Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kayaking on Milford Sound

Waterfalls Forming in the Rain at Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Mitre Peak

Sunday it rained heavily all day at Milford Sound. We sat around at the lodge, visiting with tramp acquaintances, reading, watching waterfalls form on the cliffs above, watching those old rain drops fall. Even the internet was out of service. We had thought about taking a the shuttle into “town” to dine at the Blue Duck, the lone eating establishment in Milford Sound (there is also a motel and a defunct gas station—that's it), but opted eventually for another camper meal cooked in the lodge kitchen: Indian butter chicken, basmati rice, and a great Ozzie ginger beer, Bundaburg.

Monday dawned bright, cool, and sunny, with a few low clouds over the fiord. Vicki had scheduled us for a 7:15 AM kayak trip, so we rose quite early, packed up, ate, and shuttled down to the Sound to don our cold-water kayaking costumes (provided by the vendor, Roscoe's of Milford Sound). The change of clothing took place in a large tent (women) and outside (men), both exposed to the ravages of the worst sand fly attacks we have yet seen. The way we tramp and dress, only our hands, faces, and necks are exposed, and these are marinated daily in 100% DEET. (Viet Nam War surplus from CampMor, purchased in about 1976, I think. The stuff is powerful and goes a long way. It has removed the paint from my aluminum ice axe and other implements; but the the mosquitoes and sand flies evidently don't like it.) It is amazing how quickly one can change pants and shirts when one really needs to.

The morning kayak trip was most enjoyable, just the right length, little exertion, great vistas, no wind, and the fiord as placid as a calm lake. The only ripples were those of the passing cruise boats. (More pix when those from the disposable marine camera are developed and digitized). After another quick change and lunch at the Blue Duck, we caught the 2:30 bus to Te Anau. Normally, bus rides aren't all that great, but this one took us through Homer Tunnel and then through glacial canyons larger than any I've ever seen. The only thing NZ lacks, scenically, we have observed, is the Grand Canyon, and here we were, mile after mile, in what the Grand Canyon would look like if it were covered in rain forest and surmounted by peaks and glaciers. We're vowed to drive back to Milford Sound to see it all again, just before embarking on the Routeburn Tramp Thursday morning.

Keas Again

Keas are the alpine parrot found on the South Island, mostly in Fiordland National Park. They are about the size of a chicken and are not flightless like some other notable Kiwi birds. Until our Milford Tramp, we had not seen one, but had heard and read plenty about them. On the Milford, we saw and heard plenty of kea, especially at Milford Sound. They are very curious, not very fearful, and will take anything not nailed down. All of the hut wardens on the Milford cautioned us to leave nothing outside the hut on the porch. The kea are particularly fond of hiking boots. One warning we saw told us that (paraphrasing) “keas typically operate in pairs; one distracting you with its clownish antics while the other goes after your wallet, your keys, camera, sunglasses....” I saw one pecking the insulation out from a car's windshield. They start calling one another at about 4 in the AM, more of a loud, prolonged, plaintive high-pitched “meow” than a “kea.” But it can't be pining for the fiords.

Reflections on the Milford

The Arthur River

Sunderland Falls

Dumpling Hut

Sandfly Point, End of Tramp

I need to read up on some geology, geography and climatology. The mountains here are not very high. The highest, by far, is Mt. Cook, 12,000 feet, inland and far to the north. Yet there are all these enormous glaciers and evidence of even greater glaciers in the past. On Lake Te Anau we passed over the 45th parallel. Here in NZ, we are not nearly so far south as Missoula, MT (no glaciers), is north. And Missoula is far higher than anything here but the highest peaks. (The 45th, BTW, passes through only 3 nations: Chile, Argentina, and NZ). There is a super-abundance of moisture here and consequent rain forest. But why the ice? Not altitude, and not latitude, at least by my lights.

We were pleased to have done the Milford. Among trekkers, it has got to be on everyone's list of treks to do. For me, there was a certain monotony—same canyon features, same beech rain forest, same falls, a mildly interesting pass, and then back into the trench, more canyon features, forest and falls. Sunderland was a treat. Milford Sound, the fiord, is very scenic, by any standard, but it's not part of the tramp and one can drive one's car to see it. DOC facilities, staff, and track were, as in the past, superb. Other trails are "maintained"; DOC tracks are positively groomed.

