MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “mountains”

Canterbury Tales

Having spent months recuperating from a back injury, and following a winter getaway to Samoa, there was still another 2 months of 2019’s winter to get through, and I was in need of a pick-me-up to help me through. As much as I prefer the New Zealand summers to those of my native Scotland, every winter, I pine over the lack of central heating and the absence of snow. I remember great dumps of snow and driving through blizzards where I used to live in Aberdeen, and as a result, one of the surprising things I come to miss from home, is those crisp winter days waking up to fresh snow fall. Year after year in Christchurch I’ve found I have to grit my teeth to get through the months of May to September, and so it was important I find something to occupy my days off work and make up for all the lost weekends earlier in the year. I created 2 random lists: a geographical breakdown of Canterbury, and a list of possible activities. Then, with the aid of a random number and letter selector, every weekend, I simply had the Internet pick a letter and number for me, and the rest was up to my imagination to combine the activity and the location.

First up was a scenic drive round to Diamond Harbour. The winter sunshine sparkled on the still water within the harbour and the surrounding slopes reflected through the gentle ripples. It’s a drive that always delights, and there’s so many scenic options to get you there. After stopping at a boat ramp to get some photographs, I headed back via Allandale Reserve where the receding tide exposed a mudflat, much to the delight of a myriad of wading birds that picked away for food. In the time that I spent there, the sun dipped behind the Port Hills and I could see as I headed home that a lot of cloud had moved in over the city. This created perfect conditions for a glorious sunset, and as the sun lowered in the winter evening, the sky turned an incredible orange. In a pre-COVID lifetime when planes still flew regularly, I watched as an Air New Zealand plane approached the airport from above my back garden, framed against a sky full of fire.

 

A couple of weekends later, I headed inland to Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, a little beyond Porters Pass on the West Coast road. It’s always a popular place to be, and now at the end of July, there was snow on the nearby peaks. It had been a while since I’d last stopped here, but there’s so many options for routes to take through the giant boulder field, and with a few patches of standing water around, there was some great opportunities to catch the snowy reflections. We skirted round the foot of them and round the side, past a boulder which has a graffiti inscription from 1869 on it. There were snowy peaks to be seen on the far side also, and we picked our way through the lower trails before climbing up onto the hillside at the back of the main boulders. A temporary tarn again provided more gorgeous reflections but we didn’t get such a beautiful spot to ourselves for long. With the sun low for the winter months, there were parts of the area in permanent shade and as we crossed one such spot I went flying, landing on my bum, having slipped on a spot of iced-up mud. With the boulders themselves casting a long shadow on the front side, I had to be so careful picking my way back down again so as not to fall flat on my face.

 

One of the great things about this adventure ‘game’ I was playing was that it led me back to some haunts I hadn’t visited in a while, as well as discovering a couple of new places. With another sunny weekend day the following weekend, my randomly selected region led me to a cute little wetlands on the edge of Lincoln, a relatively short drive outside of Christchurch. I previously worked in Lincoln for a short spell back in 2012 when it was just a little village, but in the years since it has expanded immensely with a plethora of new housing developments spreading out from the original core. The wetlands is right on the edge and was the location for me to practice a bit of macro photography. The waterway itself was still, reflective and surrounded by reeds and other typical plants, but I was on the lookout for flora and fauna that would allow me to practice my photography. As I walked close to the plants at the water’s edge, I found a jumping spider, the only arachnid that I like, and was quick to welcome it onto my hand to try and capture it’s cute little features. It would have been better to have my tripod and two free hands but I was able to get a couple of reasonable shots as it hurried across the back of my hand. On the far side of the wetlands, the shade meant there was some ground frost, and I probably looked a little weird to any passersby as I hunkered down on the wet grass to try and capture the water droplets.

 

The following day I took a drive to the far side of Lake Ellesmere via a nice cafe I hadn’t been to before, where the map suggested there would be a nice spot to enjoy the lakeside. I was hopeful to sit and do some wildlife spotting, but what I found was a gypsy camping site, and a rather flooded park. There was also no bird life to be seen so disappointed, I started to head through the back roads to come home, only to find myself at a ford. I just drive a little car so I wasn’t keen to drive through the river, and right on the far side were some workers doing some road upgrades, so I especially didn’t want to make a twat of myself by getting stuck in the water. It meant a massive detour to get back to the city, so I decided to make a drive out of it anyway, skirting round to the road towards Little River, but turning up Gebbies Pass and up onto Summit road. The weather was perfect for views down onto Lyttelton harbour and I was once more grateful to have so many beautiful spots within easy reach of the city. I stopped at several of the pull-ins to enjoy the view. I was already starting to get excited about the impending spring but there was still one more month of winter and one more adventure to be had before the promise of spring would come.

