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Published: April 6th 2014
Stewart Island. Its a place I have been wanting to visit since I last came to New Zealand. A compelling curiosity of this forgotten outpost was finally getting quelled on this self made challenge of doing all the Great Walks of NZ. That is if we make it their alive first! The whole boat seemed to buckle as we slammed violently into another wave of the Foveaux Strait. The captain had explained things might get "a wee bit choppy" in typical Kiwi fashion it was an outrageous understatement spray blasted the windows as we rose and ducked over the swell. Becks gripped my hand too tightly again as our stomachs reached our mouths before returning again. The Captains nonchalance being the only thing that prevented mass panic.
We pulled into the safe waters of Oban and our Rakiura Track began. We main our way in raincoats across the headland to the next Bay before Becks had a minor strop over her uncomfortably positioned rucksack and my helpful (some would say patronising) words of advice on the best hip to shoulder weight ratio. A police car drove by and seemed to loiter an unusually long time by us so
I wound Becks up that as not much happens in a small island community of 400, her strop had been enough to call them out! On out best behaviour we continued onwards and had lunch as the sun came out along the beautiful eastern coast. We got as close as we dared to a lazing sea lion and continued along the beach, cutting over headlands and along Bays, like Abel Tasman without the crowds. The rain jackets hardly used, they were packed away and the beater came out as we enjoyed the rest of the 3 days in glorious sunshine. For an island that is renowned for being wet (Raining 265 days a year) we had hit it lucky and experienced no waist deep wading through mud which Stewart Island is infamous for. Unfortunately we didn't hit it lucky on the Kiwi front. I tracked down some footprints along the beach and we certainly heard them at night but failed to see any by red torchlight despite a hefty population of 20,000.
The two nights were spent camping in different but equally amazing spots. The first was on a grassy bank overlooking a sandy beach and beautiful
bay, enticing me in for a refreshing dip the following morning. The second was a DOC campsite in the middle of forest. We were surrounded by grand ancient podocarp forest full of Rimu trees that had largely avoided the brief saw milling enterprise on the island, although the rusty machinery remained. The birdsong was constant everywhere we walked and we quickly became attuned to the different calls, recognising a Tomtit from a Fantail and a Tui from a Bellbird (unless it was imitating a bellbird in which case it was just a guessing game).
We had been given a tip off that the West side of the shore was a bounty for seafood. Being ever eager to supplement our diet of dehydrated maccaroni cheese I set off, hunter-gatherer into the setting sun and determined to return victorious with a slinged t-shirt full of mussels. I waded out off the headland, and clambered around the rocks with my trusty Tevas on in search of legally large-enough mussels. The water was at the rather uncomfortable waist level and I learnt its damn hard to grab things off rocks when you don't have goggles and you are convinced you can lose a
finger if you grab a mussel the wrong way. After a bit of collateral damage of skinning my shin on some barnacles, I had managed to scavenge a dozen mussels and one prized cockle and returned triumphant to Becky where we promptly jetboiled them to death and ate a delicious aperitif.
That night we retreated back into the forest for a very unique camping experience. It was just us at our camp spot and although we initially didn't think much of it considering there was too thick a forest to see the sea we soon appreciated that it literally came alive at night. Feeling like a contented boy scout I lay back to sleep...until we hear a big rustle... And then is that the sound of hooves? The distinct sound of our rubbish bag suspended in the tree outside falling to the floor.... And then some violent shaking of the plastic... Some faster trotting...then an almighty deep throated grunt and snort and a horrendous noise of a baby crying... What on earth is going on? The cacophony of sound would turn to still silence whenever we cautiously crept out of the tent armed with our head torches
and camera. Give it 5 minutes and the wildness would kick off again, awaking us with a jolt from our slumber. If you swapped sandflys for mosquitoes it could be a Joseph Conrad description of wild jungle in "The Heart of Darkness". In the morning we tried to piece it all together and we were sure of some of the forest orchestra coming from the white tail deer, the horrendous baby-crying noises and the attacks our rubbish bag succumbed was the mark of a possum or two. And maybe, just maybe the territorial grunt and charging through the undergrowth must have been that of a Kiwi even scaring a possum away. Watching a documentary later in the Oban isite made me certain of this, as it would have been checking out our tent on its patrols through its territory.
