Walk 25 - Kaikoura Coast Track  

The Kaikoura Coast Track is another of New Zealand's Private Walkways, set up by a group of three farming families in 1994 not far north of Cheviot on the east coast of the South Island. After many weeks in the mountains of Fiordland and the Southern Alps, we felt a need to return to the sea, to swap beeches for beaches and see a different landscape of the South Island before we finally left it.

The weather had turned distinctly bleak over the past few days and we arrived to do the tramp on an overcast drizzly day. Turning off the highway, we were cheered by the sight of The Staging Post, part of the Hawkswood property and our first night's stop (as with many private walks, the tramp starts with overnight accommodation followed by the first stage of the walk the following morning). A group of quaint cottages were clustered near a large grove of trees, including some of the largest and healthiest blue-gums that we had seen for a long time. The smell of the wet gum leaves sent a rush of nostalgia for Oz coursing through us. Our accommodation was a charmingly restored one room rammed earth cottage called "Pisé Hut", what else - the other places were Ash House, Log Cabin and Mud Hut; guess what they were made of.

It was clear that this walk would be different when we went up to meet our 8 fellow trampers and get pick up our informative guide books and receive a pre-walk briefing from JD MacFarlane, the 85-year old owner of Hawkswood, local legend and kiwi bush character extraordinaire. It was part information on the walk, part history of the area, coupled with the humour of a stand-up comic who picks his victims out from the audience for a good dose of public humiliation (except JD remained seated in his chair and chequered blanket). I suspect most of us didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but, washed down with a glass of JD's red wine, it was a great icebreaker and got the tramp off to a novel start.

Pisé Hut at The Staging Post

Day 1: Staging Post to Ngaroma

The next morning we all headed off in the small bus run by track operators for a short trip up the highway to the starting point, just south of the Conway River bridge. Once on foot, we headed off feeling incredibly light with our small day packs (part of the deal with this track is transport of your main packs and food boxes between overnight stops) to follow a four wheel drive track that parallelled the highway over a small hill recently planted out to pines as a means of turning broom-infested hillsides to profit.

Soon, however, we headed coastward, following a narrow path down the steep gully of Buntings Stream, where native bush still held sway over the weedy invaders. Heading deeper into the hills and slowly climbing up a long ridge, the track took us through remnant beech forest, their trunks black with mould growing on sweet-smelling honeydew exuded by colonies of scale insects. These remnant bush gullies provide a refuge for native birds and they seemed alive with the calls of bellbirds as we passed through.

Old matai tree in Bunting's Bush

Climbing the Hawkswood Range

Fog obscuring Skull Peak

With the increasing mist and occasional light shower, humidity was high under the bush canopy, rich with vines, ferns and the occasional giant totara and matai reaching skywards. A small clearing gave views across the native bush and broom to the Conway River flats, the Inland Kaikouras behind them obscured by the clouds. Continuing the steady climb, we passed through a further section of bush, then broom, brushing by its branches weighed down ith excess water droplets, which were shed happily on any passing tramper.

Nello disappearing into the mist

Eventually we reached the ridgeline leading up to Skull Peak, at 490m the high point of the day. The track passed broom and tussock, disappearing into the cloud that enveloped the Peak; we would be denied the spectacular views of the coastline and the Seaward Kaikoura Range from this spot, though the mystical feeling of crossing this steep fogbound terrain compensated to some extent.

Soon, out of the mist, the welcome shape of Skull Peak Shelter emerged, with its facilities to brew a hot cuppa. It was a good place to stop and get to know the other trampers a bit better.

Skull Peak Shelter overlooking the Kaikoura Coast

As we sat and sipped our coffees and teas, the mist and cloud drifted by up the valleys, tantalising us with glimpses of the coastline, before finally lifting enough to see the panoramic view of Skull Peak and the broad expanse of green farmlands flowing away beneath it to the Pacific Ocean. Ten minutes later, the fog closed in again; it was time to head on for our long descent to the coast.

The clouds lift to reveal Skull Peak and the Kaikoura coastline


We only needed to drop another 50-100m of altitude to get under the cloud layer, following the track down through the bush and broom of Telegraph Spur and into the grassy paddocks of Ngaroma Station. Continuing our descent we dropped down into another bush-gully, through the different, drier coastal vegetation of Possum Drive. Emerging from Possum Drive, we crossed the creek onto one of the home paddocks, where we collected a few nice field mushrooms to add to our dinner (one plus of the rainy weather) before a last little climb took us up to Ngaroma homestead and The Loft, our very comfortable and spacious accommodation for the night.

