The blackbirds singing in the front garden wakened us early this morning, so we were up and out fairly early. My training walks have been going reasonably well and I am now completing ten-mile walks with a full pack almost daily. I just need to push the mileage up to fifteen and I am well set for the coming walking season.
As a wee change to the training routine, Joanna and I decided to go off-road as a wee treat and headed for the hills at the back of the village. There are three hills overlooking Kirriemuir, Cat Law, Peat Shank and Long Goat, that you can join up into a nice wee two-to-three hour hike, dependent on how long you spend taking photographs on the top. There are really four peaks, with The Crannard sitting to the front of Cat Law but as you cannot see this from the village everybody just talks about 'the three hills'.
It is easy enough to access the route by driving up the Pearsie Road and stopping by the wee track that heads up to Corriehead. Care is required when parking your car at the entrance because tractors and trailers require access to the fields, so make sure you tuck it in away from the main gate and the field entrance.
The initial part of the walk is on a clear track that runs through the middle of the forest at Corriehead. At the top of a brae you come to a t-junction where you want to turn left and carry on to the reservoir at Clash, which you pass on your left-hand side. Passing by the wee ruined shieling, take a minute to enjoy the view. You have already made a fair bit of height by here and the views across the Great Strath towards the coast are generally very good.
Take the right hand path, which goes up and over the wee brae. The road eventually drops down and after passing a small pond on your left, the path to access Cat Law is on your left. There is a clear path up to the gun butt on the top, albeit fairly steep at times and on a day like today when it is cold and damp you might find yourself pecking a wee bit. There are a couple of flat areas as you rise up the path and it is always wothwhile stopping to admire the views back. There is something really attractive about the dark winter and early spring colourings on the hill. The dominant colours are the rich browns of the died back heather and bracken, interpsersed with huge swathes of emerald green moss.
This early part of the walk splits neatly into two climbs (Crannard & Cat Law), with a short plateau section in between (that just means its no so steep). As we approached the start of the second climb the cloud level dropped and we could no longer see what was in front of us or behind. However, looking over to our right, we could just make out a huge, white mountain hare darting away from us. Although some distance away it looked the size of a sheep! As we climbed higher the cold moisture was like small, sharp needles striking your cheeks. At times it was difficult seeing the path, particularly on the section just by the Scard Cairns where the path is much fainter and you are guided upwards by the line of the fence.
By the time we reached the top, where the cairn is located, we could barely see in front of us. We stopped here and sat in the old gun butts to have lunch and where a nice, hot cup of green tea revived us. From here the route towards Peat Shank is not so clear but if you continue to follow the fence until it turns to the right you will not go wrong. We actually skirt along the edge of Peat Shank, dropping down through the peat bogs to head back up to Long Goat. the drop down from Cat Law / Peat Shank can be very boggy and sometimes you need to skirt in to the right away from the fence to find firmer ground.
By now the fine mist was beginning to wet us and, after stopping for a while we had cooled down considerably and were happy to walk at a fairly brisk pace, albeit the footing on the tufty grass was at times unsure and there were numerous holes to fall in to. We could not see the route either in front of us or behind, but knew from previous excursions where we were going. At the top of Long Goat, where usually there would be wonderful views and plenty of winter hares to wonder at, there was nothing to be seen and we continued over the top without stopping.
From the top of Long Goat there is a rubble path, used by the estate to bring in shooters. At times it is unsure underfoot, with lots of scree that rolls underneath your feet, so some care is required. In places, it is very steep and progress can be slow and painful on the knees. However, before you know it you are back on the main path, just east of where you left it to go up Cat Law. Make your way back to that point and then complete the walk out on the path you walked in on.
Up and down, with a stop of about half an hour for lunch took us about three hours and we were back in the house in time for lunch.
As we were going to bed last night, Billy the Ranger advised us that the chances of moving on today were quite good. There had been a lot of sun early yesterday and then rain later in the day that had started to make inroads into the accumulated snow on MacKinnon Pass.
After breakfast this morning he confirmed that we could move on to Mintaro hut today. There is a palpable sense of excitement running through the huts. As well as individual hikers and small groups of two to four, there is a large school group of twenty pupils that has kept us entertained while we have been held up. I’m glad I am not their teacher and had to keep them occupied for the holdover period.
With the sun out and a fair bit of heat in the forest, we set out with just long-sleeved t-shirts. There was a bit of smirmy rain that would intensify as the morning wore on. We did not complain too much, as we knew it would help to melt whatever snow remained on MacKinnon Pass. Our first five or six miles were over the ground we had walked yesterday, but in the improved weather it was like walking a new path. With the rain and the melting snow there had been a substantial increase in the flow of the Clinton River and, in places, it was a bit of a torrent. There are reports of people being swept away trying to cross the river when it is in ful spate.
From Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut is about 16-17 kilometres, initially along the Clinton Valley floor, rising gently to between 6-700 metres. The printed guide for the walk estimates about five to six hours for the walk, but throw in a few hundred photographs and it can take a bit longer. We will be following the Clinton River up to its source at Lake Mintaro. The river forks just below Hirere Falls where it separates in to the North and West branches and we follow the latter.
As we weave our way up the Clinton Valley, we also have to cross the innumerable streams and creeks that feed in to the river off the mountains. One of the delights of the Milford Track is the many bridges that there are on it; different types of bridges in different situations and a few in quite stunning locations. It seems at times that everywhere you look here the mountains weep, with myriad small waterfalls tumbling lace-like down the very steep sides. There are hundreds of them.
Small Mountain Waterfalls
When we set off initially it was a fine morning, with some mediocre sunshine on our faces. The first part of our route continued through beech forest, with the occasional breakout towards the river offering fine views up and down stream. There were times when the path itself opened up into an occasional clearing that enabled us to see some distance forward up the valley. In the places where the valley narrows, the mountains crowd in and you feel dwarved by their immensity. It had been late when we set off, delayed while we waited for the final okay from the rangers service. As a result we were not walking too long before we all started to think about lunch.
As we emerged from one the trees in to one of the more open sections we passed a flooded forest where the trees actually grow out of the water. An avalance some years ago had blocked the river and created a lake round the trees, which have continued to grow.
A few kilometres after the river forks, the valley starts to narrow and the mountains move in even further. At times you feel you are brushing up against the side of the mountains. Small feathery waterfalls continue to be a feature everywhere you look. We had started off in sunshine but as we progressed up the valley the cloud cover dropped down the steep, granite mountain sides and with it came a heavier rain. This gave Joanna and I an opportunity to use light-weight ponchos my sister had given me when I visited Australia just before the walk. They were ideal for this type of rain, keeping us dry but leaving the hands and arms free.
As you walk the Milford Track there area number of side tracks you can take to different points of interest such as the wetland boardwalk, the Hidden Lake and various waterfalls. We passed the track for the Hidden Lake, where there is also a fine waterfall, in the rain and decided to keep going to reach the shelter at the Prairies where we intended to stop for lunch. The walk continues in beech forest until we reach the prairie, where the land opens out and, if the weather is clear, offers a fine view up the valley towards the MacKinnon Pass. On the day of our approach there was a lot of mist around on the peaks and with the rain the view was slightly limited.
