MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Fiordland National Park”

Humpridge Track – Beyond Humpridge

A high bank of clouds hung over the mountain as the hut began to empty itself of hikers. It made for a grey start to a long day of hiking ahead up on the Humpridge, a little over 900m. I had a long descent ahead with my next bed an estimated 8hrs hiking away at an altitude of just 33m. There was a short trek up from Okaka Lodge to the ridge line and shortly after I turned to head downhill, I was greeted by a couple of kea. Kea are such cheeky interactive birds, and I always love to see them. They hung around only for a few minutes before taking off, revealing the bright orange underside of their otherwise predominantly green plumage.

 

Looking down either side of the mountain, wisps of morning cloud hung around the valleys and trees within view. I was facing directly out over Te Waewae Bay and Rakiura, surrounded by low alpine vegetation either side of the track. By the time I reached the track junction for the ascent I’d done the day before and the descent in front of me, I was walking through what is generally known as goblin forest, an ethereal type of forest typified by lichen-covered trees and moss-covered floors, where goblins and mythical creatures would not seem out of place. They can often be eerily quiet too, but on this occasion there were regular fantail and tomtit sightings as I moved through.

 

Back out on exposed ridge line, the descent was easy but the path was narrow making for the occasional jostle as faster hikers wanted to pass each other. There were great views looking behind and forwards, and I could make out the distinctive boulders atop Humpridge for quite some time. It looked stormy inland and then out of nowhere, a large cloud began to sweep up the eastern aspect of the mountain, enveloping the trail as I approached the area known as Luncheon Rock. The view was just obliterated and it became suddenly very cold. I waited it out for a bit, knowing from experience that it would only be temporary, savouring the view when it returned before disappearing into thick forest.

 

The rest of the descent was through forest similar to what I’d hiked up through the day before. I caught glimpses of kaka parrots feeding in the trees, and there was the sound of various bird species as I descended lower and lower. It took about 4.5hrs to reach the South Coast track at a mere 80m altitude and within minutes I found myself at the first of a series of historic viaducts. This coastal route used to be used by loggers and had a historic sawmill train running along it. The Edwin Burn viaduct was first, followed by the Percy Burn viaduct some time later. On the path between them, there were the hints of railway tracks just about visible through the soil. The viaducts themselves were huge wooden structures spanning wide gullies in the forest and as I crossed the Percy Burn viaduct, I could just make out the sea to the south, peaking out above the tree line.

 

After crossing the Sand Hill viaduct, the track continued to follow the contours of the coastline. I naively assumed I’d get a view of the sea as it skirted round Sand Hill Point but the forest was just too thick. Port Craig felt both tantalisingly close but also still some distance away. I was repetitively distracted by birds though with South Island robins keeping my company as I negotiated what was sometimes a rather muddy track. The foliage here meant sunlight didn’t penetrate well but being a typically wet part of the country, the undergrowth wasn’t getting the chance to dry out. By this point, the clouds had left and as the track started to turn north-east, I was bathed in glorious sunshine wherever the foliage would allow.

I reached Port Craig just shy of 8hrs since I’d left Okaka Lodge. Port Craig Lodge was a series of buildings around a central boardwalk, and my assigned bed was thankfully away from the snorer of the night before. The only view here was down by the helipad, but nearby there was a historic walk which led through some remnants from the sawmill days, as well as a track that led down to Mussel Beach at the edge of Te Waewae Bay. As I followed the beach track there was a lookout over the expanse of blue ocean and as I looked down on it, I saw a dolphin in the water. That was enough to spur me on to get down to the beach pronto.

 

The tide was out, and there was a gentle lap of water on the sand. I had no swimming clothes but I waded out to my knees to let the water soothe my aching feet and I craned my neck looking for signs of something break the water. My reward was the little rounded fin of a Hector’s dolphin feeding in the surf. Time and time again its fin cruised through the water and I caught it breathe as it moved back and forth across the bay. Sometimes it was tantalisingly close to shore, and then it would go out quite far till I could barely see it. At one point it was joined by a second dolphin and I couldn’t believe I pretty much had this moment to myself, despite how many other hikers had already arrived at the hut.

 

I spent over an hour either sitting or meandering on the beach. The dolphins kept me company for a large part of that before they moved further offshore. Latterly some other hikers joined me but they had missed most of the show. I felt so privileged to have experienced that. Eventually I headed back up the steps and walked the historical loop track past abandoned and rusting pits and chimneys. Back at the lodge, the common room began to fill up as everyone crowded in to to make and eat dinner. Once again, the presence of a bar meant I could indulge in a post hike cider. For the second day in a row, I’d hiked 21km, and I’d seen so much wildlife. I thankfully slept so much better that night.

The cloud had moved in over Fiordland National Park during the night and I woke up to a cooler and overcast morning. There was no great mountain to conquer that day but there was still a predicted 7hr hike back to my car. Te Waewae Bay is huge, and the trail was effectively following the coastal margin, although within the forest. The vegetation was so dense away from the trail and I was again reminded how easy it would be to get lost or disorientated if you strayed too far. I spotted kaka again as I moved under the trees then the rain began, and despite the density of the canopy above my head, it made it through the foliage and it was time to gear up in my waterproofs.

Despite the rain, I paused on the beach at Breakneck Creek where I could see the rain moving across the bay. It was steady enough to feel damp, and there was only so long I wanted to hang out in the rain before moving onwards. After another forested section, the trail actually cut down to another beach and the beach became the track. Among the debris on the sand I noticed a rock that looked like it had shellfish fossils in it. Among the waves some jagged rocks were being pounded by the surf but this didn’t seem to deter the spotted shags that were hanging out there. As I moved from one beach to a second beach, the rain began to ease a little and I could see that I was going to out-walk the bad weather. Finally though, I reached the track junction that led up to Okaka Lodge, and now I was retracing my steps from day 1.

