Swiss Cheese Landscape

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Mt Owen is the highest mountain in the Kahurangi National Park, but that's not why it's been on my "must explore" list.  It is featured in the South Island weekend tramps book with alluring photos of crazy funky rocky moonscapes such as these.  My friend Laura lives near Nelson, the nearest city to the Kahurangi, so a few months ago we cooked up this scheme for the husbands to stay with the kids for the weekend, and for me to fly up on a Friday evening, then spend the next three days hiking, returning to Christchurch Monday night.  I'll say this, flying for 45 minutes beats the 5.5 hour drive all hollow, even when you take into account airport lead times.

Mt Owen is the highest mountain in the Kahurangi National Park, but that’s not why it’s been on my “must explore” list. It is featured in the South Island weekend tramps book with alluring photos of crazy funky rocky moonscapes such as these. My friend Laura lives near Nelson, the nearest city to the Kahurangi, so a few months ago we cooked up this scheme for the husbands to stay with the kids for the weekend, and for me to fly up on a Friday evening, then spend the next three days hiking, returning to Christchurch Monday night. I’ll say this, flying for 45 minutes beats the 5.5 hour drive all hollow, even when you take into account airport lead times.

The walk starts out through native bush, climbing to convenient clearings for lunch, then back into a mature beech forest buzzing with yellow jackets.  Then all of a sudden you drop into a valley and turn a corner and walk straight into Dr. Suess' snide bush, with these crazy-looking trees that normally don't grow on the south island.  They are remnants of what used to grow here, before the last glaciation wiped them all out 10,000 years ago....except for this couple acre patch in the crook of the mountain arm that got missed by the scouring ice.  There are mallow trees too, "hoheri," with white blossoms and jaggety-edged leaves.

The walk starts out through native bush, climbing to convenient clearings for lunch, then back into a mature beech forest buzzing with yellow jackets. Then all of a sudden you drop into a valley and turn a corner and walk straight into Dr. Suess’ snide bush, with these crazy-looking trees that normally don’t grow on the south island. Dracophyllum, a genus of plants that share a family with blueberries, of all things.  These ones are remnants of what used to grow here, before the last glaciation wiped them all out 10,000 years ago….except for this couple acre patch in the crook of the mountain arm that got missed by the scouring ice. There are mallow trees too, “hoheri,” with white blossoms and jaggety-edged leaves.

The 12 bunk hut sits just past the ancient plant remnants, in the valley around the corner from where this photo was taken.  I wish I had gotten a photo of the hut group--they were a varied and amiable bunch, thoroughly enjoyable but without a group photo I won't bore you with the details.  From the hut upward was all grassy and open terrain.

The 12 bunk hut sits just past the ancient plant remnants, in the valley around the corner from where this photo was taken. I wish I had gotten a photo of the hut group–they were a varied and amiable bunch, thoroughly enjoyable but without a group photo I won’t bore you with the details. From the hut upward was all grassy and open terrain.

We spent the night in the hut, then set out for the summit the next morning.  Part way up the landscape opens out to a big grassy plateau dotted with a few tarns.  They were tempting for a swim, but despite the clear water the bottoms are probably a foot of loose sphagnum muck.  We passed.

We spent the night in the hut, then set out for the summit the next morning. Part way up the landscape opens out to a big grassy plateau dotted with a few tarns. They were tempting for a swim, but despite the clear water the bottoms are probably a foot of loose sphagnum muck. We passed.

But we did stop to oogle the alpine swamp plants, and discovered these cute little sundews.  A different species than the Adirondack ones, but a friendly familiar face nonetheless.

But we did stop to oogle the alpine swamp plants, and discovered these cute little sundews. A different species than the Adirondack ones, but a friendly familiar face nonetheless.

No swim, but for some reason the idea of doing a cartwheel is this surreal landscape tickled my fancy.  So with no daily agenda and no hurry, we stopped to play.  Actually, one of the nice things about the hike was the total lack of rush.  We could have reached the hut faster (DOC's guideline time was 6 hours, and we weren't much ahead of that), but why hurry?  We were there to enjoy the place, so we enjoyed it with leisure.

No swim, but for some reason the idea of doing a cartwheel in this surreal landscape tickled my fancy. So with no daily agenda and no hurry, we stopped to play. Actually, one of the nice things about the hike was the total lack of rush. We could have reached the hut faster (DOC’s guideline time was 6 hours, and we weren’t much ahead of that), but why hurry? We were there to enjoy the place, so we enjoyed it with leisure.

