The new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail

The ranger is keen to ensure I have everything I need for a successful hike. First there’s a five-minute induction video, then I am given a waterproof/tearproof topo map and a quality 135 page guide book. She drops the weighty tome into my hands and I smile, trying to quieten the little voice inside that protests, “but that’s got to be at least another 250 grams!” It’s just one of the many little touches that the developers of the new Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail in South Australia have devised to ensure a first class experience for hikers.

Rocky River Cascades

Rocky River Cascades

The trail has only been open a month when I step foot on it, a 61km route beginning at Flinders Chase at the western end of the island and finishing at Kelly Caves further east. I begin on well-maintained trails close to the Visitor Centre through Black Swamp, a site famous for revealing the bones of the megafauna that roamed here between 45,000 and 100,000 years ago. Giant seven foot tall kangaroos and wombat-like creatures the size of rhinos once made this area home and while the real deal have long gone, life size cast iron cut-outs of these ancient beasts still manage to startle me, suddenly appearing from around bends or behind bushes.

I soon venture beyond the day trails and onto the KIWT proper. The Platypus Waterholes are quiet of action in the midday warmth so I carry on through dense eucalypt woodland to the Rocky River Cascades. Cool tannin-stained water rushes over a ramp of gently sloping rock. I lay down feeling the sun warmed rock beneath me, one hand trailing in the water, and start to feel that delicious peace and happiness that nature always brings.

dsc06653Twelve kilometres in, a discreet steel and wood sign welcomes me to Cup Gum Campground. This is cool camping – thoughtfully laid out with everything a hiker needs and constructed in materials that blend in with the environment. Individual campsites are tucked away up short paths offering a touch of privacy, some with timber decks complete with inbuilt seats. Near the communal cooking shelter I find a wooden sun lounge facing a grassy plain dotted with grazing kangaroos. It’s the perfect place to relax.

Cliff top panoramas

dsc06688On day two the bush trail meets the Southern Ocean, and a rough and rocky track climbs to the cliff tops where a stiff wind buffets my entire body. The forecast estimates 35-48kph winds for the middle three days of my walk. It’s not ideal for a trail of which nearly half is coastal – next stop Antarctica – but nothing can take away the beauty of the vast blue water whipped with white caps. Perhaps if it was less windy I’d have lingered at the divine cliff top views but I push on, reaching the next camp at Cape du Couedic by noon.

Listed trail times are generous and there is plenty of time to do a 9km side trip to the cape’s lighthouse as well as Admiral’s Arch, a partially collapsed limestone cave hung with stalactites. I shelter from the wind in the lee of the rock and watch the seals and sealions who live and play on the basalt platforms below.

Critters and Creatures

Wildlife is all part of the appeal of this trail – birds, frogs, echidnas, koalas, plentiful goannas sunning themselves on the trail, and even the island’s very own unique breed of kangaroo. At night I stretch out in my tent, dig out my new guidebook and discover the many interesting factoids about the flora and fauna contained within it. (Who knew a microbat could eat 600 mosquitos in an hour?) By the time I finish the trail I’ve read it cover to cover.

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Remarkable Rocks

Day three brings another trail highlight, the Remarkable Rocks. I last visited these rocks ten years ago but I’d forgotten how remarkable they were. Five hundred million years worth of wind, rain and raging waves have carved out these giant granite boulders, creating sculpted works of art. There are great gaping overhangs and areas of smoothed rock pocked with holes like a giant Swiss Cheese. In places bright orange lichen sweeps across the rock making a striking contrast against the blue ocean. I spend half an hour staggering around the boulders in the near gale force winds, fearing I might be blown off out to sea, before retreating to shelter.

Inland Discoveries

The trail weaves inland more on the last few days, with a few short detours to sumptuous bays filled with soft white sand and water of a colour that belongs in the South Pacific. Alas the guidebook warns against swimming – apparently the prevalence of marine mammals in the area attracts large predators “such as sharks” – so I content myself with just watching.

My fourth and final night on the trail is at Grassdale Camp, a lovely spot straddling two sides of a river and complete with fire pit surrounded by bench seats. It’s yet another thoughtful design feature by the makers of the trail, offering a great hub for walkers to celebrate the end of a fantastic hike. Across the water I catch sight of a koala leaping from one branch to another and on dusk well over a hundred kangaroos feed and box with each other on the open grassland nearby. It’s a special place.

