Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Snow, storms and sunshine

Kayaking the Marlborough Sounds, November 2012

The beach on Endeavour Inlet
We sat on the golden sand beneath pale cliffs, exotic foliage draped over the rocks and tree ferns silhouetted against a blue sky. Smoke blew in my eyes from the little fire on which we're cooking two Kawahai fish; large, silver and shiny, dappled and tiger-striped like mackerel. The fish rest on a makeshift grill - a line of tent pegs balanced between two rocks- and sizzle and spatter satisfyingly. We're hungry after a morning sea kayaking, but this would be worth waiting for... 
Not bad for a first attempt!

That morning was the first time we'd tried to fish and it had been remarkably successful, with these two prizes caught within minutes of 
putting out our line each time, without any skill on our part. A fisherman at our beach side camp the night before had gifted us a line and spinner, after we sampled his delicious smoked Kawahai, speckled with peppercorns and drizzled in lemon- some of the best fish I've ever tasted. We'd thanked him and trailed the line behind the kayak, but didn't expect to actually catch anything. One morning had us convinced there was nothing to this fishing lark- it was even easier than collecting and cooking the large mussels we'd eaten the day before. 

Tent peg grill!

Fish for tea

Snow- boil for 15 mins, then ready to drink!
Sitting in the heat on that beach on the shore of Endeavour Inlet, planning a cooling dip after our barbecue lunch, it was hard to believe that a few days ago, and not that many miles away, we'd been melting snow for drinking water and building a fire to keep us warm rather than cook on. Our best tramp yet had been the 3 days we'd just spent in Nelson Lakes National Park. The route had travelled along an open ridge with great views of the surrounding countryside, forest and mountains ahead. The grumpy lady in the DOC office (Department of Conservation- a big part of our lives out here, providing all our tramping info, campsites, maps and weather forecasts) had warned us 'there's no point in going to Lake Angelus unless you like walking in knee deep snow'. She wasn't to know, but that's exactly the sort of thing we do like! So we'd made it across the occasional patch of snow along the increasingly steep and rocky ridge to the Angelus Hut- in a little corner of winter unseasonably trapped in a high snowy basin. 

Evening sun lights up a frozen scene at Lake Angelus

Scrambling above frozen Lake Angelus
It was like a different world as we dropped down the white slopes of that corrie, where a mountain hut perched on the edge of a frozen lake, snowdrifts on the ice patterned by the wind into swirls and circles. We had the hut to ourselves, and Karl set off to the tree line for wood to light the stove, which we would have to sleep by to keep warm. That evening the sun broke through a thick layer of dark cloud that was pouring over the ridge, and the ice of the lake gleamed and dazzled, lighting up the black and white scene for a beautiful moment before it disappeared back into cloud. We spent a day up there breaking trail up snow slopes and scrambling rocky sections as we explored the ridge, before dropping back into summer down in the valley. It was incredible how quickly we could move from one season and environment to another here. Just a day after leaving Nelson Lakes we were launching a rented sea kayak from the beach to start a 6 day journey into the Marlborough sounds.

Navigating the sounds

Queen Charlotte Sound scenery
It was great to be kayaking again, one of our favourite ways to spend time, and this was a brilliant area to explore, with loads of inlets and channels and a beautiful coastline of native jungle. There were very few other boats around, and no other paddlers. Each day we travelled a little further down the Queen Charlotte Sound and out towards the open sea. The wind could be difficult; funnelled by the steep sided sounds so we always seemed to be heading into it. Every afternoon it would pick up in squalls that raced across the surface towards us, giving us time to brace ourselves before they hit. But so far the wind had done nothing more than provide a bit of interest and challenge. 

