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New Zealand

The Milford Trek

Now without wheels, we took the bus to Te Anau, a couple of hours from Quenstown in Fiordland. We spent the night in a simple backpackers place, before taking the boat across the big lake to Glade Wharf. From there it was an easy two hour walk to the first DOC hut. We had full packs as the huts, though expensive, served no food and had no bedding. Each of the three are spaced a day's hike apart and sleep 40 in bunk beds. Everyone of the hikers walk in the same direction, and so by the second night we all got to know each other.

Starting out, the weather was perfect. It seemed auspicious, in this ,the wettest part of New Zealand. The trek often sees over 200 days of rain and the lush vegetation in the valley reflected this.

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The next day was overcast, but the rain held off. This time it was 4 or 5 hour walk to the next hut.

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The terrain is rugged with huge rock walls forming the edges of the valley. Snow could be seen higher up. Once again, the hiking itself was relatively easy.

Small streams cascading down the sides of the mountains
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In some places the path was rocky
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The next day marked the crux of the hike. It was by far the longest day, 6-to 8 hours, and involved considerable climbing up to the top of Mackinnon Pass and even more vert on the way down. The weather was not looking promising and we discussed what it was going to be like with our fellow hikers and the ranger. In the morning, the skies were leaden, and it was already starting to rain as we ate our breakfast. The ranger indicated that a major storm was brewing, and there was some discussion of holding us over in the hut for another day. In the end, the decision was made that it was a go, most likely because the trek was fully booked and another group was waiting to get into the Mintoro Hut that evening.
Little did we know what was in store for us. The rain was not too terrible as we started out, somewhat later than usual because we had to wait for the ranger's decision. As we continued toward the pass it got steadily heavier, until it became a continuous sheet of monsoon moisture. The many streams crossing the trail began to fill up with all the water, and became difficult to cross because of how swiftly they were flowing down mountain. When we got to the top of the pass after a few hours, the wind was blowing close to hurricane strength and the rain was now ice and sleet blowing sideways. It was difficult to stand, especially when gusts blew up the sides. We eventually made it to the emergency shelter where a number of other hikers were already holed up. It was steamy inside with all the wet bodies. By now both Bill and I were soaked despite our fancy assed rain gear that cost a fortune. And, my pack cover had blown off in the wind so at least some of my spare clothing was also wet. I was shivering, but managed to put on a few dry items and my jacket, which luckily was synthetic, as down would have been completely useless.

After resting up for 20 minutes or so, we continued on our way, barely able to open the door in the shelter because of the wind. Luckily, we had crossed the worse part of the pass and were soon heading down. Gradually the wind let up a bit, but the rain did not. If anything it came down harder. Visibility was nil, the rocks were incredibly slippery, but the worst part was the more or less continual stream crossings which were now raging rivers, some over thigh deep. One slip in the stream, and you'd fly down the mountain without any chance of rescue. Our poles were life savers. Bill and I stuck together, but the 40 or so other hikers were strung out over various parts of the trail each going at their own pace. At one point, we cane to a particularly difficult crossing. In front of us were a younger couple ,and after the guy managed to cross over, jumping part of the way, his girlfriend followed. In the middle of the stream she slipped, almost fell in, which would likely have been fatal, but he reached back just in time to grab her arm and pull her to the other side. It was a very close call, and probably only one of many that we did not see. After hours in the drenching rain, we came to a sign which said trail closed and pointed to a nearby shelter. We had no idea what was going on, but found that about half of the hikers were already inside. It was cold, but there were a few hot drinks to be had. As the day wore on, more hikers arrived, some of whom were practically hyperthermic. The saving grace was that the temps were not colder than they were. Once off the pass, my guess would be the high 50's. Ten degrees colder would have been a very serious situation. While we waited in the shelter there was discussion about a couple of hikers who were at the head of the line and walked past the shelter. Apparently they got there just before the sign went up, warning us to go no further. Continuing on, they got to a river that was impossible to cross, but when they tried to retrace their steps the water had risen even higher on a different stream and so they were effectively trapped. While we waited inside for hours, they were forced to hunker down in the rain and wait for rescue. Luckily they didn't panic, and realized that trying to get out on their own without knowing the way might prove suicidal. Eventually, rangers did manage to get to them and brought them back to the shelter. We were all very happy they made it. Another close call.

