After spending 5 months in Queenstown for the winter, which was amazing. I have now left to travel around the remainder of the country for a few months. Originally I had planned to leave Queenstown on the 11th of October and head to either Wanaka or Mt. Cook. I said my goodbyes to those in Queenstown packed up my car and left. I got as far as 20 minutes down the road before turning around and coming back. I was in the big supermarket getting some supplies before fully leaving town when one of my friends from Queenstown messaged me saying that some spots had opened up on the Milford Track in the coming days did I want to go? We had spoken a little about this before I left so it wasn’t completely out of the blue, but we had been informed that the transport you needed to book to get you to and from the hike was full. Thankfully some spots opened up so we decided to go do it. Multiday hikes or Tramping as it’s called here in New Zealand is basically the countries national sport/pastime (After rugby). As the name suggests it involves, hiking, trekking, camping, walking however you want to phrase it all rolled into one. I guess in England it would be called rambling. Not once have I been for a big hike in England, except when completing my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze award at school. However, in New Zealand, it’s by far one of the best ways to see the amazing landscape and scenery of this beautiful country. The Milford Track is also renowned for being possibly the best in the whole country. It’s one of the 10 NZ Great Walks and the one that gets booked out in about 10 minutes of being open for Great Walk Season. We would be walking the track a few weeks before the official start of the season, meaning it was far cheaper and also meant we didn’t have to book, which as I’ve said is pretty impossible anyway. Normally the walk is completed in 4 days and 3 nights, but being out of season we would do it in 3 days and 2 nights, which personally I think is a better way to go anyway. We would be walking a total of 60 km through Fjordland National Park, starting at the tip of Lake Te Anau, walking down the valley and over the Mackinnon Pass and then down the valley again arriving in Milford Sound. Myself and Thomas, who I’d be hiking with left Queenstown on the 12th of October and drove the two hours to Te Anau where we would spend the night before starting the hike the following day. Sadly however the weather had turned a little meaning the Department of Conservation (DoC) wasn’t allowing anyone to start so we had to postpone a day. It’s not unusual for bad weather in Fjordland as it gets over 200 days of rain a year. The reason for this is the next landmass on the same latitude is the South of Argentina, that’s a lot of sea to pick up rainwater to slam into the bottom of the South Island. We, therefore, had another day to kill in Te Anau, where we didn’t do a great deal other than go and watch James Bond at the Cinema. Thankfully the weather improved and we had a great 3-day window for the hike. We arrived at Te Anau Downs at 8 am on Wednesday morning, where we would catch a boat to ferry us up the lake to the start of the track. Day 1 would be the longest of the 3 taking us from Glade Warf to Mintaro Hut (22km). Normally in season you arrive and walk just 1 hour to get to Clinton Hut for the night before carrying onto Mintaro for night 2. But being out of season we could skip this and head straight to Mintaro. The weather was perfect, not a cloud in the sky as we walked up the Clinton Valley towards Mackinnon Pass. Steep glacier-carved cliffs lined the valley with waterfalls cascading down at various points along the way. Although long the walk was pretty flat and easy underfoot, only really climbing at a very shallow gradient the final few km of the hike. We had to cross a few little creaks which normally have bridges but are removed out of season due to avalanche paths which would destroy them if they remained. And while there was still snow at the high altitude peaks (which added to the beauty) we were pretty safe in the valley floor. Although we did see one huge avalanche back down the track, which started high up in the mountains and did make it all the way down the cliff face, ending pretty close to the track so the risk is still there, if only small. We arrived at Mintaro hut around 5 pm having set off from Glade Warf about 10 am. It was a moderate walk, although we stopped countless times to take photos and videos. The hut was situated at the bottom of Mackinnon Pass and it felt like we were at the bottom of a bowl whom’s rim was just snow-capped mountains except for the valley side where we had entered from.
Day 2 was the shortest, however presented the biggest elevation change and also the most spectacular views. We left the hut around 8 am and started to climb up Mackinnon Pass to an altitude of 1154 m (although the hut was already at 600+). The climb only took us around 1.5 hours however on reaching the summit it was a complete whiteout, we could barely see 10 m in front of us due to the thick cloud that was whipping up over the pass. Mackinnon Pass is essentially a wind tunnel, it sits at the head of two valleys and is dwarfed by even bigger mountains on either side of it. Although windy it was still tame in comparison as winds can gust at up to 150 km/h and the 3 previous pass shelters have been destroyed due to wind. Having reached the summit early we waited in the nearby shelter which was a welcome refuge to the outside elements hopeful that when the sun came up over the nearby mountain and hit the pass the cloud would clear. Thankfully we were rewarded for waiting it out as by 11 am the cloud had all but cleared and we were greeted with spectacular views down the Clinton Valley which we had walked the previous day. While I’m grateful we were able to see the view in all its glory I’m also happy we witnessed the other spectrum of mother nature as while the walk certainly felt like heaven on earth I’m sure it could easily be hell if the condition were that way inclined.
