Thursday, April 26, 2012

Designed to Separate Tourists from their Money

            On my way over to Christchurch, I spent a few days in Queenstown, which is possibly the one town in the South Island that is guaranteed to inspire strong feelings in the people who visit it.   Not necessarily good feelings, but strong ones.   Before coming to New Zealand, I had heard about the town from two different people.   A friend of my father’s told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should go there!’   An Iceberg Lodge coworker told me ‘It’s like a big resort – you should stay away!’   I certainly have to agree with the resort part.   Queenstown does seem like a big resort – sort of like a ski town without the skiing.   There’s even a chairlift/gondola going up the side of the mountain near town.   There are also ton of outdoor shops, restaurants, pubs, cafes, and booking offices for adventure activities. Queenstown also reminds me of Glasgow, in the fact that there is a lively commercial district, with lots of shops and pubs, and also the prominent lack of old buildings in the downtown.  With over a million visitors a year, Queenstown can afford to have a commercial district that feels like it belongs to a much larger city.   The town also feels strangely international, since there are a huge amount of tourists, so its possible to hear three or four different languages being spoken all within earshot of one street-side bench.   Unlike Glasgow, the town is incredibly expensive, and Queenstown doesn’t even have the excuse of a bad exchange rate.   And by expensive, I mean that I bought a brand-name merino wool baselayer at 60% off, and it still cost well over a hundred dollars.   Worth it, definitely, but still a little ridiculous.    All together, there are a ton of things to do in Queenstown – but none of them are very cheap.    Also, there are two casinos just in the downtown.   It’s like Queenstown was designed specifically to separate tourists from their money.

            One thing turned out to be cheap.   On the invitation of my hostel’s manager, I went down to the local Irish pub and jammed with a guitarist there for a few hours, for which the bar comp’ed my drinks.   That was pretty awesome, despite the fact that none of the bar partons appeared to be paying us any attention.   Some gigs just go that way, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to play with another musician since I went to Haast, and it was a lot of fun.   I am also happy that I’m visiting Queenstown in the comparative lull between the end of summer and the start of the ski season.   The hostel I stayed at – Alpine Lodge – was very nice, and came complete with its own resident cat, named Greg.   Greg had his own chair in the lounge; humans could use it, but if the cat wanted to lie down, the human had better be prepared to make his or her lap available.   Also at the hostel were half a dozen people on working holiday permits, staying at the hostel while they looked for work and/or accommodation elsewhere in town.   From what I understand, the job market going into the off-season wasn’t looking so good – this is partially based on the fact that most of the job-seekers had, in desperation, applied to work at a nearby call centre that sells funeral packages.   In that light, working as a housekeeper in Haast seems a positively scintillating life choice. 


            There seem to be more than the usual number of Asian tourists in Queenstown – I’m not quite sure why.   The retail shops here seems to be more motivated than most in their efforts to specifically cater to this market – especially in their selection of cosmetics and health supplements.   As in, most of the gift shops stock hand creams with prominently listed ingredients like placenta, and colostrum (both from sheep, according to the label).   As far as I am concerned, those are two words that shouldn’t be used outside of a hospital, or a birthing class.    I am also not clear on what the purported health benefits would be for smearing something like that onto your skin, and I’m a little afraid to ask.   

            Also in Queenstown, are a huge number of local booking offices for tourism companies.   In the age of internet bookings, the offices seem to be deserted an awful lot of the time – every time I passed one, it seemed like the customer service reps were disconsolately staring out of their door.   There are an unlikely large number of bungee jump and skydive operators in town; I am not sure whey anyone would want to pay money for this sort of thing, which probably means that I don’t quite understand the sport anyway.

            I did get to see someone else bungee jumping, which was interesting.   This was during a raft trip on the Kawarau River, and our route took us under the AJ Hackett Kawarau Bridge Bungee Jump, which is supposedly the oldest commercial bungee-jumping operation anywhere in New Zealand.   The platform looks to be maybe 60 or 70 meters above the river.    Alerted by the bungee operators, our group of rafts pulled over into an eddy to watch the next jump.   The bungee-er did a very graceful swan dive off the platform, free-falling for maybe two seconds before the elastic of the bungee started to slow his fall.   He bounced up and down on the end of the tether a couple of times, and then was lowered headfirst into a yellow inflatable raft, where the bungee operaters began untying the bungee rope from his legs.   It actually looked more graceful, and potentially more fun, than I had expected.   However, at $180 per 3-second jump, bungee-jumping is undoubtedly one of the most efficient ways to spent money in Queenstown.

