Thursday, 9 August 2018

Alsp2Ocean 5: I Must Go Down to the Sea

Only a child’s geography would have mountains leading to the sea in a smooth, uninterrupted, downhill flow. We’ve been learning that for days now, but we’re a little slow on the uptake. Day 5 hammers it in yet again.

[Lynne at Elephant Rocks: Is It Downhill Yet?] 
Our first uphill leads to and around Elephant Rocks, aptly named limestone lumps that stud the verdant grassland. The area is dotted with sheep the same hue as the rocks. We have more than 50km to ride, but there’s a relaxed feel to this, our final day. 

[Ready to leave on our final day] 
We’ve enjoyed a warming porridge for breakfast, ideal for the chill that’s still in the air. And now we’re enjoying the scene from Elephant Rocks. Beyond the green fields there’s plenty of snow on the grand sweep of higher hills and mountains to the west.

[Sheep and rocks at Elephant Rocks] 
We warm up as we puff our way up and around the steep limestone hills. By the time we’re nearing Island Cliff, the sheep have been replaced by cattle, which shelter beneath the limestone escarpment. On the downhill run Tim has raced ahead, only to ride back to us from the bottom so he can fang down the slope again. I video his antics, including some brief airborne moments and a few whoops of delight.

[Cattle and limestone walls near Island Cliff] 
We pay for the fun with a long and steady climb. I’m behind now, having stopped for a few too many photographs, and no matter how hard I ride I can’t seem to catch up. It’s Tim’s turn to video as I struggle up the long last climb. The van is parked tantalisingly at the brow of a hill, and it feels as though everyone else is lined up like barrackers on Le Tour. This feeds both my pride and my stubborn streak. I’m not getting off and walking now!

Accompanied by Tim’s mock sports commentary I wheeze and wobble my way to the top. At least I think it’s the top. It turns out there’s more hill to climb yet. That’s the bad news: the good news is that Joh is offering us a lift in Morrison for the kilometre or two to the top. She wants us in Oamaru in reasonable shape, and not too late!

My pride evaporates. As soon as I’ve got my breath back and had a coffee, I’m helping the others load bikes into the trailer. But now it’s Lynne’s turn to show a stubborn streak. She wants to keep riding to the top, albeit with e-bike assistance, so she sets off ahead of the van. We only catch up with her just before the (actual) top. Her smile is almost as wide as the views we’re now getting, including glimpses of the ocean.

Has the landscape just been playing with us these past few days? Like some half-tamed beast, one moment it’s growled at us, the next it’s lifted us onto its back for a better view. We’ve certainly never been allowed to settle into complacency. But now we can actually see our destination, and it really does look as if it’s all downhill from here!

There are some exciting twists and turns to negotiate first, including the dark of the Rakis Railway Tunnel. (So that’s why we were supplied with torches!) Beyond the tunnel the track continues to follow an old rail line, curvaceous, gently inclined and all downhill. 

["Hi Ho!" Lynne "off to work" in the Rakis Tunnel] 
We speed down to our lunch stop near Windsor. And then a route detour leads us to the fascinating Elderslie Estate, a grand Victorian era property that still reflects a bit of its former glory. Some say that the famous Phar Lap was born at the Elderslie stud, although it’s more likely that he was only conceived here. Regardless, even if he was only here as a twinkle in his sire’s eye, the stables have a grand-if-neglected place among the estate buildings.

[Tim and Lynne at the derelict Elderslie Estate stables] 
We continue on past the village of Enfield and on to the town of Weston. If it’s slightly uphill, we’re past worrying. The land-beast has continued to be in a playful, teasing mood, summoning up a final shower of rain to accompany us down the final few kilometres into Oamaru. The sealed cycleway avoids the busy city outskirts, instead taking us in via the beautiful Oamaru Gardens. Tim, Lynne and I gather together in the gardens before processing into the city proper. 

[Nearly there! A final pause in the Oamaru Gardens] 
We cross a few trafficked roads and ride into the old Victorian era precinct that surrounds the Oamaru Harbour and Friendly Bay. A large picture frame on the foreshore marks the end of the ride. After hugs and handshakes, we gather together in the frame. A friendly passer-by snaps a group photograph, and it’s all over. 5 days, more than 260km across the South Island, from near its high point to this Pacific coast.

