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Prelude to Aspiring: Or, what to do when there's no snow in paradise

Published
July 7, 2019
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WELL, it’s been what the Europeans call a “green winter” so far in the southern part of New Zealand round Queenstown, where I live.

For instance, my editor took these photos of the 1863-vintage goldminers’ pub at Cardrona, and a horse trough just east of Queenstown, in May.

The Cardrona Hotel
A horse trough, for passing horses to drink from, back in the days before the horseless carriage

It’s July, and things are still like that. We should have lots of snow by now. But apart from the odd light dusting, it hasn’t happened yet.

A few days ago — more in hope than expectation — I went up to the glamorous Coronet Peak skifield, which can be seen from the airport and some of the eastern suburbs of Queenstown. They do night skiing there, with brilliant lights on during the season. It’s really something to behold.

Coronet peak skifield by night, from an eastern suburb of Queenstown

Unfortunately, rocks and dirt everywhere confirmed my worst fears.

Coronet Peak, when I went up during the day

So, I decided to go tramping (hiking) instead, up the West Matukituki Valley, which I mention in my book A Maverick New Zealand Way. This is a real gem, a truly wild place that you can get to from Queenstown almost as easily as one of the local skifields, via Cardrona and Wanaka. It’s at the foot of Mount Aspiring, the ‘Matterhorn of the South’. Officially known as Mount Aspiring / Tititea, it’s a prominent peak, the highest in New Zealand outside the Mount Cook region.

Background imagery ©2019 DigitalGlobe, Maxar Technologies, Landsat/Copernicus; Map data ©2019 Google. Additional information added for this post. North at top.

This satellite view shows the route from Queenstown to the West Matukituki Valley by way of Cardrona and Wanaka. The Wanaka-to-Mount Aspiring Road, partly sealed and partly not, has been added in red. The road is about 50 km long and ends at a place called Raspberry Flat, where there’s a carpark. The track up the West Matukituki Valley has been shown with yellow dots. I’ve added Snow Farm to this satellite view as well, for I talk about the Snow Farm, a Nordic track resort, in an earlier pair of posts. There was snow then!

The plane from Queenstown to Auckland usually flies between Mount Aspiring and Lake Wanaka. You get some pretty good views if the weather is fine. In the evening, Mount Aspiring / Tititea stands out like a white dog’s tooth against the red sunset. This, too, is something to behold.

Here’s a closer, 3D view of the West Matukituki Valley. The words Mount Aspiring in this photo do not refer to the mountain as such, but to the homestead of a sheep-farm called Mount Aspiring Station, run by a family called the Aspinalls.

The West Matukituki Valley in 3D, to a closer scale. Imagery ©2019 DigitalGlobe, CNES/Airbus. Map data ©Google. North at top.

The base of the valley is flat, and is farmed as part of the sheep-station. However, apart from the fact that the flats are covered in non-native species of grass and the odd sheep grazing on top, the landscape otherwise looks unspoilt. It’s an easy two-hour walk westward from Raspberry Flat, next to the Aspinall homestead, around the corner of the valley to the Aspiring Hut.

The Aspiring Hut is made of stone, which is fairly unusual for back-country huts in New Zealand. It was built in the 1940s by the New Zealand Alpine Club, Otago Section, and is really famous. A ten-minute newsreel documentary called Prelude to Aspiring, about the opening of the “new” Aspiring Hut, and the journey to it through the valley in Easter 1949, can be seen online.

The journey was actually an artistic expedition. Prelude to Aspiring was shot by a top photographer named Brian Brake; the expedition also included New Zealand’s best-known composer, Douglas Lilburn, who seems to have written the music for Prelude to Aspiring, and the country’s best-known poet, James K. Baxter.

Music by Douglas Lilburn from ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’ (1942), performed by students of Macleans College, Auckland, at the KBB Music Festival in 2009

The expedition also included the elderly but still fit-enough Arthur P. Harper, co-founder of the New Zealand Alpine Club in 1891, after whose father Leonard the Harper Pass is named (though Māori used it for hundreds of years before that). The younger Harper had also been a colleague and understudy of the legendary outdoorsman Charles Douglas. In the 1940s, such survivors of our ‘Wild West days’ could still be found.

