Hiking and Other Arm-Shrinking Activities

Being cheapskate unemployed bums we are required to strictly prioritise what we spend our money on. Bob comes pretty high up the list. After all, a neglected Bob could revolt against us and leave us in a rather sticky – or at least wet – situation. After Bob comes food, fuel etc. and there isn’t really a whole lot left over for frivolous recreational activities. So with what activities do we occupy ourselves in our impecunious state?

We tried sailing our dinghy again. Those of you who have been following our adventures and misadventures for a while may remember that our dinghy was unfortunately rendered unsailable by the loss of the dagger board (and a paddle, an oar, Sarah’s shoes and an anchor) during a moment of stupidity on my part when I failed to secure the dinghy properly one night way back in the Marquesas Islands last year. Well, we finally made a new dagger board (out of cheap plywood this time) and took Numpty (that’s the dinghy) out for a sail in a stiff onshore breeze among the beautiful inlets around the North Coast of the South Island. As we were sitting in the van waiting for a violent rain squall to pass it did occur to us that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea, but we shoved that thought aside once the sun made a fleeting appearance through the clouds, headed to the beach and pushed out from shore. Numpty performed beyond expectations. She was remarkably stable and carved to windward like a champ. Unfortunately, just as we were about a mile from shore and thinking of turning around there was a slightly gustier gust than usual, we heard a loud CRACK and half the dagger board appeared floating on the surface to windward. Well, at least it was a downwind leg back to the beach. We eased the sheets and bore away but the next thing to come down was the mast, which shattered spectacularly and turned the sail into a sea anchor. Jury-rigging consisted of me standing up and spreading my T-shirt (between fits of laughter) while Sarah diligently kept us going in vaguely the right direction. I really really wish we’d thought to get some before and after shots to post here. Needless to say, Numpty looked a bit sorry for herself back on the beach and is now without a sailing rig once again. Perhaps she’s trying to tell us something?

Another activity that has been popular with us is hiking (or ‘tramping’ as it is often called here) . It has been a top-rated activity for us for three reasons:

1. It’s not something we’ve really had the opportunity to do on account of Bob’s limited range of hiking destination options.
2. It’s free.
3. New Zealand boasts a phenomenal range of mind-bogglingly spectacular sights and experiences that are only accessible by hiking. So, while my arms waste away for lack of ropes to pull, my legs are getting stouter and our general fitness has noticeably improved.

“What ‘sights and experiences’ speak thee of?” I hear you clamour. Sarah has written about the Tongariro Crossing in an earlier blog. Since arriving in the South Island we have also visited some amazing caves and no less than three glaciers.

We have learned, among other things, that when the New Zealand Department of Conservation posts a sign somewhere giving information or warning you of some sort of hazard it is wise to pay heed to it. When they say it’s a 6-hour hike they don’t mean a six-hour stroll for an overweight lady pushing a wheelchair and stopping to have a chat with everyone she meets, they mean a six-hour hike for someone far fitter than either of us when weather conditions are perfect and without taking any breaks. Similarly, when they say to be mindful of heavy rain because the trail (which involves several river crossings) may become impassable they really mean it. We set off along a trail looking for some caves and took a wrong turning at one point. The trail appeared to lead directly into a river that was barrelling along at a rate of knots and didn’t look at all friendly. I waded in to literally test the waters and found myself waist-deep pretty quickly struggling to keep my footing in the current. We sensibly gave it up as a bad idea. Just then, however, a red-jacketed lady appeared on the opposite bank wearing an expression of curious surprise mingled with no small quantity of fear. She and her partner were stuck, had no tent to spend the night in and the only other way out was an eight-hour hike in the opposite direction. When they had crossed the river just three hours previously it had been no more than 10cm deep. Now it was definitely impassable. I can’t express how stupendously lucky they were that there just happened to be a random guy blasting up the river in a jet boat who was able to ferry them across. The chances of such a serendipitous eventuality occurring must be phenomenally low. But, there we are! We were fortunate to learn a valuable lesson the easy way. What’s more, it turned out that we didn’t need to cross the river at all in order to reach the caves, which were perhaps the best I have ever visited.

Here I am ‘testing the waters’. The other side of the trail is marked by the orange post on the other side of the river, upstream from our location:

 

Here’s the guy in the jet boat (finally! A use for jet-driven boats!) blasting past us. The depth of the water is perhaps 10cm – you can clearly see the rocks beneath the surface. Apparently these things are even able to become airborne if necessary in order to clear logs and whatnot:

 

Here he is ferrying one of the stricken hikers across the torrent:

 

And here was our destination for the hike – this cave. Pretty cool eh?

