We awoke to our final day in New Zealand to a half blue and half grey sky. It seemed as though it was raining in the mountains, but as the patches of clouds moved toward the coast they instantly broke up. We went to the office to check out two kayaks. We were provided with life-vests and a little cart to transport our kayaks to the beach across the road. We were told to just leave our cart in the grass beside the beach. No one steals here I think. When we were shown to our room yesterday the glass doors were wide open fully revealing the flat screen TV and blue-ray player. We pulled the cart to the beach and examined the situation. Eric and I had never launched kayaks on a beach with sizable waves or waves of any size for that matter. Shrugging we pulled our boats into the water and waited for a lull.

There was never a true lull, but the waves did seem to shrink at one point. We ran as fast as we could yanking out kayaks behind us. Just before a small wave came we leaped inside and paddled hard. The kayaks broke cleanly through the surf. I wondered why I had bothered wearing clothes over my bathing suit. I was denched and the akyak was the type with drainage hole cut in it anyway. We paddled along the shoreline and discovered the kayak could be used a a boogie board. we rode the waves a bit, never getting on the crest though. Well, at least at first.

Eric eventually caught a wave right at the white foaming tip. The waves broke around him carrying him and his kayak to shore… only separately! Apparently it was great fun. I watched his laughing hysterically as we attempted to retrieve his kayak that seemed to be purposefully evading him. As I watched I failed to realize that the waves were pulling me slowing into the breaking zone… I did notice though when a wave caught me on its crest and dumped me out of my kayak dragging me and my boat to shore as well. IT WAS FUN!

We caught our kayaks and broke back through the waves into the ocean. We rode the waves more before our two hour time limit was up. We carefully caught waves to take up to shore managing to stay up right the entire time…. well almost. At the very end of the surf line on the beach we both suddenly, and for no logical reason it seemed, toppled over!

We returned the kayaks and went back to the beach with boogie boards. The boards were the low quality foam kind with no slick board and no wrist attachment. It was hard to enter the water this way since we couldn’t dive under the waves detached from our boards. I caught a few great rides though. I hadn’t forgotten the technique after having been away from the sport for five years. Eric is a surfer and didn’t quite understand how to time waves on a boogie board. He still caught some though. The clouds were filling in the blue sky making it rather cold on the beach so we didn’t stay long. After returning the boogie boards we headed over to town.

Whitianga is your typical beach town. It was smaller than Mt. Maunganuiand was more of a locals vacation spot. Heaps of folks were there for the Easter holiday. We went to a small cafe off the main strip called Coghill House known for there cinnamon scrolls (we call this cinnamon rolls in the States). We ordered  veggie and Cajun chicken paninis though which were quite tasty. We still had $12 left to spend. Not wanting any more stuff to bring home we ended up buying a small mud cake at New World Supermarket. After polishing that off we visited Tip Top Dairy which is New Zealand’s scoop chain and reasonably priced. I got a double scoop of apricot ice cream for $3.70 and Eric got a (boring) vanilla shake for $3.80. Close enough getting rid of our final change.

We wanted over to the Marina and walked the docks. Then we walked across the jetty which was filled with black oyster catchers who did preferred to run all the way down the jetty until they were forced the fly away at the tip. Just as we were leaving the clouds finally won over the sun and it began to lightly rain.

The drive back to Auckland was uneventful. Our flight took off bound for Vancouver, BC at 8:00pm on a Boeing 777.. tomorrow when I arrive back in WA at 5.25pm it will still be April 20th!

Today our plans were back on schedule. Eric and I left the big city of Tauranga and drove 90 miles to the famous Coromandel Penisular. The area id know for gorgeous beaches, sea life, sea stacks, rip tides and  the Pinnacles Mountains. Of course we drove through giant fields of sheep and cows on our jounrey there.

Our first stop was Hahei, a tiny beach town several miles of The Pacific Coast Highway. We were going to hike Cathedral Cove. Sign clearly mark the way to the parking area which only had several cars in it this early in the morning (8:45am). The sky was brilliant blue and the sun alright beat down powerful UV. We rubbed on sun lotion…. well Eric pretty much painted on a thick layer. The car park is on top of a hill affording wonderful view of the sea speckled with little islands and sea stacks. We followed the trail on the left leading to Gemstone beach, stingray bay and finally Cathedral Cove.The trail is well maintained and well signed to indicate the turn offs to different beaches. It does gain elevation but it is pretty much negligible to wilderness folks. It only took us about 25 minutes to arrive at the cove despite the signs’ claim of 45 minutes.

