Chronicles of a 21st century naturalist.


The Milford Sound Track

timeline: 4 days (3 nights)

distance traveled: 53.5 kilometers

elevation change: 950 meters

maximum elevation: 1,154 meters

itinerary: car park at Te Anau Downs -> catamaran ride to Glade Warf -> Clinton Hut -> wetland board walk -> Mintaro Hut -> McKinnon Pass -> Dumpling Hut -> Sand Fly Point -> boat to Milford Sound visitor’s center

the crew: Tom Nelson and Sarah Nelson

milford sound

Fiordland National Park is located in Southland, on the south west coast of the South Island. It is the largest of the national parks at 12,500m^2. It’s name derives from a number of deep fiords that were carved out by glaciers in past ice ages.

Located in Fiordland National Park, the Milford Sound Track has much to offer. From New Zealand’s largest water fall to snow dusted alpine cairns, there is a reason it is the countries most popular track. My father and sister came down for a 22 day visit and this was the final stop on the itinerary (I wanted to make sure they would sleep well on the plane). In the end we agreed this was the most physically demanding thing any of us had done. We where happy to have gone through it together.

milford sound 2

Overview of the trip. Day 1 is shown in red (5 km). Day 2 is shown in yellow (16.5 km). Day 3 is shown in turquoise (14 km). Day 4 is shown in purple (18 km).

The first day consisted of a short boat ride and a short walk. As the boat approached the beginning of the track on Lake Te Anau we were able to get some great views of the rocky hills shrouded in mist. We were happy to see anything as Fiordland is notorious for it’s rainfall – more than 200 days a year with 6,800 mm annually on average. Once we reached the track it was a short walk  through beech forest to the Clinton Hut. On the way we stopped to check out a bog board walk that had some cool plants. The weather was great – almost no rain.


The view from the boat on Lake Te Anau as we approached the trail head. Fiordland is overcast 2 out of every 3 days on average. This climate is driven by predominantly south westerly winds blowing up from Antarctica. The ocean air is moist, and as it rises over the mountains it loses density subsequently dropping it’s moisture on the land below.

The second day is decent length with a slight incline, all the while following the Clinton River up its course. The track begins in beech forest, and shifts towards more scrub as you gain elevation. As you head deeper into the valley the rock faces rise high around you, providing some much needed existential perspective and many waterfalls. Mintaro Hut is located at the head of the river, and has a porch overlooking the surrounding mountains peaks. Again we got lucky with only light showers.


Ferns (pteridophytes) are an ancient group of plants thought to have originated during the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era 360 million years ago. Their vascular tissue set them apart from the plants that came before them, and reproduction through spores and frond leaf architecture set them apart from plants that came after.

The third day was the most arduous. Although short in distance, this is the day you must hike up and over McKinnon Pass. The track starts with a great deal of switch backs, with the vegetation shifting to subalpine with numerous buttercups and daisies. It started snowing as we approached the top, and the snow covered flowers and grass fields provided some unexpectedly beautiful white scenes as we were buffeted by wind. At the top we stopped for a much needed break and some hot coffee. The decent was not any easier – it was steeper as well as wet and slippery. There is a side track that takes you to see Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. Once we made it down the rest of the walk is nice and flat until you reach Dumpling Hut. With some snow and wind on top of the pass and some showers as we descended we had a decent day for tramping.


A snow dusted cairn near the McKinnon Pass. These ponds occupy amphitheater shaped depressions once occupied by glaciers. The large ice mass sculpted and depressed the hard granite, which now holds the water like a large rock bowl.

The final day is a nice flat hike out to the boat pick up location. The track follows the Arthur River down the valley through more beech forest. The trail cuts through some cool rock passages, has a few bridges, and some real cool boardwalks. Only on the final day did we feel the true power of Fiordland precipitation. With heavy rain starting early in the morning, we were soaked through before tea time. However, the water added greatly to the experience. The valley walls were littered with waterfalls – literally too many to count. I had a hard time seeing them through my glasses, but it was worth it.


