Queen of the south

I had never visited or passed through the small town of Lumsden, yet it featured prominently on our road map borrowed from a keen fly fisherman friend of Dad. The road map offered annotated teasers of someone else’s holiday: Day 2 on the Oreti River, a fine haul at the Whitestone, a ride on a steam train. Lumsden was often at the heart of the scribblings, and a town with a population of 400 boasting a fishing shop just about says it all. Today, in winds stronger than Gita, the trout would have been blowing down the street alongside wheelie bins and pizza boxes. Even I might be able to catch one.

Heading north from Lumsden we paused at the southern extremity of Lake Wakitipu, at the tip of this thunderbolt shaped body of electric blue, a Harry Potter scar etched into the Southern Alps by a tectonic Lord Voldemort. Parking upon the shore in Kingston for a cheesy car picnic, lightning or death eaters were not the issue, but the wind blowing off the lake, rocking the car and creating spouts and swirls of water. A nearby lookout point marked as The Devils Staircase never seemed so apt.

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NZd02Contrast this with an hour later in Arrowtown, a cutesy (if a touch contrived) old gold rush village just out of Queenstown. Sheltered by hills, twenty-five degrees, sunshine out, there was no hesitation in showing my pants to the whole of the car park and changing into shorts. Likewise, both Dad and I had no hesitation in agreeing ice cream should be on the agenda. Such thoughts are obvious portents of the cloud rolling in, the wind rising, and drizzle emerging. But let that not stop us eating ice cream!

And so, when we eventually arrived at our lofty accommodation in Queenstown up several flights of stairs, there was no lake to see, no mountain tops to captivate, and just the sound of heavy rain and testosterone-fuelled Argentine rugby players having a balcony party to enjoy. Perfect conditions to don a mac, head into town, find a pub, and gorge on a hearty roast.

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In a mini-repeat of the post-Gita awakening, the next morning dawned with just a few residual clouds hovering over the lake, the blue skies expanding to cast Lake Wakatipu a luminescent teal. What better way to dazzle than drive along its shores to Glenorchy, the symbolic top of the fork of thunder encircled by lofty mountains. Just when you thought New Zealand could not get any more scenic, any more stunning, you turn a corner and once more get whacked in the face in a flurry of brake lights and shonky parking.

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One of the incredible things about Glenorchy other than it’s gorgeous setting and generous rocky road slice, is that it is once again on the fringes of Mount Aspiring National Park. In what is almost two full circles we have come within 20 miles of The Divide on the Milford Sound road (just a case of walking The Routeburn to get there), and around 30 miles from the Matukituki Valley and Rob Roy Glacier (jet boats up the Dart would probably get us closer). I swear the mountains fringing the western part of the lake here look just the same as those viewed from Key Summit on the other side. And they probably are.

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A few more miles up an agreeable gravel road lined with fields of sheep, our last swing bridge led across to a gentle walk through pristine red beech to Lake Sylvan. In many ways this was pleasant, lacking the spectacle encountered elsewhere, but pleasant. Another cheesy picnic by the river in warm sunshine kicked us off, a tinkling brook accompanied us to the lake, and some chirpy birdies were far from shy in greeting us on the trail.

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And, yes, the lake itself was pleasant, nothing more nothing less. Having been in New Zealand for over a week now, there was clear evidence to suggest we were encountering scenic fatigue. For here, this pristine and peaceful spot was nothing more than, well, as I have said several times, pleasant.

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NZd09And so, in this hasty encounter with a small part of a bigger-than-you-think country packed with spectacle we finish up in Queenstown. Of all the places we visited this was undoubtedly the most frenetic, but it was no London, nor even Canberra. Firstly, you can forgive the masses of backpackers and Contiki coaches and adrenaline shots because Queenstown is beautiful. And – you know what – the people, the bustle, the mixture of ages and nationalities soaking up the holiday air creates a really nice vibe down by the lake. Particularly if this is accompanied by a ‘legendary’ Fergburger and a glowing evening as the sun slides west.

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The iconic view of Queenstown comes from the top of a gondola ride and on a late afternoon under clear skies it could not be any better. Or maybe it could with a dusting of fresh snow on the incredible Remarkables. In this case, perhaps last Thursday would have been optimum, but we were off tramping in something even more spectacular back then. And this was more than good enough.

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There was a tinge of sombreness accompanied by waking for the last time in New Zealand on this trip. Sombreness that was quickly shaken by the welcoming skies outside and – unbeknownst at the time – the prospect of waking once more. That last day of a holiday in which you have a later flight and some time to somehow ‘kill’. If only there was an earlier flight we could get onto…

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It struck me that we had not done a bungee jump or jetboat ride or chucked ourselves out of a plane on a 4×4 Segway into a sub-zero glacier on this trip. Possibly one of the few that hadn’t we instead set off in pursuit of observing such mania, dosing up on lakeside coffee to get us pumped. At the Shotover River, a regular parade of jetboats whooshed and whizzed and did watery donuts to a clientele that looked – to be honest – rather aged and largely nonplussed. Meanwhile, from the Kawarau River suspension bridge, A.J. Hackett invariably cajoled and pushed people off a platform on a piece of string.

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To the sound of murderous shrieks we plunged towards the adventure of Queenstown Airport, an understandably small terminal that would take us back to Sydney. Tomorrow. After a flight cancellation we could have enjoyed more of the adventure of Queenstown airport overnight, but instead we managed to find ourselves some accommodation (something Virgin Australia couldn’t), albeit a good hour away. The Crown Range road up to Cardrona was something we missed out on this trip following a Gita-induced landslide, but it was open again for us to ascend in a new car in the dark. Not only that, but there was an additional hairpin gravel road to take, littered with rabbits and potentially hidden chasms towards New Zealand’s highest hotel. At around 1650 metres, it seemed rather lovely and part of me wished the flight back tomorrow would come a little later in the day.

