Sonya Wilson, a self-described Fiordland obsessive - sets her compass for a long walk
The Milford Track begins where Lake Te Anau ends: in the middle of nowhere, up where the edges of the Earl and Wick mountain ranges collide. We arrive there by boat, 47 strangers and me, motoring face-first into the northerly with our jackets zipped up against the wind. I can't see a sign; there is nothing much at all to mark the start of Fiordland's most famous walk, just a silvering collection of timber banged together to make a wharf, 3000 sandflies - and the view: an inky lake shrouded in beech trees, mountain slopes knitted together like clasping fingers, peaks turning four shades of slate under the passing cloud.
It's a present, this walk. "Happy Birthday!" my family said. "Now go away into the forest." I turned 40, so my husband, sisters and parents pooled their money and paid for me to do the Milford Track the flash way — where you stay in serviced lodges, eat three-course meals and sleep in actual beds with actual sheets. It's expensive and a real treat because, traditionally, my family don't like paying too much for anything. But I'm old now and fancy. I've even upgraded my 18-year-old tramping boots for a pair with shoelaces not rusted to their eyelets.
Our first night's accommodation, Glade House, an historic corrugated iron-clad lodge perched on the east bank of the Clinton River, is just a short walk from the wharf. I've never been here, but my mother's name is in the visitors' book from 1969 and my sister's too, from when she worked here as a lodge attendant, back in 1998.
"I live in Auckland now," I tell my fellow trampers during the official introductions after dinner (salmon starter, rack of lamb main, apple strudel dessert), "but I grew up down here in Southland." There are nine different nationalities in our group but I am the only Kiwi and the only one walking on my own.
"Tell me, Sonya," says Dennis, a bright-eyed retiree from Scotland who is looking at me like a father looks at the adult child for whom life hasn't worked out so well. "Do you mind being on your own?"
I haven't had more than two nights away from my kids since the oldest was born eight years ago. I have 54km of wilderness to walk through, four full days in the Fiordland forest with no one to worry about but myself. Do I mind? I tell Dennis that actually, I feel like running outside where the dragonflies are dipping their wings into the river and the birds are beginning their gentle dusk chorus and yelling, Woooohoooooo!"
"Yes, but where are your gaiters?" Andreas asks. He is an Austrian I.T. guy with an Austrian I.T. beard and he's walked all the big walks. "All the Kiwi trampers," he says, "they always wear gaiters."
I do not have gaiters, which is correct. Andreas and his wife smile. "And also, why do you all call it tramping?"
I have no idea, but I've passed the Austrian gaiter test and Dennis-from-Scotland likes the New Zealand wine I recommended, so I'm confident we're all going to be friends. "I'm actually using this walk as a sort of research trip," I tell them, "for a children's novel I'm writing that's set in the Fiordland forest." What I don't tell them is that I'm a complete Fiordland obsessive. I don't warn them that they might not make it to the end of this track alive because I'll bore them to death by naming every tree they walk past, pointing out every bird, telling them long-winded historical stories and explaining how, in the right atmospheric conditions, when you are high up on a ridge in Fiordland and the sun makes a ghost giant of your shadow, it is called a Brocken spectre. They'll find all that out soon enough.
Next to us, a serious Bavarian family play a serious game of cards. "Typical Germans," Andreas says, only sort of under his breath.
The walk begins properly the next morning, when I step off the end of the swing bridge that straddles the Clinton River and enter another world.
I am swallowed by the forest, taken in by gnarly primordial trees covered in three different kinds of moss. The track is dripping with the stuff; it blankets every log, stump and branch. Fiordland is a hard granite kingdom draped in soft green robes.
I've been coming to Fiordland for as long as I can remember. Every summer my parents loaded up the Cortina with the canvas tent, the three-legged barbecue and the Coppertone SPF4 and drove us from Invercargill to Manapōuri to camp. We didn't have a lot of money. Mum says they saved all year to be able to afford the campground fees, which even then (ahem) weren't always paid in full. (When we drove into the campground Dad would shout at me, "Duck down, quick!" because they'd told the owners they only had two daughters, not three.) We never went to Milford back then — that was for tourists or rich people — but we traipsed all over the tracked and un-tracked bush surrounding lakes Manapōuriand Te Anau, kings of our forested castle. Fiordland is where I learnt how to pitch a tent, how to waterski, how to catch and gut a fish. It is where I learnt to love being outside.
