15 February 2017

The Milford Track - Week 2

Fiordland National Park, bookended by Queenstown

Week 2 (December 18 - 23, 2016)

From Dunedin we headed west to Queenstown to begin the next phase of our vacation. We were booked on the Milford Track, "one of the world's most beautiful walks" with Ultimate Hikes, and 5 days of Fiordland National Park wilderness lay ahead of us. Highway 8 started out in pastoral, undulating terrain, before the appearance of a rocky landscape as we entered Central Otago. Then came views of Lake Dunstan and the peaks of the Southern Alps. Near Cromwell we entered a thriving agricultural area with highway stands of apricots and cherries, along with numerous vineyards and wineries. Pinot Noir is the main grape varietal here. The last stretch into Queenstown where lush green gave way to brown mountain slopes, was even more breathtaking. 

We checked in at the Novotel, nicely situated right beside glimmering Lake Wakatipu. At the top of this lake is the picturesque town of Glenorchy where most of the mini-series "Top of the Lake" was shot. Queenstown, with an impressive concentration of hotels and restaurants, was hopping with tourists. Youngsters are drawn to the many adventure sports like bungy jumping. Our Milford Track adventure started here with a late afternoon orientation meeting at the Ultimate Hikes headquarters. We met our guides - four young, strapping nature enthusiasts - and our fellow hikers, an international group of mainly professionals of all ages.
At dinner time we strolled out into the balmy evening along the lake scouting out the restaurant scene. Lively Irish music from a crowded pub lured us in for a beer. We sat up on the balcony, gazing at the lake and the Remarkables, a mountain range framing the town, while tapping our toes to the happy music. We ended this perfect day at an Italian restaurant where we gorged on excellent gnocchi, drenched in a flavorful sauce, followed by a divine tiramisu.

In the morning we lugged our backpacks over to the Ultimate Hikes Center and braced ourselves for some serious outdoor adventures.

Day 1
A 3 hour coach ride through sublime mountain scenery got us to Te Anau where we had a decent lunch consisting of a selection of salads. The coach then delivered us to our boat at Te Anau Downs. Despite the grey, drizzly day which kept us inside, the cruise to the top of Lake Te Anau was a moving kaleidoscope of thrilling lake and mountain vistas.
Glade Wharf

From the wharf it was a quick 1 mile hike to our first lodge, Glade House. This meant another 32.5 miles of hiking lay ahead of us. I flopped on the bed in our room and just stared out the window at the Clinton River and steep mountain slopes. Already it felt like we were deep in the wilderness, far, far away from the festive hype of the outside world. After a satisfying cup of tea and a cookie, we followed our guides on a nature walk. Hiking poles came in useful as we went up a steep trail through dense vegetation. We arrived at the rocky bank of the river and just sat down and drank in the beauty that surrounded us. Later, at our lodge our pampered evening started with wine and an assortment of hors d'oevres - olives, sun-dried tomatoes, crackers and cheese. We got to know our fellow hikers a little better over drinks and board games. They were from all over the world- the USA, Australia, South Korea, Japan, China, Germany, France, and there some Kiwis too. A 3 course gourmet dinner was followed by a session of introductions. And then, a slide show briefing by the enthusiastic guides about our trail for the next day.

Day 2 
A warm, sunny day began with a hearty breakfast. Along with eggs and sausages, there were cereals, fruit, porridge, stewed fruit and yogurt. We made our lunches from a selection of sandwich fillings, together with a few sweet treats, trail mix, and fruit. By 8:30 we were all on the trail. But within minutes, it was clear that most of the group, far ahead of us, consisted of seasoned hikers. First, we crossed a suspension bridge over the Clinton River and entered a beech forest. About an hour later we detoured onto a boardwalk in a wetland area. Strange and colorful mosses (including an insectivore species), distinctly different from the rest of the area, characterized this little section of the park. The mostly flat trail continued into more rainforest area, before a gradual ascent up the Clinton Valley where the rock walls go up to 4000 feet high. 

