Saturday 22 February 2020

Gunns Bush & Milford Sound- Fiordland National Park

Catch-up (Milford Road, Sept 2019)  

The Lake Gunn Nature Walk, a 45 minute loop track beside the DOC camp at Cascade Creek, should be on every Milford Road visitor's itinerary. It's a magnificent stand of beech forest bordered by Lake Gunn, the Eglinton River, Cascade Creek Camp & the Milford Road.

It is oozing in mystical charm, with layers and layers of emerald green mosses and lichen smothering the forest floor, dripping from the overhead branches and inching up the trunks of the beech trees...

The bush and surrounding mountains were used in the Misty Mountain scenes from Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings- The Fellowship of the Ring. 

These photos were taken from the track on various days (hence the light difference in some)

Areas closer to the camp are more open, they have less windfall because campers are allowed to use fallen trees for firewood in the camp fire pits. 

I love the intricate patterns and beautiful colours of the lichen that cling to some of the smaller trucks & branches.

Gunn's Bush is also teeming in birdlife, but as is the case in any of our native forests, you have to be patient (and very quiet) if you want to not only hear the bird song but see the birds up close. Although that doesn't usually apply to the South Island Bush Robin who will introduce himself by silently gliding in when you're not looking. If you rough up the leaf litter or turn over a rotten log he'll be your new best friend.

Aside from the usual suspects; Robins, Riflemen, Tomtits, Brown Creepers, Grey Warblers and several non endemic birds, we briefly saw for the first time, several Kakariki/Yellow Crowned Parakeet. These noisy parakeets usually spend their time in the upper canopy of the forest so it was a thrill to see them down near the ground, if only for a few moments.

You'll have to excuse my bird photos, many of them were taken at the end of my lens reach or with exposure settings wound out as far as possible when shooting in very dark bush. They are quite 'noisy', that's the grain (digital noise) you can see through the photo. 

I had seen (and heard) a flock of Kaka (our large forest dwelling parrot) flying in and out of Gunns Bush while we were parked at Cascade Creek so I knew they were about but I hadn't spotted any while I was bush walking. On one my walks, while I was standing listening for other birds, great clumps of bark and moss suddenly stated raining down on me from above. I thought a branch might have broken lose in the canopy but no, when I looked up...

...I saw that it was a Kaka tearing apart a rotten tree, tossing everything it pulled free over the side.

It took no notice of me below and I had to duck out of the way as some big clumps headed in my direction.

I was disappointed that the Kaka was right up in the top of the canopy but grateful to be able to zoom in and then crop the photos later to see what it was up to.

I followed it from tree to tree for over an hour, I could hear his flock calling but he took no notice of them as they flew off up the mountain beside the lake. He just carried on tearing apart any rotten branch or tree he could get his beak on.

And it wasn't until I processed the photos that I could finally see what he was after- big fat huhu grubs! Check out the 2nd photo. (Huhu grubs are the larvae of a longhorn beetle that is endemic to New Zealand)

This kaka must have been quite happy with his own company, I found him by himself high in the trees most days. I just had to stand awhile and listen for the thuds, rustles, cracks and other tearing noises as his cast offs crashed through the branches and landed on the forest floor nearby.

One day as I was making my way back to camp after taking photos of the bush and checking for the Kaka, David gave me a hell of a fright when he popped out from behind a nearby tree as I passed by. He didn't mean to scare me but he didn't want to step out sooner because I was taking a photo.

He reasoned that I must have seen his head and I'd know he was there. I didn't & when I checked the photos we had a good laugh; there was a tiny wee head peeking out from behind a tree trunk (see red arrow). Yes, you'll need to super-size it to see anything, but he is there.

I love the sign on the DOC loo in the carpark although I can't decide if it means the person disposing of the rubbish will have to remove it by hand or the DOC cleaner will have to. I hope it means the person dropping the rubbish, this should be on the doors of all the DOC loos!

After a few days the weather started to close in so we made a quick dash through to Milford Sound; you can't drive the Milford Road without driving to the end, no matter that we've been to the end twice before. You never know, it may look different this time!

Hollyford River just past Marian Corner
First stop is at the Falls Creek Waterfall which flows into the Hollyford River. I know I've said it numerous times in the previous post but this area, from Marian Corner through to The Chasm, is now badly damaged by the recent rain storm that saw 1.2metres of rain fall over 5 days. You can see why the river above wiped out much of the road here.

Falls Creek Waterfall
The mountains tower over the road past Monkey Creek (a popular place to stop for photo opportunities and where Kea often hang out). Monkey Creek also took out much of the road along this section.

