It was a day of vistas and activities, of stark contrasts and mixed emotions.
We started the day with breakfast next to sunny Lake Manapouri, then loaded our gear back into ‘Frank’. It was a short bus ride to the start of our morning hike, but an eventful one. Our lead guide informed us that Mount Tongariro had erupted the day before, just a week after five of our crew (myself included) had walked upon its slopes. It would have been fascinating to watch a crater open up and vent an ash plume, but we didn’t dwell on this news for long. We had plenty of scenery awaiting us on the south island this day.
We spent the morning hiking a short portion of the Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s famous Great Walks. We entered the 60 km loop track at Rainbow Reach and hiked 9.5 km one way to the outskirts of the town of Te Anau. This is probably the flattest section of the Kepler Track – in fact, Bil and Cam elected to run the trail instead of walk. I heard later that their run was mostly incident-free. The trail parallels the Waiau River through beech forest with mossy undergrowth, and it is very well designed and constructed. There are precious few stones or roots to contend with, and the short climbs up and down hills are nicely graded. The organic surface also has a wonderful ‘bounce’ to it that is very easy on the feet and knees. Cathy and I made excellent time, chatting the whole way about politics and globalization and Napa Valley red wines. About 100 minutes later, we emerged at the Waiau River control gates near Te Anau and waited with Bil and Cam for the rest of the crew to saunter in.
Since it was the last Thursday in November, lunch by the lakefront in Te Anau came with a special surprise for our American friends. While we dined on salmon bagels and cookies, our guides rustled up and distributed a few bottles of champagne! It was a most unusual, memorable and scenic Thanksgiving lunch.
After lunch, we set off across picturesque Fiordland National Park. The further north we travelled, the higher the jagged mountain peaks seemed to grow around us. We stopped at a place called The Divide for a short out-and-back hike on another Great Walk, this time on the southwest end of the Routeburn Track. We climbed the relatively steep but evenly graded path (400m vertical rise in 4 km) from the Highway 94 trailhead to a place called Key Summit. The summit ridge is ringed by an interpretive trail that loops among silver beech forests, sub-alpine shrubs, and glacial tarns. The mountain peaks reminded me of the Rockies, which made the contrasting rainforest foliage look otherworldly. The very top of the trail offers stunning views down the Hollyford river valley and across the way to Lake Marian.
Judging by the chorus of groans and moans as we limped onto ‘Frank’, I think we had all enjoyed a full day of physical activity. But the best part of the journey was just about to begin. Not far after The Divide, the Homer Tunnel pierces the Darran mountain range. As soon as we transited the steep and dark 1200 metre long tunnel, we emerged from the west portal into a mystical dream world. Dozens of cascades washed the faces of sheer granite mountainsides. Moss-covered beech trees valiantly clung to the rock walls, but evidence of landslides scarred the greenery in every direction. It was awe-inspiring and truly unique, like no other place on earth.
Headphones in and iPod activated, I stared out my window as our bus crept slowly down the switchbacks. For some reason, the song “Sky High” by Ben Folds Five really hit home as I watched the run-off water tumble over every cascade. The literal part of me knew that the song has nothing to do with mountain vistas, but the emotional part of me didn’t care. I simply listened to the drums, bass, piano and voices soar skyward. I also thought about a guy that I used to know, and how much he would have hated this stretch of highway. A lifelong stubble-jumper, he abhorred steep grades and twisty roads and the inability to always see the horizon in every direction. I was in my element, but had he been in the seat next to me he would have pushed his phantom brake pedal right through the floor. Sometimes the funniest things are streaked with sadness.
We arrived in the village of Milford Sound around 6:00 pm and checked into our very rustic accommodations. The lodge had a block of eighteen rooms, and our group occupied twelve of them. I’m not saying that the walls were thin, but I could hear people blinking two rooms away. I was grateful that the rooms had neither televisions nor telephones. Our group reassembled for a quick cruise “downtown” in this hamlet of less than two hundred permanent residents. We brought our appetites and feasted on pizza and many, many Monteiths malt beverages at the Blue Duck Café. Despite the omnipresent sandflies, the view of Milford Sound from the waterfront was epic.
Later that evening back at the lodge, over a bottle of Kiwi merlot, Cathy introduced me to the glorious game of Yahtzee. It was the perfect way to cap off a day of Great Walks and even greater drives.
Song of the Day: “Sky High” by Ben Folds Five