MistyNites

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Archive for the month “September, 2019”

Mount Isobel

After 7.5 years living in Canterbury in the South Island, I’ve managed to get up a good few mountains in the region’s Southern Alps. I have a few favourites that I go back to, but every now and again I’ll try something new. I’d known about Mount Isobel for some time, but it wasn’t until November last year that I finally got around to hiking it. The mountain sits overlooking the town of Hanmer Springs, what used to be a 90 minute drive away from Christchurch, but realistically is longer now with the speed restrictions that were introduced after the Kaikoura earthquake of 2016. With weather forecasts for the mountains being vague, I was hopeful for a clear day when I set off, but the reality is that you don’t always know what you’re going to get until you reach the mountain. The closer I got to Hanmer, the more I could see a thick bank of cloud sitting atop the range to the west and it was only on the final approach to the town that I could finally see a clear summit, separated from the cloud bank by the Clarence Valley.

There are several routes up Mt Isobel, and I drove through Hanmer and out the other side to turn onto Clarence Valley Road, a steep, winding and unsealed road that leads deep into the Southern Alps. I don’t have a 4×4 or a fancy traction system in my little car and have previously lost traction driving up a steep unsealed road, so I’m always a little nervous taking my car on some of New Zealand’s back country roads. It was only a few kilometres to reach the pull-in for the Mt Isobel track but when I got there it was full, and I had to pull up on the verge just a short distance away. For me, the initial part of the hike was rather uninteresting. It started across a deforested section of slope, where there was a glimpse of Hanmer Springs in the valley below before it disappeared into the trees; a narrow, rough, and at times zig-zagging path up the slope. Intermittent breaks in the foliage gave views of a town getting smaller and smaller, but I have to admit I found this lower section a bit of a drag.

 

After about 50 minutes, I reached the junction where the Dog Stream Waterfall track met up to share a route to the summit. There was no signpost here to direct but it was clear that up was the way to go and as the track broke free from the trees and onto the alpine slopes, I started to enjoy the hike a little more. Even although the track was steep here, by the time I’d reached the ridge and the junction with the Jacks Pass track, another 30 minutes later, the views had really started to become delightful and I loved this upper section.

 

I’d already passed a few people coming down from the summit. The early start from Christchurch had me at the start of the track late morning, but clearly those with the benefit of staying more local had managed an earlier start than me. I could see a couple of groups of people ahead of me on the ridgeline, and even though it is classed as a route rather than a track from here onwards, it really isn’t difficult to follow at all. The well trodden route follows the contours of the rising ridgeline towards the summit proper, and to my left I had mountain peaks disappearing into the distance, and to my right I had the plains of the valley with the buildings of Hanmer Springs.

Only near the final ascent did the alpine plants thin out a bit, and a scree slope had to be crossed to reach a rocky climb up to the summit marker at 1319m (4327ft). I’d made it up in just under 2hrs, less than the track sign at the start had listed. Surprisingly I had the summit to myself and made the most of it, taking photos and eating my lunch in solitude, admiring the view. From the summit, it is possible to walk down to Jollies Pass Road to the east, and one of the groups ahead of me had continued this way. After about 20 minutes to myself, a couple of other hikers arrived, so I started back down the mountain, leaving them in peace.

 

The view on the way down was full frontal mountains and valley and without the exertion of the climb, it was much easier to take it all in on the way back. I passed several people working their way up the slope as I descended, and as the alpine plants became replaced with trees and I once again reached the lower track, I found myself hurrying to complete this uninteresting section once more and I was back at my car a little over an hour from leaving the summit behind. The downhill return to the town was easy and quick and I found myself at a new cafe hidden down a side street where I enjoyed a post hike coffee and cake. But the best thing about Hanmer Springs is the thermal spa in the middle of town, and this was the perfect place to soothe my post-hike muscles, something that became a recurring theme after the next weekend’s hike.

Otira Valley

When it comes to hiking, I’m utterly spoiled in New Zealand. From short walks of a few hours to multi-day tramps, there’s plenty of choice, and I’m a particular fan of getting in amongst, or up on top of, the many peaks of the Southern Alps. The west coast road that spans between Christchurch and Kumara Junction has offered me some incredible hikes, but one that had eluded me until last October was the walk up Otira Valley in Arthur’s Pass National Park. The marked trail looks quite short on the map, so to make the over 90 min drive from home worthwhile, I decided to combine it with a few nearby tracks. Parking up at the bottom of the Temple Basin track, I passed the bottom of that walk to cross the road to join the nature walk that lead onto the Lake Misery track.

