Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. Or it gets you there, anyway. If someone had told me about the thunder and lightning, the wind and rain, the wading through creeks, navigating fields of tussock, and the climbs through forests too close to vertical, I never would’ve made the hike to Green Lake our family’s first overnight tramp in New Zealand. I would’ve stayed home and waited for better weather, or maybe never made the trip at all.
Good judgment can lead a person astray, and foolhardiness is sometimes your best friend.
It seemed easy during the planning stages. The map said it was a three-hour hike from the Borland Road to the Green Lake hut, a perfect starter tramp for eleven-year-old Cedar and nine-year-old Leif, whose parents have brought them up to expect an occasional hike as the price they pay for things like water slides and ice cream. The weather report was a little scary, but unclear. It said it would be sunny in Tuatapere and pouring rain in Te Anau. The Green Lake track is right in between.
We got a late start, leaving Tuatapere at noon on Saturday. The Borland Road took us on a winding path through a gorge of sheer cliffs and steep beech forest, an awe-inspiring drive marred slightly by the power lines coming from the Manapouri Power Station. The power station generates electricity from an underground tunnel 200 meters below the lake and leading to the ocean. The station was created following protests in the 1960s that halted plans for a dam that would’ve raised the level of Lake Manapouri. Taking into account that the tunnel saved the lake, those power lines don’t look so bad.
About 28 km from the highway, the road reaches Borland Saddle, where a trail leads to the mountain tops and a viewpoint tells the story of the Green Lake landslide. A couple kilometers after the road starts down the other side of the saddle, we found the sign marking the start of the Green Lake trail.
Two hikers, a man and a woman, were sitting by the small A-frame building at the beginning of the trail. Mud covered their legs from the knee down. We asked them how the trail was. “The signs give the distance to the old hut,” the woman said. “The new hut is another twenty minutes on, so it’ll take you about three-and-a-half hours.” She glanced at the kids. “Or maybe longer.” That would put us there at dusk. No margin for error.
The man said, “You’ll get a bit wet. Up to about here.” He chopped at his ankles, but the mud told a different story. He looked at my tennis shoes and frowned. “There’s a wee book in the bivvy. You might want to sign in. You know, in case you get lost.”
The kids and the tennies apparently made him skeptical about our tramping ability. We weren’t too concerned. Diane and I have each spent about a year of our lives in tents, and hiked hundreds of miles on trails and off, often with just a map and compass. A three-hour hike was nothing.
Well, the first half hour, anyway. After descending through a forest of huge craggy beech trees on a glowing carpet of moss, we hit a steep hill that dropped sharply toward a field of grass, which they call “tussock” here in New Zealand. The tussock grass grows in clumps that rise a couple feet off the ground. The base of the clump is thick and hard and sticks out a few inches above the ground. If the ground is wet, you can try to step on the tussocks and fall off. If it’s dry, you can try to step between them and trip. In most places, it’s so thick that you can’t see the ground, which sometimes drops off without warning. It’s an ankle sprain waiting to happen.
The thunder started as we headed downhill in the rocky bed of an intermittent stream winding through the grasses and shrubs. Each of us tripped a couple times in hidden holes. When the ground leveled out, we had to hop a few streams. They announced their presence with loud gurgling and babbling that we couldn’t hear until we were nearly on top of them.
By the time we had crossed this first tussock field, it had begun to sprinkle, and our legs were now soaked from brushing against the wet tussock. For some reason, the kids were still in high spirits. Maybe it was the fact that they were allowed to get their feet wet without their parents yelling at them.
After the first tussock was a long, relatively flat hike through another beech forest. Leif, who was in the lead during this stretch, scared off a bird that he later identified, with the help of our pocket bird guide, as a weka. It’s a chicken-like bird (actually a rail) that used to be common in the Fiordland bush, but like nearly all birds it’s suffered from the introduction of Australian possums and Europeans weasels, which they call “stoats” here. Folks we talked to at the end of the tramp said wekas are common pests in some areas of the country.
