Sunday, March 6, 2016

End of the Journey

After the Milford Track, we headed back to Queenstown. Ken went off to Mt. Cook and I stuck around for a couple days. I "conquered" Ben Lomond, the big peak next to town and next to my motel. It was probably the longest mountain climb I did in NZ, where I was intentionally avoiding a really big peak expedition.

The only thing I didn't get to were the Alps, the highest peaks of NZ. I did fly over them on the way back, though, and got a great view of their massive glaciers. 

Back to the big city of Auckland and then back home, the adventure was over. After two months, it seemed like an eternity when I think of the start. Who knows what is next?

Summit of Ben Lomond

Looking toward Queenstown from Ben Lomond

Milford Track Part 2

The first evening at the lodge we witnessed an excellent thunderstorm, lots of lightning and booming thunder. The next morning we started walking in the rain. About six hours later we finished walking in the rain. In between it rained. It may sound miserable but it wasn't. It was wet but not cold at all and it wasn't a torrential downpour, just a gentle, constant rainfall. 

In places we the trail was covered in knee-deep water from the swollen river. The valley walls are steep, forested mountains striped with waterfalls. Despite my earlier rainforest experiences, this was total immersion in nature. Forest so thick you cannot step off the trail, so wet that not a square inch of your clothing or skin isn't soaked. In the deepest parts it is dark even at mid-day. The wet smells and birds chirping all around you. The water is so fresh here you can drink out of any stream without worry of illness. There are very few places on the planet where that is possible.

The next day we hiked up a few thousand feet over Mackinnon pass. To describe it in a single word: Wild! It was of course raining, but the wind above bushline (as they call it) was howling at gale force. The rain blew horizontal in wind so strong that it would knock you off your feet. It was chilly but surprisingly not as cold as I expected. I was whooping and hollering down the trail, something I always do in extreme mountain weather, and this was one of the extreme days even for me.

There is a hut at the top of the pass where you can rest and eat lunch, even get a hot drink. The previous evening in my optimistic way, I had assured a couple of women friends I met from Istanbul, Meryem and Aycha, who were on the trek that the pass would be sunny. When they arrived at the hut, soaked and tired, they said to me, "hey Mark, the sun is not shining." 

Hiking down the pass to the lodge I witnessed some of the most spectacular waterfalls ever. Ok, I thought, this trek does have a legit claim to being the most amazing hikes in the world, though I still think the trek up the Buri Gandaki river valley to Manaslu in Nepal during the monsoon is somewhat more amazing. 

The next day it did not rain much and indeed the sun came out on our final leg of the trek. It was a long, flat hike out to Milford sound. Meryem and Aycha made a video and showed me that evening at dinner. In it they showed the sun and said, "hey Mark, this is the sunshine!" Ha ha. I felt guilty and bought them some wine.

All in all, a 33.5 mile trek in a very civilized manner. This is New Zealand's premier trek, they only allow 50 people to start per day and no camping allowed (lodges only). Once you start you cannot go back, if the river is too high to pass in spots, as it frequently is, the Dept. of Conservation (the national park service) will helicopter you over the impassable sections. No charge.

For many of the Trekkers, it was the achievement of a lifetime. The guides passed out certificates in the end and for many cried at realizing their accomplishment.

Highly recommended.

1) more of the hundreds of waterfalls on the Milford Track.

2) Milford sound. No rain!

3) Meryem and Aycha insist on having a photo with me...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Milford Track Part 1

I met Ken Baugh in Queenstown to get ready for the longest trek I walked on this trip, the Milford track. This is supposed to be the "finest walk in the world." That is a bold statement and given some of the wild, remote locations I have visited, I was highly skeptical that such a thing could exist in New Zealand. Maybe, I thought, the finest walk of commonly visited places, but surely not of all the world. I was to see for myself.

Ken and I had a couple of days here and set out one morning to hike Ben Lomond, a mountain on the edge of town. It started raining as soon as we started and became a deluge. Two hours later we were done slogging through mud and ended up at a lakeside bar drinking Bloody Marys. This is civilized training, after all.

Eventually we got going. We were on a guided trek. We had to choose this instead of going as "indies" because the few slots allowed per year fill up a year in advance. Even the more expensive guided groups fill up fast. This is one of the most popular treks in the world, after all. I was grateful for the limited numbers on the trail after the Tongariro experience. Also, this is a highly protected environment, there is no camping along the way. All hikers stay in lodges.

We loaded up on a bus (50 of us) and headed back to Te Anau. There you transfer to a ferry that takes you across the lake to the trailhead. From there you walk 20 minutes to the first lodge, an easy day.

Here we were on the edge of a great alpine rainforest, about to spend the next three days in total sensory immersion. The relentless rain forms dramatic waterfalls down the steep mountainsides around you as shown below. This was the beginning.

