By Monday I'd finally finished off all the work I'd been doing in Christchurch, so I hopped into the car once more, promising to come back for some more of that wonderful Christchurch beer when I cross back over the Southern Alps via Arthur's Pass in late January.
I stopped for the night at a rest area in Rakaia Gorge, a beautiful river valley with the towering Mt Hutt on the far side. The wind whistled down the gorge like a busy football crowd squeezing down a small alley, and it was a good job I was kipping in the car rather than a tent, or I'd have been blown to bits – it's amazing how safe you feel in the back of a big old Toyota, whatever the weather. It was a very clear night, so I lay there looking at the moon and stars, thinking how pleasant it all looked as the trees bent over and bits of bush went hurtling down the valley. It was even more obvious when I got up for breakfast and my Coco Pops nearly got blown away, forcing me to retreat into the passenger seat for my chocolate fix (a treat to myself after eating porridge for a month).
Windy Tuesday morning saw Zed and I trundling up the road to Peel Forest Park, a delightful reserve on the foothills of the mountains just north of Geraldine. Peel Forest is famous for its native bush, something that is getting rarer with the onslaught of farming and commercial forestry. Until now the only forests I've seen are the pine forests of the North Island and the towering kauri forests of Northland, but native bush is much more interesting; when you look at pine forests, they're a rather monochromatic green, but native bush is much more varied and its texture feels far more organic. As for walking through it, it's like temperate rainforest peppered with some seriously big trees, with the native podocarp trees (such as New Zealand's biggest tree, the kahikatea) towering above the rest of the forest, forming three distinct canopies: upper, middle and scrub.
I went ballistic in Peel Forest, spending the whole day walking my legs down to the knees. I tackled walks like the Allans, Fern and Kaikawaka Tracks; I visited some lovely little waterfalls such as Emily Falls, Rata Falls and Acland Falls; I wandered along the interesting nature walk of Dennistoun Bush... and I loved 'em all. As for the big trees, they have to be seen to be believed; they reminded me of the karri trees in the southwest of Western Australia, but these were different again. Disaster nearly fell when I drove off from one of the walks having left my trusty (and by now slightly crusty) bush hat on the roof, but luckily it had blown into the middle of the road, so I was able to spot it fairly easily when I drove back. That was a close shave...
That night all hell broke loose. If I'd thought Rakaia Gorge was windy, I was in for a shock. Despite the fact that I'd pitched my tent behind a row of thick bushes, one of my guy ropes snapped and the main tent pole smacked me right on top of my head as I was trying to read my book, so I abandoned the idea of sleeping under canvas, took the tent down and retreated to Zed. Thank goodness for my Corona; I wouldn't have been able to finish my chapter without him.