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.

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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.

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.

 

 

Unzen National Park, Japan: Climbing Mount Unzen’s Volcano (12.6km)

Japan forces a foreigner to pause and ponder on a daily, if not hourly, basis.

There are any number of reasons for this: the friendliness of the people, a meal laid out like a piece of art, the natural drama of the countryside, the imposing feudal castles, J-Pop, the neon underworlds of the major cities or the regional mascots to name only a tiny handful of the obvious ones.

The full list could fill a library and would be as long as it is ecclectic. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, it would also need restarting as soon as it is finished as parts of the culture adapt and remould.

My most random ‘pause and ponder’ moment to date came in the form of a cave, stumbled upon after a gruelling three hour uphill hike to the approach of Mt. Fugen.

We leave early; rucksack packed with onigiri (rice balls) and bellies sloshing with toast and coffee to ward off the chill of the early morning fog. The climb starts as soon as we leave town. We cut right between two still shuttered shops and up through a stretch of red and rotting torii gates. They mark the gateway between the secular and the sacred, as well as the beginning of our gradual haul up to Mt. Fugen (the second highest peak of Mt. Unzen).

The switchbacks of this old trail are thigh-burning and so we take plenty of opportunities to admire the campsites dotted alongside. One boasts an entire menagerie of stone-chiseled animals. The squat turtle and prowling lion double up as fantastic chairs for weary legs.

We reach Nita Pass, the gateway to the mountain, tired but in good time. The mist continues to roll over the peaks, though the veiled sun is doing its best. We push on up to Mt. Myoken (1,333m) and the Myoken Shrine in the hope that it might break through.

It does not. We find ourselves alone, shrouded in the cloud, passing underneath the grey torii that marks the entrance to the shrine. The wind picks bright red maple leaves from trees and hurls them around in the damp tasting air. A ragged Japanese flag flutters nearby. The deserted shrine is impressive, and a little haunting.

A few kilometres later, as we mull over a mid-morning bean curd dougnut, we are caught up by a trio of middle-aged Japanese ladies. They are very happy to have found us here and, after some communication in broken English, are also delighted that we are enjoying Japan. Their delight turns to giddy joy when it turns out that they also have Osprey bags like mine. All three of them twirl in unison to show them off.

We continue along the mountain trail towards Hato-ana Junction. The path becomes so thin and steep here that there is a one way system in place. Before we reach it though, we arrive at a lava cave with a detailed descriptive board outside. A ‘silkworm lava cave’ to be specific.

A wild silkworm cave, it must be? Up here, in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain? A mountain next to an active volcano which seems suspectible to molten rock, rain and fog?

Apparently not. Silkworm eggs were carried all the way up here because the cave provides the very best conditions for their preservation.

To be clear, I am no silkworm farmer. But could one not sacrifice having just slightly worse conditions for the silkworms by having a similar cave in a much more practical location? A quick Google tells me this is what they did in Korea, pre-refrigeration.

Who knows. The point is that this is why Japan is so brilliant: the strive for perfection, no matter the effort involved, is paramount. This ethos is core to the culture here and the humble modesty people show amplifies it even further.

The sun does now break as we sit amongst the Tateiwa Peaks. The newest and tallest peak Mt. Hesei-shinzan (1,483m) watches over us as we wolf down our rice balls. It is forbidden to climb it. Steam oozes out of the top. All the other peaks nearby have been here for around five thousand years. Hesei-shinzan has been here for twenty. It is not just Japanese culture that is remoulding, it is the landscape too.

Clambering up the final rock face to Mt. Fugen is a glorious moment. The drop is sheer and the views are incredible. From the peaks to the sea, the whole Unzen penninsula is lit up like its our own personal kingdom.

All except the lava dome of Hesei-shinzan, which continues to cloak itself and chunter out a warning at its own steady pace.

N.B. For this hike, and the one from the previous post, head to the Mount Unzen Information Centre in Unzen town. They have a fantastic array of English Language guides, with pencil illustrations of the local flora and fauna.

If you’re feeling lazy, you can get a shared taxi from here up to Nita Pass and a cablecar from there to Mt. Myoken. Mt. Fugen can only be reached on foot.

Kamikochi National Park, Japan: Kappa-bashi to Shinmura-bashi Bridge (9.3m)

Takayama’s compact bus terminal is alive and kicking, despite the early hour and near freezing temperature. We join a bleary-eyed queue and huddle onto a shuttle bound for Kamikochi National Park. Grateful for the warmth and padded seats, we soon drift off and recoup an hour of sleep.

We wake up to a staggering landscape. The bus has snaked into the heartland of the Japanese Alps, a place of tall green and auburn pines, looming snow-capped peaks and endless waterways that disappear from view only to emerge again in different guises. The sky is ice blue and the sun intense, amplfied by the altitude. Despite this, the thermometer will max out at four degrees today and, as we disembark our heated cocoon for the park entrance, it is clear it will take a while to reach this point.

