New Zealand part three: South Island road trip part two, Monday 9th – Friday 20th December

After a full day of driving, both of us had stiff muscles and aching backs, so we had a little jaunt up Mt. Iron before bed. It was only a few hundred metres of ascent and provided us with beautiful panoramic views of the town and the mountains around us. Although it was after 8pm and near sunset, it was a bustling hub of local activity. Joggers, dog walkers, groups of people out for an evening stroll. Due to its small size it didn’t seem to draw the tourists who favoured the enormous pinnacles of Mt. Aspiring national park further up the valley, but it was a beautiful way to end a lovely day of incredible scenery.

We slept that night in a tiny carpark with a toilet block and water tap at the foot of Mt. Iron. Everywhere else in town had no camping signs so we thought we’d be fine there for the night. It was peaceful and only the full moon and prolific rabbits disrupted our otherwise deep slumber. Our new air bed made a huge difference too!

The next day we headed straight to the DOC centre. We’d been looking forward to hiking in New Zealand, and so far apart from climbing Mt. Roberts, our efforts had been thwarted by the weather. But the forecast was now favourable for a few days at least, so we were keen to get straight into the park and lose ourselves in the mountains. The staff were as knowledgeable as ever, and had been receiving information about path conditions from their rangers. In the national park itself, many of the routes had been damaged, with landslips on the paths in treacherous gorge areas making navigating around them impossible. The rivers were still high and as the freezing level had lowered significantly during the storm, there was now a lot of snow melting and adding to the burden. With that in mind, the woman we spoke to recommended another mountain range, out of the park and slightly to the south of the town, the Mt. Pisa Range. She knew the paths there would be navigable, and the snow mostly gone. She also advised that since the range was much smaller than the surrounding mountains, it attracted far fewer hikers, so we should be able to enjoy a beautiful and prolonged walk in relative solitude, despite it being high season. We packed up our camping gear and set off for a few days in the mountains.

That afternoon the weather was hot in the sun, but the wind was bitterly cold. We climbed up through farmland for many kilometres, through gorse and scrub, and past farmers herding sheep into pens. At the top of the pass, 6km later, we were absolutely exhausted. After two weeks of relative inactivity and days of driving, our legs weren’t used to our big bags anymore, and it was with gratitude that we started the descent to the small valley where we had first sight of our bothy home for the night.

Sitting at the confluence of three streams, the hut was in a clearing adjacent to a stand of dead beech trees which people were evidently slowly dismantling for firewood. It sat in sunshine, nestled between lush green hills, the sparkling gurgling water cascading alongside. When we stepped inside, the warm smell of the hearth and of bonfires met us, and the silence and quietude of the hut enveloped us. We read in the visitor book that someone had awoken a few months earlier with a medium sized possum sitting on them. Jay in particular was very excited about this possibility! As we were boiling water and preparing ourselves for an evening in the hut, a couple of Australians arrived to join us. They went for a dip in the stream outside, and rushed back describing it as the coldest water they’d ever felt. We weren’t so hardy as to try! We spent the evening in amiable companionship, with a roaring fire in the hearth and a meal of bland couscous in our bellies. That night the hut creaked and groaned, and the moon – one day before full – flooded the small room with glorious bright light. The stream muttered outside and the grass whispered, and the world felt watchful and still.

The next morning we woke very early so we could get our things together and start walking. We planned to get to the next hut at the other end of the mountain range, past the highest point. It was hard to estimate the distance on the map as the path was convoluted, but we thought it to be maybe around 22km. Given that we’d struggled with 7km the day before, we had an exit plan where we could head to a closer hut if we were too tired. We were also concerned about how much ascent and descent we’d have to do; with unfamiliar maps at 1:50000 scale and 20m contour lines, it was hard to estimate. But the weather was due to be good, with perhaps a few showers in the afternoon, and we had 14 hours of daylight so figured we’d make it eventually!

The walk started with a challenge, our first NZ river crossing, and it turned out that the Australians were right; it was the coldest water either of us had ever felt. It rose to a depth of 2-3 feet in the shallowest area we could find, and we took off our shoes and socks, rolled our trousers up as high as they could go (not high enough), and launched ourselves into the ice-cold water. It bit in with sharp frosty teeth, and we both struggled to get across, with our numb extremities unable to feel the rocks and stones and gradient changes along the bottom of the stream. We raced quickly across the tussocks and through the next two streams before finally stopping to don our socks and start warming up. How the trout that we saw in the water weren’t fishcicles was a mystery.

