George Sound Track: Starting at Lake Hankinson and ending at George Sound, this track traverses thick bush, deep mud, mountain passes, streams and lakes, and lots more.  From start to finish, one of the finest tracks ever.

Lake Hankinson Hut
Middle Arm FiordCaptain Vern picked me up and we took a boat across Lake Te Anau to Middle Arm Fiord.  A rainbow appeared across the lake and then it started to rain, typical Fiordlands.  Once on the western shore of the fiord, we walked fifteen minutes to Lake Hankinson and crossed the lake in a heavy downpour, though high above the mountains were dusted in snow.

I didn’t feel like walking in the rain and relaxed in the hut.  I had eleven days, so missing a morning of walking was ok.  Once the weather cleared in the afternoon,  I started a day walk up the valley to the meadow.  The track followed the Wapiti River for five minutes to the first three-wire bridge.  The track was moderate, by Fiordland standards, and the weather had turned gentle.  Half an hour later, the track crossed the river once again on a three-wire bridge, this time high over a series of rapids filled with rocks the size of small houses; then the wildness started.

The forest was so green and the track rugged.  It climbed over rocks that were completely covered in moss.  Essentially, there was no track, rather it was a rock field completely awash in greenery.  The track reached Lake Thomson and continued north along the river.  Eventually it became more of a conventional forest walk, still rough, but nothing like the earlier mossy rocks.
The path led into a flooded area.  There was considerable vegetation floating in the still waters along the shoreline.  There was a line of vegetation two meters above the waterline, in many cases above the track itself, which indicates how high the lake was flooded recently.  The track descended not only next to the water but into the water.  I followed the route into the water but couldn’t see where to go next.  So I was standing waist-deep thinking, “Where now?”

From then on, it was still muddy but pretty flat. Actually there was only one good, old fashioned Fiordlands Mud Wallow the whole day so it was actually pretty mild.  A waterfall could be heard in the distance, getting louder further north.  Eventually the waterfall was close by and I climbed onto a rocky area and saw a sign for the hut.  I had completely missed the meadow.  Then it dawned on me, the flooded section I had waded through was the meadow.  What was supposed to be an idyllic grassland with a meandering stream had turned into a lake.  I should have known that in a place that gets eight meters of rain a year that a meadow may or may not be there on a given day but wait a few days and it will be return.   The walk back was similar to the way up.  Saying it was similar, that means it was great.

Thomson Hut
Today it would be back to the Thomson Hut.  I couldn’t believe how heavy the pack was, surely the heaviest ever.  But, I was prepared for all conditions and had food for two weeks.  It was out of the hut and over the bridge to the far side of the river.  The next section was a little tricky with a heavy pack but step carefully and you’ll be ok.  It wasn’t that hard until I crossed the river again and entered the rock field. Even after passing this way yesterday, it was still hard to follow the track.

The track is made of large rocks, often 2-4 meters across.  One had to climb across them and in places, if you weren’t careful, you could fall two meters down in between them.  The rocks were mossy and irregular, so much care was needed in the crossing, but good heavens was it green.  The track itself was green with moss, above were trees clad in moss and leaves, and to the sides, were rock walls covered in lichens and moss and dripping with water.  Everywhere, and that means everywhere, it was the color of life.  It was a tricky section of trail and the likeliest place to get hurt, especially with a heavy pack.  Fiordlands is a magic place and it’s places like this that make it so true.  It’s a paradise. 

So over the rocks and more over the rocks it was.  There were a few places where one had to slip down to the ground and climb up the rocks on the other side and other places where one had to jump across a gap.  Not a fun thing to do with a pack on but hey, that’s what is there.  I finally figured out what had caused the track to be like this; the rocks were the irregular remnants of a long-ago landslide.  When the rocks crash down, sometimes from a 500 meter fall, they shatter into fragments.  Eventually mosses and trees grow in and one day, someone puts a trail through it.

Later the track leaves the slip and reaches the flooded areas surrounded by a tall, steep valley with waterfalls coming down from above.  Yep, it’s Fiordlands!  I was in no hurry as it was a relatively short day and the only thing that could possibly force haste would be the sandflies, but they weren’t present today.  I cross the muddy areas and heard the waterfall again.  There is a new bridge across the chasm and I walk out on it.  The river is really roaring, there must be a lot of water in the valleys above.  When I mentioned earlier about the lack of sandflies, that wasn’t true around the hut, so before long, it was into the hut.

