New Zealand: Queenstown

In the morning I wake up cold. I am never, ever going to put the blanket away. The temperature has to have dropped to a single figure. I don’t want to get up, but I also want to go for a run. My fingers and ears start cold. My lungs burn. The morning is clear, hence the chill. No clouds hang over the Kepler range, another good morning for those up in Luxmore Hut. I take several wrong turns through the marina, I might accidentally run further than the 5km I planned on. Not by much. Back at the Te Anau Lakeview Holiday Park I slowly wrap everything up and away in the van. I’m pleased with this site. Coming back in January when I walk the Milford Track is an easy decision to make. I haven’t quite figured out what next or for how long. North again to walk the Rees-Dart Track or float around the South until I cross over to Stewart Island? I go to the shop, buy enough food for the next couple of days. Fill up with fuel just in case and then head off towards the end of State Highway 94. I pass through farms along the way to Te Anau Downs where recently sheered sheep look like peeled potatoes on sticks. Then I’m back in the Fiordland National Park. The beech forest, a tunnel of green. Out of sight, the mountains climb higher. In the pastoral plains the road disappears down the valley. The impenetrable walls of rock climb ever higher, closing in on the road. There are so many places to stop. Beyond the Divide, past the turn off for the Hollyford Road things get ridiculous. Fortress like mountains all around, glistening gullies dry for now. Road works are everywhere, probably all year round. Those at the end desperate to keep the road open.

Snow sits thick like chipped white paint in the dizzying heights. The road sidewinds. Along the river, around slips. So many shoulders and car parks are closed. I stop in the ones remaining open, take photos, laugh at my surroundings. A landscape carved first by ice and then by rain. These things appear so permanent yet are so easily washed away. There are a couple of cars in the Gertrude Valley car park. I’m too late in the day and I don’t trust the weather to hold. There’ll be another opportunity, I have to come back again, to walk in through the Milford Track. I drive through Homer Tunnel. Tunnels bored through mountains might really be the peak of civilisation. A proper, actual, conquest of the Earth. We have not been stopped. We have made the journey shorter, easier and mildly terrifying. I come out clean on the far side and I have to pull my jaw back up off the pedals. I have seen this view before. This is not new to me, and yet I am still floored by the the drop down through the final valley. I fall into Piopiotahi Milford Sound. I drive in to the car park where my registration plate is recorded on the camera and I am forced to pay $20 for the privilege of parking here. I should have thought more about staying in the campground and paid an extra $10 for the night. I walk around. The sky threatens to break at any moment. The cruise boats pull in and out of the harbour. A handful of tour buses in the 50 bus car park. A weekend crowd in full swing but nothing like what it could be, were anyone allowed in.

I go back to the Hollyford Road turning. Approaching Lake Marian. And to my surprise the car park is almost full. Even more surprising is the road is still closed. This whole area was washed away in heavy rain in February and there’s little sign of an immediate recovery. Most of the people come down the track as I go up. Leaving it late. There’s one other person at Lake Marian when I arrive. The heavy sky remains, the steep valley walls disappear into the cloud. There’s snow in the back peaks. Long white lines of waterfalls drain the melting ice. The black waters of the lake ripple in the wind. I walk around part of the shore before accepting time is running out. I need to get back on the road. I get back to the van as the rain finally delivers. I drive all the way back out to Te Anau and beyond, sort of home, to Lumsden. The closest place I can camp for free. I arrive late, close to 8pm. The latest I’ve ever arrived anywhere. There are a lot more van here than there were last time. There are so many space this still isn’t a problem.

