unique native wildlife.

The track rises steeply through beech forest from the Sharplin Falls carpark. The climb is unrelenting, taking you over 1200 metres in elevation into the alpine zone to the summit. We reached the summit in 3 1/2 hours, but it’s rated at 5 hours, and I wish we’d taken our time on the punishing ascent. On a hot early summer day, we’d all drunk most of our water by the time we reached the top. Luckily we were able to refill with snow. 

The view from the broad peak was stunning, with the Canterbury Plains spread out on one side, and the Two Thumbs Range jutting into the sky on the other. Aoraki / Mount Cook was visible, looming up behind the Two Thumbs Range.

To make a loop, we took an unofficial route down from the summit following widely spaced cairns to the Mount Somers track’s high point between Pinnacles Hut and Woolshed Creek Hut. It was steep, and involved a fair bit of scree sliding, but it was doable. And once you found the route, there was no getting lost, as you could see the track below.

On the track, we turned toward the Sharplin Falls carpark. An hour’s walking brought us to Pinnacles Hut where we had a welcome rest and chatted to the hut warden.

The track down from Pinnacles Hut follows and crosses numerous streams, and we enjoyed the cool water of the streams and waterfalls on the way. Aside from the relatively short climb over Duke Knob, it’s a gentler way down than the summit track.

All up, it was 8 1/2 hours of pretty steep up and down. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the effort for the views from the top.

The Beautiful Banks Peninsula

View from the top of Lavericks Peak Loop Track.

I still remember my first trip to the Banks Peninsula. It was probably less than 48 hours after we’d arrived in New Zealand and the only part of the country I’d seen was Hagley Park in central Christchurch.

The bush at Otepatotu Reserve

When we rounded the bend and the road sidled up to Wairewa/Lake Forsyth, my face split in a grin. I craned my neck to look up the steep slopes on the left while black swans cruised the sparkling lake on the right.

We stopped in Little River for a toilet break (we had toddlers then—we stopped at every toilet), and I fell in love with the Little River Cafe and the attached Little River Art Gallery.

Carrying on toward Akaroa, we crested Hilltop, and Akaroa Harbour glittered tropical blue down below. Onawe Peninsula jutted like a bead pendant into the harbour and the road wound down through a patchwork of forest and paddock toward the sea.

Native clematis in bloom.

I have made that drive countless times in the nearly sixteen years since the first trip. I still get that silly grin on my face. Every. Single. Time. Since that first visit I’ve scaled taller mountains, seen glaciers, stood at the base of Tane Mahuta, cruised Milford Sound … By comparison, the Banks Peninsula is positively dull.

But for me it defines summer in New Zealand. Even in winter, I feel like I’m on summer holiday when I’m out on the Banks Peninsula. I forget the to-do list. I turn off the cell phone. the daily stresses vanish.

Cushion star in a tidepool at Okains Bay

We hadn’t been to the Banks Peninsula since March, before lockdown confined us to home. But last Sunday we ventured out to sample everything we’ve been missing: morning tea in Little River, a lovely little hike through old totara and tree fuchsia in Otepatotu Scenic Reserve, a very chilly dip in the sea at Okains Bay and rock hopping along the coast to Little Okains Bay, and finally beer and chips in Akaroa and a stroll through the Garden of Tane.

We arrived home tired, crusted with salt and sand, and thoroughly satisfied with the day.

This weekend is supposed to be warm and sunny … we might just go and do it all again.

Alpine Therapy

Last week was a difficult one for all of New Zealand. On Tuesday, four cases of Covid-19 cropped up outside of managed isolation facilities at the border. The virus was circulating in the community again.

Auckland, where the cases occurred, was placed into alert level 3, with schools closed, and movement and business activity restricted. The rest of the country moved to alert level 2—not as strict, but in some ways more stressful, because we weren’t confined to the safety of our home and personal ‘bubble’. Once again, we navigated work and the rest of daily life knowing the virus could be lurking among us. Once again, we looked on every sniffle and cough with suspicion.

I’m proud to report that New Zealanders once again have stepped up to the challenge and are doing their part to stamp this new outbreak out so we can all return as quickly as possible to alert level 1. Still, stress levels were high in our household all week. So Saturday we took in some alpine therapy.

It was a shivery -3 degrees when we started up the Bealey Spur Track. We’d hiked the track many times when the kids were young, but never got far. On Saturday, we set a rapid, stress-relieving pace, reaching the Bealey Spur Hut (and the official end of the track) in just two hours. The peaks above called, so we carried on past the hut along Hut Spur, enjoying stunning views of the Waimakariri River below, and Mount Rolleston and Crow Glacier above. 

