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By Jo Hammer
The rain fell. Hour upon hour, it came down in buckets, relentlessly. And yet we couldn't have been happier. Who would have guessed that eight hours in a deluge could be so uplifting?
The rain shouldn’t have come as a surprise. The Milford Track is in Fiordland National Park, located in the wettest region of New Zealand. The world-renowned four-day walk starts and finishes on the water, connecting Lake Te Anau and Milford Sound, a distance of around 55 km (33 miles).
And water defines the experience in this pristine environment. Walkers can drink it directly and refill their bottles from the streams and creeks. They can watch trout darting far below in the crystal-clear rivers, marvel at the spectacle of the cascading waterfalls and drink in the beauty of the dripping vegetation in the lush beech forest.
Into the wilderness
We were two couples, belatedly celebrating a significant birthday. We had chosen to walk with Ultimate Hikes, the only private-guiding company with a permit to operate on the Milford Track. The track can also be walked independently, staying overnight at Department of Conservation huts.
The day before our walk departure, we are fully briefed and kitted out with raincoats and backpacks. The next day, we’re bussed from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, for a boat trip across Lake Te Anau to the start of the walk.
We leave cell-phone reception and other distractions of modern-day life far behind. As the surrounding mountains become closer, the realisation that we are entering a wilderness area hits us.
The walk to Glade House, the first lodge on the track, is just 1 km long. The rain has started to fall steadily, but that doesn’t deter our four guides from then leading us on a nature walk through the native forest to a small waterfall – a taster and, in retrospect, a test of what’s to come in the following three days.
Back at the lodge, there’s time to look at the fascinating display of accessories and artefacts belonging to early Milford Track walkers. We socialise over drinks and nibbles with our fellow walkers, most of whom are overseas tourists. Then begins the nightly routine of delicious three-course dinners and slide shows, with our guides telling us about the next day’s walking and tempting us with menu choices for when the hard yards are done.
The senses come alive
We enter the Clinton Valley, crossing a large swing bridge, for our first full day of walking. We are in beech forest, carpeted by the greenest of moss, tramping alongside the Clinton River for large sections. At the lunch shelter we tuck into our packed lunches and sip hot drinks prepared by our guides, looking out onto the Hirere Falls.
From there, as we emerge from the forest, waterfalls tumble from the rock faces all around us. We walk slowly to take in the spectacle, little robins playfully darting about on the track in front of us.
Prairie Lake was marked on our maps as a swimming hole ‘for the brave’. I am the only one to take the plunge, the freshness of the water matched only by the wind chill. My impromptu dip delights the Japanese contingent, however. It proves to be a literal icebreaker, my perceived ‘bravery’ breaking down the language barriers.
I don’t need to worry about my wet clothes. Our well-appointed lodges all have hot showers, laundry facilities and drying rooms, so we can start each day with clean and dry gear.
Ups and downs
The journey over the famous Mackinnon Pass begins with an ascent through beautiful forest, punctuated by ‘no stopping’ signs warning of avalanche risk. As we exit the tree line, the prettiest of mountain flowers flank the route.
The path becomes a series of switchbacks, as we climb our way higher towards the monument to Quinton McKinnon, the Scottish explorer who blazed the track in 1888. At the monument, one of our guides is waiting with steaming mugs of hot chocolate.
After the exertion of the climb, we need to don more layers to stay warm in the blustery conditions as we make our way to the 1154 metre summit. We snatch intermittent, spectacular views of the valleys below, as the swirling clouds envelop us and then disappear just as quickly.
The descent into the Arthur Valley is arguably the most difficult part of the track, but the scenery more than compensates for the knee-crunching downhill trek. In bright sunshine, we pass towering cliffs and walk into verdant forest, shuffling down the torturous metal steps alongside the stunning Cascades. For those with the energy and mental fortitude, at the end of the day is a side walk to the spectacular Sutherland Falls. Or you just can sit and relax with a glass of your favourite tipple and toast your achievements.
Saving the best until last
The final section of the track is a flat walk, and should be straightforward. The forecast rain is steady at first, and we set off jumping over the puddles. As the intensity of the rain increases, so too does the depth of water on the track, from ankle- to shin-deep. Our guides are stationed at key points to supervise us and help us safely across the swollen creeks.
The lunch stop, landmarks and photo opportunities highlighted in the previous night’s slide show are awash, and the river is a raging torrent. We are sprayed as we cross bridges over swirling cauldrons of water, and the noise is deafening. And it’s not just the power of the water that’s extraordinary, but the waterfalls appearing all around us.
It isn’t until afterwards that we find out the river had risen to near-evacuation levels. Yet our guides remain calm, patient, and professional throughout.
Soaked but exhilarated, we reach the aptly named Sandfly Point, the end of the track. We warm up with hot drinks in the shelter while waiting for the boat to transport us to Milford Sound.
It’s more than the finish to a walk – it’s the end of our wilderness adventure. This had been Mother Nature’s show, and we were privileged to have been granted ringside tickets to such a demonstration of primal force and beauty.