New Zealand summer with Zalps

It’s been another amazing summer in New Zealand. Of course there has been plenty of “tramping weather”, but even a flight a week is well worth your while here. After some good flights before I arrived on 4 January, we saw record heat in January, with only receding glaciers in the mountains – it looked like April. February broke the drought with a snow dump, and then later in the month we had a visit from ex-tropical cyclone Gita. In between I enjoyed memorable flights over familiar country and also some new valleys and routes – it was especially great poking my nose over to the west of the main divide on three separate occasions. It was also a pleasure to take the Ozone Z-Alps two liner through its paces.

Flying along the main divide (Dart, 7 Feb 2018)

In the first week after arriving I didn’t set aside any time for cross country flying, and I was happy with that decision – it was good tramping weather. It was great to see the twins Kat and Ana so engaged in discovering this place I love, even if they were a little broken at the end of it.

Tramping with the twins (Earnslaw burn, 6 Jan)

When they left I had a couple of days of “flyable” (overcast / windy) weather. The first of these followed an evening hike with Ben French, above Moke lake.

It was completely overcast but still really fun and quite fast flying through the sharp ridges of the Shotover. I made it to Branches station then walked up again to fly up and back home, over the wild gorges and craggy spines that me and my sister Anna spent a week walking through many years ago.

The next day the metservice forecast had an identical wind forecast (Easterly 30km/h), but I found it at least three times as strong, and I landed backwards in the Rees valley, putting a $150 rip in the top of my wing. Looking at the forecast it was time for another five day tramp. I decided to have a go at repeating a trip roughly around the Five Passes (north of the Route burn) that I did years ago – although I traded an ice axe for a paddle, which didn’t quite work the same.

Meanwhile my wing had been fixed (thank you Augusto), so after a long paddle it was straight to bed and up early to pick it up in Queenstown. From Coronet I had a fast flight to the north, decking it in the Motatapu.

Queenstown from Coronet peak, 18 Jan

Hiking up to refly I ended up hiding under my tarp/poncho for a few hours as showers passed through. Finally I flew a little way then walked a bit more until I arrived at the gorge, where I jagged a lift back to Wanaka after a dip with some locals out for a swim. In Hawea, Mick and I consulted with Bryan that night and we gathered a small group (Kat, Abe, Tony, Glen?) to hike and fly Sharks Tooth in the morning.

Starting out I was keen to fly far but things proved a bit tricky. After several hours bumbling around with my wingman in the Zeno (Tony, who went on to win the Wanaka Paragliding Open), I took a (really) low save at the Neck and decided to just keep going east. I’d never been that way and I was keen to see if I could reach the coast – perhaps possible if I’d started a little earlier?

The approaching wind was especially evident in the sunset that night, and the next day I caught up with Lloyd and his mate Steve, and went for a paddle. In fact the next week was pretty much a write off, although on the upside Mum was happy as I had no excuse not to help her around the house with a few jobs.

Hogs back sunset, 19 Jan 21:29

Mates from Oz were due to arrive for Australia day but I decided to position myself out west (despite the rain) so I walked the Route burn track and camped in the cloud, waking to morning views of the Darran’s and a southerly pushing cloud up the Greenstone valley.

With two early flights I crossed the valley (the first I landed due to cloud ahead). The third flight I started a little too early and landed just above bushline while I still could.

On the main flight, I found it a little rowdy. It seems it’s a tricky area and despite trying half a dozen places around the Greenstone Caples confluence I got lower and lower and had to land at Greenstone station. Another few hike and fly attempts just got me hot and bothered in the stable air and on the last flight I landed on the beach with my wingtip falling into the lake. Not a fairytale start – but there were a few good days in the forecast to come. I feasted on berries as I ascended in the evening shade to camp. I was happy to see that Andy from Oz had, according to his SPOT tracking, found an ideal bivouac spot on his first day in the mountains.

The next morning I resolved to climb higher to make life easier. Some vigorous gusts greeted me on the high spur, but despite the anabatic breeze and hot sun it felt like wind rotor. It was very dry and I realised there was no option to fill my half litre water bottle. After a time I took off and flew down the Humboldt range, but after finding myself pointing into the spur at a 45 degree angle, and not being able to get above 5000′, I thought it was time to fill up that water bottle. I landed at a perfect spot, a grassy fan up against waterfalls and bluffs.

Time out – refreshment stop on the Humboldt range

After this break there was still wind but I got higher and that indeed did make life easier, at least for one glide across the Route burn. I was low again in the Dart though, and often the best I could do in the wind was to thermal in the lee of big cliffs, tracking the thermal up the valley. I would have liked to be higher on the corner but in the end had to dive behind steep cliffs and keep tracking up the valley unless I was going up – often my ground speed into the wind was barely penetrating. Up higher it was better though, so as I remember I was reasonably comfortable.

