The Quickest Way into the Mountain Terrain of Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura has two slogans: ‘Kaikoura, where the mountains meet the sea’ and ‘Kaikoura we don’t have to explain it, every step allows you to discover it’. The Kaikoura Wilderness Walks fits them perfectly.

In a long skinny land – such as NZ – in the middle of an ocean, in any 48-hour period you can expect every meteorological weather pattern, but for us, as we head towards the Seaward Kaikoura’s, the weather gods smile on us when we start climbing.

Our guide, Lance Godfrey has lived in Kaikoura since his first birthday. Like the NZ back-country author Barry Crump, (loved by many – although not by me) Lance too was once a goat and deer culler, and here the similarities stop.  He was also a hunting and trophy guide for American tourists in the South Island, and now is the operations manager (and guide) for Nicky McArthur, owner of Kaikoura Wilderness Walks and its 3-day all inclusive guided walk. Her land on which we are walking is protected as the Puhi Peaks Nature Reserve under a QE2 National Trust Covenant, which aims to preserve ‘open spaces in its natural state.

This means Nicky is the guardian of the land right now, but the land is protected no matter who owns it – it can never be farmland again. New Zealand is fortunate indeed to have people such as Nicky, and others, who are willing to save such special places – but back to my trip.

Views out to the Pacfic Ocean

Views out to the Pacfic Ocean

This walk is the quickest and easiest way into the mountain terrain of Kaikoura” our guide tells us – a group of four, two Kiwi and two from England. He continues in his soft voice, “We’ll be going through different types of terrain and vegetation, through stands of the wonderful manuka (from which bees harvest pollen for the therapeutic manuka honey) and kanuka, from regenerating totara forest to ancient forest areas and fine stands of beech and podocarp forest:” podocarps are part of the conifer family and includes rimu, kahikatea, miro, and totara.

And so, daypacks on, lancewood walking sticks at the ready, we leave the woolshed and farmyard base for our six-hour walk in the wilderness and head for Shearwater Lodge in Happy Valley.

The smells of hiking in New Zealand are wonderful and it’s not long before we stop at a beech tree to sample the honey dew: unlike me, the woman from the UK did not like beech trees sweet smell which pervades the forest. As a boutique eco-hike, the guides are able to tailor the day to the abilities of the walkers, stopping for photos, drinks and rests as needed – and I valued that. The walk is said to be for average fitness – I think a really fit person said that. I would suggest if you are not used to hill climbs some practice would make the trip even more enjoyable.

The wedding tree

The wedding tree

We watched and heard many birds, had views of the North Island and the Pacific Ocean, we saw feral goats and deer, and, as well as stopping to admire and learn about various native trees, we’re even introduced to a native fern: the tiny leathery adder’s tongue has a tongue-shaped leaf at ground level and a longer fertile stalk bearing above it.  Although there are two species in New Zealand I had never heard of them – we were all on our knees examining it. At different times of the year the white mountain daisies, and other flowering plants, cover the hills, I’d love to return to see them in bloom. No wonder Lance says ‘this is the most picturesque place in Kaikoura.

As we stop for lunch – a delicious packed lunch that’s waiting for us at the halfway point – where there is an eco, composting toilet and even a picnic table. It’s a welcome break with food, tea and coffee, coupled with good conversation and stunning views.

It’s at this point is where we can see the Hutton’s Shearwaters colony.  They burrow below the peak of Te Ao Wheke, (the world of the Gods) the second highest mountain peak in the Seaward Kaikoura’s and where, in 1965, these breeding grounds were re-discovered by Geoff Harrow, an amateur Christchurch ornithologist.  Out come the binoculars and we search their mountainside home for them – but of course these birds only fly home at night and leave first thing each morning to spend their days at sea feeding on small fish and krill.

Although the adult population is around 460,000 the species is classified as ‘nationally endangered’ because of its rapid rate of decline. Like us hikers, this bird’s a traveller. It spends winter in Australian waters then returns each August to breed in this steep and rugged landscape – on Puhi Peaks, the highest freehold land in the country.  This cousin of the ‘mutton-bird’ (sooty shearwater) is the only New Zealand seabird that nests in subalpine terrain.

