MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Bula! Bula!

‘Isles of smiles. Miles of isles’ – Fiji summed up perfectly on a poster in a bar. Of all the countries that I have visited, Fiji stands out for me as having the happiest and friendliest people that I have ever encountered. No matter where I went in this island nation, nestled in the southern Pacific Ocean, I was greeted with a warm and welcoming smile and an always enthusiastic ‘Bula!’ Their eternal happiness proves heavily infectious. Even outwith the main tourism centres, where living is more basic, and money is less readily obtained, the locals still wave hello and smile broadly, proving that money does not buy happiness but peace and community does. I had heard it muted that the indigenous Fijians did not all take kindly to the more recent influx of Indians that now call Fiji home, but I saw no evidence of this during my brief stay. What I discovered was a beautiful, welcoming country of mixed religion, with many people who seemed genuinely grateful that we had decided to visit their country.

Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu is less than a 4-hour flight from Christchurch in New Zealand. Flying with the country’s own airline, Fiji Airways, we arrived in Nadi International Airport after dark. A friend was celebrating a milestone birthday, and there was a large group of us who had joined her in splashing out on a memorable trip to Fiji, half of us going there for the first time. As someone that is used to staying in hostels and motels, this was my first time staying at a 5-star resort, and Denarau Island where our hotel was, was less than a 30-minute drive from the airport. In the dark of night, we saw only the streets we drove through, first through Namaka, then the outskirts of Nadi before turning off Queen’s Road to reach Denarau Island, a security-guarded island filled with resorts, private residences and a marina and port. Like most of the hotels here, the Sofitel has a grand entrance and we were greeted straight away by baggage handlers and drivers who insisted on taking our luggage, an experience that I’ve never had the pleasure of before. The front desk was where we got our first experience of ‘Fiji time’, a much laughed about, but at times slightly frustrating, lack of time management or rush. At 8pm at night, our room was not yet ready, and we were forced to take a stool at the bar to bide some time. Tired from our journey, we propped our heads up, consuming our complimentary drinks, followed by a pizza and more drinks, which were brought to us in no great hurry. Finally, at 9pm, we got the news that our room was ready, and we could crash out, ready to start the holiday afresh in the morning.

Breakfast with a viewOne of my favourite things about tropical islands is how deliciously fresh and flavoursome the fruit tastes. That morning and many after, we enjoyed a fruit platter for breakfast, looking out over coconut palms. With such a large group of us, we generally did our own things during the day and met up for dinners or a swim in the evening. My partner and I were eager to do some sight-seeing and go on some excursions, so whilst many of us headed down to Port Denarau, the two of us went round the tour operators to look at excursions, whilst the others went shopping at the boutiques. It was an overcast day, and there was a threat of rain, but the two of us booked to go ziplining near the Sleeping Giant mountain. As soon as we left Denarau Island, our driver took us off the main road and down a dirt track road, a road which the locals knew as a short-cut. As the driver said, this was the real Fiji. People wandered along the side of the road barefoot and small houses were dotted amongst the low-lying vegetation. With the area being so flat and low-lying, the area around Nadi and Denarau have been repeatedly devastated in severe floods, the most recent occurring in 2012 when 3 separate flooding incidents occurred a few months apart.

Sleeping Giant mountainTurning off Queen’s road to the north of the airport, we eventually reached an un-sealed road which was riddled with pot-holes and washed out edges. Our driver bounced us round and over them, swinging from the left to the right side of the road, avoiding farmers and other vehicles as he went. We passed large fields of sugar cane, a common sight in many parts of Viti Levu, as we travelled up the Sabeto Valley, eventually pulling in at the zipline centre around lunchtime. Straight away we were kitted up and guided round the 5-zipline course which took us flying through the trees at speeds up to 40km/hr. Pineapple growingDeep in the rainforest it was hot and sticky, and whilst the fee included unlimited ‘zips’ we opted to do just 1 circuit before stopping for a scrumptious lunch that was included in the price. Vine treeAfterwards, us and another couple were guided on a sweaty rainforest walk past growing pineapples, bananas and coffee beans whilst cicadas buzzed around us and a parrot flitted noisily through the trees above our head. One of the waterfalls at Orchid fallsOur reward was a swim in the water at the base of Orchid Falls, two split-level waterfalls next to each other. It was exceedingly refreshing to get into the cool water and it made the hike back to the centre much more bearable.

 

 

 

 

There is plenty of choice for dining at Port Denarau, and that first night the birthday girl chose to go to the Hard Rock Cafe. We dined outside under the moon enjoying cocktails whilst a live band played near the waterfront. The band were amazing with the singer having an exceptional voice and we stayed on to listen to them play. There was a slightly surreal moment after they had finished when the Hard Rock staff came outside and danced to the Village People’s YMCA. With so many eateries, the port was buzzing and it was a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of.

The coastal view on Denarau IslandHaving woken early, just like the previous morning I went out for a walk along the shore past the neighbouring resorts. Sofitel Hotel's swimming poolIt was a peaceful time to be up with only the occasional jogger and staff about the place, and even being another grey day, it was a lovely area to walk around. Not being used to the luxury of 5-star resorts I enjoyed having a nosey round the various resorts I passed comparing swimming pools, hammocks and vistas. After another delicious fruit platter breakfast, we were collected and taken to Port Denarau to catch our ferry out to Mana Island. South Sea IslandAn unrushed 90-minute catamaran ride heads to Mana via South Sea, Beachcomber and Treasure islands. It was still a little overcast, but despite the grey skies, it was still possible to appreciate the beautiful blue waters lapping on the golden sands of each of these little spots of paradise. Being welcomed to Mana IslandThese islands were too small to berth at directly, so passengers had to disembark onto a smaller vessel to get out to them, but Mana was big enough to have a jetty. Approaching the pier through the narrow channel, the group of locals at the end of the pier burst into song and serenaded us as we disembarked onto our island paradise.

 

 

Aside from a couple of backpackers and some private residences, Mana Island Resort is the only accommodation on the island. It encompasses a myriad of styles of accommodation that spans a broad section of land spanning from the south beach to the north beach. North beachThe pier, watersports centre and a restaurant sit on the south beach, whereas the kids pool, infinity pool and pool bar are nestled by the north beach. With beaches on the north, south and west coasts, there’s plenty of choice to sunbathe or swim, especially as there is a natural reef surrounding most of the island. After yet another drawn-out wait to get into our room, during which time the pool-side bar was made use of, finally we were able to kick back and relax. For my partner, that means lying by the pool, whereas for me, that means exploring. Before we went our separate ways, we had lunch at the restaurant on the south beach, and watched the boats come and go off shore. A group of us went along the beach to the east of the resort, past the neighbouring village, and then turned back when we reached the rocky end of the beach.

I’m a lover of ‘me’ time, and when everyone else headed back to the resort, I set off west. Mana Island from the lookoutWithin the resort is a path leading up to a lookout which gives a fantastic view over the resort to the east, sunset beach to the west, and the nearest islands to the north and the south. It was a beautiful viewing point, even on an overcast day. Coming back from there, it was a winding route through the resort to find the road to sunset beach. It snakes past the end of the island’s airstrip and through bush. It wasn’t long until I was stopped by some of the resort staff on a golf cart who insisted on taking me to sunset beach despite my insistence that I wanted to walk. One of the things that saddened me about Mana Island was that the resort was built right next to the island’s village, but they were separated by a high fence that was guarded by security. It was possible to skirt this fence on the beach, and the villagers, and the nearby backpackers were very welcoming of resort guests, but the resort did not return the favour. The resort staff were polite and friendly but it didn’t take long for them to enquire where I was staying and ask for my room number. They seemed satisfied that I was a resort guest, but I wondered how they would have behaved had I not been one. As it was, they were almost too friendly, enquiring about my relationship status and asking where my boyfriend was and why I was alone. It made me feel a tad uncomfortable, and I was relieved when at last they dropped me off at sunset beach.