Kawarau Bungee, photo courtesy Wikipedia

            The most scenic part of the Kawarau river that we rafted was a canyon early on, which was filmed as the River Anduin in the Lord of the Rings movie.   For a film sequence that is not terribly lengthy, the film crew were apparently shooting  in a lot of locations – this is now the fourth river I have come across that is purported to be the River Anduin.   For my money, the Kawarau has a pretty good claim – the canyon is where the Argonath statues were digitally inserted; that’s pretty definitive.   The Argonath canyon is a lot smaller than as portrayed by Peter Jackson, and it’s a little less impressive to think of that film sequence now that I know that the AJ Hackett bungee jump platform is lurking just out of the frame.   

            The raft trip was about three hours, and very nice.   The canyons were pretty; we saw a lot of Paradise shelducks, and the rapids weren’t too bumpy.   We did end up with a backseat driver in my boat, who didn’t seem to have a very high level of confidence that our guide could actually steer the raft without help.    One of the nicest thigns about this rafting company was that they had a sauna waiting for us when we got back and changed out of our wetsuits.   It felt a lot like visiting the Iceberg lodge’s drying room, except without heaps and heaps of wet gear dangling all over the place.    

Christchurch Botanic Gardens

           Earlier today in Christchurch I went to the Botanic Gardens and rented a kayak to paddle up and down the Avon river.   Even for a public park, there were a surprisingly large number of Mallard ducks on the river, all of whom seemed abjectly terrified of my eight-foot plastic boat.   This seems strange, since the ducks have had all of the tourist season to get used to the boats paddling around.   The ducks were still suspicious; they would take off in noisy, panicked groups, fly twenty or thirty meters ahead, and drop back onto the river, only to take off again in a hurry as I paddled closer.   

Herding ducks on the Avon

            After returning the boat, I spent some time walking around Christchurch, or the parts of it that aren’t still cordoned off.    Being a pedestrian in the city can be difficult due to the number of construction and demolition sites, most of which have quite understandably sprawled across the sidewalks and parking lanes surrounding their building.   Walking west from my hostel, the sideways on both sides of the street are blocked off, necessitating a significant detour onto the side streets if you want to get anywhere.   The older, historic buildings have suffered particularly; most are in the process of being rebuilt or demolished, along with most of the downtown’s skyscrapers.   This includes not only Christchurch Cathedral, but many of the city’s old churches, as well as the Canterbury Museum, the Christchurch Performing Arts Center, and the Christchurch art gallery.   At one of the gates into the red zone, two men in construction hats were chatting with a man in a Gandalf-style robe and pointy hat.   I’m not quite sure what he was doing there - but considering what the city’s been through, I think a little wizardly aid would come in very handy.

            One thing that has sprung up in Christchurch in the wake of the earthquakes are all sorts of temporary structures, based out of garden sheds, shipping containers, converted camper-vans, large tents, and two large geodesic domes that look like Tievak versions of the Epcot golf ball (this is the current performing arts space.)   I got dinner tonight from a Thai restaurant run out of a shipping container that is parked on the concrete pad from what used to be their restaurant.    In fact, is has become so common for displaced restaurants to move into shipping containers that it seems to permeate the Christchurch vocabulary.   As in ‘Then you turn left at the second container on Beally Avenue’, or ‘It’s a big place; they have six or seven containers.’

Butterfly, Botanic Gardens

            So, a quick life update before I finish this post: I am flying out of New Zealand tomorrow, and will be spending a few days in West Virginia visiting family and friends before getting back to Alaska late next week.   I’ll be in the Seward/Moose Pass/Cooper Landing area visiting Alaska friends and family, before heading out to the Iceberg Lodge sometime in mid-May.   My car is still buried in snow, though my cousin reports that the car’s roof is now visible for the first time in several months, so I guess there’s progress.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Glowworm Grottos and Fluffy Blue Dinosaurs

            I’m back from a very, very abbreviated hike on the Kepler track; walking approximately one sixth of the track, thanks to a knee injury from last week’s adventures in Milford.   The Kepler Track is a 60 kilometer tramp, and one of Fiordland’s three Great Walks, and is usually hiked over four days.   The trail climbs up the side of Mount Luxmore, follows an alpine ridge with views into the South Arm of Lake Te Anau, drops into the Iris Burn valley, follows the Iris Burn to where it empties into Lake Manapouri, then follows the Waiau River (famously rich in both vowels and brown trout) back to Te Anau.   The walk is famous for having great views over the alpine section, and is considered by some trampers to have both better and more varied scenery than any of the other Fiordland great walks.   

Waiau River, from a viewpoint near the Rainbow Reach shuttle bus stop

            In this instance, the best thing I’ve found about the Kepler Track is that, unlike the Milford Track, hikers can hike the trail in either direction, and spend as many nights in huts as they wish.    (On the Milford Track, everyone hikes in the same direction, and stays one night in each hut; no exceptions.)   