As a final gesture I walk down to the shore of Friendly Bay and touch the water. The waves lap on the sand, small and gently percussive. I fancy it’s the sound of the land-beast wagging its tail.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Alps2Ocean 4: Dam Cold

Yesterday’s sleet turned out to be only an hors d’oeuvre. Overnight the main course was delivered: proper snow. And not just in the mountains. A dusting covered the ground in Omarama, and as we sat down to a hot breakfast in the warm hotel, a fresh flurry blew through. Guests rushed to the windows, ooing and aahing. Our group exchanged raised-eyebrow looks. Snow and ice don’t make for great riding conditions.

[Snowy hills across Lake Benmore] 
But I had another concern. Yesterday’s downhill hammering had done me some mischief. I’d been unable to lift my heavy luggage without wincing in pain. It seemed I’d sprained my wrist and/or damaged a tendon. Lynne and Joh saw my struggles, and both were concerned about me riding. Joh decided to strap my wrist. As she finished, even though I’m old enough to be her father, she gave me one of those “doubtful mum” looks. She didn’t want me riding if I was going to be unsafe, or at risk of further injury. I made a braking motion with the thumb and fingers of my affected hand, then gave a thumbs-up. There weren’t any rough sections today: what was there to worry about?

[Signalling the start of Day Four at Benmore Dam] 
Not even the weather, it turned out. By the time we were ready to leave, the sky was clearing, and the snowline had lifted far enough to ease our worries. But it was still very cool, and we threw all our cold weather gear into the van. As Joh drove us to Benmore Dam and the start of the day’s cycling, we rubber-necked out the windows at the spectacular views of snowy hills and mountains.

There is something inherently cold about concrete, and Benmore Dam – deeply shaded beneath newly snowy hills – provided a perfect example. Jackets, gloves, leggings and wool beanies beneath our helmets were all essential for the fast downhill section from the dam to the next hydro lake, Lake Aviemore. Tim had even added some plastic bags over his still-damp socks, to keep the wind chill down.

If an uphill can ever be merciful to any cyclist apart from Richie Porte, the couple of small climbs along the lakeshore helped get our internal combustion going. By the time we’d ridden the long sealed road section to the Aviemore Dam, we were thawed enough to appreciate the spectacular views across to the snow-capped hills. And more than ready to find Joh and Morrison for a warming cuppa.

[Tim and snow-capped hills in the Waitaki Valley] 
Backroads and cycle trails took us down the Waitaki River valley, firstly beside Waitaki Lake to the next dam, and then alongside the river. Along the way I thought afresh about the conundrum that is “100% Pure New Zealand”. We spent most of the day riding past hydro-electric lakes, rivers staunched by dams, countryside criss-crossed with transmission lines and surrounded by once-forested hills that are now cleared and covered with sheep and cattle. In truth we’d found the scenery entrancing. But little of it has remained natural or “pure”. Ask around a bit, and dig beneath the surface, and you’ll find plenty of environmental problems here, from dairy farming pollution to feral infestations. New Zealand’s is an ecosystem that is anything but pure. But I suppose marketers can’t – or won’t – sell complex, compromised stories, until we tourists and travellers demand a more-than superficial response to the places we visit.

We finally reached town of Kurow. This is wine country, and we were more than happy to stop at a winery for lunch and a tasting. Lynne had been having knee problems, and opted to join the others who’d chosen to do the next section in the van. In one breath I commiserated with her; in the next I asked if she’d mind if I rode her e-bike for the next section. Given that only Tim and I were riding the next section, it was the only way I’d keep up with him!

[In the vineyards near Kurow] 
It was still windy and a little wet as we wound our way through vineyards on the very pleasant bike-only trail. Tim had plans of his own, and put me in front so he could ride in my e-powered slipstream. “As good as two extra gears” he told me, as I tried to make sure I made no sudden moves that could land us both in a ditch. For some of the trail we whizzed along beside the Waitaki River, now free from its damming, and flowing fast, braided and blue through the broadening countryside.

