All posts by nomad4all

Why travel someone asked me. I replied, simply exercising the enthusiasm in me to the see the beyond! I have traveled to a few places - some just round the corner; mostly remote with a dash of hiking and beyond. I would like to share these moments especially the people and culture, scenery and the landscape with everyone. Please enjoy.

Hiking the Northern Tongariro Circuit

Table of Contents

Track Information
Day 1 – Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut
Day 2 – Mangatepopo Hut to Outrere Hut
Day 3 – Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut 
Day 4 – Waihohonu to Whakapapa

Track Information
Northern Tongariro Circuit (43km) is located in Tongariro National Park, the Central Plateau of New Zealand’s North Island. It is considered one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. However, be warned – it is an active volcanic area. For hut booking, visit Department of Conservation (DoC) and organise  transport.

You can also see my Northern Tongariro Circuit photos.

This is a loop track which can start from Whakapapa either clockwise (as described below) or counter clockwise. Furthermore, you can start the track from Mangatepopo Hut (dropped off by transport) and complete this circuit in two or three days. You can also start from Mangatepopo Hut to do the fantastic one day Tongariro Crossing.  Please see Doc Tongariro Crossing.  Alternatively, do consider the quieter one day Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track.

Tongariro Northern Circuit vs Alpine Crossing •

Day 1 – Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut (8.5km)

We arrived at Whakapapa after a short drive from the National Park. It was chilly. We obtained some information and car park permits from the DOC office. We parked our cars on the main road, opposite the Chateau. The tail begins just behind the Chateau (Ngauruhoe Terrace). We left at 0830. The sun was up and the sky blue. The early part of the track was through bush – grasses, alpine shrubs and tussock. Towards the east is Pukekaikiore and the iconic conical Ngauruhoe mountains. In the west – the majestic snow covered Ruapehu.  In thirty minutes, we arrived at the junction to Taranaki Falls.

We re-entered the beech forest. To the left, a bridge to continue towards Mangetepopo Hut. We decided to see the falls today as the weather on the last day is expected to be stormy and windy. We continued onto the Lower Taranaki Falls Track. This was mainly a bush walk with tussock and beech forest. Part of the track is on board walks. Groups of school kid with teachers and parents in tow moved in both directions of this track. We approached a bridge. Wairere Stream flowed swiftly cutting into the volcanic rocks to form a narrow gorge. The river course continued over Cascade Falls surrounded by beech forest. The track continued uphill parallel to the stream. The snow peak of Ruapehu appeared above the tree canopies. In the distant, Taranaki Falls came into view. The fall is impressive, dropping about 20 meters. All the kids we passed stopped here for lunch. It is good to see them out and about. At the base of the fall, the force was strong with mist sprays.

We retraced our steps back to the junction with a bridge. Crossed the Wairere Stream and continued through the beech forest. Followed by the short bush and grasses. Parts of the track is exposed and eroded in many places as several streams crossed the track. Gullies and muddy paths became a hazard. The track was basically walking over one hill to another. There isn’t much altitude gain. As we stepped away from the forested areas, bird songs decreased. Views of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe were clear. Although the sun occasionally hid behind the sun, it felt like a sauna. More volcanic rocks appeared. It seemed like a long slog across a dry and open valley. Besides the stunning landscape, it was just hard walking. After several accents and descents, skirting along Pukekaikiore, we spotted Mangatepopo Hut surrounded by golden tussocks grasses.  We reached the hut, just off the main track, at 1430.

Moving clouds partially obscured the summit of Ngauruhoe. Mangatepopo Valley was carved out by glaciers from Tongariro. Around 1730, thick clouds descend on the mountains and temperatures dropped. Sam, the warden, revealed that tomorrow’s weather was not good. Strong wind, rain and cold temperatures were expected in the afternoon onward. We planned to depart early.

Day 2 – Mangatepopo Hut to Outrere Hut (12.8km)
Today is meant to the hardest part of the track. We will be walking over Tongariro’s craters and climb the crater wall and into the emerald lakes on the other side. It can be physically demanding due to its terrain and steepness. Furthermore, the weather can contribute severely to its difficulty. We left early anticipating that a cold storm and rain is brewing. Sam, the warden, advised us to leave early. Under a heavy dark sky and thick fog, now invisible Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, we left Mangatepopo Hut at 7am.

Under a cloak of thick fog, we walked through old lava fields densely vegetated with tussock and shrubs. Volcanic rocks are scattered everywhere. We passed a signage – “STOP. Hiking the Tongariro Crossing is NOT RECOMMENDED TODAY due to bad weather”. We continued. Visibility was limited to a hundred meters. A series of wooden steps elevated us higher into the clouds. It continued over a relatively flat saddle, still on wooden boardwalks. This is to protect the fragile vegetation – tussock grasses and alpine shrubs and from the harsh terrain.  The fog accentuated the old lava rocks. In this environment and atmosphere, the landscape was captivating. A bright day may have diffused their appearance.

