Thursday, 28 February 2013

Surfing and summer mountaineering

A haggis in Glencoe and a high alpine crossing- Jan/Feb 13

The second half of January brought a real heat wave. Each day dawned bright and sunny, was sweltering by 8 o'clock and stayed hot right into the long summer evenings, when we would sit out with a beer enjoying the warm breeze and the clear, star filled skies. This was summer in New Zealand- after a shaky start it had truly arrived and it seemed set to stay. 

Enjoying the Catlins coastal scenery
We were on the south coast when the transformation began, perfectly timed for touring the pretty, rural coastline of the Caitlins. This area reminded us of England more than anywhere else we'd been; it was like discovering a secret part of Dorset. Rolling hillsides dotted with sheep and patches of forest led to high cliffs and sandy beaches. There were a couple of differences though- sharing the beaches with sea lions and penguins being a major one. 
We spent a couple of days at a lovely coastal campsite nestled into the long flax grass of a headland between 2 beaches. From here you could look for dolphins in the surf, and watch the penguins that would wander across the beach to their nests each evening. 

The view from our camp of waves breaking on the rocks
A bout of strong winds brought in a big swell that broke on the headland, the waves shattering into a cascade of foam that would erupt skywards before streaming down over rocks and kelp. It was addictive to watch, and as we did a yellow eyed penguin came wandering across just a metre from us, obliviously searching for his nest in the flax. He looked lost and disorientated, weary and beaten by the waves- I'm sure he's used to these sorts of conditions, but we hope he found his nest. 
The penguins took the sign a bit too literally

In the evening it was fun to watch the penguins land- surfing into the shore, plopping onto the rocks, pausing for a bit of preening and drying off before waddling up the beach to find their waiting offspring. There were some beautiful, wild beaches here backed by tall cliffs, where the waves peeled into glassy barrels before pounding onto the sand. They made for great camps and the surfing was good enough to keep things interesting for Karl- until he snapped his board that is. Time to head for the city of Dunedin and it's surf shops!

Camping at the beach in the Catlins

Our arrival in the self proclaimed 'Edinburgh of the South' that is Dunedin happily coincided with Burns night. The city actually reminded us more of Sheffield than Edinburgh, with lots of independent shops and students around, but there was a statue of Robbie Burns in the square, pipers playing to mark his birthday, Scottish souvenir shops, and we even found a butcher selling haggis. It seemed appropriate that night to be camping in a nearby valley called Glencoe for our campstove style burns supper, complete with whiskey to toast the haggis (not that we could remember the toast).
Karl had found a good deal on a replacement surf board in Dunedin, and so we headed north along a string of beautiful and deserted bays through coastal Otago. We drove along a quiet road beside empty sandy beaches with stone arches and sea caves, and spent a lovely saturday surfing at the busy family beach of All Day bay, where a hector's dolphin would pop up in the midst of everyone in the water. He was a frequent visitor, and most people there didn't even bat an eyelid at his appearance. 

Victorian architecture and Steam punk at Oamaru
On this stretch of coast was the town of Oamaru, far more interesting than the average New Zealand settlement. It used to be a busy Victorian port before changing prosperity led the wharves, streets and warehouses to be abandoned almost overnight. This actually saved them in the long run as it preserved the area just as things were. The heritage district is now beautifully restored and cared for, and Oamaru has taken the Victorian connection far, with themed tea rooms, rides offered down the streets on penny farthings, and the development of a strong 'steam punk' identity. Steam punk is defined as 'tomorrow as it used to be' and involves a lot of weird and wonderful victorian x futuristic costumes, impressive mechanical art installations and even a steam punk themed playground. We ended up staying here longer than planned- visiting the farmers market, eating mussels at the harbour, wandering the streets and art galleries and browsing second hand bookshops. We also had a really good time at an improvised sketch comedy night which made us cry with laughter. Definitely a town worth a visit.

