Milford Track: Mountain high

By Pamela Wade

The Milford Track in the Southern Alps. Photo / NZ Herald
The Milford Track in the Southern Alps. Photo / NZ Herald

Hermits and holy men go up into the mountains to contemplate the meaning of life or the sound of one hand clapping, but my question on day three of the Milford Track is more down to earth. Is a zig shorter than a zag?

Today - in fact, right now - is the biggie, when everything suddenly goes vertical. Up until this point, as far as gradient is concerned, this world-famous hike has been a walk in the park - an underwater park.

"You're going to get wet tomorrow," announced the skipper of the boat taking us to the top of Lake Te Anau, and sure enough the cloud hiding the tops of the mountains around Glade House condensed into steady rain before bedtime on day one.

Our group felt chipper all the same. It had been only a half-hour stroll from the jetty to the lodge where we found comfortable beds, hot showers, and drinks and nibbles, followed by an excellent dinner we hadn't earned at all.

Dan, AJ and Melissa, our Ultimate Hikes guides, were cheerful and knowledgeable, and Dan entertained us with a demonstration of the use of the sleep sheet for those in the bunk rooms.

"OSH reports that 70 per cent of Milford Track injuries are sleep sheet-related," he told us, flailing around inside one like a grotesque caterpillar.

We went to bed laughing and eager to start proper tramping in the morning.

But there's something about lying warm and dry in bed, listening to rain on the roof and planning what clothes to get wet in that kind of saps enthusiasm, and the mood at breakfast was more sombre.

Dan radioed to the DoC ranger ahead: "It's above knee-height at the Prairies," we heard.

"Whose knees?" we immediately wanted to know, but he shooed us outside.

Tottering along the swing bridge over the roaring Clinton River I felt grim, but once inside the protection of the bush on the other side, the walk became a pleasure.

This place was made for, and by, rain: velvety mosses hung from the beech trees and padded the ground beside the path, waterfalls streaked the bare walls of the valley and the river churned brown, barely contained by its banks.

And then it wasn't anymore - parts of the track were flooded, and our initial reluctance to get our feet wet became absurd as the level crept up. Ankle-deep at first, then shins, knees ... when it reached my thighs I stopped walking on tip-toes. After all, the icy water inside my boots did eventually warm up, besides, I was the only one looking hopefully at the helicopter buzzing along the valley and, as the sole Kiwi in the group, I had national pride to consider.

Dan was also thinking about a chopper rescue as he radioed back and forth with the ranger.

"It's borderline," he announced at lunchtime. At six foot two, I pointed out, his borderline was a lot higher than mine at five foot four.

Before long, however, the rain stopped and the water level fell, although we still had to do aquarobics all the way across the Prairies. An open grassy plain where the colours were bright in the sunshine, it gave us our first sight of day three's challenge.

Mackinnon Pass is named after the pint-sized Scot who discovered it in 1888 and became the Milford Track's first guide. That night we stayed at Pompolona Lodge, its curious name taken from the mutton-grease scones that were his speciality.

It was a relief to be offered instead buttery walnut and apricot scones for our afternoon tea in the lounge with its five-star views of mountaintops, glaciers and waterfalls.

This is where I swotted up the following day's route.

Eleven switchbacks are cut into the side of the Clinton Canyon, climbing at a 1:8 gradient up from the bush through alpine meadows to the pass at 1154m. I memorised the details: 2 is the longest, 4 has the distance peg, 5 a lookout, 6 is the last in the trees... but next day I find it's all gone to pieces. In real life everything's so much less tidy than the lodge poster promised.

Does it count as one of the 11 if it's very short? A zig, as opposed to a zag? There's nothing like rehearsing a crisp formal complaint for taking the mind off aching calves and heaving lungs, and before I realise it I'm out of the bush and walking through a perfect alpine garden of schist pebbles, hebes, astelias, and flowers: Mt Cook lilies, mountain daisies with bright yellow centres, and dainty white gentians.

All around are mountain peaks, sharp against the clear blue sky, the glistening glaciers reflected in the tannin-stained water of the tarns on the top. Because, suddenly, that's where I am, there's the stone memorial to Quinton MacKinnon, just along the ridge is the lunch stop, and right here is AJ with a cheerful grin and a hot drink. There's even a kea clowning about.

I try to remember how that felt, afterwards. The descent is tough: more than 900m down the steep emergency track, away from the avalanche-risk area. It's awkward and jarring and I'm so glad I have poles. It takes forever and my knees are protesting bitterly by the time I get to the lodge, and Sutherland Falls is still 40 minutes away.

I almost don't go. I've seen plenty of waterfalls today - do I need one more? But it turns out to be unmissable, the highest in New Zealand at 580m, it falls in three glorious leaps with such force that more than 100m away from the plunge pool the sunny day turns dark and wet, the trees thrash around as in a hurricane, there's a jet-plane roar, and when I step from behind the final sheltering boulder, I'm soaked through within seconds and almost blown off my feet. It's spectacular.

My companions are impressed, too, not just with the falls, but with the whole shebang.

It's particularly gratifying to hear the Aussies telling each other how fabulous the mountains are and how beautiful the rivers. One American says, "It's just like the '100 per cent Pure' posters."

She's right: on the last day we pass Mackay Falls, clear water foaming white over piled boulders between lush green tree ferns and beeches, as featured in the tourism advertisements.

And when, after 54km, we finally reach the end, and the boat takes us down the river into Milford Sound, and there's Mitre Peak rising up so improbably high and sheer from the waters of the fiord, even Vegard the Norwegian admits that this is more dramatic than anything he's seen at home. And it's all ours.

FACT FILE

The Milford Track can be walked independently (book through the Department of Conservation) but Ultimate Hikes provides guides, very comfortable lodges, transport each end and many thoughtful touches that make the whole experience a trouble-free pleasure.

Even so, some luxury before and especially after is very welcome: highly recommended are Eichardt's in central Queenstown and Blanket Bay near Glenorchy.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Ultimate Hikes.

- Herald on Sunday

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