The rain that falls at 6am like an alarm is welcome until I remember I need to get dressed, go outside and use the toilet. I wait two hours. The rain doesn’t stop. I got outside anyway. I proceed through the remainder of my morning motions. Coffee, oats. Then phone home for what might be an hour long conversation with Mum and Dad. Everyone is alright and this is good enough news for me. After our conversation I feel that strange kind of calm that comes with knowing everything is alright. I am ready now to face the narrow streets and crowds of Queenstown. I engage the nice Italian chap in Small Planet in a conversation around hiking boots. Holes emerged, tears appeared. My feet were no longer dry, even when I wasn’t wading knee deep through rivers. We talk about what I need boots for. Walking. Do I do any mountaineering? Nope. We come out with an agreement that I want light-weight, fast drying boots with decent ankle support. The Italian man clearly has some idea of what he’s doing as the second pair I try on might go a long way to helping me miss my old boots a lot less. A pair of Salewa Mountain Trainers. I also replace my water filter and buy a couple of alternative dehydrated meals for research purposes. At the checkout I also get a cool red sticker with a Kea on to put on the back of my van because apparently it’s unrecognisable in a crowd of identical white Toyota Hi-Aces. I make a commitment on what next. I book transport to get me to the beginning and away from the end of the Rees-Dart Track for next week. I renew my Road User Charges for another 10,000km and hope this time I have enough to get me me through a whole year. I then proceed to reward myself with a bag of snacks and beers from the supermarket. If you’re going to blow your months budget in a day, might as well go all in right?

I leave town and drive back towards Lumsden. I don’t go all the way. I stop in at Kingston Lake Camp for another free night. I arrive under the dark cover of rain. Nothing is visible. Only the handful of scaup drifting along the beach, later they shift into a pair of grebes. Even later the cloud finally lifts. Light paints the deep crinkle cut creases of the surrounding mountains. The once grey lake now ripples through turquoise blues and emerald greens. Vans squeeze in. Overcrowding is a problem with a limited number of free sites this close to civilisation. Lake Wakatipu is a broken mirror reflecting the sky. Scattering ripples of blue, green and white. I could and probably have watched for hours. Tiny white waves lap at the tiny white pebbles on the beach. I need to decide where to go tomorrow. I’d like to get up one of the nearby mountains but I need to break the boots in on something more gentle first. The weather as well, looks wildly unpredictable despite the Met Service’s desperate attempts to predict it. I’ll go and find a flat-ish walk somewhere. The clear night delivers another cold morning. I walk down to the water, coffee in hand. Out of the still surface a fish breaches. Clouds begin to form in the jagged tops. An engine I wasn’t sure was going to start, just, at what I thought was the final crank burst into life. Thank goodness. My hope was I’d only need to avoid staying in the mountains for winter. The problem, it would seem, is permanent. I stop at the Devil’s Staircase Lookout, none the wiser as to where the Devil keeps his stairs. The ice blue lake is framed by the steep slopes of the mountains and I find myself thinking this isn’t that good. I’ve been spoiled.

I cruise into Arrowtown, into a not empty carpark. I’d like to ask why these people aren’t at work, but it’s possible they’ve lost their job in the wake of the pandemic so I’ll keep my frustration at finding people in the places I am to myself. Or will I? I wander through the old Chinese village of huts smaller than some I’ve seen in the backcountry. Then I follow some of the Arrow River out of town. Had I been organised I could have followed it all the way to the abandoned mining community of Macetown. On the information board I spot the Cabbage Tree of Te Araroa and decide it’s ok, I’ll be back. I’ll do it next year. I end up climbing the New Chums Gully despite only looking for a flat-ish not too long walk. I’m brushing yellow flowers out of my face, wiping orange pollen off my shirt. The new boots feel good, they’re more technical. Whatever that means. There’s no rubbing in my toes. The ankles are tight. I feel what I think is more grip beneath my feet. I’m happy. They stayed dry until I submerged them in the river. Ben Lomond next with a day pack to really make sure. I pass through the historic high street, looking for the next round of postcards. Nothing stands out. I play fuel light bingo back to Cromwell. Another victory for not knowing the fuel economy limits. I like Cromwell. One one side of town is an oversized selection of fruit. The heritage area on the waterfront is decent. I wish I cared to buy something, but I don’t eat ice-cream at the best of times and it’s too late in the day for a coffee. I visit two book exchanges, neither of which have anything interesting. One does have a copy of Catch-22 and I’m tempted but having read it once before, I hold my book until the next one. I finish the day at Lowburn Harbour in the presence of a lot of motorhomes. There really are not enough places to overnight for free around Queenstown. This is how you get complaints and then closure. I’m starting to realise I may end up as one of the last, lucky freedom campers. Shame on you New Zealand. I find the sun is too hot, the shade is too cold. I dip my feet in the shallows of Lake Dunstan but can’t find the courage for a full swim. I juggle for the first time in too long. I’m rusty but I’ve still got it. One of the old boys strolls down to the lake’s edge and casts his line. A duckling and its mother waddle through the grass, pecking at anything that might resemble food.