At a few points we had to slow to cross side streams, one of which contributed to more wet socks. After a fast and furious hour or so, the trail led us back to the main SH83 road, where Joh and Morrison (our van) met us. We had a quick look at the fascinating Takiroa Maori rock art site. A steep limestone overhang is set amongst green pasture, and from about 1400 AD, Maori decorated the cliff walls in both ochre and charcoal. Some decorations have apparently been removed or defaced over the years, and the site is a shadow of what it once would have been.

[Limestone cliffs at the Maori rock art site] 
In the warm comfort of Morrison we sped back over countryside we’d just ridden through – albeit on a different road – and arrived back in Kurow. There, in newish accommodation called Waitaki Braids, we cleaned up before spending a very enjoyable night wining and dining. The beauty of a hard day’s riding is the feeling that it’s okay to splash out like this in your down time.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Alps2Ocean 3: Ohau We Rode!

For the first two days of our ride we’d persisted with the “it’s all downhill from Aoraki/Mt Cook to the ocean” story. And that’s because it had, as far as Lake Ohau Lodge, been largely downhill. Day 3 was to tell a different tale.

[The innocent-looking start of the track on Day 3] 
It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned. Joh, our guide, had always briefed us well on what lay ahead of us. Our third day was to be our longest day, and also the toughest in terms of track surface and gradient. She’d said it would take about two hours of riding, quite steeply uphill, before we reached the day’s high point at Tarnbrae. She added that, from her experience, most riders got off and walked at least part of that section. That sounded to me like a challenge in two parts! Firstly could I beat 2 hours? And secondly would I need to get off and walk at any stage?

[On the long climb from Lake Ohau] 
Pride, ego, willpower, stubbornness – I could never settle on what to call it – can be strong motivators. Part way up the nearly 500m climb I had that theory reinforced. Riding alone, I was pushing steadily upwards, negotiating the odd rough bit of track – and occasional urges to stop and rest – as best I could. I sipped from my water bottle, adjusted my position on the bike, searched hard for the most efficient gear, and generally felt I was going well. Then I heard a group coming up behind me. They were clearly going faster than me, and politely asked to overtake. I watched as the three women and three men – all a bit younger than me – slid past and cycled on ahead. Slightly stung by this, I upped my tempo, deciding I would do all I could to keep up with these upstarts! But then I noticed the tell-tale battery packs on the rear racks of their bikes. I laughed at myself, and left them to try their luck at catching Lynne, who had already used her e-bike advantage to power ahead of me.

Then the reality of using only leg and lung power started to bite. And based on Joh’s description, the slope was only going to get more severe. But just as I was beginning to mentally wilt, the track passed through the first of a series of pretty forested areas that clustered along three cascading creeks. A photo opportunity! What better way to earn a break while fooling myself that I haven’t really stopped?

[A creek-side stop on the ascent] 
And so, through a series of tricks, evasions, and sheer bloody-mindedness, I was surprised to round a bend and find the “Tarnbrae High Point” sign. I was further delighted to find that I’d taken 1 hour and 40 minutes, and hadn’t had to walk the bike at any stage. I celebrated the moment with a couple of cyclists from Canberra. We took high point photos for each other and compared notes on the ride thus far. We were all very glad that it really WAS all downhill from here.

[At the 900m high point above Lake Ohau] 
As I had been slowly catching up to the Canberrans on the ascent, they suggested I lead off on the descent. I quickly checked my front shocks, which hadn’t been working very convincingly, and set off at speed. This was going to be the fun pay-back for that 100 minutes of grunty ascent! For the first time on the trip I felt as though I was doing “proper” mountain biking. It was steeply downhill, with some sharp turns, plenty of bumps and a lot of rough gravel. I thought I must be powering ahead of the Canberra couple, but on one curve I noticed they were quite close behind. Time to put the foot on the accelerator!

It became a wild and very bumpy ride, but I gripped the handle bars, leaned forward and pedalled as hard as I could, braking only when I really needed to. Towards the toe of the scrubby slope there were a couple of rocky creeks that I ploughed through a little too fast. My arms took quite a bit of the shock, and my feet ended up sodden, but I was exhilarated. Finally the downhill levelled off, and the track closed in on Quailburn Woolshed. Joh had arranged to meet us there in Morrison for a late morning tea break.