One of the few pics I managed to take that day
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Although we had some blankets and a few meager snacks and drinks, we noticed that there was a fancy hut about fifty yards in front of us. This hut and a few others like it, were for guided hikers who paid big bucks for the priviledge of staying in fancy digs with all meals provided. You'd think they would have invited us inside since it was warm and they had plenty of food, but the powers that be seemed to have no interest. Eventually a few of our own more intrepid crew snuck over and pretended to be reporters as they peered in the window taking pictures of the lavish spread and wine. That seemed to do the trick and eventually we were all invited in. By then of course, dinner was over and so the riff raff could be contained. The chopper arrived shortly thereafter, which they probably knew, and we were ferried, a few at a time to the next hut.

Helicopter dropping us off by the hut. Of course, by then the rain had practically stopped
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On arrival, the grumpy hut master told us that over a foot of rain had fallen in 11 hours, something that hadn't been seen in many years. Of course we were all relieved to have made it, but really they should have kept us back in the previous hut. Anyone of us could have been seriously injured or worse.

The next down was sunny and clear, but they had to send for another helicopter to fly us over a huge landslide that obscured the trail and was impossible to cross. They didn't bring us all the way back, but simply dropped us on the other side of the slide where we could hike for another few hours to Sand Fly Point.

Inside the copter
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Second drop off point
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We had to hightail it back to make it on time for the boat to take us back over Milford Sound and the bus to Queenstown. The waterfalls were still flowing forcefully but we didn't have to cross any.

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View of landing spot in Milford Sound
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The Milford Trek proved to be far more of an adventure than anyone of us had bargained for. Perhaps it was a fitting end to our time in New Zealand. It was on to Melbourne, and then the final two weeks in Tasmania.

Posted by jonshapiro 16:39 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes mountains backpacking Comments (2)

On the Road to Queenstown and the Milford Trek

After leaving the Cedar Flats hut tramp, our plan was to spend a couple of days in Franz Joseph town. This on the west side of Mt. Cook and also has impressive mountains, glaciers, hiking, etc. Once again however, the weather interfered. We stopped at the ranger station in the center of town, and he informed us that a cyclone was on its way, and that it might be necessary to close the coast road. Not only that, the town was packed and there was no place to stay. And so we decided to push on. The road ran directly near the water and in places it was already washing over the rocks and approaching the pavement. In fact there had been another storm a week or so before and the road was partially washed away in a few spots. We got through without any issues however, and stopped for the night in another resort town, Wanaka. By then it was pouring and so we figured we'd spring for motel and a hot shower. Unfortunately the place was also fully booked, and the only room available was in a so called resort for $300. Resort was not exactly the name I would give to a rather basic, albeit clean room, but we felt we didn't have much choice. At that point we just couldn't face another night in our tiny van.

The next day was still rainy, windy and quite cold, and we spent it wandering around the crowded streets. Everything was overpriced, but we happened into a Subway, whose cuisine I had never appreciated as much as I did on that day. We must have spent a couple of hours there trying to stay warm and out of the weather. Nobody chased us which was a good thing. Given that the weather was still pretty dreadful, we didn't have much incentive to push on to Queenstown, where we had a reservation for the following night. Neither did we want to blow another $300, and so we ended up in a campsite by a river at the edge of town. Not wanting to cook dinner, and feeling relieved about saving the money, we managed to find a pretty decent Indian restaurant , and so the evening was not a total loss.

The weather finally did clear the next day and we drove on to Queenstown. We figured on a couple of days of R and R before our final trek to Milford. For those of you who don't know ,this is probably the most famous tramp of all in New Zealand, and Bill had to reserve it almost a year in advance. It is a four day, three night excursion staying in simple huts along the way.

