Hiking and Other Arm-Shrinking Activities

Being cheapskate unemployed bums we are required to strictly prioritise what we spend our money on. Bob comes pretty high up the list. After all, a neglected Bob could revolt against us and leave us in a rather sticky – or at least wet – situation. After Bob comes food, fuel etc. and there isn’t really a whole lot left over for frivolous recreational activities. So with what activities do we occupy ourselves in our impecunious state?

We tried sailing our dinghy again. Those of you who have been following our adventures and misadventures for a while may remember that our dinghy was unfortunately rendered unsailable by the loss of the dagger board (and a paddle, an oar, Sarah’s shoes and an anchor) during a moment of stupidity on my part when I failed to secure the dinghy properly one night way back in the Marquesas Islands last year. Well, we finally made a new dagger board (out of cheap plywood this time) and took Numpty (that’s the dinghy) out for a sail in a stiff onshore breeze among the beautiful inlets around the North Coast of the South Island. As we were sitting in the van waiting for a violent rain squall to pass it did occur to us that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea, but we shoved that thought aside once the sun made a fleeting appearance through the clouds, headed to the beach and pushed out from shore. Numpty performed beyond expectations. She was remarkably stable and carved to windward like a champ. Unfortunately, just as we were about a mile from shore and thinking of turning around there was a slightly gustier gust than usual, we heard a loud CRACK and half the dagger board appeared floating on the surface to windward. Well, at least it was a downwind leg back to the beach. We eased the sheets and bore away but the next thing to come down was the mast, which shattered spectacularly and turned the sail into a sea anchor. Jury-rigging consisted of me standing up and spreading my T-shirt (between fits of laughter) while Sarah diligently kept us going in vaguely the right direction. I really really wish we’d thought to get some before and after shots to post here. Needless to say, Numpty looked a bit sorry for herself back on the beach and is now without a sailing rig once again. Perhaps she’s trying to tell us something?

Another activity that has been popular with us is hiking (or ‘tramping’ as it is often called here) . It has been a top-rated activity for us for three reasons:

1. It’s not something we’ve really had the opportunity to do on account of Bob’s limited range of hiking destination options.
2. It’s free.
3. New Zealand boasts a phenomenal range of mind-bogglingly spectacular sights and experiences that are only accessible by hiking. So, while my arms waste away for lack of ropes to pull, my legs are getting stouter and our general fitness has noticeably improved.

“What ‘sights and experiences’ speak thee of?” I hear you clamour. Sarah has written about the Tongariro Crossing in an earlier blog. Since arriving in the South Island we have also visited some amazing caves and no less than three glaciers.

We have learned, among other things, that when the New Zealand Department of Conservation posts a sign somewhere giving information or warning you of some sort of hazard it is wise to pay heed to it. When they say it’s a 6-hour hike they don’t mean a six-hour stroll for an overweight lady pushing a wheelchair and stopping to have a chat with everyone she meets, they mean a six-hour hike for someone far fitter than either of us when weather conditions are perfect and without taking any breaks. Similarly, when they say to be mindful of heavy rain because the trail (which involves several river crossings) may become impassable they really mean it. We set off along a trail looking for some caves and took a wrong turning at one point. The trail appeared to lead directly into a river that was barrelling along at a rate of knots and didn’t look at all friendly. I waded in to literally test the waters and found myself waist-deep pretty quickly struggling to keep my footing in the current. We sensibly gave it up as a bad idea. Just then, however, a red-jacketed lady appeared on the opposite bank wearing an expression of curious surprise mingled with no small quantity of fear. She and her partner were stuck, had no tent to spend the night in and the only other way out was an eight-hour hike in the opposite direction. When they had crossed the river just three hours previously it had been no more than 10cm deep. Now it was definitely impassable. I can’t express how stupendously lucky they were that there just happened to be a random guy blasting up the river in a jet boat who was able to ferry them across. The chances of such a serendipitous eventuality occurring must be phenomenally low. But, there we are! We were fortunate to learn a valuable lesson the easy way. What’s more, it turned out that we didn’t need to cross the river at all in order to reach the caves, which were perhaps the best I have ever visited.

Here I am ‘testing the waters’. The other side of the trail is marked by the orange post on the other side of the river, upstream from our location:

 

Here’s the guy in the jet boat (finally! A use for jet-driven boats!) blasting past us. The depth of the water is perhaps 10cm – you can clearly see the rocks beneath the surface. Apparently these things are even able to become airborne if necessary in order to clear logs and whatnot:

 

Here he is ferrying one of the stricken hikers across the torrent:

 

And here was our destination for the hike – this cave. Pretty cool eh?

Next up were some walks to visit several glaciers. Glaciers are really cool (har har). Basically they are rivers of ice. Snow falls high in the mountains and as it funnels down the steep mountainsides it gradually becomes more and more compact until it is ice. MASSIVE forces are involved which drive the whole lot down the mountainside, tearing away huge chunks of rock and shaping the mountains and valleys of the land. During the last ice age much of the South Island was covered in glaciers. All have receded but a few are still around to be seen…… for now at least. Global warming is accelerating glacial retreat to unprecedented rates. Franz-Josef is receding at a gargantuan 100m per annum. That’s a kilometre in the last ten years, and it’s been fairly well documented since the first photographs were taken back in the late 1800s.

It was a gray, rainy day so the light wasn’t great for photography. Nevertheless Sarah managed to get this one of the Franz-Josef Glacier. The source of the river is meltwater, and it is coloured grey by suspended rock particles that were scoured from the sides of the valley and incorporated into the ice matrix, only to be released as the ice melts:

 

In the picture above, the position of the glacier in about 2008 more or less corresponds to the line where the greenery turns to yellow/bare rock. It is starkly depicted by this picture of a picture from an information board. Each of these was taken from the same viewpoint, just 4 years apart.

 

We tried to visit the famous Fox Glacier next, but unfortunately a recent cyclone has destroyed the trail (yes, cyclones are now hitting the SOUTH island of New Zealand – a country that supposedly ‘doesn’t get cyclones’) so we were only able to get a glimpse from afar.

This is as close as we were able to get, and to manage this we had to bend the rules regarding ‘closed’ tracks a little:

 

The third glacier, which was extra-specially-cool – is the Rob Roy Glacier in the Mount Aspiring National Park. To get there we had to take Jacangi down a harrowing 30km stretch of gravel road and across eleven nerve-wracking fords (places where it is possible, in some conditions and with the right vehicle, to cross a stream or river by driving through it. Generally a 2-wheel-drive camper van would not be considered ‘the right vehicle’) before hiking 5km up a mountain and 5km back. It was totally worth it.

Here’s a beautiful long-exposure shot that Sarah got of the river:

 

And a view of the glacier itself from our viewpoint. Being high enough to be just above the tree line we had a good, unobscured view:

 

Finally, on the way back from Rob Roy we took a detour up to the Treble Cone Ski Area, which is the highest ski resort in New Zealand. It’s not open yet for the ski season but it was an amazing drive up and a spectacular view from the top. Jacangi protested furiously at the climb by producing lots of black smoke (due to the thin air I think………) and we had to stop twice to avoid overheating the engine, but she got there and is none the worse for wear.

Here was our reward:

 

Oh, I should mention that Sarah did not accompany me on the drive up to the ski area. Instead she chose to travel up there Mary-Poppins style 🙂

 

Our adventures continue. Tomorrow we’ll drive the five hours or so to the famous Milford Sound, which is purported by some to be the most beautiful place on this island full of beautiful places.