Lynne had been waiting there for quite a while, and had some cake and a cuppa ready. Joh had been in phone contact with the rest of the group, and thought they were probably well behind. So after a good break, Lynne and I decided to push on together. We’d put in a lot of effort so far, and were a little disheartened to realise we weren’t even a third of the way to our day’s end destination at Otematata. Although the Quailburn Road wasn’t all sealed, at least it was both easy and quiet. With heads down and legs pushing, we eventually reached the pleasant banks of the Ahuriri River, and the short ride into the town of Omarama. That’s where we would all gather together for a late lunch before the final push to Otematata.

[Lynne taking a break beside the Ahuriri River] 
Of course there was one more twist to the day’s ride. Tim, Lynne and I were the ones silly enough to ride the final section. The other two had succumbed to the comforts of Morrison, and a ride in the van to our accommodation. We imagined that the downhill section from Otematata Saddle into the town itself would be a gentle free-wheeling cruise. The weather decided otherwise. Cloud had been building up all afternoon, and now a biting wind was blowing. As we rode those final kilometres, cold, sleety rain lashed us. We were supposed to meet Joh at the Benmore Dam, a few kilometres after Otematata. 

[Sheltering from the sleet at Otematata] 
But all the pride in the world wasn’t going to keep us out in that weather any longer. Instead, having reached the bottom of the hill and the town boundary, we rode just a hundred metres further to the town pub. After a 65km day, we had the energy to order drinks, call Joh to let her know where to find us, and slump down beside the fire. Sometimes enough is enough!

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Alps2Ocean 2: Cracker of a Day

We started our 2nd day with a substantial breakfast, fuel for the 50km day ahead. A quick walk outside told us we should supplement that inner fuel with a layer of warmer outer clothing. A stiff breeze was blowing, it was colder than yesterday, and showers were forecast.

[Set to start day 2 near Lake Pukaki] 
Then we clambered back onboard Morrison (our van). A certain amount of van shuttling was necessary some days, as our accommodation wasn’t always at the end of the day’s ride. So today that snakes and ladders element of the trip saw us snaking from Twizel back to Lake Pukaki. There we got back on our bikes in a stark gravelled area, a remnant from the vast hydro-electric development that has strongly marked this region.

The Pukaki Flats section was a pleasant, easy off-road ride, and it felt good to be riding again. That ladder soon took us back to Twizel, where Joh had arranged to meet us for coffee. Apparently Twizel was to be a temporary hydro-electric construction village, but it defied its use-by date. It has now become a thriving tourism hub, not least because of cycling. The coffee shop had a dozen bikes parked outside, and more lycra-clad patrons inside than most city coffee spots on a Sunday.

[Lynne, Tim and Dave nearing Twizel] 
After Twizel we rode a longish backroad section towards the Ohau Canal. Our beautiful backdrop was the Ben Ohau mountains, a range that stretches south and west from near Aoraki/Mt Cook. If we sometimes felt we were riding through a filmset, there was a moment for me where that “film” switched from The Lord of the Rings to Footrot Flats. Having stopped for a photograph, I was riding alone as I came towards a man, his young daughter and a dog. As I got closer I could see – and hear – that the man was showing the pig-tailed girl how to handle a border collie dog. He whistled loudly and called out to the dog in a gruff, commanding voice. As I puffed up alongside, the broad-hatted gentleman abruptly paused from his work, tilted his head towards me, and said through a broad grin “Gudday. Cracker of a day!”. I puffed out a “Sure is” in response, then cycled on, smiling as I left Wal, The Dog and Pongo to their work.

[A contented merino ram outside Twizel] 
The cracker of a day changed on the long, flat section beside the Ohau Canal. It should have been easy, but soon showers were battering us, and the wind became strong and gusty. The climatologist in me debated whether this was a katabatic wind draining cold air off the range, or merely a strengthening of the underlying westerly. I came to two conclusions. Firstly, whatever you called it, it was bloody hard work to cycle into! And secondly I was now officially envious of Lynne, who was out of sight ahead of us thanks to her e-bike.

