The Small Blacks’ tour of New Zealand
It was Andy’s idea. Four years previously, Andy, a secondary school science teacher, had wheedled a one-term ‘sabbatical’ out of his head teacher and spent four months cycling through South America. Another season in the saddle, he felt, was about due. Having spent the previous three years shackled to a Dphil thesis, I was well disposed to his escape plan. Both being pathologically energetic outdoors-bores we felt that New Zealand had much to offer in the way of cycle-touring, mountain-biking and trekking (or ‘tramping’ as Kiwis prefer to describe it), so we set about preparing to take on as much of NZ’s great outdoors as we could manage in three months.
We elected to take our mountain bikes as we planned to do some off-roading, but also because their sturdy frames and front-suspension would be better suited to the smaller unsealed roads which, at strategic intervals, would allow us to explore off the busier State Highways. Because we would be carrying camping, walking and cycling gear on our bikes we had to be ruthless about excess weight, a policy which we would have frequent cause to celebrate in the face of the umpteenth climb on many a day. Like the UK, NZ has a temperate maritime climate, which provokes an impressive annual rainfall especially in its hilly and mountainous regions.
Fellow Brightonian cyclologist and NZ veteran Paul Robinson had warned us about NZ’s damp tendencies so we set about kitting our bikes out with waterproof panniers and bar-bags and swaddling ourselves in reams of black gore-tex. In the event, the weather behaved as badly as expected ensuring that we spent a lot of time in our waterproofs, which, given that neither of us is of a great stature, gave rise to our self-awarded nom de route – the Small Blacks.
Paul and other friends that had visited NZ recommended that we focus our resources of time and energy on the South Island because of its allegedly superior natural beauty. Being contrary types we decided to start our tour with a circuit of Northland – the region north of Auckland on the North Island. There was also strategic thinking at play here as we started our tour in mid-September, which is the tail-end of winter in NZ and the South Island would still be very cold with many high-altitude roads snow-bound. As it happened, when we arrived NZ had been experiencing its harshest winter on record. However, having spent a few weeks prior to our arrival in NZ cycling and hill walking in Japan in temperatures around 35C with high humidity, the mild temperatures of Northland were very welcome. Though we were both surprised and not a little put out that temperatures remained similar for the following three months.
Cycling north out of Auckland we committed our first tactical error – imagining that riding on State Highway 1 wouldn’t be an entirely disagreeable experience. ‘State Highway 1’ sounds rather grand, but it is actually the equivalent of a British A-road; in itself this wouldn’t present a problem but for the fact that this road carries a large volume of heavy-goods vehicles. That we survived our first day’s 100km ride to Warkworth without meeting the same fate as the thousands of mashed, eviscerated and desiccated possums we pedalled past or through, remains a source of wonder. Extricating ourselves from the trunk road to oblivion the following day, we adopted a policy of using unsealed gravel roads whenever possible. These roads make for harder cycling but pay dividends in terms of their dearth of traffic and the landscapes they open up to the intrepid cycle-tourist.
Over the next twelve days we pedalled some nine hundred kilometres taking in the splendours of Northland. Highlights included cycling the gravel road from Waitiki Landing to Cape Rienga – NZ’s northernmost point; pedalling south with a tailwind down the seemingly endless sandy strand of Ninety-Mile Beach and immersing ourselves in the dense native bush and forest of Trounson Kauri Park. During our tour of Northland we pitched our tents at campsites maintained by the Department of Conservation (DOC) as well as at commercial holiday parks. The former are generally very basic sites with standpipes for drinking water, composting toilets and, in some cases, cold showers. Their great advantage is in their beautiful and out-of-the-way locations. The DOC charges campers NZ$6 (about £2) per person per night. However, after a long day in the saddle the hot showers and kitchen facilities provided at commercial campsites were very welcome and, as most of these sites were also very reasonably priced at around NZ$10 per person per night, they proved harder and harder to resist.
