chilling feet

chilling feet

Thursday, March 20, 2014

One of the Greatest Walks in the World

(Just starting the hike we stopped and asked one of the
hikers who was doing a guided tour to snap a shot of us.
You can walk independently or with the guides for
a little bit of cash)
If you have been following our posts on this blog you are now accustomed with the nine Great Walks of New Zealand.  Our first Great Walk was the illustrious Routeburn trek (with +Scott Smith+Miriam Williamson, and +Gordon Paulson) and then we followed up with the secluded Rakiura trek (with Tim, +Gwendolyn Williamson, Miriam, and Gordon).  It was when Scott said he was going to come and visit us in New Zealand that I first heard of the Milford Trek.  This was when I not only discovered one of the most notable treks in the world, but also began to research when it would be possible to enjoy such a walk.  Unfortunately for Scott the walk is so popular it books up months in advance so even as early as September there was no way we could plan a hike for December.  Wow!  Sarah and I immediately booked the next possible slot.  Would you believe me if I told you we just now hiked it in March?
(True to form for NZ, the water was beautiful everywhere
we looked!)

In 1888 a route from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound was discovered by Quintin McKinnon and Ernest Mitchell.  These men braved horrendous weather, trudged through thick Fjordland forest, and for certain waged war against the most terrible of all - the sandflies!  As Sarah and I stepped off of a boat and onto the Milford trek (yes, you have to take a boat or plane or helicopter to get there and then a boat to get back from the other side and for some reason I find that to be simply amazing), we were stepping into a richer history then we could really grasp.  Even as we learned and continue to learn about the origin of the track, the work that has gone into making it a reality, or the constant attention required to keep it possible we cannot fathom the richness of its past.  One story we were told on the boat ride over was about the mysteriously tragic disappearance of the track finder Quintin McKinnon. One day Quintin went out in his boat and was simply never seen again.  His boat and gear all washed ashore but no evidence was ever discovered of Quinton.
(Sarah trying to encourage a a bird to come and play!)

Our first steps into this historical place and walk were short.  The first day of the walk is only an easy 1.5 hour walk to Clinton Hut.  This is not the customary start to a great walk and we were sitting at our hut trying to figure out what to do with ourselves.  We could spend some time outside as long as we did not sit still for more than a few moments - sandflies.  If there is a repellent that works on them, the one we had did not work for me.  We explored a little bit, relaxed some, prepared and cooked dinner, and then hit the hay early.  We had an early morning start from Invercargill to ensure we made it to the boat ride on time and we welcomed a visit to the sleeping bags.

(A raised path through the wetlands keeps the feet dry and
the wetland protected from my bruising it.)
And after not getting much sleep due to a "rustler" (seriously it sounded as though someone just kicked, turned, and fought off evil nightmares in their sleeping bag all night long), we started our first "real" day of the hike with porridge in our stomachs and smiles on our faces.  With an average of rain one in every three days, we celebrated as we marched off in the beautiful New Zealand weather. This day included walking through wetlands, a valley as we made our way slightly and slowly up towards our big climb for the next day, and deeper into the Fjordland forest.  There were some bouncy swing bridges to cross and numerous views of where we had to just stop and stare in awe.  Eventually we arrived at the Mintaro hut where I once again tried to hide from sandflies.  We scarfed down our delicious freeze dried meal of lamb with vegetables and mashed potatoes, and then once again found ourselves jumping into bed early.  Maybe this night would offer us some freedom from The Rustler!  
(What a valley!  The clouds obstructed some
of the view but it was pretty.)