I live in Auckland — another island, another world — but Fiordland takes up more of my headspace now than it ever did when I was young. It has grown on me, like moss, thicker with every passing year. I hunt for it, collect it, store pieces of it in my spare room. I have Fiordland pounamu, pāua shells, maps, and books — a whole damp, mossy, rain-soaked office full of them. History books, memoirs, ageing National Park brochures and copies of settlement acts have all piled up on my dusty city shelves. Fiordland has moved north with me and settled down deep. I've written a whole novel and set it there — the perfect excuse to traipse all over the forest for months on end, if only inside my head. At work I pitch stories to my television producer bosses, profiles on people, issues that need investigating. "And where is this person based?" they ask. "Where is this issue most clear?"
"Fiordland," I reply, as casually as I can, hoping they won't notice the compasses in my eyes perpetually pointing south.
In the 19th century, when Pākehā were still discovering all of Fiordland's nooks and crannies — those 580m-high waterfalls, those caves full of bones and drawings, those previously "extinct" birds — they called this place the Wonder Country. And that's what it is for me, too. That sense of wonder those early explorers had when they found this new young land, the same sense of wonder I had as a new young human — I still get that here, in spades.
The track is marked in miles. For the first 10 of them, the Clinton River runs several shades of emerald on my right: a vivid gemstone green where the sun hits it through the trees but crystal-clear closer up. I can see every trout that swims past, count every stone on the river's bed. Six rainbow trout in just this one spot! I write in my notebook, as though I'll be tested on the number later on. At the five-mile marker I write: "Forest is astounding. Have run out of adjectives."
The scenery is epic. It is a long beautiful poem; grand, heroic, Miltonian. The vast outsideness of it all is almost shocking. Grave rocky faces tower over me, cliffs seem pushed past vertical by the crowds of mountains behind, valleys look as though they've been painted in, too perfect to be real.
I deliberately pace myself so that I'm alone on the trail, so that all I'm seeing is the view, so that no one else will see me because I am already speechless and my heart is thumping with the wonder of it all and I can feel myself making the kind of facial expressions you shouldn't make in company.
Pompolona Lodge, our accommodation for night two, is tucked into the forest like a fairy tale cabin-in-the-woods, 11miles up the Clinton River Valley. The German family are the first to arrive — Mum, Dad and the two teenage girls look like they barely broke a sweat.
"They're keen to win this walk, aren't they?" says Bruce, an accountant from Adelaide dressed like he means business in North Face's finest. Others trickle in throughout the late afternoon: the fresh-faced couple from Sydney, the young Swiss pair who perform acrobatic manoeuvres in the common room as a warm down ("She's so flexible," says Bruce) and the husband and wife team from Korea, who are travelling with their 6ft-something friend who is, we are told, one of their country's foremost martial arts experts. ("Their bodyguard," Bruce says, with a conspiratorial wink.) A group of workmates from an Australian police station are the last in. They arrive red-faced and exhausted, looking like they wished there wasn't quite so much bloody walking involved in this God-forsaken walk.
A couple of kea come to visit at dusk, hopping mischievously along the railings before tearing apart an old boot that a thoughtful guide has left out on the deck for just that purpose. Lights out is at 10 o'clock, a rule we have no choice but to obey as that's when the generators are cut. In the mountains, electric luxury cannot last all night. Our cabin-in-the-woods is dark during the witching-hour, head torches only, until someone flicks the switch again at 6am.
Māori have been walking this path for centuries. It is the greenstone route. Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Waitaha before them, would gather pounamu from the West Coast near Milford Sound, carrying it home across Fiordland's northern alpine wilderness before floating it all the way down Lake Te Anau and the Waiau River on raupō rafts. They say Tū Te Raki Whānoa chiselled these fiords out with his adze, proud marks carved from the face of the land but it was Tamatea who named the area Te Rua o te Moko — the pit of tattooing. The clouds that constantly boil and swarm over the mountains gave Fiordland another name too — Ata Whenua, some people call it, the Shadowland.
The first Pākehā to find his way over from Te Anau to Milford was Quintin MacKinnon, back in 1888. A rugby-playing Scottish explorer who famously wore a red billy-cock hat, he found the Milford Track and then lost himself — disappearing somewhere between Te Anau Downs and Milford Sound four years later. They found his boat and his hat but they never found his body. It is his memorial cairn that everyone photographs, erected by the Gaelic Society of New Zealand and the Otago Rugby Football Union, at the highest point of the pass.
