The West Coast

No, this post has nothing to do with the States and its iconic West, it’s the name given to a long strip of the South Island along its western side, and in particular all the sites along State Highway 6 north of Wanaka. There were several areas we were planning to visit on our way to the very north of the island, starting with the twin glaciers: Fox and Franz Josef.

This thin strip of land has a peculiar topography: almost directly off the coast of the Tasman Sea there is a tropical-looking rainforest, and barely a few more kilometers inland lie the rugged Southern Alps with its couple of glaciers.

So we were standing on the side of this highway, in Makarora, waiting for a car stop. There wasn’t much traffic and we waited something like 45 minutes until a large 4 by 4 stopped. The wealthy Austrian tourist who was renting the vehicle drove us all the way to Fox Glacier village, a good 3 hour drive from where we started.

The place was tiny: two streets, and a few tour coaches to fill the hotels up. We just stayed one night there. In the morning we walked to Fox Glacier and were unimpressed. The poor thing is retreating like crazy and looks quite bleak compared to glaciers in Iceland or even France. We got a lift to Franz Josef Glacier, thirty minutes from Fox, in the afternoon, and checked into our coolest hostel so far: 26$ for a bed, free soup in the evening, free breakfast, free wifi, free spa… it was so nice we immediately decided to stay a second night there. This meant we had a whole day to explore the stunning area surrounded by mountains, and decided on a 20 km hike up a peak (surprise surprise!)  where we got wonderful views on Franz Josef Glacier, who seems to be in better shape than its twin. 

Most of the walk uphill was in the lush rainforest, until we reached the bushline. 

Clouds were quickly picking up however and by the time we reached the top at 1303 m the view down the valley was completely concealed. It was still quite early in the afternoon when we got back to town, and we simply hung out at the hostel chatting with other travellers to decide where to stop next on the West Coast on our way north. Punakaiki it is! And a friend of Julien’s, Jime (they met while tramping here before I arrived) was joining us the next day or the day after.

Punakaiki is a cute little township built around natural rock formations people call pancake rocks (I’ll get back to them in a minute). But there’s much more to the place than those mere geological curiosities: the rugged and wild coastline is as beautiful as ever, and the landscape looking away from the coast really reminded us of South East Asia with its limestone cliffs and tropical rainforest. Despite all this, few tourists stop to explore what we thought of as a hidden gem of the West Coast. It took us almost all day and three lifts to cover the 150 km from Franz Josef. Our third driver was a funny local man who did numerous stops along the way to show us around and explain about the mining history of the region.

We first stopped at our hostel, a small retreat right in the forest and a five minute walk from the beach, to drop off our packs, and then directly headed to the Pancake Rocks, which we caught at sunset. Their name comes from the vertical stacking of thin layers of rock, separated by softer minerals eroded over time (you can zoom in to see the layers). And the weather was still bearing with us! After that it was time to go back to our accomodation to make food.

We were up quite early the next day, the plan for me was to take a short three- hour through the forest, and then hitch to Westport. Julien was up for something more challenging (a good 25 km marked as a two-day walk, and without much food because we were running out and there were no shops in Punakaiki!). Once I was back from my stroll I ran into Jime at the information centre (I recognised her from Julien’s description), we chatted for a bit and I left for Westport while she visited the area.

This next stop on our way north was only intended for resupplying. Westport was the last large town before our next tramp: the Heaphy track, 82 km connecting us to the Golden Bay on the North coast of the island. I got to our backpacker hostel first, followed by Jime two hours later and exhausted and hungry Julien just before dark. On the next day we just went shopping and hitched to Karamea, the last town before the tramping trail, and found a really nice hostel. A lot of artists go there on residence and decorate the place with their creations, and they even have their own radio studio and broadcast random music from trance to irish jigs. The owners and the community built around this place are all very interesting people. Again, I got there first and relaxed and chatted with the people around while waiting for the others. We were unsure of our plans because the weather the next day was supposed to be really bad… In the evening we were offered sake and wine by the people around, listening to balkan-style music.

But the next morning it turned out being fine. We were finally going to walk the Heaphy track I’ve heard so much about!

