Trail running in South Island, New Zealand “No baggage” style

All photos are here.

Trail running in South Island, New Zealand “No baggage” style

Me, my hand-carry backpack and my heavy-duty rucksack
Armed with one light hand-carry backpack and one heavy-duty rucksack, I set foot for what promised to be a great adventure in Kiwi Land!

13th December 2012: Welcome to Queenstown!
What a landing this was! I could barely take my eyes off the plane window. By the time we landed, I had craned my neck so much to the left that it started to hurt! It felt like we were part of a flight simulator video game where the plane has to carefully navigate through picturesque mountain ranges. One tiny mistake by the pilot and it would have been game over! Nature kept beckoning us through the airplane window. Each time the plane banked right, I could see glimpses of a serene greenish-blue colored river. As the plane descended, this river showed off more and more of her beauty. The snowcapped mountains we saw moments ago quietly disappeared into the backdrop while gently giving way to lush green grasslands. And, all of a sudden, a runway appeared out of nowhere and we were somehow in Queenstown, New Zealand!

What a landing! This is what I call a scenic flight!

All food stash goes to trash
Upon landing, the first human being I saw from the plane’s window in Queenstown was a customs lady flanked by two gigantic dustbins on either side. “QUARANTINE” was the mantra of the day.

Every little ounce of grain we brought into New Zealand, whether hand carried or checked in, had to be declared. We were given a choice — either dump any food we were carrying into one of the two dustbins or face the quarantine inspector who, in all likelihood, would be doing the same for us! My granola bars were in my checked in baggage! Given the amount fuss over food items, I prepared myself for some serious delay in exiting the airport. I was hoping against hopes that I wouldn’t have to wastefully repurchase my food items.

Me, my hand-carry backpack and *no* heavy-duty rucksack
Where’s my luggage again?
I stared at every baggage rolling out of the conveyor belt hoping it would be my green rucksack. I stared and stared until the conveyor belt finally stopped moving! My heavy-duty rucksack never arrived!

I then spent hours trying to talk to various Jetstar officials in a vain attempt to locate my rucksack. It had ALL my necessary hiking gear — my sleeping bag, my winter gear, my rain gear, etc, etc. Having flown from Hong Kong to Melbourne and from Melbourne to Queenstown, I feared that my rucksack probably never left Melbourne! I scrambled to find an alternative plan. But, all the transportation to and from hikes I had planned to do had already been booked — canceling it would have been too costly. I didn’t know what to do! My hands were tied.

Step up and kick butt!
Then, I shook off my frustration and reminded myself of the great Shakespeare line — “The show must go on!

Armed with just one light hand-carry backpack and *no* heavy-duty rucksack, I set foot for what promised to be a great adventure in Kiwi Land!

Ok, fine, I’ll admit it — it wasn’t all that simple! I did have to go buy a new pair of shorts, tee shirt, toiletries, etc, etc before pumping myself up with that Shakespeare line! On the bright side though, I was only carrying what was absolutely necessary and thought I could run most of the trails!

Before leaving the airport, I purchased a local Kiwi SIM card to stay in touch with the “Baggage Services” guys. I gave them a copy of my itinerary and left the airport hoping that my rucksack would somehow reach me at some point during my stay in New Zealand. BUT, rucksack or no rucksack, I decided that the show would go on regardless! I told myself that every “problem” in life makes life more exciting! Problems need solutions and solutions create pleasure! They make you learn and grow and extend your sphere of influence. They present an opportunity to step up and kick butt! And, off I went to the city central from the airport, all pumped up!

My humble abode on the first day — Bumble Backpackers in Queenstown

My bunk bed

14th December 2012, Runnin’ Routeburn Track
To carry or not to carry
I woke up to a crisp, fresh New Zealand air at 6am in the morning. The sun set at 10pm the previous night giving us a whole 16 hours of daylight! I looked at my small hand-carry backpack and wondered if I needed my winter gear and rain gear to run Routeburn Track. The clouds up above seemed to be telling two different stories. One part of the sky promised another clear day while the other looked threateningly ominous.

I decided that I could always buy more hiking gear at the end of the run in Te Anau; so I left wearing my new pair of shorts and tee shirt, all set to run the Routeburn Track.

I boarded a Tracknet bus from Queenstown to Routeburn Shelter to begin my run. It was a 90 minute ride which put me at The Shelter at 10am. As I began running, all my “problems” with my missing rucksack magically disappeared. I felt grateful to be running on such a beautiful track. Parts of the track reminded of a rainforest trek I did back in Malaysia. I didn’t miss my rucksack one bit. Wearing it on my back would have taken the juice out of running! I was actually thanking Jetstar Asia and Quantas for losing my baggage!