 

Exiting Fiordland National Park through the edge of the forest, the long stony beach beckoned once more but it felt a little wilder this time, with the surf breaking on the rocks. A lone shag rested there despite the steady stream of hikers that passed by. The little beach shacks were passed and the last of the swing bridges traversed. Around 2pm I found myself heading up the stairs to the final forest section, eventually popping out at the car park, highly satisfied and tired.

 

I have to admit that often the first thing I’ll do when I come off a multi-day hike is to head straight to a coffee shop for a decent coffee. I used to only drink coffee on the weekends when I lived in Scotland, but the quality coffee in New Zealand means I’m firmly a daily caffeine consumer now, and I always crave a decent brew when I return to civilisation. I had good reason to on this occasion though as I had a 3.5hr drive to my bed for the night. Always one to pack the most into my time off work, I had one more adventure to go before returning to Christchurch.

Humpridge Track – Te Waewae Bay to Humpridge

I was torn between looking out into the surf and staring at my feet. The waters of Te Waewae Bay in New Zealand’s Southland are home to Hector’s dolphins, the World’s smallest dolphin species. I hoped to see some riding the waves as I strolled along the beach on the first section of the multi-day Humpridge Track, but the stones and shifting sand under foot meant I was constantly having to watch my footing.

 

It took about 1.5 hours to walk the expanse of the bay from the car park at Rarakau. I knew I had a decent climb ahead of me but I also wanted to savour the fresh sea air before the sweat and slog began so I hadn’t hurried myself too much. Once off the beach, it was an easy track that hugged the contours of the coastline, following the edge of the forest where the odd bird began to appear. Beyond a swing bridge across a river, the sun burst through the clouds properly, bathing me in sunlight as I came across a pretty little beach just down from the track. Eventually, the track headed into thicker and thicker forest until I found myself at the junction to begin the hard slog up into the mountains. Here, I was stepping into Fiordland National Park, the largest national park in the country, and one of my favourites. Down here, in the south-west corner of the country, the land feels so remote and so far from civilisation, and I was soon to discover, it was full of wildlife.

 

From the moment I took the turnoff the forest felt deep and impenetrable. A mix of cut trail and long boardwalks, there was a sense that moving just a few metres off track could see you lost and disorientated. For an hour and a half, the track meandered through tall dense trees with the sound of forest birds intermittently accompanying me. Somewhere off to the side a river was snaking through the forest but it was out of sight until eventually I reached Water Bridge Shelter where other hikers had also stopped to take a break. Ahead lay the climb, an over 800m ascent up to Okaka Lodge where my bed for the night awaited. But by now I’d already be on the trail for 4 hours, and with the altitude gain, the prospect was of another 4 hours to go. As I replenished some spent energy with snacks and water, a South Island robin watched with great interest, cocking its head as it flitted about.

 

The climb was exhausting but as I made my way up higher and higher in the forest, I saw flashes of tomtits following close by, and even kaka, a shy forest parrot. At one point I stumbled across a large group of riflemen, a really tiny bird that are normally very difficult to photograph due to their shyness and incessant need to keep moving. I would have been able to snap a photo of this group if I had thought to, but I was so caught off guard at the number of them just partying in the ground vegetation that I ended up just watching them without daring to move. There was a constant tag team of passing or being passed by fellow hikers but despite that, I still felt for the most part that it was just me and the forest and it was total bliss despite the effort of the hike.

 

After a couple of hours, a low ridge provided a break in the trees, and the higher altitude meant the trees were a little shorter. For the first time the Okaka Lodge came into view and it looked tantalisingly close. There was also a lookout called Stag Point which gave an incredible view over Te Waewae Bay and I could see over to Rakiura/Stewart Island. The cloud had moved in and the sun had faded but the view was still expansive.

I was by now exhausted and eager to reach the lodge, so I was a little disappointed to see a sign stating there was still another 1.5hrs to go. I could see and hear kea, an alpine parrot flying up by the lodge and the bluffs off to the side of it, and hoped they’d still be there when I reached it. As much as seeing kaka in the wild is exciting due to their rarity, they are typically shy and hide out of sight, unlike the kea which are inquisitive, comparatively bold and more likely to interact. Therefore, I’m always more excited to see kea than I am to see kaka.

Once more delving into thick forest, I finally came upon the ridge junction that would take me onto the alpine ridge towards the lodge. Shortly after making the turn, the track broke out of the trees and I was surrounded by stubby alpine plants and a chill in the air. To protect the fragile plants here, the track became a long boardwalk snaking across the ridge, depositing me at the turn off to the hut. There it was a drop down of about 20m to reach a beautiful lodge nestled between two ridges with a prospect overlooking Te Waewae Bay. I’ve stayed in many Department of Conservation (DoC) huts where it’s first come, first served for bunk beds, but the Humpridge Track is privately run and on arrival I discovered I had a pre-assigned bed. I was to be sharing a bunk room with a family group, of which the matriarch proudly declared to me that she was a loud snorer and laughed as she told me not to expect any sleep that night. I realised I hadn’t brought any ear plugs with me and sighed inwardly.

 

It was by now 5pm, but being summer, sunset was still several hours away, so after I felt adequately rested in the legs, I decided to head back up to the ridge to walk the Humpridge Loop track. Up at around 1000m, the ridge is littered with large and unusually shaped boulders which gives a distinctive skyline. I could see rain moving in from deep within Fiordland National Park, and the sky over me was growing greyer and greyer. I headed clockwise round the loop, where I could see across a span of mountains to Lake Poteriteri to the west. A couple of mountain tarns sat near the top and a few hardy alpine flowers were in bloom. In the far distance were some tall peaks with a dusting of snow still clinging to their slopes.