A flat volcanic soil trail in the Mangatepopo Valley led towards the Soda Springs – cold water falling off a mountain side. A short detour brought me to a closer viewpoint. From here-on, the trail climbed over a good well laid track. Ngauruhoe was still obscured by the persistent low hanging fog. The steep climb on wooden steps of over 300 meters is called the Devils staircase. The track crossed over old lava flows and plentiful of volcanic debris. I first walked this crossing in 2004 and this was the hardest part to climb. Back then, there were not steps or well laid tracks. Just a scramble over loose rocks. The climb is near vertical. Near the top, sunlight sporadically penetrated through the dense fog. The trail all the way back to Mangatepopo Hut and beyond was clearly visible. The base of distant Mt Taranaki filled the western horizon. However, the impending rain was within striking distance.

At the end of this arduous climb, a welcome sight – the flat South Crater (1650m). However, the whole crater was white-out by dense fog. It was still cold and the wind moderate. The dark sky threatened with imminent rain. Fortunately, the flat walk aided by marker poles enable us to cross safely. South Crater is not a true crater but a glacially carved basin. Sediments, eroded from the surrounding mountains, settled to form a layer of clay-like surface.

The fog mysteriously lifted and Mt Tongariro (1967m) and the Red Crater rim appeared.  The ground seemed to be filled with smoke rising up slowly. It looked like a lunar landscape. Ngauruhoe (2287m), the youngest volcano in the park, magically appeared to revel its near-perfect cone. Sam informed us that Ngauruhoe is very much active and lookout for the vent fuming on its summit. As the clouds receded, I managed to spot the furious vent puffing hot steam from its belly. Previously, a steep hike up Ngauruhoe’s summit was possible. Today, it is “tapu” (scared to Maori).  For the Lord of the Rings fan, this is Mt Doom. We crossed the South Crater in half an hour.

Now another serious climb was presented, the rim of the Red Crater. Wind picked up on this exposed mountain. A steady stream of climber slowly made their way up. On either side of this rim are precipitous drops.  Again, it is advisable to stay close to the marker poles. I looked back to the South Crater and Ngauruhoe. A thick fog edged slowly and engulfed everything on its path. It headed our way at the highest and most exposed part of the climb.  Stunning views of Oturere Valley lay below my feet. Beyond that, the Kaimanawa Range. Scattered around the rim and in the valley below are old lava vents, red from oxidation of iron from the rocks. A reminder of past explosive eruptions. Eventually, the storm clouds hit us. Temperature dropped to minus and visibility very limited. The icy wind tossed us around. We kept moving up to the highest point, at 1886m. Only with the aid of marker poles we managed to stay on the track. Views of the crater rim and Tongariro summit were obscured.

We just wanted to descent and get away from this strong icy wind. This was easier said than done. It was a steep descent over a scoria filled ridge. The turquoise coloured Emerald Lakes, a collection of three small explosion pits filled with water, appeared momentarily before consumed by the prevailing fog. A small window without fog provided some stunning views of not only the Emerald lakes but also the distant Blue Lake, the trail towards now defunct Ketetahi Hut, the steaming fumaroles, the North and Central Craters. With good balance and careful sliding over the loose scoria scree, we managed to get off the crater rim. Walking poles can be useful in this steep descent.

The views of these Emerald Lakes are quite magical, literally floating in a lunar landscape. The colour are determined by the erosion of minerals from the Red Crater. Sometimes, they take on a emerald colour. Sunlight also affects the brilliant colours. I gazed at the lake’s dazzling sight. Around 1230, we arrived at a junction – one track along the Central Crater- another drainage basin, led towards Ketetahi Hut (the end of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing) and the right track towards Oturere Hut (on the Tongariro Northern Circuit). I was tempted to go to the Blue Lake but with uncertain weather and impending rain, continued towards Oturere Hut. The crowd thinned.

The smell of sulphur fuming out of the fumaroles wafted through the air. Many day walkers were still making their way down the scree. Ngauruhoe was visible intermittently. We descended into the glacier carved Oturere Valley filled with volcanic rocks and debris. The track began to descend steeply over jagged old lava flows, eruptions from Tongariro’s Red Crater.  Some areas with steep drops. Can be dangerous in places especially when wet. As the track progressed, expansive views of Kaimanawa Ranges and Rangipo Desert appeared. A ribbon-like waterfall cascaded down from the vertical lava walls. We crossed several old lava flows that resembled waves frozen in stone. On the ground, stunted alpine grasses and plants. Mosses took a foothold in sheltered places. On the left, columns of broken stones, packed together to form continuous vertical black walls. These are columns of basalt rocks.

As we descended further, the track was on soft volcanic ashes along unusual volcanic rock formations. Waves and waves of them. It was a matter of climbing one after another. Eventually Oturere Hut became visible. With the anticipated rain, it was a relief to get to the hut. Along the way, towards the left, cascading over the ridge is a waterfall, part of the Oturere Stream.

We arrived at Oturere Hut (1360m) at 1400. The hut’s configuration was strange – there were bunk beds in the kitchen! Cooking stoves are limited. After a quick hot drink, I ventured back towards the edge of the ridge to see the waterfall again. It was getting cold. Storm clouds descended onto the mountains and no views of Tongariro, Kaimanawa Range nor Ngauruhoe. Around 1730, strong winds and heavy rains lashed onto the huts and mountains. I was glad to be warm, dry and fed inside the hut.