Routeburn Shelter

An awesome “runnable” track — best experienced without a rucksack!

Look at the crystal clear lake that the track hugs

The first hut on the Routeburn Track

All huts have a weather forecast updated at 8.15am

There ain’t no problem that a trail run can’t fix
On almost every running holiday I go on, something or the other ends up happening to my eye glasses! New Zealand was no exception. A heavy piece of twig suddenly fell from up above and smacked straight into the frame of my glasses, causing the lens to break. What are the odds of that? It almost felt like someone was targeting my glasses! Anyway, from that point onwards, I figured that things could only get better. Missing rucksack, broken glasses.. how much worse could it get?

Then I felt drops of water hitting my face. It began to rain! The wind howled. I looked up at the swaying tree branches. I knew it. Warren Buffet said “when the tide goes down, you know who is swimming naked”. Well, I wasn’t exactly swimming naked, but with no rain gear and wearing only tee shirt and shorts, let’s just say that I was a little more susceptible to rainy, inclement weather! But, the Shakespeare in my mind overruled Buffet and the show went on! I kept my pace steady and kept warming up the body despite the cold wind blowing straight through my wet tee shirt and shorts! I saw a few people hiking towards me from the opposite direction. They were all walking sluggishly, carrying heavy rucksacks and were Goretex-ed up to the neck! I looked at them and thought to myself how boring it would have been to walk the Routeburn track like that! Here I was, with the unique privilege of running one of the most beautiful tracks in New Zealand under pouring rain! That thought kicked off an adrenalin rush in the body and I had the trail run of a lifetime!

The highlight of the track was Lake McKenzie — a large, placid lake surrounded by stunning snowcapped mountains in the backdrop. What a beauty! I stopped to take several pictures and thought to myself how all of life’s so-called “problems” get blown away to smithereens in the power and beauty of nature. I savored the moment for as long as possible, i.e. until the point where my ass would have frozen had I continued to stare and admire. So, a little reluctantly, I took my eyes off the beauty of the lake and continued to run.

Lake McKenzie — what a treat to the eyes!

The other treat to the eyes was Howden Falls which, by far, was the highest waterfalls I had ever seen! It was an incredible sight. Water gushed down from over 500m in height. As I ran past the falls, the wind sprayed a chunk of the falling water straight into my face. It was a refreshing feeling!

The Routeburn Track

Howden Falls

I stopped at Howden Hut to warm up by the fire place and completed the Routeburn Track in about 5.5-6 hours. I then took a Tracknet bus to Te Anau.

I called the Baggage Services guys from my hostel in Te Anau and was told that they still couldn’t locate my rucksack! Given what a great day of trail running I had the privilege of experiencing, I wasn’t sure whether to feel thankful or annoyed. But, nonetheless, I did have to go purchase some new underwear!

My humble abode on the second day — YHA Hostel, Te Anau

Streets of Te Anau – much quieter than Queenstown

A beautiful lake –Te Anau Lake– right beside the town

15th December 2012, Running the Kepler Track
“Great Walks”
New Zealand has a set of beautiful tracks that are collectively known as “Great Walks”. Reminds me of a shop called “Good Look Tailors” in Kowloon for some reason. I mean, wouldn’t a name like “Top 10 walks” be a catchier title instead of a cliché, nondescript “Great Walks”? Anyway, Kepler Track is one of them and I was quite excited about running it. There was only one catch — I was going to spend the night at a hut on the track without a sleeping bag (thanks to you know who!)

The start of Kepler Track

Signs for grandmas and grandpas
You’ll have to remember something about the signs on all of these tracks — they are written for the likes of grandmas and grandpas! I mean, even if you’re walking it, it will take you much less time than it says it will. And, if you are running it like I did, you can safely divide whatever it says by 2.5. In fact, I think I can run the whole track in about 7-8 hours. Apparently, an event called the Kepler Challenge is held during every December where runners run the whole track. The winner for this year, a guy from Chirstchurch, ran the whole thing in 4 hours 55 minutes! That’s 63 kms in less than 5 hours! No, it doesn’t mean the track is that easy, it means that the winner is a machine! The first lady (I don’t mean Mrs. Obama) completed the track in 5 hours and 10 minutes or so.

