Sunday 15 April 2012

And So We Tramp

Lake Wakatipu

The Tramp Begins

The Weather Holds


Artist at Work

The Cold Face of the Dart


Sitting on a rock waiting for the pieces to fit


From the Foxy Glacier we rode the coasts to Haast, then turned inland to the mountains and up over the Haast pass where we met once-more the frost and said goodbye to the sand-flies. The Maoris believed that because they lived in the most beautiful place on earth, god (which one I forget) sent sand-flies to teach them humility. Do we, with our bottles of Deet and fly-screens rid ourselves of humility? Some modern Kiwis seem to lack a little reverence; they have so it seems taken the noble constellation of Orion, turned him upside-down and re-named him the Shopping Trolley!
At lake Hawea we luckily met Paul and Jenny, a couple of kiwi itinerants who got out the maps and helped us plan the best cycle route to take from there on as we were spoilt for choice. They also made us promise to take the cycle-path through Albert Town to Wanaka which turned out to be one of the best little rides in the world. If you have half a day and are in this woody neck then make sure you pedal or tread this riverside track. I rode the second half five times.
In Albert Town we camped by a river where we met a young Canadian, Chad who had, like us decided to learn to fly-fish and, also like us had so-far failed to land a trout. He was however, further along the road to success than us and shared his knowledge willingly. We fished in the evenings for the large rainbows we could see breaking the surface but failed again to tempt them onto our plates.
From Wanaka we took the Cardrona which rose up and up into the Crown range and over the country’s highest tarmac road. The descent to Arrowtown with views to lake Wakatipu and the mountains beyond brought a great days ride to an end.
In Arrowtown campsite (not overly recommended) we met Roger and Dee who, the crazy two, had cycled there from England. Riding with them the next day to Queenstown and swapping tales and advice was a pleasure. They had ridden some of the same roads as us and were the first cyclists going our way since we left our Hungarian buddy back in Laos.
Queenstown: Backpacker Factory: Thrill-Seekers Mecca.
Following in Mark and Jenny’s footsteps once-more we decided to Tramp the Reece-Dart Trail. Other more famous and popular tracks in this walker’s paradise were all booked up and we wanted at least a little solitude while imagining we were traversing a wilderness. The four day hike with a day side trip to Cascade Saddle up above the Dart glacier got us out into the mountains on a well marked trail without the need for axes and crampons. It really was a great walk even if it officially lacks a capital ‘G’. Though we camped out back, the company in the huts at night was an unexpected pleasure. We were on the same schedule as a bunch of young, out-door types from the USA who shattered my theory that Americans, who I adore in their own habitat, just don’t travel well. These youngsters were quiet, courteous and informed, lit the fire and swept the floor and we were sad to say goodbye at the trailhead.
Also setting off on the same day were Andrew and Maureen, a great couple from Adelaide with whom we enjoyed some wonderful evenings and hope we will see again. You never know who you are going to meet.
We clung to grass in a force 10 gale and stared over sheer cliffs to the Matukituki river  thousands of feet below us and huddled behind lateral moraines high and dry above the shrinking glacier. We leapt from rock to rock up to the ice-face where the stone-grey river is born, already strong and wide from beneath the dirty white behemoth. There are cracks and splashes and falls as rocks roll from the top and splash into the water and giant ice-cubes split and fall into the river where they clink together with a familiar sound before heading off downstream. We stare into the blue-black void of an ice-cave where we lack the courage to enter.
Descending from the grey and white world of rock and ice we enter the realm of lichen and moss and strange, otherworldly plants unique to this southern alpine land. Then come the all-green mossy woods where the winding path lies under a blanket of tiny red-beech leaves. It feels underfoot like walking on branflakes.
The Dart river now is blue, with house size angular boulders, discarded by the retreating ice, each now bedecked with its own Zen garden where stunted trees cling and beards of lichen hang from their branches, blowing  in the gentle wind. The forest is tall and strangely quiet the moss sucking up all sound. A white breasted robin hops inquisitively from a tree-trunk onto Anja’s outheld walking-stick and a magic moment is broken by the sound of an engine. A damned jetboat, the scourge of New Zealands rivers, hoons its way upstream packed with fee-paying numpties, passengers on a fairground ride. We are back within reach of Queenstown and soon we emerge into farmland, the trailhead and bus ride back to the world of man.
Queenstown for all its backpacker hostels, adventure shops and rowdy clubs is a pleasant place to be. The setting, on a lake surrounded by willow fringed , bald mountains is impressive and the fish and chips are great. We are staying a day to do some household chores before setting off for the Otago Rail Trail. We will tramp again somewhere before Christchurch but are going to give Fjordland a miss. We just can’t bring ourselves to do the package tour thing (or afford it) and though not very far as the kea flies it is a hell of a long way to cycle. Guess we will just have to go to Norway sometime to see some fjords. Shucks.
Apologies for a Brysonesque ending but I must go as there is a bar in town where, so the poster promises, girls who turn up in bikinis get a free ride on something called a “horizontal bar bungy”. Over and out.