Sunset beach, unlike the north and south beaches of the resort was desolate. Not a soul was around, and it was just me, the sand, and the lapping waves. I meandered along the soft shore, passing the time idly before following the road back to the resort, praying to be left alone to walk. Private beachA turn-off through vegetation leads to another lookout, this time overlooking the pier and the south beach, as well as a private beach that is accessible only to residents of some upmarket residences. Another catamaran had arrived and there was a stream of people disembarking.

It was relatively well known that the best place to eat on the island, was the backpacker’s restaurant which had an ocean view from it’s south beach location, on the edge of the village on the non-resort side of the high fence. Fijian band at the backpackersMany resort guests made the journey round the fence along the beach to eat there and we were no exception. The place was packed, and the band had to be moved to allow us all to sit down and eat. I tried a Fijian prawn dish which was nice but rather lacking in prawns, and we listened to the locals singing Fijian songs before heading back to the comfort of our beds.

Hermit crabThere was a hint of blue in the sky the next morning – the first chance of sunshine since we’d arrived. Waking early, I went for a walk along the beach, looking at coral washed up on the shoreline, and giggling at the sight of my favourite shoreline creature: the humble hermit crab. Matamanoa IslandMy partner and I headed out to sea on the Seaspray, a lovely yacht that took us round Mana and then north to the nearby islands. Monuriki IslandIt was a fantastic day for a sail, the clouds separating and the sun gleaming down on us and the beautiful blue waters. We headed first to Matamanoa Island, an exclusive resort where we picked up a couple of extra passengers. From there it wasn’t far to Monuriki Island, the island where Tom Hanks was Castaway. Purple coralWe moored offshore, and were ferried onto the beach from where we could go snorkelling. Snorkelling off MonurikiIt had been nearly 3 years since I had last snorkelled, and my last experience of tropical snorkelling had been in the lagoon of Rarotonga. I had enjoyed the snorkelling in the Cook Islands, but this was definitely better. The coral was not particularly colourful but the fish were plentiful and close to shore. Some of the fish were especially curious, swimming very close to investigate. I spent nearly an hour in the water taking it all in, reluctant to go back to shore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our return to the boat, we were greeted with a most amazing barbeque. Fish, chicken, sausages, steak, salads, fruit, and dessert and all you could ever want to drink. It was scrumptious. The boat set off, by-passing neighbouring Monu island, and moored off Yanuya island where we once again headed to shore. The kava ceremonyThe villagers here welcomed us with a traditional kava ceremony – a drink that is made from ground down roots of the plant of the same name. It is reputed to have an anaesthetic-like quality: de-stressing and making the drinker sleepy and relaxed. Villagers drink it like Westerners drink alcohol: socially and medicinally. We had been pre-warned that it would be watered down into a ‘tourist-strength’ form, and everybody at the gathering got to taste some. It was a ritual, and several of our fellow tourists ignored the ritual and drank without the customary greeting and thanks. I received my cup with thanks and noted that it tasted exactly how it looked: like muddy water. It had no effect on me whatsoever. Village children on Yanuya IslandAfter buying some trinkets at the local market, we got a tour round the village, past the local’s homes, the community centre, and the boarding school with its rugby pitch. The view from the beach on Yanuya IslandThis particular island was host to the neighbouring island’s rugby union team. There was a stunning vista from the beach on Yanuya and from there it was a lovely sailing back to Mana where we had another dinner at the backpacker’s restaurant where we were entertained with a fire-dancer on the beach.

 

 

 

Despite using sunscreen, I had unfortunately suffered the worst sunburn of my life on my back whilst snorkelling. It made for an uncomfortable end to my holiday, constantly having to watch what I wore and how I sat or lay down. Fish off north beachThe next day was another beautifully sunny day, and I had to clothe up to get in some more snorkelling. Fish off north beachWith the tide in, the south beach was the place to be, with a route marked out with buoys to an area rich in fish, near the ‘drop-off’ where the sea floor dropped down dramatically about 50m off the shore. Fish off north beachThere were two species of fish, one black and white like a zebra, and another a shimmering blue, who insisted on surrounding me in shoals and accompanying me as I floated near the surface watching the goings-on of the reef below me. Fish off north beachOne of the ‘zebra’ fish even tried giving me a nibble at one point. Fish off south beachAfter a while, I headed inshore and crossed the width of the island to the south beach. Fish off south beachThe tide was out on this side making it quite shallow in places, but the fish were again plentiful, and again the ‘drop-off’ was within an easy distance. Fish off south beachWith boats moored up in the area, there were ropes and anchors fixed in place, and around these swarmed large groups of catfish. There was more diversity with the fish species on this side, and aside from being so shallow in places as to risk damaging the coral, I preferred the south beach snorkelling to the north beach snorkelling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Infinity poolThe rest of the day was spent lounging by the infinity pool. I’m not normally one for sitting still, but with waiters bringing you food and drinks at your beck and call, it was hard not to relax, and my partner and I whiled away a large part of the day sat in the shade staring out to sea. I doubt I would have struggled to spend a second day doing exactly the same if we’d had the time. Our last night on the island, we again ate at the backpacker’s restaurant where I enjoyed a tasty prawn dish before watching some crab racing with some poor little hermit crabs. I was torn between feeling sorry for the crabs and feeling excited at the drama as the crabs unknowingly raced against each other.

Islands to the north of ManaOur final morning on Mana Island was cloudless. With some spare time before our ferry back to Viti Levu, I headed back up to the lookout overlooking the north beach to soak up the last view of the island. North beach from the lookoutI once again had the place to myself, and I enjoyed the view for as long as I could tolerate the intense sunshine. South beachOur last view of Mana was a glorious one as we were serenaded back onto the boat by what looked like most of the resort staff, Our send-offand headed off towards Castaway Island. Mana's South beachCreeping out through the narrow channel, the water was so clear, and a shade of blue that I’ve never seen before anywhere else. Looking towards Castaway & Malolo islands with the Seaspray in the foregroundPast Castaway Island, we skirted round the coast of Malolo Island, Castaway Islandone of the largest in the Mamanuca island group, and then Malolo Lailai island. Unfortunately, the closer we got to Viti Levu, the cloudier it became, and we returned to Denarau Island with the sun hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was too early to get into our room, so we left our luggage behind and we headed into nearby Nadi in search of some markets. We had been given some tips from one of the crew on the Seaspray, and catching the bus to the bus depot, we headed out to wander the streets. With 9 of us together, it wasn’t long before a local man took advantage of us and tried to lead us somewhere we didn’t want to go. NadiIt was exactly what we had been warned to look out for and I wasn’t having a bar of it. We regrouped in a local cafe before we decided to split up into smaller groups. My friend had had enough and wanted to go back to the hotel, so 3 of us headed back to the bus and returned to Denarau Island. As the bus headed through the streets of Nadi, I was inwardly disappointed to discover that the area that we had wanted to get to had been just 2 streets away from where we had reached. I knew I was unlikely to have time to come back to the town again, so had to accept that it had been missed.

