Thursday 31 October 2019

Reflections & An Aurora in Cromwell


Cromwell has definitely become one of our favourite towns in Central Otago. And when we drive back in and see Lake Dunstan stretched out in front of us, looking spectacular in the winter sunshine, it feels a little like we're arriving home.

Other than a couple of vans visiting for one night, we once again had a NZMCA Park all to ourselves for the length of our stay.  A sure sign that summer is on its way is when the morning sun cleared the pines well before lunch time this visit, and there were a couple more hours of sunshine at the end of the day before it disappeared behind the plateau across the road.

The reflections on Lake Dunstan are amazing in the crisp, clear air of Central Otago. Here are a few more photos taken just through the trees from the park. Most days the lake was a millpond, the sun shone and the air was crisp, cold and still. This is looking down towards Cromwell town with the snow capped Carrick Range behind.

Northburn and the Dunstan Mountains across the lake-

And looking north up the lake towards Bendigo and Tarras-

It became apparent while we were in Ranfurly that my new laptop was even more power hungry than we'd anticipated and our 300watt inverter, which only ran our TV, was not coping very well with the extra work load. 

Fitted to the roof of our front locker, close to the batteries
So David ordered a 2000w inverter online and while we were in Cromwell we called in Ian from Hawk Services to fit it. Ian did an awesome job and we'd highly recommend his company should you need any electrical work done while in Central. It also was so much better that he does 'house calls' so we didn't even have to leave our site.

Ian came with his best buddy Alfred, a Golden Retriever/Standard Poodle cross, who enjoyed checking out all the rabbit holes. Once he tired of that he made himself right at home on our mat while he waited for Dad.

Ian also does Electrical Warrant of Fitnesses so with Alfred patiently waiting in the driving seat, I had a little play with Photoshop- can you see what I did?

Alfred is willing those rabbits to come close.

Late one evening, just after I had climbed into bed, I saw that I had an alert flashing on my phone. An alert to tell me that the Southern Lights were playing. Unfortunately I was late in seeing the message and Lady Aurora had already been dancing for a couple of hours. 

I was all tucked up, warm and snug in bed and thought to myself,  'No, I'll give it a miss tonight'. I lay there for a couple of minutes and then couldn't contain myself any longer. I was up, out of bed and at the door in flash checking outside to see if there was a clear sky. 

With no moon, the dark sky was a 360 degree mass of tiny sparkling stars with the Milky Way directly overhead; a perfect sky to view an aurora. Though I couldn't see any sign of it with my naked eye. Our door faced south so I grabbed my camera and took a couple of hand held shots from the top step, roughly in the direction I thought due south would be. 

Holy cow! I couldn't believe what I saw on the back of the camera, a brilliant green band above Cromwell town. All hell broke loose as I grabbed clothes left, right and centre, all the while trying to change my lens, grab my tripod, extra battery and head torch. I needed to get to the lake edge in front of the trees as fast as I could before the aurora died down.

Checking for the Aurora Australis (hand-held)
There are some benefits of staying in remote &/or deserted camps, it's very handy for night shots as there usually no light pollution from nearby suburbia (although Cromwell was right in the firing line this time) and it's just a matter of stepping outside the door to view a magic sight. Another big plus is that I don't need to worry about anyone seeing me in my weird get-up; fluffy white dressing gown, PJs plus trackies over the top tucked into thick socks pulled high, David's gumboots, fingerless gloves, woolly hat and a head torch! No wonder the rabbits scattered. 

Unfortunately I was in such a hurry to start shooting my first few shots were out of focus. There's a real art in getting your camera and settings fine tuned and focus sharp when it's pitch black. It doesn't help when you also need reading glasses to see the screen but not to see through the viewfinder. I've posted this out of focus shot because it's the one and only shot I have of the 'picket fence', the green single beams you can see above the green band. This was the last I saw of the fence, though the pink beams to the left danced back and forward for awhile longer.

