E Noho Ra, Aotearoa

The original reason for our trip was in the main astronomical. To view the total eclipse of the sun and the dark skies above Lake Tekapo. Mission accomplished there. There was, of course, the novel experience of Australia and New Zealand themselves too. How rich and varied that turned out to be. We knew something of it of course, it is not a well kept secret.

We kept looking at the wall calendar sent to Alison by her far-flung (as she was then) cousin in Taranaki. The very distinctive peak of Mount Egmont as the Europeans called it became familiar to us. The calendar pictured it in different seasons from different locations as calendars do. It became something of a Holy Grail as we planned the trip. Reaching Taranaki became a goal in itself.

Well, we’d done it. The manner in which it was accomplished I’ve already related. Now as we flew away from Christchurch on a beautiful summer day, the plane passed over Cape Farewell on South Island. Appropriate. North Island came into sight and we passed very close to Taranaki. We had a last, wonderful view of the mountain from the air.

The green peninsula of the Taranaki region was set in an opalescent sea of faded pinks and greens. In the centre of that was the geometrically precise circle of woodland which surrounds the mountain and in the centre of that the peak itself. The white of the snow turned dusty blue with distance and etched with fine chasing to emphasise the symmetrical slopes. A train of light fair weather clouds trailed back from it towards the little town of Stratford where the hospitable Roslyn and Kevin live.

As the view faded behind us we knew this special holiday was coming to an end. But the iconic image remains with us. Not only a synopsis of all the photos we’d seen and taken of the mountain but a symbol of the trip and the country itself. Strange, remote, incredibly beautiful.

20121224-090355.jpg

20121224-090315.jpg

20121224-090630.jpg

20121224-090436.jpg

The Late, Late Show

Penguin Show, Oamaru

The yellow-eyed penguin stood on the strand
With his feet in the seaweed and shingle and sand
And he called ‘Quach Ah!’
And he flapped his wings
But no friends came in from the sea to he
No friends came in from the sea

And the tourists watched
From the terrace above and from
France and Japan and Peru
They had all come to see the penguin show
In the city of Oamaru
And you
And I came to Oamaru

The little blue penguins all came ashore
In rafts on the rainy green sea and more
climbed the rocky wet shore
And stood in debate
And debouched to their nests in the green the green
They run to the green and they preen

And the tourists watched
From the stands by the side and
Oohed and they aaaahed and they aaawed
At the cute little birds of the penguin show
In the city of Oamaru
And you
And I went to Oamaru

(Envoi……)
In their hilly wee bushy wee nest box town
They sang a ‘Halloo!’ To the sea
And they preened their blue sheen
In their nests in the green
And they sang a ‘Halloo!’ To the sea

We visited the penguin colonies in the historic (well it IS for New Zealand) city of Oamaru which I am here choosing to pronounce ‘Oh-ah-ma-ru’ correct or not. We saw three yellow-eyed penguins on the beach, one at a time. We got quite good views with binoculars from a specially constructed observation terrace above the beach. Not close enough for a good photo though.
Later, around nine o’clock we went to the evening viewing of the little blue penguins at the harbour foreshore. Here there are viewing stands on either side of the rocky section of beach where these charming little beasts come out the sea around dusk to go to the nest boxes hidden in bushes which constitute their reserve. A colony of around five hundred birds is supported here.

We had seen blue penguins before on Kapiti Island. My camera card ran out just as I was about to get a photo. In Oamaru photography is not permitted. So no picture of a little blue from me, I’m afraid. Plenty online though.

20121219-224738.jpg

20121219-224833.jpg

20121219-224924.jpg

Flying to Milford Sound

We fly to Milford Sound from Queenstown.

Milford Sound Flights fly from Franktown, just outside Queenstown where a number of companies operate tourist flights. We’re on an Islander two engine prop plane. They tell us that the weather is closing in fast. The cruise up the sound which was part of our original plan has been cancelled as planes cannot wait around long enough to pick people up for the return journey.

