The Forgotten World Highway photos

One of New Zealand’s most scenic drives – the 155km long Forgotten World Highway (state highway 43), from Taumarunui to Stratford. This scenic route winds over mountain saddles, spectacular gorges with lush native vegetation and refreshing rivers; a rock-cut tunnel; undulating hills and mountains with mainly sheep farming and historic settlements……….. read more

 

The Forgotten World Highway

One of New Zealand’s most scenic drives – the 155km long Forgotten World Highway (state highway 43), from Taumarunui to Stratford. It has also been labelled as one of the most dangerous roads.The road took 50 years to complete and was opened in 1945.

This scenic route winds over mountain saddles, spectacular gorges with lush native vegetation and refreshing rivers; a rock-cut tunnel; undulating hills and mountains with mainly sheep farming and historic settlements. The road was used by pioneer farmers and traders. Unexpectedly, intermittent distant views of the the snowy peaks of Taranaki, Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro float above the green landscape. To accompany this lonely road is a rail track, now unused, that weaved alongside and through the mountains.

See my ……..  Forgotten World Highway photos

 

Tamaranui

We decided to take this route for our family road-trip from Auckland to New Plymouth. Taumaranui is a compact town with the main road separating the town and the railway tracks. We stocked up on food and importantly, as warned by several signage, to fill up the fuel tank. Heed the warning as there are no fuel stations for the next 150 km. This certainly indicated the highway’s remoteness.

Maori myth and legend on the Whanganui River –
Four brothers – Tongariro, Ruapehu, Taranaki and Ngauruhoe adored a lovely maiden – Pihanga. Eventually she choose Tongariro. However, Taranaki had an affair with her. A fierce battle ensued. In defeat, Taranaki fled to the west, gouging a deep scar. A clear stream from Tongariro flowed and filled the scar to heal – becoming the Whanganui River.
Whanganui River

We departed at midday with a dark overcast.  A highway information road sign indicated that the road to Stratford is open. It began alongside the fast flowing Wanganui River. The road twisted and turned along sheep farms and the river. A few farmers tended to their stock with dogs to assist. It was too early in the season for lavenders as we passed Lauren’s lavender field. At 1330, we arrived at Tangarakau Gorge. The next 16km is a windy and unsealed road. However, there is no difficulty with safe driving. This part of the drive is especially scenic – high cliff walls with dripping water, lush green tree ferns and evergreen broad leafs (podocarp forest) and a winding road.   Just past the refreshing Tangarakau River bridge is the rest stop. Not only for the travellers but also for Joshua Morgan – a pioneering surveyor in this road’s construction whom died here. His grave is resting amongst the bush, a short walk from the bridge.

Tangarakau Bridge

We detoured off the Highway into Moki Road towards one of new Zealand’s highest waterfalls – the Mount Damper Falls. The road wound through farmlands until we reached the end. The road continued further towards new Plymouth. The initial walk is over private farmlands and eventually through bush. The final walk is a series of wooden steps and two viewing platforms. The views were stunning. At 74m, it is quite spectacular against a barren gray wall. We retraced our 15km drive back towards the Forgotten Highway. Along this route, a farmer had rounded up his sheep and cramped together in the yard ready to enter the shed.

Moki Tunnel

The road continued its ebb (on the crest of the mountains) and flow  (in the valleys) with the undulating hills. The highway intersects with the Whanganui National Park. The old railway track appeared on the landscape. It too, like the road, wound itself around the contours of the mountains and sometimes through them. Sheep grazed on steep conical hills. The landscape sometimes seem unearthly. We passed through a 180-metre-long, single lane Moki tunnel. Also known as ‘Hobbit’s Hole’. It was cut by hand. On Tahora Saddle, there were fantastic views across the farmlands, hills and valleys including the glistening but partially obscured central plateau snow covered mountains – Mt Ruapehu and Mt. Tongariro. I loved the trees with some colourful autumn leaves still attached to the tress that lined the winding road.

We entered the self-declared Republic of Whangamomona, one of the North Island’s remotest townships. First settled in 1895, it still retained and looked like a frontier town. The centre of this historic town is the iconic Whangamomona Hotel. A must stop place to refuel the body. A wonderful place to stay as well. We stopped for scones and coffee. An adventure company, for a unique experience, operated from here to take tourists with modified golf carts on the old railway tracks to Stratford.

Light was fading fast. It rained intermittently too. We continued our wonderful drive over Whangamomona and Pohokura Saddles and passed through several small isolated collection of homesteads. The were very few vehicles on the road today. perhaps everyday. Winter may not be the best time to travel in these parts too. Several places offered camping sites and accommodations along the road. At Stratmore, there is a detour to see the Bridge to Somewhere. We did not. Our final uphill climb to overcome is the Strathmore Saddle. On a good day, unlike today, fantastic views of the snowy peaks of Ruapehu and the neighbouring mountains is visible from here.

Stratford

It was already twilight when we arrived at Stratford, named after Shakespeare’s birthplace, is a scenic town. With wet weather and light drizzle, there were no views of Mt Taranaki today. In the centre of the main street, a unique looking New Zealand’s only glockenspiel clock tower which performs scenes from Romeo and Juliet at certain times daily. Another iconic building is King’s Theatre. It has a unique cinematic history –  the first theatre in the Southern Hemisphere to play talking movies with sound. Furthermore, Stratford is ideally located as the gateway into the Egmont National Park. From here we headed to New Plymouth. We had taken about 5 hours to travel on the rugged, scenic and very nostalgic highway. This wonderful drive is a passage through a bygone era. A living museum piece indeed.

Several activities can be organised by operators including canoeing on the Whanganui River,  Cycling, Hiking and Rail Cart adventures.

 

 

Hiking the Milford Track


Track Information
Day 1 – Glade Wharf – Clinton Hut
Day 2A – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut
Day 2B – Mintaro Hut Mackinnon Pass to Mintaro Hut
Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Glade Wharf

Track Information

Milford Track is located in the unique Fiordland in New Zealand’s South Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Read about my hikes in Abel Tasman Coastal Track , Kepler Track and Routeburn Track in previous posts. You can also see my Milford Track photos

-an early European explorer described Firodland as “utterly useless except for mountaineers”. Hence, that’s why it is still so pristine –

For independent hikers, registration and bookings are made through the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park. Booking is not only essential, book early as it is popular particularly between December and March. Milford Track had been sold by NZ tourism and is extremely popular with foreign tourist. I suggest booking on the shoulder season – early November and April to avoid the crowd. All booking must be confirmed at the DOC offices either in Queenstown or Te Anau prior to starting the track. Transport can be organised by Real Journeys and Tracknet. The Fiordland weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for mainly for rain and gusty cold wind.

This is normally a one – direction hike over four days. However, due to exceptional high rainfall in February, parts of the track including bridges had been damaged. The only road into Milford Sound had also been damaged. The 53.5km Milford Track had been re-branded as Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience (52.3km). This required us to trek all the way up to Mackinnon Pass and return the same way in three days.

Day 1 – Glade Wharf – Clinton Hut

Departed Te Anau at 0945. It began as a cloudy day as we drove to Te Anau Downs to catch a ferry to our starting point of the hike.

There had been no rain in the Fiordlands for three days and it continued today. One local man said it was a drought. It was indeed, being one of the wettest places in the world. The bus journey to Te Anau Downs passed through pasture and farmlands. The morning sun rose behind the Earl Mountains and cast a beautiful lime green light on the moist pasture grasses. On the west is the shimmering Lake Te Anau. Closer towards Te Anau Downs we passed through native restored bush covered with spiky golden tussock grasses.


Start at Te Anau Downs

After an hour’s drive we arrived at Te Anau Downs jetty – the launching point to hike the Milford Track. This is the midpoint of the 65km North – South length of Lake Te Anau. The views are stunning. With rolling hills and blue -green mountains on the east and west, beyond the deep sapphire blue lake, the Kepler and Murchison Ranges rose to over 1600 meters.

We boarded the 10.30am Fiordland Express catamaran with several other hikers and day trippers. It was still cool as we prepared to depart. With hot coffee and sweet biscuits, I settled in for the journey. Soon after we took off, the reality of the cold winds hit us. I quickly zipped up my newly purchased yet-to-be-tested rain jacket.

With the Kepler Ranges behind us, we forged forward to unknown mountain ranges. A few islands are dotted around this vast freshwater glacial lake. One of them had Mackinnon Memorial Cross planted. The captain slowed down for us to pay our respects. Quintin Mackinnon disappeared on Lake Te Anau in 1892. His body was never found and presumed drowned. A small iron cross marked the site of the wreck.

