New Zealand: Fiordland

On the Routeburn Track, stuck in Routeburn Falls Hut, Hut Warden John had given me some suggestions. “On a dry day,” he said “take your tent up on Gertrude Saddle and spend the night up there.” The forecast remained promising for a few more days, might as well give it a go. Amy had been sat at the table when Hut Warden John was dishing out the tips. “Lemme know when you’re thinking to do Gertrude,” she said. “I’d be keen for that if I’m free.” Between me being on the Milford and Amy walking the Kepler we somehow managed to pull a plan together. Text messages days apart. The final important information was the latest weather. Cloudy but no rain. Now or never. I went into the Department of Conservation Visitor Centre in Te Anau because the internet says to do so. The woman behind the counter repeated the exact same information I had read on the internet. Why am I here? While this information wasn’t helpful, it wasn’t “don’t go,” which is about as good as you can hope for in these situations. I left Te Anau no better educated and continued up State Highway 94. The Milford Road has to be one of the most stunning drives on Earth. Certainly the best I’ve ever seen. Mirrors of snow in the distant summits reflect the silver light of the sun. I like driving in New Zealand. The roads are long and they’re often empty. 

I meet Amy at Cascade Creek. We finish packing our overnight bags. We confirm and agree. Yes, this is a good idea idea. We do want to do this. We convoy deeper into the mountains of Fiordland. I lean forwards over the steering wheel, gaping at the cotton wool clouds clinging to the ridges. We park up with the day trippers. While I’m pulling on my gaiters and boots a man warns me my side door is open, which is true. It is open. I left it open. The fattest Kea I have seen so is cautiously, optimistically investigating this new world. I move towards the door and thankfully the Kea waddles away under the next van without any of my shoes. Old mates from the Milford, Katie and Rob, pull in to the car park. “Are you going up?” I ask. They seem unsure. “We might not get the view so not sure if it’ll be worth it.” Casuals.

Amy and I head into the Gertrude Valley, following the dry creek bed. Sometimes in it until we reach the head of the valley. In front of us is the near vertical wall of the Darran Mountains. We climb the creek banks until the soil disappears and the ground becomes rock. There are warnings everywhere. Do not proceed in wet conditions. The ground is bone dry. We walk up granite slabs, scramble over boulders. Rise, drop, rise again. In the boulder fields I can hear a high pitched squeak. I know now it must be a rock wren. I might be able to tick another of New Zealand’s treasured birds off the list. I can see them, in the distance bobbing over the rocks. Pools of blue water glimmer in the main flow. In the rain the whole pass would become a water slide. One slip carrying you directly to death. We close in on the top. The short, barely 4km in length climb is over. “Are you ready?” I ask Amy. “Oh wow,” I hear from her up ahead. High grey cloud rests on the surrounding summits. The valley pulls apart like a zip. Huge teeth of granite staggering apart towards the ocean. The drop from the top is almost vertical. From Gertrude Saddle we could see straight down the Gulliver River valley to the glass flat waters of Milford Sound. These are real, single piece of rock, straight out of the GCSE geography textbook mountains. Granite folded like elephant skin. Maybe the rain and the ice sometimes break off chunks but it’s all here, joined up. The weathered rock looks like a slowly cooled liquid, as though not long ago it was lava. And in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that long ago.

Small rock walls are built up around boulders. Plenty of people have spent the night up here before. Day trippers nestle in hollows. Someone sees the size of our packs and asks “Are you guys camping up here?” We are. “You’re badass.” Maybe we are. We drop our packs behind a boulder and take a seat for the standard hiking lunch. Crackers, cheese, a bit of salami, a handful of olives and the most incredible of views. A rock wren pops up in front of us, coming over to have a closer look. Sitting on the rock, bobbing up and down with tiny wings and no tail. Tick. Having gotten up to the saddle within a few hours we still had most of the day left. Looking around there’s no obvious source of water where the Gertrude Saddle route ends. We’ve come up next to Black Lake, there are waterfalls on either shoulder. The map has another, un-named lake higher. I take a walk along the saddle to see if there’s a good pitch closer to the all important h2o. Tucked away behind knobs of granite we find a small patch of soil. Just enough room to pitch our two coffin sized tents.

Packs reduce in size, in weight, as the tents go up. Beds are made. The wind drags warm air up from the valley in to fog around us. The mountains play now you see me, now you don’t. Amy and I check with each other again. “Are you happy with this?” While the forecast doesn’t include rain, this is Fiordland. One of the wettest places in the country. Erring on the side of caution, people usually add 20mm of rain to any forecast out here. We haven’t bothered. If heavy rain comes, we are in trouble. We’re here now. The tents are up. We’re safe for at least 12 hours. If rain does come we can wait it out. The sun is due to come out again. The black rocks will dry quickly. The fog keeps riding with the wind, clearing as quickly as it came. We walk back on to the saddle. The day trippers all gone. We’re the only people spending the night. 