I describe Mt Owen to Kiwis as "an alpine Castle Hill," but the limestone must be of a different breed because it erodes not to smooth friendly curves like those at Castle Hill, but to these bizarre finger-scraped points.  A knowledgeable woman (alright, a bit know-it-all, to tell truth) at the hut described this limestone.  She said it's so ancient that it was formed before there were even shell fish in the oceans, so rather than the more common shell-fish-corpses-turned-stone, this stone is made of the carcasses of one-celled organisms.  Then it was squeezed and heated and metamorphosized to something akin to a soft marble.   Anyway, it's soft enough for running water to sculpt.

I describe Mt Owen to Kiwis as “an alpine Castle Hill,” but the limestone must be of a different breed because it erodes not to smooth friendly curves like those at Castle Hill, but to these bizarre finger-scraped points. A knowledgeable woman (alright, a bit know-it-all, to tell truth) at the hut described this limestone. She said it’s so ancient that it was formed before there were even shell fish in the oceans, so rather than the more common shell-fish-corpses-turned-stone, this stone is made of the carcasses of one-celled organisms. Then it was squeezed and heated and metamorphosized to something akin to a soft marble. Anyway, it’s soft enough for running water to sculpt.

In many places the water had delved deep crevasses into the rock, leading us into a discussion of the subtle differences between an alpine creVASSE and a bodily CREvice.  But I digress....which we did many times over the weekend.

In many places the water had delved deep crevasses into the rock, leading us into a discussion of the subtle differences between an alpine creVASSE and a bodily CREvice. But I digress….which we did many times over the weekend.

Here's the Swiss Cheese Landscape, dotted with holes.  No surface streams grace these highlands, they're all subterranean, channeling rain water down, down, down into the depths of the mountain.

Here’s the Swiss Cheese Landscape, dotted with holes. No surface streams grace these highlands, they’re all subterranean, channeling rain water down, down, down into the depths of the mountain.  The track guides caution to stick to the track in snow and don’t attempt it in poor visibility.  I can see why.

The stream stays underground for the whole height of the mountain, then emerges in a surprisingly vigorous flow from a still pool near the bottom.  It's cold!

The stream stays underground for the whole height of the mountain, then emerges in a surprisingly vigorous flow from a still pool near the bottom. It’s cold!

Laura didn't actually fall in this hole, we staged this one kicking the bottom to make sure it was solid enough to stand.  She looks like a gopher!

Laura didn’t actually fall in this hole, we staged this one kicking the bottom to make sure it was solid enough to stand. She looks like a gopher!

The view from Mt Owen towards the northwest (looking into the Kahurangi park) is refreshingly green.

The view from Mt Owen towards the northwest (looking into the Kahurangi park) is refreshingly green.

At the top, surveying our domain.  It's good to live in New Zealand.

At the top, surveying our domain. It’s good to live in New Zealand.

The misty clouds started skimming across the top while we ate lunch, but it just took us a little way on the return in the lee of the hill to warm up again.

The misty clouds started skimming across the top while we ate lunch, but it just took us a little way on the return in the lee of the hill to warm up again.

The scenery was awesome, the weather was impeccable....but the highlight was three solid days of uninterrupted girl talk.  Laura's kids are 5 and 3, while mine are 4 and 1.  We each have husbands.  We're interested in what makes people tick.  The conversation was rich.  What if Milo decides he's interested in marijuana when he gets older?  We know what we'll do.  Is it bad for your kids to move them during their primary school years?  Not sure, but we considered all the angles.  One of my work colleagues just accused me of being overly talkative, "yip yip yip," she said with a grin.  Well, we yip yapped the days away, and we feel all the more whole and complete as women and mothers because of it.

The scenery was awesome, the weather was impeccable….but the highlight was three solid days of uninterrupted girl talk. Laura’s kids are 5 and 3, while mine are 4 and 1. We each have husbands. We’re interested in what makes people tick. The conversation was rich. What if Milo decides he’s interested in marijuana when he gets older? We debated what we’ll do. Is it bad for your kids to move them during their primary school years? Not sure, but we considered all the angles. One of my work colleagues just accused me of being overly talkative; “yip yip yip,” she said with a grin. Well, we yip yapped the days away, and we feel all the more whole and complete as women and mothers because of it.

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4 thoughts on “Swiss Cheese Landscape

  1. Great trip for you! I love your “Yipping” – don’t every stop!!! We just spent a week hiking Valley of Fire & Zion. Mother Nature’s artwork. We are lucky to have such wonderful get away type places.

  2. Yes!! So great seeing you Molly. You inspire me.
    Wilderness magazine had a issue in January of the 50 best weekend tramping trips in NZ. I’ve already come up with a list of our next possible destinations!

  3. Does look interesting! We’ve heard other good things about Kahurangi National Park too, so we must put it on our list of Desirable Destinations… Cheers, Graham

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