            The Kepler Track also has public transport, via bus and water taxi,  that accesses a few points on the trail, allowing trampers to trim a few kilometers off of the beginning and end of their hike if they wish.    I spent two nights at Moturau Hut, which thanks to the Tracknet shuttle bus, only requires six kilometers of hiking to get to.   The hut is very pretty, located right on the side of Lake Manapouri.   The place sort of felt like a lakeside resort, only without the resort.    I took most of the day to walk in, resting often wherever there was a convenient log with a view.   There were a few scenic vistas over the Waiau River, which doubled as the River Anduin in the Lord of the Rings movies.   Also, the wetland marsh that the trail crosses is billed as being similar to the nearby marsh that was the film location for the Dead Marshes.   (I’m told that the Hobbit movie film crew was back in Te Anau earlier this year, but I haven’t heard where, or what, they were filming.)   

Wetland boardwalk on the Kepler Track

            The next day at Moturau Hut, I walked a small section of the trail leading to the mouth of Iris Burn, but mostly I spent the day hanging out on the sandy beaches bordering the lake.   Right now, there is a lot more beach on the lake than there usually is, thanks to three weeks of dry weather, and an accompanying low water level.   Manapouri is very pretty, and is dotted with a number of small islands.   This lake was the center of a huge New Zealand environmental controversy in the 1970s, when plans were made to raise the level of the lake by thirty meters as part of a hydroelectricity scheme to power a smelting plant on the south coast.    In a dazzling stroke of engineering genius, the plan that was finally implemented involved not raising the lake, but lowering the hydroelectric plant – it is 200 meters underground, and the entire scheme was designed to produce electricity from the lakes, while still keeping their water level within natural levels.   It’s the second largest electric plant anywhere in New Zealand, and according to the signage at Lake Te Anau, there is no other hydroelectric plant like it anywhere in the world.  

Sunrise, Lake Manapouri

           The one epic failure of the Kepler trip was that the book I took with me was horrible, and there were only so many informative DOC publications in the hut…   I had ample time to read all of them.   I now know that there is a small kiwi population in the area of the Iris Burn hut, and the DOC is trying to increase their trapping program to entice kiwi to move into areas of the park closer to Te Anau.   Their aim in doing so is partly to allow more people to hear wild kiwi, without having to hike for two days to get into their habitat.   (There have occasionally been kiwi heard at Moturau Hut, where I was, off and on, but none that appear to stay in the area permanently.)   Also, the Kepler track is home to a colony of long-tailed bats, one of New Zealand’s only species of indigenous mammals.  The bats were discovered last spring by the kiwi researchers who, just for fun, took a bat detector with them on one of their kiwi surveys.   The colony is near Rocky Point, and that section of trail is now home to an intensive rat-trapping program – which has trapped as many as 70 rats in a month in the vicinity of the colony.   

            The Kepler Track is also close to the area where takahe were re-discovered in 1948, after being presumed extinct for nearly fifty years.   Takahe are a species of endemic, flightless birds, who graze on the high alpine areas in New Zealand’s more remote mountains.   At six pounds, they’re the largest living species of rail anywhere in the world, and have a huge red bill, and a natty blue sheen to their plumage.   Not having kept the ability to fly, the takahe have slowly evolved their way into something resembling a diminutive, fluffy blue dinosaur.   I was lucky enough to see several takahe at Te Anau’s birdlife park, which runs a breeding program for these birds.   There is still a beleaguered population of a few dozen wild takahe living in the hills above Te Anau, which has now been supplemented by introduced populations on four small predator-free islands.

Takahe; photo courtesy Wikipedia

            The first night at Moturau Hut was fairly busy – perhaps thirty people in the hut, a dozen of whom were American exchange students on spring break from a program in Wellington.   The next night, there were only five in the hut – most of the people who were walking down from Iris Burn hut elected to bypass Moturau Hut in favor of walking another six kilometers and catching the shuttle bus back to Te Anau.   This is the last week that the huts will be staffed.   Although the huts are available for use in the winter, DOC will be closing down the gas cookers and the plumbing.   Even around Te Anau, you can tell that it’s well and truly the beginning of the off-season.   I think Easter was probably the last gasp.

            I think Te Anau would be an interesting place to spend the off-season because it seems like there is a pretty active winter community.   I spent some time with a group of Anglican church ladies here - I set up their sound system for then on Easter Sunday, and they in turn invited me to a craft night. The ladies are already busy planning community dinner-and-movie nights, as  well as a ‘Christmas dinner’ to be held in June or July.   (This further strengthens my notion that holidays here ought to be celebrated during the season of the year they were originally meant to commemorate - i.e. Christmas in winter, Easter in spring – not on a specific calendar date.)   There are also community markets, and live concerts being advertised for the coming months.   On the whole, not a bad place to hang out, which is good, since hanging out is mostly what I’ve been doing the past few days.

