Wild West

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 20, 2007

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Flag of New Zealand  ,
Saturday, May 12, 2007

Into the wild west. A world away from Queenstown, the Fiordland area of South-West New Zealand is one of the natural wonders of the world (and has been recognised as such by UNESCO). Keen to experience more than most people do on a see-it-all day trip to Milford Sound from Queenstown (which itself involves a 10 hour return bus trip from the metropolis), I spent a week down here.

As has become customary, I checked out the weather before deciding in which order to do things, but soon found out that the weather forecast for Fiordland is not really much more reliable than looking out the window. The amount of mountains concentrated into such a small area means that it is perenially changing, but this adds to the attraction. It also weeds out those (especially in the off season) who may question their abilities/survival know how when tramping (hiking in New Zealand speak). One thing I had hoped to do whilst down here was to go on a kayak trip to Doubtful Sound of at least two days, but the company that runs them had finished a couple of weeks earlier. Instead, I chose an overnight trip on a small boat. This was pretty cool, but more on this later.

It seemed a shame to come to New Zealand without going into the backcountry, and the best track down in the area that was not extortionate in transport costs was the Kepler Track. Its more famous cousin, the Milford Track, has costs that run into a couple of hundred dollars for just the transport and huts - it requires a complex combination of buses and boats to get to and from it, and I could think of other things to spend my cash on (like skydiving). The Kepler was a pretty cool track to do though. It encompassed everything you'd expect from a 'great walk' (virgin rainforest/bush, alpine views and crossings, as well as sandflies), and because it was off season, no booking was required for the huts, and it was less crowded. However, being off season it also meant that the wardens had gone from the huts, taking with them all gas and cooking equipment, water came from a water butt or spring round the back, and the was no electricity. The dorms were subsequently pretty chilly (in all fairness, I doubt they ever get very warm), but there were log burning stoves in the common areas, and being in a forest wood (as long as dead, etc etc) was not a problem.

Tests of physical endurance seem to be perenially popular with the Dutch and Germans, and these two groups made up most of the other people who were doing the tramp at the same time as me. Warned that you were likely to have at least one, if not more days of rain whilst walking, I had enough water proof kit with me to stand, fully kitted up, under a power shower and still be dry. Such preparedness normally means one thing - there'll be no rain (though it threatened for about 10 minutes on day 2, rained day 1 night, and then dumped its load an hour after I finished the whole thing). The walk was 4 days in total, though it could have been three had I chosen to pay through the nose and get picked up by the off season taxi from somewhere just after day 3's hut, but it was well worth doing. I'd got my hands on some pretty futuristic looking bits of kit for cooking and eating from Queenstown (at pretty good prices I'd like to add), and I had a try of some proper space age food. The space age food in question is freeze-dried meals. Wary of anything that purports to be as good as a proper meal when boiling water's added (I think I can blame the MOD for their rather dodgy ration packs we were issued with at CCF camp at school for this one), I only took one with me, having regular food for the others. Freeze dried meals have certainly come a long way since I last tried them, and this could well have been the real deal. I'd chosen roast lamb with veggies, mash potato and mint sauce, and it beat noodles and tuna hands down. Not too sure on the serving size though - 'one person' is obviously for a midget, as it just about did as a starter. 2 person packs minimum for a decent meal is the key (the company, should anyone be interested, is 'Backcountry Cuisine').

The only wildlife I saw (apart from a few festering stoats in the stoat traps places around the hills) was a kea up on the alpine section. The world's only alpine parrot, they are pretty inquisitive and will demolish your food if you leave it unattended. They also have a fetish for the rubber on cars, especially windscreen wipers and seals round windows. Read into that what you will. They are a particular annoyance for campervan drivers at the Homer Tunnel on the way to Milford Sound, as the amount of rubber arriving at once and being forced to wait at traffic lights sends them into a franzy. Essentially, they are rather dirty minded birds that get turned on by the sight/touch/taste of black rubber and plastic! On the last night we saw a possum come relatively close to the fire we'd constructed in a chimny on the beach, and attempted to catch it. The animal was obviously quite stupid as it came back after we'd chased it around with wooden clubs. By this time, we'd got some bigger branches and fashioned the ends into spikes, using the fire and the boughs of fallen trees to grind them down. We managed to hit it on round 2, but we were obviously not powerful enough, as it scarpered, leaving our primitive spears to look forlorn in the sand. Possum pie was therefore off, as it never returned. There were also numerous random noises that sounded like Kiwi (birds, not locals), but we never saw them.

