The port town of Bluff is certainly an interesting spot. Continuously inhabited since 1823, it’s one of the oldest European settlements in the country. Nowadays it feels a little run down, with some dilapidated buildings and abandoned houses sprinkled through the historic hotels and shipping docks.
To combat this, a local artist pulled together the best mural artists from the country to make some truly incredible, gigantic pieces of art on many of these old buildings! We didn’t realize it at the time, but these pieces had only been up for a couple months, so we are super lucky to get to see them!
Many of the murals pulled from historic events or people of Bluff, seen here in this shipwreck painting.
This mural depicts the gigantic Moa and it’s sole predator, the (also gigantic) haast eagle. Both are extinct.
I know we didn’t see all of them, but I guess that means we will just have to go back! Hopefully they will make it a regular thing, so the murals can continue to evolve!
Not much else to say here, except the next time we are in Bluff will be when we start the TA!
Thanks for reading, we’re heading east to curio bay next!
Days on Trail: 11 | Date of Adventure: 16 Jan 2022
After a rest day at the lovely Birchwood cabin, we continued on to a section described online as ‘horrible’, ‘awful’ and ‘not that bad’. Mount Linton Station is the largest private stock farm in New Zealand, and the land owners have a stringent deal with Te Araroa walkers: stay on trail, or else!
Originally an easy 19km direct walk through the property, at some point they had trouble with TA walkers who broke into a shed and stole some stuff; since then, they’ve rerouted it to be a 27km path far from any outbuildings.
We had heard rumors of the land owner flying his private helicopter over walkers just to double check they were staying on the trail–I thought they were rediculous rumors, until we heard the helicopter flying overhead.
If they wanted us to stay on trail, they should mark the trail better! In the first kilometer alone, the trail markers diverged from the GPS coordinates, which diverged from the map. At one point we had to hop over an electrified fence to get onto the correct side of it!
The farm is so large, they have their own private lake-Loch McGregor-with views of the Takitimu Mountains, our target for the day.
After an hour of zig-zagging along farm service roads, we started ascending through farmland, skirting the barbed fence line between fields. Best we could tell it was lettuce or kale.
We eventually settled into a pattern of rising and falling hills as we passed through livestock pastures. Each field was separated by a stile over the barbed wire, requiring two very steep steps each.
The sun was oppressive, and we took water breaks in any scant shade we could find. Speaking of water, any stream or basin would be heavily polluted by stock effluent, meaning we had to bring all our water with us from the start for the whole 27km section.
This particular time of year the thistles were happy and thriving, meaning our lower legs got plenty of new scratches throughout the journey!
After a day of ups and downs, we crested the last hill before the mountains began in earnest. We had to ford a decently sized river, but the cool water was a welcome relief to our aching feet.
Even though we were finally out of the endless fields of sheep or cows, we weren’t out of the farm’s property yet, and we still had three separate hills to climb before the campsite.
By now, the heat of the day had gone and we soon found ourselves donning our fleece jackets. Venturing into the mountains also meant that the sandflies were ready to attack any time we stopped, so we put our leggings on to protect ourselves.
At the crest of the third rise, we could see the Telford campsite! Down the hill and up the valley we spotted the unmistakable beige cylinder of a DOC long-drop (pit toilet). It was all downhill from here!
As if the end being in sight wasn’t enough, the setting sun gave us a magnificent display as it set, lighting up the mountains behind our camp as we descended the last hill!
We had one final river crossing before the campsite opened up to us, signalling the end of Mt Linton Station! We heard then saw a helicopter in the distance one last time before we crossed the fence.
We finally reached our destination after dark, setting the tent up by head-lamp. One advantage of arriving late is that the sandflies aren’t a problem, since they can’t see (and therefore aren’t around) in the dark!
We made a hasty dinner and got into bed as soon as we could, both glad to be done with our longest day yet on the trail!
We were ready and excited to be out of the farmland, about to head up through the first mountain range of the trip, the Takitimu Mountains!
If you read our Rakiura Track post, you know that we didn’t spend much time in Oban when we first got to Stewart Island. Fortunately, we gave ourselves some time after the Great Walk to see the little settlement of Oban and it’s surroundings!
I’ll overlap this post a little with the Rakiura post, starting at the large chain sculpture at the end of the track. Though the path ends there and road begins, we decided we didn’t want to pay for a shuttle to take us the 4km back to town. We road walked around a few bays, enjoying the coastal town feel of the vacation homes, all but abandoned in the late fall.
We walked to Kai kart for delicious fish and chips that night, where we met a couple people out looking for kiwi in the dusk.
The next day, the hostel we stayed at allowed us to store our backpacks in the back shed while we walked around, so we could walk with just a camera and a water bottle!
Our main attraction for the day was Ulva Island, a wildlife sanctuary island in the adjacent bay.
The ferry across to the island was a quick, cold journey. The older couple that ran this particular service was super cute though: when you purchased your ticket, they gave you a large leaf with ‘Ulva Island’ written on it, which was collected two minutes later as you stepped on the boat!
Ulva island has been cleared of all introduced mammalian predators: rats, stoats, ferrets, and cats, so it is an incredible bird sanctuary!
Though Kiwis are naturally nocturnal, Stewart Island (and Ulva island) are noted for the possibility of seeing these rare birds during the day!
Kadi found both kiwi that we saw that day. Their long, slender feathers blend in well with the underbrush they cruise through, so we discovered that it was easier to listen for them as they root through the leafy blanket on the forest floor in search of food.