Day 3 – Oturere Hut to Waihohonu Hut (7.5km)
I was up early at 0500. Today’s walk is expected to be only around 3 hours. Early morning sun rose above the Kaimanawa Range and the sky blue. A waning half-moon floated above the brown and rugged volcanic landscape. The present weather was in complete contrast to the previous day’s evening weather. Although bitterly chilly, the soft warm morning sun on my face was bliss. A breeze blew from the west and the golden needle leaves of tussock grasses swayed to one side.  I revisited the waterfall as the surrounding landscape took on a golden tint. The conical Ngauruhoe was completely engulfed in dense clouds.

We had the kitchen to ourselves as most other hikers were still in bed. We left the hut at 0715. Just after we left the sheltered hut, the icy wind blew into our faces. I pulled my jacket tight and shafted my hand into the trousers pockets. Within a few minutes of walking, I was completely taken by a pleasant surprise. I came face to face with a stunning view of the snow-covered Mt. Ruapehu. The clarity of the mountains was superb. The hike ascended and descended with the ebb and flow of the old lava flows. As molten lave cooled, it was thrusted upwards and eventually collapsed with weathering. Some over 50 meters high. They resembled frozen waves. The landscape was stunning with volcanic rocks of mixed sizes strewn all over.

As we progress, on some stretches, the ground was flat and covered with fine volcanic sand. As the sum warmed the land, clouds dissipated.  Ngauruhoe eventually appeared with fresh snow on its conical peak. The sight was magnetic. Against a cobalt blue sky and half-moon, it was magical. Views of Both Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe constantly appeared with the ebb and flow of the track. We descended from one giant wall towards a tiny stream in the valley. Like all walks, if you go down, there is a obvious uphill climb. Slowly we climbed up over a vast flat mountain.

Eventually, we could see the Beech forest tree line. After crossing a bridge, under the canopy of the forest trees, it was cooling. a relief from the searing heat. Moss and lichen covered trunks and branches. The uphill track twisted around the slopes with exposed tree roots. Within half hour we exited the cool forest into an open hilltop (1268m). Across the meadow of low colourful alpine shrubs and ground lichens, Ngauruhoe was visible, with the summit covered in in clouds. To the west however, the landscape was barren valley, covered in volcanic rocks. The view led towards the almost invisible Ruapehu. As we descended, Waihohonu Hut appeared at the end of the vegetated area. Beyond that was just rocks. a short walk after crossing the fast flowing Waihohonu stream, we reached the hut at 1100.

Today’s short walk provide ample time to explore the surrounding and take thing easy. We descended towards Ophinepango Stream to explore the Ophinepango Spring. The sun was intense and intensified by the bare volcanic rocks. However, the water was very cold. Waihohonu is the best hut I had experienced. New, well laid out and had views of both Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. With only 1.5 hours walk, the is access to the Desert Road. Fantastic for a day hike, I thought.

Later in the day, I explored the historic Waihohonu Hut built in 1904. People used this hut for skiing. The accommodation is separated by sex. The men’s quarters had a fireplace and apparently the women only wanted a – mirror! Imagine between Wanganui to Pipiriki (by boat). Onward by horse drawn carriages to Waihohonu Hut and moving towards Lake Taupo. Then, continued by steamboat to Taupo. What an incredible journey.

The evening warden Danielle’s talk about the weather was concerning. Gale force winds – north westerlies (50 – 80 km/h) with rain and cold temperatures are expected in the day.

Day 4 – Waihohonu to Whakapapa (14.3km)
At 0530, I was not sure what the fuzz was about the anticipated poor weather. It was blue sky and the brilliant orange-yellow sunrise. Even the half moon was clearly visible. At 0600, Ngauruhoe basked in the soft warm dawn morning sun. At 0640, as we left the hut, a rainbow above Mt Doom (Ngauruhoe) but with dark cloud looming above. Visibility was still god as we descended along Waihohonu Stream along wooden steps. Pukekaikiore on my right remained visible. The air became cold and the wind began to pick up. More storm clouds developed above. I was prepared with my rain jackets. How quickly the weather transformed. This is the biggest challenge in Tongariro. The weatherman got it right.

The valley landscape was stunning with golden tussock tossed around by the winds. However, low storm cloud began to sweep over from the western horizon. Soon we found ourselves too tossed around by the wind and engulfed by the dark clouds. It was 0800. many streams seem to have passed over the track. Bog formed occasionally. Fortunately, a winding boardwalk facilitated our progress. Rain, from drizzle to light, made the temperature to plummet. Hikers became silhouettes gingerly walking into oblivion. In expose places, gale force wind blew. Some area became wind tunnels. My hands were near freezing. I could hardly make out the track. The guide poles were the only aid that can be relied on.