Mount Somers

With autumn starting to kick in and the end of daylight savings fast approaching, I am becoming increasingly aware that my hiking season is creeping towards its end. Once the snow starts to fall on the mountain tops and the evenings start to draw in, there won’t be the same opportunities to bag summits. With almost all of the remaining peaks on my list being within Arthur’s Pass National Park, I was dismayed to read the weather forecast for my one weekend day off was dismal and I resigned myself to a weekend without a hike. But after looking at the neighbouring regions’ forecasts, I discovered that there was the possibility of completing my list of summits in the eastern peaks by heading to Mt Somers.

About 1.5hrs drive south-west from Christchurch is the village of Mt Somers, from where a road heads deep into Hakatere Conservation Park, where I had previously visited Mt Guy and Mt Sunday. Not far from the village itself is also the turn-off to 1 of 2 car parks from where the Mt Somers track can be reached. I have been keen to walk this track which is a multi-day walk that circumnavigates the lower slopes of Mt Somers, but I just haven’t had the time. On this occasion however, I decided to tackle the summit itself, and this is best reached from the other car park near the village of Staveley.

The car park was quite full when I got there early on a Sunday morning, but with a few options for tracks from here, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up bumping into anyone else, but even as I set off on the Mt Somers (south face) track, another two cars pulled into the car park behind me. Despite being autumn, it was going to be a hot day and it wasn’t long before I was sweating. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the start noted a 5hr hike each way so I was mentally preparing myself for a long day.

Start of the hike

 

The first 40mins of the walk was within a tall forest, and there was a good amount of altitude gain immediately via a variable quality of track. There were plenty of tree roots and fallen branches to act as trip hazards, meaning a lot of time was spent watching my footing whilst overhead several plump kereru (wood pigeons) flitted through the trees. Shortly after leaving the car park behind I was overtaken by an older man who was power walking the track. His only belonging was a regular-sized bottle of water which looked rather small considering he was also heading for the summit. Still, he was much fitter than me, steaming ahead in no time at all.

Forest track

 

When the trees finally broke under the glare of the hot sun, the dramatic peak of Mt Somers was fully visible, as was the Canterbury Plains below. Through shoulder-height vegetation, the rocky path picked its way over a series of ever-higher knolls giving a fantastic and ever changing perspective on my target summit as well as the surrounding peaks. I passed a hiker heading to the car park about an hour into my hike, but otherwise there was just the sounds of nature to keep me company. I looked towards the peak and struggled to pick out where the summit route might go, and then before I knew it I had reached the junction where the summit route started. The predicted time from DOC was 2.5hrs to this junction and another 2.5hrs to the summit, but I had made it there in just 1hr and 45mins.

The first sighting of Mt Somers

The path disappearing into the trees

Canterbury Plains

Mt Somers

The changing face of Mt Somers

 

Straight away the quality of the track changed, becoming very rocky, uneven and slightly overgrown in places. After a very brief zigzag through some lower bush, it very quickly began to climb and even early on there were patches of scree to negotiate. There was a regular need to grab onto bushes to haul myself up or steady my balance as I negotiated the slippery slopes. I hadn’t been going for long before voices on the wind alerted me to other people coming up behind me. Our paces weren’t too dissimilar in the first third of the hike so they maintained the same distance behind, however as the climb grew rougher and the boulders to negotiate grew bigger, they started to catch up.

The start of the summit track

View from the lower slope of Mt Somers

Rocky path up the slope of Mt Somers

Rocky slope of Mt Somers

 

Sometimes the path was obvious and other times not so much, but before long I’d reached a low ridge where it was possible to catch my breath as I finally was able to pause and soak up the view. The Canterbury Plains stretched off around me, and looking up towards the summit, the hike looked increasingly tough. All I could see was the track disappearing into a field of boulders and a steep drop either side. The summit looked still so far away. But I pressed on, and now I could see other hikers (including the man who had passed me by at the start of my hike) picking their way down from the top, and as one passed me whilst I struggled to see a route up the rocks, he told me to just make a line for the top and stick to it. There were vague signs of feet having been through some patches already, but it really was just a case of focusing on the orange pole at the top and just finding the easiest route up to it. But it was easy to get distracted and veer off to the side in search of an easier foot hold, and the couple who had been behind me all this time, overtook me. They seemed to keep a side-ways glance on me to make sure I made it, and then as if satisfied that I was on the right course, they disappeared over the ridge out of view.

The view from the first ridge

The lower ridge above the Canterbury Plains

The track disappearing into a boulder field

 

I felt triumphant at the top, as boulder scrambles for me are always a bit of a mental challenge, and whilst still having some way to go, I’d achieved most of the altitude by now, and it was simply a matter of traversing the boulders across a long ridge line, until the trig point (1688m/5538ft) was within reach. The couple were already hunkered down against the wind that was present at the top, and I passed them by making a beeline for the monument further along the ridge. A stone cairn dated 2000 sits atop a directional marker box which contains a visitor’s book, surrounded by a wooden frame with a misspelled inspirational quote around it. Wrapped around Mt Somers is a ream of mountains stretching off into the distance and I could see the poor weather hanging over the inner Alps and shrouding the distant summits. It was a little cold with the wind so I found a semi-sheltered spot to protect myself whilst I paused for some lunch.