Cabbage tree silhouette

Typical landscape of native bush gully and
pasture-covered ridges

The Loft at Ngaroma

View from the window of The Loft towards the Seaward Kaikoura Range

The views of the coast from its large windows tempted us out for a walk along the beach that afternoon. As our boots, saturated from the wet grass dried out, we put on our sandals and headed northward for a pleasant stroll to the Conway River mouth along the black sands of Kaikoura, lined with drift-rows of sea weed of every hue, from white to cream to pink to crimson; a little sun, the curious green colour of the waters, a meeting with a solitary fur-seal and loads of invigorating negative ions - it was a good way to finish the day and the hot bath back at Ngaroma Loft, with a good dinner and pleasant companions completed an enjoyable first day of the walk; certainly better than the weather had threatened as we left The Staging Post.

Leave only footprints

Evening stroll on the black sand beach of Kaikoura

The complete and utter disdain of a fur seal

Day 2: Ngaroma to Medina

Walking down the short gravel road from Ngaroma homestead to the beach, the sun burst through and, as we turned south, shone warmly on our backs. We followed the coast road for a several hundred metres before dropping down on to the black sand of the beach.

Ahead of us, the white, tan and golden cliffs gradually rose higher and higher to the south, behind us the pale grey silhouette of the Kaikoura Peninsula and the Seaward Kaikoura Mountains stood out against the morning sun. We ambled slowly along the beach, the waves breaking gently onto the shore and spreading out in a thin white foam which was quickly swallowed up by the black sands.


How nice it is to have the warm sun on your back


Blue, black and tan - the colours of Kaikoura

We ambled slowly along the beach, the waves breaking gently onto the shore and spreading out in a thin white foam which was quickly swallowed up by the black sands. The deeply eroded cliffs of Kaikoura were about to give us a lesson in the forces that have shaped this landscape. Just past Sawpit Creek, we saw the first remnants of the buried forest, branches and twigs protruding from the smooth tan walls of the cliffs where they had been buried some 8000 years ago by wind-born sediments. This was still preserved wood, not yet fossilised. A little later, several large stumps of the ancient podocarps protruded from the black sand, the timber polished by millenia of waves washing over them.

Remnant of the 8000 year-old
buried forest

More recent timber awaiting burial

8000 year old pieces of wood
protruding from the clay cliffs

Looking back to the north


Further on the cliffs changed form; the horizontal layers in the loess sediments giving way sharply to the conglomerate of an ancient river delta, and later to a finer rock of marine origin, complete with bands of tiny shells, as the history of these deeply eroded cliffs unfolded.

As we followed the beach, we passed a succession of deep clefts that marked the course of present day streams flowing out to sea - at times walking on soft black sand, at times crunching our way over a bed of flat black shingles.

Sharp change from conglomerate to smooth marine sediments in the cliff-face

The cliffs of Kaikoura

A curious "split" view of the Seaward Kaikoura Range

Eventually, we reached a wider gap at Medina Creek and, each grabbing a load of bone dry driftwood, we turned into the gully to the Circle Shelter. Here the track operators have placed a shelter and fireplace, where we could sit in the sun, light a fire and boil a billy for a hot cuppa, while taking in the tranquillity of this ancient Maori campsite.

Boiling the billy at the Circle Shelter

Cuppa over, we headed off again, staying inland and climbing up to the cliff line and the southern end of Medina Gully. To the north, we looked down on the long line of cliffs and ribbon of black sand that we had just walked down. Heading south again, we followed the cliff edge along a fenced paddock, rich with the cabbage-scent of a rape forage crop.

