Queenstown, New Zealand, is a lot like Boulder, Colorado, or Chamonix, France, or any mountain town, for that matter, that caters to adventure sport enthusiasts like me. I only had a few hours to pick up supplies for a four-day hike along the Milford Track – famously known as “the finest walk in the world” – and it was tough to stay focused on the task at hand without being distracted by advertisements around every corner for bouldering competitions or bungee jumping or, my new personal favorite, heli-mountain biking, which looked as awesome as it sounds. I added that one to my must-do list.
Preparations finally complete, my friend Dera and I caught a bus to Te Anau Downs, where we boarded a boat for a one-hour ride across Lake Te Anau and into Fiordland National Park. We disembarked at the southern terminus of the 33.5-mile Milford Track, a trek I had been anxiously anticipating since I’d seen a show about it on the Travel Channel a year prior. Dera and I had booked the trek immediately. Reservations are required, as the number of trekkers permitted to begin the trail each day is limited.
We set out from the trailhead on March 8, 2009, near the end of the peak season, when trekkers must follow a one-way course, south to north. It was relatively warm but raining. I had waterproofed my jacket and boots at home in San Diego so I stayed dry, and, since rain keeps sand flies at bay, I was doubly okay. I’ve always been prone to bug bites, usually mosquitoes. In New Zealand, the rain breeds sand flies, and due to the tremendous amount of the wet stuff, there tends to be quite a few of them. In Queenstown, I had picked up a lotion called Bushmaster at the local pharmacy. It’s 80 percent DDT and I was warned that it might eat my clothes, dissolve a layer of skin and/or give me cancer. Whatever. I slathered it on.
There are two ways to hike the finest walk in the world: Guided or independently. Guided means you stay in private lodges along the way. You get nice beds, hot showers and full-course meals. From what we saw, guided is basically for older people. All you’re required to do is carry your clothes and cameras. The guide handles everything else. Independents on the other hand – aka Dera and me – stay in basic dorm-style huts maintained by the Department of Conservation. If you’re hiking as an independent, you have to carry your own food and cook set, but each hut location has a public building with running water, propane cookers for preparing your food and a wood stove to dry your clothes or warm up. There’s also a hut ranger, a caretaker, to assist and explain whenever necessary. The independent style was high-class compared to what I was used to, so I had no complaints. This is how the New Zealand government diminishes our impact on their nature and I enjoyed not having to carry a tent, stove, fuel, sleeping pad and water purifier.
Our first day of trekking was an easy one – a short, three-mile hike to the Clinton Hut. We made dinner and waited for it to get dark (sometime after 8:30 p.m.) before crawling into bed and passing out to the sound of rain. We had put in a long day of travel exclusive of the hiking so I slept hard.
The next day we awoke to clear skies and views of snow capped peaks. We packed up and started the 10.25-mile hike to our next stop and it wasn’t long before we realized that the previous day’s rain had created an incredible number of waterfalls along the valley we were walking. It was amazing. This was a real rainforest and the downpours had brought it to life.
I didn’t even notice the mild climbing or the uneven trail. I just tried to keep from tripping over something since most of the time my eyes were glued on the peaks, valley walls or surrounding jungle. On we tramped (my new word, to use the local jargon) to our eventual lunch stop at Hidden Lake, a crystal-clear reservoir held in check by a rockfall dam and reminiscent of an Ansel Adams photograph. Hidden Lake marked the halfway point of our day’s journey and after lunch we continued through the forest along the Clinton River, on to Mintaro Lake, the river’s source and the location of our next accommodations, the Mintaro Hut.
I was the first trekker to arrive, which meant that I got to choose which beds Dera and I would be sleeping in that night. I headed for the top floor and claimed two – real beds, not bunk beds — at the far end of the room, where the possibility of being awakened by foot traffic would be minimal and neither one of us would have to negotiate a ladder in the middle of the night if nature called.
We chilled for a bit and made some noodles. Afterward, we went for a walk around the lake and hiked part way up the next day’s grade to Mackinnon Pass, which would be the high point of our trek. Overall, a very pleasant evening. We made campers meals (pad Thai) and tea for dinner and eventually crawled into our beds.
Dera woke me up at first light, ready to hit the trail early. I told him to go on ahead, since I was sure I could catch up with him along the 1500 feet of elevation to the Pass. By the time I was ready to leave, however, I realized why he was so motivated: It was raining. Great. I made sure everything was sealed in plastic bags just in case my waterproof backpack leaked but, as I later discovered, all my precautions were for naught. About 15 minutes after Dera departed I was on the trail. I overtook him within half an hour and continued up the switchbacks. The jungle was thick and the trail was mostly a creek. An hour in I was above the tree line and looked back at a valley I hadn’t seen yet to discover the most waterfalls I’ll ever witness in one place. I counted 36 dropping into the Mintaro Lake Valley but I’m sure there were more, and even though it was raining I was blown away by how much water was coming down.