An initial forest track by the beaches before the climb to Luxmore Hut

A kick ass trail run!
I started running the track under plenty of sunshine. It was quite a contrast to the previous day where I was almost freezing under the cold and wet weather. I started running right from Te Anau’s visitor center all the way to Te Anau Control Gates through a forest track. After a flattish 90-minute run through beaches and forests, I started to climb. And climb. I went from 150m above sea-level to about 1100m which was the end of the forest zone. Then came a barren, rocky, mountainous surface and the climbing continued until about 1200m. The wind was constantly in my ears. It felt like someone had a hairdryer trained at my ears! Except, this hairdryer was blowing cold air! At about 1300m, I saw the first hut on the track — Luxmore Hut. It looked more like a luxury hotel and reminded of Laban Rata (the hotel/hut near the top of Mt. Kinabalu). It was quite a location for a hut! It boasted splendid views of Te Anau lake down below. All the jagged snowcapped peaks I saw from my hostel in Te Anau now appeared much, much closer.

This is Luxmore Hut — The real estate mantra “Location, location, location” is true for huts too!

After a brief stop at Luxmore Hut, I did a side track all the way up to Mt. Luxmore. My running seemed to dazzle many walkers along the way. I took great pride in overtaking them “trail running” style while also admiring the tremendous views that the elevation brought. But, I have to say, the track was as impressive, if not more impressive than the views! The part from Mt. Luxmore to Iris Burn hut was a top-class trail run and I gave it my trail running best! What a feeling that was! The descent brought me back to the forest zone and I lost about 500m in less than 20 minutes!

View from Mt. Luxmore

Chillin’ (literally) while sleepin’
I decided to stick to plan and spent the night at Iris Burn hut although I got there quite early. By the time the fellow walkers I overtook earlier appeared in the hut, I had already built a reputation as “a super fast runner”. Talk about being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind! However, when it came to sleeping time, I was clearly the most ill-equipped man in the hut! Everyone had sleeping bags and duvets and gloves and what not, except for me! I did buy some fashionable yellow rubber gloves though –yes, the kind you use to clean utensils– but I was too embarrassed to wear them! (I mean, come on, who wears bright yellow utensil-cleaning rubber gloves on a hike! Not even me!) But, somehow, I managed to sleep a few hours in the cold without a sleeping bag! My contingency plan, in case of bitter cold weather, was to simply get up, wear my headlamp and run! Luckily though, it didn’t come to that!

Running down from Mt. Luxmore to Iris Burn Hut

Iris Burn Hut

16th December 2012, running and yachting!
I left Iris Burn hut nice and early at 6.30am while fellow hikers were still cooking breakfast. All I had for fuel was one Power Bar. I started running and in about an hour and a half, I reached the next hut which I shall call Montgomery Hut because I can’t seem to remember the actual name of the hut! (But it rhymes with Montgomery!) As I was dancing around to keep the sandflies off of me, the hut warden in the hut gave me some bad news! Actually, hang on a sec — did I tell you what a sandfly was?

Sandflies — the perfect present for your worst enemy!
Ever thought of reading a book by a mountain hut in the tranquility of the wilderness? Romantic notion, but, well, trust me, it ain’t gonna happen in Fiordland! I’ll tell you why. SANDFLIES! Those small, black insects are a royal pain in the butt! They are like tiny mosquitoes, except they attack in bigger numbers. And when they do attack, brace yourself for some serious itching! But, if you do itch, you will itch hard and you will bleed and you will want to itch some more! It’s like greed — it feeds on itself! And, if you’re like one of those mind-over-matter kind of guys and try to “focus and ignore them”, trust me, they will know that and they will take advantage of you by inviting their brothers, sisters, cousins, distant uncles and distant aunts to the party. Before you know it, you’ll have an entire army of sandflies that will want to eat you for dinner. My advice to you — if you’re in this part of town, carry an insect repellent! I never did and I have over 50 bites to show for it!

Anyway, going back to the main story, the hut warden in Montgomery Hut told me that the road to Milford Sound was closed due to heavy rain! I was supposed to go there the next day and was so much looking forward to the beauty of the place and the kayaking there but alas! This road is prone to being shut because a good chunk of the road is susceptible to landslips and gigantic boulders rolling down from the heights of the majestic mountains adjacent to it.

Waterfalls on the way to “Montgomery” Hut

The trail on the way to “Montgomery” Hut

Long smiles make short miles! — yes indeed!

This is “Montgomery” Hut

I ran all the way back to Te Anau Control Gates and then to the Information Center in about four hours. I then browsed through brochures after brochures to come up with an alternative plan for the next day to replace Milford Sound.

Goin’ sailin’
As I was walking back to YHA Youth Hostel, I heard someone yell from inside the driver’s seat of a car.

