Day 42 Te Anau and Brod Bay
We have another enormous breakfast in Queenstown this morning, mindful of our ensuing days on food chosen for its nutritional content rather than its enjoyment. We've packed two days worth of all-weather clothes (the forecast suggests we won't be seeing the sun for a while), a shed-load of fruit, nuts and blister plasters into our rucksacks, and jammed everything else in the boot. Much is made of my space-saving sleeping bag.
And so we leave Queenstown, with its lovely cafés, beautiful mountains and an odd surplus of knee tattoos, to head to New Zealand's fiordland. It's a misty, mountainous bit carved out of the South West of the island, with a microclimate doing entirely its own thing. Which is largely to hammer down with rain, and provide an amorous breeding ground for most of the nation's sandflies. It is though, like most else here, quite a stunning landscape. Naturally, we can't see much of it as we head west leaving Lake Wakatipu behind, because low cloud is obscuring everything apart from the car in front and some sheep at the side of the road.
We get to Te Anau, the small town which serves as the start point for the Milford and Kepler trails. It is perched next to lake Te Anau, the largest in the South Island, and between the two Sounds, Milford and Doubtful, for which the region is famous. Friend of the Empire, Captain Cook splashed around in Doubtful Sound on the Endeavour, to be followed by a host of commercial whalers and sealers in the 19th Century. Then, in 1880, two industrious explorers helped chart and reveal Milford Sound to the wider world (then only accessible by foot), and tourism took off. These days, it plays host to the leagues of Great Walkers who plod through, as well as providing a playground for all those who like to get on a lake in something floatable, and frolic.
We're doing the Kepler Track, 37 miles of New Zealand's most recently plotted Great Walk. It was completed in the 1980s, to relieve the pressure put on the ferociously popular Milford one. Because our trip has been planned a bit on the fly, we were too late to secure accommodation along Milford (and sensibly has no campsites, just Huts anyway).
However, the Kepler Track also boasts some fantastic views, and is shorter than its more famous neighbour which crucially means less nights camping (hooray!). It loops around Lake Te Anau before climbing through woodland to Mount Luxmore. From there, it's a walk in the clouds for a spell before descending around Lake Manapouri and then a long marshland walk back to Te Anau. The DoC recommend doing it in 4 days, we're aiming for two and a half, for reasons I will document presently.
We find a fast food restaurant in Te Anau. Keen to give my body enough to be working on for the next two days, force-feed it enough beige food to totally undo any fitness benefits from the last two months.
Afterwards we walk through Te Anau (a mixture of restaurants and outdoor shops) to the DoC office, to collect our camping passes for the next few nights.
In a shop full of maps and hiking socks, the cashier briefs us on our next few days. "Obviously it's going to be wet [dashing our hopes that the threatening Mordor clouds might give way to sunshine], but we've also been advised to warn walkers about the storms forecast tomorrow"
You what now?
"We've got strong westerlies becoming gales, and potentially some snow at high altitudes. So make sure your spare clothes are in bags in your bags, because the wind will drive the rain in behind your rain covers"
A cheerful recap reveals that we will be at the highest altitude tomorrow afternoon. Awesome. Totally exposed along a hostile ridge up a mountain with only a flimsy canvas roof to look forward to at the end of it all. I think the joy is visible on my face because Ruth says firmly, "Come on, where's your spirit of adventure you fanny?".
And so in mid-afternoon, we find ourselves at the start of the trail, slamming the boot of our car on all our useless (too heavy to carry) stuff, and setting off along a wooded shoreline. The wind is whipping up the edge of the lake, but it's not actually that cold. Nor, gratefully, is it raining.
"I think what I'm most looking forward to is not having to shower for two days" says Ruth, brightly.
"What I'm looking forward to the most, is the shower at the end." I reply, hefting the bag around on my shoulders. Aside from the 5km walk from Ushuaia airport to our hotel, all our walking has been done unburdened. Our trekking supplies have hitherto been limited to suncream and bottled water, and, amazingly, walking with a few day's worth of camping equipment on your back is quite a different beast. Happily, our journey today is relatively straightforward: 6km around the lake to the campsite with no climbing.
It's also fairly unspectacular. I dare say a sparkling summer's day would transform the experience considerably, but the trees obscure the view of the lake and the brooding clouds make for a surly canopy. It takes us an hour to get to the campsite at Brod Bay, which opens out onto the lake, and gives us a glimpse of view back around to Te Anau, 10km to the north east. The rain has held off and we pitch our tent looking out to the water. I mean, ignoring the viscous horrors which have been energetically deposited in the nearby compost toilet, there are admittedly more awful places to spend a night.
