A Very French Volcano: Hiking Akaroa’s Purple Curry Track, New Zealand (18.5km)

A French colonial seaside town that perches in the middle of an enormous volcano. A place surrounded by rare Hector dolphins, baby seals and a typically stunning New Zealand backdrop. A main street where you are just as likely to find a roquefort crepe as you are award winning fish and chips.

On paper, Akaroa sounds bizarre; a Kiwi-Poseidon-Francophile lovechild abandoned on an outcrop on the far east of the South Island. In reality, it is a fat slice of awesome and well worth the extra hour journey through Christchurch to get to.

Like many we came to Akaroa for the dolphins but ended up staying for the gorgeous surroundings. On our second day, we force our chuntering campervan up the steep climb to Heritage Park and strike out from there onto the Purple Curry Track into the undulating valleys that surround the volcanic Akaroa basin below.

Almost straight away the path dives down, leaving the sun-drenched vistas, and entering into a gloomy forest. The way snakes and meanders. We are forced to bend low under flailing branches, pick our steps over gnarled, ancient roots and edge around fallen trunks. Spiderwebs spool over our faces and stick to our cheeks. It’s all a little bit Mirkwood.

As we get deeper, even the birds seem to get queiter. All except the podgy Kereru (New Zealand Wood Pidgeon) that is as elegant as an elephant on speed. A few days before a local explained that they are so fat that they misjudge their trajectories and so spend their time clattering into branches and divebombing hedgerows.

A few kilometers later and we burst out of the trees ourselves into a scorching, midday summer sun. From here it’s a sharp ascent up to the Browntop Saddle, past mustard yellow gorse bushes and columns of fuscia foxgloves. Under the sun’s glare, pea pods crisp and burst open, accompanying us as we walk like a popcorn backing track.

The views are already spectacular but it’s climbing over the Saddle which yields up the true money shot. Behind still sits the Akaroa basin, and further back the snowy Southern Alps, but now visible in front is the unending blue sheen of the South Pacific Ocean.

It is superb. The lovingly handcrafted wooden sign threatening to hang trespassing mountain bikers by their lycra only adds to the spectacle.

The return route takes us through twee farms and private land which is a rarity in New Zealand. Cows moo and echo. Their baritone voices reverberating from an invisible spot somewhere in the valley. Along with the rolling hills and wheat fields, it almost feels like a July stroll over the Sussex South Downs.

Near Tree Crop Farm we catch our breath by a stream and splash our faces in the cool mountain water. This is much needed before the final climb back to Heritage Park which is the steepest of the lot. We stumble sweating into the wonderful park where, since 1992, six hundred individual trees have been planted by self-styled ‘tree enthusiasts’.

To celebrate their acheivement, and our own for returning to it, we feast on thick slices of baked ham, artichoke hearts slick with olive oil and fresh baguettes purchased earlier from the butcher back in town, on the Rue Lavaud.

Pass the dijon, si vous plait.

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What Goes Up: Climbing Roy’s Peak (1,578m), Lake Wanaka, NZ (16km)

Whenever we have sat down on the trip to investigate where to head next, the iPad has been plagued with nature-porn shots from the top of Roy’s Peak.

It’s just one of the 750km of hiking tracks found in the surrounding area of Lake Wanaka’s stunning alpine terrain. But we won’t be seeing any of it today.

“It’s been the wettest summer on record,” explains the smiling thirty-something lady at our campiste reception. “Or at least that I can remember!”

We are still wary from our ill-equipped washout in the Kahurangi National Park to try any further hill climbing in the rain for now. Despite making it a priority after that hike, we have also failed to purchase any better waterproofs. So we decide to drive to Queenstown instead, which we suspect has more to offer us by way of rainy day activities. One cosy viewing of Star Wars: Rogue One, two decadent burgers and a smattering of vineyard visits later; we return to our campsite at Lake Wanaka with our suspicions confirmed.

We roll out of our van the next morning to bright sunshine and clear skies. We are relieved, but also a little disappointed not to have an excuse to drive back to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. We steady ourselves with some beans on toast, prep some pittas and remind each other that the climb up Roy’s Peak will be worth it.

