Sunday, 15 February 2015

Queen Charlotte Track

As starts to expeditions go, this one was not good. Firstly I was suffering from a heavy cold, sprinkled with bouts of diarrhoea. Then despite being 30 minutes early for our boat taxi we'd forgotten our prepared sandwiches for lunch and the following morning's breakfast. To top it off, and probably the most severe lapse of all, we'd also forgotten the sausages for dinner. This was a double blow as sausages are Chris's favourite, and the only meat we'd packed for the trip.

Not to be disheartened we took the boat taxi from Picton (top east of the North Island) to Ships Cove at the far north-eastern end of the Queen Charlotte Sound. Ships Cove is an east facing bay on a finger of land that stretches into the sound. This is where Captain James Cook moored the Endeavour. He arrived in 1769 and climbed up to a vantage point to observe that there was a channel splitting New Zealand into a North and South Island. Ships Cove was chosen to harbour Cooks expeditions another four times, generally for about three weeks at a time. They collected botanical samples, conducted astronomy, re-baked ration biscuits to get rid of the weevil infestation and traded with Maori tribes. The area was used seasonally by the Maori as there was superb fishing to be had and the natural forest provided materials for medicine and building.

The meandering 71km Queens Charlotte Track was our target for the next four days. The landscape here is famed for flooded valleys, or 'sounds'. These are created when the landmass sinks, as opposed to the 'fjords' which is where a previously glacial-covered valley is flooded when the sea-level rises.

We found a Weta scavenging along the shore, he didn't seem to mind the rain! It rained all day; it was heavy rain, the type that creates bubbles in puddles. The views of the surrounding bays were shrouded in a veil of clouds. We completed the first 15km section by early afternoon and I collapsed into our hut's bunk bed at the Endeavour Inlet trying to sleep off my cold. Whilst I was slumbering Chris happened to start up a conversation with a party of guests who had chartered a boat to go fishing for the week. We were surprised when a lady from the party arrived to give us some fresh Blue Cod. Chris waved it in the direction of the stove and it was absolutely delicious.

A second soaking day along the well marked track took us through tree ferns (yes, ferns the size of trees!) and black fungus covered beech trees. We saw a stoat dart across the track, obviously the numerous traps set to catch these invasive species were not 100% effective. Our homestay was with Noline, an 84 year old who welcomed us with warm scones topped with three inch thick slabs of butter. She provides accommodation and cooking facilities for up to six people per night in her home. The income funds her travelling, which she does alone each year. Her late husband did not like to travel, so after his death 20 years ago she started to take in guests and in the winter travels the world. We were amazed that she had visited over 60 countries since she started her homestay business. We met some fellow trampers - Chloe and Angus, who entertained Chris with their cheery banter whilst I spent the evening resting in bed.

The rain cleared for our third day which covered some steep climbs in dappled sunlight. We walked about 25km that day, and I remember spotting evidence of wild pigs snouting up the forest floor. The track did not follow a ridge line and the numerous climbs and descents as we wove in and out of bays were punishing on the joints. Keeping an ear out for the native birdsong from the bush-clad hills, we glimpsed Fantails and Grey Warblers darting in to the thickets and the occasional Weta browsing in the grasses. We were rewarded for our labour by some superb views over the sounds.

The final day was another 20km with a 400m climb at the start. The thought of this sudden ascent right outside our doorstep did not encourage me to hop out of bed. Yet I didn't grumble (that much). We were walking by 8am as we had arranged a collection at 3.30pm. It was a slog to keep climbing upwards to the crest of a hill only to see the path ahead fall and then climb again up the next hill.  The weather held good though and we set a fantastic pace. In the end we arrived a couple of hours early in the small settlement of Anakiwa at the western end of the track 72km later. This gave us a chance to relax in the sun and read our books until the boat taxi arrived to ferry us back to Picton. That night we met Chloe and Angus on the Picton waterfront to congratulate ourselves for a walk well done with a beer or two.

The first tentative steps along the jetty at Ships Cove

The monument to Cook and The Endeavour

The best views on the first day looking across the mouth of Endeavour Inlet

Shelter from the rain in our cosy cabin

Sausage and mash without sausages but with cod!

Sarah looking enthusiastic about starting a soggy day two

Beautiful views from Noeline's balcony over the sound

The jetty at Noeline's where Chris went for a relaxing dip to warm up after a day's walk in the rain!

A much drier third day in the sunshine

The views just get better

and better

Our first Weta (pronounced Wekka) very curious creatures

Beech trees and tree ferns

Looking towards Picton our final destination

As you go higher everything gets steeper

Our bay for the third night

The final few hills on day four

The cicadas played constantly the whole route, often flying off the trees into your face and body

Final destination - waiting for our speed boat home - 72km done wahoo!