Indeed, the two major day-to-day outlays for the cycle tourist – accommodation and food – are comparatively cheap in NZ and we also benefited from a favourable exchange rate. This was fortunate as the physical demands of cycling greatly increased our fuel consumption stripping any spare flesh from our already skinny frames and making us permanently as hungry as horses – our running joke being that we needed to eat twice our own body weights each day just to get by. Our diet of indigenous produce largely consisted of lamb steaks, asparagus, mashed sweet potatoes – or kumara as they’re known here by their Maori name – and blueberry muffins supplemented by the occasional ‘handle’ (a measure around three-quarters of a pint) of Speights’ Old Dark beer.
After a couple of day’s recuperation in Auckland we pedalled south through the North Island in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along fashion. Our route took in the small and entirely agreeable surfers’ paradise resort of Raglan on the west coast, the overrated tourist-trap town of Taupo on the shores of the eponymous lake and Tongariro National Park, where we abandoned our bikes for the first of our major walking excursions. Arriving at Whakapapa village – jumping-off point for the Park’s main tramping tracks – we headed straight to the DOC office for information about the various walks in the area as well as weather and track conditions.
The DOC has offices in all of NZ’s cities and large towns as well as in each of the national parks. Walkers are advised, though not obliged, to visit a DOC office before beginning a walk for information on conditions and also to register there intended walking routes and expected return date for safety reasons and also so that the frequentation of tracks and huts can be monitored. We were advised that the ‘world famous’ Tongariro Crossing route – ‘New Zealand’s finest one-day walk’ – was closed due to heavy snow-fall and high winds, but we were after something a bit lengthier anyway. The Round the Mountain Track, a four to six day walk which contours around volcanic Mount Ruapehu at a mean altitude of 1,200 metres, provided just the thing. The terrain and flora on this 84-kilometre walk are impressively varied; we walked through alpine tundra, lava fields, mountain beech forest and even desert. Indeed, while crossing the Rangipo Desert on Ruapehu’s southern flank we were engulfed in a sandstorm, not an experience either of us would choose to repeat. However, on emerging from the gritty maelstrom we were compensated with the wildly contrasting spectacle of avalanches tumbling down the beautiful volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe, which lies just northeast of Ruapehu.
The Rangipo Desert is also bisected by a valley carved out by the last lahar that sluiced down Ruapehu’s flank when the exterior wall of the mountain’s crater lake gave way on December 24th 1953. Lahar is an Indonesian word that describes the resulting flow of volcanically heated water and the mud and rock it gathers on its course. On this occasion the lahar caused devastation and disaster as 151 train passengers were killed when a railway bridge on the Auckland-Wellington line was swept away. Since then, the water level of the Crater Lake has been gradually rising again and another lahar is expected to occur at any time over the next few years.
Because we arrived at Tongariro a little ahead of the tourist season proper, we didn’t encounter any other trampers during the four days of our walk and had the DOC-maintained ‘backcountry’ huts to ourselves. Each of the six huts on this track has around twenty bunk beds with mattresses, a rainwater cistern, a wood-burning stove and wood supply. Passes for backcountry huts cost NZ$5-10 per person per night, which varies from one track to another. Passes for huts servicing the more popular tracks, including the Great Walks – such as the Tongariro Northern Circuit and the Routeburn and Milford tracks in the South Island’s Fiordland, cost from NZ$20-45 per person per night; though these are generally more sophisticated and include gas-cookers, gas-heaters and sinks with running water and flush toilets.
As well as a dearth of other walkers, we were bemused by an abject lack of fauna and avia. One reason for this, as we subsequently learned, has been the predation of native species by and competition for food-sources from introduced species, which have themselves been the target of extermination programmes managed by the DOC. These have included the use of officially-licensed hunters and the controversial 1080 poison which, critics argue, is an indiscriminate and dangerous toxin which kills many other species besides those which it targets, such as rats, stoats, weasels ferrets and possums.
The possum, which was introduced from Australia between 1837 and 1924 with the aim of establishing a fur trade, consumes a large amount of leaves and berries and will completely denude entire trees and bushes as well as raiding nests for bird’s eggs. It is estimated that the possum population of NZ numbers 70 million and that they consume around seven million tonnes of vegetation annually. After the Australian rugby team, they are public enemy number two and this explains why so many of their furry corpses litter NZ’s highways – no one is about to swerve to avoid them.
