New Zealand’s Southern Alps

Aoraki/Mount Cook

A trip of a lifetime.  New Zealand was another destination that had been on my dream list for a long time.  I was able to spend a month there and visited just the South Island.  There was so much to see, it’ll take many more trips to feel like I’ve explored all of the country.  I’ve chosen to highlight the Southern Alps, whose spine runs from the southwestern edge up to northcentral part of the island.  It includes Fiordland, Mount Aspiring and Aoraki/Mount Cook, and Arthur’s Pass National Parks.  The mountains are breathtaking and almost unbelievable.  Glaciers still hang on to the relatively small peaks (the tallest being at 12,218 feet) and alpine tussocks begin at low elevations.  This makes you feel like you are traveling in a much larger mountain range, giving off almost a Himalayan feel.  Each caption includes a description of the area, some human and natural history, and the story behind the image.

Traveling through Arthur’s Pass

Arthur’s Pass is located in the northcentral region of the South Island and was established as a National Park in 1929, making it the country’s third park.  This pass, and many passes through the Southern Alps, were used by the indigenous peoples, the Maori, as east-west trading routes.  The Maori told European explorers about the pass and it was first surveyed by Arthur Dudley Dobson in 1864.  When gold was discovered on the West Coast, the road through the pass was completed in less than a year (an amazing feat at the time), in a rush to link Christchurch with the gold fields. It became New Zealand’s first high alpine road.  Horse-drawn stagecoach service ran from 1886 through 1923 until the rail service, complete with a 5-mile long tunnel, was completed in 1923.
These days, a smooth asphalt road and modern bridges pave the way for travel through Arthur’s Pass.  This National Park was the first park nestled in the Southern Alps that me and my partner visited.  Prior, we were soaking in the sun on the beaches and forests that make up the northern and northwestern coastlines of the South Island.  Although the relaxed pace of ocean life was welcome after a long journey to New Zealand from the East Coast of the US, I was excited to get into the mountains and do some exploring.  It didn’t take much effort to get to this overlook of the road that wound it’s way through the narrow valley.  It’s just a pull-off from the road itself, and a popular spot to stop and snap a picture.  I was lucky to find the clouds were building up, to add to the dramatic scene. At the overlook, you’ll probably get a visit from the famous alpine parrot, the Kea, a very intelligent bird who likes to cause a little mischief.  They are both beloved and considered nuisances by the New Zealanders.  They are endangered and as the world’s only alpine parrot, fully protected by the government.  They are typically around in that area, so keep an eye out for them, and also on the rubber parts of your car!  

Kea!

The Waimakariri River

Just south of Arthur’s Pass village is the wide, braided Waimakariri River. In Maori, Waimakariri has several meanings, one of which is “river of cold rushing water.” It originates from the Southern Alps, and flows approximately 100 miles  southeasterly into the Pacific Ocean just north of Christchurch.  We happened upon this beautiful out of the way campsite on the shores of this powerful river where I took this picture.  I was in the Department of Conservation (DoC) Visitor’s Center at Arthur’s Pass village asking for sunset spot recommendations.  Because it’s a north-south pass, there weren’t too many opportunities in the valley, but he pointed out a dirt road that followed beside the river with a westerly angle.  We ended up driving to a popular campground, Klondike Corners, and turning off the main road there.  Where the dirt road ended, a beautiful vista opened up, complete with legal camping sites.  After setting up the tent, I spent the evening watching the clouds and the river move.  Then the wind kicked up streams of dust, and that’s when I captured this image.

Mount Franklin

I wasn’t content just staying in the narrow valley looking up at the mountains.  It was time to hike up to one of the peaks and look down.  Kiwis are famous for downplaying most things.  For instance, their term for a massive landslide is simply a “slip”.  So when the weather forecast just says “fine”, be prepared for a beautiful, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky, bluebird sunny day.  Luckily that was the forecast when I was getting ready to hike up Avalanche Peak.  It’s a popular day hike for visitors and locals alike in Arthur’s Pass, possibly due to the fact that it’s the only marked path to a summit in the area. It’s also the beginning to some backpacking trips in the Alps.  It’s quite a beginning, gaining about 3,500 feet in 3 miles to this 6,013 foot summit.  The trail starts steep and rugged right away, so it soon reaches sub-alpine meadows, opening up views for the rest of the way to the top.  There’s two marked paths to the summit, allowing for a loop hike.  Scott’s Track is the less steep of the two, while I heard some people on the trail describe Avalanche Peak Track as a steep rock scramble.  As no surprise, the summit offers 360 degree amazing panoramic views.   I took this shot as I was descending off the top and aimed back to where the road cuts through the valley.  Unless the sky is a striking blue, I find photographing mountains on a clear day is never as dramatic as I hope.  So I was drawn to Mt. Franklin which pierced the low cloud lingering to the west.

Blue Pools

Mount Aspiring National Park is situated on the southern end of the Southern Alps and is the third largest of New Zealand’s parks.  Access into the park is limited with only one paved road, Highway 6, cutting through the northern tip of the park.  Driving through, you see only a glimpse of this vast, rugged and wild part of the Alps making this park the least developed in the country.  There are numerous huts and tracks that provides access to extended backpacking trips and mountaineering objectives, namely Mount Aspiring itself, in the heart of the park.  Known to Maori as Tititea, meaning “steep peak of glistening white”, Mount Aspiring is reminiscent of Switzerland’s Matterhorn with it’s four sided pyramid shape which was carved by glaciers long ago.  As a weekend alpinist, I knew about this peak and I wanted to see it as close as I could, but that would take more than a leisurely drive on Highway 6. Sticking to the edge of the park did have some highlights.  Namely the Blue Pools, crystal-clear pools at the mouth of Blue River.  It’s a short walk down the Pools and it’s a popular swimming hole.  You won’t feel as secluded as the picture I took suggests. Just behind me on the swing bridge, people were jumping off into the river, swimming as long as they could take the icy cold water and floating around in tubes.  Despite the crowd that can form on a hot day, it’s well-worth the visit, and perhaps a dip!

Swing Bridge

One of the many swing bridges I encountered hiking in New Zealand.  I liked how this one appeared to lead into a dark, mysterious forest.  The other way to access Mount Aspiring National Park is via 20 miles of rough dirt road complete with countless stream crossings.  You don’t get a bridge above those crossings!  The road originates from the cool little town of Wanaka, probably my favorite town we visited on the South Island.  It’s filled with shops, restaurants and bars and sits on the east shore of Lake Wanaka.  On the other end of the lake are the mountains of Mount Aspiring National Park.  There’s a nice bike trail along the lake and also good mountain biking opportunities for the hardier folks as well as many water sports and scenic hiking. There’s plenty of places to hire a bike or kayak if you didn’t happen to lug yours on the plane. From Wanaka, it’s about an hour drive into the Park.  The dirt road ends at a trailhead that takes you into an open farmed valley with countless waterfalls pouring down the mountains on either side.  The water happens to run across the road, especially on rainy days, so be prepared.  We had rented a tiny car for the month and had a few hairy fords, but made it without drowning the car.
This swing bridge leads to the Rob Roy Glacier Track that was closed at the time due to the copious amounts of rain the region got a few weeks prior.  That same rain/flood event had actually closed many tracks, two of them Great Walks, by damaging roads, trails, huts and bridges like this one.  This bridge was intact, but the track that lay beyond it was severely damaged.  Walking across swing bridges can be memorable depending on your level of comfort!  It became a staple of New Zealand hiking.

Sheep Cairn

In 1982, New Zealand had an estimated 70 million sheep.  That’s 20 sheep for every person living in New Zealand.  Nowadays, it’s down to 5.7 sheep for every person due to the growth of the dairy industry, but that’s still a lot of sheep.  The landscape is dotted with sheep in most places.  Brought to New Zealand by the infamous Captain Cook in 1772, sheep were raised for wool, and then for meat later.  Not surprisingly, New Zealand is the world’s largest exporter of lamb.
We had reserved two other Great Walks months in advance, but were shut down when we arrived due to the flood event, they had closed the tracks.  So we returned to Mount Aspiring National Park and came in from the other access point to the southeast. The hike in was easier than the drive in and very scenic, as it followed an open valley.  This first part of the hike is on private land, full of cows and sheep.  This particular sheep seemed to have escaped shearing and looked to be rogue!  It spotted us from on a hill, then started running towards us, bleating loudly.  Not quite sure what to do in sheep rampages, I instinctively grabbed for my camera.  It must have saw my camera, because it stopped, walked passed us and posed nicely for me on the rock with the beautiful farm land behind it.  The farm eventually gives way to open meadows and some forested areas when it reaches the National Park boundary.  We spent two nights at Aspiring Hut, which is a good home base for harder hikes with greater rewards in the area.  You can also bike to this hut! 

Glacier to River

I enjoy this image because it shows the origin of the water melting from the glacier and it’s travel down the mountain.  The stream turns into the river that flows under the swing bridge in the previous photograph.  You can also see the landscape change as the altitude changes, there’s a lot of elevation relief shown here.  Taken on my hike to the French Ridge Hut, I’m still in the valley about a mile beyond Aspiring Hut.  I later walked up to the base of the waterfall, and it’s truly impressive.  All along the hike, there were waterfalls coming off the mountains on either side.  This part of the hike, I had just exited a forest and came into this meadow with tall grass and flowers.  I took a few pictures of the waterfall in landscape perspective, but decided the more vertical portrait view was best.

Mount Avalanche

Rising to 8,549 feet, Mount Avalanche is an impressive feature and more than enough reward on the steep hike up to the French Ridge Hut.  The trail is a vertical jungle gym of tree roots and rocks.  Highly eroded, the trail does take some tricky moves to ascend.  The very top of Mount Avalanche appears just as you crest a hill that takes you above treeline.  The further you ascend, the more the mountain appears until it dominates the view to the east.  Holding on to a large glacier, even into the month of February, it looks much taller than it is.  The French Ridge is the bulky, rounded ridge on the left of the picture with its cliffs plummeting down into the glacial valley.  My idea behind reaching the French Ridge Hut was to gain the closest view of Mount Aspiring as I could, which is located beyond the French Ridge.  The French Ridge Hut is used as a base camp for the Southwest Ridge route and South Face route up to Mount Aspiring.  I did get a glance at Mount Aspiring, but the unexpected prize was this view of Mount Avalanche.

Matukituki Valley

From near the top of the French Ridge, the views back down toward the Matukituki Valley, where Aspiring Hut resides, is breathtaking.  It’s also a thrill to see where you had come from hours before. Aspiring Hut sits just around the corner, on the left of the photo in that tiny patch of meadow grass.  Another hut in this valley is Livermore Hut, and can be seen on the mountain across the valley, on the left-most ridge, in the lower tussocks.  It’s a small red rectangle in the photo.  Both huts are a worthy day hike objective, I chose the French Ridge as it’s a higher and more challenging of the two.  
Beech is the dominant forest in the Matukituki Valley, as is the case in other mountainous regions in New Zealand. It’s interesting to have almost a monoculture in the forest.  Although different species of beech exist in different areas of the valley (red beech in warm valley sites, mountain beech dominates the drier, eastern end of the valley, while silver beech increases towards the wetter, western end) they are very similar in look and structure.  Ferns and mosses are a feature of the usually open forest. Tree line occurs at about 3,600 feet, where stunted, sub-alpine shrub land gives way to alpine tussock grasslands.  Prior to visiting New Zealand, this picture portrays what I imagined it would look like.

A Peek at the River

I took this photograph not expecting much.  It took more effort to take it then I thought was worth, requiring me to teeter on the end of a steep drop-off of questionable stability.  It wasn’t until I looked at it during post-processing, that I started to like it more and more.  On my way back from the French Ridge excursion, I wanted to capture the river I’d been following along the valley.  It’s beautiful blue-grey hue, typical of the rivers in glaciated areas, and was drawing me in.  Wanting to bring in the forest elements, I decided to frame it with the beech branches.  The final product reminds me to appreciate not just the sweeping, stunning vistas, but also the small river carving its way unassumingly through the forest.

A Waterfall Creek

I love taking images of water moving.  One of the essential pieces of gear required for that is a tripod to steady your camera.  Without it, any movement will blur the photo on a slow shutter speed.  I had thought I’d taken my compact little tripod with me on the trip, but realized with despair, I hadn’t.  Luckily, but not ideally, there’s usually sturdy rocks in streams.  For this picture, I had to find the perfect landing spot of my camera in hopes that it would stay still when I hit the shutter button.  The next objective was the find a speed that would hit the sweet spot, too slow would take away the details of the water and too fast wouldn’t give the effect I was looking for.  Two of those things came together when I took this shot after several attempts.

Three Movements

This is the same waterfall, just at it’s base.  Before I took this shot, I was trying to capture the whole waterfall, taking several shots to merge into a panorama later in post-processing, but I felt I wasn’t doing it justice.  It just wasn’t going to capture how tall it really was.  Plus my lens was getting wet from the mist!  Although I didn’t capture the waterfall as a whole, I like the idea of just a glimpse of it.  It might leave one wanting to see the whole waterfall when looking at the picture, but that didn’t need to be a bad thing.  With a faster shutter speed, I could freeze the fast moving water while the waterfall itself still looks slow, because it’s falling far.  In between, you have the water running off the side of the cliff.

Aspire

This is a shot that I also feel does the Matukituki Valley justice.  Straight ahead is Mount Aspiring. The sunlit cliffs is part of the French Ridge which you can see snaking its way up the glaciated peaks. The small pointy summit of Mount Avalanche sits off in the sideline of this image.  It was early enough in the morning that the sun’s rays show through the mountain sides.  I was on my way to Cascade Saddle, almost directly above Aspiring Hut, when I saw this little side trail and thought it would make for a good photo.  The trail gained over 4,000 feet of elevation gain in 3 miles, so it was a nice break to stop and enjoy the views for a moment or two.  The Cascade Saddle Route links the Matukituki and Dart Valleys in Mount Aspiring National Park and the top of the saddle is a nice destination if you have a morning to hike before heading back to the trailhead. It’s also a popular backpacking trek to go from Dart Valley to Matukituki Valley, or vice versa.  

Aoraki Morning

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park is home to 19 peaks over 3,000 meters (9,842 feet) including, of course, Mount Cook which is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 12,218 feet. The park was established in 1953 but consists of reserves that were established as early as 1887 to protect the area’s significant vegetation and landscape. It covers about 278 square miles and it situated north of Mount Aspiring National Park.  About 40% of the park is covered with glaciers.  At it’s main entrance is a small village that resembles something in Yosemite National Park in the US.  A few hotels of varying budgets are found there with restaurants and shops all within the Park boundaries.  You can have a coffee among amazing mountain scenery here. Mount Cook isn’t hidden either, you can see it’s massive southwest face right from the village. There’s also a campground that can hold 60 tents and not including campervans in the lot on a first come, first served basis.  We stayed at the campground and like the rest of the trip, were astonished on how many campervans there were.  It’s become the most common way for tourists travel through New Zealand, and although it gave me a little homesickness for my own van back home, I was also little perturbed to see those monsters taking all the parking spaces!  

From the campground, there’s access to the Hooker Valley, which is the most popular and accessible hike in the park.  Its leads you 3.4 miles into the valley over glacial features ending at the lake where the glacier currently terminates.  Early in the morning, to avoid crowds, we walked to the lake over three swing bridges to find Mount Cook in a cloud.  My original intention was to time lapse the scene, hoping the clouds would disappear revealing the mountain.  However, after an hour in the chilly morning weather, we decided to hike out and sure enough, the clouds began to part, and Mount Cook appeared quickly into view.  I took this photo, among many others, on my return trip back to my tent.

Sealy Tarn

To the Maori tribes that lived close to the mountain, Aoraki is their most sacred ancestor from whom they descend and who provides them with a sense of communal identity, solidarity and purpose. The ancestor embodied in the mountain remains the physical manifestation of Aoraki, the link between the supernatural and the natural world. To the Europeans, they named the mountain Mount Cook after the explorer who has arguably had the most impact on their history of New Zealand.  They also saw opportunity for adventure and the first attempt to climb the mountain was in  1882 by an Irishman, the Reverend W.S. Green, and two Swiss guides. Although his party climbed to within 200 metres (~650 feet) of the top, it was not until 1894 that the summit was reached, by three New Zealanders: Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham.  Today, the park is recognized as one of the finest mountaineering areas in the world, for both experienced and novice climbers.  My alpinist side really got me wanting to climb Mount Cook, but that’s for another time.  This time, I headed up to check out Mueller Hut, which lies at about 5,925 feet and has spectacular views of Mount Cook and also of Mount Sefton just across the valley.  It’s requires ascending 2,000 stairs that were built into the side of Mount Olliver making the total elevation gain of 3,425 feet in a little over 3 miles.  The trail construction was impressive, and made for a fast up and down, despite some sore knees. About halfway up is Sealy Tarns, a destination in itself. A tarn is a small mountain lake, and these were tiny lakes.  I found the opportunity to reflect part of Mount Sefton into one of these tarns on my way down from Mueller Hut.  I was thankful the water was still.  Mount Sefton was a monster, as it rises directly in front of you along the trail.  Parts of the hanging glaciers would frequently break off and tumble down the mountain in a thunderous roar. It was powerful to watch and the sound would hit my ears after the ice and snow had hit bottom, as the sound had a long way to travel.  In the photo, you can see the glaciers have an orange hue, that is ash from the Australian bushfires.  No doubt, fresh snow has now fallen on top as winter approaches.

The Kepler Track/Forest Cloud

From deep temperate rainforest bottoms to high alpine tussock meadows, the Kepler Track in Fiordland National Park was one of the most awe-inspiring trails I’ve hiked.  Designated one of the ten Great Walks by the DoC, the Kepler Track travels 37 miles through rich, varied landscapes and you’ll leave it having many amazing experiences to look back on.  The trail can be done in a number of ways.  There is a water taxi that can ferry you just 4 miles from the first hut, but the Kepler is probably the easiest Great Walk logistically because it’s a loop track.  Since it’s a Great Walk, it’s popular trail and if you are looking to stay at one of the four huts, reservations need to be done at least six months in advance.  Alternatively, the fit could run this track in a day.  If you are looking to break records, the fastest time on Kepler is 4 hours and 33 minutes which happened during the annual Kepler Challenge race.  We took a slower pace, making it a four day backpack and staying in three huts along the way.  The first day of the hike, I was a little discouraged as I noticed a huge low hanging cloud bank.  It was blocking my view of the mountains and I wasn’t sure I’d break out above it when I got to treeline, which meant no views!  The clouds did make for a perfect scene in the forest, with enough filtered sun coming through to light up the ferns lining the trail.  I fell in love immediately with this photograph when I came back home and started the editing process.  It is still one of my favorites from the trip.  I didn’t need those sweeping views after all.  Although as it turned out, I did get above the clouds that day and they eventually dissipated making for a “fine” day in the mountains.

Shadowland Part One

Fiordland National Park is filled with mystery and mystique. It’s steep glacier-carved mountain sides of dizzying heights drop deep into the ocean. It is known by the Maori as ‘Ata Whenua’ translated as “The Shadowland”, a name I found very appropriate. Fiordland is on the southwestern end of the South Island, the largest park in New Zealand and also a World Heritage Site. It is here that I began to understand how special and unique New Zealand really is. The second day on the Kepler Track brought us along ridgelines that had unparalleled views into the magic of Fiordland.  The day had been forecasted as heavy rain with gale force winds, not an unusual occurrence in this part of the world.  The day before, I was afraid we’d be turned back, but luck was on our side. The wind was low, with rain only appearing much later in the day after I’d already dipped into the forest again.  The moody weather only enhanced my photographs that day and helped me capture what it felt like to be surrounded by The Shadowland.

Shadowland Part Two

The rain began shortly after I took this photograph, making it the last image I captured on the ridgeline before descending.  If you look closely in the center-right of the photo, you can see the trail zig-zagging down the face into the forest.  I didn’t want to leave the alpine, but weather conditions helped me finally descend.  I spent a total of 5 hours in the alpine, walking as slowly as I could and taking a couple hundred pictures along this 7 to 8 mile stretch of track.  Being one of the first out of hut in the morning, we only encountered a few other hikers.  The first hut, Luxmore Hut, has a 60 person capacity and it was full that night.  Getting up early was well-worth it.

Shadowland Part Three

Sunset over Manapouri Lake

Another title could be Mount Doom, however the Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings is located on the North Island.  I was on the South Island and experiencing the third and final night on the Kepler Track.  The sunset could have been mistaken for an erupting Mount Doom as we watched, waiting to see the Eye of Sauron appear.  Instead it was a much happier scene as almost all of the hut visitors were on the beach enjoying the view.  Manapouri Hut sits on the shores of Lake Manapouri, the second deepest lake in New Zealand and home to 33 or 34 islands, the Kiwi don’t keep track of those things.  I usually have a rule if I’m out to photograph the sunset, and that is to stay until the end, and not only until the sun is below the horizon but much longer until dusk settles in.  I have had one too many regrets leaving my spot prematurely only to see the sky light up with color after I deemed the sunset a ‘dud’.  This evening, the color began to appear after the sun dipped below the horizon, first as deep blue with some bright orange.  I excitedly took pictures of that scene.  It was quite a sight to watch it transform into an intense red with beautiful dark clouds. It was an easy decision to keep this photograph as the final one.

The Great Fiords

With time running out in the trip, we decided to do one last adventure and head back to Fiordlands.  The main tourist road, the Milford Highway has just re-opened after the flooding and it an opportunity to see the famous Milford Sound.  Not a “sound”, technically, but a fiord with towering peaks and incredible waterfalls.  We did an overnight cruise, which entailed a long bus ride from Queenstown (which we was staying during the last few days of the trip before flying out of their airport) and then boarding the boat in the late afternoon.  After acquainting ourselves with the big ship, which held about 65 passengers, the boat headed straight into one of the tall waterfalls.  Everyone had a good time getting up close and personal, and getting a bit wet!  We ate a good meal prepared by the crew and overnighted in a sheltered cove.  The following morning we motored out to the ocean.  The fiord was small, it was only a 45 minute boat ride out to sea, so an overnight isn’t required, but it’s a good way to take time and experience where you are.  We were lucky and got to see Fiordland-Crested Penguins! Endemic to New Zealand and also on the endangered list, as many bird species are from introduced mammals, we were delighted to see them.  I took this photograph once we broke out to sea, looking back into the fiord. It was early morning and the low sun lit up the good cloud display.

Milford Sound

Once back on land, before the trip back to Queenstown, I found myself a little obsessed with Mitre Peak, the sharp peak that rises in the left of this image.  I took a lot of photos of this peak, but found my favorite photo of it in with the rest of the fiord peaks and underneath a small forest canopy.  You can see a large ship in the water and a waterfall in the distance.  It’s hard to believe, but once that ship reaches the waterfall, you wouldn’t be able to see it at all.  The waterfall is 500 feet in height, towering above a boat of that size.  It was a bit of Alice in Wonderland feeling, comparing the views from the shore, versus on the boat and really made you look around and find the scale of things much bigger than they appeared.

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