Gillespie Pass trail

From lake Hawea we continued our (hitch-)hiking journey north. Just past 8:30 am a well-travelled American in a rental car picked us up and drove us to the starting point of our next trek: a three-day enterprise in Mount Aspiring National Park, from one valley to another over Gillespie Pass, the highest point of the trail at 1700m above sea level (so not very high, but it’s getting cold). 

The very beginning of the trail follows a popular path to the Blue Pools, where a lot of road trippers stop to see the beautiful blue colour of the glacier-fed river. Most people then turn back to the parking area, but we carried on, and almost six hours later we arrived at our first hut. Most of the day’s hike was in dense rainforest, but we got some nice views from swinging bridges over equally blue -but remote- rivers.

We had barely started ascending on that first day so the next (frosty!) morning started with a steep pathway, mostly over the bushline at this point, to the pass. And what views! Since we started early (basically when there was enough light to see), sunlight was slowly breaking over the mountaintops and by the time we got to the pass it was nice and warm and there wasn’t a cloud in sight! Who said New Zealand weather was bad? 

The river you see down in that valley was where we were heading to next: it was steep, but faster than on the way up 🙂 For a while we then hiked along that river and finally downhill through bush again to finish the day, to yet another valley. And what a finish! It involved crossing a river just to reach the hut we were going to spend the night in, about waist deep in chilly water.

Crossing a river at the end of the day is fine, because you can change to dry clothes. But the trail back to Highway 6 was on the opposite side, so first thing in the morning we had to cross again, which implied wet feet the whole way. We crossed a lot of puzzled cattle on our path, and spent most of the time walking in the gorgeous valley, alternating between forest and yellow grass.

A last river crossing then took us to the tiny township of Makarora, where we celebrated the end of our effort with large portions of carrot cake. After our feast we stood on the side of the road, and waited for a prospective ride. Next stop: Fox Glacier on the West Coast.

The lakes: Queenstown, Wanaka and Hawea

We couldn’t find beds in Queenstown, but decided to move on anyways: there is a huge campsite there (Holiday Park) so in the worse case scenario, that’s where we’d spend the night. I bought a cheap foam mattress, to make my life easier, freezing temperatures were predicted for the next few nights. We were slightly depressed when we left Te Anau, we had searched accomodation all morning in different locations  without success. Travelling was much easier in Asia… Our good karma returned and we were picked up after barely lifting our thumbs by a guy who happened to be going all the way to Queenstown, two hours from Te Anau. Nice! 

The scenic road lifted my spirits, but not for long. We arrived and headed to the campsite: they charge a whooping 25$ per night per person just to pitch our tiny two person tent! And there was puke on our spot. Welcome! Once settled on our luxurious 3 square meter patch we headed to town. The main streets were buzzing with tourists shopping, drinking, eating and looking for adrenaline-packed activities. Queenstown is the capital of extreme sports: skydiving, rafting, paragliding, you name it, they have it here, at a high cost obviously (expect to pay twice the French price for rafting, for instance). It was by far the busiest city I had seen here (after Christchurch and Invercargill), which was pleasant. It’s nestled on a lakeside, and surrounded by mountains.

I complained about the campsite but at least we used their facilities well: the kitchen and shower make a big difference. The next day we didn’t do much, we planned ahead to avoid future accomodation problems and Julien had to buy a new phone. Later in the day we made it up to the main peak overlooking Queenstown, the short and steep hike brought us to the starting point for activities such as mountain biking, ziplining and… luge! Yeah, we tried, it was not as pricey as you’d expect and a lot of fun, and all facing the view of the town beneath us.

That was Queenstown: amazing if you have the money to spend on crazy tours, but limited if hiking is your main focus. So the next morning we left for Wanaka, a small town (Queenstown’s little sister in many ways) 70 km north, where there are more hiking opportunities. Our two main rides that day were an ecologist who worked for a while at my home university in Paris and an american lady sailing the world on her own. We had managed to book beds in Wanaka, or so we thought, it turned out our hostel was on another lake 15 km north (Hawea), with everything in our originally planned destination being booked out… Nevermind, we got there in good time with two extra drives, and the place was the best bargain I got in NZ yet.