George Sound Hut
The skies were overcast in the morning but it was off to the sound.  The narrow trail led over the river and then across the wet forest floor.  Soon it started to climb and before long the trail was accompanied by the sound of falling water from the Rugged Burn (stream) that the track would follow for several hours.  Some parts of the climb were moderate and others required hanging onto rocks and trees.  Eventually the climb ended and the track roughly followed the burn.  That term “roughly” means ‘approximately” but also ‘ruggedly’ :-).  The burn was so peaceful.  The clear waters gently rippled through the forest and were accompanied by the sound of water droplets falling into the stream from the trees above.

The track was wet for sure so I carefully picked my way through the forest, but there was surprisingly little of the deep, deep mudpits.  It was easier today than yesterday as the track, so far, wasn’t quite as rough, but it was also easier as half the food was left at the Thomson Hut.  What would happen if I got stuck down at the sound because of weather?  Well, the words “one hungry puppy” come to mind.

The trail continued to meander and then started to climb again and then leveled out once again and the songbirds shared their music.  Remember what was said about the mud not being so bad?  Well, things changed and it turned into a slop hole with mid-thigh deep mud, which meant that Deadwood Lagoon was getting near.  Indeed, before long, the trail crossed through thick brush and came to an opening with the lagoon.  It was a nice panoramic view of the valley and it was flooded high with a waterfall cascading at its headwaters.  Being pretty dirty from the mud, I waded into the water to wash off and get a drink.  I wasn’t quite sure where, but up yonder was Henry Saddle that led to the valley on the other side of the mountains.  The track started a one-hour climb.  At first it was muddy and moderate and one could see where the name Deadwood Lagoon came from; the trail was strewn with bleached wood which looked like bones of long-gone animals.  Before long, the track was in a steep climb up the valley wall.  It started to level out as the trees grew thinner and Henry Saddle arrived.

Katherine ValleyWaters from the top of Henry SaddleIt was pleasant on the pass.  The weather was warm, the winds gentle, and the skies were clear.  I looked back down on the lagoon and then at the massive valley ahead and thought, “That’s where I’m going!”  There is a big slip on the north side of the valley.  It slipped during a period of very bad weather eight years ago.  I was the first person to see it a few days after it came down.  At that time, it was a bright gash of bare rock in the mountainside.  The first thing that struck me upon gazing down the valley was how the slip was starting to turn green as Nature reclaims lost lands. I spent an hour before reluctantly heading steeply down into the valley.  As nice as it was up there, it was still a long way to the sea.

Right after the pass, the descent was pretty tricky, on exposed and steep rocks then I followed the south side of the valley into the bush with another steep descent, this time in trees and mosses.   One frequently had to hang onto trees to descend in this section, that’s for sure.  The track leveled out and came upon a stream.  The path not only crossed it several times, but was in the stream for some sections.  The water was so inviting that I walked out into the middle and watched the sun reflect off the water onto the undersides of the leaves.

The track eventually left the stream and started another descent, which required frequent bracing against trees to keep from losing control downhill, however the track started to veer off to the north side of the valley.  Eventually the descent stops and it passes through a bizarre section of dead trees along a stream.  It was the first place since Deadwood Lagoon where it was truly muddy.  The strange area gave way to an irregular section of large rocks covered in lichens with lots of brush growing in between.  It was the slip seen from Henry Saddle.  The last time I encountered this section, it was very different.  At that time, the rock was bare and unsettled beneath the feet, now it had a coating of life on it, a patina if you will, as nature changes the land.

There’s a nice, large waterfall was just down track from the slip.  At this point, the track roughly followed Katherine Creek down to the sound and before too long, Lake Katherine was reached.  Some rough stuff there as the track sidled under the near vertical valley walls that surrounded the lake on both sides.  The path had a number of ups and down before reaching a three-wire bridge across the river.  That part of the forest wasn’t the most spectacular of the track, but it was still lush and green and so, so nice.  Remember that “average” in Fiordlands is “spectacular” most other places.  It was getting late in the day, but George Sound was near.  A few minutes after another three-wire, I reached the still waters of the fiord and walked out into them.  It was exciting to stand on the shores on George Sound and look out over it.  I looked forward to this for many years and it was sweet feeling to be back again.  The sun was setting to the west, the water was like a mirror, and Mr. Moose was looking out over a place so nice that it almost hurts.

There had been no sandflies at all for the entire day, but that had just changed, so I skedaddled into the hut.  The only downside for the day was that there were people who had come in by boat and were staying at the hut.  The negative of their presence was somewhat negated by their offer of freshly caught blue cod and crayfish with butter.  Oh yeah!

