Fiordland National Park

My original plan had been to explore Fiordland on my way through Te Anau a few weeks ago, but the weather wasn't cooperating and I was having too much fun with my friends, so I continued on Te Araroa instead. I always planned to come back before departing Queenstown, and I hoped that the fall weather would be more stable. I should've known better. As if the wet summer were an early winter warning, a major weather system developed across New Zealand earlier this week, dumping rain all over and snow as low as 300 meters elevation. I wouldn't expect more than a dusting in early October back home, but the high country here got a foot or more of snow. Uncharacteristic; frustrating at times and stunning at others.

April 7, 2018

Gnarly weather forecasted starting tomorrow and going through to the middle of next week. Total bummer since I was hoping to do the Kepler Track, Gertrude Saddle, and Milford Sound during that period. I’d planned to hitch out to Te Anau yesterday and use today, maybe the last beautiful day before I need to head to Queenstown, to walk the 60 kilometer Kepler Track. But unfortunately the weather was nasty in Invercargill all of yesterday, so I couldn’t bring myself to hitch the two hours. It was quarter to four by the time I thought to check the bus schedule, and I found that it had departed just 20 minutes prior. I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner. The rain subsided around 1800, and I briefly considered beginning the hitch. It seemed silly to leave so late, and instead I went back to the SoCo Backpacker where McKenzie was staying another night. I was lucky to get the last bed and happy to have some extra time before splitting off from her.

Checked out around 0800 and got coffee with McKenzie this morning. Picked up a small resupply and an extra layer in anticipation of braving some of the weather, then headed for the edge of town to start hitching. Took about half an hour to get the first ride, which got me about three more kilometers out of town. Then I waited about five minutes each on the next two legs to Te Anau. Very little traffic heading that way, especially so on the final leg. Took five minutes for the first car to come along; thankfully they picked me up. Who knows how long I might’ve waited for the second or third cars. 

From Te Anau, I had to decide which trip to prioritize. The Kepler requires an entire day, and tomorrow doesn’t look good. Rather than waste time waiting, I wanted to get set up for something that I might be able to do before the worst of the weather comes. I decided on Milford Sound. By that time, it was 1600 and there was very little traffic going that way so late in the day. Milford Sound is the end of the road- one way in, one way out, and nothing between it and Te Anau. I knew it was a long shot, but I got lucky. A couple of Finnish guys scooped me up and got me about halfway. They pulled into a campground for the night, and I stuck my thumb out again. It was after 1700, and I was way skeptical, but after just a few minutes, a Kiwi couple in an RV scooped me up. I didn’t make it in time for sunset/twilight, but I’m hoping for nice early light tomorrow. C’mon, weather, hold off for me!

April 8, 2018

I dirt bag camped near the cruise terminal last night. The rain started falling around 0500 and seemed to fall steadily forever, pretty much as forecasted. I couldn’t bring myself to pay for a sailing into the sound when I wouldn’t be able to see very much, though I’m sure the waterfalls were unreal this morning. I’m a mountain kinda guy, so I really wanted to see the towering peaks that confine the sound. I would’ve been over the moon to see the sound in all her glory: clear for a time in the morning, then wet in the afternoon.

I was frustrated to have come all this way to miss the clear day, but I knew the forecast when I left. And it was way cool to see the hillsides teeming with countless waterfalls on all slopes in all directions. I mean, literally thousands all up and down the Milford Road, especially on the Milford side of the Homer Tunnel. Anyways it’s like this all over the region, so it’s not like I’m missing out on better conditions anywhere else I’d wanna go. Pretty poor luck having this storm roll in right at the end of my trip, and poor planning not taking the bus out on Friday to enjoy the gorgeous day yesterday. Might have to ultimately miss some of the really cool stuff that I’d already had to skip due to weather the first time through. Ah well, c’est New Zealand.

Made an effort to see Gertrude Saddle this afternoon, and planned to stay at a private alpine hut until conditions allowed a summit bid, but I couldn’t justify paying the $35 fee for an overnight stay that might not even yield a clear morning. Instead I’m dirt bagging it at The Divide. It’s cold and wet, but it’ll due. If the weather sucks tomorrow, then I think I’ll just skip Gertrude and head down to Te Anau to see if there might be a window to walk the Kepler before I head back to Queenstown. If not, I’ll probably just head to Queenstown early and call the trip done.

