23 January. Paradiso Backpackers'.
Someone from Karamea was returning a rental car to Nelson today, so I was able to catch a ride with him. Bit of an odd fish, what? The drive started off calmly enough, but as we continued on the roads, his conversation became more and more thickly laced with profanity, impugning the general collapse of New Zealand society and the erosion of perceived freedoms. Eh. Strangeness. What can you do? He was kind enough to drop me off at the edge of downtown, so I only ended up having a fifteen minute walk across to Paradiso Backpackers' to return to my chached gear.
After that and a few rounds of phone tag, I was happy to cross paths with my parents. They're down here, also on vacation. Not for nearly a long a time, but we should be able to overlap a few times. Had some excellent seafood along the waterfront of the Nelson Bay at a restaurant called "The Boat Shed". Generally a higher-quality of experience than my pitching a tent in the front yard of a Backpackers' (hostel) and digging up inexpensive takeaways, but what can you do? I seem to be a born and bred cheapskate.
I'm not quite going the dirtbag route on this trip, but I still want to write up an internet article on the "high-end dirtbag" travel photography style. It's all about minimizing the cost of your transitory experiences (notably, most sleeping and some eating) so that you can either spend more on more memorable experiences or on capital equipment or on staying out longer. Think about this: buy a good-quality tent from a discount outdoors retailer for ~$175. Amortize that cost over 100+ nights, and the usage cost per night suddenly drops to under two dollars per night. Do the same thing with a $100 sleeping bag and a $25 ground pad and you're looking at a cost of $3 per night. Camp on BLM lands or in dispersed camping in the national forests, and that's your total cost for a night. Less, really, because you can probably get more use out of the three items above than 100 nights. That's just a figure I'm picking for the sake of argument. I would estimate quality gear at somewhere around 150 to 200 nights before you really need to replace it. Alternately, you could think of buying the tent/bag/pad for the price of six nights in an average US low-middle motel. And then get the next 144 nights free. More on these thoughts and how to further undermine the economy later...
24 January. Greymouth YHA.
On the bus again, travelling back down the Buller River Gorge and south along the West Coast. We stopped in at Cape Foulwind (so named for the smell coming up off the seal colonies, supposedly. Didn't see that many seals, and it didn't smell bad at all.), and the Punakaiki rocks. Picked up groceries in Greymouth for the Copeland track, upcoming.
Tauranga Bay and Wall Island, Cape Foulwind.
Kekeno (New Zealand fur seal) breeding colony, Cape Foulwind.
The alternating bands of dolomite and limestone form thinly laminated beds ("pancake rocks") at Punakaiki.
One of the blowholes at Punakaiki Rocks.
Looking inland to the limestone bluffs of Paparoa National Park
25 January. Franz Josef YHA.
Lots of text, no pictures. Skip ahead if you want to.
We traveled from Greymouth down to Franz Josef, stopping in at the self-consciously quirky Bushman's Center in Pukekura. Of course, there's not really anything else in Pukekura; the Bushman's Center also quadruples as the cafe/bar, post service, and convenience store. Evidently there are relict buildings not too far away that used to be Pukekura, but when the "new road" (NZ route 6, the main road down the West Coast) was put in, it bypassed the town. Concerned, some of the local decided to move the cafe/bar to the road; some of the rest of the town followed. And if you want to buy it (the town, that is), it's for sale. Just ask inside.
I'd signed up for a Heli-Hike once we got into Franz Josef, not happy about the general idea, but determined to photograph at least something of the ice caves. I strongly wanted to work with the shades of blue and white, sculptural in their smoothness. Oddly reminiscent of sandstone slot canyons, in that way. I walked in to talk to the company about bringing the Mamiya and a tripod and got lots of warnings about excess gear and not using my own boots/crampons/ice axe and not slowing down the group. Had a bad feeling. I felt more like I was being herded than guided, but against my instincts, I signed up anyway. I walked down to the helipad and changed into their boots and their rainshell, listened to an American tell a honed repertoire of jokes, and waited with increasing discomfort for the helicopter. Delayed fifteen minutes, trying to avoid the sandflies. To my ulitmate relief, the clouds had closed in and the helicopter wouldn't fly in the low visibility. Got a full refund. Really, though, I shouldn't have let it go that far. There was at least one other company, maybe two, that I could have gone with. As soon as I felt like I was being herded rather than listened to, I should have walked. I went back to the hostel and read the entire book of Laurell K. Hamilton's Burnt Offerings. Enjoyable enough. Much more pulp-y than Anne Rice, but without the tiresome platitudes and attempts at high-ground meaning. Good escapism, at least.
Thinking more and more about how bad I am at travelling. It's so difficult to accept new places on their own terms, rather than comparing them to our expectations or past experiences. And I'm so bad at meeting new people. Without some thread of commonality, I'm just too reserved to start into conversation. We overlapped with a Kiwi Experience bus at Pukekura; somehow they seemed to do a better job of mixing people up. Or perhaps their customers are just more homogeneous to begin with. Magic seems highly atomized; there's little talking on the bus and we all seem to disperse at the stops.
