Snow is covering the world in a thin but persistent layer when we wake up on our first morning in Manapouri and, as a quick look on the New Zealand Department of Transport website confirms, the Milford Road is still closed.
Manapouri is a village twenty kilometres south of Te Anau, on the shores of the Manapouri lake, the fifth largest and second deepest in New Zealand. The lake's main outflow is the Waiau River and the whole hydrological system is used to generate electricity at the West Arm power station. The lake narrowly escaped having its levels raised for the purpose of electricity production in the 1960s, but the efforts of conservationists resulted in official protection and the lake becoming managed but within natural levels. It is thus still one of the most beautiful lakes in the Fiordland, surrounded by mountains and with many short and longer walking tracks nearby. The lake is also where tourist cruises to Doubtful Sound and the underground West Arm Power Station depart from.
We spend a day taking our bearings, chilling out and resting in the cottage, doing shopping in Te Anau (which is a fifteen minute drive, a much larger settlement and clearly a major visitors' centre with numerous hotels and tourist businesses. The Te Anau lake, although also attractive, is not as pretty as the Manapouri one.
In the afternoon (having checked the Milford Road status as still closed and decided not to go on a Doubtful Sound trip simply because the cost for our family of four would be something in the region of 600 NZD, or 300 GBP, plus any extras) we drive to the harbour from which the Doubtful Sound trips depart, but not in order to go on a trip (it's too late anyway) but to go for a wee walk as described in one of the DoC booklets ( Fiordland National Park Day Walks) as the Manpouri circular walk.
We hire a rowing boat for 20 dollars and after much flapping and excitement, manage to cross the Waiau River and moor at the little jetty on the other side. I am a bit doubtful as to whether we'll manage to complete the loop that is marked as "moderate" and estimated to take 3 hours if done by normal people (by normal, read ones not encumbered by a four year old), as it's 4.30pm by the time we tumble out of the boat and clamber onto the jetty and it's going to get dark by 7pm. Still, off we go into the woods.
At first, it's a comfortable and easy walking on springy, moss covered ground among tall trees. We have to cross a stream or two, but it's not too bad and even the Younger Child is enjoying it.
The path follows the river back towards the lake for a while and then we turn inland and the route (just as the booklet warns) starts climbing and becomes muddy. Or so we think. After ten minutes it is clear than there are degrees of muddy – and we have only seen beginning of it. The path becomes a waterlogged bog and we have to find ways round or across giant puddles. The Older Child seems to relish the challenge, including occasional falling in, while the Younger Child is anxious, whines for being carried and doesn't like the mud (his boots are much lower, tough – why don't they do proper walking boots for small children?) For both, The Very Muddy Walk will remain an oft-recalled highlight (or a low point as it might be) of the trip for months to come.
The wood gets darker (or is it the dusk getting closer) and we – reluctantly – decide to turn round as the prospect of negotiating the same bog in the dark (and we have no torches) is not one anybody relishes.
On the way back, the river is like a rippling surface of mercury, gleaming metallic, with all colours intensified in the falling dusk.
We arrive back at our cottage ready for the washing of pretty much all garments and through the back doors we see Takitimu Mountains on the horizon, blazing white on the background of the cobalt sky.