2012-02-27, Te Anau
The New Zealand Department of Conservation has a big job. They maintain 8 million hectares of land — that’s roughly 30% of New Zealand — and have to keep it accessible and available for this and future generations of visitors and kiwis, including real kiwis and New Zealanders. Part of this is the Fiordland World Heritage Site [check] which includes three “Great Walks”: The Kepler Track, the Routeburn Track, and the Milford Sound Track. The DOC bills the Milford Sound as “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World”. I’m sure I haven’t done enough of the top twenty or so to pick The Most anything, but I’ve got nothing bad to say about Milford Sound Track.
I will spend a few words to voice my only two complaints: First, consider the Sandfly aka namu. This is a native species — or I read now perhaps 11 different species — I would wish threatened, endangered, and extinct, to the extent that all three would be possible at once, or in short succession. She — as with many species, the male is meek, not a bother, and not much concern in anything beyond breeding a new generation — is about a millimeter long, dark, silent, and bloodthirsty. The bites are worse than misquotes, although I may be particularly allergic to the venom. I have welts which are nasty and red, and still itch after six days. Relief comes by way of scratching when and where appropriate, and also, I recently learned, by applying heat. Brew up a cup of coffee and the spoon will be a little too hot, but as it cools it passes through a perfect temperature to apply for some temporary relief. But as I said, after six days, still I have welts, so prevention by the ounce is better than coffee by the cup.
My second complaint: the weather was perfect. Mostly warm and not too hot, and cloudless blue sky. The Milford Sound Walk is well-known for its abundant and glorious waterfalls. The area gets about 180 days of rain each year, and has lots of snow fields and even some glaciers. It is rocky glacial moraine with no soil to speak of, and the plants eke out an existence in what little there is. It hasn’t rained in a month. The plants are not thrilled by this, and the few permanent waterfalls fed by the snowfields are running a bit thin this time of year, and are less than their full gloriousness. It is the habit of Milford Sound walkers to either gripe about having to slog in the rain or gripe about missing the waterfalls. This trip, I am forced to do the second, since the rain didn’t do the first.
This is the longest walk I’ve ever been on, clocking in at 33.5 miles. New Zealand’s DOC does a great job of promoting walking, and has the support for wimps like me. Booking is easy at the DOC web site. Some time in January when I realized I would be spending some vacation time in New Zealand I logged into the site and found that from about February 6th to March 20th — my projected vacation time — I could pick between a walk starting on the 23rd of February and not going. The Milford is far and away the most popular of the Great Walks, and for that entire time, there was only one opening.
Only forty “independent walkers” are permitted to start each day, and I must have lucked into a cancellation — in fact, some of the other hikers with me had a friend who was coming, and cancelled, so: “Thanks Judy!” In the high season, the lucky forty on the Milford are required to stay each of the three nights in the three DOC huts, with no tent-camping. The huts are pretty lavish, but the Great Walk huts are top of the line as huts go. There are forty bunks in a small number of bunk-rooms, each with a nice plasticy mattress. I was blessed with only light snorers. No hot water, and cold water which was fresh from springs and waterfalls and such and tasted heavenly. Kitchens with many gas burners and ample gas, tables and chairs, and screens on the windows to keep out .. remember sandflys? So the usual: pack in food, pots, plates, and a spoon, pack out trash, but no need to pack gas and a stove. Each hut also came with a ranger, eager to tell us what was to be seen nearby, what the next day’s hike would be like, what to look out for — historical, botanical, or zoological — and why this was the best of all the huts.
The DOC also makes it easy to book the bus from the DOC building in Te Anau to the boat to the trailhead, the boat from the trail’s end at the aptly-named Sandfly Point to the lovely town of Milford Sound, and the bus from Milford Sound back to Te Anau. The whole mess cost me $354 NZ, and aside from hitching back to Te Anau and saving the bus fare [which I did in the end, aside from saving the fare, since I already had paid for the ticket] one can’t really weasel out of paying that for the Milford.
There’s also the option of Guided Walks aka Glamor Camping aka “Glamping”. These folks have their own luxe huts, have their meals provided, and get a guide all the way for — I assume — games of “name that bird”. And all for the price of $1830. In the low season. Restrictions apply. Suddenly the DOC sounds quite reasonable. But then, the walk or at least part of it was private until 1968, and independent walkers had to make some crazy entry over a difficult pass to get to the track, and had to camp 500 meters off the track. In 1968 some folks staged a protest and got the track for the people — like me. So good on you again, 1968.
I’m traveling with Megan, another polie. While I was walking the the Milford, she was walking the Kepler Track. She got the reservation two days before she left, she walked from the “other end” to the usual trailhead, she was allowed to tent-camp, and she only had maybe the fourth or fifth most beautiful walk in the world. The Milford gets a lot of extra traffic. I’m pretty sure I would have been happy on the Kepler or the Routeburn — the two other Great Walks in Fiordland — but I was happy on the Milford.