Despite the proximity to the state highway with its regular traffic noise, the surrounding peaks seemed to pull my mind away from the noises of civilisation and frankly I was surrounded by a stunning landscape that was difficult to ignore. There were a few other people on the nature trail that had walked from Arthur’s Pass village but as I continued on to the lake, I felt more and more on my own. Looking back across the road as the trail gained a bit of height, I could see a great waterfall spilling down the opposite mountainside, and the zig-zagging Temple Basin track headed up the slope at its side. According to the Department of Conservation (DOC) website, the boardwalk that passes Lake Misery can be under water. It was such a gorgeous sunny day, that even though there had recently been rain, I was hopeful that there wouldn’t be any issues here, and thankfully the walkway was high and dry. At the far side of the lake, there was a large rock wall to climb up and over and now I was at the end of the Otira Valley look up at distant snowy peaks.

 

The track is poled but is also well-worn and easy to follow as it skirts the slope of the rock wall I’d climbed over to get there. The alpine vegetation was coming to life in spring, and below me the babbling waters of the lower Otira River accompanied me as I cut up the valley. A few places were rougher than others, including a few spots where the track had collapsed a little creating the occasional steep drop down, but otherwise it was a decent meander to reach the little wooden bridge that leads to the far side of the river. A DOC sign here marks it as the end of the track, the upper reaches of the valley deemed fit for mountaineers only. Everyone else on the trail with me turned back at this point, and I scrambled up onto the bridge to cross it and sit on the other side. It was such a lovely day, I was happy to just watch the running water for a while. But as I looked up the valley, I could make out a well-trodden path and far in the distance I could see a couple of people following it. It really hadn’t taken me that long to reach this point, and with time on my side and a blue sky above, it seemed like a good idea to keep going. And boy am I glad I did.

 

Following the path of the river for the most part, it hugged the slope as it headed upstream. Behind me, the road seemed so far away and the peaks of Mt Temple dominated the background. As the track hit a wide section of scree, the still-obvious track followed the natural curve of the valley and the road disappeared out of view and the incredible peaks of Mt Rolleston appeared. Cutting down towards the river, a series of small waterfalls created a stunning foreground to the view. It was hard not to get a little giddy with it all and it was also hard not to want to keep going. Despite clearly being in an avalanche zone, there wasn’t enough snow to be concerned, and I decided I’d just keep walking until the track stopped. Despite the lack of poles, it was well worn and therefore easy to pick a route past large boulders that littered the river side.

 

A myriad of waterfalls streamed down the steep wall of rock to my left and in front of me a basin became visible, surrounded by steep snowy peaks. I saw the pair far ahead of me trudging towards the snow, and after reaching the end of a flat area strewn with boulders, I found a spot to sit down and have lunch. As I ate, I was privy to the sight of several small avalanches skipping down the mountainside. The sight and the sounds were as incredible as each other, the basin causing the sound to magnify. Not far ahead, the track appeared to fade, but from my vantage point, I watched the pair cross a section of snow and clamber up another rock field to reach the true basin, and I watched in awe as they sat for a while, the avalanches coming down right in front of them.

 

I sat so long there that they headed back whilst I was still ogling at the view. When they reached me, one of them stopped for a brief chat, congratulating me for being out on my own. I’m never sure if it’s because I’m female or hiking solo (or the fact that I’m both female and hiking solo) that seems worthy of congratulating me for but these are the occasions where the male dominance of the hiking world becomes clear. I’ve taken my freedom for granted all my life, and thought nothing of taking myself up mountains on my own or heading off with a tent on my own, but every now and again I’m reminded of how I’m in a minority. But this man encouraged me to head up to where they had been before leaving me alone, and as I watched them disappear down river, I looked up at the beautiful white snow and decided I’d go the extra distance.

