Tuesday 17th November
Travelling west over Arthur's Pass
Kowai Reserve turned out much better than expected. It was chosen for its position, two thirds of the way between sea and mountains, at the edge of the Canterbury plains, just outside the network of roads surrounding Christchurch. It was right next to the highway and railway, cheap and easy to find.
On waking we found ourselves in a lovely woodland clearing. There were other campers there too, but also tennis courts, showers etc and a cosy clubhouse with an open wood fire where the tent campers were congregated. After breakfast, the caretaker puttered by on his lawnmower so we were able to pay up and be on our way west and up into the Torlesse mountains.
We were glad we had postponed this part of the journey until morning as it was lovely to see the views. The day was warm and sunny. It felt like the first day of summer in England - bright skies, skylarks singing, bees buzzing and a temperature of 18 degrees at breakfast to allow bare arms and legs.
We drove up through Castle Hill, where limestone boulders on the hillside looked as if they could have once been an ancient castle, even though they are an entirely natural phenomenon. Flock Hill was the place where they filmed The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It's an area internationally popular with climbers.
We stopped at Craigieburn Forest Park to walk. Our target bird to spot was the bellbird. We had heard this bird singing beautifully -a melodious chiming song - everywhere but still had never seen one.
The forest here was a beech wood, and dappled sunlight filtered down through the leaves. The information boards mentioned the different types of red mistletoe that grid here in summer. We didn't see any. We did hear and see several bellbirds - green and bronze with a yellow belly and a pinkish colour around the eye. They flitted from sunny twig to shady branch and back, chasing insects.
At Arthur's Pass the weather started to change - blue skies with a few white fluffy clouds to the east, behind us and dense grey mist obscuring the tips of the mountains to the west, in from of us. This was no surprise. The forecast had predicted rain this afternoon, and we also knew that the park is in the transition zone between the soggy West Coast (6 metres of rain per year) and the much drier East (2metres a year). It was rather like looking down from the Pyrenees in July to the west, and up to Glen Coe in January to the east. We repeated the phrase 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing....'
We paused at the DOC information centre to pick up some maps and then enjoyed coffee at the 'Wobbly Kea Cafe'.
The Kea is a mountain parrot - only found in the mountains of South Island. Large and bright green in colour, with a sharp hooked beak they have a flash of bright red under their wings and we were hoping to see one. Bill stepped out of the driver's seat, binoculars in hand, looking in the trees all around to see if he could spot one. In fact he nearly trod on the two that had been hiding under our van! They then proceeded to fly up onto the roof and peck at it! They are very inquisitive birds, well known for pinching picnics and even for shredding the walking boots of unwary campers! We watched the parrots move onto the roof of another car nearby and start pecking at the rubber seals around the door frames. Remembering the destructive powers of the monkeys in the Bewdley Safari Park, we hoped that Madge would be able to resist their avian vandalism whilst we were out walking.
Fingers crossed, we set off to walk up to the Devil's Punchbowl waterfall and to continue the Arthur's Pass Walking Track. This follows the coast to coast route established by Arthur Dudley Dobson in 1864 following a path historically used by Maoris. Having consulted our guide book we were hopeful that we might see a 'Rifleman' - New Zealand's smallest bird measuring 8cm. It's green and yellow, with a white breast and has a high pitched call as it searches bark crevices for insects. Armed with this information and our binoculars we set off up the steep path.
Unfortunately Bill's acknowledgement that the 'rifleman' was our 'target bird' for the walk provoked a very long series of Grandad-esque gun related puns that lasted all the way to the waterfall...
On arrival there was already someone on the viewing platform, so we decided to find our own spot and clambered over some boulders at the edge of the river to find somewhere to sit. Bill climbed up onto a big rock and sat next to the lower waterfall with his binoculars in position, looking for birds.
I put my backpack down on the shingle beach and started to climb up beside him. I hadn't noticed that the shingle was sloping and as I climbed, my back pack rolled down the slope, into the river, under Bill's dangling boots and started to slide into the rapids. My hysterical shrieking was to no avail over the noise of the waterfall and Bill continued contentedly watching the birds as I scrambled into the river and started slithering about between the rocks trying to grab my ruck sack! Bill suddenly realised something was up, (his startled alarm was mainly, I think, that another impromptu swimming party might be on the cards), by which time I had retrieved my bag and was squelching my way back to the river bank.
After a healthy bout of indignant squawking from me and unhelpful laughter from Bill we established whose fault it all was and then sat in the sun eating our snacks and waiting for my boots and trousers and back pack to dry....
The episode did mean that the remainder of the walk was a) soggy and b) laden with aquatic puns involving fish and amphibians....
In comparison to this the trip to the view point was uneventful and pleasant, and the Devils Punchbowl very spectacular, particularly with the sunlight reflecting in the water droplets.
We walked further along Arthur's Pass, climbing steeply up through beech woods. New Zealand beeches are quite different to the beech trees we know in Britain. The predominant tree around Arthur's pass is Mountain beech, it's very small non-serrated leaves, rather like a cotoneaster. The trees were mostly covered in lichen and the boulders covered in mosses and ferns. The forest was full of cascading streams and babbling brooks and sun light filtered down between the trees. On our return journey, we finally spotted a rifleman bird three times. Each time it was perching on a sunlit branch for a few moments before flitting away. Very pretty.
Back in the car park it was clear that we were still sitting between two weather systems. We drove further west, through the rain, up and over the passant then winding steeply down through the valleys of the west coast to Kumara junction and south to Hokitika.
Hokitika is the central place in the audiobook that we are listening to at the moment - 'The Luminaries' a sort about the gold rush in the mid 19th century. It's fascinating to drive through an area where the history, names and geographical features are already familiar - the rivers and mountains, sand bar and harbour.
We park up on the beach front as the sun is low in the sky. It's a spectacular setting. A windswept black sand beach with mounds of silver-white drift wood and noisy surf crashing in. We walked along the beech collecting unusually defied pebbles - smooth, flat black, grey and white discs that looked as if they had been rolled out and cut with a pastry cutter.
The sun slowly set and the camera shutters clicked. The sky turned gold and red (the shepherd will be pleased!) and the light slowly faded.
We drove a short distance further south to a DOC campsite next to Lake Mahinapua, parked, ate and slept.