Sitting with the view in front of us, a chattering cry comes up behind us. Kea. Three of them glide over our heads into the wind. They hover momentarily before dropping onto the exposed rocks. One approaches, curious but cautious. What are these people doing up here? You hear all sorts of stories about Kea. Most of them involve them petty crime, theft and vandalism. There are also stories about their more playful side. I toss a twig in the air. They all flinch and scurry away. Fetch isn’t a game they’re interested in. They give us a good look, edging closer, backing away whenever we move. Amy does a significantly better Kea impression than I do, which gets them interested. This one doesn’t look like a parrot. The one we’ve decided as the leader of the gang edges ever closer towards Amy. I’m unsure if he’s interested in her fingers, or the glittering rings on her hands. Another story you hear is how, like the magpie, they like to decorate their nests. Amy doesn’t let him get close enough to find out what his primary aim is. Eventually they decide we are either not a threat, or not interesting anymore and disappear into the high mountain tops. 

Back at the tents I’m relieved to find we haven’t been distracted. There are no beak sized tears in either tent. There isn’t gear spread all over the rocks. The Kea have come in peace.  We cook and eat dinner, sitting through total whiteouts as the wind picks up. Lucky not to have to go anywhere, to simply witness. Today has been a lesson in how fast things can change. When we came up, visibility was good. The sky was sort of clear. Now we can’t se beyond the rocks we’re camped among. We share a beer and some chocolate, we walk around to keep warm in the rapidly cooling mountain air. before calling it a day at 8:30. I warm up in my sleeping bag in no time. I peel off my long johns and wonder if my shirt has to come off as well. My face is cool but maybe wind burned.Once inside the tent I hear the gentle tapping of lightly falling rain. Oh no. Maybe it comes and goes all night. We have to hope it won’t last.

Throughout the night I am riddled with anxiety about the rain, about the wind, about the Kea coming back to rip holes in the tents. Cold seeps up through the floor. The Kea don’t approach the tents. Our pitch tucked in behind a knob of granite. Out of the worst of the wind, somewhat sheltered. In the morning the granite is damp from the light spray of rain. We have to wait. Neither of us need to be anywhere. The mountain tarns are mirror calm. No wind now. We drift around either shoulder of the saddle, waiting for the cloud to lift, for the sun to come over the tops, for things to dry out. Amy tells me the best thing about New Zealand is whatever you want, there’s a hike for it. Wanna see a waterfall? There’s a hike for that. Wanna go up a mountain? There’s a hike for that? Wanna go to a hot spring? There’s a hike for that. She’s not wrong. New Zealand is a hiker’s paradise. The cloud lifts. Day trippers begin to arrive as I fold my tent away. Kea scream. Rock wren whistle. The mountain dries out. Amy and I pull on our packs and begin our descent. There are only a few bum slides A little bit of rock scrambling. Most we’re rock hopping. Amy was worried she’d slow me down but she’s much more comfortable on this terrain than I am. Leaping away in to the distance. Downhill doesn’t suit me. We come to the stream. Easy now we’ve done it. Easier still to see why you wouldn’t try it in the rain, the fog, or anything other than good conditions. I contemplate a swim but we’re only halfway down. Breaks still come hard for me too. I also don’t much fancy hiking the rest of the way in wet pants. I’m sure now it would have been fine. I’m tired. Not enough sleep, probably not enough rest in general. I kick rocks, trip over them, stumbling through the creek bed. I am ready to be done. The day is bright and hot. A man tells us he was going to come up yesterday but gale force winds were forecast and he didn’t think it was a good idea. We don’t remember it being that bad. We pass all the danger signs, then the main board advising this route is for fit and experienced trampers only. We are. The vans are still there. Aerials still attached, rubber still around the window. A Kea circles above. Our paths diverge here. My intention is to return to Nelson to find work in the hop fields via Aoraki-Mount Cook, Amy is heading up the West Coast with the same intention. “See you in Nelson.”

I leave the Fiordland mountains for the last time, until tomorrow when I will be back. The holiday park in Manapouri is dead. There are two of us staying. Only one shower is open. The owner tells me her fears. Friends have already lost jobs. The site has only 6 more bookings for the rest of the month. They might get one or two people like me who turn up unannounced. With borders likely to stay closed for another year, more businesses will close. People will move on. There is nothing here without international tourists. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. The absence of tourists has been good for me. Quiet roads, quiet camps, discounted activities. But there is a price to pay for this and I’m not the one likely to be paying it. I never saw New Zealand in full swing. Bursting at the seams. From what I’ve heard it was more of a nightmare than the paradise I’ve found. I go to bed wondering what the future will hold.

I tell myself a lie. I haven’t set my alarm in ages. The truth, it was little over a month ago. I had a nap on New Year’s Eve before the fireworks but I was awake again before the alarm. This morning was hard. First time I’ve beaten the sunrise in a long time. No time to faff. On the road, a short drive back into the Manapouri Township at 6:30. A quick hand shake with Matt off of Go Orange! and Steve off of Auckland, my kayaking partner for the day in the dark. Steve and I are the only visitors this early. The boat is full of crew, transporting stock to the boats in Doubtful Sound. We cruise over Lake Manapouri under flamingo pink clouds and a pale blue sky. The morning has caught up with us. I chat with Steve about whether things have changed in Auckland. He hasn’t noticed. The megacity doesn’t have the same reliance on the tourism industry as other, more remote parts of the country. “What do you think people will do down here?” I ask. “I don’t know, what are you going to do?” He has a point. The work is there if you want it. You have to want it. I am in the fortunate position of having my freedom. No ties, no attachments. For me, driving the length of the South Island to find a job in a literal field is no issue. For others, it might not be so easy.