As a photographer, I'm getting (even) more cynical about the shots used for travel advertising. I should have already known it from my own landscape work, but it's becoming much more apparent how little of a complete experience (with all five senses) is captured by a photograph--even if it's a big photograph--that only shows 1/125th of a second. Weather, angle of view, happy clients or anonymous clients with cheery guides, time of day, time of year and amount of snow--all are variables the AD is picking amongst, if subconsciously. And I did the same thing for my slideshows of school; the same for the school's promotional materials. Do people expect this? Come to anticipate disappointment? Or just keep trying again, trying to capture the emotion that the advertisement is selling? It's weird to look at advertising flyers and try to figure out what they're selling: coolness, edginess, happiness.
Further, most of the group activities have some sort of uniform--jumpsuit, wetsuit, rainshell--that helps make clients anonymous in the photos, making it easier for you to substitute yourself into the picture. There's even an advert from a skydiving company here in Franz Josef that doesn't really show the client at all, just the top of his head. The picture, in a pure sense, in about the setting and the stoke of the tandem-master. I say all of this not as an indictment, but as an observation. It's something I was peripherally aware of before, but not to this level. For me, it comes from trying to duplicate some of the photographs and realizing it would be impossible. For example, there's a really nice shot of a silhouetted bungy-jumper with the Qtown mountains in snow at twilight: that picture has to be taken in late Winter or early Spring to get the snow and the twilight. They're simply not going to be running at 9:15 to 9:30 at night in the summer, to say nothing of the bare slopes right now. It feels like something I should ask Melissa about and see if the humanities classes talk about at all.
26 January. Douglas Rock Hut, Copland Track.
(written the morning after)
It's day 22 of the New Zealand trip. I've been here more than three weeks, with about nine weeks left to go. I'm on my first day of poking up into the Copland Track, a famous route over the Southern Alps between the West Coast and the town of Mount Cook. I won't be doing the whole thing; just in and return. Right now, it's kicking my butt. It's like the North Cascades on steroids.
Started this morning from Franz Josef, got a ride from Rachel on Magic down past Fox Glacier to the trailhead. Rachel, our driver since Nelson, is a trail-runner, backpacker, bungy-jumper, and multisport athlete. She's rearranging her days off in order to be able to do a three-hour trail race on her next time through Queenstown. Cute, mid- to late-twenties, 30cm shorter than me, I have the distinct impression that she's in better shape than I am right now. It'd be easy to have a crush on her if that weren't such a cliched idea. We talked of different tramping plans and ideas for Ball Pass; I didn't need much convincing to aim for Douglas Rock Bivy today rather than Welcome Flat. DOC marks it as eleven or twelve hours from the trailhead; we figured eight or nine. She figured eight. I figured nine.
It was a beautiful approach for the first few hours up the Copland River Valley. Aquamarine-blue water running in the rivers. Of course, if you stop to think about the derivation of the word "aquamarine", doesn't that make sense? Even if the connotations of that color don't usually specifically refer to the color of water? The color comes from the thick burden of glacial flour, carried fast by the river over schist and gneiss bedrock rapids. This is the first metamorphic-dominated terrain I've backpacked in. Blessedly good weather today, but even without much net elevation gain, we went up and down a lot of small ridges and side-streams.
About halfway to Welcome Flat hut, about at Architect Creek, we began climbing. Similar ups and downs, but now with a net elevation gain. I made it up to the hut in about six or six and a half hours, feeling pretty good. Light showers of rain had started; I stopped inside the hut for a snack but soon headed back out on trail.
I left at 5pm and crossed over the bridge, with stunning views upriver even with the high peaks obscured in the clouds. The first hour or so were along Welcome Flat (of the eponymous hut fame), with nice open areas and small stream crossings. I should have stopped to rest there. I was getting quite tired by 7pm, as the last hour had been quite a rough trail. At about 7:15, I slipped on a wet and mossy rock and fell hard. It felt like a deep heavy bruise to my right quadricep. It was painful to walk, more so to climb, even more so to descend. I couldn't completely trust my right leg to hold me. I kept hoping to see the hut, but didn't arrive until 8:30 or so. The hut's in glorious surroundings, but I'm in no mood to appreciate them. It was really a push over the last hour of hiking. Ate snacks, made hot chocolate, went to sleep. Too tired to fix and eat dinner. It's painful to sit, painful to stand up, painful to get out of the boots. A thread of serious concern. So spent that I felt cold. I haven't pushed that hard in a long time; since the marathon last year, I'd guess.
Schistose texture in the Copland River Valley.
The Copland River, running along Welcome Flat, looking up into the Southern Alps.
A little farther along Welcome Flat, with a rainbow in the mist.
