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Milford Track – April 3, 2009 – Day 3 – Mintaro Hut to Dumpling Hut – 14km (8.7 miles)

It is April 8th and I am currently sitting in a coffeeshop in Dunedin. It is a very cold and rainy day here. I dropped my board off to be fixed and now have a week or so to spend in this area. Today I think I will head to the Otago Museum. Apparently there is a live butterfly exhibit there. I also think I will spend some time on HelpX.net later looking for a local family/farm that will take a worker for accommodation and food.

Also, I am reading the Otago Daily Times for today and came across this in an article about trampers airlifted from the Rees-Dart Track:
“Helicopters were kept busy flying hundreds of trampers across flood-prone sections of the Milford Track yesterday, with the Arthur River rising 3.7m above normal, Department of Conservation ranger Hamish Angus, of Te Anau, said. Doing so was the “least painful option” for the department as hundreds more were waiting to walk the track, he said. The cost of hiring helicopters was met by the department.”

Lucky lucky us! We just missed this crazy rainfall. SO that’s where the $45/night money goes!

On to description of the third day of tramping. I was seventh to leave the hut, behind the three young Japanese women, the older couple from Tasmania who had spent hours telling travel tales the night before, and one woman who I think was also walking alone. The light was still blue and dim.

About the older couple, since I forgot to mention them in the Day Two post. While I was cooking my dinner, I noticed the older woman I had been doing a do-si-do on the track with at the end. I would pass her and her husband, then rest somewhere ahead. They would catch up and pass me. Repeat. At one point the spot was so beautiful I walked off the track to the water,I laid down my pack, laid down myself and with my knees up, leaned back almost horizontal onto the pack while snacking on a dried berry mix. The couple caught up to me and she saw me and laughed “Laying down on the job, huh?” Absolutely! I didn’t really come to do the track for the exercise. I wanted to enjoy it. I was impressed with her doing the track. My guess is she was in her early sixties. And not in the best possible shape. She was somewhat overweight, with a bum knee and a back that was slowly rounding forward. So I was fascinated by her. I hurried to finish making my food so I could claim a seat at the table with her. We started talking, the usual warm-up stuff. She spoke so softly I had to lean uncomfortable across the wide table to hear her. Just as I was about to move around to the side, to get closer to her, her husband arrived and sat down. A darker-skinned man with a black mustache, he was more rugged and fit. He carried the bulk of their load in his pack. Another younger couple sat down as well, who had obviously already befriended them. She launched into many back-to-back amazing travel tales. They had been to Pakistan just a few years ago. Many years before that, her husband had gone to Pakistan to help build a medical facility. The people he befriended then had never forgotten them and would call occasionally to ask when they would come visit. They spent their whole trip there in the company of Pakistanis, who seemed to shield them somewhat from the dangers they would encounter alone. Still, they were really lucky not to come across any problems, though they had some close calls. Some of their travel stories included bringing along their four young boys. I can’t remember much of it now, but I was absorbed (and jealous) the whole time. She talked and talked recounting tales I am sure she has told many times before, while her husband smiled lovingly at her. She was Australian, he a Kiwi. They have lived in Tasmania for many years now. Eventually I had to excuse myself, because I was so exhausted both from the walk and the constant straining I had to do to hear her. Plus, the stories seemed like they might go on forever. Kathy and David I believe were their names.

So I left Mintaro hut not too long after them the next morning. This was the big day, the climb over the MacKinnon Pass. The climb was steady, but never very steep. Long winding switchbacks up the side of the mountain. It started out in forest, those magnificent beech trees covered in hanging green moss. With a floor of ferns. The first amazing view came looking back the way I had come to the bowl-shaped (glacier made!) mountain. The passing clouds sent amorphous shapes of light sailing and scattering across the trees and rocks, much like warm reflections on water. A dazzling effect in the predominantly gray and misty blue day so far. As we climbed higher, we got closer and closer to meeting the morning sun coming over the other side of the pass.

