Off We Goooo

Canaan Downs

May 02, 2017 | 6 Minute Read

Thankfully, our drive out of Nelson started early enough that we had just enough daylight until we reached our next campsite in an area known as Canaan Downs. To get there, we had to drive up and up and up winding roads on the edges of steep cliffs, and ultimately had to take an even more precarious, unpaved side road to get to the campsite itself.

On the way there, we stopped by Hawkes Lookout. There wasn’t a whole lot announcing this look-out, but it was more than worth the stop. There was a 10-15 minute trek through the forest, part of which involved a stop near some interesting-looking rocks with a sign explaining their formation and a Maori myth about them. They were stones largely made of calcium which are very prone to erosion from the frequent rain in the area, giving them a look like miniaturized mountains or, if you have the imagination for it, dragon scales. A sign explained the Maori legend of a woman who was captured by a taniwha (dragon) and taken up to this very spot, but she was able to trick him and escape from his cave. She later summoned her people to set a trap for the taniwha that set him on fire. He ran back to this spot and attempted to burrow into the ground to put out the fire, but was consumed by it instead. His scales were scattered all over the mountainside as a result.

The legend.
The remains.

After the trail was a magnificent lookout of the valley and water and mountains beyond. We spent a while here taking it all in and enjoying the sounds of native birds singing near us.

The road to the campsite after the lookout was just a gravel road, also often on the edges of cliffs. I was ridiculously nervous the whole time, but Loïc stayed calm and handled the roads like a champ. It seemed this place was a popular destination for some festival in February, because part-way in there was a large grassy area where some impromptu kitchens, toilets, a bonfire site and a large stage were set up. They looked like they were in disrepair, so we have no idea if the festival is still ongoing or not, but if it is, it looks like it’d be a great one to check out. There was a sign mentioning a roller coaster, but sadly we couldn’t find it. Maybe it’s a roller coaster of the mind…?

Anyways, the campsite was a flat, pebble parking lot next to the woods. There was, to my surprise, another car here with a couple who had set up their tent and were cooking. We found a spot on the other side next to a picnic table and parked and got settled. It was already very, very cold.

We decided to say hi to the other campers, who were a couple from Massachusetts. They were here on a 3-month trip to do as much hiking as possible, and seemed very geared for it. Loïc and I chatted them up while quietly eyeing their setup; This has become something we do frequently as we travel, to see what other gear people use and how they handle camping and traveling. They had a special, smaller gas stove that seemed to send heat directly to a tiny pot, and he was boiling angel hair spaghetti, so a lot of pasta was able to fit into a small space. Loïc was so impressed he bought some similar pasta the next time we were in town.

After chatting with them, we prepared our own meal for the night. While cooking, a weka approached us, possibly looking for scraps, then snuck under our van. Shortly after, two more appeared, squawking in a fight right by our van before running behind Loïc and off into the woods.

For those unfamiliar, a weka is a New Zealand bird that looks like a cross between a chicken and a kiwi. I think they’re beautiful. They don’t tend to be too fearful of people, and you can see them crossing roads or hanging out in parking lots. Still, I was surprised and delighted to see so many up here.

After dinner, we got ready for bed. It was absolutely frigid by this point. I was wearing three layers plus my winter coat. We have a heavy winter duvet, but we layered another blanket plus Loïc’s sleeping bag over that before settling down to sleep.

Late night cooking.

It was a very cold night up the Canaan Downs. The van even froze! A much as we love sleeping close to each other, we might have to buy an additional sleeping bag when we reach another big town, only it won’t be for several days.


If in the evening we had been rewarded with the sight of a few rabbits and wekas, the morning started a bit creepy. As I jumped out of the van, I could see a dozen pairs of eyes staring at me. I’m guessing rabbits but it’s still a bit dark so I step forward and suddenly they all start to jump and run away towards the forest like the house is on fire.

There are a few walks starting from the campsite, some several hours long. We decided to go on a shorter one to Harwoods Hole and Lookout. It starts off through the forest which feels a lot like home but quickly big rocks appear and make the progression much slower. The path branches off between the hole and the lookout and we decide to start with the former.

There are rocks everywhere now and we can’t just jump over them anymore. A few more minutes of careful climbing and we can finally see the hole. Well, part of it; It’s so big we can’t see the bottom. Dana has a lot of fun with her echo and we pause for a little while, admiring the scale of it.

A bottomless hole.

Backtracking a little bit, we then take the path to the lookup which will offer us a breathtaking view of the valley we will be driving through tomorrow as we make our way to the Golden Bay.

The east Takaka valley in the distance.