Lake Alice
In the morning stillness, George Sound was once again smooth as glass.  I walked along, actually on, the steep, north wall of the fiord on my way to Lake Alice.  There were a few slips where I had to hang onto downed timber and in another place a large vertical crack in the rock couldn’t be crossed, so I had to climb steeply to the top of the crack and clamber down the other side before resuming the path.  Eventually I reached the lake which was about 100 meters above the sound.  There were two outlets to the lake.  One was a wide, but dry, waterfall.  The other was a wide waterfall that was gushing with water.  I suspect that if enough rain comes, both of them flow quite heavily. 

I spent several hours by the lake, lying on the rocks above the falls.  The sun was out, the skies were blue and there wasn’t a single sandfly to be seen.  Wait, let’s take that back.  There was a pond near the top of the dry waterfall.  It was so still that the mists rising from water as the sun warmed it were clearly visible.  It was so unbelievably mild and quiet, the only thing moving was a few sandflies.  They were getting picked off one by one by dragonflies.  One dragonfly flew thirty cm. in front of my face and just hovered.  Neither of us moved for many seconds.  Eventually it ascertained that it wasn’t looking at a big sandfly and went back over the still waters for lunch.  I sat at the top of the falls and watched the eddy currents as the water curled around starting its descent to the ocean.

Later I went down the edge of the sound and lay on the smooth rocks in the brightly shining sun.  It was so peaceful and comfortable.  It could only be described as a perfect day…sitting on tan rocks, with sky blue above, ocean blue at my feet, and green all around on the fiord walls.  You can’t get a more comfortable day than this one.  No, you just can’t do that.

Thomson Hut
I walked to the waters edge and looked over the sound one last time before leaving, thinking,  “I can’t leave”, so I didn’t leave and stood on the smooth water’s edge looking over a beautiful scene, but eventually the time came.  It was hard, but forced myself to do so and headed back from where I came and at least it was a pleasant day for tramping.  It was 215 meters up to Lake Katherine.  There wasn’t a single ripple on the entire lake.  The lake was surrounded by high walls on both sides.  The map labeled them, “Echo Cliffs.”  I let out a holler and yep, they did.  The tramp had started early and there was no need to hurry, so I spent a long time sitting there.  The sandflies were in mobs at the sound, but not a single one was to be found at Lake Katherine or anywhere else for the entire day.

From there the track continued to climb and weave through the forest.  The birds were singing and the fantails were fanning their tails as they so pleasingly seem to do.  Oh yeah, the forest was nice, as it always is.  I crossed the stream that was under the good-sized falls, stopping half-way to drink right from the stream.  Oh that water is good.  I crossed the slip, taking my time to notice how the moss had regrown over the years.  When I had first seen the rocks eight years ago, they were bare and jagged.  Some of the sharp edges had worn down and the moss and lichens were 2-3 cm. thick.  It was still very definitely a slip but over the years, nature will reclaim the area and eventually, one would have no idea what once had transpired here.

The trail went through the muddy area of dead trees and started the steep climb up the side of the valley and eventually to the other side of the valley and the streams.  Walking through the area, it’s hard to tell how many streams there are; 3, 5, 10, maybe only 1, who knows.  You just keep crossing them.  The waters in them are so, so clear.  It’s almost as if there is no water at all.   The sun was high in the sky and reflected off the streams, shimmering on the underside of the forest canopy like the other day.  Just thinking of this makes me want to go back so much more than I can say.  From there the track started its steep climb up the valley wall, with the requisite hanging onto trees for safety and then onto the treacherous, exposed rocks to climb to the saddle. 

It was a warm summer day, with blue skies above and a gentle breeze blowing across the Henry Saddle.  Even though I spent a lot of time sitting and gazing at the valleys below the other day, I did it again…it was so much fun.  I have no idea how long I spent up there, probably a couple of hours, looking on the west side of the saddle, then the east.  I climbed up the south side of the pass high enough that I could just get a glimpse of George Sound.  It was good to see the ocean once again, even if it was from far away.  If there is one place where you hate to use a watch, this is it, but I had to set the alarm to force myself to leave and still have enough time to safely get back to the hut.

So I started the descent to Deadwood Lagoon.  It’s a little tricky on the descent but it’s ok, nothing I haven’t done a lot of the last days, down through the boneyard, with a break to eat at Deadwood Lagoon.  And after that, oh yeah, the deep, deep mud.  It was so nice to walk along the track, surrounded by green in every direction; front, back, side-to-side, above and below, with the sounds of Rugged Burn rippling alongside.  Green was all around.  It hung in mosses from the tree branches, ferns grew underfoot, and overgrew the track in many spots. The sun had gone behind the mountains as I walked through the dark, deep, thick forest.  It had a different character than it did when the sun was bright and high in the sky.  It gave the track a relaxing feel.  It’s hard to say exactly what that means, but it seems to capture its silent, peaceful majesty.

