Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Journey South

The sands of Abel Tasman to the sounds of Fjordland (Dec-Jan)

Mosquito Cove in Abel Tasman, only accessible by kayak
I wound the fishing line back onto its stick (not a very sophisticated system!) as we headed towards the beach, a sandy lunch spot beneath the cliffs of one of Abel Tasman's headlands. As expected, nothing was weighing the hook down, again, and it clattered onto the deck, immediately getting caught and tangled. After our beginner's luck fishing in the Marlborough Sounds, this time we'd made the mistake of packing a frying pan and a lemon in our kayak - clearly a bad omen. There weren't even any mussels here, so it would be back to dried packs of pasta. Never mind, any food tastes pretty good when it's cooked on a beach and you're hungry from paddling!

Improvised rain shelter! 
Just a few days after we'd finished our fantastic week kayaking the Marlborough Sounds, we were back on the water for 3 days to explore Abel Tasman's short but spectacular coastline. Renowned for its many wide arcs of golden sand framed by native vegetation, it's one of New Zealand's most popular national parks. This was early in the season so it wasn't busy, but our starting town of Marahau still felt like a kayak rental factory, churning out boats and paddlers each morning after a rather impersonal 'check in' and briefing where we got taught which way round to hold the paddle, just in case we'd not worked it out in 10 years of kayaking.. It was very different from anywhere we'd rented boats from before, but as soon as we were out on the water we could forget all that and enjoy the scenery. The coast was lovely to paddle around, with lots of rocky headlands where seals lounged and little islands to circumnavigate, and plenty of sandy spots to rest and enjoy the view. We got up early and stayed out late (ignoring the company's imposed 4 pm paddling curfew..), and were rewarded with the coast at its calmest, quietest and most beautiful. 

Exploring a lagoon
An unexpected highlight was the tidal lagoons that could only be entered by kayak over their sand bars at high water. They led us inland through calm, reed lined estuaries and up river until the water became too shallow to continue and we'd feel the crunch of the hull grounding. In the evening these lagoons were very peaceful, just the drips of water from our paddles interrupting the reflection of the bank, where kingfishers and herons stared at us from their fishing perches. There are times when a kayak feels like the best place to be in the world.                                                   

Paddling in the morning calm

Flower filled Cobb Valley
Chatting with another paddler at our beach side camp one evening, he recommended tramping in the Cobb valley, a fairly remote area of the nearby Kahurangi National Park. So when we left our kayaks (briefly wondering if the company would even have noticed if 'no 34' didn't return?..) we headed inland. Cobb was a wide, open and alpine flower filled valley that led up river for 8 miles or so to the cosy Fenella hut, perched on the edge of the wilderness. It was a beautiful spot to dry out after kayaking and get back into tramping. As is usual here, although the hut was a social little hub of tramping and travel talk, we saw no-one else on the path for 2 days and felt like we had the whole national park to ourselves. From the hut an easy day trip took us up Kakapo Peak, a nearby mountain with expansive wilderness views of rocky ridges and forest. It was hot work, but there was a lovely tarn to cool off in before we headed back down the valley.

Tarn swimming
Kahurangi wilderness scenery

The lovely Chaffey Hut
On our walk in we'd passed the Chaffey Hut,  a very cute, beautifully renovated, historic little hut by the river. We'd fallen in love with it and decided to spend the night before we left the mountains. Definitely our favourite place to stay in New Zealand, Chaffey has just 2 bunks and a fireplace, and is the perfect spot to fulfill any woodcutter's cottage fantasies (?!), perched above a swimming hole in the river and with views up valley to the hills beyond.

Rock crevasses on Mount Owen
The early December weather was perfect, so we moved straight onto our next tramp- a climb of Mount Owen. This is a unique mountain in Nelson, covered in classic limestone scenery with huge clints and grykes forming massive rock crevasses between slabs. The place is riddled with sink holes packed with ferns, mosses and alpine flowers, and the weirdly shaped cliffs and boulders are etched with deep grooves. It's a scrambler's playground, and after a long, hot and steep walk in we spent the best part of 2 days exploring the mountain system. There was another really good hut to stay in, modern this time, and yet again we met no other trampers on the route. The mountain rises above fantastic, colourful and exotic vegetation including some vicious speargrasses with huge thorned flowers.

Spiky speargrasses on Mount Owen climb

It all had a feeling of a lost world, and it's easy to understand why the mountain was chosen to represent 'Dimrill Dale' in the Lord of the Rings films (although everywhere here seems to have featured in the films at some point or other). From the summit was the grandest view we'd had yet and it certainly made us realise just how mountainous this country is. Ridge after ridge, too many peaks to count, and spreading in every direction from the coast in the north to the distant Southern Alps. We could spot Nelson Lakes, the Kaikoura range and a few other places we'd visited, but most of the view was new to us and it was very inspiring. You'd need more than a few years and a helicopter (or a love of bush-whacking) to reach them all, but the possibilities are endless. Later that day we got down to the valley floor and a much anticipated swim in the river. It was deep, clear and blue-green, swirling between smoothly carved rocks and very scenic, but absolutely infested with sand flies. A whole new motivation to get in the water and stay in- they were biting any exposed skin and were the worst we'd experienced. Just like the midges in scotland or the mosquitoes in the tropics- there has to be an insect around to spoil things!