We met up with Manon and Frederick at the prairies and ate lunch with them. French Canadian friends who work together as school teachers, we enjoyed getting to know them better over the few days we were together on the track. Although you may be walking separately, in the course of the days you pass each other on numerous occassions on the path as each stops to take a break. Also at night, in the confines of the accommodation blocks, friendships are forged and experiences shared, as you would expect from groups of people who love the outdoors.
After lunch we were back on the trail going through beech forest again. The track starts to rise gently here, crossing the hillside at a slight angle. Not too far from the prairies stop is another shelter called the The Bus Stop and, when you see it, it looks exactly like that, a bus stop! Located at three hundred and ninety metres, the Bus Stop is a very basic shelter with a dirt floor, tin roof and a bench seat round three sides. As we passed by all the school pupils were huddled in it away from the rain.
A mile or so up the track from the shelter we had our first encounter with the turbulent waters that tumble down off the mountains. Water levels on the Milford Track can rise very quickly and if you are thinking of walking it, you should be prepared to at least get your feet wet. There are actually sections of the path where the water can rise to thigh level and that is directly on the path not a river or creek bed.
The obstacle we faced was that one of the creeks flowing into the Clinton River was in spate and with the force of the water, crossing was difficult. Crossing a river in spate was a whole new skill set for our small group and one with which we were not too familiar. Fortunately, one of the guides for the private walkers had taken up station at the river and was prepared to offer us advice and to support us on the crossing.
The advice was to keep our boots on to assist us in balancing on the uneven and rocky river bottom and to loosen shoulder and waist straps on our packs for the crossing and to support each other. It is a shock when you first enter the water because this is glacial ice melt and it is very cold. The second feature is the power of the water as it tugs at your feet and legs and you do have to lean in to it to stop yourself being swept away. Your inclination is to take boots and socks off but wearing the boots gives you better traction on the stones on the riverbed. with bare feet in this kind of water, you are liable to slip and fall into the water. We all crossed safely and, apart from wet feet for the rest of the day, were relatively unscathed.
From the river crossing the route was more clearly uphill, but rising at a fairly moderate rate. There are three or four other creek crossing, including three or four with bridges, but nothing that tested us like the earlier creek. The waterfalls continued to tumble down the steep mountain sides and, as we moved higher the beech trees thinned out a little and there were more open spaces where the height of the vegetation was lower, at times nothing more than scrub.
Before too long we arrived at Mintaro Hut, hedged in to the front by Mount Balloon (1,847 metres) and by the Castle Mount range (2,122 metres) to the rear. The hut is also surrounded by a number of the tree giants of the podocarp group, vying with the mountains for dominance. Compared to the other huts, Mintaro is tight for space and in the common area, with forty people to accommodate, it can become very crowded. By the time we arrive, last as usual, the area around the single stove in the middle of the common room, is surrounded with boots and clothes drying.
The hut is a two-storey affair and the school group has taken over the top floor, leaving the two rooms on the bottom for the rest of us. We find space in an eight-bunk room, sharing with a family of four from the USA. We are slightly disappointed to find out that the toilet block is a bit away from the accommodation block and if we need to get up during the night we will be faced with a walk outside to reach the loos. Okay if it is dry; not so if the rain is on.
First priority is to get the wet boots, socks and out clothing off and drying. Second is to get a hot drink and a meal inside us. Afterwards we sit around the stove chatting about the day and getting to know even more of the other people who will be walking with us over the next couple of days. Joanna starts to do some yoga exercises and pretty soon other people, including the school group, have joined in.Other kids are playing games. It is a noisy, busy atmosphere but we are all tired and with an early start tomorrow morning and the climb up to and over MacKinnon Pass in mind, nobody is up late.
Having the bed right next to the door in a twenty-bed bunkhouse is not to be recommended. Given the relatively young age of the residents, I was surprised at the apparent lack of bladder control. Despite everybody’s attempts to leave and enter the bunkhouse quietly, it was a night of naps, as opposed to solid sleep.
It was a curious start to the day because we did not know what the day would hold. We were to meet with the warden after breakfast to find out the situation regarding the weather conditions at the top of the mountains, so we were not sure whether we should be packing up to move on or making plans for alternative activities. Breakfast was easy enough with packets of instant porridge and various snack foods. As we sat around in the kitchen area Billy the Warden went round asking who would want to move on today if there was the opportunity? After getting an idea of the numbers he went off to consult with his manager.
To cut a long story short, there was an opportunity for ten people from forty to move on. There were twelve people who had put their name forward, including our party of four. Following a slightly acrimonious discussion as to who should go, with the same two couples inflating their own importance, we agreed on a ballot. At first, if your name was pulled out of the hat you would go on. We suggested the alternative, that if your name came out you were not going. As we were a party of four, if our name were pulled out of the hat towards the end of the process it would negate the whole thing. If we were pulled out first, game over and all the others could go ahead.
Guess what? We were first out of the hat and that settled things. While we were slightly disappointed at the result, we soon settled the matter for ourselves and looked forward to an extra day’s tramping in one of the most beautiful environments in the world.
After some discussion, we decided to take the five / six mile hike up to the area of the Hirere Falls. Although we would walk the same route tomorrow there is so much to see here that you could walk it ten times and not see it all. We didn’t take any packs and made do with just a couple of water bottles and some fresh fruit.
On our return there would be opportunities to visit the wetland boardwalk through the swampy jungle and going to see the glowworms after it has become dark. With over 7,000 plant species, including exquisite small ferns and mosses, the Milford area is veritable garden of delight.
Arachnocampa luninosa, or the New Zealand Glow Worm is the larval or maggot stage of a fungus gnat fly. The glowworms use the light at the end of their bodies to attract small flying insects in to their lairs, while the female may also use it to entice male glowworms to mating. Just below the Clinton Hut there is an area beneath a fallen tree where the glowworms can be seen when dark has settled.
Nearby, there are also a couple of swimming holes in the Clinton River that are easily accessed. One feel of the water was enough for me to decide not on this trip!
Suffice to say for this entry, it was a beautiful walk with stunning scenery and lots of interest. We stopped just short of Hirere Falls in a flat area beside the river where we could admire the many waterfalls that careened down the sides of the mountains. On the heights there is only a very shallow covering of soil and below that solid rock. It means that rainwater does not soak away in the same way as where there is deeper topsoil. The result is that most of the rain runs directly off the steep mountain sides. As it had been raining and snowing for the last couple of days there were small waterfalls everywhere you looked.
From the clearing we had great views up the valley and of the mountain ranges on either side. Even from our lower elevation we could see the extensive snow on the lower peaks, which added to our worries as to whether or not we would be able to go on. If the pass is still blocked tomorrow we will need to go back, as Morven and Kendra have deadlines to meet for thier respective applications.
After a restless night’s sleep, we rose early, breakfasted and packed up to be out of the accommodation by 10.00am. We were to be joined today by our final walking companion, Morven’s friend, Kendra McGrath. When Kendra arrived we retired to a local hostelry for an early lunch / second hearty breakfast, which was where we first heard rumours that there was trouble on the Milford with deep snow on the McKinnon Pass. It was rumoured that the DoC were holding up new walkers while they checked out the conditions. A substantial delay would cause problems for our group because Morven and Kendra, both junior doctors, were to be submitting applications for their respective medical consultancy programmes back home. It was a ‘timed application’ and they needed to be back off the walk as planned to be able to submit within a specific time frame.
