Milford serves up toil and pleasure in equal measure, writes Pamela Wade.
As the icy water crept up my thighs, reached the oh! zone and continued towards my hips, I began to doubt my expectation that this would be the Milford Track for softies.
It had certainly started well: sprawled on a sofa in the sunny conservatory of my Eichardt's Hotel lakeside cottage, sunk deep into squashy cushions with a drink at my elbow, I had felt full of optimism about this classic hike. Wakatipu sparkled just metres away, Cecil Peak was crisp and sharp against a clear blue sky, and the prospect of four days' walking through that splendid scenery was mentally invigorating.
Physically more comforting was the knowledge that going with Ultimate Hikes meant not only would I carry only my personal belongings, but at day's end there would be hot showers, a three-course dinner and a comfortable bed. It was going to be a doddle. In fact, "toddle" was more like it for Day One: just a 20-minute stroll along a level path from the jetty at the top of Lake Te Anau to Glade House, our first Milford lodge.
I settled into my en suite room with the picture-window view of fast-flowing river, misty mountain tops and leaping waterfalls - and then looked again. That would be three sorts of water out there, with the unmistakable promise of more to come; and at the evening briefing Dan, our head guide, confirmed the forecast.
"Yes, we're going to get wet," he said cheerfully. "It's all part of the fun; and we do have super-efficient drying rooms at the lodges."
I thought about Dan's idea of fun often throughout the night when I woke to the hammering of rain on the roof; and again in the morning when I opened the curtains to see the churning Clinton River barely contained by its banks. We stood around after breakfast, the 16 of us all glum.
"We Californians are a desert people, you know," remarked Bruce, but he was no match for the brisk optimism of the guides, and we set off, 53km of trail ahead. By the time it was all behind us, I had learned that there is no soft version of the Milford Track: the rain falls on guided and independent walkers alike, and the only way to cope with flooded track is to take a deep breath and wade into it. Mackinnon Pass is still 1154m high, the descent is unavoidably knee-wrenching, and the sandflies bite everybody indiscriminately.
The pleasures are the same for all: electric-green mosses glowing in suffused light; robins flitting round your feet; sudden joy as the sun comes out and the day turns blue and gold; glaciers, keas and a forever view from the pass; tumbling rivers and the Sutherland Falls; and the relief of unlacing boots at the end of each day.
On the other hand, however, I'd found it hugely encouraging having friendly guides to cheer me on and distract me from the daily toil of putting one foot after the other; and reclining on a soft chair, warm and dry, sipping a drink and looking forward to salmon rillettes for dinner as I awaited my turn in the Foot Love session, I once even spared a thought for the independents dripping into their instant noodles along the track in the DoC hut. "Poor things," it might have been. Possibly, "Cheapskates."
Doing things the hard way may suit the Spartan types, but taking the easier option doesn't diminish the experience. Far from it: I was much better able to enjoy the fabulous scenery and physical exertion having slept well, and carrying only a small pack; and after a day spent chilly and wet, or dripping with sweat, the simple delight of a hot shower is impossible to exaggerate.
It also helps, as the trail winds on, to have something to look forward to, and for luxury, there's no beating Blanket Bay at Glenorchy.
As I lolled in the jacuzzi, gazing across the lake to the mountains, my smugness knew no bounds. Space, peace and elegant surroundings, fine food, my own stone and timber chalet where every whim was met ... it was the perfect reward.
Ultimate Hikes: The five-day Ultimate Hikes package includes guides, some equipment, transport, a boat trip on Milford Sound and accommodation along the Milford Track.
Where to stay: Eichardt's has rooms in its historic Queenstown building plus four comfortable Cottage Suites.
Blanket Bay, at the Glenorchy end of Lake Wakatipu, has a range of luxurious accommodation.
Pamela Wade was hosted by Ultimate Hikes, Eichardt's Private Hotel and Blanket Bay.