Thursday, November 28, 2019

Gunn’s Camp - The Land of Doing Without

Entrance to Gunn's Camp - not fancy but interesting

Gunn’s Camp deserves a special mention since it was one of my more unusual overnight stops.  It’s an unpretentious collection of small cottages which were built for the families of road workers in the 1930s while the Hollyford Road was being built. After WWII halted the project two years later, they were abandoned and gradually came to be used by holiday makers. Some were also gutted for building materials such as stoves and roofing, because of post war shortages.

This is "George" where I spent the night
Some of the cottages and the famous gate

 In 1951 they were bought by an eccentric pastoralist, Davey Gunn, who began to operate tours for hunters and walkers. After his death in 1955, his son Murray took over and added a few flourishes of his own. By way of  example, he painted one side of his horse in big white letters that said ‘cow' while the other side said ‘horse,’ so that the hunters wouldn't mistake his brown equine for a deer.  I suspect that the unusual stand -alone gate was probably his idea as well. The sign on it says,” No sandflies beyond this point.”  Too bad that sandflies can’t read. Since Murray’s death in 2014, Gunn’s Camp has been run by a charitable trust.

The sign on this gate reads "No sandflies beyond this point."

 There’s also a sign at the front entrance that says,  “Welcome to the Land of Doing Without.” It certainly was for the road workers and their families. There is no mains power and no internet but the separate kitchen, lounge and shop are brightly lit by a generator which is turned off at 10. The kitchen and bathrooms are immaculate and steaming hot water is supplied by a giant wood -fired boiler.  Most of the huts also have wood stoves.  Mine doesn’t, but the manager brings me a hot water bottle instead along with a head torch. I have the feeling that he expects me to be shocked or surprised at the amenities or lack thereof, but compared to the house in the bush where we lived for seven years, this is positively luxurious. We didn’t have power or a generator and Gunn’s at least has flushing toilets. My fondest memories of that time - when not washing nappies in the copper outside, or cooking over the single burner Primus stove, were about how lovely it was being able to see the moon and stars at night, the pervasive smell of wood smoke and of being awoken by birdsong instead of morning traffic.  

Large kitchen and communal lounge - very clean, warm and bright, but no pots and pans or cutlery

The kitchen doesn’t have the usual pots and pans,* so I am reduced to eating cold left overs and getting a cold overnight oatmeal porridge ready for the morning. Luckily I still had my Kevlar knife and fork and a yoghurt container. The more urbane hostellers among us are thrilled with the lack of amenities, the chance to play with or sit around a wood fire and to experience the absolute darkness and the stillness that comes once the generators have fallen silent.  It’s then that you become aware of the rush of the river or the hushed swoosh, swoosh of a night bird's wings. Two of my fellow hostellers are orchid hunters and have written the definitive work on New Zealand’s orchids, so I show them some of the ones from Tasmania on my phone. They are very impressed. I’m not sure I would recognise a New Zealand orchid. They are tiny and don’t have any flowers yet. They also tend to inhabit the tops of trees, but it’s interesting all the same and the ferns and mosses are both pretty and prolific. 

 * I think the assumption is that walkers coming off the Hollyford Track - one of the Great Walks, or similar, will have their own cooking and eating utensils!

There are lots of pretty ferns and mosses

After dark I go in search of glow worms which allegedly live in a riverbank nearby. I don't have much luck. There's no moon and it's overcast and drizzly so perhaps they have the good sense to stay inside. As I walk back I hear an occasional crack, crack or a muffled BOOM! BOOM! on the mountains which tower above. I am not sure if I am hearing avalanches or only people blowing them up.  By this time I don’t even care.  It’s been a long day and my little house called “George” is surprisingly warm and comfortable. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like this place. The humour is corny. Maybe it’s the scale – the way the human made structures don’t dominate, but nestle beneath those mighty mountains. You feel close to nature and  get a sense of what it must have been like for those early pioneers - a tiny bit of warmth and comfort in a trackless wilderness. It is certainly the only affordable accommodation within range of Milford, if you can get any at all.