We drive to the trailhead and begin our ascent. We soon realise however that even with the increasingly epic views of Lake Wanaka, the walk itself is pretty mundane. A steep and switchbacking eight kilometers up, followed by the same knee-jarring eight kilometers back down again. By New Zealand’s standards it’s also a ‘busy’ walk, with a steady stream of folk sweating back and forth along the path.

Linear return walks are some of my least favourite. I feel cheated by the repitition of the same scenery. As fun as it is to get to the top a peak, it is a shame not to be able to return via the other ridges, gaps or saddles nearby. Roy’s Peak is made worse by the complete lack of variety; the up and the down on the stony path.

It is some testament to the view at the top then to say this is still a very worthwhile hike.

Edging out onto the thin trail of the Peak itself is an unforgettable, unnerving experience. We shuffle out, crunching our feet on tiny rocks that crumble and tumble over the edge. Reaching the cliff edge itself creates a floating sensation. I feel like I’m anchored to the rest of the mountain by the narrow strip, like an astronaut roped to a ship but hovering in space.

A momentary glance down tells you all you need to know about the vertical drop off. Looking back up, snow flecked mountain tops dig into the cloudless sky and fall away to green hills lower down. These surround the deep blue of Lake Wanaka that spills out below, as if someone has poured liquid glass into a huge basin.

It is fantastic. Maybe even more so than the beasts found in the Harry Potter film universe.

 

Practicalities

– This is a steep walk without any shade or cover. Take appropriate gear for the weahter i.e. waterproofs, sunscreen and a hat. I would say 6 or 7 out of 10 difficulty due to the incline and total height gain of around 1,300m.

– You’ll need transport to reach the start point which is about 5km west of Wanaka Town. A fair number of people were hitching there and back which is an option.

– If visibility is poor, there is little point in doing this walk.

 

 

 

Beaches, Boats & Stoats: Medlands Beach to Anchorage Bay, Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand (11.6km)

The captain steadies the boat against the chop and lowers the retractable metal gangway. Bright sunlight slides along it as it extends, before it lands on the white sand with a small thud. We are the first two to scramble off, bouncing with the waves as we step out onto glorious Medlands Beach: the starting point for our day hike along the Abel Tasman Trail. The beach is empty, sub-tropical and breathtaking. It is a scene from which postcards could – and likely are – reprinted year after year.

But in the middle of all this I’m grumbling, and not just because the backpack is still damp from the washout hike in the Kahurangi the day before. I have discovered a fresh new walking horror that makes me yearn to have my worst ever blister back in its stead.

Sandfly bites. Up and down my calf, around my ankle and on the soles of my feet. Each step, I want to tear off my shoes and scratch them red raw. The beach makes it worse as grains of gritty sand find their way into my socks. At first the scratching brings relief, then the cycle begins again. I’m sure the unedited text of Dante’s Inferno has this included somewhere; the overlooked 6.5th circle of hell.

Some people would argue I’m being dramatic, and I am. But it is bloody annoying.

I hop off the beach, itching as I go, and enter a shady, coast hugging track that’s cooled sporadically by the fresh water rivers that intersect it from west to east. As well as being one of New Zealand’s ‘Nine Great Walks’, the Abel Tasman Trail also has comedic timing; the first enticing offshoot advertised is Sandfly Beach. I take it as a taunt to explore further and so we crash down on a steep muddy path through the trees. Besides, my wife has kindly applied some special and expensive Tiger Balm to my inflamed soles so the discomfort has abated for now.*

Like Medlands Beach before it, and all the beaches in this gorgeous corner of the world, Sandfly Beach leaves a chorus of fortunate visitors, muttering to no-one in particular, “God, it is so fucking beautiful here.”

It’s a haven for wildlife too. Two hilarious birds, the California Quail and orange-billed Oystercatcher give their best catwalk poses for the camera. The vast presence of these, and successful reintroduction of other species, seems to be largely down to the poison-box war being waged against pests like possum, stoats and rats.

On one of the several info boards along the trail is a veritable stoat battle-map, complete with red front lines and methods of defence. It reminds me of my favourite childhood Redwall books where valiant mice, squirrels and badgers defended their homes against the beasts. I don’t know if the Parks team are considering arming mice in their efforts against the stoats, but they seem to be trying everything else.