 

A few spots of rain began as I skirted round the top of the loop to come back on the eastern side. From up here, Rakiura was now in full view and I could see so far along the Southland coast also. It wasn’t quite the blue sunny sky I’d had earlier in the day but the cloud was staying high enough that the view thankfully wasn’t occluded. I took a quick second loop around the trail before the spots of rain became more of a drizzle, sending me back to the lodge for the evening.

 

Away from the bunkrooms, the common rooms felt packed with all the hikers congregated in one space preparing meals and chatting together. The novelty of this being a private lodge was the cupboard full of dehydrated meals, snacks, soft drinks and booze. It was a nice treat to end the long day of hiking by grabbing a can of cider to wash down my dinner and the evening was buzzing with chatter as people got to know each other. I much prefer hiking on my own, and am incredibly introverted in large gatherings. Nonetheless, huts on a hiking trail are a good chance to mingle and meet people from all over the country and abroad, and so I always force myself to talk to people in huts more than I would in my day to day life.

As I retired to bed, it wasn’t long before I discovered that my bunk mate was not kidding about her snoring. It was like a foghorn. I tried and tried to shut off to it but I just got tired and cranky. After a while I grabbed my sleeping bag and walked to the living room where I discovered two other outcasts asleep on the couches. Thankfully there was a spare couch, and I settled in for an awkwardly positioned sleep in a much quieter space. In the early hours of the morning we were disturbed by the early risers. Anyone who has slept overnight in a DoC hut in New Zealand knows that there are always those that rise early, and don’t seem to care who they disturb. As the three of us were occupying the common room, it was difficult for them to tread around us, so in the end, I acknowledged that it was time to get up. I’d hiked 21km to Okaka Lodge, and ahead of me was another 21km to my next bed. I might as well get moving.

A Journey Towards Fiordland National Park

New Zealand’s unique avian fauna has seen me morph into a bird nerd. I enjoyed the sight and sound of birds in my Homeland of Scotland, but I never went out my way to go bird watching, or cared enough to photograph them. But since moving to a country which has a high rate of endemism, having species found here and nowhere else, I found myself increasingly interested in watching them, photographing them and conserving them. With many ground nesting or flightless birds, the introduction (both deliberate and accidental) of predators has decimated many species causing extinctions or near extinctions across both islands.

One of my favourite places in Wellington is Zealandia, a predator-proof ecosanctuary behind the capital city where parrots, saddleback and hihi are free to fly without risk of predation, at least if they remain within the boundary. I’ve known about Dunedin’s version for a while, but never had the time to visit, so when I made plans to go hiking in Southland in February 2020, I decided to head down via Otago, stopping off at Orokonui Ecosanctuary on route. I’d returned home from a week away in the Chatham Islands just the afternoon prior, which was enough time to unpack, repack and recharge ahead of the 5hr drive south. Arriving at lunchtime, I stopped for lunch in the cafe before heading into the sanctuary proper. Although smaller, like Zealandia, its perimeter is a predator-proof fence, and likewise the birds are free-flying and capable of leaving the sanctuary.

Immediately outside the entrance-way was a wetland and the surrounding hills had their tops shrouded in clouds. It wasn’t long before I began to see birds. A welcome swallow watched me as I walked towards an open area where a takahe was wandering about. An artificial landscape had been created for native skinks and some of these were sunbathing on the rocks. There’s paths of varying altitude and length throughout the park, with feeding stations marked to give an idea of where birds may be best spotted.

 

I was mindful of the fact that I still had a few more hours to drive that day, but also wanted to get a good feel for the place and cover as much area as I could whilst still being able to stop and bird watch. The feeding stations were a great place to spot tui and korimako, and when I headed into the wooded areas, I was joined by south island robins, a bird I regularly hang out with while hiking. There was a surprising variation in vegetation as the paths circled over, round and down the nearby hillside. Sadly, there were no free-flying kaka to be seen here which was one big difference from Zealandia. However, there were some parakeets which are very camera shy but always noisy.

 

I sat for a while at a nectar station watching more tui and bellbirds feeding before I found myself at an area with a view down the hillside towards Blueskin Bay. Nearby there were some caged parrots which I found unusual, but I later discovered these were birds that had been rehabbed post-illness, and were being temporarily held for monitoring and wing-stretching pre-release. Beyond here, it wasn’t long before I found myself back at the entrance and back on the road.

 

I had two choices to get back onto State Highway (SH) 1: go back the way I’d come or cut over to Port Chalmers and drive through Dunedin. I decided to follow the road to Port Chalmers which I’d never been on before. A lookout above the port gave a good view over the port itself but also across the Otago harbour and the islands within it. I’ve been around parts of the Otago Peninsula before but I hadn’t previously explored the northern side of the harbour. I didn’t have time to stop anywhere else, instead making a mental note to come back and explore this headland another time.

 

It was a long 3.5hr drive to the far south-western corner of both Southland and the South Island. Driving is exhausting, no matter how well rested you are prior. I was pretty eager to get to my destination, with the last hour or so being particularly tedious and tiresome. Finally I pulled into Tuatapere, a small and quiet little settlement which felt deserted this late in the day. Tuatapere is ‘famous’ for the tuatapere sausage, so after checking in at the local backpacker lodge, I headed to the pub to see what all the fuss was about. When you know you’re going to be eating dehydrated food for several days, you tend to savour the last proper meal before a multi-day hike, and whilst I don’t really know what makes their sausage that different from others, the bangers and mash was a welcome feed.

