A short 2-day trip in the middle of winter (July 2020).
Danilo and I depart Dunedin while it is still light, and arrive at our destination for that day at a rather reasonable hour. Lower Princhester Hut is the perfect spot to break up the long drive from Dunedin to a southern tramping destination, and is only a few minutes off the main road. Just be mindful that it is on the Te Araroa and can be very busy during peak season. We drive right up to the hut, and get settled in for the night. While out brushing my teeth I find snow in the clearing behind the hut with the perfect consistency for snowballs. Unfortunately Danilo is already asleep so I have no one to target, and I would rather sleep than wait for the possums to start getting rowdy.
We wake up at the leisurely time of 06:30 to discover our two companions from Queenstown will not be joining us and we now have double the amount of food we need for dinner. Another hour and a bit of driving and we arrive at Lake Monowai, where the track starts. There are lots of boats but no cars, so chances are high no one else will be in the hut, which can get rather busy due to its accessibility. An easier and shorter access option includes walking from the Borland Road, but it is closed during winter.
Lake Monowai lies at approximately 180 m elevation in Fiordland National Park. It is a narrow lake roughly in the shape of a boomerang which covers 31 km² and drains into the Monowai River, which feeds into the Waiau River. One of New Zealands oldest hydroelectric stations is powered by the Monowai River and was opened in 1925. This raised the water level of Lake Monowai by 2.13 m, and there are still significant stands of dead trees on the shoreline. The lake is a very popular fishing spot, and lakeshore huts are often busy.
The track starts off through a flat section of scrubby manuka before dipping into tall beech forest. After an hour of walking and one hill we arrive at the turn off to Rodgers Inlet, a one way in and out trip unless you continue over the tops to Monowai or Green Lake Huts, or boat out. Check out my blog about my 2-day traverse over the tops to Green Lake Hut here.
There are a few swampy stream gullies to descend into and out of until finally we begin to really gain some elevation. We pass through dense crown fern, taking a slightly alternative route up a very convincing animal trail which luckily doesn’t lead us too far astray, and we are able to return to the actual track just off to our right.
A rather slippery stream crossing and a steep bluffy section and we reach a small knoll with lichen covered beech and a small gap in the trees which allows us to catch a glimpse of the snow covered Takitimu Mountains. Luckily this section on the ridge means that there is less swampy terrain and soon the beech trees start to shrink and new plants appear in the undergrowth. Patches of snow become more frequent and soon we burst out of the bush into a rather swampy scrubland.
With the intermittent showers and sunshine there is not too much use in searching for views on the saddle, so we continue over and drop back down into the forest, sidling above the lake towards the hut. We come across many large snail shells which have been eaten by someone and left scattered over the path in large quantities.
Powelliphanta spedeni is a native carnivorous snail found in southern New Zealand. It is terrestrial and belongs to the family Rhitididae. The shells can be found once you start sidling along the lake edge between the hut and the saddle. They are a dark glossy brown but are often slightly damaged due to predation.
Finally, the hut is in sight. We reach it and find ourselves to be the only visitors. I head out for a firewood collection mission to find some material which is not rotten and in the meantime Danilo does a decent job of getting a fire going. Dinner is a new combination for me. Quinoa with mushrooms, capsicum, carrot, broccoli, sundried tomatoes and feta, mixed in with a very healthy amount of basil pesto for two people. It is delicious and I will definitely be using it again, although the quinoa takes a rather long time to cook so I might try to substitute some kind of couscous. By the time I head out to brush my teeth the clouds have cleared completely and there is an impressive starscape all around.
It is clear and frosty when we wake up. So frosty that my gaiters are frozen solid and the condensation on the inside of the windows has turned to ice. Breakfast is a simple affair, porridge and leftovers, and then we both disperse onto the lakeshore to take photos. The tussocks are stiff with frost, the edge of the lake has a thin layer of ice and the gravel is hard underfoot. There is not a single cloud in the sky. We spend a disproportionate amount of time on the lakeshore before heading back inside and giving the hut a quick once over. Then we head off, at least an hour before the sun is anywhere close to reaching the hut, particularly in mid-winter.
It is considerably warmer under the cover of the beech forest, but not enough to have prevented everything from freezing. Droplets on leaves are frozen and a Coprosma berry which I sample turns out to be more of a popsicle than a juicy treat. Carpets of moss and filmy ferns are frozen solid, leaving shapes imprinted where I touch them.
Once back at the saddle a short unofficial side trip leads us uphill for a few minutes and rewards us with views over the entire lake and the mountains beyond. We admire the panorama of snow topped mountains and marvel at the landscape before us, trying to comprehend the natural forces that created it.
The view over Green Lake is one over what may be the largest landslide of its type on earth. It occurred about 12000–13000 years ago and was most likely triggered by a large earthquake of at least magnitude 7.5–8. The volume of the gneiss and granodiorite rock slide was 27 cubic kilometres and it covered an area of 45 square kilometres up to 900 m in depth. The probability of another such earthquake within the next 50 years may be as high as 45% and is likely to cause many more large landslides such as this one throughout the Fiordland region (Hancox & Perrin, 2009).
We wait for the sun to catch up with us on the saddle, and pause to enjoy some warmth for a few minutes before dropping down from the sunny ridge and into the beech forest. The air is icy, and my gaiters have still not defrosted, preventing me from clipping them shut at the bottom. Luckily the intensity of the frost has partially frozen the swamp making it a lot easier to get across the open scrubland without getting wet feet or even particularly muddy boots.
Downhill is much faster and soon we have popped over a rise to enter forest with patchy sunlight. The mossy beech forest looks so vibrant in the patches of sunshine we pass through. We reach yesterdays lunch spot and make ourselves comfortable on the same log as yesterday to eat our lunches of crackers and toppings.
This time we take the actual track down the dense crown fern ridge, and examine the spot where we missed the track as it bends back on itself before heading uphill. Sneaky. Apparently this forest is a fungi lovers dream in May following some rainfall although I have already seen countless different varieties on this trip. We reach the first swampy gully, crossing it via an alternative route which is much better than the official track, then we reach the second gully which has a deeply cut creek where Danilo got a boot wet on the way in and where a pair of Toutouwai/South Island Robin (Petroica australis) often hang out.
A few more swampy gullies and a long flat soggy terrace with interesting plants (Elaeocarpus hookerianus, Rubus australis, Dacrydium cuppressinum…) and then one more big gully before we reach the turn off to Rodger Inlet again. There is no more sun after this point and the temperature plummets, my hands could do with gloves but we are so close to the car that I do not particularly want to stop.
The beech is replaced by manuka scrub and I spot the occasional native bog pine that I missed on the way in. I am too close to the end to concern myself with a proper identification. A short steep decent and we are on the road, Danilos car is now the only one there. We wash our boots in Lake Monowai then jump in and head for Gore to get ourselves some delicious post tramp kebabs.
One way is approximately 11 km with 950 m of elevation gain and 330 m of elevation loss to get to the hut, and vice versa for the return trip. To see our route click here, and for the Department of Conservation page on the track click here.
Hancox, G.T. & Perrin, N. (2009) Green Lake Landslide and other giant and very large postglacial landslides in Fiordland, New Zealand. Quaternary Science Reviews, 28 (11–12), 1020–1036.