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.


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