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Walking the Milford Track

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Milford Track New Zealand

john-payneIt was Mark Twain who wryly observed that golf was “a good walk spoiled.” On a more positive note, he’s also on record as having described the Milford Track in New Zealand as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, and “the finest walk in the world.”

Last month I walked the Milford Track with one of my sons, Mark. Twain’s “Eighth Wonder” may be a bit over the top, and “finest walk in the world” probably doesn’t do justice to a lot of other wonderful walks, but it was certainly one of the most beautiful and rewarding experiences of  a life that so far encompasses 67 laps of the Sun.

sandfly-point (1)

At the end of four days solid walking, this was our magnificent first view of Milford Sound. Photo by John Payne

The walk, on the South Island of New Zealand, follows one river valley eastwards from Lake Te Anau, across a high spur, and down another river valley to the magnificent Milford Sound. Prospective trekkers have the option of either doing an “independent” walk, carrying all their own food, or taking  a guided tour. Mark and I chose to take the guided walk, as it offered better accommodation, better food, and a number of guides who can help you to appreciate and understand the beautiful flora and fauna along the way, and the fascinating history of the Track.

I had intended to write an article to share my experience of walking the Track with you, but…

I’m Not Going To Write An Article On Walking The Milford Track!

Why? Because just as I got the article under way, I received an email from one of my fellow Walkers, Craig Steward. Craig is a professional photographer from Canberra.  He has a way with a camera, and as it proved, a way with words. Simply, his article trumped what I had in mind. Happily, Craig has agreed to let me share his article with you. You can read it here. I hope it inspires you to walk The Milford Track. It will be an experience of a lifetime.

Walking The Milford Track

by Craig Steward

craig-steward-milford-sound“So, what happens when someone falls and breaks a leg on the track?”

“We send a helicopter with a winch to get them out” said Kathryn, one of our guides. Somehow, maybe due to Kathryn’s Kiwi accent, winch is misheard by a few as wench.

“They send a wench?” someone tentatively piped up, which halted all conversation.

Andrew, a quick thinking New Zealander living in Sydney asks; “Soooooo…. what is the minimum injury required to get a wench sent in?”

I think he is feeling a bit lonely at night.

The Milford Track stretches from the northern reaches of Lake Te Anau 53.5 kilometres to Milford Sound in a part of the South Island known as Fiordland National Park. Called ‘The Finest Walk in the World’ the summer sees as many as 14000 hikers complete the four day tramp through rainforests, wetlands and an alpine pass.

My mum had been pining to walk the track for a few years, and with her 60th birthday fast approaching the family had chipped in to pay for the guided trip. I, on the other hand, get itchy feet when not travelling so paid my way to go along too.

fiordland-express-lake-teanauThe trip started in Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world, home of the world’s first commercial bungy jump site and is famous for skiing, paragliding, jet boating and mountain biking. I think it should be named Red Bull Queenstown. My mum, always looking to stand out from the crowd, added ‘watching rugby’ to the list of extreme sports.

We had spotted a game of rugby, a serious affair as they were singing the anthem, so we sat down on a grassy slope to watch it unfold. A few minutes in mum stupidly let a paraglider land on her. I was laughing too hard to help her out from under the canopy.

These New Zealanders take their rugby seriously, and I’d be lying if I said I did not feel inadequate, when the ball was kicked out and a lady gathered it up before torpedoing it back onto the field. She looked about 80. I think the local team won but can’t be sure as there was no scoreboard. Ah the joys of local rugby.

We met for a pre-walk briefing the night before departure to get the gist of what to expect and to collect stuff we didn’t have. Also a great moment for mum to eye off the other walkers, she has this competitive streak in her that can be difficult to suppress, but as it’s her holiday I let it slide.

The walk can be completed independently or as a guided tour. Independent walkers stay in Dept. of Conservation huts and need to carry everything with them (food, sleeping bags ect) whereas the guided walkers need only to carry clothes and toiletries, everything else is provided. Numbers are limited to 90 walkers a day (40 independent and 50 guided).

To be honest, the thought of walking in a huge group filled me with dread however over the next few days I’d scarcely see another walker on the track.

Bright and early next morning we left Queenstown for Te Anau. We passed Lake Wakatipu on our right and The Remarkables (a mountain range) on our left so named because the ridge runs directly north-south. That is interesting but I would not say it is remarkable. Maybe the early settlers were a simple bunch.