NZd12But, after our final, final night of sleep in New Zealand we set off down the mountain, seeing in the light the spectacle that we were to now say goodbye to again. With the delays, the exhaustion, the impending drag down the Hume Highway from Sydney to Canberra, we were both keen to get back. And it was a shame to end this way, even if a bacon butty and coffee at the airport temporarily lifted spirits. But everyone expects a little adventure in New Zealand and we belatedly had ours. This along with much to remember, much to savour, much to linger in the mind for as long as the white cloud blessing this most amazing big little country.

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Driving Food & Drink Green Bogey Photography Walking

Sound

The town of Te Anau has one of the most unexpectedly elongated high streets perhaps anywhere in New Zealand. Plonked in the remote southwest corner of the country, it possesses two supermarkets, three petrol stations, at least four places where you can buy pizza, several pubs, numerous cafes and restaurants, something resembling a department store and more shops selling sheep key rings than you can shake a shepherd’s crook at.

The reason for this is – principally – Milford Sound, with Te Anau handily positioned as a coffee / lunch / afternoon tea / dinner stop on very full day excursions from Queenstown, or as a closer base from which to discover Fiordland. And while most trippers and trampers understandably head for the hills, Te Anau has a certain charm that is worth a linger. Despite the throughflow of visitors, it seems a lot quieter and subdued than Queenstown or Wanaka. The countryside around is greener and lusher, and its lakeside situation with views across to snow-capped peaks is divine.

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Lest Te Anau get a little too busy we stayed a tad out of town in a log cabin wedged into the side of a hill. This was the Barnyard Backpackers complex, and while it retained a style of basic but comfortable accommodation, I was struck by how different staying in hostels is these days. Mostly this is down to the internet and its ability to transport you away from the here and now. So while I may have played shithead accompanied with a bottle of cheap wine with a group of randoms twenty years ago, nowadays it’s all about WhatsApp calls home and squinting solitarily into a small screen. Something I did with limited success thanks to all the bandwidth being taken up by WhatsApp calls to Germany! Still, at least here you can just look up and soak in the views.

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From Te Anau, the inevitable stream of people and cars converging on Milford Sound benefits from a little strategising; a calculation involving the avoidance of peak coach tour times, maximum weather and reflection opportunities, and which of the plethora of boat trips to pick. But really it’s just luck and we got pretty lucky. Striking out early via a coffee stop at the Sandfly Café, dawn light gradually infiltrated the Eglinton Valley, the sunlight and early mist rising from the river serving to accentuate its majesty.

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The calm of morning also meant that Mirror Lakes were actually mirror-like, reflecting the glowing mountains, and observed by just a smattering of early day-trippers like us.

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NZc04The sunny start changed around The Divide as we headed into the clouds and prospects for a clear cruise on the sound were diminished. It was the kind of weather I expected, typical of this area which is famed for being the wettest spot in New Zealand[1]. But emerging into and out of the Homer Tunnel there were breaks, mountain tops could be seen, and the winding road down to the water remained largely clear. Sure, it was not the rare blue sky day that you see in the advertising, but the pinnacle of Mitre Peak emerged, the tide was in, and there was ample time for relaxation and reflection before hitting the water.

This was to be my third visit to Milford Sound and each time has offered different conditions. The first visit was one of those wet affairs that delivered little visibility, only compensated by numerous spectacular waterfalls plunging from the heavens; second time around gave some blue sky, a brisk breeze and significant glare; and today was without doubt the most placid I had seen it, clear, calm under a high level white sky. Seasickness would not be a problem.

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And so the obligatory cruise, which is a very pleasant experience but one which somehow you are fairly content to finish after two hours. Up to the Tasman Sea and back, taking in waterfalls, forests and seal-dotted rocks, neck-craned constantly to fathom the height of the precipitous mountains that encircle the fiord. The scale is hard to comprehend and harder to capture, but a steady stream of sightseeing planes and choppers looking the size of seagulls against the cliffs provided a persistent sense of perspective. All washed down by a ‘glacial facial’.

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Our cruise finished at 12:30, meaning we had time to pause along the road back to Te Anau. What was an empty coach park (containing at least 40 bays) when we set off on the boat was now crammed, and the tide receding and breeze rising had scuppered any iconic Mitre Peak reflections for the masses. Strategy or luck, it ran out briefly at The Chasm, where we lingered long for a car park and failed to find a delightful glade for lunch. But further stops along the highway offered more opportunity to delight, to take in waterfalls, peaks and pristine river valleys.

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Back in the Eglinton Valley – where it had all really started this morning – the warm sun was once again shining and the day did its very best to resemble an idyll. I was more than happy to linger here, to wallow in the golden grasses beside jade waters, while Dad wallowed in a little fishing time. And even if the trout don’t bite so much here, surely in such a setting netting doesn’t matter.

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It turns out the better (aka easier haha!) fishing spots are closer to Te Anau. A prime spot to dump Dad and take the hire car for a bit of an explore, down south of Te Anau to Manapouri. If Te Anau had a serene calm about it, Manapouri was decidedly comatose. But I mean that in a good way, the lake wild and rugged, visitors few and far between and mostly heading toward or coming back from trips to Doubtful Sound. Doubtless there are trout here too, on the edge of the world.

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With this little foray, three hours and five fish had passed and we joined up to dine on takeaway pizza in the car overlooking Lake Te Anau. The breeze was up, the weather closing in a little, the car rocking. Omens of the mostly fine post-cyclone weather that we had enjoyed in the last few days coming to an end. It was looking as if rain might just visit us again, transforming Milford Sound to a funnel of waterfalls and blowing us back towards our final stop, Queenstown.