Driver: Hey mate. What ya doin’ this afternoon?
Me: Hmmm. Nothing much. Why do you ask?
Driver: Come with me. Let’s go yachting. We need more weight for our race
Me: Yachting? What’s it gonna cost me?
Driver: Nothin’!
Me: But I don’t have the skill-set for yachting. I’m like a cat in water
Driver: Do you have the courage, enthusiasm and plenty of laughs?
Me: Of course! I am like the king of comedy
Driver: Hop in mate!

And so, I somehow ended up participating in a yachting competition with Lance and Glenda. We lost big time. (They probably regretted inviting me!) I learnt a couple of new words though. “Tekking”? (meaning changing the direction and orientation of the sails). And, “BOOM” meaning you better duck or else the sail rod will hit your head! And, of course, I learnt that “port” is left and “starvard” is right! (Not sure why they can’t just say left or right!)

Lance and Glenda take an ignorant guy yachting!

The little arrow on top of the sail tells the direction of wind

Having had only three energy bars in the past 2 days, I treated myself to a veggie lasagna AND a veggie pizza in the evening to conclude 63kms of trail running and plenty of yachting!

And, before calling it a day, I gave my best friends at Baggage Services a call to inquire into the status of my lost rucksack. They repeated the same old story — “Sorry Sir, your baggage has still not been located. We are contacting various ports to try and locate it”. Blah, blah, blah.

Once again, I reflected on the awesome trail running I had done in the past couple of days and thought to myself that everything (including lost baggage!) does indeed happen for the best!

17th December 2012, Rain, rain go away..
You’ve got to remember one thing about Fiordland. It rains like 200 days in a year here! Going to Fiordland without rain gear is like going to Bagota without a gun!

Bringin’ Natteri’s fashion to New Zealand
After browsing through several activity brochures at the tourist information center, I finally decided to go back to my first love — trail running! I took a bus back to The Divide and decided to run the Greenstone & Caples Track. But, there was one flaw in the plan. It was cold outside and raining cats and dogs. As I exited the bus at The Divide, I saw fellow passengers getting out of the bus wearing highly sophisticated rain gear — you know, the Goretex jacket, woolen fleece inside, hooded rain jacket, waterproof gloves, etc, etc.

In stark contrast, I was dressed only in my bicycling shorts and tee shirt and shivering like a grandpa. I moaned about my missing luggage at that point (thank you Quantas and Jetstar!) but I told myself that it was time for action, not whining! After all, I knew I had a hidden fashion guru in me. I had to somehow access this hidden fashion genius in me and come up with a creative and fashionable solution. It didn’t take long! Soon, I had a solution that would put all brand names like Solomon, Goretex, etc, etc to shame! Natteri’s ten dollar yellow rubber gloves! (Yes, the kind you use to clean utensils). No, seriously. If you were to get stuck in a remote, hard to access location and had to be spotted by a rescue chopper, which color would the pilot be able to spot better? Bright yellow color gloves that cost 10 bucks to manufacture or some overrated, highly expensive fancy-schmancy Goretex gear costing God know how much. You tell me!

You can order your own pair of gloves from “Natteri’s Mountain-wear for the Pros” for USD 19.99 only. Email iwantmysexygloves@natteri-mountainwear.com to get your gloves delivered today! Btw, in the interest of full disclosure, I will admit one small product defect. As I ran wearing these gloves, I discovered that rain water can easily enter the fingers from the open end of the gloves — they open a little too widely at the other end. When rain water enters this way, it sort of gets stuck inside the gloves. But, not to worry. Natteri’s got an elegant fix. Rubber band! Tying a rubber band around the open end of the gloves while running not only fixes this rainwater issue but also makes the gloves look even sexier.

Look at this handsome guy in this sexy gear!

Oh, I almost forgot — in order to protect the upper body from pouring rain, I used Natteri’s 5-dollar solution to the problem. The magic word is poncho! An attractive blue color, hooded plastic sheet that lets neither wind nor rain through! What an elegant solution! To heck with the Goretex stuff! In simplicity lies effectiveness and in effectiveness lies comfort! To order your blue poncho from Natteri Mountain-wear Ltd, email iwantmysexyponcho@natteri-mouintainwear.com. Only USD 9.99! And, as always, I swear by my products and will readily admit any defect in them. This one still has one small problem. When I was running Maceller Saddle where winds were in excess of 70kmh, this poncho was shredded to pieces by the wind. (I am still working on a fix — rubber band around the body doesn’t work in this case). Subscribe to Natteri’s Mountain Wear newsletter (subsribe@natteri-mountainwear.com) for up-to-date news on these clever inventions.

Top notch trail fashion — puts Armani to shame!

The Caples Track
And so, I set off to run Caples Track dressed in my fashionable rain gear. I got several stares from fellow hikers. They were all probably admiring my fashionable look with a lot of jealousy. I breezed past them and reached Howden Hut in about 45 minutes.

