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Travels through the Fiordland: A story of crazy, dumb luck (part 2) | We're Not There Yet

After we kayaked the amazing Milford Sound on a day of crazy good weather (when freezing rain had been predicted), we returned to Queenstown to drop off our rental car and get ready for hiking the Routeburn Track.  The Routeburn is one of the so-called Great Hikes, a series of hikes in New Zealand that are justifiably famous and include what is probably the most famous hike in the world, the Milford Track hike, which is a 6-day hike.  Camping on these hikes is restricted to campgrounds and campground reservations must be made in advance.  For the Milford Trek hike, reservations fill up over six months in advance, and camping costs over $50 per person per night.  So you’re talking about $300 to reserve camping accommodations on what might be a freezing and rainy week.  In fact, we met some tourists who did the hike, and obviously spent a ton of money not only reserving the campgrounds, but also paying to get to New Zealand, paying to drive to the terminals where you have to take expensive ferries to the trailheads, etc. who spent their whole walks getting rained on and didn’t get to experience any of the view. That’s just how it is down here.  Everything is expensive, everything is crowded, and so you have to book ahead, at crazy prices, to reserve trips that might be miserable in the rain.

It was only as we were leaving the campground that I realized that I had taken the batteries out of my camera to charge them, but had never put them back in.  Instead, I had stored them in the campground’s storage room for our return – a storage room that wouldn’t open until long after our bus had departed.  I ran around like a crazed chicken for a while, unable to bear the thought of carrying my big camera, multiple lenses and a tripod over some burly mountains without being able to take a single picture.  Fortunately, I was able to call the campground’s assistant manager who rolled out of bed and drove in pajamas to the campground to let me in.  Crisis averted.

Then we boarded the bus.  The bus was headed to Milford Sound, and we had already confirmed when booking the tickets that we’d be dropped off along the way at the Routeburn trailhead.  The driver, who had received notice that we’d be getting dropped off at the trailhead, told us that he wouldn’t stop there for “safety reasons” and that he’d drop us off 15 km away, but that we should try to hitchhike to the trailhead.  We quibbled for a while, and two hours after the bus ride started, he agreed to drop us off at the trailhead.  Second crisis averted.

On the drive to the trailhead, he stopped for a 40-minute break in the town of Te Anau.  It was then that M mentioned that we’d never gotten any tickets or proof that we’d reserved our campsites.  I checked with a few people and they assured me that we couldn’t do the hike without these tickets.  It turned out that there was a Department of Conservation office about a 20-minute walk away from the cafe where the bus had parked, and we still had 35 minutes of our scheduled stop.  I took off like a jackrabbit, racing through the sleepy little town and along the main road until I arrived at the office, gasping for air and pleading for them to print up our tickets (which we’d paid for online previously).  I got the tickets and got back to the bus shortly before departure.  Third crisis averted!

After a morning full of near-misses, we found ourselves on the bus with batteries in hand, permits printed, and a confirmation that we’d be dropped off at the right stop, we still didn’t have a guarantee of good weather or even not-awful weather. The morning was turning out to be beautiful, but that could change within minutes of setting out on the trail.  We checked the weather reports before we left and were prepared for vague threats of rain, but even that could change swiftly to a flat-out storm and we’d have no choice but to keep hiking right through it. So hike we did.


The path quickly entered amazing temperate rainforest where beautiful beech trees were completely covered, as was everything else in sight, by a thick layer comprised of many types of soft, verdant mosses.  The trail was steep and fairly tiring, but very pretty.  Still, walking through a forest, no matter how lovely, can get old, and I secretly pined for some of the amazing views that we expected to be a part of the trip.  Still, we were just lucky for the beautiful weather.  We met some hikers coming in the opposite direction who had spent a rainy windy day the day before climbing the trail and said that they hadn’t seen any of the supposedly lovely view because the weather was so awful.

We made it to our first campground that night without any weather issues and were at once thankful that we got through a full day without rain and dreading the next day because it is very rare to get two days in a row of perfect weather in the Fiordlands. The charm must have worn off overnight though; the outside of our tent was literally swarmed with mice and M spent the whole night flicking them off. [Note from M: hold your tongues, all you PETA types- you try spending a night with those little monsters scurrying mere inches from your head. I did not sleep a wink and any qualms I had about mistreating the mice were buried in the fury and delirium brought on by lack of sleep. I sat up for hours swatting the things off the outside of our tent like little ping pong balls, but it did not discourage them one bit. Luckily, I moved the food inside and so saved our stash from their greedy little mouths; in revenge they shat all over our hiking boots and packs that were left in the vestibule outside the tent.] I slept through it all and only got to experience the sense of complete amazement the next morning when I saw how much shit had been excreted onto our things without any of our food having been eaten.  How is it that mice can crap so much without eating? Incredible.

First night’s camp was waaaayyyy down there

And climbing

Anyhow, we started the day’s hike and it was…absolutely…incredible.  Just an amazing day, with truly perfect weather. Towards the end of the day, the hand-me-down boots that I’d been using split, basically, in two.  Nearly the entire sole ripped off one of the boots, and it was only held on by the section up at the toes.  It was a pretty terrifying development, since the only other shoes that I had were flip flops, which were definitely not suited to a steep mountain descent over rock.  I switched the heavy pack over to M (who was wearing a kid’s school backpack that we had bought for $4 before starting the trip), and carefully finished out the day’s hike.

M’s $4 school backpack

Reaching the top

Going down

Waiting for R to catch up after too many photo stops

Last night’s camp is waaaayy down there

At the end of the day we came down out of the mountains and back into the beech forest.  I made to set up our tent alongside a river in a beautiful golden field when the park ranger came out.  She told us that a huge storm was on the way that night.  They were expecting 10-15 inches of rain (!!!) and wind gusts of up to 80 mph.  The storm was going to be so bad, she said, that they were taking the extraordinary step of asking the campers if they’d like to stay, for free, in the huts.  We happily took her up on the offer, trading the tent and camp stove for cooking ranges, beds and tables.  Even better, the ranger took my busted boot and fixed it up nicely with some duct tape.

In any case, we prepared ourselves for a vicious hike out in the morning to the end of the trail, with bad boots, howling winds and driving rain.  That never happened.  When dawn broke, it was as pretty out as it had been the day before. The worst of the storm had passed in the middle of the night while we were all tucked away safely in our beds.  The ranger couldn’t believe our good luck, and bade us goodbye as we happily set off down the trail.  With about five minutes left in our hike, a light drizzle started, but we never even got wet, as we finished a trip that was as beautiful as it was lucky.