New Zealand: Te Anau—Part 2

We rose to a cold, overcast morning. I stepped onto our balcony to gauge just how chilly the weather was. Frost glistened on the front lawn, and heavy, gray and red clouds hung over an icy blue Lake Te Anau. We had a full day ahead—tramping (hiking) in Fiordland National Park in the morning and a water cruise of Milford Sound in the afternoon. We grabbed Windbreakers and day packs and went downstairs for breakfast.

 Alan Cunningham, who manages the Fiordland Lodge, greeted us as we entered the living room. He’s personable and welcoming, making you feel at home. He brought us hot tea and coffee while we waited for the waitstaff to finish setting the tables.

After breakfast, we met Stephen, our tour guide for the morning, at the lodge entrance and climbed aboard his small bus. Trips & Tramps specializes in small group tours and walks. Another couple and their two teenage boys on holiday from Tassie would be tramping with us. This was the first time I had heard Tasmania referred to as Tassie. Introductions were made and off Stephen drove.

We hadn’t gone more than a mile when Stephen reduced speed and then braked. Hundreds of sheep scampered from an open pasture gate and sprang into the road in front of our bus. Stephen shouted to a man named Peter, one of two shepherds who whistled commands to their blue heelers. The men waved back. “We aren’t going anywhere anytime soon,” Stephen said, which was fine with all six of us. We disembarked, cameras and phones in hand, and the photo shoot began.

About thirty minutes later, we reboarded the bus. During our drive from one trail to the next, Stephen regaled us with local lore; recounted the antics of the cheeky, often destructive keas; and sadly, described the decimation of the native bird population by the imported stoat. Along the way, he demonstrated how a stoat trap, used to control the voracious predator, worked.

That day’s hikes were three easy ones. The next time we tramp in the Fiordland National Park, we will still choose guided walks but opt for longer, more intermediate-grade hikes. On our last tramp for the day, Stephen showed us to the trailhead, but he would not be joining us. He was staying behind to guard the bus. The notorious keas had done “a real number” on his vehicle in that exact location a month earlier, destroying the weather stripping around the bus’s windows.

The short jaunt to our Mirror Lakes walk led us to a picturesque lake. We snapped photos, took a short break, and then headed back to meet up with our guide. When we returned to the bus, we found Stephen defending his vehicle from five keas. Two flew off as we approached, but the remaining three were happy to stay and pose for photos. A crowd of tourists soon engulfed the birds, and the mischievous keas appeared delighted to be the center of attention.

Back aboard the bus, we headed for Milford Sound via the Homer Tunnel, which cuts through the Darran Mountain range at the Homer Saddle. The tunnel has no lights and the two-lane road is narrow. The once-single gravel lane has been enlarged and the surface tarsealed, but the raw granite walls remain. The tunnel, located in a high-risk area for avalanches, was opened in 1954 and links Te Anau and Queenstown to Milford Sound.

Stephen dropped us off at the Milford Mariner, and we climbed aboard our boat for our afternoon launch excursion. The day hadn’t warmed much, and being on the open water was even chillier. We ate lunch belowdecks, and I decided to stay in the warm dining room after we finished eating. David, armed with his camera, went aft to take pictures. With him on deck, I knew we wouldn’t miss out on some great photos, and from my window seat, I had a good view of the canyon waterway as we broke moor and sailed for the sound.

Sheer rock cliffs soared skyward, the precipices originating from the depths of the fiord’s seabeds, and because of the high rainfall, multitudes of waterfalls from alpine lakes cascaded down the rock faces. The crowning glory was Mitre Peak, rising almost 5,400 feet above the waterways of the sound.

Tired but pleased with our day’s adventures, we were met on the docks by Stephen, who escorted everyone to the bus. When he asked David about our next destination, David told him we were headed to Dunedin. He smiled and replied, “Oh, the land of the Mcs and the Macs.”

Dinner at the lodge that night was tuna tartare with a cucumber relish, duck with a port wine reduction, new potatoes, and a lemon custard for dessert.


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New Zealand 2014: Aoraki Mount Cook—Part 2

Day two in Aoraki/ Mount Cook, we layered on clothes, loaded our daypacks, and wiggled our feet into well-worn sneakers, prepared to put some serious miles on our running shoes. Our objective? Tramping, and to photograph Mount Cook. I had already been beguiled by this stunning mountain peak when we stopped at Peter’s Lookout on the drive into Aoraki Mount Cook Alpine Village. If you stop roadside, beware of the tourists. Some park half on, half off the road, too captivated by the view to worry about their own safety. And for the unfamiliar, tramping in New Zealand is akin to hiking, backpacking, or bushwalking.

Our morning hike, and an easy one, was also the most rewarding for capturing views of Mount Cook—the Hooker Valley Track. We had planned on five hours for the round-trip six-mile walk, accounting for multiple stops to snap photos. Besides enjoying the magnificent views, we also had fun trooping across several swing bridges and counting icebergs—yes, icebergs on the glacier lake at the bottom of Mount Cook.

The Hermitage Hotel

Enthralled with the Southern Alps, we had to drag ourselves away from them to return to the hotel. We had an ATV tour planned for the afternoon. The trip back took longer than we expected, as we had to work our way around the growing number of trampers heading in as we headed out. A local mentioned that the best time to explore the area was winter, when hikers were few. No complaints—we started out early, encountered only four hikers on the way in, and had a great time.

Mount Cook lilies.

Back at the Hermitage, we nibbled on sandwiches and sipped hot chocolate for lunch at the Old Mountaineers’ Cafe while I waited expectantly for the cloud cover to clear over Mount Cook. No, I hadn’t taken enough photographs of the breathtaking mountain, or the vistas. Mount Cook is located in the Mackenzie Basin, a rugged and untamed valley that runs as far as the eye can see to a horizon of sharp-peaked mountains cloaked in white.

Every time I looked at this vast expanse of open land I imagined herds of elk, deer, or even a few bears migrating across the plain, but New Zealand isn’t inhabited by such large animals. The upside is, you can hike in total bliss knowing a bear won’t steal your food or charge you if you stumble upon a mother and her cubs. All you have to worry about are the mischievous keas, a large parrot species found in the forested and alpine regions of New Zealand’s South Island. They are comical but quite destructive. I saw four hop on an empty tour bus and immediately start shredding the fabric on the seats. The hysterical driver came running, arms waving and shouting profanity. Not perturbed, the parrots summarily jumped off the bus and flew away.

After lunch, we met our guide outside the entrance to our hotel for our tour of the Tasman Glacier, with its gigantic moraine walls, and to visit Terminal Lake. Forty percent of Aoraki /Mount Cook National Park is covered by icy glaciers.

We were joined by another couple, Diane and Denys, who we still keep in touch with via Facebook. We four climbed aboard our Argo, an eight-wheel all-terrain vehicle capable of traversing virtually anything in its path—water, ice, rocks—and off we went up the steep and rocky terrain toward our destination. The ride was quite bumpy, but well worth the trip. Awesome scenery. View the photos and judge for yourself.

On the return drive, our guide stopped to point out and identify the beautiful array of alpine flowers, including Mount Cook lilies and Celmisia daisies. But we did not see any cheeky keas. Never mind—we would spot several in the days ahead, and at their cheeky best.

That night the Panorama Room was closed, so we ate at the Alpine Restaurant, also in the hotel. The buffet dinner offered a wide variety of choices and the food was pretty good—oysters, duck, ribs, salmon, plenty of sides, and all kinds of desserts. To end the day, we watched the sunset fire up Mount Cook.

Mount Cook


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