The last six weeks have been a trial. In February we sold our home of the last 32 years. We built it then to replace the home that my wife grew up in until we were married 44 years ago. Thirty two years of raising three sons and accumulating life’s possessions, plus those possessions that flowed out of the old house, have made the last few weeks difficult at times as decisions needed to be made on to what to keep and what to re-house elsewhere. Yesterday we left the house with just three small cartons to top-up and close. Our life is now housed in a storage facility awaiting rediscovery when we find a new home some time in the next year. Finding a view of the end over the last two weeks has been difficult, but yesterday it emerged.
In two weeks we leave for a three month holiday that will take us to China, Europe, the USA and Canada. Needless to say, we are really looking forward to the adventure. Just like the last few weeks, transmission over the next three months may be a bit patchy as we search for internet connections and time to update posts. Every attempt will be made to create a regular stream of posts and express views on what we discover.
Its one of those wet and dreary days in Auckland today. The rain has been dribbling down all day and the sky is leaden gray. A heavy rain warning was issued at midday for the next three hours. Two hours have gone but the rain continues to dribble. Could be worse, I suppose!
In order to cheer myself up I have worked on another image of Lake Mathieson to remind myself that there is a different kind of weather. God knows, we need the rain but it has been hanging around for nearly a week now.
As you can see, it was a beautiful morning when we visited the lake for its famed reflections of the Southern Alps, especially Aoraki Mount Cook on the left. As it is on the itinerary of all the coaches that travel the West Coast tourist route, we made sure we got there early. Even so, there is always someone there before you, but that’s OK. I love mornings like this when the air is still cool and the breeze hasn’t yet broken through. However, even as we walked around the lake the breeze began to arrive as the morning air warmed.
Over the last few months a number of my posts commented on the long dry summer we had experienced in New Zealand and how everyone was looking forward to some rain to relieve the drought. I guess one shouldn’t wish too hard because we now have an autumn that has brought plenty of the wet stuff. along with some more southerly temperatures. I know this may sound strange for all who live north of the equator, but down here we live in an upside-down world.
So, what’s this all to do with the above image? Well, Lake Mathieson is situated on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, just west of Aoraki Mount Cook, our highest mountain. That’s the left peak of the two in the photograph. This part of New Zealand is also known for being the one of the wettest regions in the country, with South Westland having an annual rainfall, ranging from 3400–4900 mm ( approximately 135 – 195 inches) in the lowlands.
Fortunately it doesn’t rain all the time in Westland, and on mornings when the skies are clear and there is no wind Lake Mathieson presents itself as a mirror to reflect the Southern Alps just for photographers like me.
Forty five years ago Valerie and I visited what was then the Mt Cook National Park for the first time together, while on our honeymoon. Since then the park has been renamed to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park to recognise the original Maori name for New Zealand’s highest mountain, and the pre-European history and mythology connected to it. In 1968 we drove our small English Morris 1100 car up the Tasman Valley towards the face of the Tasman Glacier that flows down from Mt Cook and nearby Mt Tasman, from which it takes it’s name. The road in those days was known as the Ball Hut Road and was no more than a rough bulldozed single-track affair full of potholes and fords across streams joining the Tasman River. The part of the road that was navigable by car ended at the side of the terminal moraine of the Tasman Glacier, from which one scrambled up the rocky slope of the moraine to view the glacier. Rental cars were not insured if taken on the road at that time.
Today the road is still unsealed but is well formed, with a bridge across the Tasman River. It ends at a visitor shelter and carpark from which tracks lead to the the top of the moraine and the shore of the Tasman Glacier Terminal Lake. Part way to the top the track passes the first of the Blue Lakes (looks green because of reflections of the vegetation on the nearby slopes).
Reaching the top of the moraine rewards you with magnificent views of the terminal lake, glacier, and the towering mountains that surround the valley.
Our immediate impression was how far the glacier has receded in the past 45 years. From about the same viewing point in 1968 we looked over the rock-covered ice of the glacier below at approximately half the distance to the surface of the present lake. The glacier face was about at a point to the right of the right-most tourist boat shown in the previous image. We know from visits to other glaciers in the Southern Alps that all of them have receded some 2-3 kilometres during our lifetime, but to see the change on this, one of New Zealand’s iconic glaciers, came as a bit of a shock. It is clear evidence that the world is a warmer place than it was even 45 years ago.