I wonder why Karl's the only surfer out at Cape Foulwind?
Moving on to the West Coast- with a reputation for rain, wind and wild weather. As soon as we arrived it started to show us just how miserable it could be. Karl braved the big, cold surf at the aptly named Cape Foulwind, but mostly we waited for the weather to improve, whiling away some time visiting the functional towns of Westport and Greymouth and doing our Christmas shopping.

Scenic driving on the West Coast
It was worth waiting, as a couple of days later we got to experience the coast road with blue skies and sunshine- one of the nicest routes we've ever driven. Mile after mile the road wound around green, verdant cliffs and wide, surf-scoured beaches. We stayed at a village called Punakaikai, famous for its 'pancake rocks'. Blowholes in the cliffs are surrounded by layered limestone- like stacks of pancakes turned to stone.

Pancake Rocks blowholes

All along this coast gorges cut through the cliffs to emerge at the sea, and it was up one of these gorges that we headed on our next overnight tramp along the old 'Inland Pack Route', a path that somehow people used to navigate before a coast road was built. Most of the route was actually in a river, with thick bush surrounding the shallow, pebbly waters and huge cliffs looming overhead.

The Inland Pack Track

 Once you've got used to wading in wet boots, it makes sense to use the river bed as a path, as it is often the only way through the deep, impenetrable jungle. Our camp was under the 'Ballroom overhang'- a huge bivvy spot beneath a massively overhanging cliff, big enough for about 20 tents around the fireplace. Two days of gorge walking certainly gave us a new perspective on the scenery and it was a unique tramp. Not somewhere to be caught with rising water, so we were very lucky to fit it into a weather window before the dark West Coast clouds and driving rain enveloped us once more.

The head of Earnslaw Burn
Fast forward a couple of weeks (Christmas on the beach and New Year in Wanaka both covered in a previous blog) to the extensive Mount Aspiring National Park. We did a lot of hiking here, both day walks and overnighters. A highlight was Earnslaw Burn- reached after quite a long slog through forest but well worth it. At the head of the valley a glacier hung, falling into a multitude of ribbon waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.

It was great to see Katy and Dougie again

We camped below a waterfall with a view of the glacier, and spent a long time just staring at the scene trying to take it in. While in the Queenstown area we got a chance to catch up with Katy and Dougie, a couple we met in a bakery in Namche Bazaar, high in the Himalayas. At the time, like us Katy and Dougie had been at the start of a world trip, but have now decided to settle here rather than return to the UK (we might be just a little bit jealous..). Although Queenstown is in a beautiful lake side setting, the town itself is crammed in between the shore and the steep hills, and is very busy and touristy. Traditionally this is somewhere you spend quite a lot of money- usually on adrenaline activities, but in our case it was much less exciting- handing over $500 in the garage for a new shock after numerous rough roads and river fords had taken their toll on our van's suspension. Ouch.

Scenery of Queenstown- us and our van are about to get a shock

The climb up to Gertrude Saddle
Leaving Queenstown we drove south to Fjordland, one of the biggest national parks in the world. Very little of Fjordland is accessible, which just adds to its appeal. The prize for New Zealand scenery just has to go to a little spot in the mountains above Milford Sound, modestly named Gertrude Saddle. 
Douglas Adams put it well in his book 'Last Chance to See'; 'Fjordland is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God's earth, and one's first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause'. That's exactly how we felt here. Why hadn't anyone told us about this place? It seemed like the sort of spot people should make pilgrimages to. As it was, it was just us and a few other trampers dotted around, each having our own 'wow' moments. 

Our camp at Gertrude Saddle (our tent's on the left).
We'd climbed up a U shaped valley surrounded by glacier scoured curving slabs, passing deep, clear tarn waters and tumbling waterfalls, and up steep, gritty rock to the saddle itself. Here it suddenly all dropped away- 1000 metres away, with immense cliffs over which waterfalls streamed down to the forest and river far below. At the end of the valley was Milford Sound, framed by mountains and looking far, far below. Above us the tarn dotted ridge led over bulging slabs of gabbro rock up the steep and snowy summit of Barrier Knob. 

The saddle was an amazing vantage point, and we were very glad to be able to pitch our tent and stay up there, exploring the ridge and taking in the view one way, then the next, then back to the first again. There was just too much to take in, too much beauty to process. It sounds over the top, but it was a real high point of our travels. We couldn't stop grinning. It's moments like this we travel for, and we felt it was worth coming all the way around the world just to be here. And there wasn't even a single sand fly!


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