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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)

Trekking in the High Atlas Mountains

I am sitting on the earth-roof terrace of the house of our 2nd Berber hosts, roughly 50K from Taroudant.




The View looks like this
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We have spent the last two days hiking in the dry High Atlas. They are drier this year than most as the last rain/snow on this side of the mountains was October of 2011. On the first day of hiking we got started later than we hoped and it was very hot for the first few hours. The walking was not especially difficult as the mountains are round in places, rather than craggy. However, despite our intentions, we got a late start, and it was hot, very hot. We stopped for a much needed two hour lunch before continuing around and down.



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Bjorn and Katya
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The Author and Nanette
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During our break, I got a chance to talk to our guide Abdel, who is a most interesting man. A sculptor who has seen some hard times, he now makes money by taking visitors trekking in the mountains. He seeks out and finds out of the way places, and seems to understand that roads and so called progress are always a mixed bag. He is quite sophisticated and knowledgeable, and, as we were soon to find out, an absolutely doll. He took care of us in unbelievable ways.

He is, in my humble opinion, The Man to go trekking with in Morocco. And did I mention that he speaks English, as well as French, Arabic, and Berber. I guess this is an unsolicited commercial. Forget about Said, and contact Abdel directly at abdelroudana@gmail.com.

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At our first home stay, the family more or less left us alone and cooked us a simple dinner. The children, however, were most curious.


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The second day of hiking was more difficult, and we got up as high as 3000M, where the altitude slowed us down. It was a long day, and the way down was the hardest part, at least for me.




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We descended many switchbacks to the green oasis you see below. Lots of loose scree and some exposure and we didn't arrive until 6 PM. Our hosts immediately came out to meet us with tea, freshly squeezed warm milk from their cows, and homemade bread. They went out of their way to make us feel welcome to this idyllic spot.






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Mother of the Family
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Daughter in law and Baby Baking Bread
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Unfortunately, every silver lining has a dark cloud. Not long after we arrived, Bjorn got sick. Violently sick. Shitting and vomiting, everything coming out from both ends. Now, Bjorn is a big guy and he was laid low by a stomach bug, like a giant tree toppling over in the forest. To make matters worse, this was Katya's first real hike. She was a trooper on the trek itself, but this kind of thing threw her and she didn't know what to do. Luckily we did, having dealt with this on many occasions. Unfortunately there is not much you can do, other than to keep hydrated, not an easy task when everything wants to come out. And then, when things settle down a bit, pop a Cipro, if it seems like you are still quite ill. Our lovely Berber family was upset about all this, and they seemed to feel responsible, as did Abdel. We did our best to try and convince them otherwise, but I'm not sure it did any good. They kept bring out more food which we couldn't eat. After we went to bed, Nanette got sick. Not as badly as Bjorn, but bad enough. The night was not especially restful for obvious reasons, but the barking dogs, braying donkeys, sheep and goats, a real menagerie, didn't help. The 4 AM call to prayer was blissfully muted, but I still heard it nonetheless. The local mosque, smoke rising in the background, looked quite beautiful in the morning.





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Katya and I, who avoided getting sick, tried to figure out what the others ate that we didn't. Hard to know, but perhaps it was the dates they had for lunch. We both skipped them, not being date fans, but it really could have been anything.

Our original plan had been to hike for five days, but Bjorn and Nanette were both quite weak in the morning, and so going on didn't seem like an option. We spent the day with our Berber family, while the sick ones slept for part of it. They were really special people, making rice gruel and other easy to digest food, and then kissing and hugging us, the women anyway, trying to convince us to stay with them longer. It seems that many of the villagers are like this, and despite everything, it felt like a privilege to be so welcomed into their home. We could tell they still felt badly about the stomach problems, despite Abdel's saying to them that it wasn't their fault.




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I chatted with Abdel about politics, money, economics, Islam, and how it has been distorted almost everywhere. We were solving the world's problems together, and it seems we think very much alike.


When our ride didn't materialize at the end of the day, Abdel went in search of another, and managed to arrange for us to ride in the back of a truck. Along with a half a dozen other men, and a pile of scrap metal, we zoomed around the s curves in record time, holding on tightly to avoid being thrown from one side to the other.

Abdel invited us to stay in his house which he was in the process of fixing up as a guest house. It wasn't quite ready yet, but he had two bedrooms that were finished. After finding out that it was quiet, ie, far away from the mosque, I didn't hesitate, and we went straight there after arriving back in Taroudant.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:08 Archived in Morocco Tagged landscapes mountains backpacking Comments (1)

Torres Del Paine

We returned to the more civilized environs of El Calafete, glad for the opportunity to get a decent meal, something that was not possible in El Chalten. After a day or so, we took the bus across the border to Chile and Puerto Natales. From here, we could book our trip to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, which has some of the most spectacular mountains anywhere on the planet. As a concession to comfort, and to age if I care to admit it, we decided to stay in the refugios spaced out along the trail. Ridiculously overpriced for both food and lodging, and mediocre at best, they are the only alternative if you want respite from the vagaries of Patagonian weather. We decided on a five day trek known at the W, and it is not named for George W. our ex, gracias a dios, president. To do the full 10 to 11 day circuit, would have required us to go around the far side of Campo Hielo Sur, the largest ice cap outside of Antarctica, where the weather is wetter and if possible, windier. Hence we opted for the relative comforts of the shorter trip.

On the first day, we hiked up to the base of the Torres, towers of rock, and then back down to Refugio Chileno.

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There we met a nice mix of people, three of whom were from Tasmania, an island which is part of Australia. Since the W is a popular route we ran into them several times, and started to hike with a some of them, keeping an eye out for one another in the rapidly changing trail conditions. Each afternoon we ended up in the same refugio, so that was easy enough to do. The path was challenging, but the elevation was relatively low so that didn't add to the difficulty.

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The biggest problem, as it was at Fitzroy, was the weather. It would change from sun and relative warmth,

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to cloudy and cold, ice pellets being blown sideways at 40-50 miles an hour, all within the space of 10- 15 minutes.

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In a single hour, and I was keeping track, I added or subtracted several layers of clothes more than 5 times. That was an effort unto itself, and slowed down the pace considerably at times. Once again, there were occasions when we were almost blown off the trail, and going back was not an option.

Staying in the refugios turned out to be the right decision. There was one night when the wind gusted with hurricane force, shaking the building where we were attempting to sleep. It was tied down with big cables over the roof, so this couldn't have been a rare event. The next day we heard that the tents of several nearby campers were shredded or blown away, and they had to hunker down amid the rocks just to make it through the night.

On the whole, I'd say we were lucky. There had been heavy downpours and flooding on the trail a few days before we arrived. That didn't happen when we were there, and while the weather was a mixed bag, the summits were often visible.

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This was one of those touchstone experiences that you never forget, much like the Solar de Uyuni, though a very different environment. Razor sharp ridges and spires, and an ever changing vista of rock and ice that would make a geologist drool.

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Upon our return to Puerto Natales, we stayed couple of days before heading back to Argentina. As The Handbook points out, it is a quiet town of brightly colored wood and tin houses that is a good place to relax. I would say soporific, might be a better description, and the place we stayed was not especially comfortable. On the other hand, we found a tiny, hole in the wall local place that had good salmon, and we went back a few times. This was a nice treat after the food in the refugios.


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View From End of Town

Posted by jonshapiro 17:15 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

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