After waiting out the cloud and enjoying the view we then descended the other side of the pass towards Dumpling Hut which would be our second night’s stay. It’s only 13km from the previous hut so added to the day is the 6km round side detour to Sutherland Falls, which sits at 580m tall over 3 levels and is the highest in NZ. The waterfall is quite possibly one of the most powerful forces of nature I’ve ever witnessed especially so close. From a distance, you can see the beast seeming to fall from the heavens itself. Then as you finally arrive much closer to the base, just the sheer noise, velocity and power of the water crashing down from such a height is extraordinary. You can actually get around the back of the falls, but even going to the side to attempt to get around it you get absolutely blasted with spray. By far the best shower I’ve ever taken. It was an amazing place, few rarely get to see but a place that I could have stayed all day just watching the never-ending water crashing 580m from the sky. After the falls it was just another hour and a half to the hut for the night.
Overnight there was a little rain, but as morning broke the cloud had cleared and it was set to be another beautiful day. The final day of Dumpling Hut to Sandfly Point where we could be collected was again flat through the valley totaling 18 km. Again cliffs dwarfed us on either side and more beautiful waterfalls awaited us. By far the most stunning was Mackay Falls, I’ve never seen water so blue and so clear in all my life. Photos make it look otherworldly but it really was that blue. The reason behind this is due to the meltwater from the glaciers above (more details can be found here), but even if you don’t care about the science behind why, hopefully, you appreciate the beauty nonetheless. All along the walk Thomas and I had been commenting on how amazing the water was everywhere and that we wanted to take a swim. We decided there was no better spot than Mackay Falls so took the plunge for a quick dip/wash seeing as it had been 3 days of sweaty hiking. We weren’t in there long as I imagine the water temperature was somewhere between 4 to 10°, so very very cold. So much so it shocks your body and takes your breath away. But the rush and exhilaration you feel after taking the plunge is amazing. After the swim we had half the days walk to go which was probably the least exciting part of the whole trip, but even so still amazing. We ended the walk at Sandfly Point just around the river bend from Milford Sound where again we were picked up by boat and then driven by minivan back to where we had parked the car a few days prior. Although my words and photos hopefully paint a decent picture, being fully immersed in such a beautiful place is impossible to convey to you as a reader. There is no superlative or photo which can substitute being there. There is no phone signal, no contact to the outside world, you are fully present in the moment and with nature the whole walk. You stop and stand in near silence, your ears registering only a distant bird song, the wind in the trees or the sound of a nearby waterfall. It was magical. Easy to see why it has the reputation it does and I’m so glad I managed to fit it in. I’m even more thankful for the amazing weather we also had for the duration of the walk which only added to the experience.
After the Milford Track is was back to Queenstown for a night, before I finally did leave on Sunday the 17th of October, driving the hour or so north to Wanaka. Here I would summit Isthmus Peak, which sits at 1386m and takes around 4-6 hours return depending on how quickly you walk and how long you stop at the top. The other famous hike in Wanaka is Roys Peak, but sadly this is closed at the moment due to the lambing season. However many people rate Isthmus better as you have panoramic views of two lakes and not just Lake Wanaka which you get from the top of Roys Peak, which is very Instagram famous. The hike up was pretty steep and tough, it’s just straight-up via a winding 4×4 track through various farmland, but the views on the way up are great of lake Hawea. There are several false summits on the way but once you reach the ridgeline which you walk along to reach the summit you get outstanding views of the Southern Alps, Lake Wanaka to your left and Lake Hawea to your right. The weather was again amazing, the morning mist clearing by the time I summited. I think I passed 3 other people during the whole hike and had the summit all to myself. Taking photos and videos up here for a good hour as well as just stopping to marvel at the utter ridiculousness of the view before me. There probably wasn’t another soul within 10km of me as I stood all alone on the top of that mountain. It was certainly an experience to be somewhere that beautiful and remote all by yourself but I loved it. You get so much mental clarity and feel like you can work through all of life’s problems in that moment.
