Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Invercargill and the Rakiura Track

February 27th to March 4th
We left Scott at the Q-town airport on a gorgeously sunny day. We hope he had a window seat on the way back to Christchurch for views of the Remarkables, the fantastically steep mountains he flew over on the way to the Canterbury Plains. And that the blizzard in MN and WI wouldn't stop him from getting home!

Darrell and I headed back along the route we had taken by bus from Milford Sound. We turned south just before Te Anau and camped at Lake Manapouri, near New Zealand’s largest hydroelectric dam. But, as Scott had told us, you can’t see this facility as it is underground! There was widespread concern (aesthetic and environmental as well as engineering issues) among NZ citizens about raising the level of Lake Manapouri as much as 30 meters and merging it with Lake Te Anau to provide electricity for the aluminum plant at Bluff. So, instead of raising the lake, they lowered the dam, blasting through 200 m of rock and sending water from Lake Manapouri area to Deep Cove, a branch of Doubtful Sound, 10 km away.  The dam has now been providing electricity for 40 years without any visual impact!

The next morning we continued to Invercargill, one of the many Scottish-named towns in New Zealand. After checking out a few places, we moved into a campground near Oreti Beach, the long stretch of beach where Burt Munro, an eccentric kiwi motorcyclist, raced his 1920 Indian Motorcycle. A folk hero in these parts, Burt set world speed records at Bonneville Flats in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The bus driver proudly showed the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” in the bus as we returned from Milford Sound. It is a sweet movie starring Anthony Hopkins if you haven’t seen it.

It  rained and rained and was still raining when we greeted our friend Vera Markgraf at the airport. The three of us walked around Thomson's Bush and Vera, a palynologist we have known since our Boulder days, reacquainted herself with some of the NZ plants. We also went to Haye's Hardware Store where we saw Burt Munro's famous bike and picked up some supplies for our hiking trip.

The World's Fastest Indian
Vera lives in Flagstaff now, and is as busy as anyone we know, but I got her to squeeze us in between a kayak trip in Baja, and some volunteer botany work in the Grand Canyon! She introduced us to Matt and Margaret (who we stayed with in Christchurch) as she and Matt have worked together before. So Vera came to hike with me and talk geology with Darrell and botony/palynology with Matt.

Darrell drove us to the ferry at Bluff. This town marks the southern end of Hwy 1 which extends all the way to the far north tip of the North Island. The crossing to Stewart Island was a little rough but only lasted an hour, and then we found our way to the DOC office to get our permit to hike the Rakiura Track. We also got some gorgeous and soft fingerless gloves. The brush-tailed possum is an introduced pest, so it was our duty to support its eradication and buy the possum wool!

The rainbow begins where the ferry lands!
We stayed at a backpacker, the name here for a youth hostel. Vera visited in French with Francois, the new owner, and then we had a cup of tea and ventured out to explore. Oban is a town of about 300 people, and if you stay long enough you can almost feel like a local. There are only a few streets, and the one grocery store serves a special lunch to all the school kids on Fridays. The cashier greets everyone and then sings while she is working. A nice place.

View of one of the many bays on Stewart Island
The next morning we began our 3-day tramp of the Rakiura Track. The trail begins beneath a giant anchor chain sculpture by Russell Beck, a renowned Kiwi sculptor. The chain connects the anchor (which is Stewart Island/Rakiura) of Maui with his canoe/waka (the South Island). He is anchored as he pulls up a large fish - the North Island.  The other side of the anchor chain sculpture is across the strait on the South Island.

Vera pointing to the other side of the anchor chain, across Foveaux strait in Bluff

We started out with a bit of rain, but then it was just misty and my feet stayed magically dry despite a lot of mud. Of course, since it is one of the eight "Great Walks", the track was mostly in good shape. Old chicken-wire covered boardwalk is being replaced with a really nice gravel path. Still, there were quite a few detours through the bush though to get out of mud!

Vera shows how to cross a muddy track!
Vera's research has primarily been in Patagonia (Chile and Argentina) and she knows a lot of the New Zealand plants as many share a Gondwanaland connection. It was great to learn more about the trees, shrubs, and ferns of NZ.