The Humpridge Track is a privately run multi-day hike in the south-western corner of the South Island, starting at Te Waewae Bay before entering Fiordland National Park at its south-eastern perimeter. Bunk beds need to be pre-booked and are pre-assigned, and it is necessary to visit the Tuatapere Humpridge Track office prior to commencing to sign onto the trail. Shuttles are an option, but I had my own wheels so I headed off down the back road out of Tuatapere. Like a lot of hikes in New Zealand, the access road was unsealed for a large section of it. I only have a 2-wheel drive car, but this has done me fine for most back country roads that I’ve traversed. Only when its a steep gradient do I really hate driving on unsealed roads, and this was the case to reach the car park.

When at last I got there, the car park was mobbed and there was limited room to park. Although the Humpridge track is limited by the number of available beds, there are public walks utilising Department of Conservation (DoC) huts that also start from here. Multiple groups were setting off at the same time, so although geographically I was quite away from the bulk of the country’s population, I certainly didn’t feel alone.

With 21km to cover on day one, the track immediately ducked into forest, heading downhill towards the coast. Brief glimpses of the sea breaking on the coast below me began to open up into wider views of Te Waewae Bay. A flight of steps lead down to a lower track which broke out at a suspension bridge across the Waikoau river. I was surprised to see some beach shacks here, but there was nobody around despite a couple of them looking like they were occupied.

 

Shortly after, the track cut down to the beach, and in doing so, the view along the coast opened right up in all directions. The others who’d set off around the same time as me were ahead now, and in the distance I could see other hikers spaced out along the stony beach. I could also see the mountain I had to climb to reach my bed for the night, a 900m elevation from where I was standing. But I was excited for the three days of hiking ahead of me, grateful to be doing it under a blue sky.

Spring Roadie – Milford Sound to Te Anau

Aside from cruising down the fjord on one of the many boat trips, there is also a shoreline walk at Milford Sound that is always worth taking the time to do. By the time my brother and I had arrived back into dock in late morning, the tide was getting low, but the sun was much higher. The pier that sticks out into the water at the ferry terminal was a good place to start the shoreline walk from and after popping out to the end of it for us both to take some photographs, we meandered our way back towards the car park.

 

Beyond the other side of here is a small peninsula that juts out. A little trail leads through the bush here and with the low tide, there was plenty of opportunity to walk out onto the exposed stony shore and take in the view. It’s really hard to take a bad photograph here when the view is so stunning. Even though it wasn’t my first time, I still happily filled my memory card and in between times walked around with a smile on my face. It was a busy little waterfront by this stage with many of the tourists from the morning boat trips having the same plan, but despite this it was still tranquil and didn’t feel overcrowded.

 

But eventually it was time to push on, as the drive back to Te Anau is very scenic and there were lots of stops to be made. The first of these was the Chasm, not too far out of Milford Sound as the road starts its wind back up through the deep valley. The high volume of water through the valleys in Fiordland National Park has long been weathering and changing the landscape. In the case of the Chasm, a narrow channel of fast moving water has created a literal chasm in the rock causing the water to gush through a rocky channel and cascade over a drop. Whilst it is a short walk to see it, the bridge has been placed right over the waterfall which means it is actually really difficult to fully visualise the extent of the fall which seems to me to be a bit of bad planning. None-the-less, the gaps in the foliage as we walked through the bush to get back from it, offered a sneaky peak at the surrounding mountain peaks.

 

From there, the road winds its way uphill to the man-made wonder that is Homer Tunnel. It is particularly impressive to approach it from this side as the steep slopes of the mountains grow closer and closer as if they will swallow you, and all there is to see in front of you is a sheer rock wall. The effort involved in blasting this rudimentary tunnel through such solid rock would have been incredible, but without it, Milford Sound would only be accessible by sea or air. A series of S-bends raises the altitude and towards the top, a large area to pull in at is worth pausing at to appreciate the dramatic rocky sides of this magnificent valley. Snow melt meant there were plenty of little waterfalls cascading down the rockface.

 

Because the tunnel is unsealed and unwalled, the restricted width, height and constant dripping water throughout the length of the tunnel means it is classed as a 1-lane road, with traffic lights controlling the flow during peak season. Queuing to pass through is inevitable but it is efficient, and once back on the other side we again pulled in near the site of the morning’s kea encounter where we marvelled at the snow piled up by the roadside and once again watched the kea causing chaos. Further up the valley we paused at a lookout over the entrance to the Hollyford Valley, an area I’m keen to explore further on foot. Then beyond here, was our main stop on the drive.

 

Having lived in New Zealand for well over 6 years now, and having seen the increasing tourist numbers and the environmental effects that is occurring as a result, I’m torn about recommending my favourite places to go, because I want to keep them the way I found them: quiet and untouched. But if I was asked what one short walk shouldn’t be missed on a New Zealand trip, then Key Summit would be it. Reached from the Divide on the Te Anau-Milford Highway, it is also the start of the very popular Routeburn Track, one of the country’s multi-day Great Walks. But within 2-3 hours, you can hike up to Key Summit and be back at your car, and the views of the surrounding mountain ranges on a clear day are just incredible.

Like the last time I hiked it, the sun was shining and the sky was blue, but this time round, it was so bright that I had great issues with over-exposure of the photographs I was taking. About 3.5 years after the last visit, we pulled into the car park, and not only was it packed, but the extension (which hadn’t been present when I was there last time) was also packed, and a spill-over car park down a steep and rutted slope was also nearly full. I couldn’t get over the difference. The trail was also full of people coming and going and this is why I am torn to recommend my favourite places: I hike to be amongst nature and seek solitude, so I hate walking busy routes.

