Friday, 23 December 2016

Doubtful Sound

Back in Te Anau, and with a very sore bottom, I was waiting for a weather window again so I could kayak Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound was actually given its name by Captain Cook, who doubted it would be navigable by sail.  This was because he thought the wind rarely blew from the East in New Zealand (it is usually a Westerly or North-Westerly) making it doubtful one could exit the Sound after entering the depths of it.

Doubtful Sound is actually much bigger than Milford Sound, but one could argue slightly less spectacular.  However, Doubtful Sound has a wilderness quality to it.  It really is out of reach for the average traveller.  It's a long journey to get there, with few accommodation options, if any, once you are there.  As a result, a trip there gives you a sense of wild New Zealand you perhaps might not get at Milford Sound.  This is precisely why I chose to kayak there and camp overnight in the forest.

Doubtful Sound in cloud looked spectacular.

The Sound in clear conditions was probably more photogenic, but when there in person, the cloud really added to the atmosphere.

Again, I was fortunate enough to do this trip early in the season, before getting overly-popular.  It was easy to book at late notice, which was handy because I could check the weather forecast and not go on blind faith that the weather would be OK.  The weather had been unpredictable in this part of New Zealand even a week in advance, a couple of days out was usually okay.

The team.

I was joined on the trip by two Taiwanese chaps, who were brothers, one living in Queenstown.  They were great fun and very personable.  As well as our guide - a young Kiwi - a German girl made up the rest of the party.  It was a small group, perfect.

They were good fun, the brothers Taiwan.

I was picked-up from Te Anau and it was a short drive to Manapouri, then a 45 minute ferry ride across Lake Manapouri, and then a bus ride across to the Sound that took an hour and a half on a very rough road, hardly surprising given its remoteness.

The first day was cloudy, but in a very mystical and beautiful way.  The bus stopped at the top of a mountain pass and a magnificent view of the Sound, part draped in cloud, was laid-out before us.  The same view the next day was absolutely clear, but the cloud on day one made it seem like an almost fairytale place.  In fact, much of New Zealand feels this way to me, journeying through has a fantasy-land aura about it.

I'm not much of an adrenalin-seeker, but I do like an adventure, so kayaking seemed to fit this bill.  I had cycled, hiked, and run my way around New Zealand, but hadn't travelled under my own steam on water.

On each day, we were to kayak for about 5 hours, and it was surprising how tiring this was, it definitely caught-up with me.  It was a peaceful experience in pristine wilderness, and the vast majority of the time it was only our group out there.  On occasion we were to be joined by curious dolphins and Fjordland penguins swimming in the water.  The dolphins would surface right alongside our kayaks, interested in the novelty of them.

On top of the penguins and the dolphins, even before we entered the water as we packed the canoes on shore, a baby seal waddled out of the water along the beach of stones and into the trees.  We were all concerned, as it was without its mother, but apparently this is quite normal behaviour for seal pups.  I was never aware that seals ever ventured into the forest, let alone baby seals doing it on their own.

Our home for the night, in the forest with the sandflies.

We camped in one of the few flat areas of forest available in the Sound, nestled within the trees, it was quite difficult to find and once we were there absolutely swarming with sandflies.  The main communal tent had seats and a net around it, but still a few made their way in.  It was not for those without a sense of adventure or a tolerance for discomfort, for sure, but made for a great experience.

Looking out from camp at the end of day one.

After a bit to eat, it was time to hit the hay inside our tents.  My watch had stopped working that day, so I had no idea when to get up.  I would normally rise with the sun, but I wanted to be up a little before sunrise.  With this in mind, I woke up at a time that I felt was right and had some breakfast while looking at the Sound and the stars in the darkness.  As it turned out, I reckon I still had a few hours until sunrise, goodness knows what time it actually was.

Our camp was some distance away from where we needed to get back to, and with a little more exploration, we paddled at a reasonable speed, first to a gorgeous sandbank for a food stop, and then back to the canoe shed.

Not a bad place for a cup of tea and some scroggin.