Sunset over the Tasman glacier on the climb to Ball Pass
It's not too far from the beach to the mountains in the South Island, and after travelling 200 km inland we arrived at Mount Cook National Park on another boiling hot afternoon. We found a tiny bit of shade in the campsite and stuck to it, too hot for much more than occasionally emerging to pour cold water over ourselves.
Although Mount Cook is the highest mountain in Australasia, it's not actually that tall at 3754 metres. However, it's larger than life- a really impressive mountain that wouldn't look at all out of place in the Himalayas, with steep faces of snow, ice and rock surrounded by glaciers. We hired ice axes and crampons and set off early the next day for our route, a 3 day crossing of an alpine pass which would take us as close as is possible to Mount Cook without a summit attempt. The climb to Ball Pass started by sidling along the lateral moraine of the Tasman glacier, listening to the creaking of the ice, little rock falls and the splashes of ice plunging into the grey water of glacial lakes. The lower reaches of melting glaciers are often pretty unattractive, and this one was an ugly, grey, rubble covered conveyor belt bulldozing its way down the valley. 
The Caroline Face of Mount Cook
It reminded us a lot of the Khumbu and other glaciers and moraines we'd crossed in Nepal, travelling far from snowy slopes and ridges to a huge dirty puddle of a meltwater lake. After hard, hot hours boulder hopping on moraine, we began an ascent up steep scree, climbing high above the glacier. Gaining the ridge, we popped up to find ourselves directly beneath the impressive Caroline Face of Mount Cook. It was right there, towering above us with its seracs, crevasses, waterfalls and cliffs- amazing to get that close without even needing to don our crampons. We camped up on that ridge, watching the sunset colours drain from the flat valley far below until just the snowy peaks were tinged pink above dark cliffs. Through the evening we'd watch avalanches on the Caroline face, and try to imagine how on earth anyone climbs it. Avalanche watching is a lot of fun, from a distance- the trick is to spot one before the loud boom of snow hitting the slopes reaches you. They always seem to happen in slow motion. Despite the alpine setting it was really warm, and we got up in the middle of the night to marvel at the magnificent scene of Mount Cook in the moonlight.

The constellation of Orion over Mount Cook

On snow approaching the pass

The next day we ascended Ball Pass itself. The weather was stunning, and the snow slopes leading to the pass were soft and forgiving. It was like winter mountaineering back home, but without any of the freezing cold hardship of the hills in that season. The days were so long that we could take our time, relaxing for a couple of hours at the pass (I actually had a post lunch snooze in the sun- a first for me on a mountaineering route!). From here we scrambled up to our high point on the ridge, at 2222 metres. The view was astounding, and it almost goes without saying here that we had the whole place to ourselves. 
The descent down steep snow slopes followed by loose rock ridges required our ice axes and crampons and a fair bit of route finding, but we reached our campsite on a high alpine meadow in time for another sunset, this time lighting up the south face of Mount Cook over the Hooker glacier.

The south face of Mount Cook and the Hooker glacier

Although the hard work was supposedly behind us at this stage, it still took a whole day's effort to descend from this point down to the valley, boulder hopping down a gully and over moraine, constantly route finding (this wasn't a marked path) and then having to negotiate numerous landslides and rockfalls. There was little shade and the lower we got the more ridiculously hot it became. We eventually reached the river and had a very refreshing swim in the glacial water. It had been an epic route. We spent our last day in the Mount Cook area on an easier and much more popular climb up to the Mueller hut, with a fun bouldery scramble up Mount Olivier and fantastic views of avalanches on the dramatic east face of Mount Sefton. It had been a great week to end our time in the mountains, finishing our travels in the South Island on a real high.
We couldn't have hoped for a better 3 months than we'd had here, but it was time to head north, where there was a whole other half of New Zealand waiting to be explored.

Another great NZ road sign!


Tuesday, 19 February 2013

The Journey South

The sands of Abel Tasman to the sounds of Fjordland (Dec-Jan)

Mosquito Cove in Abel Tasman, only accessible by kayak
I wound the fishing line back onto its stick (not a very sophisticated system!) as we headed towards the beach, a sandy lunch spot beneath the cliffs of one of Abel Tasman's headlands. As expected, nothing was weighing the hook down, again, and it clattered onto the deck, immediately getting caught and tangled. After our beginner's luck fishing in the Marlborough Sounds, this time we'd made the mistake of packing a frying pan and a lemon in our kayak - clearly a bad omen. There weren't even any mussels here, so it would be back to dried packs of pasta. Never mind, any food tastes pretty good when it's cooked on a beach and you're hungry from paddling!

