There’s fresh snow on the mountains and the air carries a champagne tingle.
After a couple of weeks in Sydney’s suburbs, the night sky over Geraldine seems enormous. The whole landscape stretches out like freedom – towards the Southern Alps.
I’m heading through Fairlie, Tekapo and Cromwell to join up with my three tramping buddies for what’s become an annual tramp fest. So far we’ve done the Routeburn and Heaphy tracks – travelling at a pace that has more to do with enjoying the journey than accomplishing a task. Our aim is to do as many of New Zealand’s great walks as we can before hips, knees, backs – or collective wills – give out on us.
This time there is no specific agenda and, as it turns out, this has left all of us a bit unprepared – lacking gear, first aid kit, fitness….
I’ve come from three weeks in central Sydney that included a gastric flu and hardly any walking. Humid weather offered little motivation. That plus a strained back makes me doubt I can carry a pack much further than the length of an airport.
The sight of the mountains and sparkling alpine air changes all that.
Excitement takes over.
It helps that my snail trail passes Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki at their shining best. The snow covered peaks of Aoraki and Sefton lift angular bulks into the clear blue skies. A light covering of snow on the Ben Ohau Range accentuates soft curves, sharp edges.
Down by Lake Pukaki, amongst the pines, someone has deliberately landscaped an area in a way that provides photographic framing for lake shots. There are strategically placed stones, plants, objects – as well as a carefully constructed box on a nearby picnic table that oddly, but somehow not unexpectedly, contains an old lens.
So I’m already snap happy before I reach Queenstown to overnight with friends on Lake Hayes Estate. The next day doesn’t change that. It is beautiful.
Our initial destination is the top end of Lake Wakatipu and an overnight trek up the Caples Valley. While Jill collects Ann and Barb from the airport, I trundle on through Queenstown and up the side of Lake Wakatipu stopping to capture what seem to be ever more amazing vistas of mountain and lake.
That’s where we all meet up. I’ve stopped again at the lake edge to brew a cuppa and the others turn up. We picnic together on the great chunks of schist that shine like precious things along the water’s edge.
The others are booked into Kinloch Lodge – a picturesque heritage hotel with bar/café/restaurant as well as more modest backpacker accommodation and self-catering kitchen. It’s a great mix. Wine appetisers and DIY dinners.
Snail gets the best waterfront pozzie – parked at the DOC camp in front of the Lodge.
That’s where I wake to a spectacular dawn the following day.
Mist rising from the lake is caught between streaks of pink cloud above and reflections below. Willows are already taking on their golden Autumn glow and the sun starts to catch the tips of steep sided mountains rising behind the lodge.
It is going to be another beautiful day.
Packs geared up for only one night’s stay seem ridiculously full but the weight sits comfortably and the track up to Mid-Caples is a fairly gentle stroll. A short initial climb takes us into a wide pastured valley complete with sheep. Our trail follows the river through patches of beech forest.
Despite my best intentions, I get diverted by robins…again and again.
One is so close, I can capture it in full view through the wide-angle lens. Carrying the telephoto proves pointless on this trek as the views are so big, it doesn’t get a single outing.
Dumping packs at Mid-Caples, we walk on up the valley towards the Upper Caples hut in blazing sunshine – but run out of energy and time to actually make it there and back. I definitely need to be fitter.
Apart from two Alaskans, who wander around in light Ts as we pull on thermals to face the night chill, we have the hut to ourselves and head for bunks not long after night falls.
Next day, it looks like we might be running out of luck with the weather. Forecast drizzle turns up as we start back. But before that, DOC warden Brian gives us a guided tour of the spectacular chasm below the hut.
Water rushes through a narrow gap between steep rocks to pause in deep green pools so clear we can see a trout lazily cruising upstream below us. Deep moss lines the banks, bright lichen streaks the boulders. It’s a photographer’s wet dream.
And by late afternoon, we’re back in the pub – feeling slightly guilty about enjoying a bottle of red wine. Tramping should never be so easy. Next year we’re talking about the Kepler. That will take more serious planning and better fitness.
Meanwhile there are heaps of stunning short walks – up to Lake Sylvan, along Diamond Creek, around the Mt Chrichton Loop and through Sawpit Gully near Arrowtown. That’s where we find 2000 seriously fit folk competing in a massive one-day event that brought runners and bikers through fords and steep gullies all the way from Wanaka.
It’s too much – we repair to the local pub for a beer. Even that tastes better in the mountain air.