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.

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