I’m trying to write this about a week after walking, and the walk itself has blended from four days into one long mush of pleasant walking. The first day started with a bus ride at 9:30 to get to Glade Wharf and a 1:15 boat ride to get to the trailhead. Clinton Hut, the first overnight stop, is only about 5 km of flat walking, and through fairly open glade to the Clinton River. And full of sandflys. Each hut has a swimming hole nearby, and they are all cold, as in “glacial”. Even the young folks trying to impress one another didn’t last longer than about 30 seconds in the water. The ranger at the hut gave us a nature walk, showing us two edible plants among the rest of the deadly New Zealand greenery, gave us more history than I can remember, and did a wide range of bird calls for me to not remember later.
The second day is a slow climb from Clinton Hut to Mintaro Hut; about 16.5 kilometers and 250 meters of elevation gain. Along the way it passes from glade land to more mountain vegetation. There are views of the north fork of the Clinton and crazy fjord hills. I don’t know of anything like it in the states, but folks tell me it’s like the Norway fjords or some other fjords. Fiddley bits.
Day three is the killer: 14 km, but over Mackinnon pass at 1000 meters, and back down to about sea level again. I assume if I still had my South Pole Blood Doped Super Powers it would have been a lot easier, but just as it took about a week to feel human at South Pole, it took about a week to feel less than super-human at sea level, and my old knee and feet took a bit of a pounding on the descent. That’s where most of the evacuations happen, including the one that our group provided — a young woman tore something or other in her leg and got a free unscheduled helicopter tour of the area. The views were spectacular, eventually. There was a bit of an inversion layer over the pass trapping clouds on the far north side and causing them to spill over to the south side, where we started. It kept it cool, but near the top there was no view of the Mackinnon Memorial at the pass from even a hundred meters away. I waited about an hour for it to clear some, and another group waited about three hours by some lovely pools on the other side of the pass.
One of the interesting things about such a small, controlled flow through the park is that I rarely saw other walkers. We are all headed in in the same direction and have to make the same hut. Once I’d passed the slower of the early risers, and the faster late starters had passed me, I could walk most of the day without seeing anyone else, except perhaps where they or I stopped for lunch. There are several shelters which make attractive stopping and lunch rests, or places to avoid to get less company. I did some of each. The Guided Walkers on the other hand traveled in more of a big clump with a guide up front and a guide behind herding them around. And the group with us were a particularly celebratory group. They rallied at the Memorial for lunch as I skedaddled down the hill and my pals rested by the pools, and I could hear them whooping and hollering for about the next half hour or so. Perhaps the inversion layer was part of that, trapping sound. I waited long enough to get some views of the Memorial, and a coupled of thin spots in the northern clouds to see down the valley, and put fear into my knees and ankles.
I have never hiked with a walking stick before, and some swear by two of them, but I was glad to have had mine — or rather Arthur’s — when I reached Dumpling Hut, the third night’s stay. I met Arthur at Christchurch Quaker Meeting, which happened to be a short walk from my Christchurch hotel stay. Rather than having to hunt over town for the things I lacked, I borrowed a full assortment from Arthur and had a lovely tea on Sunday. I had cooking pots, a cup, spoon, and bowl, a pack, wind pants and a raincoat — which I haven’t needed yet in New Zealand — and a sleeping bag. I look forward to seeing him again on my way out.
The side trail to Sutherland Falls, the most spectacular falls in New Zealand at 580 meters, was closed by a rock slide in December. Oh well. We did get some great views of it from the trail, but probably not as spectacular as if it had been 580 meters and falling 20 meters away from us. Or raining hard and steady for the three days it took us to get there. A fair trade, I think.
The last day is flat, since we were already pretty much at sea level, but fairly long at 18.5 kilometers. I bustled along and got to Sandfly Point in time for the early boat. I wish I knew more about birds and trees and rocks and stuff to sound all sciencey and let you know precisely what it was I saw. I’m slightly more embarrassed since Megan — over on the Kepler, remember — is a US Forest Service botanist when she’s not driving heavy equipment at South Pole, and taught me a few things I can’t really say I learned. I’m going to attempt later a list of interesting New Zealand birds I saw, but I’ll start with: No penguins and no kiwis. I might maybe have heard a kiwi one night but I’m not sure enough to add it to the life-list I don’t actually keep.
There officially ends the walk. But I did spend the night in the town of Milford Sound, and the next day went on a scenic cruise of the sound itself. That gave me a different perspective on things, seeing it from the water. It was well worth the extra day, and the not rushing. I pinned my bus ticket to the board in the Milford Sound Lodge, and got a ride back to Te Anau — where the journey started — with a Viennese woman who was on the walk with me and a German woman who was traveling with her but not on the walk. We had a few stops along the way at more scenic things and a few short walks, but nobody felt much like walking for more than about ten minutes at a time. Although in retrospect, sitting wasn’t that nice either, after the Milford Sound Tramp. Legs and feet largely recovered after a few days, and Megan and I were off for North Island.