Cathedral Cove is so named because of the cathedral-like arch formation carved into the rock or so it is said. In reality a giant tunnel was erodes into a massive rock roll protruding into the ocean. Not many folks were at the beach and we had the tunnel to ourselves. We walked though… at low tides we would have been able to cross over onto the next beach, but pounding surd blocked the exit on the other side of the tunnel. There are a fair amount of signs warning that rockfall in common in the tunnel.

The waves were not as large as the previous day, but the ocean still beckoned. We leaped into the waters playing in the surf. There are large rocks and sea stacks on this small beach and we stayed a safe distance away. As we swam more folks began to arrive… and they kept coming until the tunnel was filled with tourists and the beach covered in beach towels. Come early!Eric and I decided to go back into the tunnel and swim across to the other beach. This had to be carefully timed to avoid the waves bashing you into the rock wall. We made it safely along with some other folks spilling into the neighboring beach. After swimming back and watching folks in a gorgeous setting with their eyes locked to their smartphones, Eric and I decided to check out the other beaches.

Stingray Bay, to my knowledge, has no string rays. There was no one at this small, bouldery beach. Eric and swam here for some time as well. Signs indicated rock fall dangers decorated this beach as well. Gemstone Beach is a snorkeling beach, protected from the wind and has hardly any waves. We did not swim here, but did read the signs about the snorkel trail wishing we had the right gear.The parking lot was overflowing with illegally parked cars when we returned. COME EARLY!

Eric really wanted to go to Hot Water Beach. There is a hot rock beneath the sand which heats the water above it to high tempurtures. At low tides folks gather here with shovels and dig little hot tubes in the saturated sand near the surf. Somehow I had a feeling that this famous beach would be a tourist trap. I was right.

The parking lot wasn’t full, but it was 2 hours before low tide. Signs pointed to Hot Water Beach two blocks away. The area was commercialized with cafes and shops that rented shovels. Warning signs indicated that rip tides were dangerous on this beach and lifeguards that didn’t look at day older than 13 wandered the sand. To access the hot area we crossed a freshwater drainage with fast flowing water in the sand and headed left to a rocky bluff. About a hundred people had already amassed in the area with shovels digging away. There were all condensed in a single area. It reminded me a the NYC subway. Eric and I dug with our hands on the outskirts. The water table was low near the surf… but all the water that gathered in our holes was pretty cold… and the waves here are known to by high so every few minutes a large swell would wash over the entire area sending folks scrambling to repair their pools. Eric and I gave up and took a walk to neighboring Surf Beach. When we returned it was low tide and the crowd had tripled in size. We noticed that some pool near the edge of the crowd were steaming. We dug near there. The water that gathered in our holes was so hot it burned out feet. Satisfied that we’d experienced the hot water at Hot Water Beach we headed out…. the more entertaining part of my visit there was when I watched a guy carry his girlfriend across the drainage on our way to the car because she was still scared to cross 6 inches of flowing water.

Eric and I drove to of final hostel: YHA Whitianga (pronounced “Fit-e-ang-a”). Washington state has some weird native names, but Mauri pronunciation is even weirder. The beachy blue hostel is right across the road from buffalo beach and features free kayak and boogy board rentals. The private rooms are not stand alone, but in a suite style set up. Two private rooms were off of a fulling appointed living room and kitchen (TV, couches, microwave, dishes… everything). Our suitemates were two surfers from Auckland… we stayed up late chatting with them about our respective countries with non-stop laughter. For the guys there was also non-stop beer (then whiskey).

 

 

 

Guess what? This morning it was raining again and also, thunder clapped loudly over Tauranga. Luckily the thunder died down after breakfast. Eric and I contemplated what to do and decided we’d climb Mount Maunganui (or Mauao as it is also called) in the town of Mount Maunganui. It is an extinct volcano on the tip of the peninsular just across the bridge from Tauranga. If the rain continued we’d go to the climbing gym The Rock House. In full rain gear we headed out the door.

