Into the wilderness...

Trip Start Feb 12, 2011
Trip End Jul 09, 2011

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wooden huts x3

Flag of New Zealand  , South Island,
Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Right I've been meaning to write this for ages and keep formulating different sentences i can use, forgetting those and developing some more, but most of all knowing that the experience of walking the milford track I will never be able to do proper justice to with words.  Everything you read multiply by 10x more amazingness and you'll be a tad closer...

The bus trip i left you with on the last entry drove us further along lake te anau (the lake is massive!) the weather was closing in and by the time we were dropped out on a boarded jetty in the middle of no where the rain and mist surrounded us.  40 people all raincoated up, backpacks on and no idea what to expect boarded the little boat that pulled up for us. A little speech from the captain pointing out all the places we could potentially trip over and then we were off.  We had 30km to travel along the lake before we would be the furthest from civilisation I have ever been.  As we went up the river the mountains lined the sides and little islands we went passed disappeared into the mist.  Waterfalls gushed out of the mountains in the rain and I felt slightly strange, as we drifted past the islands and mountains with totally untouched forests, conversations slowly stopped as we edged closer and closer, all in awe of the beauty (which it was even in the rain), both me and steve turned to each other at the same time to say it reminded us of Jurassic park, think wild, beautiful, untouched, awesum, huge, and how small and insignificant we were next to it all.

After hoping the rain would have cleared further down the lake the captain then laughed and said well you just have to see milford in the rain, its the way its meant to be - welcome to one of the wettest places on earth.

We climbed off the boat, stepped in and out of disinfectant buckets (they are determined to preserve this land and keep in free from disease!) set determined looks on our faces and headed into the forest. The first day was is some ways pretty easy, only 5km on a pretty well laid out path, but in the heaviest wettest rain I've ever seen i just hoped my bag would keep dry with its bag on and gave up trying to keep the rain off me.  The forest was alive with the colour green, this may sound strange but it was so boyant, so many types of plants, to the side of the track that was all you could see, thick, dense, greenary, and smell the green in the air. we navigated around huge flooded areas of the path, balanced on logs, jumped when we could, crossed an awesome suspension bridge and before long just had to resort to wading through to get to the hut. 

Their are two types of walkers on this track, the guided ones - they have everything carried for them, chefs cooking their meals, hot showers, flush toilets, and huts an hour before the other huts - those of the "freedom walkers" we were one of those.  We arrived at our wooden hut for the first night, huge bunk rooms with a number on each one, we claimed ours writing our names on the list.  Outside of the hut the plastic roof continued out a way, underneath was full of hanging clothes desperate to dry out but with the constant rain still heavy it seemed unlikely.  Peeling off wet clothes and changing into our only dry things, we tried to hand everything out as best as we could, armed with torches (the light was fading) and dehydrated food sachets we headed for the main hut. Ah the warmth that hit was amazing, i hadn't realised how cold I had got while wet, they had the log fire going and people huddled all around, some cooking at the gas rings others all starting to get to know eachother, these would be who we spent the next four days and three nights with. We had some cool kit, fold out cups and plates, sporks, and hot chocolate powder - yum!

Torches on and the firing dieing out, the hut ranger had given a very entertaining talk which included lots about the wild life around (he pulled a dead stoat out of his pocket at this point!!), heavy weather warnings of floods, plenty more rain and snow for the next few days were relayed to us and he told us not to leave in the morning until it had been checked that the river was contained. He was a rather interesting character, looking like a total hermit with a long ginger beard, bushy eyebrows and basic clothing, i thought he looked like he would shake in his speech but out came the most confident funny antidotes - brilliant! I cant imagine living in such an isolated place. Psyching ourselves up for what could be the coldest wettest few days of our lives we crawled out into the pitch black of the night and to our bunks, freezing cold (no fires in bunk huts) settled into our sleeping bags, heard the rustling and banging around of everyone else trying to find their way to bed and by 9pm all was quiet.  with no light everyone heads to bed - its strange to think this is always how people lived...

Monday morning, up with the sunlight, very little sleep with snoring, rustling and super heavy rain all night smashing the roof we ran to the main hut, cooked up some hot chocolate for dunking flapjacks in which slowly thawed us from the freezing cold night. Suddenly the rain stopped, the all clear came from the ranger that amazingly the river wasn't flooded and we were free to go, by nightfall we needed to get to minatoro hut - at the base of McKinnon pass.

The heavy rain overnight had fallen as snow on the tops of the mountains, with the blue sky the views were breath taking.  We continued on foot up the valley further and further into the wilderness, wrapped up warm before the sun broke over the tops of the mountains.  We were slowly climbing up, alternating between heavy forested areas and then breaking out into huge open plans of land in the valley.  Waterfalls gushed out of the mountains hundreds of feet up everywhere (heavy rainfall again causing it to be beautiful for us today!), you could hear the call of many of the native birds constantly.  We clambered over boulders, waded up streams, just had to constantly pinch myself with the views, take them in, remember all of them, we're actually here! plus had to remember to constantly look up to take them all in and look where we were going (had many giggles at eachother constantly stumbling while gawking at the views!)  Some trees looked like they were shreading their skin, others towered above us, ferns brushed by us and little ponds and streams trickled past - i have never seen such crystal clear water - true alpine springs.  We were often reminded of the avalanche paths we were crossing (56 in this one day!) we werent in the high risk season but everynow and again signs urged you not to stop for the next 200 meters etc and we climbed over many of the remains of previous avalanches, at each one you could look up and see its path, some had taken huge trees, bridges others just tons and tons of rock, this area is constantly being reshapen.