As the morning turned to afternoon, more people arrived on the island and the birds shied away from the footpaths (and shouting children), so we just enjoyed the beautiful scenery before taking our return ferry shuttle.
We had spent longer than anticipated on Ulva, so we were a little rushed for time to get onto the large ferry back to the mainland! We got the key for the shed, picked up our bags, and had to run with them to get to our next stop, a special store in town!
Glowing Sky is a brand of merino clothing that we had originally seen at their shop in Wanaka. However, it was started on Stewart Island, as Rakiura is the Maori word for ‘Glowing Sky’, since the Aurora Australis is seen often on the island.
Though it is more aimed at fashion clothing, we love their wool half-gloves and wear them all the time! We spent a few minutes talking with the owner and browsing the store, but soon had to head out to get on the ferry!
We ran into our hut/hostel friends again as we were queueing for the boat. We ended up sitting next to them, and are very grateful for them sharing their big mint patties with us, they were a life saver for Kadi’s stomach!
At the backpackers, there is a sign with all the tips and tricks for combatting sea sickness on the ferry. Some are kind of strange, but Kadi did all of them to try to make the trip back more pleasant than last time:
Sit in the middle, in the back
Watch the horizon
Suck on a mint
Take ginger tablets 1 hour before
Put an earplug in one ear, opposite your dominant hand
And finally… Go on a day that is sunny, calm, and pleasant.
Whether all of these tricks were needed, we don’t know, but Kadi felt much better all throughout the journey back to Bluff!
The captain pointed out some albatross soaring adjacent to the boat, but they were too fast for me to get good photos of. We could see Bluff hill growing ever larger, and finally we got back into the port, off the boat, and back to the van!
Bluff itself is an interesting town with murals everywhere, so keep an eye out for our tour of the murals on our next post!
Stewart Islandis the lesser known ‘South South Island’. It’s Maori name, Rakiura, means glowing skies, as it is often graced by the Aurora Australis. Though it looks small on a map compared to the real ‘South Island’, it is a very large swath of wilderness area with just one small settlement on it.
It sits in the roaring 40s latitudes, with no land to the east or west until Chilè, so it is known for it’s wind and rain. Our boat ride down there certainly confirmed those reports, and many passengers (including Kadi) got sick from the hour long roller coaster.
We got to Halfmoon Bay and the town of Oban in low spirits, but the sun had broken through and we bought some crackers to help regain some energy.
Our first hut was still 13km away, so we trudged our way across town to the start of the track and got on our way.
The track was a stark contrast to the rocky, rugged mountains of the Fiordlands. It was gentle, with a small hill to climb at the start, before heading back down to the sea.
We had heard horror stories about the mud, but so far we had just sullied a couple centimeters up the sides of our shoes.
Due to our late start, the sun seemed to set early and a thin layer of clouds beset the east horizon. A brisk wind started blowing, and it suddenly felt pretty bleak after a long day.
Getting to the hut late, we found that all the pegs on the walls meant for boot drying were full, and we had to leave our shoes leaning sideways against the wall. Looking back, this was a portent of the day to come…but we’ll get there in a second!
This was a unique day at the hut, as it was the end of daylight savings the night before. Everyone had to deal with the night being an hour earlier. One hut-goer found the candles stashed in the hut and lit up a few of them around, giving a nice warm light for the rest of us!
The hut warden gave us a talk about the walk ahead (muddy and maybe rainy), and warned us about what we had all heard about: bed bugs in the hut. They had been treated, but he pointed out the wall they inhabited. Of course, since we were the last ones at the hut, we had the privilege of sleeping right next to that wall! In the end, it turns out that I (Cameron) got a couple bites on my back–we reported it to the DOC to let them know they weren’t fully under control.
After a fairly restless night, we set out in soggy shoes the next morning. We were set to hike 13km that day, and the daylight was already weak in the late fall at the far south of the world.
As we left, a white tailed deer was moseying around the back side of the hut. Though we are used to seeing them everywhere in Colorado, they are quite rare here in NZ and everyone was excitedly peeking at it through the windows!
At first, the trail started as a gentle winding path through the forest with ample undergrowth and busy canopy. It was much different than the previous two Great Walks as it was missing the constant elevation change. The unique challenge of this track was coming soon, though!
There are all sorts of strategies to combat the mud on the Rakiura track. We had heard suggestions to just bring gumboots (tall rubber boots), wear tall gaiters over your hiking boots, and saw plenty of people wasting tons of energy and time trying to hike around the muddy spots, widening the trail in the process. Our strategy was simple: just accept that our light trail running/hiking shoes (and legs) will be caked with mud, and have fun with it!
We had a blast just squelching our way through the long sections of nearly knee-deep mud! Neither of us lost any shoes (it was close though), and we could laugh about the mess and muck, rather than letting our souls be mired in it!
The late afternoon brought light sprinkles of rain as we ascended the last hill past some rusty logging equipment, the final attempt to commercialize the wild Rakiura before it was turned into a large wilderness park.
Approaching the second (and final) hut for us, the path skirted the ocean, showing us glimpses of a rainbow across the harbour.
As a long beach opened up beside us, we looked at each other, then walked straight into the ocean. The mud that had hardened onto our shoes and shins softened and sloughed off with each new wave.
After our impromptu leg wash, the hut was just a few hundred meters away. The hut warden had his four kids with him at the hut, so it was loud and busy just with them! Dusk came quickly, an hour before we were used to, so we continued our conversations with the other walkers in the dark.