The sand flies did live up to their billing. According to Maori legend, one of the hut wardens said, it was the Goddess of Darkness who gave us sand flies, to remind us to keep moving. Perhaps the most important thing we learned on this tramp, other than to keep moving (we already knew that!), is that the flies don't bite at night. They really don't. A gift of the Goddess of Darkness.

Milford Tramp

Vicki's Boots Being Baptized (to prevent spread of didymo ("rock snot") microorganism)

The Clinton Valley

A Standard Milford View

At Mackinnon Pass

A Glacier Above Arthur Valley

The Milford Tramp is billed as “the finest walk in the world.” It is certainly the most highly-regulated. Camping is not permitted. Only 40 trampers are allowed per day, and they must stay in the three huts, the Clinton Hut, the Mintaro Hut, and the Dumpling Hut, in order. Travel is one way only, south to north across Mackinnon Pass. The start is at the top end of Lake Te Anau, which you get to via boat, and the end is at Sandfly Point, from which you catch another boat to Milford Sound, on the fiord. Unless you have made other arrangements, there are also two bus rides involved, from Te Anau to the lake boat at Te Anau Downs (30 minutes) and from Milford Sound back to Te Anau (two hours). There is also a guided walk program, nicer accommodations, food, transportation, provided, etc., for a smaller number of “trampers,” at about 800US$ per person. The guided walkers we saw were mostly Japanese.

The tramp takes you up Clinton valley, 16 miles, to Mackinnon Pass, then down Arthur Valley, 17 miles, to Sandfly Point. Except for the upper reaches of the pass, you are in an ancient beech forest all the way, low ferns and other plants, too. The two valleys—canyons, really—are deep glacial trenches with high walls on either side and at their heads. Above the 2,000-3,000 foot walls are the largely unseen mountains with their snowfields and glaciers. If you like waterfalls, this is the hike for you. There are hundreds, thousands, all different, most enormous, culminating in the 1,900 foot Sunderland Falls, one of the world's highest. Although rain was forecast for our tramp, all four days, we saw only a bit of drizzle two afternoons and actual rain only the third evening. But even a little additional moisture here creates new waterfalls, and part of the interest is seeing a “new” waterfall appear where there was none only a moment before. With all this water and the constant cleansing and washing of everything, the creeks, and then the rivers, the Clinton and the Arthur, are the clearest flowing bodies of water we have ever seen, deep and wide and powerful, too.

On the Milford, you're with the same group of 40 for the entire tramp. Our group was about half Kiwi—several families tramping together—a Canadian, Michel, the 3 amigos from Colorado, a couple from Alaska, us from Montana, couples from Poland, Israel, and others from Germany, Denmark, and elsewhere. Vicki and I were the oldest and slowest, but then we generally are. People bond, more or less, on these tramps, and we had a good group with whom to bond, especially our fellow Americanskis. Interestingly, all of us are spending considerable time in New Zealand and loving every minute of it.

The crux of the tramp, it would appear, is the third day, with its ascent of Mackinnon Pass, about 2,000 feet up and more down. We reached it without much exertion. The pass itself was a hurricane, as most passes are. We had a hiker's lunch at the pass hut, the fifth hut on the premises: the previous four had blown away. The walk down was not as bad as expected. DOC has installed a number of wooden staircases at the steepest and washed-away points. And before arriving at the Mintaro hut, one can enjoy the side trip to the base of 580 meter Sunderland Falls.

The crux of the tramp for us was the fourth and final day, 12 miles from the hut to the boat. Our tickets were for the 3:15 boat, the last of the day, we were given to understand. The night before, heavy rains were predicted, up to 200mm (6-8 inches), and we were told not to begin the hike before the 7 AM weather report. The track often floods out, the hut warden said, and in such circumstances, it was not unusual for hut occupants to be flown out by DOC helicopters. So we went to bed hoping for a helicopter rescue!

