Sunday, April 13, 2008

TUESDAY, APRIL 8, 2008

The Climb, The Descent, The Very Sore Feet - 9 miles (6-8 hours of blessed torture)
Today was the “big day” - one meter of climb for every 8 meters distance. We had to start earlier today- 7:30, and we are told that if we normally packed one sandwich, to pack two and to not hold back on snacks and water. We do as we are told. (One of my fellow hikers commanded me to make another sandwich because I looked too skinny.) The walk starts out fairly flat, but soon starts climbing. The rocks themselves that line the path are so colorful that you have to remind yourself to look up, though do it to often and you risk twisting your ankle. Quartz, feldspar, gneiss, and many others all different sizes and colorings. There are trees with bluish berries that are edible and taste similar to a blueberry. Up through the trees we went constantly climbing, hemmed in by mountains. About 16 rocky switchbacks needed to be traversed. Periodically you are reminded of the danger as there are signs saying “Danger Falling Rocks, Do Not Stop Next 200 Meters”. And you don’t. Who wants to get whomped on the head after all.

Finally we climb above the tree line and the landscape changes dramatically. There are all low-lying shrubs and grasses, but it isn’t as parched looking as a tundra. Way, way down below is the valley and a view of Pampolona Lodge, a mere speck in the far distance. The wind picks up and it is definitely cooler. No longer is there a wall of mountains to look up to. It’s like arriving on the set of “The Sound Of Music”, only this set has a friendly guide to greet you with a hot cup of Milo (NZ hot chocolate). Oh, and Julie Andrews wasn’t wearing a dress but several layers of wool, a hat and gloves. Very chic, especially the long underwear. Believe me, I was glad for every last fiber.
I leaned against a rock out of the wind and sipped the warm fluid, my hands trying to sap the heat from the paper cup.

The view was stupendous as the day was a clear one with few low lying clouds, which allowed a rare and unobstructed view of the valleys on either side of the pass. A memorial to Mackinnon is a touching reminder of the travails endured to get here in 1888, but hey, it’s too cold to linger here for long. A quick tour of the top, a few pics (until my camera started acting up from the cold) and I continued on. The little ponds around the area (they reminded me of giant water-filled pot holes but really they’re called tarns) reflected the clouds, and in the sky was a group of Kea birds, a type of parrot that doesn’t ask for crackers, but sings rather nicely and is apparently very mischievous.

Holding on to my hat against the wind I started the descent and about 20 minutes later reached lunch, a very welcome sight where I could briefly take my boots off to rest my aching, bruised and very tired feet. A cup of hot soup, a sandwich and a cookie helped fuel me up for the afternoon fun. Just outside the hut is a “long drop”, a port-potty that has a window so you can view the valley below while taking care of business. Personally, I found it to be a bit scary - the wind just howled and I was sure that at any moment I was going to be carried off, dropped drawers and all.

Several of our hikers were having problems making this part of the trek and a few of the stronger ones hiked back a bit to relieve them of their packs.

I didn’t want to linger at this point fearing that I would seize up and I didn’t want to miss the “optional” hike (1.5 hours total) to Sutherland Falls that was near the Quinton Lodge where we were staying that night. So off I went. About 20 minutes later, in the shelter of the mountains to the right, the wind died out and I was able to peel off a layer of clothing. From this vantage point the mountains had more shadows. Watching my footing was a real concern here because you are dropping your weight onto your foot, so the walking stick became very useful this part of the journey.

Once I reached the tree line, about 3:00, I entered what the guides call “The Enchanted Forest”. It was dark here with lots of shadows. The trees weren’t straight up but often curved in eerie shapes with moss dripping from the limbs. Roots were abundant, thick, and spooky, like vines spread upon the forest floor. To put it mildly, I would not want to be here alone at night. I’m sure there are goblins and elves and hobbits and all sorts of creatures I don’t need to know about. All the same it was awesome to think that something like this really exists in the world. It was cool there and water ran in little streams everywhere. Birds continued to sing and soon the sound of rushing water reached my ears. Falls. Glimpses of them seen through the trees gave a burst of energy to descend the many-tiered steps to see the full fury of the water at the base. Lots of pics here. Further on though my feet are about to burst through the toes of the boots and it’s time for the poor dogs to be let out. A damp rock, a moss covered stream, ice cold water and my feet thank me. Of course a snack and some water don’t hurt either.

