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.