“Have a good day,” Lettie’s grandmother said. It sounded like an order.
Lettie paused on the doormat to consider this. “What is that?” she asked. “What is a good day?”
Her grandmother nodded with approval. “Now that’s the right question,” she said. “And since you asked the right question, I will tell you the right answer. A good day is bathing in two different lakes either side of climbing a mountain.”
Lettie liked the sound of this. “But I’m going to school,” she said.
Her grandmother’s smile was mischief and joy. “Maybe,” the old woman replied.
- Blue Gulls Fly (2019)
Let’s start with the worst bit. Fiordland’s bugs live up to all the legends that spill from travellers’ mouths as they fall pock-marked out of the fjords, clawing at themselves as if in the throes of epilepsy or modern interpretative dance. This far from civilisation, bugs rule the lands, with mosquitoes, midges and sandflies combining Transformers-style to form a frenetic miasma of fiery pain. Mosquitoes are tough to kill, while sandflies are slow and dull, but bites from the latter are much, much worse. You feel them happen in real time, and by the time you’ve slapped the life out of the offending insect, it’s already too late. Over the next couple of days, the small welt causes you an intense, persistent itch that genuinely hurts and rarely relents. By the time you leave Fiordland, it looks like you accidentally stuck your hands and feet in a tub of chicken pox.
Gargantuan, pristine Fiordland straddles the west coast of NZ’s South Island. It’s almost entirely inaccessible to casual tourists, and largely out of reach even for the hardened tramper. Doubtful Sound, the second most reachable sound, still requires a bus, a boat, another bus, another boat and a lot of money just to reach its entrance. Fortunately Milford Sound can be reached by car, down the single artery road that begins in the picturesque town of Te Anau and traverses the edge of Fiordland National Park. This is the part of Fiordland that most people see, and it will have to be part of my future plans to venture further into this bewitching unknown.
The scenery here is unlike that in any other part of the country. Deep lakes sink below jagged mountain forest, and the road winds through grassy plains hemmed in by walls of sheer cliff. At the end of the track is the highlight of any tourist’s Fiordland itinerary, the majestic Milford Sound, but the journey there is full of rewards for those who have time to take it slow. Molly and I spend three nights in Fiordland campsites: there’s no petrol, no phone signal, no hot or treated water. We cook at sunset on the shores of lakes, toasting marshmallows on the Trangia flame. We wash in cling-film water beneath striking vistas of stone and sky, and everything we drink is boiled from the lakes as well. We ascend Key Summit, the start of the famous Routeburn Track, and look down on green and distant valleys. Despite the steady flow of tourists, it’s remote and solitary and often silent.
Fiordland is well-known for its rainy weather, so we’re lucky to have three days that are completely dry, though a thick cotton mist settles over the hills every morning like a colossal grey throw. It makes for moody, atmospheric dawns, perfect for huddling in one’s sleeping bag, and definitely not perfect for going swimming at 7am, unless you’re trying to win a bet.
Nevertheless, it turns out that Lettie’s grandmother is right. A good day really is bathing in two different lakes either side of climbing a mountain.
Snapshots of NZ
P.S. I made up the book excerpt at the start, because WHY NOT.