The main hike we were aiming for was Roy’s peak just out of Wanaka, a famous 1200m ascent offering views on lakes Wanaka and Hawea and all the way to the snowcapped summits of the Southern Alps on clear days. The downside of staying in Hawea is that we had to hitchhike back to Wanaka to start walking from there, but we quickly got picked up by two tourists who were directly driving to the starting point of that exact hike. Cool! By 10 am, we were walking up and before twelve we had reached the top. The trail was smoothly winding up and constantly facing lake Wanaka, so that we were always rewarded with a nice view if we took a short break. On top we did a short photo shoot to say hi to our former house mates of the “3 rue Jeanne” where we lived together for two years.

With a 360 degree view and the perfectly clear weather I took a lot more photos! The panorama here more or less sums everything up: the peak is on the far right, if you look carefully you’ll see some snowcaps to the left in the background, the big lake is Wanaka and a bit to the right behind the first big lake, Hawea is visible.

We then walked back down and around the lake into town (with really pretty autumn colours), to hitch a last ride to Hawea for a second night there. Tomorrow, we head north into Mount Aspiring National Park for a three-day (two-night) hike.

Fiordland on Easter weekend

After we came back from Stewart Island it took us quite a bit of planning before figuring out what we would do next. There were three main problems: renting a car is ridiculously expensive even if we divide the cost between the four of us, it was Easter weekend and accomodation in Te Anau and on the Kepler track (one of New Zealand’s Great Walks) is full, and cyclone Cook was hitting the south around 1 pm on Good Friday, making hitchhiking impossible. 

Despite this, we (all four of us: myself, Julien and his two French friends) managed to find a way to walk the Kepler track. We caught a bus to Te Anau, the largest town of Fiordland, where two worlds meet: wealthy tourists eating in fancy restaurants and going on expensive cruises or scenic helicopter flights, or people like us, with no accomodation booked and solely relying on our feet and backpacks to discover the region. Since accomodation was fully booked we found a spot to camp on the outskirts of town. Julien and I have no sleeping mats, we slept OK but it was a short night, we got up before sunrise to avoid being seen and started walking towards the tramping track.

In New Zealand there are nine Great Walks in total, they are all relatively easy and very popular, with huts being booked out up to eighteen months in advance. We managed to book the final campsite of the track 5 km before the end, out of 60, and found a regular backcountry hut (first come, first served, just like on Stewart Island) only 2.5 km from Kepler track, about 15.5 km from the start. So our plan was simple: rush to this hut on the first day, chill there and spend the night (we spent like 5 hours playing cards on the beach, haha), walk the 43 km to the campsite the next day, sleep there, and cover the final 5 km and then walk back to Te Anau on the third day.

Everything went as planned: the first day’s walking was done in the morning,  on a nice and easy track in the forest. We saw a lot of birds again but there weren’t that many nice views. The hut was by a busy lake with boats of tourists coming and going, enjoying their Easter break and visibly drinking a lot. We felt a bit out of place, with two different tourist types meeting again: evening came as a relief since noisy boat engines and loud drunkedness could no longer ruin the beautiful spot on us. 

Having rested most of that day, we were ready to tackle our gruelling 43 km (including about 1400 m ascent plus descent). Recommended time for the whole stretch is 17 hours (two to three days hiking); we’d better be quicker! In the morning we were still walking in the forest, and we started the ascent to the mountain ridges after lunch. The weather was very changeable, with fog and clouds intermittently parting way to reveal plunging views on lake Te Anau and its fiord as well as the series of surrounding summits.

The trail was busy but most walkers were hiking in the other direction. I had my first encounter with another member of NZ’s curious fauna: the kea, a sort of large green mountain parrot who is known to steal and eat anything it can find (including boots, etc.). It was just past 5 pm when we stopped for a break at the second hut of the day, where I ate far too much chocolate to get lots of sugar into my system for the remaining 8 km, by night. The final descent was a nice and regular track in the silent forest, quite pleasant to walk alone in the dark (with my flashlight), singing to myself. My only issue was that I sprained my ankle again, nothing serious, like last time, but enough to warn me that I clearly needed a bandage to avoid hurting it for good.