On our coach were 46 walkers and 3 guides; Kelly, Kathryn and Moon. We were to be joined by our 4th guide, Alex, in Te Anau. The guides can walk the track as many as 30 times a season. Over the next four days these guides would really impart their wealth of knowledge of the area and show their great love of the outdoors.

The Trip to Te Anau took around 2 hours and after lunch a short drive along the shores of Lake Te Anau lead to Te Anau Downs to board The Fiordland Express, a small boat and our transport to the start of the track.

Lake Te Anau is Australasia’s largest fresh water lake and home to four fiords.  The U shaped valleys are covered in trees and undergrowth thanks to the 3 metres of rain that fall every year. We passed a small island with a cross on it, a memorial to Quintin Mackinnon who forged the track, in the 1880s’, from Lake Te Anau up and over the pass which bears his name and down the Arthur Valley to Milford Sound. He was sailing to Glade Wharf in 1892 when a storm picked up, his wrecked boat and belongings were found near this small island, his body was never recovered.

Nearing Glade Wharf we spotted an area of bare rock high on one slope. It is explained that due to the regions granite rock tree roots grow out and not down intertwining with the roots of nearby trees. If one tree falls over it takes the surrounding trees with it causing a tree avalanche.

Setting Foot, and Setting Off, On The Track

At Glade Wharf we stepped through a shallow bath of disinfectant (to stop the spread of Didymo, a nasty type of algae) and grabbed our packs. A quick picture next to the Milford Track sign and off on the short walk to Glade House.

The accommodation was surprisingly good, bunk rooms slept 4 or 6 people with communal toilets or you could stump the extra cash for a private room and ensuite. The generator ran till 10 pm and then started again at 6.15am.

A group photo is arranged before we split up for a small nature walk. We climbed into the rainforest looking at beech trees, lancewoods, ferns and moss. Moss is a favourite topic for the guides and a few people make the mistake of inquiring about it. Apparently New Zealand has 550 different species of moss. All I know is it is green and grows everywhere.

A bit later our guide, Alex, hands us a leaf to chew. It’s a bit herby until a peppery taste materialises and starts to strengthen. Then I could not feel my tongue. I think she tried to kill me but I kept quiet.

As it turns out this short nature walk is used by the guides to check general fitness; struggle with this short walk and you will most certainly struggle to make it to Milford Sound. It is a bit like boot camp but with easy access to alcohol.

We retire to the lodge for dinner (and alcohol) where the differences between mum and I become apparent. She loves a chat where as I am happy to bask in awkward silences. She gets chatting to John and Mark, a father and son from Canberra, as dinner is served. She chats up a storm until I eventually pipe up that mum is, in fact, our state’s Primary School Teacher of the Year to which she receives a lot of congratulations and admiration from the rest of the table. I, on the other hand, receive only a deathly glare and about 30 seconds of silence. I claim that as a small win and move on.

Following dinner a short PowerPoint presentation outlined the day ahead. What to see, points of interest, short side trips, plants and birds. Plenty of time for a hot shower then bed.

Overnight the temperature dropped to freezing but inside the cabin it was warm and soon I was shedding the three blankets I thought I needed. Rising for breakfast there was time to make lunch (sandwiches, fruit, chocolate bars and biscuits) or grab a hot shower before starting out for our overnight stop at Pompolona Lodge, 16km up the Clinton River.

the-sentinel-glade-houseThe lead guide set off at 7.30am with hikers trickling out of Glade House and across a swingbridge onto the western bank of the Clinton River. Another guide brought up the rear 45 minutes later ensuring no one was left behind. The trail here was wide and well made, it was a pack-horse trail originally used to supply the huts further up the valley.

The rainforest was thick in trees and covered in moss, bell birds and robins called out and within a couple of minutes we were alone on the path. Hiking up the valley it would be a few hours before we would clear the shadows and emerge into the sunlight. It’s difficult to come to terms with just how green everything was, moss covered the ground like well manicured lawn even running up trees and onto branches making for a surreal landscape.

The Clinton River, viewable from short paths leading to its bank, ran wide on its way to the lake. Its aqua-green colour would lend itself to more tropical climates but it is quite easy to see how clear and pure the water is. Now and again it flowed across the rocks drowning out footsteps and voices.