The view from the top of the boulder field

Monument at the summit

Year 2000

Monument & trig marker on Mt Somer's summit

 

I had summited about 3.5hrs after leaving the car park, and as time at the summit ticked on, more and more people appeared. In the end, it turned out to be a very popular walk that day, but everyone I spoke to agreed that it had been a challenge. This is definitely a hike for fit and experienced hikers only. But the reward was the sense of achievement and that view which spanned all the way out to the Pacific Ocean as well as Christchurch and Banks Peninsula in the far distance. There was no haze to cloud the view that day, and I felt like I was on top of the world.

Mt Somer's summit panorama

Mt Somer's panorama

Mt Somer's Trig panorama

Mt Somer's Trig overlooking Canterbury Plains

Mt Somer's trig

 

Eventually though, it was time to start the descent, and this involved as much attention to footing as the route up had. There was still a steady stream of people coming up as I picked my way down off the ridge line, and I gave a group that were struggling a bit some words of encouragement as I passed. Looking downhill, the path that had appeared vague at times looked a little more obvious with the benefit of perspective, but again I had to lower myself over rocks, squat down to slide on my feet and grab hold of branches and bushes as I gingerly picked my way down. The same couple from before overtook me on the lower slope and we all acknowledged that this hike was as much of a challenge coming down as it had been going up.

Starting the descent

The steep slopes of Mt Somers

The top of the boulder field

 

Back at the track junction after about 1.5hrs, it was then a pleasant walk back across the knolls and back into the forest below. The clouds had rolled in a little so the sun felt weaker but I was still warm enough. Getting a little tired, I found myself tripping over the tree branches in the lower slopes and I had to go back to concentrating on my footing to prevent twisting an ankle. I was very pleased to turn that last corner and find myself back at the car park. To date, this is the highest mountain I’ve hiked in New Zealand, and whilst it is definitely achievable for many, it is also not a hike to be taken lightly. Classed as an advanced hike by DOC, it is tiring and physically demanding with a large proportion of boulders and scree to negotiate. But at the end of it all, 6.5hrs after leaving it behind, I sat back in my car triumphant and more than a little pleased with myself.

Green cricket

Panorama from the Mt Somer's (south face) track

Heading back to the forest

Rock formation above the Canterbury Plains

Trig M

Sometimes you have to take a gamble and choose to ignore the weather report. In my experience, even the most reliable of weather forecasts can struggle at times to give an accurate description of what is going on in the mountains. Especially the Southern Alps where there are so many forces working together to affect the wind direction and the rainfall. With a day off work, I got up with a plan in mind, looked out the window and was disappointed. The thick clouds above Christchurch was not what I had been hoping for. But as I sat eating breakfast, wondering what I could do instead, I noticed the clouds change, and whilst the forecast for the mountains was still rather questionable, I decided to take a chance and stick to my original plan.

About 1.5hrs to the west of Christchurch is Porter’s Pass, the gateway to the Southern Alps and the west coast beyond that. As I left the Garden City behind, I realised to my dismay that the mountains weren’t even visible. Mentally set up for a hike, I pushed on passing country town after country town until there was just about 20kms to go. The sun was trying to push through the thick cloud, and as the kms ticked by, I considered turning around until suddenly the cloud bank broke and I was greeted by glorious sunshine and blue skies over the mountains. I had made a good call.

As the west coast road delves into the mountains and starts to gain a bit of altitude, on the east of the Porters Range is a hairpin bend at which a low-key pull-in denotes the start of the Coach Stream track in the Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park. Following the small stream through a valley and marked by orange poles, it crosses the stream twice before starting a steep climb up, first through private land then conservation land, as it winds its way up to a ridge line. Every now and again a glimpse of traffic heading up to Porter’s Pass is seen and behind me in the distance, I could see the enormous cloud bank still hanging gravely over the east coast.

Start of the hike

Map of the two tracks

Following the coach stream through the valley

Crossing onto the private Benmore station

View on the way up to the ridge

There are some interesting rock formations in the area but a lot of the surrounding mountains appear barren or have brown or green shrubbery covering their slopes. The easy to follow track through tussock was dotted with the occasional alpine plant but the low shrubs meant it was fully exposed. After following a ridge for a while, the path curved onto a neighbouring ridge and then sneaked up the side of a copse where the quiet was temporarily breached by birdsong. Not much further up the track I was surprised to reach a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign marking the junction with the Starvation Gully track, a shorter route from another starting point along the west coast road. The information that I had read on this track had stated 3hrs from the pull-in to the summit of Trig M, and yet here I was just a little over 1hr, at a sign saying I was only an hour away.