It's disappointing that there are many 'Avalanche Area, No Stopping' signs along the road and around the entrance to Homer Tunnel- a head's up, don't visit in early spring if you're wanting to photograph the stunning views and scenes along much of the Milford Road. There'll also be no stopping today to check for the elusive Rock Wren/Piwauwauout in the Rock Garden which is beside the tunnel entrance.

Our next stop is at The Chasm, I leave David shooing off a kea who is intent on checking out the ute and do the quick loop walk to where the Cleddau River disappears....

...through a very narrow....well, chasm. Hence it's name! And once again this walk is now closed due to damage from the storm. 

I wonder if the large logs that were jammed in some of the crevasses in the chasm have been dislodged. I can't imagine the amount of water that was forced through here during the storm. 

Milford Sound is very busy, we have to drive around a couple of times before we find a carpark. It's early afternoon and many visitors are out on cruises or just about to go. The outlook isn't actually the best as it's low tide and Mitre Peak has her head in the clouds. 

In the reeds on the far side of the the muddy estuary I spot what I think is the elusive Milford Sound White Heron/Kotuku, a lone bird that spends some of it's time here at the top of the Sound. I zoom in on it, only to discover that it's not a heron but a long white stick doing a very good impression.

We walk around to the boat terminal and there, much to my surprise, is the heron in the shallow water on the inside of the wharf. 

This is third time lucky for me. The heron is perched on a submerged log catching little fish that swim by.

We have our own lunch at one of the picnic tables along the wharf pier and watch as tour boats come & go.

On our return along the pier we find the heron now resting on the breakwater rocks, unfazed by all the activity around it and posing nicely for a few more photos as we pass by.

Back at the carpark the tide has now come in a little covering the mudflats and making the scene a lot more pleasant, although the tip of Mitre Peak is still hiding. 

We head off back to camp finding blue sky on the other side of the Homer Tunnel. That's it, our third visit to Fiordland National Park, done & dusted!

Sunday 16 February 2020

Hollyford Valley- Fiordland National Park

Catch-up (Late September 2019)

The DOC campground at Cascade Creek is a great place to base yourself if you're wanting to spend a few days exploring the Milford Road & Fiordland National Park. It's also the last DOC campground before Milford Sound, 44kms away.

This is our third trip down the Milford Road and while we've pretty much explored every nook & crannie it's always good to check places out again; in different weathers & seasons. We stopped at the Hollyford Valley lookout (Pop's View) which is just past the Divide, the Key Summit Walk and the the trail end of the Routeburn Track.

One very hopeful Kea was strutting his stuff up and down the railings and along the log below the 'Do Not Feed the Kea' sign. Failing to win anyone over he flew to the roof of a nearby vehicle before checking out the windscreen's rubber surround for taste. As we left he was being chased off one vehicle only to land on another as it arrived. Eventually, I'm sure, he would have found some one to feed him.

We headed off down the Hollyford Valley (which is now heavily damaged after the recent rain storm), passing over many of the alpine streams that tumble down from the Seppentine Range & Humboldt Mountains above into the Hollyford River below. David spies a stream out his window that he thinks will make a great photo opportunity. 

And what a stunning scene it is; thick green mosses cover the rocks, luxuriant ferns fill the spaces along the edge of cascading stream and the surrounding trees are dripping with emerald green mosses. Dappled sunlight reaches into the back depths of this magical scene; this is what a rain forest looks like. I stay for quite some time taking way too many photos, I just can't get enough of the beautiful scenery.

And then just a kilometre further along the road this is what nature can do to those beautiful sights. A stream flows down through the middle of a large tree and rock slide that blocked the Hollyford Road for several weeks back in September 2013.

We first visited the Hollyford Valley in 2014, just a few months after the landslide, when the road was still a dusty track through the slide and many large mature trees were caught up in the mud & rocks, their leafy canopy turning brown and dying amongst the rocks and mud. The trees are still standing but are now covered in moss and lichen as they slowly rot away.

There are photos of that previous visit in this blog link.  The area is still rocky and barren but colourful lichen covers many of the rocks and logs and a few shrubs, ferns and grasses are now growing in amongst the fallen debris.

Sadly due to the recent Fiordland storm, Gunns Camp had a large mudslide wash through it, along with severe flooding from the river. The camp is now closed until further notice. Hopefully the owners will be able to restore their quirky campground although from the aerial shots I've seen there is a lot of damage.

I wonder if this is (was) the only hand wound petrol pump in New Zealand. I was surprised at how few winds it took to pump in this guy's gas. 

Here's a link to a photo of the flooding at Gunns Camp, where guests were evacuated by helicopter after a night from hell. This link is a video of the camp as they were leaving in the helicopter.