Our last day involved a very early rise as my partner and I headed down to the Coral Coast on the south of Viti Levu. Jetboating on the Sigatoka riverOn arrival at Sigatoka, we joined a tour which took us up the Sigatoka Valley, following the Sigatoka river until eventually we arrived at a small jetty where we boarded a jet boat. Cattle on the river bankI’ve tried a lot of adventure sports and activities in my life but had yet to go jet boating. Sigatoka riverIt had never really appealed to me at all and since injuring my back last year I’ve unfortunately had to become a lot more cautious with what activities I take part in. But I’m glad I went. We tore up the river, skimming round corners and obstacles, appearing to fly at times over the water and all the while, the rolling green valleys, pastures and hills passed us by. There were plenty of locals using the river to bathe and wash their clothes as well as for their horses and cattle to bathe and drink, and we waved at them as we whizzed by. Children at the villageIt threatened to rain a couple of times but never came to much, and eventually we stopped at a village where we were shown around and then taken to the community hall for a kava ceremony and a spectacular lunch prepared by the village women. Preparing the kavaThe whole village had come to welcome us and share with us their traditions and rituals. Again, some people forgot their manners when it came to accepting the kava, and again I noted the distinct resemblance to muddy water. In fact the kava looked exactly like the river that we had just boated down on. In the end, I somehow ended up getting two helpings, but even with the double serving, I still felt no effect of the drink. Our hearty village lunchAfter a lunch of various meats, salads and fruit, we were invited to dance. Fijian dancing involves a lot of hip wiggling and is therefore quite easy to pick up. The villagers and our guide didn’t take kindly to people shying away and by the end of it all, most of us had danced several times. I wondered how much the villagers enjoyed these tourist visits and how much was down to tolerance, but Fijians just seem permanently happy and content with their lot, so perhaps it was my Westernised cynicism that was the problem.

Sigatoka ValleyFollowing some 360o spins on the jet boat, a last chance to see the Fijian countryside on the way home, and a last chance to enjoy the resort’s inviting pool, my partner and I headed to Port Denarau for our last meal. Eating at a lovely seafood restaurant on the quieter side of the marina, my fantastic fish dish was the best meal of the whole holiday. Nadi airportThe next morning, rising early, it was a short drive back to Nadi airport for the flight back to Christchurch. Leaving Viti Levu behindWe got a good view over Viti Levu as we left Fiji behind, and I mentally added this small, friendly country onto my ever-growing list of places I want to return to.

Tasman Glacier Tracks

It’s a strange concept to consider that at the time of my birth, Lake Tasman was barely in existence. The Tasman glacier in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is New Zealand’s longest glacier at 27kms in length. It is, however, undergoing a rather fast rate of retreat and experts expect that it will eventually disappear completely. In the early 1970s, pockets of melt water became evident and over successive years these pockets increased in size and eventually merged to form the lake that exists today. The presence of the lake itself speeds up the retreat of the glacier, and now in 2014, the lake is over 7km long, with the glacier retreating at a rate of 500-800m per year. Within my lifetime, the lake is expected to reach its maximum size, and even over two visits 18 months apart I can see the difference in the lake.

The road to the Tasman glacier is not far from Mt Cook village, and was upgraded a couple of years ago to make it suitable for all cars. It was previously a dirt road suitable for only 4×4 in bad weather, so the area is now much more accessible all year round. DOC SignageFrom the DOC car park, the only spot with toilets, four different track options leave from here. I had arrived very early in the morning when the sun was just reaching over the peaks of the eastern mountain range, so parts of the walk were still in shadow. Fork in the roadI headed first to the glacier viewpoint, the paths separating quite early on. Lakes vs GlacierHalfway along the left fork, the path splits again, the blue lakes one way and the glacier viewpoint the other. Boulder pathIt’s neither a long nor taxing walk with only the latter section involving some rock hopping in a section that isn’t as well marked as the rest. I had the viewpoint to myself, and it was peaceful and quiet, just how I like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake TasmanThe lake is flanked on two sides by steep mountains including the backside of Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain, with steep moraine walls piled high at the lakeside, a remnant from when the glacier was deeper and longer than its current position. Mt Johnson with the Tasman glacier in frontIn the distance, the glacier was visible, covered in dirt, and at the end of the lake, a few small icebergs floated near the river which escapes through the boulders strewn across the valley, before snaking towards Lake Pukaki. Tasman ValleyThe boulders and moraine creates a barren, dirty-looking landscape which contrasts darkly against the blue-grey water of the lake. When I was here 18 months ago, there were more and larger icebergs on the lake than there were on this day. The photo on the info board at the viewpoint, taken just 3 years ago, shows a noticeable difference in position of the glacier’s terminal face which illustrates quite well the fast retreat of this glacier. Looking towards Lake Pukaki, the valley also looks barren, rocks strewn everywhere, with only the occasional hardy plant or bush poking through the debris.

The first blue lakeRetracing my steps, I headed to the blue lakes, which are now green in colour. When they were named, they were glacier fed, providing the turquoise blue colour characteristic of glacial melt water, but with the retreating glaciers, the lakes are now rain-fed, allowing algal growth which gives the green colouration. A short path leads to the shore of the first of three lakes of varying shapes and sizes. Behind them, the mountains are scarred with avalanche paths and scree slopes. I had the lakes to myself also, and followed the path round the shore of the first lake and over the brow to the second and third lakes. Third blue lakeIn places, the path is broken with short sections of rock scrabbling, but other than these points, it is an easy to follow path. A pair of ducks mulled around on the second lake. Alpine vegetationThe third lake was the largest and prettiest, especially with the sun by now reflecting off the surface giving it a brilliant blue-green colour. The area around the lakes was teeming with alpine vegetation, but unfortunately I was at least a month too early for the blooming of the colourful alpine flowers.

 

 

Rocky river roadIn stark contrast, the path to the lake side and river was a barren land of boulders and bare-looking bushes. I was surrounded by people as this path leads to the jetty where boats are boarded to tour the lake. A bus party of tourists were noisily chatting as they walked in procession along the gravel path, and I skirted round them as quickly as possible in an effort to return to some peace and quiet. BouldersAfter winding round the moraine wall, the path splits off to go to the river, and from here onwards, it is like walking through a sea of rocks.  Tasman river peeking through the rocksBoulders lie everywhere, and the river is very well hidden, deep down in the rock bed, until it appears all of a sudden as a colour contrast to the barren rocks that form its banks. Iceberg on Lake TasmanThe path ends on the moraine wall just above where the icebergs rest near the start of the river. A route down to the lake side is clear enough to follow, and I quickly headed down to the lake edge to stare directly at the icebergs at their resting spot. Iceberg graveyard on Lake TasmanThey weren’t the biggest icebergs I’ve seen, but looking at them dead on, they still provided a stunning vista as they shone in the sunlight with the snow-covered mountains beside them. Tasman riverI picked my way to the river and sat on a large rock to admire the view and watch the tourist boats pass by. Icebergs on Lake TasmanIt was a beautiful spot to sit until the flies realised I was a tasty meal. Mt Johnson with an icebergBigger than sandflies, I’m not sure what they were, but I ended up bearing the marks of multiple suckers up my arms, legs and chest for days to come. Mt CookI put up with the biting as long as I could tolerate before heading back to the car park and starting the long journey home.

