Winter Wonderlands?

icy-plants-mossy-puddlesEvery so often I scan through my own blog and remember beautiful things I’ve seen. Last year for the first time, I did my own personal “greatest hits” selection of photos from the ten+ years I’d been blogging at that point. This year, I find myself thinking about ice, even though I’m a few hundred miles at least, I suspect, from the nearest  naturally-occuring ice. Perhaps because of that: listening to seasonal tunes about winter wonderlands and white holidays has reminded me of the ice and snow I’ve seen.

chilnualna-creek-ice-rock-2-jan12I also realize I didn’t photograph things I wish I had, such as snow piling up on the streets of Beijing in the winter of 2005…although I do feature skaters on Beijing’s Qianhai, and cracking ice on a pond outside Beijing during a winter hike, taken the same winter. Above & in the collage below are photos from winter in Yosemite & summer in New Zealand (icy grass on the Keppler Track in Fiordland; and also a shot of the glacier on South Island’s west coast). There are also frosted grass & icicles from a winter trip to the Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey: yes, such beauty can be found right off Interstate 80, if you know how and where to look :-). Plus some frosted grass in the early-morning shade at Hood Mountain in Sonoma County, two winters ago. If you’re already experiencing ice and snow, maybe these won’t do much for you…let me know, either way. May your year be warm, safe and dry in 2017.

Paterson Great Falls & Frosted Grass

Many Muddy Misty Magnificent Miles on the Milford Track

McKinnon Pass 5Faerie TeacupThe Milford Track is the most famous, and most  popular, of the Great Walks. It starts at the bottom of the Clinton Valley, formed by the eponymous river which features a few times in the gallery of square photos further down. The first two nights of the three-night, four-day hike are spent within the Clinton Valley,  hiking from the boat drop at the northernmost end of Lake Te Anau where the Clinton River feeds it, up to McKinnon Pass where the images above and the whole slide show below were taken. After the slide show, you’ll see a variety of views from other sections of the trail: rivers, waterfalls, dramatic valleys and trail segments snuggled into a rock face alongside the Arthur River at the end of the track, where it meets up with Milford Sound. Milford Sound has been cited by many magazines as one of the most beautiful places on earth; and Milford Track as has been cited as one of the most spectacular hikes on earth. I certainly found McKinnon pass to be one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen, and I found many of the miles along the  Clinton Valley quite beautiful in an ever-changing, other-worldly manner that was different yet again from the other-worldliness of the glaciers featured in my last post.

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But allow me to say this, of the Milford Track: it is indescribably wet. We hiked it in the midst of the southern summer, during peak season. Peak season is also, strangely, the rainiest season; but even the driest season has plenty of rain. And the drier winter season is, we were told, the season of such landslides as the one just below where you see the trail marker placed to navigate walkers across the rubble field. I can imagine that a mostly-dry hike over this trail would be an unbelievably great experience. And I can certainly attest the truth of that oft-quoted adage that rain makes waterfalls, which are the joy of the trail. But can I just say that my own brain can only really appreciate xx-many waterfalls, and after a certain point both my feet and my soul wish to be dry, warm and comfortable again? So I ended this trail – which, indeed, gave me more spectacular scenery than most other hikes I’ve done – with the sense that it won’t likely call to me again…whereas the Abel Tasman, for all its comparatively mundane (hah!) scenery, is one I’d readily return to again and again – in part because it’s just so much more warm and comfortable as a hiking experience. (Even the Kepler, another Great Walk within the extraordinary Fiordland National Park, showcases a wider range of terrain with a lower preponderance of heavily rainy days — witness this post:

But don’t get me wrong: even the  most amazing of these photos (some of which still give me vertigo) can’t  convey the gift of being present to feel and hear the roar of wind and rain, marvel at the shifting windows of sunlight along a mountainside, or see a rainbow materialize above one of those windows…with the sense perhaps you’re the only human positioned so as to appreciate that particular ephemeral wonder. Whatever the case, I encourage anyone who loves the great outdoors and appreciates natural beauty to bump NZ up your must-visit list, if you’ve not done so already. Feel free to research on this blog (from 2009, 2013-14, and 2015!) some of the many wonders you might consider experiencing in person. Enjoy. 🙂