Distant bluish mountains became more pronounced. We passed fiords and scarred mountain slopes. The wildness of the Fiordand began to appear. Like the lake itself, these mountains are also carved out from glacial actions. They seem impenetrable. Yet, thanks to men like Mackinnon, we too can take a similar journey through these majestic and remote mountains. Early Maori first travelled this route to get to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound) to collect greenstone (pounamu). After an hour plus, we arrived at Glade Wharf, the head of Lake Te Anau – the start of the Milford Track.

To protect the park, our shoes are disinfected at the jetty. With the obligatory pictures at the Milford Track signage taken, we set off. Today’s trek is short, just 5km to Clinton Hut. There was no rush. The trek immediately entered the beech forest. The walk, mainly under tree canopies, was soothing especially with the scorching sun. The ferry departed shortly after. The last of civilisation. The well laid stony track took us deeper into the forest. The familiar flora of the fiordland appeared – soft velvety ground spaghnum moss and hair-like lichens hanging from tree trunks and branches. I recognised totara, red beech, ferns and comprosoma plants. The filtered light through the hanging old man’s beard is striking. Parts of this forest still retained its primeval uniqueness. It is as old as in Gondwanaland.

Once we emerged out of the tree canopies, we entered a grassland. On the left is the slow flowing Clinton River. In the middle of the grassland – luxurious Glade House Lodge (used by hikers from the expensive guided walks) with mountains as the backdrop. Today’s short walk awarded us with plenty of time to wander. The shallow blue-green river flowed under a long suspension bridge. Trout thrived in these cold waters. A paradise duck just splash-landed on the water.

We crossed the first and long suspension bridge. Clinton River displayed several hues of colour ranging from emerald green to blue. Yellow algae on the rocks glowed in the shallows. The lush rainforest reflected in it’s crystal-clear waters. It was a serene setting. The bridge swayed with every step as we made our way across.


Clinton River

The river was absolutely stunning and inviting. It was cold though. The well laid track followed the bank of the Clinton River. Sunlight filteted through the beech canopy. Native birds like Tui, Robin and Fantails greeted us along the trek. I even spotted a Bell bird. At the confluence of Neale Burn and Clinton River, there were great views of Dore Pass – a range of mountains. Bare on top with lush vegetation below.

A side-track took us on boardwalks over a protected wetland. It is a fascinating place, with Mt Anau as the backdrop. Sphagnum moss covered ground is dotted with a reddish carnivorous plant – Sundew (Drosera genus). This is a fragile environment. Other bog plants include liverworts, shrubs, sedge, rushes and lilies. At the edge of the bog are a stand of juvenile silver beech trees.

Not long after, we arrived at Clinton Hut. It was a hot day. Like most trampers, once arriving at a hut, the first chore is to secure a bed. The hut warden, a lanky Ross, was busy doing maintenance work. He reminded me of Gandalf – the wizard from the Harry Potter movie. We decide to settle in with lunch and a wander around. The river is nearby.

Ross gave a talk on a raised platform behind the hut. The views of the surrounding forest, wetlands and mountains were outstanding. Ross, armed with a wooden staff, expounded his knowledge on the flora in the vicinity of the hut and river – including its medicinal use. It is one of the most interesting talks by a DOC hut warden.

The Clinton River flowed swiftly over rocks and moraines. I spotted a rare Whio (Blue Duck), feeding in the fast-flowing river, oblivious to our presence. The colour of the river is amazing. I was in disbelieve that this is Fiordland weather – blue sky, hot and clear day! A place which received over 200 days of rain. Judging the water level, the dryness of the track and surrounding vegetation, it had not rained for a while. Although it is not the best walking weather, Fiordland has a special beauty during or after a rain. Well, this is only day 1.

We tied the laces and hung the boots on hook outside the hut. This is to prevent the naughty Kea (alpine parrots) from ‘stealing’ them. There are no showers in these huts but toilets and running water is provided. Inside the hut, it is a hive of activity – pots clanging, steam and cooked food aroma filled the cosy room. More hikers arrived from the later boats. It was a mixed bunch of locals and foreigners. The hut was only 60% filled. Milford Track is highly sort after by foreigners since someone said that it is the “finest walk in the world”. Mass tourism, like in Queenstown, has its negative effects. Locals cannot be bothered to ‘chase’ the booking. Furthermore, there are other track options and less crowded. Milford Track has a reputation of being the dirtiest resulting from uncaring tourist. Although toilets are provided, they think it is permissible to ‘shit’ anywhere (understandably, in some cases unavoidable). This unwanted behavior has marred this pristine environment.

Like in other DOC huts, there is always a sort of camaraderie amongst the hikers. The groups and loners mingle with the experienced and novices. Everyone had a story to tell. Later in the evening, Ross returned to give the obligatory hut talk. He is a delightful character. With good weather forecast, inside information on ‘things’ to see along the way, he recorded our bookings. After our ready-to-eat Indian meals, we slept early. The stars were out. Nearby is a glow-worm grotto. I gave it a miss. Doors opened and shut; floorboards squeaked with heavy footsteps; bunks creaked as bodies turned inside sleeping bags and plastic mattresses. It is always uneasy for me being a light sleeper. I was quietly hoping to hear a Kiwi bird shriek in the nearby bush.

Day 2A – Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut

Breakfast is something to look forward to. Not only to prepare the body but also the mind on today’s hike. We left early around 7am, considering that it would be an extended walk. Today’s walk will cover 26.5km (including the return hike to Mackinnon Pass).

It was still slightly dark outside. I managed to check out the glow worm grotto. They still emitted light but barely visible. No Kiwi bird cries either. Snorers and ‘movers’ kept me awake. The track continued along Clinton River heading northwards. Ross mentioned to look out for an old telephone post. I missed it but managed to spot some insulators stuck into trees. These are the remnant of the old telephone system linking the huts. At this stage, the track was easy and under tree canopy.

Nearby mountains reflected on the emerald green water and evidence of uprooted trees can be spotted sporadically. The forest is a mixture of Silver Beech, broad-leaves and ferns. Just before the 5th mile, the North and West Clinton Rivers merged. The track moved west from hereon. More open area began to appear. A couple of Kereru (Pigeon), the affable Robin and Bell Birds made their home here. The mountains opened up further.

As we approached the 7th mile marker, the bush weaned, and an unexpected clearing appeared. A expansive view of the U-shaped valley opened up. This is the beginning of the Clinton Valley. On both sides of the track, mountains, some with snowy peaks, rose perhaps 1000 meters vertically into the blue sky. The half-moon was still in the sky.

We made good progress. However, the distance that lay ahead played in my mind. Always calculating if we had enough daylight to reach Mintaro Hut and press on to Mackinnon Pass and return to the hut. It was certainly an uneasy state of mind that is not warranted under the normal four-day hike to Sandfly Point (at Milford Sound). We pressed on. I imagined the number of impromptu waterfalls on the mountains if it had rained. Another unusually dry and sunny day in Fiordland. The track is now through scrub-land. The Clinton River was distant, closer to the mountains.

Ten minutes later, in the valley, we spotted still water that reflected the mountains. This included the Pampalona Ice Fields. Trees, including Silver Beech, had been washed away due to landslide. This created the normal flow to be disrupted and a Dead Lake was formed. The water is darker with organic matter leached from the dead trees. Trout and eels thrived here. Perhaps, someday, with heavy rainfall, this lake may re-invent itself.

Past the Dead Lake, we re-entered the beech forest. Beyond the bush line, on the slopes of a bare mountain, a series of cascading waterfalls – Hirere Falls (about 100meters). Due to the drier weather, the flow volume was low. It resembled a white shoelace. The Hirere Shelter and toilet is tucked under the trees. At the top of the mountains, a little snow. We approached a beautiful part of the forest – the bluish Clinton River with lichen covered forest. I spotted a Kereru (pigeon) and a Tui. It was serene and very primeval.

It is in places like Clinton Valley where rain would have transformed the view – literally with 1000 waterfalls on either side of the mountains. We must be contended with the few we have today.

A single Robin perched on a Silver Beech tree branch, kept us company. The trees here are slightly shorter. Around 10 am, we arrived at the first viewpoint of Mackinnon Pass. The beech forest thinned out and opened into a second canyon mainly with shrubs. Not far away, we arrived at detour to Hidden Lake. The views were stunning. Grasses grew on the sides of the track.


Hidden Lake

We don’t want to push too hard that we become tired by the time we reach Mintaro Hut and little gas left to hike up to the pass. If too slow, the danger is hiking in fading light.

At Hidden Lake, the mountain was half covered in shadow. A small volume of water, like a thin ribbon, cascaded down into a dark lake. The water is icy cold. A pleasant detour indeed. Looking back, we have come a long way into the middle of the valley. It is in places like this that one lingers longer. About 30 minutes later, another signage – Prairie Lake. All of us, wanting to get to Mintaro early decided to carry on.