20121218-145441.jpg
Kevin the pilot looks, at first glance, about fifteen. I’m tempted to ask him if his dad knows he’s borrowed the plane. But he certainly knows how to handle it. It’s a windy day and the the turbulence adds to the excitement. So does the fact that I’m looking over the pilot’s shoulder at the rather old-fashioned looking instrument panel. There’s also the slightly battered door with the’exit’ sign. This, you feel, is real flying! You’re right in amongst the peaks. It’s just awesome!

20121218-145831.jpg
The landscape between Queenstown and Milford Sound is fantastically rugged. Snowy peaks and razor-sharp ridges surround us as far as the eye can see. There are forests on the slopes. Aquamarine glacial rivers, lakes, waterfalls. All the peaks have an intricate pattern of snow on them. Mount Tutoko dominates in this region. A towering craggy mass with huge sweeps of snow and ice shelves wreathed in thin swathes of cloud. Further off even higher peaks, more snow and beyond them a beautiful pale blue sky. We fly on buffeted by the wind. If you want scenic it doesn’t get any better than this!

20121218-150002.jpg
Eventually we approach the Sound. It has a grey, chilly look. We fly between the huge rock faces which plunge literally thousands of feet into the water. We see the detail of the rock layers. The waterfalls. The bush clinging to every available space, only stopping at the white streaked snow line. Kevin circles the plane and you can feel the strength of the wind. We approach the tiny landing strip at the end of the fiord. A bump and we’re down.

20121218-150246.jpg
We get half an hour at Milford Sound. All the facilities are closed but it doesn’t matter. We have time to take in the enormous, brooding rock faces that plunge into the Tasman Sea. We’ve seen the photos in the guides and the brochures. They give no idea of the scale of the place. It just dwarves you. The publicity shots are usually taken in sunshine. Today the clouds are grey and menacing. The atmosphere with the bad weather approaching is heavy and oppressive. It suits this place down to the ground. Milford Sound, we feel, is a place to visit rather than to live in.

20121218-150436.jpg
There is a photoshoot with our pilot and his gallant plane. We take off and climb up past the gargantuan crags and their forests and waterfalls. We turn to take a longer route to the north to avoid the big cloud masses which have by now built up around the high peaks. We fly over the vast areas of bush in the Westland hills. Millions upon millions of tiny green trees decorated with filaments of cloud.

20121218-150603.jpg
Then we turn inland. down the valley of Lake McKerrow which has just missed becoming a sound itself. Down the valley of the braided river the settlers called the Dart. The valley bottom is broad and richly green. You can see why the tiny settlements of Glenorchy and Kinloch are there. Time and again we see hints of aquamarine in the water from the glacial silt. it spills out into Lake Wakatipu. The lake is boomerang shaped and we fly round the bend in pursuit of a tiny tourist plane ahead of and below us. We drop towards Queenstown and get a full appreciation of its fabulous alpine setting.

20121218-150928.jpg

Finally we loop the mound at Kelvin Heights which I assume is the posh part of Queestown. We do this twice to loose height. Franktown is classed as an international airport. It must be one of he smallest in the world and I don’t think they do holding patterns. Then we are heading for the strip and we’re down.

20121218-150741.jpg
It’s been a wonderful experience. Another high point in a trip full of high points. I shake hands with the young pilot and thank him.

Wow! What a day!

20121218-151033.jpg



Read Alison’s Blog

Karma

We’re on our way down to Queenstown. Outside Wanaka we pick up a girl hitch hiker. She’s a kiwi on her way down to meet friends in Stewart Island. She has the fine ginger hair of many of her fellow countryfolk. Her dress says ‘new-age’. She loads her immense backpack into the boot, obviously a strong girl, and off we go. It’s a very fine morning as we make our way down through countryside which gets more and more rugged. There is a lot of yellow broom in flower along parts of the road. After another steep and winding climb (how often you seem to use that phrase when describing this country) we reach the top of the Crown Range road. There is a vast spacious view from here and a plaque telling us all about it.

