Milford Track, Days 117 - 120
Our adventure along the Milford Track wasn't to start until 1:30pm when the bus would collect us from the DOC centre and take us to Te Anau Downs, where we would meet the ferry. This meant we had a relaxing morning, instead of the usual stress and rush, which was lovely. We took our time packing our bags, ensuring we had everything we needed for the next four days. We both showered and tidied the van, taking care to hide our valuables out of sight, before having an early lunch of last night's leftovers.
When we were ready to go we parked our van at the back of the camp site, where allocated long stay parking (for exactly this reason) was available and headed down to the Centre. We made a couple of last minute purchases; insect repellent and a waterproof guide for the walk. The bus arrived early and we climbed on board with around 25 others walkers and off we went.
We came to the drop off point within 30 minutes and we made our way on to the boat, dumped our bags at the back and went and sat on the top deck in the lovely sunshine. There was a whole heap of different people with us, including a Kiwi Dad and his 11 year old son, four other couples our age (three English, one french) about four or five single ladies (or ladies who had left their husband at home working, to fund their travels) and a Kiwi couple in their seventies. Everyone kept themselves to themselves on the boat with one or two people making small talk.
As the boat left the jetty and made it's way up Lake Te Anau to the start of the Milford Track we admired the beautiful scenery and the peace and quiet. There was lots of yellow pollen on the water, which we were informed was due to the beech trees. We were very privileged to be able to witness this because these trees only flower every four to six years so it was a fairly rare sight. Very few people were taking photographs in order to try and make their camera batteries last as long as possible (Dan included).
After an hour we came to another little jetty at the head of the lake and it was time to start walking! We only had a short distance to go today, 4.5 kilometres (or nearly three miles) so we knew we would only be walking for about an hour. We were mainly walking through forests so we were sheltered from the sun but it was still very warm. We followed the river upstream and took a little detour to look at a wetland area, where there was a gorgeous waterfall flowing over the top of the 'U' shaped valley. It was a very open area and you could see a panoramic view of the valley. It's amazing to see no pylons, no telephone wires or masts, no houses or farms, definitely no roads, just miles and miles of beautiful countryside completely unspoilt!
We arrived at Clinton Hut just after 4pm and went and found some bunk beds in the corner of one of the rooms. We checked the place out, used the bathrooms and discovered proper flushing toilets (not fully roughing it then) and then headed back to the river to explore a little. We didn't spend very long there as the sand flies were horrendous and very hungry. Our insect repellent was brilliant and stopped them from biting us, but only for a short period of time. We walked back to the hut and started getting to know people.
At 5pm the ranger, Peter, came out of his hut and took us for a little nature trail around the hut. He was a very strange person, for a start he had a big bushy beard that just screamed "I'm isolated and I don't get out much". He was wearing green long johns underneath his short green shorts (an attempt to keep out the insects) which did make him look a little like garden gnome, and he had the strangest sense of humour. The trail started off quite interesting but standing in the full heat of the sun and trying to stop sand flies biting soon takes away your attention and it got to the point where Dan (who was still wearing shorts) could not move fast enough in a bid to kill the bloody things and he ended up with around 20 bites on each leg.
When the trail finally ended 90 minutes later, and Dan had changed into his long trousers, we had dinner. We only had some soup tonight as we had eaten a big lunch and we hadn't walked very far but we had rice pudding for dessert which was a very good idea! After dinner we had our "safety" talk, in which Peter talked at us for another 45 minutes and produced a stuffed stoat from his pocket when he was explaining about the traps along the track. Most of us didn't know whether to laugh or cry at this point and we he suggested a glow worm hunt when it finally got dark there were a couple of people who decided they just couldn't take anymore and retired to bed!
When it got dark a large group of us walked a little distance away from the hut and found loads of glow worms gathered along a rocky bank, which was sheltered by branches. It was great to see them out in the wild and not just in caves and we watched them for a while before walking back. By now most people were going to bed but it still wasn't 10pm and Dan and I were still wide awake. Thankfully we weren't the only ones and we joined Lucy and Dave, friends travelling together from the UK, for a couple of games of cards. We went to bed at around 10:30pm and tried desperately to change and get in to bed as quietly as possible so not to wake the other 10 people sharing our room with us. We climbed into bed and both laid there wide awake for the next hour before I fell into a very fitful sleep and woke at 2am. I went outside to go to the toilet and was greeted by thousands of stars! There were so many of them, so pretty!