By the time we arrived we were all quite tired and we went to sleep just after dinner. The absence of mattress and the ambient humidity creeping through my down sleeping bag kept me awake for a part of the night, and the temperature went down to 2 degrees. The next morning it was time to leave Fiordland already, but not before a well-deserved irish coffee ordered at 10:30 in the morning at the local pub! It helped us deal with the unavailability of a bed at our next destination: Queenstown. Yep, we have to spend the next two nights under a tent again, AND we have to pay 25$ each for that… But that’s another story. We said goodbye to our two friends and went hitchhiking on the road to Queenstown.

Hiking on Stewart Island

It seems like free wifi is less common here than in Asia (whaaat?),  so updates won’t be as frequent, also because we’ll be spending a lot of time hiking out in the wilderness. 

First thing in the morning after getting to Invercargill, we did some shopping: I still needed a good sleeping bag and a waterproof liner, which I found easily. From Invercargill to Bluff, we hitched a ride from two easy-going locals who even drove us up Bluff hill for the view. In the afternoon we went to the southernmost point of the South Island, with its touristic signpost showing distances to some major cities: 18958 km from London!

The next morning we took the Ferry to Stewart Island, or Rakiura by its Maori name. The ferry trip itself can apparently be quite rough, but it seems like we’re really lucky with the weather and it went quite smoothly. Stewart Island has 275 days of rainfall a year, so we were expecting those good conditions to change. As a matter of fact, on that beautiful day in Bluff the weather in the rest of the country was dreadful, with the remains of a tropical storm bringing wind and heaps of rain.

I was setting out to walk with my friend Julien from France, and two of his buddies from the Te Aroara trail, 1300 km through the South Island which they had just completed a few days earlier. They were much fitter and quite more experienced than I was… But that’s OK. Julien did me a huge favour by carrying most of the food for the next eight days for the two of us, his pack was monstruous compared to mine but at least I got a smooth start to my trekking in NZ.

We were planning on completing the hike in eight days, sleeping in backcountry huts where there are bunk beds, a fire stove, a sink with running water and a toilet. The North West Circuit, considered as one of the most difficult tramps of the country, alternates between thick forest and beach sections. In the forest it was constantly uphill and downhill (quite steep!) and then when we would get tired of the bush everything would open up on a stunning view on a bay. If you feel like reading it I wrote a little day to day journal of events that marked our days of walking, but here are some pics for those who don’t feel like reading on, since the post is a bit long. There are many more on Flickr.

Day 1. We left Oban, the only settling of the Island (population 381) around eleven. We quickly started walking in the bush and I was amazed by everything I saw or heard: I knew none of the trees nor birds of the forest. A little fantail followed us for a little while, chirping along as if it were chatting with us. The forest grew denser and muddier, the path steeper and much harder to walk on. It was almost dark when we got to the hut. I was quite tired, I still hadn’t properly recovered from my long journey, but the guys had made their way through the day effortlessly, and they had more weight to carry. I felt a bit guilty holding Julien back. We shared the hut with two other couples and went to bed really early, but I got up to pee in the dead of the night (yes, I’m about to tell you something interesting!). I saw a kiwi bird right next to the hut when I went out! Spotting kiwis is one thing that draws people to the Island: you’re more likely to see them here than in the rest of the country. 

Day 2. It was a short hike to the next hut and we got there shortly after lunchtime. The landscape was identical: thick forest, quite difficult track, gradually getting steeper and muddier. It was still all new enough to me but I figured I’d like some change of landscape in the next days. The second hut was in a location just as wonderful as the first: literally on a beach, apparently often visited by penguins, but we saw none. It was a great place to relax for the afternoon, this was my first real off time since I’d landed in Christchurch. And the weather was still on our side…

Day 3. It was a short day’s walk again, very similar in landscape and trail to the previous, perhaps a bit muddier. The hut was next to a river’s mouth, the beach only a hundred meters away, and the intentions book inside the hut was full of reports of kiwi sightings. We shared the hut with the same other four people again. The evening sky was clear so I finally got to familiarise myself with some southern hemisphere constellations. Our eyes were peeled, hoping for kiwi birds (we could even hear them, crying KI-WIII, KI-WIII!), but we only saw possums (a really common mammal classified as pest here). 