In the late 19th Century, Englishman and keen mountaineer Reverend Walter Weston spent a great deal of time in the Kamikochi area. Along with his guide Kamijo Kamonji, he pioneered across the mountain range and forged a number of the pathways that are still in use now. Without the pair of them, there is a good chance this national park would not exist and so they deserve high praise.

Weston is widely credited for coining the name ‘Japanese Alps’ and for bringing popularity to hiking as a sport in Japan. He was in fact so succesful that in 1937 Emperor Hirohito bestowed on him the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasures. As if that wasn’t enough, each year at Mt. Ena on 11th May the Weston Festival officialy marks the start of the hiking season. More on the good Reverend and Kamijo later.

Back in the present day, we march out from Kappa-bashi Bridge swaddled in layers and crunching frost underfoot; the pace is quick and hands are stuffed in pockets. We are dwarfed on all sides by the dense, needle-straight forest and further still by the peaks of Mt. Myojin Dake, Mt. Yariga-take and Mt. Otensho-dake to name but a few. The aroma from the pine swirls everywhere as we walk and the early morning sunshine slants through the narrow gaps in the trees.

The further we go, the less people we see. We know this by sight, but also by sound. It seems there is a local penchant for portable bear bells, jingling like Christmas from a number of backpacks. I have a fleeting, masochistic urge to spot a bear, just to break the tension.

But we do not see one. On our return from Shinmura-bashi Bridge what we do see though is a wild Macaque monkey. First, a solitary one whips across the path in a blur of red face and pale-brown fur. Then there are lots. A group of nitpicking adults, squabbling adolescents and curious babies. As a clanging fellow hiker strides through without giving them a second glance, it is clear the bells don’t work on Macaques. They remain unperturbed and amble after us down the path.

Soon after, we cross over the Myojin-bashi Bridge to visit the Hotaka-jinja Shrine and continue along the opposite bank. Next to the shrine is the mountain hut built by Kamijo Kamonji which is now run as a trailside cafe by Kamijo’s fourth generation descendant, serving up hearty ramen and other cold-warding treats. Above the hearth, great-great grandfather Kamijo’s original hunting rifle and ice-pick (a gift from Weston, honouring their long friendship) are displayed.

As we arrive back at the Kappa-bashi Bridge we are greeted with an awe inspiring view of the Dakesawa peak to cap our round trip.

And we did finally come face to face with that bear too.

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N.B. As you might expect there are lots of different hikes around this area (from longer/shorter day trips to some spanning several days). In the winter, you will need crampons and proper gear to get into the mountains but as a day trip (as long as the park is still open up to the 15th Novemeber!) the walk described above will be fine. If planning to do longer expeditions and camp, I would advise you to check in with the Tourist Info Centre in Takayama (by the JR Station) and at Kamikochi Park Centre itself for up to date info.

Nakasendo Way, Japan: Magome to Tsumago (4.9 miles)

“When you see someone putting on his Big Boots, you can be pretty sure that an Adventure is going to happen.” Winnie-the-Pooh Bear

Big Boots? Check.

Adventure? Check.

Pooh, Asiatic Black or any type of bear? Thankfully not this time.

The Nakasendo Way (meaning Central Mountain Route) is an ancient pathway which connected Edo (now Tokyo) to Kyoto in the West. It stretches a mighty 332 miles across Japan and, in its heyday, had 69 ‘post-towns’ scattered throughout. Magome and Tsumago make up two of these.

Both have been restored to their Edo era former glories and are breathtaking to look at. Water mills, sake vendors and traditional ryokan inns line both streets. At night, the dim lighting of the paper lanterns that hang in doorways sets itself against the dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. By this time the tourist buses have also departed back to their resorts and the handful of those staying in either town are left with the sound of trickling streams, the waft from bubbling stoves of soba noodles with crispy tempura and the occasional soft slam of a sliding door.

The walk itself is extremely well sign posted and, coming from Magome, starts with a steady climb for a good third of the way to reach the pass. It meanders lazily alongside brooks and waterfalls, through forests and past homesteads, some of which offer green tea or welcome rest spots. The route is littered with inviting off shoots advertising shrines, old cherry trees and vistas. A straight walk at a good pace should take no more than a couple of hours but it is easy to become distracted by the above or by green tea ice cream, which I would make a strong case for being of equal importance.

There is wildlife too (we spot a Japanese Varied Tit) but the magical bear bells that clang and echo around the Kiso Valley ward off anything too overstimulating.

Every house we pass is a joy to behold. There are porches lined with the abundant sun-orange persimmon fruit and endless thatched baskets of purple radishes. Each garden has a vegetable patch that would be the envy of many a village blue rosette winner back home. It feels otherworldly, and I suppose it is.

We emerge into Tsumago like stepping out of a trance and pleased not to have been a bear’s late afternoon snack. We do grab one of our own though, from a kind old man surrounded by steaming bamboo boxes of dumplings stuffed with smoked aubergine. As the temperature cools, it fills a hole and warms the cockles up a couple of degrees.

But returning them to full capacity is the reserve of our ryokan’s hot bath. It’s going to be hard to finish another walk again without knowing one of these is at the finish line.