The descent is steeper and even more winding than the ascent with another viewpoint overlooking our goal, Queenstown. It is set in a spectacular alpine landscape on the shore of Lake Wakatipu. We’re booked for a fly-cruise-fly trip out to Milford Sound. We locate the airport at Frankton on the outskirts and then head back into the town for a look around.

It is a very pleasant, tourist-oriented place. There are broad pedestrian precincts with lots of busy cafes. A hair-raising cable lift up the steep, high, forested slope behind the town and a bustling lakeside area. There’s an esplanade where people are amusing themselves trying to dodge waves which splash over the wall as the lake is choppy. There are cruise boats. An old but very handsome steamer pulls in as we arrive. There are lively bars and restaurants and a large number of buskers.

We stop at a cafe and order coffe and a couple of blueberry muffins. This is our hitcherhiker’s breakfast. ‘We don’t want you having to rely on roadkill!’ I quip. The muffins take a while to arrive. When they do there are three smallish ones to an elegant modern plate for each one ordered. They are hot and delicious. We eat them and drink our coffee to the accompaniment of a Rheinhadt-Grapelli style pair busking at the end of the street.

20121224-003506.jpg

Alison and I relate yarns of our own hitch-hiking days. Trips through France on beer and peaches. Illegal swimming in Venice. The time one freezing cold March night my schoolmate and I hitched to Loch Lomond via Inverness and were so tired we couldn’t be bothered to put up our tent, we just used it as a blanket and slept in a field. The time Alison and I stayed on Orkney and were breakfasted by the farmer whose land we were on with eggs and bacon and invited into his tiny croft for cups of tea. The return journey when we were stranded in Helmsdale for a day as foreign tourists sped by in cars full of luggage.. Looking back to a time when hitching was the standard means of transport for the uncarred youth of Britain. Indeed a time whan there WAS an uncarred youth.

Maybe this morning will feature as a tale for future years when this young lady passes on the favour to another idealistic youngster seeking new horizons as we’re doing in a small way now.

Completing the circle one more time.

Karma.

One Drive, Two Climates

A drive from Lake Hawea over the Haast Pass.

The wind is still blowing strongly over the lake. The waves still make it sound more like the seaside. We set off and drive over the long unsealed road (dust-track) into the small township of Hawea.

The town is quiet, as usual. I don’t think it’s ever much else. We drive onto Highway 6, the Makarora road. The landscape around the lake is rugged. It’s a larger scale Lake District. Just to put it in perspective Hawea has ten times the surface area of Windermere and is five times as deep. The high peaks at the west end of the lake reach to over seven thousand feet.

20121219-093704.jpg
There is a long drive up to a saddle and then you are into the northern part of the valley of Lake Wanaka. Clouds were low over the lake with the sun breaking through at times, providing very dramatic views. The road becomes more winding and steeper. This seems to be a common fate of roads in New Zealand as once you start driving along them.

20121219-093809.jpg
After a while we are in a large, flat river valley. Very green, obviously farming country. High above us the peaks, streaked with snow, are draped in cloud. We stop at Makarora. It’s centre seems to be the campsite which has a sizeable cafe stroke gift shop attached. There’s a Wild West flavour about it. We’ve frequently found this in outlying places. There’s a wooden ranch house feel. Hunting trophies. A rather macho tone to it all. There’s the usual New Zealandry on sale, kiwis, tikis, silver ferns etc. The guy running he place seems friendly offering advice on the local walks, treatment for sandfly bites and so on.

20121219-093918.jpg
We take his advice a little further up he road by walking towards the blue Pools. These are just sections of deep water on the river. They have the strong aquamarine tint we’re becoming familiar with in this glaciated landscape. The walk takes us down through the native bush. We are aware of the change in the atmosphere as soon as we enter it. It’s still, cool, green You’re surrounded by bird calls and the faintly resinous sweet smell which is partly blue gum (eucalyptus) partly something we’ve not identified yet. And there’s the song of the tui. Bell-like and flute-like and captivatingly melodious. It’s the sound I think of as New Zealand.

