Weekend wanderings: Meg Hut

Now we’re all settled in our home and jobs, we’ve got our weekends (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) to get out exploring more of New Zealand and tick off some of the things on our ever growing to do list. Here’s the first one we did.

Meg Hut hike

Last week, 31 January and 1 February, we hiked up to Meg Hut in the Piza Range just outside Wanaka, in Cardrona.

The short two hour hike seemed pretty straight forward when we read about it, but following the quite direct 4×4 vehicle track was a pretty gruelling route, but the steep climb took in some pretty incredible views. It spoils you really, living somewhere with easy access to beautiful scenery. It becomes normal and you have to remind yourself how lucky you are sometimes. There’s no better way to bring that home than to get out amongst the landscape.

Meg Hut is a secluded stop in the heart of the Piza Range, a centre point for walks over the peaks between Cromwell, Cardrona and Queenstown.

The hut is next to a meandering river in the bottom of a valley, surrounded by dominating, dusty, grey mountains and dead pine trees. As you approach the hut from higher ground it looks quite eerie.

We shared the eight berth hut with a couple from Belgium and three New Zealander’s. We chopped up some of the wood outside, got a fire going and spent the evening chatting, eating and drinking while the rain fell outside. There aren’t many more relaxing way to spend the waning hours of the day.

However, once we went to bed, the relaxation was replaced by frustration and mystery as the hut’s resident mouse scuttles around the floor, over beds and into backpacks. A disturbed night to say the least.

Photographs from Meg Hut hike

The end of the road

Recently our travels around New Zealand came to an end.

After completing the Milford Track on 2 December, we headed back to Te Anau, prepared to work our way around the southern coast, up towards Christchurch, Mount Cook and on to Wellington where we planned to set up home.

Our initial hope was to base ourselves in wonderful Wanaka, but with Steph not having a job offer there, the cost of living being so expensive and competition for housing being so strong, we thought it best to go north where we could enjoy less stressful, financially draining living and pick up office temping and agency work.

Our final trip in the van took us from Te Anau, down south to the featureless wasteland of Invercargill. Truly, this town is one of the most achingly dull places imaginable. Like a forgotten Victorian resort town, it was row after row of once grand homes and municipal buildings, faded glories and a sense of emptiness.

One night to stop on our way to Dunedin was one night too many in this bleak and hopeless town.

The drive from Invercargill, along the southern shore, through the Caitlins was the perfect antidote. The remote, rolling green hills flanked by long stretches of golden beaches and secretive coves was reminiscent of Cornwall.

While there we saw some lovely sights including one of only three fossilised forests in the world and walked through beachside caves as tall as cathedrals.

We arrived in Dunedin later that evening. Taking its name from the Gaelic moniker for Edinburgh, the city and New Zealand’s ties with Scotland are emphasised here, with tartan adoring many a gift shop.

The city itself is quite loveable, packing in a huge range of great bars and restaurants, a prestigious university and thriving student social scene into what is a small centre.

On the outskirts of the city is one of New Zealand’s richest areas of wildlife. The Otago Peninsula is home to the world’s only mainland breeding ground for Albatross and also plays host to penguins, gulls and other seabirds along with semi-regular sightings of dolphins and whales.

We took the opportunity to visit the Albatross nesting site and were treated to the sight of half a dozen Albatross flying around the cliffs and sitting in their nests. As a bit of a bird nerd, this was a very exciting moment, having wanted to see Albatross since witnessing them on David Attenborough narrated nature documentaries as a child.

Later that day we moved on to a campsite on the seafront at Oamaru. By day the town is home to the Steampunk HQ, surrounding its visitors with amazing contraptions that simultaneously pay homage to the industrial past and imagine a mechanised future.

By night it is home to little blue penguins who sleep and nest each night on the campsite we stayed in. We watched the little critters waddle out of the sea and into our campsite, part enamoured by their cuteness and part horrified by their loud, strangled calls. We were also horrified by the two penguins who proceeded to mate with each other at our feet as we sat on the harbour wall. Get a room guys!

From there we headed inland, through central otago and Richie McCaw‘s home town of Kurow, towards Mount Cook. On route we’d be passing through a town called Omarama.

Here there was a crossroads. Left to Wanaka, right to Mount Cook. We stopped for some lunch and checked our phones to find job interview offers for each of us back in Wanaka.