The weather was off. Half the sky was a grey cloud and the other half sun over the harbor when we arrived at the base of the mountain. Eric and I walked the 3.4km circuit around the base of Mauao wondering where the trail up was. Of course we found it just as the circut ended… from the park entrance head around the right side of the circuit for faster access. There trail leads through sheep pasture (yes there are sheep in this park) to a junction where you can choose to climb the lightly graded Oruahine Track or the steeper Waikorire track. We opted for Oruahine… which happened to led us right past some bolted climbing routes! The rock looked solid and the routes awesome… but it was raining yet again.

Note that many folks climb the mountain including some trail runners. This not a trail for solitude. The summit is broad and includes some benches amount with another survey marker. It was too cloudy for views. We headed down the Waikorire track which we thought was better graded even though it is steeper.

Surprisingly, but the time we got to the trail-head and rain was little more than a drizzle. The beach was  filled with surfers along a small peninsular. Eric and I decided to stay outside for the day as long as there was no thunder. We drove back to the hostel, grabbed our bathing-suits, and then headed back to Mount Manunganui. The sun was coming out along with a lovely blue sky. It seemed that every other piece of land in the distance was under a grey raincloud though. The water was pretty warm for the ocean and the swells large! Body surfing was amazing and we played in the waves for over an hour. Then we walked out to the little peninsular which had a small trail to it’s tip. Waves crashed violently over the rocks sending own towers of spray!

After another swim, Eric and I wander around the town. It is a typical beach town. Lots of cafes (most with a 15% surcharge since it was Good Friday) and beach shops. We stopped in Sunny’s Variety store and bought some Hokey Pokey chocolate for $2. We then decided to climb back up the mountain using the Waikorire track this time. We had good views when we summited before heading back to the hostel.

 

When we woke up rain was pouring from the sky once again. I checked the forecast for the following day. We were scheduled to go on a Swimming With Wild Dolphins tour in Tauranga the following day. I wondered if that would still occur in the rain. The forecast revealed not only rain, but also thunder was predicted. Eric went to the office to call the company to see what was going on. As we feared, the dolphin company was canceling the boat (they had emailed Eric, but he hasn’t checked his mail since America). Disheartened we attempted to make plans for some white water rafting south of Tauranga and away from the thunder, but as it turned out all the class 4-5 rapids trips weren’t going out because the rivers were low.

We puttered about and eventually concluded that we’d climb Tauhara Mountain on the edge of Taupo since the rain had receded. The Trail head is at the end of Mountain Rd. A sign indicates that this is Moari Land and to stay on the track. The Track itself begins as a wind dirt road though fenced farmland with…. more sheep. We walked along wondering if you were going the right way. The road kind of ended, but there was what seemed to be a path leading through an open gate and through and empty cow pasture. We trekked up the rolling hills toward the mountain. Views of the Lake abounded as we climber higher. Then the trail narrowed and we headed into the forest.

We were definitely on the trail, but it is not cared for like the National Park Track. It is washed out in some areas, steep at times and very narrow. Sometimes there is a fork in the road, but the two direction will always rejoin. Take the path of least resistance. Rain began to fall again and the wind suddenly picked up amazing speed. Trees creaked and bent in the wind as we traversed across the side of the mountain and finally summited. Clouds had rolled in by then, so the views were absent as the winds slashed at us. There is a geological survey marker on top which helps measures plate tectonic movement. We stayed a bit before heading back down. My GPS battery rain out after we summited but the total track was about 5 miles with a 1800ft ascent.

We drove north to Rotorua. Rain bashed our window and the wind took on cyclone strength. We passed Rotorua stopping once at the Visitor center hoping to get ideas for the next few days. No luck. We were definitely happy that we did not have a stay at Rotorua on our itinerary. It is a large town and even larger tourist trap. It is famous for the zorbe and Maori concerts ($165+). We decided to stop at Mamaku Blue Blueberry Farm to taste some wine and berry products. The signs made the shop sound impressive, but it was very sparse. The wine, though made with berries, was not sweet which was a pleasant surprise.

back on Route 36 we drove through farmland as usual until we were stopped by a pickup truck in the middle of the road. The officical informed up that the road was closed because of a slide in the gorge. We would have to turn around and go back to Rotorua, go all the way around the lake and head up Route 33 instead. He urged us to hurry. Apparently they were unprepared for so my rain and wind. Slides and floods were everywhere and many roads were already blocked.

