Monday, January 18, 2010

Day 5 - Cruise on Milford Sound

We woke with sore muscles, but relaxed knowing that the big event for the day was a cruise on Milford Sound. We only had to walk downstairs for breakfast and then up the road about ten minutes to the boat terminal. Colin, Liam and I cruised Milford Sound with the Reed grandparents last February, but it was Doug's first time on Milford Sound.

In Fiordland, the mood seems to change dramatically with the weather. We cruised Doubtful Sound with the Kirkpatrick grandparents in April 2008, Milford Sound with the Reed Grandparents in February 2009 and then Millford Sound for a second time at the end of our Milford Track walk in December 2009.

With the Kirkpatricks, the day was wet and misty. The dark clouds never lifted. The whole world was wrapped in shades of grey and deep blue. Waterfalls flowed from every crevice. The water was inky, dark, and impenetrable. The sounds were a spooky, haunted, wild kind of beautiful.

On our recent cruise, the sun shone and the sound sparkled in vibrant colors. The water shimmered Caribbean blue. Green cliffs in the foreground popped against the deep blues of the distant mountains. Rata trees blossomed bright red amongst the beech. The sound looked ready for Christmas!

Our trip with the Reeds offered a mixture of both sun, cloud and mist.

The common question is which should I visit, Doubtful and Milford Sound? I think that there are two factors to consider. First, how much time do you have or want to spend? Second, how remote do you want to feel? Both sounds are stunning and breathtaking. There are fewer boats and almost no air traffic on Doubtful Sound. Doubtful feels more isolated and remote. To reach Doubtful Sound, however, requires a boat ride across Lake Manapouri and then a bus ride over Wilmot Pass. I think the roundtrip is about 8 hours. On Milford Sound there are several day trips, one is about an hour and a half and the other is about two to two and a half hours. There are also overnight cruises on both sounds. We did an overnight cruise on Doubtful Sound, which seemed worth the extra time and expense because the trip to the sound was so long. Out on Doubtful Sound late at night without lights or sounds of civilization, except for a few stars blinking between clouds, was magical. On the overnight trip, there was also an opportunity for a short kayak. When I return to one of the sounds, I would like to do a kayaking trip.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Day 4 - The Milford Track

Wekas were the highlight of the Day 4. The first weka of the day was shy, poking under the bushes along the trail and completely ignoring us. We couldn't get a good look at it. I wouldn't have even seen it if another walker hadn't shown it to us. The next weka was just strutting down the middle of the trail, like a hunched old man. Lucy almost walked right up to it, but I glimpsed it over her shoulder ahead on the trail. Our two-family group madly snapped photos and at the same time tried to stay still and quiet. Our final weka of the day was hanging out on a bridge giving the impression that it was accustomed to the steady flow of walkers and wasn't going to change plans on our account. The weka reminds me of a Kiwi with a shorter beak.

Mackay Falls didn't have the raw power of the Sutherland Falls, but it had symmetry, sweeping lines and seemed to glow and shimmer in the early morning sun and mist. The kids were more taken with Bell Rock, but I spent our break gazing at the falls. Unfortunately, we didn't get a good photo of it.

Colin seemed powered by conversation. He walked and chatted with each person he met on the trail. He sped up to stay alongside, initiating conversations that seemed more free-association musings and questions.

I heard him ask one fellow hiker, "so, do you think I have drank enough water in my life to fill an entire car?'

Not waiting for an answer, he continued on about "how much better it was to hike in Milford with water everywhere than on the Lycian Way in Turkey where Liam almost died without water and the water was brown and dirty. In fact, my mom found a wasp nest in my bed."

Eventually Colin would slow down and fall behind his trail companion. But soon another victim would try to pass him and off he'd go walking at top speed in conversation again.

Several miles before lunch, Colin was running out of conversation topics and hikers when our guide Donna came along and suggested they try to come up with type of chocolate for every letter of the alphabet. Down the trail went Donna and Colin. "Cadbury chocolate." "Dark chocolate." "Extra dark chocolate." "Frosting chocolate." Donna also mentioned we were having chocolate mud cake for the celebration dinner at Mitre Peak Lodge, which helped to reinvigorate Colin.

Lunch at Giant Gate Falls helped all of us recharge. The fine mist from the falls kept the sandflies at bay and we sat at the edge of the pool across from the falls. We only had 3.5 miles to go, I encouraged Colin. Funny, on the trail Colin looked exhausted, but at lunch he immediately perked up and joined Lucy and Liam skipping rocks. I have no idea what Liam and Lucy were up to or discussing on the trail because they stayed out front and out of range of the parents.

