It is the last week of 2017 and I’m composing my last blog about our adventurous travels for the year. This narrative is about our very exciting trip to New Zealand. It has been nearly a month since we returned and I’m finally putting my memories down on paper (so to speak). The trip to New Zealand was such an amazing experience that, even now after nearly a month, Jane and I will stop what we are doing and reflect on the wonderful time we had. So let me begin this tale at the beginning.
New Zealand had been on our unofficial “bucket” list for some time. There is just something mystical about New Zealand. Anyway, about a year ago I happened upon a New Zealand photographer’s website that offered a fifteen-day guided photography tour of New Zealand’s south island. After some discussion and a review of our finances, Jane and I decided to go for it. The entire trip, from when we left home and returned home was 22 days. New Zealand is a long way from San Diego.
Our tour started in Christchurch. We arrived a day early, in case of unanticipated travel delays, and enjoyed sightseeing around Christchurch. There was still plenty of residual earthquake damage to be seen around town although much reconstruction has occurred since the devastating earthquake of 2011. We sauntered about town to take in the sights and spent an enjoyable afternoon in the botanical garden, after all we were in the southern hemisphere and it was late spring in New Zealand.
Our photographer guide was Petr Hlavacek, an immigrant from the Czech Republic, who has made New Zealand his home. Petr resides on the west side of the south island and specializes in panoramic landscape photography. Since landscape photography has been a challenge for me, this tour was a perfect opportunity to both savor the scenic beauty of New Zealand and attempt to capture it in photographic images. Jane and I were not disappointed! Petr guided us to some of the most amazingly scenic locations on the south island and helped me tremendously in visualizing panoramic compositions.
We photographed at six of the south island’s nine national parks. Even though all the parks had stunning landscapes, Petr let us know that there were three outstanding locations which he referred to as the “three jewels” of his tour. The three jewels were a stay on Fox Glacier, an overnight on Doubtful Sound, and a visit to Mount Cook Village. Mount Cook (renamed Aoraki/Mount Cook) is the highest mountain in New Zealand.
The sojourn to Fox Glacier involved a helicopter flight and was totally weather dependent. Fortunately for us, New Zealand was experiencing a warm dry spell and we experienced no inclement weather during our entire stay. So, the helicopter flight to the Fox Glacier was on. Briefly, this first “jewel” of the trip involved an afternoon flight up to a mountaineering hut on Fox Glacier, an overnight stay at the hut, a flight the next morning to a lower portion of the glacier, and then a final flight back down the mountain.
The flight up the mountain was an exciting experience as the helicopter hugged the mountain side on its way up the glacier. After only a few minutes of noisy flight, there was nothing but snow and ice below us. The Fox Glacier icefall (where the underlying bedrock steepens causing the glacial ice to flow faster and chaotic crevasses form on the glacier surface) was a majestic and unforgettable sight. All too soon we arrived at our destination, the Pioneer Hut, situated on a steep ridge high atop the Fox Glacier névé (the snow field at the ahead of the glacier).
Pioneer Hut is a Spartan mountaineering shelter at the head of Fox Glacier operated by the New Zealand Alpine Club. The hut has bunk beds that can accommodate up to 16 people. Counting our party, the hut was fully occupied with mountaineers. Some of the men were eating, or studying their maps, and others sleeping in preparation for their treks onto the glacier. Going onto the glacier was not a simple matter, as we learned firsthand. You don’t traverse the glacier on your own. Even hiking the short distance from the helicopter landing area to the hut, we needed to fit into climbing harnesses and be tied to each other with ropes. Snow shoes kept us from sinking into the snow as we trudged, single file, to the hut.
Inside, the hut was austere with an outer anteroom for storing boots and hiking gear, a long cooking counter, a small eating area with a table and bench seats, and taking up most of the space were the bunk beds. The bunk beds, however, were not individual bunks. They were bunk platforms with each platform having space for four people to sleep. So Jane and I found ourselves huddled together sleeping with two other mountaineers on our shared platform.
It is difficult to describe the sense of isolation and awe generated by being on top of a living glacier. Jane and I were enthralled with the experience and captivated by the scenic beauty of shear mountain peaks protruding above the glacial snow. In the afternoon we were harnessed, tied together, and shod with snow shoes by our mountaineer guide and led onto the glacier for sunset photography. The sun cast long shadows of our small group that were mere specks on the vastness of the Fox Glacier névé.
