HIGH COUNTRY HOMES

 

 

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So and no otherwise
Hillmen desire their Hills.
– Rudyard Kipling, The Sea and the Hills.

Dawn in Pleasant Gully. The Te Moana River chatters in its bed of stones.  A bellbird drops limpid notes from the cover of a broadleaf tree.  Wisps of fog hang in the bushy ravines and tussocky basins beneath the summit of Fiery Peak, which stands like a sentinel overlooking the valley.  The rising sun paints its bluffs and screes crimson and gold.

I sit on the step of the Pleasant Gully Hut drinking coffee and watching the day arrive.  I can see the steep track I will be climbing today.  It zig-zags up a long spur and disappears over Fiery Pass, notched into the ridgeline of the Four Peaks Range.  The sky is deep blue; this November day promises to be hot.  I finish my coffee, close the hut door and set off uphill.

Four Peaks Station occupies the southern end of the Four Peaks Range, west of Geraldine in South Canterbury.  The station encompasses the twin summits of Devils Peak and Fiery Peak which fall away into vast faces of snow tussock.  Streams of pure snow-melt cascade down from the tops, spilling over hidden waterfalls and joining to form the Te Moana River.

Four Peaks is a working sheep station, and wiry half-bred sheep, along with cattle and wild deer, run on the hills.  But as well as traditional farming, the owners of Four Peaks have developed a three-night walk which introduces visitors to the pleasures of staying in historic shepherd’s huts along the way.

The previous day I had set off from the Four Peaks Station homestead on the far side of the range.  Following farm 4WD tracks I had ascended a low saddle then sidled around the southern end of the range and down into Pleasant Gully.  As I walked I hummed the old Dance Exponents song Why Does Love Do This To Me?  The line “Jackie came, she went away; deep in the valley I kissed her that day” was supposedly written about Pleasant Gully.

028Built in 1900, the Pleasant Gully Hut was once the furthest outposts of the historic Orari Gorge Station.  My great uncle, Arthur Blakiston, worked on Orari Gorge as a shepherd during the 1880s, and was station manager from 1910 until 1935.  In his memoir My Yesteryears he describes life at Pleasant Gully.

“We lived on meat, bread, scones and potatoes,” he writes.  “After chops and tea for breakfast at 1:30am we would climb out to our beats on the hill.” My evening meal was a little more salubrious: porterhouse steak topped with Mount Peel blue cheese followed by a can of boysenberries and a plunger of coffee.  No shepherd ever dined so well.

I reach Fiery Pass at midday after a long, hot slog up the track.  To the east, the Canterbury Plains stretch out in a hazy patchwork to the edge of the ocean.  To the west lies the Two Thumb Range and, beyond, the Southern Alps.  The track descends a sunny face scored with deep gullies of running shingle, then winds along the edge of the Mobray Stream to Sutherland’s Hut.

Built in 1866, Sutherland’s is the oldest hut on the walk and possibly the oldest surviving back-country hut still in use in New Zealand.  It’s stone walls and steep corrugated iron roof have weathered countless snowstorms and gales, yet the hut is still as sound as the day it was finished.

In the 1980s I spent several seasons working as a shepherd on Four Peaks. During the autumn muster we would spend a week camped at Sutherlands Hut.  We bathed in the creek and lived on fried chops and boiled spuds. We were young and fit.  It was a great life.

The life of the shepherd is a solitary one, and my constant companions in those days were my sheepdogs: Bess, Jill, Mick, Bounce, Spook and Quarter.  Now, thirty years later, as I wander alone in these same hills, I find that every ridge and valley is imprinted in my memory.  I remember great runs my dogs did as we mustered the country, and drunken nights in Sutherland’s Hut, drinking beer and whiskey and telling tall stories.

During the night, a nor’ west wind gets up.  The hut creaks and rattles; heavy raindrops crackle on the roof.  Yet when I walk outside to check the weather, the sky is clear and encrusted with stars: the rain was just a spectre, like a ghost of storms past.

I dawdle around the hut next morning, reading an old western novel and watching merino wethers mooching about on Blue Mountain Station over on the other side of the stream.  At midday I set off up the steep track which zig zags across the face of Mount Mobray to the Jumpover Saddle.  From the saddle, I climb to the top of the range.

fp24wIt is early evening by the time I reach the summit of Devil’s Peak.  The eastern plains lie beneath a fluffy counterpane of white cloud.  Westward, the Two Thumb Range crouches in a steely blue nor’ west haze.  I have five bars of phone coverage.  I update my social media and call my wife.

Row upon row of mountains, each range a slightly lighter shade of pale blue, stretch away into the setting sun. The high basins still hold the last remnants of the winter snows.  Out on Ashwick Flat, the waters of Lake Opuha shine like a sheet of pewter on a beige background of dryland farms.

fp15Alone in this vast space of mountains and sky I am surrounded by nature.  A nanny thar flees at my approach, vaulting sure-footedly into the Jumpover Bluffs with a clatter of falling stones; a pair of chucker partridge take flight from under my feet; somewhere overhead a skylark twitters.  I descend the scree-slopes and tussock faces back to the Jumpover Saddle.  It is nearly dark by the time I reach Devil’s Creek Hut.

It’s amazing how a hot shower can re-invigorate a tired body.  All of the huts on the Four Peaks walk are equipped with gas showers (along with log burners and solar-powered lighting) but the one at Devil’s Creek is especially good.  I cook tea then sit outside with a fp17coffee listening to the creek chattering in its bed of stones beside the hut.