From our sheltered lunch stop, where our guides served us hot drinks, we could see Hirere Falls across the valley. Continuing on through a clearing we got views of McKinnon Pass which we would be crossing tomorrow. After more forest, with a short delay to enjoy the song of a bell bird, we arrived at Prairie Lake where we stopped to take in the views and watch intrepid souls dive into the cold water and swim to a gentle waterfall. Further on, the track opened up to the prairie with views of permanent ice fields and waterfalls. We ended our ten mile hike with a stream crossing. At Pomplona Lodge buttery scones with cream and jam awaited our arrival. From our bedroom we had a staggering view of waterfalls spilling down a towering cliff. We spotted a few keas, noisy green parrots that love to eat the soles of boots! 
After a short rest we followed what became our routine on this 4 day hike. We washed and dried our clothes, using the convenient laundry facilities and spacious drying room. Then, to the lounge area for cocktails, hors d'oevres, light conversation and relaxation. Next was dinner, a hearty affair with 3 exquisite courses served with the flair of an upscale restaurant. A slide presentation with a description of the next day's trail rounded off the evening. 

Day 3
On this most challenging day of the hike I couldn't help feeling nervous about crossing a mountain pass, especially because heavy rain and wind was forecast for the entire day. By 7:30 AM we were all on the trail. An easy first hour on the flat to the head of Clinton Valley, then a gradual climb up Practice Hill leading to Lake Mintaro. Protected from a steady rain by all the necessary gear, coupled with hiking poles and backpacks, a bathroom stop was unthinkable! We stopped for drinks at Mintaro Hut, before proceeding to the section of switchbacks. Though not strenuous, we had to cross several gushing streams, resulting in drenched socks and boots. But wool stays warm, we learned! Our feet were never cold, despite being wet. Halfway up, the Nicholas Cirque came into view. This great carved out depression against a circle of glacial mountains looked so primeval, and with the rain and mist, so mythical. We couldn’t stop to admire the view though. We had to get to McKinnon Pass and over fast. The foul weather was worsening. The trail became steeper and harder, especially with a backpack. Hiking poles were absolutely essential. At Mackinnon’s Memorial, a monument close to the summit, gale force winds pummeled us. A guide gave us a “pick me up drink” - hot gatorade - and some words of encouragement. I put on my wool hat and warm fleece, and braved the elements. At times the stinging rain and gale force winds forced me to crouch down.

Mt. Balloon

At the summit, we made a conscious attempt to ignore the weather and take in the unique and startling scenery. Of course, much of it was hidden under thick mist. The partial views of sheer mountain slopes and deep valleys and little lakes certainly made us feel like we were in a movie setting. This was the climax of our four day hike ... But the finger-numbing chill, and lashing rain made it impossible to linger. Down a bit, then a most welcome lunch stop at Pass hut. How wickedly cosy it felt to be cocooned inside a warm shelter, sipping steaming coffee, while outside the world seemed at its harshest. 
We were warned that going down would be more challenging, but somehow I was convinced that the hard part was over. Wrong! First, rain stung my cheeks and I howled with pain. We had to move fast to get to milder altitudes. We came to a waterfall crossing, requiring scrambling up, across, and down huge boulders. I panicked, fearing that my backpack would make me lose my balance as soon as I lifted a foot to the necessary height. With Daryl's commands and encouragement, I scrambled across. Amazing what you can accomplish when you have no other choice! Eyes peeled to the ground we managed not to break any bones as we dropped altitude. We came to a series of rushing rivers. A guide was posted at the first one to instruct each of us on how to get across. Again, adrenaline kicked in. I imagined getting swept away by the staggering current. Definitely out of my comfort zone. But, I stepped on exposed boulders as instructed and made it across each raging stream. Soon, the terrain became less treacherous and the weather a lot friendlier. The scenery the whole time was breathtaking. Most notably were cascading waterfalls gushing down towering cliffs. We were immersed in a water soundscape - every possible pitch and tone that a gigantic volume of rushing water can make. A new challenge plagued me when we came to swing bridges. My left knee became inflamed and it was excruciating to climb up and down steps. I had to go slowly, putting most of my strength on the right knee. How annoying! We could have been sailing over these swing bridges otherwise. It was almost 5:00 PM when we crossed Roaring Burn swing bridge before limping into Quintin Lodge after a 9 mile hike. What a glorious moment! 
In our room, which once again looked out to jaw dropping Fiordland scenery, I peeled off my wet clothes, and collapsed into a deep slumber. An hour so so later we were both rested and refreshed and ready for the evening routine. Over dinner we had cheerful conversations with an Australian couple from Singapore, and a couple from England on their honeymoon.

