New Zealand is blessed with space but in winter people mostly keep well out of the way of it. I'm not sure why, given that their houses are uniformly freezing inside, but the cold weather keeps the majority of the kiwis indoors, and the tourists tend not to visit (I'm already Not a Tourist, as I have a bank account, pay taxes, and have scant idea of the goings on in the rest of the world). For the more intrepid, though, the space is there to be explored, the rain is ready to fall (well, it's probably actually falling, waiting for you to walk into it) and the snow is glinting in the patches of sun that slip through the gaps in the clouds.
Along with a bunch of chaps and chapesses from the tramping club (oh, yes, Hiking is called Tramping, Walking is what you do to get to work, and Rambling is what you do in the pub) I headed southeast of Dunedin into Fjordland. After some lengthy driving and some uncertainty in the location of a turn from a particular road we found a track leading up into a snowy field. Eventually our cars gave up and we were forced to walk the final few hundred yards to the small hut waiting to provide our first night's sleep. These basic huts are scattered about the backcountry, most having six or so sleeping spots, a cooking area and a fireplace. With some burning wood, gourmet food and red wine we soon warmed ourselves and the hut and got a good night's sleep.
Next day we feasted on honey-roasted oats and plodded back to the cars and drove to Te Anua, a lake and motel-town in the center of Fjordland. Being the off season the lady in the DOC office tried very hard to put us off walking any further than the cafe next door, but we convinced her that we were well prepared (I might have been lying, seeing as I only had a UK summer sleeping bag, but I'm letting that one rest), and she let us pay the small fee that would secure us beds in the hut half way up the mountain.
Off, eventually, we headed, and left the gates of the track just as the rain really got going. The first half of the path followed the lakeside, gently ambling up and down the bumps between the brown streams thundering off the hillside. The beach forest was striking, thick with green ferns, cushions of moss and lichens dripping from the sparkling branches like Christmas tree decorations. Eventually, after a lot of up, some short relief of across, then some more up, we hit patches of rain dappled snow, then sprang from the bush onto a plain of white pierced by scattered tufts of sharp grass. Over the woods we'd just left we could see down to the lake. The town on its shore sprouted a rainbow. Ragged clouds hung heavy above our heads and spanned the sky. In the distance brown mountains rose from a green plain, gained snow then smeared themselves out in the cloud we shared.
Pushing on through fresh snow, sinking sometimes through the crust, and wishing I had some skis, we ploughed our way from orange pole to orange pole, until reaching the hut. This was a much larger affair, capable of sleeping over fifty people, but empty today except for the seven of us. We ignored most of the massive building and set up a camp in the (still barn-sized) dining area that housed a small Klondike stove. As the light outside faded we crowded around the black bulb, slowly feeding it shards of wood as it gently warmed our faces. After a long cold night (possibly made worse by that summer sleeping bag) I woke to a stunning sunrise, the first sparks of light thrusting between the sharp passes in the mountains and shimmering off the silver lake far below us. We ate pancakes, drank fine coffee, tidied up, and headed back the way we came. Downhill was much faster, even including an excursion to a cave plunging into the earth. The wind in the night had flung a few fern trees onto the path and the rain washed away our footprints from the day before.
The rest of the track sounds spectacular, cresting above the Luxmore hut and descending along a river valley before wrapping back to the lake, but takes a day more than a weekend to finish, so will have to wait. Hopefully I'll get some time before the busy season starts, and fifty people eat their dinners in the hall that kept seven from the snow.
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