MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Te Anau”

Spring Roadie – Te Anau to Wanaka

Waking up to grey skies made my brother and I appreciate our fortune from the day before even more. To have had sunshine for our visit to Milford Sound had been glorious. My brother had arranged to take a boat down Lake Te Anau to visit a glowworm cave. Having done this trip on my last visit to Te Anau, and having seen hundreds of glowworms whilst caving in Waitomo, I stayed behind and mulled around the lake side. A giant takahe sculpture represents the conservation work of this rare and endangered bird that is going on nearby, and from here I followed the path along the shoreline, meandering through the trees towards the small marina. I had plenty of time to kill so admired the boats for a while before heading back. I decided to pop to the small cinema at the back of the settlement to watch their film about the local area. I had watched it 3 years prior and had been blown away by it so was happy to sit through it again. Despite looking a little dated now, it was still as spectacular as before and worth watching.

 

When my brother returned from his trip, we reunited for lunch in a cafe at the back of Te Anau before heading off north. We’d driven this road through rain a couple of days prior but had it dry this time round. I drove first to Lake Manapouri a little along the road, where the distant mountains that mark the divide between Lake Manapouri and Doubtful Sound were shrouded in cloud, and from there we continued onward, eventually returning to the lake side of the enormous Lake Wakatipu. Without the rain though, we were able to stop in places and actually enjoy the view. Despite being a Sunday, the roads were steady enough with traffic as being November, we were into the tourist season and so there were plenty of motor homes around. The view at Devils Staircase was one of the most impressive on the drive where, even on a grey day, the winding drive along the lake edge was pretty. Further north just before the road left the lakeside, we parked up and walked down to a small pebbly beach and this gave us a view almost all the way down the southern arm of the lake. After passing some time here, it was back on the road, returning to Frankton and continuing north before taking the turn-off for the Crown Range.

 

I’d previously only driven up the first few bends of the Crown Range many years before with my partner but the conditions hadn’t allowed us to take the full drive. So this was to be my first time on this road which is the country’s highest sealed road. The weather was thinking about brightening with glimpses of sun trying to break through the cloud, but there was also a bit of wind up high adding a slight chill. The first viewpoint was at the top of the switchback which allows a rapid gain in altitude. Further along there was a scenic lookout which overlooked the Gibbston Valley below and from here it was clear to see how the planes flew low over here when on approach to Queenstown airport. After more bends and a final push in altitude gain we pulled in at the Crown Range Summit where a lot of people were milling around and an old-fashioned car was getting a lot of attention. A plaque marked it as the highest point on the road, and a walk set off from here which I would have loved to have done on a clearer day.

 

From the summit it was a long descent through the Cardrona Valley to eventually reach Wanaka, one of my favourite parts of the country. Unfortunately it is another place who’s popularity is threatening the very virtues that I love, but nonetheless I was still more than happy to be there, and I drove straight to the waterfront to show it off to my brother before we checked in. The surrounding summits were mostly visible although the cloud was threatening to hide them. We took a wander along the path by the lake as the sun dropped low, eventually finding ourselves by the crowds at the lake’s most famous tree. ‘That Wanaka Tree’ amuses me greatly. When I first visited Wanaka in 2012, few people gave the little tree in the lake a second glance. I myself walked past it daily whilst I was there and never even acknowledged it. Suddenly it started popping up on social media more and more and when I returned to Wanaka four years later in 2016, it had its own Instagram plaque and it was forever surrounded by a frenzy of people trying to photograph it. My brother felt obliged to take a photograph of it but was then more intent on photographing the crowd of people that was gathered. A non-social media user, he was greatly amused by the scene. I thought it spoke volumes about the role of social media in modern society.

 

The next morning we were back to sunshine again, and the blue sky overhead made the lake sparkle. My brother chose a route for us to walk and so after breakfast, we returned to the lake side but this time followed it in the other direction. Following Roys Bay towards Bremner Bay, we had an uninterrupted view over to Roys Peak, one of my favourite walks in the area. The summit was hidden from view but as time passed on as we walked, the cloud here, as well as that towards Mount Aspiring National Park on the far side of the lake, gradually dissipated.

 

The main town of Wanaka has changed since my first visit and the main beach can get very crowded in peak season, but round the lake at Bremner Bay, it feels more secluded and this is where I would love to live if I was ever able to move here. The views across the lake here are absolutely stunning and also remind me of Scotland. Continuing beyond here, we eventually reached the lake outlet where the first signs of the development that has occurred since that first visit became evident. We found ourselves in a holiday park that wasn’t there before and we cut from here along a new road past new housing developments to reach the back of Albert Town which had expanded outwards in my absence.

