I’ve been having a ball coming back to the Nelson region for a while after being overseas. There’s something really cool about returning to the place that you grew up in and really seeing everything that you took for granted when you were young. One thing that I’ve decided is that, despite having grown up in the area, I don’t think I’ve ever given Kahurangi National Park the attention it deserves. We were just so close to the Abel Tasman that Kahurangi always felt too far away to be bothered going for the day, and not far enough to be an exotic vacation. Even recently, when I finally went up the Wangapeka Valley for the day, it was more of an attempt to get fit before tackling some of the Great Walks than any particular desire to go there. Which just goes to show how much of a fool I was…
Most of the trails in this area start from Courthouse Flats. It’s a fairly long drive, nearly an hour from Tapawera, and Tapawera itself is pretty middle-of-nowhere. The drive out is beautiful though. Tapawera’s back roads are like a strange little time-warp and once they end you’re not far off hitting the National Park with it’s wonderful forests and mountain peaks. The drive through the park itself is a very narrow road, but even in the busy season it’s pretty quiet. I don’t meet any other cars on my way through.
It’s a perfect day for hiking when I make it to Courthouse Flats. The sun has ducked behind the clouds to leave me in peace for my uphill climb. There are numerous trails that leave from here. I’ve decided on a walk to Billie’s Knob, which is one of the smaller peaks on the trail to Mount Owen. Mount Owen itself is another day in.
I meant my day trip as a sort of training session for when I do the Heaphy Track, but I’m barely 10 minutes in before I realise that this is the worst warmup I’ve ever attempted. The trail starts with a steep climb that drives straight up a ridge-line as if switch-backs are going out of fashion. I generally consider myself to be pretty good at uphill sections, but this is tough. I’m admittedly not the fittest I’ve ever been, but I don’t think I’ve ever had so many rests in my life. The terrain isn’t particularly tricky but it’s so steep that my thighs turn to jelly near instantaneously and I’m starting to wheeze like an old man. On the plus side, the track shoots up so fast that the views open up pretty quickly, which gives me something to look at while I struggle to get my lungs back under control.
That’s the first 10 minutes. Soon after that I give up and sit down for a snack after I decide I’m actually going to either pass out or throw up if I don’t slow my pace a bit. Thank goodness it’s just a day walk, I’d have a hard time making it up here with a pack on. My sit down turns into a lie down and even after my snack and guzzling half my water bottle, standing up again gives me a wicked head spin. I power on though, with regular much-needed breaks obviously.
After a while the overexertion starts to send me a little bit batty. Higher up the hill there are a few sections where the track levels off for brief spells to go through pretty little mossy glades, which look fairly magical anyway, but walking through them after powering up the hill makes me feel kind of like I’m on drugs. At one point I find what I decide is just the coolest mushroom I have ever seen and lightheadedly crouch around it for an unreasonably long photo shoot. The only other hikers I’ve seen choose this moment to stumble across me, and in my strange headspace I haven’t the foggiest idea how to interact with them. I give them a silent nod when they greet me because the only other alternative I can think of is to yell “MUSHROOM!” at them. Dear oh dear.
After about an hour the track levels off a little, and a good thing too or I might have gone completely insane. The trail is still very much uphill, but after that first section it feels like barely a climb at all. The kanuka trees give way to a beautiful beech forest, which besides looking like something out of a dark little fairytale, is much colder than the exposed ridge line. A relief for my burning legs and obviously overheated brain. The only downside is this part of the track is quite muddy and very popular with the local wasps, so I have to watch my step.
After another hour in the forest, the trees open up and the track hits the alpine, the real reward for struggling up that horrible hill. The views from up here are just spectacular. Mount Owen itself is hidden from view but I can see all across the peaks of the Northern part of Kahurangi for miles and miles. Despite how hard the climb up was, standing up here I all of a sudden wish that I had a bigger pack on and was making my way to Mount Owen. An adventure for another day.
Aside from the views, there’s just something so wonderful about the alpine. It’s like a whole other world, so different to the one down below. The landscape I’m used to disappears and I’m surrounded by stunted trees and tiny delicate wildflowers that look too precious to survive in such a place. The wind whips tussock and bare rock and I discover strange plants I didn’t know existed because they were hiding their peculiar heads behind mountain peaks.
The forest is still close enough that I can hear bellbirds singing a little soundtrack for me as I push my way dreamily through the wind. Such strange music for the stark mountain scenery. I climb up past Culliford Hill and down to the base of Billie’s Knob. The track down into the valley teases me to continue on to Mount Owen, but no, the saddle marks the end of my climb and it’s time to start making my way back.
I back track as far as the moody beech forest but for a change of scenery I take the Blue Creek track to the car park instead of the ridge line. The terrain is trickier down this way. All muddy steps and tree roots instead of the steep climb up the hill. My jelly legs have trouble getting down the steep sections at times but I just take my time. The pretty forest doesn’t quite have the bang of the alpine views but it’s still very pleasant. The track hits Blue Creek not far out from the car park and from there it’s an easy riverside stroll back to the car. I got a bit more exercise than I bargained for but the reward was well beyond my expectations. If the trail is that spectacular 3 hours in then there’s nothing for it, I’m going to have to make it all the way to Mount Owen one day.
The Billie’s Knob day walk starts from Courtyard Flats (follow the Kahurangi National Park signs up the Wangapeka Valley from Tapawera). Go across the bridge at the campsite and take the first left. The trail goes all the way to Mount Owen so you can take it as far as you like, but to keep within the 6 hour return timeframe, the saddle at the base of Billie’s Knob is a good place to turn around as the track drops down into Ghost Valley after this. Take plenty of water, the initial climb is tough and you wont find anywhere to refill on the way.
Listening to: Everybody Knows That You’re Insane – Queens of the Stone Age