Clouds building in Endeavour Inlet
As we sat on the beach cooking our fish in the shelter of the cliffs, it suddenly changed. Within seconds the sea went from being calm and inviting to having quite rough breakers rolling in. The smoke from the fire started to head in the opposite direction, and there were white horses just beyond the beach. A strong Northerly seemed to have come from nowhere, and that was the direction we had to head up the wide expanse of Endeavour Inlet to reach our planned camp. Initially we waited it out, not thinking too much of the waves but knowing it would make for a strenuous paddle. But the wind was getting stronger rather than lighter, the afternoon was getting on, and we couldn't spend the night here on this little cliff bound tidal beach with no fresh water. There seemed nothing for it but to don our waterproof cags, buoyancy aids and spray decks, and launch into the breakers..

Fine weather paddling...but it's not always like this!
In my experience of sea kayaking expeditions, there is always one dodgy passage where you feel like you've bitten off a little more than you can chew (my various kayaking companions will all remember this feeling- Claire in Norway, Julia in Greece, Emma in Sardinia and Karl in Lofoten!). 
They say that capsize is something that happens about 15 minutes after you make the wrong decision, but it didn't take as long as that to realise that perhaps we shouldn't be out there. The waves were much bigger than they had looked from the beach, but  more significantly they were very steep and with a short period, which didn't give us a lot of time to react to one before the next was upon us. We were heading straight into the wind, which meant the waves were breaking over the bow of the kayak. The water would wash over it, submerging the deck and spilling into my cockpit. The wind was too strong for paddling to be very effective, but there was nothing else we could do. Lifting the paddles into the gusts was hard work as we tried to pull back through the waves against so much resistance; despite our best efforts it didn't feel like we were making much progress. 

It was almost impossible to communicate, trying to shout to each other through the roar of the wind, and it all felt a little too vulnerable. A yacht was battling along not too far from us, its mainsail well reefed but heeling alarmingly nevertheless. Once that was out of sight, there were no other boats. I mentally went through the capsize drill, and checked the location of the flares...just in case. Righting a loaded sea kayak and getting back into it is tricky enough in flat water, but would be extremely difficult in these waves. I scanned the increasingly distant rocky shore, looking for any sheltered landing that we could retreat to. There were only two directions our kayak could travel in these conditions- directly upwind or downwind. To try and cross the waves wasn't an option- as soon as the boat was side on to them it would lose all its stability and capsize would be inevitable, so we had to just keep bow into the waves and head down as salt water sprayed in our faces. 

Although it wasn't a situation I would choose to be in, this kind of kayaking is really exhilarating. In 'the zone', thinking of nothing but each coming wave and how to get through it, holding the boat straight and well-braced for the shudder that would come with each wave, and just keeping going. Time becomes distorted as the mind is so focused. I don't know how long we'd been going, but as the wind showed no sign of abating, and the clouds we were headed into seemed ever darker and more ominous, I continued to glance back over my shoulder for any safe spot we could run away to. There was a little beach just coming into view around a headland, and it looked like we might make it over there by paddling before the wind. The big issue would be to risk turning a full 180 degrees in these conditions. Some shouted discussion and the decision was made- we got ready to turn the boat as quickly as we could, timing it in between the larger sets and aiming to get the whole procedure done between waves if we could. It was nerve racking, but seconds later we were surfing before the wind, suddenly moving very fast. We now had very little control, with the waves breaking over the stern and washing up the boat as far as Karl's cockpit as we surfed all the way down the sound, our paddling only serving to help keep the boat straight. Once we knew we were going to safely make it to the shore, we could just enjoy the sensation of racing through the water, each wave surging us forward and closer to dry land.

The next morning- calm as could be
That dry land felt so good underfoot! As soon as we were in the shelter of the cove it was hard to believe that it was really so windy out there. Not only were we safe, but there was a stream for fresh water and even a little flat area in the long grass to camp, surrounded by fox gloves and sheltered by tree ferns. The wind dropped completely a few hours later and in the evening calm the sea became as flat as a millpond. Clearly we had only needed to wait it out and our journey up Endeavour Inlet would have been a very different kind of paddle. One to put down to experience!