With the views the days fly by, we were soon on a big climb up, scrabbling over tree roots (these things can be massive) huge rocks, massive steps up we climbed for the last hour and a half of our 6 hour walking day and our little hut came into view =) happy happy happy! everything got hung outside as everyone sunbathed on the decks and took in the mountains around us, kea's (key - a's - mountain parrot) and weka (wek-a's endangered flightless woodhen) for company we spent the evening firmly forming friendships with our group, playing cards, eating dehydrated foods (erm yea, yum i guess... after a long walk!), listening to our ranger talk (more heavy rain and snow warnings), begging for my thermal longjohns to be given back (a rather tall man apologised profusely when he realised he'd taken my small womens leggings, bless him - would have frozen at night without them no heating or insulation in these mountain huts!) before once the sun sank behind the mountains crawling into those creaky wooden bunks with everyone.

Tuesday morning was the day everyone had their fingers crossed for good weather, we were 400meters up and by the end of the day would have climbed up to 1154meters heading through the mountain pass known for its steep drops and very windy weather before descending 970meters (all the older folk were strapping up their knees - this descent is known as the hardest most unforgiving bit of the walk!).  The skies were cloudy as we set off, followed the river to its source lake before curving around, enjoying our last bit of flat ground before the climb began.  At the bottom you could not see the top, acknowledging the mile markers ticking by we continued on the zigzag up and up and up.  At first we started climbing through the forest and as we gained in altitude the bushes and trees got smaller and smaller before we were out on exposed open rock climbing up and up.  The sky had started to clear, we could definately see blue bits, towards the top it started to rain (at least it would have been further down) but up here it was sleet/snow, perfect for walking in as it just bounces off, and it covered rocks and any remaining plants with a white glow, perfect.  We reached the top - woopie! and the skies cleared.  We saw the memorial dedicated to the guys who did years of exploring and eventually found this pass through the mountains (Mackinnon and crew) and marvelled at the panoramic view, back through the valley we had spent two days walking up, beyond the valley we were going to be, and the mountain ranges in every direction! incredible!   We walked along the pass a bit before another 10min scramble up to the highest point of the pass and in the distance we could see mackinnon hut (a welcome shelter from the frostbite like cold, inside we learnt how this was the 5th hut to be here - the others have all been blown off the top - comforting) we were so lucky to have very little wind and such wonderful views. kea swooped around and soared over the dizzy heights of the drops, breathtaking.

Thoroughly enjoying the day we gobbled up some energy mix (they sell it in supermarkets like pick and mix, full of nuts and seeds, dried fruit and most importantly - chocolate raisins and peanuts) before we started to climb down, the freezing air quickly warmed as we descending from the top heights, we zigzaged down the mountain on the right hand side, jumping over waterfalls and scrambling over rocks, before the track lead on to the next mountain side as we navigated a massive rock fall aiming for the path on the other side (a previous avalanche slide!).  The majority of the afternoon was going down down down, i constantly decided the bottom must be nearly there but quickly learnt you never underestimate a mountain, what felt like forever (later nicely summed up by one of the couples we met "we decided what looking back now was only about half way down, that we were under sea level, but the track just kept going down!") It was beautiful, we followed rivers and waterfalls, bridges and forests (one waterfall was called the lindsay falls...thought someone might appreciate that!), but the main thing was we had decided to eat lunch at the bottom where there was supposed to be a nice place to stop...arghhh! it took forever, going slightly dizzy from exertion we were stocking up on sugar with wine gums, trying so hard to love the views but man i wanted to eat!! haha! oh the relief when the hut came into view (it was a guided walkers hut (well looked like a hotel to us!) but they provided a wooden hut for the day walkers to have lunch! how nice of them!) we took of our bags, gave our aching shoulders and rest and tucked into our crackers and carrots - couldnt have tasted any better!! A  quick ten mins rest and we felt totally refueled, today was the long day, we had already done six hours and had a few more to go, everyone was arriving in dribs and drabs so we had a nice big lunch altogether (its amazing how many people were on this walk but you all spread out so much you really get to still feel the isolation of the place and then the communal evenings - perfect!)