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Nevertheless I was going to take every opportunity to get as high as I could, especially when skimming over Cascade saddle and dropping into the Matukituki. At about this time I got into contact with Gavin from Oz on the radio, who was flying nearby and invited me to the Cardrona pub. In my state I almost agreed but it wasn’t really an option with the beautiful clouds in the distance to the northeast. The flight got much easier and I continued with no regrets. A beautiful shower blocked the way to Mt Cook so I took a scenic detour up the Barrier range, intending to fly there later the next day as part of a triangle from my intended landing near the head of the Dobson.

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Storm brewing near Mt Cook

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Looking northeast, cruising on the Barrier range

On landing I had a headwind due to the recent shower, and of course the grass was also wet. I left my gear and headed for the nearby hut, dreaming of a warm fire and meat – but found it empty, so I swallowed the contents of a tin can from the hut cupboard and used it to boil water for my soup.

About to land in the Dobson

The next morning it took me three attempts to get established in the air. I’m always keen to start as early as possible but with each attempt the time slipped away. Once I got up it was a really epic day. On the first leg of the triangle I moved from the raw power of the scenery around Mt Cook to the remote glaciers of the Landsborough.

Around the turn point, cloud cycles made for interesting flying near Mt Brewster. The sky became shady but the dry scree northeast of Hawea was still pumping. I pushed towards second turn point out as far as possible around Magic Mountain in the Ahuriri, and was nearly swept up by the easterly, having to take a climb over the valley to get back up into the convergence.

Finally I was pretty confident of completing the triangle while over the Barrier range. The previous day’s visit (in a strong southerly) is possibly what brought me unstuck. Thinking I was home I didn’t even top up to cloud base, and paid dearly when a northerly blocked the pass and I was forced to land high in a valley. I was still in high spirits though as it was an amazing day out, on a route that I’d like to try again.

The next morning I expected to have another good days flying. I climbed high hoping for a single attempt day, and then observed some suspicious light wind coming and going on the ridge. When I took off I lost a lot of my height, before regaining it on another ridge that faced the wind. Taking a very slopey thermal I tried to get high enough to update my weather forecast – I didn’t expect this wind until tomorrow! I decided that maybe the wind would mix out later on, so I tried to push into the west onto sunny faces across the Ahuriri. On transition I noticed the “cobblestone” feel, that Chris had told me about when we were flying gliders. Then I was in the wave! I soared up a few thousand feet, it was certainly exhilarating but I was a lot more relaxed this time than other times.

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In smooth smooth wave right now! Ahuriri

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In hindsight the option of trying to fly to the east coast would probably have been better – I thought maybe the wave would just be a morning thing so I persisted into headwind. I ended up landing and I didn’t feel I missed much when I later felt the gusts in the valley. Wondering what to do, in the middle of the Ahuriri, some passing trampers sealed the deal on a decision – they gave me a lift out. Joining the crew at the cafe in Wanaka it had been a hectic day in the competition – definitely some wind around! It wasn’t getting better either – Andy and I planned a walk for the next day, and by midday, we were just about on our way! In the following days a significant front passed through and ended the month of record heat.

A traverse along my favourite ridge to fly

The next time we took the wings out, we spent a good five hours or so lying on the ridge waiting for the cloud to clear. I’m optimistic and would rather wait with a view than be late. By the time I’d scratched up over the ridge, Andy had already disappeared – I turned north to fly solo on the inside flank of the Richardson range.

It was really enjoyable but I got a bit of a scare when I realised my SPOT subscription had run out. So having to sort this out I never did get to soar the west of the Earnslaw massif this year. But I was in a good position for the next day.

The 190km FAI on 3 Feb:

Dart valley, 11:44am

East Matukituki, 2:42pm

Several more days of down time and helping out Mum to get the house rented, but on the last day I didn’t drop her at the airport – I had a flight of my own (7 Feb). With Chris and Alex we hiked up and flew, but it was a miserable day somehow – after face landing a few times I dribbled down the Humboldt range until I ran out of air at the Route burn car park.

Climbing above Sugarloaf pass I took a long glide in the afternoon towards Route burn flats. I was so low above the beech forest that I thought I would be landing but I managed slowly gain height and finally connect with a thermal above bushline which gave me a bit of a whack (asymmetric collapse) as it rose over a sharp spur. The day had been given a new lease of life! I was in high spirits as spent the last hours of the evening soaring along the glaciers of the main divide.

Two minutes before landing I’d passed O’Leary pass, after my bivouac it took about two hours to return on foot. I arrived just before sunrise with beautiful wisps of cloud forming as the breeze fanned the slopes, bluffs, and walls of the steep drop off to the north into the Joe river. I’d been dreaming about visiting here for years! Flying was quite heart in mouth as I had to find thermals to stay alive, but finally I popped over back into the relative safety of the Dart, with a big triangle in mind. Things went fine until I got swept up in the norwesterly that was channelling through the Caples valley. I hiked up again but lost motivation on the bushline, finally taking off for a last minute evening flight which took me to a spur above the Greenstone where I was again shoved around by the wind.