We came to another field of tussock that stretched about a kilometer to another forest. By this time, the rain was steady, but aside from a knee-deep creek we had to wade, the walking was easier, or maybe we had just gotten used to weaving through the tussock to find the best trail. We entered the woods again and were soon at the junction of the track to Island Lake and the Clarke Hut. The sign said one hour to Green Lake Hut, but we knew that actually meant an hour and twenty minutes to the new hut. By this time, the kids were noticeably tired, and the hardest part of the hike was still ahead of us.
Shortly after the junction, we crossed a creek that ran through the forest. On the other side was a 45-degree hill with no summit in sight. The orange trail markers pointed straight up. Nothing to do but climb.
Cedar started groaning and collapsing every few meters, and Leif said he couldn’t carry his pack any farther, so Dad took over. Diane had the brainstorm of telling Cedar that she could go first, which always gives her energy. We took a lot of breaks for candy (“lollies,” they call it here), and in about a half hour we had reached the summit of the saddle. From there, a longer but more gradual hill brought us down to Green Lake. We stopped and took it in, a breathtaking sight, a mile of water surrounded by high ridges, with snow-capped peaks visible through the valleys. Getting soaked never felt so good.
The old Green Lake hut, a small A-frame with three bunks, was run down and dirty, and we hoped the new hut would be an improvement.
Another sign pointed us in the direction of the hut, saying the trail followed the beach. Even though we were tired and ready to be done, this was the highlight of the hike. The gravel beach paralleled a tussock field that sloped gently from the ridge tops. On the other side of the lake were beech forests rising to sheer cliffs and snowy mountains. Cedar, knowing the end was near, had enough energy to skip on ahead. I tried to keep up, while Diane and Leif took their time behind. At each bend, we thought we’d see the hut, and finally, after the fourth or fifth “false peak,” so to speak, there it was, in the shadow of a beech forest that stretched up to the bush line and a ridge top with patches of snow.
In some cases, “hut” seems a misnomer. This was one of them. The Green Lake hut is brand new, christened in April of 2006. It sleeps 12 on a huge bunk bed – six side-by-side on the bottom, and six on top. There’s a long table, a wood stove, and a stainless steel counter for food preparation. Outside is a sink with running water, collected in a cistern by a gutter system on the roof of the hut. A short boardwalk leads to the “long drop” or outhouse.
We were the only ones there, and since it was nearly dark, we figured we’d have the place to ourselves. The kids started building a fort out of mattresses on the top bunk, while Diane lit the fire and I started cooking. After supper and cocoa and a game of cards, we went to bed to the rumble of thunder and flash of lightning. It rained most of the night, but I finally woke up to a sky full of stars, and it turned out to be a promise of a good day ahead.
We relaxed away the morning and headed out at noon, taking our time and arriving back at the car at 4 p.m. The highlight of the hike out was a visit from a kea, a wild native parrot, when we stopped for lunch in the woods. The bird swooped through the treetops and perched about 15 feet above our heads. Keas are a common sight to New Zealanders. They’ve been known to tear apart backpacks and even cars collecting food and trinkets. To us Yanks, only a month in the country, it was exciting to see such a bird in the middle of the woods. It made us imagine an earlier time when the forest was full of strange flightless birds like kiwis and kakapos and giant moas, which were taller than ostriches and weighed a thousand pounds. Most of those birds are extinct or endangered, a sad testament to the unintentional blundering of human beings.
The beauty of the place doesn’t let negative thoughts linger. On the hike out, when the kids were running ahead, Diane stopped to show me a mountain peak through the beeches. “I’m totally stoked about this,” she said, meaning our whole New Zealand adventure in general, and tramping in Fiordland in particular. I knew it was true, because I’d never heard her use the word “stoked” before.
The Green Lake track made us both search for new words. Makes me feel like being speechless again next weekend.