            After returning from Moturau Hut, I visited the Te Anau glowworm caves.   The caves are on the far side of Lake Te Anau, accessible by a boat trip across the lake, followed by small-group tours of the cave itself.   Some aspects of the tour were pretty unique – it is not often that a visitor would willingly sit silently, for several minutes, in total darkness, all for the purpose of looking at bugs.   The glowworm cave itself was impressive – the passages were very narrow, and the bottom of the cave is still basically a river; this part of the cave isn’t old enough to have dried out.   There were a also number of small waterfalls, cascading from one pool to another.   The glowworm cave was discovered in 1948, and had already become a tourist attraction by the 1960s.   Judging by the early pictures, the cave was equipped with basically the same sort of set-up that is used today – raised wooden catwalks over the floor of the cave, and a boat  ride at the far end out to see some of the thicker constellations of glowworms.   

What the boat tours would look like with the lights on.   This is taken from Real Journeys' website, as photography, being disruptive to the glowworms, is not permitted inside the cave

            Our tour group crab-walked through a very low entrance, and through a few hundred meters of cave passages on raised boardwalks, arriving at the glowworm pier after about ten minutes.   There, we got onto small dinghies, and were ferried further into the cave in total darkness, lit only by the lights of the glowworms themselves.   We stopped under one of the thickest clusters, sat and watched for a few minutes, and then slowly boated back to the pier.   It must be interesting learning how to navigate a boat using only worm-light; I asked one of the guides later, and she said that they follow a rope that’s been strung along the wall of the grotto, using it to pull the boats along.   All other course corrections are made by shoving off of rocks, and bumping into things.   Of course, it would be hard to get terribly lost in the grotto – the passage isn’t very long, and there isn’t another exit, at least, not one above the water.   The whole cave system itself extends through seven kilometers of known passages, many of which can only be accessed with scuba gear.    

            Since the visitable portion of the cave is so small, and the dinghies only seat 14 people, there were actually five different cave tours making their way through the passages, all with slightly staggered start times.   The guides seemed pretty deft at juggling the groups around – but the guide I was with definitely sounded like she had been giving the same glowworm spiel dozens of times a day for a few too many months.    She wasn’t bad, or unfriendly by any means – just possibly a little too burnt out on glowworms.   Or a little too burnt out on tourists; sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Where the Waterfalls Are: Four Days on the Milford Track

            I’m back from four days on the Milford Track and two days in Milford Sound itself.   The trip was amazing, with this year’s unusually dry autumn weather persisting through the entire trip.   Planning for this trip, I was prepared to be soaking wet from the time I got off the boat at the trailhead, to the moment I arrived back in Te Anau.   However, there was only about two hours of rain while we were hiking, plus a few showers in the fjord the day after I finished the hike.   

Boarding the boat at Te Anau Downs

            The Milford Track starts out with a bus ride from the DOC center in Te Anau, followed by a forty-five minute boat trip to the northern end of Lake Te Anau, where we got off with out bags, took pictures standing next to the trailhead sign, and started on our way.   The first day’s hiking, starting as it does at around 3pm, is only about three kilometers – and less for the guided hike walkers.   (They stay in fancier lodges, and don’t have to carry food, cooking gear, or sleeping bags – but the downside is that their hiking days and distances aren’t broken up as logically as the independent walkers staying in the DOC huts.)   We passed the first guided walk lodge (Glade House), sniffed wistfully at the food smells drifting from the kitchen, and continued down the track through mossy forest towards Clinton Hut, and our foil bags of freeze-dried food.   Clinton Hut is perched at the edge of a wetland area, and there is a great view of the surrounding mountains from the helicopter landing pad next to the hut.   I stashed my gear in the bunkhouse, and joined about half of the hikers for a nature walk given by the hut ranger.   One of the things he pointed out was a set of kiwi tracks nosing through the mud near the hut.   This is exciting because kiwi are still quite rare, even in places as remote as Fiordland National Park, due to pressure from introduced predators, like stoats.   The Milford Track, among other places in Fiordland, has an intensive stoat and possum trapping program, designed to keep the populations of these introduced species at a level low enough that the native birds species are still able to raise chicks without invasive mammals eating their eggs.   Pink triangular markers indicate where the traps are; they dot the trail like randomly placed trail blazes.   I asked one of the rangers how many traps there were on the trail, and she lost count somewhere north of 200 - which is already an average of about six per mile.