This drifting through choice is enjoyable. Doing close to nothing as a deliberate act. Aimless wanderings. Isn’t it all aimless? The point being to go, only so you can come back. Fierce winds again today, pushing from behind. Stopping me from moving forward. I dragged myself up, into town, to the library. I started planning for the Rees-Dart Track. Check the route, count the days, write a list for food. Across the afternoon I hoped the wind would drop. Instead it carried in rain. I hoped instead for a calmer, dryer, a little brighter tomorrow. I need to go into Queenstown early. To find somewhere to park for free, all day. To get up and then down Ben Lomond. I want to generate enough sweat to justify my first shower in 5 days. I want to give my new boots another serious track test. I spent the rest of the day in hibernation, started a new book, stayed hydrated. I discovered the Griffins Gingernut biscuits won’t break in a backpack but might break your teeth if you don’t dunk them in a cup of tea first. They also taste better than the supermarket brand. I wasn’t expecting to find a fresh dump of snow on the mountains when I woke up. This is supposed to be summer now. My rolling hills countryside upbringing is start to show. Mountains might be old but they’re still new to me.

My intention was to get up and go. I’m on the road at 8am but I feel like I rushed. I go back to Queenstown. Not even past Frankton I hit traffic. Is it rush hour? Did I actually leave too late? There are still plenty of spaces on Lake View Esplanade where I can park all day, for free. I head towards the start of the Tiki Trail to find a man on guard. For some reason the trail is closed, only until 10am which means this isn’t a total disaster. I could have taken a bit more time this morning. I take a bench in the nearby cemetery to wait out the remaining 15 minutes. The man leaves his post and I cross the fence. The first part of the Tiki Trail is tough. Siddling up the cliffside, I’m hauling up roots and over rocks. A group of what I assume are students of some kind ahead of me are struggling. They all tell me how unfit they are as I fly past. I tell them at least they’re out here doing it. None of them sound like they want to be here. They stop at a zipline platform. Not going all the way. Probably for the best. The crowd disappears behind me. Nothing but the dead silence of the pines. I emerge at Skyline. Not stopping.

On up beyond the trees into the alpine zone. A herd of goats run down the path, rather than across so I keep chasing them until they smarten up. The small black dot of another hiker moves across the Ben Lomond Saddle. It it still a long way to the summit. A quiet whisper starts up inside my head. “No, you can’t.” So I must. A little bit of fear. A small buzz of adrenalin. This is the biggest peak so far, possibly ever? The track to the saddle runs smooth. The track from the saddle to the summit is more challenging. The wind is freezing. I can’t feel my hands. Tiny avalanches of last night’s snow slump on to my feet. The earlier seen dot comes back down. “Lovely day for it, eh?” he says. “Bit of snow at the top but no worries.” And he’s gone, flying downhill. Around the corner, out of the wind, out of the sun there is deeper snow. My feet at least are warm and dry. Another tick for the new boots. Ben Lomond’s sumit comes with a side of jaw dropping views and blasts of ice cold wind. I don’t stay up there for long. Down is easy, fast. I spot a familiar face coming up. It spots me too. We slow down, smile. We walked the Kepler together but we never got as far as exchanging names. We share more words here on the slopes of Ben Lomond than we did over three days together. We move on. One up, one down. This time I stop at Skyline. I buy postcards instead of the hot chips and a beer I really want. I settle for the sandwich and crisps I packed in. I roll the rest of the way down the Tiki Trail. I check in at one of Queenstown’s overpriced campgrounds and take full advantage of the unlimited hot water.