20121219-094037.jpg
The track takes us over a wooden suspension bridge, another kiwi hallmark. There’s an interesting resonance as we walk suggesting that if we get the rhythm just right we might be making an unscheduled bungy jump over the side. Minus the rope of course. The track runs beside the river. It is very up and down. There are lovely ferns growing in fresh green masses all through the woodland. Eventually it opens up into a wide meadow between thickly wooded hills. The grass is long, lush, very green. It is thickly strewn with buttercups. The cene looks very like England, once again a bit souped-up and is oddly incongruous given the terrain we’ve driven over to get here.

20121219-094155.jpg
We drive on and the road once again gets steep and twisty. The clouds close in again. Without realising it we go over the top. The Haast Pass. We’ve crossed the Southern Alps and, as a large sign informs us, are now officially in Westland. It has been drizzling for the last couple of miles. Now it’s raining quite heavily. It feels wetter, colder. we’re definitely in a different climate.

20121219-094247.jpg
Where we have stopped is a waterfall. We go down the Haast road for mother couple of miles. We stop again. We are overlooking a vertiginous drop into a gorge. The clouds are all around us, the streaky snow still visible through the clouds in the sunlight above. We can see the road snaking downwards through the dark green, wet woods and clouds.

20121219-094421.jpg
We decide to call it a day. It’s getting late and we feel that we’ve got the gist of the landscape.
We make one more stop by the ‘Fantail’ pools, another waterfall. It’s force was utilised when he pass road was being built to generate electricity. The road building sounds like a tough old job.

20121219-094509.jpg
We cruise back over the pass and back through Makarora. We’re back in the dry climate again. The weather is much clearer too so we get grand views of Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. We pick up fish and chips at the shop in Hawea. A national dish in NZ along with bacon and egg pies. On arrival back at the bach we discover the chip portions are Hawea-sized. We could have dined on them for a week. Both items are decent quality though.

The wind blows on and the waves crash endlessly in the sunset.

20121219-094702.jpg

The Windy Lake

Lake Hawea

20121217-075027.jpg
Waves crash like the sea.
On Lake Hawea.
Walking is ‘like Norfolk in some ways’ says Alison.
The sea sound and the pines.
The sand dune feeling though without the sand.

20121217-075227.jpg
Flowers play truant from beds along the path.
California poppies! we barely saw them there
But here they crowd in hot gold clumps
And others, tall spikes of lemon yellow coins
And, of course, the lupins, always lupins

20121217-075403.jpg
We’re here with Benny Scruffy Bach
The darling of his aunts
Allowed to spend his never-ending holiday all unkempt
His old chairs, worn carpets, unmatched plates and cups
All pass for poetry in this rough scapegrace
Poetic thoughts, too, on the wall
He has a charm, don’t doubt it
Or if you do then read the visitors’ book
Where chunky, unlined comments
Ruffle his hair affectionately.

20121217-080002.jpg

The waves rush on at Lake Hawea

Odd for water that’s not going anywhere.
You’d think it would sit still and contemplate
These high and broken bookends of the lake
And not rush on to nowhere
You feel it whirls the clouds itself
Like boys who whirl their conkers round and round
In Alt-y-Ryn in autumn game
How time flies off in any hemisphere

20121217-080114.jpg
It grows on me, the crib
Becomes the prefab up on Ridgeway
Above the far-off channel of the Severn
Where I still find myself a boy
The Southern Cross notwithstanding.

20121217-080501.jpg
Could I have been as native to the bach
If I’d somehow, you know,
Been more unkempt, more tousled
More outgoing, restless
More inclined to truant
And whirl the conker high
And far, may be, as land beneath the Southern Cross

20121217-080944.jpg
Here I’ve come together with that other, bolder kid
We sit on the veranda watching
As the waves crash like the sea
On Lake Hawea

(I’ve christened the Deniston road Bach ‘Benny Scruffy Bach’. I grew up in Newport, Gwent or Monmouthshire as it was then known on the Severn estuary. That was in the prefab estate on Ridgeway by Alt-y-Ryn woods.)