27 January. Welcome Flat hut.
Took a long morning in. Slept in, with no one else in the hut. Read, finishing up If Kiwis Could Fly, wherein the author looks for an "authentic Kiwi bloke" while riding a rented 750cc motorcycle around the country. It might be worth checking out her other book, It's Not About the Tapas, describing a bike ride around Spain.
It was up a little, then down to Welcome Flat. A very short day. Still hurting. Welcome Flat itself is gorgeous; an open river valley with braided gravel bars and peaks rising up in the confining Sierra, Aurora, and Banks Ranges, all with glaciers in high hanging valleys above. Before leaving, I saw three or four avalanches pour off the high slopes and course down the waterfalls. At first, I thought it was a waterfall--an alpine Vatnajokull. But no, just massive amounts of snow dropping off the faces and racing to pound the rocks below, pulled by gravity and triggered by warming between massive snow slabs. Impressive and a little scary. I can't really estimate the volume, but I'd guess somewhere in the high 100's to low 1000's of cubic meters for each avalanche. Keep in mind, of course, that a single block 10m by 10m by 10m would be 1000 cubic meters. So yeah, maybe high 100's of cubic meters.
I made it down to Welcome Flats hut and the hot spring there with a deep ache in my right leg and heavy but normal fatigue in the left. Made dinner, soaked (alone!) in the hot spring from 10pm to 11pm with blessedly few sandflies for company, then slept under a rock bivy. Even saw a few glowworms in the night.
Avalanche off the Sierra Range, somewhere on the north flanks of Mt. Sefton. Keep in mind that, in the southern hemisphere, the north-facing slopes melt out before the south-facing slopes.
One of New Zealand's charming swing bridges. A web of steel cable...
Strung over the steep streams.
Playing nice for the camera. Exhausted and nearly wasted at this point, but faking it nicely.
Evening light on the Copland River along the gravel flats.
28 January. Fox Glacier, Ivory Towers Backpackers'
Out. It's hard to summarize five or six hours of hiking for the day in just that one word, but there it is. Both legs were stiff and sore on waking up, and didn't get better with walking, especially not up and down all the minor side streams and ridges. By the end of the day, I didn't have a charitable opinion of Kiwi trail builders. A light rain started about an hour or two after leaving Welcome Flat and just crescendoed in intensity and dropped in temperature through the rest of the day. By the end, I was soaked down to the skin, again, walking straight through the streams with water pooled in my boots. It seems like the air temperature is perpetually on the edge of needing a shell or being better off going without one. I'll avoid wearing a shell down to about 10 or 15 degrees C, just because I generate so much heat while hiking. But then, you get cold as soon as you stop. What can you do? It's the west coast of New Zealand, one of the rainiest places on earth. (Fiordlands and Kauai fight it out each year, with each getting meters of rain per year. Yes, meters.)
Thankfully, by the very end, my legs were getting back to their normal complaints. And I caught a ride with a German backpacker back into Fox Glacier, so I didn't have to stand out by the road trying to hitchhike. It still feels like an extremely deep bruise on my right leg, though.
The best part of the day was surprising Mom and Dad at their hotel and talking with them over dinner. The Montieth's Black Ale wasn't bad either.
29 January. Fox Glacier, Ivory Towers.
Day off. Did laundry and ate and read. And not much else. Found a copy of Christopher Paolini's Eldest to continue my escapism. The second book in the trilogy (of course it's a trilogy. It's impossible to write a self-contained fantasy story arc in just one book.) that began with Eragon. It's a blatant ripoff of StarWars, recast in fantasy, but you knew that already if you had any interest to begin with.
There's fresh snow dusting the peaks south of the glacier.
New snow on the Southern Alps. Midsummer.
30 January. Queenstown Lakeside YHA
Transit from Fox Glacier to Queenstown. Picked up by Magic and drove over to Lake Matheson for about an hour. Mixed overcast and sun, but maybe some good photography of bush and lakeshore. Started up again and went down to Knight's Point, looking out over the southern West Coast. On to Haast, of the geologically-famous eponymous Haast Schist. It began to rain again as we left Haast, heading upriver towards Makarora.
The forests, waterfalls, and braided gravel streambeds of the Haast River valleys were the first things that made me think the I'll really need to come back again. Some beautiful subsidiary valleys with ominous clouds cried out for some large-format photography. Driving past all of it in the bus was painful. We stopped in at Thunder Creek Falls. Between Thunder Creek and Haast Pass there was a single small creek in a narrow gorge, reminiscent of the creek I photographed when travelling through the North Cascades with Gus and Steph ten years ago. That, too, deserved some time and attention.
We went over the pass, officially leaving the West Coast, and descended into Makarora for lunch. There was more new snow on the mountains flanking the pass. It was gorgeous open country all the way down to Wanaka; from Wanaka we descended into Queestown via the Kawarau Gorge, where we stopped to watch bungy jumpers. Next up, the Routeburn Track--one of the highlights of the trip.
Reflections on Lake Matheson.
Between Makarora and Wanaka.
Used and retired bungy cords. Would you trust your life to these?
You shouldn't, of course; they're the retired ones.