Soon I was off again, singing out loud whatever was on the Ipod at the moment. It’s great for motivation and we were all so spread out by this time that no one could really hear me, so Grace Kelly danced on down the track without a care. That is until nature called and this time It was a long drop in the woods without a door. Geez, I was glad no one was too close behind on the track.

The Ipod really helped keep my mind off my feet and thighs to such an extent that by the last half mile I was dancing away, skipping over the stones. But once I reached Quinton Lodge and a soft chair and a glass of Tang ………aaaahhhh. I dared not sit too long for fear I’d never get up again and there was still the walk to Sutherland Falls, the 5th tallest in the world. I didn’t come this far to miss anything good. That’s for sure.

The climb was worth the effort because the falls were spectacular, though certainly not as wide as Niagara. The force of the water was unending and I really wondered where it all came from there was soo much of it.

As I showered after the hike the sounds of “aaaahhhs“, and “oooohhh that feels good” could be heard throughout the co-ed bathrooms.

The level of chatter rose yet again during cocktails and dinner that evening as by now we were all getting to know one another and there was much to replay of the day, as two of our hiker were limping in at the end and one of the hikers missed the lunch spot, causing a brief panic. (How can you miss lunch? I mean, that to me is a really key part of the day.) And of course the Kiwis and Aussies regularly tore into each other. As arduous as the hike was that day, I hated to have it end. My feet and thighs, however, thought otherwise.


WEDNESDAY, APRIL 9, 2008

The Final Trek - 13 miles (6-8 hours of walking)
The lights came on at 6:15AM and I think there was a chorus of groans, though not audible because, well, there is this Aussie/Kiwi rivalry thing going on among the boys. Everyone staggers up. I took another hot shower to warm up and be nice to my dogs, who were barking. Made lunch. Packed. Ate breakfast and out the door. After two minutes of walking I realize I’d forgotten something and turned around and went back. Aaaaahhhh my feet yell. Back on the track I try to speed up to make up the time. The walk followed a river and, while it wasn’t as demanding as the prior day’s, it was actually longer. Footing was always a challenge. Big rocks, little pebbles, sharp edges, wet and moss covered. Today’s walk is all about endurance. Everybody was hurting. I used the walking stick in one hand, but that arm quickly became sore so I switched to the other.

It was very cold out and daylight had barely begun. But when it did cross the mountains and seep through the trees it changed the whole nature of the track, giving the leaves of the upper branches of the trees a whitish glow, sort of like iridescent confetti. The rhythmic music of the Ipod helped keep a pace until tea time where the track ran through the Boatshed. A hot Milo, a cookie, a bandage and fleece feed me and my feet for the next few hours. The potty stop here was scenic - open slats in the floor of the building that sits about 5’ off the ground. Is this for ventilation?

The walk to lunch was cold and damp with climbs over piles of downed trees and rocks (from avalanches). I passed several walkers only to have them pass me when I stopped for photos. And although I heard the river beside me, I couldn’t see it very often for the trees and brush. I thought the stop for lunch would never come. And just when I thought I’d have to stop anyways for a break, there it was - a swing bridge over a river and a roaring falls with sunshine and a large group of our walkers eating lunch out on the rocks, soaking up the sun. Heaven, at least until the sand flies started helping themselves to me for lunch. Lovely as the setting was, there was a timetable for the ferry at Sandfly Pt. to take us to Milford Sound and our hotel. So there was no time to linger.

Keith stayed behind as I finished my lunch to walk with me, as I arrived shortly before everyone else was heading out. Even though they all had a good 10 minute start, we soon overtook them. Keith kept asking me what I did for training for this trek because I walk rather fast. I said that I just got on a treadmill, set it for 3.5mph and walked for an hour, mostly uphill. And now that’s my pace and I can’t slow down without feeling like I’m crawling. So after about 10 minutes of trying to walk slowly, I passed a slew of hikers, ignored my feet, and picked up the pace. (If you want to be sociable, set your treadmill for a more modest 2.5-3.0) This bus didn’t make frequent stops for pictures; it was an express to Sandfly Point and the finish line.