            That evening in the hut, I made the acquaintance of six Australian women who were hiking the trail, and ended up whole-heartedly adopting me as a dinner companion and hiking buddy.   They were brilliant, and getting to know such fantastic ladies was definitely one of the best parts about the trip. 

            It rained very heavily that night, and we woke up the next morning hastily changing into waterproof layers, and wrestling with pack covers and plastic liners.   Because it’s late in the season, it would be dark when we got up in the morning, and dark when we finished eating dinner.   If you can imagine a bunkroom full of forty hikers, all wearing headlamps, scrambling around trying to pack their gear in the dark, it sort of looks like a wilderness laser light show.   This scene repeated itself morning and evening for the whole trip; it was actually quite entertaining.  

Getting organized at Dumpling Hut

            The second day turned out misty.   The rain the night before had been heavy enough to turn on the waterfalls coming down the sides of the valley, but not heavy enough to flood the trail.   The waterfalls are one of the many celebrated features of walking the Milford Track.   One of the purported benefits to hiking the track in very rainy weather is that the more rain the track gets, the more numerous and spectacular the waterfalls become.   That being said, really heavy rain can also completely flood out the trail, as well as the whole valley, in fairly short order.   Many of the low-lying sections of trail had yellow-topped metal poles set every twenty to thirty feet to show where the trail is during flooding.   According to the Mintaro Hut ranger, walking through thigh-high water in parts of the trail is not uncommon.   Occasionally, the flooding can get so bad that the trail is completely impassable, and in these instances, the DOC will either hold everyone in the hut for an extra day, or use helicopters to ferry hikers past the flooded sections of trail.   This is one of the many huge advantages to hiking one of the Great Walks.   For a modest fee of $50 per night, you not only get a decent mattress, a flush toilet, a gas stove, a friendly ranger, and an up-to-date weather report, but you also get access to helicopter transport should things go terribly wrong.   One reason that New Zealand is so good at running world-class wilderness hiking trails is that they have been doing it for a long time.   New Zealand was the first country in the world to have a Department of Tourism (started somewhere around 1903), which helped to establish and fund guided eco-tourism operations about a century before the rest of the world.    Actually, the Milford Track itself was once hiked exclusively by catered, guided parties.   This changed in the mid sixties, when New Zealand trampers began agitating that they have equal access to their own wilderness areas, without having to pay for the services of a guide.   In what must have been one of the most fun protests in the history of wilderness protest movements, a group of trampers hiked the Milford track independently, carrying their own tents and food, setting up what has become the model for independent walking on DOC-managed hiking trails.

Lake near the trail, in the Clinton Valley

            Contrary to Peter the hut ranger’s expectations, the rain stopped around mid-morning, the clouds burnt off, and we started seeing more of the tops of the surrounding mountains.   Except that calling them mountains might give the wrong impression.   Thousand-foot lengths of sheer vertical cliff face might be a more accurate description.   

            Blanche Edith Broughton was one of the first writers to popularize the Milford Track, after writing an article describing her experiences on the trail in the early 1900s.   She coined the phrase ‘the finest walk in the world’, which, a century later, is still frequently used to describe the Milford Track.   Ms. Broughton also described the surrounding country as a land dominated by the vertical.   The valleys in Fiordland are glacially-carved, and have the classic glacier valley profile – steep sides, with a wider, flatter bottom.   However, what makes Fiordland’s valleys unique is that the rock the glaciers carved through is very, very hard – hard enough that even over thousands of years, very little rock from those steep sides has eroded away.   Basically, this means that the valleys in Fiordland are just as steep as when the glaciers left – the sides aren’t just steep, they’re actually sheer cliffs.   This topographical anomaly is breathtaking enough, but the other defining characteristic of Fiordland’s valleys is the amount of rain they receive – about 8 meters on average in most places.   This sort of terrain creates waterfalls in abundance, most of them only active during or after heavy rain.   Even on days when the waterfalls aren’t going, its easy to see the marks on the cliff faces where they run; vertical stripes of slightly smoothed rock running down the otherwise greenery-covered cliffs.

            The bare places on the cliffs that aren’t waterfalls are usually old landslides.   Because the terrain is so steep, and the soil layer over the bedrock is very thin, landslides are a common form of plant succession.   Most of the trees that are able to grow on the cliffs do so because their roots are intertwined with other trees, which forms a supportive lattice.   However, when the soil layer becomes saturated with water, it can become so heavy that an entire patch of soil slides right off of the mountain, taking all of the intertwined trees tumbling downhill with it like a row of dominoes.

