Category Archives: Photography

New Zealand Part I – The Kepler Track

“Fiordland, a vast tract of mountainous terrain that occupies the south-west corner of South Island, New Zealand, is one of the most astounding pieces of land anywhere on God’s earth, and one’s first impulse, standing on a cliff top surveying it all, is simply to burst into spontaneous applause.” – Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Kepler Track Day 1

Murchison Mountains, Lake Te Anau, Kepler Track Day 1

28 November 2013: We were a party of four (yours truly, my girlfriend Lexi, my brother Pete and his girlfriend Lisa) lacing up our boots and making last-minute adjustments to our backpacks at the start of The Kepler Track, a 60km tramp in Fiordland National Park, in the South Island of New Zealand. Ahead was four days of backpacking through alpine mountains and beech forests, from summits to sandy shores, where we would be bathed in sunshine, battered by wind, and dampened by rain.

Kepler Track Day 1

Alpine tarn, Kepler Track Day 1

Our walk began from the door of our hotel in Te Anau. What better way to start than straight from the breakfast buffet station, no driving, no more procrastinating. We picked up our hut passes at the Doc centre en route, a little way outside Te Anau. The weather forecast looked promising, which was all I was hoping for at this stage. Day Two of the walk was the “alpine” day, when we would spend all day above the treeline, crossing some of the ridges of the Jackson Peaks. As long as the weather permitted us access to the higher mountains, and our walk could proceed as planned, I would be happy. At this stage, all looked good.

The route followed the shore of Lake Te Anau to Brod Bay, with the beautiful Murchison mountains as a backdrop (see the first photo), before beginning a long climb through beech forest, eventually emerging above the treeline and finishing at the Luxmore hut. The sun shone, we sweated our way uphill in shorts and t-shirts, reaching the hut around 5pm. The views that opened up as we emerged from the forest were spectacular, at once justifying the effort needed to reach that point.

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

Sunset from the Luxmore Hut looking out over Lake Te Anau

The Luxmore hut was pleasant and comfortable (as were all the huts on this walk) when judged by the standards of some prior trips (when we’ve been known to sleep on the snow slopes of Mt Blanc in a blizzard sans tent for example). It’s been a while since my last hut trip (I think the Swiss Alps in 2011?) but, as often at mountain huts, it had a welcoming, convivial atmosphere (although, beware of the “socks-ygen”, as the hut warden Peter informed us, from 30 pairs of fruity hiking socks, that would also be present in the atmosphere if we didn’t open a few windows and ventilate the dormitory that night). I was dog tired at day’s end, but insanely happy to be in the outdoors again.

We woke to a slightly different forecast which, rather unsurprisingly for this region (one of the wettest on earth), predicted rain and stronger winds. No bother we thought! We had all the right gear and it certainly wasn’t too dangerous. We would be just fine, with a dollop or two of old-fashioned stoicism.

Kepler Pano

Panorama from the Kepler Track over Lake Te Anau

“A bit breezy on top, maybe a bit damp too” were the words of the hut warden as we left. Typical understated Kiwi humour. It was indeed a bit breezy (reaching 100km/h we were informed at the next hut!), which made for a rough-and-tumble sort of day and a well-earned dinner. The thick cloud scudded across the sky, revealing, hiding and teasing us with dramatic views of the mountains and lakes all around us. My brother and I made the short detour to climb Mt Luxmore, which was a relatively quick scramble to the summit and tremendous views over Lake Te Anau. We caught up with the girls at the Forest Burn emergency shelter, where we stopped for lunch and enjoyed a brief respite from the rain.

Summit of Mount Luxmore

Summit of Mount Luxmore, Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2

Kepler Track Day 2, can anyone spot Lexi in the photo?

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

Pete above the South Arm of Lake Te Anau

The scenery more than made up for the weather. We felt ALIVE! The elements forced us into the present, the here and now, a coarser, more primitive existence for a day, no bad thing in our modern, tech-obsessed lives. I, for one, would not have traded places with anyone that day.

On the march

On the march – “a bit breezy on top”

Kepler Track Ridgeline

Fantastic views from the ridge line

A Kea

A Kea (the only alpine parrot species) outside the Hanging Valley Shelter – they are inquisitive, mischievous creatures

Descending off the ridge

Descending off the ridge

A series of stepped sections along the final, narrow ridge below the second shelter (the Hanging Valley shelter) felt slightly precarious in the wind, but we were at last safely below the treeline. What a day it had been. We still had several kilometres to go, down through the verdant Fiordland rainforest, where seemingly everything, except the odd twisted tree, was coated with moss.