Thanks to their footprints, I could pick a route across a wide bank of snow, a couple of times dropping deeper down into the snow than anticipated. But once I was at the other side, I was greeted by a large boulder pile that I picked my way up to find myself staring at the backside of Mt Rolleston. The whole time I was there I was nervous. I hadn’t seen a single avalanche reach this far whilst I’d been sitting having lunch, but all around me were signs of recent avalanches and I was acutely aware of the fact that no-one knew I was there. Whilst I love hiking solo, it does make me heavily responsible for my own safety and at the mercy of my ability to make rational judgements. But the whole time I stood there, the nervousness was mingled with the thrill of the view in front of me, and the excitement and rush of having it all to myself.

 

This is definitely the kind of place that would be totally different to hike on another occasion: the view and risk changeable with the season and the snow level. Spring was a great time to be there, with the flowering alpine plants, the sunshine in the sky but the snow still present in the higher reaches. I cut back down the boulder field to the snow bank I’d crossed earlier, trying a different route to avoid the dips I’d fallen into on the way up. The view was just as phenomenal on the way back as it had been on the way there, and it was hard not to keep looking backwards as the basin grew further away and then disappeared out of sight as the valley curved back towards the road.

 

There was not a soul to be seen as I made my way back down the valley towards the little wooden bridge. A couple of people were on the marked trail as I continued back towards the road, crossing a lower scree field before reaching the turnoff to Lake Misery. Even with the road and power poles cutting across the landscape, there was no escaping the beauty of this place and it was a pleasure to retrace my steps past the lake and towards the nature trail. Only the cold of the shaded trail on the way back to my car reminded me that it wasn’t quite summer yet, but I was elated to have finally walked this track, and I was equally glad I’d had the guts to keep going up the valley. The Otira Valley track is now officially an Arthur’s Pass favourite.

Districts of Singapore

I’d read about a restaurant in Chinatown that took my fancy. After 4 days of hanging around Marina Bay, I was ready to see a bit more of what Singapore had to offer. The city was bustling at night when the temperature was much more pleasant and being a Friday, there were a multitude of bars spilling out onto the street as I headed from my hotel through the backstreets towards Chinatown. Unfortunately, the place I’d planned on grabbing dinner in was small and full so I headed into the nearby hawker food centre for what was a great meal anyway. These hawker centres are dotted about the city. Effectively a multitude of food stalls under one roof, they are a great way to try different foods and often a cheap way to eat out too. Feeling satiated, I headed to central Chinatown where there was a street full of food vendors surrounded by streets full of shops selling a myriad of souvenirs. It was packed full of tourists with a few locals intermingled and I grabbed some dessert to eat whilst wandering around. I rarely buy souvenirs, but these places are great for people watching, something that I do love to do, so I hung around for a bit before wandering off. I didn’t really have a plan of where to go, simply following alleys or lights or sounds. On a main street I found a collection of Chinese Lanterns depicting early settler life in Singapore.

 

I had one full day to myself before heading home on the Sunday evening, so I was glad to wake up to a gorgeous sunny day on the Saturday. The heat of this city in the daytime is incredible, but I decided to take a walking tour of the city’s districts. Whilst public transport can be a necessity in some places, it adds to the budget and I also feel like I see more of a place if I walk it, rather than disappear underground into a network of tunnels, so even in sweltering heat, I will often choose to stick to my own leg power. Heading down Raffles Place and around a corner, I started at the Singapore River outside the Fullerton Hotel. From here, the Cavenagh bridge and a collection of bronze statues dotted along the promenade provided regular distractions from watching the river boats heading up and down the river. There was just so much to look at, and I took my time to watch it all as I meandered upstream to a collection of old-fashioned shop fronts which were all bars. At nearby Elgin Bridge, I crossed the river to the far bank and started to walk back down river again. But shortly after crossing, I spotted a bench in the shade, and struggling with the heat, and an overwhelming tiredness, I lay down on the bench and promptly dozed off. I’d done a similar thing whilst on Sentosa Island, and whilst a little self-conscious about sleeping in a public spot, it was just what I needed, and an hour passed by before I knew it.

 

Finding my feet once more, I passed the Asian Civilisations Museum and found more bronze sculptures depicting different stages of settler life in Singapore. Cutting round the back of it, the distinctive Gallery of Singapore, Singapore Parliament and Supreme Court added to the nearby architectural gems. At the far end of Supreme Court Lane was the beautiful St Andrew’s Cathedral. It was open to the public so I took a look inside and enjoyed some much-needed air conditioning before touring the grounds and the nearby city streets.

