Walking in New Zealand: North and South

© J.P. Ross

John Ross writes about walking in New Zealand in 2009, taking in both the North and South Island with their glaciers, mountains and assorted flora and fauna along the way.

John spent his working life teaching modern languages in Glasgow. He played golf for much of that time but the game eventually yielded to his preference for the Munros and all but 30 Corbetts, and he became a member of the Lomond Mountain Rescue Team.

"I dislike being called a rambler, but admit to being a scrambler rather than a dangler. I had an ambition to climb all the Ben Lomonds outside of Scotland but have only done those in Utah, Tasmania and NZ."

John visiting the Fox Glacier, New Zealand  © J.P. Ross
John visiting the Fox Glacier, New Zealand
© J.P. Ross

This piece dates back to September-November 2009. The delay can be put down to a mixture of golf and writer's cramp, mainly the former.

I regularly visit New Zealand where I have a daughter in Rotorua, a son in Gisborne and three grandsons. Over the years, I have done some great walks, including Ben Lomond above Queenstown, the Kaweka Range up country from Napier and the crossing of the magnificent Tongariro National Park. Recent visits, however, have seen me increasingly seduced by some fine golf courses including Arikikapakapa [Place of Splashing Waters] in Rotorua where a ball hit off-line can land in a pool of boiling mud or a fissure emitting clouds of steam.

Mounts Cook and Tasman  © J.P. Ross
Mounts Cook and Tasman
© J.P. Ross

The weather in Gisborne had not been great, with a Southerly approaching, when I chanced on a forecast for South Island - a week's sunshine on the west coast. I grabbed rucksack, tent, boots and golfbag, caught a bus to Wellington, had dinner with an old friend and took the InterIslander to Picton. The crossing of the Cook Straight is stunning, with Mollymawks impersonating "real" Albatrosses and Cape Pigeons flashing about. Just as the ferry is about to plough into the cliffs of South Island it swings off into the beautiful Marlborough Sound, with Picton at its head.

I duly picked up a car and headed south. I could not resist a quick 9 holes when I saw the sacreligious sign outside Picton Golf Club: "Smile, it's only a game!" You'll never see that at Panmure. In September there were Merino lambs running about, a few llamas looking over a fence and the omnipresent bell-like calls of Magpies [same ones as in Oz] and Bellbirds. On through the vineyards of the Wairau Valley, after which one could almost be in British Columbia with pine forests sloping down to wild, untamed rivers.

A Weka - a flightless bird  © J.P. Ross
A Weka - a flightless bird
© J.P. Ross

I reached the coast at Westport and, heading south, stopped to visit the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki. This is a fascinating layering of limestone which looks like pancakes stacked on a plate and some spectacular blowholes. I then passed Greymouth and the site of the impending Pike River Mine tragedy. I camped south of Hokitika and in the morning enjoyed the attention of a Weka, a flightless bird, pecking at my boots with obvious and successful designs on my muesli. My next stop was the former goldmining town of Ross, where I visited the old cemetery to check out my ancestors, Not a Ross in sight. The original settlers seem to have been mainly an eclectic mixture of non-Scottish Europeans.

The Alex Knob Track  © J.P. Ross
The Alex Knob Track
© J.P. Ross

South of Ross the backdrop is the Southern Alps. I decided to take the Alex Knob Track - an 8-hour round trip up to 1304 metres with a fine view over the Franz Josef Glacier.

Franz Josef Glacier  © J.P. Ross
Franz Josef Glacier
© J.P. Ross

The Franz Josef Glacier in the Tai Poutini National Park is 12 km long and presently descends, like its neighbour the Fox Glacier, into the temperate rainforest at less than 300m above sea-level. Its length depends on variations in the snowfield which feeds it and it is currently in a phase of rapid retreat. It is reckoned that there will be 38% less of it by 2100.

Franz Josef is the boring name. Maori legends are always much more appealing. "Ka Roimata o Hinehukatere" translates as "The Tears of Hinehukatere". Hinehukatere loved climbing and took her lover Wawe with her. A less experienced climber, he had the misfortune to be swept down by an avalanche. The tears of the devastated Hinehukatere froze and formed the glacier.

As I left my car, a Kea landed on it with a decidedly predatory look in its eyes. The car was fully insured so I went on my way. The bird [a mountain parrot and well worth googling] must have been well fed as the car was still in one piece when I got back.