Fiordland Forest

Twisted tree in Fiordland forest

Fiordland rainforest

Incredibly verdant Fiordland rainforest – moss was everywhere

Iris Burns Falls

Iris Burns Falls

The second half of the walk, from Iris Burns hut back to Te Anau, was of a different nature to what we had encountered so far. With the mountains behind us, we spent these final two days among the trees, where the landscape was measured in metres, not kilometres. The joy was in the detail, the vividness of the green mosses, the precise geometry of the fern fronds, the stark black of the tree trunks against the white misty backdrop.

Kepler Track Day 3

Misty rainforest, Kepler Track Day 3

Hiking through the rainforest

Hiking through the rainforest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Enjoying the silence and beauty of the forest

Our third and final night on the track was passed at Moturau Hut, on the shores of Lake Manapouri. After a night in the mountains, a night in the forest next to a waterfall, it was fitting to finish with a night on the lakeshore with a sandy beach. After dinner we were treated to a sunset to remember. It began with some incredibly warm light breaking through under the cloud base, which had everyone scampering out of the hut and down to the beach with cameras:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

Lake Manapouri Sunset 1

The light kept improving as the sun’s rays filtered between the mountain tops, reflecting in the lake:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

Lake Manapouri Sunset 2

And the final act was the best of all, as the colours turned pink and illuminated a lone cloud over the mountains:

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Lake Manapouri Sunset 3

Our fourth and final day of tramping took us from the Moturau Hut all the way back to Te Anau. It was a straightforward day, with little up or down, through forests and along rivers. A mellow day of walking, giving us plenty of time to reflect and scheme up future adventures. The sun was shining and the team were in high spirits as we departed the hut:

The team at Moturau hut

The team at Moturau hut, start of day 4

Lexi headstand

Lexi couldn’t resist a quick headstand on the beach before we set off

Wire bridge

Wire bridge, day 4 of the Kepler Track

Amongst the ferns

Amongst the ferns

After four days, 60km of walking, three huts, two keas, two rare whios (blue ducks), more sunshine than we expected, amazing views and more ferns than you can shake a stick at, we were all too soon back in Te Anau. The walk had passed far too quickly, and I felt sad to be back in civilisation so soon! But we had more adventures planned for this trip (story of a future blog post) and this trek had been a wonderful four days with wonderful people, and for that I will always be grateful.

Kepler Finish

Kepler Finish – back at Te Anau, DOC office, and the end of the Kepler Track

Southern Shenandoah National Park Photos

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods

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After a busy summer dominated by work it was high time for a weekend getaway to the woods. I’ve come to love the subtle beauty and rich woodland experiences that characterize any trip to Shenandoah. We had booked a wonderful cabin – High Laurel Inn – for the weekend. Situated on the edge of the National Park (the back fence of the property is the Park boundary!), it was the perfect spot. We could hike from our doorstep.

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Our home for the weekend

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The front of the cabin

Day 1: 14 September 2013 / Paine Run Trail and Trayfoot Mountain Trail Loop / 10 miles

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The leaves are turning; fall is on the way

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On the Appalachian Trail

The halfway point of the day’s walk was also the most spectacular viewpoint, the summit of Blackrock mountain:

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A contender for the best vantage point in the Shenandoah National Park perhaps?

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Me and Lexi on the summit of Blackrock

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Blackrock mountain summit panorama

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Onwards to our next summit, Trayfoot Mountain

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Snakeskin

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Yogini Lexi showing good form on the shoulder of Blackrock Mountain

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My own attempt

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Hairy caterpillar

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Beware of the Yellow Jacket Wasps on Trayfoot Mountain – I was stung 4 times after stepping on a ground nest on the trail. I can tell you they HURT!

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Wooded mountains

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Sunset from the balcony of the cabin

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Meet the locals

Day 2: 15 September 2013 / South River Falls / 8 mile out and back

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On the Appalachian trail

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Spot the caterpillar

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Looking down to South River Falls

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Humbled by the scale of it all

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South River

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Trail through the woods

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Lexi finds the clearing

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Wild flowers

Hiking in Cape Town

Since my last update on this blog, we’ve seen North Korea conduct its third nuclear bomb test, witnessed a major meteor strike and seen a new pope elected. A dramatic start to the year!