The boat drops us below the Manapouri Power Station. The hydroelectric power plant could power all of Auckland, or the entire South Island. instead it powers an aluminium smelter. Matt tells us “The water drawn through the generators is pumped through to Doubtful Sound. We’ll catch the current to carry us out to deeper water later.” Steve and I hide from the sandflies in the visitor centre while Matt loads a tour bus with three bags of gear and then invites us to board. We are the only passengers. Malcolm the Driver doesn’t mind. He still does his tourist speech. “Here are some trees, Peter Jackson was inspired to make his Ents look like this.” There are some waterfalls. “This bit of road is usually underwater.” Steve is impressed, he tells me he doesn’t get out of the city much. We pull in at a viewpoint for a look over the calm, flat waters of Doubtful Sound. Giant spurs of granite reach up to touch the low, heavy sky. Malcom the Driver says “Make sure you get the most photographed dead tree in the world in your shot.” The bare branch reaches across the view. Malcom drops us in Deep Cove. Matt dishes out thermals, waterproofs, spray decks. We get kitted up and carry our gear down to the water. Matt’s safety briefing stretches no further than “You’ve both been in kayaks before so we’ll get on with it.” 

He points to the pull strap on the spray deck. “That’s the oh crap strap, if I catch yours under the spraydeck you owe me a beer. If you catch me with mine under the spraydeck, the beers are on me.” Matt later admits he has never gained a beer this way. Steve takes the rear cockpit. The seat in which you have to steer, but you can get away with minimal paddling. I’m in the front, the eyes and the one who gets caught resting. Then we’re on the layer of black fresh water that settles over the ocean. Paddling comes easy. Familiar motions. Every time I get in a kayak I tell myself I should do it more often and never do. Kayaking is probably the one thing I would pick as my other hobby. If I had a roof rack, I would buy a boat. We ride out on the hydroelectric outflow. Matt is a great guide. I’ve come to recognise those working in the outdoors know a fair bit about it. On the rocks, there’s no soil. Moss is the only thing that grows, at first. Then ferns use the moss as a substitute for soil. With a network to build on, the trees come. They might find a crack in the rock, becoming anchor trees. Other trees hang on, which is all well and good until a storm comes through. If an anchor tree goes, all the trees go. Matt points to a lime green stretch of moss between the dark green of trees. “Tree avalanche, maybe two years ago.” A thin white thread comes almost the whole way down one of the mountainsides. “Used to be the 9th highest waterfall in the world, until it got downgraded to a cascade.” Matt informs us. So there is a difference between one and the other. There are requirements that need to be met in order for a vertical stream to become a waterfall. First, it has to leap. This one doesn’t. The water just falls. Makes sense. 

Matt guides us out of Deep Cove into the main body of Doubtful Sound. He points to an island ahead. “You see that shadow on the horizon, that’s wind on the water.” Experience teaches you to read the water, so you know what’s coming, what to expect. We head into the wind, a chosen challenge. Our paddle strokes the only sound breaking the silence as we circumnavigate Elizabeth Island. We cruise with the wind on our backs. “This is Olphert Cove, but I call it Echo Cove. Here’s why.” Matt’s call of “Cooee” bounces down ever arm of Doubtful Sound, coming back to us with a huge delay. He tells us the Sounds are a mistake. The first explorers thought these were flooded river valleys. It wasn’t until some Norwegian fella came to take a look that they realised they’d made a mistake. Too late, most of the maps had been made. Instead the New Zealand government decided to call the entire area Fiordland, another mistake. The i should have been a j but again, guidebooks had already been printed. As is the way, you learn to live with your mistakes.

We break on a mud beach. Out of the boats Steve does the sandfly dance. Matt and I stand and chat. “Are they not bothering you?” he asks me. “They are, but they’re not going to go away if I dance at them.” Sandflies, like the rest of the elements that compose a life lived mostly outdoors in New Zealand, become a fact of life. “Get out of the city more, Steve.” I tell him. Matt claims to make a good hot chocolate. I test the accuracy of this claim. It is not a lie. “The secret,” he says, “is milk first. But you already knew that.” I didn’t.   Steve and I swap seats. I adjust the foot pedals and find the whole thing controls the steering. In Lofoten only half the pedal moved, which I found challenging. These make the turns so much easier. The whole foot pushes down in the direction of desired travel. On the water the silence is broken by the occasional kaka squark, a weka cry, the whistle of keruru wings. We float on. Back towards Deep Cove, around Rolla Island. The clouds coming and going. Green to grey to gone completely. Without any time having passed at all, we’re back. 5 hours later. We disembark, board another empty bus and cruise back to Manapouri, to what in many ways is the end. I’ve anything between one and three adventures to go. Then it’s time to go and find some work. 

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