As a glacier is slowly pulled down a mountain valley by gravity, the snow that caps the glacial ice is slowly melted away at the lower elevations. This results in hard, glistening, blue ice being visible at the surface of the glacier. That is where we were transported to next. After some early sunrise photography at the hut, the helicopter returned to relocate us lower on the glacier to photograph ice caves. This time we were shod with steel crampons to secure our footing on the hard and slippery ice. Our mountaineering guide shepherded us cautiously around dangerous crevasses and weak arches in the ice. Keeping our footing, even with the steel crampons securely fastened to our boots, was a challenge as we attempted to photograph the colorful blue ice caves. After a couple of hours scrambling over the hard ice, the helicopter returned to take us back down the mountain ending our unique adventure on the Fox Glacier.
The second adventure in Petr’s jewelry case was an overnight expedition on Doubtful Sound. This was a more civilized “jewel” with an all-inclusive menu and bar. This adventure began at a small village on the eastern shore of Lake Manapouri where we boarded a ferry to transport us across the 55 square mile lake. At the western side of the lake, we disembarked and were loaded onto coaches that carried us some thirteen miles, over the Wilmot Pass, from Lake Manapouri to Doubtful Sound. There we boarded the Fjordland Navigator for our overnight expedition.
Actually, Doubtful Sound is not a sound (arm of a sea) at all. The waterway is a deep and narrow glacier-formed fjord. Our ship navigated through these steep, u-shaped, canyons quietly. The canyon walls were densely covered with rain forest vegetation and rose abruptly from the calm waters of the fjord. Clouds of mist shrouded the high peaks, adding mystery and drama as we ventured farther and farther towards the Tasman Sea. Calm winds and mild temperatures made our trip, and photography, most enjoyable. The food was good, the wine tasty, and this time we only had to share our cabin with two others.
As we neared the end of the fjord at the Tasman Sea, we encountered a small colony of New Zealand fur seals basking and frolicking on some rocky outcrops. Here photography was more difficult as the swell from the sea was more severe and the seals were some distance away. And, on our way back to the head of the fjord, the on-board naturalist announced the spotting of the rare and endangered Fjordland Crested Penguin. Fortunately, I had the proper lens on my camera and was able to get a few images before the birds wandered into the dense undergrowth where their burrow was hidden.
Petr’s third tour jewel was Mount Cook. Mount Cook is New Zealand highest mountain at just over 11,200 feet and is where Sir Edmund Hillary honed his climbing skills prior to ascending Mount Everest. Like Mount Denali in Alaska, Mount Cook is frequently hidden from view due to storm clouds coming from the Tasman Sea. Mount Cook is a sacred mountain in Māori culture. So, like Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) the mountain’s name has been changed to Aoraki/Mount Cook. For us, the good weather we had experienced so far in our trip held and we able to see and photograph Aorkaki/Mount Cook from afar and close up.
Not only was Aoraki/Mount Cook one of Petr’s jewels, this majestic mountain is also the crown of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. During most of our photography tour we traveled along the west side of the south island parallel to the Southern Alps. Aoraki/Mount Cook and the Southern Alps, though not extremely high compared to the Rocky Mountains, are snowcapped and very rugged. The Rocky Mountains are, in geologic terms, rather old and eroded. The Southern Alps, on the other hand, are geologically very young and erosion has not rounded their peaks or filled their valleys with sediment. Glaciers left over from the last ice age are still present in large numbers in the Southern Alps, unlike Glacier National Park in Montana where glaciers have almost totally disappeared. For anyone who loves mountains, the Southern Alps and Aoraki/Mount Cook evoke a deep sense of wonder and awe.
After the photography tour with Petr Hlavacek, Jane and I rounded out our New Zealand adventure with a short side trip to Dunedin on the southeastern side of the South Island. We had learned from friends in San Diego that Dunedin was the location where some of New Zealand’s most unique wildlife could be photographed. Before leaving home, we arranged with Elm Wildlife Tours in Dunedin to visit an albatross colony and observe endangered yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula. Sunny skies again favored us as we boarded a sightseeing boat, sailed past the Taiaroa Lighthouse and into the calm water of the South Pacific Ocean. From the boat we were able to photograph several species of ellusive albatross.
Yellow-eyed penguins spend most of their day foraging for food in the ocean, coming ashore only in the evening to spend the night in their burrows. Our Elm tour naturalist brought us to a permanent wooden blind from where we could see the penguins, one by one, waddle up from the ocean onto a sandy beach and make their way slowly to the grassy slopes where their burrows were hidden. Penguins are a delight to watch and the yellow-eyed ones were no exception. Just the way they sway side to side while strutting across the sand makes me smile. Negotiating an obstacle, or jumping among boulders, with their short, stubby legs, the penguins seem totally uncoordinated, yet they always manage not to fall over.
With the frolic and humor of watching rare and endangered yellow-eyed penguins, our New Zealand adventure pretty much came to an end. All that remained was the long, long flight home.
Images from our New Zealand adventure can be viewed in the New Zealand gallery.