Earlier this year I was fortunate to spend a week in beautiful Cape Town for a good friend’s wedding and managed to get in a couple of decent treks whilst there. I didn’t take my big camera so all the photos below are taken on an iPhone with a little bit of post processing in iPhoto. I’m loving the portability of a phone camera and the quality is getting pretty good nowadays.

A delayed journey saw me making an impromptu connection in my former home city of London – it was a spectacular sight to fly over:

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Hike 1: Table Mountain via the India Venster route

Free from the office and near a mountain? Well let’s climb it then! At the trailhead with my good climbing buddy Steven (of South America and Alps fame) and girlfriend Lexi (who has no idea yet what lies ahead 😉 )

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I can’t say we weren’t warned…

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Spectacular view of Lion’s Head as we get higher up Table Mountain. It was a beautiful day. I got the impression that every day is like this in summer!

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We ended up slightly (ok, very far) off route and were picking our way gingerly around the cliffs. We pushed on thinking we could take a short cut back to the path but there was a final barrier – a steep cliff that was too dangerous to down climb – blocking our way. Back it was then. Better a live donkey than a dead lion!

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I’d still rather take the trail any day of the week:

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Back on the official route and enjoying the “climbing” section – a mini via ferrata:

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The views from the summit down to Camps Bay were stunning:

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Duly noted! (this sign was at the top of the climbing path route we came up but we were taking a different path down, which although less direct, was more mellow)

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It still had the occasional steep section and ladder to negotiate:

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Late evening sun on the descent (a panorama stitch on the iphone):

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We had a full day on the mountain, from 9 until sundown at 8.30. From there it was a race to the nearest cheap and cheerful Italian restaurant to satiate our gnawing bellies. Sunset near the trailhead:

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Hike 2: Lion’s Head

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iPhone panorama of the trail up Lion’s Head, with Camps Bay and Table Mountain in the background. It was another stunning day with spectacular views.

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Another steep band to climb using the chains and steps in the rock. Adds a little bit of excitement to the walk:

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Nearing the summit with Table Mountain in the background:

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Lexi on the summit:

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Yours truly enjoying the setting

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iPhone panorama from the summit showing how extensive the Table Mountain massif is:

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Standley Chasm (Larapinta Trail Part Two)

This is part two of a three-part series about a thru-hike with my brother of the stunning Larapinta trail. Part one can be viewed here. Part three, a post for the explorer-buffs amongst you, is coming soon.

Standley Chasm is one of the standout geological features of the West MacDonnell mountain range. It lies close to the trail, so on the morning of day 7 of our trek we took a side trip to see it. The soaring red walls, some 80 metres high, were well hidden until we turned the final corner of the walk in. We stopped in our tracks, craning our necks to take in their full height, in awe of the forces that created such a feature. No one else was there, just me and my brother standing transfixed between those red walls. It was one of those moments that’ll stick in mind; one of the highlights of our time in this beautiful part of the world.

Entering Standley Chasm

Entering Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standing in Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Looking back at the entrance to Standley Chasm, West MacDonnell Range, Australia

Credit to my brother for taking the second shot in this set.

Larapinta Trail

“So where are you going on holiday this year?” my Australian colleague asked.

“For a trek in the outback.”

“Shit, be careful man, it’s serious out there. Watch out for snakes, they have big brown snakes, King Browns they’re called. They’ll grow to three metres and it’s game over if they bite.”

With that encouragement still ringing in my ears, my brother and I went walkabout in the outback, clad in shorts and trail runners.

The amazing Redbank Gorge

Redbank Gorge – morning of day 1

The Larapinta Trail justifiably lays claim to being one of the best arid-zone walking tracks in the world. Running for approximately 225km from the foot of Mount Sonder back to the town of Alice Springs, it traverses the rugged and remote West MacDonnell range. Trekking is only possible during the cooler off-season and even then you’ll get fried under the midday sun. The scenery is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

It was going to be a sporting challenge to cover the whole route in eight days. We knew we had to be on our game. But that’s why we were here, why we came. To push ourselves, get a little outside our comfort zones and feel alive again.