We retraced our steps and finally made it to the coast We followed the Pacific Coast Highway to Tauranga which, to my disappointment, is a rather large city. Our room at YHA Tauranga is huge and spacious… almost like a hotel room. All the other private rooms had almost no floor space. I drove to the supermarket about a mile or two away and picked up some hokey pokey again.Hopefully there will be something to do tomorrow in all this rain.

The rain this morning was worse then yesterday, but leaped out of bed and swiftly left the hostel as soon as we finished breakfast. the rian left up a bit as we drove to  Whakapapa Village. We parked at the VC and walk a little ways up Bruce Road t the Silica Rapids Trailhead. It trail was what we expected from a short day hike. It went through the forest and then through tussock grass meadows as the rain randomly turned on and off. After following the river we came to Silica Rapids. Silica deposits on the rocks here made them turn a cream color. Pretty cool to see… but I really would rather be climbing. The track continued on and let out further down on Bruce Road. We followed the road about 1.5 miles back to the car-park. The total distance was 4.2 miles.

Our next track, Taranaki Falls,  led through tussock grasses and intermittently into trees along a river. The trail passes a “teaser” waterfall, before coming to the massive Taranaki Falls. Beaiful and much more interesting that the Silica Rapids. The Track also features some lovely canyons. It is a loop track of 3.7 miles.

Eric and I then got into our car and drove on SH 47 to the Rotopounamu Lake Trailhead located about 30 minutes away from the village. By now it was rainy steadily so we practically rain up the steep rainforest trail taking only 12 minutes to reach the lake. You can circuit around it, but due to the weather we only walked until we could access the beach area before turning back. It took us about 30 minutes total. A good, short, conditioner.

Eric continued our drive to Lake Taupo, the largest lake below the equator. The mist was clearing and as we drove along the edge of the lake it’s vastness became clear as well as the mountains that surrounded it.

We decided to head over to Wairakei Park in the town of Taupo. The “tourist park” as they call it, is know for its thermal area of hot springs and geysers. However, having since area charged a $35+ to enter we opted out.  I’d worked in Yellowstone and seen these formation before anyway. Instead we went to Huka Honey Hive, a shop specializing in honey from all over NZ and Mead (wine made with honey). They offered a tasting table of about 15 of their honeys (self serve). A staff member also poured samples of their mead and honey liqueurs. We sampled several varieties of alcohol and would suggest the Red Mead and Clover Cream Liqueur. They also have a cafe with honey ice cream and several coffees. Eric ordered “The buzzer”, a traditional flat white served over manuka honey chocolate.Our next stop was the famous Huka Falls just a little further down the road. It was a short walk to overlook were the lovely blue falls roared. A jet boat passed by as we watched. These boats are famous in NZ, but over priced at $95 for an hour tour.

Eric and I made our way into the large town of Taupo to our hostel: THA Taupo. This was the cleanest hostel I have ever been in. It had large decks and views of the lake. It is in the “dry” area of town, but bars and breweries are a short walk away. At night the skies cleared and Eric and I took a walk over to Crafty Trout Brewing Co. Eric purchased a sampler of 4 beers for $15 and we sat on the porch outside. Eric wasn’t too crazy about any of the beers, but he’s into dark brews and IPAs. I can’t comment as I prefer wine. We walked around the lake for about an hour before turning in.

 

Eric and I heard the the Waitomo Caves was a “must do” in NZ. Several months ago we booked the 9am  “Black Abyss” tour run by Legendary Blackwater Rafting Co. It is the most expensive tour at $225 (10% off if you book online) and the original cave tour. It also happened to be the best tourist activity we have ever done in our lives! More than worth the money and highly recommended!

The company is located just across the street from the hostel. After checking in and filling out some forms we waited on the porch for our guides. There were 8 folks in the group total all in their twenties and all adventurous (1 Canadian, 4 americans & 3 Brits). The group did help make the trip awesome as our guides later informed us. Sometimes there is a group that is just a dud.

