Westland Wonderland

16 - 17 June 2017

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A magical, mystical winter's tramp...

Frost sparkles in the half-light, incredibly jagged rock slabs lofted at precarious angles stand out in distant evening sun too remote to reach the valley floor, and the moss-draped forest gathers shadows over yellowing leaves. Cloud weaves and twists around mountain tops and below waterfalls – obscuring here and defining there. This early winter evening, this end-of-day is brought to my eyes by a day’s worth of walking through seemingly enchanted forest on the edge of the aquamarine and rushing Copland River. I am surprised by the beauty of this place: how the landscape has captured my attention. Perfectly sunny weather plus an itching to get “down south” spurred this trip up the Copland Track in Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Now I’m glad I’m here, enthralled by the way the mountains rise from the valley below.

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Stopping midway across a high single-person swing bridge, throwing off my pack, and grabbing my camera isn’t the safest thing to do but there is no question over taking the risk when I see what’s before me. Shiels Creek tumbles below and the bridge rocks back and forth gently as I steady myself to capture the layers of snowy heights, shades of green forest, outcrops, waterfalls, and clouds. I cannot believe how magical it all looks! Maybe it’s the winter light and chill to the air or maybe it’s a few weeks away from this part of the country, but, either way, I’m captivated.

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I haven’t done nearly enough tramping in South Westland so every unique detail stands out. The lushness of the bush is truly remarkable – how can there be so much green, so much life contained within a single moss-covered log, so many old-growth giants of the forest? The track narrows, walls of shockingly green moss grow higher, and the temperate jungle pushes every closer.

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Around each corner there’s something new – striped boulders of schist thrust on extreme angles amid foaming water and sheer cliffs clad in hard ferns. We marvel at the shapes and sizes of the rocks and imagine trying to climb the wall of ferns.

We even find a dancing sands spring where water wells from beneath the surface of the track and flows into the nearby river. We stop for a moment to watch the sand pulse and I feel giddy as a child. What magic there is all around us and beneath our feet!

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Eventually, the track climbs higher above the valley and the river is glimpsed far below. Views tease us through the trees – a snow-covered peak to the left and a dramatic waterfall to the right. Only glimpses are granted – no sweeping view is found until we stumble upon Welcome Flat.

A hut like a lodge surrounded by the highest of peaks, the richest of forests, and the warmest of hot pools. To take advantage of one of New Zealand’s many natural thermal hot pools is to live in luxury. After a cold day’s tramping, can there be any better way to warm up? A dip in one of the shallow pools under starlight with the faint outline of grand mountains nearby answered this question with solid confidence.

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Of course, before the hot pools could be enjoyed, I trotted as far as I could up-valley to catch the sunset on the crest of the Main Divide over the Copland River. I looked toward Copland Pass in the distance and tried to comprehend the nearness of Mount Cook Village just on the other side – a short distance as the kea flies but an arduous trek for the mountaineer. Lifting my eyes to the very tops of the mountains nearest to me, I see the beautiful complexity of the terrain lit up briefly as the sun reaches the horizon. I feel two emotions simultaneously: a yearning to explore the twists and turns and uplifted land and a cautious respect for the difficulty it presents. I am grateful to be in the presence of mountains that make me feel this way.

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To wake at the crack of dawn in winter hardly means more than a stroll out the door at 8 am. We stumble in the dark with head torches bright across the impressive bridge leading up-valley and soon find ourselves enveloped in a world of sparkling frost. The ground crunches beneath our feet – mud and water are frozen while grass and leaves are coated in delicate crystals. As we search for a place to photograph on the river bank we move further and further up-valley as the frost deepens. Shortly, I find myself standing in clear river water trying to compose a shot as frost forms on our bags. I am not at all surprised that my warm toes don't last. Light doesn’t reach even the tops of the mountains until 8:30 and soon we decide we must head back following our frosty footprints. The valley seems to ache of cold and want of light yet it remains peculiarly beautiful.

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We notice the upper valley trees for the first time in daylight and the steam rising from the hot pools shows us where the hut lies. It’s the crystalline magic of a quiet experience like this one in a world-class landscape that seals the deal on this journey. A meander down the valley follows and the forest yet again catches my attention while the image of ranges adorned in winter’s fresh snow sticks in my mind. It is the juxtaposition of these two elements that grabs me and what will surely bring me back to wild South Westland.

Speak with loud voices to me: Rock and tree and moss and fern and snow- capped precipice. Speak with loud voices clear water and smooth stone. Speak with loud voices earth and birdsong. I wait, ever patiently, for instruction. Speak to me with loud voices of all that the land has to offer. I listen, I listen. I can't wait to tell your story.

  • Emily Jensen

    on August 18, 2017

    Gorgeous descriptions and photographs! Makes me yearn to be there :)

  • Danilo

    on July 4, 2017

    Wonderful writing and photographs, thank you for sharing!

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