Thursday, 27 February 2014

A Trans-Tasman Trifecta

I’ve been to New Zealand more than half a dozen times in the last decade or so. I really love the place and the people. Apparently there’s a North Island as well.

In the meantime, there’s so much in the Interesting Island. January 2014 I was there again with my partner Trine for a few weeks,  and did a trio of great kayak trips: Queen Charlotte Sound, Abel Tasman National Park and Okarito Lagoon.

Queen Charlotte was a return trip. Back in 2011 I was there with a few friends from the club and we had the unbelievable luck to encounter a pod of orcas over a few days. It’s stunningly beautiful and as you head from Picton towards the Cook Strait the environment becomes more marine and open to the sea… as we found out.  
Picton Harbour
We hired the boat and gear from Marlborough Adventure Company, right by the beach in Picton. The boat was an eco-nizh, the standard plastic hire double. They tried to kit us with a glass Sea Bear, but that’s like an oil tanker so I passed on the  suggestion.

Not a Sea Bear. Me stylish as ever  in my sex-tourist sandals and strip-club bouncer shades. 
Trine and I intended to spend six days on the sound: first day out past the ferries  to Ratimera Bay, accessible by motor boat and shared with a schoolboy rowing team. Paddling on from there next morning to Blumine Island, which has been cleared of the pernicious  possums and stoats and is a bird sanctuary – including the rare, transplanted  and very endangered dwarf barking kiwi*, which has a small native  population down by Okarito ‘goon. 

On the way we passed a seal up a tree. Curious.

The Marlborough Tree Seal ( centre)
Ratimera Bay campsite.
Happy paddlers leaving Ratimera

The paddle to Blumine starts protected by the islands but ends being a wee bit exposed to the open ocean.
Facing a strong nor’easter we decided to travel up the southeastern lee of the island to stay sheltered.

down the southeast side of Blumine Island. 

Great idea, until we rounded a head and found we had to do a long flog straight down the gullet of the wind  for about four or five kilometres until we passed another head, and had to paddle halfway back down the island to the sole camping spot. A long 25 km day.

Blumine camp site, looking towards the north

New year’s eve on the island, a double tot of run for the crew and a spectacular sunset. Followed by pouring rain new year’s day, so we decided  to have a lay day and explore the track that had been cut into the hillside of the island  to a set of old WW2 bunkers which faced out  to the Strait. The sound was a major anchorage for the US pacific fleet in the day, and a juicy target for Japanese subs.

Trine and a cup of tea on a rainy new year's morning

And those bloody wekas – obstreperous nosy fearless bloody birds, they ran off with all my coffee and nicked anything not nailed down. In the undergrowth there were nests sites festooned with gear and kayak bags.

Effing Wekas. Where's my bloody coffee you bugger?
Sunset over Blumine. OK, digitally enhanced. Pretty, but. 

Second of January and we headed off to Cannibal Cove, the furthest campsite out towards the strait.

North end of Blumine looking towards Cannibal and the Cooks Strait. Long Island on the right, Motuara left. 
A lonely egret. 

Delightful paddling, we called in at the very strange  monument to Cook at Ship Cove – a mighty block of concrete with bizarre disproportionate  trimmings and a pair of unrelated cannons. It’s also the outermost place the water taxi can get to.

Cannibal Cove itself is about four or five k further on, in a perfect bowl-shaped bay: an open campground backed by old conifers and dense brush.

Beautiful Cannibal  Cove. What a fine day! What weather and blue skies!
An alarming sign advised that possum baits (1080) had been laid and we were spooked by whether the water was safe to drink – a touch of 1080 would be a horrible way to spend the night. Turns out the catchment for the cove was excluded, but that wasn’t flagged anywhere!
Needs no caption. 
We watched beautiful red sunset and planned to paddle over to Motuara Island, which has a terrific walk up  to a treetop platform with 360 views. 

Next morning we were roused by a mighty howling and hammering, and the tent flapping like a crazy thing. We crawled out to find that a mighty wind had come up  in the dawn and was thrashing in straight off the sea. Williewaws were being raised a half a dozen at a time on the water and great sheets of spray were being thrown off the sea and carried into the treetops.

Williewaws by the dozen: twisting tornados of water dragged up by the wind. 
Sheets of spray being  driven hundreds of metres inland
And the wind was only getting stronger, the rain  bucketing and a high tide was rolling in pushed by the nor'easter. There wasn't a big swell, fortunately, but the bulleting blast of the wind was phenomenal, the strongest I've ever  experienced outside mountain blizzards. 
Every one of those vertical smudges is a spinning thrashing williewaw. And they kept up for hours. 

Now our little tent was not an alpine tent: it was a three-season number, without  the storm guys and bracing of a mountain tent, and it was not faring too well. We climbed inside and used our bodies to brace it against the  blast, holding on to the poles as it bucked. The sound of the wind in the massive pines nearby was like a jet taxiing, far too loud to speak over. I began to plan what we would do if the tent split and we had to stay here an extra few days if the storm didn’t let up.