Chris and Kannen, our guides, led us all the the back of the building and outfitted us with wetsuits, harnesses, boots, helmets, lights, biners and racks (a specialized caving rappel device). Changing rooms were provided and our clothes and belongings were locked away in a cabinet by the guides. Then we all headed over to the shuttle and drove to Ruakuri Cave.

It was clear the Chris was the most sarcastic person possibly in New Zealand and Kannen had no lack of humor. They were also skilled teachers. Four ropes were set up on a hill beside the cave entrance. Here, they taight all of us how to use the rack to abseil into the cave. Some folks have never rappeled before by the way (fireman belay given). After only 15 minutes of instruct they deemed us ready (this would never be allowed in America.

Chris went down first, then I followed. The rack was difficult to use. It seemed to either have too little friction, but I made it down the 35 meter hole in the ground into the darkness of the cave. When we also got to the bottom we were led deeper into the cave. Kannen disappeared at some point and Chris told us to turn all light out. He left his on and attached each of us to a zip line called flying fox. We were sent down in the black with glow worm illuminating our way. Kannen waited at the bottom.

At the bottom of the zipline our harnesses were removed. We were told to sit by the river. Hot chocolate and large cave cookies were handed out. While we munched the men regaled us with jokes and cave stories. But we didn’t sit long. Black inner tubes were by the river. Chris told up to get a tube and hold it over out butt. Then he showed us how to leap into the river off a 5-6 foot ledge (also not allowed in the States). We each leaped into the 10-14 degree Celsius water. Ropes were attached along the river edge to the rock. We pulled ourselves along these ropes admiring the beauty of the cave. Then Chris told us to form a conga line and turn out our lights. I was inform from of the line so he took my foot and drags us all through the pitch black cave (his light was off too). The glow worms were amazing… and the water cold!

After leaving our tubes we walk and swarm though the next sections of the cave known as the Drunken Tunnel and a tight squeeze hole called the “Re-Birth Canal”. Along the way the guides provided us with hot tea and chocolate. In that cold the company recognized the importance of eating and drinking… plus the tour is 5 hours.

The final, and best part of the tour was climbing up two waterfalls. I should add here that the falls were not frozen. but full liquid. Not ice tools required.. and no ropes. The guides stood beneath us as we each took our turn navigating the running water and rock wall. Definitely not allowed in America.  A long tunnel then led us back into daylight.

We were shuttled back to the Center where were were rewarded with a shower, hot bagels and tomato soup (including in price). Freaking amazing tour as I mentioned before. Note, no cameras are allowed in the cave. The guides have a waterproof camera and take photos along the way. The photos are sold on a USB drive for $30 and not not the best quality (see below). I only included the best ones below. However, I thought it was worth it since we had such a great time.

We drove to National Park after finishing our lunch and checked into YHA National Park Hostel. This is where things began to go downhill. The weather is looking grim for the Tongaririo Crossing in the morning. Chances are there will be no views with the cloud cover and rain. The hostel is also horrible. Eric and I stayed here because it was the cheapest place in town (but not very cheap for a hostel. There is a climbing gym in the hostel which seems awesome until you discover that your room’s doorway is in the climbing gym. Thus, folks not staying in the hostel are around causing security concerns and the music is blasting all night. The kitchen had flies everywhere and was filthy. There were only 3 spoons and two sharp knifes in a hostel that accommodated about 100 folks. The towls meant to dry the dishes were so filthy we questioned whether be were making freshly cleaned dishes dirty again. There was no code for the front door after hours either. I know this this is a hostel…. but this is A Hi-Hostel YHA certified hostel. How they got this certification I have no idea. Eric has been to hostels in South America with better conditions. This is not the fault of the staff… the problem is that there are only two folks running  the entire hostel expected to clean everything, take care of the climbing gym and work the front desk. Every other hostel I’ve been to have a separate staff of about 10 people just to clean.

I suggest spending money on a hotel camping  or sleeping in your car. You’ll be much better off.

 

Today did not feature any exciting outdoor adventures. It was more of a travel day, transitioning for the South Island to the North Island. However, we did have some new experiences.

