The Pinnacles, a.k.a. the Worst Experience of My Life

Wow – when I wrote this I didn’t think it would become one of the top hits for ‘the Pinnacles’! But as it’s getting lots of views now, I think I’d better state here, very plainly, that climbing the Pinnacles isn’t actually as bad as the title of this blog article implies.

When my family climbed the Pinnacles, over a decade ago, I was a teenager. At the time, I was extremely annoyed with my parents for forcing me to go and I told my mum, in a very teenage way, that it was the worst experience of my life. This article is written from the point of view of my whiny, teenaged self, with each of the complaints exaggerated for humorous effect.

I hope readers can see through the ‘unreliable narration’ and note that the Pinnacles DOC hut is, in reality, a great place to stay.

(You’d think I wouldn’t have to say all this, but, apparently, I do. Also, needless to say, I have since grown up and no longer consider this experience to be worst of my life. In fact I, along with the rest of my family, look back on it with laughter.)


When I was a teenager, my family took a lot of trips around our adopted country, and I did my fair share of teenaged complaining. When we were travelling around New Zealand in a campervan, for example, I complained that I never got any sleep because of everyone else’s snoring and tossing and turning, and that I was going insane for lack of privacy and a proper bathroom. That was nothing, however, compared to how I complained when my parents dragged me up the Pinnacles.

According to the AA Travel website, climbing the Pinnacles is on the list of ‘101 Must-Do’s for Kiwis’. They’re in the Coromandel, up from Thames. We parked our car and set off into the wilderness. My little sister happily skipped ahead, wearing the new tramping boots she’d got for Christmas (– did I mention this was Boxing Day?) and I made my way in a more dignified manner, taking great care not to dirty my white trainers. Little did I know that by the end of this trip, I would be so far beyond caring about my trainers that I would wilfully wade into a river without first taking them off.

The first part of the trail was rather pleasant. The weather was perfect, if a little hot, and the going was good. The track was originally made in the 1870’s, for kauri loggers and their packhorses, and, after a while, I began to feel sorry for them. Most of the way up is rugged stone steps. Steps. Steps. Hours of steps. Being young and fit, however, and also a rock climber, I bounded up them, out ahead of the rest of my family. And, let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

Wilderness 3

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the views were almost worth it.

Wilderness 1

We made it to the top of the steps and up to the Department of Conservation hut, where we would be staying the night. Now I’d never stayed in a DOC hut before, but this was a lot more luxurious than I had been expecting. There was a massive covered deck with picnic tables that gave the feeling of being in a tree house, with a view that turned our meal of freeze-dried mash potato into a fine dining experience. The kitchen was really good, and we chatted happily with other trampers and the warden.

Now here’s where my complaints begin. Though the hut did have showers, they were cold showers. Still, I thought I’d brave one, until, that is, I washed my hands before eating and they almost froze solid. This was the middle of summer and washing my hands was a properly painful experience. Skip the shower, then. We were only staying one night. One thing you can’t skip, however, is going to the toilet.

Wilderness 5There were three long-drop toilets a short way away from the hut. And it’s lucky they were. Also, they had no lights in them. As soon as the door closed, not only was I plunged into darkness and set upon by flies, the smell was so bad I became dizzy and had to bolt outside before I actually went to the toilet, for fear of losing consciousness and falling down it. I spent the next few hours crossing my legs and trying to find the courage to go in the bush, but there was nowhere that was sufficiently out of sight and I knew how poor my aim was. Eventually, my mum had to stand holding the door of the end long-drop open while I went, so I could both see and breathe.

We later learned that the long-drops were emptied once a year: the day after we left.

Then there was the sleeping. Or lack of. There are a total of eighty bunks in the DOC Pinnacles Hut, and though there was nowhere near that many people the night we were there, the large bunking area echoed. Shivering in my sleeping bag on a hard mattress with no pillow, I was tortured all night long by other people snoring really loudly. In fact, at some point in the middle of the night, I jumped in my sleeping bag out onto the deck and read with a torch.

