29 January 2019

South Island Tour

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met,
the pain he suffered in the storms at sea.
- Homer The Odyssey (modern translation)

The road to Mt Cook.

We have just returned from another epic Highstead adventure. Sixteen days of driving, tramping, and camping on the South Island. The trip was undertaken during the height of summer holidays and tourist season around here, so we designed our route to avoid the crowds as much as possible. In total, we covered a little over 3,400 km (2,100 mi), almost entirely on minor highways and roadways. A surprising amount of it was on unsealed/gravel roads. Along the way, we stayed in a mixture of small baches/cribs intermingled with a lot of tent camping. Despite the huge crowds out at this time of year, we felt like we had the roads mostly to ourselves.

Most people touring the South Island are a little limited in their choice of route. There are only a few places to pick up a hire car or campervan, and the most popular seems to be Christchurch. From there, the most common route is to head north and do a big anti-clockwise loop. We were fortunate to be arriving into Picton by ferry and knew we could start in either direction. Additionally, we had already spent time in Christchurch/Akaroa (Link: Moving Pictures & Signals) as well as in Dunedin (Link: Summertime & One Tonne) and Oamaru (Link: Steampunk'd), so we could skip the southeast coast. In the end, our route took us clockwise from Picton to Kaikoura, then inland to the Rakaia Gorge and onto Mt Cook. From there, we jumped down to the Catlins, bypassed Invercargill, and headed for the Fjordlands. We finished our trip on the West Coast. Camping and sleeping in a tent meant that we had no schedule and nowhere to be. We could drive as far as we wanted, pitch our tent, and explore the local area. Every few nights, we stayed in a bach/crib so we could dry out, shower, and do some laundry.

Day 1-2 - Palmy to Wellington, Picton to Kaikoura

Loading the ferry - Wellington to Picton.

Te Moana-o-Raukawa is the tempestuous strip of water that separates New Zealand's South and North Islands. The English name is Cook Strait, and it is considered one of the most dangerous and unpredictable bodies of water in the world. The narrowest part of the strait is only 22 km wide, but the ferry crossing between Wellington and Picton takes about 3.5 hours. On the South Island, the section through Marlborough Sounds is one of the most scenic and dramatic that I have ever experienced. This would be my 5th crossing, and the ferry was packed, so we claimed some space, stayed below, and camped out for the journey. Despite the strait’s terrible reputation, I have never experienced a difficult crossing, but JRH did on her way to school camp a couple of years ago. Their crossing was so rough that cars slid around on deck and smashed into each other.

Picton to Kaikoura is another 2 hour drive, making for a lot of sitting/driving on our first day of travel. The original plan for our trip was to limit driving to only 3-4 hours each day. We wanted to explore the South Island, not zoom through it. Unfortunately, there was no way to avoid a couple of long days. Fortunately, we couldn't check into our bach until after 5p, so we weren't in much of a hurry. This time of year, the sun rises at about 5:30 and doesn't set until after 9:30p, giving us plenty of light well into the evening. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate (skies were grey and overcast) and much worse, we lost our Lonely Planet guide, so we didn't take any side trips or detours. Our goal was lunch at Nin's Bin ... a roadside trailer serving what is reportedly some of the best local seafood. Seating is outside only and it was raining. We weren't prepared to brave "liquid sunshine" on our first day, so we passed it by. We had 15 days of outdoors adventures planned, and particularly on the west coast where it rains 200+ days each year, doing things in the rain would become a theme ... just not on Day 1.

Te Ahi Kaikoura a Tama ki te Rangi (Kaikoura) was established in 1853 as a whaling station, and it's name means "Meal of Crayfish" (crayfish here being what the rest of us call spiny lobster). Crayfish is on the menu all over town, but some of the best food here is at roadside trucks/trailers. Since we missed out on Nin's Bin on Day 1, the next day saw us picking up the slack at Kaikoura Seafood BBQ. Like anywhere else in the world, crayfish/lobster here is crazy expensive and JRH was shocked when she saw the sticker price on the tail we ate for lunch. She doesn't eat seafood, so couldn't experience for herself how each bite was worth every penny.

