The Great Walks of New Zealand are centred around the country’s most iconic and celebrated landscapes. The nine carefully cultivated tracks are a perfect highlights reel of the natural and cultural beauty the islands have to offer. Each of the nine tracks has unique characteristics and differing levels of difficulty. Facilities on these trails can be expected to be of a higher standard than those found in the backcountry. Huts are large, holding up to fifty people in some cases. The track itself is well maintained and easy to navigate in most instances. As a result, the demand for a space in a hut on one of the more popular tracks during the summer months is high. Nowhere is this issue more prevalent than in Fiordland National Park. We would be hiking the area’s two ‘great’ walks, the Kepler Track and the famous Milford Track. Due to this high demand, Lisa and I found ourselves driving the long road to Te Anau in the off-season, with storm clouds ominously gathering over the distant peaks.
It was October, and the snow-covered south island was slowly breaking free of its icy shackles. Rivers flowed high and fast, trees and wildflowers had awoken to the first signs of Spring. We were feeling reinvigorated and keen to begin a long summer of hiking. We would need our wits about us. Conditions would be difficult on the track. The weather could be wildly temperamental, and there would be a single volunteer park ranger monitoring the whole 60km track.
Day One: Te Anau to Luxmore Hut
After a weather briefing from the staff at the Department of Conservation (DOC), we were left with no illusions of the task ahead of us. Strong winds of up to 80kph would batter Mount Luxmore and the surrounding peaks on the second day of our hike. At ground level, it was hard to believe. It was lunchtime when we began the hike, and the dark clouds of the morning had disappeared, replaced by a bright blue sky and pleasant breeze. Prompted by the promise of bad weather, our large packs were heavier than I would have liked. Warm layers, thick water-proof jackets and extra food supplies joined our sleeping bags and mats in the depths of our bags.
From our start point to Luxmore hut, the distance covered would be around 15km. The track initially ambled around the beautiful shore of the vast Lake Te Anau. After an hours walk through thick beech forest, we reached Brod Bay Campsite, a spot that would be idyllic were it not for the swarms of sandflies hovering above us. The path gradually steepened, and gnarled roots of ancient trees crawled over the track. It was a hot and close atmosphere within the forest. Occasionally we were allowed a flash of blue, from either sky or lake, before the dense trees closed in once more.
Late in the afternoon, we reached the bushline. The climb had been challenging, but the panoramic views of our surroundings were a great reward. With the sun beginning its slow slide out of the sky, we reached Luxmore Hut. From afar, the impressive structure appeared precariously placed at the top of a slope. Large stilts supported the hut, demonstrating the thick snow that must cover the area in the depths of winter. It appeared a powerful gust of wind could send the hut hurtling down the mountainside.
Further up the slope were the Luxmore Caves. After briefly exploring the darkness, we removed our head-torches and made our way to our night’s accommodation. The hut was by no means empty. An Australian couple, who had walked the route from the opposite direction were holding court in the common room, with six others listening intently. An elderly lady was preparing a meal in the kitchen, and to our surprise, it transpired she was the volunteer hut warden. “The others arrive this weekend” was her cheerful response when asked about who was patrolling the track. Armed with a radio and a walkie-talkie, she encouraged everyone to sign the logbook to gauge numbers of hikers arriving and departing that week.
Day Two: Luxmore Hut to Iris Burn Hut
Fiordland National Park experiences, on average, 200 days of rainfall a year. Summer temperatures range between 5-9 degrees at altitude. It would have been naive to expect a pleasant three-day stroll with uninterrupted sunshine. Today, we would receive a lesson in what it takes to battle the elements in the mountains.
The weather had closed in. Thick cloud had rolled in over the slopes. The wind was rattling windows and beating on the door. Despite it being just after sunrise, other hikers were already strapping on their rucksacks and zipping up jackets while we ate breakfast. The weather was not going to improve, so an early start would be essential. Gazing out of the window, the thought of being stuck inside all day was an altogether more appealing prospect than fighting the wind up on the further ridgeline.
Typically, the route along the ridgeline that day would take 5-6 hours walking. Factoring in the difficult conditions that would only get worse, we began our day’s journey as quickly as possible. Our path began to climb the flank of Mount Luxmore. The higher we went, the thicker the snow became. It became impossible to follow the path. Instead, we relied upon bright orange marker posts to guide us. Fortunately, these posts were placed at regular intervals. I began to slip often as my boots failed to gain traction on the snowy ground. Rounding the corner of the mountain, we were exposed to the full force of the wind. I was temporarily pressed against the rocky wall to my left. We had been warned about this section of the track the previous evening. The warden had advised us that if the snow was too thick, we should turn back. I had read of two hikers perishing in an avalanche here the previous winter. Despite the potential danger, we were having so much fun. Lisa was leading the way, and would occasionally turn back to me, almost laughing at how the wind was hammering into us. Ice cold rain and razor-sharp sleet pummelled and punched us as we navigated the undulating path along the ridge.
On a clear day, wide-ranging views of peaks and fiords would have drawn the eye whilst we walked. Instead, visibility further than ten metres in front of us was not possible. After an hour we began to catch glimpses of bright blue water thousands of feet below us. The basic Forest Burn Shelter offered us brief respite from the wind, and conditions began to gradually ease as midday approached. The path was very narrow now, and we made way for a group of six hikers coming in the other direction. No words were spoken, but their tired faces and drenched jackets said it all.
