For many, tramping in New Zealand conjures up images of red checked Swandris, muddy boots and a great deal of grunt. While hiking, an American term that is rapidly gaining a foothold in the kiwi vernacular, paints a far more attractive image. It suggests small packs, bear bells and sunny weather.
But these are blessed times when the best of tramping in New Zealand (the bush, bird life, mountains, river crossing, multi-day trips) mingles with the refinements of hiking. There is now a range of multi-day hiking trips that don’t require the lugging of three days food, the cooker or even a sleeping bag.
We embraced this new regime on the Kaikoura Wilderness Walk in the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, the top draw of the private walk selection. The hike traverses Puhi Peaks Station, New Zealand’s highest privately owned land that peaks at 2438 metres with Te Ao Whekere, the mountain aptly named, “World of the Gods”. Half of this sub-alpine 1618 hectare farm is under a QEII covenant called the Puhi Peaks Nature Reserve and is home to Kaikoura’s endemic Hutton’s shearwater, an endangered seabird that nests among the largely inaccessible crags of Te Ao Whekere.
Obviously the bear bells aren’t needed and the weather is anyone’s guess in New Zealand, nor are you required to climb Te Ao Whekere, but with the accommodation at Shearwater Lodge sitting at 1000 metres, you feel very close. We are a convivial group of Kiwi’s and a German couple that meet in Kaikoura for the 40 minute drive to Puhi Peaks Station for a briefing in the woolshed by our guide, Lance, a burly mountain man who epitomises New Zealand’s outdoors ethos.
As promised, our packs are light and after a gentle climb through stands of manuka and kanuka (with lesson on how to tell the two apart), ancient totara and beech forest, we get our first taste of luxury in the wilderness with a magnificent boxed lunch to enjoy on Totara Saddle, in full view of the Kaikoura mountains. From here Lance points out the precipitous bluff that DOC lands a helicopter in order to maintain predator control at the Hutton’s shearwater colony. Later, in the thick of the forest, Lance has to speak up to be heard over the bird song. His interpretation is top notch and non-intrusive, and his kiwi bush lore great entertainment.
After winding through open fields of alpine daisy and weather topiaried celery pine, Shearwater Lodge is sighted but is still an hour’s walk away. Numerous red deer are also spotted, blending in well with the mountain rock and scrub. Lance returns a stag’s roar that fortunately fails to attract an altercation.
Owner and operator, Nicky McArthur is waiting for us at the lodge where she has whipped up scones, a fresh fruit platter and plenty of liquid refreshments. With Cordon Bleu training listed on her resume (below member of New Zealand Triathlon team), the food throughout the trip is gorgeous, both in taste and presentation.
Nicky is an engaging host and obviously delights in sharing this unique piece of New Zealand with her guests. Her commitment to sustainability is impressive and underlies every aspect of her business from the QEII covenanted land to the award winning eco-lodge, powered by its own small hydro-power system. All waste is transported out on a tough little Rhino 4WD or flown out by helicopter.
When Nicky purchased the station in 2008, the wilderness walk and eco-lodge were already a going concern, as was the Hutton’s shearwater colony – one of two left in the world. The commitment to preserving the colony in collaboration with DOC has been a massive undertaking. Nicky is an inaugural trustee of the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust that fundraises for predation control, research and education. Local Kaikoura schools now have a Hutton’s shearwater unit in the Year 6 and 9 curriculum thanks to the education arm of the trust.
We are hearing this as we lounge on the deck absorbing the powerful scenery, listening to keas calling from the rocky outcrops and keep our eyes peeled for more deer and hopefully a chamois. Later we gather for drinks and nibbles, enjoy a delicious roast lamb meal with local wines, finish with a summer berry dessert and a comfortable couch by the fire before slipping between the crisp white sheets on the super-king in our ensuite room. This is where the plastic coasted bunks in a DOC hut and the dubious outhouse become truly incomparable!
On the back of a great sleep and fabulous cooked breakfast, Lance leads us up behind the hut through fields of sub-alpine plants until we reach Surveyors Peak lookout. The views are enormous and we can even see Bank’s Peninsula in the south. The mountains are powerful and tantalisingly close, and to the east, a long limestone ridge runs parallel to the coast, starting at sea level to Mt Alexander at 1197 m. No whales are spotted, only a family of feral goats reclining precariously on rock ledges.
Our descent is quick as Lance introduces the German couple to the joys of scree running. There is much whooping and hollering as we leap and scramble our way down. It is always exhilarating and may be the closest some of us ever get to flying unaided.
Nicky has restored an old musterers’ hut behind the lodge where she appears with another delightful jug of her much discussed fruit punch. The hut is part museum, part art gallery as Nicky miraculously finds time to explore her sustainable philosophy at the easel.
We enjoy more fabulous food of local produce, fruits and cheeses, before heading back to the station’s woolshed as we opted for the two day walk. The idea of spending the afternoon draped over a large rock beside a crystal clear alpine creek with another night at the lodge is definitely the preferable option.
The track out follows a different course and after a few hours we are being transported back to Kaikoura. It has been a fully restorative two days amongst extraordinary scenery, rich flora and fauna and interesting people. It may be sometime before I choose to shoulder a large pack again.
Hutton’s shearwaters last place on earth
The endemic Hutton’s shearwaters were once prolific, breeding high up in the Seaward Kaikoura mountains. Predation from pigs and stoats and natural occurrences had reduced the number of breeding colonies to two; Shearwater Stream on Puhi Peaks Station and a larger colony on conservation land at the head of the Kowhai Valley.
As an insurance policy, the Department of Conservation started a new colony on the Kaikoura Peninsula in 2004 with 100 artificial burrows. Three hundred fledgling birds were transferred to the new colony over the next four years. The relocated birds were fed a sardine ‘smoothie’ by a team of volunteers every morning for a month to ensure the birds maintained a healthy weight. The new colony is now showing signs of success with three of the relocated birds returning to the burrows last year.
To assist DOC, the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust was established in 2008 and has so far fundraised for a predator-proof fence around the Peninsula colony, provided native planting and predator trapping. Now the trust is focusing on gaining greater understanding of the seabirds’ ecology to ensure the survival of the mountain and Kaikoura Peninsula colonies.
The Kaikoura mountains are the only place in the world that the small black and white shearwater breeds. Measuring between 36-38 cm in length, the adult seabird will lay a single egg near the end of October in a burrow above 1200 metres.
When the chicks reach a suitable weight and are fully feathered, they leave the colony at night and fly to the ocean independent of their parents. The fledgling will eventually leave the country and fly to the north-west coast of Australia, returning three or four years later to breed. Adults also leave Kaikoura for the non-breeding season. GPS locators show that a shearwater’s local foraging trip can last up to a week and cover over 600 kilometres.
Fact File and More Information
- Kaikoura Wilderness Walk operate from 30 September through to 1 April. Cost: Adult $1595pp, child $1275pp covers the 3day/2night package; guiding, transfers both ways between Kaikoura and the track, luggage transport to Shearwater Lodge, all meals, a complimentary drink and outstanding accommodation over the three days. 0800 WILDERNESS (945 337) for bookings.
- Huttons Shearwater info
- Other Private supported walks in New Zealand
- Tours in New Zealand especially for women travellers
- Accommodation in New Zealand especially for women travellers