We both woke just after 6am to find people getting up and dressed!! I know we've got a long walk ahead of us but we don't need to get up that early!! I dozed for another hour while Dan got up and had some coffee and then we had breakfast (croissants, bananas and high energy milkshakes) and left the hut at 8:30am. Today we had to walk 18 kilometres (11 miles) and we had all day to do it! The path continued alongside the river heading up the valley towards the Mackinnon Pass. We mainly walked out in the open, across the valley floor, but we did spend short periods walking through forests as well. The sun was out and the sky was blue and it was another gorgeous day. We made the most of this lovely weather because we were guaranteed one day of rain on the track (a bit like the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands then, you're always guaranteed at least one day of rain there!)
There are 57 avalanche routes which cross the Milford Track. We were very lucky to be able to do this walk as there was still quite a bit of snow high up on the mountains, threatening to melt and fall down into the valley at any moment. There were a few avalanches while we were walking and most of the group (ie not me) witnessed one of two from a safe distance. There were areas along the path where you had to keep moving and you weren't allowed to stop (for lunch or have a little nap for example) because avalanches were a high possibility in that area. We both heard a couple and Dan saw one because he was dawdleling and taking photos and I walked on ahead.
Just before lunch we caught up with Didier and Louis (father and son from Whangarei) and we walked with them a little way (Dan was with them when he saw the avalanche). We came across a small pretty little lake, which was not in a no stopping area so Dan and I decided to stop and eat lunch as there were few sand flies around. Diddy and Louis carried on and we caught them up a bit later on. Just as we were getting comfortable and broke into our crackers, cheese and salami we heard a large rumble and knew there was an avalanche nearby. It was at this point we notice a huge sheet was ice lying beside the cliff, a little way down from the lake. We thought about it and decided if there was an avalanche nearby it would be a lot louder than the rumble we had just heard, and that there would be a sign stating it was a unsafe stopping area so we carried on eating our lunch.
We continued walking with no events. I had struggled to get my rucksack comfortable for a little while when we first started but had altered the straps and was a lot happier now. My shoulder was handling the weight well and wasn't giving me any grief but my back was starting to ache so I was grateful when we arrived at Mintaro Hut just after 2pm, with Diddy and Louis. There were only a few people who had already arrived, some of which were making the most of the quiet dorms and having a nap so we quietly claimed two beds and went and sat outside again. We had climbed 400 metres in altitude today and it was a welcome respite from the sand flies. There were a few around but there was a gentle breeze, which kept them at bay so we spent most of the afternoon sitting on the veranda and getting to know our fellow walkers a bit more. The hut was located next to a lake and a few of us went down for a paddle, with a couple of crazy people trying to have a swim (although it was far too cold and too shallow). I'd forgotten to pack my swimmers (such a shame) so I didn't participate this time, but I had done my glacier lake swimming in Canada!
We had spectacular views across the lake, which we could also see from the hut. As we climbed up into the mountains the valley started to become narrower and so the walls were a lot closer to us. We were also nestled in between several peaks so there were several steep slopes covered in snow waiting to fall below. Most of us sat outside for the rest of the afternoon hoping to catch another avalanche or a rock fall but none occurred. We all started cooking tea at around 6pm as we were all very hungry. Tonight we had pre cooked carbonara pasta which just needed warming, and more rice pudding. It was very delicious but we were still a bit hungry afterwards so we filled up on some Jamaican ginger cake, which brought back memories of our first walk across the South Downs Way with the Crew.
Our safety hut talk with Sergeant Keri was short and brief, the complete opposite of last night's, to the point where we really wanted her to crack a joke but it didn't happen. All the huts have recently had solar panels installed, which provide lights for two hours in the evening. In this hut the lights over the tables were broken. Keri told us they would be fixed in a couple of weeks, which prompted Didier to exclaim how delighted he was to hear that (exceptionally sarcastically as it made no difference to our evening but it brought a smile to my face).