Rocky outcrops

Porters Range

Near the copse

View from the track junction

Track junction

Now, the view got more interesting and it wasn’t long before I could see the trig on a nearby peak. Not only that, but I could now see up the neighbouring valley that contains the west coast road heading towards Arthur’s Pass National Park, as well as peer down on Lake Lyndon which nestled in the valley below. There was some cloud starting to build up overhead but it was still pleasant and I covered the rest of the easy, though occasionally slippery, track up to Trig M (1251m) in just half an hour. Wandering around the peak I realised I could see Mt Hutt towering over the Rakaia river valley and realised how relatively close I was to Peak Hill which I had hiked a few weeks earlier.

Looking towards the summit

Lake Lyndon

Trig M summit

Summit panorama

Looking towards the Rakaia river valley in the distance

It was a good enough day to keep hiking but going any further meant going off piste so I decided on this occasion to stick to the marked route. Following lunch at the summit, I retraced my steps soaking up the view of the valley and the lake below. As I came down from the peak and headed back towards the route junction, a cloud band blocked the sun and the temperature dropped a little. It was still a very pleasant walk and as my altitude dropped, eventually the sun reappeared. I was not far away from dropping back into the valley when I passed two German tourists coming the other way. I was astonished to see one of them wearing jandals (flip-flops/thongs), especially knowing there was a few slippery stony sections up ahead for them. I am regularly astounded to see people ill-equipped for hiking in the mountains, and these two girls had nothing but water with them, although at least they had that!

Porters Pass panorama

Return hike

Dropping altitude

Beautiful views in every direction

I soaked up the view the rest of the way back and I reached my car just 1.5hrs after having left the summit behind. Having expected a 5-6hr hike, I had completed it in just 3hrs 40mins including time spent at the summit. It was a relatively short walk compared to what I have been used to of late, but it did mean that I was home in time to enjoy a nice coffee and treat at one of my favourite coffee shops before closing.

Little Mount Peel

It didn’t take long for me to realise that this walk was something special. Nearly two hours south-west from Christchurch, nestled within Peel Forest, is Blandswood Road, where a small car park denotes the start of a myriad of walks. It just so happened to be my birthday and I was excited to be spending it summiting a new mountain.

I took the last spot in the car park, and set off up the steep Lookout Road where a Department of Conservation (DOC) sign denotes the start of the Fern walk. A gently graded stroll through the forest brings you to a junction where the Deer Spur track begins. It is possible to continue on the Fern walk which disappears into the forest for a low altitude walk, but my target for the day was Huatekerekere or Little Mount Peel, the lower of three Peel peaks. Once on the Deer Spur track, the path started to work its way up the hillside, initially still within the forest. It was a broad and obvious track for the most part, with a few high steps to negotiate, but after about 40mins, the forest opened up and the path was noticeably narrower.

Start of the Fern walk

Start of the Deer Spur Track

A brief break in the trees in Peel Forest

Peel Forest track

 

From the beginning it was a busy track. I had read that it was one of Canterbury’s most popular walks and this was well evidenced on that day with the regular stream of people either coming down or visible going up in the distance. After a small tarn, it wasn’t long until the view appeared, and what a view it was. As with most of the hikes that I’ve done, a haze clung over the Canterbury Plains behind me, but inland and either side were mountains, and it was stunning. From that first sighting, the peak of Little Mt Peel looked unachievable and distant. There were so many lower ridges to negotiate but I put those thoughts aside and ploughed on. The first ridge gave some welcome relief from the previous climb and I paused briefly to soak up the view.

Little Tarn

Little Mt Peel summit in the far distance

Panorama from the Deer Spur track

 

From then onward, despite the constant climbing, I really enjoyed this hike because there was just a stunning view all around. I came across a family with two young children, the youngest being just 5 years old, and was impressed to see them negotiating this mountain on their own two feet. They stopped regularly meaning I eventually overtook them and about the same time it became possible to make out the summit trig and the nearby shelter in the distance. Shortly after passing them, the wind picked up and a bank of low cloud formed and whipped up and over the ridge I was heading towards, hiding the summit from view. I had previously experienced this a few months prior when hiking up Mt Thomas and I had learned that with patience, this kind of cloud is usually dispersed in a short space of time.

Cloud riding the ridge

View north

 

Sure enough, by the time I reached the altitude of the cloud bank, it was already lifting, and ahead of me I saw a hiker who was close to giving up. The summit was still 2 ridges away, but was tantalisingly close, and he sat off the track trying desperately to catch his breath whilst his friend continued. A descending hiker encouraged him to keep going, letting him know how close he was, and with the two children not far behind me, he seemed to get a second wind, and pushed on shortly after I passed him. The second last ridge involved a bit of hauling up a boulder face, and I reflected on how good a work-out I was getting. The last ridge was a walk in the park, and sweaty yet satisfied, I found myself crossing that last section with the hut and summit right in front of me.

