When you conjure up images of magical New Zealand landscapes, you’re probably thinking of the fiordlands. Huge lakes, wild woodland, dense marshes and jagged mountains. And sheep. But first, we had the east coast to venture down in a manoeuvre to avoid a storm hitting the west coast.
We drove to a town called Omaru, where seals and various penguin species inhabited the rocky beaches nearby. After a day of successfully scouring the area for seals and penguins, we drove south to Dunedin, a relatively large city and a place to dry off for the night. Dunedin being one of older colonial cities on the South Island, there’s still plenty of gothic architecture to differentiate itself from the surrounding plain New Zealand towns. We made the most of the museums exhibiting New Zealand history, including old Maori carvings, boats and other artefacts.
Just beneath Dunedin, the Otago peninsula ejects from the coastline with rolling hills bundled together and overlooking the waters below. With wailing winds and rain hounding the peninsula, we could have easily been back on the British isles. Even driving Dorothy (our van) was dramatic enough along the coastal road where waves would occasionally spill onto the road surface itself.
As rain had blanketed the country in every direction, we decided to head back inland to enjoy the fiordlands regardless of the weather. From the south coast, we drove towards one of the gateways of the fiordlands; the calm waters of Lake Manapouri. It was my last night with Rosie, as she and Dorothy had plans to see the Milford Sound near the coast, and I was staying in the area to start some hiking trails in the coming days. After saying goodbye the following morning, with my heavy pack and no transport I walked along the pebbled beach to the nearest road. My intention was to reach Te Anau that morning, so I scribbled “Te Anau” onto a piece of paper, and readied my thumb and a smile to get a lift from a stranger.
It was barely a minute before a car pulled over next to me (a serious stroke of luck on a quiet road where cars rarely pass by), with a smiling face inside. The eccentric driver (a Belgian called Caroline) was very friendly and we immediately opened up in traveller conversation. We initially headed to a petrol station in Manapouri, before she asked “are you in a rush?” I said no, and she explained there were a few remote spots further south (the opposite direction to Te Anau) that would be worth visiting. I happily accepted the invitation.
What was planned to be a 20 minute hitchhike had transformed into an all-day exploration of the lesser seen lakes and forests. The car had seen better days (Caroline explained that she managed to pick it up for the bargain price of $500 a month ago), but we rumbled along the gravel roads nevertheless. We walked through the Rakatu Wetlands, visited Lake Hauroko and Lake Monowai before heading north towards the original destination of Te Anau. By the end of the day, I was even trusted to drive the car, mainly to give Caroline the opportunity to gaze at the distant snowy mountains, now pink from the soft sunset light.
Again, it was time to say goodbye to another travel companion, and set my sights to the Kepler track, my first multi-day trek in New Zealand that I would call home for the coming days. Including the walk to and from Te Anau, it was a 70km loop (and a long 35km final day). I packed my bag to the brim with camping gear, clothes, camera and food and readied myself for the walk route ahead.
Day one started with a path alongside Lake Te Anau, before slowly drifting away from the shore, and ascending into the forest. The temperature was cool, and little wind managed to infiltrate the treeline. Everything around was damp and rich in green. Moss covered every surface that plants couldn’t sprout from, and climbed the trees wherever possible. After a few hours, I reached the bushline, where only knee-high plants grew and I was suddenly exposed to the elements. The wind revealed itself, and I was like a flag with my oversized kit on my back. I was pretty relieved when I finally saw the outline of my hut appear out of the mist.
Even though there were about 50 hikers (or “trampers” as they are known in New Zealand) in each leg of the walk each day, everyone was sufficiently spaced so that others were rarely in view. However, as soon as you reached the hut everyone was cooking, eating and eventually huddled in sleeping bags on bunks together.
The next day really showed what the Fiordlands had to offer. Starting in the clouds, we tracked along the mountainsides which were covered in the yellow bush. Crossing one ridge just revealed another, and with it a new view of the mountain ranges above and the deep blue glacial lakes below. Eventually, I descended to the treeline, which was even darker and greener than the last. The forest was a thick cobweb of trees, each scrambling to reach precious sunlight and all cloaked in moss. Following rainfall, there were plenty of small streams that trickled through the rocks towards the rivers.
Following further descent, I reached my campsite for the night; an area free of trees and next to the flowing river nearby. Sandflies are the flying pest of New Zealand, and they were all out until sunset, pestering everyone trying to enjoy the evening sun. It wasn’t long until I settled into my small tent, ready for a good night’s sleep ahead of the big upcoming day.
I rose around 6:30am, packed my tent and set out as quickly as possible. It was a rare and fortunate dry night, and the forecast was rain at some point in the afternoon. I needed to make good ground early on in order to beat the bad weather. Much of the route was an up-and-down walk through the trees and following the lake and river back towards the town. I reached my halfway point at around 11am, and stopped to refill my water bottle and finish the remaining food (including 5 wraps and a jar of peanut butter). That would have to fuel me until Te Anau.
I used the few major landmarks around me to define where I was on the map. I was on course to arrive around 3pm, although my legs were starting to fade. Suddenly, the end of the track was in view. I reached the banks of Lake Te Anau and slumped onto the bank. After a few minutes of resting and admiring the view, I followed the path around the lake and back into town. Even my dingy hostel room looked inviting upon arrival around 3:30pm. Raindrops started to tap on the window. Time for a nap.