We relived memories of past hikes, tracing their routes along the ridges and through the valleys around us. We watched cars snake across the wide bed of the Waimakariri River, noting how easily the river could wipe out the road. We examined plants and fungi and slime moulds. We contemplated the uncertain future of Crow Glacier. 

And, yes, occasionally we discussed Covid-19, particularly as we descended, meeting dozens of people heading upward for their own alpine therapy. But somehow it was all easier to manage with tired legs and lungs filled with icy alpine air. 

Caroll Hut, Arthur’s Pass National Park

Impressive old southern rātā along the track.

Just beyond Otira, the main highway snakes along, with the Otira River on one side and impossibly steep slopes on the other. A track takes off from Kelly Creek and shoots straight up. My husband said he’d often looked up at those slopes thinking, “Glad I’m not going up there.”

But that’s exactly where we went Friday. Eight hundred twenty-five vertical metres over a mere 2700 metres horizontal distance, if the topo map is to be believed. That’s an average slope of 17 degrees, which doesn’t seem like much, except that parts of the track are flat or go down, so many sections are practically ladders, and require hands and feet.

In spite of the steep grade, it’s not a difficult climb—tree roots and rocks provide plenty of hand and foot holds. And the slow climb upward affords plenty of time to gaze back up the valley towards Otira, watch a train rumble down the tracks below, enjoy a waterfall, examine the flora, and listen to the bellbirds. The forest is full of gems like southern rātā and mountain neinei (a tree that could only have come from Dr. Seuss’ imagination).

View towards the west coast from above Caroll Hut

You emerge above tree line to a gentle climb to Caroll Hut. A little further uphill, cresting Kelly’s Saddle, the view opens to the west coast, and you can see all the way to the Tasman Sea. 

It’s not a hike you’d want to do in bad weather, but Friday’s calm clear air was perfect. A lovely day out.

Old Friends, New Perspectives

We regularly seek out new places to hike, but sometimes it’s nice to visit old friends.

Kura Tawhiti / Castle Hill is one of those old friends. We’ve been going there since we arrived in New Zealand 15 years ago. Lately, we’ve been there a lot, because the kids enjoy bouldering there.

I never get tired of the place. There are so many nooks and crannies to explore, it feels like every visit is new. And the place shows different faces in different weather—fog, rain, snow, or sparkling blue skies. It never gets old.

Last week when we visited, there was a carpet of daisies blooming in a spot I rarely pay attention to. It made me stop and take note of the location as though I’d never been there before.

On every visit, I make the climb to the top of Castle Hill—the highest point at Kura Tawhiti on which stands a glorious sentinel rock. It’s a stiff climb of about 160 vertical metres. From there you can look down on the rest of the limestone formation.

Looking down at Kura Tawhiti from Castle Hill Peak.

I was lucky to have the opportunity, not only to visit Kura Tawhiti on Wednesday last week, but to look down upon it from a much higher vantage point on Friday.

We hiked up from Porter’s Pass to Castle Hill Peak (1078 metres higher than Castle Hill, and a serious slog on unrelenting scree), from which all of Kura Tawhiti looks like a little bump on the valley floor below. It was interesting to see what I think of as a large part of the landscape put into perspective. And it was a great reminder of just how many places there are to explore, big and small—it’s a great wide world out there!

Nelson Lakes Tramping

Before Christmas, the family spent five days tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park. We have tried several times to plan a trip to the area around Angelus Hut, but something has always happened to cancel it—once it was bad weather, another time it was a gastrointestinal bug at Angelus Hut that laid 30 hikers low, another time it was the Kaikoura earthquake. But this year, we managed, with only a 24-hour postponement due to the weather.

We rolled in late on day one. With only a two-hour hike to the first hut and pouring rain forecast to clear late in the day, there was no reason to start early. We lucked out, and the last raindrops fell as we were getting out of the car. The climb to Bushline Hut on Paddy’s Track was a bit of a monotonous uphill, but with nice views. If I were doing it again though, I’d give Bushline Hut a miss. The place is overrun by mice—if the noise of them nibbling into everyone’s packs didn’t keep you awake all night, their pattering feet over your bed or down your neck did. It was less than pleasant.

Vegetable sheep (Raoulia spp)

Leaving the mice behind in sparkling sunshine the next morning, we followed Robert Ridge to Angelus Hut. Well above tree line, the ridge is one continuous spectacular view of the mountains and lakes in and around the park. We were prepared for wind and cold (it had snowed on the ridge the day before), but enjoyed sun all day with very little wind. My favourite part of the ridge was the profusion of vegetable sheep—some of the most spectacular specimens I’ve ever seen.