Warbirds Over Wanaka

South Island, New Paradise
It can happen in any season and in almost any place but in this case it was late summer/early autumn in and around the lakeside town Wanaka, New Zealand. It lasted for the long weekend of Easter and was something one might experience, with luck, a half-dozen times between cradle and grave. What made it happen was, I suppose, a particular juxtaposition of weather fronts, of high pressure zones, of inversion layers in flat valley floors, of deciduous trees no longer having need of chlorophyll and of particular mineral suspensions in water reflecting well the colour blue. We all knew, all of us who were there, that we were the chosen few, the lucky ones. A few amongst us tried through habit to photograph it but soon put away our cameras, we knew before hand they were not up to the task. This was not something that could be captured in bits or bytes and reconstituted for later viewing.
Strangers passing on the riverside path smiled at each other in unspoken acknowledgement. We were somehow bound together in an unexpected brotherhood. Mountain-bikers waved to fishermen whose focus had wandered from trout. Teenage boys made room for middle-aged women on rough hewn benches and sat together in comfortable silence. Occasionally a drone could be heard approaching, a sound familiar to us from the childhoods our fathers, and all eyes would turn to the skies as an arrow of Sopwiths or Spitfires would chew their way across the patches of azure blue that spanned the gaps between the flittering gold of the poplars. It just happened there was an air-show in town.
I am fumbling to describe the perfect day. There were three of them and then they were gone. There was no disappointment when they were over as we knew it couldn’t last. We knew not even what had changed, nothing discernable, no singular factor had significantly altered but the ultimate combination must have slipped ever so slightly out of alignment. Perhaps a slight breeze now ruffled the waters surface where the reflections, through polarization were clearer than the mountains themselves, perhaps the chemical balance in the leaves of beeches and willows had transformed or a few too many leaves had fallen but we woke up on the fourth day to earthly beauty, the hand of heaven had lifted, hopefully to descend upon some other community in Argentina, England or Nepal.

New Campervanland and the Department of Control

The Molesworth

Buller Gorge

Don't Feed the wildlife!

Pancake Rocks

Fox Glacier

We reckon Mt Cookie

Ever the Directives!