 

Sealy Tarns Track

For the second time in my life, I was defeated by a mountain. Call it fear, or a self-acknowledgement of my personal limitations, but sometimes, I have to know when to quit. I’m an avid hiker, and love getting out into the wilderness and the mountains, but when it comes to tramping, there are three things that I don’t enjoy: lots of stairs, boulder scrambling, and rock faces to negotiate. I’d happily walk up a steep path than have to negotiate the monotony of flight after flight of stairs, and somehow I lose the enjoyment of a walk if I have to get down on my hands to negotiate a boulder field or haul myself up a rock face.

Mt Sefton from YHA HostelI awoke in Mount Cook village to another glorious blue sky with the sun beating down from above. Knowing how fickle the weather can be in the mountains, I got going early. From the YHA hostel in the lower village, the path snakes through to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village and near there, a shared path leads off towards various end points. This first section is the same start as that for the Hooker Valley track, but today I took the left fork towards Kea Point. Mt Sefton glistened in the morning sunlight as I headed nearer it. DOC SignageAlong the path the Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut track split off into the bushes, but I headed forth towards Kea Point which sat on the moraine bank of the Mueller glacier terminal lake. Mt Sefton, 3151mA small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. Mueller glacier lake with Mt Cook in the distanceThere were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Mount CookOn the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Avalanche warningBack at the start of the Sealy Tarns track, a sign warned of avalanche risk for those heading to Mueller Hut on the Sealy range. I was heading as far as the Sealy tarns, but at the back of my mind, I hoped to continue up to the hut if the conditions would allow. Stairs - lots and lots of stairsSoon after getting on to this track, the steps started. 2200 of them to be precise. The altitude gain is around 540m, and it is mostly achieved through negotiating step after step after step. Looking towards Mt Cook with the hooker glacier lake behind and the mueller glacier lake in the foregroundDespite my dislike of steps, the view is fantastic from every available vantage point. With increasing altitude, a slightly different perspective is obtained of the hooker glacier, the mueller glacier, and the valley past the village. Mt Sefton feels increasingly within reach, and there is a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the tarns frozen overOn this occasion, the snowline was at the level of the tarns. Some stale snow was scattered by the path just below the final gain in height, and the tarns themselves were frozen over. An avalanche waiting to happen - thick ice of Mt Sefton's slopesA picnic table has been erected to give a perfect spot to stare out at the world below. After a brief respite for fluid replenishment, I decided to give the Mueller hut track a go. On the ascent to Sealy tarns, I had met a few hikers coming down who had spent the night in the hut. They had reported that there was plenty of snow between the tarns and the hut, and that it was quite slushy in places. Mueller hut track signageBy the time I reached the tarns, a group of friends that I had met lower down on the track were disappearing into the far distance above me. Another sign warns of avalanche risk, and from here onwards, the path is narrow, rough and marked only by orange poles.

 

 

The path to Mueller Hut marked out with an orange poleIt started off innocent enough: a rough, stony path that was easy to follow, but not hugely far up was a small rock face to scramble up, and little beyond that another one. It was at this point that I started to question my sanity. I had done that one thing that no hiker should do: go off tramping without telling anyone my route plan or expected time of return. Not only that, but I was not at my peak level of fitness, and here I was, on my own with no-one to spot me, negotiating the best route up a rock face. One of the rock faces to haul upGranted, it was just a small rock face, not one that needed ropes or special equipment, but I found myself pausing to decide in my head the sense in going on. I was keen to get up to the hut, to see the view, feel the achievement in doing so, and be able to tell people I’d done it. On the other hand, my dislike (and a touch of fear) of rock scrabbling, and the thought of tackling all of this just to find out that I couldn’t get across the snow, eventually made me turn back and return to the tarns.

The frozen Sealy tarn visible from the Mueller hut trackSealy tarns sits at an elevation of 1250m, and I estimate that I gained maybe only another 50m, if that. With Mueller hut at 1800m, it would have been a long stressful hike onwards for me. Defeated, I returned to the picnic table and hoovered up my lunch, my pride slightly wounded. Mt Cook with the hooker glacier below. Mueller glacier lake in the foregroundJust 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, Mt Wakefield standing over the Mueller glacier lakebut shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Glacier melt watersSeveral avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. Following the Hooker river towards Lake PukakiThe amount of sediment in the water determines the colour, and there was a mix of blues and greys. Unfortunately, the alpine flowers were not yet in bloom, and I’m sure they look spectacular when the time is right. KeaTwo kea appeared to goad each other, one landing briefly near the table. Many hikers appeared, and sat for a while, and I spent around 45mins soaking up the view, reluctant to leave. Eventually though, I thought it only fair to leave the view for others, and I headed off back down the many many steps to the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CricketThis time round, with less exertion required, I could actually pay attention to the creatures and plants around me. Little birds flitted between the vegetation, some curious, some alarmed by my presence. There were crickets everywhere: brown ones near the top, and green ones lower down. I learned later at the Mount Cook visitor centre (which is well worth a visit!) that these are adaptations to the environment, and that other colours appear at other altitudes also. Heading back to the villageI also discovered at the visitor centre, that there was an ice and crampon warning for the Mueller Hut track which made me feel slightly better about my failed ascent. The path back to the villageBy the time I was near the bottom, the cloud had started to roll in again, and the summits of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook were once again shrouded. The morning is definitely the best time of the day to get out in the mountains. Edmund HillaryI reached the Hermitage hotel, and sat absorbing the sunshine, gazing over at the statue of Edmund Hillary who forever gazes towards the summit of Mount Cook.

Hooker Valley Track

I grew up in a suburb of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, inland and away from the coast. I would always enjoy trips to the beach or into the hills, but I didn’t necessarily crave them. When I left home I moved up north to Aberdeen, and spent the next 5 years of my life living by the sea. I could smell it every day, I could see it everyday, and I routinely spent evenings after work or weekends pounding the local beaches or promenade listening to the waves crashing and falling in love with the ocean. Now I think of myself as a ‘coast’ person, someone who loves living by the sea and craves to be near it. Over this same time frame, I developed a love of hiking and camping and would disappear into the mountains and hills as much as possible, scaling my first Munro (a mountain in Scotland >3000ft), and acquainting myself with as much of the nearby National Park as I could. And so I also crave for that mountain view – the sight of majestic mountains towering above and around me. Living in the Canterbury Plains, I can spy the Southern Alps on the distant horizon, and when the opportunity arises to go play amongst them I grab it with both hands.

Mount Cook Village is a small settlement nestled in a valley under the shadow of New Zealand’s largest mountain, Aoraki or Mount Cook. It sits within the National Park of the same name, and lies at the end of a long road that snakes up the western shore of Lake Pukaki. I’d been here twice before, once in winter when the snow on the ground limited the ability to go exploring, and once in autumn when it was raining and misty. I had been eager to do some hikes around here, and I was also keen to see the alpine flowers in bloom so as soon as spring hit, I made sure I could find a free weekend to go there. It is a roughly 4hr drive from Christchurch, so I arrived just after midday and set about getting ready to go for a walk.