Improvised rain shelter! 
Just a few days after we'd finished our fantastic week kayaking the Marlborough Sounds, we were back on the water for 3 days to explore Abel Tasman's short but spectacular coastline. Renowned for its many wide arcs of golden sand framed by native vegetation, it's one of New Zealand's most popular national parks. This was early in the season so it wasn't busy, but our starting town of Marahau still felt like a kayak rental factory, churning out boats and paddlers each morning after a rather impersonal 'check in' and briefing where we got taught which way round to hold the paddle, just in case we'd not worked it out in 10 years of kayaking.. It was very different from anywhere we'd rented boats from before, but as soon as we were out on the water we could forget all that and enjoy the scenery. The coast was lovely to paddle around, with lots of rocky headlands where seals lounged and little islands to circumnavigate, and plenty of sandy spots to rest and enjoy the view. We got up early and stayed out late (ignoring the company's imposed 4 pm paddling curfew..), and were rewarded with the coast at its calmest, quietest and most beautiful. 

Exploring a lagoon
An unexpected highlight was the tidal lagoons that could only be entered by kayak over their sand bars at high water. They led us inland through calm, reed lined estuaries and up river until the water became too shallow to continue and we'd feel the crunch of the hull grounding. In the evening these lagoons were very peaceful, just the drips of water from our paddles interrupting the reflection of the bank, where kingfishers and herons stared at us from their fishing perches. There are times when a kayak feels like the best place to be in the world.                                                   

Paddling in the morning calm

Flower filled Cobb Valley
Chatting with another paddler at our beach side camp one evening, he recommended tramping in the Cobb valley, a fairly remote area of the nearby Kahurangi National Park. So when we left our kayaks (briefly wondering if the company would even have noticed if 'no 34' didn't return?..) we headed inland. Cobb was a wide, open and alpine flower filled valley that led up river for 8 miles or so to the cosy Fenella hut, perched on the edge of the wilderness. It was a beautiful spot to dry out after kayaking and get back into tramping. As is usual here, although the hut was a social little hub of tramping and travel talk, we saw no-one else on the path for 2 days and felt like we had the whole national park to ourselves. From the hut an easy day trip took us up Kakapo Peak, a nearby mountain with expansive wilderness views of rocky ridges and forest. It was hot work, but there was a lovely tarn to cool off in before we headed back down the valley.

Tarn swimming
Kahurangi wilderness scenery

The lovely Chaffey Hut
On our walk in we'd passed the Chaffey Hut,  a very cute, beautifully renovated, historic little hut by the river. We'd fallen in love with it and decided to spend the night before we left the mountains. Definitely our favourite place to stay in New Zealand, Chaffey has just 2 bunks and a fireplace, and is the perfect spot to fulfill any woodcutter's cottage fantasies (?!), perched above a swimming hole in the river and with views up valley to the hills beyond.

Rock crevasses on Mount Owen
The early December weather was perfect, so we moved straight onto our next tramp- a climb of Mount Owen. This is a unique mountain in Nelson, covered in classic limestone scenery with huge clints and grykes forming massive rock crevasses between slabs. The place is riddled with sink holes packed with ferns, mosses and alpine flowers, and the weirdly shaped cliffs and boulders are etched with deep grooves. It's a scrambler's playground, and after a long, hot and steep walk in we spent the best part of 2 days exploring the mountain system. There was another really good hut to stay in, modern this time, and yet again we met no other trampers on the route. The mountain rises above fantastic, colourful and exotic vegetation including some vicious speargrasses with huge thorned flowers.

Spiky speargrasses on Mount Owen climb

It all had a feeling of a lost world, and it's easy to understand why the mountain was chosen to represent 'Dimrill Dale' in the Lord of the Rings films (although everywhere here seems to have featured in the films at some point or other). From the summit was the grandest view we'd had yet and it certainly made us realise just how mountainous this country is. Ridge after ridge, too many peaks to count, and spreading in every direction from the coast in the north to the distant Southern Alps. We could spot Nelson Lakes, the Kaikoura range and a few other places we'd visited, but most of the view was new to us and it was very inspiring. You'd need more than a few years and a helicopter (or a love of bush-whacking) to reach them all, but the possibilities are endless. Later that day we got down to the valley floor and a much anticipated swim in the river. It was deep, clear and blue-green, swirling between smoothly carved rocks and very scenic, but absolutely infested with sand flies. A whole new motivation to get in the water and stay in- they were biting any exposed skin and were the worst we'd experienced. Just like the midges in scotland or the mosquitoes in the tropics- there has to be an insect around to spoil things!