Although wet, cold and windy, the landscape was stunning. A very primordial landscape. Visibility was less than 50 meters. At one point, near a stream, the wind howled through – a wind tunnel. Unfortunately, with very poor visibility, I could only manage slow progress as I was unable to locate the guide poles. My fellow hiker’s hands were now frozen. Every adjustment of gear and clothing was painfully slow. I was looking forward to seeing Tama Lakes as we continued onto the Tama Saddle. It was exposed and windy. We arrived at the junction to the lakes, at 0930. With deteriorated weather, there was no hope of seeing anything. It was just a white-out. We continued towards Whakapapa on the Tama Lakes Track.

The track was relatively level with the occasional steady climb and descent. At 1100, we arrived at the Taranaki Falls Track junction. We visited the falls on day one as we anticipated today’s poor weather. Suddenly, the clouds cleared to reveal the falls, which appeared just of the main track. In the background, the fresh green beech trees. A few meters on, we crossed a bridge over the Wairere Stream. Just a few meters away, the stream disappeared over the falls. The stream looked small, but it plundered down 20 meters. From here, Whakapapa is only an hours’ walk.

We reached the “End of Lava Flow”. On the southern side of Ngauruhoe, on the Tama Lakes area, is where the oldest lave flows stopped progressing. Beyond this, volcanic rocks disappeared, and we entered the beech forest. Away from the wind and partially the rain, on well laid paths, we reached Whakapapa around 1145. The rain did not relent. It is a wonderful track will all of nature’s works thrown in (minus exploding volcanoes). Stunning views of mineral lakes and volcanic fields, fuming volcanic vents, unpredictable weather, structural waves of old lava flows, the majestic active mountains, and the soothing beech forest. This track stands apart from all other track – walking in a scared area surround by active volcanoes.

Hiking the Red Tarn Track, Mt Cook

Red Tarn Track is located at Aoraki Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand. This is a half day (one-way) track with an elevation gain of 300m.

A short drive to the public car park and shelter is the starting point of the track. First walk through beech forest at Governors Bush Walk. With a short stroll, we emerged out of the bush and easy walk across Blackbirch Stream bridge. From thereon, it is a uphill climb through a series of steps (est 1750 only). This is Mt Sebastpol, the lowest mountain in Aoraki Mt Cook NP.  As I gained elevation, panoramic views of Mt Cook, Mt Sefton and Mt Wakefield, the village changed. The vegetation also changed with the elevation.The track twists and turns, always ascending. At one point, the climb is over rocks and steep in places.

With more steps, eventually, I walked onto a small meadow of alpine plants. A place to sit, snack and read the interpretive board. A few more steps, we reached two small tarns. The red (tarn – alpine lake) is derived from the reddish carnivorous pond weed Drosera spp – Sundew plants, that grew on the fringes of the marsh. A great place to see the reflections of Mt Cook (evening). We lingered for a while. A couple of ducks flew into the cold pond for a bit of frolicking. The tarn is a great place for reflection – views and life, I guess.

Beyond the tarns, a track leads up on rough slopes to the summit of Mt Sebastapol. Some serious effort is required for this hike.

The views of the mountains and alpine scenery is superb. This demanding (due to numerous steps) track is worth the 2hrs return climb.

New Plymouth photos

These are photos of our July 2020 New Plymouth journey. This is my first travel to Taranaki. My image of this city is farmland, dairy cows and Mt Taranaki. I managed to see this image after descending from our Puoakai Crossing hike in glorious sunset light.

Please read my Things to do in New Plymouth

Pouakai Crossing photos

In mid-July , my family and I did the Pouakai Crossing in Egmont National Park in New Plymouth. It was an epic 9 hours walk through refreshing temperate forest, alpine swamps, volcanic formations, alpine tarns and ‘Goblin Forest’. All in the shadow of the mighty Mt Taranaki. These are my photos of that one day hike.

Please read my Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track.

Things to do in New Plymouth, New Zealand

Things to do in New Plymouth

We spent five days exploring New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, and its surroundings. Here are some of the highlights :

(1)    Sugar Loaf Islands
(2)    Back Beach
(3)    Mt Taranaki
(4)    White Cliffs
(5)  Tongaporutu
(6)  Coastal Walkway
(7)    Pukekura Park
(8)    Fitz Roy and Bell Block beaches
(9)    Paritutu Rock
(10) New Plymouth City
(11) Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track.

See my  New Plymouth photos

(1) Sugar Loaf Islands

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

Off the coast near Taranaki Port, lies is a collection of islands – remnants of an ancient volcanic crater. In the past, these islands were used for mining, fishing and hunting. These eroded, now, uninhabited sea stacks and five islands (Mataora, Motuotamatea, Pararaki, Motumahanga and Moturoa) form the Sugar Loaf Islands (Ngā Motu). The rest of the coastline is exposed to the wild sea. Below the water – reefs, cliffs and canyons attract a variety of marine creatures. On the protected islands, is the domain of birds and mammals. The “sugar” is the bird guano that used to be collected from these islands.

There is a wonderful view point just past Paritutu Rock on the coastal road towards Oakura. A wooden step can be used to descend onto the beach (Back Beach). Just be aware of the tide. Today’s wet, windy and cloudy weather was challenging.