We stop at Torrent Bay for lunch, where a handful of lucky folk own holiday homes. These buildings existed here before the area was designated as a National Park. An absolute slice of heaven but I imagine, as I try to temper my jealousy, a massive pain to get supplies to. To answer me a chap exits his veranda, hops into a sea kayak on the beach and paddles out. He then whips out a fishing rod and proceeds to catch his supper. Fair enough.

The final section winds round towards Anchorage Bay for the boat pick up where we kick off our shoes and dive headlong into the waves.

It is easy to see why this is one of the Nine Great Walks. I can find no fault with it. Only that I wish I could stay here longer.

That, and the sandfly bites of course.

*N.B. Later that evening my wife revealed it had been Vaseline. The fact that I was duped by a placebo in no way lessens my tribulation.

 

Practicalities

– Not a very tough hike. Clearly marked track and only a few moderate hills. 5/10 difficulty.

– Its worth booking the Abel Tasman in advance (whether you’re planning to get a private water taxi, hop on a cruise boat or do a multi day hike). This is especially true in high season.

– We used the Wilson cruise tour company. They have multiple options as well as different times for pick ups and drop offs. They even did some seal spotting for us on the way back which was fantastic.

– If you want general info, including about different tour operators, check out the iSite in whichever town to Tasman you are nearest. The route we took is generally the most popular day hike option.

– From Torrent Bay there is an option to cut a large corner if the tide is out. Although this may be tempting, I would strongly recommend taking the longer (high tide) route. It was very rewarding. Just make sure you plan for the extra time.

– DOC huts are available for multi day hiking. Again, booking ahead is advised.

There and Back Again: Flora Car Park – Cloustons Mine – Gordon’s Pyramid (1,489m) Circular, Kahurangi National Park, New Zealand (21.1km)

The plump weka bird is in two minds as it scurries around, circling our soaking boots like a cautious, begging dog. It wants to make sure it doesn’t miss any crumbs from my late afternoon pita bread. On the other hand, it doesn’t want to share and so pauses at intervals to charge off any other wekas in an aggressive flurry of chasing, hopping and flapping. Back and forward, round and round it goes. It’s hard to believe it’s this fat with so much activity; perhaps the spot really is worth scrapping for if its’ waistline is anything to go by. Like the penguin, the flightless weka is a natural comedian to observe as it doesn’t quite seem fit for purpose when walking around.

As the weka performs its bumbling ritual, the rain continues to thunder down on the wooden porch of the Arthur hiking hut that we’re sheltering under. Through the doorway of the basic room behind us, three German chaps are trying to light the stove without success. The firewood, like everything and everyone else, is sodden. Although we’re grateful to be out of the rain, our waterlogged boots soon inflict on us a teeth-chattering chill. As amusing as the weka’s antics are, we’re not getting any warmer and so decide to squelch the final hour back down to the Flora Car Park.

Several hours before we leave the very same car park, very much drier, striding out along forest tracks with the goal of reaching Clouston’s Mine for lunch. The route starts flat and the pace is quick; we fly past streams, bounce over fords and munch on salt and vinegar crisps like a couple possessed. About an hour in, this speed almost causes us to miss the steep fork for Clouston’s Mine which narrows and snakes up the valley side. It is less trodden and all the more beautiful for it. We navigate around lichen caked, luminous green landslides, whilst tiny grey warblers and robins peck for insects on the path ahead.

The lunch spot at Clouston’s is perfect after hours of tramping through close forest. The mine entrance opens up to a small patch of grass which overlooks a cascading river that carves a view point down into the valley. The mine itself is unfortunately flooded and unstable. Standing by the entrance, the sound of dripping water in far off caverns echoes back. A cool breeze flows out of the darkness. Little seems to be known about the mine, other than the fact it was a failed gold venture. A good place to gorge on a sandwich regardless.

Buoyed by our success, we then decide to make the final ascent to Gordon’s Pyramid (1,489m) and are rewarded with the most spectacular views we’ve seen in New Zealand to date. The whole park sprawls out around us. Horseshoe Basin sits below, far to the north we can make out the sunlit beaches of Abel Tasman, and Mount Arthur’s craggy and shrouded peak soars up ahead of us. As we walk along the ridge, circling back to our start point, we notice an ominous swirling mass of clouds sailing towards us at an alarming pace.

