Sunday, March 02, 2008

Great Walk - The Milford Track

Over a century ago, a visiting English poet deemed the Milford Track "The Finest Walk in the World", and people have been flocking to New Zealand's Fiordland National Park ever since to check it out. It's a ridiculously popular walk, and we had to book in October just to walk the track at the end of February. We finished our Milford experience yesterday.

So is it the world's finest? That's a tough call. Certainly it has some spectacular near-vertical peaks, dripping with waterfalls, all in a setting of lush, green temperate rainforest alive with birdsong. And to a visitor from Britain who had not seen any rainforest before, it would be pretty awe-inspiring. But there are so many wonderful places to walk in the world (although probably fewer than there were 100 years ago) that one person's favourite is unlikely to appeal to all.

The other designation sometimes given to the Milford Track is "The Wettest Walk in the World", and that's a title it did its best to live up to over the past few days! Our walk played out like an epic Hollywood/New Zealand co-production, complete with stunning New Zealand scenery, drama, suspense, Peter Jackson, and a climactic helecopter scene.

OK, let me clarify. It wasn't actually Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings. It was Peter Jackson the Dept. of Conservation hut ranger. But still, the name holds some cachet, and attracts extra traffic to my blog... Anyhoo, Peter did contribute a great new word to my vocabulary: socksygen (or soxygen) - the fumes that build up in a tramping hut overnight when everyone has hung out their wet and/or sweaty clothes.

But let me start from the beginning. G was just getting over a bad cold on the day we were scheduled to start the track, and I woke up thinking I might be coming down with the cold myself. Not a great start. But the showers that were coming and going in the morning did ease off by noon, and we weren't catching our bus to the track until 1pm.

The bus got us to the ferry, which took us to the head of Lake Te Anau, where the track begins. We shared the boat with the people doing a guided version of the walk. They were taking small day packs only, and staying in huts with linens and hot showers. But they were certainly paying for that priveledge, so better them than me! Their first hut was only 15 minutes' walk from the trailhead. Ours was more like an hour away, which was still not much of a walk for the first day. The weather was good, and the track was flat and easy, so I took advantage and snapped a few pictures along the way.

At the hut we dropped off our packs and went on a free nature walk with the hut warden (the aforementioned Peter Jackson). He gave us some info about the area near the hut, including the native plants and birds. Unfortunately, this involved a lot of standing around while sandflies attacked us mercilessly. This put a bit of a damper on the experience, but at least we didn't feel like the day was a total waste. So far the scenery was typical temperate rainforest. Lots of beech trees, ferns, mosses and lichens. He also introduced us to the horopito tree, whose leaves give off a peppery heat as a form of defense. It's actually becoming a trendy ingredient in "New Zealand Cuisine" (which they're making up as they go along.)
Our first major day of walking involved a very gradual climb through more rainforest. The valley opened up to reveal the towering rocky peaks on either side. The slopes are so steep that the water has nowhere to get absorbed on the way down and just runs straight off as waterfalls. This creates the famously tall, narrow falls often seen in photos of Fiordland. The walk finished with a short uphill section leading to the hut. Just as we turned of the track towards the hut it began to rain. We made it just in time!
The next day our luck ran out. The rain was there for the day, and probably all night too. And it was our day to cross McKinnon Pass, and we were going to be cold and wet. The track up to the pass was well switchbacked, and although it was wet enough to soak our boots, there was nothing too major to deal with. We looked around briefly at the McKinnon memorial at the top (he was the first European to take this route) and looked over "12 second drop" but it was too cloudy to see anything. I guess 12 seconds is how long it takes to hit the ground if you go over the edge. I don't know who tested this though, or who stood around counting. Just past the pass is a shelter, where everyone crowded inside to have some food and get warm for a minute. The pass was windy and cold, and the rain unrelenting. We ate our lunch there even though it was quite early, because it would be the only shelter before we reached our next hut.

On the way down the other side, things got much more dramatic. We had to cross several streams crossing the track. I'm sure they were hop-able on a dry day, but they were gushing by the time we arrived. Some were full-on waterfalls crossing the track with some force. G had to give me a hand across some of them, where I was unsure of my footing. I was glad I'd decided to bring a hiking pole on this tramp, since having a third leg (minds out of gutter for a moment, please) really helped my stability.

Once we got below the treeline, things got a bit easier. There were a series of staircases to descend, but otherwise the track was more straightforward for a while. Yesterdays streaming waterfalls were now gushing at about five times the size. Rivers that had been streaming along were thundering and churning, nothing but whitewater. A fall into one of those rivers would be deadly in a matter of seconds. We soldiered on towards the hut, and about half a kilometre before the hut the track disappeared underwater. (The picture below is not a river, it's the track!) Poles marked the way, and we cautiously walked ahead, the depth eventually reaching my thighs. I was glad we made it through, as going backwards was not an appealing thought.
That night we were warned that if the heavy rain continued the flooding could be a problem for our hike out. We were not to leave the hut before checking with the ranger to see if it was safe. As it turned out, it rained all night and was still going strong in the morning. We were hut-bound until 9am, when the ranger had us all walk out together to the next shelter, called the boatshed. There were more flooded sections on the track. One reached my groin level (sometimes it really sucks to be the shortest!) At the boatshed we all crammed under a small shelter while the ranger radioed the park office to see if they would send a helicopter in to shuttle us over the worst of the flooded areas. He was told to take us further along the track, so we continued on to MacKay's Falls and Bell Rock, and then on for another couple of kilometers to a small, open area just before the big flood.
By this point we'd been walking for a couple of hours. The ranger went ahead to check on the water levels. He came back and said to me "The water would be up to here on you." pointing at his nose. He made the final call for a helicopter - it would be unsafe to let us try to cross.

Then the long wait began. We stood in the rain watching another helicopter fly back and forth, shuttling the guided walkers probably from their hut to the end of the track. Ours finally arrive, shuttling six of us at a time to just past the flood, about 500 metres away. It was my first helicopter ride, but only about a minute long! Still, pretty cool.
The rest of the walk was wet, rainy and a bit cold, but once you're fully saturated with water there's no use worrying about it. I trudged through the remaining floods trying to enjoy the adventure of it all. And really, without all of this drama, the walk would have been less interesting.

Now, after a hot shower and a good meal, I think it was a pretty awesome experience. Although I'd be happy to see the sun again!


Frank and Sue said...

Yippee!!! Love walks like that, wet, wet, wet!! and bloody sandflies too (while it was dry) Have heard about people being choppered because of snow, but never flooding. Great post as usual Michelle. Looking forward to the pics

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