Golden Bay

Pohara beach, Golden Bay

The best way to travel from the North Island to the South Island is by taking the ferry across the Cook Strait, from Wellington to Picton. This takes about 3 hours, and most of the time is spent meandering between rugged islands at each end, with only about 40 minutes spent in the open sea. Consequently it makes for a very scenic journey, and we were lucky to have blue skies and sunshine for our crossing.

The following morning in Picton was a different story however, and we woke with rain beating against the windows. We were kindly put up for a couple of nights by my friend Alex, who I spent several summers working alongside as an outdoor activity instructor. Despite the weather we had a great time catching up, celebrating Hayley’s birthday and seeing some of the local area. One highlight was taking the plunge from a massive rope swing into a river, accessed by an off road drive and a swim to the other side – we would never have found this without local knowledge.

Grey skies over Picton

Marty in flight from the rope swing

We were soon moving on again, heading westward on the coastal Queen Charlotte Drive in much the same weather as we had arrived. Our destination was a small town called Takaka, at the heart of Golden Bay. Takaka is to New Zealand what Totnes is to England, described in the Lonely Planet guide as “boasting NZ’s highest concentration of yoga pants, dreadlocks and various types of drop-outs”. Whilst hitchikers are a regular sight in New Zealand, it wasn’t until reaching the outskirts of Takaka that we first witnessed a queue of them. This seems to operate in much the same way as a taxi rank, with etiquette dictating that you pick up the hitchhiker at the front of the queue. Regardless, Takaka was actually quite a nice place, and we spent an enjoyable week here.

Our main reason for visiting Golden Bay was to climb at Payne’s Ford, described as New Zealand’s premier sport climbing crag. The crag is in a beautiful setting, up on the hillside above a river, with great views across the green valley. The river has several excellent swimming holes, which are perfect for a refreshing dip after climbing. 

Payne’s Ford

Taking a dip at Payne’s

Most of the grey limestone faces at Payne’s are made up of endless horizontal ripples, which all look the same from below. Consequently, the typical Payne’s route requires you to reach up and run your hand across every useless ripple, until eventually you find the least bad one, pull up, and repeat.

One exciting aspect of the climbing here is the very ‘sporting’ approach to bolting. Usually when sport climbing, there is a bolt drilled into the rock every 3 or 4 metres, which you clip the rope into as you climb. The idea is then that if you fall off say 2 metres above a bolt, you will fall 4 metres (plus a little bit more due to rope stretch), ending up 2 metres below the bolt. At Payne’s it is not uncommon to have only 3 bolts in a 20 metre route, which can obviously lead to some pretty big falls (assuming the ground doesn’t get in the way first). Another favourite is for a route to be bolted consistently, but with a big gap just where you would expect to find the final bolt, resulting in a 7 or 8 metre run out to the anchor. Maybe we just don’t understand the Kiwi sense of humour (Charlotte in particular was ‘not amused’).

Charlotte pleased to find a well bolted line

On the classic arête of ‘Superconductor’ (23 / 6c+)

By the middle of the week our arms, fingers and nerves could take no more, and we took a well earned rest day. We decided to walk a stretch of the Abel Tasman route, one of ‘NZ’s Great Walks’, which runs along the coast to the east of Golden Bay. The path winds through forest, round headlands, and across some stunning beaches. We went as far as Separation Point, where you can follow a steep trail down to a granite platform just above the sea. We sat eating our lunch watching seals swimming below us, and afterwards I couldn’t resist jumping in to join them.

Abel Tasman route

Anapai beach, part of the Abel Tasman

Curious seals

Not a seal

Ending the rest day with a visit to Collingwood’s famous Rosy Glow chocolate shop

We had another few days at Payne’s Ford, with each of us climbing some fantastic routes. We thought the climbing here was very good, on a par with the some of the best sport climbing in the UK, but not quite world class.

We are now moving on again – back over Takaka Hill (there’s only one road in and out of Golden Bay), before heading south down the wild west coast.



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