20121217-082034.jpg

Starry, Starry Night

We join the Earth and Sky trip to the Mount John Observatory.

Lake Tekapo and the surrounding area has a reputation for wonderful night skies. It is high, around seven hundred and forty metres. It is also far fom any urban centres so there is little air pollution or thermal turbulence. Most important of all it has minimal light pollution. The whole MacKenzie area has been designated a Dark Sky Heritage site. There are strict regulations on public and domestic lighting across he whole region. I had booked a night-time trip up to the Observatory months in advance. It’s the same place we’d visited a few days before with less scientific curiosity for coffee.

Tuesday night was cloudy. We went to the Earth and Sky office in Tekapo. They do give you the option on cloudy nights of going up to look round some of the larger instruments and other research facilities. But we wanted stars. The real stars and nothing but the stars. The lady on duty was very helpful but said it was even more likely to be cloudy on Wednesday. I’d booked us in with a day to spare for exactly this eventuality. We stuck to our guns. We postponed. Wednesday would be the Last Chance Saloon.

20121215-215553.jpg
By evening on Wednesday the sky was clear with some cloud spilling in from the west which made seeing conditions slightly iffy. We got into our Antarctic gear. We’d been advised of very cold conditions on the mountain at night.

Wednesday evening. We turned up at the office early. We made a final commitment and signed up for the eleven o’clock session. There is one at twelve too. We were issued with a keyring type LED dark light. It is solar powered. So you could charge it while using it, as long as you don’t use it at night, lol. We were also issued with large quilted insulation coats. They take no risk on claims for frostbite or hypothermia.There were around twenty others there plus a large party of Japanese. In total two busloads of starry-eyed tourists. With everyone wearing the bulky jackets the bus had the feeling of our flight to New Zealand where space was at a premium.
We set off. It is a fifteen minute journey. There is an introductory talk by a recorded lady mainly about weather conditions and how to preserve night vision. Emphasis is placed on the need to keep all light down to a minimum, no flash photos etc. When that’s finished we are treated to several songs. One by a local lady, Becky Murray. She sings for the Tekapo Starlight Reserve Initiative among other work. Look out for the name. You heard it here first. ‘Rocket Man’ accompanies us as we head up towards Mount John. The driver turns the headlights off and drives up the dark, windy road on parking lights. It’s a bit warm with all our thermal gear on but through the window I can see plenty of stars. Looking good. Fingers crossed.

20121215-215906.jpg
We troop or rather stumble out of the bus like a group of shortsighted bears. There are faintly luminous guidelines on the paths across the observatory which are useful. It is now about eleven o’clock. It is late twilight, nearly dark. There are still a few bits of cloud around but a lot less than there were. The stars are already stunning. There are vast numbers of them and the Milky Way near the Cross glows brightly.

We are given an introductory talk by a youthful and enthusiastic guide. He uses a laser pointer towards the main stars and constellations to great effect. He comments on the upside down orientation of the northern constellations for the benefits of us hyperboreans. he describes the ‘Saucepan’ in Orion, guess which bit. Canis Major he says is lying on his back waiting for his tummy to be tickled. We find ourselves in competition with the Japanese group who have their own guide in their own language which provides an interesting counterpoint.

Then we are let loose on several telescopes around the site. There are a couple of nine inch Schmidts and, highlight of the show, a sixteen inch reflector housed in its own dome. We look at the Jewelbox, kappa Crucis. It is delightful. Strong orange, red, yellow and blue colours are evident among the component stars. We look at eta Carinae and its associated nebulosity. This is striking in the high contrast field of the Schmidt. The confident and informative commentary from several guides continues as we look. Questions are asked. the party is under way. The only drawback is the size of the groups, which at first means we are queueing for a look. Afterwards we pace ourselves a bit more cannily and move adroitly between instruments.

20121215-220718.jpg
The sky is now quite dark. The sight is just amazing. An overused word I always think, particularly after the Olympics. But not tonight. It’s about the only word that will do for this awesome spectacle. It is without doubt, the best view of the sky I’ve ever had.