 

At the far end of Coleman St, I cut up past a museum to enter Fort Canning Park, a hilly green space within the city skyscrapers. A walk-way halfway up the slope led me through herb gardens and artisan gardens towards an exceedingly distinctive and beautiful building. A variety of routes lead away from here, but I had so much to see that day, so I just stuck to the one side of the hill, heading back towards where I’d started and beyond there to the flagstaff and lighthouse. I spotted several squirrels in the trees as I walked, and enjoyed the sounds of the birds flitting around me. Down the steps towards the main street below I found a large stone carving depicting a multitude of historical scenes. From here I cut back to the Cathedral and followed North Bridge Rd towards one of the city’s shopping districts.

 

At the time of visiting in September last year, the famous Raffles Hotel was closed for renovations. The Long Bar, home of the infamous Singapore Sling had only just reopened and it seemed only right to head inside out of the heat to get one. I got sat at the bar and provided with peanuts whilst I watched the bar tenders mix a whole host of gorgeous looking cocktails. The Singapore Sling was probably the most expensive cocktail I’ve ever drank, but it was a novelty worth doing. I was a little tipsy by the time I headed out into the heat again, and the food that I ate for lunch from a nearby stall was the most disappointing meal I’d gotten on my whole trip thus far. I washed it down with Singapore’s version of an iced coffee from a popular store along the road, and continued on my way towards Kampong Glam.

 

Kampong Glam was a glorious neighbourhood with so much to see and so much bustle. I zig-zagged up and down streets full of gorgeous boutique shops selling all sorts of wares, making my way towards Masjid Sultan, the Sultan Mosque, one of the city’s most famous sights. Having a multi-national and therefore multi-cultural background, Singapore is also a melting pot of religion, with a variety of religious buildings catering to different faiths. I am an atheist but religious buildings are often the most stunning buildings in a city and irregardless of what faith they belong to, I love visiting them. I came prepared, knowing I would need to be covered up to go in, but I immediately started dripping in sweat with the extra layers as there was no air conditioning inside. A wedding was taking place inside and volunteers were on hand to answer questions, so I had a brief chat with one before the heat got too much for me.

 

Leaving Arabia behind, I headed towards Little India which was like a rabbit warren of streets full of stores that reminded me of my trip to India many years ago.  This area is known for its murals and I had a walking route planned to try and make the most of this, again zig-zagging through streets in search of them. There are some well-known landmarks here such as Tan Teng Niah and the Sri Veeramakaliamann Hindu temple, and there were cow references in many places, from the artwork to the statues. I even found another mosque and church within Little India too. Between Kampong Glam and Little India, I’d spent hours on my feet and as evening approached, it was time to start heading back, grabbing a cute little panda cake from one of the city’s many bakeries. I had to pack that night, and try and squeeze a ton of conference acquisitions into my bag so didn’t feel like eating out. Instead, I got some food from the 7 Eleven and watched a movie as I tried to rearrange my belongings.

 

I didn’t need to leave for the airport till the afternoon so after a morning swim in the hotel pool, I was quick to get out to complete my Singapore explorations. This time I had Chinatown in my sights, so headed to Raffles Place to start a walking route I’d been recommended. My first stop was the Yueh Hai Ching temple which was small and peaceful, and from here I followed Telok Ayer St into Chinatown proper. At Far East Square I went for breakfast at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. I’d read it was a great place for an authentic breakfast, and it certainly felt that way with a reduced comprehension of English, but as much as I like eggs, I struggled to eat the half-raw egg whites that were presented to me, and the iced coffee was gritty and bitter. I left feeling dissatisfied. Round the corner was the Fuk Tak Chi museum which I had to myself but as I continued deeper into Chinatown, a few more people started to appear.

There were so many photogenic buildings around here, and at Telok Ayer Green there were more of the bronze sculptures that I had become accustomed to. The nearby Thian Hock Keng temple got a quick look around and outside, on its back wall was an extensive mural depicting the history of Singapore. I cut up through Ann Siang Hill Park to find myself among street after street of beautiful buildings with shuttered windows. Eventually I found myself at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the city’s most famous buildings. Beyond here there was a lot of construction work going on so it was a bit complicated to cross the road to get to it, but once inside it felt nice and cool although the crowds were heavy here. I didn’t fully appreciate everything I was seeing inside, and there was a phenomenal amount of buddhas within it, but I still enjoyed wandering around the inside of it and then out onto the roof terrace.