The group had been a chatty bunch for most of the trip, but now everyone was strangely silent because we were simply exhausted and bugged-out by sandflies.  It came as a relief to get on the bus and away from those little blighters.  Still, it was an exceptional trip, and yet again a tourist activity that never felt like I was a tourist at all. In this day and age, it would seem improbable that one could go to a place so beautiful and it be so quiet and unspoiled by visitors.  It was a real privilege to bear witness to such natural splendor once again.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Milford Sound

Kepler Track done and dusted in two days, I now had to face one of the most difficult ascents of the trip to get to Milford Sound.

In total, it was about 120Km from Te Anau to Milford Sound.  The road there was fairly flat up until the divide and the start of the other end of the Routeburn Track, and then that's where the real climb began.

Actually, I knew that the real test would come coming out of Milford Sound the next day, as the climb was less steady.  The profile for the road reveals what I am talking about, but it was still a harsh climb on the way in also, especially with 75Km hiking in my legs over the last two days.

Cycling profile from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

In preparation for the tough couple of days of cycling, I left some of my camping equipment in the hostel in Te Anau, knowing that I'd have to go back there anyway.  I think this made a massive difference.  I probably shed only about 5-7kg, but it was amazing how much it helped.  I felt much fresher than expected.

As the climb started in earnest, any tiredness I was experiencing started to get pushed to the back of my mind as the exhilaration of the road began to take over.  The road into Milford Sound is supposed to be one of the best drives in the world by car, so you can imagine how majestic it seems on a bike, and how small you feel amidst the towering mountains all around you.

I passed several tour buses that were stopping in specific places for photo opportunities, receiving stares of disbelief aplenty.  I stopped a few times myself to take in the surroundings and take some photos.  It seemed as if every time I stopped, I was joined by this American couple from California.  The better-half of the couple was obviously quite keen on taking lots of photos, so I usually left before she finished.  With the head start, by the time the next point of interest came around, they had caught up, and the process repeated itself a couple of times after that.  They were both very nice, the man fascinated with my journey, as most men I met usually were.  His wife was typically concerned with my safety.

The other side of the tunnel and my jaw was on the floor.

Right at the top of the climb in and out of Milford Sound, there is a tunnel, about 1.2Km long, through the mountain.  As I waited for a green light to go through, I was joined by some friendly Kea again, looking very curious about my bike.  I expected the tunnel to be lit, and although it was a bit, it really hardly helped at all.  The tunnel was also much more narrow than I had envisioned, and even with my lights on it made it feel claustrophobic and dangerous with cars passing close to me and a bumpy surface beneath.  Fortunately, the Milford Road service people saw me enter the tunnel, stopped the traffic briefly and then offered to drive behind me with their lights on and chaperone me through.  Their intervention was most welcome.  They also said to wait for them on the way back up the following day and they could drive me and my bike through, as it would take much longer to pass through the tunnel going up hill.

Lots of Kea, and they were really intrigued by my bike.

As I exited the tunnel, the real splendor of the Milford Road showed itself.  The place was an absolute wonderland.  As it had rained recently, there were still temporary waterfalls cascading down sheer mountain cliffs, and the mountain peaks capped in snow rose so steeply from the ground, it almost hurt my neck to look up to them.  

The Kea joined me again, this time in a gang of about seven birds.  To make the experience even more memorable, the Kea - obviously intrigued by my bike - flew with me as I rode down the mountain, squawking excitedly as they soared alongside me.

I still had about 15Km to go to get to the Sound, but now it was all downhill in truly the most amazing scenery it is possible to imagine.  I sped down with a big smile on my face, checked into the Milford Lodge (the only accommodation in Milford Sound), and decided to sit at the mouth of the Sound, taking it all in.  All the cruises for the day had disembarked, so I had to wait for the morning anyway.

The tide was out, so I sat on a washed-up log for about an hour or so as the sun went down.  As I sat there on my own, I was delighted to see a dolphin porpoising out of the water really close to shore.  With perfect weather and the perfect backdrop as well, it really was quite a special moment.

The next day, I went on a cruise around the Sound.  Again, perhaps because it still wasn't peak season, even this managed not to feel very touristy.  I like what New Zealand has done with Milford Sound; despite the temptation to have lots of hotels and shops, they seem to have resisted it and the place feels more tranquil because of it, even if there are a lot of boats and light aircraft around.  In fact, the boats and planes give an impressive sense of scale to the place when you look out across the water.