We took the first flight from Queenstown to Auckland, arriving in NZ’s largest City around noon. We located GO Rentals several blocks away from the terminal (this is why they are also the cheapest car rental). As it turned out we got a Toyota Yaris… just like Eric’s car back in America. However, there were a few minor differences and one major difference:

Minor: automatic windows, four door, automatic locks

Major: steering wheel on the right side of the car

The steering wheel on the right side of the car also meant that the windshield wiper and blinker/light switches were on opposite sides as well. Luckily the petals were the same. We loaded up the car and then Eric drove a few laps around the parking lot before driving to the supermarket a few blocks away. Turning required lots of though after years of many sharp rights and wide lefts, we had to think deeply to ensure making sharp lefts and wide right turns. But we survived the short journey to Count Down…an affordable supermarket in NZ (as affordable as NZ gets anyway).

After groceries, Eric drove us onto the highway toward Waitomo. Here we learned of the fun tendency to drift over to the left side of the road. Eric also had a habit of turning the wipers on every time we needed to change lanes. Passing on the right was also fun and well as seeing exits on the left. It was an 80 mile fun filled drive through fields and fields of sheep and cows. Nothing but farms after be left Auckland.

In fact, YHA Waitomo Hostel was on a farm! We checked into a shared 4 bed room and ventured out to meet the animals. There were 4 piglets and squealed with delight when we came over to pet them. Larger male and female pigs (mommy and daddy?). Came to the fence as well. When we began petting them the piglets started squeaking very loudly. So Eric peted the babied while I petted the adults. Daddy pig rolled over to have his tummy rubbed! Also in the pasture was a red deer (common to have domesticed deer in NZ) and a goat, but they were not very friendly.

We took a 10 minute walk down the road to Waitomo Village and them came back to the hostel for dinner. I must comment that this was a lovely, low key hostel. Clean, country-like… and the nicest I’ve ever been in.

The Infotrack shuttle was due to pick us up at the car-park at 12:00pm. Not wanting to risk missing our ride Eric and I began our final day on the track with our headlamps at 6:30am. The going was a bit slower than i would have liked in the dim light. It was rocky and changed elevation in short bursts like a roller coaster. But eventually the sky lightened  and the trail leveled out. After passing through the forested narrow gorge we arrived in a flat grassy area called Slip Flat. We crossed over the mostly dry river bed via rocks. There is abridge upstream for early season when the river must roar. We scampered across the mix of thin forest and open meadows. Sheep bleated in the glasses and ran off the trail as we approached. There is a junction with the Lake Rere Trail loop which leads back to the carpark about 30 minutes after the Flat, but it is a longer route. We stayed on the main track.

The trail was easy and we moving quickly. After passing through a pasture of cattle we crossed the final wooden bridge decorated with a steer’s skull. On the other side the Greenstone meets with the Caples Track (note: the Greenstone & Caples Tracks are commonly linked as a loop backpack)… and another track leads to the carpark 30 minutes away. A junction with the Lake Rere loop is reach again. Stay on the Greenstone/Caples and do not cross the bridge. There are several gates to open a shut behind you. Follow the signs to the car-park.

Of course we arrived early… and surprised that we had evaded the rain that was forecast. The sky was definitely white and gray with clouds though as we settled down for a 1.5 hour wait for the bus. We wanted to wake to Lake Wakatipu which is not too far away walking straight on, but that route was fenced sheep pasture and the road was twisty twindy. We walked around the car park for a bit before retiring to a picnic table. Our bus arrived at 11am to drop off a single trekker. At noon on the dime 4 other homebound backpacker emerged for the forest and we headed out.

The shuttle dropped us off at Glenorachy. We were instructed to wait there until 3:00 (it was currently 12:30) for another bus to take us to Queenstown. This got Eric and I rather annoyed as this had not been listed on the bus company’s timetable… and, more importantly, we were famished. Folks at the general store suggested we hitchhike. Hitchhiking on South Island is common and very safe so we stuck out our thumbs and hoped for the best. Several cars passed us by. But after about 15 minutes a car slowed and pulled over.

As it turned out we were picked up not by Kiwis, but by an older Swiss tourist couple who could speak English just enough to get by. We did have a fun conversation in the car and were very grateful to get back to Queenstown by 1:45. Once dropped off we walked straight to Fergburger.