For information, please refer to DoC – Sugar Loaf Islands

(2) Back Beach

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

After I abandoned my walk along the Coastal Walkway, I drove to the port and to Paritutu Rock. The sky was dark and the rain continued. I abandoned the idea of climbing. The port was busy with incoming truck mostly loaded with pine logs. We continued out drive southbound to a lookout, at Paritutu Centennial Park, of the Sugar Loaf Islands. I noticed some people walking on the black sand beach below. The waves were still pounding onto its shores but the tide was receding. I continued to drive further south and eventually found a car park, close to a beach. This is Back Beach.

I was quite excited to walk on this beach. The roar of the waves was furious but a narrow patch of beach was exposed. The sand was still soaked in sea water. The wet and cold wind made walking uncomfortable. We weaved past rocky outcrops and avoided our feet from getting wet. Although, dark a gloomy, the sight of the Sugar Loaf Islands was inspiring. I could almost walk across. Paritutu Rock , like a sentinel overlook these scattered rock islands. With the poor weather, I decided to return later. Hopefully, the weather would improve.

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

I returned later around 1530. The beach was flat, wide and the sea calmer. several local people walked their dogs here. It stretched for a 2 – 3 kilometres. I loved the open space knowing that this space is only temporary before the tide come in. A great spot for jogging, I thought. There was a beauty about today’s dark landscape. With the ebb and flow of the tides, the sand shifted constantly. Wonderful glossy sheen sculptured patterns were created and never repeated. Occasionally, when the sun managed to shine through, the trapped sea water reflected like a glass. In the distant, over the water, a funnel of rain poured. All the islands were just silhouettes on the horizon. More sea stacks were exposed. Suddenly, the sun broke through. It lit up Paritutu Rock. The outlook was transformed. The colours of the volcanic black sand beach and Sugar Loaf Islands changed with the shifting storm clouds. I stayed for the impending sunset under a bleak weather. It fizzled out. I left as the tide was beginning to come in at 1700.

(3) Mt Taranaki
This was my first visit to New Plymouth. The major draw card was near perfect conical and symmetrical – Mt Taranaki (similar to Mt Fuji). My mental picture of Taranaki region is dairy cows on a pasture with snowy peak of Mt Taranaki looming in the background. I had flown over Mt Taranaki several times and was mystified as the base is dark green disk shaped. As though someone had drawn a circle to demarcate Taranaki’s boundaries. Beyond that boundary of forest tress lies the lighter green pastures of dairy farms.

Taranaki

When we arrived at Stratford, it rained and visibility was poor. This continued all the way to New Plymouth. I could sense the base of the mountain though. On a clear day, at 2518 meters, Mt Taranaki is visible from almost anywhere in the region. In Māori, ‘tara’ means mountain peak, and ‘naki’ is thought to come from ngaki, meaning shining, in reference to the snowy/icy upper slopes. A dormant free standing volcanic mountain with lush temperate rain forest of Kamahi and Totara at its lower base. With frequent rainfall, the forest tress are covered with liverwort, lichens and moss. Sometimes referred as ‘Goblin Forest’. Gradually transformed into alpine vegetation on its upper slopes. Beyond that, it is the bare.

Taranaki is not always seen as I had experienced. One day out of five! The reason is perhaps in legends – Taranaki rested here after fleeing from the central plateau. When the clouds covers the mountain, Taranaki is hiding his tears. Broken-hearted after losing – Pihanga, his lover.

I want to climb its slopes to the peak but certainly not in winter. Taranaki can be climbed by anyone. Hence lies the problem. Not everyone can summit this iconic mountain. I climbed Kilimanjaro 8 years ago and know its dangers. Poor physical, mental and attire – all contribute to bad decisions. For now, having hiked the wonderful Pouakai Crossing, on a clear sunny day, with my family, was comforting. I did manage to get ‘that iconic image of Taranaki’ that was in my mind, after I completed the Pouakai Crossing. There are several tracks in Egmont National Park.

For more information, please see DoC – North Egmont Walks , DoC – East Egmont Walks and DoC – Mt Taranaki Summit Track

(4) White Cliffs

White Cliffs

On our return from Tongaporatu to New Plymouth, we detoured towards a small village of Waiiti (reached from the main road via Pukearuhe Road). At the end of this road is the Pukearuhe boat ramp. This is the beginning of the White Cliffs Walkway. It was late evening, around 1700, when we arrived here. Beyond this ramp are private farmlands. The White Cliffs Walkway continued through the farmlands and beach walk , around 6.5km (return). Be aware of the tide as there is no exit along the beach. Today, it was closed due to lambing season.

Fortunately, the tide was still out and the sun just above the horizon. From the black sand beach, the soft white, brown and creamy cliffs towered above. Towards the north, a small water fall cascaded from above the cliff where the hardy vegetation steadfastly held on. Moss colonised the wet surface walls below. The constant pounding of Tasman Sea eroded the soft walls. In places, it looked like someone had cut the cliff wall with a knife. It is all temporary and a matter of time before the landscape is changed forever.

White Cliffs


We stood at the river mouth amongst wet shifting sand and rounded rocks. The white wall extended south. The cloudy sky created some dramatic coastal views at sunset. Within 30 minutes, dusk engulfed this wild coastline against a surreal but captivating horizon. The surrounding landscape became gloomy and dark.

