There is something about the alpine environment that, literally, blows all the cobwebs away and refreshes your psyche. Not only that but these higher altitudes also offer some spectacular photographic opportunities.
A recent climb up Ben Lomond, a 1748m high mountain on the edge of Queenstown, proved to be just the medicine after a crazy, busy holiday period and gave me the opportunity to click away happily to get some great shots.
The track from Queenstown starts with an hour-and-a-half climb up through the exotic pine forest. Not so exciting but luckily, there is a more relaxed option to start the day, with a ride up the gondola to around 800m. The ride was spectacular, with the steep drop and stunning views.
Within five minutes, we were disembarking and following signs to the start of the walking track.
We left the gondola area and followed a wide path through the pine forest for 10 minutes before coming out to sidle around an open ridge—a mixture of scrubby vegetation and the noxious weed, wilding pine.
The climb was steady but gradual, and the views behind us were already begging to be photographed.
We walked through a small stand of native beech, the last forest cover of the tramp, and began sidling along the side of the ridge.
We can’t choose the weather and the overcast and grey conditions were not the best for photos, but luckily, my tramping companions were dressed in bright colours and the contrast added interest to the scenery shots.
Rain threatened with large, sporadic drops and we donned our coats as we continued to follow the track along the side of the ridge. The breeze was picking up but we were well sheltered. Less weeds and more native tussock and alpine plants carpeted the slopes and the views behind us became more expansive as we gained altitude. The summit of Ben Lomond rose high ahead of us; rocky and craggy, it was quite a climb.
The track continued its gradual ascent, and soon, we crested the ridge and were buffeted by the cold, strong wind as we reached the exposed tops. Pleased for the windproof raincoats and adding a woolly hat, we continued along the ridge. The track was visible, stretched out ahead of us over a couple of rocky knolls. But before we knew it, we had reached the Ben Lomond Saddle, less than an hour-and-a-half since starting out.
MORNING TEA ENTERTAINMENT
It was then time for a morning tea stop. The sun started teasing us with brief glimpses through the cloud and the promise of blue sky in the near future.
A flash of colour swooped down and transformed into a well-camouflaged kea in the tussock nearby. It moved closer to see what we might have to offer and proceeded to delight us with its fearless antics.
Our 10-minute break became 20 as we clicked away from different angles.
But onwards and upwards as they say. At the top of the next short climb, I was blown away, both physically and visually, as we reached a ridge separating Queenstown from the valley and snow-capped mountain range beyond. More photos, this time taking advantage of the moving clouds and changing lights that were shining on the tussock landscape.
ANOTHER KEA ENCOUNTER
As we continued around the ridge, we heard the unique cry of the kea once again, looking up in time to see a pair land on the huge rock face ahead.
I got my camera out and was rewarded with the pair gliding in closer to us. The braver one hopped down the slope even closer, with its wings widespread, showing off the beautiful red colour underneath—an incredibly exciting photographic opportunity.
After posing for a few minutes, the kea soon gave up on us and, in a swoosh of powerful wings, delighted us with a show of its impressive flying manoeuvres as it swooped down the slopes below us.
The close encounter with these beautiful birds in their natural setting left us upbeat and we energetically started the steep climb to the summit.
Although not a technical tramp, this part did involve clambering up rocky outcrops and sidling round the edge of the mountainside. And it was further than it looked. But with regular breathers to take in the view or take another shot, we made it to the summit in just over two-and-a-half hours of walking.
With around 10 other hikers at the summit, we found ourselves a sheltered spot overlooking Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables.
But lunch was not an easy affair with a group of four cheeky keas joining us and the bravest trying to pull my lunchbox off my lap. It was hilarious and probably the most entertaining lunch stop I have had while tramping.
HEADING BACK DOWN
After half an hour, we were getting cold despite piling on the layers, and so decided to start our descent. The wind had picked up and it was extremely cold in places.
The track was suddenly busier with more hikers heading up. The downwards trip was slowed by having to give way to climbing trampers, but we were in no hurry, so a friendly hello was said as we passed.
While the cloud had cleared a lot, the wind had become strong enough across the ridge for sudden gusts to push me sideways. My fingers had not recovered from the cold at the top and were numb in my gloves.
The view down the track showed a regular scattering of trampers, both groups and individuals, and it was obvious that some had no idea how cold they were soon going to get.
THE FINAL LEG
Passing across the Ben Lomond Saddle again, we gradually descended the ridge, and, turning, I noticed that Ben Lomond was briefly framed by blue sky; the camera was pulled out once again.
Upon reaching a sheltered spot, it was finally time to strip off a few layers and pack away the gloves and hat. The final 45 minutes of walking was a gradual descent in the sunshine before we made our way to the gondola.
Going from relative solitude to an area packed with hundreds of people was a bit of a shock.
It had taken five hours all up to the summit and back, and it was one of the most stunning day walks I have done in a long time. Close encounters with New Zealand wildlife can be rare, so the kea had been a great highlight.