Hanson Bay

Hanson Bay

It takes only a few hours to walk the final kilometres to Kelly Caves. On the way I pass two huge lagoons, home to tonnes of birds, and follow trails lined with sugar gums, beautifully gnarled and flaking with bark. I’m just starting to fall into that glorious space when you feel like it’s just you and nature, but the trail is almost done.

The Kangaroo Island Wilderness Trail has done it’s magic on me!

**Want to do this hike yourself?  Check out my KIWT planning advice.

To Great Walk or not to Great Walk? – What to consider when choosing a hike in New Zealand

New Zealand is heaven for hikers. It’s stunningly beautiful, relatively uncrowded and absolutely full of trails, but how do you choose one that will suit your needs and desires?

There are currently nine ‘Great Walks’, a set of popular hiking trails developed by the Department of Conservation showcasing a variety of the country’s diverse terrain over both the North and South Islands. Their popularity is well deserved with excellently maintained trails passing through beautiful landscapes and with most walkers needs well catered for.

On the other hand there are countless equally stunning hiking trails throughout the country, serviced by nearly a thousand back country huts, so do you really need to book a place on a Great Walk?

You don't need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

You don’t need to do a Great Walk to find great scenery. Hiking in Nelson Lakes National Park, South Island.

Tracks

Great Walks tracks are of a higher standard than many other tracks in the country and are well formed and easy to follow. They are often quite wide with gradients generally in the easy to moderate range and all rivers are bridged. This can all be a good thing if that’s what you’re looking for but just occasionally these routes lack the interest and variation in track surface provided by more natural trails. Add to this the sheer numbers of other hikers you are likely to be sharing the trail with and you can sometimes lose that full sense of being in the wilderness that many of us crave.

Beautiful walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Beautiful and easy walking on the Kepler Track (a Great Walk)

Outside of the Great Walks, trails range from flat and easy to steep and gnarly with added exposure, and everything in between. You may have to tackle bouncy mesh suspension bridges to cross rivers or even ford them on foot. The rewards though are often spectacular scenery combined with the peace and serenity that comes from hiking in less visited regions.

 

Accommodation

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Sunset at Luxmore Hut on the Kepler Track, a Great Walk

Great Walks huts are of an excellent standard providing bunk accommodation with mattresses for up to 50 people, and most supply gas cooking stoves, lighting, flushing toilets and toilet paper so you won’t have to carry your own. Bookings are required and for the more popular ones like the Milford, Kepler, Routeburn and Abel Tasman, sometimes six months in advance which can make planning a challenge. Huts  cost anywhere from $22 to $54 per night and if the weather is looking dodgy or you need to change your plans there are fees and charges to change dates, that is assuming your new dates are even available. These huts are busy and on the more popular trails during peak season you are likely to have a full house.  With capacity in these huts reaching up to 50 beds that’s a lot of people to share your slice of wilderness with.

Comyns Hut - a basic free backcountry hut

Comyns Hut in Canterbury – a basic free backcountry hut

Upper Travers Hut, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Upper Travers Hut in Nelson Lakes National Park, a Serviced backcountry hut (non Great Walks)

Regular backcountry huts come in three standards with prices ranging from free to $15 per night. Some are no more salubrious than a garden shed while others are almost at Great Walk standard, with double glazing, modern and clean design, indoor running water and wood burning stoves with fuel supplied. For the vast majority of huts, bookings are not required with beds provided on a first come-first served basis. Capacity ranges from two bunks including mattresses to up to around 30 bunks, toilets are mostly of the outdoor long drop variety and water is usually supplied by rainwater tank, though occasionally a nearby river. You will need to carry your own stove and fuel, headtorch and toilet paper.

Logistics

All the work is done for you on a Great Walk. You simply collect your trail map and notes from the Department of Conservation safe in the knowledge that someone else has already worked out a conservative itinerary that will lead you through a beautiful hike, well marked with directional signage.

Outside of the Great Walks you will need to ensure you have adequate maps and a trail description before heading out. Some of the more popular backcountry trails are well provided for with DOC brochures available describing routes and walk times, but others may require a bit of research and planning.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Great Walks can be busy. An estuary crossing on the Abel Tasman trail.

Safety

Great Walks trails are regularly monitored and during peak season a ranger will be on hand in most huts to answer any questions you may have or to provide support if needed. In the event the weather is not conducive to an alpine area Great Walk the Department of Conservation will advise you against starting.

