Te Anau and the road to Milford Sound South Island 08 and 09 December 2007.
23 Dec 2007
After first buying a newspaper and a box of 12 'Steinlager Pure' bottles of beer; Sylvia's favourite non additive, (unrivalled purity discovered only in NZ beer), we slipped out of Te Anau at 9am whilst all the long distance bus trip passengers heading for Milford Sound were having their breakfast.
Our first stop was at Lake Mistletoe, signed as a 45 minute round trip walk. We were soon at the lake which was in a beautiful setting, and then the walk took us through an area of brush before joining the road. As we walked back we took photographs by the side of Lake Te Anau. Continuing onwards we passed by Te Anau Downs where we would catch the boat for our walk on Tuesday, and then the road branched away from the lakeside. The ground on our left became much flatter and we took photographs of Eglinton River as it wound its way between the mountains surrounded by all shades of wild lupin. A few buses past us by so when we reached the camping area of Mackay Creek, the clan name of Sylvia, we pulled up and enjoyed coffee and biscuits in our van amongst great scenery.
By the time we moved on the buses were well on their way to be in time for the 1pm boat journey on Milford Sound. We stopped and viewed the 'mirror lake' with just a few others. They are named such because of the crystal clear reflection when the wind has ceased. Part of the small thin lake was reflective, and we do get another chance to view the mirror effect on the way back.
The next stop was at an information area with facilities the buses will stop at. One notice board captured the problems of the national parks. 'New Zealand broke away from an ancient land mass called Gondwanaland, about 90 million years ago, long before mammals had evolved. Isolated, New Zealand became a bird paradise. Without predators many birds began living at ground level. Birds such as the Weka, Kiwi, and Kakapo lost the power of flight entirely. The first humans arrived in Fiordland about 1200 years ago. People brought with them predatory animals such as rats, cats and stoats. In a mere moment in geological time they have destroyed much of the Fiordland native bird life that has evolved over the millions of years'.
So there you have it, the main problem. We have seen lots of areas where intensive baiting and trapping is taking place. Although stoats seem to be the main problem in most areas, there is also a problem with deer, rabbits and possums that eat the vegetation. (There are estimated to be 70 million possums). We also read about the avalanche warning systems and details of the building of the Homer Tunnel which gives road access to Milford Sound.
Our next stop was at Lake Gunn, another nature walk of 45 minutes through ancient forest with information boards along the way. It is surprising how much we have learned and yet there is always something new to add to our knowledge. The lake was bonny, as we expected, as everything here seems to be. Eventually we arrived at The Divide, (known as such because this is where a big glacier split into three), to find a lot of young people in the big car park waiting for their transport back to Te Anau. They had walked the Routeburn Track, (another of the famous few day walking journeys), towards our direction and had completed; tired but happy. We fell for the journey which said 'Key Summit Alpine Walk, 3 hours return'. You would think that by now we would expect steep up hill paths, especially with clues such as 'alpine' in the title.
The first 1 ¼ hours of steep walking brought us to a fork on the path; the left path going to the Howden Hut, the first or last nights accommodation on the Routeburn Track depending on your direction of travel. We carried on upwards. So far we had seen glimpses through the trees of high mountains to our left. Soon we were above the bush line and the panorama around us was awe inspiring. About a half hour later we were at the top of our path, and reading a notice which informed, Key Summit, alpine walk; half an hour. Well, if you think I have sweated so much on a climb in this heat to just spend a half hour in such a magnificent place, you are misguided. It was like being on top of the world. Across the way was Mount Christina; below this was a lake in a hanging valley.
I joked with some walkers that after taking all my photographs of the other mountains, tomorrow I would have to climb the other side to take pictures of Key Summit, a place where 3 rivers flow to different coasts; the south, west and east coasts. It really was superb sitting on the summit, (3,046 feet above sea level), looking around at all of the grandeur whilst sitting on a seat provided. Across the way Mount Christina was almost 200 feet higher and the hanging valley not much below us. It was hard to imagine that the glacier had been over 50 metres above us; almost as high as Mt Christina.
On the way down we decided, because I wanted to, to visit the first hut on the Routeburn Track. It was all down hill which meant that on the way back we had to walk up hill to join our track down to the Divide car park. When we reached the Howden Hut, by another beautiful lake, and the sand flies started to bite Sylvia and me, I was not the most popular walker on this track. All in all our van had been at the Divide for over 5 hours. On our drive to our camp site we stopped at a main roadside viewing spot and the magnificent sight was poor compared to the view of the same scene from on high.
We arrived at the historic Gunns Camp about 7pm very tired but happy; tomorrows walk is to be by a lake. To our surprise, a massive bus carrying mostly Brits, pulled in by our van. What a view they must get whilst travelling on the top deck of this bus. They all pitched tents, had their evening meal and by 7.30am the next day had gone for the 9am boat which provided a free continental breakfast whilst travelling along Milford Sound.
At the Gunn Camp Museum we read about the early settlers at Saint Martins Bay which was made into a port in 1870, and a harbour master and a handful of settlers were sent their. By 1872 they were starving and in dire straits. Help finally arrived and they hung on but by 1888 there were only 2 families still living at St Martins Bay. The stories were very sad. The tale about Donald Sutherland was interesting. He lived in isolation in a small house he built at Milford Sound, doing what he liked, if he liked, and his manner seemed to be deliberately rough and uncouth. On one of his active days he discovered the Sutherland Falls, New Zealand's highest falls in the world. When he married a wealthy widow he got a shock when he found he was expected to work. They became the first people to care for travellers visiting the area.
The Gunns Camp was also famous for catering for travellers and put up a lot of the workers whilst the Homer Tunnel was being built. Until 2 ½ years ago the descendents of Davie Gunn ran the camp which still uses the original cabins. Davie Gunn was the first to take tourists on tramping holidays in this area. The present owners are very welcoming and helpful and the many humorous signs about the camp add to its character. This is a camp to be recommended, but take Sandfly repellent.
We drove a further 5 miles to the end of the road, which is the start of the Hollyford Track, another famous walk, but we chose the walk to the Humboldt waterfall. Then we drove back almost to the main road for our lake walk. The first 20 minutes took us uphill where we could view a fast tumbling river. Then it continued past a sign pointing upwards to Lake Marion. I had seen a similar sign yesterday at the top of our alpine walk, pointing across the way. We were heading for the hanging valley below Mount Christina. This came as a shock to both of us. Our path mostly followed the courses of old streams, taking a detour when the old waterfalls became too much, soon re-joining the loose rocky up hill course.
When we reached Lake Marion, on yet another hot dry day, we strode over the boulders to the lake side, took off our boots and soaked our bare feet in the water whilst we ate our picnic. Some people actually swam in this snow fed mountain lake; I kept taking my feet out to let them warm up, before again enjoying the coldness of the lake. Over by other picnickers was a Kea, (mountain parrot), which did not come over to us until we had eaten. Wise choice, if he thought I would let Sylvia carry my lunch up that long hard hilly path, just to feed a parrot, he had another think coming.
Before leaving I clambered over the loose rocky hillside to get far enough down the lake to take a photograph back over the vegetation towards Key Summit. I'm not sure where about on the picture Key Summit is but it must be there some where. When we at last reached ground level we were well and truly whacked. Our road journey now took us through the Homer Tunnel which we reached just before 6 pm. The view on leaving the tunnel is like joining another world.
We made our way slowly around the steep hairpin bends and were glad to arrive at our Milford Sound site for the night. Tomorrow is for sailing; there are no steep mountain walks on Milford Sound. I hope I haven't spoken too soon.