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Aoraki Mount Cook National Park Dunedin

9th January 2012

Gliding With the Birds and Later Watching the Yellow-eyed and Blue Penguins

    So much for the cloudy morning forecast on the weather report; first thing I saw when I put my head out was snow-capped mountains around me.
    I had a chat with Phil and Pip from the adjacent pitch. Their two young sons aged two and four had not stirred yet. They were New Zealanders who had moved to Squamish in Canada. "Did you go across to Canada for your OE?" I asked. "Yes, we did, and I have connections there too. I don't like cities much, so Squamish suited me. It hasn't much of a community spirit though." "And will you eventually return to New Zealand to live; most Kiwis do return at some point," I ventured to add. "I'm not sure. I have a major allergy to grass which goes beyond simple hay fever. There is an awful amount of grass in New Zealand," he joked. The couple were going to take their sons for a bike ride before the rains arrived. I wished them well and drove off.
Farewell Mount Cook
    I bade my farewells to Aoraki Mount Cook and his legion, and made my way down through the tussocks by Pukaki Lake to pick up the SH8. The skies behind me were already starting to close in, but happily the skies way ahead were blue. It was a short drive down to Twizel, a town which came into existence in the late 1960s as a construction village for workers of the Waitaki hydroelectric project. When the project was completed in the mid-80s, the town was due to be bulldozed, but a sufficient number of tenacious residents fought to keep their town on the map, and their wishes were granted. The town now had a new lease of life serving as a base for visitors to Aoraki Mount Cook, nearby Lake Ohau, and the gliding centre at Omarama. The name, Twizel, was bestowed on it by pioneer surveyor, John Thompson, as tribute to the Twizel Bridge that spans the River Tweed, UK.
    The town's most celebrated residents nowadays were the endangered kaki, or black stilts, now one of the rarest wading birds in the world, currently numbering fewer than 100 in the wild. Habitat loss due to the Waitaki hydroelectric scheme, and introduced predators, were the main culprits behind the decline in the bird population.
    I dallied in Twizel for a coffee, and since I now had a mobile signal, sent a text to my family to report I was alive and well. I got a reply from my daughter, Sally, telling me she was having a drink with a Kiwi in London. The age of the exchange holiday has returned.
    Shortly after leaving Twizel, I passed a sign pointing to the Clay Cliffs. The guide book I had said there were fantastic lunar landscapes to behold at this venue. I ventured 6km down a dusty gravel track to come across a gate which said, "This is private land. To enter and see the Clay Cliffs you must purchase a ticket for $5 from the Omarama Hot Tubs." I had no idea how far away they were, and combined with the distance I had already travelled down the gravel track, no way was I going to scour the planet for a ticket. I travelled a further 4km down the track where I met other souls by the Clay Cliffs who had followed the same tack. Oh, the cliffs, just don't bother if I were you!
    I headed further south through expansive tussock and sheep grazing country, and crossed over turquoise canal systems, to Omarama: "place of light". Here, the wind patterns created over the MacKenzie Basin, from air falling down the flanks of the Southern Alps, provided ideal gliding conditions. When in Rome do what the Romans do.
My Omarama Glider Flight: Top Left - Waitaki Valley, Bottom Left - Mount Cook Range in the Distance, Right - Gliders Below