The wind was still there the next morning so I glided down and started walking towards Mavora lakes. Just past Taipo hut I ascended a bluff, intending to use the wind to scudd down the valley and add some excitement. In the end I somehow managed to soar up and go about twenty times further than I’d anticipated. Just north of Mavora lakes I spotted Chris, who I supposed was in the area since I’d started flying with him nearby two days before. In fact he’d driven to Wanaka the previous day so our meet up was even more random. “I thought it was too windy to fly”, I yelled, but the day turned out to be ok. It was my first time navigating my way around the southwestern part of Queenstown airspace, and I flew right past Jane Peak and then landed on the lower slopes of Eyre peak when it shaded out.

When things picked up I got my sweaty self off the scrub and flew towards the Remarkables. I was really impressed with the rugged cliffs and change of scenery, and the steep drop off into the lake north of Kingston was quite impressive. Landing to figure out if I could fly into airspace later in the evening, I decided it was actually best to land and hitch. As the southerly seabreeze worked its way in I stole my way up to the Remarkables and soared up double cone, before landing by the highway and hitching back in record time. Really great fun.

Spent the night at Louis’ by the airport then back up to Coronet peak, the most accessible option. Maybe since I would have liked to start a little earlier, I flew at full speed up the Shotover. It got cloudier and the northerly made getting into the Matukituki a bit of a crux.

The Shotover highway

Not long afterwards the sky turned to grey soup and I landed in the East Matukituki, between the Rock of Ages biv and the waterfall strewn faces of Fastness. After a picnic I wandered up towards Wilmot saddle, and later in the walk I started to speed up – the sky was clearing!

I glided across the East Matukituki, climbed up and then flew along the tops. Another thermal got me high enough that I had two options – push out to the Waiatoto, or fly back out to the highway at Makarora. The weather was going to deteriorate so I couldn’t really do both. Just an hour or so before I’d been talking to a climber who was contemplating visiting the Volta glacier – and now, here I was! Sensational flying and something you don’t get a chance to do very often.

I was hoping to get a morning flight in but light showers came even before dawn. I climbed over Mt Twilight in cloud, and tried to follow the ridge, turning around on rotten rock. The valley momentarily cleared which tempted me to move to snow grass slopes and prepare for a quick flight. Then the cloud returned, and a shower forced me to huddle in an uncomfortable position under my tarp/poncho with all my gear. After half an hour I decided it was time to pack up, annoyed at having taken my wing out. Two and a half hours later I’d navigated down past wet tussock and bluffs and through the forest and I could finally see the river flats. Unfortunately I was one hundred vertical metres above them! It took me the same time again to find deer trails around the bluffs and get back onto flat ground, by which time of course it was sunny and I could have in the meantime flown down. I was hoping to get out to wish Kamila happy birthday but after a long day I skipped into Kerin Forks hut just before 9pm.

Having dried all my gear in the empty hut, and also staying dry during a nonstop morning downpour a few weeks back on a pack rafting trip,after walking and hitching out I was happily dropped off at DOC Wanaka to pay my hut fees. I caught up and stayed with Joel and Deanne and they got me on a kite in Hawea the same afternoon. Glen saved my kite surfing session (I just needed some help getting off the beach), then the next day we were hiking up Breast peak in the evening wondering if the winds really would drop as per the forecast. The next day (14 Feb) was to be the only decent flying day in the foreseeable future (before Gita!).

Lake Hawea

Chris Streat, who I stayed with the next week, said that would be the last good day of the season. Cyclone Gita came to visit us and I spent most of the next week figuring out my next trip, to China next month. After a full seven days grounded I joined Glen again for a hike up Mt Maude, the first time I’d flown from here. It was fantastic flying early on, reminding me of Shotover country, then I struggled, landed, had a picnic, and flew back down before walking up in the evening to Sawyer hut on the slopes of Sentinel peak.

The next morning was interesting. A strong southwesterly aloft was visible firstly as lenticular clouds, then as fast moving cumulus. But I was never able to get to cloud base. My first flight was rather heart in mouth at times, and the second was gentle lift and chasing the sun.

McKerrow and Hunter with snow from Gita (23 Feb 2018)

Landing in the Dingle burn I was surprised to find horses at the hut. Their owners insisted on sharing their hot meal (ok, it didn’t take much persuasion). It was a full house with half a dozen kiwis in Top Dingle hut. Leafing through the hut book, most were happy campers but there were a few comments about less considerate visitors. I took some aluminium foil encrusted ashes out with me – finding rubbish in the New Zealand hills is a rare opportunity to leave the place better than you found it.

Ahuriri valley

The next flight was a late morning sled ride, cut in two because I had a knot near my wingtip – the first such drama with my wing, but I’d have to take the blame with my messy brake fan repairs. The norwester was back, and that was just about it for the summer.

Drive and Fly, northern Southland

One day I’d earmarked for Moke lake was howling white caps so I used it as an excuse to visit Southland, it’s been a while since my last visit. The next day looked better but it was cloudy and in the end I decided it was a much better use of the day to walk along these jagged ridges, which was a lot of fun. A flight for access and a flight to get away, and then I rushed up to Glenorchy to conclude the summer, just in time for the sunset.

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About sharemyjoys

Nick Neynens
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