Drizzle turns to rain but not before I’ve managed to run a sluggish 5km along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. I wash, dress, deliberately in jeans for once. Having another go at pretending to be a functioning member of society. I buy hiking supplies for the Rees-Dart. I get lost in the new builds spreading out around Frankton. I end up in the library, write out the final postcards for this year and head back to Queenstown. I meet Jo for brunch at Bespoke Kitchen. Jo is one of those Basingstoke locals who didn’t just get out, but got as far away as possible and unlike my good self, managed to stay away. The menu is challenging, everything sounds good. I ask Jo what is good and she confirms what the menu is telling me; everything. The Breakfast Board holds with a small selection so I get that in order to try a few things. The basic; avocado and poached egg on toast, the more interesting; blackcurrant and nut crunch chia pot and the hip; a kombucha shot. All of which is delicious. We catch up on where I’ve been, where she might have gone but isn’t going anymore and speculate on what those people neither of us see anymore might be up to. Jo heads off to work and I head out of town.

On the road to Paradise via Glenorchy. On the edge of Queenstown a woman stands by the side of the road with her thumb out. One day I’m going to be that woman, standing by the side of the road with my thumb out. I pull over. “Where too?” i ask. “Bob’s Cove.” she says. It’s on the way which is helpful. I move all the things I carry in the front to the back and we spend the next ten minutes sharing our stories. We’ve both been here since just before the lockdown. I suspect most of us still here on working holiday visas now arrived around the same time. “You can drop me at the tui,” she says. I have to check I’ve heard correctly. A tui isn’t much bigger than a blackbird, I’m not sure I’ll see it from the road. Of course, the tui is a metal sculpture. Quite obvious once you know where it is. She says thanks and disappears over the road. That was an easy gift to give. I drop in to the freedom camp outside Glenorchy. Recent reviews on Campermate say get there early. There’s one other van here. Two ladies from the Responsible Camping team come and quiz me. They accept that I am in fact a responsible camper. They are as surprised as everyone else to find that I not only have a toilet on the van but also know how to use it and empty it. They do not need a performance. We have a good chat, they tell me the van looks good. This is encouraging, I’d never given serious thought to the idea that someone else might take an interest in my home. One day I might even be able to sell it. 

The morning I find rain, which is the most tolerable when the toilet is set up. I don’t have to go outside. I don’t have to get wet. I could easily even get back into bed. I don’t. I drive on into Glenorchy to sit in a different car park. I encourage the rain to stop by putting on all of my waterproofs to take a stroll around the Glenorchy Lagoon. I walk around the muddy waters until the sky clears. I make arrangements with Camp Glenorchy to leave the van in their carpark while I’m away and then drive to the head of Lake Wakatipu. Over the Rees, over the Dart. Both of which I’m going to follow to their source next week. I steal glances up the valleys. Snow capped mountains stretch as far as I can see. I force my eyes back to the one lane bridge. The peaks and valleys will still be there when I walk them. I stop at Kinlock to catch up with old mate Harper who’s somehow managed to score a job and a lift out here in the middle of nowhere. I sit down on his sharehouse sofa and let three or four movies wash over me while we drink beers, talk about the majesty of our surroundings and eat a pasta bake. 8 months in, I’m starting to miss the convenience of a full kitchen with a stocked fridge. I stagger back to the van under clear skies for another cold night in the mountains. The van glistens with condensation but it starts. I walk up Glacier Burn Track. The clear morning has been covered in cloud. A white sky sits behind white snow. I get out of the trees into the basin and stare up at the distant walls of rock and ice. I could go further but I also need to sort enough of my life out in order to pack it away for another five day stint in the back country. I head back to Glenorchy. I wander in to the General Store to see what fresh goods I can buy. I’m in the market for apples, a cucumber and a carrot. The store has aubergines. Sadly, they’re the least good vegetable and I don’t see them holding up well in a backpack so I go without. I forget I already walked the Abel Tasman and the Heaphy without fresh goods. I’ve got dried mushrooms and onions, apples and cranberries. Not in the same meal mind, so It won’t be a problem. I put my broken hydration bladder in the bin. Rinse my new filter. Tick off the list; bed, stove, food, clothes, water, entertainment. The wind blows clouds out of the valleys over the lake. Rain pings off the corrugated metal of the campground kitchen roof. I go to bed hoping for a dry start on the Rees-Dart Track.

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