Sunday, January 3, 2021

Night Fever

Back in October, I regaled you with stories about how I was embarking on training for night tours at Zealandia. Were you not entertained? Since then I’ve been shadowing night tours, co-guiding (meaning me leading the tour, but having an experienced guide along as backup if needed), learning all the night emergency procedures, and taking a first aid course. Shortly before Christmas, I was assessed by the training coordinator, and passed as competent to lead a night tour.

We then promptly buggered off to Queenstown and the Milford Track for a week.

On our return, however, I was back into the thick of it straight away. January is the busiest month despite the lack of cruise ship business, as it’s school summer holidays; and just as everyone in Wellington heads off to other parts of New Zealand for their holidays, many people come to Wellington on theirs. I’m currently scheduled for two day tours and two night tours per week, but may do additional tours as needed to fill in gaps in the schedule. So far I’ve taken two night tours.

The format of the night tour is similar to the day, but the main attraction for most people is seeing a kiwi out in the wild, and this is where we concentrate our effort once night falls. Before then, however, there’s still plenty of other things to see and talk about. When it comes to seeing kiwi, I emphasise that we’re not a zoo and nothing is guaranteed. The species we have in Zealandia is kiwi pukupuku, or little spotted kiwi – the smallest kiwi species. I introduce the “Close Encounter” scale, as in the film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – a device I shamelessly stole from another guide, who admitted that he’d nicked it off someone else as well!

Kiwi Encounter Of The First Kind: You are in a wildlife sanctuary where kiwi are present.
Kiwi Encounter Of The Second Kind: You hear kiwi calls.
Kiwi Encounter Of The Third Kind: You hear a kiwi rustling1 in the bush, but don’t see it.
Kiwi Encounter Of The Fourth Kind: You see a kiwi.

This is great, because as soon as you step inside the sanctuary, you’re already at First Kind! And hearing kiwi is also pretty much a given too – there’s activity throughout the year. So far, I’ve been lucky, and seen at least one kiwi on every tour I’ve shadowed or led. Overall, around 80% of tours get a sighting of at least one kiwi; the most I’ve seen on one tour is three, but there are stories – stories – from other guides of seeing seven in one night. As I get more experience I’ll learn to hear and pick out the rustling sound, but most of my sightings so far have been because I’ve been alerted by my assistant – when we go out on a night tour there must be at least two Zealandia personnel present. The assistant will go off ahead, particularly towards the end of the tour, and then they are able to listen for kiwi better as they are away from the main group with their footsteps, talking etc.

So that’s my work cut out for the summer. Tell your friends! Heck, tell your enemies too!


1              Kiwi are notorious sheep thieves

Friday, January 1, 2021

Milford Sound

“But wait…wasn’t this supposed to be a five day tour?” 
“By Jove you’re right, Holmes! What happened on the fifth day?”

Day 5

I’m glad you asked! Yes, we’ve finished the Milford Track, but we’re not yet done with Milford. As alluded to previously, Milford also has a Sound. Today’s itinerary consists of a cruise up and down Milford Sound…no walking involved! Huzzah!

Also, we didn’t have to get up bone-crackingly early. We still had to be up early-ish, though, as the cruise left at 8:30am, and we still had to do the lunchmaking routine, as the return journey isn’t catered at Te Anau. So up we were again, and this time we needed to remove our inner linings from our rucksacks (i.e. a strong bin liner provided at the outset, which acts as a further waterproof layer should we be deluged), and return them to Ultimate Hikes. Our bags were then loaded onto the bus, along with our lunches on our seats, and then we walked (gasp!) the 10 minutes down to the dock, and awaited our cruise departure.

We joined the throng on the open top deck once we were away from the dock, and had a coffee and tea in the morning sunshine. Around us were the sheer cliffs of Milford Sound, or, as the captain explained over the PA, the fjord. Back in the 19th century when it was named by Captain Grono, after Milford Haven in Wales, fjord wasn’t in the English lexicon. But it is a fjord, as it was created by glaciation, so it should properly be called Milford Fjord. There were waterfalls, there were blue skies, there were mountains. And then the captain told us there was a pod of dolphins up ahead, and he manoeuvred us into viewing position so that we could take pictures. Further on there was also a seal colony. He took us out almost to the opening of the fjord, with views out over the Tasman Sea – if you keep going you’ll eventually hit West Island – then turned us around, took us in for another close-up view of the seal colony, and also into the spray of one of the waterfalls.