We chatted a bunch with an american and her kiwi partner. She introduced Kadi to her new favorite hiking socks, injinji toe socks! They seemed super impressed by Kadi’s backpack, and she even recognized my backpack brand (Hyperlight Mountain Gear). We exchanged our ultra light tips for recommended places to hike and contact information.
A light rain followed the dusk in, playing us to sleep with a soft melody against the tin roof. It continued into the morning, so we started in our rain gear the next day.
We retraced our steps for just over a kilometer to get back to the main trail, going up a decent incline to get there. Stewart island is certainly very hilly! The overcast weather lent itself to photos of the small details around us, like the ferns and leaves.
The rain let up as we continued down towards the beach, and we encountered our first swing bridge of the track.
We got to do our first bit of beach tramping, a nice break for feet and mind, as you don’t have to think about every step. We collected a few cool shells too!
The trail twisted along the rugged coastline, offering more beach walks before rising up to present dramatic views hundreds of feet down a rocky cliff. The rain started again, but it wasn’t light or misty this time.
Eventually, the massive chain sculpture representing the Maori tale of Rakiura/Stewart island came into view down the trail. It is said that Rakiura is the great anchor stone holding Maui’s Waka (canoe), the South Island, in place. This chain sculpture continues down into the ocean, representing the island’s connection as anchor stone.
Though we were excited to see the end of the trail, we had another four km of road walking to get back to our hostel! Since cars are so difficult to get into the island, shuttle services are elusive and expensive. I don’t think either of us were happy during our tarmac walking in torrential rain, but at least we saved money!
At long last, we crested the last hill up and over to the village of Oban. We were staying at the only backpackers hostel in town, so we saw a couple of our fellow trampers there again. This was Kadi’s first ever hostel experience!
We ate our lunch in the communal kitchen, then found some instant ramen in the free food bin that we also devoured. A couple people had gone out to get some fish n’ chips after their hike, and we were looking on in envy–definitely going to get that for dinner!
We played games, took much needed showers, and napped for the rest of the afternoon as the rain continued outside. Dinner time was finally here, so we pulled on our (mostly dry) raingear again and walked down the block to the Kai Kart, a tiny trailer with a sign outside that simply read ‘Fish and Chips – Open’.
There was just a dude wearing a hoodie and a lady helping prep inside, telling each other crude jokes as they fried our food. It got wrapped in the traditional white paper double wrap, then we were off! We saw a few people kiwi spotting as we walked back in the dark, since Stewart Island is one of the best places in NZ to see the elusive, nocturnal bird.
Our dinner was by far the best Fish and Chips either of us had ever had. It could be that we had just finished a long hike, or maybe it was just that good! You should go find out for yourself!
The next day we went to Ulva Island, a small bird sanctuary just off Stewart Island. More on this in the next post!
It was the perfect way to end the backpacking adventure, so I guess I’ll stop writing there!
Continuing south from Clifden and lake Hauroko, the south coast wasn’t far away. We didn’t have too many stops in mind, but we found plenty to see!
When we first hit the south coast, we were both a bit awed! We hadn’t seen the ocean from the land since we had been here in NZ, so we took in the crashing waves and salty breeze with amazement.
The start of the Hump Ridge track (slated to be NZ’s next Great Walk) was down by us, so we took a quick look. Someday we will be back to hike it!
The next stop was required just because of the name: Gemstone beach! It backed up it’s name, and we found some beautiful rocks to add to our collection!
Just around the bay from gemstone beach was some more neat nomenclature: monkey island! Unfortunately, there were no monkeys there.
Continuing east, we spotted our first surfers in the protected waters of Riverton.
We decided to stay the night there at a coastal freedom camping site, and were greeted by a nice rainbow!
Finally, we headed into the big city of the South, Invercargill. A place of old beauty, it has all kinds of brick buildings interspersed with new development. We had to get ready for our next big trip, the Rakiura Track! Thanks for reading, and you’ll be reading about our time on that track next!
After the hustle and bustle of back-to-back Great Walks, we had a little free time to meander a bit on our way to Stewart Island. Heading south from Te Anau, we stopped first at a quick side of the road nature reserve, the Rakatu Wetlands.
A few big black swans and some nice views, but we didn’t stay too long. Next up, we got to Clifden cave!
A small, hidden cave next to a busy mining road. The cave system does go for about 2kms and exits on the other side of the hill if you’re willing to duck, crawl and squeeze your way through. Kadi and I walked in just a little ways before I realized I had brought too large of a camera bag for squeezing through rock formations. We spent a little time with our lights completely off, getting spooked by the wind blowing through the cave, before heading back out.
Near Clifden is Lake Hauroko, New Zealand’s deepest lake. We drove out to see it, hoping there would be some nice sunset views. There was decent light, but there were also hordes of sandflies! It’s well within Fiordland national park, so this should be expected, but we weren’t quite ready!
Though we could have free camped at the Hauroko parking lot, we decided to head back to the main road that night so we could get going early the next day. We parked up near the Clifden suspension bridge, then hit the hay as it rained us to sleep.
The next morning, we were awoken by…chickens? A really handsome rooster and his mate lived in the car park, and they made sure we were up bright and early!
We took a walk across the historic suspension bridge, with the modern concrete bridge in view just a few hundred feet down the river.
On the other side of the bridge, we walked down to the river and found a swing attached to a tree! We each took turns swinging around, then returned to the chicken parking lot to continue our drive down south!
That should be enough for now, next up we will make another short post before our trip to Stewart Island!