Next up were some walks to visit several glaciers. Glaciers are really cool (har har). Basically they are rivers of ice. Snow falls high in the mountains and as it funnels down the steep mountainsides it gradually becomes more and more compact until it is ice. MASSIVE forces are involved which drive the whole lot down the mountainside, tearing away huge chunks of rock and shaping the mountains and valleys of the land. During the last ice age much of the South Island was covered in glaciers. All have receded but a few are still around to be seen…… for now at least. Global warming is accelerating glacial retreat to unprecedented rates. Franz-Josef is receding at a gargantuan 100m per annum. That’s a kilometre in the last ten years, and it’s been fairly well documented since the first photographs were taken back in the late 1800s.

It was a gray, rainy day so the light wasn’t great for photography. Nevertheless Sarah managed to get this one of the Franz-Josef Glacier. The source of the river is meltwater, and it is coloured grey by suspended rock particles that were scoured from the sides of the valley and incorporated into the ice matrix, only to be released as the ice melts:

 

In the picture above, the position of the glacier in about 2008 more or less corresponds to the line where the greenery turns to yellow/bare rock. It is starkly depicted by this picture of a picture from an information board. Each of these was taken from the same viewpoint, just 4 years apart.

 

We tried to visit the famous Fox Glacier next, but unfortunately a recent cyclone has destroyed the trail (yes, cyclones are now hitting the SOUTH island of New Zealand – a country that supposedly ‘doesn’t get cyclones’) so we were only able to get a glimpse from afar.

This is as close as we were able to get, and to manage this we had to bend the rules regarding ‘closed’ tracks a little:

 

The third glacier, which was extra-specially-cool – is the Rob Roy Glacier in the Mount Aspiring National Park. To get there we had to take Jacangi down a harrowing 30km stretch of gravel road and across eleven nerve-wracking fords (places where it is possible, in some conditions and with the right vehicle, to cross a stream or river by driving through it. Generally a 2-wheel-drive camper van would not be considered ‘the right vehicle’) before hiking 5km up a mountain and 5km back. It was totally worth it.

Here’s a beautiful long-exposure shot that Sarah got of the river:

 

And a view of the glacier itself from our viewpoint. Being high enough to be just above the tree line we had a good, unobscured view:

 

Finally, on the way back from Rob Roy we took a detour up to the Treble Cone Ski Area, which is the highest ski resort in New Zealand. It’s not open yet for the ski season but it was an amazing drive up and a spectacular view from the top. Jacangi protested furiously at the climb by producing lots of black smoke (due to the thin air I think………) and we had to stop twice to avoid overheating the engine, but she got there and is none the worse for wear.

Here was our reward:

 

Oh, I should mention that Sarah did not accompany me on the drive up to the ski area. Instead she chose to travel up there Mary-Poppins style 🙂

 

Our adventures continue. Tomorrow we’ll drive the five hours or so to the famous Milford Sound, which is purported by some to be the most beautiful place on this island full of beautiful places.

We Love Niue

Just a small photo to truely demonstrate the title

Niue was a bit of a hidden gem for us. We hadn’t heard much about this place during our travels – few of our friends had visited before and those that have did so many years ago when anchoring was difficult and the island catered very little to general tourism, let alone to cruisers. Now things are a little different. Anchoring at this small exposed island has been made much simpler by the availability of mooring buoys allowing up to 12 boats to safely moor in this less-than-sheltered bay. Having said that, any sea swell coming from anywhere west of south causes the boats here to roll violently. Bob was no exception. Trying to cook dinner on what is comparable to a child’s seesaw (whilst standing up) can get tiring very quickly! I wish I could say that was the worst of our problems but unfortunately the rolling made apparent yet another rigging failure which, under the wrong circumstances, could have lead to the collapse of the entire rig. Whilst having to deal with yet another broken piece of rigging in this remote place is less than ideal, we were grateful that the failure didn’t happen at sea and a simple solution was just round the corner.

Each year more cruisers and tourists visit this unique raised atoll to enjoy all that Niue has to offer. This is the highest atoll in the world and this has led to a rather unusual topography with vibrant coral reefs bordering the island, a network of caves on the coast to be explored and interesting landscapes to scramble around in.

The raised atoll of Niue with its creviced coastline and it’s network of caverns and caves

The strange topography of the terrestrial landscape

The wildlife here is also very unique with a number of endemic skinks, birds and marine life. The flat-tailed sea snake (locally known as ‘Katuali’) is an endemic species of sea snake found only in Niue. They are locally abundant and their venom, as with all sea snakes, is the one of the most potent in the world and is capable of killing a fully grown adult human with as little as 1.5 milligrams! To make matters worse, I don’t believe there’s an antidote. Luckily, these sea snakes are very friendly and not in the least bit aggressive. Most people are happy to swim with them and I heard that some of the locals playfully ‘tickle’ them in the water – each to their own I suppose! Apparently you would have to stick your fingers right down their throat for them to bite you which is a lucky thing because these little beasts are very curious and would often swim within inches of us when we were snorkelling.