In the meantime, oblivious to the destruction nature would wrought in a few months time, we carry on up the Hollyford Road. 

I know several of the swingbridges over the Hollyford River were washed away and all of the tramping tracks are closed due to rock slides, washouts and missing bridges. This one is on the Moraine Creek Route.

While I'm taking photos of the river from the bridge I spot a tiny yellow flash zipping out, dipping and diving over the rushing water and back again to a large rock. It's a male Tomtit/Miromiro collecting insects.

Towards the end of the Hollyford Road I know there's an old grave with a sad story, it's right on the edge of the river, above a stony bank and along a short track. This time the sign post at the roadside is missing.

I locate it by spotting a scrape in the undergrowth where cars have parked in the past (and one of the short posts where the sign should have been is still there) but unless you knew about it, you'd not find it. Which is a shame, I'd like to hope that Donald Keith doesn't ever get forgotten about. Now I wonder how his lonely grave fared in the flooded river.

At the end of the road we sit on the tray of the ute and hurriedly eat our lunch because the sandflies are out in force today. We're overlooking the confluence of the  Humboldt Creek & Hollyford River and another swing bridge which is at the beginning of the Hollyford Track, a 4-8 day tramp to the ocean.

Afterwards we walked the short steep track up to the Humboldt Falls lookout (both the Hollyford Track & this one are closed at the moment due to storm damage). The three tier Humboldt Falls, while spectacularly high are a little underwhelming when seen from way across the otherside of the valley.

I zoom in to the top of each tier and find this more fascinating.

The top tier
I wonder how deep the  pools are behind the overflow and if anyone has ever abseiled down to them for a dip.

The Bottom Tier
Two days later, and after the light dusting of snow at Cascade Creek, I headed off on my own mini tiki-tour checking for photo opportunities and to see where the snow has fallen. My first stop was at the top of Lake Gunn. 

I'm the only one around except for pair of Paradise Ducks who I surprise while they're moseying about in the nearby shallows. They honk their disapproval at being disturbed and head off out into the lake breaking up my reflections as payback.

Our camp is at the far end of the lake, there used to be a lovely little DOC camp here at the top end but it got overrun with campers which left no room for day trippers so it was closed down. 

Snow has fallen at road level as I pass through the Divide which is below Key Summit and the end of the Routeburn Track.

I stop again at Pop's Lookout, high above the Hollyford Valley.

There's no Kea to greet me today, just another Tomtit fluff-ball flitting about.

Across from the lookout are the Darran Mountains and the Lake Marian valley, a tough tramping track heads up the hanging valley past the Marian Cascade and Falls to a beautiful alpine lake. We walked the track on one of our previous visits. This whole area is now closed due to the storm damage.

I carried on down the road and came across a few hopeful tourists waiting at Marian Corner; the  junction of the Milford & Hollyford Roads. The road through to Milford is closed due to the avalanche risk and they're waiting to see if it will open.

I have a chat with the coffee-cart guy, telling him he has a captive market but he tells me he's waiting too and can't sell to anyone. His permit only allows for him to sell coffee at Monkey Creek which is further on down the Milford Road. I think he must be very keen, the nearest civilization is back at Te Anau about 80kms away.

I'm don't hold out much hope that the road will open for them, it's cold, very misty and the cloud is dropping even lower, it feels like it might even snow some more. 

I head off down the Hollyford Road stopping just a couple of kilometres further on at the Marian Cascade carpark. I cross over the swingbridge taking a photo looking up the Hollyford River from the middle of the bridge. This swingbridge was washed away in the recent floods, just as the helicopter evacuated more tourists stranded in the carpark.

I walked to the top of the Marian Cascade to take some photos and have the track to myself. Most of those waiting for the road to open would have no idea there this stunning little gem is just down the road. 

I now wonder how the boardwalk up the side of the Cascade survived in the flood; the water would have been raging down here to the river below.

On the way back down the path I stopped to take some slow-mo photos of some little water trickles flowing out of a moss and fern covered bank.

And then it's one more photo of the river as I cross back over the bridge.

Back at Marian Corner many of the cars waiting for the road to open before have now been replaced by new arrivals. There's also a kea entertaining the visitors (not the one from the lookout as this one has a band)...

...I take the opportunity of educate these visitors that they are not allowed to feed the Kea, human food is bad for them and endangers their health and also makes them dependent on human food and stops them from foraging for their own food. Before I'm finished someone else arrives and throws the bird more Cheezels. I give up! 

One last photo of the Hollyford River & a snow dusted East Peak at the tail end of the Darran Mountains.