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.

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.

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part II of II – 28km)

‘Harai’ is a Japanese noun.

It translates into ‘exorcism’ or ‘purification’ and is one of the principle goals of the Kumano Kodo: a cleansing of one’s self.

For centuries pilgrims have performed feverent rituals at various shrines along the route to rid themselves of impurities from lives past and present. This culminates at Haraido-oji with one final rite, before the pilgrim goes onto pray at Kumano Hongu Taisha and ends their journey.

Whilst maintining the utmost respect for this process, it seems to me that when a person walks far enough, they can also experience their own personal version of ‘harai’.

For me though, walking is more of an opportunity to declutter. To clarify thoughts, rather than exorcise. Walking gives me the space to make sense of my mind and, by extension, the wider world around me. It puts things into perspective and allows time for long periods of mulling-over, which seems to be an undervalued skill these days.

Back to our second day on the trail however, I have no thoughts other than enjoying the cup of hot miso soup in front of me. It is 6.45am and we step out into a beautiful gloom. Chikatsuyu snoozes as we creep past houses, my hand wrapped around the bear bells to prevent them becoming an unpopular village alarm clock.

After a while the sun creeps up and over the surrounding mountain tops. We drive on to the edge of a wood. Panting, we check the time and break out in smug smiles. We have achieved over eleven kilometers by 10.30am. Stealing a literal march on the day like this is a wonderful feeling.

I celebrate by dropping a hundred Yen piece into a purse hanging from a nearby doorway, before taking a cold can of sweet, milky coffee from the water trough that sits alongside. Presiding over the trough, a pinnochio statue urinates spring water downwards to keep the make-shift drinks cooler topped up. Rather racy for rural Japan.

The route is as long as it is undulating. We dive down into a fairy tale forest, complete with a Snow White chimneyed cottage. Sun slants through the pine trees, birds chirrup and a brook bubbles alongside. I half expect the whole place to erupt into song. The climb back out of the basin is tough though. If the forest valley was a Disney remake, then escaping it is the Brother’s Grimm version with the sweat, blood and tears left in.

The views and atmosphere along the route are fantastic. We have long stretches to ourselves; just us and the birds and the jangling of our bells. We break for lunch at a rest stop and unwrap bannana leaf parcels prepared by our Minshuku guesthouse the night before. Three colourful and symmetrical rice balls: serious and much needed Japan-style hiking fuel.

At this rest stop we meet a group of friendly Japanese ladies. They are almost as colourful in their attire as our digesting lunch. We catch up further down the path and, after the usual pleasentries of how we have the same Osprey bag (Osprey are clearly doing something right in Japan), we end up in a quite unexpected situation.

Striding down towards us is a man that looks like he has stepped fresh from a Tokyo salon. He is clad all in white with a trendy scarf, sporting a well groomed goatee and is wearing an expensive looking leather man-satchel. It is not made by Osprey.

“Can we please film you for a hiking advert?” he asks, first in Japanese to our new friends and then in English to us, “We are from Eurosport.”

One “Camera. Action!” later and we are striding down the path doing our best to look hiker-ly. I go for a pensive and slightly pained look. Several kilometers later, I see the same media group trying to convince a local village lady to carry a sack of grain past them. It doesn’t seem to go well.

We push on past green tea plantations and persimmon trees. Teahouses beckon but the restrictive winter daylight hours force us onwards.

Twenty-six kilometers into the walk we limp into Kumano Hongu Taisha. Juxtaposed by the isolation of the woods, the number of tour bus pilgrims is a bit overwhelming. It feels like everyone is flitting around in a frenzied, selfie-stick ‘point and click’ induced state.

The view of the Torii gate, the biggest in the world, is an imposing one. It dominates the landscape and, walking through its towering presence, the history of the Kumano Kodo passes through alongside. We rest for a while to take it all in.

It is an inconvenience at this point, as our legs seize up, that we still have two kilometers of brutal uphill to reach our lodging at Yunomine Onsen.

We power through it in the encroaching darkness in blistered and tired silence.

At the end, we are greeted by a lovely and eccentric lady: the owner of our Minshuku Yamane.

She ushers us through to the private onsen baths, fuelled by the village’s natural hot springs.

After a good long soak, we emerge pink, exhausted and cleansed.

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!

The Kumano Kodo: Hiking Japan’s Ancient Pilgrim Trail (Part I of II – 13.5km)

‘He visited the cathedral, and sat in its chilled light, pouring like water from above. He reminded himself that centuries ago men had built churches, bridges, and ships, all of them a leap of madness and faith, if you thought about it.’

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

I gaze into the thin black crack between the two boulders. The board behind me invites pilgrims to take their own leap of faith by ‘tanai kuguri’ (passing through the womb) to pray to a turtle-shaped monolith hidden in the dark. I take a tentative step forward, before taking several more back in the other direction after the light from my phone dances off a thick, glossy mesh of spiderwebs. Not the most auspicious start to our pilgrimage, but we push on to Chikatsuyu nonetheless.

To be a builder of churches and bridges, or more accurately temples and shrines, in this area of Japan seems to require a doubling-up of a regular leap of faith. Every plaque we stoop to read tells us how these magnificent creations have been reconstructed over and over again due to earthquakes, fires or floods.

Even part of the Kumano Kodo trail itself disappears, enveloped by a landslide of trees, rocks and mud. A scar from the infamous 2011 typhoon, resulting in a detour along a forestry road.

But the rest of the ancient route abides. The Kumano Kodo is a UNESCO World Heritage trail and spreads like a web across hundreds of kilometers of the Kii Peninsula. No matter which route a pilgrim chooses though, he or she will always end at Kumamo Hongu Taisha. It is both the heart of this web and the spiritual home of Japan.