Slowly we started counting off the mile markers, short paths led off the main track which was a great opportunity to drop the backpack and head into the forest to see something interesting, but, truth be told, I just saw more trees.

A South Island Bush Robin chirped away, these birds are so friendly that, if you stand still, they will jump onto the toe of your boot while surveying the path for food. A short detour onto a raised boardwalk led out to a clearing of wetlands. Heath covered the ground, moss and mushrooms sprouted here and there, but, most welcoming was the appearance of the sun.

Back on the main track we were nearing the Sentinel, 1500 metres of granite towering above us, turning left it marked the entrance to the west branch of the Clinton.

Climbing through a forest of beech trees we finally emerged out into a clearing caused by a huge rock slide in 1982. This had dammed the Clinton River forming what is now Hidden Lake. The clearing also afforded our first view of Mackinnon Pass at the head of the valley.

The lunch stop was at a shelter near Hirere Falls. The lead guide had gone ahead and set up hot and cold drinks. Slowly the walkers wandered in. Here the river was mirror like which made it easy to spot rainbow trout and even an eel.

After lunch the track weaved in and out of the beech forest into grasslands and across avalanche fall zones towards Hidden Lake. We were walking in perfect weather, not a cloud in the sky but it was hard not to imagine what the valley would be like in the rain. The few permanent waterfalls are joined by literally hundreds of streams cascading down the near vertical walls.

prarie-lake-milford-trackNot far from our overnight stop was Prairie Lake, a small pond hugging the cliff face. A couple of brave souls had ventured in for a swim. Unluckily one had then lost her glasses and was frantically searching for it using her feet. Now, normally that would mean a few people would join her in her search, however the water temp was 9º C. The only help offered were a few sympathetic shouts of support. Eventually she was joined by her husband, who clearly knew what was good for him, and the glasses were soon recovered.

We straggled into Pompolona Lodge in the late afternoon to shower, wash our clothes and tend sore feet.

The lodge had a large lounge and soon it was full of walkers chatting about their day. Quite an interesting mix of people; David from England, a humble man with a formidable set of eyebrows talked with a refined accent that made the rest of us feel like the great unwashed (I googled him once I got home, it’s actually Sir David). Cornelius, a reserved Texan, peered out of pair of glasses that John Lennon made fashionable. It turns out he is an oil magnate and breezed into New Zealand on his own jet.

Vivienne, a 60 year old originally from Singapore, quickly became the mother of the group. She was going to complete the independent walk with her husband but fell while getting fit for the hike, injuring her shoulder. Not wanting to carry a heavy pack she joined the guided walk with her husband following a day behind on the independent hike. She was leaving fruit and notes of encouragement for him at huts along the way. Bubbly, friendly and genuinely interested in the lives people around her, if the group had a mascot it would be her.

A rumour starts doing the rounds that evening. Apparently one of the walkers is a therapeutic masseuse. This immediately lifts a few spirits as people are hobbling in small steps and groaning when taking a seat or struggling to get out of them. Near the hot water urn a dropped spoon led to a barely audible ‘fuck’.

After some investigation Anna from Melbourne comes clean as the masseuse. This results in a chorus of shouting.

“Anna, how much? How much? Please!”

“Anna…….. ANNA……. name your price!”

It turns out she charges $90 for a massage back in Melbourne although I’m sure she could get a few times that amount here. She rebuffs all requests.

“Anna, if you massage me I’ll massage you.”

“Bugger off you creep” was her light-hearted reply.

The evening ended with a presentation on the day ahead and then some ‘foot love’ where the guides would help tend any blisters or cuts the walkers were battling with. No foot massage though.

Day 3 is regarded as the toughest of the walk, the path climbed 700 metres up Mackinnon Pass then descends 900 metres into the Arthur Valley to our overnight stop at Quintin Lodge, 14 km distant.

The morning walk began in overcast conditions with Mackinnon Pass cloaked in cloud high above us. We climb through beech forests and across avalanche fall zones, loose rocks and bridges up to Mintaro Hut where the independent walkers spent the night. A few were still hanging round drinking coffee before heading onto the pass.

I filled my water bottle and then headed out past Lake Mintaro and onto the pass. The lower slope was once again covered in rainforest but the differences from the forest back down the valley were easy to see. The increased rainfall here (5 metres annually) covered everything in thick moss, vines and ferns grew with abandon and small washouts crossed the track every few metres. The loose rocks combined with the slippery granite made for a cautious climb.