Charles Douglas, Arthur P. Harper (middle) and dog 'Betsey Jane' in the Cook River Valley, 1894. Click on the photograph to view it at higher resolution in the Cloud. Formal credit: Harper, Arthur Paul, 1865–1955: Charles Douglas and Arthur Paul Harper and dog Betsey Jane, in the Cook River Valley. Pascoe, John Dobree, 1908–1972: Photographic albums, prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-5926–02. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand./records/22369189

This early selfie — taken by Harper, who seems to be pulling on a piece of string to work the camera — became known to a wider public after it was published in John D. Pascoe’s 1957 biography of the man with the hat, Mr Explorer Douglas.

The man and his times are revisited in an entertaining New Zealand Geographic article from 1996: “Kiwi eggs make excellent fritters, wrote Charlie Douglas, particularly if fried in kakapo oil.” Douglas also claimed to have shot a pair of colossally large ‘hawks’ which were quite possibly the last of their kind, whatever it might have been. Yet he was also a conservationist by Victorian standards, noting already that the birds were becoming fewer and fewer.

Douglas died in 1916, but Arthur Harper survived until 1955. Rather stiff and formal, he preferred to be known as A. P. His surname and initials are carved into the foundation stone at the hut.

As for Baxter, he wrote up his notes into a ‘Poem in the Matukituki Valley’. I don’t know if the words are still copyright, but anyhow, there’s a blog post that’s been brave enough to reprint them here.

Why so many luminaries, all slogging their way up the Matukituki in 1949? Well, the fact is that Prelude to Aspring was, indeed, only a prelude to a much grander production that was, regrettably, never made; perhaps because the general election later that year brought in a government less sympathetic to the arts. But anyhow, the original scheme explains the expedition’s “all star-art team,” to quote the blurb for a later Television New Zealand documentary about the expedition.

The Aspinalls are mentioned in Prelude to Aspiring as the possessors of all the land in the area right up to the top of Mount Aspiring itself. The Aspinalls do not own the station outright but operate it under what’s called a Crown Pastoral Lease. This is a right to farm a particular piece of land that can be passed on down the generations as if the owners of the lease owned the land, except that they have no right to sell up for a speculative gain. It’s a form of tenure that’s quite common in the South Island of New Zealand.

Fortunately, the Aspinalls were always hospitable to trampers and climbers. In the early 1960s, the family even went so far as to give up 20,235 hectares of their lease to the Crown to form the Mount Aspiring National Park, while holding onto a remaining third (currently 9,674 hectares).

So, the Mount Aspiring Station no longer stretches all the way up to the top of Tititea, where I suspect few sheep ever grazed in any case.

100,000 people walk through the valley each year. I was keen to get winter photographs of speargrass, matagouri (a thorny bush) and hoar frost, which can lie thick and white as if it were real snow in shady areas. And I did.

My Instagram video, showing the same ‘Shark’s Tooth’ peak as in the old 1949 newsreel!

Not snow — frost!
Aspiring Hut
Matagouri with hoar frost
Tree and Sky
360 degree panorama by Aspiring Hut
Sunny side and snowy side of mountain ranges
A sunny slope
Hoar frost, sun, and sheep
Hoar frost near a bridge

In an echo of the 1949 expedition, I ran into a Discovery Channel film crew making a documentary with a drone as they kayaked down the river. Of course, poor old Brian Brake had to hump a tripod the whole way. That was then. Drones are now.

I made it to the Aspiring Hut and found no gas or water, but fortunately some firewood.

I’m a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club, myself, and have constantly striven to get up Mount Aspiring too; though to date something has always gone wrong on my expeditions to the top! I talk about that in A Maverick Traveller.

It was only a quick day-trip this time, a ‘Prelude to Aspiring’ indeed. But to borrow Ed Hillary’s most famous line, I do plan to knock the bastard off one day!

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