Having a rest in Palmerston North

I didn’t really intend to do anything special in Palmerston North, I had a place to stay and the weather forecast was bad with the he remnants of another tropical cyclone hitting the North Island. Sarah was renting a room in a house owned by an irishman, Tony from Letterkenny (but who left for New Zealand thirty-two years ago). I was welcome to stay there for a few days with Julien. The city itself doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourism, but has a large university. I found it rather strange being in a home for the first time in three months, among people living their day-to-day life, but it was comfort I was grateful to have. Tony is a music lover and has an interesting CD collection, including an album by Tadhg Mac DhonnagĂĄin who happens to be my godfather! He owns all sorts of musical instruments: guitars, an upright piano and an acoustic bass I could play around with. 

I wasn’t up to much apart from planning my last few weeks of travelling :'(, resting, cooking nice meals and listening to Tony’s CDs. Sarah brought me to the University’s climbing gym and on Friday we went for drinks with her friends. 

Later that evening, we drove out to the country to see some glowworms. They ate large who “glow” a white-blue light to attract their prey and live in dark and humid places (caves for instance). We had to walk up a stream for about ten minutes (tricky business in the dark) to reach the place we could see them. Yes, we like crossing bodies of water by night 😉

The worms form a beautiful constellation of bright spots on the steep overhanging edges of the stream. They are also wonderful to observe up close: they have these sticky filaments hanging below them to trap whatever they managed to lure in with their glow. We didn’t stay too long though, it was already past midnight and the drive back was about forty minutes, this is latest I have ever been to bed since I started travelling!

The next day I got a bus to New Plymouth, a city on the east coast close to Mt Egmont, for my next multiday hike.

A little stroll in the Tararuas 

Three days of socialising, money spending and culture was enough as a break in my hiking journey, so I continued my northbound adventure and caught an early train out of the capital on Tuesday. Ultimately I would be stopping in Palmerston North, where Sarah lived and where I had some of my belongings, but in the meanwhile I wanted to hike in the Tararuas, a forest range between the two cities. I was modest in my choice of itinerary, because these mountains are well-known for their dangerously unpredictable weather, especially as late into the season as now. I found a 24 km loop, the most popular of the range, an easy enough track with some supposedly stunning 360 degree views off the top of Mount Holdsworth. 

But getting to the beginning of the trail was already an adventure of its own. As I said I took a train to leave Wellington (hitchhiking would have been tedious), and alighted at the station closest to the walk: about 19 km away… I walked the first four along State Highway 2, and arrived at the intersection to Mt Holdsworth, with another fifteen km to go. I decided not to walk and attempt the impossible: hitch a ride on this very remote road. My good karma bore with me and a local woman stopped after only fifteen minutes of waiting. She drove me the whole way, although she wasn’t heading there, and even gave me her phone number in case I would get stick coming out the next day. And indeed, as we were driving I don’t think I saw any car going the other way. 

Despite my luck catching a lift it was already 11:45 when I started walking. To my disappointment, the peaks I was aiming for were hidden behind thick clouds… The track was a very gentle climb most of the way, in a beautiful beech forest, very different from anything else I’d seen here so far. The trees were old and moss-covered, and the feable light breaking through the clouds cast long shadows onto the path. I also understood why fern was a national symbol: I must have spotted at least ten species that afternoon. On my way I met quite a few people walking back down, each reporting on how apocalyptic the weather was up there. The ranger himself avised me not to go beyond the first hut up to the top of the peak.

The last few km to the first hut were a steep climb and the wind was getting stronger by the minute, and it started to rain. Although it was still early I decided not to carry on to the next hut: the following eight km were supposed to be on an exposed ridge, and with this weather and lack of visibility it was useless and maybe even dangerous to attempt it. The weather was so bad I was entirely on my own in the thirty-bunk hut, no one else had gone up that day.  

It got dark and the wind never weakened. The good side is that it eventually chased the clouds away and the valley finally revealed itself in the bright moonlight.

However the gusts were also too strong to light a fire: anytime I’d get a flame going in the stove it would be extinguished almost immediately. I would just have to put up with the cold. So after my frugal dinner I had nothing better to do than to tuck myself into my down sleeping bag and get a long night’s sleep.

I woke up the next day just in time to see the first lights: it was amazing, the sky was a dark red-orange colour streaked by dark clouds, and slowly changed to lighter tones as the sun rose.

Unluckily, the other side of the hut facing the mountain was still burried in thick mist so I decided to directly walk back down, which was also the most reasonable option considering I might have to walk the fifteen km back to the highway before hitchhiking to Palmerston North, about a hundred km away.