A Kea, just before he jumped onto my car  © J.P. Ross
A Kea, just before he jumped onto my car
© J.P. Ross

The track zigzags up a steep and probably rather exposed slope. As it is mostly through bush the exposure gave me no problems. The normal weather pattern here is for morning sunshine giving way to cloud. I was lucky as the cloud developed only after I got back down in the evening. Alex Knob is in tussock grass terrain above the snow-line with a fine view over the glacier and surrounding peaks. This should have been a grand wilderness experience but helicopter tourism put paid to that hope for much of the day.

When I got back to Franz Josef town, I realised I still had not seen Mount Cook so I took a road west and cooked a meal beside the car with fine views to Mounts Cook and Tasman lit by the setting sun. I was now so tired that I crashed out in the car and woke to see the aforesaid mounts lit by the rising sun. The morning cloud arrived at the same time as the first tourists. It's uncharitable, I admit, but I did enjoy a vague feeling of schadenfreude, having already got my photos in the can.

By now the weather forecast was not so good so I went south to take a quick look at the Fox Glacier. I walked up to the snout to find a notice indicating that further progress was only allowed if with a guided group.

"Glacier Guided Groups only". " Aye right", I thought. Not even in New Zealand does anyone own a glacier. So on I went. A well-trodden path led up the side of the glacier, then down and up steps cut in the ice to the top. Half way up, I duly met a group whose leader pointedly observed that his company had made the steps. I politely thanked him which did not go down too well . "What if you have an accident?" I said that in my country if he had an accident a Mountain Rescue Team would collect him, patch him up and put him in an ambulance without grumping at him. "OK" he said, "Point taken. I've been there." We parted amicably . He seemed to be aware of Scottish attitudes to access. I made my way to the top, took some photos and headed back down in one piece. Later, I was on a flight of wooden steps on cliffs above the glacier when I met another group. "So you must be the wandering Scotsman?" said the leader, "I got a radio call…"

Sun up from Mt Hikurangi  © J.P. Ross
Sun up from Mt Hikurangi
© J.P. Ross

This was another fine walk with some memorable birdlife including many Paradise Shelducks on the glacial lake at the end of the valley and a wee, specially imported ca 1860, Dunnock, hopping around beside the snout of the glacier.

I was chased north by an advancing front and escaped over Arthur's Pass to stay for a few nights with friends near Christchurch. This was not long after the first earthquake and the only obvious signs were the liquefaction of a bunker on the Hagley Park course and the aftershock which shook the whole house just as I was shutting the fridge door after breakfast.

I had always wanted to visit the port of Lyttelton, from where Shackleton sailed for Antarctica in the Nimrod in January 1908. Unfortunately, I was seduced by an attractive ridge above the town with fine views over the Banks Peninsula [hills of Munro height] and spent a very pleasant evening walking round it. The town was massively damaged in the second earthquake, so a return will have to be put on ice.

Back in Gisborne, I was delighted to be invited by friends of my son to fulfil my main remaining, achievable ambition in New Zealand, to see the sunrise from the summit of Mount Hikurangi on the East Cape.

Mt Hikurangi  © J.P. Ross
Mt Hikurangi
© J.P. Ross

I'll do the science bit first.

Mt Hikurangi is one of several spectacular sandstone peaks on the south side of the Tapuaeroa Valley and at 1752m is the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island.

This region is extremely complex geologically and happens when you are astride a plate boundary! Put simply, the bottom part of Hikurangi is in-situ Cretaceous sandstone and the upper part is out-of-place older greywacke sandstone which has been thrust up and over the top. I have a much more detailed description which I had thought of passing off as my own but I would never have got away with it.

Hugh, a fisherman from Manchester, his wife Hera and I set off to enjoy the beautiful drive up the East Cape to Ruatoria, passing Tolega Bay, famous for its connections with Captain Cook's explorations. Happily, Hugh had obtained permission to take his old 4x4 from the Pakihiroa Station up the farm track to a point below the Hikurangi Hut, cutting out what would have been a horrendous 1200 metre slog [point taken, but Hikurangi is neither a Munro nor a Corbett, so I was happy to jettison my purist principles]. This area is used for sheep and cattle farming and is actually rather depressing, having been deforested and with remnants of fine old trees lying everywhere. The wilderness experience was further spoiled by the constant noise of an aircraft spraying lime to maintain the limited yield of grass.

Mount Hikurangi is the first point on mainland New Zealand to catch the morning sun. It is the highest point in the rugged Raukumara Range and is revered by the Ngati Porou tribe as its sacred mountain. For them, it is, more importantly, the resting place of Nukutaimemeha, the waka[canoe] of Maui, who is said to have fished up the North Island of New Zealand. The association of people and mountain is recorded in song, haka, proverbs and incantations. Some fine wooden statues were erected at the Millennium to reflect this relationship.