 

[1] The day after our visit, Milford Sound received over 30 centimetres (not millimetres!) of rain

Driving Green Bogey Photography

100% pure

As well as death and taxes, a certainty in life is that there will be numerous #inspo quotes along the lines of needing to pass through storms to truly appreciate the sunshine or some such. Share if you agree, I bet five of my friends don’t have the courage to pass on and receive a lucky leprechaun candy crush bonus if you click like. But once you’ve done that just put that phone down and – on Thursday 22nd February in a small pocket of New Zealand around the town of Wanaka – look up and be in awe with the world.

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Inspiration is easy in the Matukituki valley, where a gravel road is criss-crossed by swollen fords and peppered with fields of sheep and – just for a touch of variety and confounding every single cliché – cows. Mountaintops are iced with luminescent fresh snow and numerous cascades stagger down the sheer sided slopes with gravity. The sky is blue, the air incrementally warming up, and the storm has passed to leave a (la la la) slice of heaven.

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I discovered this valley on a bigger trip in 2013, when conditions were benign, and a hire car could comfortably take the gravel road to Raspberry Creek in Mount Aspiring National Park without too much undue alarm. In our infinite wisdom this time around, Dad and I opted to book a shuttle bus following the rains of ex-tropical cyclone Gita, dropping us off at the trailhead for the Rob Roy Glacier walk. It was a memorable tramp back in 2013, and today it was possible that it became even better. The fresh snow helped, as did the cooler weather. And an early start meant we had beaten most of the parade of walkers getting increasingly sweaty as the day progressed.

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I think I may be a little bit in love with this valley. This is no doubt helped by the fact that it is a valley and thus offers very placid walking; so little effort for such great reward. But following the swing bridge across the river there is climbing on the cards, through the fragrant freshness of Beech forest, cool and dark and tantalising with the sound of water and glimpses of snow from Rob Roy Glacier above.

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NZb06In some ways the end of the track is something of an anti-climax, but only because the entire journey getting there has been as, if not more, enjoyable. Terminating close to the glacier, yet another waterfall for company, it is an ideal sandwich stop, a platform from which to take photos that cannot capture the all-round panorama of ice and snow and forest and water under big blue sunny skies. Dad and I two insignificant specks of unintentionally coordinated orange that have passed through the storm and into the light.

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Barely after 3 o’clock back in Wanaka and the day had given so much. Ice cream added more and a drive returning up alongside Lake Hawea and Lake Wanaka offered a chance to see spectacle in a far more appealing light. The sombre grey of past days transformed into vivid blues and greens radiating from these gargantuan lakes, fringed by the ridges and spires of mountain peaks still dusted with snow. Each lookout understandably dense with caravans and coaches and cars and cameras and selfie sticks.

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NZb08Lake Wanaka eventually ends and narrows into the valley of the Makarora River. Just past the township of Makarora another popular stop for caravans and coaches and cars and cameras are the jade pools of Blue Pools. With a gentle walk through a forest overflowing with hobbit hiding holes, two swing bridges and stony beaches suitable for building thousands of stupid piles of rocks that might look good in a picture but disturb the natural ecosystem, this is a busy spot. But yet again, as so many times in New Zealand, you can forgive the constant flow of people given the sheer beauty of the place, cognisant that you are just another nobody adding to the crowd anyhow. And with people comes stone-skimming fandom and plenty of fresh blood for the delightful sand flies that are in even greater abundance.

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Like sand flies feasting on a French backpacker, we were gorging on this incredible day, soaking up every ray of sunshine with the joy that follows two days of rain. Driving back to Wanaka, as the sun finally slunk behind mountains, we forced down some fush and chups by the lake before revisiting That Wanaka Tree under more benign conditions than before. A crowd was once again gathered to look at a tree, tripods precariously submersed in the lake to capture identical pictures, and selfies a popular pastime as ever. Maybe drones were barred (I noticed signs indicating as much in some places), which was helpful in order to hear the surreal sounds of a pianist serenading a tree, and selling CDs in the process. Cash might just grow on trees after all.

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NZb12Happily, the sunshine continued into the next day and it was good to finally see our Lake Hawea surroundings in a golden light. What comforted with cosiness during the storm also shone with charm in the summer sun. To me, Lake Hawea proved a good alternative to Wanaka, barely down the road but without the crowds and providing much more space. Indeed, under such big blue skies it was a shame to leave, to miss out on sitting in the garden, foraging in the greenhouse, rubbing the cat’s belly on the grass. But there was time for one last amble down to the lake shore, to the blue and green and gold and white of just another amazing little corner of this country. And time then to move on to yet another one.

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Green Bogey Photography Walking

A storm is coming

Awakening in Christchurch, sunlight streams through the gaps in the curtains as an occasional bird chirps softly from outside; a mellow, unremarkable suburbia from which to launch into the rugged South Island of New Zealand. Decked in shorts and sandals (lacking giveaway tourist socks), the air is warm and mood euphoric as my Dad and I hit the road south and west. A mood soon undermined by the unremitting boredom of a long drawn out trawl through the tractor lands of the Canterbury Plains. At Geraldine it is grey and chilly, the coffee and slice warming but rose gardens subdued. There is foreboding here.

Drizzle peps up a touch until we emerge into something a little brighter over Burkes Pass, sunlight accentuated golden by the open tussock country and craggy hills. Motorhomes, campers and APEX rental cars mill their way inconsistently over the landscape until that first tap of the brakes and last-minute swerve associated with being hit in the face by New Zealand. The glacial blue hues of Lake Tekapo.