After not the best night of sleep, but a night with much less rustling we roused ourselves for another warm dose of porridge.  It was not raining yet but it was overcast with a strong promise of precipitation.  Panchos pulled over, rain covers over our bags, and our resolves set we went forth for the most difficult day of our hike.  We read a quote in the Clinton hut on the wall by a renowned hiker that stated, "Fjordland is a land of perpendiculars."  The mountains are so steep most of any hike in the area is either mostly flat or mostly... not.  As we climbed to the McKinnon Pass it began to rain so we pulled
our hoods close around our faces while still trying to make sure we still enjoyed the views.  The main draw back to the rain is of course obstruction of the beauty that Fjordland has to offer; however, the rain does offer a gift which is hardly easy to imagine until you see it.  Waterfalls!  Not one or two or even twelve.  Countless waterfalls began to spill down all around us.  It was impossible to turn in any direction without seeing a (or many) new waterfall(s) to wonder at in amazement!  This made the windy and rainy McKinnon Pass (without a view) bearable, along with the fantastic shelter the DOC built at the top for hikers to hunker down in when the weather is bad.  It was wet.  It was beautiful.  It was Fjordland.  We
(Taken during our day of rain you cannot quite make out
in detail what we could see with our naked eye, but if
you look closely you should be able to count around 12
to 15 waterfalls in this one shot.  And they grew as we
climbed and it rain more.)
hiked down 1,000 meters to the Dumpling hut, changed into dry clothes, enjoyed our dinners, and ended up playing cards with other hikers.  All in all a great day.  

Our third day was picture perfect!  Enjoying a third day of beautiful weather out of four in Fjordland, we almost danced down the last   We continued to enjoy calling out and whistling to Tomtits, Fantails, Tui, and other unidentified birds as we hiked.  We marveled at waterfalls, paused to look out at fantastical river views, and overall simply enjoyed the presence of each other as we walked.  Then something really awesome happened.  We had been hearing a helicopter flying through our valley all morning but only caught one glimpse of it.  As we were talking we came upon one of the DOC workers spreading out rocks and working on the path.  He informed us that the helicopter had been delivering 500 kilogram bags of rocks all morning with the hopes of getting 67 delivered during the day!  We had wondered at the technique used to replenish the trails with these rocks and had seen the piles off to the sides of the trail many times.
(A shot through the trees as the chopper
dropped the huge bag of rocks.)
Now we knew!  But that's when it happened.  Even though he said the helicopter had to refuel we heard it coming back to drop another bag.  We raced back up the path to where the worker was and stood under the loud canopy of trees being thrust back and forth as the helicopter hovered above to lower the bag of rocks while the man on the ground navigated him around limbs and trees.  Wow!  We were quite excited to see this and it was a thrill to stand so close.

The day's walk ended as we finished the 53.5 kilometer walk at Sandfly point (you've got to be kidding me right!?).  Fortunately there was an enclosed shelter to keep people from going crazy in sandfly zone while they wait for the boat to come and pick them up.  It was a fabulous feeling finishing a trek with so much history and notoriety.  It is safe to say we come off each track a little changed.  Most likely it will take us time to evaluate how much each trek has changed us and how, but I can safely say Milford trek has left its indelible mark on us for certain.  With the love of hiking and seeing all that this world has to offer growing in us with each step we take, it is with mixed emotion I left Fjordland.  I was sad to see all of the surreal beauty - the mountains, waterfalls, wildlife - fade away as we entered back into the normal beauty of New Zealand, but was overjoyed to leave behind the ever persistent sandflies who also left their mark on us - many times over and with retribution to follow.

Who knows where the next walk will be or if we will complete all nine Great Walks, but this was one we will remember for a long time.  More photos to follow so please enjoy!
(The Clinton hut our first night)

(When the water really gets high these markers keep one on the trail.  That shows you just how much it really rains in Fjordland!  I cannot imagine needing these signs.) 

(Getting my cook on!)
(The inquisitive Kia come looking for food, fun, or anything to destroy.  With minds as smart as four year old human beings they get into quite a bit of mischief.)
(I watched as these guys fought, tried to pry the metal off of the roofs, and worked curiously all around the hut.)

(Kias on the rock!  They flew out to watch us walk by in the rain.  Probably thinking, "Silly humans.")

(Sometimes the Kia get into trouble and sometimes the Sarah gets into trouble - she goes exploring Bell Rock.)


(Looking for the helicopter that dropped all of these huge bags.) 
(500 kg!!) 
(The worker on the ground ensuring all goes well.)
(As we were walking down the last part of the path we saw a Weka!  It just came out of the bush and sat down right here in front of us as though on a nest.  Amazing.) 

(The finish line!)