Most of the ascent we had to do was in that first 5km before our potential exit, and remarkably, we felt fine. After just under two hours we reached our divergence and feeling good, we decided to push on the full distance. The landscape was captivating, and we stopped frequently take in the scenery. We started in green hills dotted with the strangest prominent rock features that towered above us, black and gritty, absorbing rather than reflecting the bright morning light. As we rose higher the plants changed and we found ourselves walking through what can only be described as a desert: sandy ground, succulents, spiky ‘spear grasses’ and blasting winds. It was bizarre to feel as if we were walking through an arid landscape while on all horizons we were surrounded by snow capped mountains not much higher than us. And then we did start to encounter snow, even in this strange an unexpected world. Jay was beside himself with joy!

We stopped for lunch near a rocky outcrop as the wind had picked up and was making walking a challenge, let alone trying to cook on a small gas stove! We huddled for shelter next to a snowbank and were suddenly aware of movement on the surface of the glittering white ice. Small black shapes were trying to get across the snow patch, and failing. On closed inspection, they turned out to be crickets! As we watched more suddenly embedded themselves in the snow and we saw that they were launching themselves from the rocks above. Many were just splatting into the snow, burying themselves irretrievably in the process and a few had already met a frosty death.

It was a wonderful lunch spot, and we marveled at the mountains that seemed to go on forever as we ate our crisp and noodle rolls. But too soon we had to move on as clouds were gathering, and we still had a long way to go.

As we climbed higher still into the start of the afternoon, the landscape changed again. Underfoot was gravel: black and grey, interspersed with patches of glaring white snow and pinnacle-like rocks. The sky greyed overhead and it’s leaden light cast an eerie gloom across the blasted plateaus that we traversed, climbing higher with each one. The wind howled over the exposed surface and we sheltered below a rock formation that looked like a very angry rabbit. Despite the barren appearance of the open fell, we’d seen actual rabbits, and the footprints of a cat in the snow. Oystercatchers and skylarks wheeled above us, calling and shrieking in the wind. Small spiders, camouflaged against the rocks huddled in cracks and a large hairy caterpillar struggled through some stunted grass.

From our vantage point we could see across the rounded summits to the highest (and final) peak on our journey – Mt. Pisa – at 1963m. Its north-eastern edge was a line of cornices built up in the frozen winds.

We made the summit and sat for a moment exhausted, feeling every bit of the ascent we’d done to get there. Tired as we were we still had 2.5km to go to get to the hut, but at least it was downhill. It wasn’t an easy walk though as deep snow patches littered the path (in NZ you have to stay to the path as there is no ‘Right to Roam’), so our progress was slow. But our hut emerged from a crease in the mountain side, and we eventually made it to the sheltered porch.

Maeve immediately fell asleep although it was only 18:30, and Jay just about managed to see the sunset at 21:30 before falling into a disturbed and aching slumber. At midnight we were both surprisingly awake. The full moon outside was incredible, highlighting every rock and blade of grass, scattering silver glitter across the surface of the tumbling stream next to the hut. We took our mattresses to the wooden veranda outside the hut, and put on all our clothes before snuggling up in our sleeping bags to enjoy the night air and beautiful view. Unfortunately after a couple of hours we were too frozen to stay and had to give up on waking outdoors with the sun, but it had been magical laying there watching the stars turn around the valley, hearing the gentle sussurance of the wind and the occasional startled shriek of an oystercatcher.

The next morning we woke to full sunlight streaming in, and spent some time sat on the decking outside the door, warming ourselves in it’s strengthening beams. Skylarks sang beautifully, and we were loathe to have to leave the place.

The walk out followed the river through narrow valleys, before joining trails made for the ski lodge at the plateau’s edge. These wide gravel tracks were easy to follow and comfortable underfoot, and led us through the network of valleys to the lodge and the road beyond, where we faced a tedious 13km descent down the steep gravel track. By midday on the exposed route we were both feeling the effects of the sun, and were very grateful when a passing car stopped to give us a lift back to where we were parked.