    I popped into the gliding centre to see what the setup was regarding rates, terms and conditions. The stocky, grey-haired fellow at the desk, with a broad grin on his face, and eyes that glinted dollar signs, explained, "At this time of morning there is not a lot of thermal activity. We could perhaps get you up for a 30 minute flight. If you waited till the afternoon, there is more likelihood of a one hour flight." There was not much difference pricewise between the two offerings, so I opted for the one hour flight. "I want to get down to Oamaru this afternoon," I said, "how long do I have to hang around?" "2pm might be a good time," he replied. "No way am I drinking coffee for a few hours, let's have a rain check at 12:30, and if it's remotely possible, then I'll go for it," was my part of the deal. "Fine, I'll check with one of the pilots round about 12:30 and get back to you," he replied.
    12:30 came and I was introduced to Ash, the pilot who was going to do his best to keep us airborne for an hour. He explained there was no guarantee, and the deal was that if we could only stay up for half an hour, I would be charged for half an hour. We shook hands on that, and within minutes I had donned a parachute and was sitting in the front of a two-man glider. Ash was checking with pilots already in the air what the conditions were like at various zones in the valley. It still didn't look too promising, but he made the commitment to fly, and issued a series of instructions to the aircraft that was going to tow us up into the skies. A short briefing followed on what I could touch and not touch inside the glider (I had a duplicate set of controls in front of me), and what I should do in an emergency. These guys didn't waste time, the towing plane took up the slack, we immediately skidded and bumped along the grass airstrip, and then we were airborne.
    I was surprised at how much turbulence there was as we climbed. The towing plane in front of me was rising and falling erratically, and so were we. Trying to hold a camera steady in turbulence is not so easy. We climbed and climbed, continually circling a large mountain, and then Ash released the tow rope and the towing craft peeled away to the left, and we were free to soar. It wasn't a silent experience, an air vent was open at the front to stop us baking in the perspex cockpit, and the wind was fairly whistling through the cockpit.
    The views were absolutely stunning. Up in the sky I could take in a wide expanse of the Southern Alps instead of the small subset I could see at ground level. In the distance was Lake Pukaki with Mount Cook and his minions proudly standing above the clouds. Further round were peaks that I guessed would be around the Queenstown area. Stretching east was the Waitaki Valley down which the braided Waitaki River flowed via a series of turquoise lakes and dams.
    The clarity of the views was stunning. We circled and twisted over the ridges of the large mountain, Ash heroically trying to find rising pockets of air to prolong the magic. I was mesmerised by it all. After a while we were joined by a glider, then another, and yet another, all trying to rise on the same thermals. I was now transfixed looking down on the circling flock below me.
    All too soon our time was running out. Ash had managed to keep us airborne by some miracle. I had learned during the flight that Ash was also qualified to fly light aircraft, and also qualified to instruct other pilots under training. "How long is the gliding season here?" I asked. "October until April," he replied. "And what do you do during the winter period?" I enquired. "I just do the same over in British Columbia, Canada," was his succinct reply. "I realise I'll have to get a proper job one day," he laughed.
    During the last ten minutes of the flight, he let me have a shot at flying the glider; I was amazed at how responsive it was to the controls. Then he took control back, made a wide bank, brought us in about 4m above a road, and all of a sudden we were skidding down the grass runway. Perfect, absolutely perfect.
    I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and profusely thanked Ash, mentioning it was orders of magnitude than the previous ten minute glider flight that I had at Dunstable many years ago. "We get a lot of guys from Dunstable and Bicester over here to glide," he replied. I'm not surprised.
Panoramic View of Benmore Power Station on The Waitaki River      (please use scroll bar)