Summit hut & trig just about visible

The path already travelled with the Plains below

Nearly there!

Approaching the summit

 

The Tristram Harper Memorial Hut appears to perch on the side of the mountain a short distance below the summit. I bypassed the track to it and made the final ascent to the trig marker that stood proud on the summit (1311m/4301ft). Despite the cloud building up inland, it was a fantastic view. Mt Peel and Middle Mt Peel were clearly visible, looking deceptively close and achievable, and both to the north and the south, other mountain ranges rolled off into the distance. The haze persisted over the Canterbury Plains, and above them, the hut and the lateral saddles of Little Mt Peel rolled down to meet them.

Tristram Harper Memorial Hut

Looking inland towards Mt Peel

Summit panorama looking south

 

Being such a popular walk, I didn’t have the summit to myself for long. There were plenty of people milling between the hut and the summit, so after enjoying some lunch, I left it behind for the next lot of people. I had previously made the decision to descend via the South Ridge Track, making the whole walk a loop. Everyone else was heading down the same way they’d come up (Deer Spur Track), and having read a warning on the DOC website that the South Ridge track was only suitable for experienced hikers with back country navigational skills, I had spent a lot of the hike up, trying to pick out the track on the opposing ridge for the descent. From the summit, I could see it disappearing in the distance, and felt it looked perfectly achievable so decided to stick to my guns.

Just below the summit was the hut which I discovered contained the family with the two young boys and the hiker who had nearly given up. They were all chatting away, and after signing in to the guest book, I left them to it. A DOC sign on the side of the hut pointed towards the South Ridge track and I picked my way through some undergrowth towards the drop toilet, from where the track split off. I peered over the edge, decided it was doable, and made the commitment to follow through. I had read in a blog that this would be a steep descent, so I knew there would be no backtracking once I’d started. Straight away, I found myself having to lower myself gingerly over boulders but it was such a beautiful day, it was easy to follow the orange poles disappearing into the distance.

Canterbury Plains

Summit trig from the shelter

Tristram Harper Memorial Hut from the start of the South Ridge track

South Ridge track disappearing into the distance

 

The South Ridge Track involved a rapid descent, and the track was so overgrown, that I spent a lot of the time staring at my feet to watch my footing, that I hadn’t realised how quick the descent had been until I stopped on a lower ridge to admire the butterflies that were everywhere. The mountains to the south were beautiful, a viewpoint that hadn’t been afforded from the Deer Spur track, and looking back towards the summit, the hut and trig point were like little dots on the horizon. As the altitude dropped away, the track became more and more overgrown in places, and at times I found myself chest deep in bushes barging my way through the under growth. I focused on the orange poles to guide me through, but I stopped regularly because there were butterflies everywhere and the view all around was again exceedingly stunning.

The track through the vegetation

Panorama from the South Ridge track

Hiking the South Ridge track

 

Eventually though, I hit a basic little post with an orange arrow to guide me off the ridge, and I started the final descent back into the forest. The view remained briefly before I was encompassed by trees again. This final section was quite steep and I negotiated several sections in a crouched position to prevent me slipping, but even then, I found myself on my butt twice. This is not a track I would have wanted to take in the opposite direction. Within the forest, with nothing but trees to look at, I sped up a little, eager to reach the waterfall. Finally the path broke out at Emily stream, crossed the stream and headed up the embankment on the other side. Just a few minutes later, I reached the end point of the track where it met the Emily Falls track.

Little Mt Peel summit

Leaving the ridge behind

 

It was only a couple of minutes walk to Emily Falls which were pretty, but not easy to see without crossing the stream to the other side. There were few flying insects to annoy me, so I enjoyed watching the water for a while before retracing my steps. Back at the track junction, the DOC sign detailed 45mins back to Blandswood road, and I pushed on, still with a slight skip in my step. I was a little confused when the path came out at a stream and seemed to just disappear. An orange arrow pointed to the left but all I could see was the stream. Picking my way up the stream, I found another orange arrow letting me know I was heading in the right direction. After a while though, the stream got harder to negotiate and I found it strange that I was supposed to be following it so far. I decided to back track towards the last arrow, and in doing so had a differing viewpoint which allowed me to realise I’d walked past the path leading out of the water.