Refer to DoC – White Cliffs Walkway

(5) Tongaporutu

Tongaporatu

We arrived at Tongaporatu at 1400. I love planning and organising my travel. However, on this occasion, I callously failed to obtain one critical information – the tide timetable. We went past neat arranged wooden baches along the Tongaporatu River. Walked down into the shallow river over rounded rocks and black sand with puddles of silt. I could hear the ocean nearby. At the river mouth, water flowed out fast and was impossible to get across.  The glittering and velvety black sand was inviting. Fortunately, the tide was just going out. As a guide, two hours before and two hours after the low tide is the safest option to walk in this beach. Beware, if the weather is stormy, take caution as the waves can reach the cliffs. There is nowhere to go.

Tongaporatu

Soft limestone coastal cliffs, layered with hues of brown, beige, orange and cream, held their ground but losing everyday from the continuous lashing of waves of the Tasman Sea. Cliff walls have been stripped and battered to create dramatic sculptures with each ebb and flow of the tides. The sea was calm but the sky was dark and rain was imminent. Towards the south, the cliffs with prominent sculptured caves, archways, stacks and islets that resembled pinnacles, separated from the parent cliffs. Far beyond that, Mt Taranaki, apart from its wide base, remained obscured. The receding sea glowed and reflected the cliffs and cloudy sky. It was an incredible. It was addictive. It was captivating. It was picturesque. I was lost – what to see and where to go.

Tongaporatu

Over time, with natures creations – the locals began naming these eroded stacks – famously the Elephant Rock and Three Sisters. Due to the constant natural erosion, the elephant’s trunk and one of the sisters had disappeared into the sea. However, this phenomenon had also created newer forms of arches, caves and perhaps another pinnacle. The views constantly changed as I walked around. I even saw four pinnacles at one point! Therefore, the allure of this dynamic and spectacular coastline will never cease.

Further north along the coastal road is a small village of Mokau. At the right time, whitebait fritters are dished out in the two cafes’ here.

(6) Coastal Walkway

Coastal Walkway

At 0730, it promised to be a dry day in contrast to the weatherman. One of the delightful things to do in New Plymouth is walking along the 13km paved Coastal Walkway, from Port Taranaki to Bell Block Beach. It was close to my accommodation. The rising sun was obscured by dense black clouds casting a dark shadow on Fitz Roy Beach in the east. Tasman Sea pounded onto its black sand beach. In the west, I had clear views of the port, Paritutu Rock and two Sugar Loaf Islands.

Coastal Walkway


The sun reflected strongly from a nearby glass clad building. Unexpectedly, a rainbow developed above the water as the visibility of the islands gradually deteriorated. Extraordinarily, another rainbow developed. It was stunning. The situation was very fluid. Pleasantly, a 180° rainbow evolved. The islands had disappeared. Then , the inevitable happened. The havens opened up and it rained. The weatherman got it right. I had only walked 0.5 km. It was 0800.

One evening, on the south, sunset views of Paritutu Rock and Sugar Loaf islands is rewarding.

(7) Pukekura Park

Pukekura Park

This 52 ha. delightful and premier botanical garden, established in 1876, is in the middle of New Plymouth. It rained this morning and the gloomy cloudy day continued. It was quite refreshing walking amongst lush vegetation accompanied with birdsong. Many sections with themes and features like fernery, Japanese inspired gardens, tea house, bridges and lakes is inspiring.  it is a great place to wander at leisure. A place of learning as well as relaxing. A people’s park indeed.

(8) Fitz Roy and Bell Block beaches

Fitz Roy Beach

At low tide, walking along this black sand beaches is uplifting. As the sea water breaks just meters away, the sound is soothing. Drift wood, rounded rocks of different shapes and sizes, and people are fascinating to look at.

(9)  Paritutu Rock

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands


Paritutu Rock, overlooking the busy Taranaki port  on the mainland, act a sentinel over the Sugar loaf islands. I arrived here in rain and the track uphill was soaked. I decided not to climb it today. The climb is uphill and steep. Can be tricky in wet and windy weather. howvever, it promised a fantastic vies of the sea, land and Mt Taranaki. If the weather gods are kind.

(10) New Plymouth City

City

Located on the west coast of north island, it is a compact city. Surrounded by farmlands and the omnipresent Mt Taranaki. It is not a “tourist” town. I asked the locals where the people are? There are hardly any traffic, both people and vehicles. The residents seem to like its underdog status compared to the Tongariro Crossing (National Park) and Queenstown. There are no high rises along the coast. Yet, the coastline is a magnet for walkers, surfers and “to get away”. Personally, this town is overlooked by many as “it out of the way of the tourist trail”. The are street art, wonder and quaint cafes and eateries. A great place to retire too, I thought. Then, there is the interesting Len Lye building, amongst others. In mid-March, this sleepy town becomes alive with WOMAD (music) festival. If you are planning to to come here, why not take The Forgotten World Highway.

