Miles on the Milford

Pack your bag. Check it twice. Question the needs versus wants, over preparation packing choices and finally catch that cab to the airport. We were off to Queenstown. A one hour flight to a 2 hour car ride to a one hour boat ride to the top of the track. The 4 day 3 night Great Walk through the Milford Sound starts and ends at isolated beach drop-off points only accessible by water taxi. The PA system announces that they are going to begin boarding our flight and at about the same time a call comes in from Karl. Its our fourth tramping mate and he arrived late enough that he can’t check his bag. The service woman is insinuating that he’ll have to miss his flight, unless… we can split the contents of his pack and carry on between the four of us. Its a race car pit stop to disassemble and redistribute his entire pack before walking casually onto the plane. It was a false start though. Heavy wind gusts threw our plane off its landing path just meters before touchdown and we were sent back to Wellington to try again the next day.

Thankfully our 5th tramp team member was already in Te Anau and re chartered a boat to leave at the latest possible hour the next day while we managed the airport re-booking line.

By the time we set foot at the beginning of the trail it was 7:15pm and we gallivanted the 5k (3.2mi) to the Clinton Hut, just beating sunset. We celebrated the day’s successes with a pesto pasta party for dinner and took a quick excursion to glow worm filled overhang before retiring to the bunk huts where we got a first taste of all the sleep noises we could expect to experience from our hut mates over the next few days.

In the morning, we dived up the food stuffs, helped ourselves to a healthy helping of decadent homemade muesli and set off. The first full day is a 16.5k (10mi) journey to the through the bottom of Clinton Canyon. To either side of us massive rock faces jutted vertically up. You are practically forced to kink your neck in order to find the tops of the peaks and their waterfalls. A smattering of native birds (kea, bell birds, Weka families, Keruru, Kaka, Kakariki, Tui, Fantails, Whio, Tomtits, a South Island Robin, Paradise ducks) all pranced around us throughout the day. The trout were hanging out in almost every waterway that we walked by.

The water was crystal clear

When we were hungry we threw down our packs in some cutty grass by the water and watched the view as 4 trout, a long finned eel, 2 Whio ducks and their seven chicklets all hung out directly in the water below us. In the second half of the afternoon the trail took us through moss covered forest, prairie land and finally back under tree cover as we started up the pass. By the time we reach Mintaro Hut, its after 5pm and we were pooped.

Mintaro Hut

There was mutual agreement that we were in desperate need of a stretch session and since there was still plenty of sunlight left we took ourselves down to a secluded helipad. With some inspiration from the Alchemist and some creature comforts from home we put the Great back into Great Walks and absorbed the scenery and greenery from a whole other perspective.

Dance of champions
View from the porch of Mintaro Hut

The evenings present a unique opportunity to meet our trail mates and read up on the embellished stories of trampers and park workers from 70 years ago, when high heals were still used and antlers made the bare necessities list.

The talk from the hut warden started each night promptly at 7:30. ‘Clean up after yourselves and protect your gear from the Kea’. The native parrot has the intelligence of a four year old child and are notoriously mischievous. They are known for pulling nails out of roofs and tearing up car parts for entertainment. They can work a zipper and have developed an affinity for stealing in soles and sometimes the entire tramping boot. One noteworthy member of the species even managed to pull the vent off of a long drop toilet. We know this because he also accidentally took a tumble down the tube and got stuck in shit’s creek until an unsuspecting tramper lifted the toilet seat. Imagine the sheer terror and hilarity of being locked in a porta-loo as a shit covered stink monster comes flying out of hell attacking your preciously limited tramping gear.

Hanging boots prevent Kea robberies

Sadly the Kea are a well endangered species but you wouldn’t know it because of how entertained they are with human contraptions. The next morning a flock of them created a chorus in the trees above our hut and the braver ones took over the picnic tables underneath our neatly hung tramping boots.

Despite being a little worn from the previous day we started day 3 with a full dose of enthusiasm because we would be crossing MacKinnon’s Pass on a rare day of blue skies. 11+ switchbacks zigzagged us up to the peak. Although we were five, there was still heaps of time to ourselves on the trail. Everyone had time to be introspective, ponder past lives and future aspirations, reconsider spoken and unspoken words, and give thanks for all of the twists and turns that brought us together on this particular corner of our pale blue dot at this point in time with this bundle of people.

McKinnon’s Pass
Alpine puddles, snow capped peaks and the best long drop toilet in South Island.

As we made our way across the top of the pass a loud crack and a thunder echoed over the valley. It was enough time to turn around a take a full 360 scan of the view until a small waterfall of snow avalanched off a peak in front of us. The spectacle of water continued as we took the long staircase down the other side of the pass.

Sutherland Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in New Zealand, clocking in at just over 500 meters.

By the time we reached our third and final hut, it was after 5 again. Our legs were worn and our feet were starting to drag. One more day to go. A casual 18 km along a mostly flat terrain was the plan until the hut warden gave us the weather forecast. The quantity of rain that was expected over the next 24 hours could be enough to flood our trail under a meter of water. Our marching orders required us to cross Poseidon’s Creek by noon which meant that we needed to be done with breakfast ready to walk by 7 am. Needless to say all 38 of us were in bed with the lights out by 9 pm just as the rain set in.

That early morning was approached by all with a tired diligence. Mattresses were turned up and the floors swept. When the warden told us it was safe to go we laced up our shoes suited up in our rain gear. Our group somehow always managed to be at the back of the pack. And even that morning when our starting time was decided for us, we were no exception. The warden attempted to shepherd our exit but we needed to take a send off photo. Smile, snap, check. And then just as we are about to take our first step, Karl looks at my poncho and says “Oh, I have one of those.” Its a combination of facepalms and giggles of disbelief as Karl unclips and dismounts his pack to retrieve his wet weather gear.

Us after our first river crossing

Luckily, the terrain was flat and our packs were lighter than ever. I made a game of skipping across flooded patches of the trail to preserve the dryness of my boots, until we reach the first river crossing. Thankfully our pack tramping expert prepared us with a quick lesson in safe river crossing technique and we partner off, linked up, and waded thigh high to the other side. It was a great experience for two reasons. First, I had never partnered up to do a river crossing before and secondly, it obliterated any disillusions I had about staying dry. So it gave us freedom to frolic in the wetness and from there on we jumped into the puddles rather than around them. Tree slips and mud puddles just added to the experience.

We couldn’t take any breaks and the cameras only came out for special occasions but there were a few other advantages to the rain. The icy blue transparency to the water dissolved into a murky overflowing tub of current and rapids. Even though the trail maintenance was spectacular there was no where else for the water go. Waterfalls were pouring off the ferns and the moss walls that that coated the rock walls beside us. The mossy ferns transitioned seamlessly into underwater plants. I followed a waterfall that overhang our trail and converted the walkway into a small creek. Even though the canopy absorbed a sky full of rain and channeled it down to overflow creeks water gushed from everywhere.

In the end, we got the full experience. Incredible views, birds galore, crystal clear streams filled with life, rain, waterfalls, wet weather tramping and a new set of memories to recount.

Before heading home we took a few days to relax in a very dignified home with a waterfront view. And I was introduced to my new favorite youtube video: Beached Az: Cygull and Whaleborg. You’re welcome yalls.

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Open Letters

Open Letters

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Slow Traveler, Tree Hugger, Flawed, Productivity Enthusiast, telling my story