The Hooker Valley track is the most popular walk amongst visitors and is graded as an easy walk suitable for families. It can be started from the White Horse Hill campground (an estimated 3hr return), a short drive from the village, or it can be reached from the village itself via a connecting path (an estimated 4hr return). Mt SeftonI was staying in the YHA hostel in the lower village, from where a path snakes through the village to the Hermitage hotel in the upper village. DOC sign at the start of the hike in Mt Cook VillageNear here a path leads to several hiking options: Kea Point, Hooker Valley, and up one of the mountains to Sealy Tarns and Mueller Hut. Even from the hostel, there is an impressive view with the snow covered Mt Sefton towering over the village. There were regular sounds of crashing ice as avalanches fell down Mt Sefton’s slopes sending a cloud of snow behind it.

 

 

Aoraki/Mt Cook dominates the skylineThe initial section of the walk is through bushes, then across some open scrubland and finally over a stony dry river bed until a marker denotes a split in the path. Fork in the roadTaking the right fork, the path continues to White Horse Hill campground, where on the opposite side of the road, the start of the Hooker Valley track is evident with a domineering Mt Cook visible behind. It is a well marked and maintained walk on a mixture of gravel paths and raised boardwalks to protect the alpine plants. Despite reading that the alpine flowers would be out in spring, I was clearly early as there were none in bloom and they didn’t look close to it either. I later discovered that they wouldn’t appear till late November, meaning I was over a month too early.

Mt Sefton towers over the Mueller lakeThere were a few detours from the main path, and I chose to do these on the return leg, but after a few twists and turns, the Mueller glacier and terminal lake came into view at the foot of Mt Sefton. As with many glacier-fed lakes, the water was a cloudy grey colour due to the suspension of sediment swept down from the rocky source of the glacier, and the river draining from this lake led away from the end and started its snaking journey through the valley to eventually drain into Lake Pukaki. Crossing the Mueller riverThe first of 3 suspension bridges on this walk crossed the river, and the river bed was strewn with large boulders left behind during the last age of glaciation. I had arrived in Mount Cook to gorgeous sunshine and clear blue skies, but as often happens around mountains in the afternoon, large clouds started to roll over Mt Sefton and the neighbouring mountains and threatened to block out the sun. At this stage, Mount Cook was hidden out of view so I had no idea what view to expect at the end of the hike.

 

The second suspension bridgeThe second suspension bridge crossed the Hooker river as it tumbles down stream from the Hooker glacier, the destination of my walk. Aoraki/Mt CookShortly after this bridge, Mount Cook (thankfully not hidden by clouds) came back into view and dominated the skyline for the rest of the hike. There was the start of a lenticular cloud (my favourite type of cloud) crowning its peak, and I could see the clouds on the neighbouring mountains form and disperse as they curled over their summit. They would continue to threaten to occlude the sunlight but then wisp away at the last minute.

As such a popular walk, and being a weekend, there were a lot of people out on the track that day. A congregation of them hung around a small hut further along the track which boasted an unobstructed view of Aoraki, and this is the only place on the track (apart from the campground) where there is a toilet. A small stream trickled by, and several families milled around here. Third bridge with Mt Cook behindFurther on, the track continued through the alpine vegetation until the third suspension bridge was reached, and after this, large boulders appeared as a moraine wall was reached to demarcate the end of the glacial lake on the other side. Snaking through the boulders, an incline brought me to my first sighting of the Hooker glacier and its terminal lake on which floated some rather large icebergs.

Icebergs on Hooker glacier terminal lake with Mt CookUnfortunately, it was quite cloudy overhead, although Mt Cook’s peak remained unobscured. Icebergs in front of Mt CookThere was a picnic table at a raised viewing area, but most people headed down to the stony shore at the end of the lake and absorbed the view from there. Melting iceberg in front of Mt CookLapping at the shore were multiple smaller icebergs at the end of their melt, and the shoreline resembled an iceberg graveyard. I had previously seen these up close on a boat trip on the Tasman glacier lake and the colour and clarity of these ‘bergs are amazing. Iceberg graveyard with the Hooker glacier face evident in the background at the foot of Mt CookThe larger icebergs afloat on the lake were dirty from the moraine, and the glacier itself was barely distinguishable from the surrounding land due to the moraine deposits on the surface. Dirty icebergsPrevious to my first up-close view of a glacier in Chile, I’d always thought of glaciers being pristine white from the snow and ice, but aside from the Perito Moreno glacier in Chile, every glacier I’ve seen since has appeared dirty, covered in a layer of sediment and debris chucked up from the valley walls as the glacier moves down the mountainside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I sat for a long time on the lake shore, blocking out the noises of other people and just soaking up the view and inhaling it all. Eventually, the clouds started to build up and some spots of rain could be felt. It was also exceedingly windy at the shoreline, and eventually, I decided to head back. I left just as the summit of Aoraki disappeared behind the cloud. The route back retraced the same route I had come by, but I followed the detours as they appeared. Mt Cook viewed through the hut windowFirstly, there was a little tarn which is the name given to mountain lakes that have formed in an excavation created by a glacier. Stocking stream next to the hutI investigated the hut that I’d ignored on the way up, and wandered along the edge of the stream at its side. Hooker river pounding down streamThe view on the way back was towards Mount Cook Village and the Hooker river snaking down the valley towards Lake Pukaki. Looking towards Lake Pukaki in the far distanceThe cloud had by now passed over the summit of Mt Sefton and hidden it from view, and was threatening to dump some rain on the village.

 

 

 

 

Scree slope near Mueller Lake lookoutThere were a couple of viewpoints that I had skipped past on the way there, giving alternate views over the Mueller glacier and its terminal lake, and nearer the campground was a memorial erected to remember those that had succumbed in the mountains. Memorial to MountaineersIt was originally erected to remember two particular adventurists who had perished in an avalanche in 1914, but since then further plaques have been erected to remember those who had come to strife since. Plaques of remembranceIt was sad to read how young many of them were, and there was a definite trend relating to the location of several of the deaths. Even for the highly trained and experienced, these are dangerous and unpredictable mountains to play in.

The final detour was to Freda’s rock. As unassuming a rock as it was, it marked the spot where an explorer called Freda Du Faur had had her photo taken after becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Cook in 1910. This was at a time when it was frowned upon for an unmarried woman to spend the night in the company of a man, never mind go mountaineering. From here, it was a short walk back to the campground and then along the same path back to the Hermitage and the village where a warm shower and a nice cold cider awaited.

Blood Moon

October 8th 2014 saw a lunar eclipse visible in the skies above New Zealand. I don’t have a fancy expensive camera, but it was still a beautiful thing to watch the moon turn red.

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse

Antarctica

There’s one continent on Earth that I am yet to reach: the little-known, little explored, white continent at the bottom of the planet. Growing up with the BBC’s stunning natural history series’ I have long dreamed of visiting there, but since moving to Christchurch, New Zealand 3 years ago, the country’s gateway to Antarctica, I have yearned for it even more. The city hosts the US Antarctic Survey as well as offices for a few other countries, and it is from this very city that scientists, photographers, videographers, and a lot of support staff head off each spring, and return to at the end of their contract. I’m insanely jealous.

Every IceFest in Cathedral Squaretwo years, Christchurch hosts New Zealand IceFest, a celebration of all things Antarctica, and a chance to demonstrate the city’s connection with the continent as well as an opportunity for Joe Public to experience in some little respect what goes on down there. With so many Antarcticans (as they like to call themselves) around the city, I’ve found myself becoming a bit of a groupie, attending talks, open days and soaking up the atmosphere.