Once I finished the cruise, I had some work to do.  It was unlikely I would make it all the way back to Te Anau, as I left the harbour at midday and I also wanted to hike up to lake Marian.  This trail began 1Km off the Milford road, about 30Km from Milford Sound, and was not a small hike.  I planned to stop and camp at one of the many DOC campsites further down the Milford road.

People kayaking near Lady Bowen Falls

The climb out of Milford Sound was something I was both relishing and dreading at the same time.  About 900 metres over 15Km is quite a stiff ask.  I found myself in good rhythm, though, and despite it being tough, I was confident that the climb wasn't going to defeat me.

I stopped about a kilometre short of the tunnel to take in the view.  The combination of exhaustion and a stiff cleat stuck in the pedal meant that, as I stopped, I toppled over to one side and fell off.  I was barely moving at the time, but my right hip took a painful blow on the tarmac.  It was the only time I fell off the bike on my whole trip.  As I picked myself up, who was there to help me?  Yep, it was that couple from California again.  I was to bump into them again at various times on the way down until I got to the Lake Marian hike, following the same pattern as when we kept meeting each other on the way into Milford Sound.

After taking some pictures, I jumped back on the bike and was offered a lift by a bit of a surfer-looking dude and his girlfriend in a bit of an old-looking car.  They said I could hold onto the window while they drag me along.  That seemed a smidge dangerous, and besides, my pride was forcing me to get to the top under my own volition, so I declined.

After about 10 minutes or so, I approached the entrance to the tunnel.  I was hoping the Milford road workers would be there to give me a lift through the tunnel, as they said they would.  I could see one of their trucks, which was a big relief.  They were there already seeing to a motorist whose car was overheating due to the climb.  It was the surfer dude.  As it turned out, my engine coped with the ascent a little better than the car's engine.  After they were helped, I threw my bike onto the truck and they gave me a lift through the tunnel.  Much appreciated, as it wasn't especially safe going through uphill on my bike, and I would have significantly held-up traffic.

About 10Km or so after the tunnel, I reached the start of the Lake Marian track.  The hike was quite steep and about 4 hours return for me.  Lake Marian was splendid reward for the effort, a high altitude lake with surrounding mountains.  I lingered there for a while before returning back to my bike.  I was a little anxious that the Kea hadn't messed-around with it.  There were plenty around in the car park as I left pulling at the rubber seals on the windscreens of cars with their sharp beaks.

Lake Marian

Bike in tact, I had about 4 hours until sunset.  As always, I pushed a little further than I intended until my choice of places to pitch a tent were rather few and far between.  I only had 25Km to go to get to Te Anau and a nice relaxing hostel, but it was well and truly dark, and I was well and truly tired.

I stopped in a camping area with very little grass, lots of rocks and stones, and no shelter in high winds.  I somehow pitched the tent, but didn't bother changing.  I just accepted it would be one of those miserable camping nights, and it was.  Very uncomfortable, hardly any sleep and a big mistake not to change, as the saddle sores that were developing were made much worse by sleeping in dirty clothes (do not make this mistake, always change clothes at the end of the day).  A very sore backside was the result and a painful 25Km back into Te Anau.

It was a relief to get back to Te Anau, and again, I had a couple of days of bad weather to wait out there before I could go to Doubtful sound.  This was just as well, because my bottom was so sore, I don't think I could've have ridden the bike for a couple of days anyway.  I recuperated, ate lots of food and was ready for a new experience and a new method of travel, kayaking in the wilderness of Doubtful Sound.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Kepler Track

One of New Zealand's great walks, the Kepler Track had been one of the first things on my to do list when I first planned to go to New Zealand, as it was more accessible and doable out of season when compared to the possibly more famous Milford Track.  As always, it didn't disappoint.

It was a tricky business squeezing-in 3 main trips in the Fjordland into weather-windows of good weather in the wettest part of New Zealand.  I managed things pretty well.  The first challenge was to figure-out how I could first do the Kepler Track and then have two good-weather days in order to get to Milford Sound and back.  I decided to risk the Kepler Track with a slightly dodgy weather forecast and go to Milford Sound on the two best days forecast for the week. This meant, however, doing the whole track in 2 days.

