South Island Road Trip (Part 2 of 2): Big Hikes

Mount Cook

Maybe I should start a blog about hiking for people who don’t like hiking. I am not sure it is something people want but I would read a blog like that. I would love to know what I’m getting into with some real truth bombs about distances, terrain, and an honest review on difficulty vs views. Why do I hike? Well, I do it because Callum does it. Callum is a true adventurer and an avid hiker. Mountains, waterfalls, views, and lakes would be in his version of ‘My Favourite Things’.

We drove to Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and checked in at the visitor’s center. Hiking to the Mueller Hut is considered one of the best overnight hikes in New Zealand. It books out months in advance and people who don’t get so lucky will do one of two things: 1) hike half-way to the Sealy Tarns 2) go all the way to the hut and back in one day. We can’t imagine wanting to do either, so were glad we had booked the hut.

The first half up to the Sealy Tarns is mostly stairs. These stairs are not normal stairs. For a shorty like me, I struggled up the steep 2,200 steps. Stairs have always been my nemesis. Cal was the record keeper for us and counted them but must have mis-calculated, as when we were done, he said he had only counted 1,800. That’s how much this guy loves climbing, folks. He doesn’t even notice 400 giant steps.

I noticed. This section took us a very long time. Many a hiker overtook me and with each passer-by I felt stupider and stupider. I encouraged myself and knew I would succeed; it just might take me a bit longer. When we got to the top (2.5 hours later) we had a much-deserved break to eat apples, trail mix, and some candy. You’ve got to look forward to something. The views were wonderful, and I thought “Why not put the hut here? This is a perfectly acceptable spot for a hut.” But we were merely half-way.

The second half of the hike made me wish for more stairs. It was challenging terrain for me because there was no real path, and the way was full of different sized boulders marked only by the occasional bright orange post so you could pick your way along with a goal in sight. This section was really steep, and I started to wonder if I was going to make it. Every few steps Callum would encourage me and say, “Look, we’re almost there!” but “almost there” looked about ten miles away. Cal eventually took my bag off me when I declared that I was just going to leave it on the mountain. What did I need it for? I couldn’t think of a single thing I needed that was in that bag. Let the mountain have it. Times of hardship call for some dramatic declarations, I think.

Then we got to the scree section. This was a sketchy part of the hike because of the unpredictability of the ground underfoot and also the incline. It was only about 50 meters but was pretty scary. I scrambled up as best I could and inwardly shuddered thinking about the journey down the next morning. Included in this section was a bit of snow that we had to trudge through.

We made it to the skyline ridge. It was now 7pm and we had walked an additional 2.5 hours. We had a ten-minute rest and a celebration and appreciated the amazing views and the cracking sounds of avalanches in the distance. The walls of mountain were before us on one side, and the valley on the other. The sun glowed and I wondered again why the hut couldn’t be placed right there. We felt jubilant that we had made it this far and optimistic about how much was left.

Callum reckoned another 20 minutes and we’d be at the hut. It took us 45 minutes. I had a moment where I absolutely HAD to have a muesli bar, or else perish. I laughed a lot while sitting against a giant boulder—oh yeah, another boulder section—and realized I was nearing delirium. Where was this damn hut? Did it even exist? Was this all an elaborate ruse? Callum waited for me to collect myself. I had my own bag again at this point so the heaviness of that combined with my utter exhaustion was weighing me down. We got through the boulders and rounded the corner and there was the iconic red building…way, way, in the distance, sitting atop yet another hill. On the other end of a vast sheet of snow and ice. E-gads.

So, we plodded through the field of snow, out of breath and out of energy. We heard children laughing in the distance. This outraged me. Children have done this hike. They have done it and finished it much sooner than I. Why, why were children there?

We FINALLY got to the hut, with steps to climb up to the top where I could finally sit down on a narrow bench and rest my weary feet. The new boots had served me well, as I do not think I would have made it half as far with the shoes I had originally planned to wear. Our total climbing time was 5 hours 45 minutes but with breaks was about 6.5 hours.