So off I went, nice and early and at a good pace. By 9:30 I was at the carpark, so I was reassured as I would definitely make it to my planned destination that day. On the other hand the carpark was near-empty so I started walking along the road. After walking a bit more than three of those km a car drove by, and stopped when I stuck my thumb up. He was a friendly fellow who offered me lots of fruit and drove me to another good stop to carry on hitchhiking north. As a woman going solo, it’s very easy to get a lift, I find. And sure enough I had only had to wait another five minutes before and elderly man (84 years old!!) stopped. He was quite a character, originally from Boston, a climat skeptic (I just kept quiet…) and owner of a large sheep farm. But I supposed he enjoyed my company and even stopped at Mt Bruce bird sanctuary and got me in for free, so I could observe kiwis in their natural habitat: they were in a dark forest-like environment behind a window, and one of them was digging up insects from the soil with its large beak just in front of us. I was glad to see one up close and for more than a few seconds. The second kiwi is a beautiful white colour, because of a rare recessive gene. I also got to see a tuatara, a reptile endemic to NZ, who barely moves and can live up to two hundred years. They are the only surviving species of a 200 million year old phylogenetic group.

After this unexpected stop the old man dropped me off in a town 30 km away from Palmerston North. I got in touch with Julien who was staying at Sarah’s, and he agreed to pick me up. Awesome! Palmy, here I come!

Wellington

From Motueka, where we spent the night after completing the Abel Tasman Track, we woyld hitchhike to Picton and catch a ferry there, to Wellington, the country’s capital conveniently located at the very south of the North Island.

We decided to aim for the ferry at 2:15 pm, perfectly aware that we might not make it on time: with hitchhiking it’s difficult to anticipate how long a trip will take. Which is why we were on the road by half past eight, nice and early to catch people going out to work. In the end a retired fellow picked us up and got us as far as Nelson, and a second lift from a cool japanese guy directly got us to the ferry terminal, well in advance. Easy! The crossing starts in beautiful fiords, the ferry takes a complex route, taking sharp turns to make its way out of the natural labyrinth, and after another few hours we arrived in Wellington before six. 

We were meeting a few people there: Jime, who had arrived the day before, and Sarah, Julien’s friend living in Palmerston North I sent my extra luggage to from Invercargill, as well as a few friends of her’s. Saturday night in the capital! I was excited to be in a busy city again; Wellington turned out being pleasant with a lot of nightlife to offer unlike other NZ cities (ahem…). We got a few pints and even some fancy cocktails, and went back to our hostel reasonably early but I have to confess my head was spinning, I wasn’t used to drinking anymore 😉 Once back at our room we got the very unpleasant surprise to discover our roommate was snoring like mad. I think I managed to get about four hours sleep. We should’ve stayed out! 

My next couple of days in Wellington were very lazy. That Sunday we spent some time walking around the city with Julien and the others, and got the most delicious hot chocolate ever, so thick I ate it with a spoon. There was a farmer’s market on as well, so I got lots of fruit, at a much lower price than in regular supermarkets. When the others had left (they were driving back to Palmerston North, Julien too) I went to Te Papa museum to learn about the Maoris. It’s quite impressive, they put a lot of effort in the layout and it’s also huge so I went back the next day. After that I started planning ahead: I wanted to hike in the Tararuas, a forest/mountain range between Wellington and Palmerston North, so I decided I’d leave the capital on Tuesday. I was spending far too much money here anyways!

So that left me another day to “spend” in the city. On Monday, I was even less productive. I’d heard some good things about an exhibition on the Gallipoli battle at Te Papa: the Australian-New Zealand army (ANZAC) lost a lot of men on the Turkish front of WWI in 1915. I was glad I could learn more about that national trauma, most New Zealanders lost relatives in the battle (the country’s population was quite small back then) and they have a national holiday (April 25th) in memory of those who lost their lives. One particular feature of the exhibition are giant (scale 2.4) human models of some men who fought, made by Weta workshop also involved in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy: they are impressively realistic.

On a lighter note, I got some shopping done too. Jime works in an outdoor shop and got me a cooking system and a merino buff half-price 🙂 My short stay in Wellington ended with a pint of craft dark ale, and I was ready to go back to the wilderness, on my own this time.