On 14 November 2016, there was a magnitude 7.8 earthquake centred approximately 60 km south-west of Kaikoura. The quake occurred at a depth of only 15 km, involved 6 different fault lines, and was comprised of two separate but concurrent events. I went into a lot of detail regarding the science and our experience here. Suffice it to say that it was a life-changing event for both Kari and me. While we felt quite a rumble 150 km away, the local results were devastating. New Zealand sits on the Ring of Fire, one of the most geologically active areas in the world, and the seabed surrounding Kaikoura has been rising at a rate of a few mm per year, but the Kaikoura earthquake instantly raised the seabed 0.5-2 metres. It completely changed the landscape, altering reefs, fisheries, and fur seal colonies. In addition, nearly 200 km of road was damaged along with an equal amount of rail line. Opening the only major roadway into Kaikoura took a little more than a year, required over 2 million work hours, and came at a cost of over $1.1 billion.

Kaikoura's alien landscape.

One of the things we have discovered on our travels is that you just can’t do it all. Everywhere we go, there is so much to see and do but just not enough time to fit it all in. Our strategy is to identify a bunch of things we would like to do, then each of us gets to pick one thing that we absolutely will do. For this trip, my choice was sea kayaking. Up and down the coastline there are dozens of places to put a kayak in and go for a paddle ... and plenty of companies willing to take your money to see it all happen. Unfortunately, for most of them, JRH was not old enough. In Kaikoura, though, we found one that was more “family friendly”. We chose the morning paddle hoping for better weather and we weren’t disappointed.

Once they got us all to the put-in and gave us a safety briefing (in the event of an earthquake or tsunami, paddle further out to sea to deeper water!), we were on our way. With the size of our group, they split us into two, so the three of us were lucky to have our own private guide. She got us right up close to some seals and let us paddle out into the ocean swells. Maria was awesome and I can’t say enough great things about Kaikoura Kayaks.

On the water with Kaikoura Kayaks.

Shoreline exploring.

Summer in these latitudes means long days with loads of sunlight. After our paddle, we had time for lunch followed by a long tramp along the shoreline then back along the cliffs. That still left us plenty of time to get back to our bach, shower, and head out for some sunset views and a late dinner. All in all, it was a great start to our long holiday.

Stay tuned, there's more to come ...

10 October 2018

Kapiti Island

Ka tito au
Ka tito au
Ka tito au ki a Kupe 
Te tangata
Nana i topetope tu wenua
Tu ke Kapiti 
- Te Rauparaha (1847), composed during his imprisonment aboard HMS Calliope

Private boat ramps on Waiorua Bay, Kapiti Island.  Photo: RGH

Driving to and from Wellington along the Kapiti Coast, when looking seaward the horizon is dominated by a large island. Kapiti Island sits just far enough offshore to appear perpetually verdant, mysterious, and unoccupied. Always looking for new places to explore, Kari discovered that it is an ecological reserve and is accessible for day trips and overnight stays. The island boasts an abundance of native plants and endemic birds, including the elusive Little Spotted Kiwi. It is one of the few places in New Zealand where one has a good chance of spotting a Kiwi (bird) in its native habitat. During our previous year here, Kari wanted to venture across Rau O Te Rangi channel and visit the island, but it was only after returning here permanently a few months ago that we were finally able to do so.

The island covers almost 20 sq km (8 sq mi), only a tiny portion of which is accessible for tramping. Almost the entirety is closed to the casual visitor and is set aside as a wildlife sanctuary. There is a limit to the number of visitors each day (100 to Rangatira, 60 to the North end). Interestingly, 13 hectares (32 acres) is privately owned by members of the Ngati Toa, Te Āti Awa, and Ngāti Raukawa Confederation. Many of them are whanau descended from an extraordinary woman, Utauta Webber, who refused to give up her land despite relentless government pressure to do so. One hundred twenty-one years after the Kapiti Island Reserve Act was established, whanau continue to live and work on Kapiti.

Paraparaumu to Kapiti Island.  Photos: RGH

John Barrett and Amo Barrett, Utauta Webber's grandchildren, established Kapiti Island Nature Tours by renovating the family bach and offering a unique homestay to visitors. Manaaki Barrett, John’s son and our host/guide for the weekend, grew up visiting the island and is now slowly assuming more responsibility for the daily operations of the business. It is truly a whanau affair, structured so that as many whanau as possible can be sustainably employed and maintain ties to their ancestral lands. Maori was not initially a written language and their history was kept alive through oral story-telling. We were captivated by Manaaki’s ability to narrate the history of his whanau and iwi, and deftly weave it into their story today.