Slightly worried, we made our way to the local Department of Conservation office to pick up our boat tickets and walking permit and to check out the rumours. The office confirmed there had been a heavy snowfall, but reassured us that we would be able to travel on as they expected any snow to thaw out that day. Having walked to the office in sunshine that seemed reasonable. They did advise us to take an extra day’s food ‘just in case’ but appeared confident that everything would go ahead. Beware the confidence of bureaucrats!
Feeling slightly happier, we set off to visit Te Anau Bird Sanctuary (Punanga Manu o Te Anau), which houses some of the critically endangered, indigenous bird species of New Zealand including the takahe, kaka and kereru. To access the bird reserve we enjoyed a nice walk along the shores of Lake Te Anau, where we had lovely views over to Mount Luxmore ( 1,472 metres ) and the Murchison Mountains. Lake Te Anua is a glacially-carved lake, the large glaciers also carving out the mountain passes that are to be seen there today.
Given that most of the local rock is gneiss (metamorphic), diorite and granite (both igneous rock) you can only wonder at the power of the natural forces involved in shaping this landscape. On the mountain tops there is only a thin soil covering that does little to hold the huge volume of water that falls regularly on the region before it tumbling gracefully off the faces of the cliffs in an array of wonderous waterfalls.
Following our visit, we returned to the town to pick up Kendra’s car before making our way to Te Anau Downs, park the car and catch the last boat of the day to access the start of the walk.
It was an exhilarating boat trip with the high peaks of the Southern Alps visible in every direction. The sign on the boat kind of summed up what we were all feeling; the sense that in undertaking this journey you were somehow stepping out of yourself, abandoning the humdrum life and becoming a real life adventurer. The smile says it all!
Views from Te Anau Downs
The boat journey gave us an opportunity to meet some of the other people who would be walking at the same time as us. While we would not be walking as a group, over the course of each day’s walking we would pass each other on numerous occasions and, at night in the camp huts, we would all became very good friends as we shared the experiences of the day and our previous adventures. On the boat, it was obvious we all shared the same sense of excitement, albeit edged by a little bit of caution.
The Milford Track is a pristine environment. Like the island of Ulva that we visited earlier this week, it has spectacular flora and fauna , as well as a land and seascape of immense grandeur. Like many of the disappearing wilderness areas in other parts of the world it needs protecting if we are to continue to enjoy it in all its pristine purity. Occasionally, this means restrictive practices are introduced to combat the many threats there are to wilderness areas. For example, in New Zealand urgent action is being taken to eradicate the rat, stoat and ferret populations to protect the many flightless birds that live there. All these mammals are incomers to the country and their impact on the local bird population has been catastrophic.
On embarking from the boat at Glade Wharf (and later by Glade House) we were faced with another protective action, this time to control the invasive freshwater algae, Didymo or ‘rock snot’ as it is sometimes known. In 2004, didymo was discovered in New Zealand, the first time it had been found in the southern hemisphere. It is an algae (diatom) that can produce large amounts of plant material to form thick brown mats on stream bottoms. The presence of didymo in riverbeds can have an adverse effect on the many insects that live there and, consequently, on the fish that rely on them as food source. It can make the river bottoms slippy and dangerous for people crossing or swimming in the waterway and lead to a general deterioration in the quality of the environment.
To assist in controlling the algae biosecurity measures were introduced, including 'movement control areas' in which special cleaning measures for equipment, from boots to boats, are required to ensure the spores of the algae are not spread.
At Glade Wharf, we were required to step in to a tub of protective solution to clean off our boots. More rigorous practices are required if, for example, you have used a boat or canoe on the water or if you have been in an affected area. If you remember the kinds of things we had to do to access the countryside during the last outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the UK, you will have a rough idea of what is required. Once seen, the crystal clear, emerald green waters of the Clinton River are not easily forgotten and you too would do everything you could to preserve them.
After cleaning our boots we queued up with the other walkers to take our turn standing by the sign that marks the start of the Milford Track. Afterall, you need some evidence that you have actually been there!
There is a real sense of excitement when you do all these wee, twee activities. As if the mountains all around you, their snowy peaks and cloud cover; the in-penetrable jungle and the mighty rivers are not enough to convince you that you are actually here.
From the wharf we started to walk up through the lower beech forest that lines the trail to our first stop, the Clinton Hut. There are numerous varieties of beech tree on the Milford including silver, mountain and red beech and their prevalence (and height) varies with the altitude at which they are growing. Throughout our time here, I continually struggled to get my head around the notion that as I walked through sub-tropical forest at sea level, only a couple of hours up the trail the most hazardous of wintery conditions could be waiting for you. It is as well there are trails, because if you wander just a foot or two off the path you are in pretty thick jungle.
As well as beech trees, there are the giants of the podocarp forest here including rimus, kahikatea and the totara that can live for a thousand years. As we saw on Ulva Island, many of these trees reach for the sky, including trees like conifers, rimu and black pine, leaving the under-forest to a whole different range of shade-loving trees and plants such as tree ferns, various shrubs, liverwarts, bladderwarts, rushes, sedges and dozens of low lying ferns and with moss everywhere you look: growing on the ground, hanging in long tendrils from the trees, covering trees from ground level to the tips of their branches. As you go further up the trail, with the increase in height and the change in growing conditions the species change and above the treeline where the conditions are often harsh and unforgiving, mountain herbs and wild flowers grow in abundance, including tree daisies and buttercups. Many of these species have thrived here and in the other isolated wildernesses of New Zealand since the time of the super continent, Gondwana from which Zealandia is thought to have separated many, many millions of years ago.
The initial walk from the quay to the hut for independent walkers is only about five kilometres, but it is a five kilometres full of interest. As we approach Glade House; the first accommodation stop for the ‘private walkers’, the countryside opens out and we have our first full look at the Clinton River and also our first swing bridge, of which there are many over the course of the next four days, some of them quite spectacular in their location.
The early part of the walk is enclosed on both sides. Later, as we progress there are occasional breaks in the trees that present us with further tantalising glimpses of the light green waters of the Clinton River and the high mountain peaks. When you come upon these breaks in the forest, particularly slightly further up the trail, they are likely to have been caused by avalanches. There are over 57 avalanche paths on the Milfor Track, many with the capacity to reach and cross over the path itself. In some sections of the track there are warnings posted not to stop in particular areas because there is a high risk of an avalanche happening. While you might be able to stop for a few seconds to take a photograph, they are not places where you would want to take a teabreak!
Just before we reach the Clinton Hut there is a fantastic view across the river and over to the Dore Pass, which is an alternative route on to the Milford Track from the Eglinton Valley, off the Milford Road. At 1390m, it is a challenging alpine route that requires the right equipment and commensurate mountain skills. There is also a river to be forded at the beginning of the route. Like the mountains of Scotland, many people do not give these mountain routes the respect they deserve and can pay a heavy price. Even with the right equipment, many of the New Zealand routes are extremely challenging in quickly changing weather conditions.