Dropped at the trailhead early, we stood shivering in the unexpected coolness of the morning. Almost immediately we were drawn away from the main trail to explore Redbank Gorge. Not sure what to expect, we stood in awe of the towering red walls and boy’s-own-adventure-feel of the place. We were the only ones present – a theme that was to become common throughout our trip – and the silence, the stillness of this majestic place was palpable. We spoke in hushed tones, feeling out of place. We’d only just begun our trek and hadn’t yet adjusted from the civilized world, with all its noise, commotion and distractions.

Trekking through the West MacDonnell Range, Central Australia

The track was well marked and rocky or sandy underfoot, passing through areas of scrubland and low trees. Spinifex was everywhere, continually scratching our lower legs. Whoever walked first was tormented by the flies, whilst second in line was attacked by angry disturbed ants, pouring out of innumerable nests. When walking through the stretches of long grasses near the edges of creeks, the words of my Australian colleague echoed around my head: “watch out for snakes….”

Naive to the strength of the sun still, we began the trek in shorts, t-shirts and only baseball caps to protect us, a mistake we wouldn’t make again. After both suffering an excess of the sun’s rays, we improvised legionnaire style caps by draping our short sleeve t-shirts under our baseball caps to cover our necks.

A dingo print and a footprint in the Australian Outback

A dingo print next to one of our own

Although we never saw the maker of this print, we did receive a visit from a dingo at our camp on night 5 (Fringe Lily camp). He calmly meandered through our camp, about an hour after sundown, coming to within 30 metres of the tent. The beams of our head torches reflected back his beady green eyes. Man and beast stood transfixed momentarily, before he cantered off. Later that night we heard him howling, a sound we won’t forget in a hurry.

Mt Giles and the Alice Valley, Australia

Mt Giles and the Alice Valley

Days 2 and 3 were spent walking along the spine of Heavitree Range, a sub-range of the West MacDonnells. Day 4 involved a crossing of the expansive Alice Valley, a full day’s walk – the hottest on our trek – with scant shade from the sun. On the opposite side of the valley was the Chewings Range, which would feature prominently in the second half of our trek.

Spectacular wild camp in Waterfall Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Spectacular wild camp in Waterfall Gorge – night 2

One quickly adjusts to camp life. Routines fall into place and roles are established. Each day we’d try to beat our previous time for setting up and striking camp, discussing how we’d improve and what we’d do differently on the next adventure. Fast, light and far became our mantra. Camp life was simple precisely because we hadn’t brought a great deal of belongings with us.

Cooking on the camp stove, Larapinta Trail, Australia

One of the most eagerly anticipated moments of the day – dinner time

Flora on the Larapinta Trail, Australia

Early mornings were my favourite time of day. The solitude and silence was difficult to beat. Anticipating the day ahead; watching the sun slowly but surely turn the dull, brown mountains a rich orange; feeling fresh and well rested, enthusiastic to get miles under our belt. Discussing the plan of action for the day, the likely highlights and difficulties, chatting about anything else on our minds. Living in the moment. It was good to spend this time with my brother. We enjoy too few days like this together.

Trekking along the Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking – morning of day 3

Trekking through the Inarlanga Pass, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through the incredible Inarlanga Pass – day 3

Big sky country, Australian Outback

Big sky country

Spectacular views back west along the Heavitree Range from Counts Point lookout, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Spectacular views back west along the Heavitree Range from Counts Point lookout

Camping in the Outback, Australia

Home from home, camped at Rocky Gully – night 4

Trekking through Hugh Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through Hugh Gorge – day 5

“Bro, I’m going to rest on that rock over there.”

“No worries, I’ll keep going slowly.”

Moments later I came across the unmistakable track of a snake in the sandy creek bed. A very large snake, crossing the creek bed perpendicular to the direction I was walking.

“Whoa, Pete, look at these tracks, these are some BIG snake tracks.”

My eyes followed the tracks to my left. Towards the side of the creek, towards the rocks on the side of the creek, the rocks on the side of the creek that my brother decided to lean against.

Just as my eyes reached the rocks, my brother looked down at his feet. We both saw the snake at the same time. My brother jumped. Great bounding jumps into the middle of the creek, curses flying once he’d got over the initial shock. The snake, all two and a bit metres of him, was lying right where my brother had been standing, less than 30 centimetres from my brother’s feet.

We were both a little shaken. Neither of us knew whether the snake was venomous but we were just supremely thankful he hadn’t bitten my brother either way. We kept an even more vigilant watch out from this point forth.