The track seemed to pass through pockets of beech forest along the banks of the Clinton River. I heard some sound. Three rare Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) – Blue Duck, just landed on the bluish cold water’s surface. It was interesting to observe these birds in their natural environment. Whio are endemic to New Zealand, a vulnerable species and possibly facing extinction. Currently, the numbers are around 3000.

Lime green lichens hanging from tree branches, the turquoise blue river, the white pebbles and the lush multi-hued green forest were all very enticing. This is the magic of fiordland. Finally, the beech forest revealed a second valley. Here it is populated with grasses – like a prairie. It also presented fantastic views of the entire valley. Mountains rose to over 1000 meters on either side as we made our way through the grassland. A single duck foraged for food in a slow-moving stream.

We decided to have lunch in this scenic spot at Prairie Shelter. Unfortunately, the sand flies were furious here. Even with my repellent on, these nasty flies managed to find untreated spots. I hurriedly eat lunch and moved on. It is essential to bring insect repellent. A little Weka wandered around looking for a meal.

It took me almost two and half hours to cross Clinton Valley. Around 1145, we reached the Bus Stop Shelter. Beyond here is a very rocky climb over Marlene Creek. This is a dangerous crossing in bad weather. Best to stay in the shelter and wait out the storm or flooding. The climb can be treacherous. I crossed a movable metal bridge where only a trickle of water flowed in the creek. Red and green mould covered some of the rocks. The surrounding is littered with colourful wildflowers .

Some pest traps lay on the grass. We re-entered the beech forest and passed the Pampolona Lodge used by the guided walks. This is a great spot to see both the views towards Mintaro hut and the journey we had taken via the Clinton Valley.

The track ascended towards St Quintin Falls lookout. Beyond the mountain range is Mackinnon Pass. Heavy cloud descended upon the mountains near the pass. Above the fall, a small ice fields, mostly covered in clouds. As we progressed, we entered another valley. It was denser with vegetation and steep mountains. Clusters of ferns appeared on the sides of the track. It was a long walk as we passed the 13th mile marker. The day was still bright with blue sky.

We arrived at Mintaro Hut around 1320. We had walked 16.5 km so far. Our journey today had not ended. On the normal Milford Track, this is the end of Day 2. However, with the revised route, if we wanted to see Mackinnon Pass, we must do it today. I felt rushed. We sorted out our beds, chucked our packs and had a quick snack. After 20 minutes, we continued our hike. There were not many hikers here. Perhaps, they had all departed. Unlike my group of senior hikers, a group of young local hikers were in no rush. I was sure they will pass us soon.

Day 2B – Mintaro Hut to Mackinnon Pass to Mintaro Hut

We headed to the hardest part of the hike – to Mackinnon Pass. Mintaro Hut is at 700 meters and the highest point at the pass is at 1154 meters. Today’s hike will be about 500 meters height gain. The initial part of the track is through the rainforest. We passed a serene Mintaro Lake. Spring water appeared to fill the lake. There was not much time to explore. Such was our itinerary. We crossed a swing bridge over a dry and rocky Clinton River. Here, the river was not as majestic as downstream.

The track was well laid track through the forest. Someone was cutting grass with a trimmer. It turned out to be Andrea – the warden at the Lake Howden Hut on the Routeburn. After a steady climb, the bush gave way to an alpine terrain (at 900 meters plus). The gravel and rocks laid track gave way to stony uneven track.

The track zig-zagged up. I was slow at this point. Fortunately, I did not have my large backpack on me. I would be truly knocked out. With progressive ascending, the views evolved. The sun shined brightly and the sky blue. It was stunning. A rare occurrence in Milford.

Looking down, was the green Clinton Valley and in front a bowl-shaped valley – Nicolas Cirque. This valley had been gauged out by retreating glaciers. Very little pockets of snow and ice remained. One slope had heavy scaring resulting from a recent landslide. Several trails cut vertically on the slopes. These are left behind by streams during downpours and a rocky riverbed can be seen snaking out of the valley. This would then feed into the Clinton River. No wonder, the river we crossed earlier looked dry – no rain. Walking carefully on the movable large pieces of rock, we ascended.

Alpine plants populated the slopes. A curious Rock Wern (Piwauwau), one of the rarest alpine dwelling bird species, darted between the plants. This included the Mountain Daisy (Tikumu). I caught my first sight of Mackinnon Memorial, to commemorate Quintin Mackinnon, on the saddle. On my left is Mt Hart (1770m) and on the right Mt Balloon (1847 m). With a little more huff and puff, I made it to the pass. I was a relieved. The tiredness dilapidated with the surrounding sight. With the setting sunlight, it was stunning. Within minutes, the clouds moved in and cast a dark shadow. In Milford, some say there are four seasons not in a day but in an hour. It had not rained here for four days now. It is a drought by fiordland standards.

Imagine, besides a single road from Te Anau to Milford Sound and the Milford Track, nothing much had changed for ions. Fiordlands ancient beauty is here for all whom ventured. The views from the slope of Mt Hart towards Arthur Valley and beyond was exhilarating. The memorial blended with the surrounding grey mountains. There was no wind. The clouds moved rapidly giving Lake Ella, an alpine tarn, an organic black and sky blue appearance.

Incredibly, there was hardly any ice or snow on the mountain peaks except on Jervious Glacier (on Mt Elliot). Most of the other hikers were already resting on the opposite side of the pass. Beyond the edge is a very steep slope. I accidentally stumbled very close to the edge. My heartbeat jumped. There are no barriers. It can be very dangerous particularly in poor weather. On the left of Mt Balloon is the half obscured Mt Elliot (1984m). The evening light was incredible. From the edge, at the foot of Mt Pillans (1391m), l could make out Quintin Lodge, a airstrip and Arthur River in the green valley below. The original Milford Track continued through Arthur Valley to Dumpling Hut and eventually to Milford Sound at Sandfly Point. Not for us today though. We returned to Mintaro Hut.

Around 1630, we retraced our steps down the rocky switchbacks. High in the blue sky, I heard a couple of Kea’s high-pitched calls. The bright red colors under their wings visible as the flew past. Both soles of my feet started to hurt due to the pounding from the extended walk. We passed a playful Tomtit (bird) and varieties of sub-alpine and rainforest plants. Around 1800, a side-track took me to a picturesque of Mintaro Lake below Mt Balloon. In the stream nearby a duck foraged for food. Sumant, from our tracking group, was keen to have a swim in the cold water. He is a regular in these cold waters. Not me.

I was glad to return to Mintaro Hut. It had been a long days’ walk – 26.5km! I felt we were always weary of the time. We are not fast or strong walkers. The Milford Experience has been rushed. Today’s walk began with the thought of getting enough time to get to Mackinon Pass and return (before nightfall). Tomorrow’s walk will be chasing the 1630 ferry. This will also be an extended walk. From here to Clinton Hut and onward to Glade Wharf. For now, it was time to recoup, have dinner and rest at the hut. Lovely Andrea, hut warden, gave us the usual talk plus a fascinating story, amongst a few, about Milford Sound. It was Miso with noodles tonight. As usual, stories are exchanged. It wasn’t too cold today. Hopefully get some sleep.

the story –

“Milford Sound or in Maori, Piopiotahi was carved out by demi-god, Tu Te Rakiwhanoa. He was given the task of shaping the Fiordland coast. He started hacking the rocks with an axe, from the bottom of South Island west coast and worked his way north. With each creation, he got better and better. His final work, Piopiotahi – was his best and a masterpiece.

However, the underworld goddess Hinenui-te-po saw the fiord’s beauty, she feared that the visitors would never leave. So, she released sand flies to keep them away”.

Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Glade Wharf

We got up early and prepared to leave around 0730. It is always tricky trying to leave early as some hikers are still asleep. I usually pack all my stuff in the evening and remove my stuff and packs into the kitchen for packing. There is a need to be considerate of others.

By a “natural selection” process – the early and late leavers, there is not much waiting time for the stoves. Everyone has their own rhythm of getting ready, breakfadt and packing. It is interesting to watch all these unique antics.

Today’s walk, 21km, is to retrace our hike not only to Clinton Hut but all the way to Glade Wharf in time to catch the 1630 ferry. They do not wait. Fortunately, my pack is lighter, and the soles of my feet less sore.

We entered the beech forest and retraced our track back through Clinton Valley. There was still no sign of rain. Quite extraordinary. Will climate change here sustain this magical landscape and diversity? There will be no rain forest without rain. Newer species of plants may replace the rainforest. Lichens and moss will likely be the first to disappear. We stopped briefly admiring Quintin Falls against the lush forest.

Just before Marlene Creek, I encountered a large group of guided hikers. It cost’s between $2200 and $3500. These hikers carried less in their packs as food and lodges are provided. Several guides inter-spaced between the high paying guest as the hikers scrambled along the track. I asked a guide at the back, “what happens with the slowest hikers? She sheepishly replied, ” that why I had to wait for them”.

