27 December 2011

Milford Track 2005

In November 2005 I joined three Australian friends to walk the famous Milford Track in Fiordland. It was a great experience, and I recently rediscovered this trip report that I wrote at the time and enjoyed reliving the adventure. So in the spirit of a 'summer repeats' show, I've reproduced it below, with photos added. Please do check for updated details if you're planning to go yourselves - this was six years ago, after all. 

Arthur River crossing

Four Go Over Mackinnon Pass


Walking the Milford Track

Ethan Tucker
27 November 2005 

14 November (Wellington – Te Anau)

After being advised to catch and eat keas on my Fiordland excursion by a chatty Maori shuttle driver[1], I flew down to Christchurch, then transferred to an ATR-72 for the next flight into Queenstown.  My pack was laden with snack bars and noodles for the walk, plus a coveted ingot of Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut to keep us going.  The journey into Queenstown takes passengers barrelling through the Kawarau Gorge, buzzing below the valley peaks and providing a great view of both the twisting river below and the Remarkables to the south. 

Taking care to avoid the family of ducks in the carpark, another shuttle whisked me into the bustling touristy overload of central Queenstown.  I didn’t have to stay long though, because a Tracknet van soon carried me on southwards towards Te Anau.  Onboard were a cheery young local driver chap, a quiet newcomer who turned out to be a new driver joining the company, and a middle-aged lady from Te Anau who was just returning from a month in the mountains of Nepal.  Passing the home of the Kingston Flyer, we paused to change drivers at Five Rivers, then turned westwards on Highway 94 to Te Anau via the sleepy hamlet of Mossburn, whose major source of revenue is its speed camera.

Tom met me at the drop-off point in the rented Daewoo, and we drove to meet Liz and fellow Queensland mate Alison at a nearby lakeview pub for a quick drink before a frankly enormous dinner at a local Italian restaurant, followed by an early night at the hostel.

15 November (Te Anau – Clinton Hut)

After a morning spent eating as much as possible and buying as much food as we could stuff into our packs, we adjourned to Bev’s to hire some gear for Liz and Alison.  While we were there, an American couple returned from their tramp, extolling the wonders of the Milford Track.  We exchanged a heavy pineapple that I had brought down from Wellington for a pack of nuts and raisins that they had taken along but not delved into.  Along with sturdy packs and stylish waterproofs, Bev decked the girls out with swish walking poles, which made them look far more puissant than stick-less Tom and me.  What with Liz and Alison’s red and yellow fleeces, and Tom and my blue coats, a passing child might have confused us with a waterproof version of The Wiggles

Another shuttle-bus collected us from the Te Anau DoC centre to deliver us 20km north along the lakeshore to the jetty at Te Anau Downs.  The quixotic driver was heard to mutter at one point ‘I need to get gas’, at which point he turned the bus around and drove it in a circuit through the outskirts of Te Anau, only to return to Highway 94 and continue on northwards.  This did not inspire confidence, but the bus made it without sputtering into inaction. 

The catamaran trip to the northernmost point of the lake took about an hour, and the grey-skied chill encouraged us to stay inside the cabin and size up our fellow walkers.  Half were independent trampers like us, who would be staying at the DoC huts and carrying all their own food on their backs.  The others were Milford Track Guided Walkers, who we quickly dubbed ‘the richies’.  Guided walkers pay about five times as much as independent trampers, which allows them to stay in a fair approximation of luxury.  As we set off from the start of the track, our packs heavy with supplies, we passed their first accommodation spot, Glade House.  As we strode by, pitchers of orange juice sat on bedside tables awaiting their pampered guests, and a guide explained to a well-groomed customer that each suite contained an ensuite bathroom.  Now that’s roughing it! 