The Mueller hut is a very rustic building. Two drop toilets are on a platform away from the hut. Inside the hut is a kitchen room and a couple of bunk rooms. The water we used is in a giant container on the outside of the hut, with a spigot at the base. The kitchen has sinks (but no taps) and a few gas burners so you can cook your dinner with your own pot. There was no soap, no sponges or cloths, no tea towels or anything. It was also pretty gross. The kind of people this overnight experience attracts are the same sort who respect and cherish nature and self-sufficiency. However, even in the remotest of places there are humans who refuse to clean up their own refuse. I am amazed at the laziness of some people. Like, take away your own rubbish, Kevin. Wipe up the benchtop with your sleeve if you must, Stacey. Geeeeeeeez.

The bunk rooms are made up of a bunk that sleeps 20, with 10 on top, 10 on the bottom. When we arrived, there were no two spots together. This was a bit of a traumatizing discovery for me. Thankfully, one man having a nap in the center of three spaces saw my distress and rolled over so Callum and I could be together.

We celebrated the end of the climb with a bag of chips and a drink which was worth the trouble of bringing up. This was the only moment where I appreciated where I was. I was so tired; but did look around with thankfulness. Callum had enough energy to snap a few pictures and then we cooked and ate our dinner. Eventually we made it to bed, where we sweltered in our sleeping bags next to all those other people.

The next morning someone’s alarm went off at some ungodly hour. Have the decency to quickly turn it off and disarm the snooze, Sharon. Ai-yi-yi.  I was the last to get up at 9am and we were the last to leave at about 10:30am. There were people coming up when we were leaving. The fog had rolled in and there wasn’t much of a view. We felt sorry for the people who had just done the hike without all the epic vistas we had enjoyed the day before.

Going down was hard because of our sore muscles, poor rest in the night, and the fact that going down is often harder than going up. My hiking poles saved me on many an occasion. The snow field was fine, the boulder section also fine, and our rest at the skyline ridge welcomed. We then faced the scary scree and I prayed for courage and strength the entire 50 meters. Then we came to some more snow and I tripped and slid down it on my butt. I had not intended to have fun on this day, but that was fun. The sun was coming out and dried my bottom so there was no harm done.

The next boulder section sort of did me in, though. Callum was far ahead of me and I wanted to catch up. I twisted my ankle and had to sit it out for a while. I was pretty pissed at this point. I again questioned why I was there and what the heck I was doing it for. A kindly group of people (making their way up) asked if I was okay and offered to help me down to the tarns. It was really sweet of them, but I was super embarrassed as I told them I was alright and trudged past them.

We didn’t stop for a break at the halfway point but began the dang stairs straight away. By the way, in my research about this hike, I did come across another person’s review about it. She said that she was counting the steps and only came to about 1,855, not the advertised 2,200. So, maybe Callum was more accurate than previously thought. When I finally finished the stair section, I had a huge smile on my face. I was so joyful on the way back to our car. The last 15 minutes going gently down was such a relief.

All the reviews online about this hike are full of cheery people describing it as “not that hard” and “not that technical” and “totally worth it for the views”. My review is truthful about my experience. It was hard. It had some very beautiful sections. I am glad I did it. I will never do it again.

Going down took us about 4.5 hours and we drove back to the visitor’s center to sign out and then found some lunch at the café nearby. The burgers were necessary but not as delicious as you would hope, and the service was sub-par. Just being honest.

We then drove to Lake Tekapo, where we rented an A-frame house and enjoyed the extra space. Lake Tekapo is a small town that attracts heaps of tourists because of the beautiful ice blue lake and the quaint Church of the Good Shepherd. It was a lovely place to rest and recover after our hike and I refilled my cup with many a photography session and a soak in the hot pools that were on offer a few kilometers away.