That didn’t seem like much of an option, so we physically lifted the tent and carried the whole thing across a creek and into the relative sheltered scrub , in the shadow of the big pines. I was concerned that we might get hit by a limb, but the tent wouldn’t survive being out in the open.

The tent after relocation. Rising creek in foreground. You can see the big pines behind. The smashed limb foreground was from some other similar storm, not this one!
We had limited options to get out: if we couldn’t contact the water taxi by 1400 and be at the wharf at Ship Cove by 1430 then we would not get out, and they may not come the next day if the weather deteriorated as forecast. At about 1100 there seemed to be a lull in the wind, though the rain was still belting down. We decided to make a run for it – if we made it a few kilometres we could round the head and at least be in the lee of the headland as we headed into Ship Cove. Trine managed to raise the adventure company on the mobile – with signal intermittent – and after some infuriatingly chatty laid-back response from the office we confirmed we would be waiting at the wharf. Then a lightning pack of the boat,  lashing everything to the deck anticipating being hit by williewaws, full storm gear on and we set out.
Around the point and towards Ship Cove

Our luck stayed: the wind held off as we were most exposed and by the time it was rising again we were around the point and hugging the shore back to the cove. After an hour or two more the storm eased and in the shelter of the bay we unpacked all our gear and lugged the boat and bags to the wharf.  When the taxi arrived the skipper told us it had been a “perilous journey” to get out to the cove and kept repeating how we had definitely done the right thing by bailing.

Roof racks. 

On the way back in to Picton he regaled us with stories of two and three metre waves he’d encountered heading out, and he told us the wind in the sound had been clocked that morning at 80 knots (150km/h). The windspeeds  made the TV news that night. Far and away the strongest winds I’d ever encountered at sea level!

We had intended to head down to Nelson lakes National Park to do three or four days walking in to Lake St Angelus, but as the weather was reporting 70kt winds in the mountains, snow  down to 1700 m and poor visibility, we chose not to take a walk along a narrow alpine ridge. Instead, we made a few calls and ended up hiring another kayak to do two nights in the ..

Abel Tasman National Park

They say Nelson is the sunniest spot in NZ, and after our storm-blasted time on the sound we wanted something a bit more benign.

Abel Tasman isn’t huge, but it is varied. It’s possibly the most popular national park in the country: it has a spectacular  but easy walking track, phenomenal beaches if you like that sort of thing, and the biggest kayak industry I’ve ever come across.  Trine and I were again just paddling a double independently, with a rather more slapdash hiring outfit that the earlier one,  but when we left the beach there were quite literally too many kayaks on the water to count.  As usual, if you head out to sea a bit you leave the day trippers behind , so we made a course for an island a few km out and soon we were alone.

Absurd number of kayakers off the beach.. more in background

It’s justifiably famous: the  limestone coastline is fractal with bays , inlets, small river  mouths, all guarded by fantastic crenelated headlands and rock outcrops. I’ll let the pix tell this story…

Lunch spot

waterfall in the back..

Mosquito Bay

Mosquito Bay at dawn

Filtered to within an inch of its life

But the best place, for mine, was Shag harbour, a small inlet that opens up into a maze of channels and islands between wooded rocky outcrops, with occasional glimpses of a channel back out to sea.
The labyrinth of Shag Harbour

And despite the  absolute peak season, the second night’s beach was shared with just one other couple. Astounding.

High tourist season and one other tent. 

Abel Tasman was an unplanned delight: but once back on dry land we handed in our boat, had a shower under a tap in the boatyard and headed for the west coast and remote…

Okarito Lagoon.

The lagoon, south of Hokitika and a bit north of Franz Josef,  is the largest unmodified estuarine lagoon in NZ. Really.  It’s famous for its bird life, including the white heron or Kot. As it symmetrically happens, it’s also the home of the remaining mainland population of the dwarf barking kiwi*, see Blumine island above.

 There’s a small settlement that has a few bachs and that’s it, but it does have a kayak rental business.  Into our third eco-nizh in a week. 
Not going far

It’s very different to marine kayaking. The water is still, with a bit of wind-fetch every now again: you wend through channels in the tall speargrass, and every few km there is a river  mouth that leads up deep into a rainforest. In its own way, stunningly beautiful.

The white thing is a Kot

White-winged black swans, or vice versa

For all their alleged scarcity those herons were everywhere.

Beware the danger in the trees

The lagoon gave us a gentle ending to the kayak  legs of our trip. Three very different  paddles, everything from howling storms in off the open sea to serene drifting through rainforests with snowy alps as a backdrop.

Needless to say there was more: mountain fun at Franz Josef and Arthur's Pass, and the bittersweet return to Christchurch for the first time since just after the quake. But that’s another story.

Not an eco-nizh to be seen. 
*not its real name. Obviously. Apteryx rowi, the rowing kiwi