Even as we are knocked about by wind, rain and cloud, it is impossible to ignore how awesome this place is. It’s like the Lake District on steroids.

We come now to Arthur’s hut with its failing stove lighters and squabbling weka birds. Even with our waterproofs, the sideways rain seems to have permeated everywhere. I suppose ‘On Sale’ Sport’s Direct gear from Peckham High Street is not cut out for New Zealand’s weather warnings.

Time for an upgrade.

Practicalities

– The Kahurangi National Park sits just next to the popular Abel Tasman Park, at the north west tip of New Zealand’s South Island.

– It is also one of New Zealand’s biggest parks so the above walk covers only a tiny fraction of its eastern portion.

– If, like us, you can’t do Abel Tasman when you were expecting to, then Kahurangi provides an excellent alternative. In many ways, I actually preferred it to Tasman. It feels more remote, less busy and just enormous!

– The iSite shop in Motueka has helpful walking guides available for $2.50.

– Flora Car Park is up a steep gravel track. Most cars should be fine, just take care.

– There are many more jumping off points, as well as multi day treks using the DOC huts (like Arthur’s hut mentioned above). Again, the iSite or DOC online are full of info.

Eating Mountains: Climbing Te Mata Peak, North Havelock, New Zealand (5.5km)

The Te Mata car park is bustling with activity, despite the early hour.

Around us, dog walkers wrestle their excitable new Christmas puppies onto leads. One particularly fluffy and tiny Maltese tries to scramble up my leg as I consult the trail map, squinting in the thinly clouded summer sun. The surprised noise I make is embarrassing for a grown man and not proportional to the animal’s size.

The dog walkers mix with lean regulars and chubby New Year resolution joggers. The latter are clad in bright, packet-fresh gear. I pinch my own stomach, kneading the effects of the cheap beer, salty snacks and general beach life of south east Asia. Losing my belt somewhere between Cambodia and the Philippines has had an alarming lack of impact. It is timely to be back in a country where you are never far away from a hike, bike or waterway.

We choose to follow the Rongokako trail which will take us in a circuit around the foothills, via a climb over Te Mata Peak and ridge, and so stomp off into the undergrowth in the direction of the first sky blue arrow that marks the route. The scenery is almost Wild West; sun-baked and crumbling paths wind through kindling dry grass and then narrow alongside craggy hilltops. All around are stunning views of rolling, parched-yellow hills. Nestled in the flat basin beneath Te Mata, sits the verdant-green wine producing valley of Hawkes Bay and our campsite.

Te Mata o Rongokako is the Maori name of the giant who, lying down dead, forms the ridge of this mountain. If you stand on the plain below, it bears the resemblance of an enormous sleeping man. The legend goes that Rongokaka and a beautiful princess from a tribe on the plains fell in love. But the princess, following advice from her kin who wanted to take revenge on Rongokaka’s tribe, was convinced that she should make Rongokaka perform near impossible tasks to prove his devotion. He met his match when he was asked to eat this mountain, finally choking on Te Mata Peak and expiring here.

New Zealand’s Maori place names are awash with wonderful etymology like this. As we reach the Peak and admire the view across the plains (or catch our breath), we overhear a grey-bearded chap explain that the Tuki Tuki River below is so called because of the sound the water makes hitting the rocks.

At the Peak, there sits a large, shining tiled mosaic that lays out the topography that can be seen all around. To the east, the Pacific Ocean. To the west, at the far reach of the map, sits the snow capped Mount Tongariro (aka Mount Doom) which we plan to tackle at the end of our trip and is supposedly one of the best day treks in the world.

On the descent, the sun breaks through and transforms the hills from yellow to singing gold. We navigate around overhanging flax seed bushes and arrive at the edge of the redwood forest. In comparison to the bare hills, the shaded wood pulsates with the buzzing of invisible insects and birds. Entering in to escape the midday sun, we hop over a stile into an aroma of damp-pine and almost fall over an impressive treehouse. A true feat of woodland engineering. I try to steal a photo, but a small blonde child emerges from the entrance. With arms crossed, she stares me down and so I skulk off without taking a snap, bested by the miniature war-chief.