Kapiti Island Nature Tours.  Photos: RGH & KAH

Utauta’s great grandfather, Te Rangihiroa, accompanied Te Rauparaha when Ngati Toa first seized the island in the 1820s. They successfully defended their occupation in the Battle of Waiorua (1824) when multiple iwi allied against them and tried to push them off. For Ngati Toa, Kapiti Island became a fortress and base from which to trade and launch marauding attacks. Ngati Toa developed trading relationships with whalers and fishermen from Europe and the Americas, encouraging them to live amongst them and accept Maori custom. Some married Maori women and were adopted into the tribe. As their cultures clashed, strife occasionally devolved into violence. In his book Kapiti, Chris Maclean describes Kapiti in the 1830s as “a wild frontier, a meeting point of two cultures without the restraints of law or government.” By the 1830s, the British had begun to establish a more consistent presence in the region, first sending HMS Zebra in 1833, then HMS Rattlesnack in 1838. The Treaty of Waitangi (1840) established British sovereignty in New Zealand and coincided with the decline of whaling in and around Kapiti. Whaling gave way to farming as a way of life, which only hastened the loss of native species.

Tramping through the nature reserve.  Photos: RGH & KAH

Tuteremoana summit and Western cliffs overlook.  Photos: KAH

Like much of the world, New Zealand has suffered the scourge of introduced species. Prior to the capture of Kapiti Island by Ngati Toa, the human impact would have been limited to subsistence living, supported by the abundant marine life and bird species, bouyed by limited cultivation of kumara. After their occupation, the population swelled to over 1000 people and new areas were cleared for food crops. The easiest way to clear land was by burning. Occasionally, controlled burns became wildfires that swept the island. New Zealand plants and birds evolved in relative isolation, free from predators and grazing mammals. Cattle, goats, sheep, and possum were introduced by European visitors to the island, and pests such as stoats and rats established substantial colonies. The introduction of these species proved devastating. When the island became a reserve in 1897, native plants and bird populations were finally able to begin a slow regeneration.

Hihi & Kakariki.  Photos: KAH

Takahe.  Photo: KAH

Kereru.   Photo: KAH

Kaka.   Photos: RGH

By 1917, a campaign to clear the island of grazing mammals and predatory pests had begun, but  limited farming continued on the island into the 1950s. It would take almost 80 years before the last rat, and last mammalian pest, would be cleared from the island and endemic species could flourish. Visiting the island today, it is the abundance and variety of native birds that are most impressive. Supported by the regeneration of native plant species, some have rebounded from in-place populations, while others have had to be re-introduced. This concerted effort to restore native bird species, with Kapiti Island acting as a “life raft”, has been so successful that some are transplanted from the island to bolster or re-establish populations elsewhere in New Zealand.

Sunrise over Waiorua Bay.   Photo: RGH

Manuka & view of Northern shore from Western cliffs.  Photos: KAH

Kapiti Island is one of the few areas where you might chance to see a Kiwi bird in the wild. "Might chance" is a bit of a misnomer ... we set out late at night with Wayne, one of the year-round residents, in search of these hard-to-find birds. Kapiti Island is far enough from the mainland that there is little light pollution, and it was a cloudy, nearly moonless night. More than once, I bumped into the person in front of me when they stopped abruptly. Using a light shrouded with red cellophane, Wayne crawled around on his belly looking into the dense underbrush. There were 13 of us split into two groups, and ours was the only one to actually spy a Little Spotted Kiwi in the bush. Admittedly, it was a bit anti-climactic, but it was pretty awesome none-the-less.

One of New Zealand's many great small breweries.

The next morning, the skies were clear and the sun was shining. We opted to take the afternoon boat back across Rau O Te Rangi channel, giving us a chance for a morning tramp to the top of the Western cliffs. After lunch, we set out on a guided tour of the Northern shoreline and bird nesting area. We thought we would be a little late getting to the boat landing, but were there in plenty of time to sit for a spell. Once across to the mainland, we stopped to slake our thirst and eat our fill of pizza at the Tuatara Brewery, then it was on to home.

Rats ...

02 October 2018

Five Guys

Long ago I was brought into this life
A little lamb, a little lamb
Fearless was my middle name
But somewhere there I lost my way
Everyone walks the same
Expecting me to step
The narrow path they’ve laid
- Buck/Mills/Stipe (R.E.M.) Walk Unafraid

No matter where in the world you are, the South is just different ... and needs a little extra time.