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It’s understandably bustling but there is enough room to spare, a quick photo stop extended by the allure of the lake and a cursory sandwich for lunch expanded by the allure of the pies. And like many others, we finally drag ourselves away only to be hit by something even more remarkable down the road as Lake Pukaki comes into sight. A very popular roadside stop is earmarked by haphazard parking manoeuvres and irritating drones, but the view up the lake makes it a fair price to pay. Somewhere up there will be Aoraki, Mount Cook, and we’ll try and get a little closer.

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The fair weather lingers practically all the way to Mount Cook village, disappearing almost simultaneously with us crossing into the national park. Still, despite the odds and weather forecast it is largely dry, the darkest clouds sticking to the mountaintops closing in from three sides. There is a gloom, there is a chill, but we can at least walk along the valley of the Hooker, like many, many others less prepared for the change in the weather. With glacial lakes, swing bridges, a raging river, big rocks and open highland it is a bracing walk into New Zealand, a far cry from that Christchurch suburbia this morning. And while Aoraki decided to stick behind the clouds throughout, there was plenty of outdoors to embrace, and a developing downwind gale to take us back to the car.

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NZa06It was a noisy night in a house on the outskirts of Twizel. Not because of hoons doing burn outs or rampaging feral possums, but the iconic sound of raindrops on a tin roof. Many Australians go misty-eyed when you mention the sound of raindrops on a tin roof, as if in some kind of messed-up ballad by Banjo Patterson accompanied by dreadful Lamingtons, but I don’t see the appeal. How the fricking heck do you sleep? Turns out this rain may or may not have been associated with cyclone Gita, or ex-cyclone Gita, or whatever was heading our way for 48 hours or more…

And so I guess it was a good day to be in a car, driving across to Wanaka and a little way further to Lake Hawea. A good day to pick up red wine and a lump of pork to cook roast dinner. A good day to find yourself in a charming cottage with a log fire and a feline visitor. A good day to try and resist going stir-crazy.

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I think I awoke in the night as the rain stopped but I figure I must have been dreaming. Sure, there were times when it became slightly more like drizzle, but it never really ceased. Still, we both couldn’t sit in for a whole day even with a cat for company, and waterproofs and fleeces were invented for days like this. Days that reach a high of nine degrees Celsius in summer, days that warrant hot coffee and newspapers in Wanaka, days that can be salvaged with a walk in only moderately spitting precipitation up to a small lake.

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Possible benefits of this incessant wetness were a dispersal of crowds – at least away from the towns and shops, the bolstering of waterfalls, and – possibly – a coating of fresh snow higher up. While the latter was impossible to detect in the unending shroud of cloud, the waterfalls were in proliferation.

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NZa10Generally, I prefer waterfalls to crowds of tourists, but the crowds of tourists can provide useful guidance on the location of scenic stops. Like a tree on Lake Wanaka – That Wanaka Tree – which probably has its own Twitter account and features on every second Instagram post with the hashtag newzealand. We join a semicircle of tourists taking pictures of the tree, with the tree, around the tree, through other trees to the tree and generally marvel at the tree, which is a very pleasant, photogenic tree. And frankly, you can’t ask much more from a tree. Other than it to grow money…which it may have done given its ubiquity on the internet.

NZa11More waterfalls were spotted on a drive to the northern side of Lake Hawea late in the day. A stop for some Dad fishing which yielded a stop in the rain. Briefly the sun even emerged albeit a touch watery like everything else around. But for the first time in a long time the windscreen wipers on the car could be set to zero. And as we parked up following a peaceful drive back home, without a fire or cat in sight, the sky miraculously fired up red, to the shepherd’s – and tourist’s – delight. Perhaps the storm had come, and gone.

Driving Green Bogey Photography

Viewpoints

We all have viewpoints. Mine tend to be moulded in a woolly leftish laissez-faire egalitarianism which is open to paying extra tax for everyone to be educated, receive healthcare and live in an environment less likely to be heading towards a fiery doom. But I would say that because I am comfortably suckling at the teats of first world capitalist privilege and not really confronted with all the hazards of war, poverty,  illness or being able to cope with a few extra immigrants contributing to our collective prosperity or the alarmist perils of gay people being able to marry. It’s not very 007, but live and let live I say.

Thankfully the world has millions of apolitical viewpoints that are generally unchanging and far more impressive. A physical vista; a snapshot of what lies in front of your eyes every time you look up, back or around the corner. And amongst these scenes are many structured and grandly formalised viewpoints: the tourist lookouts set up for our collective exploration and viewing pleasure. The mountain tops and observation decks, the roadside turn outs and waterfall balconies, the plateau points and tunnel views, the Mecca to the coach tour pilgrims.

Yes, humans seem to adore lookouts and, yes, I am entirely culpable of some kind of sycophantic, unconditional love towards them. On a map my eyes will be drawn to the star or sunny symbol denoting a high point with a view; on the road, a directional sign indicating an overlook will be dutifully, religiously followed; on a trail, the aim will often be the top. Sometimes they will disappoint, other times they will marvel, always they will provide a purposeful sense of exploration and appreciation of the landscape.

A gauge on my viewpoint love-in can be deduced from this blog. It started at the top of the Empire State Building, sporadically flailing around the globe to sublime points and hurricane ridges, taking in fairytale views and homely vistas, reaching snowy high peaks, glacier points, and key summits, pausing for elegant city views before marvelling at wild canyon overlooks. It seems a written piece dedicated to viewpoints is merely an extension of everything that has come before. Surely there can be no lookouts left to look at, no vistas left to visit?

