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Monday, May 06, 2013

     The Milford Track, 54km spectacular walk located in the heart of Fiordland National Park, starting at the head of Lake Te Anau and finishing at Milford Sound, one of the world's most famous fjords, sounded like a great introductory walk and an easy gateway to the South Island's wilderness. We knew we'd just signed up for probably the busiest of the Great Walks, however we'd decided to do it the hard way. We wanted to cross the rivers where the others would never think about leaving the path behind, to arrive where the others leave at lunch, to sleep in quiet valleys surrounded by sheer cliffs and listen only to cascading waterfalls whilst the others stay in overcrowded huts. Just after we'd started to walk we found out that what looked like an innocent storm was indeed a heavy rainfall that was expected to exceed 300mm that night. We were warned by a few walkers staying in the first hut that the track may be impassable and dangerous after the floods, however it was too late to turn back. We were just about to find out how does it feel when (almost) everything goes wrong on the greatest of the Great Walks. It was painful, sleepless and very wet. And it felt great.

DAY 1: Glade Wharf to Neale Burn Valley (6km, 2 hours)

     We arrived at Christchurch Airport on December 31 2010 at midnight and spent the New Year's Eve at the immigration in a pleasant company of quarantine officials who obviously felt in a generous mood as they offered to clean our tent and trekking poles absolutely for free! It only took them 1 hour to inspect all elements of our hiking gear and remove any particles of Australian soil before they could invade New Zealand's unique ecosystem. Not many airports in the world offer such a free service as part of a welcome package, so we didn't argue and let them do their job. At 2am we finally got into our motel room and tried to enjoy a few hours of sleep before the morning flight. The next day we took an early morning flight to Queenstown, the gateway into Fiordland National Park and a hiking capital of the world, from where we booked 10:30am bus to Te Anau Downs. On the way we stopped at DOC Visitor Centre where most of the people picked up their hut permits while we tried to explain our camping intentions. They didn't seem very impressed but since we were not doing anything illegal (by intending to cross the rivers and camp more than 500m from the track) they let us go. From Te Anau Downs we arranged the scheduled boat transport to the Glade Wharf, the official start of the Milford Track. Since we were not using the hut system, this was the only booking we had to arrange in advance. There is an alternative access to the start of the Milford track via the Dore Pass Route, a challenging 10.5km tramping route which begins from the Milford Road, however we would need 1-2 extra days and we we already planned to join the Milford track with the Hollyford Track into 8 day adventure, so we decided to take the spectacular boat ride across the Lake Te Anau.

     The track from the wharf is an easy 4WD trail which in 15 minutes passes the Glade House, the official start of the Milford Track. At about 4:30pm we crosses the Clinton River on a large swing bridge and continued along the river on a pleasant path through beech forest. 

     In about an hour we reached the track junction with Neale Burn Hut where all independent walkers must spend the first night. We passed the hut and in about 20 minutes we started to look for a suitable place to cross the river to Neale Burn Valley where we planned to spend our first night. We knew it was supposed to rain that night (although at that point we didn't know the next few nights were going to break the record in the Fiorland's rainfall history), so we tried to look for the ford that was wider but shallower and potentially safe even after whole night rain. We finally crossed the river, it was about 40m wide, but slow and easy to wade. After getting on the other side we found an amazing camping spot on the soft grass hidden in a pristine bush and surrounded by sheer cliffs of the Clinton valley. By 7pm we were in our tent cooking a dinner and enjoying long evening light as the sun on South Island doesn't set in summer until about 10pm. It started to rain and during the night we heard the river getting louder and louder in a distance but decided not to worry about it till next morning.

DAY 2: Neale Burn Hut to Mackinnon Pass (16.5km, 6 hours)

     The next morning we woke up into probably the most breathtaking scenery we've ever seen: countless white threads of thin waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliffs of the Clinton Valley stepping out of the morning mist. However that also had to mean that the water level at our crossing had risen significantly during the night, so we packed our things anxiously, hoping the river's not higher by more than a few inches compared to yesterday. When we got to the river we found out that it had transformed into a completely new element: uninviting, freezing and fast flowing river with nowhere to cross safely. We knew the rain wasn't supposed to stop for at least another 24 hours, so we had to cross immediately. Because of the fast flowing water we didn't know where the safest place to get to the other bank is until we were half way within the river and had to decide quickly. The rest  of our crossing was pretty hair raising as we waded almost waist deep and both of us successfully soaked our already heavy backpacks. We finally managed to climb up the sandy bank and back to the track completely exhausted  and frozen. It was 7am, the rain was getting more and more intense and our second day in Fiorland hasn't even started yet.

     We continued alongside the Clinton River to Clinton Forks, after which the track led up the West Branch of the Clinton River. After about an hour the valley became noticeably narrower, with high granite walls on either side and we were glad we decided to camp so early on the track because finding a camping spot in this part of the valley 500m from the track would be impossible. Probably because of the weather warnings we haven't met anyone on the track that morning and started to enjoy having the whole valley for ourselves. 