Northward view of our path
at the base of the cliffs

One of several gullies cutting into the cliffs

The long cliff -line stretching south
toward the horizon
At the top of the paddock, we reached the high point of the cliff line, from where impressive views could be had to the north and south of this isolated stretch of cliffs disappearing into the distance in a rail straight line between the green-blue sea and the paddocks of the coastal strip.
We turned and followed a fence-line inland, keeping to the terrace alongside the steep southern edge of Medina Gully, before descending down into the gully and crossing the creek on a quaint log bridge. Clouds had begun invading the sky and the sun started to fade as we entered the bush of the Water Supply Gully, an area where stock were fence out over 20 years ago and the native forest has regenerated. Some original forest still remained, particularly impressive being an 800 year old Kahikatea and Matai tree, towering above the canopy of regenerating bush. What stories they could tell! Coupled with regeneration, the owners have undertaken extensive stoat and possum control, and the birdlife here was amongst the richest we have seen in New Zealand. A chorus of bellbirds and other songbirds followed us as we wandered through the steep walls and dense vegetation of the gully and fantails appeared at every bend to hunt the insects that we disturbed as we passed.

The 800 year old kahikatea

Two views of the regenerating bush in Medina Creek and Water Supply Gully - now home to a rich birdlife

In the Water Supply Gully

Finally, we climbed up out of the gully to reach a hilltop pasture. The first drops of rain began to fall as we crossed it, descended another hill, rounded a large pond and climbed up to Medina homestead.

Here there are two places for trampers to stay, a larger wooden cottage called "The Whare", which can hold 8 and a delightful garden cottage which sleeps 4. The fair Nello and I plus Dutch couple, Co and Ria, stayed in the cottage, leaving the 6 kiwi friends together at The Whare, but that evening we all joined up for a long pleasant dinner, during which many tales were told and many laughs were had.

Over the course of dinner, we realised that this was the first time we had been the youngest people on a walk and from the examples of our fellow trampers there are still a lot of kilometres left in our legs!

Crossing the paddocks of Medina

Day 3: Medina to Staging Post

It looked like being a strange day - weatherwise - as we ate our breakfast on the outdoor table at the Medina Garden Cottage in the early morning sun, watched by a few curious sheep and farm dogs. The top of the Hawkswood Range was clear, but a long band of cloud hovered just off-shore.

With directions from Sally, our host, we set off, dropping down to cross a creek before commencing a steady climb up through the green paddocks, dotted with grazing sheep, and up into the broom and gorse covered hillsides.

Breakfast at the Medina Garden Cottage

Sheep grazing contentedly as the sea-mist rolls in

Photo of the girls posing for a photo

Leaving behind the bucolic views of undulating farmlands stretching down to the sea, the track began to wind more steeply up the hills of the Hawkswood Range, as the cloud band moved in from the sea and began to swirl around the tussock grass of the higher tops.

By the time we reached our high point for the day (and the walk) at 647m Mt Wilson, we were back in the deep mist and the grand views out toward the Inland Kaikoura Range were again denied us.

Back amongst the tussock ridges and mists
of the Hawkswood Range

Last view of the coast before entering the fog

Great moments in
mountaineering no. 61345 -
Nello conquers Mt Wilson

From Mt Wilson we dropped down to the Mt Wilson Shelter for a short break, before continuing our descent of the inland slopes of the coastal hills. As we wound down through thick infestations of broom we emerged into the sun; the mist had not spilled over from the seaward side of the hills.

Before us lay the curious lumpen profile of the aptly named Humpy Hills. At the saddle between them and the Hawkswood Range, the track dropped down into a gully refuge of native bush and followed the Chilly Stream down before crossing it to climb gently back up and sidle along the paddocks of Hawkswood property. The hills behind us sparkled green in their mantle of broom.

Mt Wilson Shelter

The track through the biggest broom infestation
that I have seen

Profile of the Humpy Hills
Finally, we rounded a small domed hill to see the red shed roof and buildings of Hawkswood below us; we took the time to admire the tranquillity of the rolling landscape one last time, for our walk was almost over. All that remained was one last steep descent to recross the Chilly Stream and an even steeper but short climb back out to reach the property and a stroll past silver wattles, sycamores and oaks to the cabins of the Staging Post, where we had started out two days earlier.

Hawkswood Range from the Chilly Stream

Looking across the Chilly Stream to The Staging Post

The Kaikoura Coast Track is worth doing as much for the great cottage accommodation and convivial hosts as for the diversity of farmland, coastal and and bush landscapes through which it passes. With a limit of 10 walkers per day, it is a good track for a group of friends to walk, but if you cannot organise this, don't worry as you will soon find new friends - it is that sort of tramp. Thanks Co and Ria, Euan and Gyllian, Don and Jennifer, Ron and Barbara for your company and the laughs over the dinner table. Our last tramp on the South Island was a lot of fun.