"George" is surprisingly warm and cosy, despite the absence of a stove.  - the hot water bottle brought by the manager works a treat
The office

In the morning the proprietor won’t let me leave until he’s had word from New Zealand Transit that the road will be open. “Don’t worry,“ he assures me, “None of the other passengers can get through either, and they won’t start the cruises until they do.“

Shortly after 7.30 I’m allowed to proceed to the Milford Road where a queue is forming behind the barriers. The road still wears a light dusting of snow. I’m about fourth in line but another twenty cars or so quickly pull up behind me. They must be coming from the several B and B’s further back at Te Anau Downs and we are all way ahead* of those coming from Te Anau itself, and  especially those travelling from Queenstown.  A Ute carrying orange clad workmen pushes through. The men unlatch the barriers and we are off like horses out of the starting gate.  Look out Milford, here we come!

*Tip: The early morning cruises are much cheaper and you have a better chance of getting a parking spot without having to pay $10 an hour.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

On the Road to Milford Sound

The Mirror Lakes - an obligatory stop on the Milford Road

Morning dawns and I follow the crowd through Te Anau Downs, the Eglington Valley, past the Mirror Lakes and to the Divide. The Divide is where a mighty glacier once ploughed down from the Darran Mountains and split into three creating the Eglington, Greenstone and Hollyford valleys. Generally I like to avoid the must –do tourist meccas. In fact, I especially booked the less  -travelled  Doubtful Sound  instead, but as I was doing so the operators threw in a Milford Sound Cruise with their sister company for very little more, so how could I refuse? Besides, a nagging little voice in my head was saying, “How can you come all this way and not see it? It’ll be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower.“ So here I was, following everyone like a sheep. The road is narrow and as usual there really aren’t any other places to stop.

The song "You'll never Walk Alone" springs to mind

Somewhere between 500,000 and one million visitors a year travel on the Milford Road

All things considered, I'm lucky to be able to drive along this road at all. It is another remarkable achievement. Although tourism began at Milford Sound as early as 1891, it was not until 1929 that that men armed with picks, shovels and explosives began work on the road. Like the Haast Pass Road this was another Depression era project. Alas, a gigantic granite outcrop – Mt. Gertrude, blocked the final descent into the Sound.  Although explorer William Henry Homer proposed building a tunnel as far back as 1889, work did not start on this until 1935. Even then, after being interrupted by World War II, it took another 19 years before the road was finished and another 37 years before it was sealed. Homer who died in 1894, never lived to see his dream become a reality.

Vehicles wait in line to pass through the 1.2 Km long.single -lane Homer Tunnel which took almost two decades to build

There is a sad story behind this lookout, called "Pop's View"

In 1977, it was decided to keep the road open all year instead of closing it in winter because of the risk of avalanches. Among the first casualties was works supervisor, Robert “Pop’ Andrews, after whom a rather beautiful lookout is named. Since then, world class avalanche monitoring and dispatch technology has been developed to ensure the safety of the 500,000 to 1,000,000 visitors who drive State Highway 94 each year. Until 2015 it was mainly under the watchful eye of husband and wife team, Ann and Wayne Carran. Wayne had good reason to be involved in the avalanche control program– he was the one who survived the same avalanche which killed Robert Andrews. 

A memorial to works supervisor and avalanche victim Robert "Pop" Andrews

There are 54 avalanche paths along the Milford Road and spring is the main avalanche season. The good weather we have had today, especially following a night or two of snow, means that the top layer often melts differentially and slides off the harder more compacted layers below.  When that looks likely to happen, the New Zealand Transport Agency closes the road in the evening and  literally ‘bombs’ avalanche sites which look unstable, so that they can’t do any harm.

Since my cruise isn’t until tomorrow, I tackle the three hour walk to Key Summit. It takes me a lot longer - it’s all uphill for around 900m, but the breathtaking views over the Darran and Humboldt Ranges, the deeply carved valleys and Mt. Christina and Lake Marion, are worth it. By the time I come back down, the Milford Road is closed again beyond this point, but the Hollyford Road remains open.  Though there isn't much daylight left, I make a quick dash to the end of the road where there’s another spectacular waterfall – the 275m Humboldt Falls, only twenty minutes from the road.  I then drive about halfway back to stay at Gunn’s Camp, which will put me within reasonable striking distance of Milford Sound in the morning if the road is open.