I crested Mackinnon Pass to find visibility extremely limited, no surprise, despite the 3520-foot elevation. The wind started just afterward, and that’s when I stopped taking pictures for fear I might soak the wonderful Nikon Dera had allowed me to use. Gale forces blew the rain sideways into every part of me and my gear. The trail became a river. My shoes were soaked through, my socks were sopping and even my boxers were stuck to me, in spite of my supposedly waterproof jacket and pants. Awesome. Sort of. At least it wasn’t too cold, even though I was looking at snow just a few hundred feet above me.
I trekked on to Pass Hut, a day shelter on Mackinnon Pass with propane to prepare hot food. Again, I was the first to arrive, ahead of the 40 other trekkers on the trail with us each day. I aired out my wet gear, listened to the wind and chatted with the occasional hiker while I waited for Dera for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. I didn’t think I had been so far in the lead and when he finally appeared I learned that he had been in the other half of the hut all the while, enjoying hot cocoa with the guided hikers!
Bracing our semi-dry selves for the worst, we made our way off the Pass and back onto the trail only to get caught in the middle of even more intense weather than before. Five minutes in, hail was pelting our faces. Fifteen minutes in, we were fording waterfalls that crossed the trail. Twenty-five minutes in, we were delirious and loving every minute of this crazy, intense, obnoxious and stunning downpour. We stayed close together until we were off the exposed part of the mountain. In the valley that followed, I left Dera behind. I was cold at that point and needed to move faster to warm up.
I made it to the Public Shelter, a spot where people drop their packs for a side trip to Sutherland Falls – at 1904 feet, the highest in New Zealand and the fifth highest in the world. Twenty minutes after I arrived, the weather cleared, the sun came out and I made my way to the Falls. At fifty yards away, I was already drenched from the spray misting up from so much water pounding down. The Falls were incredible, the most intense I’ve ever seen. I had read that you were supposed to be able to walk behind them but 10 yards out I was blinded by the amount of water hitting me and decided that it would be stupid to continue. I headed back to the Public Shelter, picked up my pack and, 30 minutes later, arrived at Dumpling Hut, where Dera had already staked out a great spot to sleep.
Priority Numero Uno, however: Dry my stuff. It wasn’t long before I had so many pieces of clothing hanging over the wood stove that I had to make a list to keep track and could rotate everything. And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone had gotten thoroughly drenched that day, their normally waterproof gear unable to stand up to the rain, but I’d never seen such weathered people so happy and chatty. It was almost surreal. The entire group was getting along so well after bonding for three nights together. We made a few friends – Jacek from Poland, Marco and Barbara, a couple from Slovenia. Eastern Europeans were definitely present, as were many Aussies and Kiwis. Dera observed that I was the only one without an accent, although a gentleman from Auckland guessed that I was from LA. I corrected him, explaining that I was from San Diego, but I have to admit that two hours off wasn’t too shabby. I decided that my SoCal accent must be more apparent than I realized.
I spent the night drying my clothes and gear and eating a big meal since I hadn’t really had a chance to break for one all day. A good night’s sleep was interrupted by a chainsaw a few bunks over. I’m not a light sleeper but this guy’s snoring was so loud I thought he was going to choke – one of the many pleasures of sharing a sleeping space with strangers.
The next morning we rose before the sun for the longest day of hiking – 11.5 miles – across mostly flat terrain. I had gotten an okay night’s sleep and because the end was in sight I was motivated to get on the trail. It wasn’t raining and the downpours of the previous days made for a fantastic walk along the river and, of course, more waterfalls. The day was all about proximity — every fall I saw crossed the trail and joined the river, and every one of them was swollen beyond capacity.
We crossed innumerable bridges – true feats of engineering by the Department of Conservation. In some places, the remains of older bridges were harsh evidence of the yearly floods the valley experiences. After an early stop for lunch and the last trailside fall, Giant Gate Falls, we were in the zone, tramping along the ever-widening river that eventually turned into the Milford Sound. The hike went by fast and we made it to the end, Sandfly Point, 33.5 miles from the trailhead, an hour or so prior to our ferry’s departure.
Going through our photos from the previous four days, Dera and I agreed that the trek had been a fantastic experience. For my part, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Sure, clear skies on the summit of the Pass would have been nice but you feel a certain sense of accomplishment after making it through something like that, rough weather and all.
Dera and I posed for one last picture next to the terminus sign where many hikers had left their broken boots. Looking back, I should have left mine.