The initial part of the trail is amongst bush with just the occasional break in the trees to see a glimpse of the nearby peaks. It isn’t until close to the turn-off to Key Summit that the real views begin. Away from the Routeburn Track, the Key Summit route zig-zags up the mountainside until eventually it reaches a plateau where a boardwalk takes you on an alpine nature walk. From shrubs to tarns and the mountain peaks around it, I cannot do the view justice with words. Even the photographs fail to show the splendour of the view and I’m pretty sure my brother was blown away. He wasn’t in the country long enough to tackle any lengthy hiking trails, but here he was getting a good idea of what the country has to offer.

 

Although the plateau is Key Summit, at 919m (3016ft), there is a higher peak behind it which offers a really good view point back down over the tarns. This path had been completely upgraded since my last visit, as had the lookout itself which was busy, unlike the last time I was here when only myself and 1 other person had bothered to take the rudimentary track up the slope. Now a proper gravelled track led up here and I again pondered about the changes that were needing to be made to meet the demands of foot traffic. From this height though, it is just possible to make out a sliver of Lake Marian which sits hidden within a mountain valley near the entrance to the Hollyford Valley.

 

Returning to Key Summit, we continued the circuit of the alpine nature walk, crossing boardwalks, then rocks, absorbing the view around us. In shaded patches, stale snow lay on the ground and I left my brother to enjoy himself, myself slipping into my own wee world as I tend to do when I’m out hiking in nature. Had we had endless hours to spare, I could have happily sat up there with a picnic and just stared out at the mountains. As it was, the hours of the day were creeping onwards and so having had our fill of the fresh mountain air, we finished the circuit and made our way back down to the Routeburn Track, and back towards the car.

 

We stopped at the Mirror Lakes further along the road, which like last time I was here, was not reflective due to an afternoon breeze. Like many reflective lakes in New Zealand, early morning on a still day is the best time to see the effect. We stayed long enough for my brother to read all the info boards before we pushed on. As we cruised through the Eglinton Valley which had been cloaked in a mesmerising mist that morning, we stopped a couple of times at the side of the road just to appreciate the difference that full daylight made.

 

By the time we reached the top of Lake Te Anau, I was getting tired. It was still sunny overhead but the sun was dropping creating a glare across the water. We paused briefly at the pier that the Milford Sound track boat leaves from and eventually pulled into Te Anau in the early evening. We went out for pizza at an Italian restaurant near the main street before retiring to the hostel along the road to rest our legs from a day of activity. I adore Fiordland National Park, but I was just as excited to take my brother to another of my favourite places the next day.

Spring Roadie – Queenstown to Milford Sound

Three and a half years after my last visit, when I had come to hike my first multi-day walk in New Zealand, I found myself back in Te Anau, having driven from Queenstown through rain and arrived in cloud. The area of Fiordland National Park and its immediate surroundings is the wettest part of the country and it is said that you should go there expecting rain, with anything better being a bonus. Last time round I’d managed to miss the worst of the weather whilst walking the Kepler Track and had then been rewarded with a glorious day in Milford Sound. The drive to Te Anau was the first bad weather my brother had experienced since arriving in the country for the first time, and I was inwardly concerned about what we would get the next day. But we busied ourselves with dinner ahead of an early night; an early rise was to follow.

The Milford Highway is one of the most stunning drives in the country, and also one of the busiest. Milford Sound may be at the end of a long dead-end road but it is top of many a tourist’s wish list and so its worth planning the best time to tackle the drive to avoid the bulk of the crowds. I knew from last time that it was best to head off in darkness, get the drive out the way to catch the morning boat trip, and then take your time driving back, stopping at all the highlights on the way. I convinced my brother that this was the best choice, and so we duly set off at dawn. The mist was incredible and I wished I wasn’t driving so that I could take some photos of it, but at least my brother got to soak it in, and I glanced at it often when I was able to take my eyes off the winding road. The sweeping Eglinton Valley was spectacular with the mist, and it only started to disappear once we were more nestled amongst the mountains.

We stopped at Pop’s View Lookout for a breakfast snack overlooking Mount Christina and the Hollyford Valley. There was snow on the peaks poking up in the background, and somewhere hidden nearby was Lake Marion, out of sight. As we continued onwards, I noticed there had been a few road upgrades since I’d last been there and by the time we reached the entrance to Homer Tunnel, we had made good time. My attention was grabbed by some kea on a car parked by the road so I pulled over for my brother to get a look. Immediately a kea flew over and landed on the roof as my brother watched it. I suddenly realised my brother had left the passenger car door open as the kea hopped onto it and eyeballed me inside. I adore kea, the cheeky alpine parrot that is endemic in New Zealand, but with their cheekiness comes a destructive inquisitiveness and I had visions of it coming in the car and causing havoc. I called to my brother to close the door, the bird hopping back onto the roof as he did. We enjoyed the close encounter, surrounded by the steep mountains of the alps. Moving around the car to photograph the kea from a different angle, I realised too late, and to my dismay, that my brother hadn’t closed the door properly, and I cried out as the kea’s sharp beak bit a hole in the door’s rubber seal.

 

Driving through the Homer Tunnel, dripping with water from the roof onto the uneven ground below, and emerging at the far end to the steep mountain sides flanking the valley below, is an utter sight to behold. I was excited that the day was clearly a gloriously sunny one, and for the second time, I was lucky to experience the wettest part of the country on a beautiful sunny day. I was so glad that my brother got to experience the sunshine too. We finally pulled in at Milford Sound where the car park was starting to fill up for the day. We had picked the quieter time to take a boat trip there, but Milford Sound is far from quiet with a plethora of cruise options attracting plenty of tourists at all times of the day.