We could leave our packs at the shelter and take an optional there and back track to view the sutherland falls.  We had read in the leaflet they were the second highest in the southern hemisphere and a sight not to be off we trotted. a very steep climb up and then along a track for a couple of km's, we became aware of a roar, growing in volume and never stopping, a sign said that from that point along the track to the falls was the same height as the falls...500 and 80 something meters!! crazy! it came into view hundreds of meters before that through the trees we began to feel the spray and before long the power of the wind coming from it was pushing you backwards, they were mindblowing!!! consisting of three leaps the colour pure white, they pounded down on each level before shattering the rocks below them, we could hardly get close to them for the sheer power of them and were totally drenched!!! it was amazing!!! we all took photos and despaired that none of them did them justice!

Once back to the shelter it was a quick hours walk along the flat to our last nights hut of the trek - we blitzed it in 45mins to compete in the bunk race - something happening everynight, in the last few hours everyone picked up the speed so they wouldnt be left with only top bunks or the ones right at the entrances to the bunk rooms (we increased one bunk room everynight so tonight there were four!) and get woken up and blinded by everyones torch lights as they went in and out over night for toilet escapes!.  We succeeded and grabbed a bunk in the back of one of the rooms, dowsed ourselves in more insect repellant as we were getting ever closer in miles to the famed "sandfly point" before spending the evening chatting, laughing, eating and just generally chilling and stretching out.  everyone was in really high spirits, its surprising how friendly you can get with people in a few days, we were in the most basic of huts but everyone mucked in, shared chocolates and sweets, before finishing the evening huddled around the last of the fire, laughing of the brilliant hut rangers talk (she was hilarious!) before heading out into the night, across the track with our headtorches.  We turned them off at this point as steve pointed out, us and another couple we had met stood in the complete darkness (absolutely no light pollution out here) and gazed at the sky.  It felt like you could see every star in existence, i've never seen so many, the sky was covered and they were all so bright, beautiful, perfect.  The cold soon drove us to our sleeping bags, our last night here.

An early start the next morning on the last day - caused to be even earlier by an adorable korean family, who i had to keep reminding myself that i found adorable, when they got up at 4am!!! to start packing and set off for the day!!! bless them, they were worried they werent going to make the boat that takes us back to the mainland at the end of the track.  dozing a bit we got up at half 6, one last breakfast, bag felt noticably lighter, strapped up, bag on, insect repellant and we were off, thinking of the shower I could have that evening! haha! the last day was beautiful, we followed rivers and lakes, huge suspension bridges and spent the day chatting to steve and caroline (a couple we had met), the two steves discussed man things as me and caroline talked for hours, its so fun to share the day with them, and to have some proper girl company!! we came to the macay falls - not as high or powerful as the sutherland falls but arguably more beautiful, surrounded by undergrowth and beautiful ponds that looked so fabulous i just wanted to jump in. (an interesting note about the names of the falls, this one was found first by the two explorers - macay and sutherland, they tossed a coin to see who got to name it...macay won...further upstream they came across the sutherland falls...originally thought to be the highest in the world!! (actually the 5th highest!) ahhh bless to macay!)   There was also the bell rock, pounded by avalanches and floods, rivers and whirlpools before finally being turned upside down in a storm this ginormous rock is hollow inside!!

Slowing down towards the end of the walk to avoid the inevitable sandfly attack at sandfly point where the boat docked (according to the maori legend they were put there by the goddess of darkness (or death i cant remember!) as she thought the land was to beautiful for settlers so the sandflys ensure that everyone keeps moving on, and as the first night ranger explained, people have been moving on as quickly as possible for hundreds of years!!).  We soaked in the last of the forests, the crystal clear water, the atmosphere, before arriving at the point, celebrating the end and jumping on the boat! only 3 bites to show for it - woop! (haha steve got more than me - about time!).

The boat drifted us across the beautiful milford sound, what a way to end the trip, mountains glided into view around every corner, mitre peak stood tall and proud (used in lord of the rings!) and waterfalls fell into the sound at every angle. beautiful.

Proud but tired we boarded the bus, some fell asleep, the rest of us chattered away, the last few hours we had with everyone, we heard of tales from the brisbane floods and the wonderful "can do, get on with it" attitude that seems to characterise the kiwi and australian attitudes - when the flood started to climb up their road this guy got out his "barby" set the fire going and cooked up a big feast with some tunes playing, "well what else was there to do, no point in stressing out, what was going to happen was going to happen", turns out the floods stopped just before their house.

An incredible experience, the memories i hope will stay super fresh, and oh the beauty of that hot shower back at the hostel in te anau!!! we ended the night back at the moose bar - of course! a wonderful hot dinner (nothing dehydrated!!) wine, and hot chocolate, with the couple we spent the last day with, perfect, night with beds and duvets.

Lots of love to all, congrats to any that finished reading this essay!!!
P xxxxxxxxxxxxx
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Hazel Genner on

A wonderful description of a marvellous walk Pip! Really thrilled that you enjoyed it as much as we had 34 years ago! (Must confess we were "guided" walkers - but many years older than you are!) It was certainly much more basic for you than for us - but that amazing scenery & the waterfalls are just as beautiful for everyone. Mujch love Kiwi-Granny & Poppa xx

Jenny Hiscoke on

This trek sounds amazing guys, well done! The photos look incredible, beautiful place to be! xx

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