Several of them could hardly move over this rugged terrain including on the flats. Even with walking poles to assist, the unfit struggled to move. Foreigners might join Ultimate Hikes to do the Milford Track without any thought of training and getting fit. Since we are in New Zealand, let’s do the most famous track. They were literally gasping for air and some hunched against the rocks. In my mind, I questioned, how are some of these, literally overweight and unfit “hikers” going to cross Mackinnon Pass? Then, scramble down all the way to Quintin Lodge? Fortunately, today’s hike will end shortly for them at Pampalona Lodge with wine, fine dining and warm beds waiting. In contrast, “total comfort provided in the last place you’d expect – in a wilderness experience!”. Well at least, they will cross over the pass and descend to see Sunderland Falls, pass Dumpling Hut and onward as they will be airlifted from Quintin lodge. Hence, the high cost.

Around 0900, we reached the rocky Marlene Creek. We crossed a series of bridges and scrambled over red and green mould covered boulders and rocks. Further up, we could see Clinton Valley. Lee Cheng and I briefly stopped at the Bus Stop Shelter. The great thing about these mountains in the Fiordland is, the water levels rise quickly and dangerously fast. At the same time, they subside rapidly as well. Sometimes waiting for a while may be detrimental to your safety.

I headed off on a sign posted detour to Prairie Lake around 1000. The others in my group continued (in order to get to the wharf on time). It is a stunning site. The exposed multi – coloured bare marble-like rocks reflected in the still clear but cold water. It is a small lake. Algae and lichens hung onto the steep slopes. Perhaps, during a rainfall, waterfalls may appear and feed the lake. Today, only a trickle of water fell. If not for chasing time, this would make a great lunch break instead of the dreaded, sand fly manifested, Prairie Shelter. I did not linger too long and re-joined the main track and into the Clinton Valley.

Traps are still deployed by DOC to exterminate introduced rodents that is killing our endemic wildlife. Along the track, one tree that attracted me is the Tree Fuschia (Kotukutuku) with its brownish-orange bark peeling off like a Eucalyptus. Having hiked three tracks in the Fiordland, I am just beginning to really ‘see’ the flora of this unique habitat.

The light on the lichen draped beech trees and crystal-clear Clinton River was stunning. The yellow algae covered rocks further enhanced its beauty. The impressive Pampalona Ice Field hung high above the green Clinton Valley,close to the Hirere Falls. We revisited the Dead Lake. With every major event like rivers bursting its banks or earthquake and, in this event, landslides – can alter the natural flow of rivers and re-shape mountains. Avalanches, are common in these mountains and can have huge impact on the track and landscape. However, they do create spectacular sights.

A couple of DOC contractors were having their tea break. These contractors maintain the upkeep of the tracks including repairing the gravel tracks. It can be back breaking job and thanks to them, especially after severe damage caused along sections of the track due to massive rainfall in February, we can hike today. Camera traps had also been set up to understand wildlife. I thought I saw a kiwi on the track in daylight (which is not common). It turned out to be an endemic and vulnerable cheeky Weka.

We reached Clinton Hut around 1300. The soles of my feet hurt again and was glad to have a break. Now, we were certain about the time to catch the only ferry back to Te Anau Downs. It is this uncertainty (timing) that made us walk quicker and sometimes miss the little things. I don’t like to be rushed and this track did exactly that. With my boots removed, and a hot cup of coffee and snacks, I was relaxed once again.

Some might say it is a different perspective walking the opposite direction of the same track. Well, not for me though. Today’s return walk to Glade Wharf is “similar” and quite uneventful. The major difference is the race to the boat and the light. We passed through the red beech forest and the interesting old telephone memorabilia. We arrived at the final bridge crossing of the Clinton River around 1445. The colour is an amazing azure blue to emerald green.

Lee Cheng and I were now relaxed and knew that there is plenty of time to get to the ferry. We sat on the small grassy field beside the swing bridge. We listened to the mellow flow of the shallow river, bird songs and the occasional rustling of the trees as the breeze blew. It was great. From here, the Clinton River made its way and drain into Lake Te Anau.

This track had been bitter-sweet. The Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience is a little too long and saddened that we had not completed the full track although understandable. We had the choice to re-book to another date. The dryness of the fiordland environment may have contributed to a less “spectacular” experience particularly with rivers, streams and waterfalls. This is not synonym with the wet fiordland. However, getting to Mackinnon Pass and rewarded with spectacular mountain and valley vista was great. This is further enhanced by the fact that we had slogged, and feel “raced” to get there.

Again, I thought about the high paying guided walkers. Well kitted but unfit. Will they all make it unscathed to Quentin Lodge. Another 40 hikers from the same outfit passed us and rather looked fresh and excited. They were all foreigners. Some might have the idea this track is a walk in a park. I liked their enthusiasm though.

As I passed Glade House, the wine glasses on the table and waiters tending to guest made me wonder again – do we really want this kind of comfort in a wilderness place like this? With all comforts provided. I doubt any kiwi would resort to this. Perhaps, fear of being pampered and lost that ‘can do kiwi attitude’. If it is not pride, the cost will certainly deter most locals. Personally, to each his or her own – an opportunity to get into the interior and experience the magic of fiordland. We arrived at the wharf with an hour to spare. Today’s hike was another long 21km.

Some of the hikers arrived here in smaller water taxi boats. Ours was with Real Journeys, a catamaran. Looking at the size, I am glad we are in a bigger boat especially if the weather gets a little stormy, as they do in these parts. It was time to unwind, kick off the boots, smelly socks and soak a bit of the southern sun. I walked along the shore and soaked my feet in the water. It was warm but not enough for me to want to jump in. In the boat, with coffee in my hand we sailed passively back to Te Anau Downs. At the beginning of the hike – the mountains were like strangers. This time, I felt a satisfaction that Lee Cheng and I had done this track. I looked at the mountains and wondering which one we had walked past. It is like bidding farewell to an acquaintance. We arrived Te Anau Downs at 1730. A shuttle bus brought us back to Te Anau. Well done to our team on successfully completing the 52.5km Southern Milford – Mackinnon Experience.

This is a wonderful trek encompassing fiords and alpine sceneries. Was it the “finest walk in the world”? Not really, but still a decent hike. The lack of rain and the modified long trekking route, did not help. Perhaps, the track beyond Mackinnon Pass is much more scenic and rewarding. We won’t know!

Milford Track photos

In mid-March this year, I hiked the Milford Track. Not exactly Milford Track but the DOC modified The Southern – Mackinnon Experience. The reason – exceptionally high rainfall in February had caused heavy damage to the track and washed away bridges. On the Routeburn Track, a hut was completely crushed. The only road in and out of Milford Sound was not spared either. This resulted in completely closure of the road. Furthermore, Covid 19 was spreading around the world. A week after we completed this track, New Zealand went into total lock-down (Level 4)and closed its businesses, schools and borders.

However, with repairs and maintenance, we had an opportunity to experience this track, albeit partially. These are my photos of that hike. Please read my Hiking the Milford Track  story in the next post.

 

 

Kinabatangan River – adventure into the wilds of Borneo

Table of Contents
Sandakan-a-rustic-old-world-vibe
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre 
Sun Bear Conservation Center 
Kinabatangan River Cruise 
Gomantong Caves
Rainforest Discovery Center
Sandakan Memorial Park

Kinabatangan River is the second longest in Malaysia (563km) and drains into a wide delta and into Sulu Sea at Sandakan. The river has many uses – serves as a conduit for transport between interior villages and developed towns upstream. Why Kinabatangan River? The area has diverse habitats – dipterocarp forest; riverine and freshwater forests; limestone caves at Gomantang; mangrove swamps on the coast and ox bow lakes. Furthermore, it is endowed with remarkable wildlife, some endangered. In fact, amongst the highest concentration of animals in Borneo. The place to do this is in the Lower Kinabatangan River – with lodges around Abai, Bilit and Sukau. We choose the most dramatic and with abundant wildlife – Sukau. Homestay and river excursions in local villages is also possible.

To see my adventure photos, go to Kinabatangan River.

We took a 3 days /2 nights package deal which included lodging; meals; river cruises and transport from Sandakan and the resort; Sepilok Rehabilitation Center; Sun Bear Conservation Center; Rainforest Discovery Center and the Gomantang Caves. The package is practical and just be taken care of. You can do it independently – book accommodation, organize food and transport independently. However, most lodges provide all the services.

We booked with Sukau Rainforest Lodge and its affiliate Borneo Ecotours. This lodge became the first member of the prestigious national Geographic Unique Lodges of the world collection.  It cost more than other resorts, but it had a reputation of being eco-friendly, using electric motors on smaller rivers/streams and supports environmental issues. A bit of luxury from time to time is great.