Looking back down the valley where we had just come from:

Another view of the bowl-shaped mountains and moving sunlight:

Slightly to the left of this – an immense avalanche of rocks that looks like gravel from here:

Though you are supposed to hope for a clear day on the pass, I was quite happy with the clouds. They created a shifting atmosphere, that combined with the rising sun seemed fitting for a landscape born of such dramatic processes. And what’s more dramatic then back-lit clouds clinging to mountains hidden in black shadow, silouetted on deep blue sky?

When we reached a plateau almost to the highest point in the path, the mountains on the other side came into view, seemingly below us. Though quite obviously not. They were hazy, the parts hit by sunlight not-so-bright and the parts in shadow not-so-dark. Drained of contrast.

Here is the monument to MacKinnon:

The view to the West:

As I climbed up to the highest point on the pass, I looked back to see large clouds streaming up from the valley below and over where I had been standing. I wondered if that was happening as I stood there before but was unaware of it. At the highest point there was a great view of the valley we had walked through the past two days, surrounded by mountains.

A small hut on the pass offered respite from the wind and one stove and kettle. I made one of my instant cups of soup along with a cup of tea. A spoonful of Manuka Honey added to the warmth. The porta-john outside of the hut had a large square piece of plastic in the door facing the mountains “The Loo with the Best View” in all of Southland. I can’t imagine the runners-up were even in the same league.

This is looking back from the direction we came:

Then the descent on the other side began:

Then back into the forest:

The next section of track was all about waterfalls. If I had come across this at some yuppie hotel somewhere I would’ve laughed at the cheesiness of it. But, this was, um, real. Not landscaped, though I still have my doubts.

At some point during the day the guided walkers had caught up to me. On a pass much earlier in the day I heard a loud male voice who seemed to be speaking in Tour Guide Voice. Appalled that I would be overrun with a crowd, I stopped to wait for them to pass. No way was I sharing the mountain views with Loud Guy and Followers. When they caught up it was just two guys. A guided tour guide and a youngish Asian guy. From what I could tell on the walk the “Tour Guides” did very little guiding. They just walked along with everyone else, carrying a bigger pack and a walkie-talkie. They seemed more like herders or chaperones. Many of the Independent Trampers had also passed me at this point.

I soon found that bringing up the rear with me was the nice young couple from Germany, Nicole and Daniel. Nicole seemed to be limping and I had heard rumor passed down the tramping trail that someone had sprained an ankle. I asked her how she was and she said “Well…alright”. She has a bad knee that was acting up. One of the Tour Guides had given her his walking sticks to borrow, which definitely helped she said. Besides this holding them up, they were also of my mindset in tramping. Take your time! No need to arrive at the hut early – you have all day.

Ferns, ferns, everywhere!

Loved these trees, too. Anyone know what they are?

On arriving at the Quentin Hut, there was a place to put down your pack before taking the hour and a half return path to the Sutherland Falls. The tallest Falls in New Zealand. As soon as I put that pack down, I felt like all my energy came back. I could walk for days! It was getting late-ish in the evening and after this walk there was still an hours walk to Dumpling Hut. I calculated I would still get there in the light, but it would be close. Daniel and Nicole were close behind, but I hurried down the path. I passed some of the Independent Walkers coming down the track from the falls. George and Alistair the young cute English guys from Sheffield (always wearing shorts even though it was cold!) were the first I encountered. The two of them are Medical students interning at a hospital in Hamilton, which is near Raglan on the north island. Very nice guys. When George overheard me complaining to Bill at lunch the day before that I had mistakenly not packed my bag of nuts, he offered me some of his. I had remembered to bring my camera, but not my rain gear. You can walk behind the falls, but you will get wet. And the day was really very cold. Oh well, I guess that is one thing I won’t get to do, I thought.

Funny thing is, I had been telling myself I was not so into waterfalls really. I mean, they’re ok. But whatever. It’s just some water falling over rocks and there were lots around on the track. Sutherland Falls is impressive and I was really into it – I stand corrected. Maybe it just had to be the biggest one in New Zealand to get me excited. The force of the water hitting the rocks below was enough to send cold mist and wind out to us standing far from the base. The Guided Walkers were wearing matching dark green thick raincoats that went down to their knees. They were soaked but laughing and excited. Their hut was only at the end of the Sutherland Falls track. Once I reached that, I would still have to walk another hour to Dumpling Hut. With the light rapidly disappearing and the fact that I was wearing my only set of clothes, it seemed unwise to go under the falls. So I walked over close and turned back when I started to get wet. Close enough to get a taste of it, but maybe slightly disappointing to not get closer.