[Tim riding beside the Ohau Canal] 
Eventually the squalls lessened in the lee of Ben Ohau, and we re-gathered near the Ohau Weir for lunch. The winding Lake Ohau Track took us around the shores of the beautiful lake, eliciting a few “woo hoo”s from Tim. He was clearly in his mountain biking element on this single track section. And just as patently, I was in landscape heaven. Across the startlingly blue lake skeins of loose scree slid the flanks of Ben Ohau, some right to the lake shore.

[Panorama of Lake Ohau - click to enlarge] 
We had a brief and windy afternoon tea stop beside the lake. Wind squalls were kicking up waves, which crashed noisily onto the shingle shore. We huddled behind Morrison for a while, then resumed riding, this time on the blacktop. We had “only” 10km more to ride to our overnight stop at Lake Ohau Lodge, and the countryside around us was stunning. But it proved hard going, with the wind still tearing straight into our faces.

[Wind squalls, showers and waves, Lake Ohau] 
We had one final steep push from the lakeshore up to Lake Ohau Lodge, which had a commanding position overlooking the lake and the Ben Ohau Range behind that. It was a while before I fully appreciated its position. A cold drink and a hot shower were my immediate needs.

[Lynne waits for me on the winding road to Lake Ohau Lodge] 
Walking into the lodge was like entering a mid-20th century time capsule. The pine-lined walls were covered in black and white ski photos, trophies and huge maps. Dozen of guests gathered around a generous fireplace, lounged on old sofas, or chatted around the bar. That evening the hospitality extended to a wonderfully reviving meal served by happy and engaging staff. Our cracker of a day had become a cracker of a night.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Alps2Ocean 1: Cycling in Camelot

But in Camelot … The rain may never fall till after sundown. By eight, the morning fog must disappear. In short, there's simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering than here in Camelot. - Alan Jay Lerner

It was not a promising beginning. After a summer as long, warm and dry as most people in the South Island could remember, the morning of our 5 day cycle trip from Aoraki/Mt Cook to Oamaru dawned darkly cloudy. And as we completed our briefing and boarded the mini-bus/van that would take us from Christchurch to the start, the rain began.

[A little better than expected! The cloud-free Alps across Lake Pukaki] 
To my simple Tasmanian mind, heading west towards mountains in weather like this meant it would be even wetter by the time we reached the hills and started the afternoon’s cycling. The weather forecast promised the same. As the van shoosshed through the wet outskirts of Christchurch, we exchanged gloomy glances and settled down for a long drive. At least the driving was being done by someone else, namely our German-born guide Johanna (who preferred we call her Joh). Her cheerful chatter and nonchalance about the weather even managed to lift the gloom a little.

By our first stop for coffee in Geraldine, the clouds had miraculously parted, even if the air still had a chill to it. Over coffee we got to know our fellow cyclists. We were a small – we prefer to say “select” – group of five, plus Joh our guide. Our long-time friend Tim was the reason Lynne and I were here. He’d booked to do the Alps2Ocean ride a little over a year ago, but had had to cancel the trip because of a shoulder injury. So when the chance came for him to come back, Lynne and I put up our hands to join him. The other two riders were a Canadian/New Zealand couple, Dave and Jackie. She was originally from New Zealand, but had married Dave, a Canadian, and they’d moved to Ontario decades ago. We were intrigued to learn that now they’re in retirement, they spend six months a year in each country. What would it be like to never experience winter?

[Five at the start beside Lake Pukaki]
After Geraldine the road began winding a little more, and our progress towards the Alps was slow but steady. By our lunch stop at Lake Tekapo, the clouds had cleared enough for us to gain glimpses of New Zealand’s giant 3 754m mountain, Aoraki/Mount Cook, across the milky blue lake.

At Tekapo we also picked up our bikes. After a local technician had fitted and adjusted them for us, we took a few spins around the carpark. Tim and I had opted for straight mountain bikes, vibrant yellow Avanti branded bikes with front shocks and rear racks fitted with bags. Cannily Lynne had opted for the Avanti e-mountain bike, in gun-metal grey, with a Shimano motor. The three of us ride e-bikes at home, and had all considered this option. But Tim and I had decided we’d cope with the 260km ride just fine under our own steam. After all, wasn’t it practically all downhill from the Alps to the Ocean? What could be hard about that?