Trail Crossing LandslipMilford  Track Valley Vista

…about the blurry spots you’ll see in some of the rainier images: my camera has survived but there were days where the lens never really got dry. Most of the rain-splattered photos are deleted, but I felt some of these convey what words cannot about the omnipresence of water at times…

Track Along Arthur River Through RaindropsMcKinnon Pass Pano 2

McKinnon Pass PanoSelfie at Roaring Burn RiverMcKinnon Pass 6 Paul - McKinnon Pass
Top of Clinton Valley

Clouds & Mountains on MTWaterfall Hillside Through RaindropsRainbow & Sun Window on HillsideTrail Through McKinnon Pass

Of Christmas Dinners & Misty Mountains

Top of Doubtful SoundMisty PanoramaChristmas Dinner

When last I myself visited the wild, entirely rug, very wet & green & remote & spectacular southwestern expanse of South Island that’s known as Fiordland National Park, I managed to squeeze in a day trip on Doubtful Sound. (Which is so named because, in the days of sailing ships, captains usually doubted they’d find the offshore wind which would allow them ever to escape from the narrow, deep sound.) This time around, knowing a multi-day hike such as we undertook last time was out of the question, I thought I could still get Mom and my brother out for an overnight – and so we spent the night of 23rd December snugged into a little anchorage in the midst of, probably, the most remote and wild place any of us had ever spent a night…and we’ve been a few places, so that’s saying a bit of something. Our little boat had eleven passengers and three wonderful crew, and despite omnipresent rain and mist, it was simply an extraordinary experience which left us all feeling quite privileged.

Thence we drove on up to Queenstown, on Christmas Eve, where we had the lovely dinner whose dessert course you see having its five minutes of fame above. I’m popping these photos up on the blog at the start of New Year’s Eve, here, knowing that tomorrow we all fly back to our current home countries – me to PNG, they back to North America – and that the first weeks of 2014 will be full and hectic for me. Happy new year & lots of love to all my readers, known and unknown.

And for anyone interested in other, often sunnier, photos of the Fiordland region, check out these entries:

or in which you can see how Doubtful looks when the sun’s shining a bit, and another shot remarkably like the top photo here…and with blue sky. Ah well, don’t tell my family. Cheers.

NZ Marine Flag on Doubtful Seagull & Hills Paul at Doubtful Mom & Steve at Doubtful
Misty Hillside Awah Misty Distances

Since I figure many of you will only be interested in a few of the atmospheric, misty-foggy-rainy waterfall shots, I’ve plugged several of them into a gallery, below, where you can either skip over the thumbnails or click to see the full-sized shot if you’d like. Below the gallery are a few more full-sized foggy-misty shots for the atmosphere and then a shot of Lake Te Anau from the southern shore, and then a few from Queenstown and the shores of Lake Wakatipu.

Vertical FlowStill Waters & Foggy HillsPaul & Waterfall
Lake Te Anau
Foggy Hills & Arms Francton Arm - Lake WakatipuDSC03562

Kepler Track & Fiordland National Park

As Tongariro Crossing – and the summit of Ngauruhoe – was the literal and figurative peak of my personal experience in New Zealand, the Kepler Track was the climax of my first two weeks, which were spent with my dearest bestest friends Howard & Gene. This is a four-day, three night trek from hut to hut; in high season the huts have gas burners so you don’t have to carry your stove, just your cooking eqiupment; they have bunks so you just bring your sleeping bag and no tent; and they have – oh luxury – flush toilets! Day two, as we hiked it, is almost all above the tree line, while day one is hiking from the western shore of Lake Te Anau (a long and many-armed mountain lake of classical proportions) up a steady and well-made trail to the higher reaches of Mt Luxmore. Day three is along a verdant river valley, into which one looks at the very end of the alpine section before a steep and many-zigzagged descent; and day four is peaceful and pleasant stroll along the river which connects Lakes Manapouri and Te Anau. Even in clear weather, the alpine section would be otherworldly — much of it is along steep ridgelines with sharp drops on both sides, and if some of this looks like Middle Earth, it’s because various scenes from the LOTR films were shot in this area. For good reason, obviously. It was an extraordinary hike, and the fact that much of our alpine crossing was made in snow and ice, in high summer, made it even more extraordinary.