Back up the trail a bit I ran into two of the Guided Walk ladies, huddled on the side of the path photographing cute little orange fungi. I stopped to see what they were doing. They had been ahead of me going under the falls and said they thought I was going to follow them. I explained what I was wearing was all the clothes I had, and it didn’t seem like a good idea to get soaked in them. One of them offered me her rainjacket to borrow. Asking someone to lend one to me had crossed my mind earlier, but I decided against it. With a slight hesitation, because I knew I would still get wet, I took her up on the offer. I ran back excitedly to the falls. Took off my top layer of clothes so I was only wearing long underwear. And took off my socks. I briefly contemplated going barefoot so I wouldn’t have to walk in soaked shoes, but thought the rocks were probably too sharp and slippery for that.

I crawled along the rocks getting soaked and colder as I got closer. I lasted all of 10 seconds behind the falls. Took a look. Cool. Turned and left. With all the spraying water and mist created, it was hard to see much. Hard to keep your eyes open. But I could see the main fall crashing ahead of me. A quick change in wind direction and I was hit directly with a stream of water as I turned to leave. My feet and shoes were soaked, as were my face and hands.

Back at the lookout point, Daniel and Nicole were there. I took off the coat and put my outer layer back on. Surprisingly I was perfectly dry from knees to shoulders. Put the socks back on and into the shoes, which immediately were a sloshy, uncomfortable mess. A guide took the coat from me to return to Liz and I started the walk back to my pack.

When I got back to where my pack was, I decided to take the shoes off and give my feet a break from the wet. Had a free cup of instant coffee, that the Guided Tour provided for Independent Trampers. Nice.

It was getting late, maybe around 6 or 6:30pm. I looked up to see two of our group just starting the walk down to Sutherland Falls. That put them an hour and half behind me. I wondered if they would make it before dark. I had such a strong negative reaction to the thought of putting my shoes back on that I decided to do the last few miles in my flip-flops. Many people of the world have carried heavier packs over worse terrain barefoot, so I thought I would be o.k. If I went slow. The last hour or more of walking was entirely peaceful. I was alone on the track and it was getting dark. Seemed like the perfect slow ending to an amazing day.

When I got to the hut, I saw Sam as I walked into the kitchen. He smiled and said he was really happy to see me. People were getting worried. Bill came by and gave me a pat on the shoulder. Kathy saw me and smiled, saying it was good to see me. The Kiwi couple who I had been walking with part of the day also said they were wondering where I was. On this track, even if you come alone, you don’t walk alone. When the ranger said two people still hadn’t made it, I told him I had seen them starting the Sutherland Falls track when I was leaving there. They showed up about an hour later in the middle of the Ranger’s 8pm hut talk. They hadn’t left the last hut until around 10am.

I was, most certainly, on the track longer that day than any of the other trampers. If tramping was a race, I took first place. The slowest tramper wins.

3 comments

  1. One of the pictures with the really bright green foliage on a steep hillside reminded me of Jake O’Shawnessey. I wish something gave an idea of the size of things. The bowl pictures especially – I imagine it’s even bigger than it seems. So glad you didn’t have to be rescued by helicopter in the rain. Enjoy your time away from the computer! Love, Kerry

  2. This is my fourth time reading and looking at the pictures of your third day on the Milford Track, I am just fasinated. I especially love your description of all the different people who made the trek with you and that everyday there are groups of more people waiting to go. All from different countries and different walks of life, yet they all want to trek and experience these beautiful examples of unspoiled nature. Enjoy your time off from sharing, your family and friends couldn’t have asked for more. It’s been a treat following along. Lots of love, Mom

  3. I still find it hard to believe you are actually doing this (and I’m not!) Fantastic. I hope you’re inspiration to millions. The pictures are beautiful but I suspect lack something from the actual experience. Love, Kate.

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