Taranaki region is gaining popularity through publicity by a major travel guide. The key question, however – is New Plymouth ready to cope with influx of visitors? Are they ready or want to change the look and  feel of the city? For now, I like it the way it is right now.

Hiking the Hooker Valley Track, Mt Cook

Hooker Valley, Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. The track starts at the White Horse Camping ground. Car parks are available.

The track begins through low bush on a stony track. Side tracks lead to Freda and Memorial. In about 15 minutes, we reached the Muller Lake lookout. The milky lake is fed by the melt-waters of Muller Glacier. The Hooker River drains into Muller Lake and carries on under the 1st swing bridge away from Hooker Valley.  Above the lake is the formidable looking Sefton Mountain (3151m) and further left, the Sealy Range. A small avalanche happened with a loud rumbling of ice. Then, the impact, with  thunderous collapse of an ice wall. Beyond the moraine wall (created when Muller Glacier retreated) on the right, lies Hooker Valley.

The track continued through low bush strewn with large rocks and boulders. Looking back, in the distance, a strip of gleaming turquoise water- Lake Pukaki. Then crossed a 2nd swing bridge with the massive ice covered Mt. Sefton in the background. Mt Cook (3724 m) came into view. The track is now a long boardwalk. Tussock grasses covered the valley. The Hooker River wound its way down the valley and eventually drained in Lake Pukaki. We crossed the 3rd swing bridge. A side track brought me to a small tarn with a view and reflection of Mt Cook and the neighbouring mountains.

A short hike between huge boulders and a short climb over crumbling moraine brought us the track’s end – the stunning and captivating – Hooker Lake viewpoint. Visibility was fantastic. Icebergs floated in the lake below. Mt Cook, the tallest in New Zealand, is almost touching distance.

At the end of the lake, Hooker Glacier reflected brightly. On the left, Mt Footstool rose steeply. All these mountains, glaciers and lakes are part of the extensive Southern Alps. We stopped for lunch.

A small track led towards the lake’s edge. Rocks and small boulders strewn all over. The sun was intense. Watching the icebergs bob around is mesmerising. Numerous glaciers on the mountains peaks reflected strongly in the afternoon sun. A waterfall cascaded down from glaciers above a steep slope. The views are captivating. The picture was complete – blue sky, snowy mountain peaks including the formidable Mt Cook, bright sunshine, placid icy water and crystal clear ice floating about. All to the sounds of gushing waterfall – head water of the Hooker River. Simply stunning.

Total time taken for the 10 km return hike – 3.5 hrs. This is relatively an easy half day walk on mostly level terrain. No permits or booking required. Just be prepared for the weather. Bring some lunch. Best time to hike is sunrise or sunset. Midday sun is intense. Sadly, all glaciers in the region are melting away due to low snowfall and higher melting rates. These mountains will not look the same  (less ice) in the next 20 years. Refer to  DoC – Hooker Valley Track.

Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track

It was mid-July, just after a month long Covid 19 lock down. We arrived late in New Plymouth after taking the long The Forgotten World Highway from Tamaranui to Stratford in wet and cloudy weather. However, today promised to be a fine day. We decided to do the 17km Pouakai Crossing – Mt. Taranaki’s (Mt Egmont) epic 9 hours day walk that circumnavigated the north eastern and western face. Please see my Pouakai Crossing photos

This is a great alternative to the often crowded Tongariro Crossing. Like the central plateau mountains, Mt Taranaki created its own weather – temperatures can drop and rise with adverse wind and rain conditions at any time. Preparedness in any weather is critical. No booking is required, except when huts are required. Please refer to DoC – Pouakai-Crossing

start – (North Egmont Visitor Center)



We drove to the Mangorei Road end car park. The dawn sky turned red with streaks of clouds. This is a one-way track. We organised a shuttle with Taranaki Mountain Shuttle. We were picked up promptly at 0730 by Rob and transferred to North Egmont Visitor Centre. This one-way option allowed us to complete the hike at our own pace (the return). Transport is available for both ends (start and finish). Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe mountains, with a blueish hue, in Tongariro National Park were visible from here.

Razorback ridge


The first part of the track is to Holly Hut. The hike began from the North Egmont Visitor Centre and goes uphill through cool  montane forest – mixed forest with trees covered in epiphytes, moss and lichens. A thick layer of clouds obscured any mountain view. This steep hike continued for about an hour  before emerging onto a razorback ridge with sub-alpine bush and scrub landscape. As the  lower clouds burnt off with the rising sun, some snow covered mountain views emerged. The track continued uphill  with sweeping views of the Taranaki plains, lime green scrub forest, Tasman Sea and the distant central plateau  icy Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe mountains. The morning sun lit up the landscape, warmed our bodies and further revealed more of the mountain. On the left slope was a transmission antenna.