Queenstown is now the premier extreme sports capital of New Zealand. It was full of young people into bungee jumping, white water rafting, mountaineering, parasailing, hiking etc. And it was overflowing with people in what was peak season. We dropped our van off at the airport and were practically giddy to unload it. I should mention that we had a bit of trepidation on turning it in, because Bill had dinged the back of it trying to cross one of the many narrow, one way bridges of the south island. Each of these bridges entails a game of chicken because although someone is supposed to have the right of way, it is often difficult to see them on the other side. Oh, and did I mention that there are no speed limits on these narrow roads. Every road says 100K. I guess they figure the terrain itself will slow you down, and if it doesn't, you'll likely fly off the road and no longer be a problem. At any rate, on one of those bridges Bill had to back up the van in a hurry, and managed to dent the rear slightly on a post. This was not the first dent by any means. It was apparent that others had done the same thing. He got a can of black spray paint and covered it so it was barely noticeable.

Of course the Wicked folk didn't see it. We got an Uber back to our motel in town, and it must have taken close to 40 minutes because of the traffic. This is a town of 10,000 people, but at least at this time of year, the end of February, it felt about 10 times that. After a couple of days of wandering and eating in expensive restaurants, we were more than ready to leave.

Main Street, Queenstown with Remarkables in background
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Gondola in town center with delta wing kites
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Harbor on lake in town
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The big picture
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Posted by jonshapiro 17:40 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes people postcards Comments (1)

Hokitika and Surrounds

After a couple of days in Craigieburn we went back over Arthur's pass to a small town on the west coast, Hokitika. After searching around for a proper camping spot we found this unique place on a bluff over looking the ocean. It certainly was not wilderness, but as it turned out, it was an ex-mental hospital complete with extensive grounds, staff housing, and of course, the main wing of the hospital. It was bought on the cheap by a New Zealand couple who had the idea of turning it into a resort. Well, resort would be a stretch, but they did turn it into a backpackers hangout. The place was fairly run down, but no matter, it was full of young people from all over. Some were staying inside in small rooms that had been part of the hospital, while others were camped out on the main lawn. A few had campers like ours which were spread throughout the grounds.

A portion of the main hospital building
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Campers on the lawn overlooking the ocean
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There was a large kitchen where we cooked our dinner, and yes, hot showers to our everlasting delight. Shortly after we arrived a cold rain had already started and it got harder as the night wore on.

It was still raining the next morning, but seemed to be letting up as we ate breakfast in the main dining hall. The forecast was for improving weather so we decided to head on to our next hike, maybe an hour away. This was the Toaroha Valley Tramp as they say in Kiwi. We were told about it by the ranger at Arthur's pass as a place with possible hot springs and very few people. When we arrived at the trail head it was still drizzling, so we sat in the van for a while hoping for the best. Eventually the sun did come out. This was to be two day venture into the Cedar Flats hut, a 3 or 4 hour hike, or so we thought. Because of all the rain, sections of the trail were flooded and we had to ford numerous streams. Not wanting to get our boots wet, we stopped often to take them off and wade across in our sandals. All of this took a lot of time. After an hour or so, we came to a juncture that indicated a high water trail that went up higher in the forest. Since it was so wet down below, we figured this to be our best bet. It turned out to be a highly rugged path that was poorly marked, but slowly we persevered, seeing no one. In spots it was also damn slippery and muddy as it went up and down the steep hillsides of the canyon, staying away from to Kokataki River down below us. In the late afternoon we got to a spot where the trail just seemed to disappear. No markers could be seen, although there was a small cliff leading down from where we stood. Bill got out his gps app and we tried to figure it out. Surely it couldn't lead down that cliff. We must have been there 10 or 15 minutes when a family came by. There were two teenage boys and a couple that looked to be in their 40's. We chatted with them as they seemed to know what they were doing, especially George who was a helicopter pilot with the conservation department. He laughed when we told him that it seemed much more than 3 or 4 hours to the hut especially because of all the time we wasted taking off our boots.

"You don't take them off. Just wade on through. They're going to get wet anyway."