So many waterfalls!

We were happy to get inside and warm up/dry off after the trip. Once in Te Anau we went straight to a cafe, had a big feed, and chugged some beer. After that, spontaneous road trip back to Dunners! Their flight home was the next day. Overall, the trip was a major success – the family bonded over the four days and we all came out super fit. It was also the first time I organized a trip by myself which was a good challenge. We are hoping to do another family expedition in the not too distant future!


Midwest family getting damp in the NZ bush.

Milford Sound Track is New Zealand’s most popular great walk for a good reason. The scenery, vegetation, and experience are worth the effort and money. It is of moderate difficulty so anyone who has been on a few other tracks should have no problems with this one.



See you on the trails,




Gillespie Pass Curcuit

timeline: 3 days (2 nights)

distance traveled: 46 kilometers

elevation change: 1,329 meters

maximum elevation: 1,629 meters

itinerary: Blue Pools -> Young River Mouth -> Young Hut -> Gillespie Pass -> Siberia Hut -> Wilkin River confluence -> jet boat to Makarora

the crew: Sonny Falco and Johannes Mosig


I went on my fourth New Zealand tramp January 13th-15th in Mount Aspiring National Park. The track is called the Gillespie Pass Circuit which included some beautiful, but challenging, terrain.

mount aspiring national park

Mount Aspiring National Park is in the South central part of the South Island of  New Zealand, in the West Coast Region. The park was the 10th created, established in 1964. It also contains the Matukitui Valley, Routburn, and Rees-Dart tracks.


The track begins North of Makarora, heads south along the Makarora River, follows the Young River up into the Young Valley, ascends the ridge and passes through Gillepie pass, descends into the Siberia Valley following the Siberia River, and then heads into the Wilkens Valley. From there you can either hike back into town or catch a boat ride back.

Gillespie Pass Track

The route of the Gillespie Pass Circuit. Day 1 is in red. Day 2 is in purple. Day 3 is in blue. Due to weather contraints we were unable to visit Lake Crucible, and took a jet boat back to town a day early.


Day 1 (red): We started at the Blue Pools scenic area, just North of Makarora , where the track is adjacent to sheep/cow farms and has mostly open grasslands with lots of invasive species. Once you get close to the Young Valley entrance the vegetation shifts to silver beech [Nothofagus menziesii] forest. Elevation is slowly gained as you travel to Young Hut. Sun was out all day.


The legendary Blue Pools. The blue color is created by “glacial flour” in the water. These minute rock particles are created by the grinding action of glaciers against rock, and reflect light while they are suspended in the water.


Day 2 (purple): The day begins heading further up the Young Valley. Elevation is more quickly gained here and the vegetation quickly shifts to subalpine with Hebes, small tussocks, daisies, and buttercups abounding. The track takes a steep incline as it heads up the East face of Mount Awful and up to Gillespie Pass. The top is truly alpine with mat plants and lichen throughout. From the Pass there is a great view of the surrounding mountainscape. The descent has a much lower grade and passes through another subalpine zone with more Chinochloa, Dracophyllum, and Aciphylla. The final leg of the long day is walking though an open grass meadow along Siberia River to Siberia Hut. Mostly sunny with some clouds during the early afternoon.


The view from the pass wasn’t too bad.


Day 3 (blue): An easy day from Siberia Hut to the jet boat pick up area begins with more open meadow. Soon though, you are back in the silver beech forest until you reach the Siberia-Makoroa River confluence. We got picked up by a jet boat from there back into town. RAIN.


A wild weevile [Curculionidae] was spotted. The beetles mouth is located at the end of the snout, which it uses to bore into the seeds, wood, stems, roots, or leaves of plants that it eats.