Days on Trail: 6 – 8 | Date of Adventure: 11-14 Jan 2022
The name certainly doesn’t do this section justice. It should probably be called the Looooooooooongwooooods, because it seemed to go on forever!
To a seasoned, southbound TA hiker who only has this and the beach walks to go, it probably will feel like any of the other forests they’ve gone through, with perhaps a bit more mud. To us, with our “Trail fit” legs (note: not yet trail fit) and idealistic notions of a through-hike, it was an excellent reminder that the TA isn’t like the well manicured Great Walks we’ve done. It’s a tough, gritty, muddy, scary trail, and that’s exactly why we’re doing it.
After leaving the Colac Bay holiday park, a short road walk brought us to the Round Hill car park, the start of the Long Hilly Track, which led to the Longwoods trail section.
The long hilly Track section was well maintained and gentle, with signs detailing the gold mining history of the area. Because of how nice the trail is, I missed our turn into the bush and continued for another kilometer before realizing.
After we returned and took the correct path, it started to undulate more, and the gravel gave way to dirt, which soon gave way to mud. For the first two mud holes we tried our best to keep our shoes dry and clean, but quickly realized that this was a foolish endeavor which would just slow us down and contribute to the widening of the mud holes.
Kadi got stuck in a particularly thick and deep hole, and I had to wade in to help coax her shoes back out.
This first day was just the short primer to the Longwoods, with only 11km from the car park to Martins hut, where we were staying. Unfortunately, it also had about 600m of elevation gain! Between the mud and the incline, our pace was quite slow. This gave us a chance to enjoy the dense, moss-covered forest though!
We finally arrived at Turnbull’s hut: an old, decaying hut with signatures all over the walls. The earliest we could see was from the summer of ’74! We still had at least an hour of hiking left to go, but this hut signaled the last of the vertical for the day.
Even though the remaining 4km were relatively flat, there were a number of tricky steps, and three places where we literally had to jump over deep gulleys!
At long last, we arrived to Martin’s hut around 8:00. The two ladies who were already at the hut were settling in to bed for the night, and were quite surprised to see us! They were very gracious with us, however, as we quickly cooked dinner and set up our beds. We hit the hay as soon as we could, since we had a big day tomorrow!
The next day was slated to be a doozy: 27km over the top of the Longwood hills, and down a road section. My particular weather forecast had called for rain in the morning, and general overcast for the rest of the day. The rain came and left overnight, so I felt fairly confident that we would be alright to head over the top.
Comments online about this section let us know that the true mud didn’t start until after Martin’s hut, and unfortunately, they were true. As you’re reading the rest of this post, assume any of the path as described also was done in 10-40cm of mud, keeping our feet and legs wet and heavy. Though our shoes didn’t get suctioned off, it definitely sucked the souls out of our bodies.
Starting across the alpine tops section the wind was howling, but there was no rain, and the sun tried to make it’s way through the swirling clouds a couple times; this gave us enough confidence to carry on. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t see the sun for the rest of the day. As we were more and more exposed to the weather, it started to sleet on us, and the wind kept picking up as we continued higher in elevation.
We opted to jog for a kilometer or so, hoping to get back down below treeline as quickly as possible. The wind kept buffeting us off the track though, so we decided hiking might be better than a broken ankle up there!
Treeline appeared after far too long, but the trees were short and offered little protection from the rain that had started. The bogs were deeper in the trees as well, ensuring our legs stayed wet for the whole of the tops section.
After looking at the map and realizing the track took us up into another exposed alpine section ahead before heading back down to a more protected area, I decided we needed to stop and try to warm ourselves (mainly me) up, and attempt to eat lunch. We pulled out the tent to use as an emergency blanket to protect us from the wind and rain, and sat hunched over a soggy tree stump. Next to us, a mud hole would fill up and empty as the wind moved the whole tree and root system we were on top of.
We ate lunch, and Kadi saw that I was symptomatic of hypothermia. I put on my down jacket under my rain jacket and ate slowly, since my stomach wasn’t cooperating too well with me. Type 2 fun for sure. We only had one way to get out, so we packed up the soggy tent and started walking again!
At a couple particularly wet parts, we both took steps that ended up going deeper than expected–all the way up to our thighs! Unfortunately we didn’t get any photos, since cameras and phones got put away after lunch to keep them from being soaked.
The second alpine section was shorter than the first, and it seemed to be less windy. Before long, we were descending through the muddy, slippery forests once again. Lunch did it’s magic in my system, and the down jacket kept my body’s warmth in, so I stopped shivering!
The track down through the woods dragged on, as we constantly had to be calculating every foot step, alternating between slippery roots or calf-deep mud holes.
At long last, after 7 hours of constant worry, we arrived at a brief respite: an old sand quarry, with a 4wd road leading up to the next alpine section. At this junction, we only had…17km left in the day! That’s right, we had only gone 11.5km!
After some rough calculations and a brief pep-talk, we decided that the nice hut we planned to stop at would be worth the long day, and that theoretically we could get there before dark if we go fast enough…
As we climbed the steep 4wd road, we both realized that we didn’t have the mental or physical energy to finish that long of a day, and we opted to camp by the side of the road. We always carry an extra dinner, so we were safe and happy with this decision.
There was a small stream nearby, where we could get water to filter, and wash the mud off our legs. All in all, it definitely was the best decision!
Though the rain had stopped as we were setting up camp, it continued overnight and into the morning (despite my weather forecast). Because of this, we slept in a bit, listening to the rain on the tent, before packing up camp. The rain eventually stopped and stayed away, and even the wind died down!