The Abel Tasman Coast Track 

Technically this 60 km walking trail is also part of Golden Bay, but allows to reach the East Coast of the island by foot. As usual, the main challenge was to get to the starting point of the track, more than 20 km out of Takaka. Our only solution was, again, to hitchhike since all coach services had stopped on the first of May. And it did turn out being tricky. Luckily it was just the two of us (Jime had an injury) which of course is better to get a lift. We were prepared to walk up to 13 km to the beginning of the trail after a first ride which covered the first 7 km out of town, but we were lucky as eventually a van driven by a French traveller stopped to pick us up, and took us all the way. Before we got a lift we walked for about 20 minutes along the coastal road, getting a first glimpse of the scenery we’d later encounter on the walking trail: golden beaches on the left, cliffs and rainforest on our right, with some intrepid  working their way up in the beautiful morning sunshine.

The trail is one of the Great Walks and is named after the first European to have set foot in New Zealand, in that area, a dutchman who gave the country its name (“New Sea Land”). We arranged to walk the whole 60 km in a day and a half, staying one night in a hut 23 km from the starting point. But we had a problem. Just before this hut, there is a kilometer-long creek to cross, with no high-tide route. Turns out high tide was at 4:30 pm that day, an hour before dark and approximately the time we were intending to get there… We pondered on what to do for a while but we’d already booked the hut, with our overconfidence and experience on harder tramps we didn’t anticipate something like this would happen on a Great Walk (considered easy and accessible). In the end we decided to cross by night when the tide would be low enough: we were well-equipped with head torches and GPS and a bit excited about our little adventure!

After our difficult morning hitchhiking session we started walking on the trail at about noon. Knowing we would to have to stick around for more than three hours waiting for low tide, we took it nice and easy and got to the last campsite before the creek crossing just before dark, allowing enough time to dress up warmly and find our headlamps. The trail alternated between forest and beach, uphill and downhill, not unlike Stewart Island but on a much easier path.

New hike, new strange bird: pukekos live in that region. They have wings but are essentially flightless too (although we did see one fly over a couple of meters, in a very clumsy manner). 

(this is unfortuantely the only shot I got)

While we were waiting for the creek ti become passable we cooked ourselves dinner, and set out for our last few km after eight. The crossing was actually fine, with the GPS we could make sure we didn’t wander off from the trail and the moon was strong enough to see. It was mainly the water depth that worried me but it didn’t get higher than halfway up my thighs. Ten minutes later we were on dry land again, proud of our small achievement, and ready for bed.

Day two was very similar to day one in terms of landscape. I don’t know how we managed but the weather was gorgeous again and we covered the 35 km in about seven hours. On our way we saw a lot of different birds, and even some ridiculously cute baby seals playing close to the beach. Once out of the national park, we got two lifts which got us as far as Motueka. Our plan was to be in Wellington the next day, Saturday.

Golden Bay

There are different theories on the origin of the name of the coast line from Collingwood to Nelson: some say it comes from the Gold Rush years, but it might just be the colour of the sand of its iconic beaches. The bay was my last stop before heading to the north island.

We started from Collingwood, our aim for the day was to see Farewell Spit, a long strip of sand reaching into the sea, and perfectly shaped like a kiwi beak. A lovely couple offered a lift barely minutes after we started hitchhiking: they were also heading for this landmark of the South Island. The three of us then set off, with our big packs, for an eight km walk along the coast, starting on the spit and walking north along the “head” of the kiwi, to the northernmost point of the island. The trail brought us through very green hilly farmlands where sheep were peacefully grazing. The climbs were steep but any time we’d reach a higher point the scenery was stunning. On the picture below the sandy part is Farewell Spit, forming a curved, 26 km long strip stretching into the ocean.

A bit further west the coast becomes more rugged with cliffs and arch formations, reminding me of Ireland, the Faroe Islands or Etretat in Normandy.

And to top off the beautiful walk we then reached a magnificent beach, with dramatic-looking sand dunes and rocks. By then the wind had really picked up, adding to the effect.

And all that packed in a short 8 km hike. By far my favourite day trip! But we still had to hitch a lift back to a town with accomodation to offer. A friendly retired couple from London managed to squeeze all three of us with our huge packs in the back of their car, and drove us to the intersection with Collingwood to the left, and another town we’d heard nice things about, Takaka, to the left. Time was ticking but we still figured we could get as far as that place before dark. A big truck transporting huge rocks stopped for us barely minutes later. Up we climb! The driver was amazing, using typical kiwi expressions like “sweet as” in every sentence, and explaining about his fifteen gears and all the skills required to drive a machine like that.