It is perhaps no coincidence that the city in which I (kind of) live is no stranger to viewpoints. On one particular hill, people gather with all sorts of different perspectives and childishly bicker about their views in an effort to cement these into legislation [1]. Still, the good thing is you can escape this nonsense and climb onto the roof of Parliament House for a much better view, noting many other viewpoints rising up within the 360 degree panorama of Canberra.

Phil Liggett, the renowned and rambling voice of cycling, would best describe Canberra’s terrain as ‘lumpy’, akin to those long tortuous days through the Breton countryside. Sure, less verdant and lacking real quality cheese, but rarely a piece of sustained flat on which to take a breather. The geography offers a number of hills, ridges and ‘mountains’, with suburban streets clustered into undulating bowls and smaller hummocks. It’s a landscape of amphitheatres within one bigger colosseum, where numerous viewpoints are the upper circles looking down on a sedate and civilised performance.

I rather cherish these tops, particularly as they usually involve a varied and energetic walk through grasslands and Eucalypt woods, a smattering of kangaroos and darting blurs of birdlife accompanying the trip up. Each hill acts as a beacon calling, a bastion of nature and wildlife with an inevitable, reliably scenic viewpoint at its summit.

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There are varying degrees of effort required for the ascent of Canberra’s hills and peaks. This brings us to a consideration of the effort-reward ratio sometimes involved in attaining a view. That is, will the view be worth the effort required to reach it? Sometimes this is blatantly in the positive, such as pulling over on the roadside and easily waddling to a nicely paved lookout over an expanse of wild forest and mountainous outcrops. On other occasions, the effort-reward ratio veers towards the negative that is a plodding, endless haul up a Scottish Munro in the cloying rain to a view of two whole metres of blanket misty white.

The effort input is – I would say – very high to extreme on the Tongariro Crossing on the north island of New Zealand. To start, there is an alarm call of 4:30am and pre-dawn gloom to navigate the initial gravelly meander along a long, narrowing valley. As the valley nears its end there is an inevitable sense of foreboding about the onward route; it is clear that there can be only one way to continue and, as Yazz & the Plastic Population screams in your head to make things even better, the only way is up. Up along the invitingly named Devil’s Staircase.

Steps and zigzags mark the way from here, but at least the emerging landscape offers the chance to use that little trick of taking a photo every ten paces, more for an intake of oxygen rather than genuine quest for photographic perfection. However, with heart pounding, head dizzying and legs in a brittle strain of tension, even that becomes a bit much to persevere with [2]. The top does come and there is an adrenaline boost of reward, quickly flattened like the astounding lifeless volcanic plateau of the South Crater on which you stand. For this is but a halfway point and over this one ridge another higher one rises.

While the first climb was hard going, at least it was well-graded and decently constructed with switchbacks and steps. On the second, the loose scree and large boulders of an ever narrowing and ever steepening arête have you wishing for a fat hobbit to carry you on his back. But as energetic youth bound their way up and past you without any offers of assistance, there is motivation to continue at your own pace. Effort inputs are maximised for reward outputs that are logarithmic in scale.

The viewpoint from the top of Red Crater is staggering in many ways. Staggering in directions and distance you can see; staggering in the otherworldly landscape of smooth craters and conical peaks and blasted red mountainsides and steaming green pools; staggering in the knowledge that the earth from underneath you could blow up as you bite into a deliciously fulfilling ham sandwich; and staggering because you made it. Here, the big effort makes for exponentially greater rewards.

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Effort to reach a viewpoint comes in many forms and a final case in point can be illustrated via an afternoon in the Arkaroola Wilderness of South Australia. Indeed, this particular afternoon on a gloriously sunny late autumn day involved sitting down for two hours to reach a pinnacle called Sillers Lookout. Sitting down is surely the easiest thing in the world, but becomes infinitely more difficult when seated sideways in the semi-open back of a 4×4 that is traversing a corrugated rock-scape at precipitous gradients.

Sitting at the back, there is a different physical effort here which fluctuates with an uphill or downhill stretch of ‘road’. Uphill and it is a case of bracing the body from being squashed by the collective ample weight of other passengers and preventing it from falling out of the back; downhill and the effort is on not squashing your fellow passengers too much and falling forward to the front. Beyond these physical endeavours there is the effort to – at various points – make conversation with grey nomads, avoid swallowing flies, concentrate on not being sick, and pretending to be excited that the afternoon tea involves that underwhelming favourite: Lamingtons.

V_arkAll I can say is that it is a good job afternoon tea occurs at the ultimate viewpoint of this ridge top tour. In the afternoon, with the sun lowering it is a quite incredible vista of absolute primitive and earthen wilderness. No doubt shaped by that perennial favourite of ancient inland seabed activity, the scene is a very Australian red, with a very Australian sense of harshness and ferocity, which is somehow very, very beautiful. And despite the different perspectives and world views of the people here to see it this afternoon, it is a viewpoint we can all agree is special…a reward that comes with all good viewpoints.


[1] Meanwhile, journalists lazily refer to ‘Canberra’ as imposing these views on the rest of the country: ‘Canberra slugs unfair tax on mining billionaires’, ‘Canberra scraps science funding’, ‘Canberra hits the hip pocket of working families’. Bloody Canberra, is it any wonder there are so many negative connotations from people who have never been here?

[2] Meanwhile, lithe and energetic teens annoyingly bound their way past and, to add to the enjoyment, you are rudely reminded of ageing.