Eventually I managed to get the focus and settings right. This also wasn't helped by the fact that it had been a couple of years since my last aurora photo shoot and it's easy to forget the finer setting details. But then again every aurora is different and so are the settings, it's trial and error for a little while. There are a few tips of shooting an aurora and a link to the Aurora Facebook page in this blog from my last big aurora- Absolutely Amazing Aurora

I entered this photo in the Naseby Night Sky competition a few weeks ago (for night skies over Central Otago) and I was thrilled to hear just the other day that I was placed second! That was a lovely surprise.

As the beams died down I spun my camera around on the tripod to capture a portrait shot of the Milky Way. I might have missed the main aurora show but I was pleased with the few shots I did take. Afterwards I turned everything off and just stood there embraced by the inky black stillness and in awe of the spectacular night sky above.

Once again it was time to move on to our next destination (fingers crossed that maybe one day, the Council's consent for the park will be increased from a maximum 6 night stay to 21 nights, the usual NZMCA Park allowance).

We headed north along Lake Dunstan towards Wanaka and as the upper Clutha Valley opened up, across the farmland my favourite snow covered Hawkdun Range was in clear view. Hard to believe we we were driving along it's base just a couple of weeks earlier.

Next stop- Glendhu Bay, Wanaka

Friday 25 October 2019

Finally We Have Snow- Maniototo


From St Bathans we moved just 40kms east to the small Maniototo town of Ranfurly. I was still hoping for my blue sky hoar frost and the weather was certainly miserable enough for it. With bitterly cold temperatures, frosty mornings, snow flurries, dull brooding skies and no sign of the sun for several days it certainly felt like something was brewing. 

That's us, way over there- 'Nigel No Mates'- with the NZMCA Park totally to ourselves all week. This happens to us regularly when we spend winter down South. I'm sure we must be mad and for a short time I did wonder if we were. It really was no fun outside but at least we were toasty warm inside.

I said we had the park to ourselves all week. Well, that wasn't quite true. We did have this colourful character (and his lovely partner Lou) as neighbours for one night. Sean left his trademark rainbow stripes on the water tap post before leaving the next morning. 

While we were waiting for the weather to do something other than be grey and miserable we did a 270km round trip to Dunedin for the day. My laptop had been playing up for a few weeks, it was definitely on its last legs and we were worried it would suddenly crash and then I'd be lost without it for however long it took to buy and set up a new one. So when David saw a special deal on the one he had his eye on, there was nothing for it but to drive to Dunedin. We did a loop driving through to Palmerston, onto Dunedin and then home through Outram & Middlemarch. 

I'm now the proud owner of the latest HP Omen laptop with a 17" screen, which I need for my photo processing. This laptop is used by gamers (video games played online). It's built super tough which is just as well, I'm very hard on my laptops, this is my third laptop in 7 years on the road. For the geeks amongst you it has a 6-core Intel i7 processor, 16GB of memory & a 1TB hard Drive, whatever that means, I just know it's super fast! (and uses a super amount of power too!)

Finally the weather broke and while there wasn't my longed for blue sky hoar frost there was a reasonable dump of snow. Though sadly not in Ranfurly. 

I didn't have to travel too far up the road though to find the white fluffy stuff & a patch of blue sky.

Crossing Idaburn at the top of the Ida Valley.

Ponds and waterways beside the road were not quite frozen over; in this one you can see tracks at the back where ducks have paddled through the ice slurry.

Some paddocks where pristine white, others had livestock patiently waiting for their winter feed to arrive. It wasn't only the farm stock waiting for their food, in one yard I saw a cattle beast carcass on the back of a large trailer. As I approached two hawks lifted off from it. Perhaps it was dog tucker, but the hawks were certainly having a good feed before it was moved. I did get a photo but I won't post it here.

Farm tractors had made a mess of  the snow in the gateways to the farm's silage & hay storage areas.

I drove as far as the Home Hills Runs Road turnoff; the road that lead us on our epic Hawkdun Range journey just four days earlier.

