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5-9 March 2015. New Zealand doesn’t have historical buildings dating back hundreds of years, or ancient ruins dating back thousands. It doesn’t have exotic wild animals and birds like Africa, the Amazon and Australia. It’s not laden with must-see museums of the world’s great treasures like New York or London or Paris. What it does have is spectacular scenery and some of the best hiking in the world. Tramping they call it. In some countries it’s called trekking, we’ve always called it hiking, but in New Zealand it’s tramping and oh there are some magnificent places to tramp. It’s one of the great things to do in New Zealand.

There’s the four-day Kepler Track, the four-day Milford Track, the three-day Routeburn Track, the five-day Heaphy Track, and the one-day Tongariro Crossing, to name a handful of hundreds. We knew we weren’t fit enough to tackle even the nineteen kilometres of Tongariro, but I wanted to do something. From Wanaka we could drive to the beginning of the Rob Roy Track in Mount Aspiring National Park. A ten kilometre, three-to-four hour hike, in beautiful alpine mountain country. Now that we could do.

Setting out early from Wanaka we discover that even getting to the beginning of the track is not what we thought. We are told it will take an hour, but as we drive, the paved road gives way to rough gravel, and there are several times that rivers cross the road. At each ford we drive carefully through the water hoping it’s shallow enough for our little rental car. Slowly carefully we make it through each one as we drive through the picturesque Matukituki Valley.

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Eventually, not more than five or six kilometres from the beginning of the track we come to a ford that looks too deep. We decide not to risk it and turn back.

On the way we pass a Red deer antler farm. According to WebMD deer antler contains substances that help cells grow. Their list of ailments that it can help alleviate leaves me breathless. And sceptical. Its use in China can be traced back as far as 100BC, and it is a common ingredient in Chinese tonics. New Zealand is the world’s largest producer.

Most temperate-zone deer species shed and regrow new antlers every year. By the time they shed them, usually in the late fall, they are nothing but dried bone, however during the growth stage the antlers are covered in a soft skin called velvet which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone. This velvet stage of growth is treasured for its nutrient value. It is during this time that the antlers are removed under anesthetic. At least that’s how it’s done in New Zealand where deer antler farming is strictly controlled. Presumably the stumps later drop off and the following spring antler growth begins again.

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And of course we see sheep. Everywhere we go there are sheep. Travel tales of New Zealand couldn’t possibly be complete without a mention of sheep. The ratio of sheep to people used to be twenty-two to one. Now it’s down to “only” seven to one. Four and a half million people and thirty-one million sheep.

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Back nearer to Wanaka we find the Rocky Mountain and Diamond Lake trail which gives us all we are looking for: a pretty lake, a steep rugged mountain to climb, and glorious views. It’s not the Rob Roy Track but it’ll do. It’ll do nicely.

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It is raining. We’ve been in New Zealand for two weeks and this is the first day of real rain. We’ve had grey days, and a rainy day in Dunedin but didn’t care because we didn’t want to go out anyway. But this is the day we drive from Wanaka to Franz Josef across the Haast Pass with its renowned spectacular scenery, and it’s raining. Not just raining. Bucketing down. I am grumpy and disappointed. After a little venting I get over it, which leaves me free to enjoy the day as it is. Suddenly the journey seems more exciting. The road is narrow and winding, frequently with high rock walls on one side and a sheer drop on the other. There are single-lane bridges to be negotiated. We see the remains of some serious rockslides and are grateful we don’t encounter any. We see torrential waterfalls swollen by the rain. We are right inside the clouds, and the rain comes so hard the windshield wipers are of little use. We are reminded of the fragility of life. We travel slowly. We have no reason to stop.

By the time we get to Franz Josef the rain has ended and the sky is clear. We check into the hostel and set out to hike up to Franz Josef Glacier. As we walk the mountains come out to play, the clouds dance with the mountains, and sunlight graces everything we see.

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We hike all the way up to the face of the glacier

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passing waterfalls made all the more resplendent from the rain.

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The next day, sunny again, we hike through the rich fecund New Zealand rainforest where the trees are thick with dripping moss,

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to Callery Gorge.

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On the way, one of the most beautiful, serendipitous moments of our time in New Zealand: a young wild chamois buck comes out of the forest, stands for a moment in the middle of the path staring at us, then disappears again into the forest. It feels like magic.

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The chamois is a goat-antelope native to the mountains of Europe. It was introduced to New Zealand in the early 1900’s as a gift from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in exchange for ferns, rare birds and lizards. The chamois gradually spread over the South Island. They are now regarded as a pest due to their destruction of native alpine flora, and hunting them is unrestricted.

Another sunny day. The weather is exceptional considering we are in one of the rainiest places on earth. We drive from Franz Josef to Greymouth passing Mt. Cook along the way.

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We hear about a driftwood sculpture competition in Hokitika but are warned that the sculptures have been much damaged by the recent storm, the outer edge of Tropical Cyclone Pam which had devastated Vanuatu. We head down to the beach to see the sculptures. First, to our surprise, we see this giant sculpture of the town’s name. A giant hello! A driftwood welcome for drifters.

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We wander along the beach looking at the sculptures and are at once delighted and disappointed. Delighted by the whimsy and creativity, disappointed by the damage the storm has done. Only a few sculptures remain intact, the rest broken and scattered along the debris-strewn beach. But those that remain are fabulous, igniting a delight as I run from one to the next looking for the best that remain, like this deer,

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with its curious face.

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The sea is still high and wild from the storm, tumultuous waves pounding the shore,

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but we find a rabbit still riding its horse

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and a suspension of stars.

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The relentless waves continue to crash in.

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Children taunt the waves in a game of catch-me-if-you-can, trying to outrun them, and we see one nearly sucked into the maw of the sea, hear a mother’s cries, and see the child barely escaping in time,

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but as we stand on the beach talking to a fellow traveler the waves come further and further in until there is no beach left at all.

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It is time to go. We drive on to the aptly named Greymouth in time to catch the sunset down by the shore,

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and later from the parking lot of the supermarket.

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Next post: Pancake rocks, Abel Tasman National Park, and a night market in Wellington.






All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.