After the hike, I spent some time just relaxing in Wanaka and also taking some photos of the equally Instagram famous Wanaka Tree. I had been in Wanaka 5 months previous with Emilio as I made my way to Queenstown for the start of the season. Being there 5 months later I was pretty reflective on everything that had happened in the time that has subsequently passed. Most of which I would have never predicted. I then thought ahead to wondering what the next 5 months have to offer, wondering where I shall be just after my 26th birthday. I then set about taking some more photos. During my time in Queenstown with the broken collar bone, it allowed me time to learn a lot more about photography and videography. I’ve always quite enjoyed taking photos and making video edits of my travels but never learnt too much about the fundamentals behind it all. I just shoot everything in auto mode then throw it all together. Which don’t get me wrong still made some nice pictures and videos. But I really wanted to take it to the next level now. I’m actually planning on making my best ever video edit of NZ. I certainly fell out of love with it a little during my time in Australia really just taking photos with my phone hence I won’t be able to put anything together for here. But I’ve spent some money upgrading all my tech and I’m back with a bang hoping to capture and create my best stuff yet. Judging by the comparison between my photos of The Wanaka tree 5 months ago and now I’ve certainly improved and again I’ve fallen back in love with the process behind taking photos and trying to make cool videos. I had been worried that by focusing too much on this, you miss out on just enjoying travelling for what it is, but I’ve started thinking that when you’re looking for that great photo or shot you’re immersing yourself even deeper into the scene before you. You’re no longer just an observer admiring, you delve deeper into the moment before you, getting much more involved focusing on the best light, best angle, getting creative on what might look good and what doesn’t. Then at the end of it all, I still take a minute to just enjoy what’s before me with my own eyes but can look back on a photo as well for years to come. I can also think of no better place to photograph as its so easy with everything being so stunning.
Wanaka is also a great base to explore some of Mt Aspiring National Park and with beautiful weather forecast for a few days I took another tramp up the Matukituki Valley toward Mt Aspiring itself. The drive out to Raspberry Creek car park takes around 1 hour 15 and is mainly gravely road passing through farmland with lots of cattle grids as well as serval fords you have to drive over in the last 10 km. There are several huts in the valley and my plan was to hike the 9km with my overnight bag and gear to Aspiring Hut which sits down in the valley. Leave most of my gear here and then take a day bag to continue up the valley, potentially going to either Liverpool or French Ridge Hut which sit on either side of the valley up in the alpine section above. Again the landscape was breathtaking, first passing through farmland, then into forest, past rivers and over creeks, out into open flat flood plains. Having dropped my bag off at the Aspiring Hut I made good time to the section of the valley where you go up and left to Liverpool Hut or up and right to French Ridge. I elected to hike up to Liverpool Hut with it being slightly shorter in distance and elevation (seeing as I had to come back the same day) and also it offered views of Mt Aspiring itself. The hike up from the valley floor to Liverpool hut is very tough and I m glad I had to do it with just my day bag. I use the term hike loosely as it was more a rock climb, which I found really fun scrambling up the step path using roots, branches and rocks as foot holes and grips to pull yourself the 600m up the mountain to the hut! Was certainly a good test for the collarbone which is 100% back in full working order no issues! After just over an hour of climbing, I made the small hut that overlooked the valley I had just walked through. You could even see Aspiring Hut way back down the river, which was amazing but also a bit daunting knowing I still had all that way to go back today to sleep. The 360° views were once again spectacular and I will surely use every superlative there is during my blogs as NZ’s landscape is home to all of them. There were great views of Mt Aspiring and Mt Barff which some hardcore people where even going to ski tomorrow. I have no idea how they got all their gear up there as it was tough with just my day pack. After an hour admiring the view and taking some photos I headed back down and along the valley to Aspiring Hut, where there were only 3 other people, I lit the big fire in the main room, moved a mattress in there and slept in front of the fire all night. A perfect end to a great day! The following morning I hiked back towards the car park taking a quick detour out to Rob Roy Glacier viewpoint snapping a quick photo here before getting back to the car. I then drove back to Wanaka after a very big couple of days hiking. I had planned to leave Wanaka directly but decided I needed a night to sort my gear out again and also recover.