Lake Mintaro, near the second DOC hut

            For most of the second day, we hiked along the Clinton river, following it up to its headwaters below the Mackinnon Pass.   The trail is very forested, green, and enclosed, but it regularly passes through avalanche chutes, where the plantlife has been sufficiently obliterated as to allow great views up and down the valley.   (Avalanche chutes are only a danger in winter, when there is actually snow on the tops of the mountains.   The rest of the year, they are scenic little meadows, inviting one to take out a camera and enjoy the temporary absence of trees.)   However, in Fiordland, due to the steepness of the hills, the avalanches are a little different.   In winter, when snow from the summits avalanches down the mountain, the avalanches will hit the top edge of these vertical cliffs.   At this point, the falling snow can trap air underneath it, almost like a parachute.   When the avalanche hits the valley floor, the weight of the snow crushes into that trapped pocket of air, and the pressure causes the snow to explode outward.  This means that the tree-free areas at the bottom of these chutes can be pretty large, and they show up at very regular intervals.   The DOC has mapped something like 56 known avalanche paths that intersect the Milford Track, which is one reason why the trail more or less shuts down during the winter months.

Avalanche clearing in the Clinton valley.

            Towards the end of the second day of hiking, the track begins winding uphill through a birch forest, ending at Mintaro Hut.   We were up at 6:30 the next morning, ready for the hardest, and most rewarding day of the hike – walking out of the Clinton Valley, over the Mackinnon Pass, and into the Arthur Valley on the other side.   The weather was cold, windy, and misty, with the clouds breaking apart at intervals to give us glimpses of the surrounding mountains.   About twenty minutes out from the hut, the trail began switchbacking up the side of the hill, aiming for a low saddle between two 1800 meter summits – Mount Hart on the left, and the curiously named Mount Balloon on the right.   As we got higher, the wind became more intense, whipping the clouds up and over the pass we were trying to get to.   We stopped shortly before the ridge to put on more layers.    
Cloud approaching the Mackinnon Pass

           A few hours after leaving Mintaro Hut, we reached the saddle, and the large memorial cairn to Quinton Mackinnon.   Mackinnon, along with Donald Sutherland, were the first Europeans to cross the pass, confirming that there was a traversable route between Te Anau and Milford Sound.   At the time, Milford Sound was thought to have the makings of an important commercial port on the West Coast (which, with a half million visitors a year, it is - though perhaps not in the way the original surveyors had intended).   

Mackinnon memorial cairn, on Mackinnon Pass

            From the cairn, the track follows the ridge for another twenty minutes to a shelter at the side of Mount Balloon.   Along the ridge, a thick layer of hoarfrost was covering every blade of grass, almost like snow.   The mist was blowing around so much that the view from the trail seemed to change every few minutes depending on what the clouds were choosing to reveal at any given moment.     We all crammed into the shelter, gobbling snacks and warming up.   From the back of the shelter, it’s possible to look down the length of the Clinton Valley, which we had hiked over the previous two days.   The shelter’s long-drop toilet has bee built to take advantage of this scenery (it’s referred to as the ‘loo with a view’), although today frost had totally obscured the view from the window.

Hoarfrost coating the grass on Mackinnon Pass

            Shortly thereafter, we left the shelter, continuing down the other side of the ridge, and briefly escaping the wind as the trail sidled along below Mount Balloon.   The trail continued along the bottom of the Arthur valley headwall, eventually dropping back below treeline, following Moraine Creek and Roaring Burn further into the Arthur Valley.   

Sidling downhill below Mount Balloon.   The valley floor looks very far away...

            Once we were back below the treeline, the greenery gave the impression that we were close to the valley floor, although the truth of the matter was, we had lost only about half of the vertical height we needed to lose that day.   The trail along Roaring Burn was a mix of rocky trail, and boardwalks and stairs, showing off the Burn’s many small waterfalls.   

            When we finally got to the Quinton shelter (opposite the guided walks’ lodge; the posh accommodation thoughtfully keeps the DOC shelter stocked with tea and coffee) it was later in the day than we had planned, so we quickly slurped some tea, and dropped our packs off at the shelter for a blitzkrieg hike up a side trail to Sutherland Falls.   

            According to the hut rangers, Sutherland Falls is one of the main reasons why tramping on the Milford Track ever became a tourist activity in the first place.   (And the Milford track is still mainly a tourist activity – out of our group of forty, we had only one New Zealand resident.)   When Sutherland and Mackay first discovered the falls, they estimated its height at something around 4,000 feet, which would easily make it the highest waterfall anywhere in the world.   This staggeringly high waterfall was one of the reasons why people were first interested in hiking into the Arthur valley in the first place.   Unfortunately, Sutherland and company got their maths woefully wrong; the waterfall is only 580 meters (1500 or so feet), making it the world’s fifth-highest waterfall.   Despite this downgrading of its height status, people were still interested in coming out on the track, even before the Milford road had been built, meaning that the once you got to Milford, you had to turn around and hike back to Te Anau.