If you venture out on your own backcountry hike you will need to be self-sufficient and perhaps make decisions that affect your safety. You will need to consider whether the weather forecast is adequate for the route you are planning and whether the occasional unbridged river is safe to cross. Trail signage may or may not be easy to follow. While walkers always need to be responsible for their own safety, regardless of whether it’s a Great Walk or not, the majority of huts and trails are largely unmanned by wardens and rangers so walkers need to be comfortable with being on their own.

So, which walk is right for you?

The strength of a Great Walk lies in making New Zealand’s beautiful backcountry accessible to just about anyone.  But if you have a stove, a head torch, a bit of experience and value your own space then you will find many more equally stunning trails that provide flexibility in planning, are lower cost, and you just might have the whole place to yourself.

On the Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

The Gillespie Pass circuit (a non Great Walk)

A Different Perspective – the Great South West Walk

There was something about this walk. It changed my view of my place in the world, if only for a short time. Maybe it was the pair of emus that I came across. One ran off while the other came closer, tentatively peeking out from behind a tree for a better look before turning tail and zigzagging his escape through the forest. Immediately afterwards a dark and fluffy wallaby bounded across my path just metres ahead – there one moment, gone the next.

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

Koala on top of Mt Richmond

Maybe it was the three koalas I came across, in the midst of an argument.   Two males growled and bellowed loudly while a smaller female tried to get out of the way. I watched with my heart in my mouth as the larger male took a swipe at her, knocking her off the branch. She swung from one claw, dangling in thin air while the other two continued to scream at each other

Half an hour later the rustle of grass next to me on the path alerted me to a large furry body crawling along the ground. It was so big I thought it was a wombat. It turned out to be another koala.

Maybe it was the five snakes I saw, each one slithering out of my path… all except for one. I backed off after nearly standing on it and we both sat there watching each other in the longest snake stand-off I’ve ever experienced. His head was raised, tongue flicking the air and large dark eyes appraising me. The trail was overgrown, there was no alternative route around. I waited. He watched. Eventually he conceded to being the one to move and I tiptoed past.

DSC09640    DSC09629

Maybe it was the big grey owl that landed on the ground just a few metres from my tent at dusk. He turned his face to mine, blinked his big round eyes twice in the torchlight and then flapped his mighty wings, lifting off into the darkening sky. Or perhaps it was the spiky echidna that crashed through the undergrowth emerging next to my tent, sniffing around my pack before realising I was there and then scuttling off again into the bushes. I saw a dozen other emus, more echidnas, countless wallabies, kangaroos, lizards and birds. It could have been any or all of these encounters that made me feel different.

It’s rare these days to find yourself in a world not dominated by humans. When I spent eleven days hiking the Great South West Walk in Victoria I experienced a rare insight. I was no longer the all-powerful and important human, top of the game, I was merely one animal amongst many. Part of a rich and complex interconnection, reminding me that there is a whole other world of animals on this earth apart from us and I was now amongst them. Without the distraction of other humans and our human-made world I could see the natural world beyond – one that has always been there though often not easily visible. It was nature in an undisturbed state, rich with life, and being in it took me to another place in my mind.

Overlooking the Glenelg River

Overlooking the Glenelg River

There are many amazing things about the Great South West Walk but for me it was these encounters with wildlife that were most special. The 250km loop trail out of Portland in Victoria’s west is full of surprises. The scenery changes significantly along the way, winding through four very distinct landscapes. I started in the forest. It’s an easy way to begin. The trail is largely flat and well graded, moving through swathes of Blackwoods, Swamp gums and Stringy Barks. In places the trees have been blackened by bushfire, and green ferns and flowering tea tree fill the undergrowth along with wildflowers in shades of purple, white, pink and yellow.

After eighty kilometres the trail merges with the mighty Glenelg River and the scenery changes dramatically. The trail becomes rocky underfoot, the earth red, a striking contrast against the greenery. The track climbs and then undulates over cliff top paths overlooking the white limestone gorge walls that line the river’s edge. Birds are drawn to the water, amongst them black cockatoos, kingfishers, blue wrens and gang gang cockatoos whose call sounds like a squeaky door overhead.