As we drove on to Lake Pukaki, the weather just kept getting better. Welcome to Camelot! By the time we’d taken the dirt road up to our starting point at Braemar Station, our  views of the “cloud piercer”, as Aoraki translates into English, were the best I’d ever seen in 40+ years of coming to New Zealand. There, seemingly just at the end of the lake, stood this commanding snow-clad peak, as classic a pyramid shaped mountain as the Matterhorn or Mt Aspiring. It easily shouldered aside the wisps of clouds that smothered some of its less lofty neighbours.

[View to Aoraki/Mt Cook from near Braemar Station] 
I was tipsy on what the Psalmist called “the wine of astonishment”, and could have stayed and gazed at the mountain all afternoon. But we did have a “token” amount of riding to do on that first afternoon, “just” 30km or so along a quiet gravel road to the Lake Pukaki Visitor Centre. So we climbed into our saddles, and set off down the shore of the glittering lake with a gentle breeze and astonishing views at our backs.

[Tim explores the lake at the tea break]  
It was a shake-down ride in more ways than one. The road, while gentle of gradient, proved to have fierce corrugations at regular intervals. Wherever we pointed our bikes, we couldn’t avoid these bone-shaking corrugations. Joh had warned us we’d strike some of this, but had distracted us with the “carrot” of afternoon tea just a little down the road, served from “Morrison” (as we dubbed our van). Between that and our frequent photographic stops – in settings we had to blink to believe – we gladly made it to the bottom end of Pukaki. There Joh met us, wearing her accustomed beaming smile, and chauffeured us off to our first night’s accommodation, with its showers, soft beds and hot food! One day in Camelot down, four days to go.

[Astonishing views across Lake Pukaki at day's end]

Thursday, 17 May 2018

The Marvels of Moeraki

I like fish and chips. I’m far from alone in that, of course. But for really serious fans of fish, Moeraki in New Zealand should sooner or later come up on the radar. It’s a snug coastal town between Dunedin and Oamaru, and home to “Fleur’s Place”. Famous foodie, Rick Stein, pronounced that restaurant his favourite place to eat in the whole of New Zealand.

[2-storeyed Fleur's Place across Moeraki Harbour] 
Having a few days to make our way from Dunedin to Christchurch, we’ve chosen to spend a couple of nights in Moeraki. While we like slow travel, I do wonder whether staying that long in a town whose name translates “sleepy sky”, and whose population is around 60, might see us run out of things to see and do quite quickly. There’s only so much fish you can eat! But of course Moeraki is also renowned for its nearby boulders, so we can at least add that to our list.

We arrive in the town mid afternoon, and decide we’ll cook for ourselves the first night. But we still wander down to Fleur’s Place, just across the road from our apartment, to book a table for our second night. We’ve been here a few times on previous trips, but only for a coffee or a quick lunch. However we once experienced an amazing dinner in Fleur’s short-lived Oamaru restaurant, “Loan and Merc”. So we’re keen to have a full, relaxed seafood dinner in Moeraki, knowing we only have to amble home across the road afterwards.

[Some of the Moeraki Boulders] 
The next morning the boulders are first on the menu. As with fish and chips, there are plenty of boulders in the world, but there are not many like those at Moeraki. We park a few hundred metres south of the main viewing area, and walk along the glistening beach towards what looks like quite a crowd of sightseers. As we draw near the throng we start to see dozens of boulders. They’re scattered along the shore as artfully as marbles abandoned by children. But what children they must have been! Some of these “marbles” are nearly human height.

[Wandering among the Moeraki Boulders] 
According to Māori tradition, the boulders are the food baskets and water gourds that washed overboard after the legendary canoe Arai Te Uru was wrecked along this coast. Geologists take a different tack, saying that rather than being washed up on the shore, they are being revealed at the shore as the cliffs in which they were formed erode. We find one half-born boulder in the soft cliff at the back of the beach, and are amazed to think that many more are “in utero” in the swollen sedimentary band behind us.

[The cliff about to give birth to a fresh boulder] 
Their “gestation period” is anything up to a few million years. They start small as an organic nucleus in sediments: perhaps a shell fragment, or a piece of rotting vegetation. The cementing mineral calcite gradually – and sometimes uniformly – grows around the nucleus to form a spherical concretion. These can grow in the sediment until revealed as huge marble-like boulders. They sometimes take on less uniform shapes as they are eroded, with veins of brown or cream-coloured calcite better resisting the weathering.

