The Milford Track – “Finest Walk in the World” 2 March 2006

NOW UPDATED! Karen, Phil, I, and 48 other unsuspecting hikers in our group survived the Milford Track – unbelievable!!! It was **very** challenging – it was not 33 miles in 5 days, as I thought, but 33.5 miles in THREE days – I just didn’t read the fine print very carefully!

Our 5-day trek actually began the day before we left, with a required orientation meeting at the Ultimate Hikes headquarters. We gathered in a well-lit, comfortable, large conference/training room above a small outdoor gear shop in one of Queenstown’s downtown indoor shopping mall/buildings. When we arrived, the orientation room was set up with chairs for about 50 people. (When I reserved my space for the trek on line, there was only room for 6 persons to sign up, and I had assumed that meant that about 6 persons per day were guided – wow, what a surprise to find we would be 50!) The walls were covered with photos of the scenery on the track, above shelves and cupboards. We were then regaled with stories of what to expect, and how to enjoy the next 5 days.

We were advised to lighten our loads and leave ALL extra clothing (except pajamas and something comfy for dinner) and unnecessary items behind, and to use the (hand wash) laundry facilities at each lodge every night to wash out our hiking duds. We learned that they also had drying rooms for our wet clothes at each lodge, which reach about 120 degrees, and that the generators would go off at 10pm and come back on at 5am, but were assured that our clothes would be dry by morning. We were offered loaner backpacks with a rain flys, raincoats, bunk sheets, and all the plastic liners we wanted for our backpacks and items inside, which were **strongly recommended**! We were INSTRUCTED to have long underwear (top and bottom), wool/fleece hat, gloves, shell and jacket – these were required, even in the middle of summer. (And best of all, to prevent blisters…FOOT FLEECE! The most amazing stuff…the finest loose wool that sticks to the inside of your socks for cushioning.) There was plenty of time for questions, and one was “what is the weather forecast?” The response was “What does it matter? You can’t count on it, you can’t change it, and the track and your experience will be spectacular regardless of the weather!”

DAY 1: We reported to the headquarters at 9:15 am to load our packs onto the tour bus, and rode from Queenstown to Lake Te Anau (about 2 hours), then had a lovely, simple buffet lunch, then a group photo (see the first photos in the Milford Track Album). The photo was slightly held up because we were awaiting the arrival of our 4th guide, on a returning bus with a group that had just finished. When they arrived and started getting off the bus, the returning hikers were limping and bedraggled! We then took an hour-long ferry boat ride to the north end of Lake Te Anau to the starting point of the Track. From the dock, we only hiked about 1 mile to the first lodge, Glade House (pictured here), where we settled in and then went on an eco-tour, splitting into 4 groups, one with each guide. Glade HousePhil, Karen and I shared a dorm with a couple from Tahiti, Laurent (who was French) and Kaethe (from NY) – the big joke at dinner was that Laurent claimed he thought Phil was Muslim and had 2 wives!

Dinner (every night) began with cocktails (cash bar) in the beautiful lounge, included 3 courses (soup, choice of meat or fish, salad, and dessert), and finished with one of the guides presenting some hilarious instruction and an overview of the next day’s track, flora, and fauna. This evening we were divided us up mostly by country to do introductions (name, city, why we were here) and then Emma announced “This is the proper way to put on your pack” – she then carefully placed her backpack upside down on the floor, and took a running somersault onto it, standing up with it on her back! Then she said, “now, if your pack is too heavy” and secured it around her bum, but warned in a deadpan voice “though this may hinder your legs when going uphill.” (See this photo in the album!) She *then* showed us how if you secure the rainfly (parachute) to the back of the pack, it will “slow you down if you get going too fast downhill!” as she ran around the room. Needless to say, we were howling by this time. They went on to show slides of the next day, including the bush robin, “the flying golf ball sponsored by Nike” (it has a mark like the Nike swoosh on its wing) and “wearing a sweatband” – I hope you get a glimpse of what a funny bunch of blokes these Kiwis are!

DAY 2: Today after breakfast and making our own lunch bags, we had to be out of the lodge by 8am and we trekked up the Clinton Valley for 10 miles. The Clinton Valley gets 3-5 METERS of rain per year (that’s 117-195 inches per year) – it poured ALL day though the temps were mild, and we were wading deeper and deeper streams after lunch. Toward the end of the day, we actually had to ford the river, which had changed course in last year’s 20-year flood and had crossed over the valley and the track. The guides took us across 6 at a time, one in front and one in back, nearly up to our waists, Judith, who was in the back and the shortest in our group, started getting swept downriver! Of course our FANTASTIC rear guide Erin grabbed her, and we all had stories to tell that night! But thanks to the rain, we were surrounded by 2000-foot waterfalls all day long. We all agreed that is the best way to travel this valley; Rudyard Kipling called this track and Milford Sound the 8th wonder of the world – in the rain. WaterfallsWe learned that evening that if the guides had known earlier how much rain had fallen and how deep the water was, we might not have been allowed to hike to the lodge, but would have been helicoptered in! (I also realized that Ultimate Hike’s groups function like blood through a vein…a group moves through each lodge EVERY day like being pushed with a beating heart, regardless of the weather! …THRUMP-THRUMP-THRUMP…)

Pompolona Lodge was my favorite of the four – nestled on the side of the mountain between towering walls of water – although all the lodges had floor-to-over-ceiling windows with breathtaking views. After washing clothes and filling up the dryng room to overflowing with our wet stuff, and showering, everyone relaxed with a glass or bottle of wine (I’m so glad we were not at a high elevation). After dinner for the next 3 nights, we literally fell into bed when the generator went out at 10pm, and 5:30 am came way too early.