It’s important to remind myself that I’ve seen some pretty incredible things during my time here, and unfortunate timing/conditions are a part of international travel. And that’s especially true when relying on public transit or hitch hiking, because one is rigid and the other is unreliable. Being able to commit to trips on the fly in the states - and change plans at the drop of a hat - is one of my favorite advantages to regional domestic travel. If the conditions are on, then I go. If not, then I stay. Or go elsewhere.  Easy peasy.

April 9, 2018

With the high patchy clouds, I counted it a good morning, or at least as good as I could expect. I hitched back up to Gertrude Valley and headed up the blazed trail to scout the conditions. I half expected the evening’s snow would render the slabs too sketchy to climb, but I was surprised by the relatively dry, safe route. I cruised the quick 4.5 k’s to the saddle and was rewarded with beautiful views of snow dusted peaks in all directions. I would’ve liked to climb higher along the adjacent ridges, but the slabs were steep, icy, and unprotected, so I enjoyed a snack and headed down satisfied with my experience. Hardly epic, but neither was it disappointing.

One quick hitch later, and I was back in Te Anau. Grateful to have little conveniences like WiFi and a reasonably priced cafe. Planning to stay here for a few days to see if the weather will clear for a day to allow me to walk the Kepler. Crossing my fingers!

April 10, 2018

Spent the day taking shelter in town and enjoying the public library wifi. It rained and rained with snow forecasted for the high country along the Kepler. Tomorrow is supposed to be a relatively nice day, and I'm hoping to take advantage by walking the full length of the Kepler, but that will depend greatly on how much snow accumulates. The track crosses some significant avalanche zones, so if it's more than a few inches, I may have to turn around at Luxmore Hut. Either way, I'm shooting to get up high for a look tomorrow morning. Should be some cool photos regardless.

April 11, 2018

It rained the latter half of yesterday and continued until the early hours of the morning today. I'd only begun the five kilometer walk to the trailhead last night when a kind woman stopped and offered me a ride part of the way. I wasn't hitching, because I imagined it was hopeless being nearly 2030, dark and raining. I had resigned myself to arrive at the shelter soaked to the bone, but instead she dropped me right at the doorstep. All of my assumptions were wrong tonight. I was so grateful for the unexpected kindness, a relatively small gesture that made all the difference in the world to me. It's a testament to our individual capacity to affect each other. Never underestimate the impact that your actions, good or otherwise, have on others.

I slept beneath the protection of the trailhead shelter and listened to the rain fall steadily all night. My alarm buzzed at 0630, and I diligently got up to prepare for the day. I was skeptical that so much rain down low wouldn't mean significant snow up high, but I set myself up for the full walk anyways. Just in case. Pulled only the necessary gear from my kit, and stashed my pack in the trees behind the shelter. I was looking to go fast and light.

The walking was easy to start, a flat six kilometers that follow the Lake Te Anau shore. After that the trail climbs steadily up switchbacks(!), maybe the first I've seen in my New Zealand travels. The thick, green forest is a reminder that the last twelve hours of rainfall are the norm and not the exception for this area. The snow I encountered up high, though, that was more akin to a July rather than an April scene. As I climbed higher, I got the sense that I was climbing into Narnia. First it was just a dusting of snow on the trail. Then it was inches of snow underfoot and snowmelt falling from the trees like rain due to the mid-morning sun. Then it was an all-out corridor of endless snow. I'd arrived: Narnia.

The scene amplified as I emerged from the bush to find large windblown drifts along the trail corridor. Over a foot of powder had fallen up high, and another foot had been blown in. I was postholing up to my hip at times. It was unreal. There was a trio ahead of me breaking trail, but I passed them after about a hundred meters and broke trail myself for a few hundred more before the crowds began descending from the Luxmore Hut. Before long, the trail was packed down nicely and made for easy walking. There was no way to traverse the mountains safely in those conditions, so I decided to walk the rest of the way to the Luxmore, then turn around.

The clouds were dramatic and ominous. I was taking photos every few steps. I kept saying to myself "Amazing, this is amazing. It's amazing!" I was saying hello to everyone I passed, wearing a big goofy grin and giggling to myself as I went. I was so happy. I've loved chasing summer these last three months, but it was way fun to get a quick dose of winter. You'll never convince me that what I saw today wasn't cooler than walking the full alpine crossing on a clear, crisp autumn day.