And it seemed like that point arrived before I knew it. The end of the track. A cold glass of Tang. A bench and a fire. And the wait for the ferry. A walk that rose to 3,278 feet in height and 34.2 miles over 4 days. A real sense of accomplishment and endurance.

The other walkers trickled in and soon the ferry arrived, we boarded, and took our last look at the track, the water, the trees that we had gotten to know those last few days. The ferry took us through equally stunning scenery to Milford Sound, where a bus drove us the last ten minutes to Mitre Peak Lodge, our home for the night. We suffered through the orientation and schedule briefing and then headed to our rooms where our small day bags awaited. As I opened the door of the room, offloaded the backpack I’d carried for 4 days and looked around, my eyes spied a tub, and the thought of looking around the grounds or of anything else drifted away. I had this wonderful room with a gorgeous view of the mountains and a garden all to myself. And a long hot bath in my own bathroom was just what my sore body craved at that point.

As you can imagine, the cocktail hour was celebratory and dinner was a virtual din of chatter. The menu was either roasted rack of lamb or fish and chips, both with fresh veggies and potato. Dessert was a giant chocolate cupcake with whipped cream and I don’t think anyone left hungry.

After dinner was the usual tea, coffee, and cookies accompanied by the issuance of certificates of accomplishment and the final briefing. There were many speeches and an exchange of addresses. And of course, because so much was made of my being the last on the bus, I was the last to receive a certificate.

Many in the group progressed to the local pub for additional carousing, but I headed for the gift shop to pay my bill, purchase a t-shirt and then head off to my room to do laundry in preparation for my next adventure. Little did I know that an adventure of a different sort would soon unfold.


THURSDAY, APRIL 10, 2008

End Of The Road For This Adventure?
The generator never stopped, and I wrote and read until I couldn’t see and then fell asleep. My internal alarm clock woke me early the next day, so I folded the remaining laundry and finished packing my stuff into the large plastic bags they had given us. Then I headed down to pack my lunch and eat my final breakfast with the group I had become so fond of.

After breakfast we brought our backpacks, small travel bags and large plastic bags down to the lobby where they were separated. The large plastic bags went in one pile for transport on the bus to Queenstown. Then I headed off, walking down to the wharf for the boat ride around the sound and out into the Tasman Sea. It was a bright, sunny, but very cold day and the tour was jaw-dropping as it cruised along. The mountains literally came down to the water and the light cast amazing shadows all around. The sun finally peaked up over the tops and then a new set of shadows appeared. We headed for a large waterfall and were drenched in spray as we neared, but the shear power of the water was magnetic and it made patterns in the water like a spider web as it hit and rippled outward.

All to soon the ride was over and we boarded the bus to take us out of Fiordland and back to TeAnau. But even the bus ride was interesting as the driver gave a running commentary on the area, the length of time it took to build the road, and the care taken to prevent avalanches from closing it.

Back at Te Anau ,as the bus rolled in, we spied a group similar to ourselves 5 days earlier, all awaiting a photo. They were as curious of us as we were of them and the guide asked us, in all seriousness, to put on a good limp for them when we got off and to look a little haggard. What fun. The circle complete.

We bid farewell to a number of our own, who were going on to hike the Routeburn, and two of our four guides, who were going to go off with the new group, hiking the trail yet again. They do the trail about 30 times in a season, taking groups of up to 50 each time. I can’t even imagine what their feet look like. Is there a podiatrist in the house?

Back on the bus, we had another 2 hour ride to Queenstown, during which most of the group dozed or at least had that glazed over look about them. Once we arrived in Queenstown, we collected our plastic bags and headed off in our own directions to our various hotels, with nary a goodbye. Exhaustion took over and autopilot engaged until I could finally check in, unload, and put my feet up to rest.

BUT THE NEXT MORNING ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE…………………….

To Be Continued
Ha Ha Ha………I love a good cliff hanger!!!!!!

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