Read about  Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Sandakan, the gateway to wildlife, is a great place to hang around, enjoying local fruits and delicacies, seafood and ordinary life. We were picked up from our hotel in Sandakan. Our first stop is the unique Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. As wildlife is threatened by habitat loss to agriculture, profiteering and human settlements, this center is a pioneer in rehabilitation and reintroduction into the wild. More importantly, it is an educational center. To learn and educate issues relating to Orangutan in Sabah.

Our visit coincided with the 10am feeding time. Several age groups reside here. Interestingly, the released orangutans are free to go into the unenclosed part of the forest. I managed to see a wild male and a mother with a baby. It was an amazing feeling. At the center, it was a little crowded with visitors. Watching through the glass room was not particularly inspiring. Perhaps necessary to separate visitors from the animals.  My first encounter with an orangutan was in the late seventies in Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Sarawak. I was a student. His name was Bullet – as a bullet is lodged in his head permanently. Any attempt to dislodge may cause death. He had the softest of palms as he grabbed my hand and walked.  I was nervous. A moment to cherish.

Sun Bear Conservation Center

Close to the Orangutan Center is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. Malayan sun bear are the smallest bears in the world. Again, like in the orangutan center, it is about rehabilitation, reintroduction and education. Most bears are brought into the center escaping capture and hunting. Poaching is a major concern. The bears are in an enlarged enclosure and watching them in a ‘natural’ environment is great. They seem to get on with their normal business – foraging for food. Magnificent animals though.

Kinabatangan River Cruise 

We were picked up by bus (by boat if we had taken the most expensive room – the villa) in Sandakan and headed towards Sukau, on the banks of Kinabatangan River. Ironically, to see wildlife, we passed large swath of oil palm plantations. Its cultivation, for economic growth is equally a major threat to biodiversity, wildlife habitat and ecology. Other threats include human settlement and draining wetlands for cultivation. How do we balance it? We arrived at Sukau village and caught sight of the muddy brown Kinabatangan River. The water level was high and occasional flooding is common. A short boat ride brought us to our lodge. I am always awed and feel inspired when surrounded by dense lush green tropical rainforest. The only sound heard was the fast-flowing river and sound of the forest – insects creaking, bird calls and the occasional boat passing on the river. The lodge has expansive boardwalks, aptly named Hornbill and Attenborough Boardwalks, extending into rehabilitated forest for nature walks – day and night. The reason we are here, to hopefully to see wild orangutan, pygmy elephants and proboscis monkeys while on a river cruise. There is a sense of tranquility, having arrived. Only the sound of forest. Along the boardwalk, high on a tall tree, I sported a nest. It was an elegant Wallace Hawk Eagle. Later, I was stopped in my track by a group of common pig-tailed macaques. They can be aggressive. Butterflies, creepy crawlies and lizards kept me occupied along the walk.

After a relaxed evening snack of traditional deserts, we embarked on our first river cruise. Spotting wildlife on the riverbanks is by chance. Surprisingly, just a short ride on the river, we spotted a wild orangutan gorging itself on wild figs. Its golden hair shined in the afternoon sun. It was exciting to know that these gentle creatures, although increasingly difficult, to see them wander freely in the forest. Soon we encountered the playful and endangered proboscis monkeys or “Monyet Belanda”. They have distinctive flopping nose. They are endemic to Borneo. The mainly live on trees amongst the mangrove forest. They are arboreal – tree dwellers. My first encounter of these monkeys was at Klias Wetlands near Beaufort in Sabah. Birdlife is plentiful and likely to spot the many species of hornbills and water birds. Sightings of pygmy elephants had not occurred for nearly sixty days as our guide explained. The reason – plentiful of fruits inside the forest. I was optimistic. Perhaps a stray or rouge elephant. Our lodge is comfortable and relaxing. Don’t miss the talk by a guide on the lives of the orangutan. Fascinating and informative.

At 9pm, we took the optional night cruise. In the pitch black, only illuminated by a spotlight, we sped through on the river. I had no expectations on what we would see. Perhaps a waste of time. I was wrong. We spotted a kingfisher, presumably in deep sleep as it did not move as the light shined on it. Its technicolor feathers are amazing. I could almost grasp it in my hand, and that’s how close we got! Next, look out for red spot on the water, our guide advised. They would be salt water crocodiles. There are plenty here and they move quickly and submerged immediately. It certainly was an interesting hour.

The next days’ ‘morning cruise was early. We departed around 6am. In parts of the forest, the mist had settled on the surface of the water. It was a dreamy world. However, it disappeared rapidly as the sun rose. We slowly made our way through several smaller tributaries. The forest here is closer. So is the wildlife. More proboscis monkey swayed on trees as the foraged for food. Some with little babies on their rounded bellies. On the way to an ox bowed lake, our guide pointed out to a pair flying birds some distance away – Storm’s Stock. She mentioned that there is only five hundred left. We were lucky. As we made our way through a narrow channel, a small troop of proboscis monkeys jumped in mid-air from one bank to the other. Their acrobatic skills must be admired. They happen to be good swimmers too. Just watch out for the crocodiles. We switched to the electric motor for a slower and quieter cruise. There was a chorus of calls from the black and white Oriental Pied Hornbill.  Further down, a Brahminy Kite (Eagle) perched on a treetop, surveyed its domain. However, the lake is slowly being choked with aquatic plants. Common kingfisher casually passed looking for their next meal. We revisited the fruiting fig tree near the lodge. We were lucky, again, to see a mother and baby wild orangutans feeding on the fruits. A lovely outcome to end the day.

Gomantong Caves

After lunch we headed to Gomantong Caves (optional). It is known for its resident, mainly, colony of the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bats. It was an interesting walk through the forest aided by wooden steps to get to the cave entrance. this is Simud Hitam Cave. It was dark and had a strong odor of bat droppings (guano). These make great organic fertilizers. Aided by torch and head lights, we managed to make our way slowly. I could see the floor moving – giant cockroaches and spiky (centipede-like) insects. Above, chatter from bats. The entire wooden walkway is slippery from water seeping through the limestone. In the middle, a shaft of light and greenery. An exposed section and an outlet for bat to enter and exit. Permanent ropes hung from the ceilings. These are used to collect swiftlet bird’s nest high on the walls. A dangerous and arduous job to collect them. Any false move, a 90m fall into the guano heap below. At the entrance, an owl was perched on a tree branch waited patiently in anticipation. In the skies above, falcons swirled. Why? Well, like us, they too are waiting for the daily dusk exodus of bats from the caves. Unlike us, they want to feast on them. Finally, the exodus began in batches. I could only see them as black dots in the sky. They swayed like music cords. They were in their thousands. An impressive sight indeed.

We departed our luxury lodge after breakfast. We were in luck. Instead of returning to Sandakan by bus, we were put on the boat. Something I hoped for. It was a fast but pleasant two-hour ride through initially the main river and eventually through smaller mangrove forest channels at the mouth of the river at Sandakan Bay. The final section is rough as we hit open water. It was another opportunity to spot wildlife, and we did – crocodiles and proboscis monkeys. Also, an opportunity to see the Orang Sungai community – the indigenous people of the river.

Rainforest Discovery Center

From Sandakan we headed to the wonderful Rainforest Discovery Center close to Sipilok Orangutan Sanctuary. This is a great way to explore the Borneo Rainforest. Not only at ground level but also with an aerial experience via the several canopy walks. Seeing eye level of  treetops is amazing. A bird’s eye view of the forest below. however, with our guide’s schedule, we managed about 1.5 hrs.

 Sandakan Memorial Park

A lovely park to commemorate one of history sad episodes. This is one of three site of POW camps between Sandakan and Ranau. A few articles displayed were a steam engine and a dredge. This is a place for contemplation. On an black obelisk, these words were written –

Sandakan Memorial
In Remembrance Of All Those
Who Suffered and Died Here,
On The Death Marches
And At Ranau

Finally, we returned to Sandakan and just in time to celebrate Chinese New Year.

 

Sandakan – a rustic old-world vibe

I have been to Sabah several times. Sandakan is a new destination. The main reason – to explore the mighty Kinabatangan River on a river cruise. We checked into Four Point by Sheraton, ideally located at the heart of Sandakan, overlooking Sandakan Bay and Sulu Sea. Nearby is the harbour and fish landing base, central market and a walking promenade. To see my photos, go to Kinabatangan River

Sandakan buildings looked tired but have a delightful old-world village vibe about it, especially around the central market and harbour. In the morning, rickety fishing boats laden with their daily catch arrived and unloaded. This include, sting ray, prawns, sharks and an assortment of fish. Ice blocks are transferred from lorries to the market via ramps. The fish market is busy. So is the adjacent produce market. I love markets as they are a great way to soak in local culture and gauge the economic prosperity. Outside the central market, impromptu stalls sell all kinds of produce from night to early morning. It becomes a car park after 7am.