We complete the route to the hut in just over an hour and are the last of the groups to arrive, with the consequence that we end up with the beds nearest the door. Hooks are provided outside the huts to hang wet gear and to leave dirty boots, but you are advised to bring them in at night as the Keas, a large species of the parrot family, is likely to do them some mischief. In New Zealand, keas are a protected species as the world’s only alpine parrot. They populate fairly inhospitable areas and to survive there have become very inquisitive and are known for investigating anything they come across.
Having picked and bunk and stowed the gear, we set about familiarising ourselves with the amenities including the bunkhouses, kitchen with gas cookers and dining facilities and toilets with washbasins supplied with cold water. We introduced ourselves to the warden, who advised us there would be a meeting after dinner to discuss 'what happens next'. Curious!
Evening on the Mountain
While the warden did not want to commit himself early on, it was clear the weather conditions ‘up top’ were not as good as the desk jockey back in Te Anau had suggested. Sure enough, when Billy the warden addressed us later that evening it was to advise that there was thigh-high snow going through Mackinnon Pass that prevented the walkers in front of us from making any progress. Walkers were being held in the huts they were at and no new walkers would be arriving until it cleared up. The likelihood was that we would not advance tomorrow and possibly the day after that as well. He indicated that some of the people in the Mintaro Hut, just this side of the pass, might come back down because they did not have the extra time because of flights, etc., to stay on. If that was the case, a similar number of people might be allowed to move on later tomorrow morning, but that was still to be decided. Billy would be reviewing the situation with the other rangers in the morning and would provide further information then.
Of course, as soon as he stopped talking he was inundated with people telling him why they had to be the ones to be allowed to go on. There was all manner of arm pulling and moral blackmail going on, particularly from two couples that made themselves pretty unpopular with their ‘we are more important’ attitude. Poor man! Billy was at his wits ends and being put in a very difficult situation by people who should have known better.
As a consequence Billy's announcement it was a subdued group of people that prepared to bed down for the night, unsure of what tomorrow would bring.
The Milford Track is one of the nine ‘Great Walks’ of New Zealand. The walks are long distance tracks ranging from 32 kilometres (twenty miles mls) to 82 kilometres (51 mls) in length and take between 3 and 6 days to complete. The Milford is arguably the most famous and popular of the routes (although Routeburners might argue about that) and at fifty-three and a half kilometres (just over thirty three miles), is walked in one direction over four days; if things go according to plan! It is located on the west coast of New Zealand in the Fiordland National Park.
Managed by the Department of Conservation (DoC), the Great Walks cover a range of different habitats from rain forest to alpine terrain; coastal beaches to high mountain peaks. The routes are well maintained and the paths on the whole are in good condition. There are campsite huts that provide sleeping accommodation and cooking, showering and toileting facilities. There is a charge for the overnight accommodation.
Walked over four days, the Milford Track has three hut locations, which can each accommodate forty people. The DoC strictly controls access to the track and the huts particularly during the Great Walks Season (roughly October to May). Off-season the winter walking is much more arduous and facilities are much reduced with even some of the bridges over the powerful and fast flowing rivers removed to prevent their destruction from avalanche and water damage.
The Milford Track can only be accessed and exited by boat with an exciting hour and a half journey from Te Anau Downs to the beginning of the walk and a shorter but glorious journey out of the Milford Sound to exit. Some thought and planning is required as to how you progress onwards from Milford Sound, with various transport options available.
Views from Te Anau Downs
Our journey started in the town of Invercargill where we were visiting with our daughter, Morven. Invers, to give it its nickname, is the most southerly and westerly of New Zealand’s cities. It has a population of just over fifty one thousand people (2013 Census). Many of the streets in the town are named after Scottish rivers and towns. It is home to one of the world's largest private collections of trucks and classic cars in the Bill Richardson Transport World and since 2016, the Classic Motorcycle Mecca has housed New Zealand's premier motor cycle collection. The links provides access to photographs and details of some of the more elaborate of the exhibits and for 'petrol heads' is a must visit!
Bill Richardson Transport World
On the outskirts of the town on Oreti Beach, the wonderful Burt Munro Challenge is held. Burt Munro, the subject of the 2005 film ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’, set three world land speed records. The last of these, set in 1967, still stands today at 183.58mph. The modern Burt Munro challenge features a number of different motorcycle events including hill climb, beach racing and speedway.
View from Oreti Beach
For the duration of our stay in Invers, we had decided to go 'airbnb', lodging with a couple who owned and operated a small holding. There were Jersey cows on the smallholding and there was no chance Joanna would be leaving without trying her hand at the milking. While it was a close run thing fitting it in to our busy schedule, on our last day she was up at the crack of dawn and out bringing in the kai!
Sherry and Geoff produce their own milk, cheese, yogurt and sourdough bread and run cheese making courses. Sherry is a dedicated GAPS (Gut and Psychology (and Physiology) Syndrome) practitioner who spends a lot of time speaking at seminars and providing individual learning programmes focussing, among other things, on correcting the workings of the gut to facilitate healing in the body and mind. When she speaks about, for example, the benefits of full fat milk, as opposed to the various skimmed varities, she is a very convincing advocate. A visit to her website may change how you view the food you eat.
Joanna, Sherry, Geoff & The Jersey Girls
Morven had planned the trip, sourced basic equipment for us and done all the food shopping, so that all we had to do really was turn up and walk. Joanna, Morven and I left Invers on 26 November 2016 on the long drive to Te Anau, following the Southern scenic route. We stopped for lunch at a nice restaurant in the town of Riverton, before completing our journey to Te Anau where we had booked over-night accommodation. Kendra McGrath, our other walking companion for the trip, would be joining us mid-morning the next day (27th).
We ate supper that night at our accommodation. The evening was spent going over our equipment and food for the last time, immensely excited, but also a little apprehensive about the journey and the challenge ahead.
Southern Scenic Route
Prior to walking the Milford Track in Southland, New Zealand, we were fortunate to also spend a day on Stewart Island / Rakiura and Ulva Island. Stewart Island / Rakiura lies about 19 miles south of the South Island of New Zealand, across the Foveaux Strait. Ulva Island lies beyond that again, sitting in the Patterson Inlet, just over two miles off shore.
The first part of the trip was in a small nine-seater plane from Invercargill to Stewart / Rakiura where we literally landed in a field, before taking a mini bus for the short drive in to the main centre of population on Stewart, Oban Township. From there we had a short walk over a steep brae to Golden Bay and then by water taxi from there to Post Office Inlet on Ulva Island. The weather was poor when we arrived but soon brightened up and we spent a large part of the day in pleasant sunshine.
Formed in 2002, it is the newest national park in New Zealand. Ulva’s relative isolation has resulted in it becoming a haven for birds and plants and a number of the flightless birds that New Zealand is famous for can be found here. Some bird species that had become extinct locally have now been returned to the area and continue to do well. The Stewart Island brown kiwi, a flightless bird, outnumbers the people living on Stewart / Rakiura with some twenty thousand of the species thought to be on the island. Other rare species on Ulva include the bellbird, tui, kaka, tomtit, grey warbler, kakariki. New Zealand wood pigeon, weka, robin and fernbird are also to be found here.
