I catch a bus to the trailhead of the Routeburn Track. I was finally leaving Queenstown. The bus passed through the town of Glenorchy and I realized that this is where I should have been spending the last few days. If I wasn't happy in Queenstown I should have been more creative in looking at my alternatives. Live and learn I guess.
The Routeburn Track starts out in a river valley and climbs up the side of a large valley to the Routeburn Falls Hut. I got to the hut just as it started to drizzle. The hut was more elaborate than I ever imagined. It was filled with people who actually had cooking equipment. Undaunted, I got out the raw spaghetti. I met a guy from Singapore and an Australian civil engineer. We talked a bit about engineering and she seemed pretty nice, but she actually felt like a person should take pride in and responsibility for their work...silly girl. The next morning the track was foggy as I tramped along the rocks and ponds, the clouds gave everything a haunted look. I'm sure the area would have been quite beautiful in the sunshine, but it was nice enough the way it was. I met three Brits on the trail and we tramped together. One of them wanted to go up to a lookout that required a slippery climb to the top of a ridge. I don't know why we climbed up to the lookout as we saw the same thing at the top as we did at the bottom: fog. We were in a part of the track that was supposed to have beautiful mountain views, but we really didn't see anything but fog.
As we started the descent towards the Mackenzie Hut, the alpine grasses gave way to forest. The forest was something else. Everything was covered in thick moss. There was so much moss that I couldn't tell a stone from a stump underneath the moss. This was the lushest area I had ever seen in my life. The combination of the greenery and fog gave it an enchanted look. I've seen plenty of mountains before, but nothing like this. The fog really added a nice touch. After descending through the forest we got to the hut on Lake Mackenzie, it was an impressive lake. It too had an enchanted look. I meet an English woman, Rachel. We talked while we listened to the rain on the roof of the hut.
I left around 7:00 in the morning. The rain was still coming down in buckets. This is NZ and you just get used to it. The water was flowing everywhere, but I was staying dry enough, so it's ok. The track parallels a large rock face, which had many waterfalls along its length. The water was coming down the falls in torrents. Some of them sounded like fabric being ripped, but extremely loud. We couldn't cross some of the streams, but had to take the emergency detours downstream a bit. Standing below the roaring falls, one step forward brought a blast of wind and a face full of spray. One step back and I would be out of the wind. It was quite a striking difference. I reached the trailhead and caught a ride to Te Anau. The Routeburn is a fairly popular track, but the number of people on it is limited so it's not that bad. It's definitely worth checking out.
I went to Te Anau Backpackers hostel. I would come to like the people who ran this hostel--they're good folks. The sister of the owner got a van and took five other backpackers and myself on a drive into the countryside. All we had to do is split the gas between us. She showed us around and we stopped by a small cave. We crawled through it for an hour, something I always enjoy. It wasn't the best cave I've ever seen, but it was nice as it was in its natural state. We stopped at a farm of a friend of hers and we sure did see a lot of sheep. A good time was had by all. I looked to see if Jan, the Czech guy that I met in Bay of Islands, was in town, but I didn't find him.
I headed up to Milford Sound with Uli. The guy who drove the van told us that the world record in sheep shearing had just been broken. The new record was 720 sheep in 9 hours. Think about this, shearing a sheep every 45 seconds...for an entire day. A few days before I had seen the sports section in the newspaper and in the page where they list the results of the different sporting events, sheep shearing scores were included. Yep...I was in New Zealand.
Milford Sound was pretty impressive. There is a reason why everyone goes there and everyone should go there. The sound has immense vertical walls of rock with waterfalls coming down. We had a good day to take a cruise on the sound, as the skies were sunny and blue. All in all, a very beautiful place.
I was going to be doing the Kepler Track tomorrow and hang out for the rest of today. As I was a relaxing I saw Rachel, the woman I met at the Mackenzie Hut. She was on her way to do the Kepler at that moment. I asked her if she wanted to go together and she said yes. So I quickly packed, got my hut tickets, and took off with Rachel.
The Kepler is pretty flat for the first part of the day as it winds through the forest. We saw a number of birds as we tramped. One bird that we saw, or should I say heard, was the bellbird. This bird has the most amazing call that carries through the forest. Its call is as clear as the proverbial bell. We would first hear the bellbird and then start looking for it. It was hard to believe that such a wonderful sound comes from such a small bird. I've not heard another bird with such a resounding call. We also saw the smallest bird in NZ, the rifleman, whose name comes from it's resemblance to the uniform of a colonial soldier. It's this little, chubby thing, as close to a flying ping pong ball as can be. We also saw fantails. You can figure out how they got their name.
