Waitonga Falls – Revisited

I miss snow. Growing up in Stocksbridge, Yorkshire, there were few winters we didn’t get a couple of good dumps and snowy streets were a regular sight. It was normal that cars would sit unused for part of the season, a thick layer of white frozen onto them. One year it was over three feet deep – we had to fight our way out of the house, the road out of town was closed for nearly a week, and so was school. Dad says it still snows there but not as much as it used to.

It doesn’t snow much in Wellington (our winters are characterised more by high wind and horizontal rain). The last time was in 2011 when people ran out of offices as white flakes gently fell, catching them in their hands, taking photos, running around like sugar-fuelled children. Kids scraped it up to make small snowmen and turned household items into sledges, which I remember doing with Mum’s tea trays, ruining them in the process. It settled at nearly a centimetre deep and coincided with a rare overnight frost. The next morning was carnage, humans slipping and sliding and lying in piles at the side of the pavement, cars slipping and sliding and crunching into kerbs, banks and each other. It was the first snow in the city in thirty-five years and it was gone by smoko.

It snows in Ohakune, but not as much as it used to say those who have lived here all their lives. When it does fall in the town it melts away quickly. Even the mountain relies on huge machines to make enough for puny humans to strap strips of plastic to their feet and slide downhill. It snowed late last week, hanging around in town for a few hours before it turned to water, staying longer on the lower slopes of the mountain, turning the bush into a winter wonderland. Like I said, I miss snow, so if it’s a few km drive away up a twisting mountain road… well, our car is 4WD. The skifield is closed (not yet enough snow) but cars line the wider sections of road, snowmen growing beside them. One family has the bbq going in the lee of their car.

Some years ago a work colleague told me of a winter skills course they’d been on, the first lesson being how to walk on snow. Until then I hadn’t really thought that you don’t walk on snow or ice the same way you walk on any other surface, not if you want a chance of staying upright anyway. Heading towards Waitonga Falls, it takes me a slippery couple of hundred metres to get my legs back into the habit they’d picked up as a child, carefully planting my feet rather than treading lightly, making no sudden change of direction. I remember that brown (no snow, no problem) or white (soft and therefore the tread on my boots creates a hold) is okay, grey (packed hard and frozen) really not, and anything translucent means a layer of frictionless ice on top so avoid stepping on it in the same way you would a cowpat.

We’re rugged up like Antarctic explorers: scarves and gloves, beanies pulled over our ears, ski jackets over merino layers. The thermometer shows 5C but the wind chill takes it near freezing. The trees muffle the wind, their branches heavy with snow, the occasional strong gust shaking a few flakes free, sometimes a large clump whoomphing to the ground. Otherwise it’s quiet, that unique quietness that snow brings.

Across the open section the combination of strong gusts and icy boardwalk makes for tricky passage. I begin to wonder if the footsteps in the deep snow alongside are not, as I’d annoyingly thought, from careless people who are stepping where they shouldn’t, but from wind-borne people who have lost their balance and fallen from the path. I come close myself a few times, giggling and squealing as much as the children we see along the way. The ponds are frozen over, cloudy grey without a reflection, and the wind buffets low cloud into the mountain, obscuring one side.

The steps down to the Falls are packed and iced snow, slippery as a native eel, ready to throw a human with the skill of an unbroken colt. We step into the thick snow along their edges. At the bottom the rocks are treacherous and I expect no one will try and cross the stream today. The Falls are slow, the water sluggish and sticking to the rock as it slides over it, the stream a dark scar in the white below it. It’s beautiful.

We re-trace our steps, fighting the wind and sleety rain across the boardwalk, easier than when it was behind us and trying to topple us. We negotiate our way down the path slowly, avoiding the middle and using the thicker snow at the edges as a brake. On the section where an extended walkway skirts a large boulder the planks are iced and slick. A child stomps down, his rubber-soled boots sticking where adults’ hiking boot soles don’t. I cling onto the handrail as I ski my way down it, otherwise I’d be doing it on my bum. We make it back to the car with no injury, to pride or otherwise, and peel off layers, then drive back down the mountain to the snowless station café for a coffee. The snow is forecast to return at the end of the week. We’ll still be here and I’m looking forward to it.

Edit: as I finished this and waited for Neil to sort some pictures it started snowing, settling within minutes despite that it has been raining hard for the last few hours. At the time of ‘going to press’ we have a good covering and it’s still snowing! Work will be postponed tomorrow in lieu of building a snowman…

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