Clinton Hut
Clinton Hut, our destination for the night, was only about 4km up the track.  It was a short stroll along the calm lower reaches of the Clinton River, over a gently swinging suspension bridge and through peaceful rainforest laden with ferns and moss.  Here and there a few trees sprouted strange protuberances – the remains of a decades-old telephone line that used to connect the huts before radio sets were installed.  The hut compound itself was smartly laid out, with a cookhouse and two bunkrooms set around a wooden boardwalk with covered walkways to provide shelter from the Fiordland rain.  Each bunkroom housed 10 bunk-beds (20 sleepers per room).  With no electricity in the DoC huts aside from a few solar-powered low-wattage lightbulbs in the common room, cooking is by gas, and there’s no hot water for washing.  Everyone ladles on insect-repellent, because the air is thick with persistent nagging sandflies that cannot be deterred by a mere wave of the hand.[2] 

After a pre-dinner wander along the stony banks of the Clinton River, we braved the flies to sit outside the huts, where we chatted to young Tara, the DoC ranger in sole charge of the 40-strong hut contingent.  Not long out of school, Tara spoke with the traditional Southland burr while waving a stuffed stoat that had foolishly wandered into a nearby trap and had been immortalised as a pest totem.  Up close, its bristly whiskers and curling lip revealing pointy incisors resembled a peevish and far less dapper Basil Brush.

Stumbling around by torchlight in pitch-dark bunkrooms, we retired for the night, eagerly awaiting our first full day of tramping on the following day.  For a while the only noise was a puzzling waspish drone in the distance.  It turns out to be the massed ranks of trampers’ battery-operated toothbrushes.  All the comforts of home, if only you can be bothered to carry them.  As the temperature dropped and the skies opened, the hut’s plastic roof drummed to the constant beat of pounding rain until early morning, drowning out the snores of our bunkmates and eventually lulling us to sleep.

16 November (Clinton Hut – Mintaro Hut)

We set out on the next leg of the track at 8.15am on a mild grey-sky morning.  Occasionally bright bursts of mountain sunshine would break through to illuminate the foliage and enliven the flowing river.  For the first two kilometres, the Clinton had turned from a glass-like clarity to a dirty brown overnight, probably because of a heavy landslide on the uninhabited North Branch of the river during the heavy rain. 

We passed the lofty Hirere Falls on our left, tumbling down from the valley heights over near-vertical moss-clad cliffs.  A tiny robin perched precariously on a vertical branch to examine us as we passed, completely unafraid.  As the valley opened out we paused for photographs and admired the grand vista, then took a side-trip to Hidden Lake to observe its alpine wetland environs from a vegetation-protecting boardwalk.  Around mid-morning we also happened upon a family of alpine ducks busily paddling around a sheltered lagoon.

Detouring to the valley walls, we enjoyed the crisp air around little Prairie Lake, with a high waterfall churning and replenishing its waters.  Shortly after returning to the track, we entered the avalanche-prone area of the valley, where DoC signs warned trampers not to dally in case of rockfalls.  Scattered moss-free boulders testified that avalanches were common.  Tom and I, leading the pack, were lucky enough to see two snow avalanches high above, the noise of which resounded across the valley, reminding us of the warning signs’ accuracy.

Around 1pm we stopped for lunch near Bus Stop Shelter, a doorless bare tin shack.  Its dank interior didn’t impress, so we adjourned to the stony riverbanks for our lunch.  We were soon joined by a persistent kea that makes the hut his home.  He eagerly hunted around the fringes of our peripheral vision, hoping for a discarded scrap of food, or a chance to make off with an unguarded bread roll.  Some keas have been known to hook their beaks through unattended backpack zippers to gain access to the morsels within, but this one kept a respectful distance from the girls’ hiking sticks, experience having afforded him rare avian wisdom. 

Four German trampers, a.k.a. Das Lads, strode past purposefully, hoping to reach the hut before everyone else.  They approached track attire somewhat differently to the rest of us, it must be said.  They showed they were really serious about burning through the kilometres by carrying two walking poles, one for each hand.  Presumably they each also carried a six-pack of beer (!), because they often relished a can in the huts at night.  At least 20 percent of their packs must have been occupied by hair products, as one lad regularly sported a Yahoo Serious-style quiff.  Another did the whole track wearing denim jeans.[3]

Setting off again, we tramped through profuse forests with branches drooping under the weight of bulky moss jackets.  Light smatterings of rain cooled the air as we crested a series of rises that led us to our second night’s stop, Mintaro Hut, a walk of some 16.5km from Clinton Hut.  Unlike Clinton, Mintaro Hut accommodates its trampers in a single building.  We found ourselves beds in the roomy attic bunk-space, then ambled downstairs to sit by the fire. 