He stopped by a farm to drop off his rocks (I was glad I got to see that) and drove to Takaka, stopping in front of a cute backpacker’s where we could spend the night. The place was very cosy and warm and because the weather forecast for the next day was so bad we decided to take some off time and chill. There were a lot of kiwi pickers from the Salomon Islands staying there (free kiwi! They were the best I’d ever had), and a few trampers like us. We even bumped into a couple we had met on Stewart Island! So that day we ate breakfast, we shopped for lunch, cooked, ate, napped, shopped for dinner (Wednesday night they have pot luck at the hostel), ate and played pool (or tried to, we were terrible). Takaka is quite small but has a really nice hippie vibe. It was good to take some time to rest but by then we were ready for our next trek: the Abel Tasman Coast Track. 

The Heaphy track 

For travellers like us hitch-hiking and hiking around the country the Heaphy walking trail was a very convenient way of getting to Golden Bay. The alternative would have been a long drive around the national park. We didn’t expect the walk itself to be very hard: the trail is also open to mountain bikes. It’s 80 km long altogether, we were to walk about 18 on the first afternoon, 37 on the second day and 24 the last. This was to allow time for transportation in and out of the track on the first and last days.

So we set off on the first day, dropped off by the shuttle service offered by the backpacker’s place in Karamea. It was a great surprise to be out walking given that the weather forecast was terrible when we’d checked it the night before. It ended up being decent, with just a few light showers. The trail followed the beautiful coastline, sometimes along the beach, sometimes in the rainforest growing barely meters away from the water, and similar to the one in Punakaiki, with a lot of Nikau palm trees. 

We arrived at the hut around four, so we had plenty of time enjoy the place before dark. A fun kiwi fellow made a huge pile of wood to light a bonfire later on. The hut was directly facing the beach and the sunset was quite something.

I thought this track was more interesting for the wildlife and plants than for the actual landscape. For instance some carnivorous snails live in the forest, but we didn’t see any. Julien was really happy to find kawa kawa (it was growing all over the place): the leaves are believed to have beneficial effects and can be brewed to make herbal tea. Julien even said that if consumed in large enough amounts it can make you high. We tried, and drank quite a lot, but nothing happened. While we were busy drinking that stuff, the kiwi got a massive fire going, which was clearly forbidden since we were in a national park, haha. 

Around the hut there were also a lot of weka birds, like all over the track in general. They’re funny looking, flightless, and sound a bit like kiwis. 

As a matter of fact, there were also kiwis around that first hut (but not the same species as on Stewart Island), we could hear them calling during that first night. Julien went out looking for them and eventually managed to see one around 4 am.

When got up the next day it was raining on and off (the infamous west coast weather finally caught up with us). We were mostly walking through rainforest, the flora changed suddenly a uicouple of times so we never really got bored of it, we got quite wet but luckily there was a hut where we could stop for lunch. As we were inside, the rain got worse and the wind picked up, making us wonder about what we should do. After about two hours it cleared up and we set off, we had 17 more km to cover until Gouland Downs where we had planned to spend the night. On the trail we left the forest after a while, to start hiking in tussock landscape, a thick yellow grass-like plant. And we spotted blue ducks, of which only 1000 remain, so they’re more rare than kiwis! We probably missed out a lot on the views, because it was so overcast.

As soon as I got to the hut it started raining heavily. Julien was a bit ahead of me and had prepared manuka tea. Delicious! It was cold and dark in that place, it had much less facilities than the one we stayed at the previous night. When Jimena arrived she insisted on lighting a fire. It was a wet, open fireplace and even if she managed to light up a fire it was very smokey and particularly inefficient at heating the place. In the end we had to put it off and we went to bed with a strong smoke stench hanging in the cold air. The weather outside was dreadful: strong wind gusts and very heavy rain turned any toilet trip into a cruel challenge. But the kiwis were still out there: we could hear a male and a female calling to each other. 

In the morning the air felt especially cold and indeed there was frost outside and the water drops around the sink were frozen. Even the poor wekas seemed to be freezing despite the fact they look fat. We got a really slow start but after a couple of cups of coffee I managed to get going. It was an easy 25 km downhill to the carpark, but when we got there, that’s when the real adventure started. 

We’d decided it would be much more fun (and cheaper obviously) to not book any transportation and just try to get a lift from the dead end gravel road the walking trail ended on. And if we couldn’t get a lift, we’d try to camp somewhere in the area. We sat there leaning against the Nation Park entrance sign, realising we would be heavily fined if we were caught camping in the surroundings, because it was all private land. From trampers, we became tramps. As we were still wondering what to do, a local couple just finished their mountain biking day-trip on the Heaphy and offered us a ride back to civilisation. Thank you universe! This happened barely an hour before dark… Shortly after that we were in a small town, Collingwood, with a nice comfy cabin booked for the night, and (veggie) burgers and cheap beer available. We drank to an amazing turn of events and got an early night, resting before a day of exploring in the Golden Bay.

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!