Tramping around the South Island, New Zealand


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Oceania » New Zealand » South Island
March 30th 2016
Published: August 16th 2016
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In an uncannily similar way to Britain, almost the very day that the New Zealand summer holidays ended the cooler weather in the south was replaced by blazing sunshine and a warm breeze. We felt sorry for all the kids going back to school and of course the teachers. Well perhaps not that sorry, as now the campgrounds were far quieter.

Leaving Invercargill our vaguely planned journey northwards would take us through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country, starting with Fiord Land and the Southern Lakes. Lake Hauroko, New Zealand's deepest lake was our first stop, where we could climb up the mountain side for a spectacular view over the lake, before descending for a cooling swim. Although getting changed quickly was the name of the game here as the sand flies were vicious. Lakes Monawi and Manapouri were similarly beautiful and again good for a dip.

Reaching the small town of Te Anu, gateway to the Fiordland National Park, we stocked up on supplies before heading out on the isolated and scenic road into the Milford Valley. We had purchased a map of the area and planned to walk as many tracks as possible, so we found a small, quiet, basic DOC campground at Kiosk Creek where we could base ourselves. First port of call was of course a drive up the steep valley, through the narrow tunnel to join the hordes of bus tours at Milford Sounds. We enjoyed our morning here in the misty drizzle that is typical of the Sounds and makes the place appear even more mystical. We wandered the shoreline, gazing at the scene in front of us, with our arms whirling around like a couple of demented windmills trying in vain to keep the clouds of sand flies at bay, also typical of the Sounds.

We decided against the understandably popular boat trip out into the Milford Sound as we had a different idea, although it would require a lot more physical effort, so the next morning we set out early to climb the Gertrude Saddle. This was a difficult clamber almost straight upwards over steep rocky terrain, at one or two sections a chain had been fixed to assist with the ascent. It took a couple of hours but when we eventually reached the saddle the scene in front of us straight down to Milford Sound was just jaw dropping. We just sat and stared, eventually realising we were hungry and planting ourselves down to eat our sandwiches. There were no tourist hoards here, just a few other hardy souls and the odd small sightseeing plane or helicopter.

Not content with just scaling the Gertrude Saddle, we set about tackling the famous Routeburn tramping track which takes in some incredible alpine scenery, only not quite in the traditional way. The track is usually done over two to four days, starting at one end, staying in designated campsites or costly huts along the way and being picked up at the other end by a scheduled transfer bus. This all sounded a bit organised for us as well as being very expensive, plus all this must be booked months in advance and cannot be changed if the weather is poor. There had to be another way. After consulting the map we could see that there was and it involved climbing the rather ominously named Dead Man’s Track.

We drove along the Holliford Road to the isolated little store at Guns Camp and asked if it was OK to park the car there for the day. The guy in the store seemed to think the climb up to the Routeburn track would be tricky, stating in a typically dry Kiwi manner that it was "not named Dead Man’s track for nothing." He was right. The sign buried in the bush at the bottom of the track said to allow five hours to get to the top, only a few kilometres away. This did not bode well. As we crashed our way up, often on all fours, through thick bush, over and under many fallen trees, we decided that no one had been on this track for a very long time. Three and a half hours later, soaking wet, muddy and looking like we had been dragged through the bushes, we emerged onto the highest point of the Routeburn track, about half way along its length and above the clouds hanging down in the valley far below where we had started. It was a bit surreal to emerge from the impenetrable bush onto this comparative walking highway, with many dry and not exhausted looking hikers making their way comfortably between the campsites. No time for us to rest up though, we still had a long way to go. The incredible alpine scenery we walked through as we strode out along the path made the climb totally worth it. We made our way to the end of the Routeburn track and once again descended to the valley below. Eventually, ten hours from when we started we were back at the Guns Camp Store, feeling very weary but incredibly happy with the hike. After a chilly swim to wash off in Lake Gunn (complete with a bemused duck who was now getting used to us turning up late each evening for a wash) and a hasty camp dinner, we were dead to the world.

After a couple more days and a few more (shorter) hikes in the valley, we were ready to head back to Te Anu and restock before making our way up a lot of gravel roads to the very picturesque Mavora Lakes. Apparently these lakes were used as one of the scenes in the Lord of the Rings films, but we could not tell which one, but it was a beautiful and tranquil place where we spent a couple of days relaxing by the lakeside and wandering along the tracks. As we were leaving the lakes we picked up a Swedish hitchhiker who was walking the epic Te Araroa trail from the north to the south of New Zealand. He was just hitching his way out to town to get resupplied and showered (he needed it) before making his way back to continue his five month long hike. This put all our hiking efforts to shame. We met a few other hardy trekkers doing this trail as we travelled around and always tried to give them a lift when they were hitching into towns, as we admired their efforts in attempting this mega hike.