He seemed to think the trail did indeed lead down the cliff, and scrambled down to take a look. Sure enough, there was a marker down below hidden in the trees. We helped each other down with some difficulty, and then hiked together for a while until it became apparent that Bill and I couldn't keep up. We said we'd meet them in the hut in a couple of hours. Unfortunately that was not to be.

Despite not taking off our boots again, we made slow progress through the steep and dense terrain where route finding was a continual issue. True, we didn't start hiking until about 1:30 PM, but figured that gave us plenty of time because it didn't get dark until close to 9. Well now the light was already beginning to fade in the dense forest and we seemed to be nowhere near the hut, but we plodded along. There were more streams to cross despite being on the high route, and we didn't stop to take our boots off. As the light continued to fade we both wondered where the hell the hut could be. How much further? And then, suddenly, or so it seemed, the light went out entirely. We had already put on our headlamps, but unfortunately I had lost my good one on Mt. Cook, and only had a very small one that was practically useless. Bill would go ahead 10 or 20 yards and shine his lamp back towards me so I didn't slip on the boulders and wet ground. Once again the trail seemed to disappear into one of the numerous streams. We got out the gps to try and figure out the way, but that slowed us down even more. Both of us began to think we might have to spend the night out. Yes, we would probably survive without a tent, but it was starting to get cold and it would be damned uncomfortable. Every time Bill got out the gps I worried that we were wasting more time since it was still very difficult to find the trail, but I kept my mouth shut. Whatever we had to do, we certainly had to stick together. By now it was close to 10:30 and we were both feeling somewhat desperate. Above all, we didn't want George to have to come out looking for us as he probably would if we didn't show up. Finally, wading down another stream, we saw a trail marker, and then in he distance a narrow suspension bridge leading across the river to Cedar Flats and the hut. Crossing the bridge was the coup de grace. It was a one person bridge, extremely narrow and shaky, dangling some 20 or 20 feet across the raging river. Bill went first and then shined his light back so I could cross. And just so you know, I am actually afraid of heights so this was not an easy crossing for me and I had to take it slow because of how shaky and slippery the bridge was. Obviously, I did eventually make it ,and the hut was right there as we stumbled in, exhausted. Our 3 to 4 hour hike was more like 8 or 9, almost two hours of which was in the dark. George and his family seemed quite relieved to see us.

Just another Bill and Jon adventure.

Bill crossing back over the bridge the next morning. It doesn't look particularly threatening in the light of day
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The water levels looked to be much lower the next day, and so we decided to take the low route back. Route finding was still quite difficult, as was all the boulder hopping we had to do to stay out of the water. It didn't take quite as long as the previous day, but it still wasn't easy.

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[i]An example of the rugged terrain[i]
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Posted by jonshapiro 11:08 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes mountains postcards foot Comments (3)

Craigieburn Forest Park/ Lake Pearson

After Mt Cook, our plan was to spend a few days at Arthur's Pass but the closer we got to top the more the weather deteriorated. The east side of the island is generally drier than the west and the pass marks the transition from one to the other. This was quite noticeable in terms of the vegetation which was considerably more lush and green the higher we climbed. We stopped in the ranger station to check about the weather in the coming days and indeed it looked to be rainy and very windy for the better part of the week. The east side appeared to be a much better bet, and so we drove back down and managed to find a fairly secluded spot near Lake Pearson. There were plenty of other campers on the lake shore, but further back far fewer. We spent a couple of nights there and hiked during the day.

Views from our camping spot near Lake Pearson
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Our first hike was a few hours up to Helicopter Hill. We started out in the forest and were almost run over by a group of kamikaze mountain bikers near this spot. The tell tale red marker denoting a mountain bike trail should have tipped us off.

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The 360 views from the top of the hill were superb.

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It was extremely windy cooking dinner that night, and because we were now in our Wicked Van there was no place to cook inside. We had to make due with a one pot butane stove which kept blowing out. Finally we managed to rig something up behind the tire of the van and managed to cook our lamb burgers. You have to make do with what equipment you have. As Bill would say, "It is what it is."