In recent years a major effort has been made in New Zealand to eradicate the rat, stoat and ferret population, particularly in the protected areas of national parks to protect birds and young penguins. A very successful exercise on Ulva Island had virtually eradicated the rat and the stoat and, as a consequence, bird life thrived. Bait stations with poison and various kinds of traps are to be seen all over the island. It is odd when you see some of the traps four and five feet off the ground, wedged in the branches of low growing trees and bushes, but the rats and stoats are nothing if not persistent. After a number of years rat-free, in 2011, twelve rats were caught after a visitor had noticed their tracks in the mud on the island. We were accompanied on the boat ride to the island by the ‘rat catcher’ who was making one of her routine visits to the island with her little dog 'Moss'.
As well as providing a home to threatened bird and plant species, the island is also home to the threatened yellow-eyed penguin, which uses the islands shores for breeding purposes. Unique to New Zealand, the yellow-eyed penguin, or ‘hoiho’ to use its Maori name (meaning ‘noise shouter’ because of its strident cry)), is found here on Ulva, Stewart / Rakiura and some of the other smaller southern islands and on some mainland shores.
The bird has a yellow iris and a narrow, distinctive yellow band round its head. They spend an almost equal amount of time between land and sea. On land they require quiet bush / scrubland for breeding, while the sea provides the majority of their diet and a way to move and change location. Cats, dogs, stoats and ferrets are a threat to the young on land, while at sea various predators such as sharks, seals and sea lions take their toll. The clear and present danger was very clear to us when we tried to walk down one of the paths on the island only to find it blocked by a sleeping seal. These are big craturs! We were fortunate that on this occasion the lady who handles Moss the Rat Catcher was on hand to direct the seal back to the beach and clear the way for us.
The other wonderful attraction on Ulva is the ancient podocarp forest that thrives there. These ancient forests hark back to the time when New Zealand was part of the super continent Gondwana. Podocarp forests are a mixture of very tall, majestic hardwood trees that like the light and heat of the sun such as rimu, kahikatea, miro, mataī and tōtara. Below, very lush undergrowth thrives in the shady areas, plants including various shrubs, ferns and tree-ferns grow in abundance. In the Ulva forest there were numerous examples of the phenomenon wherein the fallen tree giants of the forest become the garden plot for a number of the low-lying species. It was not unusual to come across slowly rotting tree trunks playing host to ferns and flowering species; a life beyond a life!
Podocarp Forest & Floor
There are a number of paths that to take you through the forests, ensuring that you get to experience this wonderfully rich sub-tropical environment from the inside out. With forested walks, isolated coves and wonderful beach locations there is a constantly changing scenery, moving from the enclosed places of the forest to the open vistas of the coves and beaches. It is an experience of perceptual excellence, with land, sea and soundscape to delight in with, if you are lucky, the odd penguin, seal or sea lion thrown in to provide a bit of excitement.
Beaches & Coves of Stewart Island
Boys will be boys, as they say and when they get together you are wise to expect a wind-up or a jape at some point. After performing my final ablutions for the night I returned to the hut to go to bed and found a green snake beside my sleeping platform. Fortunately, it was a rubber one, a fact which was quite clear from some distance away. As you can imagine, my walking companions expected at the very least a wee shriek and a jump and were slightly disappointed at my calm demeanour. Terry being the main culprit was disappointed to have carried the snake all the way from home only to have the damp squib response. He was not so calm and collected at four o' clock in the morning when a real snake decided to take up residence at his sleeping platform! We knew Terry was an Irish Charmer; we didn't know he was a snake charmer as well!!!
We were all blissfully asleep when Terry got up in the middle of the night, as middle-aged men do (sorry Terry). As he did so his head torch picked up something on the wall studs besde his bed. Unsure what it was he went closer for a wee look and jumped back when he realised it was a snake. In the dark and poor light of the torch it was difficult to ascertain what kind of snake it was. Pandemonium ensued as we all jumped out of bed, looking for more lights to shine on the bloody thing. When you have one snake, you imagine there are a hundred more of its brothers and sisters close by. In the darkness you worry about where to walk, where to sit, where they are?
Terrys' best friend
Once the pandemonium had died we were eventualy able to ascertain that it was a python and not one of the more venomous snakes that also live locally. Despite the relief that it was a python, there was no way any of us were going back to bed so we set about reviving the fire and having a brew before breakfasting and getting back on the road.
Despite the earlier kerfuffle it was very pleasant sitting round the fire and watching the sun break over the Darling Hills. It was initially very peaceful but with the ever present sounds of the forest growing louder as the sun rose higher over the hills and gave birth to the day.
A last check on our slithery friend showed he was on the move and we did not give much for the chances of the mouse we had seen in the hut before light faded last night. Retracing our steps from yesterday, we moved back up the hill to continue our progress along the Bibbulmun. Initially, our route was much like the walking of yesterday with close confinement on both sides from the thick undergrowth and the the towering jarra forest.
If like me you are a morning man, this was a delightful time to be out walking. There was still morning mist settled on the lower reaches of the valleys and dew dotting the webs of the many spiders that make their living on the plants of the forest floor. In contrast to yesterday afternoon, it was initially wonderfully cool which made the walking so much easier. We knew it would not last and that before day's end we would experience high temperatures again.
As we walked we became more hemmed in by the forest and undergrowth and, as the day went on the atmosphere became very close and moistly hot. In the early part of the morning the paths were narrow and it was difficult at times to see where you were placing your feet. Later on the paths widened as we neared or actually walked on one or two of the access roads that criss cross the area around Mundaring Weir, only to change again in to narrow paths in a broad and open expanse of forest.
Views Across the Bush
We stopped for lunch at Helena Camp Hut, which had the same set up as the other huts. It struck us that where they have place the huts always entails a walk down hill, only to have to come back up when you want to move on. A small but irritating point we found as we tired.
From Helena Camp the going was slightly easier, albeit there were still small inclines to be walked. The forest canopy was more open, with more light coming through.
We continued to have stunning views when the forest opened up. Approaching the end of the walk our pace had slowed considerably and we were able to take time enjoy the vistas. As we progressed along the sides of the dam (which we could not actually see) the roads widened for a time and it felt quite luxurious to be walking in wide open spaces.
Views Toward Mundaring
This is not one specific growing environment but a seemingly endless series of micro-climates with the dominant flower or shrub species changing about every five hundred yards. Sure there were common species, often in huge drifts that caught the eye and when first seen took the breath away. But the stars of the show, the blue diamonds in the mix, were the exquisitely beautiful, often individual blooms, that were to be found growing on the forest floor. Simply stunning little orchids or small alpine plants growing in the most inhospitable, rocky but obviously perfect conditions.
The end when it came seemed quite sudden. One minute walking in the forest, the next on the edges of the car park. While we were all ready to stop, it was with an element of sadness that our wee adventure was over.
It was exhilarating, wonderful, marvellous, exciting, rewarding, ever-changing, stunning, beautiful, enigmatic, mysterious and strangely addictive. I fell in love with the vast and varied range of flowers that grow here, the black and green parakeets, the kangaroos watching us closely from the deep forest, the four-foot python that joined us in the sleeping hut trying to get away from the cold of the night and taking a wee shine to Terry in the process. The walking was harder than I thought it would be and the heat as difficult to manage as I expected. The company was exceptional; the challenge envigorating after walking for a couple of months of on the flat expanses of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. In addition, it was good preparation for the next challenge of a four-day hike on the glorious Milford Track in Southland, New Zealand.