We sit on the shore looking at the lake, waving away the sandflies.
But what is this? The waving is attracting more of them. They're not leaving my hands. I can feel them under my shirt. Now there are millions of them. They're biting my face. Yaaaaargh!
We beat a retreat back to the tent in a stormcloud of flying beasts, yelping and flailing like people possessed.
"Isn't this exciting?" says Ruth a bit later, looking out. We've had an hour here, locked inside our tent to escape the airborne piranhas outside. We've already eaten our sausage roll and nuts - dinner AND entertainment for today - which leaves us at a bit of a loose end. The autocracy of the insects outside erases any wistful notion of sitting around a campfire in the 'socialising area' in the middle of the camp (besides, there are only two other tents here and their occupants are also under house arrest.) We dumped all our travel-reading in the car because of the extra weight it encumbered us with, which leaves us with precious few distractions from the situation at hand. We talk about it at length. "We're on holiday" forms the backbone of my position, while "how many bloody condors did you make me watch you photograph" features heavily in Ruth's. There is agreement to disagree.
As dusk draws in, and we switch our little LED torch on, there's an increased patter on the tent outside, "Sounds like the rain's started after all" I say, sighing. But unzipping the tent shows this not to be the case. Ruth shines the torch up, and the patter is actually an increased zest from the sandflies trying to get through the mesh netting of the tent and towards the torch.
Day 43 Kepler Track
I'm torn this morning, because I slept terribly overnight but feel unable to rub this in Ruth's face and perpetuate the 'this is a wretched idea' narrative. I slept terribly not because of the sandflies or bad weather or noisy woodland animals (although I did hear what I think was a kiwi. Based purely on the fact, I didn't want it to be anything bigger), but because my sleeping bag provided precisely zero insulation and I was so cold I shivered the whole night achieving, perhaps, 3 hours sleep. In the end, I feel there wouldn't be much to gain from divulging this to Ruth, so courageously say nothing about it while we pack up tent and supplies. It's drizzling slightly this morning, but this will apparently become a deluge by afternoon so we need to get a wiggle on.
Now, I think I have presented a fair and balanced view of the "is this camping in a tent a good idea?" question so far, so you'll forgive a slightly begrudging tone here. Because of Ruth's insistence that we pitch up in the campsites, not the huts along the route, we have to walk 20 miles today. 10 of them are up 1000 metres of climb, to get to Iris Burn campsite on the other side of the mountain. Luxmore Hut is in 8 miles, and there are a few 'emergency shelters' along the highest parts of the ridge, but no campsites for 20 miles. This, we think, will take us about 9 hours, and we leave at just after 8am, only too mindful of the gale force winds ready to smack us in the face due this afternoon.
The next few hours are a fairly quiet affair as we grind up the side of Mount Luxmore. Kepler Track is very well maintained, but the persistent rain and evidently high winds over the years have taken their toll on sections of the track, and there are fallen trees to clamber over and lagoons of mud to wade through. We exchange hellos with a few people coming the other way, but come across noone going with us to Luxmore. Compared to the lofty, expansive views of Ben Lomond a few days ago, these first hours are fairly unremarkable as we climb up with the trees, stopping every hour for some nuts and mouthfuls of water. It is also raining fairly steadily now which, due to the mild air, leaves mist suspended around us. This rather curtails any view we might snatch through the foliage. I should point out that this is New Zealand's rainiest region, and Milford Sound ranks as one of the wettest places in the world (according to an unsubstantiated declaration on Wikipedia) so the inclement weather is no surprise. But it's also no fun. It is supposed to be midsummer, but there's little evidence of that at the moment.
About two and a half hours after setting off, we emerge from the treeline, about 900 metres high, and walk face first into some serious precipitation. The forest, while hampering our views, had at least offered some cover from what turns out to be pretty torrential rain. Now, as feared, we are walking along the ridge to Luxmore Hut, being totally pummelled by the elements, with no shelter. Fortunately, every item of clothing is at least partially waterproof, so it hasn't soaked through, but there's a long afternoon ahead. Another 30 minutes slogging over marshy grass reveals a very welcome-looking hut in the distance, and we both scamper to it (as best we can under the weight of the rucksacks).
It is empty when we arrive and deboot, leaving our coats dripping in the entrance. It is spartan (dormitories, kitchen area, toilet) but there's no denying how fantastic it is to have a roof. There's also a log-burning stove. We both look at each other and acknowledge that it is going to be difficult to leave. Then Pat comes in and introduces himself. Pat is a DoC steward, and looks after the huts along the trails along with many other volunteers. He's a quiet old boy, who looks like he's all muscle and sinew, and could probably survive out here for days on nought but tree-bark and sandflies.