After much discussion we decided it would be best to go to Wanaka, have the interviews, see how they went and evaluate setting up home there after all.

We made a list of pros and cons, Wanaka versus Wellington. Wanaka was by far the worst choice from a financial, housing and career point of view, but it had everything we could want to do right in the doorstep, from skydiving, to sailing, to hiking. Wellington offered better housing and employment opportunities, plus regular flights down to Queenstown from where we could go and adventure.

It was an agonising decision, but we didn’t come all the way to the other side of the world to do the same jobs in a different city, so we took a punt on Wanaka.

After making the choice, we raced from Wanaka to Christchurch to return our rental van and buy a car, squeezing in one last trip on the way.

The peaks around Mount Cook were shrouded in cloud when we arrived, but happily revealed themselves that evening and the following day. A delightful way to say goodbye to our van.

In Christchurch we returned Severus to his home. We were genuinely sad to see him go having spent the last 50 days travelling and living along with him. We managed to buy a Volkswagen Passat estate from an Irish couple who were leaving New Zealand for Australia and after a weekend exploring the city, we drove to 500km back to our new base in Wanaka.

Since then we’ve started our jobs – Steph working in a liquorstore, me in a DIY shop – and been house hunting while living in holiday parks. We’ve met many new friends, won a $50 bar tab for winning a pub quiz and generally had a fantastic time.

All that’s missing is the home, but after many applications with various agents, we feel like we’re getting somewhere and will hopefully be offered a place in the New Year.

Housing here is scarce, especially at this time of year. With 38% of houses in the Queenstown Lakes District being second or holiday homes, many of the rentals available through the rest of the year are used by the owners during Christmas and New Year. Add that to the hundreds of migrant workers, like ourselves, and natives coming here for the summer and an exciting change of life and it soon adds up to a housing crisis.

Wanaka is growing, they’re constantly building new homes here, but that takes time and demand is extremely high.

If anywhere is in need of subsidised housing for people working in low income industries, Wanaka is it. You can build as many half a million dollar homes for the middle and upper classes as you like. People serving them their drinks and packing their groceries still need somewhere to live.

It’s funny really. We’ve come all this way only to find New Zealand facing many of the same issues as the United Kingdom.

In January more homes should come back on the market and we’re hopeful we’ll find somewhere then.

In the meantime, Steph’s boss’s In Laws have very kindly put us up in their studio flat in their garden, so we’ll be spending Christmas here before moving into our own place in January.

Now that our travels are over and we’re working, the nature of this website will change slightly. We’ll still update you on our adventures as we spend weekends away, but the website will offer advice and reviews for other travellers, and hopefully we’ll get a bit of time and a wifi good enough to upload the occasional brief podcast.

Thanks for reading and Merry Christmas to you.

Steve and Steph xx

New Zealand’s Great Walks: Rainy Routeburn and Magnificent Milford

As many of our avid readers will know (there are definitely loads of you – it’s not just me shouting into a narcissistic void), we have recently completed two of New Zealand’s most famous Great Walks.

These were multi-day hikes in the utterly stunning Fiordland area. Firstly along the Routeburn Track, then the Milford Track.

After trekking more than 80km over the course of the two walks, our legs were aching the beauty of Fiordland had swept us off our feet once more.

Routeburn was rainy but our spirits were not dampened, despite seeing nothing but grey cloud at the walk’s famous viewpoint – the Harris Saddle. The clouds and rain couldn’t hide all the views, and while it was wet, it’s wasn’t as bad as the forecasts and the rangers predicted.

Staying in communal huts each night, we met some great people from all over the world including Germany, Netherlands, Canada and America. Between sharing tales of travelling New Zealand, competing in quizzes run by the Department of Conservation wardens and gathering round the log fires there was plenty to distract us from the less than excellent weather.

We were glad we were walking it at that time though as snow was forecast down to 600m the day after we finished. Although given how overly pessimistic the forecasts had been, we were a little dubious about it.

Sure enough to snow came, and it caused havoc. The Routeburn and nearby Kepler tracks were closed. People had to be helicoptered off the track. Milford was also closed, and while the snow had made the mountains looks great, we began to seriously worry about whether we’d be able to do the Milford.

