Fiordland Great Walk Goodness

Fastpacking: Going slightly further, faster and lighter than tramping.

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New Zealand has such a vast and varied landscape that they have 9 “Great Walks” highlighting the best they have to offer. These are amazingly well maintained by the Department of Conservation and are hugely popular with kiwis and tourists alike. Over my 4.5 years in the country I’d ticked off 4 of the 9 and was keen to do some more before I headed off.

Three of the ones I was missing are all in the Fiordland National Park, tucked in the south west corner of NZ – kingdom of the sandflies. Each one was advertised as a 3 or 4 day walk, so thus came the challenge of trying to fit them in to a shorter (but still enjoyable) time… A week maybe?

Video of the trip: https://youtu.be/MuJ6f6ThS6s

Day 1 – 53.5km

The Milford Track was the most logistically challenging. DOC have the lottery on when people arrive at the track by boat, and the earliest they could have us get there would be 2 or 3pm… Not really long enough to run 53.5km and catch our boat at 6pm. So after a bit of research we found Wings and Water, a float plane who would happily take us to the track as early as we liked. Awesome.

As our pilot Ivan said, looking at the floats we were a bit heavy each with our 10kg bags full of 3 days of supplies. But after a bit of effort and sweet talking from Ivan (to the plane) we were off and away. Such an exciting way to start a week of running.

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The Milford Track is spectacular. Starting by winding along side a river through the bush, before opening up in to a valley with massive glacial mountains towering above us. We all had to keep remembering to stop and look up, and every time we did we were awe struck.

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There’s a solid climb up to the McKinnon pass, named after the first explorer to track the tourist route in to Milford Sound in 1888. After the climb we were rewarded with amazing views over the whole valley, who knew white clouds and grey mountains could be so beautiful.

As we came down the other side we started to catch up with more walkers who were all stunned we were running the track in one day. The clouds parted and the blue skies made the mountains even more spectacular. It was quite tough running down hill here so a bit slow going, and we were all kind of knackered by the time we reached the third hut. We had 18km to do in 3 hours to catch our boat.. should be doable.

I ran with my brother for the most part, but I don’t think we actually said more than 5 words to each other the whole way. My eyes in the picture below reveal the pain I was in I think. I had totally ran out of energy, the 10kg packs making the 50km a whole new challenge.

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We made it to Sandfly point just in time and enjoyed the 5 min Rossco  boat ride in to Milford Sound. We’d booked in to the backpackers at Milford Lodge so all enjoyed indulging in local beers, hair washing and a hot dinner.

Day 2 – 7.5km

After all sleeping for about 10 hours we had a very slow and chilled morning drinking coffee and playing cards. We were relying on public transport to get us to the start of the Routeburn Track and our traknet bus wasn’t until 2.30pm, a welcome rest after yesterday.

The rain cleared by the time we reached The Divide and we had a sunny 3.5km wander uphill to Lake Howden hut where we were going to stay the night. We arrived in good time so decided to drop our packs and have a run up and around Key Summit. The views up there are amazing and it felt so fun to be playing around without our packs on.

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Day 3 – 29km

We were again relying on public transport, so we had to finish the rest of the Routeburn and catch our bus at 2pm from the shelter car park. We started early, and although it was dark and rainy the trail was still really fun to run. We were all grateful for the lack of wind which would have made it a lot more unpleasant.

We reached the first saddle without too much effort but were surrounded by thick cloud, only giving us teases of the mountain vista we could be having. We pushed on along the ridgeline to Harris Saddle, enjoying the terrain and atmospheric surroundings.

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It was rewarding to reach the shelter below conical hill, and we met a couple of local runners here who were stoked we were enjoying the track. After refuelling on the standard salami sticks and pretzels, we pushed on down the hill to make sure we caught our bus.

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The sun came out as we turned in to Routeburn Valley and the views were pretty incredible. Cue a few staged shots for my video 😉 we wound our way down the hill, meeting a few day walkers and running in to some friendly faces from Wellington.

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After bandaging up a fellow runner who’d fallen on some rocks and cut his hand, we reached the bottom and as usual I totally lost motivation to run along the flat. We had 90 minutes or so to do the 7 or 8km so I slowed right down and enjoyed the forest. The Routeburn is such an awesome day run and I reckon the race (Routeburn Classic) would be such a cool event.

Day 4

We had a decent bus trip back to Te Anau from the Routeburn, not arriving at the camp ground til after 7pm. So after a celebratory BBQ and beers, we all crashed out and enjoyed a lie in the following day. We’d planned a rest day to restock and recover, so spent it reading, playing cards and eating pies from Miles Better Pies in Te Anau.

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Day 5 – 32km

Time for our third and final Great Walk to complete the Fiordland Adventure. We had booked in to Iris Burn hut on the Kepler Track, pretty much exactly half way along. This meant we could choose which direction to run depending on the weather.

As we packed up the tent in the rain, we all agreed we should run through the bush on the first day, and save the tops for the better weather forecast on our final day.

We had (another) slow start and set off along the track around midday. We decided 60km wasn’t enough and walked to the control gates from the camp ground, adding an extra 7km or so round trip. It rained pretty consistently til we reached the hut, but again no wind meant it wasn’t too unpleasant. There were some fun switch backs up and down, but in general just some standard, beautiful NZ bush. Perfect place to be on a rainy day.

Day 6 – 28km

We didn’t have a bus to catch, but some of the others had real life to get back to so again we set off for an early start from the hut. From Iris Burn, there’s a steady climb for about 4km until you come above the bushline. Reaching the ridge in the early morning sun was pretty special, especially having the track to ourselves for the first few hours.

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We took it slow, soaking up the sunshine and the views and taking it all in before it would too quickly be over. The 15km or so along the tops of the Kepler Track has got to be one of my favourite ever runs; amazing mountains and lakes, glorious single track trails and smiles from everyone along the way.

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After Luxmore Hut we said goodbye to the mountains and headed in to the bush again. My running style became more and more penguin like as the 150kms with a 10kg pack caught up with me, but the smile wasn’t fading. We all gathered at Brod Bay campsite before the last 5km back to the control gates to finish off the week.

Holy moly, what an experience. New Zealand is such an incredible country and now I’ve definitely got a little corner of my heart reserved for Fiordland. Thanks to the Department of Conservation for looking after the trails (and the trampers and runners) and to the boys for keeping me company this week!

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The road goes forever on and on.. but where to next??

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