Friday, November 20, 2009

Fiordland (NZ part 17)

(NZ part 1 here)

We make camp on the Von River, which flows along next to the road. The stars are bright once again, away from the lights of town, and our usual companion Orion is with us again, upside down from our Northern Hemisphere perspective. And the Southern Cross, new to us. I often search for these few familiar stars before my mind wanders across the other starts.

(Back country in Walter Peak Station - Photo Dan Cantrell)

Our ride starts with a solid climb, ending in a high grassy plain that stretches out before us almost without end it seems. We make good time, riding side by side again in the compressed tire tracks. We stop at Mavora Lake, as a possible camp spot, but the sand flies descend on us, and we waste no time getting back on the road. After more gravel, we hit the main road into Te Anau, and turn right. The sun is setting ahead of us and storm clouds are caught on the hills around the town. Down a small access road 20 km out of Te Anau we pitch our tents and wash the dust and sweat off in a dipping hole. I wake in the night to rain, just enough to pull the rain fly closed, then drift back into sleep. At breakfast I snap my spoon trying to extract a sand fly from my oat meal.

We ride into Te Anau through the rain, and arrive at a Backpacker by mid day. Renting a room seems like the best option for drying our gear and preparing for a potentially wet trip with no supplies up to Milford Sound. The next day, with our food bins fully packed we head north on Highway 94 for the 240 km round trip.

On the sealed road surface, with no headwind, we make good time. Highway 94 runs along the east side of Lake Te Anau for about 30 km, through farm land and low scrub that has a look of a recovering burn, and through an occasional forest. Looking across the lake, large bays cut into the mountains and forests. Black Cone, Dana Peaks, Hewitt Peaks, Turret Peaks, Mount Kane, and Castle Mountain rise above the lake and into the clouds. Then End Peak and Mount Eglinton separate us from the Lake, and we ride in a valley flanked by jagged peaks on both sides. Occasionally a tour bus roars past, with a few passengers sitting in the front seat, reminding me of people sitting in front of large screen televisions, watching the landscape rush past but cut off from it so profoundly by a quarter inch of glass.

(Riding toward Milford Sound - Photo Dan Cantrell)

The forest builds, and at times we ride fully enclosed in a dense green tunnel of ferns and possibly a type of beach. The forest is so lush and the trees so large, at times five feet in diameter or bigger, I am reminded of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. And then we slip out of the forest into a breathtaking flat, golden grasses waving in the ebb of the breeze. The peaks rise up one- two-thousand feet, so steep vegetation can hardly cling to the rocky surface, and slides can be seen all along the valley. The Eglinton River runs towards us, weaving back and forth across the golden flat. Soon we are back in the magical forest, and we climb past lakes and streams in an overgrown Adirondack scene. I crest The Divide from the Eglinton to the Hollyford Valley and am struck again by this landscape of mountains and rivers. The Hollyford River descends to the coast heading north in front of us, and the road turns west through the Darran Mountains to Milford Sound.

We make camp for the night near a fork in the road, where a side road descends down the Hollyford Valley. I think repeatedly about where that road leads, my consciousness is pulled in a way that is hard to explain or even comprehend, so strong that I still feel the pull of that valley nearly ten years later. Maybe it was the force of gravity and water, sleeping among these fastest of rising mountains, with the open seas below, colliding with the Hollyford River in a spectacular dance of sand and froth. Or maybe it was that same pull that every traveller feels when looking down a road that heads into the unknown, magnified by the magic in the mountains.

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