Saddling-up once again, we pedalled south towards Wellington; though we threw our bikes on a train for the last 90 kilometres to avoid a busy section of State Highway 1. From Wellington we took the ferry to Picton at the northern tip of the South Island and then spent the next five days cycling down the east coast to Christchurch, stopping off at the whale-watching mecca of Kaikoura so that Andy could indulge his desire to engage in a spot of cetacean-spotting.
At Christchurch we realised that we were already a third of the way through our trip and that strategic use of buses, trains and planes would be necessary to allow time for the walking trips we hoped to do. Leap-frogging the Canterbury Plain, we took a bus to Dunedin and from there spent several days cycling along the coast and through the beautiful hills of the Catlins to Invercargill at the southern tip of Southland. We had a particularly memorable stop en route at the tiny coastal settlement of Curio Bay; so named because of the fossilised remnants of a forest dating from the Jurassic Period that are exposed in the surface of the bay’s beautiful wave-cut platform. The forest was buried after volcanic eruptions some 160 million years ago and has re-emerged as a subsequent result of erosion. After battling against a gale to get to Curio Bay, we spent an evening marvelling at the elemental force of the sea as it battered the bay’s rocks and cliffs in a thunderous tumult of foam and swirling masses of cable-thick kelp fronds. Yellow-Eyed Penguins nest along a stretch of the bay and, if you’re lucky, can be seen coming ashore at dusk.
After spending a day in not-very-interesting Invercargill, we took the ferry from Bluff across the choppy Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island. NZ’s third largest island – Rakiura by its Maori name – is also its newest National Park, having been awarded that status in 2002. The island is 64kms long and 40kms at its widest point with an area of 165,000 hectares, but is home to only 450 souls most of whom live around the little port of Oban. The few small roads on the island extend no further than a couple of kilometres from the port so that the island’s interior and coastline are accessible only on foot, by boat or by seaplane. Stewart Island is even more laid-back than the mainland and we enjoyed loitering with the locals in the bar of the South Sea Island Hotel, however our main reason for visiting was to attempt the rugged and remote North West Circuit track – a demanding eight to twelve day walk around the island’s north-west coastline.
Aside from the most popular Great Walks, which, through necessity, are highly-maintained and often extensively metalled and duck-boarded, many of NZ’s walking tracks bear little relation to the European conception of a footpath and are often only distinguished as such by the orange plastic triangles which serve as way-markers. The North West Circuit is typical of the genre; the ‘track’ consisting, in parts, of dense bush, tree-root systems, acres of mud, streams and fallen logs. Perversely, this was exactly what we wanted. The Circuit also takes in some wild, gorgeous and empty beaches, which you’d be tempted to spend the rest of your days on – Robinson Crusoe – style were it not for the ubiquitous, persistent and really-bloody-annoying sand flies – tiny, harmless-looking critters that hang around in swarms and deliver a bite to rival a mosquito’s. A spray-can of serious insect repellent is a must for anyone embarking on a tramping expedition in NZ.
Small winged invertebrates aside, visiting Stewart Island was a highlight of our trip with many unforgettable moments, including an afternoon’s ‘vegetative scrambling’ up boggy and overgrown gullies to reach the bleak summit of Mount Anglem – the islands highest point (980 metres); watching a truly transcendental sunset atop a 200 metre sand dune that rises up from the splendidly-monikered Great Hellfire Beach and (successful) nocturnal kiwi-spotting at the same spot.
Walking the Circuit also inspired us to eschew our bicycles on returning to Invercargill in favour of walking the allegedly even more demanding Dusky Track in Fiordland National Park. The DOC advises that the track is very challenging and only suitable for experienced trampers. Indeed, only around 600 people attempt the Dusky Track annually. Having an unjustifiably high opinion of our capacities we reckoned this was for us, though we did equip ourselves with one of the DOC’s personal locator beacons in case serious injury befell either of us. Access to and from this track is gained by boat across Lake Harouko or Lake Manapouri or by helicopter to Supper Cove on Dusky Sound from Te Anau airstrip.