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Waipatiki and Wellington

The Hawke's Bay coastline is dotted with beaches and isolated headlands jutting into the Pacific. Napier has a huge shingle beach but with deadly rip tides, so to get some beach time (following our walk in the mountainous Tonagariro) we took the bus 25 minutes north to find a safe cove. We were dropped off at the turning to Waipatiki beach in the early afternoon and became quite hot and sweaty as we traipsed along the lane trying to hitch a ride. In addition to our normal backpacks we were loaded with food for three days sustenance and after an hour on foot we wondered if any generous soul would stop to give us a lift. Our prayers were answered when Andrea and her son Baxter offered us a ride. We were very grateful especially when we found out we still had 10km to go! They kindly invited us around for dinner and we had a fabulous evening getting to know the family, enjoying a BBQ and playing ping pong.

The next day it rained constantly, so our plan to relax on the beach was dashed. Still, it was great to have a cabin of our own to stay in for three nights after sharing dorm rooms for the last few weeks. The following afternoon the weather improved enough to give us a few hours on the beach with some great swell for body boarding. It is a fantastic little cove, hidden away amongst the pine covered chalk hills, with only a few houses and a small campground - a perfect place to relax.

Early on the fourth day we caught a lift with the local girls on the morning school run back into Napier and then travelled by bus to Wellington. Our time in Wellington was limited so we headed straight for Te Papa, New Zealand's National Museum. It was highly interactive and we focused on the Pacific and NZ history galleries - the artefacts were very well displayed. We both gaped over a formadihide preserved Giant Squid. We'd watched a programme on the National Geographic channel some three years ago about how she was caught accidentally in Antarctic waters. I'd always wanted to see a Giant Squid (preferably far away) and it makes you think what else lingers in the depths?

The secret haven of Waipatiki

Around midday during a rain storm - pretty dark but still pretty

Spot the difference - Sarah getting creative with the watercolours

Entertaining ourselves with the sparrows during the wet weather

Who's looking at you kid

Our homely retreat

Chris upsets Museum Security

Sarah's a little disappointed with her giant squid!

The completed masterpiece - well done Sarah


We sauntered around Napier in the fading light admiring the stunning art-deco architecture, a cross between Gotham City and 1930s New York but on a much smaller scale! Destroyed by the Hawkes Bay earthquake of 1931 the town was rebuilt in the style of the era, resulting in the greatest concentration of art-deco architecture anywhere in the world.

The following day we took a trip to Hastings, Napier’s neighbour to explore the art galleries and sample some of the local brews at the Filter Room brewery and cidery on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The MTG building

Pahia of the Reef - a Maori maiden who was enchanted by the sea people off the coast and went to meet with them, but when she tried to leave and return to land they became angry and turned her into a reef that now lies a few kilometres off Napier's shores

The Daily Telegraph building - I wonder if they still own it?!

Poa meaning poles, similar to Native American totempoles, each one represents a different tribe and faces the direction of their Marae or meeting house 

A few pieces of art that we rather fancied but couldn't afford or fit in our rucksacks

Whoa there!

Very positive feelings about this one

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Tongariro Northern Circuit

One of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Tongariro Northern Circuit leads you into the jaws of the North Island’s most active volcanic landscape. The path passes through stunning mountain scenery dominated by 3 active volcanoes, Tongariro, Raupehu (the highest mountain in the North Island) and Ngauruhoe - the legendary Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings – welcome to Orc country! 

We set off from Whakapapa village, a ski centre during the winter, but in summer bustling with trampers, day trippers and backpackers. We carried everything with us for our 4 days in the hills, so the packs started out a little heavy with enough food for the trip.

Perfect weather for the start of our trek, the cone of Ngauruhoe our destination

Mount Ruapehu dominates the skyline, the chateau at Whakapapa in the right of the picture

The track climbed gently above the village, undulating through moss ridden forests, weaving in and out of narrow gorges and streams. The narrow path was heavily eroded through the soft ash-laden soil.  We passed charred trees preserved in this soil, remnants of the forests once here, destroyed during the super volcano eruption of Taupo in 26,500 years ago. This enormous eruption reshaped this part of the North Island and lead to the creation of the 616 square kilometre Lake Taupo to the north, New Zealand’s largest lake, which is effectively a huge caldera.

The weather was clear, blue skies and a hot sun that burnt anything that wasn’t covered up or creamed. Despite the popularity of the trail we met only one other walker on that first day until we reached our quarters for the night at the Mangatepopo hut. It was a cosy affair with three small dorms, a tiny kitchen with three gas burners, a few small tables and a large veranda to bathe in the evening sunshine.

