The Kaikōura Coast Track, long considered one of New Zealand's finest private walks is open from October 1 to April 30 – and there's no time like the present for a two-day jaunt, says Patrick Smith.
The word "awesome" appears often among walkers' reviews on the Kaikōura Coast Track website. But, standing on a rocky knob called Skull Peak, almost 500 metres above the coast, the word seems a bit… inadequate.
The 360-degree view from here – reached on the second day of the walk – is simply breathtaking. Tall hills and green paddocks dotted with sheep and cattle; bush-filled valleys and stands of towering gums; the braided Conway River emptying into a glittering sea – all framed by the snow-capped peaks of the Inland and Seaward Kaikōura mountains. Skull Peak may be the literal high point of the walk, but the first day's hike is no less thrilling.
The Kaikōura Coast Track takes in two very scenic farms at Conway Flat, North Canterbury: Ngaroma, owned by the Macfarlane family and Medina, a lovely coastal run belonging to the Handyside clan. The two families have been running and maintaining the track for 27 years and farmed here for generations. David's father arrived in the 1940s, Bruce's family in 1870. Now thousands of global visitors have found their way to this idyllic spot.
"We own the land but we are really conservators of it and we wanted to share it," Sally says. Large areas are now in regenerating native bush, protected under QEII National Trust covenant.
The walk includes accommodation. The first night is at The Beach House, a well-equipped cottage by the sea and then in The Whare at Medina. The only bag you have to carry is a day pack; your hosts cart your luggage and optional dinners can be ordered in advance.
Day one gets under way after breakfast with a stroll to Ploughman's Creek, where steps lead down to the beach. The snow-capped Seaward Kaikōuras frame its northern end; to the south are kilometres of sand.
It's not unusual to meet New Zealand fur seals lounging on the beach while dusky dolphins play in the waves. "Big Bush" makes a perfect place to stop and relax before finally leaving the beach where a big sign points to "Medina". Just up from the beach is the Circle Shelter, a colourful lunch stop where you can relax in comfort and enjoy a brew-up on the stove.
From here the track winds up across lush pasture and along the clifftop to "The Lookout". Rustic signs point north to Kaikōura and south to Banks Peninsula, with binoculars provided.
Terrific views continue as we cross the grassy terraces before dropping down into a bushy gully filled with birdsong and watched over by huge kahikatea and tōtara trees. We cross a stream and climb up into open pasture. A sign by a wooden bench suggests we "Rest & Reflect", so we do, gazing out over the landscape to the Pacific Ocean.
Now, scenting home, we follow the track down the hill and around a glassy pond before popping out at The Whare, our overnight digs.
Next morning Heather arrives in the van to take us to the start of the Ngaroma track, about 20 minutes away. The track climbs through lovely Buntings Bush, down through a gully and up Buntings Stream. It's around three hours' walk to the skyline through an ancient beech forest ringing with the back-and-forth calls of bellbirds. We pass under giant mataī, kahikatea and tōtara trees before emerging on to open ground, where Heather's Seat offers a breather and views across the Conway River to the Inland Kaikōuras.
Then we're back into bush and climbing towards Bruce's Seat for another fine outlook. Ten minutes later we're up at the saddle. From here the track winds around to the base of Skull Peak (with optional five-minute scramble to the top) and on towards Skull Peak Shelter, which has everything you need to rest and refuel, including a woodstove, flushing loo and a deck.
After lunch, we follow the track down Telegraph Spur towards the coast. Ewes and lambs run ahead of us and scatter into the paddocks. There's a rich collection of coastal bush through Mamaku Reserve, some of it patiently labelled by our hosts.
Over a couple of bridges and stiles, up a hill, down to the beach and along the road and by mid-afternoon we're back where we started, The Beach House, with a glass of Heather's homemade lemonade and a slice of fruitcake. A short sit-down later and we're returning to Christchurch.
An "awesome" weekend. And then some.
Know before you go
The Kaikōura Coast Track is a two-hour drive from Christchurch or three hours from Picton.
Walking season is October-April.
There are a maximum of 10 walkers on the track per day
Accommodation and luggage transport is provided
kaikouratrack.co.nz for more information.
Check alert level restrictions and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz