Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Heave Away, Haul Away, We're Bound for Mt Cook!

I am definitely looking forward to tomorrow morning: in comparison to today's 7:30am departure from Dunedin, leaving at 10:00am is going to look like positive luxury. I asked at the front desk as I checked out how old the Leviathan Hotel building was; the clerk told me it was built in 1884, and has operated as a hotel ever since, making it a very stately 126 years old.

The Levithan Hotel's dining room. I played the grand piano
in the left-hand corner (after getting permission, of course).

Our dorm room (with a sleepy Bart in the top
left bunk). We were right beside High Street,
so we listened to the traffic all night.

We headed north on State Highway 1 to the Moeraki Boulders (Māori Te Kaihinaki, "food baskets"), large round rocks lying on the beach like leftovers from a giant game of marbles. The café and gift shop on top of the bank has built a walkway down to the beach, but charges $2 to use it unless also dining at the restaurant; they have a $6 Stray backpacker breakfast special, so I had fried eggs on toast and then went down to the beach to have a look at these rather unusual rocks.

Moeraki Boulders

The cracking kind of makes them look
like giant dinosaur eggs.

A brief stop in Oamaru to drop off two passengers found me marvelling at all the old buildings from the 19th century still standing in the township; indeed, in Bluff, Invercargill, Dunedin, and now Oamaru I have been impressed with the age and number of these still-standing pieces of history. New Zealand is a young country in terms of European occupation, of course, and what I consider old is not what any of the Europeans on the bus would consider old, but coming from BC, where a building from the turn of the last century is decidedly ancient, seeing buildings from the 1860s or even earlier is a real treat for me.

We stopped for lunch in Omarama, home to a giant sheep statue of a merino sheep, often said to be Shrek, a marino ram who managed to avoid being shorn for six years by hiding in caves, and when finally caught and shorn in April 2004 his fleece weighed 27 kg! (Shrek himself, now New Zealand's most famous sheep, lives in the town of Tarras.)

Only in NZ will you find statues of sheep.

As far as I could tell, this was the one selling feature of Omarama, whose economy must be otherwise buoyed by its convenient location on the highway between Dunedin, Christchurch, and near the turnoff to Mt. Cook. Mt. Cook is the tallest mountain in New Zealand at 3 754 m tall (12, 316 feet); its Māori name, Aoraki, was traditionally translated to mean "Cloud Piercer", due to the mountain's impressive height.

The dry, arid plains found on the east coast of the
South Island (thank you, Southern Alps).

Beside the highway on the way into Mt Cook National Park we saw Lake Pukaki, which is an incredibly blue glacial-fed lake. As it was explained to me, the glacier churns up rock as it grinds its way though a valley (being essentially a river of ice). This churned up rock, called "rock flour", is carried out of the glacier in streams and rivers as it melts, turning them a milky greyish colour. When the water reaches the lake, however, the heavier silt settles to the bottom, and only the lightest particles of rock flour remain suspended in the water, which then absorbs all wavelengths of visible light except blue, which has the shortest wavelength, causing the glacial lake to appear unbelievablely blue in colour. We stopped for a photo at Peter's Lookout, and I jumped for joy at the beauty of the surroundings, which Jen caught on camera for me. :-)

I started having visions of Banff and Lake Louise
whilst lining up this shot.

Jumping for joy at Lake Pukaki

Enjoying the beauty of Lake Pukaki
and the Southern Alps

I wasn't jumping for joy when we got into Mt. Cook Backpacker Lodge, however; due to a mix-up between the lodge, the adventure tour company, and two Stray bus drivers (Tia and Natalie), there were twelve of us who thought we were doing the glacier explorers tour (one of three places in the world where one can go out on a boat on a glacial lake and wander inamongst the icebergs breaking off the terminal end of the glacier), but only nine spots were available. Owing to my nature, I made the least fuss, and shunted myself to the side as some of the other passengers tore a strip off the clerk at the backpackers office (who was just the poor middleman taking all the heat for something out of his control). The clerk (his name was Jock) turned to me and asked if I would mind doing a 4x4 trip up the side of the mountain and viewing the lake and glacier from there instead. I agreed, as all I really wanted to do was get out and see the glacier. In the end, he thanked me profusely for being so polite and easy about the situation, and gave me a $10 discount as well as a voucher for a free drink at the bar on top of the regular package I was getting (including the adventure, meal and drink, 3-D movie pass, and a hour of free internet).