Eventually the flat part of the track gives way to a long steady climb. Rachel is very much the tortoise in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare. She doesn't walk that fast, but she picks a pace and sticks with it all day, barely resting. I'm a bit faster and will sit on rocks and daydream. There comes a point on the track where we left the forest and are suddenly on top of the world with grand views of mountains and lakes all around. Rachel and I sat up there for a quite a while and took in the views. It wasn't that far to the Mt. Luxmore Hut once we were on the mountain top. There was one big sleeping room for everyone. It was hot and stuffy and I just wasn't interested in sleeping inside. Rachel and I slept outside on a helicopter pad. We talked late into the night and watched the shooting stars.
We awoke the next morning to a raucous pair of keas. Keas are alpine parrots that are very inquisitive, some might call them destructive. They took a liking to our sleeping bags. They kept trying to chew on them and we had to shoo them away several times. Rachel went inside to get her camera and I had to pull her sleeping bag over towards me so the keas wouldn't tear it up with their strong beaks. So failing to get her sleeping bag, the keas got a chunk from her sleeping pad. Some people consider them annoying, but they are fun to watch. We let our bags sit on the helicopter pad for a bit and were berated by the hut warden for this. Rachel says, "She acts just like the teachers we have back in England." Most people leave early and Rachel and I linger a while, what's the hurry? We talked to the hut warden, who turned out to be very nice. She tells us the she "used to be a teacher in England" and mentions the nearby Luxmore Cave. Rachel and I spend an hour underground. I really enjoy caves, but not everyone is comfortable in a dark, wet hole in the ground. We got to a point where we had to go through a hole in the rocks, not being quite sure what lay beyond. Rachel wasn't enthusiastic about this. Since caving alone is a bad idea, we went back and started our tramp.
Rachel was knowledgeable about plant identification and it was good to be able to walk with her and have her identify the different species. I know a fair amount about plants, but identification isn't my strong suit. We take a small side trip to the top of Mt. Luxmore with its grand views, where Rachel finally got to see the edelweiss flowers that she has been looking for all day. The day's tramping cuts across the tops of ridges and is far above treeline. The sun was warm, the skies clear, the breezes gentle, and the views forever.
Eventually the track descended into the trees. The Kepler is quite a diverse track. It's understandable why it's popular. Even with the huts completely filled, it can still be a quiet day of hiking if you let others leave first. We tramp down the trail to get to the Iris Burn Hut. Once again I sleep outside on the porch. At night I hear something calling in the clearing in front of the hut. I'm not sure what it is, but there can only be a few things that it could be, but confirmation would require more information.
It was a relatively flat day as the track follows the Iris Burn (stream) towards Lake Manapouri. The rocks on the trail were covered in really striking orange lichen. Along part of the track there is a small drainage ditch, which was dug by hand. I met a Department of Conservation worker who was digging additional ditches. He said the work was hard, but he had the best office in the world. I ask him about what I heard calling last night. He imitates the call of a female kiwi and it doesn't sound like it. He then does a male and I'm sure that is what I heard. So I guess that I didn't see my kiwi (at least not yet), but I heard it. We tramped through the forests and ferns. After a few hours we arrived at the Motorau Hut on Lake Manapouri. It wouldn't be the last time I see this lake. It was a beautiful setting with a sand beach, blue water, and mountains in the background. What more could a person want? Rachel had snagged a standby place on the Milford track and had to continue hiking so she could start the track the next day, so we said goodbye.
At sunset people lined up on beach to watch the sun set on the mountains. The whole sky glowed with orange as the sun went behind the hills. As a hang glider pilot, I noticed the puffy cumulus clouds in the sky. As the sun set behind the mountains, it eliminated the warm spots on the ground that were causing the clouds. I watched the clouds and the day disappear before my eyes. I didn't meet anyone in the hut that I particularly liked and kept to myself. I did meet one American who kind of annoyed me. He didn't do anything wrong...just that he was, well, an American. I don't necessarily dislike Americans when I travel, but I usually don't seek them out. I think I feel this way because they are too familiar to me. Later I slept outside on the porch for a quiet night in a gentle breeze.
I tramped 4-5 hours on the last day. As I got closer to the end I started to feel excited. When I saw the gate where we had started four days ago I had a feeling of accomplishment. I don't know why I felt this way. The track really wasn't that tough and my fitness was very strong by this time, but that's how I felt. I guess I really enjoyed myself.