From Howden Hut, I ran all the way to Macellar Saddle. That’s when my blue poncho had to make the ultimate sacrifice. It fought the winds bravely, as best as it could, but given the ultra strong winds plus the rain at 1300m above sea-level, it fell victim to nature’s raw and brutal force and was shredded to pieces by the wind. And so, with my busted upper body protection, I had to rely on only one thing to keep me from hypothermia — speed! I ran over the saddle as fast as I could, while still managing to get a few pictures of the beautiful landscape. I then descended to the much calmer forest zone. Then came several overflowing creeks. I tried tiptoeing around some of them in an attempt to keep my feet dry but then I realized that keeping your shoes and feet dry in Fiordland is like trying to swim without getting wet! It’s called RAINforest for a reason — it gets plenty and plenty of rain! And, it’s stunning! As I was running through the green forest track, the scent of the trail rejuvenated me. I was wishing I could take bottles of that pure, soothing air all the way back to Hong Kong. I felt truly alive! The joy of trail running and being in nature was priceless!

Fresh air and a beautiful forest track!

There were overflowing rivers and creeks and waterfalls everywhere!

Running down the Saddle to prevent hypothermia

This is the Upper Caples Hut

On the way to Mid Capples Hut

New Zealand sheep butt

I eventually reached Mid Caples Hut where the hut warden, a 20-year-old German guy called Nicholas, saw me running from a distance and walked towards me holding an umbrella. “Are you running for any particular reason?” he asked, sounding a little panicked. “Plenty of joy”, I replied which gave him a sense of relief. He was under the impression that there had been some sort of an emergency!

This is Mid Caples Hut

View from Mid Caples Hut – That “location, Location, Location” real-estate mantra applied to mountain huts too!

The hut was located in a spectacular setting overlooking the Caples Valley and the snowcapped mountains in the backdrop. I decided to spend the night there in the company of a Kiwi family and a Scottish girl, who had never left Scotland prior to her New Zealand trip, but had a strong American accent! (She said she didn’t know where she got the American accent from!)

I went to the patio of the hut to read my book on The Everest but the sandflies chased me back inside. So, I got out of my rubber gloves and broken poncho into my “winter gear”, i.e. trousers and Hong Kong 100 jumper) which provoked curiosity in the Scottish girl. “What’s with the rubber gloves?” she inquired. I told her about Natteri’s Mountain Wear shop and, as I expected, she was dazzled by my clever and fashionable inventions!

I then got into my “sleeping bag”, i.e. I wore every piece of clothing item I was carrying. The Kiwi family was amazed at my minimalistic tramping gear. I had my last energy bar for the day (my dinner) before going to bed!

18th December 2012, Back to Te Anau
“Finished packing your nonexistent gear?” asked my Kiwi hut-mate, as I was getting ready to set off on a 35km run back to The Divide. “Yes, the sleeping bag, Goretex gloves, etc, etc are all inside”, I answered, pointing at my light backpack, as I prepared to begin some hardcore running for the day. I had my “breakfast” (read: a glass of water) and took off. I am not sure if it was the rain or my horrible sense of navigation but I got lost several times trying to find my way to the next hut — the Greenstone Hut. I eventually found it in about 90 minutes by which time it stopped raining. A little bit of sunshine (a rare commodity in Fiordland) also managed to sneak its way in through the clouds.

On the way to Greenstone Hut — this trail has an exotic scent

From Greenstone Hut, I ran close to 3 hours to get to the next hut which was called Macellar Hut. I passed through several overflowing creeks and muddy tracks along the way. The views of the open valley energized me as I tried to maintain a consistent running pace. I had to frequently immerse my feet in pools of water which were sometimes muddy and sometimes crystal clear. Each time I would “clean” my shoes by stomping into a puddle of clear water, they would get muddy again at the next swampy junction of the track. It was like a game of hide and seek. Clean.. dirty.. clean.. dirty. Eventually, I decided to just focus on running and stomped my way through all puddles of water, whether clear or muddy!

On the way to Macellar Hut

This is Macellar Hut

I reached The Divide at about 2pm and boarded a Tracknet bus back to Te Anau at 3.15pm. Upon reaching Te Anau, I learnt that the weatherman had some good news waiting for me. The Te Anau -> Milford road was finally open! So, I immediately booked myself onto the next available bus to Milford Sound for the following day and a morning kayaking tour for the day after.

Reaching Howden Hut again — the connection to Routeburn Track

I once again treated myself to a LARGE veggie pizza at a German restaurant in Te Anau to conclude both the Power Bar survival routine and the 53kms of wet running in the past two days.