The friendly but deathly flat tailed sea snake – aka Katuali

As Niue is the only land mass for hundreds of miles it is also a sanctuary for breeding humpbacks and many tourists visit Niue specifically to swim with the whales. Oma Tafua is a Niuean non-profit organisation dedicated to the protection of marine mammals and literally translated means ‘to treasure whales’. When we first arrived we noticed a sign at the local yacht club (which was run by the wonderful Alexa – a volunteer from New Zealand looking after the place until the commodore returned from vacation) which pleaded to private yacht owners to volunteer their boat to Oma Tafua for a day or two to help with the whale monitoring scheme. We jumped at the chance! Rather than paying lots of money to a tour operator to see the whales we decided to volunteer Bob to the conservation cause. What better way to see the whales than by doing it from your own boat with an organisation whose sole purpose is to protect and conserve these wonderful creatures. I’m surprised more boat owners aren’t jumping at the chance to help with this project – Oma Tafua reimburse fuel and mooring costs, they teach you all about the whales, how to approach them, how their research contributes to conservation and, personally, I can’t think of a more rewarding way to see these magnificent and awe-inspiring animals.

Bob was the Whale Research Boat for the day. This is Fia, the president of Oma Tafua and the leader of the data collection in Niue. On the left is Libby, one of the volunteers who came along for the experience.

Fia recording the whale song

Alexa (the yacht club volunteer who also came along for the day) looking for whales in the distance

We photographed the tail flukes as each one has its own unique markings, just like human finger prints. The photos can then be used to individually identify each whale. This data is then used to get local population estimates which can be compared over the years.

For the first time in my life I saw a whale breach fully out of the water. I was on deck and heard a very loud noise in the distance, almost like a bomb explosion. I quickly looked round to see lots of water ‘mist’ suspended in the air, slowly falling back down to earth about half a mile away from where we were moored. Whales often breach in unison and once the first one does it, others often follow. As I perplexedly looked at the suspended water wondering what had just happened, another enormous humpback leaped clear into the air, rotated its body and landed on its back in the water creating the most enormous splash. Just amazing!

As well as the most incredible wildlife, I was also taken in by how friendly everyone is on this island. Tourism is still new to the people here and perhaps as a result they still see tourists as ‘real people’ rather than having an ‘us and them’ attitude which is unfortunately the case in so many places nowadays. We made some really good friends with the locals in our short 10 day visit and their kindness and generosity is unparallel to anywhere we’ve visited so far. Fia and Alexa were wonderfully welcoming and we really enjoyed hanging out with them. Fia took us to a wildlife presentation she was giving and even offered us the use of her car and a room in her house to sleep in (although we politely declined as we didn’t want to put her out). Alexa was also fabulous, giving us lots of friendly advice, driving us round to get our scuba tanks filled and she even came on board to help out with the whale research. I hope that we’ll see her again soon as she expects to be in New Zealand when we arrive in a few months time.

Finally, we met a really fantastic woman called Nadia when visiting a local hardware store one day at the beginning of our stay. After explaining where we were trying to get to, she offered to take us to our destination when her shift finished in half an hour’s time. We had a great chat with her and even though we didn’t even buy anything from her shop she was more than happy to ferry us to our destination. But that wasn’t all, she insisted on showing us her village and introducing us to her large family. We ended up spending a lot of time with her and her husband (Francis) and their four children over the coming days. We were invited to a barbeque and a family feast and they even spent a day taking us round the island on our own private guided car tour. We were able to repay the favour a little bit by having Nadia and Francis over to Bob for evening drinks and once we fixed Bob’s broken rig, Nadia even helped us take her for a test sail. Despite the fact that Francis is a fisherman Nadia had never before set foot on a boat of any kind. When we had had them both over for an evening drink Nadia had promptly succumbed to sea sickness, so when we had her out again for a sail we made her stand on the dock and eat two ginger snaps and a seasickness pill before she was allowed into the dinghy. This time she was fine, and even proved herself a gifted helmswoman on her very first sailing trip.

The climb down to Togo Chasm

This is Togo Chasm. Nadia and Francis have never actually visited here despite living in Niue for many years. It was nice to show the locals round 🙂

Alex and Nadia by some lovely salt water pools. It was a little too cold for us to take a swim.

Nadia and Francis on board for sunset drinks. She is putting on a very braved face and you wouldn’t be able to tell how sick she is feeling when this photo was taken.

Me and Nadia taking Bob for a test sail. Once loaded up with anti sea sickness drugs she felt much better and was an absolutely natural on the helm.

We are so grateful to Nadia and her family for making our experience in Niue truly authentic and enjoyable. The people here are fantastic and I wish we could have stayed longer but unfortunately, even with the new moorings, the bay is not suitable for boats to stay for the long term and we were lucky to be able to stay a whole 10 days – most cruisers manage just two or three.

We left Niue after 10 days, leaving behind our new found friends. We set sail for the VaVa’U Islands in Tonga which we’ve been enjoying now for the past few weeks.