    I left Omarama and headed down the SH83 along Waitaki Valley. It was in 1904 that engineer, Peter Hay, recognised that the broad braided Waitaki River, fed by the Pukaki, Tekapo and Ohau lakes, had enormous hydroelectric potential. After government approval, construction work on twelve power stations along the river and its headwaters took place between 1935-85. The Waitaki Hydro Scheme now provided over one fifth of the nation's power.
    To get an appreciation of the Hydro Scheme, I detoured off to have a look at the Benmore Power Station. Benmore dam is one of the largest earth dams in the Southern hemisphere. To build it, 28 million tons of material were moved and compacted. At 540 Megawatts, the Benmore power station is New Zealand's second largest hydro power station.
Just One of the Many Braids of Waitaki River
    Just after Duntroon, a very Scottish looking establishment if ever there was one, I turned off towards Danseys Pass, and about 200m up the road came across a large limestone overhang that had the Maraewhenua Maori rock paintings at its base. I came across them in a guide book. They are not signposted or marked out in anyway, and it was not at all obvious where to find them, more a case of working through 3m of bush to the base of the overhang, and working my way up and down the base until I discovered them. The charcoal and ochre paintings were centuries old, depicting hunting scenes, a face and ships, and were interspersed by more modern graffiti, a saddening fact of life nowadays, though perhaps they were the graffiti of the times.
Maraewhenua Maori Rock Paintings
    I continued my journey, turning off towards Ngapara, and stopped off at Elephant Rocks. Here a bed of limestone had been eroded and sculpted by wind and rain into huge smooth limestone boulders that peppered the landscape like slumbering elephants. This place had been used for the setting of Aslan's Camp in the Narnia blockbuster. I stepped out onto one of the rocks, to find a family below me, with one of their sons clambering over boulders at the far side of a dip, shouting and waiting for his echo to rebound. "Welcome to Aslan's Camp," I shouted down to them. The other kids looked puzzled, so mam had to explain to them about the Chronicles of Narnia. What a nuisance I am.
Elephant Rocks
    After I had stretched my legs sufficiently, I drove the last few kilometres down into Oamaru, where I wanted to see the penguin colonies, and checked in at a campsite. My first priority was a shower, and once completed I walked back to my car to find neighbours had arrived, a family from Denmark. Klaus had once lived here for 3.5 years, but had returned back to his homeland. "You didn't want to stay, most people do?" I asked. "New Zealand is good, but it is too far away from anywhere. It would drive me crazy being cooped up on an island. You have a word for that in England?" he asked. I couldn't immediately think of one. He told me that in Denmark there is a special word for that type of craziness. He told me the Danish word, but I've lost it out of my two cell brain. I wondered if he thought all Britons were mad living on their island. I gave Klaus the low down on the penguin colony viewing times and costs; his family would nip along to see them once they had their tent sorted out.
    Dusk was approaching as I headed to the shores to the penguin colonies. Two species of penguin had taken residence around the town: the yellow-eyed penguin and the smallest of them all, the little blue penguin. Both groups spent the day time out at sea up to 20km away feeding on squid and small fish, only returning to their burrows at dusk. My first port of call was Bushy Beach just to the south of town, where the yellow-eyed penguins came ashore a couple of hours before dusk to feed their young. This endangered species were considered the most ancient of all living penguins. Both male and female had pink webbed feet, and a bright yellow band that encircled their heads, and masked their pale yellow eyes. A crowd of us curious humans stood on a terrace above the beach, to observe these shy creatures arriving as singletons, and waddling their way up the beach like waiters clenching their bums after suffering a bad curry night. My grandson would have squealed with delight if he could have seen these little fellows.
Yellow-eyed Penguins
    Once we'd had our fill of the yellow-eyed colony, we all hurtled back into town to the harbour side Blue Penguin Colony. Here, at dusk, the little blue penguins, or korora as the Maori name them, surfed to shore in groups known as rafts. As the rafts approached the beach, the penguins could be heard squawking, then a crowd of twenty or so tiny creatures from the raft waddled up onto the steep harbour beach over rocks. Half way up, they would congregate for a chin wag, and stare at the grandstand where the human crowd sat, no doubt wondering who all these fools were. These seated fools had been instructed not to take photographs of the blue penguins, the flash photography would disturb them. Once the penguins became bored with the human crowd, and there was a sufficient number of them, they ambled up to the top of the ramp, then hovered about waiting to see if it was safe to dash over a level piece of gravel, before sprinting en masse and squeezing through gaps in a fence onto a narrow stretch of grass. They then scooted over the grass into scrub where their burrows and fluffy chicks were. Being 30cm tall and weighing 1kg, they are the smallest penguins in the world and can be found in many places around New Zealand and Southern Australia.
    It had been a pleasure to observe the two varieties of penguins at Oamaru, indeed I felt privileged to have seen them in their natural habitats as opposed to in zoos. It had been a day crammed full of activities, and I had enjoyed every minute of it.

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Aoraki Mount Cook National Park Dunedin

Uploaded from Top10 Campsite, Dunedin on 11th January at 21:50

Last updated 11.1.2012