And before calling it a day, you guessed it, I called the Baggage Services guys –it became a ritual for me to do so each time I was in town– and, once again, they played the same old broken record. “Sorry Sir, we are still in the process of locating your luggage … blah blah blah”. I reflected back on the awesome “no baggage” style trail running I had just done and was overjoyed at the turn out of the events!

19th December 2012, a hitch hiker’s guide to Lake Marian
I was excited about going to Milford Sound in the morning. I originally wanted to run part of the Milford Track — the most famous track in New Zealand, which gained even more fame as several scenes from The Lord of Rings movie was shot on this track. The Milford Track brochure also boasts of several “wow moments” along the “spectacular” 53km track. The track is officially meant to be done in 4 days, starting from a boat ride at Te Anau Downs and ending in Sandfly Point where another boat ride is needed to get to the finish at Milford Sound. Upon reaching Milford Sound, my plan was to somehow get myself on a boat to Sandfly Point and run as much of the track as possible, in reverse, within one day before returning to Sandfly Point and taking a boat back to Milford Sound.

All running and no sleeping makes Vince a sleep-deprived man
I got up at 3am. Not because I wanted to but because the snoring orchestra in my dorm room at YHA Hostel, Te Anau was becoming more than what my ears were capable of handling. I recalled what my bunkmate –a Canadian girl– told me the previous night — “Get earplugs, I am warning you! There’s a dad in the room who snores like nothing you have heard before!” Her stern warning and the way she delivered it, in her no-nonsense manner, gave me the impression that she was speaking from experience — bad experience that is. I should have listened to her. That guy’s snoring felt like someone was blasting noise through a megaphone in the middle of the night! Heck, the guy could have even started an earthquake! Just to be safe, I took all my belongings and exited YHA hostel by 6am!

Nature paints the sky in 7-different colors
As I was walking to the Tracknet bus-stop by the lake side, I stared in awe at nature’s painting in the sky! Two drop-dead gorgeous rainbows arched from one end of the sky to the other! One of the rainbows was bright and vivid while the other one appeared to be fading away. The sun was shining brightly and, simultaneously, the Fiordland clouds were spraying fine drops of rain on the ground. The air was crisp, refreshing and rejuvenating. I could have spent all day admiring that rainbow!

Spectacular rainbow arching from one end of Te Anau to the other

Te Anau is blessed with this kind of scenery 24/7!

Off to the most famous part of South Island — Milford Sound
I hopped onto the bus at 7.15am. Getting into Milford Sound was in itself a unique experience. The place reminded me of a beautiful blend between Guilin in China and the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas. Guilin because the mountains looked as though they were arranged in a natural cascade — each trailing mountain lost a shade of darkness as it was cascaded away. And, on the other side of the landscape, rose jagged snowcapped mountains, similar to the ones that the Himalayas are so famous for. The overall landscape looked majestic and humbling. It demanded a great deal of respect.

I was expecting another township like Te Anau in Milford Sound, but, strangely, the place did not have any stores at all. There was only one lodge called the Milford Sound Lodge which is where I was going to stay.

Views from Milford Sound

I took a walk around Milford Sound after the bus dropped me off at 9am. The place felt much colder than Te Anau and the jagged mountains gave it a bit of a spooky feel. The tourist signs were conspicuous. There were helicopters, scenic flights and luxury cruises buzzing around into the Fiordlands.

I inquired into my Sandfly drop off plan but it was quickly blown to smithereens by everyone I spoke to. They told me that the NZ Government strictly regulates the number of people attempting to walk the Milford Track and that it could only be done the “proper” way, i.e. from Te Anau Downs to Milford Sound and not the other way around.

I was pondering alternative hiking plans but I was told that I needed a car to get to the starting point of those hikes. So, I walked around contemplating how I was going to get a decent hike in for the day. As I climbed a touristy 150m lookout point, my charming looks immediately got noticed by Minzi, a Korean native who was working in Milford Sound and had her day off. Together, we decided to hitchhike to the start of Lake Marian, which was 36kms away from Milford Sound in the direction of Te Anau and The Divide.

Meet Minzi from Korea

A hitchhiker’s guide to Lake Marian
Hitchhiking proved easy! We flagged down a lady who was driving a rental car and she offered us a ride to Hollyford Road, the start of the Lake Marian track. We exchanged life histories during much of the hour long journey before she dropped us off in Lower Hollyford Road. We then walked to the start of the track.

The track initially went along a suspension bridge and then lead to a scenic cascading waterfalls. The water was clear as crystal and had a greenish blue tinge to it. Just looking at it was refreshing. Drinking it felt like I was giving the body a natural made-by-nature magic potion of health.