I chat to a couple from Auckland who are quite keen amateurs with their own small telescope. They too have never seen the Southern constellations like this. A bearded gentleman with a red lantern which lends him a strong resemblance to Santa Claus approaches us. He is carrying a tray of mugs of cocoa. We gratefully grab one. There is a slight but chilly wind. We re now glad of our standard issue star-trooper coats. The atmosphere on top of the mountain is very sociable, relaxed and light hearted.

We look at several open clusters. I hadn’t heard of the Wishing Well cluster in Carina (NGC 3532), but there it is. We see the Sculptor galaxy (NGC 253). I thought the telescope was aimed at Cetus, then realised the object was named on the go-to display on the drive. Close but no cigar. This was a super view. The galaxy, sometimes called the ‘Silver Coin’, is nearly edge on. I could just make out a central nucleus and a hint of arms. The whole object seemed to me to have a reddish hue.

Several meteors, probably Geminids, put in an appearance to add a little more variety. Each one is greeted by a unison ‘Ooh!’ from the section of the group looking the right way at the right time. The guides take the opportunity to explain why ‘shooting star’ is a misnomer.

We looked at Jupiter in both the nine and sixteen inch instruments. Detail in the bands could be seen. It was slightly disappointing n the larger scope as the planet was by now quite low in the nothern(!) sky and some atmospheric shimmer was evident, also, since we were in a queue I just didn’t have time for my eye to adjust to the bright disk.

The highlight of the night for me was the view of the Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) in the Large Magellanic Cloud. The clouds themselves were a wonderful sight. The LMC shone in through the slit in the dome of the telescope. The nebula when I had focussed it with the handset was just fantastic. The definition of the glowing filaments was incredibly fine. The dark obscuring clouds looked velvety. The whole had a powerful 3-D effect. I felt I could reach out and touch it. Now I know what I want for Christmas. Yes, and a mountain location in New Zealand to put it on. The globular 47 Tucanae was mentioned as a possible target for he big telescope. Either I missed it or they didn’t get round to it. Either way it was a bit of a disappointment. However, overall the tour was excellent.

We are rounded up for a group photo against the stars. We have to hold the pose for around ten seconds to allow the starlight to register. There is some exposure adjustments with red lights and then we say a prolonged cheeeeeeese. The photo captures the night sky well, better than our faces (see link at bottom of page). Then off back to the bus. We are joined by the parallel Japanese group. A head count reminiscent of school trips to ensure that no one spends a night on the bare mountain, though personally I’d happily volunteer.

Back down the road. A slightly subdued and tired group. People are dropped of at various backpackeries. Eventually we are dropped off at the office. We deposit our big jackets in exchange for a star chart cum publicity sheet for Earth and Sky trips, and we get to keep our dark lights as a souvenir cum publicity device for Earth and Sky trips.

20121215-202546.jpg
When we get back we celebrate with cocoa and biscuits. Oh, we know how to party, I can tell you. I cannot resist the opportunity offered by the tremendous sky. I take myself outside to identify some of the fainter constellations I haven’t yet got to grips with down here. Antlia, Pyxis, Horologium. Norma as a constellation is virtually non-exisitent. It is between Ara and Lupus and as I look for it is low in the South. But the Milky Way here glows brightly in the clear air all the way to the horizon. With binoculars there are many asterisms and clusters. It’s a very rich region of the sky.
When I eventually go inside it is around three am. Leo is up, an inverted question mark. Crater and Corvus, upside down of course, are rising in the east. The Spring constellations. Correction. The autumn constellations. Boy, what a night!

If you have any interest in the night sky then as soon as you get the chance, make your way to Lake Tekapo.

LINKS:

Group Photo

Becky Murray

Dark Skies

Tekapo Dark Skies

Starlight Reserve

20121215-202148.jpg



Read Alison’s Blog

The High Chaparral

Tuesday at Lake Tekapo.
We decide to do something different.
There is an establishment called ‘MacKenzie Alpine Horse Trekking’ based quite nearby on the Godley Peaks Road.
We decide to go for a horse ride.
This turned out to be hugely enjoyable. We rode up through the pines and onto a track above the lake. Then back along the shingle beach and again through the pine woods.