Common fern that reminds me of a starfish
We were the first to arrive at Port William Hut, and visited with Toni, a volunteer DOC ranger from Ireland. Toni was energetic and charming, and sported a red sweater and a pearl necklace to brighten up the grey-green DOC uniform. She shared her field guides with us, and we wandered off for a short stroll. When we returned she was hacking away at the omnipresent gorse.

The intertidal zone yields a cute fellow chordate; an ascidian (sea squirt) that looks like a cherry!
And note Vera's nice possum gloves.
Toni's hut talk that night had the good advice to make friends with your hut mates as we will mostly be together the next night as well. We also passed each other on the track. And it is easy to enjoy other people that are on the same adventure; we especially enjoyed visiting with Lena from Germany and Tom and Mandy from Great Britain. I smile now thinking about them.

The next morning Vera heard a morepork, a kind of owl, outside of our window. What a great way to wake up! We also looked for kiwi in the evening and in the morning, but didn't see any.

The second day hike started out with a snafu - I left my binoculars in a tree fern and didn't discover it until we had gone an hour down the track. I dropped my pack with Vera and jogged back, mostly uphill, and found them again. Phew. We were two of the last to get to the hut though, and ended up in the loft. One of the hikers liked to build up the fire so it was a tad toasty up there, but it was still a fun place to sleep. We enjoyed another stroll along the coast, admiring boulders, kelp, and wind-swept trees.

Wind-swept trees along the coast at North Arm
The third day's hike brought us along the coast to Oban again. We celebrated our successful tramp with a dinner of local green-lipped mussels for Vera and blue cod fish and chips for me while looking out at the harbor. Thanks, Vera, for a fantastic tramp!

Just wait until the gulls see this!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Moke Lake and Glenorchy encore!

February 25th to 27th
After the Routeburn and Milford Sound (see last post) we went back to Moke Lake where they were wrapping up filming "Top of the Lake" even during the night! We spent another night there, then wandered an hour down the creek to get more blackberries, before heading to Glenorchy again. Scott had heard that Paradise, just north of there, was the place to go - but we ended up at a DOC site by the Route Burn (now you know how the track got its name).

The next morning Scott and I walked over the swing bridge, past Sylvan Lake, to the Rockburn Gorge.  On the way we were greeted by several fantails, lovely forest birds that follow you to pick off any insects you stir up as you walk.

Lovely fantail!
We took the trail to the chasm, and looked down - it seemed 100 m - to the rushing blue water below. Then wound around the other side and down to the beach.

Gorgeous blue water on its way to merge with the Dart River
We ate lunch on a rock and I got to be one more person taking pictures of insects on Scott's back. This time it is notorious sand flies and he definitely attracted the little beasts! We also got sprayed by a jetboat taking tourists on a ride. And there were inflatable canoes carrying another group of tourists. So much for peace and quiet in the wilderness!

Sand flies find another innocent victim to torture
We walked out to see the Dart River and enjoy the clear view of the mountains.

Scott at the Dart River
On the way back, we took an almost warm swim in Sylvan Lake, and then walked through the omnipresent greenness of the NZ rainforest. We were both a little blissed out on all the green. These little moss spheres enchanted me.

Magical moss
Crossing the swing bridge back to camp, we reentered reality with another omnipresent symbol. Either sheep or cows grace anyplace that isn't a city or wilderness it seems...

Bovines in paradise
Since it was our last night together, we celebrated our adventures with a gin and tonic happy hour. And maybe finished up a few other bottles of beer and wine...

Happy Hour arrives!
Reading by the river
The next day, before we took Scott to the airport in Queenstown for his journey home, we took one more short walk to Reid Lake. Thank you again Scott, for sharing your time (and great food!) with us!

Black swans on Reid Lake

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Routeburn Track and Milford Sound

In New Zealand you "tramp on a track" instead of "hike on a trail" so, DOC permit in hand, we three boarded the bus to Glenorchy and began tramping the Routeburn Track! This was Scott's third time in the area, from his hikes while we were in Tekapo, but he was as eager as us for another hike!

