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This time two years ago, I was reflecting on the covid situation post-lockdown. New Zealand had just come out of its first, very strict lockdown, and we were officially covid-free in the community. For the next 15 months, from May 2020 to August 2021, with one or two brief exceptions, we were gloriously, blissfully covid free. In that time, as the virus raged and mutated in much of the rest of the world, we lived life largely as normal (with the exception of tourism businesses, and businesses that relied on immigrant labour), waiting for the development (and arrival) of the vaccines. As Stephen Colbert described us, we were “the land where hugs still happen.” In that time, thousands of lives were saved in our small country.

Ultimately, though, the virus was always going to win. We knew that. If we didn’t, we weren’t paying attention, because our government warned us of that, and prepared for it. Delta and then Omicron arrived, but by then the country was highly vaccinated, and restrictions began to be lifted, even though, for the first time since April 2020, covid became present on the streets of my city. It is now pervasive. Case numbers in New Zealand are high (though less than one third what they were at their peak), and deaths occur daily (though there is a difference between deaths with and deaths of covid). The US even warned citizens who are travelling here to beware of the situation, which – after the last two years – just seems totally bizarre.

I am now facing the quandaries that many of you have faced over the last few years – when and how to get together with friends or family, and to ask about their risk profiles or vaccination status? Am I more at risk from someone who is unvaccinated, or is he more at risk from me? (A debate I’m having with my husband, about a business friend of his.) How to balance this? Even within a relationship? Sadly, New Zealanders are less practised at navigating these issues, and perhaps more hesitant to stand firm. It is not comfortably part of our culture to stand up for ourselves in this way, and I certainly was taught to be quiet and accommodating to others, so it is hard to know how we will operate. For so long covid has not been an immediate danger to us, and it almost feels ridiculous to now become concerned about it.

The partisanship we have seen overseas is here too. You only have to look at the comments on our Prime Minister’s Fbk posts to see the vitriol and misinformation that has been influenced by foreign views. The pandemic-related solidarity we all felt this time back in 2020 now seems to be long gone, and that makes me sad.

I remember thinking at the beginning of the pandemic that it might be “over” by October 2022, for a particular celebration when I was planning a big trip. At the time, that was my conservative estimate. I knew that I might not to be able to travel before then. It was a good estimate. But of course, covid isn’t “over” and may never be. But the vaccines have been quite effective, even when boosters have been necessary, so many people and countries are behaving as if it is over. (Though they fail to recognise that just because we want it to be over, or say that it is over, this does not make it so.) However, the resistance towards vaccines overseas (and here), the inequitable distribution of the vaccines, and the dropping of so many mask mandates, threaten to derail the decline in cases globally, not to mention the possibility of aggressive or nasty new variants. As a result, I’ve lowered my expectations for later this year. But for the first time in two years, I’ve started thinking about travel, and I’ve dared to wonder about longer term travel for 2023 or 2024. It’ll take a while before any decisions. Making those might be a bit scary. But I’m allowing myself to consider the possibility.

A birthday tree

As noted in my previous post, this time last year I was touring the South Island with the Husband. The autumn colours were fabulous, and I snapped away happily. I’ve hardly seen any autumn colours this year, thanks to living in evergreen Wellington, with the exception of the oak tree outside my kitchen/dining windows.

One year ago today, the Husband and I headed to a popular vineyard café near Arrowtown for a late breakfast/brunch to celebrate his birthday. Winter had arrived that week, and it was freezing, so we walked past the outdoor tables and headed for the warm indoors, where good coffee and food and a fire awaited us. But on the way in and out, I delighted in this tree, catching the morning light.

Another in the Tree Love series – find all the other bloggers doing it here this week.

On the east coast of the South Island, as a child I could stand out in the machinery yard, look towards the Southern Alps, and on a clear day, see the snow-covered peak of Aoraki Mt Cook, all the way on the west coast of the island. There was a little hole in the foothills that allowed this view – our farm was at exactly the right angle to be able to see it. So I always felt an affinity to Mt Cook, New Zealand’s tallest mountain. Since the 1990s, the mountain is formally known as Aoraki/Mt Cook, as part of a settlement reached between the local Maori iwi (tribe) Ngai Tahu, and the government. I like that addition. I like the fact that NZ has recognised the original names, and has used the name of the local tribe’s dialect, with the hard “K,” when it was previously often mistakenly called “Aorangi.” I was less enthusiastic about change when the top of the mountain collapsed, losing about 30 metres, and changing its distinctive shape. For me, the mountain of my youth was lost.

