Hiking in Fiordland

Published: May 7th 2011
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As a keen hiker, I can't resist sharing some of my favourite hikes in the Fiordland area. The region provides a range of varied, challenging opportunities, and is also home to the 'Kepler' and 'Routburn' tracks, both deemed 'Great Walks' and therefore attracting hundreds of thousands of hikers a year. However, as I have eluded to in a previous blog, I have a 'love/hate' relationship with hiking in New Zealand.

Justifiably, the DOC (Department of Conservation) are keen to preserve the natural habitat and prevent erosion. Therefore they regulate tourism by declaring a dozen or so walks 'Great' and charge fees for participation, consequently spending this vast income on maintenance, conservation and accomodation. This means that the DOC can control tourist numbers in the popular areas, and also leaves dozens of equally special hikes across both islands for those with a little more independence to explore.

However for those wanting to attempt these 'Great Walks', this process can be particularly irritating. The DOC regulate the numbers on these walks by requiring hikers to book the huts and campsites, often months in advance. I find it extremely exasperating having to book with little or no knowledge of the weather conditions. Fellow hikers will agree that there is nothing more depressing than climbing three thousand feet in driving rain, only to be met by a blanket of invisibility enveloping the summit. I also enjoy the solitude, open spaces and map reading often attached to hiking, which isn't often available during the Great Walks. In fact, walking guides often neglect the fact that a huge amount of the Great Walks is spent on monotonous 'bush walking'.

Nevertheless, I felt that it would be apt to try a couple of Great Walks for myself, as they are rightly given that label for a reason. I also learnt a few lessons along the way........

Lesson 1......Avoid blisters at all costs!
In February I set out on the Kepler track with friends, Mike and Annie, a North American couple recently arrived to Milford. The first day was entirely through bush, and was slightly concerning as Mike's old knee injury began to flare up. After camping by the lake for the evening, it was evident after 500 yards the next morning that a 1600m ascent and consequent descent would not be achievable for Mike. He therefore made the sensible decision to turn back with Annie, rather than risk the nightmare scenario of being air rescued off of Mt Luxmore! Therefore I emptied excess suplies into their packs and started the long, steady ascent through the bush to the top of Mt Luxmore on my own. Two and a half hours later I was dripping with sweat when I finally emerged from above the bush line, to see a view that will stay with me forever. I was now on an alpine stretch of the hike, and therefore above the clouds. It was a blistering hot day, and as far as the eye could see were mountain tops looming out of the fluffy, white blanket of cloud into the piercing blue sky. Through chinks in the cloud cover I could see glimpses of emerald blue, as lake TeAnau and Manipori brooded silently far, far below. It was unlike anything that I had ever seen.

I continued along to the next hut, where I left my bags and explored the nearby caves with some fellow hikers. We walked, crawled and squeezed for 40 minutes, delving into the depths of the mountain until we could go no further, and emerged blinking like bemused moles, grubby and disheveled, into the startling sunlight.

I continued the rest of the walk solo, with no one ahead of me all day. The views were stunning, as was the path. It hugged the mountain side for miles, often giving way to a sheer drop of thousands of metres to the valley floor. This landscape would normally have left me ecstatic, except I was suffering from the curse of all hikers.....blisters. They had flared up the previous day, but I had decided to 'soldier on' regardless. However as the day progressed, they gradually became unbearable. Walking up hill was ok, but anything on the flat or downhill was excrutiating, and I began to develop blisters elsewhere as I was compensating in my walking style. I resorted to splitting the walk into sections, resting every hour or so. It didn't help that we had set ourselves an ambitious target of 23 km, including 1600m of steep ascent and descent.

The last hour and a half was torture, as I hobbled my way down the never ending hillside, pleading for the campsite to appear through the trees. I almost cried with joy when eventually I stumbled into the grassy paddock, and tossed my boots into the trees with disgust. The next day was predominately bush walking and on a gentle decline, so was bearable for the most part, and I leapt with joy as I arrived triumphantly back at the car.

Lesson 2.....Don't plan an early start after celebrating St Patrick's day the night before!
After having my mate John from Wellington to stay for a few days, he, Mike and I decided to attempt the Routburn track. However for some reason that now escapes me, we decided to begin the day after St Patricks day. Even so, we reassured ourselves that we would just have a couple of pints of Guiness and say our farewells to all of our friends (as it would coincidently be our last night in Milford). We would then be awake early, 'bright-eyed and bushy-tailed', the next morning.

It is obvious in hindsight that this was foolish to even contemplate, and I won't go into detail on the hedonistic antics that ensued. All I will say is that I'm still puzzled why Mike felt the need to unpack, erect and sleep in our tent......in his bedroom! Even so, after recovering and packing, we didn't set off until 6pm on our first day of the hike (although this meant that we avoided the torrential rain of earlier in the day). We completed two hours of the track, and as dusk approached we were lucky to be allowed to stay in Howes hut, rather than MaKenzie as planned which was two hours further down the track.

The next day, we did manage to set off relatively early, and set off at a good pace, climbing through the bush yet again. The landscape was different to the Kepler, with more waterfalls and a little more variation in landscapes. There were also more alpine stretches which I fully appreciated, giving us opportunity to reflect on the mountainous horizon that Mike and I had grown to love over the preceeding three months. The highlight was undoubtably the side trip to the top of Conical Hill, a very steep 30 minute detour, but one which gave views to all the way along the Hollyford valley to the sea at Martin's bay. We took another couple of hours to progress to our hut for the night, where we gorged on yet more noodles and tuna. We finished off the hike the next morning, each step bouyed by the prospect of a forthcoming 'Ferg burger' back in Queenstown.

Lesson 3......Don't let guidebooks deter you.
Although the two great walks were both specia,l and provided stunning scenery that is hard to find elsewhere, there is no dispute over my hiking highlight of New Zealand. One stunning morning in Milford I decided to toss my boots and a sandwich in the car, and attempt the 'Gertrude saddle'. This hike is rated as one of the best day walks in New Zealand, and is only 45 minues back along the road from Milford. I had been longing for a clear day, as the DOC warned that conditions could be hazardous in the wet, and that visibility was a neccessity to get the most out of the walk. I set out along the river-bed of the valley, every green and blue emphasised in the startling sunlight, waterfalls silently streaming from the sheer mountain-sides. The cairn marked path became steeper, and eventually a scramble, as I leapt like Gollum from rock to rock. It soon edged past a glacier, and became even steeper, some stretches requiring the assistance of a steel rope as an aid. On reaching the top of the climb, I was unprepared to suddenly come across one of those views that quite literally takes your breath away. I had reached the saddle, which gave way to a sheer drop of well over a thousand metres. Way, way below cars geamed in the sunlight along the Milford road, which now resembled a ribbon, unwinding it's way to the sea. I could glimpse Mitre Peak in the distance, and of course the dozens of resplendent mountains that hemmed in this stunning landscape. I spent the next twenty minutes in awe, silently munching on my sandwiches as I dangled my legs over the precipice and pondered my part in the grand scale of things. Soon it was time to drag myself away, and after a dip in the icy cold 'Black Lake', I set off back to the car. This was the perfect walk.....challenging, with great views but also an element of the unexpected.


7th May 2011

Wot no pictures?
Great to hear that you are still in the land of the living but it would be even better to see where you are talking about or do we have to wait until you get back to Blighty? Keep on runnin'. X Sue

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