Making sense of my photography hobby in retirement

Posts tagged “Southern Alps

Receding Iceline

I was just eighteen years old when I first visited the two big glaciers on the western side of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. New Zealand scenic calendars and the covers of school stationery had depicted images of the Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers all through my childhood.  At that time the terminal moraine of the Fox Glacier could be seen through a window behind the alter table in the village Anglican church. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

Fox Glacier, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Fox Glacier

Franz Joseph Glacer, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Franz Joseph Glacer – Note the size of the people

When I first visited the area in 1964 the glaciers were more than a kilometer further down their respective valleys than they are today.  Because they are susceptible to climate change and terminate close to sea level in a temperate climate, they tend to advance and recede quite rapidly.  The glaciers began receding in the 1930s but reversed their flow in 1985, since which they have been advancing at the rate of about one meter per week. Now the build-up at the face of the glaciers creates  vertical  overhanging faces which are continually collapsing, making them dangerous to approach.

The valleys down which the glaciers flow at just 25 km apart, allowing both to be easily visited in one day.


Rain, rain, go away. Come again some other day …

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.

Mirror Image, Lake Mathieson, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

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.

Mirror Image

Lake Mathieson, Westland, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

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.

Hoodoos at a Mini-Bryce

About 15 minutes drive from Omarama, south of Lake Tekapo on New Zealand’s South Island, are the large sharp pinnacles of an area known as the Clay Cliffs, Between the pinacles are  ridges with deep, narrow ravines separating them. Created about 1-2 million years ago, the Clay Cliffs are made of layers of gravel and silt deposited by rivers flowing from ancient glaciers . This area is geologically very young and quite different from the nearby mountains of the Southern Alps, which are some 250 million years old. The gravel and silt layers show as sloping bands as the strata have been slowly tilted over time.  In the late afternoon sun the pinnacles and ravines show in stark relief .  The area reminds me of photographs I have seen of the Hoodoos in  Bryce Canyon, Utah where we plan to visit later this year.

Clay Cliffs, Omarama, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Clay Cliffs, Omarama, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Clay Cliffs, Omarama, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Training Ground

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.

Sir Edmund Hillary, Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Sir Edmund Hillary looking towards Aoraki Mt Cook with Mt Sefton and the Mueller Glacier in the background

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.

Empress Hut, Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Empress Hut

Inside Empress Hut, Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Inside Empress Hut with modern and old mountaineering equipment

Inside Empress Hut, Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2013

Inside Empress Hut with emergency radio and gas cooker

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.

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

Mt Taranaki, Mt Egmont, Taranaki, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2012

Mt Taranaki, New Zealand

Bad things don’t stay bad forever.  After twelve days in hospital, that included surgery to “repair” her leg that was fractured in a skiing accident, my wife was transferred to another hospital in Auckland for continued monitoring and treatment.  As she was “well enough” to fly on a commercial flight she was sent on her way with an escort (me).  The ninety minute flight from Dunedin travels north along the eastern side of the Southern Alps, giving views of Aoraki (Mt Cook – 3,754 m) and other significant peaks, before crossing Cook Strait to the North Island and passing east of Taranaki (Mt Egmont) to Auckland.  The above image of snow-capped Taranaki (2,518 m) through a hole in the clouds was a real bonus. Had we returned to Auckland as originally planned this view would have been obscured by bad weather.

Western Sunset

Western Sunset, Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand, Copyright Chris Gregory 2012

Western Sunset from the road between Tarris and Wanaka, Central Otago, New Zealand

On our return journey from Tarris to Wanaka in Central Otago the light faded quickly but as the sun sank in the west we were presented with this lovely orange sunset over the Harris Mountains and the Southern Alps.  This type of occasion keeps us coming back to Central Otago, with its snow-capped mountains in the winter and vast dry open plains in the summer.  The dark form on the left of the image is the Pisa Range. Click on the image for a larger view.


I have known about Lake Matheson since I was a child and first visited it when hitch hiking around the South Island at the end of my last year at high school.  It had a reputation that was known the length of New Zealand for producing perfect reflections of the Southern Alps and Aoraki Mount Cook in the early morning before the breezes arrived, provided of course it wasn’t raining or there was low cloud.  Just a short 5 minute drive from the Fox Glacier village and a 15 minute walk to the end of the lake will reward visitors with the famous views of the mountains.  Over the years tens of thousands of visitors have visited the lake to admire the reflections.  Millions of photographs have been taken.

Reflections of Southern Alps on Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson - Near Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Mirror view of Souther Alps on Lake Matheson

Lake Matheson - Mirror View

At the end of the day visitors can travel a further 8 km westwards along Cook Flat Road to Gillespies Beach Road to obtain an evening view of the Southern Alps as the sun goes down.  A special viewing area has been provided by the Department of Conservation near where the Fox River joins the Cook River.  Here the view is shared with grazing cattle.

Mount Cook and Southern Alps

Evening view of Mount Cook and the Southern Alps from Gillespies Beach Road

Sunset at Gillespies Road near Fox Glacier

Into the West - Sunset view from Gillespies Beach Road near Fox Glacier

I have visited this area three times over the years and it never fails to leave an impression, although the weather has not always been obliging for the views.

Extreme Caution

The sign near the mountain viewing area on Gillespies Beach Road reads “EXTREME CAUTION – Narrow Road – Winding Next 12 km – NO EXIT”.  What do you do?  The view of the setting sun reflected on the Southern Alps had been spectacular. It was getting darker by the minute. There was no chance of a visit the next day, so we took the chance.  The sign was right. Not only was the road narrow, but it was unsealed and winding for the 12 km journey to the rugged west coast Gillespies Beach.

It was worth the drive.  Twilight was fading fast as we arrived and the sunset colours were draining from the sky. A short walk through bush from the Department of Conservation campsite brought us onto a wonderful stretch of beach covered with large rounded pebbles and strewn with driftwood.  People watching the remains of the sunset were silhouetted against the sky, while others were illuminated by the flames of from driftwood camp fires . What a magical place to watch the day turn into night.

Careful navigation in the dark on the return journey was made easier with the help of the GPS to warn of sharp corners ahead.

DOC Campsite - Gillespies Beach, Near Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

Gillespies Beach - View to Mount Cook and Southern Alps

Gillespies Beach - Driftwood and Camp Fires

Gillespies Beach - Sunset and Sillhouettes