The next morning, me feeling not at all refreshed, my family wanted to climb the actual ‘pinnacles’ bit of the Pinnacles, which is a pretty much vertical ascent (with the help of ladders) that lasts for forty-five minutes. Not to mention climbing down again. The problem was, what with all the steps the day before, my thighs now screamed at me every time I lifted them. I knew I wouldn’t make that climb, so I stayed behind at the hut. So did my mum. So I can’t tell you what the view from the top was like.

After a boring wait for my dad and sister to get back, (at least I had my book, Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, if I remember rightly,) we had to repack our rucksacks for the descent. We each had a water bottle, but, of course, we’d drunk all the water from them on the way up. The only way to refill them was to boil water from the hut’s taps. And, I was horrified to discover, the water was still bright green after we’d boiled it. I stubbornly resolved not to drink it.

Wilderness 4

And so we started down the track, down the steps. And, as I’m sure you know, walking down steps is far more punishing than walking up them. Now imagine walking down large, uneven, loose-stoned, slippery steps with a sheer drop on one side. For hours. And not in tramping boots, but squeaky-soled trainers. I couldn’t even enjoy the view, as, the entire way, I had to keep my gaze absolutely focussed on my feet in order not to fall. I can’t tell you how frightening it was. With every step I felt like I was going to fall head-first down the rocky mountain. My ankles cried. Blisters formed. My legs shook. And there was no respite. No flat bits.

I told my mum that I was in the most physical (and mental) stress I’d ever been in my life and that if someone had offered me cocaine at that moment, I would have taken it. Anything. Soon, I was drinking the green water like it was the nectar of the gods. Then it ran out.

We got to the bottom, of course. After hours of relentless torture. I was so angry with my parents for putting me through it that I stomped ahead to get away from them. My sister, not quite so angry, walked ahead with me. Drenched in sweat, smeared with dirt, my trainers ruined, we came to a river. I dropped my pack on the bank, ripped my T-shirt off and plunged into the water. It wasn’t that deep and was full of rocks that could serve as stepping stones and sunbathing platforms. I lay on one, my legs trailing in the water, eyes closed and turned up to the sun.

Wilderness 2I was beyond caring about anything, which was lucky because out of the bush came a couple of German guys in their 20’s, who tried awkwardly not to look at the topless teenager as they crossed the river in full tramping gear.

So that was my experience of the Pinnacles: the worst experience of my life. Funny thing is, though, every other person I’ve talked to who’s also done the Pinnacles really enjoyed it.

Great Walks for Wusses: My Top 10 North Island Day Walks

Killing the Thing We Love: The Demise of New Zealand’s Bookshops

I once read somewhere that New Zealand boasts more bookshops per capita than any other country in the world. Maybe that was true years ago, but it seems to me now that every time I turn around another bookshop has closed. My favourite bookshop was turned into a burger joint. This saddens me greatly, but I’m wilfully contributing to the problem.

You see, I love books. I hoard them. It’s my dream to have every spare inch of wall in my bedroom covered in them, and I’m well on the way to that. I have six bookshelves in my room and all are full, as is the floor space between them. I can’t resist – I see a bargain bin full of five-dollar books, I’m diving through it like a hobo through a dumpster.

But I rarely go into a bookshop and buy a new book. This isn’t just because I prefer the smell and feel of old books, (in fact I enjoy the smell and feel of new books just as much,) but simply because new books in New Zealand are so damned expensive! Thirty dollars for a paperback; fifty for a hardback.

So I order all my new books off the internet, and more and more smart people are doing the same. Thus we are killing the thing we love.

Culture 5

Poetry in Wellington Harbour

Until I read that little fact I began this article with, I had never considered New Zealand having a lot of bookshops. In fact I often say the abundance of books is one of the things I miss most about living in England – certainly the cheapness of books is. But now I think about it, I remember years ago when we were on a family campervan trip around New Zealand, we came across a bookshop out of the blue, in the middle of nowhere.