Lucy had brought the travel version of Pass the Pigs with her and a large group of us started playing rather noisily, which was lots of fun. People started drifting off to bed after 9pm and tonight we weren't very far behind them as we were both exhausted so we were tucked up before 10pm and asleep within half an hour. I woke again to go to the toilet at some ridiculous hour and saw even more stars than I did the night before.
We slept much better although Dan still woke before 7am again so he got up and had coffee and I eventually joined him. We were packed up and on our way by 8:30am again and we started our climb. Thankfully we had another beautiful day again and there were no clouds to be seen so we walked at a fairly quick pace to try and get to the top ASAP and see the views of the surrounding area. We had another 600 metres to climb, which took us one hour twenty and we soon reached the memorial of Duncan McKinnon, the explorer who discovered the Pass we had just climbed. We rested for fifteen minutes and enjoyed the vistas before we continued our way to the very peak of the Pass at 1154 metres. After a few photos we started our descent to the Pass Hut, a brand new shelter, where we found a few of our fellow walkers taking advantage of complimentary gas stoves and making a hot brew for themselves.
After 30 minutes, a few mars bars (funsize not normal ones!) and water we set off again, walking with Didier and Louis, and Sandra, a lone Italian who has lived in Queenstown for the last ten years. There was quite a bit of snow around and on the path at the top and I slipped on some ice but managed to land on my bum so no disasters there. After about half an hour we came across a gate barricading our way informing us the main route was closed due to avalanche risk. We were directed down the alternate route, which was slightly shorter but much steeper and hard work. It was a beautiful stretch of the walk though as we walked through forests and bush and we looked down over the valley as we climbed down.
When we finally rejoined the main path we crossed a suspension bridge over the river and started walking down several series of boardwalks and stairs which took us down the side of some magnificent and very beautiful waterfalls and gorges. This was a very leisurely part of the walk as we kept stopping to admire the water (and due to the snow melt there was a lot of it) and take in the beautiful surroundings. When we reached the end of the boardwalks the path crossed back over the river and we came to another shelter where could could leave our bags and walk an additional four kilometres to Sutherland Falls, New Zealand's highest waterfall. By now it was gone 1pm and we hadn't eaten lunch so we tried to eat but the sand flies were back with a vengeance now we were back on lower ground and after ten minutes or so we gave in and walked to the Falls.
It was well worth the walk! When we reached the end of the path we were mesmerised by the fast flowing water that pounded into the floor in front of us. The path ended a good few hundred metres before the edge of the river directly in front of the waterfall but you could climb up the couple of rocks onto the river bank and receive a soaking from the spray. It was truly beautiful.
We walked back to the hut and collected our bags and set off on the final hour of walking for the day. With the additional sightseeing trip we will have clocked up another 19 kilometres and my feet were starting to ache. Spending time without my rucksack wasn't a good idea because it was very hard putting it back on my back but I did and we walked all the way to Dumpling Hut without stopping. We were one of the first people there and we dumped our belongings and went and hid from the sand flies in the kitchen and dining area, where we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening.
I really enjoyed myself and made some good friends with other walkers. It turned out that one of the other English couples got married the day before we did, and Mark was also a civil engineer so he and Dan had some common ground. We talked and played games up until dinner time. We made our freeze dried Thai curry and Didier kindly gave us some instant noodles to accompany them and we had a fairly nice meal although the curry was very hot, too hot for me (but I ate it because I was bloody hungry!) which was very surprising. You would have thought that the manufacturers of these meals would think the people eating them are likely to be walkers / campers who might not have access to proper toilets, therefore adding a lot of spice to a meal might not be the best idea. Anyway, it was surprisingly edible and with the noodles it was just the right amount. No rice pudding tonight but we had a big bag of cookies which we tucked into and shared with everyone else.
After dinner Jen gave us our final hut safety talk and she was lovely, a good balance between Strange Peter and Sergeant Keri! Afterwards we carried on talking and playing games. Dan learned a new card game with Dave, while I played Rummikub (my favourite) with Didier, Louis and Mark (and I won one as well). Diddy managed to get his hands on a miniature bottle of scotch, which he passed around the room. Needless to say it went down a treat with the men (and some of the lasses too). I got to know Jen, an Aussie actress, who worked with Juliet when she was down under for a TV film nearly ten years ago. Small world hey?!
