Sunday, 3 March 2013

N.Z South. Lake Hawea

Craig Writes: New Zealand, South Island, Lake Hawea. As we approached the landing strip there was a noticeable absence of water buffalo and the drenched landscape of paddy fields.  The sight through our tiny thick windows instead were towering snow capped mountains to the right and to the left, jagged mountain peaks daubed in the many different shades of camouflage green. Nestled at the base of the mountains were stretching farmlands,loose hay bales piled high, some wrapped and bound tight looking like giant wheels of white cheese. The airport is small and neat. The view through the massive floor to ceiling windows in the airport cafeteria is priceless.  A panorama of mountains, majestic and proud. A few months from now they'll be covered in snow.  The ride up the Crown Ranges was breath taking.  The sweeping views back down into the valley made negotiating the hair pin turns very difficult to concentrate on. The drive over the ranges to Lake Hawea was only 51 kms but it would take an hour and a half to complete.  
Heading up the glorious Crown Ranges 
The three storey A frame we are staying in is on the edge of the lake. Plum and pear trees groaning with fruit sit just inside the back yard fence. A row of Liquid Amber and Silver Birch form a natural barrier between us and the neighbours.  An old wooden gate leads out to a narrow strip of worn grass that runs off into the distance and disappears over a small hill. We cross the grass and a well used mountain bike track to join a narrow winding path that weaves through 50 metres of scrub and down onto the smooth pebbled shore of Lake Hawea.

You had to pinch yourself every day
No CGI here. This is our actual balcony view
It is an imposing body of water.  It has a total area of 142 sq km, it is 32 kms at its longest stretch and 390 metres at its deepest point.  The beach is all round, smooth pebbles, not a grain of sand.  You will not find clearer water than this... anywhere.  This is a glacial valley, like most here, and is fed by the mountains themselves. To dive in is a sensory sensation.  It literally takes your breathe away. The initial response is total numbness and then you sprint a few metres, duck dive a couple of times, swim a bit more and gradually the numbness fades and you experience the most amazing tingling. You want to shout you feel so alive. I've never experienced anything like it.  To my total surprise and absolute delight, Christina stripped to her knickers and followed me in. That night we sat on the balcony watching the sun slowly put the mountain ranges to bed. As the sun set a shadowy blanket was pulled up over the mountain side.  We sat on the balcony, vodka tonic in hand and breathing in the beauty of this amazing place.
Told you it's clear. It's like the water doesn't exist,
 the pebbles have just gotten darker
My plan was to wake up early, do some yoga then take the kayak down for a paddle. 10.15am was not early enough. We were 6 hours out of whack between NZ and Thailand and my body was still playing catch up. I opted for the yoga and an icy swim in the lake. Refreshed and tingling, I wandered along the beach to fossick among the drift wood. I was looking for another log to bring back to our little bit of beach so we all had something to sit on.  I found a great hunk about five feet long and carted it back down the beach. Then, big chunk of drift wood in place, I just sat.  Such stillness.  The very occasional sound of a car in the distance but otherwise, crickets chirping in the scrub behind me, a large bush fly passing close by and the lapping of the water, so gentle on the shore it sounded like the soft musings of a house cat at its milk bowl.  I sat, eyes closed, just listening.  I haven't done  that for so long. I've never been taught meditation but if it is letting your mind go and letting the sounds and the spirit of your surroundings envelope you and hold you, then I guess that's what I was doing . I was having an ooommm moment.

I was gone much longer than the quick dip I had said I was going for so pulling myself up from my drift wood bench I head back up the hill. Today was in to Wanika, a trip to the dentist to try and sort out a tooth problem and a general look around.  What a charming peaceful place. Not sure where the time went but three hours later and back home, pick up the sling shots we bought in Luang Prebang and down to the beach for a lesson. No doubt, memories are made of moments like these.  Standing on the shores of this stunning lake teaching my two boys how to skim stones and shoot gings.  What a great day.

Charlie seems ready
Time for "thread the needle"

Or not!!


Thought I would take the kayak out today and paddle to Corner Peak. It lies about 10kms away on the right side of the lake at the base of the Grandview Mountain ranges. Half an hour there, pull up onto the deserted shore, explore a bit then a casual paddle back.  Hhmm, it was like paddling in the Twilight Zone . After 45 minutes, had I moved at all?  It seemed like the water was moving under me. Doomed insects spinning in hopeless circles and floating puffy seed pods folded under the bow of my kayak at more than a brisk walking pace but that damn mountain wasn't getting any closer.
Corner Peak, but it looks so close.

The six holes in the bottom should have told me
 this was not meant for distance
A little over an hour had passed and I reckon there was another thirty to fourty minutes to go. The " little squirt" was only a fun paddler meant for scooting around the shore line. I'd promoted it way past it's abilities and the longer I went the more I was realising this. Time to turn around.  Any wind had now completely dropped and the lake was as flat as a pin.  You could pick out every fold and crease of the mountain, every tree and scattered bush, every lazy cloud in it's perfect reflection.