Links

Bumps in the ACT: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mountains_in_the_Australian_Capital_Territory

Canberra Nature Park: http://www.tams.act.gov.au/parks-recreation/parks_and_reserves/canberra_nature_park

Tongariro Alpine Crossing: http://www.tongarirocrossing.org.nz/

Tongariro National Park: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/tongariro/

Carry me Sam: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/Mount_Doom

Hold on to your hats: http://www.arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php

Some more top views: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com.au/travel/top-10/vistas/#page=1

A to Z Activities Australia Photography Places Walking

Momentum

I do tend to like a song that builds; one that’s all tender and melancholy to begin, subtle layers of sound layered with every soft verse until they rise into a crashing crescendo of strings and vocals and guitars and tambourines and bassoons and triangles and maracas and backing singers, passing out in an epic conclusion. Well, I didn’t expect that, may be your reaction if you hadn’t listened to it a hundred times already. What could have been so dreary gradually gains pace and noise, rhythm and harmony, and comes with a climax that makes you feel good and want to cry out loud. Which you sometimes do when not in company or stopped at traffic lights.

There are many parallels to be had between music and travel. Both offer the chance of escape, an exposure to culture, and a form of enjoyment (or annoyance!). We often listen to music while we travel and we often travel while listening to music. Indeed, catch any bus or train today and see if you can spot anyone who is not attached to a small electronic device by some white wires sticking out of their ears or a pair of oversize earmuffs like they are some kind of Craig David wannabe. Craaaaaiiiiiiiig David. And like a good piece of music (i.e. not Craig David), can there be anything better than travel experiences that gather an unexpectedly irresistible momentum and culminate in an ecstatic high? Transformative moments which end with you pinching yourself to check that they really happened?

Well, picture the scene on the far south coast of New Zealand, in a picturesque swathe of countryside and coast making up The Catlins. Alas today, like many days no doubt, is grey and a constant chill wind blows off an iron sea. Mist and drizzle occasionally grips the rocky tumult of the seashore and hovers among dense, dark forests. It’s Waitangi Day, a national holiday, but there is little sign of people gathering in revelry, the area remote and sparsely inhabited. It feels as though banjo-plucking will be echoing through the rolling valleys as the van propels itself on the few remaining drops of petrol in its tank. But that would perhaps be a bit too chirpy a soundtrack for this uninspiring morning.

It’s been a few days like this now…swishing wipers down to Dunedin and braving gaps in weather to look at seals and seabirds, admiring their resolve to make a bombarded clump of grey rock their home. Home for me has mostly been the van and it smells damp. It’s also almost out of petrol now, but there is a town or two coming up. The first offers a small garage but a wonky handwritten sign tells me I would have better luck going to the next stop along. It’s only twenty kilometres, but lights, heating, radio and lead foot driving are all dispelled while the red warning light continues to taunt me. And these valiant attempts mean that the van makes it to a town with another closed petrol station.

This is the low, and there has got to be a way to climb out of it. At the other end of town from the petrol station that is also a visitor centre and shop and fishing bait store and whatever else not being offered for sale today, is a house that has a banner for ice cream beside the road. I’m not sure whether this is a shop or cafe or just someone’s shed with a few trinkets in. I didn’t see any ice cream, but then I wasn’t really looking. The owner – we shall call him Pat (because I don’t remember his name) – looks bemused when asked whether the petrol station is open. “Well, if it don’t look like it’s open I guess it’s not open”. For once, endearing Kiwi frankness not very endearing. “I’ll call Nigel”.

Whoever Nigel was he wasn’t so keen to speak to Pat, the phone line mysteriously cutting out on the first contact attempt. Things looked bleak, while my exterior has a forlorn look about it, inside I was quietly sobbing. This would not be a great place to stay for another night…and it was barely 10am. Behind his beard Pat could sense this, so he tried another call and this time successfully woke Nigel from his hungover slumber. Nigel, it turns out, could fill our car with petrol. Begrudgingly so and clearly needing another beer to kick start his day, but he gave up some liquid gold (at a commensurate price) nevertheless. Nigel and Pat, two unlikely saviours, a solid backing coming in to give thrust to this song of a day.

So it was that the van comfortably made its way to Invercargill where it could properly fill up its tank on petrol and cruise past the disproportionate amount of drive-through liquor stores which do a roaring trade [1]. M_catsInvercargill represented a line in the sand and from here the journey was west and north. Straight out of a Tolkien tale, the town of Riverton was a necessary pit stop that became late morning tea. If Pat and Nigel kick-started the van, this was the sugar comfort hit that kick-started the endorphins.

Somewhere between Riverton and Te Anau the sun emerged, weakly at first but increasing in frequency, offering a pleasant symphony of colour and warmth across the landscape. This was turning into a very different day, a day where you need to change into shorts at Te Anau itself, because it is warm and clear and sparkling. A day where you need to savour a ham sandwich beside the beautiful lake but avoid lingering too long because it can still get even better. From here, Fiordland National Park is waiting.

There is a dead end road from Te Anau, but it is no dead end of discarded breeze blocks and tumbleweed tottering in the wind. Its terminus is Milford Sound and the route to it must rank as one of the most awe-inspiring in the world. The scenery is so grand it will make Gandalf look small, as the road follows valley and plain, fringes a series of small lakes and eventually has to cut through the mountains to get down to the precipitous chasm of water that is Milford Sound.

It is a journey where you want to pull over at every available opportunity and take a dozen photos and pinch yourself again because it is so inexplicably sunny and warm and better than what could have been. Eglinton Valley is a perfect place to do this, with its broad plain of swaying gold grass tantalising you to loll around in it like you are five again. Or, as is often the case in such mountainous terrain, break out like Julie Andrews and proclaim the hills to be alive. But I can save that for a higher vantage, a reward for a walk and a lofty paradise in the late afternoon sun.