Approaching Sutherland Falls

            As we got closer, the trail approaches the falls in such as way that as we rounded the last bend, the view ahead sort of framed the falls, so that it looked like we were walking directly into a category 5 storm.   With the wind and the water, the falls had a significant spray zone.   We had been warned to bring rain jackets, and we had passed some dripping wet hikers who had walked behind the falls, or tried to.   (The DOC does not officially encourage hikers to do this.   The hut rangers seem to be of the opinion that since some hikers will try anyway, they might as well tell us the safest way to get back there.)   The Aussie ladies and I took some photos, and then hurried back down to Quintin shelter, to pick up our backpacks, and tackle the last four kilometers of trail to our third and final hut.

Wet and wild: with the Aussie ladies at Sutherland Falls

            Dumpling Hut is named for the adjacent Dumpling Hill, which bears very little resemblance to a dumpling; whoever named it had probably been out in the bush long enough that they were seriously fantasizing about food.   The final day of the track was long but flat, following the Arthur River towards Lake Ada, and Milford Sound.   The trail also passed a few interesting features – MacKay falls, which would probably have looked more impressive had we not seen Sutherland Falls the day before, and Bell Rock.   Bell Rock is a large, hollowed out boulder that in a previous life had been situated underneath the waterfall, before a rockfall jostled it out of the falls, and tipped it upside down .   It’s possible to duck under the lip of the rock and peer upwards with a head torch at the large pyramid-shaped hollow that the water gouged out.   

            A few kilometers past Bell Rock, we passed a section of rock cutting, where a 300 meter section of trail was carved out from the cliff face over a two-year period starting in 1896.   Prior to this, hikers had to be transported over part of Lake Ada by boat.   We were told that some of the rock cutting work crew had carved their names into the cliff, but after a century, the names must be pretty weathered; none of us spotted any carvings.    

Swingbridge in the Arthur Valley

            From there, we continued down the Arthur River, ending up at Sandfly Point shortly before the boat arrived to take us across the sound to Milford itself.   The trail marker at the end of the track is decorated by pairs of worn-out hiking boots –I noticed the sole of one of the boots was attached to its leathers with zip-ties.   We boarded the boat, chugged across Deepwater Basin to Milford Sound, and arrived at the Milford ferry terminal.   We disembarked, wet and smelly, amidst the crowds of day-tripping tourists  up from Queenstown, most of whom seemed to be in Milford only long enough to move from their scenic coach tours to their scenic boat tours and back again.   I said goodbye to my Australian hiking buddies, who were heading back to Te Anau that night, and walked another 1.5 kilometers from the boat terminal to the Milford Lodge hostel, where I stayed for the next two nights.   

Checking out the boots at the end of the Milford Track

            The next day, I joined a 7am sea kayak tour heading out to explore Milford Sound.   The weather was misty and intermittently raining, and the wind picked up as we worked out way further to the mouth of the sound.   Our guide Mark explained that although these trips are billed as paddling the length of Milford Sound out to the Tasman Sea, the trips have about a 50% chance of actually getting there, mostly due to winds picking up at the mouth of the sound.   This was the case on this trip as well, and after fighting our way into a headwind for a few kilometers, we pulled up on a handy beach, took a snack break and enjoyed the view.   As a bonus, a pair of dolphins swam by the beach shortly after we pulled up, giving us brief glimpses of their little curlicued dorsal fins.   

            As we left the beach, Mark decided to cross over to the other side of the sound, and work our way back towards the harbor until it was time for our water taxi to pick us up.   Crossing the sound in a twenty-knot wind was a little hairy – the waves weren’t huge, but there were plenty of whitecaps.   Fortunately, we were in Necky Amaruks, which are kind of like the Chevy Suburbans of tandem sea kayaks.   They’re huge, heavy, and it takes a lot of gas to get them going, but they are also big and sturdy enough to plow through many potential hazards with impunity.   Unfortunately, they’re built to be touring kayaks – they’re meant to be paddled with a load of gear in the hatches.   On day trips, the kayaks are so lightly loaded that the boat will be sitting much higher in the water than it was designed to be, and can catch the wind a lot more.   As was the case on this trip.  (On windy days, I’ve been known to put rocks in the hatches of my clients’ boats to try and get them to balance correctly.)   Once we got to the far side of the fiord, we had the wind at our backs, which made for a much easier time.   Overall, I got the impression that the sea kayak guides in Milford had a slightly more accepting view of the possibility of capsizes than the guides in Alaska, which probably has something to do with their much warmer water temperatures.    

