Where falcons fly

Photos: Clare Fraser
Photos: Clare Fraser
Thanks to social media, walking up Roy’s Peak, beside Lake Wanaka, has become a thing, writes Clare Fraser.

Wanaka insomniacs will be familiar with the trail of twinkling headlamps visible up the side of the mountain as walkers make a beeline for the sunrise shot. Queuing at a particular spot for a solo selfie can take 30 minutes.

Right next door is Mount Alpha with nearly identical views but so sparsely peopled that meeting someone else almost feels like the start of something beautiful.

From town Mt Roy looks like the biggie but, in fact, Alpha is slightly taller at 1630m compared with Roy’s 1578m. This walk’s a few hours longer but visually far more interesting. It’s even got a couple of hillside water stops, unlike Roy. Maybe Mount Alpha could become the new Mount Roy but without the skite rights.

Although the nine-hour return trip means it’s pushing things to call this a walk, the track is clear and strong the whole way. It begins in the Cardrona Valley, approaching the mountain from the back.

Boggy sections near the start, even in summer, are followed soon after by a couple of shallow river crossings to keep the boots seemly. The track winds its way up through some big country. It’s a slog but across the valley are eye-candy hills for company.

After two or three hours you realise you’re approaching the crest of a hill and are suddenly presented with a view below and beyond, like flying over a ridge in a helicopter.

At this point I sat with my back to a wee hillock. A native falcon zoomed nimbly past in front of me, a treat in itself. But next thing, for some reason I turned around and there was the falcon hovering ominously just a few metres above my head, balancing on the updraft from the hillock. We eyeballed each other. As it assessed me, a piercing intelligence was clear in its eyes. If not for my face-saving sunglasses it would have seen the wariness, verging on fear, in mine. And sheer wonder at its up-close agility.

Karearea nest on the ground so it was probably just being protective. Six breeding pairs were surveyed in Cardrona last year and there are other populations nearby. They’ve even been spotted in the sky above Stoney Cove, close to town.

It’s a buzz being up high enough to be in their world.

Views of Cardrona Valley, above, and Wanaka.
Views of Cardrona Valley, above, and Wanaka.

After more uphill grunt the track hits narrow ridgeline, known as the Skyline Track for good reason. In winter it’s snowy and use is not recommended by the Department of Conservation. Even in summer strong wind can make balance a problem and the steep drop-off either side doesn’t offer a soft landing.

Nearing Alpha’s summit, its superior height to Roy is clear to see. Things get pretty exciting by this stage but after all that, the summit itself turns out not to be a triumphant pinnacle but just one more grassy mound. But it’s a perfect La-z-boy for lying back and blowing your own mind.

You’re at sky height. Mountains extend inland and way below is tiny Wanaka township with its long lake and surrounding landscape panning out for miles. Not a loudly caffeinated cafe in sight.

The sheer size of these mountains and their gaping great valleys speak loudly about our little human concerns. As the eyes wander, so does the mind.

Studies have proven the psychological and physiological benefits on humans of nature. In one, participants viewed a stressful film then watched video of different natural and urban settings. Physiological measures demonstrated that recovery from the scary film was faster and more complete when subjects were exposed to the natural rather than urban environments.

If just watching a nature film can do that, imagine how good for you it must be to kick back and day-dream in actual nature. When it comes down to it though, who cares? It just feels good.

No to-do lists, no shoulds, just this, now. A white cloud, blue sky.

Reality kicks in though: it’s home time. Jelly thighs make the reverse journey.

By the end of this epic day I felt like the poor-woman’s version of that staggering marathon runner, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, entering the 1984 Olympic stadium driven by sheer willpower.

 - Clare Fraser


Jocund day stands tip toe on the Misty mountain top. Untrammeled by care is the lad, thence comes English lit and the Romantics..Oh, On an Abbey by Petre; school friends say he's changed.

The author stared down the dapple drawn/winged chariot.

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