Diffenbach Cliffs

The track skirted along the eastern face towards formidable but magnificent lava columns of the Diffenbach Cliffs. Parts of the lower slopes were covered with snow. Short parts of the track was flooded. We passed the towering cliffs which looked imposing but at the same time striking.   We continued and negotiated some climbing over rocks at the Boomerang Slips. A series of wooden steps eased the crossing. The next major obstacle was past the Boomerang Slip. Due to recent poor weather, a major landslide had occurred.  This prevented the track to continue along this path to Holly Hut. Fortunately, repairs had been carried out and now passable. It was basically a 30cm line across a steep loose rock face slope. Slowly but surely we crossed with fears of any mishaps. There is no time to stop and wonder. There was a bit of relief once we passed this point. Small streams of water fell over the rocks. We reached the Kokowai and Ahukawakawa Track junction at 1100. Finally, the whole symmetrical mountain was visible, including the snow peaked summit (2518 meters). A (near) perfect conical mountain similar to Mt Fuji. Today, there were about six  hikers on the track. With sunshine and cool air, it was a perfect day for this hike. The mountain god was kind with us today!

Holly Hut

From hereon, we took the Ahukawakawa Track which descended with views of the Pouakai Range and Ahukawakawa swamps in the valley below. The expansive views of the sea, and north eastern and north western plains were stunning. As we descended, the mixed forest returned and the vegetation became taller.  After an hour of winding down steps and track, we arrived at Holly Hut after crossing the slow flowing Minarapa Stream. Having climbed several mountain tracks, in torrential rain, streams can rise meters within a short period and become violent. This stream is no exception. We stopped at the empty hut for a well earned rest and lunch. The sun shined brightly and the dormant Taranaki conical peak was clear. From the hut, there is a track towards Bell Falls. We skipped this one hour return track to save time, energy and daylight (short days in winter) for the crossing. 

Ahukawakawa Swamp

With the body refuelled, we retraced out steps over the stream and continued on the Ahukawakawa Track. Within 20 minutes of walking on water saturated wooden planks, we entered the swamps covered with red tussock grasses, sphagnum moss, flax and aquatic plants. This unique micro-climate is home to some endemic plants and animals. The god mountain Taranaki was fully exposed. It was magnificent. A raised wooden viewing platform was the ideal place to stop and take in the stunning views – Taranaki, the 3500 years old alpine wetland – the Ahukawakawa swamps and the Pouakai Range. All in one gentle sweep. A long boardwalk, underwater in places, brought us to a bridge over the clear Stony River. The  30 minutes wetland walk continued towards Pouakai Range. It was scramble to climb up as the path is wet and muddy in places. However, the ascend presented fantastic views of this ancient landscape. It is so quiet.

The track climbed steeply through moss covered mountain ceder (kaikawakawa) and mixed forest, we reached the Pouakai Track junction. Turning right towards Pouakai Hut, the gentle climb reached a 1400 meter high plateau strewn with rocks. The track is over wooden boardwalk. Within 20 minutes, we reached another junction – one leading downhill towards Pouakai Hut and Mangorei track. The other continue downhill on the Pouakai track towards North Egmont Visitor Center. An iconic tarn is also located along this track , within 20 minutes. Continuing on boardwalks in this pleasant landscape led us towards a tarn (alpine lake). Iconic because, it presented a chance to capture a reflection of Taranaki! However, your faith must be even stronger for the pool to be still with no breeze and off course, Taranaki to be exposed. This is a fragile environment and only walk on the boardwalks. It was crowded when we arrived here. We had taken 6 hours to get here. However, this tarn can be accessed via the Mangorei Track ( our trail end), perhaps within 2 hours. Some people looked like they have just arrived here after a shopping spree in the city. Poor attire and footwear can be disastrous should the weather turn for the worse. Furthermore, not many understand the fragile and scared nature of the environment (walking onto the ground and water). One Kiwi couple told me that they are waiting for sunset to capture ‘that Instagram photo’. 

We could not linger anymore. We retraced out walk back towards Pouakai Hut. Once we began descending on the eastern slope, Taranaki was no more. The expansive sight of the plains, Mt. Ruapehu and Tasman Sea was still clear. Initially we descended the dark, humid and twisted Kamahi trees covered with moss and lichens. There were hardly any birdsong. The sun could hardly penetrate through the dense canopy. This has been labelled the Goblin Forest.  The track is now only boardwalks. Ground and tree ferns appeared together with a broad leafs, including beech forest, as we descended on the Mangorei Track. Continuous walk on the hard material was tough of the feet. After two hours, we emerged out of the forest and reached the trail end. 

reaching the end – Mangorei Trail end

 

The wonderful but demanding Pouakai Crossing had taken 9 hours of hiking through temperate and beech forest, sub-alpine bush, ancient swamps, Goblin Forest, rugged and wild landscape, expansive views and past volcanic formations. All,  in the shadow of the mighty Taranaki.

Legends say that  – Taranaki once lived in the central plateau with male mountains – Tongariro, Ruapheu and Nagurhoe.  A scuffle broke out between Tongariro and Taranaki when the latter began flirting with a female mountain, Pihanga. Taranaki carved the land as he fled with tears – now the Whanganui River and rested in New Plymouth (Ngāmotu). He continued to cry, hence the frequent incidence of rainfall.  He hid his tears, hence the mountain is often obscured in clouds.

Today, Taranaki gifted us with a rare ‘good’ day. We stayed in New Plymouth for five days, we only saw it for one day.

 

 

 

 

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!