Scott and Darrell on the Routeburn
We only had to hike two hours to get to our first camp, so we set up the tents and took off for a walk up the valley you see in the background behind the tents.

Camping at Routeburn Flats
The forecast was for rain, but we got in our last bit of sun lounging in the grass by the river.

Darrell relaxing by the river while Scott and I froze taking a dip!
Scott cooked us dinner from his vast store of dehydrated food. The insulated pot covering reduces fuel use since you can keep food warm and soak dried food in it.

Tough life with Scott cooking for us all the time!
Darrell found another use for the pot cozy!
The rain came that night and the river rose, but our tents were high enough they didn't float away. The next morning we headed up to Routeburn Falls, where there is both a DOC hut and a private hut. The majority of trampers stay in huts instead of tents.

This shows only a part of the spectacular Routeburn Falls
Soon we were in a beautiful alpine zone with water everywhere including on our heads!

Tramping in the rain as we headed up to the pass
At the pass, there was an A-frame hut with a dozen hikers all trying to dry out and warm up, as well as eat lunch. There were almost as many languages, and backpack brands, as hikers forming this congenial group hunkering together out of the rain.

The views of the pass were partly obscured though we could see glaciers through the mist, and it was still lovely. We headed down the other side of the pass toward the MacKenzie campground and huts.

Scott and the amazing backpacking umbrella
As we went lower, the forest floor and up into the trees was covered with moss. I've never seen as much moss and fern as I have in New Zealand.

Darrell on the mossy track.
We camped at MacKenzie in the rain. A nice feature of the campgrounds on many of the tracks is that they have a covered area with cooking counters and even a sink. There is usually a picnic table or two under the roof as well. You can tell by the temperate rainforest that many hikers end up in the rain so the covered areas are really appreciated.

The next day we hiked out, still in the rain, and got to the shelter by the road. Here, the sun began to peak out, and by the time we caught the bus to Milford Sound, we were beginning to dry out.

Milford Sound, a glacially-carved fjord, is one of the main tourist areas in New Zealand. We were soooo lucky that the sun was shining right after so much rain as the waterfalls spilling off both sides of the steep valley were at their finest.

Spectacular views on Milford Sound in the SUN!
The last picture looks back at Milford Sound as the bus pulled out and we left this special area. What a wonderful hike and NZ experience! Good, no, GREAT times were had by all!

Looking back at Milford Sound

Wanaka, Pukaki and Tekapo

February 11th to 21st
We should have taken Maori pronunciation lessons before leaving home as we cause people to laugh so hard they cry when they hear us pronounce Maori place names. It is embarrassing but we can't seem to get the accent on the right syllable. Even the Scottish town Twizel with a long "i" sound had us saying "Twizzle", rhymes with drizzle...

Wanaka bills itself as a more laid-back interior town than Queenstown, and it also sits on the edge of a large lake. Scott caught the bus from here to Q-town and went on a few great hikes; over Kepler Pass, and then on the Caples Track. Meanwhile Darrell and I camped one night near Wanaka so I could hike the track to view the Rob Roy glacier with Maria and her dad. Maria (who we met at the Fox River in January) was camping with her parents who had come for a visit. They got on the track before me but I saw them as they were returning and we all visited a bit before separating again.

Rob Roy glacier and waterfall
Darrell and I drove through a landscape that reminded us of Wyoming's dry hilly grasslands to Lake Tekapo where Darrell attended a 5-day conference of the Australasian Quaternary Association.  There are three large lakes in the Mount Cook (Aoraki) region; Ohau, Pukaki, and Tekapo. They are all gorgeous blue from the input of glacial silt.

View of our motel on Lake Tekapo
Anyone that has been reading this blog knows that I am a bit weather-obsessed. Or should I just come out and say that I feel like Darrell and I are NZ rain gods – like the truck driver in the “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. So, it wasn’t surprising to us when we got deluged at Lake Tepako – though it seemed to surprise the folks here who “never” get rain this time of year! Maybe Rick Perry should invite us to Texas instead of holding prayer meetings for rain…

For those of you that haven’t read Douglas Adams, I found this quote, and now you will want to read the rest of what he has written!