A great way to experience this old town is walking the Sandakan Heritage Trail (about 2hrs) – we started at the old town’s 100 year old Masjid Jamek – a quaint square with William Pryer Monument and the Sandakan Heritage Museum – a steep climb on the a rather unkempt 100 steps staircase through a forest surrounding – sipped tea amidst great sea views at English Tea House with an English colonial architecture – Agnes Keith Memorial, then called Newlands. Once occupied by American author, Agnes Newton Keith, amongst which wrote the Land Below The Wind in 1939 – little remains of an old staircase to nowhere – pay respects at Kun Yum Temple (Goddess of Mercy Temple) – Saint Michael’s and All Saints Church – Sum Sing Kung (Temple of Three Saints), opposite the town field and back to town. A short ride to Puu jih Syh Temple, high on a mountain, provides wonderful views of rustic Sandakan and its coast.

In the evening, head to Kampung Buli Sim Sim for some seafood dinner over swaying water. It is overpriced but you should try it once. There are several eateries to choose from. Ask the locals for their recommendation. My favorite is the out of town, Kim Fung market – from breakfast to supper! Try the handmade Youtia (Yew Char Kuey), Tow Foo Fa and many delicious local dishes. Others include Kong Teck (homemade noodles) and San Da Gen Kopitiam, a cafe style and the food court above the central market, in the old town. You won’t go hungry in Sandakan.

Rhythmic drums echoed through the old town as a golden dragon made it way through. Even dragons use elevators (inside the mall)! Today is Chinese New Year. In the evening, the waterfront is the place to be – watch the sun set and stalls opening for business. After dark – durian, mangosteen and langsat seller occupied the pavements to sell their wares. Nearly everyone eats on site. That way, you don’t pay for bad ones. Just watch out for pick-pockets!

Sandakan is also the gateway into nature reserves – Kinabatangan River cruises, Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Rainforest Discovery Center, Gomantong Caves and Turtle Island. Nature, wildlife, food and cultural experiences in one town.

Tiritiri Matangi Island- a birder’s paradise

I had lived in Auckland for over 17 years and only recently I discovered this unique rehabilitated island in the Hauraki Gulf, a hours’ ferry ride (30km) from central Auckland. It is a 220 ha island free from predators. Early Maori lived here. Western settlers arrived and converted the island into farmland. Between 1984 – 1994, conservation staff and volunteers replanted the island with native flora and re-introduced native birds. Today, it is a bird sanctuary, 60% forest and 40% grassland, showcasing over 70 species New Zealand’s native bird. It includes twelve species of endemic birds. You can see my photographs in Tiritiri Matangi photos

I arrived here with John and family on his sailing yacht. It took us about three hours. We saw a small pod of dolphins and blue penguins. We anchored just off Hobbs Beach and motored to the wharf. A ferry was anchored at the wharf. Large flowering Pohutukawa trees lined the beach front. From here, we walked to the bunkhouse along the Wattle Track. We were greeted with a array of bird songs. I was excited and looked at every tree, branch and ground to spot the birds. My first sighting was the Tui bird. They flew low and fast. A small, introduced and naturalised Brown Quail foraged along the track margins. The track was mainly under the canopy of the forest. I spotted a lime green Bell bird (korimako). After twenty minutes, through the spiky cabbage and crimson flowering Pohutukawa trees, the light house appeared on top of a hill. On the way up, I met Richard – my fellow hiker on the Routeburn Track. A wonderful coincidence.

Lighthouse

At the lighthouse, by the cafe and visitor’s center, there were many visitors. Three quarters of them were day trippers. The other buildings include two cottages used by the ranger and volunteers. The lighthouse, one of the oldest in New Zealand, was built in 1864. A concrete building with a foghorn is located on the cliff face on the north-east. Great Barrier, Little Barrier and Waiheki islands; Rangitoto; Whangaparaoa Peninsula; and the Coromandel mainland were visible from here. On th3 way to the bunkhouse, high above a Kowhai tree, a single New Zealand Pigeon (kererū) displayed its colorful plumage.

Morepoke
Bell bird

After securing our bunk beds and lunch, I headed to explore Cable Track. However, some visitors advised on sightings of the native owl – the nocturnal speckled brown Morepoke (Ruru). Only a hundred meters on the East Coast Track, there were a couple – roosting. A short walk later, I encountered a pair of Red Crowned Parakeets (Kākāriki) foraging on the grassland. A mixture of trees included the Comprosma species and flowering kanuka trees. The track is under the tree canopy and well protected from wind. I had my first glimpse of a male Stitch bird (Hihi) and a North Island Robin (Toutouwai). The track eventually, like all track meet the main Ridge Road. The riots of bird calls is dominated and dictated by the Tui. They are territorial and disturb not only its on kind but all other resident birds. However, they are wonderful to observe.

Tui

My hike continued on the Totara Track and eventually connected with the Kawerau Track with a series of downhill board walks. A black and brown North Island Saddleback (Tīeke) was busy scouring the forest floor to feed, just two meters away. The birds do come close. Old twisted trees trunks of the Pohutukawa, barely recognisable, had the foliage above the canopy.

It was sunny as I emerged out on gravel Hobbs Beach. This is a swimming Flowering Pohutukawa and flax plants lined the shore. Seabirds foraging included the Southern Black-backed Gull and an Oyster Catcher. The ferry was still anchored at the wharf. Once again I followed the Wattle Track back towards the lighthouse. This track is exposed to the sun. Several Tui displayed their aerial skills to ward off intruders. I passed a clump of matured Nipah palms and paused at a water station. This is delightful site to spot birds as they swing in for a drink. The dominant Tui were a given, drinking and having a bath. It white wattle on its throat and the iridescent blue plumage shined in the light. A Bell bird couldn’t resist the opportunity in this hot day either. The crowds had thinned at the lighthouse. The sun was blazing across the grassland.

Foghorn Station

After dinner, I ventured out again hoping to see the rare Brown Kiwi. The ranger had suggested to walk along the Ridge Road and the side tracks. The cacophony of this afternoon’s bird calls mellowed. After two hours of walking, there was no sign of the illusive and shy Kiwi. I was already dark and quiet when I returned to the bunk house. Around 2230, I sat outside, perhaps optimistic, for a Kiwi to wander out onto the grasses. Suddenly, I heard the sharp and screeching call of the Kiwi somewhere inside the forest. I was satisfied.

The following day, I was out around 0530. no Kiwi in sight as I headed onto the East Coast Track which skittered along the cliffs. The Tui were busy and the calls heard throughout. I spotted a pair of Morepoke, heading home to roost. The Tui made sure the moved from that spot.  A few sea birds flew above the cliffs. Along the track, I saw three Tui confronting each other. They headed straight towards me. I ducked and heard their wings flap just above my head. That was too close. I had arrived at the craggy Fishermans Bay. Nearby is a small pond which reflected the dark sky.

I followed the Fishermans Bay Track back towards the Ridge Road. I heard an unfamiliar bird call. It was a handsome pair of North Island Kokako. it is a beautiful bird with a blue wattle under its beak, bluish plumage and a black mask! Unfortunately, a couple of Tui managed to disturb and the Kokako disappeared into the forest. I was lucky.

Kokako

I decided to wander again through the Totara and Kawerau Tracks. I became familiar with some of the birds including the Pigeon, Parakeets and Saddlebacks. A family of Quails, well camouflaged, darted in and out along the track margins. Throughout the two days, the only sound I heard was bird calls and the rustling of leaves. A tranquil environment. With well-established tracks and board walks, the whole island can be walked as ease. Guided walks are also provided. At the lighthouse, I managed to see one of New Zealand’s rare flightless birds – the Takahe. There was an adult pair with a chick. The adults had an amazing iridescent dark blue and olive-green plumage with a red beak (look similar to a pukeko). This is an open bird sanctuary with ongoing research. Imagine, this singing 220ha island is just an hour boat ride from metropolis Auckland. A must do when in Auckland.

 

 

 

Tiritiri Matangi photos

I recently explored Tiritiri Matangi Island, about 30km (an hours ferry ride) from Central Auckland. It is a rehabilitated island and restored into a bird sanctuary.  A birder’s paradise. A compact island packed with over 70 species of primarily native birds. This includes the rare Takahe, Kokako, Mopoke, Tui, Wood Pigeon, Saddleback and Hihi. There are wonderful beaches to swim. Numerous tracks and walkways make exploring easy. On an overnight stay, try spotting the elusive Kiwi bird in the evening. An amazing New Zealand paradise.