Huskies pulling the tramThere was a good turn-out for the opening ceremony which involved a team of huskies pulling one of Christchurch’s famous trams through Cathedral Square. Lady Hillary (Edmund Hillary's wife)On board the tram was the city’s mayor, Christchurch Mayor Leanne Dalziel, and Lady HillaryLady June Hillary (Sir Edmund Hillary’s wife) and a team of children dressed up as penguins. The ice 'ribbon'Awaiting their arrival at the specially erected Signage at the IceFest HubIceFest Hub was an icy ribbon to be ‘cut’, or in this case, hacked at with an ice pick. Ice sculptingNearby, an ice sculptor made some impressive sculptures of an emperor penguin and an Eskimo sculptureEskimo out of a block of ice. Hagglund in Cathedral SquareIn the vicinity there was an exhibition of One of the Antarctic photography exhibitsAntarctic photography as well as a Hagglund (snow mobile) on display.  I attended a talk comparing aspects of the Arctic and the Antarctic, given by two people that had spent a combined 26yrs between them at that great continent at the bottom of the world. I listened in awe to their tales.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of many huskies at the sled dog races, hagley ParkThe following day there was sled dog racing set up at Hagley Park, where local and national competitors came to display aspects of the sport. Sled dog racingIt was rather cold and windy, and many of the dogs were easily distracted from their race but it was lovely to see so many huskies amongst many other breeds, showing off their racing skills. That afternoon, I attended a talk from 4 speakers (including Anthony Powell who has made a name for himself filming for the BBC amongst other things) who had ‘wintered over’ in Antarctica many times. They jovially described the humourous and unusual aspects of life effectively stranded in a land with no daylight for 4 months of the year, in a small community on the ice. Having previously viewed Anthony Powell’s amazing movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice last year, I had an idea of what they were talking about, but as they said, it must be an experience that is hard to describe and hard for others to fully comprehend. Like when I watched the movie last year, I listened to their stories and imagined it could be possible for me to get there too one day. So few of us in the world will ever have the privilege of spending much, or indeed any, time on Antarctica, and I really recommend the movie to give some insight on what happens down there.

Kevin & Jamie's Antarctic ExpeditionPeople in New Zealand may be aware of a tv programme called ‘First Crossings’ made by two men, Kevin and Jamie, who recreated many of the country’s first explorations through remote parts of the country. Kevin Biggar's bookSeveral years ago, they also walked to the South Pole in the first unsupported and unsupplied Kiwi attempt. I’ve found their tv show fascinating, but listening to them in person, they were very compelling speakers. It takes a special person to make tales of starvation, blisters and utter determination a funny yarn, and they captivated the audience and had us in stitches throughout the show. I had previously bought the book of their expedition, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, and they managed to persuade me to get started with it.

 

 

The cargo entrance to the US Air Force planeOne of the big events on the IceFest calendar was the Antarctic Air Day out at the airport. Hooks on the inside wall of the planeLarge air force planes from the US Air Force and the NZ Air Force take off from here during the summer season loaded with people and freight to head south to the airfield that services both Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (US). Fold-up seats on the wall of the planeOn this day, there were 3 planes on the tarmac opened up to the public to allow an insider’s view into the behemoths of the sky. The roof of the US Air Force planeIt was reported on the news that evening that 7000 people turned up and queued to get their turn to wander through the planes and see inside the cockpit. Breathing apparatusThe larger plane belonging to the US Airforce has a flying time to Antarctica of 5hrs, whereas the slightly smaller plane belonging to the NZ Air Force gets there in about 7-8hrs. 2 massive jet enginesThe inside of both planes is nothing like a commercial jet (which was also available for a wander through), and every inch of wall space was taken up with wires or switches or hooks or safety devices. US Air Force planeI can’t begin to imagine the noise that must emulate from these planes on the long, packed and potentially uncomfortable flight. Cockpit of the US Air Force planeThe cockpits were a mass of computer instrumentation and the planes are capable of landing in a variety of weather conditions, including in complete darkness. Gents & Ladies toilets on the NZ Air Force planeWhilst we queued to wander through, A valuable inclusion on the NZ Air Force planemembers of both country’s airforces were on hand to answer questions and describe what it is like to work and fly in these massive planes, as well as their trips to Antarctica.Royal New Zealand Air Force plane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Antarctic CentreAcross the road outside the International Antarctic Centre, one of the city’s family attractions, a myriad of stalls and activities had been set up outside to entertain the kids. Sealion ice sculptureThere were Hagglund (snow mobile) rides, mock up Antarctic tents, ice sculpting, and the chance to enter the passenger terminals of the US and NZ Antarctic Programs, a privilege usually only for those flying down there. Taking a selfie for AntarcticaThere was even the opportunity to dress up in some of the many layers of Antarctic clothing to have your photo taken. It was a beautifully sunny day which helped to bring out the crowds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That afternoon, I headed back to the IceFest hub in Cathedral Square to attend a couple of talks relating to the use of dogs on the ice in the past, and some of the speakers had been on the ice in the 60s when it was still commonplace to use and train dogs for service and transport. It was clear to see that many Antarctic ‘veterans’ were in town to visit and many of them shared their stories of their time on the ice. IceFest Hub at NightThat night, I headed back to Cathedral Square with my chair and jacket to attend an open-air screening of Anthony Powell’s epic movie Antarctica: A Year on Ice. Anthony Powell Q & AThis was my third time seeing the movie, and it still brings out the same emotions every time I watch it. Anthony himself was there for a Q&A afterwards, and it was a good turnout and was exceedingly well received. Two weeks into the IceFest and I’m still very much a groupie, and still very much in love with the continent that remains just outside my grasp.

Cirque De Soleil

Some things are so amazing that there just aren’t the words to do it justice. Auckland is my favourite domestic city getaway and having the largest population in the country, it is often the only host city in New Zealand for international shows and events. I’ve been intrigued by Cirque de Soleil for many years, and when the opportunity arose to head north for the Totem show I grabbed it. Taking place in the Grand Chapiteau, the big blue and yellow marquee in Alexandra Park, the only thing that marred the night was the torrential rain that we had to walk through outside. Round the circular stage, the seating was crammed together, but any grumbles about minimal personal space were soon forgotten when the show started.

Jaw dropping. Mesmerising. Spellbinding. Awesome. However you want to call it, it’s worth every cent. Following the comedic start as some of the cast wander through the crowd interacting with people, the show swiftly moves through an hour of amazing physical feats from dramatic leaps, spins, and balancing acts. I was blown away, and at times I sat there with my mouth literally open wide. The man to my left would repeatedly let out an enthusiastic ‘WOW’ and the crowd regularly went crazy with clapping interspersed with regular gasps as the athletic performers reached new (often literal) heights. Following an intermission, there was another hour of spectacular performances and I felt so overwhelmed by the time it was finished.

Photography and recording was not allowed at the event, which was understandable due to copyright and performer’s focus, but frankly I was so glued to what was going on on the stage, that it would have been too much of a distraction to me as a viewer, and I didn’t care. As a result, the following images are credited to the source that I have obtained them from. Go see Totem when it comes to your town!