When New Zealand’s famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first successful ascent of Mt Everest on 29 May 1953, and thus unlocked the gateway for hundreds of others since, Hillary could attribute a large part of his success to many days climbing the peaks of the Southern Alps that form the backbone of the South Island. A bronze statue of Hillary gazing towards a distant Mt Cook, to commemorate his many achievements, is found at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre attached to the Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook Village.
Alpinists of the 1950s were in some ways a different breed from their modern counterparts. Their clothing and equipment were very basic when compared with that in use today. Under garments were made of either wool or silk, outer garments, socks, hats and gloves also of wool, rain and windproof jackets, over-trousers and outer mittens of oiled Japara cotton. Climbing packs were not of the highly technical designs seen today, but were made of canvas with steel or wooden frames, leather straps with metal buckles and corded cotton adjustment cords. Keeping the contents dry was a major problem. Climbing boots often had leather soles with hob-nails and metal cleats, and canvas gaiters or cotton-knit “puttees” kept the stones or snow from getting inside. Finally, climbing ropes were made of hemp and tents of light cotton canvas with wooden poles. The statue of Sir Edmund Hillary shows him holding a wooden-shafted ice axe. It was with clothing such as this that I first ventured into the mountains in the 1960s as a high school student. What a change there has been in the intervening fifty years.
On the way to the summit of Mt Cook Hillary would have over-nighted in huts similar to the old Empress Hut that is displayed in the precinct of the Department of Conservation Information Centre in the Mt Cook Village. These corrugated iron shelters were often placed in the mountains by volunteers from mountain clubs and provided basic bedspace, cooking space and, maybe, an emergency radio for picking up weather information or reporting emergencies.
Thus it was that successive generations of New Zealand mountaineers ventured into the mountains of the Southern Alps to learn their craft and prepare for other cold remote areas such as the Himalayas or the South Pole.
Observing sunrise is the mountains is a special experience. The mornings are cool and, if you are lucky, the sky is clear. Often the mountain tops show signs of the rising sun even before it appears. This was the case on our second morning in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. At least 30 minutes before the sun rose above the Liebig Range on the eastern side of the Tasman Valley its golden yellow light could be seen creeping down the eastern face of Mt Sefton and over the upper reaches of the Mueller Glacier. Further up the Hooker Valley Aoraki Mt Cook was getting its first light of the day while the moon still hung high in the sky from the night before (I know that’s not technically correct, but that is how it looked). Finally the the sun peeked over the Liebig Range and the Hooker Valley slowly filled with light: shadows softened and colours emerged.
Heading a play on the words of Psalm 121:6 – “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”
Six months after Valerie broke her leg skiing we had made our way to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park. Mt Cook had been one of the stops we made during our honeymoon 45 years ago and we had only visited the Mt Cook Village once in the intervening years. Part of our plan to “complete” the holiday that was interrupted by weeks in hospital and months of recovery was to stay for two nights in the village on our way to Wanaka.
We had never before walked in the Hooker Valley that leads from the Mt Cook Village to the terminal moraine and glacier lake at the foot of Aoraki Mt Cook, so we decided to (in Kiwi parlance) “give it a go”. It is not a difficult walk, but we had an encumbrance – Val was still walking with a limp and had only been off crutches for a month. Being a very determined person, she wanted to do the whole walk. Although it starts from the village, a shorter version starts at the Department of Conservation camping ground that reduces the posted return time by 1 1/2 hours. This is what we did, a pilot run for things to come.
The DOC camping ground provides a magnificent view Mt Sefton and La Perouse with their ice fields tumbling down the granite walls into the Hooker Valley. This makes a great place to start the walk, the most popular in the area. A short 15 minute stroll up the valley brings you to the Alpine Memorial. Aoraki Mt Cook is a technically difficult climb. More than 200 climbers have lost their lives over the years attempting the ascent since the mountain was first climbed in 1894.
The view of the Hooker Valley from the memorial is stunning.
There are two swing bridges to cross during the walk, and the first one comes shortly after the memorial. The hill above the bridge provides a view of the Mueller Glacier Lake at the base of Mt Sefton.
The walk continues on up the Hooker Valley beside the river, with the occasional stretch of boardwalk …
… finally reaching the Hooker Glacier Lake at the end of the terminal moraine.
The walk is described as being of easy to moderate difficulty, and most people complete the round trip from the DOC Camp in two and a half to 3 hours. We took 5 hours, but had a very happy lady at the end – tired, hot, a bit sore, but very satisfied.