Walking Under Blue Skies

We settled back into campervan life very quickly. Our 12 months in a van travelling around Australia certainly helped and with all the unexpected storage, we have loads of space and things are turning out to be easier than what we had prepared for.

Great space for Sarah…..
Great space for Steve! Or maybe the other way?

‘Freedom Camping’ is widespread in New Zealand. There are places all over the country where, as long as you are certified ‘Self Contained’, you can park up for free. Some of these places are in beautiful locations and can get very busy. Unfortunately, the rules of Self Contained seem to get regularly abused. You are supposed to have a toilet on board and have tanks for three days of fresh water and waste water. However, normal estate cars with ‘Self Contained’ certification stickers are common place. We’re sure we will see a ‘Self Contained’ motorbike before we leave!

The Department of Conservation (DOC) also has a network of sites, which mainly seem to be in and around National Parks. These are either free or relatively cheap and can be either bookable online or run on a first come, first served basis.

Add to that, there are also the independent campsites as well as the big National commercial operations with all the facilities you could want. With all these options finding somewhere to spend the night, roughly where you want, hasn’t been a problem, as yet anyway!

Our ‘napkin plan’ had taken us all the way South and West to the area known as Fiordland. This is easily the wettest area in New Zealand with over seven metres of rain each year. Back to back days of warm weather and clear blue skies are very rare. When we saw the forecast for the few days ahead we just had to take advantage of it. We headed first for the small town of Te Anau, right on the lake of the same name.

Lake side at Te Anau

Hiking, or ‘tramping’ as they call it here, is a major pastime. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands, of marked trails ranging from a few minutes walk around a forest up to multi day, high altitude technical trails. Ten of these multi dayers have made an exclusive list entitled ‘The Great Walks’. The number of people allowed on some of these walks are limited and the demand is so high that securing a slot has been likened to securing a ticket for an ‘A List’ rock concert. It’s an Internet frenzy when they are released.

It is still possible, however, to sample The Great Walks on a single day hike and this is what we did.

Firstly, from Te Anau we walked The Kepler Track. This was a lovely, easy walk which follows the river through thick beech forest on an even path. It was great to get out and start doing some walking which is one of the reasons we came to New Zealand.

Walking along the Kepler Track.

We also had a wander around town and explored the cafés and shops, most of which were based around outdoor pursuits. It was then time to drive, what many describe as, the most scenic road in New Zealand.

Starting the road to Milford Sound.

At 75 miles long the road between Te Anau and Milford Sound, twists and turns its way through forests, grassland valleys carved millenia ago by slow moving glaciers. It then slowly climbs into the heart of the fjords, around every corner is another amazing view more spectacular than the last. The closer you get to Milford Sound, the steeper the road gets and the higher the snow capped mountains become.

Getting higher !

Then it becomes too difficult to build a road over the terrain, so a low, narrow tunnel takes you through the mountain and out the other side and down the steep decent into the Milford township.

We stopped about 50 miles up the road and camped at a DOC site by a river. It was a great setting and Steve took advantage of the light evenings and headed out on his bike for a couple of hours to enjoy the scenery on two wheels.

Parking up for the evening.

The next morning we completed the trip up to Milford Sound in order to do another hike on one of The Great Walks. This time, probably the most famous of them all, The Milford Track.

The start of the walk is not accessible by foot and it’s necessary to catch a water taxi. This meant we had the added benefit of traversing across Deep Water Basin at the very entrance to The Sound giving some great views and photo opportunities.

The Milford Track Water Taxi.
A pretty scenic taxi ride.

We followed the track as far as the Giant’s Gate Waterfall and the swing bridge across the river. It was a lovely walk but it left us wanting more. I’m sure when the trail gains elevation the views would be spectacular. Maybe we will return one day and do the four day circuit.

The Milford Track really is a ‘Great Walk’

We started our journey back out of Milford Sound to Te Anau and it was mid afternoon. We pulled over at the trailhead to the Marian Lake and Waterfall. We walked together the short distance to the viewing area and were treated to a great scene which was more fast flowing rapids than waterfall and much more impressive than The Giants Gate Falls we had seen earlier.

Marian Falls were more like rapids.

The sign at the trailhead said it was a three hour return to the lake. Sarah didn’t fancy another long walk, especially as it went straight up and back down and we had done two long walks already. So Steve said he would run it as he had heard it was worth the trip. A tough run/scramble led to a fabulous location, a lake surrounded by mountains, very similar to areas we had seen in The Canadian Rockies many years ago.

This was a really great place.

He returned 1hr 20mins later with some great photos and in plenty of time to get to our planned stop for the night.

Our trip back down to Te Anau was as scenic as the way up. Would we say it’s the most scenic road in New Zealand? Well it’s early days, but it will certainly take some beating.