The Bibbulmun Track is a long-distance walking path in Western Australia that runs from the Perth eastern suburb town of Kalamunda to the town of Albany on the south coast. At roughly one thousand and three kilometres long (623 miles), it is estimated to take approximately six to eight weeks to walk if done continuously. Many people complete it in stages over a longer time period.
There are 58 stages to the walk and over forty-five campsites consisting of three-sided huts with sleeping platforms, often in bunk bed format. There is also a water tank (the water may need to be treated), a pit toilet, picnic tables and cleared tent sites. Some of the sites have a barbecue facility and plate and a fire pit. Fires are banned in the southern section of the trail. It is not possible to book the huts and spaces on the sleeping platforms are on a first come, first served basis. Because of this you need to carry camping equipment with you in case the huts are full. This can mean that you carry tent etc., but never actually use it, as we did. In the northern section of the walk the huts are approximately ten kilometres apart. There is a reason for this; the walking is steep and arduous.
The purpose of my visit, as well as to enjoy the walking, was to gain some of experience of the trail with a view to returning at a later date to complete the whole walk. On this occasion, my niece’s husband had scoped out a short walk for us that covered some of the sections on the northern end of the trail in the Darling Hill Range (or Darling Scarp) just east and south of the City of Perth. As well as myself the party consisted of my younger brother James, niece's husband Ross and, his father Terry. Two Scots of Irish descent with two Irish Ozzies. Recipe for skulduggery? You better believe it!
Leaving from the North Western suburb of Quinns, we drove to the Perth Hills Discovery Centre where we parked our car, met up with my younger brother James and his wife who then drove us in their car via Mundaring Weir to our starting point for the trail at Mount Dale. From there we would walk back to Mundaring Weir, going through four sections of the walk in two days. In retrospect, given the weather forecast it might have been wiser to restrict our outing to two stages and taken more time to enjoy the marvellous scenery and look out for the wildlife for which the area is well known.
Construction on Mundaring Weir began in the late 1890’s with the intention to provide a water supply to the goldfields of Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. It is built on the flow of the Helena River and was completed in 1903. The main purpose of the weir now is as a water supply to over 100,00 people, mines, farms and other industries. The length of the dam wall is 308 metres with a height above the riverbed of 42 metres. Original height was approximately thirty-three metres but it was raised a further nine metres in the 1950’s.
Lake C Y O'Connor (Mundaring Weir)
At 546 metres, Mount Dale is one of the highest points in the Darling Scarp. There are fantastic views to the south and the north from the top. It was once the site of a fire-look out post on the top as it provided a three hundred and sixty degree view over the national parks and forests that surround it, a view that is now restricted by telephone masts.
Our drop off point was at the recreation area just below the summit, but which nonetheless offered us dramatic views. The summit is called after Ensign Robert Dale who in 1829 became the first European explorer to investigate the Darling Scarp. In this photograph the smoke on the horizon is from a DOC (Department of Conservation) controlled burn. Such burns are used to combat forest fires by controlling the volume of undergrowth on the forest floor.
The section of the track we completed over the two days from Mount Dale to Mundaring Weir (approximately 40K), is located in part of the Darling Range or Escarpment. Geologically, an escarpment is a steep slope or long cliff that generally forms as an effect of faulting or erosion and it separates two relatively level areas of differing elevations. The Darling Fault is an old and major fault line that separates two areas known as the Archaean Yilgan Crater to the east, composed of mainly granite/gneiss metamorphic rock and, the much younger Pinjarra Orogen to the west, seaward side of the range. The Yilgarn is a very old (measured in the billions of years) and stable part of the continental lithosphere (the topmost two layers of crust and upper mantle). The Pinjarra Orogen is about four to five hundred million years old and consists of mainly sedimentary deposit. The location of the Darling Scarp and the fault line that formed it coincided at one time but with erosion of the scarp over time they are now about nine miles apart.
In the later part of our walk, we crossed some of the ancient exposed granite plateaus, huge promenades of age and wisdom that form the high ground of the Darling Range. These rock formations have been silent observers to the myriad changes wrought by man on this beautiful but unforgiving landscape. The two major resources of the Darling Escarpment (rocks & trees) have resulted in extensive mining and tree-felling activity including stone quarries and boxite mining, with the jarra forest used for construction (including furniture making), transport (railway sleepers) and power.
The northern sections that we were walking in were mainly through what is called jarra forest. It is a tall, open forest in which the dominant overstory tree is Eucalyptus marginata. In the Darling Range this includes jarrah, marri (eucalyptus) and wandoo (white gum) varieties. These tall, stately trees are curiously bare on the main part of the trunk with just a small canopy on top. Many of them have beautiful bark of white and silver, which falls off the tree in long strips. Walking through the forest there is a wonderful aroma of eucalyptus in the air. On this first day there were often contrasting scenarios to right and left of the path where there had been controlled burning of the undergrowth on one side. This had left tree trunks black with soot on one side, while on the other various colours of silver, white and red bark glowed in the morning sunshine. One of the positive consequences of the burning was to be seen in the vibrant growth on the forest floor where late spring / early summer wild flowers abounded and on the unburnt side tree ferns colonised the dusty ground.
The jarra forests are, despite major initiatives by the Department of Parks and Wildlife, under constant threat on a number of fronts. A major threat at this time is from 'dieback', caused by the introduction to the forests of a soil borne pathogen that results in lesions on the structure of the trees. The spread of the disease is exacerbated by mining and timber production which helps to spread the pathogen. In addition to the threat of disease, natural disasters like bushfire are never far away in what can be a very dry environment in the hot summer months.
Many of the trees are hundreds of years old. These very old trees provide a crucial habitat for many of the birds that nest here. Of particular importance are the tree holes that develop when branches have fallen off. These are not to be found in younger trees, hence the importance of maintaining the older plantings.
In January 2005 the jarra and the pine forest here was subject the largest bushfire for over a hundred years that caused extensive damage to over 28,000 acres of forest from which the forest and forest floor are still recovering. While some jarra trees were lost, many are showing signs of recovery. The same cannot be said for the pine forest which does not have the same capacity as the jarra to recover from burning.
In an attempt to limit the damage of such fires; which many of the plants in the forest rely on for assistance in replicating, controlled burns are carried out to reduce the build up of flammable materials on the forest floor (see the first photograph). A final threat to the forests is that jarra is one of the best general purpose hardwoods in the world and demand for it is high for quality furniture and flooring.
As a red-haired Scot of Ancient Irish descent I am not known for my tolerance of the yellow ball in the sky. The weather forecast had hinted that today might be a scorcher somewhere in the eighties. As the day went on it was nearer to ninety and my intolerance of the searing conditions meant that I imposed more often on the patience of my walking companions than perhaps I should have. Although we were not carrying tremndously heavy packs, the rucksack I had borrowed was an old one and it did not have the belts and straps and whistles of my own ultra-modern one at home. Consequently, the weight I was carrying hung off my back, nearer the base of my spine than my shoulders. I too often called for water breaks and a wee rest in the shade. To be honest, I'm not beyond playing the age card when it is required!
