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Reaching New Heights

Sometimes you just have one of those days that are incredibly enjoyable. Where everything is exciting or new or exhilarating or all of these things combined. After a long hike out from Port Craig on the third day of the Humpridge Track, I’d left Southland behind and driven north into Otago. One of my favourite parts of the country is Wanaka, but by this point in February 2020, it had been a while since I’d been. I’d last been there for a friend’s wedding where the sun had shone brightly above, and now, late in the evening, I arrived to overcast skies.

New Zealand is normally all bustle in February due to an influx of Chinese tourists for Chinese New Year. Still being summer, this usually adds to the large numbers of foreign visitors already here from foreign shores. Wanaka is usually packed all summer, but the gradual spread of the coronavirus, which back then was just filtering out across the globe, had curbed the usual February influx, and although still full of people, I noticed immediately that Wanaka was not as busy as usual. And that suited me just fine.

I was staying at the YHA which has a fabulous outlook over a large park with the lake behind it, and once checked in I headed straight down to the lake side for a walk along the promenade. The clouds masked the sunset over the peaks to the west and on the far side of the lake I could see rain moving across. I had my fingers crossed for some good weather the next day, and went to bed hopeful of clear skies in the morning.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was a glorious morning, and I retraced my steps down to the lakeside as the sun rose high enough to bathe the lake in light. But it wasn’t long before I needed to jump in my car and head out to the back of the town for my day’s adventure. Meeting my group and my guide, we bundled into the mini-van to head out towards Mount Aspiring National Park where we pulled in to view our challenge for the day. In front of us was a multi-tiered waterfall cascading down 450m of the mountainside, and one of the few Via Ferrata sites in New Zealand.

I’d wanted to do a Via Ferrata for many years. The ‘iron path’ in this case was a choice of 3 trips up increasingly higher routes next to the waterfalls. Wild Wire Wanaka, an awesome local company, offers Lord of the Rungs trips up and I had booked into the full ascent, all 450m up via a series of iron rungs and cable ways, which is the highest waterfall cable climb in the World. I’ve abseiled a few times and done some basic clip-climb adventures, but I hadn’t done anything to this level before. Down near ground level, there was a practice boulder to get us used to clipping on and clipping off to the safety cable, as well as getting used to the feel of our harnesses on our body. There was just 4 of us doing the full ascent, everybody else was doing a lower level climb. I wasn’t as fit as I would have liked but I’m a regular hiker and aerialist so figured my background fitness would see me right.

The lower route was a breeze, snaking up the hillside next to the lower cascade and negotiating some cable bridges that criss-crossed the water. After 150m vertical ascent, we reached the base of Picnic Falls from where we could start to get a broader view along the valley where the road heads into the National Park. Lake Wanaka was only just creeping into view from behind the nearby mountain. From here, a series of waterfalls cascaded down a fairly vertical section of rockface, and the sun was now beating down on us from above. Across more cableways and up rung after rung, we pulled ourselves up to 320m to a ledge which had a spectacular view of an increasingly visible lake.

 

By now we were at the base of Falcon Falls. This was the turning back point for everyone apart from the 4 of us and our guides. I was lucky enough to have the company owner as my guide and he was incredible at making sure we had fun and stayed safe. We had a bit of time to hang around here because this was our refreshment stop ahead of the final push. I’d been loving the trip so far, and although it was a hot day, I’d felt fit enough to cope well with the route so far. There was still another 130m ascent to gain to reach the 450m total drop of the falls, and I felt ready to take it on.

 

We ascended 2 people per guide. Myself and another solo traveller went first behind our guide as we headed up through vegetation initially, reaching the gantry which was one of my favourite sections of the whole climb. Effectively a plank of wood on metal rungs locked into the rock, we were able to cross this and go behind the waterfall we were scaling. It was beautiful and the sun against the water created a pretty rainbow to frame the view. There was a pleasant spray from the water as we cut behind it.

 

Only as we got higher did I realise that my guide had been keeping an eye on me. I had felt perfectly fine climbing up so far, and I thought I had looked that way too. I’m not sure whether I was being judged on my age, or whether something had given it away, but it turned out there was a method in my guide’s choice at putting me directly behind him. I had just thought it was luck that I was able to watch how he distributed his weight and was able to copy him, unlike the other woman who wasn’t able to see and could only watch me. For all of the climb so far, it had either been a vertical ascent or a near vertical ascent, but beyond the waterfall was a section where there was an overhang to negotiate. This involved having to trust the harness and actually hang off the mountain while using upper body strength to pull up. I hadn’t for a minute thought this would be a problem, but when it came to it, I actually struggled a bit. I couldn’t work out how to distribute my weight correctly to optimise the move and quickly fatigued in the process. Perhaps the guide had anticipated this, as his placement in front of me, meant he could offer me a bit of a haul up, something that wasn’t an option for the other climber behind me. While I was in my 30s, she was in her 20s and by comparison she was nimble and had no issues getting up to join us. I was a little embarrassed.