So long...

New Zealand seal prefers kipping on its back

The rest of the day was spent on the bus back to Te Anau, and then Queenstown, where we arrived at around 3:30pm. Knackered as we were, we took a taxi up to the hotel, got ourselves organised, and headed down the hill again for a final swan around Queenstown and dinner at Public Kitchen and Bar, where they serve you a whole pavlova if you order it as dessert.

Day 6

Wait, whut? OK, not part of the tour, but we had a final appointment in Queenstown before we moved on. We (Nicola) had had the foresight to book us a relaxing massage for after the walk, so we checked out of the hotel for the last time, and took a taxi again down to the CBD. It was noticeable how much more traffic there was after Christmas compared to before, and the familiar Queenstown traffic jam up Frankton Road/Stanley Street was in force. We made it with minutes to spare. Our taxi driver, clearly a canny operator, had elicited from us the information that we were leaving today, and arranged to pick us up to take us to the airport later…good fares to the airport and back being meat and drink to her.

After the massage we lollygagged around Queenstown until lunchtime. The queue outside Fergburger was also back in force, although not at pre-covid lengths, so we dived into the bar next door, London Underground, and had a lunch of pasta and burger there instead.

That was about it for our Christmas adventure. Back onto a plane and back home before 5:00pm, and looking in the diary to see what was happening next.

 

A note on the weather: Milford Track, Milford Sound, and Fiordland generally experience a lot of precipitation. Rainfall averages 7m annually, with over 200 rain days. We were very lucky with the weather, with a shower in the afternoon of Day 2, and some light snow/hail on Day 3. Otherwise we were dry, and sunny most of the time. This is unusual. Many people do the track in pouring rain the whole time, and their enthusiasm for the hike can be somewhat dampened by this. We were prepared for rain, but were lucky not to really experience any significant amounts.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Milford Track Pt. 2

Day 3

This is where it starts to get serious. A 6:00am start, as we had some uphill to do in the morning. Day 3’s level of difficulty is described as “challenging” (Day 1 was “easy”, Day 2 “moderate”). The first part of the ascent is OK. You stop for a B&B (bladder and bottle stop – empty one, fill the other. Make sure to get this the right way round), and then begin the zigzag route up to Mackinnon Pass, the highest point of the track. It’s important to be prepared for weather on this section. I’d started off fully togged up, but actually found this too hot, so stripped off waterproof layers and walked in just two layers until we were about halfway up. By then the temperature had dropped significantly as we rose up towards 1,000m above sea level, and it was time to start putting clothes back on. By the time we reached the Mackinnon Memorial we were at 1,154m (for comparison, Ben Nevis is 1,345m). We stopped there for a hot drink (yes, there was a guide who’d got there ahead of us whilst also carrying three thermos flasks), and admired the views. There was a family of weka who hang around there, with a couple of chicks. From the memorial it’s a short walk to the Pass Hut, where we had lunch.

We're heading up there?

Weka mum with chicks

At the top

From the top it’s possible to look back to where we’d come from, and also to look forward and see the next hut far, far below. At this height in the mountains the weather is quite unpredictable, and can differ markedly from the bland symbol on the weather forecast which covers an area of several thousand square kilometres. Fortunately we’d brought gear for most eventualities, so after lunch we togged up again and began the descent. As we did so, a light snow/hail shower came along, and for the first time on the walk I needed to put gloves on, as well as hat and hood on my coat. As we came lower the weather eased and became warmer, and eventually we were able to remove coats again.

Descending sounds easy, huh? Especially after ascending. Not so. The downhill is as difficult, if not more so, than the morning’s ascent. The only saving grace is that it was shorter – a mere 3.5 miles! The tracky is rocky, stony, and with some parts you literally have to climb down a rock face. One part is so hazardous that they have (gasp!) put up a barrier on the outside of the track! I know, unheard-of! Some of the descent was via a series of steps alongside the Anderson Cascades.