The foreshore walk from the car park to the ferry terminal offers one of the classic viewing spots across to Mitre Peak, the mountain peak that the area is famous for. Adorning every postcard and promotion material you can come across, the lighting wasn’t at its best at that time of the day, but with the tide in, the mountain reflected well in the water. We were nearly at the terminal when I realised I’d left the ferry ticket in the car and I had to run back through a sea of people coming against me, to grab it. I was knackered by the time I made it back to my brother, where he informed me that he’d checked us in without it. As we waited to board, we were the last boat to load and we discovered that our boat had been changed to a smaller vessel. I didn’t think anything of it, but my brother seemed disappointed, and I realised that this must have been a part of the trip that he was really looking forward to and the limited space on the boat concerned him that it would be overcrowded.

 

In the end though, I think he quickly forgot this as we got going. With the blue sky, sunshine and stunning scenery, it would have been hard to hold a grudge for long. Crossing first to the base of Mitre Peak, our boat joined the procession of tour boats that were ploughing the same route along the western slopes. The sides of the fjord are steep and covered in thick green vegetation, broken intermittently where a waterfall cascades down from somewhere on high. After heavy rain the waterfalls increase in number and strength, but even on a dry day, there were plenty to see. Passing a New Zealand fur seal hauled out on some rocks, we waited our turn to point the bow underneath one of the waterfalls, soaking the people at the front of the boat. Then, a little further along, some rare Fiordland Crested penguins were spotted on rocks and we hovered by them for some time. The bow of the boat quickly became packed with people desperate to take photos but my brother remained at the stern. I was surprised he would let himself miss out on the opportunity to see them, but assumed he was irked by the sudden squash of people on the small boat. It turned out he could see them just fine as the boat had angled enough to the side, and so he spotted his first ever wild penguins.

 

Eventually we found ourselves at the entrance to the fjord, staring out at the Tasman Sea, and here the boat sat for a while, bobbing around on the waves as my brother got to see the west coast for the first time. When we headed back into the fjord, the boat hugged the opposite side which was mostly in the shade. This was the compromise for the morning boat trip in November: the sun wasn’t high enough to light up both flanks. But it was still a gorgeous view, and my brother was able to get a close up of some New Zealand fur seals, another creature that’s different from the wildlife of Scotland. Then a little further into the fjord, a call went up that dolphins were about. I wasn’t expecting them and was caught off guard, and both of us scrambled over to the edge to look, catching an all-too-brief sighting before they disappeared out of view.

 

As we approached Harrison Cove, the view opened up a little to reveal the snowy peak of Mount Pembroke. Nestled within the cove is the underwater discovery centre that I had stopped at on my last trip here. This time round we were skipping this, and passing the cove signalled that the tour was almost over. As we cruised back to the ferry terminal, the familiar face of Mitre Peak crept back into view as Bowen Falls gushed down in the shadows to our side. There was still so much ahead of us that day, but it had been a cracking start and I’m pretty sure my brother enjoyed his sail through New Zealand’s most famous fjord.

Key Summit

The beautiful Fiordland National Park contains 3 of New Zealand’s 9 Great Walks: the Kepler Track, Milford Track and the Routeburn Track. On the road to Milford Sound from Te Anau, is an area called the Divide, near where the Milford Highway skirts round the end of the Hollyford Valley. It marks the start (or end) of the Routeburn Track, a multi-day hike that cuts through the Humboldt Mountains. With my appetite whetted from hiking the Kepler Track, I vow to come back one day to hike the Milford and Routeburn tracks as well, but on my way back to Te Anau from Milford Sound, I pulled in at the Divide to walk to Key Summit which had been highly recommended.

The first 40 minutes or so of the walk is along the Routeburn Track, winding upwards and round the end of the Livingstone Mountain range. It is a simple gravel path, past a few small waterfalls, hidden amongst the trees but within ear shot of the Milford Highway and its passing traffic. Not until the path has skirted round quite far does the canopy allow a view of the Hollyford valley and the Humboldt Mountains. It is, like so many parts of the National Park, a stunning sight. Both the valley and the mountains were thick with vegetation and far below, the Hollyford river sparkled under the glorious sunshine.

 

A sign marks the split up to Key Summit, and the path winds back and forth through an increasingly alpine vegetation until the summit is reached. The summit (919m/3015ft altitude) is relatively flat and has a self-guided alpine nature walk around it, encompassing a mixture of alpine wetlands, lakes and alpine vegetation. No matter what direction you look, there are mountains on all sides: Humboldt, Darran, Ailsa and Earl Mountain ranges.

 

A track heads up to a higher lookout where most of the alpine nature walk is visible below, and also the hidden Lake Marian comes into view. Lake Marrian is nestled within the Darran mountain range to the west. Returning via the same path, it rejoins the nature walk which, via various lookouts, forms a loop back to the path to take you back down to the Routeburn track and back to the Divide the way you came. At just over 2 hrs, it is a fantastic walk to do on a sunny day, and gives a good taster of the spectacular views that I’m sure the Routeburn Track offers.

Fiordland National Park

You know you’re in one of the most beautiful and unique places in the world when there just aren’t enough superlatives to describe it. Fiordland National Park covers the south-western corner of the South Island of New Zealand and large sections of it remain unexplored by humans. This simple fact leaves me in awe. In 2014, there are still parts of New Zealand that are rarely witnessed by human beings. Hectares of thick bush, or dramatic mountains that make it hazardous to adventure in to.

It was a long and tiring 8 hr drive south from Christchurch via Queenstown, and I arrived in Te Anau in the lowering sun. I was making the most of my YHA membership by staying in the local hostel but it was the start of a week of not getting enough sleep. It had been a while since I’d shared a dorm room and I’d forgotten how much a good night’s sleep was determined by those people you shared a room with. Between the people coming in late and those leaving early, it was a very disturbed sleep that first night.

