Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook National Park, New Zealand

Southern Splendor: Behind the Lens at the Sealy Tarns

Jumping for joy at the Sealy Tarns, Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park

The scenery is so grand I have to keep my eyes closed in case they explode.

This is a staircase from hell. This thing makes the infamous Half Dome steps seem like the bunny hill. I thought I was in pretty good shape but these steps have me sucking wind like a Dyson vacuum. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I try to count the number of individual stairs in this endless trudge but I lose track somewhere in the two thousands.

The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns. Allow 3 hours return.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But halfway up the track I was learning my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep.

Glacial Valleys in Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

The track starts all the way down there then comes STRAIGHT UP the mountainside.

Believe it or not there was a good reason I was subjecting myself to this muscular and aerobic punishment. Yes indeed, there was a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, a pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow. You see, there was promise of A View. And when a photographer such as myself gets wind of A View, there are very few hurdles he is not willing to jump in order to see The View. In this case The View was one of epic proportions: a bird’s-eye peek at Aoraki, Cloud Piercer, The Tallest Mountain in New Zealand. Not to mention an up-close-and-personal look of gorgeous Mt. Sefton and its hefty hanging glaciers. And with the Sealy Tarns as my destination, I knew there would be reflections afoot as well. But first I had to get there, and that was turning out to be a challenge.

And not my first of the day either. I spent the morning stomping about in my waders, scouting the Tasman River valley for good spots to shoot the impressive Southern Alps panorama at sunrise. I incidentally got to spend some quality time with my good friend, the sandfly. But my mood buoyed by the incredible scenery, I never enjoyed their itchy bites quite so much. Having found 3 or 4 great locations to shoot from, I headed back to my rental car. And I should’ve quit right there while I was still ahead.

Tasman River and Southern Alps Panorama, Mt Cook National Park

What a place to start the day.

But no, what if there was another even more amazing spot just down the road? I couldn’t say no to that possibility so I cruised down the highway, looking for farm tracks leading back down to the river. Spying a promising-looking one, I made a quick turn off the pavement, unlatched the protective DOC gate, and drove my little sedan into a pleasant, grassy paddock.

I’d already taken my car off-road through stream crossings, muddy creeks, sandy washouts, and grassy fields. So I wasn’t concerned about this paddock. Which is how a 6 inch tall bump in the farm track caught me totally by surprise. The front wheels cleared it no problem, but then with a crunch the undercarriage of the car bottomed out and lodged itself firmly in the dirt. I spun the wheels forward and backward, jogged them from side to side, and even tried bouncing up and down in the driver’s seat, all to no avail. I was well and truly stuck in the dead center of a sheep paddock with no one around for miles. Shit.

Now I’ve been in situations like this before (this should not surprise you), so I kept my wits and figured a way out. Because the car was resting on the high center of the dirt track, all I had to do was jack it way up to take the weight off the undercarriage, then jam some rocks under the tires to give me a steady platform to roll back off the rut. Easy. Or should I say, easier said than done. Because the car was wedged down so tight in the dirt there wasn’t room to get the jack underneath it. That meant I got to spend a happy 10 minutes digging out the dirt under the car, using the jack lever like a shovel and turning my knuckles to bloody bits in the process.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

Let the extraction begin!

Eventually some space was cleared and I jacked the car up enough to get a few rocks under the tires. Lowering the car back down I put it in reverse, gunned the engine, and…..didn’t move. Getting out I saw that the front wheels had spun the rocks out from underneath them and the rocks were now 50 feet down the track, as if they had been shot out by a cannon. Pretty cool, but not the result I was looking for. I realized this was going to require much larger rocks, which meant digging up some dinner plate-sized stones from the nearby stream bed.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

Please let this work.

Again I jacked up the car, again I placed the rocks, and again the front wheels spit them out like a couple of cherry pits. Then I had an epiphany: every time I tried to back up I was getting in the car. My 150 pounds of body weight was surely helping stick the car in the mud. So this time after jacking the car up (yet again) and placing rocks under the tires (yet again), I opened the car door, popped the car into reverse, then gently goosed the gas pedal with my hand while standing outside the car and simultaneously pulling up on the undercarriage with my other hand. At this point in the story I’m sure mothers everywhere are having heart attacks: You did WHAT? You could’ve slipped and been crushed by the car, or been caught by the door and had your intestines ripped out! True.

Josh Cripps gets stuck in a sheep paddock

This is pretty much how I celebrate everything.

But these things did not happen. Instead the car popped loosed and I walked with it as it eased backward down the farm track. Then there was much rejoicing. Freedom!

Lenticular wave clouds over Aoraki / Mt. Cook

Drool-inducing clouds over Mt Cook / Aoraki

While this nonsense with the car was going on some serious clouds had been building up in the sky and I was sensing potential for a gorgeous sunset. Seeking out an equally gorgeous place to shoot the sunset, I decided to embark on a track I had never done before, but which promised A View.

Kea Point view of Aoraki / Mt. Cook National Park

The view from the end of the gentle section of the track.

Which is how I found myself later that evening gasping for breath as I climbed the final, two-thousand, two-hundred, and somethingest step in the Sealy Tarns track to discover one of the grandest views in the whole of New Zealand. The sunset did indeed turn out to be wonderful and I enjoyed profound moments of serenity and beauty that made every hardship that day well worth it.

Handstand celebration at the Sealy Tarns, Mt Cook / Aoraki National Park

See, told you.

If the promise of your own NZ photo adventure is tempting, join us on our New Zealand Photography Workshop, May 2015.

~Josh

Check out a short video from this adventure:

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