About one mile out from the hut, and still descending painfully, we had another issue to contend with: the sole on one of Nicola’s shoes decided to make a UDI1 and try to form a new, breakaway shoe. This slowed her down considerably, but there was nothing to do except carry on and hope it stayed together until we got to the lodge, where repairs could be made. I was pretty much hobbling along myself by this point, with the accumulated stresses of coming downhill weighing on my legs, knees and feet. Finally we saw a sign… “that’d better not say ‘Hut 20 mins’” I said to myself, but luckily it read “Quintin Lodge 2 mins”, so we staggered the final few metres and collapsed in a heap.

One of the guides was there to greet us. “Are you coming on the walk to Sutherland Falls?” she brightly enquired. This is a side walk, 1½ hours’ duration, to see the world-famous2 Sutherland Falls. We managed to convey our enthusiasm for this without resorting to swearing, and began the process of repair and recovery, involving hot showers, sending the offending boot to Doctor Ted3, expert in mending all kinds of equipment, laundering our clothes, then settling in the bar with a cold beer before dinner.

The rest of the evening followed the same routine as the previous days, and we chivvied the guide to make the presentation for the next day as quick as possible, as everyone by this stage was ready to hit the hay.

Day 4

This is the last day of walking, and thankfully it’s (a) mostly flat, and (b) mostly on well-maintained track. There are a few rocky sections, but much easier than Day 3. Before we set out, however, we had to recover Nicola’s boots, which had been magically fixed up overnight with glue, zip ties, and sticking plaster. They didn't look pretty, but they only had to make it through the day. 

All strapped up with some place to go

After the usual lunchmaking and breakfast routine, we packed ourselves up and set out at 7:30 because, although this is an easy day’s walk, it’s also the longest, at 13.5 miles. That’s a half-marathon. We stopped by the river at Giant’s Gate Falls for lunch. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and also an area of outstanding numbers of sandflies. We’d been advised to sit in the spray of the nearby waterfall as this would keep the sandflies away, but this was limited in success. We’d exhausted our supply of OFF! By this stage, so were reliant on another sandfly repellent, a “natural” one. “Natural” in this case means, “doesn’t work, naturally”. Give me science-based repellents every time.

The thing with sandfly bites is to not scratch them. They’re intensely itchy for a short while, but go down pretty quickly; unfortunately leaving a red mark which hangs around for days, if not weeks. I take antihistamines throughout the summer anyway for hay fever, so having antihistamine flowing through my veins helps to control them too.

Wherever humans stop and gather in the bush, so do weka, and as we were preparing for lunch there was a cry of “Oi! Come back!” from one of our group. Too late, alas, as an opportunistic weka had made off with an unattended sandwich. Consider it a learning experience.

After lunch we walked along the level track to Sandfly Point. Not a name which inspires confidence or joy, but at least there was a hut at the end, so we could close the door on them. Or we could, if people didn’t keep arriving, and politely holding the door open whilst the rest of their group caught up…to constant shouts of “SHUT THE DOOR!” from the rest of us in the hut.

The boat runs across Milford Sound to Mitre Point from here. As you arrive, you register on a whiteboard as the boat only holds 20, and it’s strictly first come first served. We were 18th  and 19th back, so got on the next sailing. We were also issued with a room key as the lodge where we stay this night is not an exclusive Ultimate Hikes one.

When we got off the boat at Mitre Point there was a bus to drive us up the hill, saving us a final 10 minute walk. Nicola’s boots had survived, but were now due to consigned to the “Boot Graveyard” where old boots go to die.

So that’s it. Captain’s log, stardate 20.12.27: Milford Track completed.