What a difference! I'd have loved to have driven down it a little way but thought better of it.

There are several old buildings at Hills Creek that are great photo subjects and especially when there's snow about. I thought this cottage was unoccupied until I saw a person move past the window (and spotted the new roof when I looked at the photo later). I don't usually make it quite so obvious when I take photos of people's houses.

This stone cottage will be very familiar to anyone who travels SH85 between Ranfurly and Alexandra. There's no chance of missing it, it's front door opens just about onto the road! It would make a lovely cottage if only the road wasn't so close.

And this historic former school house has had a tidy up since I last took it's photo. I guess the next time I stop there'll be someone living in it.

It was time to head for home when a rain storm I was watching at the bottom of the valley suddenly sped up and was heading straight for me.

The next day I drove the loop from Ranfurly to Kyeburn, on to Danseys Pass and back through Naseby to see whether there was any snow out that way. 

Kyeburn Diggings- sluice and dredge sculptured cliffs
Danseys Pass was closed due to snow but there was only a dusting on the Kakanui Mountains which hadn't fallen down at road level. I turned around at the same place we did a few years ago when we were out chasing snow. I wonder if they're the same sheep! 

Kakanui Mountains- 8 August 2019
Kakanui Mountains-  1st August 2015
I drove back through Naseby and thought I'd check out a road to a dam I'd seen when passing it the day before. West Eweburn Dam is at the top of the Maniototo Valley, it sits below the Ida Range and is on the edge of the Naseby Forest. The 6km gravel road was very corrugated so I took the dirt track beside it, as had others before me.

I drove to the end of the track, crossed a ford and even though there was a rough track up to the top of the dam wall, I thought I'd walk the rest of the way just in case I came to grief. From the top of the wall I could see the Mt Ida Water Race winding it's way around the hill on the right towards the dam and then passing below me on its way to Naseby after exiting the dam. 

See the ute? 
West Eweburn Dam was very pretty, and so tranquil with the snow covered mountains reaching down to the water on the far side of the dam.

Someone else thought this place was very special too. A memorial seat was tucked into the corner beside the dam outlet, with a perfect view across the dam. What a lovely place to rest and reflect.

West Eweburn Dam was built in 1898 to store water from the 112km Mt Ida Water Race (the longest water race in NZ). The dam held the water before it continued onto Naseby where it was used by the gold miners. The water race is now used for irrigation. The water exits the dam over a small weir and then through a narrow gap/hole (couldn't quite see) in the rocks.

Relics from the past lie beside the nearby stream. 

I passed by this lovely fellow on my way up to the dam. He was chained to a fence beside some stock yards. There was no stock or people in sight and he jumped up wagging his tail as he watched me drive past and disappear down the road. He was still there an hour later when I came back down so I stopped to say hello. He was very happy to see me but I didn't go too close in case he was scared. 

I felt a little sad for him as it was getting cold & late and he couldn't move much on his short chain.  He'd obviously been left behind while the farmer shifted their stock. Just as I pulled away, a flash mud splattered SUV passed me & pulled in, he was getting a ride home in style.

Ranfurly's weather did improve eventually. Just as it was time to leave and head back to Cromwell. We still didn't have any mates to share it with though. 

As we headed off  back over familiar roads, the Ida Range looked magnificent. The snow so white & smooth on the mountains, just like icing on a cake.

The roadside snow had mostly melted away as we drove back through Idaburn, with Mt St Bathans looking very nice up ahead of us.

The Hawkdun Range was also looking pretty spectacular with it's snow white covering too.

It would have been fun had we been up there when the snow came, we might have frozen our butts off and not have got out for a few days but boy, would I have some great photos!