Day 4. Today we were doubling up, skipping a hut and walking directly to the next, so I got an early start. Walking on my own allowed me to observe a deer from quite close up for a couple of minutes, which was nice! The guys soon caught up with me though, diminishing my chances of seeing wildlife. The dense forest soon opened up on a nice beach with steep dunes to climb on. We reached the first hut just in time for lunch, where kiwis often show themselves by night. More forest greeted us on our afternoon hike, the boys found a possum on a tree and spent a good twenty minutes teasing it and poking it with a stick, the creature was frightened and didn’t dare to move. But it was lucky with us, any New Zealander would’ve killed it without any second thoughts. The landscape opened up again on a wonderful viewpoint on a sandy creek we then crossed, but the track lead us straight back to the forest and eventually to the hut. Julien was already craving for fish’n’chips but we were still four days away from civilisation! After arriving we played cards with a friendly (human-)kiwi couple and got an early night.

Day 5. Today’s pattern was very much like the previous: walking on the steep forest trail, the landscape opens up on a beach we descend to, and back to the forest, up and down, until we complete our final ascent through the forest to “Big Hellfire Hut”. And what a place! Despite being 200m above sea level the hut was located next to a strip of sand dunes with bush on either side, and a plunging view on the bay below, facing west and beautiful at sunset. After dinner and a few rounds of cards we walked on the dunes under the moonlight, following kiwi tracks and still hoping to get a glimpse of the mythical bird, but no luck. Again, we heard them cry in the forest. 

Day 6. Today was similar to yesterday in terms of distance and topography but it felt easier. I picked up a nice fast pace in the morning, reaching the highest point of the trail so far (300 and something meters), from which the view was -despite the trees- awesome. Then, as usual it was downwards towards the beach. This is when things started to get interesting again (the whole forest-beach alternation was getting far too familiar, ahem): I had to take a high-tide detour, when the others, who were only about 15-20 minutes ahead of me, could walk on the beach. The alternate track was dreadful. I had to climb steep, high dunes on all fours, eaten alive by a cloud of sandflies hovering around me. Then, after a 30 minute detour on a barely discernable path I made it back to the beach just a but further than the point I had left it, but safe from the tide, the beach being wider from then on. I got to the hut about an hour later, glad to be done with my day’s walking. In the night, the four of us and a Belgian woman we met at the hut formed a silent procession, lead by my red headlamp, in one of our final attempts to see a kiwi. The bush was strangely silent compared to the previous nights and it started to rain so we walked back, disappointed.

Day 7. For once, there was no going up and down and views on beaches. We covered the flat 15 km in three hours, the five of us together, along Freshwater river (I wonder how they came up with that name). I finally got a chance to write the blog post in the afternoon when the others went on a short side trip up a peak, the weather was miraculously still good enough for the view up there to be clear. Tomorrow will be another story: twelve hours walking in principle (hopefully 8 to 9 for me based on my usual pace, but you never know if the weather conditions are bad it can get slippery and progress becomes slow), we have to catch the ferry at 5 pm, so the alarm clock is set to 5:30 am!

Day 8. As soon as we got up, it started to rain heavily. That was the end of our weather streak… We set out with our headlamps in the dark at 6:40. It was very wet, windy, muddy and slippery, but not as bad as I expected. I was advancing at a good pace and perhaps only an hour away from the following hut where I was supposed to meet the others for lunch when I sprained my left ankle and fell (but don’t worry, nothing serious). I got completely disoriented, the track was making a u-turn around that point, and couldn’t make out which way I was supposed to go. It’s unbelievable how easy it is to get lost, everything in that dense bush just looks the same. I chose a direction and walked on my bad food trying to make out footprints (mine or my friends’) but they were being washed away as huge puddles of water formed. Finally I recognised one of my own going in the other direction, so I turned back. In the end I arrived at least an hour later than the others, drenched, cold and hungry. Time was ticking because we had another 14 km to walk before catching the ferry back to Bluff. So we were a bit in a hurry , and my foot hurt, but luckily a water taxi was coming by at 2 pm to pick other people up. Bingo! The boys left to walk the rest of the way while I waited by the fire stove for the boat taxi to arrive. My main concern now was that my foot would recover quickly, so rest was for the best. The ferry back to Bluff was a bit rough but we saw a few albatross gliding in the wind. Then it was dinner, beers, first shower in eight days and a good sleep. And my foot is already much better now 🙂

So long Stuart Island! I recovered a decent physical condition, and my dozens of itchy sandfly bites are like a part of you still with me for the next week or so.