Mt Cook Backpacker Lodge and its stunning location

The statue of Sir Edmund Hilary

The Southern Alps as seen from the Hermitage

When I got up to the Hotel in the Hermitage (Mt Cook village's nickname), it turned out I was the only one booked onto the 4x4 tour, and as such I had a private tour with a great guide named Willy. I had paid for a 1.5 hour tour, but because we were ferrying up the extra passengers for the glacier boat experience, I ended up getting a three-hour tour, as we had to wait to bring them back to the village as well.

Willy and I, adventurers and duet partners!

Believe it or not, this photo was taken standing
on what used to be an access road to a ski field.

After all the bickering and ill feelings of the early afternoon, my three hours 4x4ing and walking around the Tasman Valley were glorious. Willy and I got along well: he took me hiking up to a waterfall so we could refill our waterbottles with sparkling glacier water;

Do you see our 4x4 way down in the valley?

Ranunculus lyallii, or the Mt Cook Buttercup

Posing with the mountain buttercups

and up a short hike to the top of a rocky bluff so we could see the glacier lake with its resplendent ice bergs, where I saw the little boats whizzing around inbetween them (I was having such a good time I didn't envy them at all).

Lake Tasman. If you zoom in, you can see some tiny
little specks on the lake; those are the tour boats!

Sitting pretty high above Lake Tasman

The road we drove up was constructed in the 1920s and 30s as a Depression Relief project to reach the ski fields on the side of the glacier, but is no longer maintained and is now only suitable for 4x4ing (and even then, just barely; it is impassable after about 5km due to massive slips and erosion).

Old metal bracing for the road

A rock wall constructed to shore up the road

This is the modern way of delivering building
 materials to more remote areas of the park!

I saw this sign after we had returned from the 4x4 trip.
Everything it says is true...

I backed into this plant by mistake. Ouch!

Nevertheless, it provided stunning views of the glacial Tasman Lake and the terminal end of the Tasman glacier, where the silt-covered ice breaks off in chunks and falls into the water. I even heard an avalanche up on the slopes; it was sobering to think of how many people have died in this area, due to accidents, slips, and floods.

The terminal slump of the Tasman Glacier; this is ice and
water covered by gravel. Every now and then some foolish
individual tries to walk across this, falls into a crevasse, dies,
and then it is up to the mercy of mother nature and the
glacier as to when the body is released, if at all.

Tasman Lake

This rocky outcropping is called "The Throne".
As such, I affected a royal wave. 

On a lighter note, Willy quickly found out my musical training, and shared with me an Australian sea shanty he has adopted for the Tasman Glacier experience; he has written the words himself, and is writing new verses all the time. He taught it to me, and within five minutes I had figured out a harmony part, and we took great delight in singing it at the top of our lungs as we lurched and jolted over the rocky road. Indeed, when we picked up the other passengers to take them back to the Hermitage, we taught it to them and insisted they sing along on the chorus (which they did, the good sports). I recorded us singing it on my camera so I can transcribe the tune, words, and my harmony part a later date. The first verse and the chorus go like this (right-click to download the the file of me singing it, but be kind, as I'm singing into my MacBook!):

To Tasman Valley we are bound
Heave away, haul away
Lots of icebergs all around
We're bound for Tasman Valley

Heave away, you rolling berg!
Heave away, haul away!
Haul away you'll hear us sing
We're bound for Tasman Valley.

The Tasman River, its characteristic grey-blue colour due
to its carrying high concentrations of rock flour

Let the jokes begin!

At the end of the trip, Willy presented me with a polished and painted rock he made (one of his other jobs in the village is sculpting and carving); I thanked him profusely for the gift and for such a wonderful afternoon out in the Tasman Valley. I also made a point of seeking out Jock and telling him everything had worked out for me that afternoon, and that I had had a wonderful time, thanking him for all his efforts. If I believed in karma, this would be a definite example. :-)

Willy's glorious 4x4 rig

Now I am exhausted, and it is dinnertime; time to go cash in that dinner and drink voucher, then have a shower, and head off for bed… how I am looking forward to having an early night and late morning!


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