That evening I go to a shop that rents outdoor equipment. I wanted to tramp the Dusky Track and knew it would be muddy. I didn't have gaiters to keep the mud out of the top of my boots. When I told him I was interested in the Dusky, he said, "If you're going to do it, you better be fit." He takes a look at me and says, "You're tough enough." I liked this comment for two reasons. First I found it a compliment that someone would say that I looked that strong. Secondly, I wanted a hard track and the Dusky seemed to fit the bill.
I don't know what it was that initially attracted me to the
heard much about it from others, though I did read a few comments in
guest logs at the hostel. There was something that was
the Dusky. I didn't really understand it at the time and I'm
if I do now. The idea of doing this track took on a life of
I saw a picture in the hostel guest logs of a group finishing the
Their expressions were different than most people at the end of a
they looked so excited. I think that's what attracted
did have some considerations about how much time I had in NZ and
whether I would have time to hike the Dusky Track. I was
to have a job waiting back home for me, but I wasn't certain and I
wasn't sure that I wanted to return so soon. Should I stay
another month and then return to make some money? If I
early, did I have time for the Dusky? I didn't know what to
I really enjoy the travel life, well...most of it. The thing that bothers me the most is when a snorer is in the bedroom. I wake up naturally 3-5 times a night and usually don't have any trouble getting back to sleep. However when a snorer is in the room I have to fall asleep to this noise 3-5 times a night. I find the snoring sound extremely obnoxious. Sometimes I want to walk over to a snorer and smash them! Oh, sorry, getting a little out of control here. I will often wake a snorer and ask them to sleep on their stomach. This may sound a little harsh, but they can be disturbing a whole roomful of people. There was one time in Te Anau that I managed to irritate someone by doing this. I tried to figure out who was snoring in the darkened room and when I did, I shook him a bit and he said, "Oh, sorry." Ten seconds later we heard the snoring again as I had woken the wrong person. In the morning I heard the guy in the kitchen saying, "Yeah, last night some &^$#!@ woke me up and said I was snoring, but it wasn't me. Pissed me off!" Oops.
I had a few things to take care of, among them was to go shopping as my towel disappeared again. I signed up for an overnight kayaking trip in Doubtful Sound. I was impressed with Milford Sound and I wanted to experience a fiord up close (to my Norwegian readers, make that a fjord). I'm told that all of the sounds are actually fiords. Glaciers create fiords and rivers create sounds and New Zealand has fiords. There was an orientation meeting the night before we left. It showed me how different the business and legal cultures are in the U.S. and NZ. They were having a safety discussion, during which people were playing with a dog. The dog would drop a ball in the middle of the group, waiting for someone to throw it once again. Their liability waivers were about six sentences long. They basically said, "I won't sue you if I'm stupid or some act of nature hurts me." In the U.S. the waiver would have filled up both sides of the paper in small print and would have had some clause excluding the Pope from liability in case of an Act of God.
left early in the morning and took a boat across Lake
Manapouri. Doubtful Sound is every bit as impressive as
sound. Walls of
rock that go nearly straight up for a thousand meters with waterfalls
down, which we use to fill our water bottles. It's nice to
there are still places where you don't have to purify the water before
It was a wonderful setting and I absorbed the world around
soon as we arrive at our camp spot, the sandflies are out en
Some people were quite annoyed, but I'm used to them by now.
provide us with camp stoves, so naturally I munch on dried
That night we went on a night hike, seeing all sorts of glow worms on
banks of a stream. Their light has the beauty of the
in them. I won't forget seeing the fiord in starlight, so
unchanging. You can see the stars directly above but the rock
walls block out most of the sky.
The next day some seals swam right beneath our kayaks. They twisted gracefully in the water so close to us we could practically touch them. I'm not sure if they were trying to entertain or totally oblivious to us. We quietly glided by the enormous walls of the sound. I've heard that some of the walls in the sound are 1500 meters tall and have hundreds of meters of water beneath. I guess that I could believe that. Doubtful Sound is quite the place to kayak.
I mentioned to some in the group how when we got back to "civilization" I had to call Mom-Cat (aka my mom) to find out about my job and to decide what to do. If I didn't have a job, then I knew that I would be free. When we got back, the group had a little party. I left to make my phone call. When I returned they asked me, "How did it go?" I say, "I'm free."
The Dusky Track awaits.