Thursday, 19 January 2017

Abel Tasman, Farewell Spit, and the Wonders of Wharariki

Leaving Westport, my plans were to follow the road down the picturesque Buller valley and head deep into the heart of the Northern part of the South Island's mountains to St Arnaud and the beginning of a multi-day hike.

The roads through the Buller Valley were mighty nice to cycle on.

The quest was to do the Travers-Sabine track, a long distance 80Km circuit through the Nelson Lakes National Park, with a side trip to a small lake renown for having the clearest water on the planet.  The whole trek would have come to just over 100Km and I was anticipating it would take 5 days to do it.

However, the weather had other ideas.  For the trip to be worthwhile, I needed at least a couple of days of good weather and the forecast was dodgy to say the least.

After staying a night in a wonderfully homely hostel in Murchison - run by yet another Brit - the next days' 60Km to St Arnaud should have been in reasonable weather.  The forecast was actually pretty good compared to the rest of the week.  However, clouds hovered ominously, and almost right on cue for the turnoff to St Arnaud, the heavens opened.  Fortunately, there was a small park with a shelter at the turnoff.

Pulling-up for shelter at exactly the same time as me was a French couple riding through New Zealand with a different method to me, which I was quite envious of. They were packed a bit lighter than me on very expensive-looking mountain bikes and exploring the many mountain biking trails of New Zealand.  They used the main roads sometimes, but were equipped to go off-road when a worthwhile trail was around, it seemed a difficult but interesting way to travel through New Zealand.

Thinking that this was supposed to be a good weather day, I began to doubt whether this trip would be worth my while.  The forecasts for the next 5 days were not encouraging, and good weather was fairly essential for such a long tramp.  With this in mind, I decided against it and steered towards the far north west of the South Island, where the weather looked less sketchy.

Coastal areas of the North-West.

Alex was a useful resource of interesting places to go and see, and one of the sights I wished to see most in New Zealand was a place I'd never heard of before I saw Alex post on Facebook, Wharariki beach.  Before I left his place in Wanaka, a couple of weeks before, he gave me some instructions about how to get there.

Wharariki sits right up in the far North West corner of New Zealand, next to Farewell Spit, a curiously narrow curved sand-bar like protrusion from the top of the South Island.  I was advised not to miss this place, despite the fact it was rather off the beaten track to get to.

Farewell Spit

Firstly though, I had to make my way to Motueka, a gateway town to Abel Tasman National Park.  I obviously wanted to see much of Abel tasman also, but wasn't sure whether to do this before or after Wharariki.  With a good forcast for the following day, however, and the likelihood I would arrive at Wharariki at the perfect time of sunset, I set off on yet another long days' cycling.  This time about 120Km with one mighty big climb and a lot of headwinds on the way.

My first big obstacle was Takaka Hill.  Rising to nearly 800m from a beginning at sea level, a hill that really was stretching the definition of "hill" to the max.  Trust me, although 800m doesn't sound that high, over 2 hours of steady climbing on a loaded bike might make you change your mind.  As strenuous and dangerous as the road was, with no barriers in many places and sheer drops, it was yet another spectacular ride.

View from the top of Takaka Hill.
Just in case I had any delusions that cosmic justice was a real thing, and that such hard work deserved an easy 30-40Km to my lunch stop, I was reminded that we don't always get what we deserve.  After a leg-sapping climb, I was afforded only a brief (but glorious) whoosh down the other side of the mountain, and almost the second the road flattened-out again, I was hit with steady headwinds.

A short, rather unhealthy, lunch of lasagna toppers (deep fried lasagna with breadcrumbs, somewhat of a delicacy in NZ) and chocolate muffins, the final 50Km was into an ever-increasing headwind with a final push of 6Km on the roughest road of the trip; unsealed, bumpy, and impossible to cycle in places.

It was a physically crushing day, but I had timed things perfectly.  I had arrived at the campsite - a short walk from the beach - about an hour before sunset, and the conditions were perfect.