“And as he drove on, the rain clouds dragged down the sky after him for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him and to water him.” Douglas Adams from So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.

After getting completely soaked hiking in the rain, I went to the Alpine Hot Springs to warm up. The three springs are in shapes of the three glacial lakes. They also have an outdoor ice-skating rink here but it was being repaired so I couldn't skate in the rain - which would have been a new experience!

Pools in the shapes of glacial lakes - but much warmer!
The small town of Tekapo gets busloads of tourists seeing two sites - a historic church and the statue of the all-important sheep herding dog!

MacKenzie country hero
After the successful AQUA meeting, we drove along the shore of Lake Pukaki to Mt. Cook (Aoraki) and camped in a DOC site that reminded me of my friend Martha Moore saying "You could run a marathon on the tops of all the motorhomes". We found a decent site though so Darrell had a glacier view for working at his desk (the camper table) and I hiked to a glacial terminus and lake on the southern flanks of the mountain.

There are even little icebergs floating in this lake!
Walking back, the evening lighting was so pretty, I had to get another photo.

Aoraki means "cloud piercer"
The next morning we picked up two hitchhikers.  Darrell thought the girl looked familiar and it turned out she was the triplet sister of one of the first women to graduate from the new Climate Science and Solutions master's program at NAU! She had gone to a seminar with her sister and met Darrell then. Small world!

We spent some time in Twizel, recharging our computers at an outdoor bandstand, and loading up on groceries. We also checked out Lake Ohau, the smallest of the three glacial lakes (though still large), where Heidi Roop will be working in late March. Heidi was one of Darrell's masters students and is now pursuing her PhD at the University of Victoria in Wellington.

Our journey back south took us through Cromwell, the gateway to Central Otago - another wine-growing region, and then to Queenstown where we met Scott off the bus after his two great tramps. It was so great to have Scott back - and not just because he cooked curried chicken fajitas for dinner either!

Scott and Darrell both working at Lake Moke
Lake Moke is a great DOC campsite just a bit outside of Q-town. We camped right by the lake and we even swam, though I couldn't stay in the cold water too long.

The next morning, Darrell dropped Scott and I off at the gondola as we couldn't find the trail head to Ben Lomond peak. This was especially embarrassing when we got to the top and met a 70-year-old Scot that had hiked up from the base and was planning to hike all the way down again. Tough Scots!

Me, afraid of heights? Ha!
View of Moke Lake and surrounding mountains from Ben Lomond peak
We wandered through a sheep paddock, saw two wild goats, and followed a horse trail along Moke Creek back towards our campsite. We picked some blackberries on the way for the next morning's wild rice and blackberry pancakes! Yum!

A six-part television series called "Top of the Lake", directed by Jane Campion, was being filmed at the lake while we were there. We never did see Holly Hunter but we took some pictures of the set.  The short plot summary from the IMDB is: A detective investigates the disappearance of a 12-year-old pregnant daughter of a local drug lord.

The set is the colored containers to left, and our van is a white spot by lake on right!
Next stop: Routeburn Track!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Avalanche Peak and Westland

February 7th to 11th
Scott, Darrell and I drove into the town of Arthur Pass early to try and dry our laundry. (Scott and I had done some hand washing that refused to dry overnight…) When we couldn’t find anyone awake in town with $2 coins, and the dryer didn’t seem to work anyway, we just hung our laundry on the line behind one of the backpacker places and went off for a hike!

The kiwis outdid themselves with this trail. It went straight up (almost literally) 1,100 meters (that is 3,575 feet for you Amerikuns) and ended with a spectacular view of the peaks and glaciers of Arthur’s Pass. Lovely. It was incredibly warm and there was barely a breeze!

Darrell, Scott and I on top of Avalanche Peak
A friendly kea, an alpine parrot, greeted us when we arrived. He was waiting to be fed, and often is, despite the many signs telling people not to feed these birds. They can be a true menace, and will chew on backpacks and bike seats now that they are used to people. 