The next day was an easy 5 hour stroll to Oban where the remarkable lack of rain for 2 weeks had dried out the knee deep quagmire which the track normally consists of. We had a celebratory bar of Whittakers white chocolate and raspberry and sat in front of the local pub which looked like a friendly little
community, despite the hecklers in the pub stating "it ain't the Rakiura track" as we waltzed in with our boots and backpack on. We settled for some shop bought cider in a paperbag on the lawn outside instead.
After a solid evening drive, we awoke at a DOC campsite on the shores of lake Wakatipu surrounded by towering peaks from Fiordland and Mt Aspiring national parks. They were the big ones which we had been building up for in our last two Great Walks, a grand finale. We spent a day of preparation which had become part of the routine- washing all our dirty hiking stuff, airing tents and sleeping bags, stocking up on food and charging every electrical item we own so like clockwork we were set for another 6 days hiking.
I had organised a circular route back to Queenstown which meant it didn't make sense for us to drive a couple of hours back to Te Anau where we were getting picked up for the Milford Track. So we locked Lisa up and with big smiles and thumbs out we hitchhiked our way there. When I hitched from Te Anau to
the very north of the South Island at Picton 5 years ago I was only ever picked up by Kiwis, but our two lifts this time were from other foreigners. The first some young Germans and the second a middle aged Aussie couple who were driving back from a 30 year reunion of their Contiki bus tour around Europe.
Lake Te Anau was shimmering in sunshine and we budgeted in a early bird pizza and beer to lazily enjoy al fresco at a fake-Italian restaurant fuelling up for the treks ahead. After bumming a lift we were a bit worried the Aussie couple would see us eating out and regret their good Samaritan act but all was fine and it was a nice change from 2 minute noodles.
We awoke to the pitter patter of rain from a very grey sky. A bus took us to Te Anau downs from where we got a boat across the now distinctly unshimmering lake to the very tip of the lake at Glade Wharf. We saw an eery cross standing lonely on a rocky outcrop representing where Mr McKinnon, the first European to make the path to
Milford, had drowned in a boating accident. Things looked bleak with the swirling clouds low around the steep valleys, but spirits were high as we felt after not having a drop of rain on any of the South Island walks, we had been very lucky and were expecting a week of downpours. Although the odds predicted this, the met-office didn't and we were fortunate enough for the clouds to clear and have 3 days of brilliant sunshine until the end of the trek- very lucky considering areas of Fiordland expect 8 metres of rain/year!
The first day was a little bit of an anticlimax as we had psyched ourselves up for a physical beasting considering the packs being heavy and filled to the brim, but after docking about midday it was an easy hour or two to the first hut, taking in some big red beech trees and endangered wetland walkways on the way. The river flowed clear with a hint of green after the previous nights downpour rather than its normal glacial melt blue and it raced along under the swing bridges and along the winding path which we followed up the valley. The path was
in good condition and wide enough to walk two astride and amongst the beech it literally felt like a walk in the park. We passed the first private lodge which charges a couple of thousand for people to walk guided with the added luxury of meals, comfy beds, and floor to ceiling windows. It put things into perspective when we initially felt $54 a night for sleeping in the hut a bit steep.
That evening we had a very informative nature walk from the hut ranger, which ultimately ended with me asking a million questions on the most pressing conservation issues and controversies. I racked his brains on stoat traps, deer filling the Moa's ecological footprint, the 1080 poison schemes and whether the rest of Fiordland is silent due to no funding for such intensive trapping. Sadly it seems impossible to rid New Zealand of the stoats, possums and rats even with poison and trapping. The only answer would seem to be in genetically or biologically altering the introduced mammals to prevent reproduction. Something that would quite possibly have dire consequences and may be as foolish as the original decision to bring stoats over to predate the
rabbits, despite ornithologists warnings.
For dinner we ate a recipe which we had perfected over the course of our hikes of which the basic ingredient of dehydrated macaroni cheese had been discovered my Mum when sourcing sustenance for the Lake Waikaremoana tramp back in November.
This culinary delight which we had every evening, required:
2-6 cloves of garlic (chef dependant)
Half a capsicum (orange, green or red for variety)
3 cups of water (normally from a stream, precisely measured)
3/4 cup of milk from powder
One packet of olives
4 leaves from a Maori Peppertree (if one can be found whilst hiking)
3 packets of dehydrated macaroni cheese
Sliced "tasty" cheese to go on top.