[Coloured layers of calcite resist erosion better] 
Of course we don’t have to understand any of this to be bowled over by the boulders, as I’m sure are the school group we chat with about their visit here. Eventually students, teachers and carers troop off towards a promised ice cream up the beach. We turn back to continue our wander among the boulders, enjoying their warmly alien presence for a further half hour. Even the Instagramming antics of some visitors – and the intrusion of a drone – fail to spoil our enjoyment of these marvellous “marbles”.

After lunch back at the apartment we download our photos, catch up on social media and generally loll about. But soon we overcome our inertia and decide to go for a short wander on the nearby beach. It turns out to be far more adventurous than we anticipated. During the wee hours of our first night I’d heard a sound that could have been a cow, but sounded more seal-like. I’d promptly forgotten about it, but as we reach a boat ramp in the harbour, there’s a ruckus in the water.

[What's that in the water??] 
Lynne and I simultaneously call out “seal!” And we’re both wrong. It’s far bigger than a normal seal, and I guess it’s a New Zealand sea lion, aka a Hooker’s sea lion, or whakahao in Māori. It surfaces several times, and appears to be playing with something. At first I wonder if it’s tossing sea weed, but then I see that the “weed” has suckers. It’s got an octopus, and far from playing with it, it’s tearing the hapless cephalopod apart. While sea gulls wheel around hopefully, the sea lion thrashes its head from side to side.

[The sea lion tearing apart an octopus] 
We each take up a different vantage point to watch and photograph the cow-sized marine mammal. At one stage it comes into the shallows and momentarily eye-balls Lynne, who is on the beach. I’m watching from the nearby jetty, snapping almost as quickly as the sea lion is eating. Eventually it swims further up the beach before hauling out onto the sand for a post-snack rest.

[Lynne face-to-face with the Hooker's Sea Lion] 
It’s at least 3m long, and has dark fur, both indications that this is a male. We learn that they can weigh up to 450kg. We feel incredibly privileged to be able to watch this huge creature over an extended period. These are the rarest sea lions on earth, and are officially endangered owing to their low population levels.

After the excitement of the afternoon, we decide to head to Fleur’s Place early. Over pre-dinner drinks, and with sea lions still in mind, we discover that Fleur aims for “fresh food sustainably produced”. It’s fresh alright, supplied by the handful of fishing boats that we can see bobbing at anchor in the harbour. We chat with one staff member who tells us that populations of fish and other species on offer here are constantly monitored to guard against over-fishing.

It turns into a long and very enjoyable meal. We’re attended to with great care by the staff, and we end the evening having a good chat with Fleur herself. We marvel at the energy of this 70-something year old woman, who has run this place day and night for the last 17 years. It almost comes as a relief to hear her admit that she’s looking forward to her days off.

[With Fleur Sullivan (centre) after dinner] 
And for the record, “Mr Hooker” needn’t have worried about our meal. Octopus was not on the menu.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Finding Fangorn

I’ve long been a Tolkien tragic. Since my teenage years I have probably read Tolkien’s trilogy more than ten times. Even though a few characters may have a dated, even stilted, feel to them, some of them still feel as real as people in my life. Heck, I even agreed to have “Gaffer” as my grandfather name!

So while my enthusiasm for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) long pre-dates the films, and New Zealand’s rebirth as Middle Earth, when we lived for a few months in New Zealand, I couldn’t resist buying a New Zealand atlas that had the locations of many scenes featured in Peter Jackson’s film version of the trilogy.

[Welcome to "Middle Earth", near Mavora Lakes] 
That’s all background to a recent episode from our autumn 2018 visit to the South Island of New Zealand. And it’s part explanation for how we came to find ourselves at Mavora Lakes. You’d be forgiven for asking “Where?”, as even many Kiwis we spoke to didn’t know much about the place. If I said it was somewhere between the Thomson and Livingstone Mountains, a valley or two east of Te Anau, that might not help much either. But given that we were spending Easter at Kingston, on the far southern shore of Lake Wakatipu, and less than two hours from the lakes, we were keen to explore them.