Lance is full of useful information and tells me, “They have been recorded travelling at150 km/h.  So it takes only seven minutes to get down to the sea – coming back up takes around 38 minutes.” Not bad as they climb about 1200m from the ocean to their burrows – a lot quicker than we are travelling.

Kaikoura Wilderness Walks, and Nicky Mc Arthur, are closely aligned with conservation of the Shearwater and it’s colony, and the attempt by the NZ’s Dept’ of Conservation and Ngai Tahu,  to create a 3rd colony behind a predator-excluding fence on the Kaikoura Peninsula. This year signs that some of the translocated birds – moved before they could fly, and fed with mashed sardine through a syringe – have returned to this new colony:  this is positive news for the success of the project.)

Fresh mountain streams invite a slurp or two!

Fresh mountain streams invite a slurp or two!

Lunch over, and after many hours being guided over streams, boulder-hopping, and zigzagging up and down the hills and valleys, through tussock, high alpine meadows, ferns, and old forest we arrive at the luxurious, yet eco-friendly, Shearwater Lodge. This is where Nicky shines – the ‘hostess with the mostest’ someone has written in the guest book.

This is civilised tramping: no wet japara and canvas tents here. The outdoor table is laden with muffins, fruit cake and nibbles, hot and cold drinks to welcome and celebrate us achieving our goal, and through the window we can see a fire roaring and we know a welcome shower awaits us.

Nicky tells me “There are more than two dozen privately owned walks in New Zealand, but we don’t think walkers need to compromise on style or hot showers.” And style this lodge has: Nicky’s watercolours line the hall which leads to the double bedrooms. Sheepskins, white linen and great views from the balcony, and best of all, my luggage delivered to my room from down at sea level, add to the luxury. Later, my turned down bed, a chocolate on the pillow, reminds me this is not tramping as I used to know it – I would be happy to always indulge in this sort of hiking.

After showers we gather at the lounge fire for drinks and appetisers of eggplant and parmesan and as appropriate for Kaikoura – another of crayfish, and soon its time for dinner: Another area in which Nicky excels. Despite the table salt coming from Nepal – connecting two mountain areas – she uses local, in season, produce whenever possible.

In our native bird named rooms, our comfortable beds ensure we sleep well; I leave my curtains open and wake at 5am so open the sliding doors and lie in bed for a little longer, listening to the bird song. I never tire of the dawn chorus and very soon I’m up, camera in hand, to record the subtle sunrise.

Later, after a hearty breakfast and my boots back on, we head out to explore. Past the helicopter pad we climb through the young plants that will later cover the slope with tall stalks of yellow blooms and soon, in the middle of a large alpine field we stop to watch some deer and goats higher up the mountains. It’s also the spot where a spectacular mountain ribbonwood grows. ‘The wedding tree’ everyone at Shearwater Lodge calls it because of the beautiful white blossom which evidently looks like confetti as it starts to fall – I wonder when the first wedding will occur under its branches?

Looking up to the "World of the Gods'

Looking up to the "World of the Gods’

A short climb had us soon on top of the ridge and from where we could see the Emily falls – it seems to have about nine distinct cascades as the snow melt and spring water head down to the valley and river. We traversed the ridge and back down to see yet more falls on the other side of Shearwater Lodge – the Bevery falls. It’s further up this river that the lodge generates its own power. It’s lovely to note that both waterfalls are named after girls: one a toddler, the other a baby.

Hiking in this wonderful area, my first guided walk, I concur with my fellow hikers who loved the ‘absolute rawness of the mountains’ and who wish they could have stayed longer – me too.

The other kiwi in our group paid the ultimate compliment when over our last lunch she said, ‘I’ve been totally blown away. I have walked virtually all the South Island tracks and this is the best. I have never heard so much birdsong on the others.

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So when you go to Kaikoura don’t just look out to NZ’s marine Serengeti, feeding ground of the giant Sperm whale, look, or even better, take a walk, in the other direction, up to the high country home for both Hutton’s Shearwaters and the Shearwater Lodge. This whole walk epitomises the tourist offices tagline ‘every step allows you to discover it’ – every step we took allowed us to discover a lot.

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