"And that is a juvenile lancewood," I tell Phil, from America, who nods politely. "And yes, that is a kea, Phil, not a kākā. And hey, did you know that Pompolona Hut is named after the girdle scones Mackinnon used to make? And …"
Day three is the big one, when we climb 1000m up and over MacKinnon's Pass. The weather has been good to us so far but it's forecast to deteriorate soon.
Bruce winks at me as we shoulder our packs and prepare for our ascent and says, in a stage whisper, "It's your duty to beat the Germans over the pass, Sonya! Do it for the Anzacs!'
The track is cut from the mountain in a series of zig-zags. Lush forest gives way to shrub and tussock. It is a hard slog to the top but there are mountain daisies, placid alpine tarns, turbulent waterfalls, craggy, impossibly shaped rock faces that still hold patches of snow, even now, in January. Far below us the Arthur River winds northwards between dark granite slopes. It looks Jurassic, like a pathway to the past, built by someone or something much bigger than us. I try to take photos but my camera can't see what I can: the scale, the grandeur, the awesomeness of it all. It's not just words that fail me up here, it's pictures too.
By the time I battle my way past MacKinnon's cairn and across the ridge to the Pass Hut Shelter, my adrenalin is rushing and my heart is beating hard. It is exhilarating to be so full of wonder; I feel euphoric, I want to stay up here forever, I'll build a raupō hut and live off the smell of the north wind like the "Hermit of Milford". Donald Sutherland said he'd do back in the 1880s, I'll …
But the wind is really picking up now. Alpine gusts rattle my camera and my bones, trying to push me back down the valley where I belong. Clouds are gathering to join in the fight, muscling in with dark bellies boiling. Out on a rocky overhang, the young guy from Sydney gets down on one knee and asks his girlfriend to marry him. The Korean woman falls and sprains her ankle. A chopper is called but can't land on such a slope in such winds. She is carried, painfully slowly, several hundred metres down to more accessible, rescue-ready ground. A kea circles, squawking that shrill, foreboding cry.
"Come on," the Austrians say. They look concerned for me, up here on my own in this weather, looking like I never want to leave. "You should walk down with us."
The Germans have already left.
Bruce can't believe it. "Their ninja kung-fu mate didn't even help carry her down!"
The young female track guides have done the heavy lifting with the injured tramper. She's been flown all the way back to the medical centre in Queenstown. It's only a sprained ankle but there are no vehicles here and they couldn't carry her 16miles to Milford.
It is bucketing down. The rest of us arrive safe and sound but by the time the Aussie police mates make it in the door of Quentin Lodge, six hours after the rest of us, it is dark and has been pouring with rain for hours. They are drenched, sore, tired and not nearly fit enough for this walk. They do not love the Milford Track.
But I do. I love it so much it hurts. I want to tell off some of my fellow walkers for not looking up and seeing that cliff shaped exactly like a giant's face, for not stopping long enough to see the weka emerge from the scrub or let the South Island robins hop on to their boots; for not taking the side track to go and see the Sutherland Falls at the end of our walk today. I mean, it is the tallest waterfall in New Zealand, the fifth highest in the world! And the ferns on that track are so bright they are luminescent. The weather had completely packed in but those falls were amazing. The sky was down so grey and close that there was no difference in colour between the low-slung cloud and the water leaping over the rocky edge at the top. It looked as though the very sky itself was tumbling over the cliff, pouring towards the earth, Rangi reconnecting with Papa. I actually cried as I stood there. Like a crazy person. While the waterfall and rain soaked me through.
"It's such a great escape from real life, this track, isn't it?" Dennis says later. But this is where real life really happens, I want to tell him. Out here, among the weather and the wild.
We walk 13miles the following day, all the way out to Milford Sound. We're still not in cell-phone range, so I ring my husband from the landline at Mitre Peak Lodge to check that he and the kids are still alive and confirm that I am, too.
"You sound happy," he says.
I am happy. Elated, even. Despite my stiff back, my aching knees, my shattered quads, if the track staff would let me I would turn around this very moment and walk all the way back, so I could be in awe of this place, all over again.