(Subsequent research has led me to believe the snake was a Diamond Python, reassuringly non-venomous.)

Diamond Python, Outback, Australia

The two metre snake that Pete nearly stood on in Hugh Gorge – day 5

Some of the most spectacular trekking terrain was encountered in the numerous gorges we passed through. All involved a degree of scrambling; clambering up, down and sideways over boulders above pools of water. I kept expecting Professor Challenger to jump out from behind a rock and start barking orders at us.

Trekking through Hugh Gorge, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trekking through Hugh Gorge – day 5

Blister treatment, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Keep ’em happy and they’ll carry you far: pre-emptive blister treatment

Moonrise at Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Moonrise at Fringe Lily Creek camp

Bird at Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

A feathered friend drops in for dinner, Fringe Lily Creek camp – night 5

Fringe Lily Creek camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Fringe Lily Creek camp – night 5

The ridges of the Chewings Range were followed on days 5, 6 and 7 – my favourite section of the Larapinta trail. They form a line of jagged, folded rocks, all orange and red, with spectacular views of the surrounding plains. Several rough gorges, steeply wedged between the cliffs, full of water holes and exotic cycads provided exciting interludes between the ups and downs of the mountains.

Staring into the abyss, Rocky Cleft, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Staring into the abyss – Rocky Cleft, day 6

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, looking east to the Chewings Range, Australia

Summit of Brinkley Bluff, looking east to the Chewings Range – day 6

Signing the summit register on Brinkley Bluff, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Signing the summit register on Brinkley Bluff

Lizard, Outback, Australia

A Central Netted Dragon lizard, one of the few lizards we saw. Thanks to a reader for informing of the name!

Traversing through the Chewings Range, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Traversing through the Chewings Range – day 6

We camped at the Standley Chasm campground on night 6. After a sweltering afternoon with little water, we arrived tired and dehydrated and were pleasantly suprised to find a kiosk selling ice cold drinks and ice creams. After several nights wild camping alone, the small group of fellow walkers provided welcome company.

Approaching Standley Chasm camp, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Following a dry river bed approaching Standley Chasm camp – day 6

Standley Chasm was the standout geographical feature of the route, even though it was not in the least bit wild or remote, having been set up as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, it was a spectacular place and we once again had it to ourselves. (Note: these photos can be seen here, part two of the Larapinta Trail Story.) The pull up from the valley floor was steep and tough going. All day we climbed, descended and climbed some more. Over mountain tops, through densely vegetated gorges with one sublime vista giving way to the next. Days 6 and 7 were as spectacular as it gets; some of the best walking I’ve had in a long time.

Climbing steeply out of Standley Chasm, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Climbing steeply – day 7

Reflection in a water holeMulga Camp was a pleasantly sociable end to our trek. Several other parties were established when we arrived and we shared a convivial atmosphere over dinner. Round after round of tea – we had gas and tea bags left over – comparing stories from other destinations and adventures.

Moonlit Mulga Campsite, Larapinta Trail, West MacDonnell National Park, Australia

Moonlit Mulga Campsite, our final camp – night 7

Euro Ridge, West McDonnell range, Australia

The final along climb along Euro Ridge, looking back west over the West McDonnell range – day 8

The end was now in sight. We could see the town of Alice Springs from the high point of Euro Ridge, although we still had another 10km to walk. Thoughts turned, as they oft do at this stage of a journey in the wilds, to what needs would be first satisfied once we re-entered society (shower, clean clothes) and, more importantly, what that celebratory beer would taste like and what the next adventure would be.

Footsore, and with weary limbs, we walked into Alice Springs after a 41km day that began at 5.45am when we stole away from camp in the pre-dawn light. Mercifully, the day had been overcast and cool.

Trailhead, Larapinta Trail, Australia

Trail’s end, bittersweet feeling – day 8

I was stoked to finish the trek – the successful completion of any goal is bound to bring happiness – but at the same time, a little sad on the inside. Sad to be leaving behind the simple life we’d come to appreciate. Sad that this year’s adventure with my brother had come to an end.

The Larapinta trail had wildly exceeded expectations. We’d enjoyed a splendid adventure together, seen a spectacular part of the world and pushed ourselves enough to feel deeply satisfied.

(Thanks to my brother for his company and some of his excellent photos.)