I finally completed a Great Walk. Unfortunately, it was without Kari or JRH. Kari has a walk of four days on the Tora Coastal Track coming up, but it isn't one of the Great Walks, and after our four day tramp on the Queen Charlotte Track (Link: The Long Walk), JRH has no desire to ever walk so far again. Technically, we did complete one of the Great Walks as a family (Link: The Land That Time Forgot), but it is a river trip and traveled by canoe or kayak, so we didn't actually walk it.

New Zealand has a number of amazing tracks for hiking, and many of them take several days to complete, but only 10 of them have been designated as "Great Walks". They are easily accessible, well-maintained, and well marked trail systems that range from 32 km to 82 km in length and can take up to 6 days to traverse (the Whanganui Journey is 145 km of river paddling). Along the way, much of New Zealand's most spectacular views and culturally important areas are revealed. Accommodations are generally combination of campgrounds and Dept of Conservation maintained huts. Some of the tracks cross private land where there are lodges or private homes in which to stay. DoC huts can be as simple as four walls, a roof, a wood-burning stove for heat, and a wall of bunks on which to sleep, or they can be quite elaborate set-ups with small semi-private rooms and gas ranges on which to cook. They all feature some kind of water source, but that often consists of a cistern or other water source that needs to be filtered or boiled. We were fortunate to have filtered water at each of our huts (still, we filtered it again ourselves).

Mine was not a hiking/camping family, so my first forays into the wild started in my late teens once I had a car. We were young, naïve, and strong. We didn't have the money for light-weight camping gear, water filters, etc; so, we carried everything we needed (including drinking water) on our backs. I only weighed about 150lbs back then and I suspect my pack weighed just as much. While I learned how to survive in the back country, some of the biggest lessons I learned had more to do with what one needs and what one can do without. As we got older and wiser, and could afford updated equipment, our packs got lighter and the walks more enjoyable. It has been many years since I walked long distances, and many more since I did it with any significant weight on my back. Camping with my family has focused more on convenience than survival. That convenience came with a price. This time, the price I paid for convenience, and for forgetting lessons learned long ago, was a pack that can only be described with Kiwi slang ... "heavy as".

Day 1 - Wainui Bay to Whariwharangi Bay

Distance 5.24 km
Time 1:20
Max Elevation 190 m
Elevation Gain/Loss 342 m

Our first day on the trail was a short one. The night before, we took a ferry from Wellington across the Cook Strait to Picton. We spent the night in Picton at a bach called the "Cow Shed", awoke for a lazy breakfast, then drove 3 hours to Marahau where we picked up a 1.5 hour shuttle ride to our trailhead.

Empty late night ferry.

Lounging in the Cow Shed.

All smiles at the trailhead.

Whariwharangi Bay Hut was originally built as a homestead in 1896 and was restored in 1980.

The short hike was a great way to get our legs under us and start the trail. Erik had done all the planning for the trip and had assured us that we had reached our max elevation ... the next four days should be a true coastal walk. I ate a little pack weight, and after a rousing round of BS (the card game) we were in bed for an early morning start.

Day 2 - Whariwharangi Bay to Awaroa Inlet

Distance 16.87 km
Time 4:57
Max Elevation 142 m
Elevation Gain/Loss 1153 m

As would be the theme for the rest of our walk, "an early morning start" is a relative term, especially when traveling with two teen-aged boys. We drank coffee, had a hearty breakfast, and were the last group on the trail to start the day. That wouldn't usually be a problem, but we had to get to Awaroa Inlet by about noon. The inlet requires an estuary crossing that is only accessible for about an hour on either side of low tide. If we missed low tide, we would be crossing the inlet on foot while the estuary filled with water.

Erik was true to his word. Max elevation was only 142m ... he didn't tell us about the 1153m we would actually cover.

We left the hut and immediately started climbing. While it is true that we didn't get as high as the prior day (142m vs 190m), this day would prove quite difficult. We still weren't used to the trail, we hadn't yet eaten down much pack weight, and the trail had a lot more elevation change than anticipated. We would immediately climb a headland and descend to a sandy beach, then walk to the end of the beach to do it all again. Walking with full pack weight along a sandy beach can be ... tedious. The scenery, though, was amazing.

Still smiling. Boy-1 has a bit of a wild look in his eye ... or maybe he is just hungry.

