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Friday, January 27, 2017

Routeburn Track and Milford Track

About a year ago a couple of the sons and an American friend hatched a plan to walk two of New Zealand's most iconic tracks: the Routeburn and the Milford. The Routeburn runs from Mt Aspiring National Park near Glenorchy over the Harris Saddle into Fiordland National Park. The Milford, perhaps one of the two or three most iconic walks in the world, runs from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound, one the fiords on the west coast of the South Island.

We hovered over our computers about a year ago when bookings opened for the huts, and scored some hut bookings. Then, just a few weeks before this blog entry was posted, we headed off. We flew into Christchurch so as to gently motor up to the mountains, and see how the old town is going after the earthquakes - none of us has been there since those devastating quakes. It's spirit seems undaunted, but there is still devastation on every corner, many years after the disaster.

We started outdoor activities by spending a day at Wanaka, and doing some walks into the base of Mt Cook. Here is our first view of Mt Cook/Aoraki as we approach the track leading to it:

And here is as close as we got to this mighty peak, the highest in Australasia:

Then it was time to move on to the real walking; so on we went to Glenorchy near where the Routeburn starts. The weather was looking a little ominous. Recall the floating ice in the last photo is in midsummer, not what Australians are used to!

The night before we started, we went for a wander along the Dart River

The first days walking on the track in the drizzle was through Beech forest and ferns. The ferns are really amazing, with their golden brown curled fronds looking as though they are about to burst out at any time:

Very soon we were at the first hut. Embarrassingly soon: one of us (your photographer I'm ashamed to admit) had booked the huts a year ago, and had assumed as with most of these tracks, you have to book all the huts. But the Routeburn has more huts than you can possibly need, a result of which is that there was very little distance to the first hut, and little distance to the next one! Serendipitously this turned out to be a good thing. In the first instance it allowed us to explore the Routeburn North Branch, a little explored track that is a real bush track, not a wide tourist track. Here's a lovely cairn near the end of it:

And here are two of us enjoying the ferns and views at the little saddle where the track ends:

The next day was another day with almost no distance to the following hut: but it didn't rain, it poured! Over 100mm of rain! The previous day it poured two once we got to the hut - we got out and did the Routeburn North in the only relatively dry spot of the trip. Here's the single, fleeting, moment when some sun appeared when we were waiting in the hut for a chance to get to the next one without getting soaked:

So we found a moderately drizzly period to dash to the next hut, and hunkered down for the next day: the climb up over the Harris Saddle, which takes you from Mt Aspiring NP to Fiordland NP

This part of the walk, past Routeburn Falls, quickly becomes Alpine: as evidenced by the lovely Mt Cook Lilly (which I'm sure everyone will quickly spot is not a lilly of any kind, but a daisy...)

Then, just as we were rising into the alpine area of the saddle, the sun came out. Thank goodness we had not attempted this walk the previous day! The conditions up to the top of the saddle were superb; cloud and sun chasing each other in a photographically glorious display.

Here we are just having climbed out of the Routeburn valley, and you can see the Routeburn River (or Route Burn) flowing through this higher valley before descending:

And here are a couple of images of the very source of the Route Burn, as it flows out of Lake Harris:

And here is Lake Harris itself, just below the saddle:

After the saddle, and as we began the alpine descent, the weather closed in completely, with driving rain and mist making conditions a little treacherous and needing a bit of care.

This reminds me of something that's worth saying about both of these walks. They are widely publicised, and with the huts providing shelter and gas, you can have a very light pack. In many conditions, they are pretty easy walking to anyone who is a keen bushwalker/tramper/hiker. Even then as conditions deteriorate the routes deserve respect. But a lot of people do these walks who are not well prepared. We met one guy walking for hours in very cold rain in a few tee shirts and a cheap plastic poncho. We remonstrated kindly with him - something I at least am reluctant to do. But we were seriously concerned for his safely. Death from hypothermia is not uncommon. He was in danger even if he kept moving, and had he tripped and become unable to move for a while, hypothermia was extremely likely. We met him agin in Te Anau, buying gear. Our remonstrations were as nothing compared to the serve that one of the hut wardens have him. I like to think she may have saved his life.

Anyhow we descended to Mackenzie hut, where the weather began to improve after we arrived, giving an opportunity to photograph the lake near the hut:

The walk out presented no drama, besides unrelenting rain, and we were soon at our car which had been moved to the other side of the walk by an excellent car moving service (Easyhike). Rating of the walk: superb! The weather wasn't as bad as we feared, and we had good visibility for most of the parts of the walk that needed it, other than the descent.