The stream and the cascade — bluish green water!

After the falls, the track went through a rainforest and then a rubble path which lead to about 800m above sea-level. At a distance, a turquoise lake appeared through the holes in the vegetation.

A tiny glimpse of Lake Marian!

As we walked closer, we had the unique pleasure of witnessing the pristine beauty of Lake Marian. The water appeared in different shades of green, blue and turquoise under the strong sunshine of an azure sky. The famous snowcapped Fiordland mountains surrounded the lake as if they were guarding her beauty. I was once again humbled by the beauty of nature. New Zealand was slowly becoming one of my top destinations for hiking — not only as a country that is truly blessed by Mother Nature, but also, as a country where everyone has a genuine care and appreciation for nature.

Lake Marian — these pictures speak a thousand words!

A “group” photo

Hitchhiking back to Milford Sound wasn’t as easy — it took us about 6 cars before we finally flagged down an Italian traveler who offered us a ride back to Milford Sound. Her car was her home (literally). The backseat of her car was divided into a kitchen zone, a sleeping zone and what not! She was yet another passionate nature adventurist exploring the beauty of New Zealand by car!

The sun shone until about 10.30pm. I wanted to sneak out of my dorm room at Milford Sound Lodge to see a clear star-studded sky in the middle of the night, but ended up having to catch up on some sleep, thanks to the snoring orchestra the previous night.

20th December 2012, What’s the story morning glory?
Snoring, snoring everywhere not a second to sleep!
I woke up (yet again) at 4am in the morning thanks to a different kind of snoring symphony. My bunk-mate, who had a hairstyle that even Slash from Guns N Roses would be jealous of, seemed to be practicing a full-fledged solo snoring symphony. I ended up leaving my bed at 5.30am and promised myself that I’d be armed with earplugs on future stays at backpackers’ hostels. I slipped out of the room feeling a little sleep-deprived but all excited about going kayaking in Milford Sound!

This is Milford Sound Lodge

Goodbye Sandflies! NOW YOU TELL ME! Had I known, I would have bought a tonne!

Rosco’s “morning glory” kayaking tour
Ricky, our friendly Kiwi guide with a part American accent, met us at 6am in the lobby of Miford Sound Lodge. We got into our kayaking suits by 6.30am and headed out to explore Milford Sound in the best way possible — on a Barracuda sea kayak. We timed the weather to perfection. Clear blue sky and plenty of sunshine!

The morning air and views were a treat to the senses. Mitre Peak beckoned from a daunting height. The terrain looked even richer as the strong morning sunshine illuminated the peaks of neighboring mountain ranges.

The morning view from Milford Sound

Shameless self-shot — suited and booted for kayaking

Kayaking is the most fulfilling way to experience this place!

Anthony and Sharon — my kayaking teammates

We got into our sea kayaks and paddled our way to Steel Falls, which put the Niagra Falls to shame, at least in terms of height. Water gushed down from over 50 floors in height and created a massive force of wind as it dropped into the sea. As we paddled closer to the falls, this moist and cold wind blew straight into my face at high speed, instantly rejuvenating me, but my butt almost froze! So, I quickly paddled my way out of it back to the warmth of sunshine.

The Steel Falls

As we continued kayaking, we saw a family of dolphins swimming by the shore. We steered our kayaks towards them as they zoomed past us, making all sorts of dolphin noises!

Kayaking alongside swimming dolphins

We then paddled over to Seal Rock and observed seals playing in the water. A baby seal was desperately trying to climb onto a rock from the sea. Each time she tried jumping up the slippery rock, she slipped right back down into the sea. By the way, there is one thing about seals that I have to tell you. They stink! No kidding — despite spending all that time in the open sea, they really reek! No matter how cute they look, you just don’t want to pet them!

Seal rock!

And the seals…

We kayaked further down into the Tasman sea feeling the true embrace of nature at sea-level! After kayaking close to 20kms for the day, we boarded a high-speed water taxi back to the dock which took all of 20 minutes! Our massive 4-hour kayaking effort in the morning was reduced to a simple 20-minute journey on the way back!

The Tasman sea

Taking a high-speed water taxi back

Driver’s a trail runner too
I boarded a Tracknet bus back to Queenstown at about 2pm and saw the driver sleeping at the back of the bus. He woke up and we were chitchatting for a bit and he told me that he had just been up a treacherous path upto a waterfall. “Take me there!” I said with enthusiasm. “It’s too treacherous, I don’t know if you can handle it”, he countered. I then told him how cool I really was and off we went on a steep and slippery path, gaining almost 200m in a short time. Then, Nevin, the driver, revealed how cool he really was — he took part in the Kepler Challenge and ran the 63kms track in 5 hours and 59 minutes! He was faster than me on the ascent and descent up this “treacherous path” to the waterfalls. But, thankfully, I was hardly a couple of seconds behind him and we finished with a short run back to his bus, sparking curiosity in the waiting passengers! This trail-running connection got me a special seat on the bus all the way back to Queenstown!