After a couple of days rest in Te Anau, we set off for the longer Milford Track. Billed as the most beautiful walk in the world, it had a reputation to live up to. With Fiordland being one of the wettest places on earth – average annual rainfall of nine meters and 255 days of rain a year – we were surprised and cautiously optimistic to see a forecast for four consecutive days of sunshine, something that’s almost unheard of in the area.

These tracks are one way, multi day hikes, so we had to leave our van in the car park and get it moved to the end. For both Routeburn and Milford we used Trackhoppers, who were excellent. It’s run by a local guy called Mike and his business partner. They’ve each done a vehicle move along the Routeburn almost 100 times, driving the 500km road route from Glenorchy to The Divide and then running the 30km back along the Routeburn track in one day. There’s always somebody who has to do it a harder way.

Photographs of New Zealand’s South Island

It’s been a while since we’ve been able to upload any photos of our trip. In fact, this is the first time since we arrived on the South Island back at the start of November.

But, as promised in a couple of more recent posts, here are Steph’s photographs from our journeys on the south side of the Cook Strait.

These photos cover our trip from Abel Tasman National Park in the north, down to Wanaka, Queenstown and Fiordland in the south.

On Tuesday 29 December we head out on the second of our Great Walks, along the Milford Track. We’ll add photos from that walk and our wander along the Routeburn Track soon(ish).

Wanaka and back again: A holidaymaker’s tale

So folks, here’s a not so quick update on what we’ve been doing recently.

We’ve been staying mainly in the Wanaka/Queenstown area, we’ve basked in scorching summer heat, had entire days washed out with torrential rain, walked in countryside that took our breath away, hiked small hills taller than Mount Snowdon, witnessed the beauty of the Milford and Doubtless Sounds, flown around the Southern Alps, thankfully avoided New Zealand’s third strongest Earthquake and started applying for jobs.

So it’s been pretty quiet really.

First off we took a trip out of Wanaka to walk the Rob Roy Glacier Track, which was just maddeningly picturesque. Driving through nine fords on one of New Zealand’s seemingly infinite unsealed roads, surrounded by mountains was incredible enough, but the walk was utterly gobsmacking. 

The drive was soundtracked by Godspeed You Black Emperor – particularly well suited to our surroundings was the track Pleasantry Or Light Inside Of Light – and those of you that know that band will get a fair idea of the scale of the scenery from that.

The walk, our first real bit of walking since we got here, was glorious and at the top we were greeted by waterfalls and a glacier sitting on top of a quite majestic wall of rock.

While visiting Queenstown we took a jet boat ride up Skippers Canyon, which was great fun. Travelling at about 80kph, on just 6 inches of water, doing power slides and 360s, skimming close to the canyon walls, it was hugely impressive to see the control that the guys steering the boat had.

If that wasn’t white knuckle enough then taking a bus ride along what we were told was one of the top three most dangerous roads on the planet to get there and back would have done it for most people. The road was built in the late 1800s when the goldrush came to New Zealand, and not much has changed about it since. A really, really enjoyable afternoon that.

That night, a huge earthquake struck Kaikoura. We were completely oblivious to it in our Queenstown campsite, about 500km away from the east coast. Sleeping through, we felt nothing, as did everyone else in this part of the country. The first we knew about it was at 6am when we woke up to see countless messages from family and friends asking if we were ok. 

The day took on a strange and slightly solemn atmosphere of empathy and concern from then, as is the way with these sorts of disasters. While two people died in the quake, it’s a testament to New Zealand’s preparedness and processes that casualties from the quake and potential tsunamis were not higher than that. It’s just sad that while Christchurch is still recovering from its own earthquake just a few years ago, Canterbury has yet more destruction to content with.

If the earthquake reminded us all of the earth’s unstoppable power to destroy, our trip to Milford and Doubtless Sound showed its equal ability to create unparalleled beauty.

The previous day we had intended to go to take a trip over to Glenorchy, another beautiful spot the opposite side of Queenstown, but torrential rain got the better our plans and after one very wet drive and a stay overnight in a pub car park, we headed to Milford Sound in search of some better weather.

The drive down the Milford Road was sensational, despite the heavy rain showers. The breaks in the cloud provided tantalising glimpses of the monstrous mountains flanking our passage coast wards. 

Meanwhile the Kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, kept us entertained during our lunch break, desperately meowing outside our van, imploring us to feed them.