On top of Key Summit which overlooks the Greenstone, Eglington and Humboldt Valleys. I must be getting homesick. This looks  very similar to Cradle Valley, Tas.

A late afternoon glimpse of Humboldt Falls (275m) and another fall as a bonus

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Going South - Over the Lindis Pass to Fjordland

Driving through the Lindis Pass

I leave at daybreak the next morning. The road hasn’t been closed, or at least not yet. It leads once again through an epic landscape of bare brown hills and high mountains. This intermontaine basin is called Mackenzie Country and is named after an 1850's cattle rustler. It ends in the 971 metre high Lindis Pass, the third of the three crossings over the mountains, and another one which was well -known to and used by the Maori. There are no listed hostels between Mt. Cook and Queenstown on this route, nor between Queenstown and Te Anau, so I am obliged to spend another night in Wanaka.

Looking back the way I have come, you can see how small the cars are. This is one of the few stopping points. There is a monument here to the release of the first seven red deer in 1871. I hear a lot more about them later

 I  keep wishing I had a dashcam on this trip as there are so few places to pull over, but looking  at some of the footage on the net, not even that would convey the scale or drama,  except  perhaps some  from “Lord of the Rings (3)” showing the Battle of Pelennor Fields, which was filmed  near here at Twizel. The Clay Cliffs further down, were another stunning location, but fearing that I'll be late for my stay in Wanaka, or worse still for my bookings in Fjordland, I can't stop to explore.

One thing I do find out from looking at some of the videos, is that it does green up a bit in summer and that the roadsides are then lined with lupins.

After so much desolate looking country, I was very taken with this wild apple tree

Things look up on the other side of the pass. There are sheep runs and a clutch of vineyards. The tiny village of Tarras, famous for its fine Merino wool and being the home of Shrek the Sheep, who gained international fame in 2004 for managing to elude the shearers for six years, offers a welcome break of journey with its gift shop, bakery and café. It also has toilets which is a great relief in more ways than one.

The tiny village of Tarras makes a pleasant stopover
As it happens I get to Wanaka earlier than expected, so I explore part of the Millennium Walkway around the lake and do another short walk along a river gorge past Glen Dhu, where rock climbers cling precariously from outcrops on the other side.

                              Can you spot the two climbers on the big rock in the middle just above the grass?

Glen Dhu, about 12 km west of Wanaka, reminds me of the illustration that used to be on boxes of Derwent Coloured Pencils

 I stay at a different hostel this time, not because the other one wasn’t nice, but because there’s parking available outside. Wanaka is hardly the crime capital of the Western world, but I didn’t like carrying my worldly goods for several blocks for a one night stand. Now I get to carry my shopping several blocks instead.
This hostel is in a former medical centre. It's smaller and a bit run down. The kitchen is dark and cramped, the pot plants are dead and the bathroom doors are painted in unfashionable shades of green and pink, but the complimentary coffee is the best I’ve tasted since coming to New Zealand.

Sad plant

The hostellers are different too. They aren’t the fresh -faced gap - year students I’ve been meeting in the YHA’s.  Most are more mature and working in the hospitality industry in Wanaka.  Several are from South America. The young man from Brazil immediately offers me his mate to drink and we all sit around talking late into the night. As I climb into my squeaky bunk, I realise that this is something I’ve been missing on this trip -the conviviality I mean, not the wobbly bunk. The other hostellers have been friendly and polite and I don't necessarily want to go back to those early days of hostelling with compulsory cheery singing and rostered duties. It’s just been so bland. If I were staying longer I would go straight out and replace those dead plants with some pansies or something, but that's another thing I'm starting to dislike -the pressure of having to book ahead for everything and then having a deadline every night. It provides certainty yes, but it also takes away the spontaneity of travelling.

I hurry down through the Crown Range again and down through the Devil’s Staircase on the other side of Queenstown. Neither seem as scary now as some of the other roads I’ve driven on since.  It rains all the way to Te Anau and when I get there, there’s an announcement that the road to Milford Sound has been closed due to snow and the risk of avalanches. I am anxious now. My cruise booking is early in the morning the day after tomorrow and there are no other hostels between here and Milford Sound.