After Lake Tekapo we had another night back in Wanaka. This was to break up the driving that we had to do to get to Te Anau. It is in this lakeside town where we commenced our next major hike, a 4-day adventure in the Fiordland National Park called the Kepler Track. We had to pack a lot for the multiple days, but we were a bit smarter with our packing this time.

Kepler Track

The first morning we caught a boat to Brod Bay to eliminate 6kms off the total hike, (we hiked 8.2kms our first day). We chose to do this to save both time and my feet. The first day was hot and humid. I wore too many clothes for the conditions, and my pack was heavy. I felt ready for a nap when we stopped for a breather near the top of the tree line. We walked a bit further and stopped for lunch overlooking the town of Te Anau. From there we walked a further couple of hours before reaching Luxmore Hut. I was happy to get a bottom bunk, but it was right in front of the door to the bunk room, which opened and closed 1,000 times while I was trying to have a nap.

The hut talk was something I was looking forward to at 7pm, as we had missed it at the Mueller Hut. This is done by the hut warden who stays at the hut and looks after the area and the people who visit it every day. Roxy was a shy twenty-something who only spoke for a few minutes, warning about fire, reminding us to be courteous to each other, and to watch out for the kea birds. Kea (KEY-ah) birds are the world’s only alpine parrot and are very mischievous. While enjoying the crisp air and warm sun outside of the hut, we witnessed a kea strutting around while us hikers became paparazzi. Molly cocked her head and swooped down to steal a plastic cup and spoon and flew away, much to the indignant horror of the French tourists who owned them, and the delight of the rest of us. We found out from Roxy that a kea had stolen someone’s GoPro camera once while it was still on. Remarkably, the kea did not find this device useful and dropped it where people found it and were able to return it to its owner. The film the kea shot while flying made the local news.

After dinner I went straight to bed. My whole body was sore, and I needed a good night’s sleep before doing it all over again the next day. We set out by 7:30 am. The first two hours of our morning were gorgeous. It was cold enough to wear my puffer jacket while climbing, and the chilly air and cheerful sun made me feel invigorated. We saw another kea and took some photos, and truly felt thankful for being alive and seeing the sights. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the day.

We made our way to the first shelter on our walk and had a break with some fruit and candy and then put on more clothing as it was starting to get very cold and windy. This section undulated along the ridge lines of the mountains and could have been so lovely if not for the poor weather. It suddenly became quite stormy, and my hands turned to ice as I grasped my hiking poles. We were out in the elements with nowhere to shelter and rain began to pelt us in earnest. I felt quite helpless. Callum took my pack and poles so I could focus on not tripping down the steps we had to go down, and so I could stuff my hands in my pockets.

When we reached the tree line, we were very happy. However, this feeling was short-lived. The steep switchbacks hurt my feet and knees terribly. It felt like the trail was never going to end. I had to go very slow to cope with it all. We were both running out of patience with the day and when we finally reached the Iris Burn Hut I was relieved but distressed by the fact there were only upper bunks left. I could barely move my legs and the ladder consisted of a 90-degree angle with narrow slats.

The evening hut talk was performed by an enthusiastic Nayte, who delivered a much-practiced speech about all the things we had already heard at the first hut, as well as a discourse on the local birdlife. We made friends at dinner and enjoyed some card-playing and exchanging of stories. One of our new friends was a totally crazy Frenchman who ran around the mountains like a gazelle with ADHD. Honestly, this guy was nuts. He bragged a lot about his progress, what hikes he had run, and how little he brought with him. I couldn’t help but like him despite all his bravado. It was so nice to socialize with people at the end of a wretched day. The second day was a total of 14.6 kms and took us about 8 hours to complete, including breaks.