Looking at a map of New Zealand, it soon becomes clear that most of the places were named by a no nonsense Yorkshireman - Capn Cook - as they are representations of what he saw at the time of passing. For example, in Fiordland there's Dusky Sound (presumably it was getting dark when he arrived), Supper Cove (no prizes here) and Doubtful Sound (he was doubtful he'd be able to get out due to the high cliffs playing havoc with the wind). Other examples from around New Zealand are - Great Barrier Island (big island that acts as a barrier for some of the North Island), Bay of Plenty (the locals gave him supplies) and Bay of Poverty (the locals were not amused). The joy of Doubtful Sound, compared to Milford, is that there are so few people there at all. Primarily, this is because it is such a mission to get to - boat trip across Lake Manapouri, followed by driving on New Zealand's most expensive road, before finally arriving. When we got there, there was a mist hanging over the heights, though closer to the Tasman sea it cleared up. One does not fully appreciate the scale and isolation of the place until you're right inside the bowels of it. As the hill sides are so steep, everything is pretty much as it has been for thousands of years, and when the mist enveloped the sound at dusk it felt as though you were stepping into the heart of the Lord of the Rings. The boat I was on, along with 4 other people and 2 crew, only had a capacity of 10, , and this meant we were pretty flexible to go wherever and do what we wanted. I helped to catch part of supper from in the water (the waters are not under the UNESCO protection - it's only the land) and after numerous sea perch (can't they just stay in their rocky hovels?!) I caught a good sized Blue Cod (probably around the 10lb mark), and we all had a kayak at dusk, once moored up. This was something else, as sitting practically on the water, in flat calm, with no other sounds around you apart from the lap of the water, was like going back in time to the pre-industrial age. Something quite special.

Despite the calm appearance of the evening, there was one heck of a storm that night. As ever, the weather had changed as it felt like. The thunder and lightning was quite impressive, as was the rocking of the boat. I quite enjoyed it, but a couple of the others on board were not too hot on that part. The other people on the boat lived in Dunedin (south east coast, South Island) and invited me to stay when I went over, which was really kind of them. I've found the Kiwis (locals, rather than feathered variety) extremely welcoming and friendly, more so than you'd expect to find back home. It's such a pleasant place to travel in, it's easy to see why it's so popular.

Overnight snow had fallen above 1500 metres, and the rain meant that sporadic waterfalls had emerged seemingly out of nowhere, gushing down the faces of the valleys. It looked as though someone had got hundreds of tins of white paint and kicked them over, allowing them to flow at will down the side.

The drive from Te Anau (the local hub) to Milford Sound was pretty curvy, and with the recently snow clad mountains, you're in perpetual danger of crashing due to the desire to see what you're driving through and the snake-like course of the road. I'd chosen to stay at Milford overnight as I'd got myself onto a sea kayaking trip the next day and fancied a lie in. When the bulk of the tourists had disappeared from Milford just before dusk, there was a great sense of calm about the place, as if it was letting off a sigh of relief that the hoards that had been marauding it all day had finally dispersed. Perhaps one of the most photographed sites in New Zealand, Mitre Peak is the focal point of many activities around the sound. That evening the sun and clouds were in perfect harmony around it, whisping off the top as if flicked up by some invisible force. The following morning was crystal clear, though freezing cold, and it turned out that there were only two of us kayaking, with one guide. Pretty good!

It could not have been a better day for getting out on the water. Not only was the weather clear and not too hot, but the sound was completely flat, only temporarily disturbed by the passing of a big sight-seeing boat. Thankfully this only happened half a dozen times in the day, and was not nearly as annoying as the dozen or so light aircraft that buzzed about the place. The volumes of traffic were nothing compared to summer though - at the height of the season there can be 220 planes in the day, and 4,000 people visiting. For much of the day, we had the sound to ourselves. The kayak was a double one, with steering done by the person at the back (feet pedals). All pretty simple really. We had a couple of encounters with seals - one was having an early morning sunbathe on the rocks, whilst the other came to see what we were up to mid afternoon. After deciding that we were not of any real use to them, it dived off. They're extremely elegant movers in the water, and seem to be able to glide through it with enormous ease.

From Milford, it was back down the road to Te Anau, before continuing along on my trip round the country.
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