Well okay, it wasn’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t exactly where you’d expect a bookshop to be, well out of town, on a country road off the highway. Being a bookish family (and having me in the campervan rental,) we parked up to investigate.

It was quite a wonderful place, specialising in rare and second-hand books, and I’m really glad we found it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a very convenient place to return to, being so far out of the way. Of course, I made a purchase or three. Second-hand bookshops are enchanting places if you can find them, and it’s getting harder every day.

Soon there’ll be only one chain of bookstores left, and only selling expensive best-sellers.

But of course books are expensive here. They have to be imported a long way and, unlike in Britain, there’s a sales tax on them. Still, I’m poor and I love books – much as it pains me, I’ll keep getting mine from the Book Depository.

“Yet each man kills the thing he loves

By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

The brave man with a sword!”

Oscar Wilde, from The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Guess I’m a coward then.

Update: Six months on from writing this blog post, my family made an effort and returned to the spot where we had found that second-hand bookshop in the middle of nowhere. It had closed down.

A whale vertebrae my dad found while walking on the beach

A whale vertebra my dad found while walking on the beach

Money Matters: The Cost of Living in New Zealand

One of the hardest things for me to get used to when we moved to New Zealand was the money: saying ‘dollars’ instead of ‘pounds’; ‘cents’ instead of ‘pence’. I was ten. I kept mucking up my maths homework by automatically drawing pound signs where dollar signs were required. Not that it mattered – it was still decimal currency – it was just another reminder of how far away from home I was.

I missed ‘coppers’, the one and two pence pieces you get in Britain. (Yes, it’s the little things you miss.) The lowest coin in New Zealand was the five cent piece. Was. That got abolished a few years ago, which is a shame because it had a nice image of a tuatara on it. The lowest coin now is the ten cent piece. How long before that becomes worthless too?

Around Auckland 001When we moved here, in 2001, one pound was worth approximately three New Zealand dollars, which was fantastic when it came to us buying a house, or getting birthday cheques from relatives back home. Now it’s worth less than two. People often complain about how high the cost of living here has become, (and I’m among them,) but isn’t it the same everywhere?

Let’s see.

Petrol in New Zealand is a little over two dollars a litre at the moment – that’s about one point seven-five US dollars; just over a pound. Petrol in America is less than one US dollar per litre, and petrol in Britain is more than one pound thirty per litre. So no surprises there: petrol in New Zealand is a lot more expensive than in the US, but slightly cheaper than in the UK.

Food… If I’m extremely careful, (and I have to be,) I can survive on thirty dollars a week if the right things are on special, but that gets very boring and I find myself wanting to visit my parents more often. In general, New Zealand is more expensive than the UK food-wise, but when it comes to dining out New Zealand has the UK beat.

Foodstore DessertMy all-time favourite restaurant is the foodstore, in Auckland’s Viaduct Basin. I went there for my graduation dinner, my 21st birthday and my boyfriend’s and my one-year anniversary. It’s a posh place and the food is sublime, but you don’t pay through the nose. Mains cost between twenty-nine and forty-two dollars – yes, that’s as much as I spend on food in a week, but it’s not very expensive for what it is. Think what it would be in London!

The average wage here is twenty-seven dollars an hour. Wages in New Zealand are lower than Australia – which is why so many kiwis are ‘crossing the ditch’ – and they’re also lower than in Britain. However, the minimum wage in Britain is lower than New Zealand’s minimum wage of thirteen dollars fifty an hour.

Rent in Auckland is scarily expensive, but it’s not too bad elsewhere. My boyfriend and I want to escape the city centre as soon as we are no longer tied to it by the university. We want to take a holiday together, but money is a problem.

New Zealand used to be considered a cheap holiday destination, minus the cost of flights, of course, but the rise of the New Zealand dollar over the last few years has changed that somewhat. Campervan hire is still a great way to go, especially at this time of year, (winter, also known as the ‘low’ or ‘off’ season,) and my boyfriend and I are looking into it. Yes, campervanning may not be quite as fun in winter, but it doesn’t rain all the time and we can always snuggle for warmth!