 

Heading up through the chaos of the construction sites, I cut down through Banda St where there were yet more gorgeous shop fronts, and then found myself back at the Chinatown Food Street and souvenir shops I’d seen on the Friday night. It was just as bustling in the daytime and I was hungry again so grabbed some fried chicken from a van that was parked up. Like the breakfast, it was really disappointing and half of it ended up in the bin. Nearby around Mohamed Ali Lane I found some more murals painted on the walls and took my last fill of the colourful and clashing buildings of the area as I left Chinatown behind. I’d spent more time there than I’d thought I would and suddenly had a bit of an urgency to get to my last port of call before leaving, so I hot-footed it through the business district. I called into the Market Street Hawker Centre for a drink, and ordered something that I didn’t understand what it was purely because it sounded intriguing and it was purple in colour. Sadly, for the third time that day I was disappointed with my choice. I’ve still no idea what it was but it was not pleasant, and again it ended up in the bin. Clearly this was not to be my day for food.

 

A trip to Singapore is not complete without a visit to the Gardens by the Bay, and whilst I’d certainly wandered around the outdoor space during the conference, I hadn’t actually done any of the paid attractions, and now I had just a few precious hours to pack them in. I headed straight to the SuperTree Grove and up onto the OBC Skyway, a raised walkway that connects several of the giant trees. The views were simply incredible and vast, with the Marina Bay Sands hotel, the Singapore Flyer and aspects of the garden all visible. There were plenty of people about but it didn’t feel crowded and I meandered slowly across the expanse of it. The grove is gorgeous at nighttime when it’s all lit up but the views in the daytime made me glad I’d saved the Skyway till the daytime hours.

 

Two domed buildings sit near the edge of the gardens and contain the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. It is cheaper to buy the entrances for both together than it is to buy them separately, and I started with the one I wanted to see the most, the Cloud Forest. This turned out to be one of my most favourite things in Singapore, and walking inside to be faced with a giant waterfall spilling down a wall of lush green vegetation was magical. Sometimes if you read about a place too much it can be a disappointment when you finally go there, but this place was incredible. Circling the flower displays at the base, I reached the far end to see a sign stating the wait to reach the top could be up to 30mins. I didn’t have time to waste in a queue, and suddenly regretted spending so much time in Chinatown that morning. Thankfully though, the queue was moving quickly and I was up within 5mins. Once at the top of the dome, a 1-way system leads down a series of walkways and escalators back down the levels. Intermittently steam is pumped out and it can at times feel like there are clouds in there. The whole concept was incredible and if I’d had the time I could have just gone round and round. There was so much to look at from the plants and sculptures to the views out the glass roof. Not to mention the waterfall that spilled off the one side. I spent over an hour there and really had to force myself to leave.

 

The Flower Dome was larger and busier and consisted of an upper concourse and a lower concourse with a couple of bridging gardens on a mezzanine level. The upper level was mainly arid or desert plants and there was an incredible dragon sculpture made out of wood at the far end. There was also some Alice in Wonderland sculptures hidden amongst the smaller plants too. There was a massive sunflower exhibit on whilst I was there which incorporated the Wizard of Oz. Upstairs this meant Dorothy outside her house in a small sunflower patch but on the lower level was a bigger spread where Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion were hanging out. A castle stood within it and standing out the front was the Wizard himself. The whole concept was impressive and the flowers and trees were beautiful. The wooden sculptures were so clever too, and whilst I much preferred the Cloud Forest, this place was still very much worth a visit.

 

I left the Gardens by the Bay reluctantly. I’d loved my week in Singapore and was totally in love with the city. Collecting my bags from my hotel, I took the metro out to the airport only for the train to break down on route. With it being the main line to the airport, I had confidence that something would be sorted soon, but there was still a good 20 minutes of not knowing what was going on before finally they announced a contingency plan and we were on our way. Singapore will remain firmly my favourite stopover spot on route to Europe and with the opening of Jewel a few months ago, I can’t wait to go back.

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