On my coastal adventures I regularly walk between twenty four and thirty two kilometres a day. Here, in the unremitting heat, I struggled to complete twenty. It was with great relief we reached the first of the huts where we stopped for lunch.
One of the things that kept me going was the banter and humour you get when four men of indeterminate developmental ages get together. At times, it was like being back in school and our wives and partners might, I suspect, have been horrified at how easily the regression took place. My fellow school boys, I salute you.
Beraking Camp Site
A major feature of our days were the many and wonderful late spring and early summer wild flowers and shrubs that abound here. Crossing over the granite exposures we came across numerous small, beautiful, alpine-like flowers of such delicacy and softness that they took the breath away. There were also individual orchids of startling beauty and colouring. The contrasts between the beauty of the small and delicate flowers of the floor and the majesty of the tall and gargantuan trees of the jarrah, marri and wandoo forest; the bright light and unremitting heat of the day and the sudden cold of the dark, dark night; the seeming poverty of the salty, sandy soil and the richness and opulence of that which grew from it, testified to the wonders that is this green and blue earth of ours still produces in albeit diminishing abundance.
I'm not quite sure what my prior expectations of the walk were, but it certainly was not the arduous and physically draining experience it turned out to be. The heat after lunch was unremitting; a near searing 90F, moisture-sucking dry heat which we expected but which I struggled in nonetheless. There was not a single white cloud to be seen against the endless blue of the sky.
As we started out after lunch the paths were reasonably level and wide, which lulled us in to a false sense of security. Soon, the climbs and descents were long and steep and seemed to be very frequent as we crossed over the Darling Hills. They do not seem to have discovered the zig-zag path on the Bibbulmun yet, preferring to go for the straight up and down. While I am sure there were fairly level sections in there, the drama queen in me could not acknowledge them nor the occasional lovely dappled shade! We encountered two others walkers early on who told us that from the second hut on it was fairly flat. We are still looking for the flat bits!
On the steep sections the walking underfoot was often difficult on grainy terrain with gravel or clay balls rolling under your feet as you tried to climb or descend very steep inclines. There were also sections where we were walking on the hundreds of gum nuts that had fallen from the trees and that posed the same problems as the gravel. The sussuration sound as someone lost balance, slipped and struggled to regain an upright position became as familiar as the cry of 'oh, ooh' from the hidden bird observers. Where are the flat, pleasant walks along the cool, shady forests floors, I ask? No one answers!
The jarrah forests support about thirty mammal, 150 bird and 45 reptile species, many of them rare and endangered. As you walk through the bush, and particularly where it is low lying and thick, you can hear the various creatures moving about in the long undergrowth but seldom get to see them unless you stop and be quiet and still. Often, we would spy single kangaroos (photograph) , watching us suspiciously from the deep undergrowth. We could hear myriad birds clacking about in the tree canopies but generally too high to get a good look at them.
The broad airy paths and fairly open countryside soon gave way to a more enclosed environment with the undergrowth thicker and taller. After we had passed over some of the grantite outcrops the shrubbery was for a time shoulder high and we were wary of what we could hear moving about in the undergrowth. There are over a hundred snake species in Western Australia, some of which are venomous. Of these there is a chance you may encounter the dugite or the tiger snake on the Bibbulmun. The time of year we were walking was when the snakes were just coming out of hibernation after winter; a time when they are known to be just a little bit cranky as they search for warmth. However, our encounter with a snake didn't happen in the undergrowth, it happened in bed, at night, in the pitch dark. But more of that later!
By the time we arrived at the hut that was to be home for the night, we were all feeling the exertions of the day, me more than most. With no thought of food or drink, I headed for the sleeping platform where I quickly dozed off while the youngsters in the party (that includes you, Terry) set about getting a fire going and preparing food. With food and tea in our bellies (red wine and beer for some) the world was a different place.
The bush is a more subtle, silent and soothing arena at night and we settled round the fire to watch the sun slowly set behind the hills and to discuss the experiences of the day. I remembered my father telling me that one of the main benefits of growing up for a man is that you are allowed to light and enjoy a good wood fire. I concur!
Continued on Day 2
Wild Flower Slideshow
I'm hoping to earn my Bushman badge this week by undertaking a two-day adventure on the Bibbulman Track, starting early tomorrow morning. The plan is drive south east from the city of Perth to access the Bibbulman from the Brookton Highway, just south of the camp site of the same name and from there, hike north the 28 kilometres to the Waalegh Campsite where we will stay overnight. The second day is a 23 kilometre hike from Waalegh to Mundaring Weir Hotel where my walking companions hope to enjoy a beer or four, while I enjoy a nice lunch!
On this northern section of the track there are camp huts about every ten kilometres that sleep about eight people. It is a case of first come, first served, which means you need to carry camping equipment (tent, sleeping bag, etc) in case the huts are full. All my own camping equipment is still in 'Blighty' so I am grateful to my younger brother, James for the loan of some of his. Fortunately, I do have walking boots and waterproof gear just in case the forecast is completely wrong. The rain here can be fairly ferocious and I do not fancy being caught in it in the open outback country!
My first walk in a wilderness area of Australia, I am unsure about how I will cope with the conditions, particularly the heat. It is about 24 - 25C today in the town and forecast for 27 / 30 over the two days of our walk. Minus the sea breeze that keeps you cool on the coast, I expect quite challenging conditions inland. The heat was my main diffcuulty on last year's six-day adventure in the Grand Canyon and I don't expect it to be any different on this expedition. Also in common with the Grand Canyon trip, water may be an issue with the supplies at the camp reliant on rain water collected in tanks. If the tanks have water it will require treatment before consumption. I usually walk alone or with one other companion and having three walkers with me will certainly be different.
Unfamiliar with the flora and fauna of the region, I look forward to finding out a bit more about the herbage and the landscape of the interior. Perth city is essentiallly built on the sand dunes at the edge of a hinterland desert which is a new walking landsape for me. For part of the walk, we will be walking through extensive woodland areas with a good variety of trees. Many of the plants in this area are pyrophytic in nature and require regular burnings to ensure their seeds sprout and come to fruition and I am interested to see some of them up close. There will be controlled burning going on in some of the areas we are walking through but it should not interfere with our progress. I understand poisonous snakes and spiders could be encountered, which I hope to avoid and kangaroos in their natural habitat are likely and which I look forward to seeing
Watch this space, Cobber for further info on our adventures.
The original plan was to walk the 64-mile Cateran Trail in Perthshire. Poor weather forecast put paid to that and a lack of accommodation (it was a holiday weekend) eventually reduced us to two days in the village of Kirkmichael with an overnight in the Strathardle Inn, which turned out to be a great choice of place to stay.
The map above shows our complete journey, including the car journey at the end of the walk. The mileage is what was actually walked before we were picked up.
When we arrived in the village at about 10.30 the sun was shining, albeit there was a snell wind rattling the letterboxes down the main street. We left our car at the inn and, crossing over the wee bridge on the River Ardle, turned right on to the Cateran Trail just after the school to enjoy a wee amble on a track just above the river.
The trail here is fairly even on a clear path and it is possible to make good progress on this lower section of the path. The land immediately surrounding the trail is rolling farmland with the higher peaks of the Grampian Mountains just visible over the foothills. Sheep abound in this environment and as you would expect at this time of the year, the fields were filled with very young lambs, some only a few days old. The number of carcasses we saw as the walk progressed on the higher levels evidenced their precarious hold on life in what can be a very harsh climate.