Then it was on to Te Anau to regroup, dry gear, and eat non freeze dried food. A shout out here is required to Radha's Indian. They used to be a takeaway place in the Mobil petrol station, but demand grew and they have a place of their own. And it is excellent - it wouldn't be out of place in a major city with a large Indian population, and is likely far and away the best food in Te Anau (there are some attempts at fine dining which are like fine but an order of magnitude, literally, more expensive).

The next walk, the iconic Milford Track, begins with a boat trip across lake Te Anau. Here's one of use getting excited:

And here's a typical piece of goodness that you see from the boat:

Then we begin the first short leg of the track. The forest here has a floor which is purely moss and lichen:

Here's what that looks like closer up

The next day dawned misty, as we clung to the Clinton River

But soon some sun came out, lighting up glorious views of the river, the valley and peaks

At one point we made our way off the track into the valley itself, and were rewarded by this glorious view of the mountains framed by iconic Toi-Toi (the native grass).

Here's some of the grass close up:

Here is one of the wonderful little lakes that form at the base of the sheer cliff lines, which are over a thousand metres high and almost perfectly vertical because of the way the glaciers scoured out these valleys.

The next day dawned a little cloudy, but dry and with not too strong a wind, which is important for safety over the Mackinnon Pass. Here is one of us on the top of the Mackinnon Pass, by the memorial to Quintin Mackinnon, one of the people who found this route from lake Te Anau to Milford.

At the beginning of the descent from the pass there is quite a lot of a dwarf, Alpine variety of the iconic New Zealand Flax. Here are a couple of flower spikes against the mountains.

A little further down the descent is an old shelter, which is is growing a most impressive kind of furry orange lichen:

After a side trip to the Sutherland Falls, the tallest permanent falls in NZ at nearly 600m) we hit the hut.  The falls were remarkable, but not in way that could be captured on camera in the conditions we were in. But one of the truly amazing things about this walk, especially in this weather, is the waterfalls. Huge ones, falling over a thousand metres, small rills, rushing whitewater. I have a vast number of photos. But I think in their profusion they'd bore most of you, so here's one, smaller but lovely, that can stand in for the rest:

All too soon, after passing Lake Ada, we reach the end of the track. Here's the view from where we waited for the boat to pick us up and take us through Milford Sound to Milford:

Talking of waterfalls, here's one we saw on the boat, given scale by the three or four story high cruise boat at its base!


And so ends our summer holiday and two wonderful walks! We'll be back, likely on some of the unformed routes through Fiordland. Just a small coda: the night before we flew back we stayed in a motel in Queenstown where the airport is, which turned out to have the most remarkable view of the Remarkables which we could enjoy from our room's balcony. Sitting there watching the light change on the hills in the evening was the perfect way to end a great trip:

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Devil's Pinch and Starlight Canyons

Some Sons of the Desert and many stalwarts from the Sydney University Bushwalking club spend the last weekend in Newnes, in the Wolgan Valley.

The plan was to visit two classic canyons: Devil's Pinch and Starlight. The usual approach to these canyons is to abseil down from the plateau, but instead we climbed up into them. This is possible because these canyons are cracks in the high plateau which go down to the cliff line on the edge of the plateau. But below the cliff line is a couple of hundred metres of steep vegetated hillside which descends to the Wolgan river. So by following the river down to where the canyons are and clubbing up the hillside and crawling along the cliff edge, it's possible to enter the canyons from below at the point they break out from the cliff.

So off we headed on the only cool break in a period of unpleasantly hot weather, and soon gained the cliff edge.

First canyon was Devil's Pinch (named for a pinch in the river below a rock formation which looks rather like diabolical horns)

Here's a view of the exit from the canyon with the thin strip of light and the Coachwood trees growing in the entrance...

Then it was on to Starlight Canyon.

It's easy to see how it gets its name: the glow worms look like constellations in the night sky. In this image the sky is red because of the red head torches we used (red light doesn't disturb the glow worms). I thought it better than the alternative which is pure unlit black rock with nothing but the little lights, as it gives some sense of the rock of the cavern.

And here (lit with white light from head torches) is an image of the little slimy cords of sticky droplets that the glow worms use to trap prey. You can see some poor insect caught in this diabolical trap. The glow of the worms attracts insects, and as it reflects off the droplets, makes a truly deadly trap.

And finally my favourite image;  a section of the Starlight Canyon where a shaft of light descends in front of a section covered with green moss:

A great weekend indeed! Thanks to all who organised it!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Larapinta! (with a coda at Uluru-Kata Tjuta)

It was a year in the planning, with various delays and pull-outs, but thanks largely to Paul's hard work it came off: the Sons of the Desert trip to the Larapinta Trail along the West MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, West of Alice Springs.