DSC09893After another 54km the river delivered me to the sea and I followed the ocean beach back east again. For hours I walked in the sand with not another soul in sight. Flocks of birds rose from the sand and landed further ahead as I moved forward. I liked not seeing anything but ocean and sand as far as the eye can see in both directions. It reminded me that I’m out there alone. Well, just me and my furry and feathered friends. The trail markers pointed me into the dunes and I followed the three pronged footprints of emus pressed into the sand. The wrinkles in their fat feet were clearly visible in the impressions, tipped by claw points. Aboriginal middens sat aside of the path, mounds of seashells abandoned from feasts several thousand years ago.

I wandered further inland over Mt Richmond, a low and lush forested peak, the remains of a volcanic tuff cone about two million years old. The soil is sandy here and the forest jam packed with animals. I couldn’t sleep for the noises outside my tent – koalas growling in the trees, unidentified crashing about in the undergrowth and other animals screeching in the night air. The land was alive.

A good few days of cliff top hiking

A good few days of cliff top hiking

I headed back out to the beach for another few hours of sand slogging before the beach abruptly ended, blocked by a rocky bluff. I climbed it and followed a path for several days that sat sometimes precipitously right on the edge of an unprotected cliff. One wrong move here and I would tumble into the blue ocean crashing up against the cliffs far below. The water frothed and foamed over the dark basalt platforms that spill out into the sea formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. The trail skirts around Cape Bridgewater and over some of the highest coastal cliffs in Victoria. In the clear water below it’s easy to spot seals and dolphins rising and falling with the swell. Just 20km from the finish the white lighthouse of Cape Nelson stands strong in the gusting wind on the last of the unprotected cliffs before returning to Portland.

I hadn’t heard a lot about this hike before I did it, nor is it heavily visited compared to some other trails, however this is a hike that deserves to be appreciated. The scenery is hugely rewarding and the distance is far enough to give you time to let go of everything that distracts us in everyday life.  And like me, you might just find it makes you see things just a little differently.

Enjoy.

DSC09892 copy

 

Great Ocean Wanderings

DSC04321 copyWhat the hell was that? An alarming sound that was part pig grunt, lion growl and elephant wheeze pierced the air. I lay alone in my tent considering the options. I was either in a whole lot of trouble with some crazy marauding ‘pig-lion-elephant’ or… (I unzipped my tent and poked my head out to breathe a sigh of relief)… it was a koala. For such a gorgeous cuddly looking creature they do make the most awful sound. Wrapped around a limb high on the tree next to me was the offending grey ball of fur. It was the second koala I’d seen on the trail and I was only three hours into it!

The Great Ocean Walk is just over 100km of incredibly diverse and stunning trail sandwiched between the famed Great Ocean Road and the great ocean itself. Over five and a half days I hiked from Apollo Bay west to the Twelve Apostles, every day on the trail bringing some new scenic wonder to dazzle and delight.

DSC04384From my first camp at Elliot Ridge I walked along wide forest trails through tall gums accompanied by the occasional growl from a koala, eventually leading me to a camp nestled amongst the tea tree at Cape Otway.  As I downed my pack the sky began to darken, and during a post-hike micro-snooze I awoke to a huge gust of wind that felt like someone had grabbed the two corners on the long edge of my tent and given them one almighty loft that literally rolled me over in my bed. Shocked out of my slumber I awoke dazed and confused in the fading light. Too scared to head for the cooking shelter lest my tent blow away, I then cursed and fumbled my way through a challenging session of noodle prep in my tiny vestibule. And so began a long and sleepless night, pushed and shoved in my bed every five minutes by the crazy wind, and blasted by pelting rain, thunder and lightning. I was very impressed (and happy) that my little tent survived the testing conditions.

DSC04363 copyFrom the next morning onward though the weather steadily improved and the full glory of the ocean walk was revealed. The sea, now bathed in sun, sparkled a brilliant blue contrasting with red sand cliff top paths dotted with green and silver shrubs. After heading inland to cross the Aire River I hiked back out to the ocean, walking a low path sandwiched between towering red brown cliffs and the sea. Eagles circled above the escarpment on the updraft and I had to keep reminding myself where I was. The scenery was so world class yet completely unfamiliar to me as a stretch of coastline I’d visited a dozen times before just a few hours down the road from home.

Overlooking the Aire River

Overlooking the Aire River

The following days brought steep rolling green hills dotted with kangaroos, beach walking on golden sand covered in tiny mauve shells, and a wealth of wildlife including blue wrens, rosellas, black cockatoos, echidnas, and a handful of snakes which slithered peacefully off the path as I passed.