We got to super busy Queenstown, the New Zealand Mecca for adrenaline sports and adventure tourism activities and kept driving. We based ourselves at the much quieter, top end of Lake Wakatipu, apparently the coldest lake in New Zealand, although according to Ross it was “the coldest lake in the whole world" after we jumped in for a quick wash. Trev also was not keen on the cool mountain air here and refused point blank to start in the morning despite Ross cleaning his spark plugs and threatening to push him into the lake. Fortunately, a jump start from a nice French tourist did the trick and we decided it was time for a new battery.

Passing through Arrow Town an old Chinese gold mining settlement, we arrived at the lakeside town of Wanaka, where we found a new battery for Trev. This helped his starting issues no end and although he still didn’t want to start some mornings, the battery just kept turning over until he was kick started into life. We drove up what must be one of the roughest roads in New Zealand to hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier which was a great sight, before heading over to Lake Hawea. Here we were able to hike into the hills and swim in the clear water, which was much warmer than Lake Wakatipu, much to Ross' relief.

We made an attempt to cross over the Haast Pass from here towards the famous west coast but the weather closed in, so we decided to head back and eastwards first. It was here, in the torrential rain, that Trev decided to develop another slightly annoying issue, a leak from the top of the windscreen during heavy rain whenever his nose was pointing downhill. Ross spent quite a lot of the rest of our journey driving with wet knees and we had to take care to park at the correct angle or place a bowl on the dashboard overnight when rain was forecast.

We took the Lindis Pass towards Mount Cook, stopping for the night during a thunderstorm at the eerie and long ago abandoned Lindis Pass Hotel camp area. We spent a good half an hour manoeuvring Trev to position him at the perfect angle to prevent the new found leak, probably much to the amusement of the other campers, who generally make a beeline for flat land.

We arrived at Mount Cook campground in terrible weather, there were flattened tents and wet cold looking campers everywhere, and we were very glad to be sleeping in Trev, even if he did leak. Miraculously, the next day brought blue skies and sunshine, perfect for a walk up to admire the tallest mountain in New Zealand before continuing on towards the turquoise waters of Lake Tekapo.

The summer weather was still looking good in the east, so having had a few good soakings recently we decided this would be a good time to revisit the pretty Banks peninsula. We decided to make the tiny bay of Little Akaloa our home for a few days to explore the hills and bays of the peninsula. It was whilst whiling away a beautiful sunny afternoon with a spot of not very convincing fishing on the pontoon that a nice local lady wandered along to pass the time of day. We got chatting and when she could see that Ross' fishing efforts were failing as usual she laughed and said we had better join her and her husband for dinner as they were having roast lamb and we were clearly not having fish.

Turns out that Diane had grown up on a farm nearby, long since sold, but she and her husband, John lived and worked in Christchurch and had retained one of the old colonial style wooden farm cottages, set in a beautiful location further up the hill which they used as a getaway for all the family. Diane gave us a tour around the locality and a bit of the history of how she remembered the community to be when she was growing up there. We had a lovely evening with them, great food and far too much wine for anyone to drive. Fortunately the spare room was on hand with a cracking fry up in the morning.

Before we left the house John and Diane gave us some good directions to some completely off the beaten track hidden gems of beaches and bays nearby that we could visit. Biding them goodbye, we promised to pay them another visit on our way back off the peninsula as we passed through Christchurch.

Well the hidden gems were indeed gems and before we knew it we had spent a week on the peninsula. So with a visit to Christchurch and another great evening with John and Diane we moved on from the Banks Peninsula and made our way up and over the stunning Arthur's Pass once more towards the west coast.

In true west coast style the rain came down. We did get to admire the impressive turquoise water at Hokitika Gorge in the dry, but a good soaking whilst walking up to the fast retreating and sadly no longer so impressive Franz Josef Glacier (Ross had visited this glacier around twenty years ago when it was much bigger), convinced us that it was time to turn northwards.

We passed through Greymouth and on towards Reefton where we took a detour to visit Waiuta a gold mining ghost town, abandoned in 1951 when the main mine shaft collapsed. Some old houses, mine buildings and town infrastructure were still recognisable so it was an interesting place to visit.

Continuing on up the west coast via Westport and the Pancake Rocks we made our way up to the small community of Seddonville. Here we could camp at the old school, now carefully restored and used as a community building as well as for camping. We were able to walk the Charming Creek track from here which follows the river for miles and is littered with interesting old mine and timber mill workings.