Almost back at the car park, we pass one of the aforementioned runners who is bent over, heaving with perspiration. She waves away offers of assistance, her face masked by a brand new, fluorescent pink Nike cap. Another reminder to get in shape.

Spurred on, after our return to camp we spend the afternoon exploring Hawkes Bay on bikes. I should mention the cycle is more of a stuttering crawl around neighbouring vineyards.

I convince myself the first swill of chilled rosé on my tongue is semi-earned.

Baby steps.

 

Sampling Hillside-Fresh Coffee on Thailand’s Highest Peak: Doi Inthanon (2,565m)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

A mid-morning hiking coffee break, whenever possible, has become something of a ritual.

Elevenses in a thermos, mug or cup. A reward for an early start. Accompanied preferably with Oreos, Chocolate Digestives or some other unprounanceable biscuit depending on the location.

It is not often though – or indeed ever – that the coffee comes fresh roasted from the very hills a walker is marching through. But on the surrounding slopes of Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest point at a whopping 2,565m above sea level), such a treat awaits those willing to make the trek from Chiang Mai.

Before we reach the roasting hut (and I do mean hut), we start the day strolling through pine forests and over a footpath littered with acorns and tiny chestnuts. Along with the cool fresh air, it is a reminder that Doi Inthanon forms part of the high altitude Himalayas.

The noisy rush of moving water soon reaches our ears and we emerge onto a long river. It terraces at various points alongside the route with waterfalls of different shapes, sizes and ferocities.

I am in the middle of reading Roger Deakin’s Waterlog which infectiously extols the pleasures of wild swimming, so at every opportunity I feel the need to take a quick dip in honour of the late and great author. I promise the rest of our group that I will be quick; they look equal parts annoyed and intrigued. I imagine the latter is due to the temperature of the water, which is nether-shrivelling cold. As guaranteed, it is a quick swim.

Afterwards the terrain opens up to rolling valleys and bucolic farmland. The peak of Doi Inthanon looms masked by cloud in the distance. It is hard to imagine that this area was once part of the notorious Golden Opium Triangle.

Thirty years ago the incumbent King Bhumibol introduced drastic reforms to combat the drug lords, free the villagers from their rule and rid Northern Thailand of heroin production. This is how coffee, along with strawberries, gooseberries and bizarrely caviar have all ended up being produced in this fertile area.

“These crops are worth a lot of money in Asia,” our guide Mongkul explains. “Not many areas can grow them locally.”

I ask if the Royal Project (as it is known) has been a success.

He smiles and gestures around at the sprawling village we are now walking through. “Oh, huge success! Before these were all bamboo huts. Now they have proper buildings, roads, schools and electricity. Everyone is very happy!”

Despite the plethora of ‘proper buildings’ we are ushered into a smoky shack that reeks of the delicious local roast. Mongkul shows me the grinder out back: a bike attached to a pulley system. He passes me a steaming mug and I take a draught. It’s hot, muddy and strong; bordering on Middle Eastern style. Delicious.

It puts jet fuel in my step as we leave to explore the peak and Royal Pagodas further up the mountain. The summit is shrouded by forest and is nothing special, but the royal pagodas and their beautiful, manicured gardens are spectacular. Purple-white cabbages and blue hydrangeas interlace with pink fuschias and marmalade marigolds. They all parade up to a cliff edge that drops off to an endless horizon of rolling, hazy hills.

We head home via one more mighty waterfall. I have my still moist trunks primed and ready but hesitate at the ‘Strictly No Swimming’ sign.

I ask Mongkul if this really needs to be heeded. “If you want, you can go. But you might die in the whirlpools. We have no insurance for this.”

I think I’ll just enjoy the view this time Mr. Deakin.

Practicalities

– We wanted to get to Doi Inthanon ourselves but without an International Driving Licence we didn’t want to risk hiring a car or scooter and getting into hot water. If you decide to get a scooter, be aware that although the roads are good, it is a steep and busy drive. It is a 1.5-2hr journey each way.

– You can hire camping gear (or stay in wooden cabins) for overnighting from the Doi Inthanon Headquarters in the park. You do really need transport inside though to reach the peak and pagodas. There is no trail to these, just a road, which is a shame.