Mt Cook was more than five hours round trip from the farm, so whilst trips to other lakes were common once a year or so, only once did we actually take the extra two-three hours round trip to see the mountain. Up until last year, I had only been twice, both on day trips, both times very lucky to see the mountain clearly. So this time last year, when we decided to explore parts of the South Island we thought we knew well but didn’t, Aoraki Mt Cook was high on my list.

The national park is a popular base for climbers, of course. Established in 1953, the park has 19 peaks over 3,000 metres high, including Aoraki/Mount Cook, and glaciers cover 40% of the park. Sir Edmund Hillary climbed many of the park’s peaks, including Aoraki/Mt Cook, before successfully tackling the Himalayas and Everest. There is now a statue of him in the Mt Cook Village, along with an eponymous alpine centre that pays tribute to him and showcases the region.

We however, are not quite so adventurous as Sir Ed or the climbers who attempt to emulate his achievements. Fortunately, there are several very popular shorter walks for visitors to Mt Cook Village. We had chosen two of them, knowing that the weather and our schedule would mean we would have to miss a third. Still, that at least gives us an excuse to return.

The Tasman Glacier and Blue Lakes Track is only about 45 minutes return, and so we set off to do this shortly after checking in to our hotel. We drove the 7 kms to the start of the track, then began the climb up 300 steps. I found that stopping to admire or capture the magnificent views back down the valley provided a good opportunity to catch my breath too.

Tasman Valley

The Tasman Glacier lake was, in early May before winter weather had set in, still largely empty of icebergs calved off from the glacier. The glacier itself – like the other glaciers in New Zealand – is receding fast, and I wished we had been here 30 years ago. But the view was still amazing, the weather was calm, and the lake reflected the surrounding mountains.

Tasman Glacier Lake

That evening, we enjoyed the Hermitage Hotel. Usually populated by international tour groups, in 2021 our borders were closed, and the hotel was now filled with Kiwi visitors, making the most of seeing their country when New Zealand was still blissfully covid free. There was a relaxed, happy atmosphere of New Zealanders “doing something new” that I suspect is not there when the bus tours take over the hotel. The Hermitage itself is perfectly positioned to get magnificent views of the mountains, and Aoraki Mt Cook in particular. This is what we saw from our room.

View of Aoraki/Mount Cook from our room

I made myself comfortable in the armchair, and drank in the view, until it was time for cocktails around the open fire, and a nice dinner.

The next day we set off on the Hooker Valley Track. It’s supposed to be an easy 10 km walk, so I was looking forward to it. The car park at the start of the track was almost full, which meant two things: a) this was indeed a popular walk, and b) as usual, we were starting late.

Yet the walk didn’t feel busy. Sure, there were a few groups walking around us, but rarely was anyone closer than about 100 metres, and often there no other people in sight. We could enjoy the grandeur of the mountains, and the beauty of the surrounding landscapes and rivers, in blissful peace and solitude. Even the three swing bridges, which are not my favourite things, weren’t too scary to cross! This is definitely a good walk for the timid and adventurous alike. There is even a loo with a view, about half-way there.

Hooker Valley Track and Lake Mueller

The trail was clear and well-maintained, and at one stage a boardwalk crosses a delicate, tussock-filled plateau.

We walked alongside a river for much of the walk, and as we changed direction, Aoraki Mt Cook would pop in and out of view. Along with the panoramas, we found small tarns, rushing glacial streams, scree-covered slopes, and small pockets of hardy plants, often within the same shot.

The vistas were grand, and needed to be captured as vistas. So I barely got my camera out, relying instead on the wide angle of my phone. Phone photography excels in such environments, don’t you think?

Sadly, we knew the weather was due to pack up that afternoon. That extra hour in bed seemed like an unnecessary indulgence by the time we got to the Hooker Lake, as the wind whipped down from the snowy peaks, and rain began to fall. We therefore only stayed there for a short time, snapped a couple of pics, before turning round to head back.

A loo with a view and a rainbow

Retracing our steps south was just as beautiful as the way north, with different perspectives. We were about a kilometre or so from the car park when my heel started complaining. My walking shoes hadn’t been used for a while, and decided to rub my right foot. I’d forgotten to bring any plasters. I limped the last few hundred metres. But it was worth it.