We were all a bit later to bed tonight and we discovered there were only three other people in our room and no snorers! Sweet as! I STILL needed the toilet in the middle of the night, despite not drinking anything after dinner but it gave me an excuse to marvel at the stars one last time before returning to civilisation tomorrow.
We were both awake early again (maybe I could be a "lark" after all?) and we packed up our rucksacks for the final time. We were going to try and catch the early boat back to Milford to allow us to get back to Te Anau for 4:30pm instead of 7pm so we said goodbye to Didier and Louis, who were on the later boat, and left the hut at 8:15am. A few people had left before us, anxious to ensure they reached Sandfly Point by 3:15pm. We covered three miles in the first hour and worked out that if we stuck at that pace we would be at the ferry pick up point by midday and therefore eaten alive so we slowed down considerably.
We saw a couple of gorgeous waterfalls today, my favourite being McClaren Falls, which was a quaint little waterfall with a deep turquoise pool underneath it. There was a little cave right next door to it, which was shaped like a bell inside, hence the name Bell Rock. Dan had a little explore inside while I watched the waterfall, taking advantage of the breeze which kept the sand flies at bay.
By lunch time we had caught up with several people and everyone was slowing down to snail's pace to ensure we didn't arrive too early at Sandfly Point. We had lunch at a little shelter beside the Lake before joining a long line of people walking the final kilometres of the track. We kept passing groups of people walking the other way, who were probably having a little day walk at the Milford end of the track. Every time they walked past we would get a whiff of cleanliness, soap, deodorant and perfume. The Queen of showers was feeling utterly disgusting by this point and there's only so much you can do with a bar of soap and cold water! That hot shower was the only thing keeping me going!
About a kilometre away from the end Dan started having trouble with his leg, and a couple of times he felt it give way and nearly fell over. He had to loosen the waist straps of his bag, which was not designed for hiking (a mistake we only realised on the day of the walk, with no time to remedy). We took it steady and arrived at our final destination in one piece.
We all climbed aboard the little sailing boat and sat outside in yet another sunny day. Guaranteed rain huh? I want my money back! (joking!) I didn't know whether to be pleased we didn't get wet or annoyed we had hired all the wet gear and not worn it!
After 29 minutes we moored in Milford ferry harbour and off the boat we hopped. The majority of people who were on the boat jumped on the bus but a few didn't. Lucy and Dave, and Sarah and Paul were embarking on the Milford Cruise and Jen had booked the bus to Queenstown so she had to wait so we said goodbye to them and exchanged contact details and off we drove down the Milford road towards Te Anau. Dan and I dozed during parts of the journey. Comfy seats and the warm air got to most people on the bus and it was reasonably quiet.
Meg and Mark got off at Te Anau Downs and collected their camper so we said goodbye to them and finally after a further 20 minutes we arrived back where we started. We collected our van, which was still in one piece and decided to try a different camp site. We pulled up at the Top 10 site and were closely followed by Meg and Mark! This set the scene for the rest of the evening as we hired gear from the same place so after showers and sorting out out gear we followed them to the hire shop and then back to the camp site. They were super organised and already had their washing on so we left them to it and walked into town to the one restaurant recommended by fellow walkers who stayed in Te Anau the night before the walk; The Ranch. We decided we definitely deserved a reward for our hard work so we tucked into Fillet Steak, just as Meg and Mark walked in! This is a small town but it's not that small!
We could not resist pudding as they were home made, huge and looked totally delicious so Dan had Lemon Meringue Pie and I had Baked Chocolate Cheesecake. The French couple (I feel bad I didn't learn their names but they did keep themselves to themselves) entered the restaurant just as we finished eating so we had more cheering at how we were all taking over the town before leaving them to their very well deserved glasses of wine. Dan got talking to an Australian couple who wanted to know what all the cheering was about, while I talked to Meg and Mark and discovered they too would also be at the Ashes game in Melbourne on Boxing Day, and were also intending to be in Sydney for New Year so we vowed to meet up and we exchanged email addresses.
We walked back to the camp site along the lake shore, trying to walk off the excessive amount of food we had just eaten. We made the bed almost instantly and only managed to watch one episode on 24 before passing out from sheer tiredness before 10pm.