There was no rain that night, nor the next day (it all passed south), and so we departed the hut at 7:05, trudging the last 12 miles to Sandfly Point. The last day is largely level ground, scenic nonetheless, and we were greatly relieved to arrive at the Point early, at 2:45. The boat captain informed us that, oh yes, there is a 4:00 boat, and later boats, until everyone is accounted for. No one has ever been left over-night at the aptly-named Sandfly Point. Vicki vowed to protest to the DOC. But as we rounded the Point, the fiord came into view, with Mitre Peak, other mountains, glaciers, and more waterfalls, and the anticipated grand view was both reward and relief.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mavora Lakes and Mararoa River

"Two hobbits lay here...thrashing about...
what were they doing?"

Other Side of the Swingbridge (from which shot was taken)
was the Departure from Lothlorien; the Left Side of the
Lake, the Route to Mordor, the Right Side, the Site of Frodo
and Sam's Departure at the End of FOTR

Hiding from Uruk-hai

The Log Under Which Merry and Pip Hid from the Uruk-hai

The Ranger Who Gave Us Directions

The major LOTR sites of the day were at the Mavora Lakes and Mararoa River, 40km from Mossburn, itself pretty well removed from anything except sheep ranches. (We have concluded that a “burn,” as in “Mossburn” or “Routeburn,” is a creek or river). Around the lakes and the river were perhaps the richest collection of LOTR sites we have yet seen. The sites all had to do with the dissolution of the Fellowship, the departure from Lothlorien, the Uruk-hai attack on the band, the capture of Merry and Pippin, and Frodo and Sam's escape. Also nearby were the site of the Riders of Rohan attack on the Uruk-hai, where they burned the corpses, where Viggo Mortensen broke his toe, where Merry and Pippin escaped into Fangorn Forest, and the Forest itself.

Not a bad day's Ringer work, aided, as always, by Ian Brodie's guidebook of LOTR sites. Brodie's book is indispensable, if exasperating at times. A typical description would go like this. “The site is located on a farm road between Auckland and Queenstown. Please shut the gate after entering. Drive another 10-50km, then turn onto a paddock bordered by trees. The site will be immediately recognizable. Behind the bush is where Elijah Wood lost his third set of hobbit feet.” We found the stump (actually a log) under which Merry and Pippin hid in the forest from the Uruk-hai only through the kindness of some nearby campers. A ranger's directions had proven unfruitful—he seemed not to have high regard for Ringers—although his advice did afford us a nice mid-day hike around part of the north lake.

In fairness, I should add that Brodie provides GPS coordinates for all the sites, and such coordinates and the ability to find them would be nearly as indispensable at the book itself. Months ago we decided not to invest in GPS technology for our Asia/Pacific trip. It would have been useless in Asia and one more heavy valuable to lug around and guard. There have been days here in NZ when we wish we had done otherwise. But by and large it's been feasible and perhaps even more fun “the old fashioned way.”

Queenstown to Te Anau

Queenstown from the Other Side of the Lake

The Kingston Flyer

A Real Kiwi Campervan

“They have such beautiful eyes,” (to paraphrase a Gene Wilder line from a favorite Woody Allen flick). According to tourist publications on driving in the back country, one should drive right straight into a flock like this at 5-10kmph and not hesitate nor waiver; the sheep will make way. If you stop, they will stop. That's exactly how it works, too.

Monday's drive from Queenstown to Te Anau—200 or so km—took us from one huge mountain lake to another, further west and south, but across ever changing ground. The departing views of Queenstown, across the lake, were great. After an hour or so along the west side of the lake, including Kingston and its working steam engine, the land became very dry and open, similar to the American West. Many scenes could have been Montana's high plains, ringed by mountains, but dry and rolling, the sage brush replaced by some low-growing, drought-loving Gondwanalandian shrub. A 40km detour over unsealed road (but no ford) took us to the Mavora Lakes, two beautiful trout-laden high lakes back in mountainous country. The last leg saw us in more rolling agricultural country, approaching Te Anau, the largest of these huge lakes, and the mountains of Fiordland.

Agricultural country. Indeed: all of New Zealand. Everything grows here, everything thrives here, on one island or the other and in the seas about. We ate at a restaurant Sunday night in Queenstown whose menu noted that all its dishes and ingredients were locally produced.