 

Our destination was Mt Iron, a distinctive hill which offers a great viewpoint over the area. There are several routes up depending on which direction you approach from and we found our way up to the top via a route I wasn’t aware of. Our view on the way up was over Albert Town which I could now see had grown so much. From the summit, the view away from Wanaka looked the same, the flat plains spreading away towards the surrounding mountain ranges. It was as we crossed over the summit and started the descent down on the Wanaka side that I could really appreciate how much the town had expanded. An entire new estate had appeared, coming right up to the bottom of the hill and a new car park and new toilet block sat at the bottom of the trail. The facilities are much needed with the increase in tourist numbers but it highlighted the fact that the once quiet Wanaka was losing its peacefulness. I don’t enjoy Queenstown because of its busyness and brashness, and I can only hope that Wanaka never completely gives in to the same folly.

 

We ate a late lunch in a cafe near the lake, and although initially disappointed with my brother’s desire to now do nothing despite several good walks in the area, by the time I’d finished sucking lemons, I found myself give into the laziness very quickly as we sat on the pebbled beach by the lakeside. My brother people watched whilst I snoozed in the warm sunshine. I’m normally an active person on holiday, always on the go, always wanting to pack as much in as possible. I don’t like sitting still, or being lazy or sunbathing. This can make me a frustrating person to travel with, or equally makes me frustrated to travel with other people, which is part of the reason I often enjoy going solo. But every now and again, and usually without forward planning, I’m either forced to or give in to being lazy and just being still, and on those rare occasions I actually enjoy it. As such, I ended up being very glad that my brother was happy to just sit there for a while, and I was very glad to rest my feet and relax.

Another sunny morning greeted us for the long day that we had planned ahead. It was time to say goodbye to Wanaka and head west through the Haast Pass. With a lot of driving ahead for me, I was to be grateful for the afternoon’s relaxing the day before. Before leaving the town behind, we took a quick trip up to the war memorial, the car park of which offers a nice view across the lake. Wanaka is such a long drive from my home city of Christchurch, that I knew I was leaving it unclear of when I’d next return. So I absorbed the view as best as I could to retain the image as a memory, before we had to head on.

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.

Kepler Track – New Zealand Great Walk

I was thankful that the weather man got it wrong. For days I had watched the MetService predictions and the weather on the Breakfast news, and I prepared myself to get very wet. I bought new waterproofs and packed my bag carefully with multiple dry bags to protect my belongings. I expected to get soaked. But on day 1, I woke in the hostel in Te Anau to see the sun rising, and a clear sky. By the time I drove to the car park at the start of the Kepler Track, it was sunny, but I could see a heavy bank of cloud rolling in from the west. I might get to stay dry for an hour, I thought, as I set off across the Control Gates at the start of the walk, looking out over Lake Te Anau. Beyond that, I could only hope that the thick forest would protect me somewhat.

 

The DOC sign stated 1 hr 30 min to Brod Bay where the water taxi comes in. The walk was through forest the whole way and fairly flat making for an easy, though slightly uninteresting start, to the day’s hike. As I neared Brod Bay, I met a few walkers heading the other way and I reached the beach as 2 water taxis were leaving. A group of hikers had come over on the boat and they headed off on the track to Mt Luxmore as I paused to put on my waterproofs, ever wary of the incoming clouds. I needn’t have bothered, as not only did the rain never come, but the forest canopy offered good protection from the elements and I was soon sweating in the extra layers. They didn’t last long before the whole lot came off again. From here, the DOC sign stated 4 hr 30 min to Luxmore Hut, my destination, and the path started to slowly incline soon after leaving the beach behind. I learnt many years ago to control my pace on uphill sections, especially with my pack weighing 13kg. It had been a few years since I’d done a multi-day hike with such a weight to carry, and I was nervous of hurting my back which has been so fragile for the past 8 months. I found my pace quickly though and settled into it. There’s not a lot to see for the first hour other than trees. The big group of hikers that had left ahead of me were hiking light so they motored ahead but stopped regularly, meaning that we were repeatedly passing each other as I caught them up on their rest stops but they overtook me on their pace. It became a bit of a joke and offered some light relief from the monotony of the hike.