Finally, the trail went down steeply to the valley floor and across the valley bottom.  The atmosphere became more and more infused with evening shade and eventually I crossed the bridge near the water fall and reached the hut.  I don’t know what one can say other than there is no finer day of tramping than this one.

Thomson Hut
I spent two pleasant days at the hut.  The first day I slept late and lounged around doing very little.  It’s wasn’t very nice outside, but not because of the weather.  Sandflies were so thick, one couldn’t venture out without being mobbed by them.  I did take the track behind the hut up the hill.  It was a steep, but relaxing climb.  I was in no hurry and once above the valley floor, the sandflies disappeared.  I frequently sat and listened to the birds and often listened to nothing at all.  I watched an inch-worm descending on its single web-like thread.  It came down upon my knee and tickled me as it crawled across my skin.  After it started going into my gaiters, I gently placed it on a log next to me and watched it go on its way.

The second day I started off to a side track off the main trail and possibly back to the saddle but it started to rain and I wasn’t into a rainy tramp on this particular day.  One thing I found on the track is how clear my mind was.  I had been working on an art project for a long time or should I say, attempting to work on a project.  I found that my ideas for the project seemed to flow in a way they hadn’t the entire trip.  It seems the solitude allows the noggin’ to focus.  Who knows.

It rained most of the day and all of the night.  Outside in the showers, it was impossible to tell the sky from the tall, bush-covered mountains as everything was enveloped in a cave-like total darkness.  It’s a nice feeling to be in such a dark area knowing that the space is so wide open.  That night I fell asleep to the relaxing sound of raindrops falling on the roof.

Hankinson Hut
I took my time leaving.  The falls were roaring, everything was wet,  and puddles were everywhere.  It was back to what I think of as Fiordlands: water everywhere.  Where the trail crossed the edge of the flooded meadow, it was still over waist-deep.  I was hoping to see the meadow but instead I saw a lake, it’s ok either way.  It was almost an easy walk compared to the last time through here as my pack was so much lighter.  I wouldn’t call it walking on air, but pretty close. 

The tops of the mountains were in the clouds.  It was alternating between the gentlest of rain and sun.  Later, it was striking to be in the shadows of the clouds in the mist while the entire other side of the valley bathed in brilliant sunshine.  By the end of today’s modest tramp, the entire sky was blue and the day was warm.  The track, as usual, was so stunning in its greenery.  This forest never ceases to amaze.  You can be walking along and the forest is nice and then fifty meters later something changes to give it a different character.  The greenery is thicker and the shade deeper.  It can only be described as the most beautiful place on our planet.

The track continued through the rough landslide sections, gorgeous as ever and then crossed the river to the gentler sections then crossed the river again to the easy-going parts and reached the hut a few minutes later.  It was sad to arrive at the hut.  Even though I had the another day and a half, it was the end of the track.  I would take another walk the next day, but essentially this was the end point.

That night I made a fire and stayed up until 3 or 4 a.m.  It wasn’t an issue of sleeplessness rather I lay in my sleeping bag, mesmerized by the flames and listening to the calls of kiwi.  It was relaxing more than anything.  The following day was a nice one and I wandered up the valley again, taking my time, frequently sitting among the trees.  I also headed to Lake Hankinson and sat upon its shores.  There are tall mountains that plunge steeply down to the waters.  The glacial-dug lakes in Fiordlands are often long and narrow, but can be hundreds of meters deep, this lake is no exception.  One thing that I did is drink plenty of water.  The waters of Fiordlands are so good and clean that I will drink them not out of necessity, but out of pleasure. 

I stayed up late for my last night in Fiordlands.  Once again, the kiwi called all night long and I could hear the sound of the river outside.  I was really going to miss this place.  The tall mountains, endless skies, clean water, hopelessly green forests and so much more.  The morning was pleasantly overcast.  Around midday, I threw everything in my pack and went down to the shores of Lake Hankinson.  I sat on the shore and thought.  Sometimes thinking of the views of forever from the top of the mountains, other times the focus was how the water lapped at the shore.  Eventually Vern came across the lake and soon it would be back to “civilization.” Whatever that meant.

I knew that it would be some time before I would be able to return to this area of Fiordlands but I couldn’t let that get me down.  It had been a great tramp.
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