A ridge or two down from the summit of Mt Luxmore — which is only at about 1500m or so, not really that high, but it’s well above the tree line at this southern latitude — is a large system of caves which we explored along with two nice guys we met in the hut, Jamie (aka Luther, with me above, a mighty fine bass player also I might add) and Bob. The Luxmore Hut is situated on a ridge above the tree line, surrounded by small alpine ponds and stunning views over the lake and the Murchison Range to the north. I’m nearly certain this shot below captures the ridge on which Luxmore Hut sits, if you look at the tallest notch (that being summit of Mt Luxmore, where I’m photographed in snowy fog a few shots down) and just come down a bit. I took it from a boat on the lake the night after I finshed the track.

Above and below, clearly the same view (south arm meets main body of Lake Te Anau, looking across from Mt Luxmore toward the Te Anau town side) and shot almost the same time but with very different fog or cloud cover, when Howard & I took a break from our card game with some of the folks at the hut to check out the apparent break in the clouds and nice sunset views. Throughout the day and a half or so of alpine (above tree line) crossing on this track, we’d have periods where dense clouds and fogs or snows would suddenly part to allow a glorious glimpse of just amazingly beautiful vistas on all sides…and we’d all rush our cameras out, knowing that soon it would be fogged over like the shot of me at the summit of Mt Luxmore, a few down from here.

As you’ve seen, this track includes strolls through lovely verdant valleys and clambers along dramatic alpine ridgelines with sharp, breathtaking drops on either side. Since it’s quite far south and in an area of rapidly changing weather, small changes in exposure (the south face is the colder, darker side down here) or elevation can lead to radical changes in vegetation and micro-climate. Below, a small green mossy trickle on a hillside barely a hundred meters below the treeless alpine zone that, when I crossed it, was characterized by icy plants — and yes, these shots were taken within less than an hour of each other but at different elevations. That bird up there is one of the world’s few alpine parrots, the Kea: NOT people-shy and rather mischief-prone if one’s careless enough to leave a backpack lying around; and as you can imagine that beak is sharp. Mercifully I only heard stories and didn’t directly experience a Kea raid on my own pack.

…the number of different mosses found in fiordland staggers the imagination. I heard the number — was it many dozen, or many hundred, I just can’t remember; but I do know they’re all mighty beautiful to look at and enjoy, and I’m sure they’re very enviornmentally beneficial.

Definitely Doubtful Sound

Doubtful Sound is so named because James Cook, when he first encountered it, doubted he could navigate his ship both in and out safely, past the swells and rocks at the ocean entrance to this very long and stunning fiord. (Our guide said that technically a sound is one thing, but this is a fiord, which is another thing, only when they named it the English language hadn’t yet adopted the term fiord.) Above, you see the inland-most end of the Sound, called Deep Cove, from Wilmot Pass; and you see Wilmot Pass from the Sound. East of Wimot pass is the west arm of Lake Manapouri, which you’ve already seen in my shots taken on the easternmost bay of Lake Manapouri, where the last night’s hut of the Kepler Track was located. I thought that was remote — and it was. But Doubtful Sound is across that lake, up and over a 4WD-0nly, unsealed (that means dirt, to Americans) road and back down to this awfully beatiful and very remote corner of the world. There is so much rain in this area (the figures boggled my mind: Te Anau sees something like 2, 3 or 4 meters a year [yes, they measure in meters! not centimeters], while this west side of the mountains can easily see NINE meters in a year!), running off all these incredibly steep mountains and down to the sound; and the sound, though definitely tidal and connected to the Tasman Sea, is protected enough by its narrow entrance from the churning tides of the open ocean, that the entire sound is covered, full time, by a deep layer of actually FRESH water — a meter or more, which – being lighter than salt water – floats above the surface of the sea water below it. The Sound is very deep so there’s tons of salt water there, but the surface is all fresh, it seems, and ocean animals often come in here to clean off since apparently fresh water is cleaner than saltwater, and helps kill things like barnacles. But I’m no marine biologist, I’m just reporting what I heard, and it all stuck me as new and fascinating.

In the fiordland area, with all that rain, one has occasional tree-slides: when the thin ground cover gets so wet it just all slides down those steep slopes, leaving the solid rock face exposed, as above.
For many kilometers our cruise was very calm – until we got very close to the sea opening from the sound. There, the waves were pretty dramatic and reminded us how protected most of the fiord is.