The next day was also clear and warm and we ended up, more or less inadvertently, hiking up to the Cheeseman Ski Field. Starting out in the forest, we came up to a steep and what felt like a road to nowhere.

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But rounding the bend here is what we saw

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The only lifts were poma style up some rather steep terrain. Falling off the lift, easy to do, would not be an option unless you want to slide down backwards several hundred feet. This was bare bones skiing where even getting up the road would be an adventure with snow and ice. There was nary a condo in sight

We sat on the floor of the porch outside the lodge and ate lunch. It was difficult to stand in the nearly gale force winds

Posted by jonshapiro 10:30 Archived in New Zealand Tagged landscapes mountains postcards foot Comments (4)

Aoraki/ Mt. Cook

Upon landing in Queenstown, more or less the extreme sports capital of the south island, we picked up our new home not far from the airport. Here it is in all its glory, along with yours truely. The picture was taken at a different spot.

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We think the company was goofing on us by giving us a van with that title, as we were probably the only "old ones," ever to use a Wicked Van. We tried to exchange it for an upgraded and bigger model, but alas, they were sold out as we were there during peak season. No fridge, no curtains, nearly bald tires, a tiny and hard bed, a butane stove that had to be used outside. You get the idea. It was a beat up very mini-van. The one saving grace, as peviously mentioned, was that it was automatic.

Here is a pic with our sleeping bags laid out

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At any rate, we stopped just outside of town, did a big shop, and then headed out towards Mt. Cook.

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As you probably know, Mt. Cook is the highest and most heavily glaciated peak in New Zealand. Made famous by Sir Edmond, it was his training ground prior to climbing Everest in the early 50's. It is a highly technical peak, and so our plan was to hike part of the way up and spend the night at the Mueller Hut, 5500 feet elevation.

We arrived late afternoon and were lucky to get a camping spot in the national park. By the time we cooked dinner, the weather had already deteriorated and a cold rain began to fall. The next morning it was still raining hard and the mountain was totally socked in. Luckily our hut reservation was for the following day, and so we donned rain gear and went for a hike up to one of the glacier lakes.

It looks a bit sunny here, but I must have taken this pic at a rare moment
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Despite our fancy assed rain gear, we were both soaked after a few hours of hiking. A harbinger of things to come on the Milford Trek. Luckily the park had lodge with a pub, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon imbibing and eating junk food.

The next day dawned clear, and so we were ready to take on the hike up to the hut, not something to be done in bad weather. The trail gains 3 or 4000 vertical feet in less than 4 miles and is quite steep.The first part consists of over 2000 high steps constructed of timbers, then a big boulder field, until the last stretch of relatively flat rocks along the edge of deep ravine to the hut.

Here is Bill starting out on the steps

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Looking into the valley at the start of the hike
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A flat section near the top of the boulder field
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Looking down at some hikers past the boulder field
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Rounding the top of the trail near the ravine
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It began to get very windy here, and getting around this corner to the final stretch up tp the hut was not easy.

Here is a full shot of the ravine
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By this time our beautiful day was gone and some weather had started to move in.

Finally, the hut appeared.

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When I arrived the skies were spitting grappel and the hut was rattling with gale force winds. Using the outhouse, not pictured, was quite the adventure. It was maybe 50 feet from the hut and was up on a platform with 15 or 20 steps. Negotiating that in the wind, and later in the dark, and cranking open the door, held closed with a large metal bar was difficult.

Nonetheless the hut was full, as people went about preparing their dinner meal. It was cold. No woodstove. A basic quonset shelter, but with the wind, I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be in a tent.

I took a short walk around in the late afternoon and was startled by the crack of a snow slide on the far side of the ravine.

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Hiker against the sky, close to dusk
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Unfortunately the summit of Mt. Cook never came into view. Always in the clouds, which is probably more the norm.

After a rather uncomfortable night sleeping like sardines on a large wooden platform, the wind finally died down by the morning.

Morning light
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Nearby peaks in the morning
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Getting back down was just as difficult as getting up. Those steps and rocks were murder on these old knees.

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Posted by jonshapiro 12:07 Archived in New Zealand Comments (3)

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