Some trampers walk between Supper Cove and West Arm on Lake Manapouri or vise-versa, missing out a two-day section of track between Loch Maree and Lake Harouko. We decided to walk from West Arm to Lake Harouko making the detour to Supper Cove en route, so we took a ferry across Lake Manapouri from Pearl Harbour. Shortly after reaching the head of the track we realised that claims to its demanding nature were well founded; the terrain underfoot was completely uneven, wet, muddy, latticed with slippery tree roots and strewn with fallen logs and branches. To compound matters, at the end of the first afternoon heavy rain set in and remained a feature of the next few days – except when it fell as snow on higher ground.
We soon abandoned attempts to keep our feet and lower bodies dry, as we had to wade across thigh or waist deep streams and ‘guts’ swollen by the rainfall and snowmelt. Happily, three-wire bridges traversed larger streams and rivers or they would have been un-fordable. On the third day we abandoned our planned detour to Supper Cove as the water level of Loch Maree had risen so much that we would have had to swim part of it – rucksacks and all. Hence, we crossed the swollen Spey River on a suspended three-wire bridge and made an extremely steep and slippery 900-metre ascent through forest to gain the ridge of the Pleasant Range, which afforded us wonderful views, when the rain-clouds parted, across neighbouring ranges and down to Dusky Sound and Doubtful Sound. Descending to the magnificently situated Loch Roe hut at 800 metres we set about gathering wood and building a fire to dry our saturated clothes and warm our chilled bones.
We spent an entirely welcome extra day holed-up at Loch Roe because of heavy snowfall, hence the walk took us five days – during the last three we encountered no other walkers. As we descended towards Lake Harouko on the last day, the snow became rain once again. We had several hairy moments crossing swollen and fast moving streams, anxiously wondering if those further down might be un-fordable, but after nine hours’ walking we arrived soaked, exhausted, elated and intact at Lake Harouko Hut – with it’s reception committee of sand flies. The sand fly count on the Dusky Track is off the dial, though they’re only really a problem around the huts – or if you’re stupid enough to stop walking for more than 30 seconds while you’re on the track.
The following morning we awaited Val MacKay’s ‘water taxi’ to ferry us back across Lake Harouko for our shuttle-bus connection to Manapouri. Like many people in the Southland and Westland regions of NZ, Val – a farmer, ferryman and hunter – has a Scottish heritage; his forebears came to NZ following the Highland clearances. Ancestral traditions endure here: Val plays bagpipes in the local pipe and drum band, while his wife teaches Highland dancing to local youngsters. The landscapes of Fiordland often resemble the Scottish Highlands and, as is apparent, the Caledonian influence also pervades the region’s toponymy.
After indulging in protracted cleansing and feasting rituals in Manapouri, we took to our bikes once again, pedalling off in to an aggressive headwind with lashing rain. Some 20km northeast of Manapouri we turned on to the gravel road that follows the Von River valley north to Lake Wakatipo. After 60km we were exhausted by our struggle against the wind, so we came to rest by the shores of the southernmost of the beautiful Mavora Lakes. There is a DOC camping ground here, which has two pit toilets but no water supply – though we boiled drinking water straight from the lake with no ill effects. We pitched the tent in a serene little spot and shared our dinner with a hungry black robin who also arrived punctually at breakfast-time the next morning.
The wind had blown itself out leaving a sparkling clear morning and, well-rested, we enjoyed the remaining 46km ride, mostly downhill or on the flat, to Walter Peak Station, a working wool-farming station on the southern shore of Lake Wakatipo. A 19th Century steamship, the S.S. Earnslaw, makes the 45 minute crossing between Queenstown and Walter Peak several times a day during the tourist season, principally to ferry tourists in for sheep-shearing demonstrations.
People we’d talked to either seemed to love or hate Queenstown, which is the tourist epicentre of the South Island. I was sure I’d fall into the latter category, though Andy was looking forward to a night on the town. In the event we both found the town perfectly agreeable – busy, but hardly Sodom and Gomorrah.
The following day we took a bus 85km along the north shore of Wakatipo to Glenorchy at the head of the lake. From here we were supposed to connect with another bus that would take us to the start of the Rees-Dart track at the intriguingly named Chinaman’s Bluff. However, the bus company also runs jet-boat tours up the Dart river valley and we were bundled into some spare seats for our journey up-river. Not a mode of transport I would have taken by choice, but it proved to be an exhilarating experience. As soon as we were dropped off on the riverbank, we resumed our journey at a calmer pace.