We arrived at the hut in thick mist. At midnight, I had to pop outside and was amazed at the change. The mist had lifted, the sky was awash with stars, dominated as always by the Southern Cross, and the moon was about to rise in the north-east. There were no complaints when I woke up the occupants of the hut to come and take a look.

We were up at 3.30am and off by headtorchlight at 4am.

Summit of Mt Hikurangi  © J.P. Ross
Summit of Mt Hikurangi
© J.P. Ross

A steep, grassy scramble behind the hut leads into southern beech forest [no sign of either Hobbits or Onodrim] followed by subalpine scrub until one emerges above the bushline. From a lochan there are fine views of the interior of the Raukamura Range with the precipitous summits of Whanakoa to the north-west, its highest peak so rugged that it was only climbed in 1946 by Colin McLeron and Adrian Primrose. This is harsh country, where off-track travel is only for those who enjoy a good thrashing [Kiwi speak]. The route then leads across tussock slopes dotted with clumps of prickly speargrass, North Island edelweiss and large buttercups. A long, steep-sided scree gully, inhabited by a pair of not often seen NZ Falcons and some seriously alarmed Pipits, leads to a bealach from where an exposed scramble leads to the summit and the trig point.

By this time the sun was just above the horizon giving unforgettable mist and cloud effects and fine views over surrounding peaks and north and east to the South Pacific Ocean.

Looking East along the summit ridge  © J.P. Ross
Looking East along the summit ridge
© J.P. Ross

