Deep Fiords, high mountains (Milford Sound & Kepler Trek, Fjordland NP, South Island, New Zealand)

Published: March 15th 2010
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(Day 701 on the road)After resting my tired bones from the nine-day hike I had just completed, it was finally time to pick up Suzanne from the airport in Queenstown. Suzanne and I have been very good friends ever since we met at university in Hong Kong many years ago, and it was great to see her again (we had last met up in Singapore some 12 months ago). She will be travelling with me here in New Zealand for the next two weeks, and we both have been looking forward to this for a while now.

Suzanne's idea of fighting her jet lag (she flew in from San Francisco where she lives and works) was to haul herself off a bridge on a rope. Her choice fell on the Kawarau bridge bungee jump; while that jump is "only" 43 metres (there are others in Queenstown that are 134 metres), it is the site of the world's first commercial bungee jump. So off she went - almost I should say, as she was holding on to the handrail for dear life on the bridge. But after just a tiny bit of persuasion by members of staff (which included, much to my amusement, peeling her white-knuckled fingers off the handrail one by one) she jumped down like a real trooper. Well done Suzanne!

After unsuccessfully trying to convince me to jump as well (thanks but no thanks, done that years ago, and once is enough for me), we were soon driving south towards famous Milford Sound, which we admired in style during a two-hour cruise the following morning. The weather was as foul as it could be, but it wasn't like we hadn't expected that, given that it rains over 300 (!) days per year here at Milford Sound, with an amazing eight metres of rain annually (London in comparison: 0.7 metres). We briefly thought about cancelling the cruise, but in the end were happy we didn't as the low clouds, the mist and the light rain added a distinct eery touch to the already dramatic scenery. The fiord was narrow and deep, the peaks were rising vertically out of the water and partly covered in mist, and the countless waterfalls were thundering due to the rainfall. We thoroughly enjoyed the astonishing landscape.

For the next day, we had made a booking on the Kepler Trek, another one of New Zealand's Great Walk. It was to be the sixth and final one for me out of a total of nine Great Walks across NZ - the Milford Trek is vastly overpriced and booked out until the end of April, the Rakiura Trek on Steward Island is too far south for me, and the Heaphy Trek didn't sound too appealing). On the subject of Great Walks, I have slowly come to understand why many New Zealanders have a love-hate relationship with them. The sheer popularity of the undoubtedly beautiful treks (they are heavily advertised to foreign tourists by the tourism industry), combined with the high expectations of hikers with limited experience who expect good facilities even in the remote wilderness, has seen the prices on these treks go up drastically, making them very expensive indeed. Whilst you enjoy unlimited access to the vast majority of the 900 huts in NZ with an Annual Hut Pass (NZ$60 for six months), a single night at a Great Walk Hut will sett you back a cool NZ$45. Quite a difference.

Consequently, many Kiwis steer well clear of the Great Walks and are utilising other treks instead. I have come to appreciate that view much better after the Routeburn (where I couldn't get a booking) and the Kepler treks (which was insanely busy). There are countless other hikes that are just as stunning and much much less crowded than the Great Walks, simply because they are less known. Hiker numbers on the most popular Great Walks are enormous; the Kepler for instance sees about 14.000 trampers each year. In comparison, some other, less-known but equally amazing hikes might only see 15 hikers or so a week. On some of treks I have done over the last few months I often haven't seen another person in days.

To manage the high number of people on the popular Great Walks, a booking system is in place for most of them, meaning that in the peak season you have to book well in advance to secure a bed at the huts or camp sites. Facilities have also been upgraded, now often sporting fancy flush toilets, gas cookers and heaters. Honestly, who needs flush toilets or gas cookers in the wilderness high in the mountains? Long drop toilets are fine (they might even feel like a touch of luxury depending on what more seasoned hikers are normally used to in the outback), and I don't think it is too much to ask to carry a small gas cooker (or simply eat bread with tuna if that is too heavy).

If people need or expect that kind of thing, maybe a remote four-day trek over a sub-alpine mountain pass is simply not the right kind of activity for them. I have been told that they are needed to minimise the impact on the environment, but I can't help but wonder if the ecological costs of helicoptering in to exchange gas canisters for the cookers and heaters has been factored into that equation.

Anyway, back to the Kepler trek itself. The weather in the area is notoriously bad, and a great deal of people I had talked to in the past had finished the four-day trek without seeing any of the grand scenery at all due to heavy rain and thick clouds. But we were very lucky indeed; except for a small spell of bad weather on the morning of day three (which we simply sat out sipping hot tea at the hut), we had nearly perfect weather all the way. The mountain vistas were simply stunning, especially on day three (between Iris Burn and Luxmore Hut).

On day four, we awoke at Luxmore Hut to the best views of the whole trek: A solid, straight cloud cover was lingering below us, with us way above the clouds. The whole world below was hidden from view, with the clouds basked into the orange light of the morning sun. Wow! Amazingly, as we made our way down the mountain back to the van, the clouds disappeared, and with it our thought of having to walk in the clouds for most of the day. Instead, we walked in the warm sun all day, first above the bush line, then in it, and finally along the blue lake back to the car park. What a wonderful four days. Sweet as.

Next stop: Mt. Cook & Canterbury (South Island, New Zealand).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


16th March 2010

Huh, excuse me!!
The bridge is 43m high, not 34m!! That's a whole 9m more! :) I just watched the DVD, at least, with me freaking out, you get a good laugh out of it...
16th March 2010

43m of course!
Ups, sorry Suzanne, changed it now!
16th March 2010

A beautiful part of New Zealand. We're spoilt during the cruise also. How's life in the US?
16th March 2010

Über den Wolken...
Amazing shot of Luxmore Hut, just great... Enjoy yourself! I look forward to reading more of your adventures. PS Just for the record, the temperature here in Germany is around freezing with some light rain

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