The 4wd road we were climbing serviced some cell phone towers up at the peak, so we took the opportunity to let our accommodation know we would be one day later than planned, and sent our families some pictures of the mud. We could even see all the way to Bluff hill, where we had started 6 days ago! We mused that we had chosen exactly the wrong day to be up at the tops, since the weather seemed fine over there today.
After the peak, we once again descended into dense podocarp forest, and with it, the mud we had come to expect. Fortunately, the sun started breaking through the trees, and it really helped us have a good time with these mud holes! Before too long we arrived at the other side of the Longwoods trail, and we celebrated!
From here we simply had another 9km of 4wd road walking, and it turns out they were mostly through a magnificent eucalyptus tree plantation! The large, straight trees were a stark contrast to the gnarled, stunted beech trees we were dodging around before.
Despite our late start and relatively long distance, we arrived at the Merriview hut in the early afternoon and had plenty of sunshine to dry out our tent and muddy shoes. There were two SOBO TA trampers, Dennis and Barry, who we chatted with for the rest of the night. We asked them about the trail ahead, and they asked us about our packs, ultimate frisbee, and all kinds of other things.
We were safe and sound after an intense but incredible section, and I think if we can conquer that, we can do any of the rest of the TA! Thanks for reading, next up we will be crossing lots of farmland before tackling our first real mountain range, the Takitimu mountains!
Days on Trail: 1-5 | Date of Adventure: 6-10 Jan 2022
Even though it’s basically the same size as Colorado by land area, New Zealand has so many different climates and biomes! From coastal flax to manuka scrub to beech forests, this walk is going to give us an even deeper look all the natural wonder of this country!
But first, we need to get out of civilization! The trail first takes a meandering path around the moderate Bluff hill, a forested area that goes up (and back down) about 250m. While we were walking, I mused out loud ‘I wonder when we will see our first possum?’. At that moment, a quiet voice piped up from the woods next to us: “Do you want to see one?” A DOC employee was emptying the traps set for wild possums and ferrets, and she just so happened to be 15 feet away from us (having just emptied one of them) when I asked that!
At the bottom of the hill, the path takes you through the port of Bluff, NZ’s southernmost shipping hub. Though most of the houses and buildings felt old and run down, it was still a very active town, with any of the little stores seeing visitors as we walked by.
There are also large murals painted on the sides of dozens of buildings, and we learned that there is an annual competition for painters!
Soon though, it was time to head out of town and begin the road walk north to Invercargill. We had not been training for the TA, figuring we would get trail fit along the way, so the first day was certainly daunting. Generally you’re expected to make it all the way to Invercargill, 36km away, hiking alongside a major highway.
We couldn’t quite cut it (especially because we started a bit late), so we read on our trail app that there was a site by the side of the trail that we could camp at after 27km. Taking a quick look at the weather, it seemed like rain was unlikely–so to be a bit more incognito we just pitched the net tent!
The next day was another bout of road walking, through the southern city of Invercargill then out west to Oreti beach. Last time we passed through this city (with our van), we had stopped at a pie place in town, called “Fat Bastard Pies'”. With a name like that, you know they’re good! We decided to veer an extra 3km off the trail to get lunch pies there!
They were closed 😦
Even though it was well within their opening hours and a Friday, they were inexplicably closed, and our hopes were shattered. It was the Chippewah Inn 2.0! (Sorry, inside joke). So, we decided to go to a Mexican restaurant in town, and that was delicious!
We also stopped at a grocery store for our first resupply–just two days worth of food, but it was a good experience for planning!
As we were heading out of town, we were stopped by a family of cyclists who provided us our first ‘trail magic’, some caramels! It was fun talking with them about their upcoming trips this summer.
Since there’s very little wild camping allowed in towns and cities, we stayed at a holiday park that night, and it felt very strange to not have the van. Kadi and I both found ourselves saying “I’ll go grab it from the van” or “meet you in the van”, which was a little bittersweet.
Kadi and I were both a little apprehensive about the upcoming day, a 27km beach walk along Oreti beach. Our legs were both crazy sore from two long road walks and it was meant to be hot, but the following day was supposed to be driving rain, so we knew it had to be done.
We had timed it to start just before low tide, so the beach was a massive expanse of empty sand. Because of this (and because it was a Saturday), dirt bikes roared up and down the beach next to us all day, and cars drove alongside us to their various picnic locations.
A little ways we down we saw a smashed, upside down, rusted and maybe burnt car, curious! Fast forward a couple kilometers and there was another upside down rusted car, then two more! Very curious. In total I think we passed at least 6 of these.
We both put our headphones in early, and our podcasts of choice kept us going.
We had great service through the whole beach, so we both called our families back home to tell them about our progress and to distract ourselves from the pounding pain in our feet. Turns out compacted sand isn’t that soft!
After what seemed like a day and a half, we made it in to Riverton, where we had arranged for another holiday park campsite. We got in just at dusk and had to make dinner in the tent, since they closed the kitchen at night.
Along the beach somewhere, we had unanimously agreed that we would take a rest day. It was supposed to rain and our feet and legs were entirely dead, so we booked a caravan at the same holiday park for the next night!
It was a great place to stay warm and dry during the rain, and to plan the upcoming forest walks. We had a 4 day resupply to put in our bags then, and another 4 days to put into a box and send ahead to a cabin halfway along.
My feet were feeling alright after a night of rest, so I volunteered to head in to the small grocery store to do the shopping for these.
The next morning we got packed up, took showers and did laundry before heading into the misty hills above Riverton. It was our shortest day yet, only 11km, so we were perhaps a little overconfident.