            Back at Milford Lodge that night, I got a couple of unexpected birthday presents.   My Australian friends called the hostel to wish me a happy birthday, and the hostel manager in turn gave me a free glass of wine.   Plus, a friend from the Iceberg Lodge emailed me pictures from our snow-shoveling crew’s recent visit out to the lagoon.   The site seems to be weathering the winter just fine, although most of our buildings are buried in snow up to the rafters.  

            The next day, I caught a bus back to Te Anau, where I am currently resting and giving lots of TLC to my left knee, which decided to go on strike after hiking for four days and then being shoved into a kayak cockpit for six hours.   Unfortunately, this means I’ve had to alter my plans for hiking the Kepler Track – I will still be hiking it, but only a very small section.   Frankly, its not worth it to carry weight for several days with an injury, even if it’s a comparatively minor one, as I don’t want to risk doing anything that would jeopardize my ability to work this coming summer.   I am really looking forward to getting back to Alaska, and to the Lodge, but I also know that the beginning of the season – with all of the gear carrying, safety training, boat cleaning, show shoveling, trail maintaining, cabin cleaning, staff reunioning, and bonfire partying  - is going to bring with it a whole new set of bumps and bruises, as it does every year.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Land of the Long Flat White

            Since I have recently finished the work part of my working holiday, and will soon be leaving the Land of the Long White Cloud, I felt like it might be appropriate to compile a few observations about the country that thus far haven’t made it into any of my previous posts.   

            One of the more unexpected things about living in New Zealand  is that I had to learn an entirely different terminology for ordering caffeinated drinks.   I’m not quite sure how it happened, but New Zealand seems to be the sole country in the English-speaking world that has not adopted Italian terms for describing espresso-based coffee.   For example, espresso in New Zealand isn’t called espresso.   Here, an American trying to order a coffee is confronted with a confusing list of drinks that sound like they could be types of wall paint – flat white, long black, short black, et cetera.    Also, no one makes, or drinks, regular, American-style, filter-brewed coffee.   It doesn’t really exist here - I don't think there's enough demand for it to justify brewing up large pitchers as is normal in American restaurants.   If you want a regular coffee, your barista will make a shot of espresso and add hot water to top up the cup.    (This sort of drink is referred to as an Americano in other places, and now I understand why.)   Instant coffee, on the other hand, seems to be perplexingly popular here, even though it tastes just as bad as it does in the States.   Interestingly, the gourmet brands of instant coffee come in little bags that you dunk in hot water as though it were tea; this is something I have never seen before.  

            One thing I will miss about New Zealand is the burgers.   This might seem like a strange sentiment for a vegetarian, but it’s true.   Kiwis approach their burgers like Dagwood Bumstead approaches sandwiches.   Everything that could possibly fit between two buns gets added onto the plate.   This includes usual toppings like lettuce and tomato, but also includes more adventurous toppings like cole slaw, shredded carrot, beetroot slices, onion chutney, and fried egg.   Frankly, you could take the meat out of the burger entirely and not notice its absence. For a vegetarian, this is great, and is a direction that I wish the rest of the burger-eating world would embark on.

            If you are wanting to work in international tourism, or just work internationally in general, I have heard various theories on which language(s) are of most benefit to learn.   One friend proposed English and Spanish as the two most important ones, since between those two languages you can converse with pretty much everyone on three continents (North and South America, and Australia) as well as a good chunk of Europe, Africa, and Asia.   Mandarin is also a candidate, as the population of China is huge, and for New Zealand, the Chinese are actually the fastest growing section of the tourism market.   

            German, sadly, is a little useless (unless perhaps you are going to live in Germany) since every German-speaking person I have run into over here generally has better English than I do.   Ditto with most other European languages – people who speak Flemish, or Dutch, or Czech (the ones who travel, at any rate) all tend to be very conversant in English, a fact that my Czech friend in Haast attributes to the fact that Czech TV stations don’t dub English-language programs and movies into Czech (they use subtitles instead), so that most Czechs grow up hearing English frequently from a very young age.

            In my own opinion, the most useful language for a tourism person to know would be… French.   Not because there are a large amount of French-speaking travelers, but because, in general,  French travelers have atrocious English.   It was a huge help at the motel that my boss knew French; I envy her ability.   In a few instances, I had to resort to mime and vocabulary from high school French class to get through a transaction.   The worst part is explaining how the coin-operated showers work – that you need to put a certain coin in the slot if you want hot water.   Il pleut… et c’est tres fois…

            I am happy to report that limited English ability does not seem to hinder French people from travelling in English-speaking countries.   They appear confident that between their skills in English, and other people’s skills as mimes, eventually the communications barrier will be breached.   Sometimes it’s a long siege.   I think is actually very brave.   I certainly would have second thoughts about trying to travel solo in France with only the stagnant remnants of two years of high school French classes – yet many French travellers here are basically attempting the same thing in reverse.