Mintaro Hut

As the hut’s rainwater tank bubbled over, full to the brim, the perky ranger girl warned us not to leave our boots on the ground outside the hut: keas love nothing more than to sharpen their beaks on leather, and many a tramper has emerged to find a stylish pair of boots shredded in the morning.  Rows of boot-pegs high on the walls were fitted with metal over-screens to prevent keas landing on them and attacking the invaders’ footwear. 

To pass the time before dinner I strolled to visit little Lake Mintaro, its banks gently merging into the grass and its surface dappled with raindrops.  A black shag, interrupted in its task of hunting small fish, flapped away through the drizzle, flying towards the looming Mackinnon Pass that jutted high above the Hut just to the north.  As I walked back to the huts the rain set in for the night, turning to snow on the peaks in the small hours.

17 November (Mintaro Hut – Dumpling Hut)

The hardest day of the track, and not only because our repose was rent asunder by grievous common-room snoring bouts.  A steep 500m climb from the valley floor up over Mackinnon Pass was followed by a long drawn-out 900m descent over the other side down Roaring Burn and the Arthur River valley.  The ranger (who had illustrated the magnitude of the descent by repeating the word ‘down’ fifteen times in a row) warned all trampers to dress warmly for the Pass, where the alpine air is forced over flinty rocks and mountain tarns.  Fortuitously, the Pass was clear with only tiny scatterings of snow – frequently the crossing is overcast and view-less.  We headed out onto the track again and were soon picking our way up the steep switchback inclines.

Having eaten several meals from our supplies, the load we had to carry had lessened, but it was still hard work to trudge up the path’s heavy stones.  As we made progress the rainforest cover ebbed away, exposing us to the cutting breeze, but the exercise protected us from chill.  Pretty white mountain buttercups clung to the trackside, spreading slick round leaves to catch the drizzle.  I was surprised to find the climb easier than I had feared.  In the end, I put it down to the mystical life-giving powers of that traditional New Zealand tonic, Raro. 

Two hours after leaving the hut we arrived at the Pass, and savoured the glorious views down both the Clinton and the Arthur valleys.  A stone cairn with a cross, erected in 1912, provides a memorial for Quintin Mackinnon (1853-92), the Scottish explorer who was the first guide on the track.  A family of keas prowled the skies, hoping for an unattended packed lunch while trampers have their picture taken in front of the precipice known (for obvious reasons) as ‘12 Second Drop’.  Tom went patrolling for photos, but hurried back when one of the birds tried to sneak into his pack, despite Liz clapping her hands to shoo it.  Perhaps the persistent kea thought it was a round of applause for its impressive burglary attempt.  ‘Thank you, thank you – and now, for my encore…’

At 12-Second Drop

Keas on the Mackinnon Memorial

Breaking into the precious supply of chocolate to provide a burst of energy, we pressed on across the Pass, pausing for photos at the highest point (1164m).  Flecks of snow drifted through the air and settled in the tussock while the wan cloud-dodging sun shone down on us.  An annoyingly perky Guided Walk guide in a red fleece legged it past us, to make sure she got to the Pass Hut in time to clean its famous lavatory, lest the richies have to use a smelly longdrop (!).  The toilet in question is known (in a rather twee way) as ‘the loo with the view’, because its Perspex window commands a brilliant vista of the whole Clinton Valley. 

Edging left around Mt Balloon (1853m), I filled my bottle from an ice-cold waterfall that gushed down the stony side of the mountain and across the track to the valley below, and we eased down towards Roaring Burn.  Maori travellers called this choppy stream Te Horo-o-Nuku (Nuku’s Avalanche), and DoC signs warn of similar dangers today, with trampers urged not to stop on the track.  The Jervois Glacier on Mt Elliott above regularly disgorges rock and snow avalanches that litter the track with a jumble of boulders and scree. 