I took us the wrong way for the first time so far (there will be many more), so we had to backtrack a kilometer. The trail got a little muddy, and there were some very overgrown sections, but this felt like the first real cross-country trekking like we had signed up to do on the TA. We hiked across pastures with sheep leading the way, listening to the ocean beating against the rocks at our side. We had to bushwack through thick flax and speargrass, and saw a family of geese by the ocean!
Soon, the path stopped meandering through farms above the ocean and settled onto another beach walk. The beach itself consisted of large, smooth pebbles which made walking inefficient. The roaring surf to our left was riding the tide ever closer, pushing us up to even larger rocks.
Eventually we found a path on the edge of the beach, right where grass had started to grow, and we could walk without sinking every step. This allowed us to walk the shorter beach much more quickly!
At the end of the beach was our stop for the day, Colac Bay (and it’s corresponding holiday park)! We set up our tent and headed over to the attached tavern, where we got a couple gigantic burgers for dinner. I got the classic kiwi burger, with the standard fried egg and boiled beetroot.
Back at the holiday park, we met Elena, another TA hiker who was doing it southbound (SOBO). We asked her all kinds of questions about the trail, and she asked us all kinds about our gear! We discovered that we had both hiked with our friend Lisa before, us on the Kepler and her on the TA. It’s a small country after all!
The next section, the Longwood Forest, is the first real wilderness area of the track, so this is probably a good place to stop this section of road and beach walking. Thanks for reading, and keep an eye out for the Longwoods section next! (Spoiler: it was muddy)
Dreams are sometimes fleeting. Throughout life, goals and desires change and morph, especially as you grow into adulthood. Kadi and I have discovered this, however: our love of the outdoors, seeded by our families in our youth, has taken root and flourished as we have grown together.
I (Cameron) have always desired to do a long hike; hearing about someone’s experiences on the Appalachian trail while I was a Boy Scout, or watching trail documentaries about the Pacific Crest Trail, the long wilderness experience had always called to me. Unfortunately, I kept it behind a wall in my mind. I guarded myself against this dream. I knew it was logistically difficult, I had a career in Electronics just started, and I was afraid to even hope it could ever happen.
Kadi has an amazing skill that I lack: organization. Though I often complain that she writes too many lists, she has the logistical gumption to move mountains.
I have a New Zealand visa through my parents, and I always thought ‘it would be cool to go live there someday, since I can’.
Kadi came in and said ‘we’re moving to New Zealand when I get my partnership visa’. So she jumped through two dozen hoops to make that happen, and now we’re here.
As we began our New Zealand #vanlife, Kadi started reading a book about NZ’s long trail, Te Araroa. We were hiking (called tramping here) more often, and living in a van puts you very close to the outdoors at all times. On one of these hikes she told me that she wanted to do the TA.
Needless to say, here we are, 9 months later, on a shuttle to the south tip of the South Island. Starting tomorrow, we are planning to hike north, eventually making it to the north tip of the North Island, 3000km later. Most people do it in 3-5 months, so we’re aiming for 4, two months per island.
Another fun part of this trip is that we will be doing it with gear that we have made ourselves! We have a heavy duty sewing machine in the van, and have made our ~35L backpacks, organizational packing cubes, rain mitts, pot coozies, polartec alpha mittens, first aid kit pouches, and others while we’ve been here! We also made our tent, but that was back home when we had more space to sew.
We’ve started our own gear business, The Very Least Ultralight Gear, but we won’t truly start making anything to sell until after we torture test our gear along the trail! Check out the (WIP) website at TheVeryLeast.co.nz, and follow us on Instagram if you want at @theveryleast_ultralightgear. We plan to keep updating this blog with posts as we go along, but we also have a crazy backlog of posts from elsewhere in NZ, so we will likely be working on those as well if we have time in camp.
Thanks for reading, and we will likely be pretty isolated while we’re out there. It would be a treat to hear from anyone with questions or comments that we can read when we get into service! Reach out!
It didn’t happen all at once. It happened slowly, as the storm continued on our head. First, the faint blurriness, then a noticeable fog in every picture. As the rain worsened, photos became indiscernibly blurry. At last, attempting to take a picture of one final waterfall, the camera gave out and the screen stayed black.
Having just finished the Kepler Track, Kadi and I found a quiet park to spread out our gear to dry. We had strewn it all out onto the grass in front of the van, and hoped the cars driving by didn’t judge us too harshly.
Contemplating our next destination, we decided we had time to travel south to Stewart Island before our scheduled Routeburn Track in Queenstown. Therefore, we drove to Manapouri (Just south of Te Anau) to spend the night before our travel south the next day.
Stewart Island is home to the Rakiura Track, one of the Great Walks, so we got on the booking website to see if there were any chance openings we could grab. As we logged in, Kadi suggested we take a look to see if the Milford Track (which is always fully booked within hours of the season opening) had any vacancies.
By luck, there were 3 vacancies…tomorrow!
That would give us less than 18 hours until we would start the track! We scrambled to figure out other details–boat transport to the start/from the end of the track, bus shuttles from Milford Sound, and food for 4 days. We checked the weather…90% chance of rain everyday for the next week!
The Milford Track is a world class trail that I wanted Kadi to experience, but would it be miserable in the rain? We had just tramped for 4 days after not hiking for months–would our bodies be able to handle another strenuous trek?
After deliberating on these for a while, Kadi and I decided to book the rainy Milford Track for the next day. I mean, how bad could it be? We had good rain gear! As such, we spent the next couple hours returning our equipment to the bags it had just escaped, and planning out and preparing our meals. Adventure!