Hiking the Routeburn Track

Table of Contents

Track Information
Day 1 – Divide – Lake Howden via Key Summit
Day 2 – Lake Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut
Day 3 – Lake Mackenzie Hut – Routeburn Falls Hut
Day 4 – Routeburn Falls Hut – The Shelter
Suggested Food
Suggested hiking gear

Track information

Routeburn Track is located in the unique Fiordland in New Zealand’s South Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. Read about my hikes in Abel Tasman Coastal Track and Kepler Track in previous posts. You can also see my Routeburn Track photos

The tracks and huts are managed by DOC (Dept. of Conservation). As such, registration and bookings are made through the Department of Conservation, Fiordland National Park. Booking is not only essential, book early as it is popular particularly between December and March. I suggest booking on the shoulder season – early November and April to avoid the crowd. All booking must be confirmed at the DOC offices either in Queenstown or Te Anau prior to starting the track. The Fiordland weather is unpredictable. Be prepared for mainly for rain and gusty cold wind. During my track in early November, we experienced heavy rain, thunderstorms and lightning in the last two days. Avalanche warnings are also high on certain stretches especially between Lake Mackenzie and Routeburn Falls Huts. Particularly near Harris Lake.

The 32 km track can be completed in two, three or four days. We decided to do a four day track to accommodate my injured thumb plus to take in the views. (Having done it, three days is ideal). It is a one way track that can be started from either end – the Divide from Te Anau or the Routeburn shelter from Glenorchy. Walking from the Divide offers an easier hike as the track climbs gradually. Plus, walk into generous views. Start from Te Anau and finish in Queenstown. Transportation to and from Queenstown and Te Anau to the Divide and the Shelter can be organised by Tracknet or Infotrack. For relocating cars between starting and finishing points, contact Trackhopper or Easyhike.


Routeburn track map

Day 1 (Nov 6) – Divide – Lake Howden via Key Summit (3.4km + 2km)

Will, my tramping partner, and I were picked up by Tracknet (transporter) at Te Anau at 0715. It was raining lightly. Soon after entering Fiordland NP, we passed through Elington Valley, grouched out during the ice age, covered with golden tussock grasses. The slow moving Elington River meandered through it. Soon after, we made a short stop at Gunn Lake. On a good day, reflections of the surrounding mountains can be seen mirrored on the lake. We arrived at the Divide, about 1.5 hrs from Te Anau on the road to Milford Sound, around 0830, starting point of the 32 km Routeburn Track with a side track to Key Summit.

At a shelter, we organised ourselves. The weather was very cloudy and it rained sporadically.
We entered Fiordland NP. Its distinct lichens hung from trees, lime green moss carpeted the forest floor with thickets of ferns. The air was crisp with clear visibility. I could almost see the individual leaves. However, clouds hung low above the tree top and mountains. We passed a few Kotukutu trees, the largest fuchsia in the world. It had a distinctive orange bark peels.

This is mainly a Silver Beech forest. We passed small waterfalls and crossed man-made bridges. The track was not too demanding at this stage. Furthermore, it is a short hike today. Secretly, I was hoping the rain clouds would clear when we approach Key Summit as we walked through the mainly silver beech forest. I was optimistic and excited. At the same time, apprehensive. How am I going to cope with my fractured thumb (sports injury just 6 days ago). Occasionally, icy peaks of the Earl Mountains emerged through the tree clearings. There were only three people on the track for now.

Once above the tree line, the Darren Mountains with the Hollyford valley and river stretched towards the horizon. My heartbeat jumped. I am always inspired by snowy peaks and high places. As hoped, the threatening dark rain clouds had thinned. The sun was out. The landscape was bathed in glorious morning sunshine and the sky blue. The flora here is mixed. Around 0930, we arrived at a junction, one descended towards Lake Howden Hut and the other, ascended towards Key Summit.

On this exposed section, we bumped into a bunch of school kids from Dunedin. The tranquility is broken with chatter and friendly banter among these kids. It was great to see these young ones enjoying the great outdoors. For a moment, the track was crowded. Eventually, once we arrived at the summit, the views were stunning. We were encircled but snowy peaks. I was mesmerised by the alpine tarns surrounded with yellow ground moss adorned with majestic peaks. On the west, the Earl and Darren Mountains. On the east – Humboldt, Ailsa and Livingstona Mountains. The clouds cleared, little cool wind and sun warm. I just had to sit and savour this natural beauty. In the background, laughter and chatter by the school kids.

Within minutes, the cold clouds partially reclaimed the mountain tops. This is synonymous with the Fiordland. There is an Alpine Loop Walk. Yellow moss surrounded an alpine tarn. It is a delicate environment. I was stuck like a magnet in this place. Continuing on further south on the trail, there is a viewing spot and rest area. With clouds almost covering the mountain, I was not sure what I was looking at. A small signage cleared that up. The school kids had also gathered here together with a guided group op. I was in no hurry and relished this magical environment. Several ice covered peaks with bare slopes appeared. Finally, I spotted the aquamarine alpine glacial Lake Marian, literally hanging off the slopes of Mount Christina. On the right is an aptly named Mount Crosscut. The Key Summit Track can be done as a day hike from the Divide (3 hrs return).

We retraced our tracks back to the mail trail and hiked towards, mainly downhill and under tree canopy, towards Lake Howden Hut. We arrived around 1130. The group of kids we met on Key Summit were, fortunately, to the next hut. Plus, a group of guided hikers were having lunch and also preparing to leave. Placid Lake Howden is surrounded by lush green mountains as a few icy peaks. The lake water flowed out just in front of the hut. It was cold though. Alert! Be prepared for sand fly. Soon, more trackers arrived and departed.

After lunch, as the sun was still out and bright, I walked along the lake on the Caples Track. It was all under the forest canopy. Bird songs filled the air. Trying to spot them is a different issue. Several streams criss-crossed the track. In an open valley, a small stream cut a grassy bog. The sky was blue and the weather warm. The hut was half full. I looked out of the window while sipping my miso soup, the sun was still out after 1900. Most people in this hut were mainly heading towards the Divide the next day. There were a few going in our direction. Dinner time gives us an opportunity to meet other hikers and hear their stories. Huts are never easy to sleep!

Day 2 (Nov 7) – Lake Howden Hut – Lake Mackenzie Hut (8.6 km)

I did not sleep well. Noises, snoring and movements of people within the hut is unavoidable. I was up around 0700 and the hut was completely engulfed by heavy fog. The surrounding rainforest were transformed into silhouettes. A thick layer of mist hung just above Howden Lake’s surface. After breakfast, we left the hut around 0800. We know there were three other heading our way.

The track ascended from the hut and lead into the forest. The air was still. The only sound I heard was my heavy breath and footsteps on the gravel track. Bird songs echoed through the misty rain forest. In the background, there is a constant sound, the roar of moving water. Either from the numerous streams that criss-cross the track and waterfalls. Synonymous with the Fiordlands, the forest is enriched with with lichens on tree branches and trunks, moss carpet on the forest floor and sporadic ground ferns. Similarly we crossed several fixed bridges. We met Richard, a keen birder making his way slowly. He explained that he had hip replacement just four months ago. Brave and determined man.

Loud roar resonated through the forest. Not long after, I could see a white column of water fall from a blackish cliff face. I felt the strong spray drift before witnessing the fall itself. This is Earland Fall (178m). Resulting from the night’s heavy rainfall, there was a lot of water. The track passed along the face of the fall. Be prepared to get wet. There is an alternative route just below the main track.

Strangely, past the fall, the ground seemed drier. Looking back at Earland Falls,it was even more impressive especially when the clouds disappeared. Snow covered mountains appeared. That brought some excitement. The canopy was thinner here. A signage said The Orchard. It is a flat area covered with grasses, thickets of ferns, flax and small ribbonwood trees. They look like apple trees. I ventured off the track towards a small pond flanked by beech trees. A couple of stunned hares hopped into the bush. In distant background, looming peaks glowed in the late morning sun.

The track zig-zagged along the slopes and the was a pleasant surprise – the Darren Mountains. The range was partially visible with clouds moving rapidly. As the clouds dissipated, the Hollyford Valley and river appeared. This is a perfect place for lunch. I was totally mesmerised by the icy mountains. While having lunch, I was hoping the whole range would open up. Optimistic perhaps. At times I could see the end of the Hollyford River which drained into the Tasman Sea. I dragged away from this fantastic view. The blue sky and sunny day was welcomed. Still walking along the slopes with the Darren Mountains on the west, I reentered the forest. With beautiful weather, I was really enjoying the hike. I am almost alone throughout the track. There were only about five hiker walking in the direction. That is a great feeling. Occasionally I caught up with Will. A. tiny green bird darted around tree branches (later identified by Richard, a bird enthusiasts as the Riflemen). The final part track ended on the flats covered with shrubs. The first huts were not for independent hikers. Its a lodge. Finally, around 1230 I arrived at Lake Mackenzie Hut. There were not other boarders yet.