The third morning we left at 8:30am and were relieved to walk a mostly flat trail for the day. There were a few climbs along the way, but they were achievable. I took the lead and power-walked the first half of the day to our lunch spot. I listened to my tunes while I walked and was spurred on by all the bright pink triangular markers nailed to trees every 200 meters or so. These were marking where stoat traps were set and ascended in number. Nayte the hut warden had given us a tip that we were at 25 and the number at the next hut was 113. Therefore, I had a goal in mind and a visual reminder of how far was left to go. I found this to be very helpful. I wish trails around the world would just put km markers everywhere.

For the second half of the day my feet were shot, and I slowed right down. By the time I was finishing the 16th kilometer, I was virtually limping. Callum had run ahead to see about securing a bottom bunk for me and succeeded in claiming the last one. I reached the porch of the Motorau Hut to Callum’s cheers and got him to film me taking my boots off. This was something I thought would be funny, but it just sort of looks painful. I went to lie down in the bunk room but was encouraged by some friends to have a dip in the lake. I don’t like cold water and I could barely move my body down to the pebbly beach. It took a while for me to work up the courage to get in, but once I did it was so refreshing and healing.

The hut talk by 60-something warden Lynette was memorable and lengthy. She spoke to us like young children not used to concepts of gas stoves and fire danger. She also gave a long lecture about the area, the lake, and the wildlife. This sermon was aided by her notes, a thick stack of A4 sheets, double-sided and with each flip and turn of the pages, Callum and I had to avoid eye-contact so as not to draw attention to ourselves. The speech ended with a literal roll-call. It was hilarious. I went to bed soon after as I was utterly exhausted. We had walked 16.2 kms which took about 7 hours.

The fourth morning we got up first and were packing our things when most people were just making their breakfasts. We wanted to be sure to make it to the end of the track in time to meet our 10am shuttle which we had arranged beforehand.

The track was mostly flat, but a few sneaky unexpected climbs really affected morale. We were both sort of done with it and were ready for a break. The walk was only 6kms, but the last 200 meters were a bit nuts with a steep descent to a swing bridge. I celebrated wholeheartedly when we reached the waiting area for the shuttle. We had made it! I had survived this multi-day hike! It was a feat of achievement for me. I found it to be mostly hard and grueling, but I am also glad that I did it.

This track is one of the most popular multi-day hikes you can do in New Zealand, and like the Mueller Hut, books out months in advance. We were lucky to be among the people who did it. We often chatted with other hikers along the way, many being proud Kiwis who appreciate their own backyard and are proud to share it with tourists.

Milford Sound

The next day we headed to the Milford Sound which is a beautiful and iconic area of New Zealand. There is lots of hiking to be done there, including the famed Milford Track, but we did not have time to do it, and, it being one of the most popular, we were not able to secure huts for it. We went to Milford to enjoy the boat cruise and to do some kayaking, one of my favourite pastimes. We started the day by driving from Te Anau to Milford, which took us about two hours.

The cruise itself was with Southern Discoveries and was on a conservatively sized vessel. This ended up being a good thing because smaller boats can get closer to nature and fit in smaller spaces. We got nearly in touching distance with some seals and could feel the spray of waterfalls. The cruise was two hours with slightly grey skies that turned blue and bright by the time we were dropped off at a pontoon with a discovery centre on it. From here we joined a kayaking tour. We got fitted for lifejackets and were taken on a short journey paddling around Harrison Cove and up the Harrison River. Kayaking is something I really love, and it was such a relief to be doing something I’m actually good at, after all the hiking we had done. I think kayaking is so relaxing.

After a couple of hours, we were back on the pontoon waiting to be picked up by another ship which brought us back to the village. We then drove all the way back to Te Anau. It was a very full day but really worth it.