Surprisingly, the familiar cry of a Kea could be heard over the howling wind. These alpine parrots are incredibly resilient and maintain a cheerful curiosity in the face of the most adverse conditions. The sound of their calls encircled us, and a Kea was walking towards us down the narrow path. Once the bird realised we had no food to offer, it spread its green wings, revealing a bright orange streak, and expertly drifted with the wind high into the air. The call of these majestic birds would be a welcome sound during this difficult day.
The rain had now penetrated our waterproof layers, and we were starting to feel very cold. Weaving up and down slopes, we reached Hanging Valley shelter, another rudimentary shelter, just big enough to fit the both of us. Here we refuelled and made a warm drink. The weather had afforded us few views of the spectacular national park all day. Indeed, our close-fitting hoods and bowed heads had meant we were walking very much with tunnel vision. This was no bad thing, as there was a steep drop off either side of the path, so remaining focused on our footing was imperative. By early afternoon we descended a steep wooden staircase, expertly secured to the slippery rock. We had turned southwards without noticing, and the wind had begun to relent. The path now gradually trundled towards a weather-beaten forest.
The path meandered downwards, and at a sheltered point, I stopped to readjust my bag and tighten my bootlaces. Once again I heard the tell-tale cries of a cheeky Kea. Ahead, Lisa had made considerable progress, so I began to jog to keep up. I could not see it, but I felt the Kea swooping over my head. It’s mischievous cries accompanied me down the path. Lisa had turned around, and the bizarre spectacle of a what appeared to be a fully grown man running away from a parrot reduced her to hysterical laughter.
It was a relief leaving the ridgeline and entering the forest. The trees provided a prehistoric snapshot of an untouched and pristine wilderness. Its crooked branches and ancient roots had survived untold centuries of storms, and it was comforting to be out of the wind. We reached the impressive Iris Burn Hut nearly eight hours after our morning departure. The hut sat in a large clearing, surrounded by huge peaks, waterfalls tumbling from their heights to the valley floor.
Inside the hut, a small group of hikers were happily preparing food and hanging up their sodden clothes. Everyone seemed slightly shell shocked by the day’s weather. A newly married couple from Canada told us they had discussed turning back, and considered placing rocks into their rucksacks to prevent being blown off their feet. I hung my drenched clothes up and placed my boots by the fire, and retreated to the relative comfort of the dormitory. Our final day would pose an entirely different challenge. Our aching limbs would have to carry us over 30km in hot and humid conditions.
Day Three: Iris Burn Hut to Te Anau
It was a beautiful morning, and I paced around the clearing, drinking in the views and stretching my leg muscles, preparing for a long day. It was a rush to pull my damp boots back on, as a swarm of sandflies was hovering nearby. Our route would take us into the forest, then through the Iris Burn Valley and eventually along the shore of Lake Manapouri.
The soundtrack of the day was not constant wind or rain pelting my hood. It was of swaying trees, chuckling streams and birdsong. It was idyllic. We felt like the only humans present to hear these sounds in this seemingly untouched corner of the world. Perched amongst the branches was a unique and rare sight. The Rifleman, a bird native to New Zealand, could be occasionally seen amongst the thick undergrowth. These tiny, almost spherical balls of feathers typically weigh only six grams, and we spied on a pair through the long lens on Lisa’s camera. Their position was betrayed by a white streak down their front, and through the lens, we could see tiny, beady black eyes staring back at us. How a bird so small survives the storms that hit the area I will never know, but they have found a way to adapt and thrive.
The day was not a dramatic one, and that was a relief. We passed from forest to valley, and we were finally granted a view of the majestic mountains around us which we had missed out on the previous day. The hours trundled by. As we approached the shore of Lake Manapouri, we reached Motorau Hut. It was a large hut, nestled under the shade of some trees. We walked up the grassy green slope to the hut and stopped for some lunch in the shade.
We plunged back into the deep forest. The canopy partially blocked out the sun, but occasionally a dazzling burst of light would illuminate a dark corner of the wood. Every possible shade of green was on display, and my eyes widened to take them all in. Huge ferns bristled as a gentle breeze blew refreshingly in our faces. Mile after mile went by, our energy dwindling and feet aching. We rarely spoke that day, just walked unquestioningly on, soaking in our surroundings. The circular route eventually brought us back to our car. It had been a very long day, a sensory experience rather than a visceral, physical challenge. The sun was beating down as we reflected on a superb three-day adventure.
New Zealanders are generally understated in nature. A one-word answer is what you will get if that is all that is required. So, when a ranger or hut warden warns you of bad weather or tough hiking conditions, you’d better listen. If you are confident in your ability and able to make good decisions on the trail, there is nothing to concern you whilst hiking in this beautiful country. But overconfidence and a lack of preparation can be punished. The two hikers who had died upon the ridge the previous winter had been young men. We will never know their thought process in those final moments, but an exciting and fun adventure can turn to a nightmare when you are at the mercy of nature. This final day had lacked the drama of the previous one, but that was perhaps necessary. Our time in Fiordland was by no means over. For in two days, we would be tackling the Milford Track.