January 19, 2009--Queenstown

We are just packing up to head to the Morevia Lakes and Te Anua region. There we will visit Fanghorn Forest ,another Ring site, but also begin the Milford Sound Trek which National Geographic proclaimed as the Best Hike in the World. Ever since the 80s it has been highly regulated. (We booked on July 15) Only 40 people can begin the 4 day hike each day. There is no camping allowed, everyone must stay in the huts and everyone hikes it in the same direction. The first day will only be about 2 hrs of walking as you have to take a 30 min bus ride from Te Anua to the start, then a boat to the actual start. I am most worried about days 3 and 4. Day 3 is 10 miles with a 1500 ft elevation gain and a 3000 ft descent over the pass. That is a lot for my knees even with the braces on. I have not done that much on this trip while carrying a pack. The 4th and last day is long for me at 12 miles but after day 3 I'm sure my legs will be talking to me. Unfortunately, the last boat that takes you to the lodge at the end of the road leaves at 3:15. There is no trail, so if we miss it, we spend the night without a tent at a wonderful place called Sandfly Point. We have been getting ready--and I think I can do it--I just hate having a deadline to worry about. We will spend two nights at Milford Sound at the backpackers lodge and kayak part of the sound after a rest day. Then we catch a bus back the 60 miles to Te Anua. One nice thing is that we can send a pack ahead on the bus to the lodge so that we can have a change of clothes and other amenities that we wouldn't be able to carry in on our backs. Mark and I have learned to backpack very light. It is great for the diet. If you have no food, you can't get fat!

I think Mark is doing a pretty good job in describing everything. Of course, he doesn't have the proper respect for the Ring sites we are visiting. But in reality he is really enjoying them as he is a big fan of the movies. Trying to find some of them has been difficult as we don't have a GPS and some of Brodie's directions are none too clear. Also some things have changed in the 8 years since the movies were made and 5 years since the location book was written. The hunt has taken us to many places we would have missed otherwise. It has reminded us of our trip to Europe in 1989. When we were in England and France we did a lot of hunting for menhirs and other paleolithic sites for Mark and then many fairytale and children's sites for the girls based on a book called Heidi's Alp. It really adds another dimension to a trip when you can drink from the spring that Heidi did (unfortunately, so did her sheep.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Riders of Rotel

Vicki and I became acquainted with Rotel on our first trip to Europe, in 1979. It is a touring arrangement consisting of a bus and huge tractor-trailer. Passengers ride by day in the bus, stay in campgrounds, cook their own meals, and then sleep in little compartments in the trailer (“coffins” Rebecca and Rachel called them back in 1989; I think Vicki had told them Rotel was a traveling vampire troop). See illustration. I'd guess they can carry 50 or more people. We have seen them, over the years, in London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Denali, and other such places. Fiordlands National Park, where we are just now, camping at Lake Te Anau, is such a world-class place—one of the four adjoining national parks that comprise NZ's great Southwest World Heritage Site—and it is strangely reaffirming to see Rotel here too. We'll be camping in Te Anau Monday and Tuesday, do the Milford Tramp Wednesday-Saturday, staying in DOC huts, and then will spend Saturday and Sunday nights at the lodge in Milford Sound. Monday we'll do some sea-kayaking in the Sound before returning to Te Anau and resting up for the Routeburn Tramp, two days later. Milford Sound has internet, but we probably won't post any blog pix for a week or so. Periods of rain are forecast on the Milford Tramp Wednesday through Friday, but that is par for the course here. In Hawaii, they say “no rain, no rainbow.” Here it would be “no rain, no rain forest, nor glacier, nor fiord.” Nor sandflies.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travails of the Ringer

On (exactly) this site, in the year 3147 of the Third Age, Rangers of Ithilien attacked and annihilated a large Haradrim force, including two battle oliphants; the Rangers were led by Captain Faramir, son of Denethor II, Steward of Gondor... (and on the cliff to Vicki's right (out of view; but we were there) Sam and Smeagol argued about proper preparation of a brace of coneys)

These are the kinds of challenges and obstacles with which the faithful Ringer must contend...