Day 4

We followed a steady downhill trail on this last day of hiking the Milford Track. Reasonably easy, but due to my inflamed knee, it was absolute agony to step over the many fallen tree trunks. The weather was pretty good, starting out with a slight drizzle, and clearing up as the day progressed. We encountered stream crossings immediately, meaning another full day of soggy socks. 

Spectacular scenery was once again the order of the day, starting out with thundering Sutherland Falls, the 5th highest waterfall in the world. More swing bridges as we descended Gentle Annie, a rocky hill. Then came a flat stretch through moss covered rainforest. We stopped for coffee at Boat Shed, a welcome shelter from the infamous sandflies which were starting to annoy us. After crossing a swing bridge we came to Mackay Falls, famous on this trail, and Bell Rock. Just before our lunch stop we arrived at a tricky section. A narrow, sloping trail was cut into a steep granite cliff. To the right was a sheer drop into Lake Ada. Luckily, the "sweeper" guide was with us. He cautioned me to take small steps into rock grooves. With adrenalin pumping I finally got past this 200 meter stretch. The trail leveled off into a rainforest. The last stretch, after lunch, was pretty flat and wide, making it possible to pay full attention to the lushness, and the dramatic slopes and valleys and the mountain peaks and water falls and Lake Ada. 

The track came to an end at Sandly Point, after a 13.5 mile walk today. Here, we were served hot drinks, used the clean, modern restrooms, fought off sandflies, then boarded the boat to Milford Sound. As we approached the harbor, the stunning fiord scenery evoked memories of Norway's west coast. Mitre Peak, instantly recognizable, poked up through a cloud layer.  
At the harbor we boarded a coach which deposited us at luxurious Mitre Lodge. What an amazing location! The view from our bedroom was iconic Milford Sound. I could've just planted myself on the bed and stared out forever. 
As it was our last evening together as a group, we celebrated by dressing up in more elegant clothes which the company had collected from us back in Queenstown and ferried over to this lodge. Costumed cooks and the guides dressed in fancy evening wear added to an atmosphere of celebration. After dinner we gathered together one last time to receive certificates for completing the hike. 

Day 5 
When I opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was Mitre Peak rising up from the beguiling waters of Milford Sound. Patches of fluffy cloud floated along its slopes adding to its mystique. My gaze shifted to the sunlit glacial mountains, some draped in a layer of snow, their contours clearly defined against a cerulean sky. I could even just about see some spray from the famous Bowen Falls. This was certainly one of those rare life moments to savor. How could I not feel a profound gratitude to be granted this incredible privilege?
After breakfast, we made our lunches one last time, a final group ritual, before packing up. 

Milford Sound

The short stroll from Mitre Lodge to the harbor provided a chance to feast our eyes on the scenery. We took photos, lots and lots of photos in hopes of making this moment last forever. The weather was just glorious for our cruise through the sound. As the boat left the harbor we got full frontal views of majestic Bowen Falls overlooked by a snowcapped mountain. We sailed through inlets, where we saw many waterfalls, then out into the Tasman Sea before turning around. The only interesting wildlife we saw were New Zealand fur seals basking on a gigantic boulder. We got as close to Stirling Falls as possible, and I managed to take a photo without getting drenched. Well, this most entertaining cruise was the perfect end punctuation mark on the Milford Track.

A 3 hour coach ride back to Queenstown, with a lunch stop in Te Anau took up the rest of the day. Highway SH94 cut through rugged Fiordland mountain scenery, and I wondered if this ranked in the Top 10 of the world's most scenic roads. However, an intrusion to our enjoyment occurred when the coach hit a boulder and got a flat tire. We made it all the way to Te Anau, but slowly and noisily! 

It was late afternoon when we found ourselves back at the Novotel in Queenstown. Our intense 5 days on the Milford Track caught up with us. Even though the town buzzed with pre-Christmas atmosphere, we were sapped of energy. After a low key dinner at an Indian restaurant, we returned to the hotel for a indulgent hot tub soak. Wow! Our aching limbs were so thankful. Afterwards, we strolled along the lake, absorbing the lively atmosphere, and then watched the sun set and the lake changing colors in the fading light.  The setting elicited contented smiles and sighs. We had just experienced one of our most stupendous weeks ever.

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