1 Universal Declaration of Independence
2 World-famous in New Zealand
3 Not a real doctor

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Milford Track

Day 1

We packed our rucksacks, checked out of the hotel, and walked down into the CBD to meet the Ultimate Hikes bus at 9:00am. There we met with our guide team for our walk – Lara, Ted, Susan and Poppy. After dealing with an equipment emergency (a pair of shorts that refused to stay done up), we set out. The first stage of the Milford Track is actually getting to the start, mostly accomplished by bus. We stopped off at Te Anau for some lunch, and were entertained on the way by the driver giving us some history and “facts” about takahē (he got some of them wrong), and the region in general, before arriving at the pier at the end of Lake Te Anau. The final section of the journey to the start of the track is by boat along the lake. When we disembarked at the other end we sorted through the rucksacks to find ours, then set off on the short (one mile) section of the track to the first night’s accommodation, Glade Lodge. Already we’d been treated to some wildlife sightings – a pāpango on the lake with two ducklings, as well as numerous pūtangitangi from the bus – but we then went for a nature walk with one of the guides. We posed for out group photo, then split into four groups and headed off into the bush for an hour or so, with the guide (Susan, in our case) providing commentary on flora, fauna and fungi along the way. Naturally I asked lots of questions about what we were likely to see and where! We got to the Glade Burn, then turned back and headed into the lodge. We washed our clothes and dried them in the drying room, then headed for drinks, dinner, a briefing about the following day’s timings and weather forecast. We also introduced ourselves to the rest of the group, and our guides did likewise. Tomorrow, we begin walking proper.

Glade Lodge

Day 2

We were up what we thought was early, but turned out to be quite late compared to following days, at 7:00am. You can get up earlier but there’s not much point because that’s when the generator switches on, so there’s no hot water for showers before then. The day starts with lunchmaking, then breakfast. Packs need to be repacked to ensure that what you’re likely to need the most is near the top of the pack, and around 8:30 we set off for 10 miles that constitute Day 2. This is mostly over level ground, with a well-made track. There are a few rocky sections where you have to watch your footing but for the most part it’s easy walking, and we were able to look around ourselves and enjoy the scenery and the wildlife. The beginning of the track was across the river by bridge where we again saw pāpango. Shortly after was a side loop to a wetland area where we saw potato orchid and sundew – carnivorous plants. Along the way we saw the usual suspects – tūī, kererū, and pīwakawaka, and we were looking out for miromiro (tomtit) and tītitipounamu (rifleman). We saw the former and heard the latter. Towards the end there was a bit of a rocky uphill section, but we made it up OK and into the Pompolona Lodge. The evening followed the same format as before, and an early night as we had a big day ahead of us.

Let someone else use your camera and they'll focus on the river


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Luging

Amazingly, we’ve been to Queenstown several times but have yet to go on the luge! Time to rectify this glaring error.

After getting back from paragliding, we pottered around Queenstown a bit looking for last-minute necessities, then had lunch at Prime, overlooking Lake Wakatipu. Then we (I) had an icecream at Patagonia (Nicola had had one in the morning whilst I was up in the air), bought tickets in town for the gondola and luge, and headed up the hill to the start of the gondola. This takes you up the hill to the lookout, so we looked out over Queenstown before taking another lift (uncovered, this time) to the start of the luge track.

The luge is a simple vehicle: it has a lever at the front, which you push forward to go (under the force of gravity) and pull back on to slow down. You also steer with it. First-timers are obliged to take the easy, blue track for their first run, in order to get the hang of it. The second time you can tackle the harder red run. The assistants ensure you know what you’re doing, and then you’re off! It’s like go-karting but without an engine. When you get to the bottom, you get out and go round again! Once is never enough. Also, the minimum number of rides you can buy is two…but you can buy as many as you like. We did the two rides, and congratulated ourselves on our adventurousness.

 


In the late afternoon, we assembled with our co-trampers for a briefing at Ultimate Hikes about what to bring, what to do, and general preparedness for the Milford Track. We collected rucksacks and linings, and took these back to the hotel. Then we went out for dinner at Bella Cucina, a nice little Italian restaurant where Nicola had gnocchi and lemon sorbet, whereas I had papardelle con frutti de mare and tiramisu. Yes, all mixed together. Now we’re back packing up for the trip and I thought I’d better commit this to blog because by the time I get back it will be a distant memory.

Tomorrow we go dark for five days. See you on the other side.

 

Coronet Peak Tandem

Queenstown calls itself “the adventure capital of New Zealand”, and the options for throwing yourself out of or from high places are many and varied: bungy jumping, skydiving, paragliding, hang-gliding are the main ones. I decided to throw myself off a mountain…but taking the precaution of having a man strapped to me, and a parachute strapped to him.

