Derek Cheng climbs to the summit of Copper Point and is soon basking in a panoramic view that few have experienced ... and hoping his ride returns.
The bow of the boat wrestled with the waves and edged closer to the rocky platform. We steadied ourselves. The plan was to leap from the vessel in perfect balletic form and land gracefully on a wet ramp, avoiding the loss of possessions — and dignity — to the watery depths of Milford Sound.
It would be so elegant that the dozens of surrounding seals would not become aggressive at having their slumber disturbed, but instead applaud our skills and general handsomeness.
Uncertainty lingered. Just as the boat was about to smash into the rocks, we jumped. Waves lunged at our ankles. Shoe rubber slid on wet rock. Seals grumbled, then turned away, as if displeased that we kept our footing.
This is Copper Point, Fiordland, an adventure wonderland at the edge of the Darran Mountains, home to the country's most ruggedly spectacular scenery.
Bordered roughly by the Hollyford Valley and the road to Milford, the Darrans are littered with massive, ominous rock spires looming above steep, curving valleys. When it rains — an average of about seven metres a year — the walls are blessed with countless waterfalls suicidally dropping from clifftops.
And it is a treasured little secret. Every year, about 14,000 trampers head to the Milford Track, while the more dramatic surroundings just around the corner from Homer Tunnel remain relatively unvisited.
Untouched also means virtually impossible to access. To gain the summit plateau of Copper Point, you have to scramble through steep bush, and then climb a 180m rock face that's only slightly more friendly than vertical. That's if you survive the leap from the boat.
We had learned of a new climb on a cliff near the Tasman Sea. It seemed an exciting prospect, high on the walls of Mitre Peak with Milford Sound splashing merrily below. My buddy, Sam, and I headed to the water one morning and chanced upon two relaxed and groovy gentlemen in a sleek fishing boat. I asked if they were headed near Copper Point.
"Not sure where that is," one of them replied.
"Neither are we."
That didn't seem to bother the owner, Ross, who simply chuckled when we showed him a hand-drawn map of the climb, complete with headings like "seal platform".
The platform was pretty obvious; it's the only part of the shoreline that doesn't dive vertically into the water. Ross lined the boat up, and promptly hit reverse as soon as we jumped. We scrambled higher, waving our thanks and silently wondering if they would pick us up later.
New climbs are usually littered with crumbly, dangerous rock and layers of lichen and moss. But the rock at Copper Point was as hard as bullets. And clean. We were soon relaxing on a benign summit plateau, basking in a view that few have experienced. From our perch, the raw, unexplored north face of Mitre Peak rose menacingly more than a kilometre to a summit ridge that tickled the sky. Steep, vegetated walls dwarfed tiny boats below.
Ross had said he would collect us at 4pm. Or 6pm. Or 8pm. We abseiled back to the seals and mulled over what to do if our ride never materialised. Swim? We needn't have worried. He returned about 5pm and, again, expertly manoeuvred his boat close enough for us to leap aboard.
Though climbing at Copper Point exposes you to hundreds of camera-armed tourists on passing boats, the interior of the Darrans is a place of cathartic solitude. Unplugged from civilisation. No mobile coverage, no markers, no footpaths. The approach to the shoulder of Barrier Knob, for example, requires passage over steep scree and wet slabs.
If you manage to arrive in one piece, the rewards are abundant. The shoulder is surrounded by a cirque of granite warriors overlooking the dark turquoise hue of Lake Adelaide. The environment leaves you in awe, but eager to explore.
The following day, we traversed snow slopes to a perch above the lake and climbed a 230m rock face. Total isolation. It brought a feeling of immense peace, knowing that thousands were at the same time rushing through supermarkets and malls.
There was a lesson in all this. The wilderness shakes up your perspective of reality, of what is important and what really doesn't matter.
We headed back to civilisation only as the sun started to sink and sprinkle the mountains with pink. No rush. Pausing to linger as often as possible.
Getting there: The Darrans can be accessed a number of ways. One popular and accessible day hike is to Gertrude Saddle, for which there is a gravel carpark about one kilometre east of Homer Tunnel. Across the river bed from the carpark is the NZ Alpine Club's Homer Hut, which has cooking gas, water, bunk beds and camp sites ($35 a night for non-members, $20 for members).