The quality of the light in the mid-morning resulted in a wonderful sense of space in Glen Ardle, that was magnified by the spacious fields and, as we went higher, by the soaring mountaintops in every direction. Leaving the village behind, we were very quickly in open countryside, passing by one of a number of mill cottages that sit on the river. On the hillside to our right, we could see the remains of what looked like a ruined broch. Later on we skirted the side of a small lochan before entering Kindrogan Wood for a short walk in dappled shade. Exiting the forest, we had a pleasant stroll across green fields, passing by a structure at Dalreoch that looked like the opening to a barrow burial mound.
After crossing the open ground we exited in to the recycling point at Enochdhu where we crossed the A924 to begin the long climb up to the Grampian Mountains. Leaving sea level behind, it is a long and continuous climb from the road to the pass through to Glenshee. On the way we passed Dirnanean Gardens, a place well visited by tourists in the summer months. In the grounds of the gardens peacocks and peahens wander freely and we were lucky enough to see one of the peacocks on the garden gate and the peahens on the ground below.
As the walk progresses and as you get higher in to the mountains the views become quite spectacular as more of the peaks of the Cairngorm National Park come in to view. As we passed by the Calamanach Woods there was a sizeable herd of red deer sheltering in the space between two stands of trees. They took about two seconds to size us up and disappeared in to the forest before we could even raise the camera.
At this point we were still walking on a clear track and despite the uphill making good progress. We had opted to take one rucksack and the faithful Sherpa, Joanna, was determined to carry it all the way up. At an opportune moment when Joanna took the rucksack off I nicked it and within a couple of hundred yards had succeeded in breaking the chest strap so that it was more difficult to carry. As the day progressed and tiredness crept in it became more of an issue as the bag sat back with the weight on your shoulders, instead of through your shoulders and on to your hips.
We could now see the route in front of us for some distance, having arrived at the plateau just before the final climb to the top of the pass. There is a very old ‘lunch hut’ here that has been used since Victorian times. Queen Victoria is one of the signatories to the visitor’s book, as is the current Queen who visited once when out cycling the route. It was noticeable on the walls that not everyone restricted themselves to siging the visitors book with someone by the name of Morven taking up considerable wall space. Did you ever pass this way Morven Dockery? We stopped here for lunch and brewed up a cup of tea on the Jet Boil. Before leaving, we duly signed the visitor’s book, adding our name to the list of important and historical characters.
We had a short bit of undulating track before the trail ended and we were on rough grassland for the final climb to the pass which goes between Creag An Dubh Shluic (728 metres) on the left and, Meall Uaine (794 m) on the right. On the way we passed by the Greenman of Spittal on one of the posts. Looking back there were wonderful views over to Beinn a’ Chruachain (617m) and in the far distance Ben Vuirich (903m). To the front of us the village of Spittal of Glenshee hid in the fold of the lower hills, dwarfed by Ben Gulabin (806m) on the left and Carn an Daimh (755m) to the right. The weather was bright and clear and we could see for miles. Although there was a cold breeze blowing it was fantastic walking weather.
Lulled in to a false sense of security by the very good weather we decided to try and complete a loop walk back to Kirkmichael by descending in to the Spittal of Glenshee and following the Cateran Trail as far as Dalnaglar Castle. There we would leave the trail to exit at Cray, cross the A93 (Old Military Road) and take a cross-country route from Glenshee back to Glen Ardle. The plans of mice and men!
We descended from the pass down in to the village, crossed the Shee Water and then the Allt a' Ghlline Bhig and started out on the moorland walk heading for Dalnaglar Castle. The route here was irritating at times as it moved you up and down the hillside to go round plots of land where we presumed the owners have refused permission for walkers to pass. After we had been walking for a wee while we had clear views down the glen and could see a weather system of some kind forming at the glen’s end. We hoped it was rain but when it reached us (which it did fairly rapidly) it was a mixture of snow and small hailstones. We were well equipped to deal with either snow or rain as we always carry good quality waterproofs when we are walking. So at this stage we were relatively unconcerned.
Initially, the snowfall remained consistent as a light to moderate shower that we were hoping would blow over. We had checked the weather forecast on a number of occasions before we left home and knew there was a yellow warning in place for the next day between 5am and 3pm but nothing for the day we were walking. As we progressed however, the snow started to get heavier and visibility was deteriorating quickly, making it difficult to see the route markings on posts, gates or stiles.
Although we were in open country, we did not yet feel in any danger; we knew to keep the river and the road close by on our right and we could leave the open countryside at any time on one of the many lanes that crisscross the land here. What the weather did do was to slow us down tremendously and we were shocked at how long it took us to walk the distance (5-6 miles) from the Spittal to Dalnaglar Castle. With the time delay came tiredness as we walked for longer to cover the distance.
Shortly after the castle and with the snow continuing to fall we left the open countryside and went on to a lower path that eventually took us out on to the B951 road that joins up with the A93. Up until now the snow had not been lying on the roads but as we walked along the B951 the nature of the snowfall changed to much larger and heavier snowflakes and within ten to fifteen minutes the whole area was in a whiteout. Our plan had been to take a cross-country route marked on the OS map back to Kirkmichael. However, while it is marked as a path it is not a way marked route and given the whiteout conditions we decided it would not be feasible or safe to try and cross it. By now the camera was well and truly tucked away as it was too cold and too wet to have it out.
The other option was to continue to walk on the A93 to the Kirkmichael road end, then walk up Glen Ardle to the village, a distance of about six or seven miles. We had already walked about seventeen miles that day. If we were to do the additional miles, we would be very late in arriving at our inn for dinner and we did not want to cause alarm. So we called the inn to let them know we were okay and to advise them not to worry about us. In the course of the conversation with Joanna the owner of the hotel offered to ask her husband to come and pick us up, an offer we gladly accepted. We kept walking in the snow for about another twenty minutes. Despite the waterproofs we were both soaked through. As we walked, with the wind and snow blowing in to our faces, we began to resemble snowmen as the snow stuck to our trousers, jacket, hat and gloves and we constantly had to rid ourselves of the snow pack. Happy doesn’t describe how we felt when a large 4 x 4 flashed their headlights at us and pulled up at the side of the road to give us a ride back to the Strathardle Inn.
Tired, wet and weary we were glad to be back in the warmth and safety of the inn. There are not enough ‘thank yous’ in the world for us to bestow on Abby and Colin for their assistance. While we never felt in any great danger it was a lesson in how quickly the weather can turn on the Scottish hills and the limitations of weather forecast at a really local level.
As we had dropped out of Glenshee on to a slightly lower level at Glen Ardle at what locals call the quarry road, the weather improved substantially and for the remainder of the night we did not see the same snow as we had in Glenshee. As for the 'yellow warning' for between 5.00am and 3.00pm the next day, nothing transpired and we walked early the next morning in bright sunshine. Back in the inn for 6.30pm, by 8.00pm we were sitting down to a lovely meal in the bar and even stayed on to participate in the quiz night with the locals.
Modesty prevents me admitting we were last.