Marlborough: Long hike over the hills ends in cheers

By Roger Hall

Dining al fresco, the sun pouring down, the sea a few metres away, and no signs of other human habitation as far as the eye could see. On the menu, paua fritters, all you can eat for $6. Bliss.

Well, okay, there was no menu, but $6 was indeed what the fritters cost each of the five of us as we ate under the shadow of Cape Campbell Lighthouse.

When we arrived at our overnight stay, where the former Cape lighthouse keepers lived, there in the freezer was frozen paua. How could we resist?

One of the benefits of the farming downturn in the 1980s was the establishment, and then proliferation, of walking tracks through farmers' properties, opening up parts of the country hitherto unavailable to the public.

Our paua cafe was at the end of day two of one such walk, the four-day Cape Campbell Walkway that stretches over two farms and thousands of hectares of tussock-covered hills along one of New Zealand's most dangerous coastlines (there were 18 shipwrecks on this 27km stretch of Marlborough coastline between 1845 and 1947).

Earlier in the week we had done another, the Hurunui, in the high country in North Canterbury.

On these walks your packs are transported for you; accommodation is basic but with hot showers and flush loos; and, at the end of the day, there is usually a cold beer available. But don't get the idea that this is easy stuff. Walking for four to six hours each day over hilly country carrying a day pack takes considerable effort and I, for one, was always glad to reach our destination each night.

The entire Hurunui walk, 25km inland from Culverden, is on the Island Hills Station, 7100ha, still a working farm but uneconomic without the track.

Dan and Mandy Shand greeted us when we arrived, briefed us on the route, and showed us round the old shearers' quarters that were our first night's accommodation.

The first day (15km) was easy going at first, with views of mountain ranges, bush and a river. Then through a forest, nice and level to start with, and then a long, steep climb to the summit at 750m where we gratefully rested and enjoyed the view.

After we'd been walking well over five hours I began to estimate how much the beer would be. Five dollars at least. Perhaps, more. Yes, under the circumstances, South Islanders would certainly exploit hot, tired, thirsty walkers from the North Island.

We fell exhausted into the Valley Camp hut and staggered the extra few metres to the fridge, $10 notes at the ready. The beer was a mere $3. Furthermore, in the fridge there were a couple of bottles of bubbly for us all, on the house. That's southern hospitality for you.

Day two (8km) was only a doddle by comparison, but even so in the heat it was the thought of cold beer that kept me going. Alas, when I opened the fridge there wasn't any. I knew then how Scott felt when he realised Amundsen had got to the Pole first. But some rummaging around in nearby cupboards revealed the vital stash.

On the third day of great tramping we arrived back by midday to find coffee and cakes awaiting us.

No wonder the Hurunui visitors' book was full of rave comments. A lot of groups (women mostly) clearly had had the time of their lives. As one of them put it: "Janice says if this is tramping why hasn't she done it years ago."

Revived, we made the three-hour drive to Ward and the first night's accommodation of the Cape Campbell Walkway.

We did our washing and hung it out before Carol Loe arrived to brief us on the walk and the history of the area (this was the first sheep station in the South Island).

Off we went to the nearby East Coast Inn for dinner, which was cheap, cheerful and damn good, but, alas, it began to rain. So much for putting the washing out to dry. But when we returned Carol had taken it in for us. Ah, these South Island hosts.

Day one on the Cape Campbell is the longest (17km), and the overnight rain had made the first steep climb so slippery that we slipped backwards a few times, then the mud stuck to our boots so much that it was like walking with snow shoes.

After nearly three hours' walking we piled into a hut, delighted to find tea, coffee and soup provided together with a gas stove, offering the perfect lunch stop.

The accommodation that night was tucked in a hollow. No views from here - in this part of the world getting out of the wind took priority over scenery - but there was beer (again only $3), plus wine, good food, cards and an early night.

More splendid scenery the next day (Cook Strait, Marlborough hills and the North Island) and the wind rippled the tussocks that covered the hills.

Black cattle stared at us as we walked up and down hills then on to the wild beach and a solid walk into the wind to the lighthouse.

We had arrived by 1pm so sat in the sun, dozing, reading and wandering up to the lighthouse, while planning to gorge ourselves on paua fritters.

And so it went. Steep climbs were always rewarded with superb views of the sea, the cliffs, Lake Grassmere and its salt flats, the lighthouse at the tip of the cape, and the wicked reefs. The third night was spent in a perfect cottage with a lovely garden where we ate out on the porch, drinking some of the Cape Campbell wine. Not a bad life.

The final day (17km) was hot and quite a hard slog, but there were delights along the way, including a cool spring where we filled our water bottles, and a shelter spot tucked under the shade with treats available.

Near the end we glimpsed the homestead that was our final destination. But the track diverted us away from our goal, up to an airstrip. Why this cruelty? At the top, we knew why. The view of views, impossible for photographs to do justice to.

It was a grand finale to a great week of walking ... and at a remarkably low price.

Checklist: Hurunui

See www.walkingtrack.co.nz.

A three-night walk is $140, plus $25 for carrying bags. A two-night option is also available.

Basic food is available for purchase in the huts.

Cape Campbell

See website www.capecampbellwalkway.co.nz

A four-night walk is $240 plus $25 for carrying bags. This also has a two-night option.

A large range of foods is available each night.

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