HUNUAF~6In many ways, winter is the best time of year for bush walking, because you don’t get all tired and sweaty and headachy. At this time of year, you can hire a campervan for under thirty dollars a day – in the height of summer it can be well over a hundred dollars a day, and we’re looking at the cheapest ones. I wish my boyfriend hadn’t sold his car. I suppose we could always hire a car, but I’d rather get a campervan if we were going to do that and save on accommodation.

Anyway, my family have found that overall the cost of living in New Zealand is cheaper than in the UK, but even if it weren’t that wouldn’t matter: the quality of living in New Zealand is so much better.

Around Auckland 006

Awhitu: A Special Place in My Heart

There’s one place in New Zealand that I’ll remember fondly forever, somewhere my family always went for picnics when we first arrived here, the place that taught a bitter, homesick ten-year-old how wonderful it is to live in New Zealand: Awhitu.

Awhitu – pronounced ‘ah-fee-too’ as the Maori ‘f’ sound is represented by a ‘wh’ – is a peninsula that spouts up from Waiuku, the small town my family used to live in, south of Auckland. It is home to the Awhitu Regional Park, a place of peaceful, understated beauty with a bit of interesting history thrown in.

The main picnic area has a bookable barbecue and plenty of benches, but also lots of trees you can spread a blanket under and open spaces perfect for playing – my family used to take our badminton rackets and shuttlecocks, not that we were any good with them. The area was always full of fantails, cute, friendly, little birds that flitted about beneath the branches, waiting for us to rouse the insects from the grass.

We didn’t always eat our picnics in that area though. Sometimes we descended the sandstone cliff and ate our egg sandwiches on the beach, in the shade of ‘our’ pohutukawa tree. I don’t know how many other families referred to that tree as theirs, but we were pretty annoyed when anyone beat us to the spot.


The view out over the water was rather lovely. There’s a tiny island close to shore, (so close you can walk to it at low tide if you don’t mind sinking knee-deep in mud, but is deceptively far if you try to swim to it,) that is little more than a yellow rock with a few low trees and a single tall tree at the crest of it. This single tall tree is actually quite striking, and turns the view of an otherwise ordinary New Zealand beach into a perfect painting.

And the Auckland Regional Council has, in fact, turned the view into a painting. Awhitu, like a number of other regional parks around Auckland, has a giant, golden picture frame featuring a jumble of New Zealand plants and animals, which is placed at a point from which there is a fantastic view through it, creating a ‘natural masterpiece’ – a painting of which every tourist has to get a photo and every child has to climb into. Locals hate those picture frames, but the ten-year-old me loved them.

AWHITU~1I also loved swimming at Awhitu – the water is ideal for it. And I enjoyed walking along the beach until we got to the old jetty and the jutting piece of cliff, which was very scenic and had lots of boulders you could scramble over at the bottom. What is it about scrambling over boulders that’s so satisfying?

There are some longer walks you can go on at the top of the cliffs, but not too long. One takes you past the Brook Homestead, a wooden house in a quiet glade that was built in 1878 by a family of English immigrants. Here we were, English immigrants one and quarter centuries later, and how much easier it was for us. We didn’t have to build our house from scratch with our own hands in some remote location. We didn’t have to live in a shack consisting of two tiny rooms until our proper house was ready. My sister and I didn’t have to sleep in the roof cavity, which would have been freezing in winter and roasting in summer.

Next to the Brook Homestead is a campground where you can park a campervan for up to seven nights, though, to be honest, there probably isn’t enough around there to occupy you for a full week. Even so, it’s a popular place to camp. There’s another campground close by, and a self contained campervan parking area in which you can stay for one night. Bookings are recommended, especially during the summer.

What’s special about Awhitu is not many international tourists know about it, so when you camp there, you’re usually accompanied by locals. It’s a tranquil, isolated sort of place. The Waiuku townsfolk say that the people who live up the Awhitu Peninsula have webbed toes, but then people from bigger towns say the same of the people who live in Waiuku.

It’s not true.