I spent my fourth night at Ryan’s Den, possibly my favourite campsite on the trail, high on a point overlooking the sea.  Its lookout above the trees was the perfect place to observe the evening’s red lunar eclipse.

Wreck BeachWaiting for low tide the next day, I tackled the beautiful Wreck Beach where the rusted remains of two shipwrecks protrude from rock pools fringed with almost fluorescent green algae. Their iron anchors have now bonded solid with the rock that was their downfall nearly 150 years earlier. Perfectly circular and oval rock pools cut holes in the flat rock ledge like a slab of Swiss cheese, revealing clear and deep water below.

The Devil’s Kitchen, my final camp, was yet another primo location and since I was largely alone on the trail I was free to snaffle the best site yet again. Suite 8 – the last numbered camp with a private picnic seat and sea view.

The Gibson StepsAfter hiking past the imposing Point Ronald, the final kilometres of the trail wound their way along the cliff tops with stunning views of the iconic Twelve Apostles, a series of ocean bound sandstone pillars. It all ends at the Gibson Steps, a steep flight of stone steps cut into a smooth and vertical golden sandstone cliff sweeping around in a huge arc that towers over the beach – just one more highlight in an absolutely stunning walk.

I thought I knew this stretch of coastline reasonably well but this hike has shown me a side of the Great Ocean Road that I never knew existed. I feel like I’ve had a backstage pass allowing me a greater understanding and appreciation of this very impressive and diverse region rather than the usual brief glimpses of its attractions from the designated lookout points.

The Great Ocean Walk – Do it!

Sunset at Ryans Den camp

Sunset at Ryans Den camp

Stewart Island – a very Kiwi experience

With 3068km of Te Araroa trail completed I decided to head even further south for a little ‘cool down’ walk on Stewart Island.  Mission:  See a kiwi.

I had the idea in my head of a little gentle walk and lounging around in a remote hut pondering the last five months, however on the second day it was clear that Stewart Island is a pretty special place.  I started to toy with the idea of changing tack and heading off around the 10 day North West Circuit.  Hmmm…could I turn six days of food into ten?  I’d managed to turn eight days of food into six before, but never the other way around.  Excitement built as I thought of all the possibilities for discovery on that NW route but half an hour later I thought ‘Who am I kidding? I can’t ration my food!’ and promptly broke off another 2 lines of chocolate.

I did however manage to explore the Rakiura Circuit, plus a tramp west to Masons Bay, a location apparently abundant with kiwi.  For two mornings and evenings I spent a total of about 8 hours sneaking quietly up forest tracks and down sand dunes, ears pricked for the slightest rustle of a bird.  No luck. Trying to reassure myself that that was okay and it was still a great walk I shuffled back east towards Freshwater Hut.  On arrival I discovered a hunting party had made themselves (and their 50 cases of beer) very comfortable at the hut, but I soon warmed to their company when one of them arrived saying he’d just spotted a kiwi just a few minutes away.  Excitedly I followed him back through the ferns and there was my kiwi!  I quietly followed that bird for about 20 minutes as it snuffled around in the ground searching for food. I don’t think I’ve ever seen video footage of a kiwi in action but they are truly odd creatures.  Using their beaks to probe the earth, once they find a potential meal they attack the ground, digging in with their beaks with all the determination and ferocity of a terrier shaking a rat.  It’s quite amazing and amusing to observe.

Satisfied, I could now enjoy the remaining few days walking around the beautiful coastline, lined with ferns and lush forest, white sandy beaches and rocky coves.  Stopping at Port William Hut for the night I shared stories of my kiwi encounter at Freshwater Hut with a fellow tramper on the bunk next to me.  “Oh! and did you see there’s a little deer that lives there too?!” she gushed.  “Yeah, not anymore” I let her know.  Our fellow hut residents in the hunting party had gotten up for the loo in the night, spied the unfortunate deer outside and decided that right then was a good idea to do some hunting!  I heard the gun case unzip and even though I knew what was coming the sound of the rifle shot piercing the night air just a few metres from my bunk still made me gasp out loud.  Ahh, the serenity of the New Zealand bush!

Stewart Island is a very special place and worthy of a good explore.  And seeing that kiwi…well, another Mission Successful.

Laura

Soultrekking

 (Photo credit:  marker pole)

146 days into this journey and I realise I’ve come a long way.  And I’m not just talking about the 2800km of trail behind me.