Can there be anything better to do than getting out in this environment on foot, leaving the van far behind and below. A walk. A hike. A tramp! Who would have thought it this morning? It’s a bit of a climb but sure and steady, inspiration added by being on a section of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s premier multi-day tramps. With forest at first there is little to see beyond the dark green boughs and flourishing fronds. It is cool and shady, serene and ancient. Occasional glimpses sight the road down in the valley or tops of mountains still a long way above. Then, all of a sudden, the vegetation clears and you are reaching the crescendo.

A few more steep zigzags and you emerge onto a rolling plateau – Key Summit [2] – where the hills do seem to be alive with the sound of music. Small tarns pepper the bright green grass and forests continue to spread over and along the hillsides. The late afternoon sun, still warm and pristine, highlights the pleasingly rocky Humboldt Range as it disappears north and east. The bright light battles with towering peaks that plummet to the west, down into the waters of the fiords and Tasman Sea. Far below, the van sits with half a tank of petrol, happy to rest and sit vacant and linger in memories of Nigel.

M_keysummit

It’s an immense ending to an indifferent start, a reminder that things change for the better all of the time. You may have gotten out of bed the wrong side or endured a period of drab drizzle, but the sun does always shine again.[3] And shine again it did for many more days on that trip of New Zealand – on Milford Sound the next day and into the mountains after, glistening off the amazing bays of Abel Tasman and striking dramatic light on the volcanic doom of the north island. Indeed, such is its remarkableness it doesn’t take much to gain momentum in New Zealand. Just a little bit of petrol and some good tunes along the way.


[1] They do call this region ‘The Scotland of the South’ after all.

[2] I don’t think named after New Zealand’s current Prime Minister

[3] At least for something crazy like 500 billion years or whatever Brian Cox said in some documentary, by which time we would have easily destroyed everything anyway

Links

The kitty kat Catlins: http://www.catlins.org.nz/

Amazing Fiordland: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/national-parks/fiordland/

Dirty tramp: http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/tracks-and-walks/fiordland/northern-fiordland/routeburn-track/

Route to Routeburn: http://neiliogb.blogspot.it/2013/02/finding-me-marbles-christchurch-to.html

A to Z Driving Walking

Icefields

Despite being composed of perishing frozen particles there seems to be an inherent allure to the presence of snow and ice. I wonder if Eskimos feel the same way.

Maybe this romantic view is nourished in temperate climes, where snow falls are but an irregular memory of childhood. Something scarce is prized, and I can sombrely recall that when winter rain sweeps in to Plymouth, turning to snow pretty much everywhere but Plymouth, it delivers a fresh pile of disappointment. In Australia, no such disappointment because there really is no such expectation, with only the tiniest, highest pockets of land periodically subject to frozen weather. Still, at least they are generally reliable.

Away from Australia (and Plymouth) I have had the fortune to brace myself for arctic conditions, ghost through flurries of snow, and marvel at sweeping icefields, like a crow from atop a very big wall. Even just across the ditch, in New Zealand, one can appreciate the aesthetic value added by the white stuff, which has carved out its valleys and shaped its lofty mountain spires; peaks on which snow and ice still perches precariously and sweeps down graciously until it feeds into crystal clear rivers of melt water. Ninety-nine percent water and one percent fish, so it is said.

Such attractions are not without peril however, particularly if you decide to sled bungee flying fox BASE jump black raft off them. And because of their allure, they are incredibly popular, the two west coast glaciers – Fox and Franz Josef – a mandatory stop for coach tours, campervans and Apex International drivers everywhere. Indeed, in high season the walk to see the crumbly, dirty dust-coated moraine of Fox Glacier is an orderly procession of ages and nations. The old and overweight defy impending heart attack. Chinese and Japanese and Korean visitors dutifully file their way along for picture stops, wrapped up against the cold. British visitors do the same, basking in shorts. Youngsters scramble without fear over rocks and creeks, and Aussies stride nonchalantly along in thongs. Somehow here the grandeur and spectacle of the landscape becomes a little diminished.

Crowds bustle about just as much on a beautifully clear summer’s morning in Chamonix, France. Here, in an ever narrowing valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, glaciers creep down towards the pine forests bordering the town. The mechanic shrills of souvenir marmots cut through the Gallic hubbub, as people wait for lifts to take them to precipitous heights. Indeed, the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi takes them up some 2,807 metres in 20 minutes. It’s an alarming rise that leaves you a little breathless, literally and then metaphorically once you are confronted with the dazzling ice world around. Up here the crowds seem less intrusive, limited as they are through access, muted by an oxygen depleted sense of drunkenness, and made minuscule by the perspective of being near four kilometres above sea level; most of the Alps seem to be on view, stretching across three countries in a series of rocky turrets and icy hollows. A rare, and staggering, European wilderness.

 I_alps

Anyone would think I don’t like people given my desire to experience such places without being part of an inevitable tourist procession. Well, let me say that first I quite like some people and secondly I cherish the chance to share some of these places with them. In fact, some of the more memorable moments of life are the random conversations you have with random strangers in random places. Like waiting with like-minded photo seekers for cloud to never clear from mountain tops in the Cascade Mountains, or trying to translate the feverish sighting of marmots from Italian to French to English to a Japanese visitor heading down a mountain railway in Switzerland. It turns out most people are just like you and me, the common bond of the experience overshadowing any differences at that point in time. A smile is a smile in any language.