Angelus hut dwarfed by the surrounding landscape.

We made good time and enjoyed lunch overlooking a mountain tarn just a few minutes before reaching Angelus Hut, in its dramatic location at the edge of Lake Rotomaninitua. That left us all afternoon to explore the stunning tarns, streams and rocks around the hut. Rain from the preceding days had left all the tarns and streams overflowing, and the sound of flowing water was a constant—trickling through rocks underfoot or rushing in torrents down the mountainsides.

Mt. Cedric Route

The following day was the hardest and most spectacular, following the Mt. Cedric Route to Sabine Hut. I thought Robert Ridge was spectacular, but the Mt. Cedric Route blew Robert Ridge out of the water! Again, we had fabulous weather and enjoyed the views. The route skirts around an unnamed 1880-metre peak, which we summited—an easy scramble without packs, and well worth it for the views. From that high point, the rest of the track is downhill. Fourteen hundred metres vertically, to be exact, most of which happens in the incredibly steep final 1.5 km. While the ridges and scree slopes of the majority of the route are visually and mentally daunting, they’re relatively easy to traverse. But the drop through the forest, on slick wet leaves, was basically one long ungainly fall.

We were rewarded at the end by Sabine Hut on the shore of Lake Rotoroa. A nice swim in the lake and a gentle walk to the Sabine River made for a relaxing afternoon.

Day four was a long uphill, which was actually welcome after so much downhill the previous day, ending at Speargrass Hut. Unlike the previous two days, the Sabine-Speargrass Track is entirely in the forest. And it is a magical forest—lush and wet, but it gives the impression of perching on nothing but great blocks of rock. The track regularly traverses roots with deep holes between them, and you could hear water gurgling underfoot in many locations.

The most magical spot along this section of track was an open bog not far from Speargrass Hut. A long boardwalk climbs to a platform perched in the bog. Benches provide a nice place to sit and take in the view. Coming out of the forest into a landscape so rich in colour felt like entering a painting—colours just a little too saturated, bog falling away a little too perfectly to reveal distant peaks a little too sharp and dramatic to be quite real. 

Day five was a quick, relatively unremarkable jaunt out to the carpark along Speargrass Track, and then a long drive home.

Quite possibly one of the most spectacular pre-Christmas tramps we’ve done. It was definitely worth waiting for.

A Day Off

Cathedral of red beech

Sunday dawned warm and sunny, and I prepared myself for another day of hard work in the garden, in spite of my aching back. It would be a crunch to finish what I needed to stay on track—my garden to-do lists get longer each week, and I don’t dare fall behind at this time of year.

Meanwhile, my husband was fretting about the lectures he still needed to prepare for this week. But he’s much better at relaxation than I am. Before I had a chance to gather my tools, he suggested a hike instead of a day of work.

So we ignored our pesky to-do lists and enjoyed a day at Hinewai. 

Hinewai Reserve is privately owned, and encompasses 1250 hectares of the outer Banks Peninsula. It includes a glorious mix of vegetation types.

The track forms an avenue within a dense kānuka stand.

Probably the most impressive are the 50 hectares of old growth forest. The red beech create a green cathedral, shading out much of the undergrowth. The effect is in stark contrast to the dense kānuka stands that blanket other parts of the reserve.

At this time of year, the gorse is in full bloom. Management at Hinewai allows this invasive weed to grow, because it provides an effective nursery for native trees. Eventually, the native plants will overtop the gorse and shade it out, but in areas recently disturbed by fire, the gorse is thick. On Sunday, the tops of the hills looked like they’d been capped with bright yellow snow, for all the gorse.

Gorse in full bloom in a recently burned area.

With 330 species of native vascular plants, and 60 species of fern (including six species of tree fern), Hinewai is probably the most diverse site on the Banks Peninsula. We never fail to see interesting things when we visit. This visit was no exception. A bright purple fungus creeping along a rotting branch was probably the most unusual find on Sunday, but we were treated to tree fuchsia in bloom, kererū swooping overhead, and pīwakawaka and tomtits flitting around among leafy lacebarks, kahikatea, tōtara, and kōwhai. I enjoyed seeing my favourite filmy ferns, with their translucent fronds. Large quantities of ongaonga (tree nettle) supported the red admiral butterflies that were enjoying the warm day along with us, flitting through the dappled light in the forest.

View down to Otanerito/Long Bay

And, of course, as with most spots on the Banks Peninsula, the views from the clearings at Hinewai were spectacular. 

My weekend to-do list forgotten, I had a lovely day enjoying the outdoors. Next weekend’s list is necessarily longer now, but it was good to take a day off. I must remember to do that more often.