It is an amazing site. I was attracted towards the emerald green glacial lake. Rough blocks of glacial rocks lay strewn on the west end of the lake. Two peaks loomed above, Ocean and Emily Peaks. With the sun shining, the views were stunning. After some hot refreshments, we headed out to explore Split Rock. There were great views of both Ocean and Emily Peaks. On the west, Christina and other Darren Mountain peaks gleamed in the midday sun. Bird calls echoed everywhere but hard to see. Near the hut, a couple of Kea made their distinct calls. Today is a fantastic day but we were warned of uncertain weather tomorrow. At dinner, we caught up with Richard. There is a sense of camaraderie amongst hikers.

Day 3 (Nov 8) – Lake Mackenzie Hut to Routeburn Falls Hut (11.3km)

Tried to get some sleep but quite unsuccessful. Late at night, the dark clouds that gathered earlier turned into torrential downpour aided with strong gusty wind. The storm lashed onto the hut with lightning and thunder. I was glad that I am tucked in my sleeping bag.

The weather forecast for today is not particularly good with potential for rain throughout the day. At breakfast, I was surprised there was no rain although dark and cloudy. We departed around 0730 hoping to take advantage of the weather. Kea calls echoed in the cold morning air from the nearby trees. I had my rain gear and thermals on. The track immediately entered the beech forest and skirted round Lake Mackenzie. The gravel track zig-zagged climbing steadily under the forest canopy. We soon emerged out of the forest and surprisingly with only a breeze. As we climbed around the slopes of Ocean Peak, there were great views of Lake Mackenzie and the surrounding mountains. The day was cloudy and rain was imminent. Above the tree line, the track passed through a high alpine plateau of tussock grasses and transformed into jagged rocky plateau. Unique hardy plants clung on to survive these harsh conditions. Then it began to drizzle.

The track progresses parallel with the Hollyford Valley flanked by the great snow peaked Darren Mountains. The wind picked up so did the rain. I struggled a little keeping my bandaged hand dry. Tussock grasses covered most surfaces. Icy peaks emerged as the clouds clear. At one point, the track is a narrow ledge with steep slope. Fortunately, a pipe handle, screwed onto the cliff face, provided some support. Sudden gusts of wind threw me off balance at places. On the west, Darren Mountains were almost invisible with the rain and thick clouds. Temperatures began to drop as we climbed higher. The hike was not difficult.

Finally we approached Harris Saddle, the highest elevation (1255m) of the Routeburn Track at midday. Hale swept through as I hurried into the shelter. I tucked in my lunch before continuing on. A few other hikers coming from the opposite direction also made a brief stop here. Unfortunately, my flimsy rain coat tore. There is no alternative rain top. Moments later, sleet dropped from the dark sky. The side trip to Conical Hill was inaccessible today due to avalanches. The views beyond the shelter was obscured by heavy mist and clouds. Fortunately, the orange track markers, provided guide and direction. These are invaluable during poor weather and visibility.

For hereon, we entered the Mount Aspiring NP. After a short walk over sandstone rocks, the dark hued glass-like glacial Harris Lake appeared. Although cloudy, raining and dark, the expansive views were amazing. Snow peaked mountains were almost silhouetted in the background. It was in black and white. Just past the shelter, in an tarn, was a rare blue duck (Whio). The narrow track skirted above and around the lake. With a series of wooden steps, I descended through a lump of ice. Continuous rain had made the track slippery in places. There are great views of Harris Lake and the drainage outlet. A river is formed and flowed downhill. In the distant, a greenish valley. Avalanche warning appear sporadically over this stretch.

On this rugged landscape of tussock flats and boulders , the beginning of Routeburn River cascaded down and meandered towards the rain mist covered valley below. The river splits into fast flowing streams. Various coloured stones including greenstones are strewn along the track. This area is rich in “pounamu” (jade like greenstone). Drenched in rain, the bush is green. As I approach the flats, a loud consistent roar can be heard. Aided by iron railing, I walked gingerly over sandstone rocks. There, the torrent Routeburn Falls tumbled into a deep canyon at three separated sections. Due to heavy downpours, aided by numerous ad-hoc streams, the river had swelled.

Below, a cluster of corrugated iron roof tops buildings. These included a upmarket accommodation and the humble DOC Routeburn Falls Huts. A helicopter landing pad is clearly marked. Drenched and cold, I was relieved to arrive. It was around 1230pm. A quick change, organising my bunk bed, I looked forward to a hot meal. Three Kea birds played on a nearby tree. From the balcony of the hut, the lemon green flats and black slopes of the Humboldt Mountain were barely visible. Waterfalls seemed to appear and disappear on the mountain slope with the ebb and flow of the rain. This hut is an enviable location.

A helicopter ferried passengers to the luxury lodge. It caused a flurry of excitement. Time to settle into hut life. We met fellow kiwis Mellisa and Marisa. along with Richard and formed a small dinner table group. All from different walks of life with a common interest in Hiking. Richard offered an emergency rain cover ( a bright yellow plastic bag). Perhaps, with bad weather forecast, I may have use for it.

Day 4 (Nov 9) – Routeburn Falls Hut to Routeburn Shelter (8.8km)

Left at 8am. Severe storm warning arrived at night. Gale force winds packed with rain, thunder and lightning. It was cold but once inside sleeping bag, warm. After 2 days of little or disturbed sleep, managed to get sound sleep. Next morning weather was uncertain. What time shall we depart? Play by ear.

Morning was cold but surprisingly the heavy early morning storm seemed to have passed. However, those heading towards Harris Saddle were warned of later bad weather – continued heavy rain and plunging temperature. Fortunately, we were heading towards Routeburn Shelter. A Kea just perched itself on a wire just above the ranger’s hut. We left at 8am and hoped to pass the imminent storm. Sky was laden with thick dark clouds. The nearby snow covered mountains were visible. Sound of the falls nearby seemed louder than when arrived. The Routeburn River must have been swollen with the big rainfall. The track was well laid with compacted gravel and the terrain level and descending. We entered the mainly Mountain Beech forest. Fiordland is living up yo its reputation – wet and unpredictable. Streams criss-crossed the track. In places, the track became mini-streams. We walked close to the river valley as the track meandered in and out of the beech forest. It began to rain. Out came the (torn) raincoat. The torrent Routeburn River entered a grassy flat valley and meandered calmly surrounded by the Humboldt Mountains. Numerous waterfalls of various magnitude fell over the mountain sides. The typical Fiordland forest emerged – moss covered forest floor, ground ferns, lichen hanging off tree trunks and branches. Birdsong echoed somewhere in the forest.

Later along the track, the river merged and with contribution from the numerous streams, it swelled and cut thunderously through narrow chasms and gorges. Under one bridge, I felt its volatile power as it cascaded over buried rocks. This morning’s heavy downpour certainly aided to the river strength. We forged through some flooded section on the track. Some via suspension bridges and one make-shift tree trunk bridge. We have now entered the mainly Red Beech Forest. On a nature’s walk trail, tree saplings sprouted out from rotting tree trunks. Fungus mycelium quietly eating away decaying leaves and other plant materials and converting them into organic matter and eventually nutrients to the living plants. The light rain continued. The storm held for now. We crossed a swing bridge and was relieved, from the weather, when we arrived at the Routeburn Shelter around 11am.

We were being picked up by pre-arranged transport (Track and Info) back to Queenstown. Some hikers were just beginning their track. Around 12pm, It poured. I am glad we were not out on the track. Overall, the track is not too difficult but the weather and bandaged fractured thumb was challenging. The Routeburn Track is worthy of a hike in this unique UNESCO Heritage Fiordland.

Suggested Food :-
Food takes a big part of your pack weight. For a three day hike, estimate about 3kg. Think light but sometimes comfort food
Breakfast – Coffee, Oats/Cereals, Roti (tortilla), Porridge
Lunch – Croissant, Cheese, Snack Bars, Nuts, Dried fruits, Dried Meat (jerky), dried fruits and nuts, chocolates
Dinner – Udom Noodles with Miso and boiled egg, Ready to eat meals including dehydrated (western and Indian), pasta with tuna (can)
Suggested hiking gear : –
My overall pack weight for this track was 10kg. However, my camera and filled water bottle is 4kg! I am comfortable with 14 kg.
Polypropylene thermal top and pant
Wind and Rain proof jackets and over-pants
Socks – three pairs (thermal and cotton)
Lightweight Back Pack – 50L – 60L (2kg or less)
Rubbish Bag – pack in, pack out
Cooking Utensils (stove and gas provided)
Inner liners for back pack – to keep dry
Clothing – one change for night use
Gloves – optional
Fleece/Jersey (woolen and lightweight)
Hat and sunglasses
Walking stick – if needed
Sleeping Bag – down with three seasons
Water Bottle – 1.5L/Bladder bag
Torch/headlamp
Toiletries – Toilet Paper
First Aid and personal medication- including Blister pads, plaster, pain killers, etc
Quick Dry Light weight Towel
Shoes/jandals(hut use)
Insect repellent – Deet
Sunscreen
Lightweight Swimming gear

Earthbound Travel Stories