Routeburn Track

The next morning, we did most of the same drive again, stopping 30 minutes short of Milford Sound at a place called “The Divide Shelter” which is the start or end point for the Routeburn Track. This is an overnight hike that Callum did on his own. Because of the giant mountains in the way, this meant I had to drive four hours back towards Te Anau, and on to Queenstown while Callum hiked the 30kms to the Routeburn Shelter. I stayed in Queenstown for one night while Callum slept at the Mackenzie Lake Hut. The next day I drove out to Glenorchy and on toward the shelter where the track ends to pick him up, about 90 minutes away from Queenstown. So, it was a lot of driving for me while Callum enjoyed the hike, saying it was one of his favourite things he did in New Zealand. He loved it so much, he wants me to do it with him in the future, saying that it was way easier than the Kepler, and that the views were memorable.

We stayed in Queenstown for a few more days before flying home. In all honesty, Queenstown is a pretty little town on Lake Wakatipu, but you probably only need a couple of days there. The five days spent were a bit overkill, since we are not ‘extreme thrill seeking’ like some, who see Queenstown as a place to jump out of planes and bungee. We enjoyed a brief jet-boat ride up the Shotover River which was thrilling enough for me.

In addition to our boat ride, we visited the Kiwi Park at the base of Ben Lomond Mountain. This was a great experience learning about the endangered species in New Zealand. We saw a couple of tuataras (reptiles), which is a creature I had no idea existed and immediately fell in love with. It looked like an anime character or something! We saw tuis, keas, owls, parrots, and of course, kiwis. Because kiwi birds are nocturnal, the park has a very dark enclosure for them and manipulates the lighting to trick the birds into thinking day is night, so that they will be active for visitors. It is still incredibly dark in the enclosure and no light of any kind is allowed—so no pictures. We witnessed a little girl getting told off (kindly) for her light-up sneakers. These birds were bigger than I expected—kind of the size of a cat or small dog. We spent over 2.5 hours in this 5-acre facility and were really impressed by it. I would say you should not miss it if travelling to Queenstown.

After visiting the kiwi birds, we went to Skyline which is right next to the bird park. We did the luge again, like we did in Rotorua. This gave us the ability to compare and contrast both locations. We liked the one in Rotorua because it has longer and more tracks, but the landscaping around it is a bit rough and unappealing (at the time of our visit). The attendants were looser about the rules, and I liked how the chairlift brought you to the start of the luge tracks as well as to the gondola for your return.

In Queenstown, the views were much better, but to get to the luge chairlifts you had to walk down a steep path, and then up again when done your luging. The attendants were a bit pedantic with the rules, which meant we had to stand in line for half an hour to ‘go down the first time’ and go through a whole lesson about how to use the luge, even though we explained we’d done this same activity in Rotorua and knew what we were doing. The tracks were much shorter and there was basically only one track you would want to go down after your initial trip. If you can only afford one Skyline experience, save it for Rotorua. If you are not going to Rotorua, definitely do it in Queenstown. It is a blast either way, though pretty pricey. The cost for two of us to go up the gondola to Bob’s Peak and then do the 6 luge rides cost us $79 each.

Our last activity of our trip was to have a really nice meal. We had a great experience at the Eichardt’s Bar where we had tapas and cocktails. It was going well until a trio of noisy millennials sat next to us and loudly proclaimed their dislike of and inability to drink tap water, how they only like sparkling water, and that glacier water is rarely acceptable. They proceeded to ask about vegetarian options on a fairly meat-heavy menu. The cheese tart was unavailable which I found hilarious since I was enjoying one while all this conversation was happening. We finished our meal quickly and left to escape their obnoxiousness. We had an ice cream from Patagonia and went to go find a sunset to mark our last evening in New Zealand.

Travelling to New Zealand was long-time coming for us and we want to return one day. I was told by fellow Canadians that NZ looks a lot like Canada. There were certainly spaces that evoked memory for me, but overall I would say NZ is a special place with its own unique beauty. It is far and remote for most people to get to, but if you do, you will not regret it. As always, we are grateful.

Highlights for RachelHighlights for Callum
Lake TekapoMueller Hut Hike
Day 2 views Kepler TrackKepler Track
Kayaking in Milford SoundRouteburn Track

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