The weather adopted a familiar damp aspect and we spent a humid night at Daley’s Flat Hut with an assortment of damp Kiwis. Striding out early the next morning we gained the Dart Hut, situated above the river at an altitude of 900metres, in four hours under increasing snowfall. The Dart Hut is a magnificent new structure with 32 bunks and a stove with a coal supply helicoptered in. We liked it here so much that we stayed three nights, using the hut as a base for walks to the magnificent Dart Glacier and to the Rees Saddle. There were few people staying at the hut, though a 17-strong police search and rescue team on a training exercise came thundering through on the first afternoon, wearing the kiwi tramping uniform of shorts with gaiters – despite the snow. After ten minutes of furious munching they were gone, leaving only crumbs and pools of water in their wake.
As our third evening at Dart Hut turned to dusk we watched chamois nibble Mount Cook lilies on the opposite side of the river. We had the hut to ourselves except for the excellent company of the hut warden, Michel Boulay, an ex-patriate Canadian with shamanistic tendencies and living-quarters largely given over to homebrew production. Heading back down to Daley’s Flat Hut the next day we made a lengthy detour to the magnificent and seldom visited Whitbourn Glacier valley. The outrageous natural beauty of the valley was a joy to behold, as were the shy but curious rock wrens we encountered there.
Leaving Queenstown a couple of days later we pedalled north over the Crown Range to the small lakeside town of Wanaka from where we took a shuttle-bus to Mount Cook Village the following day. MCV is a small, busy resort servicing the stream of tourists who come to gaze at the eponymous and marvellously picturesque mountain – should the weather permit a glimpse of the peak, which is actually 20 km further northeast of the village. Everything is more expensive at MCV, especially accommodation, which includes a Youth Hostel and the luxury Hermitage hotel complex.
The following day, we decided to walk up to and stay a night at the nearby Mueller hut, which is situated at an altitude of 1,800 metres and can be reached from MCV (780 metres) in three to four hours. On the advice of the Mount Cook National Park DOC office – situate in the village – we hired ice axes and crampons as there had been significant recent snowfall. The weather was with us and the steep walk up to the hut afforded fine views over Mount Cook, the Hooker Glacier and the more proximate Mount Sefton and Mueller Glacier. After a quick bite to eat, we headed up the ridge behind the hut to gain Mount Olivier at 1,933 metres – this was the first peak Sir Edmund Hillary climbed as a boy – before moving on to bigger things. After a pristine day, the weather report radioed in to the hut by the DOC that evening was far from promising and sure enough we woke the following morning to a gale which alternately blew gusts of snow, hail and rain horizontally at a ferocious speed. Sitting tight was the only option and after a few hours conditions had calmed sufficiently for us to descend safely back to MCV.
The same afternoon we walked out from MCV and along the western flank of the Tasman Glacier to the tiny, five berth Ball Shelter. This was actually rather a dull walk as the path gradually rises about 200 metres over approximately eight kilometres and for most of the walk the glacier is hidden from view behind a moraine wall, not that we could see much of anything anyway because of the murky conditions. However, in the morning we were fully compensated as about three centimetres of snow had fallen over night and the glacier was revealed in all its glory as the freezing mist lifted and the sun rose over the surrounding mountain ridges.
We left MCV the next day, our last full day on the bikes, bound for Lake Tekapo. The first 60 kms, cycling along the western shore of Lake Pukaki were pleasant enough, but at the southern end of the lake we turned into a ferocious, freezing and unrelenting head wind. By the time we reached Tekapo we were completely battered and quite unable to feel any nostalgia for our days of cycle touring. However, once we were installed at the local campsite, hot showers and copious quantities of indigenous red wine suffused the immediate past with a rosier hue.