The next morning, I headed out into the early morning darkness and the rain and drove to Manapouri on the shore of the lake with the same name. In the greyness of a wet morning, I boarded one of the boats to head across the water on a 45 minute cruise to the far side. The surrounding mountains looked dramatic with the low cloud hugging and framing their silhouettes. The deeper into the lake we got, the higher the mountains seemed to climb. It was a wet start to the day but I couldn’t get enough of the cloudy view. On the western shore, the boat moored next to the Manapouri power station, a rather controversial feat of engineering that changed not just the landscape, but the local ecology too. It was completed in 1971 to produce power for a smelting plant in Southland, but in doing so, it not only changed the level of Lake Manapouri, but it altered the movement of some aquatic species, most notably the eel which has to be physically captured and relocated to the sea to allow it to carry on its life cycle.

 

From the shore, our group was transferred by bus across the pass towards Doubtful Sound where another boat waited for us. Thankfully, albeit unusually, the weather on the seaward side of the mountains was actually drier with occasional bursts of blue sky breaking through the higher cloud bank. There was still the occasional low cloud to add to the dramatic landscape of steep mountain sides rising steeply from the wall of the fiord. Doubtful Sound is utterly breathtaking. It’s quite broad in places, but is made up also of multiple branches that delve into valleys amongst the mountains. We headed initially to the mouth of the fiord which is protected to a degree by a few relatively large islands. On a few of the smaller ones right at the entrance, New Zealand Fur Seals haul themselves up on the rocks to dry out and digest a belly full of fish. Several more frolicked in the lapping waves, showing off to us as we hovered for a while to watch. Heading back in to the fiord, the boat took us down a couple of the branches. In the first one we were very lucky to see a pair of exceedingly rare Yellow-Crested Fiordland Penguins. They were cruising along together, floating on the surface looking nonplussed by our presence. The water was still here, and with the sun trying to break through, the mountains reflected beautifully on the calm water. The captain turned the boat’s engine off so that we could appreciate the peacefulness of the area. The only thing breaking through the silence was the occasional cry of a bird amongst the foliage on the mountain sides. The serenity was fantastic.

 

Heading into a second branch, we came across another pair of Fiordland penguins, followed by another pair deeper in. It seems we were exceedingly lucky to see 6 of what is a very threatened species. In this deeper branch of the fiord, the mountains were especially steep, too steep for vegetation to grow in places, and these cliffs were grey and barren. On one aspect of an especially tall mountain, a deep gouge was evident running down from the summit towards the sea. This is one of a few visible fault lines in the world, and shows the dramatic meeting of two small tectonic plates. New Zealand as a whole has multiple fault lines running in various directions, and whilst always posing a risk for an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, it is these same potentially deadly movements that provide a lot of the beauty and dramatic landscape that the country is so famous for.

 

Returning by boat and then bus, we headed underground at the Meridian-owned Manapouri power station to visit the turbine hall. Sitting 200 metres below the level of Lake Manapouri, the power station is the largest hydroelectric station in the country and produces 800MW of power. It is an amazing feat of engineering that took a lot of time and manpower to excavate and construct. A few people lost their lives in the process and a plaque of remembrance is attached to the wall at the depth of the road tunnel deep under the ground.

 

It was still dull over Lake Manapouri but at least the clouds had lifted giving a better view of the surrounding mountains. The following day I was to set off on the Kepler Track, one of the country’s Great Walks, that spans an area of land between Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri. I looked to the summit, trying to fathom out where I would be heading, and couldn’t work it out. It would have to be a surprise. Back in Te Anau, I decided to go out to the glowworm caves across the far side of Lake Te Anau, but by the time the trip set off, the rain had moved in for the night, and once again, the cloud level dropped and the view disappeared. Luckily the caves were underground and away from the worst of the weather, but unfortunately I was not allowed to take photographs on the cave experience which was disappointing. There were some incredible waterfalls within the cave, carved out by thousands of years of water carving a channel through the limestone walls. At the end of it, we boarded a small boat and were guided round a cavern in the dark where the only light was from the small blue glow from a myriad of glowworms. Having visited Waitomo caves in the north island, there was a slightly disappointing amount of glowworms at the Te Anau caves, but it was still a good way to spend a few hours, and there was a couple of interesting videos at the end of it which were quite informative about glowworms and their life cycle.

 

A few days later after completing the Kepler Track, I returned to Te Anau in glorious sunshine. The lake glimmered under the blue sky, and after a drive round the waterfront in Te Anau itself, I followed the lake to its northern edge and continued on the Milford highway for some distance. The scenery changed dramatically, from lakeside, to pastures, to steep mountains rising up from the valley floor. Amongst these impressive vertical mountain slopes lay the Eglinton valley with the Eglinton river. The river courses a seemingly calm route through the valley floor, providing a perfect environment for the exceedingly annoying sand fly. The route is littered with picnic and camp sites, but everywhere I got out to enjoy the view and take photos, it would be a mere few minutes before the pesky creatures would have me swatting like a madman and running back for the safety of the car. Next time I will come armed with repellent, for they regularly interrupted my enjoyment of this staggeringly beautiful region. There is a collection of small lakes known as the Mirror Lakes because on a still day, they produce a perfect reflection of the mountains that tower over them. Whilst the sun shone over head, there was a breeze when I stopped there, so the reflection was distorted, but it was still a lovely place to sit and watch the local fowl swim around and daydream in between the incessant swatting of flies. Further along the road, there is a sign marking a latitude of 45 degrees south: the exact half-way point between the equator and the south pole. The river was particularly wide near here, and again I would have loved to have stayed here longer if it weren’t for the sand flies. I drove as far as Knobs Flat before heading back to Te Anau for the evening. The local cinema regularly shows a movie called Fiordland on Film which is a brief but incredible aerial display of the National Park, including many areas that haven’t really been explored on foot. Having watched it that evening, I would definitely recommend a viewing whilst in town.

