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.