In the last week I tramped alone along the Mavora Walkway, a stunning route through vast open valleys flanked by huge mountains.  Wandering for hours through trail-less tussock it dawned on me how things have changed.  Being without a trail or the next marker pole in sight no longer fills me with a mild panic like it might once have.  I feel comfortable knowing if and where I can cross a river.  My GPS and I now have a comfortable relationship – I know it won’t always tell me the truth about where the TA route is but it will tell me my exact co-ordinates from which I can work out where to go.  I feel comfortable being alone in the wilderness.  And this feels a significant step after having walked with new friends for much of the way.

On the second day of this section I tramped through the valley with rainclouds chasing up behind me.  Round balls of tussock grass shook and rustled from side to side in the wind like cheerleader’s pom poms as I picked my way through to Boundary Hut where I ended up having my first night alone in a mountain hut.

 Boundary Hut nestled in the valley 

And being out in the middle of nowhere on your own opens up a whole world of possibilities.  With no one around to hear me, I got the Ipod out and sang at the top of my voice.  In fact maybe I went outside and had a bit of a dance too with all that open space to run around in!  Singing and dancing to the mountains felt quite surreal and I almost felt drunk though there wasn’t a drop of alcohol within miles.  It was purely the other-worldly freedom of being out there without a care.  The contrast between this and the anxious and stressed pre-hike Laura from the city couldn’t be greater.   The simplicity of life, the fresh air, and the lack of schedules or demands other than to walk.  This country and this tramp has cleansed me.

There is around 200km left to go and within two weeks I will finish this epic journey.  And it will be ‘Mission Successful’ on all accounts.

Yay.

Laura

Hurry up Laura, winter is approaching…

It’s been an eventful nine days walking from Methven to Tekapo.  After saying goodbye to several long term hiking buddies I found myself heading out alone into what was a potentially challenging high country section.  The trail notes and other hiker comments revealed I should expect around 60 river crossings, trail-less routes ‘lightly marked’ with poles, chest high tussock grass, the highest point on the Te Araroa Trail (Stag Saddle at 1940m) and a crossing of the Rangitata River, a 10km wide braided river valley considered a hazard zone on the trail.

Setting out in the heat, I climbed up and up through a dry and dusty landscape.  Hundreds of tiny cricket-like creatures bounced on the ground as I passed, many of them bouncing off my face and body too or getting caught in my hair, during which time they would make a loud ‘clicking’ noise, deafening me for half a minute in the process.

On the second day of the section I set out in sunshine for a long hike following a river which required around 50 crossings of it as required to make my way up the valley.  With wet boots I continued on higher and higher into the mountains, pushing my way through the infamous tussock grass  and referring to the GPS often when the marker poles were too far apart to locate visually.

Late in the afternoon I had only 3km to go to reach my intended hut when the wind started to pick up so I stopped to put on my waterproof and windproof jacket.  Now on easier terrain I marched on, confident it should only take me just over half an hour to reach the hut.  I noticed the air suddenly get markedly cool and in the distance rain clouds moved towards me through the valley.  All good, I thought to myself.  Jacket on, not far to go to a dry hut…how bad can it get? 

The rain reached me and I walked a little quicker.  I noticed little balls of ice in the rain.  Oh great, I thought to myself, hail.  I walked quicker again skipping over the uneven ground, pausing occasionally to search out an orange marker pole in the distance.  The wind increased and the cold bit into my exposed hands as I clutched my hiking poles.  Damn this is uncomfortable, I thought to myself.  After 10 minutes of hail my hands were painfully cold and I tried holding them behind my back to shield them from the wind. I pushed them one at a time in my pockets to give them some hope of warming up but they were so numb I could barely tell if I’d succeeded in getting them in or not.  This was starting to get dire.  How far to this hut now?  I turned my back to the wind to check the GPS, my numb ‘stumps’ stabbing at the buttons clumsily.  I couldn’t feel my hands at all and had to direct them by sight to function as I needed.  In disbelief I watched as the hail turned to snow, flying towards me in the icy wind and reducing visibility.