23 people squeezed into the hut that night with another 10 camping outside. We opted for an early night and early start the next morning as the next section of the walk is known as the Tongariro crossing, the most popular single day walk in New Zealand with over 1000 people a day attempting it during peak season i.e. right now.

The hut can just be seen nestled under the ridge leading to the summit of Tongariro

A great view of Ngauruhoe's cinder cone from the hut

We were up at 5.30am and away just after 6am. The track here is well maintained and weaves through and over lava fields under the shadow of Mount Doom. We were one of the first few on the track as we left the scant vegetation behind and the ascent steepened up to the saddle between Ngauruhoe and Tongariro. After the saddle we crossed the south crater floor, an endless white basin half hidden in the clouds. The weather was poor, visibility of around 100 metres and winds gusting over 40mph. But the forecast was good, so we continued upwards and left the main track, twisting and turning along a basalt and scoria ridge to the summit of Tongariro lost in the clag.

We retraced our steps to the main path and now joined the catching crowds passing the red crater, when all of a sudden the clouds began to break and strange vistas began to unravel before our eyes. Ngauruhoe loomed over us, the red crater spewed its steam, the yellow crater stared back at us, its sulphur crystals glinting in the sun and the emerald lakes shimmered like cats eyes on the plateau below us.

We descended the cinder scree run to the dazzling lakes, steam drifting from smaller vents around its shores which were fringed with vibrant oranges and reds.

Here we left the crowds to complete their crossing and headed east toward the Oturere Hut. Pumice crunched and squeaked under foot like freshly fallen snow as we flowed down the lava fields and over the remnants of pyroclastic flows.

South Crater in the clag

Central Crater with Blue Lake beyond

The Emerald Lakes

The clouds on Ngauruhoe look like smoke - maybe we should speed up

Looking back the way we've come through the lava fields

The hut was even smaller than the night before, but we had first pick of a bed in the smaller room. We found a waterfall a few hundred yards from the hut hidden in its little gorge and we stripped and showered away the ash that clung to our skin under the freezing spring fed torrent.

The Oturere hut with Ruapehu in the background

Our shower for the evening

We had a lazy start the next morning and after a breakfast of noodles washed down with coffee we cruised our short third day. The route continued east following the dried up rivulets through the ash desert, crossing huge lava ridges, which eventually plummeted down into the valley beyond.

Down in the valley pockets of forest have survived the bombardment from the 12 Tongariro vents nearby. Their cool interiors, moss and lichen rich, provided a refreshing refuge from the scorching sun.

The Waihohonu hut is only a few years old and a palace compared to our previous two nights.  We bathed in the nearby spring, which flowed from a small cave opening at a rather chilly 3 degrees. We also went duck spotting for the very rare Blue Duck or Whio, with Amanda the hut warden. She became very giddy at the sight of it, as it was only the second sighting of one in that area.  It is a rare duck, holding territories on fast flowing mountain rivers. We met a new friend at the hut, Julia a tailor from Germany, who had once done a language course in Llandudno and lived in Chester for a few months – small world!!

We reach the vegetation again

 Its a tad chilly this bath

Sarah putting on a brave face

Our final day we cruised back to Whakapapa through ancient lava flows now covered in heather and grasses. The heather was introduced by a former Ranger of the Tongariro National Park, to encourage grouse and pheasant for shooting. Unfortunately this invasive plant out competes many native species of grasses and shrub and is now managed intensively by the Department of Conservation to minimise its spread.

We visited the old Waihohonu hut, one of the first built in the park, used by the victorian hikers and skiers. Their graffiti still remains, adorning walls doors and beds. Carvings have ben produced by those trapped in the hut by bad weather and a collection of old photos and artefacts dating back through to the 19th century are on display, including good old Oxo and Coleman’s mustard. It was a fantastic little time capsule of the Tongariro visitors over the past 150 years.

Crossing the saddle between Ruapehu, with its snow covered peaks, and Ngauruhoe we completed our circuit of Mount Doom, its perfect cinder cone had dominated the four days.

The old Waihohonu hut

Graffiti dating back to the early 1900s

I think the emergency food rations haven't been updated for a while

Uh oh - last sweety!

Back at Whakapapa we celebrated our trek with a well deserved pint or two with Julia. The following day was intended as a rest day, so we climbed Mount Ruapehu, which wasn’t much of a break at 2797m! However, we decided to cheat a little and took a chair lift to 2000m. There are no marked tracks to its summit so we followed a line of best fit and scrambled to an obvious ridge line which we followed to the crater rim and had our lunch in the sun dappled snows of the summit.

 Sarah's first chairlift

The crater summit of Ruapehu

Looking back at our route of the Northern Circuit 

Resting those weary pins with our new friend Julia