The Kepler Track is 60Km long, but I also had about a 5Km hike to get to the starting point.  So with the extra 5Km on the way back also, I needed to hike a total of approximately 70Km in 2 days.  This was not easy, especially when it is on mountainous terrain with lots of steep ascents.

I started as early as I possibly could, and the forecast for the first day was mixed, supposedly sunny spells, with the odd spot of rain and possibly snow on higher ground. The day before, I was safely in my hostel because of torrential rain, and this rain fell as snow in the mountains.  I was a little worried that this might have made the hike a little dangerous.

The track went right along the ridge, very exposed in bad weather, but awesome for views.

Luckily, there was no snow on the mountain passes before the downpour, so the fresh snow simply made the mountains and ridgelines more spectacular-looking.  The weather also lived-up to its forecast, with enough sunny spells and breaks in the clouds for the scenery to open-up all around me.  On the long traverse across the ridge, it was simply amazing.

I was making good time, but still had plenty of time to savour my surroundings and even do a little side-trip to a secluded waterfall.  Again, I saw few others attempting the hike, but about 6 or 7 hikers and a team of park rangers converged at the end of the day to spend a night in the same hut I was staying in.  The rangers were preparing the huts for the start of the Great Walks season, which was beginning after another couple of weeks.  Teams of them basically hike out to the huts and service them, reconnecting the gas supply, opening-up flush toilets, making sure they were all clean and tidy, that sort of thing.  Not a bad job, I reckon.

You can just about see an emergency hut camouflaged in the foreground. 

Every other hiker I met was doing the track over 4 days, which meant they had started in the god-awful weather the day previously.  However, I knew that day 2 on this hike for me wasn't going to be too pleasant.  The forecast was for rain all day again, which I knew already, but I had planned the hike so I would be traversing the ridge in the best weather, and that worked out very well.  All I had to do was put up with getting very wet in the trees on the way back down.

In heavy snow, I reckon the trail would have been a little hazardous.

I do quite enjoy forests in the rain, but 35Km in the rain was always going to be a little miserable.  Towards the end of the hike, being cold, wet, and exhausted, saying that the last few kilometres dragged a little would be quite the understatement.  Still, a degree of misery is part of the appeal of long hikes, runs, and bikes, and this year in particular, I have got quite used to this feeling.

Another stunning hike done, I now had a weather window of two days for my trip to Milford Sound.  I was hoping that using different muscles on the bike would mean that the exertion of the hike wouldn't affect me too much, as I had over 120Km to do to get there with some of the most severe climbs of the trip as well.  By this time, though, I could feel myself getting stronger, not a surprise given what I was putting my body through.  Turns out, there was plenty just off the road to keep me distracted from the physical effort.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Queenstown to Te Anau

When I arrived in Queenstown after my escapades in Glenorchy, my body was shot to pieces.  I arrived in the evening after 6 o'clock and contemplated just doing nothing the next day, but realised I had no food and I was a significant distance away from an affordable supermarket, due to Queenstown's tourist rates, so I had to leave.  Still, I set myself a modest target of only 50Km to a small town called Kingston, where there was a campsite I could pitch my tent.

I set off later than normal and only had about 10Km to go to hit a supermarket so I could get some provisions and a big lunch.  I felt slightly more energised after woofing-down some sushi, a pizza, and some chocolate and decided to check the weather forecast while I waited for my stomach to settle.

I had a problem, I was facing a stiff headwind on that day passing south along the shores of Lake Wakatipu, but more worryingly gale force headwinds the day after, and more worryingly still, gale force winds and torrential rain the day after that.  With no hostels between me and Te Anau (about 170Km away), I was torn between two options; have a big day and have about 60Km into the wind the next day, or wait out the bad weather in a campsite, in a small town with little to do, losing a couple of days in the process.  There was no contest really, I had to push through, despite my already tired body.

Into the wind, but at least the road out of Queenstown to Kingston was pretty.