Eventually we followed the winding road up the west coast for as far as it goes before it peters out, fourteen kilometres beyond the isolated little settlement of Karamea at Kohaihai beach, a spectacular place and the end of the famous Heaphy Track. We were able to walk a few hours of the track and camp on the beach, although the sand flies here were the biggest and hungriest we had encountered yet.

With the top end of the South Island still enjoying lovely summer weather, we made our way to Nelson Lakes and climbed up to enjoy a breath taking hike around the Mount Robert Loop at the northern most end of the Southern Alps.

We returned once more to the Nelson area via the Motueka Valley Highway and on to Takaka stopping along the way at the Canaan Downs. Somehow we missed the DOC campground we were aiming for and ended up in a huge isolated part of the downs where we could camp without another soul for miles around.

We spent a day wandering the pristine, isolated beaches along the northern end of the Abel Tasman National Park and took a drive up to the exposed northern tip of the South Island, Farewell Spit, before heading back down to Nelson where Trev, by some miracle passed his six monthly Warrant of Fitness test (WoF) with only one or two light bulbs needing to be replaced by Ross beforehand.

Back to the wonderful Marlborough Sounds we went, Duncan Bay this time. After chatting to a local we were informed that fishing from a tiny beach, which could only be accessed by a narrow path through the forest, would almost guarantee snapper success. As it was Ross' birthday a few bottles of New Zealand style ale were purchased and off we went in search of fish for supper. We had hardly got the top off the beers when the fish started biting and within an hour we had two good sized snapper landed on the beach. These were delicious, pan-fried on the camp stove. A birthday to remember.

Resisting the temptation to stay and fish endlessly, we drove on. We past Picnic Bay this time on to Mount Stokes where we climbed to the top for a grand view over the Sounds, before making our way right out to Titirangi Station, an isolated sheep station with a great campsite right next to the sea. We had a good day walking all around the station right up into the surrounding hills with the owner’s permission, before a storm rolled in.

After a day or two and when the storm had passed the Sounds were getting a little busier as the Easter weekend approached, so it was time for us to head for a quieter spot. We found just such a place at the Mount Richmond Forest Park. There weren’t many people camping here and the DOC warden was a chirpy little fellow who gave us loads of good advice about hiking the nearby Mount Riley and Mount Sunday tracks.

We set off to conquer both these peaks on a loop track the next day, but after hours of climbing we reached the summit of Mount Riley which was shrouded in mist. We could hardly see our hands in front of our faces, let alone the reportedly spectacular views. We even nearly missed seeing a bemused looking possum who wandered by just in front of us. Given the conditions we decided to come down the same way and not complete the loop. A little disappointing, but still a great hike. The next day the skies typically were clear and both peaks clearly visible, but we didn't have the energy to go up again, so the ranger cheerfully showed us pictures of the views from the summit. We were not sure if this was cruelty or kindness. Perhaps he heard us liken him to a character from Robin Hood, all dressed in green and walking with a stout staff.

We stopped for a night at the beautiful Marfell's beach, before deciding that as winter was coming we had better start making our way back northwards. So we headed on to Picton once again, where a nice lady who lived next to the DOC campsite came and gave us a load of excess grapes from her garden, before boarding an early morning ferry back across the Cook Strait. We were sad to be leaving the South Island, but were cheered up by the dolphins who accompanied the ferry into Wellington harbour and by the thought of more time left to further explore the North Island. Not to mention being completely amazed that Trev had made it around the South Island and was still going strong, well reasonably strong anyway.

Things we have learnt whilst tramping around the South Island:

- Hiking is called tramping in New Zealand.

- Almost every track in New Zealand seems to start off with an hour and a half of straight uphill.

- Beware of the weka. A weka is a very inquisitive flightless bird that always appears when you are about to eat a sandwich. The weka has been known to get inside your vehicle and even shove its head up exhaust pipes just to see what's up there. The weka will try to sneak up on you after nightfall and peck your toes.


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17th August 2016
Hiking up the Deadman's Track

Hiking in the South Island
This pic captures the ethereal feel of hiking through the beech forests of the South Island perfectly. Little wonder the Lord of the Rings films were filmed in NZ.
17th August 2016

Majestic
I have posted some of your magnificent pics in the Majestic Mountains thread in the Photography Forum. Enjoy and thanks for sharing.
17th August 2016
Lake Hauroko

Fabulous photos!
Really enjoying your blogs on NZ :)

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