The avalanche zone safely negotiated, we set out upon what turned out to be the hardest portion of the track – the long series of declining switchbacks down the north side of Roaring Burn.  The track is well-maintained but the large rocks require careful concentration and real effort to successfully navigate, particularly given the light coating of rain that had slickened the surface.  As we descended, the path returned into bush cover and twisted past a series of grand waterfalls, pounding their way through the hardy stone valley. 

Emerging ahead of the girls at the Guided Walk ‘hut’[4], Tom and I chatted to a worried-looking middle-aged American chap, who was fretting over the loan of his expensive walking pole to one of a pair of English girls on the track (Nadine and Debs from Southampton).  One had broken her rented pole and was finding the Roaring Burn descent particularly challenging, so he kindly lent her one of his.  But he had forgotten to ask her name, and now his powers of description seemed to have deserted him.  It was hard to keep a straight face when the best adjective he could come up to describe her was ‘heavy-set’ (because she was in no way heavy-set at all; in fact, if anyone could have been described as heavy-set it would have been the aforementioned Generous Benefactor).

Liz and Alison emerged from the track, and as we all rested on the grass and ate some lunch (somewhat worse for wear) the sandflies swarmed and fought for stationary skin space.  Shedding our packs for an hour or so, Tom, Liz and I took a side-trail for an hour to see the grand spectacle of Sutherland Falls, which at 580m high are the highest in New Zealand and the 6th-highest in the world.  The weight of water smashing down its massive leaps left the air around its lake saturated with spray.

Sutherland Falls

Returning down to pick up our packs we came across a pale Debs, who had previously been determined to see the falls but was now swooning from a lack of blood sugar.  Extending a measure of guarded sympathy, we offered her some of our chocolate to perk her up, and told her the falls were only a short level stroll away.  Later we found she’d not even made it to the falls (which were really about 200m away), and had even required another cadged sugar dose to trudge back to the huts.  Poor lamb.  We pictured a DoC helicopter flying overhead, winching down a barley sugar to save Debs from death’s door.

Setting off down the trail once more, it was with a great sense of relief that we finally arrived at Dumpling Hut, our home for the night.  We had travelled 14km and taken a rather long time about it.  Once the packs were removed we found it hard to move fast enough to evade the sandfly packs, particularly as our aching calves imparted a geriatric gait. 

The hut’s ranger, Venerable Ross, was a beanpole fellow of about 60, who had been working the DoC huts for 12 years.  His elongated legs stretched forth from sturdy no-nonsense workshorts, and were punctuated by prominent mountaineers’ knees.  A sensible sort, he frowned mildly at the unknown galoot who had started a fire in the hut’s pot-belly stove despite the mild evening temperature, which quickly transformed the cookhouse into a Finnish-style sauna.  Almost as good as a hot shower, I suppose.  The cheery Germans in the corner enjoyed themselves by crushing beer-cans underfoot.  We gave some spare noodles to the English girls, so Tom had to go without seconds.  Such is the price of Christian generosity.

Before long we collapsed into our sleeping bags for the night.  So ended a day of hard work and splendid sights.

18 November (Dumpling Hut – Milford Sound)
The last day’s tramp was 18km downhill on mostly level track to Sandfly Point.  Wary of being left behind by the ferry, Liz & Alison got up at dawn’s light and set off at 7.15am to get a good head-start.  Tom and I breakfasted on cereal and powdered milk, and set off around 45 minutes later.  The day had turned out fine and still, with sunshine peeping through the bush canopy and illuminating the valley floor, and tendrils of mist caressing the mountain peaks.  We passed a massive landslip that had obliterated the track, in which the hillside had disgorged a slew of loose stones a hundred metres wide to sweep down to the Arthur River.  Apparently this section of the track has plenty of avalanche paths, with names like Coby and Bossy, after former track packhorses. 