[On the shores of North Mavora Lake] 

Mavora Lakes – there’s a South Mavora Lake and a North Mavora Lake – fill part of the glacier-carved Mararoa River valley, which runs roughly north/south out of the Livingstone Mountains. The lakes are not obscure to South Island trampers, campers and hunters, given the range of activities they have to offer. And since the area became a hotspot for crucial LOTR scenes, they have also become part of the fabric of Middle Earth.

A certain amount of determination was required to reach our destination. With 40km of gravel road to traverse – after a longish drive on sealed roads – there would have been cries of “when are we gonna get there?” had there been any children in the car. As we got closer the valley tightened, and we started to see swathes of deep green beech forest. Our trusty atlas had forewarned us that some of the scenes of Fangorn Forest had been filmed here. This included one in which Aragorn and some of the hobbits had come to the place where the Riders of Rohan had slaughtered and burned a band of orcs.

The landscape, with open, buff-coloured tussock butting up against closed beech forest, looked so familiar that it was more like visiting an historic battlefield than a film location. Lynne and I were caught up in imagining two of the hobbits, Merry and Pippin, crawling away from the battle and into the dubious safety of the forest. 

[A deadly fly agaric mushroom might not be all that lurks in this forest!] 
Not for the first time I reflected on the peculiar genius of New Zealand to take something wholly borrowed, and turn it into something that seems entirely native to it. Think of kiwi fruit, merino wool, even the Australian possum (whose fur is blended with merino - originally Spanish – to become “merino mink”).

We parked our car and put on our day-packs for a wander up the shore of North Mavora Lake. A keen breeze blew across the lake making wavelets that shushed on the shingle shore. It also shushed the sand flies, which only made an appearance any time the wind drew breath. Being more relaxed about the bities left us free to lift our eyes to the hills. And what hills! Bush-clad near the shore; steeply rising to the tree line, tussock-covered above that, except where rain, snow and incline had conspired to bring the slope down: the classic land slip that Kiwis deal with all the time, and the rest of us seldom see.

We had no particular plan, except to stretch our legs and to take in the wonders of a beautiful place. Although there was a track north through the forest, we chose to walk along the shingle shore, the better to take in the wider scene. A little over 6km later we were at the end of the forest, and well up the lake on what some call the Mavora Walkway. We’d seen the other end of that multi-day track some years back when we stayed at Greenstone Hut, on the Greenstone/Caples Track. As we stopped for lunch on a convenient log, I looked wistfully up lake towards where I guessed Carey’s Hut – one of four huts along the track – must be located. There’s always next time, I thought, with the time-honoured optimism of the ageing tramper/bushwalker. Right now there was justice to be done to the lunch that Lynne had somehow conjured from leftovers.

[Lunching by North Mavora Lake] 
We were near the place which had become Nen Hithoel in the film. This was the lake into which the Anduin River flowed, and marked the location of the breaking of the “fellowship” after Boromir’s attempt to take the ring. Frodo – and eventually Sam – had taken a boat across the lake to make their own way towards Mount Doom.

But today any chance of long, reflective tranquility was broken, not by a troop of orcs, but a convoy of dirt bikes, which buzzed by on both beach and track. The group was friendly, and perfectly within their rights, and we were reminded that such places are shared and enjoyed by widely diverse groups of people. For all its beauty, this place is not wilderness.

Returning to the car we reflected on what the place itself had seen over recent millennia. Its Gondwanan forests had survived numerous ice ages, at times huddling precariously above the glaciers that carved out the lakes; at others taking advantage of warmer, wetter eras to clothe whole swathes of the valley. They’d seen the Maori come, passing through here in search of food and their precious pounamu/greenstone; and the pakeha/white settlers chasing gold, clearing and burning vast areas of forest, and bringing sheep and cattle to graze the opened land.

[Beech forest, Mavora Lakes] 
 All of this is a vastly more complex, and often more marvellous story than the fictional one that drew us here over Easter. In part it is a tragedy, given how much forest has gone, and how many birds have succumbed to introduced pests. But it’s also a story that continues. And given how long “Fangorn” has lasted, it’s a story that’s still filled with hope.