After lunch, everyone hit the trail with renewed energy. Colin was chugging along, but by the last mile he started to resemble a weka. He was waddling along, muttering to himself or me. At one point, he missed a turned in the trail and started to disappear straight into the bush. Doug and I grabbed the back of his pack and turned him around. I walked the rest of trail hand-in-hand with Colin singing silly songs to pass the remaining miles.

I started the last day of the hike worrying how Colin would manage and wondering whether he'd be able to make the 13-mile (21 km) walk? His longest walk to date was 7 miles. Along the track there are mile markers that tick off each mile. Colin walked marker to marker. Even at the end, when he was stumbling along the last mile of trail, he insisted on carrying all his own gear. I was so proud of him.

Liam was an ox. He walked unfazed by distance or load. He ran the last couple of miles with Lucy and Donna. I am was proud of Liam too, but mostly I am hopeful he'll soon be carrying my load on our backpacking adventures.

Each arrival at Sandfly Point shelter was greeted with cheers and applause from fellow hikers. Seeking refuge from the sandflies in the shelter, we waited for our boat, commiserated about sore feet and joints, and celebrated with chocolate biscuits! Sitting in the back of the boat crossing Milford Sound under a huge blue sky was heaven.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Back to Day 3 on the Milford Track

Sorry for the delay on pictures from Day 3 of the our Milford trek. We began the New Year by heading up north to kayak the Abel Tasman with American friends, Sarah, Morgan, Colly and Kyle Smith. Sarah and I have been friends since before I have memories. Morgan, Sarah, Doug and I all went to high school together. Both our families reconnected in the San Francisco Bay Area over 10 years ago right before our oldest, Colly and Liam, were born. The kids don't have many memories of each other, but I remember baby Colly in every detail. She was the first friend's baby I ever held. The Smiths are in the middle of an amazing family adventure traveling around the world. You can follow their journey on their blog. Sarah also already posted pictures and vivid account of our joint kayaking trip.

Back to the Milford Track. Day 3 was my favorite day. We hiked up and over MacKinnon Pass, five miles up and four miles down. In the group briefing, the guide described eleven major and six minor switchbacks to the top of the pass. The kids kept close count of the switchbacks charting our progress up the mountainside. With most of our mountain pass experience in the Sierras and Rockies, Doug and I were pleasantly surprised how easy the climb was. We were used to gasping for air at high altitude, but the top of Mackinnon pass is only 1154 meters (3786 feet) high. The tundra-landscape, dotted with tarns, reminded me of the high alpine Sierras but greener in the valleys below. Clouds and mist passed and occasionally looked threatening, but we had a dry, windless day of hiking. We had heard the stories about the group two days ahead of us. They had to hike back down to Pompolona Lodge for a second night, because literally gale forces winds were whipping over the pass. A DOC ranger described parents holding kids down on the ground to keep them from blowing off the pass. Instead, our time on the top of the pass was civilized and calm. Our guide Sam had a thermos of hot chocolate waiting for us. We sipped and soaked in the breathtaking vistas in all directions. Our only worries were the thug-like Keas lurking around our packs, looking for something to steal.

The main trail down from the hut was still blocked by snow so we had to take an alternative route which seemed more of a stream bed than a trail, and on a rainy day would probably have been a waterfall. I carefully stepped down the rocks. The kids scampered down without the slightest hesitation. The last sight of Colin was his orange bump of a pack as he bunny hopped rock to rock down the mountain. I wasn't surprised that night when he told me the bottom of his feet were sore and bruised! Doug, like a gentleman, walked with me.

By the time we reached the lodge, Colin, Liam and their friend Lucy had finished a snack and drink. Colin was snuggled in the sun on the sofa in the main lodge. Lucy and her family joined the Kirkpatricks minus Colin for a walk to Sutherland Falls. Colin decided to stay in the lodge and conserve his energy for the final hike on Day 4.

Liam and I put on our swimsuits and planned to take a dip below the falls. I don't know what we were thinking. Sutherland Falls, if not the highest, is one of the mightiest waterfall in New Zealand. It sounded like a jet engine revving for take off as we approached. I don't think we got within 100 feet of the waterfall. It created a fury of wind and water. Even in our rain jackets we were soaked. We only have pictures that glimpse the falls from a distance to keep the camera dry.

The day ended with all of us passed out in our bunks just as the sun was setting.