We got as far as Lothlorien...

And even to Isengard; OK, lose the fence and powerline and the sheep, and CG-in Orthanc...

But, obviously, we didn't get as far as Paradise; the seventh ford was too deep and fast, and I almost over-turned the Bongo backing away; but some friendly Kiwis (from HireEquip) pulled us out and saved the day.

In addition to the above items, at 12 Mile Creek, further up Lake Wakitipu, to Glenorchy and beyond (almost Paradise), we also did a long day hike on the Routeburn Tramp, which we'll do fully in ten days. It was raining for most of the hike, so there are not many pix.

It's Sunday night and we're back in Queenstown, leaving for Te Anau and preparations for the Milford Tramp Monday morning.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Atop the Remarkables

Southern Alps, Many Miles Away

Peter Jackson and Viggo Mortensen Stood Right Here!

Same Dimrill Dale, Different Island

These People Will Jump Off Anything...

Thursday again combined the mundane with the exceptional. After more morning errands, we drove up the 13km unsealed track to the Remarkables Ski Center and then hiked up to Lake Alta, a glacial tarn near the end of the range. The views back toward the lake and town, and beyond to the Southern Alps in the great distance, were terrific. At Lake Alta, we identified two important LOTR sites, another Dimrill Dale view and also the creek (actually a smaller pondlet) where Aragorn crosses the Silverlode (so Vicki said). The exciting descent featured more views and also a para-sail launch site. The later afternoon and evening were occupied with washing sleeping bags and other things, and a mundane camper meal prepared in the campground kitchen.

Friday we'll leave Queenstown and spend a few days in the Glenorchy area, reconnoitering the Routeburn and hiking. The Milford tramp is next week.

Two Views of Queenstown

The Great Elven Gate at the Entrance to Queenstown Hill: "Speak, Friend, and Enter"

Queenstown and Lake View

Most Mushrooms Are Drab and Uninteresting; Not in New Zealand--Pizza Mushrooms!

Dinner with a View

Our Wednesday morning hike was up Queenstown Hill, 1800 meters, with fine views of the lake and town. Queenstown actually wraps around the lake a bit; the lake itself is sort of S-shaped. So, except from high above, it's not possible for a camera to take in the whole thing. The loop track we took led us through a dark forest brimming with the most unusual (poisonous) mushrooms (see illustration). In the afternoon we did some errands, store-bought haircuts, repair (second time) of my lousy Vasque boots, miscellaneous shopping and returns and exploring in town. For dinner, we took the cable-car back up Ben Lomond to the Sky Center, where, following luge rides, we had the excellent buffet dinner, 8:15 seating, corner window for two, best in the house.

Cottage-on-Wheels Industry

Ace, Wicked, HappyCampers, GoBirdz, Kea, Kiwicampas, Jucy, Maui, United Campervans, Discover NZ, Apollo, Britz, Camping Cruzas, CheapaCampas, Spaceships, Backpacker, Tui....

These are a few of the campervan rental brands parked at the campground we are at in Queenstown. I won't attempt to generalize about how Kiwis do their holiday/recreational travel, but it seems like every 3rd or 4th vehicle one sees here is a rental campervan, generally a class B or class C rig. The terrain and roads argue against the big American class A's, of which we have seen none in our month here; which is fine with us. My favorites are the minimalist Wicked campers, all attractively and imaginatively (some would say distatstefully) painted up. One just pulled by that had huge letters on the back that said “Hold Still—I Have Very Poor Depth Perception.”

Queenstown Advertising

Tuesday morning we hiked up to the Sky Center on the mountain behind us, Ben Lomond, a good 1500 feet up and back down, mostly on a good track. At the Sky Center were an ample observation deck (incredible views of Lake Wakatipu, Queenstown, the Remarkables, etc), a restaurant, gift shop, para-sailing, luge, and the obligatory bungy jump (also AJ Hackett's). We had a scone and a savory muffin and the pictured cup of latte, which, though visually appealing, wasn't all that great. They also sold pasties (not pictured). The Remarkables are a range of craggy peaks south of the lake, Queenstown's frontal view. More of them later.