A lady with an eye for a horse.

20121213-162452.jpg

Equestrian type……checking the fetlocks or something equally equine.

20121213-165317.jpg20121213-165642.jpg

Ready to hit the trail.

20121213-163105.jpg

On the trail.

20121213-163217.jpg

The High Chaparral.

20121213-163406.jpg20121213-163440.jpg
Anyone for a chukka?….

20121213-163629.jpg
Lord Henry and the Right Honorable Lady Tekapo “Tilly” Mount-John

20121213-163746.jpg



Read Alison’s Blog

Mount Cook Village

We Continue our drive beside Lake Pukaki.

We stop at Peter’s Lookout which has a truly spectacular view. An artist, Patricia Prendergast, has set out her stall from her car boot. She’s actually an Aussie but has worked as an illustrator for the New Zealand government drawing and painting the landscape and its flora and fauna. She’s also a keen walker and climber. Alison buys a mounted, hand coloured print and Patricia signs it.

20121212-183423.jpg
On again. The mountains are becoming large. We are at the end of the lake. It looks more remote, almost desolate. We pass the airstrip from where they fly tourists over the mountains.

20121212-184028.jpg
The great walls of rock and ice begin to close in and loom. They seem to be suggesting that we turn back. The summit of Aoraki towers in the background. Majestic, imposing.

20121212-183725.jpg
We reach Mount Cook village. It is nestled under a vast rock face in native bush. There are a number of well-constructed buildings. A visitors’ centre, a restaurant, accommodation. All modern, clean and well laid out. Dominating the entire area on our left is the colossal icy face of Mount Sefton with a sweeping cap of cloud and ice cornices decorating its sides like some enormous cake.

20121212-184319.jpg
On the right is Aoraki. Also decorated with cornices. Immense. Towering. Majestic.
The Southern Cross on the flag flies bravely in front of it. A bit tattered, it must be said, by the alpine winds. I wonder how often they have to replace it?

20121212-184717.jpg
We decide to dine frugally as the restaurant is a bit expensive. We make base camp beside the restaurant and bivvy for lunch. Here we made a mistake. There’s a superb cafe just round the corner, along with a hotel, shop you name it. Oops. Never mind, we’ll know next time.

20121212-185039.jpg
The visitors’ centre must be the best I’ve ever seen. It’s design is excellent. The entrance hall, and it is a hall, has big suspended curves framing a huge window which offers a fabulous view of the peak of Aoraki. It fair takes your breath away. There are displays about everything to do with the area. Cultural history, animals and plants and a large shop area with pricy but high quality souvenirs.

20121212-185351.jpg
Downstairs the focus is on climbing in the region. It’s quite fascinating even for the non-climber. You can see the contrast of the old and new in clothing and equipment. The tweed jacket and alpine hat has evolved a long way into today’s high-tech gear. We particularly liked the manikin of Freda Du Faur, an early pioneer of ladies’ mountaineering. There she is dressed for the ascent like an Edwardian cyclist with her straw hat and lacy blouse with a bluebird brooch. Bloomers, overskirt, stout boots and an alpenstock complete the picture. There are reconstructions of mountain huts complete with hand-powered generators. There’s a video presentation of a true-life mountain rescue which I was enthralled by. Edge-of-your-seat stuff. These guys have bottle. There’s much else besides.

20121212-185620.jpg
While we’ve been doing this the cloud has been building. Aoraki’s peak is now shrouded. It makes it look very forbidding.

20121212-204403.jpg
We take a walk up to Kea Point overlooking the Muller Glacier. The walk is not long but you feel you are getting in touch with the place. The glacier is covered in moraine and melt pools so it doesn’t look at all icy which is a bit disappointing. But you do get a close up view of Mount Sefton. Aoraki has now virtually disappeared behind a wall of ominous looking cloud. The hanging ice shelves on Mount Sefton show deep blue shadow. Dust blows off the moraine. Up close, alpine scenery is not pretty.