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4 Mar, 2015
Thanks John brings back happy memories of my time there. In return I'll be so bold as to post the write up from one of our tramps in the Tararuas just North of Wellington. The post was called "Terror in the Tararuas" "The Tararuas, just North of Welly, are famous for being horrible. The wet and windy weather combined with the rugged terrain gives them a pretty bad reputation in a country with so much good walking, but I was keen to get up and see them again before we left the country and it seemed like the ideal way to de-stress after our frantic last weeks of finishing jobs and moving out of our house. So the day we left our house we hopped in a hire car and drove up to Otaki Forks to head bush for a couple of days. A late start and heavy packs saw us at Field Hut at about four o'clock on the first day and the idea of pressing on to Kime that night (another 2-3 hours walking and another 500m of altitude to gain) was not so appealing so knowing we had 'only' six hours of walking the next day we decided to stay on at Field that night making up for it with an early start and a longer day the next day. Big mistake – though we didn't know it at the time. Breakfast and the traditional log book entry saw us away at about 9.45, later than I would have liked but OK as we had the whole day ahead of us, an easy hour took us to the top of Table-Top where we found a DOC gang working on the path whilst a helicopter buzzed in and out carrying materials for the track upgrade. Shortly after this things started to go wrong. The climb towards Kime Hut took us into the clouds and up to our turn off for the ridge which would lead over a succession of small peaks before turning off to a steep drop and our destination for the night, Penn Creek Hut. A few false starts and we found the right path, though DOC's helpful marker poles soon disappeared. This did not matter too much as given the path was on a ridge with sheer drops on either side it would have been hard to miss the correct direction. We dropped back below the cloud layer to great views and eventually made our way to the top of Mt Vosseler. Here I realised two things, one hard on the heels of the other. The first was that we were making slow time - it was now about 3.30 and we were only half way up the ridge, the second was that the time listed between Kime Hut and Penn Creek Hut (four hours) was for the shortest route which we were emphatically not on. In fact the route we were on was about double the distance for the route that the map quoted as four hours. Oh wonderful hindsight! So there we were half way through the afternoon at 1500m elevation after a long day's tramping with a good five hours on our feet left to go. Some food and drink lifted morale slightly, as did the knowledge that once we were off of the ridge the path was marked as being a 'track' rather than a 'route' which hopefully would mean faster travel. Ho, ho, ho! Four hours later we dropped down into the bush and saw the path disappearing right into the heart of thick bush. The path didn't magically clear once we got into the forest, in fact it got worse – it was an effort to follow DOC's orange flashes to stay on it, and even when following them there was a regular obstacle course of tree trunks to be ducked or hurdled, bushes to force through and bogs full of "bastard grass" to wallow in, the thought of trying to pick out the path by headtorch when I was having a job doing so when the sun was up made me feel weak at the knees. Still on the plus side we were off the tops, and a couple of hours steep descent should see us near the bottom of the valley where water, a fire and comfy beds awaited us. Two hours later and the situation had taken a turn for the (even) worse, the sun had set leaving the forest in total darkness pierced only by the weak beams of our head-torches. The path had got a little better, but not much, and our speed had slowed from painful to 'if we go any slower we're going backwards'. Convinced that the Hut must be close, more from wishful thinking than from any rational deductions, we staggered on, like a couple of thirsty dogs with our tongues lolling over jaws, drawn by the sound of the river crashing down the valley floor (we were now out of water). Then it hit me – the river, oh f*ck we have to ford that river, and from the sounds of it it is a raging torrent not a placid 'creek'. Another half hour and T announced that she would be going no further that night – very sensible as it turned out. I did a quick recce about a hundred metres further down the hill to make sure it wasn't 'just around the corner' and was forced to agree that there was no point going any further. So there we were on a steep hillside at 10.30 p.m. with no water and having missed our dinner, oh, and there was a river crashing away below us that we would need to wade before we could begin the seven hour climb back to the road-head. As if this was not enough we needed to be back in Wellington (an hour and a half's drive away) the following evening to get to the hotel we'd stashed our stuff in to sort out all our gear so we could make our (non-changeable, non-refundable) flight to Melbourne the following day. Great, well done me! What a pleasant way to relax after a frantic couple of weeks! The bright side was that the 3 or so kilos of camping mat I had been carrying round with me for emergencies such as this now proved worth their weight in gold. With a little effort we found about six foot of level path we could squeeze onto and plonked the mats and our sleeping bags down onto them. The relief in our throbbing feet and legs, coupled with the spreading warmth of our ever trusty sleeping bags is hard to describe. It was blissful. The last liquid we had to drink was a half bottle of wine, so in the interests of hydration that went down the hatch and added to the strangely euphoric glow. Thank God it wasn't raining. If you've seen 'Platoon' and can remember the the morning after the final battle when friend Charlie Sheen wakes up in the hush of dawn with after the pandemonium of being over-run by the Vietcong the previous night then you'll know how it felt to wake up the next morning. Sleep had been instantaneous and, despite the rocky path we'd slept on, deep and undisturbed, but most importantly refreshing. We were thankful we had not tried to press on the night before as it was another two and a half hours before we made it to the bottom of the valley – it would have taken us all night if we had tried to reach the hut the night before. Joy of joys the creek was also fordable, a few minutes search found a place 30 metres up river where the water was smooth and only came up to our thighs. We reached Penn Creek Hut shortly after and drank the best coffee I will have for quite some time, followed by a meal of roast lamb in mint sauce and mashed potatoes and miso soup. A roast dinner, albeit dehydrated, at 10.30 a.m. is not perhaps conventional but it hit the spot. The sun was out and it seemed we might just make it out that day after all. The Tararuas had had their fun with us and might now let us go, or so we hoped. To cut a long story shorter another nine hours foot-slogging, and the climb from hell, saw us stumble, bowed but not beaten, back to the rental car. We reached the hotel at about 10.00 that night and collapsed into bed after highly amusing showers which consisted mostly of us discovering in quite how many places we were hurting. A Wellington coda worthy of the Tararuas' reputation, though I wouldn't be sorry if I never saw them again. T, bless her, may even come tramping with me again!" That was a few years back and ever since "not as bad as Pen Creek" has been a catch phrase for my wife and I. Happy days!
5 Mar, 2015
Sounds bloody awful. I'm putting it on the 'to do list' for the next time I'm in New Zealand!
5 Mar, 2015
Definitely Type II Fun. That climb on the last day - it was 600m of 'path' but really a near vertical staircase of tree roots (Seems to be a Kiwi speciality), and I was carrying my wife's pack by that point too. There was lots of swearing!
6 Mar, 2015
This sort of thing is why traditionally, kiwis are not obsessed with grades, or which route is which, like the brits. As a kid we would just go out into the hills and try to get from a to b on the map, not knowing if it were possible, and aiming for about 25-30km/day with 25-30kg packs. All that tree climbing, mud, swimming was great fun. You would come back battered and often broken and relieved it was over. But next weekend somehow the craving for more was back. This is also why, I believe, Ed H got to the top of the big E. Completely diff hill culture to Europe and the UK. I can understand both now. Fui
6 Mar, 2015
If my pack was over 20kg it was time to throw away food... or something. Did your pack weigh 5kg or something?
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