For dinner, we did fish n' chips for me, popcorn for Vicki at the movie, "Australia." I liked it (more than "Twilight"); Vicki didn't.

On to Queenstown

Natural Selection in Progress; at AJ Hackett's Original Bungy Site, Kawarau (Anduin) Bridge

Vicki at the Ford of Bruinen

The Mighty Anduin, The Great River, from the Chard Farm Vineyards

Queenstown is the adventure tourism capital of the South Island, maybe New Zealand, probably the world. Ever wanted to wing-walk a stunt bi-plane? You can do it here, as well as anything else you or anyone else has been able to conjure up. Apparently Kiwis are not particularly litigious. Or perhaps their judges and juries are not particularly sympathetic to people whose claims involve jumping off of towers, bridges, canyon cliffs, buildings, aircraft, tall trees, etc.

Apart from several LOTR sites en route (more later), our major stop of the day was at the old Kawarau River Bridge (over the Anduin, again), where bungy (sic) jumping was invented and perfected by one AJ Hackett. There are higher sites (also Hackett's) and more outrageous jumps, but this one was the original, very historic, founded way back in 1988 (AD). And, since we were driving right past it, in search of the Pillars of the Kings, we had to stop. It's not just a rope hanging off a bridge. There is a visitor center, an historic plaque, a multi-media show, a gift store, a wine bar/cafe, a restaurant, wine-tasting...and, oh yes, scores of people lined up to jump in an assembly-line procession, family and “friends” encouraging them from the sidelines. I was very slightly tempted, but unfortunately, or not, had shot my whole adventure tourism budget on the micro-flight. The oldest person to have done this sort of thing so far was 94. I'll come back later.

The day's LOTR sites included a variety of panoramic views, in Rob Roy valley (Misty Mountains south of Rivendell), in the mountains south of Wanaka, the Crown Range, and on the river by AJ Hackett's, the Anduin, again, which must be a great river indeed since it spans two islands. In the case of the latter, the search involved a stop, a tasting, and, ultimately, a purchase at the Chard Farm Vinyard, whose staff were very knowledgeable of Ring lore and local sites, and who produce a very fine NZ sauvignon blanc. This is the price faithful Ringers must pay. The last sites were in Arrowtown, a beautifully restored/preserved mining town that was crawling with tourists on a sunny Monday afternoon. The sites in question were two river shots, the Ford of Bruinen, where Arwen saves Frodo from the Black Riders (in the movie), the other the Gladden Fields (ditto) where Isuldur was ambushed by the orcs and lost the Ring. (I can't believe I am writing this stuff; Vicki is the Ringer in our crew). In any case, we found both fairly readily, for once, enjoyed some time on the river and in town, and then moved on to beautiful Queenstown, a small city on a huge high lake, ringed by tall mountains. We camped at the Queenstown Lakeview Holiday Park, a few blocks up from the downtown.

January 12, 2000--Arrowtown, near Queenstown, New Zealand

We stayed last night in our first "wild camping" at the end of a day hike into a fabulous canyon with Rob Roy Glacier at the end of it. Basically we haven't wild camped as much as we thought we would. Part of that is being strangers in a strange land, but also because of the sand flies. These are terrible in rural areas with lots of grass and bushes. It was very windy last night so they weren't a problem, but they were back this morning, so we packed up as quickly as possible. Today we drove to some additional LOR sites on our way to Queenstown. We are in the public library now--we had to pay (though only $1) to check email, so I thought I would use the rest of the time to blog. We did stay two nights in a backpacker's lodge in Wanaka and were very pleased with it. It was only $36 a night whereas camping without hookups would have been $18. We had our own room and the bath was down the hall. It was nice to be inside--the kitchen had everything including a blender, dishes, even special shelves in cupboard and refrigerator labeled with your room number. We spent more to rent a van we could sleep in, but had we known how great and easy the backpacker accomodations were, we might have gone with just a car and ended up paying about the same in total per day. We still hope to come back in the next few years for 4-6 months. I know we won't do the van route as we can barely climb up into the roof bed now! We are starting to think about buying the camper for Europe so that is exciting, too. I am also excited about getting back to Missoula for visits with our friends--whom I miss very much.