CANTERBURY HIGH COUNTRY 2012

When the opportunity arose to attend a good friends’ wedding celebration in the central Canterbury High Country, it took less than three seconds for us to consider the proposition and decide that it would be rude not to attend!

While I am a huge fan of weddings (and their associated dance-floors), participating in one located in an elevated valley system, carved through millions of years bulk ice flows moving, as glaciers, down the from the Southern Alps before being split in two by a huge mountain range to form the Rangitata River Vally and the Lake Clearwater Basin, provided some extra appeal. A number of lakes are now scattered throughout the Basin – remnants of the vast ice flow that once ran through the valley – yet only four are well known: Lake Camp, Lake Clearwater, Lake Emma, and Lake Roundabout.

Lake Clearwater was to be our base case for four days of High Country antics.

Lake Clearwater

Given the relatively unstable geological history of New Zealand, subject to rising and falling sea-levels, uplifting of mountains, and Pleistocene ice ages (and associated glaciation), particular regions throughout the country now support their own suite of interesting species; some of which are endemic to only one particular mountain range. For example, the raising of the Southern Alps over the last five million years has been responsible for approximately one-third of our endemic species. The Rangitata skink (Oligosoma ‘Rangitata’) presents a prime example of this, as the species is known only from the Mt Harper Range. Whether their distribution extends into the adjacent mountainous ranges, only time shall tell, as survey efforts for this species have not been extensive. But currently it is recognised as a severely range restricted species.

Over some beers and dinner with the lads – which consisted of three types of sausages, steaks, venison patties, tomato sauce and no salads (bad luck if you were a vego) – Peter (multiple world rogaining champion) and I made plans to summit Mt Guy (1319 m) the following morning…the morning of the wedding. The next day we set off early and were standing on the summit absorbing the views, about 2 hours later. From the top you look out over the Lake Clearwater Basin to the south-west and over the Maori Lakes to the north-east. In the distance the great Southern Alps rise steeply from the earth’s crust, giving rise to the great braided rivers that flow across the plains and out into the Pacific Ocean.

Mt Guy (1319 m)
View from Mt Guy, across the Lake Clearwater Basin.

The ascent is also teeming with wildlife, if you take the time to sniff around.

Hemideina maori (Mountain stone weta) in scree habitat
Oligosoma maccanni
Hemideina maori (Mountain stone weta), male
Hemideina maori (Mountain stone weta), male threat display
Alpine vegetation
Growing on the barren scree slopes
Lichen on the moisture ridden rocks of Mt Guy

Our day in the hills was followed by the most beautiful, vintage-themed wedding ceremony for Sara and Jez. Perfect weather, extraordinary scenery, and fantastic guests made the evening extremely enjoyable…and thanks to the DJs for rocking the dance floor! Yeeewww!

With the ceremony over, and after little Eve’s naming ceremony and some rest to remedy our hangovers, Sarah and I decided to spend a day exploring the Mt Harper Range.

We set off on Sunday, in the direction of the Balmacaan Saddle, across the rusty orange tussocks, and into the Balmacaan River bisecting the Mt Harper range.  Along the way, tussock ringlet (Argyrophenga spp.) and glade copper (Lycaena sp.) butterflies flittered amongst the native tussocks and pohuehue, while McCann’s skinks (O. maccanni) darted away into the grass at the first sign of our presence. Bounding left, right and centre in front of your feet are the abundant Paprides nitidus, the northern tussock grasshoppers, which are flightless (as noted by their tiny remnant wings situated just over the robust hind legs).

High country tussock land
Argyrophenga sp. (Tussock Ringlet)
Oligosoma maccanni
Paprides nitidus (Northern tussock grasshopper)
Balmacaan River
Balmacaan Saddle track

The end of the track leaves you at the bottom of the saddle and from there it is a steep climb up the north-eastern face, negotiating razor sharp speargrass and unforgiving matagouri bushes. If you take some time to examine the clumps of speargrass, you will find a nice surprise in the shape of large 25 mm long speargrass weevils (Lyperobius coxalis). These weevils are flightless and spend most of their time nestled away within the protection of the speargrass bushes, where they are presumably safe from mammalian predators. These jet black weevils are real gems of the high country.

Lyperobius coxalis (Speargrass weevil)

BUT…nothing can prepare you for the awe-inspiring views you are presented with upon reaching the pinnicle of the Balmacaan Saddle. To the north-east, you look back over the rolling hills and watershed of the Balmacaan river valley, and to the south-west the landscape drops away vertically into the Rangitata Valley. Carved away over thousands of years by formidable glaciers, the Rangitata Valley nows supports the small settlement of Mesopotamia which lies alongside the complex braided river system that is the Rangitata River.

Sarah referencing our location on the map (Balmacaan Saddle)
Rangitata Valley
Balmacaan Saddle with Rangitata Vally in the background

And up here you are not alone…

Woodworthia ‘Southern Alps’
Hemideina maori
Hemideina maori (Mountain stone weta), female
Oligosoma maccanni

And on the long walk home, you reminisce on the day’s adventures and look forward to an evening of trout fishing in the lake and a cold beer.

Long trek home
Trout fishing at sunset

The central high country is a truly awe-inspiring place, riddled with amazing scenery, beautiful native wildlife, and extraordinary geological features. I can’t wait to return!

Thanks Sara and Jez, we had a fantastic time.

A further selection of pics…

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