Wednesday 16 October 2019

A Timeless Land- Hawkdun Range, Central Otago; Part 3


Continuing on from Part 2

Though we were both disappointed we didn't make it around the Hawkdun Range/Manuherikia Valley loop, I knew David would be less keen than I to venture up the other side of the valley on our way home. But he's also learnt from experience that I like to join the dots on our road trips so I was very pleased when he suggested we turn into Hawkdun Runs Road as we approached it on our way back to St Bathans. And it's only 13kms to the Oteake Conservation Park from this side.

I had said not to worry about it, we'd do it in summer or I'd come back and explore it while we were parked at Ranfurly, our next camp, but I think he thought he might just as well do it now and then only have to clean the ute once.

We flew along the first 8kms or so of the barely gravelled road, it was bone dry with no dust. And no sign of the Hawkdun Range either until the road curved around the low line of hills we'd been following and there it was, a beautiful row of flat-topped, snow capped mountains.

The road condition also started to deteriorate from here, with surface water lying in potholes and a couple of fords to cross.

We could also see the two sets of tyre marks from the off-road 4WD vehicles we'd followed up the other side, now coming towards us; they had managed to drive the loop, which was no surprise.

With all the gates open, we were covering ground too quickly for my liking. I use the gate openings as a chance to shoot photos.

But I had to shout 'Stop!' when this view opened up before us... 

...nearly the full length of Hawkdun Range (click to enlarge).

We don't hang about though, it's getting late in the afternoon and the temperature is dropping fast. The road is also getting a little sticky in places. Then around the next bend...

...the most spectacular and breath-taking view is before us; a vast tussock plain with the Hawkdun Range as a backdrop. Of course we had to stop again.

The road dissects the tussock, straight through the middle and heads off over a small rise at the far end.  David reckons he's seen it all now and we can turn around and go home. I remind him about those dots and I also bribe him. 'There's a cup-of-tea waiting for you at the end of the road', I tell him.

The Hawkdun Range- the full length! (click to enlarge)

We carry on and towards the end of the straight there's one very lonely hut with an even lonelier long-drop to photograph. It looks like there was once a pine forest surrounding the hut, it's gone now and only slash piles have been left behind. This unique and beautiful landscape looks so much better without pine plantations, and especially the pest of the high country; wilding pines, blotting the view.

The cup of tea is beckoning and it's not long before we see stock-yards and a ring of tall pine trees ahead of us. Shelter trees like this usually indicate a farm homestead and out buildings were once located here (or still are).

And sure enough, we have reached DOC's Homestead Campsite; the trees surrounding the campsite are the only remaining sign of where the old Michael Peak Station homestead was once located. 

The homestead site dates from the 1850s, when pastoral licences were issued throughout the South Island high country, creating large lease-holdings in the surrounding mountain ranges such as Hawkdun, Omarama, Otekaike and Morven Hills Stations. Many of these stations have now returned to the Crown or were purchased back by the Crown for the pleasure of all New Zealanders to enjoy.

A corrugated iron DOC hut sits beside a nearby stream, looking very much like an authentic settlers cottage.

While we have our well earnt cup-of-tea, we scan the far side of the valley to see if we can spot the track and our earlier turnaround point but it's just about impossible, all the features are similar.

We can see a musterer's hut on the edge of a large plateau but it's not the one David saw when he drove up to the beehives, this one is further along the road (click to enlarge, the hut sits centre towards the bottom of the photo).

With the shadows lengthening fast we head back to the road.

And even though the road looks OK further on, this'll be as far as we go today. It's time to head for home, it's bitterly cold and the sun will be soon gone. 

I checked the map later and it looks like 4kms was all that prevented us from joining the dots (the total loop was 41kms). I'm sure we'll be back in the summer to complete the job.

David spent the next morning water-blasting the ute and cleaning our gear.

Here's a good tip; the old beachtowel is used to cover the front windscreen at night when a frost is expected. Then when I get up to go shoot sunrises I don't have to spend half an hour defrosting the screen before I can drive out.

And just four days later the snow came- Home Hills Runs Road.

Hawkdun Range with my 'Grahame Sydney' historic farm buildings just visible to the left of the trees.