Queenstown

After hearing reviews from my fellow friends and travelers, I had written off Queenstown as a place to be avoided due to its moniker of resort-studded, tourist filled, adrenaline capital of the world. Now I’m all for a good adventure, but you’d have to pay me money to sky dive or bungee jump (the latter was even invented in Queenstown), or basically do anything that involves voluntarily throwing yourself out or off of something and into the great abyss. But once I got past all the shiny signs for expensive jumps and dives and other heart-pumping activities, Queenstown felt comfortable, homey, and offered up some of the best (and free) views and hikes I had seen yet in New Zealand.

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A stranger enjoys the view from Queenstown Hill

But I must confess. The main reason for going to Queenstown was to use it as a base to explore Fiordland’s Milford Sound, touted by Rudyard Kipling as the eighth wonder of the world, and get to the start of the Routeburn Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

First things first. I read today that Seattle averages about three feet of rain annually. Fiordland gets over 20. I’m not positive that those statistics are correct, but the point is–this is a wet, wet place and it’s very rare to see Milford Sound (which is actually a fiord) on a cloud-free day. So I couldn’t be too disappointed when I woke up to rain and a gloomy cover of clouds on the day of my Milford Sound bus tour. At four or five hours from Queenstown, the Sound is definitely an off-the-beaten-path place. But, as I discovered, the journey is as good, if not better, than the destination.

Violet and lavender lupins lined the road, wild and vibrant enough to make Miss Rumphius proud. Rivers and streams so clear they could conceal no secrets of slimy bottoms are the norm in New Zealand, but those in Fiordland take “crystal clear” to a new level. The bus pulled over near an alpine stream where we were told that if we didn’t get out and fill our water bottles, we’d be missing out on some of the world’s purest water. It tasted so clean and clear it surely must be medicinal. Another pit stop en route to Milford introduced me to the Kea bird, an alpine parrot that, with the brain capacity of a three-year-old child, is the one of the smartest birds in the world. They’re also very curious and a bit naughty. Rumor has it that Keas like to steal things from unsuspecting tourists’ cars–including windshield wipers–while they gawk at their surroundings.

After seeing all of this, I would have been happy to turn around and call it a day, but Milford Sound was finally in sight. My tour included a cruise through the fiord, and although it was certainly majestic, I found it hard to appreciate the awesomeness amidst all the other tourists. Milford Sound had been at the top of nearly every “Top things to see and do in New Zealand” list I had come across, and I couldn’t help being a bit disappointed. I imagine that if I had stumbled across it on my own without the distractions of other clicking cameras and loudspeaker-ed commentary from the boat, I would have felt differently. I’m glad I saw it, but it’s not going at the top of my list.

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My day trip to Milford Sound was long and exhausting, but I had to suck it up because the next day took me to the Routeburn Track where I’d be backpacking for three days and two nights. And of course, it was raining. By the time I made it to my first campsite, I was soaked to the bone–and so was my sleeping bag and tent, despite the supposedly waterproof covers I had on both. Thankfully, the hut ranger took pity on me and I had a nice, toasty bunk in the cabin to recover for the night. Eventually the clouds began to peel away and the sun made a brief appearance. Lake MacKenzie hut is in a stunning location. All the rain and clouds and lack of views were worth it to see this after a long day of hiking:

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It didn’t last long, though. The next morning brought back the clouds and precipitation. I had to take flood routes around waterfalls and still managed to get soaked all the way through again. I was cursing my $20 department store rain jacket for not even making an effort to do its job. But someone up there was looking out for me, because at the highest point on the trail, after looking out into a thick fog all morning, I started to see snow-covered alps peeking through the clouds.

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I spent the last night of the trip at what is perhaps the world’s most epic campsite. A deserted and flat green field with a stream, green mountains, snowy alps, a waterfall, and–my tent. I would do it all again just for this.

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