It’s mid summer here so the evenings in the South are light until almost 10pm. This gave us plenty of time to make some progress out of Fiordland. We had researched a Freedom camp in the small town of Lumsden, so headed there. The site was essentially the car park of a Heritage Train Station, complete with platform, waiting room, and old steam trains. They had toilets, areas to sit, eat and wash up. It was one of the best free camps we have been to.

We had encountered it several times in Australia where small towns create pretty good free sites which encourages people to stop who otherwise might have bypassed the town. In return the travellers are likely to spend some money in the town on groceries, cafés, fuel, pubs etc. It’s a win for everyone!

“All aboard”

Next stop was Queenstown, probably the top of the tree when it comes to tourist locations in New Zealand. Almost everyone on a road trip stops here and it’s a super popular place for Kiwis to spend their Summer holidays aswell.

When we pulled into town it looked like the whole of New Zealand was there. It was rammed with traffic jams and people everywhere.

There are hundreds of people to the side and behind the wall !!

The reason the town is so popular is its stunning location on the banks of Lake Wakitipu, surrounded by mountains and the fact it is the self proclaimed Adrenaline Capital of The World. Just about anything which raises your heart rate can be done here. Bungee Jumping, Sky Diving, Jet Boating, paragliding the list seems endless. Every other outlet in town seems to be selling some kind of activity, and the ones that aren’t are selling you food for some energy or drinks to celebrate.

A jet boat screams up the Shotover gorge.

Any revenue the town lost during Covid is being recouped now. At one famous burger bar we counted over 40 people in the queue waiting for a table.

We came to Queenstown on our honeymoon over 20 years ago and it was much, much smaller then. It was still an adrenaline paradise and we did a lot of it, but the place has exploded. There is what appears to be a whole new town created called Frankton, providing more shops and accommodation for the masses. But unless you have something booked you are going to struggle. ‘No Vacancy’ was the most popular sign.

We stayed for three nights on a campsite close to town. It was pretty dirty, not very well run, and to be fair it was abused by the younger crowd who were the majority there. The camp kitchen was left in a terrible state and one morning we went in to use the toaster and counted 20 dead cockroaches on the floor!

Don’t get us wrong. We got out of Queenstown what we went for and that was to revisit the town and its waterfront, drive the scenic route along the lake to Glenorchy and most importantly to climb Ben Lomond.

This was a great drive and an even better cycle.

At just under 6000 feet Ben Lomond looms over the town. We set off at 7.30am and walked the 20 minutes to the trailhead. There is a very tempting gondola ride which takes you up the first 1000 or so feet, but we thought if we’re going to do it, then we will do the lot. Plus, it didn’t start for another couple of hours. So off we went into the forest.

Immediately the trail goes up and it’s anything but easy for the first hour up to the gondola station. It was very quiet as the staff were opening up the various adrenaline pumping activities ready for what they hoped would be another busy day.

After the gondola station you emerge above the tree line, the view opens up, and the gradient while still steep, eases a little and you get the feeling of being much more remote.

Well over an hour gone and the peak in the distance still looks so far away.

We had perfect weather with blue skies and it was warm but not too hot. There was also only a handful of other walkers to be seen. One or two ahead and the same behind. We were really enjoying it.

With regular stops for drinks, food and a few photos we plodded on, enjoying the views rather than trying to go too fast.

Time for a drink and a look at the view.

After a couple of hours we reached the ridge which leads to the summit. The gradient ramps up again at this point and the trail is no longer maintained. There are lots of loose rocks and four points of contact were needed in one or two places. Also, the wind was picking up as was the heat. But the views were absolutely outstanding which gave us a great excuse for a few seconds pause to take them in.

Stunning views approaching the ridge.

After almost another hour on the ridge we finally rounded the last corner and the summit was in sight. Our early start was rewarded by incredible views and for a few minutes we had the summit all to ourselves.

We were soon joined by a French couple and were able to take some great photos of each other. Sarah then produced a very welcome bag of sandwiches and a flask of coffee ….. from Steve’s rucksack. “At least it will be lighter on the way down”, he thought.

We hung around on the summit for a while relaxing and taking in the views before starting the decent. The further we walked back down the busier, hotter and windier it got. We were glad we started early as several people were visibly struggling and turning around at the start of the ridge.

What a view from the summit.

When we arrived back at the gondola station it was mayhem. A totally different scene from a few hours before. Zip Wires, Luge Runs, Downhill Mountain Biking, Paragliding were all in full flow. The cafe was struggling to keep up with demand and the ice cream seller was complaining his arm was aching with all the scooping he was doing.

We escaped back into the relative calm of the forest and made our way slowly back into town.

Seven hours after leaving the campsite we returned (5 hours and 45 minutes of which had been walking) and we had climbed almost 5000 feet. It had been right up there with the best we have done.

Someone is happy with life!

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