Collecting mussels by kayak
The rest of our 6 days in the Marlborough Sounds was less exciting, but nevertheless very enjoyable sea kayaking, still with a fair bit of wind but also plenty of sunshine. We caught a total of 7 fish and hardly needed to dip into our camping food supplies, what with plentiful and huge green lipped mussels growing on every tidal surface, large and delicious Kawahai keen to bite our spinner as soon as we lowered it into the water, and even crunchy, juicy wild sea samphire to make a kind of salty salad. We swam from private little sandy coves, camped on our own island- a wildlife reserve where we listened to Kiwis coo and whistle through the night- and generally couldn't have had a better kayak expedition. 

The shore was lined with exotic tree ferns
There was lots of wildlife- seals on the rocks, large black and white king shags drying their wings, shearwaters bobbing on the open sea and even little blue penguins (easily identifiable as the only birds that didn't fly off as we approached!). Best of all, on our last day in Queen Charlotte we saw a pod of large, glossy black dolphins. We tried to follow them but they were just too fast, and our speed evidently didn't make us a very exciting vessel to ride alongside. 

An interesting portage technique
Included in our ridiculously good value rental (£15 per person per day- who says NZ has to be expensive!) was a portage across to neighbouring Pelorus sound for our last day and night. For this we were picked up by a truck in which we managed to balance the kayak for the journey up and over the steep ridge between the two sounds, Karl hanging onto it for dear life. 
Pelorus Sound was more rural and didn't have as impressive scenery as Queen Charlotte, with sheep fields and ugly forested hills, shaved into square patches, replacing the beautiful native bush. There were lots of mussel farms making it a little difficult to negotiate the kayak around the ropes and big buoys, which the seals seemed to use as lilos and the shags as fishing perches.

A seal relaxes on a mussel buoy

Landing on the final beach, we unloaded our kit and a bag of fish for that night's barbecue, and swapped the kayak for our waiting van. The week was over too quickly and we didn't really want to leave the water, but it was time to head back inland and see what else the northern end of South Island had to offer.


Wednesday, 9 January 2013

New Year in New Zealand

Karl jumps for joy on New Year's Eve, Lake Wanaka

It's been a while since this blog was up to date. I need quite a few more rainy days (rainy days= laundry, internet and shopping)  to blog about our tramping and kayaking over the last couple of months here in New Zealand's South Island, and just when I think we'll be van-bound by the weather, the sun comes out! So I'll start with the festive season, and hopefully be able to fill in the gaps and write some more about what we've been doing in time, weather dependent.. 

Summer Christmas parade
Christmas was about as unchristmassy as we expected. The Kiwis do try, with 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas' (keep dreaming!) playing in the shops, Christmas pudding and mince pies for sale alongside barbecues and paddling pools, and supermarket cashiers handing out candy canes, smiling from underneath their santa hats. But Christmas and summer just don't go together! We picnicked by the river watching an advent parade in Nelson, girls dancing in summer 'Miss Santa' dresses and a band playing, but really we were fantasising about snow, mulled wine, roast potatoes, brandy butter and all the rest! Sadly our little camping stove was not going to be up to a roast dinner.

Camping on Mount Fox with a view of the southern alps
For us, this unusual Christmas began up a mountain, and ended on the beach. We climbed Mount Fox in Westland and camped at the summit, waking up for sunrise from the ridge on Christmas eve, with views right over the Fox glacier rising to the high and impressive Mount Cook and Mount Tasman, while the other way farmed flats far below led to the long grey beaches and breakers of the west coast. There were 4 of us wild camping up there on the mountain top- Karl and me, and a couple we met and shared a beautiful summit sunset with- Ian and Tess. It turned out to be one of those remarkable 'small world' things that happen when you're travelling- half way through the evening we found out that Ian and Tess were UK vets, having graduated the same year as me but from Glasgow, and sharing many mutual friends. They're working out here, and we'll hopefully meet up again.