The hut I was looking for was, according to the trail notes, ‘tucked away up a sidestream’ just off the main trail.  I could not afford to miss it. Finally a sign indicated the hut was close,”500m, 10 minutes”.  It was the longest 10 minutes ever and I spoke to myself out loud most of the way, “Come on Laura!  Focus…”. My body was painfully cold and getting colder by the second.  I could feel the situation slipping.  Even with the hut finally in sight I did not feel ‘out of the woods’.  With 20 metres to go the hut door opened and the familiar face of Jean Charles greeted me.  Once finally safely inside I held out my frozen stumps for him to warm up and within half an hour he had a fire going.  I started to feel human again.

It’s often said that the New Zealand weather can change at any time but it was quite sobering to experience such a drastic and quick change first hand. 

The following few days brought sunny weather again and JC and I joined forces to climb into the Two Thumb Range.  We awoke to snow at Crooked Spur Hut and opted for a sleep in until midday when the sun came out to finally venture out for to the next hut.  It snowed and hailed intermittently through the day but was largely manageable until that evening when the wind started roaring outside our hut.  And so began two days of being hut-bound, snow and wind flying around us in the high valley.  Two days is a long wait when its only 6 degrees indoors and food is diminishing, and we passed the time bundled up in sleeping bags (the warmest place to be) reading National Geographic and Readers Digest magazines from the 1980’s and trying to resist our chocolate rations.

After our third night at Royal Hut we awoke to blue skies and gloriously white snow capped mountains all around.  Escaping the hut at last to climb up to Stag Saddle we were rewarded with a view of snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see, including Mt Cook.  The best views on the trail so far…

It’s not far to go to Bluff now (well only 700km ish) and thoughts are starting to turn to ‘the end’.  I look forward to attempting to ‘stay present’ throughout these last kilometres and enjoying them while I can!

Cheers
Laura

It’s Business Time…

“…There’s a river crossing on a rock chute just above a 4m waterfall.  The water is flowing fast down the chute and if you lose footing you go over the waterfall… Some trampers may find this section challenging”.

Hmmm…should trail notes really read like this?  Luckily for us we were blessed with hot and dry conditions which made the many river crossings very manageable, although I can imagine that in different weather the Richmond Ranges would be a totally different beast.

Our five day tramp through this section of the Te Araroa Trail has been building up in our minds for some time as a remote and high region (consistently over 1500m) that would likely test us on a number of fronts.  There were many long days with very challenging terrain involving ‘undulating trail’ (terrain rising and falling so steeply that its often hard not to slide back down the slope), ‘steep and exposed sections’ (no joke), and ‘lots of sidling, at times on steep terrain’ (one slip and it would be….bad).

 
‘sidling…’
more ‘sidling’, high above the Wairoa River…

Popping a few ‘Harden up’ pills from my first aid kit (thanks for the recommendation Lance) I tackled the trail with the single-minded goal of placing every footfall and pole-plant in a safe and secure place.  I learn quickly that there are actually not too many of these to be found.   Walking down steep scree slopes I try to use large rocks to brace against with my boots only to find that they regularly give way and slide down the slope with me.  On other slopes, boulder hopping from one large rock to another, I discover seemingly large and well locked in boulders shift and tilt with my weight.  Nothing is secure here and no surface can be trusted.  One step at a time, slowly and deliberately… don’t look down, don’t consider ‘what if’… just focus.

Numerous times I scour the terrain for the trail ahead only to scoff inwardly “Seriously…are you kidding me?!” when my eyes finally lock onto the route.

The trail curves around to our right, 100m or so below the jagged ridge top

The Richmond Ranges are huge and beautiful with a vast variety of terrain.  Rocky mountain ridges, scree slopes, beech forest, boulder filled river crossings, and rocky red and grey moonscapes.  During our visit it also felt a very quiet place.  With no wind during our tramp, and no distant sounds of civilisation or other people, the silence is at times deafening.  Only the song of a bird in the trees or the croak of frogs around a glacial lake at night broke the silence.

For future trampers to this region, the ranges are to be respected but not feared.
Enjoy…

Laura

Hats off to the Queen

“Has anyone told you about the weka?” the ranger greeted us as we walked into camp.
No, what do I need to know about the weka?  “Be careful with your belongings. They have been known to steal things from your tent, even from under the flysheet.”

Suitably informed we wandered down to a small patch of forest right on the beachfront to put up our tents.  I open a zip on my pack and pull out the last of a chocolate block to munch on whilst I assemble the tent poles.  Suddenly there is a flash of movement and out of the corner of my eye I see the pink and gold wrapper of my chocolate bar disappearing off into the bush carried by two furiously running little brown legs. “Noooooooo!”  The weka had struck already.