DAY 3: This day was the *hard* day, and we were booted out of the lodge by 7:30 am at the latest, but it turned out with glorious sunshine. We trekked 9 miles up over McKinnon Pass – 700 meters (2300 feet) of elevation gain over 5 miles, and then 900 meters (3000 feet) in elevation loss down over 4 miles to the Arthur Valley on the other side (my knees have actually not yet forgiven me – they are now popping constantly). This day was filled with overwhelming beauty (and I kept thinking about the group one day ahead of us, going over the pass yesterday in driving wind and rain!). ErinOnTopEvery time we thought we had seen the best, something new would appear: countless colors of moss in the rainforest, walking through the fairy forest of Practice Hill with moss dangling from every tree and covering every rock, sheer towering rock walls on all sides, misty peaks brushed with sunshine all around and above us, 11 switchbacks (plus “miss a few after 2”) with snow-filled cirques appearing across the valley, dew-diamond covered spider webs on the bushes, the foot-ball width, saddle-shaped grassy top of the pass and the Quinton McKinnon memorial, 360-degree views of the Fjordlands mountains and valleys from the pass, tarns (pools of rain and snow water) of all sizes and shapes reflecting the peaks and sky, the “12-Second Drop”-off straight down to Arthur Valley, filling my water bottle from a stream, the “Loo with a View”, the view from the loo of Clinton Valley, Charlie the Kea, Cheeky the cheeky Kea, the path down the side of the mountain into another cirque, a small, sparkling waterfall spilling over a grassy cliff, the “emergency route” nearly straight down the mountain like a chair-lift path to Quinton Lodge, back below timberline following the glacier runoff river down knee-killing “tree-house steps” – endlessly, steeply down, down and terraced into waterfalls and emerald green pools for hundreds and hundreds of feet; we arrived at the lodge too late and too tired to take the two-hour side hike to Sutherland Falls, the highest in NZ at 1900 feet with 3 leaps. The joke around the dinner table that night was that Ultimate Hikes should install a “flying fox” (Kiwi and Aussie term for a zip line) at the top of the pass down to the lodge – what a blast that would be, and would sure save the knees!

DAY 4 (the *long* day) was back to rain – Arthur Valley on the Milford Sound side of McKinnon Pass gets **5 to 8** METERS of rain per year (that’s 16-26 FEET), so as could be expected, we saw it in its natural state! It was so wet I was afraid to take pictures until midday, when the sun came out for a couple of hours. And after 13.5 miles, my knees and feet were in vigorous rebellion. On Day 2, the first and *easiest* day, we were not *really* wet to the skin until about 2/3 of the way through the day. But on this “long” day, we were wet to the skin within one hour – the valley got 3″ of rain in 3 hours! I was very sad that I could not take photos of the most amazing walls of water, and walls of dripping ferns, that I have ever seen… and we climbed over huge “slips”, where the side of the mountain has just given way under the weight of water, taking millions of tons of trees and rocks with it. We saw several uniquely beautiful waterfalls, “Bell Rock” – a rock the size of a small house, turned over by the river and shaped like a bell, even carved out underneath enough to stand in, hiked a section of the track on a boardwalk built onto the side of a cliff over the river for about 1/4 mile; hiked another section of the track called “the Cut” – a team of miners literally cut a half-tunnel out of the side of the mountain (where hikers used to be ferried by boat across a lake), waded mile after mile of stream-track flowing with water along and across our path, wet trailfinally finishing an endless stretch of wide, flat trail to the end of the track at Sandfly Point and getting our photo taken with stacks of boots left behind, taking the ferry out into Milford Sound and seeing pulsing Lady Bowen Falls and Mitre Peak – at 5500 feet/1700 meters high, I heard someone describe it as the sheerest drop to the ocean in the world. Dinner that evening at Milford Lodge was excellent (salmon or lamb chops) and was followed by a ceremony presenting each hiker with a certificate of completion. No dorms this night – everyone had only one roomie, and our own private bath – heaven. And the lodge still had a drying room for our soaking wet trail duds!

DAY 5 began with a cruise on Milford Sound (which is really a fjord – a glacier valley filled with water), which was spectacular – the picture on my home page and those in the album can only begin to show. The water in the fjord is 1000 feet deep, so there is no place to anchor. Some of the waterfalls, on a rainy day, don’t even fall down the walls – they bounce off rock ledges and arc out into the fjord for hundreds of feet! MilfordSoundWhile we had mist, but not rain, there were remnants of rain waterfalls everywhere from yesterday, cascading down sheer walls thousands of feet high over terrace after terrace of green moss, and we were followed by a frolicking pod of dolphins for about 20 minutes. We finished with a bus ride out of the Sound up switchbacks and through the 4000-foot Homer Tunnel, built over 11 years and finished in 1954, then back past Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables Range into Queenstown.

A **truly** amazing adventure – it ranks at the very top (and has remained there, vying for first only with Tibet in 2009).