Christmas on the beach
For Christmas day itself we wanted to relax and headed to the small coastal settlement of Okarito, where the community run a little campsite tucked behind the dunes. It was a very nice spot and we didn't move for a full 2 nights. Starting with a champagne breakfast, we made it as far as the beach for a lunch time picnic and spent the afternoon playing monopoly just as everyone does on Christmas day. Finally, cheese and crackers and Christmas cake were eaten around the fire, under the stars and after the sandflies had gone to bed. It was a very relaxing day, although Karl couldn't resist the temptation to go for a little surf...

Karl's perfect Christmas!

Christmas Day breakfast

Cold dip in the Young river

On Boxing Day we left the west coast and travelled to Mount Aspiring National Park in the southern alps, an area so rich in amazing mountain scenery that we're still exploring it  now. We began with a 2 day tramp, the Gillespie Pass circuit, walking up a river as turquoise as the shallows of Fiji to a fantastic camp spot high in the valley. There were views of waterfalls plunging down the cliffs that rose above a forest of mountain beech, and a warm wind blew through the long grass. We'd not met another tramper all day, although the scenery and walking was stunning. If it wasn't for the sandflies swarming around us and flying into our faces, it would have been absolutely perfect. The next day we climbed to a pass below the inappropriately named Mount Awful and it's steep snow covered face. The head of the valley was beautiful, with the winding river framed by the rocky cliffs of a cirque. The crystal clear water was irresistable and we had to swim in it, but wow, was it cold!

A good river crossing....
...and like drowned rats at the same river 2 days later
The next day our time in the water was not so voluntary. As with many tramps in New Zealand, the route crossed a wide river without a bridge. We knew this one could be a tricky crossing, but hadn't counted on the river being quite so swollen after just a day of light rain. The warden we met in a hut up the valley said she doubted we'd be able to get across, and advised we organised a speed boat to ferry us back instead, at a cost of £90. To avoid spending that kind of money we were prepared to build a raft, swim or even get washed down the river all the way to the sea! The crossing turned out not to be too bad at all- fast and waist deep, but we shuffled our way slowly through it, hardly even noticing the cold as we grasped onto each other and used our poles for balance. We were totally soaked now of course, so the last few hours of torrential rain didn't make much difference as we squelched along in our boots, shivering in wet waterproofs and being stared at by the sheep. Tramping in New Zealand has lows as well as highs.

Lovely Lake Wanaka
After getting such a thorough drenching, we turned up in lake side Wanaka ready for some town time. It was very much high season in one of the most touristy towns in New Zealand, but that didn't detract from the beauty of Wanaka's setting. The shingle beach and willow trees on the shore of the town's lake were backed by views of green hills leading to spiky ridges and snow capped mountains. It was the first place in New Zealand we experienced a traffic jam, the streets were packed with holiday makers, and there were noisy jet skis on the lake, but despite all of this we found ourselves loving it. Wanaka is actually the first town in this country where we could really see ourselves living. There was a cool vibe and a very active, outdoorsy population, from trendy mountain bikers to the middle aged ladies of the lake swimming club. 

Outdoor concert for New Year's Eve
New Year's Eve was spent here at Wanaka's street party, where a stage had been rigged for bands to play on the lake shore. We were well above the average age, with half of New Zealand's population of school leavers having made their way to Wanaka for post-exam partying. The campsite felt like a school summer camp, with bathrooms full of teenage girls sharing make up and discussing outfit choices. They all went out in tiny dresses despite the weather, which wasn't very summery with gale force winds and rain forecast. Karl and I got into the town's party spirit and danced the new year in on the street, albeit wearing waterproofs. The rain started just a few minutes after midnight, perfectly timed for the end of the firework display, and carried on pretty much non stop for the first 2 days of the year.