Next morning, snow lay thick on the ground and continued falling steadily. However, this was of little concern to us as we would be beginning the first stage of our leisurely bus, plane and train journey back to Auckland that afternoon. Organising transport in NZ is easy and hassle free, especially with the helpful and patient assistance available at the tourist Information Sites that are found in all cities and larger towns. We travelled the 200 kms from Tekapo to Christchurch by shuttle-bus at a cost of NZ$35 each. Bus travel is inexpensive in NZ and several companies cover most of the routes on the North and South islands – nearly all will transport bikes for an extra NZ$10 for most journeys.
From Christchurch we flew to Wellington with New Zealand Air, which, at a cost of NZ$70 each, saved us money as well as time on the same journey by bus and ferry. Cheap internal flights are available for most routes if booked well in advance. The third leg of our journey back to Auckland was made on the inappropriately named Tranz-Scenic Express, which is a misnomer not because the journey lacks transcendent scenery but because it is astoundingly slow. Still, neither of us was in a hurry to leave the country so we extended the 13-hour journey from Wellington by five days, jumping off the train at the small town of National Park, some 15 kms from Whakapapa.
We had planned to return to Tongariro even before we left it the first time and the Tongariro Northern Circuit would be the object of our last adventure. The Northern Circuit is one of the Great Walks; it starts and finishes at Whakapapa and takes in three huts. The DOC recommends that the walk is undertaken over three or four days; so we planned to do it in two and a half. We made the three hour walk from Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut on the first day with the intention of heading to Oturere Hut the next day with a scenic detour en route. In the afternoon we made a reconnaissance trip to the saddle we would have to cross the next day and also to see if we couldn’t climb the volcanic cone of Mount Ngauruhoe. We couldn’t. On the saddle at 1700 metres, the wind was gusting at around 100kms per hour and we were being blown flat. Returning to the hut, the warden advised us that the forecast for the following day was for snow and stronger winds.
So the next morning we set off to see what was possible. We made it over the saddle and across the sandy flat of the Red Crater, but ascending the subsequent, exposed Crater Rim the wind, which whipped ice particles in to us at speeds in excess of 100kms per hour made it too dangerous to continue. We retreated to Mangetopopo once more and sat the afternoon out. When the warden arrived with the forecast that evening the prognosis was no better than the previous day. To compound matters, we were running out of time so we had to rethink our schedule. From the warm and dry of the hut we decided that, if it were at all possible, we would attempt to walk the remaining 25 kilometres of the Circuit in one day.
The following morning, the weather was so miserable that we were on the verge of turning round and heading back to Whakapapa. However, unwilling to give up, we decided that we would at least have another look at conditions on the saddle. In fact conditions were much the same, only icier and with poorer visibility, but we carried on through the Red Crater and up the Crater Rim where we again encountered a ferocious, freezing wind; keeping low to the ground we battled upwards and eventually followed the path over the edge of the rim where we were sheltered from the worst of the wind. Below us, as gaps in the streaming cloud opened up, were revealed the three gloriously blue Emerald Lakes. After some minutes of oohing and aahing we descended past the lakes and down across a Martian landscape of red and black lava towards Oturere Hut. After a bite to eat at the hut, we steamed ahead at full power, passing Waihohonu Hut a couple of hours later and reaching Whakapapa by 7pm after nine hours of walking.
The following day we decided to take it easy so we spent the afternoon cycling 60kms from Whakapapa through Tongariro Forest and back. There are a number of mountain-biking routes in the area, including the popular 42nd Traverse route, but without transport to take you out and/or back the distances are a bit long from Whakapapa. It is possible, however, to arrange transport to and from various routes.
Next day we clambered back aboard the Tranz-Scenic bound for Auckland. For our last couple of days in NZ we installed ourselves at the very excellent City Garden Lodge backpacker’s hostel in Auckland’s trendy Parnell district. We had stayed at the Lodge when we first arrived in NZ and appreciated the relaxed and homely atmosphere created by proprietors Ian and Linda and the fact that it is just far enough out of the city centre to provide peace and quiet while still being within easy striking distance. A great place to start and finish an excellent trip. I’ve talked a lot about New Zealand’s wonderful landscapes, but another important, positive element of our experience needs a mention – the locals. The quality of our experience owes a lot to the many excellent, generous, helpful, warm and friendly Kiwis we met en route. As the ubiquitous local expression has it: sweet.