 

With increasing altitude, eventually some breaks in the canopy allowed me to see back down to Te Anau and out of nowhere the path came out at some limestone bluffs. Skirting them involved a few flights of stairs and the path was quite narrow in places. With rain clouds arcing around the mountain, a rainbow was visible towards Lake Manapouri. I had read a brief description of the hike which showed a slow incline followed by a steep incline. In anticipation of this steeper section, I stopped for an early lunch on a dead tree which offered a relatively comfortable seat. I was rather surprised on rounding a couple of corners afterwards to reach the end of the tree line, and realise that I had already gained nearly all of the altitude for the day. I met a couple of other hikers here who also were surprised at how easy the hike up had been. From here onwards, it was an alpine hike, cutting across a rolling summit with views down to Lake Te Anau and over to Lake Manapouri. The rainbow hung over the neighbouring mountain as I continued on the gravel path which later turned into a raised boardwalk through the expanse of alpine plants. The clouds had by now reached the Murchison mountains across the branch of Lake Te Anau, and they curled around the summit, threatening to jump across the expanse of water and reach us. By now there were quite a few hikers on the alpine section of the walk and from the boardwalk it wasn’t much further on the gravel track again till Luxmore Hut (1085m/3560ft altitude) came into view around a bend with the summit of Mt Luxmore behind it. I reached it exactly 4 hours after leaving the car park, quite surprised at how quickly I had hiked there.

 

This was my first experience of staying in a hut, and being a Great Walk, it was pretty big, well maintained and quite well stocked. The view from the balcony was impressive: back towards Lake Te Anau with the Murchison Mountain range across the water. I picked a spot to sleep for the night, made myself some nice warm soup and settled down for a chat with my fellow hikers. As the hours passed, the hut got busier and busier, and I decided to take the side walk to Luxmore Caves to go exploring. My torch didn’t provide as much light as I would have liked to go deep in, so after a brief delve into the entrance way, I headed back to the hut in the heavy rain that had finally broke. It was a long afternoon to pass, made easier by having someone with a lot of common interests to talk to. Eventually it was time to make dinner, and by 8 pm, the local ranger came to speak to us. His name was Peter Jackson, and he was quick to point out (as if we didn’t know!) that he was not the director of the Lord of the Rings movies, but he was funny and informative, telling us about the local conservation projects that were taking place in the area, mainly the trapping and killing of stoats which are a major pest and threat to the native fauna of New Zealand. By the time of his talk, the hut had filled to its capacity of 50 people, and the sky was growing dark. There was still a gale blowing and rain falling, but half-way through his talk, 2 people hovered outside the hut, refusing to come in. Peter went outside to speak to them whilst we waited for the gossip. Much to everyone’s shock, the 2 hikers had decided to continue on the walk to the next hut, a 6 hr walk away, across the exposed ridge in the dark during a storm. As Peter said, he couldn’t force them to stay, but he wasn’t impressed and it was all we could talk about. With the lights automatically set to turn off early, and the darkness set in, everybody retired very early.

 

With the smallest inkling of dawn light coming into the window, the bunk room seemed to jump to life. I wasn’t the only one that was surprised about how early some people leapt up to get going that second day, but after trying to shut out the noise for a while, I gave in and joined them. The sun wasn’t even up yet, and I waited to capture a photo of the sunrise. There was a low bank of clouds hovering over Lake Te Anau and it was certainly a beautiful spot to wake up. I headed off in the company of the hiker that I had got chatting with yesterday and we left the hut behind to continue climbing towards Mt Luxmore summit. It was a beautiful day: blue, cloudless skies, glorious sunshine, and not too windy. The climb was steady and winding, with a few alpine lakes dotted about the higher reaches of the mountain. The expanding view over Lake Te Anau and the Murchison mountain range was sublime and ahead of us we could see the coloured dots of various hikers. As we neared the top, the path became narrow with steep drops to the one side, and in places there was a scree that the thin path cut across, and we both wondered how the 2 hikers from last night had negotiated this in the wind and rain in the dark. On top of this, they would have missed out on the spectacular views, and again we found ourselves musing at their stupidity.

 

The path to Mt Luxmore summit (1472m/4829ft altitude) splits from the Kepler Track and cuts up a rocky slope to reach a rocky summit with a trigger point. It was slightly crowded as we waited to get our photos of the view. The clouds over Lake Te Anau were lifting and had moved over the land, and looking west there were mountain ridges as far as the eye could see. It was spectacular, and in fact the rest of the hike on day 2 was just an overload of beautiful mountain scenery at every turn. The path remained narrow in many places, with occasional scree or steep drops on one or both sides. As it curled across the neighbouring ridge line, it afforded new views of the deep branch of Lake Te Anau as well as Mt Luxmore summit behind us. At times we could see the path snake across the mountain top for what looked like miles.