The next day opened with a sunny morning, giving us hope that the weather service might be wrong about the following 4 days. We drove back north to Te Anau and parked the van at the DOC visitor center, where we met a few people who would be walking the track with us. A bus picked us up there, then dropped us off at a dock in the middle of Lake Te Anau (ok, along the shore, sheesh).
From the dock, we still had an hour ferry ride to the start of the track. By now, tumultuous clouds had started forming over the mountains to the west, and we knew that our earlier wishes were just that: wishes.
The Milford Track can be done self-supported, where you bring all you need for yourself, or as a guided walk, where all the food and supplies are brought along for you (sometimes by helicopter!). This boat serviced both types, so it was packed full!
As we approached the northern tip of Lake Te Anau, we could see the mouth of the Clinton River open up to us, an invitation to follow it up to it’s headwaters.
As you step off the boat, your next job is to immerse your feet into a yellow tub full of sudsy water. This is to kill didymo, an invasive algae that is slowly making it’s way through New Zealand’s freshwater basins. At the time of writing, the Clinton river is still clear, as long as all walkers do their part!
Finally, we took our first steps on the Milford track! We stood in the short line that formed in front of the start sign, taking turns handling strangers’ phones and cameras before we got our picture in front of it.
Some people headed out quickly, and some meandered down the well formed trail. Kadi and I were on the slow side, as I stopped for pictures every twenty meters.
Before long, the first hut appeared in a large clearing. It was a large hut for supported walkers. A few of our boat mates headed in, but most of us continued onwards. The dreaded rain had started in earnest, and a handful of us found refuge under a large pine to pull out our rain gear.
New Zealand’s tramps are well known for their swing bridges: metal suspension bridges that go over the myriads of rivers that course through the backcountry.
The wide valley floor we walked through was so incredibly lush! Even though we were on the same lake as the Kepler, the vegetation and underbrush were drastically different.
I was excited to find some familiar photogenic lookouts from the last time I had walked this in 2015; however, as we came up to them we discovered that the river had widened, washing out the trail, diverting it inland.
Though I was sad I couldn’t relive those moments, it was a good reminder that this was a new hike, and this time I got to share it with my wife. I was reminded of the saying: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” -(Heraclitus? According to Google)
Soon, the first optional side hike forked off to the left. We decided we wanted to take every side path possible, so we took the short loop trail to see the unique marshland it went through!
The first hut was not too much farther once we regained the main trail. It was bustling with activity, as we were some of the last ones to arrive.
We checked ourselves in and found our bunks, then went to the kitchen to meet the trampers we would be sharing the trail with.
Even though we had only been in the country for a few weeks, we saw two familiar faces! Tom and Murray had just done the Kepler track with us, and we all gave each other loud greetings in the din of the common area.
As the merriment continued, a booming baritone suddenly cut through the noise. Ross, the hut warden, greeted us all in a Maori welcome. He was tall, walked with a long tree branch for balance, had one lazy eye, and a deep voice that resonated in your bones. He invited us all to go on a nature walk with him, and Kadi and I definitely wanted to tag along!
As the small group walked through the damp forest, Ross talked and joked with a few people. His intimidating aura diminished, but his impressive figure did not, as he lead us down the path, telling us trivia and curiosities about the forest around us.
He told us to keep our eyes open for Whio -rare New Zealand river ducks- as we approached the river.
As dusk took the light away, our little group got to see a small collection of Whio in the middle of the river! Ross told us about the trapping program meant to keep invasive predators away from these beautiful waterfowl as we watched them talk and play in the eddies. What fun!
The next morning was damp and foggy, with a little rain sprinkled in here and there. Kadi and I made our breakfast quickly and headed down the trail, since Ross had warned of late afternoon gales passing through.
We found an old phone box Ross had told us about, from when there was a telephone line that ran the length of the trail.
The path itself marched along the Clinton river valley, but we could tell that the adjacent mountains were squeezing in closer, and the beech trees started getting shorter as we gained elevation.
Though we could see glimpses of the dramatic cliff faces around us through the dense forest, the true size of these mountains was briefly revealed when the path meandered into fern meadows or through waterlogged swamps.
With all the rain, the steep rocky walls around us turned into cascading waterfalls everywhere! It was incredible, and made it absolutely worth the rain!
The weather actually cooperated quite nicely; though there were periodic rain showers, there were also bouts of sunshine to dry us out!
The meadows and fields soon became the norm, and the stretches of forest became welcome shelter from the sun or rain.
Kadi and I took a side stream detour back to the Clinton river, and found an incredibly magical scene. Cold air had settled in the protected river bend, forcing the moisture out of the air into a gentle mist.
The true splendor of the Milford Track comes from it’s varied terrain. One moment you’re walking through a deep, tangled forest; the next, at the foot of the mountains conversing with clouds.
Our lunch stop at a small shelter was two fold: lunch for ourselves, but also lunch for the swarm of sandflies that had congregated around us. They have much more patience than either Kadi or I, so our lunch was frustrating and brief. At least we could enjoy the view!
The day wore on, and our feet were starting to figure out that they were short-changed. The previous five days of hiking were starting to show, and we slowed our pace accordingly.
I took a few timelapses of the regal peaks around us as we stretched our arms and set down our packs. However, the late afternoon gales that Ross had warned of were starting to darken the skies, so we didn’t take too long to move on.
