Living in this long skinny land, New Zealand, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, means in any 48-hour period we 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, once a goat and deer-culler and guide for tourists hunting trophies, brings all that experience to his role with Kaikoura Wilderness Walks. This 3-day all-inclusive walk is on protected land, so, although landscape artist and farmer, Nicky McArthur, is the guardian of the land now, it’s safeguarded. No matter who owns it, it can never be farmland again.
“This walk is the quickest and easiest way into the mountain terrain of Kaikoura” Lance tells us, two Kiwi and two from England. His soft voice continues, “We’ll be going through different types of terrain and vegetation, through stands of manuka (from which bees harvest pollen for the therapeutic manuka honey) from regenerating totara forest to ancient forest areas and fine stands of beech and podocarp (conifer family) forest:”
And so, daypacks on, sturdy lancewood walking sticks at the ready, we leave the woolshed and farmyard base for our six-hour walk up to the Shearwater Lodge in Happy Valley.
The smells of hiking are wonderful and it’s not long before we stop at a beech tree to sample the honey-dew on the sooty black trunks. 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 as I should have practiced more hill-climbing.
We watched and heard many birds, had superb views of the North Island and Pacific Ocean, 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. 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 white mountain-daisies and other flowering plants, cover these hills. No wonder Lance says ‘this is the most picturesque place in Kaikoura‘.
A delicious packed lunch is 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 where the Hutton’s Shearwaters burrow below the peak of Te Ao Wheke, (The World of the Gods) the second highest mountain peak here. We peer at their mountainside colony for them but of course these birds only fly home at night and leave first thing each morning, spending 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 rugged landscape. Our guide tells us, “They have been recorded travelling at 150 km/h. It takes only seven minutes to get down to the sea – coming back up takes around 38 minutes.”
Kaikoura Wilderness Walks is closely aligned with the conservation of the Shearwater and, with the local conservation department and local Maori, are helping create a new colony behind a predator-excluding fence on the Kaikoura Peninsula. Each year some of the translocated birds – moved before they could fly, and fed with mashed sardine through a syringe – returned to this new colony and this is positive news for the success of the project. (see note below)
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 forest, we arrive at the luxurious, eco-friendly, Shearwater Lodge. This is where Nicky shines – the ‘hostess with the mostest’ someone has written in the guest book.
This is civilised hiking: no wet clothes or canvas tents here. Nicky, the owner, tells me “There are other 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, adds 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.
After showers we gather at the lounge fire for drinks and appetisers and soon it’s time for dinner: Despite the table salt coming from Nepal – connecting two mountain areas – she uses local, in-season produce when possible. As a cordon bleu chef, Nicky ensures the food on our plates is delicious and beautifully presented.
I sleep well, leaving 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 and soon I’m up, camera in hand, to record the sunrise.
Later, after a hearty breakfast and with my boots back on, we head out to explore. Past the helicopter pad we climb through 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 deer and goats higher up the mountains. It’s also the spot where a spectacular mountain ribbon-wood 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?
A short climb has us soon on top of the ridge and from where we could see Emily Falls cascade down into the valley and river. We traverse the ridge then back down to see yet more falls on the other side of Shearwater Lodge – the Beverly Falls. It’s further up this river that the lodge generates its own hydro-power.
This was my first guided walk and I agree with my fellow hikers who loved the ‘absolute rawness of the mountains’ and who wish they could have stayed longer. The other Kiwi in our group said, ‘I’ve been totally blown away. I have walked almost all the South Island tracks and this is the best. I have never heard so much birdsong on the others.’
So when you go to Kaikoura don’t just look out at the feeding ground of the giant Sperm whale, 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 local tourist office taglines: ‘Kaikoura, where the mountains meet the sea’ and ‘Kaikoura every step allows you to discover it’
The first Hutton’s Shearwater Farewell is on the 3rd April 2011 at 7.00 am
NOTE: This years annual welcome will be Sunday 25th September 2011. These events will occur on the start, and finish of NZ daylight savings every year.