Friday, June 14, 2013

New Zealand: A Much-Expected Journey - Part 1

And a much-overdue blog post. We in the Chua-Bramante ('Team Chuamante') family like to do certain things in supremely scrambled order, somewhat late. I got back from NZ at the end of May, and promptly 1) hosted friends 2) had a nightmare week at work 3) had another nightmare week at work that ate my life. Indeed, I joke that we'll finally have a combined bachelor/ette paintball party (stag vs doe, of course) after the birth our firstborn. (No save the dates for THAT yet - sorry parents.)

So of course we finally went on honeymoon in May, after squirrelling away a few dollars each month for this trip and using my parents' frequent flyer points which we got as a wedding gift. Why yes, it's been 1.5 years since we got married...

Ah, New Zealand. The land of hobbits and wacky animals. All of them are so marvellously tame (except for the orcs). There are no seriously wild creatures in New Zealand. At least none that can kill you.

This here is a weka, about the size of a large chicken. They are technically a vulnerable species, but on the Heaphy Track they are a menace. One ran away with a fellow hiker's Ipod Shuffle. Guidebooks tell you not to chase them as they'll only run farther away - just watch where they stash your stuff and go and retrieve it later. On the track, we saw a good 25 of them, just hanging out. 

Don't fall off or into any mountains though, that's a different story.

Week 1: The Active Week

In May, New Zealand is not quite in the depths of winter, but it's getting there. It was rather chilly when we landed in Christchurch, a city that crumbled under the force of a major earthquake two years ago. Christchurch is still being rebuilt, and there's plenty of work for builders and architects - including a couple of friends who moved there from Singapore. We stayed with one of them to relax for a couple of days.

The upside to a major earthquake is that you get to rebuild your city from scratch. There are some interesting things going on, including the Re:START container mall and Gap Filler, as well as some rather stupid-sounding planning decisions.

We spent some quality time there, then in one very long blitz, travelled from Christchurch to Nelson to Collingwood to the start of the Heaphy Track on a series of smaller and smaller buses until finally we were going down a dirt track in a van with a trailer. Side note: Every small town in New Zealand has its very good cafe with very good coffee and what are perhaps the best chocolate caramel slices in the world.

The roughly 80km Heaphy Track is a Great Walk, meaning it's designed to provide tourists a pleasant introduction to New Zealand's wild places. And how pleasant. There were some seriously luxurious huts (four walls, gas stoves, running water, and even LED sensor lighting in one of them!!). We'd planned meticulously for a four-day trek. Dehydrated meals, snacks, hut bunks, bus pickup at the end. Only trouble was, the weather forecast on day 2 of our trek was for heavy rain. And it was supposed to be our long day (24km)...

We got to the trailhead at 7pm and stayed the night at Brown Hut. The first morning was bone-dry and lovely. We were supposed to walk 17km to the next hut, but ended up walking 30km to the one after that to eat 13km into Day 2's walk. With full packs (about 1/3 my body weight). Ouch.

"We're doing this! We're doing this FOR REAL!"

now imagine like this, but wet

But that was nothing compared to Day 2.

We woke up to a massive storm outside. There didn't seem to be any lightning, so we (wo)manned up, raincoated up, backpack-covered-up, and marched on. (Mind you, at this time of year it was about 7 degrees Celsius when we started in the morning.) If I kept my raincoat hood up, my glasses fogged up. If I kept it down, water streamed down the back of my neck. I had my arms across my chest for warmth, and when I dropped them to my sides again, icy water streamed out of my sleeves. It rained sideways, from all directions, at the same time. By the end of our 11+km walk - across squishily exposed territory - there was nothing that was dry. Thank goodness for Ziploc bags.

At Saxon Hut, we changed out of our soggy clothes and tried to warm up. Puddles everywhere.

All of a sudden, there was a knock on the door. And then another. And then another, till a quartet of friendly, woolly-hat-clad, bearded...mountain bikers barrelled into the room. This year was the third and final year of a pilot trial - mountain bikers were allowed to bike the Heaphy in winter, during its less crowded season, so they were out in droves.

biker (L) and the husband (R) trying to start a...coal-fired stove. 
They were just stopping over for a few hours, so after they left, we sat by the fire trying to dry our things. The general rule of hiking is that you have just two sets of clothes: one to walk in and one to sleep in. Maybe some spare underwear and socks, and another shirt if you are very dainty and want a clean shirt after the whole hike is done. So the next morning, there were more than a few yelps as we struggled into our less-soggy, but still-cold gear. I could swear that my boots had frozen overnight...

The next two days (20km and 16.2km) were much drier and less eventful. On the last day we went down South Island's north-western coastline, facing the wild Tasman Sea, and were treated to some spectacular scenery.
Okay, fine, here is a picture of my gourmet trail lunch.
And some nikau palm forest.

Now you're jealous, right? 

Finally we ended up back in Nelson, at a cute hostel called Tasman Bay Backpackers.

And that's all we did for the first week - walk a lot.

Mind you, we did walk 80km in four days over interesting terrain and all kinds of weather, so we could use some sleep.

At this point I could use some sleep too so I'll stop here. I might split the NZ blog posts into three to make more money attract more hits. What's that you say? Oh, too soon.

Double points if you got all the Hobbit references. 


  1. You guys are amazing. The whole hike looks incredible and I can imagine how tough it must've been in the rain and with the pack!

    (And I have to tell you that word verification for this comment included the word "fartur".)

      Oh boy, it was completely worth it though. :)