Fiordland: Meeting Ms Milford

By Justine Tyerman

Justine Tyerman joins the Milford Track fan club.

Mt Hart from Mackinnon Pass. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Mt Hart from Mackinnon Pass. Photo / Justine Tyerman

She's a star, a celebrity. Her beautiful face adorns billboards the world over. She's capricious and famous for her fits of fury. But she can also be enchanting and beguiling.

Thousands of people from all corners of the globe seek time in her presence. She is photographed from every angle, in all her multifarious moods.

We approach her with trepidation, having heard stories of the legendary storms she has unleashed on her devoted fans during the 125 years of her life. But we find her in a gentle, sunny mood, welcoming and bewitching us with her extraordinary beauty.

The first day is a meander across the first of many picturesque swing bridges, through moss-draped beech forest beside the Clinton River with its clear pools reflecting images of the wooded valley walls.

As the Clinton Valley narrows to a canyon on the second day, I remember the words of Englishwoman Blanche Baughan who described the terrain she was walking through as "truly the region of the perpendicular ... you realise you are walking at the bottom of a gigantic furrow of the earth".

(London Spectator, 1908).

The editor of the day headlined the article, 'The Finest Walk in the World', an epithet which has given the Milford 105 years of the kind of publicity that marketing gurus kill for.

Near our idyllic lunch spot at Prairie Lake, where a wispy waterfall tumbles over a mosaic of rock and moss to a mirror pool below, we get our first view of the formidable Mackinnon Pass, our mission for the next day.

After a six-hour tramp, the last part steadily up, we sit outside Mintaro Hut with a friendly weka for company. The image of the last rays of sun on the wise old hunk of granite towering over us is deeply etched in my memory.

Next day, the exhilaration of finally climbing the five zigs and six zags up the steep wall to Mackinnon Pass in perfect conditions completely obliterates any memory of the considerable effort involved - a bit like childbirth! There are rewards for every step as the Clinton Canyon drops away below and the breathtaking landscape of the alpine pass unfolds above.

At the stone cairn near the top of the track, we pay homage to Quintin Mackinnon and Ernest Mitchell who discovered the route from Lake Te Anau to Milford Sound on 17 October 17 1888.

The views at the summit are so spectacular, they wage war on my senses. I want to scream out "Hey, Ms Milford, one view at a time please, it's all I can handle!"

The mountains, gouged and scraped to bedrock by Fiordland's ice-age glaciers, are other-worldly. The pass (1154m) is suspended between the massive rhino horn of Mt Balloon and the broad-shouldered, deeply-weathered bulk of Mt Hart. To the right, Mt Elliott's craggy face is awash with tears falling from the Jervois Glacier.

The deep valleys on either side of the pass vie for attention, along with alpine tarns and brave little mountain lilies.

I apologise to Elsie K. Morton who stood on the summit in 1949 and saw nothing.

"What a grief to be doing it in this fog! We are walking on top of the world amid such company of Mountain Kings as we may never meet again, and not one glimpse of them to gladden our eyes!"

And I feel very sorry for Alys Lowth who walked the track just 10 days after us in 1906 and felt the full wrath of the famous one in a seriously bad mood.

"It was bitterly cold ... and as we climbed higher the snow on the track became deeper and deeper so that we sank into it almost up to our knees ... we could not see a single peak of the mountains ... the wind was so strong that it was really hard to keep from being blown over."

But for us the summit is bathed in bright sunshine with the lightest of breezes and playful snow-white puffs of cloud.

I have irrational thoughts about taking up residence in the day hut where we lunch in the company of Elsie's Mountain Kings ... altitude sickness perhaps, but I have to be dragged off the pass with reminders the hardest part of the seven-hour tramp is yet to come.

Forewarned is not forearmed, physically or mentally - the descent is indeed much steeper, rockier and longer than the ascent.

We stop often to photograph the famous Sutherland Falls in the distance, knowing the sidetrack to New Zealand's highest waterfall (580m), the fifth highest in the world, is closed due to a huge rockfall.

An ingenious staircase down the cliff face alongside the beautiful, many-tiered Roaring Burn Falls, takes our minds of the better-known sibling.

The penalty for many stops is a late arrival at Dumpling Hut and being at the tail end of the bunk-bagsing. We end up with top bunks in the snoring zone so quietly move our mattresses elsewhere.

Day four is an 18km flat walk with a scary deadline - if you fail to meet the mid-afternoon boats at the end of the track, you risk being eaten alive by the nasty little blood-suckers at Sandfly Point. So there is little time to marvel at the Mackay Falls, Bell Rock - the inside of which is shaped surprisingly like a bell - and the Giant Gate Falls, refreshed after overnight drizzle.

A cloud shroud adds a mystique to the mountain walls of the Arthur Valley, which seems appropriate for the subdued mood of our last day. It is as if Ms Milford wants to show us how beautiful she can be, without the illumination of bright sunshine and blue skies. Dressed in sombre tones, her mountain tops partly hidden behind veils of diaphanous silver-grey, she knows how alluring her face will appear, reflected in the tranquil waters of Lake Ada.

All too soon, we are at track's end, mesmerised and delighted. We have tramped in magnificent alpine terrain before but the Milford is on another planet for spectacularity. She may be world famous and toasted by thousands but the experience is ultimately an intensely personal one. She worked her magic on us and left an indelible imprint on our hearts and memories.

The Finest Walk in the World? Until I have hiked them all, I suppose I'm not really qualified to say - but I can't imagine anything finer.


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