Back at the car, we drank as much as we could, and set off for town. After two nights of couscous, we’d been fantasising about hot dogs and fresh vegetables, so we stopped at the local supermarket for supplies. Near where we’d been camping out, there was a public electric barbeque in a park, which allowed us to cook a far more sumptuous meal than over our tiny gas stove. We took full advantage and cooked an actual feast in the open air, frozen snow-clad mountains in the background providing the most incredible scenery for our al fresco meal. It was delicious.

Exhausted from little sleep and a lot of exercise, we parked up for the night in the carpark. Jay struggled to get to sleep and so it was that he was awake at 2:30 when a car pulled up. Bright high-beams shone full on our vehicle, and uncertain about what was going on, Jay hunkered down pretending to be asleep, as footsteps approached. A torch shone in and he froze, every hair standing on end. Someone moved around the outside of the car shining their beam into every window. At the front there was a bright flash as they took a photo of him ‘asleep’ in the back. It was then that he figured that it was an enforcement officer, and that maybe we weren’t allowed to spend the night there despite the lack of signage. He opened the door calling to a short man in a big coat who was making his way back to his vehicle:

Is everything ok? Can I help you?

You can’t sleep here, it’s not allowed

Ok no problem we’ll get dressed now and move on. Do you know where the nearest place we can sleep is?

I don’t know, check the website. Out of town maybe.

Then he drove off! We were both mystified. He’d had a PDA in his hand, and he’d taken photos of the car and us. Had we been given a ticket by an enforcement officer or not? If we’d been camping in an area we weren’t allowed to camp in we’d be liable for a $200 on the spot fine, but we didn’t know if we’d been given one. He hadn’t said so, but we hadn’t asked. More to the point, was he even an enforcement officer? He hadn’t identified himself or made any official sounding comments. We were bemused, but mostly freaked out and pretty intimidated.

We drove off and headed out of town to a layby. Online we established that the whole town had a no freedom camping rule and even out of town we’d need to be in a self-contained vehicle. We had a hotel booked for the following night so we were loathe to travel too far away, so we found the first spot that seemed reasonably safe and took turns dozing in the passenger seat. The freedom camping regulations are ostensibly designed to reduce the impact on the environment, as many people are concerned about the impact of lots of campers leaving rubbish (and even human waste!) around campsites. But for us, we’d gone from sleeping quietly in a car park with toilets if we needed them, and now if we needed to go we’d have to use the roadside. It felt like the intention really was just to move people on, rather than to actually encourage responsible camping.

As early as we could we headed back to town, and nursed a coffee for a few hours in a cafe. We called round a few dentists too as Jay’s cap had come off a tooth out on the hills, and he had a metal post sticking out of his gum. Fortunately we’d found it in the gravel and managed to bring it back with us. More fortunately we found a dentist who fit us in for an appointment that afternoon and reattached it.

The hotel kindly let us in to our room early and our relief at getting into a comfy, safe, warm room cannot be understated. We dumped all our things and immediately hit the showers, before turning on the tablet and streaming channel4 live. We were just in time for the exit poll announcement, and like everyone else who’d been following the election in the UK, were stunned at the result. As more seats were revealed and friends we were talking with online drifted despondently to bed, we took ourselves out. Feeling exhausted and disillusioned, we hit the supermarket and returned to the room with a few beers, and we spent the rest of the day getting slowly drunk before a long soak in a hot bath, and a deep sleep on the softest mattress in the world.

The next day, still feeling the shock of the election, we planned to head south west, out of the district. We really wanted to go to Fiordland and see the beautiful waters and mountains there, desperate to get in another few hikes before leaving the south island. As we were leaving we thought we should check the weather and were shocked to find that another epic storm was rolling in and would batter the region in 24 hours. Fearing that the bridges would be inundated again and we could end up cut off from routes north to the ferry terminal, we had no choice but to give up the plans we’d made, and head north of the Rangitata river that day.

