Small country, great big nature. That’s what we discovered as we finished up our excursion on the South Island. We had three big goals left, all on the west coast: Milford Sound, the Routeburn Track and Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Back to the Rain
There was no avoiding it now. We had hut reservations with the Department of Conservation along the Routeburn Track for our 3 day backpacking trip. (“Track” is Kiwi for trail.) Rain or shine, we had to travel back to Fiordland to do one of New Zealand’s most spectacular hikes. The small town of Te Anau would be our home base for the week leading up to our trek.
When we arrived in Te Anau the lake was spilling over its banks. The rain of the previous weeks was causing flooding here and across the South Island. Our hope for a day-hike on the Kepler Track, another premier trail, was washed away with the rains. We later heard from someone who was on the Kepler that one section of the trail was flooded waist-deep, with no way around. Kepler is designated as one of the Great Walks in Fiordland, with stunning views and waterfalls in abundance. We had high hopes of day trips along her trail. However, with water crossings necessary in places we chose to hunker down inside our motorhome, instead, and listen to it rain…and rain.. and rain. “Backpacking is certainly going to be a joy”, I said sarcastically.
Milford Sound Times Two
The famed Milford Sound is about a 2 hour drive from Te Anau. We studied the weather and Googled the forecast for the best window of opportunity for our boat tour, hoping to avoid getting soaked. We found a day! Not really sunny, but promising not to rain. That worked for us.
However, this meant sitting in our home on wheels for another day. Mark suggested we make use of those wheels and drive to Milford Sound the day before our boat tour just to kill time and see some of the beauty ahead of time. We had read that Milford Sound has a completely different look when it’s raining. We had no idea. After winding our way through lovely farmland and the national park entrance, the road began to gain altitude and we started noticing the waterfalls. “Look! There’s another one!” “Wow, those are big.” Reaching the summit and through a long tunnel, the landscape immediately changes to sheer mountain sides with little vegetation. And waterfall, after waterfall, after waterfall. It was stunning! I was hanging my head out of the window, pointing and squealing to Mark about each one. Unfortunately, he was driving the long, narrow, winding, steep decent…so, he had to pay attention to keep us alive. We made it to the Sound and noted the location of the campervan parking lots and the ferry docks, but mostly marveled at the scenery and looked forward to or tour the next day.
What a difference a day makes! The next day: a glimpse of sun! Rain gear packed, nonetheless, we headed back to Milford Sound. We noticed along the way that the waterfalls weren’t flowing as strongly as the day before. They were still beautiful, but the volume of water had diminished significantly. Boy, were we glad we had seen the show the day before.
On board our small tour boat, we quickly found a prime spot on the bow. Milford Sound is everything you’ve heard of; stunning blue water, sheer mountain sides, unbelievable waterfalls, the Tasman Sea. We even saw sea lions and a few more penguins. We never did see the dolphins that were promised, though. During the tour we met up with a young couple from France. We chatted, shared travel stories and experienced the wonders of the Sound together. And…it didn’t rain! In fact, the sun came out. We were blessed, indeed.
“The Day” had arrived. Come hell or high water, we were going to hike the Routeburn Track, another one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Along the way there are huts–communal bunk houses–available to sleep in. Aside from the sleeping area, each hut provides common dining and kitchen areas, complete with gas hobs (stovetops) and sinks.
Day One began at The Divide trailhead on the west end, heading to MacKenzie Hut where we’d spend our first night. The morning hung onto the clouds and drizzle from the previous days, so we dressed in our full rain gear, including our backpack rainflies. Even with all the weeks’ rain, the track was in great shape. Along the way, we passed waterfalls, walked along steep drop offs, caught glimpses of the peaks above us, came across an old orchard, and made our way down a steep decent to the MacKenzie Hut in the late afternoon.
Along the way we met the MacKenzie’s (YUP!) taking a breather at the orchard. We had a brief exchange of pleasantries and then continued on our way. Once we’d settled into the hut, we started to get to know them a little more. Bryan and Helen MacKenzie were backpacking with family and friends. Unfortunately, over the passage of time we’ve “misplaced” a few of their names, but do recall Outdoorsman Dave, Anthony, Rosie, and… We’re still trying to remember Helen’s brother and sister’s names… So embarrassing–please forgive us!
We started out as “the Americans.” They invited the Americans to eat dinner with them. They invited the Americans to hop in the lake with them. (We politely declined a dip in the glacial waters…) They invited the Americans to hike with them. Bryan even talked politics with the Americans. By the next morning, we were simply Mark and Susan.
Day two started with a slight detour. The rains had raised the lake level enough to flood the trail and make it impassable. The detour wasn’t particularly long, but it took us over and around the boulders the glaciers deposited at the lake’s end. Once past that, we started to climb from the lake up to the higher ridges. We hiked along the ridges and down mountain valleys, past waterfalls and along mountain sides.
We also seemed to be wherever the MacKenzie’s were. We’d catch up and pass them, exchanging friendly banter. They would catch and pass us. More banter. Eventually, they adopted us in to their hiking group. Mark was invited by Outdoorsman Dave to go off-trail for some more picture taking opportunities up the Valley of the Trolls. Leaving me in the solid care of Bryan and Helen, I continued to the day’s destination: Routeburn Falls Hut. We arrived a few hours before Mark and Dave, but they eventually made it with big smiles having survived the trolls.
Day Three. There was no hiding it now, we were part of the family! The MacKenzies (and company) and the Leedoms. We packed our backpacks, said one last goodbye to the mountain parrots who had been chattering and dropping rocks on our hut roof, and headed out for our easiest day yet. Getting out was pretty much all downhill and along a beautiful river. We took our time, chatting with our new BFF’s, resting by the Route Burn (River), and taking lots of pictures. By now it was fabulous short sleeve weather!
We rode the shuttle back together, exchanged email addresses and promised to stay in touch, which we have. The scenery is great and the Department of Conservation does impressive work with their Great Walks. But, for me the experience was made even more spectacular by the connections we made with this eager group of North Island Kiwis.
Our last big adventure in New Zealand was to spend a day in and around Aoraki, New Zealand’s tallest mountain (aka Mt Cook). The DOC has a lovely campground tucked in near Aoraki’s neighbors. But, to see the mighty guy you have to hike over 10km return (that’s “roundtrip” for most of you) down a lovely trail near the campground. We had planned to do that at sunrise the next day to see the alpenglow. We had arrived in a rainy downpour (of course) and hunkered down in our motorhome to hide from the weather. In the late afternoon the weather cleared and we were a bit stir crazy, so we decided to just see a little of the trail we’d be going on the next day. We ended up hiking the whole thing!
Of course, we still hiked the trail the next day as well…at dawn! It was a magical experience and seemed faster and easier the second time around. We missed the alpenglow on Cook, but did enjoy it on the ridges along the way. Sunrise on Aoraki was stunning nonetheless!
After thousands of kilometers, our adventures in New Zealand were coming to a close. Time to turn in our motorhome. Next, we laid low in an Airbnb in Christchurch and then another in Auckland, allowing us to slow life down a bit. We connected once again with dear friends Garth and Elizabeth for Christmas dinner. And we appreciated how awesome it is to be able to shower in your own home, how terrific a flush toilet can be, and thanked life for how great it is.
There’s more to see in this world, though, so…
Go With Us…
Pictures by Mark Leedom unless otherwise noted