The terrain for Day 2 was very different from Day 1, and variable along the way. We arrive at the shoreline about 30 minutes before low tide, stopped for a rest and a snack, then crossed Awaroa Inlet by wading through a knee-deep, ice cold river.

We still had fresh legs and clearly hadn't had enough walking, so we explored the bay a little and trudged off into the way-back to find an old tanning industry steam engine. It was pretty amazing to watch the tide roll in and cover our back trail.

Exploring Awaroa Inlet.

Day 3 - Awaroa Inlet to Bark Bay

Distance 15.86 km
Time 4:32
Max Elevation 141 m
Elevation Gain/Loss 1085 m

Day 3 would see us last out of the hut again, and it would prove to be the longest day of the trip so far, though not the longest distance. We took a bit of a break part way through the day, and it gave the wizened veterans an opportunity to impart a little trail wisdom to our young charges. After a couple of hours on the trail, we came upon a side trek to the Awaroa Lodge where coffee, fried food, and beer awaited us. The boys insisted that this was "cheating". Our take was that we were merely taking advantage of resources available on the trail (the very essence of back-country tramping). Our view won out, and when all was said and done, I don't recall hearing them complain too much about it.

Profiles split into two parts ... one before and one after beer a lovely break.

Boy-2 still smiling ... Boy-1 starting to look a little crazy-eyed.

A well deserved break ... good coffee, beer, fish & chips, and a whole lot more BS.

We continued to have good trail Karma, even after "cheating" just a little.

The end of Day 3 also involved an estuary crossing ... this one neither as cold, nor as deep. Never content to call it a day, we went for a swim and explored the trails a little before eating and turning in for the night. One of the luxuries I had allowed myself on the trail was apples and peanut butter. It was getting heavy, so I made sure to eat extra helpings this night. Ryan also made a discovery helping Boy-1 organize his gear. Prior to setting out, he allowed Boy-1 to do his own shopping and packing ... a valuable lesson in planning and organization. He discovered that Boy-1 had little food, no rain gear, and no warm clothes. No wonder he had been lapping up our extra helpings and practically sprinting ahead along the trail. Not that I would ever want anyone to suffer, but the weather was so good to us that he never felt the consequences of his poor decisions.

Teen-age boy "pack vomit" ... a nightly occurrence.

Day 4 - Bark Bay to Anchorage Bay

Distance 18.93 km
Time 6:37
Max Elevation 136 m
Elevation Gain/Loss 1121 m

Day 4 would prove to be a long and difficult one, but it was marked by two amazing side treks. Cascade Falls was a steep 30 min tramp along an overgrown and narrow track. We stashed our packs in the underbrush and hiked it light. Unfortunately, this did not stop Ryan from turning his ankle. Nor did it stop me from losing my sunglasses. Recorded distances and times are artificially inflated ... I made a round-trip run up the trail and back to retrieve them. The second side trail was to Cleopatra's Falls where I rode a natural water slide into a deep pool. It was also time for a little grizzled trail wisdom ... in life, as in on the trail, it is the side trips that have the most risk and the most reward. On this our penultimate day, and on the final day 5, we started to see other people on the trail ... it was damned near a Kiwi traffic jam!


Day 5 - Anchorage Bay to Marahau

Distance 12.71 km
Time 3:16
Max Elevation 137 m
Elevation Gain/Loss 718 m

Day 5 was a "short" 12.7 km hike out. It would be our last stinky day on the trail ... and boy, did we stink! We kept passing lovely people on the track. They were carrying light packs, wearing light footwear, their hair was properly coiffed, and they smelled nice in passing. I don't want to imagine what they have written to describe us as we passed on the very narrow trails.


We were off the trail before noon and immediately checked into our bach for the night. After a round of showers and a change of clothes, it was off to town for a proper burger and to stock up on beer, whisky, and provisions for the evening.

It was an awesome trek along one of New Zealand's beautiful coastlines. We are on a shoulder season here ... tracks are open but many of the services are not. We had plenty of room to spread out in the huts and on the trails. Fortunately for Boy-1, and for all of us, the weather was perfect. A little chilly to start the mornings, but t-shirt and shorts weather through the day. I won't say the water was "refreshing", in fact it was downright freezing, but that didn't stop us from taking a daily dip. I can't thank Ryan enough for inviting me, and Erik for making it all happen.

"Wow! That's a lot of lies"
- The Master of Cards