As expected, there was a long line, but it moved quickly. Eric and I both ordered Sweet Bambi, a burger made of venison. There was a 30 minutes wait so we sat at the counter anxiously waiting and probably smelling really bad to other customers. The burgers were massive, but it was the bun that gave it most of its volume. About halfway though when my mind began to process taste over the need for calories I began to conclude that the burger was not all that outstanding. Just average. But calories are good… in fact we skipped right next door to Fergbakery where we had a 15% off dessert coupon since we’d eaten at Fergburger. I picked out a slice of chocolate mus cake, a local favorite, and Eric ordered a turkish doughnut. The cake was amazing, the doughnut just okay. We also ordered cross bun (kiwi favorite, but not my taste) and tomato pesto bread (awesome!) to go.

At the hostel we discovered that the labeled food we had left in the fridge had been stolen. Luckily, our dry food was still in the kitchen cubbies. Our luggage which we had locked in the storage shed was also unhampered with. After long anticipated showers we prepared our gear for the flight in the morning. Still full from the burgers and desserts,  but also still hungry, we ate dinner before collapsing to sleep.

7.7 miles

942ft ascent/ 1566ft descent

7.7 miles

942 ascent / 1566 descent

Our day began at 7 as usual. We followed the Greenstone back into the forest for a little ways before breaking pout into the sprawling Greenstone Valley. Mist hung low over the glasses and mountains towers above the golden meadow. A path was beaten though the grass marked by poles beside the bordering forest on the valley’s edge. We followed the trail in awe of the scenery while hoping over cow patties. An earlier sign had warned that this valley is used as livestock pastures, This also meant that there were livestock trails everywhere though the grasses and I think we somehow ended up on one.

We were wandering along the track observing the mountains when suddenly the trail kind of petered away. We looked around and backtracked a bit. It seemed we were on trail… but we had stopped seeing the pole markers. Luckily, route finding was pretty easy with our map. We followed valley keeping the river beside us, crossing it several times before we reached a clump of tree at the end of the first valley. We crossed the river there and discovered trail markers in the trees.

Back on the track we walked through the clump of trees for a minute or two before they cleared revealing the next section of the Greenstone Valley. Light was flooding the over us now, illuminating the mountains as we leaped over more cow patties. In the distance white specks of sheep were grazing on the hillside. We followed trail stayed in the edge of the valley for about .5 mile before climbing up into the forest; a relief as the sun was growing hotter. We stayed just above the meadow catching glimpses of it through the trees. We began to hear copious moos from cows at this point. Minutes later a massive herd of over 100… maybe over 150 cattle could be seem dotting the pasture.

The trail led back down into the valley for some time. We came across a cow and a bull at one point and decided to make a giant arch around them off trail. Cattle remind me too much of bison so we never get close. The sun as in full force now and when we stopped at a rock pile for snack we slathered on sunblock and topped it was bug spray to keep the sand flies at bay.

Beyond rocks about perhaps a mile further is a swing bridge. Signs indicate on own person at a time may cross. Beyond is a hut owned my guide companies where we as trekkers were not welcome. We crested a hill and were treated with views of the most gorgeous part of the valley. about 200 feet below was a sprawling river valley of green glasses and winding rivers… and grazing int he valley were hundreds of freshly sheared sheep. As were descending into the valley the sheep scattered away from us. Very shy creatures indeed. After passing the sheep herds and some lovely river carved canyons the track gained elevation again. We entered the forest beside the valley following just on the edge. There was a side trail back into the valley where a small shack stands. This is NOT the hut. The hut is about another 20 minutes away after the Greenstone Valley ends. In the forest there is a sign indicating the Greenstone Hut Turn Off. It is about a ten minute walk down the slope over a bridge crossing a deep and lovely river gorge, and back up to a hidden alpine meadow. The hut stands at the edge of the meadow. It is one building with two sleeping rooms off the the large kitchen.

Eric and I stripped off our socks and sipped off the bottom portion of our muddy convertible pants. After washing them in the sink we laid everything on the deck to dry. Eric retired to his bunk for 30 minutes while I watched grey clouds rolling in over the mountains. Rain was supposed to be coming for the east that evening. When Eric woke up the clouds were fully covering the sky and threatening showers. We hung our damp garments inside the house and decided to take a short walk up Mavora Walkway beside the hut. This is really part of a long trek. It climbs to the top of the ridge offering lovely views of the Greenstone Valley. We turned back for dinner and arrived at the hut just seconds before rain began to fall.