Emily Falls

Emily Falls

Walking up stream

 

Finally back on track, after climbing up the bank, it was an easy walk through the lower forest, past the turnoff for Rata falls, emerging back onto the lower section of Lookout Road just above its junction with Blandswood Road where my car lay waiting. The DOC sign detailed a 3hr ascent on Deer Spur Track (versus a 3.5hr ascent on South Ridge Track), with half an hour less for the descent on each path. I surprised myself by reaching the summit in just over 2 hours, and after spending about 45mins at the top, I made it back down again in about 2.5hrs. I’m glad I did the loop, but having done it once, I’ll stick to the Deer Spur track both ways next time. On a clear and non-blustery day, the South Ridge track is definitely achievable by anyone of reasonable fitness, but with exposed sections, and parts that are quite overgrown, it is not a track to be done on a windy or low visibility day. But with such views, and an enjoyable climb up, this hike quickly jumped to the top of my list of favourite hikes to do in Canterbury.

Track junction

Mount Oxford

I can be a glutton for punishment sometimes. I am currently in training for two major hikes, one later this year and the other next year. When the weather has allowed, I’ve done my best to get out and about amongst Canterbury’s many mountains in an effort to put in some quality hiking hours. After getting a little disheartened towards the end of the previous week’s hike round Lake Clearwater, I felt reenergised to tackle something else the following weekend.

Around an hour of pleasant driving north-west of Christchurch lies Oxford forest, from which Mt Oxford pushes skyward. Down the gravel track of Mountain Rd lies one of two car parks from where several walks are reached. Mt Oxford summit track is a popular walking route, and the car park was full when I arrived. I’ve hiked some lesser known peaks where I’ve had the whole mountain to myself so to hear the voices of other hikers blowing in the wind was an unusual experience for me.

Starting at the Coopers Creek car park, the options are to follow the Ryde Falls track up stream to the waterfalls or to cross the west branch of Coopers Creek to summit Mt Oxford. The Department of Conservation (DOC) sign at the start gave a 3 hr estimation to summit, and I set off on the relatively flat route at a good pace. Early on I was overtaken by a man out with his dog who were running up the summit.

DOC Track Map at Cooper's Creek carp park

 

After a wander along a 4×4 track past bee country and a lodge near the creek, the path veers off into the forest, within which it remains for the first hour of the hike. The altitude gain is there but as constant as it is it’s not too taxing and through brief breaks through the tree line you can appreciate that you are rising above the Canterbury Plains. There was plenty of bird song filling the air and I was regularly accompanied by little fantails flitting through the trees. I was feeling good and felt like the summit must be getting close. I stepped out of the treeline and into the beautiful sunshine around me, to discover that there was still a long way to go.

Mt Oxford viewed from near the car park

The lower reaches of Oxford forest

 

After that initial hour, the rest of the hike is exposed to the elements, and aside from a few small plateaus, the altitude gain continued for nearly another 2 hours. I passed lots of people coming down, giving the occasional sound disturbance to the birds and the crickets. That aside, it was a very peaceful hike with next to no wind. The higher I got, the further the Canterbury Plains disappeared behind me, and eventually, and by this point gratefully, I found myself at the summit (1364m/4475ft), and was secretly pleased to have it to myself. To one side the Plains spread out towards the horizon, Banks Peninsula just about visible through the haze. On the other side of the mountain, mountains rolled away into the distance, and I settled down on a makeshift bench on the summit to enjoy some well deserved lunch with that awesome view.

Neighbouring mountains from half-way up Mt Oxford

Looking up towards Mt Oxford summit

Canterbury Plains from Mt Oxford summit

Mountain view from Mt Oxford summit

Mountain view from Mt Oxford summit

 

From the summit, the quickest option would be to return to the car park by the same route. There is also the option to hike to Wharfedale Hut deeper in the mountains, or to take the loop track back to Coopers Creek along the summit. Having soaked up the view for over half an hour, and feeling refreshed, I set off across the summit with the neighbouring mountain range in full view. The summit marker gave a 45min time estimate to the junction for the Hut, and I headed off at a reasonable pace. For the second week in a row, I was surprised to discover that the marker had underestimated the time for this section which is highly unusual for the DOC signs. Following the ridge line but descending slightly, the vegetation was quite sparse until eventually the tree line was reached again. I passed some hikers who were tired and sweaty, and finally, an hour after leaving the summit, I hit the first junction.

Following the ridgeline

Alpine flowers on the ridge

Ridgeline view

View from ridge track

Neighbouring mountains

 

Persisting on the Mt Oxford track, the next junction was listed as an hour away. There was little to see but for the forest which enveloped the path, and it was an hour of ups and downs which felt like forever until eventually the path broke out at another track. Looking left there was a marker a few steps away, and I was gutted to discover the car park was still another 2.5hrs away according to the sign. It was difficult to gauge my location within the forest because there was no view, but I knew I was still quite high up. I can get quite bored with forest walks sometimes as it quickly descends into one tree after another, and by now 5.5hrs after leaving my car, I was a little bit fed up with walking. But there wasn’t exactly any other choice but to push on.