We met up in town at the designated time, 10:45, and were driven to the top of Coronet Peak, the highest point in the city of Queenstown. We’d originally planned for Nicola to come along as well on photography duty, but it turns out that coming down from the mountain by parachute is quicker than the winding road by bus, so she’d’ve missed my descent and landing anyway. So I abandoned her in Queenstown and went off with three other customers. As we stepped into the bus we were weighed, to make sure we hadn’t been lying on our booking (there’s a maximum weight restriction), and allocated a pilot. We picked up our pilots halfway up the road to Coronet Peak and introduced ourselves. I was with René from Czechia.

We arrived at our jumping-off point, and it’s exactly that: there’s no building, just a patch of gravel with an astroturf runway downhill. The pilots readied themselves and us, strapping us in to our gear, then their gear, then finally attaching themselves to us. It was a cloudy day so we were looking for gaps in the cloud to make our take-off. The first one went and fluffed it a little (she stopped running before she left the ground), so I was strictly enjoined not to do the same thing, and keep running! A gap opened in the cloud, the other pilot shouted “Go!”, and I started running downhill on the strip. Before I’d gone less than ten metres we were off the ground, but I kept running for comic effect.

And that’s it! We’re airborne! René was controlling the wing, and we did a bit of swooping and turning. René was also taking pictures, pointing his GoPro selfie stick in all directions and getting all the angles. After a while he asked if I’d like to take control of the wing, got me holding both the handles, and then I did some turns, pulling down and releasing on his commands to execute 90° turns left and right.

 

Me on the controls

As we approached the landing field René did some big swoops, rollercoaster-ride style, before coming in fast, almost clipping the top of the grass, then pulling up to a stall. “Feet down!” he shouted, and I did so, and was standing on the grass. We’d been airborne for around 15 minutes and, as expected, the bus was still not here. So we unclipped, unharnessed, and René packed away his wing. We looked at the photos and transferred them to my phone, for a fee. After a short while, Julia turned up in the bus and we rode back into Queenstown, again dropping the pilots off halfway down.

All jolly good fun, exciting, and not even a little bit scary! Oo-er! I’ll probably do it again next time we’re in Queenstown.

 

Queenstown 2020

We were up at sparrow fart to get on a plane down to Queenstown at 9:10. Thanks to our trip to Costa Rica earlier this year (was it really this year? It seems like a lifetime ago!), we’ve got plenty of airpoints and dollars, so our silver status entitled us to Koru Lounge entry. This includes breakfast, so we got there early to be able to take our time.

The flight down was a little bumpy, but we landed without fuss and took a cab to our hotel before heading out into town. We’re centrally located so walking is not a problem. We picked up a couple of things we wanted for our expedition in two days’ time on the Milford Track. We’ve got a couple of days in Queenstown before we set out on Christmas Eve.

The obvious spot for lunch in Queenstown is Fergburger. This has become an institution and usually entails a queue down the street and an hour-long wait for your food as they run a non-stop burger production from their kitchen. Nowadays, however, without the thousands of overseas tourists who usually throng the streets of Queenstown, we were able to march smartly up, order our burgers, and wait barely 10 minutes (roughly the time it takes to cook them) before they were ready. Queenstown is still busy, but not quite as manic as is usual at this time of year (and in fact the whole of the summer). We have taken the precaution of making sure we have bookings for dinner for all our nights here.

Look...no queues!

After lunch we took a walk through Queenstown Gardens, along the lake front and then through the forest and gardens, where people were playing frisbee golf on the specially-designed course.

In the evening, we went out to Botswana Butchery on the lake front. This is one of Queenstown’s top dining experiences, complete with waiters with poncy French accents. Fortunately they didn’t have French waiter attitude, but were very polite and efficient. We had cocktails followed by a steak (me) and hāpuku (Nicola). As their speciality is their meat, they have a regular menu, and a “little black book” updated daily with various cuts that they have only available on that day. I went for the Wakanui eye fillet, with green peppercorn sauce. The puddings were also up to scratch, I had chocolate and Nicola had a tarte tatin.

That about wrapped up Day 1. Tomorrow, I jump off a mountain.