"You heading to Brod Bay?" he asks, looking at the spreading pools from our dripping coats. We reply that we've come from there, and are heading on to Iris Burn. Pat takes a long, slow look out the window, and then at us.
"They warn you about the storm coming?" he says.
"They sure did. How long have we got?"
"I reckon maybe two hours. You'll not make it there before it hits now, but you might escape the snow if you get going quick. You staying in the Hut?"
Meaningful looks are exchanged.
"We're in the campsite."
Pat holds our gaze. "It's going to be pretty wild there tonight."
"Lots of people there, you mean?" I ask innocently.
"The weather. The weather is going to be pretty wild there."
We thank Pat, and sit at a table to joylessly eat bananas and nuts and chew over our possibilities. Either way, we're bollocksed really. If we carry on, it's at least 5 hours, we get drenched, have to pitch a tent in a gale and then do more of the same tomorrow. If we turn back, we still end up walking in the rain for another four hours AND we've got the thankless task of walking a track we've already done. A track which is mostly tree-lined and dull.
Leaving the bags in the hut, we decided to have a quick scurry up the hill, to see what we can see. The rain has at least eased if not stopped, and after 20 minutes or so of climbing, near the highest part of the walk, we are treated to a phenomonal view of the lake and mountains through a break in the low cloud. It promises everything we'd come here to see. To the north, Lake Te Anau brooding under the peaks towards Milford Sound, and to the west of us the Murchinson mountain range, poking through an angry sky. We meet a Norweigian man walking from Iris Burn and after taking his picture on his camera (he puts on quite the solo show for it - all Olympian poses and King of the world arms-akimbo) we ask him what it's like coming through. "To be honest, this is the first view I've had all day. It's just been wet, wet wet, looking at my feet really." He heads on.
We go back to the hut, and put on the coats. Much as I don't enjoy the camping, these walks are what Ruth was most looking forward to on this trip, so say it's her call, with the added bonus that I won't behave like an asshole if she chooses unfavourably. "I don't want to sleep up a mountain in a storm. Let's go back." I admit this would be my preferred option also. "What a bloody surprise." She says huffily.
As we prepare to leave, two women walk through the door of the Hut, also drenched. They noisily decant their bags onto two beds in the dormitory, and take off their outer layers in the entrance. One of them removes a wretched-looking sock off a leg and puts it up to her nose and loudly takes a lungful. "Yeeeeeeah, that's still good for a day or two," she grins satisfactorily at us.
As we begin the long journey back to the car, I concede that even staying in the Huts would have its downsides. The walk back is uneventful, but as predicted, mostly dull. A few hours back into the trees, we meet some more DoC staff chainsawing a fallen tree into bits on the track. I ask them which one had to carry the chainsaw all the way up here. "All our tools get dropped in by helicopter," the chaps says. "Imagine what fun that is on a day like today, hanging off the side of a windy mountain". We agree, doffing our wet hoods at them in admiration, and continue on. When we get back to the beach at Brod Bay where we camped, we pause to sit down and chat about the walk. For about 18 seconds before the sandflies have at us again. "Can't you give us a moment's peace, you shits!" I shout at them effectively.
So we continue back to the car. We get there 8 and a bit hours after we left this morning and have, in fact, walked 20 miles. Just not ending up where we'd planned. Our legs are pretty beaten, and the rain has not stopped coming down. The wind is beginning to pick up as well, so we concede the right decision was probably made. It's late afternoon. we stiffly drive back to Te Anau and eat a ludicrous amount of pizza while discussing what to do tonight. Obviously we don't have accommodation but to make up for missing out on the end of the Great Walk we have agreed to camp somewhere else of Ruth's choosing. With unexpectedly full bellies, we drive north towards Milford Sound, past the mirror lakes (not reflecting anything because of the rain), and up the valley as the sun goes down, and the darkness closes in. There are numerous campsites along this road, (the Te Anau Milford Highway) but many of them are alongside the river and we just don't fancy our chances with all this rain. Even if they've got a funny name. In the end, we stop at one just along from Knob's Flat, with a mountain view and another compost-toilet with a terrible past. Having dropped the few dollars in the box for the site, we pitch the tent in the pouring rain, while the wind howls around us. Sitting in the car with the heater on, we look at the scene. An empty tent in a field, under a mountain, in a storm, with noone around for miles. "In some ways, this is very romantic" says Ruth brightly, as another gust of wind causes our tent to convulse in a guarantee-voiding manner. It's lovely to see her enjoying this so much, even if I fail to muster a similar amount of enthusiasm.
Many hours later in the tent, I think warm thoughts as the elements give it their all.