OMAU, NEW ZEALAND — Thanks to Marion, the friendly DOC ranger in Nelson, we had a lot of choices for hikes around Westport. The problem was choosing one.

Our options, in Marion’s prioritized order, were:

  1. Walk to the Oparara Arches, where the rivers have carved many interesting formations into the limestone.
  2. Hike the first few kilometers of the long-distance Heaphy Track, along the coast.
  3. Hike the Charming Creek Walkway, which follows an old railroad line through a gorge.
  4. Walk through Denniston, an old coal mining town high above the ocean in the mountains.

We would have to drive a steep and narrow gravel road to see the Oparara Arches, so we ruled that out. So we headed for the Heaphy Track, and all was well until we were halfway up a winding mountain road. Then Beth started feeling queasy from the tight turns, and also sick of driving. So we settled on No. 3, the Charming Creek Walkway in Ngakawau.

The track follows a private railroad, which was completed around 1912 and operated until 1958 to bring miners up the mountain and coal down. The rail tracks are still visible and define the walkway — at least where they haven’t been corroded away or pushed off the cliff by rock slides. Along the beginning of the track, the DOC left an old steam engine, defunct cars and other machinery.

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Hiking the track left us in awe: How can someone get the idea and then execute on building a rail line through a steep gorge, high above a raging river, where rock falls and other hazards are ever present? In several places, there were signs warning people to not stop, as the area was susceptible to rock falls.

Along the track, we got dripped on by low-volume waterfalls, hiked through tunnels and saw lots of waterfalls flowing into the river — some waterfalls were right off the track. Quite frequently, the trail suddenly climbed steeply, and after a while we realized that these steep climbs and descents were the result of rock slides, which buried the original track. Must have been an undertaking to keep the railroad operational.

After lots of oohs and aahs, we finally came to the first suspension bridge. It collapsed with a full coal train on it in 1931 and was rebuilt. Now, the DOC maintains a 150 foot long and about 2 feet wide suspension bridge, which hovers about 50 feet above the river and has a capacity of 5 people.

It was not Torsten’s favorite bridge to walk across, in particular since the gorge was windy and made the bridge swing, in addition to our footsteps making it bounce.

However, crossing the bridge revealed our first big surprise: the large Mangatini Falls dropping into the gorge, whose water probably more than doubled the river’s volume. Right after the bridge, the track entered a 150 foot tunnel, and at the other end, the scenery was a lot more serene.

While the first part of the gorge was very dramatic, with a large river and whitewater crushing below, cliffs above, the part after the tunnel looked more like the gorges on Minnesota’s North Shore: more intimate, with smaller streams, shallower gorges, but more interesting rock formations and a more open landscape.

Torsten photographing Mangatini Falls, right after crossing the first suspension bridge across the Ngakawau River.

The track continued to the site of an old mill, where the railroad split into two separate branches. The track then followed the creek and the scenery changed completely to an open forest with a cute little stream flowing through it. The transformation of scenery in just a few hundred feet was stunning.

We ate lunch at a second, shorter suspension bridge and then turned around, as the track got really muddy and the scenery did not seem to change much afterwards. We’re such snobs! However, if this is the ranger’s third choice, we’re wondering what the other places are like. Guess we’ll have to come back and find out.

Back at the car, we decided to skip Denniston, as it would have meant more winding mountain road, and we went for  a short hike along Chasm Creek, a quick 15 minute walk that features a tunnel housing glowworms.

Unfortunately, an earthquake had rendered the bridges unsafe (read: closed), and a local we talked to said that the tunnel was obstructed by “slips,” New Zealandese for rock slides. So we returned to our cottage, where we relaxed for a bit before we went to dinner at 7 pm.

The Bay House restaurant was nearby, but really hard to find. After an initial sign telling us it was 500 meters ahead, there was nothing more. We took a wrong turn, then turned into a surfer parking lot and eventually found it along a one-way dead-end street choked by surfers’ minivans. Our mood was a little off after that, but lifted when we got a table right by the window, from which we could watch surfers in the fading sunlight catching waves.

We started with prawns on coconut rice, and for “mains” — in New Zealand, an appetizer is an entree, and an entree is a main — we both had duck legs with star anise and pomegranate glaze on couscous with beets. After dinner, all that was left to do was updating this blog and catching some Zs.