The upper reaches of Oxford forest on the descent

One of many track junctions

 

Taking the Korimako trail to Ryde Falls junction, I had previously made the decision to take the detour to visit the waterfalls, even although I was tired. At the Ryde Falls junction, it is signposted as a 15min walk to the waterfalls, but I power walked the distance, dropping down the bank, crossing the stream and pushing up the other side. There are 5 tiers to the waterfall, but I could only really see 3. The falls were in shadow with the sun starting to drop, and I looked at them for long enough to make me feel like the side trip had been worth it, before retracing my steps. With more time, there is a campsite here and the option of climbing up or down the side of the falls to get a differing view. As the waterfalls can be reached from 2 separate car parks, it is possible to hike there without having to tackle Mt Oxford first.

Ryde Falls track

Ryde Falls

 

Like the hike round Lake Clearwater the week prior, that final portion of the hike was quite draining. With nothing but trees for well over an hour, I could only focus on getting back to my car and taking off my boots. I was so pleased when the path finally broke out of the trees again and I could finally appreciate just how far I’d walked. Still up a hillside, the sun continued to illuminate the countryside and the final stretch was a pleasant evening walk round a headland and along the river bank. Finally reaching the Cooper’s Creek car park, mine was the only car left, and I happily kicked off my boots, ate the rest of my food and set off on the hour long drive home.

Emerging out of the forest

 

It is unusual for DOC signs to give too short a time frame for a hike, but regardless of the route chosen and despite its popularity, these are some full-on hikes not to be taken lightly. The full loop took me nearly 8hrs including about half an hour at the summit and the half hour detour to Ryde’s Falls. It is possible to summit Mt Oxford and take the same route back in about 5hrs, but for the full loop track, you’d better love forests!

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.

I 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. Along 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. A small amount of cloud swirled around the summit of Mt Sefton and Mt Cook lay half in shadow in the distance. There were no kea to be seen, and only a few dedicated people were up at this time, so the viewpoint was peaceful and quiet.

 

On the return trip, the valley opened up before me, with the Hermitage hotel just poking up above the bushes. Back 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. Soon 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. Despite 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 felt increasingly within reach, and there was a frequent burst of sound from avalanches cavorting down Mt Sefton’s slopes.

 

On 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. A 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. By 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.

 

It 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 a 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. Granted, 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.

 

Sealy 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.

 

Just 45 mins earlier, the view from the tarns had included a lot of cloud that had billowed over Mt Sefton, but shortly after my return, the cloud had burned off somewhat and the view was delightful. Several avalanches skipped down Mt Sefton’s slopes, and the full colour palette of the Mueller glacier lake was evident below. The 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. Two 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.

 

This 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. I 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. By 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. I 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). I 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. Near 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.

 

The 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. Taking 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.

 

There 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. The 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 bridge crossed the Hooker river as it tumbles down stream from the Hooker glacier, the destination of my walk. Shortly 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. Further 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.

 

Unfortunately, it was quite cloudy overhead, although Mt Cook’s peak remained unobscured. There 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. Lapping 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. The 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. Previous 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. Firstly, there was a little tarn which is the name given to mountain lakes that have formed in an excavation created by a glacier. I investigated the hut that I’d ignored on the way up, and wandered along the edge of the stream at its side. The view on the way back was towards Mount Cook Village and the Hooker river snaking down the valley towards Lake Pukaki. The 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.

 

There 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. It 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. It 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.

Pictorial Guide to Scotland

I have to admit to feeling a bit homesick of late. I live in a beautiful country, which has many similarities to the beautiful country I grew up in. Having recently been to Adelaide in South Australia, a state which feels it has been left out of the tourist stakes by its flashier cousins to the east, it got me thinking about my home country of Scotland, an amazing country that is often overlooked. In some parts of the world, Scotland is considered as nothing more than a state of England, or a country of little significance in the world, or one not worth making the effort to visit. Worst still, is that many people who do visit go nowhere other than Edinburgh and maybe Loch Ness to try and spot a mythical creature that doesn’t even exist. The amount of people I’ve met on my many travels who regale me with their trip to Scotland when in actual fact they saw little more than the capital city is astounding. Certainly, being a Glaswegian, I can’t deny my biased preference for the country’s largest city, but the beauty of Scotland lies in its myriad of islands scattered all up the west coast and to the north, and in the ruggedness of the mainland’s west coast and stark isolation, as well as the endearing draw of the National Parks. Whilst I could write multiple posts about this amazing country, I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves.

NATIONAL PARKS:

Cairngorm National Park.

Loch An Eilein in the Rothiemurchus forest

Loch An Eilein in the Rothiemurchus forest

Cairngorm Mountains

Cairngorm Mountains

Glen Clova in Cairngorm National Park

Glen Clova in Cairngorm National Park

Heather in bloom in Glen Muick

Heather in bloom in Glen Muick

Loch Muick

Loch Muick

Old boathouse at Loch Muick

Old boathouse at Loch Muick

Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park.