The following morning I departed Wanaka and drove an hour out of town to the Blue Pools, which by current standards were quite busy, although still relatively empty compared to the size of the car park. It makes me think how lucky I am when you see a car park of that size, think normally everywhere would be so busy, yet I’ve most places to myself. As the name suggests the Blue Pools are just really clear waters where people go for a bit of a look around I again took a freezing cold plunge before swiftly getting changed to avoid getting eaten by sandflies. And let me tell you I’ve been bitten a lot the past few weeks with all this hiking. It’s strange, while you are on the move you seem to be fine and not get bitten. You spot a lovely place to stop, to have lunch, sip a drink or take some photos and within a minute you are swarmed and soon have to move on again. It’s the only thing about New Zealand that so far is a negative and I’ve come up with 3 theories for why they exist. Theory 1: It is mother natures way of reminding you, you are in fact still on earth and not in heaven. When you’re standing looking at the most beautiful scene before you it can be easy to forget and feel like you are in heaven. The sandflies soon remind you that you are in fact still here. Theory 2: They do the pinching so you don’t have to do it yourself. You could quite easily stand in many spots and have to pinch yourself to convince yourself that it’s real. Well no need the sandflies will soon do the pinching for you. Theory 3: If there weren’t any sandflies it would be very easy to stay at some spots all day long getting lost in how beautiful they are. If it wasn’t for the sandflies forcing you to move on you’d never get to see much as you’d stay in one place too long haha! So yes the sandflies are bloody annoying things and I’d have loved to of stayed just a few minutes longer enjoying a view, lake or sunset but if that’s the only bad thing going for a place I think it’s doing pretty well. Apparently, it’s also only the females that bite, I’ll say no more but make of that what you will…
After the Blue Pools, it was time for another hike on my very active first 10 days of the road trip. This time up to Brewster Hut which is just over the Haast Pass as you head from Wanaka to the West Coast. It’s a relatively short hike, just 5km in length but it rises over 1k in altitude so again is pretty steep. The weather was also very warm and I was certainly fatigued from all the previous hikes I’d completed. First, you have to cross a river on foot (meaning after heavy rain the track is impossible), before ascending up through the forest and then breaking the tree line into the alpine section. Here you have about another hour or so to go where many false peaks broke my heart. Every time I summited one to see yet another orange marker 50m further up in elevation was a killer. My legs had certainly gone. But I made the hut in a reasonable time and was certainly rewarded for my efforts. I arrived around 4:30 pm while the sun was still hot, had a quick wash and then basked in the sun for several hours and had dinner. I then hiked a little further up past the hut for sunset which was amazing. It started off good but then just continued to get better and better. By the end, the sky was so red, probably one of the most intense reds I’ve ever witnessed during sunset. Also, the way the light illuminated the top of the nearby Mt. Brewster, which the hut takes its name from was special. The hut itself was really small and cosy with only room for 12 people. It was ⅔ full for the night although 4 of them left at 3 am in an attempt to summit Mt Brewster itself. I’d love to give something like that a go one day, but it requires some serious training and knowledge to attempt things like that. While nature here has been astonishingly beautiful, I know that if you fail to respect it, it can also be deadly.
The NZ road trip has certainly got off to an amazing start, I did have some bad news regarding my car before setting off though. During the Milford Diving trip, the temperature gauge on the engine had hit the red. I, therefore, pulled over and on inspection, I was out of engine coolant. We topped this up with water and were on our way again, no problems the rest of the trip. On arrival back in Queenstown from the trip I parked up and the following morning went to use the car and noticed all the coolant had leaked out and there was a massive puddle under the car. On the cars recent WOF (NZ equivalent to an MOT) there was an advisory saying the coolant was leaking. I, therefore, took the car back to the same garage thinking the leak had just gotten worse and hopefully it was just a dodgy hose or something. Sadly the mechanic called me the next day saying they had tested the head gasket and it had blown, effectively writing off the car, or 2.5k to fix it. I was never going to pay that much seeing as it only cost me 1.7k NZD. I explained my situation to the mechanic and he just said drive it until it doesn’t drive anymore, try to avoid steep mountain passes and keep the coolant topped up with water. It was a bit of a bummer right before my trip and effectively means I won’t be able to recoup money from selling the car at the end. However so far so good, we shall see how far it gets me it could last my whole trip it could last another day. Let’s just hope I don’t jinx it like I did with the snowboarding and tomorrow when I go to start it it’s stopped working haha! Just adds a little more adventure to the whole trip now with the added worry my car may stop at any moment!
I’m now on the West Coast and will write about this in my next NZ Road Trip instalment, be sure to subscribe below to be notified by email whenever I make a post. In the meantime, follow my Instagram account to stay up to date with the latest travels or you can follow my Polarsteps Map to see my journey in map form. Thanks for reading, till next time 🙂
Wow ! Calum, What an amazing time you are having. Lovely read as usual. The pictures are out of this world 👍💙xxx
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Thank you, been amazing so far
Fab Calum. All those hikes sound exhausting lol. Your legs and energy gave us the stunning scenery and amazing views that make NZ a truly amazing place to travel. Lots of love mum 😘❤️💙
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Few days off now though haha x lots of love