I wonder why Karl's the only surfer out at Cape Foulwind?
Moving on to the West Coast- with a reputation for rain, wind and wild weather. As soon as we arrived it started to show us just how miserable it could be. Karl braved the big, cold surf at the aptly named Cape Foulwind, but mostly we waited for the weather to improve, whiling away some time visiting the functional towns of Westport and Greymouth and doing our Christmas shopping.

Scenic driving on the West Coast
It was worth waiting, as a couple of days later we got to experience the coast road with blue skies and sunshine- one of the nicest routes we've ever driven. Mile after mile the road wound around green, verdant cliffs and wide, surf-scoured beaches. We stayed at a village called Punakaikai, famous for its 'pancake rocks'. Blowholes in the cliffs are surrounded by layered limestone- like stacks of pancakes turned to stone.

Pancake Rocks blowholes

All along this coast gorges cut through the cliffs to emerge at the sea, and it was up one of these gorges that we headed on our next overnight tramp along the old 'Inland Pack Route', a path that somehow people used to navigate before a coast road was built. Most of the route was actually in a river, with thick bush surrounding the shallow, pebbly waters and huge cliffs looming overhead.

The Inland Pack Track

 Once you've got used to wading in wet boots, it makes sense to use the river bed as a path, as it is often the only way through the deep, impenetrable jungle. Our camp was under the 'Ballroom overhang'- a huge bivvy spot beneath a massively overhanging cliff, big enough for about 20 tents around the fireplace. Two days of gorge walking certainly gave us a new perspective on the scenery and it was a unique tramp. Not somewhere to be caught with rising water, so we were very lucky to fit it into a weather window before the dark West Coast clouds and driving rain enveloped us once more.

The head of Earnslaw Burn
Fast forward a couple of weeks (Christmas on the beach and New Year in Wanaka both covered in a previous blog) to the extensive Mount Aspiring National Park. We did a lot of hiking here, both day walks and overnighters. A highlight was Earnslaw Burn- reached after quite a long slog through forest but well worth it. At the head of the valley a glacier hung, falling into a multitude of ribbon waterfalls cascading down the cliffs.

It was great to see Katy and Dougie again

We camped below a waterfall with a view of the glacier, and spent a long time just staring at the scene trying to take it in. While in the Queenstown area we got a chance to catch up with Katy and Dougie, a couple we met in a bakery in Namche Bazaar, high in the Himalayas. At the time, like us Katy and Dougie had been at the start of a world trip, but have now decided to settle here rather than return to the UK (we might be just a little bit jealous..). Although Queenstown is in a beautiful lake side setting, the town itself is crammed in between the shore and the steep hills, and is very busy and touristy. Traditionally this is somewhere you spend quite a lot of money- usually on adrenaline activities, but in our case it was much less exciting- handing over $500 in the garage for a new shock after numerous rough roads and river fords had taken their toll on our van's suspension. Ouch.

Scenery of Queenstown- us and our van are about to get a shock

The climb up to Gertrude Saddle
Leaving Queenstown we drove south to Fjordland, one of the biggest national parks in the world. Very little of Fjordland is accessible, which just adds to its appeal. The prize for New Zealand scenery just has to go to a little spot in the mountains above Milford Sound, modestly named Gertrude Saddle. 
Douglas Adams put it well in his book 'Last Chance to See'; 'Fjordland is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God's earth, and one's first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause'. That's exactly how we felt here. Why hadn't anyone told us about this place? It seemed like the sort of spot people should make pilgrimages to. As it was, it was just us and a few other trampers dotted around, each having our own 'wow' moments. 

Our camp at Gertrude Saddle (our tent's on the left).
We'd climbed up a U shaped valley surrounded by glacier scoured curving slabs, passing deep, clear tarn waters and tumbling waterfalls, and up steep, gritty rock to the saddle itself. Here it suddenly all dropped away- 1000 metres away, with immense cliffs over which waterfalls streamed down to the forest and river far below. At the end of the valley was Milford Sound, framed by mountains and looking far, far below. Above us the tarn dotted ridge led over bulging slabs of gabbro rock up the steep and snowy summit of Barrier Knob. 

The saddle was an amazing vantage point, and we were very glad to be able to pitch our tent and stay up there, exploring the ridge and taking in the view one way, then the next, then back to the first again. There was just too much to take in, too much beauty to process. It sounds over the top, but it was a real high point of our travels. We couldn't stop grinning. It's moments like this we travel for, and we felt it was worth coming all the way around the world just to be here. And there wasn't even a single sand fly!