We met up in the Alice the night before our pick up: the final party was Paul, Daniela, Kristie and your resident photographer (though not in many recent posts) David. Paul had arranged for a transport company to pick us up and take us back. The plan for was for 7 nights, starting at Simpson's Gap and ending at Hugh Gorge. That's not exactly what happened as will become apparent, but that was a good thing, we think!

An early morning start had us on the track just after dawn. The walk started out in some very nice country indeed. We were thrilled to be out there and in retrospect glad that it began this way, because it turned out that nice though it was, this had nothing on what was to come..

Lunchtime has us at Bond Gap where there was a little water and some bullrushes to prove it. The view seems to be that you should never drink the water in water holes. We think it very unlikely that - properly treated - there could be a problem. We've drunk much worse. Our best guess is that they don't want people to rely in any way on found water, because that could encourage folly and making plans that don't assume that the only water is to be found at the trailhead tanks.

Towards the end of this section we had our first glimpses of Arenge Bluff: here's Paul suitably buoyed by its presence:

Soon we made it into Mulga Flat (after discovering that our notes told us that the section ended at a place now known as Old Mulga flat, and that we now needed to walk  a couple of kilometres more). After we set up camp, we headed back to higher ground to get a view of Arenge Bluff in the Alpenglow:

When the sun went down we were treated to this spectacle over the ranges:

And here is an image of Paul and Daniela watching it raptly:

Morning dawned gloriously for the party the next day (yes; photo geeks may suspect this image is included because of the gloriously clean starburst of the Zeiss Loxia 21mm lens...)

The walk from there gets even better. A highlight was Spring Gap: here is Daniela resting in front of the waterhole. The photo is pretty, but it can't begin to convey the sense of awe that a bit of water can provoke in this dry, dry land.

Soon we arrive at Jay Creek. As we arrive we find, right by the creek itself, this foul smelling dead bovine:

We move as far away as possible to camp! Later that night a large group of walkers arrive, and we judge by their torches that they set up camp in a nice circle right around the festering corpse! It's only after they have set up and turned in that we hear shouts of horror and disgust. Still, it seems they were too tired to move camp. They were having a tough time of it: we read in a logbook entry later that they had twisted ankles, broken knees and other troubles.

After we set up camp we climbed a couple of hundred metres up onto the bluff that guarded the gap leading to Fish Hole. Our plan was to climb up to a position to watch the sunset but still be able to get back down before complete blackness. Here's Daniela relaxing on top, waiting for the sun to go down:

And here's that landscape in the valley behind her as the sun gets close to setting behind the trees:

And finally what we climbed for: the last ruddy effects of the sun on the bluff on the other side of the gap:

Next day we head into that gap and soon come to Fish Hole, a sacred site. Here are Paul and Kristie, looking suitably spiritual:

And here's the whole party (barring Your Photographer) relaxing by the Hole:

A little further in and the track starts to involve scrambling through the valley. As it gets narrower the vegetation starts to be dominated by an amazing cycad and cypress community. Different species, but a similar affinity group to the cypress and cycad communities in, for example, the Shoalhaven Valley in NSW.

Here's Krisite climbing up one of the tougher waterfalls, handing her trekking pole up to Daniela to give her more free hands for the climb:

Finally we get to Standley Chasm. It's an odd place: as we arrived it began to rain, and we just got our tents up in time on the offical camp site which was just a small portion of grass near the carpark. The so-called hot showers rely on power which lasts at best 15 seconds before the circuit breaker goes. But all was forgiven because we were able, having got the tents up when it was dry, to sit by the fire on a covered balcony while the rain pelted down. The only downside was a TV with a documentary about Aboriginal history narrated by Ernie Dingo on permanent loop - but even that became weirdly comfortable as some of the party became word perfect on the text.

The other thing we did at the Chasm was to check out the weather forecast. This was important, as our plan was to camp the next night at Brinkley Bluff, one of the highest points in the West Macdonnel ranges, and the highest in the Chewing Range. By all accounts it would be both unpleasant and unsafe in a storm (lightning, and tent torn to shreds as there is nothing to block the winds for thousands of km). In addition, the descent is said to be tricky, and also likely unsafe in the wet. To our relief the prediction is that the next 48 hours should be OK, but after that record rains are forecast! We consider what to do: the worry is that after we have descended Brinkley Bluff and camped at Birthday Waterhole, we plan another high camp before descending to Hugh Gorge. We make an executive decision: if we can arrange transport (and luckily for us a friendly Queenlsalnd couple using the same company also decide to act on this intelligence ) we'll leave a little early from Birthday Waterhole. We'll then use the extra two days to hire a car, and make a lightning trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayer's Rock and the Olgas) which none of us had seen. Some of us had been trying to persuade ourselves it was kind of cool to have been so close (by Australian standards - in fact 500km) to these icons without visiting, but I think when we decided to go, that we all thought it was the right decision!