Some of the hundreds of waterfalls on the Milford track

Ken and me in Queenstown getting some last minute training for the trek


I was headed north toward Queenstown, a busy, upscale tourist town that has about every tourist activity imaginable. It's situated between a humongous lake and mountains. Skiing in winter, and in summer mtn biking, hiking, helicopter tours, bus tours and every water sport imaginable. Like a super-Vail, it's small airport has direct international flights.

I had a night to spare before my Queenstown reservations (which you have to book months in advance this time of year), so I randomly picked the town of Te Anau. It too was situated on a very large lake. Many of the "great walks" of New Zealand start or pass through here. I walked for a couple of hours on one of these tracks along the lake, which is also called Te Anau. New Zealand is notorious for naming towns after geographic features. Te Anau is a lake and a town. Also true for Mt. Cook, Fox Glacier, etc. Remember National Park?

Anyway, nice little place. Lots of hikers would pass through and almost all of them had expressions of exhaustion, like they had been in a week-long battle. If you saw them, you'd probably be turned off any idea of hiking here. Ironic that they appeared so unhappy after what for many is the dream of a lifetime.

My first glimpse of the Southern alps just outside Te Anau

Land's End

Continuing my drive south from Christchurch, I headed to Dunedin for the night. It was a long drive through flat, rural countryside. The mountains to the west were not visible and this was the only stretch where you had a long, straight highway. Every so often I would cross a wide river basin on a narrow bridge with no shoulder or walkway. Lots of bike riders follow this road and it seems extremely dangerous to me on this bridges, some of which are at least a mile long.

From Dunedin I drove to Bluff, where they say you are in the southernmost settlement in New Zealand... But not really, there is a town on Stewart Island just south of here. Anyway, it's as far south as you can drive. I stayed at this cool little place called Lands End B&B, the last place at the end of the southernmost road.

The next day I was up early to hike a few miles around to the southern tip of New Zealand and was swarmed by biting sand flies, common here but unheard of in Colorado. Like mosquitos, they are tiny and leave itchy welts. The all-natural bug repellent I bought worked very well once I put it on. I got to the southernmost point on the South Island and walked out to the top of the sea cliff to take the pic below. There were climbing anchors here, you can toprope the south point of New Zealand, it turns out.

I then climbed the short hike up to the bluff where some of the hike is in a bush tunnel as shown below. 

A good day and a milestone, I had driven almost the entire length of this country. Next, I headed toward the Southern Alps.

Sitting on the southernmost rock point of the South Island. Stewart Island in the background.

Trail into the dark!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Drive From Hell

My exploration of the North Island of New Zealand was done. I had to leave Lake Okataina early in the morning to catch the afternoon ferry in Wellington. I had underestimated the difficulty of driving here when I made my reservations months before from Boulder and this day I had a 7 hour drive to get to the ferry that would take me to the South Island. With a lot of concentration on the drive I was able to get to the terminal with a little time to spare.

After driving on, they get going right away. I got a beer and hung out on the top deck for most of the three and a half hour ride. It was actually quite pleasant, they even had the a theater playing the new Star Wars movie. I arrived in the town of Picton on the South Island and found my hotel, twelve hours after leaving Okataina.

The next day I was antsy to get a hike in and found a, out of the way beach about two hours south of Picton. There was a mountain overlooking the ocean nearby but it had no track up it. I climbed it anyway, with only minor bushwhacking. It was kind of cool to hike off the standard tourist areas and I was rewarded with a great view (below) when the mist cleared on the summit.

Back at the car I had lunch and prepared for long drives over the next few days. I planned to get to the southern tip of the South Island months before a and was determined to get there. Arrived in Christchurch later that day, about two days before a big earthquake. I was glad to have missed that one.

Finally made the ferry terminal, in time

Top of unnamed, untracked coastal mountain on the northeast shore of the South Island

Lake Okatainia

I left Tokoroa on Super Bowl Sunday and arrived in Rotorua just in time for the show. I scrambled into a sports bar and there it was on TV. Only about 7 people were watching it that afternoon at 12:30, the rest were betting on dog races (I think). Of the people watching the Broncos vs Panthers game there was a Colorado guy (me) and believe it or not a guy from N. Carolina. 

I watched until just about halftime and then headed to my lodge at Lake Okataina to watch the rest. Only I couldn't. There was no TV there, the only time on this trip I wish I had one. And no internet or cell phone coverage. And even radio was hard to come by, I had to hack up a useable antenna. By that time I heard the Broncos won. Cool. 

There was no one staying at the lodge that night or the next, like the Shining or something. And that's when my credit card was frozen due to an unrelated issue. On top of that, since I lost communication with Shelly she wondered if I had been in an accident or something. Shelly figured out what must have happened and told me about all this the next day. Funny how all these events converge.

I hiked the next day on what I named the "hazard hike" because just about every stickery thing that could get you got me. Thorns, nettles and grass seed stickers. It was unbelievable but another connection with nature. In a painful way...

Trees on the hazard hike

Weird fungus growing on a dead tree stump on the Hazard Hike