From the moment I begin my three day Queen Charlotte Track section it is evident that this region is rich with wildlife.  The boat trip through the Marlborough Sounds to reach our starting point is shadowed by a pod of dolphins.  Stepping foot onto the jetty at Ship Cove we are greeted with the buzz and hum of bird and cicada calls, and the lush green ferns and blue skies instantly make us feel as though we have landed in the tropics.

The trail itself too is ‘friendly’ with well graded paths that are a real treat after some of the more ‘indistinct’ and steeper routes we have done so far.  Weka, flightless birds the size of a small chicken, loiter around every picnic table en route hoping to scrounge a bit of food.  Ridge top paths give amazing views into hidden blue coves where the odd white yacht is moored.

Have you seen this weka?

At the end of our first day we reach a cove with a bar right on the jetty and whilst enjoying a sundowner glass of Sauvignon Blanc we spy the unmistakable huge dorsal fins of a pod of killer whales cruise past in the bay.  The barman rushes down and cranks up the engine on a rubber inflatable and looks at me.  “Want to come?” he asks quickly.  I look at the hot chips that have tantalisingly just arrived at our table.  “Can I take the chips?” I fire back.  “No”.  I jump in the boat anyway and bid the seagulls a happy snack.  As we cruise closer we see the shiny black backs of these amazing creatures, and the puff of air bursting through the water as they come up to breathe.  Magic.

Could this place get any better I wonder?  Yes.  As we stumble the few hundred metres back to our tents in the dark we see glow worms lining the path.  A perfect end to a perfect day.

The Queen Charlotte Track is an easy and beautiful trail with abundant options for treating yourself to a proper bed or meal if you so desire, and made an easy introduction to the South Island for us.  From here on I suspect the going will get tougher!

Cheers
Laura

The Getting of Wisdom in the Tararua Ranges

Whilst Wellington is reasonably well known as ‘the Windy City’, it’s probably lesser known that the nearby Tararua Ranges are also renowned for the wind and rain they attract, thanks to their proximity to the Cook Strait which acts as a funnel.

Our trail included four days in the Tararuas and during this time we were able to sample some of the strength of these weather systems.  The trail notes encourage you to sit it out in a hut if the weather is not conducive however how does one know when its ‘normal Tararuas windy’ and ‘dangerous windy’?  By the time we’d made the assessment that it was possibly the latter it was too late to turn back.

On the second day we found ourselves high up on a ridge, staggering with legs and poles spread wide for maximum stability.   Standing fast when the gusts were high, and staggering forward a few more paces when they eased off a bit, we moved from one semi sheltered patch to another.  As we moved from the knife ridge to a slightly wider section the wind went to a whole new level and I actually got pushed over a few times from the force (luckily only from a low crouched position to my backside).  The force was incredible, flapping hard against my waterproofs like I was skydiving, and forcing the high top of my jacket into my mouth like some vacuum sealed packet.  The wind screamed in my ears and my eyes streamed with water rendering me with low vision.  I just stood there, hanging on, feeling slightly surreal and knowing that we were probably on the limits of what we could handle.  I still had ‘sitting down’ to go as a last defence against being blown off the mountain so that made me feel a little bit better!

 Johanna hangs on against the wind

In any event it would have done us no good to turn at back at this point as it was a shorter distance to move forward and get down into the trees.

Thankfully day three dawned clear and bright and whilst the wind still whistled around the hut it was far better than the day before and we enjoyed an amazing walk along the Main Ridge with views across the vast Tararuas and out to sea in the distance.

The descents off this huge range, even though sheltered in the trees, were not much easier and I took several decent falls on the way down.  The first was unimpressive but painful – slipping on a mossy rock and landing on my backside on another rock with the full weight of my body and pack.  The second was way more impressive but less painful. My feet slipped out from underneath me and when I crouched down and leaned forward to correct it I found myself falling face first down the steep slope thinking ‘hmmm…this isn’t the way you’re supposed to go’.  I’m not entirely sure what happened next but there was a lot of flying dirt, walking poles and sunglasses and eventually I found myself sliding to a halt  about 4-5 metres down the slope.  Another couple just ahead of me on the track would later tell me they heard someone sliding for ‘a while’ before the call, “I’m okay!”.

Important lessons learned for the South Island though.  Take it slow and don’t push things!

Laura