The second day of the Milford Track takes you to a hut just underneath Mackinnon Pass, a high, exposed saddle visible for miles. We could see it getting larger, so we thought we were close!
Unfortunately, where you think you are on an elevation profile rarely lines up with reality. Our feet and legs complained for the last 200m of gain as rain clouds tumbled over the pass towards us.
The second hut was finally in front of us, and we undertook the same ritual as the night before.
We found our friends Tom and Murray and chatted with them, but also caught up with a few other hikers about the sights of the day. The ranger at this hut wasn’t quite as scary, but this also meant she wasn’t as memorable.
The rain set in shortly after we had arrived, and stayed steady for the rest of the night.
The next morning, the radio-ed in weather report told us what we already knew: rain. We packed up our bags, pulled on our rain pants, and trudged out in our shoes wet from the day before. Fun!
Today’s mission was simple: ascend Mackinnon Pass, then descend it. Easy in principle, but the river flowing down the trail certainly didn’t help.
Despite the rain, wet, wind, cold, fog, and aches, we knew what we had signed up for and were in pretty good spirits!
Mackinnon Pass was ours before long, and we were excited that the hard part of the day was already over!
While we were at the top, the cloud cover broke for just an instant, allowing us some stunning views of the valley we would be descending into!
There is a shelter just on the other side of the pass, and we had made ourselves a goal to make some hot chocolate there to warm up. We continued through the clouds to find our promised relief!
After a short walk, the shelter appeared out of the fog, and we joined a handful of our fellow trampers staying warm inside.
In the shelter, I talked to the other photographer I had met the day before, and found out that he had been waiting there since sunrise in hopes of getting a glimpse of the surrounding mountains. I felt a little bad when the clouds cleared for a few moments just after we got to the shelter, but he was just as excited as we were!
After taking a few (dozen) more photos, we started the descent down to the Milford Sound.
As we descended, the clouds let loose, and the rain came down in sheets.
Though my camera is weather sealed, I don’t think Panasonic had the Milford Track in mind when designing it that way, and my G9 soon started acting funny.
It didn’t happen all at once. It happened slowly, as the storm continued on our head. First, the faint blurriness, then a noticeable fog in every picture. As the rain worsened, photos became indiscernibly blurry. At last, attempting to take a picture of one final waterfall, the camera gave out and the screen stayed black.
As it turns out, the hardest part of the day would be the wet, rock-hopping descent from MacKinnon Pass, rather than the relatively mild ascent. The trail was the path of least resistance for the torrents coming down, and any dirt or gravel that would have made for a flat, smooth trail had been washed away decades ago. This left only the jagged, uneven rocks to find our way across.
After a couple hours the rain started to let up, and we found ourselves at the turnoff to see Sutherland Falls, the largest waterfall in New Zealand! Even though our feet and legs had had quite enough at that point, our vow to take every side path compelled us down the walkway.
Luckily, we had already reached the bottom of the valley, so the journey was largely lateral. We had left our packs in a shelter at the start of the side path, so the hour long walk was much more pleasant than the previous hours.
We could see the waterfall through gaps in the foliage, a white line snaking it’s way down the steep wall.
The base of the falls was an impressive display of force. The spray and wind created by the 1900 foot drop kept us well away from the true base as we talked with a few other trampers there. We soon returned back the way we came.
Once we got back to our packs, we saddled back up for the last hour of the day. The path was fairly flat and smooth, so we could hike without calculating every step. The last hut finally came into view, a complex of three buildings already decorated with boots, packs, and socks hanging to dry.
As with the Kepler track, the last night of this journey was a little bittersweet. We had taken the opportunity to meet almost all of the separate groups by now, and felt comfortable talking and joking around with them while dinner was rehydrating. Since Kadi and I are night owls (and because we got to the hut late), we were the last ones left in the kitchen building, all the other trampers having headed off to bed after a long day of hard walking.
We felt good! Our feet were sore and our legs were tired, but we had just been tramping long days for nearly 8 days straight. We were proud! Because my camera was still dead (it had taken one picture since it drowned, so that’s progress) and we were motivated, we decided that we were going to move up in the hiking chain–we had previously been at the end of the group, always last to the huts and hiking in the middle of the day.
Not tomorrow! We vowed to wake up early and leave as soon as we possibly could, and cruise down the trail as quickly as possible. The final day was the longest–18km– but also the flattest, and all downhill.
Walking in the cool morning mist was refreshing for our fatigued soles and souls, and we made great time! We started timing ourselves between the posted mile markers, trying to beat our previous mile each time!
We stopped at a couple cool features on the last day, but didn’t stay for long. We were on a mission!
Though we pride ourselves in our minimal amount of gear, there was one couple who put us to shame in terms of gear–they basically had day packs for the whole 4-day journey! Though they caught up to us at a couple of the stops, we did our best to stay ahead of them.
In the end, we were the second group to get to the final shelter at Sandfly Point! The next leg of the journey is a boat shuttle from there to the Milford Sound, and we were there early enough to get onto the first boat!
The sun shone and spirits were high as we crossed the sound into the small tourist village. We were all proud and tired, but a little sad that it was over.
Somehow I forgot to take a picture of the Milford Sound and Mitre Peak, so here’s one from last time we were here in 2017!
We waited around for the final bus to take us back to Te Anau, swapping phone numbers and email addresses with the strangers become friends.
Even though the bus ride back to Te Anau was incredibly scenic, almost all of us succumbed to weariness, and dozed off. I think that’s the sign of a successful adventure!
Someday I’ll be back to climb Mitre Peak. But until then, thanks for reading!