It was a work of art preparing it on a jetboil, which although now much loved, has the unfortunate habit of only really wanting to BOIL things. The rules emerged that whoever cooks has to wash up the pans which acted as an added incentive to learn how to simmer, requiring the utmost manual dexterity and fine motor control of turning the gas right
down but not off. We got the hang of it in the end but in the early days we had a few disasters with James even managing to burn tea with it. The wooden spoons had a tendency to snap due to the shape of the jetboil pot and improvising with a tent pole did not do enough to rescue Becky's pioneering risotto on the Abel Tasman... Everything was burnt-risotto flavour for a good few days after. These setbacks were all worth it for the envious looks of other hikers struggling through their generic instant boil-in-the-bags claiming to be venison or exotic currys as we sat down with our feast and a glass of vino.
We were awoken by a New Zealand robin hopping over our sleeping bags as we slept outside under the porch. We missed not having our tent as there were no camping grounds on the Milford track and although the huts weren't cheap, it was a better nights sleep away from the snorers and we were reassured for Patagonia that at 1 deg C it was still nice and toasty. The walk continued down the valley, with the sun taking until midday to
hit us due to the high mountain walls of the valley towering either side of us. We lunched away from the hut crowd by a beautiful lake and delicate waterfall cascading into it. With perfectly blue skies we continued through the afternoon across tussock grassland and mountain beech forest until we spotted somewhere for a paddle and a wilderness wash. We picked our way down through the dried up riverbed from flood waters and reached a tranquil pool in the fast flowing glacial river. There were only two negatives to this beautiful sunny spot. The water was freezing, just above being literally ice cold, and the sandflies found us in seconds. They attempted to latch onto every part of exposed flesh, with Becky's yelp of shock after submerging into the glacial water was not even enough to scare them away. Interestingly though, our salvation from the flies came after we got out, presumably too cold and wet and peripherally shutdown for them to feast on us. So there you have it, a healthy, natural way of temporarily getting rid of the beasties- not sure if many will adopt the approach.
The steep granite walls were
bathed in golden light of a dropping sun when we got to Mintaro hut and we sat out at the hut porch. Becks had a "teach yourself Spanish" book from Palmy North Library and we proceeded to do another of the 30 lessons, with the odd quip from an Argentinean also doing the walk. The evening routine set in and it was soon time to hit the hay with excitement over the coming days challenging hike over McKinnon pass. We had some Kea (an alpine parrot) accompany us on one of the dozen or so bends of the long zig zag path up the saddle. We had a late get away but set a good pace as we picked off the other groups of hikers having a breather at each bend. The views got more and more grand until we finally got well above the treeline and reached the alpine grassland and herbfields of the top. We crested the pass where McKinnon's memorial was grandly sitting to meet us along with some of the most spectacular mountain views I had ever seen. Behind us we had the Clinton valley which we had arduously hiked out of and in front were
vertical drops to the Arthur valley with soaring peaks in all directions. They were topped with snow and substantial glaciers which would omit the occasional ominous rumble as ice cracked in the strong sun.
Becks and I decided to hang around the tops for a few hours rather than push on for the treacherous downhill the other side as it seemed a shame to rush such a stunning view. Normally the exposure to the elements would not allow such a privilege but the elements were no more than a gentle breeze and warming sun today and with that in mind I went for an explore. I wanted to get photos of the whole pass to try and give an impression of scale to the grandeur of the mountain panoramas so I set off up the side of a mountain at the south of the pass. As the views grew more and more spectacular I became determined to reach the top. It quickly became an obsession as the grassy hill turned to a vertical rock face with overhangs and alpine plants clinging precariously with fragile roots to every nook and cranny they could find. I no longer had
the luxury of strong tussocks to pull myself up with and made sure I kept three points of contact as several times my hand or footholds would fail and the adrenaline would surge through my bloodstream. I made it safely up and was rewarded with possibly the best mountain panorama I have ever seen, up there with the Annapurna circuit and Kyrgyzstani Himalayas. I took a couple of excellently silhouetted selfies and felt so alive, although I did not breathe a sigh of relief until I was safely back down after a much trickier descent. Exhilarated I bounded back to Becky who was bemused at how it had taken me two hours and irritated I hadn't got her to come along. I gave a "so good to be alive" hug and assured myself that I will stick to tramping and doctoring rather than pursue a career in mountaineering.