We are on the Nakahechi section of the Kumano Kodo. Around a thousand years ago Imperial ancestors began the pilgrimage tradition on this path, starting at Takijiri-oji, which marks where the ‘passage into the precints of the sacred mountains begins.’

Picking up from our failed boulder-test, we march up and into thick forest. The path is littered with gnarled tree roots exposed by over a millenia of tred from pilgrim, priest, royalty and beast. Straight edged stones jut out from the dry ground, hinting at steps worn back into the earth from which they were first carved.

Neither of us feel Imperial as we huff, puff and sweat through the close forest. Our bear bells jangle behind, limping along on my backpack.

The route is punctuated by a weave of history, myth and religion. We pass the old home of Jujo Akushiro, a witty and strong man who was given the name Aku (meaning ‘evil’) because of his valour, not for anything slanderous.

Ancient, ironic slang as comparable to a 1990’s ‘wicked’, ‘sick’ or ‘gnarly’ perhaps?

We climb the Three Fold Moon Hill to try to spy the eponymous lunar scene and gain ‘unfathomable power’. Unfortunately, as its the day time, we are thwarted. It may be worth a nocturnal revisit, given what is up for grabs.

There are numerous do-it-yourself teahouses, shrines and the occasional village on the way too. Friendly folk pop out of their homes to wave you on. We pause at the hamlet of Takahara to admire the uninterrupted view across sprouting rice fields and hilltops that bounce off onto the horizon.

The route continues as a mix of the same until we emerge into Chikatsuyu, our lodging for the night. We treat ourselves to a Kumano Kodo Ale and are met with a feast at our guesthouse Minshuku Nakano.

As the daylight disappears we gorge on delicious sashimi, roast fish and pork stew. It is the best meal we have eaten since we set foot in Japan three weeks ago, and that is no mean feat.

It feels fortifying too, which is no bad thing, given the 28km trek tomorrow.

If not a leap of faith, then certainly a test of endurance.

 

N.B. http://www.tb-kumano.jp has absolutely everything you need for any element of the Kumano Kodo. It lists various itineraries and you can pay direct in one go for things like lodging, luggage transfers and packed lunches. It really is a fantastic website and one that should be learned from!

Fluorescent Pumpkins: Exploring Naoshima, Japan’s Art Island (10.3km)

A tank-sized red and spotted pumpkin: not an obvious spot to enjoy a sunset drink, but Naoshima is an island that challenges expectations.

It sits on the Harima-nada Sea, a body of water nestled between Honshu (Japan’s mainland) and Shikoku (the southern island). Naoshima’s history is not unimportant, but is predictable. A dwindling economy once associated with a Mitsubishi refinery, old age pensioners and a small fishing industry centred around Yellowtail and seaweed.

Perhaps its because of this that a hungry visitor can still enjoy of bowl of udon noodles with a slab of tempura for £2. Naoshima’s port cafe has a workmanlike atmosphere. The silence is only broken by clattering chopsticks and prolonged, thick slurps. We finish our bowls, mutter a timid ‘arigato’ to the cook and take our leave.

Before we know it we are passing exhibitions containing Warhol, Hockney and Monet. We arrive at Honmura, the northeast port, and discover a place with entire buildings transformed into pieces of art.

The Statue of Liberty rears up through two stories of an old dentist’s office. A flooded, gloomy living room is lit up by a vast sea of numbered LED lights. Ice-cube steps descend from a shinto shrine into a reimagined burial chamber.  It is spectacular and surprising.

But how did Naoshina go from seaweed to international art destination?

Enter Chikatsugu Miyake, then incumbent mayor of Naoshima, and Tetsuhiko Fukutake, founding president of Benesse Corporation. In the late 1980s, these two men conspired to create an educational and cultural space on the island that launched with the opening of Benesse House Art Museum in 1992. Since then, numerous installations, galleries and festivals have taken place within the fourteen square kilometers that make up Naoshima.

If this smacks too much of gentrification, fear not. Not only has this brought money and jobs in from tourism, but the art is often designed to be ingrained in the community and enjoyed against its natural dramatic landscape.

In Honmura for example, artists have restored and rejuvinated disused homes back to their original states. The fact that these are dotted around the community is intentional: it is to encourage interactions and the passing of ideas between all different sects of society. As we make our way around we do find ourselves nodding, bowing and chatting.

Some of the exhibitons themselves are also contributed to by the pre-existing inhabitants. This in turn has galvanised the residents here who take up varying causes such as the Naoshima Rice Growing Project which has brought rice cultivation back to the island after a hiatus of a few decades.

They have even given over their beloved bath house to become an art installation. The fact that it still works and offers affordable prices probably helped sweeten the deal too. It seems like this carefully managed project is working for everyone involved.

As we explore Naoshima’s perimeter on foot and bike, we can see out as far as Teshima, another island to where the art initative has spread. The views from the hills here are at least rival to the archipelago ones found in Thailand or the Med.

But the real stars of the show bookend Naoshima; a yellow and red one at either side of the island.

Exploring doesn’t always need to be about mountains, forests or rivers. A pair of giant, fluorescent pumpkins also suffices.

N.B. There is an island bus but Naoshima is best explored by foot and bike. Bikes rent for ¥300-¥500 from the main ports for the day. Electric bikes (¥1000) might not be a bad idea as some of the hills are quite steep. Mopeds also available. Some areas do not allow bikes of any kind, so keep an eye out for designated parking areas.