Going back to Queenstown after a kick ass running and kayaking trip

Baggage responsibilities
As I arrived in Queenstown at about 7pm, I was wondering whether to get started on filing for compensation with Quantas/Jetstar for my lost baggage. It had already been 7 days and the Baggage Services guys still had no clue where my rucksack was. Although I wanted my rucksack back, deep down inside, I was overjoyed at the 160kms I had run in the past 5 days without the liability of carrying a heavy-duty rucksack on my back! There was no way I could have done that sort of mileage in such a short time while carrying a heavy rucksack on my back. I had the time of my life running along those stunningly beautiful New Zealand tracks.

I dropped into YHA Hostel in Queenstown first and they told me that they had no vacancy. I then decided to go to Bumbles Backpackers again, the place where I spent my first night in Queenstown. As I approached the reception, I heard a familiar voice — that of the receptionist who was there 7 days back when I first arrived.

“Your bag is here!” she exclaimed.

“What? My bag?” I inquired nonplussed.

“Yes!” she said, as she attempted to lift my green rucksack which seemed to be resting by her desk for a long time.

“No way! I called them up this morning and they told me that they were forwarding my case to the claims department. How did it get here? I can’t believe this! Exactly one day before I leave New Zealand…” I rambled on, partly ecstatic upon being reunited with my rucksack and partly incredulous that I actually got it back!

“Well, you don’t have to do any laundry!” she said smiling.

“Yes, that and I had the time of my life running 160kms without a heavy rucksack on my back. The story ends well. You got a spare bed for tonight?” I asked.

“Just one”, came the response as if it was especially reserved for me.

“It’s mine”, I said, as I clutched my heavy-duty rucksack again after 7 whole days!

21st December 2012, All’s well that ends well
I slept like a baby. No snoring orchestra could have woken me up! It was time for my body to rebuild itself after several days of exciting trail running and insufficient sleep.

I got up at a leisurely 8am, checked out of Bumbles Backpackers by 9am and went for a short recovery run by the lake side. Queenstown, although a little commercial, struck me, by far, as one of the friendliest and most beautiful places I have ever stayed at.

Queenstown

Plenty of running tracks and birds around! They sing all the time!

To conclude this action-packed, kick-ass running adventure in New Zealand, I decided to experience, for a change, what it would be like to walk with a heavy rucksack on my back! And so, I decided to walk from my backpackers place all the way to the airport, armed with one light hand-carry backpack AND a heavy-duty rucksack!

Upon reaching the airport in about an hour, I reflected back on my no-baggage style trail running holiday and said a soft “thank you Jetstar for almost losing my baggage” to myself, as I once again checked-in my unused, heavy-duty rucksack back to Melbourne. But, had they lost it yet again…

Concluding my running/kayaking adventure holiday (with my baggage)

The verdict:
The adventure summary
13th December 2012: Arrived in Queenstown and lost rucksack!
14th December 2012: Ran Routeburn Track and reached Te Anau (36kms)
15th/16th December 2012: Ran Kepler Track (63kms)
17th/18th December 2012: Ran Greenstone/Caples Tracks (56kms)
19th December 2012: Reached Milford Sound. Hiked upto Lake Marian
20th December 2012: Kayaked in Milford Sound. Returned to Queenstown
21st December 2012: Recovery run in Queenstown. Flew to Melbourne

Adventure points: a priceless 160kms or so in 5 days!

New Zealand has topped my list of best places to visit for a nature holiday. 160kms in 5 days + kayaking + experiencing one of the most beautiful and friendly places on Earth for a nature holiday — an experience I will never forget! My advice to those who are planning a similar adventure holiday in South Island: carry a light hand-carry backpack, a heavy-duty rucksack and fly JetStar airways. They will temporarily lose your rucksack and you will have the trail running holiday of a lifetime!

Someday, I will be back to run Hollyford Track, Milford Track and climb Mitre Peak and walk upto Fox Glacier. Oh, not to forget spending some time in Stewart Island and Doubtful Sound. And maybe, Wanaka and Dunedin too. And, also, Mount Cook. Oh, before I forget, I also want to ride a motorbike around New Zealand.

Hmmm.. it’s really a beautiful world!


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