Malcolm, a Canadian who competed in cross country skiing at the 1972 Winter Olympics, bounded past us like we were standing still. My mum and I were quickly joined by Chelsea, Malcolm’s daughter, and Moana, a Kiwi from the North Island.

The sound of a helicopter echoed up the valley, today was the day the huts receive their weekly supplies; an expensive way to fly in eggs and loo paper but there are not a lot of other options at hand. I’m sure a team of cheaply paid Nepalese Sherpas would do the trick although that might just spark a diplomatic incident.

We climbed and started to zigzag, the track had 11 zigzags but the night before we had been told that number 6 had been taken out by an avalanche a while back so that zigzag was now made up of 6 further zags. Somewhat confusing, I soon gave up counting.

The vegetation began to thin as we neared the tree line at which time we also entered the cloud. The temperature dropped as the wind increased, blowing up and over the pass. Trees gave way to snow tussock, a hardy alpine grass, and dotted here and there some South Island Edelweiss and other wildflowers.

Nearing the top, Malcolm, sans backpack, came bounding down to us with the good news that we were nearly at the top. With that my mum, suppressing her competitive streak for long enough, launched her final assault bounding past me and up into the cloud. Visibility was around 20 metres but the higher we climbed the stronger the wind blew.

I’d say it was blowing at least 50-60km/h as we crested the rise and out of the gloom the outline of Mackinnon’s Memorial Cairn appeared. Dropping my pack behind the memorial Kathryn handed me a hot cup of Milo. Great stuff.

My shirt was saturated with sweat from the climb and now combined with the wind I quickly started to freeze. Rugging up it was only a short walk to the summit of the pass and then onto the lunch hut. Passing a few tarns (a fancy word for a small mountain lake) a gentle rise led to the highest point of the track at 1154 metres affording us expansive views of a whiteout.

We were about to leave when something materialised through the nothingness. The snow covered outline of Mt. Hart appeared through the thinning, rushing cloud and then turning around the view opened up showing the escarpment all the way round to Mt. Balloon. It felt as if someone had pulled away a bed sheet and I was now looking up at these granite giants looming high above. My mum was in her element yelling ‘look here’, ‘look there’, ‘Oh my God!’ ‘Amazing’ ‘It’s just……’

I understandably distanced myself from her and took in the view; we were on a saddle between two 1800 metre peaks, a glacier hung on the upper slopes of one and an imposing vertical granite wall led to the other. Down in the valley below a cloud shrouded our view from where we had come. Just as quickly as everything appeared it was gone, swallowed by the cloud pouring up over the pass and into the Arthur Valley far below.

A few minutes later the cloud cleared once again, this time for good. The short walk to the lunch hut took a while as I stopped for pictures and just marvelled at the scenery. The colours had changed from the valley floor. Here the grass had the look of sunburnt wheat and the water a dark almost inky blue. Granite seemed to change with the light, like sandstone in the sun but cold tungsten in the shadows.

loo-with-a-view-milford-trackNear the lunch hut is a toilet with a famous view. Perched near the edge of the pass a window cut into its door looks out on the Clinton Valley, I couldn’t think of a nicer place to complete a crossword.

Setting off after lunch some shrieking bought the arrival of a flock of Keas, the world’s only alpine parrot. I should really call them a gang of Keas as these birds are intelligent and can be quite curious, they will nick anything not tied down and, even then, have been known to work in teams to open a backpack to steal food. They landed on the hut clearly looking for trouble.

Off the pass the track rounded the shoulder of Mt. Balloon and started descending through a series of zigzags over loose rocks and granite. Soon we were out of the wind soaking up the sun. The going was slow and hard on the knees but hiking poles really helped.

Lower down the track cut into a wide arc traversing a mountain bowl down to Roaring Burn, a stream fed by Jervrois Glacier on the plateau above us. This was the hardest part of the entire track, loose rocks, repeated washouts and some detours meant everyone was taking it slow.

Further down an elevated walkway traced the side of Roaring Burn for a few hundred metres as it leaped down the rocks in a series of waterfalls. Back into the cool canopy of the rainforest the track stretched on and on, I was beginning to think we had missed the turn off for the lodge but eventually a suspension bridge across the Arthur River appeared and we were welcomed to Quintin Lodge.

