Obviously the Aussies were awestruck, but even the Norwegian was impressed. "Your scenery is more dramatic than ours," Vegard conceded, grudgingly. The only Kiwi in the group, I was happy to take full credit; but Ultimate Hikes deserved their share too.
We had just spent four days in mid-December walking the Milford Track, doing what independent trampers call the cushy version. Scoffing probably makes them feel better as, bent under their heavy packs, they trudge from one basic DoC hut to the next — but we walked every step they did, saw the same scenery, got the same sense of accomplishment. The difference was each night we could toast our achievement with a glass of fine wine before a three-course dinner and a peaceful night in a comfortable bed.
With everything taken care of by our three cheerful guides, we had nothing to worry about — which was just as well, given that Fiordland did its notorious thing, weather-wise.
"You're going to get wet," warned the skipper of the boat that took us from Te Anau Downs to the top of the lake. "You do know you can drive to Milford?"
Though it was cloudy, the scenery was far from grey on our short walk to Glade House, our first lodge: the moss glowed an electric green, the ferns were edged with silver, the Clinton River foamed white between black rocks. Rain fell steadily all night as we ate and drank, chatted and laughed, and were told about what lay ahead. Afterwards, we fell asleep in blissful ignorance of what an annual rainfall of 7m actually means.
In the morning, the river was brown and churning, much closer now under the swing bridge that started our tramp proper. At first we edged around puddles on the track but then, told that ahead the water was knee-deep at the Prairies, we gave up and discovered the unexpected pleasures of water-filled boots. Rain dripped on to our heads from the trees above where robins and tomtits watched our progress.
We followed the river, which roared and foamed and, eventually, inevitably, overflowed on to the track. At first ankle deep, then shins, then knees and then, gaspingly, thigh-deep, we waded doughtily onwards, cheered on by our guides who were getting radioed reports of what lay ahead. Gratefully sucking down hot soup at lunchtime, we were told that the mooted helicopter rescue was not going to be needed, and we could carry on.
Deprived of that drama, we were compensated by the sun suddenly making its first appearance of the day, and the rapid falling of the river level. Now we could appreciate the myriad tall waterfalls tumbling down rocky cliffs, the colours of the moss-draped bush, the swirling whirlpools in the river. Finally, 16km from our start, we arrived at Pompolona Lodge in time for afternoon tea, eager to appreciate its many comforts, especially a drying room so efficient that it once melted a thermometer.
Next morning, we woke to sunshine bright on our goal for the day: Mackinnon Pass, 1154m high and just 11 zigzags up. Slow and steady, we counted them off, diverted by bird life, flower-filled alpine gardens and, always, spectacularly long views.
Even the curious kea at the top couldn't distract us as we ate our lunches. The views were truly glorious, and even better for having been honestly earned. We could also see Quintin Hut waiting for us, far below. "That's a 12-second drop if you want to take the short cut," guide AJ told us — but we opted instead for the long, steep trail down, thankful to be distracted by the scenery from protesting hips and knees.
There was no rest at the bottom, though: dropping our packs, we headed away to tick off Sutherland Falls, the country's highest at 580 metres in three glorious leaps. Roaring after the rain like a 747 taking off, it was hard to stand straight against the wind it created, so we crouched there, properly awed.
Day four brought more waterfalls, gentler and prettier, a clear river and lush bush, scuttling weka with fluffy chicks, and a track suddenly wide and sloping steadily downwards. Finally we reached well-named Sandfly Point and, nearby, the jetty where our boat waited to take us past the classic view of Mitre Peak to our last lodge of the trip.
Not our last blast from nature, though: more rain overnight gave us, on our cruise along Milford Sound, scores of temporary waterfalls leaping down towering rock faces, and Bowen Falls pumping dramatically. Vegard couldn't help but be impressed.
The Great Walks season on the Milford Track runs from November 20 to April 30. Ultimate Hikes will be operating a condensed season of guided walks between December 17 and April 5, departing five days a week and with reduced pricing from $2230pp. ultimatehikes.co.nz
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