Kea on Avalanche Peak in Arthur's Pass National Park
We took a different trail down which wasn’t quite as steep, but we were all pretty exhausted at the end. By the time we staggered back down our laundry was toasty and then we found a sweet place to camp along the river with no one else in sight.

View from our campsite the next morning
There is a crazy race that traverses the width of New Zealand that was going to enter the Pass soon after we left. Participants begin on the west coast and run, bike, kayak, and run and bike some more, until eventually reaching Christchurch on the east coast.  The winners can cross in less than 11 hours. Phew!

Instead of running and biking, we drove our van to Hokitika (again!) and worked at the library (again!). We picked up Thomas the German hitchhiker as we left town and drove to Okarito, a place my sister enjoyed when she was here on her epic bike ride. Okarito is the setting for the “The Bone People” by Keri Hulme. In fact, Keri still lives in Okarito and may have been throwing a stick on the beach to her dog, but I don’t know that for sure. Just a guess. There seemed to be a lot of people throwing sticks for their dogs at the beach that day…

We left Okarito early the next morning and beat the rush to Franz Josef glacier, one of the tourist hotspots in New Zealand.  Our walk close to the glacier terminus was pleasantly uncrowded.
Darrell and Scott looking at glacial features
Seeing subtropical ferns and glacial ice in the same view is one of the wonderful aspects of New Zealand's glaciers.
Subtropical foliage in front of Franz Josef glacier
Fox Glacier was just a bit further down the road, and we stopped at the DOC office to get our passes to stay at Welcome Flat on the Copeland Track.  We didn’t tour Fox Glacier as we wanted to get started on our 17 km hike into the hot springs. The sand flies in the parking lot were TERRIBLE so it was miserable trying to pack up our backpacks while constantly swatting at flies.  Scott is zen-like about bugs, but I pretty much go ballistic and swing at anything that moves. Darrell helped us get out of there as fast as possible! And then got some concentrated work done while we were hiking.

Scott and I were eager for our first backpack!
The track was mostly in the woods, but we got some views of the river.  Soon after we started it began to rain so you can see some mist in the picture.

View of the river from a stream crossing
We were ready to get into the warm springs when we got to the hut and campground at Welcome Flats!
There are three pools, all pretty shallow, and water can be diverted from the source to serve different pools.

Next morning's view of Welcome Flat Hot Springs
The weather cleared enough the next day we could see the mountains behind the hut.

The hut at Welcome Flat
Scott was the only camper, and was able to set up his tent under a ledge so he was completely dry and didn't have to listen to anyone snore. The hut had room for 44 trampers but there were less than half that. The mattresses were just on the floor in two long rows, so if it had been crowded, the only space you got was the length and width of the cot-size mattress!

The return hike took us on the same track, and we recrossed all the fun swing bridges we had gotten on the way in.

Scott crossing one of the swing bridges
All in all, the hike was fantastic. It was just the right level of difficulty and had beautiful views. We enjoyed visiting with other hikers at the hut and in the hot springs. When we reached the end, it was already after 3 pm so we didn’t drive too far to camp. And who showed up to swim “nudey rudey” at Lake Paringa but Mikaela and Donald from Cairns whom we had met on the track! So we visited with them over some crackers, cheese, and NZ cider. Yum.

Unfortunately, the Lake Paringa DOC site filled up and Scott’s tent got hemmed in by noisy campers.  We won’t mention any nationalities here, ahem, but it isn’t Americans that get the bad name in NZ…

The next morning we took a short walk to Monroe Beach where we were hoping to see the rare Fiordland Crested Penguin. We didn’t see the penguin but it was a lovely walk anyway. We had to boogey a bit in order to get Scott to Wanaka in time to catch a bus to Queenstown, so we skipped all the waterfalls as we went over Haast Pass, but we did go to the Blue Pools for lunch when we got over the pass.

Darrell and Scott eating lunch along the river at Blue Pools
The last view of the day shows what New Zealand sand flies did to Scott's feet. We wouldn't want you to think we didn't have to suffer a little for our amazing experiences in this country!

The cold water soothes, but doesn't eliminate the intense itching!