Our day wasn’t done, after a short rest I managed to peel myself out of my chair for the walk (5 km return) to Sutherland Falls. I felt like my shoes were made of concrete although the climb up through the forest wasn’t too hard as I was free of my backpack. Soon the roar of the waterfall could be heard and then there it was; Sutherland Falls. Dropping 580 metres in three steps from Lake Quill, it’s not the highest, widest or biggest in the world but it is certainly impressive. Sitting on a rocky knoll in front of the falls it’s easy to see why the Milford Track was originally built just for the purpose of getting people here.

The late afternoon sun glanced off the walls of the valley casting the upper falls in a misty warm light, it seemed almost poetic. That is until I spotted someone on the rocks at its base trying to get wet, he slipped over throwing his feet high into the air like in a cartoon before bouncing off the rock and sliding into the water, I chuckled. He did surface and signal he was okay so I don’t feel quite so bad.

Returning to the Lodge to rest (and, more importantly, to consume alcohol) the other walkers were still arriving. Some headed off to the falls but others were content to call it a day. It is worrying to note how the body seizes up after extended physical exertion, trying to get up and walk again took some real effort.

Most of the walkers had all the grace of someone learning to walk in high heels for the first time, short and tentative steps while swinging the arms like a toddler, grabbing walls or tables for extra support. I got up and in my mind I had the lithe stride of a panther but, to others, it probably looked more like I had a carrot up my rear.

For the final day of walking we would follow the Arthur River down to Lake Ada and onto Sandfly Point at Milford Sound. The 21km would be mostly flat with a couple of sections cut into the cliff face.

I didn’t get off to the best start, still half asleep I had gone to brush my teeth. Unfortunately I had failed to remember that my tube of toothpaste was the same colour and dimensions as my tube of deep heat. It left my mouth warm and tingly and I’ll even admit to a mild panic.

The path was back to the wide, flat pack trail we walked on the first two days. Rainfall on this side of the pass is around 7 to 9 metres annually although 12 metres isn’t unheard of. The forest canopy wasn’t as high here which let in more light flooding the track in a dewy glow. We meandered along the river’s edge and then back into the forest, crossing tree avalanches and small streams.

A large swingbridge crossed the Arthur and on the far valley wall was Mackay Falls. These falls are nowhere near the size of Sutherland Falls but cut down a small canyon creating a small oasis. Well worth the detour.

The track now passed along the Arthur’s western bank edging the valley wall at points. Near Lake Ada the path was cut into the cliff face, the work being completed in 1898. It took a bunch of Irish misfits 2 years to forge the 200 meter cutting.

The lunch stop was at Giant Falls a wide 20 metre drop into a big pool, an ideal place for a swim if the water wasn’t quite so cold. I did dip my feet to numb the aches.

From then on the track returned to the forest after scrambling over some sections of rocks it opened up to a service road nearing Sandfly Point.

Arriving at Sandfly Point I was knackered. My knee had held up okay with the help of the walking poles and I realised that, while my shoes were okay, I really should invest in a good pair of boots. Waiting for the ferry to Milford Sound mum and I had our picture taken at the finish of the track, 33.5 miles (53.5km) the sign read although it did feel longer.

milford-soundFrom there a small launch took us out across the Sound. The sun was streaming off Mitre Peak as we got to the harbour.

We were staying at the Mitre Peak Lodge that evening where the staff had assigned mum and I a room with a double bed.  The horrific thought of waking up in the middle of the night spooning my mum has me running to reception to change rooms. I managed to get a separate room, disaster averted.

The evening ended with a small presentation of certificates, most people retiring early for a good night sleep.

The final day dawned with overcast skies. Mitre Peak was shrouded by cloud as our cruise boat edged out into the Milford Sound. It was near freezing although most people managed to brave the winds of the upper deck to take in the view. The sound (it’s actually a fiord) runs 15 km to the sea sided by imposing cliffs reaching high into the clouds. We headed out of the sound to the Tasman Sea and were greeted by the lifting of the clouds and the early morning sun. Returning up the sound we nosed into a waterfall then back to harbour. In all a great way to farewell what had been an amazing few days.

Our coach was waiting to take us back to Queenstown via the Homer Tunnel and Te Anau. It was soon over. There were lots of goodbyes and promises to return to complete the other walks in the region at a later date. A thoroughly enjoyable week and well worth all the effort.

Mum’s present next year; socks.

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