We crossed the Arthur on a bouncing suspension bridge, and stopped to marvel at the glacial stillness of the water’s surface, its mirror-like surface perfectly reflecting the clouds and sky above.  Shortly afterwards we rested at the beautiful Mackay Falls, which tumbled over stones lush with dark moss, and squeezed into nearby Bell Rock – despite its narrow entrance, two people can stand up inside it (as long as you don’t imagine wetas are in there with you).  We ambled easily alongside the 900 year-old Lake Ada, which was formed when a large rockslide blocked off the river.  Later we joined up with Liz and Alison, and heard that they had offered more food to the English girls (bless ‘em).  Apparently on receiving a mandarin from Liz, Nadine had held it out to a passing German and exclaimed, ‘look, fresh foooood!’  Well, yes.

Soon enough we emerged from the track, footsore but elated to have finally reached the end of our journey, the aptly-named Sandfly Point.  A stone cairn marks the end of the track, 53.5km from Lake Te Anau, and some weary travellers have anointed it with the trophies of their success by tying their tramping boots to it.  We took a celebratory picture in front of it. As the ferry arrived to take us over the Sound to Milford and much-anticipated hot showers, we also took a commemorative picture of the well-travelled 750g pack of nuts and raisins, which had loitered in my pack but not been eaten.  It had now done the Milford Track twice as many times as we had.    

They Came To Sandfly Point

19 November (Milford Sound – Queenstown)
Hot showers!  Cooked food!  Extremely slow internet connections!  Ah, the glorious trappings of modern society.  Refreshed by a good night’s sleep in comfortable beds at the Milford Lodge, we walked 2km along the Milford Road to the dock, where we boarded the Milford Monarch[5] for a morning cruise on the Sound (which was included in our track package, along with the transfers to and from Te Anau).  Just to prove that life was perfect, the cruise included hot croissants, orange juice, fruit and cereal, which we feasted on as the catamaran cruised out.  The 9am cruise is obviously the one to go on, because there were only about half a dozen other people on the vessel. 

Enjoying the ice-scarred majesty of the gigantic fiord, which is big enough to accommodate the largest cruise ships when they pass by, we watched from the open top deck as the local inhabitants went about their business.  Penguins hunted fish near the surface, and gambolled at the sea-shore, sporting their striking yellow eyebrows to good effect, while in another spot nimble seals lolled on rocks or waited near the base of cascading waterfalls, hoping to spy a tasty fish or two.

Invigorated by the scenery, we bid farewell to Milford and boarded our coach back to Te Anau via the Homer Tunnel.  As we passed back into the real world, the springtime fields of Southland sported massed ranks of multicoloured lupins and gorse, dazzling the eye.   Collecting the rental car, we sped up to Queenstown for the night, arriving in time for a drink on the waterfront and a tasty meal in an Indian restaurant. 

20 November (Queenstown – Wellington)
There’s a first time for everything, and in Queenstown it was my first try of McDonalds’ pancakes for breakfast.  They turned out quite likeable; almost like real food in fact.  Seeking a good view, we took the town’s gondola up to the viewing platforms, and took in the vistas of the sprawling town and Lake Wakatipu.

As the others were travelling on to the West Coast, they kindly dropped me at Wanaka airfield for my flight back home.  We took the scenic route through the Cardrona Valley, driving past the famous bra fence en route.

Bidding my glacier-seeking Australian chums farewell, I took an extremely bumpy Beech 1900 flight back to Christchurch – the sort in which you try to brace your feet against the bulkhead or nearby passengers.  This was followed by a lurching 737 trip back into Wellington, accompanied only by a long-serving backpack full of dirty clothes and a keen sense of achievement and good fortune at having witnessed the manifold wonders of the beautiful Milford Track.

[1] A bit chewy, I would’ve thought.
[2] In fact, the sandflies seem to take a hand-wave as less of a signal to go away, and more of a signal that you’re presenting your hand to be bitten.
[3] At which provocation ‘serious trampers’ (i.e. not us) would probably mutter darkly under their breaths and plan their next walk in Antarctica, ‘to avoid the tourists’.
[4] Which resembled a posh 2-storeyed ski lodge in the middle of the wilderness.  With an airstrip.
[5] Yes, everything here has ‘Milford’ in the title.
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