Credit: Totem - Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

Credit: Totem – Cirque de Soleil (Official Facebook Page)

The Northern South

When foreign travels feel so far away, it’s a nice break from the tedium of working life to get away for the weekend. The countryside south of KaikouraThe drive north from Christchurch towards Kaikoura is beautiful, especially once the road hits the coastline south of the Kaikoura Peninsula. The Kaikoura RangesI’ve driven this road several times and every time the sun has shone on the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean and made it sparkle. On this occasion it was no different. Stopping in Kaikoura purely to pick up food for a packed lunch, we continued up the road, stopping to enjoy our lunch with the sea crashing on the rocks next to us. A few New Zealand fur seals snoozed on the rocks in front of us whilst some seagulls eyeballed us, waiting to see if they’d get a snack.

Ohau FallsEver since I’d found out about it, I’d been keen to get to Ohau Falls. About half an hour north of Kaikoura, the Ohau stream opens into the Pacific Ocean, and upstream from here is a pool with a waterfall cascading into it. Juvenile New Zealand Fur SealThe draw for this waterfall is the juvenile New Zealand fur seals that use the pool to frolic, play, learn and build strength in the water. New Zealand Fur SealThere were plenty of people making the short walk from the car park to the falls, and the reward was about 6 pups frolicking madly in the water. One little pup hopped out the water and then proceeded to haul itself up a near vertical slope to dry off and snooze in the woodland above us. They were adorable, and full of energy. On the walk back to the car, we found an adult fast asleep right next to the track, a large blob of mucus hanging from its nose.

It was a gorgeous day for a drive and we still had some distance to cover to reach Nelson on the north coast. Leaving Canterbury behind, we crossed into the Marlborough region, and after hitting Blenheim, it was completely new terrain for me: a road I had never driven on before. Passing endless stretches of wineries, we headed into the mountains on SH6, stopping briefly at Havelock before the road cut inland to the west, leaving the Marlborough Sounds behind. Maitai River in NelsonIt was a long and windy road before eventually the sea came into view once more and we reached the outskirts of Nelson. Christ Church, NelsonThe last time we had been to Nelson it was in the middle of summer but there was torrential rain and visibility was so poor that we had barely been able to see the sea at the side of the road. This time the sun was shining but a high bank of clouds loomed over the surrounding hills, threatening to spill over onto the city. We took a wander round the compact centre prior to heading out to see some friends.

 

 

 

 

 

Tahunanui beach, NelsonWaking the next morning, it was clear that the clouds had finally rolled in. Not to be put off, after breakfast we headed to the beach at Tahunanui, round the coast from the marina. The city of Nelson from the Centre of New ZealandAfter a walk in the fresh sea air, we headed back to the city and to the far side where a path led up a hill through the Branford Reserve to a lookout at the ‘Centre of New Zealand’.City of Nelson from the Centre of New Zealand A marker marks the spot that has been deemed the geographical centre of the country, and from there, there is a beautiful panorama over Nelson and the surrounding hills. Aotearoa Mural, NelsonWe had a quick wander round a nearby Japanese garden, before my partner headed back to the motel to watch some rugby, and I took a walk through Nelson, and back round to Tahunanui beach where I saw a New Zealand fur seal swimming in the harbour. By the time I made it back to the beach, there was barely anybody still there, and I enjoyed the tranquility before heading off to our friend’s place for dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cloudy mountain topsThe day we drove home was as beautiful as the day we had driven up. Snowy mountain topsThe road took us deep inland, past small towns, villages, and pastures surrounded by rolling hills. Driving towards Lewis PassAt the brow of a hill, I recognised a lookout that we had paused at a couple of years before on our way to Abel Tasman, and we stopped here once more to see the surrounding mountains, this time with their snowy caps. Nearing the summit of Lewis PassWe were the only ones there, a marked contrast to the last time in the height of summer, and it was so quiet and peaceful. Mountains near Hanmer SpringsEventually, through the other side of Murchison, we wound our way towards Lewis Pass (altitude 864m) which had stale snow in banks near the road. The snow line was high up due to it being a relatively mild winter, but it was a pretty sight, driving past endless mountains with the their snowy caps. Finally, through the other side, we reached familiar territory, reaching the turn-off to Hanmer Springs and the well-travelled road back to Christchurch.

London Calling

I have mixed feelings about London. The first time I visited London was as an extended stopover on my way to India. I bought a tourist bus pass and proceeded to hop on and hop off at as many famous sites as I had time for. I visited streets straight off a Monopoly board, saw the skyline that I had seen on so many television programmes, and photographed the buildings and signs that I had seen in a thousand magazines. But I felt lonely and alone in what felt like such a soul-less and impersonal city. It was brash and expensive, and felt polluted. I felt a million miles away from fresh air and openness, and I left a few days later unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Bridge across the Thames

London church

St Paul's Cathedral

Tower Bridge

The London Dungeon

Tower of London

Sea Containers on the river Thames

London Eye

Westminster

Big Ben

The collegiate church of St Peter

Harrods

Hamleys

Buckingham Palace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my best friends moved down to London after graduating from university, and the first time I visited her down there, I was pleasantly surprised by how different London felt on that occasion. It could be argued that this time I saw the real London, not the tourist traps, but regardless, I could see why my friend liked being there. Natural History MuseumMy friend was at work when I arrived so I had the whole day to myself, so I made my way to what to this day is still my absolute favourite museum of all time, the Natural History Museum. Dinosaur at Natural History MuseumAt the time, the special exhibit on the ground floor was all about dinosaurs, and this mesmerised me, as did pretty much everything in the entire building. I arrived early in the morning, and as it was, I had to rush the last couple of floors in order to get round everything by the time of closure. Animated Velociraptor at Natural History MuseumThe last time that had happened to me was in Le Louvre in Paris. T-Rex head at Natural History MuseumMy friend at that time lived in Bethnal Green in east London, and this felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Cetacean Exhibit at Natural History MuseumAn extinct mammal at the Natural History MuseumWe spent the weekend exploring her local neighbourhood and visiting markets, and I left with a whole new regard for the city.Harrod's in winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A year later and I found myself back visiting my friend whilst coming down for a couple of job interviews. My partner at the time thought he would need to move there for work, and I reluctantly agreed to suss out the job market. My friend by this point was living in Hillingdon near Heathrow Airport. Amusingly, she worked at the exact same hospital that I had been taken to after my disastrous flight home from Delhi. Living in west London this time, it was another opportunity to experience a different side of the city, and again I felt so displaced from the heaving city centre that lay a train ride away. Aside from the job interviews, I had arranged to catch up with some of the people that I hiked to Macchu Picchu with earlier that year. We ate out near Covent Garden and went to a few bars which were so packed that we could barely breath let alone move in. The comedy night on the boatAfter meeting up with my other friends we headed to a comedy night that took place on a boat moored up on the river Thames. One of the best sundaes I've ever had, at an Irish bar in LondonIt was eye-opening to experience night life in the city centre and the hustle and bustle of so many people as well as the long drawn out mission to get home at the end of the night marred the experience for me. It reminded me slightly of what I had disliked about the place on my very first visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In between these trips, and since the last trip, London has meant just one thing to me: an international transit centre that in equal measures opens up the world to me and signifies that home is within reach. Living most of my life in Scotland, I regularly had to take a domestic flight to Heathrow airport to connect to a world of international travel. I have been a repeat visitor to all 5 terminals of that airport, and have whiled away many hours waiting for connecting flights. I love looking out the plane window on the approach to Heathrow, swinging over the city centre to follow the river Thames upstream on final approach. I love spotting the city’s famous structures as we soar overhead, and I know that upon landing, I am either a step closer to an adventure or a step closer to home. After I moved to New Zealand nearly 3 years ago, I made a surprise trip back to Glasgow for Christmas, nearly 1 year after I had left, and reaching London filled me with such excitement for the final leg of my transit round the world. In no other airport have I spent so much of my life as Heathrow, and it has played such an important part of my life. Living as I do at the far side of the world, I cannot get home to Scotland without transiting through, and being both the welcoming arms to my homeland and the foot that kicks me out the open door, London will always be bittersweet to me. I love it and I hate it all at the same time.