– If you do get yourself there, it is mandatory to employ a local guide to take you on the trails. Again the Headquarters can sort this for you.

– We went with Wonderful Eco Tours and they were really fantastic. There are a lot of tours to Doi Inthanon but WET made sure to get us away from any crowds. Mongkul was an excellent and knowledgable guide. They also do an overnight option but unfortunately for just the two of us it was too expensive. Cheaper in a bigger group.

– Packs of coffee beans can be purchased from the village but no pressure at all to do so. There are also various shops and standard eateries along the roadsides.

 

 

 

 

From Beaten Track to Jungle Path: escaping Siem Reap’s crowds and exploring Mt. Kulen (Cambodia)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

Desperate to cool down, I launch myself without grace into the choppy water of the basin. Sweat, motorcycle grease and fatigue strips off me in spades.

Twenty metre high cascades crash down onto the obsidian coloured rocks and splash into the surrounding water. A rainbow spectrum of dragonflies dart through the mist, landing on nearby leaves laced with bubbles and dripping from this vapour in the air.

Feet-nibbling Garra Rufa fish pinch me; patrolling the depths like tiny submarines and acting as a natural foot spa. The whole place smells cold, fresh and fertile; in the same way you notice the countryside does after a period of absence.

It is a fantastic way to refresh on Mount Kulen after a long day riding, hiking and exploring. As well as looking like a Herbal Essences shampoo advert, these waterfalls are a great example of what Cambodia has to offer away from Siem Reap’s (rightly) popular temples and better known attractions.

Earlier that morning, after a brief lesson on how to ride the manual and ubiquitous 100cc Honda Wave scooter, we ride out of the city and soon emerge onto bumpy dirt back roads. We stop at a village farmer’s market. The range and abundance of fresh produce – countless varieties of fresh river fish, spices and radiant vegetables – explain why we have enjoyed Khmer cuisine so much. It deserves to be up there alongside its more famous Thai and Vietnamese cousins.

We arrive at a hamlet on Mount Kulen around an hour later and meet our smiling local guide Many. He tours us round the jungle and, what he lacks in communication skills, he more than makes up for in his ability to find spiders as big as my head. I can testify this method of measurement is accurate as I spend several minutes walking into webs, panicking and thrashing them out of my hair whilst squealing. Needless to say, Many finds this hilarious.

The walk itself is through thick jungle using paths hacked out by an NGO to protect local flora and fauna from loggers and poachers. It is dense and warm, but the isolation it offers is rewarding. Especially after a few days stomping around Siem Reap’s crowds, it really is the middle of nowhere here.

Halfway through we clamber up a boulder and step out onto a rock plateau. The jungle stretches out all around. Blue flycatcher birds cannon themselves in and out of the banyan trees beside us. We loll about in the sun and snack on longon fruit which Many has brought from the local market. They are delicious; like lychees but sweeter and juicier. We hurl the shells off the side and watch them disappear into the jungle canopy below.

After the walk we motor further up the mountain and grab a lunch of spicy stir fried pork with cashews and Thai basil. Then it’s time for the aforementioned waterfall-plunge, followed by a visit to the ancient reclining Buddha and 1000 lingas river sculptures. Both a reminder of the area’s heritage as one of the key birthplaces of the Khmer civilisation. It even outdates Angkor Wat.

Finally, we ride home through the most spectacular prolonged sunset. The entire sky shades purple and gold.

If you want to spend time off the beaten path and doing something unique, this is a worthwhile day trip into the heart of the gorgeous Cambodian countryside.

Hop on that scooter, bring your swim stuff and be prepared for a sore rump in the morning. You won’t regret it.

Practicalities

– I highly recommend using Khmer Ways. The blog piece above covers their ‘Bike and Hike Mount Kulen’ tour.

– It is a little expensive (around $95 pp) but it covers everything and is of a very high quality. Excellent info, safe and they think of everything.

– You should be a confident scooter rider. It is around a 3-4 hour round trip over sometimes steep/tricky terrain. This is a major part of the fun though! I had only ridden a scooter twice before and was fine. I do cycle a lot though.

– N.B. It is illegal for a foreigner to hire a moped in Siem Reap. However, because this is a guided tour, this rule does not apply.