Bangkok-Sydney-Christchurch-Invercargill

That’s it, I’m in Invercargill, at the very south of New Zealand’s south Island! I first flew Bangkok to Sydney, saw the Opera House from above and landed a hundred meters from a picturesque beach, it was my first touchdown in the southern hemisphere. It doesn’t feel any different, gravity still appears to be downwards here! I almost didn’t get on that plane, although I found no explicit mention of this on New Zealand ‘s immigration page they required me to have a return or onward flight before entering the country, which I didn’t have (I wanted to figure out what I actually wanted to do there to plan my journey back). So I had to book that at the airport before they’d check me in! I double-checked on arrival, it’s not an absolute requirement, but a recommendation. Try explaining that to the Thai staff at the airport… They even thought I needed a visa to get in, which is very obviously inaccurate information.

Anyway, I got to Sydney and despite the very short connection (we were delayed because two crew members got into an accident just before take-off, bad karma!) I caught my flight, got to Christchurch on a comfy Emirates airbus A380, was admitted into NZ after the fifteen hour trip overnight trip, and waited for my backpack. It didn’t make it from Sydney, the connection was too short. Right… Customs are really strict here because they’re trying to protect the island from non-indigeneous species and diseases, I do hope they leave me my hiking boots. My bag should be delivered to Invercargill directly.

Right, so I made it to Christchurch, it was a pleasant 18 degrees there by the way, I checked into my hostel, grabbed some shockingly expensive food at the local Super Value supermarket and got an early night.

Because my trip wasn’t over yet! The next morning, I set off at 7am to catch a bus to Invercargill, a good 700 km away, to meet my friend Julien. The idea is to travel from South to North as autumn settles in and the weather gets worse. The bus journey took about eleven hours. Luckily a really nice local fellow sat down next to me and taught me a lot of interesting facts about the country. The bus driver himself was great at giving facts about the places we drove through, with a thick kiwi accent which seems to have only one vowel, somewhere between a short i and a short e. The scenery was beautiful and changed a lot, I got a good first impression of the place!

This is the furthest away I can be from home, unless I make it to the moon or the international space station, which is unlikely 🙂 And my bag just arrived, hiking boots and all.

Bangkok, or the quest for a sleeping bag

Bangkok was just a three-night stopover on my way to New Zealand. Perfectly aware that I’m not adapted to large, busy cities, I stayed in a guesthouse out of the main tourist quarters, recommended by a friend. I’m glad I did, it was really quiet in comparison to other areas. I didn’t really plan to do any sight-seeing in particular, there are a few famous temples but I think Bangkok is one of those places you get to know best by simply walking around.

I definitely did a lot of that. On the first day I went to the heart of the city, along the riverbank, just to have a look. I first needed to take the skytrain, a fast transit service, and then one of the famous taxi boats up the river. It was crowded. I walked over to Khao San road, possibly the most famous street in Thailand, where all the crazy party heads gather to visit tattoo parlours, bars, nightclubs and probably up to things I don’t really want to know about. I quickly got out because it also concentrates a lot of tourist scams like fortune telling or whatever other ideas they come up with to rip off naive visitors.

The rest of the city seems to hesitate between modern skyscrapers and shopping centres, and the beautiful buddhist temples, discrete but clearly very important to its inhabitants. You see praying shrines in unusual places like on a roundabout or in the middle of shopping centres.

I can’t say I really liked the city: the heat (an unpleasant, humid, 35 degrees), the hectic traffic and inevitable pollution, and the video advertisement everywhere, it’s just more than what I can handle.

Unfortunately I didn’t even get to see the main sights because I dedicated most of my energy to shopping for hiking gear for New Zealand (most of the stuff can be bought cheaper here). It took me two hours to find a DĂ©cathlon shop, a French franchise with cheap gear. The next day I tried two other stores but none of them had adapted sleeping bags in stock. At least I could buy the rest here…

Right now I’m waiting to go to the airport and catch my flight to Christchurch. I’m really excited! But a bit sad to leave Asia. I’ll be back!