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond

CITIES & TOWNS:

Glasgow.

Flying over the suburbs of Glasgow

Flying over the suburbs of Glasgow

Strathclyde Park in Glasgow

Strathclyde Park in Glasgow

Edinburgh.

Forth Rail Bridge across the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh

Forth Rail Bridge across the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle as viewed from the back

Edinburgh Castle as viewed from the back

The city of Edinburgh viewed from Arthur's Seat

The city of Edinburgh viewed from Arthur’s Seat

Aberdeen.

Union Square Gardens, Aberdeen

Union Square Gardens, Aberdeen

River Dee frozen in winter

River Dee frozen in winter

Aberdeen promenade

Aberdeen promenade

Inverness.

The river Ness passing through Inverness

The river Ness passing through Inverness

Kessock Bridge spanning the Beauly Firth near Inverness

Kessock Bridge spanning the Beauly Firth near Inverness

Fort William.

Crinnan Canal outside Fort William

Crinnan Canal outside Fort William

Perth.

Flying over Perth

Flying over Perth

ISLANDS:

Isle of Arran – Firth of Clyde.

Goatfell on Arran

Goatfell on Arran

Barra – Outer Hebrides.

Traigh Sgurabhal with Beinn Sgurabhal in the background

Traigh Sgurabhal with Beinn Sgurabhal in the background

Cidhe Eolaigearraidh, with Fuday across the bay

Cidhe Eolaigearraidh, with Fuday across the bay

On Barra, looking towards Orosaigh

On Barra, looking towards Orosaigh

Benbecula – Outer Hebrides.

Benbecula

Benbecula

Benbecula

Benbecula

Rueval summit, Benbecula

Rueval summit, Benbecula

Berneray – Outer Hebrides.

Berneray

Berneray

Sandy beach on Berneray

Sandy beach on Berneray

Looking across to Ensay & Killegray from Beinn Shleibhe on Berneray

Looking across to Ensay & Killegray from Beinn Shleibhe on Berneray

Looking towards Ensay & Killegray from a beach on Berneray

Looking towards Ensay & Killegray from a beach on Berneray

Sand dunes on Berneray

Sand dunes on Berneray

Bute – Firth of Clyde.

Cows on the Isle of Bute

Cows on the Isle of Bute

Looking towards Isle of Arran from Isle of Bute

Looking towards Isle of Arran from Isle of Bute

Cumbrae – Firth of Clyde.

Millport on Cumbrae

Millport on Cumbrae

Eriskay – Outer Hebrides.

Eriskay

Eriskay

Flodda – Outer Hebrides.

Flodda

Flodda

Gigha – Inner Hebrides.

Achamore House on Gigha

Achamore House on Gigha

Looking towards Islay from Gigha

Looking towards Islay from Gigha

Beautiful Gigha coastline

Beautiful Gigha coastline

Grimsay – Outer Hebrides.

Grimsay

Grimsay

Iona – Inner Hebrides.

Iona

Iona

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey

Isle of May – Firth of Forth.

Looking towards the lighthouse on Isle of May

Looking towards the lighthouse on Isle of May

Lismore – Inner Hebrides.

Flying over Lismore Island

Flying over Lismore Island

Isle of Mull – Inner Hebrides.

Tobermory, Isle of Mull

Tobermory, Isle of Mull

The barren west of Mull

The barren west of Mull

West coast of Mull

West coast of Mull

Abandoned boats on the Mull coastline

Abandoned boats on the Mull coastline

North Uist – Outer Hebrides.

North Uist

North Uist

North Uist

North Uist

Triagh Iar, North Uist

Triagh Iar, North Uist

Oitir Mhor, North Uist

Oitir Mhor, North Uist

Orkney Mainland

 

Papa Westray

 

Isle of Skye – Inner Hebrides.

Uig bay

Uig bay

Quiraing

Quiraing

Waternish

Waternish

Point of Ness, Durnish

Point of Ness, Durnish

Loch Slaplin

Loch Slaplin

Loch Slaplin with the Cuillins Range behind

Loch Slaplin with the Cuillins Range behind

South Uist – Outer Hebrides.

Road sign at the South Uist to Eriskay causeway

Road sign at the South Uist to Eriskay causeway

Looking towards Eriskay from South Uist

Looking towards Eriskay from South Uist

Ludag, South Uist

Ludag, South Uist

Beautiful, secluded, white sandy beach

Beautiful, secluded, white sandy beach

South Uist

South Uist

Staffa – Inner Hebrides.

Fingall's Cave, Staffa

Fingall’s Cave, Staffa

Ulva – Inner Hebrides.

Ulva

Ulva

Vatersay – Outer Hebrides.

Vatersay beach

Vatersay beach

Westray.