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!


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