All in all, the track has awesome mountain views, cool vegetation, and a good cardio workout to offer and I highly recommend it. However, the track can be treacherous especially under poor weather conditions and thus earns the “Experienced Trampers Only” categorization from the Department of Conservation for a reason. Choose a few days with nice weather for this one.



German on the ridge line.


Norwegian in the natural habitat.

See you on the trails,




Caples – Greenstone Loop

I finally had my first real life NZ tramping experience! It was awesome, and I hope there are many more to come. In this spirit, I have created a new post series titled “Track Trek” where I will be providing summaries of all my tramps [edit – new tag is just “Camping”]. For those of you not from New Zealand tramping is equivalent to hiking, not what you think it is.

My first tramp was on the Caples – Greenstone loop. It took 4 days (07-04-15 to 10-04-15) during which we traveled a total of 57.5 km (35.7 miles) with a 671 m (2,200 ft)vertical accent/descent. I went with two of my office mates and an Australian visitor.

Caples-Greenstone overall

The overall path taken for my trek. Dots represent huts where we spent the night and lines indicate paths traveled each day.

The track is located in the Fiordlands National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive from Dunedin, but well worth the trip. The park is located in a mountain range that spans most of the western coast of the southern island. This range is formed through subductive action of the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, which New Zealand straddles. These mountains were then carved out by glaciers during the last ice age, which gives them their distinctive topographical features such as deep river basins and moraine wetlands.

Dunedin vs Fiordlands

The southern tip of Ne Zealand’s southern island. The two pins represent Dunedin, where I live, and the Caples-Greestone Track.

On the first day we meet up in the early morning, got a tall take away cuppa coffee, and started our journey with a short road trip. After pleasant drive through the scenic countryside, we hiked into the first hut at 8.4 km in. The Department of Conservation maintains many huts around New Zealand. The are minimalist trail houses with running water, wood burning stove, counter space for cooking, tables for eating, and bunks.

Caples-Greenstone day1

The trail taken the first day is indicated by the pink line. The trail starts on a field edge and gradually climbs up the valley wall into the beech forest.


An example of one of the huts maintained by the Department of Conservation. For only NZ$15 this could be your home for the night.

On the second day we hiked 20.2 km as well as most of the vertical as we traveled to McKeller Hut from Mid-Caples Hut. Most of the hike was though beech forest, though there was a substantial area of alpine bog as we traversed McKeller Saddle. This was by far the most intense day of hiking and I was worn by the end of it. I also got some nice blisters.

Caples-Greenstone day2

The trail traveled the second day is indicated by the red line. This trail starts in the beech forests, which transitions into a podocarp – broad leaf mixed forest as you climb the mountain. The peak of the pass is an alpine bog, which turns back into beech forest during the steep decent and around the lakes.


The top of the McKellar saddle (or mountain pass) at 996m above sea level. The area is dominated by alpine bog vegetation.

On the third day we hiked to Mid-Greestone Hut from McKellar hut, a total of 18.1 km. We had some stunning views as we walked past some lakes, and even managed to take a swim at the beach. Most of the hike was beech forest. We were able to see many green basalt rock formations from which the track gets its name. Those stones are precious to the native Maori culture and are often worn as ornaments.

Caples-Greenstone day3

The path traveled day 3 is indicated by the blue line. This trail starts as in the beech forest and opens up into field as you enter the valley bottom.


The trail descends to the valley floor and follows the river down the valley.

On day four we traveled to the car park from Greenstone Hut (10.8 km). Most of this was in the valley basin where we were able to see many sheep and rivers. We also saw many fungi growing in the wet soil. It was an easy and relaxing final day to an awesome trip.

Caples-Greenstone day4

The trail taken day 4 is indicated by the green line. The trail follows the river.


The native Matagouri tree in open field habitat.


Native beech forest along the river banks.

In conclusion, my first tramp was rad as. It was one of the coolest things I’ve done since being in NZ and I can’t wait for the next one! Who wants to go with me?