Monday, June 8, 2009

The Southern Alps

(the view at the north end of Lake Wakitipu, near Glenorchy, north of Queenstown)

June 8, Queenstown

Our last night in New Zealand after a solid week of exploring the Southern Alps. We had a nice hike up Queenstown “hill” this afternoon (only a 500 meter ascent), and then to dinner at this restaurant high up on another hill overlooking the lake and city. The Southwestern section of the south island is some amazingly rugged and dramatic country that is a mix of temperate rainforest, marine, and alpine ecosystems all packed in together. The pace has been so hectic that I haven’t been able to write for awhile. We had some car trouble, various people getting sick, a death in the family of one of the students, all on top of our regular work to teaching, cooking, driving, making arrangements, and so on. We’re so busy learning and seeing things, it’s hard to find the time to write about it all.

From Cass we headed south to Harihari on the west coast where we visited the Franz Josef Glacier and walked along the beach, with views of Mt. Cook.

(On the beach in Harihari, with Mt. Cook in the background)

We got to hike in the ice fields of the glacier, squeezing through crevices and clomping along with our crampons on. The glacier is receding, but slowly, since the ice field that feeds the glacier gets something like 150ft. of snow a year.

(in the blue ice of the glacier, with about 300 ft. of ice below us)

Further south we stopped for a visit with Jerry McSweeney, who was the head of the Royal Forest & Bird Society here (akin to our Sierra Club). He is now running two eco-tourism outfits, and also running a sheep station (ranch) up in the mountains. He talked about the work of trying preserve the local native ecosystems, and how ecotourism has worked to provide an economic basis for that work. Their lodge is in the midst of some amazing native rainforest, with some rare species (including the tufted penguin). That would be a nice place to return to and spend some time.

We then headed inland, stopping at another large sheep station near Wanaka. This was a more traditional operation, that provided us with the perspective of a successful big farm. The raise sheep, cattle, and red deer on some stunning land above Lake Hawea. They gave a nice tour and talk and lunch, and we got a feel for the challenges of trying to produce lots of wool and make a living at it when wool prices are down. He is making a fair amount of money now selling the antler velvet from the red deer (on the Asian market), and arranging for people to come in and hunt prize stags.

Into Queenstown, a very touristy town, but for good reason, as it is surrounded by spectacular peaks. We drove out to Glenorchy, along the shores of Lake Wakitipu, and “tramped” along one of the tracks there, where Bill Capman spotted a few very rare birds (a yellow-head, and some others I forget), and over some beautiful mountain streams that cascaded down through carved rock ravines. Some of the students went off bungee jumping and snowboarding on their day off, and all survived and had some good stories to tell. There have been thousands upon thousands of pictures and videos taken on the trip—part of traveling in the modern age it seems. Sometimes I think it would be nice for everyone to just put away the cameras and sit and just take in the place.

Our final destination was Te Anau and Lake Manapouri, which as far south as we got on the trip. This also included visiting a cave with glow worms in it—a strange sight indeed. We took a boat back into this cave with a guide, in the dark, and could look up at the ceiling and see what looked something like a starry sky at night, with the stars a phosphorescent green. The next day we drove out to Milford Sound, and it did indeed live up to its reputation. Again the weather cooperated, with brilliantly blue skies, and we were able to cruise around the sound with these sheer cliffs and mile-high mountains towering above us, waterfalls cascading down at regular intervals, and dolphins swimming in the boat’s bow waves. The grandeur of it all, the scale and wildness, was a good note to go out on. Now its on to the Cook Islands, for some warming up, snorkeling, and class discussions about all the stuff we’ve experienced in the last month.
Milford Sound, with Mitre Peak, which is over a mile high, rising straight up out of the ocean. The scale is very hard to grasp, especially from a picture, but even in person.

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