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Spectre of the Brocken
Climbing in the mist

Peter Hunt- 13/2/04

The name Spectre of the Brocken conjures up mysterious images seen on mountains in Germany. In 1780 the name was given to the phenomenon seen on Mt Brocken when an enormously magnified shadow of the person watching was cast on a bank of cloud. It can happen when the sun is low in high mountain areas. It can happen on New Zealand mountains and I was able to have this eerie experience on Mt Robert in Nelson Lakes National Park. It seemed to me at the time that it was a fitting setting for a mysterious experience as to me Lake Rotoiti and its mountains were places of mystic wonderment.

Mt Robert in 2000 showing regrowth on the lower slopes
Mt Robert in 2000 showing regrowth on the lower slopes
Photo source: Perter Hunt
Click here to view a larger version
My favourite place when I was young was Lake Rotoiti, the beautiful mountain lake where our family went for many holidays. It is in the Nelson Lakes National Park about 100 kilometres south of Nelson (the city in which I spent most of my childhood). To me The Lake, as we called it, had almost magical qualities. When I hear bellbirds or grey warblers singing in the bush I can still recapture some of the feelings of enchantment I experienced when I arrived there as a child.

We stayed in a small cottage nestled in the bush about ten minutes walk from the lake edge. It was called Robin Cottage because of the curious robins which frequently visited there especially if any firewood was being prepared by sawing or chopping dead trees recovered from the nearby bush.

The mountains around the Lake are clothed in beautiful beech forest right down to the water's edge for the full distance of the St Arnaud range and for much of the Mt Robert range. However Mt Robert, which starts half way down the Lake on the opposite side to St Arnaud, presents one end which has had a very different and forlorn aspect. In the early years of last century there was a major fire on the side facing the foot of the Lake where visitors first see the view. This fire left a forest of blackened tree trunks where there had been green forest. This is what I saw in the late 1930s when I started having holidays there.

With the passage of years bush has started regenerating, helped in places by areas of planting by conservation staff and volunteers. The view now is of large areas of manuka trees on the lower slopes and the start of regeneration of beech and other trees. For those who saw the former desolate view it is a real joy to see the area regaining its forest cover.

Mt Robert was and is a good place for tramping. On one special occasion my father took me and a friend of mine on a tramp up the face of Mt Robert and we had two very notable experiences there.

In those days there was no convenient bridge over the Buller River, which has its source at the foot of Mt Robert , and there was no road going some distance up the northern ridge to a parking area as there is now for the convenience of skiers. The best way of getting there was by boat to the foot of the mountain.

On the day of our tramp the sky was completely overcast and Mt Robert was completely covered by cloud. However it was not raining so we decided to carry on with our planned climb and we set out as soon as it was light enough.

My father owned a dinghy and we rowed across the smooth waters of the Lake to the starting point. We pulled the boat across the shingly shore and into the only remnant of green bush remaining on the face so that it would not be easily visible to casual passers by. We shouldered our packs and set off.

At first it was an easy gradient but it soon became very steep and we had to zig zag across the face to ease the effort. We passed bracken and grassy areas and were constantly reminded of the fire which had roared across the area as we passed by towering black tree trunks and clambered over and around the fallen ones, with their root systems making interesting lattice-like patterns looming up through the mist.

We had some misgivings as we climbed because cloud remained thick over the mountain and we were not certain that we would get any view as a reward for our hard work climbing.

Eventually we decided to make for a ridge as the going seemed to be easier there. We paused and had some refreshment, but the mist was still thick. We then followed up the ridge and eventually found that the mist was getting more patchy and we began to sense that there was a sun above us somewhere.

As the light grew stronger we suddenly saw a very strange sight. Outlined on the mist to the side of the ridge we could see some large ghostly figures enclosed in a huge halo of light with rainbow colours at the edges. The figures moved and after a time we realised that their movements mirrored ours, so they were actually some sort of shadow of us.

Later when telling others of this experience we learned that there was a name for this phenomenon - Spectre of the Brocken. We watched it and tried different movements to vary the silhouette, and prolong the experience. Eventually, thinking that we might get into sunshine, we carried on up the mountain.

The mists were swirling around us and then quite suddenly we were above the cloud. What we saw was breathtakingly beautiful. There was a sea of white woolly clouds and protruding from it were the sharp rocky tops of the mountains of the area. Aeroplane travellers today probably become blas? about such sights, but for us at that time it was stunning.

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