We made the east coast with little difficulty. It was exceptionally windy but bright, and we headed for a seal colony view point. Out of the car the wind lashed us but we found the promontory and watched the fur seals scrapping and playing in the water below. The rocks were covered in shags (yes. we know) that squawked and shrieked when they took to the air. Sadly we saw no penguins so we headed to Otorau (apparently the steampunk capital of NZ) where we saw a pair of rare yellow-eyed penguins. At a penguin sanctuary we were too early in the day to see the blue penguins, but we did see a seal vomit and a seagull eat that, so, well, hmm. We stopped at another beach to see the Moeraki Boulders; huge spherical boulders which are ‘concretions’ of sediment and calcite.

We crossed the Rangitata river late in the evening and arrived at the recreation ground we’d stayed in the week before. It was dark as we arrived and to our bemusement and surprise we found that it was just a playing field. There were no other vehicles, no one else sleeping there. It was deserted and creepy as hell. We could only guess that the campers had been allowed there by the village the week before as a kind gesture during the bridge closure, and that this was not, in fact, a campsite. It was too late for us to go anywhere else though, so although it was an unsettling place to sleep, we snuggled down into our sleeping bags, and set an early alarm so we could be up and about before anyone showed up to play sports.


As it happened we had a very restful night and spent some time that morning making a plan. We only had a few days left, and the weather was not going to be good enough to go to any of the big ranges for hiking. We wanted to do some walking though, and we needed to have somewhere to sleep. With those being our only criteria for where to go next, we found a couple of places at the small town of Hamner Springs where we could park overnight in the town centre. So we set off along the beautiful winding roads, and made the town in the early evening. The weather was still nice, so we made the 6km walk up Conical Hill which sits just above the town giving incredible views over the valley.

It was a windy night and we woke anxious to get to the hills before the rain set in later. The only map we’d been able to get from the TI didn’t have a scale, or contours, so we’d made a rough estimate of the time it would take, and the distance and ascent based on just looking at the hills around us and trying to picture what that meant on the map. Some of the marked trails gave expected completion times, and these also helped us, but we didn’t think we would be doing anything too excessive, and were pleased to be walking in the incredibly beautiful forests that surrounded the town.

We started up a trail marked in the leaflet as ‘for experienced walkers only’ and quickly found out why. It was muddy and almost vertical in places; and it went on forever! The path climbed and climbed up the side of Mt. Isobel and at times we felt enclosed, unable to descend the muddy chute, but unable to penetrate the dense and vertical forest that surrounded us. It was beautiful and we were soon well into the cloud layer. After some hours we came to the track that took us to a waterfall, and we gazed in awe at the 41m high cascade that flowed down a chute lined with deep green moss. The bowl it had created was moist and we were spattered with droplets which soon left us feeling too cold to linger, so accompanied by the strangest bird calls which sounded more like sneezing than anything else, we made our way down a different trail back to the town. Somehow we’d walked 15km and climbed 748m. Maeve had been collecting pine cones and made the dashboard into a yule display. Surrounded by the clouds and rain we somehow managed to start feeling festive.

The next day the weather was absolutely awful, and we spent most of it hiding out in the library, which was full of other campers taking advantage of the warmth and free wifi. After shivering through cooking dinner under an awning, we spent the evening watching iplayer back in the car, slightly damp and chilly.

On our last morning, we had tickets to visit the famous thermal springs, and we were among the first people at the entrance, waiting for them to open so we could warm up. As we waited the clouds started to lift and we could see that the freezing level had dropped to around 1000m, and the slopes we’d been walking on two days before were now coated in snow. The snow-capped hills gave us the most beautiful backdrop for our morning soak in the geothermal pools. The springs eased our aching legs, and we spent some hours lounging around in the deep pools, flowing down the lazy river, and enjoying the water slides. The sun even came out and despite our attempts to remain in the shade, we both somehow ended up with sunburn!

Our final night on the south island was at a hostel back in Picton, where we returned our lovely little estate car, and availed ourselves of the proper kitchen to make a roast dinner with Linda McCartney pies (we spent months dreaming about these whilst travelling around Asia!). The next morning we set off early and made the ferry, leaving the south island in glorious sunshine to make the crossing back to Wellington, for the night bus to Auckland. We loved hiking on the south island, although the lack of access rights made it challenging, and of course the weather had curtailed many of our plans. But these things had meant we’d ended up going to places we hadn’t intended, having different adventures, but adventures nonetheless. We loved our time so much that we’ve postponed our flights to South America by a few weeks, so that we can do some more exploring and hiking in this beautiful country.

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