Wharariki has a reputation for being extremely windy, due to its position pointing directly into the prevailing wind.  Normally, wind at a beach isn't the greatest thing in the world, but in Wharariki is creates the most strikingly beautiful effect.  The wind blows the sand flat and the constant movement of the top surface being blown away produces an almost ghostly kind of smoke flowing across the beach.  It is truly unique. This combined with stunning rock formations, playful seals, and the sunset reflecting magical colours on silky wind-shapen clouds makes for an amazing experience.

On a trip choc-full of incredible places, Wharariki was definitely right up there with the best of them.  To make things extra-special, its a place that is less well-known, less developed, and less frequented.  I was not there with crowds of people, just one or two others.  Yet again, in this extraordinary country, I didn't feel like a tourist.  And also, yet again, I was in a place that was almost painful to leave.

The campsite had a pretty inexpensive backpacker option, which I lept at the chance of taking, so I got an excellent nights' sleep, which was sorely needed.

I took some time to check out Farewell Spit as well, while I was in the area.  It really is an extraordinary piece of land, shaped by the sea currents.

Instead of going the whole way back to Motueka, I decided to stay a day in Takaka, as the weather wasn't good again and I needed a recharge to tackle Takaka Hill again.  I stayed in a nice little hostel owned by a Kiwi-Japanese husband and wife.

While there I met a chap who was walking the length of New Zealand on the Te Aroha, a route through New Zealand combining a range of tracks and roads.  Something I quite liked the sound of, however, he told me that the weather had been so bad that he had a number of truly miserable days.  His route and his form of travel didn't give him the chance to get out of the rain and stop in comfortable accommodation very often. He was bravely soldiering through, though, and I wished him better luck with the weather.  There had been an awful lot of rain in New Zealand while I was there, but I had done remarkably well to avoid getting stuck in the worst of it.

It was a hard day of cycling to get to Wharariki and Farewell Spit, so that meant it would be almost equally as tough on the way back, and I had no choice but to ascend Takaka Hill again, this time in slightly inclement weather.  Things were a little easier on the way back, as I didn't have quite the same wind resistance.  It was by no means at my back, but it was manageable.

I arrived back at Motueka and considered what to do about Abel Tasman National Park. The weather was a bit 50/50 for the next couple of days again, and I didn't want to wait around in Motueka for to long.  The next day, I decided to embark on a slightly different kind outing.

Having a rest about half-way through my run.

I took a water taxi out to a beach 30Km into the park and thought I could run and hike this back to the bus pick-up point at the end/start of the Abel Tasman Great Walk track. This way, whatever the weather, it'd be a reasonable day.  The track never ascends very high at Abel Tasman, so it was perfect for a good trail run.  Walking the whole track wasn't an option, as it was now the Great Walks season and huts and campgrounds had to be booked in advance.

It actually rained much more than I had anticipated, but it never came down so hard as to truly dampen my spirits.  Even in damp weather, the park was still a treat of picturesque beaches and large estuaries.

To save time, and for a bit of a unique experience, I crossed one of the largest of the estuaries.  It is marked for crossing at low-tide, however, I reached it a little after low tide when the water-level was quite high in places.  I took my shoes off and held my backpack up high over the water as I waded through with the water at chest height. Fortunately, the water wasn't flowing too fast and I made it through without issue, but it was probably quite lucky that I wasn't there 15-20 minutes later or else I might have had to turn back and take the high-road detour.

Crossing this section through the tidal waters was pretty cool.  Felt like a very adventurous trail run.

I hadn't done too much running on the trip, so my legs ran out of steam at about 15-20 kilometres, but I walked the last 10Km or so.  I think the full 60Km would be a great thing to run in a day (one would have to train for this, though), as the track is well-formed, not too steep and great to run on.  Until writing this post, I didn't realise that they actually have a race of 36Km along the track, similar to what I did on my own.  I think a 60Km ultramarathon would be fantastic there, or maybe I'll just do the whole thing on my own when I return to New Zealand next time, and there will definitely be a next time.  Another fascinating leg of the trip.

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