20121212-205138.jpg
We drive back down the lake. The scene has totally changed since this morning. The sky, though bright, is dominated by cloud. Our beautiful mountain has disappeared.

20121212-205422.jpg
How fortunate we were to choose exactly the right time to come out this morning. Those perfect views of Aoraki will always be with us.

20121212-205651.jpg



Read Alison’s Blog

Lake Pukaki and Aoraki, Mount Cook

Monday dawned brilliantly. The lake and mountains, the first thing you see on waking here, fairly sparkled in the light. There was one of the striking lenticular clouds in the sky over Mount John. These clouds seem to be a feature of New Zealand and particularly the high country.

20121212-115201.jpg
We decide to take a trip to Lake Pukaki. About thirty miles away. A road runs along the western side of Pukaki up to the Mount Cook village. This is a climbing and general tourist centre for New Zealand’s highest peak.
We drive out of Tekapo village and up on to the tussock grass plain of the MacKenzie country. If they have cars in heaven this is what driving one there will feel like. There are beautiful big purple and pink lupins growing in their thousands along the roadside. These have only been here since the nineteen fifties, courtesy of the Lupin Lady ( google her). But they seem to compliment the area’s rugged nature so perfectly that you feel they must be natives. Their light, sweet scent drifts in through the open window.

20121212-115413.jpg
The plains stretch out into the distance and in every direction there are snowy peaks peeking over the horizon. The effect is almost cartoon comic so that I found myself smiling back at them and sometimes on the point of giggling at them (OK, I should cut down on the lupin sniffing). It is a landscape totally unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Above this is a vast blue sky with one or two of the strangely elegant clouds. In some ineffable way the whole scene combines immensity, ruggedness and exquisite delicacy.
We begin to drop towards the valley of Lake Pukaki. There are more trees around. Our view of the peaks is changing. We are getting a different angle on this part of the Southern Alps. We sweep round a bend and up over a hill. And suddenly and unexpectedly there it is. Aoraki. Or as the Europeans called it, Mount Cook.

20121212-115823.jpg
It’s still a long way off. it is flanked by its subordinate peaks. And it is perfect. We pull over and get out.
This is what a mountain should look like. We are looking at it across the lake which, like Tekapo, is a beautiful aquamarine. It is calm with a little rippling of the wind. We didn’t realise we’d see Aoraki so soon and are taken aback.
The scene before us is just sublime. It’s like the ultimate oriental painting. Exquisite but robust. There are some expressive gestures of high light cloud like the brushstroke signature of the artist which is part of the picture.

20121212-120119.jpg
Numerous photos are taken. It’s like starting on a bag of maltesers, you just can’t stop.

20121212-120240.jpg
The duplicatus cloud is still there and developing. It’s sweeping curve adds to the other-worldly look of the scene.

20121212-120400.jpg
We’re just ecstatic to be here……now…..in the timeless moment.

20121212-124339.jpg
Reluctantly we drive on. Just a few kilometres down the road we meet the visitors’ centre. The view here is even better, though you do have the car park behind you.

20121212-121134.jpg
We go into the centre. As usual in New Zealand it is just so well done. They’ve combined it with a deli specialising in smoked salmon. There’s a display about the Maori gem, greenstone. There is information about the hydro scheme which uses the lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and others. The scheme, though big, is very discretely done. We’ve not been aware of it at all while we’ve been here.The window of the centre frames Aoraki magnificently.

20121212-121253.jpg
A couple of Dutch girls want a photo with Aoraki. Naturally. We oblige and they reciprocate. As usual the Dutch speak excellent English.

20121212-121527.jpg
On we go. Turn right onto the Mount Cook road. A wide, well made road with very little traffic this morning.
As we drive up the road the great mountain presents itself time and again, always slightly different. Always magnificent.

20121212-121805.jpg