At the end of the road, we were blessed with sunny intervals and the glorious sight of Milford Sound unveiled itself to us. We’ll be back here again during our Milford Track hike, but it was wonderful to see it in decent weather.

The next day we took a boat trip down the nearby Doubtless Sound. In what is becoming something of a theme on this trip, I was lost for words, just gawping at the scenery with amazement, like some kind of hypnotised goldfish.

From there we headed black to Wanaka, a small town that we have sort of fallen a bit in love with. So much so we’ve applied for jobs there and are seriously considering of basing ourselves here for the rest of our time in New Zealand.

With such treats like Mount Aspiring National Park, the Fiordlands and Queenstown on the doorstep, and all the hiking and skiing you could hope for, why would we want to be anywhere else?

We’ll see what happens, but between the Rob Roy Glacier Track, hiking up Roy’s Peak (500m taller than Snowdon) and taking a scenic flight around Mount Aspiring, we’ve had a pretty good introduction to the town. 

Photos of the views from Roy’s Peak and our flight are below.

As usual, we’ll try and upload Steph’s photos of the things mentioned in this blog soon.

We start our three day hike along the Routeburn Track on Wednesday 23 November, shortly followed by four days on the Milford Track so we’ll probably be in touch again in very early December. Providing we don’t drown in the absolutely appalling rain that is forecast for our walks.

It’s just like being at home.

Heading south

Since our last update, we’ve made the short ferry trip across the Cook Strait and onto the South Island. 

It has been a real treat so far, with this part of New Zealand much more impressive and inspiring than the North.

We have explored part of the Marlborough Sounds on a mail boat, hiked in beautiful mountain valleys, spent an afternoon kayaking, gazed in awe at magestic peaks and been driven halfway to insanity by the unholy horror that is the sandfly.

This vile creature is native to New Zealand and so, sadly, the Department of Conservation will not kill them all. Instead, I have made it my mission to do so.

The Maori used to believe that sandflies were created to prevent people from just stopping and staring at New Zealand’s landscapes, the biting flies forcing them to keep moving. Sounds about right, and is especially true at Lake Matheson where they relentlessly savaged us for having the audacity to look at Mounts Tasman and Cook for more than ten seconds.

In fact, speaking of Captain James Cook, he wasn’t too pleased with the sandflies either. In 1773 he was in Dusky Sound and they were clearly as infuriating then as they are now. He said, “The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly, which are exceedingly numerous, wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small pox.”
They are scum, ankle devouring scum.

Happily we have managed to find some brief periods of peace, usually at higher altitudes.

One such place was Arthur’s Pass. This sensational mountain road cuts across the South Island, from Greymouth to Christchurch and provides some stunning views and relatively short, tiring and enjoyable hiking in and around ski villages, deserted at this time of year.

With the weather on the west coast less than ideal, we took a detour through this part of the country and it proved to be the highlight of the trip up to that point. Prior to that we had taken sunny trips through the Pelorus Sound in Marlborough and hiking and kayaking in Abel Tasman.

More recently, we’ve visited the Franz Joesef and Fox glaciers. Steph had seen them before during her last trip to New Zealand in 2009, but the rate at which they had retreated even since then was shocking. The impact of global warming made truly tangible, compounded by that being the very same day the United States of America elected a climate change denier as it’s leader.

At the moment we’re in Wanaka, about an hour north of Queenstown. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll do a bit of walking in the Mount Aspiring National Park, weather permitting. 

After that, we’ve got about ten days until we take on the Routeburn and Milford tracks, so we’ll be preparing for those and keeping everything crossed in the hope that the changeable Spring weather and wet fiordland climate look favourably on us.

In the meantime, we’ve stocked up on insect repellent and will endeavour to survive the sandfly onslaught. Apparently they’re even worse in Milford Sound!

Turrah for now. We’ll upload some proper photos when we have good enough wifi. 

Photographs of New Zealand’s North Island

As promised in our previous blog entry, here are some of Steph’s favourite photographs from our trip around the North Island.

We’ll upload a similar batch when we finish our journey around the South Island and Steph has had a chance to go through her snaps.

Currently, we’re in a campsite in Greymouth on the west coast, having spent the last few days in the Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman National Park.

Hope you enjoy the images.