Ah, the Fiordlands. Meg and I traveled to this rain-forested, mountainous wonderland just after Christmas. Familiar with big, rocky outcrops of mountains from our stomping grounds in Canada, this was a trip into something else entirely. We had just finished working in the tranquil Tui House, near Queenstown, and the first stop on our itinerary was Te Anau. A popular launching point for all things Fiordland, this was a tourist-oriented community with lots of shops, holiday parks and restaurants surrounded by the infamous New Zealand landscape. Lake Te Anau (everywhere here seems to have a lake right beside it named after the city/town) and accompanying beach provided the sun tanners and water sports junkies with plenty to do and trails to the Kepler mountains kept all the trampers busy.
It was here we first met a couple from the exotic lands of…also Canada. Naturally, due to all of our high levels of friendliness and unwillingness to offend we sat together in the crowded dining area of the holiday park next to an Aussie named Dene. We talked about pancakes and the depressingly limited selection of maple syrups in New Zealand. I know, real original, but it got us all talking and joking and soon we had sat there for over an hour laughing and swapping stories. Dene was travelling alone just before heading home to Australia for a while. He was currently working in Denmark but had had a fascinating career with the UN’s World Food Program all over the world. Through him, we’d later be connected with more Danes who we became friends with in Wanaka but I’ll save that for another story. Meg and I had been down a string of meaningful connections with locals and other travelers so I think we fell quite naturally into somewhat of a group.
One of our first hikes in the Te Anau region was the beginning of the Kepler Track. We’d started the trek from our holiday park, unwittingly adding 45min of hiking to the trip, and so sat down at some rest stop picnic tables, wiping the sweat from our faces. Meg and her natural inclination to say hello to anyone within earshot, greeted a lone hiker trudging up towards us. He had a large backpack and a friendly smile. He introduced himself as Dan, a New Zealander, that had come to the South Island to hike the Kepler and Milford Sound Great Walks. We talked for a bit and then decided that I would go on a bit further with Dan and meet Meg back at the campsite. Not as inclined to say hello to everyone as my extroverted wife, I have definitely grown my skills at engaging with strangers which has always been positively reinforced as I get to know these unique and interesting people. Near the first hut that Dan would be staying the night at, I wished him the best and that we should meet up in a few days for a drink or a meal.
Later on, we actually ended up having an “orphan’s Christmas” dinner, bringing together the group we had met at the holiday park along with some new friends Dan made along the Kepler Track. It was a really interesting table with people from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Chile and the Netherlands. It also helped take a bit of the sting out of missing family and friends during the holiday season.
Our first hike in the Fiordlands was to Lake Marian. It was suggested to us by Grant, our host at the Tui House while we were WWOOFing there and we ended up being very happy he made the suggestion. We pulled up to the car park around noon and made ourselves a sammie in the back of the van, packed some snacks and gear and hit the relatively short trail to the lake. It was a drizzly start and a bit cold and we soon realized that we were the only ones on the trail.
The hike is through lush green rainforest with silver beech trees and vines lining the path. Meg and I began talking about life, as one tends to do on long treks, and were reflecting on our choice to leave a comfortable job that, monetarily speaking, had given us a comfortable life. It was a topic we drifted towards often as this transition was still very new to us and the natural fear of having made a mistake always nagged at me (Megan not so much).
But Megan has always had a lot more self awareness than I have. I’ve always admired her for that and if I have been able to grow and recognize my own emotions better over time it is undoubtedly because she has helped me to. Being “Type A”, I have found that in the past I sometimes forgot to reflect on whether something was actually fulfilling me or making me happy. In the last year of my former career it was unfortunately very evident that I was not. Reassuring me that we had made the right choice and talking about all of the amazing things we had seen in just two short months my attitude switched toward one of gratitude. How many people even have the opportunity to do something like this? Not many. And I don’t mean the people that could do this but “have a mortgage”, “can’t save enough” or don’t want to interrupt their career path in a job they can’t stand. I’m not even trying to be on a high horse about that either, that shit is really hard enough as it is and took me the good part of two years to make the decision and just go for it. I’m talking about people that won’t ever have the opportunity to travel because of legitimate outside influences whether it be the country they live in, the truly depraved economic state they might be born into or some of the other blind, luck-of-the-draw factor cast upon someone. We are so lucky. Let’s focus on that.
Nearing the end of our hike we started to see more light and less tree canopy overhead and the soil beneath us shifted more and more to rock. Turning a corner and through the opening sliced into the trees we were confronted by the massive, crystal clear waters of Lake Marian. The thoughts on the conversation Meg and I had just shared coupled with the sudden exquisiteness of this untouched place is now one of the most treasured moments in my life. It felt serendipitous. I was meant to see the stark beauty of those mountains reflected onto the blue mirror in front of me in that moment. I am not exaggerating when I say that an immediate sense of peace came over me.
Due to the rain beforehand we found that we were still alone. The sun had come out just moments before we reached the water’s edge and we took off our rain jackets, rolled up our pant legs and strode into the refreshingly cold water.
I travel to revel in the lives of others but I typically hike and climb to find solitude. Having this massive expanse to share with Meg and her alone felt so utterly special. On that day I was able to be completely in the moment, even for just a little while, while we sat there and soaked in the sun, the sounds and that indescribable feeling.
Hiking up to one of the highest passes overlooking Milford Sound was also on our list of must-do’s. Right from the parking lot we met up with a couple of university students that were on vacation and decided to walk together. One of them, Matt, began to struggle a bit as we gained elevation. Not being in a rush we slowed down and tried to keep an easy pace for him. Meg’s compassion and spirit of helping any and everyone really came out on this hike. In his ear the whole time, she repeatedly told him he was going to finish this, pointing out the next part of the trail he was getting to before taking a break. Meanwhile, I was being asked a lot of questions about the army, what physical standards we had to meet, training I had done, places I’d seen. I was flattered and happy to share my experiences with someone who was genuinely interested to hear about them but all the while I was looking back at Meg and marveling at the woman I got to share these crazy adventures with.
The hike is filled with changing features vying for your attention. We quickly came up to a gentle stream flowing down towards the valley we had just ascended from. That lead us to a glassy pool and up further still to Black Lake. Matt, still spurred on by the relentless drill Sgt Meg, came up and over the top to see it, out of breath but clearly enjoying the moment. A perfect place for lunch, we sat and took in the scenery.
Just across from Black Lake it turned out was a lot of great sport climbing as I was later told by a trail guide on her day off. Some steel cable had been placed into part of the steep climb but not too long after Black Lake we found ourselves officially at the saddle. A neat little platform waited for us which might as well have had a sign saying “take picture here”, so we did.
Meg obliged me a little more and let me run up to the start of the snow for a higher vantage point down onto the Sound. The summit was frustratingly close but wouldn’t have been safe without crampons and an axe so I settled on the rocky outcrop and jealously watched a couple of climbers make their way further on. What a stunning place to be frustrated in though.
The same day that we went on the Milford Sound Cruise (a post for later), we decided to tackle the Routeburn track from the other end. This leg of the hike took us to Key Summit and a more expansive view into the valley we had been driving for the past few days. It also gave us a bird’s eye of Lake Marian in the far distance.
I’ll let the photos do the talking for this one.
Writing and reminiscing about these trips has been a reminder that we’ve made the right choice to go travel and explore while we are young. I’ve already had some incredible and unique life experiences but to be able to keep adding to them has let us truly recharge. I never took a lot of photos before a couple of years ago but I’m glad I started to so that I’ll always have these tokens for that next time I’ll inevitably need a gentle reminder of how good life is.