There was still the final climb to go but it was just back to a vertical ascent again, and finally, and almost sadly, we reached the canyon where the river came down to the top of the falls. Our 450m ascent was over. A track led through the trees and out onto the mountainside where we could see up the river valley into the edge of Mount Aspiring National Park, as well as across to Beacon Point on the far side of the lake. Above us was a 1955m peak which looked totally reachable but wasn’t actually accessible. There was a short wait till we were joined by the other pair with their guide, and then we watched as the final fun part of the trip came up to meet us.

 

Unlike the ascenders of the lower two sections of the falls, we were not going to be walking down. Instead, the full via ferrata is rewarded by a helicopter descent. I had actually thought we were going to be flown back into town which would have given spectacular views, but as it turned out, we were just to be flown back down to the car park. I wasn’t disappointed for long though as even that short flight was fun, simply because I don’t get to fly in helicopters that often. At the same time, the valley was full of paragliders which the helicopter pilot had already skillfully avoided on the flight up, and after we had watched them floating around for a bit, the helicopter had us loaded up and down on the ground in no time at all. It was the perfect end to an incredible adventure.

 

But the day was far from over. After being dropped back in town, I almost immediately headed back out towards the National Park. Just a little before the waterfall is the parking lot for Diamond Lake and Rocky Mountain tracks. Despite a few prior visits to Wanaka, I’d only discovered the Diamond Lake track on my previous visit, and had gone as far as the lookout with my partner. This time though I was wanting to conquer Rocky Mountain which is only 775m high. I’d been looking across to it all day from the waterfall ascent, so it only seemed right to knock it off on the same day.

From the car park, the track heads up a switchback to reach the lake which, despite some incredible reflections seen from the lakeside track, is best appreciated from the lookout partway up Rocky Mountain. From the lookout, there are two ascents up to the summit, but having never been up before, I opted to take the eastern route up which included a side-track to a lookout of Lake Wanaka. As is often the case when I’m down this way, I take hundreds of photos because why wouldn’t you? The place is gorgeous, and between the lake and the mountains, there’s barely a dull spot to look at.

 

The track, while well worn, is a little rough underfoot in places, and after a day of hauling myself up the via ferrata, I was a little tired in the legs. I’d hiked 3 days solid followed by a slog up an iron ladder. I was feeling both fit yet exhausted from the exertion. But the views were worth it, and I sat on the summit for a long time as the shadows grew long as the sun dropped low to the west. Below me, the lake water looked so still, and behind me, the towering point of Mount Aspiring, the National Park’s tallest peak, stood in the shadow with its glacier perched near the top.

 

It took some pull to make me leave, but the views accompanied me on the way down too. I took the western track down, descending a different way which gave me a view across to the twin falls, one of which had been the site for the via ferrata, now in shadow. I was mainly looking across to Roys Peak, one of the first mountains that I climbed in the South Island back when I first emigrated. I haven’t been up it since, because back in 2012, I was one of only 5 people on the summit, and it was another perfect day like this one had been. Sadly, it has become Instagram famous, and since then, it has become overcrowded with queues at the top to take specific photos, and degradation of the vegetation has occurred as a result. Despite the stunning views, I’m not really in any hurry to go back up.

 

It was after 7pm by the time I got back to my car and I had a good appetite now in need of satiation. Being a Sunday night, the eateries were busy but I got my stomach filled. The following day I had to drive home to Christchurch, and I wished I could have stayed longer. When I woke up on the Monday, it was another cracker of a day. The locals were all back to their day jobs, but there were a few tourists milling around at the lakeside. After breakfast I joined them, slowly walking the shore until I reached the wharf. It would have been a perfect day to go hiking, but instead I joined the small crowd of people that were feeding the eels in the lake. I’d never seen an eel before moving to New Zealand but they’re often a bit of a local attraction wherever they can be found in accessible waterways. It was a complete melee between the large eels and the myriad of waterfowl that all fought over the food scraps on offer.

 

I took my time heading back, savouring the views before grabbing a sundae from Patagonia, the wonderful ice cream and chocolate shop that can be found in Wanaka and Queenstown. But by lunchtime, I really had to leave. It takes 4-5hrs to drive back to Christchurch but the weather followed me most of the way. I stopped at the head of Lake Pukaki to savour the blue water which shimmered under the blue sky. From here, Aoraki/Mount Cook, the country’s highest peak, is in full view. To savour this sight, I stopped at a lakeside car park half way up the lake for a meander along the shore. I love living in Christchurch, but I’m also often sad to return to it after being away in the countryside. It was back to work and the daily grind the following day, but I didn’t have too long to wait till my next trip away.

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