A nostalgic trip up Black Birch Range
By: Christopher Cookson
Last Modified: 31-12-2020 13:05
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I went up a mountain to where people were looking at galaxies far, far away. From the 1970s to 1996, the United States Navy ran an observatory on top of the Black Birch Range, a conveniently flat topped range dividing the Awatere and Wairau Valleys. Rumour had it that the astronomical observations were associated with providing navigation systems for nuclear missiles, although this was never confirmed nor denied. If true, then I suppose Marlborough could lay claim to literally being home to a death star base.
In addition to the American operation, New Zealand's own Carter Observatory operated a more modest observatory for purely scientific purposes. I don't remember exactly why my father took me up the long, precarious, road to the top of the range, but his cousin, Frank Andrews, was a professional astronomer who worked for the Carter Observatory, so that might have had something to do with it.
Whatever the reason, I remember as a small boy, I was most impressed by the telescopes pointing heavenward.
Over thirty years have passed since that day, and I'm now older than my father was at the time I last ascended the range. It's an overcast morning in Blenheim as I scramble out of my car and rush to an assembled collection of four wheel drive vehicles and over twenty members of the Marlborough Camera Club. Everyone else is highly organised, but I'm not sure if any of the others have the joys of organising primary school age children on Saturday mornings. Perhaps my last minute rush is a case of like father like son, as there's a legendary story, apparently completely true, of Dad ascending Altimarloch in his slippers after accidentally leaving his boots behind in his car. Dad, never being one to miss the opportunity to climb a mountain, on finding he'd forgotten his boots, went ahead anyway, in his slippers.
Collectively there's a larger volume of optics assembled to ascend the mountain than there ever was when the observatories were there, although individually, none of the lenses is a match for the telescopes that once lived on Black Birch.
We make an uneventful journey in convoy from Blenheim over Weld Pass and turn off into the Awatere Valley Road, past hectares of vineyards to a bit over a kilometre past the Medway Road turnoff, to the point where we've just about reached the limit of vineyards, and the sealed part of the road. We're already over 250 metres above sea level, but because the road climbs gradually, it's not obvious how much we've climbed.
At a locked gate that leads to the scarred hillside of a recently harvested forestry site we stop. A dense cloud layer envelops the upper contours of the mountain, so there's nothing to see beyond the barren slopes. We begin to climb, and pass large piles of slash, and eventually reach tall pines still waiting to be harvested. Initially the road is good, and I start wondering whether a four wheel drive is absolutely necessary, but suddenly come around a bend and we're past the forestry, and a DOC sign announces we are in the Ferny Gair Conservation Area. To our right, tall pines stand on the slope below us, while to our left, the hillside above us changes, and apart from a few wilding pines which are already encroaching on the conservation area, there is only low growing alpine scrub.
With no commercial incentive to maintain the road, and with the Americans long gone along with all trace of any observatory, the road ahead is narrow, rock strewn, and uneven, which leads me to take great comfort in travelling with a cautious driver.
As we round a sharp bend enveloped in mist, the clouds briefly part, and Taupae-o-Uenuku looms out of a bright sea of white to the south, the Awatere Valley and its vineyards hidden far below. To our right, a line of power poles climbs off into the cloud in what seems like something of a quixotic quest to scale a mountain, although we later discover why there is electricity supplied to a place of no human habitation.
As we ascend past 1200 metres, the vegetation gets lower and more sparse, with progressively more exposed scree, and brownish orange soil, and we reach a kind of high plateau, studded with rocky tors. To the north, scree slopes drop away to a steep sided valley and rise up again as the rugged Blairich Range. Apart from the tors, there is no shelter from sun or wind of any kind in this landscape, and we're grateful that the temperature is mild and there is little wind as we stop to explore the environment. At this altitude, the protective effect of the earth's atmosphere is far less, as I discover later, with quite sunburnt hands in spite of the constant swirling mist. For those species that make this harsh environment home, adapting to the strong solar radiation, wind, drought, and extreme cold in winter is essential to their survival.
In spite of the harsh environment, in early summer, the mountain is teeming with a multitude of life and vibrant colours. Black mountain ringlet butterflies flutter everywhere, teasing photographers but hardly ever sitting still. Small red beetle like insects feast on nectar from small alpine flowers, and the flowers themselves come in an abundance of sizes, shapes and colours, as though we are in the middle of a large botanical garden, except in this case everything is here naturally. Native variations of several well known plants such as buttercups, forget-me-nots and violets are found here, along with more exotic things like vegetable sheep, so named because from a distance, they have a similar appearance to a woolly sheep. I find a five legged alpine grasshopper that is obliging enough to pose for the camera. I'm mystified as to why it has lost one of its hind legs, but later, a good deal further up the mountain, I find another one in a similar state, so I begin to wonder whether they engage in some kind of weird dismemberment ritual.
After about twenty minutes of enthusiastic photographers exploring the landscape, with lenses more frequently pointed downwards than heavenwards as in the days of astronomical observations, we return to our vehicles, and drive another two kilometres or so to the summit of Altimarloch, at 1693 metres. Here, we stop for lunch, in the shelter of a large green generator shed, beneath some tall microwave communications antenna. I now know what the power poles were for that I saw further down. Under normal conditions, energy is supplied here to power the transmission equipment, however given the inhospitality and inaccessibility of the location, a substantial backup generator is required to keep things operating, in the event of power supply being disrupted.
Here at the summit of Altimarloch, the 350 metre or so difference in altitude from where we stopped earlier, is marked by a noticeable difference in ecology. Put in persepctive, 350 metres is more than three quarters of the height of the highest point on the Wither Hills, so it is reasonably significant.
After lunch, and plenty of time photographing the landscape and natural history, we slowly make our way back down the mountain, occasionally stopping to look for plants that we missed on the ascent.
It's been a privilege to visit this alpine region of Marlborough, high above the vineyards that the region has become renowned for. In reality, more of Marlborough is this harsh, almost alien alpine environment, than vineyards, yet only a relatively few people get to visit it due to inaccessibility, which perhaps is also a good thing, as it's also a fragile environment, that if too popular, could easily be damaged. Nevertheless, it's as much a part of Marlborough as the picture postcard images of the Marlborough Sounds or vineyards, and it's this incredible diversity that makes me proud to call Marlborough home.