After a late lunch we set off down the other side of the pass which was steep in places and rocky everywhere. The path headed under areas of previous avalanches and along a spectacular section of cascading rapids until we arrived at a turn off to Sutherland Falls. The
detour was well worth it for seeing the power of the 580 metre, three tier falls plunge down the cliff face into the pool in front of us. A true moment of awe, particularly on walking round underneath them (and getting completely drenched in the process.) Another hour along the valley and we were at our final hut after possibly the best days walking ever. The final day got us up before dawn to cover the easy kilometres in time for the first boat from Sandfly Point to Milford Sound. This gave Becks a chance to do a Milford Sound cruise before getting our bus out. It was interesting to learn about the penitentiary they set up to try and build the track and how the ill disciplined prisoners, lacking motivation, would spend more time killing birdlife to sell as momentos to passing tourists rather than build the track. They ended up sending the prisoners back to mainland jails and got some pros in to finish the job, but all plans for a bullock track had been quashed by then, much like on the Routeburn, meaning NZ have these stunning walking trails rather than more roads in Fiordland.
We got on the bus at 5pm and after a short ride were off at the Divide where we were to do our Ninth and the final Great Walk. We were aching a fair bit after just finishing the Milford and slightly apprehensive about trying to cram nearly all of it into a day but spirits were high despite the enveloping cloud. The evening's walk would take us up to Lake Howden hut, a short 1.5 hours through, low and behold, more beech forest. Now don't get me wrong, the scenery and array of flora and fauna encountered on The Great Walks are second to none and we have thoroughly enjoyed all of them. But there does seem to be a lot of forest. Especially beech forest. I understand that these are surviving fractions from the 85 percent or so of NZ that used to be covered by trees pre-Maori and Europeans. But there is still a hell of a lot of forest out there. Plenty, in my opinion. Please just no more information boards about the lack of sodding forest! I jest, and we have really appreciated the birdlife and identifying a silver beech from a red beech,
but the wow moments come more often when you get above the tree line. Like the following day.
We set off first from our pokey hut and made our way to Lake Mackenzie. By mid morning we had reached the wild open alpine spaces which the Routeburn is famous for. The cloud was heavy but this only seemed to add to the magic of the mountain panoramas. It made things feel different from our other walks and made comparison so difficult when we got asked the impossible classic question "which walk is the best?" The mountains around would merely tease us as we headed towards Harris saddle, flirtingly, they would peep their peak out of the swirling clouds before wrapping themselves back up as if they were never their. We made good time up to the saddle for lunch, and it was the only time we noticed that we must have become fitter over these walks as we seemed to pass everyone else with ease. Up for a challenge, we did a detour up conical hill, where the views can stretch as far as the Tasman Sea. In our case they went about 20 metres but it
was still special in a wild way, as we were the only ones up there and the wind lashed cloud into our face as we felt small and feeble in the powerful grasp of mother nature. On our way back down she rewarded us with our resilience by clearing the skies for a beautiful view of the path ahead, down into the route burn valley. The path hugged the cliff edge overhanging the lake below and we then zigzagged amongst some huge boulders to the river and onto the falls with the aptly named Routeburn falls hut. There was no room at this sprawling 55 bed complex when I booked it so Becks and I returned beneath the tree line to the beech forest (preferring the sections which had been cleared by previous avalanches giving excellent views) as we paced the last section onto the Routeburn Flats. This looked like the better choice as the contrast of steeped sided beech covered valley with the flat yellow grassy river plains and the spectacular rocky peaks with a few glaciers thrown in at their tops, all in one view from the hut bench, made this a true winner. As always we were
a bit clueless as to why everyone else had shut themselves away inside the hut and were missing the returning sun and beautiful views, and we opted to cook our macaroni and drink the last of a well paced 5 litres of Country Red Wine which we had from the start. I asked the hut warden if we could drag the bunk mats outside and exclaimed how Becky was "a terrible snorer...like a foghorn" and with sympathy she let us take them out. She did warn us about the Kea though who would terrorise her hut, its latest trick involving carefully rolling up the door mat and dumping it a dozen metres away down a bank. It did pop up to say hello bit didn't start shredding our sleeping bags thankfully.
A brief couple of hours down a valley full of ancient Beeches and we got to the end of it all. A fantastic few weeks walking on the South Island and excited about doing more in South America.
The end of the walks but not the end of New Zealand, as we had 6 days to play with before flying out of Christchurch.
Those adventures, were still to come.
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