In Search of Snow

It’s been a relatively mild winter in New Zealand this year with barely any snow where I live and the local ski-fields have had intermittent falls interspersed with strong winds and unusually warm weather, resulting in a poor ski season. I’m a summer-loving person, but back in my native Scotland, the one thing that made the cold, dark winter days and nights bearable was the promise of snow, and lots of it. I love snow, and in Aberdeen where I used to live, we got plenty of it. It wasn’t unusual to get an autumnal blizzard that would dump the first snow of the season in October, and often into November, but the main snow months were January and February. In one epic year, we had snow every month from October through to May, and then it started again in October. The ski centres still had plenty of snow on the longest day of the year in June, and with the most northern ski-field having daylight till around 11pm, it was an epic day to hit the slopes.

Moving to New Zealand was the right thing for me to do for so many reasons, but boy do I miss snow. I never thought I would, but after three winters here with so little reward for the colder temperatures of the season, I’ve found myself staring jealously at the distant Southern Alps with their white tips and yearning to feel snowflakes fluttering down on me, craving the glorious silence that only a snowfall can bring and dreaming of first footprints on a fresh bed of snow. Clearly my desires were becoming more vocal than I realised, because despite not being a skier, my partner insisted on taking me to the mountains to visit one of our nearest ski-fields.

Mountains near Mt HuttNot quite an hour and a half from Christchurch is Mt Hutt (2086m/6843ft). The nearest settlement is Methven which has a scattering of cheap digs, bars and ski-hire shops – all you could ever need for the perfect weekend trip. From the base of the mountain, it is a long and winding drive up a gravel road that overlooks the vast flatness of the Canterbury Plains. The tall mountains are a stark contrast to the flat barrenness below and they stand tall against the horizon from some distance away. On the drive up to Mt HuttOn that particular day, the snowline was roughly half-way up, although it was patchy and stale. Even at the level of the ski centre, there was plenty of rock face peering through the thicker banks of snow. We were lucky enough to find a parking spot at the top car park and we got out to soak up the view. Mt Hutt ski fieldMy partner looked at me as if to say ‘Ta da!‘ and then couldn’t understand my disappointment. Mt Hutt ski centreDon’t get me wrong, the view was stunning: The view from the car parkwith patches of sunshine making the snow on the surrounding range glisten, and with the snow-topped range flanking the nearby plains, it was a stunning vista. The road down the mountainBut the snow was not powdery under foot, it was stale and crusty. Mt Hutt bungee jumpThere was no fresh flurry of snowflakes falling on my skin, and apart from the buzz of the skiers and snowboarders enveloping me, I wasn’t feeling the vibe that fresh snow brings. One of the closed ski runsIt was better than nothing but I struggled to hide my disappointment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KeaWe stayed for a while, and watched the people whizzing down the mountainside, enjoyed some warm drinks in the cafe and then wandered around the car park watching 6 cheeky keas Kea having a scratch(the world’s only alpine parrot, and one of my most favourite birds in New Zealand) taunt each other and hop from vehicle to vehicle looking for trouble. Submissive keaLike all parrots, keas are highly intelligent and probably the most mischievous of all the parrots that I have seen. KeaThey thrive round people, and are notorious in parts of the country for removing the seal round car windows, and bending aerials and puncturing bike tyres. Needless to say I love them. I could have watched them all day, especially the two that were playing (or fighting, or mating, or whatever they were doing) with each other, one lying submissive on its back for the other who mobbed it open-winged, displaying its bright orange under-plummage. A couple of hours after we arrived, we set off back down the mountain and home.

 

 

 

 

 

On the edge of the stormThe following weekend, my partner’s friend came to visit from Auckland. He hadn’t skied for some years, and my partner was wanting to get a bit of snowboarding in this winter, so we set off back to Methven only to hit gale force winds, sandstorms, and then torrential rain. The road to the ski-field had been closed for nearly a week due to high winds, and arriving in Methven at lunchtime, there was nothing to do and nowhere to go but to camp out in the pub or our lodge. There were hopes of fresh snow being dumped in the night so we clung to the hope of the road being open in the morning. I had originally planned on taking a skiing lesson whilst the boys hit the slopes but having obtained a horrendous cough, I was slightly spaced out on the prescription-strength cough suppressants and it was easy for me to sleep the afternoon away. I didn’t miss much – the torrential rain continued all through the night.

On the Sunday morning, we awoke to the news that the road to Mt Hutt ski-field was open to 4-wheel drives and 2-wheel drives with chains fitted. We gathered the hired gear and set off in our 4-wheel drive early. It was clear from the start that this would be a totally different experience than the weekend before: it was still overcast and raining in Methven and as we started the long wind up the mountain road, the rain became sleet and then snow. The snow became heavier the higher we climbed, and the visibility grew poorer and poorer. The surrounding mountains that had glistened last week were nowhere to be seen through the clouds, and the snow on the road grew denser as we travelled. Like many mountain roads to ski-fields, there is often a long drop down so they are definitely not the kind of road you want to lose control of your vehicle on. But as our altitude increased, so did the snow on the road, and eventually even our 4-wheel drive decided to lose traction after coming round a bend. Icicles at the snow shopThe procession of cars grew slower and slower until we rolled into the top car park in by now quite thick snow, and parked up one by one. Mt Hutt bungee jumpI got out as quickly as possible to see and smell and feel the snow flakes falling down on us. Skiers in the snowShortly after our arrival, they closed the road to all traffic except chained 4-wheel drives, and we faced a possible reality of being stranded up the mountain as conditions worsened. The chairlift to the cloudsAfter an hour of waiting for news on the likelihood of us getting back home that day, we could finally go off and enjoy ourselves. Through the snowflakesThe boys bought their passes and headed off and I hung around the base, Line up of skiistaking photos of them through the incessant snow fall and just generally breathing in the snowy scene.Snowboarding

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picnic benchesThere is nothing like the silence of snow. Anybody who has stood outside during a heavy snow fall should know what I mean. Birds are silent, and most other sounds grow distant or still (not to mention the scientific reasons that snow covered ground absorbs sound waves and falling snow causes sound waves to curve upwards towards the sky – but that’s not quite as poetic and romantic, is it?). Fresh footprintsI love that silence and stood happily enveloped by it, watching nearby kids throwing snowballs whilst I looked for an untouched patch to place those first footprints. A 360 degree wonderland of fresh powder snow and I breathed in memories of Scotland. For those hours that we were up there, I couldn’t have felt happier. My toes and fingers grew uncomfortably cold but I didn’t want to go anywhere. For that brief moment in time, I was home.

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