Anyhow, the next day and the most magnificent part of this truly splendid walk. First thing the weather looked a little grim, but we headed out to check out Stanley Chasm itself. The next photo is not a work of art, but it does give a good sense of the scale of the Chasm. Check out the tiny Paul, Kristie and Daniela!

After that we headed out. We were all carrying 8-10 litres or so of water, as we needed water for the next day and for the camp, since none was expected on the tops. That meant pack weights in excess of 20 kg which makes for a bracing climb of 500m. As the wind and cloud got worse, Paul could be heard to mutter "North Wales. That's what this is like. I didn't emigrate to Australia so as to walk in North Wales!" But as we reached Bridle Path Lookout,  the clouds lifted and vistas were revealed:

Soon the party found itself walking narrow ridges with spectacular views

Here's Paul, about half an hour's pull from Brinkley Bluff:

And here's Kristie, with Brinkley Bluff behind her. The scale in the photo, as in reality, is very misleading. The Bluff looks like a small knoll nearby. But in fact it's around a half hour away, five or ten minutes walk across, and has widely separated places for pitching tents.

In the meantime, Daniela and Paul are taking the opportunity to look around before the final haul:

Here's Krisite, at the top

And here are Daniela and Paul celebrating at the trig point, while Kristie tries in vain to find some service so as to get a weather forecast in the background:

We set up camp, and after sunset the alpenglow on the ranges whence we have come is glorious:

The next morning we are all up  before dawn to enjoy the peak in glorious weather.  Here's the range off further than we will walk in the pre-dawn glow:

And here, still before the sun actually rises, is the trig point. The pre-dawn wind blows the prayer flags someone has thoughtfully provided, no doubt further charming our trip with blessings!

And then, the sun rises, revealing much of way we have come!

In the other direction just after sunrise one of our party is spied exploring:

And here's a selfie by Your Photographer before starting to break camp, stupidly still wearing his torch that was needed at pre-dawn:

And, as we start to descend, here's a last view of the country in the harsher light of day. Glorious: but unforgiving.

The descent is not nearly as hard as we had been told. It's soon clear why: we meet Tasmanian track workers who have rebuilt most of the track, so the descent is actually absolutely fine. It's a pleasant romp into Birthday Waterhole. When we hit the waterhole we explore a little and I take an opportunity to get a photo of the ubiquitous Ghost Gums: these eucalypts leave white powder on you if you brush past their trunks:

When we get back to the shelter a truly mighty storm hits, and we are glad we have a constructed shelter! The next morning we - and the other party from Qld - are picked up and as we drive through Alice Springs the Todd river not only has water in it, but it's flooding the road! It's said that if you have seen water flow in the Todd River three times you are a local.

Coda: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

After some remarkably efficient shopping and preparation we all get in the hire car that Paul picks up from the airport and make our way to Uluru!

We start to get faint glimpses of the rock, and with some slightly optimistic inprepretations of the scope of some of the "keep off" signs, we pull off and climb an amazing red sand dune, from which we all get our first sight of Uluru. There will be better pictures in this blog, but I don't think any of us will forget this first sighting:

We then arrive at a hotel in the resort and try to find acceptable and affordable food. The next morning we head out to the Sunrise Viewing Platform. This is perhaps the most irritating thing about this park: you are forbidden from most places, not I think on sacredness grounds (except occasionally) but on tourist management grounds. So basically you can drive on bitumen roads and stop at designated viewing places and a few walks. Still, they are great views and great walks. We manage to escape the worst of the crowds at the Sunrise Viewing Platform, and find a probably legal much quieter and more interesting vantage point from which we see this:

And as the sun rises further we get this, highlighting the ubiquitous Casuarinas in this part of the world:

We then head to the Rock itself to do the 10km stroll around its base. Here are Paul and Daniela:

And here's an image which gives a sense of the scale of the thing; those trees are huge:

This image shows the party as high on the Rock as is consistent with the wishes of its custodians:

One of the amazing features of Uluru is the great vulval caves that cut into it. We soon came to realise that when you saw one of these, there would soon be a sign announcing a sacred Women's site:

The waterholes and gorges at its base were also deeply affecting. Its easy to see why some of them count as sacred.

Some of these little gorges right in the base of the rock are really lush:

We then made our way to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and began with as much of the Valley of the Winds walk as was consistent with being at the Designated Dusk Viewing Place. As we walked up into it this amazing view presented itself:

And as we left, the light was starting to do amazing things on the dome:

We made it to the designated spot. The following photo resulted, but I fear it's rather like any decent postcard you can get taken from the Designated Spot!

A wonderful, wonderful trip. One of the very best. Thanks to all involved! And, dear readers, do go to the larapinta. It's absolutely wonderful. And if you are there, the coda is worth it as well.

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