I wake up to the sound of the house stretching and yawning as the early morning sun starts to warm its old wooden bones. The gentle creaks and pops are joined in a strange chorus  by the early morning song of skylarks and wattle birds camped in the surrounding trees.  The sky is a cloudless pale blue palette through the large picture windows of my bedroom. If I raise my head just a few inches I can see the tops of the neighbours  large pine tree.  The cold jade water of the lake beckons.  Time to throw off the warm embrace off the doona and stretch my own well rested bones, shoulder the "little squirt" and go for a paddle.
I chose not to set my sites too high today and opted for a paddle out to Round Hill on the left of the lake, only a 40 minute effort as it turned out. There were scattered sheep grazing up its steep sides seemingly fond of the top leaves of some specific plant they were all chewing on. On the northern side of the hill there was a small nook, like a giant axe had fallen and cleaved a wedge shape gap in the side of the hill.  My little kayak fitted perfectly. I wedged it in and climbed a few metres up the shale cliff to a small flat rock, and sat. And sat some more. 
I found my stride on the paddle back, my muscles warmed by the sun and my trip over. Before I knew it I was sliding into the crunchy shoreline, grabbing my towel, shouldering the " little squirt" and heading up for breakfast.


The reprieve from our touring schedule has been a most welcome relief to all off us. Life by the Lake is casual and unhurried, we come and go at our leisure. A walk along the winding lakeside track, a slow  paddle on the calm water or some yoga in the warm morning sun on the old warped boards of the balcony.  No tour guides waiting patiently in the lobby, no breakfast service to rush too lest we miss our inclusive buffet brekky, no early morning flights to catch. We rise when we wake, we eat when we're hungry and we turn the lights out when we're ready. Time to breath and reflect and ready ourselves for the next adventure. 
We were all feeling like doing a little something today so after lunch we headed to Stuart Landsboroughs Puzzling World just on the outskirts of Wanaka.

But.. but....but....
 It has the worlds first 3D maze and its a damn nasty piece of works. There is the "standard maze" version, 30 to 60 minutes or the "advance maze" version, 60 to 90 minutes. Thankfully we opted for the standard version as it was approaching mid afternoon and heating up a bit.  Seventy minutes later, Callum is the only one out and sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of the puzzle room. The rest of us are trapped. The sun seems at it's peak, it's sweltering, sweat is cascading down the back of our necks and we're not helping our cause by trying to stay in the shady parts. We've  found our way to the four main towers but the final escape gate is eluding us. I'm not sure we can hold out much longer.  Already Chinese tourists are sneaking under maze partitions for a quick way out and a Dutch guy has his girlfriend on his shoulders looking for some semblance of direction. 
oohh yes, it may look like just an innocent set of stairs..
There are some emergency exit gates but damn it we cant even find those.  As desperation takes hold and the thought of the final indignity crosses my mind, do we follow the Chinese under the fence, we come across an emergency gate. There is no discussion, no second thought, we bolt through the exit and straight into the air-conditioned relief of the cafe. Ohh, we may have neglected to tell Callum we had to use an emergency exit too.  The shame would have been too much to bear.  The Maze of Death aside, Puzzling World is a great place to kill a few hours. The highlight was probably the tilting room where everything looks like its leaning down but it's actually leaning upwards.  Running water and pool balls seem to defy gravity and run up hill. It's very odd. Oh yeh, the loos are worth checking out too.
Kids, dont try this at home
Damn paparazzi are everywhere, 

Today I had a brief conversation with Sharron, the friend of Christina's who owns this beautiful lake side house. It would appear that this becalmed jewel has a nasty side and a deadly past. The vagaries of being a glacial valley with towering mountainous ranges means that along with the prettiness comes an unpredictability.  There are certain times of the year when the weather that whips down through the mountain passes can turn.  It turns quickly and it turns badly.  Within fifteen minutes a casual paddle can turn into a serious struggle.  In fifteen to thirty minutes the high cold winds that can course down through the valleys can whip up waves that will pound you to the very bottom of the lake. Waves big enough that the nearest shore would be lost to you and the struggle would be to simply keep your craft afloat or give yourself over to the lake. On a calm flat day, if you are anywhere near the middle of the lake you are sixty to ninety minutes from the nearest piece of land. On the day I went out into the middle Christina couldn't even find me with binoculars.  Sharon says she has pictures of waves on the lake that big that they were surfing them with boogie boards.
In August of 2011 a young German tourist working as a chef at the Lake Hawea Hotel borrowed a kayak to fish for trout on the lake. He left at 10.30am and after taking a couple of hours to reach the middle of the lake texted a friend to say he was about to start fishing.  That was the last anyone heard from him.  The weather came up but not till much later in the afternoon when it was assumed he was long back on shore. Later it would be reported that mid afternoon as the weather started to change people did see what could have been flashes of sun reflecting off a wet paddle. At 9.30am the next morning he hadn't shown for work. The alarm was raised and a search was commenced. His kayak and paddle were later found, in two separate locations not far from the shores that we swam at. His body was never recovered. He was not wearing a life jacket .

Unlike the ocean where the waves would be pummelling you from one general direction, being in the lake, when it is in a frenzy, would be akin to being in a mixing bowl, bashed from one side to the next with no idea where to turn. It would not take long to weary the most competent of swimmers and once the chilly waters had you, they would not let you go.  I'm glad she told me all this after I'd been out in the middle myself otherwise I may have had second thoughts. It is a harsh reminder to not be lulled into feeling too comfortable by the beguiling beauty and calm surface that Mother Nature presents.  These glorious mountains with their shadowy peaks that I lazily gaze at whenever I choose, would have been the same mountains, and the last things, that 25 year old Rene Weisswange would have seen the day the Lake took him.

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