Haast Pass

South Island, New Zealand

It has come to my attention that the English language has been watered down somewhat while we have been away in foreign speaking countries. I had the manager of an international outdoor equipment chain admit to me himself that ‘waterproof’ on a label no-longer meant the item of clothing had to keep the rain out; disappointing when buying a raincoat. To ‘discover’ something one no longer has to be the first to do so; discover for ones-self I suppose, and I was also surprised to find that one can get up late, have an ‘adventure’ and be back in time for morning latte (new word for coffee). No longer is an adventure, as Baggins the Elder remarked back when New Zealand was still part of Middle Earth, “an uncomfortable, dangerous thing that was apt to make one late for lunch”.
It seems that almost every activity in this country must wave an Adventure banner offering Awesome activities or risk seeming dull to the late teen hoards descending from the Kiwi Experience busses and commercially pre-graffittied Campa-vans. One outfit even called itself
Not that there aren’t some adrenaline and endorphin inducing activities on the menu. Every third bridge has an elastic band clipped to the hand-rail, one need only tie a quick granny knot around an ankle, hand a local a few hundred dollars and leap off. For a few hundred more you can step out of an airplane ‘strapped to a beautiful stranger’ as one ad put it. It is lucky I don’t have the money to spare because I am pretty sure I would find out Idon’t have the guts for these kinds of things.
Adventure Capital of the World is the slogan bandied about; Each one all packaged up with a hefty price-tag attached. Am I the first person even to be even slightly un-awed by a visit to NZ.  Perhaps not as I did hear one girl remark that the only thing New Zealand had that Europe didn’t was sandflies. I guess you can’t really fly all this way and spend all that money to go home and tell your friends it is, well…nice.
Enough of the Spoilt Brat complaining I hear you cry so I won’t even mention all the fences and no-camping signs, land poisoned and trespassers will be prosecuted posters and go straight to say that we are having a…well..very nice time.
Thanks Mark and Jenny for directing us over the Molesworth track as it was the best ride we have had here although the head-wind at one point blew me to a standstill. This gravel track runs 200kms from Blenheim to Hanmer springs over some pretty rugged country where no campervans roam and even I uttered no discouraging word. At Hanmer we turned right up and over the Lewis pass where the quiet road was pretty gentle up and steep down through the eerie Victoria Forest to the old mining town of Reefton. In the Pouring rain we rode, down the Buller Gorge to Westport where we hung our clothes to drip onto the authentic carpets of the Albion Hotel and made a side trip to Foulwind Head to see the seal colony. The place lived up to its name.
Since Westport we have followed the coast road (little other choice) past the pancake rocks south to the Glaciers (where we declined a thousand dollar helicopter flight to view the shrinking ice from above) and on down to Haast under dark blue skies, the only clouds on our horizon being cumulus campervans moving north and south in fronts between mealtimes. The forests, sea and mountains under such a golden light even provoked a few unexpected complimentary adjectives to slip from the lips of a jaded old cyclist though he ensured they never began with an “A”. He had to admit things couldn’t get much nicer.
I believe the root of my sometime discontent lies in the illegality of ‘free camping’ and in fact the difficulty of such, would one, god forbid, choose to flout the Department of Conservation regulations and do so while cycling touring in NZ. Hypothetically speaking of course, if one did opt to flout, one might have to spend perhaps 60% of nights in official campgrounds thus veering further from  the already straining budget. There are DOC (guess that acronym) campsites which are mostly well placed, simple and cheap though not often reachable two nights in a row by bicycle.
Riding through the countryside here and chatting with the locals’ one becomes at least partly aware of some of the problems affecting the land. One major one is pests and the spread of non-native species. There is (are) Didymo algae or ‘Rock Snot’ spreading and suffocating the rivers where trout have already ousted many native fish. This foul life-form lies fetid on the riverbed like a seventies pub carpet and it takes but one transferred cell to infect a new river.  There is the wilding pine problem in the Marlborough sound area with the unusual solution of drilling and poisoning all trees in a designated area while they are grown as a crop in another. Perhaps the problem with the most controversial DOC solution though is the poisoning of stoats, rats, possums and other undesirables with something called 1080, this was the name of a cheap strong cider available when I was a teenager; that was pretty toxic too. The problem is that this poison works its way up the food chain and takes out the native species as well. DOC’s opinion is that the natives will recover when the pests are gone. The introduced species have decimated their trusting and na├»ve cousins who naturally had few predators, the poison is reducing their number further to the extent that the thickest wildest forests that we have encountered around the world are almost totally silent. A lot of people don’t trust this radical approach and believe their water is being poisoned, the birds are disappearing and the predator numbers are higher than ever. I for one have nowhere seen so many stoats trundling across the road, they even pop their little heads above the grass sometimes to watch us having breackfast. With other issues such as the threat of widespread  “ Frac “ oil-mining which could also potentially pollute further the water table, it seems there is trouble in paradise.