 

We paused only briefly at the Forest Burn Shelter (1270m/4167ft altitude), again wondering whether the two hikers had given up here or kept going in the dark. I was having a fantastic time as we continued on through the low alpine vegetation, round more bends with more views of Lake Te Anau until we saw the final ridge crossing. With steep drops either side it was totally exposed to the elements but on such a beautiful sunny day it was amazing to be so high up surrounded by so many peaks. By now I could hear the call of the world’s only alpine parrot, the ever-cheeky kea. It took a while to locate them, but I could see them landing ahead of us on the track. We took another brief detour to climb another peak (1383m/4537ft altitude) before arriving at the Hanging Valley shelter (1390m/4560ft altitude) where a group were having a lunch break whilst being marauded by 3 loud keas. I love them. They are big and beautiful with a personality to match. They are very bold and very cheeky and they enjoy playing dare to see how close they can get to stealing your food. Like all parrots, they are highly intelligent, and looking at them, you know that they are regarding you with some intellect. We took a food break here ourselves and I enjoyed watching the 3 of them bicker amongst themselves in between jumping and flying about around us whilst we ate. I could have watched them for hours, but the wind was starting to pick up, and now the clouds were starting to roll in from the west again, meaning the potential for stormy weather again.

 

By now we could see the Iris Burn Valley, and we were trying to work out where our hut was. The ridge line walk continued for a while longer, dropping in altitude slightly to a last lookout (1167m/3829ft altitude) before zig-zagging back into the tree line and down the mountainside. There were varying signs of slips having taken place, with great spaces where the trees had careered down the mountainside. The trees were rife with old man’s beard lichen which of all the lichen species, needs the purest of air to grow. Six hours after leaving the Luxmore hut, we arrived at the Iris Burn Hut (497m/1631ft altitude) in time for the sky becoming overcast. From here there is a brisk walk through the forest to Luxmore falls. It is reported to be a great place to go for a dip, but on getting there we were immediately attacked by a great swarm of sand flies. We lasted as long as it took to take some photos, but with them landing and crawling through our hair, and swarming round every inch of exposed skin we had, it wasn’t long before we got moving back to the hut. Whilst a few hikers motored onwards, most of the same faces from last night were also joining us at this hut, and by now, we were all starting to get to know each other quite a bit. There was quite a mix: Kiwis from varying parts of the north and south islands, Australians, Brits, Americans, Germans and a Swede. I did my best to promote Christchurch as a tourist destination, always saddened to hear about people’s shock and lack of love for the place when as usual they have seen so little of it, rushing in and rushing out again. The ranger that night was fantastic, again very funny and entertaining. He told us where to go and see glowworms in the local forest, and took us to see an exceedingly rare black orchid. All of us that had walked to the falls had walked past it without knowing, but it wasn’t in flower so was easy to miss. In the darkness of night, we headed blindly into the forest in search of glowworms and saw the faint glow of a handful scattered amongst the bushes.

 

Day 3 was dry but overcast. The Kepler Track set off uphill initially to skirt round a hill, before cutting down to follow the Iris Burn. Not too far from the hut is an area known as the Big Slip, where a heavy storm in 1984 brought down a large section of the trees and vegetation on the hillside. It takes about 100 years for it to fully regenerate back to full tree coverage again after a slip, and 30 years later there is still only bush growing back in. The rest of the walk was easy going through forest, and with my companion setting the pace, we motored through, chatting away not paying much attention to our surroundings. Eventually the mouth of the burn came into view and we found ourselves on the shore of Lake Manapouri. Once at the beach, we could see the final hut not far away and decided to stop for lunch. The sand flies had the same idea and quickly set about us as we tried to eat and once again we felt forced to get moving. Skirting the end of the lake, we arrived at Moturau Hut (185m/607ft altitude) after just 4 hours. A lot of people continued on to finish the hike that day, but again the rain came in for the afternoon, and the time was passed chatting with other hikers. By sunset it had stopped and we got a brief chance between showers to take some photos from the beach of the dramatic sky over the surrounding mountains.

 

With a couple of exit points for the hike, my companion headed off alone to catch a bus, and I set off on day 4 at a leisurely pace, keeping my own company. Starting off in the forest, it breaks out of the trees briefly at a wetland area which was apparently used for the ‘dead marshes’ scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. From here it was possible to see the very spot where the Kepler track broke out from the trees on the ridge on day 1, made possible because of the loop nature of the track. The sun was struggling to push through the clouds at this stage of the day, and from this point on, I barely saw another soul until the end. The track cuts in and out from the bank of the Waiau river, often hidden from view by the thick foliage. At Rainbow Reach there is an exit to the shuttle bus pick up, but I continued on through the meandering forest path, broken in place by the occasional clearing. Finally, the control gates came into view round a bend in the river, and after 4 hours, I stepped out of the trees to the end of the hike. The sun was by now out to greet me and a few hikers that had already finished ahead of me, greeted me on my arrival. Lake Te Anau sparkled in the sunlight, welcoming me back to civilisation, and with my first Great Walk under my belt, I headed back to my car with a huge grin on my face.

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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