Tomorrow, I will have to return home from the hill.  But tonight, I can rest here alone in my high country home and remember the long-ago days when I was a shepherd in these hills.  A sheep bleats from up on the side of Devil’s Peak; a magpie gargles in the branches of the big macrocarpa tree across the creek.  The western sky fades from purple and mauve to black.  One by one the stars come out.

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INTO THE WILD

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We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world…
                                               – Robert Louis Stevenson

The falcon comes straight at me.  I can see its big eyes fixed on me as it approaches on a dead level and silent flightpath, like a feathered attack drone.  Its mate screeches from the jagged top of a broken pine tree: a shrill kree-kree-kree of strike co-ordinates.  At the last second the bird flares its wings and tail.  I glimpse wickedly sharp talons and a cruel hooked beak.  I feel the terror a small mammal must experience during the same crowded moment.

I amhs3 standing on an eroded clay outcrop halfway up Conical Hill, which overlooks the spa town of Hanmer Springs.  I had wanted to photograph the town from above on this fine January morning, but in doing so I’d unwittingly strayed into the falcons’ airspace.  As I beat a hasty, undignified retreat, I slip and fall down a bluff in a jumble of branches and brambles.  I scramble out of the wilderness and limp downhill to the comfort of a large latte and some Wi-Fi.

Hanmer Springs (known locally as plain Hanmer or, by the annoying mispronunciation “Ham-na”) nestles under the lee of the Southern Alps in North Canterbury.  Encircled by a skyline of jagged mountains, and surrounded by deep green pine forests, Hanmer owes its existence to a series of hot springs which emerge from a fissure caused by part of the Alpine Fault which runs down the spine of the South Island.

Well-known to early Maori, the springs were “discovered” in 1859 by Thomas Hanmer, a local run-holder.  The therapeutic properties of the hot, mineral-rich springs were quickly recognized and from 1879 onwards, tourists began visiting Hanmer to “take the waters.”

Today, Hanmer is a busy spa town.  As well as the springs themselves, there are great restaurants, all sorts of adventure activities – bungy-jumping, jet-boating, mountain-biking and an assortment of other hyphenated action sports – and some great cafes.  There are dozens of holiday cottages for rent, and a selection of boutique hotels.  But to me, the real joy of Hanmer is the ease with which you can leave the bustle of town and escape into the wild.

Northwest of Hanmer, Jack’s Pass Road climbs a steep, heavily-timbered ridge to a scrubby saddle then descends into the valley of the Acheron River.  In just a few minutes (my takeaway latte from the Powerhouse Café is still untouched)  I have swapped the bustle of Amuri Street for this vast, empty space.

A battalion of pylons, slung with a tracery of silver cables, marches through the valley, carrying electricity from the turbines of the southern lakes to the appliances of the northern cities.  The lines fizz and crackle as the energy within them leaks into the hot air; beneath the pylons, flights of bumble bees buzz in indigo groves of borage.

The road undulates along the eastern bank of the river.  Sleek Hereford cattle graze the swampy flats.  A 4WD laden with black and tan huntaways crosses a ford and climbs a zig-zag track up the flank of a muscular hill.  Swards of snow tussock wave in the breeze.

The old Acheron Homestead stands on a promontory overlooking the confluence of the Acheron and Clarence Rivers.  Built in 1862, the homestead was used until 1932 as a boarding-house for travellers on the inland route between Nelson and Christchurch.  The thick cob walls, whitewashed against the heat and glare of the sun, are rounded and organic.  Inside, it is quiet and cool; the dusty timber floors creak underfoot.

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I wander the empty rooms imagining the lives of the people who lived here through baking summers and freezing, snow-encrusted winters.  The coal range in the scullery is rusting into oblivion; the walls are papered with pages from a magazine published in 1895.  In a lean-to out back a brick oven once baked bread for weary travellers.  Some backpackers in a van are cooking their lunch beside the stables.

Below the homestead, the opaline waters of the Acheron meet the equally clear and blue Clarence River. A fly-fisherman flips a gleaming filament of line into an iridescent pool lined with emerald-green willows; overhead, the azure sky is scored with high white streamers of cirrus cloud.  I return to Hanmer over the rough Jollie’s Pass Road, through acheron3basins of running shingle and narrow gullies thick with olive beech forest.

The next day brings a change in the weather.  The incoming front is heralded by lenticular clouds, the outriders of stormy weather in the High Country, hanging above the hills.  Wisps of cloud pour like dry ice over the passes.  The air is still, and so clear the mountains seem magnified.  The sky fills with cloud and a cold South wind sweeps down from the tops.

By mid-morning, rain is falling in torrents.  It beats a tattoo on the rooftops and runs in rivulets down the streets.  I drive out into the pine forests and hike alone through a dripping valley to a waterfall thundering into a punchbowl of black rock.  The viridian forest clings to the valley bottom, heavy and dark.  Every leaf and branch drips; shadowy birds flit through the green gloom.

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In the evening, I retire to the sybaritic warmth of the hot pools. The 40° water fell as rain on the Hanmer Plain a century and a half ago.  Heated in subterranean chambers, it percolated through the rocks until it re-emerged, smelling of hydrogen sulphide, to be filtered and sterilized and presented in a blue pool for me to relax in.

I lie back in the water reading a book as the night draws in.  Up on Conical Hill, the falcons will be maintaining their vigil over their domain.  The lights of town begin to gleam.  Steam rises from the pools and makes its way upwards into the darkening air: back into the water cycle, back into the wild.

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