     As we climbed further towards the base of the impressive Mackinnon Pass waiting for us patiently, the first view of the Pompolona ice field appeared on the horizon and the weather has started to get progressively worse. We passed Pompolona Creek through a swing bridge and then a side track to St Quintin Falls. At about 1pm we reached an empty Mintaro Hut, a second stop for independent walkers. By that time it was raining heavily and we were not sure if we could manage to traverse the Mackinnon Pass in such a bad visibility and descend to Arthur Valley on the other side where we planned to find a camping spot for the second night. Since we didn't really have a choice and we still had enough time to accomplish our plan, we decided to move on. What we didn't know was that one of the heaviest rainfalls in Fiordland's history was just about to arrive.

     It rained on and off as a zigzag climb up led us slowly to Mackinnon Pass. We passed several alpine tarns but didn't get any views as dark clouds started swallowing the mountain. It took us about 3 hours to reach McKinnon Memorial when finally a violent storm and winds approached the Pass. By the time we reached the highest point of the track and McKinnon Pass Shelter (1154 metres) it was raining heavily and the ferocious winds on top of the ridge didn't make it any easier.  We hid in the shelter, completely wet, freezing and exhausted, still somehow hoping that the weather would get better and enable us to descend the mountain. Around 6pm when the weather still hadn't improved, it became clear we were not going anywhere that evening. We made a decision to stay in the shelter for the night knowing very well that's not something that would be allowed under normal circumstances. There would be a lot to explain if any ranger turned up, however looking outside the window and hearing the winds tearing the shelter apart, we knew that was probably not going to happen. For the first time in two days we felt warm and dry, made a hot soup and went straight to sleep.

DAY 3: Mackinnon Pass to Sandfly Point (29km, 9 1/2 hours)

     The summer nights on New Zealand's South Island are usually very long, however if you're trapped in a violent storm on top of the mountain in a day shelter (where you shouldn't be) having to catch the 2 pm boat the next day 30km away and knowing that the track in the morning will probably be completely flooded, dangerous or even impassable, they can be even longer. We woke up at 5am and realized the rain still hadn't stopped, only the winds were somewhat better. Probably with a new day we got this sudden feeling that we still might catch the boat, that we're fit enough and will manage to come down the mountain whatever floods were waiting for us out there. Against everything we believed in, we put our wet and literally frozen clothes on and got out of our life-saving shelter into the dark, cold, wind and rain. There was no turning back.

   Nothing can really prepare you for the views that opened up in front of us. This is the Fiorland we came here for! And it only took three meters of one night's torrential rain. The granite cliffs in all directions were literally covered with hundreds of waterfalls. That moment when we stood there surrounded by that elemental force of the nature is something we will remember for a while.

     It was still raining and we knew we had to get down from the mountain and get further into the valley to escape the rain. As we started to descend, every 50 meters of so we had to cross massive streams and get through new waterfalls blocking our narrow path. We didn't find out until 2 days later that the Milford Track was indeed closed for safety reasons that morning and the track itself and most of the bridges required some repairs after the floods. We were the only ones who got through the Mackinnon Pass that day as all the other walkers had to stay in Mintaro Hut that morning. No one knew we spent the night on the pass and we now had officially the whole mountain for ourselves.

              From the pass to Quintin Hut the track drops 870m to the valley floor over a span of 7km. We soon arrived at Roaring Burn stream, which we crossed and continued further down with surreal views of its many dramatic rapids and waterfalls. The long series of wooden and metal stairways beside the stream made the descent much quicker and easier. We finally arrived at Quintin Shelter and the side track leading to the Sutherland Falls. At about 10am we descended to the Dumpling Hut and probably because of the whole adrenaline rush we felt pretty optimistic about catching the 2pm boat since we still had 4 hours left.

     After giving ourselves not more than 20min to recover, we headed off along the Arthur River towards the wharf at Sandfly Point 18km away. It stopped raining but the track was muddy and made our progress very difficult. The chances that we would arrive for the 2pm departure in time became very slim. To our huge relief we met a tour guide who confirmed there have been some cancellations on the later 4pm boat and we should be able to fit on that boat with the rest of the hikers.

     At that time we didn't know that the greatest challenge still laid ahead. Only here we could see the full consequences of the weather of the previous 2 days: it didn't take long until we realized the Arthur river which had been gathering all the water from the mountains flooded the whole valley and more than half of the track was now completely submerged. We descended back into bush and after a two-hour walk from the hut we crossed the Arthur River on a large swing bridge. Just beyond the swing bridge, where the track should cross a bridge over Mackay Creek and come to the side track to Mackay Falls, the river flooded the valley and we started our 10km long walk through thigh-deep muddy waters.

     Just before the end the track climbed above Lake Ada once again and offered a good view of the whole valley, now mostly filled with a flooded lake. The track then descended to Giant Gate Falls. We crossed via a swing bridge and continued along the shore of the lake. It took us about 4 hours to conquer those last few miles, but finally we arrived, just a few minutes before the 4pm boat departure. The last two days definitely tested some of our limits and showed the rarely unwelcoming face of the greatest of the Great Walks. Can not wait to welcome her in our lives again.


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