The women for the previous night joined us as well as a middle aged couple, Don (from Australia) and Natasha (from Kazakhstan). They got out to NZ about every other year and suggested treks that might also provide glacier access. I took notes. The women allowed us to use they stove to boil water for some couscous to go with our planned dinner of bread. Don and Natasha pretty much refused t take no for an answer and fed us some quinoa with peas. They then refused to take no for an answer and shared a rainbow trout they had caught earlier on the river…. and to top that off the women cam over with a bag of extra chicken curry and a pot of rice they had left over. That was the most stuffed I’ve ever been backpacking.

13.9 miles

1129ft ascent / 1485ft descent

 

Eric and I once again began at 7am from the hut. We walked in the forest every now and then we caught a glimpse of the mountains in the clearings, but it was obviously that we were losing elevation and moving away from the glaciated summits. More and more massive tote bags of gravel litters the trail. We pondered how they got there. Helicopter? They were rather annoying to navigate around. We ran into few people. One gentleman from the Netherlands who had been stealth camping without a permit by Lake Mackenzie (don’t do this out of respect for the park please) and another young with a very strange accent. As it turned out he was German, but he spoke British English. We passed Earland Fall with its long lacy stands of water tricklng in a sweeping cascade above us. There is a detour bridge downstream for early season when the normal trail is flooded.

It wasn’t very long until we reached the final hut on the Routeburn: Howden which sits beside a lake which happens to be called Lake Howden. From the hut on can go right  to the Divide Carpark and Key Summit side trail or left to the Greenstone/Caples Tracks. Eric and I opted to take the side trip up Key summit. The Divide Trail goes uphill for about 15 minutes before reaching the Key Summit turnoff. The trip is supposed to be 1 hour return. The climb itself is quick and a trail, not a scramble. This is a alpine nature trail on top which circles the summit offering wondrous views. Definitely worth the time out of the way to get one last look at the glaciers. On our way down we found that Key summit is a popular day hike destination. Several guided groups were on their way up (why some hires i guide for this I have no idea) and some individual as well. When we saide hello to on Irish couple they burst into happiness and asked “Are you also Irish!?”

Back at Howden we had lunch and then headed onto the Greenstone/Caples Track. Off the Great Walk, suddenly any sign of humans vanished. We wandered through the level forest for about an hour before coming to a clearing. Here the Caples Track split for the Greenstone Track. We followed the Greenstone Track on the right toward McKeller Lake. We followed the shoreline several yards above the bank in the forest. I was exhausted at this point and could hardly move. The lake seemed to never end. Luckily, we rain into a Brit who had just finished his swim in the lake. He followed behind up telling jokes making for reget my exhaustion until we reached McKeller Hut on the far side of the lake.

This is no permanent warden at the huts of the Greenstone/Caples. There is only one who rotates between all of them. There were town bunk houses and a kitchen. Like the rest of the huts, there were flushing tolits and running clean water. However, only Great Walk huts have gas stoves. We knew this and were prepared to eat dry food for dinner and breakfast over the next two days.

We took a walk to the lake passing the guided walk Lodge. Sand flies, buzzed about and we were happy that we had put on more bug spray. They’d been a particular nuance that day. These little black insects swarm and bite if you stand still for more than ten minutes.

Back at the hut Austin and Janie arrived… two American from Colorado who would entertain us for the rest of the evening along with Jon. Jon told us we could use his stove to boil water so while Eric and I ate some couscous Eric also ate sausage that Jon had leftover) the 5 of us swapped crazy stories about our travels past and future. Jon was pretty much certain that Americans were crazy by the end of the conversation! He was especially entertained by the fact that we have a “Bible Belt” and changed “french fried” to “freedom fries” when France refused to invade Afghanistan with the States.

A group of friendly middle-aged  women also stayed in the hut with us. They gather together every year for treks. They had an amazing about of conveniences: bottled wine, wine glasses, cheese, crackers, large towels, extra socks…. oh how we wished for new clothes! And the food fantasies were beginning too…

13.7 miles

2099ft Ascent /  Descent 2847ft