 

I rose early the next morning, heading off in total darkness, to push on at a good pace before the tourist traffic built up for the morning. It is a long and winding drive on the Milford highway heading north-west towards Milford Sound. I passed the Mirror Lakes and Knobs Flat in the low sun and pushed on, passing Lake Gunn, and the Divide where the Routeburn Track finishes. Past here, the road turns sharply and follows the Hollyford river for a while. There are some single track sections, and the road bends and winds and dips and climbs towards the dramatic entrance of the Homer Tunnel. By this point I was struggling to stop my jaw dropping open. The scenery was phenomenal, and at the end of it all, the road comes to a massive wall of rock through which the road was blasted. The tunnel was opened in 1954, prior to which the only access to the west coast was by boat. It drops quite steeply to the western side and the walls have been left unlined, bearing the granite surface which drips water from the rock face. Coming out the other side in the Cleddau valley, the road winds downwards following the natural flow of the Cleddau river, and eventually coming out at Milford Sound and that famous view of Mitre Peak that is borne on hundreds of postcards across the country. The sun was still low, struggling to break over the Homer Saddle, so Milford Sound still lay greatly in the shadow whilst I awaited my boat trip. By the time we set off mid-morning, the sun had broken high enough to bathe the fiord in light. Being late March, the sun was already struggling to attain enough height to light up the entire fiord and the one side remained in shadow for the entire trip. Nevertheless, the side with Mitre Peak was illuminated and we followed this steep mountain side towards the sea.

 

I had been blown away by the rugged beauty of Doubtful Sound, but with the added benefit of the blue sky and glorious sunshine, Milford Sound was stunning. Though smaller in length, the mountains are much steeper here which lends an intensity to the landscape which begs your constant attention. There were several people kayaking as we passed by, and in a few spots where the rocks allowed, there were some New Zealand Fur Seals hauled up out of the water. The fiord is most famous for its waterfalls which increase in number quite dramatically after heavy rain. Whilst only the main ones were still flowing, it was still incredible to see such high drops of water splashing down the cliff side. At two of them, the boat moved in quite close so that the people at the front got wet, and a rainbow was visible in the spray. The changing prospect of the domineering Mitre Peak framed our passage out to sea where the altitude dropped dramatically. Near the entrance, we briefly saw a pod of bottlenose dolphins skirt the coastline before heading out of sight.

 

The coastline looking north was shrouded in a low mist, and we bobbed on the Tasman Sea for a short while admiring the view before heading back into the fiord. We hugged the opposite shore which still remained in the shadow, stopping briefly to watch more fur seals. We passed close to another waterfall before we pulled in at the discovery centre where I disembarked for a look under the water. Floating on a pontoon attached to the cliff wall, the underwater observatory descends 10 metres below the surface. The water in these fiords offers a unique marine environment. With the freshwater cascading from the cliffs into the sea, it picks up the tannins from the plants which taint the water a dark brown colour. As salt water is heavier than freshwater, the darker fresh water sits in a layer about 2 metres deep above the sea water. The darkness of this freshwater layer blocks the sunlight filtering through meaning that marine species which elsewhere would only be found at great depths, actually grow well remarkably close to the surface. At just 10 metres below the surface, they have beds growing rare black coral (which actually appears white in colour). From one side of the viewing chamber, the rock face had starfish and sea slugs amongst other things attached, and from the opposite side, there were shoals of fish of varying sizes flitting about past the windows. The water was murky but the fish came quite close up and it was fascinating to watch them. I overheard the staff telling someone that they occasionally see dolphins from the windows and the odd fur seal or penguin. Boats passed regularly so people could leave on any boat as they pleased, and after a while, I headed back to the main terminal, passing a beautiful waterfall on route.

 

It was a glorious day, and after a wander along the shoreline to get a differing view of the stunning Mitre Peak and surrounding mountains, I headed back onto the Milford highway to head back towards Te Anau. There was plenty to see on the way, which I had rushed past in the morning in an effort to beat the crowds at the ferry terminal. I stopped first not far up the road at an area called The Chasm. A short walk from the car park brings you to a rather noisy part of the wood where the Cleddau river has carved a deep chasm creating a raging waterfall below a bridge. It is quite impressive to see although the view is somewhat blocked by the positioning of the bridge that you walk across. From here I followed the winding road up to the immense granite wall where the Homer Tunnel entrance lies. It looks solid and towers above the entire valley, looking indestructible, making the fact that a hole has been blasted through it that bit more impressive. During the summer months, the flow of traffic through the tunnel is controlled with traffic lights, but in the winter months, there is no such system. Inside the tunnel, the road is uneven and poorly tarred, not to mention wet from the regular dripping of water from the roof and sides. Heading out of the Cleddau valley, it went uphill, eventually returning to the Hollyford Valley where the mountains look equally as high.  Before the sharp turn at the Divide, a lookout spot gives a view up the Hollyford Valley with the Hollyford River down below.

 

I stopped at the Divide to hike to Key Summit before taking the long drive back to Te Anau. Arriving back at the top of the lake I got the best view of the lake yet under a near cloudless sky. It was a fitting end to my trip to Fiordland. The next morning I headed off on the long journey home to Christchurch, deciding on an impulse to go via Invercargill on the south coast, and swinging up via Dunedin. It was a long drive and a long day, but I was ever keen to drag out the holiday as long as possible. With my taste buds whetted for more hiking in the area, I will definitely aim to get back to this beautiful National Park soon.

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