In fact I’m not immune to being part of a bigger tour group…sometimes it is nice to let someone else take control and just go with the flow, especially when having decisions to make equals indecisiveness. Plus longer tours over days and weeks provide a fascinating ethnographic experience [1]. At the start individuals unbeknown to one another mutter polite greetings and eye one another with caution. A few break the ice with time-honoured inquisitions of where do you come from and where have you been. Barriers break on the first good walk or, more likely, the first few beers. By the end of the night you are BFFs with Darlo from Wonthaggi and within a week you cannot imagine not being with this same group of people, getting on this same bus, stopping at viewpoints, eating meals and sharing a beer or two practically every day. Yeah, cliques may form and these may or may not include the rejection of people initially embraced as BFFs, but the group dynamic remains in a fluidly socially cohesive melting pot of fluctuating hormones and alcohol.

And this, my friends, is an encapsulation of a Contiki tour, albeit a description that is unlikely to be used by their marketing department. For those not in the know, a Contiki tour is a particularly popular way to see the world for 18-35 year olds, especially Australians who have 14 days to see every country in Europe [2]. With a core populace of 18-35 year old Australians there tends to be a significant emphasis on end-of-day drinking, but not without a range of energetic activities and processional sightseeing stops in the day. The relevance of a Contiki tour, and justification for my written meandering, is that I did one once. It was in Canada, with the blue and white bus traversing an incredible stretch of road called the Icefields Parkway. Finally, back on topic.

The Icefields Parkway links the Canadian Rocky Mountain towns of Jasper and Banff. I would love to go back since I cannot recall every instant and every stop, this before the days of blogging and digital photography. And I would love to have my own wheels and take my own time this time around. I seem to remember that along this road, around every corner, there is a panoramic view which you wouldn’t find out of place in a Rocky Mountains 2002 calendar. Bulky grey mountains laced with white rise up from all angles, as glaciers stream downwards, melting into rapids and falls and filling the most incredible blue green lakes. Huge swathes of fragrant pine forest fringe the lakes and valleys, a dark cover for elk and moose and bear.

It turns out the easiest way to spot a bear is to look for the cars and caravans parked beside the side of the road and the coaches slowing to a crawl. Once closer, a telltale sign is the sight of someone with a very big lens snooping around the undergrowth, fringed by other enthusiastic amateurs decorated with silver compact zoom cameras and, I guess now, iPads and iPhones and Surfaces and Robots. No-one seems to figure that the bear might just be interested in the hands and arms and torsos holding these devices, so long as you can get a good shot to post on your wall [3]. The other approach to spotting bears is to have a really nice picnic in a wicker basket and hang about in a national park with an uptight ranger. By contrast, moose spotting is much easier given they are generally roaming loose aboot hooses.

Apart from bears, other highlights of the Icefields Parkway are fluid, from the glaciers to waterfalls and rapids and lakes. During my trip, a ride on the Athabasca Glacier on some huge wheeled contraption afforded an opportunity to walk on ice and clear the head. The wonder of glacial till (or flour) culminates at Peyto Lake, with its incredible colour and picture postcard viewpoint. More subdued but serene is Lake Louise, with a fine grand hotel and gardens at one end, and wilderness beyond, with the seemingly impenetrable Lefroy Glacier a barrier to further exploration. And dotted along the road, at turn-ins and parking stops, are any number of rivers and falls and forests for bears to lurk within.

 Canadian Rockies

(Picture credits here go to my brother. I think I had an old film camera and do not have any pictures in electronic format)

The end of the spectacular Icefields Parkway trip came at Banff, another well-kept resort kind of town. Here, the Contiki tour pulled out all the stops, with a three night layover in some rather charming mountain style lodges. Of course these provided a good opportunity for house parties and sleepovers, but it was nice to wander a little down the street and run into random elk crossing the road. There were also some optional extras – probably sky diving and white water slaloming but I just went on the day trip to Calgary. My abiding memory of Calgary was the raised walkways linking buildings and malls so that people can avoid the metres of snow piled up below over the long winter months. You see snow may be alluring, but I guess it would be a real pain in the arse to live with for half of the year.

The Icefields Parkway was just one part of the trip in Western Canada but probably the most spectacular. I came to realise that Canada and Canadians were rather special and this endures today in friendships, a love of maple syrup and fondness for movies starring John Candy. I wish I could remember more about it, but time hazes memories and written records are scarce. I think back to Canada and it was the first time, apart from those snows that only seem to entrance childhood, that I witnessed the astounding impression that ice can make. It’s perhaps no wonder I have been drawn back, to the Alps of France and Switzerland and peaks and lakes of Slovenia, the High Sierras of California and Cascade Mountains of Washington, the upside down Alps of New Zealand and even the rounded Snowy Mountains of Australia. I am quite happy to enjoy the pleasures of a beach and the proximity of the coast, but what invigorates me, what takes my breath away, are mountains. Mountains that are even better served with ice.


[1] Excuse my sociologically geographical anthropological research terminology that I used once when I did some stuff like about something

[2] Today: breakfast in Paris with a coffee and chocolate stop in Belgium, before reaching Amsterdam for some lunch / clogs / drugs / rooting, and then onto Berlin to buy some wall and drink oversize tankards of frothy beer with serving wenches. Optional sky dive over Denmark.

[3] I’m entirely culpable of this, though I tend to favour pictures of cakes which are typically a lot safer.

Links

NZ glacier country: http://www.glaciercountry.co.nz/

New Zealand highs: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/on-high-ground-te-anau-to-franz-josef.html

Aiguille du Midi: http://www.chamonix.net/english/sightseeing/aiguille_du_midi.htm

Le Massif Massif: http://neiliogb.blogspot.com.au/2008/08/fromage-foray.html

Life is a Highway: http://www.contiki.com/

Entrancing on ice: http://www.icefieldsparkway.ca/

Smarter than average: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DPbLJnbRTF8

A to Z Driving Europe Food & Drink Photography USA & Canada Walking