Warming up with port after New Year's Day swim
We had promised ourselves, when the weather had been better, that we would see in New Year in the UK (at 1 pm on New Year's Day for us) with a swim in the lake. It was windy, rainy and freezing in the water, but we saw it through- counting down to the new year in the waves before running back up the shore to the warming mugs of port we had waiting at the van.

Monopoly in the van

After that, there was just one thing to do in the rain in Wanaka. The cinema here was incredibly cool and couldn't be missed, an art house spot filled with sofas and retro cars. The film had an introduction by the enthusiastic staff and an intermission for them to serve cookies still warm from the oven and home made ice cream in flavours like 'cointreau and date'. Watching the film from our own comfy sofa as we munched on cookies was the perfect way to spend a rainy New Year's Day.

After another rainy day and a couple more games of monopoly (I'm still unbeaten in 2013...) we woke up to blue skies and snow on the hills! Very unusual for this time of year, the ridge we'd climbed up in sunshine just a few days ago was plastered, while the hillsides around the lake all had an icing sugar dusting. 

The lake shore, Wanaka

View from our tent on French Ridge
We rented ice axes from an outdoor store, and headed up a valley to start the climb to Mount French in the Mount Aspiring group. Sadly the weather didn't hold and we ended the day in a horizontal hail storm. I was soaked through, my fingers weren't working and my feet were painfully cold (after another river crossing) as we desperately looked for somewhere to pitch our tent on the ridge's rocky, boggy and tussocky ground. We settled for a rocky, boggy and tussocky bit of ground and crawled into the tent. Possibly the worst conditions I've ever camped in, and another of those tramping lows.

French Ridge hut....
....and it's toilet with a view!
The next day more than made up for it. French Ridge was beautiful, and we climbed up in suberb high mountain scenery to reach the red metal bunker of the mountain hut. The hut was perched on the ridge just below the snowline, where ribbon waterfalls fell over huge granite cliffs and with views up to the crevasses and seracs of the glacier that led to Mount Aspiring itself. We pitched our tent on the only flat spot, a room with a view; right on top of a cliff that dropped far into the valley below. That afternoon we began our explorations above the snow line. The view was incredible and just got better and better as we climbed loose rock and snow slopes towards the Quarterdeck glacier. A cornice teetered precariously, beautifully curved into a smooth, overhanging wave of snow along the ridge. We watched small avalanches fall from the 'breakaway' glacier as clouds came in and out, one minute billowing over the peaks, the next below us and then suddenly obscuring the view in a white out before it all re-emerged, sparkling in the sunlight. We kicked steps up the snow, sinking into the slush or crunching across icy patches. It was an amazing place to be, surrounded by so much alpine splendour. The Quarterdeck rose as a ramp of snow and ice to the summit of Mount French a few hundred metres above. It didn't look difficult, but there were enough crevasses to make it foolish to continue any further up onto the glacier without a rope (we can rent ice axes and crampons here, but nowhere will rent out a rope), so we reluctantly turned our backs on the summit to return to the hut. There was a really nice bunch of trampers and climbers staying there with us that night- representing England, Scotland and Ireland, and even a few from New Zealand! We spent a lovely evening chatting and cooking, and yet another of the party turned out to be a vet, working in Glasgow and keen to help me out with contacts for the impending return to work!

Above the snowline on French Ridge

Cooking by the river
We walked out from French Ridge with a very warm summer wind blowing down the valley and the snow all disappeared from the hillsides. It sometimes seems to be a different season every day here (I'm writing this in torrential rain!). We swam in the river with new friends Suzanna and Johnny and set up camp on the soft, dry, and flat grass beside the shore. Cooking on the beach of the river, we watched saucer shaped clouds, tinted pink in the dusk, race across the mountain tops, and life felt very good.

2012 is going to be a very hard year to beat, but the first week of 2013 is doing a pretty good job!
We hope you've enjoyed reading our blog this last year, and wish everyone a very happy, healthy and fun-filled New Year.