Instead of a gentle 50Km, I pushed 120Km into the wind to get to a campsite in Mossburn.  Because of the winds and the fact I started later than normal, I got there as the sun was setting, one of the latest days cycling of the trip.  I do rather enjoy cycling at sunrise and sunset, however, particularly in areas of few people, it often has a beauty and peace you don't find at other parts of the day.

I met a fellow cycle tourer in the campsite.  He was only doing a circuit around the bottom of the South Island, but had his sights set on much greater things in the future. He was Argentinian and had cycled quite a lot in his own country, but was planning an around the world trip.  He was an interesting guy and we had quite a long chat in the camp kitchen while we were preparing and eating dinner.  This chat ended rather abruptly as 5 Chinese tourists came in and began shouting at each other continuously for about 30 minutes about who knows what.  They then proceeded to shout at each other once I settled-down to sleep, as well as moving their campervans to several different places in order to find the perfect place to park.  The concept of lowering your voice in consideration of others didn't seem to have taken hold in their collective mind.

I slept OK, despite the heated debates over parking, and woke to a magnificent sunrise and a very unique-looking sky.  The reason it was so special, however, was that the wind was blowing.  It was gusting from the west, and guess what direction I was travelling?

The cloud formations in the sky were strange, but beautiful all day due to the high winds.

As any cyclist will tell you, headwinds are our greatest nemesis, I would take steep hills any day.  Headwinds are dispiriting and exhausting for a number of reasons.  Not only is it simply physically harder, but it it crushes you mentally.  Flat, and even downhill sections become drudgery and hard-labour; there is no respite, no crest of a hill to aim for and then relax going down the opposite side.  Getting out of your seat to pump the pedals becomes counter-productive as you just create more wind-resistance.  This in turn makes your butt sore as you stay in the seat for longer.  The wind also can make you cold, and tends to cause your lips to get dry and sore.  Headwinds really cause the perfect storm of suffering on a bike, and when they're gusting, pedaling safely on the road without falling off or veering into traffic becomes another issue.

The 60Km from Mossburn to Te Anau was without doubt the hardest section of the trip. 60Km would normally take me about 3 hours, but instead took nearly seven.  It's not as if I rested much in that time either, as there were no towns or villages to stop at.  On one stretch in particular, where the mountains gave way to a vast plain, I could hardly pedal and the the blustery nature the wind started to make it dangerous, screwing with my balance on the bike.  Completely demoralised, at one stage I wondered whether I'd make it to Te Anau at all because I thought I might have to get off the bike and walk most of the 60Km.  Fortunately, however, as I hit more hills and mountains, I became slightly more sheltered from the worst of the wind.

It was a genuinely hellish day that I was glad to see the back of.  I arrived at the hostel in Te Anau safe in the knowledge I wouldn't be doing anything the next day because of the dismal weather forecast.  Sure enough, the next day it rained all day, so it was worth the effort.  I spent most of this day with my feet up eating chocolate, not feeling in the least bit guilty for doing absolutely nothing and piling in the calories.

I was again to run into Alex, as he was passing through with my thermos flask that I left at his place.  He was on his way to Milford Sound when news came through that the road was closed because of avalanche risk.  It was possibly opening later on in the day, so he came to the hostel I was staying at to put his feet up for a while and get more information.  Luckily for him, the road opened-up later on in the day, after a few planned explosions to set off controlled avalanches so the road was safe.

Te Anau was a pleasant little town, and all in all, I spent more time there than anywhere else on my New Zealand adventure.  It provided a good base for a few things I wanted to get done.  I had 2 main things in mind when I arrived, and that was the Kepler Track (a 60Km Great Walk), and a trip to Milford Sound and a boat cruise or kayak.  I had originally set my mind on kayaking Milford Sound, but then changed my mind as I learned a bit about Doubtful Sound.

Doubtful Sound is perhaps the less spectacular of the two major Sounds in the Fjordland, but it is much bigger and more remote, and therefore sees far less tourists because of it.  I thought this might be a better place for a kayaking trip.

Slightly scuppering my plans all along, though, was the weather.  I needed good weather for two days to make it to Milford Sound and back, and at least reasonably good weather for both Doubtful Sound and the Kepler Track.  I just about nailed it, waiting some days for rain to clear, first up was the Kepler Track, which is the subject of the next blog.